Tag Archives: Frank Oz

What Happens When You Meet Grover and He Curses?

I’ve devoted two recent posts to the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and director Frank Oz’s commentary for it (here and here). Now I’m going to put that topic to bed with one last post, this time about my experience as the field producer for the audio commentary, in May, 2001.

At the time, I was the East Coast pointman for the LA-based documentary company Automat Pictures. Besides producing the bonus features for the DVDs of Scorsese’s Raging Bull and The Last Waltz, I occasionally covered their NYC-based gigs, such as interviewing Isabella Rossellini about her vagina. 1

Frank Oz was due to record his audio commentary for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in LA, but circumstances kept him on my coast, and so I got the call to field produce his session. The DVD’s producer was Ian Haufrect, a swell guy who was understandably crestfallen that he would not be able to cover the session personally. Still, he gave me great questions and did all the logistical arrangements. 2

The session was at Spin Cycle Post, a small facility where I had been a sound editor for a half-dozen years. It was just Frank; my old buddy Jason, who engineered the session; and me. Jason and I were very professional: courteous and calm, the whole time ignoring the fact that—Holy Shit!—we were in the same room with Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Grover, Fozzie Bear and Bert!!

Frank was a Commentary Producer’s dream come true: he spoke constantly, giving us an in-depth glimpse into his process. There was one moment of (self) constructive criticism I’ll never forget. Frank had just done a portion of commentary and suddenly stopped, asking us to play it back for him. It was a two minute chunk of his description of “what is funny,” and I have to admit, it was pretty meandering. Although when he asked us for our opinion, Jason and I were reflexively and blindly supportive: “Oh, it’s great, Frank! Just beautiful! It’s awesome, Sir!” etc.

“Really?” he asked incredulously. “No, it isn’t. It’s fucking boring.”

After that icebreaker, it was easy for us to offer genuine feedback. (And to this day, when re-reading something I’ve written, such as this post, I’ll sometimes hear Frank’s voice say, “It’s fucking boring.”)

Naturally, there were the requisite Star Wars junkies on hand. (Can you imagine a film editing facility that wouldn’t have them?) In this case, two assistant editors a few years younger than me, Chris and Jeff, though that day they were more like Mutt and Jeff, giddy over the possibility of an audience with Yoda. “OK, guys,” I said. “Keep yer pants on. This isn’t my session, technically. I’ve never met the man. I don’t know how he feels about shit like this, “ and so on, explaining that they could approach him at the end of the session. Every time I went into the lobby, they’d be there, like expectant fathers in a waiting room, wide-eyed, wondering if it was Time.

When the session was ended, Frank was glad to do a small meet-and-greet. I stuck my head outside of the studio and gestured for the groupies to come in. They did, each with brand new Sharpies and 8×10 glossies of Yoda that they purchased that morning. I rolled my eyes and stepped back so they could have their own private Comic-Con.

Frank was incredibly cool. Recently, I asked Jeff Marcello, who’s now an editor and  filmmaker, for his recollections:

Frank signed the picture with his name and Yoda’s. I asked him to write, “Do or do not. There is no try.” He declined because he didn’t want to take credit for other people’s words. However, signing Yoda’s ‘autograph,’ he said, “This is how I imagine Yoda would sign his name.”

I’ve met a lot of celebrities, but I hardly ever ask for an autograph. This one is one of my prized possessions. It’s framed and hangs in my home edit room!

Jeff’s also generously offered this scan as proof of the momentous occasion.

That’s pretty much it, except for one noteworthy postscript. MGM would “pay” directors and actors for their time in DVDs. They’d provide a list of 200 or so titles and ask the talent to check off 15 that they wanted. Frank did this, grumbling as so many others did that the folks at MGM were being cheapskates, and I mailed it off to Ian. A few months later, I got a phone call at home:

“Hi. This is Frank Oz. I was wondering…where the fuck are my DVDs?”

I already knew that MGM was slow to “pay” talent, so I referred him to Ian in LA and that was the end of it. But there was that one stunned moment when I thought, “Did Yoda just curse at me?!” (“Off it pisses me!”)

All-in-all, it was my favorite audio commentary session, and I made one contribution that I’m proud of: Frank’s commentary for Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s legendary teaser trailer. MGM hadn’t sent the trailer to the session—so Frank would have nothing to watch–but thanks to my film geekery, I knew that it was at the beginning of the VHS of Eight Men Out, so I rented it on my way in and—boom!—there it is on the DVD.

And that’s why MGM hired guys like me to produce those things!


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BACK TO POST 1 Of course, that story’s for a future post, but, hey, nice to see you’re using the nifty footnote function!

BACK TO POST 2 In fact, Ian was the first commentary producer to recommend I have an IMDB cast-and-crew list on hand to make life easier for directors (and if you’ve read this post, you know that I put a lot of stock in the commentary producer’s responsibilities).

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When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround

Tod Browning was a masterful director of the 20s and 30s, once most famous for directing the original Dracula (1931) and now best known for making the infamous Freaks (1932). The latter is a documentary packaged as a melodrama, with real sideshow freaks in the cast. It also has the shot that is the inspiration for this post, yet another instance where a director let a single shot tell his story, instead of relying on conventional coverage and edits. (Prior posts has highlighted shots in films by Leo McCarey, Ozu, Oz, and Coppola.)

But first some context. I imagine filming a passionate kiss has always been a drag for filmmakers. The idea of putting the faces of your characters that close together is dramatically sound but cinematographically dull. Sure, if the script has organically brought us to the kiss, then we, the audience, can do without seeing their faces for a few moments, and if the acting is spot on, we can feel the passion. But still I’m sure some directors (and actors and DPs) dislike the visual element; it has a way of leveling the playing field, whether it’s Bogart and Bergman, Woody and Diane, or Edward and Bella.

Since the camera can’t see either face completely, what’s a filmmaker to do? Traditionally, they rely on other ways of conveying the passion: the blocking of the actors (how they move into the kiss and out of it); their moans, pants and words uttered in between kisses; music, of course; multiple angles and edits; and camera movement (ah, the old “360° around the kissing couple” routine). In Notorious, Hitchcock famously dealt with a kiss in a single shot that was long, intricate, and incredibly clever.

It’s also been talked into the ground, so I’ll leave that shot alone.

On the other hand, given the same visual conundrum every filmmaker faces, here’s how Tod Browning staged it.

Freaks is about life in the circus and the code of honor among the pinheads, dwarves and others of the freak-class. Many within the circus regard them as “less than,” though to others, such as Phroso the Clown, they’re (relatively) normal people and even their peers. Frequently the film shows us how these people are as domestic and as we are—they can roll cigarettes, pour wine, etc,–regardless of how few limbs they have. In the case of the conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, we even see their suitors.

In this brief scene, their first in the film, the sisters approach Phroso. They talk about Daisy’s pending marriage and Phroso seizes the opportunity to flex their genetic empathy, so to speak…

The sisters are just bystanders in the film’s plot—not even a subplot—and in a later scene, Violet gets engaged. Naturally, a newly-engaged couple will kiss and this is how Browning shows it…

An uncommon solution, but it always takes my breath away. And although this shot seems like a gimmicky excuse for a post, it stands up under scrutiny, with plenty of pointers for filmmakers.

For starters, use what ya got. If you have gifted people in your film, use those gifts to your advantage. Repeatedly in the film, Browning turns his casts’ unusual skills and features to his advantage, both visually and narratively. In this instance, he found a way to show his characters uniqueness and how their lives might be—and that it’s really quite wonderful.

Secondly, Browning gives us context. Long before this kiss happens, he sets up the payoff. The brief scene with Phroso touching Violet’s arm is played off as a parlor trick, not even a plot point, but only 17 minutes later we get the kiss and Daisy’s joy and know exactly why she feels the way she does.

Lastly, it’s simply a beautiful shot. Here’s how I know: I showed this film to my wife, Debbie, a few years ago. She’s by no means a film geek—she doesn’t get hung up on cinematic style or form—and Freaks really isn’t her cup of tea. She was rolling with it, somewhere between repulsed and bored, when this kiss happened. Her reaction was palpable and positive (kind of a gasp or an audible smile). It didn’t matter whether Daisy’s bliss was genuine or if she was acting (I doubt conjoined twins really do feel each other’s sensations as such); it was something Debbie had never seen, a moment of perfect visual storytelling, all the more impressive since she had not put the film or its filmmaker on a pedestal. In other words, its eloquence caught her off-guard.

Like I said, I don’t know if the Hilton Sisters really had this kind of symbiosis, but this is another example of Browning’s attitude toward “freaks”: they’re well-adjusted, domestic, special (in a good way), honorable, very human, and members of a community that we should respect. (Gooble Gobble!)

Compared with my other posts in this series, Browning’s Kiss is perhaps the most unusual in the bunch (maybe closest in intent to Ozu’s static wide-shot), but I’m certain of one thing: if there were even one more cinematic ingredient (i.e. edits, coverage, a close-up of Daisy’s face, a music cue, even a dolly in) it wouldn’t be as powerful as it is. He cast it well, set the stage, and stood back. After that, it was all up to us.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Kubrick knows how to make us hold our breath.

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When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera

Time for another post discussing an instance when a director chose a sustained shot as opposed to a more conventional, edit-filled approach. Today is all about Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the camera in one scene in The Conversation.

My prior examples in this series (Laurel & Hardy’s The Finishing Touch; Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus; and Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) were static shots, with all the movement occurring via the blocking of the actors. Today’s example broadens the scope a little, since the camera does move, yet it’s the way it moves that makes it note-worthy. Coppola does something I call character-driven filmmaking, which is when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the editing, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the shooting. (I wrote about this before in my post about the editing in Silkwood.)

The Conversation (1974) is about surveillance expert Harry Caul. It’s a 70s character study disguised as paranoid thriller: Harry eavesdrops for a living but, not surprisingly, lives in fear of being watched or even noticed, preferring solitude.

In this scene, which happens early in the film, Harry enters his apartment at the end of the day. He checks his mail, calls his landlady, and takes off his pants. Such a straightforward scene could be shot and cut several different ways, all expanding our understanding of Harry. These possibilities include:

• a handful of medium shots where Harry’s décor is visible in the background, each with Harry in the frame as he walks from room to room
• a dolly shot either in front of him (camera dollying backwards) or behind him, showing only his back; in both cases his décor would be visible on the sides of the frames
• a slightly more esoteric approach: static medium shots or close-ups of parts of his apartment, without Harry in frame

So how does Coppola shoot it? Well, I think when a filmmaker is crafting a scene, he or she needs to constantly ask, “What information does the audience need to know right now?” Here’s how Coppola answers that question…

I love this shit. Coppola’s tableau is wide and sparse. Harry lives simply, so the director foregoes showing us his apartment in detail and instead lets the camera behave as an extension of Harry’s state-of-mind, which is one of surveillance. In fact, the first time he leaves the frame, he appears to be consciously trying to get away from the camera.

Gratefully, Francis Ford Coppola did an audio commentary for this film, so I can let him speak for himself. Here’s a minute-long clip of his explanation of this shot and its style:

Couldn’t be much clearer than that, could he? It’s nice to hear him say that, but, truthfully, when I first saw this film in the 80s, it was crystal clear to me.

(For what it’s worth, I think the lone CU in the scene—a generic birthday card from his bank—is so sad it only reinforces our understanding of Harry’s isolation. Instead of showing us one of Harry’s personal belongings, Coppola shows us the exact opposite: what could be more impersonal than a form birthday card?)

Obviously, such a self-conscious shot could be perceived as gimmicky, but if you haven’t seen the film, believe me: Coppola successfully uses this style for maximum effect, abetted enormously by Gene Hackman’s performance.

I could go on and on about this film—I freakin’ love it—but I’ll leave it at that. However, if you’re interested in a great essay about The Conversation, I recommend this post at Precious Bodily Fluids.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Director Tod Browning thinks freaks work best without too many edits.
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By the way, the DVD for The Conversation is unique: It not only has a full-length commentary by the director, it has one by the editor. Why? you ask.

Those familiar with the history of this film are aware of the uncomfortable relationship between Coppola and editor Walter Murch. The director had to leave the project prematurely (to begin pre-production onThe Godfather, Part 2) and left a good deal of The Conversation in the hands of the editor. Murch’s changes to the structure of the film were radical enough for some to claim he saved the picture, and it seems it’s been a sore spot for both men ever since. Case in point: for the aforementioned DVD, they each say surprisingly little about the other’s input on the film.

Anyway, I had planned the second half of this post to dissect that seemingly rocky relationship, but, alas, that will have to wait for another post.

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Steve Martin: A Wild–Yet Inspirational–Guy

Like many men around my age (41), I was influenced—no, molded by Steve Martin. (And if you were, too, then you know exactly the inflection I used in that last sentence.) Although he was a non-stop presence on TV and in film in the late 70s, it was his LPs that really schooled me in comic timing. It was the ability to re-play those albums endlessly that made them so important for me and my ilk. Simply put, when I was a kid, Steve Martin was the embodiment of pure comedy (summarized beautifully in the still to the right, which came with his 1978 album A Wild & Crazy Guy.)

As I got older and his output mellowed some, becoming a steady stream of a film or two a year, with the occasional (brilliant) appearance on Carson or Letterman, I became more discerning. Some of his films worked (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), some didn’t (The Lonely Guy 1). One that’s always worked for me—perhaps my favorite of his films (after The Jerk, of course)—is Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). I think it’s definitely the most clever film he’s been in, structurally.

The other day I wrote a post about this film and Oz’s DVD commentary for it, a commentary which is a primer on “How to Direct a Comedy.” He worked hard on this film to keep us on our toes, collaborating with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus to maximize every shot, scene and plot twist.

Here’s a fine example of how he made a scene work. The set up: rookie conman Freddy Benson (Steve) has been jailed in the South of France for plying his trade, and he thinks his one-time meeting with local lothario Lawrence Jamieson will give him the clout he needs to be released. In this clip, the scene is followed immediately by Oz’s commentary for it…

He constantly elaborates like this on what went into making a joke click, whether it was in the writing, acting, shooting, editing, scoring or in the sound effects work. But the real treat in the commentary is Oz’s insight into working with Steve Martin. Repeatedly, the director describes how Steve would contribute a scene-saving gag or punchline—always at Oz’s request. Although Steve doesn’t get a writing credit on the film, you’d think he deserves one. Here’s a short list of what he brought to the table, which includes some of the film’s most memorable moments:

       • Freddy’s character-defining costume touches such as his Speedo and flip sunglasses.
       • Freddy’s Super Glued hand. According to Oz, prior to Steve contributing this sight gag, the scripted scene had no punchline.
       • Ruprecht “going to the bathroom,” perhaps the most quoted joke from the film. (It was actually a joke Steve used to do onstage in the early 70s.)
       • The film’s legendary teaser trailer!

And here’s my favorite of Steve’s contributions. Midway through the film, Lawrence and Freddy are knee-deep in their competition over Janet (Glenne Headly) and her money. Freddy’s angle is to be psychosomatically crippled, while Lawrence claims to be a doctor who can heal him. In this scene, Freddy is perched at the top of an outdoor flight of stairs that lead to a beach. Thanks to Lawrence’s insistence that Janet ignore Freddy, she won’t help him down the stairs. It leads to this…

In the original script, however, it was different: Freddy really does lose control of the wheelchair and careens wildly down the steps. Oz wanted to show this in a single shot, and the stunt supervisor began assembling an intricate rig with a pipeline running the length of the steep steps. It wasn’t going smoothly, and the producer told Frank Oz that it would cost $150,000 to make the gag work. In dismay, the director approached Steve… (At this point, I’ll let Frank finish the story in his commentary.)

I remember seeing this film in ’88 and the ten seconds where we can’t see him—but only hear him—we were laughing because we thought he had fallen, which makes the reveal get another, bigger laugh on top of that (as Oz explains “Sometimes you want to…imagine what’s happening”). But there’s something else that happens here, something plot-wise, that Oz doesn’t even mention: Steve’s suggestion allowed another transfer of control in the ongoing cat-and-mouse between Freddy and Lawrence. As scripted, Freddy gets Janet’s attention because he mistakenly falls down the stairs; as filmed, he wins back her attention by his own devices.

So let’s summarize. With Steve’s one-sentence suggestion—“Well, I’ll just pretend I’m out of control”—he: saved days of work and $150,000 of the film’s budget; inspired a great multi-level gag; and added a brilliant extra twist to the film’s plot. What more could you ask from an actor?! 2

I guess the thrill for me—as a fan of the film listening of the commentary—is that it validated my long-standing appreciation of Steve Martin. He really is the embodiment of pure comedy.

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I was lucky to field produce this commentary in the summer of 2001, and I was going to share some stories from that wonderful experience. However, it’s just gonna have to wait for another post. Sorry!

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BACK TO POST 1 Ignoring, of course, Charles Grodin’s perfect, toupée-free performance as Warren.

BACK TO POST 2 For the record, there are plenty of Steve’s films I haven’t seen, and although I give him all this credit (he’s brilliant, changed my life, etc), many of them I wouldn’t see even if you put a loaded pistol in my mouth. But, based on what Frank Oz says, I wonder if even the dumbest-sounding of his films have some moments of genius, moments that scream…Steve.

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When Not to Edit, Pt 3: Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting

In my prior posts about instances when filmmakers refrained from editing unnecessarily, I wrote about Laurel & Hardy holding a shot for the full impact of a joke and how Yasujiro Ozu’s unobtrusive camera enabled a documentary-like use of space and performances. And today it’s about a shot in Frank Oz’s 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a shot where the blocking of the actors replaces the needs for edits.

This is going to be a short post—and this shot may not be the best example of my point, to be perfectly frank—but with the director himself explaining it so succinctly in his commentary, it’s hard for me to pass up.

Here’s the set-up: Laurence Jamieson (Michael Caine) and Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) are two conmen duking it out in the South of France. A turf war. By this scene, their animosity reaches its crest, and they realize that neither is going to back down. Here’s the clip, followed immediately by the same scene with Oz’s commentary.

“This is what the movie’s about.”1   Accomplished in a single shot. Well, sustaining it for thirty seconds and having three “shots” in one, ending in an extreme close up, certainly makes it unignorable to the audience that something important is happening.

And while their blocking is a little stagy (i.e. Michael Caine stepping up that last step into his ECU), I think that when it comes to traditional, male territorial behavior, it does matter who’s standing on the highest step. In other words, I’d believe that these characters would end up at the top of a staircase, staring each other down.

So, does Oz prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space?2  Hell yeah. It’s clear from Oz’s entire commentary that he gives this kind of thing a lot of thought, whether it’s for a comedic or dramatic purpose. (More below on that commentary.) Moreover, his Director of Photography was Michael Ballhaus. Before the German DP ever met Oz, he was mentored in his youth by director Max Ophüls; and shot sixteen Fassbinder films in the 70s and three Scorsese films in the 80s. In other words, Ballhaus is no slouch when it comes to use of space, and Oz relied heavily on Ballhaus’s sage advice. The result is one of the more intelligently-shot comedies of the 80s.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Francis Coppola’s use of the camera as an extension of his character’s state of mind.
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By the way, I had originally planned to write at length about Oz’s commentary for this film, but I’m saving that for another post. It’s one of my favorite commentaries. Oz intelligently illustrates ways to direct comedy, as well as thoroughly explaining the necessary collaborative process, especially when it comes to Steve Martin. In fact, the post will be about Steve. (Also, I was lucky enough to be the session producer for this commentary, and I’ll write about how that went.) Be on the lookout for it.

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BACK TO POST 1 While I think it’s cool that he points out that “this is what the movie’s about,” it is a little troublesome that this happens at the film’s 45 minute mark. I’m not gonna lie to you: I love Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but I do wish it were a reel shorter.

BACK TO POST 2 In the early 30s, when Eisenstein taught film direction at the Moscow State Cinema Institute, he challenged his class to shoot an entire scene in a single static shot. His idea was simple: through a combination of camera placement, lenses and blocking, the dramatic impact of the scene can be accomplished without editing. He strongly believed that a filmmaker must exhaust all possibilities within the shot before resorting to an edit. He called this mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).

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