At CinemaCon last year the Filmmaker Forum included Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee, while this year directors Oliver Stone, Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi submitted to questioning by moderator Elvis Mitchell. Not surprisingly, all three reveal very different takes on how to please audiences–or whether to please audiences. And when Stone complained about bad conditions in some theaters around the country, the exhibitors weren’t offended: they applauded.
Elvis Mitchell: What was the first movie you saw in the movie theater that scared you?
Sam Raimi: “Night of the Living Dead,” George Romero’s classic. My sister snuck me in under her coat. The joke was on me because I was so terrified I thought the world had come to an end. It was mind-blowingly scary.
Oliver Stone: Scariest film I first saw was in 3-D, “House of Wax,” 1953, Vincent Price — remember him? — it was pretty scary… They remade it.
Guillermo del Toro: “Wuthering Heights.” I was very very young, I remember the gothic atmosphere. I went with my mother… it was a really grainy, haunting, beautiful story.
SR: I find sometimes that setting up suspense and expectations for the audience and delivering a scare is similar to setting up a joke for an audience. Setting up expectation and delivering the punchline, they’re really similar, so sometimes I put a comic edge to the scare.
EM: Did you try to recreate the experience of the horror genre in your pictures?
OS: I did two horror films and neither were successful so I realized at that point I was not a horror film director, so I moved away from it. You’ve got to be willing to stick with it, like a CIA torturer, and stick it to them right between their eyes.
EM: You brought a paranoia to ‘Midnight Express’ and ‘Scarface,’ political dramas with a horror edge. What is the thing you get that brings people together in terms of scares?
GDT: The three emotions you can experience in a theater, one of them you cannot experience, because that would require an overcoat. The other two you definitely can enhance by experiencing with a group. What makes you laugh and what scares you? That effect is why humor, when somebody says that’s their kind of humor, is the same thing as someone saying ‘I hate that movie.’ It’s the same thing with horror, it defines who you are and what you like with the genre, communally what is great when you can literally let go because you are in a group, and you can laugh or react in the appropriate way. It’s almost like a reaffirmation when you belong to a huge community of misfits.
Especially when you’re watching a horror movie with a horror crowd, it’s almost like when the inmates in the prison are running from the bad guy to escape. Same with watching a horror movie with a crowd like that.
EM: You don’t want to watch a horror movie by yourself because you want to be in a room and feel it.
SR: The horror movie is a group experience, like comedy. In a good horror movie there’s a fear that’s generated and you start picking it up from the people around you, and you get more frightened, that roller coaster feeling when you start screaming and get caught up in what is a wonderful, primal experience. You’re dealing with the same thing, you’re seeing the same thing, moments of comedy when you’re laughing or just being terrorized.
EM: Oliver, what you’ve done is apply that to drama. If you miss a single moment, you’re gonna die.
OS: The idea is you’ve got to get them in and you have to keep them in their seats. If you go to the concessions stand or the bathroom you’re gonna miss something, and that’s the problem with a lot of new technology, turn it on, turn it off. I’ll see 30 minutes now and tomorrow I’ll watch more. The spectacle of being in a combined space with 300 plus people and sitting through something one time. I like tension over horror. Tension is what keeps them in their seats. I don’t go to horror movies anymore, I’m too scared. I really don’t. My son made it clear to me, I couldn’t handle all those things he went to like ‘Saw.’ Too much. Even ‘Scream’ I gave up on. True horror for me is displacement, the displacement of things that don’t make sense. Whether it’s Hitchcock doing ‘The Birds’ or last year ‘Life of Pi,’ which was an extraordinary film with the best use of 3-D, when that tiger comes out of the ocean, that’s real displacement. It’s like ‘The Birds.’ That kind of horror is what works for me. I was scared of that boy, and that goat and that tiger, that was a horror film.
EM: Tension is one of the things people want to experience in the theater. I was trying to define as an audience member what people commit to, you want to just grab somebody’s arm, it takes you back to being a child and that sort of primal experience of what theaters really do.
GDT: I remember watching three movies where I went under my seat. It was the first ‘Alien.’ Back then the movies came out in America, and then Mexico. We were in the theater with my Dad and my brother and we were watching it and told everyone about the movie. What was exciting, when you get that communal sort of sound, there’s nothing better. It’s as close as we come to being in a performance.
OS: I once heard a story that Cary Grant, he had come to New York to see one of his movies at Radio City and he loved to stand in the back. 5,000 people would come to one screening. When they laughed and they responded, he loved it, it was a supreme moment.
EM: The first time you stood in the back of an audience watching one of your films, what was that experience like?
SR: First time I stood in the theater, it was college kids, who would scream ‘THIS SUCKS, we want our money back,’ so it wasn’t very good. The first positive experience was some months later, making better pictures, cutting the bad parts out. You’d watch it and see they weren’t laughing at this joke. That process taught me a lot. It was the first positive experience I’ve had like that. They weren’t asking for their money back. I want to get the response from the audience, from jump to laugh to crying. I am working to move that audience.
GDT: When you see your movie, for example, in a festival or when you first launch it and see it with an audience, you can tell how good the screening’s going to be if they laugh at the early joke or gasp at the early scare and when you get that communal soundtrack. It’s almost like the theater and actors and the director rates your performance. It’s a great communal experience because our craft is very lonely, frankly. There’s no lonelier position in the movie process than the director. We turn on the lights before anyone arrives to the party, and we turn out the lights when everybody leaves. And then the real reward comes from seeing the movie.
OS: For the sake of dissent, I will say, too, it’s always nice to get great preview ratings but if we run after them like dogs, we’re gonna lose and you’re gonna get–you make a lot of money but you don’t necessarily make a movie that’s going to last in the memory or the consciousness. I think there’s a deeper game, the tyranny of the audience, tyranny of now, and some previews, you make films that are complicated, contradictory, difficult, you’re not gonna the audience slobbering around, or get the laughs, but you may get this inner thing that’s going on, people are thinking about it, they’re smarter than we think — some of them are — and they go out and think about the movie. Sometimes I’ve hated a movie on the first viewing, like ‘Tree of Life,’ it gnawed at me so I went back a month later, saw it again, appreciated it. When we went to that first screening of ‘JFK’ for 3 hrs and 10 minutes, there were no previews because I wouldn’t allow it. There’s no time to finish it and if you take it to Pasadena, you are gonna get mixed cards coming in all over the place, you are never gonna get out of this alive, so we never previewed it. Those were the old days. But now we’d be dead.
GDT: When one talks about an audience, like a parent you find a way with our movie, it can be 10 people in a theater three years before you first released or it can be a massive screening or a festival screening of a hundred people or fifty people. It doesn’t matter, the moment it connects with an audience, whatever the intent of the movie is, you’re not expecting every movie to become a collective box office. It’s a beautiful final moment in which you see the movie introduce itself to the audience. That’s it’s audience and they love it, and it can happen by the 10th screening or the first screening.
EM: At some point you’ve all made movies that have been divisive to audiences. You make a movie that is really impactful, people love it or hate it, is that something you like doing?
SR: Well I mostly like them to like the movie, so no. Maybe that’s more controversial. When I made a movie like ‘Evil Dead,’ that movie was dividing audiences. It was bloody, intense, gory, people didn’t like the comic edge, that did divide people. That wasn’t my goal. I just wanted to make a hard-hitting horror picture to thrill and chill the audience. Half the people hated it, 1/4 of people really liked it. I would like them all to love it, to be moved by the emotion of the most uplifting film, I would like that to be the effect. The different points of view are really important. I don’t expect everything to be universally liked.
EM: You like audiences responding strongly (turns to OS).
OS: You know that there’s a lot of polarization sometimes. It’s good if you have something important to say or feel, it’s good. People are not gonna be the same all over the world and that’s the problem with the homogeneity you see, you feel it. Feral children performing in packs– it’s dangerous.
GDT: When people talk about love and what is the opposite, the opposite is hate. I don’t agree, I think it’s indifference. The indifference is a really scary thing. When you provoke a reaction of love or a reaction of hate, ultimately you feel more antisocial, but silence, that’s the real horror. When you want as a storyteller is to provoke an emotion and you don’t have to sanitize or homogenize what emotions you were trying to provoke. The first audience is you, the one that you don’t want to cater singularly to, you do it desperately and then, I remember in a screening of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ when we were doing tours on the campaign for the Academy there were a couple of people who got cut off. They were very angry because of the violence in the movie and they said, ‘It’s a fairytale but it has this horrible moment.’ But I also said, ‘number one, I don’t give a fuck. You’re seeing ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and this movie comes with that fucking sauce.’ To provoke makes you reaffirm that you’re touching a nerve, whatever it is.
EM: Something about ‘fuck the audience,’ you’re making films ahead of your time, you’re combining horror with comedy, you’re making a horror film into something artistic and people don’t know what to make of it. Did you know you were doing something people might not respond to initially, like ‘Cronos’?
GDT: In ‘Cronos’ it was the moment, there’s a bathroom and the guy has a nosebleed and the vampire has to lick the nose bleed, and I said ‘that’s a walk-out moment, people who are into the movie are gonna stay and people who are not digging it are going to get the fuck out.’ It was the walk-out moment, I got big reactions that were negative because of that moment but in every horror movie I try and direct or produce I always know there’s a walk-out moment. Horror as a genre needs to push buttons that are uncomfortable. You don’t do it by design, you support it. If you screen tested today ‘The Exorcist,’ there would be a quarter of that movie that wouldn’t be there because of transgression now when it comes to the genre.
EM: You’ve been doing that since you started.
OS: Yes. You go out there and you’re in space, the frontier, get beyond the frontier, get out there.
EM: Did you know that you were pushing boundaries on ‘Midnight Express’?
OS: Injustice is always a good theme and I felt that this boy at that time had been railroaded, he was sentenced to prison and after that he was resentenced by another court to be cruelly treated by the prison system in Turkey, which was frankly two-tier. I obviously had strong passions.
EM: Does new technology make things easier for you, Sam?
SR: The audience’s expectations, the bar is always raised. Once they’ve seen Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ the expectation of what a 3-D picture can and must do has been raised a tremendous amount, so those tools are necessary to give the audience what they expect.
EM: People now come in and say ‘I dare you, show me something you haven’t seen before.‘
GDT: I think that is for the last few decades, the more the audience gets, you’re gonna come out and say ‘look, I’m serious about this,’ you make a big gesture depending on the genre of the movie, from the inception of cinema the reason why we go to the theaters for either a film that allows us to recognize ourselves or a film that is showing us something that is completely beyond the possibilities of experience. The question of real life or to escape for a moment in whatever genre it is, and our impulse as a storyteller is in either of those camps of defending the product, you should trust your instincts, you should not intellectualize, ‘what am I doing that’s going to have that effect?’ The ultimate goal for a storyteller is to get excited for yourself, if you are willing to commit years of your life to making a film, there must be something there. For example, ‘Cronos,’ that is the image that sustained me for 8 years, I wanted to see that image of their bodies and see how they react and it was the same with images with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ the moments that you think, ‘oh I want to see this with an audience.’ Most of us are social freaks, and that’s our social life.
EM: The fact that you can do so much now with special effects, do you have to fight the urge to get carried away?
GDT: During the 80s people were talking about it in terms of makeup effects. The type of cinema that is dependent on some special effects be it ‘The Invisible Man,’ you will always have a section of the audience that says ‘that’s too much,’ but why is that too much? Is it the same discussion as with violence or sex? Is it too much if it doesn’t serve the narrative purpose? It’s the purpose of the narrative that counts.
EM: Oliver, does technology make it easier for you now?
OS: Yes and no. We were using digital in the early 90s actually, and I shot digital documentaries but in film we always tried to be realistic when we created ‘Alexander”s world, we wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I walk down the hall here and I see, the problem now is that it’s the copycat routine where I don’t see the difference and I see these grand effects. But it’s repetitive to me, emotionally I don’t react to it. His death doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t know the rules of the game, sometimes they come back alive later, who knows, but it becomes frankly a form of torture, CIA torture, to make you watch ‘GI Joe’ 3000 times. I think, ‘story story story, content is key, style is important,’ but style after a while gets tiring without story. In the 1950s they were saying movies were over and 3-D was coming in BECAUSE we needed something. It’s the same. And in the 60s they said movies were dying again, and then there was a youth wave. It always seems to come from within.
EM: This is different though. We now have random access all the time, you can watch your favorite scene every hour of the day.
OS: Even in those days, TV was a big noise tube, it was a white noise, it was horrible, people would limit the hours of TV because it was affecting their brains. TV they always knew was there, so it becomes a negative space filler and I think it’s the same thing today whether it’s TV or internet, we only have so much capacity to handle that, and then you want to turn off and go back to some form of reality.
EM: There used to be a time when Network TV ended and the difference now is it’s everywhere, there is a constant mobius strip you can dip your finger in for entertainment. What’s so great about ‘Oz’ is it starts in black and white, and I think in spiritual terms that’s very restful and makes you feel anything could happen. Was that a tough fight?
SR: No, because of the great classic ‘Wizard of Oz,’ that technique is attributed to that film so Disney got behind it. ‘House of Wax’ was a great 3-D movie, and you mention the black and white Stooges 3-D, black and white and 3-D is really an important combination.
GDT: The earliest experiments with 3-D, like ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ were trying to push the medium. You’re transported. I saw it with my family and the girls were, as much as the most high tech cutting edge thing, enchanted. What is beautiful is when the technique is used to immerse yourself in the world rather than just have things coming at you, but things beckoning you into the screen, with a sense of depth in the world that’s really when at its richest.
EM: We fill in part of it because it’s literally in a dimension we’re not getting, it becomes a real entry point for us.
OS: Black and white concentrates more on the character. As a young boy, three of the most effective B&W films would have been ‘La Dolce Vita,’ ‘On the Waterfront’ and ‘Breathless,’ in ’59, because I’d never seen anything like that. All content story films with style, especially ‘On the Waterfront,’ that’s what moves you, right now perhaps I’m in my ghost phase, I’m looking at so many old films and enjoying watching them again from a different era. Last night I was watching an old Jean Renoir film with Anna Magnani, ‘The Golden Coach.’ did you ever see it? It’s so creepy, and great.
SR: For me the black and white was used to establish the characters and create a real world with a neutral palette so when we journey into ‘Oz,’ we also made use of the Dolby soundsystem by keeping the first 15 mins in mono so when we did open up to ‘Oz’ we went to stereo, full immersion, so that system is really great. Both systems are brilliant, I don’t think how much the audience is aware of how much they can be transported. As a filmmaker it really creates sonic dimension, like you’re passing through spaces.
Most of the studios haven’t accounted for the vast amount of time it takes to mix in those immersive systems. I had a very good experience. You really have to do a lot more mixing with all the different vendors. It’s very complex to maintain the quality over 11 systems. Some things won’t be passed down with the changes, with the same quality. I wish we could consolidate our technology and have a standard just like AMPAS used to do for film, you’re running at 24 frames a second, we know it looks better in 28 but that’s the standard, that millimeter. And I think we could use more of that standard.
EM: Here’s a question for all of you. I don’t have any empirical proof but that frame rate there is a hypnosis, a mesmerization. Do you think digital approximates that?
GDT: Every project brings its own dimension. When doing ‘Pacific Rim’ I knew it was the perfect film to shoot with the Red camera. Every project and the texture it brings with it will want to go to film or digital. What is not as easy for me is to think that the technology and creativity need to drive the discussion. You might want the options. In ‘JFK’ the mixture of different footage, different materials, that’s fantastic and in telling the story you must choose, it’s like painting a picture. To begin with one single brush is limiting. You want the option to choose.
EM: Is that important to you? The difference between film and digital?
OS: I miss film. You’re all digital people but last year, ‘Savages,’ I looked at the film which was so beautifully shot, however we could not get that on 1000 prints, even when we went to DCP. But at least it was a better standard than the old days, when the film would fall off. At the highest level that doesn’t work because when you want to see a real movie in the field, it’s pretty bad. It used to be pretty bad for film. If you had a pristine print in Hollywood, that to me there’s nothing like it, but if we’re gonna go out into the world, I’ll take the digital prints. However, you guys, there’s a sacred trust between filmmakers and exhibitors, we write you letters telling you please think about this film and play it like this, and we go up to the theaters in Arizona even down in San Diego and Palm Desert, the trailers are so high and then the sound just drops to nothing and there’s no manager in the theater you gotta go looking for him, you’ve got to fight for it for 10 minutes. It’s not good. I went to a digital screening of ‘Avengers’ last year and it was awful, it was black, I couldn’t see, nobody in the theater knew the difference. They think this is right. No one goes back there and checks, and there’s no projection, no one goes back there in the booth. The digital bulbs just aren’t up to the standard. These things are bad! If we could make the theater back to where it’s a sacred, movie palace spectacle, it’s like a cathedral or temple, we can bring it back to that place, the audience will be loyal to you forever. (APPLAUSE)
EM: Do you guys still go see movies in theaters and if you do why?
SR: I like the communal experience of watching something with the audience and feeling the same things they are, and I like to see how movie is affecting the audience to see what’s working, what’s not, and the movies in Santa Monica, CA are very well kept up, I think it’s a movie-savvy crowd.
OS: I think it’s very important, it’s the right perspective and you get a sense of the audience, I love it. But I repeat what I have to say. In some provincial places, theater owners really take good care of it. Often you just go into some 16 screen theater and it’s horrible because no one’s up there in the booth. Stay on top of these screens, the bulbs go fast and one house they place digital and they switch the movie over, one house and there used to be a print in the other house so now they don’t bother to switch. All these problems are still going on. This sold-out routine, I hate it. You can’t get a ticket, and you see 20
empty seats. That goes on all the time and they’re too lazy sometimes
to count the seats and they won’t sell you the damn ticket.
GDT: For me, it’s still the greatest night out. But I agree and I think that in which all the work we do rests in our partnerships with you and the managers, the last frontier for the movie to reach the audience is the theater and for us to make a story as great as we can and the technical specs, it’s ultimately resting in your hands. Probably the most sacred part of the covenant is this, the one that can take place here and in your theaters. Whenever we go to the basic route of how to preserve cinema, it’s in exhibition and I think it’s of the core of what can get people in or out of the theaters.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.