Saturday, September 10, 2016


I've been a fan of director Paul Verhoeven's work from his early Dutch films--Spetters in particular.  Well, perhaps not of all his films (I don't know if I even saw Showgirls).  He's been absent from making American films for 20 years, so Elle arrives as a wonderful surprise--a French film that may be the best one that both Verhoeven and Huppert have ever made, at, currently, ages 78 and 63, respectively (ripeness is all!).  I'm not alone in my reaction:  when it debuted at Cannes, it received a 7-minute standing ovation.

Verhoeven is known to be provocative, and in that respect this film will not disappoint.
I knew it was about a woman who's raped, and I expected it to be about her revenge.  How reductive!  This film will confound all expectations.  First, Michèle's (Huppert) actions after she's assaulted and raped are, at least initially, inexplicable.  Second, her reaction to finding out the identity of her rapist is also, initially, inexplicable.  But as we gradually glean bits and pieces of her backstory, a history of trauma emerges, and her actions then become (almost) completely understandable.

As a psychotherapist, I loved and appreciated the psychological complexity of this story.  As a writer, I was mightily impressed with how screenwriter David Birke handled the gradual exposition of Michèle's backstory--no mean feat.  (The script was an adaptation of Philippe Dijan's French novel Oh.)  It's masterful writing that serves to sustain suspense and mystery, and I can't wait to get my hands on the script.

Because of Michèle's trauma history, she bears a heavy burden of shame.  In the film she tells her closest friend and colleague Anna (Anne Consigny), "Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all."  Shame resulting from trauma appears to be central to Michèle's characterological makeup.  As a result she engages in what might appear to be immoral or sadistic behaviors--but which I can tell you, as a therapist, are quite understandable given her history.

I love that Anna and Michèle are, like the leads of the excellent television series Halt and Catch Fire, best friends and colleagues as co-owners of a a video-gaming company (with all young male employees), and that their relationship survives, well, being severely compromised.

I also appreciate that the film depicts middle-aged women as sexual beings.  How alien is that from American films?

Most of all, I love that this film was made by and with aging actors and filmmakers.  It shows that there need be no end to productivity or creativity.  Everyone involved with this project is at the height of their powers.  It gives me hope. (And let us not forget that writer-director George Miller made arguably the best film of his careeer so far, Mad Max:  Fury Road, in his 70s.  Having just seen The Road Warrior  again on it's 35th anniversary, I have to say that I can't imagine having the energy to make the superior Fury Road).  

I should add that Elle has humor as well--c'est très important!  There's a Chrismas dinner scene that Verhoeven has said it is the one he is most proud of in the film.  And a scene involving the ashes of a deceased relative that, with The Big Lebowski, is a classic.

Elle opens in the U.S. in early November.  Here's a link to the trailer:

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Friday, September 2, 2016


Writer-director Justin Tipping, from the Oakland Bay Area, where Kicks is set, has taken his own experience of being jumped for a pair of Nikes and turned it (with the help of co-screenwriter Joshua Beirne-Golden) into an R-rated hip hop coming of age version of The Bicycle Thief.  It floored me with its style, grace, and intensity. 

Tipping got his undergraduate degree from UCSB in media studies after spending a semester in Rome, where he became immersed in Italian cinema (he was originally planning to be a Business Economics major).  As an undergrad, he focused on film theory and history, and in particular on applying cultural theory to film.  He then went to the AFI to study directing, where he received his MFA.
Tipping grew up in the same neighborhood as and was friends with Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station); but in my opinion, with this debut, Tipping shows that he can direct hoops around Coogler.  When Tipping got his own kicks stolen as a kid, he was also beaten up.  His brother remarked that Tipping "was a man now."  It made Tipping wonder why masculinity in our culture is so often equated with violence, which he explores in the film along with the cycle of violence that's also perpetuated in our society.

So, imagine a film of contemporary relevance that's shot in the style of Italian neorealism. The lead character, 15-year-old Brandon (a stand-in for Tipping himself), has astronaut fantasies; Tipping has said that those sequences were directly inspired by Fellini's dream sequences in 8 1/2

And then there's the music.  Tipping uses hip hop songs as chapter titles that he said were inspired by Lars von Trier's use of chapters in the devastating Breaking the Waves (one of my favorites).  The soundtrack of Kicks is awesome--mixing hip hop songs with a gorgeous score by Brian Reitzell (Lost in Translation).

It's hard to imagine a more perfect, charismatic cast for this film.  The striking Jahking Guillory (far right, playing Brandon), was only age 13 during filming.  His co-stars are (from left), Christopher Jordan Wallace and Christopher Meyer, who were both age 17 during the shoot.  Tipping said, during a Q & A after a screening at LACMA, that pretty much all the rest of the cast were local non-actors.  Which is hard to believe.

The film is a lean, mean, funny, and graceful 80 minutes.  It's stunningly directed, edited, scored.  Kicks has everything I value in a film:  style, substance, emotion, timeless relevance.  Go see it.

Click on this link for the trailer:

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Sorkin Speaks

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin  (Steve Jobs, "The West Wing," The Social Network, "The Newsroom," Moneyball, A Few Good Men, The American President) is currently teaching a Master Class in screenwriting, which includes a virtual writer's room (above) for an episode of "The West Wing."  Below are some highlights from his lectures.

You should start by reading Aristotle's Poetics----it's a "64-page pamphlet."  Be "evangelical" about it.

For Sorkin, the two most important elements are a "strong intention" and a "formidable obstacle."  "Without that, you're screwed blue."

But note that it's not required that your protagonist overcome the obstacle.

If, in your writing, you're attracted to a place, then aim for a TV series.  If you're interested in character, go for a feature.

"You can start without an idea."  Sorkin exhorts writers to just "start writing...literally typing."   But the story doesn't start until you introduce Intention.

"The worst crime you can commit is telling the audience something they already know."

"Audiences know the rules without knowing they know the rules."

Exposition:  "You need at least one character who knows as little as the audience does."

The first 15 pages are the most important to get your script made.

Sorkin typically takes 18-24 months to write a script, which includes "bulking up" (research, etc.), being depressed, and banging his head against the wall, because "most days you don't write, and it's demoralizing."  The actual writing takes him about 2 months.  "The fun part is the writing.  It's the thinking of what you're going to write that's agonizing."

 "A blank piece of paper is a soul-crushing experience."


Fact:  The Queen died.
Story:  The Queen died and then the King died of a broken heart.
Drama:  The Queen died.  Turns out she was the brains behind the outfit and now the King has to go it alone in the face of the subjects because everyone knows he's dumb.

Drama requires conflict.

"I don't care at all about reality.  I care about the appearance of reality."  When people say, "That's not the way people really talk," Sorkin counters, "Who cares?"  "They're characters, not people."

"A probable possibility is preferable to a possible improbability."  (Sorkin invoking Aristotle.)

"I like starting in the middle of a conversation."


1.  Nuts & Bolts (specific, not subjective).  For example:  What's the procedure for invoking the 25th Amendment with a President?
2.  Research in which you're really trying to find the movie.

Script Notes:  you want to find an editor who's smart, who understands scripts, and who understands the way you write. 

Sorkin's go to people for notes are Thomas Schlamme in television, and for features, Scott Rudin and David Fincher.  Sorkin will hole up for days with Rudin.

If you're told a scene is kind of "wet," it means you went too far emotionally--your characters are performing the emotion.

"Surgical rewrites" refers to rewriting to solve a problem.

The importance of failure:  the real value of, say, the Yale School of Drama (or wherever) is that it gives you the chance to write your worst without consequences.


Finally, Sorkin's Commandments:

1.  Take chances.
2.  Write in your own voice.
3.  Don't try to make everyone happy--don't make McDonalds hamburgers.
4.  Watch a lot, read a lot, write a lot, and find those you can trust to read your pages.
5.  Power through days of being unable to write.
6.  "We're writing things that aren't meant to be read but are meant to be performed."

Oh, and Sorkin really loves the series "Silicon Valley." He's amazed at how the writers have 
been able to sustain its premise of being about building one company.

P.S.  Sorkin is about to make his directorial debut on a script he wrote, Molly's Game, starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba.

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