How Film Writing Works in the 21st Century

Step 1: Come up with an angle from which to promote the film and ensure that said angle features prominently in all pre-release promotional materials including fan-oriented press releases and interviews with talent.

For example, suggest that Guardians of the Galaxy is very similar to the original Star Wars as a way to (i) cross-promote two franchises that are owned by the same multinational corporation, (ii) get-over any (Green Lantern-inspired) resistance the target audience might have to a space-based action movie by comparing Guardians of the Galaxy to a film they already know, and (iii) give the adult audience an excuse to infantilise themselves and set aside their cynicism by inviting them to approach Guardians of the Galaxy in the same way as they approached Star Wars as children.


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French Style – How Economics Turns World Cinema into French Film

Earlier this year I wrote a post about the lack of diversity in the films considered for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or. While that post focused principally upon the demographics of the directors considered for the award, I was also concerned by the Cannes-centric feedback loop that appears to be encouraging non-French film directors to begin making films in France. I delve into this idea in a little more depth in my latest feature for FilmJuice entitled French Style – How Economics Turns World Cinema into French Film.

The thrust of my argument is that France has become so good at protecting and encouraging French film that the French film scene is beginning to suck talent from the rest of World Cinema. The most notable examples of this process are the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami and the Austrian director Michael Haneke:

By providing ambitious filmmakers with an oasis of financial stability, the French state may also have begun a process of cultural assimilation through which non-French directors surrender their distinct cultural identities in an effort to produce French films for the French marketplace.

Aside from the fact that non-French cinematic voices are beginning to acquire a distinctly Gallic accent, there is also the problem posed by these older established voices crowding out younger home-grown talents. France ensures that a certain number of its cinema screens must show French films but why would a cinema chain choose to show a French film by a director like Mia Hansen-Love and Katell Quillévéré when they can show a film by an award-winning star of world cinema?

REVIEW – Tyrannosaur (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Paddy Considine’s directorial debut Tyrannosaur, which is out this weekend.

A little while ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of Oscar Bait.  While this industry term is often taken to describe films that are god enough to be serious Oscar contenders, I chose to apply the term to films that seem to have been designed to explicitly pander to the preferences of Academy Voters as part of the film’s marketing strategy. Oscar Bait films rely upon Oscar nominations in order to find an audience and they rely upon their potential for Oscar nomination in order to attract prestigious A-list actors who are willing to work for scale on the understanding that their performance will net them an award. Films like The King’s Speech (2010), Rabbit Hole (2010) and The Reader (2008) are all based upon literary properties, they all feature strong central performances and they all feature very well thought of actors who might well be considered ‘overdue’ an Oscar. As Peter Biskind points out in his book on Miramax (the company that turned Oscar-baiting into a business plan), this is a win-win formula: The Academy gets to look smart, the actors get awards and the studios get easily-marketable prestige pictures that don’t cost a lot of money to make. While I’ve written about the evolutionary process distorting blockbuster scriptwriting before, the same process is at work in prestige drama.

I mention Oscar Bait as it can be seen as a distortion of another equally puzzling product of the film industry: the actor’s piece. Paddy Considine has a (admittedly well-earned) reputation as one of the best actors working today. Having made a name for himself in such dark and edgy independent films as Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), Considine has managed to cultivate a reputation for intelligence and emotional integrity. A reputation due to his intelligent selection of roles and the generosity of his erstwhile collaborator Shane Meadows. Indeed, the mock documentary Le Donk & Sco-Zay-Zee (2009) was marketed as a Meadows film in which Considine was given lots of room in which to create his own character. Given that Considine has been quite vocal about his creative powers and has directed a short film, it was only a matter of time before someone ponied up the dough for his to make a film of his own.  The resulting poneyage is the rather uneven Tyrannosaur:

The problem is that, once Considine has introduced us to the story of an emotional incontinent befriended by an obliging sponge, he suddenly becomes concerned about the lack of accountability in this sort of dynamic. Realising that there is something fundamentally dishonest and unfair about expecting Hannah to pay the psychic cost for Joseph’s redemption, Considine introduces us to a secondary layer of characters whose very unpleasantness sets them up as candidates for some redemptive act of violence. However, this secondary dynamic established, Considine then changes course again and decides to deny his characters redemption because no violent act can ever be redemptive. While these reversals serve to both keep the audience guessing and keep the film from falling into cliché, they also serve to muddy the psychological waters to the point where character motivation become completely impenetrable. The film tellingly ends with Joseph reading out a letter in which he explains why he did what he did and why he thinks Hannah did what she did; what is this letter if not an admission by the writer/director that he can no longer make sense of his own characters?

It is interesting to compare Considine’s career trajectory to that of Tyrannosaur‘s star Peter Mullan. Much like Considine, Mullan is an actor with a reputation for integrity and intelligence. His career features a blend of low-budget independents and wisely chosen bigger-budget parts that seems to have provided a model for Considine’s careful engagement with the mainstream. However, while Considine’s first directorial foray proved to be a poorly thought-through actor’s piece that falls apart once you look beyond the (admittedly brilliant) performances, Mullan’s films (the wonderful black comedy Orphans, the politically-engaged weepy The Magdalene Sisters and the blisteringly powerful Neds) all benefit from an intellectual substance that owes nothing to their central performances.

As someone who is hyper-sensitive about self-promotion, the difference between Orphans and Tyrannosaur is quite striking. Considine talks endlessly about how creative he is and yet shows little evidence of that creativity once he steps behind a camera. Conversely, Peter Mullan is known primarily as an actor and yet his films are universally intelligent, powerful and memorable. I suspect that Considine’s choice of Mullan for the lead in Tyrannosaur is hardly accidental given the similarities between the two men’s careers.  In fact, I suspect that Mullan may be something of a role-model for the younger Considine but while Considine has followed Mullan in becoming a director, Tyrannosaur suggests that he still has some way to go before he can be said to be on a par with Mullan.

A Week In Film Purchasing

One of the reasons for this blog’s existence is to provide a place for me to work through the ideas that are cluttering up my head.  I do not write for any particular audience, I write for my own sake because otherwise I would not be able to get anything done.  One of the topics I frequently wrestle with is the ‘job’ of the critic.  Its ethics, its philosophical posture and its practicalities.  However, a good film critic is not only an analyst, he is also someone who has to have a feel for the film business.  An understanding of the realities of film-making.  Last week, I experienced something that addressed this much neglected practical side of ‘knowing about film’.

My brother runs a film distribution business in France and he was over in the UK in order to attend the London UK Film Focus event at the NFT on the Southbank.  London UK Film Focus is essentially a series of screenings over a few days with some hospitality and drinks receptions thrown in.  The idea being that while a buyer might not travel to London to see any of the particular films of offer, they might well travel to see a dozen or so films screened back to back.  LUFF, as some call it (presumably those who don’t know about the always amusing Lausanne Underground Film Festival) has a rather Spartan website that gives few clues about what is being shown because the event is aimed not at journalists, cinephiles and critics but at buyers.  A lot of the films at LUFF were receiving their first proper screenings anywhere, before they even appear on the festival circuit.

I was there in order to give my brother my ‘expert opinion’ on which films were worth checking out.  However, I think it’s fair to say that I got more out of it from my presence there than he did.

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