Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Interview with Brian Trenchard-Smith

Brian Trenchard-Smith is one of the great genre directors, so much so that he is one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite directors. Quentin dedicated Kill Bill to Mr. Trenchard-Smith prior to Kill Bill's Australian premiere. I first met Brian at the Not Quite Hollywood premiere in 2008. Here is my vid talking to Brian, Mark Hartley and legendary Aussie producer Antony I. Ginnane.

1) Do you recall when you were first struck with the notion that you wanted to be a filmmaker? How did you begin to pursue this goal?

We lived in the small English village of Odiham in Hampshire. 3000 people, 7 pubs, one picture palace - The Regal. I was 13 years old, and for the first time I was allowed to go to the movies on a winter’s night by myself. (My mother, bless her, was a little over-protective, hence my later flirtation with stunts.) To get to the Regal on the outskirts of town, I had to walk through the cemetery of the Norman era church. Dark shadows. Wisps of fog. Knowing I was going to see a film crafted by a director dubbed the Master of Suspense made the graveyard all the spookier. That night I settled into the theater to see Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO

When VERTIGO began with the stunning Saul Bass title sequence propelled by Bernard Herrmann’s score, something took hold of me. I had seen films before, but this time I was transported into a new universe, rich in color, dark in motivation. My first encounter with an anti hero. And who better to confuse your loyalties than the inherently sympathetic James Stewart.

Of course, at age 13, some of the moral dilemmas and sexual undertones escaped me, but the film took me on an emotional thrill ride. I loved the way it made me feel, and I knew then and there that I wanted to make other people feel that way too. Thus my ambition was born. Luck and persistence gave me opportunity. My pleasure became my vocation. Obviously, I am no Hitchcock. I am no fencing champion either, but I still compete.

As to the how, I pursued my goal by getting into the film industry anywhere I could. Initial attempts in England were thwarted by the ACTT (UK film union) policy of a closed shop. So I went to Australia, the land of my father, and got a job in a TV news department as a film editor. Then I moved into TV promos, which in turn led to a US company National Screen Service hiring me to make trailers in the UK. Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West was one I did. Then the Australian Channel Nine Network made me an offer I could not refuse: come back to run the network promos AND make programs for us. After a couple of years doing that, I formed my own company and made my first independent production the 50 minute dramatized doco THE STUNTMEN which won an award in Australia. I was up and running thereafter as a freelance film maker.

2) You have been making films from the early seventies, what changes (positive/negative) have you seen to the film industry over the years?

On the positive side, the new technology has brought fantasy and spectacle within the grasp of the low budget film maker. In regards to the negative aspects of the film industry, Hollywood eats its young and discards its old. In the piranha pool of studio politics, executives prefer the sizzle to the steak. They confuse good photography with good direction. MTV has dumbed down story telling. Then there's piracy, made easier by the new technology. How do you protect copyright and monetize the internet? The list of negatives that assail the business we love is long and multiplying. But we must battle on...

3) What are some of the challenges that face filmmakers today? How do you overcome them?

It's a very crowded and noisy marketplace out there, made more competitive by the shrinking economy, the downsizing of drama production, the high cost of theatrical release. But, as I said, we must battle on.

4) Your films have had a lot of great action scenes and you've worked with some great stunt people, i.e. Grant Page, was there ever a stunt you had planned that you said was far too dangerous to attempt? What were some of your personal favorite stunts you have put on film?

We never planned a stunt then ruled it too dangerous. We often studied the probabilities, made predictions, modified it or broke it down into more manageable sections. The one stunt Grant will never do again is the leopard fight in DANGERFREAKS. You cannot predict a leopard. It's hard to pick favorites but the film STUNTROCK holds a special place for me.

5) How has your approach to shooting an action sequence evolved over the years?

As far as shooting action goes, I’m in favor of quick cutting, but against turning a fight scene into a blizzard of telephoto images. My cinema brain likes to process fast, but in order to maximize my enjoyment of the sequence, my information organizer needs to be reminded regularly of the spatial relationships between participants. The framing must also take into account that invisible proscenium arch through which we tend to see our daily lives. We need to step back, if only for a flash, to the standpoint of the witness. The prevailing wisdom is to keep the audience inside the action for maximum involvement. I believe this only works with the support of interwoven images that show the participants head to toe engaged in a brief dynamic movement across the frame. The close quarters style has been in vogue for a while, perhaps geared to capturing the attention span of gamers. But I think audiences sometimes can be just as riveted by a sustained action being depicted in one shot.

6) Lastly, one of my favorite things about film making are the great stories you hear about the actual process of creating a film. Is there a story you wouldn't mind sharing during the making of one your films?

Here is a day on one of my film sets. It's late in the day and the film crew is making the final preparations for a complicated shot. Dolly track has been laid to converge on a tree with sprawling roots. I'm looking at my watch as we are losing time. The Guest Star Who Has Seen It All watches nearby with bemused interest. I'm looking at my watch again, as if willing the minute hand to stop, and if possible go backwards. Fluff and Buff, the hair and make-up artists, dab sweat from the brow of the Actor, standing at the base of the tree. Given that the temperature is over 100 degrees, this is a noble but futile effort. The Actor is anxious.
The source of the Actor’s anxiety arrives on the set, his partner in the scene, a male with dangling testicles the size of grapefruit. Sudan, a large African movie lion, is led out of the bushes on a chain by two Trainers. Two other Trainers follow, carrying short poles. As the Trainers tether the lion to a spike embedded beside the far end of the dolly track, Sudan yawns, and licks his lips to cool them.

Everything is in place for the take. The Trainers have been positioned out of shot to protect both the Actor and camera crew, should the lion stray from his designated path. The collar round Sudan’s neck is concealed beneath his shaggy mane, and the trailing leash masked by his body. The Actor has practiced limping backwards while swinging a burning firebrand to deter the advancing beast. The dolly grip and operator have rehearsed the camera move that will keep the lion on screen right with his retreating victim on screen left. It’s a travelling geography shot that will add tension when inter-cut with compatible dolly shots on the faces of the lion and the Actor.

I want the audience to see the lion and the Actor in the same shot; not a static shot, which could be achieved by the elements being photographed separately with a locked-off camera, then fused in the lab, with the vertical split disguised by a tree trunk in the close background. This would spare the Actor any proximity to the King of Beasts. No. I want a Movie Shot, not a get-it-done-move-on episodic approach, but a sense that the camera is almost mounted on the flank of the lion as it slowly closes in on its prey.

 The time for this glorious cinematic moment has arrived.

The Prop master lights the firebrand again. The 1ST AD calls for turnover in Spanish.
The crew, a well oiled machine, commence their respective duties. The Chief Trainer calls commands to the lion.

I'm hovering beside the camera, which is keeping pace with the ambling lion. Sudan is fascinated by the firebrand, and reacts to its movements. The Actor is In The Moment! Everything is working perfectly.
At this point the TRANSPORTATION CAPTAIN arrives on set to watch the shot. The 1st AD sees him, and a long simmering feud chooses this moment to erupt.

The tension-meter on the set spikes. Hungry lion, anxious actor handling fire, two departments inching towards civil war, complex dolly shot, etc. It’s understandable. But the net effect of the expanding angst is to push the Actor into the truth zone. It’s a great performance, swinging from fear to rage and back again. Meanwhile, the other drama continues.

Oh, boy! Now we’ve gone to Def Con 4. After soiling each other’s mothers, there is only one stage the conflict can move to…The Slap.

The Transportation Captain slaps the 1st AD’s face, not to inflict physical pain, more of a formal gesture, a challenge. Some men go red with anger. The 1st AD’s complexion goes pasty white. His eyes blaze. Detonation is immanent. Luckily members of both departments seize the potential combatants and hustle them to separate corners of the jungle.
The Lion sits down at the end of its leash, awaiting reward. The Actor has started to enjoy himself. Lions? Hah, they’re pussies. The Director calls for take 2. There’s no producer on the set to stop him.

This actually happened. Almost twenty years ago. The Actor was Canada’s great Chuck Shamata, whom I have cast in two movies since. The Guest Star was former Tarzan Ron Ely. The Lion Trainers were the incomparable Boone Narr and Hubert Wells, and the Director obsessed with getting a tie-in shot was yours truly.
So the purpose of this story is the issue of conflict resolution. Every movie mixes good intentions under pressure with powerful egos. There Will Be Blood, if you do not head these situations off at the pass. I had ample warning that the clash of personalities was gathering momentum, but chose to ignore it. Naturally Murphy’s Law applied, at the most precarious moment. So I have learned over the years to develop an ear for seismic pre-shocks, and use diplomacy, humor, bribery, alcohol, whatever it takes to help the parties see each other’s virtues. Too often crews work in an atmosphere of politics, blame and fear. No one gives their best under those circumstances. Part of a director’s job is to set the tone in the workplace, encourage communication, and make everybody’s hard work FUN.

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