With roots in the Commedia delle’arte, most people more readily associate improvisation with
comedy than tragedy. However, acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh regularly creates tragic-
comedy out of improvisation. His method is not quite shrouded in secrecy, but he sometimes
declines to elaborate on the unusual process by which he makes his films calling it “magical”
and “private” and a “trade secret.” While many authors generate ideas and create characters
alone, Leigh says that his actors improvise long and hard, often with the limited amount of
information that the character would have, before the script crystallizes and he writes a final
Interestingly, given the way Leigh produces a script, Another Year is up for Best Screenplay.
The film is structured as a year in the life, told in four sections titled by the four seasons.
Although this bleak film features an older married couple, Tom and Gerri (yes, really), it is more
about their single friend Mary, a sad sack divorcee with no romantic prospects and a tenacious,
misguided interest in Tom and Gerri’s unmarried thirty-year-old son, Joe.
What’s interesting about this film is the complexity that seems to emerge from Leigh’s method
of writing the screenplay from the improvisation of his actors. For example, Mary is depicted
as obnoxious, lonely and pathetic—but towards the end, she’s the only one that really takes
a genuine interest in Tom’s brother, a man grieving his wife. Tom and Gerri are set up as
benevolent and permissive, repeatedly letting Mary into their lives despite her behavior, but
are they really just condescending and in need of someone to pity? Joe’s girlfriend is set up as
lovely and friendly, though behind Mary’s back, she’s quite cruel.
It’s a great screenplay and it’s exciting that the Academy has chosen to take a broad view on the
question of what a screenplay is and in turn, what authorship is.
With roots in the Commedia delle’arte, most people more readily associate improvisation with
A Conversation with Advisory Board Member Kieran Ridge
We’re hoping to ignite powerful conversations among some of the most interesting minds at work today at PAIFF. As a sneak preview to that aspect of the Festival, and to give you an idea of the minds behind PAIFF, we will be featuring a series of conversations with our wonderful, multi-faceted Advisory Board.
The first in this series is my extended conversation with Kieran Ridge, the erudite English Department chair at the Marin School. Kieran teaches a film studies class that focuses on the history of the evolution of film, including how technology has changed artistic aspects of film like narrative form and acting style. Kieran also directs a cutting edge educational program called The Marin School Presents, which invites authors, filmmakers, and scientists to speak to students. We started by discussing Kieran’s filmmaker friend, Niels Mueller, who co-wrote the film Tadpole, a hit at Sundance in 2002.
Anita: With respect to Niels Mueller, when did he come to speak?
Kieran: He's been a couple of times. He was actually our very first filmmaker guest and he came early in 2002. Subsequently, Niels wrote and directed a movie that stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle, called The Assassination of Richard Nixon. He came back later and we presented it. We took scenes from that film and scenes from Tadpole and had student actors and filmmakers work on their own interpretations of it for a month. When Niels visited he'd be directing a kid in a role and the last time he'd directed an actor in that role was, say, when he was working with Sean Penn. That was quite a thrill for the students and they learned a lot from it.
Anita: What do you like about running The Marin School Presents?
Kieran: One of the things I like about the program -- we've hosted a lot of wonderful filmmaker guests from around the world. When you look at films today, even compared to when I was in high school, there are so many more countries represented in cinema. Distribution through the Internet has revolutionized it for me and for the students, even compared to when I started this program.
Anita: We've emailed a little bit about your sister school film program in Sierra Leone, WeOwnTV. Can you tell me how you became involved with that organization and what their philosophy is?
Kieran: There's a really powerful documentary called Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, which is about a dance hall reggae band of the same name. A couple of young American filmmakers, Banker White and Zach Niles, went over to Sierra Leone and spoke to the individual band members about what they'd gone through during the civil war. It was so touching, but such difficult material to confront. For example, one guy was forced under gunpoint to smash one of his own little kids up with a mortar and pestle. To be able to confide that takes such trust in the filmmaker and at some level it takes such courage in themselves. So, out of admiration and then good fortune, I sought out the filmmakers and asked them if they would like to come in as part of our school program, both at The Marin School and for our screenings at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. They brought such profound and positive messages to all the students and faculty from our school and others that we decided to have a fundraiser at the school for their next project, WeOwnTV.
Anita: What’s the idea behind WeOwnTV?
Kieran: Their basic notion is that the civil war got started because a handful of people had control of all the media and could tell all the lies in the world about other people that would suit their cynical agenda. Because there were no alternative voices in the media there, it was really difficult to counter that. So the notion of WeOwnTV is to train people to create their own films and audio recordings and put alternative messages out there so that there is a diversity of voices, which is vital to democracy and freedom.
Anita: That is something we're looking into- the democratic nature of modern day filmmaking and how that can play out in people's lives. Looking at the reverse, do you think that the types of storytelling in film and the global spread of filmmaking now affect oral traditions in places like Sierra Leone?
Kieran: My father, as a Gaelic speaker in Ireland, came from a tradition where, back in the 1960s as a kid, I could see an unbroken tradition of oral storytelling that had not been overtaken by publishing. The British occupation of the colony actually had repressed publishing in the native language for centuries. One of the strange side effects was that the oral storytelling remained very strong because there was no publishing to replace it. So sometimes a rich oral tradition goes with poverty and repression in other areas, which leavens my view of what it reveals about the health of a culture. The specific conversation at WeOwnTV is that they see what they're doing as a way to preserve the storytelling tradition because a lot of what happens in their filmmaking is direct storytelling to the camera. Whether or not that appeals to Western audiences is going to be an interesting question. Maybe narrative-driven films will actually be displaced. We haven't seen it yet, but I wonder if we'll see more fragmented and tangential narratives be made possible, say, by having films be on websites where you can click to go to here, click to go to there, as opposed to being locked into a one-sided linear narrative.
Anita: Right, sort of a Choose Your Adventure of fragments online, rather than films from a single maker.
Kieran: It sounds high concept, if we talk about it in that way. But video games, I'm told in the past few years, have become globally a bigger industry than the film industry. So maybe the revolution in visual narrative has already happened and it's called “video games.”
Anita: I think interactivity-- how interactive a medium is-- seems to be a huge part of what's popular right now, whether that's video games or the fact that you can comment on a YouTube video and create a community, rather than simply putting on a video at home and watching it in solitude.
Kieran: Yeah, the notion of a wiki authorship rather than a singular authorship, I think is going to be a big question for the next couple of decades, at least. Maybe it’s just going to be a bunch of people around the world shooting shorts for each other, as opposed to all sitting in a room while one person screens a long film, or some new balance between those choices.
Anita: Do you feel that there are any movies from the last year that most represent the convergence of art and technology?
Kieran: You know, I'll mention Toy Story because I've been looking at the trilogy, and also Miyazaki, the great Japanese animator. John Lasseter wrote something very interesting about his admiration for Miyazaki, that he renders motion better than anyone else. I paid a visit to Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, and you can see from the library there that he and his colleagues have studied deeply not only the history of art and architecture, but also the science of anatomy and motion. When you look at Miyazaki’s shots, I think you see another reason his films are so great: he actually frames the shot and moves the camera as if he were a brilliantly talented director shooting in the real world, so he’s also studied the history of film as an art. Lasseter and Pixar have picked up on that and learned from him, in addition to all the clever things they’re inventing themselves. Winter's Bone, a more realistic type of film, used a digital camera to create a film that looks very “celluloid cinematic” and is very beautiful in that traditional sort of way. I also want to mention the BBC Earth documentaries, which are technologically amazing and incredibly beautiful, especially if you consider the extreme conditions under which a lot of them are shot, environments where it’s hard to breathe, much less create gorgeous cinematic films. But maybe the best examples of the current convergence of film art and technology are the millions of short films made for no budget and uploaded to Youtube, etc. by directors who were just viewers until recently.
Anita: We’ve talked a little bit before about democratization versus centralization of films; what are some things you'd like to see film technology leaders put together in terms of increasing the level of democracy in filmmaking today—whether that’s copyright or more distribution of cheaper film equipment?
Kieran: This is the question. Digital rights management [DRM], let's talk about that. I work with teenagers and I can tell you right now there is no digital rights management. These kids can get around everything in two minutes. On the other hand, to older people like me there’s infringement from the corporations to the consumers, in terms of say blocking fair use by making your personal back up copy or playing a DVD you bought on your own computer instead of your DVD player. My suggestion to the corporations is that most people will respect your right to protect your investment and your property, but there's a lot of overstepping going on that's actually just antagonizing a lot of the public, especially young people because they see it as the Man pushing them around. So I would like to see a scaling-back and a more reasonable industry-wide consensus as to what seems like a fair deal, instead of individual corporations trying to push the envelope and causing backlash against the whole industry.
Anita: It should be interesting in the intersection of technology and film and intellectual property to see what's done in terms of things like fan fiction, which has been a growing movement on the Internet.
Kieran: Yes, you can see cinematic versions of that. But the big thing in all of this for me is what sort of Internet we're going to have. Insofar as there is a central or oligarchical control of the Internet, that's the biggest issue. Information-sharing is moving online, so all of these other issues of control are secondary to who controls the wired or wireless world of the web. We saw from what happened in Egypt recently; you can't shut the Internet down, but you can go pretty close locally. That’s a big battlefield for the future, involving much more than video imagery, though the video medium is increasingly a key player in our image-driven world.
Anita: How do you think that control of the Internet relates to DRM?
Kieran: As a middle-aged consumer, the most interaction I've had with DRM is with an artifact you can hold in your hand. But I can tell you from working with kids that the disk is dead- I would sell those shares right now. It's moving toward streaming and cloud-based, whether it’s a book or a movie or a song. That's got enormous political ramifications because, if you were a dissident and you have your own book or your own artifact, you can hold that. If you're in a world where everything is cloud-based and all that is cut off, you no longer have anything to show anyone to support your story.
Anita: Speaking of how powerful movies are, I wanted to end with hearing about what movie you were first powerfully affected by.
Kieran: Federico Fellini's movie, Roma. I saw it on Australian TV when I was thirteen and my parents were watching it too. They were horrified, but I thought it was hilarious and full of subversive, basic truths. It's sort of realistic in an absurd and grotesque way, as Fellini's films tend to be. There’s a scene with fat, older prostitutes parading around, which disgusted my father, who was a pretty bawdy working class guy, and then there was a fashion show of increasingly rich and bejeweled cardinals and bishops, which upset my mother, who’s a devout Catholic. I just looked at this film and thought: this is the truth, he's telling the truth about things that everyone around me is trying to cover up, or at least all the adults are. To a thirteen year old brought up in the background that I was, that was so radical. Roma was the first film that made me think about film as something from which you could get something for your life, something big and explosive. Fellini remains one of my great cinematic heroes. To me, Federico Fellini is the patron saint of lapsed Catholics.
Pictured in the photo accompanying this post are Kieran Ridge (right) and 2011 Oscar nominees, Debra Granik (director/screenwriter, middle) and Jennifer Lawrence (actress, left) of Winter's Bone.
Art and Technology: The Medium is the Massage Part IV
Sylvain Chomet’s animated, nearly-wordless film The Illusionist is up for Best Animated Feature. If you’re interested in animation, you may remember Chomet from his film The Triplets of Belleville, an upbeat, zany film like no other. The Illusionist is more melancholy than Triplets, almost a love song to Scotland and the snuffing of old-fashioned entertainments like stage magicians and acrobats by noisy rock bands in the 1950s. The film is filled with magical details from the way Tatischeff’s rabbit repeatedly escapes to the bird shadow cast by the flapping pages of a book. The story is almost silent, yet completely understandable (there are a few lines spoken in different languages).
Based on an unproduced script by filmmaker Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), The Illusionist is partly intended as a homage to Tati. (Note: Roger Ebert’s blog includes a letter from Tati’s grandfather requesting that audiences refuse to go to the movie because it misrepresents the facts surrounding his grandfather’s treatment of an abandoned daughter).
In the film, a reserved French magician called Tatischeff (Tati's birth name) sees his popularity and stage size dwindle as the audiences demand more raucous, bolder performances acts. Tatischeff meets a young chambermaid while performing in a Scottish village. The chambermaid believes that Tatischeff’s illusions are real, follows him to Edinburgh and moves into his flat (he sleeps on the couch). Tatischeff buys the chambermaid nicer and nicer shoes and a fancy coat- presenting them all as the result of magic. In the meantime, he takes on less than dignified jobs like performing in store windows in order to pay for the gifts.
The story is bittersweet. Most kids would probably find the pace too slow. But, it relies on old- fashioned labor-intensive hand-drawn animation and the level of slow care required by that form and it is truly remarkable. In a market that is currently driven by a need for louder and splashier effects in film, often at the expense of a storyline, poetics or depth, The Illusionist reminds us of the importance of individuality and artistry and care.
I once had a professor who taught us to focus on the personality of a line. If you look at any line drawn by hand, you can see the mark of the drawer in it. There are thick, bold strokes and timid marks that are repeated in order to execute a line. There are graceful or lyrical curves and careless lumpy-looking circles. When you watch a 2D film like The Illusionist, you can see nostalgia and charm in every line. The medium of 2D employed by Chomet’s film mirrors the backstory in the film that quieter entertainments (stage magicians, acrobats) are being phased out by more forceful entertainments (drunken rock bands).
It is harder in 3D to suffuse a film with personality, perhaps because most of it is generated by computers rather than humans. Not to mention it’s hard on your vision system to watch 3D movies or become entranced by the story, as opposed to carried away by the effects. (For more on the problems of 3D, read Walter Murch’s letter to Roger Ebert: http://bit.ly/dVjjmH).
However, now that we’ve experienced a wave of 3D movies made almost solely for technical effect and the effects are wearing off, perhaps we’ll start to see 3D movies infused with personality and soul the same way that line drawings and hand-drawn animation are. Chomet has said in an interview with The Playlist that hand-drawn 2D films are too time-consuming and that his next film will be a 3D film or a live action film.
Specifically, Chomet said, “It’s gone over the period where they’re experimenting, because they’ve gone over trying to get things right and now they can do whatever they want. Now they have to move onto something else—make the films more interesting with the story and atmosphere. And not just to show how, oh look, we can have these toys moving, isn’t that fantastic? Everybody understands that now. It’s not a novelty. Now they have to show what they can do with it, which is nice. It will be a very interesting period.”
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