Sunday, February 28, 2010

Quicksand

On Thursday evening I linked to a column here about how facts are increasingly falling out of favor in our modern discourse, and on Friday morning, as if to say "Exhibit A," I had my very first conversation with a self-proclaimed "Birther."  Those are the folks who know -- know! -- that Barack Obama wasn't born in America.  He was born in either Indonesia or Kenya -- whichever is scarier.   Any and all evidence to the contrary is a forgery.  I reject your reality and substitute my own.

I didn't indulge the discussion very long (mainly because of time constraints, but also because I didn't want to give myself an aneurysm) but it drove home for me the quicksand in which this new grassroots -- exemplified by the Tea Party phenomenon -- has chosen to plant its stakes.   While Birthers (and how bizarre is it that that's become commonly accepted parlance?) are by no means indicative of all Tea Partiers (and how bizarre is it that that's become commonly accepted parlance), they are indicative of the strange bedfellows the Republican Party has chosen for itself.

How can one expect to be taken seriously in an issue-based discussion while also allowing for tinfoil hat stuff like the president being a big bad foreign booga-booga?  Proving that point was last week's Conservative Political Action Conference convention, with nary a true conservative in sight, but an ever-more motley array of big government Republicans playing to the Tea Party crowd and  demonstrating how much the GOP has hitched its electoral wagon to this movement lock, stock, and barrel.  As Frank Rich explains, this may not be the smartest of maneuvers:
The leaders embraced by the new grass roots right are a different slate entirely: Glenn Beck, Ron Paul and Sarah Palin. Simple math dictates that none of this trio can be elected president. As George F. Will recently pointed out, Palin will not even be the G.O.P. nominee “unless the party wants to lose at least 44 states” (as it did in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Waterloo). But these leaders do have a consistent ideology, and that ideology plays to the lock-and-load nutcases out there, not just to the peaceable (if riled up) populist conservatives also attracted to Tea Partyism. This ideology is far more troubling than the boilerplate corporate conservatism and knee-jerk obstructionism of the anti-Obama G.O.P. Congressional minority.
Much more from Rich here.

Trailer Treasure

IFC.com has posted a list of what they consider the fifty greatest trailers of all time. While some of the choices seem a bit questionable to me, others are remarkably spot-on. As with any list of this kind of course, the goal isn't to be definitive so much as it is to spark discussion. Certainly I remember loving the Face/Off trailer each of the million-and-one times it was on rotation at Montgomery Ward (remember Montgomery Ward?) where I worked in '97, so good call on that one.

Scaling the Summit

I feel like last Thursday's hyped health care summit, a bipartisan (there's that fershlugginer word again) meeting of the minds at the behest of the president, was pretty worthless when it came to actually accomplishing anything. Each side dug in on their respective positions, and for one working day they lobbed rhetorical grenades across the conference table to the plaudits of their respective bases.

If you're a die hard opponent of reform, I doubt you saw anything to change to your mind, and I'm guessing the opposite is true as well. Worse, we have to wait just that much longer for something to actually get done. Still, maybe I'm wrong on this one. Jon Stewart seems to feel that something positive came out of it:


The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bipartisan Health Care Reform Summit 2010
www.thedailyshow.com
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Political HumorVancouverage 2010

The Mile Lie Club - Addendum

Almost three months ago I made note of a meme working its way through Rightie Blogworld powered by its own sense of indignation (with a whiff of xenophobia for that extra push) of Tedd Petruna and his harrowing (read: made-up) account of averting a terrorist "dry run" on an AirTran flight.

Though his tale read like bad Chuck Norris fanfic to anyone with two working brain cells to rub together, it still managed to get the usual suspects (i.e. the Malkins, the Schlussels) all hot-and-bothered over Petruna's intrepidity and the so-called silence from the so-called liberal media.

Well, circumstances, testimonials, and, y'know, facts proved that Tedd was, to use a technical term, full of it, but if there were any doubts remaining, the FAA has now released its official report to put a pin in poor Mr. Petruna and his pants-on-fire self-importance.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Recommended Reading

Leonard Pitts Jr. wonders when facts stopped being things you win arguments with.

Captains Courageous

With Iron Man 2 good to go for this summer, and the impressive cast for Kenneth Branagh's Thor already locked in, the one big question mark in the Marvel fiefdom surrounds who will don the star spangled leotard and Vibranium shield of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America for 2011's The First Avenger: Captain America.  While helmer Joe Johnston played it coy in our chat last week, Marvel's Cap shortlist hit the web yesterday thanks to Nikke Finke

A grab bag of unknowns and semi-knowns, the folks at CBR were helpful enough to line up the prospective Captains with appropriate comic art to make their potential casting more palatable.  While I think the ideal choice would have been The Human Target's Mark Valley (if he were about ten years younger), of the shortlisters I have to say that John Krasinski, The Office's hapless Jim Halpert, is emerging as my favorite.

While he seems somewhat unorthodox given his primarily comedic background, he does have the right wholesome look for the All-American Rogers, and with the proper workout regiment he could be credible physically.  Another plus for Krasinski is that he's not so young as to seem utterly weightless when potentially sharing the screen with Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton in that hypothetical Avengers flick that keeps getting mentioned. With March nearly upon us, and filming set to start within a few short months, we'll know sooner rather than later who gets to wield the shield.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Recommended Reading

Glenn Greenwald from last Friday, on Joseph Stack's suicide attack against a Texas IRS office last week, and the hesitancy in the media to refer to Stack as the "T" word.  Greenwald's takeaway:
...Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon.  The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity.  It has really come to mean:  "a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies."
More at the link.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tip of the Hat

Just a brief note to acknowledge movie columnist Jeffrey Wells, whose work I've enjoyed for better than twelve years now, for mentioning and linking to my interview with Joe Johnston in a piece posted to his Hollywood Elsewhere blog earlier today.  Many thanks!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ebert's Words

"How would Ebert say it?"

For the many years I've engaged in film criticism, that's the question that's always prodded me ahead when I came down with an insurmountable case of writer's block.  His ability to convey effortlessly what others try desperately just to sort out in their heads made me aware of how wide the vistas of film analysis could stretch.  If not for that, I wouldn't have gone to film school.  If not for that, I wouldn't be teaching film.  If not for that, this blog probably wouldn't exist.

Roger Ebert made me love loving film. 

The past few years have been difficult ones for Ebert, whose weekly "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" patter with the late Gene Siskel brought movie criticism into the mainstream, and who was the first critic to win a Pulitzer.  In 2006, what was supposed to be a mere sabbatical from his TV perch turned into something far more permanent when a battle against throat cancer forced him into the kind of struggle I wouldn't wish on anyone.

I hadn't realized just how scarred that battle had left him until fairly recently, when I saw a piece on ABC's Chicago affiliate about Ebert's inability to eat, drink, or even speak without assistance.  Yet, despite it all, his greatest gift remains in full flower, both in his reviews and his online journal. Though he can't utter a word, his voice can still be heard loud and clear.

Earlier this week, Esquire published a lengthy and quite-involved profile of Ebert by writer Chris Jones, which goes into often-excrutiating detail about the writer's day-to-day struggles. Then yesterday the man himself posted a sequel of sorts on his own journal.  Both are as uplifting as they are heartbreaking, not only in terms of how much he has had taken from him, but how indominably he continues on.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Keeper of the Wolf, Part II

Zaki Interviews The Wolfman's Joe Johnston
(for Illume)

Continuing our extensive Q&A with the Wolfman helmer (read Part I here), he discusses the two-year delay between his signing on and the film's release, talks a possible sequel, and offers his thoughts on last year's Avatar (plus much more).

It's safe to say that Wolfman is your darkest and most atmospheric film to date. Was it freeing for you to switch up genres and be able to shoot for that "R"?

The hardest thing about making The Wolfman “R” was to remember how I first felt about the specific violence and gore moments. After seeing the shots a hundred times I get as desensitized as the most rabid gamer. Beyond that, making an “R” film is no different than any other filmmaking experience. You still must control any image that makes its way through the lens onto film or into your digital storage device. Is it helping tell the story you want to tell?

I felt that a retelling of The Wolfman deserved to be visually intense enough to leave a strong impression in the same way the original did for 1941 audiences. We screened an earlier cut for a preview audience and got lots of notes that there was too much violence. It was a constant balancing act between the violence, the pacing, showing too much or too little of the beast.

Audiences will always tell you how they feel, but the message almost always needs interpreting. Personally, I hate audience previews, and I very much dislike letting an audience influence the end result, but these movies are hugely expensive and studios need to maximize the number of tickets sold, so they do tend to listen to what audiences say, especially when there’s a consensus.

This is a film that's been scheduled and delayed several times, with almost exactly two years elapsing from the time you started filming to the time of release. With much speculation in the industry press about disagreements between you and the studio possibly accounting for these delays, can you provide your perspective on these so-called creative differences?

The delays were much less about what the studio and I disagreed about than what we agreed about. The previous draft to the shooting script had a much extended (and more expensive) action sequence following the second transformation. The sequence was cut down for budgetary reasons and replaced with a sequence inside a conservatory where a blind singer was performing at a masquerade ball.

After we returned to the states and cut the sequence it was apparent to everyone that we should have bitten the bullet and shot the bigger sequence, a chase and rampage through London. We went back almost a year later and shot two big action sequences along with a couple of smaller scenes to strengthen the Gwen/Lawrence [Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro] relationship.

The action sequences added over two hundred visual effects shots and made it necessary to push the release date back to accommodate the new work. This is not to say that there weren’t creative differences. There always are, on a film production of any size, but in this instance the differences didn’t really contribute to the delays.

I’ve been really amazed at the explosion of popularity of the various internet fansites.  I think it’s a great thing that fans can connect and share their views. At the same time I’ve been surprised at how little knowledge some of the bloggers have about the process of filmmaking. In one example, a blogger said something like, “How can they go back to Danny Elfman’s music now? It was ‘synced’ to a different, longer cut."

Music is essentially made of rubber. You can stretch it, shrink it, chop it up into pieces and rearrange it. It’s much more flexible than the picture is. Of course we could go back to Danny Elfman’s music regardless of the cut. When a music editor cuts a temp score for a film, he or she uses music that was written for another film.

A good music editor can cut temp music so that the edits, the ins-and-outs are absolutely flawless and inaudible.  If an audience doesn’t recognize the music they’d swear it was written for the film they’re watching. If you’re going to have a fansite or blog about movies, acquire a little knowledge of the subject first. 

Given that Chaney went on to play Talbot four more times, and given Universal's own history with the Classic Monsters brand, it's pretty hard not to think "Wolfman" without the word "franchise" also coming to mind. If the call came, would you be up for another go at the property?

None of those Wolf Man sequels even belonged in the same league as the original and the later ones became examples of bad camp. We could do better today, but realistically, I don't think Universal would be interested in hearing my list of demands. Never say never, but I think it's time to let someone else have the fun of the Wolfman.

Having said that, we left the possibility of a sequel open with Hugo Weaving the likely successor for the hair and fangs. I can't imagine a better candidate for wolfdom. Hugo is fun, hardworking and throws himself into his work without reserve. A sequel with Hugo as the beast would be a blast. 

With the high pressure already involved in a project of this sort, would you be hesitant to again join a film under the conditions you faced right at the outset on Wolfman?

I don’t like taking over another director’s project. I don’t think anyone wants to be known as a 9-1-1 director. In the case of The Wolfman it was hard to turn down a chance to work with this amazing cast, and after four years off, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever work again. I even considered getting back into design and some kind of art. I don’t draw anymore. I haven’t picked up a pencil in years.

Maybe that’s a product of having done thousands of drawings, designs and storyboards for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films while I was at ILM. I think I realized it doesn’t get much better than that and I should move on. I think the skill would come back to me after a few days at a drawing table, but I don’t miss it. It feels like that was a chapter that’s closed and can be looked back on with pleasant memories. 

On a more general level, given your extensive expertise in this arena, what are your thoughts on the state of special effects today? With so many directors moving towards motion capture to realize fully digital worlds -- Avatar the most recent example -- are practical effects and appliances becoming obsolete?

I think Avatar is brilliant, not only for the spectacle of its imagery, but for the technological boundaries it has pushed forward. The visual effects bar is way up there now, and moviegoers will be treated to films that make serious attempts to equal and exceed what Cameron has achieved. Visual effects are better than they've ever been thanks to digital technology.

Motion capture helps to infuse as much humanity into the animation as possible, and maintains a level of motion realism that is hard to achieve with keyboard animation, but the story is still the key ingredient. Groundbreaking visual effects are wasted if they don't support an entertaining story. I don't believe practical effects and appliances will ever be obsolete.

One thing our test audiences on Wolfman told us repeatedly was how glad they were that the wolfman was a real actor in makeup and a real stunt guy in a Wolfman suit, and that it was not a CG character. Just as stop motion animation enjoys a periodic revival, I think practical effects will always find willing practitioners. They're less expensive, at least for now, and allow lower budget films to be made, films that require the filmmaker to be more creative with less financial backing.

One more pet peeve: Filmmakers spend days in the labs color timing the digital internegatives, making sure that the prints made from them will be properly balanced, that there will be detail in the shadow areas, that the contrast levels are correct, etc. We do this because we genuinely care that audiences see the film as it was intended to be seen. The Wolfman is a film that requires a delicate balance of light and dark.

Shelly Johnson took great pains in shooting the film so that he could retain the blackest blacks, the dark textures, the subtle desaturation of color where necessary. He was always walking a very careful aesthetic line in order to provide audiences with the richest visual experience possible. When this carefully delineated artistry gets to your local multiplex, it often gets completely destroyed by corporate policy intent only on saving a few dollars.

Standard projection brightness is intended to be 16 foot lamberts. This is a measurement of the amount of light reflected off the screen, back into a light meter. Projection bulbs are expensive, and if the urban myth is correct, there is a near monopoly on them so the manufacturer can name their price, which I've heard is around $400 each. These bulbs last longer if the current surging through them is dialed down, resulting in reduced foot lamberts which of course means a darker screen and a less vibrant image.

The exhibitors save money by needing to replace projection bulbs less often and the filmgoing public gets a less satisfactory experience. You would be shocked to see the difference in image quality between 16 and 12 foot lamberts, 12 being a common meter reading at a lot of chain theaters. Only a few of the big premier theaters even bother to "read the screen" and keep the brightness where it's supposed to be.

People who love movies and want their money's worth should demand that theater chains keep the brightness levels where they should be. Exhibitors should have a choice of who they buy the bulbs from, there should be market competition to bring the price down, and someone should invent a projection bulb that will only work at 16 foot lamberts. 

With Captain America scheduled to shoot this summer, has it been easy doing pre-production on one huge project while continuing to post another?

The worst part has been the mileage. Marvel is way down in Manhattan Beach and Universal is in the San Fernando Valley. I had a lot of time in the car to think. 

What's your experience working with the folks at Marvel been like so far as compared with Universal?

A studio picture can have as many producers as there is room for in the credits. Sometimes producers are working on several shows at once and playing tag team, coming and going during production so you never know who you’re going to get on any given day. There can also be situations where actors or even actors’ agents are getting a producer credit and feel they deserve to be listened to.

At Marvel, there are two producers and they’re the guys on staff, and they’re always there and their job is to support the filmmaker and help him make the film we’ve all agreed on. There’s a lot of communication, but it never comes in a roundabout way. It’s a very direct line. It has been refreshing so far…a different model, not what I’ve been used to. 

Any tidbits on your tonal and stylistic approach to Cap?

I’m sworn to secrecy on Captain America. All I can say is that the script is great and we’re designing things that no one has ever seen on a movie screen. 

As we wrap things up, are there any other aspects of your Wolfman experience you can share with our readers?

The Wolfman was pretty much hell from beginning to end, easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do. At the same time, it was glorious, and enlightening, and a helluva lot of fun. I made lots of mistakes, which is always when you learn the most, I had lots of personal creative triumphs, made some wonderful friends, and fell in love with London again, permanently this time. It energized me with the excitement of the craft and made me anxious to do it again. For that I am very grateful to all those who made it happen. 

Many thanks to Joe Johnston for taking the time to share his thoughtful comments with us.  The Wolfman is currently playing at a theater near you.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Keeper of the Wolf, Part I

Zaki Interviews The Wolfman's Joe Johnston
(for Illume)

To look at Joe Johnston's thirty-plus year film career is to see a snapshot of Hollywood history. From his early work helping to design and create the worlds of Star Wars and Indiana Jones to his diverse directorial catalog, Johnston's filmography paints the picture of an artist seeking constantly to expand not only his own creative boundaries, but also the palette of what is visually possible.

After making his directing debut 21 years ago with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Johnston has worked steadily behind the camera since, alternating between smaller, more personal projects like 1999's October Sky, and summer blockbusters like Jurassic Park III in '01. After 2004's Hidalgo, starring Viggo Mortensen as real life horseman Frank Hopkins, Johnston took a sabbatical from the screen that stretched longer than even he'd intended.

With the release last Friday of Universal's The Wolfman, that exile is finally over. Marking the studio's latest go at reviving their famed "Classic Monsters" brand, the film, like its titular lycanthrope played by Benicio Del Toro (in the role originated by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941's The Wolf Man -- note the space -- and reprised in several sequels), has undergone a tortured metamorphosis of its own during the long journey to your local multiplex.

Initially shepherded by director Mark Romanek before the old chestnut of "creative differences" led to a parting of ways, The Wolfman was taken over by Joe Johnston in February of '08, mere weeks before cameras rolled. The shortened prep window coupled with the usual pressures of mounting a big budget studio production conspired to make Wolfman one of the most challenging shoots in the director's long career -- made only moreso through several reshoots and release date changes.

Currently prepping the big screen adaptation of Marvel's Captain America, Johnston was gracious enough to discuss his Wolfman experience with me at length, in the process providing a rare insight into Hollywood's inner-workings, and the nuts-and-bolts process of nursing a project from concept to completion. In the first of two parts, he looks back at his time in the Middle East while making Hidalgo, the future of the Jurassic Park franchise, and what motivated him to pick up the reins on The Wolfman.

Six years removed from Hidalgo, can you share some of your reflections on that film, both in terms of its popular and critical reception, and your experience making it. Did it achieve all that you hoped it would achieve?

Hidalgo was a labor of love for me, and those are seldom blockbusters. It was a story that had some basis in fact, but the truth has been lost somewhere along the way. Frank Hopkins was an endurance rider and long distance racer, but did he conquer the Ocean of Fire? No one really knows. It doesn’t really matter one way or the other to me.

I wanted to make the film because it was a good story, regardless of degrees of its truthfulness, and because it sounded like a hell of an adventure, and that’s something I’m always up for.

Would you be up for mounting a production of that scale in that part of the world again?

Morocco is a beautiful country, bleak and desolate, unforgiving. Making a big movie like Hidalgo in a place like Morocco challenges you to stay focused on what you set out to do. When the gods conspire against you on a film of any size there’s always the temptations of taking the easy way out. We fought the land and sky for that film from sunrise to sunset. We lost some and we won some, but I always got the impression that the desert had the upper hand.

On Sundays I would have my driver leave the Land Cruiser out front of the hotel with a full tank of diesel. I’d drive out into the desert alone until the tank was close to half empty, then turn around and hope I didn’t take a wrong road back. I met people in the middle of nowhere, miles from anything, usually on foot or riding a bicycle, leading a camel, almost never in cars. I never felt threatened or in any danger other than that brought on by nature. I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Morocco, maybe with a smaller production.

I’m not a horse lover per se, although I have a fondness for all animals. A true horse fanatic would have made a completely different picture. I didn’t glamorize the horse, I just treated him like any other character.

I love the way Hidalgo looks, the terrible beauty of the desert and the richness of the palette. I meet people, usually from places like Montana and Oregon, who tell me how special that film is to them. It’s surreal to have some old guy in the badlands of Montana tell you that you made his favorite film.

Following Hidalgo you'd been weighing several different projects, including an adaptation of Thomas Kelly's Empire Rising, and a fourth Jurassic Park. Are any of those other projects you were considering still possibilities down the line?

My tastes change just like anyone else’s. Some films that I wanted to make five or ten years ago don’t interest me today. Ever since digital effects became a viable reality I’ve wanted to do a remake of Them!, the movie about giant ants invading Los Angeles. What more perfect fate for Hollywood than being ravaged by 40 foot long insects? That I’d pay to see!

The original from 1954 with James Whitmore and James Arness had about three or four ants that were puppeteered with strings and rods and looked like they were made out of carpet, and the thing still worked like gangbusters. Gordon Douglas directed it.

Empire Rising is a wonderful story, but very expensive to make with the visual effects necessary to build the Empire State Building from the ground up. It gets tougher every year to make movies like that in the studio system, one that is essentially an intimate love story told against this gigantic canvas of New York in the '30s. Studios are taking fewer chances than ever, making “youth appeal” and tentpoles and little else, and a film like Empire Rising is a risk thematically.

I would always be up for another Jurassic Park movie. I had a great time on the one I made. It was hell in production, of course, but how often do you get to stage a fight between two 40-foot dinosaurs? There was a period of a couple of weeks when we were literally two days ahead of the writer. It was a white knuckle ride at times, emotionally, but I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. Steven [Spielberg] was very supportive throughout and even went to the studio to get us some additional visual effects money when we needed it.

There is a wonderful story outline for the fourth installment that is very different from the first trilogy. It would take the franchise off in a completely new and very exciting direction. If the fans want a fourth Jurassic Park, or any film for that matter, they should be more vocal about it. Studios do actually listen when millions of fans say what they want. The Internet has made it easy to listen to what people have to say and there’s power in numbers.

When you say “trilogy,” you’re implying another three Jurassic Park films…

I think Steven and Universal would want to keep making these films if they continue to be entertaining and successful. I love dinosaurs, like most 8-year-olds, so I’d be up for going back on safari. There hasn’t been any talk of another three films, but this idea for number four would definitely slingshot the franchise into rich and unexplored story territory.

I also understand you’ve taken your interest in dinosaurs to another level after Jurassic Park III.

I went to Montana to meet Jack Horner, the technical advisor on all the films, in ’99 while we were in pre-production on JP3. Once I had my rented Subaru he said, “Follow me”, as if we were going six blocks down the road. 800 miles later we pulled up at a dig site near the town of Malta, north of Fort Peck Lake. The next day we went on a “death march”, as Jack is fond of calling the hikes where you look for exposed bones.

I stepped in a ravine and almost broke my ankle, but I landed right on top of a piece of big leg bone, about as long and big around as a loaf of bread. When Jack came back around to look at it, he identified it as belonging to a mososaur, a big seagoing reptile with flippers and a long snakelike tail for locomotion. Jack took his topo map out studied it for a few minutes before calmly stating that we were about 30 feet outside BLM land, and that the bones belonged to a rancher who he had dealt unsuccessfully with in the past.

So we buried the mososaur and hiked on, but I was hooked. I’ve been back every summer, usually more than once a season. I almost always find something worth collecting and taking to the museum. Two years ago I found a Triceratops skull, complete with all three horns. It was two feet off a well-trodden trail that led to another dig site that had been discovered earlier.

What was it about The Wolfman that convinced you to pull the trigger?

When The Wolfman came along, I was in my fourth year of a self-inflicted hiatus from filmmaking. I’d had no luck finding a project I wanted to invest two years of my life in. I was going through one of those dark periods when you start to question everything and doubt that you have any business doing what you do. To distract myself from reality I’d built an elaborate treehouse for the kids, become fairly proficient in Scruggs-style banjo picking, and restored an old motorcycle.

My wife Lisa, who is normally very patient with me, was starting to wonder when I was going to get the hell back to work. When my agents called and told me the drama that was going on with Wolfman, and after I’d read David Self’s draft, I resolved to get the job. I knew there were other candidates, but I’ve been in this place before and had a theory that the last thing the studio and producers wanted to hear was what they wanted to hear.

I didn’t try to snow them with assurances. I was realistic about the schedule and budget and tried to sound like I had a solid knowledge of the situation. The important thing for the studio was to get troops on the ground as quickly as possible to restart the stalled juggernaut that was sitting there drooling money out of every orifice. From the moment the studio said go until we rolled film was about three weeks, an absurdly short prep period, but the previous director, Mark Romanek had made some good choices in locations and casting, and had hired some excellent crew including Milena Canonero as costume designer.

I wasn’t being sent in to save a sinking ship, I needed to get it under sail and make sure it sailed where I wanted to go. I inherited Rick Heinricks as production designer and I brought in Shelly Johnson as DP, who I’ve worked with twice before. Richard Whelan was already in place as first assistant director, and we were surrounded by the best and brightest of UK film crews.

Were you a fan of the Lon Chaney film going in?

I was a big fan of the original, which I tried to watch every time it came on the late night Creature Features on Channel 13. It feels almost quaint today, and very stagebound with fake trees and dry ice fog and the twisty streets of the Universal backlot (Conliffe’s antique store can still be seen from the Universal Studios Tour bus, having been reused a hundred times). The transformation effects are rudimentary, involving immobilizing Lon Chaney Jr. and applying hair between exposures, then keeping his shirt tightly buttoned around his throat to eliminate the need for a full body suit, but there’s a rare magic in the film, once you suspend the right amount of disbelief.

I had read a draft of Wolfman four years ago and had passed on it because the violence and gore felt overlaid on the character story, not integral to it. It was a very different kind of film. I have no aversion to violence and mayhem if they’re organic to the story. When David Self came on board to rewrite, Romanek had him address virtually every issue I had with the earlier draft.

What was it like jumping onto a production that had already been moving along under the guidance of another helmer -- both in terms of story and aesthetic choices -- before you signed on?

It was important for me to make my version of The Wolfman. This was made a little more difficult by the fact that Mark Romanek had done fifteen weeks or so of prep, leaving me three, but I didn’t want to feel hindered by what had been done. I wanted to see it as a challenge to steer the production in a new direction while making use of the restrictions I inherited.

Given the limitations of the writer's strike at the time you were filming, how much of yourself were you able to invest into the film under fairly restrictive circumstances?

In many ways, I found the situation I was in very liberating. I was able to trust my instincts and first impressions without having the luxury of time to over-think things as we sometimes do. I was helped a great deal by a cast that was willing to help me interpret what was on the page. We didn’t throw the script out, but we certainly didn’t adhere to it either.

As I recall, you joined Honey, I Shrunk the Kids under similar conditions. Would you say it was a comparable experience?

It wasn’t comparable in the same way. I was given an extra eight weeks of prep after I replaced Stuart Gordon on Honey. That made a huge difference. I didn’t feel the same loyalty to the material that I felt on Wolfman. I was willing, and the Disney people backed me up, to make much more radical changes to all aspects of the film. It was my very first film, but I insisted on exercising all my rights as director. The studio was furious with me at times, but they were happy enough with the dailies to stay out of Mexico City, where we shot the whole thing.

Eventually I got the note that Jeffrey Katzenberg said “He’s too big for his britches”. I sent back the message, “Please send bigger britches for the flight home”, but I doubt that it ever made it to Jeffrey’s desk. I’ve always felt that making a studio picture is like buying a new car. Once they believe that you’ll actually walk out of the showroom, you finally have some power. Only once in my career did I have to threaten to wrap the crew if a producer didn’t get off the set. I’ve probably lost a lot of work with my reputation but you can’t let bean counters influence any kind of creative process.

By the same token, a director needs to be responsible to the people who entrust him or her with the vast fortune required to make a big studio film. I want a studio to push back for what they want. A process of negotiation is healthy. I want to make the day’s schedule and come in under budget when it’s realistic. A filmmaker can be endlessly creative and come in under budget if he or she is prepared and keeps a loose grip on his goals.

Honey, I Shrunk The Kids cost 18 million in 1988 and grossed 136 million domestic. It was the first time a debut film broke the 100 million dollar mark. Three years later it was still “in the red” thanks to wildly creative bookkeeping by the studio. The ten profit participants had to audit the studio to get them to admit that they indeed owed us a lot of money. The studio attorney offered us 50 cents on the dollar, saying that if we chose to sue for the full amount we’d spend more than we’d make in the end. Of course all those evil attorneys are gone now, replaced by honest and fair-minded professionals.

In Part II tomorrow, more on The Wolfman, including possible sequels, and some discussion of the highly-anticipated Captain America. Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Quixotic.

Bipartisanship as a concept is something I'd think anyone can get behind.  In addition to the messaging bonus of being able to say you reached across the aisle, it also provides political cover if there's a perception that both parties supported an idea.  All that notwithstanding, bipartisanship in execution has emerged as an albatross dangling around the president's neck, threatening to strangle off his entire agenda.

Even more frustrating than the opposition living up to its calling is Obama's fruitless crusade to win them over, even when it results in watered down legislation that doesn't garner their support anyway.   Whichever metaphor you like, whether Don Quixote and the windmills or Charlie Brown and the football, at some point you'd think common sense would kick in and he'd try to find another way to get things done rather than risk scuttling his entire presidency on the shores of mythical compromise.

In that sense (and I never thought I'd say this), I find myself wishing he was more like his predecessor, who was able to consistently get more of the minority with less of a majority. The New Republic's Noam Schreiber agrees, and offers some thoughts on what Obama can learn from Bush.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snow Problem

The recent snowstorms buffeting the East Coast have led some (read: Fox News) to claim that this is the proverbial final nail in the coffin for crazy old Al Gore and his whackadoo global warming concerns.  Because, as we all know, the notion of climate change didn't exist until Al Gore invented it four years ago -- between the Internet and this, he's a regular Thomas Edison!  Jon Stewart lampoons the gleeful exultation on the right, pointing out its lack of comportment with basic logic:

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Contraction

Now that the lights are out on The Jay Leno Show, the final piece is in place for The Great Tonight Show Trainwreck of '09/'10 to lurch toward its merciful finale.  In a few short weeks, Leno retakes the spot he vacated last May, and all will be right in late night (or so NBC desperately, desperately hopes).

Of course, the one question mark remaining is where Conan O'Brien will end up.  While there's nothing to report on that front just yet, The Hollywood Reporter has found and analyzed Conan's NBC contract (itself flanked by question marks until now), and does a nice job of cutting through the labyrinthine legalese to paint a picture of what each side walked away with in the divorce.

Still no word on who gets Andy Richter, though.

Superbat

Nikki Finke broke the story yesterday, and already it's worked its way around the web, that director Christopher Nolan, already holding the keys to the big screen Batcave, has been approached by Warner Bros. to put his stamp on a(nother) planned revival of the Superman movie series.  With a third Batman also in the planning, this would give Nolan oversight over the two biggest staples in the DC Comics lineup.  Now he just needs Wonder Woman for the sweep.

I'm guessing that one factor in trying to get this fast-tracked is that the already-messy legal situation surrounding Superman gets even messier in three short years when the heirs to creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster reclaim the character's copyright.  Another factor is no doubt the hope that Nolan's vision and earned fanboy cred (though he probably wouldn't direct) can do for the flailing Man of Steel what Bryan Singer's well-intentioned but ultimately flawed Superman Returns should've done four years ago.

Had things gone to plan back then, Singer would be onto his second sequel already.  Clearly that didn't work out, so from a business standpoint this move makes all the sense in the world.  It was Nolan's vision for Batman Begins that brought that franchise back from the edge of extinction (thank you very much, Joel Schumacher), and it was his stewardship of The Dark Knight that made it, until a few weeks ago, the second highest grossing movie of all time (thank you very much, James Cameron).

The one concern I have in all this is what Nolan's (and the studio's) approach would be.  Superman isn't Batman, and Metropolis isn't Gotham City, so it's not a given that success with one would translate to success with the other (as Tim Burton learned the hard way on his abortive Superman Lives project in '98).  What director Richard Donner got so right with 1978's Superman was the worldview it presented.  It was bright, it was sunny, it was optimistic, yet it never strayed from Donner's credo for absolute verisimilitude.

I don't have any doubts on Nolan's ability to deliver on that last one, but I also don't see much evidence in his filmography of the first three.  Still, given the many catastrophic turns the movie Superman nearly took during the torturous span from Superman IV in 1987 to Returns in '06 (the aforementioned Burton flick for one, Nicolas Cage as Superman for another), the character is probably better off under Nolan's supervision than just about anyone else who comes to mind.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Recommended Reading

Most of us already know that Sarah Palin's brand of microwave populism is at best vacuous and at worst irresponsible, but her stunningly obnoxious performance at last weekend's halfwitted Tea Party Convention (a veritable breeding ground for intellectual elites if ever there was one) set a new bar even for her when it came to bringing the crazy.  Here's Fred Kaplan with the fact check.

Bowl Games

Here's Jay Leno from last night's penultimate installment of his primetime detour, offering up his perspective on the whys-and-wherefores of the Letterman Superbowl spot.  The sentiment is surprisingly heartfelt, and I'd like to think it's genuine.

And here's Keith Olbermann's interview with New York Times reporter and Late Shift author Bill Carter, offering up some further behind-the-scenes insights as well as the explicit promise of that sequel tome many of us have been expecting and/or hoping for:

Monday, February 08, 2010

Frenemies

And speaking of late night, I couldn't very well let this one slip by without comment.  I didn't watch the bowl game yesterday (and I mourn the fall of MASH's longstanding ratings record -- something I never thought I'd see happen), but I did catch this commercial, and it's almost more buzz-worthy than the game during which it aired.  Here's the spot, and here's how it happened.  As I saw mentioned by someone else, the only thing missing is Conan O'Brien walking in at the end and saying to Leno, "Hey! I was sitting there!"

The Memory Hole

Well, I predicted in my post about Conan O'Brien's last Tonight Show that his final episode probably wouldn't be online for very long, and lo and behold, as of late last week NBC.com and Hulu (along with NBC's Rockefeller Center mural) have been scrubbed clean of the host and his entire late night catalogue at the network.  I'd like to think this is just a temporary situation and Conan's Tonight tenure will be accessable online again before too long, but given their piss-poor handling of this whole thing, it'd be just like NBC to go all "Bobby Ewing" and simply pretend the last seven months never happened.

Let Obama Be Obama

There's an episode in The West Wing's first season called "Let Bartlet be Bartlet," wherein the Josiah Bartlet White House, one year in, is gripped by paralysis over constant battles with congress and the inability to get anything meaningful done.  The solution?  Free President Bartlet from the constraints of constant politicking and allow him to be the person who voters had elected.

That's what I felt over the last two weeks after watching President Obama in two televised Q&A sessions, first with congressional Republicans and then with senate Democrats.  There was the pres, unfiltered and answering questions with poise, confidence, and above all credibility.  After a year and change -- an eternity in politics -- Obama was being Obama.  So what the heck took so long? 

Offering a potential answer to this query is Edward Luce's extensive and fascinating look into the Obama inner-circle and its constant framing of key legislative matters in purely political cost/benefit terms. In that sense, things haven't changed much from one administration to the next, but still baffling is their clubfooted approach to issues that are beneficial to, and favored by, voters.  Case in point, the following:
“Historians will puzzle over the fact that Barack Obama, the best communicator of his generation, totally lost control of the narrative in his first year in office and allowed people to view something they had voted for as something they suddenly didn’t want,” says Jim Morone, America’s leading political scientist on healthcare reform. “Communication was the one thing everyone thought Obama would be able to master.”
The mere fact that we're still having a conversation about healthcare reform in terms of whether it'll happen at all, and not about how sweeping said reform will be and when it'll kick in, is an indicator of just how badly the folks in charge have managed to scotch things so far.  Let's hope there's still time to right things before the ship has listed irretrievably.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Like a Fox

As a general rule I shy away from the nighttime programming at Fox News, as I've found I react adversely to too much cognitive dissonance in my diet. However, I made an exception this week to check out Jon Stewart's ballyhooed sitdown with Bill O'Reilly, which aired in edited form over Wednesday and Thursday on The O'Reilly Factor.

Stewart may be a clown by profession (as he often protests-too-much), but nonetheless he consistently impresses me in his non-Daily Show appearances with his thoughtful, nuanced approach to social and political issues. This interview, in the middle of the "lion's den" so to speak, was no less so for his unvarnished observations about Fox's news apparatus, and its use in many ways as a political mouthpiece.

While the interview as aired was interesting and illuminating, it was also a little bit jarring, with the edit points a little too obvious. Rather than imply anything sinister, let's assume that time considerations were the reason behind the edits, but even so, I was left wondering what had been cut out, and what context was resultantly lost. Thankfully, Fox News has posted the entire interview, all forty-five minutes of it, on their website for public consumption, and it's well worth a view.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Life Support

Whither healthcare reform?  Thanks to Democratic dunderheadedness, what should have been a foregone conclusion just over a year ago is now a fifty-fifty proposition at best.  How to account for this state of affairs?  TPM counts the ways.