Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jonathan Lynn on "My Cousin Vinny"

How did you get involved as a director on My Cousin Vinny?

JONATHAN LYNN: I had just finished Nuns on the Run, which was made by Handmade and distributed by Fox. Joe Roth [Chairman of Fox] had misgivings about the last three or four minutes of the film. When I discovered this I was delighted, because I didn't think the ending worked and had thought of a much better version. We hadn't been able to do it because we'd run out of money.

I told Joe what I had in mind and he immediately offered to put up the money for it to be changed. We shot three or four extra days, three months later, and the whole film worked.

Joe was pleased, and asked me to direct My Cousin Vinny. Danny de Vito was to have directed and starred in it, but he had recently dropped out.

What was it that drew you to the material?

JONATHAN LYNN: I was immediately drawn to it. I have a degree in law, and had always loved courtroom dramas. Among my favourite films were Anatomy of a Murder, The Verdict and To Kill A Mockingbird.

I also saw the film as a statement against capital punishment, something that I have always been totally against. When Tony Jay and I wrote Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, we always looked for a hideous dilemma as the basis for the comedy; I don't think comedies work unless they are about something desperately important for one or more of the main characters.

Also, I wanted to do a film about the real America, small town America, not set in New York or LA or a big urban centre. And finally, I thought it had two really original leading characters, Vinny and Lisa, who were truly funny.

Originality is rare. I had seen plenty of courtroom dramas, and plenty of funny scenes in courtrooms, but I'd never seen what could truly be described as a courtroom comedy, so this seemed to be a great opportunity.

How involved were you in the casting of My Cousin Vinny?

JONATHAN LYNN: Joe Pesci was already attached to the film. He and I met in New York and after a conversation over dinner we shook hands and agreed that we'd do it together.

Casting Lisa was difficult. Fox wanted a 'name'. Without checking with me they offered it to Gina Davis She had a deal with Fox so they were anxious to use her, but she was about a foot taller than Pesci and had nothing of Brooklyn about her. Fortunately, she passed. Fox then tried a few other well-known Italian-American actresses, none of whom wanted the part. I think they thought it was too small. We then auditioned dozens of actresses. None were suitable.

One day I was invited to lunch at Paramount by John Landis, who was making a film called Oscar. A young actress was plaing a scene; her character was a blonde 1920's flapper. She was nothing like Mona lLa Vito in Vinny but I could see that she could act and had excellent timing. Her name was Marisa Tomei. I looked at footage in Landis's cutting room.

Then I asked my casting director to get her in to read for me. He was reluctant. "William Morris has suggested everyone on their list who they think could possibly be right for it." he said "So she can't be." I don't have much faith in the aesthetic judgment of most agents so I insisted on getting her in to read. She was seemed perfect. Fox wanted to see screen tests of our three top choices. We tested them, and to me and the producer Paul Schiff it was obvious that Marisa should get the part.

I took the precaution of showing the tape of the screen tests to Joe Pesci. He too agreed that Marisa was the one. We sent the tape to Fox and they chose one of the other actresses. There followed a long and tense meeting. I was getting nowhere until I played my trump card - Pesci also wanted Marisa. That did it. They didn't want to irritate their leading man. So with an 'on-your-head-be-it' attitude, I was allowed to cast Marisa.

Casting Fred Gwynn as the Judge raised a few questions ("Herman Munster as the Judge?"), but I was confident and there wasn't much of an argument about that. Lane Smith as Jim Trotter III, the prosecutor, was the idea of Dale Launer, the writer. All the other casting came from auditions.

What qualities were you looking for in the actors?

JONATHAN LYNN: An ability to play the comedy, but with the utmost reality. Vinny is film about the class system (which does exist in America, whatever people might say) and about the death penalty. If Vinny screws up, the boys will be sent to the chair and fried. This is serious, and though the treatment is comedic the film depended on the truth of the acting.

I wanted the audience to believe that Lisa was a real blue-collar Italian-American girl from Brooklyn. I wanted the southerners to be southern - but not caricatured.

Are there any lessons you learned on My Cousin Vinny (or any of your features) that would be helpful to low-budget filmmakers working on a much smaller scale? That is to say, can a low-budget filmmaker learn anything from how Hollywood makes movies?

JONATHAN LYNN: I can't think of any. But then, my movies have seldom been made for big budgets, at least not by Hollywood standards. Essentially, the thing that costs the most is time: the number of days shooting is the biggest factor in determining the cost of a film, no matter how large or small. Therefore, low budget films need to be shot fast. The key to this is preparation. The more comprehensive the prep, the faster you can shoot.

Prep time for a low budget film should therefore include sufficient rehearsals. You don't want the actors showing up unprepared, not knowing their lines or wanting to discuss their motivation. That must all be taken care of in advance. If possible, scenes should be blocked with the actors in advance, like for the theatre. The Director of Photography should be present at rehearsal whenever possible, and after rehearsals the director and the DP should map out every shot so that no time is wasted when shooting. If the DP knows what the scene looks like he can plan the lighting much more efficiently.

Obviously some things cannot be prepared: weather can create real problems on the day. But there should always be a back-up plan ready. If an exterior scene can only be shot on one particular day, then you must prepare a way to shoot it whatever the weather. If it means re-thinking it so that you need umbrellas and wellies instead of bikinis, work this out in advance. Also, if you are shooting in changeable weather, shoot it tighter so that the audience won't notice the changes in the light or the sky.

If you look at my low(ish) budget film Nuns On The Run, you will see a chase and shoot out in the street after the two heroes steal the money. That scene was shot in a couple of days, during which we went repeatedly from sunshine to rain. You can see this if you look closely, but no audiences ever noticed because of my use of tight shots when it rained or because of the speed of the cutting. This sequence was storyboarded. Prep is everything.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Amy Holden Jones on "Love Letters"

Love Letters not a very typical Roger Corman film.

AMY HOLDEN JONES: It's the only art house film he ever made, actually.

Where did the story for Love Letters come from?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: My husband and I had written each other love letters. We had been apart after we first met; we met on Taxi Driver. He was the cinematographer and I was Scorsese's assistant. And then we were apart for quite a while. I moved to the West coast and he was on the East coast. So we wrote letters. That was four or five years before.

I had our daughter when I was twenty-six and did Slumber Party Massacre when I was twenty-seven, and I was casting around for an idea for an art film and I came upon those letters. And I thought, well this is really interesting. What would happen if our daughter someday read all of our love letters? How would that affect her?

At the same time, I saw a movie called Shoot the Moon, which was about an extramarital affair and the traumas of the married man dealing with his wife and the girlfriend. I thought at the time, man have I seen this a zillion times. Forever I've seen the point of view of the husband or the man, torn between his wife and the girlfriend. You see it today in Match Point, for example. It's done over and over and over again. I've even seen the story of the wife who was cheated on.

But I had never seen the story of the girlfriend and what it was like for her. I put that together with the love letters and thought it would be interesting if someone came upon the love letters and realized that their parents had had an extramarital affair, if the love letters were not in fact between her mother and father, as ours were, but between the mother and a lover.

In other words, what would happen if you were confronted with an understanding of a time period in your parents' life which you never really understand -- none of us have a real idea of what our parents were like in their twenties. How would that affect your life? And I thought it would be interesting if that then thrust her into an affair with a married man, trying to replicate what she saw her mother had.

Basically, it was designed to be a movie about what happens to the woman outside of the marriage, who is usually, in fiction, painted as a terrible villain and often is kind of a victim who gets left in the end.

Why did you structure the film as a flashback?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: I was doing an art film, and unlike most people who seem today to only set out to do art films, I had been working in big commercial movies, like Taxi Driver and the two pictures that I had cut. I wasn't fancying myself to be Fellini or anything like that.

But I went and read all the screenplays of Harold Pinter, believe it or not, because I felt that this would be high art, and there are some great screenplays in book form by Harold Pinter. Probably there was something in there that inspired the flashbacks, would be my guess. It's certainly an overused device now.

Although you term Love Letters an art film, it gets up and running very quickly.

AMY HOLDEN JONES: Well, I was a ruthless editor. I think of all the things I've done, the thing I was best at was as a film editor. That sounds like braggadocio, but what I mean is that I was better at it than I am as a writer or a director. (laughs) It really suited my sensibility. I like things to move. To this day, I'm always thinking, why didn't I lift that out, why didn't I move it along? I like to take an audience on a journey and go.

In Love Letters, you have Anna watching the famous kissing on the beach scene from From Here to Eternity. When you wrote that, how worried were you about getting the rights to use that scene?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: Actually, I didn't worry about it at all. At that time period, it wasn't that hard. I think there was a limit of how long the clip could be before it started to cost a lot more money.

Did Roger Corman have precise direction on the amount of nudity in the film?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: Yes. He wants either sex, violence or humor. He actually told me that lovemaking wasn't so much required as nudity. And he didn't mind if she could just be lounging around the house nude, but there had to be nudity. He had to have some way to sell the thing.

It's actually the one thing that troubles me about it. I find some of the nudity really gratuitous. But it was the price we paid to get it made.

I was really impressed with the simplicity of the Polaroid scene. It's a lock-down shot, we don't see the couple, we only see each Polaroid photo he takes of her as he drops it into the shot. It said a lot about the relationship, but it was also very cheap to shoot.

AMY HOLDEN JONES: That's one of my favorite scenes. That's a really good example of how you come up with stuff. Writing for a lower budget really focuses your mind. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're sacrificing quality.

I see so many really big budget movies, where they've had everything to spend and have covered everything sixty ways from sideways, but they never did the hard thinking about what was important in the scene. Because they had the time, they just threw spaghetti at the wall and covered everything. As a result, they never thought about what was actually going on.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Roger Corman on "Dementia 13"

How did you first get connected with Francis Coppola?

ROGER CORMAN: I hired Francis out of the UCLA film school as an editor. I had bought the American rights to two Russian science fiction films, which had wonderful special effects, but they were filled with outrageous anti-American propaganda. And so I hired Francis to re-edit those films, and delete the anti-American propaganda. And then he went along and worked with me on several films as my assistant, and particularly on a Grand Prix Formula One race car picture, called The Young Racers, in which we traveled from track to track.

Francis and our key grip built racks and various compartments into a Volkswagen microbus, so that the microbus was actually a traveling small studio. We used that, with a crew of six or seven professionals, and then we would hire local people.

When the picture was finished, I had to go back to do a picture in the United States, but it occurred to me we had efficiently functioning crew and everything in microbus, so we could stay and do another picture.

We were finishing at the British Grand Prix, which that year was at Liverpool, but the problem was that British labor laws were very difficult. We only had permits to work in and around the track. But I knew that the Irish labor laws were looser. So I said to Francis, 'If you can come up with an idea for a horror script, you can take the microbus and several of the crew and just put it on a ferry and go across the Irish sea and shoot there.'

He came up with a very interesting idea for Dementia 13, and he contacted some people he'd been with at the UCLA film school and they flew over to Dublin and everybody lived in a big house there while he shot the picture.

It was a very interesting psychological suspense story. We took one idea from Hitchcock, which was that the leading lady would die early in the film, just as she did in Psycho. I always thought that was great, because nobody ever expects the leading lady to die halfway through the film!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Richard Glatzer on "Grief"

Once you had the idea, how long did it take to write Grief?

RICHARD GLATZER: I wrote it quickly; it was the easiest script I’ve written. I usually don’t keep journals, but I happened to write down in a little notebook the day that (producer) Ruth Charny suggested thinking about this. It was the end of October in ‘91, and I had a draft of the script by early January ‘92; and I hadn’t even starting thinking about it at the end of October, ‘91. So it was pretty fast.

How did you go about funding the movie?

RICHARD GLATZER: I had about $20,000 saved, and we raised another $20,000 from people who were willing to put up $5,000 investments -- none of which was easy.

I think the gay content helped a little bit, that people felt that it was some sort of community function or something. But it also, obviously, limited the film in terms of people thinking they were ever going to see a lot of money coming back. Ruth put up $5,000; it was mostly little bits and pieces, mostly from friends.

We raised $40,000, and at the same time we were doing that, I put together my cast just by going to Sundance and seeing Craig Chester in Swoon, and meeting people at parties or wherever.

That’s where I met Illeana Douglas. Just as I was leaving -- I hadn’t even spoken to her, really -- and I got my coat and was on the way out the door and suddenly clicked that she was perfect for Leslie. I just went up to her and said, “Hey, you wouldn’t by any chance do some low-budget, independent fag film, would you?”

And she said, “I bet you’re the kind of guy who loves Edgar Ulmer movies.” And I was a big Edgar Ulmer fan, so within a day or two she said, “I’ll do your movie,” as soon as I got her the script.

So I assembled the cast and felt like I had this really great group of people. We’d all been hoping to get more money than $40,000, but there was nothing coming.

Did you write the script with particular actors in mind?

RICHARD GLATZER: No. Alexis Arquette and Jackie Beat I knew from this club I was doing; they both performed there. I was thinking of them as I was writing the script; not from the outset, but as I was writing it, I started to realize that I was hearing Jackie Beat saying these lines.

So by the time I finished the script I definitely had them in mind for those two roles. But it wasn’t like from the beginning I was going to write a role a role for Jackie Beat or write a role for Alexis.

How long did you shoot?

RICHARD GLATZER: We shot for ten days. It was ten days for the bulk of the shooting, and then we did an extra half day in the courtroom. That was our big production value, which of course we made look like shit by deteriorating it. We shot it on film and it looked really good, and then we went and shot it off a monitor.

At the time we didn’t know how it was going to work. And I thought if I shoot it on film, I have the option to use it on film, and if I shoot it on video, then I’m stuck with video. It was basically a half day; we were out of there at three, three thirty.

Do you think there were any advantages to not having a larger budget?

RICHARD GLATZER: I set out to make a movie in one location for financial reasons; I think the whole idea of grieving, and the fact that Mark’s dealing with the death of his boyfriend, to me is so much more interesting indirectly and seen only in the office.

I think if we’d had money to go shoot Mark crying at home, or something -- just because we maybe had the money, and you’d think, “Oh, we have to cover that” -- to me the movie gained its identity and meaning from giving him that sense of privacy and from being limited to the office. That was a budgetary limitation that ended up working in the movie’s favor.

Of course, it probably would have been distributed wider and seen as a more mainstream movie if we’d had more locations -- a lot of running around and all that stuff.

How long did it take to finish the movie?

RICHARD GLATZER: It took forever to post it. We didn’t have enough money; the $40,000 was to shoot it, but we didn’t have anything left to do any of the post. We were trying to raise money and trying to find freebie stuff. This was this UCLA student who had this KEM deck at home and she was synching dailies for us. She let us in there to cut some stuff.

It’s so frustrating when you’ve got this in the can and you want to work on it and you can’t. It took us about a year to edit the thing, getting a few bucks here, a few bucks there and begging favors everywhere. There was a post house near me, an editing facility that would let us go in there for free; they were sympathetic and trying to help us out.

And really the only reason it ever got finished was because Mark Finch, who was the head of the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in San Francisco, saw a rough cut of the film and loved it and said he would give us the closing night if we could finish. So then it was this panic to finish it.

I put up more money -- fool that I was -- in order to finish it. No one was coming up with any money. I made him a personal guarantee that I was going to get the film done, and we had two or three months and there was no money, and so I finally just put the money up.

One last question: Am I nuts, or is the actor who plays The Love Judge doing an impression of Lionel Barrymore?

RICHARD GLATZER: Yes, the Love Judge is doing Lionel Barrymore. You’re the only person who’s ever figured that out.

The actor, Mickey Cottrell (the clean freak in My Own Private Idaho) loves to do shtick. That morning, when we were at the location of the courtroom scene and he’s getting dressed, he said, “You know, I do a really mean Lionel Barrymore.” I said, “Let me hear it.” And he did his Lionel Barrymore. And I said, “That’s perfect, just do that.”

It was perfect, it was just what I wanted -- a curmudgeonly character. But no one else has picked up on it. That’s so funny.