Trade tricks

Film school and drama school won’t prepare you for the tricks of the trade that this will article will embedden in your mind. Thespians, directors and writers need to watch themselves. Producers like to cast either hungry novices and established egotists. Vague (neither here nor there) questions like “Would you like to star opposite this star?” or “Would you be interested in starring alongside this group?” are meant to make you think that you’re the star but the producers could always use the excuse that they didn’t mean what you thought they meant. Look at how many stars were duped into thinking that they would be acting alongside other stars in Movie 43. The ultimate hook for stars to be roped in would be a question like “How would you feel about being in the same movie as Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman?” followed by a pitch which suggests that the plot structure is a series of vignettes where not everyone who’s interpersonally connected meets each other à la Pulp Fiction. You can even present a small role as a cameo.

This explains why a surprising number of A-list stars have been suckered into appearing in TV movies which they wouldn’t otherwise have accepted. The misdirect in that instance would be “Would you be interested in heading up a small film with this person?” and it would be rephrased awkwardly for an indie film in the manner of “Would you be interested in leading a stripped-down version of a genre picture?” Such a question is a dead giveaway as to the financial reality – they can only afford to do a genre picture with a bare bones budget. It could be worse – you might be one of those thespians who watches stars be interviewed at press outings without thinking that they are not allowed to truly speak their mind. Those people by their side who intently look at them are not so much bodyguards as publicists who are paid to make sure that they stick to the script, so to speak. This is to avoid film reviews being influenced by negative opinions.

On the subject of publicists, it’s fairly common for them to get I.T. staff to create many fake Facebook profiles for one celebrity so that fans, stalkers, journalists and hackers can’t track down the real McCoy. One of the problems that can plague an ensemble cast is the balance of screen-time even if it means calculating the amount of seconds in a shot where no dialogue is spoken. One of the recurrences happening in the world of TV is the literal balancing act of characters taking it in turns to speak. This “Duck, duck, goose” logic has been criticized by people who subject themselves to repeated viewings of Criminal Minds. A screen-hogging action movie star who is known for playing loners can be tricked into thinking that he is the star of an adventure if the director intends on shooting more footage than necessary. By the time that the movie comes out, the director could always come up with some excuse about how the financiers became too many cooks in the kitchen.

This works in the director’s favour because, more often than not, TV and mini-reel versions differ from cinema. With mini-reels, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking videos, LaserDiscs, DVDs, VCDs or Blu-ray, a film can recoup its cost if different versions have different things to offer in terms of footage or soundtrack. When people complain about versions remaining exclusive because the extra material isn’t inserted into the regular print, it’s a moot point. Believe it or not, it’s usually the intention. In Hong Kong, it wasn’t unknown for a cut to be made for a specific cinema, because the owner of that cinema would want a emphasis on humour, action or romance. People in the movie business regularly talk about using blocked funds in India since film companies can easily reimburse their budgets with the box office that’s earned over there. This explains why Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a sequence filmed there before they even shot the first six minutes.

Directors are the ultimate tricksters – not only do they specialize in deceiving audiences who watch a movie, but they can also mislead actors. During the long pre-production stage of Men in Black, Steven Spielberg (as executive producer) wanted Chris O’Donnell to play Agent J whereas Barry Sonnenfeld (the director) wanted Will Smith. The only way for Barry to get who he wanted was to trick Chris into thinking that the script wasn’t very good. Barry would get his comeuppance when Wild Wild West failed to make three times its cost at the box office. The only time that a director can be justified in using any kind of deception is to deceive the actor in a way that results in a better film without hurting the actor. Case in point: casting a dramatic actor to play the straight man in a comedy without telling him that he’s playing the straight man. The strategy being that the alternative would result in an actor attempting to be funny, which would take away from the sincerity.

Movie stars can be deceitful too. Stars can drop out of movies that they only accepted so that rivals and peers won’t win, thus moving on to other projects. The shallow stars also benefits because it keeps their names in the press, but if stars do this as many times as Ellen Page has then the work will dry up. That actress went from being a part of the A-list to slumming it on some NetFlix series based on Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy (a comic book whose publication dates range from 2007 to 2013). Directors are luckier than stars. There are two directors who were fired 3 times during the making of films whose initials are T and G. Francis Ford Coppola is still the credited director of The Godfather, likewise with Tony Scott on Top Gun. Francis had it worse because he was betrayed by friends. Tony was just reckless. During the making of Apocalypse Now, Francis tried to commit suicide on three occasions. For all we know, he may have been doing that to prevent being fired.

When being asked to spill the juicy Tinseltown tea (a.k.a. dish the gossip), Nick Wechsler told Julia Phillips (the author of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again) that Platoon is a light bulb when compared to Apocalypse Now as a supernova. When he became the executive producer of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, she made a similarly pithy comparison by noting that it was purposefully Thirtysomething on the big screen. This was in the late eighties – a time when Julia was worried that Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire was going to be adapted for the small screen. Julia was a movie producer who played a part in the success of iconic classics like The Sting, Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and what would’ve been a longer legacy. It’s sad because she consolidated the importance of female producers, thus paving the way for someone like Kathleen Kennedy to corporately succeed. Julia humbly described the role of a producer as not having a specific job on sets.

Bob Gale would egotistically disagree with that. He wanted to co-direct Back to the Future but realized that the mixture of producing and writing would give him some sort of leeway that afforded Spielberg during the making of Poltergeist. Look at how many production photos there are of Gale on the set. There are more photos of him than there are of Spielberg and the other producers combined. Other writer/producers aren’t as lucky. Gary DeVore is an unsung hero of action movie screenwriting. He co-wrote Raw Deal (the best script for Schwarzenegger in terms of one-liners for him and everyone else). Gary had a hand in rewriting Showdown in Little Tokyo, Passenger 57, Timecop and Sudden Death. In her book, Julia talks about being an uncredited co-producer for a film where Gary was the main producer. She calls it Trax, the film is called Traxx but it would have more effect if it was titled Traxxx. Traxx would only work if there was a smiley face logo whose X-shaped eyes suggest death.

The difference between Gary and Gale is that Gale didn’t have an affair with Kathleen. Julia described the screenplay as a send-up of Rambo consciousness which would’ve been brilliant in the hands of Stanley Kubrick, but was denied of a cinema release in the hands of Jerry Garey. An observational screenplay means nothing without an aware director. The situation can be played out in reverse – a director and producing team who know that they are remaking a film but the cast combined with the rest of the crew are literally left in the dark (as was the case with Blair Witch). Working titles can be a curse as well as a blessing because there are probably cast members who didn’t want to be stigmatically associated with a nostalgic cash-cow. Working titles can only take you so far with preview audiences. The movie flopped. A TV spin-off can be a secret miniseries. The Blacklist: Redemption was a one-off designed to hypnotize the male demographic into watching the original series. It aired during the mid-season break of season 4.

Sometimes, a miniseries is just a divided movie because the producer didn’t want a TV movie or a straight-to-home movie. Listening to British TV can be equally deceiving. They lack the courage to describe their feature-length productions as TV movies. It’s always “tonight’s drama” or a “two part special” as described in magazines such as Radio Times. When Julia tried to get Paramount (who Tom Cruise is contracted to) to produce a film adaptation of Interview with a Vampire, she was quite appalled by the suggestions that it should be a TV movie. She saw this as a textbook example of Hollywood – trivialize that which is epic and try to make an epic out of a tiny story (it’s too bad that she didn’t live long enough to see Twilight). Craig Baumgarten at Lorimar Television bluntly patronized her by saying that she should try to have it become a miniseries. It’s good that, despite being a sex addict, she didn’t sleep with David Geffen to have it green-lighted for the silver screen.

Power brokers can only get you so far. Even someone like Spielberg is guilty of using the casting couch. During the casting sessions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss had a tactic where they would move their chairs away from the table each time that they saw an actress who was a plain Jane. The code was “We’re backing off from her” – the message offended Julia when even a masterful actress like Meryl Streep was given the cold shoulder. The arrival of Kathryn Walker (who Julia thought had an extremely strong presence) elicited the strongest scraping of the floor. However, even Richard was a little aghast when Spielberg expressed an interest in casting a bimbo who he was fornicating. Another contender was Mary Beth Hurt, who was married to William Hurt. The actress who eventually played Jillian (Melinda Dillon) was also married, but time was running out and the studio wanted someone with at least one famous credit to her name.

She would only get an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, whereas the underlying feeling that would later haunt Spielberg is the possibility that Streep would be the sort of winner who could’ve elevated his position as an actor’s director (thus eventually winning an award for best director on another film). As much of a sex pest that he comes off as, Julia thought that the biggest pest (in the non-sexual sense) was Robert Zemeckis. He wanted to be Spielberg’s protégé so badly that he was a constant presence during the filming at the Californian locations. The casting of Danny DeVito in Romancing the Stone was Robert’s way of clamouring for the attention of Spielberg, since the latter wanted Danny for the buffoon role in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Being a hanger-on is the worst way to attract attention in the hopes of being taken seriously as a writer/director or even a thespian. By the time that it was the mid-eighties, Julia still managed to be taken aback by Spielberg.

He gave a tour of his Amblin company. The fact that he had a daycare center made her cynically remark to herself that he is as much of a great user of children as he is a lover. The cynical connotation is that the children who he looks after could easily be compared to rearing cattle. The making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind made Julia realize that someone can pretend to be partially deaf so that he can have a strategic advantage. The someone in this instance was François Truffaut (a director who was cast as an actor). A producer can have a strategic advantage if he passes himself as forgetful. Ray Stark (who didn’t work on the movie) presented himself as this way when he sexually violated Jane Seymour in his home where they were to watch a screening of her film test. Years later, she attended a private dinner for Princess Margaret at his home where he offered her the role that would make her a star in Somewhere in Time. He acted like he didn’t recognize her from years before.

If you’re a busy director facing the task of truncating your movie because of the running time or censorship, you could attend a private screening where you’re all by yourself so that you can either write notes or record them so that the editor can receive them while you’re away. It’s also useful if you don’t have the time to be interrupted. Finally, don’t let Charlie’s Angels bewitch you if you’re a writer. Also, don’t let Charmed charm you. There are more dynamics to work with in terms of duos and trios when you have quartets. The maiden, mother and crone interplay also comes with a maga. In respective order, that’s the naïve one, the caring one, the cynical one and the wisest one. There’s a reason why the three musketeers have d’Artagnan join them. If you’re a director and a writer, be wary of attending a business meeting where the producer or chairman decides to speak in a foreign language to his (or her) closest associate.

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