Archive for Steven Soderbergh

One Ferpect Shot

Posted in FILM with tags , , on October 19, 2018 by dcairns

I was describing the opening of ERIN BROCKOVICH to students, don’t ask me why, and then decided to look online to see if we could watch it, and discovered I’d remembered it all wrong.

The key thing is that Erin (Julia Roberts) goes for a job and doesn’t get it. I got that bit right. But I’d described it as being all one shot, in which we never see the prospective employer she’s auditioning to. In fact, look —

These are the basic shots, and the cleverest things are that

  1. They begin on a big closeup of JR without context, right in the middle of the conversation.
  2. The first shot of the boss is wider, but this works fine: I didn’t perceive it as a clunky mismatch
  3. When we go wider on JR, we go tighter on the boss, which also works fine.

The boss looks a bit like Soderbergh.

BUT — I do feel like my memory of the scene is better than the scene. Holding on Roberts in a single, unbroken close-up would get the film off to a bolder start and really boost the idea that this is a star vehicle built around the Roberts Charisma, which it is.

It would also fit nicely with the upcoming bit, which is really cool and more closely resembles my memory of it. Roberts finishes a cigarette outside, having failed to land the job  — the movie’s most cinematic ideas all involve ellipsis, and the ending will call-back to this transition by jumping over the actual trial scene that’s nominally the story’s climax.

Then she goes to her car and finds she’s got a parking ticket, then she breaks a nail opening the door, and the trailer VO man clears his throat preparatory to growling “Erin Brockovich is having a REALLY bad day,” — and we start to feel this movie is going to be really by-the-numbers, which in some ways it is. Then she gets in, drives off into the distance —

And SMASH!

A black car side-swipes Roberts’ car, sending it spinning.

The clever bit is that this DOES look like a single shot, but obviously Soderbergh wasn’t likely to have another car crash into Roberts’ vehicle while she’s in it. We have to go back and look at the moment where her car passes the camera quite close — very simple to stitch two shots together as the car is wiping frame, with a stunt driver in a big wig behind the wheel in the second shot. So that’s quite clever, isn’t it?

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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.

bone spinning

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.

soderbergh-lede

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.