Saturday, October 21, 2017

Breathe Review

Breathe is in many ways emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the Film business these days. As you read this, you’d probably be aware of the feeding frenzy going on as one sanctimonious, pious individual after the other can’t wait to (rightfully) demonize Harvey Weinstein’s atrocious behavior.  The issue is, the timing, of course. Despite the fact everyone and their uncle know of, or heard of his deplorable behavior, for decades even. (I mean come on, how many settlements were there? Rose McGowan's suit was known of for quite some time as well as many others.) It didn’t all come out until TWC was almost out of business. (The Producers of their two biggest releases last year, Gold being one, The Founder the other, sued the company for not spending enough money on their respective releases and dumping them on the market at the same time.) Not exactly a flush time for the Company, of course, that’s the time to burn them at the stake, not when they’re spending lavishly on P&A campaigns for several features a year.  Hollywood’s always been known for its bravery.  

 What does this have to do with the powerful directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis?  Just like the films they cover, the film critic cabal is just about as brave and insightful. Is it that the movies aren’t what they once were, or the people writing about them are cowardly lemmings?  I remember seeing a fairly notable film critic I knew from various festival screenings at a preview of PTA's Inherent Vice. After I discreetly messaged him what he thought of the film. In essence, did he think it was as much of a muddled mess as myself? (Yes, I understand it has it's rabid fans, but I'm in very safe territory saying it's far from Anderson's best work.) As much as I was able to get was, "I'm still puzzling it over." Translation? It's like the old joke about 2 agents discussing a screenplay, "what did you think of the script?" "I don't know, no one else has read it yet." Hollywood=Bravery! Of course, it’s a given these days that if a film earnestly deals with a true story about the courage and bravery of a couple who together overcome staggering odds in order to help millions around the world lead a better life. That film just must be a piece of shit, huh? One would think so if you listened to the maddening crowd, but the good news is DP Robert Richardson reinvents himself once again and helps Serkis bring wonderfully rich characters portrayed by Andrew Garfield & Claire Foy to life. Breathe is the true story of Robin & Diane Cavendish, (the film Produced by their son, Jonathan.)  Robin, in the prime of his life is struck down by polio. Unlike most sufferers, he’s permanently crippled and needs a breathing machine to keep his lungs going, which eventually presents problems of its own. After the initial shock and distraught desolation Robin goes on a journey of discovery of what’s possible for those physically limited to a wheel chair. He goes even further in blazing a path for handicapped people around the world.  
Andy Serkis 

Admittedly, Breathe does follow a tried and true paradigm seen recently with James Marsh’s compelling effort in The Theory of Everything which garnered Eddie Redmayne an Oscar. Redmayne is clearly a talented actor, but frankly not quite the body of work Andrew Garfield has put together. Garfield’s breakout year, one could argue, is 2010 in which he headlined the criminally under rated Never Let Me Go and the kick off to the brilliant Red Riding Trilogy: Red Riding 1974.

Andrew Garfield in Red Riding 1974
Breathe, unbeknownst to most who get compensated to write about film seemingly, appears within a specific context. That context is that there’s indeed something of a renaissance in British filmmaking that’s been going on for a decade plus, (possibly fueled by The UK Film Council- financed by the UK Lottery. It turns out if you put money into Indie films they actually produce quality, who knew?) Garfield, Redmayne, Andy Serkis, James Marsh, etc. all Brits intersect and connect with each other in various ways Andy Serkis, as mentioned earlier making his directorial debut here, will always be Martin Hannet for me, chastising Joy Division’s Peter Hook’s bass playing, “you wear it well, mate!” Of course, I’m referring to Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.  
Andy Serkis in 24 Hour Party People

Around the same time Marsh’s somberly, bizarre Wisconsin Death Trip and years later Man on Wire were making the rounds.  (Marsh directed the second segment of the Red Riding Trilogy, 1980.) Then films like Harry Brown w/ Michael Caine and the brilliant Sean Harris (also in The Red Riding Trilogy- and of course Ian Curtiss in 24 Hour Party People. It should be noted The Governor on The Walking Dead- David Morrissey also came from the aforementioned trilogy. Speaking of TWD, Lennie James' Morgan was Steve Coogan's mate in 24...) The Imitation Game another solid effort with terrific performances that again follows the fatally flawed and jeopardized hero paradigm as he helps win WW2. Concurrently, one could throw in the Churchill biopics, one starring the wonderfully skillful Bryan Cox, and the other Joe Wright/Working Title production Darkest Hour featuring another chameleon like tour de force from Gary Oldman 

But, what the American film Industry and its inherent media hangers on have not figured it yet, is it’s all in the execution. And, after all a little originality does go along way. It’s laughable to read so many complain about the pedestrian sentimentality and predictability of Breathe when ya know, we’re on our what 16th or 17th iteration of Star Wars? Or what… not the original Planet of the Apes series, not the Tim Burton version, what 11th or 12th film w/ Apes in title? Really folks? Really? The simple truth is Breathe delivers on all accounts. A strong script by William Nicholson, fantastic performances with Claire Foy every bit up to the challenge of matching Garfield’s skillful acuity, and Tom Hollander as the Blacker twins, Diane Cavendish’s (Foy) brother’s bringing in wonderful comic relief.  

Most interestingly, the camera work by Robert Richardson beguiled me. Seeing this film, as well as many others, in preview screenings as a WGAw member, I purposefully go in knowing as little as possible about a film. Being a lifelong fan of Richardson’s, his muscular style cultivated on films with Oliver Stone like JFK, NBK, and Nixon very much influenced my own work as a young filmmaker. While there were a few things that felt familiar. In particular, a skillfully crafted scene very reminiscent of Born on the Fourth of July in which the newly paralyzed Robin dreams himself able to simply rid himself of his breathing tube and make his way out of the hospital ‘prison’. Eerily familiar to a scene in Born in which Cruise’s Ronnie Kovic imagines himself walking out of his wheel chair and beating a path out of the crummy Bronx VA hospital. One could make the case both scenes derive from Steve McQueen’s character in Franklin Schaffner’s Papillion envisioning himself and Dustin Hoffman shuffling off the Island as old men. Regardless, when the credits rolled at the end of the picture, it was a complete surprise to see it was shot by the brilliant Cinematographer, once again reinventing his look and style to fit the material. It was a marvelous picture to look at but perfectly contained within the material.  

Breathe certainly does pull at the heartstrings, but absolutely earns all those moments w/ an exceedingly well made picture: great performances anchoring a strong script, shot by a world class master, very well paced and leading us to an emotionally powerful climax. But hey, if you’re still clamoring for the 23rd Star Wars installment, by all means, have at it….  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Devil Takes A Holiday meets Psychotropic Overload!

In time for Halloween, just like Universal Pictures did back in the day, mixing and matching their horror Icons: Frankenstein meets The Wolf Man, Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein, Abbott & Costello meet The Mummy, and so on and so forth. It seemed like an appropriate blog title for a few filmmakers who started with their first feature films in the 'horror/thriller' genre. In the case of Leon Corcos, Producer of more mainstream fare like Stretch (Dir by Joe Carnahan- Chris Pine, Ed Helms, Patrick Wilson), Mother's Day (Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston) and the BMW short film the series The Hire, Ticker (Clive Owen, Don Cheadle, Ray Liotta), but whose first feature was the comedic, horror film The Devil Takes A Holiday. Leon primarily cut his teeth on commercials and political spots in Sacramento.

In my own case, Psychotropic Overload , (on Fandor as well) was a first feature. Much like TDTAH it also was a hybrid of sorts, an experimental horror/thriller that could be Lynchian or a bit like Alejandro Jodorowsky. Like Leon, much of my work strayed from that first feature in tone and subject matter. I went on to explore more reality based crime narratives as a screenwriter & filmmaker. A doc, Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino for IFC , about the real Wiseguys who were the basis for Scorsese's mob epic Casino. (The Real Casino initially got it's start on John & Janet Pierson's Split Screen  which is now on The Criterion channel on Film Struck .) Also, subsequent screenplays, one for the aforementioned Joe Carnahan about a true story of a young drug dealer in High School who masterminded a multi million dollar drug operation. A doc (and TV pilot based on the film being shopped to Networks) about the beginning of the rave/ecstasy scene in Warriors of the Discotheque, about the legendary Starck Club in Dallas and a hard hitting political drama The Early Inauguration which is making the fest rounds and getting ready to launch on Shorts HD

Joe Carnahan introduced me to Leon back in the summer of 2000 when I'd just moved to Sacramento, "you need to meet Leon, you guys are like two peas in a pod." Joe turned out to be absolutely right, we've been fast friends ever since. Seeing as Halloween is right around the corner, both our little 'horror' films are doing some biz on Amazon Prime. I thought we talk about the genesis of these films and Leon's career. 
Leon Corcos

Joseph F. Alexandre: We met back in 2000, at that point your work on political spots, commercials, PSA's etc. was winding down a bit. The Devil Takes A Holiday was a few years old but hadn't quite caught fire. How did you first get involved in film and making commercials? 

Leon Corcos: I’d like to say my fine San Francisco State degree in TV/Film opened up the doors, but I can’t. In reality I came out having learned very little practical experience. I did a lot of internships and volunteer work to show enough tenacity to get hired in small market TV, which  BTW wasn’t easy. I have a file of at least a hundred rejection letters. Anyway finally got my first gig at KESQ TV in Palm Springs CA.  Won some award for commercials and the resume and business cards go out looking to move up to a bigger market. The thing about TV stations is “nothing changes but the call letters.” I moved up to Northern California and decided to freelance as a DP/Director. I got picked up by and ad agency and did that for a while. I didn’t know a soul in the area. I bullshitted my way into a waiter gig at night in downtown Sacramento, which turned out to be where all the politicians and consultants hung out. Met a few of the right dudes and as one of the consultants claimed “ he plucked me out of the artistic junkyard,” I did political media for about ten years... Politics was lucrative in the 80s and 90s before campaign reform. Politicians aren’t spending their own money, so they spend it like drunken sailors. My wife worked, so I got to hoard away money and invest it. Northern California was cheap back then. It’s timing. Windfall profits. You didn’t need to be smart, just have the guts to dive in. DTH was made for a lot less than you think. You could shoot 35mm during slow times and get crew at a very good price. You pull favors. 
Joseph F. Alexandre

JFA: Yeah, I love that about the film, you were able to get a ton of bang for your buck! Where'd you first get the idea to do TDTAH? Did you think of it as horror, even though it takes place during Thanksgiving? 
LC: Hmmm. I always thought if John Waters and Woody Allen could have had a kid, it’d be me. I wanted to make a zany film that smacked socially engineered, politically correct values up side the head. It was supposed to be more of a dark humor comedy than horror. I didn’t really pattern it after any horror. I was a fan of the old 1960's stuff. 

JFA: I hear ya man, I wasn't really thinking about horror when I made Psychotropic Overload. I really was doing a sorta of low budget Hitchcockian Psycho type thriller, in the experimental style of Oliver Stone's JFK, (my film came out the same year as NBK which kinda freaked people out. But, really I was just sort of influenced by the media mixing of JFK. I shot Super 8, 16mm B&W reversal as well as color Negative and Hi 8 video.) It's funny 'cause I wasn't even really aware of  many of the films it'd be compared to years later. Some of Jodowrowsky's films, Elias Merhige, or even Todd Hayne's Poison which I'd heard about but hadn't then seen yet. One critic mentioned Brian DePalma's Sisters which made sense when I finally saw it. It's definitely more violent and creepy than Devil... A lot of it is the tone and the brilliant, creepy score by Rob Reis. My then girlfriend, Tracy, was a Producer on the film and appeared in it. Her brother was a really talented musician who did an amazing job on the score. He sets the tone immediately, along w/ the stark B&W images of someone getting knifed so... that always sets the tone:) Btw, I can definitely see the Water's influence in TDTAH...  
David Wittman in PO

LC: I met John Waters in the mid 90s. At Sundance before it got ruined. I picked him up Hitchhiking thru downtown. Park City couldn’t handle the crowd. It (the film) caught a small wave of “cultness” when Chris Gore did a story on making the film in the sadly now defunct Film Threat Magazine. I thought Thanksgiving, being my favorite holiday would be a fun setting. Bad choice. Thanksgiving doesn’t play overseas too well. 

JFA: What was the shoot like? Did it turn out the way you envisioned?

LC: The shoot was a blast. Everyone on the crew was there for the right reason- to have fun, and put out 100%. When you shoot in the middle of nowhere for three weeks, you get to become very close to each other- like a three week cruise in the Adriatic. You work hard. You work long hours. Monty Hunter the camera assistant put it well, “ after the first week, I go back to my room and I was too tired to even masturbate.”

Casting was a challenge. The pay was modified low budget scale as I recall. So the actors had to be on board with the script and the like the idea of gorilla style shooting. The Margiotta sisters were kind of starting out on their own casting so they busted hard to get the cast. 

JFA: At one point you were close to casting Steve Buscemi, how'd that come about? Then fall through? Also, talk about trying to get a decent distributor? Especially going down to LA from Sac? 

Victor Wong in TDTAH
Robert Miranda 
LC: Steve read for the part of Corky, but then had a scheduling conflict as did Sharon Lawrence from LA Law at the time- another conflict. When you pay low ball wages, you gotta expect that. Too bad, those two would have brought a lot to the film. If I did it again, I’d have known to offer them more money. 

Distribution? What a racket! You go to these “markets” to meet buyers and sell. IFFM in NYC, the AFM in LA. Waste of time and money. If you win one of the few prestigious festivals, they find you. If not, good luck. Those festivals today are too corrupt to even enter. Hollywood agencies lock in the screenings well ahead of time. But they are glad to take your $200 entry fee. Today, with the web, open field. Amazon, Hulu, Fandor, Netflix, etc, you’re your own distributor.

JFA: How'd you first meet Joe Carnahan?

Brian T. Finney as 'The Devil' in TDTAH

LC: I was doing political campaign work. I got a call from a kid going to Sacramento State selling himself over the phone. I was crewing up for campaign season. I invited him to my office. We hit it off. I hired him for a bunch of gigs. He filled in for the sound guy who got sick on his first gig for me. He did ok- except he dropped my DAT machine and broke it. 

JFA: What was it like working w/ JC on Ticker .... and later on Stretch?

Joe Carnahan 
LC: It was a lot of fun, and challenges. Crazy thing about this business. Ticker was 9 minutes long and in 2003 and cost almost double what Stretch, a full length feature cost in 2014. Commercial rates are that much different. Silly. Joe’s a talented guy. He has a short fuse from time to time. Like brothers, we fight and make up all the time, so I could generally reign him in on a bad day. Fond memories. 
Joe Carnahan, Patrick Wilson, Ed Helms 

JFA: Yeah, as you know I worked on Ticker as a PA. It was definitely quite an experience. All the resources at our disposal and yet some of the other guys from RSA (Ridley Scott & Associates) who said Ticker was the 'low budget' version of The Hire series. John Woo & Tony Scott did the others... How do you feel about having seen Joe grow from the 'kid' to a renowned filmmaker?

LC:  I t was certainly interesting watching his career blossom. I think had he taken Star Wars producer Rick McCallum’s advice and stayed in Northern California he’d have made more films of the the genre he really loves and would have had more control over the content. 

JFA: Yeah, that was my impression as well. You remember I wrote a script for Joe while he was shooting Smokin' Aces.  It was a really cool script about a High School kid in Blaine, WA who became a major drug dealer. The Untitled Will Wright Project, I called it The Green Years and the way I conceived of it was if you imagined the widescreen vistas & measured early pacing of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven meets the sprawling intensity of Fernando Mereile's City of God you'd have The Green Years. And, the company FilmEngine (The Rum Diary, Luck Number Slevin, and the Butterfly Effect) was really hot to do it. They wanted to give Joe pretty much carte blanche with all sorts of name actors like Mark Wahlberg really wanting to work with him. Joe seemed to be primarily focused on Killing Pablo which he'd written and had Christian Bale and Javier Bardem, but the budget was 80 million and this was just right here waiting to be plucked. Oh well, what if, we all have those...  

LC: Yup, life is filled w/ 'what ifs'...

Leon Corcos at Atlas network panel

JFA: How'd you become EP on Mother's Day? 
LC: Fell into it. I got involved during the development stage. 

JFA: What's in store for Leon Corcos? 

JC: A big yacht in the south of Spain.  Hardly.  Every time I decide “ I’m done. I’m over movies” something interesting pops up. If it means hanging with folks I want to work with and the script is good, I’m in. Otherwise back to restoring cars, and throwing the ball for my lab retriever.
Kurt Mattsen in SP
Sean McNellis & Kurt Mattsen in SP

JFA: I hear ya, ultimately it's really about the work you leave behind. I was thinking of the thriller/horror genre and though my style has moved away from that a bit. Another little film I'm really proud of is Shadow Play which was culled from a feature called Into The Chasm. Again, not really influenced by horror per se but more a creepy atmospheric piece. It's really more a meditative piece on gun violence in the US, but comes the guise of a mind fuck thriller if you will. 

LC: Cool film man, I remember that one from around the time we first met... 

JFA:  What would you advise young filmmakers starting out today? Obviously, things are much different in both positive & negative ways but is there some bit of advice or info that you wish you would've known prior to getting started in your career? 

John Crowther

LC: I think that there are serious changes in the movie business over the years. The indie scene went from exploding in the 1990's to imploding today. The studio system is failing today as well. With home theaters, internet piracy and streaming services, the asses in seats at theaters have dried up. If I were to give advice for young burgeoning film makers I’d have to say, you better love it for the act of doing it. the likelihood of “breaking in, breaking thru” is less than ever. I’d have blown off college film school and dove right in, volunteering on films, PA work, whatever. There are ads all over Craigslist looking for cheap/free crew people. You learn a lot more doing it than reading about it in a classroom setting. If you do go to college, you gotta pony up and do USC or UCLA. That’s it. The networking that comes from being in LA, your classmates going into so many facets of production, you might get a break from one of them. Remember, writer's write. Film makers make films. Commit to making a short film a week. They don’t have to be very involved. A film about teaching your dog how to sit. A film about making pancakes. learn your craft. 

JFA: Yeah, I really agree w/ that. I'd emphasize treat this like a hobby, a side gig. Obviously, do your homework, it's amazing how many young filmmaker are ignorant of the basics of film grammar and classic cinema. Delve into Ozu, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Dreyer, all the greats and grab inspiration. It's easier now than ever to get a film education via Netflix, Fandor, Film Struck, etc.

In addition, get yourself a good solid day gig. Maybe some sort of sales job where you do 90% of your work in 10% the time. I had a buddy out of college who was in sales for Procter & Gamble, ended up being a big Exec and so forth but early on he had a bunch of down time. He could've easily made a few films, written a few novels, etc. If you really want to be a Film Maker it's really hard to work crew jobs, or be stressed about money hustling for work all the time. It leaves you little time to focus on your own work. Even if you worked as a waiter at a really good restaurant, you still have tons of down time and can really focus on your film work. If you're lucky, and build a real body of work, you may be able to generate some nice residual income over the years from all the various digital platforms. It's not a ton of money, but I'm getting money every month from Amazon, then quarterly from Fandor, Shorts International, and other distrib's and with some luck it'll continue to grow. But, if you're always hustling gigs it's that much tougher to build up that body of work. 

You can find out more about Leon's work at his website. You can find out more about Joseph F. Alexandre at his websiteFandor, and Amazon Prime. The Devil Takes A Holiday is free on  on Amazon Prime