*** Special Post ***
Last Saturday, November 4, I had the opportunity to attend The Contenders, which is an all day presentation hosted by the trade publication, Deadline. A variety of interviewers welcomed a legion of Hollywood actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors and other royalty onto the stage at the Director’s Guild of America on Sunset Boulevard. It’s an exciting, infinitely fun, full day of discussions surrounding this year’s best film offerings. The purpose of this event, now in its seventh year, is to help those voters in the various industry guilds and associations cull down their “short list” of films. And it’s worth noting, the trade pub does the same event in the screen for TV productions.
In an age in which an infinite number of films are released annually, I would think these voters appreciate the day and the effort that Deadline puts forth. This next comment is not a complaint at all, but worth mentioning how jarring it is to have these immense stars on stage, like Gary Oldman, Patty Jenkins and Denzel Washington – and consistently have the moderators and Deadline staff politely say, after only ten or fifteen minutes, “OK! Thanks, now… onto the next panel!”
What follows is a quick commentary on all of the films presented this year – in order of when I arrived that morning… I’m also including the trailer and IMDB links so you can get a real idea of the filmmakers involved. It was an immensely fun, educational and sometimes heartfelt day. This “Part 1” entry will take us through lunch… Enjoy!
Dir: Reginald Hudlin
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad and Kate Hudson
IMDB – Marshall
I arrived that morning in the midst of director Reginald Hudlin’s discussion. But, the little clip I saw, which showcased the film’s score, gave me a great sense of how intricate and accurate the film was in its costumes, sets and design. The interesting element that the moderator discussed as their talk wrapped up, was the inclusion of Trayvon Martin’s parents in the conclusion of the film. Basically, in an effort to make a definitive correlation between the events of Marshall to today’s race relations, the director was able to “call of friend of mine” to have Martin’s parents take the part of Marshall’s next case.
The Big Sick
Dir: Michael Showalter
Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter
IMDB – The Big Sick
Let me just say that I’ve seen Mr. Nanjiani in a lot of projects over the past years – and he is just a naturally funny man. He told this story about pitching this idea to, as he said it, “a producer named Judd Apatow? Look him up… he’s done some things.” And the idea was for a “ghost witch.” Apparently, Nanjiani really likes the idea of a witch that dies, and then becomes a ghost.
Well, his wife, who was on stage with him, and Mr. Apatow didn’t like that idea so much. So, Nanjiani shifted into the story of how he and his wife met – and Apatow liked that idea very much. From there, the project continued for three years as Nanjiani, his wife and Apatow worked the script over and over. As they do throughout the day at The Contenders, they showed the clip of when Nanjiani meets Kazan in the bar, and admonishes her for heckling him during his comedy set. Well, this scene is almost identical to how the filmmakers actually met. Some real authenticity achieved!
Dir: Todd Haynes
Stars: Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley and Julieanne Moore
IMDB – Wonderstruck
Cinematographer Edward Lachman talked about Wonderstruck, which frankly, was not a movie I had on my radar prior to last Saturday. He talked a little before they showed a clip from the film about how challenging it was to shoot visuals for the feeling of not being able to hear. Not to mention the fact that director Haynes, who you might remember from the recent film Brooklyn, wanted to give New York city a look of “Mean Streets” and classic 1950s films. Tall order, right?
Well, then they showed the clip. And, I have to say, after watching four minutes of this film, it has moved to my top five to see. I see that Mr. Lachman was responsible for shooting Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey and Erin Brokovich, so… I’m a fan! But I’m fascinated by a film that wants to tackle a silent film star, casts unknown child actors – one of which is actually deaf – and seeks to transform New York city to that 1950s raw look on a budget. I’m really looking forward to seeing Wonderstruck in theaters.
Last Flag Flying
Dir: Richard Linklater
Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne
IMDB – Last Flag Flying
This panel featured director Richard Linklater, who has brought us amazing films in his career. And, it boasts an amazing cast. The clip they showed also hit home, as I can certainly relate with aged folks struggling with today’s technology. In the scene, Fishburne’s character is getting hit from all sides as both Carell and Cranston’s characters, along with the cell phone salesman, try to convince him to get his first mobile device.
With all of that said, I’m still dubious about Flag. I read a lot of social media conversation for work, all of which is related to films and TV shows. The “convo” in clips related to Flag from veterans and those in service say the very plot of the film is suspect. Sure, I’d like to see a road trip film with these iconic actors, but… if, as Linklater says, the film is more about “post 9/11 paranoia” than a legitimate drama featuring veterans and their sons? Concerning my suspicion, I’ve been proven wrong before!
Dir: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges and Beanie Feldstein
IMDB – Lady Bird
First off… you’re wondering, I was wondering, so let me just spell it out for you. It’s pronounced “SIR-sha,” all right? Ms. Ronan is one talented actor, and I have to say, after her role in Atonement, I will pretty much consider watching anything she’s in, including the very indy minded Lady Bird.
Although the film seems rather Mother-Daughter and “teenage angst” in its themes, and the panel definitely focused on items that were of small interest to me, I suppose I will have to give this A24 title a try. I went to Catholic school, and I know what an effect the themes and norms taught there can have on a youngster. Plus, the clips they showed and the trailer seems to contain some genuine comedy, which nestled within awkward drama always makes for great awards season fodder.
Finally, another random item brought up during the discussion with director Gerwig was Beanie Feldstein’s inclusion in the cast. The relevancy seemed specific to this actor being Jonah Hill’s younger sister. From the IMDB listing, she does not seem to have a substantial role, so this portion of the interview was lost on me. Regardless, I’ll continue to include these kinds of notes to give you a sense of the kind of things discussed on stage at The Contenders.
The Florida Project
Dir: Sean Baker
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince and Caleb Landry Jones
IMDB – The Florida Project
Director Baker and co-star, six year old Brooklyn Prince appeared for this panel. As you’ll see when you watch the preview, the story concerns all the less than economically advantaged children who live in the torn up, wretched motels around Disneyworld in central Florida. The writer came across this idea as an amazing juxtaposition, that you have children coming from around the world to visit the “happiest place on earth,” while all the kids who live down the block can’t afford to get in there – although they can see the fireworks every night.
Regardless, I’m really interested to see this film, which seems to have a real mix of hard drama and genuine laughs, all told from the perspective of a little girl. And Brooklyn Prince is incredible. On stage, as she talked, it became easy to understand why Baker cast her. When asked how Mr. Dafoe was on set, Prince said (paraphrased), “Oh, he was great! He would have lunch with me, and then when a scene was um… ready to go… he would tell everyone to give me space so I could think about it and… yeah, he was great.”
Let me put it this way – Baker said he was looking for a modern take on the classic shorts, “The Little Rascals.” And the clips they showed certainly suggest the film achieved that kind of camaraderie!
The Disaster Artist
Dir: James Franco
Stars: James Franco, Dave Franco and a LOT of high profile actors…
IMDB – The Disaster Artist
Years ago, I specifically remember seeing an outdoor ad for The Room, which is widely considered one of the “best worst movies” ever made. For context, the ad I’m describing said something like, “Tennessee Williams level drama” in its copy. Tommy Wiseau, the film’s director, is a superbly eccentric actor/producer/director/fill-in-the-blank, whose pal wrote a book all about Wiseau’s feature, The Room. In one of the most engaging discussions of last Saturday 11/4, director James Franco did a great job articulating how the material spoke to him.
I recently saw one of Marlon Brando’s interviews from late night TV on YouTube, and I bring it up only because I think it speaks to Franco’s feeling that Wiseau was on to something. Big or small, with an immense budget or micro, you have to keep the very essence of “making movies” in perspective. I also think playing the character appealed to Franco, as his immediate, on demand imitations of “Tommy” were entertaining to watch.
Finally, it was fascinating watching panels where, like Artist, the material just spoke to the actor and/or director. Other times, as I’ll try to call out, the talent had no intention of getting involved – before that “thing” happened. With Disaster, Franco just knew he had to make the film. Obviously, a very unique film has resulted.
The Phantom Thread
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis
IMDB – The Phantom Thread
This film will allegedly be icon Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. OK! Moving on…
Victoria & Abdul
Dir: Stephen Frears
Stars: Judi Dench
IMDB – Victoria & Abdul
This film had not really grabbed me prior to last Saturday. I was certainly aware of it as it came out earlier this fall. But, part of the fun of The Contenders is the “did you know” moment, of which there are many. For Victoria, it was explained that this is indeed a true story, and the British royal family tried with great determination to get it suppressed. So, in a funny way, it was character Abdul Karim’s family that actually brought the story to the public eye. I’m a big fan of director Stephen Frears, and I expect Victoria & Abdul is a superb addition to his filmography.
Dir: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James
IMDB – Darkest Hour
The clip shown at The Contenders for Darkest Hour was.. intimidating. It featured Stephen Dillane’s character advising Mr. Churchill to, well, surrender to Hitler. The advise given was essentially that surrender and reasoning with the tyrant was preferable to total annihilation. I get a little emotional even now when I think of Gary Oldman as the heroic figure and his reaction to this suggestion. Let me just add that the applause for this clip was some of the loudest and longest-lasting of the day. It was special seeing Gary Oldman himself in person talking about the role and his experience playing Churchill.
I adore those roles, whether they are recognized with awards or not, in which the actor just sinks into the character in all respects. Physically, mentally, emotionally, you can not recognize the actor, only their character. I think Darkest Hour contains that performance, which is the latest in an impressive career for Mr. Oldman. He discussed the idea that attracted him to the film was playing the “larger than life” prime minister in all his humanity. In a career that spanned from the disaster of Gallipoli to the ultimate triumph over the Nazis, Oldman wanted to explore the “naughty schoolboy” in all his vitality, beyond what’s covered in the history books.
Dir: Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya , Allison Williams and Bradley Whitford
IMDB – Get Out
Just a quick FYI that Get Out is no longer a horror film – as of “Awards Season”, it is now being re-branded as a “Psychological Thriller.” The only representative from the film, Jordan Peele wanted to discuss the “suppression of the race conversation” in this, his directorial debut. In fact, he explained on his panel that he asked himself whether or not there might be riots on opening weekend. If you have not seen Get Out yet, it is one of the best reviewed films of the year thus far.
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Algee Smith, Will Poulter and John Boyega
IMDB – Detroit
In case you missed Detroit this summer, the good news is that Annapurna will be re-releasing the film on December 1 in theaters. And, the film sent its best cast and crew to this panel, including director Bigelow and composer from Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, Questlove. It was an interesting panel, but I feel like viewers should be warned that this film, based on true events, is a really emotional, challenging watch from the same director as Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker.
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy
IMDB – Dunkirk
I truly enjoyed the Dunkirk panel, which featured producer and longtime Nolan collaborator, Emma Thomas, and director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema. I never knew that Thomas is Nolan’s wife, and you would never know it unless she had said so. What was fun about the panel was watching these two filmmakers discuss, despite the challenges, how fun it was to make Dunkirk. And remember, this is a film whose script is around 80 pages, and was intended as a silent film.
This statement concerning the fun involved obviously took me by surprise – and should shock anyone who’s seen the film. But, the dedication to the story offset any and all weather challenges the film’s set endured, which were considerable. There was a goodly amount of footage of Hoytema, who is a big fella, hoisting around a 70mm camera rig in the breaks of the French beach at Dunkirk. They advised the “mole” set was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. And yet, nothing would douse that “Dunkirk Spirit.”
Dir: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Robin Wright
IMDB – Wonder Woman
I am almost ashamed to say I still haven’t seen this fantastic title from last summer. Feel free to lay it on me, I deserve it! Regardless, director Patty Jenkins was the sole rep sent for the film, and I think based on the Contenders’ audience reaction, it’s likely she will be nominated for director.
Recognition aside, Jenkins had some items to share that would hit home for any filmmaker. For example, she started working on the film way back after film Monster wrapped! Part of the reason she loved the idea of a Wonder Woman movie so much was that it was an homage to Richard Donner’s Superman, which is also a complex character told within the context of a very direct plot line.
The behind the scenes footage they showed contained a lot of video of Jenkins actually acting out what she wanted – which was both endearing and in some respects, funny. Another fascinating tidbit was that she did not have a say in the casting of the title character because Gadot was already in Batman v Superman! However.. she had no argument when she saw the footage.
Blade Runner 2049
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford and Sylvia Hoeks
IMDB – Blade Runner 2049
I am further ashamed that I have not posted my comments and thoughts on this sequel just yet. But, no time to think of that when the director himself, Denis Villeneuve is on stage. When asked about the pressure he was under to make a great 2049, he said that the original film was his first VHS, the first film he actually owned. As if that didn’t give us enough of an idea as to this “dream come true,” opportunity, he then says, and I paraphrase, “And Ridley’s basic comment to me was, don’t f*ck it up.”
Like so many of the super talented filmmakers on 11/4, Villeneuve added his voice to the list who feels that the script simply must speak to them. And, the 2049 script not only connected well to the original, but also informed the intricate effects and that feeling throughout of the winter season. He also got into how complex the sets and design were to work through from pre-production to the editing – and I think anyone who’s seen the film can agree that effort was worth it.
Battle of the Sexes
Ah HA! No more shame, I got to this one!! Have a look at my thoughts here…
Battle/Sexes Ronhamprod Review
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO
Dir: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson
IMDB – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO
I just can’t wait to see this one. Anyone who knows my blog knows I love crime thrillers, and Three Billboards looks to be one of the best in recent memory. Both director McDonagh and co-star Sam Rockwell were on stage, and they did a funny little thing. When McDonagh called Rockwell one of the best actors of his generation, Rockwell patted his shoulder, got out his wallet, and stuffed some cash in the director’s coat. And, when Rockwell gave his director equal praise, he returned Rockwell’s money. Funny stuff…
The film clip showed indicates that the film has some real levity in between its serious subject line – not to mention another tour-de-force performance from Ms. McDormand. Woody Harrelson and Rockwell as small town law enforcement? John Hawkes in another deep-dive, cringe-worthy violent, salt of the earth role? Peter Dinklage playing pool? I’m all in!
The Shape of Water
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
IMDB – The Shape of Water
I had seen interviews and read articles about del Toro – but seeing and hearing him in person is another affair all together. The man is eccentric, passionate and contagious – all in a good way. He spent years of his life on this latest effort, and the clips shown by Fox Searchlight gave me every indication that Shape must be seen on the big screen – like I should have seen Pan’s Labyrinth.
Del Toro said a few things that confused me, but a lot of things I liked. For example, whenever there’s a budget shortage, he invests his own money into the problem to make a solution. He insists that he knows his audience in that, if we don’t believe it for even a couple seconds… he’s lost us! Del Toro went on to say that he spent the most time developing the creature for Shape because this “monster” is paramount to the story, its themes and moments. Essentially, it all works or falls with the believability of the creature. And, I always think it’s interesting when a writer/director makes a part for someone, and then actually gets that actor, in this case Sally Hawkins. Another “can’t wait” status for this title…
…and then, we had lunch! Kudos to Deadline and their staff for not only the day’s management and composure, but also the delicious lunch.
We’ll take a break too for now – look for Part 2 very soon…