Nearly Nailed by Political Interference

In the greater scheme of things, how an interfering official in the State of South Carolina dealt with the filming of the new Jessica Biel, James Marsden, Jake Gyllenhaal movie Nailed is a lesson on how not to engage with the film industry.

In Nailed, Biel’s character Alice is a sweet, small-town waitress who gets a nail lodged in her head in an accident, and begins acting in an erratic and outrageous (read sexual) manner as a result. Uninsured, she heads to Washington to fight for better health care and ends up falling for a clueless new congressman (Gyllenhaal) who must summon the political courage to save her.

 

South Carolina was selected as the location for filming largely due to a competitive incentive programme driven by the South Carolina Film Commission. (The incentives are in the form of a cash rebate, paid to the production company within 30 days of final audit. How it differs from tax credit-based incentives is clarified here.) But according to Mattheus Mei at the Leonardo’s Notebook blog, the State’s unpopular Commerce Secretary, Joe Taylor, actually tried to block filming in the State, because he didn’t like the sexual content of the script. 

‘It actually took maneuvering around the Secretary and confronting the legislature directly that was crucial in landing the film in Columbia. It was so bad that last week the Senate apparently had to have a committee meeting calling members of the Film Commission, the Commerce Department and the film itself to count before it to discuss the film – including the Film’s Director.’

Now anyone who has worked at the intersection between government and film knows that there are a whole heap of objections (some valid, some entirely spurious) to the efficacy and applicability of incentives. And it really depends on the creativity of the sitting politicians to grasp – and manage appropriately – the economic potential thrown up by the film sector.

But as I discussed at the last AFCI Cineposium in New Mexico, there’s a little thing known as the Law of Unintented Consequences that always comes back to bite you: in this case, the self-important opinions of an (elected?) official.

Sadly, it looks like it’s adding up to a fairly lousy experience for the producers. Inspite of a production that involves at least two of the most beautiful people in film – AND features the luminescent Catherine Keener to boot – this hasn’t been an easy shoot.  Veteran actor James Caan apparently left the film set three weeks ago in a dispute with the director over the way his character should choke on a cookie (I kid you not) And then on Friday, the South Carolina State newspaper reported that The Screen Actors Guild had called all its members, including Gyllenhaal and Biel, on strike, after film producers did not keep enough money in accounts to pay actors. They’re back at work now, apparently, but my, I’m sure the producers will all have really fond memories of Columbia, SC……..

Pieces of Dan in Real Life

Anyone whining about the lack of success of the South African film industry need only to look at a movie like Pieces of April to understand what we’re doing wrong. Written and directed by Peter Hedges, April is a small, personal film, well told.  It stars Katie Holmes (post-Dawson and pre-Tom and therefore appealing) as an estranged daughter struggling to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for her dying mother and the rest of her dysfunctional family. A good portion takes place in the Lower East Side tenement block where April resides. It is a very human movie, full of sadness, good humour, wry insights and cracking one liners. The script is excellent and the performances are first rate; Patricia Clarkson was nominated for just about every award out there for her role as April’s dying mother. And there is Politics too; one of the most memorable scenes is when April’s black boyfriend (Derek Luke) goes out to what you’re set up to believe is a drug deal, only to realise that he’s actually gone to rent a suit to impress his girlfriend’s parents. See; Politics with a big P but without the trowel. Great script, great acting, small cast, few locations; South African film makers – never ever slow to wag a lecturely finger or bludgeon the audience with Issues – could learn a lot from this.

Anyway, I really only mention April because we caught Dan in Real Life at the cinema on Monday – a movie also co-written and directed by Hedges. Dan stars Steve Carrell and Juliette Binoche, and it has similar underlying themes to Hedges’ previous work; finding love, finding yourself, facing death and accepting the importance of family (however screwy, daft and inappropriate they may be.) Hedges also uses similar constructs including a central location where the family gathers – in this case a rambling timber-panelled home on Conanicut Island in the state of Rhode Island.

Like Louisiana, Rhode Island has a pretty aggressive and successful Film Incentive programme, and that’s why you’ll increasingly see RI locations appearing on screens before you. Dan was filmed in in the cities of Newport, East Greenwich, Jamestown, Westerly and Providence, with key scenes at Providence’s Seven Stars Bakery and the Point Judith Lighthouse in Narragansett.

However, the main focus is the family home (a monstrously ugly pile called “Riven Rock” located on West Bay View Drive in Jamestown) where the chaotic Burns clan gather en masse for bonding activitiesthat include family aerobics, family crossword puzzle races, family American football and family talent shows. I think we were supposed to learn from all this that the family unit, though it may be loopy, is warm and familiar and always supportive. Personally, if I’d been thrust into the midst of that zoo, I’d probably be considering doing a Jeremy Bamber.

Iron Man v. Ghost Rider

Someone up there was making a point; after the local release of the excellent Iron Man movie last week, the MNET Sunday night feature was Ghost Rider, another Marvel Comics superhero, this time starring Nicholas Cage.

The story’s set mostly in Texas, though it was filmed in Australia at the Melbourne Docklands film studios and in a place reportedly called “the motorcycle district” of Melbourne. There’s a video on the landscapes at the movie’s blogsite. I thought Australia did stand-in for the south rather well, though the crowd scenes at the Telstra Dome are created using computer-generated technology rather than real people. This is a recurring theme and flaw throughout the filming; cgi seems to always take precedence over things like substance, character and plot.

The dross that is Ghost Rider simply reiterates why Iron Man is so successful. Says Peter Hartlaub in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Ghost Rider” has everything you don’t want from your superhero movie, including lack of logic, boring action scenes, bad acting in the supporting performances, a brutally slow 114-minute running time and cringe-worthy dialogue…..”

However, (in homage to Rolling Stone Magazine) the real evil in this flick isn’t Blackheart, the Devil’s son, it’s the soul-sucking devil of modern cinema: Nicholas Cage. Possibly the worst ham actor of his generation, Little Nicky Coppola has rarely met a character he couldn’t crucify. In this case, he is reported to have shied away from portraying Johnny Blaze as Marvel’s original “hard drinking and smoking bad ass” but rather decided to “give him some depth.” For the eternally overblown, pompous, sledgehammerish Cage, that means feeding him Jellybabies rather than Jack, and making him a fan of Karen Carpenter. That’s it. That’s what Cage thinks gives depth. It’s rubbish, really, and while you’re watching him grimace and fake, you realise with genuine horror that his hairpiece makes him a dead-ringer for Sir Cliff Richard. Scary.

Iron Man (again)

Based upon Marvel’s iconic Super Hero, Iron Man tells the story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a billionaire industrialist and genius inventor who is kidnapped by the Bad Guys and forced to build a devastating weapon for them. Instead, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armour and escapes captivity. Upon his return home, Tony comes to terms with his wastrel past. When he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, he dons his powerful armour and vows to protect the world as Iron Man.

My thoughts? I haven’t enjoyed a Superhero movie this much since, well, since ever. It just goes to show what really great actors can do with a witty script under the guidance of a director (Jon Favreau) who’s actually thought about his material. Downey, who I’ve always thought a bit flaky, is truly excellent, and Terence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges all turn in superb supporting stints. Bridges (who admittedly has the best material to work with) does a tour-de-force nasty Bull Daddy, that should have leathermen everywhere very, very excited. He’s even got the cigar!

Iron Man movie was shot in California – a conscious decision by the director to avoid yet another New York location. Production was based in the former Hughes Company soundstages in Playa Vista, California. (Hughes was apparently one of the inspirations for Tony Stark.)

 

 Wikipedia reports:

Filming began on March 12, 2007, with the first few weeks spent on Stark’s captivity in Afghanistan. The cave where Stark is imprisoned was a 200m long set, which was built with movable forks in the caverns to allow greater freedom for the film’s crew. Production designer J. Michael Riva saw footage of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan, and saw the cold breath as he spoke: realizing remote caves are actually very cold, Riva placed an air conditioning system in the set. He also sought Downey’s advice about make-shift objects in prison, such as a sock being used to make tea. All this created greater authenticity.

Stark’s capture was filmed at Lone Pine, California, and other exterior scenes set in Afghanistan were actually filmed at Olancha Sand Dunes, also in California. A lot of the military stuff was shot on location at Edwards Airforce Base, of which Favreau said: “This is the best back lot you could ever have. Every angle you shoot is authentic: desert, dry lake beds, hangars.”

There’s also a fun story on how the military received the production at Edwards team stars in ‘Iron Man’ superhero on the Air Force’s own website.

 So much for Runaway Production.

The Other Boleyn Girl

I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a Tudor history buff; I didn’t perhaps mention why. I grew up in a remote part of rural England, in a small village that happened to be near the birthplace of the infamous Anne Boleyn. Anne is the first historical figure I ever really became aware of, and my entire childhood was steeped in stories about this glamorous, grasping woman who rose above her station, married a King, and suffered the tragic consequences of her social climbing. (Anne is a perpetual reminder of what it means to be British: class matters, you’re a whore even if you don’t sleep around, we’ll loathe you for your uppitiness but root for you for 500 years as long as you’re the underdog.) So Anne Boleyn has been with me since childhood, a kind of wayward sister, a symbol of all the immutable, closed-minded, stultifying things I always hated about the old country.

So it was with anticipation that I went to see The Other Boleyn Girl the other evening. I had of course read Philippa Gregory’s book (there’s a fascinating insight into her historical research on her website), and being completely in love with Natalie Portman, I was really looking forward to the movie. But what can I say? Three days later and Anne Boleyn is still with me, but the film – the film was something of a disappointment. 

For the “show – don’t tell” constructs of film making, it was always going to be difficult to turn Anne’s sister Mary – famous only for being a dim, passive pawn – into the lead figure of any movie. Scarlett Johansson does a good job, but ultimately, Mary is only ever going to be the other Boleyn girl in this story. This has always been about Anne, and Natalie Portman is great. But she’s ultimately let down by a script that attempts History 101, in scenes shot with too few extras and too few costume changes, and with raggedy, fast-paced editing that makes the film feel like a first draft.

Even the Kent locations don’t ring true; although the Tudor homes of Penshurst Place and Knole Park feature significantly, they always feel like sets, and the execution scene (kudos for the glum and unusual ending for a Hollywood movie) is played out at Dover Castle, rather than in the Tower of London, where Anne was actually killed and dumped in an unmarked grave. It kind of feels disrespectful. 

Fortunately, Visit Britain again shows that movie tourism does not need actual locations to generate visitor numbers – it can simply be “inspired by”……..

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We’re going to have a Military Coup…..

A great story from Peter Biskind in March’s Vanity Fair; during the filming of The Deer Hunter in Thailand, producer Barry Spikings’ chief Thai liaison was General Kriangsak Chomanan, at the time the supreme commander of the Thai military. The producer simply called him “K.” Spikings recalls;

“We needed lots of weapons, helicopters, armored personnel carriers—and he provided them all.” But one day Kriangsak told the producer, “What’s going to happen this weekend: we’re going to play some martial music, and we’re going to have a military coup. That means we need all the weapons back, the helicopters back, and all the armored personnel carriers back.”

“K! We’re making a movie here! You can’t do that! We’ve got an agreement—we’ve shaken hands!”

“Barry, Barry—please, please. You’re making a movie—I have a military coup. But it won’t take long. There’ll be a few people who’ll get shot on Sunday, and then you can have the stuff back.”

Friday Night Lights

OK, so it’s been hectic and there’s not been a lot of time for movie watching. Instead, I did see the first couple of episodes of Holly Hunter’s first foray into TV, the oddly bi-polar Saving Grace. It’s part Walker, Texas Ranger, part Touched by an Angel. Though the drunk and wayward cop thing has been done to death elsewhere, it’s entertaining enough. The religious stuff, by contrast, is horrible, horrible, horrible. Fortunately I’d tivo-ed it, so I could fast forward through the crap bits – which is basically whenever the guy with wings appears. It’s set in Texas, though – which is really the reason for this post.

I came across this fantastic review by Sara Mosle on Slate.com, of the high school football drama, Friday Night Lights. It’s set in the fictional West Texas town of Dillon, and based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book about small-town Texas life.  Now, FNL is a show I haven’t ever seen, haven’t ever wanted to see, mainly because, American Football is not really big news anywhere other than, say, America, and too much “U-S-A, U-S-A” sporting testosterone makes me nauseous. But it would seem as if I’ve misjudged FNL…..  Says Mosle:

Friday Night Lights is….Texas as it’s seldom been seen—which is to say, as it really is. Virtually no one in Dillon wears a cowboy hat, and certainly no one under 30 does. The show has yet to show a single character on a horse. The only person depicted as remotely connected to an oil well is a businessman from Los Angeles, briefly passing through, representing faraway interests…..

….Hand-held cameras follow actors around on location, as they go about what appears to be their actual lives—to the gas station, to the grocery store, to the local diner, into one another’s homes. The cameras even ride in the car, like passengers, staring out at the passing scenery.

The show shoots in and around Austin, using city locations rather than sets, in order to build authenticity. (though this was a close call; filming nearly moved to New Mexico when much-hoped-for Texas film incentives were initially not forthcoming.)

If only for the realistic portrayal of modern America, I really think I must check this series out…..