Friday, May 28, 2010
Last week I attended what was certainly the single most impressive and delightful cultural gathering I've ever been invited to. It was the annual luncheon/award cermony/cocktail party given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The purpose of the gathering is ostensibly to hand out lots of different awards bestowed by various individuals (and by the Academy) on deserving members of the artistic community. I was there because my collaborators on the musical version of my movie "Two Family House" and I were the fortunate recipients of a Richard Rodgers Award. But wonderful as this part of event is, the real purpose is to see how many cultural giants can be squeezed into one building on the island of Manhattan.
Everywhere I looked I saw another mega-star of their respective field; look, there's Meryl Streep, look there's Edward Albee, oh hello it's James Levine, gee isn't that Bill Moyers, my look at Calvin Trillin, hey Gunther Schuller!, but wait isn't that Garrison Keillor?, why Ed Ruscha!, hello Hal Holbrook!, ah of course it's Chuck Close etc. etc. You get the idea.
Most impressive of all (to me at least) was the presence of the most famous 80 year old in the country (world?)--the legendary Stephen Sondheim. I say most famous not just because he actually is awfully famous, but because this birthday year has brought forth an unending number of tributes to him--shows, articles, essays, ceremonies etc. And lets face it, if you love musical theater you'd be hard pressed not to be awestruck by the man's accomplishments.
Sondheim was there to present the Richard Rodgers award to us and to the other team whose musical also won. I looked forward to what would no doubt be a brief encounter with him--a handshake, congrats, here's your check, good luck kind of moment. So imagine my shock when I found my namecard at the luncheon table and noticed that the person sitting next to me was going to be...Sondheim? Well, of course I was delighted--but also a bit concerned. For while I know just about everything there is to know about his work, I'd always gotten the impression that he was stand-offish, a bit aloof and apart, not quite of this earth.
He arrived at the table and we introduced ourselves. I began by wishing him a happy birthday. "Gee, how did you know?" he said sardonically, which I thought was terrific. And then for the next half hour we had a superb talk. Far from being distant, he is the very embodiment of old-school Broadway showfolk. We talked tales of "West Side Story", Jerone Robbins, Hal Prince, strangest ideas ever for musicals (one of which was a show he told me about called "New Girl In Town", a musicalization of O'Neill's "Anna Christie"...hmmm) and most interestingly we discovered a mutual passion for Bang and Olufsen audio gear. Not for how they sound (neither of us are, it turns out, all that picky about audio) but for how groovy they look. I told him I frequently stood in front of the B&O shop on Madison and 75th and stared at the equipment as if staring at sculpture. "You and me both", said SS. Suffice to say the above photo--Sondheim is center, natch--was captured after lunch and the rest of the afternoon (the awards ceremony) was somethng of a happy blur.
So H.b'day, SS, and thanks again for helping choose "Buddy's Tavern"-- our musical--to receive this wonderful award. Without eight years of hard work on the show, I would never have gotten a truly wonderful half hour in the presence of one of the worlds greatest artists and genuinely menschy fellows.
Monday, May 24, 2010
"City Island' continues to kick serious indie ass at the national box office, remaining in the top 20 for its TENTH WEEK and
keeping its per screen averages nicely solid. Some of the trends are interesting. Our per screen average was up versus previous weekend and our core theaters are holding in strong, many showing increases versus previous.
RANK IN COMPLEX:
#1 – 49
#2 – 35
#3 – 23
#4 – 15
#5 – 28
Our top 10 theaters are: Bethesda Row (DC/Maryland), Beekman (NYC), Angelika (NYC), Farmingdale 14 (Farmingdale NY), Chelsea 9 (NYC), Bronxville Triplex (Bronxville NY), Plaza Frontenac (St Louis), Roosevelt Raceway 10 (Westbury NY), Laemmle Town Center 5 (Encino/LA), Scottsdale 101 (Phoenix DMA).
7 of the Top 10 were up versus previous weekend and 2 more were down only slightly. Overall, 84 of our holdover screens were up or flat versus previous weekend and another 21 were down less than 10%.
And the cities that are trending above our average are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC, Detroit, Phoenix, Tampa, St. Louis, San Diego, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Memphis, New Orleans, Albuquerque/Sante Fe, Buffalo, West Palm Beach, Las Vegas, Austin, Palm Springs.
And now back to the not very urgent subject of Lena Horne and "Stormy Weather". As I said two and half years ago (and reprinted three and half days ago), "Stormy Weather" is a landmark musical that manages to be both historic and not very good. Below I'll reprint my "rewrite" of this movie, a polish that I believe would have turned it into a definite candidate for the AFI "top musicals" list (or whoever the hell makes these lists up.
So then. "Stormy Weather". Click that last link and you'll read an unusually good wikipedia entry on this movie, giving you all the background you might need. Or read my last post...
The plot, such as it is, has to do with Bill Robinson (uninventively named Bill Williamson in the movie) returning home from World War 1 and launching a career as a dancer. Along the way he falls in love with beautiful, young "Selina" (Lena Horne--doesn't this stuff with the names feel very first-drafty?) who's a singer and who won't "settle down". They run into each other over the next twenty (?) years and finally get together. Fade out.
The first problem with the film comes from the very obvious age difference between the stars. Robinson was born in 1878, making him sixty-five at the time the film was shot. Horne was born in 1917, making her twenty-six. Forty years age difference between the leads would certainly not have been tolerated in a white persons movie--it would be akin to having Lionel Barrymore play Ava Gardner's lover. For this I blame the "they all look alike anyway" racial sensitivity of the era. Unfortunately, it robs the movie of even the most remote emotional reality--even as a kid I never understood why the old tap dancing guy kept bothering the sleek young woman and why she put up with it.
It also brings up, though, a stylistic difference in the music and dance that sends the film out of balance. Robinson, great tap-dancer though he was, came from a very different era of tap--much more subtle, less showy, more emphasis on the rhythmic meter, less on the flashy moves. Unfortnuately, he is simply overwhelmed by the Nicholas Brothers--and for the matter by the massive charisma of Cab Calloway--both of whom belong firmly to the Harlem/30's swingtime explosion.
In my rewrite, I cast Robinson as a great tap-dancer from another era whose fallen on hard times. He works as a waiter (just as he does in the below Fats Waller section) and sees a young girl come into the tavern. He gets a look in his eye: she looks just like a girl he knew way back when. Yes, Lena Horne is HIS LONG LOST DAUGHTER. ("And we don't have to reshoot the 'Aint Misbehavin'n sequence, Darryl!") The movie could use a flashback to Bill's younger days--any thoughts on who plays Lena's mother?--and the romance that produced "Selina", allowing Robinson to tap in his unabashed 1920's style. Bill putters around Selina, trying to break the news. She thinks her father was long dead. (In fact, Bill left the family because his career as a dancer took him on the road and he didn't want to be the "father who wasn't there", so the mother told Selina he was dead...all right, you think up something better.)
Anyway, below is the great Fats Waller sequence from Stormy Weather--and it works (sort of) as the moment where "father" first sees daughter. She knows him only as her mother's old friend, "Bill Williamson". Thus she wants to give him a hand--never realizing that he's her father. Except for a few gratuitously leering shots, I think we're getting somewhere...
Friday, May 21, 2010
We are entering our NINTH week in theaters, a frankly unheard of feat for all but the flukiest independent films. Clearly the word of mouth is working. And the reviews are mostly helpful. But what is truly driving our continuing success is that most blessed of all movie occurances: repeat business.
Example: my mother overheard two elderly ladies speaking in the beauty shop on the Friday before Mother's Day. "What are you doing for Mother's Day", asked Yenta 1. "My children are taking me to see "City Island", answered Yenta 2. "They loved it!"
As I wrote the good people at Anchor Bay, this means we're not only getting the senior's business, we're getting repeat boomer business.
How long can this keep going on? I don't know. Nobody does. We might be nearing the end or square in the middle or still at the beginning. As the Chinese proverb goes: "Nobody knows if the earth is very old or very young". I doubt that we're near the beginning. I reject that we're almost finished out of hand. The middle of our run would be fine with me. Because if we hang on into the summer, who knows? Perhaps we'll be the indie antidote to the big-ticket summer fare...the movies that explode, that is...
And now onto other matters. A couple of weeks ago we lost Lena Horne. Many tributes have been printed, read, blogged, offered and I don't need to offer my own. My partner on my cabaret documentary, James Gavin, wrote the definitive Horne biography this past year, "Stormy Weather". Read it by all means--a truly controversial and in-depth look at this complex and wonderful woman.
I discovered Horne for myself as a child when I became fascinated by a movie that would turn up on late night television, "Stormy Weather". Shot and released in 1943, the film offers us glimpses of an incredible array of the era's greatest black performers--Lena, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fats Waller, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, many many more. I always caught it whenever it showed and years later used to see it in the revival houses where it was almost always paired with "Cabin In the Sky" from the same year. When this blog was in its infancy I discussed my feelings about "Stormy Weather" and here, below, I've reprinted that blog entry. BTW, Lena lived one block away from where I've lived in New York City for many years and apparently never left her apartment for many years. I had no idea she was there all this time, a block away. Would it have made any difference? I like to think of her and I sharing a coffee at the Via Quadronna on 73rd, or perhaps a cocktail at the Carlyle. Never would have happened. Oh well. Sayanora, Lena.
In the land of grand missed opportunities, no movie musical comes quite so close to being admitted to the pantheon and misses quite so sadly as Andrew L. Stone's 1943 "Stormy Weather". Given the excess of talent and the brilliance of a half dozen numbers, this "what might have been" scenario joins such heady heartbreaking company as the 2000 Presidential election, the New York Jets loss to the New York Giants last Sunday, the man who interviewed Hitler for a college magazine in 1934 (believe it was Yale) and could have taken the opportunity to murder him...and on, and on...
One of the key shames of the greatest single period of American cultural history (I of course refer to the nineteen-twenties, thirties and forties) is that the endemic racism of the time prevented the visual documentation of so many of the greatest black entertainers. Recently, obscure "soundies" (movies made for jukebox viewing), considered at the time to be nothing if not dispensible, have given us a rich visual history of the black entertainters of the era. But Hollywood was awfully stingy with providing similar opportunities--and the only, to my knowlege, all black musical made by a major studio--in this case Twentieth Century Fox--is "Stormy Weather". (I'm not counting "Cabin In The Sky"--even though its a wonderful film and similarly filled with great black entertainers--because it was hit Broadway show, thus alleviating Hollywood's fears in presenting it to "mixed" audiences. Is that too narrow minded of me?) In any event, I've decided to spend the rest of this week paying tribute to the singular acheivement that is "Stormy Weather"--and discussing, to some extent, what prevents the film from being a truly great work--which, had it been, might have opened up the opportunity for more films along its lines.
First the performers: Bill "Bogangles" Robinson--one of the century's legends of tap-dancing in one of his non "Shirley Temple's manservant" appearances; Lena Horne--heartbreakingly beautiful and, in her mid-twenties at the time, already as confident and alluring a screen presence as could be imagined; Cab Calloway, at his most charismatic and dangerously viperish; the brilliantly and wildly athletic dancing team of the Nicholas Brothers; one of the all too rare film appearences by the great Fats Waller (captured just months before his untimely death at the age of 39); Ada Brown; Katherine Dunham; Dooley Wilson. You get the idea.
The problem with the film, as is so often the case, is a script that simply doesn't tell an engaging or even logical story. These great production numbers--beautifully shot by the fine DP Leon Shamroy and staged by the masterful Nick Castle--are strung together by a series of "book scenes" that don't even really serve to get us logically from one number to another. Furthermore, the central conceit of the film--a thwarted romance between the luscious young Horne and the much older Robinson who is nothing if not paternal in her presence and which makes his mooning over the young Lena something more akin to the inappropriate attentions of a lascivious step-father--is just too weird. And I know it's spitting on the African-American flag to say so, but they might have done themselves a favor by picking a different leading man and relegating Robinson--whose wooden acting robs every scene he's in of any sort of authenticity--to a supporting role.
Tomorrow, I'll offer my version of an alternative plotline for "Stormy Weather" that, if not guaranteed to bring classic status to the film, might at least have gotten the damn thing on the AFI's "best musicals list"--which, given the talent involved on the screen, it most certainly deserved. In the meantime, let's illogically begin with the climax. Fasten your seatbelts and enjoy what I consider to be the greatest tap-dancing production number ever filmed: "Jumpin Jive"--sung by Cab Calloway and danced to--within an inch of its life--by Harold and Fayard Nicholas.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
In its seventh weekend, City Island expanded to take first place among limited releases, with Bollywood crime caper Housefull and previous limited champ The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo falling just behind it. New movies from Michael Caine and Nicole Holofcener also performed fairly well, while The Good Heart and Mercy failed to spark much interest.
Box Office Mojo
Well, if Box Office Mojo says it, I don't have to look elsewhere. My faith in them is a beautiful thing, no? And while we're at it, what do we think of turning "City Island" into the first post-"Avatar" three-D "shot-flat, released-demented" indie? Not that this can be done--or at least not in North America (I imagine somewhere in Zagreb a home-converting 3-D system is being worked on in some sinister animation cell...)
And now for where I've been for a week. In meetings. Meetings happen in Hollywood as a time-filler for everyone concerned--the execs who don't read scripts and don't have much else to do, the filmmakers and writers who are desperate to get out of their home-offices and drive around crappy LA, air-conditioners and XM radios blaring...
And now that "City Island" is a movie that...well, I guess the best way to put it is "works"--t's staying in theaters, keeping its averages up and attracting repeat business... people want to meet me. We discuss what I'm doing and what they're doing. At there best, these meetings become friendly bull-sessions on movies and taste in all things cultural. Yesterday I had a great time discussing possible re-makes with the guys at Alcon Entertainment--we were throwing around titles of mostly forgotten 50's Cinemascope epics and figuring out how to update them, etc.
But at their most shallow, these meetings follow a distressingly similar format: I liked your movie...what are you working on next...here's what we're looking to do...we'd love to see anything you're working on...
Not that there's anything wrong with that...it's just that you get the distinct impression in many of these low-grade meetings that you're sitting across from somebody who you will never again encounter in this lifetime. Which makes you wonder which the fun part of your day is: the lousy meeting, or getting to drive around lousy LA?
It suddenly occurred to me, while driving home from a meeting this morning, that I've been at this game a long time. I graduated from the AFI (American Film Institute) in 1990. Got an agent right away. Started going on meetings. That's twenty frigging years ago! That first year of meetings was a constant state of exuberance and hubris. I was twenty-five and, for very little reason indeed, had been anointed the NEXT BIG THING. Why was this? Well, my AFI grad thesis short, 'Bronx Cheers', was nominated for an Academy Award. It's a good film--not as good as it was twenty years ago, but what is?--but I think the fact that it's a period piece (Bronx, 1940's) and that we got it all very right production wise, led the town's tastemakers to see me as a precocious visualist, a kind of budding Zemeckisian-Spielbergian whose taste seemed both popular and pompous, a very winning combination when marketed correctly. Had I grasped this perception of me at the time, I imagine my career would have looked something like this:
Early to mid nineties: Some Disney fare, popular box office things.
Late Nineties: creation (or in on ground floor of) a franchisey thing. Maybe direct the first one and exec produce the sequels.
Early to mid 200's: the TV business gets launched and I flutter between "godfathering" projects under my banner and directing whatever big-budget star driven vehicle I choose. One every two years, I should think.
Now: at 45, a moment of clarity comes to me. I can no longer pursue the soulless endeavors that my career has forced me to focus on. I want to make a "little movie"...about a family, say, in the Bronx. No big special effects, no franchise stuff, not even any major "set piece" scenes. Just a movie about life in a middle-class family, the dreams and desires, the thwarted ambitions and the mistakes of the past, and how we are all forced to face who we are at some point in life.
That movie, of course, would have been "City Island". And I did get to make it. I just skipped the millionaire stuff in between. But screw it. Life is long. Once, many moons ago, Alan Parker (and where the hell is he these days?) came to the AFI and did a seminar. His advice to the students was to not listen to people who say you should start by making money for studios because then "they" will let you make what you want. "If you make them money, they'll never let you stop'", he said. "Start by making what you really want to make. Get rich later." ( If you think that sounds candid, watch the below interview with Parker and listen to him discuss his own film "Pink Floyd's The Wall". I believe the operative phrase is 'utter tosh'. And he's the fucking director.) Apparently I was listening when AP offered up this bit of wisdom and I have spent the last twenty years doing what I've wanted to do. So in a stunning reversal I've decided to finally take these meetings seriously and get rich. Look, there are only so many movies made a year and somebody has to direct each one of them. (Unless you're Soderbergh and you direct every other one of the them.) So for my next twenty years I intend to do the very thing that conventional wisdom (not Alan Parker) would say I should have done with my first twenty years. And for the twenty years after that I plan to revert to complete infantilism, reliving my actual first twenty years on the planet well into my doddering eighties.
But if anyone has any ideas for that elusive "franchisey" thing...
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Monday, May 3, 2010
This weekend, "City Island" climbed one more rung up the box office chart to number 17, with a more than healthy per screen average of $2810 on 269 theaters. The news is all good, witness the report from the front office:
Weekend Rank in Complex:
#1 – 64
#2 – 32
#3 – 19
#4 – 9
#5 – 10
TOP 5 SCREENS FOR COMBINED FRI-SATE:
#1 – Bethesda Row in Wash DC/Maryland
#2 – Farmingdale 14 in Farmingdale NY
#3 – Landmark in LA
#4 – Plaza Frontenac in St Louis
#5 – Camelview 5 in Phoenix S total)
Next 5 are: AMC Raceway 10 (Westbury NY), The Beekman (NYC), Town Center 5 (Encino, CA), Fallbrook 7 (West Hills/LA, CA) and Shadowood 16 (West Palm)
Joe Williams, from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, writes in this article about the burgeoning phenomenon of our movie--it seems to be a hit in St. Louis, a place where one might not expect a Bronx-based Italian-American comedy to play as well as it does. Similarly we've been doing bang up business in places like Arizona, Minneapolis, Colorado, Maryland, Miami, etc.
Oh, and click here to read my final Salon column, a pithy collection of words of wisdom from various directors. I loved doing this column but, frankly, am out of gas. This blog, however, will roll on and on...and on...and on...and...
And I'm so pleased that so many of you have chosen to write to me with your reactions to the movie. Below is a terrific
note I received from Elaine M. Lundberg, who specializes in "humor therapy". Check out her website and stuff--but first
read the kind of letter that makes the eight years of struggle getting this thing made and into theaters absolutely worth it.
Raymond~ I just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed watching City
Island. As a Humor Therapist I speak to groups all over the country on
Laughter- The Duct Tape That Can Help Hold You Together! Often the
audiences are comprised of cancer survivors or caretakers. I am going to
suggest they all watch your film. Thanks for bringing laughter to our
fragile earth. Best wishes for continued success.
Peace and laughter~
Elaine M. Lundberg, M.A., Humor Therapist
Author of the books:
If They're Laughing, They're Not Killing Each Other!
No More Bummers!
Thanks Elaine. Now catch the below which I just caught--a little interview with A.G. at the Newport Film Festival about a month ago. Does every city/town/burgh in the country now have its own film festival? Answer: yeah...
Saturday, May 1, 2010
I thought, while I had your attention, I'd attempt to interest a few of the newer readers of this modest blog who joined us once production commenced on "City Island" to the blog's original intention--the celebration of my twin obsessions, old movies and jazz, as purveyed clip by clip on the wondrous thing known as youtube. (Jesus that's a long sentance. Anyone still reading?) The vehicle for this would not be un-"City Island" related, however; I've found a quite amusing montage that a youtuber named Nicoley132 built revolving around the pre-code era and, among other things, people making out in old movies.
Briefly, the Production Code was established circa 1933 in order to rid movies of salacious behavior and improve the country's low impression of Hollywood's notoriously low morals. But before the code anything went, short of pornography. Sex was much more open in the late silent and early sound era than it ever was again until the late 1960's. Violence had an edge that wasn't matched until decades later as well. And gay characters were part of the movie landscape as well--albeit in a comic way of course, but still they were there, in a refreshingly uncloseted way.
I bring this up because of the curious form of self-censorship that filmmakers now practice. Since the collapse of the Production Code (a gradual process that began with the use of the word "virgin" in Otto Preminger's "The Moon Is Blue" in 1953) and the installation of the bizarre group known as the MPAA (they're the ones that assign movies a rating), the burden has shifted to the filmmaker to decide what is appropriate to include in his or her movie. When making a movie like "City Island", for instance, we were conscious of attempting to appeal to a wider more family-driven audience--which leads to the assumption that the rating we wish to acheive would be a PG-13. But what exactly constitutes the standard of this rating? The MPAA will never tell you. From past history, though, it can be assumed that only a modicum of foul language will be tolerated. For some reason, the characters in my movie exclaim "Shit!" quite a bit. Would this be an issue? Perhaps. But it goes without saying that "Fuck" gets you an "R". I wonder why the sexual connotation of "fuck" is deemed more offensive than the excretionary connotation of "shit"? Doesn't the former refer to the optimistic promotion of the future while the latter refers to the despised detritus of the past?
Then there's sex, which the MPAA seems much more concerned about than violence. A good make out session is probably OK. But what happens when hands start reaching for parts of the human anatomy? Generally the theory is to avoid this if you want to stay in the land of PG-13. There was an interesting documentary made a few years ago about the people who actually comprise the membership of the MPAA and how the power to rate movies has fallen into the hands of this strange cabal. (The filmmaker's name is Kirby Dick. Which sounds like what you have to do to get a PG-13). When you see who these folks actually are, you begin to understand why violence in movies is more tolerable than sex. Let's just say that Obama's brilliantly true comment (which he was forced to back away from) about bitter people clinging to guns and religion comes to mind when putting a face on the MPAA. It's a game without a playbook and the filmmaker is never sure of where the chips will fall. Alternate versions of scenes are frequently shot for language reasons. Sometimes an appeal can be made to the MPAA and they will suggest changes that might alter the rating. Other times they are implacable and silent; nothing will move them to reconsider the rating they've bestowed.
Such was almost but not quite the case with "City Island", which initially received the astounding (for a gentle family comedy) rating of R. When we asked why, two "F" words were indicated as problems...as well as a few shots in the strip club scenes that made the MPAA "uncomfortable". Now I shot that strip club with an eye on a PG-13 and anyone who's seen the film can attest that it is the least provocative strip club imaginable--the girls wear tops fer chrissakes! But when pressed, we were told that there was excessive "grinding and use of the pole". This, then, was what was going to cause our movie to be lumped in the same rating category with movies that routinely explode and annihilate whole populations in the name of entertainment. There was a little consternation from the producers as to how I--who had final cut--would take the news that we'd have to do further trimming to the film. They needn't have worried. I didn't give a damn about dropping a few grind shots. I cared that the movie not be branded with a rating that was going to turn away a significant part of our audience. And that group wasn't the young folks, who the rating seeks to protect. It was always clear to me that we had a movie that could be very appealing to seniors--a much overlooked demographic. Seniors can often be heard lamenting the violence, bad language and gratuitous sex that they're treated to in so many R rated movies. And who can blame them? Many of the older ones grew up on Astaire-Rogers movies. The newly minted seniors grew up on Tab Hunter and Sandra Dee! I wanted a PG-13 for them as much as anyone else. And, in the end, we got it and--to my immense satisfaction--our 'early bird' shows (the one pm screenings) tend to do as high numbers as our evening shows...which means the seniors are discovering the movie.
Oh for the pre-code era and the code era...and no doubt one day we'll be looking fondly back at the MPAA.
Below see a nice montage of pre-code revelry, set to the great Sinatra recording of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes". Normally I eschew these homemade youtube montages--preferring to post proper chunks of movies and performances, but this person did a nice job of cutting picture to the record. And they had the taste to pick Sinatra. And tune in Monday for the real thing...