Wednesday, February 27, 2013

twelve f*cking minutes

Twelve minutes in the grand scheme of things is not a very long time. 

When your team is 1-0 down to Blackburn in the 80th minute of the FA Cup it can go by in the blink of an eye. On a fixed bike in a gym, where I ventured for the first time last week time passes rather slower, (especially when your heart-rate has reached 320bpm, blood is roaring in your ears, and you are wishing for the sweet release of death). But by most measures twelve minutes is a perfectly manageable slice of the day.

Except when you’re stuck in a lift. And wildly claustrophobic.

It happened today at the office. We’d just come out of a conference call in one of the fourth floor meeting rooms, and were still discussing the ins and outs of the conversation as the lift doors closed, we began our descent and then with a strange clank and a lurch we arrested, midway between two floors.

I’d often imagined how I’d react in this situation - I’d heard anecdotes of friends who had the same experience, and had been fascinated by the story of the New York office worker Nicholas White who had hopped into a lift on a friday night in 1999 and emerged forty-one hours later a truly changed man. And not for the better. [White’s incarceration was captured on CCTV and you can view a time-lapse of his lost weekend]

But on the whole I tried not to listen to these tales, immediately feeling the heart rate go up, and the muscles tense.

I didn’t always have this problem. I did my fair share of spelunking as a youth, squeezing through the infamous ‘Worm Wriggle’ at one cavern system or other on school trips. I used to ride the tube in London without a second thought, and elevators weren’t any great shakes. But something came unwired in my head around 2006, and suddenly the thought of an underground train stopping in a dark tunnel between stations became the stuff of my nightmares. I have a fairly good idea of why this happened, but at some point in my life I fear I shall be paying a New York analyst thousands of dollars an hour to rediscover the source of my anxieties, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.

When the situation started to unfold the first thing that happened was my heart started beating harder and a familiar sensation of anxiety started rising from my gut. Panic set in. The brain starts firing questions: what happened? how long are we going to be here? does anyone know we’re here? what’s the process they have to go through to fix this? Do they have to call someone in? How long is that going to take? The questions are always intricate and specific. They’re always about the process. 

At this quickfire brain-speed a minute can seem like a very long time, and twelve: an eternity. The question you try and avoid asking yourself is the most dark. It flits around the outskirts of your thought process trying to creep past the mental barriers and emerge into the light: What’s going to happen to me if this goes on much longer? The physical sensations are so intense that you start to wonder if you might eventually break.

Thankfully I haven’t found out. Yet.

It’s so frustrating to have something like this in your life that you can’t control. The relative argument holds true - it’s a comparatively small problem to have, and god forbid I should have something more serious to deal with, but it is both fascinating and horrifying to have a weakness, something so irrational and so much beyond your control, and that no amount of logical thought can conquer. Thinking both helps and makes the situation worse.

We’re adaptable creatures however, and three-and-a-half floors above Rathbone Street this afternoon, I held it together. It helped the others in the lift were friends. Strangers would have been worse. And there are ways I have found to cope with the anxiety. I try and always have a good book on me - being in the middle of a great story is wonderful for distracting the mind from malicious thinkings, and the better the book, the more powerful the diversion. In this situation, film scripts can be of wildly varying efficacy, for reasons I don’t need to explain. I once commuted to work with Season 3 of The Sopranos on my mp3 player. It was practical magic.

But there’s one thing I’ve found helps more than anything else. It comes from something I read in my various investigations into the way the human mind functions. The article, which has now become lost to me in the vortex, reported on a study (conducted by scientists and psychologists at some venerable institution or other) which concluded that recreating the physical sensation of something can cause the brain to manufacture that psychological feeling. Or to put it more simply: Smiling can make you happy. This was apparently something of a surprise to said psychologists who had previously believed that feelings always provoked the physical response, and the brain did not follow the body. Of course I tried it and goddamn if it didn’t work a charm.

So now, when the anxiety starts to creep in, I try and smile, and I find it’s a lot harder to be stressed when you are smiling. I care not for the other passengers in my tunnel-bound train carriage wondering who the grinning idiot sitting across from them may be - is he about to start asking them for money, proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ, or does he have something incendiary strapped under that shirt (which is bizarrely not one of my tube-based phobias). And as I sit there smiling away, thoughts come to mind of the good things in my life, the people I care about and the things I am proud of, and the fears start to lose their power over me.

I don’t exactly know why I wanted to share this. Perhaps because sometimes it can help to know that other people out there go through the same things as you, maybe someone would read this with a glimmer of recognition and feel comforted in some way. Perhaps I thought it might help me to put it out into the world. What I do know is that today I was confronted by one of my most potent fears, if only for twelve minutes, and when we were finally let out of that lift, I emerged with a smile on my face.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

ON WRITING: christopher nolan on 'inception'

In the shooting script for Inception, Chris Nolan is interviewed by his brother Jonathon.

He makes a few interesting points about the way he tells stories. I particularly like his comments about 'the rules' which I think is key to any type of fantasy / supernatural sci-fi. I first heard the idea expressed by Borges, who talked about the 'orbe autonomo' (autonomous world) of his stories. The basic theory is that the audience needs to know the rule of your world in order to engage with your story. If you set a story in a world in which anything is possible, it becomes un-relatable to the audience and ultimately un-engaging.

For any good fantasy I think you need to 'sell the rabbit hole', as I would describe it. Like Alice, the transition from our world to one in which magic/the supernatural is possible has to be fundamentally unquestionable to an audience, even if it requires a suspension of disbelief, or a surrender to some pretty hokey movie logic. In the best fantasies we want to surrender to the logic.

Some rabbit holes:

Struck by lightning = magical powers
Cursed by Hungarian gypsy woman = seriously scary shit happens to you
Christopher Lloyd + illegal nuclear sh*t from the Libyans = time travel
Buying pets in China town from mystical eastern dude = little furry thing capable of eating you after a midnight feast.

To an extent we believe in these rabbit holes because we want to, not because we think they're real but from the point of view of story logic they all make locked-down sense.

Here are some highlights from the Nolan interview (thanks to Jonathan Wakeham for the edits). Full text here

On the need for rules When I saw the first Matrix film, I thought it was really terrific, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood the limits on the powers of the characters who had become self-aware. Inception, on the other hand, is about a more everyday experience …. It doesn’t question an actual reality. It’s just saying, “Okay, we all dream every night. What if you could share your dream with someone else?” And it becomes an alternate reality simply because the dream becomes a form of communication, like using a telephone or going online.

On the need for emotional risk I consider this script to have begun when I figured out I was going to use a heist movie structure … The problem I had was finishing it, because the heist movie as a genre tends to be deliberately superficial … And I realised that when you’re talking about dreaming, this universal human experience, you need the stakes of the story to have a much more emotional resonance. If you’re going to do a massive movie, you’ve got to be able to unlock that more universal experience for yourself as well as the audience. As soon as I realised that Mal would be his wife, it became completely relatable.

On melodrama I’ve written quite a few dead wives, that’s true. But you try to put your relatable fears into these things. That’s what film noir is, and Ido view Inception as film noir. You take the things you are actually worried about in real life, and you extrapolate that into a universal drama, painted as large as possible. You turn it into melodrama. People always talk about melodrama as a pejorative, but I don’t know what other word there is.

On actors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with great casts on all my films. Particularly with a lot of the supporting characters, a great actor will come in with a whole take on it, and they’ll literally give what’s on the page some kind of life that you hadn’t forseen.

On trusting audiences There are points where you worry that you might be putting too much in and alienating the audience … Somewhere in the back of my mind, for example, I had assumed that the business with the spinning top in the safe would wind up being cut out of the film … But what we realised in showing it to people is that they actually grasped the imagery as something to hold onto, as an illustration of things that had happened off camera.

On sincerity I give a film a lot of credit for trying to do something fresh — even if it doesn’t work … I think the thing that I always react against as a filmgoer is insincerity, when somebody makes a film that they don’t really enjoy themselves, just to produce an effect on the audience. And what really frustrates me with a film like Inception is when you show somebody the film and they think you’re trying to be clever. Or show off. I always feel like I’ve completely failed at that point, because I know as a filmgoer that that’s something I react against … you want to believe that the film-maker loves the movie, loves what that movie does.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

ON WRITING: david simon on the 'average reader' (Quote)

This is taken from a fantastic piece in 'The Believer' mag, in which Nick Hornby interviewed David Simon - the mastermind behind 'The Wire', 'Generation Kill' and 'Treme'. This is a great quote, a great philosophy, and I think forms a kind of rallying cry for how HBO's drama changed TV storytelling for the better.

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

Full interview can be found here

ON WRITING: david milch on convention (Quote)

It seems appropriate to start with something from David Milch - the screenwriter behind 'Deadwood' (as well as 'Luck' and 'NYPD Blue') as Milch is the reason I really became fascinated with the craft. Deadwood is truly a masterpiece of TV writing, more so because apparently Milch dictated each episode lying on his back in a trailer, the night before shooting. Whether or not this story is apocryphal the fact that I don't doubt it says a lot about the man.

Here's Milch's take on Convention:

"As I get older, I become less and less patient with convention. A convention is the set of assumptions in a story which are taken as given, rather than tested by the action."

Friday, September 21, 2012


The way we develop movies over here (I guess it’s the same in the states) is a pretty antiquated beast. The template for a movie, for the vast majority of its gestation period, is 100 pages of courier 10pt.

I’ve always found this a little bizarre. Film is a visual medium, with light and movement and music and sound and fury, and yet the best blueprint we can come up with is a paper (or nowadays PDF) script. Words on a page. It’s kind of like composing a piece of music by writing a series of notes on a stave, without tinkering around on a piano to see if they sound good together. Don’t get me wrong, there are some people who’ll come out of that process with a symphony, but for most people you’re gonna end up somewhere between free jazz, and a bag of angry cats.

Once everyone’s decided that your script blueprint works, and you’re into the next stage of the process, ie. budgeting and scheduling the shoot, often you produce a set of storyboards – which is a kind of cartoon strip telling the story of the film, and suggesting the camera angles and movement for each setup.

Directors each have a different approach to storyboarding. Some will storyboard the movie to the last detail and the shoot becomes a process of simply committing that to film (…'simply’, hah!). Others prefer to keep things a little looser on set, allowing more room for improvisation, and to react to things as they arise.

They are, of course, wrong.

‘Keeping things loose’ on set generally means shooting slows to half speed, as the director has now decided that a shot of the lead actor from between the slices of  a British rail ham sandwich is the only way to convey his inner torment, and the entire morning is spent gaffer-taping Sunblest to the camera lens.

But even with the most board-shy, producer-hating directors (god forbid we should know how the movie’s gonna be shot), in order to budget things like visual fx (digital) and special fx (physical), at the very least the relevant Heads of department need to know what’s going to be seen on camera for each shot, so these sequences need to be fairly closely storyboarded.

We were lucky enough to work with a wonderful artist called Douglas Ingram, whose previous work included ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘Batman’.

You can see a page from his storyboards here:

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

who the *!%& do you think you are...? pt. 3

Ok, so I realise it’s been about a year since I last updated this, and kinda left off in the middle of a train of thought. I was going to have a crack at explaining what we do during shooting, and it would have made sense to do that during shooting. Well, as luck would have it we are indeed shooting again on Last Passenger...

Let me try and explain. (and believe me it’s not the first time I’ve had to explain this,...). When we shot the movie we’d always intended there would be about a week of pickup shooting, and train exteriors (things like VFX plates of trains going through stations and suchlike). This was going to be done quick and dirty guerilla-style with a tiny crew, and ideally in the director’s garden. Hence I am writing this from my makeshift office on the James Bond Stage at Pinewood studios, amid a chaos of smoke and fire, and our train which we hoisted up from a Dartmoor quarry, where it’s been residing since the shoot wrapped at Shepperton last year. Ahem.

A man’s reach should always exceed his grasp. At least that’s what I told our investors when asking them to put their hands in their pockets for this ambitious pickup shoot. To their credit, they all came up with the goods, hence we now find ourselves on probably the most famous single studio stage in the world, finishing LP.

Shooting: The Therapist / Politician

As is evidenced by the fact that I’ve got time to write this stuff, if all is going well on set a Producer is about as useful as a third testicle. Or so I’ve been told. (Thanks ‘anonymous rigger’ for that little gem).

It’s only when the mierda hits the ventilador that the Producer has to spring into action and find someone who can fix it / to blame. Making a mockery of all theories about the speed on evolution, within hours of first walking on set you develop two vital survival skills.

  1. A sixth sense for when someone is about to ask you for more money.
  2. A Ninja-like ability to vanish into the shadows.

In general on film sets you’re surrounded by experienced crew who are highly skilled in various crucial tasks. Everyone does his/her job, and only that job, otherwise the machine breaks down. One thing that becomes very clear in the jump from micro- to feature- budget productions is that the mucking-in blitz spirit of the short film is neither practical nor feasible - due in large part to the general awkwardness of crew (*koff-camera department-*koff koff). But the practical aspect is important. If one of those cogs isn’t in the right place at the right time, the machine grinds to a very expensive halt.

The relationship between producer and director at this stage in the film can take many forms, and this is probably the most fluid part of the job. In fact I guess this is the point at which you choose the kind of producer you want to be. My contention would be that the ideal relationship is one in which the Producer absorbs the stresses and strains of mounting such a large scale production, allowing the Director the space to create, while the director part of the bargain is to stay on-time and on budget (a la Ang Lee / James Shamus). Creatively the producer is a sounding board, and trusted ally, but should really hold back from imposing his creative vision. The best films are always made from a director’s unified vision and too often a duff film is the result of a creative power struggle between a producer (who secretly wants to be a director), and the director, resulting in a compromised mish-mash of ideas.

That’s the therapy part.

Often on set you are called upon to make big decisions, often very expensive, and sometimes against the advice of those around you. But no-one knows the intracacies of the complex organism that is a film better than its Producer, so you have to go with your gut. This is also where you stand or fall by your instinct.

I also call this part the ‘Politician’ because during this part of the process your relationship with the truth will become, shall we say, more nuanced. There are a dozen competing voices demanding your time energy and money. All need to be addressed but in the right order and at the right time, and often it’s not the time for the brutal unvarnished truth. 

All in all a good producer has his/her eyes on the prize, and everything is geared towards making the best film possible on the creative side, and being responsible to ‘the money’ on the financial side. No production has ever gone completely smoothly, but as long as you bear these two important elements in mind, there’s usually a way through.

Monday, October 24, 2011

an army marches on its stomach

We’ve just started our fourth week of shooting and things are pretty much going to plan. It’s hard to know until you’ve done a bunch of movies exactly what’s normal for the situation, but we dropped a bit of time early on which we should be able to make up this week.

We’re shooting at ‘H’ stage a Shepperton studios - one of the UK film industry’s great institutions. Notable projects to make use of H’s lavish accommodations include: Star Wars Episode IV, 2001: A Space Oddyssey and Alien. I say ‘lavish’ with my tongue pressed so firmly in my cheek that I am slightly worried it will not resume its original shape. H Stage is a gigantic shed. It is not heated and its amenities run up to, and including a floor, four walls and a ceiling. The toilets appear to have been production-designed to resemble a place where someone has been caught cottaging on an episode of The Bill.

As soon as the temperature dropped below 20C the cast and crew revolted, and started demanding heating on stage. Despite my counter-suggestions which were, variously, to ‘man-up’ and ‘buy some thermal pants’, eventually we were forced to capitulate to their demands and we erected an eZ-up tent village to protect their delicate constitutions. We are therefore currently spending hundreds of pounds a day to heat a tent in a shed.

This was indeed not the first mutiny of the shoot. As anyone who has ever tried to mount a large scale production will testify, food is always a problem. We tried to feed our crew from the canteen at Shepperton (which is run by another company rather than the studio itself) and disaster ensued. For what it’s worth, my advice to any producer is sort out the catering properly, up front, and mostly do not trust any caterers that tell you that, despite the fact that what you’re currently eating resembles tepid yak vomit, when it comes to the shoot they will be providing a smorgasboard of locally-sourced delights. (The definition of ‘Locally sourced’ in this instance appears to have been extended to include Iceland in Staines town centre).

When the great luncheon revolt of 2011 happened I felt pretty upset. I’d been on this subject from the start, and had received all sorts of promises from the caterers etc. that this was in hand. We couldn’t bring in outside caterers (as you normally would) as we’re such a small crew - no-one would do it for the money. In the end as a last desperate throw of the dice I tried to piggy-back on another (Studio) movie which is also shooting at Shepperton (produced by a friend of mine) and feed our crew from their kitchen. But when that didn’t work out we were forced to admit defeat and hand over cash in the form of per diems to the crew and let them sort it out. This is really the last thing we wanted. crews work hard and deserve to be fed properly, and despite being a relatively small film with all the limitations that implies, if a production can’t feed its crew, it feels like we’re not doing our job.

I am now trying to bribe them with cake.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

from the beginning... pt. 3

[As you can probably tell, I wrote this a while back, but hadn't got round to posting, so I thought I should at least complete the story. Here's the final part - thanks for reading! Z]

Once we'd shot the trailer, post production was key. The guys at Park Village, Omid’s old commercials studio, lent us a space for pickup shots and the rest of the time was spent editing, VFX work, and titles, and burning various models of plastic dinosaurs searching for the right effect. In the great tradition of low budget filmmaking the director fulfilled pretty much every one of these roles, while we the producers sat around in enormous leather armchairs smoking cigars.

After two months and countless versions, we had something we were pretty proud of, especially considering it had cost us a grand total of £500 - made up of personal contributions from the three of us and our executive producer Kwesi Dickson, (who also heroically sacrificed his son’s toy dinosaur to the cause). We uploaded the trailer to Vimeo and Youtube, and immediately spammed the inboxes of everyone who’d ever shown a sniff of interest in the project.

A week after the trailer was released, executive producer Michiyo Yoshizaki came back from a trip to Japan with a letter promising investment into the film, and we had our first piece of the puzzle. A week later we received an offer on distribution from the Middle East and then Germany, and a few days after that Path̩ approached us about representing LP for worldwide sales Рa huge coup for the film. By the end of the month we had our lead actor attached.

Film festivals on the whole are where most film business gets done outside of Los Angeles, and the 2011 Cannes film festival was the launch of the trailer to the international film industry - the first real test of the market appetite for our movie. With just a dummy trailer, we figured on one or maybe two small territory deals that we could put towards financing the film, but as it turned out Pathé brought home nine deals for places like Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Portugal and Indonesia.

Around May 2011 Pinewood studios announced an initiative to invest in lower budget British films, and we immediately introduced ourselves to the Pinewood team. Like so many of the team on the film, after seeing the trailer they ‘got’ what we were trying to do with Last Passenger and came on board.

The final piece of the puzzle was the BFI, who had championed the film through the long process of script development and then confirmed a significant production investment on top of that.

It was a truly extraordinary couple of months.

I write this final paragraph from my office at Shepperton Studios where Last Passenger starts shooting on friday. We have a train, a studio and a great crew has come together. I’m not going to jinx anything by saying we’re there yet – the films Gods are much more capricious than that - but one thing we can definitely agree on, that was the best £500 we ever spent.

Director Omid Nooshin on the LP set.