Setting the tone
Video: Setting the toneSetting the tone provides you with in-depth training on Video. Taught by SBIFF as part of the 2010 SBIFF Producers' Panel: Movers and Shakers
Setting the tone provides you with in-depth training on Video. Taught by SBIFF as part of the 2010 SBIFF Producers' Panel: Movers and Shakers
As a sponsor of the 25th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, lynda.com is delighted to put you in the front row of four fascinating panel discussions with some of Hollywood's top filmmakers, including a number of Golden Globe, Emmy, Grammy, and Academy Award winners and nominees. Join us for the producer's panel featuring Jonas Rivera (Up) and Jon Landau (Avatar).
Setting the tone
(Music playing.) Patrick Goldstein: Ivan, Up in the Air has such a wonderful what I would call tone. It's comedic, but it has an air of melancholy to it as well and was that always there in the script or did that emerge during filming? Ivan Reitman: Well, that was the remarkable thing about Jason's screenplay. It really was there, the kind of conflict between the humor and the emotionality of the truth of the sort of very sad situation actually.
I have to commend Jason because really from the first day of shooting, he was able to walk this very careful line of making the funny scenes truly funny, and making the journey much easier to take. One of the things I always drummed into him as his dad making comedy movies was, why comedies are so tough is that you really have to get the tone just right.
If you step over and they're too silly or too stupid, even things that are funny cease to be funny. It's what's tricky on the set. You have heard this stuff so often, that there is a tendency especially if you're starting out to try to push for more and that pushing for more actually robs the comedic moments of their comedy. Whatever lesson he learned from hanging out on my sets over the years, really he seems to be a master of tone at a very young age.
I think frankly I don't know how he does it. It's really- it's great. Jon Landau: Good upbringing. Patrick Goldstein: Jonas- In the Pixar films, certainly with Up, again, there is a remarkably consistent tone and I'm so I guess willfully ignorant about the process of animated films. Does that come during when the voice actors come in? Do you know it then, do know it in the script phase? Jonas Rivera: You hope you identify it in the script phase and we certainly with Up, Pete Docter put together not just a script but a story reel.
We could see the kind of the tone, especially in the beginning of the film which there is very little dialogue. He really wanted this kind of almost Frank Capra setup and this silent montage and then, where the story actually begins. He kept saying he wanted this to feel like one of the older films, like an old movie. He tells I want to almost make a throwback. And we thought what is that? We looked a lot of old movies, and we looked at lot of old even animation, the old Disney's. The 30s pre-war films and there is a certain cadence that takes their time, which is very hard to do and rare in animation.
Animation is all about the frame range and what's the cut and get to it and the gag and we want it to breathe. So it was sort of the goal. There is one thing that happened and we talked about this, when I was a kid, my dad, I remember, I will never forget, took me see Raiders of the Lost Art, which is the opposite of slow and tone, but it does play like an old movie in a way. When we were there, I'll never forget this, my dad said, oh, we have to take Pop to comes to see this, his dad, and that was such a cool thing and we talked about this a lot, like we want to make a movie that you would take your grandparents to go see, like it should feel of that era, but be now which is a tall order and it was sort of this ethereal thing.
But yeah, there was the Pete Docter, he is the sweetest... These films to some degree are self portraits of the director I think. They really are who these people are and Up is no different and Pete just brings his gentle soft touch to it. He is just really this kind of, he can't fake it and he really is like both a 10 year old kid and an old man at the same time. So I don't know my job was to try to help preserve that through the minute detail of animating a shot frame by a frame and with Pete's direction, I think we landed it there. Patrick Goldstein: Lawrence, the other movie that I would think where the tone could have, one like little moment, could have really sent it awry is Bastards.
Are you able to feel it when you're in the room, meaning on the set and when it's working, when it's not and is there anything, again, you're able to do in a constructive way, to note when it might have gone little over the top? Lawrence Bender: It's interesting because listening to everyone talk there are a couple of things leading up to that. In terms of the research and then the script and then the tone. Quentin had been working on this for ten years, had done an enormous amount of research.
He could be like many professorships on this period of World War II and Nazi- occupied France, it's extraordinary. We went to the Yad Vashem in Tel Aviv. He kind of knew everything that was in that building, it was pretty amazing. Then after all this research, he throws it all the way and then just and as if there is no resources, and then it unconsciously comes into his head.
But then when we're shooting, well, when he finished the script, that is the script. That's the Bible, that's God, that's our church and it's rare that anyone really wants to change it and every once in a while someone will have suggestion, but certainly there is no ad-libbing because you're lazy, because you can't remember the dialogue. Not to say he is not up for suggestions, not at all, but it's one of his wonderful things is the dialogue that he has written is poetry, it's not poetry, it's rap, it's not rap, it's music, it's not music.
It's this amazing thing that he does, which takes you to the tone which is, you know, he is one of those guys that-- everyone on this panel is great-- have these wonderful directors. He is like the only guy that when you see that movie, you know it's a Tarantino movie. It just is. It is a mixture of-- It's comedy but it's not a joke. So I know I've been? (inaudible) Because it's hard to know what's funny and what's not funny really until you have an audience and you're screening it. And if even the people are laughing on the set, it doesn't mean it's funny when you see it.
Some of the greatest moments in cinema are when an actor wasn't funny on the set or wasn't crying in the scene, held it back and allowed the audience to cry for that person. So it is very tricky and it takes the director to really understand that. So with Quentin, he has that unique kind of-- it's like I say it's not sometimes-- by the way, always, not always but there are many times where there is a lot of humor on the set and people are laughing.
There are many times when like when Hitler walked on to his set. Mark Boal: And he is always good for a laugh, by the way. You know what I mean? (Laughter.) A joke a minute! Lawrence Bender: It was really bizarre when Hitler walk down to the set and it was a bizarre moment, because none of us had-- He was a wonderful actor, a well known stage actor in Germany. But we had not seen him in his full makeup, the special effects makeup, and he walked out and Quentin, Quentin always refers to everybody by their character name.
So to Brad, he doesn't say hey Brad, he says Aldo. Eli Roth, the Bear Jew, whatever and everyone just walking on and so in walks Hitler, and he goes, "Hello, mien Fuhrer." (Laughter.) When he walked on, everyones on the set tweaking lights and doing all the things and everyone just stops. It was one of those days where there was very little said on that setting, and just a small digression.
I felt sorry for Hitler during lunch. No one was sitting with him. (Laughter.) He was like, he was sitting by himself. I had spent a bunch of time in rehearsal and-- Patrick Goldstien: And being a nice Jewish boy. (Laughter.) Lawrence Bender: Having some of my relatives massacred in the Holocaust I felt there was my duty to talk to Hitler. So I went over and it was really odd because I sat down next to this wonderful man. I found myself making the weirdest small talk with him.
It was very awkward and I eventually said well, uh, have a nice lunch and I got up and laughed because I felt so bad, because I was like- I just never felt such so awkward. That was a digression, sorry. But in terms of going back to tone, there is some things in the movie like I was saying, Quentin-- I was thinking to myself. I did't actually say it to him. I didn't want to break his creative flow. I was thinking I don't know if that works. Every time I had that feeling, it was wrong and some of the nicest, funniest stuff in the movie were things like I don't know about that.
He has this uncanny feeling. It was just extraordinary to-- And he loves actors, and actors love him. It's like his church are his actors in a sense because he feels like, like he creates these characters on the script and he really lets these characters write the movie. It is really what he does. He didn't set out to write a movie where Hitler, I'm sure everyone has seen the movie, I won't give up the end, but you know where he kills Hitler.
He didn't start out that way but his characters went out in the direction. Same with Reservoir Dogs. He didn't start out when they were all going to know what's going to happen like that. So... Patrick Goldstein: Ivan, I want to ask one other question. There is something, one of the really striking things in Up in the Air is the appearance of the real people telling their stories. How they reacted to being fired. It's something that really everyone I think has really remarked on how that grounds the movie.
Where did that come from and how was that to execute? Ivan Reitman: Well they weren't there in the original, in that screenplay that Jason first turned in and just as when we were getting the okay, the bottom fell out of the market, everything changed in our economy. This is I guess where good producerial influence comes. I said, we can't ignore that. You can't just tell exactly the same story today that you could even two months ago.
I think you have to pay attention to it. He said, yeah, I know but this is really all about these characters, and I could tell he was thinking about them and trying to find a solution without losing this kind of careful tone that was constructed between the drama of this sort of lonely man, really lonely man's life. He suddenly came to me one day and he said, I think I know what to do. Because there were number of scenes where this character was firing people but they were all scenes that Jason had written.
And they're mostly comedic scenes. They're actually very strangely funny and ironic but set against the kind of economy of let's say three years ago. He said, I'm thinking I should go interview a number of people that have actually being fired, who just lost their jobs. I'm going to film them and see what happens. This thing-- that sort of initial idea sort of evolved and by the time he got to Detroit for his preproduction, he put an ad in the newspaper and said anybody, I'm going to do a-- I think he said he was doing a documentary on unemployment and job loss and if anybody wants to come in and talk about it, so they got hundreds of applications.
I think he finally filmed about 60 interviews. First of all, the people, Jason would ask them like questions about their real-life and then after about ten minutes, he said look, I want you to relive that moment. This gentleman here is going to play the HR guy who was firing you and just save whatever you happened to say the day you actually got fired or what you'd hope you had said or wished you had said and just be as real as you were at that time and just go and let's see what happens.
I wasn't there for any of that shooting but I did see all the dailies, all the footage that was the result of it. You could see them immediately go. They were like the best actors who use sense memory to go back to a real situation. It was so raw in their lives. It was very natural for them to go there and it's very, very effective and it grounds the movie in a reality and a weight. Patrick Goldstein: In terms of the story sense of things, Jonas, a lot of times these wonderful, immaculately beautifully constructed movies, it turns out that in the beginning the movie, the story and the script is gone in an entirely wrong direction and at some point they just stop, throw it out, or throw it out a lot of the ingredients and start new.
How much of that happened with your film and again, what's your role in those story sessions? Jonas Rivera: Yeah. Well, it's true. We spent a lot of time, five years in production on this thing and three of those years were just in the story room. Storyboarding the whole thing, cutting it, looking at on story reel, throwing it away. We made the movie probably 15 times and 13 of them it was a really bad movie. In case of Up, it was no different. We started off, it was this really great, I thought when Pete pitch it to me, it was one of the most magical things I'll remember in my career is this because it was such a bizarre premise.
That's one of things that made it a tall order I think even for us in our studio to get a green light, if you will, Because I joke now, if you think about it as a description, it actually sounds awful. It's like okay, it's a movie about an old man and his wife and they can't have kids and they're going to lose the house and when then she dies, it's going to be great. It will be really good. (Laughter.) But that's just a setup until the story actually begins. What I do is I nurtured along, I remind Pete constantly like how this felt when you first told me.
When he first pitched me the movie, and he kind of went into that whole setup of them as kids and the montage of their life and her, us losing Ellie and then Carl walking home alone with his balloons and he said that's just that's where the story begins. And I just about died. This is phenomenal and then the whole house going up, it just had this magic to it. I just would remind of him of that day because when he pitched it to me, I came out of the conference room where we went and I called my wife and I say, I love you. It just made me like crave my family and that's the theme of the picture.
So my job was this as a kind of a compass to try to keep it back to that. I was wrong a few times. There was a whole different end of the movie that I thought I swore I would have stuck my career on this, this is the coolest thing. And it was all about, I don't know if you've seen it, but Muntz, the old guy who was the explorer, had actually found the fountain of youth up there. That's what they were after. They were out there and this is a great idea. I thought why don't we board the whole thing out and the bird actually laid the egg, that shell was the fountain youth and a hundred years had gone by and this guy from the twenties had not aged.
I swore it was the greatest thing and we boarded the whole thing out. I thought it was wonderful. We watched it, and even Lasseter liked it and Pete went away and two days later he came back and he said, it's wrong. It's shifting too much on the villain and you couldn't see that until we have the whole thing boarded out. So even some of the things we had set up for that third actor were wrong and like a house of cards it fell over. We went back to it and rebuilt the whole thing up with the kind of that original premise and kept it about Carl. For us, and I am sure there is problems in every picture, it's like keeping it about your main character and keeping that narrative going forward in that character's shoes.
When there's so much entertainment value in all the other ancillary characters that come along, that seems to be the real trick. In animation, it's probably no different but we just watch that on our story reels. And we'll actually get Brad Bird and John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Brenda Chapman, all the directors, all the producers of Pixar in a room. We'll screen it and it's some of those most awful meetings I've ever been in because we'll just have it out. Brad Bird will get up and make no qualms about going "That's horrible! You guys had it better here." Thanks Brad. You're taking your notes and we will do that for each other's pictures until we feel we've got them in a place to make them.
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