“I Do All My Own Stunts”

Black SwanEveryone loves a chance to put an Oscar-winning actress down, now it’s Natalie Portman’s turn as her dance double for Black Swan claims credit for the performance.

Sarah Lane, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, was hired to depict all the complex dance sequences that Portman, with only a year of training under her leotard (as opposed to the two decades that go into making a professional dancer), could never have pulled off. So far, so usual: stunt doubles are routinely hired for fight, chase, dance, ski-ing, driving or riding sequences that demand an elaborate set of physical skills. It’s almost part of the illusion expected when we go to the movies, that at some point, the actor will disappear back to their trailer and let a bewigged stunt person of approximately the same height and build get down to the death-defying gymnastics. There are two main reasons for this 1) stunt people are professionals who are really, really good at the physical stuff, and b) if it all goes pear-shaped, stunt people can be replaced halfway through principal photography, while a lead actor cannot.

Lane’s beef is not so much about the illusions created within the film-making process, which involved having Portman’s head digitally superimposed onto her body for the long shots, as she knew that was going to happen. She is more concerned about the way Portman’s people claimed credit for her dancing as part of her Oscar campaign. She accuses them of

“trying to create this facade that [Portman] had become a ballerina in a year and a half… How unfortunate it is that, as professional dancers, we work so hard, but people can actually believe that it’s easy enough to do it in a year. That’s the thing that bothered me the most”.

A big part of Portman’s pre-award press did include coverage of how she suffered for her art during the making of the film, both with the year of training beforehand, and the pressures put upon her during the actual movie to come up with convincing dance performances. And Academy voters love to see actors suffer, as well as push their physical limits. A movie is only one part of a media phenomenon, like Black Swan, which consists not just of the film narrative, but of all the narratives swirling round it – like the love story between Portman and her principal choreographer.

Darren Aronofsky jumped to his star’s defence for Entertainment Weekly:

Here is the reality. I had my editor count shots. There are 139 dance shots in the film. 111 are Natalie Portman untouched. 28 are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math that’s 80% Natalie Portman. What about duration? The shots that feature the double are wide shots and rarely play for longer than one second. There are two complicated longer dance sequences that we used face replacement. Even so, if we were judging by time over 90% would be Natalie Portman.

And to be clear Natalie did dance on pointe in pointe shoes. If you look at the final shot of the opening prologue, which lasts 85 seconds, and was danced completely by Natalie, she exits the scene on pointe. That is completely her without any digital magic. I am responding to this to put this to rest and to defend my actor. Natalie sweated long and hard to deliver a great physical and emotional performance. And I don’t want anyone to think that’s not her they are watching. It is.”

Sarah Lane is a performer in her own right, an artiste who is used to getting credit and acclaim for her work. And she has a day job. No wonder she’s pissed – but she is in a uniquely privileged position to bitch about it. Portman is also a relatively soft target – it seems easier to accuse an actress of not being able to cut the physical stuff than a male star. No one would dream of making similar allegations about Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson. There are legions of stunt artists out there who will forever remain silent about their contribution to the work of actors (usually macho action heroes) who claim that they, also, do all their own fighting, chase, dancing, ski-ing, driving or riding on screen. If these stunt doubles speak up, they never work again.

Much of Hollywood’s allure – and marketing – revolves around the larger-than-life abilities of “the talent”. The audience want to believe that what they see on screen is the singular performance of one very special person, when, in fact, it’s the result of hundreds of hours of work by whole teams of people, both on set and in post production. But bottom line is that the star always gets the credit – that’s showbusiness.

Natalie Portman Accused In Black Swan Row – Digital Spy

Darron Aronofsky Defends Portman – Entertainment Weekly

Actors Who Do Their Own Stunts – Moviefone

Hollywood Stuntman reveals tricks of trade – NPR interview with Hal Needham

Want to be the next Rebecca Black? It’ll cost ya $20K

As the dust subsides from Rebecca Black’s meme-making You Tube debut, attention is being focused on the maestros behind the music. Just who are the Ark Music Factory?

On their website, founders Patrice Wilson and Clarence Jey describe themselves as “a Community, Music/Entertainment Channel and Independent Record Label based in Los Angeles, California”. Their current roster of artists is all young and female, all purveying identikit vocoded, throwaway pop music and boilerplate videos. However, in addition to the limited number of artistes featured on the website, various bloggers have dug around this week and uncovered many more Ark Music Factory prodigies online.

Wilson and Jey’s business model seems to be fairly simple – and entrepreneurial. Fond parents of fame-obsessed tween and teen girls can buy a song and video package for their beloved daughter to perform. If they’ve already spent years forking out for ballet, tap and singing lessons, this kind of video showcase seems like a natural step, putting their little princess front and center, with as many of her BFFs as she wants performing as backing singers and dancers. In itself, this is nothing new: young girls have been working on dance routines in bedroom mirrors, fantasizing about being the next Marvelettes, the next Bananarama, or the next Spice Girls, for decades. Ark Music Factory are simply adding in digital technology, making the fantasy seem more real by auto-tuning vocals, adding a random rap break, and indulging uninspired pop video scenarios about driving in cars and dancing round fountains with some fancy edits thrown in for good measure. As Rebecca Black has mentioned in interviews, she knew someone else who’d “had it done” so she thought she would – anyone who’s ever seen an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen knows that girls with rich parents always get what they want, and they want at least as much as their rival queen bees are getting. Ark Music Factory are simply supplying a service, and a quick scan of the internet suggests they aren’t the only production company feeding this demand.

Is there anything wrong with propagating these kind of tween dreams? It seems to be a fun experience for the girls involved, and if they keep the videos private, only to be shared between friends, surely it’s only a glossy, stylized version of the DVD of the school play that parents can use to embarrass future husbands in years to come? However, if these videos go viral online, it’s a completely different story. Audience theory suggests that the original intent behind a media text becomes irrelevant once it’s exposed to mass consumption. Different audiences will read the text in their own way. And, thanks to the internet, music videos like Friday are instantly subjected to a range of negative, even vicious readings. Once a video is out there, it can be re-interpreted and reused in any way a consumer of the text sees fit. Something made in all seriousness can rapidly become a joke, something meant for niche (friends and family) consumption can suddenly become a global conversation. The teenager trying to impress her friends can, overnight, become the target of international cyberbullying. An innocent performance can become the focus of a whole culture’s neuroses and hatred towards young women who are perceived to be less than physically perfect. Even Red Riding Hood didn’t encounter such horrors when she took a journey into the woods.

Wilson and Jey could never have conceived of the millions of hits on YouTube, the iTunes downloads, the radio and TV interviews, the near-instant global fame when they were selling Rebecca Black’s parents the package. It’s not clear exactly who is making what money from the unexpected hit recording. Inevitably, however, the Ark Music Factory phone will have been ringing off the hook with queries from eager wannabes demanding their turn in the limelight. They won’t care that they’re not talented, that the end product will be awful, that once it gets on the internet people will see it and laugh at them for years to come. They just want what Rebecca’s having. And the Ark Music Factory (plus all the copycats who are bound to spring up) will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Rebecca Black has wiped away her tears from earlier in the week (when critics drubbed her recording as “Worst Song Ever”) and is now demanding to do a duet with Justin Bieber. After all, he also became a massive star after his YouTube video went viral. This is one girl who won’t let anything stand between her and her dreams – just like Verucca Salt and that squirrel in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

Ark Music Factory – The Official Site
Who The Hell Made Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ Video? – City Sound Inertia
Rebecca Black, teen singer, admits she cried when her hit song was deemed worst song ever – LA Times

Want to make a Monster movie? It’ll cost ya $15K

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was a huge hit on the film festival circuit last year. Here’s his account of how he managed to create sci fi realism on such a tight budget:

video platform
video management
video solutions
video player

Pegg & Frost’s “Star Wars”: You big gold plated nancy

We’re used to seeing tangential viral marketing, but the links don’t get more tenuous than this. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are in LA this week, doing the usual round of press and screenings for the US release of Paul. And they made this video. Which is sort of about space-related stuff, but has very little to do with Paul. Longtime Star Wars fans, Pegg and Frost got to put cardboard boxes on and act up in the desert. It’s very funny. But will it make you go see their new movie?

Red Riding Hood: Marketing Fail?

Red Riding Hood movie poster 2011Catherine Hardwicke’s version of the Grimm fairy tale opened this week to what pundits are calling a “soft” box office of $14.1 million.

From Box Office Mojo:

Faring not much better than last weekend’s fairy tale revamp Beastly, Red Riding Hood mustered an estimated $14.1 million on close to 3,500 screens at 3,030 locations, which was lower than The Brothers Grimm’s debut but above average for a werewolf movie. Its estimated attendance wasn’t much better than Cursed’s. Werewolves (sans vampires) haven’t been terribly popular at the box office, so it was always unlikely that Red Riding Hood would replicate the success of the two movies that inspired it: Twilight (despite being from the same director, Catherine Hardwicke) and Alice in Wonderland. The marketing campaign for Red Riding Hood, which received a profuse push on Thursday’s American Idol, focused on a barrage of different taglines (“It wants her,” “The truth will tear her apart,” etc.) and the mystery of who the wolf was, yet it didn’t show the wolf nor provide the context for why people should care. Distributor Warner Bros.’ research showed that 64 percent of Red Riding Hood’s audience was female, and 56 percent was under 25 years old.

It’s intriguing that everyone seems to be dubbing Red Riding Hood a “werewolf” movie – it’s not. Yes, there’s a werewolf in it, but it’s framed (and stunningly shot by Mandy Walker) as more of a love story set in a magical realm. As a modern execution of a fairy tale, it’s spot on: the wooden houses in the forest, the red cloak, the snow-covered haystacks, the too-tight britches of the hunky male leads are all beautifully realised if fantasy is your thing. The casting is great too – Amanda Seyfried’s fragile near-ethereal beauty provides the central core around which other characters revolve. Julie Christie is the sinister, fur-twirling grandmother who lives outside the village for reasons best known to herself. Virginia Madsen plays Red’s Mom as vaguely slutty, regretting some of the bad decisions made in her past that come back to haunt her as her youngest daughter reaches adulthood. It’s about female relationships, the family ties that bind, and the moment when a young woman must finally break free of all that if she is to be true to herself. It does what every movie should do as a bare minimum, which is transport you to a different realm for a couple of hours.

It’s odd that Warner Brothers, after giving a cursory nod to the Twilight audience (“From the director of Twilight” is on the poster), seemed so determined to position this as a PG-13 horror movie/mystery. Surely it would have made more sense to emphasise the fantasy and magic aspect, and aim this at the Harry Potter crowd? Apart from a couple of heaving bosom moments, and some severed hands, there is nothing too scary in here, and younger, Disney-jaded kids could really enjoy this kind of story-telling. Warner Bros could have called it something other than “Red Riding Hood” too – at least they left off the “Little”.

A fairy tale with dark undertones: surely that can find an audience? These stories have been around for hundreds of years and have in-built branding. The studios are going to have to figure out how to market this genre successfully as there are two versions of Snow White on the horizon, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is currently in production. It comes down to the studios lacking practice in selling non-fluff to females. That audience is there, and will turn out in droves as they did for Twilight, but they have to be nurtured and respected for their loyalty, just like the fanboys.

Weekend Report – Box Office Mojo

Glee: All Publicity Is Good, Right?

GLEE is hitting the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic today, with complaints about this week’s sex-themed episode featuring Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Parents’ Television Council are foaming at the mouth and called in to the Hollywood Reporter to voice their disapproval:

Isett was not a fan of the scene in which Paltrow and several students ripped open their shirts while dancing suggestively to “Do You Wanna Touch Me.”

“If you had a real-life instance of that, I think it’s fair to say the teacher involved would no longer be a teacher,” he says. “But somehow it’s acceptable for a fictional teacher to do this. Again, this is a real problem. Real-world teachers don’t lap dance with their students.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian points out that all royalties from Do You Wanna Touch Me will go straight to the songwriter, convicted pedophile, Gary Glitter, who penned the original hit back in 1973. This could be a substantial sum of money – apart from the TV performance rights, the song is already available on US iTunes. These days, UK TV and radio steer clear of Gary Glitter songs for the very reason that they don’t want to provide him with income, but it seems the producers of Glee aren’t so squeamish about rewarding those who exploit minors – we’re back to the GQ photo shoot all over again. It also seems that Paltrow is keen to promote her nascent career as a singer at all costs, even when it means embroiling herself in a potential scandal.

Parents Television Council Blasts Sex Episode of Glee as ‘appalling’ – Hollywood Reporter
Glee’s Gwyneth Paltrow in row over Gary Glitter cover – The Guardian

Lights! Camera! Wait… How Men In Black 3 Still Has No Script

Men In Black IIIThe Hollywood Reporter‘s main story today explores how Sony tentpole, Men in Black III, has come to be several months into production without a finished screenplay. It’s a tangled tale of production incentives, stars with script approval, and a franchise that should probably have been left dead and buried anyway (well, until the inevitable reboot in about five minutes’ time…).

However, it does ring more than a few alarm bells for us writers. Why, in an industry that revolves around story-telling, is getting the story straight deemed the least of production executives’ worries? The minor detail of having a coherent beginning, middle and end, seems to come way down the list from keeping the star happy, or even paying attention to “great hair”. It’s usually said that if a script has problems in Act Three, they need to be fixed in Act One, but what happens if Act One has already been shot and there’s no going back and changing it?

MIB3 was never going to win any Critics’ Circle Awards, but it could have been a fun summer movie, respectful of the heroes’ comicbook origins and legacy. Now it looks like it will be nothing more than a hot mess designed for one purpose only – to print money for Sony. If only global audiences would learn to boycott these disastrous movies altogether – vote “No” at your local multiplex when the time comes: May 25, 2012

Why Men In Black III started filming without a script – Hollywood Reporter

How To Become A Meme

Photographer Noam Galai took a picture of himself screaming and uploaded it to Flickr in 2007. Four years later, that image has become part of cultural discourse, appearing everywhere from anti-government graffiti in Iran to the cover of a book in Mexico. Noam’s face appeared on all kinds of merchandise, but he was never credited, and didn’t receive any payments for its widespread use. He tells the story here:

The Stolen Scream: A Story About Noam Galai from FStoppers on Vimeo.

He’s generally very phlegmatic about the whole experience, honoured that his face has become a badge for freedom fighters, and flattered that it has global significance. However, as this video shows, he’s bemused that his work could go so uncredited and unrewarded.

Compare the fate of Galai’s image to that of an iconic photograph from another era – one in which principles of copyright very much held sway. Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss By The Hôtel de Ville was shot in 1950 for Life. Since then, it has been reproduced over and over, but has been jealously protected by copyright law, so much so that a couple who thought they might be the ones in the picture thought it was worth bringing a lawsuit. Doisneau’s name is synonymous with his work, however, and no one would dare use it, as happened with Galai’s image, to illustrate a magazine article without obtaining proper permissions.

Is intellectual property just a quaint twentieth century concept? If so, how do we expect artists, writers and photographers to make a living?

The Stolen Scream – Noam’s own blog with all the latest examples of image usage
Screamography – money from these products does actually go to Noam
The Kiss By The Hôtel de Ville– Famous Pictures

Madonna vs. Lady Gaga

The much-trumpeted release this week of the video for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way has invited yet more comparisons between Gaga and the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna.

Whilst the song, Born This Way raised a few eyebrows with its similarity to Madonna’s 1989 global smash hit, Express Yourself, the video contains even more homage. Or is that plagiarism?

The video to Express Yourself, directed by David Fincher, had a price tag of $5 million, which made it the most expensive music video ever filmed at that time (it has since been topped only twice – by Madonna herself with Die Another Day, and by Michael Jackson with Scream, which cost a purported $7 million). Inspired in part by Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis, and in part by Madonna’s own vision, it’s an epic romp through a steam punk world of nubile slaves, elegant felines, and sinister men in brown suits.

Recalling production for the 2004 book, Madonna ‘Talking’: In Her Own Words, she says:

“This one I had the most amount of input. I oversaw everything—the building of the sets, everyone’s costumes, I had meetings with make-up and hair and the cinematographer, everybody. Casting, finding the right cat—just every aspect. Kind of like making a little movie. We basically sat down and just threw out all every idea we could possibly conceive of and of all the things we wanted. All the imagery we wanted—and I had a few set ideas, for instance the cat and the idea of Metropolis. I definitely wanted to have that influence, that look on all the men—the workers, diligently, methodically working away.”

Express Yourself is only part of the story, however. It features her close-knit group of dancers who also starred in Truth Or Dare (Madonna does reality TV ten years before anyone else), and the Old Hollywood film star vibe that would see her through Vogue the following year. Most importantly, it’s perfectly in keeping with the cohesive mythos that its diminutive star (who appears naked, in her trademark Gaultier bra, and in a man’s suit) was building around herself. She joked that the central metaphor of the video is that “pussy rules the world”, but in the narrative she’s the cat that gets the cream.

And so to Born This Way: same Metropolis references, same costume changes, same chorus.

Lady Gaga: Born This Way, Directed by Nick Knight, SHOWstudio.com from SHOWstudio on Vimeo.

Christina Aguilera openly admitted to ripping off paying tribute to Madonna in the video for 2010’s Not Myself Tonight but so far Gaga has remained tight-lipped about why she seems to be deliberately courting the Madonna comparisons. Lady Gaga can be a wildly original and creative performer, but it seems she likes to retreat into the shadow of others and pay homage (e.g. to Russ Meyer in the Telephone video) rather than consistently honing her own persona and message. Is it just a post-modern thing? Should we be surprised that, in a pop culture landscape where Hollywood regurgitates dreary remake after uninspired sequel, where saccharine Glee versions of songs outsell the originals, and where plagiarism lawsuits feed an entire army of entertainment lawyers on caviar and foie gras, a savvy popstar like Gaga uses bricolage for her own ends?