Outlander - review
First off, not to cause any confusion: this is not a review of the 2008 Jim Caviezel-Viking-Alien feature (the tagline says: Beowulf meets Predator!), but of the 2014 Starz-time travel-adventure-series set in Scotland.
Based on a novel by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander follows English war-nurse Claire on her honeymoon with husband Frank in the Scottish highlands in 1946, where she stumbles into a stone circle and is transported back to the year 1742, where she has to deal with stubborn Scots, dangerous men and adjusting to life in the 18th century.
From this premise, a marvel of a series is built. The source novels by Diana Gabaldon were marketed more towards women and are told from Claire’s perspective, while the series is developed by Ronald D. Moore, better known as the man who brought Battlestar Galactica back to the screens and made everyone fall in love with the complex character drama (in space!) it offered. He is pulling the same trick again here: taking a genre (women’s history fiction, which often contains shirtless hot men who bail the heroine out of all danger and fall for her) that caters to a specific group of people, and making it accessible for everybody by focusing on the characters. The episode that prompted me to write this review is called “The Garrison Commander” and it exemplifies this: exemplary writing, acting and directing make it one of the most gripping hours of television I have had the pleasure of watching this year.
But from the beginning:
Much has been written about the fact that heroine Claire is not a damsel in distress, but hero of her own story and gets the kinds of plots and stories that a male hero traditionally carries – she is making her way through Campbell’s and Vogler’s “Hero’s journey” as discussed here. And it is wonderful. Having a female protagonist who is witty, has flaws and overcomes them with the help of others or by herself, and is neither there to be a romantic interest for somebody nor another token one-dimensional female character, for example a “femme fatale”, is truly refreshing.
The male characters are just as well-defined as the heroine, which owes as much to the writing as it does to the acting. They, too, have a chance to transform and be three-dimensional – and the actors have a chance to shine.
The cinematography is another joy in this series. Admittedly, shooting on location in Scotland must have helped, but even interior shots are also beautifully framed and lit. The same goes for the costumes and set decoration – they make this period drama come to life.
If one were to nitpick, there are certain things one could mention: the voice-over, narrated by Claire and mostly taken straight out of the book, can be annoying and redundant at times. The pace is very slow (which I think is appropriate for this, but could be an issue), and the plot meandering. But this all serves the purpose of getting to know the characters, so this is fine in my book.
Now for I’d say the slowest episode to date, which was simultaneously also the best: “The Garrison Commander”. Centering on an interrogation Claire faces from a man who looks eerily like her 20th-Century-husband Frank, but shares none of his “gentle historian” qualities, it delivers a tense and occasionally gory spectacle. The two actors, Tobias Menzies as the menacing interrogator, and Caitriona Balfe as Claire, shine – Menzies is capable of very subtle character work that makes his Captain Jack Randall even more menacing than the dialogue does, and Balfe has little dialogue, but all her feelings show on her face so that none is necessary. The fact that the audience shares those feelings of fear (for her and of the madman sitting opposite her) certainly helps.
A series that I truly cannot recommend highly enough!
Earth, This Universe, sometime after the big bang
Viewing to pass the time with
Here are 2 short doccies I’d like to share. Enjoy :D
24th of July 2014 16:11:00 BST
London Fields, Earth, The Milky Way
About Stories, Plots, and academics
I’d like to take this post and turn it into an attempt at answering a question that was raised in B’s last blog post:
Is there no new story to be found?
If you ask Christopher Booker (2004 in “Why We Tell Stories”), he’ll tell you that there are only seven basic plots:
overcoming the monster
Rags to riches
Voyage and Return
Quiller-Couch formulated seven basic conflicts that make up a story.
William Foster-Harris (1959) insists that there are only thee basic plots to be found:
Happy Ending, in which the protagonist makes a sacrifice
Unhappy Ending, in which the protagonist fails to make the sacrifice
The Literary Plot, which starts with fate, an event not at the hand oft he protagonist occurs and they have to follow the laid-out plans.
There are also those who will go into double digits with the numbers of stories/plots that they say exist. Ronald B. Tobias (1993, in “20 Master Plots”) claims, unsurprisingly, that there are 20 Master plots. (Quest, Adventure, Pursuit, Rescue, Escape, Revenge, The Riddle, Rivalry, Underdog, Temptation, Metamorphosis, Transformation, Maturation, Love, Forbidden Love, Sacrifice, Discovery, Wretched Excess, Ascension, Descension) – with a little thinking you can probably come up with examples from all over classical and modern literature and film which fit these labels.
And Georger Polti, a French writer and theorist, claimed 1916 that there were 36 dramatic situations upon which any story was built (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirty-Six_Dramatic_Situations)
A slightly different approach to the whole question is presented in Joseph Campbell’s „The Hero with a Thousand Faces“ (1949). Rather than just listing different plot situations and plot-driving mechanisms, he describes a so-called „monomyth“ that is found in myths and stories across the world and across different cultures. This monomythical structure has 17 stages, and it is entirely possible to map any kind of tale onto the pattern – be it a fairytale, a romantic comedy, the story of a business or a comedy like „Bridesmaids“ – and it’s certainly always interesting. This is aptly demonstrated by Christopher Vogler in his “Practical Guide”, which has now been turned into the book “The Writer’s Journey” (1998) – still a seminal work in storytelling theory, especially for the screen, but useful to anyone who wants to create compelling stories.
What differs Campbell’s approach to that of the others listed is further that it is possible to “write by numbers”, send your protagonist along his “hero’s journey” and you will end up with a complicated, engaging story (if done right – and by “right” I mean: learn the rules, break them, and fix the story where it needs be fixed by going back the the rulebook, and jumping off again from there.). George Lucas has outright admitted that his “Star Wars”-films are heavily inspired by the Hero’s Journey – both Luke and Han go through the stages Vogler describes. For example, Luke completes his journey into adulthood in the first film, which does not necessitate him to face the “big bad” – Darth Vader – but to transform into the fighter pilot that saves the rebels this time with his precise manoeuvring skills. Han, on the other hand, acts as a helper to Luke, but his story of becoming a “good man”, worthy of Leia, has only just started.
The Hero’s journey is always about the development of the hero, his or her transformation, journeying into the unknown – this may be an outer or an inner journey, of course.
And I’d like to argue here that a story can focus on any part of the journey and the transformation, and still feel like a complete story. Let’s look at last year’s would-be blockbuster “Pacific Rim” for an example: Main character Raleigh outwardly goes through the classical heroe’s journey – he is driven out of his “normal world” by his mentor (and commanding officer), Stacker Pentecost who recruits him to Hongkong and a new world. He then spends the second act getting to know the goals of this group of heroes, finally joining them and defeating some of the enemies – big sea creatures calles Kaiju. However, the true goal is to prevent any other sea monsters from attacking earth – so Raleigh and his ragtag band of heroes has to group one last time and throw an atomic bomb into the Mariana Trench (it makes sense in context). Raleigh almost dies during this ordeal, but in true Hollywood fashion survives the explosion and returns to his new-found family (his normal world was destroyed when his real family, his brother, was killed).
This is his outward journey. His inner journey, I’d like to argue, is only compromised of the second act of Vogler’s “hero’s journey”: Raleigh crosses the threshold when he loses his brother, and is now trapped in some sort of inner hell, where he cannot forgive himself for his brother’s death. All the following interactions with fellow humans are his trials, and the final reward is his re-connection with Mako, which in this scenario can be read as both a romantic connection as well as one based on friendship.
(Pacific Rim was one of my favourite movies from 2013, and I might be slightly biased when interpreting a film that was basically an excuse to have huge robots fight huge sea monsters. But so be it.)
The argument can be made that there may be several “heroes” in one story, and that their journeys can intersect. One hero may serve as the mentor to another, while he or she serves as the helper in somebody else’s journey.
This is why I am immensely fond of Campbell’s monomyth and Christopher Vogler’s adaptation of it in “The Writer’s Journey” (2007). A book, incidentally, every (aspiring) screenwriter should read, if only to say that since they know the rules, they can break them.
Campbell and Vogler argue that there ultimately is only one story – what do you think of that, B? And how could be interpret this one story (of the seven or 20 or 36 found above) differently? Or do we not need to? Man is the storytelling animal, after all, and that one seems to have worked for thousands of years.
Earth, The Milky Way, Our Universe
Sticking to your Spear: An Introspective Wording
It is hard to be the first at anything story related, it is in fact said to be impossible as every story has apparently been told. Therefore, we are conditioned and taught to believe that originality is impossible in formatting and constructing of the story’s structure. Is this a fact that’s been proven? Or is it a collective decision that was agreed upon around the world that many of us (Storytellers) have now prescribed to?
Admittedly it is very difficult to write a simple story that connects with people of every creed and colour, it is indeed the long and windy road that I am still exploring. The originality in storytelling is said to rest in the adopted approach of the storyteller and this I agree with 100%, I suppose my doubt and intrigue is simultaneously lifted by the improbability of discovering a new story…impossible is nothing.
At this stage my focus lies in holding steady and sticking to my spear so that my approach is solidly rooted and then an extensive research process into finding the answer to my question will follow.
The question being: Is there no new story to be found?
Image: Alice Guy-Blaché
Sunday 20th July 14:14:00
London Fields, Earth, Milky Way
By The Sea
It seems to me that many film festivals have tapped into the importance of locating themselves within a relaxing and visually attractive environment i.e the beach or some idyllic setting in the snowy mountains. Cannes, TIFF, Sundance and many more have followed this effective location scouting and the 35th Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) is no different with it’s location being the gloriously lush KwaZulu-Natal region. The true name for Durban is eThekwini, which directly translated from isiZulu means by the sea, so there really is no confusing where one is and how relaxed one will be in the city known for it vibrancy, colour and surfer-friendly-shark-infested waters. We get on rather well with our sharks and the rugby team isn’t so bad either…
IZULU (2013) finds itself in competition for the first time in a film festival, having previously exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner, in Africa’s biggest film festival/FilmMart. Most importantly it is in competition in the region of the story’s conception and production, a very special combination for me on a personal level. To say that I am honoured to be a part of this competition would be an understatement.
The immense validation that has come from merely being nominated in the Short Film category will not go unappreciated and further endorsed. As the writer, director and producer of this film I truly feel as though I have already won so much and this may be cheesy and cliched, but there’s something very special that comes from knowing that one is a part of a small group of storytellers being celebrated for their creations.
Owing to work contracts, this is one festival that I would have loved to be at the most but will sadly not attend. For me, the wonderful thing about festivals is the networking and knowledge one gains from the experience and I would have loved to really see where the South African film market is currently situated and heading as an industry also the chance to meet young new filmmakers from my homeland and from all over the globe is always a great treat.
I was born eThekwini and raised eMgungundlovu (Pietermaritzburg) and eGoli (Jozi) so I’m a hybrid kid when it comes to the make up of my upbringing, however, having IZULU (2013) show to an isiZulu speaking audience, who will have a great understanding of the content and the world of the narrative, is truly AWESOME. I mean awesome in the sense that I am still in awe months after the news of our nomination reached me, WOW! This nomination has led to an invitation at the Africa In Motion (AiM) festival in Scotland (More on that to follow) and like we’ve been saying, we’re trying to get to as many festivals as we can so this story can reach as many people as possible.
DIFF runs from the 17th-27th of July and even though I won’t be there, a few of our cast members will attend the event and I will still keep you posted on how we do. Please do go and watch the film and all the other great stories that will be on display at the festival, you’ll love it :D
Siyabonga Kakhulu. (Thank you very much)
London Fields, Earth, Milky Way
14th of July 2014
When doing a huge project such as this (and even though it was just a four day shoot, filming a 12 day film in only four days is a big undertaking), there are bound to be some mistakes. Especially when being part of a team that is very eager, but at the same time inexperienced in their particular roles.
I think I’ve already sung praises for our camera-team headed by Stephanie … ah yes, here! She was the only really knowing what she was doing – the rest of us knew what we wanted to do, and (more importantly) knew what we wanted to end up with, but the path to that end result sometimes less than clear.
And since I believe this blog to have some, tiny, educational aspirations, I shall relate one such incident and what solution we found:
As mentioned, our schedule was quite ambitious, and due to delays that are wont to happen on any film set, and my inability to see that people are not as punctual and reliable as robots (which, mind, is a good thing – robots don’t feel and emote, and not even Hayley Joel Osment and Steven Spielbergs can convince me otherwise) meant that on the second day, we had not been able to film a rather crucial scene in the kitchen – a scene that needed daylight due to our lack of lamps, and daylight is scant in South African Winter and had been needed all day to shoot outdoor scenes. Anyway, there we were with no option but to drop one or the other scene – we simply could not add another whole scene (and set up, and dress) in the limited time we had.
Now I’m speaking as the producer, and the person who is not steeped in South African culture. And I admit, I could have handled the whole issue better. We needed to discuss what scene we were going to drop, or reshape as part of another scene. Of course, as the writer of the piece, B. was reluctant to let go of any content – even though she also saw that we could not film all the scenes in the script. I said that we needed the information contained in the scene – in this instance, that was that thunder in Zulu culture can steal your soul. This would explain the behaviour of the protagonist and her parents in later scenes.
While B. was reluctant to have the scene reduced to such a purely informational value, that was essentially what it was about – and in the end also gave her the inspiration for the solution, which I think is quite neat. Before we arrived at that solution, however, people walked off and the whole endeavour was fraught with mis- or non-communication (note for next time: set up a one-on-one producer-director meeting each night, in a secluded area. That would be the most productive, I think.)
On to the solution: Do you remember the first and foremost basis of screenwriting?
“SHOW, DON’T TELL!”
- but we decided to blatantly ignore this for a few seconds, and in the beginning simply give the audience the information they needed to understand later events. Black screen, white writing, is there anything neater than that? It also helps the audience (who is most likely not familiar with Zulu culture) to get into the right frame of mind – they realize that they are now entering a world where scientific explanations only have limited value, a world that is steeped in mysticism.
This problem was solved by thinking about the rules and how we could break/bend them to our advantage.
Milky Way, This Universe
The Most Important Thing on Set …
… is food. Though my primary job on this film was that of organizing, producing, on set I found myself out of things to organize – during the whole shoot, we were on one location, everybody knew what they needed to do and when (thanks to scheduling!). Thus I found myself in charge of this, food, the most important thing on set. For only a well-fed crew is a good crew.
Previously, I have mentioned that we created a menu for the shooting days and bought provisions accordingly. Now as for cooking, even though we had the right ingredients, other challenges presented themselves: When scouting the location, we had also looked at the kitchen and what pots and pans were available – and there were seemingly enough (big ones) to provide for everyone. However, we hadn’t inspected the bottom of the pans – and as it turns out this is a crucial part of each pan.
Imagine this scene: A large pot is filled with water, and put on the stove. Onions are being hacked, tomatoes cut up, onions fried, a pasta sauce is being prepared. By the by, the lid on the pot is being lifted, and the status of the pasta water checked. It’s not boiling yet – but it will, everyone is sure. So the pasta sauce cooks away, and is ready – though it is clear that the longer the sauce cooks, the better it gets. So the fact that the water is still not boiling is still no reason to worry. The crew finished shooting and heads inside. Meetings to prepare for tomorrow are held, and everyone is happy with the days work. Also, hungry.
The pasta water is still not boiling.
People are not outwardly expressing that they are really hungry, and would like to eat something now – not yet. But the water still isn’t boiling. So the people in the kitchen decide to put on some Macklemore to make the water hotter. Quite unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work.
The decision is made to try another pot – and, behold, soon the water is boiling a little bit. Pasta is being cooked – and overcooked, as “sort of boiling water” turns pasta into a pulp rather than single pieces of pasta cooked al dente, but at least it’s edible. People are somewhat happy. The fact that there is dessert planned for every meal certainly helped.
In conclusion, a pot with a bent base is not a pot that will get water boiling. This should be checked in advance – and taken into account when planning elaborate meals based on pasta. We learned this the first day, and managed to avoid the bent pot in subsequent kitchen-ventures.
I must say that I greatly enjoyed being in charge of the kitchen, planning, cooking, and eating – I even think that this might be a good plan B, should the whole producing-gig not work out as planned. While it’s a challenge, it’s where success or failure is immediately apparent, and this is extremely satisfying.
Earth, This Universe.
Thoughts of the past
The next chapter in our story of filming was getting to location, this time around not for scouting but for actual filming, with all our actors, equipment and crew in tow – so let me take you back to 11 months ago, when I wrote down what occurred on this eventful trip with shoats (a sheep-goat-mutant, which I have now decided should be called thus), car breakdowns, tire malfunctions, and scratched heads: READ ALL ABOUT IT HERE.
Instead of rehashing what has already been said with more immediacy, I have decided to take a step back and tell you about one of my current obsessions – and no, this blog is not going to be about adding oatmeal to everything, the tastiness of fresh tomatoes, or the marvel that is M83 - though I do recommend you try out all these things - It will have relevance to the film world, and our/my continuous education in that realm.
My current obsession is watching all of AFI’s “America’s Greatest Movies”, a list of the American Film Institute compiled for film’s 100th birthday. I’ve seen about a quarter of them.
The list is heavy on early films, because I guess as with all historical issues, only time will tell whether a thing was actually relevant or not at all – Quentin Tarantino, as with many things, being an exception, his masterpiece Pulp Fiction makes it onto the list a mere three years after it was released.
So in the last couple of days, I’ve been watching or rewatching old masterpieces – Apocalypse Now, Bonnie and Clyde, Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which is missing on the AFI-list, but still a great, intense, piece, and an incredible showcase for its leads: Paul Newman, in his star-making part, and Elizabeth Taylor, also in a career-best), Philadelphia Story… And what strikes me with all these pieces is that they are, for one, character pieces – fast-talking men and women stand off against each other, even when there’s flash-boom-bang (as in e.g. Apocalypse Now), the characters and their individual struggles remain at the centre.
This is perhaps not surprising when one surveys that all the films mentioned above are based on a play, true story or book – where the characters more often take centre stage than in film. These characters are also portrayed by actors and actresses that are a joy to watch, because they are just so good and charismatic. What makes these films masterful is, I feel, the relatable struggles that are portrayed therein – portrayed by actors and actresses you could watch all day.
I am looking forward to spending more time in the world of Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Jack Nicholson – what a treat it’s going to be. Nobody should deny themselves that pleasure, least of all if one wants to work in film. For seeing a mesmerizing performance will make one able to recognize a mesmerizing performance, one that is just right for one’s own film.
And to finish with something a current star in the world of American actors and actresses has said: “Where are the Robert Redfords and Paul Newmans of my age group? … Where are the hunks who can act?” (Jennifer Lawrence) – I’m wondering the same thing, Jen. Suggestions welcome ;-).
Next week we’ll check back in on the remainder of our shooting adventure in South Africa. - stay tuned.
Earth, Milky Way, This Universe.
Yes One Cannes
And so our baby got put in a corner and unlike Patrick Swayze, we were pretty happy about it. IZULU (2014) had finally arrived in a space that was created to cultivate its truest potential as a product and most importantly as a dream coming true (We’re still en route…).
Arriving on the evening of the 17th of May, Francesca and I settled into our cosy room at Le Collier Hotel in Antibes, which was Affordable and close enough to Cannes for us to appreciate the wonderfully quaint French Riviera city that is Antibes. The next morning it was straight to business as I attended a productive morning networking session with some industry professionals. After this meeting IZULU (2014) is now submitted to the Locarno Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival and we’re looking at more places to share the story. All very exciting stuff, even our cast agrees :D
Later in the day Sam Toles, VP of Content Strategy and Business Development at Vimeo, gave a great talk on the prospects for independent filmmakers on a digital platform. Then we enjoyed the glorious Happy Hour in the Short Film Corner bar, this became our daily ritual…well except for Monday. Monday was reserved for our recovery post-American Pavilion's Queerty event, which was to date the best party we had in Cannes.
I continued to attend a variety of workshops and lectures (You’ll note how each day ended :D ) with Hayet Benkara, who I’m hoping to have as a mentor and the President of the Jury for the Court Metrage section, Abbas Kiarostami, to name a few. The two precious moments that I will treasure long after Cannes are my encounter with Sophia Loren, who gave a touching Masterclass and certainly lived up to all my expectations of her grace and determination. Second one was my interview with The Independent European Film Festival otherwise known as ECU, these young women are inspiring and it was an honour to be a part of their movement,
I Had the best seafood I’ve ever had in my life at the 4 Star Michelin restaurant, Le Don Juan Chez Florent in Antibes. At this point Line had joint us and after the heavens opened and nearly carried us away we settled into silent delight of food. We met great people, learnt not to try and go clubbing in one of the elitist capitals in the world (ARGH, what a bore!!) and how to have your own private party on the rooftop of a 5 Star hotel, we were being rogue, hence the omission of said hotels name haha!
Many thanks to Taibo Bacar and Henriette Botha Jewellery for my gorgeous outfit, until Durban International Film Festival (17-27th of July) my days will be spent writing some new scripts and telling more stories. Thank you for letting me tell you a story and most importantly thank you for letting me tell your story.
Above photo of me was taken by Suzanne Saroff.
London Fields, London, Earth, Milky Way
10th of June 2014 14:27:00
Prep II - Cast & Crew
A previous blog about casting failed to mention what was, in hindsight, the most difficult part about casting for our film: getting in touch with the casting-agent world of South Africa and finding the right people to fill our diverse roles (not to mention that we could only provide room and board and transport, nothing in the way of wages). This came along with the difficulty of casting in a town we were not too familiar with – hence didn’t know anyone who would be able to lend us an office space or a living room to do our casting in. Luckily Durban proved to be very accommodating and provided us not only with great Pizza, but also a lot of friendly people who were all to happy to give us their space (thanks again, The Collective!), their time and energy and their expertise.
As I said previously, it was my first casting experience, and proved to be very insightful. B’s way with the prospect cast, her ability to find the right person for the right part (even though they might not be auditioning for it) are what marks, I believe, a good director.
Having found our cast, we were now more pressed than ever to find a crew that would be, same as the cast, willing to come to KZN (KwaZulu-Natal), and film a movie with us – for expenses paid only. From Europe, we already had flown in a director, two set-designers (and, though she didn’t know it yet, also a boom operator), and a producer, and from Durban, our fabulous costume designer. Lacking, obviously, a camera crew, and most importantly a DoP, Director of Photography. A stroke of good luck – and sometimes that’s all it is, really, - had it that Stefanie Voss, DoP extraordinaire, heard of our project, our missing link in the team, and, most amazingly, didn’t have the four days we were going to shoot already filled up with previous commitments. Chemistry was instant, and since she came with her own crew who would be in charge of lighting and gripping and assisting camera in every other way possible, a deal was soon sealed.
What would we have done if Stefanie hadn’t crossed our path? Been a lot more stressed, not have made a film half as good, and I don’t think I would remember the experience as fondly as I do now.
So thank you Fate, Luck, Fortuna or whoever is in charge of putting the people we need on our path to share it for a little while.