Sunday, May 21, 2017

David Lynch Dreams of Duran Duran

 
There is something chilling in the way David Lynch introduces Duran Duran, the subject of his new concert film. Out of focus, in black and white, Lynch appears onscreen with the exaggerated mock enthusiasm of a carnival huckster who has been on the job for six hours. It is almost as if he is willing the film to be good by smiling wildly and exaggerating his enunciation  as he briefly mentions how excited he is to work with the band.

Originally a live webcast as part of American Express’ Unstaged campaign that matches bands with directors (The Killers/Werner Herzog, Pharrell Williams/Spike Lee, Gary Oldman/Maroon 5) to collaborate on a hybrid film and concert experience, both Lynch and Duran Duran have since gone back into their studios to, respectively, upgrade the imagery and audio for a theatrical release of the project. Ultimately, however, the result is a concert film and, like the vast majority of concert films before it, the basic foundations of the form are in place: musicians performing onstage and a director trying to find a way to recapture the concert experience and make watching them on film equal to or greater than seeing them live. 

Over the years, filmmakers and musicians have attempted to expand beyond the confines of the genre. From the “fantasy” sequences awkwardly inserted into Led Zepellin’s “The Song Remains The Same” in the ’70’s to Metallica’s more recent “Through The Never” which attempted to set a narrative film in and around a concert, directors have been looking for a way to something more with their project. Alek Keshishian’s “Madonna: Truth or Dare” not only captured the performer’s live show at the peak of her career, it was also a fascinating look at what it meant to be a celebrity in the late 20th Century. Jonathan Demme's last film was the Justin Timberlake concert documentary for Netflix but he had made numerous films about  musicians who inspired him, shooting 3 or 4 films about Neil Young, the classic Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense” and, wait, really(?) what’s that… his own contribution to the Amex series “Kenny Chesney: Unstaged”

Duran Duran, still active more than 30 years after their biggest hits, seem up to the task. Never critical favorites, they seem to have accepted and matured into their roles of aging New Wavers refusing to become an oldies band. They seamlessly integrate their songs from the ’80’s and ’90’s into the mix of current material in such a way that they seem almost contemporary. Either this is a band whose sound has never changed or they have found a way to tweak the formula over the years so that a casual listener might not be able to tell if a song like their rousing final encore “Girls On Film” came out in 1984 or 2014.







Lynch, on the other hand, seems to sleepwalk through the project —- not that, given the parameters of the genre, he really has many options. In his first full-length feature film since the 2006 curiosity “Inland Empire,” Lynch primarily embellishes the action onstage with super-imposed surrealistic or downright silly imagery with very little rhyme or reason. 

Throughout the concert, the band invites several guests to the stage for a song or two. Producer/guitarist Mark Ronson gets credited as the ‘architect’ of the dazzling, extended James Bond musical tribute that serves as the intro to the Duran’s own chart-topping Bond theme song “A View To A Kill.” Later, Beth Ditto of the group Gossip, herself born in the same year the band released it’s first single, bounds onstage for a lively performance of the 1988 hit “Notorious” and gushes to the crowd “What a fucking dream” as she exits when the song is over. 


Lynch says that he had wild dreams while listening to the band’s music but, in the finished film, those dreams manifest in swirling images of dust and clouds or jagged lines the appear over and frequently obstruct the shots of the musicians. 


  

Employing his talented “Mullholland Drive” and “Lost Highway”  cinematographer Peter Deming (beloved by many for his acrobatic and inventive camera work in Sam Raimi’s 1982 cult classic “Evil Dead II”) the film is shot in murky black and white with fluid, elegant camera movement. By abstracting color, Lynch establishes a canvas to build upon but it also distances viewers of the film from the bands presumably more colorful stage show shot at L.A.’s Mayan Theater in 2011.






Spinning bicycle wheels appear over the band during “Rio.” Elsewhere, a parade of topless Barbie dolls with Duran Duran pasties show up. Later still, tapping spatulas and hot dogs flipping on a grill accompany “Come Undone.” For a song like their ’90’s hit “Ordinary World,” it might be reasonable to expect something extraordinary to embellish the tune but Lynch returns to a theme of industrial gears and machinery that, by this point in the film, has already worn out its welcome. For a performance of their first hit “Planet Earth,” Lynch goes with — guess what? — a spinning globe. 

In the end, “Unstaged: Duran Duran” is not going to satisfy film-lovers eager for a new David Lynch film and, even though the band shows up in fine form, it is unlikely to satisfy their fans. Let’s face it, the “Unstaged” series is a thinly veiled Amex commercial. DD singer Simon LeBon thanks the credit card giant during their curtain call and, a moment later, when he calls the director to the stage for acknowledgement, Lynch does not join them onstage, is nowhere to found and LeBon has to to awkwardly suggest that he is off doing something else — a scenario that speaks volumes about this project. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Get Out in the Moonlight












A filmmaker friend recently posted a question on Facebook, asking his fellow African-American friends and collaborators about supporting African-American themed films at the box office. There is an organized movement to in the African American community to encourage as many members to send a message to Hollywood by getting out and seeing African-American themed films on opening weekend. He questioned why much of the community will go out and see anything by Tyler Perry but only a few handfuls will go see Fences. I just had to chime in and ask how many of them had gone to see Moonlight. No responses!

This past weekend, Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar  and Get Out, Jordan Peele’s wildly well-received social conscious horror comedy about an African-American man finding himself hunted in an affluent white suburb was number one at the box office. In three months, Moonlight has earned $25,000,000. In one weekend, Get Out earned over $30,000,000.

As far as I can tell, the perception of the public is that Get Out is not an explicitly African-American themed film, which it pretty much is because race actually factors into the plot. The film is being perceived of and marketed as a horror film, which it is. People are flocking to Get Out because people like horror movies and people are staying away from Moonlight because, with its African American and gay themes, it appeals to a niche market and, anecdotally, it appears the audiences are predominantly white.

I saw Get Out because I like horror movies. I liked it, found it rich, intelligent and provocative, all qualities that, as a film teacher, I hold up as the things filmmakers should strive for. Honestly, I felt like I should go see Moonlight because, let’s face it, as an artsy intellectual liberal,  I felt like it was the right thing to do, to expose myself to something other. What I experienced was a rich, intelligent and provocative film that moved me deeply. Get Out is entertaining and smart and I relate to nothing in it because I am neither African American or, hopefully not, racist. On the surface, Moonlight is about the experiences of a poor, gay African-American male, none of which describes me. But it is what is beneath the surface of Moonlight that got me. It is a movie by, for and about anyone who has ever felt that they don’t fit in, that they are alone in the world and that nobody gets them and to that, I raise my hand and say “Me, me, me.”


In my classes I tell students that they should aim to make smart, meaningful films but that, in reality, they could make the greatest film in the world but if it is about dough rising and it is playing in a theater also screening the latest sequel to a remake about things blowing up, very few people are going to go to their film. 

In the end, I guess what I am saying is that it is good thing that Get Out was not released the same weekend as a Tyler Perry film. No, what I am saying is that Get Out and Moonlight are both really good movies and I wish as many people would be open to seeing both. I wondered if this box office disparity is really about race or if it is simply about making movies that lots of people want to see versus making small, quiet personal statements that are only going to attract a brave few.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Stomping Ground: An Odyssey in Micro-budget Filmmaking




Recently, I started to watch the latest film by a notorious but fairly well-regarded foreign filmmaker who has been making English language films in the States. The images were stunning, clearly crafted meticulously for optimum style, mood and atmosphere. I hear that this director likes to tell stories with imagery rather than relying on dialogue. Commendable. I turned it off halfway through. Why? Because I was bored, I got it, figured out what he was trying to do and it was not compelling. I am the first to admit that I can be narrow-minded in my approach to film. Is it so bad to want to watch a story about people I care about in a situation that I’m interested in?

Whenever Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, I posted a blog where I ranted about what an empty, meaningless exercise in CGI it was. Check it out:


Is it just me? Would it be so hard to focus on story, plot and character development?

You know where this is going. In 2005, after years of studying the form -writing, production, marketing and distribution — I wrote a textbook micro-budget screenplay. In the summer of 2006, I’d assembled a cast and crew but, just hours before the first day of the shoot, my lead actor quit due to personal reasons. I rescheduled the shoot for a couple month later, the lead actor came back and, the night before the first day of shooting, he broke his foot, then moved to L.A. I recast the whole film, scrambled to replace the original crew and it just never came together. 

All along, a producer in L.A. had been asking me to option the screenplay. I optioned it to a Philly company, it never really progressed, the producer in L.A. asked about optioning it again and the third time was the charm. I sold the rights to the screenplay for two years and was hired to re-write it for six months. Near the end of the two year option, the producer stopped responding to calls and e-mails. It turns out that, if neither party takes action at the end of an option, the producer can sometimes retain the rights for free. With about two weeks to spare and the help of a generous volunteer lawyer, I retained the rights to my screenplay. That was in January 2011.

On July 1, 2013, I met with a bright, daring, ambitious producer and we decided to go ahead with my idea that Stomping Ground could be shot in two days. On September 1, 2013, we wrapped the two day shoot. 



Directing Stomping Ground, 8/31/13

After two and a half draining, demanding, arduous years of post-production, Stomping Ground, was completed in January 2016 and premiered in May at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival.

From the start, I knew the film was going to be divisive, mostly because of the way I planned to shoot it and partly because of the story. I wanted to test a theory that a bad screenplay produced well would probably result in a bad film but that a good screenplay produced badly might still yield a good film. I wanted to strip everything away so that all I was left with was a good story and good acting. 

Stomping Ground is a messy film. I always knew it would be. I wanted it to be. The color correction never fully came together. My editor worked wonders with the footage we gave him and it is as choppy and hand-held as I expected it to be. I called it a punk rock production because, like the music, it was about energy, heart and soul rather than technical proficiency.

I shot the film in 24 hours in part because I knew I would not be able to afford the cast and crew for much longer and I also thought it might make for good P.R. If I had it to do over again, I would have shot it in 36 hours.

Stomping Ground has been submitted to quite a few film festivals and has not been accepted by that many. Bottom-line, I have sat in screenings with filmmakers, film lovers and film students who cannot see past the technical flaws. I have seen it with “civilians,” regular folks who just want to sit down to watch a movie and I have heard them gasp, laugh, exclaim “Oh my God!” and I have seen them on the edge of their seats. 

As a student of low-budget indie filmmaking for thirty years, give or take, I saw early films by The Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee then studied them inside out, from the writing phase to shooting to post-production to festival runs, marketing and distribution. I wrote about and reviewed indie films for a website dedicated to the form. In those days, I saw a lot of really bad films that had never gotten picked up for distribution, many of them justifiably so. In some cases, I saw great films that I championed and even helped to get distribution. 

I knew what I was getting into when I started to make Stomping Ground. I knew that it might be one of those films that never got distribution — either because it was so bad or because there was nobody to champion it. I always thought Stomping Ground would find an audience. It has not, yet.

Stomping Ground was released on Amazon today. 




Did I achieve the cinematic acclaim and notoriety I so desperately craved? Not yet. Will I ever? Not counting on it. Will I recoup my investment? Good one!

Am I disappointed? Sure. Defeated? Not exactly. I actually see the Amazon release as a fresh opportunity to get the film out there and part of me just wishes that I had completely sidestepped the festival submission route in the first place. Will there be people who hate the film if they get it on Amazon? Will I get lots of negative reviews? Probably but that is the risk of trying to make art. 

One of the biggest surprises over the course of this whole experience has been the number of close friends and associates who seem to think I cannot handle negative criticism. So many people have asked to see the film, gotten it and never offered me any feedback, as if it simply never happened. I know that they probably do not want to hurt my feelings and I get it but sometimes no response is worse than a negative response. 

If a handful of people see it, like it and write a positive review, I will feel like I have successfully accomplished what I set out to do from the beginning, not pander to conventions, not accommodate for a lack of story by covering it up with state of the art graphic effects but delivering a good, rich, important story performed well by my talented cast. 

Who knows who might see it? I’m optimistic. 


You can see Stomping Ground on Amazon now. If you like it and have something nice to say, I'd appreciate a positive review. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The horror, the horror...



I was recently interviewed about horror movies by a film student:

Please describe who you are and what connection you have to the film world.

I am David J. Greenberg, adjunct screenwriting instructor, Drexel University & University of the Arts. Screenwriter of over 45 screenplays -- 3 produced features (including one as director and writer), 2 produced documentaries, numerous shorts. 


Why would you use film as a medium to tell stories?

I have been attracted to movies since I was a small child, always fascinated by them. When we go to sleep at night, we don't have books or music or sculpture or dance in our heads, we have little movies, dreams that help us process and make sense of the world so I feel like there is this almost innate connection to movies. I don't play any instruments and I love music so making films is as close to making music as I get. 


How do you think films have evolved?

Well, that's a film history question --- sound, color, special effects, the breakdown of the production code etc.  In the beginning, all films were short and now, of course running times have expanded dramatically but, bottom line, films are still about creating meaning with moving pictures.


What advantages and disadvantages do you think films have in telling a story?

Some people don't like to read. Films are visceral, like music, they can elicit a physical response, stir an audience. Film combines elements of literature, painting, photography, theater and music to create a wholly distinct art form. Also, in a book, you are reading words that are supposed to inspire images in your head. The words are symbols to describe what people are seeing, hearing and doing. In film, you create the images for the viewer and they interpret them rather than when a reader sees words on a page, processes them and forms an image. One step in the process has been removed.  


Why would you make a horror film?

On a practical level horror films are frequently inexpensive to produce and often show a significant return on investment. From a screenwriting perspective, horror movies are different from most other movies in a story structure sense, the protagonist doesn't necessarily have to grow or change, they just have to survive -- sometimes by confronting a fear or personal deficit; basically the screenwriter has to establish a situation where scary things might happen and then write those scary things, usually 7-12 pages apart. There is an informal challenge in the horror community to see who can make the scariest film, come up with the best idea etc. 



Why would you watch a horror film and how does it make you feel?


I like horror films on a number of levels. I like a visceral jolt. In my day to day life, I am rarely scared for my life so watching horror films is a way to experience sensations that I do not expect to experience every day.  I like to examine the characters in horror films and see how they find themselves in the horrific situations they find themselves in.


What goes into making a horror film?

Technological production know-how, good story. 

What aspects of making horror films do you like or dislike?

I don't like gore, don't find it scary. I like tension and suspense. 

 Why do you think as a filmmaker people would want to watch something that scares them?

See above but to reiterate, most people do not go through life experiencing fear for their lives and watching these films can give audiences a chance to experience these feelings in a safe environment -- it's sort of like riding a roller coaster. 


What do you think of scary stories and how they shape our lives?

Horror films for all of their gore and sometimes decadence, are often very moralistic --- don't sleep around, don't do drugs, don't mess with the dead etc., extreme cautionary tales. On the flip side, I sometimes worry that horror films and action films can desensitize audiences to violence, making it too easy to forget that that the characters we see dying are people with hopes and dreams, parents, siblings and friends.

Has a horror film effected you in your personal or professional life, and how?

I think the recent Australian horror film "The Babadook" was about parenthood and, specifically, parenting an atypical or special needs child, which I deeply related to. 


What makes a good horror film?

Like any film, a good story that people can relate to. As someone who writes screenplays, including a high number of horror screenplays, I always look for opportunities to push my agenda, slip in social commentary and have frequently done so. A fresh spin on genre conventions is usually welcome.


How did the horror film industry evolve and why do you think it was created?

Horror films have been around almost since the very beginning of film. People have always liked spooky, creepy stories so it seemed a natural for the movies. Most recently, the advent of more accessible technology has made it more and more possible for more and more people to make their own films. I also think that, perhaps more than any other genre of film, there is a large, enthusiastic sub-culture of horror movie fans who actively support little independent films and are often more forgiving of technical and narrative shortcomings, also they seem more receptive to shorter features, 75-80 minutes long. 


Anything additional you would like to say?

Horror films are not for everyone but I like them as both an entertainment form and as a viable production option for first time filmmakers. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

"Antibirth": Who Says It's Bad To Be Unique?

                                                                                          Before the screening of his film “Antibirth” writer-director Danny Perez told the nearly packed theater at International House a story about trying to make it in L.A. after moving from Philly. He recalls driving to an agent’s office for a meeting and, along the way, seeing all of the billboards for upcoming new movies and TV shows — a big screen adaptation of 80’s small screen hit “McGyver” some movie where Kevin Spacey plays a man trapped in the body of a cat.

“Danny, you’re unique” said the agent, who had already seen “Antibirth.” 
Somewhat perplexed by the agent’s somber delivery, Perez asked “That’s a good thing, right?”  
“No, Danny, that’s a bad thing.”

“Antibirth” might be called unique even though it so reverently pays homage to the cult classics of the 80’s that it feels oddly familiar even though Perez demonstrates enough vision to put a fresh, sometimes artsy spin on tradition. It is his own film, with its own vibe, its own rules, rebellious, anarchistic and Perez comes off as a filmmaker completely in control, determinedly confident in his vision.

The film is not for everyone. In fact, it is probably not for most people. Natasha Lyonne throws herself full force into her performance as an unabashed hardcore small town party girl — though, her character Lou, now well into being a thirtysomething, is long past party-girlhood and more into something resembling a sloppy skid-row drunk. After blacking out during an all night party in an abandoned warehouse, Lou starts feeling strange and comes to realize that she might be pregnant even though she has no recollection of hooking up with anyone. Needless to say, peeling skin, giant blisters full of fluid and a rapidly expanding mid-section soon indicate that pregnancy might be the least of her concerns. What follows is by turns hilarious and disgusting, all over the place narratively, frequently beautiful to look at and ultimately pretty compelling. Perez has things on his mind, it’s not just about empty spectacle, he comes off as an unpretentious funny, intelligent who sees things in the world —- “people filling themselves with toxicity” — and wants to say something about it.    

Watching it, I felt like I was witnessing the birth of a cult classic, maybe a post-modern neo cult classic but definitely a film that will find a small but passionate audience. That works for me. Maybe being “unique” is not such a bad thing. Sure, moving forward, finding representation, financing and distribution is still going to be hard but it seems like that is the way it is for anyone not making a $150,000,000 sequel to a tentpole blockbuster. I am both inspired to continue trying to do what I am trying to do and also really looking forward to Danny Perez’ next film. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Thinking At Least Twice about "Don't Think Twice"


There is one scene in comedian Mike Birbiglia’s new film Don’t Think Twice that really sums it up for me. The members of a struggling NYC improv comedy troupe gather to watch the long running comedy sketch show “Weekend Live” and stare at the screen with dead eyes and blank expressions either fueled or dulled by overwhelming sense of “that should be me on this show, I could do it so much better.”

Don't Think Twice, has some chuckles but it's really a bittersweet drama about an improv comedy troupe in NYC and what happens when one of the members gets a shot at a job on a show like "Saturday Night Live." It's about ambition but it has a dark undertone about jealousy, bitterness and resentment toward one time friends whose potential success might far eclipse your own. 

I know people who have been nominated for Oscars, worked with Quentin Tarantino and Bryan Singer, have $4,000,000 summer houses. I have seen where my best friend from film school lives — with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park. Sometimes I wish I could resent these people but I can’t because I know all of them paid their dues, did their time in the trenches and worked their way up to where they are now. But, to be completely honest, I don’t always feel so good about it. 

A few weeks ago, I saw that there was a movie in theatrical release that was directed by someone I was hired to replace as director after he was arrested and jailed. Now, I am all for rehabilitation and redemption and I guess it’s good to know that this guy caught a break, is hopefully doing well, got back to doing his thing and is having some success. Okay, at the risk of being totally self-serving, when do I get a break? Do I need to follow his lead, commit a heinous crime and hit bottom in order to bounce back? I know I cling to this illusion that nice guys can finish first but that those images are getting fuzzier in my mind.

A few months ago, a mystery novelist friend of mine brought up the idea of working on a screenplay together. We talked about it, he came up with the story and is patiently waiting for me to turn it into a screenplay. A couple weeks ago, a friend contacted me to say that he has a crew and equipment ready to make a feature in Tulsa but he needs a screenplay and wanted to know if I have anything sitting around. I pitched him a couple ideas, he liked both, we chose one and now I am scrambling to bust it out. Last night, a filmmaker contacted me on Instagram to say that he’d been hired to write and direct a film, that he has the story but is not good at writing dialogue so he asked if I was interested in doing it. 


So, for now, it’s back to the trenches and tightening my grasp on hope.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

False Climax meets Diarrhea-Man



Diarrhea-Man



About a month ago, a student came into class, plopped down and said to me, “I don’t know how you write screenplays for a living, it’s so hard.”

First, yes, it is hard to make a living as a screenwriter and, to be completely forthright, to whatever degree I am making a living, I am making it by teaching screenwriting right now. Sure, every now and then, I get a gig but, for the past few years, I have been focused on Stomping Ground and teaching. 

I had gotten to a point where I was looking for writing jobs less and less and work was coming to me more and more —- nothing fancy, nothing I was putting my kids through college on but I was, in fact, getting hired (and, usually, paid) to write screenplays.

Even though I have a couple projects due to some producer-friends, I am slowly getting back into the hunting for gigs routine. 

Yesterday, I saw an ad:

Screenwriter needed ASAP for Diarrhea-Man Feature (Hollywood)


I own the rights to the original 1970's Diarrhea-Man character and need help writing the screenplay. Finances have been secured to produce the film starting this October, however I need to have a finished/polished shooting script to be approved by investors weeks from today. Looking for an experienced screenwriter capable of turning out a 1st draft ASAP as in the next week and a half. If you are a screenwriter capable of producing strong action oriented structure while managing a strict deadline, I'd love to talk to you. Also, massive points if you are at all familiar with the Diarrhea-Man universe.

I will be the first to admit that “massive points” were not in the cards for me as I am not at all “familiar with the Diarrhea-Man universe.” 

So, maybe I should pass on this gig. 

“Finances have been secured…” should suggest that there is some money to pay the screenwriter for the first draft that needs to be delivered in a week and a half. “Should” suggest. In my experience, “finances” frequently refers to what someone plans to pay the DP, cast, crew and craft services once you deliver the screenplay for free, the film gets produced, distributed, maybe makes some money and then they decide to throw you a bone for your trouble, if they remember. 

A gig is a gig, right? I dipped into “the Diarrhea-Man universe” for a little while to check it out and decided, you know what, not for me, even if it does actually pay. However, I’m not exactly in the position to turn down a paying gig. I think I have done it once or twice. In one case, it was writing the sequel for the classic worst-film-ever-made candidate Birdemic, I backed off after being initially interested. 

So, I went back and forth on whether or not to even apply for the job. Ultimately, I thought “Who am I to not apply for a screenwriting job?”  I applied.

I’m pretty sure that these issues were not what my student was talking about when she said “Screenwriting is so hard.” If she only knew.


So is it? Maybe it is. I don’t know. Screenwriting is just what I do.