Category Archives: Under the Influence

Five movies that inspired me to create

As an aspiring filmmaker who happens to talk to other people who also want to make films, I ask, and have been asked, several times, exactly what movies made me want to make movies. A lot of people go for classics, their favourite movie (incidentally, as populist a choice as it may seem, mine is The Shawshank Redemption) and such. But I guess my list is a little different to that, while it does of course contain films I rave about and adore, they may not be overly predictable, or at least, I hope there are a few surprises in there.

In the order in which I remember seeing them, here they are, the big five of inspirational movies for me.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, Dir. George Romero)

Ah, I do love a good horror movie. I always have really, it was my earliest cinematic obsession, and one of the first directors who’s work I became infatuated with was John Carpenter.

But obviously, this isn’t a Carpenter movie (although, don’t get me wrong, I’d gladly go on about Halloween or The Thing any day), it’s Romero’s zombie classic. I watched it on my laptop (I’d gotten my dad to buy me the DVD earlier that day, I guess I was around… 14 or 15) and I was blown away by it. Yeah, it’s got basically no budget and some of the performances are uneven, but I’ll be damned if it’s not brilliantly atmospheric, with a gut punch of an ending.

The inspiration of this movie though, goes beyond just how good it was (which is to say, very). Because I was trying to think of what to do after watching, I decided, because I basically never do these things, to thrown on the bonus features DVD. On that disc there was an interview, or a round-table discussion of some kind that included Romero, and I remember him saying something like “we did it because we wanted to make a movie”. That’s probably not the exact quote, but then, I haven’t seen that interview for a few years. But the point is, that quote from Romero is what made it ‘click’ for me, that, if I wanted, why didn’t I just write something and, somewhere down the line, try and get it made.

And from here, we go to…

Eraserhead (1977, Dir. David Lynch)

As some of you may know, I’m a little bit in love with Eraserhead and it’s director, David Lynch, so it’s only obvious that he’d have a big impact on me artistically.

I’m going to be rehashing some of what I said in my earlier piece here to give some context to it. I was talking to a friend online (who I don’t really talk to anymore, which is a shame), and I remember asking him for feedback on potential ideas I was having to write. I can even remember what the ideas were, there was a serial killer biopic (although I never decided on the person it’d be based on) wherein I’d also use interview footage and that kind of thing to create a sense of realism. I had a similar kind of idea for a war film, but it doesn’t focus on the war, it focuses on the impact of the war instead, as it happens, using news clips, political speeches, the whole thing would have centered around the ‘home front’. The thing these ideas both had in common was a sense of vérité about them (something that I loved about Night of the Living Dead). And while talking about these ideas, I remember asking this friend for some suggestions that were a little… ‘different’.

Among the films he recommended to me were Begotten, as well as a few films I still haven’t seen (PossessionThe Reflecting Skin and a few others) as well of, of course, Eraserhead). He shot me a link to the first part of it on YouTube, and away I went.

I was floored by it, it’s dream logic, visuals, nightmarish atmosphere… Everything. As much as I liked the idea of using vérité in movies, Eraserhead made me think about absolutely leaping out of the box and giving the finger to convention. It essentially, lit a creative fire in me that was put there from Night of the Living Dead, the one that made think, I could do this, and replaced it with one that screamed, I must do this.

The Shining (1980, Dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Who doesn’t love a good Kubrick film? No one, that’s who. And in my humble opinion, his lose adaptation of one of the best Stephen King novels ever, is his own masterpiece, visually wonderful, anchored by a top form and utterly unhinged Jack Nicholson.

The Shining, to put it simply, is the first film that I ever considered to be a masterpiece, it grabbed me by the throat for the entirety of it’s running time, from it’s iconic scenes to it’s masterful tracking shots, and the atmosphere of that damn hotel, the entire thing is excellent, and actually provided a major influence (the deserted hotel, descents into madness and whatnot) on an idea I’ve been floating around in my head for ages, which is some kinda Shining, Lynch-esque noir thing.

I’ll end this entry with another question – how can you not be influenced by the first masterpiece that you ever saw? You can’t.

The Seventh Seal (1957, Dir. Ingmar Bergman)

My introduction to foreign cinema, and the genius that is Bergman (which is to say it’s the first time I saw a Bergman film, the first time his name was on my radar, I was reading an interview with a black metal band who compared one of their albums to a Bergman movie, citing the chess with death scene that appears in this very work of genius), The Seventh Seal shaped some of my, for want of a better term, ‘intellect’ as an artist. It made me consider, in a way that Eraserhead did, what you can do with film as a medium, and the kind of the stories that it can tell.

First of all, it has a personification of Death in it. Yes, it’s simple, but it’s the first thing I saw with something like that, and it made me think about what to do with concepts like that.

Essentially, what The Seventh Seal did for me, was open my eyes, my mind, my heart, however you wanna put it, to using cinema to ‘say something’, to talk about faith, and death. It showed me that, by writing, I can genuinely have a ‘voice’.

Black Swan (2010, Dir. Darren Aronofsky)

The only modern film to grace this list is Darren Aronofsky’s ballet based stroke of cinematic wonder, Black Swan. I’ve seen this film a fair few times, once on a laptop, once in the cinema, and a few times on DVD. It should be noted, that of all the films on the list, this is the only one I’ve ever seen in a cinema.

It showed me how the atmosphere of where you see it is almost as important as the atmosphere of the film itself, on a cinema screen, Nina’s mental collapse is so powerful and gripping. It sometimes feels almost metafictional, the way it uses Swan Lake to bolster it’s story, including the perhaps infamous transformation sequence near the end of the film.

It’s also one of the first films I remember being so encapsulated by a motif in a movie – in this case, mirrors. I was fascinated by it, there were so many reflections everywhere, and it was wonderfully ambiguous as to what, if anything, they meant – is it about Nina’s mental state, a reflection of herself compared to herself when she performs? Who knows?

Ambiguous and gripping with a wonderfully realized score and choreography, this piece of modern genius is, for me, what modern cinema should be – unique and interesting, a story that is well told and technically interesting. Since I’m going to one day be one of those ‘modern’ filmmakers, something like this, that shows what a great mind and modern filmmaking is capable of, is just what I needed to see.

 

I’d also like to add a couple of honorable mentions to the end of this list, starting with a film that is awful, and then following it up with one that’s better, and, in a way, perhaps a little more personal.

Kidulthood (2006, Dir. Menhaj Huda)

I fucking loathe this movie. It’s utterly dreadful. Everything about it, from the acting and writing to the woeful characters.

But of course, bad films can say a lot to an aspiring artist. There are, for me, two ways I can react to something bad. Number one – “if something that bad is getting made, surely I can make something.” Number two – “I will never make something that bad, if I do, I’ll hate myself creatively.”

Yes, the second one is perhaps a little angsty, but hey, it’s true. And by watching a film that bad, it made me realize I want everything I write to be good, to have something to say, to be unique. Where Black Swan is everything I want as a modern filmmaker, Kidulthood encapsulates so much that I hate.

 

And now for one last film (I know I said that I’d be writing about five, but I just feel like this one, and the above catastrophe, need to be mentioned)

Earrings (2012, Dir. Alex Withrow)

Yeah, I went there, a short film that I fear none of you have heard of, but all of you should watch. It was directed by a friend of mine, Alex, from And So It Begins…. While Alex and I haven’t met, I like to think we’re friends (I hope he does too, of course), I hold his cinematic opinion in high regard, and he’s a great guy.

But the point of this being here is, when a friend succeeds, you’re very happy for them. And, maybe a tiny bit jealous. He’d done it, he’d made a film that was unique, that showed his vision. Oh, and it was good. So, to see a friend succeed so well gave me the kick I needed to really focus on my writing whenever I had spare time to do so. And for that, I’d like to thank Alex.

 

 

So, who else out there wants to make movies? I’d love to hear what it was that lit the fire in all of you.

 

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Under the Influence – Woody Allen

Woody Allen  may seem a far cry from the other people I’ve written about in this section (David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman and Charlie Kaufman). But regardless of that, he’s still had a profound influence on me as an aspiring filmmaker. Plus, who would want to read about heavyweight dramatic directors or surrealist headfuckers all the time? Variety is, the spice of life.

Work ethic

It’s an obvious one, but a good one. Since the mid 1970’s, Woody Allen has released a film every year. Someone in Woody Allen: A Documentary (I forget who) said that “the moment he finishes editing one film, he starts writing the next one”. It’s an admirably ethic, and of course, something to aspire to, to be able to keep making films at such a steady rate, especially considering his age (he’s 76). Hell, even David Cronenberg said that, by releasing films a year apart (he’s currently working on his follow up to Cosmopolis I think) is him “doing a Woody Allen.”

Of course, a film a year can lead to some bad work (I loathed Vicky Christina Barcelona), but it can also lead to a streak of fantastic, endlessly watchable films (just look at his output in the 80’s). And as long as a filmmaker can remain talented, then they’ll always produce more good than bad.

Versatility

Allen is more versatile than people think. Period.

Look no further than the physical comedy of Sleeper, the heartfelt romance of Annie Hall, the creative meditations of Stardust Memories and the powerful, searing drama of Husbands and Wives.



That’s right, these four films, all wildly different, have one thing in common – the inimitable Mr. Allen.

Then you can look at his work  outside of film – his standup comedy, his book of short stories, his Broadway plays. He’s so much more than that guy that churns out a slightly different rom-com every year, and how can a filmmaker not want to be as versatile and adept at doing so many different things behind, in front of, and even away from the camera.

Writing Comedy

Writing comedy is a total nightmare. I’ve tried it several times and I just can’t quite get to grips with it yet. But Allen does it so well, so effortlessly, from his standup work that leads to a fantastic punchline (The Moose is a testament to this) to simple one liners, like the end of Love & Death – “I’m dead and they’re talking about wheat.”

The way Allen writes comedy just feels natural, so imbued into his characters and sensibility, it all works wonderfully. And that’s the best thing about the way he writes it, they rarely feel just like cheap one liners, they always feel like viable things that one of his characters would say. Who else but Isaac from Manhattan would say “of the two of us I was not the immoral, psychotic, promiscuous one.” His jokes work as more than just jokes, they work as elements of these characters.

Cinematography

The way Allen’s films are shot is nothing short of wonderful. Of course this is as much to do with the cinematographer than Allen himself, but the way the shots are constructed, the placement of the characters, it all feels so natural and real. Creating shots that look like they’re showing a piece of life so effortlessly is difficult, and to see it done so effortlessly is quite something.

Words really can’t describe how these things influence me, because it’s difficult to explain that with images, so I’ll just let the images (a few shots from Manhattan) speak for themselves.


 If this image in particular doesn’t prove my point, then I’m afraid that nothing will.

Getting great performances

Allen, particularly in the 70’s and 80’s managed to get consistently fantastic performances out of two wonderful actresses, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Both woman give their career best performances in Allen films, Keaton in Annie Hall and Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose.

As an aspiring director, there’s something about seeing these performances, and the skill of Allen, who writes these excellent roles and helps the actresses realize them, that is influential in a simple way. That it’s more than possible to consistently create good characters, and help to get performances that can further elevate them.

Writing

Last, and of course not least, is Allen’s almost peerless skill as a writer, from his characters, to his jokes, to his wonderfully emotional endings:

“Not everybody gets so corrupted. You’ve gotta have a little faith in people.” – Manhattan

“For the first time in a long time, I felt at peace.” – Another Woman

How can you not be inspired by such brilliant writing?

 

That’s… Well, that’s it for Mr. Allen I suppose. I’m not quite sure how to best end this post though, but perhaps this image from Stardust Memories can sum it up best.

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Under the Influence – Charlie Kaufman

Kaufman is, far and away, one of the best and most original screenwriters of his generation, and one of my all time favourites. His influence on me comes through more in what I endeavor my writing to be more than what my writing would be on a page, which perhaps sounds redundant, but I feel it makes some sense.

Originality

I couldn’t think of a better image than the above one to show quite how original Kaufman can be. The image shows a scene from Being John Malkovich, which, along with Adaptation served as my introduction to Kaufman’s work. The scene is simple – John Malkovich travels through a portal into his own head, and everyone around him has his face, and can only say the word “Malkovich”. Yes, it’s slightly… Odd, to say the least, but it’s also staggeringly original, especially when compared to saturated studio fare that comes out with such frequency. Original writing is inspirational for a simple reason – it allows one to aspire to be original, which, as a writer, is one of the best things you can do.

Metaficition

In both Synecdoche, New York (left) and Adaptation (right), Kaufman explores metafiction. It’s a difficult concept to describe (having a story within another story I guess you could say), and even more difficult one to write. For instance, Synecdoche… tells the story of a playwright (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) writing a play about life. His life, everyone’s life, just… Life. And it’s done masterfully, the play is not just a subplot, but a reality, a fully fledged story of its own. And metafiction is inspiring for a handful of different reasons, it’s originality (something that’ll be revisited several times I imagine), its intelligence and such. It is also a testament to the skill of the writer in question, and Kaufman does so masterfully. For its breadth, complexity and countless reasons, metafiction inspires me as it simply gives a window to explore something else entirely through what it is that’s also being written.

Characters playing the writer


I’ll admit that it seems vain and, yes, narcissistic to be influenced by such a concept, but I can’t help but be fascinated it. After all, it’s been done before in films like  All That Jazz, and Kaufman captures it just as well as someone like Fosse does. With Adaptation, Kaufman presents a bizarre, almost semi-autobiographical account of his attempts to adapt The Orchid Thief with his (fictional) twin brother. However, where Fosse use an author avatar, Kaufman takes it a step further uses the author – literally. Charlie Kaufman is a character in Adaptation. I’ve already admitted its an arrogant point of influence, but I can’t help but wonder, hyperbole, false modest, arrogance and all of that aside – how would I write myself? Not an avatar of myself, but literally myself. Adaptation showed it was more than possible, so, only time will tell if I find myself as a character within a script of my own.

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Under the Influence – Ingmar Bergman

Oh, where to begin when discussing the incomparable Bergman? My introduction to foreign cinema with The Seventh Seal, after seeking out more of his work, particularly Persona and The Hour of the Wolf, I fell in love with his work, and a great deal of it has naturally played a role in shaping me as a writer, so I’m going yo try my best to articulate just what it is about Bergman that makes him so strong and so influential. After all, as a friend of mine said to me, he “had it”. This is the part where I try to articulate exactly what “it” is.

Cinematography

I could happily show a host of wonderful stills from Bergman films and hope that articulated my thoughts on it, and while there will be some stills, I’m going to try and explain it with words.

First of all, Sven Nykvist is my favourite cinematographer of all time, and with Bergman, created some of the most wonderful images that have embedded their way into my film related consciousness.


The Hour of the Wolf

To start, something painfully vague. There’s just something… About black and white shots, not just in Bergman films, but in cinema, from The Hour of the Wolf to Eraserhead and even Sunset Boulevard. They have a powerful, almost primal quality, that can evoke something real. Concentrated colours can do that, from black and white to the stark and powerful reds of Cries & Whispers.

Cries & Whispers 

Simply put, the imagery of Bergman films made me realise just how important imagery could be in cinema. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it’s true. From the colours (or the lack of colours), to exactly how actors are positioned in a shot, like the one above from Cries & Whispers. In Bergman films, particularly Persona and Cries & Whispers the camera almost becomes a character unto itself, tracking and focusing on these people, revealing the truth about these people, or can shroud them in mystery.

And then there are his closeups. Bergman uses closeups wonderfully, from the agonizing opening of Cries & Whispers to the enigmatic blurring faces of Persona, these closeups are wonderful throughout all of his work. They examine the characters wonderfully, all of their pain and emotions.

Writing women

For me, Bergman is one of the two directors I hold in high esteem when it comes to writing female characters (the other being Woody Allen). Across his films, there are wonderful female roles masterfully acted, from the Strindberg style Persona, to the women in Cries & Whispers and, perhaps my favourite performance in a Bergman film, Liv Ullman’s emotional, powerful and utterly stunning turn in Scenes from a Marriage.

Ullman and Josephson in Scenes From a Marriage

It is difficult to explain exactly why the women in Bergman’s films are so good. It is everything from the way he explores their psyches to how he has them stand their own against, or in some cases overpower so many of the male characters, another thing best shown in the shattering ‘Illiterates’ section of Scenes From a Marriage.

Bergman’s writing of women  had a simple influence on me – to consider all ways to explore characters of different genders and psyches, not just write mostly men because I am male.

Imagery

Anyone who’s seen it will remember the iconic chess with Death scene in The Seventh Seal, something that has stuck with me since I first saw it. And this was, along with the wonderful shots in Bergman’s films, showed the power and wonder of imagery in film. 

The Seventh Seal’s iconic ‘Chess with Death’ scene

Bergman, who has stated in some interviews that he was not religious, despite his upbringing, uses religious imagery wonderfully to communicate his themes, from the almost empty church that opens Winter Light to his use of a religious confession in The Seventh Seal.

Perhaps the best thing about the imagery of Bergman films is their lasting power. So many images from his work have embedded their way into the back of my mind, from the iconic moments of The Seventh Seal and Persona to the strange scene in Hour of the Wolf where Von Sydow is covered in makeup and mercilessly mocked. In simple terms, the sheer power of imagery was shown in Bergman films, and that is something has stayed with me.

The thing with Bergman is that, the emotional cores of his work often makes it difficult for me articulate exactly what it is about them that had such an influence on me, from the enigmatic Persona to the raw power of Cries & Whispers. Perhaps it’s exactly those things that had such an influence, the mystery, and the unrestrained power he uses. After all, Bergman, for want of better phrasing, “had it”.

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Under the Influence – David Lynch

If my earlier post on Eraserhead didn’t give it a way, I’m a big David Lynch fan. In fact he’s my favourite director. And so, to kick off this new series of pieces on who and what I draw my influence from as an aspiring filmmaker, I figured that Lynch would be the best place to start.

Surrealism

Surrealism has fascinated me for a while now, from Artaud to Dali, and I always wondered how it could be used in film, how someone could create the dreamlike and nightmarish on screen. After all, creating something surreal is a totally different challenge when comparing it on film and in a painting.

And then of course, through a friend, I stumbled on Eraserhead, my introduction to the surreal. However, as the majority of that has been covered here , I won’t dwell on Eraserhead, I’ll talk about some of his other works instead.

Inland Empire stands on a level with Eraserhead in terms of the heights of surrealism that Lynch can reach. Of course, surrealism is chiefly based around the unconscious, the dreamlike, and through Inland Empire, Lynch explores this in great depth in his labyrinthine three hour feature.

It is about, as the poster suggests, “a woman in trouble”, but explores so much more than that. From it’s moments of nightmarish horror, to bizarre non sequiturs that feature anything from prostitutes to rabbits, Lynch dives straight into the unconscious and roots himself there for at least half of the film.

Surrealism is a difficult thing to write about, both in terms of this piece, and in terms of the script, but, simply put, there is something about it, and the artistic freedom that it can entail, that I find enticing and inspiring. After all, the unconscious is rather vast, and is clearly full of ideas that range from the fascinating (the structure and style of Mulholland Drive), the bizarre (the rabbits shown above, from Inland Empire) and the terrifying (the baby from Eraserhead or, simply but, that face in Inland Empire. Anyone who’s seen the film will no doubt remember it.

Subversion of idyllic settings

Above is the opening shot of Lynch’s cult classic, Blue Velvet. With it’s roses, perfect blue sky and white picket fence, it is a truly idyllic town.

Nothing sinister could possibly be lurking here, right?

Wrong.

Where Lynch succeeds is by showing these locations, with their roses and fences and such, is by subverting it entirely. After all, in Blue Velvet, the sweet little setting is the home of Frank Booth, one of the most unhinged villains in modern cinema.

He does the same in the iconic TV series Twin Peaks, and it’s darker film prequel, Fire Walk With Me. The town of Twin Peaks may be full of eccentrics, but it seems harmless enough. However, the town is hiding several dirty little secrets.

And of course, that is where the wonder of both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks lies – by slowly peeking through the curtains of these homes, before the truth becomes revealed. And this is what I find inspiring, not only his use of idyllic towns, which are always wonderfully shot, but, more so, how he subverts them, for the twisted sexual relationship between Dorothy and Frank in Blue Velvet, to the opening frames of Twin Peaks which, after presenting a slow credit sequence to soft music, presents us with the body of a young girl and raises the famous question of who killed Laura Palmer.

This subversion doesn’t only have to be done in suburbia, he subverts and destroys Hollywood dreams in Mulholland Drive, and attacks fatherhood in EraserheadPerhaps the best thing about this kind of subversion is that in can be done in so many different locations, and with countless different themes.

After all, “it’s a strange world Sandy”.

Imagery

Along with legendary recluse Terrence Malick, Lynch is among my favourite directors in terms of his visual style, from the body horror of the Lady in the Radiator in Eraserhead, to the closeups used liberally throughout Inland Empire, to almost the entirety of Mulholland Drive. Take for instance the image above, used in the opening moments of the film. It is a signpost in the dark. That’s all. But in it’s isolation, there is something about it, something mysterious and enticing. Lynch does this a lot in Mulholland Drive to great effect, and it’s one of the things that struck me when I first watched the film a couple of years ago.

A lot of Lynch’s shots are simple, from the signpost above to the Club Silencio, which is wonderfully minimalist before it descends into the nightmarish. After all, “there is no band”.

The images throughout his body of work, and particularly (for me at least) in Mulholland Drive work excellently, they create a sense of mystique, there is something a little ‘off’ about them. Or, they can simply be images that provoke a reaction, most likely of fear or wonder.

Take the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead as an example, who stands alone on a stage (having seen Muholland Drive before rewatching it I can’t help but be reminded of Silencio) singing “In Heaven”. From her isolation, to the strange deformity around her face, she will immediately evoke a reaction. To say the least, when I first saw the film, I was taken aback, there was just something about it, although I can’t articulate it perfectly, that perhaps sums up how Lynch can use so much, from isolation, to that ‘off center’ feeling, to enhance his style of cinema.


There’s a lot more that Lynch did to influence me as a filmmaker, and I wish I could articulate the rest of it, but, in that true Lynchian fashion, it is simply there in the back of my mind, and I’m sure something will come of it eventually.

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