Saturday, 24 June 2017

Book review: "Hitchcock"

In 1962, François Truffaut commenced a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, via an interpreter. These interviews occurred intermittently over the next five years. The end result was published in 1967, as a book called Hitchcock, though you will sometimes see it referred to as Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Prior to reading this, I didn't know much about François Truffaut, other than Julia Phillips' comments about him in You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (which is one of the great reads about Hollywood in the 1970s.)

Steven Spielberg had cast François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a film Julia Phillips produced. Truffaut and Phillips did not hit it off.



He was an arrogant, famous French film director and I couldn't help but feel that he was fucking with us all the time.
   I was convinced that the well-known-deaf-in-the-left-ear legend (with a hearing aid as a prop, if you please) was a ploy, like not speaking English, to keep the world at bay and for his own private amusement.
   Still I addressed myself to making him feel comfortable, revered, safe. That was my specialty. Also my job. But deep down I knew he was a prick and it was making me defiant. Fuck him. I wanted my own private amusement.
That private amusement took the form of a bet with Spielberg that Truffaut wasn't deaf. She would find out over dinner, where she would be sitting next to him, on his 'deaf' side.
"At some point during dinner I'll whisper his name and we'll see if he turns toward me. If he does he ain't deaf and I win. If he doesn't he is deaf and you win."
Spielberg accepted the bet.
Halfway through dinner I whispered "François" and he turned minutely in my direction. Of course, Steven argued that it was an inconclusive gesture, and he welched on the bet. I know I won because it earned me François's eternal enmity.
Enmity indeed. Truffaut sniped at Phillips throughout the lengthy filming exercise, including telling the Sunday New York Times that she was "incompetent" and "unprofessional."

It has long amused me that François became Julia's true foe. But I'm like that.

The Truffaut who comes through in this book is a serious cinephile, and so well researched that he knew things about Hitchcock's films that Hitchcock didn't know or had forgotten. I came away from the book with a deep respect for his film knowledge and insights.

I was interested to notice that many of the famous Hitchcock quotes that I've read over the years can be found in this book. Whether they are the original source, I cannot say. Here are some quotes from the book.





From François Truffaut:
  • The only two British film-makers whose works have survived the test of time—and space, for that matter—are Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock.
  • The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person.
  • The art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience.
  • Clarity is the most important quality in the making of a film.
  • Cardinal rule of cinema: Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer.
  • In real life the things people say to each other do not necessarily reflect what they actually think and feel. This is especially true of such mundane occasions as dinner and cocktail parties, or of any meeting between casual acquaintances.
  • If we observe any such gathering, it is clear that the words exchanged between the guests are superficial formalities and quite meaningless, whereas the essential is elsewhere; it is by studying their eyes that we can find out what is truly on their minds.
  • Each of (Hitchcock's) pictures features several scenes in which the rule of counterpoint between dialogue and image achieves a dramatic effect by purely visual means.
  • Hitchcock is almost unique in being able to film directly, that is, without resorting to explanatory dialogue, such intimate emotions as suspicion, jealousy, desire, and envy.
  • Anything connected with fear takes us back to childhood. All of children's literature is linked to sensations and particularly to fear.

From Alfred Hitchcock:
  • A film cannot be compared to a play or a novel. It is closer to a short story, which, as a rule, sustains one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve.
  • In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.
  • To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle.
  • I don't really approve of whodunits because they're rather like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder.
  • I hate to introduce a useless character in a story.
  • Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.
  • To insist that the storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately.
  • A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.
  • In North by Northwest, where the villainous James Mason is competing with Cary Grant for the affection of Eva Marie Saint, I wanted him to be smooth and distinguished. The difficulty was how we could make him seem threatening at the same time. So what we did was to split this evil character into three people: James Mason, who is attractive and suave; his sinister-looking secretary; and the third spy, who is crude and brutal.
  • In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds.
  • A mass of ideas, however good they are, is not sufficient to create a successful picture.
  • The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
  • One of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, "We can cover that by a line of dialogue." Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual form.
  • Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or too obvious, there's no suspense.
  • You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom.
  • Without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There's no possibility to discover sex.
  • When you're involved in a project and you see it isn't going to work out, the wisest thing is to simply throw the whole thing away.
When asked about his habit of making personal appearances in his movies:
  • It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and a gag. But by now it's a rather troublesome gag, and I'm very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.


Hitchcock is a big book (367 pages). It consists of the recorded dialogue between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, as they discussed every film Hitchcock made, from The Lodger (1926) to Frenzy (1972). After their meetings ended, Hitchcock made one last picture, Family Plot (1976). The book is of most value to directors, though screenwriters will find some elements of interest.


First posted:25 March 2013

Friday, 23 June 2017

Seven tips for surviving the film industry

This month MovieMaker magazine has an article called Hitchhike a Thousand Miles: Oscar nominee John Hawkes gives seven tips for surviving the film industry.

John Hawkes is an actor who has appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows. I don't know how it came about, but he shared the following thoughts about longevity in the film business. What caught my eye was his admonition about "hitchhiking thousands of miles."

As someone who hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles as a skinny long-haired teenager, I instantly understood. Hitchhiking saved me. It showed me there were people, and lives, unlike those of the Housing Commission estate where I grew up. Thoughtful people. Considerate people. Generous people. When you sit with someone, in their car, for hundreds of miles, there is an expectation of conversation. I knew nothing and had nothing to say. So I asked questions. The first interviews I conducted were with mobile strangers and those strangers introduced me to worlds I'd never heard of before.

I don't want to distort the picture: I met some weirdos, too. Paranoids, drunks, and friendly men who wanted to show me a good time, wanted to take me home to bed. There were some women, too, with that same idea.

Like John Hawkes, I no longer recommend it, the times being what they are, but I'm glad hitchhiking was a part of my life.

Now see what else he had to say.

________________________________________________________________________
I’m an untrained actor with no formal education in moviemaking. I learned my trade by observing the work of others, reading books about acting and film, and through trial and error on sets and stages.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Trust your gut. Don’t guess what the audience wants. Tell the story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it.

2. All arts connect and inform each other. See theater, dance, music, and visual art; read great books. Be thrilled and inspired beyond your niche.

3. Loaf occasionally.

4. Make a vital life outside of the business. Travel, struggle, get a hobby, study, volunteer—gain perspective. This may indirectly benefit your work, as well. Hitchhiking thousands of miles, though I no longer recommend it, greatly enriched my understanding of people and story.

5. This business will knock you down. When it does, try to get up, dust yourself off, and take another step forward. And try to rejoice in the idea that you’ve found work that you love to do. Most don’t.

6. Be kind. Be brave. Be prepared. Work hard. Have a great sense of humor.

7. William Goldman famously said of the film industry that: “Nobody knows anything.” This may be true. I don’t know for sure.
________________________________________________________________________

First posted: 24 March 2013


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Selling a spec script: 1933-2013

Vanity Fair has released the best write-up about the history of movie spec script sales I've ever seen. Written by Margaret Heidenry, the article is titled When the Spec Script was King.
Once derided as “schmucks with Underwoods,” screenwriters saw their stock soar to seven-figure heights with the advent of the frenzied “spec”-script market. That bubble burst in 2008, but will the schmucks rise again?
Most of the information contained in the article is available elsewhere—in interviews or biographies, such as Joe Eszterhas's book Hollywood Animal—but this article can serve as a primer for an era.

I've met so many wannabe screenwriters with dreams of a-million-dollar-sale-just-around-the-corner, people who will never make it, that it's heart-breaking. If you're interested in pursuing a career writing spec scripts, or even hope to sell one, just one, before you die, do yourself a favor and read this article.

First posted: 12 March 2013

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Book review: 'Writing the Romantic Comedy'

The book, Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit, has been around since 2000. I started reading it several times in the last eighteen months, but always got stuck on page 5, where he talks about structure. He throws up three-act theory, then justifies it with the following words:
"Funny thing about threes. Maybe it's hardwired into our DNA, but three seems to be the magic number (as in morning, noon and night, the Holy Trinity, etc.)"
That's absurd and it stopped me cold every time. What about four: the four seasons, the four points of the compass, the four Gospels, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Or five: the five fingers, five toes, five basic tastes? Or seven: the seven days of the week, seven hills of Rome, seven Wonders of the ancient world? These are no more arbitrary or irrelevant than his two choices.

The sound you could hear about that time was me grinding my teeth, followed by a 'thump' as the book hit the shelves.

What eventually got me past page 5, and my growing prejudice, was a single visit to Billy's blog, Living the Romantic Comedy. There I found a sincere interest in the subject of romcoms and confessions of his real-life struggle with the elements that make up one of humanity's greatest preoccupations. So I returned to his book. The thing that really won me over was his analysis of Annie Hall, but that's another subject. He talks about Theme a lot and that's all good reading.

Here are a few quotes to give you a taste of the book itself.




Romantic comedy protagonists tend to be emotionally incomplete.

Every genre has its subtext. Thrillers are about creating cathartic confrontations with our fears; action adventures are usually enactments of mythic heroism. In romantic comedies, the real subject matter is the power of love.

In a romantic comedy, crisis provokes the protagonist into comprehending the value of love.

What a protagonist learns by falling in love determines the outcome of a romantic comedy.

One could restate the paradigm for a three-act structure in a romantic comedy as follows:
   Conflict:  Love challenges the characters.
   Crisis:  The characters must accept or deny love.
   Resolution:  Love transforms the characters.

There's a common misconception that characters need to be sympathetic. Not necessarily. Godfather Don Corleone is a monster. We don't sympathize with his methods and his murderous morality. But we're fascinated by his power and passion, and we identify with his devotion to his family.

A character who's getting in his own way is a character who has more than one side to him. He's got an inner conflict that's fueling his outer conflicts. He's got, in a word, complexity.

There's one no-no, a cultural bias so powerful that it remains unbroken in our genre: he can't be in it only for the sex.

The only written-in-stone rule that applies to female protagonists: she can't be in it only for the money.


Typical of romantic comedy heroines from the earliest days of the genre: they were women who dominated, or at least held their own with, men whom they pursued.

What's universal comes out of what's most personal.

A screenwriter's resistance to getting into "personal stuff" is absurd. It's got to be personal, if anyone's going to care about your story, and theme is the arena where your personal experience, attitudes, and insights come into play.

The theme issue in screenwriting is probably the trickiest one of all. ... What's it about? ... Theme, premise, point—whatever you call it. ... Something to learn. A point of view. A meaning.

Your characters are embodiments of thematic concerns; they're the ones arguing the sides of your possible truth.

A good theme is a flexible, ever growing entity and, unlike fortune cookie slogans, is so much an organic part of the whole that it can't be patly extracted.

The romantic comedy generally breaks the traditional three-act structure into seven essential beats: the setup (a chemical equation), the catalyst (cute meet), the first turning point (a sexy complication), the midpoint (hook), the second turning point (the swivel), the climax (dark moment), and resolution (joyful defeat).

The hidden challenge of every romantic comedy lies in getting its audience to believe that these two people absolutely must end up together.

Romance writers can't shy away from the big emotions their characters inevitably experience. One of the reasons people come to these movies is to share those feelings.


Writing the Romantic Comedy. It's a good book. Recommended.


First posted: 25 February 2013

Friday, 9 June 2017

Script Development Strategies - Linda Aronson

Years ago, Linda Aronson taught a course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). One component of the course was a list of Development Strategies that Linda created to assist students find the best version of their stories. The Development Strategies were incorporated in Linda's book, Screenwriting Updated, and subsequently reproduced widely. In 2010, Linda published an expanded version of the book, called The 21st Century Screenplay. The following is a list gleaned from that book.
    Next time you're about to start formulating a new story, try reading through this list and apply the strategies. Think of it as twenty-five steps to a complete story. I consider the Strategies to be distilled practical commonsense, from a professional writer who has decades of writing-to-a-deadline under her belt. You need a method in order to consistently pump out quality work. I suspect most professional writers do this intuitively. Linda Aronson started with an academic background and couldn't help analyzing her own approach, for the benefit of others.
    If you find this information helpful, buy the book. It is an "atlas" (as Christopher Vogler describes it) of information about screenwriting.



1. Define the task at hand.

2. Brainstorm the best 'real but unusual' remedy.

3. Solve the genre equation.

4. Find non-narrative triggers.

5. Create a simple narrative sentence.

6. Create an advanced narrative sentence.

7. Make sure the disturbance happens soon and involves real change.

8. Distinguish the idea from a story.

9. Differentiate the action line and the relationship line.

10. Create a relationship road.

11. Peg the relationship line to the action.

12. Identify the protagonist.

13. Identify the antagonist.

14. Find out what the plot tells you about characters.

15. Get into character.

16. Create a character arc.

17. Insert a misleading plan.

18. Find the first-act turning point scene (surprise/obstacle).

19. Devise second-act complications via the first-act turning point.

20. Second-act turning point, Part 1: Protagonist's worst possible moment.

21. Second-act turning point, Part 2: Decision to fight back.

22. Check that the relationship line is moving.

23. Find the climax and first-act turning point.

24. Come to a resolution and ending.

25. Use symbolism and myth.




First posted: 24 February 2013

Thursday, 8 June 2017

The making of the shower scene from 'Psycho'

I've been reading Hitchcock, by François Truffaut, which records the substance of a series of interviews between the French director and his English hero. It's an interesting book and loaded with quotable passages. One that seems topical relates to the shower scene in the 1960 movie Psycho.

Here are some quotes from Alfred Hitchcock, relating to Psycho in general and the shower scene in particular:




It's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.

That's why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to filmmakers.


The construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all around the world to react and become emotional.

The picture cost eight hundred thousand dollars. It was an experiment in this sense: Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show? I used a complete television unit to shoot it very quickly. The only place where I digressed was when I slowed down the murder scene, the cleaning-up scene, and the other scenes that indicated anything that required time. All of the rest was handled in the same way that they do it in [1950s] television.

You have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays—for an audience.

It took us seven days to shoot the [stabbing of Janet Leigh] scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage. I used a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh. We only showed Miss Leigh's hands, shoulders, and head. All the rest was the stand-in.



And if, like me, you were curious as to who it was who actually does the stabbing in that scene, Truffaut had this to say:

Hitchcock informed me that the attacker was a young woman wearing a wig. He added that the scene was shot twice because, although the only lighting was placed behind the woman, the reverberation of the white bathroom walls was so strong that it revealed her face too clearly. That is why her face was blackened in the second take, so as to create the impression of a dark and unidentifiable silhouette on the screen.
The complete scene runs for just over three minutes. Here it is:



First posted:16 February 2013