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September 2009
Bankroll: A New Approach to Financing Feature Films  Online
by Tom Malloy
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Tom Malloy’s Bankroll: A New Approach to Financing Feature Films, an entertaining and useful guide that is precise and detailed. While the majority of publications about financing independent films are all theory, this one shows how to put its principles into practice.
Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo  Online
by Werner Herzog
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Nearly 30 years after the fact, we have Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, which collects Herzog’s journal entries in an English translation by Krishna Wilson. The hugely entertaining 300-page document of one of the most troubled productions in film history is proof positive that sometimes the way a tale is told is as important as the tale itself. 
Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects  Online
by Marguerite H. Rippy
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The latest addition to the ongoing conversation about Welles is Marguerite H. Rippy’s Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects, which focuses on the director’s work in the 1940s. During that period, he made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, as well as the aborted It’s All True, the movie largely responsible for derailing his career in Hollywood. He also embarked on a number of lesser known productions left unfinished but which offer key insights into his working methods, thematic preoccupations and enduring legacy in American filmmaking. 

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Bankroll: A New Approach to Financing Feature Films
by Tom Malloy
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Most books on film financing have one thing in common: a lack of specificity. There are many volumes on business plans, foreign sales, negative pickup deals, etc., but few of them contain concrete information about how to connect the dots and actually raise the millions needed to make a feature film. It is as though the authors either do not really know how to finance movies or they do not want to share what they know because the knowledge is simply too valuable.  They write in generalities about getting name actors attached or using tax incentives without actually explaining how these things are accomplished. Tom Malloy’s Bankroll: A New Approach to Financing Feature Films, however, is an exception, an entertaining and useful guide that is precise and detailed. While the majority of publications about financing independent films are all theory, this one shows how to put its principles into practice.

Malloy came to the world of film producing by a circuitous route; he began as an actor and turned to producing only as a way of generating projects in which to star. First was The Attic, a $500,000 horror movie directed by Mary Lambert of Pet Sematary fame; then came the $2 million serial-killer drama The Alphabet Killer, followed by the $3 million musical Love N’ Dancing. In the pages of Bankroll, Malloy takes the reader through each step of these productions to show exactly how he raised the funds, using methods easily replicable by anyone with plenty of time and dedication. The book begins with a summary of some of Malloy’s early attempts at producing that did not work out; these failures are included both as warnings (Again, Malloy is very specific about what went wrong and how the fiascos could have been avoided.) and as a set-up for the later chapters in which Malloy learns from his mistakes and successfully produces three profitable features in a row.

Malloy holds nothing back in his case studies — he provides copies of his own business plans and pitches, along with exact monetary figures for both production and revenue. A lot of the documents he presents can be easily modified for the reader’s own projects, and there are additional resources mentioned throughout the book and its appendices. The material is superbly organized; Malloy convincingly argues an independent filmmaker needs to take multiple fund-raising approaches simultaneously, and he addresses these approaches in just the right order — the book never feels cluttered or confusing in spite of the wealth of information. There are numbers of ways to find money, and Malloy skillfully analyzes the pros and cons of each. There are chapters on using talent attachments, foreign pre-sales, domestic tax incentives and other less orthodox methods of finding investors and minimizing their risks, and all of them are filled with useful and fascinating insights. The author consistently works from the outside in, starting with general guidelines but moving on to more focused tips on everything from how to find personal e-mail addresses to how to use old college connections.

One of the pleasures of the book is its informal style of narration. Malloy does not skimp on vital information, but he integrates it into a sort of professional autobiography with a deceptively casual voice. By taking a personal approach to the subject matter, the author makes it more accessible, turning dry business concepts into the stuff of an actual page-turner. Occasionally his assessments of his own movies in relation to other films are a little eyebrow-raising (as when he compares The Alphabet Killer to Wolf Creek and Zodiac and dismisses those two pictures as “mediocre” and “boring and inferior” to his own), but his slightly inflated sense of their quality is in keeping with one of Bankroll’s mantras, which is to have an overwhelming sense of belief in one’s work. Malloy’s own enthusiasm is positively inspiring and infectious; by the end of the book, the reader feels like it is absolutely possible to go out and find millions for a feature film.  The fact is Bankroll really does give the reader the tools to turn this dream into reality. While there is no secret formula to successfully producing an indie movie, Malloy’s generous compendium of everything he has learned is truly enlightening. Any filmmaker armed with this book — and the other necessary component, a great script — has a good head start on a successful career.

Michael Wiese Productions
$24.95 paperback


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Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo
by Werner Herzog
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In 1979, German director Werner Herzog set out for South America to begin work on Fitzcarraldo, an epic tale of one man’s mission to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon. Over the course of the next several years, the making of the film began to mirror Fitzcarraldo itself, with Herzog playing the real-life role of an obsessed iconoclast trying to accomplish the impossible. Taking a small troupe of European and American actors and technicians into the jungle, Herzog was plagued by problems ranging from the loss of his lead actor (Original star Jason Robards became ill and was replaced by Klaus Kinski.) to weather catastrophes and a wide variety of physical dangers to the cast and crew. The chaos was exacerbated by the director’s determination to transport a steamship over a mountain on camera, without benefit of models or matte painting. The film that resulted was widely acclaimed, but the toll it took on its makers was considerable.     

The story of Herzog’s adventure has entered the realm of cinema mythology, largely thanks to Les Blank’s classic 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams. That film consisted of 94 minutes of riveting location footage from the production of Fitzcarraldo, and the eventual Criterion DVD release of the picture provided additional materials in the form of a commentary track, deleted scenes and a contemporary interview with Herzog. Herzog also contributed a commentary to the Fitzcarraldo DVD and has given countless interviews about the film over the years, which might lead one to ask what more there is to be learned about the film’s making. Yet now, nearly 30 years after the fact, we have Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, which collects Herzog’s journal entries in an English translation by Krishna Wilson. The hugely entertaining 300-page document of one of the most troubled productions in film history is proof positive that sometimes the way a tale is told is as important as the tale itself. While most of the facts contained in this volume will be familiar to Herzog enthusiasts, reading them in the director’s own wry, sometimes hilariously fatalistic words gives the anecdotes new meaning and force.

Herzog’s journal begins in June 1979, when he leaves San Francisco for South America to begin pre-production on Fitzcarraldo, and ends in November 1981, when there is still shooting left to be completed although the major obstacles have been overcome. Over the course of the nearly two-and-a-half year odyssey, Herzog occasionally leaves South America for brief returns to America and Europe (usually to deal with business issues), but the vast majority of his time is spent in jungles overrun with dangerous snakes, tarantulas and alligators and where nature seems to laugh at the folly of the director and his crew. The weather constantly works at odds with Herzog’s needs, and the usual tensions among collaborators on a film set are amplified by the arduous conditions — by the time a couple of indigenous workers on the movie offer to murder Kinski, it barely seems outrageous, and, indeed, Herzog relays the information in a surprisingly detached tone.

This tone characterizes much of the book and is one of its charms. Once Herzog commits to his mission, there is no stopping him — to turn back or quit the film would be unthinkable the more hardships he and his crew endure. Yet this is not the journal of an obsessive, maniacal personality; it is written in a laid-back, witty style by a man who clearly sees the multiple ironies and absurdities of his situation. Herzog’s view of nature as a hostile force is an ongoing theme, but his voice rarely becomes angry or irate; it is almost as if he thinks his own destruction is nature’s inherent purpose, and he calmly accepts this even as he fights against it. In this way, Conquest of the Useless becomes more than merely a diary of a film production; it is a larger-than-life saga of one man’s epic battle against the forces aligned against him, both natural and manmade. It is Herzog’s autobiographical version of Moby Dick.

Ultimately, the greatest value of Conquest of the Useless is its demystification of the myths and legends that have grown around Fitzcarraldo’s making. In answer to the question of what the book offers not already provided by Blank’s documentary, DVD supplements and Herzog’s other interviews and writings, it is this: a first-person perspective on the chaos without the benefit of hindsight. When these journals were written, Herzog had no idea his film would go on to be a classic, or even that it would ever be finished; his is the point of view of a director in the trenches, dealing with everything from temperamental actors and destroyed equipment to local tribal conflicts and an unusually large cockroach in the shower. This gives Conquest of the Useless an immediacy lacking in Burden of Dreams and other later accounts and thus offers a unique insight into Herzog’s state of mind at the time. He comes across not as a madman or a genius, but as a working director just trying to get the shot — the extraordinary circumstances in which he tries to do his work are what make his achievement, and Conquest of the Useless itself, so remarkable.

Ecco
$24.99 hardcover


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Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects
by Marguerite H. Rippy
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

According to Joseph McBride’s book Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, actor-producer-writer-director Orson Welles was fond of saying, “God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead!”  More prophetic words were never spoken; in the last five years alone, major studies like McBride’s, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Discovering Orson Welles, Simon Callow’s Hello Americans and Catherine L. Benamou’s Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey have been published. These and other texts, including exemplary special editions of Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil on DVD, have comprised an explosion in Welles scholarship in the 21st century, and it is a testament to both Welles’s richness as an artist and the rigor of his critics that new perspectives on his work continue to proliferate.  

The latest addition to the ongoing conversation about Welles is Marguerite H. Rippy’s Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects, which focuses on the director’s work in the 1940s. During that period, he made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, as well as the aborted It’s All True, the movie largely responsible for derailing his career in Hollywood. He also embarked on a number of lesser known productions left unfinished but which offer key insights into his working methods, thematic preoccupations and enduring legacy in American filmmaking. Utilizing the vast collection of Welles materials at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Ind., Rippy dissects these incomplete works, which include adaptations of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, the biblical bio-pic Life of Christ and, of course, It’s All True. Rippy’s argument is Welles’s unfinished works are as complex as his completed ones, and, in some cases, are so sophisticated they call into question the very notion of “finished” art.  

Rippy convincingly asserts Welles’s unfinished productions provide vital links in his development as an artist in that they represent key steps in his evolution from classical storyteller to postmodern commentator. As Welles progressed over the decades, he became a more and more self-conscious artist, integrating commentary on his own methods into the texts themselves, culminating in his radical late film F for Fake. That movie blurred lines between documentary and fiction and questioned the very possibility of “truth” in storytelling; it was revolutionary in 1974, yet Rippy points out Welles was exploring these questions even before Citizen Kane.  Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects uses scripts, memoranda and other documents from the Welles archives in conjunction with studies of his Mercury Theatre radio broadcasts to chart precisely how the director moved from a strategy of classical adaptation to a more radical inquiry into the boundaries between truth and fiction.

This connection between Welles’s radio work and his cinematic endeavors is perhaps Rippy’s greatest contribution to Welles scholarship as she skillfully connects his film work to the “first-person-singular” style he pioneered with Mercury. Much of this history has been covered before, most notably in Simon Callow’s The Road to Xanadu, but Rippy contextualizes the material in a new way. Her examination of Welles’s unfinished projects as part of a timeline that also includes plays, radio shows and released films like Kane and Ambersons allows her to show how Welles marketed himself as a sort of directorial brand name and how that marketing worked both for and against him at different points in his career. For Welles enthusiasts, who will be delighted by the various script excerpts and production histories that are included, she also offers tantalizing glimpses of what might have been, and she shows Welles is, once again, a man of wild contradictions. This committed progressive who embarked on It’s All True as a mission to establish friendship between cultures and races, for example, is revealed in the budget for Heart of Darkness as a producer who pays his minority performers next to nothing. It is a small detail but one of many in Rippy’s book that reveals the complicated intersection of art, politics and economics that defines Welles as a personality.

It is as a personality Welles most intrigues Rippy, and her tome is valuable as a critique of that personality and the ways it defined not only Welles, but also the larger roles of directors and media commentators in later decades. The book concludes with a fascinating chapter in which Rippy considers Welles’s influence on three contemporary artists: Mel Gibson, Steven Spielberg and Stephen Colbert. Gibson, of course, achieved what Welles could not with Life of Christ: he made an independent film about Jesus that was both a deeply personal expression and a massive box-office hit. Rippy’s study of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and its reception draws numerous connections between Gibson and Welles as actor-directors and market brands, and provides analyses of key components of Gibson’s film (such as its nontraditional approach to gender imagery) that, while not directly related to Welles, are provocative and insightful.  Rippy’s arguments are not entirely convincing, especially when she repeatedly makes claims for The Passion as Gibson’s attempt at establishing himself as a star director — something one would assume had already been done when he won the Oscar for helming the blockbuster Braveheart. Yet overall, her comparisons between Welles and Gibson as name auteurs and her contrasts between their respective versions of the Christ story are productive and enlightening.  

The same can be said for Rippy’s look at Spielberg’s War of the Worlds vs. Welles’s radio production of the same story and of her comparison of the distinctions among Welles, Gibson and Spielberg as showmen and auteurs. By far the highlight of this final section, however, is the author’s cogent analysis of Welles’s impact on Colbert, The Daily Show and other contemporary programs that blend comedy and reportage. As Rippy points out, Colbert’s concept of “truthiness” is not so different from Welles’s documentary-fiction hybrids — hybrids with even more resonance and importance in the age of the Internet as lines between true and false and public and private become increasingly nonexistent. Welles himself moved from a serious perspective on these issues to a more playful one (F for Fake is overtly comedic), and satirists like Jon Stewart and Colbert have clearly taken this sensibility to its ultimate extreme. What began as panic in the 1938 War of the Worlds is now comedy, and echoes of Welles’s obsessions can be found not only on Comedy Central, but also in reality shows and the documentaries of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore.

In the end, one is left with, after reading Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects, is the sense Welles was so ahead of his time he would fit right in today. Indeed, many younger viewers have discovered Welles in short fragments on sites like YouTube — venues that would have given Welles a viable outlet for some of his unfinished work had they existed in his time. That they did not is one of Welles’s many misfortunes, but his relevance is as undeniable as ever.

Southern Illinois University Press
$35.00 paperback


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