BOYHOOD – Growing Up in Real Time

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Boyhood  is that most modern of movies. As self-actualisation in the Western world fast becomes our primary goal, Director Richard Linklater offers up a more innocent take on growing up. It’s real and wonderfully refreshing.

This boy is no internet-hooked, selfie taker.  His is a childhood of bikes and hiking, a lo-tech slice of real life.  A wide-eyed, silent observer of the world and his family, Mason is so quiet that it comes as a shock when he starts to articulate his own thoughts. When he does speak it is mainly to express his own uncertainty. This is no hip or cynical commentator, rather a boy lost in wonder at the beauty and sadness of the world.

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Much has been made of the innovative twelve year shooting period that follows the same young actor, Ellar Coltrane, from age six to eighteen as he grows up. Yet there are other points of difference that mark out this subtle, involving indie drama. Linklater is king of the anti-drama. There are no big events – no murders, no rapes and only a little violence. There are no good guys and no bad guys and – some would argue – not much story either.  The film moves us with a series of small but important moments in a family’s life. In the absence of the conventional dramatic climax in a scene, I found myself crying at unexpected moments, during a transitional scene, moved by reminders of my own family.

It is the most relatable of films – in that it takes the standard clichés of the coming of age movie – the ball game, the first love, the graduation, and presents them as fresh and uncontrived.  Many scenes were based on improvisation and the closeness of the on-screen family (headed up by the impressive Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) means they rub along in an utterly convincing and authentic way.

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This is a world you want to be part of. Linklater’s liberal value system eschews the obvious and embraces contradiction – the educated alcoholic, the decent army guy, the ‘flaky musician’ Dad who seeks out security. This is a loving portrait of America, land of the individual yet also home of the gun and the bible, and he embraces it all with a breadth of vision that takes your breath away.

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The scope of Boyhood’s epic time frame recalls older, Hollywood movies like Giant that tell the history of America through one extended clan. Yet Linklater’s natural, real time ‘fly on the wall’ approach also shares its DNA with the ground-breaking British documentary series Seven Up! which revisited the same children every seven years as they grew up and through adulthood.

Time in a movie is a construct. The idea that a movie unfolds over a two hour period and offers up a few moments in time is pure illusion. ‘Boyhood’ challenges this construct and offers up an alternative vision. It also makes you realise how phoney most on-screen attempts at ageing are. The shock and pleasure of seeing people age for real on camera contrasts with Hollywoods’ obsession with our actors (especially women) looking forever young. We all grow up – and we all age – and while countless films have celebrated the joys of coming of age, it is rare to see so many generations reflected in one story with such a light touch.

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There is great joy in ‘Boyhood’ and I was reminded many times of my own family while watching it. There is a sense of community we get when we watch a film that reflects our own experience. We should celebrate that.

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Locke and Calvary – The rise of the literate screenplay

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When is a film not a film?  When it’s a play on words.  I’ve just seen a beautifully written film – and yet it could have been a play – as it revels in language in a way we usually identify with radio or theatre.  Locke is an intense, poetic and visual movie that relies on words for its main impact.

In Locke, written and directed by Steven Knight , our anti-hero (played by Tom Hardy) is trapped behind the wheel of a car for 90 minutes.  The drama occurs not through action but through a series of dialogues – not even face to face but on the phone. The only physical action he takes is driving.

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Tom Hardy is the draw here but it was not his face – expressive though that is – that stayed with me. It was his voice, his thoughts that moved me – that and the gap between what he said while his face betrayed how he really felt.

When Locke does take action and make decisions he does it through language. Words are the prime dramatic currency of Locke and the story is none the poorer for it.  The writing has a dense yet lyrical quality – not for nothing did Tom Hardy listen to Richard Burton reciting Under Milkwood to prepare for this (the likeness is uncanny).  The visual metaphors are not on screen but are created in the dialogue.

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Locke also observes the three unities of place, time and action, so it really could be a play.  In the end does it matter?

With the multi-platform, multi-media way in which we consume creative content, are these boundaries forever blurred?  While the studios chase global success with tent pole spectaculars using as few words as possible, the real audience is viewing online in the revolution that has allowed high-end intelligent drama series and movies to go viral – to go global. It is a mistake to assume audiences don’t enjoy language – wit, irony, deep emotions, the pleasures of thought and moral complication.  For Netflix and co, prestige drama series are now the premium content that people will pay for.  As the writer’s dominance in television and online drama drives the quality of scripts skywards, is there also a resurgence of the writer – and dare we say it of drama vs genre movies –  in low to mid-budget feature films?

It is the marriage of great script and great actor that audiences are drawn to.  The skills of the director are at the service of the writing and are the invisible, traditional – and often underrated – ones of interpreting the material, getting great performances, as well as expressing the visual world the characters inhabit.

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Calvary written and directed by Michael McDonagh, is another example of a great, writer-driven film – funny, literate, dark storytelling  powered by great dialogue that celebrates word play and the interrogation of received ideas.  The story and characters may borrow from the Western but the execution is resolutely Irish in its love of language.

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

As film writers we are often (rightly) discouraged from using dialogue at the expense of the active and visual.  And there are wonderfully cine-literate screenplays that have hardly any dialogue at all.  Yet a cinema that celebrates and explores ideas and self-expression through language surely raises everyone’s game.

How do you use dialogue in your scripts? And which writers do you admire for their use of language?

Leave your comments here or you can find me on twitter @emlin32

 

 

A Girl’s Eye View of True Detective

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‘Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?’  That’s how I feel about True Detective.  It’s silent, brooding and masculine as hell.  All the guys I know love it but to begin with, as a girl, I wasn’t so sure.

It’s true there’s double the eye-candy – you can choose between Matthew McConaughey as the moody intellectual with the razor-blade cheekbones, or Woody Harrelson as the fresh faced, good ole cop with a naughty twinkle in his eye for the ladies.  But the only ladies you’ll see are hookers, wives and pissed-off girlfriends.  Nothing new there you might say.  So what’s the hook for this girl?

This is the old made new, the generic buddy cop movie made strangely particular by the beauty of the language and the stillness of the pauses between these two men as they drive through the Louisiana landscape.  Nic Pizzolatto’s writing is elegant, often spare but sometimes dense, intellectual and witty.  This is dialogue worth tuning in to, by turns philosophical, self-loathing and slyly funny.  As a film it’s impossibly beautiful, the big skies, the yellow skin tones,  the Southern heat and dust made visible by director Cary Joji Fukunaga and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw.

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And then there are the two star turns – McConaughey the initial draw as the screwed up anti-hero, but with Harrelson subverting your expectations as his character becomes less charming and more a drowning man clutching at women like straws.

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Like my other favourite ‘slow-burn’ series from last year – Hannibal and Top of the Lake, True Detective ain’t in no hurry to tell you the plot, using the now common device of ending a quiet episode with a sudden glimpse of horror.  The momentum keeps building.  Like House of Cards, you’re watching one long story unfold over a series.  There is the odd flashy set piece but it’s the incremental gains you watch for.

It’s a masculine vision of the world that reminds me of The Godfather, not in its description of mob life but in its belief that it’s ‘kill or be killed’.  The characters are in the grip of ancient laws, desires and grudges beyond their control or understanding.

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It creates a view of the male psyche, trapped in a world limited by the very pleasures used to drown his sorrows.  Sex, drugs, alcohol and violence  are seen as useless aides in the face of the loneliness of life, they only make things worse by confronting you with a vision of yourself you can’t stand to be around.   You could argue many male-oriented films indulge in these activities while revealing them as hollow and self-defeating – but it’s the quality of the writing and the silence enveloping these characters on their long, existential drives that demands our attention and evokes a desire to understand them.

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That and they’re just so goddamn cool. Like Billie Holiday, I am in love with the ‘No Good Man’, but I also want to whisper, ‘Don’t Explain.’

Crossing the Border – My Arizona Film Scout

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Where to begin?  After two amazing weeks of travelling Arizona as research for my feature film, ‘Anchor Baby’, I’m home.  What did I discover about the world of my story?

Accompanied by my friend Doris,  we flew into Phoenix, then drove down to Tucson, then south to Nogales on the border, in search of the reality behind the events I had written in my feature length drama.

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Every day in Arizona, I fell in love with the landscape. Everyone had said it but I just wasn’t prepared. It’s beautiful.

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I must have taken a thousand photos.  None of them will make it into my movie but all are sketches for the world I want to describe.

I did a photo shoot in the mountains around Phoenix with a ten year old Mexican girl.  In my story the girl crosses the desert to find her Mum and so we took some shots to suggest that journey.

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It was just me, a camera, the girl and her Mom and my friend Mary, a local teacher who had helped me set it up. But this girl became Elena, the girl in my story.

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 My script is about undocumented migrants on the US/Mexican border and many of the people I interviewed could not go on the record.  Immigration is a hot topic in the States right now – but beneath the political posturing and TV sound bites showing polarised factions, the reality is hugely complex and moving.

All the people I met spoke from personal experience of living on the border and all expressed feelings I could relate to, from the recently deported migrant to the rancher whose land they had crossed – supposedly enemies but both bound by the same reality – that a once more relaxed border is now a war zone, controlled by the cartels and policed with difficulty.

Jim, whose ranch is on  the Mexican border, has thousands of migrants smuggled across his land every year, alongside numerous drug runs.

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Slippers left behind by crossing migrants

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The soles are lined with carpet to avoid leaving tracks

What united the Arizonians I spoke to was a feeling they were misunderstood by the rest of the country and abandoned by central government.  As one local immigration judge put it to an East Coast liberal , who questioned ‘Operation Streamline’, the new fast track legal process for detention and deportation – ‘Where are you from? If you don’t have a border, you don’t have a problem.’  The sheer scale of the problem and the dominance of the cartels in drug and people smuggling make for tough decision making, torn loyalties and fear along the border.

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The most inspiring place we visited was the soup kitchen run by the charity Kino Border Initiative  for recent deportees on the Mexican side of border town Nogales, a common crossing point.

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People are often deported from the States in the middle of the night with no money and far from their original homes in Mexico or Central America.  KINO gives them a hot meal, clothing, a phone call to their relatives, basic medical care, and someone to talk to.  This tiny makeshift building is full of positive energy and served almost 50,000 migrants last year.

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KINO and a few other humanitarian groups along the border provide some of the only aid available to migrants.  Although admirably non-partisan, they were clearly disappointed by the huge increase in deportations under the Obama administration.

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The most moving encounter I had was with a recently deported Mexican woman.

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Fourteen years ago, she had crossed the desert to come to America. It had taken her a week, carrying her three year old.   She had worked in the US for fourteen years and raised three children there. One day she was stopped while riding her bicycle, her papers were checked, she was found to be undocumented and deported. Her three children are with a friend in Arizona  while she is trapped on the Mexican side with no way back.  Her only option now is to return to Mexico and then try and bring her US raised children back to the impoverished town she came from.

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There are no easy answers but nothing about this deportation seemed right.

It has been a privilege to meet the people of Arizona whose stories I am trying to tell. I only hope I can do them justice as I move forward into the script, writing and rewriting my story to reflect the responsibility and affection I feel towards everyone I have met along the way.

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Thank you to everyone we met on this trip. You took us into your homes and showed us great generosity.  We will let you know how the movie develops!

To help migrants by supporting the work of the Kino Border Initiative click here .

You can read more about my trip and my US indy feature ‘Anchor Baby’ in the forthcoming March issue of Digital Filmmaker Magazine.

Additional photography by Doris Zajer and Jack Dalleywater, many thanks.

Get in touch here or find me at @emlin32 and info@emmalindley.net   Happy Travels, and may the story you’re looking for find you.

How to Shadow a Director

Shadow_cat I’ve just spent a week shadowing a director on a popular BBC1 pre-watershed drama series and as a way of seeing how you create a big primetime show it takes some beating.

Directors rarely get to watch each other work.  A director needs a second director on set like a fish needs a bicycle and it’s hard not to feel like a spare wheel when you’re just visiting a set.  But if you make it your job to really follow the action, you can learn what you need to step up to the next level.

So how do you shadow without stepping on anyone’s toes?

1.  Persuade a Producer.  Asking to trail anyone on a production is a delicate negotiation.  Producers (rightly) have to protect their cast and crew from distractions.  You have to make it clear you won’t disrupt the flow.  Let them choose a time when the pressure is less and find a friendly director who is open to the idea.  Shadowing is an unpaid gig so be prepared to pay all your own expenses – it’s worth it.

2.  Stop, Look, Listen.  If you follow closely enough you can see the mechanics of a show without having to ask a load of redundant questions.  The series producer generously gave me access to all aspects of production.  Be aware that folk are working fast and time is money.  However –

3.  If you don’t understand something, ask.  People enjoy explaining their job, and, if you show a real interest, you can find out how different members of the team solve problems and work more efficiently.  You can learn how to work smarter and adapt to the changing demands of each day.

4.  Learn from someone else’s style.  David, the director I followed, was supremely relaxed on set and created a great atmosphere for cast and crew to work in.  Watching how he achieved a variety of shots with elegance and economy in a limited time frame was fascinating and he was happy to explain his thinking and share his prep methods too.

5.  Be your own person.  When people asked me why I was shadowing, I just said I wanted to learn how the show worked.  People will respect your desire to understand what they’re doing and why.

6.  Be positive.  On most sets the workflow is similar – rehearse, watch with crew, light and then shoot. But every set has a different dynamic, an energy that shifts according to what’s thrown at it, or who comes on board.  You are part of that so always bring energy and enthusiasm and be a positive reflector for those around you.

7. Be realistic.  Being an over-reaching breed, we directors tend to think we can shoot anything.  So watching another director take on a role you covet is the best preparation for actually doing it yourself.  That way you are aware of what’s actually required and can prepare for when you get the chance to go for it yourself.

8. Enjoy it!  It’s not often you get to be on a shoot without all the responsibility that comes with directing one.  It was a real pleasure to spend time with David and the crew, cast and production team and an experience I’ll remember with gratitude and affection.

Who have you learned from by watching them work? Leave a comment here or find me on twitter @ emlin32.

Happy Shadowing…!