Having just watched my favourite film again this Christmas (It's A Wonderful Life! - as if you didn't already know), I thought I would share one of my recent essays which explores the complexities within the seemingly straightforward star image of James Stewart.
Demons in the Everyman: what political and social ideologies are encoded in the star image of James Stewart?
James Stewart (1908-1997), known as ‘Jimmy’, is considered to be one of the most popular film stars of all time. He is listed as the third greatest male screen legend by the American Film Institute (AFI, 1999). His long Hollywood career lasted from the mid-1930s until the early 1970s but his star image has endured far beyond those decades. His obituary in Variety describes him as ‘one of Hollywood’s most likeable and popular stars’ (Gray and Natalie, 1997: p52) and The Guardian calls him ‘one of the most endearing actors in the movies, a role model for us all and automatic casting as the decent American everyman’ (Thomson, 1997). This well-established star image of Stewart is noticeable for its clarity and the seeming transparency of its construction, closely resembling perceptions of himself as a person. However, a number of hidden meanings can be deduced. Dyer (2015) writes that star images all have political implications, not always in an overt sense but in relation to societal and cultural norms. This essay will investigate the way his particular appeal related to dominant social ideologies in terms of class divisions, sexual relations, politics, World War II and its resulting psychological traumas. It will examine whether Stewart’s everyman persona can be sustained under various political and social ideologies.
In many ways the ‘ordinary’ nature of James Stewart makes him an unlikely movie star. It might be argued that he could only have emerged during the particular conditions of the tumultuous 1930s. Perhaps events such as the Great Depression, The Dustbowl and the unstable political situations meant something new needed to contrast with the Hollywood glamour on display. It was a chance for social issues to appear in films such as Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) (Dyer, 2015) and for new stars to emerge. Dyer (2015) explains that in the first decades of cinema, stars were untouchable Gods on the screen. However, with the coming of sound in the late 20s, the added verisimilitude more closely approximated reality and audiences wanted stars they could identify with. It was in these conditions that James Stewart would emerge to become a central figure in audience representation.
Stewart seemed to be well-placed to represent various sectors of American society. As a son of a hardware store manager from rural Pennsylvania, he could become a figure of identification for small-town America and became ‘the quintessential boy next door’ (Geier, 1997: p10). It must be remembered however that Stewart also attended Princeton and could be considered to be lower-middle class, to be championed by small business owners and the upwardly mobile. Thomson (1997) claims this shows ‘that the country-boy manner, and especially the stumbling way of speaking were pretty calculated’. Stewart himself claimed not to have been aware of his distinctive voice (Rochter, 1990). Others claim that Stewart was a very authentic and transparent star whose private life ‘appeared to resemble the personable man he so often played onscreen’ (Glenn, 2014: p28). If Jimmy Stewart the star and Stewart the man can be seen to represent America, then his star image can reveal much about social and political issues. In many cases this manifests as a wholesome, and conservative, image which works to preserve the dominant ideas of the time.
His hard-working man of the people image seems to be coherent with a dedicated approach to his job. However, his relationship with Hollywood later produced a number of varied meanings. Dyer (2015) and McDonald (2015) write that stars images contain several contradictory tensions between professionalism and lucky breaks, between being ordinary and being a special talent. Stewart seems to embody all four elements. He claimed to have enjoyed the studio system of the 1930s because it offered work from 8am until 6:30 every day and gave him a chance to learn in a variety of roles (Rochter, 1990). His service in the war altered this attitude and he became disillusioned with the industry in the face of such worldwide turmoil, until a co-star convinced him of its worth (Metz, 1996). However, Stewart later played a pivotal role in changing Hollywood labour relations for star actors. In the early 1950s he was one of the first actors to benefit from taking a profit percentage rather than a standard fee (Thomson, 1997). He also exercised more control over the roles he would take (Glenn, 2014). Stewart’s image therefore encompasses working hard at his job and being dedicated to his craft but nuanced by fluctuations in his feeling of worth to the industry.
Dyer (2015) writes that star types, even rebels, often function as a safety valve which relieves pressure on the system but have a tendency to preserve the status quo. This is true of Stewart whose image as a ‘straight arrow child of the hardworking heartland’ (Geier, 1997: p10) could give the working-classes representation, without changing the system. One such example of preserving the status quo is in The Philadelphia Story (1940). The film has a theme of viewing the upper-class not as Goddesses or bronze statues but as human beings, accepting their accompanying faults. Stewart’s initially cynical working-class writer falls for upper-class Tracy Lord once he sees her humanity and energy. His comic turn in the film can therefore be read as functioning to promote unity between the classes and is a diversion from divisions which may have been occurring in wider society.
The pairing of Stewart and Hepburn in the Philadelphia Story perhaps serves an additional function of easing gender relations as well as class relations. Lawrence (2014) writes that ‘once his persona crystalized in the late 1930s, the particular kind of sexiness enacted by Stewart could be put into play for specific ideological functions’ (p.45). His type of gentle masculinity and sexuality became a less belligerent foil for assertive leading ladies (Lawrence, 2014). This romantic appeal was unusual. Adair (1997) writes of the ‘awkwardness with women’, played for laughs in his comedy films. His characters were also capable of a wistful romance and poetic imagery. He tells girls they are ‘lit from within’ (The Philadelphia Story, 1940) and promises to lasso the moon for them (It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946) in ‘luminous flights of fancy’ and ‘mutual playfulness’ (More, 2015). In real life Stewart was believed to have dated a number of women in the 1930s but he took care of them well enough for stories not to become rife in the gossip columns (Thomson, 1997) so his image was very much removed from the rampant virility of some other Hollywood stars. Instead his occasionally shy on-screen manner created the appeal of someone who was ‘very nice looking without having a trace of sexual menace.’ (Thomson, 1997). The irony of Mary jokingly declaring George is ‘making violent love’ to her in It’s A Wonderful Life is extended back across Stewart’s films in the previous decade. A prime example of this is the gentlemanly conduct he demonstrates in not taking advantage when Tracy gets drunk in The Philadelphia Story. This behaviour makes an interesting contrast to some on-screen relationships in the work of other male stars. For example, Cary Grant in the same film puts his hand over his wife’s face and pushes her to the ground and the script indicates he has also beaten her previously. Another contrast is from just the previous year with heartthrob Clark Gable’s Rhett forcing himself on Vivien Leigh’s Scarlet in Gone with the Wind (1939). These latter two examples are highly troubling by today’s moral standards yet late 1930s society seemed to be more tolerant of them. Stewart’s sexuality then, whilst not breaking any societal norms, can be seen as one model in a mix of representations, an appeal which has endured far longer.
It is this which makes Vertigo (1958) such a frightening change of direction as the gentility becomes violent and obsessive. It is ‘the contrast between the psychological intensity of which he proved capable and the casual behavioural charm which came so naturally to him seemed all the more disturbing’ (Adair, 1997). The film sees his private detective character Scottie become obsessed with the insane woman he has been hired to tail (Kim Novak). When she dies he harasses another woman (also Kim Novak) into a recreation of the dead girl’s image (in fact not knowing he has been duped all along). Scottie’s stalking links Stewart to his character in another prominent Hitchcock thriller Rear Window (1954) where his character L.B Jeffries, or ‘Jeff’, ignores his girlfriend to spy on the neighbours (including an attractive girl practising her dance moves). Voyeurism plays a prominent part in these two films but More (2014) suggests that in retrospect it has always been present in Stewart’s image and cites examples in The Shop Around The Corner (1940) and in It’s A Wonderful Life when he hides the robe from a naked Mary and jokes about selling tickets.
Vertigo has been read a number of different ways and Handzo (2014) believes Stewart’s Scottie character is gay. He points to the platonic relationship with other females in the film, the way he can’t fall for Judy’s natural womanly charms and proposes that his obsession comes from recreating a lost work of art rather than from sexual impulse. Some authors such as Lawrence (2014) have attempted to identify varying sexualities in other films, particularly after the war. Lawrence (2014) points out that the original play version of Rope (1948) strongly implied that the two murderers and their tutor, the character Stewart would later play, were homosexual. The body hidden in the chest is deemed to be a metaphor for being in the closet (Lawrence 2014). The gay subtext in the film version is much reduced and although some modern reviewers have picked up on it, including Hutchinson (2012), the film does not seem to have been understood in this manner by reviewers or audiences at the time. Lawrence (2014) also claims that a masochistic sexual impulse can be read in Stewart’s expression in the scene in The Man From Laramie (1955) where he is pinned and tortured by a group of men who shoot him through the hand. However, this attempt to mine extra depths from the sexuality of Stewart’s image is not something that is likely to be recognised by Director Anthony Mann, the audience, or Stewart himself. Instead it is the more prevalent easy charm and gentle personality which is the most enduring image of Stewart’s sexuality.
The way Stewart’s star image relates to the institution of marriage is very ambiguous. It embodies conservative societal norms yet can also express great reluctance in doing so. In real life Stewart became happily married and never divorced, unlike many Hollywood contemporaries. Despite bucking a Hollywood trend, this private component of his star image reinforces dominant values about the family unit. However, newspapers commented on the fact that it took him a while and he married relatively late in his life, aged 41 (Lawrence, 2014). Discrepancies can begin to be seen between his home image and his on-screen image; bachelor roles are very prominent across his films, even after he was married. In some films the lack of a stable partner leads to dangerous obsessions such as In Vertigo where Scottie is a single man in his early fifties and ignores the attentions of Midge before becoming obsessed with Madeleine. In Rear Window too his character Jeff is unwilling to settle down to Grace Kelly’s charms. This film also associates marriage with ending the chance of further adventures. Jeff is a photographer with a thrill for danger, as evidenced by the action photos on display, and is unconvinced that his high-society girlfriend could keep up with him. In It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey is an adventurer who never gets to go on an adventure. When he gets together with future wife Mary (Donna Reed) it is ‘staged like a breakdown’ (Lawrence, 2014: p45) and is throbbing with emotional violence. Glenn (2014) claims it represents ‘an anguished and suffering man whose masculinity is compromised through excessive cooperation and submission’ (p.32). He knows that settling down will end his hopes of travel and adventure. In that moment George knows he is in love with Mary and will spend the rest of his life with her- but he hates himself for it. Acknowledging it ‘will cost him, as well as gain him, everything’ (More, 2015). However, these two films end happily with the value of the relationships clearly felt. Stewart’s star image therefore is one which actively supports traditional marriage and family values in his private life and in his films, although in the roles he played there is allowance for shades of grey and recognisable nagging doubts.
In relation to politics, James Stewart’ star image is powerful, yet nuanced. In real life he was known for supporting many Republican Presidents but such party partisanship isn’t the main purpose, even in the overtly political films The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and his most prominent film in the pre-war period, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In this the part seems tailor-made for Stewart. He plays a wholesome, naïve and idealistic young Boys Brigade leader who is duly elected Senator, not knowing he had only been chosen as a stooge for corrupt politicians. When his proposed bill conflicts with the greedy machinations of other members, he is attacked by the powerful media and political system. His individual willpower is almost, but not quite crushed, and the ordinary folk help to prove his innocence. Stewart and his Director Frank Capra may have produced scathing attacks on the political and social institutions of the day but they vehemently supported the ideals which were supposed to be underpinning them; their politics were not revolutionary. In It’s A Wonderful Life the attack is aimed at greed and unfair business practises, not on the idea of business itself. Likewise Mr Smith Goes to Washington should be remembered not as an attack on the system but on those corrupt individuals damaging it from within. The film emphasised that the political system can only work if there is human kindness behind it. In a decade where many political regimes across Europe saw democracy as a short-lived experiment which could be discarded, Stewart’s film was a timely reminder that the system must be refreshed and political leaders examined with renewed vigour if democracy was to survive.
The coming of World War II marked a watershed in Stewart’s star image, both in terms of public perceptions and in critical appraisal. It leads to distinctions between his pre-war and post-war images. It also created a middle, missing, period in his career where acting was put on hold and he volunteered for military service. His star image was used in propaganda, adding further political dimensions. Stewart was reportedly unhappy about merely being used in promotional tours. Eventually he saw active service as a bomber pilot flying in dangerous missions over Germany and became Brigadier General later in his career. This impressive war record became part of his public image as his career as a pilot was heavily publicised (Glen, 2014). This also linked him to millions of other Americans who had served in the conflict and it increased the perception of his persona as an ordinary man of the people.
In addition to helping with recruitment at the beginning of the war, Stewart’s image was also used to allay fears about the difficulty of reintegrating returning soldiers. Extensive news coverage about his intention to return to acting was used to encourage veterans back to their own professions (Glenn, 2014). It’s A Wonderful Life was his first post-war film and it served to remind the public of the value of their ordinary lives at home (Thomson, 1997) with the image of him hugging his family at the end representing the return of all veterans (Glenn, 2014). Political and social forces willed a return to pre-war normality but this proved difficult for millions of veterans, and for Jimmy Stewart.
Stewart’s attempts at returning to acting after the war almost induced a nervous breakdown (Thomson, 1997). He refused to make films about the war or current day conflicts, or to exploit his war record for publicity. This was attributed to humility but there was also an element of hiding past experiences as veterans were left to deal with psychological trauma alone (Lawrence, 2014) and there was a stigma against mental health problems (Glen, 2014). Stewart’s star persona conformed to the dominant position of the day which was that traumatic experiences of the war should not be spoken of. This meant that whilst injuries and trauma were explored in some other films of the time, such as Brando’s The Men (1950), Stewart’s films did not deal directly with these issues. However, many authors now claim that the widely recognised darker psychological roles of Stewart’s post-war career are in fact a result of traumatic experiences in the conflict.
Such roles can be found in Stewart’s work in Anthony Mann’s Westerns, including The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie, and in the thrillers he made with Hitchcock. Glenn (2014) illustrates that the Western characters were Civil War veterans and that, as much as Stewart avoided roles set in World War II, the backstories of many of the Hitchcock characters indicated they had played some part in the conflict. The roles display a number of physical injuries, prominent in the Westerns but also in Jeff’s confinement to a wheelchair in Rear Window. These physical wounds can also represent psychological states (Lawrence, 2014). Vertigo overtly deals with psychological trauma as Scottie is haunted by a cycle of deaths from the past and is driven to madness. Glenn (2014) argues that across a range of films from the period (in the Westerns, the thrillers and even in It’s A Wonderful Life) Stewart displays the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares, restlessness, irritability and an inability to adjust to society. This is reflected in the physicality and emotionality of his performances. Although the films Stewart starred in did not make a direct link between the trauma on display and the recent conflict of World War II, as a representative of returning veterans and America at large, his roles did allow some recognition of the psychological tensions within.
This also raises questions as to what extent Stewart consciously used this trauma in his performances. Actor’s techniques are often kept private and Stewart was also unwilling to speak about his war experiences so an examination of this aspect of performance remains inconclusive. However, many have claimed that Stewart’s experiences in the war, including suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, changed him to such a high degree that it could not have failed to have influenced his performance (Metz, 2016). Discussion of the actor’s techniques is often speculative and Stewart claimed to feel okay with the notion of actors essentially playing themselves (Maslin, 1983). There are a range of interpretations from ‘never a great actor in the classic sense’ (Gray and Natalie, 1997: p52) to ‘an unassuming genius’ (Hoskin, 2008: p480). Glenn (2014) points out recurring gestures that Stewart uses to indicate a psychological state, such as wiping his face with the back of his hand. Glenn (2014) also points to the act of fainting which occurs in several of his post-war films, and links it to him once fainting when returning from a flying mission. However, Stewart also faints in his pre-conflict performance in Mr Smith Goes to Washington so perhaps this could be considered to be another physical gesture continued from earlier in his career. He was willing to go to great lengths to achieve the right physical conditions for his roles and later admitted his hoarse, raspy voice in the filibuster scene of Mr Smith Goes to Washington was assisted by a doctor pouring mercury solution down his throat (Rochter, 1990). Another interpretation is the possibility that much of the emotion is constructed by the editing process, since Hitchcock talks about Stewart in an example of how the Kuleshov experiment works in his films (Truffaut, 1983). Regardless of the techniques being used, Stewart always appeared to be natural and retained his personal star appeal, being ‘capable of wrapping his persona around any given role and commanding audience empathy’ (Gray and Natalie, 1997: p52). Stewart had an awareness of his star image and fans recognised when he departed from it (Maslin, 1983). He said he looked for ‘stories that are part of you’ and ‘you become conscious of what you believe in’ (Maslin, 1983). Stewart was therefore identifying with the roles and accepting the psychological complexities that would be added to his image.
It’s A Wonderful Life demonstrates the most iconic images of Stewart, and the film contains a lot of depth in these presentations, yet the widest range of meanings relating to Stewart’s image are arguably encompassed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film was made towards the end of Stewart’s Hollywood career but crystalises many aspects of it. Stewart plays a lawyer who gains fame and is elected as a senator based on his reputation for reluctantly shooting the eponymous outlaw who has been terrorising the town for years- until he discovers that the shot was actually fired by his un-revered friend and rival (played by a more masculine John Wayne). The film shows Stewart’s masculinity at its most malleable; being feminised by washing dishes wearing a pinafore yet romantically charming his hostess. Stewart can also be tough in standing up for what’s right, despite earlier traumas and being weaker than his opponent, and maintains a principled belief in the law and politics if powered by a kindness and humanity behind it. It finally recognises that the democracy and freedom brought to the town could not have been achieved without the quiet man who really did kill the terror facing them; it values the contributions, and assuages the guilt, of returning veterans who had done the same. Stewart’s star image in this film is therefore one which can unify society not just through his unique masculinity and easy charm but also through the recognition of psychological wounds.
James Stewart’s star image is encoded with a range of social and political meanings. It is both transparent, with close similarities between his on-screen roles and private life, and complex. The nuances are influenced by a range of factors including perceptions of masculinity, sexual relations, Hollywood star economics and his involvement in World War II. Yet ‘even as a millionaire broadening his range with dark roles…he never outgrew his approachability or homespun idealism’ (Geier, 1997: p.10). His enduring image is of representing the ideal version of the ordinary American people; yet he also represents their flaws. His image encompasses their weaknesses, hidden frustrations, lost dreams and psychological traumas. It is only in reflecting this whole human reality that Jimmy Stewart remains Hollywood’s most iconic everyman.
Adair, G. (1997) Obituary: James Stewart. The Independent [Online]. Available at: https://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/The%20Independent%20(04%2FJul%2F1997)%20-%20Obituary%3A%20James%20Stewart. (Accessed: 3 January 2017).
American Film Institute, (1999) AFI's 50 Greatest American Screen Legends [online]. Available at: http://www.afi.com/100Years/stars.aspx.
Geier, T (1997) Just a ‘plain, ordinary’ American hero. U.S News and World Report, 123 (2) Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=9707102312&site=ehost-live. (Accessed: 23 December 2016).
Glenn, C. (2014) The Traumatized Veteran: A New Look at Jimmy Stewart's Post-WWII Vertigo. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 31(1), pp.27-41.
Gone with the Wind. 1939. Dir. Victor Fleming. United States: Loews’s Inc/MGM.
Gray, T., & Natalie, R. (1997) Obituaries: James Stewart Variety. Variety [online]. Available at: https://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/Variety_(1997)_-_Obituaries:_James_Stewart (Accessed: 3 January 2017).
Handzo, S. (2014) Gay Old San Francisco: Hitchcock’s Closet Case and Other Thoughts on Vertigo. Bright Lights Film Journal [online]. Available at: http://brightlightsfilm.com/gay-old-san-francisco-hitchcocks-closet-case-thoughts-vertigo/#.WIEJGVOLTIU. (Accessed: 3 January 2017).
Hoskin, P. (2008) An Unassuming genius: Pete Hoskin on the Hollywood actor James Stewart, who was born 100 years ago. The Spectator, 307(9376), pp. 48.
Hutchinson, P. (2012) My Favourite Hitchcock: Rope. The Guardian [online]. Available at:
https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2012/jul/27/my-favourite-hitchcock-rope. (Accessed 4 January 2017).
It’s A Wonderful Life. 1946. Dir. Frank Capra. United States: RKO Radio Pictures.
James, C. (2013) Vertigo: Redeeming the fall. Performance Research, 18(4), pp.91-97.
Lawrence, A. (1997) Jimmy Stewart is being beaten: Rope and the postwar crisis in American masculinity. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 16(1), pp.41-58.
The Man from Laramie. 1955. Dir. Anthony Mann. United States: Columbia Pictures.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 1962. Dir. John Ford. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Maslin, J. (1983) James Stewart Recalls Hitch. New York Times [online]. Available at: https://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/New_York_Times_(09/Oct/1983)_-_James_Stewart_recalls_Hitch. (Accessed: 3 January 2017).
The Men, 1950. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. United States: United Artists.
McDonald, P. (2015) Reconceptualising Stardom. In: Dyer, R. (ed.). Stars. London: Palgarve Mcmillan, pp. 175-201.
Metz, N. (2016) How James Stewart’s War Service Affected It’s A Wonderful Life. The Sunday Morning Herald [online]. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/how-james-stewarts-war-service-affected-its-a-wonderful-life-20161205-gt4h6w.html. (Accessed: 16 December 2016).
More, E. (2015) The Erotic Persona of Jimmy Stewart: From Visionary to Voyeur. Bright Lights Film Journal [online]. Available at: http://brightlightsfilm.com/the-erotic-persona-of-jimmy-stewart-from-visionary-to-voyeur/#.WID39lOLTIU. (Accessed 5 January 2017).
Mr Smith Goes to Washington. 1949. Dir. Frank Capra. United States: Columbia Pictures.
The Naked Spur. 1953. Dir. Anthony Mann. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Philadelphia Story. 1940. Dir. George Cukor. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Shop Around The Corner. 1940. Dir. Ernst Lubitsch. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Rear Window. 1954. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. United States: Universal.
Rochter, L. (1990) Jimmy Stewart: An Average Guy is paid tribute. The Ottawa Citizen [online]. Available at: https://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/The_Ottawa_Citizen_(23/Apr/1990)_-_Jimmy_Stewart:_An_average_guy_is_paid_tribute. (Accessed: 23 December 2016).
Rope. 1948. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. United States: Universal.
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Vertigo. 1958. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. United States: Universal.
A few months ago my girlfriend bought me a cup that she thought would suit me. No slogans or badges on it but the shape is pretty cool. I use it in my office at home which not only helps to sustain my coffee addiction but is also a reminder that everyday things can be inspiring and creative. So what has this cup got to do with making films?
Waterbabies has a firm base (inspired by British Social realist traditions) but it is given a twist of something more imaginative and magical- and more spectacular. It is also created so that it can be enjoyed by teenagers and has positive messages for them.
A Brief History of Time (in Film) Part 1
A Brief History of Time (in film) Part 1
So I recently went to the cinema to see my second favourite film of all time, and its two sequels, for Back To The Future Day (October 21st 2015 only comes around once you know). However, instead of discussing futuristic hover boards, flying cars and power laces (and all the stuff like Skype that we actually do have now) this discussion is about Time itself. Time and Film. In Part 1 of this essay I thought I would look at how the franchise and other time travel films represent Time (their philosophies, theories and paradoxes) and then Part 2 will look at various other (non- Sci-Fi) films to explore their relationship with the passage of Time and how it is shown with the tools at cinema’s disposal.
Let’s start with some time travel films then. Which one has the best time-travel device? I reckon Back to the Future wins this one with the fire trails and disappearing car, and the time circuit display which says exactly where (when) they are going. As a time-travelling vehicle the DeLorean is pretty cool and it allows them to move through 3D physical space as well as fourth dimensionally with the potential for dynamic action scenes so it’s a huge step up from the pretty boring chair and lever device used in The Time Machine (1961). If you want a forced and disappointing comedy you could use a Hot Tub Time Machine (2010). There’s no excuse for not doing your homeworking if your wizard school’s Headmaster gives you a Timeturner (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Maybe you just accidentally make a time machine from a metal box in the garage (Primer) so you can save a load of money on the production budget. Or perhaps time-travel is a hereditary medical condition (About Time and The Time-Traveller’s Wife). Whatever the means of transport through Time, great care needs to be taken over who you tell the secret to and who uses the device; that’s not just care from the characters but from the writers too!
You see, with time-travel films it’s very easy to get tied in knots. It’s a minefield of paradoxes and impossibilities and breaks in logic. Writers are allowed their leap into time travel, but once they lay out their rules for the audience, they had better stick to them. In the Harry Potter books there isn’t just one Timeturner gadget, there’s a room full but the writer has to, very conveniently, get them all destroyed in a later book, just when Harry needs one. Then there is the Butterfly Effect to look out for (the film and the concept) that the chain reaction of a tiny change will make huge changes in the future, as it does in that film, mostly, apart from the scenes where the writers need to bend their own rules and return the main character back to the same scenario. In Back to the Future we are constantly warned by Doc that their small actions could have enormous consequences for the future. Some of them do. Not all bad consequences either as Marty discovers as he gets a new truck (material possessions were important in the 1980s) and has a better relationship with his parents who are now much more successful; yet they still choose to live in the same house and Marty still has the same girlfriend (luckily because she’s gorgeous). So has the future changed or not? When you think about it- there are so many others questions too.
When Marty gets home to 1985- why do his parents not question why they brought up a kid who turns out to be exactly like the Calvin ‘Marty’ Kline guy who showed up for a week in 1955? Surely a suspicious George would be asking for a paternity test at least. What happened with their parent/son relationship in the new 17 years we don’t see so that Marty can just arrive there and pick up afresh (did he set fire to the living room rug? Did they go easy on him?). One fan theory on the philosophy of Back to the Future part 1 (let’s leave the complications of part 2 out of the way for now) is that the 1985 Marty returns to isn’t a direct continuation of the timeline he left in 1955 but instead is an alternate universe where the emotional effects are felt but the details don’t carry over, so they retain their new confidence but don’t remember Marty from the past. That’s how it was explained to me as an inquisitive child, and it kind of makes sense, only there is quite a lot that does get carried over; the torn-up letter, ‘if it hadn’t been for Biff we wouldn’t have fallen in love’, ‘Marty- such a nice name’ and in part 2 Biff remembers the horse manure accident (but apparently not Marty causing it).
If you really want to get your brain messed up, let’s throw in the closed-loop idea; that someone going back in time provides information or starts a chain of events which then leads to someone going back in time to start it off again. This is the plot of Twelve Monkeys and La Jettee and it is used in The Terminator where John Connor sends a soldier back in time to protect his mother, and he ends up being John’s Dad. There is a Back to the Future fan theory about Marty and Doc’s relationship; with no backstory provided about how the two became friends in the 1980s there is a theory that it started with a closed loop of Marty going back in time which is where the Doc first meets him. When Marty is born the Doc already knows him and becomes friends- meaning he can show Marty the time machine and send him back. If you follow this line of thinking, then by extension, the idea for the time machine invention only came to Doc because Marty came back and told him it was already invented. If Marty hadn’t travelled back in time then the time machine wouldn’t exist! Heavy eh?
So time-travel films raise all sorts of questions and have a number of pitfalls to avoid with a very strong danger of painting yourself into a corner. Yet actually, Back to the Future (and the sequels) is so brilliant because it doesn’t fall into these traps. It doesn’t dwell on scientific fact or high philosophies- just enough to make the characters fun and to give the audience all they need to understand for the next bit (handy chalkboard in part 2) and in fact all the necessary information reveals in the film are brilliantly subtle and well-timed in advance. The fan theories I’ve discussed aren’t a consequence of bad filmmaking or glaring plot-holes but of deep involvement, enjoyment and affection for the franchise. The time-travel alone doesn’t make the film great; it’s the exciting and tense action sequences, the warm comedy, and for me, the emotional impact. I love the Marty and ‘Uncle’ Doc friendship. That moment of George laying out Biff gets me every time, seeing him begin to reach his full potential and confidence and then that dancefloor kiss with the Earth Angel song is one of the most romantic kisses in the history of cinema. The initial idea for the film came when the screenwriter saw his Dad’s high school yearbook picture and wondered if they were the same age, would they be friends? The time-travel is a way of putting the son there, reversing roles so he advises his Dad and they build a new relationship where they each become their best selves. It’s such a beautiful thought and is the glue that holds the film together.
Next time I’ll complete Part 2 of the essay on Time and Films and lookm at some other films (non- Sci-Fi) and how they work with Time.
Get in touch with your suggestions.
This week’s blog has been inspired by a great Christmas film and my favourite film of all time- ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. There are spoilers in here so if you haven’t seen the film, go and watch it and come back to read this in a couple of days when you come down from your high. I’m not going to write too much about story or filmmaking techniques here, and it’s not an analysis of the film, it’s just some fun lessons we can learn. So...
Release your film at the right time: the film wasn’t a success at the box office (but wasn’t a total flop as is often believed), grossing around half its production costs. However- maybe things could have been different; this is a great Christmas film so releasing in December would have made sense but it only went on wide release on January 7th. A costly mistake.
Cinema might not be your best platform: after it’s lukewarm box office and one solidarity Oscar win (from 6 nominations however) the film was forgotten about for decades. It only came back into public consciousness and gained the prominence it deserved after a clerical error in the copyright allowed dozens of US TV stations to screen it freely in the late 70s and early 80s, making it a massive family hit. Although we as filmmakers dream of a big cinema release, perhaps we should be exploring other platforms more to find our audience, after all, there are dozens of distribution methods out there.
Double up on locations: in the film there’s a scene where the gym has a sliding floor which reveals a swimming pool underneath (it might seem a bit contrived but it was actually a real location in a high school). What can you learn from this? Use the building you hire for two or more locations, saves you money and travelling time, helping you get the most value for your production. I did this in Young Hearts Run Free by changing the wallpaper and furniture coverings.
Crowd-funding relationships take time: George Bailey benefits from some crowd-funding, because he has been benefiting these people for a number of years, they like him and want to support him. Value and respect people over a period of time and provide a benefit to them and it will help your crowd-fund campaign.
Appreciate your day job: Many filmmakers these days need to keep up a day job in order to support their film career. Don’t be ashamed or frustrated by this and instead show some passion in your day job. George Bailey hates his job but realises its importance and demonstrates great passion towards it. It will make you a much happier person, and more relaxed when you get home, ready to start your film work. I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs working with the kind of people I like to make films about so it has tied in with my films and made them authentic.
Sometimes it’s okay for actors to look into the camera: Actors look into the camera two or three times in this film, think how much it intensifies the drama. As a bonus, here are some other technique tips from the film- the opening prayers for George lets the audience relax knowing there will be big drama later- useful given the time it takes to get there. Also, just how fresh is that freeze-frame the first time we see adult George? Remember this film was made in 1946. Brilliant.
Don’t become warped and frustrated: Becoming a ‘warped, frustrated young man’ can lead to becoming a ‘warped, frustrated old man’ so don’t let frustration get the better of you. Rather than moan about funding bodies having favourites, meddling script notes or audiences not knowing anything- believe in yourself and the path you’re on, keeping learning and evaluating and make things happen for yourself. These days your film career is in your own hands, more than it has ever been.
I’ll sum up by saying that although this is my favourite film and one of my favourite pieces of art in the history of the world- I do still have an uneasy relationship with it (maybe that’s why I connect with it so well). As filmmakers we’re like George- full of grand plans and ambitions but should we be happy to settle for a more normal life? I’ve always found it to be an awkward question. Now as I’ve grown older I’ve learned to never stop with the ambitions but still appreciate the journey and be grateful for the life you have.
Haven’t written a blog post for a while so I thought I’d jump back in with a Christmas film themed post. It’s a look at some Christmas films and a proposal that you could have distribution success with one of your own.
Here’s a little challenge for you- could you make a Christmas film?
Back in the summer during one of my many distribution conversations with CinemaZero founder Tom Wilton, we brought up the subject of Christmas films and how they have broad audience appeal. We thought you could make a film with ‘Christmas’ in the title and someone would definitely buy it. Also when distributing a film, you notice that films are often listed in alphabetical order, meaning ‘Christmas... whatever’ would be fairly high on the list (and my film ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ fairly low). So starting the process in reverse, having a good chance of distribution is one good reason to make a Christmas film.
There has always been a potential market for this (think of all those terrible cable TV Christmas movies Sky used to show) but now there a greater opportunities with a wealth of new platforms which audiences are becoming more familiar with. You don’t have to aim for a cinema release, you could even just put it on Distrify and get people to share it on Facebook or, with networks having Christmas schedules to fill, you could do a straight to TV deal.
In this instance, these distribution methods potentially have a much broader appeal than with any other project during any other time of the year. At this time so many people just want to watch almost anything to do with Christmas. They’ll pull out all the old favourites but then they’ll be looking for something new. The other advantage of Christmas films is that they have a chance to grow in stature and popularity year on year and become one of the classics people turn to (Elf was an instant Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life wasn’t). How many films would you watch at least once a year, even though you’ve seen them a dozen times before? Probably only a handful (Back to the Future is on this list for me) but not many, yet when it comes to Christmas films people watch them again and again every year. You wouldn’t watch a so-so family comedy like Home Alone that many times if it wasn’t a Christmas film. This could be your film.
Still don’t think it’s your thing? Wouldn’t suit your genre or style? Well it needn’t be a mushy family movie; whichever genre you usually work in, you can do the same with your new Christmas film. They can encompass all sorts of different genres, from Action (Die Hard and Die Hard 2), contrived rom-coms (Love Actually, The Holiday),War (Joyeux Noel), bad-taste comedy (Bad Santa), Horror (Gremlins), musicals (White Christmas) and weird-animation-horror-musical- (The Nightmare Before Christmas).
How would you make it? Depending on the story and the genre, you might not need a huge budget. If you’re aiming for other platforms instead of a theatrical release then you might not need the star names so you could do it on a very low budget. To look Christmassy you may need snow which is something you can’t really plan for in the UK, unlike parts of Europe and the USA. Many of the best Christmas films were shot in studios in August but without having those snow machines available you might just have to film in winter, make use of the decorations around the place and keep the camera handy for when the white stuff comes.
You’ll also need a great story. This is true of any genre so why set it at Christmas? Part of writing is creating the world of the characters and using customs and rituals gives the audience something that they can latch onto and understand, something which already has meaning attached (like Four Weddings and a Funeral- it isn’t about ordinary Saturdays and Wednesdays.) With Christmas you have a holiday that most of the western world recognises and attaches meaning to. You can then use this meaning, or undercut it, to enhance your drama, romance or action.
So there you go. Get writing, shoot next winter, release the winter after.
As a post-script and inspiration, here are my thoughts on some well-known Christmas films.
It’s A Wonderful Life- almost perfect. The whole reason I got into filmmaking, still my favourite film of all time and so uplifting it’ll put you on a high for days. Still totally relevant to our world today (ordinary people needing to stand up to greedy bankers) and I don’t think anyone has made a better film in the last 68 years. I’m doing a whole blog post about it next week.
Home Alone- silly slapstick family comedy but Kevin is pretty amazing, especially how he manages to get the mess tidied up so quickly afterwards. The action scenes are so good James Bond copied them in Skyfall.
Elf- instant Christmas classic. Still find it funny even 11 years later. Really inventive in all sorts of different ways (North Pole animation, production design, Buddy being the world’s best snowball fighter). Will Ferrell’s sweetest man-child role; glad it didn’t go ahead ten years earlier when Jim Carey was signed on to play Buddy.
The Nativity Story- realistic depiction of the story in Matthew and Luke's gospels; far away from commercialisation, global-warming inducing light displays, 'Black Friday', shit songs, eating far too much whilst others are left to starve and all the other crap that goes with a modern Christmas. A film for remembering the birth of a baby who grew up to preach helping those less fortunate than yourself, treating the whole world as your friend and neighbour and spreading peace and tolerance. It'll never catch on.
Love Actually- so many under-developed and silly rom-com subplots. Colin Firth recycles some jokes from Four Weddings, Liam Neeson is hard as nails in every other film but he’s a big softy here and it’s all a bit mushy, apart from Laura Linney and Emma Thompson. However, the Keira Knightly and Andrew Lincoln storyline is brilliant with a great reveal and Martine McCutcheon is utterly enchanting as Natalie, they should have just made a rom-com starring her character. She’s beautiful, I still really fancy her and she should have made more films after this.
A Christmas Carol- everyone has had a go at this story, from Shakespearean actors to Mickey Mouse and The Muppets so pick whichever version you like. Bill Murray’s speech at the end of stupid modern update Scrooged is still uplifting enough to make me cry but for my recommendation, go for the George C. Scott version from the 1970s.
Miracle on 34th Street- do yourselves a favour and watch the 1940s black and white original rather than the lacklustre 90s remake with its forced slapstick, garish colours and gushing over-sentimentality (although Attenborough is brilliant of course). This also has the biggest plot-holes in the history of Christmas movies: surely parents know if they’re the ones who put their kid’s presents under the tree, rather than Santa? It’s an obvious question that no one asks. Does it really need a costly court case to work it out?
Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)- pretty good stab at capturing the Christmas Truce of the First World War in 1914 (but not as good as my version will be when I finally finish the script, that’s my Christmas film). Some bits are way too contrived and take the action away from the trenches; as nice as it is seeing gorgeous Diane Kruger topless, I’d rather they skipped the shoe-horned opera singer romance subplot and concentrated on the true story of the men in the front lines, experiencing history’s most meaningful Christmas Eve and my favourite moment of the twentieth century.
Santa Claus: The Movie- terribly 80s, pretty silly. The origin story in the first ten minutes is far and away the best bit.
The Polar Express- Robert Zemeckis once directed one of the best films of all time, a sci-fi filled with warmth, humour and heart, and then he goes and creates this soulless, lifeless crap.
In addition- If you want to watch a Christmas film but can’t really justify it (ie if it’s not December yet) here are some Christmas films that aren’t Christmas films:
Groundhog Day – it’s set in a small town in winter and is an uplifting social fantasy (inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life). Really funny but spoiled by Andie MacDowell, surely other actresses were available? Back to the Future- watch any time but it’s set in October and November with different versions of a small town (again inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life, especially part 2 of the franchise). Bruce Almighty- yet another inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life, he even lassoes the moon. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg- best watched on a rainy Autumn afternoon, if you don’t mind crying. The last bittersweet scenes are set at Christmas. When Harry Met Sally- joined with Umbrella’s of Cherbourg as my favourite romance film. Very smart rom-com with even smarter and funnier female lead and that perfect tear-jerking romantic finale on New Year’s Eve. Harry Potter- fantasy always seems a bit Christmassy and the wizard franchise has some great yuletide moments such as Ron and Harry only having each other for company on Christmas Day and Harry and Hermione’s emotional return to Godrig’s Hollow on Christmas Eve in Deathly Hallows. Then there are other great films which have nothing to do with it but are always shown at Christmas; fantastic lads’ adventures like Zulu and The Great Escape. Then if Christmas films needed a summer version this would be it; the classic Sound of Music.
Feel free to get in touch with your comments!
Next week my blog is about what filmmakers can learn from It’s A Wonderful Life.
As you know, I’ve just been touring the USA with my feature film ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. The film had done a self-distribution tour of UK cinemas back in 2011 which went pretty well so I thought I would do the same in the USA. Only this time I mixed it in with enjoying a bit of a holiday, and anyone who has done self-distribution will know that the two don’t mix! To be successful you’ve got to throw everything at it. Here’s is an honest look at what I did, how it went, how I could do better and what benefits I got.
Self-distribution internationally has many of the same principles as doing it domestically- only everything gets magnified a lot! I was able to use my experience from the UK distribution but an annoying thing was that, because I was treating it as a personal travelling experience and holiday in some respects, I chose to ignore many of the lessons I had learned.
Firstly, I did it alone. I was catching up with friends in several of the cities I went to but if you really want to do well at self-distribution you need a team. That means people pushing the publicity and also possibly others on the ground with you. If you have a short period where you are going to get press then perhaps you could have the Director hitting some cities whilst the Producer or actors travel to others at the same time (although I actually Directed and Produced this film). You could also use two or more people to stagger (and therefore extend) the period you are on tour for because with a grassroots approach like this you will meet people face to face and build momentum through word of mouth; audiences will have friends in other cities. Two or more members might also make it easier to do repeat screenings and appearances at cities once the momentum has been built.
Travel and accommodation
The USA is massive! I traveled several thousand miles (13 states, some two or three times each) using planes, trains and automobiles (and Megabus). This is obviously a huge chunk of your budget and a lot of the time, money from screenings might barely cover your travel to the venue. It takes a lot of organising, trying to arrange dates to make the journeys line up in a sensible way and even some of the closest venues were hundreds of miles away from each other- like going from Newcastle to London every day. If you have to rearrange dates, as I did, then that imposes extra travel and cost. As for accommodation, well you can solve that issue. I stayed in cheap hostels for some nights, sometimes slept in the car or on overnight buses (slept rough on New York streets one night, not recommended) but most of the time I stayed with friends and was even invited to stay at a cinema manager’s house. If you’ve built a connection with fans early enough then you’ll get offers of a place to stay.
I had been using Theatrical-on-Demand platform Tugg to arrange screenings (at large multi-plex chains) but due to the very high minimum numbers of reservations required, none of these events went ahead (I’ll be blogging more about this later). So the screenings I had, just a few in the end, were ones I arranged privately. I had spent a lot of time Googling and researching venues, taking some recommendations from friends over there, and then arranged some screenings. I’m used to a wide variety of venues so I enjoyed screening in small socialist community spaces (which suits my zero-budget Miners’ strike film) and in some other smaller venues. Remember, you’re probably starting from grassroots and actually filling a small space could be better than failing at a large one so be realistic.
Don’t four-wall hire venues, especially in a city you don’t know. The rates can be cheap with a potential for profits but you need to know the geography, the transport issues, what else is going on in the city (especially if there are other big film events at the same time). Just because there are a lot of potential fans in that city doesn’t mean they will turn up, no matter how much publicity you’ve had. The only exception is, if you’ve begun talking to fans early enough in the process and you have numbers of people getting in touch personally to ask you to come to their city (which can be done), in which case you’ll be a lot more certain and can take advantage of the hire rates. This is a rule I have for myself but I broke it once on this US tour and it cost me money.
Overall the film part of the tour was very small and was not quite as successful as I’d hoped; just a tiny handful of screenings in the end, due to many factors including annoying technical issues. So what did I get out of it? Moneywise, the box office covered a night’s accommodation and some drinks, a bit of the travel, so I had pocket money to play with! I gained some publicity with some reviews and interviews (there is a great interview about my self-distribution on Tom Wilton's CinemaZero blog here). The film is also being looked at for online platforms so the publicity will have helped those deals. I’ve had requests for more screenings in the future (with Skype Q&As). I got to stay my sitcom writer mate David Budin in LA and visit his work in Paramount Studios, making some contacts including the lovely Marta Kaufman, creator of ‘Friends’. I also made a lot of professional and personal connections with people and organisations who now want to support my future work. It’s fulfilling long-term strategies to help me build a career as a filmmaker. I can now do crowd-sourcing internationally and can guarantee several screenings of my next film if I self-distribute again.
So would I do it again? Yeah, I’d build it in as part of the strategy at least (without the holiday part). Thanks for reading the blog, hope it’s been illuminating. For more advice on self-distribution read my free ebook here.
PS- Now for the fun bits.
I had a great time! I saw loads of great cities. I got to have a go on Elvis Presley’s microphone in Memphis, listened to jazz and partied all night in New Orleans, saw where Hitchcock shot ‘Vertigo’ in San Francisco, went on dates with pretty girls (ice cream in Central Park). I also continued my weird holiday habit of visiting assassination spots (I’d previously been to Sarajevo where Franz Ferdinand was killed) and went to the places where John F. Kennedy and (my heroes) Martin Luther King and John Lennon were shot. I caught up with great friends and made lots of new ones.
SO... I've been advised I should start a blog...
My feature film 'Young Hearts Run Free' was released in the UK a few years ago but I've now had a chance to get it screened over in America. I've booked my plane tickets and I'm arranging a tour so the purpose of this blog is to keep you up to date with how things are going so you guys can learn about how I'm doing it and you can check out the film.
As well as passing on tips I'm learning about touring the film I will also expand into other things I get up to which will probably relate to either writing, music, social reform and politics.
For more advice and stuff I've learned about film distribution check out my Self-Distribution Guide here.
So now the intro is out of the way, here's my first blog post and the topic I'm going to cover is- why am I still going with this film? Why go through all the effort to self-distribute in an entirely different continent?
'Young Hearts Run Free' has taken up, literally, years of my life. It's had a good run so perhaps it is time to call it a day. I am still moving on to other things. I have two features in development, one quite well advanced, and I've been able to music videos and look for more paid directing work. I have often thought to myself over these years, why don't I just leave it behind me and just concentrate on the exciting projects I'm doing right now? The thing is, once you've made your film, it's probably one of the few assets you've got (your mates probably bought houses instead) and really you should be exploiting its potential as best you can, getting more people to see it (you want to entertain people) and you want to recoup as much of the cost as you can. Why did Mallory want to climb Everest? 'Because it's there!'
There are some other reasons to justify it:
I've got a few mates in the states who I've been promising to visit. It's the 'Land of Opportunity' eh? So I might meet some useful contacts in LA. I've perhaps had three or four holidays in the last ten years and I want to see a bit more of the world. So it's part business, part pleasure.
Next time I'll be getting into the nitty gritty of how I'm using the TUGG platform for arranging screenings and whre I'll be going.