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Talking About Sex

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Want to make a film for no money which gets theatrical distribution and launches you into the elite cadre of working directors? Do as Stephen Soderbergh did with “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, or Alfonso Cuaron did with “Y Tu Mama Tambien”. Write a script which is at least 50% people talking about sex.

“Sex has been a topic of unerring interest to mankind throughout the ages.” So stated Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan in the opening line of his opinion which lifted the obscenity ban on James Joyce’s classic novel, “Ulysses”.

And yet, Hollywood never gets sex right. They rarely get it right when they show couples having sex, and I will explain why in a coming blog.

But they also almost never even dare to make movies in which people talk, honestly, and at length, about sex. Despite the hot buzz on the surface, this country is deeply puritanical down to its roots. So films about sex are risky, and Hollywood is risk-adverse. Yet, as Justice Brennan wisely observed, sex is a topic which people (including the puritans) the world-over, are, to say the least, fascinated by. Obsessed with, is probably more accurate. This opens up a huge window of opportunity for every no-budget filmmaker. Do as Soderbergh and Cuaron did. Put a sexy girl up on screen, talking honestly and openly about sex with a sexy guy, when the subtext is very clearly, “Are we going to have sex?” and people will pay good money to come see it. The successful release of “Sex Lies and Videotape” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” proves this emphatically.

The hard part, as always, is the script. But, as I have explained in my previous blogs, make that which is at stake love. Create a likeable protagonist who, as the story advances, can either win or lose more and more good love. And have this take place in a believable human context which necessitates honest conversations about sex.

Soderbergh hits the sweet spot in “Sex, Lies and Videotape” by making his protagonist, Graham, impotent. So, as Graham (the very sexy and handsome young James Spader) openly admits to Cynthia (the very sexy and young Laura San Giacomo) he “gets off” video-taping women describing their sex lives. And then he tapes her. And Soderbergh puts it on film and picks up the Audience Award at Sundance.

In “Y Tu Mama Tambien” Cuaron lights the fuse on a sexual time bomb when his female lead, a beautiful 30-something woman, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to have one last fling and gets in a car for extended road trip with two sixteen year old boys who have just one thing on their minds. They light a joint and start talking. Cuaron puts it on film and then gets hired to direct the next mega-budget Harry Potter flic.

People talking about sex costs next to nothing to put on the big screen. As anyone who has made a movie can attest, nothing is cheaper and easier to do than shoot static two-shots and close-ups of people talking. But that talk can propel a movie to greatness if a lot of good love is on the line, and the guy is sexy and the girl is sexy and the subtext is “Are we going to have sex?”

Run Your Hero Off a Cliff

Posted by Gil Bettman on Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Both the Dardenne brothers, and my other hero filmmaker of the moment, Ashgar Farhadi, front load the stakes in their love stories. They fully understand that the more good love at stake, the more precarious the balance between it all being lost or gained, the greater the narrative drive and suspense. So they don’t wait around to put a lot of love on the line.

At the very beginning of the Dardennes’ latest film, “The Kid With a Bike” when we meet the protagonist, Cyril, he is biting, kicking and fighting his way out the grasp of the counselors in a foster care farm and hurling himself out of windows, over walls and down the road on his bike, determined to reunite himself with the father who has cast him off like an old shoe. The Dardennes immediately run their young hero off a cliff and leave him there flailing in mid-air like Wily Coyote. We see the abyss open up beneath him. We pray he won’t fall, but we know he must, and we know the landing will hurt. Nothing hurts like a parental slight, and the slight Cyril’s father seems poised to deal him would destroy any one of us. So we dread its inevitability, even as we pray that it can be averted. This all happens in the first act and launches the audience headlong into the film.

Similarly, Farhadi starts his masterpiece, “A Separation”, in medias res. When we meet the main character, Nader, his wife, Simin, is putting an emotional gun to his head by threatening to divorce him unless he leaves Iran with her. Nader insists that he must stay in Iran so he can care for his father, who is increasingly crippled by Alzheimer’s. Unmoved, Simin moves out of their apartment, leaving Nader alone to care for his ailing father and their twelve year old daughter, Termeh.

Now the gun which Simin has pointed at Nader’s head is loaded with the bullet of Termeh’s love. Clearly, Simin’s agenda is to divorce Nader, leave Iran, and convince Termeh to come with her. To do this she must first win out over Nader in a contest for their daughter’s love. To compete, Nader must keep working at the bank so he can offer his daughter as much in material comfort as his angry wife whose family is very wealthy. At the same time, he must fulfill the role of mother and father for Termeh and serve as competent 24/7 caregiver for his father. Or he might lose his daughter forever.

To meet this test, Nader, hires a woman who is a virtual stranger, Razieh, to come to his apartment to care for his father when he is out working. Razieh is desperately poor, illiterate, and an absolute fundamentalist Muslim. And under her burka she is four months pregnant – a secret she hides from Nader. The hiring of Razieh is the inciting incident of “A Separation”. It happens twenty minutes into the film and it results in a world of grief for Nader.

In this, Fahardi is working from the same play book as the Dardennes. Show us a good man who wants desperately to be a good father and a good son. And immediately align powerful forces against him which conspire to take all the good love out of his life.

Again, if you make love what’s at stake rather than life and death you can power your film forward with as much narrative drive as any film made for any price. But part of the trick is do as Fahadi and the Dardennes do, and front load your script by putting as much good love on the line as fast a possible.

GO SEE THIS FILM, NOW!

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Anyone who aspires to launch a directing career should get up from their computer right now and go out and see the Dardenne brothers latest film, “The Kid With a Bike”. It is still in theaters nation-wide, but it is in French with English subtitles, so it will be gone in a flash. This film won the Gran Prix at Cannes this year and deservedly so.

Like the five films I cited in my last blog, any aspiring filmmaker could make this film for little or no money because it is 90% people talking in rooms. The most time consuming and difficult shots in “The Kid With a Bike” are the long tracking shots of the protagonist, 11 year old Cyril, furiously pumping along on his bike, but they were all done with a handheld digital camera out of the back of a convertible, and could easily have been shot by any of my students in the film school at Chapman University. Yet, this low budget masterpiece generates as much suspense and narrative drive as a 200 million dollar studio franchise film, by getting us to identify with Cyril, and then dangling the possibility that Cyril, an unloved, abandoned child, could win, or lose, the good love of a very good surrogate mother, Samantha.

The outcome is never certain. Cyril is as prickly as they come. It is not easy for Samantha or the audience to get their arms around him. Eleven years of ricocheting between his unloving father and state-run homes have turned him into a hyper-kinetic, occasionally heartless, human pinball. But the Dardennes manage to credibly connect Cyril’s young life by a thin thread of love to the good Samantha and then dangle it over a black hole of neglect and privation. If the thread holds, he is saved. If it breaks, he is lost. The suspense is palpable. And yet it was generated almost entirely by shooting people talking in rooms. Because in this little film, like the five I cited in my last blog, what’s at stake is love, rather than life and death. For the no-budget filmmaker, love is the answer.