On Thursday, more than 1,000
people descended on the historic United Artists Theater, adjacent to the The
Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, in order to attend a very special live
reading of the script for “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes
Back.” The gathering was organized by Jason Reitman and featured an all-star cast:
Aaron Paul as Luke Skywalker, J.K. Simmons as Darth Vader, Ellen Page as Han
Solo, Jessica Alba as Princess Leia, Stephen Merchant as C3PO, Dennis Haybert
as Calrissian, Kevin Pollack as Yoda and Rainn Wilson as Chewbacca. Original “Star Wars” cast member Mark Hamill also made a surprise appearance as The Emperor.
Can you say dream team?
The event just one of many successful live reads that have garnered headlines over the past three years. And now it’s safe to say they’re here to stay.
Thank You, Jason Reitman
Given the scale and popularity of last night’s reading, it’s hard to believe that the Film Independent Live Reads were only launched in 2011.
Earlier this week, Elvis Mitchell, the Film Curator at Film Independent, spoke with Indiewire over the phone and recounted how Reitman presented him with the idea while they were having dinner one night, not long after Mitchell had begun his tenure at Film Independent, curating the organization’s event series with LACMA.
“[Jason] said, I’ve always wanted to do
something where we take a classic film script and we do a live reading
of it in front of an audience with the actors. I said, ‘that’s a great
idea, let’s do it,'” Mitchell said.
If you’ve never been to a live read, the experience, as Mitchell put it during our conversation, is similar to “a supergroup doing a really great series of covers.”
The first time Film Independent and Reitman hosted a live read, Mitchell said that the response from both parties, actors and audience alike, was overwhelmingly positive. “People were in love with it [and] the actors loved doing it too [because it gives them] a chance to bring their own perspective to a well-known piece of material and well-known characters,” he said.
He added that there was a rarified quality to each event. “We see plays get revived all the time and often movies are remade, but this was a unique experience,” he said. “It happens one time, in this one place, it’s not recorded, it’s for the audience in that room.”
“I Knew We Had Something”
Unlike a live musical performance or a play, the actors never rehearse together before getting onstage. As Mitchell pointed out, this gives audiences a unique opportunity to experience a performance from beginning to end, without the effects of editing. Having become accustomed to onscreen performances that have been enhanced or altered by visual effects, the live read provides both actors and their audiences with a unique challenge.
Mitchell said things really clicked into place during the first year, when he organized a reading of “Reservoir Dogs” with an exclusively black cast. “There is a scene early on where
it was Cuba Gooding Jr. doing the Tim Roth part and Laurence Fishburne
doing the Harvey Keitel part,” Mitchell said. “It was that scene where Tim Roth’s
character is shot in the car and he’s screaming in pain and Harvey
Keitel is saying, you’re going to be okay, and it was so charged that after that scene, the audience gave a
standing ovation. That was the fifth one we did and that was when I knew
we had something.”
Another such occasion took place earlier this year when Film Independent Live Reads announced that it was partnering up with Quentin Tarantino to bring a live reading of Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” script, which was leaked online earlier this year.
According to Mitchell, Tarantino had wanted to get involved with Film Independent Live Reads for some time, but due to scheduling issues, he had been forced him to push it off. Then one evening, when Mitchell and Tarantino were — yes, you guessed it, they were at dinner — live reads came up during their conversation and Tarantino once again expressed an interest in getting involved with the series. Since Reitman was about to wrap filming on “Men, Women & Children” and would soon be able to return to the directors’ chair for the Film Independent Live Reads, Mitchell told Tarantino that he wasn’t certain they would have room this year. But when Tarantino said he wanted to do a live read of “Hateful Eight,” Mitchell knew that the director was offering the series an opportunity that it couldn’t pass up, and so he assured Tarantino that they would “find a space for it.”
Similar to last night’s reading of “Empire Strikes Back,” the “Hateful Eight” reading was held in front of a packed house at the United Artists Theater next to The Ace Hotel. The performance featured an all-star cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, Denis Menochet, James Remar and Amber Tamblyn. As Anne Thompson noted in her follow-up coverage on the event, the event was bookended by rousing crowd reactions.
“I think for [Tarantino] this was a way for him to reclaim ‘Hateful Eight’ after the script had got out online, and to show what we would do to it,” said Mitchell. “And also it became an instance that highlights how unique this program is because he did a version of ‘Hateful Eight’ that will never be seen again.” Tarantino has since written a new draft for production, scrapping much from the version that was performed. “It will never been seen or read anywhere again,” said Mitchell.
The success of the Film Independent Live Reads has inspired other film organizations to experiment with the form. Franklin Leonard’s company The Blacklist successfully tried out the live read format with unproduced scripts more than once this year and late last month, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a live read of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury verdict. It’s a style of performance that has penetrated the cultural consciousness at large, in a remarkably intimate way.
“I have an extraordinary admiration for what Jason Reitman has done with the Film Independent live reads,” Leonard told Indiewire over the phone a few weeks ago. “Although The Black List did [a live read] at [the] Austin Film Festival prior to the start of the live reads series with Film Independent, I don’t think there is any way that we would be able to have the success we had [this year] without him creating an environment whereby people knew that a well-done live read [makes for] a great night of entertainment.”
The Austin Film Festival live reading that Leonard mentions took place back in 2009 when The Black List was still just a side gig for him. He was working at Universal Pictures at the time; all of the logistics, including casting, were handled by festival.
The cast, which included Bill Hader, Aubrey Plaza, Jessica Alba, “was an hour and a half of non-stop laughter,” said Leonard. “I remember my face being sore the next day from how much I had laughed.”
The positive response to a live read of an unproduced script left an impression on Leonard.
After spending the last two years developing The Black List into a full-fledged company and now, this year, bringing on additional staff such as Director of Events Megan Halpern, Leonard was able to organize three live reads of unproduced scripts that have appeared on previous editions of the list.
While certainly a spiritual descendent of the Film Independent Live Reads, the nature of the unproduced script is such that The Black List Live! requires some additional prep work on the part of the screenwriter.
“With the Film Independent Live Reads, you already have a picture in your head of how the movies plays out and you know all the beats and everything,” said screenwriter Stephany Folsom, whose script, “1969: A Space Odyssey, Or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon,” was selected for the inaugural edition of The Black List Live!, which was held during Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival. “With mine, we had to do a little bit more of blocking out the scenes and interactive elements just because people don’t have the movie clearly in their heads, so it’s almost like The Black List Live! become a little bit more of a theatrical experience.”
Most of the preparatory work is about building atmosphere with props, images of scenery and in Folsom’s case, even archival footage. The writer — who also functions as the director for The Black List Live! performance — only gathers for a read-through with the cast he day before or on the day of the scheduled performance.
“I think it’s an invaluable tool,” said Folsom. “A screenplay is a foundation for building the rest of the movie, so it’s always good to have tools that can give you a hint of what that final product might be so that you can make that foundation stronger.”