Friday, May 22, 2009

Lights, camera, Twitter

on location in nice/rob luketic's twitpic

Some time over the past two months, in between posting over two thousand 140-character reports, replies, photos and live-streaming videos to his 11,000-strong Twitter tribe, Robert Luketic has been directing a Hollywood blockbuster.

The Lionsgate thriller, working title Five Killers, stars A-lister Ashton Kutcher as a retired hitman who is pursued by assassins. Kutcher is flanked by a stellar support cast that is headlined by Katherine Heigl, Tom Selleck, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Mull.

At press time the film was still shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, after a fortnight stint in and around the glitzy locales of France’s Côte d’Azur.

This is Australian-born Luketic’s sixth feature since he first caught the attention of Hollywood in 1995 at the age of 23 with the festival circuit hit short Titsiana Booberini – before breaking through with the 2001 box office smash rom-com Legally Blonde.

However Five Killers is shaping up as a first for not only Luketic, but the film business itself.

Since the birth of cinema, the filmmaking process has been documented in various forms. Examples include Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, which charted the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 book Rebel Without a Crew about his 1992 feature El Mariachi. Since the world went online in 1995, new media-savvy filmmakers such as Kevin Smith, Peter Jackson and Brian Singer have used blogs and multimedia to document their various activities.

But Five Killers appears to be the very first major film production whose shooting schedule has been documented in real time using social media.

And to be quite specific, using Twitter: the public microblogging service via which people – 14 million and counting – communicate to the world in 140-character “tweets”.

Launched three years ago, Twitter’s popularity has recently skyrocketed, experiencing quadruple digit growth over the past twelve months - and revolutionizing the news delivery business along the way.

Forget DVD special features, 13 months before Five Killers is even due for theatrical release, Luketic’s Twitter fan base has been drawn into the normally exclusive world of big budget filmmaking and made privy to blow-by-blow accounts about almost every facet of the production – as the cameras rolled.

From location glimpses to peeks inside the special FX engine room, stolen moments of stars on set and quirky photo vignettes - including a shot of the guest director's chair made for Kutcher's wife, Demi Moore, whilst visiting the shoot location in France, complete with the name "Gladys Kravitz" - as well as individual introductions to seemingly every last member of the normally faceless production crew.

There has also been a series of live-streamed video dispatches, including one account – shot in the staff canteen over lunch - recounting how Kutcher had just accidentally knocked a stuntman out cold during an action take. Oops.

Kutcher is perfect for this role in more ways than one. Having raced CNN to be the first Twitterer with one million followers last month, Kutcher's Twitter feed is now the world's most popular and he is also Tweeting from the Five Killers set. Demi Moore also tweeted and shot live-streamed videos during the Côte d'Azur shoot.

In spite of the score of assistants at his disposal, Luketic insists that absolutely noone else comes between him, his iPhone, laptop and his Twitter audience. And, reveals Luketic, this was cause for some initial studio concern.

“The studio was a little apprehensive at first - they even asked I give my password to them so they could ‘manage’ it for me” says Luketic. “That was not going to happen. Ultimately, once they saw how my followers grew each day, they became very supportive and, in fact, are as addicted to the Tweets as anyone. I get emails asking for more or wondering where I am should I not Twitter for a few hours”.

With the weight of what Luketic reports is Lionsgate’s biggest film budget to date riding on his shoulders, how does he concentrate on the task to hand while simultaneously logging it?

“It’s surprisingly easy” says Luketic. “My sets are very organized and smooth running for the most part, so it’s no effort at all to shoot a pic, type 140 characters, and post it for the world to see. It’s actually a lot of fun and I will have an awesome timeline of making this movie at the end. So while some see it as junk food, I see it as a diary or memento of sorts. Realistically, it takes me 30 seconds to snap a picture, treat with an App like Camerabag, and then post it. I guess anyone could do it. Obviously, it’s a film set and there will be times when I have focus for nothing but the task at hand.

“It has not changed my approach to filmmaking. But it has made me more proactive and in control of what people see regarding ‘behind the scenes’. It’s not cookie cutter. From the mundane to the mysterious, at least it’s my side of things. My say. My Twitter”.

But apparently it wasn’t only Lionsgate that harboured concerns about Twittering Five Killers.

Prior to the shoot, Luketic had already been using Twitter and Facebook for three years – but only ever set to private and accessed by his close friends.

It was not until a dinner conversation with friend and colleague, Dana Brunetti, on the eve of the Five Killers shoot, that Brunetti managed to twist Luketic’s arm to ‘open up’.

Notes Luketic, “I lived for so many years in a cocoon – coddled and protected by my business - it was time to go out on my own. I feel stronger and happier for having done it. Thanks little bird”.

Brunetti, the president of Trigger Street Productions, founder of and a producer on Luketic’s 2008 feature 21, says that although studios have a love/hate relationship with social networks such as Twitter, social media is a runaway train.

“Studios love the promotional aspect of Twitter, but fear the loss of control they normally have always had aside from the occasional leak of information or distant paparazzi shot of the set” says Brunetti. “Now people are ‘leaking’ information and posting photos from the set itself while it happens. Twitter is basically a live feed for information. I've experienced the studio reaction to this on a couple of my films in the past including 21, as on our site, we've had a moblog [mobile blog] up for a couple of years now that gave us this same ability”.

He adds, “When I started uploading pics from the set of films like Fanboys and 21, and the studios realized this, they quickly grew concerned and wanted to stop it all together as they always had approved what photos from set went out anywhere. Ultimately we agreed that I would post only certain photos.

"That was two and three years ago, but now with Twitter, even that control is out the window, as everyone with a cell phone can post a message, picture, or video making it next to impossible to rein in. Then when you have the director doing it, as well as the stars, the snowball has begun and it becomes unstoppable. Rather than fighting it, the studios will have to adapt and embrace this to use to their advantage, which I believe they are apprehensively starting to do. But I don't think it will before long before they begin to see the true power it can have for a project”.

Cinema cognoscenti view Luketic’s Five Killers Twitter diary as an inevitable step in the evolution of a medium which originated with a single projector screening on a wall.

“It’s measure of the zeitgeist” says Peter Giles, director of digital media at the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

“It's not just filmmakers who are engaging in it [social media], it's across the board in every business. Robert is making a movie that’s going to last for an hour and a half, but this is the key way of connecting with people in a more durable way, in order to prepare them for the movie and in order to get them talking about it as well. So it’s linked to marketing but I think it’s more than that really. It’s a real-time exchange of information in between a director and their audience”.

Joost Den Hartog, director of the Australian International Documentary Conference, reports that the documentary field was recently shaken up by the 'participatory media experiment' RiP: A remix manifesto. Engineered by documentary filmmaker and new media director Brett Gaylor, the film examines copyright issues in the information age and Gaylor’s audience contributed to the filmmaking process via the director’s video remix community

But the social media documentation of traditional filmmaking, notes Den Hartog, might well be pioneering not only a standalone media experience, but a new media mashup genre.

“When filmmaking started it, you shot something and then you had to find somebody who had a projector and then we had broadcasting, which distributed it a bit more widely and then we had VHS, Betamax and then the DVD, which had a bit of an interactive menu on it” says Den Hartog.

“Cinema is going from being a one way street to a more and more interactive form of media. What would be really interesting and sort of revolutionary is if, during the filmmaking process, the comments he [Luketic] gets change the film that he eventually delivers? That’s what is new about this way of documenting. It’s a two-way technology”.

Originally published (in a much tighter format) in The Weekend Australian Magazine, May 16th 2009.


MerleChloe said...

What a wonderful article! I follow both @robluketic and @DanaBrunetti They are some of the most engaging twitters that I have encountered. Their Tweets not only give a glimpse into their professional lives, but into their personal lives. As difficult as I would imagine it would be, they are able to balance both, and with a lot of humor, humility, and class.

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