Not above a cheap gag or two, or ten or twenty. Never mind that this was made in Britain, by Brits, based on the popular British book by the same name
Two groups in particular will be very happy to know that “”The Gift”” is an outstanding film.The first group, consisting of film fans deflated by the director’s last Costner-laden effort, “”For Love of the Game,”” will be delighted to hear that their favorite director is back in top form. His direction is sharp, the chills are genuine, and his ensemble cast dances deftly through the complicated plot, all under Raimi’s watchful eye.
The second group, consisting of rabid comic fans who eagerly await Raimi’s next project – “”Spider-Man”” – will be delighted to hear that their much-anticipated project is indeed in the hands of a talented director, one who is capable of blending multiple genres while spinning an interesting tale (something that’s vital if you want a comic book movie to fly).””The Gift”” stars Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, the widowed mother of three who earns extra cash by reading people’s fortunes. Annie possesses clairvoyant powers that allow her to see visions, which make her a bit of an outcast – and the target of abuse – in her skeptical Georgian town.””The Gift”” boasts an all-star cast, and Raimi wastes no time introducing his parade of stars. Oscar winner Hillary Swank plays Valerie, a regular at Blanchett’s table, who needs advice because her husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves), beats her. Greg Kinnear pops up as Wayne Collins, the local school principal with a caring heart and a cheating fiancee named Jessica King, played by “”Dawson’s Creek”” star Katie Holmes.Problems arise when Jessica disappears after a night on the town. Wayne is terrified, and the police have exhausted all avenues. Against their better judgement, the authorities turn to Annie and ask her if she’s “”seen”” anything. Her gift leads the police to Donnie’s property, where they find Jessica buried in the swamp. But Donnie might not be responsible, and Annie starts to believe she fingered the wrong guy.Despite it’s supernatural undercurrent, Raimi’s “”Gift”” is really just a well-told murder mystery, much like the way his “”A Simple Plan”” was, at heart, a well-told caper. The film’s multiple twists and turns are anchored by Blanchett, who is wonderful as the gentle and hesitant Annie. Even Reeves stands out, and his burden is not light. His character is the villain we must cower from if the film is going to work, and Reeves makes us shudder.With precious few special effects, Raimi still conveys fear, and the mere suggestion of the presence of evil (mostly embodied by Reeves as the abusive Donnie) is enough to send shivers down your spine.Final Grade A-
David who? Many people may not recognize the name David Koepp, but they certainly know his work. He’s the man behind such blockbusters as “”Mission Impossible,”” “”Jurassic Park,”” “”Carlito’s Way””, and more. Note – This is an old interview that we conducted with David, but now that Spiderman mania – which David also wrote, has taken hold of us, we felt that it’d be neat to take a trip down memory lane and re-run this.
David Koepp, 36, was born and raised in the small town of Pewaukee, Wisconsin. He moved to Los Angeles to attend film school at UCLA and lived there for several years. Koepp first tasted success when he co-wrote and produced, “”Apartment Zero,”” directed by Martin Donovan. He later went on to write some of the top box-office hits of all-time, including Steven Spielberg’s “”Jurassic Park”” in 1993, Brian de Palma’s “”Mission Impossible”” in 1996 and Spielberg’s “”The Lost World: Jurassic Park”” in 1997.He made his feature directorial debut in 1996 with “”The Trigger Effect”” after previously directing the short film, “”Suspicious,”” in 1995.In his latest film “”Stir of Echoes””, Koepp took on the difficult task of writing and directing a film based on the renowned book by Richard Matheson. “”Stir of Echoes””is the story of a husband/father whose life changes after he’s hypnotized at a party. The man, Tom Witzky (played by Kevin Bacon), crosses over into a world where he can see everything that is going on around him, including the otherworld He’s become a receiver. And, he’s not alone.The dead surround him, sending him messages that he can’t understand. Tom must find a way to cross back over. But, not before he finds out what he’s received. David Koepp joined us to talk about making “”Stir of Echoes””, working with Kevin Bacon, and
Oh, to have a time machine, and travel back to 1962 to see the premiere of the first Bond film, Dr. No, starring a relatively unknown Scottish ex-truck driver, Sean Connery. I’ve seen Dr. No on the big screen, about 10 years ago at a repertory theatre, but I doubt that it captured the magic. But there again, with my jaded 90s filmgoer eyes, it would be impossible to know the excitement of audiences as they realized they were seeing a new type of hero in a new type of screen adventure.
Bond has now been on the screen for 37 years, the character has become a cultural icon, and the films have long become formula.But what a glorious formula it is, and what incarnations the character has gone through (and survived) a rogue, clown, killer, superman (not to mention Scottish, Australian, English, Welsh, and Irish).I’m a Bond fan. I’ve seen every movie at least 3 times, and read all the books. My first movie theatre experience with a Bond film was unfortunate, 1979’s Roger Moore opus Moonraker, surely the worst of the series. But I survived that, and went on to look forward to the release of each new Bond picture. With the release of The World is Not Enough, which looks to be the best Bond film in a long time, I want to share my reflections, thoughts, and opinions on the Bond film series.Fleming: Father of BondBefore I begin writing about the movies, I want to pay my respects to Ian Fleming, the English writer who created agent 007, and wrote 14 books based on the character, starting in 1953. The first Bond novel was Casino Royale, which Fleming wrote on the eve of his marriage at age 42. The Bond novels are characterized by Fleming’s attention to detail and ingenuity with plot and character. Bond himself, while not exactly a great literary character, is nevertheless fleshed-out, human, and a far cry from most of the later film portrayals. The Bond novels remain great reads to this day. The best of the Bond films are those that closely follow at least the spirit of the books.Fleming always thought that his Bond novels would make good films, and this was proved when producers Harry Salzman and Albert “”Cubby”” Broccoli teamed up to film the first Bond big screen adventure, Dr. No. The casting of Bond was a difficult one. At one time or another, Carey Grant and James Mason were considered for the part. Fleming himself thought David Niven would be right for Bond. (I’m glad Fleming wasn’t the casting director.) Instead, they chose a little-known actor, Sean Connery, who ended up delivering the definitive screen 007.Connery’s the ManNo doubt about it. No matter how good they are, any subsequent Bond actor falls in the shadow of Sean Connery. He defined the screen character, and played him perfectly. He had the looks, the style, the moves, and the voice. And though not letter-perfect to the character from the novels, Ian Fleming liked him in the part. So much in fact, that Fleming even gave the literary Bond a Scottish background. The best Bond films are the first three – Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. All of these films feature a greater emphasis on plot and character, too often lost in later movies. My favourite moment from these three is the fight scene in From Russia With Love. If you’re familiar with this film, you know the scene I’m talking about.The setting is the Orient Express. The villain, Red Grant (superbly played with convincing menace by Robert Shaw) has got the drop on Bond. 007 is on his knees in front of Grant, who is holding a gun on him. Through ingenious means that I won’t reveal here for those who haven’t seen the picture, Bond gets the upper hand, and a fight ensues. Though the fight takes place in a small compartment, with very little room to maneuver, the choreography is so well done that the scene is riveting. It still remains one of the best fight scenes ever filmed. In a much later Bond film, Goldeneye, director Martin Campbell intentionally pays homage to this scene with a close-quarters fight between Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and Alec Trevalyan (Sean Bean). But the original is best. The scene encapsulates everything that made the first Bond films work so well. Memorably-played characters, plot ingenuity, well-filmed and exciting violence, convincing danger, and a glib remark to provide some release from the suspense. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum and directors Terence Young and Guy Hamilton deserve much of the credit for the early Bond style. (Though Hamilton deserves a raspberry for his later Bond films, some of the weakest ever.)By the third film, Goldfinger, the Bond Formula became well-established. It includes the following: pre-credits scene that is a mini-movie in itself, visit to M that sets up the mission, visit to Q branch where Bond receives his latest equipment, beautiful woman that has to be wooed, big villain surrounded by “”little villains”” or henchmen, Bond ally who is murdered by a henchman (or woman), Big Villainous Plot that Bond uncovers, and climactic battle where the villain is defeated (after the body count racks up significantly). Other elements include the one-liners that Bond delivers (usually after or during action scenes), and of course the gadgets themselves that Q (Desmond Llewellyn) provides.When the fourth Bond film, Thunderball, was released, Bond mania was at its height. With that film, the series began to rely on its sets and gadgets more than its characters and plot. You Only Live Twice was even more gadget-laden, and completely ditched the Fleming novel for the first (but sadly not the last) time. Connery quit the part after this film, and the producers desperately hunted for someone to assume the Bond mantle and continue on with the series. They chose an Australian model, and thankfully went back to Ian Fleming for inspiration.Lazenby: Honestly, Mr. BondPity George Lazenby: chosen to follow the most-loved actor of his time in the most successful film series ever. And he had no acting experience, beyond television commercials. Though relatively unsuccessful at the time, Lazenby’s only appearance as 007, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is now considered by many Bond fans to be one of the best in the series. And it’s a terrific film, with a convincing and involving plot, refreshing lack of gadgets, and spectacular action. It’s ski chase sequence is still one of the best ever filmed. The big twist in the plot is, of course, that Bond falls in love and gets married. Diana Rigg plays his bride, Tracy. She is excellent in the role, playing a Bond woman who is tough and independent.Lazenby is quite good as Bond, though his inexperience shows. He lacks the self-assured presence of Connery. In a way, though, this fits the film perfectly, and allows a more honest, human Bond that jives better with the story. Though initially derided by critics, Lazenby’s only Bond film stands as one of the most memorable and powerful of the whole series.OHMSS did not, however, fare as well at the box-office. So the producers lured Connery back for one more turn as 007 in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. This film, while entertaining and well-acted by Connery, marks the beginning of a sad emphasis on comedy and outlandish plots. It also began a downward slide in quality, that continued in earnest with the casting of Roger Moore as Bond.Moore: The Comedy YearsEven in Moore’s first Bond film, Live and Let Die, the problems are obvious. The filmmakers continue the lighthearted comedic style they began in Diamonds Are Forever, and this time they have an actor more than willing to take that style and run with it. The result is what is widely known amongst Bond fans as the James Bond Comedies. They are characterized by outlandish plots, silly villains, cardboard characters, ridiculous slapstick humour, unbelievable gadgets that 007 relies upon to get out of sticky situations, and a Bond that is more concerned with spouting bad puns and not wrinkling his suit than dispatching villains.The ultimate bad Bond movie is Moonraker. To sum up how bad this film is, one need go no further than considering the chase scene in Venice. Bond is in a gondola, pursued by evil villains, and calmly opens a panel to reveal electronic controls that turn the gondola first into a speedboat, and then into a hovercraft. We are then “”treated”” to a scene where Bond drives the gondola/hovercraft through a crowded square, and shots of pigeons doing double-takes and drunks staring at their liquor bottles and throwing them away. Funny, I was 13 when I saw Moonraker, and couldn’t believe how juvenile the film was. Gone is the interesting Bond character created by Ian Fleming. Instead we have a cardboard superman, invulnerable in any situation, tossing off bad jokes and raising his eyebrows. Sigh. But perhaps I’m a bit too hard on the Roger Moore era. Sure, it produced the worst films of the series, but Moore did have some effective moments. The Spy Who Loved Me was very good, with effective set pieces, a memorable villain (“”Jaws,”” the steel-toothed giant), and some sporadic good acting from Moore. For Your Eyes Only was a return to the Fleming style, and features Moore’s most effective performance as Bond. When he coolly dispatches a villain by kicking his car, precariously perched on the edge of a cliff, onto jagged rocks below, you actually sense his anger and desire for revenge. Great stuff, and true to the Fleming character.The last two films of the Moore era, Octopussy and A View to a Kill, were passable. There were scattered good moments vying for attention with scenes like Bond swinging on vines through a jungle, a Tarzan yell on the soundtrack. All in all, though, I was glad to see the end of the comedy years. And for a fan of the books, longing for a return to the true spirit of 007, the next Bond incarnation was a dream come true.Dalton: Back to BasicsInitially, Pierce Brosnan was the actor chosen to next portray James Bond. At the last minute, however, his contract to the tv series Remington Steele prevented him from playing 007. So the producers of the Bond films decided to go with Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, who was one of the actors originally considered when Connery first left the role. Dalton made a great 007. He brought the character back to earth, paved the way for the incredibly successful Brosnan films, and made an acting contribution to the Bond films surpassed only by Sean Connery. It’s odd that most people don’t seem to like him as Bond. I think that you have to have read the Fleming books to really appreciate Dalton’s performance. Back in 1987, with the release of the first Dalton Bond The Living Daylights, I breathed a sigh of relief that the years of the James Bond Comedies were over. Here was an all-too-human James Bond, who was also a ruthless killer when required. Bond was back with a vengeance.There’s one scene in The Living Daylights that comes close to summing up all of Dalton’s strengths as Bond. It’s set in a fairground in Vienna. Bond has met one of his allies, Saunders, in a cafÃ© that features an electronic sliding door at the entrance. Saunders gives Bond some valuable information, and Bond thanks him, clearly showing his respect. As Saunders walks out of the cafÃ©, one of the villains activates an electronic device that slams the sliding door into Saunders, killing him. Bond runs over, kneels in front of Saunders’ body, and spots a balloon with the words “”Smiert Spionon”” (“”death to spies””) written on it, indicating that the death was not an accident. The look on Dalton’s face as he realizes this is pricelessâ€
Is it just me, or is the competition getting a lot younger? Every time I turn around, there’s some teenage girl on television bearing her flat mid-riff and her perfect Barbie doll figure. They’re young. They’re tan. They have that twinkle in their eye. And, you just know that they can eat all the pizza and candy they want without gaining an ounce. I hate ’em.
It used to be that supermodels were everywhere, and that was okay. With supermodels, it was obvious that they had just lucked out on the genetic lottery. It was also obvious that these women never ate. They just smoked their way through life. I accepted the fact that I never would (nor would I want to) be a supermodel. Then the “”Bubble-Gum Cutie”” came along. Now every time I turn on the television I’m subjected to some Disney reject like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, or some “”Dawson’s Creek”” babe. They’re cute. They’re sweet. They’re perfect. They’re everywhere. And, they make me want to lose my lunch.If I sound like a woman scorned, it’s because I am scorned. I’m sick of all the standards that women have to put up with. At least with supermodels the normal woman never stood a chance in the first place. And, the normal guy didn’t expect her to. But with these teen-queens, there’s a constant reminder that I used to be just like them. I used to be able to eat whatever I wanted. I had that perfect figure once. And try as I might, I’ll never have it again. Why? Because these girls are still growing, and I’m grown. I have hips. They don’t. They’re in that stage of growth where their boobs have developed before anything else. It’s that perfect figure we all remember having once upon a time. Now, it’s a fashion statement. It doesn’t matter that my religion is the workout; my temple is the gym, and my prayers take place everyday on the stair-master, or in the swimming pool, as I pray that I work off that annoying flab on my outer thighs. There will still be that constant reminder of what I once was. That outrageous standard that’s constantly thrown in my face every time I try on trendy clothing.Still, my only consolation is that someday these girls will grow up and their metabolism will take a nosedive. They’ll eat the same food the same way, and suddenly, it will make a difference. The rest of their bodies will catch up with them. Their perfectly flat stomachs will develop that small pooch. And, their sense of self-esteem will be shot. Then they’ll realize what every other woman goes through. Then they’ll have to watch and envy the next set of teen-agers with the perfect body. But, maybe by then they’ll be lucky. Maybe then the standards will have changed. I hope so.
I’ve been depressed. I used to watch my Star Wars trilogy collection at least once a month. Now I can’t even bring myself to look at my old action figures. Come to think of it, it’s the same with my Austin Powers video. After my last viewing – my twentieth? twenty first? I’ve lost count – I didn’t even have the energy to rewind the tape. What is it that has rendered my usual and most reliable sources of joy and mirth completely ineffectual? Sequels.
Yes, sequels. The summer of 1999 was supposed to be a high point in a lifelong hobby of movie going. I can think of no summer where I looked forward to the studio release slate with such fervid anticipation. Not only would I see the first new Star Wars movie in over 15 years, I’d also get a second helping of the hairy, dentally-challenged swinging super spy, whose sleeper debut was arguably one of the funniest comedies in years.But it is not joy I feel, only pain. I feel betrayed by both George Lucas and Mike Myers. Why? The new stuff just isn’t up to snuff. Of course, we expect sequels to be similar to the chapters before them. Some continuity of character, theme and tone are necessary, otherwise audiences would be left scratching their heads. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third Indiana Jones movie, provided this continuity in its memorable prologue. Look! There’s the young Indiana Jones falling in a pit of snakes. So that’s how he got his intense phobia! Wow! Young Indy is taming a lion with a whip! Not only was it a good way to show how he learned to use his signature weapon, it was also a clever way to explain Harrison Ford’s real life scar on his chin. As the young Indy is crowned with his trademark fedora, the prologue concludes one of the biggest shared “”in jokes”” between a movie and its audience. Spielberg gives the audience what it expects quickly, and then is free to tell the story he wants using a familiar character. The audience is refreshed, as if it’s been reintroduced to an old friend it’s not seen in quite some time. Lucas and Myers got too bogged down in giving the audience what it expects. So much so that it affected the quality of their respective stories. After all, why worry about the audience getting tired when it’s been told time and time again You Are Going To Like This Movie! With the ubiquitous marketing and sheer frenzy prior to the opening of “”Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”” and “”Episode 1: The Phantom Menace”” was there ever any question about whether or not people would go see these movies? When marketing and history have pre-sold your movie, why concern yourself over silly little details such as the story?I can almost picture George Lucas sitting down to write “”The Phantom Menace.”” He has a yellow legal pad out on his desk and he’s jotting down thoughts as they come into his head. What lines do I have to put in, he thinks. “”I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”” Of course, that has to be in there. He continues thinking, last time out I had goofy furry alien creatures fight nameless, armored soldiers in an effort to blow up a shield generator. While they’re doing that, there should be an air battle, the goal of which should be to blow up a giant space station that is the key to the enemy’s power. What should I do this time, he asks himself. After a moment of reflection, eureka! He has found it! I know, he proudly thinks, this time I’ll have an air battle, the goal of which should be to blow up a giant control ship that is the key to the enemy’s power. While that’s going on, goofy scaly alien creatures will fight nameless, robotic soldiers. Perfect!While the above writing process was unfolding, Mike Myers sat at his computer, hypnotized by the blinking cursor and – surprise – was hardly able to come up with original ideas for Austin’s second romp. In the first Austin Powers movie, we do not see Dr. Evil’s face until after he has sent the Fez-topped Mustafa and several others to a fiery death. Suddenly we see Dr. Evil and he wants to get on with the announcement of his diabolical plan. But wait! What’s that noise? It’s Mustafa, calling down from below that he’s been “”badly burned”” and is in need of help. It’s a great skewering of the typical action movie convention of violence without consequence, where people are killed without any regard to pain, suffering or remorse. Myers has fun with this, and the result is hilarious.So, Mike Myers decides it worked so well in the first movie, why not try it again? In The Spy Who Shagged Me, Mustafa is thrown off a cliff and a similar line of “”badly injured”” dialogue ensues. This time around, however, it’s not as funny and feels tired and used. With so many spy and action movies in the canon of American and British cinema, it’s a shame Myers couldn’t mine more clich
Recently, I attended an Roundtable about the State of Independent Film Directors. The color Green was so prevalent, it could have been St. Patrick’s Day. For nearly two hours, the six filmmaker’s in attendance endured questions of finance and profit with an uneasy grace, while rarely did an audience member come forward with an inquiry into the life and motivations of a director.
After all, this is Washington, and if anything, we know the bottom line; in a town where the residents mull over the gargantuan Federal Budget, film budgets such as the $750,000 Alejandro Hauterman paid to produce “”Little Thieves, Big Thieves”” seem minuscule. So minuscule, in fact, that they are not dignified with a screening in this city, except in the eleven days of FilmFest DC. Nevertheless, the crowd of about forty–packed into a nook at Border’s on 18th & L streets, and largely ignored by patrons skimming the shelves for Marilu Henner’s diet book or the latest “”Chicken Soup”” title– was comprised of independent film enthusiasts, who bore profound concerns for the viability of independent films. Their fears were validated when Brazilian filmakers Claudio Mac Dowell (“”The Call of the Oboe””) and Rosane Svartman(“”How to be Single in Rio””) related the difficulty Brazilian films have cracking into theaters in their own country. “”At best, they get limited showings in Rio and Sao Paulo”” says Mac Dowell. They also lamented the virtual impossibility of their films’ finding commercial success in the United States. Though “”Central Station”” and “”Life is Beautiful”” made tidy profits here last year, they are an under whelming exception to an overwhelming rule. The difficulty, they all agreed, is on account of the language barrier. “”[Americans] don’t want to go to the cinema to read”” Mac Dowell–who had some trouble with English–added, in reference to subtitles. Hauterman currently has three projects in the works–all in English. “”The market for a Spanish film is very, very small. I film in English for better distribution.”” One of the first questions that an audience member was the standard, “”how was the film financed.”” The answers revealed running trends in off-Hollywood financing. Mac Dowell received joint support from Dutch and Brazilian backers, as well as a filmmaker’s prize from HBO. When that ran out, he fell back on a tax-shelter for filmmakers, a program also exploited by Svartman. Svartman, in addition secured the sponsorship of a beer company, only having to add a scene in which patrons at a bar were seen drinking the company’s product. Hautman had a German partner as well as grants from the Venezuelan film board and from TNT Latin America. It has become common as film budgets bloat, for foreign producers, lacking the fat purses found in the U.S., to forge international alliances. In the future, we are likely to see more films with producers from three or more countries. Finances are patchy and profits are sparse, but non-studio filmmaking has its benes. “”The beauty of independent filmmaking”” offers “”The Sky is Falling”” director Florrie Lawrence “”is that you control what you do,”” and in the following minutes all, including moderator Eddie Cockrell (“”Variety”” critic) bandied about the term “”Freedom,”” and nodded to each other’s comments. With your limited budgets, I asked, are there any freedoms you lose? Would your film have been different if you had a big budget? “”Not really”” Lawrence answered. “”I have no trouble with the limited funds. Above all, I didn’t want to compromise. The production values weren’t great, but there were tricks you learn.”” Her producer, David Parks, immediately added: “”You can’t throw dollars at problems. The big studios should learn lessons.”” independent film, over the years, has irreversibly grown apart from the studio product. So much so that a “”Two-tiered”” system has emerged, in which independent films are financed through equity and use small distributors. Increasingly, they are being pushed off the Multiplex screens and are coming to rely on small movie houses and film festivals for screenings. Mac Dowell stated frankly: “”It’s terrible to be dependant on film festivals for distribution.”” But it is the only remaining way for an independent filmaker to get his work in front of distributors. These distributors understand that the character-driven formula of these films, such as last year’s “”Life is Beautiful,”” and “”Affliction,”” appeal to steadily shrinking audience. Late in the day, one intrepid audience member asked the panelists for their thoughts about the future of character-driven narrative, and for once, they disagreed. Lawrence was the most pessimistic:”” I think thoughtful, character-driven films are in great danger in America. However, I will continue to make indies.”” Mac Dowell blamed the domestic distributors: “”The American audiences are thirsty for these films. You have a commercial market that is not being exploited.”” Svartman’s remarks contained some philosophic optimism: “”There will always be thoughtful, character-driven films. It is a universal and timeless thing.”” Unfortunately, so is moolah.
Death Valley is a hell of a place to shoot a movie. Literally. It’s one of the hottest places on earth, frying up the second-highest temperature ever recorded, 134 blistering degrees Fahrenheit! But it’s also got endless miles of restless sand dunes. And vast panoramic landscapes with shimmering ponds that reflect towering mountains.
The sunsets paint the desert in a warm glow that could deceive you into thinking humans could even survive there. In all, there’s more than 3.3 million acres of spectacular desert scenery. So if you’re mad enough to gamble doing your first feature length action movie on a shoestring budget, Death Valley just might be the place. If you’re mad enough.The team of director/writer Lance Mungia and actor/writer Jeffrey Falcon were mad enough, and they proved it by scraping together $25,000 for the production of their independent film called “”Six String Samurai””. Did it pay off? If winning film festival awards, having the William Morris agency broker your deal to fund production for a nation-wide theatrical release, plus spin offs like a TV series and comic book means success – then it certainly paid off for Mungia and Falcon. Does that mean your “”average action packed, rock and roll fairy tale”” movie can be done for what amounts to pocket change in Hollywood? Not exactly. “”We figured we could shoot weekends in Death Valley and pull off this spectacular martial arts epic for twenty five grand or so in loans and credit card bills,”” said Mungia. “”We picked Death Valley because I could get in with a student permit, and its locations look like they’re from another world, yet, they’re all accessible and within an hour of each other. That decision was great for the film’s look, but horrible for Jeff’s and my pocketbooks.”” So Mungia and Falcon began their three-month shoot in November ’96, and watched as their production costs began to rise – faster than a thermometer on one of Death Valley’s hottest days. It wasn’t as if this inspired team had been splurging on an extravagant production. Their one camera was a rickety 35mm non-sync antique borrowed from Panavision. Additionally, they were shooting on expired 100′ rolls of end stock donated by Fuji Film, forcing them to constantly change mags due to the one minute loads. As for the production team? “”During those months no one was ever paid a dime,”” said Mungia. “”We could barely afford to feed anyone. We’d sleep in tents or cars, eating nothing but hot dogs and drink no-name sodas every weekend.”” How about the costumes and sets? “”Six String’s”” are much more creative than some big budget releases (“”Star Trek – Insurrection”” and “”Soldier”” are two that pale next to “”Six String””). Was that where they overspent? “”We’d written the script around locations that existed, and around costumes we could cheaply make,”” said Mungia. “”Since the film was a post-apocalyptic fantasy, we could make a costume out of anything. Jeff got kicked out of a swap meet once for rummaging through their trashcans. Yet it wasn’t that we weren’t getting anything done, because we were always flying, getting sometimes fifty setups in a day. But we’d totally underestimated the enormity of the film. The details were killing us. We were doing massive location and costume changes daily, plus action, all from the back of a rented U Haul truck.”” At that rate, the shoestrings finally unraveled, and by January, after just three months, Mungia and Falcon found themselves completely tapped out, along with all the relatives and friends who had been willing to gamble on the project. “”We’d amassed well over 3 hours of dailies and overshot our budget by an additional $25,000,”” said Mungia. “”But we’d still only shot 25 percent of the film. I could have sworn it was more.”” Yet the team went back to Death Valley for one last weekend. That weekend the weather and the desert’s bureaucracy went against them. Heavy winds kicked up a storm that blew away their tents and blasted them with sand. While shooting a scene of a motorcycle off-road, Park Rangers hauled them out, fined them, and refused to allow any more shooting without permits. Rather than waste the rest of the weekend, they stopped in Palm Springs to shoot scenes using a junkyard and field of windmills for backgrounds. “”When we came back to shoot again a month later, the junkyard was gone,”” said Mungia. “”If we hadn’t been kicked out of Death Valley, we’d never have been able to get the scene, which is one of my favorites.”” Favorite scene or not, “”Six String Samurai”” and its producers needed money. And lots of it if the previous three months experience was any indication. Hollywood has a reputation for being a place with lots of money. But the first place Mungia and Falcon went was Park City, Utah. The Sundance Film Festival had accepted Mungia’s short film “”A Garden For Rio””. So Mungia, Falcon, Kristian Bernier (director of photography) and some of the crew, descended on the festival for a “”shameless crusade to save our unfinished film””. They showed a trailer for the film to practically anybody that would watch, and got some interest, but no money. So it was back to Hollywood where their four minute trailer got them some new meetings, but still no deals. Next stop? The American Film Market came to Santa Monica, so Mungia and Falcon went back on their shameless crusade. They got enough interest to start serious negotiations, but it was Mungia’s calls to the William Morris agency that finally generated some cash. Super agent Cassian Elwes liked what he saw so Mungia and Falcon had a deal for money and distribution in the unbelievable short time of two weeks. Armed with their experience and a new budget, Mungia and crew headed back to the desert, where they managed to suffer more as the trials of location shooting threw them additional hardships and mishaps. “”In the past 15 years I’ve been in 17 action pictures in Asia where the schedules and conditions have been brutal,”” said Falcon, “”but this was by far the hardest film I’ve ever done.”” But was it worth the struggle?Falcon doesn’t hesitate, “”After you create your own ‘stamp’, people come to you,”” he said. “”They know you can create something from nothing, or on an ultra low budget. During the shooting in the desert we were suffering. But we knew if we could make the film the way we wanted, we could succeed. You have to have the thought in your head that you can succeed.”” So what does having a success like “”Six String Samurai”” as a calling card mean? “”Now I can call people and actually get them on the phone,”” said Mungia. “”And we’ve been having meetings on other people’s projects,”” added Falcon. “”But I think going out with your own material is ultimately much better. Doing other people’s projects means having producers, writers, and others attached. So you end up making a film by committee.”” Mungia and Falcon would prefer not to go that route, but can they get their next project done?””It’s a total question mark,”” Mungia said. “”We know what we would like to do, and the way to succeed,”” he continued. “”You’ve got to plan ahead. If it takes six months or a year just to write a script, take the time. It’s going to take a lot of time, energy and attention to detail. So surround yourself with good people you can trust and just go out and do it.”” That philosophy proved to be successful for Mungia and Falcon. However, other independent filmmakers might want to write their story in a location other than Death Valley.
Every winter, as Hollywood proudly and anxiously rolls out its latest crop of films, moviegoers far and wide tend to almost instinctively divide this parade of pictures into two groups. In the first group, you have the
Ann Lu enters the skirmish known as filmmaking with “”Dreamers,”” a movie, coincidentally about the struggle itself. As of this writing, the eventual release date for the film remains indeterminate, pending a distribution agreement. It seems the final hurdle to the silver screen is the most challenging.
Imagine spending one-third of your time making films, and the other two-thirds haggling with powers-that-be. This is the true life of a filmmaker, beneath the varnish manufactured by Hollywood itself. When a filmmaker is not thanking critics for their praise, giving interviews to flattering writers, or running to the bank to deposit their latest seven-figure check, they are struggling: with investors and executives, with accountants, with cast and crew, with the power company and the IRS, and very often, with their own soul.For most, this struggle is too harrying. After a few years, they strike the tents, and retreat to vocations that offer more tangible rewards. Those are the people the industry doesn’t want; the non-professional, the easy capitulator. Its system is a well-constructed sieve, ensuring that only the grittiest sort remain in their auspices. All successful filmmakers remember their time being shaken through the proverbial sieve.Nascent filmmakers, regardless of talent, experience its purgatory. There are hundreds out there right now, fighting a single-handed war against artistic oblivion. It is a desperation that denies introspection, and eludes expression with words, at least until one has distant hindsight.It can, however, be portrayed with images. With “”Dreamers,”” Ann Lu has done just that. A visual memoir of the present, a cathartic outcry at times, “”Dreamers”” rolls all the frustrations of artistry and young life into a ball of gleaming images. Two kids, Dave and Ethan, shield themselves from hectoring childhoods with dreams of celluloid glory, which hold a power and beauty much like the sun sitting above the hills of eastern Tennessee, the film’s setting.Dreams are like amulets: intricate, splendorous, a charm worn for guidance, and also a weight that holds some in place and causes others to drown. As adults in Hollywood, Dave and Ethan learn– all too soon and all too well– that while dreams protect against some of the calamities in life, they also tear the soul apart from the inside.Their story does not resolve itself in their favor: their abilities to make these dreams work for them are not particularly potent; they are not prodigies. Nor does the story actually “”end.”” The artist who surrenders will find that his replacement has already arrived.Ann Lu is the new blood. Cautious, passionate, and imaginative, she makes you believe she deserves success, and is due, even if this is her first time as director. I picture her in China–before coming to U.S. in 1993– standing alone in a yellowing field, looking towards the sun. It is afternoon, the sun hangs in the west. She follows it in her mind.AntagonistHer aspirations have a powerful foe in contemporary Hollywood politics. With skyrocketing budgets, studio heads must be more cautious: they cannot produce many $ 50 million-plus movies that nobody goes to see. By necessity, contemporary films need to be commercial more than they need to be good. Which usually means they are familiar. The small, personal films are being turned down for their limited appeal, and the simple fact that the studios have less money to make them. For outsiders like Ann, there are now fewer inroads. She even worries if a director like Stanley Kubrick could succeed in contemporary Hollywood: “”Things were easier back then; studios were run by filmmakers. Somewhere, the M.B.A.’s took over and put emphasis on testing, marketing, and merchandising. It is hard for filmmakers with an agenda to fit in. Somehow, they have got to find a way to reconcile artistic integrity with commercial viability.””Her attitude is pessimistic, not defeatist. In fact, she believes industry is ignoring these films to their own detriment: “” It is a mistake to underestimate the size and purchasing power of people who watch this type of film. If they focus their product entirely for the seventeen year old ‘popcorn muncher,’ they are missing a whole group of people who can see value in films with personal vision.””””Even the way things are now, I think if you don’t give up, somehow you will get a break. I don’t know how: I’m still waiting for mine; but I think that if you wait long enough, you will find a way to reach audiences.””Eyes, Hands, and VoicesArt is material vision. The artist is simply one who knows how to use the given tools to make internal vision into material fact. In filmmaking, many of these tools happen to be other artists. Actors, cinematographers, set designers, and many others are artists just as much as writers and directors. Each brings personal vision to the project. The challenge of a director is to utilize these many visions in a way that successfully portrays her own. Without the talents of Neal Fredericks at her disposal, Ann could not have made such a distinct film. In “”Dreamers,”” camera angles and shooting techniques cross your mind more often than acting, dialog, or editing. Neal plays it to his best advantage, never letting you forget that the camera is the voice and not the eyes of the film; a viewer sees the characters and scenery with only as much sympathy as the cinematographer has himself.He is playful, even hedonistic with the photography, shunning the conventional, eschewing the objective, establishing the camera as a flamboyant presence within the film. He shoots dreamers in 35mm, 16mm, and video, according to Ann’s conception of the film. He also shows strong technical ability by conquering the film’s challenging lack of artificial light.At this moment, he is better known. His cinematography in “”The Blair Witch Project”” ( for which he has received only $5,000) was a serious topic of discussion last year, with its herky-jerky frames and varying picture quality. Neal got mixed praise and scorn for his facsimile of amateur camerawork. “”‘The Blair Witch Project’ is the first movie I know of that tried to portray reality with total immediacy and spontaneity”” he says, in part referring to the largely ad-libbed dialog.””Can I interrupt?”” Ann interjects. “”I was just thinking about [Ingemar] Bergmann’s ‘Persona,’ and the way it blurs the boundary of reality and illusion. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is about the surface of reality, which in this movie comes off as an illusion. It intrigues me why this movie caught on with the public. The thinking is all improvisation, which makes it feel like an intrinsic record of the present. I think that opens a link to every audience. “” I believe Ed [Myrick] and Dan [Sanchez], were having a Bergmann moment during that shoot. They set out to do nothing more than re-create reality.””Neal adds: “”So many of us re-create reality in our own measured way. In the eight days of shooting, I think we set out to re-create reality in a more horrifying way.””””This film is one without control.”” Ann replies “” If there is no control, what is the point of being a filmmaker? I think if Bergmann saw ‘Blair Witch,’ he would say ‘why didn’t I make this?’ It has a lack of conscience in confronting reality. It intrigues me.””Neal: “” I could shoot a feature film. They are a dime a dozen. I prefer films that make the best use of camera and lighting. I like controlling my position, even if I am afraid to get involved. A real film director, like [Ann], controls the look. Her main style is to find places that match her imagination. For instance, she found the coffee shop that appeared in [“”Dreamers””], and she said to me: ‘look, this is the way my coffee shop looks ‘. “”Ann concurs: “” More than anything else, I want to re-create reality.Everything I did in this movie was creating the right environment, the right mood. That is why I only used natural lighting [which meant a lot of neon]. The goal was to reflect the psyche in the context it was in. Neal’s work helped achieve that. The look was self-reflective; very much about seeing and being seen.””Sexual BodyAnn and Neal met six years ago in Atlanta, working on “”Compelling Evidence,”” a B-erotic thriller. Ann has never gotten over the experience: “”I like films about sex and violence. The films are enjoyable in a primitive way, because they portray the human condition so shamelessly.”” “”Dreamers”” is a sensual if not erotic movie, containing several fleshy sex scenes. This is likely to become an Ann Lu trademark: “”I enjoy sex, it is part of life. I dream of breaking into people’s houses to have sex. If people go to a movie of mine and find the sex somewhat entertaining, that’s great. Movies are supposed to entertain. But if you go in, and come out wanting to write an essay about it, that’s fine too.””The set of the film was not immune to the tension created by differing sexual attitudes: “” Dave’s sex scene was a problem. The actor– Jeremy Jordan– is sexually ambiguous. Sex doesn’t mean much to him. Well, he had problems when it came time to do the scene. When they both took their clothes off and got close, Jeremy freaked.