Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Tense times in the Middle East...

This time, I'm going to tell you about a night on Dubai Creek.

I was working on a film which everyone knew going in was terrible: The script was no good, and as we say in the business of show, "you can't polish a turd".

So, we were halfway through the 5 week shoot, tensions were high, and we were on the last of 10 days of night shoots before a turnaround. Our sleeping patterns were utterly kaput, and the bad relationship between the Director of Photography and myself had spread to the point that the director and producer weren't communicating with me particularly well any more either. Tensions were high.

We're setting up for one of the last few shots of the night, a stunt shot, of a drunk man committing suicide off Al-Makhtoum Bridge. The bridge is something of a landmark, throwing a motorway over the breadth of Dubai Creek as it does. We had half a dozen cameras set up to capture the stunt, including one on a little boat that had been firmly anchored to the middle of the river, about 15 yards away from where the stuntman was supposed to land.

We had locked off the road in both directions, and had a police cruiser boat at our disposal to patrol the waters and make sure that, when the time came for our stunt, there wouldn't be any unplanned vehicle activity in the area.

After 2 hours of setting up, we were finally ready for a take. We were pushing it for time, people were getting stressed. The actor takes his place on the edge of the bridge, I call for the cameras to set, and just before I call the roll, I hear the siren of the police boat blart to life.

"Bastard's going to hold us up," I thought.

Then I heard some worried shouts from the opposite side of the 6-lane bridge. I can't make out what's being said.

Something about a boat.

The police launch shoots out underneath us, tracing a figure of eight as a policeman onboard frantically waves and gestures.

Down the radio Khaled, one of my trainee Assistant Directors, laughing in apparent disbelief, says "Get ready for Titanic 2!" Khaled, I remember, is on the camera boat.

Almost before we can register what's happening, a fully laden dhow, hulking mass menacingly dark as all its lights are off, emerges directly underneath our lead actor, at considerable speed. It's heading straight for the little camera boat, and the laughing Khaled.

The camera boat is anchored. They have maybe 5 seconds. Not enough time. The dhow is slowly beginning to change direction, but it's not enough, not nearly.

The little boat, and the 4 people on board, disappear underneath the black prow of the massive ship, and everyone above watches, absolutely horrified, as the dhow ploughs a trench through the water, right over Khaled and the three others.

For a moment, no one can believe it, but as the dhow continues on and the police give chase, the little boat appears behind the dhow, bobbing left and right in the wake, straining against its anchor.

It appears undamaged. It's dark, I can't see. I call down the radio to Khaled. I call again. No reply.

The radiowaves go mental for a second, and I can't hear myself think, never mind a reply from Khaled, before I shout at the top of my lungs "WILL EVERYONE SHUT THE FUCK UP UNTIL I'VE ESTABLISHED WHETHER OR NOT EVERYONE IS OK DOWN THERE!"

Everything goes deathly silent.

A beat.

And then, cutting through the silence:

"Dude, there are women around. Watch your language." It's Khaled. "Everyone's OK on the boat".

65 people simultaneously breathe a sigh of relief, and as other members of the crew let out the tension exchanging a few jokes as they work, the Director of Photography and I re-engage with the job at hand: getting the shot.

The rest of the night was rough, culminating in the DoP telling me point blank to fuck off during the final shot, and I knew then that I would not last the rest of the shoot, and that this was the last film set I would ever work on.

Nonetheless, I knew that night that I'd dodged a bullet.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

New Cinematic Model

Briefly, then:
  • Attention spans are waning. The human brain is adapting to be less effective at processing or retaining large volumes of information, but more effective at filtering it:
  • Dumb, spectacular blockbusters generate massive returns. See the Transformers series, the Pirates series, etc.
  • The longer a film is, the less money exhibitors make. Simply put, there are only so many hours in a day. On opening hours of, say 11am to 11pm, a cinema could screen a 3 hour movie 4 times, or a 2 hour movie 6 times. Which do you think it's going to want to screen?
  • Ergo: movies are going to get stupid and short.
Not so briefly, then:

The logical extension of the first three points outlined above is that, at some point in the future, someone is going to blow £50m on a massive, hour long action sequence, topped and tailed with some rudimentary exposition and character work. The sell to distributors is that the film can screen 12 times in a day, thereby generating three times as much revenue as a three hour movie. Why wouldn't they go for it?

Ever since The Story of the Kelly Gang, feature length has been popularly thought of as any film with a duration of about 70 minutes or greater. In fact, AMPAS (the Oscar folks) define a feature as anything over 40 minutes, and so for the sake of recognition, the type of movie I describe in the previous paragraph would be perfectly valid.

The question remains, however, as to whether or not the audience would take to it. Perhaps Tarantino's and Rodriguez's Grindhouse debacle suggests that audiences are not ready for shorter features, although at 80 and 90 minutes respectively, Planet Terror and Death Proof were not short when packaged together, and they were both substantially fleshed out for their independent releases, meaning that the turnaround time on a seat was still above two hours.

In the modern pace of life, time is at a premium, and fewer and fewer people are willing to give up 3 hours mid-week to go to the cinema. I don't even know that many people who will watch a DVD in a single swoop any more. A short, one-hour fix of movie allows time for patrons to get a meal or some drinks in either side of the movie without it taking up half a day, so shorter films ought, by rights, to put far more bums on seats mid-week.

Simply, I think it's going to take a couple of adventurous first movers looking to break into the top flight - perhaps one of Avi Lerner's vehicles, who are not averse to exploitation and taking occasional risks. Their results will tell...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

If Zombies vote Conservative and Werewolves are Catholic, what are Vampires?

Yesterday I was watching the excellent trailer for Cuba's first horror movie, Juan of the Dead, which makes quite explicit links between political revolution and fighting zombies, and it got me thinking that as with westerns and sci-fi, the horror genre can (if properly employed) be a fantastic instrument through which to analogise aspects of society or human issues.

Westerns are a particularly useful tool for investigating internal struggles. The open spaces, guarded characters, slow-burn conflicts and lack of law provide the ideal landscape on which to build characters exploring conflicts of very primal nature. Most obviously High Noon, which explores how far people will compromise their own moral framework when forced to choose between two evils.

There are myriad examples of sci-fi doubling for social commentary: Silent Running and Wall-E for humanity's inherent avarice and attitude to the environment, Soylent Green exploring the theme of limited resources, Planet of the Apes exploring the nature of humanity, and so on.

So why should horror be any different? In the modern American studio horror output exemplified by the Saw and Hostel franchises, serious social commentary is pretty thin on the ground. This absence of humanity in horror has infected the independent sector as well: Can anyone tell me that The Human Centipede and its forthcoming sequel have opened debate about anything other than how depraved the movies themselves are?

Horror as a genre is older than either westerns or sci-fi. Stretching back to the great gothic horrors of literature, the centuries-old stories of Frankenstein, Dracula and the like are still being replayed in different iterations and guises to this day. What contemporary horror has largely forgotten is that these classic stories have stood the test of time because they address issues at the very heart of what it means to be human, and that true horror is in humanity's conflict with itself.

Zombies were popularised in the 60's by George Romero and are enjoying a revival courtesy of films such as Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later (much though Danny Boyle protests, the mindless nature of the infected gives the film the trappings of a zombie movie, and if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, well...). Zombie movies offer an easy homology between the status quo, as represented by zombies, and those who see something wrong with it. All of the best zombie movies are a more or less direct attack on a failing of society.

The majority of werewolf films have explored the nature of guilt. From my personal favourites, Dog Soldiers and An American Werewolf in London, to alternative takes such as The Howling and Ginger Snaps, all lycanthropes in film have addressed their guilty consciences in different ways, whether railing against the monthly transformations or surrendering to the id.

Vampire movies, tackling as they do the topic of immortality, all explore the fear of growing old, not letting go of childish things. Vampires are invariably depicted not with the wisdom one of expect of an immortal, but with juvenile greed. Thanks in no small part to Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers, vampires are regularly imagined as thirsting not only for blood, but also for glamour and power. Occasionally vampires are as pure predators (Blade 2 and 30 Days of Night, notably), and in these cases, the vampires are rather more fun and less objectionable: I found it very hard to sympathise with beautiful immortals played by R-Pattz, Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, frankly.

So, can anyone recommend me some good, modern horror films which have something to say?