Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

First off, I want to thank all of you who read this blog, and all of you who show up to read my Script Tip every day. Writing is meant to be read - so I’m nothing without you. One of the strange things about spending so much time avoiding work on the web is that I know all kinds of people that I have never actually met. Friends who are also strangers. Even though I am often cranky and hate all of the movies you love and love all of the movies you hate, I love you all and really hope that you succeed at whatever you set out to do in this new year. I want to hear about some script sales from you guys!

NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS?

Whether you keep your New Year’s Resolutions or not, it’s a great way to set goals and focus on what you need to get done in life. My resolutions for this year center around actually cranking out some new scripts. I spent so much of last year at festivals and conferences that I didn’t get to everything on my big To Do List. I’d planned on writing a half dozen new scripts, ended up with a couple new scripts and a rewrote a few older scripts. I planned on producing some of my own scripts last year, and revising my Action Book, and I’m still working on that. Hey, I also planned on writing two new screenwriting books... and those have flopped over to this year’s To Do List.

So, was last year a failure? Nope! I cranked out a couple of new scripts and did some rewriting... Without my big To Do List, *nothing* would have been to-done. I think the best thing you can do for the new year is to have a plan, even if things change. Especially if things change. Having a plan with clear goals allows you to get back on track after things change. Having a plan gives you goals to work toward. You may not cross off everything by the end of the year, but you’ll be able to cross off something. Without a plan you’re just spinning your creative wheels. So make up a big To Do List for 2008. You may not finish everything, but try to. Make sure your list is *possible* - this isn’t a fantasy list. Here is my list for 2008...

I have an interrupted kinda cool potential deal that could change everything, but here's what's on the list (that never quite gets done):

1) Finish the action book rewrite.
2) Get an agent or manager to take 10% of my money.
3) A spec called MANHUNT - kind of The Fugitive in Europe.
4) Finish rewriting STEEL CHAMELEONS.
5) Take a bunch of mostly unseen articles from the early 90s and compile them into a book on writing your own digital movie.
6) This spec called BETRAYAL about college kids on vacation... and then bad things happen.
7) My iPod movie - write the script, make the movie. This is a cool project I plan to do with my two oldest friends - the idea is to make a dopey little movie like we used to do when we were 20 years old... with the excitement of a 20 year old... but with the knowledge we have now. Then get a distributor for the film and make enough money to make another film.
8) A spec called DREAMWALKERS.
9) Rewrite an old spec called RAILROADED because it's about an LA to SF bullet train... and that's in the news.
10) Rewrite some other specs: DEAD RUN and HARD RETURN and whatever else I have time for.
11) Articles for a few magazines I have regular columns in plus new script tips plus the last 3 Blue Books plus way too many posts here and other places...

I’ll probably provide some play-by-play along the way on all of these projects... and I’m sure that a few will get carried over to the 2009 list. I’m really hoping the aforementioned kinda cool deal comes through - if it does I’ll tell you all about it. I just hope the other folks involved remember my name after the strike is over!

On the personal Resolutions list is *actually* get back on the bicycle and lose some weight. Get out more, be less of a loner writer, hang out with people who don't drive me crazy. I tend to be non-social, and I need to do something about that. I am also going to try to be nicer and more positive - sometimes I can be a dick and sometimes I can be too much of a realist while trying to help people - it’s the difference between bursting their bubble and guiding it in the right direction. Often online I take the bait and get into some weird battle with a troll that makes me grumpy to everyone else. Sorry - and I’m going to try not to do that. And I need a girlfriend... or a blow up doll with fewer patches. These personal things are not on my big To Do List, but I hope to get on the bike to lose the spare tire anyway.

Sometimes I find that listing the *steps* to completing a project is helpful - that way I feel like I’m completing more. I can cross off “Outline new spec” and “Treatment for new spec” and “Act one of new spec” and get some momentum going. Nothing makes me feel better than crossing something off my big To Do List! I’m getting closer to finishing that new spec!

This year I have a whole bunch of great things on by big To Do List for 2008. Some of those thing probably won’t get done this year, but many of them will!

I hope you achieve everything you set out to do in the new year!

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!
TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Some other thing.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Had all you can eat Chinese food at China Wall in Concord with Wendy and her son Kyle... the coconut shrimp is great!
Movies: Hey, SOFT TARGET is on Encore Action tonight... please avoid it at all costs! It's nothing like my script! But it was one of the two films from my screenplays that were released in 2007... I hope to equal that in 2008.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Holidays & Happy New Year

A belated Happy Holidays and a slightly-ahead-of-time Happy New Year to one and all!

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Something?
Yesterday’s Dinner: Christmas Dinner at my Sister's house - Ham, and the two best things on the table were some home made rolls and some snow peas and carrots.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Going Postal (part four)

stuff Uwe Boll in here then have DeNiro from Mean Streets walk past((When last we left our hero, he was standing in a slow moving line at the post office remembering past lines in the post office when he was just starting out writing short stories... much as Marcel Proust ate a cookie and remembered things past.)

GONE POSTAL

These days I probably send more scripts through e-mail than regular mail. When I stand in line at the post office, it’s to mail CDs or Blue Books to people who have ordered them. And when I stand in line for a freakin’ hour, I think I should get an intern to do it for me... and someone should fix the post office.

There are three things wrong with the post office:

1) The people behind the counters. When I worked in retail, we had this little rule - the longer your line, the faster you had to work. The idea was to increase speed and get rid of the line, then you could take it easy while it was just a trickle of customers. Somewhere this rule has been lost. Not just at the post office - *everywhere*. People behind the counter take their time. When I worked retail, we could not eat or drink behind the counter, and we could pee every 2 hours. If you needed to pee before then, you held it. You could not get personal phone calls at work - period. You could not talk to other employees - unless it was work related. You were not supposed to chit-chat. It was supposed to be “hands and money”. You charged the customers and took their cash. Now? It’s not like that. And people at the post office often seem to be the worst offenders. They work slow, they close for breaks or walk away when the place gets crowded. My favorite postal employee trick is taking a single envelope to somewhere in the back room and not coming back for about 5 minutes. No one *runs* anymore at work. Like I said, this isn't just the post office, it's everywhere. The irony is that people work slow as molasses at their day job, then zip to the post office on their lunch hour... and get caught in a line where postal employees work slow as molasses. If we all worked faster and left the cell phones and personal conversations at home, everything would be easier for everybody in the world.

2) The system. Probably the main thing that slows down employees is that freakin’ computer system they have at the post office. If I want to send an envelope Priority with nothing extra, the *computer* won’t let them just give me the postage. It makes them ask if I would rather go Express. Would I be needing Insurance? Will I need a return receipt? There is a whole menu of questions that the postal employee has to go through before the machine will spit out the postage... and no way to bypass these things. I'm sure it's frustrating for postal employees to have to work through the whole menu on every single transaction. That’s just stupid. It’s *anti-customer service*. The person who came up with this should have to do hard time in a Federal Prison for interfering with the mail service. I’m serious. I'm all for serious punishment for the guys in charge who make dumb decisions. Think of all the millions of wasted hours one idiot in charge has caused? That's worth hard time in a Federal Prison.

A while back I tried the new Automated Postal Machine - which is useless, because if your envelope is over 13 ounces it has to be physically handed to a postal employee - and the danged machine goes through the whole menu, too. You have to answer a dozen questions about upgraded services you don’t want before you get to the page where you can actually print your postage. Let’s add another 10 years in Federal lock up for using the same bad system on the machines.

When you go into MacDonalds, they have a machine designed for idiots. It has a picture of a cheeseburger. If the customer wants a cheeseburger, the employee pushes the button. If they want fries, they push that button. But they system doesn’t make the employee go through every damned thing on the menu before you can tally the order. You just hit the total button. Where is the damned total button on the Post Office system?

3) The customers. The reason why I was in line for a freakin’ hour the other day was mostly due to people who were not prepared. There was a guy in line in front of me who had an armful of things to mail... not in a box. No address label. When he reached the front of the line, he asked what he needed to mail these things. The postal clerk sent him to the packaging stuff, told him he didn’t have to wait in line again. He didn’t have a pen to write up an address label. He didn’t have tape to seal the package... and used Priority tape... then told the postal employee that he didn’t want to send the package Priority. That means he’d have to remove the stuff from this package, repackage it without the Priority tape (but he didn’t have tape and didn’t want to buy it) and start from scratch... except he wouldn’t have to stand in line again. I stood there for an hour waiting, while he went to the front of the line a half dozen times. There are *at least* one of these guys in line every time I go to the post office - often a few of them.

Okay, I think it is *good customer service* to tell this guy to get the heck out of the post office and don’t come back until you are completely prepared to mail your stuff. It needs to be *completely* ready to mail by the time you make it to the front of the line. Some of you may be wondering how it could be good customer service to tell they guy to get lost and don’t come back until he’s prepared, but the rest of you have been in that line with me and know that the cornerstone in good customer service is to provide service to *good* customers and tell the others you will serve them when they become *good*. You aren’t going to penalize the people who are prepared. Actually, I think that guy needs to join the post office guy who created that stupid program in Leavenworth for interfering with the delivery of the mail. He was interfering with many of the people in line getting their mail to the slow moving postal employees who are stuck using that anti-customer service computer program to give them postage.

And what would all of these Federal Prisoners be reading in their cells? Probably Gent Magazine... without any of my short stories.

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!
TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Giving away the concept in the trailer .
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken at Boston Market - actually less expensive than the burger I had at Nations last week.

Movies: INTO THE WILD - Okay, I saw INTO THE WILD, but instead of doing a little review here, I’m going to do a full blog entry on it. I think the film relates to screenwriting in a few ways.

Cable TV: SANTA FE TRAIL / CAPTAIN BLOOD - My dad lives in a Lazy Boy recliner in the living room. He spends the day there watching TV, and spends the night there sleeping with the TV on. One night TCM is showing a bunch of Errol Flynn & Olivia DeHaviland movies... with CAPTAIN BLOOD playing at maybe 2 or 3 am. Before that is a western, SANTA FE TRAIL, that I can’t remember ever seeing - and I was sure I’d seen all of their movies. I kind of like the Errol Flynn westerns, because he’s got that killer British accent and looks like he should be dueling... but he’s in some colorful cowboy outfit in the wild west - completely out of place! But Warners had him under contract, so he did whatever genre they were making. There was often a kid of Jean-Claude Van Damme accent explanation scene. But this film was new to me - and for some reason Warner Bros had allowed it to fall into public domain. Strange. So I sit in the living room with my dad, who keeps nodding off and then snoring himself awake throughout the films... and this, my friends, is what family is all about.

The day after Thanksgiving my dad decides to take me and my brother to the Car Show in San Francisco. We BART in, wander around the cars - 99% 2008 showroom models and 1% classic cars - no concept cars at all. My dad tries to fit in a couple - he’s 6'8" tall. I mention the time I was somewhere and rented a Jeep that I could not fit in even with the seat all the way back - a miserable couple of days where I avoided driving anywhere. We had a pitcher of beer for lunch, continued through the auto show... finally discovering the classic cars in a small room at the end of the show. Some cool tricked out cars and some 60s muscle cars. Then, we took the BART train back and had dinner. That’s the typical bonding with dad thing for me - just kind of being in the same room doing the same thing. You piece together memories from things like that. So I was going to watch a couple of movies on TV with my dad in his Lazy Boy.

Cable TV: - SANTA FE TRAIL’s fall into public domain was not so strange as the film went on. The story starts with Flynn playing Confederate hero J.E.B. Stewart, and Ronald Reagan (?) playing George Armstrong Custer, and a pretty good cast of Warners guys playing other members of a graduating class at West Point - all of whom would become famous Civil War guys... but the film takes place *before* the Civil War when all of these guys are friends. It starts as kind of the military version of a college comedy with all of these guys joking around, once they graduate into the army, it’s kind of a buddy comedy with Flynn and Reagan... and DeHaviland as the gal they both love. But this buddy comedy gets oddly side-tracked when the plot is introduced...

The story is about John Brown, played amazingly by Raymond Massey, who is a strange figure in American history. He was anti-slavery... to the extreme. A religious zealot who believed slavery was un-Christian. Before the Civil War, he waged his own war - coming to the western territory of Kansas after receiving mail from one of his numerous sons that Kansas may become a slave state. Brown and his army raided farms and freed slaves... and killed the slave owners. In cold blood. Often rounding them up and executing them. Then arming the freed slaves and making them part of his army. So we have a guy doing terrible things for a good cause.

And joking Flynn and Reagan are the Army guys sent to stop him.

Which makes our heroes kind of fighting *for* slavery.

And Stewart would later become a Confederate hero... along with some of the other joking supporting characters in the film. Flynn even has a little speech about how the South doesn’t appreciate the North butting into their business, and give them enough time and they will eventually taper off on the use of slaves. I wondered how much of this stuff was to placate the southern film audience and how much was trying to show how complicated the issue was at the time. Either way, the result is a movie that is not black and white (even though that’s the film stock used). Our heroes are guys trying to stop a guy from freeing slaves. I’m sure that’s why Warners accidentally let the copyright lapse on this one.... but the more I think about the film, the more I think about it... and how many breezy buddy comedy westerns provoke this much thought? The Stewart speech is all about the right way to do things and the wrong way - and using the violence of war to create social change. And the guy they are hunting, John Brown, is doing just that - he is a mini Civil War. It’s easy to disagree with his methods but agree with his goal. Nothing is simple in this film... There is no “right” side.

There are lots of good battle scenes, and some goofy stuff with Alan Hale as comic relief, and the romantic triangle, and some great suspense stuff with Flynn behind enemy lines and some drama with Brown’s wounded son captured, and all of the scenes you’d expect in a lightweight buddy comedy western... except the Brown story and Massey’s great performance (he makes you believe in his cause, and that killing slave owners in cold blood might be necessary) are way out of place. Too serious for the Reagan-Flynn banter scenes.

The film leads up to the siege at Harper’s Ferry Armory, which is the big action end. It stays pretty close to the facts (except the real Armory isn’t some boxy Hollywood sound stage set and on film the siege lasts a couple of hours instead of, I think, four days) - to the point of having Flynn’s character *not* be the guy in charge of the forces. The battle could be part of the buddy comedy film... but after that we go back to the serious Raymond Massey film about John Brown - as he’s captured and sentenced to hang and gives a passionate speech before the quick drop and short stop.

You could say this film has the most confused politics of any film ever made - but maybe that was the point? Maybe the idea was to show just how complicated the events leading to the Civil War really were. The result is a film that seems like oil and water when you watch it... but you end up wrestling with the issues long after you’ve watched it.

Cable TV: CAPTAIN BLOOD - one of my all time favorite movies. Based on a novel by Rapheal Sabatini that I read in grade school, thanks to my 6th grade teacher Bob Olsen who had these massive bookshelves in his classroom filled with all kinds of adventure and romance and other genres of fiction - not kids books, *adult* books. Of course, nothing you couldn’t let a 6th grader read - but Bob’s theory was that kids would read grown up books just to show that they are grown up - and books that were more realistic would be interesting to kids who lived in the real world. Nothing that talked down. We had to write a huge stack of book reports every year, and extra credit and prizes to hose who read the most books. I think Bob Olsen save my life, gave me a direction, and made me what I am today. And all of the Sabatini novels on his shelves I gobbled up... and bought copies of my own so that I could re-read them over summer vacation.

BLOOD is a pirate adventure book about Dr. Peter Blood, who takes no sides in war - his job is to help the injured. When he treats a rebel fighting against the government of England, he’s arrested and put on trial. Blood tells the judge he’s a doctor, not as rebel. Neutral. The judge sentences him to *death* for saving the life of a rebel. Instead of death, they ship all of the convicts to the British colonies in the Caribbean as slaves to work on plantations. Blood and his slave pals all get whipped and mistreated... and Blood has now taken a side - with the rebels. Oh, he’s bought by plantation owner’s niece Olivia DeHaviland - she buys him just to piss off her uncle. Blood insults him.

After being whipped for being insolent, Blood plans an escape for the slaves by boat. Many of the slaves have been in the navy, and know how to sail. One guy is the key to everything - he was a navigator. Without him, they’re dead in the water. The day before the escape plan, the plantation owner sees Blood whispering to the navigator and while Blood is off working, whips the navigator kid to try and get him to talk. This is a great scene, because if the kid talks - the escape is foiled. If he doesn’t talk - they may whip him to death, and the escape is foiled. Either way, they’re screwed. The kid doesn’t talk, and is close to death - which ruins the escape plan. Except Spanish ships attack and d loot the town... which creates a perfect diversion for their escape. They manage to carry the navigator guy to the docks where their boat is waiting... but it was shelled by the Spanish ship! It’s sunk! Blood hatches a plan to *steal the Spanish ship* while the Spaniards are on shore looting... and the slaves become pirates.

One thing I have to mention are the supporting characters in this film - they are so well written and well played that they become real (even if the dialogue gets a little clunky now and then). There’s a slave-pirate who always quotes the Bible... but finds ironic passages to quote, so he comes off funny instead of as a zealot. There is a tough guy, always itching for a fight. The guy who always has his flask - even in sword fights. All of the bit-part slave-pirates have *personalities* and their own little goals. The colony’s Governor is a great character - this fey, flamboyant guy in a powdered wig always complaining about his gout. The Governor’s doctors both have distinctive personalities. The guy in debtor’s prison who sells Blood the boat... and gets swept up in the escape, becoming one of Blood’s pirates by mistake. Every single minor character is an individual in this film.

And all of the great character actors under contract at Warner Bros play these roles as if they’re competing for an Oscar. If a character is only in one scene, they do everything in their power to be the most memorable character in that scene. You end up with all of these amazing actors playing amazingly well defined characters. I’ve always wanted to take over programming at TCM for a week and do a festival of great character actors in bit parts. You would see several movies with completely different stars in different genres and wonder why these films are on the same program... then you’d notice some guy like Ned Sparks is in every movie. Who is Ned Sparks you are probably asking? Well, he’s this guy who played bit parts in a lot of movies who had a very distinctive voice - and you’d recognize his voice from a couple of cartoon characters who swiped it. I think most people know the cartoons more than the real guy whose voice the imitated. But BLOOD has all of these great bit part players (but no Ned Sparks) playing the pirates - the guy in the background of some shot not only has a character, the actor playing that character is trying to make sure you remember him!

Blood has a pirate constitution which is basically communist - all money is divided evenly - no one gets a larger share. All work is divided evenly - no one gets to goof off. And if one of them is injured on the job, they get a pension (of course, it’s a pirate movie, so this is all about how many pieces of eight you get if your arm gets chopped off in battle... and it goes through every savage injury you can imagine and some you can’t). Oh, and no raping women. There are enough women of easy virtue at Tortuga, no reason to rape any. And the big one - people are not for sale.

So we get all kinds of great pirate adventures, and on Tortuga Blood decides to partner with a French pirate played by Basil Rathbone using that fake French accent from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. More pirate adventures... and Rathbone captures a ship carrying... Olivia DeHaviland! Rathbone’s plan is to rape her and then ransom her to her plantation owner Uncle who is now the governor of the British colony. When Blood shows, he has to stop that. First with reason, and when that doesn’t work, with some damned cool sword fighting. There’s nothing like a Rathbone/Flynn sword duel - those guys actually knew how to use swords. I think Rathbone was actually a fencing champ or something in real life. So the fight scene is just amazing stuff.

Once Blood wins, he jokes with DeHaviland that she is now *his* slave. He owns her as she once owned him. She hates him... but we know they are going to hook up.

Blood decides to take DeHaviland back to the British Colony, even though he knows her uncle has every British ship in the area trying to capture and kill for him. This leads to a mutiny - and Blood has to talk his pirates into doing him this one favor... that could result in their death. This is a great scene, where one-by-one they join him.

When they get back to the British Colony, they find it under attack by French battleships - and no British ships to defend it. Blood and his pirates have to decide what side they are on, and that leads them to attack the two French ships. A great sea battle - obviously models in some shots, but when they get close enough to throw the grapnels and pull out the swords, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. A non-stop sword fight with lots of twists and turns and reversals.

They began as rebels, became slaves, became pirates, and end as heroes.

How many current movies take their lead characters through so much?

CAPTAIN BLOOD is not only a big exciting adventure film, it makes a point about freedom and equality and how a government needs to answer to the people, not *use* the people.

So that was a night with dad watching movies on TV...

Pages: Still blowing my nose - lots of pages of Kleenex.

- Bill

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Going Postal (part three)

(When last we left our hero, he was standing in a slow moving line at the post office remembering past lines in the post office when he was just starting out writing short stories... much as Marcel Proust ate a cookie and remembered things past.)

THE WACKING SECTION

So, the magazines where Stephen King was first published had evolved into porn... and the editor liked my stuff, but thought it needed, well, porn.

I took some of the Cain inspired and McDonald inspired stories and added a sex scene. A graphic sex scene. Often featuring unusual sex. Well, at least unusual for me, and probably unusual for the readers of Dugent magazines, since the lure of the story would be some fantasy thing that they couldn’t get their wives to do. Anyway, I added scenes to existing stories and then went down to the post office...

But now, when I was standing in line, I was embarrassed. I was holding a porno story in my hands. A story filled with sex... and unusual sex at that. I wondered if the other people in line looked at the name of the magazine on the envelope and *knew*. I wondered if the postal clerk *knew*. I couldn’t wait to get this over with and get home.

The results were pretty much the same - only know Mr. Dewalt’s handwritten notes were even more encouraging. Often the reason for rejection was that they had recently published a similar story. Part of the problem I had was trying to “normalize” writing what was essentially porn with a story wrapped around it. You might watch a movie like THE ICE STORM and think that everybody was into free love in the 70s, but I didn’t know anybody doing that. There were porno movie theaters in Concord (the old Enea) and Walnut Creek (the El Rey, know as the El Lay) but I didn’t know anybody who ever went there. I knew the *projectionist* at the El Lay, a deeply religious man who plastered religious messages over the projectionist's window so that he could not see anything on screen. This created a major problem if the film was out of focus or when he had to do change-overs to a new reel. Often, the raincoat crowd complained... but he wasn't going to look at the scren to see what was wrong and correct it! Sex was still something private, and maybe a little dirty, to me. And here I was writing short stories filled with sex.

And as Dugent struggled for their men’s magazine market share against Hustler, they went deeper and deeper into porn territory. First with their pictorials, then with their stories. Soon I was standing in line at the post office worried that someone would know the complete smut I had in my 9x12 envelope with a nested 9x12 return envelope inside. Couldn’t I just mail this from the privacy of my home? Or stand in the post office line wearing a brown paper wrapper?

Just as Mr. Dewalt was scribbling that my story was one of the two up for the issue, and aced out because the other guy had a stranger sex scene, I was realizing that this wasn’t exactly the direction I wanted to go with my career. What if the next story sold? Okay, I’d make $300... but I couldn’t show the magazine to anybody. I couldn’t even imagine showing the magazine to my parents. It was filled with nekkid women. I made the mistake of showing them one of the stories, once... and felt like a degenerate that year at Thanskgiving. And the stories I was writing... instead of the story that was 90% my story and 10% their sex scene, the percentages had been changing along the way... and now maybe 20% of the story was “mine” - what I wanted to write. I was pretty sure Stephen King wouldn’t have written these stories.

Someplace along the line, I had landed a short story in a penny a word mystery magazine... I don’t even own a copy of that, now... lost in a flood along with a few dozen movie posters from the 1940s through 1960s I had collected. That story was the thing that set me back on track...

Oh, and getting hired to write the script that would eventually become NINJA BUSTERS.

I wrote a few short stories after that, stood in line at the post office knowing that the nested SASE would be coming back to me with a rejection letter. Even if they *did* publish the short story, what would I get? $25? No way to pay the monthly bills on that! I would focus on the screenwriting thing... Stand in line at the post office with query letters and the occasional script shipping out to Hollywood... requested by some producer.

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Conflict and SPIDER-MAN 2 & 3.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Should have been chicken soup, but it was a Burrito at El Faro, Concord - a burrito so big you can't eat all of it.

Movies: I AM LEGEND. Okay, I am a huge fan of the Richard Matheson novel, even though I haven't read it in years. I first read it, probably in high school. Still have that copy. If you don't know who Matheson is, he's the guy who wrote all of those TWILIGHT ZONE episodes you remember. Seriously - make a list of 5 episodes and I'll bet at least 3 of them are his. Anyway, that's how I discovered him. I was a fan of old THE TWILIGHT ZONE TV show, noticed that Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, discovered that he wrote books, too... and Stephen King called his haunted house book HELL HOUSE the best horror novel ever written. An Matheson also wrote the book that was made into INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, one of my favorite Saturday afternoon Sci-Fi movies.

I AM LEGEND has been made twice before, once with Vincent Price and once with Chuckles Heston... and was the inspiration for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (so just about every modern zombie movie owes its existence to the book). Here's the thing - no one has ever done a faithful version of the book. So, several years ago they decided to correct that, and make *the book*. They needed a star, and Ah-nuld stepped up - not the guy I see playing Robert Neville, who is kind of a typical 1950s suburban husband. But I would accept Ah-nuld if the movie was like the book, rather than like the Heston version. Then Ah-nuld became governator and the project was shelved....

Until someone dug it out and did some rewrites and some more rewrites and suddenly it was nothing at all like the book... and so they made it.

My problem with the film is that it's kind of one note. I thought it started out good... then just kept going on a straight line without changing or escalating or twisting or becoming dramatic or anything else... which means it becomes more boring with every minute until it just turns to crap with a silly ending.

SPOILERS!

The book is kind of a through-the-looking-glass commentary on 1950s suburban life - the kind of stuff on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and OZZIE & HARRIET and FATHER KNOWS BEST. Robert Neville is the typical suburban husband and father who carpools to work every day with his buddy Ben Cortman... then a plague breaks out that turns everyone into vampires. Now all of his neighbors and everyone he knows lives at *night* and he is the sole person who lives by day - his world is been turned upside down.

His car pool buddy Ben Cortman is now the leader of the vampire clan in his suburban town - and comes for him every night, pounding on his door and screaming for him to come out... so that they can kill him. Every day Neville goes from house to house through the town, searching for the vampires and driving stakes through their hearts... mostly searcing for the leader, Cortman. The people he stakes - are his neighbors, his friends. It's a terrible job, but they become an army at night... and soon they will be powerful enough to get through the barricaded windows and doors of his typical suburban home. Every morning, his lawn is littered with dead vampires - people he knows. He has to clear them, take them to the giant bonfires that were designed to burn the dead when the plague had just begun taking lives...

None of that stuff is in the new movie. The creatures aren't people he knows, just CGI fake looking monsters, and who cares if you kill them or not?

But he doesn't kill them - the typical suburban dad from the book has been turned into a top military scientist who was working on curing the plague... and still is. He wants to help these vampire-creatures, not kill them. And, because he's a scientist *and* a badass army guy, he's got all the heroic bases covered. He's the *perfect* guy to deal with this sort of problem (unlike the character in the book who had to grow and change in order to deal with it).

And everything from the novel has been blunted or thrown out - In the book, his daughter contracts the plague, and he and his wife do everything they can to get her medical attention... but she dies. They want a funeral, but instead must take her body to the huge bonfire and toss her in with the others. There is nothing as sad and horrible as the mass pit where they burn the dead from the book... which is also in the Vincent Price version.

The dog death in the Will Smith version is no substitute for the daughter's death... or the wife's death and return... and death again.

That's the big scene in the book - Neville's wife gets sick... and dies. He is supposed to take her put to the big bonfire, but can't go through that again... so he sews her up in a shroud and buries her... and then she comes back - covered in earth - dead... and wanting to feed off of him. This is the love of his life... back from the dead! A miracle. He just wants to hold her in his arms. Kiss her. Tell her how much he has missed her, how much he loves her... But instead he must pound a stake into her heart! This scene destroys him... and destroys us when we read the book.

Instead we get a dead dog and a scene where his wife and daughter are the victims of an accident - never to be seen again.

And the "Alpha Male" in the movie is a poor substitute for his car pool buddy Ben Cortman - after he turns into the car pool buddy from hell. Those two characers had a *history* and a *relationship* which brough drama and baggage to the scenes where Cortman and Neville battle each other. By making the "night seekers" strangers they rob drama from every scene they are in.

Having to kill his friends and neighbors by day was gut wrenching - a normal guy having to do terrible things to survive. In the film we have a hero who does heroic things (search for a cure). Nothing dramatic about that. It's a person doing what is already in their nature.

Though I haven't read the novel in years, one of the things I loved about it when I first read it was how it looked at vampires *scientifically* - all of the vampire lore gets a logical explaination that make complete sense. In the book, Neville doesn't begin as a scientist, the part of his days not staking his friends and neighbors is spent trying to figure out what happened - and that leads him to learn about science and learn about the plague... which gives us all of these amazing logical reasons behind vampires being killed by wooden stakes, and garlic repelling them, and light burning them. You read the book and begin to believe that vampires *could* really exist. None of that in the film - it's just a bunch of creatures.

The book's title comes from the end - a huge twist where we discover that Neville is a monster to the vampires. To them, he's a serial killer. I think you could pull that twist end in today's popcorn world. I think as long as 99% of the film has Neville as "hero", that 1% where we reveal he's a monster won't rock the boat too much. And he's still a vampire killer - which may be a good thing to most of the audience. But to those of us who are looking for more than popcorn, that end would have had us thinking about being on the right side or wrong side in a war - is there really any difference? On both sides, people are killed.

There's a Matheson short story about a suburban guy who cuts himself shaving... and bleeds oil. Now, everywhere he looks he sees people eating greasy food and realizes that he's lived with his eyes closed his entire life - and he is a robot. I think the end of LEGEND is Neville opening his eyes... and Cortman and all of the vampires are not really any different than they were before - they still have their eyes closed. They see him as a monster... and he gets a chance to see them as people.

This movie wasn't the Matheson book... and it's strange that the cheapo Vincent Price version you can download on the internet for free (LAST MAN ON EARTH) is closest to the book. But, maybe 20 years from now, they will make a faithful version. Who knows?

Pages: I have had the worst headcold for the past few days and have written nothing and done nothing but blow my nose. I could be a mucus doner. The good news is that the cold has now moved to my chest - meaning I have even more mucus to give. Hopefully this will all be over soon - this blog post was supposed to go up yesterday, but I was just too miserable.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Going Postal (part two)

stuff Uwe Boll in here then have DeNiro from Mean Streets walk past(When last we left our hero, he was standing in a slow moving line at the post office remembering past lines in the post office when he was just starting out writing short stories... much as Marcel Proust ate a cookie and remembered things past...)

GENT & DUDE

Most of Stephen King’s short stories had been published in magazines called Gent and Dude, published by Dugent Publications... in exotic Florida. The editor was a guy named Maurice Dewalt. I read the King stories, and decided to write some horror stories similar to them for Dugent. Now, I was a fan of King and Matheson and Bloch and many other horror writers, and one of the things I loved about King’s work was that the lead characters were normal guys - some guy working in a factory picking up an extra shift cleaning out the basement who runs into some pretty big rats down there. I could see myself writing this kind of stuff. So I wrote a stack of short stories and began sending them to men’s magazines - even Playboy - why not? Just another day standing in line at the post office.

Now, I wasn’t just sending these guys horror stuff, I was also writing James M. Cain style noir pieces and John D. McDonald style action pieces, and some Chandler influenced mystery stuff. There were dozens of magazines, and if I were going to make a living and pay the rent on the *house* that Wendy and me and the three dogs and a horse were living in, I needed to sell a lot of stories every month. I had a day job at Safeway, but what I wanted to do was write full time.

(Okay, the horse wasn't living in the house. It wasn't living in the back yard, either. It was boarded at some ranch where we had to clean the stall. But it ate like a... well, like a *horse*!)

I was writing screenplays, too, and making short films. In fact, Wendy starred in my CARRIE take off, just to bring it back to Stephen King. It was part of my MONDO SHORTS - UNDERWEAR OF THE WORLD complilation. I made a lot of short films back then, and my first 35 minute compilation was called SHORTS OF BILL MARTELL and the titles were on underpants. The "sequel" was a mocumentary like MONDO CANE that looked at underpants from all over the world... and would then use a kind of Monty Python inspired stream on consciousness to go from undershorts to film shorts. Part of the fun was trying to figure out how to get from a CARRIE parody to NIGHT OF THE LIVING LIFE INSURANCE SALESMEN using underpants from around the world. But the short films and my super 8mm feature and 16mm James Bond parody were things that costme a lot of money so that I could show them in the garage - turned into a cinema by removing our cars and adding folding chairs - to my friends. No way to make any money from the shorts... the money was in short *stories*.

All of this work resulted in an even larger collection of rejection slips.

Just as a test, I sent some stories to literary magazines that only paid in copies. You’d get 5 or maybe 10 copies of the magazine. And that’s what I’d get. No rejection slips, just copies of some magazine that was probably self published (back when that wasn’t easy). Now, here’s where I missed learning a valuable lesson - I should have been self publishing my own damned magazine! I knew all of the printers in town, I probably could have used some of my Safeway money to start up the magazine and hopefully subscribers would have kept it going. But I was a *writer* not a publisher. Creative, not a business guy. I already had a job...

Well, two jobs if you consider all of the time I spent standing in line at the post office to mail short stories.

But a strange thing happened. Maurice Dewalt began sending me scribbled notes on the bottom of my rejection slips. The guy who published Stephen King’s early work liked my work! After a bunch of notes, Mr. Dewalt wrote one that said they would have published this one, but I needed to read some short stories from the current magazine. Editorial needs had changed.

So I went down to the book store... and they didn’t have any copies of the magazine. The clerk told me to try a liquor store.

That’s where I found them. I bought a copy of Dude and a copy of Gent and a couple of others I had been submitting to. I had a *subscription* to Playboy, so I knew exactly what the stories in Playboy were like, and I’d bought a few issues of Penthouse now and then and knew what the stories in there were like... I just figured that the smaller magazines had the same kinds of stories, just not by big name writers.

Well, that might have been true once, but now these magazines were competing with *Hustler* magazine, not Playboy and Penthouse. The stories all had sex in them. Graphic sex. Often, unusual sex. Could I write that? Could I write stories that were, well, pornography... then stand in line at the Post Office surrounded by other people, and *mail* the porno stories to exotic Florida? Could I write that kind of stuff for a living?

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Story from character.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Burger and fries at Nation's Giant - which used to be across the street and a couple of blocks down, but they moved when they put in the new downtown shopping center - they moved *everything* that was the old downtown Pleasant Hill. What didn't move, got buldozed.

Murder My Sweet - the DVD DVDs: MURDER MY SWEET with Dick Powell and Claire Trevor and Mike Mazurki. My favorite Chandler film - yes, I like it more than THE BIG SLEEP and some of you will now want to burn me at the stake. Sorry. I think Bogart does the Marlowe tough guy stuff great, but nobody captures the smart-ass whimsey of Marlowe like Dick Powell. He insults everyone with charm. When Bogart insults you, you stay insulted. Powell sneaks the insult in, pulling one over on the insultee. And the rest of the cast is just amazing - who other than Mike Mazurki could ever play Moose Malloy? And Otto Kruger was born to play Jules Amthor, psychic to the stars. And Claire Trevor - one of the most amazing actresses *ever* - plays a great fake rich woman: she is *all* attitude with nothing at all behind it. You know, it's difficult to play a bad actress in such a way that we know it's the character. When we finally pull away the attitude, she's an ex-hooker struggling to keep her past a secret. Claire Trevor is one of those actresses like Gloria Grahame, she shows up in all kinds of Noir and crime flicks, but you never know if she'll play a femme fatale or a sympathetic gal from the wrong side of the tracks who helps out the hero.

The thing about MURDER MY SWEET is that I know every single line of the movie by heart, and watching it becomes kind of a ROCKY HORROR experience. There was a time when I knew the difference between the two versions that showed on TV - all I can remember now is that one of them had the scene where Marlowe lights a match on a statue's ass and the other doesn't. But there were two versions - each missing scenes that the other included. Maybe there was a 5 minute difference in running time or something and one fit a certain number of late night commercials and the other fit the other used car lot commercial formula. Who knows? But just a great flick.

Gun Crazy - the DVD
DVDs: GUN CRAZY - So I’ve been watching a whole bunch of Film Noir in prep for the audio class and since I mentioned this film when I was talking about THE BIG COMBO a few entries ago, I had to pull it out and watch it again. I probably first saw this film at the UC Theater in Berkeley a couple of decades ago, and was blown away by it. First, like most noir, it’s an adult story. Not Hollywood fluff. It’s dark. It’s sexy. Probably the thing that impressed me the most when I first saw it were Peggy Cummins’ *very* tight black trousers. Women in 1940s movies always wore skirts and dresses. If they did wear pants they were non-sexual - often mannish. But here we have pants so tight it’s almost as if she’s naked.

SPOILERS!
The three boys look at the bobcat
The story is about a boy (eventually played by John Dall) who has a gun fetish. In the opening scene he steals a gun from a shop window, admires it while the alarm blares, then takes off running... tripping on the wet street. The gun goes sliding across the wet street until it hits a man’s boot... tilt up... a *Police*man’s boot. Next scene - the boy in court explaining to the judge how much he just loves guns. He doesn’t feel whole unless he has a gun in his hands. We’ll leave that up to Uncle Sigmund... but that’s what drives the film - this guy needs a gun to feel like a man. At the trial we meet his two best friends - one is the policeman’s son, the other wears glasses so you know he’ll grow up to be a writer - and they tell the judge that our hero isn’t a killer, on a camping trip he couldn’t shoot a wildcat that was hanging around their campsite (great flashback). He couldn’t bring himself to shoot at it. Wow, same problem as Jon Voight in DELIVERANCE! Boy is sentenced to reform school, from there he goes into the army, then he comes home.

Now we have adult John Dall and his two pals - one is now a cop and the other is a writer for the town newspaper. The carnival is in town, so that’s where they go.
Peggy Cummins - trousers so tight there's a visible panty line
The great thing about this film are the set pieces. In case you missed that Script Tip, a set pieces is a big scene. In the old studio days, it was a scene so juicy the studio would pay for a new set to be built. You don’t need a new set for a set piece, you just need a big juicy scene... and even though GUN CRAZY was a low budget film, probably shot on leftover sets that had been used a million times before and real loactions that could be got cheap - and in the case of one set piece, probably shot without any set at all - the film is full of amazing set pieces.

sure - shoot at my head
The Carnival - maybe the same one from THE RING (1927) - has a sharp shooter as it’s main attraction. Sexy Peggy Cummins in those skin-tight pants. She shoots balloons from around her assistant, shoots a cigarette out of her mouth, and all of the other carny tricks you usually see with a knife thrower. The Barker, an aging pretty boy, announces that for a mere $50 you can test your shooting skills against the master... and possibly win $500. Kind of the same deal as THE RING, just with guns instead of fists. John Dall’s buddies put up the money, and we get a great set piece as Dall and Cummins try to out shoot each other... and fall in lust in the process. Because Dall is an amazing shot, the Barker keeps upping the ante in order to win the bet. Eventually it comes down to this insane trick where a crown that holds a half dozen matches is put on Dall’s head and Cummins *lights the matches* with her bullets. All but one. Then it’s her turn to wear the crown. Dall lights them all. Look, I don’t want even the best sharp shooter in the world to be aiming a gun at my *head* from across the room, let alone firing at me six times. That’s just crazy! Dall ends up with a job at the carnival...
sex and violence - the film was made in the 40s, how old are your grandparents - could this be them after doing it?
Now we have a great scene - not a set piece, but a juicy *dramatic* scene that deals with the romantic triangle between the Barker and Cummins and Dall. One of the interesting things is how they used a metaphor to tell us who was sleeping with who. When Dall first joins the carnival, the Barker asks if he has a car... he says no. Cummins wants him to ride with them, the Barker says there isn’t room in their car... Dall can ride with the clown. If you watch who rides with who in the carnival scenes, you can see Cummins and Dall getting together and the Barker riding alone. Which brings us to the big juicy scene where all of this blows up. Real good. The Barker has a claim on Cummins and tells Dall he’s out of here if he doesn’t honor it. The result of the big blow up is *Cummins and Dall* leaving together (in the same car), which leads us to some relationship stuff where they realize they are broke, and then Cummins’ plan to make money...

By armed robbery.
John Dall exits the bank as Peggy tries to sweet talk the cop - all from the back seat of the getaway carNow we get one of the greatest set pieces in low budget history - the “backseat bank robbery”. It’s a single continuous shot - several minutes - taken from the back seat of their car as they drive down the street of a town, find the bank, hope that there is a parking spot, Cummins pulls into a spot near the front of the bank and Dall gets out. After Dall goes into the bank, a cop walks down the sidewalk, stops near the front of the bank! Cummins pulls the car up, gets out, flirts with the cop, and tries to steer him away from the bank. Not happening. This builds suspense. She keeps trying to get the cop out of the way, but he won’t budge. Then the alarm goes off. She hits the cop, just as Dall bolts out of the bank doors with the money.back seat cameraThey get in the car, Dall driving, and now we get a shoot out and car chase from the back seat of the car. All one shot. The great thing about this is that it was probably dirt cheap - we don’t need the bank interior and extras and setting up lights in the location. It’s *one* camera set up. But it gives you the feeling that you are right there - in the getaway car with them. When the cop fires at the car, he’s firing at *you*. And it’s all one cool shot.
John Dall with a bag full of guns and steaks
The big set piece is the armed robbery that will make them rich. Dall thinks this means they can retire to some exotic location and just be together for the rest of their lives. Cummins thinks only about how much money they will end up with. The target for the armed robbery - the Armour meat packing plant payroll. Well before anyone thought of product placement, we get a *real* company name and a *real* meat packing plant. Again, this was probably due to the low budget. They found a practical location and probably couldn’t afford to change all of the signs.

everyone tells him hes in the wrong area including this armed guardThis is one of those split second timed robberies where all kinds of things can go wrong... and do. It’s a tense scene, then it blows up and becomes a big action scene. The great part about it are the pieces of the set piece. Dall drives up in a truck filled with beef on hooks. He gets some steaks from a butcher and puts them in his bag, then walks to the offices and has to get past a half dozen people who tell him he’s in the wrong area. Dall tells them he has the steaks for the boss’s barbeque. Everyone tells him there’s no refrigeration here - he should take the steaks back to the plant. The deeper he gets into the office, the more he and the steaks are out of place. Eventually he gets to the boss’s floor... where Cummins is working as a secretary, Here it’s Cummins who tells him he’s in the wrong place - as she leads him right into the boss’s office, where they kidnap him and have him fill the steak bag with payroll money. And here’s where we see the beginning of the end - Cummins gets trigger happy and shoots a whole lotta people on the way out. It’s a great big run and gun scene - lots of action to break the tension that has come before.

After that set piece they are on the run, and we get a great sequence where they have their last night out as a couple. They go to the Santa Monica Pier and go on carnival rides - bringing us back to the beginning of their relationship. Then they go to a dance hall, and have a nice, tender, relationship scene... not knowing that the police have traced them to California and are waiting outside. They manage to escape with nothing - they even lose some of the clothes on their backs. Only one place to go...

Back to Dall’s home town. Now we get a great scene with the criminals and Dall’s sister’s family.... trying to act normal when people come over. Dealing with kids playing in the yard when you are harboring a pair of fugitives. And eventually a great scene with Dall and his two childhood friends - the cop and the reporter. A low budget film needs big scenes like this one - juicy drama where childhood friends are on opposite sides of the law... and Dall is kind of in the middle. Cummins is all for just killing them- in fact, she’d kill anyone if it allowed them to escape. She’d kill the kids (and that is in the film). In fact, there’s a great unseen scene where Cummins does *something* to Dall’s sister and her entre family - maybe she just locks them up, maybe she kills them all. We never find out which it is, because we come to the other big amazing set piece...

The one that probably has no set!
smoke and tuleDall and Cummins end up chased by every cop in the state, and blood hounds, and posses and probably villagers with pitchforks... but since they are chased through a foggy swamp, we just *hear* all of these things. I’m not sure if we see a single dog - though there may be a stock shot of dogs chasing - but we *hear* packs of blood hounds chasing them. We hear hundreds of cops searching the foggy swamp for them.

The swamp is... well, it’s 99% fog and 1% a couple of thatches of tule grass.
can you hear all of those cops and dogs?
The big scene where they hide and the cops and dogs search - is just them behind a thatch of tules surrounded by fog. And it works! It’s an amazing scene. Probably shot in some warehouse with a smoke machine. Just goes to show you, *imagination* and *inventiveness* can create production value if you don’t have any cash.

GUN CRAZY still holds up, mostly due to the amazing set pieces and great sequences and fairly obvious sexual overtones... oh, and Cummin’s skin tight trousers.

- Bill

Nothing sexual about this


Nothing sexual about this...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Going Postal (part one)


A couple of days ago I spent over an hour in line at the post office. I timed it. Now, this is the holiday season and lines get longer... but I frequently stand in line at the post office, and the problem isn’t the number of people... it’s the post office.

We live in an e-mail world, now, but in the recent past writers spent a great deal of time in the post office. We knew how much things cost to mail, because we had lots of experience. The Writer’s Market book even had a guide to postage in the back, and from that I know how many *pages* are in an ounce of mail. When I first began writing, I wrote short stories. Mysteries mostly. I had a subscription to The Writer Magazine, and eventually to Writer’s Digest (the better of the two). I would also subscribe to any magazine I planed to write for - and usually these were magazines (I already had subscriptions to: Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Mag, Ellery Queen Mystery Mag, Mike Shane Mystery Mag. I would read the stories every month and try to come up with something that matched the contents. The Writers Market gave you the address, the editor’s name (always good to double check with the magazine’s masthead) and the *exact* number of words and the *exact* subject matter... along with payment per word.

So, I would write a 2,500 word thriller with a twist end for AHMM, hoping to get my 2 cents a word... $50! You would send these stories along with a stamped self addressed envelope to return your story when they rejected it (and they always did). But that meant standing in line at the post office so that they could stamp the inner envelope, you seal the outer envelope, and they stamp that. Lots of work!

I would write short story after short story. Mike Shane Magazine paid 1 cent a word, they were located in exotic Florida, and the editor there started sending me little notes scribbled on the bottom of the rejection slips. I had a *huge* collection of rejection slips!

After the movie CARRIE came out, I bought the book in paperback... then continued to buy Stephen King books whenever they came out. I also read every interview with King I could find. He started getting published in men’s magazines... and when I looked up how much they paid in Writer’s Market, I had a new target. They paid *hundreds* of dollars! If I could get a couple of stories published every month, I could make a living!

Now, the odds of getting a couple of stories published every month were pretty low... in fact, the odds of getting *one* story published every month weren’t so hot - there was a writer, his name escapes me, who was famous for having one story a month in print... usually in AHMM. When AHMM and EQMM merged, he moved on up to the higher pay of EQMM (5-8 cents). A 2,500 word story at 8 cents a word is, what? $200? You can’t live on $200 a month!

So the men’s magazines were the key to earning a living. Playboy was the king - they paid $1k for a short story. And look at the guys who wrote them! Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Don Westlake! Oh, and those literary guys, too. And those were some great short stories - I read lots of them in collections.

And by then, Stephen King had a short story collection come out. By now, I was buying King books hardback, and would drive to Berkeley and stand in line *all day* with Wendy to have a one minute conversation with King as he signed my book. Wendy and I had a collection of Stephen King autographed hardbacks, and a collection of past due notices, and a collection of rejection slips from my short stories. Plus I was spending about half my life standing in line at the post office. Would men’s magazines be my salvation? Could I break in the way Stephen King had, and write my way up to Playboy and eventually the best sellers list?

- Bill


IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Six Pre Pro Mistakes... and how to avoid them.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Mom's meatloaf at home... part of the home experience.

Movies: ATONEMENT - On Sunday, John and Van and I met in San Francisco to see ATONEMENT, which has now been nominated for a zillion Golden Globes. We went to a brand new cinema in a brand new shopping center downtown - I think last year the three of us wandered around the construction site. The shopping center is huge - and has spiral *escalators* - I do't know how that works mechanically. They also have computerized touch screen mall maps... which don't work. All three of us seperately got lost using these maps. We were supposed to meet at the cinema a half hour before show time. Being the one traveling the farthest, I got there first. John was closest, he got there last. But we all had problems with these computerized maps. You type in the name of the store, and the map is supposed to show you how to get there... but instead it told me to go from level 1 to level 2 to an escalator on level 2N... 2N? I got to the escalator... and there was no sign of the cinemas... because they are on level 5 and the computerized map doesn't tell you to keep riding the damned escalator to level 5. In fact, it doesn't even tell you there is a level 5. It *only* shows you one floor at a time, and never showed anything past 2N. But we all managed to figure it out without the map - eventually you look up and see other floors and you go up and check them out... and on floor 5, the cinemas!

The story of ANTONEMENT is kind of ENGLISH PATIENTy, so some of you will probably think it’s boring as hell... but I liked it.

The film uses all kinds of different story forms - no doubt taken from the novel, from altering points of view to playing with the chronology... and had one of the most amazing tracking shots I’ve ever seen on film. Story begins at an English country estate on the cusp of World War 2 - Keira Knightly is the older sister, just out of college. She has a younger sister, maybe 12 or 13. The younger sister has a wild imagination, and writes stories and plays. She looks out her bedroom window and sees Keira and the hunky gardener (James McAvoy) standing next to the fountain. The Gardener makes some threatening gestures, and Keira *strips down to her underwear*! Then she jumps into the fountain, and her underwear becomes transparent! The sister looks away, thinking that the Gardener must be some sort of sex fiend.

That’s when the film zips back and shows us the exact same scene from Keira’s point of view. She has dropped something valuable into the fountain, asks the hunky Gardener to retrieve it for her, he jokingly refuses - gesturing for her to retrieve it herself. She says fine, strips down to her underwear, jumps in the fountain to retrieve the lost article, comes out... and her underwear is embarrassingly transparent, throws her clothes back on and storms away. All completely innocent.

The story does this a couple more times - showing us a character's point of view, then zipping back to show us a different character’s point of view. We see how different points of view can lead you to see the exact same action differently. When you only see part of an event, it can seem as if something entirely different is happening. Perception of the event is everything. Eventually an event occurs that creates a major story conflict - and *we* know that it has been misinterpreted. *We* know that things are not as they seemed... but we also understand how from that one particular point of view, the event was shocking and scandalous...

Then the story begins playing with chronology. It jumps four year ahead in time, showing MacAvoy (the Gardener) and the scars this event has left on him... He is now a soldier on the front lines in France during WW2. Wounded, he and his men just want to make it back to the pick up point where a ship will take them back to England.

Then the story jumps *back in time* six months, to show Keira Knightly working as a nurse in a London military hospital... and the scars the past event has left on her.

We keep jumping back and forth in time between the two, until we reach a point where we jump *forward* in time to see what has happened to the younger sister... and see her point of view for a while... and, of course, the scars the past event has left on her. Now a young adult, she is living in London, working as a nurses assistant in a military hospital, searching for her sister and MacAvoy.

These three characters are entwined in a story, and we jump back and firth between story threads, knowing that they all come together at the end.

Along the way, we get one of the most amazing tracking shots I have ever seen as MacAvoy and his men see the chaos and horror of war... in one never-ending shot through absolute hell. Completely amazing.

Another cool thing this film does is make everything completely logical - in one scene a character is opening a window to release a buzzing bee and sees something, in another scene a character spots a dropped piece of jewelry by a door, which leads them to open the door and see what is on the other side. This does a great job of removing coincidence from the story - one event leads logically to another.

I did not like the end of this movie - it does something that yanked me out of the story. Maybe the ending will work for you. It’s an interesting film, and tells its story using an interesting method. Changing points of view and playing with chronology.

After the movie, John and Van and I walked around looking for a place to eat. We went to a sports bar we had gone to before... it was packed. So we wandered some more and ended up at the old standby - Mels Diner. You know, from AMERICAN GRAFFITI. And if you didn't know it, walk into Mels and they'll make sure you know it. Wall to wall posters and pictures and even model cars from the movie.

After dinner we walked back to a high end bar where we had once celebrated New Years Eve several years ago. The place is the same, the waitresses have changed... but kind of stayed the same age. It's as if once a waitress is older than 28, they retire her and hire a new mid-20s waitress. We all flirted with her, but Van has this amazing gift - and he got a hug and kiss on the cheek when we left. I don't know how he does that. If I did some of the stuff he does, I'd be arrested or slapped. He gets a hug. Anyway, many beers later we left... and I took the BART train back.

DVDs: I've seen a bunch of movies on DVD, and I'll be filling in each part of this 4 part post with some info on them.

Pages: Yesterday I blasted out over 5 pages of brand new material on a script I've been rewriting. This script is *20* years old and really needs a rewrite. As I mentioned in an earlier entry about NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the problem with this old script was the *obligatory scene* was missing. I probably thought it was clever at the time - have the whole story leading up to this one big amazing scene... then just leave out the scene. If I were to see a movie that did that, I would want to beat the writer to within an inch of his life. So, to prevent myself from being beaten by audience members, I needed to write this scene. The most important scene in the script. The most complicated scene in the script... and I have just kept putting it off. Until yesterday - when I just *forced* myself to write it. My plan was to write a crappy first draft and fix it later. Instead, I fixed it as I went, and I really like how the scene turned out. One of the unexpected things about the scene is that it ended up providing a big dramatic moment for the *villian*. It humanizes him... which makes him more frightening. He's a real flesh and blood person - who shoots people in the head when they make him angry. That's better than a 2D villain who kills people because it's part of the job description. Anyway, the scene kicks ass and I really like it. Still needs some work, but it's better than I thought it was going to be... and it's DONE!

- Bill

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 CafĂ©. 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
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