October 23, 2005

Another Eureka Moment

Yes, another one has arrived, but I'm not as euphoric as the last time now. Every eureka moment is cautiously followed – I might be led down another sinkhole, another dead end. It is also a potentially liberating thread of thought.

I was thinking, what could a man without a past and a future do?

The most obvious answer is, to help people, regardless of who they are, whether you know them (chances are you don't).

But hey, noble stuff. Also the stuff that makes people go "That's incredulous!" and laugh at the screen. We have sceptics for audiences these days.

Then it hit me.

The Book Of Jonah.

Whatever his mission is – and this is the part that still needs figuring out … if a man with no past and future has to do something, what is it? if not to help others, what is it? something heroic, something decisive, something dramatic, something that the score track Big Right from Newman's Cinderella Man can support – he is running away from it, or he doesn't know what it is and is searching for it in the first half of the film.

And the climax is when he sees, clearly, what the mission is, that he has to accept it, and accepts his mission.

Now, it takes another eureka moment to get to what that mission is.

Stay tuned.

October 21, 2005

Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood 1940–2005

The Malaysian First Lady passed away yesterday 0755 Malaysian time.

I didn't know about it until many hours later – when my flatmates mentioned it, casually, in passing. I read the newspaper and I get the impression that people at home are wondering whether Monday will be a holiday.

And I couldn't help but feel sad, sorrowful.

I've never met her, I've never met the PM. But I guess what made me feel sad is this – if I ever do become famous or achieve a higher status back home, I would really have liked to meet her. They say the media distorts people's perception of a person – people as portrayed by the media may not be as nice or goody-two-shoes as people think. But in this case I believe it. Because she avoided politics. She chose to stay out. She and her husband seem like the most humble people around in the higher echelons. And all these stories that came out. No different from other First Ladies around the world you might say. Or of many people who are famous.

But what came out from reading those writings about her is this – sincerity, motherly care.

So yes, I trust what the newspapers reported about her. More stories are emerging now of how reporters and politicians and normal folk remember her. The petty stuff she did for them. As well as her major charitable works (the First Lady in Malaysia naturally heads an organisation consisting of ministers' wives who work on the charitable and giving side of things).

It feels strange to be in a half mourning state for someone I don't know. And as patriotic as I consider myself to be, I would never have expected to feel this so personally.

Her last words couldn't have been more emotional. "Take care of everybody and the family."

October 20, 2005

The Music Playing Now In My Head …

… is the Mae theme from Cinderella Man by Thomas Newman.

And I can't get it out of my head.

Such a tender, poignant, yet partly heartbreaking cue.

Heartbreak and poignancy – combine those two and you're bound to make me emotional.

The Two Hollywoods

(And yet another entry with words from William Goldman. Sorry, just couldn't resist. In case this isn't clear, all the quotes are taken from Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures In The Screen Trade.)

There are really two kinds of flicks – what we now call generic Hollywood movies, and what we now call Independent films.

Hollywood films – and this is crucial to screenwriters – all have in common this: they want to tell us truths we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in.

Hollywood films reinforce, reassure.

Independent films, which used to be called "art" films, have a different agenda. They want to tell us things we don't want to know.

Independent films unsettle.

Understand, we are not talking here of art and commerce. Hollywood films can be, and often are, art. Independent films, most of them, for me anyway, are pretentious and boring.

And yes, I know my definitions are simplistic. Hollywood films can unsettle, Independent films can reassure. But in general, for this discussion, let's go with them.

One quick example to be mentioned here – Shakespeare In Love, art flick or Hollywood?

I might be tempted to say, my God, it's Shakespeare, how can it not be an art film? Plus those costumes, Dame Judi, all the other British accents. If ever there was an art film, doesn't it have to be this baby?

Not even close. Because what Shakespeare In Love tells us is that the love of a good woman makes everything wonderful. Well, I don't know about you, but I want to believe that. I want to have a shot at Gwyneth's sweet boobies, because I just know they can change the world.

… We want to believe. Life would be just so much happier a place if only that were so. But alas, it's Hollywood horseshit. (Although I sure wanted to believe it when I was in the theater.)

Does the fact of the two Hollywoods affect screenwriters? … It does and it doesn't.

It does not remotely affect how we tell our stories. It totally affects which stories we choose to tell.

Famous cartoon from fifty years back. A couple are at the original run of Death Of A Salesman. The man turns to the woman, here's what he says: "I'll get you for this!"

The point is that most of us work all day, often at something we don't much love anymore but we do it till we drop. At the end of our average days, we want peace, we want relaxation, maybe a bite of food, a few kind words. We do not want to watch Willy Loman's suicide.

What we are really dealing with when we talk of the two Hollywoods is audience size.

Most people want to be told nice things. That we really are decent human beings, that God will smile on us, that there is true love and it is waiting for you, just around the next corner. That the meek really will inherit the earth.

Most people want to be told nice things. I cannot repeat that too often to anyone who wants to screenwrite for a living. You can be Bergman if you have the talent, you can tell sad human stories – but do not expect Mr. Time Warner to give you $100 million to make your movie.

The studios are in business for only one great and proper reason – to stay in business. If you want to tell a reassuring story, no reason not to shoot for a studio flick with all the, yes, good things that entails. If you want to tell a different story, write it wonderfully but write it small. Avoid car chases and star parts and special effects.

Great careers are possible in Independent film. The Coens and John Sayles are as good as anybody operating anywhere.

Join them. God knows we can use you.

October 19, 2005

An Insight On Clint Eastwood The Director

According to William Goldman, Clint Eastwood … well, I guess the best term to describe him is efficient. No fuss. No worrying or getting anxious – just know what you want and try and achieve it, simply. At least that's the impression I get from reading the book.

Script meetings – short and to the point.

Rehearsals. Well, apparently, sometimes what he does is to tell the actor to be prepared, just go through his lines or whatever, they're busy setting up the shot. What the actor doesn't know is that, that IS the shot. (I don't really know how that could work, at least not for an independent … what happens when the actor mumbles his lines … we can't afford ADR …)

Interesting insight. I should probably do something similar. Say I want an actor to stride pass the camera – but I don't want him to lose his unique stride, since that is what I hired him for (except that he doesn't know it … behaviour like that, mention it and it's gone). So I just tell him, see that camera there? Now don't look at it. I want you to walk past without looking at it. Try and act normal. Do what you normally do. Hell, I'll walk with you. If you want, just use me as a point in front of you to concentrate on. So we walk – and of course, the camera is running.


First, though, we need a script. (Fgrjfsghmsh …)

Speaking of the script, I think I figured out now what is the 'spine' in my story that Goldman keeps referring to. It's the fact that Jeremy should leave university – he doesn't belong here. Problem is this, when I started with the idea Jeremy has always been a character who's jaded with uni life. Recently, with the decision to change his personality into someone more acceptable to the audience, i.e. someone who's not introverted, who may hate academic stuff but is very much 'in' in terms of other aspects of uni life – how can one supply a reason why he doesn't belong in uni?

Anyway, a couple more anecdotes about Eastwood. He goes into a cafetaria, and – Goldman emphasised this – gets in line for his tray. He then goes to a table and has his meal, just like anybody else.

I believe what has kept Eastwood … on top all these years is somehow (he) has clung to the truth: that in spite of all (his) fame, in spite of our millions of spins towards (stars like him), they are just like anybody else.

And when Eastwood was directing Gene Hackman …

… Hackman and I are talking and then Eastwood comes over. … Eastwood says, quietly, "We're ready for you, Gene." Hackman leaves us and Eastwood says how much he loves working with Hackman. I ask why Hackman in particular. "Because I never have to give him direction," Eastwood replied. "I like working with actors who don't have anything to prove."


P.S. – I just want to stress that this in no way demonstrates that I really really really admire Clint Eastwood. I've barely seen his films. What this shows is that Willliam Goldman really really really admires Clint Eastwood.

October 18, 2005

Two Rules To Being A Great Film Director

I once quoted Yasmin Ahmad quoting a Thai director about what it takes to be a great director, where the answer was script and casting.

Turns out that the director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid) said the exact same thing more than twenty years ago. (Taken from William Goldman's Adventures In The Screen Trade.)

The principle job of a director is to first get his script and get it right and get it playable and get it almost foolproof. Then his job is to cast it as perfectly as he can. If he does those two things, he can phone in the direction, because it doesn't make any difference, his work is eighty percent done.

I have a feeling he wasn't the first to have said it.

Script and casting.

Script and casting.

Script and casting.

Script and casting …

Film Reality

As the mind continues its stubborn silence, I decided to have a read on one of the most widely read books on Hollywood – William Goldman's Adventures In The Screen Trade: A Personal View Of Hollywood. Goldman was one of Hollywood's top writers - he wrote such classics as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, All The President's Men, The Princess Bride, Misery and A Bridge Too Far, and his experiences told here are certainly interesting and revealing as to how Hollywood spins around itself.

So anyway, he was telling of the making of A Bridge Too Far, directed by no other than Britain's Sir Richard Attenborough. It was a movie he was very proud of, because he was proud of his work, because Attenborough was the nicest person he's worked with, because none of the stars (and they had 14 in the film) misbehaved, because he had one of the most daring producers working for him – and because the film did so well everywhere around the world. The film basically tells of one of the most heroic WWII tales involving British soldiers – the Battle of Arnhem. Unusually other parts of the world got to see the movie first and word of mouth was really good.

Goldman was sure his own countrymen would love it.

US film critics thought the movie was incredible and unbelievable. In the perjorative sense. They didn't like it.

Now, reality in films are different from reality in, well, the real world. When you're watching reality in film = reality in real world … of course, you'd be watching a documentary. You can't really tell stories through a documentary … not in the same way a movie does that job at any case. Besides, that's not the point for a documentary.

What this points out is the fact that there is such a thing as reality in films, and it is something that every writer and director must pay attention to. Note that that doesn't mean all films have to be film-realistic. Take Charlie's Angels or Lord Of The Rings, for example. It isn't realistic. We all know it. But it doesn't matter.

But it does matter a lot when you are trying to re-enact a historical or biographical story (though not limited to those … dramas and even comedies need film reality to work sometimes). You can't have planes flipping over a few times stylistically when telling a true story. (Wait … that happened in Pearl Harbor … my bad …)

The problem is, that old cliche 'truth is stranger than fiction' can be true, and when that happens – your audience just refuses to believe what's happening onscreen.

The fucking audience refuses to believe what the filmmakers are telling them in a story. And they don't like the story for that.

Another example: Apollo 13. In the director's commentary, Ron Howard told about how film critics refused to believe certain scenes in the film, most prominently the scene where Marilyn Lowell loses her wedding ring in the shower on the very day the mission is to take flight.

But it happens to be true.

And Apollo 13 happens to be, in my opinion, the most faithful film adaptation of a real life event.

Fucking film critics.

Now, relating that to the story I'm writing. How real do I make it? In a way it doesn't matter, coz, well, I'm doing a drama about student life in uni. And then there's the physically impossible element of everyday being different. I don't have to be realistic, do I?

But I want to be. I'm beginning to realise that I'm a serious perfectionist when it comes to writing scripts (how long that will last, I dunno … inevitably writers crack when producers blackmail them to write something they want or be fired/lose money). And for this one, my first one, the stakes are all that much higher – it is an indication of my style, my personality, the kind of product I produce.

And I've decided that the story must seem real, at the very least, so that to differentiate it from all other student productions. It's about planting a real life (but likable) character in a situation that has a probability of happening of exactly nil.

So I do have to think about reality in film. And to realise that it's different from reality in the real world. At the moment, that sounds like it means I can't write anything unusual.

But, things that are unusual are what makes stories interesting, unexpected.

I feel like my hands are tied.

October 15, 2005

Where Has It Gone?

I used to write stories and publish them on the Net during my early teen years. It was when the age of the Internet was beginning, when I was probably the only person in class who has an Internet connection, when half of my classmates probably don't know what the Internet is, when I myself don't fully understand it, in the same manner that I didn't understand what a computer is when I was five, but I enjoyed playing around with it anyway.

Back then, websites don't have flashy, colourful stuff. Usually it's black on grey, and you make things interesting using larger or smaller serif fonts. Images and stills were rare. Modems were 14.4 kbps. And back then, there were websites which allow children around the world to write stories and publish them.

And boy did I write.

It started with one website for kids, with story-writing being one of its facilities. The first story I wrote was basically a rehash of Independence Day, a film I saw and liked so much that it stayed in my mind for months. (And in hindsight I realised it was a turning point in my life – it was the movie that made me think of the world in terms of film reality, and laid the seeds for my desire to get into filmmaking.)

I can't remember how I felt about it, but I guess I enjoyed it, coz I went on to write many more stories for the next three years; eventually thinking about the stories would take up hours of my time. But it all came very naturally, no struggle, no accompanying headache or migraine, no agonising over writers' block – if it doesn't come I just don't write.

And very interesting stories they were. Usually I feel like writing a story because of its high concept – story about the longest train in the world and the inevitable disaster, story about a plane carrying an airborne and extremely virulent virus forcing it not to land (yet land it must when fuel runs out), a story about a hero trying to stop a terrorist who possesses incredible weapons such as sound bombs and asteroid bombs from completely wiping out the US, a (very long) story about the downfall of Atlantis which involves the entire continent being flipped up into the sky before sinking (and managing to justify that logically). Sometimes I feel like writing a story because I could play around with the details – a ghost story where the investigators have benevolent ghosts to help them solve cases, kids escaping from a haunted house purely by cooperation through some of the weirdest stuff to ever come out of my mind, the (unfinished) sequel to that when one of the kids grow up to go to college, Agatha Christie-like murder mysteries, and so on.

The grammar was bad (even though I took pride at having the best standard of English compared to everyone I knew back then), and the descriptions were childish. The dialogues were very immature where everything said seemed to be exposition.

But hell, they were really imaginative stuff. I really enjoyed writing them coz I thought they were good, interesting stuff. Things other people won't have thought of.

What I want to ask is … what the hell happened?

Why can't I tap into that part of my brain anymore? I sit here now trying to write the damn script and I have absolutely no idea. That doesn't make sense! It used to come so easily. I'll come up with something, then twist it and mould it until it looks out-of-shape enough yet fitting as part of the storyline. Now I couldn't even come up with something – everything feels bland, cliched. Everything that comes out of my mind gets shot down. They're all so normal, the ideas I came up with.

I made very sure that I want to do this story right – I will not make the film if I am not happy that the story is good enough, imaginative enough. At the same time I don't know what to write. Maybe I shouldn't do it?

This makes me feel so stupid. I marvel at myself at a younger age for being able to write interesting stories – I no longer understood how I did it. It's like us modern-day humans staring back at the ancient Egyptians, wondering, can they really be more advanced than us? The bloody thing sitting at Giza is very hard to ignore.

October 11, 2005

Bob Zemeckis Won't Shoot An Establishing Shot

I extracted this from WORDPLAY's article about the Point Of View.

The important thing … was the notion that Robert Zemeckis thought point of view was such a crucial issue. "Oh, yeah," they said. "Bob won't even allow an establishing shot in one of his movies. He'll ask the question — who's seeing it from that spot? Who's point of view are we showing?"
The concept blazed through my mind. Robert Zemeckis … won't shoot an establishing shot. The venerable establishing shot … How many times have you or I blithely dropped in one of those … and Robert Zemeckis wouldn't shoot it. Wow.

And there was I worried all this while because every single filmmaking book mentions the establishing shot as something so inherent and necessary it's an abomination to not want to shoot it.

Still, no eureka moment yet. Am I going to finish this screenplay or not?

The Off–Screen Movie

Okay, so I was reading some articles written by Terry Rossio (who regularly collaborates with Ted Elliott on such movies as Pirates Of The Caribbean, Shrek, The Mask Of Zorro, Aladdin … basically some of the best fun movies in recent times) in his website WORDPLAY. There are lots of things that you can learn from people who've made it and do good work like him, of course, but the one thing that he comes back to a lot, is this …

The off-screen movie.

One way to make a movie that engages the audience, is to have the movie 'start' at every change of scene. Or in more understandable terms – don't show the audience everything. Create a sense that there is so much happening, a lot that we don't see on-screen, that the audience struggles a little to find out what it is they are watching as the scene progresses.

Interesting insight.

Also a nail on the coffin on my story. Sigh.

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