Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Film Courage Plus: Writing On Deadline

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. As they have been releasing the interview segments from 2015 every week or so, I have dug back into their archives and tweeted some of the segments from 2014... so they won't be forgotten. There were something like 12 segments from 2014, and probably around 24 segments for 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

So here is the fifth one. I'm still not sure whether the article should come before or after the clip, so this time around it's *before* the clip - you can tell me which way you think would work best in the comments section.

Screenwriting means working on a deadline... sometimes an insane deadline:

I know you don’t want to hear this, but most spec scripts (screenplays written to sell) are never sold... they are “job applications” for paid writing assignments. You know, adapting some comic book or novel or board game or toy or whatever into a movie script. The *job* of writing. And like every job, there are deadlines.

Writers like to fantasize about quitting the day job and just sitting at home in their Pjs writing whenever the inspiration strikes. Being an artist. But reality is completely different - for a professional writer, writing becomes their day job and they have all of those things they hated from the old day job. Idiot bosses? Yeah, there are producers I’ve worked for who make my old day job bosses look like geniuses. Catty co-workers who blame you for their mistakes? You will encounter those, too - true story: on one of my films for a cable network the director came up with a scene that was so expensive it would bust the budget. I told him there was no way the producer would keep this scene in the script, because it not only served no story purpose it would cost as much as every other scene in the script combined. I suspected it was just come power play on the part of the director - to see how far he could push the producer, to see if he could get his way - but I told him I didn’t want to write the scene. He insisted. I wrote the scene. The next story meeting, the producer turned to me and said he was surprised that I would write a scene like that into the script; didn’t I know this was a cable film not a summer blockbuster? Before I could say it was the director’s idea, that director turned to the producer and said, “I told Bill it was a budget buster, but he didn’t listen and wrote it anyway.” And you thought your day job was bad! But the other thing from your day job you will have to deal with are deadlines. You can’t just write when inspiration strikes, you have to write to get things finished on time.

And the closer the project gets to production, the more those deadlines become etched in stone.

One of the production companies I wrote HBO World Premiere Movies for was Royal Oaks (no longer with us) and they were a factory for cable movies. At one point they were making 36 movies a year for a variety of cable networks. That was in the mid-1990s when every new start up network had their own movies, and when established networks like USA Network had 48 original movies a year. Add in Lifetime and all of the rest and there was this insane need to MOWs, and Royal Oaks supplied a chunk of them. Oh, and they also made movies for Studio’s Home Entertainment Divisions (direct to video). There was a “big board” on the wall that showed all of the projects and where they were at on the road from idea to finished film delivered to the network or studio. 36 films with 36 deadlines. And within each large deadline (delivery) were smaller deadlines - like the treatment and each draft of the screenplay. As I’ve said before, on a movie for HBO like STEEL SHARKS before I even pitched the story there was an airdate. A time slot at HBO that the movie would fill. If I didn’t get the screenplay finished in time, they wouldn’t finish making the movie in time... and HBO would be showing a test pattern or something on March 26th at 9pm.

You may not want to think of making movies as if it’s a factory, but at a production company or a studio that’s exactly what it is. They make movies as a consumer product just like some other company makes shoes... in fact, there was a point in time where a shoe company owned a studio! If you think that big studios don’t have big boards like Royal Oaks did, tell me - what are the release dates for the next ten Marvel movies? How about the next five STAR WARS movies? Okay, how about the next three FAST & FURIOUS movies? All of those deadlines! Most of those projects don’t have screenplays or writers or even story ideas! But they already have deadlines. That’s the film business! It is a business!

So you will need to get used to working on a deadline.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work,” Stephen King

“If you wait for inspiration to write; you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter,” Dan Poynter


LAZY WRITERS!


I have self imposed deadlines on my spec screenplays, and try to treat them as if they were any other (real world) deadline. The reason why is that without a deadline I wouldn’t get anything done... I have to be my own boss and crack the whip on myself. Just as my protagonists wouldn’t be rushing to disarm a bomb if that big red LED cliche timer was set for five years from now, I wouldn’t have any real reason to finish a script if there was no deadline and my natural laziness would take over. And I am naturally lazy. I think most of us are. Our default mode is - check out Facebook and then maybe get lost reading articles on something you find mildly interesting and then maybe watch a little TV and then... hey, time for bed! I can do nothing like a pro! But a pro writer needs to write - so I have deadlines and page quotas and write as if it’s my job, because it *is* my job.

And even if it is not your job now, you *want* it to be your job, right?

That means you will need to be able to write quality material on a deadline.

There are folks on message boards who think being forced to write on a deadline results in bad writing. They are probably not going to make it as a professional. Actually, they *could* make it as a professional if they quit fighting the idea of deadlines and just accept that is part of the job and they’ll have to learn how to incorporate deadlines into their writing. People always fight against what they fear - they proclaim that “X is the downfall of creativity!” because they know they are not good at X and they fear X so they want to avoid doing X at all costs. Hey, the world isn’t going to bend to you, you will have to bend to the world. You will have to grow and learn and figure out how to deal with X like everyone else has. Just the way things are. In real life there are deadlines, and fighting against the idea of deadlines is not going to make them vanish. There are still those big boards at production companies and studios listing the release dates for movies that have yet to be written, and when you land one of those jobs you will have to make the deadline no matter what Douglas Adams may have said.

TWO METHODS


There are two methods to make deadlines - Slow & Steady and Holy Crap This Is Due Tomorrow! You know these two methods from when you were in school and had homework. Slow & Steady is the recommended method - what your mom and teachers told you to do - and what I will tell you is the best way to do things. Not that you will listen... but it makes me feel better to know that I’ve told you.

Slow & Steady: In another of the Film Courage segments I talk about How To Be Productive (Even If You Have A Life) and talk about how I managed to write 3 screenplays a year while working a day job (and having a life) by writing one good page a day. Just one. Because those single pages add up to 3 screenplays by the end of the year. Once I “went pro” I used the same method, just upped the number of pages per day to 5. Five pages a day is a screenplay in a month. Yeah - a first draft, but still a screenplay. And that will result in you making almost every deadline you will encounter as a professional screenwriter. In the BREAKING IN Blue Book we look at assignments and deadlines, and how you will often “stack” assignments (take more than one job, because you never know if anyone will ever hire you again) and being able to do a draft in a month will cover you even if you stack a couple of assignments. You will make your deadlines. Slow & Steady wins the race.

The other method - the one your mom and teachers warned you about - is Holy Crap This Is Due Tomorrow! and you know how that works when you pulled those all nighters after procrastinating for a couple of weeks and not doing your homework. You didn’t use the Slow & Steady method, so the only thing left is to just drink a whole pot of coffee or a six pack of Mountain Dews and write the damned thing. There are people who prefer this method to Slow & Steady, but I’m always afraid I’m going to end up with 30 pages to write and 5 minutes to write it in... and I’m just not that fast. I’m also afraid that I’ll burn out halfway through or that some unforseen event will sidetrack me. Heck, when I stacked a couple of projects with tight deadlines once, I ended up with walking pneumonia afterwards. I’d worked myself into exhaustion. What if that exhausting and pneumonia had struck when I was only halfway done with the script? I’d have missed the deadline!

One of the things that helps me on tight deadlines is that the Slow & Steady method creates a confidence that the Holy Crap method does not. If I know I can write 5 pages a day, every day, and not suffer burn out... I can adjust that up to 10 pages a day if need be. And I’ve had those crazy deadlines where I needed to turn out 10 great pages a day to make my deadline because there was a Start Shooting date on the big board. I think I talk about some of these deadlines in this Film Courage segment.

But in the real world of screenwriting, you will need to know how to use both methods. Because even though Slow & Steady is preferable, you may end up with some insane real world production deadline like I had on GRID RUNNERS when they had to scrap the Act 3 I had written due to a change in location and I had to write a brand new Act 3 *overnight*. There was literally a production crew sleeping while I was writing, and when they woke up in the morning and went to the set to shoot that day’s scenes? Well, I had to have finished writing them, get them to the production office so that they could make copies, and then those copies had to be sent to the set so that they could film them. The closer your project gets to production, the more important making those deadlines becomes! When the project is *in production* missing a deadline means the cast and crew have nothing to do (but are still being paid) and the film may crash and burn as a result. Yes, movies get shut down when the screenwriter misses a deadline. You may cost the production company tens of millions of dollars! Do you think they’re going to hire you again after that? That *anyone* is going to hire you again? So you need to be able to use both the Slow & Steady method and the Holy Crap method as a professional screenwriter, and I really think that using the Slow & Steady helps a lot when you need to do the Holy Crap method. But maybe that’s just me. No one really cares which method you use, as long as you make the deadlines.

Because, like any other job, this one has deadlines. Often hard deadlines where a cast and crew is waiting for you to finish so that they can start. So start training for those deadlines *now*!

Good luck and keep writing!

Oh, and instead of a tip jar... if you liked this why not buy a book over there? Thanks! -->

- Bill

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Trailer Tuesday: TOUCH OF EVIL

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) (re-cut version)
Stars: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver.
Writer: Orson Welles based on novel BADGE OF EVIL by Whit Masterson.
Director: Orson Welles

Almost sixty years after its initial release, a recut version of Orson Welles' classic film noir is back on the screen, fifteen minutes longer... darker, more evil than ever before.

Based on the 58 page memo Orson Welles sent to studio chief Edward Muhl after seeing Universal's cut down version, resorter Rick Schmidlin, Oscar winning editor Walter Murch, and film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum have created the film as Welles envisioned it. A posthumous director's cut.

The plot of TOUCH OF EVIL plays as if it were written yesterday. A Mexican district attorney (Charlton Heston!) takes time out from prosecuting a drug cartel to get married. While on honeymoon with his sexy American wife (Janet Leigh) they witness a car-bomb murder. While Heston helps the bordertown detective (Orson Welles) with the investigation, Leigh is taken to a motel for safe keeping. Some honeymoon. Detective Welles instantly finds a suspect, searches his apartment, and finds two sticks of dynamite... But Heston KNOWS the evidence was planted, and that Welles is framing the poor Mexican shoe clerk for the crime. While Heston is busy compiling proof that Welles is a corrupt cop, the drug cartel kidnaps Leigh. Now Heston must rescue his wife AND find the evidence which will bring down crooked cop Welles.

This may sound like a typical cop drama, but Welles turns it into a tour de force, taking us into the strip clubs, whorehouses, and dark twisted alleys of the border town. Creating nightmare images so vivid, you can practically smell the raw sewage in the canal that runs through the slums. In 1950s America, at a time when Beaver was Ward and June's son, the raw sexuality sweating from every enlarged pore of this film must have been more than shocking. The grimy streets, the gang-bangs with bull- dyke gang girls who want to stay and watch. "Hold her legs!" Even the phone sex between a lingerie clad Leigh (looking good enough to eat) and Heston at a store's public phone is given the added perverse twist of having the blind store owner listening to every word... and smiling. This is the type of twisted film David Lynch wishes he could make.

Welles was constantly pushing the limits of film making, and you'd be hard pressed to find a director working today who could pull off half the amazing shots in this film. Visually TOUCH OF EVIL would be innovating if it had been made today, and many of the filmic elements we take for granted had their roots in this film.

The most obvious change in the recut version is the famous 3 minute opening tracking shot (the subject of the opening scene in THE PLAYER). In the old version, Universal used this shot as a title sequence, destroying the suspense and obscuring the amazing camera work. The re-cut removes the titles, so that you can see everything clearly. This amazing shot opens with an assassin setting a bomb timer for 3 minutes. The assassin spots the victim, then races to the victim's car and plants the bomb in the trunk, darting into the shadows just as the victim turns the corner. Then the camera pulls to a high overhead as the victim drives away. The camera follows overhead as the victim drives through town, lowering to street level as the victim waits for a couple (Heston & Leigh) to cross the street. Suspense builds as Heston & Leigh walk on the street next to the car with the ticking bomb. At the border checkpoint, both Heston & Leigh and the car with the bomb are stopped for the usual round of boring questions. Tick. Tick. Tick. Heston & Leigh are allowed through the border at the same time as the car. It's when Heston & Leigh stop to kiss that the car zooms away... and explodes into the sky. ALL of this is done in one continuous shot.

Like nothing you have ever seen before.

touch DVD

Another amazing shot you may miss if you aren't watching carefully. It's so effortless, so smooth, you don't even realize you're watching one of the most difficult shots ever put on film. At the shoe clerk's apartment, there is a LONG continuous shot (X minutes) where the camera moves from room to room following Heston. In order to do this shot, the apartment set was built with break away walls and furniture on wheels. The camera glides through the apartment effortlessly, through a team of police investigators, into the bedroom, into a minuscule bathroom where Heston washes his face, then retraces its steps back to the living room through the crowd of investors to the front door of the building. More complicated than the long takes in Hitchcock's ROPE because of the break away walls, moving furniture, and sheer number of actors the camera must jockey around while maintaining a smooth glide.

Every frame of the film is meticulously composed by Welles and his DP Russell Metty (the camera operator was Philip Lathrop, who would go on to do amazing DP work himself in films like POINT BLANK). Giant shadows on buildings chase characters through the street. Deep focus makes hunter and prey clearly visible in the same shot, even though they are hundreds of feet away from each other. Characters are shown in shadow, from low angles, often with the neon from honky-tonk bar signs strobing across their faces. A scene in a file room using deep focus to underscore the amazing composition obtained when certain file drawers in the room have been pulled out, turning the shot into a fascinating visual puzzle.

One shot you may not notice is the conversation between Heston and an American District Attorney in a car moving through the back alleys of town at 60 mph. At the time this shot would normally have been done as rear projection, but Welles mounts the camera on the car and has Heston drive like a mad man. No stunt double. That's Charlton tearing through town, zipping through intersections without even slowing down.

touch DVD

Though the rec-cut version is a vast improvement over the studio's 96 minute trimmed down version, the problems with TOUCH OF EVIL remain the same. The parallel plots seem unfocused, Leigh's kidnapping taking away much of the power of Heston trying to bring down Welles' corrupt chief detective. The plotting is light: we are given little in the way of actual investigation into the frame ups, Heston just goes into a file room and comes out with evidence. Lastly, there's Heston's performance as a Mexican District Attorney: he's laughably unbelievable.

But the amazing work by Welles as an actor (fat, ugly, sad), Joseph Calleia as his second in command (not wanting to believe that "the cop who taught him everything" might be a monster), Valentin De Vargas as the handsome gang member who organizes the gang-bang, Dennis Weaver as the whacked out motel night man who can't think of woman and bed at the same time without getting flustered, and Akim Tamiroff as the crime lord with the bad toupee make this film memorable.

The rocking score by Henry Mancini uses Afro-Cuban rhythms and seems as modern as the theme Mancini would write for PETER GUNN the following year. And the pianola music that plays in Marlene Dietrich's whore house sticks in your mind for days. Dietrich, as the madam who was Welles' lover twenty years and sixty pounds ago gets all of the great lines:

"You're a mess, honey. You ought to lay off those candy bars."

Welles amazing direction and Metty's crisp, styling camera work are more modern, more innovative, than anything you will see today. After almost sixty years, TOUCH OF EVIL is more powerful than ever.

Bill

Article on the restoration: PURE EVIL

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thriller Thursday: ROSE'S LAST SUMMER

Rose’s Last Summer

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 5.
Airdate: 10/11/1960


Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Marie Baumer, based on a novel by Margaret Millar
Cast: Mary Astor, Lin McCarthy, Jack Livesey
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: John L. Russell




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Rose French. In the blur of memory the face grows dim, but do you remember the name? Twenty years ago, Rose French... the remarkable Rose French.. As a servant girl or as a princess? She was a quicksilver star in a celluloid heaven. If a woman would sell her soul to achieve such fame, what wouldn’t she do to get it back? Poor Rose, that was all she wanted, to relive the past. And those who loved her, Frank Clyde for instance, could do nothing to stop her. For the comeback trail could lead to strange and sinister places. To a lonely garden, into a night of terror, it could even lead to the face of a painted doll. For the comeback trail is a journey without maps, sure as my name is Boris Karloff. Poor Rose French, and her last desperate summer. That’s the name of our story: Rose’s Last Summer. Let me assure you, my friends, this is a thriller.”

Synopsis: Mary Astor famously explained the Five Stages Of Stardom: “Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor Type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?”



Rose French (Mary Astor) is a once famous movie star, a real doll; now a washed up drunk living in a crappy apartment in Los Angeles... forgotten by time. She was married to three men... and divorced by them. Two were pretty boy actors who lived off her fame, one was a Howard Hughes like millionaire who may be the only man she has ever loved. But now she is alone. When she gets an unusual acting job out of the blue, she takes it... No fame or fortune involved, no spotlights and red carpets; that’s not what Rose is looking for. Just a chance to practice her craft... in some town in California called LaMesa. What’s the role?

A few weeks later, Rose French is found dead in LaMesa, in the garden of some dead millionaire’s toy manufacturer’s mansion. The young doctor at the rehab facility where she once dried out Frank Clyde (Lin McCarthy) and that Howard Hughes like ex husband Dalloway (Jack Livesey) show up at the inquest, where it is revealed she died of a massive heart attack, and had been in poor health for years. The two men team up, because the doctor had examined Rose not that long ago, and she had *no* heart condition and was in pretty good health for a boozer. Did someone kill her? Poison her and make it look like a heart attack? They head to LaMesa to investigate.



The garden of the dead toy manufacturer’s mansion is accessible from the street, did she just wander in and die? While poking around they spot an old woman watching from the window, and ring the bell. They talk to the son of the toy millionaire, Willet Goodfield (Hardie Albright) and his wife Ethel (Dorothy Green), about Rose’s death, and they claim they know nothing. She was just this strange woman who wandered into their yard and dropped dead. When they ask to talk to Willet’s mother, who may have seen something from her window, Willet tries to dissuade them. When they insist, old Mrs. Goodfield yells from upstairs that she will see them.

Mrs. Goodfield is heir to Horace Goodfield’s Sweet Marie Doll fortune, and old woman who walks with a cane and spends much of her time confined to her bed. She’s cranky, but answers Frank and Dalloway’s questions. She didn’t see anything, but it’s a tragedy that the woman died on their property. When Dalloway continues with a bunch of follow up questions, Mrs. Goodfield orders him out of the room, she needs her rest. While this is going on, Frank pokes around the house and discovers a piece of evidence that makes it look like Rose may have been inside the house. Frank and Dalloway leave highly suspicious of the family, and do further investigation...



Now we get our big twist, much like in the classic thriller MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, the role Rose was hired to play is playing is a real person... Mrs. Goodfield. Millionaire toy maker Horace Goodfield left his fortune in an odd trust: his widow must live to her sixty fifth birthday for she and Willet to inherit... but the widow has a bad heart, and the family is afraid she will pass away before her birthday. So they hire Rose to play the window in the event she dies before her upcoming birthday. Rose does an amazing job, and Willet and his wife have trouble telling them apart. But when Mrs. Goodfield does die before her birthday, they have to figure out some way to get rid of the body... and decide to dye her hair, put her in Rose’s clothes with all of Rose’s ID and place it in the garden. Plan worked: nobody thought it was Mrs. Goodfield, and when her birthday rolled around Rose played the role perfectly and Willet got his hands on his father’s fortune...

But when Rose wants her money so that she can go back to her life, Willet asks, “What life?” You see, Rose is *dead*. Rose has nowhere to go, no life to live... nothing. Willet gives her a bottle of booze to wash away her depression... and when she’s passed out drunk they carry her out to their car to dispose of her. But Rose was *acting* passed out, and she escapes, running for her life as Willet and Ethel chase her in the car trying to run her down. A nice suspense scene, ending with Frank and Dalloway arriving at the Goodfield mansion with the police, hearing the screams from the car chase a few streets over, and rescuing Rose. Nice ending as Rose and Dalloway walk off together.



Review: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS is about an actress who gets trapped in the role of a real person who was murdered, and can’t escape after she discovers they are setting her up as a suicide. This episode tells a similar story, but through characters outside the conflict who are investigating the mystery. This works fine, because by the halfway point we switch POVs and get Rose’s story, the character who *is* inside the conflict. What’s great is that Mary Astor gets to play duel roles, and pulls off both of them. When she is playing Mrs. Goodfield, you don’t recognize her at all and think she may be part of the conspiracy to kill Rose. And in the flashback sequence, she gets a *third* role, playing the real Mrs. Goodfield under the name “Helen Quintal” in the opening credits so that the audience won’t jump ahead of the story... the way Hitchcock did publicity shots with the chair for Mrs. Bates. She does a great job of playing the real Mrs. Goodfield against Rose playing Mrs. Goodfield, and manages to make each distinctive. So we get a great performance by Mary Astor at that time in her career she was probably the latter “Who is Mary Astor?”



The episode does some stock footage jet setting, from Dalloway’s yacht to San Francisco (where Horace Goodfield died) and from gritty downtown to the luxurious gated estate. All of this is very convincing, and gives the show some scope. Though the car chase and attack scene is tame compared to what we might expect on a TV series today, it’s great for the time. The novel it’s based on is by Margaret Millar, who was Mrs. Ross Macdonald (“Archer” filmed as HARPER with Paul Newman) and a great crime novelist in her own right. Again we get PSYCHO cinematographer John L. Russell shooting the episode, and Arthur Hiller who would go on to direct the hit LOVE STORY as well as critical favorite THE HOSPITAL does a good job... but on a show like this it’s all about pacing, and this episode works well.



Though not on a par with some of the great edge of your seat suspense episodes or the creepy horror episodes of the show, this is a solid entry that really showcases the talent of Mary Astor... and makes you realize there should *never* be a time when Hollywood asks “Who is Mary Astor?” just because an actor or actress is older. Mary Astor doesn’t play a 30 or 40 year old in this episode, and looks great... no crazy plastic surgery. For an actress who was a star in the silent age, and the femme fatale in the Bogart version of THE MALTESE FALCON, she gives a great star turn here and shows that she could still act circles around most actors half her age. What is the reason for that? Oh, yeah: *Experience*.

FADE OUT.

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Elitism & Experience

From the beginning of 2011...

A few weeks ago John August had a post on his blog that got a rise out of me.

John wondered if the blog had become too advanced for a beginning writer, so he decided to read through his mail to see if he was too “inside baseball”... and printed a note from a writer that asked all kinds of stupid questions and then made fun of the writer. Ridiculed the dude. I posted in the comments section that I thought that even though many of the guy's questions could have been answered by spending some time searching John's site – at least the guy was asking questions, right?

And on Done Deal Pro I said basically the same thing: Lots of new writers don't know where to begin, they Google “How do I write a screenplay” and find a website and don't know the first thing about screenwriting so they don't know what to search for – they don't even know what a screenplay consists of.




In one of my favorite films IN A LONELY PLACE, a screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart says that people don't know screenwriters exist – they think actors just make up their lines... and when they become stars, they do. And that's where a lot of new writers are – what's on the page? Everything? If you just have a great idea – can you sell that? If you need an agent, can you tell me where to find one? On Done Deal Pro we regularly see new writers ask these questions and many more. And people on DDP ridicule them and make fun of how naive they are... but they also answer the questions and point them to places where they can read real screenplays and explain how the whole agent thing works. My theory is help them... then make fun of them.

Here's the thing – to me all of these questions sound silly. They sound like things people should just be able to figure out on their own, right? Things they could just find online, right? But when they land at someplace like John's site or DDP – they *have* looked online and ended up there asking questions. Things that we see as obvious. But that's because we forgot when we were them. Now that we know stuff, we think everyone else does!

Plus, there's that pecking order thing – I did a blog entry on that, and I think it's going to come up in this one, too. Nobody knows everything, and all of us are still learning and have things that we need to learn. Now, we can look at those who know less than us and make fun of them, or we can give them the information they need and send them in the right direction.

Or both.

The thing about writers is that many of us are smart asses and are just waiting for someone to say something that's a set up for our joke. I know I am. Yes, this makes me a partial asshole, but I also answer the questions so I figure I kind of earn my assholiness. But, if you just trash the person without helping them, you're building up some negative karma and eventually you will be the person who doesn't know something and someone will make fun of you. All of us are stupid about something.

AM I AN ELITIST?




One of the interesting things in life is how various different things happen at the same time... and all seem to add up to something larger. These random things are connected – which is just plain weird. Plate of shrimp. If I were crazy, I would imagine a giant conspiracy out to get me. But instead, it's just life.

Before the John August blog post, two other things happened back-to-back that connect to the concept of know-it-alls and know-nothings and screenwriting.

There's a message board I frequent that is filled with new writers – and many of them suffer from being overly artsie. This is a common thing. Many new writers think that Hollywood makes all of those remakes and sequels and comic books movies because there is a shortage of quality original screenplays... and *they* have the ability to write those brilliant screenplays!

In fact, when they compare the kind of crap Hollywood makes to what they are capable of, it's obvious that they are geniuses and the people who work in Hollywood now are all morons. Many of these folks believe that film is art, and Hollywood would make nothing but art movies if they had enough great artsie screenplays. Every film would be TREE OF LIFE, if they had a couple hundred similar (genius) (artistic) screenplays.

This is not true.

Hollywood makes movies that will attract a mass audience. That mass audience is more interested in being entertained than seeing some great piece of art... check out the grosses for this year's Oscar winner... and TREE OF LIFE while you're at it. There was a recent article on how the general public no longer goes to see the Best Picture Winner – they don't care about it and don't relate to it anymore. The “Oscar bounce” is gone! They've worked all week long and this film is their escape from all of the crap of real life – they may want to laugh so hard they pass out. What makes them laugh that hard may be the bathroom scene from DUMB & DUMBER.




That makes that bathroom scene from DUMB & DUMBER great screenwriting. I know that makes some of you think I'm crazy or a massive hack – but do you know how hard it is to find something that makes 60 million people around the world laugh? That is the art of screenwriting – making 60 million people around the world feel something. Some emotion. That may be fear from a horror movie or love from a romance or excitement from an action film – but finding that universal thing... and 110 minutes of those universal things – is so difficult that Hollywood pays great money if you can do that. They pay lots of money if you can entertain lots of people. The fewer people you entertain, the less money you get. Kind of trickle down.

Now, that doesn't mean that art films are bad, or TREE OF LIFE is bad, or THE ARTIST or HURT LOCKER are bad... just that they may be really tough screenplays to get anyone to read, let alone buy and produce.

Well, on this message board full of artsie new writers a few people posted some stuff that was completely naive... and someone posted a well thought out reasoned response explaining why their theory of how Hollywood worked was incorrect and something an outsider might believe. Here's the amazing thing – this guy who posted has been nominated for awards, wrote a great critically acclaimed film which you have all seen, that got him a gig writing a couple of big Hollywood films you have also seen, and recently wrote critically acclaimed film that I really love and own on DVD. Dude is a great writer. He was lurking. He de-lurked to help this writer...

And got crapped on.
And argued with.

Nobody knew who he was. They thought he was just some other idiot hack like me who was defending Hollywood films. They trashed whatever he said. Now, I knew who he was from another board, but none of these jokers even tried to figure out who he was... or just respect what he said. The guy was using logic and reason and the people fighting him were defending their position without ever acutally *thinking*. They were too busy arguing with him.

For me, the amusing thing about this was that this guy *was* a legitimate artist as a screenwriter. And he was explaining that *in his experience* commerce was still a major issue and you will have to find the way to sell your screenplay. To businessmen. Who want to make money.




Okay, everyone on this board knows who I am – I do not lurk. I jump in to the discussion, with a different side than the famous writer. Based on my actual experience in the business – I used some real examples both from my stuff and some other well known and easy to Google examples. And my experiences lead me to very similar conclusions as the other writer. Because that's kind of the way things are. From the outside you might think "If only Hollywood had 200 TREE OF LIFE scripts they would make 200 films like TREE OF LIFE." From the inside, you know that a film like TREE OF LIFE is hell to get off the ground... and no one in Hollywood really wants a screenplay like that. In fact, TREE OF LIFE was not made by Hollywood!

If you were to take a hundred professional writers, we would all have similar experiences with slight differences. If you take 100 people who have gone to the DMV and taken a driving test, the main points will all be the same but there may be some individual differences due to that handful of variables there are. So I jump in and basically agree with the other writer – and so do the handful of other pros on the boards...

THEM AND US




And now we have an interesting dichotomy – those who earn a living writing screenplays vs. those who do not. Those with experience in the business and those who do not have experience in the business. The working writers are saying “this is the way it really works” and the new writers are saying “no – it doesn't work that way”. When I say, “Hey, I've been doing this for a while, that really is the way it works.” And the professionals are branded “elitists” for saying that “our way” is the one that works and “their way” doesn't work.

This confused me.

I thought elitists were all about having power over others and excluding them... when the reason we were there giving this advice was to *include* these folks – to show them the secret way into the business. To help them. “You know that wall? There's a doorway through it over here!” But it seems that knowing what you are talking about, having actual experience, is a big negative thing.

Who knew?

The issue becomes facts vs. opinions – and that's crazy. But this seems to be something that isn't just on screenwriting messageboards, the whole country seems to think that a fact is the same as an opinion. That they are equal. If 99% of scientists think the world is round and 1% think it's flat – those 1% are “equal” to the 99%. Crazy! That 1% are the lunatic fringe. In science as in anything else there are always a couple of nutjobs... but the *majority* of people who know what they are talking about agree with each other... and 1% is *not* equal to 99%. Those are *not* two equally valid viewpoints – because at the end of the day the majority rules.

Except, when you are in that 1% you'd much rather believe that it's equally valid to believe the Earth is flat and the space program is a conspiracy and they put something in our milk as children to make us see that curve on the horizon...

And that's *science* - when you're discussing screenwriting and there's an art component and as many different definitions of “good movie” as there are people? More difficult to even agree on what is a “fact”!

But add to this – screenwriting is strange in that it is both art and commerce wrapped into one. Sure – there are arthouse indie films, but even those get some form of distribution because someone thinks they will make money. They are more of a niche thing – and aimed at being popular with that niche. If you plan on *selling* a screenplay then it is a commercial endeavor – not just for you but for who you sell the screenplay to... and for the screenplay itself. There are so many elements of the *craft* of writing that tie into the commercial aspects that you can't really talk art and craft without at least touching on the commercial part. And, on a messageboard filled with artsie types, bringing up the money part brands you a sell out.

On another board there is an intelligent, articulate, artsie screenwriter guy who makes great arguments in favor of seeing screenwriting as an art. I often argue with him, but I also encourage him to keep making his case - because he isn't one of those just fighting for his point - he also *thinks* and *considers the other side* and argues using facts rather than opinions. I like this guy. We need this guy in teh business. The funny thing about my art vs. commerce arguments is that if you drop me in a room full of artists I argue on the commerce side... but if you drop me in a room full of mercanaries I fight for art. Screenwriting is both.




The problem is – two people can write screenplays of equal artistic quality, but if one is about a farm boy in Ohio who dreams of moving to Cleveland and getting a job in a shoe store, and the other is about a farm boy on Tatooine who dreams of being a Jedi Knight and starfighter pilot and rescuing a hot Princess from an evil Black Knight... well, you can guess which screenplay is going to have an easier chance of selling.

There are commercial considerations involved with every screenplay that is bought – and that becomes part of the conversation on the experienced screenwriter side. It's not elitism, it's another danged lesson that most of learned the hard way – and we're trying to help others. Though everyone learns at their own rate, the biggest problem with many of these debates is that some people DO NOT WANT TO LEARN. Not just the commercial stuff (I mean, who really wants to learn that? I fought it) but much of the story stuff that's important. The artsie folks don't want there to be any elements that they can be judged by – so the concept of one script being better *even artistically* than another is some form of elitism.

Huh?

The real problem with this whole “Elitist” thing is that it makes people with experience and actual knowledge, and brands them with a negative for *trying to help*. That does not make them want to stick around on some messageboard and continue helping when they really should be writing. It also demonizes education and intelligence and experience – which seems crazy to me. It guarantees that those folks on messageboards will stay exactly where they are – because the *do not want to learn*. Knowledge is a negative - ignorance is bliss - stupidity is art.

They often seem to think they know everything – which I don't think this famous writer or myself or any of the other working pros who these folks argued against believe about themselves. I believe there are tons of things that I don't know – and a large part of my life and my website and my blog are trying to figure out how things work and share that knowledge... but mostly trying to figure it out because there are things I don't know.

Do you think you know everything?

WINO THEORY




I think for most of us, the more we know the more we realize we don't know... and need to learn. Writing screenplays is incredibly complicated, and requires that you get a bunch of different ingredients in the proper mix.

The problem on some messageboards (and with some executives) is they think that one 110 pages of typing is the same as another 110 pages of typing. That writing the pages is the hard part. And there are plenty of screenplays that get so damaged in development that their 110 pages of writing *is* equal to just about any other 110 pages of typing. But those scripts die a quick death – and if they are made into films due to some mistake, the films die a quick death.

The key is to write something that people think about a decade later... because it will be good (art!) *and* because a decade later you'll want them to call you and hire you for some project. If they read your 110 pages of typing and instantly forget it, you have a problem. Though scripts can be developed into crap, you don't want them to start out that way. My belief (hope) is that even when a script gets mangled there's enough good stuff left to hint that there was a great version they bought. Though, I have no idea what that good stuff might be in the filmed version of CROOKED.

Of course, even if they screw up your screenplay on the way to the screen, your actual screenplay still exists as a sample - and I get all kinds of calls years later based on someone reading a screenplay before it got ruined. I have also used those screenplays as samples. In fact, I have some people interested in hiring me now based on a screenplay they read in the past... which they remembered.




You see - art is involved in screenwriting. Even in popular screenwriting. It's not just "write a 110 page action script", it's writing a 110 page action script that is better than the other hundreds of scripts they have read and will turn out an okay movie once it goes through the meatgrinder. If anything, a popular commercial film really needs to be *artistic* and great more than the art film - since if the art film ever gets made it is most likely to be written and directed and produced by the same person (no meatgrinder). The martial arts star lead isn't going to rewrite all of his lines... so that the actions end up being the thing that carries the story and theme and emotional conflict.

There are great commercial scripts and stinkers. Some screenplays are better than others. Some writers have learned more than others - and that is reflected in the quality of their writing. Doesn't mean those other writers can't learn as much and write scripts of equal quality eventually. Just means *at this point in time* the more experienced writer is, well, more experienced. They've done it many more times and learned more.

I think one of the issues with those who think all 110 pages are equal is what I call the WINO THEORY. I once dated a woman who worked in the wine biz, and know some people in the biz (one guy who gets paid to drink!) and a sommelier – and wrote a script called ROUGH FINISH that was James Bond as a wine taster.

Wine ends up being a lot like screenwriting.

The average person can drink two different glasses of wine and think one tastes good and the other does not – but that's about it. If you give that average person two different glasses of *good* wine, they may not be able to tell which is better. Both are equal to them.




But “educate their palates” and teach them a little about wine, and they can easily tell a cabernet from a merlot from a zinfandel from a pinot noir. They may prefer one over the other. They also know what a cabernet is supposed to taste like (basically) and whether it tastes strange or even has been cut with some other grape. At this stage they can also probably tell you whether the wine was fermented in oak or steel or even redwood or acacia or pine.

The next step might be to refine their palates so that they can tell which region the grapes were grown in – each soil leaves a mark. And maybe even make a good guess at the year due to the amount of tanic acid in the wine. Now they can take a dozen “good” glasses of wine and tell you more about each one – and maybe even taste minor defects in some wine that the average drinker never knew were there. They “have better taste”.

And with each increase in education, with each piece of knowledge, they can taste little details that the average drinker may not even know exist.

My character in ROUGH FINISH was a “private palate” who would break into a winery and taste the wine “before its time” to help investors and wine connoisseurs know which Bordeauxs to buy. He tastes something in the wine that only a handful of people in the world would even notice – and becomes the man who knows too much. Fun idea for a chase action script – but it's based on the (real) idea that an expert wine taster would be able to denote things no one else could... is that Elitism or Experience and Education?

My theory is that the new screenwriter might think the difficult part is getting to FADE OUT – and that *is* difficult. But a hundred thousand people a year get to FADE OUT... and the more you know, the more you can see what is just a bit off on one script and right on the money in another – and the more you know how to write that better screenplay.

You don't just give every character a unique voice and vocabulary and world view and attitude... you realize that all of those different elements are connected in some way to theme... and theme is connected to universal truths that connect to the audience. It just gets more and more complicated! And I don't think you ever reach some point where you know it all. There is always something to learn.

But if you think just writing 110 pages is all there is to it, you have failed.

If you think you don't need to learn anything more, you have failed.

If you think that the 1% who believe the Earth is flat are just as correct as the 99% who believe it is round, you aren't thinking and are not trying to learn and better yourself.

If you think someone who has learned more than you know at this point in time and is trying to help you is an elitist, you have failed.

And, if you know more than someone else – help them. Costs you nothing.

I've found that most established screenwriters want to help new writers – they empathize. They were that new writer at one time, and want to help you avoid all of the pitfalls they stumbled through. So, on a messageboard or in person or whatever – thank them for the help and don't fight them until they just give up on *everybody* and leave. I think it's all about learning - and continuing to learn. Any writer who is giving you advice - even if you don't like what they are saying - is trying to help you. they don't have to do that. They don't get paid to do that. They have many other things they can do that either pay more or are more enjoyable.

Experience and knowledge are not elitism.

If people are trying to *help you* - that's the opposite of elitism.

And DAYS OF HEAVEN is one of my favorite movies... along with AIRPLANE!

- Bill

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Trailer Tuesday: 11 HARROW HOUSE (1974)

Directed by: Aram Avakian (Don Westlake's COPS & ROBBERS).
Written by: Jeffrey Bloom and Charles Grodin based on the novel by Gerald A. Browne.
Starring: Charles Grodin, Candice Bergen, James Mason, Trevor Howard, John Gielgud.
Produced by: Elliot Kastner (every 70s crime film plus WHERE EAGLES DARE).
Edited by: Anne V. Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to OUT OF SIGHT).

This is one of my favorite films that you’ve never heard of, and I have the poster framed (though not on my wall right now, not enough space). It’s an odd film, a sixties style caper movie made in the 70s and starring Charles Grodin who couldn’t really open a movie. Probably the main reason for the movie is that it is based on a best selling novel by Gerald A. Browne who wrote a bunch of breezy caper books that everyone took to the beach to read in the 70s and 80s. Only a couple ended up on screen, this one and another film that wasn’t a hit GREEN ICE starring Ryan O’Neal and Anne Archer. I read a bunch of his books, which always dealt with gemstones and were usually fun caper stories against a glamourous background... with a bit of conspiracy theory thrown in. They’re kind of Cary Grant movies. The combination of comedy and crime is probably what attracted me to the books and this movie. I had not seen it since it was released, but thanks to those wonderful folks at Shout Video I now have it on DVD and have watched it a couple of times. It’s an acquired taste sort of thing, and a flawed film whether you like it or not.



The story gets off to a great start with an unconscious man under a doctor’s care on an airplane, headed to a hospital for life saving surgery. He is taken off the plane and loaded into an ambulance, the doctor hops in back, and the ambulance speeds off. A Man watches all of this, and smiles. In the back of the ambulance, the unconscious man sits up, and he and the doctor open a secret compartment in his medical bag where a bunch of smuggled diamonds are hidden... Then the ambulance is blown to smithereens!

That Man is an enforcer from 11 Harrowhouse in London, the secret organization which controls diamonds throughout the world. The Diamond Exchange. In order to keep the price up, only so many diamonds are allowed out in the world. Every diamond ever bought or sold starts with a raw diamond from 11 Harrowhouse. They are the conspiracy theory part of the story.



Howard Chesser (Charles Grodin) is at the bottom of the list of diamond buyers from 11 Harrowhouse, he’s a smart ass American who doesn’t know how to dress (his suits are not from one of the approved tailors) and he’s, well, common. There’s a great little scene where he lights a cigarette in the waiting room and the receptionist *wordlessly* stares at him until he puts it out. When it’s his turn, Meechum (Sir John Gielgud) who is in charge, insults Chesser and gives him very few raw diamonds at an outrageous price... and since this is a conspiracy/monopoly, Chesser has no choice but to buy them. The vault manager who does the diamond handling, Watts (James Mason), apologizes to Chesser for his treatment. Watts is the only one at the company who isn’t a prick.

Chesser complains to his girlfriend Maren (Candice Bergen) about how they treat him, and she suggests: “My money is your money, if you have to be humiliated, be humiliated with me.” She’s the widow of a formula one driver and rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams... but he doesn’t want to be a kept man. Oh, and if they get married? She loses all of the money.



The next day they are walking down a dark and spooky pedestrian tunnel and are attacked by two men... who subdue them and then give them an *invitation* to meet with the UK’s wealthiest man Massey (Trevor Howard) who made much of his money from oil. Massey lives on an estate the size of a state, where all of his servants are mutes so that they won’t blab to the press. Except for the security force, which is kind of a private army. Massey would like to hire Chesser to purchase and have cut a huge diamond that will be named after him... because when you already have everything, why not have a diamond named after you? Chesser agrees, buys the raw diamond at Harrowhouse and takes it to Amsterdam to be cut by the world’s best diamond cutter. But on the road to Massey’s estate to deliver the diamond, Chesser and Maren are attacked by a pair of thugs and the diamond stolen. Those thugs look a lot like members of Massey’s security detail. But Chesser is over a barrel... and Massey convinces him to rob 11 Harrowhouse of *everything*. To keep the price of diamonds high, they keep a large percentage off the market in the vault deep underground. Impossible to get in or out... so how do you steal anything from this vault?



The film’s tagline is intriguing...

This is like no robbery you've ever imagined.
THE CHALLENGE: Steal 12 billion dollars in uncut diamonds.
THE TASK: Break into the most securely guarded fortress devised by man.
THE PLAN: Use amateurs armed with ingenuity, guts, a cockroach, a thin cord, and a vacuum cleaner.
THE RISK: Death.



Wait... a cockroach and a vacuum cleaner?



And now we get to the fun part where Chesser approaches vault manager Watts who has always been kind to him, and tries to hint around that he’d like Watts to betray the Diamond Exchange and 11 Harrowhouse... while Watts is hinting around that the company is screwing him and he’d do anything to get revenge. Watts has been working for the company for 29 years, and has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Problem is, the Diamond Exchange will *not* provide his family with any pension if he fails to work for the company for 30 years. His doctors say he probably won’t last that long. His family will be penniless. If he can screw over the Diamond Exchange *and* provide for his family? He’s in.

Chesser comes up with a plan, but the great thing about this film is you know it will take the cockroach and vacuum cleaner and the thin cord... but have no idea how those items will be used. And that’s the fun!



The caper is lots of fun, with Chesser a complete scaredy cat and Maren an insane risk taker and Watts getting a very dignified revenge. Lots of suspense, too: from guards doing their rounds to Chesser almost falling off the roof to Watts over exerting himself and almost passing out during the middle of the burglary. Some great sight gags as Maren chills champagne in 12 billion worth of diamonds while munching of a carrot. A caper film is all about how clever the scheme is to get past all of these impossible obstacles, and this movie takes you step by step through how they do it using those items. The vault that is impossible to steal from, and the insanely clever plan that allows them to empty it.

But after they have successfully stolen every diamond from that underground vault at 11 Harrowhouse, they now have to figure out how to get their money from Massey for delivering the *truck full* of diamonds. Their plan is to hide the truck on a building site among a bunch of other trucks and heavy equipment, and take a satchel with a sample of the diamonds to Massey’s estate. Massey is a man who cheats at *dog shows*. Impossible to trust him.



And this proves to be the right choice, as Massey and his private army try to steal the satchel of diamonds from them and get them to tell where the rest are; which leads to a massive car chase on the grounds of the estate and some shoot outs and explosions and other Act 3 stuff. The tone is often a little weird here, as they go for a fun romp action feel... but people are trapped in cars that go over a cliff and explode.

That inconsistent tone is one of the issues with the film, along with post production voice over with Grodin quipping about what happens on screen. The VO was actually one of my favorite parts when I first saw it, as it gives the whole things a 40s private eye movie feel... and also does what the movie PULP does so well: gives us tough guy patter when the film shows the protag being anything *but* tough. The scene in the dark pedestrian tunnel has Grodin getting the crap beaten out of him and collapsing, as the VO says “Lucky for him he let me go, in another minute I would have had him”. Some great laughs. Now the VO seems obviously added after some terrible test screening, though it is still amusing. This was obviously Grodin’s baby, he cowrote the script and stars... and it’s too bad this didn’t rocket him to stardom. But maybe if he had become a big star, he wouldn’t have been cast as second banana in MIDNIGHT RUN?

11 HARROWHOUSE is an acquired taste, but if you love sixties caper movies (and great British casts) it’s worth a look. I like it despite all of it’s problems.

Bill

Buy the border

Friday, June 08, 2018

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Under Capricorn (1949)

Screenplay by James Birdie and Hume Cronyn based on a play by Margret Linden and John Colton based on a novel by Helen Simpson.

That's a whole lotta based ons...

Still my least favorite Hitchcock film! Several problems, the biggest one is genre - this is a frilly shirt melodrama with no thrills at all and some sort of family secret, that when finally revealed ends up being a “So what?” moment. There’s a whole lot of acting going on and no real conflict... and though some scenery is chewed by the end of the story, most of the acting is realistic for the time period when the film was made, and until those end reveal scenes the acting is subdued. Not a bad story for a novel - the characters all make sense and it's interesting how one character's emotional issues trigger a bunch of other character's emotional issues... but all of that is internal. Stuff that shows up on the pages of a novel but not on screen. So we end up with a placid flaccid melodrama that takes place in 1831 in Australia but was shot on the backlot somewhere. This is a movie where everyone wears frilly shirts, outrageously tall top hats, and carries a waking stick... and no one has an Australian or Irish accent, because they are all played by Brits or Americans. Oh, and there are no Aborigines - Australia is an all white country for some reason.




Nutshell: Irresponsible and perpetually unemployed Irish Society Guy Charles Adair (Michael Wilding, who played the boring detective in STAGE FRIGHT but is okay here because he has a character to play) is shipped off by his family to live with his cousin, the new Governor Of Australia (Cecil Parker). They hope Adair will grow up, find a job, and get responsible... but that just doesn’t seem to be in his plans. He meets wealthy land owner Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotton) who was once a prisoner - Australia is a prison colony. He offers Adair a deal: since Flusky has purchased all of the (cheap) land from the government that is legally allowed, if Adair buys some property under his own name, Flusky will buy that property from him for more than he paid. Adair makes a profit, Mr. Flusky gets the government land he wants. Adair is invited to a dinner party at Flusky’s lavish, elegant, mansion that is really only a painting. There he meets Mr. Flusky’s drunken wife Henrietta Flusky (Ingrid Bergman, the only one even trying to do an accent in this film)... who he recognizes as a friend of his sister’s back home!



Thrown in here is an odd variation on the Maid from REBECCA who takes care of Mrs. Flusky and likes to take something hot up to Mr. Flusky in his bedroom (whatever that means). The kitchen staff are all female convicts, and the Maid whips them into submission on a regular basis (off screen, unfortunately). After the Governor discovers his cousin is doing business with an ex-con, he is forced to live in that mansion-which-is-only-a-painting with all of those crazy people. And stuff happens. And Adair tries to get Mrs. Flusky off the bottle and back into Australian Society (whatever that is) in some weird riff on MY FAIR LADY. And eventually the big secret is revealed - Mrs. Flusky actually committed the murder that Mr. Flusky was convicted of! No! No! How could that be? This perpetually drunken woman killed someone? Then some other stuff happens. Then, Adair is shot by Mr.Flusky by accident after he has to shoot Marnie’s horse after it breaks a leg. Oh, wait, it’s Mr. Flusky’s horse. Anyway, the Governor wants to send Mr. Flusky back to prison, but Mrs. Flusky steps forward and says her husband didn’t violate his parole because *she* accidentally killed that guy in Ireland many years ago that sent her husband to prison in the first place.



The Governor now has a two-fer, and is going to send both to prison... but our hero Adair survives and lies and saves the day! No one goes to prison! And, for a movie about Australia as a prison colony, there are no scenes in this film outside or inside the prison - we never see it. Oh, I left out the part where the Maid is discovered slowly drugging Mrs. Flusky and encouraging her to drink and leaving a *shrunken head* on her bed some nights, so that Mr. Flusky will divorce her and marry the Maid because she brings something hot up to him in bed every night (whatever that means). Um, what the hell are shrunken heads doing in Austrailia?

Experiment: In Hitch’s previous film, ROPE, he did a great experiment in long takes - every shot in that film was a full reel of film, and often the cuts between reels used a “human wipe” where an actor would pass in front of the camera at the end of one reel and then pass in front at the beginning of the next so the two reels would seamlessly cut together as one take. That was a brilliant experiment that we will talk about next time. Problem is, Hitchcock tried doing long takes in this film, but it just didn’t work. The reasons...



ROPE is a stage play which takes place in one large apartment. It makes sense to try to do long continuous shots in one room, with the camera gliding around from person to person. CAPRICORN takes place in a bunch of locations, so we are constantly cutting anyway. And even when we are at one location, there are cuts. So there really is no experiment that we are aware of as the audience. Just some long takes - some are interesting, most are infuriating, because...



In ROPE the story is filled with tension. The story has two college students murder their friend, throw his corpse in a trunk they use as a coffee table, then throw a party for all of the victim’s friends including their college professor. So the whole film is unrelenting tension - will someone discover the dead body in the trunk? We are trapped in that room, and trapped in those *shots*. The experiment isn’t just a whim, it fits the story and *builds tension*. In CAPRICORN there is no body in a trunk, and we are not trapped in a room, so the moving camera is just a bunch of moving camera. Because there is no tension, no real conflict, we *need* cutting between shots to create some action. Instead, nothing is happening in the story and nothing is happening technically to keep us awake. The long takes become sleep inducing.

The best long take of the lot is probably when Adair first goes to Mr. Flusky’s house and walks around looking through windows - spying on what is going on - then is caught and invited in, and we move through the door with him and then see all of the things we have seen through the windows from inside the house... oh, if those things had only been not what they appeared! But, it was just the same stuff from a different angle.




Hitch Appearance: Outside the Government House in a long shot. You can’t really see him on DVD unless you have a huge screen TV... and I watched this movie on my laptop in a Vegas Hotel room while on vacation.

Great Scenes: No conflict = no great scenes. This is a melodrama, all about shocking scandalous behavior and family secrets. Those things don’t age well, yesterday’s scandal is today’s normal life.

MOVIES NOT THINKIES: Add to that, these are intellectual rather than physical... and that this film is adapted from a novel, where we get all sorts of information that might make the family secret much more shocking. On film, we only get what we see and hear. So we first see Mrs. Flusky as a drunk, and eventually learn that she came from a wealthy family in Ireland. On the page, we can have our hero remember her in Ireland, and remember how elegant and refined she was. As we read the book, we will picture the elegant and refined version of the character and mentally compare it with this drunken woman... and that’s shocking! On film, we have never seen the other version of the character, and even when it is revealed that she was that refined woman once, it means nothing to us. They’re only words. We can’t compare the word “Lady” and this image of a drunken woman in a house coat in the middle of the day.

ABSTRACT CONCEPTS DON'T FILM WELL: Similarly, all of the melodrama’s big shocking reveals don’t really work on screen. This elegant, refined woman was having an affair with... the stable boy! That stable boy is now Mr. Flusky, not a boy, not a servant of any sort, not covered in manure... Mr. Flusky as we know him is one of the wealthiest men in Australia. So that reveal isn’t much of a shocker. Again, in the novel we can “see” him as the filthy stable boy, and understand that he is a servant and not of the same class as Henrietta. How do we *show* that someone is not of her class? We can’t see that. The closest we can get is maybe showing that he’s not in her league as far as beauty goes. Part of the problem with film is always going to be casting - Joseph Cotton is one of the male leads, so the studio doesn’t want an ugly guy playing that role... and even if they had cast someone ugly, this is the wealthiest man in Australia, and there are many attractive women who marry less attractive men who are wealthy. And if we were to do a flashback to before Flusky became the richest man in Australia, when he was just that stable boy? Problem there is that in a novel you can get inside Henrietta’s head so that we understand why this manure covered boy is strong and virile and sexy to a young woman... even if he was ugly. On film, if they found an ugly man we’d wonder why she had the hots for him, if they cast an attractive actor, the women in the audience might have the hots for him, too... and there goes the whole shocking forbidden love thing. There is no way to make this work well on film, even though it can be a real shocker on the page. Some types of stories just don’t translate to the screen, which is why as writers we need to match our stories to the mediums best suited for telling them.

After Flusky was sent to prison in Australia, Mrs. Flusky sold everything she owned and followed him... living in some vile place while she awaited his parole. This was in a huge chunk of exposition, camera not moving and not cutting, as Mrs. Flusky tells Adair her life up until now, every big shocking moment of it. I’m sure in the novel we got a bunch of flashbacks, but that would have made this movie all about *the past* and not about what we were watching on screen now. As dialogue, that vile place she lived in could be a Motel 6. On the pages of a novel we could have a 2 page flashback filled with details about rats and cockroaches and shared toilets and straw beds with worms, and... see, that was a single sentence that probably grossed you out. On screen you’d have to show all of those things over a long scene or series of scenes so it didn’t become overkill and wind up *funny*.

HOW DOES THE AUDIENCE KNOW THAT? The big twist that Mrs. Flusky was the killer and not her husband is a big problem transferring from page to screen because we can’t show it up front, when it is Mr. Flusky’s backstory, because of the twist. In a book Flusky can be the killer on every single page, because it can be part of the narration. That makes the twist a corker. But on screen we can’t have Flusky be a murderer in the narration - there isn’t any. Unless you have him wear a sign around his neck that says “Murderer” we are going to see him as the wealthiest man in Australia. There’s not much room for editorializing in film. It’s what we see and what we hear, and seeing is believing - so the visual part is most important. We could *show* Mr. Flusky acting like a savage killer all of the time, but there’s one problem with that - he’s innocent.

But the big problem with the story as a *movie* is that we can not show distinctions in society on screen. In a novel we can spell these things out, just like with Flusky as the murderer, we can have him identified as a servant class. And the shocking stuff about the Maid bringing hot stuff up to his bed at night would be shocking. And when Flusky shows at the grand ball, it could be shocking. And when Mrs. Flusky is transformed into the society woman every society man wants to dance with, and then it’s discovered that she was that drunken woman married to Flusky... all of these things work on the page but do not work on screen at all. On screen all men are men, there is no class distinction. All women are women, there is no class distinction. As awful as this may be to say, it ends up all about *looks*. You can have ugly men and handsome men, ugly women and pretty women. That ends up being the “class distinction” on film. Which is why Cinderella is *always* a babe, she just needs better clothes. And why every other makeover movie has the woman taking off her glasses, pulling her hair out of the bun and shaking it out and... instant hottie! A movie can’t show us inner beauty - we usually don’t have time to get to know an unattractive character well enough to understand why another character would fall in love with them in 2 hours. So it all comes down to looks, so we can’t use looks as class distinction in a cross-class love story. On the page, not a problem. On screen, we can’t see class distinctions - so the do not exist. Making this story impossible to tell as a film with anywhere near the same impact as on the page.

All of the conflict is in the past... until the end where Flusky begins to believe that Adair may have the hots for his wife. Then we get a confrontation scene in public and an accidental shooting. Oh, and probably the best scene in the film which triggers the confrontation, where Flusky has bought his wife a necklace and she rejects it. Nice bit of visual storytelling there, too bad it’s in a silly film.




SOAP OPERA TWISTS: But the bigger issue is - even if all of these “twists” would have worked 100% on film, they are “soap opera twists” - they do nothing to change the course of the story. They just tell us scandalous background information about the characters. Henrietta married a servant! Okay, how does that change her life in Australia? It doesn’t change *anything* in the present at all! The closest the film ever comes to using one of these false twists to change the story is when Henrietta confesses to the Governor that *she* committed the crime her husband was originally accused of in order to save him from prosecution for shooting Adair... and it doesn’t work! Flusky is still going to be charged in the shooting of Adair! It takes Adair’s testimony to save Flusky from being returned prison.

A plot twist changes the direction of the story - it impacts the story. In THE CRYING GAME when we get that twist that the chick is really a dude, that changes the direction of the story - now our hero realizes he’s fallen in love with a dude and has to figure out what to do next... and the rest of the story is about trying to deal with that twist. But UNDER CAPRICORN we get “soap opera twists” that just reveal scandalous information about a character which changes nothing. So even if all of these “twists” had translated to screen, they wouldn’t really be twists.

Bad choice of source material for a movie. This story works as a book, doesn’t work at all as a movie.

Sound Track: Kind of a bland movie melodrama score by Richard Addinsell. Forgettable.

This film even looks like a bad period melodrama - between the costumes and the stock shots of Australia and big grand balls interrupted by angry husbands... it just looks like a big dumb Hollywood movie - a bad GONE WITH THE WIND knock off, but without the production value or dialogue or performances or even the cinematography. Many Hitchcock films seem modern, even today. They have aged well. UNDER CAPRICORN looks old fashioned.

- Bill

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Thursday, June 07, 2018

Thriller Thursday: THE PURPLE ROOM

The Purple Room

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 7.
Airdate: 10/25/60


Director: Douglas Heyes
Writer: Douglas Heyes
Cast: Rip Torn, Richard Anderson, Patricia Barry.
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: Bud Thackery




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Don’t be alarmed. The woman who just screamed is perfectly quiet now, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. You see, she’s been dead for nearly a hundred years. Her bed is empty, and whatever it was that seemed to frighten her so is gone. *Seems* to be. But I can tell you this much: that bed won’t be empty much longer and other screams will soon be heard. Whose? Perhaps yours. Or those who will join us here: Mr. Rip Torn, Miss Patricia Barry, Mr. Richard Anderson, and... Well, it seems the rest of our cast can not be raised. They’re dead, you know. Spend a night with us in the Purple Room, if you dare! Let me assure you my friends, this is a thriller!”

Synopsis: Born skeptic Duncan (an impossibly young Rip Torn... who you know as the gruff boss from MEN IN BLACK) has just inherited an old house in Baton Rouge which has been in the family for years... and is supposedly haunted. Duncan doesn’t care, the house is on valuable property some big company wants to buy so he figures he’ll flip it and make a fortune. Nice plan, but the will requires him to live in the house for one year before he can sell it... and stay in the house one full night along with the other heir... his cousin Oliver (Richard Anderson from SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) and his wife Rachel (Patricia Barry). If he can not spend the full night in the haunted house his cousin Oliver gets it. So there’s a bit of a competition involved: who can stay the whole night in the house, Duncan or Oliver? Since Duncan believes in money but not ghosts, he sees no possibility of losing.



Oliver, Rachel and Duncan drive to the house, in a remote area near a swamp... heck, it’s the PSYCHO house on the Universal backlot along with the swamp from the film... the art of using existing sets. They enter the house, which has no electricity and no phone and hasn’t been lived in for decades. Candles do little to illuminate the house. It’s spooky as heck. They climb the stairway to the bedrooms, and Oliver dares Duncan to sleep in the Purple Room... where all of the deaths have taken place including that most recent one 100 years ago. Duncan isn’t afraid of no ghosts, so he takes the room, even after Oliver relates the legend of the room...

A hundred years ago Captain Jeremy Ransom and his wife of only seven days were alone in the house on honeymoon, when they heard strange sounds from downstairs. Ransom gave his gun to his new bride for protection and then went downstairs to investigate. After more strange noises, the new bride hears footsteps coming up the stairs... a strange shuffling and dragging that was *not* her husband. As the thing came closer and closer to her in the darkness, she fired the gun again and again... killing her own husband... who had been stabbed by a burglar downstairs and was staggering upstairs for help. Then she went mad and spent the rest of her life in an asylum.

Oliver smiles: “This place is all yours... and everything it contains.”



In the middle of the night Duncan hears strange noises from downstairs and wakes up. After he lights the candle, it blows out... and all kinds of weird things begin happening in the Purple Room. Things move all by themselves. Duncan believes it’s Oliver and his wife trying to scare him, they’ve just rigged the room ahead of time. When things keep happening and he sees a picture on the wall move, he pulls the picture away... and there is just the wall behind it. The *solid* wall. WTF? He hears more noises downstairs, grabs his gun and heads downstairs.

Where something lurks in the shadows.

A knife flies at him, sticking into the floor.

The thing in the shadows moans and starts shuffling towards him. It’s Ransom’s ghost! Face rotted, knife sticking from its bloody chest. Dragging its leg as it gets closer and closer and closer to him. Duncan fires his pistol at it again and again and again... and the things keeps coming towards him!



Closer and closer and closer!

Duncan screams, clutches his chest and falls to the floor.

The rotting corpse walks right up to him... and pulls off his mask, it’s Oliver. Rachel comes out of the shadows and checks his pulse... he’s *dead*. Not part of the plan at all! They were just supposed to scare him enough that he left the house, not *kill him*. Change of plans. They carry his body out to the car, drive down the road to the swamp and drive the car off the road into the swamp, put Duncan behind the wheel, and walk back to the house. Now they can claim that Duncan got scared in the middle of the night and ran... and Oliver and Rachel had not a thing to do with his death.

Back at the house they clean up and remove all of the planted tricks and devices to scare Duncan... and then go to bed in the Purple Room. It *is* the master bedroom in *their* new house, after all. But in the middle of the night they hear strange noises from downstairs. A prowler? Oliver grabs Duncan’s gun, pours out the expended blank shells and loads it with *real* shells, then starts out of the Purple Room. But Rachel is frightened, so Oliver gives her the gun and goes downstairs to confront the prowler.



In the dark and spooky house, Oliver tries not to be afraid... but some *thing* is creeping up the stairs towards him, dragging its leg just like the Captain Ransom legend. When the thing gets closer, closer, CLOSER Oliver stumbles and falls down the stairs... the thing continues up the stairs... to the Purple Room!

Rachel is terrified as the thing opens the bedroom door and stumbles inside. She fires the gun, again and again until it clicks dry. Killing the thing. She carries the candle to the thing... and it’s *Duncan*. Not a fatal heart attack after all, he was unconscious and weak... And she has shot him six times. She goes downstairs and finds Oliver, shook up but okay. Tells him that she has shot Duncan... and that’s when the police come after finding the abandoned car and hearing the shots. Oliver and Rachel are headed to prison.

Review: Not only do we get the PSYCHO house and swamp, we get a great Weird Tales type story! After last week’s talky crime drama, the show finally seems to get on track with an episode that fulfills the promise of the series’ name. My favorite episodes of the show are thrillers filled with nail biting suspense and the Weird Tales stories that creep into horror (though usually with a twist). I want to be on the edge of my seat or scared to death, and my favorite episodes deliver on this. Though nothing from THRILLER can ever beat the Hitchcock UNLOCKED WINDOW episode for sheer terror, some get pretty close.



This one is just okay. Not enough Haunted House stuff to build our terror before Duncan comes face to face with dead Captain Ransom downstairs, it needed several more “gags” up in the Purple Room when Duncan wakes up. Since Oliver and Rachel have had plenty of time to rig the room, you’d thing they would have come up with at least as many things as in THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. I’m guessing somewhere along the line the writer/director feared there wasn’t enough time to show *how* Oliver managed to do anything really weird after Duncan supposedly drops dead. But I think the audience would have gone with it, since we went with the blown out candle gag and the moving painting with a solid wall behind it. He should have gone whole hog and had all kinds of weird stuff happening in the Purple Room. Remember, this was made at a time when film special effects where often done with thread and smoke and mirrors. The audience would accept any crazy thing happening in the room, because they really had to do it for the episode. If the writer/director thought the audience might have questioned a bunch of weird stuff, all he had to do is have Oliver say he apprenticed under a magician when he was a kid or something.

The *direction* is also not doing much to ramp up the suspense and dread. Lots of great moving camera shots, but makes the mistake of not showing the POV of the protagonist, which is where all of the suspense and dread resides. I don't understand how there can be directors out there who don't get this, but in my blog entry on THE THING prequel I noted that was the big problem with the film... and used an example of how to do it right from DIABOLIQUE. Other THRILLER episodes have some great direction that really adds suspense and dread. Ida Lupino directed a bunch of episodes and hers are awesome. That woman knew what to do with a camera! Most of the creepy stuff here is done by keeping things bathed in shadows, and that *does* work a little.



The best thing about the episode is the great twist where Oliver and Rachel’s attempt to fool Duncan into believing the Captain Ransom ghost haunts the house mostly backfires... but then they replicate the legend without thinking when they hear the noises downstairs. Oliver gives her the gun the same way Ransom gave his bride the gun a hundred years earlier. Love the irony! That’s what we expect from a Weird Tales type story, the scheme bites the schemers on the ass!

Weird Tales this week, edge of the seat thriller next week!

Bill

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