Friday, December 07, 2007

Old Friends And Hollywood Friends


Sorry I haven’t been posting more, but I’ve been recording and editing new audio classes and hanging out with old friends. That’s the great thing about being in my home town for an extended period - I have more time to hang out with friends.

I have two groups of old friends - the folks from that big table at the back of Denny’s from my film student days who are still around, and the guys I used to work with. Over the years, the guys I used to work with have scattered - all of them have new jobs, most of them have moved. I used to visit my old boss every year and go out for beers with a few of the warehouse guys - but that was several phone numbers ago. Used to be, people had a phone number, they had it for life. My parents still have the exact same phone number as when I was a kid - only the area code has changed. Now, people change cell phone companies and land-line companies every year - and their numbers change with them. They move every few years - a new apartment, then a starter home, then a new home, a few missed payments and they’re in an apartment somewhere, then a condo somewhere on the outskirts of town where you can still afford a place. Or maybe they took a new job in another state. Or got married and moved away. Or got divorced and moved away. All of those phone numbers, all of those addresses - I’ve lost track of all of those guys, now.

The people I haven’t lost track of, that I see every year and talk to on the phone about once a month, are the film guys. Sure, some are MIA, some I just don’t talk to, and some have been banished... but the handful that are left I’ve been hanging out with. Paul lives in another country, now - but I saw him when he came to LA a couple of months ago for the You Thought They Were Dead Actor’s Autograph Convention. I plan on seeing Bruce sometime while I’m here - he was the TA for the DVC Film Appreciation Class before Tom Ross and I took over... I wonder what happened to Tom Ross? Anyway, the main two guys left - my oldest friends - Van and John. I’ve been hanging out with them since I got here.

DVC - Diablo Valley Community College - still in the news for the Sex For Grades scandal. Never had anything like that when I was there - or, maybe they did... the reason why they needed two teaching assistants is that the teacher was often with some female student. I assume the female student passed the class - so I guess that was sex-for-grades.

Anyway - I’ve known Van and John forever. Sometime I’ll tell some stories of the months after my first film NINJA BUSTERS limped to a finish and killed my first screenwriting career and Van and I did carpet and linoleum to pay the rent. That’s still Van’s day job. John does construction - mostly home remodels. John could retire any time he wants - a few years ago he bought a fixer-upper duplex in San Francisco and turned it into a 8 unit apartment building. The rents not only pay for the place, but supply John with an income. He took a year off and made short films - entered them in contests - won a couple. But missed having his construction crew nail his feet to the roof of a house before lunch, so now he’s back working on houses.

The three of us are going to do dinner and a movie on Sunday, but I’ve already seen a couple of movies with John and spent a day hanging out with Van eating pizza and drinking beer... and talking movies.

Whenever any of us get together, that’s what we talk about - movies. And if the movie is from the 1980s or late 70s, chances are we all saw it together. We are the “survivors” of a big group of film folks that went to the Capri (Crapy) movie theater in Concord once a week... and a couple of other theaters in town as well. The Century in Pleasant Hill, where I was acting manager in High School, the Festival in Walnut Creek and the Regency in Pleasant Hill. There would be days when I’d just be driving down the street - maybe heading to Hop Sings Chinese Take Out (no tables - just take out) and see Van’s red Bronco in a movie theater parking lot and pull in... then wander down the aisles until I spotted him. I remember the day the forklift ran over my foot and the boss made me complete my shift. I drove to the Crapy - my foot swelling up like crazy - and pulled into the parking lot... found John, Van and the rest of the gang in theater, and they took me to the emergency room. I had no idea they would be in the theater - nothing planned - that’s just where you might expect to find them. Anyway - we saw *thousands* of movies together.

Now, here’s the strange thing... these two guys know more about movies than my friends in Los Angeles... who are in the business (or trying to break in). Not just the watching movies part - they know more about *making* movies.

HOLLYWOOD FRIENDS

I have a handful of people I hang out with in Los Angeles - and whenever I actually think about them, I wonder if it’s time to “upgrade”. My Hollywood Friends fall into two categories - screenwriters I’ve known since moving to LA and people I know from my neighborhood. There used to be a guy who was a member of both groups, David, but he finally quit trying to break in and broke out - he lives in Texas, now. The people in my neighborhood are all on the fringes of the biz or trying to break in. Actors, writers, directors... and some production people. After a couple of times hanging out with Van and John I realized they know more about movies than the guys I know in LA who are *working in the business* or trying to break in. And that makes no sense to me.

All of the breaking in director guys I know - some I’ve talked about here - aren’t guys who can hold up their end of a conversation on film theory or film history or even just film making. One director I know is completely unable to think visually, and just sets up the camera and has the actors act in front of it. The result looks like a filmed stage play - you keep looking for the proscenium arch on the sides of the screen. And he’s constantly breaking the 180 rule. And *not* shooting close ups of *objects* even if they are critical to the scene. Often his films have these weird jump cuts - because he has nothing to cut to except the exact same shot from the same angle. And he’s directing low budget movies.

CROSSOVER NIGHTMARES

John and Van and I know a director working in the biz (actually, we know a couple) - this is a hometown guy who began making short films. It’s strange, because he wasn’t someone who was a movie addict, and you could never talk movies with him - he’d hardly seen any. But he decided to make short films one day. I helped him on a couple, then stopped. A local actor who John and I both know ended up starring in some of his shorts. His shorts did not win awards... but he *did* use them to find funding to make more shorts. It was strange on his film sets - he seemed to have no idea what he wanted. You’d set up shot after shot until he found the one he liked. And he wasn’t able to communicated very well. The films of his that I worked on were disasters... and tough on the friends he rounded up to crew for him...

A couple of years ago he called me - he had just moved to Los Angeles to further his film career. I’ve had dinner with him many times since he moved to LA... and he now knows how to fake talking about films. He’ll gush over some director, but the more you talk to him the more you realize he’s never seen any movies from this director - he just knows the name. Maybe he’s read a synopsis of their important films. But he still doesn’t seem like a guy who loves movies - or even likes them. I have no idea what his motivations for becoming a director are. Anyway, he found an investor and made an indie film that came out on DVD... and it was the topic of conversation one of the days John and I hung out.

John and I discussed *film making* and this guy’s films in a way the director and I could never discuss. We talked about his shot choice - which makes no sense. We talked about the emotional reactions of his characters - which make no sense. We talked about his complete inability to create suspense or reveal information - probably because he has no idea what shots are required, and has never actually watched any suspense films (just read the synopsis). We talked about a scene in his film that didn’t work, and John came up with a great idea to make it work that was different than the idea I had come up with.

A couple of days later, Van and I are in Melos Pizza in Pleasant Hill talking about the same movie, and Van comes up with a third great idea on how to make that crappy scene work. So there were all kinds of ways to make the scene work - but the director couldn’t come up with any of them. Van and I talk about some other scenes from the film, and again - we can discuss the “mechanics” of the scene from a film maker’s perspective - how the shots need to add up, what shots and angles and camera moves you need, what real people would do in this situation and what things they could do that would create a reaction in the audience.

After seeing the film at the premiere, I talked to the director about the same scenes... and it was like speaking to someone from another culture. The most obvious thing in many of these scenes was that the characters did not react like real people react. He blamed all of this on the actors. In fact, he blamed everything on somebody else. Except this guy wrote the script, cast the film, directed it, etc. No one else to blame - he was in charge! One of the things we all mentioned was a fight scene that was shot in a master and not a single punch even came close. After the premiere, I asked him about this, and he blamed the two actors. Um, that’s why you shoot all of those close ups of punches landing - so you can cut to them when the wide shot makes it seem obvious that the swing was a complete miss. That’s why you don’t just shoot a master - but do that Robert Rodriguez thing where every take is a different angle, so you can cut it together and have lots of different shots - using the speed of *editing* to make up for the slow punch swings. But I’m sure the director never saw EL MARIACHI or watched any of the RR film lessons on the DVDs or read REBEL WITHOUT A CREW... he just read the synopsis so that he could “pass” as a guy who knew what he was talking about when he was talking to other guys in the biz who only read synopsis.

Where is the fun in that? Why would you want to *sound* like you have seen a film, without the pleasure of actually seeing it? Why would you want to gpthrough the hell of making a film, if you don’t love films?

The more I talked to both John and Van about this film, the more I realized that the obvious solutions to all of the film making problems could not only be solved in a number of different ways - but the director didn’t think of any of them... and my friends back home who probably thought they weren’t talented enough to go to Hollywood and make film, could. Woody Allen was right, 98% of success is just showing up. This guy showed up in Hollywood, and now he’s got an indie film on the shelf at Bloockbuster.

Crap.

Pisses me off and also makes me think I’m blowing it.

Because *I* know more than these Hollywood guys do, and yet if someone were to offer me a director job tomorrow I would think I don’t know enough to be a director. Because I know how much you really have to know... as opposed to these ignorant guys who have no idea how much they don’t know. I have to *think less*... and show up more.

So that’s going to be a New Years Resolution I’ll probably forget by the end of January.

Meanwhile, I’m having all kinds of great conversations about film - the kind I never have in Los Angeles - here in my home town. Van and I had a great conversation about Joseph H. Lewis’ GUN CRAZY - that bank robbery scene that was all shot from the backseat of the getaway car - while having a beer or six at Farrington’s Bar in Pleasant Hill. Farrington’s is in a strip mall where the Pleasant Hill Motor Movies used to be and features all kinds of pictures of the old drive in, plus movie posters and art from the drive in.

Joseph H. Lewis is one of those guys who knew how to turn a no money movie into *art* back in the late 40s and 50s. That lead to a discussion of Lewis’ BIG COMBO, and the way he used fog to cover the bad sets - or lack of an airport in the big airport scene. Shot it in some warehouse and claimed it was an empty hanger at the airport, fogged the street outside the warehouse and put in a strobing searchlight and airplane sounds. You’d swear you were at an airport. And that lead to a discussion of the end of GUN CRAZY, which also used fog to cover a lack of budget. Our fugitive Bonnie & Clyde type couple escapes into a marsh... and as they hide in the fog, we hear dozens of dogs and hundreds of policemen searching for them. Can’t see all of those people because of the fog, but we hear them. And that might seem like a cheat to you, but it works really well because the fog is a *plus* - we worry that the policemen may be closer than we think. Any moment, they could break out of that fig and capture our couple. Okay, none of my friends in LA could discuss these films... which is why I’m thinking I need a “friend upgrade”. I casually know people who probably have seen all the Lewis films - I need to hang out more with *those* people and less with the others.

My old friends, my film friends from my hometown - we’ve *really* seen all of these movies. We can really discuss how and why they work (or don’t). And that’s the best part about this extended holiday vacation - I get to talk film after a year of just talking film business in Los Angeles. Nothing gives me more pleasure than talking about films... except seeing them on the big screen.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Ummm, something? All I know is that *Monday* I have a new tip on SUPERBAD.

Yesterday’s Dinner: Some Mexican place on Grand Avenue in Oakland a couple of blocks from the Grand Lake movie theater where John and I saw BLADE RUNNER. I had the taco plate - kind of disappointing. The food seemed home made in the worst sense - I kept thinking that I could have made these tacos myself. The rice was kind of blah and the refried beans were *runny*. When you spend money for food in a restaurant, you want the food to be something special, something that you *couldn’t* throw together at home in a couple of minutes. After dinner, John and I had a couple of beers at Smitty’s Bar on Grand - a place that has probably been there for a hundred years.

Movies: ENCHANTED. A really fun film that manages to be both cynical and romantic. I love how there are parallels between fairy tale land and NYC - like the horse drawn carriages and the grand ball at the end. If you *hate* fairy tale movies, this is the film for you because so much of the humor comes from fairy take characters having to deal with ugly reality. Nothing is more fun than seeing some fairy tale Princess get mugged by a dirty smelly homeless guy. If you *love* fairy tale movies, this is the film for you because it becomes a fairy tale in real life by the end. And you’ll just want to break out in song in public... and wonder if cockroaches really can clean tough soap scum stains from your shower.

Movies: BLADE RUNNER: FINAL CUT. First, let me set the stage.... John is doing a remodel job in Oakland, so we decided to catch a movie at the old Grand Lake. A huge movie palace from the 1930s that seems big enough to house the entire population of Oakland. Huge, beautiful, ornate. I took the BART train into Oakland’s 19th Street station and walked around Lake Merritt to the theater - a beautiful walk full of memories. I passed Children’s Fairy Land, a special place to go on your birthday before you became a teenager and thought it was silly. The lake itself - an oasis in the middle of Oakland. No paddle boats yesterday because it was sprinkling. After a wonderful walk, I grabbed a coffee in a place next door to the cinema called Day Of The Dead Café. Had a conversation with a couple of locals about the Raiders - total strangers... I think that’s the cool thing about sports and movies and TV - it’s common ground for conversations with people you don’t know... and something you can share. Brings us together. John shows, we go to the cinema, it’s *free popcorn night* - sweet! The Grand Lake has been chopped into 3 screens, now - two downstairs and one upstairs. BLADE RUNNER was playing upstairs in what used to be the balcony... I swear, as many seats up there as in the biggest cinema in Burbank! Houselights lower, the movie begins....

Okay, I’m gonna get flack for this, but the more I see BLADE RUNNER, the less I like it. When it first came out, the special effects were amazing, but the story and over-production design aspects were disappointing. As years pass, the FX work (still great) has kind of faded - so many movies these days have *tons* of amazing FX work, that the novelty has worn off. That makes the over-production designed aspects really stick out - the over-the-top wardrobe and hair, the *indoor* rain and mud and filth in a building owned by a genius tech guy who is probably a billionaire. The anti-tech equipment that looked like an antique in 1977 when the film came out. And just the *lack of logic* behind the production design and costuming. Rachel is dressed, hair styled, and made up to look like a freakin’ Mattel doll, and we’re supposed to be surprised that she’s a replicant? None of the other Repicants look and act that fake.

Every room is *filled* with dense smoke - even if the characters don’t smoke. There is junk and clutter everywhere - and even a small apartment has a piano! The top scientist dude lives in a dump where it rains indoors and dresses like an escapee from a Village People video. And when we get to the story - you’d think one of the things they’d do in the “Final Cut” would be to remove the duplicate scenes. M. Emmett Walsh gives the complete back story on the four repicants once in his office, then again - almost word for word - in the screening room with slides. Harrison Ford is *amazed* that Rachel has had a memory implant, and Tyrell says it’s something brand new - yet Roy Batty and all of his crew have had memory implants... and Roy is 4 years old. The very next scene after Ford is amazed at the concept of memory implants, he knows all about them and tells an overly-production-designed Rachel every single memory she has... you see, only a scene later knowing all of the false memories and where they came from are part of Ford’s job... and he spits them out just like he does every other day.

And I still have no idea how Edward James Olmos knows what Harrison Ford was fantasizing about - how can anyone know what another person is thinking? Let alone *why* Ford would think about unicorns, or why - if that was implanted - they would decide to have a tough guy think about unicorns. Or why hire a replicant to be a blade runner, or... well, nothing is logical in this film. If you really look at the story, it makes no sense - Brion James is wearing a hospital gown when he’s being scanned in the opening scene - but has managed to smuggle in a gun. Um, I don’t want to know how he did that, but if *I* were looking for dangerous replicants who had killed a whole bunch of people, I might have the suspects pass through a metal detector. Later, Ford finds photos in his hotel room - but not any sort of real photo - the one that ends up being a clue is a photo of an empty hotel room. Um, who takes photos of an empty room and thinks they are so valuable they will risk their lives going back to retrieve them? The empty room photo has a stupid clue - in the mirror is a reflection of a woman off camera- Joanna Cassidy. Ford takes the photo and a snake skin scale that was *easily found* in the hotel room and without much work - just some time killing - traces them to Joanna Cassidy. She escapes, there’s a big chase, he shoots her, in this new version they have *Cassidy* - not the burley stuntman - crash through the window and die on the sidewalk... where Brion James is waiting to meet her. Huh? How could he be waiting to meet her there if this was where the chase ended? Makes zero sense.

A similar nonsense scene happens a minute later where M. Emmett Walsh tells Ford that Rachel has split - no one can find her... and when he drives away, she’s standing *right behind his car*! Man, if Walsh had just looked through his car window, he could have captured her! Okay, how did Rachel know to be there? Or, *why* was she there? The story makes no sense!

Batty and Brion James go to see eyeball guy James Hong to find out how they can extend their lives. Hong says the only one who can hep them is Tyrell... and this is new information for them... except the opening scene is Brion James being scanned because he’s infiltrated the Tyrell Corp to get to Tyrell. Later, they tell Sebastian that Tyrell is impossible to get to and they need his help... but Sebastian basically just saunters up to Tyrell’s *bedroom* with Batty. Easy to get to. No security at all. Just an elevator that pauses before Tyrell gives the okay. The elevator doesn’t have a freakin’ *camera* in it, or sensors, or anything else. There’s a video pay phone in a bar, but no camera in the elevator that leads right into the richest man in the world’s *bedroom*. And he has no guards or assistants or even a panic button. You know, when Van and I were installing carpets a few years after this film came out we did a bunch of dentist’s offices - and they had alarms up the wazzoo - pressure alarms under the carpets, door alarms, etc. All of that because they had laughing gas that might be stolen. It’s as if no one ever thought through anything in this story... and didn’t worry about things like duplicate scenes when they made the Final Cut. Second time I’ve seen the FINAL CUT... and I thought the first time I wasn’t thrilled because I may have been in a bad mood. This time I was in a good mood... and liked it even less! Okay... now I expect a million responses that I just don’t understand the brilliance of BLADE RUNNER.

DVDS: All three CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON movies. First one, pretty good. The music is way over the top, but it has some real suspense and real thrills and actually has an environmental message (great shot of a cigarette butt being thrown into the lagoon... camera dips underwater to show the Creature looking up at the butt and garbage floating in his pool). Second movie REVENGE OF THE CREATURE - great idea - Creature at Marine World on display. Science poking and prodding. Way too much exposition, but makes up for it with suspense and hand-on-shoulder shock moments (about two dozen of them - everyone in this film enters a room by sneaking up behind the person on camera and grabbing their shoulder!). Great scene with a lost dog in the darkness... and the creature lurking. Third film CREATURE WALKS AMONG US - almost impossible to watch it’s so bad. It’s all exposition - people sitting around table on board a ship *talking* about what happened. And the dialogue is just awful. The characters are cliches of cliches. Nothing scary. Hey... and the third film was the one written by Gary Ross’ father. Yikes!

Pages: Editing audio and working on the book rewrite.
- Bill

13 comments:

odocoileus said...

I've heard so many people say it, I'm almost sure it's true:

The most talented people often fall by the wayside. The most determined people are the ones who triumph.

Social skills/connections/salesmanship count for a lot too.

Great post.

Da Weave said...

Enjoyed the posting. I'm a big fan of Blade Runner, but got to admit that you're spot on with your criticisms, and your comments made me think about why I still love Blade Runner so much and I realized it's the atmosphere. Scott built a real place with his vision of the future and I like that place. I'm one of those few people who prefers the noir-ish V.O. stuff from the original theatrical release (though can't take the ending from that version). I'm looking forward to seeing the final cut version on the big screen next month.

Happy Holidays,

OK HW

R2K said...

: )

Andrew Bellware said...

I'm a fan of the original vo version of Blade Runner too. But you missed what I thought was the biggest disconnect: why is everyone behaving like they don't know what the replicants look like, when M. Emmet Walsh has pictures of them!
On the other hand, to me at least, it does make sense to send a replicant to take out replicants.

Bill Cunningham said...

Re: Director not "solving" the shot - this is why I like shot lists and storyboards. It keeps the bullshit to a minimum and doesn't waste my time which equals money.

Anonymous said...

Good comments on BLADE RUNNER. Somehow, I never thoght it was a great film. Maybe I just don't like "noir". Not enuff like my life.
I love the poster for CREATURE with Julie prying the monster's hand off her boobs! (that's how it looks now...)
-ObiDon

Anonymous said...

Steverino expatiates...

Seems like you were watching the director's cut of "he say you Burado Runna". I dislike what the director's cut did to the original, and I love the original (it's from 1981 btw).

The director's cut makes it clear that Ford's character, Deckkard, is a replicant. Olmos's character Gaff, has the big reveal; he had access to Ford's dream programming and lets him know it in a way that also lets him escape with Rachel. Somehow I think this neat and tidy ending is heartless in comparison with the original ending.

In the original, Gaff merely does a good deed by leaving a strange calling card (there's no other interpretation of his origami and whittling). He doesn't kill Rachel, believing that Deckkard will flee with her. How he knows this is a good question, but we can assume that he's looking at things from his POV; "It's too bad she won't live." Moreover, it gives him the opportunity to eliminate a rival, something made clear in the voiceover narration of the original.

The theme of the movie is that everyone has good and evil within them. All the replicants are pathetic. They are Les Miserables yet they are capable of doing a good deed even though they must kill in desperation. The gesture of Olmos reflects Roy's decision to save Deckkard. Deckkard's character has been forced into murder but is forgiven. The original movie has a thematic unity that is quite apart from the violent plot. The theme of the director's cut is vague in comparison.

Regarding the clutter: it's all the stuff of memory. The world of tomorrow is unrecognizable, and the memories of a less chaotic past, even if they are fake, are the only things that save us from dehumanization. The original voiceover crystallizes this idea: "Why would a replicant keep a photo collection?" and "why would she care about the memory of a mother she never had?" The director's cut lacks the voiceover and opts for an odd dream of a unicorn, not really a memory and not really in character, as you point out. Worse still there's not connection to Rachel.

Regarding the movie as a detective story: It's barely serviceable. I've always found the logical hole (the smuggled gun) at the beginning hard to ignore, but at least it's at the beginning. The scene with the blow up of the photo, although great, is actually redundant. Moreover, Roy returning to the Bradbury was a bad idea. At least he knew by then he was a goner. So where was that old bladerunner magic? Rough sex (or real hard kissin), I suppose. And what's with that title anyway? The net says it comes from a draft written by William S. Burroughs that had nothing to do with Dick's book.

Richard McNally said...

You could definitely direct, no question.

mbh said...

Was it Bill or Nate who made you finish your shift after it ran over your foot?

wcmartell said...

Bill or Nathan would have driven me to the emergency room... it was the guy Bill replaced (can't remember his name, now - he had either a father or uncle who was a big wig at Safeway, so he was promoted, even though he was a complete idiot).

- Bill

Piers said...

I just directed my first short last weekend.

I wrote it so it could be shot in an afternoon and needed exactly two actors and one set .

(Specifically, a living room. Specifically, my living room.)

A friend of a friend had an HD camera. I've got a Mac to edit it on.

If I can do it, you sure as hell can.

Tonight I'll get to see the rushes for the first time and learn which bits of directing I screwed up on.

And those are the bits I'll do better next time.

Come on Bill. I wanna see your short film.

David in MPLS said...

BLADE RUNNER

A+ for atmosphere

C for coherency

Still love it, despite the many flaws.

Would rather see a screwed up risk-taking effort than a formula film any day.

Asking for all your Blue Books for xmas, Bill. May have to buy them for myself.

Anonymous said...

Ninja Busters appears to have been wiped off the earth. Very little details on this gem. :-(

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