Tuesday, April 06, 2004
The art of filmmaking
In August of 1979, Mom and I moved to South Florida where a few months later, I met my best friend Sean Hoade who was quite the movie buff (even at the age of ten). He was really taken with the film Time After Time and by the end of the year we had worked out a ten page script for The Time Machine, about two guys who build a time machine in the living room of their apartment (and get a TIME cover story no less!) and go on to have various adventures, ending with a stint through 1944 Germany (of course).
We never did make that film, although I did learn the technical aspects of home film. A standard 8mm reel is 50′ long and at 16fps will last 3′40″ (3 minutes, 40 seconds). When you buy the film, it's actually 25′ of 16mm film; you load the camera, and when you shoot your 1′50″ of footage half the film is exposed (left half—right half is still unexposed). Then you reverse the reels, feeding the film through the camera again, expose the other 1′50″ of footage, then seal the film back up in its container and off to the lab it goes. There, the film is developed, split down the middle and spliced together to make a 50′ foot of 8mm film. Super-8 is still 8mm wide, but the film sprockets are verticle, leaving more space for the picture, and you actually get 50′ of film 8mm wide when shooting. Editing consists of splicing the film together, and there are two methods of doing that—one consists of literally glueing the strips of film together by overlapping one strip with the other (by one or two millimeters); the other method is to buttress the two strips end to end and tape them together. Well, there's more but I won't bore you with details (heh—it's been twenty years since I last used an 8mm camera and I still remember this stuff).
Fast forward ten years. Hoade is back living in South Florida and he gets the moving-making bug once again. He enthuiastically shows me the video of Polish Vampire in Burbank (good luck in finding a copy, but trust me on this, you aren't missing much). Hoade relates that the film in question was made for $2,500 (1985 dollars—adjusted for inflation, $4,326.21) and basically, it shows. Made on Super-8 (with sound) and probably all the $2,500 went into film stock and processing and very little into anything else.
“But,” Hoade said, “it grossed over $500,000!” A return of 20,000% wasn't something to sneeze at, and it would be nearly impossible to do worse than Polish Vampire in Burbank in terms of script quality, film quality and sound quality—heck, we were planning on a “straight to video” release anyway and film always looks better than video, even Super-8 (or at least, film has a different “look” that's pretty easy to spot). And given that we planned maybe spending $5,000 that put us at nearly double the Polish Vampire budget ($2,500 adjusted to 1990: $3,020).
So Hoade dusted off a short story he wrote in high school (“The Nihilist”) and a few weeks later we had our screen play—The Left Hand. A psychological horror story where the main character recieves a talisman and is instructed to use it only in his right hand. One night while drunk he decides to see what happens when he uses it in his left hand. Mayhem ensues.
And did mayhem ensue. We got Joe Lo Truglio involved (Hoade made an 8mm film with Joe in middle school, and I knew him in high school), and over the next few weeks, managed to cast the rest of the film but being complete amateurs at this, plus a sprialling budget, ended the attempt.
The following year Hoade decided to give it yet another try (Joe by this time was in New York City studying acting). This time, we would use 16mm, the budget was set for $25,000. Again, we found our cast and a professional crew and we were one week from filming when Hoade called it off again—the budget had blown up to over $60,000 and Hoade had no idea of how to finance it at that point (since he was paying for this out of his own money).
I was reminded of these memories as I was reading Joe Queenan's The Unkindest Cut, a book about Queenan's attempt at filming Twelve Steps to Death for $6,998 to undercut Robert Rodriquez's $7,000 film El Mariachi (more widely known than Polish Vampire) by two dollars. In the book, Queenan pretty much blows the myth of El Mariachi apart—unless everything is free and you are shooting in 8mm or video there is no way you can do a film for only $7,000 (or even $6,998). Depending upon the accounting method used, his film cost $35 (“To those of you who say that $35 seems a bit on the low side … I can only say this: There may be some give in our figures.… [A] debate rages over whether Kevin Costner's new movie Waterworld actually cost $85 million—the studio's figure—or $165 million—The Wall Street Journal's latest calculation. If Kevin Costner can be allowed $80 million worth of latitude, surely an intrepid filmmaker … is entitled to a tiny bit of leeway.”), $49,960.39 (the amount he spent to the premiere) or $65,193.67 (if you include everything he spent including publicity, tapes, free merchandise, etc).
That's a pretty expensive $6,998 film.
I also finished reading Art Linson's A Pound of Flesh, a horribly cynical look at Hollywood by an actual Hollywood producer. After reading that book, I'm amazed that anything is actually filmed in Hollywood:
After all, if a producer has enough scripts in development, he can earn sufficient income from development fees to survive without going into production. As I mentioned, a supervisory fee for bringing a development deal to a studio can range from $25,000 to $50,000 and more. Hey, if you can have ten of these deals, you can “live.” Twenty, and you can afford to give to charity. Why bother getting a movie made? Believe me, everyone is in on this.
Art Linson hates writers—
What are you going to tell this “I don't need you anymore now that I have the deal” know-it-all writer to help him come up with a good screenplay? Does he really need your help anymore? In most cases, emphatically yes.
has strong opinions on directors—
For my part, if I can't be on the committee that chooses the director, I'd just as soon work on something else.
but treats the actors with respect—
“So, let me see if I'm hearing you correctly,” I said. “You have given this a lot of thought [about two hours —Sean], and you have come to the conclusion that you hate the wardrobe. You would like me start over and have it completely redesigned by the time you get back from Italy, under your supervision.”
“Done,” [De Niro] smiled.
He's cynical as hell about the whole Hollywood thing, but he's still there, producing films.
But it's sad in a way, that in reading both books I realize that the art of filmmaking, the technical aspects, really pale in comparison to the money end and the politics that go on trying to get a film made. It may explain why George Lucas spend $150,000,000 of his own money to make The Phantom Menace—there were no politics, no one to say “No, George, this is crap” (and as a film, someone should have been there to say that).
And I suspect, that had Hoade and I known all this back then, we may have not even tried.