When you are writing make sure you stick closely to comparing the elements of the films that are affected by the production context and explaining how the context shaped that element.
What makes a Hollywood film a Hollywood film?
This isn’t as stupid a question as you might think. The obvious answer is that a Hollywood film is made in Hollywood, and a Bollywood film is made in Mumbai (Bombay); that the film industry’s name is rooted in its geographical location.
FYI the London-based UK film industry can’t get Lollywood ‘cos Lahore in Pakistan already has that.
If you are a student of the history of cinema, and especially a student of the history of movie production) then you’ll know the history of Hollywood is all about the business of movie production and understanding a bit about it will help you write about your set films, the way they look and the meanings they convey.
Only this week I’ve been reading about the new Disney-Fox merger. This is a deal that will control 40% of global film production revenues and budgets on its own (with huge implications for its own streaming service which can show all the Buena Vista, Marvel, Star Wars and Disney back catalogue). Hollywood is responsible for 80% of the global box-office and sucks in creative talent, and profits, from around the globe but this new deal puts an awful lot of power in an awfully monopolistic place. What effect could it have? Disney has a habit of dialling down the artistic innovation, mainstreaming its products, being super-litigious about intellectual property and playing it safe (despite the fact that the entire House of Mouse is based on regular renewal cycles made up of radical innovation, exploiting common ownership and encouraging new talent). Hollywood dominates film in a way that feels natural until you realise that it really isn’t. Imagine a world where 80% of all the car revenue ran through one city. In actuality America, Germany and Japan make up the big financial numbers in the automotive industry and even then the companies are spread around different cities. With film it’s a lot of money, and a lot of power, in one place.
So, um, why? If you want to know more about the details of essay writing spool down to the right bit but here’s some background. Unless you understand some of the background you can’t say anything useful about production context.
The history of early Hollywood condensed into a tiny nugget:
Building a film industry in Southern California was not a natural thing. To make movies the first three check-boxy items you need are entrepreneurial story-tellers, technological movie-making items and interesting looking people to film. And you wouldn’t find any of these things mooching around an orange plantation in the early 1900s.
That’s why films like Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery were filmed in New Jersey.
I hope you enjoyed the way the hand-colourization made the final close-up super-camp! Also enjoy the substitution-splice at 3.12, the death of Mario at 2.14 and the bulletproof horses at 9.45.
If two things hadn’t come along the U.S. film industry would have been centered on New York (where the Broadway actors and writers were not to mention all the other cultural industries – Tin Pan Alley for music for example).
To be brutally honest if the first factor hadn’t struck then the U.S. as a country might not have been the globally dominant film behemoth it is now.
In 1897 Georges Méliès opened the first purpose-built film studio in a suburb of Paris. His films were a riot of inventiveness and special-effects magic. Check out his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon to see how far ahead of Porter he was effects-wise.
Similar industries were in operation in England, Germany and Italy. So what stopped Europe being the dominant force in film production (Cricklewood rather than Hollywood)?
There was the tricky business of the Great War: film production halted, film actors were serving on the front lines and factories were making explosives rather than celluloid. When the war ended the European film-makers had to contend with a U.S. industry that had surged away from them (and had attracted some their biggest talents – a story that would be repeated through the next century).
OK so that’s why America but why Los Angeles?
Drunk History will explain. Thanks Drunk History!
To escape the clutches of Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company film-makers went as far away as possible and across every state-line going (remember the U.S. is a federation of states and there was no Federal Bureau to Investigate across state lines then – do y’see what I did there?).
By the time Edison legally caught up with the California industry they were rolling in the sort of money needed to take him on (hence his failure to shut them down).
A happy byproduct of the move was geographical. So Cal is sunny! You needed loads of light to make films and film production could happen all year round (N.Y. gets super-chilly). Also Southern California had cheap land (for building studios on) and a wide selection of outdoor locations on hand. You want to make a western? We got the deserts, forests and mountains you need! Fancy a beach? We got it!
As a result the new studios cleaned-up during the twenties. Silent movies were internationally accessible because there was no language barrier (when Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford visited Moscow in 1926 they were mobbed by vast numbers of fans).
The studios, swelled by all this cash, turned into little empires. This was The Studio System, Old Hollywood, the Golden Age of Hollywood or Classical Hollywood (which is more of a style-thing) – as the exam board likes to call it.
Each studio was a vertically integrated organisation. They owned the producers, directors, actors and technicians. They also owned their own cinemas and marketing divisions. That meant that you might live in a small town with Paramount picture-house. You’d watch Paramount films, starring Paramount actors. You’d read a Paramount film magazine and even eat Paramount popcorn.
You’d have to drive to see a Fox film!
In the studios the producer was the king. Look at this poster.
Notice that the producer, David O Selznick, is clearly name-checked (as are the stars) but the director? The director is, like today’s D.O.P s (cinematographers), a crafts person who doesn’t get their name on the promotional material.
The bigger the studios got the more they divided themselves up into little units. A producer would oversee production of films which would, due to a combination of interest, temperament, expertise and working relationships often be in a similar genre. A good example of this would be Val Lewton at R.K.O.
Lewton ran a unit which produced, in the 40s, dark thriller-style films (what we now recognise as horror). Currently the BBC iPlayer has, on a long streaming release, three Lewton films; Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (and I love them! Go watch now!). Lewton’s films had similar styles because he used many of the same technicians and crafts people but not always the same directors. He was in charge and they are recognisably his films.
This was the unit-producer system and it allowed big studios to make diverse products. but it was highly monopolistic and so, in 1948, the supreme court ruled that the studios needed to break themselves up and divest themselves of some of their holdings.
The result was that, after a period of adjustment, New Hollywood began to make films through a package unit system where each film has a producer who puts together a one-off package of finance and personnel.
In this new world the producer is now the only person who is employed throughout the making of a film. Everyone else is hired for a contracted amount of time. The producer does the deals to secure funding and distribution so they are still huge but they can slide between studios. Jerry Brukheimer has produced Top Gun, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films and is arguably the biggest producer in Hollywood but he is currently producing a new Bad Boys film for Columbia and a new Top Gun film for Paramount at the same time.
Where’s Jerry? Clue? Look at the writing on the star.
The break-up of the studios also coincided with the rise in profile of the director. The prominence of the director (which is a key part of auteur theory) becomes a key feature of New Hollywood and the new management agencies, like William Morris Endeavour (Martin Scorsese and Ben Affleck) or Creative Artists Agency (Stephen Spielberg and Robert Downey Jr) promote them as stars who help to shape and sell the film just like the actors. This is why you see directors on chat-show sofas and on the posters.
Because package-units are not tied to a studio by anything except finance they can now be made anywhere. Post-production (editing and VFX) can be easily outsourced. Warner Brothers can run a franchise out of the U.K. (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter) for example and it all makes complete business sense.
Writing about the production context of a pre-1948 Hollywood film and comparing it to a New Hollywood film.
Lets just say Casablanca and Do The Right Thing (just for shits and giggles).
Set, location and control (or does production context affect mise en scène?).
Casablanca is a great example of a studio picture and the resulting film clearly owes much to its production context.
Firstly it had a substantial budget (over a million dollars) which was nearly as much as the biggest box-office film of the year (Mrs Miniver). This allowed the production team to buy the rights to the play “Everybody comes to Ricks” giving the film a solid property to build the narrative upon. The sequence which establishes Rick’s Cafe Americain as the central location with smooth camera movement to take the viewer into the bar and a sequence of establishing shots of the location and characters is cinematically built out of the unity of place demanded by the theatrical script.
If you want to see other evidence of the impact of a big budget Hollywood studio context look at the way the film builds meaning out of a highly designed environment.
Look at the image of the cafe above for a mo. What are you seeing?
Now look at this still from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2005 film Team America: World Police.
I didn’t choose this randomly. There are more than a few style nods to Casablanca here but what I really want to focus on is the subliminal detailing. In Team America the set builders have complete control, so they created a dangerous and claustrophobic environment, but look at the bar itself, it’s made out of barrels, these may be a comment on the hypocrisy of oil production (note the hypocrisy of alcohol consumption by Muslims too – no one gets a free pass here) but you don’t really see the barrels – you feel them.
The same thing is going on in Rick’s Cafe.
Every element of the cafe has been designed to make the audience feel something. The archways, wall texture and lantern make the space feel (as the great academic Edward Said would say) oriental (not western). This was fashionable at the time (one of the other films released that year was the musical comedy “The Road to Morocco”) but it also taps into the older idea that the east is mysterious, full of intrigue and exotic. Basically the east is a place where you can do things that are either frowned upon or illegal at home (the sort of space that Tijuana, Amsterdam or Thailand have held in later imaginations/realities).
And plonked in the middle of it is a jazz piano. Just to reinforce the point that this is a place where all races and cultures meet.
All of this is possible because you aren’t dealing with a real place in the real Casablanca but a set, built in L.A., from scratch. This is called hyper-reality folks – the fake cafe is more vivid than any real cafe could be.
Little Side note-y thing.
This gets a bit circular but here goes.
This is the 1940s Hollywood Casablanca set (exterior).
This was built in California to look like a North African medina.
Compare it to a recent pic of an actual medina – this one is Kairouan, in Tunisia (which is next to Morocco – where Casablanca is).
Now I didn’t choose this location at random because Kairouan (little Cairo) was the location chosen for Cairo in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.
Which had been dressed to look like another film in which an American winds up fighting Nazis.
A circularity noticed by Parker and Stone when they wanted to create a version of Cairo which looked the way Americans imagine the east looks like if they have only consumed media images.
I recently had a chat with Professor Jutta Weldes at Bristol University.
Her course is based on the idea that to really understand international relations you have to understand popular culture. That the way politicians, and populaces, talk about, and behave, towards other countries is based on media images which may be feeding on each other more than being fed by reality.
Here endeth the side-note!
Let’s compare set construction (and therefore mise en scène) with Do the Right Thing.
So Spike Lee’s 1989 film had a budget of $6.5 million. Compare it to the budget for the biggest box office film of the year, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s $48 million, and it seems very meager. It was less than half the amount that Lee and his cinematographer, Ernest Dickenson, wanted but Paramount (the first backer) had pulled out of the deal. They folded because they wanted him to retread his first film “She’s Gotta Have It”, which was a comedy about sex and race, not make a big political statement (they were worried about negative, and even violent, reaction). Universal finally backed the project but with that tiny budget; if it went south they could bury the film and hardly make a loss.
One result of this is that there were only two purpose built sets; Sal’s Pizzeria and the Korean store and I could get you to look at the pizza parlour set for a bit . . .
but I won’t.
Let’s look at this shot instead.
This is the apartment where Tina lives with her mother and the child she has had with Mookie. Just look at it for a moment. This is a real Bedford-Styvesant kitchen. In real Brooklyn. And it must have been hell to film in!
Let’s make it clearer.
Here’s the Friends apartment from, um . . . Friends.
Now this is a T.V. show set, granted, but if you compare it to the set for Rick’s apartment in Casablanca.
You can see that both spaces have been made big to allow the inclusion of cameras, lights and other equipment.
Look back at the Friends apartment. Like Casablanca it’s not in the right location (set in New York but filmed in Los Angeles). The sit-com, when it started, was supposed to be about a bunch of struggling twenty-somethings (Joey was an unemployed actor, Rachel was virtually unemployable) but the apartment was huuuuuge! Someone worked out that to rent a West Village apartment, of that size, today would set you back $483,000 a year!
That’s not what a poor person’s apartment looks like. Nah-uh!
Tina’s Mom’s apartment is a poor person’s apartment.
Massive, ancient and inefficient refrigerator? Check!
Tiny stove that also doubles up as a fire-risk work surface? Check!
Delightfully mis-matching sink-stove height? Check!
No room to film in unless you are in the doorway? Check!
This setting conveys all the claustrophobia and simmering tension Lee and Dickenson want; the aim of the film is to convey to the audience some of the reality of Brooklyn life and this location does it – there is no escape for Tina from the mistakes she has made (or from her mother’s criticism).
Linked point. Set construction and symbols. More mise en scène .
If you build sets from scratch you can put symbolic stuff in the frame easily.
In this shot from Casablanca we see that Curtiz has included both a reminder of a France that has fallen to the Nazis (and is thus a shadow of its former self) and also a cross, the symbol of the Free French. The name of the cafe literally translates as “The Beautiful Dawn” just to make supa-clear that France will rise again.
I said I wasn’t going to make you look at Sal’s in detail. Well I lied.
Check out the “Wall of Fame” which literally looks down on the black clientele (as Buggin’ Out so eloquently points out) but which provides the Italian-Americans with a source of pride (what W. E. B. Dubois would call, “The talented tenth” who act as role-models for their peeps).
And check out the painting on the wall.
D’you want a better look?
When Mookie and Pino are talking about civilization Spike Lee has a painting of The Colosseum behind them! Pino has proof every day, hanging on the wall, of both his ancestor’s greatness but also of their decline and fall (notice it is the wrecked Rome on display). Mookie has no picture of Great Zimbabwe, or Kilwa Kisiwani, and so Pino doesn’t even believe Mookie’s claims of African civilization.
You might want to write about the use of a real block to film in rather than a set. It’s all good.
Who are the performers? Meaning through performance, casting and secondary persona.
In some ways this is really simple. In others you have to unlearn some things you already know.
A 1940s Hollywood studio, making a big-budget picture, had two things at its disposal. Firstly it had a roster of stars on its books and secondly it could buy in new talent.
And both of those allow the film-maker to construct meaning for the audience.
Let’s take the leading stars for example:
The first person you might want to write about could be old Bogey Humfart himself. Bogart had begun his stage (and film) career playing vapid young gentlemen but his decision to try for the role of the villain in The Petrified Forest changed that. Warner Brothers admired the play and bought the rights to it. They also managed to get Bogart to reprise his role. As a result Bogart’s secondary persona (the personality he projected) in his early Warner Brothers films was one of the cold blooded killer.
This meant that, after bigger and bigger gangster and villain roles he was a shoe-in for The Maltese Falcon in 1941. This was massive. Bogart took the role of Sam Spade and now his persona fitted the role of the hard-boiled, gumshoe detective; a person who looked like a villain, talked like a villain, acted like a villain but was the hero. In short he was the modern antihero.
So Bogey’s on the Warner books and he’s now their biggest star. Also the audience know him as someone whose secondary persona is one of moral ambiguity, leaning towards good but able to keep them guessing. The star brings the meaning.
I could go on all day about the talent pool they assembled but suffice to say that the studio’s deep pockets allowed them to assemble an international cast (and crew – only one name on that poster is for a person born in America) but, possibly, the most important other name, for you, is Ingrid Bergman.
I’ll keep it short. W.B. bought her in from Selznick after her starring role in Intermezzo. She was everything that Hollywood razzle-dazzle wasn’t. She looked natural, and good, and she was a fresh face. The studio could buy that.
In comparison Do The Right Thing has no deep pockets.
So you have to be able to write about Spike Lee, not just as a director, but as a cottage industry. He has repeatedly made it clear that his acting roles in his first three films were financially motivated; basically he was already on the set, and being paid, he might as well get some more work out of him.
He had also managed to turn himself into a money making and promotional tool.
Notice, he’s not Spike Lee here. He’s Mars Blackmon. The character he played in his first feature film (She’s Gotta Have It). America doesn’t know who Spike Lee is (especially white America) but his new film (the one you’re studying) changes all of that.
And that is part of the story here. You know who Samuel L. Jackson is (the actor whose films have grossed the most in movie history) and you know his secondary persona but in 1989 nobody knew who Samuel L. Jackson was; he was an interesting actor, with big addiction problems, who took bit-parts in films.
Spike Lee wanted Robert De Niro as Sal, and nearly got him. The rest of the cast is stuffed with serious film and theatre actors (like John Turtorro – who has made nine films with Lee) and complete unknowns (like Rosie Perez – who Lee saw dancing at the club Funky Reggae and asked her to be in the film). Her casting is a bit Italian Neo-realist (if you want to get fancy). She is Brooklyn born Puerto-Rican. She was brought up in foster care. She could easily have been Tina. In some ways it’s not acting, the audience believes in Tina because Perez is Tina.
In some ways you can argue that this is the opposite of secondary persona. Rosie Perez comes with no baggage to the screen and the meaning that is made is the work of all those key film elements (mise en scène, cinematography, editing, sound and performance).
BTW this is my favourite dance move. equally suited to the mosh pit and the wedding reception (I am totally serious about this).
The intro section uses Perez as a dancer; she builds a character through performance (although Lee can’t resist putting her in Mohamed Ali’s shorts for this section. I know Spike, “Excellence is excellence”).
To recap: Big studio films can afford big stars but they cast long shadows.
(Nice one Curtiz).
Small films have to be more creative.
Narrative: The stories we tell.
For Casablanca you cold write about the weird tension here.
The rule of thumb is that the more expensive a film is – the less artistic and narrative risks it will take. It might push technical boundaries, for spectacle’s sake, but it won’t want to piss off the middle-ground because it has a budget to recoup and a profit to make.
So Casablanca is an odd film. A romance where the guy doesn’t get the girl (but gets a sex-pesty Frenchman instead). A war movie where only two people get shot on screen. A film with a clear anti-Nazi message at time when many Americans were still not sure about whether Germany, rather than Japan alone, was their enemy.
Just make sure that you can write about the key players behind the movie.
Jack Warner – Executive Producer at Warner Brothers, and man who has just discovered that Walt Disney is single-white-femaling his look.
Warner was determined that he be able to use his studio to pivot America against the Nazis because he was very aware that, by being Jewish, he would not be doing too well in Europe.
Now Warner may have been the big boss but he wasn’t on hand for the actual making of the film.
That fell to Hal B. Wallis.
He was the producer. And son of Polish Jews. And this is repeated over and over again. Screenplay – Epstein, Epstein and Koch. Director – Michael Curtiz. Score – Max Steiner. All of Jewish heritage.
The amazing thing is that there is no trace of Jewishness in the actual film, barring the anti-Nazi stance, but that was how Hollywood, and America, was then.
In narrative terms this means that the film pursues an unusually downbeat story line (never has there been more mention of visas in a fun night out). But this is only possible because the studio was using its power to push an agenda (a rare occurence, but one that proves the power of the studios) .
For Universal’s punt on Do The Right Thing you need to remember that this is New Hollywood. The studios execs don’t have the same clout here.
The moving force behind the film is . . .
This is Spike Lee’s production company. It takes it’s name for General Sherman’s promise to freed slaves and so wears its politics loud and proud.
If Casablanca was a film about the Jewish plight (refugeeism) that dared not mention Jews, then Do The Right Thing comes from a company that knows exactly what it wants to say and is unafraid to do so.
The old truism that the less money you are given to make a film the fewer people you have trying to get you to water it down works here. Universal thought that the film would only appeal to a minority audience and so gave it a tiny budget and, to be fair, there hadn’t been black films made much before then (that’s why you have the jump cut when Mookie and Tina kiss – black people didn’t see black people kissing on screen then. Spike Lee wanted them to see it twice for good measure).
This film resists easy answers. Everyone is compromised but also everyone is struggling: Sal wants to be the calm heart of the community but falls back on racism and violence when provoked. Buggin’ Out is wrong in his targeting but points out, rightly, that white people are making money off of poor black people. Radio Raheem has rage, and Smiley has some matches.
That feeling you got when you saw the climax of the film? That was only possible because nobody making it knew if they would ever get to make a Hollywood film again and they wanted to put everything they had to say into this one.