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A man cuts through the bustling crew and stands in the center of the room, a bottle of champagne held aloft.
“Let’s hear it for our nominees,” he shouts, and everyone stops what they are doing to gather around. Elisabeth Moss has just been nominated for a Golden Globe, as has Yvonne Strahovski, her co-star in the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, which they are filming here this afternoon on a soundstage on the far west side of Toronto. Corks pop; a P.A. has brought more bottles. Applause thunders. There is much cheering and whistling, plastic party cups filled and passed from hand to hand. Amid the commotion Moss slips away—out into the December cold, a heavy winter coat thrown over her shoulders.
She invites me into her trailer and sits by the entrance with the door propped open. I can see her breath. She lights a cigarette, rests her elbows on her knees. “Let’s talk,” she says, smiling in a flamboyant costume of dystopian-future garb.
Elisabeth Moss is a television actor. There was a time, not long ago, when saying that would have been an insult—the same insult Sean Penn once whispered to a furious Michael J. Fox on the set of Casualties of War, by the standards of 1989 an unforgivable cruelty. But television has changed. It is no longer true that the stars of network sitcoms and cable dramas lament their sorry luck as they aspire to the glory of the silver screen, languishing in the ghetto of undignified prime-time. This is the golden age of TV, an age of prestige whose light has cast countless faces into the firmament. Moss has helped redefine what it means to be on television, what level of regard is accorded a TV star, what sort of reputation. A role on a hit series is not a stopgap anymore. Thanks in part to Moss, it’s a coveted prize, an achievement worthy of a career.
I’ve come to see Moss on the set of her latest TV sensation, the acclaimed, much-decorated adaptation of the famous Margaret Atwood novel. But we are not here to talk about television. We are here to talk about her new movie: Her Smell, an abrasive and acerbic Riot grrrl rock drama by writer-director Alex Ross Perry, which premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival this past September. The irony of us meeting under these conditions is that significantly fewer people will ever see Her Smell than tune in to any episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. This fact lays bare one of the most fascinating things about Moss and her unique brand of modern celebrity—and about the state of American independent film, as well. The TV shows she stars in are ubiquitous. The movies are strikingly small.
The present configuration—lead a popular series over multiple seasons most months of the year and shoot as many indie films as possible while on hiatus—occupies every minute of Moss’ time. Over the summer, from the moment production on Handmaid’s Tale wrapped, she shot four features back to back: a crime picture based on a comic book called The Kitchen, directed by Straight Outta Compton writer Andrea Berloff; Light of My Life, a drama by and starring Casey Affleck; the hugely anticipated new thriller Us from Get Out’s Jordan Peele; and an eccentric biopic about author Shirley Jackson by Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker. In the fall she somehow found time to promote Her Smell at TIFF and at the New York Film Festival, where it played the illustrious main slate. And in between it all she’s developing original work as a producer, including Paul Harrill’s Light From Light, set to premiere at Sundance.
Gold Maid: Moss ducked out of a rowdy celebration of her latest Golden Globe nomination to meet us on the chilly Toronto set of The Handmaid’s Tale. Image courtesy of Hulu
This is like week six of the seemingly endless shoot of The Handmaid’s Tale’s third season. Because she not only stars as the lead character but also serves as producer, Moss’ work does not end as it would for most actors, when she is not obliged to be on screen. On set, she seems hands-on and fastidious, slaving over her lines and blocking, conversing at length with directors about the intentions of a scene. She suggests new ideas, proposes alternatives to ones that aren’t working; what if she tries this next take backwards, she’ll ask, or enters from this side instead of that way? She approaches every shot as if she’s Orson Welles and this is her Citizen Kane. This attitude makes for good TV. It also, as you might expect, makes Moss extraordinarily busy.
In her trailer, a stream of cigarette smoke rising into the bitter sky, Moss fields my questions with the patience of someone more relaxed than she has any right to be. I complain, jokingly, that the circumstances of our interview make my job as journalist more difficult: I can’t add the usual color about the interesting outfit she’s wearing or the cool café where we’ve met. She’s just in a trailer, beside a soundstage, in a costume from the wardrobe department. “I think this gives an honest insight into my life,” she says, in mock sympathy but in truth. “I don’t have time to go to cafés. That’s not my life right now. If we talk, we have to do it at work, because that’s what I do—I work.”
On cue, Diane, Moss’ assistant, points to her watch. It is time to return to set—some five minutes after we left it, according to my watch. Moss exhales a plume of smoke with comic resignation. “That’s so sad,” she laughs. “Maybe let’s stay five more minutes?” She fires up another cigarette and asks me to roll.
“Slow Burn” to Stardom
Elisabeth Moss has been busy for almost 30 years. Born in Los Angeles to parents in the music industry, she studied ballet as a child at a school in the San Fernando Valley and aspired to be a professional dancer. When she was seven, her school mounted a production, strangely, of The Sound of Music—“that classic ballet,” she jokes about it now. Moss was Gretl, the youngest of the Von Trapps. An agent in the audience approached her mother after the performance and suggested little Elisabeth attend a few auditions. “My mom asked me if I wanted to and I was like, ‘Yeah,’” she remembers. “So I just started going to auditions and I really liked it.”
There is some debate about her first role. IMDb lists a pilot for an NBC drama about female lawyers that was never picked up. “What was that called? Not L.A. Law, but, like … fuck.” I consult my notes: It was called Bar Girls. “Bar Girls! Yes!” She laughs at the hazy memory. She was only a kid, after all. “I don’t think that was the first thing I did. I think the first thing I did was for Lifetime. It was based on a Jackie whatshername book, you know who I mean.” (She means Jackie Collins.) “It was called… why am I blanking on this? But Sandra Bullock played my mom. I had to find her dead in a pool— that was my big scene. Started out really light really early. Sort of set the trajectory for my career.” Minutes later, the title strikes her like a thunderclap. She bolts up. “Lucky Chances!”
No Sympathy For The Devil: Her Smell‘s Becky Something (Moss) adds to Perry’s list of vile characters he dares audiences to endure. Photograph by Don Stahl
As it turned out, playing Sandra Bullock’s daughter would be her luckiest chance for a while. The early years of Moss’ filmography teem with bit parts and guest appearances, with made-for-TV films and voiceover jobs on children’s cartoons. She was in the Harvey Keitel movie Imaginary Crimes, the Steven Spielberg-produced kids show Animaniacs, the ABC remake of Escape to Witch Mountain—not nothing, and gainful employment all the same, but hardly the kind of arrival that heralds a future star. It was in 1999 that Moss started to show real promise. That year she appeared in a small but memorable role in Girl, Interrupted as the disfigured burn victim who befriends Winona Ryder, and on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, as Martin Sheen’s teen daughter Zoey, involved, in West Wing fashion, in an assassination attempt and a kidnapping.
Of course, this was Hollywood, where landing two enviable parts in succession is no guarantee of a lasting career. That summer Moss was so strapped for cash she had to take a part-time job at a local movie theater to pay the bills, even though she was the daughter of the president on network TV. “I was a recurring character,” she says, laughing. “You don’t make any money.” She liked the job. But when she was offered a promotion, she knew it was time to quit. “The manager asked me to be assistant manager. And I was like, ‘Huh… No. I don’t think this is my career path.’” So she quit, packed her things, and fled to New York.
Square Peg: To avoid type-casting, Moss had to shake assumptions from casting directors who had her pegged as Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson. Image courtesy of ABC
The expression Moss uses to describe her ascent to fame is “slow burn.” After The West Wing, Moss wasn’t in much of note besides Law and Order episodes until she landed Mad Men in 2007, a decade later. “I know some people have overnight success but it’s just never been like that for me,” she explains. “It’s been so many tiny, little steps.”
In 2003, Moss starred in a low-budget feature called Virgin, by a first time director named Deborah Kampmeier. Moss plays Jessie, a teenager who after being drugged and raped believes she must be pregnant with the child of God. The critic Dave Kehr, reviewing the movie in The New York Times, praised Moss’ “convincing, undistanced performance” as a woman in extremis, and Moss was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead. Moss looks back at the movie and her work in it as an important moment in her career. “It was fucking crazy. Nuts,” she says. “It was the first time that I got to do the kind of work that I wanted to do. And that was the first time that I was like, ‘Oh. I can do crazy shit and people might like it. I can go to those dark places and it might actually go over well.’”
If there is an easy way to account for her collaboration with Alex Ross Perry, this is it. In his films—Her Smell is now the second she’s produced and the third in which she’s starred—Moss gets to do the kind of work that she wants to do, amplified to the nth degree. She wants to do “crazy shit”? Perry is the man to furnish her the platform from which to do it. Their affinity, an incredibly fruitful creative relationship that brings to mind Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes, is founded on a mutual desire: to see Elisabeth Moss do radical, arduous, often totally insane work on screen. Her Smell is that for two and a half hours.
Moss stars in Her Smell as Becky Something, the half-deranged, heroin-addicted, alcoholic lead singer and guitarist
of Something She, a legendary Riot grrrl three-piece who have a platinum record to their name… or did, until they got wasted and smashed it. Becky has an infant daughter, a wary ex-husband, and a shaman mystic on retainer, and a full European tour’s worth of unbreakable dates on the horizon. She’s the kind of person you wouldn’t trust to watch your laptop while you used the restroom at the coffee shop—and she’s the kind of person so popular, beloved, and indispensable to a lucrative creative enterprise that her well-being hangs in the balance next to the livelihoods of a dozen other people. “She is terrible and toxic and magnetic and a hurricane,” Moss puts it. “She does not deserve your sympathy.”
Coupled Up: Moss’ (L) role in Perry’s 2014 feature Listen Up Philip as Philip Lewis Friedman’s (Jason Schwartzman, R) girlfriend Ashley Kane marks her first pairing with the writer-director. Image courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
This is familiar material for Perry, who is renowned for creating characters as loathsome as they are perversely likeable. “Becky is the definition of a troubled, immature, impossible brat whom people will tolerate being around only because they benefit from her creatively and financially,” The Hollywood Reporter grumbled in its review of the film out of TIFF. “Moss indisputably makes her real, even when she’s insufferable company.” Insufferable is, if not the objective, then at least a necessary consequence of a movie so intensively aggressive. Every time Perry makes a film, and especially when he makes one with Moss, critics can’t help but complain that he hasn’t made one about nicer people. Maybe the two get along because they both prefer films about fuck-ups.
Perry met Moss in 2013, when he was casting Listen Up Philip, his third feature but the first with a real budget and professional actors. She was at the height of her success with Mad Men, and had just earned effusive praise for her work in Jane Campion’s mini-series Top of the Lake—Perry could scarcely believe she was considering work in movies as small as his own, given her runaway fame. The two talked on Skype, and hit it off; she loved the mordant, literary screenplay, and though she was not the lead, her character, the girlfriend of Jason Schwartzman’s Philip Lewis Friedman, had one long, digressive sequence built around her in the middle of the picture, as the plot digresses from its obnoxious hero and for some time follows his more compelling female counterpart. It culminates in a moment virtually every review of Listen Up Philip singled out as its highlight: a sustained, unbroken long take of Moss’ face, cycling through fear, wonder, and pleasure as she takes control of her life.
Ready For Her Close-Up: Perry says his 2015 feature Queen of Earth fulfilled his mission to make a “70-minute close-up” of Moss’ face. Image courtesy of IFC FIlms
The moment was all Moss. The long take, Perry tells me, was “one of these things that was spontaneously executed and never really discussed or planned that became just a perfect 60-second take that you could put intact in the movie.” He describes it as revelatory, from a moviemaking perspective—“so much so that the only thing I could do, because of the excitement I felt and the response to it, was immediately make an entire movie for her to exercise those impulses over and over again.” So, he conceived of another film for Moss to star in. It would be the Listen Up Philip long take expanded to feature length. “If people liked a shot that’s just a 70-second close up of Elisabeth Moss’ face,” he explains, “I’m gonna make a movie that’s a 70-minute close up of her face.”
He called it Queen of Earth, and Moss consented to star as soon as he proposed it. This time, though, Moss would be involved much more intimately with the production—both on a creative level, helping to develop the character and determine how best to have her move through the film, and on a logistical one, as Moss hoped to learn more about how independent features are made. She took what Perry characterizes as an unusually serious interest in the details and particulars of the shoot: He would send her photos of potential locations for her to look over, casting submissions for her to peruse, script pages for her to annotate or revise. “Some actors could get a bunch of money and start a bogus production company and option a bunch of articles or books and do nothing,” he says. “But she delivered. To me that was pretty exciting.”
Pitching Her Smell
In early 2015, Perry sent Moss a text message: “Next character: rock star mother. What do you think?” She wrote back: “I’m in.” Over the next two years Perry wrote the script for what would become Her Smell, the rock star mother drama that had tantalized Moss enough for her to commit to it sight unseen. So expressly for her was the character written, Perry says, that it was less liking writing original dialogue and more “like I was writing closed captioning beneath a performance I was already watching.” He knew, after making two films with her, what to put on the page to maximize her interest. “My one challenge was to write a part she had never done before. That’s what she needs to get excited. That’s how you guarantee she’ll make your movie.”
Moss was excited by the pitch. But the screenplay Perry ultimately delivered, she enthuses, was “a hundred times better,” full of “theater and Shakespeare and Steve Jobs and all this amazing stuff.” (Her Smell has a structure based around five standalone, real-time scenes, which has earned it comparisons to the Danny Boyle movie about the head of Apple.) Moss is open about her research and inspirations. She cites Amy Winehouse (“different emotionally, but same life trajectory”), Axl Rose, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain. She watched videos on YouTube of people filming themselves high on heroin and meth: “That was weird and disturbing, but so important to learn the mannerisms.” And after all of that she stuck to what was written. “In the end I just forgot the research,” she says. “It was all in the script.”
Setting the Stage: Moss (L) and Perry (R) prepare to shoot a live performance scene on the set of Her Smell. Photograph by Don Stahl
This combination of diligence and intuition is typical of Moss’ approach to acting, an approach cultivated over her 30-year career. It’s the technique of someone who has been doing this too long to be precious or fussy about theory. Back on the Handmaid’s Tale set, Moss is whisked away from me and on camera, and within literally seconds they have begun rolling and called action. Moss switches into character like someone switching on a light. When the director cuts, Moss and I return to the trailer for another break. I remark that the transformation is remarkable. Does she consider herself a method actor? “Noooooo,” she says, drawing out the syllable as if dragging on a smoke. “Oh my God, no. Far from it. I am so not method. Occasionally I’ll be like, ‘Maybe I should go method on this one!’ But no. I can’t. I just can’t. It’s not how I’m built.”
It doesn’t get any easier, acting. Moss doesn’t want it to: She wants to challenge herself, not only on each new movie, but even on television, in each new episode, in every new scene. This is the motivation that guides her. It’s like Perry says—give her something new to try, some role she’s never done before. That will get Moss excited.
Top of the Lake
Between the fifth and sixth seasons of Mad Men—at the apex of the show’s popularity, after she’d been nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes—Moss met with a casting director who was looking for the lead of a new miniseries for the BBC, a grim procedural called Top of the Lake. The writer and director of the series, Jane Campion, did not think Moss was right for the part. “She only knew me from Mad Men,” she remembers. In common with most of the world, Campion saw Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson: plucky, resilient, a little dweeby. Detective Robin Griffin was… not that. She was the kind of woman who could stab a man in the belly with a broken beer bottle. “It was totally understandable. If you see Peggy and then you see Robin, it is not a logical choice.”
Moss fought for the part anyhow. Her audition persuaded Campion straight away. Now that we have all seen Moss as Robin Griffin, the casting seems not only logical but perfect: Moss is terrific in the show, and takes as naturally to the role as Daniel Craig to James Bond. But doing Top of the Lake while Mad Men was still on air had an unexpected effect, besides universal acclaim. It did something that most of her colleagues on Mad Men are still, several years after the finale, figuring out how to do: it made Elisabeth Moss exist as a concept independent of Peggy Olson. In other words, it simply and cleanly divided a great actor from a character she might otherwise have been associated with forever. Doomed to type-casting as Peggy Olson, Moss would never have the career she does now.
Top of the Lake convinced the world that Moss could do more than Peggy. Moreover, it convinced Moss that she could do more than Peggy. “That was really important for me,” she confesses. “I didn’t know if I could do anything else. I needed to prove to myself that I could.” It was hard going at first. “I remember getting to New Zealand and talking to my mom for hours on the phone. Like, literally, I remember saying to her, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know if I can do this.’ I was doing an Australian accent. I was working with Jane Campion. I was in New Zealand! By myself! For six months!” But, as she says, in the end she “figured it out.” And she figured out something else: She can do whatever she wants. She never has to repeat herself..
Taking as its jumping-off point the by now familiar topic of digital moviemaking’s ubiquitousness and accessibility, action director Lawrence Ribeiro’s new book Action Realism: The Art of Action goes beyond its scope as a technical production manual to become a holistic treatise on creativity.
With chapters titled “Imagination” and “Knowledge by Observation,” Ribeiro takes readers on a tour of his thoughts on honing craft, cultivating point of view, and how a range of creative skill sets can and should inform one another on set.
Practical advice for film production comes fast and frequent, especially with crafting a sense of speed in action sequences. This theme is backed up with engaging insights and examples about how to best circumvent limited resources and time by creatively utilizing location and stunt coordination. One gets a sense of excitement about the subject matter from Ribeiro, and his introductory claims that he is writing this book for the next generation of moviemakers at a time of paradigmatic shifts in the industry is backed up by an expansive scope of examples. He references everything from Mad Max and Jason Bourne to micro-budget indies and non-film analogies that delve into the similarities between the entertainment industry and hockey. The result is a book that’s as technically concise as it is encouraging, a nice little kick in the hind quarters for budding moviemakers wanting to inject a little fire into their set pieces.
Action Realism is a great overview of an intimidating aspect of the moviemaking process. The book serves as a collection of ideas on the importance of finding one’s personal voice, and demonstrates why letting that voice inform the technical side of your craft is crucial. MM
Action Realism: The Art of Action was released by Lawrence Ribeiro on October 23, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue.
Between the Time’s Up movement, demands for wage equality and historic firsts for female moviemakers, Hollywood is undergoing a sexual revolution.
None of these achievements would be possible if not for earlier generations of women who fought against sexism in the industry.
In Liberating Hollywood, Maya Montañez Smukler chronicles an era in which pant legs were wide and the gender gap even wider. In the 1970s, the book says, “woman directors were entangled in a paradox of progress.” Fueled by the women’s liberation movement, they were eager to lead, yet faced discrimination at every turn.
Writer, director, and producer Barbara Loden, a key figure in Maya Montañez Smulker’s Liberating Hollywood, stars in the title role of her spinal 1970 indie, Wanda.
At the heart of the book are profiles of the 16 women who accomplished the near-impossible feat of directing feature films in the ’70s. Drawing from various sources, including interviews with the directors and their collaborators, Smukler describes the similar economic and artistic roadblocks they encountered: difficulty in securing financing, loss of creative control, being undermined by studio executives, and lack of union protection. Even with positive critical and box office reception, most were unable to obtain funding for future projects and either directed other formats or stopped directing.
Anecdotes liven up the narrative and allow the reader to feel the weight of the structures and social attitudes conspiring against them. An example of this is Smukler’s profile of Joan Tewkesbury. Even with screenwriting accolades and the support of famed director Robert Altman, Tewksbury only directed one feature because of the barrage of sexist obstacles she faced from the studio and crew on-set.
The lengths to which these 16 women go to realize their vision is what makes Liberating Hollywood a fun and fascinating read. When they do succeed in getting their movies out into the world, it feels like an epic feat that one can’t help but cheer on.
Liberating Hollywood is an invigorating, detailed account of the women who were denied seats at the directors’ roundtable and sat down anyway. Their bittersweet but valiant efforts paved the way for feminist reform. Smukler’s book is valuable not just because it covers an important piece of Hollywood history, but because it’s a reminder that progress is not to be taken for granted. MM
Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of the 1970s American Cinema was released by Rutgers University Press on December 14, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue.
Diane Bell’s feature debut Obselidia won two awards at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and those accolades are made more impressive when one learns of the unconventional road she took to get the film made.
In Shoot From the Heart, Bell presents that road as a viable path for aspiring moviemakers to get their features made.
Divided into 16 chapters, from developing a script to executing a distribution plan, Shoot From the Heart is an answer to an obstacle a freshman moviemaker will face. If you have a solid script, but can’t quite bring it to life, Bell encourages you to set a start date and rolling deadlines, designed to keep you from finding reasons to not make the film. If you have zero knowledge on how to get money for production, Bell encourages you to start with a concept trailer, which will woo financiers by giving them
a taste of your film’s tone and aesthetic qualities, while also solidifying you and your crew’s legitimacy.
Bell’s bullet-pointed summaries at the end of each chapter make Shoot From the Heart easy to reference when you’ve hit a wall during production. But it’s the final bullet point that makes this more than a how-to book: Bell reminds readers to be grateful for the journey they’re on, and to celebrate what they’ve accomplished in their process thus far.
Use this book as a checklist, but during those inevitable low points, allow yourself to feel its pat on the shoulder that says, “We’ve gotten this far. Keep your eyes on the prize.” MM
Shoot from the Heart: Successful Filmmaking from a Sundance Rebel was released by Michael Wiese Productions on October 1, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue.
In the early 1980s, a film school dropout and his brother, then a philosophy student working as a typist at Macy’s, wrote a script, threw together a two-minute trailer, and persuaded hundreds of wealthy Minnesotans to invest in their vision.
This scrappy effort yielded their first film, Blood Simple. Thirty-four years and 17 films later, the Coen brothers have produced a body of work as diverse and unconventional as their path to success.
The Coen Brothers presents a full-scale analysis of their work, with each chapter dedicated to a different film. Echoing the brothers’ meticulous approach, Nayman examines every frame and line of dialogue. Meaning is gleaned from even the smallest details; he covers everything from the prominence of circles in The Hudsucker Proxy to the narrative function of cats in Inside Llewyn Davis.
Peppered with infographics, artwork, and photographs provided by cast and crew members, it’s worth picking up for the gorgeous full-page stills alone.
Fusing prolific analysis with a behind-the-scenes feel, Nayman’s take on the dynamic duo will compel readers to view their films in a new light. As to whether he’s got the Coens all figured out? That’s for them to know and us to keep guessing. MM
The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together was released by ABRAMS on September 11, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies.
In this exploration of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography, professor Susan Napier paints a fascinating portrait of the world this renowned moviemaker has created across his 11-film career.
With each new work, we get a more complete view of Miyazaki’s persona, what he values, and what questions he grapples with.
Miyazaki is both a textual and subtextual moviemaker. His films are never as effortless and breezy as they may appear, but they never succumb to a bleak worldview, either.
The entire final chapter is devoted to The Wind Rises, a film, which many detractors argue denies the true atrocities of war. Napier instead argues that the topic of war is “not forgotten as much as it is elided.” The specter of war and death looms over this film, just as it does over the majority of Miyazaki’s work. As a humanist moviemaker, one of his primary responsibilities is to critique, inquire further, and attempt to get at the heart of where human beings go awry.
Miyazaki is a moviemaker whose core beliefs often clash with one another. The need for peace and serenity seems irreconcilable with his wonder in wartime technology, and yet, Napier proves that they can, and must, coexist in his work. The impulse to live inside one’s own head, to investigate the dreamspace inside ourselves, lives alongside the necessary acknowledgement of “the darkness of the world around.” With Miyazakiworld, Napier takes a deep dive, film by film, into these contradictions that make Miyazaki’s films so impactful. MM
As the fickle entertainment business tilts slowly (but perhaps decisively) away from the director’s medium—cinema—to that medium more associated with rooms full of frazzled writers pounding out pages of dialogue on laptops, the craft of writing is getting more respect circa 2018.
The era of “peak TV” and binge-watching seems to be here for a while, and the demand for writers who can churn out snappy banter, deliver a polish on deadline, or collaborate with a team to plot out a season or more of storylines is at an all-time high.
That’s where you, the aspiring film student with dreams of residuals checks from NBC, come in. You’ll be pleased to find that both bona fide film schools and colleges with premiere film studies offerings have attuned themselves to the shifting sands, adding robust new feature writing and TV writing programs, creating their own working TV writers’ rooms, introducing graphic novel writing courses, and in other ways recognizing a scripting-over-shooting paradigm.
But wait. Perhaps you fancy yourself a visual stylist extraordinaire—the next Brian De Palma—and you dream of the analog, cinema-is-king film school experience that Spielberg and Lucas would recognize fondly. The 2018 landscape has something for you, as well, with legacy cinematography and directing programs that continue to hone their reputations by availing themselves of the latest camera gear, inviting Oscar winners to guest lecture, and renewing their relevance by working to head off the industry’s stubborn gender imbalance.
If you fancy yourself ahead of the tech curve, you’re in luck, as animation, VFX and Virtual Reality (VR) labs are popping up like mushrooms on film campuses across the U.S. and Canada, along with new, demanding coursework to go with them. Someone’s got to satisfy the public’s insatiable demand for new video games and superhero films. Why not you?
Countless undergrad and graduate programs out there are vying for your matriculation (read: money) in sunny downtown L.A., in the wintery wilds of Canada, up and down the East Coast, and everywhere in between. We’ve chosen 40 schools ahead of the trends that matter in 2018, organized them by region, and highlighted their individual strengths, whether it’s a world-beating MFA program, a unique internship opportunity, or an all-star faculty. Your artistic education is a journey in need of its own storyboarding, so make sure you start it off with this carefully constructed campus compass in hand.
Start reading on the next page, or jump to a region here:
Caroline Young is the Scottish author of several books on film and fashion, most recently Hitchcock’s Heroines, a big, beautiful survey of women’s style in the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Each entry focuses on one actress in one of Hitchcock’s films, arranged chronologically from June Howard-Tripp in The Lodger (1927) to the only double bill, Anna Massey and Barbara Leigh-Hunt in Frenzy (1972). Young’s five-decade tableau does indeed cover fashion—from Hitchcock’s era-defining collaboration with Edith Head, to his “Victorian, suppressive instinct for fetishism” manifested through costume. But beyond the gorgeously reproduced production stills and concept designs (Christian Dior’s sketches for Marlene Dietrich’s wardrobe in Stage Fright are a highlight) lie vital gestures toward under- discussed elements that make up the reactive cauldron of Hitchcock’s cinema. Frequent contributions from “the era’s only female writing team” (Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, and Joan Harrison, his former secretary and future producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), for example, are faithfully chronicled.
Hitchcock’s notoriously troubled relationship with women in general goes chillingly unchallenged in Hitchcock’s Heroines. In any other year that might slip under the radar, but 2018 is not one of those years. Daily, it seems, the cascade of allegations condemning men in Hollywood who’ve abused their power continues to flow. Though it’s clear Young didn’t set out to analyze but to document, the tacts she took sometimes left me cold. “While other more experienced actresses could laugh it off,” she writes of Tippi Hedren, Hitch’s most enduring detractor, on the set of The Birds (1963), “perhaps her fear of being out of her depth made her more vulnerable.” Perhaps so. Perhaps, too, the director took strategic advantage of that fear, exacerbating her feeling of vulnerability to make her more pliable, isolated. Perhaps this strategy is in part what rendered the iconic looks and performances which made this very book possible.
Hitchcock’s Heroines is a powerful aesthetic achievement that lands somewhat stiltedly during a moment wherein a newfound skepticism toward problematic male geniuses is being enthusiastically exercised. The roadmap to any such reckoning is bound to be circuitous, and it’s perhaps foolish to demand that a coffee table-style book succeed visually and narratively in telling the macro story behind one of the 20th century’s most influential image makers. (The technical play-by-play of the Hayes Code-demolishing kiss scene between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious is, pun fully intended, spellbinding.) In this respect, even the buffest Hitch-head will be bowled over by the details Young has artfully uncovered. MM
Hitchcock’s Heroines was released by Simon & Schuster on May 1, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2018 issue.
In 1972, film student and aspiring critic Paul Schrader published his landmark study on spirituality in cinema, Transcendental Style in Film.
Four years later, he broke into the film scene with his monumental screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, propelling a career that would span over 40 years. His latest directorial effort, First Reformed, was released this year to near- unanimous critical acclaim. Transcendental Style in Film looks to canonized moviemakers Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer to argue that, in withholding narrative action and subverting empathy, these moviemakers use boredom as a tool to push viewers into contemplation—into a space where we’re better able to accept “the paradox of the spiritual within the physical.”
Inadvertently, Schrader outlined the philosophical foundation of contemporary slow cinema. With this recent republication, he devotes a new 35-page introduction that eagerly plows through a new era of contemplative moviemaking, drawing a “cosmogonic” map that places such diverse moviemakers as Andy Warhol, Bruno Dumont, and Jim Jarmusch in relation to their various non-narrative directions. Readers new to academic film writing will find this book to be an ideal introduction, precise yet encompassing in its approach to film history and theory. The other camp of devotees—comprised of cinephiles aspiring to be moviemakers—will find a companion piece to Schrader’s work, a vantage point from which we can see his theories as deftly articulated as applied.
For moviemakers, Schrader’s analysis reads as instructive rather than analytical, offering ways in which directorial decisions can produce a powerful response that’s more difficult to evoke than empathy—enlightenment. At his most clinically academic, Schrader revels in some arbitrary aspects of film theory, which begs for a level of mental engagement that might at first feel like homework… until it doesn’t. This deep dive into three all- time great moviemakers is the perfect example of why eating your cultural vegetables can be endlessly rewarding, potentially even life-changing. MM
Transcendental Style in Film was released by UC Press on May 18, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’sSummer 2018 issue.
“Lights, camera, action!”—the classic, Old Hollywood call to arms. The adage remains, but—as articulated by career gaffer and lighting designer Alan Steinheimer in Shaping Light for Video in the Age of LEDs—the players have changed.
Cameras are capturing beautiful digital images that give varying millimeters of film a run for their reel; action, well… directors still say that word with the same intent. Lights (or lighting), on the other hand, have continued to evolve, from the type of lights (LED, Kino Flo, practicals) to said light’s practicality and the art of its formation.
Steinheimer draws readers in by promising to chart “The Age of LEDs,” but Shaping Light is a much more extensive approach to every seemingly minuscule aspect of lighting. He starts from the basics of the classic three-point set-up, escalating to the specifics of different types of shoots—sitcom, feature film, fashion, broadcast, etc.
Structured like most textbooks (diagrams and bold terms and glossaries, oh my), the dense subject matter here is well-organized and easy to follow, intercut with real-world anecdotes and practical career advice throughout. Steinheimer consciously considers color, wattage, contingent factors of time and location, and accessibility to equipment in a digestible manner for even the most technophobic moviemakers.
Shaping Light also emphasizes the different production roles that light design affects and who should be thinking about them on set. Whether you’re a producer accounting for more light-oriented equipment in the budget (“How many C-stands? Grip truck? ARRI Skypanel S60s or LEDs and practicals?”), or a gaffer adjusting set-ups for camera movement, Steinheimer illustrates how lighting know-how will impact your bottom line.
An extensive manual for moviemakers of any experience level, Shaping Light meticulously maps out nearly every on-set problem lighting has, well, brought to light. Steinheimer provides a go-to guidebook on a highly integral, yet often overlooked part of the moviemaking process, and breaks down how and why to choose the best light design for any project. Though not a breezy read, this is a valuable page-turner for any dedicated moviemaker’s library. MM
Shaping Light for Video in the Age of LEDs was released by Aarhus Publishing on April 9, 2018. This article appeared in MovieMaker’sSummer 2018 issue.