Monday, June 7, 2010

The Basics of Basic #1: "Bolero" & the Femme Fatale Connection

What draws the people who make thrillers to "Bolero?" That is, beyond its popularity and recognizability? It's not it's cheap. Unlike, say, the opening of Beethoven's 5th or another equally recognizable piece of music, "Bolero" remains in copyright (and that's part of the reason Maurice Ravel's estate earns more in royalties than any that of any other composer). Ravel himself joked that "Bolero" was "a piece for orchestra without music." What matters in "Bolero" more than the simple melody is the same thing that matters more than plot in a thriller: construction. The importance of a plan and the careful organization of elements. It's possible to build a great thriller out of an obvious set-up and a lame twist, and just as possible to squander an excellent scenario by assuming that plot in and of itself is thrilling enough.

Like Femme Fatale (released 4 months earlier and shot, like this film, in 2001), Basic opens and closes with "Bolero." And, like Femme Fatale, the ending of Basic invalidates most of the plot of the film as we've understood it up to this point. Which doesn't, in either case, mean that everything but the last ten minutes of the movie "didn't matter." If, like me, you think that both Femme Fatale and Basic are great movies, then they both also seem like object lessons in the value of construction over "plot" -- the elements of both movies don't add up to much of a story (in fact, in both cases it's revealed that the story never happened; each film's cynical narrative is negated by a Utopian ending), but the arrangement of those elements is a completely different matter.

November '09 French Interview

I got this interview from the French film website allocine.fr last winter. It's a Google translation and I tried to polish it up where I could, but it's still a little rough. It's got some great information in it, though. Enjoy!

Missing from theaters since "Basic" in 2003, John McTiernan finally returns to the front of the stage. Chairman of several film festivals (Manaus, Gerardmer), the filmmaker has three projects on in development. He engages in a little lesson in film with us, and talks about the great films of his career, from "Die Hard" in "13th Warrior" through "The Political Prosecutions of Karl Rove," a documentary denouncing the actions of the Bush Administration...

Allmovie: What would you say if I told you that you're one of the masters of the modern action film?


John McTiernan: I am not a film critic, and not very comfortable doing my own promotion. I know that some people believe it, and that's fine. Then we agree or disagree. But it's not for me to say... I tried to make action films based on real characters, real people. Honestly, everything comes from Shakeaspeare: he wrote great pieces of action, and he showed how these stories, how to use actors to tell these stories, where to place the humor... He invented everything about how to tell a story. 

Does opera also have an influence on your work, since your father was an opera singer? 
I've been immersed in the opera, yes. And even now it's quite a handicap for me because the words and the implications do not interest me in a movie. Dialogue is the noise made by the character for me, what he says is not necessarily essential in my eyes. It's a point of view that's caused some problems during my career. If we take the example of The Magic Flute Ingmar Bergman, it's almost a textbook example on how you should tell a story through pictures: the film starts very simply, almost primitive with designs very pure, and we enter the story plus the effects of staging are effective with long lenses, and everything takes on a terrifying dimension. And all this without understanding of what is being said, because it doesn't matter. They sing in Swedish, but you get the whole story... Going back to my movies, this is the approach I've always had: my characters are simply noise, and I'm not interested in what they say. 



This idea of this "noise" is found in many of your films. Like in "The 13th Warrior" during the scene where Antonio Banderas is trying to understand the Vikings... 


Yes, I argued with the studios about it, because the producers wanted it subtitled... While the purpose of the scene was just to show that the main character did not understand what people said about him. This notion really hurt the film Rollerball, too. My approach was to ensure no one understands, as we follow the American. It should be constantly surrounded by people without understanding a word and they wanted to caption all this, sadly.

Speaking of producers, what is your view on the evolution of Hollywood since you started?


There have been several developments. Already, when I began making films, the studio had really taken power and had begun to rationalize the production system. It continued in this direction to eventually take another dimension. To take a picture, the supermarkets do not sell produce and food, they sell space in the shelves. The food producers should therefore their rent these spaces and if they fail to sell their products is their problem because the supermarket, it, will never lose money. It's the same thing with the film: the studios do not make movies, they distribute the films. With the exception of a few large machines supervised by the Majors, the rest is purchased once the film finished. The studios have become sellers of space, they are most productive. The executives are there to buy, not to make movies. The business has really changed in that level. 



American films are mostly produced in your eyes?

Hollywood has always made "products". And there is nothing wrong with making products. But suddenly a product means having a star in the credits. And only the scripts that stroke the egos of stars find buyers. Other scenarios are ignored. There is also less professionalism in the management of the studio but hey, I prefer to stop there on this subject ... (sigh)



And what of the technological change with the advent of CGI, digital, 3D?


I participated in this evolution, in the sense that some tools and programs that have become commonplace in Hollywood had been developed during some of the films I worked on. Even then, you add more vehicles in post-production if needed... But for me, the important thing has always been to conceal the fact, to conceal it in something real. And for that, it is best to shoot something real in which we add the CGI, rather than consider all the CGI from the outset. But back to your question, technology is not an enemy, it makes more things possible and pushes creativity... The installation, for example, was facilitated through digital editing software. But there was a revolution before, on The Wild Bunch and his incredible scene of shooting, made possible by the invention of the tape: it is the first film on which the team did not mount need to stick the film butt... All that to say that technology to good use, it's wonderful.



It is also necessary to use it, just...


When they invented color film, the first films offered colorful costumes and very ugly. They were based solely on the gimmick of color... But soon, the filmmakers have exceeded it, and the color did not become a tool for storytelling. I always wanted to make a movie about airplanes, for example. And since there would need CGI, it is cheaper to shoot in digital and film. Except that digital is too flat for me. I turn my film anamorphic, with a small distortion of the image that gives the impression of a great film. But you can not get that with digital. So, we developed a system that fits two digital cameras to one side by side, linked to software that combines the two images: one can get a wide shot and very deep. And it allows, for example, to film a plane in a canyon, with the impression that the rocks are very close while giving a nice depth of field ...
Without this, we could not get what I need. In short, I'm boring you with my technical answers but basically, digital allows me to do that.


One of your most significant films, and most significant modern-SF remains "Predator" What memories do you shoot this?

The studio sent us on the west side of Mexico at the start... But there was little forest with autumn leaves falling. So, we went on the east side, Caribbean side. Where there were no tourists. This was not a place likely to charm a team from Hollywood, but Arnold has enjoyed the place ... And the jungle was really perfect. A good natural setting to learn so players. They can develop their imagination and then their characters, rather than talking about a place, there is nothing like that will dive right people ... Like children, they begin to believe in using their environment. For this reason, a CGI movie shot on a green background is very difficult to do credibly. For the human aspect that emerges from your film is that of Los Angeles. Because that's where your actors are physically and emotionally before, during and after dosing. Even with great players, it feels and ultimately, your film "feels" Los Angeles. Whereas if you leave your actors, it makes everything easier and more credible the coup ...

You are also back in the jungle on "Medicine Man"...

We could do that plans for the second team in the Amazon ... I could not take the core team in the jungle. Shortly before Medicine Man, a film had been shot in Manaus and some technicians had contracted malaria. Insurance companies have learned that, and it has been possible to bring Sean Connery out there and we ended up turning Mexico into a real rain forest. It would have been a great adventure to run in Amazon ...

To return to "Predator", one of the many successes of the film is his creation. How did you develop this character?

Stan Winston who is really behind the creature ... We had tested a first version Aquinas was not good, and Stan has made a real creativity on this project to achieve this character. He died in 2008. But all the credit it deserves on the Predator: it was a great designer can imagine any creature, and then especially the "build"...

And you have in the suites and other crossovers that have made afterward? And the project "Predators" currently in production?

I do not know... It does not really interest me... But it does not bother me... they explode with that!

Another major work, "Crystal Trap" (Die Hard). How did the character of John McClane develop? Was he already like that on paper?

The character was not like that in the script... He owes much to Bruce Willis. The film was written for Richard Gere at the start. John McClane with a very sweet, very sophisticated, very classy edge... But it made no sense for Bruce and me. Our first task was to alter the character for Bruce, and refine the story accordingly.

Was there a will for you to go through a vertical approach to the action, after the "horizontality" of "Predator"?

Every drama has its "scene", you know. A place where history is supposed to take place. It may be half a continent as it can be... If history is supposed to take place on this stage, there is no reason to look elsewhere. After that, no matter the size of the stage, history adapts.

You have refused to do "58 minutes to live" (Die Hard 2: Die Harder) and then return to "A day in hell" (Die Hard with a Vengeance). Why?

I did not like the scenario of 58 minutes to live. A day in hell seemed funnier with the addition of the character of Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson in particular. As for the opening sequence, John McClane is a character who does not want to be the hero... In 58 minutes to live, we started the film on a John McClane who is already the hero "You're not the guy who saved this building in Los Angeles?" And it becomes boring ... John McClane is like the mouse that is giving the finger to the eagle while the eagle swoops down on him... But he must be the mouse. And at the film's end he is no longer a mouse, he must reduce to the size of a mouse in the next film so he can evolve again. The opening sequence of A Day in hell was not one of the options, but the only choice.

In addition to John McClane, the link between "Die Hard" and "A Day in Hell" is based on the Gruber brothers, two bad-guys are exceptional. You knew that the German version changed a little background history as dubbing turns them into activists Irish, so as not to link terrorism with the then German?

I did not know but I can understand... I did not after The Hunt for Red October (Patriot Games, Ed) because the villain was a member of the IRA. However, members of my family were part of the IRA.

Another major film, "The 13th Warrior". It is known that production was more than difficult. What was your version of the film?

There was much concern about this movie. It happens sometimes ... And I'd rather not talk about my vision of the film, I prefer not to open this chapter ... I had a different ending. I wanted to pay tribute to The Ultimate attack (Zulu Dawn), you know the reconstitution of the battle of Isandlwana ... There are three survivors who face thousands of attackers. We know they will not withstand another assault. They all look the Zulus gathered around them, and one of their survivors crying "Why torture us so? Come complete!" And one of his comrades replied: "You do not understand They welcome our courage. " And the Zulus withdrew ... And we understand that they sang a song with three survivors brave enough to continue fighting when the battle is lost ... It's a fantastic final. And that's what I liked to do on The 13th Warrior.

You've also done two remakes of films by Norman Jewison: "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Rollerball."

I love his movies ... I'm not sure he appreciates my remakes by cons! I appreciate his staging, his style, his sense of humor, his class ... I wish I could (re) discover some of his films.

Speaking of "The Thomas Crown Affair", one can not fail to mention Pierce Brosnan, who was the poster of your first feature film "Nomads"...

Pierce is a true friend. A friendship born at first because he was the only actor to be able to write my name (laughs) We hope to go back together ... I love working with him. I saw Mamma Mia! Recently. One might think that choosing Pierce for the film was part of a strange idea, but it is wonderful in this role. It really sings on the screen, and we know that this is not a professional singer. And we see on his face how difficult it is and how he is afraid... And it looks something great! It makes the movie so touching ... And it shows his courage. And that makes him immediately sympathetic. For Peirce had this problem of being too beautiful and too boring for some. But here, we feel distressed, and we love him for that and for the courage he showed to sing. Thank you to them ...

Your fans are desperately waiting for your return from "Basic". What are your plans?

I am working on three projects. The Murder of Orson Welles, which takes place in Brazil in spring 1942 when the murder of Orson Welles ... You can tell how he was killed in the United States when it was in Brazil. Then there's Run, a project around the cars. And the last is a project dear to my heart, The Nez Perce War around the Nez Perce War, an Indian war occurred in the 1870s in the United States. This is a project that I dream up a long time ...

And you have recently made a political documentary, "The Political Prosecutions of Karl Rove"...

This is not really a documentary. It is a compilation of testimonies from 35 people about a hundred court cases ... They are just people who tell their stories, and I simply find them, record their testimonies and compile it all . And now we're working on a "suite" since the departure of Bush from the White House and the producing of this film have convinced other people to testify. The members of the American Right are monsters. Honestly.

It is important to you, as a director, to move from fiction to reality?

No, they included me in this film somehow because I was dragged to court (in the case of illegal wiretapping, Ed). They asked me to testify against someone, and accused me of a crime ... And when I refused I found that they had done this to hundreds of people, simply for political purposes: build a case that dates back to Hillary Clinton as his entourage has been particularly targeted, and Barack Obama, Governor Richardson in North Carolina, etc ... A university professor follows it closely, and it highlighted that 87% of trials involving elected Democrats since 2000 affect! And Republicans are victims of these trials the more moderate ... Those who orchestrate it are not even Republicans, but simply Authoritarian. They are the same as the fascists in Germany in the 20s ... They have a lot of money, they control the justice ... It is them who have tried to apply the Impeachment Bill Clinton prosecutor Kenneth Starr is the one member ultra-radical of the American Right ... And it goes like this until Nixon. These are the people who brought Pinochet to power, which helped the juntas in Argentina and Uruguay ... Dick Cheney already bathed in it when he was barely 25 years ... You remember the Watergate Affair? These people have so much money and power now ... They have muzzled the press, there is no free press in the United States.

Democracy is in danger?

Democracy no longer exists in the United States. It simply no longer exists ... We'll talk in a few years if you want, looking in hindsight what they're trying to do to Barack Obama. Bush was the worst president in history, it has ruined the economy, it has launched two wars lost in advance ... That's all that has allowed Obama to spend. This is after Obama worries me, I really fear for the future. In the U.S., unlike European systems, it is usually rare that any one camp in the opposition block some votes. It happens now, because moderate Republicans are threatened and harassed by the authorities until they agree to vote with the Conservatives. And then, investigations of a sudden stop. All this information is accessible to the press, but nobody looks at the issue because there is no free media in our ... Same old newspapers, even the New York Times. They can not face trial in front of the Right. On television, there is more that remains to MSNBC, almost free ...

There's no hope for America?

There is hope for the American people. Those who voted for Barack Obama, those who are not racist. But all this is very scary...

You raised an issue with Arnold Schwarzenegger? He is a Republican after all...

No, I don't want to bother with it. He's the governor and he has enough to deal with... And I do not want to take our working relationship and use it to talk about politics. Speaking of Arnold, he hasn't fared so badly... His wife is from the Kennedy clan, so she could open his eyes on some things. But Arnold is one of few Republicans to have voted for the health care reform proposed by Obama. He's doing well I think.

On "Predator", you worked with two future governors: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. Do you feel the desire to enter politics?

I think that Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October) plans to run as well. But Arnold had always wanted to enter politics, even at the time. He was always prepared for that.

For us in France, it is rather strange that an actor can enter politics. You realize that? (Laughter)

We also had a taboo about it I think. And Reagan has broken this barrier, and now it's something normal in our eyes. The Americans are primarily interested in what the person says and what it earns. After that, whatever his background, it doesn't matter. But I think the U.S. has always been a kind of platform test for Europe: the things you do not dare do at home, you suggest that we do. You write a book or an article about an idea, and someone in a California office decides to try it. Then you look at how it happens, and you see if you can try the same thing at home. All the ideas that emerge from Europe at home, and often in France.

Last question: if I wrote you a check for $ 150 million, what would you dream project be?

The Nez Perce War. I've dreamt of making this film for a long time and I hope to start it in a few years. But I don't need 150 million dollars. For that price, I can make three films. Three big films, even.

Interview in Manaus in November 2009 by Vincent Garnier & Yoann Sardet

Saturday, June 5, 2010








Title Sequences: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

Here's a pseudo video essay about the opening sequence of Die Hard with a Vengeance, one of my very favorite films of all-time. Essentially, I slowed the sequence down to accommodate my narration. After my narration ends, the sequence plays in full at regular speed with its original and exhilarating soundtrack.


video

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Title Sequences: Die Hard (1988)

Much like Predator, the title sequence of Die Hard is not a discrete, self-contained movement (McTiernan wastes no time before jumping into the meat of the story); so instead we might treat this 'sequences' entry as an example of McTiernan's deft handling of exposition and lean, no frills storytelling. Die Hard follows Predator as an example of McTiernan's then present fascination with vertical lines of movement, but also introduces a succession of cramped spaces - in fact, McClane's progression in the film is really a series of movements from one claustrophobic interior to another. We are introduced to a hand gripping an arm rest, as the camera moves up to reveal a figure seated next to the hand, then moving back slightly to reveal John McClane, settling on a two shot with McClane and the man seated next to him (McTiernan favors two shots for much of the film's opening section, mirroring his handling of the group dynamic visible in Predator). After some banter between the two (in which McClane is instructed to 'make fists with his toes', the operative part of the phrase being 'make fists'), people begin de-boarding. We might not at first make much of the sudden influx of movement and bodies into the frame, but in retrospect it becomes clear that McTiernan has already begun his series of cramped spaces. Note how careful he is to briefly anchor the camera for a long shot of McClane getting up from his seat: a figure in the foreground partially blocks our view of McClane, and figures invade the space from the left of frame, as well as movement behind - essentially a straight line of people receding into the background of the visible space. McClane removes an oversized teddy bear from an overhead compartment, which leads us to -

A long shot interior; as people remove luggage from the baggage claim, figures exit an escalator in the distant background of the shot. McClane becomes visible, recognizable, thanks to said oversized novelty teddy bear. McTiernan briefly cuts to a closer shot of McClane before then cutting to a new scene, the inside of an office building. Mr. Takagi exits an office and walks to an balcony overlooking a large lower level (the camera follows in an unbroken tracking shot). As Takagi greets the gathered crowd (a king greeting his subjects), a figure enters the lower level from the upper right of the frame, cuts through the crowd, and exits frame left, the camera slowly moving away from Takagi to gradually zoom in on the solitary figure. The woman enters an office and phones her children. As they talk, the camera tracks around the character's back, revealing a row of photos of the children and, lastly, a family portrait including McClane. Upon settling on the portrait, the woman swivels in her seat, finally facing the camera (as a young girl asking Mommy if Daddy will be home for Christmas). This is Holly McClane (Gennaro)

In a brief five minutes or so of screen time, McTiernan has introduced several major themes, as well his overriding visual strategy: tension (the gripped hand); a marriage on the rocks, separated geographically and visually; an emphasis on cramped spaces, as well as McClane's concurrent fear of confinement (a crystal clear suggestion as to why his marriage seems to be in danger of falling apart). Interestingly, McTiernan's framing of McClane in the distant background of the baggage carousel mirrors the introduction of Holly, she of the lone figure cutting across the crowd that has gathered under Takagi. Both are isolated, alone, going against the crowd, yet visually linked to each other via McTiernan's distancing effect. As the film returns to the airport, McClane witnesses an exaggerated reunion between two lovers - an overt display of joy and affection that contrasts with his own taciturn remove, as well as foreshadowing one possible reunification scenario with his own wife (we aren't surprised when it doesn't go so well).

Keeping with the notion of McClane's travelling to successive confined spaces, he is greeted by a driver and ferried into a limo. There's some nice, understated banter between McClane and the driver (Argyle!) that suggests McClane's down to earth, everyman persona (the scene also reinforcing the fish out of water theme - 'it's my first time in one', as he proceeds to sit in the front seat, as well as some quick exposition and an explanation of his and Holly's estrangement)

McTiernan's director credit appears soon thereafter, effectively ending the title sequence and the parameters of these 'title sequences' posts. But a couple of additional quick notes: several establishing shots of Nakatomi Plaza, from the perspective of the limo approaching, establish a kind of a cosmic predetermination. In looms on the horizon in all of its vertical glory, cutting through the frame like a knife. It's visually isolated, the only skyscraper in view. McClane's entrance to the Nakatomi lobby suggests a couple of contradicting visual cues: brightly lit, with ample windows and space, McTiernan still places the camera low to the ground, a slight bulging of the image allowing us a view of the ceiling. Suggestion: the illusion of space is just that; the building is simply another entrapment. As McClane walks from the lobby to a bank of elevators, the camera tracks along with him, still low to the ground. A slight fish angle lens still continues to show the ceiling, as well as curving the edges of the frame inwards as he walks under a kind of divider that instantly covers the top half of the frame, essentially obliterating the top half of the image and further restricting the space McClane is allowed to occupy (visually and physically).

The arrival of the terrorists is like lightning - there is virtually no introduction. Within several seconds of their arrival, they've already gunned down two people (both in the lobby, retroactively infusing the initially off-putting space with a concrete violence). Initially framed together, they are a group of men on one single minded mission. While not the good guys, they do resemble the team from Predator (tight knit, visually grouped together, moving as one unit with a perfect precision). They also represent the intrusion of a parallel narrative strand, intruding upon the domestic crisis drama that we've been introduced to.

This is McTiernan's complete mastery of cinematic space. 'Thanks for the advice'.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010