Monday, September 15, 2014

Lancelot Link: Wearing White After Labor Day

Lancelot Link Monday! You aren't supposed to wear white after Labor Day, but tell that to people who get shot in movies (who often wear white, because it shows the blood squib better). Whenever I see someone wearing white in a movie I know the odds are good that they will be shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS anyone?) which makes you wonder why they wear white in the first place. Do they *want* to get shot? While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are sixteen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 No Good........................ $24,500,000
2 Dolphin Tale Two............... $16,550,000
3 Guardians Of Galaxy............. $8,041,000
4 Mutant Turtles.................. $4,800,000
5 Let's Be Cops................... $4,300,000
6 The Drop........................ $4,200,000
7 If I Stay....................... $4,500,000
8 November........................ $2,750,000
9 Giver........................... $2,620,000
10 Hundred Foot................... $2,461,000

2) Winners At Toronto Film Festival.

3) David Fincher on DRAGON TATTOO sequels.

4) Scott Frank's New Film A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is based on a terrific Lawrence Block novel.

5) Producer Brian Grazer On What Attracts Him To A Story.

6) Mark Verheiden (who wrote a nice blurb for Secrets Of Action) seems to have the hottest new TV show on TV this year!

7) Fall Movie Guide.

8) Dennis Lehane talks at Toronto Film Fest.

9) Daily Rituals Of Famous Writers.

10) Drinking Habits Of Famous Writers.

11) Why You Probably Need To Drink: Hollywood Is Toxic!

12) Practical Effects vs. CGI Effects.

13) Looking For A Creepy Location?

14) Looking For $100,000 To Make A Travel Documentary? (to visit those creepy locations)

15) First Trailer For JOHN WICK.

16) My Pet Peeve: Everyone In The Movies Works In An Office In Manhattan! Where are the blue collar people?

And the Car Chase Of The Week!

Savage Steve Holland's BETTER OFF DEAD!


Friday, September 12, 2014

Scene Of The Week: CARRIE (1976)

Because yesterday was Brian De Palma's birthday, instead of Fridays With Hitchcock here's a look at a scene from one of his movies I wrote about a while back, but first a birthday cake from his film SISTERS...

And now the CARRIE entry...

After last week’s very long take that was locked down in the back seat of the getaway car in GUN CRAZY, I thought it would be fun to look at kind of the opposite - a scene where the camera moves but the protagonist stays in the same spot... and this underappreciated shot from Brian DePalma’s CARRIE (1976). This was the first version of Stephen King’s first best seller to hit the screen, and so far the best. There was a TV version and a sequel/remake (RAGE) and now we are getting a remake by the talented Kimberly Peirce who directed one of my favorite indies BOYS DON’T CRY. I think she’s a great match for the material, and her version will end up different than DePalma’s because she has a different point of view...

Buy the dvd

But the DePalma film made him a star director (it was his *tenth* feature film!) And also made many cast members into stars. It was John Travolta’s *second* film (after THE DEVIL’S RAIN) and Piper Laurie’s return to the big screen after a *15 year* absence after her Oscar nominated performance as the love interest in THE HUSTLER opposite Paul Newman, and Amy Irving’s first movie, and P.J. Soles’ (ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, HALLOWEEN) first movie, and William Katt’s first movie, and Nancy Allen’s first movie, and Betty Buckley’s first movie, and Edie McClurg’s first movie. What’s interesting about all of these young actors is that they were cast in CARRIE after auditioning for another film... called STAR WARS. DePalma sat in on Lucas’ auditions and picked people for *his* film... yes, that means John Travolta and William Katt might have played Luke Skywalker!

Usually when we think of *Exposition* we think of Basil Exposition from the AUSTIN POWERS movies (or his cousin Prompter Exposition who always asks those leading questions so that someone can spend a couple of minutes of screen time talking on-and-on about what has happened and why it happened and any other story information the audience needs to know. “As a scientist, I’m sure you know that...” Boring stuff that often brings the story to a halt *and* ends up silly. Part of a screenwriter’s job is to find ways to hide exposition so that the audience has no idea they are getting the information. In the Dialogue Blue Book I look at some techniques like using conflict in the scene to disguise the exposition, but Lawrence D. Cohen’s screenplay for CARRIE uses *actions* to give us the necessary exposition. Instead of that verbal exposition dump, we get an intense emotional scene packed with information... and all in one shot!

This shot *begins* at Tommy (William Katt) and Carrie (Sissy Spacek)’s prom table after they have just decided to go ahead and vote for themselves as Prom King & Queen even though they don’t have a chance in hell of winning. That’s when Norma (P.J. Soles) picks up the ballots from the table, and we follow her as she picks up other ballots from other tables. We see how the ballots are collected from all of the kids at the prom, and then we see Norma kiss her boyfriend and drop the ballots on the floor behind him, telling him to kick them behind the wall, then she grabs *fake* ballots from his coat as she pulls away from him. We see how they switch the ballots so that Carrie and Tommy will end up winning. All of this information we get visually, through the actions of the characters. No one has to tell us that they are switching the ballots...

And so far no one has told us *why* they are switching the ballots. This builds mystery.

Then we follow Norma to the faculty table where the ballots will be counted, and then she knocks on the window under the stage where Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy Nolan (John Travolta) are hiding... and Chris is holding on to a rope. This hands off the scene, and Nancy goes on as we hold on Chris and Billy for a moment. Chris pulls slightly on the rope, and we *follow the rope*... to the back of the stage where Sue Snell (Amy Irving) sneaks in and hides behind the stage. Sue feels the rope moving, and we follow the rope up to the rafters over the stage... and that bucket of pig’s blood directly over the King & Queen’s chairs on the stage, and then look past the bucket of blood - back to where the shot began - at Carrie and Tommy sitting at their table as their names are announced as King & Queen... and they head toward the stage.

We now know *why* the ballots were switched, and we also know what is about to happen. This creates tension and dread and suspense...

Carrie White, who begins this story in blood when she has her first period in the gym shower, and was doused over the head and face by a glass of water by her mother at the dinner table; now will be drenched with pig’s blood on prom night... and they’re all going to laugh at her. This creates emotions in the viewer - Carrie has gone from bullied weird girl in a sack dress to Cinderella prom queen... and now that her life seems to have turned around we don’t want anything bad to happen to her.

More exposition told visually. No one *tells us* what the plan to ridicule Carrie at the prom is, or how it will work. Instead we *see* the exposition. As the audience traces that rope to the bucket of blood, their terror builds. They wish they could find some way to stop the inevitable. Instead of some dry verbal exposition, we get an emotional experience.

And in the next series of shots, Sue Snell will trace the rope to the rafters, realize what is going to happen, and try like hell to stop it. She becomes our surrogate in the scene. Her success would be our success, her failure becomes our failure.

Here’s the scene: CARRIE scene.

Sorry the clip continues after the shot, but when I was looking for this shot on line, all of the clips available either began at the end of the shot or somewhere in the middle. It seemed as if no one realized this was all one single long take. The clip labeled “Full Prom Scene” started at the end of the shot! Another clip that was all about the camera work, managed to start in the *middle* of the shot! It’s as if no one noticed this was all one long take - they were too busy experiencing the story unfold. Finally I found a clip on YouTube that *linked* a clip of the actual entire prom scene, and I was able to start at the beginning of this shot (but had no way to end the clip). Here’s that clip of the whole prom - and it begins with a long slow take reminiscent of the ballroom shot from Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT. The purpose of the long takes is to slow down the pacing to create contrast and shock/excitement after the pig’s blood when the action and horror kick in. The same way we use long sentences to slow the tempo down and short sentences to quicken the pacing.

Exposition doesn't need to be someone talking on-and-on to give us that dump of information, we can give the information to the audience visually... and make it emotional and exciting!

Comments section is open for discussion of the scene.

- Bill

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

That's Exploitation!

From January 2010...

The last night I was in Northern California on my holiday visit, I had dinner and drinks and saw BITCH SLAP with my two oldest friends, Van and John. That almost didn’t happen. When I arrived in town those were the first two people I called - we often do New Year’s Eve together, and always see a bunch of holiday release films together and talk about those people we know who are no longer around and the great times we had when we were in our 20s... long ago. Got right through to John and we saw a bunch of movies (reviews are coming), but Van went right to voice mail... and his voice mail was filled. No way to leave a message. This concerned me a little, but I’d gotten a recent e-mail from Van so I knew he was alive and well... just hard to get in contact with, I guess.

Van is a character. The great thing about old friends is that you know what all of their issues are, have gotten mad at them a thousand times, and are now over it. Van is famous for being unreliable. Not in some serious way, he just gets side tracked sometimes. Also, he’s a dreamer... which is great when you are 20, kind of a problem when you are older. But no one on earth has a bigger heart, and when my life went to hell after NINJA BUSTERS fizzled and Wendy split, he gave me a job laying carpet and pointed out that there were other women in the world (mostly by example - you could drop Van into a Lesbian Convention and he’d convert some of them). But I can not count the number of times he’s been a no-show or ambled in hours late. Used to make me angry, now I just accept it. So, when I couldn’t get through to him I just figured it was the usual Van thing.

I kept calling and getting that full voice mail the whole time I was in the Bay Area, and John tried to call him with the same results. Finally I got an e-mail from him - hey, how come I hadn’t called him? All of this ended up being *my fault* - he had changed cell phone carrier, had a new number, and even *gave me his new number*. But I kept calling the old one, because I’m an idiot and it was on my cell phone. John was doing the same thing. Once I called the new number he had given me months before, he answered on the second ring. New Years Eve had passed and I was about to return home...

John and I had seen AVATAR in 3D without Van...

But BITCH SLAP was opening on Friday night in limited release! The perfect film for 3 guys who enjoy upper torso bundles of pleasure! I figured Friday might be crowded, and John was busy Saturday, so maybe Sunday? Sunday was a great day because the cast and writer would be in San Francisco that night! Except Van already had tickets for AVATAR on Sunday... so we last minute adjusted to Monday night. The next morning I would return to Los Angeles.

Van knows every single great hole-in-the-wall restaurant and bar in the Bay Area. When we were laying carpet, no matter what city the job was in, he knew the best place to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Van suggested we meet at this restaurant/bar called The Belltower which was a couple of blocks from the cinema. When I arrived, I recognized the place - we’d had breakfast there once and it was great. John arrived and we had a beer, and then Van showed. We had a great dinner, then went to the cinema...


The plot? Three hot chicks in the desert.

Directed by Rick Jacobson, who directed a couple of my movies and is a great guy - I may not agree with all of his artistic choices, but he *has* artistic choices and actually would listen to whatever I had to say. He wasn’t an asshole. After making a bunch of low budget films he moved to TV and directed a bunch of TV shows including HERCULES and XENA and now he’s a TV director.

He and one of the writers on XENA decided to bankroll their own film, made on the cheap, and the result is BITCH SLAP. The film uses all kinds of low budget tricks - most of the story takes place in a patch of desert in the middle of nowhere with a beat up old trailer and a windmill. Easy location to shoot at, and when things blow up and catch fire (which they do as the story goes on) probably easy to get permits and a fire marshal - not a burnable tree or scrub for miles in any direction.

The cast is also small: mostly the three women: Hel (Erin Cummings) who is all-business and dresses like a business woman. Camaro (America Olivo) who is the tough gal, just released from prison, who wears jeans and a tied off shirt. Trixie (Julia Voth) the stripper who appears to be all body and no brains, who is wearing a gold dress. The plot has them drive their vintage Thunderbird to this no-man’s land to find a buried treasure, and flashbacks fill in the details and provide plot twists. There are also two men who are part of the main cast, Gage (Michael Hurst) a gangster who has been skimming from legendary crime boss Pinky for years - and the buried treasure is that loot. He’s handcuffed in the trunk of the Thunderbird. And Deputy Fuchs (Ron Melendez) a cop who thinks the three gals might be in trouble and stops to help... and also becomes their prisoner - chained up in that old trailer. Five main characters, one main location, six breasts.

In a moment I’ll talk about some of the other money saving tricks they used - I’ll bet the budget was lower than you might guess - but first let’s talk about...


The review in the Los Angeles Times complained that BITCH SLAP was an exploitation film send up without the send up... and this made me scratch my head, because I never got the memo that it was a send up, and when you read the poster or publicity stuff (they had a great gimmick to make you see it more than once - collectable postcards for each of the characters in the film, and they gave away a different one every night) there was nothing about this being a send up... it was pretty much advertized as a fun exploitation film that *knows* it’s an exploitation film. Which makes it just an exploitation film.

Back in the drive in days, there were lots of exploitation films - made cheap and filled with things that would attract and audience. Lowest common denominator stuff like fast cars and topless women and machine guns. A studio film might have all of those things in a pretty story - and those things serviced the story. An exploitation film was *about* the exploitation stuff, with a flimsy story connecting the elements. Now, some exploitation films had *great* stories connecting the elements, and now those films are considered art. Tod Browning’s FREAKS is a great film, but where would it be without the promise of seeing a bunch of side show freaks? And the suggestion of side show freaks having sex with a hot blonde woman? Hey - I gotta see that!

And the drive in exploitation films offered the same sort of forbidden thrills. Hey, what really goes on in a women’s prison where they evil lesbian warden enjoys whipping the hot naked prisoners? Hey - I gotta see that!

One of the things I hate in studio films, I love in exploitation films: “kitchen sinking”. So many of those A.I.P. drive in films seemed like a grab bag of cool stuff threaded together into a film. So you might have custom hot rods and acrobats and some rock & roll band and a bikini beach party and dogs that do tricks and martial arts and a monster... all in the same movie! Hey - I gotta see that!

I’ve seen studio films that try to throw in a little bit of everything and end up with nothing, and the reason why is that the film is supposed to be about the story... and just ends up being about a little bit of everything. A mainstream studio film is all about the story, and even though it may have fast cars and hot women and a machine gun, it’s not ever about those things. Those things are elements of the story, not the story itself. The exploitation is in the background not the foreground.

Someone on a messageboard a couple of months ago was lamenting the 50s and 60s when Americans went to see foreign films... and even though that was before my time sitting in a cinema seat, I can tell you from conversations with those older than I am - they went to foreign films to see boobies. American films had no nudity at all - we still had censorship under the old system. But foreign films managed to sneak in nudity and the censors didn’t seem to care, maybe because the films were “cultural” and had subtitles and not everyone was going to flock to see them. Except a surprising number of normal middle class Americans saw a bunch of foreign films... often featuring nudity or lingerie or lots-a-cleavage. Thank you, Sophia Loren! Hey - I gotta see that!

Foreign films ended up being exploitation films! Just, with culture!

And that is the problem with the poor exploitation film - it has no culture. It is honest about its intentions. You may see a foreign film for culture... um, cleavage culture... but you see an exploitation film for the exploitation. We always complain that people these days go to the movies for the explosions and CGI - the exploitation elements. And it’s funny that I will hate TRANSFORMERS and then have an excited conversation with another film fan about that amazing street shoot out in HEAT. Okay, why isn’t HEAT an exploitation film? Why is a long shoot out in some B movie just stupid and a similar scene in HEAT complete genius? Well, it’s that HEAT isn’t just that shoot out (and the other great action scenes). But, isn’t there room in cinema for a film that *is* just about the shoot outs? A film that isn’t going to try and pass itself off as culture, and just be its sleazy self? A film that knows that one of the main reasons why you go to see HEAT or some big budget Hollywood movies is the exploitation elements? “You’ll believe a man can fly.” “From the moment they met it was murder.” Movies are all about sex and violence and exploitables... Heck, how many pages would be left in The Bible if we cut out all of the sex and violence?

And another issue with exploitation is - why is some low budget genre flick that is aiming for being a just fun time, not good enough for a theatrical release in art house cinemas in select cities, and have critics for the L.A. Times show up and review the film; but a film trying to be “so bad it’s good” gets shown and reviewed? Why does society say it’s okay to make fun of exploitation, but not just accept a movie that may not have stars but does have plenty of stuff that blows up... unless there is a star in it or a massive budget? Why is *studio exploitation* taken more seriously than low budget exploitation? If John Sayles’ PIRANHA was released today, would Variety even show up to review it... let alone call it the best film ever made about the Viet Nam War? If DEATH RACE 2000 were released today, would anyone take it seriously? Or would it just be dismissed and sent to video and never noticed or reviewed? We used to have genre distribs like Canon and New World that made low budget action films and got them into cinemas and reviewed and on the mainstream radar, so that those stars and directors and writers could cross over to studio films. Where do you think directors like Jonathan Demme and writers like John Sayles came from? Does the Los Angeles Times review direct to video films? Nope... Rick Jacobson may have directed a stack of movies, but this is probably his first film that has ever been reviewed in print. Because it’s trying to be bad!

So, we come to BITCH SLAP which is honest about its intentions - it just wants to be a Russ Meyer movie. It doesn’t want to be a *send up* of a 1960s exploitation movie, it wants to *be* a 1960s exploitation movie. Hey, what’s wrong with that? Why can’t the Los Angeles Times critic just judge it as an exploitation movie? When I saw the trailer, I said to myself, “Hey - I gotta see that!”


The film is what it is - good cheap exploitation. And though there’s lots of blood squibs, the level of violence is pretty tame for all of the machinegun fire. People get shot a zillion times and have little red dots on their clothes. And the sex? This film is one big tease! I don’t remember any nudity, though I do remember LOTS of cleavage and some simulated sex on a TV soap opera level. It just *seems* raw and nasty.

I mentioned the flashbacks, and they’re lots of fun. The movie opens with Trixie in her pretty party dress crawling through the burning wreckage of the trailer wondering how she came to be here, and we get a title card that says FOUR HOURS EARLIER and get a snippet of background, and then we go back to the wreckage for a minute or two of present day before we get a title card that says FOUR HOURS AND 8 MINUTES EARLIER... and that sets the tone for the flashbacks - they are frequent and often a little silly. I kept waiting for TWENTY YEARS EARLIER where the three girls are in the same crib awaiting diaper changes. This ends up being a great running gag that never seems to wear out its welcome.

The other thing is the split screen, which is over done on purpose... though not nearly as overdone as in the last OSS-117 movie. The thing I love and hate about Rick (director) is that he’s creative - in NIGHT HUNTER he did that shaky-cam thing in all of the action scenes, which I absolutely hated... even though Paul Greengrass swiped that technique a decade later for the second BOURNE movie. I loved what he did in BLACK THUNDER, though - he mounted the camera on a rig that allowed it to turn 360' (upside down) and slid the camera back and forth in the plane cockpit shots so that you could feel the plane banking and looping and doing all of the amazing dogfight stunts. That was genius! If the plane spun upside down in the dogfight, so did the cockpit shot of the pilot (our hero). So the split screen stuff in BITCH SLAP is cool 24-style stuff. It worked really well.

The film has some great confined cameos - characters whose roles are spread throughout the film but were probably shot out in a single day - by Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless (that Hercules/Xena connection)... with a twist! Lucy plays Mother Superior in a funny flashback that reveals that one of the gals used to be a nun in a convent who was *very popular* with the other nuns... and Sorbo plays the head of a spy organization in a bunch of little scenes probably shot in a single day, because one of the gals is revealed to be a top secret undercover female version of James Bond.

Here’s the confined cameo twist - Sorbo isn’t just at one location, he’s all over the place... thanks to green screen. The majority of the flashbacks are green screen shots. Now, this is a low budget movie that can not afford great special effects, and all of the green screen shots have those outlines that make them look like green screen... except thanks to SIN CITY and all of those stylized comic book films, we no longer need perfect looking green screen and effects as long as we can used a stylized cartoony background. And that’s just what BITCH SLAP does - the flashbacks are not real looking at all, they look like SIN CITY, so any imperfection in green screen or even location plate disappears. A scene in Russia where Sorbo meets with spy-gal Hel at a train station has a stylized cartoon look that adds to the production value instead of subtracts from it. The movie has these great surreal flashbacks that seem arty.

One of the other tricks the film uses is the old doorway in the ground gag - from A BOY AND HIS DOG. When they finally find the treasure, it’s not just some trunk full of cash - it’s a vault that opens into the earth, and they climb down a ladder to some gangster version of that huge warehouse from the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK filled with just about anything someone could steal... including nukes and heavy artillery and all kinds of loot.


The film is good sleazy fun. I laughed several times. The problem with making a “So Bad It’s Good” movie is that often it just turns out bad. The key to is to keep it funny, so that we know you aren’t taking this seriously. BITCH SLAP has enough gags to keep us laughing, and is so over the top in many of its scenes that you know they aren’t taking this seriously. Exaggeration is funny - and this film gets laughs from seeing how complicated it can make its Mexican Standoffs, and how crass it can make its simulated sex scenes. But some of the dialogue is raw instead of clever, and the characters are so paper thin there’s no way to mine anything but surface gags from them (Trixie pole dancing with a shovel while they are supposed to be digging is her best character-related gag). I wish it had been more clever, but maybe I’m the only one in the audience who cared about that? The plot and much of the action is contrived to the point of “Oh, come on!” - often for no reason at all the girls will get into a fight - maybe that was supposed to be a gag that didn’t work so it just seemed like a bad movie thing. I know it seems silly to point out that they needed a better excuse for their exploitation scenes, but that would have made me think “Bad on purpose” for those contrived scenes instead of “Just bad”. And the end of the film is just bad no matter how you slice it - there is a twist that is so contrived and sledge-hammered in that I walked away liking the film less. And both of my friends jumped on the end, too - so it wasn’t just picky Bill. You have to play fair with plot twists, folks! Hey, I saw the color of her underwear and figured out the twist - but the character doesn’t seem to know about their own double cross in the scenes where they are pulling the double cross! Again, this is one of those things where the film isn’t as clever as it needs to be. But those story issues aside - a lot of fun for 90 minutes!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Pigeon Holing Yourself - and the equally kinky practice of Self Branding.
Yesterday's Dinner: Chicken Caesar Salad at Fuddruckers.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Trailer Tuesday: DISTRICT 9.

It’s a foreign film, so it’s cultural.

DISTRICT 9 is a pseudo documentary, and part of what makes it creepy is that “bug” in the lower right corner identifying it as property of the company our hero Wikus (Sharlto Copely) works for. There’s an old Sean Connery movie, THE ANDERSON TAPES, about a large scale burglary that has been completely recorded on audio by... someone. This was probably the first film about how everything we do is now recorded by some form of surveillance equipment. The idea that all of the things we see in DISTRICT 9 were recorded on video from surveillance cameras and are in some company’s vault is chilling.

But at first, the film seems like a boring documentary. Lots of talking heads and commentators and footage that seems like it belongs on the History Channel. Except this mundane footage is all about an alien space ship that just stalled out over Johannesburg. One of the amazing things in the film is the complete understatement. The huge space ship, which would be an amazing special effect in some Hollywood film and would get all kinds of close ups and action shots, is just this thing hanging in the sky in the background of shots. When Wikus drives to his suburban home, the space ship can be seen in the background of the shot. It’s just there - no big deal. The tone of the film is bland, documentary style, and even the aliens are treated as another boring element in our story. They’ve been living in District 9 for the past 20 years, they are nothing special anymore. Now they are just another part of everyday life - the make the nightly TV news only if there’s a riot or some other newsworthy event in District 9. Usually, the aliens are kind of out of sight and out of mind.

But the doc is about the removal of the aliens from District 9, and their relocation to a far off area which looks good on the brochures they have printed up for the aliens, but is really a tent city so far away from human population that even the riots won’t end up on the nightly news. Wikus has been given the job of supervising the relocation, and he’s a vapid bureaucratic idiot who often slips and calls the aliens by the “P word” during the interview. He even justifies using the term because the aliens look like prawns, don’t they? Oh, and the reason why he was put in charge of this? He’s the son-in-law of the government official in charge of Alien Affairs. The first phase is to go door-to-door in the alien shanty town and serve eviction notices. They need the aliens’ scrawl on the form to make it legal. Because there are documentary cameras rolling, Wikus will be going in personally to help serve notices... and we follow along.

There’s some great suspense built around there not being enough bullet proof vests for Wikus’s number two man (William Allen Young) - and once they drive into the walled and barb wired District 9, it’s filled with poverty and crime and gangs and violence... and you worry that number two guy is going to get shot. But Wikus oblivious to just about everything - they do a great job of making him so dumb he comes off innocent. When he calls the aliens “prawns” to their face, you think he just doesn’t know any better. He’s not *maliciously* racist. He doesn’t hate the aliens. He just sees them as being animals. This allows us to see him as racist without being repulsed by him.

We *are* repulsed by the racist military guy Koobus (David James) who is providing security for the operation. He is itching to kill him some prawns. He thinks the best solution to the alien problem is just to kill them all. If this eviction thing turns into a riot? That would be a great excuse to fire a few missiles and drop a few bombs. This character gives us both sides of racism, so that we can use the actions in the story itself to “discuss” the issue. Whenever there’s a situation where either diplomacy or military action can be used, Wikus and Koobus represent each of these standpoints in the debate... and, the debate is usually after all hell has broken loose in District 9 and the aliens are attacking them. Not some dry discussion of racism but a run-and-gun argument about how they can survive.

Though I’m not sure we identify with Wikus, once he gets into the dangerous world of District 9, we *do* worry about him, because he is way over his head. He’s like a baby who has wandered into a cage full of Michael Vick’s pitbulls... and then picks up a stick and starts poking them. You worry for the baby, you know the baby is doing something stupid... but it’s a baby, it doesn’t know any better. Wikus is a baby. He is blind to his own racism, but the story is designed to open his eyes. As he goes from shack to shack trying to get aliens to sign their eviction notices, suspense moves a little into the background - this is a documentary, and we begin to get used to what is happening (even though, I have to tell you, the aliens are just amazing in this film. I wondered whether they used actors in green suits as substitutes so that the on-camera actors would have someone to talk to. No amount of mundane attitude on screen can take away from the fantastic CGI work in this film - it’s *better* than the stuff in GI JOE, much more realistic!). But just when we have lowered our guard, we see a couple of aliens up to no good, collecting some black fluid that will allow them to enact some secret plan.

Okay, I’ve decided not to spoil it all by talking about the specifics of what happens next... But for a movie with a giant flying saucer in just about every shot, where well over half the beings on screen are amazing CGI aliens, this film is not about any of those things... it’s all about Wikus. It’s not about the special effects, like a Hollywood movie, it’s about the people. Wikus goes through several transformations in the course of the story, and if we didn’t identify with him at the beginning, we do later on and really begin to care about the guy and see the story through his eyes.

When things go wrong in District 9, Wikus begins to see the aliens, not as a bureaucratic problem or as animals or as “prawns”, but as *people* with the same sort of problems that humans have. He comes to understand their struggle... and slowly switches sides. And this is so subtle, there is no dialogue about his “transformation” and change in beliefs. No idiot lines the writer had to put in the script for the development execs and producers that no one removed before filming. Just as the documentary “bug” stays in the lower right hand side of the screen, the reality of the situation remains. The character gradually changes scene-by-scene without us really noticing - except this casually racist bureaucrat has now become a friend to the alien they have named “Chris” and believes the aliens have rights.

Along with the emotional changes in Wikus, he also goes through a physical change that is connected to another change on the emotional side that turns him from a bumbling bureaucrat into an action hero. Though I think Charles Pogue may be due a check for some of the story ideas, eventually the film becomes a really unusual buddy action flick with Wikus and the alien they call “Chris” kicking some military ass and blowing some things up real good. But even when we are in the middle of a massive battle scene where they break into a top secret government installation, the story never loses sight of the people (including aliens) in the scenes. Even the action scenes have an emotional component and deal with Wikus and his relationship with “Chris” and his new feelings of guilt over being a casual racist who allowed his government to herd these alien people up into pens, like cattle. This entire story is about Wikus seeing the error of his ways and changing them to become a more honorable person. It’s about Wikus transforming from a guy who sees the aliens as “prawns”, animals, different... to seeing them as not much different than himself - and seeing “Chris” as a friend. Unlike any of the big dumb Hollywood special effects films we’ve had this summer (including STAR TREK), this film is really about the people in the story. Like all good sci-fi, it’s a metaphor, an allegory. It’s not just about the aliens and action scenes, it’s about a social issue that touches all of our lives.

The film takes many unexpected turns, and presents some information to us in a way that exposes *our* racism - I suspect this may be uncomfortable to some viewers. My racist beliefs took me down the wrong path at one point - and that made me reevaluate myself. The film holds a fun-house mirror up to society - and up to ourselves - and shows us who we really are in the safety of a science fiction story about battles between humans and aliens.

And, what is pure fantasy for those of us in the USA is only part fantasy in South Africa, where they had Apartheid until recently, and a similar story played out when relocating people from District 6.

Go for the special effects and really cool action scenes, leave thinking about racism...

- Bill

Original short film DISTRICT 9 is based on...

Monday, September 08, 2014

Lancelot Link: Endless Summer

Lancelot Link Monday! This was the worst summer Hollywood has had in a few years... and also the best August of all time. Though there are all kinds of reasons why this summer didn't do as well, one interesting element is that *spring* did really well. We are now in the mode of endless summer movies: tentpole films are released every month! That means more big budget films... and fewer mid range movies. While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Guardians Of Galaxy........... $10,160,000
2 Mutant Turtles.................. $6,500,000
3 If I Stay...................... $5,750,000
4 Let's Be Cops................. $5,400,000
5 November Man.................. $4,200,000
6 Above/Below................... $3,723,000
7 When The Game................. $3,700,000
8 Giver......................... $3,591,000
9 Hundred Foot.................. $3,200,000
10 Lucy......................... $1,911,000

2) Dead Words!

3) Tarantino On How Film Festivals Suck.

4) Thriller UNLOCKED cast.

5) IRON MAN 4 news!

6) They are remaking THE SEVEN SAMURAI...

7) Your Screenplay Checklist.

8) Fall Movie Preview.

9) Writing Advice From Famous Writers.

10) So You Want To Be A Showrunner?

11) Screenwriter Quotes.

12) Hellish Development Notes!

And the car chase of the week!



Friday, September 05, 2014

Fridays With Hitchcock:
The Paradine Case (1947)

Screenplay by David O. Selznick.

Do I really have to say anything more?

Okay, for those of you who may not know who David O. Selznick was: He was the legendary producer who made the Best Picture Oscar winner GONE WITH THE WIND which is also the record holder for box office in adjusted dollars - yes, it even beat AVATAR. Name any film you think was a massive hit, GONE WITH THE WIND made more money in adjusted dollars. Selznick was also legendary for his ego and for micro-managing to the point of insanity. He would send lengthy memos to *everyone* involved in one of his films explaining what he wanted in minute detail. Often the memos were wacky - he once sent a 30 page telegram... and the last line of the telegram said to disregard the telegram! In the 1970s someone collected many of these crazy memos and published them in a book, MEMO FROM DAVID O. SELZNICK - I have a copy somewhere. At first, reading the memos made my brain hurt... then they became laugh-out-loud funny. He wrote memos on things so small and insignificant you wonder how he found the time to do anything else. So, imagine the lunatic, egotistical, head of production for the studio writing a screenplay...

To be fair, Selznick began in the story department at MGM - because in those good old days of Hollywood they promoted *screenwriters* and people who worked in the story department to producers and heads of production. Hollywood back then was not about deals and lawyers and agents, it was about *stories*. From the story department he worked his way up to producer at MGM, and produced a string of hits - which probably didn’t help that out-of-control ego of his. He married his boss’s daughter, Irene Mayer, and decided that he was too good for MGM, so he quit and started his own company - Selznick International. If you are ever on the Sony lot, you can still see his building. It looks much smaller than it does on film.

Selznick was the guy who brought Alfred Hitchcock over from England... and brought a bunch of European stars to the United States, including Ingrid Bergman. What he would do is sign them to a long term contract with his “studio”, which had yet to make a single film. Then he would “rent them” to another studio for more money... and make a profit. So, let’s say he was paying Ingrid Bergman $1X a month, he would rent her out to MGM for $5X and keep the difference. Bergman got paid the same no matter what. Because Selznick and Hitchcock did not get along, Selznick “rented” Hitchcock to other studios from 1941-1944 for five different movies, and basically lived off the money Hitchcock earned for him. Pimp-daddy Selznick. The director of an Oscar winning film could get top dollar... and all of that money went into Selznick’s pocket. During that period of time he made only one movie as a producer - SINCE YOU WENT AWAY... the rest of his money was from pimpin'.

Though he made a handful of successful movies at his “studio”, the film he made in 1939 was the one he’s best known for - GONE WITH THE WIND.

I think that film ruined him.

Imagine making the biggest box office film of all time *and* having it win Best Picture Oscar. What do you do for an encore?

Well, the year after he won Best Picture Oscar for producing GONE WITH THE WIND, he won Best Picture Oscar for producing REBECCA... directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

After that Selznick seemed to be *exclusively* trying to make movies that would be massive box office hits *and* win the Best Picture Oscar. Because Hitchcock was under contract to him, he was either being “rented” to some other studio or producer or making some film for Selznick. Some of these films, like SPELLBOUND, were “Hitchcock movies”, but THE PARADINE CASE is pure Selznick... a big glossy soap opera of a film that seemed created to pander to both the mass audience *and* the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences membership. The film starred his new discovery from Europe Alida Valli (THE THIRD MAN), who he hoped to rent out as soon as she became a star, and Gregory Peck - another contract player, and a young hunky French actor he was grooming for stardom, Louis Jordan (SWAMP THING). Hitchcock disliked the project, but was under contract and had no choice but to make it. Hitchcock brought in his own writers, and Selznick didn't send anyone to pick one of the writers up at the airport - so he flew back home. Eventually Selznick took over and wrote the screenplay himself, which Hitchcock must have loved. Hitch and Selznick were battling every day on the set. It’s hard to believe that this film falls between NOTORIOUS and ROPE on Hitchcock’s resume, because it’s so unlike either one of those films... it’s overwrought.

It was also Hitchcock’s last movie for Selznick - he walked off the set at the end of shooting. His contract was complete, and he was now a free man...

THE PARADINE CASE was a massive box office flop.

Nutshell: In London, rich and beautiful widow Mrs. Paradine (Valli) is about to sit down to dinner when the police arrive and arrest her for the murder of her husband. She gets the most respected criminal barrister in England, Anthony Keane (Peck) to represent her in his robes and powdered wig...

Okay, while you’re wondering how Peck did with his British accent, we’ll get on with the synopsis.

Because Mrs. Paradine is the most beautiful and seductive woman in the world, Keane’s wife Gay (Ann Todd) becomes jealous and worries that she will lose her man. Keane’s older law partner, Sir Simon (Charles Coburn) also worries about this, but his college girl daughter hopes that Mrs. Paradine will break up the marriage and then dump Keane so that she can swoop in and take him, because she thinks he’s a dreamy older man.

Oh, speaking of older men, the trial’s Judge (Charles Laughton) is a complete letch and keeps hitting on Keane’s wife. It’s kind of implied that if she sleeps with him, he may favor her husband in the case. Though his character doesn’t show up for a while, Louis Jordan plays the dead Mr. Paradine’s valet Latour who may or may not have been playing hide the salami with Mrs. Paradine while her husband slept in the next room. I know that I’m leaving out some people who were either having sex with other people or at least wanted to have sex with other people, but you get the idea.

The first 2/3rds of the story takes place before the trial while all of these people are trying to get into each other’s pants. The last third is all in the courtroom - but far from Perry Mason excitement. There are only two suspects and no surprises. The story isn’t about who the killer is, it’s about who is gonna sleep with who and who already slept with who. Sex for the mass audience, powdered wigs and frilly shirts for the Academy.

Peck doesn’t even attempt a British accent.

Experiment: I’m sure that the main experiment was trying to get through the film without killing Selznick...

But the film has one amazing shot - as Mrs. Paradine sits at the defendant’s table in court, Latour enters the court room behind her and walks to the witness stand, and Hitchcock does a great composite shot with Mrs. Paradine in the foreground (one element) and Latour walking in the background (the other element) with both images moving so that it seems as if she can *feel* him entering the courtroom and - without looking back - *sense* him as he walks around her. It’s a great shot concept - she knows he is there without ever seeing him.

There is also the reverse of the shot, from Latour’s POV when he leaves the witness stand. Basically one great shot done twice.

Oh, and a nice overhead of the courtroom when Keane leaves after realizing his client is guilty.

Hitch Appearance: Leaving the train station, carrying a cello.

Great Scenes: Well, no suspense scenes, so let me talk about some of the soap opera stuff.

The opening scene where Mrs. Paradine is arrested is shocking, and managed to find a way to sneak in the victim visually. A huge painting of Mr. Paradine hangs on the wall, and is the center of much of the scene. But there is some great confusion by Mrs. Paradine about how one is supposed to get arrested - they just served dinner, will she be allowed to eat first? And what about packing a bag? She has no point of reference.

At the police station, she is searched and stripped and a matron goes through her beautiful hair with a comb searching for contraband. Hitchcock has done similar scenes that were even better - involving fingerprint ink you can’t remove. I would have gone full-force and had them delouse her with spray hoses, but it seems like everything is blanded... probably due to Sezlnick’s screenplay.

There’s a great scene with Charles Laughton as the horny old judge who sits next to Peck’s wife on the sofa and grabs her hand and puts her hand on her leg (stealing a feel) and makes it pretty clear that he wants to screw her and that it would be good for her husband’s trial if she said yes. Laughton steals every scene he is in - almost rescuing the film. Almost.

There’s kind of a spooky scene where Peck goes to the scene of the crime - the Paradine country estate - and it’s closed up, dark, spooky... and has a Mrs. Danvers-like woman showing him around... and Louis Jordan’s valet seems to appear and disappear without ever leaving or entering a room. There’s more atmosphere in that scene than in the rest of the film.

The courtroom trial is boring because we have two suspects: Mrs. Paradine and the valet Latour, and neither tries to blame the other or has any shocking witness stand reveals. The one and only is that Mrs, Paradine may have visited Latour’s room after dark.

In HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, Hitchcock complains about all of the casting - and rightly so - but spends a great deal of time explaining why Louis Jordan was dead wrong as Latour. If that is supposed to be the big shocker in court, it doesn’t work if she was sleeping with some beefcake guy like Jordan. He’s better looking than she is!

There’s only shock if Latour is *ugly* - and this goes back to my problems with UNDER CAPRICORN - Hollywood often makes the mistake of hiring pretty people when the role requires really ugly people. That film was another woman-who-sleeps-with-a-man-beneath-her story, and Bergman and Joseph Cotton seem like a reasonable pair. In PARADINE, Valli is a beautiful woman, but Jordan is a beautiful man. They belong together - no shock. You can “tell us” that Jordan is a servant and Valli is wealthy and that it is scandalous for her to sleep with him, but there is no class distinctions on screen. There are only *physical* distinctions.

Hell, she goes to his room! If the script would have made him the groom and had him sleeping in an apartment in the stables and the first time they got busy was after a ride on the floor of the stable amongst piles of hay and manure, we have something! And that is something that a *screenwriter* can do to guard against casting issues. We can create a *situation* that is shocking, so the casting won’t kill the scene.

An *idea* doesn’t show up on screen, only the execution of the idea - the image or dialogue that turns the idea into something concrete that we can see or hear. The *idea* of sleeping with a man below her class needs to be turned into something we can see or hear. Since we are not involved in casting as screenwriters, it has to be a situation or dialogue. That roll in the hay (and manure) - whether we do that with actions (visual) or with courtroom testimony (dialogue) we need to get it out there. But we do not have shocking testimony or shocking visuals... Instead we have a very dull Q&A of suspects on the stand who do not want to incriminate each other so they don’t really say anything.

Sound Track: The always dependable Franz Waxman.

THE PARADINE CASE is basically a big glossy soap opera with a couple of interesting shots, that Hitchcock practically disowned. He walked off after his rough cut, leaving David O’Selznick to sort out the rest. I’m sure he sent a 30 page memo to Hitchcock afterwards.

- Bill


The other Fridays With Hitchcock.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Flashback: Set Crashing

Originally ran in 2007...

My buddy Van Tassell and I and director Paul Kyriazi are going to hang out next weekend - a bunch of guys from the old days from my home town. I think Van is my oldest friend - I've known him since I was 18, and when I go home for the holidays we grab beers and see movies.

Whenever anyone filmed a movie in the San Francisco Bay Area, Van and I snuck on the set. Growing up in the East Bay Area - halfway between Oakland and Stockton - San Francisco always seemed like some far off place you only went to on special school field trips or when you went to the zoo on your birthday. Actually, we usually went to the Oakland Zoo on my birthday. I saw San Francisco more in movies than in real life.

So when I started making my own movies on 8mm and Super-8mm, my buddy Van Tassell and I began driving into the city and sneaking onto movie sets... to watch the pros at work.

Van installs carpets for a living (any out of work film guys could always find a job tearing up jute padding and carrying heavy rolls of carpet for Van) and his carpet tool pouch looks EXACTLY like a film grip's tool pouch. This was part of the plan to sneak onto movie sets - look like someone who belongs. So we would dress like grips, filling the tool pouch with film tools.

I subscribed to Weekly Variety, and they printed the films in production. Whenever anything was shooting in San Francisco (a popular location) we'd take a few days off from our day jobs to crash the set. To find out where they were filming I'd call the city permit office and pretend to be somebody from a newspaper covering the film or a caterer who forgot where to send the food truck. They'd tell me where the permit was issued for, but usually it was a vague answer like "They're shooting in the Marina District today" - maybe they didn't believe my story?

So Van and I would pile in his red Bronco - it was used as a picture vehicle in Paul's movie WEAPONS OF DEATH.... the hero's truck - and just drive around the Marina District until we spotted two dozen huge trucks. Then we'd just follow the cables to the set. The key was to be cool and blend in. We looked like grips, but we also had to ACT like grips. A couple of times someone would actually ask us to do something, and we always did it. I actually carried a 9-K light from the truck to where they were shooting on one set.

Van and I became pros at blending in, and we crashed a bunch of sets. Mel Brooks filmed HIGH ANXIETY in San Francisco, and we were there. Don Siegel shot TELEFON and ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ and we were there. But the best story is when they shot the James Bond movie VIEW TO A KILL. We didn't know it would become the worst James Bond movie ever - we just knew that James Bond was shooting in San Francisco, so Van and I decided to go out and watch. Dressed as grips.

The day Van and I crashed the set they were doing this huge effects scene - burning down City Hall. They had rigged all of these gas explosions on the building. They had Roger Moore's stunt double on a fire truck. They'd hired a bunch of extras to run in panic and some stunt men who would actually catch on fire. It was going to be very expensive, and they could only do it once. Boy did we pick the right day to crash the set!

So, we're doing our best to look like grips - helping ourselves to doughnuts on the craft services table - when we notice these two guys hop the rope and sneak onto the set. Well, that creates a danger to us. If they start checking to see who belongs on the set and who doesn't, we'll be kicked off before they start filming. Van and I come to a dead stop in the doughnut line, causing REAL grips to complain.

These two sneak-ins are wearing warm-up suits and look WAY out of place. They're also laughing - probably a little drunk. Then they see the food and start to come over!

Oh man. They're walking right towards us. Laughing so loud, people are starting to notice them. A couple of big Security Guards hear the laughter, turn and see the two sneak-ins, and move to intercept them... Coming right at us!

Two big Security Guards.
Walking towards Van and me.
We both freeze for a minute, then one of the REAL grips tells us to stop hogging the doughnuts. So we try to move away from the craft services table, but that means moving TOWARDS the two sneak-ins... and those two big Security Guards.

Shit! No choice!
Van and I play it really cool and move away from the table, pretending to be REALLY interested in the sprinkles on our doughnuts. The two sneak-ins brush past us on the way to the food. One of the Security Guards says, "Hey! You two!" Van and I try NOT to look at them, but both of us are wondering if they're talking to us or the sneak-ins. What if the Guards know everyone on the crew and know we don't belong? Can they arrest you for crashing a set?

They two big Security Guards are coming right at us. One puts his hand on my shoulder. Busted!!!

"Excuse me," he says as he moves me aside to get to the sneak- ins. Van and I watch the sneak-ins get rousted by the two big Security Guards. They are told to leave the area... but they hang around on the sidelines.

Close call. Van and I eat our doughnuts and watch the extras get instructions on how to run in panic when City Hall explodes behind them. The extras are told they can't screw up the shot, because they are only going to do it once. Van and I watch as the FX guys turn on their remote controls and they get the Roger Moore stunt guy on top of the fire truck. "This is gonna be cool," Van whispers to me.

Everyone takes their places as they get ready to blow up City Hall. Lights blast on. The director whispers to the AD who yells: ACTION! They start filming. The extras walk down the street calmly. BLAM! City Hall explodes into flames! The fire truck races into the shot...

And the two sneak-ins in warm ups hop the rope, run RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA and yell "City Hall's on fire! City Hall's on fire!" Then they run away, like the rest of the extras... blending into the crowd.

Van and I have been on a dozen film sets and have always stayed in the background. Always played it cool. Always tried to blend in. We can say to friends, "Yeah, we were on the set of that James Bond movie. We watched them burn down city hall." But those two sneak-ins?

They're actually IN THE MOVIE!

- Bill

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Bad Timing: A Nonsensical Obsession.

From 2009...

While pulling links for Wednesday’s (complete filler) blog entry, I happened upon a completely non-sequitur comment about my ALTITUDE script. It seems that someone else has a script with the exact same plot and title, so I must have ripped it off. Except *my* ALTITUDE script was written and copyrighted first...

If you read my Script Tips everyday (and you should - that’s where the good stuff usually is, this blog just being my rants and appreciation of Kate Beckinsale nude scenes) you probably already know much of the backstory on this script, since I’ve used it as an example several times. But here’s the full version...

Back in 1992 my friends and I went to see this new action flick starring Wesley Snipes (who was a great actor before he decided to do that Steve McQueen imitation) called PASSENGER 57. Well, about halfway through the film, the hijackers *land the plane*! I turn to my friends and quip, “Hasn’t he seen A RAID ON ENTEBE?” And, just as in that film, as soon as the plane lands the SWAT Team attacks and it’s all downhill for the hijackers. Whenever the hero wins because the villain is an idiot, I lose respect for the film. Instead of the villain doing something stupid, I prefer films where the hero does something clever. The film was kind of disappointing, but I kept thinking about that quip - what if the hijackers *had* seen A RAID ON ENTEBE and knew the moment they landed the plane they were dead. In the air, who can get to them? Sure, the Air Force might shoot them down, but not if the plane was full of passengers. Once they land, SWAT Teams and Commandoes and everyone else has access to them - and they can’t win that fight. So, how do you prevent the plane from landing? Well, you could wire a bomb to an altimeter, and if the plane goes below 20,000 feet - kerblam. It’s SPEED on a plane!

The other thing I hated about PASSENGER 57 (and every other plane hijack script) was the lazy writing when it came to how they got the guns onboard. It’s *always* through food services. Always. Now, I would think about the third time that happened in a movie, the one thing that they would make sure they searched was food services. I know in real life things really are stupid sometimes, but our job is to make things believable, even if security really is lax at food services. You don’t want the audience to be rolling their eyes in the cinema (they'll get stuck in the puddles of Coca-Cola), and you can’t stand in the lobby and explain to everyone that in real life you could probably do that. A movie has to be believable, real life does not. (Side note: In real life, in the 60s, it was almost impossible to rob an armored truck. But these bumbling crooks realized that the Brinks garage had cheap alarms, and was easy to break in to... so they stole all of the armored truck *keys*, made copies, replaced them, then swiped an armored truck and went out to pick up money from a bunch of businesses. They stole millions! But, would you believe that scenario in a movie? No - because stealing millions shouldn’t be that easy.)

Well, I had to find some other way to get weapons onboard, and having once cut myself on a plastic picnic knife, thought that might be a solution. What if the hijackers had *plastic* weapons that could get past metal detectors? Remember that plastic gun from IN THE LINE OF FIRE? They could have real guns and the bomb in the luggage section, and retrieve them once they had taken control of the plane.

So, I wrote up a treatment to make sure I didn’t forget any of this stuff, registered it with WGA, and then went on to do other things...

In 1994 I actually had some sort of screenwriting career, and my friend Brenda (from my home town) who does make up and costumes on commercials was telling me about this Apple laptop commercial she’d just done on a 727 airplane that was owned by San Jose State College. A real plane! At the airport. And it rented for $1k a day, and you could easily get the acting class as extras for free (that’s what they did) and use the airport background. She remembered my treatment and thought we might put together a movie project. Great idea! I toured the plane, and wrote up my script (having the opening take place in San Francisco to keep the film in Northern California). Sent it off the LOC and my copyright form is dated September of 1994. So, while I tried to put ALTITUDE together as a Bill Martell Production, I also tried to get it set up at one of the low budget companies I had access to. No agent, no manager, and I didn’t know Tom Cruise’s gardener, so I had to just do whatever I could do. We could never find the money to make the movie ourselves, but some strange things happened with that script.

Many of those 19 produced films and many of the script deals that didn’t make it to the screen, happened because someone read the script and passed it to their best contact who passed it to their best contact who passed it to their best contact and then someone I do not know calls me and wants to meet on this script of mine. So, I get a call from the D Girl for Peter MacGregor-Scott’s company at Warner Bros (I want to say it was Building A, but that was over a decade ago, so I’m not sure). Hey, could I meet with them about this ALTITUDE script? Sure!

So, living in Studio City, and knowing that they make you park in some far-off lot, I rode my bike to Warner Bros... which confused the hell out of the security guys at the gate because the rules said they had to tape the lot pass to my car windshield - and I was on a bicycle. They actually had to call a superior to find out that they needed to tape the pass to my handlebars. So, I met with the D Girl and she tells me they really like my script and would have probably bought it, but... there’s another film on the lot with a similar plot. Called EXECUTIVE DECISION. What else did I have? Well, the problem was that all of my new scripts (including ALTITUDE) were written for Made For Cable budgets - and because of the success of HARD EVIDENCE I had a bunch of “suburban thrillers” that were kind of written for USA Network. None of those screamed Warner Bros Big Summer Tentpole Movie - and that’s what they were looking for.

They send me a pass to a press screening of EXECUTIVE DECISION, and it kicks ass. What I thought was funny about it - it’s kind of the airplane version of my CRASH DIVE script (which had been filmed and aired on HBO by then) - brainiac gets stuck as reluctant action hero. Both even took place in a “tube” (plane / submarine).

So I decided to do an e-mail “auction” of ALTITUDE to every AFM company I could find, as the potential low budget rip off of EXECUTIVE DECISION. Here’s what I learned from that - those AFM guys don’t like it when a writer tries to take control. Half of the companies sent me nasty e-mails telling me they did not want to ever get another e-mail from me. I couldn't even reply that I was sorry... that would be another e-mail form me. Three places were more open and read the script (I FedExed it, had to go to Toluca Lake to do that because there wasn’t a Fed Ex office in Studio City). All three wanted to know where the hell I expected them to get an airplane... and didn’t expect for me to tell them. One place said there was too much action... um, had they seen any of the films they produced? One guy told me I had to blow up the plane at the end or the script wouldn’t work... Um, I disagreed. That company really wanted it, though. We had a couple of meetings on it during AFM that year.

When EXECUTIVE DECISION came out, I used my ace-in-the-hole and went to the producers of CRASH DIVE. One of the producers really wanted to make an ED rip-off movie, and, script unread, put together a meeting with a director and a star (okay, it was American Ninja Michael Dudikoff, who was a kinda-star. He was on the HBO approved list and got $1m a movie). Everything went well - they had coverage on the script that was completely positive, which is good, because sometimes the same script that gets me accidental studio meetings might not get good coverage from the office boy intern at the low budget company.

It looked like it was going to be a movie... until this producer read the script and asked me where’s the scene with the other plane that attaches to the passenger plane so that the commandoes can get on board. I said, there is no other plane. The hero is a passenger on the plane, who organizes the passengers against the hijackers. The producer tells me that EXECUTIVE DECISION had this stealth plane that connects to the hijacked plane and we need the same thing!

So, I try to explain to this guy about copyright and outright theft of ideas and how my script actually came before EXECUTIVE DECISION so it’s not a rip off but an original and...

He told me he didn’t care about all of that, he wanted the plane-to-plane transfer.

I told him I’d write a new script that had that in it instead of ruining my script. He said I should call it EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE... um, isn’t that the tagline from American Express Card? I left the office before he began throwing things at me.

Here’s the page from Cannes listing the film, even though there may not have been a script at this point: 1996 Cannes Royal Oaks Films - note that part of the ALTITUDE story is still in there - the explosives that blow up if the plane flies below 20,000 feet.

Oh, the Vice President part... So, here I was, stuck writing a complete rip-off of EXECUTIVE DECISION when I *had* an original script that the studio which made EXECUTIVE DECISION had been interested in. I was going crazy! So I read in the trades about a script that had just sold called AIR FORCE ONE by Nichol Fellowship winner Andrew Marlowe, and was joking with a friend that they would never make a film called AIR FORCE TWO about the Vice President’s plane being hijacked, because nobody would care... and that joke became the inspiration for the American Express Card movie.

I wrote up my 15 page treatment while they were still putting together my contract and met with the producer to pitch him the new version (because, you know, it would save him from reading the treatment, and save him from reading the coverage of the treatment and save him from reading anything else). It would be the Vice President’s plane that got hijacked, and in that big scene in the White House Situation Room where they debate what to do, someone says: “It’s only the Vice President, let them blow him up!” But they have to send in a commando team anyway, because it may be a biological or chemical bomb and the population *under* Air Force Two may suffer if the plane explodes.

Well, the producer thought it was okay, but it still wasn’t *exactly* like EXECUTIVE DECISION. I told him he could not make a movie that had already been made, not only would he get his ass sued off for copyright, who would want to see the low budget version of a big budget film? The more EP was like ED the cheaper it would look. You want to do something different and unpredictable and cool...

And I just lost myself a job... before the contracts were signed.

See, the writer isn't supposed to tell the producer what to do.

So, some other writer or writers were hired... and they used some of the stuff from my treatment (which I hadn't been paid for), and the rest was a direct rip from EXECUTIVE DECISION. The guy they hired to direct it, Rick Jacobson, told me the characters in the script had the same *names* as the characters in EXECUTIVE DECISION. He’d had to go through the script and fix that. And for some stupid reason, the new writer dropped AF2 and have the Vice President flying on a commercial plane! What? That's just plain silly! Rick wasn’t happy with the script at all. Oh, and somewhere along the line enough people told the producer that using the American Express Card tag line was silly, so he called *me* and asked what he should title the film! I brainstormed up a list which included STRATEGIC COMMAND (because there was an old Jmmy Stewart movie called STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND) way down at the bottom. Of course, he didn’t pick any of the *original* titles I came up with. I don’t think the film sold well at the next AFM... but it was what the producer wanted - a rip-off of EXECUTIVE DECISION.

Meanwhile, everyone I tried to sell ALTITUDE to said the same thing: Too much like EXECUTIVE DECISION. There was an AFM company that made airplane movies, and I tried to sell it to them, but they never got around to reading the script!

In 2001, five years after EXECUTIVE DECISION, I did a rewrite on ALTITUDE and started sending it out again... and then on September 11th hijacked airplanes stopped being entertaining. And the hijackers had used plastic knives and other plastic weapons. And on United 93 the passengers had organized against the hijackers... just like in my script. I shelved my screenplay.

Even though my script was *not* about terrorists, it was about a hijacked plane. A big part of my script was that it *looked* like a hijacking, but the hero discovers it's actually a robbery at 30,000 feet. A valuable cargo is secretly being transported to Washington DC on this plane, and this team is stealing it and using the hijacking as a smoke screen. Even though it wasn't terrorists, it was action on a plane... and no one wanted that.

If you wondered why the Jodie Foster movie FLIGHT PLAN was so lame, it began as an actual terrorist plane hijacking script... bought before 9/11. Since they were stuck with it, they sent it though the big development meat grinder to remove all traces of terrorism and hijacking, and what came out was a lame LADY VANISHES rip off with an end that makes absolutely no sense. You know, the end is the very last thing the audience sees before leaving the cinema and telling their friends what they thought of the film. You need a great ending.

Well, a couple of years ago, a director friend of mine knew a producer who was looking for an action film they could shoot for $15m with a once-famous action star and asked if I had anything. I pitched ALTITUDE and asked if it was too soon after 9-11. He said he didn’t know, he’d give it to the producer and see what they thought. I did a quick rewrite that added 9-11 to the story, and had the hijacker-thieves preying on our post 9-11 fears... and had an over-zealous Homeland Security Agent order the plane shot down. This added to the suspense and I hoped would allow the hijack story to work in a post 9-11 world. My director friend read it before passing it on, and really liked it. The producer also liked it, but thought it was too soon after 9-11 to make an airplane hijack movie... what else did I have?

Because I had just done a rewrite on the script, I started to use it as a sample. Whenever there was a producer or agent or manager interested in reading something, I sent ALTITUDE. I had been at a couple of Screenwriting Conferences with the head of a management company over the years, and had pitched ALTITUDE to him a couple of times. I’m pretty sure they said the same thing everyone else did - too soon after 9-11 for anything scary on a plane. That logline is still one of the first on my Available Scripts Page, but no one seems to be interested in an airplane action script...

Except, in January or February of this year, that management company sends out a script called ALTITUDE that was also “SPEED on a plane”. And, someone posted a comment on my blog that I had ripped off the writer of that script. Well, this copyright form seems to prove otherwise. Of course, I’ll bet money that the person who posted that comment *did not* post or e-mail the same comment to the management company after I mentioned I had a 1994 copyright form. Though, as I said on a couple of message boards back in January when the script went out, I’m sure it’s probably parallel development. A coincidence.

So, now I have a completely dead script... a victim of bad timing.

The thing that pisses me off is when I get there first, and still get screwed. That script was floating around town for fifteen years, and everybody liked it... it got me meetings all over. But it was never the right time... then some other script comes along and it *was* the right time for that script! And then I'm the copycat!

Every once in a while I bump into a DVD review for my NIGHT HUNTER film that calls it a complete rip-off of BLADE... many even note all of the scenes that are "identical" Vampires in a rave, the "Vampire family" boardroom scene, even that the lead is a leather-clad biker-samurai vampire killer... the last of his breed. A couple of times I've written these reviewers and mentioned that my film was released 3 years before BLADE. I was there first. And the response is always the same: I still ripped off BLADE. There is no way that the cheapo Cinemax Original could be the orginal and the big budget New Line film be the rip off (intentional or accidental or just synchronicity - I'm not accusing anyone of theft, here, just noting who got there first). No matter what facts I produce, my film ripped off BLADE three years before it was released! Oh, and for those of you who are thinking, Wasn't BLADE based on a comic book? Check out the comic book, I did as soon as BLADE came out. Not a match.

Bad Timing can be getting there first and even getting there first and best. You can be ahead of the curve and miss it. Just wish someone would notice the writers who often seem to be ahead of the curve, buy one of our scripts, and wait for the curve to come. Wow, that was just me bitching and moaning and whining for a couple of pages. Sorry about that. Okay, next blog entry will *not* just be me complaining like a wimp...

It'll be about Kate Beckinsale...

Screenwritng Classes On CD - Recession Sale! - $5 Off!
Brand New Classes CD - Structural Freaks!

PS: The mock up poster for ALTITUDE went to just about every AFM company and a bunch of others a few years back.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: No Money Options - should yu accept them?
Yesterday's Dinner: Carl's Jr - that double burger thing.
Bicycle: Just up to NoHo.

SCRIPT SECRETS: LONDON - October 10 & 11, 2009 - BIG IDEA class, using GHOST as our primary example and it includes the new Thematic element!

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Trailer Tuesday:
Manchurian Candidate & Seconds

Because I'm still in Portland, today's Trailer Tuesday is a twofer, with two of my favorite films which just happen to be directed by one of my favorite directors, John Frankenheimer. If you haven't seen these two films, Netflix them *now*!

MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is like the original paranoid political thriller... and it wasn't just an innovative screenplay and story, the direction is inventive and cool... and when you compare how the direction tells the story here as opposed to distracts from the story (some current blockbusters) you wonder what the hell happened to film directors? So many amazing things in this film! I love how everyone has the same dream, but all of the dreams are individualized and different. When they get to James Edwards (the Black guy)'s version of the dream - it's exactly the same, but every character's race is flipped. The old white ladies in the garden club become old Black ladies, and the Black servant becomes a white servant. It has a great sense of sly humor (probably due to the tone of the source novel written by the clever Richard Condon) and has great suspense. The remake got some basic stuff wrong... Um, the reason why it's a game of solitaire is because no one ever asks you if you want to play solitaire, so it is the perfect "trigger phrase". Here's the opening scene - the first dream - watch how the dream changes without a cut. It's the garden club... then it's Chinese brainwashing with the help of the Koreans. Hey, that's Reggie Nadler in the audience! Voice over is by the great Paul Frees, a radio actor who had a very distinctive voice.

The film was directed by John Frankenheimer, who also directed this great film...

SECONDS is a thriller about getting a second chance at life and realizing you take all of your emotional problems with you.

You see echoes of this film in ROBOCOP and other movies about people who realize they can not go back to their old lives ever aagin. Rock Hudson gives the preformance of a lifetime - he was a light comedy pretty boy actor before this film... and here he does dark, deep, drama. Based on a novel by David Ely (who wrote some great TWILIGHT ZONE type science fiction novels). Story hits the ground running with middle aged man John Randolph getting a phone call from his dead friend. WTF? This is a slow burn story, but like MANCHURIAN, deals with constant paranoia. It is *always* creepy. Where MANCHURIAN deals with the idea that you may not be in control of your own life (mind control), SECONDS deals with having to constantly pretend to be someone you are not... and the fear that people may discover who you really are.

- Bill

The Novels:



Friday, August 29, 2014

12 Hours Of Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Okay, I'm at the Portland Film Festival... so why don't you spend 12 hours listening to the original recordings of Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock? It's only half a day...

Hitchcock Truffaut Master Tapes.