Last week, we saw BLADE RUNNER (version three: the “final” cut). I’d like to consider that film in the light of the book on which it was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When any book is made into a film, the screenwriter must make decisions. What to include? What to exclude? What, if anything, to invent? Often these decisions aren’t made alone, but in concert with the director, the producer, and, perhaps, the financiers.

In this instance, what elements did BLADE RUNNER keep from the book? Here is a rough list:

Deckard (bounty hunter renamed blade runner)
Rachel & the other androids
J.R. Isidore (becomes J.F. Sebastian)
Bounty hunters versus androids
Human emigration to Mars (renamed off-world colonies)
Basic plot of Deckard’s hunt for andys (renamed replicants)
Rosen Corporation (renamed Tyrell Corp)

What elements of the book were lost? Another rough list:

Nuclear war and radiation poisoning
Animals as status symbols/love objects
Iran, Deckard’s wife
Mercerism (accessed via Empathy Box)
Penfield Mood Generator
Buster Friendly’s TV Show (and the attack on Mercerism)
Alternate Reality Police Station
San Francisco/Bay Area location
Rachel’s revenge

What did they invent?

Sebastian’s premature aging disease
Cold room scene
Androids’ desire to meet Tyrell
Los Angeles location
Happy end

Of the elements that were lost, how important were they? Does the film remain true to the spirit of the book without them? Is it true to the book’s theme?

BLADE RUNNER is a very good-looking film, and many of the visuals – particularly the cityscapes and vast interiors, in the METROPOLIS style – do justice to the original. But in terms of content, it is drastically reduced. It was almost inevitable that the new religion, Mercerism, would be excised. Such a thing would not please the studio executives, who have a very conservative view of what the “marketplace” will accept. In any Hollywood movie, Mercerism’s going to be gone, and probably the alternate reality Hall of Justice, too, since it’s easy to remove. Did the Penfield Mood Generator have to go, as well. Is the piano/unicorn sequence a reference to it? Or is the unicorn a “planted” false memory, indicating that Deckard is a replicant?

The biggest losses, for this reader, are Deckard’s wife, Iran (why get rid of her? To facilitate the “love story”?); the World War Terminus back story; and the leitmotif of animals-as-status-symbols. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Deckard spends more time thinking about sheep and goats than he does about androids. In the aftermath of the massive species die-off, humans have finally come to appreciate animals, and seek to care for them. Perversely, this has turned the last surviving animals into consumer items, sold in elite boutiques.

BLADE RUNNER retains the book’s notion of fake animals, but their purpose – as substitutes for the real thing for people who can’t afford it – is dropped. Indeed, though we see fake and real animals (the snake is fake; what of the pony, the pigeons and the dove?) their significance is ignored. The Tyrell Corporation has fake owls, but why the real owls died, and how humanity has responded to this catastrophe – the most pitiable, and original, and human aspect of the book – has gone.

These changes had to be made somewhere, and my guess would be at a meeting between the studio executives, the director, Ridley Scott, and the writers, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. These “creative” Hollywood executives are no-nonsense types. They “green light”, and reject, numerous pictures. Their opinions are holy writ for their unfortunate employees. Assuming the executives had read the book I suspect that they identified the following five problems.

1. Deckard has a wife. He should be a hard-boiled loner hero. Lose the wife.

2. He has a sheep on the roof? A sheep? An electric sheep? What is this guy, some kind of pervert? Lose the sheep!

3.Nuclear war? Species die-off? New religions? Lose ’em.

4.Unhappy ending? No way. Harrison Ford has a flying car, right? Use it.

5. Harrison cannot play a bounty hunter. Bounty hunters are sleaze bags. Call him something else.

So it goes. It’s possible to argue with the financiers, but it’s difficult because the filmmaker doesn’t want them to walk away, or to be fired. So, stupid script notes like these tend to be taken on board, especially on big, expensive films.

The screenplay dated February 23, 1981 contains most of these modifications. The term “blade runner” – used instead of bounty hunter throughout – was licensed from two other science fiction writers, Alan E. Nourse and William S. Burroughs, who wrote novels entitled The Bladerunner and Blade Runner (a Movie) in 1974 and 1979.

Another ill-advised “improvement” – which may have come from the studio executives or from the director – is the imposition of the notion that the “androids must want something!” In the book, Roy Baty and his crew of andys simply return to Earth. There is no discussion of why they’ve done this. It isn’t needed. They’re fugitives from space. Where else are they supposed to go?

The film, however, requires that Roy Batty [sic] and the replicants want something beyond anonymity and safety – and comes up with the inspiration that, like Frankenstein’s Monster, they seek out their creator. So Fancher and Peoples invent the character of Tyrell, a standard villainous corporate head, and a lot of story time is spent on their invented quest to meet him. Nothing is gained from the meeting; Tyrell can’t help them, so Batty kills him.

Could we not have spent this time with an electric sheep?

It’s worth comparing the movie “love story” with what happens in the book, where Deckard lies to Rachel so that she’ll come and sleep with him, and Rachel takes her horrible revenge.

I saw BLADE RUNNER when it first came out, and watched the “final cut” for this class. Apparently the violent scenes in the later version are somewhat longer and more explicit. They disturbed me in both versions of the film. Of course, this is the story of a bounty hunter, whose victims are, by human standards, non-human. It is bound to be violent. But much of the violence in the film is directed against women – women clad in scanty, sexy outfits – and I don’t buy the argument that “its okay because they’re robots.” They aren’t really robots; this is a film and these are two almost-naked women actors pretending to be killed at length by the brooding, handsome hero, Harrison Ford.

BLADE RUNNER is perversely cavalier in its treatment of its three women characters: violently disposing of two of them, pedestalising the third.

Simultaneously the movie reduces its protagonist – a troubled, feeling, married man in the novel – to a hard-drinking, sentimental, loner, hero-type. This imposition of the Hollywood-style protagonist, ironically, reinforces the possibility that Deckard in the movie might be an android – something the empathic Deckard of the novel is clearly not. In the screenplay, the last scene shows Deckard and Rachel fleeing from the policeman, Gaff, as a voiceover from Deckard reveals that he knows his is a replicant. This voiceover does not appear in any of the versions of the film: in 1982, the studio added a “hardboiled” voiceover narration by Ford, but this final speech was not part of it, and in subsequent versions the voiceover was removed.

It’s not entirely true that studio executives wield all the power and decide what all the moves are going to be. Film is a collaborative enterprise, and no one person has the time or energy to do it all, or to screw it all up. The art and camera and costume and audio departments of BLADE RUNNER did a remarkable job; visually and aurally the film is outstanding. And, despite the bland performances of the hero and heroine, the supporting actors contributed hugely to the success of the film. Edward James Olmos never had a better role than the policeman, Gaff; and the same is true of Rutger Hauer, who played Roy Batty.

On page 97 of the 104-page screenplay, Batty reminisces, and dies. This is his dialogue, as it appears in the script:


Compare the written dialogue with what Rutger Hauer came up with, on set, when it was time to say those lines. “All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain.” He dropped the “little people” line because it wasn’t necessary: we know that humans are little, and that Roy Batty is a mad god. And the “tears in rain” line, improvised by Hauer, makes the scene. All power to Hauer, and to his director, Scott, for letting him make these changes. This is one of those rare cinematic moments where everything works in total unison – script, performance, direction, picture, sound, score.

BLADE RUNNER is a fairly typical example of a project being given a bumpy ride by Hollywood and failing to rise to the inspirational heights of its source. Yet, simultaneously, the industry is anxious, nervous, constantly on the lookout for the Next Big Thing. A newcomer can be granted a surprising amount of autonomy on his or her first picture – and sometimes great things result. Studios bring money, time, space, and technical collaborators of the highest order. It is to such a combination of youthful exuberance and brilliance, and old-time money and technical expertise, that we now turn.

The movie business is, as you surely know, full of hype, and overestimates, and bluster. Things are invariably “the biggest”, “the best”, “the most highly-praised”, “the most extraordinary”. One film talent about whom many superlative things were said, with justification, was an actor/director named Orson Welles.

When Orson Welles was 21, he was directing a professional stage production of Macbeth with an all-black cast, in Harlem, New York. The year was 1936. Imagine the self-confidence he had! Imagine the extent of his abilities – to mount the production, to find the cast, to do something no director had attempted before. Welles followed Macbeth with modern-dress productions of Julius Caesar and Doctor Faustus. In each of these stage plays, he aimed for a 90-minute running time, without an intermission.

Welles partnered with the actor-producer John Houseman to create the Mercury Theatre Company, which would produce theater and radio plays for Welles to direct. In 1938, they staged a Halloween radio version of The War of The Worlds. At that time the science fiction novel by H.G. Wells hadn’t been made into a film: this was the first dramatic version of a story unknown to many people. In adapting the book for the radio, Orson Welles and his writer, Howard Koch, decided to tell the story as if it were a series of live news broadcasts, interrupting a regular program of dance music. The idea of the faux-reality narrative is more familiar today, thanks to films like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (USA, 1999) and CLOVERFIELD (USA, 2008), but when Welles’ broadcast went out, no one had done it before. You can listen to the entire broadcast here.

Welles’ 1938 radio play was taken as real by many people. There was panic all across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles. Hundreds of people in New England fled their homes; there were reports of Martians, and attempted suicides.

The sensation which followed the broadcast made Welles nationally famous. The following year he received an invitation from a Hollywood studio, RKO, to go to California and make a film. RKO was a small studio, with a reputation for quality. They offered Welles $100,000 to direct, write, produce and star in a film based on any subject he chose. RKO also promised Welles final cut on the film, a guarantee directors almost never received. Usually, studios reserved the right to re-edit the director’s version of the film, to replace the music, and to make any other changes as they saw fit. RKO, in their desire to contract Welles before another studio did, gave him an unheard-of deal – a deal most directors don’t receive, today.

Welles began work on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. A critical tale of the colonialist white man’s burden, this was the book John Milius later adapted as APOCALYPSE NOW. Welles planned to shoot the film from the point of view of the protagonist, with the camera acting as that unseen person’s “eyes”. But he also found he disliked the Hollywood environment, and returned to New York once a week to direct and act in Campbell’s Playhouse, a radio drama show financed by the soup company. The flight from Los Angeles to New York was in those days very arduous, involving several stops for refuelling and a total of 18 hours each way. Yet Welles racked up 300,000 miles of air travel between the two cities, and was given an award by the airline, TWA, for being its best customer.

Meanwhile the estimated budget of HEART OF DARKNESS rose to $500,000, at which point RKO cancelled it.

Now Welles was in trouble. Full of energy, fervor and inspiration, he had a tendency to be late, and to do to many things at once. As a theater director he might sleep late, and then insist on all-night rehearsals. This pushed his budgets sky-high; his personal finances were even more exotic. Welles needed to make a movie, and in 1939 he was introduced to the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz.

Mankiewicz wanted to write a movie about the life of an American newspaper magnate, based on William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a right-wing publisher who admired Abraham Lincoln and Adolph Hitler. To embark upon a film about him in 1939 was the equivalent of a studio today making a bio-pic of Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News International, Fox News and 20th Century Fox. In other words, it was a very risky proposition – yet RKO  paid Mankiewicz to write the screenplay, and Welles to develop it.

Various drafts were written, entitled American, John Citizen, USA, and finally Citizen Kane. Meanwhile Welles, the stage and radio director, watched 35mm prints voraciously, in particular the films of John Ford. He asked Gregg Toland, who had just shot THE GRAPES OF WRATH (USA, 1940) for Ford, to be his cinematographer. RKO – the studio which had made KING KONG – provided Welles with an experienced and inspired technical staff and art department.

RKO and Welles both needed something to show for their collaboration. Almost miraculously, the result was CITIZEN KANE.

Welles worked hard on the shoot, directing and acting. For Welles the actor that work involved hours in makeup, as his character aged from 25 to 75. Welles the director had to manage a large cast and crew, something not too different from directing a big stage play. He finished the film in debt, as usual, turned all the footage over to his editor, Robert Wise, and embarked on a lecture tour.

The film he and his collaborators made, CITIZEN KANE, was for many years considered by filmmakers and critics to be the “best film ever made.”  But, at the time, the fate of KANE seemed much less certain. The Hearst press were vocally hostile to it, which led Welles, in interviews, to insist that his film had nothing to to with Hearst. Hearst’s papers blacklisted it, nonetheless: worse, they blacklisted all of RKO’s other pictures, too. Blacklisting in this instance meant refusing to mention any of RKO’s films, or to give them advertising space. Anticipating criticism of their class, Hearst’s fellow millionaires rallied around him. Nelson Rockefeller refused to allow CITIZEN KANE to play at Radio City Music Hall, which he owned. Louis B. Mayer, magnate of MGM, offered to refund the entire cost of CITIZEN KANE to RKO if the small rival studio would destroy the negatives and prints. Welles became involved in a stupid dispute with Mankievicz, over the writing credit. Writers Guild arbitrators ruled in favour of both men as writers, with Mankievicz’ name in first place. Theatre chains controlled by Warners, Paramount and Loews refused to exhibit the film. CITIZEN KANE opened despite this, in 1941, to tremendous critical acclaim, but did poor business. Its director was 25 years old.

CITIZEN KANE should be watched, on first viewing, all the way through, on the largest screen possible. To see this film for the first time is an amazing gift, and you should let it wash over you. Don’t take notes. Then, when you see CITIZEN KANE a second time, you can consciously appreciate its many virtues, starting with the screenplay: a series of flashbacks, in seemingly-random order, as a journalist interviews people who knew Charles Foster Kane. It’s the structure Francesco Rosi borrowed for THE MATTEI AFFAIR, thirty years later.

On that second viewing you can study the magnificent cinematography of Gregg Toland, mostly deep focus shots, with profound blacks. Consider the production design and its constant use of model shots and paintings. CITIZEN KANE had a limited budget – less than $700,000 – so visual effects were critical, as was the lighting of the sets. Set designer Perry Ferguson couldn’t afford to build complete interiors for Kane’s mansion, so Toland’s lighting crew would let the unbuilt sections fall away into darkness – an atmospheric solution which adds to the mystery and foreboding of the tale.

The music is the first film score of Bernard Hermann, the composer who Welles brought with him from New York. The film won one Oscar, for best screenplay, so Welles and Mankiewicz each received a trophy. This was the only Oscar Welles ever received. The trophy was sold at auction in 2011 for $860,000 — more than the budget of the film.

INTRO TO FILM fair use


These are my notes from Professor Susan Nevelow Mart’s presentation on Fair Use and copyright, and how they impact our work as filmmakers. (My comments are in parentheses, thus.) As she does, I must point out that this is a discussion about frameworks for thinking about fair use, not professional legal advice!

Copyright law is different from country to country. In the U.S. it is enshrined in the Constitution, which allows Congress the right to grant copyright for a limited time. The Constitution states that Congress shall have the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

From this chart, you can see the evolution of copyright terms. In 1790, the exclusive copyright period granted to authors was fourteen years. Today, after multiple term extensions, copyright for a “corporate” creation can last up to 120 years. (In the film world, authors don’t usually retain their copyrights but assign them to big media corporations which are able to influence Congress to extend the time copyrights last.)

Fair Use is an affirmative right, which we all have. It allows us to make use of copyrighted material without infringing. Fair Use depends on four things:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

A “fleeting and incidental” use is usually considered fair. However, Fair Use is an affirmative right in that you must assert it in order to benefit from it, and this brings with it business risks. Lawyers for big media companies have some clout. For example, John Else made a documentary titled SING FASTER: THE STAGEHANDS’ RING CYCLE (USA, 1999), a behind-the-scenes look at a seventeen-hour cycle of four operas. One scene from his documentary included a 4.5 second clip of some stagehands watching TV. On screen was an episode of “The Simpsons”. Matt Groening, the creator of “The Simpsons,” had no problem with the documentary’s use of the clip. But Groening does not own “The Simpsons” — it is the property of a massive media conglomerate, News International, and its Fox TV subsidiary. Fox wanted ten thousand dollars as a license fee for that brief clip; fearing a lawsuit, the filmmaker cut it out.

Documentary filmmakers increasingly found themselves in situations where they altered reality to remove potentially copyrighted material from their films. To distribute films, filmmakers need liability insurance — so as to reassure festivals and distribution companies that all copyrights have been cleared, that no one is defamed, and that they will not be sued for showing the film. So a group of American filmmakers came up with a Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use. As a result, insurance companies began to look more favorably on a filmmaker’s reasonable assertion of Fair Use.

The courts look more favorably on Fair Use which is a parody or transformative (re-use of the material in a new way). The American artist Jeff Koons works with appropriations of other people’s material. Twice the courts have decided against Koons; but the court has also decided in his favour – based on the amount of material he appropriated, and how transformative his use was.

In 1994, the US Supreme Court decided that a commercial parody can count as Fair Use. The case was Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc, and involved the band 2 Live Crew’s version of a Roy Orbison ballad, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Even though 2 Live Crew’s version was a commercial product extremely similar to Orbison’s, both lyrically and instrumentally, the Court decided it was a parody and therefore covered by Fair Use. Similarly, in 1998 the photographer Annie Liebowitz lost when she sued Paramount Pictures for emulating a photograph she took of the actor Demi Moore for Vanity Fair: the studio had placed the face of the actor Lesley Nielsen over a model posed like Moore, and the court stated that this was transformative, and parody.

The case of Cariou v. Prince (2013) involved a commercial artist, Richard Prince, appropriating numerous photographs from a book by Patrick Cariou, scanning and painting on canvas, and adding additional elements. Though Cariou was able to demonstrate that the market for his work had been impacted as a result of Prince’s actions, and though the artist made no claim that parody was involved, the court said that most of Prince’s appropriations – made for commercial gain – were probably transformative under the guidelines the court set out, and sent the case back to the trial court to make a painting by painting evaluation on Fair Use.

Shepard Fairey, the designer of the Barack Obama “Hope” poster, used an original photograph by AP freelance photographer Mannie Garcia. When Garcia requested financial compensation, Fairey sued for a judgment that his work was Fair Use. The parties settled out of court in 2011, with details of the settlement remaining confidential. Fairey was sentenced to two years of probation, 300 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine for criminal contempt. He had destroyed documents and manufactured evidence. (Fairey was not punished for a copyright infringement, but for his actions in the lawsuit.)

In general, the above cases show that courts can be receptive to artists’ claims of Fair Use, based on the nature of the parody or the transformative nature of the work, even when the artist in question has made money from the transformation. This, in theory, is good news for filmmakers.

Two examples of films and videos successfully made and shown under Fair Use principles are BUFFY VS EDWARD: TWILIGHT REMIX (USA, 2009), and ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (USA, 2013).

BUFFY VS EDWARD is a mash-up of the TV series and the film, made by Jonathan McIntosh. He writes, “The work is an example of fair use transformative storytelling which serves as a visual critique of gender roles and representations in modern pop culture vampire media.” It was subject to repeated take-down notices from Lionsgate, a company which had acquired the rights to one of the TWILIGHT films. Yet Lionsgate did not initiate any other legal action, nor send the author a cease-and-desist letter. After he blogged about it, YouTube informed him that “the content has been reinstated.”

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW is a low-budget feature, shot without permission at Walt Disney World. The film has played at festivals and in cinemas, and is being sold on DVD and blu-ray. The Disney corporation is famously litigious, yet it has not sued the filmmaker nor issued takedown notices against the trailer. The film’s website contains a counter titled Number of Hours Since Release That We Haven’t Been Sued (currently 71 weeks, 6 days, etc.)

BUFFY and ESCAPE both suggest that following Fair Use guidelines can be of help to filmmakers, as does the case of Arrow Productions v. The Weinstein Company, where the judge found for the makers of a bio-pic of DEEP THROAT star Linda Lovelace, and against the owners of the copyright and trademark of the original film. In 2006, the Colbert Green Screen Challenge invited Comedy Central’s viewers to create mash-ups and submit them for broadcast. Many of the “finalists” contained copyright material, yet no lawsuits seem to have been filed.

Public Domain is an area in which all content is free of copyright. Any work made prior to 1923 is in the Public Domain. Thereafter, the law changed frequently, though many works made after that date – including films and their trailers – also entered the PD. Anyone can copy, sell, and transform Public Domaine works. A list of the rules regarding the Public Domain, as it has changed over the years is here.

Trademarks are a separate area of the law which concerns the filmmaker primarily if a logo appears in their film. Logos like the Golden Arches or the Swoosh are trademarks, and one can be sued for casting products in a bad light, or using the logo in a way that might create confusion in a viewer’s mind that the film is endorsing the product. Although “incidental use” seems like it would be a Fair Use, different courts have differing views of what constitutes incident use, with the 9th circuit of appeal (includes California) having a more lenient view. The 2nd Circuit (includes New York) is not very tolerant about “incidental” uses of trademark. (This benefits all filmmakers: you may not have to worry if the logo of Conoco or Starbucks appears in the background of your scene as long as the appearance is “fleeting and incidental.”) But, any use should be based on a balancing of the factors, and an awareness of the business risks involved in claiming Fair Use.

Copyleft includes a number of Creative Commons Licenses which artists and creators can choose instead of the more restrictive copyright. Creative Commons Licenses permit a variety of possible uses and re-uses of material. As one example, a musician might post a new song with a Creative Commons License that allows reuse for free, so long as there is attribution and the use is not commercial. A filmmaker can use that music for a film, before any commercial use, and then if the film is picked up, can pay the musician for the rights.

Further reading The book Fair Use, Free Use and Use by Permission: How to Handle Copyrights in All Media contains a checklist which you can use to address Fair Use and copyright issues your film may have. Nolo Press is a great resource which tells you how to create many legal documents on your own, and when you really do need a lawyer.


Before we talk about screenplays and source material I’d like to lay a couple more editing concepts before you.

JUMP CUT.  The Wikipedia definition of a jump cut is “a cut in film editing in which two sequential shots of the same object are taken from camera positions that vary only slightly.” Wikipedia is often a very good resource, but should always be double-checked, as this definition is wrong. A jump cut doesn’t involve two different camera positions. It is a break in the continuous action of a shot. The camera can be static, or in motion. The absence of frames draws attention to itself, and is called a jump cut. A jump cut can also be a series of shots taken from the same camera position with different lenses – as in the scene in THE BIRDS (USA, 1963) in which the first victim of the birds is revealed, or the scene in 2001 in which the camera “jumps” in on the unblinking eye of HAL.

MONTAGE. What is it? Another French word, which means editing. Is it the same thing? Not quite. The difference as I understand it is that we in the English-speaking world use “montage” to describe an edited sequence which conveys information about the subject, and the passage of time. So a montage might be a series of travel shots, in which the protagonists cross the United States on motorcycles. Or it could be a series of interior shots in which the protagonist cooks a meal, prepares an elaborate floral display, or trains for the big fight. Often the shots are linked not by cuts but by dissolves, which are the lazy filmmaker’s way of indicating time passing.

Today our subjects include screenplays, source material, and adaptation. These are big subjects. We could spend a semester, or a lifetime, considering the nature of the screenplay, and the best way to adapt a book, or play, or story for a movie, or to turn someone’s life into an entertaining feature film.

Ah, screenplays! As a director, I’ve found it’s hard to make a good dramatic film without one. Others can do things differently, and the films of the director John Cassavettes demonstrate that it really is possible to let the actors “improvise”, all to the good of the project. We watch three scenes from THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (USA, 1978) in which Ben Gazarra, playing a clubowner, acknowledges his debt to the mob and takes his showgirls home.

Cassavettes collaborated with strong actors, and rehearsed at length. Working with actors like Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, and Seymour Casals, he produced a body of work which relied upon improvisational acting. These were low budget, independent films. Yet improvisational work happened in studio pictures, too. Actors like Peter Sellers – often stereotyped as “comedians” – were able to “riff” on their characters, expand them and make them funnier. But Sellers and the cast of DR STRANGELOVE were working from a script, written by a professional novelist and screenwriter, Terry Southern.

What is a screenplay?

For a feature film, the script is a single-spaced document, eighty or more pages long. Every scene is introduced by its location; whether it is an interior or an exterior; and whether it is day or night. There will be stage directions – descriptions of the action – but scripts are dialogue-driven, and you will usually see more dialogue than description on any given page.

Descriptions of the action have a left-hand margin. Leave a gap between paragraphs. Dialogue is always indented, in upper and lower case, beneath the speaking character’s name, in capitals.

One page of screenplay equals roughly one minute of screen time. So an 85-page screenplay will run 85 minutes, more or less, plus the credits. And a 280-page screenplay will probably not get made.

There is virtue in this. John Ford, the great American director, once said “a picture is good when it is long on action, and short on dialogue.” Brevity is an underappreciated virtue. Of course there are plenty of readers and filmgoers who are happy to wade through enormous novels and sit through INTERSTELLAR (USA, 2014). And some great films, like RAN and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, are long. But the real job of the filmmaker – of the team which makes the film – is to tell a story as concisely and coherently as possible.

This starts with the source material, continues with the screenplay, and with what the actors and director do with it, and is finally determined in the cutting room.

What is the source material of a dramatic feature? As we’ve seen, it can be a person’s life – as in the case of Mattei and Bobby Sands. It can be material published elsewhere – like the “Oz” books by Frank L. Baum, or Shakespeare’s plays. Or it can spring from the head of the screenwriter.

Tom diCillo wrote and directed LIVING IN OBLIVION. Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento wrote the original story for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST; Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati adapted it as a screenplay; a blacklisted American living in Rome, Mickey Knox, prepared the English dialogue version.

So a screenplay can be the work of one person, or of many. There are directors who know nothing about writing, and are content with that. There are directors who, through avarice or insecurity, covet a screenwriting credit which they do not deserve. And there are directors who are also screenwriters. Sometimes they write scripts for other people to direct, sometimes they write for themselves, sometimes they direct the work of others: Francis Coppola directed his own screenplay for THE CONVERSATION, and a script by John Milius for APOCALYPSE NOW.

Doing an adaptation of an existing piece of work may well involve copyright law. Unless a book or story is in the public domain, somebody owns it, and it’s necessary to make a deal with them if you intend to make a commercial version of their work. Now, there are exceptions to this. The law of Fair Use contains a number of ways that artists can avoid the draconian limitations of copyright law, and make transformative art despite the power of big media corporations, as we shall see.

Most narrative films, and plays, follow a three-act structure. The first act introduces the characters and their situation, and sets up the conflict: someone wants something/something is at stake. Act two throws every possible obstacle at the protagonist or protagonists, leaving them at their lowest point by the act’s end. Act three – the shortest act – resolves the situation. If it’s a comedy or a musical, the end will probably be happy (a black comedy, on the other hand, usually requires a pessimistic or ironic ending). If it’s a tragedy, the hero or heroine falls to their destruction (a tragedy isn’t just a sad story with an unhappy end — it’s a drama in which the protagonist falls “from high estate” to their downfall, due to a character flaw or an insuperable adversary). If it’s a contemporary indie feature, ambiguity will likely be the order of the day.

This is a very simple analysis of the three-act structure. Some academics may argue that it is too simple, but I see no benefit in making it more complex. The five-act structure of the Elizabethan theatre and Japanese traditional drama might seem to contradict it, but I don’t think they do. Unless there is a break or intermission (which film doesn’t usually have) five acts equals three acts: one introductory act, three “oppositional” middle acts, one act to wrap things up. Whether it’s three or five, this same dramatic structure seems to transcend the bounds of nationality and language, and apply to Shakespeare, to Noh and Kabuki, and to NIGHTCRAWLER (USA, 2014) or BIRDMAN.

It’s been said that only bad books make good films, and there’s some truth in that as if you have no expectations at all you cannot be disappointed. Sometimes a poor, potboiler novel has been the basis of a great film (for example, Mickey Spillane’s KISS ME, DEADLY and its film adaptation, directed by Robert Aldrich (USA, 1955). It would be hard to make a successful narrative feature out of books as big and complex as MOBY DICK or THE BIBLE, though, to his credit, the director John Huston attempted to adapt both (USA, 1956 and 1966). Sometimes a fine work of literature makes a great film: Vladimir Nabokov adapted his own novel LOLITA for Stanley Kubrick (USA, 1962) with tremendous results. We watch a brief clip from that film, where Nabokov adopts a literary device – the letter – to save Kubrick the expense of shooting multiple additional scenes.

The LOLITA clip consists of an extreme closeup of a sheet of paper in a typewriter. The camera holds on the image as Lolita writes to Humbert Humbert, explaining that she is married, pregnant, and urgently in need of cash.

Which brings us to our reading material, the book DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? by Philip K. Dick.

Philip K. Dick is today a very highly-regarded science fiction writer. Unfortunately he died in 1982, and did his writing at a time – the late 1950s and 1960s – when science fiction wasn’t highly regarded, so for many years he like most of his contemporaries struggled to make a living from his work. He won the Hugo Award in 1962 for THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, a story set in an alternate-reality United States after the Nazis and the Japanese win World War II.

Writing through the 60s he developed a unique style of uneasy storytelling in which reality would not hold. Roger Zelazny, a contemporary sf writer, wrote, “The worlds through which Philip K. Dick’s characters move are subject to cancellation or revision without notice. Reality is approximately as dependable as a politician’s promise.”

The world which Dick created in 1968, when he wrote DO ANDROIDS…, has been devastated by a nuclear war — a series of nuclear wars, ending in World War Terminus. Radioactive dust and ash continue to fall, poisoning the survivors, slowly killing all living things.

Human beings are divided into those well enough to emigrate to the Mars colonies, and those whose DNA is so damaged that they must remain on earth. Those who emigrate are given their own personal android. Those who remain dedicate themselves to a new religion, to watching TV, and to tending animals.

Dick anticipates the concept of the “Anthropocene” age, in which we live and witness the biggest die-of of species since the end of the Cretaceous period. In DO ANDROIDS…, most animal species are already extinct, and humans now compete to pet the surviving ones. Competition for the best job or car has been replaced with competition to own and care for a prize goat, or horse. But these last live animals are very expensive, and many humans, in shame, resort to fake replica animals, and pretend to tend to these.

Rick Deckard, bounty hunter, is one of those unfortunate humans without a real animal. We read an extract of three paragraphs, beginning “After a hurried breakfast…”, pp. 7-9 of the 1996 Del Rey/Ballantine paperback edition.

Rick, and his wife, Iran, both use a machine called the Penfield Mood Generator, which creates artificial feelings based on the code you input.

#481: Awareness of the Manifold Possiblities Open To Me in the Future;
#594 Pleased Acknowledgement of Husband’s Superior Wisdom in All Matters.

They also subscribe to a new religion called Mercerism, which is also accessed via a machine, the Empathy Box, which engages the user in a vision of uphill struggle and torture.

The narrative alternates between Deckard and John Isidore, a human who services broken-down artificial animals, and who has been denied permission to emigrate.

In the back of both their stories is the falling ash, the continuing species die-off, the long end-game of World War Terminus.

We read two more paragraphs from DO ANDROIDS, beginning “In addition, no one today remembered why the war had come about…”, pp. 15-16

These androids are very intelligent, and very strong. Some of them want to visit Earth. This is illegal. Deckard’s job is to track down any that enter the Northern California area, and destroy them, or as their business lingo goes, “retire” them.

At the start of chapter 8 Deckard lands his hover car on the roof of the Lombard Street Hall of Justice: the police station. Two chapters later the book slips into a Dickian alternate reality, where Deckard lands on the roof of the Mission Street Hall of Justice, a parallel police station apparently in the grip of androids. The author writes an exciting chapter about this and never deals with it again, which is weird since if the reader accepts the fake police station as part of the main narrative, then it becomes a major plot point and a potential gold mine for Deckard and the other bounty hunters, who are paid $1000 for every android slain.  But in 1968 a hard-working science fiction author, racing to meet his deadline, might well develop an additional plot-line and then forget or abandon it, as Dick appears to have done here.

Regardless, DO ANDROIDS is a fully-realised, science fiction world, populated by real humans with tragic dimensions. Its androids are comparatively background characters. Its surviving humans try to flee their sins by moving to Mars, or to atone for them by caring for animals or plugging into machines.

A good film adaptation of a book, or tale, or poem, or play, may make many changes along the way. If the source is a big novel, many things get thrown away. “Good” does not mean “exactly the same”. But it does require two things, I think:

1. that the adaptation remain faithful to the spirit of the book/play/whatever
2. that it be true to the book’s theme.

What is the “theme”? It is the single thing that the story, and every scene in the story, is about. It is the reason acts one, and two, and three happen: they tell the story, and convey the theme.

Leitmotifs are themes, and so a film or a book can have more than one. In ANDROIDS, I think the main theme is the “legitimacy” of life. Healthy humans are invited to live on Mars; radiation-sick humans must remain on Earth. Even sick humans are more legitimate than androids, who have no rights and must be killed. Real animals are legitimate and create status for their owners; fake animals are shameful things. Real humans feel empathy, and shame; androids do not.

Tomorrow we’ll watch BLADE RUNNER, a big-budget Hollywood movie based on DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP. This was first released in 1982, the year Dick died, in a version with a happy ending and a Philip Marlowe-style voice over. Since then two other versions have appeared, the “Director’s Cut” and a later “Final Cut” also approved by the director, Ridley Scott. It is the Final Cut which we shall screen.

As you watch it, note what the studio filmmakers have taken from the book, what they have invented, and what they have eliminated. Is the theme the same? Are the same things at stake?


THINGS TO COME (UK, 1936), like ALEXANDER NEVSKY, was made in anticipation of the Second World War. NEVSKY took place in the thirteenth century, so its genre would be the historical drama. THINGS TO COME stretches 100 years into the future, to the year 2036. So its genre is science fiction.

They are more than that too: NEVSKY is a meditation on power, and the fate of nations, and THINGS TO COME is a philosophical film, based on a ponderous book and screenplay by H.G. Wells, which often grinds to a halt beneath the speeches of flat, unengaging characters. No matter. This week our subject is production design, and THINGS TO COME is a great example of that, and of the frequent merge between design and special effects, and so a good place to begin.

THINGS TO COME was directed by William Cameron Menzies. It was his first film as a director. He was already a renowned art director: among his credits were THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (USA, 1924) and RAFFLES (USA, 1930) — lavishly dressed fantasies. Though the credit for “setting design” went to the producer’s brother, Vincent Korda, it’s generally thought that Menzies was the guiding light behind the film’s design.

In THINGS GO COME Menzies crafted the most ambitious, the most expensive, and the most elaborately designed film the British industry had ever made.  Model shots and matte paintings were used – as with KING KONG, it was cheaper to build sets in miniature, and hang them in the foreground, with the actors in the distance (a “foreground miniature”) or to incorporate them into a painted backdrop via a “matte”) than to build enormous sets. But enormous sets were built as well.

Following his “March of War” sequence, Menzies moves from a wide establishing shot of the ruined city (SFX – a painting) to a foreground miniature or glass paining, to an actual built environment: the outdoor set with ruined columns. Then he moves to interiors: more sets, built on a sound stage.

Making THINGS TO COME was a giant undertaking. Three years later, William Cameron Menzies went to work as an art director for the Hollywood studios, on GONE WITH THE WIND (you may recall that as the film to which director Victor Fleming was transferred from WIZARD OF OZ). GONE WITH THE WIND, a romantic tale of southerners during and after the Civil War, was another giant undertaking, and watching his art director work, the producer, David O. Selznick, came up with a new term to describe all that Menzies was doing: PRODUCTION DESIGN.

Menzies was the first person ever to receive a “production designer” credit, and he certainly deserved it. But the origins of film production design weren’t in super productions such as these.

Early dramatic films were modest undertakings. The job of the art director might just be to assemble a handful of props, to prepare a painted backdrop, to paint a wall, or at most to build a room interior — a three-walled box like the one W.C Fields inhabits in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER.

At the same time, since films were shot in warehouses, or stages, sound stages, there was no such thing as a ‘real’ environment. Everything, whether the location was a humble home or the surface of the moon, had to be brought in. The environment had to be created. As we saw in DAY OF THE LOCUST, Hollywood didn’t go to Europe to film Napoleonic battles; they built Europe on a sound stage, in Los Angeles.

So, though some films were “naturalistic” – in that a realistic environment was desired, and created – there was a natural tendency, as one was building the environment in any case, to build it up, to make it bigger, grander, more dramatic — in other words, the designed set could help the film, not just by providing a background, but by visuals which told the audience about the characters, which advanced the forward movement of the plot.

And since narrative film relied on a temporary, purpose-built environment, big, impressive sets became a part of the story-telling world.

We look at some of the Babylonian scenes from D.W. Griffiths’ movie INTOLERANCE, made in California, in 1916. All the sets were built full-size, between Sunset and Hollywood Bouldevards in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles. No designer or art director was credited on INTOLERANCE, though clearly hundreds of people worked in the art department. INTOLERANCE did not do well at the box office, and Griffith was unable to afford the demolition of the set. It stood decaying for several years before it was finally pulled down — this is the fate of movie sets! Only rarely are they built to last. Carlo Simi’s set for FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, built in Almeria, Spain, was an exception: it endures as a tourist attraction to this day, like the “Old Tucson” movie set in Arizona.

Such an extra-ordinary, non-naturalistic approach to film design wasn’t limited to big-budget productions. In 1919, Robert Wiene filmed THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, in Berlin, Germany. This was one year after the end of the First World War, and money and resources were in short supply. Yet the design of the film was both innovative, and ambitious. For CALIGARI, everything was built on a stage, with a mixture of obviously painted backgrounds and exaggerated perspectives. Three people were credited with “design” on the film: Walter Reimann, Walter Rohrig, and Hermann Warm.  A later German production, directed by Fritz Lang in 1927, pursued an epic design, quasi-realistic, approach with a much bigger budget: METROPOLIS.

In the factory scene, the built environment, combined with stylized acting and special effects, tells the story: showing us how the workplace of the future has become a nightmare monster, eating human beings, in the fervid vision of the young hero. This early science fiction film established the movie convention of juxtaposing amazing, futuristic cityscapes (model shots or paintings, or later CGI) with large interiors built on the sound stage.

In METROPOLIS, after his vision in the factory, the hero tells his chauffeur, “To my father’s office – the New Tower of Babel!” We see a succession of shots of skyscrapers, increasingly enormous, with highways rolling through them, then, finally the New Tower of Babel Building, higher and taller than the flight of airplanes. Inside father’s office, the biggest window possible overlooks the entire city.

All the exteriors are model shots with painted backgrounds. This is production design helping to tell the story. We know who the protagonists are, based on their environments.

And though I’ve screened these grand examples (and we’ll see more), production design can also serve the film by being low-key, what we call “naturalistic”, i.e. not exaggerated or eye-catching at all.

As an example from a film of mine, the last act of SID & NANCY took place in the Chelsea Hotel in New York city. We had a good relationship with the Hotel, and they gave us permission to shoot in there – this involved bringing in a medium-sized film crew, lights, cables, and all the rest of it. The problem we faced was that, as Sid and Nancy degenerated, they got moved to smaller rooms, to the bowels of the Chelsea Hotel. Finally they were in the smallest room in the place, Room 100. There was no way for us to get the cast and crew into a space so tiny. So instead the art department conceived the plan of shooting the room interiors on a sound stage, in an environment they would build.

This enabled us to take advantage of the production value of the Chelsea – its lobby, its balconies, its staircases and corridors – but to shoot the small room scenes in a set, where we could remove walls, set up lights, and do special effects, such as the scene in which Sid and Nancy set fire to their room.

That sequence began in a built set on a sound stage (the only place we could have got permission to stage a fire like that). It cuts to a hand-held shot by Roger Deakins, the DP, done in the Chelsea Hotel in New York, coming down the hotel stairs and into the hall. Then another cut takes us back to the Los Angeles sound stage, to a corridor and hotel room built there by the production designers, J. Rae Fox and Lynda Burbank: their own take on the room Sid and Nancy finally inhabited, in New York.

The idea there was to provide a seamless transition from stage, to location, back to stage again. It succeeds partially because Fox and Burbank matched the green-gray color scheme of the Chelsea to their built environment in LA.

Do naturalistic-looking sets always go with naturalistic narratives? Not necessarily. SID & NANCY tells an extreme and exaggerated tale against a naturalistic background. DR CALIGARI tells an extreme story, of murderous hypnotists, somnambulists, and madness, against an extreme background. KILLER OF SHEEP (USA, 1978) is a film of subdued performances, and subtle themes, shot on real locations. (By “real” I mean that the production circumstances weren’t sufficient to permit renting locations or painting the walls of the set; the filmmakers shot, mostly,  in environments as they found them.)  Real interiors often present a problem because interior walls tend to be white or beige, while darker walls provide a more supportive, dramatic background. Can you afford to paint the walls of your location? It will make an difference, if you can.

Costumes are usually separate from the production designer and the art department. Even though both the sets and the costumes contribute to the mise-en-scene, the visual identity of the film, these elements are usually provided by separate department heads with separate teams. There are exceptions. Carlo Simi did both sets and costumes. So on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, one person was responsible for building the town, the ranch, and the railroad stations, and picking all those long coats and designing Claudia Cardinale’s dresses.

One person and a huge, huge team. On a small film, the production designer will have one or more art directors, a set decorator, perhaps a set dresser (to represent the art department because the rest of them are working on the next location), and a prop person or persons. A small art department might be three, or four, or five persons. If any construction is involved, the art department may hire carpenters, painters, riggers, and finally a scenic painter (to paint the sign saying “Doc Holliday: Dentist”). On a big film, the crew roles will be the same, but there will be many more people. The construction crew will be bigger, there may be a greens man, to move potted plants around, and there will be illustrators to depict what the designer has in mind, and draughtspersons to interpret it. Plus a separate costume department, small or not so small.

As an extreme of the built environment, consider the rope bridge set built for SORCERER (1977). The bridge was a complex structure supported on hydraulic lifts to control its motion. It was first built in the Dominican Republic at a cost of a million dollars. When the river there ran dry, the huge set piece was relocated to Tuxtepec, Mexico, at a cost of another million dollars. That river too began to dry up, so the special effects crew created an artificial current and rainstorm. The entire sequence took three months to shoot. SORCERER’s production designer was John Box, most famous for his work on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (US/UK, 1962)

As an example of production design on a grand scale, we’ll watch a film directed by Akira Kurosawa: RAN (Japan, 1985). It takes place in sixteenth-century Japan, but the source material is a play by Shakespeare, written in the same time period — King Lear. RAN was the most expensive Japanese film ever made, in its day, and the last of the director’s samurai epics. It’s big in every way: it has huge battle scenes, and massive sets, including Hidetora’s castle, which had to be constructed, then destroyed.

Almost thirty years before, Kurosawa had directed a samurai film based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth: THRONE OF BLOOD (Japan, 1957). Both films shared a production designer, Yoshiko Muraki. We watch Toshiro Mifune’s last scene from THRONE OF BLOOD, to see how Muraki’s set design assisted Kurosawa’s storytelling on that occasion.

RAN was directed by Akira Kurosawa in Japan in 1985. Kurosawa had an epic career, beginning with propaganda dramas during the Second World War, and drawing international attention at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, winning the Golden Lion prize for his period drama, RASHOMON. Thereafter Kurosawa alternated between big-scale samurai stories such as SEVEN SAMURAI (Japan, 1956) and modern-day social dramas, of which the best is probably IKIRU (Japan, 1952), plus adaptations of Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare.

But to use words like ‘best’ when talking about Kurosawa’s work is risky. This director made so many very good films: out of 30 films, maybe 15 can be considered “classics.”
We screen RAN, Kurosawa’s version of the King Lear story, with a soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu. The production design is extraordinary, as is the sound design – especially in the battle scenes, where naturalistic sound is abandoned, and music is the only audio element.

From 1954, Akira Kurosawa worked almost exclusively with one production designer, Yoshiko Muraki, or with the team of Muraki and his wife, Shinobu. Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa’s script woman and producer, called Muraki sets “strong and spectacular: nothing little and fussy about them. Their strong presence must be what Kurosawa liked so much.”

Those years were a period of outstanding success, and significant failure (DODES’KA-DEN, Japan 1975) and director and production designer clearly shared a vision – which they also shared with Takao Saito, who shot eighteen of Kurosawa’s films. Whereas this was the first time Kurosawa worked with costume designer Emi Wada. Let’s look at one more example of Kurosawa’s cinema, and how design and costume work for it. The film is MADADAYO (Japan, 1993), shot by Saito, designed by Muraki, costumed by Kurosawa’s daughter, Kazuko.

It’s the story of an old, revered writer, and his relationships, in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.

We watch the scene in MADADAYO in which the author’s fans march around the dining hall to the “One-Two Medicine” song. The central character in MADADAYO is inordinately revered by those around him – especially his former students. This is a short portion of a long scene in which they salute him and entertain him. The costuming – naturalistic as it is – serves to make the men similar; the set, with no functioning windows and grimy walls, isolates them in nowhere-in-particular as they march to his comic song. The characters are good humored, passionate about their old sensei; their world, as he observes, is meaningless.

This is relatively modest design, helping the narrative via its colors and its anonymity. There is also production design which says, look at me! And for an example of that we need only turn to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, SPELLBOUND (USA, 1949). For this film, dealing with psychoanalysis and murder, the art director was James Basevi, but the director also hired the artist, Salvador Dali, to design the amnesiac hero’s dreams.

Dali had, famously, collaborated with the Spanish director Luis Buñel on two Surrealist short films — one of them, THE ANDALUSIAN DOG (France, 1929), we’ll see later in the semester. But now he was working for David O. Selznick, producer of GONE WITH THE WIND, and there was money to spend! Not enough, of course. Somehow there is never enough money. But there was a lot more than a Surrealist film had had before, and the results were unheard of, in a Hollywood film. We watch Gregory Peck’s dream sequence from SPELLBOUND.

Surrealism was a cultural and artistic movement which arose in the 1920s, mainly in Paris. It believed in the crucial importance of dream life, and attempted to incorporate Freudian analysis, free association, and startling juxtapositions into life and art. Dali and Buñuel, both Spaniards living in Paris, were drawn to the movement and became two of its foremost exponents.

Surrealism had pretty much run its course as a movement prior to the Second World War. Buñuel struggled to continue to make films with Surrealist elements. For painters like Dali, Paul Magritte and Yves Tanguy Surrealism remained a viable – i.e saleable – art form. Dali’s paintings hung on the walls of filmmakers’ homes; it’s inevitable that he was invited to Hollywood. But by the time SPELLBOUND was made, Surrealism was a visual trope, not a lifestyle.

Dali storyboarded twenty minutes’ worth of dream sequences, only a fraction of which were filmed. But the filmmakers did incorporate certain of his images, and follow his insistence that everything be in sharp focus.The result works to propel the narrative, and to give clues as to the hero’s innocence, and the identity of the murderer.

In the fifties and sixties, films were increasingly shot on location, which meant a different, more “natural” look, and gave less work to the art department. Bigger budget films fought back against this new “realistic” aesthetic by spending more money on star casts, and on the art department.  Action films like the Italian Westerns and the James Bond series followed this prescription.

Ken Adam – another German emigre who had fled the Nazis – designed Stanley Kubrick’s film DR STRANGELOVE (UK/US 1963) and was particularly praised for his War Room – a creation of lights and screens inside a sound stage at a British film studio. Kubrick asked Ken Adam to design his next film, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But Adam turned him down. He felt that Kubrick was too interventionist, and since the director was already working with NASA engineers on the spacecraft designs, the designer was going to get the short end of the stick. Instead Adam concentrated on the James Bond series, which followed DR STRANGELOVE’s motif of a high-tech, underground villain’s lair. We watch a brief clip of the huge interior Adam built for the James Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (USA, 1967).

A film disappoints if it has one great element, and the rest doesn’t live up to it. Here, Ken Adam provided an amazing built environment on the largest sound stage in the world – and it was put to such conventional, formulaic use. The director cuts from a shot of men with guns, to single of a man with a grenade, to a cloud of colored smoke and two stuntmen jumping. The wide shot of scores of people rapelling into the vast interior makes use of Adam’s set and is stunning. The rest isn’t. The problem is that the James Bond series is a studio franchise, and the power resides with studio bosses who pick directors for their compliance, rather than their talent. It would have been extraordinary to see a Bond movie directed by Kubrick, or Ken Russell, or William Friedkin. But such things do not occur.

In 1975, Ken Adam worked with Stanley Kubrick again, on BARRY LYNDON, an expensive historical drama based on a 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. The exteriors were shot in Ireland, Scotland and Germany, and the interiors were all existing locations, in Ireland and Southwest England – so the assignment was very different from before. Production design became a job of location scouting, of set dressing, and of special effects.

BARRY LYNDON is famous for its night interiors. Some scenes were actually shot by candlelight. Previously this had been considered impossible. Lenses for 35mm film cameras weren’t “fast enough” – that is, they didn’t open wide enough to allow the candlelit scene to be recorded on film. The technical term f-stop is the measure of the aperture setting of a lens. How wide open is the iris? A “fast” lens with a low f-stop number (such as f/2.8), when wide open, lets a significant amount of light through and can be used in low-light situations. A high f-stop (f/11, f/16, f/22 and so on) lets much less light in, but offers greater depth of field. In 1975 it was thought that no lenses were fast enough to permit shooting by candle-light alone. But Kubrick’s friends at NASA found him three 50mm f/0.7 Zeiss lenses, left over from the moon-landing program. These lenses, wide open, were used to film the candle-light scenes.

In the scene in which Barry and his mentor the Chevalier cheat Lord Ludd at cards, the only light beyond that of the candles came from metal reflectors which the DP, John Alcott, put above the chandeliers. These reflected the candles and created a “top light” – and they stopped the ceiling from catching on fire.

The work of the designer, and of the costumer varies tremendously from film to film. Big design-heavy period films like RAN and BARRY LYNDON will have giant art and costume departments. A small contemporary drama, shot in one place or on location, can work with smaller crews, and go faster.

But production design and costumes are always a consideration, because they contribute to the mise-en-scene, and – when done well – help to tell the story.

Consider the work of Carlo Simi, designer and costumer of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. He had to build a town, and fit out a luxurious railroad car. And dress a beautiful woman, and two gangs of outlaws, and a disabled millionaire. Let’s consider just the McBain ranch house, which we see at the beginning, and which remains a character throughout the film – representing McBain’s and his widow’s unshaken determination to stay, to impose themselves in hostile circumstances.

The ranch house of a real desert rat would be one storey tall. It would be sunk into the earth, with adobe walls and a sod roof. That would be the McBain ranch of reality. But ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a fantasy and its design reflects that. The ranch in the film is like an Alpine ski-lodge, two storeys tall with a big gable, a balcony, and foot-thick walls. Where did they get the wood for that, in the middle of this desert?

In fact the wood came from another movie, Orson Welles’ film CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, which had finished shooting on location further north in Spain. Carlo Simi’s crew bought all those logs from the production, and brought them south, to the desert, so as to build the ranch.

Sometimes a film has limited resources, and puts them all into one interior set: space-travel movies in particular favour this approach, and as an example we look at a couple of scenes from ICARUS XB-1 (Czechoslovakia, 1963) which show the interstellar spacecraft interior to good advantage.

Unless the film is all shot on a stage, the art department is always on the move, thinking ahead, planning the next location. Big or small, it seeks to do its best, and to add storytelling value to the film. Sometimes it goes unnoticed – as in Richard Sylbert’s unobtrusive but thoroughly effective design for FAT CITY (USA, 1972), a story of down-on-their-luck boxers in New Orleans. Sylbert is a versatile designer, who also created the stylish period detective movie sets for CHINATOWN (USA, 1974). In 1990, the director Warren Beatty gave Sylbert carte blanche to create a unique “look at me!” design for his cartoon-based feature DICK TRACY.

Naturalistic, DICK TRACY is not. We watch the opening – but the credits aren’t a stand-alone sequence. As the ensuing scenes show, this over-saturated, primary-couloured, make-up intensive mise-en-scene is the visual aesthetic of the entire film.


Michael Caine is an English actor who began his career as a stage manager in the theatre. He acted in plays, and got his first film role in 1963. He quickly became a star. His best work is probably GET CARTER, directed by Mike Hodges (UK, 1971) in which he plays a revenge-bent gangster. He has a strong London accent, but as an actor is very versatile.

We watch a clip from a TV program titled “Michael Caine on Acting for Film” recorded in 1987. If you are an actor or a director you should see the whole thing, because his observations are so interesting.

They may not all be right, or be right for every actor. Look at how the actors and the director got around the cigarette-matching problem in HUNGER. But Caine is a skillful movie actor and it’s rare to get such detailed information from someone so experienced. He also observes that he doesn’t watch rushes, and tries not to ask questions about them. He calls the camera the film actor’s best friend, and that is true. But the film actor has a second-best friend, of almost equal importance: the microphone. Behind the camera are the camera operator, and the focus puller. Behind the mike are the boom operator, and the sound recordist. Their work is sound, and sound is what we’ll talk about this week.

For what we do, there are two types of microphone: OMNIDIRECTIONAL, and CARDIOID.
Omnidirectional mikes record a wide sound perspective, and are best for musical instruments. Cardioid mikes reject sounds from behind, & the sides: they are directional, and a HYPER-CARDIOID (or rifle) mike is very directional, and best for picking up actor’s dialogue.

The LAVALEER is a tiny mike attached to the actor (collar, tie, hidden in the hair, or hat – Caine has one attached to his v-neck sweater in the acting masterclass), or to a musical instrument. It can be OMNI, or CARDIOID. Lavaleers are used in hostile environments (i.e noisy, very cramped, or otherwise difficult to record sound); they have a chesty sound; you can hear clothing rustle; so a “lav” is a last resort which will probably require work in post production to “clean it up.”

I made a road movie which was shot almost entirely in cars, and we recorded the audio with Lavaleers. It was indeed more work for the sound designer. We watch a clip from SEARCHERS 2.0 where that “chesty” sound is clearly audible.

Richard Beggs was the sound designer of that film. He’s done the sound design for most of the films I’ve directed as well as films by Francis Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Barry Levinson, and Alfonso Cuaron. Richard observes that people can’t SEE sound, so therefore they don’t THINK about it. So sound designers have a lot of leeway (remember how the audio fell away to nothing during the showdown in SANJURO, enhancing the tension of the moment via the absence of sound). At the same time, you have to be quite literal with visible things: if you see a clock, you’d better hear that clock tick.

On set, rehearsals are essential to get the best sound. The boom operator must be able to anticipate the dialogue, so as to keep the speaking actor “on mike” at all times.

When the director is scouting locations, Richard will ask him or her to consider the audio: is there an air conditioner? A freeway? Construction? An airport flight path overhead?

As with the camera department, organization (file management) is crucial in the sound department. Richard also says room tone is very important — he’ll ask for two or three minutes’ worth, not just the one minute we saw recorded in LIVING IN OBLIVION. He’ll visit the set, if possible, so as to anticipate the challenges and discuss them with the sound recordist, and also go back, on his own, to record presences and sound effects.

He or she will also have a sound effects library, built up over the years

The first people to be credited as sound designers were Walter Murch on APOCALYPSE NOW (USA 1979) and Ben Burtt on MORE AMERICAN GRAFITTI (USA 1979). Before that, though much work was done to create great soundtracks, the position officially didn’t exist.

Up until then, there was a boom operator, a recordist, a dialogue editor, a sound effects editor and crew, and a “footsteps” or Foley crew, (the crew who create background effects like footsteps, erasers on a whiteboard, and chains rattling are called the Foley crew because in Hollywood there was once a Mr. Foley who did this stuff; in Mexico Sr. Gavira was responsible, and footsteps are called “Gavira”), and a MIXER. The mixer was most important because that person established the relationships of all the different sounds — the dialogue, the music, the sound effects, the footsteps, the background presences.

In analog days, all these things came together LIVE in the mixing studio. Mixing was a heroic enterprise where all the tracks – maybe 16 or 32) rolled at once, in sync with the projector, and the mixer went for it, moving audio levers to adjust the volume, cross fading effects, equalizing the sound frequencies. It was exciting to sit at the back of the mix room, in those days, and see how far the mixer could get before an error crept in.

Doing this in real time was a massive undertaking. Often the mixer had an engineer or a second mixer, working simultaneously. It was also expensive, and so the sound crew was under a lot of pressure to get things as right as possible before the mix.

My friend Richard Beggs is a sound designer who also mixes. So for him the final mix is less of a big deal, as he premixes and puts his choices into the automation as he goes along. But not all sound designers do this. Some create a “sound design” and then hand it over to a mixer to interpret.

Either way, the work of the sound designer transforms the film, just as the work of the editor does. Like the DP and the editor, the sound designer makes the director look good and the actors wonderful.

Richard was part of the sound team on APOCALYPSE NOW. We look at some raw, roughly edited footage from the set of that film, shot in Thailand in 1979: the scene where Dennis Hopper talks to Martin Sheen (On the DVD or bluray it’s Additional Scene #9.)

Dennis’ dialogue was largely improvised, and the cut was rough. When we see the finished scene from the film, it’s obvious it’s been cut shorter, but the real difference is in the audio. Multiple tracks of insect and bird noise have been added, and skillfully manipulated by the sound designer, Walter, and the mixer, Richard. A scene which was formerly bland becomes foreboding, thanks to the sound design.

I asked Richard to recommend, for this class, the sound design of a film he hadn’t worked on. He recommended THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (USA, 2001), whose sound designer was Eugene Gearty. From this we watch the sequence which begins in the courtroom, moves via the elevator to the barbershop, and follows the barber (played by Billy Bob Thornton) home. Note the almost total absence of Foley! Instead, all the effects are “spot” effects — created by the SFX crew — such as the stuffing of the lawyer’s briefcase with papers, the judge’s gavel hitting his desk, the sound of the barber opening and closing his lighter as he walks through the crowd.

The effects you would normally expect to hear – footsteps, crowd noise, background presences – are almost all absent. Music, spot effects, and voice over carry the sequence along. Richard chose this sequence for what he calls its “strange, disturbed, internal style”. Indeed, the sound design recreates the space inside the barber’s head.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film THE CONVERSATION (USA, 1975) deals with sound and a sound recordist: a surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman. It’s a thriller in which, as Hackman’s character improves the quality of his surveillance tapes, he is drawn into a murder plot and becomes a victim of his own devices. Essential viewing, if you are interested in sound!

Our official class on “Genre” isn’t till week ten. In fact we’ve been dealing with genre all along. “Genre” is just another French word, meaning “type.” It’s applied to a number of different, but familiar, forms of narrative film. THE WIZARD OF OZ is a musical. THE MATTEI AFFAIR is a bio-pic. Today’s film is a Western. These are all genres – distinct, recognizable types of narrative dramatic film.

Documentaries and experimental films aren’t “genres” because they exist outside narrative drama. They’re types of films, but not generic types. Shorts aren’t a genre in their own right; they’re simply short films — that is, films which aren’t as long as features. Shorts can be generic, just like features can. Or they can be something else.

A film can exist outside genre — it’s hard, but certainly possible, to make a film so original that it defies generic expectations and exists entirely on its own terms. Some films bridge the gap between genres: a Western Musical; a Science Fiction Horror Film.

The film we’ll consider today is situated within a genre and a sub-genre. It’s a Western, and it’s also an Italian Western. Italian Westerns, when they first appeared in the 1960s, were very popular with audiences but despised by mainstream film critics, who called them “Spaghetti Westerns”. They were viewed as low-brow, violent, and vulgar. This may have been true, but there was also racism and a fearful exceptionalism in the argument that “Italians shouldn’t make cowboy films.”

In 1967, the Italian director Sergio Leone – fresh from great success with the “Dollars” films and THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, was determined to prove the critics wrong. So he hired a diva of the Italian cinema and several expensive American movie stars and embarked on an epic Western, shot mostly in Spain and Italy, but also in Monument Valley, Arizona, where John Ford’s Westerns had been made.

The result is ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (Italy/Spain 1968) – a film full of references to other movies: not just to American Westerns, but also to the Italian cinema, including Fellini’s 8 1/2. To complicate matters, it was funded by an American studio, which hated it and cut it to ribbons on its first release in 1968. Today it’s recognized as a great Western, a great Italian Western, and probably Leone’s masterpiece.

We’ll observe it heret for two reasons, both of them sound-related. First, consider the opening sequence. Usually – especially in Westerns – the credit sequence is an  opportunity for stirring music, setting the tone for an exciting film. Here, Leone plays things very differently. There is no music. There is almost no dialogue. Instead, there are effects, Foley, and presences. This is sound design.

Secondly, consider the music. When it comes, it certainly makes its presence felt. The composer was Ennio Morricone, a school-mate of Sergio Leone, whose work with Leone made him perhaps the most influential composer of the modern cinema. As you watch the film, think how the music works. Is it just exciting music, to pump up an action picture, Monoform-style? Or does it work in a more complex manner? Does the music change, when different characters appear?

Does music follow a character? Do any characters share a particular tune, or musical theme?

In the wake of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, I’d like to talk about film music. That’s a subject which could occupy a semester, or a lifetime. We have an hour and a quarter, so let’s begin.

Music was a part of cinema before the talking pictures came in. Silent films often had a piano or other musical accompaniment. The first “talkie” – THE JAZZ SINGER (USA 1927) was a Musical.

Early sound films took two approaches to how music should accompany films. There was the “wall to wall” approach where music literally played throughout, sometimes quietly in the background, sometimes emphatically, up front. This approach to film and television scoring continues to this day.

The alternative musical approach in early sound cinema was what academia calls “diagetic” and what film people call “source” music. It means that the musical instrument (or the radio, or the phonograph) appears in the scene. As an example, let’s watch W.C. Fields with his dulcimer, in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER (USA 1933):

Fields’ song is source, or diagetic, music. The same year as that film was made, the composer Max Steiner broke the mould with what is considered to be the first modern film score, for the first of the Giant Monsters Fighting genre, KING KONG (USA 1933). After the opening credits music, for the first third of the film there is no music at all.  Then, as the second act approaches, the music begins.

It’s score, not source music. But it isn’t wall-to-wall. Steiner uses music to build tension, to enhance action, to create humour, and sympathy – then drops the music entirely, for an especially dramatic scene. His first musical sequence is, in total, more than 35 minutes long. It begins as underscore, emphasizing tension as the ship approaches Skull Island. It builds as the film crew land on the island, and interact with the native population. It becomes briefly diagetic, as the “love theme” gives way to the sound of the islanders’ drums. The music introduces us to Kong, who kidnaps the heroine, and underscores the film crew’s pursuit of Kong and interaction with two dinosaurs. It creates a comic moment, when the first mate stabs Kong’s hand, and Kong wonders how he’s cut his finger. Finally, it builds to the arrival of the Allosaurus —

At which point the music ends. Talking picture audiences had never seen a giant monster battle of this kind before, and either the composer or the director realized – brilliantly – that sound effects alone would carry the scene. No musical emphasis was needed, though Steiner’s score returns once Kong has killed the Allosaur.

In addition to paralleling and emphasizing the story points, Steiner used musical LEITMOTIFS for the two main characters, King Kong and Ann Darrow.

What is a “leitmotif?” The word is of German origin, and it means a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation. The presence (or absence) of animals, and the question of what it is to be human, are literary leitmotifs in Philip K Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – a copy of which I hope adorns your bedside table.

The main musical leitmotifs in KING KONG are Kong’s theme – three descending chromatic notes – and variations on a Viennese waltz, for Ann.

The idea of leitmotifs in film scoring quickly caught on. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (USA 1935) features specific musical themes for the monster, and his bride. This is a film not to be missed — for its score, its acting, its production design, and its remarkable mise-en-scene. The composer of BRIDE was Franz Waxman, a 29-year-old refugee who had fled Nazi Germany only two years before.

Not all film scores were created after the film was shot and edited. Sometimes the score was written and recorded first. An example is the work of the Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, who wrote the score for ALEXANDER NEVSKY (Russia, 1938) before shooting began. In one way this makes the director’s work much easier, since Sergei Eisenstein knew how long his shots needed to be, and cut them to hit the beats.

NEVSKY is also an interesting example of context — which in this case was impending war between the Soviet Union and Germany. Anticipating the war, the Russian state film body commissioned Eisenstein to make a film depicting a historic invasion of Russia by Germany, and the Germans’ defeat.

Another very influential film composer was Bernard Hermann, a radio composer brought to Hollywood by Orson Welles, to write the score for CITIZEN KANE (USA 1940). Unlike other composers, Hermann didn’t always rely on a full orchestra; nor was his music wall-to-wall. Instead he relied on short musical cues to help scene changes and transitions, and sometimes used music in a way that worked against the image, or added to it, rather than emphasizing what was already on screen.

Film music continued to develop. 1952 saw the first film with a score based on a ballad: the Western HIGH NOON featured numerous variations on the theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling.”

FORBIDDEN PLANET (USA 1956) featured the first entirely electronic score. The director William Friedkin made two features with notable electronic soundtracks, SORCERER (USA 1977) and TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA (USA 1985). Today, electronic scores are commonplace as a result of readily-available software, and not always recognizable as such.

The last great innovator in film music began his career in the 1960s, and changed soundtracks in multiple ways. Ennio Morricone, schoolmate of the director Sergio Leone, was asked by Leone to come up with original scores for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (Italy, 1964), and its sequel, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. At first, Morricone treated his soundtracks as free-standing, 3-4 minute instrumental pop songs, with electric guitars, Jew’s harps, vocal choruses, whistling, birdsong, gunshots, grunts and screams. His main theme for THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (Italy/Spain 1966) became an international pop music hit.

Two years later, Morricone scored ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, and departed from his previous format, creating a leitmotif for each of the principal characters: Jill, Morton, Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank. Harmonica’s and Frank’s leitmotifs combine at the end of the film, for the final showdown music and the flashback which explains who these men are.

Morricone became a very popular and busy composer; his later scores tended to be variations on one main theme. Still alive, he composes, and conducts orchestras. In IL GRANDE SILENZIO / THE GREAT SILENCE (Italy 1967) he, like Hermann, contradicted the images: composing a melodic, dreamlike score to accompany violent and sadistic images.

I’ll briefly mention appropriated music, which I despise. In the days of Hong Kong action cinema, producers would just grab Morricone music off Morricone soundtrack albums and include it in their films. This was not fair use, since such theft was not transformative. The modern equivalent of this lazy rip-off approach to film scoring is Quentin Tarantino, whose deep-pockets producers buy him scores from pre-existing films. So the tune in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (USA, 2009) which accompanies Christopher Waltz as he approaches an isolated farm house to murder a family is ripped off the score of THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, where Lee Van Cleef approaches an isolated farm house to murder a family. This lame approach to scoring films is bad in three ways: 1) it is lazy and unoriginal, 2) it makes the filmmaker dependent on a big-daddy financier to buy him his music (as simply appropriating tunes would be breach of copyright), and 3) it denies a composer and musicians the chance to create new work. Licensing is expensive and appropriating tunes or songs for the same purpose in a new film is not fair use.

The “classical music” score has existed since Fritz Lang incorporated fragments of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King in M (Germany 1931). It’s most famous in the films of Stanley Kubrick, 2001 (UK/US, 1968) – where Kubrick threw out an original score commissioned from the composer Alex North, and repurposed Also Spracht Zarathustra, The Blue Danube, and music by Ligetti – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (UK, 1971), BARRY LYNDON (Ireland, UK 1975)

And there is also the popular music-based score, used to great effect by Dennis Hopper in EASY RIDER (USA, 1969). This was the first rock’n’roll score, and contains no specifically-composed soundtrack music. As a concept it was highly influential (my own film REPO MAN incorporates existing LA punk songs as musical elements) but Dennis didn’t revisit it: his police vs. homeboys picture COLORS (USA ,1988) had a tremendous hip-hop soundtrack album, but only a few of those songs are heard in the film, which relies on a more traditional movie score by Herbie Hancock.