Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How to write an art house movie

I can’t call it a “foreign” movie per se because depending upon where you are, American films are foreign movies. But these are the flicks we Yankees find playing at the nearby art houses. They’re all subtitled. They’ve all won seventeen film festival grand prizes that no one has ever heard of. And most are very similar.

Recently I saw A MAN CALLED OVE (or, as I like to call it: FOUR FUNERALS AND A WEDDING), which is Swedish and up for an Academy Award. It was likeable and seemed to touch all the heartstring bases. And it got me thinking – what if I wanted to write a movie like this? What are the elements that I would need? After exhaustive research (thinking back to the many art house films I’ve seen) I’ve concluded these are the things that must be included:

Your protagonist must be middle-aged and cranky. Life has let him down somehow. Often he is tortured by the past. And always he feels guilty for something.

He’s very independent but usually someone looks after him – a wife, daughter, hot young neighbor.

He befriends a young person. There must be at least two “seeing life through their young eyes” scenes.

He lives in bleak surroundings. And the weather is always bad. There’s never anything in his kitchen. His modest possessions are all reminders of the past. Sonja’s favorite bathroom plunger, that sort of thing.

We watch him do boring mundane shit for half the movie.

He must begrudgingly take in a pet. Preferably a cat, but a bird will do, or he spends the second half of the film doting over his aquarium.

There’s always a fire. Some structure needs to burn down while he watches or the movie doesn’t get made.

He fights with authority figures who either want to take his house, tear down his art, fire him, commit him, take away his driver’s license, or humiliate him in front of his cat.

Flashbacks to horrific events are a must. Usually a child dies in some accident that needs to be shown – drowns, hit by a train, falls down a well – and Mr. Cranky feels it was his fault.

He is very skillful with his hands. He can fix appliances or build houses or change a Saab fanbelt. Or he builds sculptures that are brilliant but no one understands.

There are at least three scenes in a cemetery. Usually ten.

He’s a loner who ultimately discovers he needs other people.

Anytime anything that is remotely good happens to him, there is a tragedy one minute later.

He has health problems, usually a bad heart. We see glimpses of this early on – he clutches his heart, gets real dizzy – but thinks nothing of it.  Uh oh.  But we know it's coming.

The the big “surprise” – ¾’s of the way into the movie our hero collapses and an ambulance takes him to the hospital. He recovers but the ailment reappears at the end to kill him – usually one minute after he finally finds peace.

There are quirky comedy moments. Not hilarious but just amusing enough that you don’t hate him.

And finally, the film is a half-hour too long.

Hopefully these helpful tips will allow you to go off, write and direct your own art house film. See you at the Oscars, or at least the Herzegovina film festival.


YEKIMI said...

Holy crap. You just described most of my life.

Bill Avena said...

Nothing beats George Cole's THE DOVE, which had Madeline Kahn among the writers,or SCTV's "Hour of the Wolf" for Nordic hilarity.

mmryan314 said...

I read the book first and could not wait for the movie to play. The book was so good, so touching. The movie was okay but it failed to give a clear picture of Ove. Within minutes of the book it was understood that Ove had obsessive- compulsive disorder and I don`t think the movie presented that as well. In the book the obsessions themselves were funny. Without them it`s just any grumpy old man movie.

Earl Boebert said...

Ken, you outdid yourself this time. I think your commentariat should start a poll on who to cast, and then move on to Kickstarter.

Gwendolyn said...

Perhaps a Friday question: I was watching Wings last nite and the episode turned around Antonio's coming "marriage" to 'Sconset Sally.
In the summer in the '70s we rented a house across the road from Madaket Millie. Was she the inspiration for Sally... and did any of the creators of the show have experiences with her? I don't recall if Millie was still alive when Wings aired.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...they're like trying to make sense of Bob Dylan lyrics. At our art houses, at least there is wine.

Andy Ihnatko said...

During my punch-up of your script, I'd add a scene in the penultimate act in which the misanthrope suddenly feels betrayed by the very person who taught him to finally trust again, and that person is shocked to realize just how much the cranky old guy's trust meant to them.

Rick said...

Earl Boebert: the English language remake has already been announced with Jack Nicholson in the lead in his return to film...

ScottyB said...

Hey, you just laid out everything in 'St. Vincent' with Bill Murray, except without a fire and the cemetery. Which is what makes our American films American, dammit!

Ralph C. said...

Understanding Bob Dylan's lyrics is the wrong direction to take with them. Unrelated, everyone try to find a movie called "Nothing", then watch it, if you want to. If no to both things, it's all groovy.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Interesting to get a TV professional's take on those "very similar" art films.

But FIRST, some comments and questions on terms.

It seems that many old-school motion picture professionals (many of them long dead) called motion pictures - "pictures". Would you all agree that's out-of-fashion?

"Movies" and "films" - those are interchangeable, mostly, but there are distinctions.

"Movies" are more mass-audience vehicles - made in the hope to make lots of money.

"Popcorn Movie" nails that intention down more firmly.

"Films", aka "Art House Films", "Art House Movies", "Art Films", etc. are much more like literature than "movies" - with subtext, inference, little or no exposition (not much explainin'), and other devices used in literature.

As a twenty-something single guy, left to my own devices, I always had a hard time finding the movie listings (when that was a thing) in the Sunday Newspaper (when that was a thing). That's because our local rag put those ads in the ARTS section.

Along comes movie-buff girlfriend who, along with VHS collection, showed me that film can be literary - a revelation to me, as a book nerd with a long book habit. She became my wife and was great for explaining to me all the stuff I missed at a film we had just seen.

I'm old enough to have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey in first release (I was nine). I didn't then know it was the rare SF Art Film. I understand that one is way too slow and oblique for Gen Y and Millenials. I'll have to check with my 20 and 22 year-olds - both precocious film-buffs - and movie-buff-mom-educated - if they think 2001 is "slow"

(and what you all think?)

So now I wonder if the discipline required to write outlines and rewrites under extreme time pressure to come up with a tightly-scripted 22-24 minutes a dozen times per season (per writer) does not introduce some impatience for more leisurely forms?

Said another way, Ken, did you find yourself punching up and editing FOUR FUNERALS AND A WEDDING as it played out?

Frank Beans said...

I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but somehow I got the feeling you were being sarcastic here...

gottacook said...

I also saw 2001 first-run, in Cinerama, as a pre-teen. (Its running time had actually been longer for its first few public showings in NYC; Kubrick then trimmed it by 17 minutes to about 2:20.)

I prefer to think of 2001 as wide rather than long. This is difficult to articulate, but it's also the impression I get from Schubert's last piano sonata (in B-flat), especially if the repeat in the first movement is taken.

BADuBois said...

Nailed it. Well done.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Sounds like GRAN TORINO, whose first draft was allegedly written on cocktail napkins.

Bob said...

Hilarious, Ken! Then I realized you also fairly accurately described "Rocky Balboa", a definite guilty pleasure of mine. Now I can say it's an Art House Film. Thank you!

Louis Burklow said...

It's funny that Jack Nicholson will be in the Hollywood version of "A Man Called Ove" because I thought Ken was describing "As Good As It Gets" as well as arthouse movies.

Mike said...

And the sad thing is: the film described is more interesting than most of the formulaic feel-good drivel that's come out of Hollywood in the past few decades.

Now where's your review of Toni Erdmann - two hours & forty minutes of German comedy?

MikeN said...

If it's George Clooney, you take a regular movie and run it at half speed, and the critical raves will fly in.

Kaleberg said...

I saw the original release of 2001 too. I was 14 then, and I too thought it was slow. Still, the special effects were great. I was too young to drop acid, though I heard that this improved the pacing.

I just saw La La Land, and liked it. It was really creative and imaginative, but Emma Stone's role was massively underwritten. Given that she had a lot of screen time, she was a cipher. I think I know more about Rosemary DeWitt's character. She plays Ryan Gosling's sister for maybe a minute. The music was good. The dancing was good. The acting was great. They just needed to hire someone to turn Mia into a character, ideally a writer.

Joey Bear said...

Friday Question: Do you have any favorite fan theories about the shows you've worked on, or others, that you or someone else came up with?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken: you might find interesting this analysis of Amazon's latest quarterly numbers, which goes into some detail in the interests of figuring out what Amazon's video revenues are and what budget it has allocated to financing new work:


D. McEwan said...

Well, except for the bleak setting, you described Mr. Holmes with Sir Ian McKellan, and it does have a 1947-set scene in Hiroshima, and that's about as bleak as you can get.

D. McEwan said...

"Jahn Ghalt said...
I'm old enough to have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey in first release (I was nine). I didn't then know it was the rare SF Art Film. I understand that one is way too slow and oblique for Gen Y and Millenials.
(and what you all think?)"

I saw 2001 in its original "Cinerama" release (Actually Super-Panavision 70. My Uncle Mack worked for Cinerama and is one of the men who created and developed Super-Panavision 70, first used in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) in 1968, when I was 18, as did Ken, same age. He writes about it in his book, The Me Generation By Me. He didn't like it much, but read his version of it.

I reacted to it more like Gottacook:

"gottacook said...
I also saw 2001 first-run, in Cinerama, as a pre-teen. I prefer to think of 2001 as wide rather than long. This is difficult to articulate, but it's also the impression I get from Schubert's last piano sonata (in B-flat), especially if the repeat in the first movement is taken."

I loved it then, and love it still. I was in college then, so I don't know if I ever saw it first-run when not-stoned. (I saw it in its original release at least 5 times.) Even if I'd gone non-stoned, if you walked into the men's room at intermission and took a couple deep breaths, you'd be plenty stoned for the psychedelic conclusion. I still watch the Blu-Ray at least once a year, sometimes oftener. It has never bored me, stoned or not-stoned.

I should add that I liked the George Clooney version of Solaris very much also, however my reaction to the original Russian version of Solaris was the reaction 2001 haters report for 2001, way too long, way too slow, way too boring. (Next to the Russian Solaris, 2001 is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) Maybe if I hadn't seen the Clooney version first, so I'd have the mystery to sustain my interest, I'd have liked the Russian version better.

That year, 1968, I went to a science fiction one-day conference. One speaker was the infamous Forry Ackerman, who was raving about Planet of the Apes, also then brand-new and, according to Forry, the Holy Grail of sci-fi movies. He over-praised it immensely. I had seen it, of course, and found it an entertaining piece of nonsense, very unintentionally camp, featuring silly make-ups, sub-par writing (Serling could and did do better) and the wretched "acting" of Charleton Heston, while the folks who actually could act, like Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell, were imprisoned behind those nonsensical make ups. I did not consider it a movie for adults, but rather a rousing kids' entertainment, A-level claptrap. (With an ending in which the Statue of Liberty FACES THE WRONG WAY! Either the nuclear war destroyed the American continent entirely, and the sea rushing into the giant pit emptied the Atlantic Ocean, or the force of a nuclear blast caused the Statue to twirl around 180 degrees, because the ocean is on the wrong side of the statue in the movie, a HUGE goof I never see mentioned in writings about that movie.)

So I raised my hand and asked, "What about 2001?" Forry gave me a pained look, like I'd just brought up Plan 9 From Outer Space as a great movie. He just said, "The less said about that bore, the better, but boy oh boy, Planet of the Apes..."

I'd been reading Forry since I was 12 years old. It was at that moment that I realized I had outgrown Forry Ackerman, who was raving on about basically a fairly well-done kids movie but was bored by 2001, a movie aimed at thoughtful adults. It was a shock to reach a moment when I realized, at 18, that I now had better taste than the editor/writer who had played a large role in shaping my tastes. I'd passed him.

Now I feel like revisiting 2001 again, so excuse me as I turn on the Blu-Ray player.

Jahn Ghalt said...

too young to drop acid

Rumor is that returning viewers, of suitable age and suitable connections, would try to time the dose to kick in around the time of the star gate sequence.

Thing is, even "recreational" doses last hours. Sequence was about ten minutes. At least it was possible to hang out in 1968-69 for the next show.

Jahn Ghalt said...

saw 2001 in Cinerama

That could be fun - especially in the "sweet spot".

I saw it again at age 16-ish in "70 mm" (which was probably how I saw it in 1968). This was on a date - no bases whatever. Thing is - Disneyland was 5-6 hours away by jet.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Brilliant, and thank you. I never have to watch an "art house" film again. My experience has been that only 40% of what the actors say is audible. Or maybe I should see an ENT.

Natalie Morisset said...

I was laughing as I read this and replayed Driving North (a recent Aussie arthouse film) in my head. Replace the cat with a dog and delete the requirement for cemetery scenes, and it's all there.