Home / Philly Film Fest 2008 – Day 3: How to Make Movies That Don’t Suck

Philly Film Fest 2008 – Day 3: How to Make Movies That Don’t Suck

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On day three of the fest I checked out The Pixar Story, a documentary about (full disclosure) my favorite studio. Pixar has enjoyed unprecedented success in that both critics and audiences have liked every single movie they've produced over the past 13 years. It's hard enough for even our favorite, most consistent directors to string together three films in a row that are financially successful or critically acclaimed, much less both. Pixar, using several directors and writers, is 8 for 8.

How did this happen? Director Leslie Iwerks gives a nice history that begins with the early days at Cal Arts where Pixar founding member John Lasseter sat alongside future collaborators Pete Docter (dir. Monsters, Inc.), Andrew Stanton (dir. Finding Nemo) and Brad Bird (dir. The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and learned from Disney's Nine Old Men. We follow Lasseter through getting hired, then fired, by a dysfunctional '80s Disney and eventually going to work for Lucasfilm with pioneering digital artist Ed Catmull, who would go on to become another founding member before a third key player came along, some guy named Steve Jobs.

It is here we realize that the history of Pixar is, in fact, the history of digital filmmaking and the true significance of the story begins to emerge. It will ultimately lead to Disney acquiring Pixar in a move that places Steve Jobs, one of the leading technological innovators, on the board of directors of one of the leading entertainment conglomerates. Vis a vis the future of digital entertainment, that's kind of important.

But even more important, vis a vis the future of making things not suck, is the insight the doc gives into how Pixar works. For each movie, they spend two-and-a-half years on… wait for it… story. How much time do you think Robots spent on story? At one point, we see an animator working on Nemo's eyes. On his doodle sheet are story notes. And not just things like "Make Nemo's eyes bigger so kids like him more." No. Things like the symbolism and underlying meaning of the fins.

The most illustrative example comes when Pixar is hired by Disney to make Toy Story. The first pass is awful because Pixar listens to Disney. They turn it into the movie they think Disney is telling them to make. Backed up against a wall, they say "screw it" and turn in a draft of what they want to make, and it gets the greenlight. That independence has been crucial to their success.

The doc may come off as kind of a puff piece because Iwerks doesn't really have anything bad to say about Pixar. I'm not sure there really is all that much bad to say about Pixar. I suppose you could talk about digital animation putting traditional artists out of business, but the film addresses that tragedy, laying it at the feet of short-sighted studios making crappy 2D animation that doesn't make money and blaming 2D animation. Case in point, when Disney sold off all their 2D animation equipment, guess who bought it? But I can see where the doc might seem "light."

Still, if you're interested in the studio, the history (and future) of digital entertainment or even just how to make good movies, I'd go so far as to call this a must-see.

For another look at the film industry, there's The Deal, a satire from director Steven Schachter, co-written by Schachter and William H. Macy, based on the novel by Peter Lefcourt. The film follows a suicidal producer (Macy) who decides to amuse himself by making an action movie out of a Benjamin Disraeli biopic penned by his nephew (Jason Ritter) starring a black action star (L.L. Cool J.) recently converted to Judaism. The premise is rife with satirical possibilities and, to some extent (usually whenever Macy opens his mouth) the film takes advantage of them.

Overall, though, the film feels tepid. Perhaps it's hard to live up to the standard set by The Player or Swimming With Sharks and it's clear the film doesn't have the same venom for the industry. But it doesn't replace that venom with anything else. We're never really sure just how Macy's character feels about Hollywood, or himself. His love/hate relationship with the industry and self-loathing are written in such broad strokes that even Macy's considerable talent can't illuminate them. That doesn't make it any less entertaining to watch Macy inhabit the character with the same smarter-than-thou energy he gave off in State and Main or on Sports Night. It's enough to make The Deal a good-but-not-great movie about movies.

Macy attended the screening with co-stars Ritter and Fiona Glascott. He's a great storyteller and kept the Q&A going when there were lapses in the Q. His most interesting anecdotes involved shooting in Capetown where, in spite of the death of apartheid, segregation is alive and well, except on movie sets, where whites and blacks will work together to carry all two or three tons of a film crane up a hill for a key shot.

Oh, and he can rock a John Bolton moustache without breaking a sweat.


William H. Macy at Philly Film Fest 2008
(L to R: William H. Macy, Fiona Glascott & Jason Ritter talk about The Deal at the 17th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival.)

Next: Young Americans.

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