Notes from a Masterclass with Alex Garland

At the pre-residential weekend of the BFI and NFTS Residential course, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was screened for us, and after the screening he gave a masterclass on directing/writing/being an artist, and here are my (really messy) notes from one of the best days of my life:

Alex Garland talked a lot about how he prefers sticking to a schedule by shooting in 10 hour days – he said that he doesn’t do breaks/lunch breaks etc. as he does not want to go over time since 1. it will annoy producers/cost more money, and 2. he knows his cast and crew have other commitments such as a family to go home to etc.

Since he was an author/screenwriter before becoming a director, Alex (I don’t feel like I’m on a first name basis with him but let’s go with it) talked about collaboration vs. isolation. He said how he preferred directing as it allowed you to collaborate with people and work with a time to create a vision, whereas when he was writing he found he was in his own head, which can be jarring for both the writer and the work itself.

Ex Machina fact: it was shot in six weeks, 4 weeks were shot in Pinewood studios and 2 weeks in Norway, it is set in Alaska (this is not stated in the film).

Alex Garland words of wisdom number 1: make the right movie for the right cast.

The director brought up new points of view for me about Ex Machina and how to watch it. For example, he asked ‘who’s the protagonist of Ex Machina?’, and it’s like…crap, man…IDK? To me, it feels like the protagonist changes…it goes from Domhnall Gleeson to introduce us to this new world, then Oscar Isaac to show how isolated it is and contrast the two sides between Gleeson and Isaac, and then Alicia Vikander, the New Human? I feel like we definitely go into her point of view when her and the other AI kill Isaac’s character, as the blood that pours from him feels more alien and inhumane than Ava putting skin onto her magnetic/robotic ‘body’.

Alex also talked about the noises of Ava and how they were purposefully made to sound like a heartbeat…direct quote: ‘the noises of Ava make you feel she is alive’. He talked about how these effects were added in post by the sound designer, but I annoyingly can’t remember how they made the noises.

The rest of his talk consisted of more words of wisdom, so I will title this section ‘Alex Garland’s Words of Wisdom number 2 to infinity:

A director must understand the direct of photography’s fingerprint/style, and react in an immediate way to this.

The writer and the author are always the 2 people who are closest to a character – writer hands the character over to the actor.

It is important to understand actors and what they do, since what they do is quite isolating (I found this really interesting as all the other directors from the masterclasses said something along the same lines too – something I had never really considered before. But, after being on set the actors really are the odd ones out).

Film wants to exploit – always think about why violence/why nudity/why this gender? Always give a reason for something.

Concept/theme and character – work as hard as can (I don’t really know what this note means but I’m putting it down in case I figure it out later).

Just write scripts and don’t use script editors – the producers can act in the same way.

Know the argument of a film.

Themes, character and place should all support each other.

Adjustment to include everyone else.

Grammar of camera.

Industry does not take sex seriously – it exploits it. Always have valid reason for including sex in film.

All production companies are hungry for scripts.

Writer and producer = very close relationship.

Make sure first film is good, since this is what the rest of your career will be largely based off.

It is the screenplay’s job to tell people what the room is going to be like – don’t overwrite in a screenplay, be restrained.

Understand why shots go together and why they don’t. He also said don’t hold shots too long, but I think this is a stylistic choice if he’s meaning in the way I thought he meant in terms of Citizen Kane style length shots, but he could’ve meant to be sparing in how these shots are used too.

‘Auteur theory is bullshit’ – Alex Garland, 2016. He did say he believes Wes Anderson, Hitchcock etc. are auteurs in terms of styles, but he was more focused on how the auteur theory suggests it is the director putting in all of the work to the film, when really it’s a collaborative process.

Alex Garland, if you are somehow reading this – thank you so much for the masterclass. It meant a lot that you came, I don’t know why Ex Machina wasn’t nominated for more awards (not that they are an indicator of a film’s value), and this aspiring director will take all of your advice seriously and work on it.

 

P.S. please give me a job on Annihilation. I will do anything.

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A Month With… Orson Welles: Macbeth

Based on Shakespeare’s play, Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) focuses on juxtapositions. The director shows audiences the contrast between nature and the perverse, the body and the mind, and – perhaps most importantly – the inside versus the outside.

Macbeth opens with a series of fades and fade-transitions accompanied by dramatic non-diegetic music, displacing audiences as the fades and transitions connote a lack of concept of time: immediately Welles has created a world for the witches that is unlike the world of Macbeth. This is connoted through the fog that encompasses these opening scenes, as it makes clear the witches are characters who want to be seen but not identified, as witnessed through the fog covering their identities but contrasting nature’s whiteness with their black dress codes.

Faced with a wide angle shot of the three witches on a rock on the right side of the frame and a withered tree with no leafs on a hill on the left, Welles could be making a connection between the witches – the supernatural/Other – and nature. This opening shot presents a likeness between them, and, along with the ubiquitous fog that silently tortures Macbeth and his mind throughout the film, there seems to be a bleak ideology here. Since the witches seem to be one with the fog, nature and even the world’s elements (the water, fire, bubbles and steam from their cauldron), the film begins feeling as if the witches are controlling all of the events that take place, while the audience are merely watching Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lose control.

In Welles’ adaptation, the fog becomes a conceit that is a constant reminder of Macbeth’s lack of control and the witches’ presence in his mind, differing the 1948 film from both Justin Kurzel’s (Macbeth, 2015) and Akira Kurosawa’s (Throne of Blood, 1957) adaptions with their uses of fog symbolising mystery, confusion and the inner turmoil of Macbeth’s mind.

Welles still allows Macbeth to be heroic, however, as the minute the film cuts from the witches to the title screen reading “Macbeth,” loud and dramatic non-diegetic music steals the presence. The score by Jacques Ibert in the titles takes audiences through Macbeth’s inevitable dark journey, as it takes us from the pride and glory of loud, crashing symbols and trumpets, to quieter, softer and more delicately played music. Macbeth’s introduction on screen to audiences connotes the aforementioned pride, as the wide angle tracking shot ensures it is Macbeth who takes up the most space, but in landscape and in the frame.

Yet, despite the director manipulating the camera shots to ensure Welles is seen as higher than everyone else (for example the levelled shots for other characters but low angle shots for Macbeth’s), through both the literal and figurative darkness of the film Welles uses nature to go against Macbeth.

While I was watching Macbeth, I had to pause the screen about fifty times to make sure my television brightness was correct, as a lot of the scenes are so dark you can barely see anything. I soon realised this was supposed to be like this and so wrote a note in my book about it so I could form a pretentious thought on it later and write about it here…and here is that pretentious thought: almost all of the lighting in Macbeth seems to come from nature/natural sources, for example the candles (fire), the campfire, or just the fact that outside is when there is the most light. Macbeth’s own castle, which is itself built out of foundations of nature such as rock, fails to illuminate the king who lives in it. The grand, gigantic staircase reflects this too, as in the scene where Lady Macbeth becomes most manipulating with Macbeth it is the staircase and the camera’s movements that dictates each characters’ positions of power — it is never there’s to control or keep.

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The relationship Orson Welles creates between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is notable, as the director often provides new ideas of looking at them through the language of film. First of all, they are the only two characters with whom audiences are allowed inside their heads, with Lady Macbeth’s first soliloquy emphasising how Welles’ use of voice overs for their lone speeches are representations for the fact they believing and calling from within themselves rather than relying on external forces.

There is one scene near the beginning of the film where Lady Macbeth and Macbeth kiss while a hanged person is in frame to the left behind them. Due to the hanging bringing forth imagery of death by suicide against death by murder (although it could be said they are the same), the man’s hanging becomes a representation for their relationship. If it is a suicide, it is not clear who kills who: the rope or the mind. If it is a murder, they are both doomed.

macbeth

The juxtapositions of inside and outside become more and more important as the film goes on. Night and day become ambiguous, interfusing with one another, and the inside and outside become reversed – both in terms of the external world as well as in terms of Macbeth’s mind. Near the opening of the film, Macbeth stops in front of a puddle and audiences can see himself reflected in it. With this idea of mirroring and multiple selves being introduced, the later themes Welles creates come to represent Macbeth’s dissociation of his inner self with his external self, with the beginning of this disintegration being witnessed first in the kaleidoscopic, blurry shots that change points of view of Macbeth.

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The denouement of Macbeth reenforces just how dark Orson Welles adaptation is. When with the witches – the darkest characters of all – audiences are presented with the most light. The final shot of the witches staring at the foreboding castle with pieces of nature in their hands, while thorns and leafless tree branches intrude the frame reestablishes their – and nature’s – control over Macbeth’s life in Orson Welles’ interpretation.

Cocteau X Siouxsie Sioux

A while ago I edited together clips from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946) with the song Siouxsie Sioux and Brian Reitzell created for Hannibal, and I realised I haven’t shared it here so here it is:

‘It is a privilege to be timeless’: On Time in Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950)

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée is the retelling of the classic Greek myth on the legend Orpheus, in which Orpheus has to travel to Hades in order to save his love, Eurydice. However, Orphée presents things differently, as Orpheus (played by Cocteau’s lover and the wonderfully handsome, Jean Marais) finds himself falling in love with a princess, who is Death, that came to visit him in a local café. Unlike La Belle et La Bête (1947), in which the protagonists are (arguably) awarded a happy ending, Orphée finishes in a much more somber tone, reminding audiences what has been communicated throughout the film thanks to the constant shots of mirrors and reflections; that love, no matter what time or place you are in, can never be defined or translated. However, the films are similar in that they both present an idiosyncratic and poetic interpretation of time travel – Belle travels to and from the Beast using a lavish glove as a transportation device, while Orpheus and co. glide through mirrors into Hades; whilst one travels within the confines of the same world and the other from life and death, the scope and breadth of the distance they travel to and from remains just as impactful due to the reasons for doing so.

orph1 Belle

Just like Belle transporting back to her home is futile due to her love for the Beast, Orpheus knows that traveling to Hades in order to save Eurydice is in vain since he evidently is not going for “both” of them, as he explains to Death’s driver, Heurtebise, but for Death herself. Yet, the Death he is striving after is his own death; this is unrequited love at its greatest peak, as for Orpheus to be with Death would be fruitless, since the only way this could happen is if he were to die. It is here we can draw parallels to the filmmaker’s life as Cocteau and Marais’s relationship was affected by the fascist air left in the remnants of the war – perhaps, at one point, to the infamous lovers, they felt their love was only possible if it were to transcend the very essence of time itself, and the only way that is possible, according to this film, is through death.

The voiceover at the opening of the film declares, “it is a privilege of legends to be timeless.” This, along with the dramatic, non-diegetic composition by Georges Auric (whom also worked on La Belle), and the well-known tale of Orpheus all draw the spectator in to the dramatic, grandiose setting; the inevitable decline from this state begins as soon as Death appears. Ginette Vincendeau describes the legendary Greek’s humanisation yet transcendence perfectly in her essay for the BFI, stating the film “navigates between myth and realism, boulevard theatre and surrealist poetry, the fantastique and post-war politics.” The point here, in terms of the film’s time travel theory, is that there is none: instead it’s an abstract, poetic concept that would play on the radio channel Marais’s character becomes obsessed with.

orpheus2

The dolly shots presented in the Hades sequences (which have inspired other directors, for example Spike Lee) by director of photography Nicolas Hayer emphasise the point of time travel in the film: it is supposed to be poetic and outlandish because the form of time travel the film manifests is something we see everyday; the decaying of our faces and exacerbation of our personality. Heurtebise was not wrong when he declared that it “takes long to die,” yet, this film reminds viewers that through art, in all its forms, audiences can time travel to different worlds.

An Ode to the BFI at Southbank

The ethereal home of every cinema lover.
The ethereal home of every cinema lover.

Picture this: you feel lost in life, never finding any place/destination/space you can occupy in which you truly feel you. One day, while looking on the BFI site, you realise they have a public building in which any old soul can wonder into and read books about film at their library and buy books about film and films in their shop and watch films and talk to like-minded people about the downfall and sudden resurgence of Justin Bieber…JK, obviously *stands on a mountain, snow falling around me, shouts into the void distance* FIIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLMMMMSSSS.

This is what walking into – actually just being outside it – felt like when I was in Southbank last Friday (the 3rd) at the holy temple of cinema that is the BFI, which I think stands for the British Film Institution, but I could also extend my incredibly deep conceit of the Biebster here and say it stands for Bieber Forever Inside (our hearts), but…I’ll digress from this and take a serious, David-Foster-Wallace-talking-about-post-modernism-stance here to express how much this place, AKA ~~~~~HOME~~~~~ is everything I love.

First of all, besides the ridiculously expensive costs of the tube, it was easy and 100% unstressful to find — if you’re arriving at Victoria Station, just go to the Victoria tube station, get the District line to Westminster, then get the Jubilee line to Waterloo. The walk from here is about 10/15 minutes to the BFI, but – word of warning – if you’re looking for lunch, DON’T!!!!! EAT!!!! AT!!!! SOUTH BANK!!! unless you are willing to pay £6 just for a small cheeseburger (there is a McDonalds and loads of other fast food chains at Waterloo station, and I’d wished I’d eaten there. There’s also a café in the BFI but I don’t know how expensive it is because I didn’t go in, so, take the risk if you wish). Anyway, the point is I had no trouble locating the BFI on the way there and back home…it’s pretty accessible and also very pretty.

The inside of it is even prettier…it honestly felt like I was entering into something that wasn’t real because I’d heard of Richard Ayoade and other directors and famous film people going there so it didn’t feel real that this same thing could be open to…me? A self-conscious teenager? It was amazing.

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The reason I went there was to see The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), which was just as life-changing as the BFI was, but I’m going to be doing a review on this film when the special edition DVD comes out so I can analyse to my heart’s desire. So, blah, blah, blah, I got my tickets and went straight to the shop as I had half an hour to spare, and oh. my. god. there are so many DVDs that aren’t, like, the latest Cameron Diaz ft. Tom Cruise etc. films (no offence Cam Di and T Cruise if you’re reading, I do actually kind of enjoy Knight and Day in an I-hate-this-but-it’s-kind-of-entertaining way). Instead, there were rows upon rows and stacks upon stacks of French Nouvelle Vague films; Japanese films; Italian Neo-Realism films; early cinema films; just every film movement/era you can think of, they had at least one DVD to represent this. They also had a lot of books on film, for example they had a Gothic history on it which I need to get when I go back there, as well as magazines, such as Sight & Sound, but…

It was time to go in to prepare for the film, and the theatre (it feels too fancy to be called a cinema) was beautiful. Here is a picture to prove it:

I don't know if I'm allowed to upload this please don't arrest me BFI.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to upload this please don’t arrest me BFI.

It was extremely comfortable and the seats I was allocated were perfect and I honestly have no complaints about the whole thing.

To part ways with you, reader, I will leave you with this message: go to the BFI if you want your love for film to be heightened/emancipated/taken to a new world…because I can guarantee that watching a film at the BFI will fill a film-shaped hole in your heart you didn’t even know was empty.

Is it a coincidence that it’s getting closer and closer?

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WARNING: if you haven’t seen Les Diaboliques, then go away and watch it right now and come back. Seriously.

Okay, now that all of the people who have seen this film are here I can provide an extremely accurate reconstruction of my reaction to the ending: OH MY GOD?! WHAT? *lots of incoherent words, eyes bulging, me standing up from my chair and shaking my head in confusion.*

The film begins by introducing us to the boarding school, which is run by a sadistic headmaster, Michael Delassalle (played by Paul Meurisse), and his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot). We soon discover the headmaster has a mistress (Nicole Horner, played by Simone Signoret), and quickly the wife and mistress devise a plan to kill Delassalle so they can escape from him, and Christina can be in control of the boarding school again (it’s all funded by her, anyway).

Long story short: Christina gets kind of annoying because she’s like ‘oh I’ll do it let’s go’ and then two seconds later is like ‘wait, no, let’s not do it,’ but considering she was preparing to murder her husband all while being ill, I’ll let her off. This also makes her character more dimensional and realistic because I think that’s exactly how I would’ve reacted. Eventually they do it (by driving a flat that Nicole is a tenant of and then calling the husband/jerk/asshole to come to the flat) and it’s awesome and everything you weren’t expecting and the narrative just gets more and more intricate and delicate and then BAM. The ending.

les-diaboliques-body-in-the-bathtub-ending-eyes-michel-paul-meurisse
“Surprise, bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.”

I actually quite admire Nicole Horner for her ruthlessness; she played being the supportive friend very well and fooled me and Christina and everyone in the world.

However, because there are a million reviews of this film on the Internet, I’m not going to bother writing and analysing the ending and the build up to it, as I’m sure there’s enough in-depth reviews on this out there (Rogert Ebert, duh). So instead, I’m just going to analyse it as a whole film and hope this doesn’t come up sounding like an essay for school.

With the release of Gone Girl still looming over us all, thrillers, whodunits and plot twist films seem to be making a come back. But, this film is probably the best one I’ll ever see. It’s Gone Girl, but Gone Right (nudge, nudge). Les Diaboliques manages to create a raw, completely unexpected and intricate narrative without substituting the shots or depth of characters or score for it.

The three main characters are all multi-faceted and provide the narrative something. But, it’s not just these three that prove to be more than cardboard cutouts of people; the supporting characters also stand alone, for example the wife and husband: they could easily have a whole film dedicated to themselves — from the husband’s need for silence and the wife’s love for listening to the radio, it’s clear to see these are characters that have been thought about.

The shots have depth, too. They are suggestive, interesting and completely draw the watcher in. They add to the experience of the shock factor of the film and prove to show that cinema is art.

One of my favourite sequence of shots from this film, and perhaps every film I’ve watched, is towards the end when Christina is running through the school, and the shadows and beams of light mix showing her state of mind: reality mixed with the paranoia that darkness brings.

diabolique light under door

It’s clear too how and where Hitchock drew inspiration from the cinematography and directorial skills for Psycho. We see the classic drain shots, the voyeuristic complexities brought to audiences in the bathroom, and the shadows.

Les Diaboliques is intriguing, original, and most importantly, a vital pioneer for the surge in psychological horror films.

"Do not be evil! Do not destroy the interest that could take your friends to this movie. Do not tell them what you saw. Thank you.”
“Do not be evil! Do not destroy the interest that could take your friends to this movie. Do not tell them what you saw. Thank you.”