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Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

10 Filmmaking Lessons from Kim Jong-Il

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Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

North Korea is a country shrouded in mystery, somehow as intriguing as it is tragic. Reports of famine wiping out a significant portion of the country’s population in the ‘90s, a seeming disregard for anyone outside the elite in the capital city of Pyongyang, and the total suppression of information from outside sources make it a difficult place to get to know, not to mention live in. Yet the country seems enraptured by its leaders: When Kim Jong-Il died in 2011 citizens lined the streets, many weeping uncontrollably.

The Kims have a lot of tools at their disposal to help deify them, but none have harnessed it better than Kim Jong-Il. Kim was a film obsessive, the proud owner of one of the largest private film collections in the world, with reportedly over 20,000 movies—almost all of them bootlegs, since it was illegal to import western media into North Korea. He experienced the power of cinema first-hand, and knew he could exploit it for the benefit of his and his father’s regime.

Infamously, he kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife actress Choi Eun-hui in 1978, forcing them to make North Korean propaganda films for years before their daring escape in 1986. But even before that, in 1973, Kim Jong-Il published his propaganda manifesto On the Art of the Cinema, a 300-page, quasi-impenetrable opus filled with musings about what it takes to make a great film. The book was instantly a must-read among North Korea’s filmmaking studios—meaning they were literally forced to read it, not that it was a hit—and shaped North Korean cinema for many years. It also offered some (occasionally quite obvious) lessons to filmmakers around the globe, including these:

1. “THE SEED IS THE CORE OF A LITERARY WORK.”

Cover page of the On the Art of the Cinema's English edition. Image credit: Finnusertop via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
It might seem that talking about literature would be a bit of a sidestep for a book on filmmaking, but Kim Jong-Il dedicates the first 100 pages of his book to “Life and Literature.” He discusses literature as a source material for great cinema—combined, of course, with the great struggle and life experience of the North Korean people. In subchapters laced with clumsy metaphors, Kim likens a written work to a living thing and tells us that “in order to build the organic structure of a literary piece, it is necessary to have a clear vision of the fundamental principle which permeates all the elements of an artistic image and welds them into an integral whole.” Which, plainly speaking, means that story is everything. Without a compelling story with a clear goal (or “seed”), a film falls flat at the first hurdle.

2. “THE MOOD MUST BE EXPRESSED WELL.”

This lesson boils down to one thing: make us look good. Is the film set in the “exploitative society” of the West where “the majority of the population live in low spirits, plagued by worries and anxiety because they are poor and have no rights”? Well, make sure the mood of the scene reflects that. Irony aside, a real lesson for filmmakers here is to develop their craft, because “mood can only be correctly expressed by artists who have attained a high level of creative skill.”

3. “EACH SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC.”

Posters for movies participating at the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival in Pyongyang. Image credit: Getty Images

 
A rookie mistake for filmmakers and screenwriters is forgetting that their scenes serve to propel the narrative forward, or to reveal more information about a character. “A film has to compress a considerable amount of narrative into a small space,” Kim points out, and meandering through a scene without any clear conflict (relating back to the “seed” from lesson one) could mean that “the film as a whole [would] have no dramatic structure, and dramatic description [would] be impossible.” (Other filmmakers might note that’s not a hard-and-fast rule—Quentin Tarantino famously plays with this idea in Pulp Fiction’s “Royale with Cheese” scene.)

4. “BEGIN ON A SMALL SCALE AND END GRANDLY.”

You could never accuse Kim of being a fan of subtlety and nuance (this, after all, is a man who claimed his birth was heralded by a double rainbow and whose favorite movies were said to be Friday the 13th and Rambo), and his musings on story arcs reflect this. “First impressions are important in a film,” the Dear Leader says, before elaborating: “if the beginning is too complicated, it will be difficult to follow the development of the story.” Solid advice: ease your audience into the narrative adventure you’re about to take them on.

What about the grand ending? Well, make sure it has meaning. Kim talks at length of grounding the story in a relatable human struggle rather than anything fantastical, and claims that “introducing some stunning occurrence or the total impact of something completely strange and unheard-of, in the hope of evoking meaningless exclamations of wonder, is a vulgarity which is incompatible with art created for the people.” That’s big talk for somebody who would go on to produce an absurd Godzilla rip-off that gained so-bad-it’s-good cult infamy.

5. “LIFE IS STRUGGLE AND STRUGGLE IS LIFE.”

Pyongyang, North Korea 
“Art presupposes life,” Kim says. “Without life there could be no artistic creation. An artistic work which does not mirror life honestly is useless.” (We’re guessing he’s not a big sci-fi guy.)

The end goal of North Korean cinema was, and is, to instill an exaggerated sense of national pride in the audience, and watching characters struggle—plus, crucially, overcome their struggles—on the big screen is one big way to create that pride. Of course, stories about overcoming struggles aren’t limited to North Korea alone (as Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates in this clip). Identifying with a lead protagonist’s struggle helps keep the audience rooting for them.

6. “IN CREATIVE WORK ONE MUST AIM HIGH.”

When Kim says “aim high” here, he’s referring more to creative standards than commercial success (ignoring the fact that state-produced films are always a commercial success in North Korea because viewing is often mandatory). According to Kim, “even if certain individual scenes are quite impressive, an able director will be concerned if the work as a whole appears vague and unconvincing” and ultimately a sincere belief in the work you’re making will help, as “the force of the passion he experiences when nurturing an excellent seed fuels his activity.”

7. "THE SECRET OF DIRECTING LIES IN EDITING."

Pyongyang, North Korea 
Again, Kim isn’t breaking any ground here—the Russian filmmakers of the early 20th century were among the first to harness the power of editing. Look no further than the Kuleshov Effect (an editing technique based on the idea than an audience will derive more meaning from two shots in a sequence than one shot shown in isolation) to see the kind of impact their work is still having on cinema today.

“Throughout the whole course of making the film, the director must constantly consider the work from the point of view of editing,” Kim says. He has a point: Considering how a scene is going to be stitched together in the edit is vital, but can easily be forgotten about on set. Kim goes on to say that the director “must always seek, by exploring new possibilities, to enhance the role played by editing.”

8. “FILMING SHOULD BE REALISTIC.”

Kim’s ideas of realism are tailored toward the camera as witness to the honorable workers’ struggle. He says that “there is nothing in society and nature, in human life or the physical world, which cannot be captured on camera,” and in doing so one can create “a rhythmical flow of imagery which will evoke a tapestry of emotions.” However, his understanding of cinematography and composition is clearly limited, with statements littered throughout the chapter such as “the camerawork of a film should portray everything clearly and concisely” and “the cameraman should portray life in a natural and realistic way”—none of which are elaborated upon.

He does, however, acknowledge that movement plays a vital role in the visual makeup of a film, explaining that shooting “should create cinematic movement by combining the movement of an object with that of the camera.” In other words, don’t just leave your camera sitting motionless on a tripod unless there’s a very good reason for it. Life, after all, rarely stands still.

9. “BEFORE ACTING [THE ACTOR] SHOULD UNDERSTAND LIFE.”

A movie poster in North Korea. Image credit: BRJ INC. via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 
When he kidnapped the director Shin Sang-Ok, one of Kim’s major complaints about North Korean film was the melodrama. He bemoaned that actors were constantly crying in the movies—and I mean really crying. Which is why he emphasizes the importance of a non-theatrical realism: “The actor should not ‘act’ before the camera but behave as he would in real life,” Kim instructs, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about how the actor and character should become one and the same. (One wonders if he’d appreciate Jared Leto’s method acting.)

10. “MUSIC SHOULD BE APPROPRIATE TO THE SCENES."

This is another lesson that seems so painfully obvious it’s hard to believe Kim managed to spin it out to seven pages, but here we are. Using the wrong music is still a mistake you see today—filmmaker and YouTuber Darious Britt touches on recent examples of it in this 2015 video. One key mistake: You can’t just throw a piece of dramatic music over your scenes to add drama if there’s none there already. “Only when film music both conforms with the spirit of the times and suits the specific situation depicted can it pluck at the people’s heartstrings,” Kim says.

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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox
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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

YouTube

Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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Warner Bros.

On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

Warner Bros.

Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes? And [Hanson] said ‘Dean Martin.’”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

Warner Bros.

[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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