Producers' 'Premonition' was for Yapo to direct


"Premonition" points: Psychological thrillers are one of Hollywood's basic genres, but Mennan Yapo was hired to direct "Premonition" because its producers felt he'd made an unconventional thriller that wasn't Hollywoodized.

The German-born Yapo had previously directed several films, including "Soundless," a 2004 German romantic thriller about a hit man at a crossroads in his life, which "Premonition's" producers felt had exactly the look and feel they wanted for their movie. It's as if they had a premonition that Yapo would be the perfect director for "Premonition." For Yapo, "Premonition" marked an important transition from making independent movies in Germany to doing studio films in Hollywood.

The TriStar Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Hyde Park Entertainment presentation, is an Ashok Amritraj/Offspring Prods. production, opening wide Friday via Sony's TriStar division. Starring are Sandra Bullock, Julian McMahon, Nia Long, Kate Nelligan, Amber Valletta and Peter Stormare. Written by Bill Kelly, "Premonition" was produced by Amritraj, Jon Jashni, Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot and Sunil Perkash. It was executive produced by Andrew Sugerman, Nick Hamson and Lars Sylvest.

Without giving anything away that would spoil seeing the PG-13 thriller, its story revolves around Bullock's character Linda, a wife-mother with a loving husband and two young daughters, who's living the perfect life until she's told that her husband Jim (McMahon) has died in a car crash. But when Linda awakens the next morning, Jim's still very much alive. Linda thinks she's just had a nightmare, but then it happens again. Some days she wakes up and Jim's dead while other days he's alive. She realizes she's living her life out of order now. Then a series of time-altering events turns Linda's world upside down, which is as much as you want to find out here.

"It's my first American film," Yapo told me -- in flawless English, by the way -- when I asked how he got to make the picture. "Before this I made one feature and one short film (in Germany). I was blessed that people saw my last film called 'Soundless,' which was shown here at the AFI. Agents work hard to make sure producers see (showings like that) in this town. So I was (lucky) that many people really liked that film and said, 'OK, this guy can easily make a film here and it will translate to the American film industry.' They believed in me and supported that and eventually producers saw the film. In this case, they had the script (for 'Premonition') in their hands and felt like this makes sense. So they showed it to Sandy (Bullock) and she, too, felt like, 'Oh, this is perfect.'

"It's a mixture of luck and blessing and people believing in you. And I also felt when I read the script that there were ideas in there that make sense for me to do them. I always try to find something like that where I can say, 'I could have written this script. This could be by me.' It was something that I really can relate to. (His getting to do the film) goes back to the roots of America -- you know, people believe in you and give you a chance."

This was in the spring of 2005. "Everybody tells me that's really fast," he said, "because eight months later in February we started shooting. But the script was there and Sandy loved it. At some point, it was a go movie. I'm really, really happy."

Asked how he prepares to direct a film, Yapo replied, "First of all, what I try to find is a script where I feel I understand this person and I can relate to this person. I try to find something where you have a strong lead that is all the time in the frame. And from that person I start writing about this person, pages and pages, and then I start writing about the other people and their relationships and all that. These are just notes for me for the actors. And this is an ongoing process. I started that the moment it was clear we were going to do that film. And this went on 'till the shoot for months.

"That's one side. The other side is, of course, the visual side -- what makes sense for this film? The 'how' comes from the 'why,' you know, and in this film almost never do you have a shot that is not related to Sandy. That's not going to happen in this film. And it made sense to tell it through her, with her, and to make sure the audience experiences everything with her or sees her see something or sees her realize something or some news hit her. So I tried to come up with two or three main rules to say, 'OK, this is her film, the character Linda's film.'"

With that in mind, he pointed out, "One of my mottos was to say, 'We've got to stay close to her. We have to feel her and watch her at all times and be close to her.' Another motto was to say, 'Reality is the key' because everything is based in reality here. I didn't want to make a ghost-like story or something like that so I said, 'The interesting thing comes from her being in that situation.' She comes down the stairs and there are 15 or 20 mourners there that are ready to go to a funeral and she doesn't know that. She's somewhere else and that's the conflict and that's how things clash. So that has to be done in a way that's very realistic. It is the moment that is happening there.

"So I come up with these mottos, these headlines basically that I will always have in my mind throughout making the film. And then what I do is usually I storyboard the whole film with a storyboard artist and my DP in order to have it done once and in order to know this is how we could do it. At the same time, I came to realize by doing that there will always be a bunch of ideas in there that are simple or that are cliches, the first ones that come to your mind, and not necessarily the best ones."

The storyboards, however, are just a starting point for Yapo: "Then what I will do is once we start shooting I will throw everything overboard and now I'm looking for the unexpected. Now I'm looking for what else is there? And what I have not thought about? I'm trying to be very open. I never look at the boards again. I have them somehow in the back of my head, but I don't look at them again. And this is also now the time when the actors should step up and I try to encourage that in every film. In this case, it was fantastic because Sandy and Julian and Amber and Nia and Kate and Peter would bring so much (to it). You know, you're blessed if you have five or six great actors like that in your first (major) film. You can't ask for more.

"Although I had sent them the storyboards, I would still say, 'OK, let's do it. What is this about? What do I think I need? Let's look at this first and then we'll rehearse and see what's going on.' And then I adjust and I change from the boards. I look at it with my DP (Torsten Lippstock) and try to find something that is fresh and is interesting, something new that we see because of the new staging or the rehearsal. So all this hard preparation work, which I do a lot of, just helps me to be ready to embrace the things I have not thought of."

As an example, he cited a scene in which "the sheriff comes to her and says, 'Your husband died in a car crash.' What happened was we were shooting that scene and it was so loud outside because there was a huge tree on the other side of the street and on that tree miraculously at that moment, I swear to God, (there were about) 300 birds. They were so loud the sound guy was freaking out. He wanted to get rid of them. I said, 'No. Look at this. This is irony.' Here's a sheriff coming and telling you your husband died in a car crash and in the background the sound for that at that specific moment is birds chirping. It's the total opposite of what you would expect in that moment. But that's life. It's a counterpoint. Why are those birds there now? We don't know. Nobody knows. And I said, 'This is perfect. I want those birds and I want the original sound.'

"We didn't dub it. We didn't change that in ADR. Nothing. So he went with the flow and at some point I said to my DP, 'OK, put the camera on your shoulder. We need to film the birds because otherwise we won't understand (what we're hearing).' So we filmed it. I sent someone over with a baseball bat and he hit the tree at some point so the birds would fly away. It was perfect. And then I changed Sandy's performance and said, 'At the end when he's gone I want you to look at that tree because (that's where the weird sound of the birds is coming from). We have to show that in order to make that work.' She did and we cut that shot in there. The birds fly away and she's alone and then the sound fades away and she's alone. There's no sound anymore. Nothing. A void. And all that happened basically (without having been planned ahead). I try to hopefully have those accidents, you could call them, or chance. It was really amazing. It was perfect and it came out of reality and being prepped to the teeth. We were prepared to do that. We could easily adjust to the situation."

The film's cinematographer, Torsten Lippstock, previously collaborated with Yapo on his feature "Soundless" and on his short films: "We know each other for 10 years. He's one of my best friends. We have not only a shorthand, we have the same aesthetic feeling. We see things exactly alike. There's lenses we like, lenses we don't like (and) stuff we wouldn't do. On a personal level it's good because he's a close friend and he has the quality of being extremely honest and direct -- blunt. So not only do we look at what we're doing in the film and technical things, but also we look at our personalities. We shared a house (while filming), which was important because in the evenings we would sit down and look at dailies and discuss (things). At the same time, because we're friends and honest with each other, we would say (things like), 'Today you were a bit tense, you know, and at that moment you didn't need to do that.'

"So there's a positive criticism there that helps. And, also, in moments where I'm weak he will be strong. There were one or two or, maybe, three or four moments where I didn't see the shots or I didn't know exactly how to shoot this or so and so and he had the great ideas -- and vice versa, you know. That comes only from us knowing each other so well, having the same aesthetic feeling. And that is a great thing. Plus, you have a friend on your side that you can count on. He's like me. He never stops (trying) to make a shot better. Second, third take, doesn't matter. He will change his lighting. He has another new idea. He has this. He has that. He says, 'Look at this.'"

Yapo and Lippstock turned to using handheld camera for certain key moments in "Premonition." "We did very little of that in 'Soundless,' at a few moments only where it made sense," he pointed out. "Other than that, 'Soundless' had a bit more classical composition. In this case, since there's this restlessness and there is Sandy reacting to things and being thrown into a weird situation, I wanted to create a feeling that she's all over (the place). A scene (that) becomes really mad is when they come and get her and take her out of the house. That was the only scene that I did not storyboard.

"Everybody had a lot of respect for that scene because they said, 'They're coming and taking her (away). How are you going to shoot that?' And I said, 'We're going to have two handheld cameras and we're going to capture that scene. We're going to be in there with her and at one point the camera's going to be her. They're going to look into the camera and they're going to act as if the camera was her.' And that's another run through. The third run through is going to be from the other side and I want connecting shots to the kids -- you know, those whip pans. Everybody thought I was crazy, of course. So I said, 'Yeah, but this is something where we have to react. I want the kinetics in the room. I want the physicality of it and I don't want to just put the camera there and have safe medium and wide shots where you have the whole action in the frame. That's not interesting."

Expanding on what the scene is about, Yapo explained that it's "about a sort of conspiracy, some feeling of that and paranoia and, also, being torn away from the kids. You know, they take her away and this taking, I felt, we (would) do best with handheld and whip pans and all that stuff. We actually shot this in only four hours, which is nothing. They scheduled two long nights for that. I left it like that (on the schedule), but I knew we were going to be faster. Even rehearsal was relatively rough (and concentrated only on) when it comes to grabbing her and making sure there is no danger involved (for Bullock and the other actors). I had great stunt people, first of all, and, again, Sandy is so good at these things. She's seen it all and she knows what to do.

"I encouraged her and many of the actors throughout the film and in that scene, specifically, '(not) to play to the camera. I don't want anyone to do that. We're going to look at what you guys are doing and what she feels instinctively is right. I might have corrections here and there a little bit, but other than that we're going to capture that. You don't worry about that at all. Don't think about it. We're going to capture that.' And I think we did. If you look at the scene it's one of the most intense (ones in the movie). It comes from being mobile and reacting. It has a documentary feel to it, but it's cinematic. You never get the feeling you're watching TV. But it's like cinema verite."

The film's complex plot, he agreed, "is hard to describe. Upon getting the news that her husband has died in a car crash she starts to deal with that loss. You could also see the film like it was post-traumatic stress. Something really bad happens and you try to cope with that and you try to understand that and what you do is relive the days leading up to that. And you do that in an emotional way. You don't do that necessarily in continuity of time, but rather (in a way that's) emotional and you try to put the pieces together. What happened? And how did this happen? When you do that it's a puzzle and you try to figure things out and you realize (certain things it's best not to know before seeing the film). So that's what I liked about it. This is one possible interpretation of the film.

"And you also look into the future. You have a slight glimpse of the future -- 'What if I go mad and they put me in a padded cell or something?' That was always something I liked. It has happened and she tries to make sense of it. The other interpretation that is possible that I like, too, is that it has not happened, but she starts from the point where she gets the news. I know from myself and other people that that moment where you hear it the first time is an immensely crucial moment. That's your starting point. So actually you start in the future and you say to yourself, 'What if that's going to happen?' I think overall my goal was to make a film where you could say, 'This is about many things. This is about looking inside of yourself. This is about fighting the odds.' And I wanted to achieve that (so) that you come out satisfied and get enough as an audience."

At the same time, he added, "enough is left open so that you can fill in (the blanks) yourself because life is a huge theme so you have to take it seriously and at the same time it's personal. Everyone experiences that in a different way. I felt that was absolutely the right way to go -- to leave it open enough and to touch a couple of possible explanations, but never to say (specifically what it is). From the reactions that I'm hearing and seeing, people come out and everyone has a different interpretation of this. And I think that's great."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From March 30, 1989's column: "Not everyone realizes it, but movie marketing has played a major role in recent years in helping put Hollywood back on its feet. That subject was the focus of my remarks Wednesday to an Advertising Club of Los Angeles luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

"Hollywood has only been buying network television time to market its films for about 17 years. The practice stands as one of the most significant developments in film industry history. Buying network time led to wide openings of many films, which now means at 1,000 or more screens. It was a natural evolution since, if you're going to pay the price to buy national TV, it makes sense to have your film playing in as many markets as possible when those spots are aired.

"Wide release patterns enabled Hollywood to generate big grosses in a short period of time. The combination of wide release backed by national TV marketing campaigns to create high awareness ushered in the era of the Hollywood blockbuster -- films grossing over $100 million domestically.

"Blockbusters created a new upside for Hollywood, giving studios a moneymaking opportunity that is the equivalent of striking oil. The kind of revenue that blockbuster movies can generate is go great that one blockbuster can easily wipe out a string of films that strike out. Not surprisingly, in recent years Hollywood has developed a blockbuster mentality that revolves around coming up with blockbusters.

"At the same time, the cost of marketing movies has escalated tremendously. While the average major studio movie now costs about $20 million to produce, to market and distribute that same movie can cost $5 million to $10 million. Less expensive, independently produced films can easily cost more to market than to make....

"Over the years, all sorts of new technologies were supposed to eclipse movies. First radio was going to do the job. Then television. Then color television. Then cable television. Then pay television. Then home video. And now, if you listen to the media gurus, pay-per-view television. So far, all the doomsayers have been wrong. Indeed, 1988 was a record year for Hollywood with a boxoffice gross of $4.2 billion. Indications are 1989 could also set records..."

Update: Hollywood is still relying heavily on network television to sell movie tickets, but the networks have become increasingly bad buys as their audience shares have fallen in the face of competition from cable TV and the Internet. Although Hollywood spent somewhat less money on network TV last year than the previous year, it put more money into spot TV (local station buys) and is starting to boost its online advertising spending. Hollywood marketers need to recognize that the network TV ship has sailed. They need to cut back even more on TV spending and use the savings to reach moviegoers on the Internet and through out-of-home screens.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel