Thursday, March 29, 2007

Star Trek to be 'Re-Imagined' for More Curb Appeal

I recently saw the IFC show "Dinner for Five" (normally hosted by Jon Favearu, this one by Kevin Smith) and J.J. Abrams was one of the great guests. Seeing him in this casual round table multi-interview, I really got to like him. He described how his connections and writing skills ended up creating a cascade effect for his career he would never had anticipated. This doesn't mean I take back my open questions from my earlier Star Trek XI post, but I was glad to see that Mr. Abrams seems like a nice, humble guy. Unfortunately, the questions I had about Trek XI are becoming more apparent at the least, dire at the most. According to recent interviews, it's apparent that this production is not doing what I prescribed (not that they would, I don't think they read my wee blog) and they are doing as I feared. For the creative team behind this film, they're gathering together a who's-worked-with-who-before line up of folks that have worked on previous Abrams projects. I'm not saying these people aren't talented or capable, but what do they know about Trek? Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were writers on two campy favorites of mine, "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Jack of All Trades," but no Trek, no sci fi. They did however write my favorite film in the world, The Island (please note my sarcasm). Scott Chambliss, production designer, no Trek, no sci fi. Jennifer Garner is now rumored to be Spock's love interest. Double huh?? I'm not saying that you have to fill the crew with Trek alums, but the closest they've come is a conversation with the venerable Marc Zicree. There is such a wealth of amazing people who have contributed to Trek and to science fiction over the years, I just think it's simply nearsighted to hire all your buds. I totally understand that it's best to know who you're working with personally, but this Hollywood form of "cronyism" is probably the reason we have so few great studio films these days. Even with my relatively deep familiarity with Star Trek, I would at least consult the people who know more than I. Not doing so would be like making a Spider-man movie without ever talking to Stan Lee-- simply unthinkable! I've never met Stan (although I'd love to), but that doesn't mean I'd be afraid to include him. And now the Orci/Kurtzman team have commented that ST:XI will not be a prequel to the Original Series, but a 're-imaging' of the mythos. They've been watching and reading Trek all their lives, they said. It makes perfect sense then that the first thing they want to do is change it.

It seems to be the new buzz word in Hollywood--"re-imaging." This is what they did to James Bond in Casino Royal. Casino Royal is a gritty updated-pre-sequel (I'm coining that one) where it's set now-a-days, but Bond is as young and green as… okay, so in the film he's only young. The first film to do this in recent memory is The Sum of All Fears in which Ben Affleck plays a young-again Jack Ryan and the Tom Clancey Cold War story is brought to present day. The next was probably Batman Begins which tells a slightly more realistic and detailed story of Bruce Wayne's evolution into The Batman. That film also brought Bats, with an amazing cast lead by Christian Bale, up to the present day although there was still a timelessness of Gotham as a nior forward-backward Metropolis. The problem with Casino is that they took out everything that comprises a Bond flick (the mystique, the swagger, the ladies, the super-spy gadgets and the humor) which made the film generic. Truly, the only real resemblance to Bond was the name which makes me wish they had just started a new franchise and called the characters something else. This is what I don't want to happen to Trek. The writers talk about how they want to be "100 percent true to the fanbase," yet make the films more "accessible." That frightens me. They're talking about actively attempting to write the film to so it appeals to a wider audience. How narrow is the appeal? I personally don't know anyone who won't watch Trek, but watches other sci fi content. Usually, people either like sci fi or they don't. Trek or no Trek. Unlike space operas like Star Wars, these films are specifically intended to be explorations into the human condition through science fiction. Star Wars may appeal to a wider audience because it's not intended to be science fiction, but a fun and exciting serial with roots in myth and legend, just like early opera. To make Trek 'more appealing' would be like making Battlestar Galactica into a sex-driven soap opera about "who's baby is it?" Huh? They already did that? Okay, it would be like making The Doctor in "Doctor Who" twenty years old, giving him a hot blonde companion and a libido… What's that? They have? Oh dear lord, is nothing sacred?! I think you get the picture folks. There is no way to force Star Trek to appeal to everyone and it still be Trek. All you can do is spend some time and money and write a truly stellar script that speaks to the human (or Vulcan) in all of us. Then, have a strong advertising campaign that gets the word out that no matter who you are, this is a movie to see. Then, maybe they won't mind that it's not Armageddon. Like I've said before, a deep, dramatic, star blazing adventure about Kirk getting his wings with Spock by his side will appeal to a lot of non-Trekkies/ers regardless. Buddy films put butts in seats, too (Shawshank Redemption). But, if getting more Trek on the big screen means dumbing it down, adding soapy love interests and visceral violence, you can just count me out.

If you'll allow me to digress, I have to wonder if this is the trend to succeed remake mania. Not only remake films and adapt old TV shows, but rewrite the essence of whole franchises so maybe they will appeal to more people or another, larger segment of the population. Do they think by changing it all around will make it seem more like an original film and somehow have more credibility? "Sure it's another remake, but we changed it all around this time, see?" It feels like they're buying the license to a character or franchise just so they can make a knock-off and not get sued.

Of course, studios questioning the size of the sci fi viewership is nothing new. It's probably the reason we haven't seen many sci fi or space films/shows in a while. It's the same old rhetoric that potential audience is too small to make sci fi. Just like there supposedly isn't enough money in the school budget for music or art. At least internationally, history shows that most all sci fi makes it's money back and some even make gobs of cash. But that's not really the point, what I really mean is, so what? Should we ONLY make films to sell tickets on opening weekend? And since when did they think it would be smart to alienate the locked-in fanbase? If you make an excellent Trek film (and by "Trek film" I mean one that fits the established mythos, characterizations and vision), you may not make number one on the first weekend, but if it's released at a fitting time and it really IS good, it will rise to it's true value. Even if that didn't happen, it would quickly reach "cult status" and become a blockbuster video release (Donnie Darko). It's just that in my opinion, no film should be made simply to appeal to the most people possible. That's just pissing on the creator's grave (i.e. It's disrespectful). Comedies are very successful and most have a very wide potential audience. Should we make "CSI" or "24" into comedies in an effort to expand their appeal? Should we remake Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind, but as comedies? ‘Will Ferrell is Charles Foster Kane! In this re-imagined epic laugh fest you won't know what to do with your rosebud or where to put your Xanadu! Citizen Kane, coming this Christmas.' What do you hold sacred? Would you like it bastardized? Reprocessed to sell, sell, sell? Would you like it if William Petersen(Grissom), Marg Helgenberger(Catherine), Gary Dourdan(Warrick) and the rest of the cast of CSI were suddenly replaced with more widely known faces? ‘Yeah, they may not fit the parts, but we've gone seven seasons so, I think our fans will give Tom Delay, Paris Hilton and La Toya Jackson a chance.' That's what it feels like to me when people mess with Trek.

Okay, that's all from me… for now! Thank YOU for reading and PLEASE share your thoughts. And be ready because next month I'm going to rewrite this post, but with more sex, more explosions, gory accounts of torture, shorter words and I'll name it the same dang thing. Oh heck yeah, stay glued!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cinéma Vérité: Distraction!

Okay so, I’m a director and as such I have styles I like. I like traditional camera moves with some modern innovation mixed in (a mounted camera, smooth pans plus, rack focus and dollies.) So, when it comes to hand held, steadcam shots and zoom lens pushes, I widely reserve them for action, if someone/thing is watching from afar and if I’m trying to imitate a mechanical/remote camera respectively. You guessed it, Enter: Cinéma Vérité. Or, as I like to call what it’s turned into, the Tourettes Style.

The style, which featured long takes and handheld shots, was popularized by Hill Street Blues as a way to add realism to the show; sorta as if the characters were always being observed by a documentary camera crew. The style has been widely adopted by many cop shows from NYPD Blue to 24 as well as sci fi shows like X-Files and Battlestar Galactica. The thing I dislike is what the style has turned into which is a constantly moving, jiggling, jostling, swish panning camera with quick zooms. It completely distracts me from the story and pulls my attention to the camera itself. Case in point, in 24 Jack Bauer watches helplessly as a nuclear explosion (effects by Zoic) erupts in the distance. He couldn’t get there in time! He’s uhhh…crushed… I think, wait… I can’t seem to tell… the camera’s moving all over, can’t see Kiefer’s face… the shot is now an extreme close-up of Kiefer’s nostril… no his eye… GAH! I could not keep myself in the moment because the camera operator keeps messing with the shot! Not only is the shot moving around enough to make me sea sick, it keeps zooming-in in mechanical little increments; the kind of tweaking you might see while a camera operator sets up a shot. It ends up looking like the camera has Tourettes Syndrome. I don’t understand how this is supposed to make anything more realistic or more dramatic. I mean, it’s like they’re trying to use the camera to produce tension, which really isn’t possible per se. I mean, you can heighten the drama of a scene by using the correct camera angle or move, but it can’t inherently produce tension. For that you need story, acting, light, sound and editing as well. The whole point of film making is to draw you in and make you forget that you’re watching a projected image; a two dimensional flipping of images that fools the eye into thinking it’s motion. Instead, this style completely draws my attention to the camera instead of where it’s supposed to be, in the moment and watching the actors. I have nothing against a unique or beautiful shot although some may say such shots put too much emphasis on the image rather than the characters. But today’s cinéma vérité is a constant distraction with takes that are entirely too long. With takes this long, only a heck of an actor can hold the moment. Unfortunately, and this really isn’t anything against them, most actors on television can’t do it. If 24 was made more conventionally, I think I’d love it. But with the crazy cameras and, what ends up being, mediocre acting (and the silly who’s-going-to-backstab-who-next writing) I just can’t. The same goes for Battlestar Galactica, but that show has a LOT further to go to bring me back. I love the cast (Aaron Douglas is the man) but the fact that it’s written as a by-the-book soap opera will never work for me.

So please, to all you camera operators, DP’s and directors out there, please reconsider if you want to use the cinéma vérité style. Make it more subtle and bring the focus back to the image, not its creation.

Thanks for reading! What do you guys think?