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7 Movies With Backstage Antics That Inspired Other Films

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1. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957) / Ed Wood (1994)

By any standard, Edward Wood, Jr. was not a particularly good filmmaker. His films had highly noticeable continuity errors, backgrounds that wouldn't stay still, and flying saucers that were clearly made of cardboard. He would have died in obscurity had it not been for the irony that his movies achieved cult status thanks to their sheer awfulness. Film critic siblings Harry and Michael Medved pronounced Plan 9 from Outer Space the worst film of all time, and David Letterman got laughs from his audiences simply by running clips from the film during the early days of his show.

Made with the last remaining footage of his late friend Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood's dogged pursuit to make Plan 9 From Outer Space is the subject of Tim Burton's 1994 movie Ed Wood. Johnny Depp plays the title character and Martin Landau plays Lugosi (he received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). Burton paints Wood as not just a sympathetic figure but as the embodiment of a true auteur. Wood's complete obliviousness to his lack of talent, and his unwavering optimism in the face of it, is seen as his biggest strength; it's what wins the hearts of those around him and the audience. In fact, the film never allows Ed Wood to learn the reaction to his film: As Wood is walking out of the premiere of his film, he asks his girlfriend to elope with him instead of sticking around to hear critical opinion (which likely would have been negative). Both Tim Burton and Johnny Depp count Ed Wood among their greatest films.

2. Nosferatu (1922) / Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, one of the landmark films of the silent era, is the first of a great many films to be based on Bram Stoker's famous novel Dracula. Without Nosferatu demonstrating the popularity of the vampire genre, we wouldn't have Twilight, True Blood, or The Vampire Diaries. The film almost got shut down, however, because Stoker's widow sued the studio over the unauthorized use of her husband's novel (written in 1897). Murnau persisted with different names for his characters.

The most chilling aspect of the film is Max Schreck's portrayal of the Dracula stand-in (dubbed "Count Orlock"). Because audiences in 1922 were so new to the horror genre, Schreck's striking facial features made quite an impression on audiences, and rumors fueled among audiences at the time that Schreck was an actual vampire. It also helped that Schreck didn't do a lot of acting afterwards (although a closer look at his filmography shows he did do a number of less notable films).

In the 2000 film Shadow of a Vampire, director E. Elias Merhige and writer Steven Katz do a backstage film about Nosterafu with a twist: In this fictionalized account, director F.W. Murnau's (John Malkovich) film is such a success because he finds an actual vampire to play the role of the Count.

3. African Queen (1951) / White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

Many of acclaimed director John Huston's films were adventure stories that were shot on location, which was something few studios allowed directors to do at that time. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was shot in Mexico, Beat the Devil was shot in East Africa, and The Man Who Would Be King was shot in Morocco—but his most extreme location shoot was for the African Queen. The film, about a missionary (Katharine Hepburn) and a disheveled riverboat captain (Humphrey Bogart) travelling down Africa's Zambezi River in World War I, was shot in a previously unmapped location in the Belgian Congo.

Pretty much the entire cast and crew got sick from dysentery, malaria, and snake bites. It didn't help that Huston was a stubborn and strong-willed man who had a penchant for indulging in adventures. "He had a habit of losing interest in a project halfway through, and he indulged his passions for horses, drink, gambling and women as if he had the divine right to be supplied endlessly with same," wrote Roger Ebert. In this particular case, Huston's adventure of choice was shooting an elephant. When Huston first arrived in the Congo, he delayed production so he could go on a safari. When he failed to shoot an elephant on that outing, he refused to continue production until he succeeded in shooting one. Hepburn wrote in her autobiography that Huston convinced her to go hunting and inadvertently led her to a herd of wild animals from which the two were lucky to escape alive. She was among a number of people who theorized that Huston signed on to the movie just so he could go on safari.

Among those who got sick was screenwriter James Agee. A German-born screenwriter named Peter Viertel was sent to Africa as Agee's replacement. Upon witnessing first-hand Huston's mad quest to shoot an elephant, Viertel was inspired to write a semi-biographical novel about Huston centered around that experience. The novel was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood, who directed and starred as stubborn director John Wilson. Despite the name changes, the film sticks pretty close to the novel.

4. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2000) / Lost in La Mancha (2002)

Director Terry Gilliam (originally of Monty Python fame) is no doubt an artistic visionary, but is also known throughout the industry to be pig-headed and immature. Among his more famous battles against studio overlords were refusing to continue production on The Brothers Grimm for two weeks because of disagreements over casting, and taking out a full-page ad attacking Universal Studios after they made unauthorized edits on Brazil. (The resulting director's cut resulted in his only Oscar nomination, so he might have been onto something.)

When Gilliam shot his 1995 film 12 Monkeys in Philadelphia, Temple University film students Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were given permission to shadow the director. And when he decided to make his next film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Fulton and Pepe set out to shoot a behind-the-scenes observational documentary.

Then disaster struck: Star Jean Rochefort got sick, the crew let production fall behind schedule, and flash floods destroyed the sets. Within the first week, production was seriously in jeopardy, and the movie was eventually canceled. Meanwhile, Pepe and Fulton started to feel that it might be exploitative to continue filming such a doomed situation. Gilliam insisted they continue shooting the film, however.

As Fulton said in an interview with Moviemaker Magazine: "At this point, we called Terry and told him that we were uncomfortable shooting; that it seemed unethical to continue making a documentary about his misery. He replied, 'Screw ethics! Someone's got to get a film out of all this mess, and it doesn't look like it's going to be me. So it had better be you. Keep shooting!' That was pretty much the blessing we needed."

The end-result is an insightful look at the harsh realities of filmmaking.

5. & 6. Psycho (1960) / Hitchcock (2012) and The Birds (1963) / The Girl (2012)

Those wishing to see both the good and the ugly sides of famed director Alfred Hitchcock are in luck this year—two films have just been released that tell drastically different stories about the man.

Hitchcock tells the story of the director's (Anthony Hopkins) struggle to maintain the career high he had just set for himself with North by Northwest with a risky adaptation of Psycho.

The film is based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, which argues that Hitchcock's wife of 53 years, Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren in the film), played a major creative role in his films, and the story centers largely around how the two sustained a loving marriage through their collaboration.

In contrast, the HBO film The Girl showcases Hitchcock's (this time played by Toby Jones) dark side: specifically, the way he became obssessed with his leading ladies. The Girl tells the story of disenfranchised Swedish actress Tippi Hedren (played by Siena Miller), whose experience filming The Birds served as the most extreme example of this abuse.

According to multiple sources, Hitchcock propositioned Hedren and, when she refused his advances, threatened to blackball her from show business. A headstrong woman, Hedren still refused, and Hitchcock responded by making her time on set miserable: He ordered his staff to follow her around at all times, and instead of using mechanical birds during the attack scene, as he told her he would, he hurled live birds at the actress, subjecting her to a barrage of claw marks and bird feces for five days. Even worse, Hitchcock succeeded in ruining Hedren's career by holding her to an ironclad contract that wouldn't let her act in any films not directed by him. When she was finally released from her contract, demand died down to the point where she couldn't recover.

As for the inseparable love between Hitch and his wife? According to Hedren (who attended the premiere of The Girl and gave interviews), Alma knew about Hitchcock's obsession with her the whole time and wouldn't intervene.

7. A Trip to the Moon (1903) / Hugo (2011)

When he was 27, George Méliès sold his share in the family shoe business and used the money to buy a theater where he could put on shows. He created 30 new dramatic illusions for his act—and when he saw the first screening of the legendary first films shot by the Lumiere brothers in Paris in 1895, he became immediately enchanted and decided to use the moving image as a way to enhance his magic. In his attempts to create cinematic illusions, he inadvertently became the first filmmaker to master multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, and dissolves. Because of this, Méliès is sometimes referred to as the "cinemagician."

Méliès' landmark film A Trip to the Moon is considered cinema's first foray into science fiction. Based on two different sources—From the Earth to the Moon and The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells—the film was only 14 minutes long but took four months to make and cost 10,000 francs. Despite being 110 years old, the film holds up surprisingly well today.

When acclaimed director Martin Scorsese isn't making movies, he's busy indulging in his passion for film history, whether serving as a contributor to Turner Classic Movies, aiding in film restoration, or making documentaries on subjects as wide-ranging as director Elia Kazan to film critic Roger Ebert. This made him the perfect candidate to make Hugo.

Scorsese's film (based on Brian_Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret) is set in 1920s Paris, and revolves around the friendship that forms between the orphaned 11-year-old boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a train station's clock tower and a jaded George Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley), who is resigned to managing a toy store after his film career declined during the Great War. The idea of Méliès working at a toy store in obscurity was true to life. During World War I, many of his films were burnt for ammunition or lost, and he was discovered working in a toy store, which prompted a film society to give him a retrospective and rent-free apartment.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]