We’ve launched a new crowdfunding campaign for the film MEDEA, SOUTH CAROLINA. This is an exciting drama/thriller film based on the classic Greek play MEDEA by Euripides.medea-ifp

As of this writing, we’re trending at the top on Indiegogo for film — that’s pretty exciting and a testament to our great network of supporters.

If you’d like to check out the campaign, please go to the Indiegogo page here. Any level of involvement is appreciated, and the perks are great!

Below is an example of director Daniel Wyland’s work — a teaser from his award-winning short film ‘lastwinter’. You can check out the synopsis for the MEDEA film on the Indiegogo page — the script has been highly rated and received kudos from development executives. A unique drama/thriller, the film is intended to both enlighten and entertain.

 

Please get involved with this campaign as you can by sharing and/or contributing. Everything is appreciated. You can get all the details, including updates, at the Indiegogo page here.

How the Story Evolved

A few years ago, Julie Herber, one of the artistic directors of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET), suggested to me that I might adapt MEDEA for the stage for MET. I went back and forth with the MET on this, but kept seeing the project as a film, and actually drafted an initial screenplay. Later, I approached the MET with a different play — The God of this World — and we eventually staged a reading and subsequently produced that play in 2015.

The MEDEA script went through several more drafts, and I ran it up the flag pole with a few producers, but it never really got any traction. In addition, the reaction from consultants and development execs was warm, but not warm enough to move the project forward.

Enter director Daniel Wyland. I discussed the project with Dan after seeing his incredible short film ‘lastwinter’ (teaser above). After showing the existing draft to him, we decided to scale it back and make it doable on a lower budget and fewer locations. With Dan, the idea would be to film the project in Maryland, and pull from Maryland’s incredibly diverse talent pool within the film and theater community.

The result was fascinating. Once I downsized the script, the consultants/development executives that I typically work were quite enthusiastic about the re-write, and as a result the script received higher ratings and kudos, and they wanted to begin shopping it around to producers.

The bottom line is that the MEDEA project remains somewhat of a work in progress in terms of the level that it will be produced. Should we be able to attract a high level production company (likely from Los Angeles or New York), Dan and I could scale up the project quite nicely, and even look toward name actors for some of the roles.

On the other hand, we have an excellent platform for making a really great film at a lower budget within Maryland.

Time, effort, and luck will tell where we land. In the meantime, Dan Wyland and I are determined to get the film done. And we’re convinced it will be great.

Don Thompson — Producer/Writer — MEDEA, SOUTH CAROLINA
don@nextpix.com

 

 

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When looking at the cultural and media landscape of the United States it strikes me that there is little or no discussion of the cultural Zeitgeists – more specifically, the viewpoints and mindsets that continually compete for our attention, usually in order to convince us that a particular viewpoint is superior to another, and that a particular worldview should prevail.

These Zeitgeists show up in our films, our media, our social discourse, on Facebook posts, in television shows, in the News, and in discussions over dinner. Often considered cultural ‘givens’, some of these mindsets can lead us to conflict, even while others try to lead us toward peace and reconciliation. Yet other Zeitgeists imply that we should give up to the futility of the human condition which is, after all, tragic – that fatalism is the only realistic approach to life.

So what do I mean by Zeitgeist? The definition of Zeitgeist is ‘spirit of the time’ – and some philosophers would argue that one cannot determine the Zeitgeist of a time except through a historical lens. A Zeitgeist is a mindset, a prevailing mood and way of seeing, an overarching frame through which we view the world.

I’ll argue that we can define cultural Zeitgeists as they exist today, and furthermore that we can actually find several Zeitgeists in contemporary culture that compete for our attention. In my mind, the top three are:

  • Humanistic
  • Mythic
  • Nihilistic

The Humanistic Zeitgeist sees human beings as of central concern – that human dignity, compassion, tolerance, reconciliation, common human values and social justice are of paramount importance. This Zeitgeist seeks to humanize the other side and to have empathy for their viewpoint.

The Mythic Zeitgeist views the world through the lens of the hero. Always requiring a villain and/or nemesis, the hero’s journey and path believes that wars are just and winnable, that evil is absolute, and that eye-for-an-eye justice should prevail. This mindset is the world of angels and devils, winners and losers, of spoils going to the righteous victorious. It is, in the end, hopeful and optimistic for a future when the final war is won and a golden age prevails.

A Nihilistic Zeitgeist tells us that the good guys do not always win, that evil may in fact prevail, and that the inevitability of death stalks all human beings. The reality of our mortality, and the uncertainty of anything beyond this life and world and our ability to survive in it alone, without trusting others to help, is what defines this worldview.

Since most of us are film fans, it might be useful to break down these Zeitgeists in terms of familiar movies. Please bear in mind that the categories are fluid, with many crossovers from one Zeitgeist to another, with some stories that pit one Zeitgeist against the other.  Below is a breakdown of each Zeitgeist by its sources (and example theater and films), themes and music corollaries:

Humanistic

Sources: Greek Theater, Shakespeare, Auteur films, Disney/Pixar, Literature, Romance

randi-lee2

Randi forgives Lee in ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Examples: Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Bicycle Thief, Dead Man Walking, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Manchester by the Sea, Toy Story, Out of Africa, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gandhi

Themes: human dignity, reconciliation, relative evil, compassion, social justice, humanizing the other, common values – trends toward more traditional drama, tragedy, comedy

Music Corollaries: Classical, melodic, poignant, sensitive, emotive, soft rock.

Mythic

Sources: Greek Epics, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Marvel

Examples: The Odyssey, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Never Ending Story, Kill Bill, The Hunger Games, Iron Man

superman-ww

Superman and Wonder Woman duke it out with an enemy

Themes: hero’s journey, family/tribal and national bonds, eye for an eye justice, requires a villain/nemesis, wars are winnable, hopeful – trends toward melodrama and fantasy

Music Corollaries: Wagner, impressionistic, operatic, rock mashup.

Nihilistic

Sources: Horror, Crime, Action/Thriller

Examples: The Thing, The Strangers, American Psycho, Reservoir Dogs, The Accountant, Open Water, The French Connection

nihilist-frenchconnection

The bad guy gets away in ‘The French Connection’

Themes: survival, revenge justice, security, trust no one, you are alone, cynical of human intentions, fatalistic – trends toward the absurd and violent

Music Corollaries: Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, post-modern, atonal, dissonant, heavy metal.

It does not take much imagination to quickly surmise that these three Zeitgeists permeate culture on every level. They inform who we call an enemy and if we can forgive them, if we require a villain or nemesis to define who we are, whether or not we seek a cause to support, or whether we take guilty pleasure in looking at other people suffer (as long as we don’t).  These Zeitgeists define the nature of revenge, of fame, of misfortune, and of attempts at peace and reconciliation. They are such givens to most people that to consider them as cultural templates – realities that arise from conscious choices that we each make as individuals – is unthinkable. And yet they do inform our choices in everything from the films we see to how we react to the political ‘other’ (whether Republican or Democrat) on Facebook.

These Zeitgeists are, in fact, a grand landscape for manipulation to both beneficial and not-so beneficial outcomes.  They are the realm of politicians and marketers and advertisers who seek to convince us to move to vote this way or that, to buy this product or that one. Often, they have strong and prevailing economic agendas that buttress them. While there are arguably other Zeitgeists that should make the list (for example, rationalism) the three discussed here, in my mind, pervade culture more dominantly because they address the emotional as well as intellectual needs of people.

Why talk about Zeitgeists? In my mind, awareness that cultural Zeitgeists are in the realm of human choice is paramount if we have any hope of moving to a more peaceful, tolerant and accepting world.  If we actually believe, for example, that the world is made up of good and evil people, then that will color our personal interactions, our votes, our choice of entertainment, and the news that we watch. If we believe, on the other hand, that evil is relative, that empathy and dialog are possible, that each war plants the seed for the next conflict in a never-ending cycle—then we are free to choose a different path. On the other hand, if we believe human nature is unredeemable, any attempt to change it tantamount to arrogant folly, and to accept the inevitability of mankind’s destructive path is the only truly mature and realistic frame, then we nudge humanity toward yet a different outcome.

The point is that we all make choices – and by our choices we influence the power of the Zeitgeists described here.  While we may believe our individual choices are trivial and unimportant, when combined they make for powerful social forces that literally can determine the fate of mankind.  This is, in fact, the reality of the individual. We each, in our own way, define the world. It is up to each one of us to define it wisely.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

Kenneth Lonergan is not the most prolific of directors, but when he makes a film it tends to have an impact. So it was with his 2000 classic, You Can Count On Me (reviewed by me here) as well as his recent dramatic effort, Manchester By The Sea.

On one level, Manchester is a story about time. Time overlaps, fuses, and conjoins in interesting ways, due to the non-linear way that Lonergan chose to tell his story. Not only does time overlap, but dialog does as well (overlapping dialog apparently being a favorite technique of Lonergan’s). The weaving of non-linear time and very focused, human, simple and in-the-moment scenes, along with overlaying classical music onto the scenes and transitions (extending Lesley Barber’s original score), gives the film a feeling of both the natural chaos of life and, ironically, of refinement. It is the tension between the two – the sublime and the tragically simple and human – that becomes the almost Zen-like framework through which Lonergan tells his story. This particular film probably could have been edited a dozen different ways, even though the outcome could have been essentially the same.  As Lonergan said in an interview, the only way he could perceive the story being told was ‘all at once’.

This was absolutely by design; Manchester likely evolved into a final film in the editing room in a very real way, with substantial shifts and changes occurring at that stage. manchester-coreyLonergan may have even shot the different aspects of the story without being 100 percent sure of how he would ultimately weave them together. He apparently went through several drafts in writing the script, throwing out many scenes, rewriting others, then starting the process again. The result can be at times confusing, but ultimately satisfying as Lonergan and team meld together various threads of a the tragic tale of handyman Lee Chandler (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) as a pivotal error in his life caused him to lose literally everything, most importantly his two children. The film explores the consequences of that event.

While the story Mr. Lonergan tells is non-linear, the themes are timeless, as is the sea that surrounds the small fishing community where the events take place. The fundamental theme behind the story is one of redemption: how does one redeem oneself after a tragic mistake? Moreover, the film, it seems to me, focuses on the idea of how a person – a man – redeems himself in such a situation through what are essentially very simple actions.

Why would the story necessarily be different for a man than a woman?  I will argue that this story is primarily about the responsibilities that men will often assume, mainly, fixing things in the way that the handyman Lee does. Moreover, the story evokes the necessity an ambiguity of accepting responsibility even where there is no clear ‘blame’ to be had. In the case of Lee, whose error was a simple and yet profound mistake, the question becomes one of context. The context of the mistake is that the character lives in a community that both created the framework of ‘stupid men doing stupid things’ to occur, and then makes it impossible for Lee to rejoin the community and accept their forgiveness – perhaps because there was a collective guilt associated with the deaths of Lee’s children because the tragedy took place as a direct result of a ‘boy’s night of fun’ that took place at Lee’s house, in the basement, where the children slept. His daughter’s deaths were, therefore, a communal responsibility.

That said, there is no real indication that, for the most part, the punishment for Lee’s error came from anywhere else than inside his own head. His wife Randi (played poignantly by Michelle Williams) did ultimately leave him, remarry and have another child. While Lee had a similar manchesterbythesea_traileropportunity for another relationship, he didn’t take it. His choice was not to forgive himself and not really to move on, at least not until the end, where he allows another human being into his life – his nephew who experiences his own personal tragedy.

Within the context of a fairly tolerant society (Lee was not accused of manslaughter) Lee slowly finds redemption through the de facto adoption of his brother’s son Patrick (played effectively by Lucas Hedges) after Patrick’s father’s death (Lee’s brother Joe, played stoically by Kyle Chandler) – even though here Lee is also unable to take on full responsibility for that task and does so in a very cautious, meandering way.

In a world defined by competence, Lee’s error was one of fundamental lapse in his generally competent self as evident in a stupid error. So it could be said of mankind in general, for the problems of the world are very much the problems created by men and their activities – with the efforts at ‘fixing’ things creating more problems than the problems themselves. That men have, for the most part, shaped the modern world, Manchester By The Sea suggests that perhaps is their special place to accept responsibility for making it right. The film also suggests this may be no easy task.

An alternative to a male-dominated world is never really explored, but we are left with a gaping hole in the film, the ‘need’ for someone to step in and take control when nobody really wants to. As with You Can Count On Me, there is an palpable absence in the film that can be, on a simplistic level, defined as God. Or perhaps it is, in this city of fisherman, the Jesus who never shows up, referring to the biblical Jesus who chose to recruit his disciples from among fisherman. On another level, this absence can be defined as the loss of love, or the ability to love one’s self, and to treat one’s self and others with respect.

The self-hatred evident with Lee would, in another era, be fodder for the redemptive role of religion. In this film, the cross is taken on by the individual, who must in a sense take on the role of the Christ in order to find redemption; there is, apparently, no other way for a modern man do so, or so it would seem.  The film lacks any sense of a communal or individual spirituality, outside of an off-the-cuff (and humorous) allusion to Catholicism and the non-consequential appearance of a lone character randomly on the street (played in a cameo by Lonergan himself) who appears briefly (similar to Lonergan’s role as the priest in You Can Count On Me) to chide Lee about his lack of parenting skills.  As with You Can Count On Me, such advice becomes almost comic relief.

Thus suffering, in Lonergan’s tale, is so deep and pervasive that the superficial balm of religion and/or of God can do little to provide comfort. Lee’s mistake, taken as a metaphor for the modern human, puts the only hope for salvation clearly in the hands of mankind itself, and perhaps even more specifically with men themselves, loath as they are nowadays to accept that there may be a sort of universal male attitude problem and inability to mature, particularly in the US, the country that has spread its influence quite effectively in the world, and where the fruits of that influence are a mixed bag, to say the least.

As for the story of Manchester By The Sea, the most moving moment is where Randi forgives Lee. It is in Randi’s forgiveness that the film ultimately speaks to reconciliation and the kind of catharsis that makes for great drama, although again Lee is unable to accept MBTS_3869.CR2Randi’s forgiveness as he can apparently not forgive himself.

At the end of the day, perhaps Manchester By The Sea seems to strike a chord with audiences because it portrays the perceived impossibility of our current world situation, where human beings have created their own hell through their own numerous errors in judgment, and have to somehow either fix it or sink with their own doomed ship.  With the (male defined) world order clearly at risk, and the rise of scapegoating populism, it seems that the forgiveness displayed by Lee’s wife Randi is the only real hope for humanity.

Is this the ‘prescription’ given by Lonergan and Manchester By The Sea? Probably not, as I’m sure Mr. Lonergan would deny the film is in any way prescriptive in nature or perhaps not even recognize some of the comments that I’ve made about his film as being part of his intended result. But still, this is my takeaway and my advice from viewing Manchester By The Sea. For without forgiveness and love – and quietly accepting individual responsibility for our behavior without complaint or expectation of reward – without these qualities, there is only a never ending cycle of hatred and blame.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

Don Thompson’s ‘The God of This World’ is recognized by Indie Theater Now as one of the most “interesting, innovative, challenging and pertinent” plays of the past year — one of 12 new plays included in ITN’s ‘Plays and Playwrights 2017’ anthology. gotw-poster-vimeo

Read ITN announcement here...

Buy and read anthology on ITN here

In light of the recent election, I thought this blog might be worth another look…

SolPix Blog

Note: This article was updated in November, 2016 and was originally published in 2010.

When starting nextPix in 2000 one of my personal goals was to form a company that produced and promoted ‘humanistic media.’ Exactly what that means has been a work in progress, as the term humanism itself can take on a variety of meanings depending on who is defining the term.

Humanists, in the traditional sense, are secular in their outlook. They believe that ‘people are the center of all things’ and that scientific rationality, not religion, superstition or spirituality, offer the best answers for humanity’s ills. What I have proposed as defining ‘humanistic media’ is different from the purely secular in that it can and should include what might be called a spiritual or New Humanism as laid out by the late Mario Rodriquez Cobos or the ‘common human values‘ supported by the Dalai Lama in laying the groundwork for World Peace.  Moreover…

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Warning: there are potential spoilers in this review.

We’re living in a transitional time, as evident in the upheaval of Presidential Politics in 2016. To a great extent, Hell or High Water, directed by Scottish director David Mackensie, reflects current trends that can trace themselves back most recently to the financial crisis of 2008, but even further to the Iraq War and further still to the dawn of Reaganomics in the early 80’s.

That the American Dream is not working out for everyone has always been the case, particularly for minorities. It seems, however, that this reality has reached an amplified level of desperation for non-minorities as well – specifically the working white poor – and thus is finding its way more actively into our films and our politics. Hell or High Water, with its desperate White Male protagonist Toby hohw2Howard (played with rugged sensitivity by Chris Pine) who tries to outsmart a Banking system that seems intent on manipulating, cheating and throwing him under the proverbial bus (all legally) becomes the perfect anti-hero for today’s political and social realities. Toby, along with his self-destructive and yet self-sacrificing brother Tanner (played ferociously by Ben Foster), paint a pure picture of the moral morass the United States currently finds itself in.

With this particular drama (and this film certainly rises to the level of drama), there is an attempt to explore not only conflict but also what the ancient Greeks would label stasis, or civil strife. This in turn evokes homeostasis – or the tendency to seek balance and stability. We find that balance here in the Texas Ranger Hamilton, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, as he attempts both to jbfind justice, remind us that we are a nation and community of laws, but in the end tries to empathize and understand what motivated Toby and his brother to rob a string of banks when apparently they (or so he thought) didn’t really need the money.

We see in Ranger Hamilton an essentially fair-minded individual that gives us hope that stability and the rule of law will indeed prevail, even while the clever are allowed to profit. The clever being seen in both the Banking system and in Toby, who out-wits everyone, and in effect uses his own brother as fodder for the system, even as Toby sacrifices himself for his own (seemingly unappreciative) family.

His brother Tanner was the primordial warrior, needing essentially an enemy to fight in order to give him purpose. While unstated, his brother could have easily been a suicidal Iraq war veteran, although the writer (Black List winner Taylor Sheridan) sought not to expand his themes into that territory. One can only ponder the level of social commentary the film could have leveled on US society should Sheridan have taken that path.

Warriors often wreak damage on the innocent, and Tanner is no exception, made painfully evident to Ranger Hamilton when Tanner kills his partner, mixed Native American officer Ranger Alberto tannergunParker (played humbly by Gil Birmingham).  Hamilton’s response becomes a tete-a-tete of revenge-based politics and war, with one side aiming to get revenge on the other in (what seems to many) an endless series of escalations. In the case of Tanner, the war fortunately ends with his death. In real life, such deaths are usually only the catalyst for more atrocities.

That a Native American descendant would be Tanner’s central victim is no small matter, and also prescient, given the current situation with Native Americans and the Dakota Access pipeline. As Tanner exclaimed , he was a ‘The King of the Plains’ and felt he ‘was a Comanche’ (as told nativechildat the Casino to a Native American customer whom threatened him). As such, Tanner too is a sacrificial warrior, with Hamilton (same last name as a US Founding Father!) doing the deed.

It is no small coincidence for this film that among the primary ideas that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the ten dollar bill) sought to defend were private property and the need for Central Banking. It is this property and land, says Ranger Alberto in the best speech in the film, that the White Man is inevitably bound to lose to the Bankers, just as did the Native Americans did to their conquerors. It was apt then, that Ranger Hamilton be the Banker’s defender in this film.

That civilization uses its warriors as sacrificial lambs in order to maintain social stability is a repeated theme in war films, or films of warriors fighting for some sort of local or community justice, and seen in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.  Interestingly, the The Magnificent Seven (based on the Seven Samurai) is also having a remake finding itself to the screen. These morally ambiguous stories, where the anti-heroes find themselves fighting ssamuaricorruption for a seemingly unappreciative and/or apathetic society, seem to making their way back to theaters.

Another example of such a film (there are many) that comes to mind would be Michael Mann’s Thief, starring James Caan, where the thief desperately seeks normalcy, only to find that normalcy is an impossibility and a pipe dream. So it is for Toby’s brother Tanner who displays the same kind of self-destructive criminality as found in James Caan’s character in Thief.

As for Hell or High Water, this moral ambiguity is shown as the anti-hero brothers fight against a corrupt system because the brothers did in fact need the money, and the whole scheme was a way to turn the tables on the unfair (either corrupt or borderline corrupt) dealings of their local bank.  Specifically, corruption in the guise of unfair reverse mortgage on their property, a property that Toby had been deeded to by his recently deceased mother and that Toby had found out was sitting on top of a lucrative oil patch.

Hell or High Water also echoes back to a film franchise set during prior transitional political times. During the 70’s, just before Reagan, we had another series of films that one might call reactionary and emblematic of the politics of the time: the Dirty Harry series. Here the steely eyed San Francisco Cop (played iconically by Clint Eastwood) was going to lay the law down on the various threats to the White Man’s dominance of the United States: people of color, immigrants, and other assorted misfits and low lifes.

We can watch closely for a Dirty Harry re-do, with perhaps Donald Trump being the producer.  It may have a limited audience, as Clint Eastwood recently dubbed the millennial generation ‘the Pussy Generation’.

On television, the 70’s had All In The Family (starring Carroll O’Connor), which made fun of conservative politics, but in an oblique way that allowed conservatives themselves to join in on the fun. Hell or High Water, with its social justice meme combined with essentially conservative, libertarian sentiments, uses a similar methodology – allowing the left and right to come together under the same entertainment roof.

Reactionary sensibilities aside, some potentially worthwhile and quintessentially American values are on display in Hell or High Water: those of property ownership, essential fairness and decency, having our children do better than us, financial independence, and rugged individualism are all on display in Hell or High Water.

The film, while on one level a tale of a revolutionary sticking it to the Man, is on the other hand a revelation of human folly. For at the end of the day, the oil that is pumped out of the ground on Toby’s land (now deeded to his Children) may lead to the death of his children’s hope for a future. In clinging to the illusions of past fossil-fuel driven prosperity, Toby may not allow his children the freedom to explore alternatives. This is perhaps the real, off-screen tragedy of Hell or High Water. But then, according to some, we can continue to pump that oil forever, and with no consequence.

But back to Dirty Harry. My sense is that demographics and the preferences of young people have so shifted since the times of Dirty Harry that we will not find a shift in politics to a modern-era Reagan – or certainly not under Donald Trump, who at least for now is trailing at the polls. In today’s harry_callahanworld, the desperate, angry White Male may  have indeed found his match with immigrants, minorities, Soccer Moms and Hillary Clinton, and the resulting resolution may indeed need to be one of peaceful co-existence, or else all these angry White Men can only hope to go down in flames in a sort of nation-wide Waco, Texas confrontation (which occurred under Bill Clinton’s tenure). Let’s hope that’s not the case.

As an interesting side note, Hillary Clinton is the first woman mentioned in this essay.

Don Thompson is an essayist, producer and playwright.

(IndieWire) Summer is chugging along at the specialty box office.

Another acclaimed Sundance 2016 entry, Ira Sachs’ “Little Men” (Magnolia), showed a credible opening in New York and Los Angeles, as two of last week’s Park City 2016 premieres, “Indignation” (Roadside Attractions) and “Gleason” (Open Road), expanded this weekend to varying results.

Read more here...

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(IndieWire) Ted Hope used to talk a lot. In the ’90s, Hope and business partner James Schamus’ Good Machine produced major films from indie stalwarts such as Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm”) and Todd Solondz (“Happiness”).

In the digital age, Hope became a proselytizer for DIY filmmaking, even when he moved away from producing himself. He briefly ran the San Francisco Film Society in 2012 before taking on a job as CEO of streaming site Fandor.

Variety's Massive: The Entertainment Marketing Summit, Los Angeles, America - 10 Mar 2016

Ted Hope – Photo by Rob Latour

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