Top 5 Things I Learned from Midnight Movies
By Bret Dorman
Last week I wrote a Top 5 Movie Phases and named Midnight Movies as the inspiration for my most current ‘movie watching style.’ This sort of style is not limited to just Midnight Movies and just at Music Box Theatre, but that’s the origin of the new philosophy/attitude I now have when watching movies or thinking about attributes I would like to have in my own. I also learned these attributes when watching movies in a Marathon at Music Box, one being a 14(ish) hour Sci-Fi Marathon and twice I’ve been to their 24 Hour Horror Movie Marathon (1st one I went to was the best theater going experience I’ve had yet).So what is it? What is this “Midnight Movie Mentality”? Well, on the surface level, there’s some things that make some movies more Midnight-y than others. You can’t just take any movie and play it at midnight. Here are some of those ‘surface level’ qualities:
– Horror Genre
– B Horror Genre
– Cult Classic
– (Ultra) Violent
– Seedy/Sleazy Subject Material
– Weird Foreign Artsy Movie no one can understand
– Proven Classics
– Appropriate Themes based on time of year (Summer Blockbusters, Halloween-Scary Movies, (Usually non-traditional) Romance for Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Friday the 13th)
As I stated in last week’s Top 5, I went through a period where I tried to view everything as objectively as possible. I still tend to do that for ‘filler’ movies, or movies I generally don’t care about but watch anyway for the ‘business’/’formulaic’ side of movies. But movies should be about personality, both internal and external. Most of my Midnight Movie Reviews start with a personal sort of story. And all the best Midnighters have a distinct style of their own. For a while I tried to filter out anything that I liked and just try to judge a movie on it’s skill, which was a good and necessary step in my Movie Watching Career. But now it’s time to go for the gold. It’s time to stop trying to act like I don’t just like certain things. It’s time to stop playing around and get serious about what matters the most in great filmmaking… playing around.
5) Take ChancesQuentin Tarantino (yes, THAT Quentin Tarantino) once said in one of his Charlie Rose interviews, and I paraphrase, “Hollywood is always looking for the next cool thing. They don’t know what ‘cool’ is, but they know they want it. You just have to go in and tell them what cool is.”
Movies that get remembered are the ones that did things just a bit differently. Average movies with average takes on average plots litter our theaters every year. Midnight Movies aim to look back and celebrate the ones that stood out. Sometimes those movies made Mega-Bank (i.e. Speed) and sometimes they were Mega-Flops (i.e. Tron). I know every filmmaker would love for their movie to be a hit, but in the end I’m sure they’d settle knowing a flop gained cult or even more mainstream recognition over the years.
Flagship Movie: Robocop. Not only does Robocop brutally kill several characters (both innocent and corrupt); it kills its main character about halfway in! Then beats the crap out of him again and again! Midnight Movies have a higher percentage of torturing their main characters or physically disfiguring them (Rolling Thunder – Hook Hand; The Fly – Brundlefly) than your average flick. Why? Because movies that play it safe are always looking at the safe movies before them for what people find comfortable. In the end most of these movies end up being forgettable. But movies that are willing to put their main characters through the gauntlet of bullets, insults, medieval weaponry, and gross bodily fluids are more likely to try and invent new and exciting ways to torture their characters. And we like new and exciting… even at the price of tragic storytelling.
4) Explore Every Opportunity You Give Yourself This is a follow-up to #5. If you’re going to do something new, then do it all the way. Half-assing is the enemy of the Midnight Movie. Whether its out of laziness or fear, no one wants to see a cool idea that’s not fully realized. That doesn’t mean everything has to be and look perfect, that just means the heart and effort have to be there. Midnight Audiences are willing to dive in to the world of the movie and fill in some of the blanks. A more recent example can be found in the movie Drive. We’ve all seen quiet characters with violent tendencies, heroic characters with dark pasts, frustrated love triangles, and bad decisions leading to characters’ undoing. And we’ve all seen a movie where a single bullet is used to some effect. But in Drive, all these come crashing together in one image that will forever cement itself in your head once you see it…
You’ll also notice I added “you give yourself” to the end of the title for #4. Everything a writer does at the script level should be thoroughly thought out, looked at, examined, toyed with, and dissected. As the screen writer we have the ability to create a world, then the closer we get to making the movie, we get to play with it. Everything we do is like giving ourselves a gift. To not use them would be like opening up all your presents on Christmas then just cleaning up and going about your everyday business. What’s the point?
Flagship Movie: Blue velvet. When I say these movies should be “cool” and “fun” I don’t necessarily mean the subject material and execution has to be nice and uplifting. I mean more our love of these movies should have us involuntarily gushing over them. Watching Blue Velvet is fun if you’ve already seen and love the movie, which let’s face it, if you’re going to a Midnight Screening you probably have and do. I didn’t even really like this movie until I watched it before the Midnight Screening to write a review, looked for its best qualities, then watched it with an audience going in knowing those qualities. A simple story of a man finding an ear leads to some pretty weird stuff… David Lynch does not waste any moment to explore the unconventional, creepy, or dark world that lurks in all of our private lives…
3) Treat Every Actor Like An Academy Award Winner/Rock Star This is how every actor should go into every role. And this is how every writer/director should have them approach their character. No character/part is too small. Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day is a classic. Why? Because his minor character is given some good/quotable dialogue and he hits it out of the park every scene he’s in, even if it is the same one over and over.
I love it when a character really brings their A-Game or knows the material/tone so well they can ham it up to just the right level. Donald Pleseance in Halloween might be a bit over the top but Dr. Loomis takes the threat of Michael Myers VERY seriously… as he should given the indestructible rampage Myers goes on.
Flagship Movie: Hobo With A Shotgun. Rutger Hauer man… Here it’s hard to tell if he’s legitimately crazy or just giving the performance of a lifetime in a Grindhouse flick. Hauer’s always been a tad bit crazy, which he has worked into his career. But what makes The Hobo such an interesting character is how Hauer nails all the tiny mannerisms and rhythms while still managing to be over the top and crazy. Sure the plot of the movie helps keep his character grounded in the insanity and the supporting cast are all cartoon-ish, but I can’t help at marvel both the A-Game Hauer brings while simultaneously being in on the joke.
2) Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Great Character Intro Similar to the “following through” aspect of #4, once the actor has has a firm grasp on the character, it would be a shame to waste the character. We’ll explore this in #1, but its important for two reasons. Firstly, a great character intro lets your audience know something RIGHT away. Heroic-ness. Badass-ness. Villain-ness. Then after your audience has seen and decided they love the movie, the great character intro is a way to pump your audience up and give them something to cheer about (or ‘boo’ if they are a baddie).
Also, a good character intro can help the audience establish a bit of basic ‘level-ing’ for your characters. If you establish two characters as the top Dinosaur Scientists, then later its easier to accept they’re willing to go to a strange park for money for research. And if you establish them as smart people, it helps when a crazy-frantic mathematician is introduced who starts challenging their ideals. Also when everyone is introduced properly then we can have bigger “Oh Snap” moments when characters re-introduce or reveal other aspects that they have learned along their journey or were hiding from others (think the ‘switching of the hands’ reveals in The Princess Bride). Also, the entire first hour of Once Upon A Time In The West is dedicated to character intros/re-intros/one-upping. Awesome.
Flagship Movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark. I wanted to show a clip of how badass Jones is and how we only get a glimpse of him or his back, until a character tries to shoot him in the back and he whips the gun out of his hand, emerging from the shadows into the sunlight as our hero. Or how Belloq’s intro is just a big ‘Fuck You’ to Indy as he comes in and mooches off Indy’s hard work. Or how Marion’s intro is a fantastic long take where the camera sways from character to character as they sway in their seats, trying to out drink the other. Or how Indy’s re-intro into Marion’s bar is his shadow. But none of those are easily accessible on youtube… so here’s the intimidating intro to The Scimitar Man and how a good intro and good ‘one-uppery’ can lead to one of the most classic showdowns of all time.
1) Make a Movie for Fans of YOUR Movie Let’s face it, based on the idea/premise of your movie… you’re going to have a target audience. The smaller action/horror/comedy/dramas are usually the better remembered because they don’t have to waste time, energy, and money trying to go for the four quadrants. They go all in on one of them. Every once in a while a movie will come out that manages to appease everyone, but for the most part, you’ve got to know your audience.
Who is your audience? Not people watching your movie. People who LIKE your movie. Let’s just assume that EVERYONE absolutely LOVES your movie. (And why wouldn’t they? Its awesome! You Rock!) You should make your movie for THOSE fans. The fans who will convert other people to fans out of sheer joy and energy. The fans who will promote your film by word of mouth, buy it on DVD, and insist that all of their friends watch it. The fans who WANT to watch your movie on a Friday or Saturday at Midnight, even if it’s for the 50th time, because they KNOW they will have a BLAST. The Fifth Element does this in spades. That movie is constantly doing fan service.
Flagship Movie: Dead Alive (aka Braindead). Yes, the quintessential Midnight Movie. #5 – It takes chances by raising its mayhem exponentially. #4 – It plays with every gift, highlighted in the scene where the main character takes a zombie baby to the park. Why would he do this?! WHY?! Oh, because it’s hilarious. Got it. #3 – All the actors perform well and nail the tone of the goofy but heartwarming story and play well with the frantic execution and pace. #2 – All the characters are IMMEDIATELY established, then re-established upon their character changes (i.e. The Priest re-revealing himself at night as a badass or Lionel re-revealing himself with the lawnmower as he decides he’s had enough). #1 – Dead Alive has moments that make casual movie goers laughing out of confusion. Did that rat monkey just bite an old woman then she squished its eyes out of its head? That’s stupid! Die Hard Dead Alive fans however not only laugh with this scene (not at it), but applaud and cheer as the eyes pop out. Then they proceed to laugh and cheer as every other ridiculous character does something even more ridiculous. Here’s an 8 minute super cut of all the best of moments…enjoy:
Those are the 5 lessons I wish to take on my journey into filmmaking and add to the filmmaking conversation. Follow these rules and maybe you won’t make a lot of money, but you’ll have fans. And hopefully Hollywood will catch up to you and give you a chance to make your movies bigger and better. In the mean time… I look forward to celebrating more of the best movies, keeping them alive and relevant, and adding my opinions on what should be the next ones we induct into the Midnight Movie realm of greatness.
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