Kathryn Bigelow directs "Zero Dark Thirty."

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[Editor's Note: the full version of the article below appears today on the front page of The Atlantic.]

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Half the films at Sundance this year were directed by women, compared with 4.4 percent of studio movies—but those proportions seem set to change.

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By Govindini Murty. At the Oscars ceremony this weekend, not only will Kathryn Bigelow’s name not be read out on the list of the nominees for a Best Director Oscar, but for the 81st time in 85 years, no other woman’s will be, either. And while blame for Bigelow’s Oscar snub is being laid on Zero Dark Thirty‘ s perceived controversial politics, the lack of any other women nominees for a directing award exposes a more fundamental problem: the scarcity of women playing major roles both off screen and on screen in Hollywood.

Even though women buy 50 percent of movie tickets and form a majority of the U.S. population, only 4.4 percent of Hollywood’s top 100 studio movies are directed by women in any given year. The disproportionately small number of female directors in Hollywood seems to have a direct impact on the number of women seen on-screen. A 2010 USC Annenberg study led by Stacy L. Smith notes that movies with male directors featured only 29.3 percent female actors, whereas in movies with at least one female director, that number rose to 44.6 percent.

But while this year’s Oscars may reinforce Hollywood’s long-entrenched gender gap, women directors appear to be reaching a critical mass in the independent film world—a development that may soon lead to changes in the mainstream industry.

LFM's Govindini Murty and director Lake Bell at Sundance 2013.

At the recent Sundance Film Festival, a record 50 percent of the films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition were directed by women. Overall, of the 119 films at Sundance this year, 34 percent had female directors. And for the second year in a row, a woman (Jill Soloway) won the Best Director Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, following last year’s winner Ava DuVernay.

A new USC Annenberg study co-authored by Stacy L. Smith, Katherine Pieper, and Marc Choueiti confirms that there are more opportunities for women directors in the indie world versus the studio world. Commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles, the study examined 820 feature films screened at Sundance from 2002 to 2012. The study found that 22.2 percent of the festival’s U.S. narrative-competition films and 41.1 percent of the U.S. documentary-competition films were directed by women.

What accounts for the gap between Sundance and Hollywood when it comes to women? Smith says that ingrained attitudes about female directors and stars play a big role: “In Hollywood, women in front of or behind the camera still seem to be perceived as a risky investment.”


Posted on February 21st, 2013 at 8:43am.

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[Editor's Note: the full version of the article below and its accompanying slideshow appear today on the front page of The Atlantic.]

A guide to the famous Hitchcock trademarks that appear in Sacha Gervasi’s film about the director

By Govindini Murty. Sacha Gervasi’s new film Hitchcock takes a smart and entertaining look at the creation of Alfred Hitchcock’s scandalous Psycho, one of the seminal films of the 20th century. Based on Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, it sheds light on Alfred Hitchcock’s (Anthony Hopkins) pivotal collaboration with his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), his battles with studio executives and censors, and his ambiguous relationships with his leading ladies Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).

And while Psycho was considered a risky departure for Hitchcock, the film shared much with the director’s prior work, ranging from the influence of ’20s German Expressionist cinema to Hitchcock’s obsession with beautiful blondes, voyeurism, and split identities.

Here is a cultural guide to some of the themes, personalities, and cinematic references in Hitchcock.

Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho

Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho created a sensation for its depiction of the violence lurking in small-town America. The story of a demented killer who cross-dresses as his tyrannical mother in order to murder young women, the novel was based in part on the true story of convicted killer Ed Gein. When Alfred Hitchcock decided to film Psycho, he was told it would be impossible because of its controversial subject matter and was turned down by Paramount. It was only when Hitchcock announced he would fund the film’s $800,000 budget himself that Paramount agreed to distribute it.

Although Hitchcock declared that he only filmed what was in the novel, screenwriter Joseph Stefano made significant changes to the story, turning Norman Bates from a pudgy, unattractive middle-aged figure into a shy, handsome young man. Stefano also changed the story’s structure, beginning the movie with the more sympathetic Marion Crane character, rather than with Norman Bates.


Posted on November 28th, 2012 at 9:36am.

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[Editor's Note: the full version of the article below appears today at The Atlantic.]

By Govindini Murty. Jake Schreier’s debut feature Robot & Frank is a smart and funny look at serious issues: the ethics of caring for the elderly with robots, the dichotomy between nature and technology, and even the dangers of eliminating physical books in favor of digital media. Opening nationwide on August 24th, the indie sci-fi drama written by Christopher Ford is set in the near future and depicts a wily, aging con man (Frank Langella) who is given a domestic robot by his son (James Marsden) as a caregiver, only to use the robot to plan heists. The film also stars Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot.

Robot and cat.

At Sundance earlier this year, Robot & Frank charmed audiences and was honored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for “raising profound questions about the role of technology in our collective future.” I spoke with director Jake Schreier at the LA Film Festival this summer about some of those questions. The interview has been edited for length.

What appealed to you about the subject matter of a relationship between a human and a robot?

On the surface level, it was the image of this old man in a rural environment with this very clean, white piece of technology. There’s a certain visual interest that this starts from that is pretty fascinating. Chris Ford, who wrote it, [got] the idea from this real technology that is being developed to deal with the Baby Boom generation that’s aging in Japan, and they’re looking to robots to take care of their elderly. That was the genesis of it, and Ford took it from there and really fleshed it out into the script.

And you mentioned that this was based on a short that you had produced back in film school with Ford.

[Laughs.] I used that term “produce” loosely because we shot it in my uncle’s cabin. Ford made the movie and I helped him out. We were friends in film school. We put [the short] away, and Ford and I had kept working together along with some other friends. Then about four years ago we were looking for something to develop into a feature and I just thought if there was any way he could write it into something longer it would be a great thing to work with.

Frank Langella did a fantastic job and he’s obviously the heart of the film. How did he work with the robot?

Frank doesn’t need anything. He’s such a pro. Not only does he have an amazing amount of talent, but he has the ability to shape that talent and modulate it. It was amazing to watch on set. And Rachael Ma—the girl who’s in the robot suit—went through hell to do that thing, and was there for all of it, but there were times when she didn’t need to be so he’d just be acting with the torso of the robot or an apple box in the foreground. It really didn’t matter. He was locked in, one way or the other. He said to me that he just had a thing that he’d pictured in his mind and he didn’t really want to say what it was but it was all that he needed to trigger the performance. So, I was very lucky to have that.

From "Robot and Frank."


Posted on August 24th, 2012 at 10:38am.

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[Editor's Note: the article below and its accompanying slideshow appear today in their entirety on the front page of The Atlantic.]

A guide to the literary, artistic, and political tropes alluded to in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi blockbuster

By Govindini Murty. Ridley Scott’s long-anticipated Prometheus took in $50 million at the weekend box office, and with its heady mixture of sci-fi spectacle and metaphysical speculation is already generating passionate debate.

Set in the year 2093, the film depicts the crewmembers of the spaceship Prometheus as they journey to a distant moon to search for the origins of humanity. The team is led by scientist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), a Christian believer who has discovered a series of ancient pictograms convincing her that the moon is home to mysterious “Engineers” who created the human species. Shaw is accompanied on her vision quest by a robot with ambiguous intentions played by Michael Fassbender, an icy corporate executive played by Charlize Theron, and a crew of scientists and technicians. Once they arrive on the moon, they find a mysterious dome-shaped structure that contains horrifying forces with the potential to destroy humanity.

The striking images Ridley Scott devises for Prometheus reference everything from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires. Scott also expands on the original Alien universe by creating a distinctly English mythology informed by Milton’s Paradise Lost and the symbolic drawings of William Blake.

The following guide unveils the cultural mysteries of Prometheus. (Warning: these slides contain plot spoilers.)

The Titan Prometheus.

1) The Greek legend of Prometheus

As the spaceship Prometheus approaches the moon LV-223, Peter Weyland, the wealthy businessman funding the venture, addresses the crew in a video. He explains the myth of Prometheus, and says to them mysteriously, “the time has now come for his return.”

In ancient Greek myth Prometheus was a Titan who helped Zeus defeat his father Kronos. Yet after he was cheated by Zeus of his reward, Prometheus defied the gods by stealing fire from Olympus and giving it to humanity. For this crime, Zeus condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock for all eternity, with an eagle daily tearing out his liver. Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound depicts Prometheus as a mad rebel against divine authority. Prometheus barks to the god Hermes: “In a single word, I am the enemy / of all the Gods that gave me ill for good” (975-976), to which Hermes replies: “Your words declare you mad, and mad indeed” (977). This is later inverted in the Romantic poet Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which portrays Prometheus as a sympathetic figure and champion of humanity.

There are multiple Prometheus figures in the movie, from the mysterious race of Engineers who appear to have been struck down after using a lethal biotechnology, to Elizabeth Shaw who defies the limits of science to acquire potentially dangerous information about human origins, to Peter Weyland who wishes to gain forbidden knowledge of immortality to make himself equivalent to the gods. Finally, a scene in which Shaw and her fellow scientists attempt to animate the head of one of the Engineers with electricity appears drawn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—subtitled, “The Modern Prometheus.”


Posted on June 11th, 2012 at 3:19pm.

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[Editor's Note: the article below appears today on the front page of The Atlantic.]

Chatting with Julie Adams, the star who helped set the formula followed by the new Piranha 3DD.

By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. From piranhas and sharks to brain-eating crabs and giant leeches, Hollywood has provided some frightening and improbable reasons over the years for why pretty girls in bikinis should stay out of the water. Long before this week’s Piranha 3DD or even classics like Jaws, however, it was the lustful Gill Man from 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon who first made young women think twice about going swimming.

A beauty-and-the-beast tale of an aquatic humanoid who falls for a female scientist during a research expedition to the Amazon, Creature helped inspire the 3D science fiction craze of the 1950s. It also made its young star, Julie Adams, sci-fi’s first pin-up girl—and launched her distinguished career in film, TV, and on stage.

Still vibrant and active at age 85, Adams remains a popular draw at sci-fi and classic film conventions, where she’s currently promoting her lively new autobiography, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon, which she cowrote with her son, Emmy Award winning editor Mitch Danton.

From "Creature" to "Piranha": why pretty women should stay out of the water.

Over her lengthy and colorful career, Ms. Adams has seduced Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper on screen, played John Wayne’s wife, tussled in a burning basement with Barbara Stanwyck, and played the love interest to James Stewart, Rock Hudson, and Charlton Heston. She’s been directed by Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh—and more recently has appeared in projects like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and TV shows like CSI and Lost.

Yet Adams still remains best known for her role as Kay Lawrence, the sultry brunette in a plunging one-piece pined over by the Gill Man in Creature.

What was your initial reaction upon getting offered Creature?

[Laughs.] Well, I wasn’t thrilled, you know, and I thought I could turn it down, but then I would go on suspension [from Universal Pictures] and wouldn’t get paid … and so I thought, well, the studio wants me to do it, what the hey, it might be fun. And it was!

What was director Jack Arnold like, and how did you two get along?

I got along great with Jack Arnold, and he was a wonderful director. He was very low key, he seemed almost casual—but it was very easy to work with him. Any suggestion he made always made sense.

Did you interact much with William Alland, the producer?

Not that much, because he was not on the set that much—but I liked him. He was always very nice to all of us.

Actress Julie Adams.

Alland played the reporter in Citizen Kane, and he apparently attended a dinner party hosted by Orson Welles while they were shooting Kane. Welles’s lover Dolores Del Rio was also there, and she brought along Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Figueroa had heard a legend as a child about an Amazon water creature, half-man and half-lizard. And the story went that there was an Amazon village that would bring a virgin to the creature once a year in order for the creature not to terrorize the village.

Poor virgin!

Right. So Alland went home later and wrote Figueroa’s story down. And then about 12 years later the whole 3D craze started, and at that point he pulled out the story and started to make a movie of it.

That’s a very interesting story—it fits in, in a wonderful, cuckoo way.


Special Note to LFM Readers:

Julie Adams’ autobiography The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon is available exclusively at her website . Featuring 300 photos of the gorgeous Adams and her famous co-stars, the book provides a charming look at Adams’ experiences working with movie greats like James Stewart, Tyrone Power, Ida Lupino, and many others. While supplies last, the book also comes with a bonus CD of the iconic score for Creature From the Black Lagoon, re-recorded by Monstrous Movie Music and featuring music by Henry Mancini, among others.

Posted on May 29th, 2012 at 10:13am.

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"The Avengers" was photographed digitally, whereas "The Dark Knight Rises" was shot on film.

[Editor's Note: the piece below was featured today on the front page of The Atlantic.]

Digital moviemaking is on the rise, but some high-profile directors still shoot popcorn flicks the old way.

By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. This summer, Hollywood’s blockbusters are engaging in a high-stakes format war between cutting-edge digital technology and old-fashioned, photochemical film. Digitally photographed thrillers like The Avengers, Prometheus, and The Amazing Spider-Man will be battling it out with equally epic movies shot on film such as The Dark Knight Rises, Men in Black 3, and Battleship. Indeed, no summer in recent memory boasts so much variety in terms of how films are photographed and exhibited.

Yet with studios looking to trim costs on increasingly expensive “tentpole” movies, traditional celluloid film—easily the more expensive of the two formats—may be on its way out as the cinema’s medium of choice. Still, advocates of film continue to make compelling arguments about why theirs is the more enduring medium, even as both sides pull out their biggest guns this summer in an effort to prove definitively the commercial value of their respective formats.

Right now, advocates of film have numbers on their side. Of this summer’s major blockbusters, more were shot on film than digitally. Aside from The Dark Knight Rises, Men in Black 3, and Battleship, other summer tentpole movies filmed photochemically include Snow White and the Huntsman, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and The Bourne Legacy.

But digital technology has the momentum and the prestigious advocates who will likely help it win out eventually.

For the rest of the article please visit The Atlantic.

Posted on May 14th, 2012 at 1:32pm.

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