More VIFF Trade Forum highlights

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Fri, 10/14/2005 - 16:00

Here are some more notes from three panels at the excellent Vancouver International Film Festival Trade Forum.

Dennis Gassner, production designer for Bugsy, Waterworld, The Truman Show and a succession of Coen Brothers films, said the way he works is not much different from method acting. "I like to get to that point where you're just creating the feeling," he said.

At the same time, it requires "research, energy, and tenacity." Travel is a big part of his work. Gassner clocked up the miles looking for the chocolate-box town of The Truman Show and ten of the locations for O Brother, Where Art Thou. "It couldn't just be a crossroads, but a Coen Brothers crossroads," he said.

For the Hudsucker Proxy, Gassner designed the whole movie on a page of yellow tracing paper while travelling. When they couldn't find what they were looking for in New York they built a model of the Big Apple, and shot on sound stages in North Carolina.

On Waterworld, Kevin Costner's costly flop that came out in 1995, Gassner said it was "the worst political stuff of any movie" he had experienced. The production, which cost an estaimated $235 million, more than any film up to that time, was beset with problems, including the set sinking.

"I towed that movie on my back," said Gassner, of his 18 months working on the movie. He had to deal with practicalities like making a vessel large enough for 300 crew that could handle sudden turns in the weather, and all the usual practicalities of creating a set, but on water. Computers couldn't "do water" back then. "Nobody does it like that anymore," he ruminated.

Be ready to "kick ass," says Catherine Hardwicke

Gassner wasn't the only guest production designer at the Trade Forum. Lords of Dogtown director Catherine Hardwicke worked as a production designer on Laurel Canyon, Vanilla Sky and Antitrust among other films, before she made her directorial debut with teenage drama Thirteen.

In the final panel on New Filmmaker's Day, Hardwicke told the Vancouver audience about the struggles of raising money for her angsty, teen drama. She constantly heard that she would never get the film made, including from Fox who eventually bought the film.

So what was the secret to her success? Piles of preparation so that when the moment came to "kick ass" she was ready.

Hardwicke, a slender Texan who has a feisty youthfulness about her, wrote the first draft of the screenplay in six days with 13-year-old Nikki Reed, who also starred in the film. "She was jumping around and I was saying, 'Nikki! We gotta write this!' Then I realised I got to that put in..."

She recommended using script readers rather than people you know for honest feedback on your polished draft of the script. Hardwicke hired three professional script readers that she deliberately never met in person to give her some "cold, hard analytical feedback", even though the criticisms were hard to take. "It stabs you in the heart," she said, "But when the anger subsides you realise that maybe that scene doesn't work..."

The first test screening of the film was even tougher. "I cried and cried," she said.

Hardwicke also explained how she persuaded Holly Hunter to get onboard a project with an unknown first time director. She flew to New York with video of the real Nikki at home, and made a conscious decision when she met Hunter not to react defensively to any criticisms, but to write them down. Hunter later told her that one of the main reasons she decided to do the film was because Hardwicke listened to her.

Making the trailer

In a session about trailers, Myles Bender of Focus Features explained why voice-overs in trailers seem to sound the same: only the gravelly melodramatic voice of Donald LaFontaine (aka "The Voice") seems to "work." In some trailers, it may sound like the voice-over actor has a severe bout of constipation, but it is more likely that he is trying too hard to sound like The Voice. Bender suggested that the voice-overs on "90% of trailers" are now by the five to ten men who sound very similar to The Voice. Women and other voices have been tried, but apparently they don't have that essential authority, drama or whatever that hooks audiences.

Trailers are cliche country. Think how much you've heard James Brown's "I Feel Good", or "Sister Sledge" or sound effects like the record scratch, the cowbell, or the thumping heart beat. You'd think that studios just quickly ran most trailers off a few existing templates. Not so apparently. The process of creating the trailer involves copyrighters, editors, dozens of scripts, filmmaker input, focus group input, and general toing and froing between the creative team before the executive decides the trailer is finally ready.

There's usually several versions of the trailers. First of all there's the teaser, which is really just a short-form trailer that comes out long before the film release and even before the the film has been shot, as in the case of the Da Vinci Code teaser, for example. Then there are different trailers for different demographic groups, and the much shorter "television spot".

We saw a variety of sample trailers and teasers, including several for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, spinning the film in a different light each time for a different audience. One trailer was for the arthouse crowd, another emphasised the romantic interest and so on.

If you are frustrated by the way they always give away the story in trailers, showing action from far into the film - like two characters getting intimate - then don't hold your breath for that to end. That's what they say works when trying to lure people into the cinema. Without story, peoples' interest would not be piqued.

More coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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