3 Scenes That Affected My Life (Opening Scenes)

In continuing the series of calling out a few scenes I’ve seen in my lifetime that truly stand out, here are 3 more. These are not simply scenes I remember — they truly had a profound impact on me and on how I view the art of filmmaking.

Some great advice I've heard about filmmaking is open strong and close strong. Everything else in between can be forgiven. And to some extent, this is true. I have a lot of favorite films that I dig simply because of their amazing opening or closing sequences.

Today I'm going to talk about openings.

TOUCH OF EVIL (dir. Orson Wells) – I saw this in the only formal film class I took in college, which was actually an English elective (Film as Literature). When the professor talked about a long, tracking shot...I really didn't know what he meant until we watched this film. From that moment on, I was obsessed with them. This may not be one of my favorite films, but it definitely was the one that got my mindset into the actual craft of filmmaking.

THE PLAYER (dir. Robert Altman) – Because of the 'Film as Literature' class (mentioned above), I was now on the lookout for tracking shots. So when when I read the reviews/critical acclaim THE PLAYER received,  every article also kept mentioning the amazing opening "one long take" scene. I was just salivating to see it. I heard that THE PLAYER was going to screen at my monthly college film series (yup they screened films off 35mm projectors at Kane Hall - Room 130, it was glorious) so I bought my ticket and eagerly awaited the screening.

It was my first Altman film. And since I was fascinated with movies (this was before I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker), I geeked out over all its film references that were included.

 

ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (dir. Chris Columbus) – Ok, I'm sure that opening a film with someone just dancing and singing along to a music track had been done before this one, but never as endearing as Elisabeth Shue doing it. And now, this style has been copied so much it may actually dilute how truly wonderful this one is. And it is wonderful.

The Female of the Species...

As my post-production team continues to work on the edit, sound design and score for UNNERVED; and having produced the hell out of Erik Reese's DEAD BULLET on location in Nevada/Arizona finally behind me...I now have the time and, more importantly, the inspiration to begin writing my next feature film script.

There were a few false starts with other stories this year. In fact, it always seems to take working on 2-3 scripts before I realize those aren't the films I want to do (yet). So those drafts go back into the drawer and I tinker with more notes/ideas and dive into watching the films I love (see below) until one idea emerges; and it becomes clear on what I need to write and direct next. And that film is called CAPTURE MY HEART. Well...that's what the idea was called back in the summer of 2013 when I first toyed with it. I've since changed the title but will keep it under wraps for now as it may change again.

With every film project I tackle, I like to set challenges. I never like to just repeat what I've done before, which you can probably tell by my filmography. For the past few years I've been gravitating more and more towards seeking out (and preferring) films featuring strong female characters. Films are just more interesting when they're in the mix. So in my latest script, I plan to have lots of them. By "lots" I mean more than I've ever handled before, so this challenge excites and terrifies me to no end because I'm not talking about just "the wife" and "the girlfriend" roles. Fuck that.

This script will be a dark, twisted, sexy romantic drama/comedy ensemble. With real women. Real men. Real people.

Here are just a few films inspiring me as I begin the writing process:

NASHVILLE (dir. Robert Altman) – this brilliant musical performance and subsequent breakdown first had me mesmerized, then stunned and uncomfortable. I just love this moment in the film.

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (dir. Amy Heckerling) – So candid and authentic. When I first saw it, I'd never heard girls talk like this.

KRAMER VS. KRAMER (dir. Robert Benton) – when Meryl Streep nods "Yes" -- it's heartbreaking. You feel she's full of love, regret and is simply...real.

INTERIORS (dir. Woody Allen) - this is a lesser seen Woody Allen film that I rank among his very best. 3 sisters and a matriarch who rules them all. It's unlike any of his other works and it's one strong performance after another. Diane Keaton actually is much more interesting (possibly unlikeable as well) in this film and her performance for my money is better than in ANNIE HALL.

Geraldine Page is just marvelous as the clinically depressed and mentally unstable mother of 3 daughters -- and wife to a husband who has just told her he's leaving her for another woman. Talk about a subtle powerhouse performance.

OPENING NIGHT (dir. John Cassavetes) - Gena Rowlands commands the screen with this character who is holding on to her acting career as best she can as she deals with aging. An utterly unforgettable performance of a complex (both strong and weak) woman.

ATAME (TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN!) (dir. Pedro Almodovar) - Such a twisted movie. And yet through it all, you just fall in love with Victoria Abril as 'Marina' -- as complex and fully realized character as they come. She's damaged. She's sexual. She's brave. She's vulnerable. She's real. And because of this I still remember her 20 years later.

3 Scenes That Affected My Life

In continuing the series of calling out a few scenes I’ve seen in my lifetime that truly stand out, here are 3 more. These are not simply scenes I remember — they truly had a profound impact on me and on how I view the art of filmmaking. 

This time I'm going to cover on how I fell in love with LOVE in the movies.

ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (dir. Kevin Reynolds) – Call me crazy but to me this is one of the most romantic moments put to screen. It's all starts with the magical and genius Michael Kamen score. Then I just love how cinematographer Douglas Milsome splashes that rimlight on Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's hair. And the dialogue brings it home with such zingers as:.

Robin: It was good to see you again Marian.
Marian: It was good to be seen.

and

Robin: Your King Richard's cousin. You can get word to him of Nottingham's plan. He would believe you.
Marian: If the Sheriff found out I could lose all that I have.
Robin: It's true. But will you do it for your King?
Marian: No -- I'll do it for you.

Cue the fucking awesome Kamen score.

Swoon.

I don't think any actors could mess this scene up. And thankfully I'm a Costner fan anyway so all the talk about his accent that comes and goes doesn't bug me at all.


THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (dir. Michael Mann) – There's something compelling about sacrifice and passion under extreme circumstances. Nothing like it to heighten the tension and romance right? Michael Mann is firing on all cylinders here with the backdrop of that breathtaking waterfall and the life and death stakes involved -- all brought home by the performances from Day-Lewis and Stowe. Seems like the parting of lovers -- the unrequited love -- the heartache -- is what I gravitate towards.

PS - Notice how Madeleine Stowe looks at him doing the "Stay alive!" speech....Jesus!


THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN (dir. Boaz Davidson) –  I was barely a teen but was totally into girls already, so I rented this film expecting to get my teen sex comedy T&A fix. And while it started it out like that, this ending crushed me. It was so real. Even at my young age I could relate because I was already going through puppy love and the rejection that comes along with it.  This film made me realize that movies -- when done well -- can still have deeper emotions in any type of film, regardless of genre.

When those end titles scroll...I thought "what the fuck? That's how they're gonna end this??" But yeah, it's real life.


One of the Greats: Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT

Every now and then I like to write a small review on my “Great Films” list.

OUT OF SIGHT (1998) | Dir: Steven Soderbergh | Writer: Scott Frank (based on a novel by Elmore Leonard) | Editor: Anne V. Coates

Writing a smart, tightly-paced crime/thriller/comedy is tough. Finding or developing chemistry between the lead actors is even tougher. Steven Soderbergh deftly accomplishes an incredible feat by forming a world in which lines are not firmly drawn in the sand, and the characters are so vibrant and alive.

One can visit IMDB.COM for the plot, so I won’t rehash it here. Rather, I applaud Soderbergh’s and editor Anne V. Coates’ approach to the non-linear editing, overlapping dialogue and use of freeze-frames (see video below). Somehow, every time I view the film it seems fresh and daring. Most American filmmakers would shy away from the use of freeze-frames in the middle of a scene, but this dares you to understand the need for its incorporation. After all, it’s such a story that two contrasting leads Jack Foley (George Clooney) and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) and their, seemingly opposite beliefs, that calls for this sense of rhythm. This film definitely influenced my editing style and inclinations.

This was the movie that put Clooney on the map as a legitimate star. Not well received at the box-office (and pre J-Lo days), reexamining this now invites you to understand human complexities, long for the unattainable love and appreciate those who are in your life.

Magic Moment: From the elevator, Jack Foley waves to Karen Sisco even though she -- and a whole team -- are on the hunt for him.



'Schermann Song' in William Martell's 'Act Two Secrets' book

I'm an avid reader of screenwriter William Martell's BLUE BOOK SERIES on screenwriting. So color me shocked and totally humbled that today I discovered he included a section on HOW DO YOU WRITE A JOE SCHERMANN SONG in his book ACT 2 SECRETS. He uses the film to give examples of how to create conflict with characters, escalate dilemmas and move the story forward through song. Martell even admits to crying twice while watching the film.

He writes:

'Joe Schermann Song' has a classic love triangle story with great songs and all the gritty real bits left out in Hollywood films. At times the film seems like Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL in the way it looks at relationships in a very real (and complicated way). The film manages to be both a big fun musical and an Indie film where things don't always end happily ever after - which is what makes it a stand out.

And he says this about the song number 'Moth To The Flame':

These dilemmas are often explored through song and dance - like the great audition number where both Evey and Summer sing the same song and we cut between them...and they even manage to do a great split screen duet! They end up singing on either side of Joe as he accompanies them on the piano in the audition room. This is a great musical number that dramatizes Joe's dilemma - and takes the audience inside the character so that *we* wonder which he will choose...and either way he's screwed.

So honored. Thanks Bill.

This is a show stopper thanks to the amazing live performances (no lip syncing going on) of Christina Rose and Debbie Williams and Joe Schermann's fierce piano playing.

Oh and people ask me how I did the transition the shot from Christina to Debbie and back again in the opening minutes (when the camera tracks behind the judge's head - see video around 00:26). It was an extremely difficult in-camera trick that I did manually with my slider. Without any motion control device I was just estimating where the camera framing would end up on what vocal...and I only got it right twice. Out of at least 12 takes, the shots in the film are the only ones where I nailed the timing.

You can view all the rest of the musical songs by clicking over to my VIMEO page.