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9.27.2014

SCRIPT TO SCREEN: Raging Bull

Raging Bull | Martin Scorcese | 1980 | USA | Format: 35mm  | 129 min
Polish poster for Raging Bull
I just saw Raging Bull the other day. For the first time.  
That would be near heresy for a filmmaker to say but I just wasn't interested for a long time.  And it wasn't because I dislike DeNiro or Scorcese or boxing.  It was simply I didn't like how Sugar Ray Robinson (my favorite boxer of all time) was depicted.  In the stills I saw of the movie, Sugar Ray looks scrawny, unkempt and plain wack; not an image befitting the man, the legend who was so good they had to create the phrase "greatest pound-for-pound" to describe how good he was across the board and in comparison to everyone from flyweights to heavyweights.
I mean see for yourself...
The "real" Sugar Ray
The "Raging Bull" Sugar Ray
I know, I know... it's such a minor quibble but I'm such a major Sugar Ray fan.  Anyway, I was always curious to see it and I finally did... and let's just say, I was hooked from the moment I saw this...




Since we learn from our betters, I figure it's a good idea to delve into how this classic was made. And so, this behind the scenes look into Raging Bull has been brought to you by Wikipedia with minor italicized/underlined commentary from yours truly:

Development

Sometimes even the director doesn't know what he really wants... or needs
Raging Bull came about when De Niro read the autobiography upon which the film is based on the set of The Godfather Part II. Although disappointed by the book's writing style, he became fascinated by the character of Jake LaMotta. He showed the book to Martin Scorsese on the set of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore in the hope that he would consider the project. Scorsese repeatedly turned down the opportunity to sit in the director's chair, claiming he had no idea what Raging Bull was about, even though he had read some of the text. Never a sports fan, when he found out what LaMotta used to do for a living, he said, "A boxer? I don't like boxing...Even as a kid, I always thought that boxing was boring... It was something I couldn't, wouldn't grasp." His overall opinion of sport in general is, "Anything with a ball, no good." The book was then passed onto Mardik Martin, the film's eventual co-screenwriter, who said "the trouble is the damn thing has been done a hundred times before—a fighter who has trouble with his brother and his wife and the mob is after him". The book was even shown to producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler by De Niro, who were willing to assist only if Scorsese agreed. After nearly dying from a drug overdose, Scorsese agreed to make the film for De Niro's sake, not only to save his own life but also to save what remained of his career. Scorsese knew that he could relate to the story of Jake LaMotta as a way to redeem himself; he saw the role being portrayed as an everyman for whom "the ring becomes an allegory of life", making the project a very personal one for him.
Artistic effects are not always the result of creativity but practicality
Preparation for the film began with Scorsese shooting some 8mm color footage featuring De Niro boxing in a ring. One night when the footage was being shown to De Niro, Michael Chapman, and his friend and mentor, the British director Michael Powell, Powell pointed out that the color of the gloves at the time would have only been maroon, oxblood, or even black. Scorsese decided to use this as one of the reasons to film Raging Bull in black and white. Other reasons would be to distinguish the film from other color films around the time and to acknowledge the problem of fading color film stock—an issue Scorsese recognized. Scorsese even went to two matches at Madison Square Garden to aid his research, picking up on minor but essential details such as the blood sponge and later, the blood on the ropes (which would later be used in the film).

Screenplay

Depravity, realism and borrowing from classic films push the envelope and improve your script
Under the guidance of Chartoff and Winkler, Mardik Martin was asked to start writing the screenplay. According to De Niro, under no circumstances would United Artists accept Mardik Martin's script. The story was based on the vision of journalist Peter Hamill of a 1930s and 1940s style, when boxing was known as "the great dark prince of sports". De Niro was unimpressed when he finished reading the first draft, however. Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader was swiftly brought in to re-write the script around August 1978. Some of the changes that Schrader made to the script saw a re-write of the scene with the uncooked steak and inclusion of LaMotta seen masturbating in a Florida cell. The character of LaMotta's brother, Joey, was finally added, previously absent from Martin's script. United Artists saw a massive improvement on the quality of the script. However, its chief executives, Steven Bach and David Field, met up with Scorsese, De Niro, and producer Irwin Winkler in November 1978 to say they were worried that the content would be X-rated material and have no chance of finding an audience.
According to Scorsese, the script was left to him and De Niro, and they spent two and a half weeks on the island of Saint Martin, extensively re-building the content of the film. The most significant change would be the entire scene when LaMotta fixes his television and then accuses his wife of having an affair. Other changes included the removal of Jake and Joey's father; the reduction of organized crime's role in the story and a major re-write of LaMotta's fight with Tony Janiro. They were even responsible for the end sequence where LaMotta is all alone in his dressing room quoting the "I could have been a contender" scene from On the Waterfront. An extract of Richard III had been pondered but Michael Powell thought it would be a bad decision within the context of a film that was American.  According to Steven Bach, the first two screenwriters (Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader) would receive credit but since there was no payment to the writer's guild on the script, De Niro and Scorsese's work would remain uncredited.

Casting

It's ok to trust a newbie if your gut tells senses talent in the air
One of Scorsese's trademarks was casting many actors and actresses new to the profession, and this film was no exception. De Niro, who was already committed to play Jake LaMotta, began to help Scorsese track down unfamiliar names to play his on-screen brother, Joey, and wife, Vickie. The role of Joey LaMotta was the first to be cast. De Niro was watching a low budget television film called The Death Collector when he saw the part of a young career criminal played by Joe Pesci (then an unknown and struggling actor) as an ideal candidate. 
The role of Vickie, Jake's second wife, would have interest across the board, but it was Pesci who suggested the actress, Cathy Moriarty, from a picture he once saw at a New Jersey disco. Both De Niro and Scorsese believed that Moriarty could portray the role after meeting with her on several occasions and noticing her husky voice and physical maturity. The duo had to prove to the Screen Actors Guild that she was right for the role when Cis Corman showed 10 comparing pictures of both Moriarty and the real Vickie LaMotta for proof she had a resemblance. Moriarty was then asked to take a screen test which she managed—partly aided with some improvised lines from De Niro—after some confusion wondering why the crew were filming her take. Joe Pesci also persuaded his former show-biz pal and co-star in The Death CollectorFrank Vincent, to try for the role of Salvy Batts. Following a successful audition and screen test, Vincent received the call to say he had received the part. Charles Scorsese, the director's father, made his film debut as Tommy Como's cousin, Charlie.

Prior to receiving a call from De Niro and Scorsese for the proposal to star in the film, Pesci had not worked in film for four years and was running an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. Pesci initially claimed that it would have to be a good role for him to consider it, and he later accepted the part.

While in the midst of practicing a Bronx accent and preparing for his role, De Niro met both LaMotta and his ex-wife, Vikki, on separate occasions. Vikki, who lived inFlorida, would tell stories about her life with her former husband and also show old home movies (that would later inspire a similar sequence to be done for the film). Jake LaMotta, on the other hand, would serve as his trainer, accompanied by Al Silvani as coach at the Gramercy club in New York, getting him into shape. The actor found that boxing came naturally to him; he entered as a middleweight boxer, winning two of his three fights in a Brooklyn ring dubbed "young LaMotta" by the commentator. According to Jake LaMotta, he felt that De Niro was one of his top 20 best middleweight boxers of all time.

Principal photography

Show the audience a new perspective and you will make your film better
According to the production mixer, Michael Evje, the film began shooting at the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium on April 16, 1979. Grips hung huge curtains of black duvetyne on all four sides of the ring area to contain the artificial smoke used extensively for visual effect. On May 7, the production moved to the Culver City Studio, Stage 3, and filmed there until the middle of June. Scorsese made it clear during filming that he did not appreciate the traditional way in films to show fights from the spectators' view. He insisted that one camera operated by the Director of Photography, Michael Chapman, would be placed inside the ring as he would play the role of an opponent keeping out of the way of other fighters so that viewers could see the emotions of the fighters, including those of Jake. The precise moves of the boxers would be done as dance routines from the information of a book about dance instructors in the mode of Arthur Murray. A punching bag which sat in the middle of the ring was used by De Niro between takes before aggressively coming straight on to do the next scene. The initial five-week schedule for the shooting of the boxing scenes took longer than expected, putting Scorsese under pressure.
According to Scorsese, production of the film was then closed down for around four months with the entire crew being paid, so De Niro could go on a binge eating trip around Northern Italy and France. When he did come back to the United States, his weight increased from 145 to 215 pounds (66 to 97 kg). The scenes with the heftier Jake LaMotta—which include announcing his retirement from boxing and LaMotta ending up in a Florida cell—were completed while approaching Christmas 1979 within seven to eight weeks so as not to aggravate the health issues which were already affecting De Niro's posture, breathing, and talking.
According to production sound mixer, Michael Evje, Jake's nightclub sequence was filmed in a closed-down San Pedro club on December 3. The jail cell head-banging scene was shot on a constructed set with De Niro asking for minimal crew to be present—there was not even a boom operator.
The final sequence where Jake LaMotta is sitting in front of his mirror was filmed on the last day of shooting taking 19 takes, with only the thirteenth one being used for the film. Scorsese wanted to have an atmosphere that would be so cold that the words would have an impact as he tries to come to terms with his relationship with his brother.

Post-production

Be willing to change the story in post if it makes better
The editing of Raging Bull began when production was temporarily put on hold and was completed in 1980. Scorsese worked with the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, to achieve a final cut of the film. Their main decision was to ditch Schrader's idea of LaMotta's nightclub act intervening with the flashback of his youth and instead just follow along the lines of a single flashback where only scenes of LaMotta practicing his stand-up would be left "bookending" the film. A sound mix arranged by Frank Warner was a delicate process taking six months. According to Scorsese, the sound on Raging Bull was difficult because each punch, camera shot, and flash bulb would be different. Also, there was the issue of trying to balance the quality between scenes featuring dialogue and those involving boxing (which were done in Dolby). 
Treat every film as if it were your swan song
Raging Bull went through a test screening in front of a small audience including the chief executives of United Artists, Steven Bach and Andy Albeck. The screening was shown at the MGM screening room in New York around July 1980. Later, Albeck praised Scorsese by calling him a "true artist". According to the producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, matters were made worse when United Artists decided not to distribute the film but no other studios were interested when they attempted to sell the rights. Scorsese made no secret that Raging Bull would be his "Hollywood swan song" and he took unusual care of its rights during post-production. Scorsese threatened to remove his credit from the film if he was not allowed to sort a reel which obscured the name of a whisky brand known as "Cutty Sark" which was heard in a scene. The work was completed only four days shy of the premiere.

Copyright litigation

You can be sued anytime
Paula Petrella, heir to Frank Petrello whose works were allegedly sources for the film, filed for copyright infringement in 2009 based on MGM's 1991 copyright renewal of the film. In 2014, the Supreme Court held that Petrella's suit survived MGM's defense of "laches", the legal doctrine that protects defendants from unreasonable delays by potential plaintiffs. The case was remanded to lower courts, meaning that Petrella may now receive a decision on the merits of her claim.

If you still want a more indepth account, check out the 2010 Vanity Fair article that delves deeper into the making of the film, Raging Bull. 

And for more insight on Raging Bull's post production process check out NoFilmSchool's interview with editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.
And finally for all of you true fight fans... here are moments from the real fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta.  This is the fight depicted in the movie where LaMotta loses but afterwrads goes up to Sugar Ray and says, "You never got me down, Ray... You never got me down."

9.16.2014

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: brouillard passage #14


There are many films that caught people's attention in TIFF this year and became the subjects of top 10 lists but I decided to focus on an interesting experimental short I read about by way of Daniel Kasman's mubi notebook TIFF 2014 entries. It was the avant garde short, brouillard passage #14, directed by Alexandre Larose and the sublime little film caught my eye as well (I only got to see the trailer which I have embedded below). 
Kasman: Like many avant-garde films, I don't have any idea how Alexandre Larose made brouillard passage #14the film which opened the first program, curated around body and camera performances. I think he filmed multiple times a walk along a foliage-lined pathway until reaching a lake and superimposed those images of the corridor upon themselves—but I'm not sure. How often are you not sure of what you're watching during the festival's dramatic features? It's this kind of destabilization and lack of, to put it bluntly, presumed supremacy over films we watch that I so look forward to in Wavelengths, where even the features, like Jean-Luc Godard's, so refreshingly put me at a point of disadvantage, curiosity and wonder rather than patronizing advantage.  
I can tell you instead how Larose's short looked and felt like: it looked like a gauzy, sunny dream but felt like a lugubrious nightmare from which one cannot escape. Plunging through this nature-de-naturalized pathway at the speed of molasses, you can't tell if you are slowly swimming forward or, horribly, sinking through this pastoral smear: the images atop one another cause a normal sense of moving through both space and time to fall in upon itself, creating an undulating, rippling spatial movement. Is it fluidity, a gluey continuousness I'm experiencing, like Abbas Kiarostami's slow, real-time passage through terracotta-colored corridors in Certified Copy? Or am I having a kind of quantum vision, the ability to see multiple versions of the same space and time all at once, clouding and layering my perspective? I know not what to call any of it, really, but the experience was special.



Having watched the trailer... I can only imagine how weird and trippy it must have been to watch on screen. Since Kasman did me a solid and exposed me to the film, I figured I should do him a solid and find out how it was done.  
So... how did Larose make this work of art?
Lucky for us, studio-beat asked him that very question.
Would you talk a bit about the film and the process behind making it?
Larose: It’s actually difficult to talk about this, because what you’re describing is something that I discovered along the way, in the process, so there wasn’t a pre-decided strategy to try and achieve that effect.The sequence that you saw results from a number of other iterations that I’ve done over the years. Passage #14 is the first film that I shot at a very high speed, so everything is sort of slowed down. 
For me, it’s more about the process of making. It can be kind of overwhelming. It’s not as much about a philosophical reflection or anything like that. In the film, I’m just walking along a path as many times as there are layers–just doing that, physically, is quite difficult. 
The camera is heavy and things can fail. Maybe you noticed a part where the film becomes reddish and then there’s a cut. That happens because at the last passage I was trying to do, the film broke down in the camera and so that was the end of the shoot. Fortunately, I had enough material to have an image, but the point is, everything is made before the film is actually processed. The resulting swimming underwater look and the dreaminess–that comes from all those layers being so thin and light. They add up in a way that doesn’t look like just one single image. 
Can you expand on the process of optical printing a bit?
Larose: Optical printing is exactly like an enlarger for photographic images. It works with images in motion, however. Just like with photographing an exposed strip of film and using an enlarger, you can control the rhythm, the exposure, the framing and all those things but since it works in time you can also alter frame rates, slow things down and make all sorts of other alterations. An optical printer translates in time, where in photography, it would be only with one image. It works with a lens and is essentially just another camera that shoots a filmed image.
Ah so Larose used an optical printer!?! 
Well let's see how those work; for those interested in optical printing for their films, read on... below is some how-to info and check out the filmmaker toolkit's post-production section for more on these traditional ol' skool special effects.

Horizon's look at how ILM used optical printers to create effects


Using the Sequencer on an JK Optical Printer K-104


Using a wetgate optical printer to restore film




And if you like this kind of work but can't see brouillard passage yet, watch these experimental films using optical printers, in the meantime.

Don't ever say I didn't look out for you, Daniel Kasman.