Monday, 15 November 2010

Finding Fortunes

News came the other week that Roland Emmerich's next movie will be a severely low budget sci-fi flick called THE ZONE. Days later Borys Kit wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that Emmerich has decided to shelve the project, indefinitely. That seems such a shame because Emmerich is an interesting filmmaker who is now choosing projects outside the epic disaster blockbuster banner he has actively shaped for the last 20 years. Although The Zone was to be an alien invasion picture like Emmerich's Independence Day, its framework was more distinct as it was to be produced for a chicken-change $5 million and was to be entirely comprised of a 'found footage' narrative style.

What seemed like an atypical venture for Emmerich seemed far too typical for everyone else as The Zone would have been another addition to the whole 'found footage' technique that is ubiquitous in current genre filmmaking. Last month's record breaking arrival of Paranormal Activity 2; added with innumerable 'found footage' successes like Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, The Last Exorcism and the original Paranormal Activity; indicated the whole affectation of fake documentary style is being far too over-exposed. Even international cinema is cashing in on the faux documentary craze with Norway scoring major buzz with Troll Hunter, the premise being the Norwegian government has been hiding the existence of trolls of all sizes and a team of film students go about trying to capture the monsters on their handheld cameras. Most worrying for Emmerich must have been Timur Bekmambetov's Apollo 18, a space mission gone wrong thriller that also utilises the whole 'found footage' phenomena. Apollo 18 hits theatres next spring, a similar release date to what Emmerich's movie was aiming for. So annoyed is the world at Emmerich's decision to shelve The Zone that the Guardian's Ben Child contacted Emmerich's office in LA who issued a statement saying: "This is not a project [Emmerich] is pursuing at this time." It's a bummer because Emmerich was to commence filming on The Zone this very week. His last minute decision to cancel The Zone coincided with Warner Bros. announcement that they'd also be ditching their plans to make Dark Moon from a spec script written by Olatunde Osunsanmi, which uses the conceit that NASA's manned moon missions did not stop with Apollo 17, thus a black ops team is sent to explore previously classified lunar discoveries where they come in contact with scary aliens and it's all caught on camera. Though Warner's pulled out of Dark Moon, Joel Silver's fantasy shingle Dark Castle moved in to produce and will shoot this winter. Ironically, Dark Castle has an output deal with Warner's meaning the studio will distribute the finished film after all.

The documentary approach to genre filmmaking is being overused, but that is only because it's cheap to manufacture and young audiences respond mightily well to it. Roland Emmerich was gearing up The Zone with actors Peter Mackenzie and Brandon Scott ― who were cast as a journalist and a cameraman, respectively ― rehearsing the improvised script with the director in Hollywood and a production team was in place to start filming. Columbia Pictures had even purchased The Zone as a negative pick-up and were ready to cultivate a genius marketing campaign to promote the film's scheduled spring release. With a bargain price tag and such a brilliant director on board to helm the feature, one can't help but think this will go down as a major lost opportunity. Perhaps the most likely possibility is that whilst locked in rehearsals, Emmerich realised he could not add anything new to the 'found footage' tradition and thus decided to bail on the project. Therefore, this is a creative decision more than anything other.

The key is not to underestimate the documentarian storytelling method in genre films. Paranormal Activity 2 managed to have its cake and eat it by producing a film that's massively redolent of what came before yet still delivers a fitting story in an intensely creepy way. One of the most beguiling films of this season is Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's CATFISH, which is a 'documentary' that follows Schulman's brother Nev, a New York photographer, as he meets a girl on the internet and develops an intense cyber relationship with her only to discover all is not what it seems. Suspecting that the said girl and her family are being deceptive, Nev goes out to Michigan to confront them and his eventual discovery is shocking; though not in a way you'd ever expect. Catfish screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival and was locked in a bidding war between Reliance Media and Paramount Pictures, the former winning out in the end and releasing the film through Universal Pictures. Momentum will release Catfish in the UK next month, hoping to capitalise on the $3 million-plus it's made at the U.S. box-office to date. What Catfish demonstrates is the power of watching a story unfolding through the cameras and lenses of real people capturing events in real time. Unlike Emmerich's project, Catfish isn't pretending to be anything other than an actual documentary. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman stand by their claims that what they've caught on camera is real, but others have disputed this arguing that the documentary is highly manipulative and largely fictitious. In any case, Catfish is a film for our times, examining the psyches and relationships of a culture that's constantly wired in and often gets caught out because of that. This narrative style is massively cogent and speaks to young audiences in a way that traditional methods cannot.

Just the very notion of Roland Emmerich sidestepping his regular $100 million budgeted spectacles in favour of The Zone totally had me psyched, but alas, it wasn't meant to be. Still, if the current love for documentary style stories like Catfish remains then we may be living in a golden age of 'found footage' cinema.

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