Monday, August 04, 2008

Hollywood Shake Ups!

Last week we had a little earthquake (5.4) here - well, actually out in the hinterlands east of us. Some shaking, minor damage, but nobody hurt. Of course, our local TV channels started 24 hour coverage - mostly helicopter shots of suburban Chino Hills where you can’t see any damage. Eventually they found a broken water main somewhere to endlessly show while local anchors talked about the quake. The day after they had liquor store security camera stuff of bottles falling off shelves plus some houses with cracks in the stucco. The biggest part of the disaster seems to be cell phone overload caused every single cell service to crash for a couple of hours - nice to know your cell phone will be worthless in a real emergency.

The last time we had a quake that got this much TV coverage was the Northridge quake 14 years ago. That was a 6.7 - with the highest ground acceleration ever recorded, and killed 72 people and injured about 12,000, plus it destroyed freeways and buildings and leveled shopping malls - $12.5 *billion* in damages. Back then I was still living in Northwest Van Nuys - pretty darned close to Northridge. I used to go to the movies at this dollar house in Northridge - riding my bike to get there - down the street that would later be the epicenter where apartment buildings pancaked. The Van Nuys apartment was my first place in Los Angeles - this second storey place used as a crash pad by all my Bay Area friends when we filmed the Dead Beat Videozine episodes. When I moved in, the neighborhood was okay... but it was heading south. Once I drove home late at night only to find the street closed and police everywhere. I asked a policeman what was going on, he said “They’re shooting”. I asked what the movie was... he answered, “No - they’re shooting people. Some gang bangers.” Sweet! I needed to move to a safer neighborhood, but to do that I needed to sell a script.

The building didn’t have assigned parking, but everybody always parked in the same spaces. I always parked right across from the stairs leading up to the balcony walkway that lead to my apartment. When I came home from grocery shopping, some idiot was parked in my spot, and I had to park way in the back of the lot near another stairway that was a lot farther from my apartment. So I had to lug groceries farther than expected. Swell.

The earthquake hit at about 4:30am. I was asleep. It hit *hard*. Directly across the street from my building a man was killed when a bookshelf crushed him while he slept. I was just about knocked out of bed. I own a lot of bookshelves - they all went down, spilling hundreds of books... but none of the shelves hit me. Lots of things broke. My refrigerator door opened and everything came crashing out. The funniest thing was a jar of spaghetti sauce in my kitchen cupboard ended up shattered on the wall of the living room - I still have no idea how that could have happened. Other jars of spaghetti sauce just ended up piled up on the kitchen floor.

I grabbed some pants, put on some shoes (skipping the socks), grabbed a shirt and tried turning on the lights... nothing happened. Power was out all over the valley. 4:30 am is *dark*... and the aftershocks just kept coming! The ground would stop shaking for a minute or two... then start again. I have to get out of this building! I stumble to the front door, get out to the balcony walkway and start to the stairway to where my car’s parked... then remember I’m parked way out in back! I change directions, run to the back of the building - and I’m not along, mind you - *everyone* in the building is running around in thrown on clothes or sweats. I get to the stairs, jog across the parking lot to my car, and drive to... I don’t know where I’m going to go. The ground is shaking everywhere. But I’m not the only one driving around - many people are driving around in a panic. I head to a big park out on Parthenia... figuring there are no buildings to fall on top of me there. Other people had the same idea. We’re all scared to death.

When the sun comes up, the aftershocks are still hitting but it seems much less frightening. I drive back - park in my usual spot (the idiot is gone) and I’m happy that my building is still standing.... but the stairs I almost ran down? They aren’t there! That idiot that parked in my space may have saved my life!

In my apartment, I have no power... no water. We’d get back power in about a day, but the water would be out for almost a week. No showers... we stank after a while. For drinking water they had tankers in that park - you had to bring your own container... and many people were there in tents riding out the never-ending aftershocks, afraid to go back to their homes. Tents popped up all over the valley in parks - people afraid to be indoors while the ground was still shaking. The National Guard came out in force - armed to prevent looting at the shopping mall. When the power came back on, I spent a lot of time watching the disaster on TV - the gas main that burst on a quiet suburban Northridge street - spraying *fire* into the sky. The pancaked apartment buildings. The mall that had collapsed. The freeway overpass that was turned to rubble - with cars on it. And the aftershocks just kept coming. You couldn’t sleep because another one would hit and you’d be scrambling for a doorframe to ride it out.

Oh, a piece of plastic tape with the word “Caution” on it stopped people from stepping into the abyss where the stairs once were at my building.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this - when I had been several days without a shower - the phone rang... it was Ashok Amritraj (DEATH SENTENCE, BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE ) (Hyde Park Entertainment) calling to see if a script he had read was still available... and if it was, could I come to his office tomorrow at 3 and meet with him, look over a contract, and probably pick up a check? Sure, no problem! Hollywood works even when there are major national disasters and engineers coming to make sure my building was safe to live in (red tagged and evacuated if not) and armed soldiers guarding the Montgomery Wards from looters. Los Angeles may be shaking, but the rest of the world wants to see movies! That means they have to make movies - even if they’re taking cover under their desks and praying they live out the day. The show must go on.

But I need a shower... I fill dozens of gallon jugs with water from the taker trucks at the park - probably causing a family of four to go without - and before my meeting I take a cold shower one gallon at a time (Navy style) so that I don’t stink when I meet with the producer of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s DOUBLE IMPACT. Clean, cruising on about 6 hours sleep over the past 3 days, I zoom up into the hills to Ashok’s house, where he had an office in his poolhouse. The meeting went well, and I ended up not only making a sale that would get me out of Van Nuys and into Studio City (you know, where Britney Spears lives), but would be the first of several scripts I would write for Ashok and the beginning of my go-go years where I averaged 3 films made per year.

Then I drove back to my shaking apartment building that was *not* red tagged. Eventually they got the water back on, and the aftershocks came less frequently. I could get a full night’s sleep without ducking for a doorway. A few months later I was in a nice 2 bedroom in Studio City in the same building as some TV actors and screenwriters.

So maybe this little shaker last week will bring a jolt to my career?

- Bill

Yesterday’s Dinner: Pastrami sandwich at Togos.
Movies: SWING VOTE - The most cynical, nasty film of the summer is here! This film trashes everyone, including the audience - when the film was over I felt like I had been spanked (and not in a good way). This film is dramatic proof that you can have a great idea for a movie and then completely screw it up.

Concept has the Presidential Election so close that it really all comes down to one vote in New Mexico (which has great film incentives) which was never counted because some idiot tripped over the electronic voting machine cord - pulling the plug at the exact perfect moment. The stub for that ballot gets traced back to Bud, played by Kevin Costner. He’s registered as an independent, and won’t tell anyone how he voted - and he has 10 days to cast his vote again. So both Presidential candidates come to his trailer park and pitch to him directly. One man will decide the fate of the free world.

And that man is Joe 6 Pack. His name is even product placement - Bud. The problem is, they make fun of him - the movie ridicules him and turns him into a complete idiot... even though he’s our lead. Our identification character. He’s a complete idiot, he lives in a trailer park, he works in an egg factory (but the movie doesn’t really get into egg processing at all - it’s like nobody did any research) and is constantly drunk. This is what they think of the average American voter... Thanks!

Now, there are things they could do to make Bud likable - but they don’t do any of them. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to do the opposite - to make him even more of an unlikable, impossible to identify with idiot. They could have made him really really funny - kind of the Adam Sandler method (though Sandler isn’t that funny) - but all of the jokes are on Bud - we’re laughing at him, not with him... except we aren’t laughing at him, either. He’s an idiot - you wonder what *Costner* was thinking. They could have had things happen to him that earn our sympathy - but when he loses his job at the egg factory it’s because he was stumble-bum drunk on the job and knocked over a whole pallet of eggs - right in front of the security camera. Nothing sympathetic at all. In my big 2 day class one of the methods I explain that can create sympathy in a difficult character is to give them someone to love - this worked for a *serial killer* in MONSTER. But here they give Bud a daughter, Madeline Carroll, who is “introduced” in this film, except I mentioned her in my tip on WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. Problem is that Bud doesn’t care about his daughter at all. He does nothing that a normal dad would do - in fact, *she* takes care of him. In the first few scenes he blows off a couple of important events in her life... and later in the film a Secret Service Agent knows more about the daughter than Bud does! This is a guy who doesn’t care about family at all.

Now, maybe we were meant to identify with the daughter instead of Bud? Problem there is that the daughter (Molly) pushes Bud so hard that she becomes annoying. She’s a shrew, a bitch... almost as annoying as Dakota Fanning in WAR OF THE WORLDS... and not sympathetic. The script gives us no doorway into her character. She’s a smart kid... but we don’t understand her - and I’m not sure there’s enough character there to be a real person. We are given nothing to make her sympathetic.

So, we have two unsympathetic people - and no one to identify with...

And then they introduce the candidates. Both sides are venal, evil, and stand for nothing. They constantly flip-flop just to win Bud’s vote. The film has been mostly humor free so far, but it gets a couple of laughs with campaign ads aimed at ONLY Bud that illustrate the flip-flops. Problem is, there are only two ads. Would have been better to have done a bunch of *quick* ads that just got crazier and crazier... but we get two. The candidates are played by Kelsey Grammar as the President and Dennis Hopper as the Democrat trying to unseat him. Both are stereotypes and hollow... easy targets. They attempt to give each a moment when they realize they are selling out - but these ring so false they almost make them even less sympathetic. And Hopper has a wife who slaps him because he’s lost his soul - only we never knew he had one in the first place (the film never showed it) and nothing is even set up to show us that she’d care whether he had a soul or not. The slap just seems completely out of place in this film.

Discussing this film afterwards with my friends, the movie that came up was DAVE - a great, funny film that kind of covers the same subject. But where Bud is a complete idiot, Dave is an every-man... a hard working guy who has kind of been left behind by the system who gets to run the country for a while - and run it in a way that helps the average joe instead of just leeches off him. Here, Bud is an uncaring, unfeeling, idiot - and none of the other characters are any better.

Flawed characters are more interesting than perfect people, but it’s still a matter of *balance* - your character can’t be all flaws! They have to have some redeeming value. Bud has nothing. Make a litle chart with two columns - one for flaws, one for assets. Keep the character in balance - don’t make them all of one or all of the other. Even a bad person needs some good elements.

Because this film needs to find to worst in everyone and everything, we eventually get to meet Molly’s mother - Bud’s ex-wife - and she’s a drug addicted liar living in filth. I guess everyone in the world is crap.

By the end of the film, Bud does an amazing 180 and cares about casting his vote - but this happens *minutes* before he votes. It’s that Egri thing again about no honest man becoming a thief over night. Bud just suddenly gets his shit together - and it’s so unbelievable that you think the writers must have thought we were idiots.

Oh, he has this speech about what idiots we American voters are. Thanks for crapping on me again! It’s bad enough you think the average American voter is Bud, you have to spank all of us watching the movie. You know, the one thing you can never do is crap on the viewer - they just paid to see your movie, and they aren’t gonna be happy.

After never really discussing a single issue, or the role of government, or even creating a single human character, Bud reads a letter from a voter who has some real problems... and it makes you cry. And you wonder why they didn’t have Bud discover the letters earlier so we could have a gradual change in the character - and maybe even get into some real issues and real problems. But this film doesn’t care about any of that - it just wants to crap on you.

Bicycle: Rode a bunch on Sunday, and will probably ride from a Starbucks to my meeting on Monday.

- Bill


Morgan McKinnon said...

This post is too funny...too funny!
ha ha, and otherwise.

Glad you're safe.


MacDaffy said...

This is one of your best posts ever, Bill. Your recall of the earthquake shows why your screenplays sell.

I worked for Apple when the Loma Prieta Quake hit the Bay Area in 1989. My second-floor office faced the parking lot and I remember seeing the concrete undulate from the shaking. It got so bad that standing became impossible; it was "lie down or get knocked down." Once the shaking stopped, everyone ran for the exits. I was such a fan of the local news radio station that I had a transistor radio with earpiece turned on constantly. That day, I gave updates to co-workers there in the parking lot. The Marina on fire. The Cypress Freeway collapsed. A section of the Bay Bridge gone. I drove a friend home and hurried to my little house in East Palo Alto, Ca. Except for a downed bookshelf, you wouldn't know there'd been a quake--our housekeeping was that bad, then.

Thanks again for the excellent entry.

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