Hey, all. "Moriarty" here. Well, here we are. I'm wrapping up this very special personal weekend with my favorite people in the world… all of you, the readers of AICN. Before I say anything or spout off on this or that or climb up on my weekly soapbox, I want to thank you for being so kind and so interesting over the last few years. When I opened the doors of The Moriarty Labs, I had no idea how much fun it was going to be. Sure, I always thought being an Evil Genius sounded cool, but this has all been beyond my expectation. I thank everyone I have ever talked to about a story, everyone who's ever written me mail (even the bad ones), and every filmmaker who we have ever discussed (even the ones whose work we didn't like). I never made the decision that I was going to get this tangled up with Knowles and his entire circus of spies. It just happened, and I'm grateful it did. As this site grows and changes over the next few years, and as The Moriarty Labs and Harry Lime orchestrate a joint crime wave of our own, I hope I am lucky enough to continue this amazing dialogue with all of you in this forum and others.
Scared of the SHADOW
When Knowles got back from Cannes last week, the first thing he did was call me. He loves to gloat. It's probably the thing that most defines him. He knew that many years ago, Harry Lime and I had envisioned a film about Murnau and his relationship with Max Shreck, star of the classic NOSFERATU. In our idea, Shreck was a mystery, possibly a dream, maybe a vampire. When I first heard of BURNED TO LIGHT (the original title of Lion's Gate's upcoming release SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE), I was heartbroken, and so was Harry Lime. This sort of thing happens from time to time. You simply accept it as a writer. What inspired you could well inspire someone else. Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything. I know that many people accused me of being so harsh in my SIMON BIRCH review (a Hallenbeck-style abuse of my outlet here) because I wanted to adapt John Irving's A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY myself, and maybe there's truth in that. I try to go to movies open to the experience, though. I always wanted to make a film about Jim Morrison, but after seeing Val Kilmer's uncanny collaboration with Oliver Stone, I felt like someone else had done it so well, there was no need. I loved that, and it saved me the five years of work and the grueling shoot and the massive production. All I had to do was go to the Dome and pay $6. Beauty.
When I saw the trailer for SHADOW, I was underwhelmed. I thought it was strange, hinting at a broad comic tone that totally undercut any potential creep factor from what looked like elaborate makeup on Willem Dafoe. A few people mentioned to me that they had seen the film as time wore on and the finished film sat at Lion's Gate. Reactions were mixed at best. I genuinely had no idea what to expect from the experience. And then Harry had to go and see the damn thing. He even took the trip to do it, really rubbing in that part. "It's only playing that one show at Cannes," he said on the phone that night. "You won't see it 'till the fall." Well, Knowles, never underestimate me or the powerful motivator that fear can be with my henchmen. I told Mongo that I wanted into Lion's Gate, and I set him to work cracking the offices for the company in the Variety building on Wilshire. It's a tricky area to tunnel in, being within spitting distance of the tar pits. Mongo managed it, though, so that late Thursday night, sometime after 2 am, I entered the Lion's Gate offices with John Robie and Gregor Samsa, determined to find a copy of the film. We did so quickly, found a conference room down the hall (which may not have even been theirs), and watched the film.
I think the thing that's most impressive about E. Elias Merhige's film is the way it never really becomes anything you expect it to be. For one thing, it's not about the real making of NOSFERATU in any way. This is a fantasy that takes that real event as a jumping off point. Anyone who complains about the factual inaccuracies of this film doesn't get the point. It's not meant to be real. It's a dream about movies, captured and shared. It's not a full fledged horror film. It's not a black comedy. It's not an homage to silent horror. Yet, at the same time, it's all those things together. The screenplay by Steven Katz is deceptively simple, a mood piece, a fever dream. It's fitting, since it's demonstrated early on that F.W. Murnau is not just a filmmaker, but is in fact drunk on the process, passionate to the point of mania. NOSFERATU, a film that starts life as an adaptation of Bram Stoker's DRACULA, only to be changed due to lack of cooperation from Stoker's estate, is his latest obsession as the film opens. He manipulates all those around him to get what he wants, with no real regard for them. In particular, we see him using all his strange charisma to cajole his lead actress, Greta, to leave Berlin and the busy theater season to go shoot location sequences for NOSFERATU. I enjoyed the stylized quality of the process of filmmaking as presented here. I think Merhige is deeply fond of the iconography of the era, and he does some beautiful work at setting up the fervor with which Murnau works to capture his images on film.
The thing that really makes this film special, though, is the same thing that makes the original NOSFERATU such a potent piece of fright cinema now, nearly a century away from when it was made: the spectral presence of Max Shreck. In the case of this new film, it is Willem Dafoe who seems to channel this haunting figure. From very early on, the film makes the case that Shreck is not an actor, as Murnau keeps reassuring his cast and crew, but is in fact a real vampire. We see that Murnau and Shreck have some sort of devil's deal, an agreement that will allow Shreck to feed at some point on the other side of the production schedule. Murnau has rescued Max from obscurity. He is an ancient creature, nothing compared to what he was in his glory days. He manages to be a creation of great pathos and humor and revulsion in the same moment. It's a remarkable performance by Dafoe, one of the highlights of his career. I haven't liked him this much on film since LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, and he vanishes further into this role, becoming invisible as the actor we know. He's so at home in the body and the face of Shreck that after a while, it's impossible to imagine him looking any other way.
There are levels of wit at work here. Some of it is broad, and that's the strangest material in the film, overt humor against this horrific, claustrophobic setting. In particular, cast members Eddie Izzard and Cary Elwes manage to give wry comic performances that never once violate the reality that's been set up. They're funny, but it's in context. Catherine McCormack adds a level of heat to the film with her portrayal of the morphine-addicted lead actress Greta Schroeder. Udo Kier is used to maximum effect as the film's harried producer, Albin Grau. All of these performers bring different styles to the film, but somehow Merhige manages to create something uniform and ethereal from that amazing collision. There is something about the image of Murnau behind the camera, cranking the film himself, one eye closed, his whole world narrowed down to what he sees through that lens, that strikes me deeply as a filmmaker. That moment… the act of capturing some essential splinter of time and preserving it forever… that's what filmmaking is about. At its heart, that's the art of it all. Figuring out what moment you're trying to record, and knowing what you have to do to get it. Murnau's quest drives him to unspeakable lengths, and there are other filmmakers who have done and said less than admirable things, who have been less than perfect in their fervor to capture something on film. I don't think this film knows quite where it stands on Murnau's more monstrous behavior, whether it condones it or not, and in some ways, I don't think it matters. Once Murnau reaches the final scenes of this film, he acts the only way he can act. He does the only thing he can do. The feeling of inevitability that grips the final 20 minutes of this film might frustrate those looking for suspense. For me, though, there is horror here… real and potent. There is the surrender of something human in the pursuit of something great, and that's a brutal, sad thing to see happen to any character. The fact that Murnau doesn't even seem to realize what price he's paid is what gives SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE its real and lasting weight, to my mind. I hope you get the chance to see this film, which I'm sure will present Lion's Gate with a unique marketing challenge. A film this special is worth the effort.
MORIARTY DID IT
I was recently engaged in an e-mail exchange with a reader from the site, someone who was outraged by something negative I wrote about a project. He dared me to justify my criticisms. "What have you ever done?" he asked. Normally, that question bothers me, but a recent experience made me examine the question seriously. I wrote back to him after thinking on it for a few days. "You ask me to define myself and my credentials. To you, I say that I am a lifelong film fan. I say that I am someone who takes the art form very seriously, who's been lucky enough to study the subject with some of the best teachers in the world in both practical and academic settings. I'm an award-winning dramatist. I'm a card-carrying member of the WGA. I'm the west coast editor of Ain't It Cool News. I'm Batman and Bruce Wayne, and I'm working my ass off." There's a credential I left off that list, though, and I'll admit… it was because I was wrestling with complex feelings about something I just saw.
Yes, that's right… it's time for a little session of "Full Disclosure With Moriarty." I figure it's only fair, especially as I ruminate on passing a birthday milestone, one of those big ages where you're supposed to reflect on who you are and what you've done. I frequently write about the process that films go through on this page, and it's always interesting to me to watch the arc of expectation with a film. It's one thing to watch a film come together from the outside though, and quite a different experience watching one come together that you're responsible for in some way. That's the process I'm just come to the end of in regards to a film called WALTER DID IT.
The process started almost five years ago, in New York City, in a Mexican restaurant where Harry Lime, myself, and a producer we were working with were all sharing a huge meal and a healthy drink tab. As we talked into the small hours of the morning, the producer entertained us with the most amazing stories about a former roommate of his, a total lunatic who had melted down in a series of ways. Harry Lime and I collect bad roommate stories, and one part of the story involving a rubber mask named "Henry" intrigued me. After that dinner ended, Harry Lime and I couldn't shake the story of "Henry." Combining some of those details with some of the other bad roommate stories we had collected led to a quick script called WALTER DID IT. It was written to be shot for no money -- two or three locations, a small cast, minimal action, a creepy film that would depend on vibe and upon the viewer really liking the main cast. The cast had to be three guys you wouldn't mind being stuck in this house with in this claustrophobic little story. We did five or six roundtable readings of the script with a group of actors we were working with, and everything seemed to be working. At the time, Harry Lime and I were planning to shoot the film ourselves, but plans changed, and we ended up with this great little script that everyone seemed to like, but which we weren't going to use. We built a webpage in which we talked about the aborted process, and as a result, we met Tom Makedon.
I've shared all the comments that are published here today with the guys who made this film. Some of them just came back at me with constructive responses, and some of them were genuinely hurt. That certainly is not the point of this column today. I have utmost respect for everyone who put any sort of effort forward in making WALTER DID IT something that exists on film, not just on the page. I may not agree with any of the choices you guys made, and it may kill me to watch the movie, but the fact is… you did it. You put your money and your time behind something you believed in, and you made a film. I know that when I first started talking with Tom Makedon, the film's producer and star, his enthusiasm for the idea of making WALTER was infectious and boundless. He's based in Chicago, and he explained to me about how he was going to be able to call in favors from all sorts of technical people in Chicago, and how he had managed to put together enough capital to make the film, and how he was planning to release it after he finished it. He was ambitious, and he was ready to start shooting immediately. When presented with Tom's energy, there was only one answer Harry Lime and I could give. We told him that we would happily let him use our script, and we ended up with a piece of the film on the back end in lieu of payment. Our investment into Tom's dream was the script, and we felt like it was an easy choice to make.
And then Tom began the process in Chicago of actually making his film, and we lost touch with him. For the next few years, all we would ever hear would be occasional phone messages about some vague progress, quick assurances from Makedon. And that was fine. To be honest, I told Harry Lime that I gave the film about a 30% chance of never getting finished. That's no slight to director/photographer John Terendy or Tom and his co-producer/co-star Luke Bennet. It's just a fact that when you're making a film in the under-$100,000 category, things can get tight, and expenses can sneak up on you, and things can go wrong that derail you. It happens. When enough time went by without hearing anything further about the film, I assumed that was the case with this film. Of course, what happens when you assume something?
I got a package in the mail about three weeks ago. The return address read "T. Makedon." I saw the name and a shock ran through me. I never expected to actually get the envelope in the mail, to be holding this thing, tangible, finished, watchable. I was momentarily nervous, almost panicked. I called Harry Lime, managed to get him to come out of hiding long enough to drop by the Labs for a viewing of the film. I also invited along John Robie and Gregor Samsa, wanting the opinions of people who weren't part of the film in any way. I even let Henchman Mongo sit in, figuring if it was good enough to keep him entertained and focused for longer than ten consecutive minutes, it was really working. By the time I got all of them gathered and we had our dinner ready and we were all settled in, I'd been in a state of anticipation for hours, feeling like there was some monstrous itch I couldn't quite scratch. I needed to see the movie. Finally we pressed play and sat back.
First, a brief synopsis of the film as originally envisioned: Three guys end up in a situation where they decide to rent a house together. All of them are survivors of fairly hideous roommate situations, and they're looking for something simple. The house they find comes fully furnished because the prior renters bailed without their stuff and without paying several months in back rent. On the mailbox is a single name… "Walter." One of the items they find in the house is a rubber mask, a disturbing face that they decide is the "Walter" that was referred to. Walter becomes the house joke. People play gags on each other while wearing the mask, or they hide the mask around the house to scare each other. He comes up in conversation like he's a real roommate. Eventually, Walter asserts a presence that seems to spiral out of control, and the roommates must figure out exactly how they can live with Walter and all he is capable of. The film was designed to be a psychological thriller with a smartass attitude, but never a slasher film or a horror movie. Mood over scares was our motto.
It's been three weeks since I've seen the film, and I still can't articulate fully why I dislike it so much. There's one obvious level, which is as a writer. I don't recognize my script. I don't think that just because I wrote something, it's the only way something can be done, but I know when I prefer something, and every time they made a choice in regards to our material, I disagree with the choice that was made. That's an experience that only I would have, though. No one else is going to be comparing it to the material with the same level of scrutiny. As a film viewer, though, I found myself to be distanced from the people onscreen. It's just a matter of chemistry. There's never any sense that Makedon, Bennet, and Mike Stratta engage. There's no life to their exchanges. That volatile chemistry between roommates… the theme the whole film hinges on… simply doesn't exist in the movie. In many ways, it's like we failed to communicate the idea of the film to them before they began shooting. They don't seem to have had any real plan for what the movie was about. They fall into the trap that so many first-time filmmakers do: the whole film is plot, and all the text is on the surface. There's nothing else to the movie. They stand in place and do their lines and cut to the next scene. There's no connective tissue to the movie, nothing that makes it a film. How do I explain? WALTER DID IT certainly looks like a film. It's professionally mounted. We're not talking about something that is unreleasable. Far from it. I think it's visually more polished than many more expensive films. But there's the difference between professional and passionate. So much of what works best for me in a film is the way information is presented, the relationship we have with particular actors in particular moments, the sense of space and color. For example, one part of the appeal of the opening of RESERVOIR DOGS is the performance work by everyone at the table. Another part of the appeal is the sheer silly cascade of words that Tarantino has given his actors. Yet another part of the appeal is that camera, roaming like a hungry shark over everything, trying to capture every little detail, drunk on the opportunity. There's a love of filmmaking to that moment that is infectious, and it doesn't matter what's being said. It's the joy that Tarantino brought to it that sucks you in, that makes it so instantly iconic when the men stride out of the diner. There's no sense in the filmmaking of WALTER DID IT that there's any room for that sort of thing. In the rush to get the story on film, understandable on a budget this size, they failed to make a complete picture. Despite the high level of the production quality, there's not a single sequence in the film that ultimately works as a whole. We are kept at arm's length from every event in the film, and the muddled cutting of the picture makes some major moments completely incomprehensible. Even having written the film, I was confused by several scenes. Not an encouraging sign.
If I had this bad a reaction to it, why mention it at all? Well, for a few reasons. First of all, I don't want anyone to think they can use this as a weapon against me. There's nothing wrong with making a film of any kind, good or bad. I'm glad I gave the script to Makedon and Bennet and Terendy. There was a TALK BACKER who kept asking questions about WALTER DID IT over the last year or so, acting as if he were Bob Woodward, sniffing around evidence of some multi-national conspiracy. I never answered his questions here because there was nothing to report. I've never planned to hide my association with any of my work. I may have enormous issues with the final cut of this film, but consider the source of these comments. Am I a trustworthy reporter in this circumstance? When my name appears as screenwriter on the film… and it's right there in the credits… then I have no real objectivity. That's what someone might say, anyway. I'd like to think I am able to view the film as an experience totally removed from my own ego, but I am still part of it, involved with it, and I still want to see Makedon and Bennet and Terendy and the others get their day in court.
Maybe I'm totally full of shit. Maybe someone else will see it and all the flaws that jump out at me and seem so obvious and so painful and so blinding wouldn't matter. Maybe someone else would see this and have a good time. According to Makedon, several distributors already have enjoyed what they've seen. I am fully willing to concede that this might be a case of me not being able to see past my personal baggage to find the gold that might be in there. Maybe someone will give him money to tweak the film, reshoot things that didn't work, expand on what they like. Maybe someone will look at it and just know how to sell it. Whatever the case, it would be criminal of me to discuss the picture and not give you a way to contact the other players in the story. If you're a distributor and you want to give WALTER DID IT a look, give Makedon a shout at his e-mail address and ask him to arrange it for you.
Yes, I think things are seriously wrong with WALTER DID IT, but when I think of the film, I don't see it as a wasted opportunity. I've learned something about the kinds of control I'm going to need over my work in order to be happy. I've learned about what happens when you let someone else rewrite your work and you don't see the rewrites. I've learned that enthusiasm and good intentions do not equal talent and craftsmanship. And when I think of the entire experience, I picture Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in one of my favorite moments from that classic movie. He's standing at a phone on a studio lot, talking to an executive. That amazing little smile of Depp's, the Ed Wood special, is plastered in place, and he is practically bobbing up and down. "What's that?" he says. "Worst film you ever saw? Well, my next one will be better. Hello? Hello?"
The first time I saw this moment, it got a bark of laughter from me, an explosion. Great delivery, great line. But each time since, that laugh has caught in my throat. There's something so naked, so beautiful about that spirit. "My next one will be better." That's ultimately what it's about, right? Doing the work. Having the experience. And hoping to God that you get something special out of it. Tom Makedon, Luke Bennet, and John Terendy made a film. They did it. And here's hoping their next one will be better. Harry Lime and I have a credit on this film. And here's hoping our next one will be better. And to all the people who gave of their time to be in the movie, who are looking forward to seeing themselves in it, here's to your next one being better. One day, WALTER DID IT could well just be an answer to a trivia question about one of the people involved with it, or maybe even all of them. Only time will tell. Whatever the case, I have had my say about the movie, and I look forward to seeing the response from the eventual court of public opinion.
SHOULD WE DECIDE TO ACCEPT IT?
I got an e-mail from someone associated with MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE 2 this past week asking me for a quote about the movie and my reaction to it. If I hadn't read WINDTALKERS this week, I'd be too depressed to answer. Let me explain. WINDTALKERS is John Woo's next film. It's an MGM picture, written by John Rice and Joe Batteer. The latest draft is dated January 28, 2000, but this is a project that's been kicking around for a while. Right now, Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach are set to star in the film, casting that delights me to no end. Beach, for those of you who didn't see SMOKE SIGNALS, is a wonderful young Native American actor. For those who did see the film, he's the guy who wasn't Thomas. He has an intense screen presence that is perfect for the part of Carl Wahzee. Nic Cage, who had such wonderful chemistry with Woo on the deliriously deranged FACE/OFF, has a role of real depth and warmth in the form of Joe Enders. The canvass that Woo is painting on with this story is WWII, and if there's any earlier Woo film that this script reminds me of, it's the masterful BULLET IN THE HEAD.
As I sat in the theater on opening night and watched the empty ballet of M:I2, my thoughts kept drifting to the script I knew I had waiting at home. I'm of mixed opinion on Woo's work here in America. I've had a chance to meet and speak with Woo on many occasions and have always found him to be charming, intelligent, sharp, surprisingly shy in some ways. For someone who is so canonized by the American film press, though, Woo really hasn't delivered on his promise. HARD TARGET is hard to hold against him, since it was recut without his input. BROKEN ARROW does nothing for me. FACE/OFF is glorious, magnificent trash as a script, and thanks to Woo, it's trash played out as opera, brilliantly staged and balletic in its absurdity. I thought that in many ways, it deflated several of the Woo "trademarks," and I thought it might signify the place where Woo finally connected, where he got started making great American films. With M:I2, he is crippled by a terrible screenplay, and his hands are tied by the film's restrictive PG-13 rating. This is not a John Woo film. It is something that approximates the experience. It is the BEATLEMANIA of John Woo films. It's a bloodless copy of a brilliant original, and that is its greatest disappointment. I come not to harp on Woo, though, but to praise him. He's found a winner with WINDTALKERS. To be honest, I think he could kick SAVING PRIVATE RYAN's ass and make one of the great war adventure films if he's not careful. It's that cool a script. The action in it is that intense and motivated and brutal and powerful. There's things that are written here that would push the envelope for onscreen intensity, but that's okay. This film earns the right to show us these images. This is a story that deals with racial tension in a smart and realistic light. This is a film that pays due respect to the sacrifices of all those who served in WWII. This is a script that wants to be a visceral ride, an experience that we've never had in a theater before, but it also wants to tell a small and realistic human story in front of this particular massive backdrop. I hope Woo is given the full support of MGM here. This is the single best project I've seen them greenlight at that studio in the entire time I've been working with AICN. Take that, MGM. You're making something potentially great. Congratulations. Now don't fuck it up.
And to those of you who wrote me about M:I2, telling me that I need to go easy on the movie, telling me "it's just a summer movie, they're all the same anyway" it makes my skin crawl to read this kind of comment. I guess I should be happy that the comment implies that there's still room for you to believe that there are films that are truly special. This attitude, though -- it's depressing. I wonder, do you think all music sounds the same? Do you think all paintings are alike? Are all books roughly equivalent? It's all just there to occupy your time. Nothing matters. It all just goes in one of the holes. Either it tastes good or it scans pretty on the rods and cones or it keeps your brain busy so you're not faced with the numbing horror of your own thoughts. Just occupy that time. Don't use it. Don't enjoy it. For god's sake, don't savor it. Just occupy it. Don't differentiate between experiences. No good art, no bad art. It's just buzzes and clicks and flashes of light. The sad part is that this is the kind of thinking that keeps movies like BATTLEFIELD EARTH and THREE TO TANGO and I DREAMED OF AFRICA or, yes, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 in production. The studios count on this blind acceptance of mediocrity to create some sort of return on this bland nothing they pump out, this product. On the one hand, it's depressing because every safe and mindless choice the studio makes keeps them from taking one chance, trying something different that time. All those single bad choices add up. I read a lot of great scripts every year that don't make it to the camera, that get stalled out in production because someone somewhere gets nervous, afraid a real idea or an innovative concept might somehow slip through. As long as sheeple keep sucking up drivel and saying, "Oh, it's okay... it's just movies," then the medium will continue to be thought of and treated like disposable crap, and these summer months will continue to be mixed blessings at best.