Monday, April 21, 2014

The Sounds of "Sonus": An Interview with Filmmaker Mike Davis

In October, BMFI launched its inaugural Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest to encourage emerging filmmakers and celebrate cinema’s rich history. From over 280 entries, four finalist short films have been chosen: "Miss Todd," "Wrong Number," "Redemption," and "Sonus." In April, see these remarkable short films on the big screen before the features that inspired them, and learn more about the finalist filmmakers on BMFInsights.

The Sounds of "Sonus"

By Kerri Grogan, Staff Assistant

Virginia-based filmmaker Mike Davis creates a fun, modern take on the silent film genre in “Sonus,” one of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s four Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest finalists. His inspiration film, Charlie Chaplin’s silent masterpiece City Lights, perfectly reflects the blend of creativity and humor that inspires Mike's work.

Recent film graduate Mike Davis is currently finishing his first feature-length screenplay and is already receiving recognition for his film work.

I got in touch with with Mike via e-mail to learn more about him and his film. Keep reading to find out about the challenges of making a film without dialogue, his musical choices, and what inspires his filmmaking style.

You recently graduated from George Mason University with a degree in film production. What do you enjoy most about the filmmaking process?

I'd have to say it’s a tie between the ideation of my films at the script level and actually watching it when it's all done. I get a lot of great ideas and screenwriting lets me dive deeper into them. I have a lot of fun crafting and sometimes pruning my stories to make them work. There's nothing like watching your idea that you've spent hours and hours working on play on screen in front of an audience. I love watching people's reactions to my films.

"Sonus" is a modern take on a silent movie. How did Charlie Chaplin's City Lights inspire your story?

Besides the obvious black and white, I really like the love story in City Lights between Chaplin's Little Tramp and the blind woman. It's one of my favorite onscreen love stories. For my film, I wanted to craft something similar, but of my own design. I think it worked.

What are some of the unique challenges you faced making a film without dialogue? How did that affect the way you told the story?

I can't really say that I ran into any challenges due to lack of dialogue. I knew exactly how I wanted to tell this story going in and I cast my actors based on their nonverbal cues and gestures. After that, in terms of directing, it was a pretty simple shoot, which is a credit to my cast. The big challenges I faced were all production based: doing everything solo, a malfunctioning camera, finding an empty study room in a busy library, filming “Sonus” simultaneously with my senior thesis film...things like that.

In "Sonus," a college student unwittingly discovers a hidden world of sound during a library trip. But is it all just in his mind?

The music that your character discovers in "Sonus" plays a big part in the story. Does the music you featured have any special relevance? What made you choose those pieces?

I'm a closet classical music fan. Personally, I'll listen to anything besides country, but only a couple of my friends know that I like classical. I'm also a big fan of all things animated. So for one of the songs, I wanted to create a Pixar vibe by relating the music to what's happening on screen.

Your filmmaking style has a lot of light-hearted humor and creativity. What films or filmmakers have had the biggest influence on your style?

The biggest influence on my style probably comes from animation and cartoons. Again, I'm a big fan of animation, and there are so many films and television shows that have influenced me in that genre. But what I like the most about them is how universal they can be. I think those are the films we remember best. Those are the films we can enjoy over and over again as a kid or an adult. Besides that, I also really enjoy the element of surprise in my work. I love catching my audience off guard. Sometimes I'll even slow down the pace of a film just so the surprise can have a bigger impact when it’s delivered. “Sonus” is probably one of my better works in terms of representing my style as a filmmaker and screenwriter.

Thanks, Mike!

See "Sonus" and the classic feature that inspired it, City Lights, on Tuesday, April 22 at 7:00 pm. The film will be shown in conjunction with a Cinema Classics Seminar. Join us on April 27 for our ACTION! Dedication Celebration, where we will announce the Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest winners.

Kerri Grogan is BMFI’s Staff Assistant. She studied animation at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and moonlights as a dice-rolling, video gaming geek, animator, and comic artist.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Finding the Soul of "Redemption": An Interview with Chris Carden

In October, BMFI launched its inaugural Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest to encourage emerging filmmakers and celebrate cinema’s rich history. From over 280 entries, four finalist short films have been chosen: "Miss Todd," "Wrong Number," "Redemption," and "Sonus." In April, see these remarkable short films on the big screen before the features that inspired them, and learn more about the finalist filmmakers on BMFInsights.

Finding the Soul of "Redemption"

By Kerri Grogan, Staff Assistant

Filmmaker Chris Carden's supernatural short film, "Redemption," is one of four finalists in Bryn Mawr Film Institute's Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest. Although this is his first self-produced short, he has been in front of or behind cameras since age four, when he was a regular on Sesame Street. Inspired by the classic horror masterpiece The Exorcist (1973), "Redemption" asks the question, "Are angels among us?"

Chris acted in commercials until age eleven, when he left the business. He later returned as a broadcast journalist for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, before turning his attention to narrative film.

I asked Chris some questions via e-mail about "Redemption," how it related to The Exorcist, and how his actors inspired the film. Keep reading for his responses!
You wrote and directed “Redemption”. How does your acting and broadcast journalism background shape your approach to storytelling? To filmmaking?

There are some great correlations between news and film. You wouldn't think so unless you've done both. But when I was a journalist, I used to rehearse my live leads and then read my stories aloud to hear what the viewers would hear, like an actor, which I had been briefly as a child. I spent a long time crafting news stories that were clear and concise but also emotionally gripping. In my narrative writing I strive to hit all those same notes. Then it's just a matter of finding a visual language to carry those elements forward, similar to what you do in the world of broadcast journalism. In news, you have a shooter; in film, a d.p. You can step out of a news story as a reporter and let the subject matter speak for itself just as a director gathers all of the elements for a story and then lets it come together organically in the service of his or her vision. Even editing is similar because in both you have to be ruthless and leave only those frames that push the story forward. The similarities go on, but my experience has made for a great transition.

This is your first self-produced short film. What inspired you to make it? What was the most surprising thing that you learned?

I actually did a couple of films in college, one of which was also about death and the afterlife. It's an obsession, I guess. But with religion there is never an absolute answer. I wanted to explore the issue of sin and consequences; in essence, how far can you go before you can no longer be forgiven, and what spiritual forces exist in times of trouble to push us either towards salvation or damnation. But I didn't want a preachy movie. So I folded the idea into a film noir narrative and what came out the other side of all these ruminations was "Redemption." On the plus side, I learned that good material attracts good people and "Redemption" was blessed with a talented cast and crew that made it so much easier for me to bring the story to life. Unfortunately, as a rookie filmmaker, I also learned that not everyone has your best interests at heart, and I had to make some difficult choices to keep the train on the tracks. But the most important thing I learned is that perseverance is more important than resources. Keep at it even when you think you can't and solutions will present themselves.

In "Redemption," the forces of good and evil fight to control the soul of an unstable man.

“Redemption” is a parable of good versus evil. How did The Exorcist influence your approach to the story?

Decades have gone by and no one, in my opinion, has yet to match [The Exorcist] for depth, intricacy of character, and durability. The Exorcist's director, William Friedkin, said, "I know that it is considered by a great many people as a horror film. I've never thought of it that way and I didn't approach it that way. It's a story about the mystery of faith." That made complete sense to me, and that's the reason it stands above other horror flicks. Friedkin shifted the focus away from shock value for its own sake, and I attempted the same. Whether I succeeded or not I leave up to viewers.

Actor Simon Lovell plays one of the lead characters. Once allegedly a notorious con man pursued by Interpol, Lovell is now the technical consultant behind USA Network’s White Collar. How did he become involved in the project? Did you tailor the role for him?

I wrote the original part of Harry as a downtown New York guy, somewhere between Al Pacino and James Gandolfini. Then my casting director showed me a clip of Simon conning an elderly woman on a television show. I'm a huge Anglophile and when I heard that charming British accent and saw his morally bereft performance, I was sold. I gave him the part. Actually he stole it and I haven't seen it since. Seriously, Simon was a great find, as well as Michael [Newcomer] and Max [Rhyser], who play Gale and Peter respectively. They played off each other so well all I had to do was explain the scene and let them take off on their own.

What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process? What do you find most challenging?

I'll be honest, I enjoyed everything but chasing the money. Filmmaking would be great if everyone worked for free, but alas, art in itself does not pay the bills. I'm still working on squaring everyone away. But everything else was a joy and I can't wait to start another project. On "Redemption," I was writer, director, executive producer, editor, and colorist. I would gladly hire someone else next time to take on one or more of those jobs, but overall, it was a blast. I only have about ten projects screaming for attention in my head so I'll be busy scratching out scripts for awhile.

Thank you, Chris!

You can see "Redemption" and its inspiration film, The Exorcist, on Tuesday, April 15 at 7:00 pm. The film will be shown in conjunction with a Cinema Classics Seminar. Join us on April 27 for our ACTION! Dedication Celebration, where we will announce the Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest winners.

Kerri Grogan is BMFI’s Staff Assistant. She studied animation at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and moonlights as a dice-rolling, video gaming geek, animator, and comic artist.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Making the Right Choices for "Wrong Number": An Interview with Director Patrick Rea

In October, BMFI launched its inaugural Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest to encourage emerging filmmakers and celebrate cinema’s rich history. From over 280 entries, four finalist short films have been chosen: "Miss Todd," "Wrong Number," "Redemption," and "Sonus." In April, see these remarkable short films on the big screen before the features that inspired them, and learn more about the finalist filmmakers on BMFInsights.

Making the Right Choices for "Wrong Number"

By Kerri Grogan, Staff Assistant

Filmmaker Patrick Rea delivers suspenseful, twisting drama in "Wrong Number," one of Bryn Mawr Film Institute's four Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest finalists. Written by Amber Rapp and inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Dial M for Murder (1954), "Wrong Number" connects two strangers by way of a misdialed phone number.

Patrick's production company, SenoReality Pictures, won Heartland Emmy awards for their short films, "Get Off My Porch" and "Woman's Intuition."

I interviewed Patrick via e-mail about his film. Keep reading to find out how Dial M for Murder inspired him, how he worked with his actors, and his favorite parts of the filmmaking process.

What aspects of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder helped inspire this film?

In the Hitchcock film, the plot deals with infidelity and a murder plot that goes awry. Without giving too much away, I often thought that in "Wrong Number", there is a hint that Maggie may have caught her husband in an affair which led her down the road she has taken. I also wanted to use the phone in our film as a device to create tension and suspense, like Hitchcock did in Dial M for Murder.

“Wrong Number” centers on a telephone conversation between two disparate strangers, and the way that it unfurls is very important for building character and creating drama. How did screenwriter Amber Rapp approach creating the dialogue for the film?

Amber approached the dialogue to make it seem as innocent as possible as a way of misdirecting the audience, much like Hitchcock. Amber wanted to lull the audience into a false sense of comfort. Most people watching "Wrong Number" for the first time think it's just a conventional conversation between two souls in a chance encounter. Amber did a good job of revealing a lot about the characters in a very short period of time, thus making the ending all the more of a surprise.

You elicit wonderful performances from your actors. Would you talk about your process working with them on set?

We spent a great deal of time rehearsing the conversation. I had worked with Joicie Appell on a previous film, Nailbiter, and had developed a great working relationship with her. This was the first time I had worked with Cinnamon Shultz. I had seen her do great work in Winter's Bone (2010). I thought she carried the right amount of gritty strength and innocence to make the Maggie character likeable, yet mysterious. I rehearsed both of them for several days before shooting the film. Once we got all the kinks out with the dialogue we were ready for filming. They had rehearsed the film together, but when filming, neither were on set at the same time. Because we had done so much prep, the two still knew how to maintain the right rhythm.

In "Wrong Number," a woman takes comfort in dialing a familiar phone number, but she's taken by surprise when a stranger answers instead.

In addition to several award-winning shorts, you have also directed a feature, Nailbiter (2013), and the comedy special Jake Johannsen, I Love You, which aired on Showtime. What are some of the unique challenges and benefits of short filmmaking, feature filmmaking, and filming live events?

I really believe that short films are a great way to learn new techniques and really build your skills as a filmmaker. A feature film takes so very long to raise money for, and I feel that short form storytelling can be an excellent way to keep yourself from feeling creatively stagnant. One particular challenge to short filmmaking is being able to tell a three act story in a short period of time. You have to really develop the characters and make the audience relate to them in a truncated duration, and that can be difficult to pull off.

As for feature filmmaking, an obvious challenge is raising the necessary capital to make it a reality. It's also a marathon making a feature. With a short, you can usually have it completed in six months, while a feature can go on for years, and you have to keep your love of the project alive as well as keeping others excited about it as well. Nailbiter started principal photography in 2009 and wasn't released till 2013. That required a lot of energy to keep the momentum going.

Filming live events are always fun and scary. You never know what might happen on the day of filming. While filming Jake Johannsen, I Love You, we had to explain the audience that this was a live event and if something went wrong, we would need to pause and fix things to start again. We were fortunate that nothing went wrong.

What do you enjoy most about filmmaking?

I really love the collaborative atmosphere on set! I love the shooting process the most and if I do my homework ahead of time, it's usually a party! I also love seeing it with the sound and music for the first time. That's when it finally comes alive!

Thanks, Patrick!

See "Wrong Number" and the classic feature that inspired it, Dial M for Murder, on Tuesday, April 8, at 7:00 pm. The film will be shown in conjunction with a Cinema Classics Seminar. Join us on April 27 for our ACTION! Dedication Celebration, where we will announce the Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest winners.

Kerri Grogan is BMFI’s Staff Assistant. She studied animation at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and moonlights as a dice-rolling, video gaming geek, blogger, and comic artist.

Friday, March 28, 2014

"Miss Todd" Takes Animation to New Heights: An Interview with Filmmaker Kristina Yee

In October, BMFI launched its inaugural Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest to encourage emerging filmmakers and celebrate cinema’s rich history. From over 280 entries, four finalist short films have been chosen: "Miss Todd," "Wrong Number," "Redemption," and "Sonus." In April, see these remarkable short films on the big screen before the features that inspired them, and learn more about the finalist filmmakers on BMFInsights.

"Miss Todd" Takes Animation to New Heights

By Kerri Grogan, Staff Assistant

Inspiring is the best word to describe the story of "Miss Todd," a stop-motion, animated, musical short that is one of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s inaugural Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest finalist films. Director Kristina Yee's award-winning short, which uses beautiful, hand-drawn puppets and handmade sets, follows the compelling journey of a young woman who dreams of flight. The project was her graduation film from the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England, and was the first animated film to win a Gold Medal for Best Foreign Film at the Student Academy Awards. The short will be shown with the feature that inspired it, the beloved musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), on the big screen this Tuesday, April 1 at 7:00 pm.

I caught up with Kristina via email to ask her a few questions about her film. Keep reading to learn about the challenges of stop-motion animation, what attracted her to the story, and what inspires her.

Director Kristina Yee earned a 2014 Annie Award nomination for her film.
"Miss Todd" is based on the experiences of a little-known historical figure, Lillian Todd, whom the New York Times identified in 1909 as the first woman to design airplanes. What drew you to her story?

I came across Miss Todd almost by accident. I was perusing articles about this particular time in aviation history because I was doing research for another project that involved flying, and kites particularly, when I came across Miss Todd. I wondered why I'd never heard of her, and the more I read, the more her story smacked of injustice. I thought it was amazing that she accomplished so much, and yet is so forgotten by the history books. The mystery of what happened to her after her plane flew also drew me to her—I wanted to believe that, as we've portrayed in the story, her disappearance wasn't a tragedy, but an adventure.

What made you decide that you wanted to tell her story as a musical?

I had been thinking of making a musical for my graduation film, but when my writer and I decided to tell Miss Todd's story, a musical seemed perfect in a lot of ways, mostly because it's very much a story about literally not having a voice. When Miss Todd sings, she's communicating all the highs and lows of her experience in a way that only music can communicate.

What would you say is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?

I'm not sure I could name a favorite part—I genuinely love every step. I suppose the best part is when you feel that all of your collaborators are really united in making the film and are each using their own gifts to bring out the best in the story. I had a fantastic team for "Miss Todd," and that made the entire process a real pleasure.

You used a stop-motion style of animation that uses paper cut-outs and built sets. What made you choose this style? Did you have any particular inspiration for the visual look of the film?

Well, there were certainly practical considerations when we chose this style. We wanted to do stop-motion because we thought there was something really wonderfully tactile in this world of inventions and machinery. The textures of the real sets really invite you to be a part of her world. We settled on paper cut-outs for two reasons: we needed to be able to do lip-sync and wanted to have facially expressive characters, and also because, in a more abstract way, there was something about the limitations of the movements of the paper puppets that seemed fitting for the time period in which the film is set. Plus, the paper in the sets looked amazing!

Miss Todd dreams of flight, but her aspirations may be forever grounded. This beautiful animated film was done with no use of green screen, and only minimal post-production retouching.
What are some of the challenges of working in this type of stop-motion style?

Well, my editor was really disappointed when I told him we couldn't do a 360 shot around Miss Todd. There are certainly logistical things you have to think about when your puppets are flat! But I think the challenge was mostly that it was a bit experimental, so we were learning as we went along. We were also trying to do things that are difficult to do in stop-motion, even in the best of circumstances, on a shoe-string budget and a tiny animation team—things like lip-syncing (lots of it!) and flying. One moment I was proudest of is that, in order to create realistic motion-blur in the take-off sequence, we had loads of friends helping us to "pull" the grass of the airfield the moment that the shutter closed, frame by frame, so that the grass would appear to be racing by for the take-off. We also had to make sure that the wheels and propeller were spinning as the shutter closed, which became the special responsibility of our amazing cinematographer, Nick Cooke.

What filmmakers have inspired you and the way you work?

As with all animators, I'm a huge Miyazaki fan. I only hope to one day be one tenth as accomplished as he is! I also love Billy Wilder. In particular, I love The Apartment, which is one of those films that is completely perfect just the way it is. I hope one day I'm able to write the kind of witty, snappy dialogue that he and his collaborators always seemed to capture. I grew up watching old musicals, which have nurtured my love of grand, sweeping moments in film. I also love the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; I think I've watched The Red Shoes more times than any other film! I love their sense of imagination and artistry.
Thank you, Kristina!

See "Miss Todd" and the classic feature that inspired it, Singin' in the Rain, this Tuesday at 7:00 pm. Join us on April 27 for our ACTION! Dedication Celebration, where we will announce the Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest winners.

Kerri Grogan is BMFI’s Staff Assistant. She studied animation at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and moonlights as a dice-rolling, video gaming geek, blogger, and comic artist.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Maurizio Giammarco Discusses THE GREAT BEAUTY

BMFI faculty member Maurizio Giammarco, Ph.D., delves into the Academy Award-nominated Italian film The Great Beauty, which BMFI is currently showing. Join him for a free discussion of the film on Sunday, February 9 after the 1:30 pm show.

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty

By Maurizio Giammarco, Ph.D., Intellectual Heritage Program, Temple University

It's been fifteen years since an Italian movie, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, and in that interim only one film from Italy has even received a nomination. However, this year's list of foreign film nominees includes a compelling entry from Italy, The Great Beauty (la grande bellezza), directed by Paolo Sorrentino.

Paolo Sorrentino was born in Naples, and after making a series of short films, followed by his 2001 feature debut, One Man Up (L'uomo in piu), achieved international recognition in 2004 for his stylish thriller The Consequences of Love (Le conseguenze dell'amore), which explores the mindset of a lonely businessman who is being used as a pawn by the Mafia. The film, starring Toni Servillo, won many awards and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. After his next feature, The Family Friend (L'amico di famiglia), Sorrentino achieved recognition for Il Divo, a dramatized biography of Giulio Andreotti, the controversial three-time Italian prime minister. The feature, which won the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, reunited Sorrentino with the star of The Consequences, Toni Servillo, who plays the role of Andreotti. In 2008, Sorrentino directed This Must be the Place, an English-language story featuring Sean Penn as a rock singer who tries to avenge his Holocaust-survivor father.

With The Great Beauty, Sorrentino not only returned to Italy, he has also taken on its past and how it weighs upon the present and future. Set in Rome, the Eternal City, the film follows Jep Gambardella, a sybarite played with wit and soul by Toni Servillo, who dances into the story while celebrating his 65th birthday. Four decades earlier, Jep's only novel, The Human Apparatus, was celebrated as a masterpiece, but these days he works—if barely—as a journalist and lives in a terraced apartment overlooking the Colosseum. He was, he says during his party, “destined for sensibility.”

The film opens with lines from CĂ©line's Journey to the End of the Night: "To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength..."
The film has been widely praised, described as ravishing in its look as it examines la dolce vita in Italy after the years of the Silvio Berlusconi era. Indeed, many critics have noted the influence of the maestro himself, Federico Fellini, upon the film. In fact, The Great Beauty is indebted to three films by Fellini: La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Fellini's Roma.

In an interview with The New York Times, Sorrentino offered several reflections on The Great Beauty, Italian alienation, Federico Fellini, and Rome. On the comparison made between The Great Beauty and La Dolce Vita, and on Fellini:
“...I know that the idea of this movie worked in the same context as some of [Fellini's], but 50 years later. La Dolce Vita is a film that tries to understand the meaning of life in a world that is losing this meaning. That is a sensation I can feel right now in Rome, the sense that life is futile, that you can't find a real sense of purpose. I think the vulgarity is more accentuated [today than 50 years ago] as is the loss of the sense of pudore, of shame or modesty or reserve. This is the feeling of my movie...For me Fellini is the most important director, my point of reference. So such comparisons [between the two films] are flattering. I'm also embarrassed, because I think he made masterpieces, and I don't.”
On the idea for the film:
“I'm from Naples, but I always wanted to do a movie about Rome. I had the idea of a character who could be a kind of Virgil from The Divine Comedy, of a journalist and writer who could be inside. But before starting, I read many things about Flaubert and his idea to write a book about nothing. All the things I had collected about Rome were exactly about this: it's life, but it's nothing. This was very fascinating for me.”
Jep, a one-time successful novelist, spends his days entertaining socialites and the literary elite. A shock on his 65th birthday causes him to reexamine vivid memories from his past as he struggles to find meaning in the present.
On the film's portrayal of the Berlusconi era:
“Berlusconi made a great contribution to this culture of nothing. He's an example of this attitude. There were all sorts of reports of Berlusconi being expected in Parliament to discuss important matters, and he kept everyone waiting because he was busy doing frivolous things. So Berlusconi has contributed greatly to this culture of distraction from important issues. He has promoted a culture of escapism.”
On Rome:
“The city is one of the most beautiful in the world, built by the Italian people many, many years ago. But now the people who are in Italy are not able to replicate that beauty. In a very simple way, the contrast between the beauty of the city and the lack of beauty of the people could be a motive for reflection...Rome is a place where, more than any other city, the sacred and the profane go together, and so I decided to use both kinds of music [sacred and disco] to show what Rome can be. Rome is a city where in every corner you have a reminder of the sacred world. That's why I have sacred music, minimalist sacred music, which is also music I like, because at the end of the day that's what I want to do. I'm thinking of pieces by David Lang, Aarvo Part or Tavener. They are useful for me to talk about the nature of a city which is imbued with sacrality but inevitably ends up diving deep down into emptiness.”

Maurizio Giammarco received his M.A. in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English from Temple University and has taught at the university for eighteen years. He is one of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s most popular instructors and is currently teaching the sold-out course, Il Maestro: The Carnivalesque Cinema of Federico Fellini, Pt. 2. He will lead a free discussion of The Great Beauty at BMFI after the 1:30 pm show on Sunday, February 9.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Andrew J. Douglas: David Mamet's HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)

BMFI's Director of Education, Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., recently had a review of Christopher Nolan's feature film debut, Following, published in Film International. Here he takes a look at another famous director's first film, David Mamet's House of Games.

David Mamet's House of Games (1987)
By Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., Director of Education, BMFI

If David Mamet had never taken a turn in the director’s chair, he could still lay claim to a successful career as a screenwriter and be content that he was one of the most influential and acclaimed playwrights of the last quarter of the 20th century. After all, before he made his debut as a film director with House of Games in 1987, Mamet had already written the screenplays for The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982) and The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987), and would go on to write (or co-write) Hoffa (Danny DeVito, 1992), Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997), and Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001). Oh, I almost forgot to mention that in 1984 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Glengarry Glen Ross, and also wrote the screenplay for the 1992 film based on it. In addition, he’s been nominated for two Tony Awards and two Oscars.

But back to House of Games, which, if you haven’t seen it, is most definitely worth checking out. (The terrific Criterion Collection DVD is a great way to do so.) It tells the story of a psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse, married to Mamet at the time) who encounters a gambler and con man (Joe Mantegna, a longtime Mamet collaborator) and is fascinated by his world. In pursuit of her interest—partly professional, partly personal—she ends up getting far more than she bargained for. Also along for the ride are some Mamet regulars whom you’ll recognize making some early film appearances, including William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh (check—I bet you’ve seen him in at least five movies), and magician, card sharp, and raconteur Ricky Jay (Boogie Nights).

The key ingredient, though, is Mamet, and specifically, his direction. Originally, this screenplay was going to be a big-budget film with a name director and major stars, but when the plans changed and Mamet was able to direct it—and cast his troupe—it became something more than just another above-average thriller. For the first time on screen, Mamet is able to shape the performances of the characters he’s created, hone the articulation of the dialogue he’s carefully crafted, and guide viewers through the story’s machinations with the precise amount of help they need, and not a drop more. As a fan, I greatly enjoy hearing Mamet’s dialogue in a film like The Untouchables, but I’m transfixed when I get a window into an entire world that Mamet has created in a film he’s written and directed, like House of Games.

And I’m not alone. In his review of the film Vincent Canby, of The New York Times, agrees that “Mr. Mamet, poker player and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, makes a fine, completely self-assured debut directing his original screenplay.” Canby adds: “It’s clear that Mr. Mamet not only knows exactly how he wants his work to sound, but also how it should look . . . (the film) is the first true Mamet work to reach the screen, and the direction illuminates it at every turn.” Roger Ebert, in his review, wrote: “House of Games never steps wrong from beginning to end, and it is one of this year’s best films.” Please take their words for it, if not mine, and see House of Games. It is the first film directed by one of our country’s most gifted, incisive, and engaging storytellers.

Dr. Andrew J. Douglas received his Ph.D. from the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. He will be moderating Bryn Mawr Film Institute's Film History Discussion Series: 1945-Present, which begins on January 27.