Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Filmmaking: Big Topic, Small Budget

Viewing good films is not only a way to study acting technique but also to see ways to handle a big genre on a small budget. Lonely Are the Brave, for example - a film of which Kirk Douglas was immensely proud - is an example of how to make a Western with one horse, one jeep, one star (Douglas), a handful of fine actors who were relative unknowns at the time (Carroll O'Connor, Walter Matthau, Gena Rowlands, George Kennedy), one jail set, one house, and lots of open (and free) desert.

Directed by Volker Schlondorff
Another example is now in theatres: Diplomacy, a riveting French-German film about the faceoff between Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul general in Paris during World War II (played by Andre Dussollier) and Dietrich von Choltitz, the German general charged with destroying Paris before the German infantry retreated across the Rhine (played by Niels Arestrup, a favorite of mine). The acting is superb, it is wonderfully directed by German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, and the plot illuminates a historical event that I didn't know much about: that Paris - the Louvre, Notre Dame, Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, everything - had been extensively wired with explosives by the Germans in August of 1944 and had come within a hair of being utterly destroyed.

It helps to base your film, as this one was, on a successful dramatic play. But look at how this film was made: one old tank, most of the story shot in one hotel room, a handful of interiors/exteriors shot very tight, panoramic shots over the rooftops of Paris (so modern cars and the McDonalds signs don't show), army uniforms and period clothing for civilians, and (inexpensive if not completely free) archival WWII clips. No budget-busting CGI that I could detect. No cast of hundreds (we don't do thousands anymore). "War" is conveyed with smoke, lights, and sound effects, and the audience buys it.

So, how do you tackle a genre film on a small budget? Focus the plot on the personal. Not the cattlemen's range war but the individual rebelling against a changing world. Not the Battle of the Bulge but the faceoff between two strong personalities and a critical decision that could change the course of history.  It can be done, and done well. Films like this one prove it.

Pirate Me!

You have to have a touch of the wanderlust in you to be an actor - travel is frequently part of the job, after all - but if as part of your travels you happen to wander into an old film location, so much the better. I often seek them out: the LA river bed where the giant ants hole up in Them!, the old train depot in New Jersey where they filmed The Station Agent.

The Caribbean island of Dominica

Last week my dear husband and I went farther afield to Dominica (pronounced Doh-meh-nee'-kah), the volcanic island near Barbados where many of the scenes from the Pirates of the Caribbean films are shot. What an unbelievably gorgeous island. It rises from its black sand beaches more than 4,000 feet, all tropical rainforest with streams and waterfalls at every turn. Breathtaking.

The next in the Pirates series - Dead Men Tell No Tales - is now in preproduction. Lucky the actors who get to leave gray skies and brown trees and work there.

The beach is indeed black