Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: October 2017

Writer and Director Dee Rees Discusses “Mudbound” and Talks to Susan about the Adaptation Process

Writer and Director Dee Rees Discusses Mudbound

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviewed Dee Rees and her Mudboundensemble cast.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Mudbound Cast

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviewed Dee Rees and her ‘Mudbound ensemble cast Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Jason Clarke in a thought-provoking discussion. Dee Rees previous projects include the critically acclaimed Pariah in 2011 and HBO’s Bessie in 2015.

Mudbound poignantly incorporates poetic voiceovers, shifting between the characters’ internal monologues as the story unfolds. Although set in Mississippi of the 1940s, this is not a typical period drama; the themes of oppression and violence powerfully reflect contemporary issues and a history repeating itself.

About Mudbound

An historical epic drama based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound details the daily hardships and vicissitudes of farm life in Mississippi during the post–World War II era. Two families, one white (the landlords) and one black (the sharecroppers), work the same miserable piece of farmland. Out of need and empathy, the mothers of the two families bond as their younger male relatives go off to war and learn that there is a world beyond racial hatred and fear.

REES:  “I wanted this to be good old-fashioned film. I wanted this to be the kind of film they don’t make anymore. I wanted to break out of the 90-minute artificial construct and just let the voices ring out, let the story live and have the audience become invested in the characters.”

Adaptation

For this publication, I recently wrote about writer and director Lucrecia Martel adapting Zama from a novel to a screenplay as well as other articles about adaptation, including Adapting Novels, Memoirs and Short Stories:  What to Keep and What to Cut.

I asked Dee Rees about the process of adapting the book to the screenplay.

REES: “Virgil Williams wrote the first adaptation of the script in 2015. Reading the script prompted me to read the book to see what else was there, and then I rewrote the script before we shot it.”

Rees went on to describe how the acting ensemble found other passages in the book they had questions about, which Rees then included into the script.

REES: “Carey Mulligan asked about a passage how Jamie would see her, and I put that in, then Jason found a passage about Henry on the land, so I put that in there. The whole sequence about Hap breaking his leg; I thought that should be included, and Hap’s occupation as a preacher because I thought it was important to show his faith, and the half-built church – in the book it’s fully built, but I wanted it more incomplete so it’s more symbolic.

I wrote a lot of individual monologues for the characters, like Hap’s monologue. I wrote, what good is a deed, and the play on words “deed” and “deed” and the fact that no matter how much he is invested in this land, he’ll never be vested. And Florence going to care for Lauren’s children, I wrote the meditation because it’s important to hear that chord of dissonance of her doing the very things she said she would never do. Then Ronsel leaving for war, I wrote that scene because it was important to establish Ronsel not just as the son of Hap and Florence, but a son of the community.

There were a lot of details I also included like when Hap and Florence slow dance, to show them as a loving sexual couple who talk about other things not just white people.  I wrote the candy bar scene between Florence and Ronsel to establish their special connection. We see Florence as this self-sacrificing person who will eat only one square, and wants to share.  I wanted to give dimension to the Jackson family, they didn’t just come with the house, it’s not just about the circumstances of their existence, they have agency, they have ideas about who they are.”

Character Parallels

REES: “The fathers. Henry and Hap both have a sense of disinheritance. Hap literally has his blood and sweat in the land; he can never take title to it.

What it means to be a mother. Florence has to come to terms with love and love can be a tool; by loving Laura’s children she can keep her own family intact. Florence and Laura are also linked by economic empowerment; they both have husbands who try to tell them what to do, and they have their small rebellions.

The brothers: Rosel and Jamie are linked by the trauma of war, shell-shock. They’re both not understood. They both are expected to step back into this context in which they no longer fit. In a way, they become more brothers than Henry and Jamie. It was interesting to have those parallels, and to ask: what is brotherhood?”

Final Words

REES: “I hope people take away from this film the fact that we can’t begin to tackle our collective history until we tear down our personal histories. More expansively, I think it’s about inheritance. It’s just not about race. It’s about what ideas we have inherited, what attitudes we have inherited, and what we are unconsciously passing on.”

A Netflix release: November 17, 2017

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

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Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

 

Sea Sorrow reframes ideas that refugees are from a far off land.”

— Vanessa Redgrave

 

About Sea Sorrow (From the NYFF)

Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a documentary filmmaker is a plea for a compassionate western response to the refugee crisis and a condemnation of the vitriolic inhumanity of current right wing and conservative politicians. Redgrave juxtaposes our horrifying present of inadequate refugee quotas and humanitarian disasters (like last year’s clearing of the Calais migrant camp) with the refugee crises of WWII and its aftermath, recalled with archival footage, contemporary news reports and personal testimony—including an interview with the eloquent Labor politician Lord Dubs, who was one of the children rescued by the Kindertransport.  Sea Sorrow reaches further back in time to Shakespeare, not only for its title but also to further remind us that we are once more repeating the history that we have yet to learn.

(Still from “Sea Sorrow”)

The Documentary Choices

There are no definitive rules in documentary filmmaking and Sea Sorrow, which examines the historical context for the current migrant crisis, is no exception. A documentary can utilize the traditional three-act structure or nontraditional narrative format. Ideas can be presented objectively or subjectively. Documentaries can include stock film footage, still photographs, use talking heads, include the filmmaker in the story, employ live action, animation, dramatic reenactments, and voiceover narration or just have the subjects and images alone convey the narrative.

(A young Redgrave in WWII)

During the World War II bombing of London, a three-year old Redgrave was sent into the British countryside where she was taken in by the town’s residents. Redgrave, on camera, recounts this experience intercut with still photographs of her during this time, referring to herself as an “internally displaced person.”

Redgrave’s nontraditional narrative also incorporates a combination of archival footage (including Eleanor Roosevelt introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948), still photographs, talking heads, and live action, as well as a dramatized extract from The Tempest performed by Ralph Fiennes and Daisy Bevan (when Prospero tells Miranda the history of their “sea sorrow” and how they came to be exiles on a remote island, the former seat of his power and prosperity). Actress Emma Thompson also appears in the film, reading from a 1938 edition of the newspaper The Guardian, highlighting rhetoric heard today.

 

(Vanessa Redgrave at NYFF Press Conference)

Press screening Q & A with Redgrave and her producer Carlo Nero

Redgrave stated that she treated the film as if it were a poem, and chose film as the medium to deliver her message because: “Film is one of the arts — although treated like a prostitute most of the time, but it is an art — that can help people communicate and get rehumanized.”

Redgrave continued by saying she hopes Sea Sorrow will help audiences have compassion for the displaced people shown in the film:  “Do you realize how close we are? It could be us. What will we do if we are treated the way our country has treated other families? That can happen so easily and so quickly.” She continued: “Do people have imaginations? People don’t have time for imaginations. … Film, like theater, can. It doesn’t impose, it can help people stop reacting and start thinking.”

Sea Sorrow is indeed thought-provoking in its global glimpse into the refugee crisis, and it is personal.  The film reinforces the major theme that history has repeated itself but it also poses the question to the viewer that perhaps today, given what history has taught  us, that it will not be repeated.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

A Conversation with Lady Bird Writer and Director Greta Gerwig at the New York Film Festival

Greta Gerwig discusses her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother and searching for an escape route.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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“Someone’s coming of age is someone else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the coming of age.”

– Greta Gerwig

About ‘Lady Bird’

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman (Saoirse Ronan) trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and searching for an escape route from her hometown of Sacramento.

The Script

Gerwig: I had a very long draft of Lady Bird at the end of 2015 – it was 350 pages. Some of the scenes didn’t go anywhere, and then I figured out what was essential and the core of the story. I don’t decide on the core of the story before I write, I write to figure out what the story is. I think the characters tell you what they are doing and what is important to them, and in some ways it’s your job to listen to them and not just to write. To listen what they’re telling you.

On Directing

This is Gerwig’s first solo in directing. When Gerwig started production on Lady Bird, she had already been working on films for 10 years.

Gerwig: I apprenticed myself in many areas. I’ve been lucky enough to work as an actress with wonderful directors, but I’ve also co-written and co-directed, and held the boom, and costumed and had done makeup, was a production assistant, basically everything you can do on a film set. Even though it’s my first writing and directing venture, it’s also an accumulation of all I have learned over the last 10 years. I went to a liberal arts college, Barnard, and I learned by doing.

No, This is not an Autobiographical Film

Gerwig: Nothing in my life is in the movie. It has a core of truth that resonates with what I know. I wanted to make a movie that was a reflection on home, about what home means, and what leaving home means. What it means for someone who wants to get out and then realize they loved it. It was a movie framed around this family and following them, but secretly it’s the mother’s movie as much as it is a film about Lady Bird. I wanted that catch. It’s also the mother’s story; I wanted that reversal to happen. Someone’s coming-of-age is someone else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the coming-of-age.

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother and searching for an escape route.

Saoirse Ronan (L) Laurie Metcalf (R)

Family Relationships

The family dynamics and the conflicts that arise between Lady Bird and her parents, brother and his girlfriend are relatable and avoid cliché sugar-coating. Lady Bird, a name she has chosen for herself (her given name is Christine), is just one of the defiant steps she has taken to show her independence from her family and the strict rules of the Catholic school she attends.

While the story follows Lady Bird’s journey in her senior year as she discovers first love and dealing with social and class conflicts, what distinguishes this high school coming-of-age story is the poignant mother and daughter relationship.

The characters are distinct and who they are and the choices they make are empathetic but not necessarily sympathetic.

(I wrote about family relationships in an earlier article for this publication.)

The center of the story is the mother and daughter relationship; Marion is often demeaning and overly critical to her daughter, Lady Bird, but this behavior is complex as we come to learn more about her own backstory, and see her navigating her current life and work. Her fear of losing her daughter to a college on the east coast pushes her daughter even further away; a realistic and layered character choice.

The Era and Setting

The film opens with a Joan Didion quote about the director’s hometown, where the plot takes place: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

Gerwig: I felt the story was a love letter to Sacramento.

The choice of setting in the story in 2002-2003, in a post 9/11 world was deliberate.

Gerwig: We were ushered into a new age of global politics. It was the beginning of not just a geopolitical movement but the Internet, cell phones, and the glib answer – to make a film now, it’s not very cinematic to show teenagers on their cell phones and I thought this was the last generation you could make a film about without doing that.

A Conversation with ‘Faces Places’ Documentary Filmmakers Agnès Varda and JR at the New York Film Festival

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR travel through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

FACES PLACES (VISAGES VILLAGES)

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR journey through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places (Visages Villages).  Winner of The Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival and Golden Eye at the Cannes Film Festival Faces Places played at the 2017 New York Film Festival where the filmmakers spoke about their work.

When I interviewed Varda at her installation at the Blum and Poe gallery in New York City in April 2017 for this publication, she talked about the upcoming release of Faces Places at festivals.

Varda: JR and I got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul.  Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years. I like taking the time to listen to people.  The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”

We have to share words, share time. If our film reflects that, then it’s a drop of friendship and compassion in the world. That’s what we know how to do and I tried to do it well.

Faces Places can been described as a film memoir. A road trip of two artists. The film is about their journey, not necessarily the destination.

“Making documentaries is a school of life,” Varda told me at the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival where I asked her about her writing process, describing her style as cinécriture – writing on film. “In The Beaches of Agnès I am turning the mirror to the people who surround me. It shows how you build the life with others.”

Varda is the sole female director associated with the French New Wave, even labeled the grandmother of the New Wave, a title she disputed for several reasons, one being she was the same age as her male directors of this category.

Consider this label instead: A storyteller not bound by convention.

(L-R) JR, Varda, Taubin

Varda’s visual memory is reflected in this film as it captures her shared artistic sensibilities with JR: two photographers, two artists, two friends, sharing this journey together with the intention to also share it with others. The idea of community is one of the themes that the filmmakers discussed at their talk at the New York Film Festival with film critic Amy Taubin.

Listening to Varda and JR talk on stage, we witness two friends teasing the other and joking, but their respect and love for each other is undeniable.

Taubin asked how they decided to work together.

Varda:  It came in a strange way. We met once because someone said we should meet. And JR came to my place. And then we decided to do something together, we didn’t know that it would be a film.

JR: I didn’t know if Agnès was a nice lady or would beat me with a stick of wood. (They laugh then he looks at Varda): “It was friendship at first sight.

Varda then remarks on JR’s photography murals: “I love that he is making people bigger than life.”

Together Varda and JR embarked on their road trip in JR’s camera-van (a photo booth that prints out large-scale black and white portraits of its subjects), which they then paste onto walls and buildings along with their subjects in their communities.  We watch the before and after process as the filmmakers interview people reacting to their murals, giving the viewer insight into how they see themselves, how they are seen by others and the world in which they live.

Seeing, more specifically whether it’s the eye of the camera lens, JR’s eyes hidden behind his dark glasses or Varda’s failing vision, is a thematic thread that runs throughout the film.

Varda: We see enough for what we wanted to do. You need the mind to look, the heart. Looking at people is not just an eye problem.

JR: The photos are made to be part of the community.  When I take photos anywhere I let the people do their own projects and I send them back their prints. So they really decide if they want to become empowered by the art and the message they have behind it.  That question comes up when you are a filmmaker, creating projects with people in each place.

Walking with Agnès and going into small villages, I wanted to know what she was seeing in her eyes, and she wanted to know what I was seeing behind my glasses so we got to know each other.

(Residents of Pirou in Faces Places. Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Varda: “JR is facing my greatest desire. To meet new faces so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”

Varda then discussed that they didn’t want to do just sketches of people, and their intention was not to do a travelogue.  JR added that there was no screenplay and no special effects in the film.

Taubin commented on the working class pride that their subjects demonstrated.

JR: That’s who we met. We didn’t scout for that.  We made sure we didn’t interview the mayor, for example. We interviewed the mailman; this was important because of the relationship he had with everyone in the community. Everyone knew him already. He explains that his work is disappearing. In the past he would go home with fruit from the people, and about the communication he had with the people, and how people are now disconnecting.

Varda: We never asked who they were voting for or their politics. We were interested in person-to-person.

JR talked about how using paste and water the people put up the photographs and how they reconnected this way; they had to speak to their neighbor and reconnect.

JR: The process of people gathering, making the artwork, the community around it and their reactions to it are an important part of the artmaking process to me.

Varda: We met these workers in a chemical factory. It’s a tough life for these workers. We asked, if we can make a collective portrait of them. Link with us. Link with the audience. Can we share their life and we are the go-between so their life comes to you. Can we get something of them that’s unique and important, and JR makes it big with images.  We learned what it means to work at the last day at a factory, we learn about the lady, who is the last one living on the street. After the film she had to leave, she’s gone. We had the feeling it was precious to film that at that moment.

We try to capture time because time is always going away, so is my life.

Agnès Varda (left) and JR (right) in Faces Places directed by Agnès Varda and JR. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Faces Places is now playing in Manhattan and will open in Los Angeles October 13, and more cities to follow.

Learn more about the Faces Places.

A Conversation with ‘ZAMA’ Writer and Director Lucrecia Martel at the New York Film Festival

A Conversation with ‘ZAMA’ Writer and Director Lucrecia Martel at the New York Film Festival

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviews ZAMA writer and director Lucrecia Martel.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviews ZAMA writer and director Lucrecia Martel.

Amy Taubin (L) Lucrecia Martel (R)

“Our history was written by white men, so falsifying that history didn’t seem like a big deal to me.”

–Lucrecia Martel

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin opened her interview with Lucrecia Martel, with the news that the Argentine Film Academy had just announced that Zama will be the country’s submission to the Oscars’ foreign-language category.

About ZAMA

Lucrecia Martel ventures into the realm of historical fiction and makes the genre entirely her own in this adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 classic of Argentinean literature. In the late 18th century, in a far-flung corner of what seems to be Paraguay, the title character, an officer of the Spanish crown (Daniel Giménez Cacho) born in the Americas, waits in vain for a transfer to a more prestigious location. Martel renders Zama’s world—his daily regimen of small humiliations and petty politicking—as both absurd and mysterious, and as he increasingly succumbs to lust and paranoia, subject to a creeping disorientation.

About Lucrecia Martel

Award-winning director Martel began her career making short films and documentaries for television.  Her three features La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2006) were set in her hometown of Salta in northwest Argentina; an area known as socially and religiously conservative—a subject she addressed in these films that center on the Argentinian self-absorbed bourgeoisie.

ZAMA Literary Adaptation

This film is Martel’s first literary adaptation and her first period film. (Among the other ‘firsts,’ it is also her first film set outside her native Salta, and her first film with a male protagonist.)

Not intending to be historically accurate, the film challenges conventional historical style, and linear time with the use of narrative ellipses.

As seen in Martel’s three previous features, Zama’s themes address class, gender, race, and place.

The Interview

Amy Taubin: You had been developing a science fiction film for a while and that didn’t happen.  (This was an adaptation of El Eternauta a cult comic in Argentina.) “It seems to me that this film is both something very real with its roots in colonialism but it’s also looks like a science fiction.”

Martel: Yes, I had been working on a science fiction film from 2009 and when the film didn’t work out I went away on a trip and brought the book from which Zama was adapted. So, I also escaped on a boat and I read Zama.

I was allowed to think with a lot of liberty in science fiction but in a historical document you’re constrained to thinking about how it was in the past. When I decided to do Zama I went about thinking about it in the same free way that I had planned on working on El Eternauta. For political reasons our history was written by white men, so falsifying that history didn’t seem like a big deal to me.  As you can see I made decisions that contradict history, for example like representing the Catholic Church. (There were no crucifixes or symbols of crosses.)

It is also about existential conflicts too. I don’t think the film is that far off from the intention of the novel, regarding this very Catholic idea of waiting.  This very Catholic idea that the meaning of life comes at the very end and all the suffering that we undergo acquires some kind of reason once it ends. I wouldn’t say that the character of Zama is the anti-Christ but he does push against that.

Taubin: All your films begin and end with the body, the experience of the body. When you read the novel, there’s a lot more about character and thoughts, but this film, out of all your films, is most rooted — in every scene with the experience of the body.

(Taubin then commented on this period of Colonialism and how Martel examines how “the body manifests itself and how the others relate to the body and particularly violence on the body”.)

Martel: I think we are all in our bodies. We are alone in this island of our bodies and we invent ways to get off this island through language, through expression. We do all these things to transcend the existential solitude we feel.  Especially thinking about colonization, which imposes violence and dehumanizes the body as its first step. The first thing to do to destroy another person is not to see them. Negating other people to justify that violence.

(Martel responds to a question about the music used in the film.)

The pretentious element of the music reflects on Argentina in the way that it doesn’t identify itself as Latin American but it identifies itself as situated between Miami and Europe.

The music in the film also makes me reflect on situating the film in the past.

The novel is set in 18th century but it was written in the 1950s, and I’m here producing this film in the 2000s – so what time is it actually set in?  And in that sense, narrative time is also occurring in the present; it has to make sense today.

The 55th New York Film Festival runs from September 28 – October 15.

READ MORE HERE

Join Susan’s ‘Fundamentals of Screenwriting’ 4-week online class starts 10/5/17

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SCREENWRITING 

This four-week class is the perfect introduction to the world of writing a script, from the fundamentals of the story down to the revision process. In this course, you will gain the tools to structure your scenes, your acts, and your plots.
At each step, you will receive comprehensive feedback on assignments targeted to develop the skills needs to thrive as a screenwriter.
The lessons in this course include video instruction.

 

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Join Susan’s Online Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop October 5

Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop at Screenwriters University

This ten-week workshop is broken up into five sessions that each focus on individual elements of the rewriting process. Each session, you will submit a section of your screenplay for review. Each session will also have focused lectures that help you on each step of your revision process. The lectures are there for support, but the focus of this workshop will be on your screenplay. Each session, you will submit to your instructor for private review, and also you can submit to the other workshop participants for peer review.

Register here