Reviewed today: The Book Of Clarence, Lights Camera Action!: Zac Nicholson, They Shot The Piano Player.
12.30pm: Lights, Camera, Action!: Zac Nicholson [IMDB entry]
More free stuff! Throughout the festival, Caragh Davison has been taking over the BFI Cafe (now rebranded The Festival Cafe In Association With American Express) to host a series of chats with people about their roles in the film industry. Some of these roles are old (stunt coordinator), some are new (intimacy coordinator). I think we can agree that 'cinematographer' is one of the more traditional ones, and a couple of dozen people have squeezed into one end of the cafe to hear Zac Nicholson talk about his job.
Nicholson wasn't good at much at school apart from art, but he did have a passion for the movies ("I used to live in this place," he says, gesturing in the vague direction of BFI Southbank), so he was always looking for a way to break into the business. It's sometimes easy to forget that the cinematographer isn't just the person with the camera, they're the head of a whole camera department (as well as the lighting department), so Nicholson came in right at the bottom and worked his way up. That IMDB link I've put at the top of this bit lets you trace his career path from 1996 onwards - camera trainee, clapper loader, focus puller, camera operator, all the way up to today where he's been the cinematographer on Armando Iannucci's last few film and TV projects.
Most of the focus in this session, however, is on James Hawes' One Life, which is showing at the festival this year (although the premiere won't be until a few hours after this talk, so none of us have seen it yet). Nicholson uses this as an example of the process he goes through once he receives a script, although each director he works with has their own quirks. He starts by assembling his camera team - largely people he's worked with in the past, although it gets harder to keep hold of the best ones. For One Life, Hawes and Nicholson did their first readthrough in the key locations, so that they could start assembling a shooting plan as quickly as possible. Every shoot has its own individual challenges - on this one you've got two distinct time periods (Prague in the 1930s and London in the 1980s), train sequences with lots of VFX attached, and trying to plan a schedule that works with the limited time you can have children on a set. (Amusingly, the same applies to the limited time you can have Anthony Hopkins on a set.) There's even the problem of having to recreate the look of an episode of That's Life from the 1980s.
Unlike most of the people being interviewed in these talks, Nicholson's job isn't over when the shooting stops: there's the whole process of colour grading to work out in collaboration with the director. ("James doesn't like red", he says mysteriously.) With this as with all the other jobs he does, he gives a terrifically clear layman's explanation of what's involved. He also mentors sixth formers who want to get into his job, and has some solid advice for them - "catch up on your film history, watch some Chris Marker, and try to make images without fussing too much yet about making them tell a story." Davison keeps everything moving briskly, resulting in a thirty minute chat without a single bit of waffle in it - hopefully she'll do more of these next year.
2.30pm: The Book Of Clarence [trailer]
Two years ago, the LFF opening gala was The Harder They Fall, the directorial debut from Jeymes Samuel. As with a lot of opening galas I didn't get to see it, but I was certainly aware of the hype around it. Samuel's now back with his second film, and from this screening it looks like he was responsible for most of that hype himself. Bounding onto the stage with far too much energy for an afternoon matinee, he whoops the audience up into a frenzy, bigging up his north London peeps and telling us to "obey your crazy". At the very least, I want to see this man introduce more films in the future.
As for this film: it’s 33AD, and Jerusalem is full of Messiahs. There’s your main one, obviously, but there are lots of other guys out there looking to make a quick buck from the current hit trend. Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) certainly needs a quick buck, following a bet that didn't come off the way he wanted. As his twin brother is the apostle Thomas, Clarence's initial plan is to use him as a way to get into Jesus' inner circle. But when that doesn't work, his plan B is to become a Messiah himself.
Samuel's first film was a Western, and his second one is a biblical epic that starts with a chariot race: this is someone who obviously wants to make proper movies that play in big cinemas. Clarence has a distinct tone all of its own: a Black black comic pastiche of classic religious cinema, complete with a huge orchestral score (by Samuel himself), monumental title cards and vast widescreen vistas. (As we're talking about cinematographers today, a tip of the hat to Rob Hardy.) It takes every opportunity it can to undercut its potential pomposity with gags both smart and dumb, but isn’t afraid to have the real Messiah come in to mix things up a bit. He’s assembled a terrific cast, including a couple of fun cameos on the Roman side, and everyone on screen is obviously having an infectiously good time. Even if the film feels like it outstays its welcome a little towards the end, you could argue that’s typical of the genre being spoofed here too.
9.10pm: They Shot The Piano Player [trailer]
The third feature-length animation we’re seeing at this year’s LFF, though it’s the first one aimed at grown-ups. It’s the work of the directorial duo of writer Fernando Trueba and artist Javier Mariscal, whose Chico and Rita was a hit a decade or so ago, and this is another film with Latin music at its heart.
We begin at a book launch event, listening to author Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) describing how he wrote They Shot The Piano Player. Initially, he'd been commissioned to write a general history of bossa nova music, with a few research trips to Rio included in the deal. But during his research he discovers the work of Francisco Tenório Jr: a terrific pianist, a bit of a womaniser, and a lover of French Nouvelle Vague cinema. Hence the grimly ironic title, because in 1976 Tenório disappeared during a tour of Argentina, like so many people in that country were prone to at the time.
There's a surprising overlap here with some work previously done by the creator of Beavis & Butthead. The TV show Tales From The Tour Bus featured Mike Judge filming interviews with country and funk musicians about their antics on the road: he'd then rotoscope those interviews into animation, and create new animation to illustrate the stories themselves. It's an ingenious approach that gives you both the authenticity of the musicians' original words alongside an artistic representation of what they're actually saying. What we've got in Piano Player is, in effect, the bossa nova version of this technique: the original interviews with Tenório's bandmates, friends and admirers were audio only, so stand-ins have been used as visual reference for the rotoscoping, but the principle's the same. And because Javier Mariscal is behind the visual design, the lines are bold and the colour palette is ridiculously bright, making this a joy to watch on a big screen.
Here's the thing, though. Jeff Harris doesn't exist, and neither does his book. The interviews we hear were conducted by Fernando Trueba, and the character of Harris is there as a fictional framing device to tie them all together. I don't have a problem with fact and fiction being mixed in a documentary, as I explained when we saw The Klezmer Project a week ago. But the way they've done it here is to create several dramatic scenes of Harris gathering his research and trying to track down interview subjects. They're surprisingly poor – badly written, and clumsily acted, with not even Jeff Goldblum's naturalism able to save them. Every time we hit one of these scenes they're jarring enough to take you completely out of the movie, and distract you from some of the useful background information they need to get across, notably the political situation in Latin America at the time. It's a shame given how good everything else is - the real life testimony of the people who knew Tenório, the vibrant look of every shot, and of course the music. (For once nobody's put together a Spotify playlist yet, but I'd say give it time.)