Quotes of Quotes (VI)

8. Dezember 2012

„I feel like, on a more macro scale, there’s started to be a relationship between filmmakers and people who watch their films – you know, on Twitter and on the Internet. That relationship’s based on honesty, so the minute I knew that I was definitely not in the game, I made sure that I made that clear. Because I don’t want people to think I’m out there pulling strings on this thing. I don’t have a PR rep. I live in Vermont. It’s just me on my computer, seeing these things catch fire.“
– Colin Trevorrow on his alleged involvement with Star Wars

I have always been interested in fame. When I was in my late teens, I had the chance to talk at length with an actor who was now working in theatre but used to star on a daily German soap opera, about the experience of being recognized on the street and being sent love letters by teenage girls. In my vast egotism, however, what I find most interesting about the new artist-fan relationship brought about by the internet is not even the way the artists/celebrities feel about it (although that is still fascinating as well, listen to this episode of the /filmcast to hear three average Joes talk about their small internet fame). What’s exactly as strange is the way, this new communication paradigm sometimes makes me (and, I guess, others) feel like I know people I most definitely don’t. And then I try to chat to them on Twitter as if we’re mates. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s weird.

I saw this a the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The kind of stuff that got produced in the early days of Star Wars merchandising will probably never cease to amaze me.

You probably need an adult (dirty) mind to think dirty about this but I don’t want to be parent to the kid who shouts: „Look, Daddy, C3PO has sticky white stuff coming out between his legs!“ The „look“ on Threepio’s face, however, is what makes this really priceless.

Kevin Feige was busy …

21. August 2011

In keeping with my ongoing „coverage“ of the conception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I simply love this tweet quoting Keving Feige from Disney’s D23 Expo. I didn’t care about Comic-Con that much, but I sure wish I could be in Anaheim right now.

Kevin Feige’s Masterplan

18. August 2011

The most recent episode of Jeff Goldsmith’s excellent podcast series The Q&A featured a recording of Jeff’s Panel The Art of Adapting Comics to the Screen at Comic-Con. In it, he interviewed two screenwriting duos, who have written for films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America) and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (Iron Man). Among other things, Jeff asked them about Marvel Studios‘ president of production Kevin Feige’s overall vision for the MCU. This is what they had to say:

Hawk Ostby: Kevin, first of all, is amazingly smart. He also loves these characters and he knows this universe so well, you’re not gonna put one over on him. It was just very clever, the way he planned – just sitting around, listening to how this all was going to gel with all the other storylines and planting things in the movie. It was fascinating. (…) The big idea was really when he said: „At the end of Iron Man, he’s gonna say ‚I am Iron Man.'“ And we thought: „Wow, that’s crazy – then what happens?“ And he says: „We’ll figure it out“. That was the really big one and we thought: „Wow, this is really cool.“ Because nobody had done that.

Mark Fergus: He wore everybody down. Everyone kept saying: „We’ll come back to that, we’ll come back to that.“ And by the end of the movie, he had everyone going „Yeah, that is awesome.“ (…) [He said :] „Let’s paint ourselves into a corner and then next time figure out an awesome way out of it.“ And this teaser at the end with Sam [Jackson]. Kevin did the greatest thing. He previewed the movie all over the place and left that out. And at the first day of theatrical, it was there. That [meant] that Iron Man was just the beginning of something bigger. (…) This was now going to branch off into all these other movies. (…) It was really just a punch in the face going: „Yeah, here we go. Marvel Universe!“

(…) Chris Markus: When we went into our first meeting, the bulletin boards all around the room were all Ryan Meinerding’s concept art and at least one of them had Red Skull, Cosmic Cube in his hand, and a picture of Asgard shooting out of it, so we were like, „Okay, Thor.“ And then, they knew they wanted Howard Stark in it – it was amazing to walk into this thing that’s already interconnected with all these tentacles to all the other movies.

Listen to the whole Podcast on The Q&A.

A week and a half ago, I visited Harry Potter: The Exhibition at Discovery Times Square in New York. If I had not been on holiday in New York this summer and steeped in the Harry Potter films through my podcast series, I would probably not have bothered with the exhibit. Having seen it, however, it left me intrigued and puzzled.

The press release for the opening of the exhibition in April 2009 in Chicago boasted „more than 200 authentic props and costumes from the films“ and had Eddie Newquist, president of the company responsible for the show’s concept, excited about it being „enchanting, engaging and, above all, true to the spirit of the films“. What does that mean?

The most interesting part of the exhibition for Potter buffs is indeed that it showcases original props and costumes. Which means that you can finally see clothes worn by Dan Radcliffe, Alan Rickman and others „for real“. You can see, for example, how small the three young wizards once were – something which at least for me is always hard to imagine when your only reference is a big screen image.

The exhibit is also made up like a theme park ride, full of replicas of scenery and characters from the series. These make for „magic“ atmosphere, of course, but they also hammer home what seems to be the point of the whole exhibit: that Harry’s World isn’t something that was created by a team of talented filmmakers, but something that is almost so real you can experience it yourself. The following examples illustrate this concept:

1. Every costume will bear a caption reading something like „Robes worn by Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in ‚Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'“. Note how the caption emphasizes the fictional character over the actor, ignoring the fact that Harry Potter never actually wore the robes. Daniel Radcliffe wore them while he was playing Harry Potter.

2. The Hagrid costume on display is not human-sized, it’s Hagrid-sized. The belonging plaque will still read „Clothes worn by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane)“, eliminating the notion that Coltrane is actually not as big as Hagrid and probably wore smaller clothes when he portrayed the character, while the clothes on display might have been worn by a size double, if they are actually authentic props at all (there is no way to tell).

3. In a part of the exhibition that deals with the villains of the films, a statue of the house elf Kreacher sits between the costume busts. It’s a lifelike recreation of what the elf would look like if he ever actually existed outside of a computer and it also has a little plaque reading „Kreacher as seen in …“. This is, of course, completely meaningless, because this painted styrofoam Kreacher is just as unreal as the virtual elf on the screen. An interesting alternative would have been to display the maquette that Industrial Light and Magic used to create the character, but that would probably destroy the „magic“.

For me, this conception of the exhibit renders it quite useless no matter what you are interested in. If you really want to look behind the screens of the film series, you will be disappointed, because the show offers nothing at all about the making of the films, except the props (unlike, for example the Museum of the Moving Image which I visited a day later and which absolutely knocked my socks off because it is designed so well). If you want to study the craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the production design of the movies, the shenanigans around the actual displays will drive you mad and give you a hard time actually looking at things up close. And if you are interested in the complete immersive Harry Potter experience, you will be disappointed as well, because the props and costume displays clearly disrupt the storytelling experience of the exhibit, as they come from a world outside the show (which differentiates the exhibition from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park).

Moneymaking aside, what is the purpose of exhibitions like this? According to David Monsena, president of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Harry Potter exhibit „embodies the Museum’s mission of inspiring the inventive genius in everyone“. How any part of Harry Potter: The Exhibition could inspire you to more than buying stuff in the gift shop, however, remains a mystery to me.

(Edward Rothstein of the „New York Times“ thinks many of the same thoughts but arrives at a more positive conclusion.)

At the end of my podcast with Kirsten Dietrich about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a topic of discussion came up that I would like to mull about a bit longer in this post. We talked about whether the Harry Potter movies, even if they are maybe not the best possible translation of the books into moving pictures (I still think that a TV series might have made for a better, if more expensive, adaptation), have become the definitive visual representation of the seven novels, not least because the author J. K. Rowling was very involved in the production and casting from the very beginning.

Translations from one medium into another usually involve several changes in the ur-text to fit and, indeed, adapt it to the new medium. In this way, they generally create a new universe related to but not congruent to the universe of the ur-text. In one of the videos on the Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the screenwriters and some Tolkien experts broach this topic when they talk about adapting Tolkien’s novel. I think it is Brian Sibley who points out that, in the future, there will be two important Rings texts: Tolkien and Tolkien as interpreted by Jackson.1

In the case of Harry Potter, because the author was so heavily involved in the adaptation process, the two universes are almost alike. The films, although they differ from the books in some ways, have almost become part of the Harry Potter canon (and indeed are seen this way by the fans of the HP universe) and have succeeded in creating the definitive visual representations of characters and some events in the books because they have Rowling’s seal of approval. This has even been enforced legally, as Kirsten points out in the podcast. When Sabine Wilharm, the illustrator who created the covers for the Harry Potter books in Germany, created additional paintings that show other scenes from the books, Warner Bros. sued the commissioning publisher. The same brute force has been applied to creators of fan sites.

Ownership of and control over an intellectual property is the foundation of succesful franchising. While it does goes to silly extremes sometimes (as mentioned above), it’s a key ingredient to make the franchise work and fit together. For the process of adapting source material into film while controlling that source material at the same time (as Rowling did), this still seems to me to be a relatively new mainstream concept that I would trace back to the creation of Marvel Studios in 1996. I’ve read enough „development hell“ stories to believe that adaptations, for example of comics, used to be handled differently. The IP owner would sell their license and the studio would go and adapt it, sometimes screwing up, sometimes not, but always with very little input from the IP’s originators.

The early films produced with Marvel Studios in tow, such as Sam Raimis Spider-Man films and Bryan Singers X-Men films, already had a certain amount of faithfulness to the source material „in spirit“ that earlier incarnations had not achieved (or so, I gather, fans believe), similar to Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien. By setting up the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), however, the former comic book publisher has added another layer to the cake: harnessing the process of filmmaking, which involves hundreds of people in contrast to the few involved in creating a comic book, to produce a number of films that tie in to create one cinematic universe that, while not corresponding one-on-one to its source material, is canonic in its own right. In effect, they too are creating definitive cinematic versions of their comic book characters.

I have already expressed my admiration for the Avengers film, the first culmination of the MCU, in this blog one year ago and there is nothing more illuminating about the process than this quote by Marvel president Kevin Feige:

It’s never been done before and that’s kind of the spirit everybody’s taking it in. The other filmmakers aren’t used to getting actors from other movies that other filmmakers have cast, certain plot lines that are connected or certain locations that are connected but I think for the most part, in fact, entirely everyone was on board for it and thinks that its fun. Primarily because we’ve always remained consistent saying that the movie that we are making comes first. All of the connective tissue, all of that stuff is fun and is going to be very important if you want it to be. (Source)

The result might be thought of as a slap in the face to the individual artistic expression of any one director but it’s very effective. Marvel are applying to movies what has been general practice in TV series for ages, even more so since the advent of complicated series with multiple narrative strands such as The X-Files or Lost. They are continuing down this route, rebooting Spider-Man (as they already did with The Incredible Hulk) and, in effect, X-Men to integrate them into their grand scheme. And DC, with their umpteenth version of Superman (Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder) and, probably, Batman in the works, are hard on their heels.

The difference to a TV series, of course, is that there is no real linear plot to the MCU. While the films leading up to The Avengers share a certain timeline, each narrative strand also stands on its own with just a few nods to its sister narratives. If the actors are willing to participate, the films allow for endless tangents and intersections while they, at the same time, stay locked together in one unified and definitive worldtrack2 controlled by Marvel.3

This article only summarises some of the things I have been thinking about lately. I have probably forgotten important ideas and misinterpreted others. I would be very happy to discuss the thoughts sketched out above in more detail with readers of this article. Head to the comments!


1 Jackson very cleverly mediated between his version of Tolkien and the visual interpretations that had come before him by enlisting John Howe and Alan Lee as concept artists. In this way, there is no real „break“ between how many fans had always imagined Middle-Earth to look like, including cover illustrations etc. into their imaginations (as one does), and how it looked like in the film. ^
2 I have just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s novel „Anathem“ and borrowed this word from the book. ^
3 A multi-faceted adaptation of Stephen King’s „Dark Tower“ series with Ron Howard at the helm that, in its concept, shares some ideas with something like the MCU has, unfortunately, just been canned. ^

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