Gavin Hood – Practical Advice and Inspiration from Eye In The Sky Director

Gavin Hood is climbing the ranks in the film industry, having directed some popular movies with tenacious morale.

I first noticed him after watching Eye in the Sky, which is about the disputes of modern warfare. I was thoroughly impressed. I don’t remember the last time I was on the edge of my seat for the duration of an entire movie. When I realized he’s a fellow South-African, I was intrigued even more – I have to admit I’m a bit biased…

The more I found out about him, the more reasons I found to acknowledge him and his work.

Gavin Hood is the kind of filmmaker who is in the business for the right reasons.

He is driven to create current and applicable content which is entertaining at the same time. When asked why he chose to direct Eye in the Sky, he commented: “It’s completely current and it’s about what’s really happening in modern warfare and it has elements of black comedy and farce that are grounded in real life.”

His choice to cast Helen Mirren (the role was intended for a male lead) as Colonel Katherine Powell was very strategic. He didn’t want to box the movie in as a war movie for guys.

He recounts saying, “I want it to be a movie about war but that it’s a conversation starter for men and women about a subject matter that I think is very topical.”

He’s also a filmmaker who works extremely hard to get where he is right now. When asked to give advice to aspiring filmmakers, he shared, “Unfortunately, […] there’s this notion that you can become famous and rich very quickly. It’s a curse I think. […]

The way you make it is by getting good at making films.

There’s no shortcut; just study the craft and practise and hopefully you’ll eventually connect with an audience. And if you don’t connect with an audience, you won’t have a career in this business.”

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It took a while for him to gain international recognition. Even though he wanted to be an actor, he followed his father’s advice and “took his big mouth and studied law” though he only practiced it for 4 months. He was already 30 when he actually started studying screenwriting, cinematography and directing.

Although he knew he was always going to go into film, he doesn’t regret having studied law, instead he recalls, “it trained me in terms of thinking and story and conflict and moral and ethical questions.”

He continually emphasizes the importance of making films in order to connect with your audience. He himself is drawn to stories compelling him to think. “I personally, with my background of being a lawyer and growing up in the turbulent times of the 80’s in South-Africa, I tend to be drawn to […] stories that somehow challenge me in a moral or ethical way.

“Don’t tell me what to think, but present me with something morally or ethically challenging.”

He started small by making short films; The Storekeeper was one I remember seeing in Middle School. It left a big impression on me, not only because of the dilemma it presents, but because it was so close to home. It was a South-African story which could be understood universally.

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This is another thing I appreciate about him; he bloomed where he was planted. He started where he was and then expanded, instead of limiting himself to the small South-African film industry.

Tsotsi was his breakthrough film which garnered him an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006 – a film I highly recommend by the way…

It was again, an authentic story, but one exploring universal humanity.  

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“I really believe that we focus so much on differences and not enough on similarities. Most people, on a very basic level, have surprisingly similar needs. The need for companionship, dignity, love. And when these basic needs are not met, you find individuals developing a very distorted sense of the world.”

By now, he has other popular movies under his belt like Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rendition.

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I celebrate people like Gavin Hood and believe there are many more like him out there who we simply need to discover.

Fellow filmmakers and actors, let us strive and work hard to tell stories worth telling. Stories that challenge people in their thinking to fight passivity.

Gavin Hood, I thank you for being an inspiration and persisting with a tenacious and creative spirit – all the best to you for your future projects!

Written by Annette Lange.

Top 10 Movies Every Actor Should Watch and Why

BY ANNETTE LANGE

Who hasn’t deeply been touched by beautiful cinematography, amazing performances by actors and successful adaptations of extremely creative and ingenious screenwriting?

Films speak to everyone on a deep, personal level. They reveal, celebrate and criticize humanity and are therefore a powerful tool.

If you’re an actor, you’re probably driven by the same desire to tell stories worth telling. I’ve compiled a list of movies that will challenge, inspire and help you in your endeavour to become a better actor.

1. Sophie’s Choice

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There are so many reasons to watch this film, if you haven’t already. Pay close attention to Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline’s performances. Their characters are so multifaceted, complicated and emotional, and both are able to portray them convincingly. Streep nailed not only the Polish accent when speaking English but also when she spoke German.

2. Wall-e

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This movie is an excellent reminder of the importance of story. The immense impact this film has on the audience is incredible. The actor is not the most important part – the story is. And it can be told without words. Films should be made to create a connection with the audience. The actors are merely servants of the director who carries the vision.

3. The Descendants

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In this film, director Alexander Payne chose to leave the camera on the cast longer than what would be a good point to yell ‘cut’. It’s fascinating to see how the actors explore this opportunity. You often hear the saying ‘the magic happens outside of our comfort zone’ and this is a perfect example.

4. Drinking Buddies

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Drinking Buddies is an example of successful mumblecore. What this means is, the performances are natural and more realistic because there are guidelines instead of scripted dialogue. Watching this will inspire you to really listen and react to your scene partner and see what happens. Don’t be scared of improvisation, it’s a breeding ground for magic to happen.

5. La Vie En Rose

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Marion Cotillard’s performance blew me away when I saw this film. No wonder it garnered her an Oscar. Her commitment and dedication to portraying Edith Piaf is inspirational. It’s a perfect example of Ugly Acting. She does not look flattering in her performance, she masters the degression of age and sickness and makes very bold character choices. I’m a strong proponent for watching foreign films as well, and to start with La Vie en Rose is an excellent choice.

6. Bronson

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Confidence is a key lesson that improved my acting, and Tom Hardy’s confidence in this movie is incredible. He seems to have completely forgotten the camera. His performance is raw and unforgiving. Also, Bronson is just one bizarre human being, and to understand his psyche and wrestle with the character development must have been a challenge.

7. Sunset Boulevard

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This is a classic black comedy and, even though it is an oldie, it still shows the ‘behind the scenes’ of Hollywood/Stardom quite plainly. It shows the extent and consequence of Norma Desmond’s love for fame, herself and greed. Stardom is fleeting, the fruit of pride is disgusting. Mommy Dearest explores this topic as well. It is definitely a topic every actor needs to grapple with for their personal life.

8. Singin’ in the Rain

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Whether you are fan of musicals or not, you must have seen this movie at least once. Film is first and foremost entertainment and should appeal to your audience. Gene Kelly is a wonderful example for his standard of excellence. Only dreaming for a breakthrough in acting will just continue to be a dream if you don’t work on your craft.

9. Amadeus

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Amadeus discusses many topics worth mentioning. But what struck me while watching the movie was observing how both Mozart and Salieri failed to steward their talents well and as a result, both their lives end tragically. Instead of composing for the love of music and others, Salieri chose to let comparison and jealousy get the best of him. And Mozart indulges so much in the futile pleasures of life, it results in a disgraceful death.

10. Kramer vs Kramer

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What’s fascinating about this movie is, it refuses to take sides. Humans are intricate, complicated beings. Their personalities and decisions change. There isn’t always a black and white, right or wrong. The focus is not on the child who suffers from his parents’ divorce, but on the ‘grown-ups’ who cry out for just as much attention and identity as the child does.

Read Roger Ebert’s review for a further exploration of the film.

Bear in mind

This is a very limited list and not ranked in any way from best to worst or vice versa.

My advice to you – watch ‘em all. But be strategic with your choice of movies. Watch good ones, watch bad ones, popular movies and unpopular ones, independent and foreign ones – but watch them all with a healthy dose of skepticism and awareness and take away from them what you can and apply to your own craft.

How to Make talking to yourself genuine and authentic

BY ANNETTE LANGE

Fellow Actors, nobody wants to sit through a stilted performance of a lifeless monologue.

On the other hand, there is nothing more fascinating than watching an actor embody a character through monologue successfully. It’s incredible when he/she presents the character’s thoughts through his/her physical presence, imagination and inner activity – not just the words of the monologue.

This being said, here are helpful guidelines I summed up from legendary Uta Hagen’s take on performing monologues. By monologues, I mean any scene in which your character is alone in a given time and place and finds him/herself talking out loud for a specific reason at a moment of crisis.

First and foremost, it’s important we know:

WHY WE TALK TO OURSELVES

Talking to ourselves is always an attempt on our part to gain control over our circumstances.

These circumstances can look very different. They can be boredom or a tragic situation.

For example, when I’m in a hurry, my verbalisation of, “Ok, I’ve got my keys, my wallet… where’s my phone?” is merely my attempt at organisation. In the case of a dramatic monologue, Uta Hagen explains “it’s that you are in crisis and need the words to help you find answers.”

So, when you tackle your next monologue, make sure you determine and are aware of your circumstances – or your ‘crisis’.

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The next important aspect is observing yourself and others and knowing:

WHAT TALKING TO OURSELVES LOOKS LIKE

A big temptation for actors is putting too much emphasis on the actual words. Uta Hagen describes it as “mostly a subconscious procedure that makes you verbalize” because it is an involuntary process, most of the time we’re not even aware of it.

Because we are often so caught up in our thoughts, words are merely the byproduct of trying to figure out a situation, or an emotion we are submerged in. It is, in other words, an overflow of our thought process about the circumstances we’re currently in or an experience we’ve just had.

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This is why it’s always important to take into consideration that:

OUR WORDS NEED PHYSICAL PRESENCE

In her book Respect for Acting, Hagen emphasizes the importance of partnering physical action with words: “I strongly recommend that the scene be found physically before you approach the verbal action […] you do not come into the room in order to talk to yourself [emphasis added].”

Generally, people aren’t actually physically still when they talk to themselves.

You will make life much easier for yourself if your words are accompanied by physical activity. You don’t have to finish the activity, but it will help in your character’s attempt to gain control over his/her circumstances.

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Even though physical presence is essential, be aware of:

THE DANGER WITH PHYSICAL ACTIONS

Partnering actions with your words does not mean you have to physically act out the words. Or as Hagen puts it, “Don’t illustrate the life you are verbally fantasizing.” This is an easy trap us actors can fall into. You don’t need to show your audience what your words mean, which brings me to the next point of danger.

In a monologue, your character is alone. He/she knows exactly what is going on and doesn’t need to explain to anyone the whole story. But, obviously your audience still needs to understand the context. This is why Hagen advises to “let the humanness of your behaviour reveal the necessary events” in order for them to understand the story.

I’m aware of the trickiness of partnering words with actions, so allow me to share:

HELPFUL QUESTIONS TO ASK IN PREPARATION

Similar to Hagen’s previous advice to start with the physicality of the monologue first, ask yourself:

“What would I do here if I didn’t talk?”

Start with the physical presence first, and at some point, as Hagen reassures us, it’s going to be easy to start talking.

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Consider what the real reason is of why you’re doing these things under the given circumstances in order to allow any verbal fantasy to take shape.

IN CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, don’t forget these guidelines aren’t meant to stress you out. They are there to help you make your performance as believable as possible in order to tell a story worth telling.

Have fun in your journey of exploring and imitating human behaviour, in order to let the stories you tell. Be an inspiration to your audience.

What happened to simplicity? Reviewing one of the greats

Written by Jay Evans.

City Lights is one of the most creative films of all time, and director, Charlie Chaplin is without a doubt an inspiration to many. He is one of the best and most sophisticated director’s in history.

His style, humorously simplistic yet powerful, has been the cornerstone of many future, aspiring directors decades later, teaching them the true art of film.

The story tells of a tramp (Chaplin) who stumbles across a young, sweet blind girl who mistakes him for a millionaire. At first he plays along but then finds himself  becoming chummy with an actual rich man who, although having it all, does not know true happiness.

Through these new relationships The Tramp, in turn, discovers the real meaning of selfless love, even to the point of giving up his freedom on the street in order to provide sight for his blind beauty.

Constantly the film portrays perfect storytelling through the visuals. Like other silent films the story uses title cards when necessary, but even then, there was only a small amount of these that were needed to display a simple, yet powerful message.

What films lack these days is an understanding of visual storytelling. When narrative film began there was no option for audio, forcing the filmmakers to tell their stories with creative visuals. City Lights portrayed this perfectly. It didn’t need dialogue.

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The disadvantage brought about by the deceiving beauty of audio was that audiences were being told what was happening through dialogue. Charlie Chaplin did not want to spoonfeed his audience and let audio devour the greatness of simplistic visuals.

Sound does in fact have a part to play in telling a story so Chaplin didn’t completely cut it out. More so than just using a backing instrumental track he used various sound effects and foley in a creative way. In one of the beginning scenes he uses a kazoo to represent the empty words of three wealthy characters congratulating each other in front of a statue they are about to unveil.

He also includes the ding of a bell during the boxing match and the sound of a cowbell when a rock is dropped onto The Tramp’s foot during his first meeting with the millionaire.

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The story of City Lights was simple, but what went on behind the scenes during production was anything but simple. It was shot in the midst of the beginnings of a new era – ‘The Talkies’.

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Although this new trend in film was the next best thing, Chaplin held strong to his goal of creating another silent film, despite being ridiculed by critics. The genre of Silent Film was soon coming to an end due to public demands of only sound pictures.

During production, Chaplin was relentless in his goal to perfectly tell this story. He knew exactly what he wanted and wouldn’t stop until he achieved success.

The scene in which the tramp has his first meeting with the blind girl, was shot over 300 times, and during production he even fired the main actress as he accused her of being unprofessional. In the end, however, she was rehired, due to so much of the production already being completed.

The other reason he made the decision to bring her back was that she was young and naive – the very character she needed to play. Employing a more seasoned actress would have been a mistake as there was a possibility of overacting and overcomplicating the character. The simplicity of the blind girls character was a huge part of correctly telling the story.

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The story was set in the middle of the city – hence City Lights – an increasingly unforgiving place in the 1930’s, which is more of the reason Chaplin endeavoured on his quest to tell a simple story of love and hope in the midst of the city chaos.

When the film was released in 1931 the audience roared its approval, proving that a film does not need words in order to communicate a good story.

No matter how new or outdated the style of film is, it’s always important to tell a good story, and storytelling through visuals isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a necessity.

City Lights was, and still is a triumph in the world of cinema, and filmmakers today are still being taught by one of the greats.

Although Chaplin has long gone, his legacy has not. 86 years on, his last silent film City Lights is still a perfect story of powerful love, hope and selflessness. It’s light in dialogue yet powerful in theme and the humour is universal, providing a way for the audience to relate to the story as a whole.

I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking inspiration, whether it be in film or just in personal development as the story speaks to the heart of anyone who chooses to embrace it.

Spotlight on Botswana: revealing a ‘scandalous’ love story

BY ANNETTE LANGE

 

*** WARNING: This article contains spoilers!!! ***

 

Having grown up among the Batswana community in South Africa as one of the few white people in our township, I was always made aware of the fact that I was white, not black – from both sides.

 

Even though the Apartheid system had been abolished in 1991 (and I was born in 1995 – the so-called born-free generation), the effects of it and attitude were still ingrained in people’s minds. I never felt truly part of either the Batswana, or the white community in South-Africa – a weird limbo situation.

 

Needless to say, the trailer of ‘A United Kingdom’ sent tears streaming down my face – even when watching it for the 10th time. Seeing a powerful testimony of both the black and white community reconciled through the ‘scandalous’ union between Seretse Khama, a black inheritor of the Bamangwato chieftainship, and Ruth Williams, a white typist from London, pulled on my heartstrings even more.

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A United Kingdom follows the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), who meet and fall in love in London in the 1940’s. Their relationship is not only opposed by their families, but by Khama’s uncle, the regent of Bechuanaland, his tribe and both the South-African and British Governments who do everything in their might to prevent their union.

 

Through it all, their love overcomes all opposition, efforts and exile, ultimately leading to Seretse becoming the first president of Botswana, now being an independent country after its state as a British Protectorate.

 

Under his leadership, Botswana became one of the fastest growing economies after being the world’s third poorest country. His uncompromisable stance for equality and integrity was a beacon of hope amidst a region ruled by racial segregation, civil war and corruption.

 

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I applaud Amma Asante (director) and David Oyelowo (actor and producer) for their incredible efforts in making this story come alive. I am and will remain a huge fan of this film. However, there were some melodramatic and westernized elements and choices that pulled me out of the story on several occasions.

 

Pike and Oyelowo’s acting performances are outstanding and they have great chemistry on screen even though Oyelowo’s accent pulled me out of the story every now and then, sometimes rolling the ‘r’, sometimes not. I realize this is a daunting task, seeing that Seretse would have had the British accent mixed with the Setswana accent due to him living in London for several years. Also, Oyelowo’s occasional choice of pausing in the middle of his sentences as if he had a hard time speaking English was unnecessary, since Khama was perfectly fluent and proficient in English.

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The cinematography and production design was beautiful and aided in creating the stark contrast between the different backgrounds of both Khama and Williams, the culture of London and Botswana and the obvious presence and absence of wealth and economic stability.

 

Most of the locations were the actual locations where the story took place: the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, the St Mary’s Church in Isleworth and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. For the scenes set in Bechuanaland, they mainly filmed in Serowe, Botswana’s biggest village and Seretse’s actual former house that was put back together after finding it in a dilapidated state.

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I realize that Asante and Oyelowo’s main focus was the love and relationship between Seretse and Williams, they do not deny the fact that they are both ‘unashamed romantics,’ but in my opinion the focus on the romanticism took away from its authenticity and led to unnecessary melodramatic elements.

 

When Ruth first catches a glimpse of Sereste, we see him sitting confidently on the armrest of an armchair discussing politics in a macho-like manner among his African brothers. In my opinion it does not reflect Khama’s humble demeanor he is said to have had. “Seretse Khama was known for his intelligence and integrity, and a wicked sense of humour –puncturing the pomposity of those who had too high an opinion of themselves.” For the sake of his country, he stepped down as a chief and became a cattle farmer for a while. His weapon was humility, not arrogance.

 

In another scene, Seretse delivers a brilliant speech to his people who are assembled to vote whether or not they want him to continue as chief. However, the part where the men raise their hands to vote was drawn out dramatically with long periods of silence was a bit unrealistic. This particular kgotla (public meeting) in which he was recognized as Kgosi (king) by his people was the last meeting following a series of meetings through which he had gained more and more favor from the people. The men would not have taken so long to vote for his chieftainship as he “was popularly recognised as Kgosi together with his wife.”

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Another element of melodrama is seen in the portrayal of the antagonists of the story: Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) and Lady Lilly Canning (Jessica Oyelowo). Even though their intentions obviously weren’t pure, their portrayal as villains was unnecessarily exaggerated. It came across that Sir and Lady Canning made no attempt to hide their pleasure in Seretse and Ruth’s misfortune, even in their company.

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There were also a couple of moments that gave away the fact that the screenplay and dialogue were not written by an African.

 

Which brings me to the following examples of ‘westernisation’:

Ruth remains in Bechuanaland while her husband is in exile. During this time, her first child is born. In her effort to integrate herself into the Batswana community, Ruth nurses her newborn baby and joins the circle of other African mothers in the bush hospital, I am 90% sure they would not have just sat in silence acknowledging each other with a smile. I think I’d have permission to assume this group of nursing women would have been chuckling or at least chatting away in their native language, at least to the point when Ruth joins their circle. It was not the behaviour I expected from a group of Batswana mothers.

 

The people of the rural villages in Botswana are portrayed as meek and quiet. In view of the fact that Ruth had become a member of the royal family, I can imagine that a certain respect or reverence towards her might have caused members of her community to feel inhibited in her presence. From my personal experience, however, I would describe the Batswana as a lively, confident people.

 

The part that was executed extremely well however (the tearjerker for me) was the scene where the women of the village gather together in song to show their acceptance of Ruth as one of their own. I have seen such a scenario many times, and it never fails to make my heart skip a beat, when I see an example of reconciliation and acceptance such as this.

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Even though these few elements distracted me from the story now and then, I praise the filmmakers for brilliantly telling the story from both sides: Seretse’s challenges in being accepted in England as well as Ruth’s challenges in being accepted by the Batswana and the white community in Southern Africa (the part I identified with the most).

 

And, a bonus for me personally was of course, to see a story told that was so close to home. I was surprised I had never heard of the story myself, but even “many in Botswana did not know the story either, despite Seretse and Ruth’s son being the current president.”

 

I’m excited to see what the response to this film will be in Botswana and South-Africa and also to see future projects of Amma Asante and David Oyelowo. Hats off to both of them and the team!

 

The Visual World of Wes

Written by Josias Jensen.

There are very few directors that have an instantly recognisable visual style. Wes Anderson is definitely one of them.

You may or may not be a fan of the quirky and whimsical style of his movies. However, one thing he is undeniably excellent at, is using Production Design to tell us about the world and characters of his stories.

Anderson frequently collaborates with Production Designers: David Wasco, Mark Friedberg, and Adam Stockhausen. Together they manage to fill every shot with plenty of detail and information for us to gain a deeper understanding of the characters of the story, and the world they inhabit.

As the Production Designer on The Out of the Woods Project, I was greatly inspired by Anderson’s body of work.

I would like to examine a few ways in which Anderson uses production design, to give us a deeper understanding of the characters in his films and the journeys they go on.

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Attaching meaning to props

In The Darjeeling Limited, the three brothers carry with them suitcases from their father. Anderson uses these props to show the audience how the three brothers let go of their past, and the grudges they have held against each other and other members of their family.

The brothers walk away from their father’s funeral with much hurt and emotional baggage. The suitcases symbolise this emotional baggage. In the suitcases, they bring a few items with them that used to belong to their father as well.

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Throughout most of the film they haul around all of their suitcases wherever they go. This is somewhat comedic, as they are carrying more than they need and they often get help just to carry it.

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By simply attaching meaning to specific props Anderson shows us that the characters have changed, because of how they interact with these props. They have let go of their emotional baggage.

You can do something similar in your work by creating a strong association between a prop and a certain person or event. You can show the audience something about the character and their journey, simply by showing how they interact with that prop throughout the film. Do their interactions with this prop change as they grow as a character? Do they stay the same?

Contrast

The family house in The Royal Tenenbaums is rich in detail and in almost every single shot we can learn something about the people that live there.

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In the prologue of the film, we get introduced to the three children of the Tenenbaum family. In this shot we see how Chas has arranged his room. It is devoid of color and it doesn’t really look like a kids room at all, but more like an office. Chas has grown up fast and left his childhood naivety behind him.

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In contrast to the previous shot is a shot of his brother Richie’s room also from the prologue. The room, the toys, and the clothes are just like a normal kid’s. This is a great contrast between the shot of Chas’ room that we saw earlier and this one. We can see that they are two very different people and later we also realise how they each have very different relationships to their father.

Chas feels overlooked by his father and there is great emotional distance between them. This is one of many reasons he grows up too fast. Richie is clearly the father’s favourite, he feels cared for and he gets to be a kid.

We can’t tell all of this just from the production design but it adds to and enriches their story.

I encourage you to experiment with contrast in the production design in your own work. You can show a character’s change or lack of change by having the environment they live in, or the clothes they wear, change or stay the same. You can highlight the differences or similarities between characters by showing them in vastly different or similar environments or clothes.

Characters, relationships and colours

Anderson’s attention to detail is especially evident in his use of colours. Rarely, if ever, will you see anything in frame that doesn’t fit in a carefully calculated color palette.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, we can learn quite a bit about the characters of Richie and Margot, and their complicated relationship, in the colour choices. Anderson’s use of color is a bit complex, but this is how I interpret his use of the colours of green, blue and brown related to these two characters.

In the prologue, we see that Richie’s room is blue and green. I assume these colours represent a sense of familiarity and childhood comfort to him.

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In the film, Royal Tenenbaum, Richie’s father and Margot’s adopted father, lets everyone in his family know about his deteriorating health in order to gather them all under one roof again. When Margot meets with Richie after hearing the news, she steps out of a green line bus that has a green banner. The airport banners above Richie are blue.

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Here Anderson uses those two colours to show how she represents something familiar and comfortable to him. Coincidentally, he is also in love with her and the color of green can both represent something healthy and obsessive.

Throughout the film, Margot frequently wears outfits of those colours and both her and Richie often wear browns. The colour of brown is something they share.

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In another scene Margot has locked herself in her bathroom distancing herself from her husband. She is wearing brown, and the bathroom is green and blue. This represents how she longs for the familiarity of being close to Richie (his colours) while being removed from her husband.

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In the tent scene where Richie confesses his love to Margot, they are in a brown tent and both of them are wearing colours within the blue and green pallette. Here the green and blue colours represent them finding comfort and familiarity with each other. The brown represents their similarity and bond.

You can apply this to your own work by attaching meaning to a specific colour.

You can use that specific colour to show the audience what the character’s desire is, as well as where the character is in their journey. Have they reached their goal yet? Have they returned to familiarity? Have they entered something completely new and unfamiliar?

These are just a few of the principles and ideas Anderson and his Production Designers explore in their work. Production Design is easy to forget in low budget independent filmmaking, but it really makes or breaks a production. If what you put in front of the camera doesn’t tell the story of your movie, it will not be as strong of a visual narrative.

I encourage you to be inventive and creative in your use of production design in your own work!

 

Aliens: Screenwriting Principles From a Perfect Film

Written by Brenden Bell.

*********THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE 1989 FILM ALIENS************

If you’ve listened to me talk about movies, you know how much I love James Cameron’s Aliens. I gush over it endlessly, describing in detail the first time I watched it; sitting on the edge of my sofa, yelling at the TV, throwing couch cushions in frustration. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and has set a high bar for future films.

I took my love of Aliens to the next level this past year, as I showed it to my screenwriting students as a film that exemplified various story principles I was attempting to get across to them. This film isn’t accidentally engaging; it was built purposefully and intentionally.

I call it a perfect film, because it is. It accomplishes everything I think a story should.

Here are a few of the screenwriting principles I pull from watching Aliens endlessly.

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  1. Ellen Ripley, All-American Woman

I’ve seen countless notables herald Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley as the greatest action hero of all times.  This isn’t said as some “feminists’” attempt to level the playing field between male and female representation in cinema.

It’s said because it’s true; Ripley deserves her place among other great, male action heroes like Batman and Indiana Jones.

Her heightened status as a character is for countless reasons, and a great deal of that is to do with Sigourney Weaver’s fantastic, Oscar-nominated performance.

Much of it, however is by design in the writing. She’s given many of the same attributes that a typical male hero has; she’s tough, smart, level-headed, snarky, and resourceful. What really elevates Ripley from other heroes, however are the competing “lacks” that are given to her.

The film opens with Ellen Ripley being found in cryo-sleep, right where we left her at the end of the first film. The twist? She’s been asleep for over 50 years, and her daughter has passed away.

The screenwriter has created a “lack” in our character; something that is missing in her life, which will be brought to completion by the end of the film.  Ripley has a daughter shaped hole in her heart that needs to be filled once more.

Ripley finds the hope of completion of this lack when she finds the young girl, Newt; the lone survivor from the xenomorph attack on LB-426.

Simultaneously, the screenwriter establishes an opposing “lack” early on. Ripley has been left scarred and broken by her previous encounter with the xenomorph. Her fear of them is something she will need to face again by the film’s conclusion.

The story is based around these two “lacks”, and its structure will force our character into a situation where she must decide which to hold on to; her fear of xenomorphs or her need to be a mother.

It’s “lacks” of this nature, particularly lacks that could be in conflict, that hook people into a story. It causes people to identify with the dilemma and care for the lead character. Without this element, your film will be dull.

Look at Godzilla (2014), an utterly forgettable film for several reasons. One of which is due to the fact that we established none of these things in the character of Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), or at least not well. The writers attempted to give him opposing lacks or  a dilemma by missing his wife and having relational tension with his father. These opposing lacks almost worked, that is until his father dies abruptly in the film, removing any tension in his character. As a result, for the rest of the film I couldn’t relate with Ford. As a result, I could’ve cared less about the outcome of the film.

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2. The Plot’s The Thing

Many would call the plot of this film “formulaic.”

This is probably because it is extremely formulaic.

Read The Writer’s Journey or Save the Cat and you will see that the plot of this film fits rather neatly into either of these film structures or “beat sheets.”

This is a large part of the reason why I chose to view this film in my screenwriting class; it’s easy to see the familiar structure, and how it can be used well.

Personally, I don’t think formulaic is bad, especially if it’s used as effectively as James Cameron does in this film.

We have our character’s competing “lacks” or dilemma and now it’s the writer’s job to create a plot that will force her to face both and make a choice.

There are two important choices our character has to make throughout the film, and they are both found at the “act breaks,” or the end of the first and second acts of the story. The end of the first act is our hero’s decision to go on the adventure in the first place. In the film, this is found when Ripley decides to go to LB-426 with the Colonial Marines.

The second choice is crucial; your entire story should be building up to it. The plot leads up to this point beautifully in Aliens.

Throughout the second act, Ripley is put in situation after situation where she has to face her fear of the xenomorphs and build her connection with Newt. One of the most brilliantly tense scenes is about halfway through the film when Ripley and Newt are locked in a room alone with a face hugger; a smaller version of the final act, training Ripley for the end of the film where she has to protect Newt from the largest xenomorph there is: the Queen.

As the film’s plot moves forward, the marines are picked off one by one, the base’s reactor is set to blow in less than an hour, the xenomorphs overtake their base, and Newt is kidnapped and taken to the hive.

Ripley is left alone and with a choice…does she leave because she’s afraid, or does she enter the hive and reclaim her daughter before it’s too late? Ripley chooses to go back and save Newt on her own, in spite of everything against her, and in spite of the fact that it’s where all of the xenomorphs live.

This shows the audience that not only has she once and for all overcome her fear of xenomorphs and broken their hold over her, but that she has found the completion for the daughter-sized hole in her heart.

The whole plot is built around the character of Ripley facing her fear, and getting what she needs to grow. If you want to tell a compelling story that matters, you should do the same.

Let’s compare this climactic moment to Godzilla’s. By the end of the film, the character of Godzilla is inconsequential to Ford’s journey and vice-versa. When the other monster (not Godzilla) attacks the city at the end, Godzilla stops it. It was by far the coolest part of the film, but it meant nothing to me. I hadn’t built an emotional connection to Godzilla, but Ford. However, Ford’s character is detached, passive and unrelated to this event, and I was left wondering why Ford’s character was necessary to the story at all.

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3. Make Me Care

Think about films that genuinely frightened you or made you feel something. How were they able to accomplish that?

Or the horror side of things, it’s almost always because they were successful in making me care about what happens to their characters. In Aliens, the most tense moments by far were Newt was in danger.

I think this is for two reasons. The first is simply because she’s a child; any scene where a child is in danger is automatically more intense for me (I’m looking right at you Jurassic Park). The second is because the filmmakers succeeded at their main job; they made me care.

I identified with Ripley being scarred from her past, and losing a significant relationship in her life. Seeing Ripley and Newt’s relationship flourish throughout the film, made it that much more nerve-wracking when Newt was kidnapped at the end of Act 2. It’s not just because she was a child and she was taken, it’s because she was the key to Ripley’s salvation and without her, Ripley is back where she started, only worse.

I knew that Ripley wanted a daughter, and when that was in jeopardy the film’s tension went through the roof.

The world itself wasn’t at stake, but Ripley’s was, and that’s what made the last 30 minutes of Aliens so intense.

We had to watch Ripley face her biggest fears head on and overcome them to get what she ultimately needed, a family. Without this element of family and relational completion this film would’ve lost all of its tension.

Let’s compare the final act of this film to the final act of say, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Literally, an entire nation might be destroyed by the villainous Ultron (for some ambiguous reason that is still very unclear to me). It should feel like everything is at stake. However, there wasn’t a single tense moment in the entire final act. The world was at stake, but none of the world’s of our characters’ were.

If the final act isn’t about a character overcoming a “lack” in order to save everything they hold dear being in total jeopardy, then your story isn’t going to be as thrilling as it could be.

The heart of this film is what elevates it beyond a run-of-the-mill, action film.

It’s easy to tell a story that no one cares about; it takes a great storyteller to tell one that is as engaging and engrossing as Aliens. It’s a long journey, becoming a great storyteller; it helps to glean from the greats.