The Production of the Making of a Movie called Lincoln

The latest big budget movie involves big-name actors and directors.  For those that care about those people, there is a list below. {1} Some of you may care that the movie Lincoln is loosely based on Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Lincoln, but most of you probably don’t.  Most of you probably also don’t care that this story concerns the final four months of our sixteenth president’s life either, unless the telling of those months is directed by that guy, written by this guy, and acted out by another guy.

As if to prove the irrelevance of story in movies today, the LA Times spends the first two paragraphs of their review telling us that the production involved a “successful” director, a “celebrated” playwright, and a “brilliant” actor.  They also tell us that it is a “Towering Achievement,” {2} but that is required of any reviewer reviewing a Spielberg film.

The Times review then goes into the story a little, but they comingle that description with continued homages to the players involved, and how artfully they carry this production off.  They offer compliments to the cinematographer, the setting, the score, the production design, the costume designer, and everything they can think of but the story.  They marvel at the care taken to provide you, the viewer, with a “completely accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s office.”  They then conclude their review with a brief commentary by the writer regarding why he wrote the script for this piece, and how the writer believes his script should be applied in today’s Washington.

We all understand that movies are an expensive undertaking.  We understand that movie studios incur an enormous risk with every production they purchase, but we’ve all become so inundated with the ancillary information regarding movies that we’ve forgotten the elemental aspects of the story involved in these productions.  How many of us find it impossible to concentrate on animated productions, until we figure out exactly who is doing the voice-overs for the characters involved?  How many of us focus on the acting abilities of the actors involved in historical pieces to a point where we are no longer paying attention to the actual tale being told?  When the actor displays emotion, we marvel over his actor’s abilities to portray emotion when we probably should be considering the ramifications of the emotional display by Lincoln in that historical moment.

To those that don’t understand all the risks that were taken on the “tall order” before the director, the movie studio, and the members of the cast, there are Entertainment Tonight interviews, synopses in news and entertainment magazines, late-night talk show interviews, news features in prominent newspapers, blogs, expanded DVD commentaries, and entire DVDs devoted to the “making of” the movie…devoted to everything but the seemingly unnecessary portion of the story being told.

On the IMBD website, you can learn that the director only addressed the actors by their character names. {3} That’s a little quaint, and it’s done all the time now, but it also shows the dedication all of the players had to the production.   You can learn who was originally slated to play Lincoln (Liam Neeson), the box office receipts, and you can learn anything and everything to do with the production that is Lincoln…except the story.

“How was the movie?”

“Oh, Spielberg captured it in true Spielberg fashion, and that Daniel Day-Lewis is quite simply one of the best actors alive, and no one can capture the essence of a scene like the incomparable John Williams.”

“How was the movie, I said.  Do you feel like you learned a little more about Lincoln than you knew before you entered the theater?”

“Huh?  Oh, yeah.”

I understand that we appreciate the talents of various directors, stars, and cinematographers, and there are some that do their job better than others, and we’re attracted (monetarily) to those that have the ability to capture a mood, a story, and a period better than others.  I also appreciate the fact that movie studios invest such capital in these productions that it necessitates the fact that they have to recruit big names to attract viewers that might not otherwise attend yet another feature about the most talked about president in our history.  The idea that an excellent actor is a vehicle for bringing written material to life is not beyond me either, but we all focus so much on the ancillary details of movie making that the actual story has become a secondary and even a tertiary thought.

Why do major movie studios even involve story in their productions these days?  Isn’t the very idea of story a little antiquated?  Isn’t it a little risky for them to involve stories in big budget productions, because not everyone is going to be entertained by every story, and some may even be offended by some of them.  Stories, after all, were all that cavemen had, and it’s pretty much all Abraham Lincoln had, but we have big, huge production studios now.  We have computer generated graphics now, we can blow things up now, and we have special effects departments devoted almost exclusively to the short-attention span audiences that have trouble concentrating long enough to follow a story.  We should, of course, spend a lot of money on these productions, because people are enticed to view a movie when they know how much money was spent on it.  We would have to nab a top-tier director, because some people will see anything if it was directed by some guy.  We would also have to get all of today’s most beautiful actors, because people will pay a lot of money to watch them walking and talking on celluloid screens.  We would have to focus on providing viewers an excellent setting, compelling cinematography, and an incomparable soundtrack, but do we really have to tell stories anymore?  Why don’t we just start making all movies about making movies, and Hollywood, and celebrities, and the art of cinematography, and the tall order of making movies that are somehow controversial in some manner that offends all the right, uptight people.  It’s just too taxing to try and come up with original stories nowadays, and most people have moved beyond all that, and there are really only seven stories anyway, so if these major movie studios were really paying attention to us they would know that they could go ahead and slash their “original story” searching budgets and just tell us all the particulars about making movies.  That appears to be all we really want anyway.




The Mystical Nature of Celebrities

          In the hundreds of interviews conducted with stars, my favorite responses are those that imply a degree of mysticism to their current status in life.

          I love it when they speak of the unfathomable or amazing nature of working with one another.  “First of all, let me say that working with Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street was amazing and incredible and a richly rewarding experience in my life that I shall never forget.  The way that man simulated a sweep of his imaginary storefront was breathtaking.  How he made that sweep appear so effortless was just surreal.  It was my honor working with him.”  I think if they attach superstardom to their fellow stars, they think that they will be granted the same degree of awe one day, if they’re lucky to work as long in the business as a Mr. Hooper had.

          Catherine Zeta Jones claimed that working with Sean Connery on Entrapment was amazing; everyone who has ever worked with Deniro has claimed that it was indescribable; and the same holds true with anyone who has ever worked with the man who despised the profession Marlon Brando.   

          The rockers can be just as silly.  I remember one of my idols, Gene Simmons being interviewed, and he said something along the lines of: “We were all searching for a name for the band.  People threw out the dumbest names, and we laughed at them.  Finally, Peter Criss said: ‘how about Kiss?’ and he laughed, but no one else did.”  In other words, it was by some sort of divine intervention that he came up with that name, and they were all a little rattled by it.  They knew that their calling now had a name, and they would take to the hills with the name Kiss as their battle cry.  Now, I agree that there is a beauty in the simplicity of all things, but to assign something more to it than what it is can be a little silly at times.

          The person who played Arnold Horshack on the television show Welcome Back Kotter was being interviewed one time on the Biography Channel.  In it, the Horshack guy detailed for the world the origins of one of the dumbest laughs that has ever graced the airwaves.  It was intentionally idiotic, so I have no qualms about saying how dumb it was.  He stated that he didn’t know where the laugh came from.  He said that the creator of the show asked him to come up with one, and he did it.  This may sound simple and lacking in any drama that would suggest mysticism, but you had to hear the way the man said it.  It was as if he had climbed the walls of Mount Sinai and came back with a laugh.  I don’t begrudge the Horshack guy any of the fame he achieved with that laugh, and if it continues to give him something of a paycheck, then I would give him a high five for channeling that laugh into a decent living.  To suggest, with his tones, that the creation of the laugh was something other than what it was is simply ludicrous.  I dare say that if ‘Kotter lasted ten more years, Horshack or the creators would’ve decided to scale back on the laugh as a momentary gimmick that was no longer necessary.

          I’m thinking that if we got behind the scenes of some of these mystical selections in casting, we would see simpler truths.  Why did you select Justin Timberlake to be a part of the boy band he was in?  He was cute.  Why was Angelina Jolie selected for the Laura Croft character in Tomb Raider?  Who gives a blank she’s hot dude.  If we asked the ‘Kotter creators how Horshack was selected it might have something to do with his accent, or his look, or something stupid he did in the tryouts.  My point is that these people will not admit that they’re chimps like the rest of us are, but they know that they are.  They know that they lucked out in the lottery of life, and that they were probably in the right place at the right time, but if they provide this moment in time mystical attachment they might be able to fortify the illusion that they are somehow different.