Bright Lights Film Journal

What’s Your Function? How Movies Are Made

You mean you’ve tried panicking?

After mixed reviews for The Aviator, Martin Scorsese said in interview that most critics had no idea what was involved in making a film. Since I liked the movie, the comment didn’t feel addressed to me. It’s irrelevant, anyway, especially if you half-agree with Byron that we’re all born critics and only a few of us actually make the effort to become artists. But Scorsese doesn’t do Half-way or Blasé — which is probably why his comment has stuck in my head; and, by the way, despite this present attempt at exorcism, I know the haunting won’t cease. Thanks a lot, Martin! If there’s one thing we should always be grateful for it’s someone ready to reinvigorate our sense of futility, just when we were getting used to doing fine without it.

All right. Learning more about how films are made is one of those quests for which we must take personal responsibility — even when it leads us to demand explanations, immediately, from any passerby who happens to be involved in the process. Finding victims is not easy. But I’ve been lucky; and my first interviewee — freelance British TV and film script developer Sarah Olley — seemed curiously unfazed by the encounter. Not that my social disciplines are as glamorously disordered as I’d like to believe. But that, I suppose, is the first point about filmmaking or any other profession: discipline, folks; blood, sweat, and — you know the rest. Heavy stuff, indeed; and to keep the ship from sinking I’m already reminding myself of last year’s BBC Radio4 series from the National Theatre of Brent (Patrick Barlow and John Ramm): The Arts and How They Was Done.

Meanwhile, Olley and I, separated as we are by gender and a generation, turn out to have important things in common. Surprisingly enough, though, a deep love of film tout court is not one of them. Going further back into our childhoods is a fondness for stories, especially for making up our own. And if the phrase “creative writing” has no early associations for me — which is probably why I’ve never been at ease with it — by Sarah’s schooldays, it was part of the curriculum. So, when most of the kids groaned at the announcement of a free writing period, she was in the little group punching the air with delight.

Olley’s movement toward films and filmmaking was therefore always story-centred. In fact, the first big story she worked on was an uncensored drama/horror: “The Death of British Cinema.” By the early ’90s I’d survived the death of so many art forms — the Musical, the Novel, the Theatre (right), and, oh, my God, Poetry itself — that, even if I’d been paying attention at the time, this never topped my own list of fears. But then I wasn’t at the start of my adult life thinking about a career in an industry whose best days seemed very clearly over. The fact that, so far anyway, British Cinema has survived is not entirely unconnected with another fact — that British media and film-study courses have continued to fight their corner. Olley herself going from Goldsmith’s to a director’s course at the Bournemouth Film School. More recently she studied Film Script Development at the National Film and TV School (NFTS) Beaconsfield. By now, she regularly consults for Warner Brothers and Screen West Midlands and many working writers; and if that’s not enough, she’s presently continuing to develop a slate of projects with Eye Film and TV. Meanwhile, interested readers might like to take a gander at her own latest article in Scriptwriter.

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I pause to rein back on a rush of mainly Brit Grit associations in order to stress instead the more universally accessible theme of battling against the odds. Even so, I’m talking not so much Chariots of Fire as Homesick William Blake Blues. When, I wonder, is that full-length biopic going to be made? With its punk riff on one Coleridgean summer, Pandaemonium (Julian Temple, 2000) has surely given production teams a spur to go on at least testing the ground. Of course, for all I know something like this is already happening. Meanwhile, if my impatience needs any explaining, a recent viewing of Chiwhaseon (2002), from the Korean master Im Kwon Taek, has made this particular territory seem absolutely ripe for more exploration. Come to think of it, what national icon has ever been better served internationally than the painter Oh-won, in this hugely accessible account of his life and times?

But still trying to understand how any film gets made keeps me in the orbit of Pandaemonium, a production of BBC Films — “The Feature-Film Making Arm of the BBC.” Things become really interesting at this point — albeit in a Chinese curse sort of way — because feature-length projects often seem to hover like subatomic particles in the space between TV and film worlds — a complicated enough notion, you might think, even before seeing how this relates to the latest technology and/or developments in geopolitics and/or the global economy. Phew!

Sarah Olley’s professional life — we’ll let the times take care of themselves for a moment — also points to TV/Cinema as a sort macro-micro/Theory-of-Everything nexus. Obviously I’m stretching the analysis more fancifully than someone whose day-to-day experience regularly draws her back to basics. Indeed, the most relevant of these basics in Olley’s line of work is the fact that, by long tradition, TV is a much more writer-friendly (and writer-driven) zone than film. More importantly still for someone constantly working on new scripts, TV’s approach to development is more receptive and less obliviously wasteful than film, whose own long traditions, from a writer’s point of view, speak mostly of utter carnage.

From back-of-envelope ideas through to painstaking adaptations of the classics, if you’re a writer looking for opportunities to deliver serious quality to seriously big audiences, it would therefore seem crazy to consider working with even the most creative of film companies. On the other hand, if you like one-off projects, most of which will never be made at all, let alone reach a wide and appreciative audience — if, in short, your dream is to be a writer/director, then the received wisdom would tell you to avoid TV like the plague, unless, of course, you don’t mind making commercials for all eternity.

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Right now, at the zenith of creative TV, The Sopranos shares prime critical appreciation time with The Wire (right, Julito McCullum). Writer/producers David Chase and David Simon — whose immense project-shaping powers Sarah Olley admits to lusting after — have, above all, produced great home entertainment — something that looks as good as anything we can see in the cinema. It also gives us an uncinema-like chance to hunker down week after week and really get to know a bunch of characters whose lives, however extreme, bear a more than passing resemblance to our own. “Compulsive viewing” we call it. And, if I were a black American, I’d probably feel that The Wire, in particular, has raised both white consciousness and the self-esteem of my own racial group more than anything since the Civil Rights era. With its portraits of people — black and white — caught in web upon web of subculture codes and mainstream protocols, it stretches one’s powers of analysis and praise to the limit and beyond. Taking up the challenge, I’ll just say that — sometimes anyway — I feel as good about The Wire as contemporaries of J. S. Bach must have felt when he cracked open the first-perceived potential of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

But here’s the rub: artistically, TV is still seen as the younger, more air-headed cousin of film; and the unavoidable fact is that cinema has been around twice as long. Again, though, it’s the interaction between these media that strikes me as providing some of the most hopeful modern developments. One example: the screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce started in TV in the British soap opera Brookside — admittedly an appalling show, even by the standards of the genre. Then, through an early sabbatical at Thames Television, he met a young editor, Michael Winterbottom. Though it didn’t happen in an instant, this partnership led to Butterfly Kiss (1995), which, if I may be so bold, still remains the boldest work from either of these talents. I’m not saying, by the way, that bold experimentalism is the only kind of art worth discussing. Nor am I suggesting that either of these guys now treat TV as the elephant in the room, having swung into the canopy of filmic glory off its back. What I am saying is that an ability to move between the two media can produce exponential artistic gain all around. (I note here that the producers of Butterfly Kiss— Julie Baines and Sarah Daniel — are part of a trend, however achingly slow, that gives modern women other behind-the-scenes roles besides make-up and wardrobe. Also a nod to Sarah Olley for putting me onto Alastair Owen’s book Story and Character/ Interviews with British Screenwriters, Bloomsbury, 2003, from which I’ve just drawn.)

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Having broached the topics of the sublime in art and the often, though not always, messy real experiments that lead there, in this last section I look briefly at the issues this raises through two prisms: (1) the professionalism of Sarah Olley, script developer ; and (2) an unclassifiable piece of modern cinema: Survive Style 5+ (Gen Sekiguchi, Japan, 2004.) Whether it’s working for film or TV, Olley — a self-confessed perfectionist — usually finds herself in an area known fondly as “pre-production”; and while over-intense efforts can get in the way here too, this is the obvious place and time — (spacetime?) — for getting it right. Realising how fundamentally wrong the script is — as with any other fundamental aspect of the project — never feels good when shooting has already started. This isn’t to demean the standards of people engaged in full production mode. In fact, at every stage, through to distribution, it seems clear that the personnel involved are typically fighting for as much wriggle room as the system will allow. In all these circumstances, a project that grows steadily from its germinal stage, that keeps faith with its original raison d’etre and, at the same time, permits the development of certain unforeseen, radial ideas that are nonetheless integral to that first fine careless rapture — such a project might well feel deeply satisfying to its makers, if not to the punters as well.

If, lo and behold, audiences get that feeling, too, we might be forced, against our coolly rational will, to talk about “perfection”; and that’s exactly where I’m placed after viewing Survive Style 5+ (below). Having seen the film twice (to make sure) and gathered whatever courage and wit I can to write about it, what I feel most keenly is that I’m dealing with an extraordinarily well-crafted labour of love and a free-wheeling genre-defying (far from messy) experiment. The last time I felt this was after seeing my first Pinter play; so, welcome aboard, noble Survive Style 5+ — great-grandchild (yet utterly filmically yourself) in direct descent from the Theatre of the Absurd, by way — lest we forget — of Beckett, Ionescu, Orton, et al.

The five-stranded narrative I read as a gentle joke at the expense of the current fashion for hyper-journalistic interlinked treatments — that mixed box of fireworks sparked off by Stephen Gaghan’s Traffic (2000) and most recently re-illuminated by Inarritu’s Babel (2006). On the other hand, I doubt that this little “joke” was part of Sekiguchi’s overall intention which — if it can be summed up — was, surely, to be as playful as possible without reheating a cold mass of internationally sourced film clichés. To me this means that, equally surely, he’s not trying to compete here with cultic bad taste binges like Visitor Q (Takashi Miike,2001), or anything of that well-established ilk.

Among immediate Japanese associations, the murdered ghost-wife who won’t lie down is as full of brutally compressed elegance as an eighteenth-century tale from Akinari. Less esoteric and also very Japanese is the story of the “ordinary” family: mum, dad, and two girls. Well-balanced dad is hypnotised into thinking he’s a chicken. Youngest daughter keeps the faith — “if Dad has had to change then so must we.” For some reason the links here seem to radiate a thousand years back to Murasaki’s Tale of Genji and, more obviously, suggest mid-20th-century cinema masters like Ozu and Naruse. At this point, though, I think Olley might mention a certain Anglo-Saxon wariness about Japanese approaches to sentiment. Is little Keiichi’s strongly sustained belief in her chicken-dad a weepiness too far? On the subject of Weepies, I remember that most western reviewers heartily disliked Kurasawa’s last film, Madadayo (1993). Presumably, though, they also disliked the 1939 and the 1969 versions of Goodbye Mr Chips, which are the apt comparisons and which also call for a reckless attitude toward complete bodily dehydration.

Meanwhile, in Survive Style 5+, the storyline with the three bumbling young thieves feels like a local thing to me, too; so, in a film as decked out in western references as you might expect from contemporary Japanese cinema, the balance is, in fact, toward the home culture. This just leaves the stories of (1) the British hit man brought in to help kill the hypnotist lover of (2) the in-your-face female whose genius for making amusing TV commercials — in her own mind and on her own tape recorder at least — knows no bounds. References, by the way, to the world of TV advertising are as much helpful autobiography as we’re going to get here, this being Sekiguchi’s professional background. He did make the comedy short Bus Panic!!! (2001) with Taku Tada, again his writer on Survive Style 5+, but, though I’d like to, I haven’t seen that yet.

Still on the point, as far as I know Sekiguchi has yet to make another film of any kind; and this, for me, is a tantalisingly curious state of affairs. I haven’t been able to consult Olley on the subject, but I suspect we’d both guess at basic funding problems. Also, there’s always the problem of desire: does Gen really want to put himself through all that again, making a monstrously funny, poignant, and thought-provoking art movie (with hugely seductive visuals and beautifully judged musical soundtrack) only to find that there’s little enough reception for the project, even when it does hit the high street and/or make the move to DVD?

Survival in any walk of life is a dodgy business, no more so, I daresay, for film people than anyone else. But if Sekiguchi’s own tendency to perfectionism is getting in the way of the next film, I hope that, like Sarah Olley, he keeps finding ways round the problem. Of course, to suggest there must be a problem here, let alone explanations and answers for it, doesn’t seem terribly suave. The hit man in Sekiguchi’s film (Vinnie Jones, who else?) has reminded me — again — that if ever I lose sight of my finer social perceptions, I should remember his thoroughly sensible, profoundly philosophical question: “What’s your function in life?” For those who wish to know, the correct answer is, “Nothing in particular.” Everything will be fine if you just say it right and keep it at that.