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Film Vs. Digital – The Battle Continues

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

As Hugh Hart reports in the Summer 2015 issue of The DGA Quarterly, the battle is far from over.

Writes Hart, “Even after Richard Linklater shot his DGA Award-nominated movie, Boyhood, on film, the Austin-based director had no qualms about switching to digital video for his upcoming ’80s-era comedy, Everybody Wants Some. ‘I’m not an absolutist so I’ve never really bought into digital versus film,’ Linklater says.

‘Film history is full of these little bursts of, “Oh there’s a huge paradigm shift!” and then it kind of recedes back to what filmmaking is at its core—storytelling. And behind that storytelling is a director and a creative team making aesthetic choices: What should the movie look like? What should it feel like? To me, that’s the director’s job.’

And those aesthetic choices continue to include the option to shoot on film thanks in part to Christopher Nolan’s advocacy. The British-born filmmaker, who’s shot all of his movies on film stock, has no interest in imposing personal taste on other artists. Instead, he wants to fortify the integrity of the director’s voice. ‘I’m not anti-digital in any way, but I’m absolutely committed to getting this choice back into the hands of the director. I don’t want anyone telling any filmmaker they can’t shoot on film any more than I want anyone telling David Fincher or Steven Soderbergh that they can’t shoot digital. It’s the director’s right. It’s their choice.’

Nolan became alarmed about the future of film last summer when Eastman Kodak Company, the only remaining manufacturer of 35 millimeter stock, threatened to shutter its photochemical film business. Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke explains the company’s dilemma: ‘We used to make prints for tens of thousands of theaters but over the past eight years, we went down 96 percent, from roughly 25 billion linear feet of film a year to half a billion.”

Faced with the prospect of stopping film production at the company’s upstate New York factory, Clarke decided to visit Los Angeles and meet with his customers so he could gauge Hollywood’s interest in the future of celluloid. As he visited studio executives, Clarke also sat down with Nolan.

‘The heads of postproduction and production at the studios had all basically told Jeff to buzz off: film’s dead, digital’s everything,’ Nolan recalls. ‘I turned around and said, “You need to be talking to a higher level because nobody running a Hollywood movie studio is going to want to oversee the death of a technology which not only is a prized part of our history; it’s also something we absolutely need for the future.”

Though he was deep into postproduction on Interstellar, Nolan got on the phone with filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Bennett Miller, and Judd Apatow. They, in turn, called the studios and lobbied for a continued commitment to the medium of film. Clarke recalls, ‘Within 48 hours of having lunch with Christopher Nolan, I’d gotten calls from five of the six major studios and a dozen of the most important filmmakers. At that point we were able to build a coalition.’

Martin Scorsese was another director who supported the Keep-Kodak-Open campaign. ‘Filmmakers should have the choice of whether they want to shoot on film, it’s important to have the option,’ he says. ‘Film has a history, and that history doesn’t begin with digital formats, it begins with film. … And that’s part of the art form—the light meets the emulsion and extraordinary things happen. So yes, I believe it is essential to preserve that choice.’ As a result of the high-powered lobbying, all the major studios agreed in February to buy contractually specified quantities of film stock from Kodak over the next several years.

The Kodak deal assures the continued production of movies using film on the scale of such upcoming shot-on-film releases like J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The Directors Guild supported the agreement. ‘While most appreciate the opportunities that digital provides, directors and fans alike share a love for the beauty and history of film,’ DGA President Paris Barclay said at the time. ‘We’re incredibly pleased that film will remain a viable option for filmmakers for the foreseeable future.'”

I’d like to repeat one sentence above, in boldface: “the Kodak deal assures the continued production of movies using film on the scale of such upcoming shot-on-film releases like J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

With such major productions – like them or not – being shot on film, this isn’t ending anytime soon.

Las Vegas Odds for Academy Awards

Friday, January 16th, 2015

In Variety, Kevin Noonan reports the “morning line” from Vegas on the upcoming Oscars.

As Noonan notes, in Las Vegas “the smart money bets on Boyhood at the Oscars. The Wynn casino resort in Las Vegas released its initial Oscar odds following Thursday morning’s announcement of the 2015 nominees, with Boyhood coming in as the early favorite in a number of categories including best picture. Director Richard Linklater, at 1 to 6, and supporting actress nominee Patricia Arquette, at 1 to 7, also look like early favorites for trophies. On the other hand, American Sniper can start preparing its ‘just happy to be here’ lines, with 75 to 1 odds for both best picture and Bradley Cooper for best actor.

The predictions, produced merely for fun as gambling is prohibited on balloted contests, shine a light on the perceived lack of competition in the female acting categories; in addition to Arquette’s odds, best actress nom Julianne Moore (Still Alice) is the biggest individual favorite at 1 to 9. Comparatively, the tightest race seems to be in best actor, where Michael Keaton (Birdman), at 5 to 6, is only a slightly safer bet than Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), at 11 to 10.

The full list of Vegas odds can be found below.

Best Picture
Boyhood, 2 to 5
The Imitation Game, 7 to 1
The Grand Budapest Hotel, 9 to 1
Birdman, 18 to 1
Selma, 20 to 1
The Theory of Everything, 30 to 1
Whiplash, 60 to 1
American Sniper, 75 to 1

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman, 5 to 6
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything, 11 to 10
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, 20 to 1
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher, 30 to 1
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper, 75 to 1

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice, 1 to 9
Reese Witherspoon, Wild, 8 to 1
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl, 25 to 1
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything, 40 to 1
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night, 60 to 1

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash, 1 to 5
Edward Norton, Birdman, 10 to 1
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood, 12 to 1
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher, 14 to 1
Robert Duvall, The Judge, 30 to 1

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood, 1 to 7
Emma Stone, Birdman, 12 to 1
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods, 15 to 1
Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game, 25 to 1
Laura Dern, Wild, 28 to 1

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood, 1 to 6
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman, 7 to 1
Morten Tyidum, The Imitation Game, 18 to 1
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 22 to 1
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher, 45 to 1″

I’m not saying I agree with these choices, by any means, but still, these are the same predictions I posted yesterday. However, let’s not forget some of the most egregious snubs, most especially Ava DuVernay for directing Selma, which got a nomination for Best Picture, but if that’s true, then who should get the credit — could it be the director? And what about David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in the same film – why no nomination there? I can easily understand The Lego Movie not being in the running — it’s trivial at best —  and there are so many other good films that didn’t even make the cut. But for me, the major omissions were DuVernay and Oyelowo in the field, when they both clearly deserve to be in the running – and winning – that would be nice, too.

This is an industry event, nothing more, but they could have made more inclusive choices.

Bernie (2011)

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Bernie.

“He put her in the freezer/pulled down the lid/didn’t even move it/just made sure it was plugged in/he held a lot of parties/with her packed on ice/no one suspected anything/’cause Bernie was so nice/oh, Bernie, Bernie, what have you done?/you killed old Miss Nugent/and never even run/oh, Bernie, Bernie, what have you done?/you killed old Miss Nugent/and never even run/” — James Clark, “Bernie, What Have You Done?”

We now have the first unalloyed masterpiece of 2012, actually shot and premiered in 2011, Richard Linklater‘s dark comedy Bernie, which is more or less being thrown away in theaters, shot on a budget of slightly more than $2 million, with a prints and advertising budget of a mere $1 million. Linklater has long been an eccentric and sharply observant filmmaker who marches to his own beat alone; his one attempt at big budget blandness, a terrible remake of The Bad News Bears (2005), failed because his heart wasn’t in it. But back on his home turf, working with the local residents of Carthage, Texas as some of the main performers in the film, he creates a compelling comedy/drama that’s unique in recent memory; it’s based on a real story, and many of the people in the film are the real participants. The result is something altogether remarkable; a folk tale of a town in thrall to someone who is, when you strip away all the trimmings, someone they don’t know at all.

In Bernie, Linklater tells the true life tale of Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black, in the performance of his career) a smalltown assistant funeral director who is the light of the community, putting on shows, active in church work, and generally well liked by everyone. In time, Bernie sets his sights on a rich, reclusive and generally mean-spirited widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, excellent as always), and gradually works his way into her life, eventually becoming her constant companion and gofer, until her demands upon his time prove too much for Bernie to handle. He summarily shoots her dead in the garage of their palatial home, and hides the body in a freezer, neatly packed underneath a layer of frozen foods.

Using a power of attorney Marjorie had given him, Bernie tells everyone that Marjorie has had a series of strokes, and is recovering in a nursing home out of town, while lavishing gifts on the local townspeople, much to their delight. When Bernie’s cover is finally blown, he freely admits to the murder, but the locals rush to his defense; so much so that the trial has to be moved to a different county so that some sort of justice can be done.

Even with the facts starting them dead in the face, Bernie is so well liked, and Marjorie so despised, that the townspeople are ready to absolve their beloved scoutmaster, theater director, and churchgoer of any and all responsibility, and acquit him. But things don’t work out that way in the end; Bernie winds up convicted of murder, and is currently spending the rest of his life in prison.

What makes the film so effective is not only Black’s guileless — and odd term to use, given the film’s narrative — performance as Bernie, as well as MacLaine’s portrayal of Marjorie, but most pronouncedly Linklater’s use of many of the actual people who were involved in the case, and who remain to this day absolutely convinced that no matter what the facts of the matter are, Bernie is still a “nice man.”

The script for the film was written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Hollandsworth, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” which first brought the bizarre story to the public’s attention. In addition to Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey appears in the film as local District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, but the real stars of the film are the townspeople, who play many of Bernie‘s key scenes with the principals with absolute conviction and enthusiasm, so much so that it’s hard to tell who’s acting, and who is simply playing themselves.

One has to go back to something like Rome, Open City (1945) to see such seemingly effortless naturalism; indeed, in one scene in a local diner, as two of the locals harangue Buck for “persecuting” Bernie, you can see that McConaughey is clearly cracking up; the scene is being stolen right out from under his nose by non-professionals, whose ease in front of the camera is absolutely astonishing. They’re not acting at all; they’re telling a story they lived, and they’re thrilled to get a chance to do it on film, for an audience; it’s smalltown theater in every sense of the word.

While everyone seems to be raving about Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Bernie seems destined to slip in and out of town almost without notice, and it’s clearly the more daring and ambitious film; it’s folk art, the story of a town with a past, and how that past has become folklore, complete with pithy commentary by the locals that serves as the voiceover narration for much of the film, summed up by a song composed and performed by one of the townspeople, James Baker, whose “Bernie, What Have You Done?” (partially quoted at the top of this piece) condenses the entire plot of the film into 1 minute and 57 seconds, as the end credits roll.

I was also happy to see that Linklater, whose Dazed and Confused (1993) remains perhaps the best film ever made about American adolescence, offers a tip of the hat to the late Eagle Pennell, an excellent and deeply underappreciated artist whose films The Whole Shooting Match (1978) and Last Night at the Alamo (1984) defined Texas filmmaking in the 1970s and early 80s. As Linklater puts it in the credits, “you were with us on this one.” When there’s so much work in theaters right now that doesn’t even begin to excite one’s imagination, it’s nothing less than miraculous when a film this good comes along, clearly made with vast quantities of imagination and insight, and very little money.

Everyone involved is to be congratulated, and hopefully honored, at least at the Independent Spirit Awards, and as for youyou should run out and see it right away. It’s a film that takes real risks, and the sort of movie that needs every bit of support it can get from viewers. They don’t come any better than this.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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