“The End of the Tour”: The Best Cinematic Portrayal Of A Writer To Date

August 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in "The End of the Tour"

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in “The End of the Tour”

There’s nothing more boring than watching someone write, yet that’s what movies about writers invariably do. Whether the work is done in longhand, on a typewriter or (most boring of all) a computer, showing a writer at work is an instant cliché, a visual dud that directors employ at their peril.

The scene that always springs to mind when I think about portrayals of writers is Jane Fonda as the blocked Lillian Hellman in “Julia,” ripping pages out of her typewriter before hurling it out a second-story window. This ridiculously improbable act at least looked good. And because (as it later came out), Hellman not only appropriated the story but the character of Julia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lillian_Hellman, it’s no less false than anything else in the movie.

The Nineties brought two somewhat better portrayals of writers: David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” and Philip Kaufman’s “Henry and June.” In “Naked Lunch,” William Burroughs’ surrogate Bill Lee sells his pistol for a typewriter, an act whose significance can hardly be overstated. Once home, the typewriter becomes a large scarab with a talking anus that encourages Lee to confront his paranoia and repressed homosexuality. Thus the physical act of writing becomes a vivid journey of exploration, abetted by talking insects.

The more straightforward “Henry and June” concerns two very different writers: the working-class American expatriate Henry Miller, and the haute bourgeois matron and erotic diarist Anais Nin. Although I haven’t seen the movie in a while, I recall a mercifully small amount of physical writing. Instead, there is a lot of talking, sex, partying and bicycling, which in combination make a more convincing portrayal of writers than any amount of typing.

James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” concerns the five-day encounter of two writers named David: the novelist/journalist David Lipsky and the novelist/ essayist David Foster Wallace, in 1996. At the time, Wallace was at the crest of literary fame after the publication of his thousand-page masterpiece Infinite Jest, while Lipsky, whose first novel had just been published to little acclaim, was on a try-out with Rolling Stone. Lipsky joined Wallace on the last leg of his book tour to profile him for the magazine, whose editors clearly would have preferred a musician of any stripe. The article never ran, but after Wallace’s suicide in 2008 Lipsky turned the experience into a book called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. This in turn became the source of “The End of the Tour.”

Both Jason Segel, as Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg, as Lipsky, give masterful, nuanced performances, but the real success of the film is that Wallace is never shown in the dreadful act of writing, even in flashback. (Lipsky is occasionally shown at his laptop, but that’s journalism, and thus forgivable.) Everything about Wallace the writer is revealed in their conversations: his free-form philosophizing; his flashes of prescience; his crippling self-consciousness; his ambivalence over fame; and, most of all, his desperate desire to come off like an ordinary guy, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Because Donald Margulies’ script manages to convey all of this, viewers who’ve never read Infinite Jest will find the movie just as illuminating as those who have, a nearly miraculous feat.

“Jim Thompson, Silk King,” Newly Remastered with DVD Extras, Is For Sale

July 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

"Jim Thompson, Silk King"/Copyright 2015 Hope Anderson Productions

“Jim Thompson, Silk King”/Copyright 2015 Hope Anderson Productions

It was my first film, the culmination of years of planning and research as well as my reason for becoming a documentary filmmaker. “Jim Thompson, Silk King” is the story of an American architect-turned military officer who found himself in Thailand at the end of World War II and stayed. Within four years, he made an industry out of Thai Silk, transforming a local handicraft into an international success that lifted 10,000 or so impoverished weavers into prosperity. At the same time, he put Southeast Asian art on the world map by amassing a superb collection of sculpture, paintings, bronzes and china. A few years later, he rescued Thai vernacular architecture from extinction by designing a landmark house in the Bankrua section of Bangkok. (Today the Jim Thompson House is a museum, the second-most visited tourist destination in the Thai capital.) Thompson’s two decades of non-stop achievement in Thailand ended abruptly in 1967, when he vanished without a trace while walking in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. It’s an unsolved mystery that remains potent and troubling nearly fifty years later.

The 2015 edition of “Jim Thompson, Silk King” has new music and narration as well as two new DVD extras, one about Jim Thompson’s pre-war architecture in America and the other about my experiences since finishing the original version in 2001. Also included is my 2004 interview with his friend Catherine Bodenstein, a conversation that sheds considerable light on his disappearance.

To order the DVD, please go to http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361

Silence Is Your Answer: Ghosting and the LA No

July 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Recently the New York Times published an article on ghosting, the phenomenon of ending a friendship or romance by simply halting all communication. The person in question vanishes, becoming a ghost.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/26/fashion/exes-explain-ghosting-the-ultimate-silent-treatment.html
Various readers wrote in to say this was merely “radio silence” with a new name and the added slight of blocking the ghostee from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. But I saw it as the social extension of the established and often abrupt entertainment industry practice that signals the official end of interest in a film project or (in the case of actors) person. It’s called the LA No.

I experienced it firsthand in the 90s when, unbeknownst to me, my then-boyfriend showed my novel-in-progress to an agent. Not only did the agent love it but he immediately started casting the movie version: I can see Johnny Depp as the brother! I was baffled and flattered, and then more baffled when the agent stopped returning my boyfriend’s calls. He was never heard from again, so I don’t know what drove his initial enthusiasm, or its demise. (For unrelated reasons, I never finished that novel, though I’ve since written another–more on that later).

Soon after I moved to Beachwood Canyon, my realtor told me about a couple of his clients. They had been living together for a two years and were planning to marry and start a family, hence the house hunting. Then the man simply cut off all communication with the woman, who had no idea why: there had been no signs of discord. There was just total–and, as it turns out, permanent–silence.

Over the years I’ve been ghosted by two women, both single friends who ceased to communicate once they were married and had children. Having supported both their marriages, I was pained that this could happen without a word of explanation, much less an argument. Gradually I came to understand that they had no use for a friend who had been close to them in their most discontented single days. Clearly I reminded them of the past, so I accepted it and moved on.

Much to my surprise, I recently ran into one of these women at a wedding, who behaved as if nothing had happened and no time had passed. However, when I pointed out my son, a man she had last seen as a 10-year-old, she was visibly stunned. “Is that his girlfriend?” she asked. “No, his wife–they’ve been married almost five years,” I said. Perhaps she expected a wedding announcement, but it was her silence that precluded it, not mine.

The Folly of Great Expectations: Two Hollywood Stories

July 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

It's Not An Omen/Hope Anderson Productions

It’s Not An Omen/Hope Anderson Productions

Recently a friend of mine told me this story and said I could write about it, as long as I didn’t name names: A foreign writer-director with a single non-prize-winning festival feature under his belt flew in for a series of meetings about his two unproduced scripts, which he said could be made for $1 million and $10 million, respectively. The meetings were so positive that he assumed it was just a matter of deciding which to do first. Good luck with that, I thought. But what really got my attention was his assertion that the $1 million project would be ideal for an international movie star I’ll call Mr. S.

There are few certainties in life, but one of them is that Mr. S–who a few years ago was named the world’s most profitable actor by a professor of statistics, based on his film’s grosses minus his salary–is not going to make a $1 million film, let alone one by an obscure foreign director with no track record. Nevertheless, the director assumed Mr. S would jump at the chance. He was also looking forward to his next trip to town and another round of (no doubt) encouraging meetings.

My friend, an industry veteran and truth teller, said Listen, everyone will be very nice and nothing will happen. Because that’s the way it works here: they kill you with encouragement. TV depictions of Hollywood offices that feature insults, yelling and occasional violence (see “Entourage” and “Californication”) notwithstanding, the norm is polite enthusiasm. And why not? It doesn’t cost anything to be nice. Also, no one wants to be the idiot who passed on the Next Big Thing. But when the encouragement ends, as it inevitably does, it’s not with hard truths but silence. My friend predicts the foreign director will keep returning for meetings until he runs out of money.

My other story of great expectations concerns the same friend and myself. Twenty years ago, we tried to option a first novel by an obscure foreign writer. My friend had access to European funding, I wanted to write the script and we both loved the book, yet the novelist refused our money, turning it down without a counter offer. Why? Because she saw her novel as a major motion picture directed by a big-time Hollywood director whom she favored because he was her countryman. Never mind that her novel was a small, character-driven story with a female protagonist and a Soviet-bloc setting, or that the big-time director was at the end of his career. She was convinced it would be a blockbuster.

Unsurprisingly, the film never got developed, let alone made. I have no idea of what happened to the novelist, but from time to time my friend will say, “Why don’t we try to option it again?” “Forget it,” I always answer, since by now it would be a less relevant period piece, as well as much more expensive to make. Besides, she had her chance.

He Directs, She Directs: Two Films From the LA Film Festival

July 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Bryan Greenberg and Jamie Chung in "It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong"

Bryan Greenberg and Jamie Chung in “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong”

The contrasting fortunes of male and female film directors are much in the news these days. Thanks to studies by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media http://seejane.org and Women in Film http://www.wif.org it’s no longer possible for executives to shrug off the fact that male first-time directors often get hired to direct studio films while comparable female directors struggle for independent financing. A bright spot in this wildly unequal equation is TV, especially Netflix and cable channels, whose original programming has provided new opportunities for women directors.

None of this was particularly on my mind when I got tickets to two films, one written and directed by a man and the other written and directed by a woman, at the recent LA Film Festival. But because they were like night and day in quality, I couldn’t help wondering how the two directors would fare in their next projects.

I’m not going to name the male-directed film, but it got a big, well-publicized screening at the festival, complete with a director Q & A, and featured some interesting actors. Also on the plus side, it was shot on film and boasted a number of long shots, which are increasingly rare now that everything is made with television in mind. Unfortunately, neither the director nor the DP really knew how to use film–or cameras, for that matter. The advantages of film weren’t evident on the screen, and there was some whipsawing, nauseating camerawork. There was also a glaring misuse of split-screen. As anyone who has ever seen a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie knows, a split screen is called for when the characters are talking on the phone to each other or doing parallel activities in different locations. But here the director split the screen for two versions of the same shot: one taken from a great distance and one from relatively close by. It was baffling, and it didn’t work. Then there was the sound, which my viewing companion, a distributor, called terrible.

On to the script. There were long Tarantino-esque speeches without the wit, and bursts of David Lynch-ian mystery and violence without the inventiveness. Oddest of all was the lack of clothing on almost all the actresses, and not just the ones working in strip clubs. One woman not only answered the door to a total stranger while bottomless but proceeded to have a long, half-naked conversation with him. Afterwards I overheard a young woman in the ladies’ room sum up the moviegoing experience: “None of those girls had any pants on!”

Fortunately the second film couldn’t have been more different, both in its scope and execution. First-time director Emily Ting made a self-assured debut with “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” a love story reminiscent of “Before Midnight.” The story concerns two chance meetings between Ruby (Jamie Chung), a Chinese-American visitor to Hong Kong, and Josh (Bryan Greenberg), an American banker and longtime Hong Kong resident. During their first meeting, Josh escorts Ruby, who is lost, to her destination. The two strike up a flirtation as they walk and talk, but nothing comes of it because Josh has a serious girlfriend. The second chance meeting takes place a year later, when the two meet on the Star Ferry. Ruby, now living in Hong Kong, is engaged to be married, while Josh has quit his banking job to be a writer, a career change that has strained his relationship with his girlfriend.

Beyond the pitch-perfect script and the charm of the two leads, I was impressed by the technical aspects of the film, which was shot entirely at night in busy public places in Central and Kowloon. Because I was born in Hong Kong and have visited many times since, I know how challenging it was to shoot and record sound amid the omnipresent crowds. (Strangely, most Hong Kong movies and TV shows feature eerily empty public spaces, cleared of people and probably shot at dawn, to create an aspirational and unreal atmosphere.) Despite the many obstacles, everything was done beautifully, lit by neon and recorded by lavaliere mics. As for the script, Richard Linklater has nothing on Emily Ting. “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong” has some distribution in place, and I hope it gets the audience it deserves.

In comparing these two films, I’m not saying that men make big movies and women make small ones–Richard Linklater and Kathryn Bigelow, among other directors, prove that’s not the case. But I believe that if a woman director had made a movie with as many mistakes as the first one, it wouldn’t have been accepted by a major film festival, let alone been given a splashy premiere.

The Importance of Melissa McCarthy

June 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

Melissa McCarthy

Melissa McCarthy

Melissa McCarthy’s career is still on the rise but already groundbreaking, and not just because of her box office clout. It’s the characters she plays: strong, original and unlikely women who triumph against stiff odds. So does McCarthy: though technically a co-star in a string of successful movies directed by Paul Feig, McCarthy emerges as the star of all of them. “The Heat” was supposed to be a comeback vehicle for Sandra Bullock, and we all know how that turned out.

In this summer’s “Spy,” McCarthy outshines Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Allison Janney and Jason Statham, among others in the large cast. Like Megan in “Bridesmaids” and Mullins in “The Heat,” “Spy”‘s Susan Cooper is an unglamorous woman in a man’s world, underestimated and often ridiculed at work. Two of her weapons against her doubters and enemies are competence and brute strength. Although a meekly desk-bound CIA analyst in the beginning, Cooper is soon revealed to be an expert marksman and martial artist, capable of mowing down multiple adversaries. But it’s the third weapon–her hilarious, rapid-fire insults–that proves the most powerful:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltijEmlyqlg

It’s worth noting that the three movies discussed here have different writers: Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo for “Bridesmaids,” Katie Dippold for “The Heat” and Paul Feig for “Spy.” Clearly all four were writing with McCarthy in mind, yet her characters’ power and sensibilities aren’t fully on the page, however offbeat the dialogue. Feig, who directed all three films, encourages improvisation, and co-stars like Jude Law have spoken of McCarthy’s sharp wit and fast delivery. So in “Bridesmaids” we see McCarthy’s character Megan, an NSA operative, on a flight to Las Vegas, flirting outrageously with a supposed Air Marshall as she blocks his path with her leg: “You feel that steam heat coming? That’s from my undercarriage.” Later, she puts her bombast to good use by snapping Annie (Kristin Wiig) out of her depression. Megan wrestles and bites Annie–“Fight for your shitty life!” and then delivers this unforgettable pep talk:

They called me a freak–do you think I let that break me?….No, I did not….I pulled myself up, I studied really hard….and now I work for the government. I have the highest possible security clearance….I know where all the nukes are and I know the codes….I have six houses. I bought an eighteen wheeler a couple of months ago, just because I could….You’re your problem, Annie, and you’re also your solution.

Comic actresses have traditionally been of two types: physical (Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett) or cerebral (Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers and everyone else who began in standup). But McCarthy is both: a fearless physical comedian and a whip-smart talker. It’s not surprising that her characters have traditionally male jobs–cop, intelligence officer–where their assertiveness and sharp minds are put to good use. What’s surprising is there is now a Melissa McCarthy archtype in movies, a presumed loser who is in fact a superwoman.

Toward a Less Sexist Hollywood: “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Spy” and the Evolution of Summer Movies

June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Melissa McCarthy in "Spy"

Melissa McCarthy in “Spy”

I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, at the dawn of what I like to call Terminator 2 Era. It was a very bad time for women and their stories and a very good time for men and their stories, especially if those stories happened to be violent. The first studio screening I attended was “License to Kill,” where I was treated to popcorn in a cut-glass bowl, Perrier and, as I recall, the sight of a guy getting shot in the eye. Timothy Dalton’s tepid portrayal of Bond and the instantly forgettable story were afterthoughts; it was the body count that mattered. Despite its subsequent listing as one of the worst Bond films of all time, “License to Kill” grossed $156 million worldwide (roughly $300 million today).

Soon afterwards, I got a job reading scripts on a freelance basis at CAA. Except for those that were already produced (submitted by writers seeking representation), all of them were bad. Emboldened by my dismal competition, I submitted a script of my own and quickly got a pass. This may have been because it had a female protagonist and two males relegated to supporting status, unlike any script I had read. Who, besides a lot of women, would want to see a movie like that? Apparently no one who could greenlight a film. I continued to write scripts and short stories with female leads and male supporting characters. None of them sold, though they got kiss-of-death comments like “quirky” and “charming,” which is code for “we hate stories about women.” Some of these comments came from women, none of whom were in a position to greenlight a film.

I turned to documentaries in large part because I wanted to direct. In an industry where the least qualified male was more likely to be hired as a feature director than the best qualified woman, documentaries seemed to offer a separate path to the same goal, or so I thought. As it turned out, I had to vie for the respect of my cameramen–whom I was paying, since I was also the producer. I also had trouble with male crew members, who preferred to take their orders from a man. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my struggles: now there’s a whole website devoted to the subject of women directors and others working in non-traditional film jobs. http://shitpeoplesaytowomendirectors.tumblr.com/ask I recommend it highly, particularly to anyone who thinks this sort of behavior went out with the “Mad Men” era.

Fortunately, there have been a few bright spots during the past 25 years. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, and two more–Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola–were nominated. (This brings the total number of women nominated for Best Director to a whopping four. The first was Lina Wertmuller in 1976; she remained the only female nominee until 1993.) A lot of women directors have found steady work in television, which in the Netflix era is no small thing. But the fact remains that male directors of independent films are frequently catapulted up to the majors, sometimes with only a single credit to their names, while far more experienced women directors are not. It’s also common for women directors to hit a dead-end after making a splash with their first film, finding themselves without prospects for financing or work. This is seldom the case for male directors.

The justification for this exclusion used to be “movies directed by/starring women don’t make money.” Nowhere was this attitude more prevalent than in summer blockbusters, which were the undisputed domain of male stars, directors and writers. It was accepted that female stars, however adored, couldn’t “open” a summer movie. Jodie Foster defied expectations with “The Panic Room,” which grossed $100 million domestically. But even Julia Roberts needed a horde of male co-stars (in “Oceans Eleven” and “Oceans Twelve”) to achieve popcorn movie status.

That’s why this summer is notable. On May 15, “Pitch Perfect 2,” with its female director and cast, surprised everyone by trouncing the presumed box office favorite, “Mad Max: Fury Road. Though “Mad Max” has gone on to be more profitable worldwide because of its huge foreign receipts, the domestic totals (as of June 8) remain significantly higher for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Then this past weekend, the Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Spy” demolished the bro-loaded “Entourage,” out-earning it almost 3 to 1.* (If “Entourage” hadn’t opened two days earlier, the difference would have been even greater.) “Spy,” which got great reviews, is absolutely hilarious. It’s also thrilling, not least because it has shattered the glass ceiling of summer movies.

Next: The Importance of Melissa McCarthy

*Domestic receipts for opening weekend were: “Spy” $29,085,719; “Entourage” $10,283,250. Courtesy Box Office Mojo

Related article: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/before-kathryn-bigelow-women-directors-in-20th-century-hollywood/

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