A Long Arm first, and celebrating the cinematography of Dion Beebe.

A disclaimer to start: This blog has NOT been written by Jim, your usual erudite and verbose author. Nope. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a first. This blog has been hijacked by the less erudite and verbose other half of Long Arm films, Mr Jimmy Hay. And there I go, pompously and unnecessarily referring to myself in the third person. Like a twat.

Perhaps this blog won’t be too different from what you’re used to after all.

Anyhow. Aware that I don’t want to hit the usual ‘4 digressions per blog post’ quota that Jim imposes upon himself, I will get to the point. Last night I re-watched Miami Vice. Not the 80s TV show that I don’t think I have ever seen so can’t really comment on, but the film directed by Michael Mann. Michael Mann is one of my favourite directors. I think he’s ace and I think his films are ace. In particular, I think Miami Vice is ace. It is probably his best film, but also seems to be often misunderstood and under appreciated. If you haven’t seen it, please do. If you have, and didn’t like it, please read Peter Bradshaw’s review of it, because it will DEFINITELY change your mind about it: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/aug/04/actionandadventure.

Watching Miami Vice got me thinking again about how much I admire the work of the cinematographer Dion Beebe, who shot Miami Vice, as well as an earlier film of Mann’s, Collaterol. Some years ago, I wrote a paper about Dion Beebe which I delivered at a conference celebrating everyone in film that isn’t the director. I liked the ethos of this conference, because the hero-worship of directors is far too rife in film-based media (yes, Sight and Sound and Empire, I’m looking squarely at you) and leads to the relegation of great artists like Beebe to the status of secondary technicians. Below is the paper that I gave, which I hope serves to critically appreciate Beebe’s role in the films he shoots, and which I hope more so may be of SOME interest to you wherever and whenever you may be reading it.

Disclaimer #2: It was an academic conference, so don’t expect any references to obscure 90s indie bands, or meandering transgressions about Dartmoor. You have been warned.

 

Interior Visions – The films of Dion Beebe

In a still relatively young career, cinematographer Dion Beebe has displayed a substantial ability for variation and adaptability. An examination of his filmography shows the great number of directors he has worked with, including Jane Campion, Michael Mann and Rob Marshall, all of whom he has worked with twice, as well as Kurt Wimmer, Gavin Hood and Gillian Armstrong.  It also reveals the wide variety of genres in which he has worked, including dystopian sci-fi thriller, musical, Japanese period drama, erotic crime thriller, undercover cop action thriller and World War Two romance. The variety of films Beebe has worked on has necessitated a considerable variation in his use of mise en scene, tone, lighting, framing and composition in order to aid and enhance the divergent narratives of these films. In an article written about his time working on Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004), Bryant Frazer refers to Dion Beebe as a ‘chameleon’ (Frazer, 2006). The term chameleon is problematic when talking about Beebe, however, as while he is indeed adaptable, he is by no means invisible. Beebe’s aesthetic influence on his films can be clearly seen, not necessarily as an auteurist signature, relying on stylistic repetition, but certainly as an interpretive ability so accomplished as to be visible throughout his work. This article will consider Beebe’s aesthetic influence and explore, through a close reading of three of his films – Collateral, In The Cut (2003) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – the various stylistic techniques Beebe adopts to create mood, infer meaning, and enhance narrative depth.

Collateral was Beebe’s first film working alongside Michael Mann and his first use of High Definition cameras (hereafter, HD). It is a thriller that takes place over one full night, in which Vincent, a contract killer, forces taxi driver Max to drive him around Los Angeles to complete five assassinations. The primary reason that Mann chose HD to shoot the majority of the film was to achieve the goal of making the ‘LA night as much of a character in the story as Vincent and Max were’ (Holen, 2004: 41), by utilising HD’s ability to achieve exposure in extremely low light levels – allowing them to film night scenes using just the existing, ambient light – and its ability to maintain an exceptionally long depth of field. Throughout the film, characters in the foreground, and clouds, buildings and silhouetted trees on the horizon line, are all seen with a clarity that could not be captured on film.

One such use of this depth of field occurs shortly after Vincent’s first victim falls out of a window, landing on Max’s taxi below. As Vincent draws his gun to prevent Max from running away, he is filmed in a mid-shot, just left of centre, over the shoulder of Max, who is positioned to the far right of the frame. Vincent is almost entirely in shadow, lit only by the soft blue ambient light coming from the apartment building out of shot to the left.

Collateral deep focus 1

Vincent is deliberately positioned in the bottom half of the frame so as to make visible the lights and outlines of several high-rise buildings behind him in downtown LA. As Mann notes in the director’s commentary, ‘Downtown is about two miles away, you couldn’t see this without using digital video’ (Mann, 2004).

Using HD’s increased depth of field on Collateral – as Beebe and Mann would do again two years later on Miami Vice (2006) – serves both aesthetic and thematic purposes. Firstly, it creates an innovative look in which background focus doesn’t sacrifice the focus of characters in the foreground, adding, in addition to Vincent and Max, a third element in the frame which serves to present the city environment as vast and imposing, fulfilling Mann’s desire to have the city itself as a prominent character. Furthermore, the long depth of field also aids the narrative and character development of the film by illustrating the vulnerable and isolated situation that Max has been cast into, a situation that for the majority of the film plays out beyond his control. This depth of field is also seen through the windows from within Max’s taxi, which having been established as a place of sanctuary for Max in his opening scene further emphasises the effect that Vincent’s invasion into this space is having on him. To keep the exterior city-at-night visible whilst filming inside the taxi, light levels had to remain low; ‘a system had to be devised to light the actors in a way that would avoid the “incandescent light in your face” look while still drawing in the surrounding nightscape.’ (Hurwitz, 2004). To achieve this, these scenes were lit using electro-luminescent panels that were customised for the film, and were able to be attached by Velcro to any part of the taxi’s interior. The light emitted is a very soft, greenish one that doesn’t block out the nightscape exterior. It also further enhances the effect of the city being a character in the film as the panels make the shots look, as Beebe notes,  ‘like there was no real source, [they] make it appear that everything was lit from the street by the street’s own ambience’ (Hurwitz, 2004).

Beebe’s use of light and colour temperature to extrapolate character insight is seen later in the film in the Jazz club scene. As the scene unfolds it is revealed that Vincent is a Jazz aficionado, and upon killing the bar owner a close up shot of his face reveals a momentary expression of regret; the ‘first anomaly to the perfect machine-like presentation we’ve had from Vincent’ (Mann, 2004). The insight into Vincent’s character and the internal conflict he suffers is portrayed aesthetically throughout the scene, but three shots in particular illustrate this well. At the start of the scene, Vincent and Max are framed centrally in a long shot from the stage and both are looking towards the musicians.

Jazz Bar Long Shot

A strong sidelight from off-screen left illuminates Vincent’s body, leaving Max, seated to the right of Vincent, almost entirely in shadow. This serves to infer Vincent’s imposing and dominant presence over Max, but more so singles Vincent out as the sole appreciator of the music. Behind Vincent, orange and yellow coloured artwork is lit by the only other source lighting in the shot, providing a warm cocoon of light in the upper middle of the frame around Vincent’s head, giving the impression of comfort and sanctuary. The strength of the sidelight, however, places one half of Vincent’s face in complete shadow, suggesting a psychological conflict regarding the murder he is soon to commit. This is further inferred moments later as Vincent, Max, and the bar owner are seated at the table drinking, with Vincent once again positioned at the far left of the frame. The warm orange artwork is still visible to the upper left of Vincent, and he is clearly absorbed by the Miles Davis story the bar owner is recalling.

Jazz Bar Table

The left side of his body, however, remains bathed in the white light, the starkness of which is exaggerated by his white shirt, white skin, silver hair and grey suit. Finally, just before he kills the bar owner, he glances towards the kitchen to check that the waitress has left, and the kitchen is lit by an extremely stark, neon-green light; completely at odds with the warm, shadow-filled interior of the bar. This serves to portray, along with the strong sidelight, the ever-present nature of Vincent’s cold, clinical and emotionless work – and his inability to gain sanctuary from it.

The contrast of warm orange-red light with cold, neon green light can be seen in a number of Beebe’s films, and is often used to portray a psychological conflict within a character – as in Collateral – or between two characters, such as the recurring use of red and green square glass tiles in Holy Smoke (1999). Both of these effects are achieved in In the Cut, Beebe’s second film made with Jane Campion, where Beebe frequently uses the mixed lighting of warm colours with neon-green. He also employs dimly lit, shadow filled interiors, blurred and obstructed shots, and almost entirely hand held cameras to create a dark, gritty, ambiguous and suspicious mood throughout.

In the bar where Franny meets Cornelius at the beginning of the film, shafts of yellow, blue and white light stream in from the window and doorway, casting strips across the ceiling, while unknown characters playing pool, on a deep red pool table, remain indistinguishable in shadow. Two girls wear bright red and green dresses respectively, establishing the colour dichotomy that will be seen repeatedly throughout the film. On their first date, Malloy and Franny visit a bar lit by an array of practicals – yellow floor and table lamps, red fairy lights, green neon fridge lights – as well as unseen source lighting casting the same three colours throughout the bar and directly on to the characters. The mixture of colourful, but soft and unrevealing, lighting continues to emphasise the film’s theme of ambiguity and distrustfulness, while one mid-length shot of Franny and Malloy seated at the bar, centre frame, bathes Franny and her side of the frame in deep red, and Malloy and his side of the frame in neon green.

In the Cut_Bar

In aligning audience identification and subjectivity with Franny, as will be discussed shortly, the red light on Franny thus signifies both her internal sexual desire for Malloy (shown by a previous scene where she masturbates whilst fantasising about him), and a sense of her being in danger, while the green light on Malloy signifies her cautious distrust for him, and his dubious moral state. These same colours are used again in Franny’s flat – through a red lamp shade above, and a neon under-cupboard light – when they first have sex, illustrating Franny’s continuing distrust even after satisfying her sexual desire for him.

One of the most striking visual elements of the film is Beebe’s use of blurred edges around the frame to create and enhance subjectivity. Shots of Franny filmed from a distance, obstructed by lampposts, signs, cars etc, and blurred around the edge of the frame (of which there are many throughout the film), build tension by giving the impression of her being observed; a tension that is heightened by the fact that the look is never reversed, and so the suggestion of an unseen person spying is never confirmed or denied. Often referred to as a feminist filmmaker, Jane Campion is known for challenging and subverting gender roles in her films, and on a psychoanalytical level, Beebe’s use of blurred edges around the screen serve to prompt a reading that the film challenges the ‘male gaze’ of mainstream narrative cinema, a theory popularised by Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). In the various scenes in which Franny reads poetry on the placards above the subway train windows, Beebe uses a Clairmont Swing and Shift lens system which, as John Calhoun explains in American Cinematographer, ‘throws the plane of focus to whichever angle one swings the lens, [it is] used for moments of intense subjectivity’ (Calhoun, 2003: 77).

In the Cut_subway_focus2

The result is a small area of focus in the middle of the frame that moves with the movement of the camera. In doing so the audience follows word by word what Franny is reading, explicitly identifying the shots as her point of view. When blurred edges in the frame are used for non-subjective shots (such as within Pauline’s apartment), or the aforementioned long shots in which subjectivity is never confirmed, the shots mirror the ones used to display the ‘intense subjectivity’ of Franny’s subway scenes, and so by association the audience gaze is made female, not male.

In the Cut_Franny_in_shadow

This reading of the film is further enhanced when considering the opening scene in which Franny secretly views the unidentified man receiving oral sex. Beebe’s use of shadow to hide Franny mirrors Mulvey’s summary of the cinematic audience in which ‘the darkness of the auditorium […] helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation’ (Mulvey, 1975: 9), while the repeated extreme close-ups of the erect penis subverts Mulvey’s paradigm of male/active, female/passive, by making the subject (Franny) female, and the object (the penis) male. Furthermore, Beebe’s use of extreme close-up highlights Franny’s sexually aroused facial expression, signifying the penis as an ‘erotic object for the character(s) within the screen story’, and as the gaze has been made female, an ‘erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium’ (Mulvey, 1975: 11).

In stark contrast to the dark, gritty, hand held aesthetic of In the Cut, Beebe’s second project with director Rob Marshall – his first being Chicago (2002) – was Memoirs of a Geisha, a romantic drama following the journey of nine year old Chiyo from childhood to adulthood, when she is renamed Sayuri, and her progression to the role of Geisha. Beebe’s key reference points for the aesthetic of the film were Bernardo Bertulocci and Vittorio Storaro’s collaboration, The Last Emperor (1987), for what Beebe calls ‘Storaro’s audacious and elegant camera movement’ (Scott, 2006), and Stanley Kubric’s Barry Lyndon (1975) for, as Beebe again states, ‘the incredible interior feel we needed for our movie’ (Rogers, 2006).

Storaro’s influence is seen throughout the film with the proliferation of fluid camera movement, utilising dollies, cranes and steadicam for over eighty percent of the filming (see Thomson, 2006: 40).  The effect of this shooting style enhances the sense of journey, both literally and internally, that Chiyo undergoes throughout the film, whilst also heightening the sensation of wonder that Marshall and Beebe wished to achieve in portraying ‘a mysterious world full of exquisite detail’ (Fisher, 2006). A striking example of this fluid camera movement used to achieve such an effect occurs the first time Chiyo peers over the roof of the Geisha house. The camera, fixed to a Technocrane, performs a slow push in towards Chiyo from mid-shot to close-up, capturing her expression of wide-eyed wonder, thus signalling her subjectivity in the following shot; a cut to the rooftops she is looking at captured through a slow tilt upwards, gradually revealing the expanse of haze-shrouded rooftops spreading off to the distance.

Geisha_Rooftops

The slow, free-flowing movement of the camera in this shot enhances the enormity and seemingly mystical nature of the world that Chiyo has been cast in to. Recreating the quality of the Japanese light in this shot and throughout the film – ‘a soft, shadowless light that had a wintery feeling’ (Rogers, 2006) – was achieved through constructing the largest freestanding diffuser ever made (see Appendix), covering the entire outdoor set in a huge silk sheet. Doing this enabled almost complete control for Beebe over the temperature and contrast range of the light in exterior scenes, allowing for subtle alterations in order to accurately represent the changing of the seasons.

This manipulation over the exterior light, combined with Beebe’s equal manipulation of interior light in the film, serves not only to signal a passing of time, but also to infer, once again, character development and interior thoughts. He uses lighting to chart Chiyo’s journey by separating the film into roughly three sections; Chiyo as a child, Chiyo becoming Sayuri the Geisha, and Sayuri after the war.

Geisha_act1 Geisha_act2 Geisha_act3

The opening scenes of the film are incredibly dark and take place largely in closed off interiors, often with just one deep orange practical light (the Barry Lyndon influence is clear in these scenes) from a 25watt bulb housed inside a paper lantern or cooking fire (see Thomson, 2006: 42). As Chiyo becomes increasingly accustomed to, and comfortable with her new surroundings, more practicals and hidden supplementary fill lighting are used, sliding doors are increasingly left open and more scenes occur outside, all serving to create a lighter and less oppressive mood. After the war, neon and electric lighting is increasingly used to create, as Beebe says, ‘a more neutral level of light that is seen today’ (Rogers, 2006).

A pivotal scene in the film is Chiyo’s first meeting with the General, at which point she falls in love with him and decides she must become a Geisha. Beebe’s lighting, framing and composition in this scene add greatly to its impact, and signal the transition from the first section of the film to the second. As the General kneels down alongside Chiyo on the bridge, both are framed not only by the camera, but also within the curved rectangular frame of the wooden bridge, creating a frame within the frame, giving extra emphasis to this first meeting.

Geisha_bridge Geisha_blossom

Behind the two is a tree in full pink and white blossom, signalling not only the change of season, but also the maturing of Chiyo into a young woman. The sexual connotations of a ‘spring awakening’ further infer the romantic union that will eventually occur between her and the General. A pan to the right and slow zoom out as the General walks Chiyo to the cherry ice stand reveals a bustling street scene, and shows the General leading Chiyo towards the blossoming tree and his two Geisha’s, metaphorically leading her towards a new life. Beebe lights the scene with a far higher Kelvin than in any previous scene, whilst the heavy silk-diffusion and a low contrast range minimise the amount of shadow in the scene, and thus further enhances Chiyo’s departure from the life of a house girl by creating a cool, clear light entirely at odds with the dimly lit and claustrophobic interior scenes of the first third of the film.  

While the diversity of Dion Beebe’s filmography is considerable, a constant in his films remains the manner in which he uses lighting, composition and framing to expand upon and emphasise the interior psyches, feelings and emotions of his film’s protagonists. This constant suggests a subscription to expressionism that is achieved in spite of the inconsistency of genre, subject matter and locations of the films he works on, which is achievable due to his adaptability and dexterity in utilising the tools of his art. Dion Beebe is not an auteur, but his aesthetic influence is clearly visible. This visibility derives precisely from the lack of repetition or overt similarity in his films. He approaches each project afresh and tailors his technical and aesthetic choices to fit the mood, tone and narrative of the film, which is evident from the close reading of the three films addressed in this essay.  Despite considerably varied content, they all deal significantly with interior feelings, conflicts and emotions that are given life by Beebe; a cinematographer whose influence markedly enhances the character development, narrative extrapolation and aesthetic depth of all his films.

 

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The High Tide party scene: twelve months on

As I sit in a quiet house watching a large amount of rain throw itself to the ground with alarming gusto, I can’t help but reflect that exactly a year ago today I was rushing around a garden in Wales setting up for what was to be both the busiest and most remarkable day of shooting on our feature film High Tide.

Jimmy and I both watched near-complete drafts of the film yesterday in preparation for a short ADR session next week (and there I go waving around acronyms like ADR without a care in the world – ADR or Additional Dialogue Recording means getting your actors back to rerecord dialogue that was imperfect on set. Many films, particularly those with huge special effects sequences, are almost entirely composed of ADR work, but for High Tide we need only record a small amount. Gosh what a thrilling piece of parenthetical filler.) and one of the highlights of the whole piece is the twenty or so minutes we spend at the party scene that we shot that day.

Having the wonderful Sam Green and the Midnight Heist play live in the garden was a real treat (especially for the neighbours) and the general good grace shown by everyone ensured that the day was a success, even if Jimmy and I did have to spend the dying moments of the evening rushing around like crazy things in order to get everything shot by the legally-binding working curfew. Most people were a bit drunk by then; we were very sober!

Anyway, I don’t want to chunter on about it so I think I will curtail my reminiscings there. Thanks to everyone who was involved in the day and thanks to anyone who cares enough to be patient for the release of the finished film. It is coming, I promise you.

Here are a few images and videos from the day:

party2 party1 2013-08-08 15.43.27 2013-08-08 20.02.28-3

 

 

 

 

Boyhood and the exquisite pleasure of now

I don’t remember a point in the last ten years when I saw a particular film more than once in a cinema. I must have done so since the new millennium but I am struggling to think when and what it would have been. This contrasts with my heady and unhealthy student days of the late 90s when I would regularly visit the wonderful City Screen in York to see some obscure piece of art-house fare. And if I liked what I saw, as I often did, then I would frequently go again the next day. This was less to do with a raw passion for the cinematic medium but rather I had little better to do, or at least could spare a few hours to sink into the not-overly-comfortable seats and disappear. And plus it was really cheap. I remember I saw a screening of Der Himmel uber Berlin on two consecutive days; the first time with a pal, and the next trying to impress some girl (who was so resolutely unimpressed that she fell asleep within ten minutes). I also saw Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour uncut 70mm rendition of Hamlet THREE times in that cinema because I found it utterly wonderful and, as the two regular readers of this blog will know, I do sort of LOVE Kenneth Branagh with a singular passion. Plus Hamlet as a text is, you know, pretty alright.

However I really can’t think of a time where such multiple cinema visits to the same film have occurred this century. That is until this past week when I’ve had the utter pleasure of seeing Richard Linklater’s Boyhood being twice projected onto a large screen.

Boyhood-poster-I-

I’ve written before about mine and Jimmy’s adoration of Linklater’s Before trilogy and so I was very much coming at this as a fan; despite this I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what was, hyperbole aside, one of the most moving, humane and unpretentious pieces of storytelling I’ve ever seen.

The premise is brilliantly simple: Linklater filmed the same set of lead actors for a couple of weeks every year for twelve years and thus when edited together the audience is able to watch them grow. The eponymous boy is Mason who we first meet lying on the grass outside his primary school and whom we leave on his first day at university. The effect is almost overwhelming as we are confronted by the sheer speed with which time passes, the bewildering consequences of choice, both good and bad, the twin pride and terror of parenthood and the astounding capacity that we have to survive and even thrive in the most trying of circumstances.

Boyhood-Ellar-Coltrane-Ethan-Hawke

Linklater’s direction is, of course, sublime and on second viewing I was able to enjoy shot after shot of his typically unfussy style. There is one shot during Mason’s high school years in which he talks to a classmate who bumps alongside him on her bike. They talk, they walk forwards and the camera stays one step ahead of them moving backwards. No cuts, no singles, just a backwards tracking two-shot that seems like it had to be done in one take. You can see this shot again and again in the Before films and it is suggestive of a director utterly confident in his own craft. A scene requires two characters to have a conversation so Linklater just lets the camera do only what is necessary to allow us to witness what is being said. Anything else would be artful and extraneous.

I am no film academic and if you want a near-definitive account of Linklater’s work then look no further than our pal Professor Rob Stone’s excellent book: The Cinema of Richard Linklater – Walk, don’t Run. Rob is clearly a man of vast intelligence and insight (as well as being pleasingly ready to take the piss out of Jimmy’s levels of personal hygiene) and he writes with a rigorous passion for Linklater’s work and succeeds, through a jealousy-inducing series of interviews with the man himself, in exploring the films in comparison with each other as well as illuminating the many and diverse films that have influenced him throughout his career. It’s a great read. I recommend it heartily.

As Rob explores with greater insight that I could ever muster, time does not really work in a conventional way in Linklater’s films. This is particularly the case in Boyhood which despite seemingly locked into a structure that forces its audience to confront time in all its unflinching and relentless forwards motion, paradoxically removes its characters from a temporal context almost completely. This is a film of the moment, a film of now. There is very little in the film that looks backwards and that which looks forward is only the usual cliche of expectation that others force upon Mason. What any of the characters really aspire to in the film is making sense of the current moment; that is all that really matters. No film I’ve seen in a long time is as preoccupied with the present. And it is all the more refreshing for it. The only false moment in the whole near-three hour wonder of the film is when there is a moment of narrative resolution for an immigrant builder whom we’ve seen, briefly, in an earlier scene. For me this felt like a misstep; a nod to the conventional story arcs that Linklater so successfully eschews in the remainder of the piece.

Anyway, I’ve started to use words like “eschew” so it is probably time to stop banging on. But I urge you to see Boyhood. I implore you so to do. It really is most wonderful.

There’s a line very near the end of the film in which a character says something approximating that in life it isn’t really a case of seizing the moment, it is more that the moment seizes you. I think that is utterly beautiful and no better epithet for the wondrous strange thing that is all of our lives. Just keep letting the moment seize you, says Linklater. And you’ll be okay.

p.s. I think I love Ethan Hawke just as much as Kenneth Branagh now. Even Ethan Hawke with a terrible moustache.

p.p.s. High Tide is VERY NEARLY finished. More news very soon.

p.p.p.s. We have been working some more on the screenplay for our second feature film. Jimmy is not letting me get away with anything remotely rubbish – my favourite comment from his recent edits – “is this a reference to old vaginas? If so, I don’t get it”.

p.p.p.p.s. It wasn’t. But now I kind of wish it had been.

A High Tide update (at last!)

I fear that this latest entry in to the world of blog may be a little more terse than I’d otherwise like. This is most likely a blessing for you but at the moment I am banging at the keyboard like a fat-fingered  Beethoven (with one millionth of the talent) and the words refuse to stick. I am tired. It has been a busy few weeks in one of my other lives as a maker of theatre and a show that I co-wrote successfully made it to the stage this week. And it was great. Really great. But I am suffering a little tonight as a result.

So let’s bash on with a a bit of a Long Arm Films update. It has been a more than while and we don’t want our many supporters to think that Jimmy and I have just been sitting on our arses playing Uno for the past six months. Although that does sound like a pretty decent idea.

After several more sessions in Dan’s edit bunker in the posh end of Swansea I can tell you that High Tide is pretty near finished.  And it is looking good. Really good. Don’t believe me? Well. look at this:

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 21.33.51

That’s Sam Davies as Josh and Melanie Walters as Bethan.

Actually looking at it now, it’s a fairly low-res, grainy still that I’ve just grabbed using some keys on my computer. I am not allowed access to the actual, full-res digital files because I might spill tea or red wine on them so you are going to have to trust me on this. Jimmy and I now have a weekend to pore over this latest draft while the film itself crosses the Severn for some digital jiggery-pokery (and final, final tweaks) and sound mixing in the Bristol area before heading back to Wales for colour-correction. All of which should suggest that High Tide is very nearly, nearly finished. And that’s a good thing.

And at some point you should be able to see it. The specifics of which I will bring you as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, my new role is to write the credits for the end of the film. So then, that’s writer, director and credit writer – which makes High Tide such an indie film that it is wearing a checked shirt;  a yellowed, crumpled paperback stuffed into the pocket of its corduroy jacket while it whispers near-inaudible dialogue into the ear of a attractive student of philosophy with glasses and near-perfect breasts. With this soundtrack:

Which you won’t have heard of. But I love with a passion.

Anyway,  I am certain David Lynch does not have to write his own credits (but that’s probably because he’d scrawl them in the blood of a vixen or Kyle Maclachlan) but I am pretty happy with the job. Except that I have to spell everyone’s names correctly and remember who leant us a hairbrush and made us a coffee somewhere on Gower last August.

But I think I’ve got it cracked. Here’s the current draft.

Bethan – Melanie Walters
Josh – Sam Davies
Tess – Claire Cage
Sophie – Charlotte Mulliner
Bloke in Shirt with Fag – Cousin Tom
Simon Le Bon – Mickey Flannel
Jennie Spinning – Rufus Waring
Man in Sauna – Sarah Cloud
Body in Sauna – Desert Orchid
Whore in Sauna – James Gillingham
Sauna Repair Man in Sauna – Alan Titchmarsh

DOP – Alain Prost
Sound – Dougie Donnelly
Gaffer – Janet Ellis
Edited by Dan in his bunker

Written and directed by Big James and Little Jim.

Sorted. Time for some sleep. More updates when I have them.

 

Words on film (it’s a global conspiracy actually).

There’s an odd disquiet in the air this evening as the sun wanes a grubby orange and London’s throaty roar thunders more angrily than ever; a noxious Last Post for a city slowly eating itself. Maybe I should just shut the window; maybe I should reign-in the hay-fever pills a little or maybe I should load up my fingers with words and tap out the bellicose rhythms of a linguistic war upon my battered keyboard.

Or maybe just get on with it.

I am bothered by the stats page on my WordPress site. I pretend not to be. I feign indifference like a recovering smoker shrugging at the pub on a Friday afternoon as a forgetful friend offers him a fag even though it’s been nearly seven weeks since he’s last smoked. He declines politely. He pretends not to care. He ignores the raging beast of nicotine addiction stomping around the wires and neurones of his brain – yes, he thinks, yes for the love of all that is holy and grand, please just let me smoke. But he says nothing. He smiles. He is fine. Really he is.

My name is James and I’ve given up smoking. This makes me simultaneously very happy indeed (and god, do I feel better for it) but also a tiny bit sad.

Anyway, this analogy began sometime in the late C19th and let me try to bring it some sort of, inevitably disappointing, conclusion. Yes, the stats page. I pretend to be immune to its charms but the last few days have seen the longest period so far during which nobody on the planet has read anything that I’ve published here. This blogging duck (a cricket metaphor, sorry American readers – hi Julia) was broken today by a single view of my (ahem) award-winning post about motivational quotations for writers from a reader in Djibouti. Which is a very hot country on the East coast of Africa. I know this because the internet has just told me. So anyway, time to tap my way back to a few more readers.

There’s a fair bit of Long Arm news on the horizon; something about a finished feature film, a trailer for said film; some exciting developments about our short Ex Libris and a draft of a new feature script that features a man called Spider and a lady who keeps a shotgun in her bra. However, none of these exciting headlines can be supported by much detail just yet although we do hope to expand on these themes in the coming weeks. We should be able to show you something exciting in roughly a fortnight. And I don’t mean Jimmy’s bum. Although clearly for most rational human beings, things just don’t get more exciting than this.

So to continue a theme that I began in my most recent post (which was published a blushingly large number of weeks ago) I thought I’d write a little about something very close to my lungs. Nicotine. No, not nicotine. I am over nicotine. Smoking is SO OVER. No I mean scripted dialogue. As ever I don’t profess to being any sort of expert on the subject but as a writer whose written more of the stuff than I have anything else, I do feel that I have a few observations worth sharing.

There are manifold challenges for the screenwriter as he or she sits down to write some dialogue for a scene. Not least the fact that people are rubbish at talking. Real people in real life spew a never-ending shite-stream of piss-poor construction and half-remembered cliches. To quote them directly would render your script utterly turgid and sound like the average chat on an episode of Masterchef –

“I’m going to give it everything to reach the next level and cook outside my comfort zone and nail these dishes like one hundred and twenty percent and if I go home today I will be just like gutted because this competition is the most important thing that has ever happened to a man or a woman ever”. 

No one wants to hear people talk like that (says the man who gets very upset if he misses even five minutes of an episode of Masterchef) and so writers are forced into playing a game with the audience in which they attempt to fill their characters mouths with words that SOUND as if they could be actual spoken at some point by a real human being but are in actual fact as highly constructed as an oil painting or a giant medieval tapestry. Oh I do love a giant medieval tapestry.

Great dialogue writing is really about how far you can push the characters’ language towards unreality before anyone notices or, more importantly, before anyone gets cross. Some writers are masters, absolute masters at pushing this tolerance threshold to a point so distant that it becomes irrelevant. Take Noel Coward for instance; no one in England has ever spoken with the spontaneous beauty of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Not even when England was black and white and we drank our tea from bone china tea-sets.  But the audience does not give a solitary fig (roll) because the language is extraordinary:

Alec: I wish I could think of something to say.

Laura: It doesn’t matter, not saying anything I mean. 

Alec: I’ll miss my train and wait and see you into yours . . .

Laura: No. Please don’t. I’ll come over with you to your platform, I’d rather. 

Alec: Very well. 

Laura: Do you think we shall ever see each other again?

Alec: I don’t know. Not for years anyway. 

Laura: The children will all be grown-up. I wonder if they’ll ever meet and know each other. 

Alec: Couldn’t I write to you? Just once in a while?

Laura: No Alec please. You know we promised. 

Alec: Oh my dear. I do love you. So very much. I love you with all my heart and soul. 

Laura: I want to die. If only I could die.

Alec: If you died you’d forget me. I want to be remembered. 

brief_encounter

Swoon! Tears! Coward was a genius. And Brief Encounter, for me, represents perfection in film making. There is not one second that is misplaced or anything other than luminously brilliant.

Compare this to one of the more abject examples of dialogue writing that, for some reason, has stayed with me for well over a decade. Remember the X-Files? Of course you do. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Mulder and Scully running around in the 90s with poor quality torches in search of extra-terrestials? It was ace. Remember the X-Files movie? The first one? Er, not so much. But I do. And I remember this speech with dizzying clarity:

Bartender:  So, whaddya do?

Mulder: What do I do?

Bartender: Mmm hmm.

(Mulder takes a sip from his new drink, puts it down and begins his tale.)

Mulder: I’m the key figure in an on‑going government charade, the plot to conceal the truth about the existence of extraterrestrial. It’s a global conspiracy, actually, with key players in the highest levels of power, that reaches down into the lives of every man, woman, and child on this planet. (he laughs) So, of course, no one believes me. I’m an annoyance to my superiors, a joke to my peers. They call me Spooky. Spooky Mulder, whose sister was abducted by aliens when he was just a kid and who now chases after little green men with a badge and a gun, shouting to the heavens or to anyone who will listen that the fix is in, that the sky is falling and when it hits it’s gonna be the shit‑storm of all time.

Oh dear. Oh dear indeed. To be fair a lot of the work required of dialogue in the average film is to get plot across to an popcorn munching, girlfriend snogging audience (not a problem in a Long Arm film of course due to Jimmy’s wholesale rejection of anything remotely resembling a story) but really, credit the audience with a soupçon of narrative literacy please. And poor David Duchovny. He had to sit for a day and repeat this speech countless times without ever being able to rip off his own nipples in disgust. This may have had something to do with the paycheque he was receiving of course.

And then of course there is Aaron Sorkin a man who, as regular readers of this blog will attest, I love more than I ever thought possible. In his West Wing pomp, Sorkin was untouchable as a writer of dialogue; at its zenith I’d suggest that it beats pretty much anything else I’ve seen on television. And I’ve seen Rentaghost. Again it is no more real than an episode of The Simpsons, in some ways far less real, but when the President of the USA chastises God for killing his secretary in a car accident IN LATIN then you either throw a grenade at the television in utter disgust or you just stand to applaud and marvel. And I did just that.

And yes Martin Sheen is a genius. And yes I now do want a cigarette.

But not every writer can be Sorkin. And nor should you even try so to be. I often get my work sent back to me by Jimmy with comments such as NO ONE EVER SPEAKS LIKE THAT. And OH PLEASE. And THIS IS LARGELY PISS. And for this I am grateful. Jimmy is a brilliant man. A man of images. A man of vision. And these little spats between us (and goodness, the making-up is always SO good) are indicative of an inescapable tension between the image and the word. Film is by definition a visual medium and for the first thirty-ish years of its existence got on very well indeed without any words whatsoever. Words bastardised the medium, diluted the purity of the form. And the two have been competing ever since. What are the greatest ever moments in film? The door to Michael Corleone’s office shutting on Kay at the end of the Godfather or “Here’s looking at you kid”? I guess it is a matter of taste.

Do we forgive Star Wars “It’s the ship that made the kessel run in less that twelve parsecs” or “Luke, run away, far away. If he can sense your presence here then just leave this place” just because you know, it is Star Wars? Well millions upon millions do.

But for some of us, despite its inherent friction with the genre in which it exists, there will always be a greater thrill from watching someone on a huge screen say something really, really cool.

“Go and never darken my towels again”.

And from Groucho to a pair of Swedish sisters who make lovely music. And no, there is NO connection whatsoever. But I’ve been listening to this a lot this evening and I think you should do so too:

Eight ways to be a better writer (eventually) via FR Leavis, Tinkerbell and fine French cheese.

If you are a disciple of the late, legendary scholar F.R. Leavis (you may have his scowly visage tattooed on your bum, or as you stand on the terraces of your local association football club you may find yourself chanting “Leavis till I die”) then you will be certain that any reading of  any literary text depends on an understanding of the contexts, morality and prejudices that shaped the author during the its inception.

(If you neither know nor care about Leavis then I’d gladly bore you a few hours with illuminating commentary stolen from someone who knows more than I do, but I suspect life is far too short).

Anyway, all you rabid Leavisites are in for a treat in the next few paragraphs as I reveal a number of strange contexts that are occurring to me RIGHT NOW (if you were reading this in real time, which clearly you are not).

Number 1 – I am currently aboard a cross-channel ferry heading for Portsmouth after a cheese-filled fortnight of French food and English flatulence. And writing. More of which later. It is an “express’ ferry which means the journey is only going to take three hours which is excellent; however, with speed comes a certain instability of which my stomach is not particularly fond. However, I will try to maintain my digestive integrity for the remainder of this piece.

Number 2 – To my left sits my son who is watching a film on big screen towards the end of the cabin. This film is “Tinkerbell and the something of something” and might just be the worst film ever made; so bad that I keep looking up from laptop to keep abreast of all the latest doe-eyed action.

Number 3 – Talking of breasts, to my right sits my wife (and that is NOT the connection you smutty buggers) who is reading this week’s edition of “Voici” magazine; this is a French “gossip” publication that seems to contain nothing but pictures of ladies on beaches with their boobs out. This is not necessarily a problem but again it is something of a distraction. (Being French, Voici also has a genuinely excellent recipe page. Boobs and tiramisu: a heady combination).

All of which is by way of an excuse if this blog ends up a little more ragged in its discourse than normal. Not that you’d notice.

Right then, well, as eagle-eyed Leavisites will have gleaned I have just spent a happy couple of weeks in Northern France. The food was excellent and the weather, oh the weather was just magnificent; so magnificent in fact that every French person with whom we broke baguettes told us several times over just how magnificent the weather was and how it was never, ever like this. So that was good. If a little repetitive. But aside from enjoying some glorious Breton sunshine, my other main purpose en France was to being writing a screenplay for what will hopefully become Long Arm’s second feature film.

France. Just lovely.

France. Just lovely.

The project is not nearly advanced enough for me to tell you anything about it, which I am sure is deeply troubling to you, but suffice to say I arrived in France with a few notes and a message to “get on with it” from Jimmy and I return to the UK with over a hundred pages of pretty decent stuff. And it is not yet finished but both Jimmy and I are relatively happy. There are no helicopters in it (yet) but there is a motorway service station, which I think is on a par in terms of filmic spectacle. (Seriously, if you want a GREAT NIGHT OUT then get yourselves along to Membury Services on the M4. It is a riot. Once I went to the loo there and in the cubicle next door I swear someone was being fellated; it is that kind of place – classy).

So yes, I can’t really say more than that but I will press on for a few more paragraphs about the process of writing a script. It sounds a little false but in all honesty a few people have asked me recently “how do you write?” (although many more have asked “How’s the jogging going?” knowing FULL WELL the answer). Now not for a moment would I profess myself to be any authority on the creative process whatsoever, however I have meant for a while now to note down a few thoughts in a WordPress –friendly numbered list format – something like Jim’s Six Tips for Better Writing – but I’ve never managed to get around to it. And even when I do then I wait until the high seven hundreds in the word count before mentioning that this is my intention. You see, this is why I need Jimmy. I’d be utterly absurd without him.

But, for what it’s worth, here are few conclusions gleaned from twenty years of writing stuff. Feel free to ignore them, or tattoo them on to your bum. Or even do both. Which would be a bit odd.

JIM’S LIST OF THINGS THAT HE’S LEARNT ABOUT WRITING (sponsored by Brittany Ferries)

  1. No one knows anything about writing. Never buy a textbook; never pay to go on a course; never read blogs on the subject; never read this blog; ignore websites claiming “How the three act structure will transform your scripts” because you’re sure as hellfire then going to stumble on one claiming “How the three act structure will destroy your script”. It is all balls. No one knows anything.
  1. Accept that Point 1 is true, now please ignore Point 1. By which I mean gather together a small coterie (if only for the joy of being able to use the word coterie) who you trust to read your stuff and give you honest feedback. And don’t just ask people who love you because that’s no use. They need to love you AND hate you enough to wilfully make you cross. Because you will get cross. In fact, love is irrelevant but you do need to respect them if you are going to accept that they may have a point. My first script reader is always Jimmy – he gives daily feedback when a script is underway and he is relentlessly honest. I need this. And he is almost always right. I also regularly bend the ear of three of four others and I care about what they think; I will respond to what they think. Establish a working relationship with your chosen few and then go back to Point. 1.
  1. Your first five years (at least) are going to be rubbish. Unless you are Rimbaud (or maybe even Rambo) or Kate Bush then your first attempts are writing are most likely to be a bit shit. And this is fine. This is necessary. It took me at least ten years to write anything that was half-decent and not the linguistic equivalent of either self-pity or self-love. Neither of which are very desirable qualities. The more you write, the better you’ll be. This is a simple principle but one I believe to be inherently true.
  1. Read. Read well. I went to poetry reading many years ago and Simon Armitage, a poet familiar to anyone who’s studied GCSE English in the UK in the past fifteen years , and also a sodding genius as far as I’m concerned, answered the dull question “How do you become a good a writer?” with a simple one-word answer: read. And he was right. And I don’t do enough of it as I am always exhausted at the end of the day. And I am a worse writer because of it. (Case-in-point: I just began that previous sentence with “and”). Read decent writers, don’t read The Daily Mail and you’ll be on the right track.
  2. Don’t associate creativity with things that are going to kill you. This began for me many years ago when I’d sit under a plum tree in my parents’ garden with my dear friend Kris and we’d write scripts for our university comedy group and smoke fags. And not just normal fags either, these were big ones. Marlboro 100s as they were called. And it was bloody brilliant. However, there’s been a part of my brain that associated smoking with creativity ever since. Most of my pals gave up smoking years ago but I’ve been doggedly persistent (until a more recent, much-needed breakthrough and a stern talking to from a scary Doctor) because I think, I know, that somewhere in my brain smoking means, for me, being able to write. This is fucking stupid. Don’t do this.
  1. Some people are going to hate your stuff. Some people will be indifferent. The second of which is worse actually. But you need to get used to both reactions. And unless these people are card-carrying members (and yes, do make membership cards) of your coterie (see Point 2) then you just need to square your shoulders and walk away.
  2. Tea is your friend. Unless you drink it in sufficient quantities to make it pertinent to Point 5.
  3. Write with heart and purpose. Well if the ferry doesn’t make you vomit then statements like that certainly will. But please keep your dinner down below for a moment while I explain. You should write about things that you give a shit about; whether it is things that make you happy or aroused or sad or very bloody angry. Or maybe all of these things together. If you don’t then your work will be like a glass of non-alcoholic beer: all craft and no substance (and it won’t get you pissed). As for purpose, always have a reason for writing. Write for someone. This could be one person, it could be millions, (and the chances are you’ll fall short of your target) but it will give your work an edge, a polish, a reason for existing. Otherwise all you’ll have done is just leave a few sheaves of paper in a drawer or, more likely, a few 0s and 1s etched on some server somewhere. This is a bit sad. Your work will be richer for being read.

And that’ll do for now. I quite like eight. You don’t see lists of eight on Buzzfeed (get me Nat!) so that seems reason enough to alight this particular train of thought at this stop. I’d had some notes about writing decent dialogue that I may save for a future date. Or may bin altogether.

Maybe some of the above was of use to you. Maybe not. Bear in mind that I am just an idiot from Devon so everything I say could well be a load of old balls. And anyway, the 3G signal has just connected on my phone and, as we approach the motherland, I want to check the football results. Because I am interested. And because you should never lock people into lazy stereotypes because they’ll always do something to surprise you (a bonus Point 9!).

Oh if you are interested, at the end of Tinkerbell and the something of something it turns out that it was all a dream. And the Butler did it. And Bruce Willis rides off into the blood-red sunset on a stolen motorcycle with a soundtrack by Philip Glass. I know, I know, who’d have thought it?

Notes from beneath the smog pancake (the drugs barely work).

I think it indicative that my initial attempt at an opening paragraph for this blog, a  paragraph that I’d been tinkering with for the past ten minutes or so and then in a fit of mighty good sense expunged via a haughty flick of my right index finger, was dominated entirely by musings on the weather. I am passing through this week like a slightly portly zombie, my senses dulled by the antihistaminic battle raging along the snotty corridors of my sinuses between my rubbish body and the thick layer of dirty fog that has been sitting over London like a limp pancake for the past few days. The drugs don’t work, they just make you worse, or rather the drugs do work to an extent but render you dulled and limpid and trick you into believing that opening a blog in a fashion such as this is in any way helpful to humanity.

Anyway, it’s been a trying few days and although I have been prompted back to the keyboard by the flat line at the top of the WordPress window showing that the number of visitors to by blog today has been “0 visitors 0 views”, I really won’t keep you longer than I can possibly help. Think of it like going to a party of someone that you probably don’t like as much as you should; I mean you go, because you are British and therefore somewhat self-hating when it comes to social convention, but you then neck as much free wine as quickly as you can before smiling and pretending that you’ve got a crate of venison being delivered to your local butcher which you’d forgotten about but really must collect immediately. And yes it is odd that a butcher is open on a Friday night but you know, old Barry Sinew and Sons knows his market and so there must be sufficient demand for after-hours game in the West London area.

Back in the world of Long Arm Films (which in the distant past was the reason that this blog existed in the first place; that was until Jimmy booted it off our website because I’d upset too many important people with my fingers) Jimmy and I have had the very pleasant opportunity to spend a few long phone calls actually talking about stories rather than any of the other production stuff that often dominates our chat. We’ve got an idea for a new script. We think it might not be terrible and I am off to France next week to write the first draft. Actually that sounds far too grand and deliberate. No, what I mean is I am going to France next week anyway and while I am there I will attempt to write some of the new script. You can therefore expect several thousand blog words about cheese, wine and what a heart-clefting horror it is to have to sit down and actually write something. Which of course it isn’t. But yes, I am very much looking to writing.

This is not writing. Clearly.

In other utterly unrelated news, I took a well-aimed swipe at the pervasion of Facebook meme things which I could of course turn off but don’t because I like being grumpy. Eat my satire world!

(or rather, satire COMMA world – “satire world” sounds like a theme park for Guardian Readers where idiots like me and my pals can swan around in pastel shades and ride on THE ROLLER- HORACE or the er, BUMPER RORY BREMNARS   . . . time to exit that particular piece of imaginary nonsense  . . . although it would probably still be better than Trago Mills (very, very specific Westcountry reference)).

Screenshot 2014-04-03 21.38.50

I apologise for the unnecessary vulgarity. At primary school people would say that “twat” meant a pregnant goldfish. I have no idea if this is true or not (if only I had instant access to some worldwide repository of human knowledge). As far as I know it means “vagina” which probably makes me seem like a misogynist on top of everything else (which I am not, although there is a pleasing grammar joke to be made about “on top” being the most appropriate preposition for a misogynist – although I won’t be making it). For most of my teenage and university years calling someone a “twat” was pretty mild and actually a phrase like “come and sit over here you big twat” was actually so redolent with love and desire that it was akin to a proposal of marriage. At least that is what I was told. I spent a lot of my university years alone.

Kenneth Branagh! There I’ve said it. I bloody love Kenneth Branagh. I thought I saw him in town earlier this week. Turned out it wasn’t him at all. But this fascinating episode did remind me how much I loved him. (I even shouted out and called this faux Branagh a twat. This went badly). Watch his Wallander. Watch his Henry V. Watch his Hamlet – all four and half hours of 70mm brilliance of it. Watch this:

A speech that Shakespeare geeks like me will smugly remind you is not in the First Folio of 1623 but Branagh wisely restores it from the earlier Second Quarto of 1604. And oh that language in the mouth of a great actor . . .

And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds . . .

Yep. This is the good shit alright.

And in another leap of utter disconnection, thanks once again to the unmatchable BBC 6Music, I’ve discovered a man from Canada called Mathias. His band is called The Burning Hell and they are a bit like They Might Be Giants crossed with someone else. Here they are playing to a bookshop-full of nodding Germans:

Their track “Amateur Rappers” is ace too. Check them out!!!

And check me in. Up. And out of here. As the antihistamine claims me and I sink back beneath the smog pancake. And the rest is silence.

(Good luck with selling this one on Twitter Nat).