Toni Myers is one of the most successful IMAX directors of all time. She has helmed a number of award-winning documentaries, with a particular focus on space. On The Box was lucky enough to sit down with her and have a discussion about her new film, A Beautiful Planet.
One of the biggest differences in this film, compared to Toni’s previous IMAX space-docs Hubble and Space Station, was that it was shot on digital, rather than film. Shuttles to the ISS have decreased in frequency in recent years, so it was no longer possible for film to be regularly delivered back and forth to Earth. Shooting in digital allowed the astronauts to capture a, ‘whole new range of subject matter – with the digital we are now seeing lights on the Earth at night, the aurora borealis, thunder and lightning….it opens up a whole new socioeconomic view, seeing where the industrial centres are, where people gather in cities, how the population distributes itself’.
The logistics of such a film are naturally challenging. The astronauts are trained for about 22 hours in all aspects of movie making, from operating the cameras, to framing and lighting.
‘One of the best training tools is at the end of their training cycle we ask them to shoot, in the simulators, their own movie, which they have to light, and shoot, and direct their fellow crew members. Then we put it up on an IMAX screen to show them. That is the best training tool you can imagine! It’s like seeing your home movies 60 to 80 feet high – if the ‘focus’ penny hasn’t dropped it does then, that’s for sure! But, hardly ever is there a problem, they’re great students. I mean that’s why they’re astronauts; they’re the world’s best learners!
And technological advances – particularly shooting on digital – can make the process easier. Toni now receives phone calls directly from the ISS. So in less than 24 hours, the astronauts can discuss ideas, film them, send them down and they can then be reviewed, and sent back with annotations and suggestions.
Having directed several landmark space-documentaries over the last few decades, working with NASA and learning so many of the technical fundamentals, would Toni be interested in visiting outer space herself?
Oh, I’d go, I would go anytime! The one pause I had was when we were shooting ‘Space Station’, I did go up to the top of Soyuz launch tower…it takes about 15 paces to walk around, and it carries 3 people. It’s tiny. And the thought of them lighting an uncontrolled explosion right underneath gave me pause! I had a new respect for the people that get in this thing. So I sort of thought…. maybe not so fast!
The astronauts in the film are all extremely interesting characters, and there is a great diversity among the crew. The filmmakers did not choose any of the crews, they had to simply work with whomever their schedules lined up with, and Toni is full of praise for those she did get to work with – particularly Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.
‘We were so lucky – I mean, they’re all great, but those three crews were fantastic. I could never have predicted how eloquent Samantha was – when you hear her talking, those words aren’t scripted. She said things I could not possibly have written, and just summed up things I wanted to say. When I showed the film to Jennifer Lawrence (the narrator), she said ‘oh gosh, she’s the star, I want to meet her!’ And they did, later, in New York, which was a great moment – there was mutual admiration there.’
The film is not shy in delivering a strong ecological message, and illustrating the damaging influence of humanity on the planet. Toni was conscious of the need to inspire people, rather than, ‘berating the audience – they don’t want to pay money to go the theatre and be told off for being “bad people”’.
‘What I wanted to do was to use the analogy of the ISS, which keeps 6 people alive simultaneously, and show how much that takes – well, the Earth is the same thing for billions of people – and it doesn’t get any resupply ships! I was hoping to inspire young people of the importance of looking after it, and also to go and find solutions to some of the problems facing us.’
She recalls seeing astronaut Susan Helms, who was the first woman to live for 6 months on the ISS, on a U.S talk show. ‘They asked her what had inspired her to become an astronaut, and she said “the IMAX film ‘The Dream Is Alive’, I saw it when I was a kid”. I mean you couldn’t pay somebody to say that! And that gave us a clue of the sort of reach we could have…and so I hope in this way we might inspire some scientists and some engineers to do some problem solving.
Because we need it.’
Q. Is it true that you have not worked with director Nancy Meyers prior to making The Intern?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I haven’t. But it was fun to do and I had a good time doing it.
Q. What drew you to her script, and what was the experience like to work with Nancy?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I was flattered that she asked me to be in her movie. She’s pretty precise on what she wants, and I like that.
Q. When you read a character like Ben Whittaker, did you understand him immediately or did you build the character with Nancy?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, you get what he’s about, so there wasn’t much more to add. I mean, certain writers have it very precise and there’s not much room to add something. Here, there was room to slightly improvise, but you don’t want to mess up the rhythm, the timing and the joke.
Q. Do you remember the era when men wore three-piece suits to work?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Some still do. I mean, even I like to go to certain restaurants and places where you have to wear a jacket, a suit and a tie, and I like that sort of old world style. I am sure it will come back in many ways, if it hasn’t already. It’s kind of nice and it breaks it up.
Q. Was it interesting for you to play a character who is basically trying to find a place for himself in this new tech world?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, it was interesting. There are certain things I am clueless about as far as the new technologies. I see these people in front of these computers all day and I don’t know what they are doing—they are doing something, obviously—with Facebook, Instagram and all that. I am aware of it, but basically not in touch.
Q. So you don’t have a Facebook account?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, it’s just one other thing that would complicate my life.
Q. What was it like working with Anne Hathaway, who plays Jules?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, Anne works very hard and she is a great partner and very, very professional. We had a great time and she’s a pleasure to work with. When you are working hard, you don’t have time for anything other than what you are doing in the scene and what the director wants.
Q. Why do you think Ben brings the sense of calm to Jules’s life that no one else in her world does?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Because he’s older. Jules can feel that he knows things that she doesn’t, just by virtue of the age. The older you get, the more you know about certain things. If you walk down there, you will still get the same results and accomplish the same thing. So you don’t have to rush to do anything.
Q. Ben is one of the more evolved characters in his thoughts about modern women. Do you believe a woman can be successful and still have a family?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, yeah. I certainly know that from personal experience. The people I work with try and do it all and have it all, and I support that.
Q. There’s a beautiful scene when Ben is trying to explain to Jules that he knows something but can’t say it. In the end, it comes out as, ‘I am a man of feelings.’ Is Ben just an old school kind of gentleman?
ROBERT DE NIRO: [Laughs] Well, he’s very traditional, but you don’t have to be traditional to feel that way. He’s gotten close to her and he sees what is happening with her husband and so on. Nancy is very precise with all of that stuff and wanted it a certain way.
Q. In this film, you’re working with this ensemble of young comedians. Was it fun for you to mix it up with people so in tune with their improv skills, or was it intimidating?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I think they’re great. I always enjoy when somebody can riff and come up with this stuff all the time. Sometimes you have to stick to what Nancy’s written or the timing of the joke is not quite right and misfires. Yet there are other times when riffing or going off-script is great and it’s needed. There are other comedies with a more freewheeling, spontaneous feeling—you can improvise, come up with stuff, and have fun. But this one is more curated or tightly managed because one thing does depend on the thing before it in order for the joke to happen in the proper way.
Q. Nancy is known for shooting long takes between two characters where the plot is allowed to develop and breathe without fast edits and cuts. Did you find that to be the case?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, she is very, very much of a stickler for everything, as everybody knows [laughs]. She’s from that—I don’t want to say school—but that period, where a director such as her will get the deference needed to do it in the way that she wants to do it, and that’s it. People have other ways of putting constraints on you, or limits and parameters, but she managed to get around all that.
It’s a very stressful thing, directing a movie. You have the budget; you have the schedule; you are in certain confines, and you have everybody giving you advice about what to do.
The bottom line is if the movie does well, everybody is happy and they forget about what they went through. And if it doesn’t, it’s ‘I told you.’ There’s one director who I won’t mention, who said, ‘It’s all blood under the bridge.’ [Laughs]
Q. There is an 8-minute sequence in the film was really the highlight for me. The camera pans to Ben watching Singing in the Rain, and something happens. Can you describe what that is?
ROBERT DE NIRO: He gets a little emotional, looking at that. It’s the past and he is sad about what has happened to him, to Jules, all those things. It’s the sentiment of that movie itself.
Q. There is something quite appealing to seeing a sweet, lovely character played by ROBERT DE NIRO.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I like that. Sure, it’s fun to do. Truth is, it’s not easier to play, but I understand it and there are parts of me that identify with Ben, obviously. And as an actor, you use the things from yourself that you can apply to the character. But if we do a sequel, I want to beat somebody’s ass. [Laughs]
The Intern is available on DVD from 29 February.
Jean-Luc Godard shouldn’t be looked at as a filmmaker who also wrote political film theory but the other way around. Godard was a political film theorist first and last and his films, at least in his early period, can be seen as visual demonstrations of his broad-ranging critical thought. Godard’s name is inextricably linked to the Cahiers du Cinema posse and most would argue that he has been the most long-lasting influential member of the Nouvelle Vague.
In one sense, it is self-evident why Godard is so synonymous with this group as he more than anyone encapsulated the spirit of the Nouvelle Vague. In his self-training, he took himself back to cinema’s roots, the silent era, he watched and re-watched the classics, he zoomed in on the tiniest devices and functions of filmmaking and analysed them with meticulous precision and all to break them apart, to reimagine them and, finally, to create films that captured the very essence of filmmaking.
In his early phase, it is evident that Godard’s films come from a place of love, passion and fascination with the medium of cinema itself – and this wonderment and joy was something he had a remarkable talent in passing over to his audience. His trademark was drawing attention to the editing process, first in Le Petit Soldat – the much quoted; “Cinema is truth; twenty four times a second. This trait would become more explicit as he grew in confidence, famously in Vivre sa Vie and Une femme est un femme. In Bande a Parte, one of his most playful films he draws constant attention not only to the devices utilised in creating films but also the genres and influence of classic Hollywood in a French setting. This is Godard at his most creative and innovative, fusing French traditions of comedy and drama with distinctly American slapstick and pulp fiction.
The early phases are characterised by happiness and farce with a slippery undertone of melancholy and tragedy. The overriding sense the viewer comes away with is that the film was a creation of love, and the audience loved him for it.
But of course, his close association with the Nouvelle Vague has its limitations. In fact, by the time he began to make his first feature A Bout de Souffle he had already split from Bazin in an intellectual sense, and by Le Petit Soldat he had gone his own entirely. Of course, then he decided very publicly that cinema was awful, bourgeois shit made by awful, bourgeois shits for an awful, bourgeois shitty audience, which marks the intellectual break between himself and the great cinephiles of the Nouvelle Vague quite clearly.
Godard had a much closer creative relationship with the now obscure socialist-idealist filmmaking collective, the Dziga Vertov group. This period marks what is referred to as his second phase of work. Alain Badiou, fellow French Maoist, has written that when he became part of this group he submerged into the collective, essentially losing what was Godard. This analysis makes sense, and presumably was precisely the point. The Dziga Vertov group’s collective was to scorn on individual authorship which is clearly at odds with the tradition of the auteur. Godard’s films in this period are not so poor that they could have been made by any sanctimonious ass who could point a camera. That said, they are not so good that many could be bothered to wade through all the vented spleen to find a nugget of Godarian brilliance. Correspondingly, his popularly waned in relation to his political engagement.
There is an argument to be made that Godard fell victim to what could be referred to as the curse of the écrivain engagé summarised, both practically and metaphorically, by Jean-Paul Sartre in his manifesto Literature and Existentialism. In this book, Sartre advocates political engagement as the only true purpose of prose, scorning lyricism and poetry and demanding lucid, plain and furious condemnation of social injustice. The pomposity, self-righteous and hideous lack of imagination in Sartre’s manifesto was only surpassed by the literature it inspired. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with French literature knows, as they knew themselves, that writers such as Malraux and Gide were phenomenal talents before they started slabbering on about Communism all the bloody day. They didn’t care, they just wanted to engage. And so it came to pass that the Left Bank group left biographies infinitely more fascinating than their novels. Perhaps Godard is their cinematic heir?
Perhaps in his second phase, this is true, but his third phase does not slot perfectly into this category. His most recent phase of work is characterised by an unusual sense of boredom and fruitless searching for something. Godard rarely watches cinema nowadays, or so he says, and what he does see he hates. Yet, he is unable to create cinema these days that reaches the current darlings, not least cinema that surpasses himself at his peak. A Histoire du Cinema can be interpreted as Godard’s attempt to go back to where he was when he began his career – closely examining the stuff of cinema, hiving it for inspiration in a bid to push beyond what is already there. His early cinema was such a labour of love, that everything that is himself as an artist is contained in them. And he was so successful, that his influence now pervades contemporary cinema. When Godard himself tries to redefine cinema now, he is tasking himself with redefining the parameters of his own artistic individuality. This task is not Herculean but Sisyphean.
The Jean-Luc Godard Essential Blu-Ray Collection is released on 25th January by Studio Canal.
Pressure tells the story of four deep-sea saturation divers who become trapped at the bottom of the Indian Ocean after a storm sinks their ship whilst they are on the dive. I spoke with director Ron Scalpello to find out some more.
Hi Ron, so how did the idea for this film come about – why divers?
It was just an instantly fascinating proposition. Four guys trapped at the bottom of the sea with limited amount oxygen – that’s scary, that’s frightening, that’s claustrophobic and suspenseful. We spent a good while developing the script with a couple of co-writers, doing our research, looking at how we could design the film, how I could explore themes within a survival drama.
Were there certain films you looked to as reference points?
There were loads, yes – looking at certain technical things, looking at how they convey things – Das Boot is obviously a massive film. Solaris was on my mind as well, with regards looking at the interior space, and the psychological space that people get into – as well as Apollo 13.
Is it a struggle, keeping the interest and suspense when you have so little to work with?
I think this was, and will be, one of the most difficult films I have made. The challenge is to sustain the story and keep the suspense with just four characters in limited space – whilst exploring some quite big ideas about men, how they’ve lived their lives, what they wished they done, thinking about their fears and anxieties as they approach death.
And the logistical challenges of underwater filming must be huge?
Oh yeah, there are some great ‘war stories’ from movies such as The Abyss, of actors nearly dying, having to urinate in their suits and so on – it is a really difficult environment to shoot in. It’s a moving space, nothing‘s set, its physically demanding, and it’s difficult for the directors what with health and safety and so on. There’s a scene where Joe Cole’s character is swimming without his suit, and he can’t really hear me, his eyes are closed, he’s getting oxygen through a tube, artificial blood’s being inserted into his mouth, and then he’s trying to take instructions from me – it’s difficult. But, I guess with the arrogance of youth, he was so calm in there – I would have been absolutely crapping myself!
The blood dripping from his mouth is something of a recurring image in the film.
It’s funny – I’d like to say it was designed, but it just evolved. I sort of realized the motif was emerging – you try to design connections, and then when you edit, the connections start to make themselves.
Some of the dialogue and banter between the divers is quite bawdy – I imagine the job attracts a certain kind of person? Did you consult with a lot of divers to ensure accuracy?
Well it is a very masculine world. These guys are spending a lot of their time almost exclusively with other men, and their home life is distant – most of them are working four weeks on, four weeks off. We did meet a lot of divers in the course of researching this film, and it does attract a certain character. Some people just love it and will stay in that world a long time. But there are some people who hate it, and the separation from their families and normal life.
Matthew Goode’s character has some of that – he loves his family and misses them, but at the same time he loves his job, loves the sea. That is the complication and contradiction that his character has to solve.
I particularly enjoyed Matthew Goode’s performance and though he was great in that role. What was about him that you liked?
I really think Matthew Goode is one of the best actors in the British film industry. He tends to play lots of immoral characters, but there’s a huge range about Matthew that has been untapped, so when he got this opportunity to play a character you would not necessarily associate with him, he seized it. I think his performance might surprise some people.
What’s next for you – given the logistical challenges of underwater filming, would you do it again?
Well, never say never! But I think maybe not exclusively underwater, as it can be a frustrating experience.
At the moment I’m doing a sports feature documentary about Bobby Moore, there’s a heist movie that’s in the works, and a remake of the 1980s movie The Fourth Protocol, the Frederick Forsythe Cold War thriller. So it’s great to be able to have the chance to work on all these projects.
Pressure is out now on DVD.
In 2014, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) received the largest number of complaints about a sex scene that’s more suggested than depicted. Mr Turner, played by Timothy Spall, is thought to have had sex with his housekeeper during the scene in question however all that’s shown are his buttocks and face.
The complaints seem to focus on the 12A certificate being too lax rather than the scene itself being offensive to the reasonable adult. It’s comforting to note that the BBFC firmly refuted the complainants’ accusations, explaining amongst other things that the scene was important to the plot and quite brief.
Also fortunate is the BBFC’s comment that the number of complaints (nineteen) represented a ‘tiny portion’ of the film’s total audience. Together with the ‘importance in terms of narrative’ justification, it’s refreshing to see that this watchdog organisation is not giving disproportional weight to the bleating of the few despite how often similar bodies have weakened under lesser pressure.
One could hope that these 19 complainants were simply taking a stand on an arbitrary occurrence to satisfy the need to have their static perspectives heard. But it’s possible that they genuinely think that the existence of sex is so reprehensible that it needs to be carefully monitored and metered out to people, much like exposure to lead or x-rays.
If you think back to your own knowledge and experience at age 12 it’s likely you were at the very least familiar with the kind of suggestive imagery described above, if not more direct depictions. And the fact that you’re able to read this paragraph now confirms that said familiarity did not cause you to go blind with disgust, shock, and general trauma.
Auteur theory was first cooked up by Alexandre Alstruc, who called upon filmmakers to use the camera as a pen. Alstruc believed that it was the film director, and not the screenwriter, who was the true author of the film as they were the ones who placed their imprint on every frame of the film. Since then the meaning of the auteur has been a subject of hot academic contention but it is agreed that it is a term most associated with the Nouvelle Vague, particularly Andre Bazin and Francois Truffaut who explored the concept in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema.
The general thrust of their argument is that to be an auteur is to put a distinctive signature on one’s work and use cinema as a way to explain their personalised world view. Their heroes were filmmakers who achieved this, such as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. The films produced by the Nouvelle Vague group were very different not only to the quality filmmakers of the day they revolted against, but also in comparison to each other. Given the emphasis on the individuality of the director, auteurism could be criticised as a form of artistic narcissism. This is arguably true given the work of one of the most successful auteurs (now in his fiftieth year in the film industry) Woody Allen. But Allen is the exception rather than the rule.
For the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, cinema had an important political purpose. The young radicals of the movement wanted to use film as a political medium and their ideals were largely bound in the frenetic cultural atmosphere encapsulated in the events of May 1968. France was scene to a burst cultural energy, with a multitude of causes jostling dynamically for attention. The least threatening of these have now been incorporated into the cultural zeitgeist so much so that in Toward a Third Cinema, Cuban filmmakers, Solan and Getino wrote that they could barely differentiate between the politics of the various New Waves and the mainstream films produced by Hollywood. The revolutionary potential of May 1968 and the films that channelled it have now been dissipated. Our political reality is now defined by a pretence that ideology no longer exists at all. This is the material that today’s auteurs have to work with.
An auteur by anyone’s definition of the word is Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a contemporary filmmaker of almost unparalleled artistic talent. Jeunet’s signature is the triumph of charm over dystopia, cultural cleansing by means of whimsy. In his earlier films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet creates dysfunctional, violent worlds but undercuts the anxiety with the easily deflated villains, eccentrically benign supporting characters and cutesy framing devices the serve to undermine any horror. The same themes can also be seen less overtly in his later film, A Very Long Engagement. These films are set in either a fantasy universe, or a historical period where tension and violence is automatically displaced. When Jeunet locates his films in the present day, no tension or violence can be tolerated. In Amelie, Paris is whitewashed – literally. There is no racial difference, no crime, no true villains. Politics is absent. It is also Jeunet’s most aggressively quirky film. In Amelie, cutesy-pie kitsch has triumphed so decisively that the tensions of 21st century France don’t even exist.
A similar signature can be seen in the work of a profoundly different auteur, Quentin Tarantino. Like the Coen Brothers, he works within the postmodern tradition with fusion of genres but he goes further, not only working in an American context but also with the cinema of the Far East. Tarantino, like Jeunet, serves to undercut the social tension but he does not do so by erasure but with glib superficiality. For Tarantino there is no topic so serious and dark that it cannot be put through his personalised mince-maker of frivolous pop culture. Gangsters, Nazis, rape, murder, slavery – there are no limits. It’s all good fun, it’s all visually exciting and it all works best with an eclectic, thumping soundtrack.
Charles Krafft, a Seattle based artist who for many years thrilled the liberal intelligentsia of the city with his playful, kitschy art that made use of Nazi imagery. Liberal art lovers in Seattle filled their homes with Krafft’s gaudy totalitarian paintings, perfume bottles with swastika stoppers and teapots shaped like Hitler’s head. Until it transpired that Krafft was a vehement holocaust denier and white supremacist. His intention was not playful but totally sincere. Krafft’s fans were horrified and cleared their homes of his work. This is not to imply that Tarantino is a white supremacist, but he plays to the impulses that caused these irony loving art-buyers to lap up the work of an actual Nazi. To play with the terrifying ideas and reduce them to comic tackiness is to neutralise their potency and their fearful influence. Speaking about the veneration of totalitarian influences in contemporary art, the group VPERED wrote; “Market utopianism makes no distinction between left and right, brown and red, fascism and communism, it sees irony lurking round every corner to make everything nice and normal again.” Tarantino is the cinematic master of this.
To put Tarantino in the same category as Godard is liable to snarl up snobbish sentiments from film critics. But really, there is little to separate them. Both have a distinctively unique visual style and their cinema is a vent for their own political worldview and the cultural zeitgeist that informs them. When critics bemoan the loss of the auteur tradition, they are actually nostalgic for the age of political energy that made the films of the Nouvelle Vague possible. The role of the auteur today is not to form a narrative that leads to an emancipatory political breakthrough, on a micro or macro level, but to place a unique footprint on a cultural landscape that resists ideological landmarks.
Disney has decided that you and I need to be subjected to a live-action Prince Charming film. News outlet Variety, reports that the film will be a revisionist take, and the story will be from the perspective of his ‘not as smart’ brother, who ‘never lived up to the family name’ (I’m assuming that family name is Charming).
Ladies and gentlemen we are in the age of IRL (in real life). Disney has recently announced remakes of their classic tales – that means we can expect live-action versions of Pinocchio, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and a sequel to Alice in Wonderland in cinemas soon.
Prince Charming is an interesting choice for a film, mainly because there’s no ‘canon’ for this character. We know that he can put shoes on other people; he’s also rich, handsome, rides a horse and is looking for true love. So it’ll be interesting to see what take they have on the character and how they make him relatable.
I’ve kindly put together some ‘leading man’ options for Disney to consider:
Channing Tatum - purely because he’s everywhere right now and it doesn’t hurt for Prince Charming to have abs.
Armie Hammer - he was great as the ‘Winklevii’ in The Social Network, and has top notch smouldering potential.
Vin Diesel - screw horses, Vin Diesel would have Prince Charming behind a super-charged turbo diesel type contraption (I don’t know cars).
Benedict Cumberbatch - imagine, in that costume, with that accent…’nuff said.
Idris Alba - I personally love this Brit. He’s got charm (important), attitude, is handsome and so likable (presuming he’s not the next James Bond).
While I’m at it – here’s some ‘Idiot brother’ suggestions:
Jack Black - sorry, I instantly take that back, it’s not 2003.
Louis CK - he’d be a brilliant mess, and there’d be a stand-up scene from the ‘Comedy Dungeon’ (“so I’m a Prince, but I look like this…”).
Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) – there’s a charming goofiness to Jon. Google a picture of him, you’ll get it.
Kumail Nanjiani - if you don’t know Kumail, you might recongise him from Portlandia or Silicon Valley. Thinking about it, any of those Silicon Valley boys would be good.
Bill Murray - With technology nowadays, he could easily play both roles.
Over to you Disney.
Ps. Andy Serkis should play the live version of Dumbo. That guy can do anything.
In the roll-call of cinematic artistic credibility, remakes and reboots loiter in the doldrums, somewhere between J-Lo rom-coms and gonzo porn. Despite this, Hollywood fling umpteen remakes every year leading to accusations of a dearth of imagination in the film industry and a plea for a return to the creativity of the good old days.
But in the good old days, remakes were the norm. In the silent era, when films could only be watched in the cinema, remaking popular films was an integral part of the industry’s business model with popular films being remade multiple times in the space of a couple of years. Some filmmakers, including D.W. Griffiths, even remade their own films in hopes of replicating their original success. In the era of sound, this model waned but remakes of foreign films for a domestic audience became commonplace.
In the early days of the film industry and today remakes and reboots tend to be driven by straightforward commercialism. In recent years, we have seen a wave of horror films originally from the Far East, particularly Japan and South Korea. These films are actually cheaper to make than original horror films because intellectual copyright royalties are paid to Japanese and South Korean writers who generally command a lower fee than American writers. One executive at Fox said that shareholders feel much more comfortable with remakes than original concepts because they have already proven themselves to have a successful formula.
Remakes of foreign films for a domestic audience is easy to justify to stockholders and critics alike. A film that is more relatable to a domestic audience and starring home-grown actors will always bring in more ticket revenue than a foreign film, and subtitling and dubbing are an audience turn-off. When it comes to remaking domestic films, filmmakers need to work harder to justify their choice.
Sometimes films are remade taking advantage of modern technology and larger production budgets to realise the potential of mediocre film. A prime example of this is Ocean’s Eleven which was originally a tedious and largely forgotten Rat Pack vehicle. With exciting action sequences, location shooting and modern camera techniques, as well as snappier writing, the remake was a huge hit. Little Shop of Horrors began life as a cinematic experiment – an attempt to make a film in one day. It was unilaterally appalling. The remake, making use of 1980s music, special effects and puppet technology is a cult classic.
Another way to justify remakes is to take an established story and remodel it to suit the current cultural paradigm, with varying degrees of success. For instance, the rebooted Ghostbusters exchanges the central male characters for female ones. This smacks glibly superficial tokenism and it remains to be seen if the film will defy snap criticism. One remake that realigned a film to suit a more gender-equal model in an interesting way is True Grit. The original was a typical Western masculine romp. The remake made the focal point the resolutely unglamorous female character and her story and the result was a more nuanced, intelligent and noteworthy film than the original.
Sometimes remakes seem to come from a more complicated political place. Thomas Leitcher has written; “Remakes seek not only to accommodate the original story to a new discourse and a new audience but annihilate the model they are honouring.” Slavoj Zizek references I Am Legend, a remake of the 1954 film The Last Man on Earth as an example of this. In the original, Vincent Price is a doctor who finds himself in post-apocalyptic world swarming with vampires. He seeks to create a serum that will cure vampires, while simultaneously butchering the infected in their sleep. In the end, he is executed publicly and realises that he was the bad guy in the story. In the remake, the doctor character sacrifices himself, killing the vampires so that humanity might survive.
The original film was based on an Italian novel, written as the country was emerging from fascist rule. Italian intellectual life was marked by deep contemplation. Essentially, Italians were coming to terms with being the bad guys. In 1950s America, American’s identity as the world’s good guys was more secure than ever, so playing with moral boundaries in this way did not induce any cultural anxiety. They could play with the hero discovering they were the bad guy in fiction, because in their political reality, this was impossible. In the present day, Americans are not so secure in their moral impeachability. If a film implied that the good guys might really have been the bad guys all along this would inflame anxiety, not alleviate it. And so, the ending is changed so that the hero is always the good guy.
Remakes are hugely popular, whether critics like it or not. All traditions of storytelling, verbal, written and visual betray a human impulse to hear the same stories over and over again. But as Gus Van Sant’s much ridiculed, shot-for-shot remake of Psycho shows, the assumption that a replication of a classic will necessarily create a great film is a false one. Remakes must enhance; whether technologically, culturally or even ideologically. We can blame the maligned reputation of remakes on pointless re-imaginings pumped out purely for commercial gain, particularly if it seems as though studios are just fucking with us. Drop Dead Fred remake starring Russell Brand, anyone? Unfortunately, it’s in the pipeline…
Johnny Depp is Hollywood’s odd man out, he’s not the action hero or comedic goofball – but has rather created his own place. We all know how talented he is (or can be), but when Mortdecai came along, I was concerned. Someone this good shouldn’t be subjected to Mortdecai (Ewan McGregor, you’re also on notice) so I naturally assumed he was being blackmailed and watched the trailer. Jokes aside, that’s where Mortdecai had positioned their jokes, far to the side. Then I started thinking; what of note, has Depp done lately?
Johnny has two speeds – you’ve got your eccentric odd ball (Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pirates etc) and there’s your drama leading actor (Public Enemies, Transcendance, The Tourist etc). These latter roles require little to no extreme make up, and it’s clear that he excels at the former, it’s how he arguably made his name. Though if you’re judging movies by box office, only Pirates really stacks up (that’s why there’s more of those films in the works).
Drama Johnny (not to be confused with Entourage’s Johnny Drama) is an attempt at diversity that in my opinion hasn’t worked out since Gilbert Grape, but here’s the thing, they should. Buried in make-up, costumes and CGI, Johnny Depp excels as one of the best character actors in Hollywood. The way he inhabits a role is outstanding and he adds another dimension to the film, illuminating it along the way. So what’s missing?
His latest film, Black Mass, looks promising and could be his redemption. Depp stars as infamous gangster Whitey Bulger; the trailer looks strong and so does Depp, appearing as a toned down version of Mike Meyer’s Goldmember (in a good way). It’ll be interesting to see how the film (and Depp) is received because it could be the one that finally delivers. Striking that perfect balance between his acting prowess and deep character submersion (that should be the name of his autobiography).
The less said about Mortdecai the better.
Since 1969, Caroll Spinney has entertained children all over the world as Sesame Street’s most loved character, Big Bird.
This month saw the release of I Am Big Bird, an intimate and heartwarming documentary that chronicles Spinney’s life both in and out of the yellow-feathered suit. We caught up with Caroll to have a chat about the documentary, the evolution of puppetry and Punch & Judy….
Hi Caroll! You’re best known for playing Big Bird but you’ve had many characters over the years – Picklepuss, Mr. Lion, Bruno The Trashman, Oscar The Grouch….
Yes, well Picklepuss was how I got this job, when Jim Henson saw me doing my show. He hasn’t worked since though. When I open the box he usually looks pissed off at me… its dark and boring in there. There were a few characters I created on the show that are no longer there. One was Granny Fanny Nesslerode, she was very funny but didn’t track well with the children so she was dropped.
Bruno The Trashman was the only muppet that I ever designed. A couple of years ago I said “how come we never do Bruno anymore?” Well, the material is foam plastic and after about seven or eight years, the stuff just sort of turned to powder. He just sort of faded away into a pile of dust. Perfect for a horror movie.
Do you miss any of those lost characters more than others?
Well, Bruno was very handy because I could walk Oscar onto a stage without having me walk out there. I’ve been hiding all these years.
For many people, Sesame Street remains the greatest and most loved kid’s TV show of all time. How you do feel that children’s TV has changed over the years, especially with regards to mixing education and entertainment?
When we started our show, children’s shows were typically like “good morning boys and girls, we’re gonna have a goody goody time,” with grownups pretending they were young children wearing a little bow in their hair or something. They looked like silly grownups kind of talking down to the kids. That’s something I think Sesame Street never did. I think it made a new approach to children and their television and also, it genuinely taught them things. Not a real effort was ever made in that way before.
It’s really satisfying to me that Sesame Street made it in the UK because my Mother was born in England. I kind of think of it as the Mother country, so I’m pleased we made it there too.
I read that you were first inspired by Punch and Judy shows in Blackpool right?
Yes, very much so. My Mother used to see Punch and Judy shows in Blackpool when she was a little girl for a haypenny. That would have been about 1909 or 1910. She left England in 1911 and never was able to come back. I loved seeing real Englishmen doing the Punch & Judy show because they keep it purely ‘punch.’ I only stopped doing mine because it’s so violent. Last time I did it, I think the little children were shocked because you know, he beats everybody up and all that…. but if I hadn’t started with Punch & Judy I don’t think I would have been anywhere.
I also really admire Senor Wences. He was a ventriloquist and he’s my hero in a way. He performed on the very last day he was alive. He did a show onstage in Madrid, went home, had dinner, went to bed and then never woke up. But he was 102! That’s what made him so special to me.
The work done by Jim Henson Studios, The Muppets and Sesame Street is often seen as the golden age of puppetry on television. Do you think that puppetry has become less prominent in recent years due to CGI?
Well, people have asked me if computer generation is going to put puppetry out of business. I don’t think so. I often talk to audiences with Oscar on my hand and he’s immediate. Something computer generated takes months to make a scene, it has to be written and carefully constructed whereas puppetry is right there, right then. So I think there will always be room for puppets and new ways to approach puppetry.
Big Bird was a unique kind of puppet. He was based on a dragon that used to sell canned chop suey on television in the states. Basically it was a dragon suit that becomes a hand-puppet from the neck up, and that’s how Big Bird works. My arm is in his head and my little finger move his eyelids, which helps the viewer clearly pick up on his thought process. So, a costume that becomes a puppet at the top – I’m not aware of anybody who created a puppet like that until Jim did it. I’m sure there will always be new innovations in puppetry as the years go on, it won’t just be CGI. Puppets come and go. When I was trying to break into television there weren’t very many puppets and they said “animation is the thing.” Then Jim came along, and the puppets on Sesame Street were more popular than the animation.
Aside from your TV work, you’re also an artist and animator too. Is any of your art widely available and where could people read your WWII-era comic strip Harvey?
Well, I have a hundred copies of different episodes of Harvey. He was sort of a sad sack, a loser, he was always getting the stripes ripped off his uniform because he screwed up. In the end, when I came home from being stationed in Germany I had him promoted to General. I’d like to have it published because I could fill a whole book.
I’m sure plenty of people would like to have a look at those old strips.
Well, I think it would probably only be out of interest because of my fame, if I have any. Because of Bird and Ocar. The thing is, those characters are famous and I’m not.
They give one Emmy a year called the Lifetime Achievement Award, and I got it one year. They wanted me to come up on stage and have a nice retrospective, but they said “he can’t have any time on stage because he’s not famous.” Well he’s the most famous puppet bird in the world! They said “yeah, but he’s not famous.” This movie might have some effect on that in a positive way.
Are you happy with the movie (I Am Big Bird) and how has it been received so far?
Yeah, I couldn’t believe it could be that good, it’s really been excellent. I think it’s very human, or more so than a lot of documentaries. I think that’s one reason why it’s been so successful.
Is it nice to get some recognition out of the suit?
Yeah, it is nice. It didn’t bother me when I didn’t get it, but it is nice having it now in, it’s kind of enjoyable in the bottom of my days. I’m 81 now, and “my voice hasn’t changed much.” (Big Bird’s voice) So, you know, he still sounds like the same guy.
I saw your Birdman spoof ‘Big Birdman’ this year and it was a great idea. What was the motivation behind it?
Oh yeah, we did that on a lunch break. Our head writer Joey Mazzarino wrote that and I thought it was pretty clever. Actually, I didn’t really enjoy the movie that much, so it was kind of fun to spoof it.
There’s no secret loathing of Big Bird then?
No, I have total respect for Big Bird as a created character. I think he’s fun to watch, but Oscar is the funnier of the two I think.
Do you have any advice for any budding animators and puppeteers?
Yes, in the States there’s a group of puppeteers who belong to this club called the Puppeteers of America. If I hadn’t have joined that then I wouldn’t be on television today. I don’t know what the equivalent is in the UK, but there must be puppet groups that you can look up on the internet and join. You gain so much by seeing other people do their puppet work, it can broaden your approach to puppetry and increase your chances of making it too.
Thanks very much Caroll, it’s been a pleasure. Have a nice day over there!
It’s a pleasure, thank you very much. Oscar, do you have anything to say?
“Yeah, have a rotten day.”(Oscar’s voice)
“Oh, Oscar. Never listen to the grouch!” (Big Bird)