Archive for Richard Lester

The Look 3: McDowell Toasts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2016 by dcairns

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Since Donald Benson helpfully mentioned the starchild/space baby’s look to camera in the final shot of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, (comments section, here) I’m following on with the opening shot of Kubrick’s next film, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which seems to answer that cool gaze.

I like it when films join up like that. Just think, if Kubrick had made NAPOLEON in 1970 as originally planned, this wouldn’t have happened, or not so neatly.

The film’s aren’t as directly successive, but it’s kind of neat the way Fred Gwynne finds some chewing gum stuck under his balcony railing in Bertolucci’s LA LUNA — Marlon Brando’s last act in  LAST TANGO IN PARIS was to stick his gum under Maria Schneider’s railing (and no, that’s not a euphemism for something beastly).

But back to this look. As Kubrick’s camera withdraws from closeup, via a zoom and a dolly back, Malcolm raises his glass to the audience. The next day, after seeing the rushes, Kubes rushed up to him and congratulated him on that detail. He hadn’t noticed. Despite the fact that he was operating the camera himself.

This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. A camera operator, during a moving shot, tends to concentrate on the edges of the frame more than the subject, checking the composition is working and that no unwelcome boom mic or tracks or, god forbid, crewmembers, have come into shot. This is why Harrison Ford was displeased to find Ridley Scott handholding the camera in BLADE RUNNER — he knew the director wouldn’t be watching his performance. (But Richard Lester speaks of his great pleasure at precisely the act of watching a great performance being delivered into the lens, while operating — but Lester would tend to operate on the wide shot, which wouldn’t require him to adjust so much for movement, leaving most of his great brain free to watch and assess the acting.)

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In fairness, the “toast” is a little tiny micro-pause as the glass rises to the lips. Still, Kubrick’s failure to see what his leading man was doing in the centre of his opening shot could be seen as another welcome dent in the myth of Kubrickian perfection. I’m campaigning to have Kubrick’s reputation altered from obsessive perfectionist to amiable bumbler.

 

The Film

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2016 by dcairns

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I got interested in Donald Barthelme after reading of him in Steven Soderbergh’s interview book with Richard Lester, Getting Away With It. Lester, encouraged by regular screenwriter Charles Wood, had contemplated a film of Barthelme’s The King (the legend of Arthur updated to WWII and expressed almost entirely in dialogue — not an obvious movie subject) and I was quietly gratified to notice a copy of the novel still adorning Lester’s bookshelf (I am an incurable bookshelf snoop) when I visited to conduct my own modest interview.

Lester had guessed that Barthelme might be up Soderbergh’s street, a shrewd supposition given that SCHIZOPOLIS, the most ludically Barthelmian of Soderbergh films, was still in post-production at the time. 40 Stories has an introduction by Dave Eggers, another artist up whose street Barthelme might be assumed to lie. In fact, one might uncharitably suggest that Barthelme is the writer Eggers would like to be — both share a taste for a certain kind of airy whimsy. But Barthelme is much more mysterious in his effects — one doesn’t know precisely what he is up to, and we will never explain or offer a hint — and he also has a gift for pastiche that allows him to layer his whimsy deeper below the surface. I was very taken with his piece The Film, which apart from being Grade-A nonsense, also captures precisely the mixture of pensive doubt and self-importance which always seem to be present in diary entries published by film directors at work on another masterpiece.

I think he may have been looking at Truffaut’s diary of FAHRENHEIT 451, which would account for the name Julie. But I think Godard’s diaries, published in Cahiers, are MUCH more pompous — only Woody Allen could do them justice in parody.

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An extract —

Thinking of sequences for the film.

A frenzy of desire?

Sensible lovers taking precautions?

Swimming with horses?

Today we filmed fear, a distressing emotion aroused by danger, real or imagined. In fear you know what you’re afraid of, whereas in anxiety you do not. Correlation of children’s fears with those of their parents is .667 according to Hagman. We filmed the startle pattern–shrinking, blinking, all that. Ezra refused to do “inhibition of the higher nervous centers.” I don’t blame him. \\then we shot some stuff in which a primitive person (my bare arm standing in for the primitive person) kills an enemy by pointing a magic bone at him. “O.K., who’s got the magic bone?” The magic bone was brought. I pointed the magic bone and the actor playing the enemy fell to the ground. I had carefully explained to the actor that the magic bone would not really kill him, probably.

Next, the thrill of fear along the buttocks. We used Julie’s buttocks for this sequence. “Hope is the very sign of lack-of-happiness,” said Julie, face down on the divan. “Fame is a palliative for doubt,” I said. “Wealth-formation is a source of fear for both winners and losers,” Ezra said. “Civilization aims at making all good things accessible even to cowards,” said the actor who had played the enemy, quoting Nietzsche. Julie’s buttocks thrilled.

We wrapped, then. I took the magic bone home with me. I don’t believe in it, exactly, but you never know.

The Magic Magnetic Monitor Monster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on January 27, 2016 by dcairns

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Oblivious of the towering Nazi being positioned before me, I shade my eyes (far right) to peer between the Velcro flaps of the monitor, glowing promissory note of the film to come.

Interesting watching myself at work on THE NORTHLEACH HORROR. A few students and ex-students were on the shoot, and one or two said afterwards they could see me putting into practice stuff that I’d taught them. I rather felt I was guilty of ignoring a lot of it, particularly when it comes to the monitor.

I had opted to save money by only getting a small monitor. Money was tight, so I can’t regret the decision. But if I were doing it again I might try to save money elsewhere and go large. I’m somewhat in thrall to Richard Lester and Steven Soderbergh’s view of the monitor, which is to see it as a kind of devil incarnate. It puts the centre of attention and energy in the wrong place, to paraphrase Soderbergh. And a director glued to the monitor is at one remove from the actors.

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But Lester and Soderbergh both operate the camera themselves. Lester says that when you see a good performance coming at you down the lens, you just KNOW. I’m getting more and more confident about knowing when a performance is right, but as I don’t operate (Lester worked with multiple cameras, doing the master shot — the easiest to operate — himself, whereas Soderbergh is his own director of photography), I rely on some other means of observing. Sidney Lumet, shunning the monitor, recommends watching the actors live but from as close as you can get to the camera’s position — right under it, if possible. This does give you a great rapport with the actors, but is second-best compared to watching on a screen the actual movie as you record it.

I did make a point of trying to get from the monitor to the cast after every take. That’s a vital moment when the actors need to know, at once, if you’re going again, and why. Instant communication with them comes before everyone else on the set — though the 1st AD and the DoP will learn from overhearing whether you need another take. I try to begin the comment with “We’ll do one more, and this time –” from which everyone can glean the information needed to prepare for what comes next. Being glued to the glowing screen can make delay this process.

Marianne Sagebrecht told a story about working with Danny De Vito, actor and director, on THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Sat at table for a dinner scene with him, she found him peering at a small monitor clasped between his chubby thighs. She was struggling to get the attention of the actor playing a scene with her because he was also the director and he was trying to watch it at the same time. I think that’s a misuse of the device. Jerry Lewis famously developed playback so he could check out scenes he was acting in, but he didn’t, so far as I know, attempt to watch them live. Of course, replaying a scene takes time — on at least one occasion I shot a retake rather than replay the shot, because it takes the same amount of time and you end up with more material. (Set-up time is essential, but it’s the filming time that you’re left with in the edit.)

Note: THE NORTLEACH HORROR has raised around £3,000 of its £5,000 target! Go here to contribute.