Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Satan's boy I could never be. I haven't the humility."

A couple years ago, as I was in conference with a booker for one of the most prestigious theatre chains in America, discussing the climate for midnight movies and the titles that are performing best, we mused upon how one of our favorite filmmakers, and our favorite film of his, seems to have been abandoned by the upcoming generation.

Love him or hate him, Ken Russell was a director whom throughout the '70's and '80's one could not ignore. While there were plenty of directors in that decade who "pushed the envelope," it seemed he was always trying to rip the damned envelope wide open; I always liked to joke that he and Nicolas Roeg were part of an elite group to whom presidents of major studios would grant multi-million dollar movie projects, knowing full well they would get drugged out of their minds before shooting a frame. Russell was a one-man cult movie staple: if you operated a repertory house, you could double feature any of his movies and be guaranteed a crowd. He loved playing with that camera...and with us. Among his achievements:

His adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's WOMEN IN LOVE provided what is still the "twi-night double header" of male nudity in the naked wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates;
THE MUSIC LOVERS was an over-the-top biography that nonetheless chipped away at the wall surrounding the homosexuality of Tchaikovsky...and the well-closeted actor portraying him, Richard Chamberlain;
Those gleefully garish musicals...THE BOYFRIEND, TOMMY, LISZTOMANIA...all carrying the same single-minded vision that for me makes THE APPLE so much more entertaining than CHICAGO or RENT;
A sojourn at tight-fisted (and short-lived) indie Vestron Pictures still yielded a slate of diverse and good-looking films - GOTHIC, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, SALOME'S LAST DANCE, and THE RAINBOW;
And even the most un-cinesatically-inclined philistine reading this essay has surely caught a late-night HBO broadcast of ALTERED STATES...or at least '80's popsters a-ha's blatant ripoff of the film's payoff scene in their "Take On Me" music video.

But it's safe to say that if there's a movie to put on his tombstone, it's the one that we both loved, and which even today, is a lightning rod for trouble.

It's THE DEVILS, very loosely adapted from Aldous Huxley's THE DEVILS OF LOUDUN, itself a liberally embellished account of an actual incident involving religious fanaticism and political dirty tricks. When they talk about movies that "they don't make like that anymore," this is the template. The booker and I remembered how as children, we were fascinated by what it promised with its initial X rating and the lurid advertisements promoting it, back when someone could call a movie "controversial" and it wasn't just astroturfed advertising agency bullshit. I finally saw it at the 1991 installment of Columbus, Ohio's then 24-hr horror marathon NIGHT OF THE LIVING DREXEL, in the middle of the night, sitting next to RE-ANIMATOR director Stuart Gordon, and it was a revelation. A nonstop assault of sex, sacrilege, and hysteria, it left the normally loudmouthed marathon crowd in stunned silence.

So why don't you know the film?

Well, for starters, Warner Bros. has been treating this movie like an autistic Kennedy for over a decade. Previously, in the '70's, they eagerly reissued it constantly, most memorably after the smash of THE EXORCIST ("Prepare yourself for THE EXORCIST with THE DEVILS" said the ads). It was released on VHS in the '80's with no negative pushback from any detractors. But I can only surmise that around the mid-90's, amidst the ridiculous Ice-T/Body Count/"Cop Killer" fracas at WB's then-sister record label, the corporate powers made an edict of refusing to release any NC-17 rated fare in any fashion. And for years, they stuck to that decision, derailing and almost cancelling initially planned director's cut releases of Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH and Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS, and forcing the digital softening of Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT for its initial release. To their credit, in subsequent years, WB has amended that stance, and all these films have been released to DVD in the uncut versions that were previously unapproved. Yet in 2008, when the studio first teased that there would finally be a DVD release for THE DEVILS, leaking a May 20th release date, new cover art, and a mouth-watering 111-minute running time (making it the longest cut ever made public), just as quickly the artwork was yanked and WB denied there was any release forthcoming.

More recently, the studio's continued hate-on for the film manifested itself in a bizarre digital drama this past weekend. On Friday the 18th, with no advance word, THE DEVILS was made available exclusively for streaming and downloading on iTunes, in its standard U.S. 108 minute cut, presented for the first time in any home viewing medium in its proper 2.35 scope ratio. After excited reactions from fans were posted to message boards and blogs, and some entertainment press figures began to ask more questions (Will there be a DVD? What of the 111-minute version previously announced? Why was it cancelled previously?), the movie was removed from sale at iTunes on Monday afternoon. Its availability lasted less than 72 hours!

The most distressing problem surrounding the film is not only that THE DEVILS has never gotten a DVD release anywhere in the world, but that, with little exception, it has been increasingly suppressed by WB in other media. It is not available for booking in revival theatres; my booker friend has offered repeatedly to guarantee midnight bookings in all his midnight movie-running theatres if they would strike a new print of the movie - WB in turn has repeatedly said no. (A few screenings in non-profit venues such as the American Cinematheque have materialized, but very rarely) To date, there have been no U.S. cable or pay-TV airings in over a decade. When critic and historian Mark Kermode (who made the excellent "THE FEAR OF GOD" documentary on THE EXORCIST for its DVD) found the long-lost footage cut from all prints, including a now-legendary scene nicknamed "The Rape of Christ" (involving the "posessed" nuns ravishing a crucifix contrasted with flawed priest Grandier performing a solemn communion rite elsewhere), WB initially refused to allow him to include the material in a UK TV documentary on the film titled "HELL ON EARTH." After wrangling, WB relented, but would only allow the scene and documentary to be run once, and initially tried to bar the use of sound in the clip, as if fearing intrepid viewers would tape it, digitally insert it into existing dupes of the movie, and start bootlegging it. Of course, their fears were correct: a bootleg label named Angel Digital did just that, offering an "uncut" DVD of the film where the bulk of the film was taken from a cropped 1.85 UK broadcast with the deleted footage spliced in. The "Hell on Earth" docco can be found in segments on YouTube, and as a "bonus" on the bootleg DVD. And a recent TV profile on co-star Vanessa Redgrave was unable to use any footage from the movie, despite it being one of her best-known and acclaimed performances.

Add to all of the above the recent not-under-the-radar-enough iTunes smackdown, and one gets the impression they really don't want you to see this movie.

Conspiracy theories abound as to the source of all this suppression. Ken Russell himself is a mercurial personality, as witnessed just a few weeks ago by his massive taking-the-piss during a 35th Anniversary screening of TOMMY at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and indeed, except for ALTERED STATES, none of the films he has directed that are owned by WB have seen DVD release in America, so there could easily be longtime grudges being applied in Burbank; '70's-era WB head John Calley was obviously a fan of his, but current chief Alan Horn is surely less enthralled with such antics. Producer Robert H. Solo once remarked to Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas that THE DEVILS did not start turning a profit for WB until the early '90's, so there is also possibly lingering resentment over the headaches the film has caused versus the money it has brought in. That bad ratio perhaps lays heavy with the home video department today as we speak; they have probably done the math and found that the expected amount of sales it would achieve in this down-market for catalog DVDs would be small, but the opportunity for Katholic kook William Donohue and other religious rabble-rousers to drum up media coverage for their outrage and a boycott threat would be large. And in fairness, that may have been of little worry to '70's-era WB, who just had their studio and their record company, but the media giant that Time Warner is today - encompassing CNN, magazine publishing, theme parks, etc - does have to worry about how the activity of one division can negatively impact the entire family of companies. I disagree with this kind of Nervous Nellie behavior, but I can understand it.

What makes the story sad for us is that perhaps if WB did relent, it could be of no avail. I have personally witnessed extremely poor turnouts at late show screenings of former midnight-show heavyweights like PERFORMANCE and PINK FLAMINGOS, suggesting that a spirit of adventure has left the midnight movie crowds of today. They don't want to brave the challenges of former greats like DON'T LOOK NOW or EL TOPO; at best, they'll take in works like CLOCKWORK ORANGE that have achieved mainstream acceptance, or more often, they want the familiar comforts of fluff like THE GOONIES or DONNIE DARKO. (Look kids, I love the movie too, but it's just "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" with an MTV score, it's not that innovative.) Whether WB's reticence is a cause or effect is almost irrelevant now; there are only so many of us that remember and champion THE DEVILS, and our numbers are dwindling to the point where there aren't enough of us to light a fire under the water tower to require quenching.

And if you look at all the themes of THE DEVILS - corrupt alliances of church and state, guilty-until-proven-innocent posturing, sexual frustration channeled into persecution of convenient "others" - it's really uncannily timely for today. Dare I say it, we need THE DEVILS more than ever. It's gory, it's grimly funny, and gorgeous to look at, even in the ugliest moments. So if any of what I've said has enticed you, take a step forward. Find a copy of the movie however you can. If you are lucky enough that a screening takes place near you (such as the four promised by Lincoln Center later this July), go see it, and drag your friends along. If you are on a movie message board, see if there are threads about it, talk it up. And if you're inclined, write a polite, supportive, and energetic email to WB's home video department pledging your dollars to a proper DVD release.

For that matter, if there are any studio flacks reading this, throw Ken a bone (preferably not Father Grandier's). Give him a SyFy original, an episode of "DEXTER." He'll work cheap, I've seen the proof. If Michael Bay can be allowed his coked-out no-shot-less-than-three-seconds bullshit, there oughta be room for Ken Russell to work again in this town.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

We're Gonna Rock Around the Rednecks Tonight!

We are coming up on the fourth anniversary of one of the strangest moviegoing experiences in my life. I had previously documented this for a select group of friends, but now I am sharing it with you, both as hilarious anecdote and as cautionary tale. In the driving words of drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs, Remember: without eternal vigilance, It Can Happen Here.

Preface: Certain members of my family, kind and enlightened they are, nonetheless get frustrated when people they have publicly sought to champion behave terribly. Specifically, in order to suppress the temptation to regress into casual racist speech when selected pockets of the non-Caucasian population engage in boneheaded behavior, they refer to them as "Canadians."

Thus, as I describe the events of that one Saturday night of June 17, 2006, rather than regress into casual racist speech when this specific pocket of the quite-Caucasian population engaged in boneheaded behavior, by referring to them as "OFAYS," "CRACKERS," "PECKERWOODS," "YOBS," "BOGANS" "HONKIES," "WHITE TRASH," or "FAT IGNORANT INBRED HILLBILLY BASTARDS," I shall be taking a cue from my family, and refer to them only as "French Canadians." Now, on with the story...

It has always been my sorrow that I could not fully take advantage of the drive-in availabilities Cincinnati had offered when I was a child. Though not initialy a horror or exploitation fan, I was hooked on the advertising for the films that came in the papers and the many drive-ins in the area that played them. I can still rattle off the many names -- Acme, Dent, Pike 27, Jolly Roger, Ferguson Hills, Dixie Gardens, Auto-In, Riverview, Twin, Oakley...the Mt. Healthy was the only one I got to patronize as a child because it was closest and they played a lot of family fare, which was all either parent would agree to take me to. And naturally, as Tommy Keene sang, These Are Places That Are Gone.

The nearest open drive-ins for Cincinnatians are the Holiday Auto Theatre in Hanover Township, and the Starlite Drive-In in Amelia. And that night, the Starlite held what I thought was a terrific idea for an event: a Cruise-In, where owners of classic cars were encouraged to bring their vehicles to display, and the double feature would consist of CARS (obvious good idea) and, for this night only, AMERICAN GRAFFITI (a great choice if you're celebrating classic cars, and with the nostaligic sentiments of CARS, a nice companion). I didn't care if I would be all by myself in the vehicle, I was going.

The first half of the evening was just wonderful. I showed up unexpectedly early - 8:15 for what I learned was a 9:15 show - but already the place was packed, so had I come later I could have been sold out. There were three rows dedicated to the classic cars, and they were beauties indeed. And the operators were first class: affordable concession stand that moved quickly, clean bathrooms, even their own "drive-in tunes" let-in CD with announcer patter I later learned a professional d.j. prepared just for them and other drive-ins in the U.D.I.T.O.A.(United Drive In Theatre Owners Association). That is showmanship that the lazybones at Pacific definitely don't offer at their 4 screen Vineland in City of Industry. (I mean, it's a nice place, but strictly by-the-numbers) I chatted up one of the cuter employees, a pre-collegiate sporting a sort of goth-country getup (or "gaunt" as I called it), and she's intrigued about me being from L.A., since she aspires to move there. There was also a unique policy trailer that ran before the feature, demonstrating that drive-ins live and die on concession sales. A bit hard-sell to you, but when over 4000 drive-ins become less than 400, you get the message.

So CARS rocked, naturally. Pixar never disappoints. You could hear laughter from the vehicles all around, a most welcome thing. Movie ends, concession break. More door prizes, more great music. I am complimenting the operators on their presentation, telling them about how L.A. doesn't do anything this cool, and that makes them happy. Things should have just kept on swimmingly.

And then...I could not have predicted how bad things would get. AMERICAN GRAFFITI starts up. The wrong lens is inserted, but I quickly correct them on that to their relief. But it will soon arise that an aspect ratio misfire will be the least of the drive-in's problems...

You see, for the other six days of this engagement week, the second feature is THE BENCHWARMERS. And apparently, a large cross-section of the French Canadians in the audience did not bother to a) listen to the recording all the way through; b) read the newspaper listings that clearly said that the Saturday lineup would be different; c) look at the drive-in marquee which clearly did not have THE BENCHWARMERS on it as they were entering; d) look at the goddamned fliers all over the concession stand that very evening which advertised an alternate program!
After 7 minutes onscreen, the movie stops. One of the hapless employees gets on the loudspeaker and announces the fact that a contingent of disgruntled customers did not know that AMERICAN GRAFFITI was scheduled, and thus a quick poll of horns would be taken to determine whether to pull that movie and run BENCHWARMERS "as promised." To my heartsick predictions, enough horns are honked and the management announces that they will switch films. I get out of the car to see what is going on and to voice my counter displeasure.

Thankfully, I did not have to launch the counterattack. All the classic car owners have already stormed the concession/projection area demanding that AMERICAN GRAFFITI be reinstated; after all, they did not drive classic Studebakers and Chevys as far away as Louisville, Kentucky, for a screening of BENCHWARMERS. And so began a loud, noisy, and confusion-plagued near-riot between French Canadians and good movie lovers. To their credit, the manager resumes GRAFFITI as the chaos erupts, and even offers to run BENCHWARMERS as a third feature afterward.

The illogical outrage of the French Canadians was quite astounding. Customers are yelling at each other not even realizing they are on the same side of the dispute. During an early scene in GRAFFITI where people are mooned, a rather heavyset French Canadian mother decries the "filth" onscreen and says she has children who should not have to be exposed to it. I barely restrain myself from screaming, "HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A FUCKING ROB SCHNEIDER FILM?" The exasperated "gaunt" girl does the job for me, telling the irate mother that BENCHWARMERS is not appropriate family fare and that GRAFFITI is a PG-rated film, and reminding her and others that it was clearly stated on the recording. I get in a few French Canadian faces myself anyhow, both to defend the honor of this really good drive-in, and claiming that "I came all the way from Los Angeles to see AMERICAN GRAFFITI," to sell the urgency of the matter. The staff appreciates it. By now, I'm missing a good chunk of the film, but heck, I've seen it before anyhow. There's principle to uphold.
But the French Canadians will not be moved. The owner finally gives in, and offers cash refunds to all who express anger with the absence of BENCHWARMERS. By the time everyone has gotten their blood money, the lot is significantly emptier, but just enough hardcore faithful, including those dogged classic car owners, are still there, bless them. And the owner notices my participation, and offers me a job. Sadly, I inform him that I will be returning to L.A. in less than a week. I ask the "gaunt" girl if she has an online journal or blog; she does not. I give her a card and tell her if she ever makes it to L.A. to look me up.

It is sad that a significant portion of the population could turn up their nose at one of the legitimate classics of our generation, a film that launched giants like George Lucas, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Mackenzie Phillips, and Suzanne Somers, because it was an "old" movie and they expected a disposable comedy with three actors who literally cannot even bring their "B" game to the field. It is the filmic equivalent of "Give us Barabbas!" "Get these snails off my plate!" becomes dangerously close to our new national motto.
Thank God that despite a long loud fight, the French Canadians, and by default all shitheels, did not win this battle.

Four years later, many of you are still lucky to have a drive-in theatre near you, if not in your city limits, then perhaps a pleasant hour-or-so road trip away. Whereever it may be, make the voyage out and support them, especially when they decide to do something unique like the Starlite did that June evening. And if a bunch of French Canadians start engaging in asshattery, don't be afraid to exercise your own style of force majeure.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Can This Movie Be Saved? THE WICKER MAN (2006)

Though I seriously doubt this erratically-published vanity publication will ever reach the availability to salons and hospitals that the Ladies' Home Journal posesses, I am taking a cue from that venerated member of the Seven Sisters, and launching an ongoing series: Can This Movie Be Saved?. A look at well-documented instances of kino adstoj and determining if they were doomed from the pitch meeting, or if the road not taken could indeed have yielded a good movie. Like any great tragedy, often times the truth is that were it not for a fatal wrong turn, one would have a successful work of art instead of a gleaming turd.

We begin with one of the most egregious (and subsequently mercilessly lampooned) instances of widescreen epic fail, Neil LaBute's remake of Robin Hardy's THE WICKER MAN. You can believe everything you've heard about this movie. It's bad. More specifically, considering the talents of LaBute and Nicolas Cage (both of whom I happen to like though I know it's fashionable not to) and the possibilities of the subject matter, it's a big disappointment. The original THE WICKER MAN is still one of the most unsettling movies I've ever seen, and one that should be on the queue of every person who enjoys challenging film. Despite the fact that, strangely, now that the remake is so part of our snark culture, the central surprises of the original are likely all too obvious, it is still a showcase of great performances by Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, and Britt Ekland, and Anthony Shaffer's screenplay offers much to study in staging, plot turns, and building dread.

While no doubt the notion of remaking the film was borne from an ongoing onslaught of remakes that nobody but penny-pinching studio development people asked for, in this case, it wasn't such a bad idea, because LaBute's previous work, loved or loathed, were original and punchy and with a point of view. It's the difference between a genuine visionary rethinking an established work than, say, the hacky remakes of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS or THE FOG. Note that this was released in the same year as THE DEPARTED, Martin Scorsese's just-as-personalized remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's INFERNAL AFFAIRS, and for whatever problems some may have with Scorsese's film, most agree it is a remake with something new to offer the familiar material.

And here there be spoilers for both WICKER MAN films...

I was initially intrigued with LaBute's central idea, replacing the primary conflict of Christianity vs. Paganism from the original film with a more sex-based impasse -- man-made law (in Cage's cop) vs. "natural" law (in the rural Summersisle residents). And I also liked the increased presence of main female character Willow, who in the previous film is essentially just a lust object, giving her a private conflict: bond of spouse (Willow as fiancee) vs. bond of family (Willow as matriarchal daughter). There are a few moments in this film when, in the course of the grand deception, and especially at the fiery end, you can see tinges of regret in Willow's face, acknowledging that at one time she felt something for her intended victim. And as silly as they look, the recurring uses of bees, honeycomb patterns, bears, etc, at least shows some creativity on the part of LaBute. Clearly he had been thinking about presenting a unique visual environment to stage his story.

However, the first huge problem, which has affected numerous remakes, is that he covers the surface of the original material without capturing the details that made them work the first time. For example, Michael Caine's protagonist in the original GET CARTER inspires curiosity because while he is presented as a mob muscleman, he has the appearance of a dandy and physically threatens no one until almost 40 minutes into the film, so there is initial suspense to whether he can really hold his own in the grimy situations into which he inserts himself. Whereas in the 2000 remake, Sylvester Stallone is obviously a physical threat, and his first appearance on screen involves him beating up somebody, so there's no suspense in waiting to see if he can indeed be a match for his enemies.

Thus in the original film, the Summersisle townsfolk are very friendly, albeit condescending, to Sergeant Howie, the better to fuel his self-righteousness, and to feed him a steady diet of red herrings to guide him to his destiny. And all the while, the casual talk of fertility rites, of radical sex ed in the classroom, and the hot blonde barmaid keep him on edge. The unease was not that they were a threat, but that they were...just weird people he wanted to escape but couldn't. In the remake, there is a chilly obvious nature to all the female inhabitants, and a painfully labored extended metaphor of making all the male inhabitants mute, which may be in keeping with LaBute's vaginal dentata, but results in taking all the suspense away. Howie's tormentors would seem like fun people to hang with...provided they didn't have you marked for sacrifice, but Malus' stream of harpies are exactly the kind of granola-munchers that one dreads crossing paths with at Whole Foods. It's scarier to be scared when you have nothing to be scared of, or as Henry Hill reminds us in GOODFELLAS, when they come to whack you, they come as your friends.

And from my usage of an old colloquialism in that paragraph, yes, as documented heavily by better writers, this movie is absurdly and almost unbearably [pun intended] misogynistic, a expanded demonstration of every exasperated man's lament that ultimately, a woman will choose the irrational myths of her mothers than the realities of her lover. LaBute's films are notorious for, to put it gently, depicting women who do not act in the best interests of anyone, including themselves. However, the bombastic and stubborn manner in which Nicolas Cage as Sergeant Malus conducts himself on the island would lead me to think that, just like the films that put LaBute on the map, this film is more plain misanthropic: women may be conniving bitches, but men can't stop being impetuous cowboys. In LaBute's classics like IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, it is obvious that the men are not to be identified with, liked or copied, and when they make bad choices we can laugh at them. But Sgt. Malus, just like Sgt. Howie in the original, is our surrogate - we have to identify with him because he is the "normal" in the strange land, and while both men have hang-ups and prejudices that we may not like, they're on an ostensible noble cause we should want them to see to completion.

And that is the second huge problem: the filmmakers' flawed choice as to what motivates Malus. First, he is distraught over being unable to save a parent and child from a crash (an event staged by the two "victims", plus his female cop partner), thus the plan to sucker him to Summersisle to save another child and redeem himself, a plausible enough ruse. But if the plot then dictates that Willow, the planted fiancee, reveals that Rowan is his own daughter, this should have been his motivation instead. As a blustery cop jacking bicycles (!) and kick-punching women (!!!), he comes across as a bully, almost deserving of his fate; if he wasn't so caught up in machismo, he could have saved himself. As a whole, I am tired of the horror/thriller convention of a protagonist whose destruction is caused by their own hubris being taken advantage of by others, because if they're that much of a jerk, why feel badly for them? Besides, if he's a cop, hasn't he worked bunco or harassed a couple Roma before, can't he see the David Mamet plot unfolding?

But if the same story had played out with him as a desperate father, appealing to the parental sympathies of the islanders, then his betrayal at the end would have carried poignance and heartbreak. Then Summersisle is truly evil because the matriarchy has turned his parental instincts against him, just as Joanna Eberhart fucks up her successful escape in the hopes of "saving" her children and winds up being turned into another one of THE STEPFORD WIVES. In fact, Cage does undergo a similar sort of doublecross in MATCHSTICK MEN, when his con artist character learns that he has been taken by the girl he believed to be his daughter. In that film, it takes on a unique redemptive turn, because though he has been robbed clean, he acknowledges that he was ready to give up his life and his riches to save his "daughter," and therefore, he accepts the results. Thus, as Howie prayed fervently to his God during his last moments of life in the original, Malus should have spent less time moaning about "you bitches" and "the bees" and instead frantically cried out, "ROWAN, YOU'RE MY LITTLE GIRL, I LOVE YOU!" instead. One always feels more empathy for a fallen dad than a nosy cop.

Finally, to cement the suckitude, the "six months later" ending. (Which, in fairness, was a studio-mandated reshoot; the original ending can be found as a supplement on the DVD) Ho-ho, here we go again, another male getting lured into the scam. (Wouldn't spidery metaphors be more appropriate here than bees?) Not only is it unnecessary, but it's been done already in the terrible "it's a ripoff of THE WICKER MAN but they'll never sue us" '80's movie SPELLBINDER with Kelly Preston. I'm sure it's not intentional on LaBute's behalf, only unlucky cable surfers like me have ever seen that lump of wicca slander, but it's lazy. And I'm just mad that I have to be reminded of that loss of my earth time after this loss of my earth time.

Perhaps we've got it all wrong. Maybe, as Kim Morgan has suggested, the whole thing is really a comedy. After all, LaBute's films are often intentionally funny, albeit a very dark humor, the school of "cleaning blood of the clown suit" punchlines. In some cities, midnight screenings are filled with smart-alecks chanting "NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES!" the way children watching Looney Tunes would chant, "No, not 'The Post'! ANYTHING BUT 'THE POST'!" But no, I don't buy it. LaBute was trying to be scary, and the only thing that scared me was that this movie was going to be a bad turn in his career. Seeing as how he has been currently doing paycheck gigs like LAKEVIEW TERRACE and the current remake of DEATH AT A FUNERAL, in that respect, my prophecy has sadly come true.

So, Could This Movie Be Saved? Had LaBute thought a little harder about what motivates irrational behavior besides base hormonal rage, yes. But he didn't. And thus we are left with a font of failure that is honey for a parade of nasty stingers.

Friday, June 4, 2010

I'm a Gentleman...well, by implication...

Correspondent Brian Saur, founder of the blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks, and one of the proprietors of the podcast The Gentleman's Guide to Midnite Cinema interviewed me the other day. We discussed my DVD commentaries, horror films, and other cinematic arcana. Hope you will find it entertaining.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Never Been Thwarted

Back in 2005, I was lucky enough to catch the brief run of a ragged, energetic little indie comedy called NEVER BEEN THAWED, and to spend time chatting with its writer/directors, Sean Anders and John Morris. They were great fellas who were just happy to get their movie into a theatre in Los Angeles and play in the big league. Five years later, they are the big leaguers. Following their debut, they drew larger attention for their simultaneously vulgar and heartfelt teen comedy SEX DRIVE, and this year have writing credit on two of my favorite comedies from the last few months, SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE and HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. And the hits keep on coming - they have adapted the classic children's novel MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS for 20th Century Fox, and though Noah Baumbach recently stepped off as director, it is still considered a "go" project set for release next year. As such, seeing their names attached to a movie makes me attach an extra finger on my ten bucks so that I'll have it ready to buy a ticket when it comes out.

Despite facing multiple deadlines and other demands of hot writers, Sean Anders was generous enough to spend time talking to an old fan about his body of work. I consider this the first and biggest "get" since I started this blog, and it's a privilege to be able to present this conversation.

You and your collaborator John Morris were playing in bands and doing graphic design before you made NEVER BEEN THAWED. Which I think helped its authenticity - the songs were catchy with hooks, the logos for the fake businesses looked real and established. So those elements, in tandem with the frozen-dinner-collecting premise, really made me feel I was entering a whole other world. Was there a general feeling in the creative process of "Let's give them something they've never seen"?

Not really, because there was no "them" on that movie. We genuinely never expected much of an audience beyond our friends. Our music and design skills came into it naturally because we knew how to do that. Meanwhile we knew nothing about filmmaking. Still, we did want to make the world of the movie look as real as possible because the silly ideas were funnier to us if they were played in a grounded world. Looking back on it now, I would like to have grounded it all much further and not gone for the joke as often as we did.

What is also good is that you don't coast on novelty through the whole film, you put in solid characters whose stories we get involved in. And some of their foibles are familiar - lonely guy likes a girl who's drawn to someone flashier - but you also touch upon stuff we don't see as often, like the rich guy who is way more successful than the Christian musician, yet often feels cowed in talking to him in the confines of their frozen dinner group. Or even the fact that this musician can be a cocky dick to his friends yet can't stand up to his even cockier deaf brother. Were many of the relationship dynamics based in personal experience?

I guess so. Not really specific people or relationships but combos of people we knew and attitudes we found funny. A lot of it is amping up some of our own worst qualities. We really just kind of felt our way through that one, goofing around and trying all kinds of different ideas. In the end a lot of the character work was built in the edit as we had so much good and bad stuff to sift through.

NBT wasn't well attended when I went to see it. But I guess a comedy with no real stars with a tiny distributor and ad budget can only do so much in the marketplace. Five years later, now that you're established, are you content that "the right people" did get to see it, or do you kinda wish it had fared better in its first run and more regular folk got to see it?

I'm mixed on that. Part of me is mortified because I was trying to act in that movie, which is something I had not done before and have not done since. But when I think of everyone else's hard work and great stuff in the movie, I do wish it could have gotten out there a bit further. A movie like that has a pretty limited range of audience. The average person would likely hate it. But those who like it, tend to like it very much. I'm proud of it. A bunch of numbnuts with no experience making a movie without a clue - it got way further than we ever thought it could.

You were able to get SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE sold as a script before you were attached to adapt and direct SEX DRIVE. I noticed that a few gags, such as the "caught with wet pants" moment, feature in both films. Was there perhaps a worry during the making of DRIVE that LEAGUE might get stuck in development hell and not get made, and thus you really wanted to get the jokes performed? All the gags are funny in both movies, rest assured!

On that joke in particular, we never noticed the similarity until we saw LEAGUE for the first time. (We didn't direct LEAGUE so it was all new to us.) It happens sometimes - you're writing new characters in a whole new world so if some dialogue or gags are similar to things you've done before you sometimes don't see it because everything feels different. We've had people point things like that out to us while still in the script stage and we're always glad to be saved from ripping off our own shit.

What I was struck most by in SEX DRIVE was that within the familiar framework, you again stuck in such original items as the Amish detour, the dental even repeat some of your graphic design gags with the fake website stills. Were any of those hard to get past the studio? Did you have to deal with some suit asking, "What the hell is Rumspringa?"

No. Summit was pretty great. They loved the script from the first draft so they were on board with everything story-wise. We had our fights with them along the way of course but overall they were very supportive. I think that's a big reason why the movie turned out as well as it did. Unfortunately, a bigger studio might have had better luck opening the movie but a bigger studio never would have let us make that movie. So we're very grateful.

Clark Duke is the secret weapon of SEX DRIVE. When he shows up in one scene dressed like Charles Nelson Reilly from a "MATCH GAME" episode, I was sold. Once you had decided to cast against type, how much of his character was already in your writing, and how much did Clark explore and heighten it?

Clark brings a lot to everything he does. We could let him off the leash and he would always find us some gold. Lance was always written to be confident and assertive and cool but casting Clark made Lance a much better character and we began rewriting him right away. Clark is very talented with the improv work so he deserves a lot of credit for his characters.

You had an unsold pilot, "PLAYING CHICKEN," which dealt with people divided by politics having to co-exist with each other. Did you have a grand plan for how the show's characters would evolve over the course of a season, or was this just a one-shot where you had the premise and would decide the through-lines later? What could viewers have expected had the show sold?

We wanted to show how futile most political discussion is between average people who talk without ever doing anything about their gripes. I'm that way. I love to bitch about things but I don't really get involved because, at the end of the day, I'm too lazy and disenchanted to make much of an effort. We wanted to keep these guys at each other's throats but always bring it back to family being more important than politics. We had a lot of ideas for future episodes but the show never made it so I don't even remember what they were.

I liked how the main characters of LEAGUE work for the TSA, making the audience find sympathy with a body of people that they normally tend to curse under their breath. (It also allows the old romantic trope of the reunion-before-takeoff ending to happen within our onerous security restrictions) In keeping with the fresh notions of NBT, what other sorts of people or occupations do you think are underrepresented on film that you would like to portray with empathy in your scripts?

We grew up in blue collar settings. It turns out that Hollywood mostly likes white collar characters because most people would rather see a story about a lawyer than a mail man. I'm sick to death of lawyers and cops and doctors. I'm always drawn to average working stiffs because I grew up around them and I always thought I would be one. I never imagined I could get away with this kind of work. I understand why someone who works hard all day wants to escape into the world of the wealthy but I really feel like we need to get away from so many movies and shows about rich people. So, any job will do. There's an interesting subculture in almost any job.

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE was originally written by someone else. How many changes did you bring to the original story, and which (if any) occurred with the casting of the film?

We wrote a somewhat different story based on an already funny script that Josh Heald wrote. We took the characters to some deeper, darker places and we introduced the idea they they were reliving a particular weekend from their youth.

Was it the original draft or your rewrite that attracted Steve Pink and John Cusack to the project?

Cusack came on while we were writing. I honestly don't know which draft he read initially.

Since Cusack seems to have a love/hate relationship with his teen films, were you exited or intimidated when he signed on? Were you encouraged or discouraged to directly reference those films?

We didn't write with him in mind so it didn't affect us much. Most of the direct references were added after we were finished.

Since Clark Duke appeared in SEX DRIVE, were you instrumental in getting him cast?

Yes. We brought up Clark's name in our first meeting with the studio.

What comes easier when you write a comedy: unusual sight gags (the wet pants in DRIVE and LEAGUE, the catheter in HOT TUB), or the relationships and conflicts of the characters?

They are both equally difficult. Writing a gag is like writing a catchy hook in a song. It seems simple but is very hard to get right. Writing characters is like writing a good song. They are different skill sets and you fail more often than not each time you try. It's all in the rewriting and the sticking to it. If you hang in there long enough you find the ideas and moments that you love. Then you find out real soon if anyone else loves them too.

Do you ever find yourself writing a normal scene, and then suddenly come up with a great gag in the situation?

All the time. It's easier to find humor in a real situation than to just sit around thinking, "what would be funny?" The hardest thing to do is to write and not try to be funny. Just write and let it find you. But it's hard not to push when you're being paid to write something funny.

You've touched upon some writers and directors you like - you took meetings with the Apatow and Farrelly camps, and even got to talk to John Hughes - so who are some of your other influences?

I'm not a film school guy and not a big director fan. I kind of take each movie individually as a lot of people beyond the director are responsible for how a film turns out. The same guy who did CITY SLICKERS - a near perfect comedy in my opinion, also did PLUTO NASH. So a lot of people who aren't on lists of greats have made great movies that are worth learning from. So when I think of influences I think more of films like AIRPLANE, THE JERK, GROUNDHOG DAY, KINGPIN, SIDEWAYS, SLAP SHOT, BOTTLE ROCKET, OFFICE SPACE, and on and on. The ones you mentioned are guys I find consistently great. I also love the Coen Brothers and Monty Python but who doesn't?

One of the interesting recurring themes in your scripts is how often times, bullying is more mental than physical. Sure, [in SEX DRIVE] James Marsden physically beats on Josh Zuckerman, but more often, it's about mind games, such as the dynamic between collectors in NBT, or how Lindsay Sloane dominates Jay Baruchel in LEAGUE, making him think he'll never be able to do better than her type. In a way, I think it's the better form of conflict, because it's less unpleasant to watch (I had a little trouble seeing Marsden constantly hitting Zuckerman, though I understand why it's necessary to the story) and makes the stand-up-for-yourself moment more believable - a physical bully can still beat you up no matter how brave you are, but if you have the self-esteem to not play into another's mind games, that's a battle we all face every day. Even in HOT TUB, where the bully is fate itself - the characters decide that no, the world will not go apocalyptic if they decide to improve their lot in life and take what they want. Would you say this is one of your most important messages people should take from your films?

I think that the worst thing anyone can be is a bully. And we all do it to one another in different ways. I was bullied as a kid. I think most of us were. It hurts but it can also push you to do great things. So, although nobody should be a bully, we kind of need them to give us something to rise up against. Bullies are always great tests for the average person's courage. I love stories about bullies going down and getting theirs but I also love stories about a good person forgiving a bully and conquering him that way as well. You can tell by my answer that I have some issues here.

You are currently attached to the proposed remake of MEATBALLS. What kind of pressures, if any, are you feeling in updating such a beloved comedy?

That was actually a script job we did a few years ago that was really never intended to be called MEATBALLS. It was a whole different camp comedy. Never got made so no pressure there.

I'm really excited about your next directorial project, especially since it has such a dangerous premise (a college student is left to father the child of a one-night stand after the mother's death). It reminds me of an Italian film from 1982, SWEET PEA, where a 13 year old is deflowered by an older model, and a couple years later she leaves the boy with him to raise as she pursues her career. While your film has a considerably "safer" premise, it's still going to raise a lot of fuss. Are you worried at all about studio interference or bad press or theatres refusing to play the film?

Sorry, that one went south. But our next movie will also make you think of the great Italian films. It's called WALTER THE FARTING DOG. It's a family comedy based on a popular children's book that we are writing and directing with the Farrelly Brothers producing. It's actually a very sweet story about a misfit dog in search of a family to love him and the misfit (and, yes, bullied) kid who needs him. It's silly and warm and we're very excited about it. We found ourselves kind of loving writing family comedies after we adapted MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS for Fox last year. That one looks like it's getting made this year as well although we will not be directing.

Since you started out with a consumer-grade camera, a few friends, and some wild ideas, what do you have to say to the next bunch of scrappy dreamers who are in the same circumstances you started out with?

We made our movie for the pure fun of it and we worked our asses off but it never felt like work because we were having a great time. I'm certain that if we had greater plans, it would have affected the outcome in all negative ways. So by not trying to impress Hollywood or festivals, we captured something that was real and fun. Far better movies have been made but nobody else but us could have made that one. Now I get paid and I love the work we do but it's different as there are now a lot more cooks in the kitchen. So if you have no money, you also have ultimate freedom. Enjoy it and you can't lose. Even if it leads to nothing, you will have made a movie and that's pretty damn cool already.

NEVER BEEN THAWED was released on DVD by the defunct Hart Sharp Video. While it would appear to be out of print - the inheritor company Virgil Films does not list it in their catalog or at their website - new and used copies are still available at Amazon and most other online DVD retailers. SEX DRIVE is readily available most everywhere DVDs are sold. SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE will arrive on DVD this month on June 22nd, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE will follow a week later on June 29th.

My enormous thanks once again to Sean Anders for talking shop with me, and enormous confidence in him and John Morris to continue entertaining me for years to come.