Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Frank Capra

The Gospel According to Herzog

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Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo

When you’re a voracious reader with a large library, you sometimes get the feeling that there aren’t any books left to discover. There are certainly books left to be read, both old and new, but you’d like to think that you have a decent idea of the territory. Yet it’s always possible to be surprised and astonished by a book you didn’t know existed, which is exactly what happened to me last week. The book is A Guide for the Perplexed by the German director Werner Herzog, which I received as a belated holiday gift from my parents. I’m a Herzog fan, but not a completist: I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored material, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. But I’m stunned by this book. It’s a revised and expanded version of Herzog on Herzog, a collection of his conversations with Paul Cronin that was originally published more than a decade ago, and I’m filled with regret at the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance—I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all.

Over the last few days, A Guide for the Perplexed has practically been attached to my hand, and I’ve already devoured hundreds of pages, browsing in it at random. It’s a huge book, but every paragraph explodes with insight. Even if you don’t have any interest in Herzog, you should pick up a copy just to read for your own pleasure: you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately arrested. Here are a few lines picked almost at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Peter Zeitlinger [Herzog’s cinematographer] is always trying to sneak “beautiful” shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.

Those who read own the world. Those who watch television lose it.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s own stories, which are seemingly inexhaustible. He provides his own perspective on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by his jacket and a catalog in his pocket, and he wanted to keep going—or the threat that kept Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) But there are countless relatively unknown stories that jump off the page: Herzog posing as a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys he needed for Aguirre, forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo, stealing his first camera, shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. We hear about the unexpected targets of Herzog’s disdain, from David Bowie (“The man is a neon light bulb”) to legendary firefighter Red Adair (“He was extremely meticulous, cowardly, and overly bureaucratic”), as well as his contempt for cinéma vérité, a panel discussion on which he concluded by saying: “I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings. Happy New Year, losers.”

Yet little of this would matter, aside from its enormous entertainment value, if we weren’t also treated to a dazzling array of insights on screenwriting, cinematography, sound, financing, documentary filmmaking, editing, and storytelling of all kinds. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example sustains and nourishes the rest of us. In On Directing Film—the other essential book I’d recommend to any aspiring filmmaker—David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he even tells attendees at his Rogue Film School to watch Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as illustrations of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog himself says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2015 at 9:44 am

The Wire cutter

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Clarke Peters on The Wire

Earlier this week, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, posted a fascinating piece on his blog about the recent conversion of the series from standard to high definition. Like everything Simon writes, it’s prickly, dense with ideas, and doesn’t sugarcoat his own opinions. He has mixed feelings about the new release, and although he ultimately comes down in favor of it, he doesn’t exactly give it a ringing endorsement:

At the last, I’m satisfied that while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has significant merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups, and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.

The whole post is worth a read, both for its insights and for its reminder of how much craft went into making this great series so convincing and unobtrusive. We don’t tend to think of The Wire as a visually meticulous show, in the manner of Mad Men or House of Cards, but of course it was, except that its style was designed not to draw attention to itself—which requires just as many subtle decisions, if not more.

Simon likes to present himself as a visual naif, “some ex-police reporter in Baltimore” who found himself making a television series almost by accident, but he’s as smart on the subject of filmmaking he is on anything else. Here he is on the development of the show’s visual style, as overseen by the late director Bob Colesberry:

Crane shots didn’t often help, and anticipating a moment or a line of dialogue often revealed the filmmaking artifice. Better to have the camera react and acquire, coming late on a line now and then. Better to have the camera in the flow of a housing-project courtyard or squad room, calling less attention to itself as it nonetheless acquired the tale.

Compare this to the exchange between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in their famous interview:

Hitchcock: When a character who has been seated stands up to walk around a room, I will never change the angle or move the camera back. I always start the movement on the closeup…In most movies, when two people are seen talking together, you have a closeup on one of them, a closeup on the other…and suddenly the camera jumps back for a long shot, to show one of the characters rising to walk around. It’s wrong to handle it that way.

Truffaut: Yes, because that technique precedes the action instead of accompanying it. It allows the public to guess that one of the characters is about to stand up, or whatever. In other words, the camera should never anticipate what’s about to follow.

David Simon

As it happened, when The Wire premiered twelve years ago, widescreen televisions were just coming on the market, and the industry shift toward high definition occurred about two seasons in, after the show had already established its defining look. Simon notes that he felt that a shift to widescreen halfway through the run of the series—as The West Wing was among the first to attempt—would draw unwanted attention to its own fictionality:

To deliver the first two seasons in one template and then to switch-up and provide the remaining seasons in another format would undercut our purpose tremendously, simply by calling attention to the manipulation of the form itself. The whole story would become less real, and more obviously, a film that was suddenly being delivered in an altered aesthetic state. And story, to us, is more important than aesthetics.

In the end, The Wire took a more subtle approach. Each scene was shot in widescreen, but composed for a 4:3 image, and the decision was made early on to tell much of the story in medium shots, with minimal use of closeups. This served the needs of the narrative while granting the show some flexibility when it came to the prospect of a future conversion, which, if nothing else, is easier now than ever before. (During the filming of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra spent most of one night manually enlarging every frame of the scene in which Jimmy Stewart breaks down while praying: it was a spontaneous, irreproducible moment, and they couldn’t get a closeup in any other way. These days, as I noted in my piece on The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, you can do it with a click of a mouse.)

Still, there are always tradeoffs. This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has been forced to deal with shifting formats, and when you look back on the two most significant previous moments in the history of aspect ratios—the introduction of CinemaScope and the dawn of home video—you find directors and producers struggling with similar issues. Many early movies shot on widescreen, from Oklahoma! to Around the World in Eighty Days to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, were actually filmed twice, with an alternate version prepared for theaters that hadn’t yet made the conversion. And we know that the problem of filming a movie both for theatrical release and for television obsessed Kubrick, who composed each shot for The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut so that it could be shown either letterboxed or in full frame. (Kubrick was good, but not perfect: the full frame versions, which expose regions of the image that would be matted in theaters, occasionally lead to small goofs, like the shadow of the helicopter clearly visible in one of the opening shots of The Shining.) Making movies at such transitional moments is an inevitable part of the evolution of the medium, but it’s never fun: you find yourself simultaneously dealing with the past and some unforeseen future, when the present provides plenty of challenges of its own.

“He took in his surroundings…”

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"He took in his surroundings..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 50. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the few really useful tricks I’ve picked up as a writer is that if you don’t know what happens in a particular scene, try giving it a location. There’s a book on the movies—I think it’s Frank Capra’s The Name Above the Title, but it could also be Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns—that describes a comedian walking onto a standing set and immediately coming up with bits of business involving the furniture and props on hand, and a similar process seems to operate in fiction. When you’re inventing a sequence from scratch, whether it’s a chase scene or a quiet interaction between two characters, you’re initially handicapped because the setting in which it occurs is a blank stage. If you can assign it a location, even a relatively arbitrary one, the layout of the surroundings quickly suggests ideas for movement, action, and rhythm, or what a stage director would call blocking. And although a novelist can design a fictional location in any way he likes, in practice, it’s best if the place involved is a real one with concrete physical constraints.

This is part of the reason why so many authors enjoy drawing maps. In fantasy fiction, a map of the territory often precedes the writing of the story itself, both because worldbuilding is a fun pursuit—even without a narrative to support it—and because the landmarks can impose their own kind of logic. (There’s an entire book, Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi, devoted to teasing out the parallels between cartographic and narrative thinking, and it’s worth a read.) Robert Louis Stevenson went so far as to recommend mapmaking to writers of all kinds:

But it is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident. The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, shortcuts and footprints for his messengers.

"He forced himself to think..."

The value of maps may be less obvious for a novel like City of Exiles, but in practice, they turned out to be absolutely crucial. Much of suspense fiction, as I’ve noted before, consists of laying down an intensely detailed stratum of “realism” that allows the writer to get away with greater imaginative leaps, and that was especially the case here: the plot hinges on a series of implausible events that work only if they’ve been grounded in what seems like some version of the real world. Location research played an important role here, and the trip to London I took paid dividends in such scenes as Karvonen’s first hit and the chase at the London Chess Classic. These are scenes in which real locations dictated much the action, and I don’t think I could have invented anything nearly as convincing if I hadn’t, as Stevenson says, walked every foot and learned every milestone. And even when I wasn’t able to check out a location firsthand, I still relied on maps and landmarks, arguably to an even greater extent, since it meant that I had to plot out complicated action from an armchair.

In Chapter 50, for example, the logic of the story hinged on a solution to a specific series of geographical problems. Karvonen is driving through a snowstorm in Helsinki, heading for the passenger harbor, when he’s forced to make a detour because of a traffic accident. Along the way, he’s stopped by a police van, and in order to avoid being arrested, he shoots and kills the officer. The crime has to be witnessed, forcing him to abandon his car, but he still has to be able to slip away and head for the next place in his itinerary, the network of tunnels under the city that I knew from the beginning would be the setting for my climax. After poring over Google Maps for most of an afternoon, I finally ended up with a location that worked, near the park by Uspenski Cathedral. (Among other things, it allowed me to conveniently interpose a canal between Karvonen and the onlookers to the shooting, who could witness it without being able to respond in time.) If you read the chapter carefully, you’ll see that every beat was suggested or determined by the geography I had to follow. The result is one of my favorite scenes in the novel. And it wouldn’t have worked at all if I hadn’t had a map…

Apollo 13 and the adjacent possible

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In The Name Above the Title, his wonderful, if somewhat unreliable, autobiography, the director Frank Capra describes seeing a silent comedian go onto a set, pick up the props that are lying around—a chair, a lamp, a basket of fruit—and immediately start improvising gags based on the materials at hand. I love this image, just as I love the idea of television shows wringing every possible variation out of a handful of standing sets, or low-budget exploitation films, like those of Roger Corman, that make inventive use of whatever happens to be available. (The original Little Shop of Horrors was shot in two days on sets that were left over from another movie.) While the results can sometimes be mixed, I can’t help seeing this as an example of artistic ingenuity in its purest form, and especially as a useful model for writers, who can often be paralyzed by the range of possible options.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, follows the scientist Stuart Kauffman in calling this concept “the adjacent possible”—the act of creating something new out of what happens to be lying around. His favorite example comes from the movie Apollo 13, in which a team of NASA engineers is confronted with the problem of converting the carbon scrubbers on the damaged spacecraft into ones that will work on the lunar module, using only materials that the astronauts have on board. As they dump a bunch of boxes full of equipment—space suits, tubing, the inevitable duct tape—onto a conference table, the lead technician announces, holding up a pair of carbon scrubbers: “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this using nothing but that.” The engineers get to work, sorting the mess into piles, as we hear a voice in the background saying: “Better get some coffee going, too.”

It’s a great scene, and I know for a fact that one of my best friends became an engineer because of that very moment—he wanted to be one of those guys standing around the table. And it isn’t hard to see why the idea is so appealing. It’s the kind of MacGyver-type problem we all like to think we’d be able to solve under pressure, given enough coffee, and while we may never have to save a spacecraft, we’re often confronted with analogous situations. This is especially true in the intermediate stages of any creative project, like a novel or screenplay. When we begin, we can do whatever we like, but each decision we make seems to narrow our options, until, by the end, we’re left with what feels like a table full of spare parts that we need to fit together. But it’s at moments like this that the most creative solutions tend to present themselves.

In my experience, when you’re looking to solve a problem in any story, the odds are that the answer is right there in front of you, in the collection of pieces you’ve already assembled. I’m always turning up useful spare parts in my own work. When I’m trying to solve a plot problem, I’ve found that it’s often best to go back and check what’s there, in the standing sets I’ve built, because the answer may lie in a throwaway line or a detail that can be put to some other use. (Like the Plains Indians, we try to use every part of the animal.) And when I’m writing a blog post and find myself searching for a snappy closing sentence, chances are, it already exists: it’s just a matter of looking over what I’ve written and relocating the best sentence so it sits at the end. See?

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

A few truncated thoughts on cutting

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Now that I’ve reached the home stretch on the sequel to The Icon Thief, I’ll need to turn my attention shortly to the next stage in the process: cutting the manuscript. I’m contracted to deliver a novel in the neighborhood of 100,000 words or so, which means that at the moment, my first draft is at least twenty percent too long. This is mostly on purpose—there’s nothing wrong with having some extra material at the beginning, as long as you’re planning to fulfill Stephen King’s dictum—but in practice, getting a draft down to that desired length can be a bit of a challenge. With that in mind, I thought I’d pull together some of my favorite maxims on cutting, more for my own reference than anything else:

1. Burn the first reel. This is one of David Mamet’s favorite principles, but it goes back at least as far as Frank Capra’s memoir The Name Above the Title, in which he recounts how he saved Lost Horizon by burning the first two reels. (Capra wasn’t kidding, either. He writes: “I ran up to the cutting rooms, took those blasted first two reels in my hot little hands, ran to the ever-burning big black incinerator—and threw them into the fire.”) Whatever the source, the advice remains sound: in a first draft, writers and directors tend to spend a lot of time easing into the story, when audiences benefit most from being thrown right into the action. The moral? Cut exposition and open with your most dramatic scene.

2. Jump from middle to middle. This takes the previous maxim, which governs the structure of the story as a whole, and applies it to the level of individual scenes or chapters. Early on, writers often take their time building to the heart of a scene, then backing out again, which tends to kill the momentum. Instead of a neat beginning, middle, and end for each chapter, just write the middle. And as I’ve said before, if a sequence of episodes is dragging, try cutting the first and last paragraphs of each scene. In terms of its immediate, often startling effectiveness, this may be the single most useful writing trick I know. (For extra credit, check out Robert Parrish’s wonderful account, courtesy of Walter Murch, of how a similar trick was used to save the original film version of All the King’s Men.)

3. When in doubt, cut it out. If you don’t think you need a chapter, a scene, or a line, you’re almost certainly right. For The Icon Thief, I had to cut like a maniac—the original draft was over 180,000 words long, and when you factor in incidental material and subsequent chapters that were written and discarded, I cut close to an entire page for every one I kept. When I look back at it now, though, I can’t remember any of the cuts I made. A cut may seem painful at the time, but it’s surprising how quickly nonessential material disappears down the memory hole. If, months later, you find that you remember and miss it, it may be necessary to restore the missing paragraphs, but this almost never happens. And it’s far more likely, when you finally see your work in print, that you’ll regret the cuts you should have made.

Written by nevalalee

June 22, 2011 at 9:37 am

Frank Capra on rapid pacing

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First, I cut out long walks, such as prolonged entrances and exits of actors. I “jumped” the performers in and out of the heart of the scenes.

Second, I cut out “dissolves.” It was a fad of the day to indicate “passage of time” or “change in locale” by slowly overlapping one scene into another; for instance, an actor entering an elevator at the eighth floor “dissolves” into the actor coming out at the first floor; or, a blossom-covered tree “dissolves” into the same tree covered with snow. It was a show-off photographic gimmick that pleased filmmakers but bored audiences. I did away with dissolves by “straight-cutting” from the eighth floor to the ground floor, and from tree blossoms to snow.

Third, I overlapped speeches. To facilitate the editing of sound tracks, it was customary for actors to finish their lines completely before other actors responded with theirs. This is contrary to real-life conversations in which people talk “over each other” all the time. Try listening to three women talk sometime. In American Madness the actors interrupted and overlapped their lines at will.

Fourth, and this was the radical change, I speeded up the pace of the scenes to about one-third above normal. If a scene played normally in sixty seconds I increased the actors’ pace until it played in forty seconds. During photography the speed of the scenes seemed exaggerated—in fact, it was exaggerated—but when American Madness hit the theater screens, the pace seemed normal! Moreover, there was a sense of urgency, a new interest, that kept audience attention riveted on the screen.

This deliberate “kicking up the pace” was a most important improvement in my own technique of filmmaking. Except for “mood” scenes, where urgency would be a jarring note, I used this speeded-up pace in all my subsequent films. Critics have continually commented on the “pace” and “naturalness” and “interest holding” of my direction, but they have never guessed how it was accomplished.

Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm

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