Tuesday, November 25, 2008

DVD of the Week: Tropic Thunder: 2-Disc Director's Cut

For the last few years, Ben Stiller has been coasting on his patented, one-note neurotic doormat shtick in films like Night at the Museum (2006), The Heartbreak Kid (2007), and others. What happened to the guy who could play a self-destructive junkie screenwriter in Permanent Midnight (1998) and a dorky romantic in There’s Something About Mary (1998)? Stiller, at times, is more interesting behind the camera as director of the Generation X comedy Reality Bites (1994), the black comedy about stalking and television, The Cable Guy (1996), and the hilarious fashion world satire Zoolander (2001).

Stiller is back behind the camera (and also in front of it) and this time he’s taking on the Vietnam War sub-genre with Tropic Thunder (2008). In an odd way, we have Oliver Stone to thank for this film. Not just because he made Platoon (1986), which really popularized the sub-genre, but he also rejected Stiller when he auditioned for a role in the film. Stiller never forgot it and now he’s parlayed those feelings of rejection into a film that not only lampoons war films but Hollywood in general.

Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is an action film star on the decline, still flogging his Scorcher franchise – films that resemble a cross between something Tom Cruise might do and Roland Emmerich’s brain-dead special effects epics. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) stars in low-brow comedies filled with fart jokes that allow him to play multiple characters a la Eddie Murphy (Norbit, anyone?). Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Academy Award winner who appears in “serious” films that win all of the important awards just like Russell Crowe.

They are all starring in a Vietnam War movie called Tropic Thunder that is currently being made on location in South Vietnam. The production is on the verge of being in the kind of trouble that almost consumed Apocalypse Now (1979) as Lazarus is upstaging Speedman. First-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can’t control his actors, which is causing the movie to go behind schedule, much to the chagrin of Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), the blustery, Harvey Weinstein-esque head of the studio.

In an effort to save the movie, Cockburn takes the five main actors to a remote jungle area to shoot a bunch of scenes guerrilla-style only to stumble across a rag-tag group of Vietnamese drug runners who assume that the clueless movie stars are actually DEA agents. At first, Speedman and his co-stars think that this is all part of the production but they (except for Speedman) quickly realize that this is for real.

It’s not too hard to figure out the real-life Hollywood power players that Stiller’s film satirizes with Cruise’s Grossman channeling the abusive reputation of the aforementioned Weinstein and Downey poking fun at the way-too serious on-and-off-screen antics of Crowe. Unlike all of those Scary Movie spoofs, Stiller understands that a good satire plays it straight on the surface. Admittedly, he’s got a much bigger budget to play with ($100 million+) than any two of those dime-a-dozen spoof movies so he’s able to hire the likes of A-list cinematographer John (The Thin Red Line) Toll and cast marquee name actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black instead of C-listers like Carmen Electra to make Tropic Thunder look like the slick war films he is sending up. Of course, the danger in doing this is to become the very thing you’re trying to parody, but fortunately Stiller doesn’t fall into this trap.

Every generation needs a Mel Brooks and Stiller takes up where the legendary comedian left off – before he became irrelevant and painfully unfunny. Stiller goes after the usual suspects of the genre: Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter (1978), and even a sly reference to a scene from Predator (1987), but Tropic Thunder is more than a game of spot-the-reference that spoof movies tend to devolve into. It actually has something to say other than Hollywood is excessive. This is Stiller’s most ambitious film to date and demonstrates that he can play in the same big leagues that fellow comedian-turned-filmmaker Jon Favreau has also graduated to with Iron Man (2008). They both started off with very modest films and have shown a very definite learning curve with each subsequent film they’ve helmed. Tropic Thunder has everything you’d want from a big budget, R-rated comedy and it should be interesting to see where Stiller goes from here as a director.

Special Features:

Disc One features two audio commentaries. The first one is by director Ben Stiller, co-screenwriter Justin Theroux, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, cinematographer John Toll, and editor Greg Hayden. Cornfeld talks briefly about the genesis of the project – Stiller and Theroux had worked on the screenplay piecemeal over several years. Toll talks about the look of the film while Mann speaks about finding the best locations for various scenes. Stiller keeps things going by asking everyone questions.

The second commentary sees Stiller joined by Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. Black and Stiller attempt to stay on topic while Downey stays in character much in the same fashion as his character in the film. In other words, for most of it he’s Lincoln Osiris and then, in the film when he reverts to Kirk Lazarus so does Downey until finally he becomes himself by the closing credits. It really is something to behold and is just another amazing performance by this brilliant actor. Stiller points out all of the extra material that was put back in for the Director’s Cut but mainly riffs off of his co-stars on this very funny track.

Disc Two starts off with “Before the Thunder,” which takes a look at the origins of the film – from 1986 when Stiller had a small part in Empire of the Sun (1986) and noticed that many of his fellow actors were trying out for all kinds of Vietnam War films which were in vogue at the time.

“The Hot LZ” examines the exciting battle sequence that starts the film. Stiller wanted to rely on as many practical effects as possible in attempt to emulate the Vietnam War films that inspired his film.

“Blowing Shit Up” takes a look at the pyrotechnics of the film, from simple gunshot wounds to massive explosions. We see test footage for some of the explosions.

“Designing the Thunder” examines the impressive production design of the film, including beautiful locations all over Hawaii. We see Stiller and his crew scouting various locations.

“The Casting of Tropic Thunder” features the main cast members talking about working with each other. It’s a big ol’ love fest as they gush about each other’s talent.

“Rain of Madness” is a spoof of the documentary Hearts of Darkness (1991), which chronicled the troubled production of Apocalypse Now. Justin Theroux plays the doc. filmmaker examining the equally troubled production of Tropic Thunder. This is very funny stuff.

Want more? “Dispatches from the Edge of Madness” features 22 additional minutes of footage and outtakes from Rain of Madness. There are some funny bits here even if it all seems like a little too much.

Also included are two deleted scenes, two extended scenes, and alternate ending all with optional commentary by Stiller and Hayden. The put this footage in context with the rest of the film and talk about why they were cut. The alternate ending goes into a little more detail about what happened to Speedman’s agent.

“Make-Up Test with Tom Cruise” features footage of the make-up that transformed Tom Cruise into Les Grossman. It was at this point that he improvised the dance his character does in the final film.

“MTV Movie Awards – Tropic Thunder” is the comedic skit that Stiller, Black and Downey did for MTV as they plan a viral video to market Tropic Thunder – pretty funny stuff.

“Full Mags” features four scenes from the film with no edits in order to show how the actors improvised with some stuff that was good enough to keep in the film and material that was cut.

Finally, there are “Video Rehearsals,” footage with no sound of the actors on location running through a scene.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Let's Get Lost

Why do we find ourselves fascinated by people who seem to have it all: good looks, loads of talent, and that special sort of something that elevates them to iconic status? Yet, they can never seem to handle this power and inevitably something, whether it is a self-destructive streak from within or outside influences, brings them crashing back to earth. It is this tragic arc that we find so fascinating — people who seem to have everything and then throw it all away. Such is the case with Bruce Weber’s absorbing documentary-portrait Let’s Get Lost (1988), which focuses on jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, a man who epitomized what Pauline Kael called, a “self-destructive beauty.”

The film’s title originates from the first Chet Baker album Weber bought at the age of 16 in a Pittsburgh record store. This purchase started a life-long obsession with the man’s music and career. This gives you an indication of the attitude that Weber has towards Baker. Essentially a two-hour love letter to its subject (Weber spent about a million dollars of his own money on the film), Let’s Get Lost assembles a strange and wonderful group of Baker fans that range from ex-associates to ex-wives to paint a fascinating portrait of a man who was as self-absorbed in life as he was talented on record and stage. Weber’s film trace’s the man’s career from the 1950s, when he was in his prime, playing with jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan, to the 1980s where he had become a skid row junkie unable to get a decent gig. By juxtaposing these two decades, Weber presents a sharp contrast between the younger, handsome Baker — the statuesque idol who resembled a dreamy mix of James Dean and Jack Kerouac — to what he became, “a seamy looking drugstore cowboy cum derelict,” as J. Hoberman put it in his Village Voice review. Baker was the archetype of “beat,” encompassing the full range of this term throughout his whole life: from its connotations of coolness in the ‘50s when he was young and handsome, to its inferences of world-weariness in the ‘80s when he was old and burnt out.

Let’s Get Lost begins near the end of Baker’s life on the sun-kissed beaches of Santa Monica and ends at the glitz and glamor of the Cannes Film Festival. Weber uses these moments in the present as bookends to the historic footage contained in the bulk of the film. This documentation ranges from vintage photographs by William Claxton in 1953 to appearances on The Steven Allen Show and kitschy, low budget Italian films Baker did for quick money. And even though much of Baker’s past is captured only in still photos, Weber and his director of photography, Jeff Preiss, use creative camera techniques to energize these static pictures in a way that almost brings them lovingly to life.

And who better to do a film about a self-centered icon like Chet Baker than Bruce Weber, an internationally renowned photographer famous for his fetishistic Calvin Klein ads? Weber clearly has an eye for the kind of vacuous beauty that you see not only in those pretentious ads but that is also reflected in Baker’s blank stare. One of the joys of watching Let’s Get Lost is the lush cinematography of Jeff Preiss who films the whole picture in grainy black and white film stock. His camera alternates between hand-held shots and gliding pans of Baker and his world that only enhance the dreamy mood of Weber’s film.

This romantic mood, complemented by Baker’s enchanting voice and music, enhances the film’s soundtrack. His slow, seductive singing has been described as “like being sweet-talked by the void,” and this is certainly true of Baker’s more recent recordings where he really sounds tired, as if each breath is going to be his last. This feeling is demonstrated towards the end of the film when Baker performs Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a quiet sort of song and as soon as Baker begins to sing the rest of the world seems to disappear, leaving only this ravaged, emaciated shadow of his former self, who still has an entrancing presence and the power to captivate an audience.

Weber’s first film was the 1987 documentary, Broken Noses, which concerned the life of a youthful, Bakeresque Portland boxer named Andy Minsker and his even younger proteges. Weber dedicated the film to Baker and even featured some of the man’s music in the film. However, the origins of Let’s Get Lost go back even further to when Baker spotted a photograph of the musician in a Pittsburgh record store on the cover of the 1955 vinyl LP Chet Baker Sings and Plays with Bud Shank, Russ Freeman and Strings when he was 16-years-old. Weber first met Baker in the winter of 1986 at a club in New York City. Weber convinced the musician to do a photo shoot and what was originally to be nothing more than a three-minute film. Weber had wanted to make a short film from an Oscar Levant song called, “Blame It on My Youth.” They had such a good time together that Baker started opening up to Weber. Afterwards, he convinced the musician to make a longer film and Baker agreed. Filming began in January 1987. Interviewing Baker was a challenge as Weber remembers, "Sometimes we'd have to stop for some reason or another and then, because Chet was a junkie and couldn't do things twice, we'd have to start all over again. But we grew to really like him."

The final two-hour result is the cinematic equivalent of a Chet Baker song: a slow, dreamy trip that captivates you with its breathless beauty and yet shows the man’s unsavory side as well: the downward spiral into drug addiction and the string of failed marriages. It’s a bittersweet love story—much like many of Baker’s songs. Weber sums up these mixed feelings best in an interview when he said that “the whole team felt the same way about him. We wanted to save him. We wanted to get him a house, a car. But he really didn’t want to be saved. And after a while, we gave up trying. When you live and survive as long as he did, you get a little bit paranoid about what’s going on. If Chet had any anger, it was because of the pressures with people wanting him to do things he didn’t want to do.” In May 1987, when Broken Noses premiered at Cannes, he brought Baker along to shoot footage for Let's Get Lost. Weber filmed when he had the time and the money, describing it as a "a very ad hoc film.”

On May 13, 1988, a few months before Let’s Get Lost was to be released, Chet Baker died mysteriously after a fall from a second-floor window in an Amsterdam hotel near the drug dealers’ part of town. That night, all the jazz clubs in Paris were silent. Weber’s film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary and played at film festivals all over the world. It was well-received by critics, including Entertainment Weekly which gave the film an "A-" rating and said that Weber "created just about the only documentary that works like a novel, inviting you to read between the lines of Baker's personality until you touch the secret sadness at the heart of his beauty.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote, "If there's a driving force to Weber's film, it seems to be delving into the nature and purpose of star quality and personal magnetism, which Baker had in droves but which didn't save him.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote that what Weber "provides us is rapturous, deeply involving, and more than a little puzzling." Let’s Get Lost remains one of the best visual documents of Chet Baker’s tragic life and career.

Bruce Weber on Chet Baker.


Friday, November 14, 2008

DVD of the Week: Missing: Criterion Collection

Costa-Gavras’ Missing (1982) was part of an exciting trend in early 1980s cinema that included films like The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Under Fire (1983), The Killing Fields (1984), and Salvador (1986) – powerful, politically-charged exposes of injustices happening all over the world. In the case of Missing, it dramatizes the search for American filmmaker and journalist Charles Horman (John Shea) who disappeared rather mysteriously during the 1973 coup in Chile. Horman’s wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) and his father Ed (Jack Lemmon) go looking for Charles and are met with bureaucratic resistance from consulate officials at the United States embassy.

The film begins with Charles and Beth living in very volatile conditions. At any given moment they hear gunshots outside and the military has imposed a strict curfew. People are taken off the street and some are shot. In fact, Charles has been doing a story about the military killing thousands of people. There’s a scene where Beth makes her way home through the city streets during the curfew deadline that is tense as soldiers ogle her. She hears gunshots, sees a dead body, and is eventually forced to hide for hours. There is a real sense of fear in this scene as soldiers either arrest or shoot people out after curfew. Beth finally makes it back home to find it ransacked and Charles missing.

Ed speaks to someone at the State Department and is typically given the runaround. He then speaks to his congressman and is given more hollow reassurances. Ed decides to go to Chile to find Charles with Beth’s help. Jack Lemmon is an inspired bit of casting as we instantly sympathize with him thanks to the fierce integrity he exudes and the sad, sympathetic eyes that convey so much. Initially, he has faith in his government with his conservative values but over the course of the film, this belief erodes as he hits one bureaucratic dead end after another. Lemmon is such an empathetic actor that we can’t help but share his mounting frustration.

Sissy Spacek is excellent as Charles’ wife. She’s understandably jaded because she knows the score – American officials either can’t or won’t do anything to help but they do create the illusion that they are doing something. Beth’s liberal values clash with Ed’s more conservative beliefs and this creates tension between them. However, that disappears in the most affecting scene where Ed and Beth visit a morgue and walk among the countless dead bodies. Some are identified and some are not. Beth discovers one of her and Charles’ friends. Outside, a stunned Ed says, “What kind of world is this?”

Missing asks tough questions not just of the Chilean government but also of the U.S. government. Ed and Beth are only looking for the simple answer to what happened to Charles and are met with indifference from local officials and polite, yet ineffectual assistance. The sad truth is that the full and complete story about what happened to Charles may never be completely known with documents that might give us answers denied a release due to “reasons of national security.”

Special Features:

The first disc includes a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with two video interviews with Costa-Gavras – one done just after Missing’s U.S. premiere and one done for the 2006 French DVD. In the first interview, he addresses the controversy surrounding the film – the U.S. administration did not like the parallels to the situation in El Salvador at the time. The second interview features the director talking about the origins of the project.

Charles’ wife, Joyce Horman (played by Spacek in the film) is interviewed and talks about the accuracy of Missing. She feels that it was lenient on the portrayal of the U.S. government. Joyce talks about how and why she and Charles were in Chile. She also offers her impressions of what it was like there at the time.

“Producing Missing” features producers Edward and Mildred Lewis and Sean Daniel, and writer Thomas Hauser, author of the film’s source book, discussing the making of the film. The Lewis’ talk about how Hauser’s book motivated them to get the film made. Hauser talks about what drew him to the Charles’ story. This is an excellent look at how the film came together by the people who worked on it.

“1982 Cannes Film Festival” features Costa-Gavras, Jack Lemmon, Ed and Joyce Horman with family friend Terry Simon are interviewed at the festival. Lemmon talks about what drew him to the film while the Hormans talk about their experiences and what they think of the film.

“Pursuing the Truth” is an interview with Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project. He talks about declassified documents pertaining to the U.S.’ involvement in the execution of Charles. Kornbluh provides fascinating background to the political background of the film. He also examines how the film is very critical of U.S. involvement in Chile and they helped bring about a coup d’état.

Finally, there is “In Honor of Missing,” an excerpt from a 2002 event by the Charles Horman Truth Project to support efforts to bring General Augusto Pinochet and others to justice for human rights violations. Actor Gabriel Byrne hosts the ceremony and talks about how the film changed him. Costa-Gavras and some of the stars from the film also speak.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

After more than twenty years of failed attempts and missed opportunities, Terry Gilliam did what many thought impossible — he transformed Hunter S. Thompson's classic novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, into the cinematic equivalent of a sledgehammer whacked across your frontal lobes. Thompson's book had finally been fully realized and brought to the big screen in all of its demented glory. It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since the film crashed and burned in theaters but it has gone on to develop a devoted cult film following that quote from its numerous memorable scenes.

Gilliam's film faithfully adapts journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo's (Benicio Del Toro) trip to Las Vegas to cover the 1971 Mint 400 motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated magazine. However, the competition is merely an excuse for the duo to abuse their expense account and indulge in a galaxy of drugs. What was initially a simple journey to cover a motorcycle race mutates into a bizarre search for the American Dream.

THE BOOK

"As true gonzo journalism, this doesn't work at all, and even if it did, I couldn't possibly admit it. Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and claim it was true." – Hunter S. Thompson

Originally, Thompson was assigned to write captions for a photo-essay on the Mint 400 off-road motorcycle race in Las Vegas for Sports Illustrated magazine. Along for the ride was his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta whom he had met through a mutual friend. Thompson remembers, "I dragged Oscar away while he was working on the 'Biltmore Seven' trial because we couldn't talk in that war zone. So I said, 'Let's get the hell out of town!'" At some point, the editor for Rolling Stone magazine heard that Thompson was in Vegas and asked him to also cover the National District Attorneys Association's Third Annual Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs which was being held at Caesar's Palace.

When Sports Illustrated rejected his work Thompson took the Rolling Stone gig. It was at this point that he began to put his weird journey on paper. Truth was truly stranger than fiction as Thompson remembers one incident with his wild attorney: "He would do things like drop me off at the airport in my rental car, and then two months later I'd get a bill for three weeks that he used the car. He'd forget to take it back." Acosta had inspired Thompson to take his writing to a new level: "gonzo journalism," where the journalist participates in the story he is writing about. Taking refuge in a Ramada Inn in Arcadia, California, Thompson wrote relentlessly, frequenting a 24-hour coffee shop and breaking only for the odd swim in the pool. By the time he had returned home to Aspen, Colorado, the writer had a first draft done. In his basement, Thompson blasted the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" while he "anguished over five or six drafts until I got it right."

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. Thompson invented the Raoul Duke moniker because he was worried that his debauched misadventures depicted in the book might ruin his chances of acquiring press credentials from the White House so that he could cover the 1972 Presidential campaign — hence the Duke byline. Thompson got his credentials and allowed the book publishers to use his real name when the story was released in book form in 1972.

Thompson's book tapped into the cultural zeitgeist at just the right moment by connecting with a disillusioned generation who watched the hopeful 1960s transform into the dark and turbulent 1970s. Terry Gilliam sees Fear and Loathing as "a book about loss: the Sixties didn't pay off the way Hunter obviously had hoped they would."

WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM

Many filmmakers over the years had tried to make films out of Hunter S. Thompson's books but the first completed effort did not surface until 1980 with Where The Buffalo Roam. The writer's agent called him one day and told him that movie producer Thom Mount wanted to buy the rights to "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," a eulogy for Oscar Acosta, for $100,000. Thompson's expectations weren't that high. "So to me it was just another option job. Then all of a sudden there was some moment of terrible horror when I realized they were going to make the movie."

Paramount released the film, Art Linson directed it, Neil Young did the music, and John Kaye wrote the screenplay. Kaye talked to Thompson before writing the script but the final product was not what the writer had envisioned. "Yeah, he seemed to understand a lot more than what came through in the script. I was very disappointed in the script. It sucks—a bad, dumb, low-level, low-rent script."

Art Linson's film liberally mixed Thompson's real life with his books and starred Bill Murray and Peter Boyle as Thompson and Oscar Acosta, respectively. Thompson even served as a consultant on the film but this did little to translate the author's warped vision to the big screen. While watching Buffalo Roam, it becomes readily evident that, despite Murray's inspired performance, director Linson had no idea what Thompson's books were trying to say. The film seems more like a collection of rather tame highlights from the man's work.

Buffalo Roam was panned by critics and a commercial disaster at the box office. The studio quickly pulled it from distribution and Thompson hated the movie, infamously threatening to cause Murray bodily harm if the two ever crossed paths again. After the movie's dismal reception, no other adaptations were completed. Many attempts to get a Fear and Loathing Las Vegas film going were launched by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson but nothing ever materialized. It took actor Johnny Depp and his friendship with Hunter S. Thompson to get any kind of serious attempt at an adaptation even possible.

HUNTER MEETS THE REPO MAN

"I've been dealing with these yo-yos buying options on things for years. Options have been essentially paying the rent." – Hunter S. Thompson

Rhino Films was the latest in a long line of people trying to bring Hunter S. Thompson's vision to the big screen. Head of Production (and one of the film's producers) Stephen Nemeth originally wanted Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors and Mulholland Falls) to direct. However, Tamahori wasn't going to be available until after the January 1997 start date. Rhino asked Thompson for an extension on the movie rights but the author and his lawyers said no. As Thompson later remarked in an interview, "they just kept asking for more [time]. I got kind of agitated about it, because I thought they were trying to put off doing it. So I began to charge them more...I wanted to see the movie done, once it got started." Rhino countered by green-lighting the film and hiring Alex Cox to direct. According to Nemeth, Cox could "do it for a price, could do it quickly, and could get this movie going in four months." Judging by his past efforts, films like Repo Man (1983) and Straight to Hell (1987), Cox was no stranger to the same kind of Gonzo sensibilities evident in Thompson's books.

Cox started writing the screenplay with Tod Davies, a UCLA Hunter S. Thompson scholar. Depp and Del Toro committed to the film at this point. However, during pre-production Cox and another of the film's producers, Laila Nabulsi (and an ex-flame of Thompson's) had "creative differences" and she forced Rhino to choose between her and the filmmaker. Despite having no background in movies, Nabulsi did have an arrangement with Thompson to produce the movie.

The fatal blow came when Cox encountered Thompson with his own ideas of adapting the Fear and Loathing into a film. Johnny Depp remembers that "Alex had some dream that he could make Thompson's work better. He was wrong. He had this idea about animation in the film.” Cox and Davies, met Thompson at his home and it was at this point that Cox expressed his desire to incorporate animation into the movie. Thompson took offense to his book being reduced to a cartoon and promptly kicked Cox and Davies out of his home. When all the dust settled, Rhino sided with Nabulsi, fired Cox, and paid him $60,000 in script fees.

ENTER TERRY GILLIAM

"I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time." – Terry Gilliam

The studio approached Terry Gilliam's agent. There was an air of desperation because the option on the book was about to expire and Rhino had another project they wanted to start in 1998. Hunter S. Thompson granted the studio an extension for the rights but they didn't have a definite deal with Gilliam. Thompson would only grant another extension if Gilliam was given a concrete deal. However, Rhino did not want to commit to Gilliam in case he didn't work out (like Cox). They threatened to make the film with Cox and without Depp or Del Toro if the two actors didn't like the possibility of Gilliam being ousted. Nabulsi told them about Rhino's plans and Gilliam and Depp were furious. Universal stepped in to distribute the movie and Depp and Gilliam were paid half a million dollars each. Ironically, Gilliam ended up making Fear and Loathing without a firm deal in place.

Terry Gilliam seemed like the perfect choice to direct an adaptation of Fear and Loathing. The theme of insanity had always figured into his films but has since taken a more prominent role with his previous couple of projects. Fear and Loathing completes an informal trilogy based on madness that includes The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995).

When Gilliam had first read Fear and Loathing back in 1971, he "immediately identified with what Hunter was saying. I'd left the States to move here for the very same reasons that Fear and Loathing was written—that feeling the ideals of the '60s had died and that it was all fucked. I was so angry I was going to start throwing bombs. So when I read the book it was like, 'Jesus! He's got it! That's exactly how the fuck I feel!'" Gilliam enjoyed the book but didn't think about it for years afterwards.

Ralph Steadman, who illustrated the book, was a good friend of Gilliam and began to bug him over the years to do a film version of Fear and Loathing. In 1989, Gilliam remembers a "script turned up which briefly got me excited about the book again, but I was busy with another project and I ultimately decided that the script didn't capture the story properly."

Gilliam and his friend, Toni Grisoni, were originally working on a project about Theseus and the Minotaur. Grisoni read in a magazine that Alex Cox was set to direct Fear and Loathing. Grisoni called up Cox (they knew each other) and expressed an interest in adapting the book into a film. Cox said that he was doing it himself and that was that.

In April 1997, Cox was out and Gilliam got the call from Laila Nabulsi to direct. Gilliam said in an interview, "she sent me a script, and it reminded me of how funny and good the book was. I didn't really care for the script, but it inspired me to go back and read the book again.” Gilliam scrapped Cox and Davies' screenplay and asked Grisoni to help him write their own. Together they hammered out a screenplay in only ten days at Gilliam's home in London, England in May of 1997. As Grisoni remembers, "I'd sit at the keyboard, and we'd talk and talk and I'd keep typing.” Gilliam felt that the structure of the film should be organized much in the same way as the book:

We start out at full speed and it's WOOOO! The drug kicks in and you're on speed! Whoah! You get the buzz—it's crazy, it's outrageous, the carpet's moving and everybody's laughing and having a great time. But then, ever so slowly, the walls start closing in and it's like you're never going to get out of this fucking place. It's an ugly nightmare and there's no escape. And then they get out into the desert and it's light again. But it's a really rough ride for a lot of people to climb inside that head.

Gilliam also felt that the more surreal parts of the book could be transferred onto film if done right. For example, the imaginary bats that Duke sees on the highway at the beginning of the book was one such passage the director felt could be translated into visual terms.

Right at the start I thought, 'Well, we can't show them in the sky, we can only show them inside Duke's eyeball. So in the film we push in really tight on one of his eyes, where you can see these reflections of bats flapping around. We then cut to a wide shot that shows Duke waving his arms at nothing. I wanted to some how convey that this was an internal problem.

When Gilliam first joined the production there wasn't even a set budget. "I went out there and said all right, to start with just double it, whatever the budget is, seven and a half? I want $15-million, whatever it is just double it. And at the same time we're running around doing location scouts, discovering we can't use this, which we thought we could use, and we're trying to invent everything at the same time. I've never done a film like that, but on the other hand that was part of the fun of this one."

From there, the pace never slackened as Gilliam and company shot Fear and Loathing on location in a fast 56 days on a lean budget (by Hollywood standards) of $18.5 million. "One of the reasons I made this film,” Gilliam remembers, “was to push myself and see if I could still work the way I used to: fast, furiously and cheaply."

THE LOOK

Visually, Fear and Loathing is a masterpiece with a whacked out kaleidoscope of colors and insanely inventive camera angles and perspectives that make you feel like you're actually on drugs. Each drug consumed by Duke and Dr. Gonzo had its corresponding cinematic look to simulate its effects on the characters' perception. As the film's cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini points out, the effect of ether was done with "loose depth of field; everything becomes non-defined,” while the effects of amyl nitrate were done so that the "perception of light gets very uneven, light levels increase and decrease during the shots."

The look of Fear and Loathing was not inspired by Ralph Steadman's famous artwork that accompanied Thompson's words. Robert Yarber, an artist who paints pictures of people inside hotel rooms using fluorescent colors, influenced the look of the movie. His paintings captured the hallucinatory feel that the filmmakers were looking for: "the paintings use all kinds of neon colors, and the light sources don't necessarily make sense," Pecorini said in an interview in American Cinematographer magazine. As Gilliam remembers, "people inside hotel rooms in really fluorescent colors. His work is very strange and extraordinary and the colors he uses are extremely vibrant. We used him as a guide while mixing our palette of deeply disturbing fluorescent colors." This is evident in the scenes set in hotel rooms that each has their own garish Las Vegas decor that Duke and Dr. Gonzo subsequently transform into a twisted disaster area.

DEPP BECOMES DUKE

Actor Johnny Depp first met Thompson in Aspen, Colorado just before New Year's Eve, 1995. Depp left that initial meeting wondering why Fear and Loathing had not been made into a film. The actor subsequently invited Thompson to do a one-night gig at Depp's nightclub, The Viper Room on September 29, 1996 with the intention of asking the writer about doing a film version of his book. The opportunity never materialized but the two began corresponding via faxes.

Early one day, Thompson called Depp on the phone and asked him if he would consider playing Raoul Duke if a film was ever made of Fear and Loathing. "Without hesitation, I said, 'You bet!'" Depp recalls. By the Spring of 1997, Depp had moved into the basement of Owl Farm, Thompson's home in Aspen in order to do proper research for the role.

Depp was given complete access to every memento the writer saved from his 1971 trip to Las Vegas. "We went through the manuscript and the notes. There's notes on napkins and everything. He saved it all." The actor read through the writer's notebooks (which included an unpublished chapter entitled, "The Coconut Scene," which Gilliam placed in the film) only to realize that "the freakiest thing was that it was all real, that the reality was as insane as the book."

Thompson was disappointed that the film's costume designer wanted Depp to wear "bizarre Hawaiian zoot suits, and shit like that." The writer let Depp rummage through his wardrobe at the time of the book: Hawaiian shirts, a patchwork jacket, a safari hat, and a silver medallion given to him by Acosta. Thompson graciously allowed Depp to wear it all in the film. Gilliam remembers that the actor would "come back from Hunter's house with shirts and bags that Hunter had taken on the trip. In fact, Johnny drove the original Red Shark—the 1971 Chevrolet convertible in the film—down to Vegas from Hunter's house in Colorado."

All of these items only enhance Depp's performance. In the film, he has literally transformed into Duke/Thompson, complete with the man's unusual bow-legged walk, sweeping arm movements, mumbling speech pattern, and the trademark Dunhill cigarettes in a holder between clenched teeth. It's an incredible performance that transcends simple mimicry.

Depp's research culminated after a week when Thompson shaved almost all of the actor's hair for the film and entrusted him with the very car he used in the trip. The actor soon became Thompson's roadie and in charge of security for The Proud Highway (a collection of Thompson's letters) book tour.

If anything, the concern was that Depp would get too into the role and never emerge intact afterwards. While making the film, the actor received a phone call from Bill Murray who had also spent a lot of time with Thompson while researching for his role in Where the Buffalo Roam. Murray had had a very hard time shaking Thompson's distinctive persona after filming ended. When the comedian returned to Saturday Night Live for the fifth season, "he had virtually become Hunter Thompson, complete with long black cigarette holder, dark glasses, and nasty habits." Murray warned Depp to "be careful or you'll find yourself ten years from now still doing him...Make sure you're next role is some drastically different guy." Depp seemed to heed Murray's advice and went off to do The Astronaut's Wife (1999), a lackluster rip-off of Rosemary's Baby (1968), where he played an astronaut who is possessed by an alien entity.

THE PROBLEMS

"I don't think it was a well-organized film. Its birth was not easy. Certain people didn't...I'm not going to name names but it was a strange film, like one leg was shorter than the other. There was all sorts of chaos." – Terry Gilliam

One of the biggest obstacles Gilliam faced while shooting Fear and Loathing was working in the casinos in Las Vegas. He was only give six tables to put extras around and "the only time they'd give us was between two and six in the morning. And they insisted that the extras did real gambling!" In order to alleviate this problem, Gilliam decided to shoot the exterior shots of the Bazooka Casino in front of the Stardust hotel/casino with the interiors built and filmed on a Warner-Hollywood soundstage. That way, the director could exert more control over his surroundings instead of relying on the casinos that weren't always that co-operative.

Gilliam couldn't even afford the music rights to the Rolling Stones song, "Sympathy For The Devil," which is featured so prominently in the book. The price tag for the song was $300,000 (one third of the soundtrack budget) so they decided to use "Jumpin' Jack Flash" instead.

Another problem was Thompson himself. Gilliam decided to have the writer make a small cameo in the film but feared having him on the set because of the potential chaos the man could create. "Hunter is an uncontrollable force—he is chaos, you can't predict what he'll do next. So me, Johnny and his girlfriend were like three sheepdogs, herding Hunter into position."

To make matters worse, Gilliam faced another battle after Fear and Loathing was made. The Writer's Guild of America wanted to give sole writing credit to Alex Cox and Tod Davies even though Gilliam and Toni Grisoni had written their own script. According to WGA rules, if you're a writer-director, you have to produce more than 50% of the script, while other writers involved only have to produce 30%. However, as Gilliam pointed out, "there have been at least five previous attempts at adapting the book, and they all come from the book. They all use the same scenes." The WGA determined that Gilliam and Grisoni had not written the film. To add insult to injury, Gilliam wasn't even allowed to know who the arbiters were that made the decision or see their reports.

Universal brought in their lawyers and Gilliam and Grisoni had to write a 25-page document to prove that they had written more than 60% of the film. By early May 1998, the WGA revised its decision and gave writing credit to Gilliam and Grisoni first and then Cox and Davies second. This hardly satisfied Gilliam who burned his WGA card in protest.

THE AFTERMATH

"I always get very tense in those (test screenings), because I'm ready to fight. I know the pressure from the studios is, 'somebody didn't like that, change it!'" – Terry Gilliam

Fear and Loathing debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and Gilliam said, "I'm curious about the reaction...If I'm going to be disappointed, it's because it doesn't make any waves, that people are not outraged."

To say that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas received a mixed reaction from audiences and critics alike is a gross understatement. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, "Even the most precise cinematic realizations of Mr. Thompson's images (and of Ralph Steadman's cartoon drawings for the book) don't begin to match the surreal ferocity of the author's language." Stephen Hunter, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote, "It tells no story at all. Little episodes of no particular import come and go...But the movie is too grotesque to be entered emotionally." Mike Clark, of USA Today, found the film, "simply unwatchable." Perhaps Gilliam and company made too faithful an adaptation that only really appeals to devotees of the book. Or, as Gilliam suggests, people were scared off because they had to think about what they were watching. "You've got to work out what it's told you, and that's not what America's about. They want their morality clear.”

Gilliam found that the American press refused to "even talk about Fear and Loathing. They won't say, 'Ban the film'—they're too liberal for that—so instead they seem to have adopted this attitude of, Oh, maybe if we don't talk about it, it'll go away. That's modern America all over.” And judging by Fear and Loathing's quick demise at the box office and subsequent disappearance from theaters, this strategy worked. While most critics praised Depp and Del Toro's performance, most found Gilliam's film to be a muddled mess with no coherent structure: just one long debauched road trip.

Regardless of what the critics thought, Gilliam hoped that one person would at least appreciate his efforts: Hunter S. Thompson. "Yeah, I liked it. It's not my show, but I appreciated it. Depp did a hell of a job. His narration is what really held the film together, I think. If you hadn't had that, it would have just been a series of wild scenes,” Thompson said in an interview.

Gilliam remembers Hunter's reaction to the film when he saw at the premiere: "He was making all this fucking noise! Apparently it all came flooding back to him, he was reliving the whole trip! He was yelling out and jumping on his seat like it was a rollercoaster, ducking and diving, shouting "SHIT! LOOK OUT! GODDAM BATS!”

I think that this is indeed some kind of genius film, but in a really demented way that I would have a hard time verbalizing to someone who didn't tap into what Gilliam is trying to do. I can see why Fear and Loathing received a critical shellacking from all the usual pundits (Ebert et al.). It's a very odd film — a 128-minute acid trip from beginning to end with no respite, no rest stops, and no objective distance from which to view the whole insane picture safely. You are plunged headlong into this weird, wild world along with the characters.

Fear and Loathing contains many funny moments, bits of dialogue, and visual zingers as Duke and Dr. Gonzo make their way through the surreal landscape that is Las Vegas. The humor in this film is simultaneously disturbing and hilarious — a pitch-black satire of American culture and excess. Around the 3/4-way mark, Fear and Loathing veers off into some really dark territory as the horror that accompanies chemical dependency rears its ugly head. I was worried that this element would be lost in the transfer from book to film and that it was going to be simply a "straight" comedy. Thankfully, the darker edge of the book has been retained and reinforced in spades.

The heart of darkness in Fear and Loathing is a scene that takes place in the North Star Coffee Lounge between Duke, Dr. Gonzo and a waitress whom the attorney threatens. As Gilliam observes, "this is two guys who have gone beyond the pale, this is unforgivable—that scene, it's ugly. My approach, rather than to throw it out, was to make that scene the low point." This is the kind of film that people will either really love or hate — there is no middle ground. Gilliam's film is going to be one of those movies that's destined to become an instant cult item. As Hunter S. Thompson puts it in the book, "there he goes, one of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, too rare to die." Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is pure Gonzo filmmaking for people who like weird, challenging films.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Politics & Movies Blog-a-Thon: JFK

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Politics & Movies Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at The Cooler blog by Jason Bellamy.

The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history and one that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone's film, JFK (1991) depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed puzzle complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.

JFK presents the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence and then theorizes that the evidence was buried deep in the Warren Commission Report. Stone’s film filters a structured examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person's point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — who then assembles all of the evidence at his disposal to reveal a larger, more frightening picture that implicates the most powerful people in the United States government. Stone saw his movie consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C.

While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison's book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money. The Kennedy Assassination had always had a profound effect on his life and eventually met Garrison, grilling him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone's questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director.

Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison's life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Sklar to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and all the research he and others conducted into a script that would resemble what he called "a great detective movie." Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: "I see the models as Z (1969) and Rashomon (1950), I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we're going to see it differently and with more illumination.”

Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the "Mr. X" character. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the "Mr. X" character played by Donald Sutherland and who was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an adviser for the film.
Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy Assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot all of the footage. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy from. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. It took five months of negotiation.

Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film and Stone began to surface in the mainstream media including the Chicago Tribune, published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, "On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland" that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for "the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison's book and Stone's rendition of it.” The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw's homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Other attacks in the media soon followed. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most because he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, "He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts.”

The film depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination as a densely constructed story complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks and the blending of actual archival footage with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast of actors. This blurring of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage makes it difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this in order to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation" and simulate the confusing quagmire of events as they are depicted in The Warren Commission Report. Stone creates different points of views or "layers" through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. Stone has said that he “wanted to the film on two or three levels — sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback . . . I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence

The normally wooden Kevin Costner acts as the perfect mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the actor’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film, that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman’s delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such name actors as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.

The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them with the famous person that portrays them. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child: “Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day (1962) was one of my favorite films as a kid. It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars . . . the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods.” Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.

Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Sutherland) where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film.

Once the film was released in theaters, it polarized critics. The New York Times ran an article by Bernard Weinraub entitled, "Hollywood Wonders If Warner Brothers let JFK Go Too Far.” In it, he called for studio censorship and wrote, "At what point does a studio exercise its leverage and blunt the highly charged message of a film maker like Oliver Stone?" The newspaper also ran a review of the film by Vincent Canby who wrote, "Mr. Stone's hyperbolic style of film making is familiar: lots of short, often hysterical scenes tumbling one after another, backed by a soundtrack that is layered, strudel-like, with noises, dialogue, music, more noises, more dialogue.” However, Roger Ebert praised the film in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, saying, "The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

Rita Kempley in the Washington Post wrote, "Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission's conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum.” On Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled, "Suppression of the Facts Grants Stone a Broad Brush" attacking the film. New York Newsday followed suit the next day with two articles – "The Blurred Vision of JFK" and "The Many Theories of a Jolly Green Giant.” A few days later, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article entitled, "Stone's Film Trashes Facts, Dishonors J.F.K." Stone even received death threats as he recalled in an interview, "I can't even remember all the threats, there were so many of them.” Time magazine ranked it the fourth best film of 1991. Roger Ebert went on to name Stone's movie as the best film of the year and one of the top ten films of the decade.
JFK are important works in the sense that they accurately portray the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Both works present an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing. JFK, on the other hand, contains one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'état. Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone's film, the American public is still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill Kennedy.


SOURCES


Fisher, Bob. “The Whys and Hows of JFK.” American Cinematographer. February 1992.

Petras, James. “The Discrediting of The Fifth Estate: The Press Attacks on JFK.” Cineaste. May 1992.

Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Aurum Press. 1996.