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Monday, September 8, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Neal Dodson

Neal Dodson on the set of ALL IS LOST
Photo by Richard Foreman - © All Is Lost LLC
By Neal Dodson and Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Neal Dodson, best known for producing J.C. Chandor's ALL IS LOST and MARGIN CALL, and Chandor's highly anticipated film, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, releasing at the end of this year. He is also producing the new show, THE CHAIR.

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why?
Seeing art of all kinds is important as a human being. And for filmmakers, it is crucial. Specifically independent films (which tend to explore riskier, more engaging, more niche subjects) and world cinema (which broadens our viewpoint and perspectives to the way that people of different cultures view the human experience). Riskier filmmaking leads to a broader definition of what makes a movie and what makes art - and I believe that has inherent value, culturally as well as in an effort to make the world a better place. Art connects us. Makes us feel a little less alone. Expands our minds. And I would argue that independent and world cinema need to be supported by filmgoers so that they exist. It's part patronage, part responsibility to the culture, and part entertainment. I think those three things can co-exist.
Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why?
Context for films gone by can be an inspiration (without Scorsese, there is no Tarantino. Without Ed Wood, there is no Tim Burton. Without Werner Herzog, there is no... I'm not sure yet who his heir is). 
But also, learning from others' mistakes and triumphs (creatively and on a technical basis) feels like a responsibility to me. My father was a high school art teacher for 35 years and his motto was always "to teach tradition, but not traditionally". I value that. You can't break rules or invent new rules unless you actually know them. The cinema of the distant and recent past is a great graduate school. I have various mentors in the film business that I've used as a resource, read their writing, and learned a great deal from: Cassian Elwes, Chris Moore, Christine Vachon, Bryan Burk, Randy Manis, and others. They all generously share what they've learned during their time in the business. Those experiences (and amazing stories) are a big inspiration to me.
How did viewing indies and films from around the world help you when producing MARGIN CALL, ALL IS LOST, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, or any of the other films you've produced?
 Well certainly every film has its inspirations and influences. MARGIN CALL has a few obvious ones (ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and NETWORK come to mind) but also less obvious ones --- DAS BOOT and other classic submarine movies. The characters in that film are, in essence, trapped in a sinking submarine, and JC and his DP and our team talked about submarine movies a lot and used that inspiration when designing shots, color palette, and costumes. The actors used it in the way they acted the scenes. As a producer, we designed the budget, schedule, and plan in alignment with that too -- each day, we went up in the elevator and we locked ourselves onto that trading floor to shoot. Cast crew, equipment, everything. It was part of how the film was made and came directly from one of JC's creative inspirations. We learned from other movies. 
ALL IS LOST also has many precursors. Mainly in terms of the production plan -- the films that came before our film that shot on the ocean and in water tanks helped us to answer the question as to how do we do this crazy thing we're attempting to pull off with limited resources. TITANIC and MASTER AND COMMANDER showed us that you could shoot our movie in Baja, Mexico. WATERWORLD gave us many cautionary tales about hubris and how water can slow you down. Polanski's KNIFE IN THE WATER gave us a font and design for the name of Redford's boat, which ended up being the font for all onscreen text, the posters, and the trailers globally. Even something like BAYWATCH taught us certain ways to use water and boats to our advantage. DEAD CALM allowed us to think about how to shoot darkness out at sea. 
For A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, we took a look at Sydney Lumet's films (including PRINCE OF THE CITY). We looked at all kinds of gangster movies, which A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a cousin to, but also subverts. And then movies like ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and CHINATOWN were on my mind as well. And it connects to other art forms as well, like Shakespeare's MACBETH. The history of movies and art as well as how they influence current films is a bit like alchemy -- luck and magic and mystery rolled up together.  
What's one American indie and one non-English-language film that you would recommend that film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
An impossible question to ever feel like you've answered accurately, so I won't try to be definitive. I have so many favorites. Here are two: 
*American Indie --- One of my favorite American independent films of the past few years is COMPLIANCE, directed by Craig Zobel. It's a great example of a pure filmmaking voice. It shows what cinema can do to an audience, how it can start a conversation (in this case for me about the vulnerability of someone who works for someone else, about manipulation, about power, about authority, about sexuality). It's also a great example of making an extremely cinematic, compelling film without spending a lot of money, without stars, and without compromising on a challenging vision. 
* Non-English-language film --- I'll skip my all-time favorites (BREATHLESS, Jeunet's first three films, The Kieslowski COLOURS Trilogy, LA FEMME NIKITA, etc.) and recommend THE LIVES OF OTHERS, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Terrifying and heartbreaking. And wouldn't have worked if the characters had somehow been speaking in English and played by recognizable actors. Beautiful movie.
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Wednesday.

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