Archive for Mike Nichols

Cut the Cheese: or, Dino’s Mighty Wind

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2017 by dcairns

A week of posts inspired by my recent reading. Here’s an excellent book by Sam & Bobbie O’Steen — Cut to the Chase: Forty-Five Years of Editing America’s Favorite Movies.

Sam O’Steen cut THE GRADUATE and ROSEMARY’S BABY and became Mike Nichols and Roman Polanski’s go-to editor. His book, “as told to” his wife and edit-room assistant, is full of good creative advice, often encapsulated in handy mottos — “Movie first, scene second, moment third,” — and also full of terrific gossip and anecdotes, as O’Steen was frequently on-set and witnessed the activities of a lot of very strange, talented, obnoxious people…

Some of the best stories arise from one of the worst films O’Steen was involved with, HURRICANE — Dino De Laurentiis’ epic turkey remake of John Ford’s group jeopardy potboiler, which was already not very good, despite sharing a lot of credits with Ford’s next film, STAGECOACH. The rehash was planned by Polanski but dropped due to his legal difficulties — it’s tempting to say that Polanski dodged a bullet, but you can’t really say such things, can you?

Jan Troell landed in the hot seat, with Lorenzo Semple on script, Sven Nykvist shooting, Danilo Donati designing, and stars Mia Farrow, Timothy Bottoms, James Keach, Jason Robards, Trevor Howard, Max Von Sydow and non-star Dayton Ka’Ne. And with all that talent, it’s deadly dull to watch. David Wingrove disagrees with me, and suggested that the film was a promising one that had been butchered in the edit, as evidenced by awkward jumps in the story and huge sets that are barely used. But O’Steen’s account makes it clear that many scenes were never actually filmed, and the imposing but underused sets are a regular result of Donati’s work — the crew on FLASH GORDON also complained that Donati never read the script, just a breakdown of scenes, so he would spend his budget freely on whatever interested him, building vast interiors for scenes that might only play for moments in the film, and skimping on others so you might find yourself shooting twenty minutes of action in a broom closet.

Many of the problems O’Steen was vexed by didn’t strike me as terribly serious — Mia’s hair and makeup may not be flattering, but I’ve seen worse. O’Steen had to create passion between the leads where none existed — Farrow eschewed any on-set romance with her unknown co-star, instead bedding Troell, then Nykvist, then (it’s heavily implied) Bottoms, leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake. And they were all stuck in Bora Bora for six months while this was going on. There’s a big swimming scene which isn’t sexy or romantic (because it’s not there in the script or performances) but sure looks nice. It’s bloody looong, though. I guess O’Steen had to lay it on thick to compensate for the chemical inertia.

The crew arrived at a specially built hotel… that was still being built.

Franco Rossi was leading a second unit shooting waves, but they all got drunk and left their film cans to get flooded on the rocks.

Mia was seen at dinner with her beautiful son Fletcher on her lap… and all her adopted kids sitting on the floor, ignored.

Jan Troell’s love for Mia resulted in him ignoring the scenery and the story and shooting endless close-ups of his adored star. In the final film, O’Steen must have used every camera move he could find, because he complains Troell wasn’t shooting any.

Bottoms urinated on De Laurentiis’ shoes in a fit of pique, then hastily wrote an apology, in fear for his life.

Troell was promised final cut… then paid off with $25,000 to stay out of the edit room.

When Mia was feeding poor Dayton lines for his close-ups, she wouldn’t bother looking at him. She could read lines and do crosswords at the same time. Well, he’s no Jon Hall.

“Four down, nine letters, a mighty wind.”

She was also reportedly heard to refer to him as “the animal.”

Dino: “All directors are stupid. Anybody who gets up so early every day to say ‘Good morning’ to all those sons-of-bitches has to be stupid.”

Symbolism! God caber-tosses a crucifix at Trevor Howard!

With all this, and the drink and drug consumption, the VD outbreak (“You’d be surprised who has it,” said the unit nurse) and the malfunctioning toilets, plus all the grade-A talent, it’s amazing how dull the film is. The actual hurricane is good, especially as it wipes out a lot of the characters who have been boring us for two hours, but the natives are used as colourful cannon fodder, as usual, so it’s also kind of offensive. When our young lovers are left alone on a lifeless, flattened atoll at the end, it’s questionable whether we’re meant to expect them to survive or not, though we don’t actually care one way or the other.

Worse than KING KONG. But the behind-the-scenes action might make a good movie.

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The Road to Ruin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by dcairns

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The only disappointing thing about Elaine May’s directing career is that you can watch it all in a couple of days without risking fatigue. If she had been working in the forties we might have gotten thirty films from her. Well, actually there is another disappointing thing — ISHTAR. Sad to report that I have to largely agree with the majority on this one. But I was intrigued rather than annoyed by the palpable sense of “This Isn’t Working” which the movie exudes.

“Why should she carry the can if her stars didn’t have the comic chops to pull off the movie?” asked a friend. Well, she cast them, of course. There’s that. Both actors had been funny in other things — though Beatty had also made THE FORTUNE with May’s ex, Mike Nichols, a movie that looks like a rehearsal for this one. Rumour has it that Nichols cut the best comedy from the script in a drive to make the film cheaply, whereas May was taken to task for spending a lot of money on a film that ended up not looking particularly expensive. (Also, Nichols immediately made another picture. May hasn’t directed since.)

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It looks pretty at times (so does THE FORTUNE). Vittorio Storaro shot it, and that may have contributed to the cost but it doesn’t contribute to the comedy. Too many comedies are dull-looking. There’s no reason a comedy can’t be beautiful. But there are also forms of beauty which distract from, rather than enhancing, comedic moments. ISHTAR is the story of two untalented songwriters, and it relies on frequent cutaways of aghast audience members, as in THE PRODUCERS. The first of these is decorated with a tinted light, and the green cast on the faces is so striking that it kills the laugh — a key moment in the film.

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The songwriter schtick reminded me of KISS ME, STUPID, where Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond play a struggling composer and lyricist. In that one, the songs are trunk items by George & Ira Gershwin, which is a nice joke in itself, but not one you can actually laugh at while watching the film. Most of the songs in ISHTAR are by May and Paul Williams. Only the one written by Hoffman’s character for a wedding anniversary, which dwells ghoulishly on the impending deaths of its subjects, has a strong central joke — the rest depend on moments of clumsiness or a general sense of not being good. Some of the performers’ moves are funny. But somehow the spectacle of these two movie stars playing deluded idiots isn’t pleasing.

This film may have made Beatty paranoid — he played lots of schmucks in the seventies, from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER to THE PARALLAX VIEW. After ISHTAR, he was offered GET SHORTY, but Barry Sonnenfeld reports a strange meeting where Beatty obsessed over why his character, being as handsome as he was, would still be a lowly mob enforcer instead of the godfather figure. In discussions on MISERY, Beatty opined that if his character were to lose a foot, as in Stephen King’s novel, he would be, in the audience’s eyes, a loser. He talked himself out of two succesful movies (but Travolta and Caan are better casting).

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I caught a bit of SPIES LIKE US on TV a while ago. Both it and ISHTAR seem to harken back to the Hope-Crosby ROAD pictures — Landis’ film even includes a cameo for Bob Hope, mysteriously playing golf in the middle of the Afghan desert. Neither film has enough actual funny moments. But Landis’ film has comedians in the lead roles and has a jaunty, jocular tone. ISHTAR creates discomfort rather than security, which was always a feature of May’s humour. It seems churlish to get upset that her film is cruel, mocking, tonally awry — these are qualities that enliven her films when they’re at their best.

SPIES LIKE US also looks expensive — the bang/buck ratio seems under control. In ISHTAR, Dave Grusin’s score is often terrific, but seems to by trying to hype up an excitement that the visuals don’t back up. A rooftop chase is both slow and uneventful, and the roofs are only one story up. The climax is a shoot out with two helicopters which would barely keep Rambo occupied for a moment in act two. In the eighties, comedies were parodying dramas by overinflating the action and underplaying the reactions, which is why Bill Murray saves GHOSTBUSTERS from being essentially witless. In ISHTAR, two sweaty dramatic actors strain at laughs that seem like mirages, while a tiny straight-to-video action film tinkles away in the middle-eastern middle distance.

(But ALL May film are sweaty. It’s a kind of trademark.)

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The film, apart from seeming to find Arabic funny in itself, makes dictators and the CIA into the bad guys, and so is defensible in its politics. A fairly accurate portrait of Reagan foreign policy (the same can be said of SPIES LIKE US). Charles Grodin is a good choice as the CIA operative, Jack Weston is good casting as the duo’s agent (first glimpsed in his office with his gloves on, so we KNOW) — and if these two aren’t finding laughs in the situation, the whole situation is wrong.

In defiance of conventional wisdom, I did find the blind camel quite funny. And Beatty and Hoffman trying to come up with songs while dying of thirst in the desert was good — a fairly perfect illustration of the principle of inflexibility that makes comedy characters what they are. Actually, all the best stuff is two guys in the desert, failing to cope. Less Hope/Crosby, more Vladimir/Estragon. And the vultures are hilarious too – groucho-walking through shot while the expensive stars huddle in parched consultation. A metaphor for the film’s reception.

To Look for America

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2015 by dcairns

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The story is told that, when filming the last scene of THE GRADUATE, the late Mike Nichols turned the camera on his actors, having briefly set the scene for them, started rolling, said “Action!” and then waited… and waited… and refused to say “Cut!”

His thinking was this: Ben and Elaine (Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross) have fled the church where Elaine was marrying some other guy, and run off together, alienating their respective families (his will probably come to terms with it, though they’ll be baffled; hers are unlikely to adjust). A romantic comedy happy ending has been achieved, but now what? Their lives are ahead of them, an onrushing highway of uncertainty. Nichols said to an interviewer, “It’s entirely possible that in another mile or so she’ll turn to him and say, @But I’ve got nothing to wear.'”

As screenwriter Buck Henry put it, Nichols kept the camera going, having given the actors NOTHING TO PLAY, in order to capture this feeling of uncertainty that creeps up on them. Film is running through the camera and Dustin and Katherine are wondering what the hell is going on. Let’s break it down.

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We did it! The happy ending. The initial rush of excitement running for the bus fades into a happy afterglow, the satisfaction of an immediate problem truly solved.

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The happiness fades. Being professionals, our stars don’t break the scene, they continue sitting there, but they have been given no direction as to what happens now so they’re just waiting for “Cut!” which they expect will be said in about a second from now. Yes. Any second… now? Now?

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Hmm. Apparently the director isn’t finished with us yet. Katherine smiles again, trying to get back into the mood of the events of a moment earlier. Dustin is beginning to think that something is very, very wrong.

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Katherine decides to just wait it out. Dustin tries smiling, either because apparently the scene isn’t over yet and the happy ending is going to take longer than he expected, or because he’s figured out that he’s the butt of a joke of some kind and should take it in good spirit. But WTF?

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Total introspection descends upon our leads. They feel like a pair of amoebas under a microscope. They have played the scene. They have smiled. They have not smiled. What else can they do? They’re only human. They withdraw inside their heads, close their eyes and pull up the drawbridges.

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A dim hope: Katherine wonders what Dustin is doing. Maybe he has a brilliant method actor type plan to get them out of this thing alive. She looks over to see what solutions are offered by the Hoffman face. But Dustin is staring vacantly into the middle distance (somewhere near the end of his nose). There are no answers here.

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The most heart-rending moment. Katherine turns a micro-degree away so she is now staring past Dustin, not at the scenery going by outside the bus, but at NOTHING. This is pretty much like the nightmares actors have where they’re on stage and have forgotten their lines, or their clothes, or both. What is the scene? What am I supposed to DO? I can’t just sit here and be ME.

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Utterly defeated, pinned like butterflies under the pitiless gaze of the glass eye, Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman face front, staring not into the eye of the Medusa (“Don’t look at the camera!”) but BEYOND, at the future. Their eyeline pierces the upcoming end credits and points to whatever will happen next, which is unknowable (although Buck Henry makes an ironic mock-pitch of THE GRADUATE: PART II in Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER).

I once saw Sir Ben Kingsley talk about his upcoming plans to direct, plans which alas have come to naught, at least so far. In preparation, he was reading Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time, which is hardly a how-to guide, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to be reading. He pronounced his approval of the book, apart from one scene where old Andrei described filming an actress waiting (I think this was in MIRROR). To get the desired effect, Tark didn’t tell his actress whether the person she was waiting for was actually going to turn up in shot. Thus he was able to photograph the actual doubt in her face.

To Sir Ben, this was an outrageous abuse of an actor. While clearly far worse things have been done to actors in the name of authenticity, I think he may have a point. Letting your actors act is a sign of your trust in them.  Still, the funny thing about the above scene, which is certainly effective, is how the uncertainty of the actors works perfectly in character, as the audience projects onto those faces the emotions they assume the characters must be having.

“It’s all about projection,” as Spalding Gray put it.