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7.29.2014

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: What It's Like to Sell 3 Films in Sundance

One of the best ways we learn is through the experience of others.  That is one reason why we read about people in the industry and the things they do.  Producer  Galt Niederhoffer's account of bringing and selling her 3 films in Sundance is illustrative of what to expect and what to take heed of for aspiring indie filmmakers.  Read it in full not only for the big and small lessons it contains but for a voyeuristic glimpse into what your life as a producer may be like, for better or worse

My favorite take-aways were her thoughts on the current and future film market:
The media is pushing the through­line that the muted sales and lower prices reported to date at this year's festival are because the films have been just "meh." In my opinion, the more mellow market is a function of several factors: 
1. Distributors have learned to hang back and unite — not in a traditional collusive sense, but because they've been burned in the past and now know better than to fall prey to the festival's second­-best commodity, hype, and its third, hysteria. 
2. Recent box-office numbers prove that theatrical domestic release is but one, and an increasingly minor, source of a film's total revenue. Foreign markets remain strong, and the growing VOD and streaming markets continue to vie for their share. These are typically sold at the various film markets over the year (Cannes, Toronto, AFM). 
3. Thanks to digital cameras, and advances in editing software and sound, key costs of production have decreased, while the quality of the final films have improved — making it possible to make a film for less money, with fewer people and less equipment. Distributors know they don’t have to pay as much to cover production costs. 
4. Internet and mobile apps can now exhibit or stream content for free, cutting out the exhibitor or movie-theater experience or rarifying it. 
5. Most important, artists are beginning to realize that they have leverage that they did not enjoy before owing to the high cost of film production. This will allow artists to retain more and more of their rights, more creative control, and more participation in the revenue of their films. Increasingly, I predict, directors and producers will make films for less money; retain more equity in their films; make more aggressive deals with distributors; exhibitors, and streaming platforms; and enjoy more of the profits derived from their content rather than forfeiting the rights to their equity up front. 


7.28.2014

SCRIPT TO SCREEN: Boyhood, Snowpiercer and The Grand Budapest Hotel


Snowpiercer, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood are on top of many critics' lists of best films for 2014.  So I was curious to see what I could learn about how they made them.  I chose these three because they represented the best in their genre so far this year.

The Action Film - Snowpiercer



Snowpiercer - Trailer Making of (Part 1) - Camera, Lighting and Grip Equipment supplied by ARRI Rental from ARRI Rental on Vimeo.


Snowpiercer - Trailer Making of (Part 2) - Camera, Lighting and Grip Equipment supplied by ARRI Rental from ARRI Rental on Vimeo.

Highlights from the Twitch interview with director, Bong Joon-ho

Twitch - Behind the camera you pulled together so many different talents. You brought in a lot of different people you hadn't worked with before...are you just making it difficult for yourself on purpose? 
Bong Joon-ho - Fortunately I had quite a long pre-production period, enough time to discuss and prepare. My cinematographer was the same guy who shot Mother and the production designer is a Czech guy, who did The Illusionist with Edward Norton, as well as many domestic movies in the Czech Republic.  
How long was pre-production?
Very long. Almost a year. The production period was quite short, a little bit less than three months, because of the complicated schedules of all the actors, but pre-production was quite long. We prepared many things, so yeah, many new guys, but it was an exciting experience. The costume designer, Catherine George, she worked with Tilda Swinton on We Need To Talk About Kevin. That movie of course is not a sci-fi movie, but I loved her way with characters. Very simple colour and design, but the costumes express the characters, I think, when you're watching the film. 
Also, Marco Beltrami. I love the soundtrack in 3:10 to Yuma, the James Mangold remake. That music was very impressive and actually it was Marco Beltrami's agent who first tried to contact us. Marco really loved Mother, my previous film, and so we met in L.A.. He's a very shy guy but such a nice man. 
And our stunt coordinator was a British guy called Julian Spencer (a favourite of Danny Boyle and Nicolas Winding Refn's), who choreographed the fight sequence in the David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises
The naked fight?
Yeah. He is the man who did that. You remember the sauna fight sequence is very physical, no weapons, almost body to body. 
Well that's one thing in SNOWPIERCER, due to the confined space you're working in, the fighting is very close quarters. It just feels so vicious.
Yeah it was a great experience working with Julian.  
I think one of the most striking things in the film is the production design. I love the fact that we don't see any of the train until Curtis and the other rebels see it. They are trying to get through the next door and so are we, and we have no idea what's behind it.
Right, only the characters come from the front, like Mason and the strange yellow girl, but the audience can't see the front part. If we did some crosscutting of the tail section and the front part I think it would be very stupid.  
It also means everything we see in the trailers for the film  - this dirty, metallic environment - is really just from the first half of the movie.
But after Curtis and the others pass through the water supply section and the greenhouse, everything changes, extremely different colours and moods.  
How much of the train's design is taken from the original graphic novel, and how much is you saying, "I want this scene to look like THE MATRIX and this scene to look like SILENT RUNNING"?
Actually the original French graphic novel that came out in the 1980s is all in black and white. 
Really? Because there is so much colour in your film. Eventually.
Yeah, the most extreme colours are in the classroom section.
(Twitch)
Plus if you want to know about Tarantino's and The Weinstein Company's involvement with Snowpiercer and the casting of Snowpiercer.

The Comedy Film - The Grand Budapest Hotel




Highlights from interviews with the cast and Wes Anderson

Mr. Fiennes, best known for his coldly villainous performances as Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” and Lord Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series, said in an interview that he was happy to have “exorcised those characters” in “Grand Budapest Hotel.”
He recalled that when Mr. Anderson offered him the screenplay, “He actually said, ‘Who would you like to play?’ Which was rather odd, because clearly the most prominent role was Gustave. He was an attractive figure on the page, with his fastidiousness and his love of perfume.” 
For the shoot, which took place largely at a converted department store, Mr. Anderson also had no trouble tapping into the eclectic roster of actors who have become his unofficial repertory company: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman turn up as hotel staffers; Edward Norton plays a police captain and Willem Dafoe a sinister enforcer; and Tilda Swinton, under layers of cosmetics, plays an octogenarian dowager named Madame D.
When Mr. Anderson asked if she’d be up for “a bit of hard-core prosthetics work” and the “full-fledged old-age makeup routine,” Ms. Swinton said by email, her reply was “Count me in” (with an X for a kiss). 
Asked why she made the sacrifice, Ms. Swinton replied, “Because why ever not? And what sacrifice, by the way?” 
The actors were offered access to a library that included Zweig’s work and films by directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian and Frank Borzage. They also had the option of watching an animatic (a rough film of storyboard images edited together) Mr. Anderson had made of the entire movie, as he envisioned it, with him voicing all the characters. 
“I thought: ‘This guy doesn’t even need actors. The film is already made,’ ” Mr. Dafoe said.
(The New York Times
The Drama Film - Boyhood 



Highlights from the Time interview with Richard Linklater

When did you conceive of the project?Richard Linklater: It happened in stages. In the late 90s, I felt like I wanted to tell a story about childhood. I had been a parent for a while, pushing 40. I had something to say, but it wasn’t fitting into one film. Because you have this natural limitation. You can’t ask a seven-year-old to suddenly be a 14-year-old. So I had given up on it. Then, I sat down to write an experimental novel or something in 2001 and that’s where this idea hit me. ‘Oh, what if you filmed a little bit every year.’ And then I could encompass all these ideas. That was the “aha!” moment.  
Why did you settle on 12 years?Linklater: Public school, first through 12th grade. The grid that we’re sentenced to. I remember feeling that, like ‘Oh, I’ve got eight more years of this, seven more years of this…’ It also represented getting out of the house. Freedom awaits at thismoment. I knew it would end with him at college. And I knew I would never be bored of this project because it was a deeper well, about maturing, growing up, parenting. There was endless material.  
Was it hard making the business case for financing the film?Linklater: I talked to some producers and they’re like, ‘Huh? What? We’re gonna pay and not …’ It just made no sense. But then IFC came aboard. I had done two films with them, Tapeand Waking Life. They took the long term view. And it wasn’t that much money, about $200,000 a year. We’re shooting on film. It was very low budget. And they just took the leap. I fully expected halfway through to be abandoned and have to seek other financing. I never had to, though. It’s a minor miracle.  
And how did you select your actors?Linklater: Artists are great. They jump in. I had met Patricia once, in passing. And I called her up. I just knew she’d be perfect. And we talked for a couple hours, about our moms and just life. She had been a parent kind of young. So she was in. Ethan [Hawke] was in. Then here comes the major decision. Okay, who plays the guy? That’s huge. It’s the decision. And I met a lot of kids. And I’m like, ‘Okay. You’re really nice, but you’re gonna be a little jock. You’re straight. You want to please your parents.’  
Did you have a contingency plan? What if one of the actors gets in a car wreck? What if they get a terrible disease? Was that just part of the risk?Linklater: It was no more a risk than life is a risk, in the real world. The phone can ring and you can get bad news and something can be changed dramatically. But the film had a great faith in the future, in statistical norms. If something crazy happens, we’ll work it in. It was designed to work in who everyone was becoming. I could subtly go with where they were at developmentally. I had these ideas of what would happen but it was always tempered with who everyone was, what they were doing.  
Was it hard to get back into character year after year? Patricia Arquette (principal cast member): When you have a script, you can plot the arc of your character and make choices. But in this case, we didn’t have a script at the beginning, so when we would talk about the scenes before we’d shoot that year, everyone would incorporate their experience. ‘Well, when my mom divorced my dad, this is what happened. Oh, and this is what my mom did …’. I knew the broad strokes. But we would make an amalgamation of who she was, which wasn’t always pre-determined and defined.  
Are there any tricks of the trade you used to get that realness?Arquette: It was real by nature. The budget was really tiny. Before we started filming, Rick had me take the kids for the weekend. They had a sleepover with me. We did arts and crafts. I cooked them breakfast in the morning. We bonded like that. And there was nothing highfalutin about anything. Hair and makeup would crammed into like a three foot space with each other, with the wardrobe. Sometimes I’m bringing my own clothes from home or they’ll go to the Goodwill and get clothes. A snotty person couldn’t survive.  
What was it like being on set? Ellar Coltrane (principal cast member): We had some long days, of course, where it got exhausting. But everybody was so happy to be there. Nobody was making any money. So everybody who was there was there because they wanted to be. (Time)


7.22.2014

CASE STUDIES: Dealing with Chinese Censorship to Create Great Movies


The US film industry has seen the writing on the wall and knows that it's economic survival involves China.  But shooting in China and co-producing with Chinese companies means censorship is going to affect the story that makes it to the screen.  This willingness to give in to censorship even on non-controversial matters will stifle the creative decisions and directions of the filmmakers making the movies, maybe even to the detriment of the movie's quality.  A cynic might say that in the end, who cares about that as long as you're getting that box office yuan.  But it stands to reason that the kind of movie you make will determine how much of that money you make.  Put up a great movie and people will flock to it. Put up crap and people won't (at best you'll get a cult favorite that makes its money back over a long time, if ever). Most people are inclined to think that a great movie can't be made under the censor's watchful eye but that's not true. And Hollywood has a ton of experience making great AND lucrative movies despite censorship.  Consider the Golden Age of Hollywood under the censorship of the Hays Code from the early 30s to the late 50s.
Many film historians have remarked upon the many great works of cinema that emerged from this period of highly regimented film-making. One reason this was possible is that, with so many films being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles and often regarded as the greatest film of all time, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard HawksAlfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of OzGone with the WindRebeccaStagecoachMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonDestry Rides AgainYoung Mr. LincolnWuthering HeightsOnly Angels Have WingsNinotchkaBabes in ArmsGunga Din, and The Roaring Twenties. Among the other films from the golden age period that are now considered to be classics: CasablancaThe Adventures of Robin HoodIt's a Wonderful LifeIt Happened One NightKing KongCitizen KaneSwing TimeSome Like It HotA Night at the OperaAll About EveMildred PierceThe Maltese FalconThe SearchersBreakfast At Tiffany'sNorth by NorthwestDinner at EightRebel Without a CauseRear WindowDouble IndemnityMutiny on the BountyCity Lights,Red RiverSuspicionThe Manchurian CandidateBringing Up BabySingin' in the RainTo Have and Have NotGoodbye, Mr. ChipsRoman HolidayGiant,Jezebel, A Streetcar Named Desire, and On the Waterfront[Wikipedia]
Whereas US censorship is aimed mainly at distinguishing subject matter not suitable for children, Chinese censorship goes beyond that to include subject matter that could threaten authoritarian rule. The guiding force behind the Chinese censor is an attempt to promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony.

According to SAFRTArticle XXV (and Article XIIIprohibits films contain the following 10 elements: 
(A) against the basic principles of the Constitution of; (B) harm national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity; (C) the disclosure of state secrets, endanger national security or harm national honor and interests; (Iv) incitement to ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, undermining national unity, or infringe national customs and habits; (E) promote cults or superstition; (F) to disrupt social order and undermine social stability; (G) propagate obscenity, gambling, violence or instigate crimes; (H) insult or slander others, infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of others; (I) harm public morality or national cultural tradition; (J) have laws, administrative regulations and other content prohibited by state regulations. 
Furthermore, according to SAFRT Article XIV films of the following circumstances, should be cut or modified: 
  • Distorting Chinese civilization and history, seriously departing from historical truth; distorting the history of other countries, disrespecting other civilizations and customs; disparaging the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and important historical figures; tampering with Chinese or foreign classics and distorting the image of the important figures portrayed therein;
  • Disparaging the image of the people’s army, armed police, public security organ or judiciary;
  • Showing obscene and vulgar content, exposing scenes of promiscuity, rape, prostitution, sexual acts, perversion, homosexuality, masturbation and private body parts including the male or female genitalia; containing dirty and vulgar dialogues, songs, background music and sound effects;
  • Showing contents of murder, violence, terror, ghosts and the supernatural; distorting value judgment between truth and lies, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, righteous and unrighteous; showing deliberate expressions of remorselessness in committing crimes; showing specific details of criminal behaviours; exposing special investigation methods; showing content which evokes excitement from murder, bloodiness, violence, drug abuse and gambling; showing scenes of mistreating prisoners, torturing criminals or suspects; containing excessively horror scenes, dialogues, background music and sound effects;
  • Propagating passive or negative outlook on life, world view and value system; deliberately exaggerating the ignorance of ethnic groups or the dark side of society;
  • Advertising religious extremism, stirring up ambivalence and conflicts between different religions or sects, and between believers and non-believers, causing disharmony in the community;
  • Advocating harm to the ecological environment, animal cruelty, killing or consuming nationally protected animals;
  • Showing excessive drinking, smoking and other bad habits;
  • Opposing the spirit of law.
Robert Cain, in a 2011 column for Indiewire, related from personal experience about producing under censorship rules;"...even this detailed list doesn’t cover it all. Censors have wide-ranging powers, and the rules seem to keep shifting. And censorship doesn’t just end at the script stage. I learned the hard way that when you’re shooting a film in China, there are eyes and ears everywhere."

So what to do in the face of such rules and watchful eyes?
If classical Hollywood cinema is a guide, a strategy for circumventing censorship will depend on the stylistic choices filmmakers make which allowed them to hint at the censored topics without having to focus on them.
The style of classical Hollywood cinema, as elaborated by David Bordwell, was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance and its resurgence of mankind as the focal point.
Thus, classical narration progresses always through psychological motivation, i.e. by the will of a human character and its struggle with obstacles towards a defined goal. The aspects of space and time are subordinated to the narrative element which is usually composed of two lines of action: A romance intertwined with a more generic one such as business or, in the case of Alfred Hitchcock films, solving a crime. [Wikipedia]
When the resurgence of mankind, psychological motivations and use of multiple subplots are your style, it's easy to see how you can bring up controversial topics and get away with it, since in the end the story is not to be diverted from its main point of depicting the narrative and psychological progression of the main characters whose story will end with a lesson learnt, a "bad guy" getting his comeuppance or civility restored.

Now, it's obvious that a film that has as it's main subject anything in the censorship guidelines will not be imported or co-produced in China.  But for stories where a censored item forms a subplot or even a small but crucial scene, a filmmaker can navigate around the censorship by relying on his or her aesthetic or philosophy to figure out a creative way of depicting it without dwelling on it.  It's either that or removing the subplot or scene entirely.  Of course, that aesthetic or philosophy has to allow for nuance.  Certain filmmaker's styles, forms and agitprop will just not survive a censor's review. Then again those types of filmmakers aren't really trying to break into the Chinese market and might not even get to receive financing and distribution from Hollywood studios, in the first place.
Another way to pass the censor is through the use of time and space as a narrative element and subject matter. For example, films set before the Communists took over seem to get away with more.
I often joke with friends who run their screenplays by me that, according to the government, nothing bad or subversive ever happens in the modern-day communist utopia that is China. If you want to explore any salacious topics, either set them somewhere else, or in some cases, you can set them in the past. 
See, before the Communist party took power in 1949, violence, crime, and—gasp!—even drinking occurred in China. Apparently, the pre-communist rulers were not sufficiently enlightened to prevent such unsavory behavior. For films set in the past, SARFT allows a bit more creative leeway (though not a lot). The reason so many period martial arts movies get made is that they are censor-friendly; a pre-1949 kung-fu punch is viewed very differently than a post-1949 one. [Robert Cain]
Style is such a powerful aesthetic tool because of the many meanings that can be created using selective sounds, imagery and montage.  Notice how style affected the use of time and space during the Hays Code era:
Time in classical Hollywood is continuous, since non-linearity calls attention to the illusory workings of the medium. The only permissible manipulation of time in this format is the flashback. It is mostly used to introduce a memory sequence of a character, e.g. Casablanca. 
Likewise, the treatment of space in classic Hollywood strives to overcome or conceal the two-dimensionality of film ("invisible style") and is strongly centered upon the human body. The majority of shots in a classical film focus on gestures or facial expressions (medium-long and medium shots). André Bazin once compared classical film to a photographed play in that the events seem to exist objectively and that cameras only give us the best view of the whole play. [Wikipedia]
The clearest use to circumvent the censor with time and space in a stylistic manner is that it allowed classical Hollywood to suggest a sex or a violent scene had happened without having to show the sex or violence. The composition of the image also allowed for the audience to recognize heroes and villains and identify with their psychological motivations by the way they were depicted in space.
This treatment of space consists of four main aspects: centering, balancing, frontality and depth. Persons or objects of significance are mostly in the center part of the picture frame and never out of focus. Balancing refers to the visual composition, i.e. characters are evenly distributed throughout the frame. The action is subtly addressed towards the spectator (frontality) and set, lighting (mostly three-point lighting) and costumes are designed to separate foreground from the background (depth). [Wikipedia]
Granted, the US in the 30s and 40s is different than China today.  The classical Hollywood studio system in place back then allowed for studios to produce and distribute films in a way that is no longer possible.  Although they produced big budget pictures, they did not produce the types of big budgets we see today with The Avengers of Transformers.  This allowed them to spread their money across more films (and led to the ascendancy of the B-movie and film noir).  Nonetheless, the point is that while no censorship is then ideal, when confronted with it, a filmmaker can still create something good, artistic and lucrative, despite it.

The new reality in filmmaking is that China is a major player now. Although there are issues as to how guidelines are modified to inhibit the discussion of certain matters, there is reason to hope that over time the censorship process will make way for more freedoms. Recent news such as the MPAA's deal with China to prevent piracy and decentralization of the censorship process lead one to hope that progress is continually being made.  And as producer, Robert Cain, concludes: 
It’s important to mention here that, while the system may seem draconian, the reality is that censorship in China is guided by flesh-and-blood human beings who often want to help. Our Shanghai party member was not so rigid that he couldn’t see we had made an honest and admittedly dumb mistake. And the SARFT committee members actually do want to see films get made; they allowed more than 500 to shoot in China in 2010 alone. 
It is more a positive then a negative that China is a major player now.  And the good news goes beyond just making tons of money.  Their hand will diversify the casts and the settings of movies showing American and other audiences Asian people and Asian cities as central to a film and not just as afterthoughts.  In a less direct way, if filmmakers rise up to the challenge of using their creativity to overcome censorship, it can even inaugurate another golden age in cinema to rival the classical Hollywood system.

So in the end, the question for filmmakers is: how will you be true to your vision despite the censors?

Addendum:
China Law Blog offers excellent insight into the actual business and legal considerations that go into co-producing films in China in a clear and concise way.  For starters:



7.11.2014

PRODUCTION TIPS: Get the Right to Make Changes... Or Else


So you're a producer with a hot property optioned from a novelist who gave you the right to shoot a film based on her novel.  You have all your agreements signed by your above-the-line and below-the-line people and your production is ready to start.  During the development of your film, you choose to make major changes to the story that you think will make it more engaging, more artistic and/or more marketable.  Then your phone is blowing up with calls from the original author on which your production is based.  She's pissed off with the changes but you're not worried because she signed your contract and she can't do anything to stop you. 


Or so you think.


You and your lawyer look at the contract and he notices the following: that while you did obtain the right to represent the work, you DIDN'T obtain the right to make alterations, changes or modifications to the characters, stories or text created by the original author in the first place.


As Gordon P. Firemark makes clear, the original author (or a copyright licensor like a publisher) can stop your production IF your contract isn't bulletproof. Although he is speaking directly to producers of plays and musicals, this is still good advice for independent film producers.

You see, nearly every production agreement contains a clause saying, essentially, that no changes to the material may be made without the prior, written approval of the author (or licensor, if dealing with a publisher like Samuel French, Tams-Witmark, MTI, etc.) these approvals aren't often granted. The expectation is that the material will be presented as written.
So, any changes that are made without approval amount to the creation of unauthorized derivative works. And therefore, copyright infringement.
Additionally, most contracts between licensors and producers explicitly provide that any violation of the above provision is grounds for immediate termination of the production license. And, once the license is terminated, any further presentation of the play amounts to another infringement of copyright
Since copyright law provides for injunction as a remedy, the authors and their representatives have the power to require that offending productions cease and desist, and wise producers comply. If they defy, and the Courts become involved, they could wind up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, and be enjoined from further infringement. But, equally important is that producers don't want to burn bridges with playwrights or licensors. They want to be able to produce another show next year, etc. So, quick compliance and an apology only make sense. 
So what should you do?


  1. Present the work as written. Contracts with creative staff, like director, music director, and designers, should specify a requirement that no material changes to the work may be made without approval, and that the producer must be notified of all proposed changes BEFORE they're made, and with ample time to seek and obtain author approval. Failure to comply should be grounds for termination, since it exposes the producer to a significant risk of loss if the show is shuttered. This isn't rocket science, but the help of an experienced entertainment lawyer can certainly make things easier.
  2.  If you do obtain approval for your changes, stick to what's been approved. And, get the approval in writing, make sure it's specific, detailed, and clear. Have your lawyer review the permission and advise you. 
  3. Never produce without a license. 



7.10.2014

SCRIPT TO SCREEN: The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski | Ethan and Joel Coen | 1998 | USA | Format: 35mm  | 117 min
I have yet to meet someone who doesn't like The Big Lebowski.  It's a funny LA noir with quotable lines and memorable characters.  The kind of legendary cult classic most filmmakers aspire to make.  And so, let's take a look at how it was made...

The Big Lebowski Screenplay


Screenplay analysis of The Big Lebowski by Screenplay HowTo


Another screenplay analysis of The Big Lebowski by ShoreScripts


Storyboards from the The Big Lebowski:




The making of The Big Lebowski according to Wikipedia:

Development

The Dude is mostly inspired by Jeff Dowd, a man the Coen brothers met while they were trying to find distribution for their first feature, Blood Simple. Dowd had been a member of the Seattle Seven, liked to drink White Russians, and was known as "The Dude". The Dude was also partly based on a friend of the Coen brothers, Peter Exline (now a member of the faculty at USC's School of Cinematic Arts), a Vietnam War veteran who reportedly lived in a dump of an apartment and was proud of a little rug that "tied the room together". Exline knew Barry Sonnenfeld from New York University and Sonnenfeld introduced Exline to the Coen brothers while they were trying to raise money for Blood Simple. Exline became friends with the Coens and, in 1989, told them all kinds of stories from his own life, including ones about his actor-writer friend Lewis Abernathy (one of the inspirations for Walter), a fellow Vietnam vet who later became a private investigator and helped him track down and confront a high school kid who stole his car. As in the film, Exline's car was impounded by the Los Angeles Police Department and Abernathy found an 8th grader's homework under the passenger seat. Exline also belonged to an amateur softball league but the Coens changed it to bowling in the movie because "it's a very social sport where you can sit around and drink and smoke while engaging in inane conversation", Ethan said in an interview. The Coens met filmmaker John Milius when they were in Los Angeles making Barton Fink and incorporated his love of guns and the military into the character of Walter.
According to Julianne Moore, the character of Maude was based on artist Carolee Schneemann "who worked naked from a swing" and on Yoko Ono. The character of Jesus Quintana was inspired, in part, by a performance the Coens had seen John Turturro give in 1988 at the Public Theater in a play called Mi Puta Vida in which he played a pederast-type character, "so we thought, let's make Turturro a pederast. It'll be something he can really run with", Joel said in an interview.
The film's overall structure was influenced by the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. Ethan said, "We wanted something that would generate a certain narrative feeling – like a modern Raymond Chandler story, and that's why it had to be set in Los Angeles ... We wanted to have a narrative flow, a story that moves like a Chandler book through different parts of town and different social classes." The use of the Stranger's voiceover also came from Chandler as Joel remarked, "He is a little bit of an audience substitute. In the movie adaptation of Chandler it's the main character that speaks off-screen, but we didn't want to reproduce that though it obviously has echoes. It's as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view. And at the same time rediscovering the old earthiness of a Mark Twain."
The significance of the bowling culture was, according to Joel, "important in reflecting that period at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. That suited the retro side of the movie, slightly anachronistic, which sent us back to a not-so-far-away era, but one that was well and truly gone nevertheless."

Screenplay

The Big Lebowski was written around the same time as Barton Fink. When the Coen brothers wanted to make it, John Goodman was filming episodes for theRoseanne television program and Jeff Bridges was making the Walter Hill film, Wild Bill. The Coens decided to make Fargo in the meantime. According to Ethan, "the movie was conceived as pivoting around that relationship between the Dude and Walter", which sprang from the scenes between Barton Fink and Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink. They also came up with the idea of setting the film in contemporary L.A. because the people who inspired the story lived in the area. When Pete Exline told them about the homework in a baggie incident, the Coens thought that that was very Raymond Chandler-esque and decided to integrate elements of the author's fiction into their script. Joel Coen cites Robert Altman's contemporary take on Chandler with The Long Goodbye as a primary influence on their film in the sense that The Big Lebowski "is just kind of informed by Chandler around the edges". When they started writing the script, the Coens wrote only 40 pages and then let it sit for a while before finishing it. This is a normal writing process for them, because they often "encounter a problem at a certain stage, we pass to another project, then we come back to the first script. That way we've already accumulated pieces for several future movies." In order to liven up a scene that they thought was too heavy on exposition, they added an "effete art-world hanger-on", known as Knox Harrington, late in the screenwriting process. In the original script, the Dude's car was a Chrysler LeBaron, as Dowd once owned, but that car was not big enough to fit John Goodman so the Coens changed it to a Ford Torino.

Pre-production

PolyGram and Working Title Films, who had funded Fargo, backed The Big Lebowski with a budget of $15 million. In casting the film, Joel remarked, "we tend to write both for people we know and have worked with, and some parts without knowing who's going to play the role. In The Big Lebowski we did write for John [Goodman] and Steve [Buscemi], but we didn't know who was getting the Jeff Bridges role." In preparation for his role, Bridges met Dowd but actually "drew on myself a lot from back in the Sixties and Seventies. I lived in a little place like that and did drugs, although I think I was a little more creative than the Dude." The actor went into his own closet with the film's wardrobe person and picked out clothes that he had thought the Dude might wear. He wore his character's clothes home because most of them were his own. The actor also adopted the same physicality as Dowd, including the slouching and his ample belly. Originally, Goodman wanted a different kind of beard for Walter but the Coen brothers insisted on the "Gladiator" or what they called the "Chin Strap" and he thought it would go well with his flattop haircut.
For the film's look, the Coens wanted to avoid the usual retro 1960s clichés like lava lamps, Day-Glo posters, and Grateful Dead music and, for it to be "consistent with the whole bowling thing, we wanted to keep the movie pretty bright and poppy", Joel said in an interview. For example, the star motif featured predominantly throughout the movie started with the film's production designer Richard Heinrichs' design for the bowling alley. According to Joel, he "came up with the idea of just laying free-form neon stars on top of it and doing a similar free-form star thing on the interior". This carried over to the film's dream sequences. "Both dream sequences involve star patterns and are about lines radiating to a point. In the first dream sequence, the Dude gets knocked out and you see stars and they all coalesce into the overhead nightscape of L.A. The second dream sequence is an astral environment with a backdrop of stars", remembers Heinrichs. For Jackie Treehorn's Malibu beach house, he was inspired by late 1950s and early 1960s bachelor pad-style furniture. The Coen brothers told Heinrichs that they wanted Treehorn's beach party to be Inca-themed with a "very Hollywood-looking party in which young, oiled-down, fairly aggressive men walk around with appetizers and drinks. So there's a very sacrificial quality to it."
Cinematographer Roger Deakins discussed the look of the film with the Coens during pre-production. They told him that they wanted some parts of the film to have a real and contemporary feeling and other parts, like the dream sequences, to have a very stylized look. Bill and Jacqui Landrum did all of the choreography for the film. For his dance sequence, Jack Kehler went through three three-hour rehearsals. The Coen brothers offered him three to four choices of classical music for him to pick from and he chose Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. At each rehearsal, he went through each phase of the piece.

Principal photography

Actual filming took place over an eleven-week period with location shooting in and around Los Angeles, including all of the bowling sequences at the Hollywood Star Lanes (for three weeks) and the Dude's Busby Berkeley-esque dream sequences in a converted airplane hangar. According to Joel, the only time they ever directed Bridges "was when he would come over at the beginning of each scene and ask, 'Do you think the Dude burned one on the way over?' I'd reply 'Yes' usually, so Jeff would go over in the corner and start rubbing his eyes to get them bloodshot." Julianne Moore was sent the script while working on The Lost World: Jurassic Park. She worked only two weeks on the film, early and late during the production that went from January to April 1997 while Sam Elliott was only on set for two days and did many takes of his final speech.

Architecture

The scenes in Jackie Treehorn's house were shot in the Sheats Goldstein Residence, designed by John Lautner and built in 1963 in the Hollywood Hills.
Deakins described the look of the fantasy scenes as being very crisp, monochromatic, and highly lit in order to afford greater depth of focus. However, with the Dude's apartment, Deakins said, "it's kind of seedy and the light's pretty nasty" with a grittier look. The visual bridge between these two different looks was how he photographed the night scenes. Instead of adopting the usual blue moonlight or blue street lamp look, he used an orange sodium-light effect. The Coen brothers shot a lot of the film with wide-angle lens because, according to Joel, it made it easier to hold focus for a greater depth and it made camera movements more dynamic.
To achieve the point-of-view of a rolling bowling ball the Coen brothers mounted a camera "on something like a barbecue spit", according to Ethan, and then dollied it along the lane. The challenge for them was figuring out the relative speeds of the forward motion and the rotating motion. CGI was used to create the vantage point of the thumb hole in the bowling ball.
50 Things You Probably Don't Know about The Big Lebowski