Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Aarhus (part 8) - The Porn Panel

I wake up late, groggy, and probably hung over. When you do events like this, you’re always living on minimum sleep. You usually have to get up early and teach a class... after a big party the night before. Add in the jet lag and there’s always one day where it all catches up and you crash and burn. This was that day... I had just slept through the free breakfast (the only meal I don't have to pay for), so when I stumbled into the lobby in desperate need of coffee (with the restaurant closed until lunch) I ended up at the hotel bar... drinking expensive coffee. Why is it that coffee in a bar is five times more expensive than in a restuarant?

I had one of my surprise consultations today, plus I would be on “the big panel” with the head of the Danish Film Ministry and a major distrib from Denmark as well as a couple of other VIPs. I would be the sole creative person on the panel... and I hope I would be awake enough to make a contribution. I was drinking gallons of coffee and it didn’t seem to be doing much.

I finally reached a point where my blood was about 85% coffee and could *almost* think and speak... which was good because I had a consult.

The consultation was with a guy from Greece who had taken the class, and he started out by telling me that my class had really answered all of his main questions, but he wanted to talk with me about his story idea - especially the ending. His story was from a personal event in his life - his father becoming too old to drive, yet still driving. A good basis for a story because it’s emotional, yet has lots of room for comic adventures. We talked over the end - and I gave him the feel-good Hollywood ending idea... that he probably won’t use. That’s okay, it’s his story and he knows what works in Greek Cinema much better than I do. I also came up with a non-Hollywood ending suggestion... partly because he wanted to jump from comedy to tragedy at the end, and I didn’t think that was a good idea. I liked this story - and want to see how it turns out (he’s making it himself).

The consultation ended with enough time for me to walk briskly to a cinema and see a program of shorts. Hey! I get to see movies! Cool! I've seen so few movies at this festival due to the surprise consults, etc... and the ones I have seen have been iffy at best.

I actually bump into a group of filmmakers on my way to the cinema, one has a film in the program... the most vocal member of my class. This should be interesting....

The shorts program was called POWER OF THE SURREAL and was the typical hit and miss mix... but the “hits” were the best things I saw at the film festival. The standout was THE DEATH OF SALVADORE DALI - where Dali seeks help from Sigmund Freud... in a story that plays like a Dali painting - strange and yet familiar. Even in my groggy state, I laughed outloud several times watching the film.

The short by my vocal student was a 10 minute opera that didn’t seem to have a story - just a bunch of great production design and costumes. So much for that "story by instinct" theory. Afterwards, they wanted to know how much I loved it. “Well, it had great costumes.” They didn’t like that answer and continued to ask how much I loved it. Did I love this part and that part and....

I decided to change the subject with a question about the Filmmaker’s Party. Seems it was crowded. I mentioned that I went to the party of stairs.... and they said that apartment is where some of the filmmakers were staying. You know why they had so many filmmakers at the festival? They paid for travel and lodging! I have not been reimbursed for my airplane ticket, train ticket, taxi, let alone all of my daily expenses... let alone my fee for teaching the class. This event is costing me *thousands* and I didn’t even have enough people in my class to make up for it by selling *one* class on CD. I sure hope they have check waiting for me when I leave...

But I’m not holding my breath.

After the shorts, I had a brisk walk back to the hotel to drink some more coffee and prepare for the panel... where Marina introduces me to some of my fellow panelists. I had coffee with the Film Ministry guy and the distributor guy. Both were suits. The Film Minister dude was a politician rather than a film maker - I wondered how he was going to go over with this *very* artsie anti-commercial, anti-rules, anti-anything-that-is-not-pure-self-expression film crowd.

This is the last panel discussion of the festival, and *nothing* is scheduled opposite it. No films are showing, no classes, no consultations. It’s just the panel. And it’s an all-star panel (except for me). So I expect this to be standing room only when I enter the room along with the other panelists. But there were maybe a dozen people in the audience. That’s all? The other panelists - much more important than myself - seemed disappointed. I wondered if the poor turn out meant that the Film Makers Party the night before was one I shouldn’t have missed - maybe all of those folks are still sleeping?

So we start with introductions, then the Film Ministry guy talks about Denmark’s film funding program. Like most non-USA countries, the government actually funds films as part of an arts program. An American film maker asked if she could get the money... and the answer was no. The money is only for Danish film makers. Oddly, she got mad at this and begins arguing with the Film Minister guy.... Hey, if someone’s giving away money, they get to decide who to give it to. After that, the Film Ministry dude dropped the bomb-shell.

Danish film aren’t doing very well outside of Denmark, so they were looking to fund more *commercial* films that will actually earn money, rather than films that are only art pieces or have no audience outside of Denmark. I think all of the dozen people in the audience felt as if they were slapped in the face. One of them decided to argue with “So, you’re saying we should just make porn?”

And got an unusual answer from the up-tight Film Ministry guy.

He took the question seriously... and answered that Danish porn had been very popular in the past, and had brought a great deal of money and even prestige to the Danish film industry. There was a time when Danish porn was seen worldwide - and the Ministry would not be opposed to funding porn. If the film makers had some porn film projects they should definitely submit them for consideration. His door is always open to porn.

The distrib guy chimed in that sex is still an element that sells, and they would consider any erotic films submitted to them. Yikes! Next thing you know, the panel is talking about how great porn is, and the dozen overly serious filmmakers in the audience are shocked and puzzled... as I am. I thought we were going to talk about film financing and distribution... but we’re talking about porn.

Myself and a couple of the others on the panel try to steer us back on course with discussion of film festivals or *other* genres that might be of interest to the Danish Film Ministry...

But every time we get back on course someone in the audience comes up with some smart-alec question like “Gay porn or straight porn?” And they get an actual detailed answer about financial returns on various different erotic subgenres just as if we were discussing non-porn films. The whole panel has skidded off the rails into a *business* discussion of various physical acts you might find in a porn film. And which of these physical acts provides the best financial return. It’s more surreal than any of the short films I saw earlier.

I chime in with my usual advice that your personal story can be told in a commercial form that satisfies both the artist and the audience... even the porn audience. I get a laugh... but we seem to stay on the subject of porn until the panel is over. This could have been a discussion of what’s required to get funding from the Danish government, but the overly-artsie audience completely rejects the idea of commercialism - it’s all porn to them. And, well, porn seems to sell. This is the strangest discussion of film I have ever had in my life... But I don’t think the audience heard what they wanted to hear at all. Heck, they were angry at the *commercial* aspect, let alone the *porn* part!

And here is the strangest thing about film festivals - it’s the place where art and commerce collide. Because you have a bunch of artsie-fartsie filmmakers whose completely anti-commercial films are being screened... for a paying audience. The film festival wants to be cutting edge, but they also want to sell tickets. I think this is where Elliot at Raindance is a scheduling genius - he screens a good mix of films at his festival. And he also selects *films* that are good mix - when I was there a couple of years ago I saw a US indie film called SURVIVAL TRAINING FOR GIRLS which was both a thriller and a coming of age film - and the two mixed really well. The folks at the porn panel would have seen it as a serious art house coming of age film, but folks off the street could see it as a tense thriller. That’s the kind of film that I think the Danish Film Ministry might want to fund... but we spent a couple of hours talking about Danish sex positions (and there is Danish Position, by the way - the things you learn at film festivals!).

After the porn panel, I find Marina and ask about my check: Airplane ticket, train and other travel expenses, and my class... I'm not going to be paid for all of those surprise consultations. She tells me with all of the festival stuff, she won’t be able to get to the bank before I leave... so could I leave her my banking info so that they can wire me the money? Sure. I’ve heard that one before. I’m never going to see a cent.

That night there’s one last party. It’s in this bar near the Slaughterhouse Cinema, and the bar looks like it might have been an apartment at one point in time - it’s this shotgun set up - a handful of rooms with connecting doorways. The bar itself is in the center room (the largest) and the other rooms are like little private rooms. Tables and chairs in the first room, then the bar, then a room filled with sofas. There are a couple of plates of food in the bar room, and I heard a rumor that some drink was free, but it wasn’t what I ordered (local beer). All of the film makers are there, as well as the jury. I finally get to talk to many of the filmmakers I hadn’t met, yet. Bought a round, someone else bought a round, next thing you know we’re all drunk and talking film.

And I’m in heaven.

After days of not seeing enough films and doing too many side things, I’m arguing with some Italian filmmaker about Kubrick’s best film. I think it’s PATHS OF GLORY, he thinks it’s BARRY LYNDON... and we’ve both seen all the films and can passionately make the point for each of our cases. That’s the great thing about film - it’s a popular medium. Someone on the other side of the world has seen the same films that I’ve seen. And even if I think BARRY LYNDON is a great movie about boredom... that is boring in the process... I can understand this Italian fellow’s passion. I have the same passion about some other movie. Films touch us. Make us feel and think and sometimes have a life altering effect on us.

I’m on beer # I don’t know, discussing the movies that made us want to make movies with a group of filmmakers from every continent, and I check the time... realizing that it’s late and I have to get up at dawn in order to catch the 4 hour train ride back to Copenhagen so I can hang around at the airport for 3 hours before that really long flight home. Just when I’m really enjoying myself, I have to call it a night. I say goodbye to my new friends, tell many of them that I hope to catch their films at the next festival, and leave the bar....

I do that long walk back to the hotel, stopping at a 7-11 for a slice of pizza (I had a couple of crackers and some veggies at the bar... but that wasn’t quite a meal), entered my room, set the alarm, and fell asleep. The alarm went off a couple hours later, I packed, checked out... and headed home.

In Los Angeles, after another close to 24 hours of being awake and traveling, I get back to my apartment, take a shower, go to bed at 2am... and wake up at 8.

8? That’s only 6 freaking hours of sleep!

Until I realize that it’s 8 at night - I have slept through an entire day! It takes me about a week to get re-acclimated to the Pacific Time Zone... which means I’ve spent about 2.5 weeks prepping for the Festival, at the Festival, and recovering from the Festival. They eventually paid me for my airplane ticket, but never paid for my train ticket or taxi or for teaching my class... or any of my expenses. Marina e-mails me that the festival wasn’t as successful as they had hoped, and the reimbursement for my airplane ticket is coming out of her pocket. But the good news is that the Danish Film guys are happy with the way it went, so would I be interested in coming back next year?

Well, would I, punk?

- Bill

Aarhus (part 7) - Party Of Stairs

Not *stars*, but *stairs*.

Downstairs we all come together - I’m a little bit confused that the film festival jury is invited to the Filmmakers Party, isn’t there a conflict of interest there somewhere? I mean, what if one filmmaker decides to buy all of the judges drinks... wouldn’t that sway their decision? Well, maybe these jury members have already made their decision. I know the times I’ve been on the Raindance Film Festival jury in London most of the other jurors saw the films on DVD instead of in the cinema, so maybe the jury already has picked a winner? But that brings up a different problem - what if one of the jury members gets drunk and spills the beans? What if they accidentally announce the winner when the festival is only half over?

I should be excited to meet all of the film makers, but instead I’m worried that the jury members are going to the party, too. The coolest thing about the festival so far is that Marina (fest director) has told me they have something like 40 film makers at the festival - too bad they seem to only be going to their own movies. I’d love to talk with them - no matter how bad the films seem to be, these folks actually worked their butts off to make the movies. They had a passion for that story and just had to tell it. My best times at film festivals are when I get to meet or hang out with the film makers. At Raindance I’ve hung out with the makers of the comedy film DON’T ASK DON’T TELL where they took a 1950s alien invasion movie and turned it into a comedy about aliens with a Gay ray. At Temecula I met the guys who made KILLING MICHAEL BAY and have since had many beers with them when they were in town. I bumped into the crazy Canucks who made JESUS CHRIST: VAMPIRE HUNTER when they were in LA a few months ago setting up their new film BLACK KISSINGER. So I really look forward to meeting these 40 film makers, even though I really haven’t had any free time to see movies since I’ve been here.

We all pile in a couple of taxis and drive to the far side of town near the docks - about a 35 minute walk from the hotel. The taxis pull up next to a building overlooking a bunch of crane equipment and we all get out. This isn’t a bar or restaurant or night club, this is a *very tall* apartment building.

Marina leads us through a gate to the building’s front door, which she unlocks.

Behind the door is a stairway, which Marina starts up. This is a very narrow, very steep stairway. Almost a ladder.

We climb a couple of flights and I’m getting winded... One of the guys on the jury, the college film prof, isn’t young - and he’s lagging a bit behind.

We climb a few more flights - will these stairs ever end? We've climbed a dozen flights so far and we haven't reached wherever this darned party is. I wonder how many more flights we have to climb when we come to the end of the stairs and a locked door. Finally!

Marina unlocks the door and beyond it - more stairs.

More stairs? I almost break down. Is this some Danish form of torture? "You will continue to climb stairs until we break you!"

We start climbing flight after steep and narrow flight, and it’s explained to me that these are the ritzy luxury apartments.

Apartments? I thought we were going to a party? I know this isn’t Marina’s apartment - I went there on my $500 kroner cab ride on the day I arrived. So whose apartment is this, and why are we going there?

We keep climbing flight after flight of stairs - passing doors to the other luxury apartments. By now I’m sweating like crazy and can barely catch my breath. When we get to the end of the stairs and another locked door, I know that if Marina unlocks it and there are more stairs - I’m going to have a heart attack. My heart is pounding so hard right now that it’s going to burst out of my chest like that thing in ALIEN.

Marina unlocks the door and....

More stairs!

But just one steep narrow fight leading up to the penthouse living room. A beautiful view and a sofa to collapse on. "Would anyone like a drink?" "Water for me - bring a pitcher." They don't understand the joke.

The strange thing is that there are no film makers here. It’s only us, and a couple of guys in the kitchen and Siggy. I ask if the film makers are coming and Marina says they’ve decided to fix us a special dinner instead of having us just go to the bar where the film makers are.


So we have a few drinks while the two guys are preparing dinner, and talk about movies and stories and all sorts of other things. The jury members and the other guest speakers and panelists are great people - all passionate about movies. We all like different kinds of movies, but the cool thing about film folks is that we all have certain films in common. In Denmark you can discuss TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and everyone has seen it.

Dinner is served and it’s... interesting. You see, they’ve gone all out to impress us, so we’re getting a meal of amazing delicacies. There’s coconut and limes. Of course, those are delicacies in Denmark. In Los Angeles there’s a guy with a pick up truck serving fresh coconuts on the street every Sunday afternoon to the Mexican families when they get out of church. And there are guys selling bags of limes on the freeway onramp, as well as guys selling lemons and guys selling oranges. But I pretend to be impressed and eat all of the “exotic” foods. The meal is actually really good and I had a good time even though there were no film makers. I found out the penthouse was owned by one of the festival’s patrons - it’s usually vacant, place for visiting businessmen to stay.

They keep filling my wine glass throughout the night, and I’m getting hammered. As it gets closer to midnight, I realize I’d better get going. I have my postponed consultations tomorrow morning, plus a panel on making Indie Films, plus I’d like to see a couple more movies. Others are saying goodnight, so I join the exodus....


Climbing down that very narrow and very steep never ending staircase. A couple of times I almost trip. I imagine falling down those stairs. I know Chuck Waters, the stuntman who did that big stair roll at the end of THE EXORCIST. The day after doing that stunt he flew to Seattle to fall off the top of the Space Needle for PARALLAX VIEW. Chuck is amazing - still doing stunts at... well, he’s had his AARP card for a while. I am not a stunt man, and rolling down this steep narrow staircase would kill me.

I get to the bottom unharmed and must walk the 35 minutes back to the hotel. I’m exhausted and drunk and alone in 30' weather on dark cobble stone streets. It seems to take me forever to get back to the hotel. I set my alarm and fall into bed. Sleep envelops me.

Tomorrow is my last full day at the festival. Hopefully, I’ll get to see some movies.

- Bill

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Aarhus Film Fest (part 6)


In Los Angeles, I usually wake up around 10am - sometimes as late as noon (if I closed the bar the night before). When ever I teach a class, it usually starts at 9 or 10am, so I have to get up earlier... usually by sacrificing some sleep. My class in Aarhus begins at 8:30, which means I’m up at 7am. Add the jet lag to all of this and I’m seriously in need of coffee. I go downstairs to the restaurant and grab some breakfast, tell the waiter I’d like a carafe of coffee... and he gets side tracked with other people. By the time I get my coffee I have time for one cup before the class.

I never set out to teach classes. I only wanted to write screenplays and make films. But afer my book came out I got a couple of phone calls, one from the Santa Fe Screenwriting Conference and one from the Raindance Film Festival. Both with similar offers, but Raindance’s was best. They asked if I would like to come to London and teach screenwritng. I told them I don’t teach screenwriting, I just write scripts. They’d read my book and my articles in Scr(i)pt Magazine and I was teaching on paper, why not do it in person? Well, I’m kind of a writer... you know, shy, not good at public speaking... I turn into Albert Brooks in BROADCAST NEWS when I have to speak in public. Well, maybe teaching a class would help me deal with that? They would pay my airfare, my hotel, a flat rate for the class, buy meals *and* buy my drinks. "You’re going to buy my drinks?" "Sure." "Okay, I’m there." So, whenever anyone cals or e-mails me about teaching screenwriting, I usually go. I don’t *look* for any of these gigs, I don’t advertize or e-mail film festivals or anything like that... They have to find me. I don’t know how Aarhus found me, but they did.

Just as the audience for each screening seems to be a handful of people, the turn out for my class was handful of people. I think this is he fewest people who have ever shown up for my class.

The thing I have learned about classes - the fewer people, the more vocal that one person who wants to take over the class will be. When I’m in the big room at Expo and have 300-500 people listening to me, everyone is very well mannered and listens to the class. No one would ever think about trying to steer the class to whatever they want to talk about. When I’m in a smaller room a Expo or at Raindance or some other event and I have 100 people, that one person keeps raising their hand (or - more likely - just butts in) and asks questions about their personal script or wants to debate some point that really doesn’t matter. I’ve had times when I’m doing my class for 50 people, when that person becomes even more vocal and interrupts a couple of times an hour with some comment that has nothing to do with the class or a question designed to take us so far off track that we are now talking about their script instead of scriptwriting in general. I think this is rude to the other 49 people in the class and try to nip it in the bud... almost never works. No matter how politely I ask to hold questions until the end of a segment or to please phrase questions so they are about general screenwriting not about your script, these interrupters usually continue. Some actually increase their interruptions. I’ve had times where students try to take over the class by just standing up and talking about whatever *they* want to talk about. They seem to have no regard at all for the other 49 class members - they want to be the star and the center of attention.

So imagine what happens in a class of 8 people.

With 8 people, you don’t have a group, you have 8 individuals. Everyone sees themselves as an individual, rather than a member of the class. And that one person in every class? They think they are having a dialogue with you that the other 7 are listening to. I’m in a difficult position, because I kind of represent the film festival, and this person has paid to take the class. So I can’t just tell them to shut up or kick them out of the class. I have to be diplomatic and subtle... and subtle never works with these people. So my class got steered so far off course that I have to skip whole sections and constantly fight to get us back on course.

The worst part about these folks: their ego is so massive that they believe they know more than anyone else... but from their discussions it’s obvious that they don’t even know the basics... and they are often so pushy they get their scripts places I would be afraid to try with mine. Result: people in power read this crap and build even higher walls. Or they push their way into getting a film made, and wonder why it gets bad reviews or no distribution at all. Have you seen the movie OVERNIGHT about the guy behind BOONDOCK SAINTS? Mandatory viewing! Don't let your ego get in the way of your judgement. Listen to others sometimes and actually consider what they are saying. They might be right. If I have time at events like this, I like to sit in on someone else's class to get a "second opinion" and maybe learn something I didn't know. There's too much to know - you can never know it all.

So I finally get to the end of my class and end up giving away a class on CD to every member of the class (all 8) because with 8 students, odds of selling any aren’t good and I don’t want to drag all of those CDs home with me. Damned things get heavy after a while.

I’m also concerned that the turn out may create problems when it comes time to reimburse me for my airplane ticket, train ticket, and pay me for teaching the class. These things are contracted, but if they don’t pay me I think I’d have to sue them in Danish court (and that would cost more than I’m owed). This happens every once in a while - I’m still owed money from the last Las Vegas Conference, even though I went out of my way to teach a special one day class when the folks who were supposed to teach that day didn’t show (or maybe were cancelled because there wasn’t enough money for their hotel room). If anyone thinks I’m making loads of money doing this, think again. I may have just paid to visit Denmark out of my own pocket... and spent 90% of my time in that country teaching classes and doing panels and consultations instead of sight seeing.

After ten hours of talking, my voice is ragged and I want to sleep.

I retire to my room for a half hour before the party starts, and finish up yesterday’s blog entry. Then the phone rings - Marina from the lobby. They are getting a taxi to take us to the party in ten minutes, can I come down now? Sure. I don’t have to walk 20-25 minutes after a very long day of teaching.

- Bill
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