Monday, June 30, 2008

Strike Two!

So, today is the last day of the SAG contract. Last year the Writer’s Guild went on strike, this year we may see a Screen Actors Guild strike... but probably not tomorrow. SAG still plans on negotiating, which is cool... but the Producers made their “Final Offer” on Thursday, which means the negotiations may end up a little one sided. The issues are the same as with the WGA and DGA - trying to make sure they don’t get boned with new media the way they got boned with home video years ago.I’m not a SAG member, and really don’t know all of the details... except there may be another Hollywood strike that brings the business to a halt, and I don’t think anyone has really recovered from the last one.

Just as the SAG negotiations began, there was a news item about how much money the state lost from the WGA strike - $2.5 billion - which is a huge amount. I kind of wonder about the timing of the story, though - since it seemed to come right when it looked as if SAG was going to play hardball. Was this news, or a threat? That kind of timing makes me wonder about the veracity of the news story itself. But it seems like the news media isn’t questioning the numbers at all, just repeating them. Lately it seems like news (regardless of story) is never investigated, just parroted. Hey, that channel said it, so we’ll say it! No one ever seems to question anything - there is no investigative reporting (unless you call sitting in some house waiting for a child molester to show as “investigative”). When someone in power says something, it’s just taken as truth. I wonder what the real cost of the WGA strike is, once you subtract the “threat-to-SAG-not-to-strike-inflation”.

WAIVERS

One of the strange things that has happened as the potential strike gets closer are the waivers. SAG has been issuing strike waivers to any *indie* producer who agrees to whatever terms are in the new deal. These deals have been blasting out of SAG HQ over the past few months - hundreds of them! The deal allows an *indie* producer to make a film with SAG talent during any potential strike. While the big studios will have to shut down all of their movies, little indie films *without distribution* can still make their film as long as they have signed a waiver. This may be the shot in the arm that indie films need right now - as indie distribs are closing right and left as many indie films fail to find *any* audience these days. The only movies actors can work in will be indie films which have signed a waiver... which excludes all studio films. Suddenly, every actor will want to be in some little indie film! Well, not *every* actor - Tom Hanks and those big $25 million stars will just sit out any potential strike - they can afford it. But those supporting actors who have seen their paychecks cut over the years may take a role or two in an indie if the strike continues for a while, just to pay the mortgage. Indies will be the only game in town!

UNION OF UNIONS

SAG is a split union in two ways...

First, they merged with AFTRA (which is mostly TV & Radio personalities) a smaller union that had some cross-over members. This was originally seen as a great thing, because the combined power of the members was more than each union on its own. Though there are only a couple of TV shows that are under the AFTRA contract, most are SAG - and that side of the union of unions would impact the biz the most. But together, they have the acting thing cornered... Except when SAG began asking for things the producers didn’t want to give, AFTRA decided to split with SAG and negotiate on their own... and closed a deal that would keep it’s members working, even if it didn’t get any of the things SAG is fighting for. Now there is pressure on SAG to make the same deal that AFTRA made.

Second, SAG is divided into regular working actors who have no idea where their next job is coming from and have to keep scoring gigs in they want to keep paying rent... and movie stars who make $25 million a picture. Even the high end TV stars who may make hundreds of thousands *per episode* are a completely different animal than your average working actor. I know a bunch of average working actors - they do a hundred auditions to land one role that may just give them a day’s pay. So the second division is a massive division in pay within the union.

When I worked at Safeway, I was a member of Retail Clerks Union, and we were all paid the same. Sure, there was a difference between an apprentice clerk’s pay and a journeyman clerk’s pay - but after working full time for a year that apprentice became a journeyman and was paid the same. There were also shift differentials - so if you worked graveyards you were paid a little bit more than 9-5 hours... but it was maybe a dime an hour difference. You work graveyards for a couple of weeks, you’d gladly give up that dime an hour for a normal life. But everyone in the union was basically paid the same, so everyone was fighting together. Imagine if one employee makes $25 million for their role in a movie and another is paid $759 for their role?

CLOONEY TO THE RESCUE

A more recent split in the union comes from the big name stars - some are lobbying for SAG and AFTRA to just settle so they can keep working, and others are pushing for a rejection of the deal the producers are offering AFTRA so that those $759 actors can get all that they deserve. Tom Hanks wants them to settle, Jack Nicholson wants them to fight... and a steel cage match between the two stars may be the only way to settle this. Well, until Clooney entered the ring with his letter.

Clooney’s letter:

At the risk of being yet another actor giving his opinion about the ongoing fight between SAG and AFTRA, I'm hoping that there might be a way out of this. Rather than pitting artist against artist, maybe we could find a way to get what both unions are looking for.

Both are, of course, right. AFTRA feels that a work stoppage would be devastating to its members and SAG believes that if they don't draw a line in the sand, the studios will repeat what they did with DVDs.

There are a couple of fundamental facts that both sides have to start with ... first is that the WGA, DGA and IATSE all agreed to a certain model (DVDs not being a part of it). Breaking that model for AFTRA or SAG would retroactively break the other models ... so you can be pretty sure that the AMPTP isn't going to do that. The second thing is understanding the way these unions work. They're unique in structure to other unions. Doug Allen (the SAG national executive director) has said on several occasions that this would be a negotiation for "the linemen, not for the quarterbacks." (Doug did a lot of the negotiating for the NFL.) The spirit of the statement isn't wrong ... it's just the structure. Unlike the NFL, in this guild, the quarterbacks protect the linemen. I've been very lucky in my career, which has put me in the place that I don't need a union to check on my residuals, or my pension, or protect my 12-hour turnaround. I used to need that, and may again ... but right now I don't. That means it's my responsibility to look out for actors who are trying to stay afloat from year to year. Anything less is irresponsible of me.

Work stoppage will do a great deal of harm to those actors ... agencies will close ... TV pilots won't get made ... more reality shows ... we all know the scenario. But that doesn't mean just roll over and give the producers what they want ... it means diligence.

The producers say that there's no money in new media right now. There's some truth in that ... for this moment. It was also true for cable, VHS and DVD ... all of which became very profitable for the studios ... and the actors were out in the cold. With new media, we have our foot in the door, but who's to say a year from now, if it becomes profitable, that the same thing won't happen again ... actors out in the cold. So here are a couple of ways that the quarterbacks can protect the linemen:

First, we set up a panel ... Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks, for instance ... 10 of them that sit down with the studio heads once a year ... 10 people that the studio heads don't often say "no" to. Those 10 people walk in the door with all the new data that SAG and AFTRA compile, and adjust the pay for actors... once a year.

Second, we go to the actors who make an exorbitant amount of money, and raise their dues. Right now, there's a cap of 6,000 bucks that actors pay their union ... based on $1 million in earnings. Make it $6,000 for every million ... if someone makes $20 million, they pay $120,000 into the union. That could go a long way in helping pensions and health care. The quarterbacks have to do more.

To be sure, I'm not the brightest bulb out there. So maybe someone has a lot better idea ... I just happen to believe so strongly in both unions ... my father, my mother, aunt, uncle, even cousins were all members of either SAG or AFTRA long before me.

What we can't do is pit artist against artist ... because the one thing you can be sure of is that stories about Jack Nicholson vs. Tom Hanks only strengthens the negotiating power of the AMPTP.

George Clooney



Wow... that guy impresses the heck out of me more and more. He’s got a great down-to-earth solution that may prevent the Hanks vs. Nicholson Battle Royale. I like the way he wants to pay more to SAG, since he earns more. And I like the idea of a panel of A listers doing some of the negotiation. Nobody really wants a strike - but nobody wants to get boned, either.

As for my upcoming film, it’s an indie... but I have no idea whether the producer got a SAG waiver or not. And he’s been kind of MIA because everyone has been hustling to get films finished before today. So I may or may not have a film shooting in September... but if there is a strike, I hope that it will be over by then... Unless he *did* get a waiver, then I hope Ving Rhames is getting short of cash and needs a job...

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: JUMPER - who's driving? New script tips M-T-W this week!
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken Caesar Salad at Fuddruckers.

MOVIES: WANTED - or “More Matrix”. Both films are about guys who work in cubicles in *Chicago* who discover they are really the “chosen one” and have superpowers when a hot kick-ass woman enters their lives... and bad guys are trying to kill them. And both films contain “high concept action scenes” - my friend Iain, who writes comic books in London, came up with this idea of the high concept action scene. An amazing mind-blowing action scene unlike anything we have ever seen before... and his example was the “bullet time” scene in THE MATRIX. Well, in WANTED we get a handful of totally cool action scenes unlike anything we have ever seen before on film.

I’ve been told the story is different that the graphic novel source - on screen we have cubicle slave Wesley (James MacAvoy from the great flick ATONEMENT) whose life is a complete mess - his best friend is screwing Wesley’s fiancĂ©, and Wesley can barely afford his anxiety medicine, and when he looks himself up on Google... he gets nothing at all - who is approached by a hot babe Fox (Angelina Jolie - who plays roles like this really well) and told that the father he never knew was actually the world’s top assassin - and killed yesterday. And now the guy who killed him is coming after Wesley. And then the non-stop action begins, and Wesley is swept away into the world of assassins.

Seems that anxiety problem is really a rush of adrenaline that is genetically passed down in assassin families.... and completely at odds with cubicle work. Fox takes him to meet Sloan (the always great Morgan Freeman) who wants him to train to be an assassin and then take out his father’s killer. Wesley isn’t up to it. He thinks this whole thing is crazy and wants to part of it. But when he discovers that his father’s assets have been added to his $14 checking account balance... and he’s now a millionaire, his attitude at the office changes just a little. He tells off his boss, punches his best friend *hard* in the face, and splits with his fiancĂ©. From now on, he’s an assassin.

The film has some good twists, and the cast is great, but I could have done with two brief character oriented scenes at two big points in the film. Though we always identify with MacAvoy as the put upon guy who gets to live this amazing life of action, they could have slipped in a little more character stuff. We’ve had all of these hyper-kinetic action films lately - from CRANK to SMOKIN’ ACES to SHOOT ‘EM UP that were all style, little-to-no substance. WANTED manages to keep the characters real even though the milieu may be cartoonsih. Though part of that may be casting, a major part is the father-son story. MacAvoy ends up connecting with the father he never knew - staying in his room at th training facility and even wearing his old clothes. This grounds the story and the characters in emotions that we understand, elevating it way above those other films.

SPOILERS: HIGH CON ACTION

The film has so many completely mind-blowing high concept action scenes that it can afford to throw some of them away in the trailer. The scene where Jolie scoops MacAvoy up in her sports car is a fantastic idea. And that is what is cool about it - not the CGI used to create it, but the idea itself. Just like “bullet time” - a writer had to *think of that* (writers, by the way, are Michael Brandt and Derek Haas who wrote 3:10 TO YUMA last year, and Chris Morgan who wrote TOKYO DRIFT). The coolest of the high con action scenes is “curving the bullet” - the way Beckham bends a soccer ball around an opposing player to the goal. A preposterous idea - that you can put “English” on a bullet - but it makes for some wild shoot outs throughout the film. I just can’t wait for some stupid gangbanger to try it in real life and shoot another member of their gang. They also have this cool idea with extreme high powered rifles that can fire a bullet *miles* away to its target - and that a master assassin has the ability to chart and control that bullet so that it actually reaches its target miles away (seen through a very expensive telescope). We get a great scene where a car is flipped over another car, so the assassin can fire through a non-bullet proof sunroof. Again - some writer had to come up with that insane idea. It’s not the stunts of CGI that’s cool - it’s the idea of the scene. WANTED is filled with cool high con action scenes.

I didn’t like the completely preposterous method for coming up with assassination targets - I’ll believe a car can fly and a bullet can curve... but not this. But the film isn’t ever set up to be realistic - it’s the fantasy of some guy in a cubicle - so you just kind of go with even the most preposterous elements of the film. By the way, MacAvoy’s accent is amazing - you’d never guess he wasn’t born and raised in the USA. And Jolie - okay, she’s super hot. And seeing her get out of the bath is... well, it’s own high concept scene. There’s a great interview with her in Entertainment Weekly that makes her sound like a normal mom... and a really *good* mom... and a fairly grounded person. Wild, wicked, hot on screen... a mom who changes diapers at home.

Damn that Brad Pitt!

DVDs: I am so far behind in my DVD reviews... but last night I watched THE BAD AND THR BEAUTIFUL again, and I think when I run out of Hitchcock films next year, I may do some reviews of movies *about* screenwriters. There are at least a dozen of them, and I think they tell us all kinds of things about how we see ourselves. One of the interesting things about B&B is the Lana Turner doc extra that gives you a great look at how actors used to be treated by the studio (as well as all kinds of stuff about Turner's life). Because the studio basically assigned an actor their movies, and could suspend them if they didn't like the project, actors were *really* typecast. Once they were in a hit film, they played clones of that role for the rest of their career. So Turner was the "sweater girl" in her first film at 16 years old, and continued to play hot babes in everything else. The studio knew if they cast her as a hot babe, people would pay to see that. What's interesting about B&B is that she kind of plays an odd version of herself... and a subplot has her character being "replaced" by a younger hot babe.

Bicycle: I didn't ride as much last Thursday as I usually do... and because I go to the movies on Friday, I usually don't ride... So on Saturday I get ready to ride... and my back tire is flat. Poop! I hate changing tubes! Didn't take care of it on Sunday, and may not on Monday... though that screws me up for my usually epic Tuesday ride. Maybe I will fix it Monday.

- Bill

Monday, June 23, 2008

RIP: George Carlin

“The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A Death! What's that, a bonus? I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you're too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work forty years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement. You do drugs, alcohol, you party, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating...

...and you finish off as an orgasm.”

***

“Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things”

***

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

***

“The main reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the bad girls live”

***

“Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist”

***

“Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that @#%&.”

***

“I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, "Where's the self-help section?" She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose”

***

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic.”

***

"'Older' sounds a little better than 'old,' doesn't it?. Sounds like it might even last a little longer. ... I'm getting old. And it's OK. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won't have to die — I'll 'pass away.' Or I'll 'expire,' like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital they'll call it a 'terminal episode.' The insurance company will refer to it as 'negative patient care outcome.' And if it's the result of malpractice they'll say it was a 'therapeutic misadventure'."

***

George Carlin wasm't just that dude from the BILL & TED movies, he was the first host on SATURDAY NIGHT (LIVE) - and I was the right age for that to be a huge influence. I bought a bunch of his albums - amazed at how he made words do tricks. Not only could he do things with words that no one else could - he was also a philosopher. His comedy had a point, and was searching for the meaning of life... and often finding that meaning was strange. His Seven Words routine still floats around in my head on most days... ("Even in a Walt Disney movie, you can say, We're going to snatch that pussy and put him in a box.") As a writer, as someone interested in language, his comedy probably warped my mind - made me see that words could do amazing things. There is no replacement - he'll be missed.

- Bill

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tag - You're It!

In Paul Schrader’s TAXI DRIVER, Travis Bickle tells the Betsy, one of the two women he’s obsessed with, that he needs to get one of those signs that says, “One of these days I'm gonna get organezized". I can be precise in a screenplay, but in my personal life I’m usually all over the map - just too many different things that I have to do all at once, and things always slip through the cracks. A couple of days ago I was trying to find something I said on this blog and had to read more than a dozen entries before I found it. So, I decided to get organezized a little, and add tags. The tags are more for me than for you, but you may still find them helpful. The main help for *me* is to have a quick way to find film reviews or answers to screenwriting questions that I may want to “harvest” into script tips. Used to be I’d see a film and write the review as a script tip, now the reviews start here on the blog and may eventually find their way to the Script Tips - provided the film works as a good example - positive or negative. But for you, I’ve created tags for different kinds of blog entries:

EDITORIAL - When I bitch about the way Hollywood works or even the world works. Just like a newspaper editorial - it’s my opinion about the business.

SCREENWRITING ANSWERS - Anything that has to do with the craft of screenwriting. A while back I asked for your questions, and I still haven’t answered all of them. But even before, I had blog entries about the craft of screenwriting.

WRITING LIFE - Probably more on the business side than the craft side - the things involved in *my* day-to-day career, plus some information that might help you in your career. May include some bitching, which is editorial.

EVENTS - When I report on a film festival or event I’ve attended. Recently I posted about the Fangoria Horror Movie Convention and also about the Book Expo. In a way, this blog began on my website message boards when I would be at some far away film fest and wanted a record of what happened.

FILM INFO - Sometimes I post information about something that happened today in the biz, along with my take on it.

FLASHBACKS - Originally I planned to have a Flashback every month about the early days of my career - or before I even had a career. I posted a couple, then forgot to post more. I hope to remedy that in the future, because much of what happened in my past may be amusing (my first and only agent) and I think many of those adventures made me who I am today.

LOSERS IN HOLLYWOOD - someplace between editorial and writing life are these entries about some of the real life horror stories about Losers I Know in Hollywood. At one time, the name of this blog was going to be I KNOW ALL THE LOSERS IN HOLLYWOOD, but I was hoping for some accidental readers thinking this was actually going to be a blog about having sex in a submarine.

BILL’S PROBLEMS - I often use this blog as a confessional, or get on some subject which is just Bill bitching or feeling sorry for himself or wishing the whole world would stop picking on me. Sometimes, these things are legit gripes. This is stuff that *might* be an editorial, if the problem was the world and not me. But usually, the problem is *me*, hence the category title.

FRIDAY'S WITH HITCHCOCK - a new category! Look for the first entry on Friday! For the next year, every Friday I will write about one of Hitchcock’s 53 films.

So that’s the reason why the tag “Losers” may show up on the end of an entry. I hope this little bit of organization doesn’t interfere with your enjoyment of the blog.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Planning.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Cashew Chicken at City Wok.

MOVIES: THE INCREDIBLE HULK - Somewhere, about three quarters of the distance between Ang Lee’s HULK and this new INCREDIBLE HULK there is a great movie. Instead, we get a pretty good one. And like MONGOL, it’s a love story in disguise.

One if the cool things is the movie in the titles. Because this is a reboot and they want you to forget that Ang Lee ICE STORM version ever existed, they give you a recap of how Hulk came to be in a cool title sequence that plays like the opening titles for the old TV series. In fact, it seems like they replicated a couple of the shots from the TV show. Hey, and Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno make cameos in this film... more on that later.

I liked the first part of the film best - Bruce Banner is living in the slums of Rio (we don’t get the Sugar Loaf or any of the other Rio landmarks - just a title card and the never-ending favelas) and working on a bottling plant’s assembly line. Hiding. On the run. He’s taking martial arts and does meditation as ways to deal with his anger issues. And he has that heart-beat watch to make sure he doesn’t lose control. He watches SESAME STREET and COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER to learn Portugese.

One of the very first scenes shows one of his handful of belongings - a newspaper picture of Betty Ross, the woman he loves. He hasn’t seen her for 5 years. This newspaper picture goes with him throughout the story - until he and Betty are reunited.

Because I’m not a comic book guy, and know Hulk mostly from TV, I’m more interested in the Jekyll and Hyde aspects of the story and less interested in the monster-fighting-monster elements. That’s the character side of the story - and probably the side that people can identify with. All of us have lost our temper and regretted it... but when Bruce Banner loses his temper, buildings may get smashed and people may die. So for me a great Hulk movie would put Banner in dozens of situations where a normal person might lose their temper, and show him struggling to control his. I would make this huge list of things likely to make a normal person pop a cork, then put all of them in the story. INCREDIBLE HULK doesn’t do this - and the deeper into the movie we get, the less we even deal with the whole temper thing - but the first third comes closest to what I wanted in a Hulk movie.

Banner is trying to find a cure, but meanwhile has to deal with a bully at work. There’s some hot chick on the bottling line that Banner flirts with. Then there’s a great scene where Banner sees the Bully cornering the hot chick at the plant - maybe to rape her - and Banner walks on by... not wanting to lose his temper and Hulk out. But that’s not the answer, either... and he has to carefully get them to leave her alone without getting mad. As he says to them in bad Portugese, “You don’t want to make me hungry”.

One of the other great devices in the film is a title that tells us how many days it’s been since the last anger incident - like the number of days at this work site without an accident. This is one of those clever things that pop up throughout the film - making us laugh when it comes right after an action scene and the number of days is 0. I think things like this are clever, and not enough screenwriters even consider them. One of the best parts of RUN LOLA RUN was the little snippets of a character’s future (and how Lola altered it) when she bumps into them on the street. ****** You can’t do something like this in every script, but coming up with some clever device is what may turn an okay script into something really memorable.

Of course, it would just be the Ang Lee version if Colonel Ross and the government didn’t find him, and we get a cool foot chase through the favelas of Rio - a great location. Jumping from rooftop to street, running through hanging clothes, going through the narrow alley-like streets, it’s a great chase. Not quite as good as a BOURNE chase, but danged good. One thing I would have done here is come up with an anger list for the chase - so that there was an *emotional* conflict going on during the physical conflict. They eventually drop Banner into a situation where he will lose his temper, but they could have focused on all of the little things that may have made him lose control as he was being chased. Action should always be character related.

Anyway, we get some Hulk action... and they do a clever thing. They keep the Hulk in the shadows, so that he’s not only the dark half of Banner, he’s kind of a monster in the dark to those chasing him... even more frightening. This also helps with any CGI issues.

One of the things I also liked about the first third of the film is that Banner is broke. He has to stay under the radar, so he can’t work as a scientist, can’t access any of his money, can’t live anywhere that people might notice him. He lives with the poor. After he’s chased out of Rio, he has to hitch-hike and *walk* to get back to the USA. He’s homeless. Friendless. Ragged. He is a man alone... who now has stretchy pants.

Because all of the information that might help him is back home, that’s where he ends up... in the same college town where Betty lives. The romance ends up being the through line in this film - and it’s an interesting story for a comic book movie. The great thing about having the love story as the spine is that girls will like the movie... and they are more than half the population. A geek comic book movie can also be a date movie!

Betty hasn’t been doing nothing for the past 5 years, she’s now dating someone new... played by Ty Burrell. Now, I’m a big fan of this actor - you’ve seen him in a bunch of movies, but may not even know it was the same guy. He’s a chameleon. He was the complete rich prick in the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, but has done light comedy as Gary on the TV show BACK TO YOU. Here, he plays a psychiatrist... but plays him effeminate for some reason. I don’t know if this was his choice or the director’s choice, but it seems to me like the *wrong* choice. If I were a guy trying not to lose my temper, and found out my ex-girlfriend was going out with a guy I could stomp in my sleep - a guy I could pretty much win away from her without much effort... no conflict! No reason to get angry. But if the guy was some macho stud type, he may get physical with me... and I’d have to defend myself... and that would turn me into the Hulk. As it is, this wimpy guy is not a problem... and that's the problem!

As it is, it seems that most of Burrell’s scenes are on the cutting room floor - including that scene from the trailer that made it look like Banner and Burrell’s character might be Gay lovers. I guess that’s the California version of Incredible Hulk.

But we get the love triangle thing, and we also get Betty’s disapproving father... who happens to be Colonel Ross, the villain. This takes a romance story and magnifies it into a superhero movie. At times in the second act it seems like Colonel Ross wants to capture Banner more to keep him away from his daughter than because he’s US Government property. We get another chase - ending with Banner turning into the Hulk in front of Betty... and Colonel Ross says, “Maybe now she’ll see who he really is.”

And it’s right before he Hulks out that we get the Lou Ferrigno cameo - as a security guard - and that really kills the film. Because when Banner turns into a completely CGI cartoon Hulk, you can’t help but think about Ferrigno - who still looks great, and is 100% real human and freakin’ massive. He’s more convincing as the Hulk in his security guard outfit than the CGI thing is. The CGI this time around is much better than the Ang Lee version, but there's something about a *man* turning into a CGI creature that takes us right into that uncanny valley. In LOTR, Gollum was always CGI, so he was who he was. But here, even with good CGI, we can't help but compare Ed Norton with the CGI Hulk.

By the way, Ed Norton always claims he does massive rewriting that turns the crappy scripts they give him into gold... yet the character elemenst in Zak Penn's script are consistant, whether it's Norton's character or Tim Roth's. I suspect Norton's rewrite claims are similar to the actors who claim to do their own stunts or the comics who claim they ad-libbed all of the funny stuff... read the original script and it's all on the page (and talk to the stuntmen and they did anything dangerous - heck the insurance wouldn't let the star do a dangerous stunt).

By the time we get to our final battle, between the Hulk and the Abomination - the always great Tim Roth as a soldier who is getting to old to fight, so he agrees to have some genetic enhancements even though they may turn him into a monster - it’s like Godzilla vs. Super-Mechagodzilla. Two big monsters battling it out - and nothing human about it. I can identify with a guy trying to control his anger, I can’t identify with a monster fighting a monster. When one CGI thing is fighting another CGI thing, there isn’t much for us humans to do but sit there and watch. Not much identification or emotional involvement (though maybe there could have been had the story focused more on character and less on battle of the titans). Hey, kids will love it, and so will the Japanese... but I want something about people. So the big end battle is just kind of a let down for me.

After the big battle, we get out Robert Downey, Jr cameo - but not as a post credit sequence. I guess it was such a cool scene, they wanted to make sure nobody missed it. But what the film really needed was a short post credit sequence with Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns - who becomes The Leader - Hulk’s large craniumed nemesis in the comics. We see Sterns get some Hulk juice dribbled into a cut in his head... but it would have been cool to see what he has turned into after the credits. Kind of a trailer for the next film. Much better than the Ang Lee version, and the “Days Without Incident” titles were a great touch.

- Bill

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Indiana Jones And The Digital Danger

STAR TREK movies - even numbers, INDIANA JONES movies - odd numbers.

(Spoilers!)
Probably like most everyone else in the world, I couldn’t wait to see the new Indiana Jones movie. It opened on Thursday, but my friends and I saw it on the first Friday night. This was going to be the big event of summer, and I predicted that the film would still be playing by the time August rolled around - people would want to see it again and again. I knew the lines were going to be crazy, so my friends and I decided to go to the Arclight - where you buy a specific seat in the cinema. No reason to stand in line, you already know exactly where you are going to sit. I was in charge of buying tickets, and got absolutely perfect seats... a month before the film opened.

Now, I have to tell you there are movies that I liked so much I exited the cinema, stood in line, bought a ticket for the next available showing, and saw the film for a second time on the same night. And I wondered if we’d all want to do that with INDIANA JONES? Should I buy seats in the next available show on Friday night? Or maybe for the second weekend? Hard to plan a month ahead... I decided not to buy a second set of seats until after we’ve seen the movie. If it was great, it would be sticking around long enough to see it a second time. Heck, it’s a crowded summer - every weekend a new movie, and a bunch of them I want to see. So maybe a couple of weeks between INDIANA experiences would be a good idea.

Who would have guessed that none of us would want to see the new INDIANA JONES movie ever again?

OPENING - REVERSALS

The cinema is packed - everyone is excited - I’m excited. This is Indiana Jones! Now, here’s a strange little thing - if I were talking to my friends back home (the guys I first saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with) this wouldn’t be INDIANA JONES 4, it would be RAIDERS 4. It’s a sequel to the first film. As much as Lucas wants us to think of the first STAR WARS as A NEW HOPE and the first RAIDERS as INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, that isn’t going to fly with those of us who saw the first films on opening night... We know what we saw and trying to revise history is pointless. So I’m here to see the latest RAIDERS movie.

And it opens beautifully with that prairie dog hill. Gets a laugh... then we get out introduction to Indy - and it’s the hat and the traditional silhouette - that’s still cool. We get a line reffing that fact the Harrison Ford is old, and that’s okay... But what is wrong with Harrison Ford’s dialogue? Is not just wooden, his mouth doesn’t seem to be moving very much - it’s as if he has bad dentures or something. The longer the scene plays, the more I wonder if they ADRed his dialogue - basically did a post production rewrite - then did some digital nonsense to make his lips move with the words. The end result looks like bad dubbing... actually, not *bad* dubbing, but *almost* good dubbing, where it’s so close you don’t think it’s dubbing, but it just looks a little strange. So now I’m focused on his lips...

In the first 3 films, Indy is sarcastic, witty, clever. Here, he just says stuff. Every once in a while he makes some reference to his age - which is funny for a while, but part of being an action hero - even a self depreciating one - is to say the things we wish we were clever enough to come up with. I have a notebook in my pocket at all times just in case I come up with one of those lines.

So, eventually Indy ends up in that 1950s town full of mannequins from the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and we know what that means. Indy runs around the town pointlessly for a while, then finds a refrigerator with a massive sticker that proclaims “Lead Lined!” - because come moving day, refrigerators aren’t heavy enough already - we gotta add a layer of lead for no reason whatsoever. Oh, wait - to give Indy someplace to hide during a nuclear blast.

There’s a massive nuclear explosion - houses disintegrate - but that danged lead lined fridge goes flying like something from a Road Runner cartoon, then bounces around the desert for a while until the door opens and Indy falls out... and you half expect little animated birds to fly around his head. It’s so cartoonish and impossible and silly.

And I know we’re in big trouble.

I also start to wonder if Michael Bay directed this mess.

Let’s compare this to the first movie - RAIDERS - where we had that giant boulder... but what we really had were a whole bunch of little things that create reversals in that scene. From the moment he swaps the bag of sand for the gold idol... and it’s just a little bit too heavy, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Dozens of things. It’s not just running around some town pointlessly until he finds a fridge - it’s a few dozen different challenges where Indy thinks he’s going to get out of it... then there’s the reversal and it looks like he’s going to die... then he finds the solution to that problem which lands him right in the middle of the next problem. That’s what makes it exciting. The details. My favorite part of that great sequence - Alfred Molina swings across this bottomless pit (bottomless was legal back then) and leaves Indy behind. There’s a stone door slowly closing - it will trap them. Molina makes a deal - he’ll throw the whip (so Indy can swing across the pit) if Indy will throw the idol. Indy throws the idol, Molina drops the whip and splits with the idol. Indy looks at the pit... looks at the slowly closing door. He jumps. Doesn’t quite make it. His hands grab the crumbling dirt at the edge of the pit. He scrambles, looking for purchase as gravity pulls at him. Then he sees a vine coming out of the ground and grabs it, pulling himself up... but the vine starts coming out of the ground! Crap, he’s falling again! He lets go of the vine and grabs the edge, pulling himself up the side... and onto solid ground... but the stone door has almost descended all the way! Only a few inches before he’s trapped! See how cool that is - out of the frying pan into the fire - things just keep getting worse. And every time he escapes, he ends up in trouble again. It’s not pointless running around - it’s an exciting sequence of events.

This opening scene was more like that diamond kicking musical number from the second film... actually, much of this film was like the second film. More on that in a minute. By the way, had this been my film, Indy would have glowed green in every night scene after the nuclear blast.... in keeping with the Road Runner cartoon feel of the film.

VILLAINS & HEROES

One of the other great things about the opening to RAIDERS was introduction of Belloq. Not just a great villain, but a character who helps define Indy *and* sets up the theme. Belloq is the more successful version of Indy: suave, cultured, and ruthless...

BELLOQ
I know you despise me. We always hate
in others that which we most fear in
ourselves. You and I are very much alike.

INDY
Now you’re getting nasty.

BELLOQ
Archeology is our religion, yet we have both
fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not
differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy
reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to
make you like me. To push you out of the light.


The rest of the story will compare Indy and Belloq in scene after scene - how far will Indy go to get the Ark? And by the end, when Belloq will do anything to see what’s inside the Ark, Indy is able to curtail his curiosity and close his eyes. He can give up the Ark and Belloq can not.

In TEMPLE IF DOOM we get a cardboard villain - the head Thugee, but in LAST CRUSADE we get something different - a femme fatale. She uses her wiles to lure Indy into solving the riddle of the Grail’s location... then does a great double cross where she pretends to be in danger, but is really faking it to get Dr. Jones (sr)’s book. What’s interesting about this character is that she begins as a villain, realizes she is just a tool of the Nazis, and *doesn’t* scream for help when Indy confronts her at the Nazi rally. She ends up playing one side against the other to get what *she* wants - the Grail. Again, her character pulls drama and emotional conflict to the surface in Indy’s character. Behind her we have some evil Nazis and a Howard Hughes-like millionaire who also plays each side against the other so that he can get his hands on the Grail. The theme in LAST CRUSADE is faith and belief - it opens with Indy saying that the only thing that matters are *facts* and by the end he must make a literal *leap of faith* to get the grail. So having a villain who you don’t know whether you can believe or not isn’t just a great way to give Indy an emotional conflict - it’s a way to demonstrate theme through character.

But in RAIDERS 4, we get another cardboard character - a Russian scientist played by Cate Blanchett in a black wig. She wants the Crystal Skull for... what? So that she can read people’s minds... which may come in handy if you’re playing poker or on a first date, but how exactly does that matter to anyone in the audience? We must stop her before she finds out everyone thinks her wig looks silly! Even if she could *control* our minds - which we don’t really get any proof of - how would that help her control the world? I mean, what’s the plan? She runs around the USA forcing people to look into the skull’s eye sockets until she has all of us under her control, then she makes us communists? This isn’t a very good plan. Compare that to RAIDERS, where an army that leads with the Ark is *unconquerable*. The danged thing shoots bolts of lightning that fry anyone in front of it! Hey, if that fell into the hands of the Nazis, they could win WW2 and we’d all be eating bratwurst. LAST CRUSADE gives eternal life to anyone who drinks from the cup - which means Hitler can not be killed if he gets his hands on the Grail. Again, we’ll be eating bratwurst if Indy fails.

BANNED IN RUSSIA?

Some dude in the Russian government wants to ban RAIDERS 4 from their country because it’s anti-Russia. Before I saw the film, I thought that guy was crazy... but now I’m not so sure. The problem is, instead of some sort of actual demonstration of Soviet menace, we get a demonstration about Soviet menace - which means a whole lot of speechifying. All of these folks with signs saying the Soviets are evil and people making speeches that the Soviets are evil... and it’s just this big lump of crap in the film. I suspect it’s there to tell us who the enemy is in the film - but what it does is *tell* us. Instead of making the villain and the villain’s plan the enemy. Problem is - cardboard villain and pointless villain’s plan. So they use a bunch of script spackle to tell us that the Soviets are really really bad... but give us no reasons *why* they are bad. And we never really see them do anything bad. Sure, they kidnap Indy, but that’s what happens to characters like Indy. It’s expected. But no villain’s plan - and no *stakes*. No “or else factor”. If the Soviets get the crystal skull.... not much happens. They have no plans to use it in the cold war, nothing.

One of my favorite film is IPCRESS FILE - a Cold War spy movie. In it, the bad guys are kidnaping our top scientists... and erasing their brains. When we pay a bunch of money to get these scientists back, they can no longer function as scientists. “The brain drain” they call it. The Soviets can make all kinds of scientific advances - all kinds of high tech weapons advances - and our scientists can no longer *think*. At a time when the arms race was big news, the idea that they could incapacitate our scientists... after finding out everything they knew... was scary. If CRYSTAL SKULL had just had some sort of similar plan, some stakes, an “or else factor”, we would have known why Indy had to stop the Soviets and wouldn’t have needed a bunch of speeches about how evil the Soviets are. You know, it’s not that the villain is evil, it’s that they want to do something that will harm us, so our hero must stop them.

A *huge* problem with CRYSTAL SKULL is that it’s filled with huge chunks of exposition... and the exposition just keeps coming! They keep telling us stuff!

ACTIVE PLOT & PASSIVE PLOT

If the hero must stop the villain from doing something, we have an active plot. Our characters must do something. RAIDERS and LAST CRUSADE had active plots. But CRYSTAL SKULL seems to have lifted the defective plot from TEMPLE OF DOOM. One of the basic elements of an adventure story is a quest - a search. Whether we are looking for King Solomon’s Mines or the Elephant Burial Grounds, characters in adventure stories are *searching* for something. This is a basic of adventure stories. Heck, even the T&A knock-off PERILS OF GWENDOLINE had the busty leading lady searching for a rare butterfly in a jungle filled with topless Amazons. Adventure is about the quest, the search... and yet in TEMPLE OF DOOM there is no quest! They literally crash-land into a story where the plot is to return a sacred stone to a village. In CRYSTAL SKULL they get the skull in the freakin’ opening scene - and the story is about returning it... the same danged plot with the same danged problems as TEMPLE OF DOOM!

Because the villain has no plan, and there is no quest in the story, we end up with a kind of mystery style story about what the Crystal Skull really is. The problem here is that if we don’t know what the powers of the skull are, there is no threat of those powers - no or else factor. So we kill the story. The mystery has no real reason to be solved. Doesn’t matter what the skull is - same results no matter what it is. We end up with a pointless story. And the mystery format means people are always explaining things - exposition city! You can have a mystery that uses visual instead of verbal exposition. In fact, LAST CRUSADE has a swell scene where they are looking for Roman numerals in a church, and the number ten is the key to the mystery. They search - and we see many parts of the church - but no number ten. Then Indy climbs a stairway and looks down - and the light through the window has formed an X on the floor - the number 10. No one has to say it, we *see* it. But CRYSTAL SKULL gives us only people explaining things endlessly... which kind of brings the story to a dead stop (not a good thing for an adventure film).

One of the great things in both LAST CRUSADE and RAIDERS is that we get a legend up front, then we never have to explain anything. In RAIDERS we get the legend of the Ark... “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it... is invincible.” What’s more - we get *pictures*! They *show* us what the Ark can do! Once we have that legend, we don’t need to be told anything else. Same with the Grail - once we know the legend, we need no further exposition. Legends may be expositional, but they are designed to be fascinating. I’ve been watching a bunch of episodes of the old BORIS KARLOFF THRILLER TV show, and watched one last night starring William Shatner about a painting famous for killing its owners. Everyone who buys the painting has died a grisly death. When Shatner tells us this legend, it’s filled with entertaining grisly deaths... Each death is exciting to hear about. So in a brief and entertaining bit of expositional dialogue, we know people are going to die grisly deaths in this episode... and for the rest of the episode we don’t need to be told anything else. LAST CRUSADE gives us the legend of the 3 Knights... and that’s a very entertaining story, *plus* it gives us all of the information we need about the Grail for the rest of the film. When Indy gets to the “Grail chamber” and there’s a knight in there - we know exactly who he is.

In CRYSTAL SKULL we get a new chunk of explaination every ten minutes or so.

WHOLE LOTTA SCREAMING GOING ON

But the most annoying part of CRYSTAL SKULL is the characters. All they do is scream at each other for no reason. That’s another way this is like TEMPLE OF DOOM - a film that had the most annoying screaming woman ever put on film up until Dakota Fanning in WAR OF THE WORLDS. And Spielberg married her (not Dakota Fanning - that would be illegal - Kate Capshaw). Indy is reunited with the love of his life, Marion Ravenwood, and all they seem to do is scream at each other... about *nothing*. Pointless bickering. Doesn’t tell us anything about the characters or about theme or about their relationship. Just bickering. Compare this to the clever banter in RAIDERS between the same characters.

And compare the relationship and the scenes about the relationship. There’s a great scene in RAIDERS where Marion has been kidnaped and put in a wicker basket. Indy is chasing the basket to get her back - and we get a great rif on the Hitchcock Redcap scene from NORTH BY NORTHWEST (one of many cool scenes in RAIDERS swiped from great films - like the STAGECOACH chase scene) - where Indy is popping the tops off wicket baskets looking for her... and finally chases the basket down an alley where it is tossed in the back of a truck filled with explosives... that Indy causes to wreck and *explode* killing Marion. Wow! After that, Indy becomes a drunk. He’s an emotional mess. His eyes are teary. He’s sitting in a bar pounding down drinks. He killed the woman he loved. It’s *his* fault. And that’s where Belloq finds him and ends up accidentally nudging him back on course. But characters in RAIDERS have real emotions, and the story explores them. Hey, it’s still an adventure film - but the people don’t just bicker without reason, everything they do and say is about their relationships. Indy and Marion. Indy and Sallah (some of the greatest buddy exchanges on film).

In SKULL, when Mutt (stupid name - an in joke because Lucas’ dog is named Indiana) is revealed as Indy’s son, there is no real drama, no real emotions... just more pointless bickering. No real emotions. Hey - I find out I have a son, I’m liable to get a bit emotional about it - and get emotional with the kid. RAIDERS has real demonstrations of emotion between Indy and Marion - when he finds out that she’s alive, they have a big moment together... before he ties her back up and leaves the tent. Even their first meet at her bar is emotional - she slugs him. Then we get a chunk of scene about their past relationship, how she feels that he used her and dumped her... and he apologizes, and genuinely seems to feel bad about the way he treated her. They hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years in RAIDERS and they have this emotional relationship scene... in SKULL they haven’t seen each other in over a decade... and we get zilch. That’s not real human behavior.

Hey, Indy has a son... nothing emotional about that. Instead we get a quip about how he should stay in school or something. A gag, but no hug. Hey - I don’t want to turn this into some touchie-feelie chick flick or something, I just want the same level of father and son emotions we had in CRUSADE between Connery and Ford. Tender but prickly.

After that, the film turns into a film about a disfunctional family... when I paid to see an adventure film. Hey, you can do both... but SKULL doesn’t even give us a single real dramatic scene about the family... let alone incorporate the family into the adventure story (the way RAIDERS incorporates the Indy/Marion relationship into the adventure). We just get bickering. Cartoon characters and cartoon situations - no real people involved. You know, as a real person who paid real money to see this film, I want it to be about real human emotions. Hey, I want adventure, too - but I want to believe the people involved are real... not some sort of lifelike animation.

DIGITAL DANGER - DEATH OF ACTION?

Speaking of animation - I think CGI is the death of the action movie. First, I have to credit my friend Kris with the phrase “digital danger”. We were watching some movie - probably the second MUMMY movie (just to keep everything in the adventure arena) and he coined the phrase to describe that awful scene at the end where Brendan Fraser has to fight that CGI thing that used to be The Rock. Now, anytime the hero has to outrun a digital explosion or battle something that will be added later or deal with some sort of green screen terror, it’s digital danger. Not *real* danger. Danger that is added in post production.

The first three films were made before CGI existed. Everything you saw on film was “real” to some extent. That great STAGECOACH rip-off scene in RAIDERS where Indy on a horse gets involved in a chase that involves motorcycles and military vehicles and Indy ends up underneath that truck being dragged along the road... real stuntmen did that. Nothing in that scene seemed fake, because it was all real. Even that mine car roller coaster scene in TEMPLE OF DOOM was “real” - they build miniature mining cars on a track and filmed it, cutting to the real actors in real mining cars for close ups. But the miniature mining cars were real and only did what real things can do. Nothing fake. Nothing unrealistic. Nothing that pulls you out of the movie because it’s completely impossible.

Every action scene in CRYSTAL SKULL was just plain fake - impossible. Unreal.

Look, I’m an action guy - I love action scenes - but I don’t want them to be cartoons. You can create the most realistic CGI in the world, but if what that CGI shows is completely impossible, that CGI doesn’t work. Scene after scene didn’t work. It was fake because it just could not happen. We have very realistic looking people in a Road Runner cartoon. Instead of being excited by the action scenes, they bored me. I knew they were fake. Instead of being amazed at the stunts - knowing that a real person did them (a guy I know, Chuck Waters, did many of the stunts in the first 3 films) and knowing that there was actual danger - I didn’t care. What harm can post-production CGI do to a person? It was a cartoon.

This just shows you how out of touch Lucas (and maybe Spielberg) are with current films. These overblown and impossible fake action scenes might have played back in the early 80s when James Bond was fighting Jaws in outer space in MOONRAKER and dealing with whatever he was dealing with in OCTOPUSSY, but this is the gritty new millennium where every action scene in the Bond film CASINO ROYALE is ultra realistic - heck, Bond spends much of that film with his face ripped up. Didn’t they realize a little thing called BOURNE IDENTITY changed the way action scenes and action films work? Everything is gritty and real since BOURNE - even BATMAN is realistic! The action scenes from the first 3 INDY movies better fit what today’s post-BOURNE audience expects... Funny thing is, the producer of those realistic BOURNE movies is Frank Marshall... one of the producers of CRYSTAL SKULL (and all of the other INDY movies). You’d think he might have mentioned it to Lucas in passing. “Hey, George, big fake action scenes don’t play anymore.”

And the action scenes were also *meaningless* - they were junk action. That scene where they play hot-potato with the crystal skull will driving jeeps near a CGI cliff? Pointless. Just a bunch of CGI in a scene that has no story purpose and doesn’t explore the theme in any way.

Another thing about those action scenes - no “cool factor”. Okay - take the fist fight with the freakin’ huge guy in front of the out of control flying wing plane in RAIDERS. That flying wing plane was cool and a piece of real history. That scene also swipes from HITCHCOCK... the scene in THE BIRDS with the gasoline spill heading toward the fire. What was the cool and real thing in any action scene in SKULL? I got no feel for the Cold War era at all - nothing from the time period was integrated into the action scenes. These were bland, generic action scenes... that looked like cartoons.

Mark Verheiden (TIMECOP) and I once had a conversation about Jackie Chan movies, and what I call “action porn”. He’s a story guy, and wants the action scenes to be story related. I agree... but admit to liking “action porn” where the story makes no sense - and may just be an excuse for a bunch of cool action scenes. Jackie Chan usually tries to have a story, but some of the other Hong Kong stuff is just action without reason. But here’s the thing about those silly Hong Kong movies that are just excuses for action - they have amazing action scenes. Inventive action scenes. Maybe even high concept action scenes. You can watch those films just for the action scenes, because they are tremendous. If SKULL had scenes that amazing, it could be enjoyed just as a stupid roller coaster ride. But the action scenes are fake and unimaginative and boring and have zilch to do with story. They are crap action. And the characters are cartoonish. Actually, that’s insulting to Pixar - the characters in any Pixar cartoon are more realistic. In fact, the *danger* in INCREDIBLES is more real, and the characters and situations are more real, than in SKULL.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for RAIDERS #5 - odd number, it will probably be great!

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Exposition.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Pork Fried Rice at City Wok.
Bicycle: Yesterday I took an epic ride... by accident. I was going to ride to Priscillas in Toluca Lake and work, but there were no tables... so instead of just going across the street to the Starbucks, I rode down Hollywood Way, then across to a Starbucks in the Empire shopping center. Longest ride I have done so far. Then I rode back - Priscillas *still* crowded - and ended up at my local Starbucks for the night shift. My legs were fine yesterday - but this morning? They hurt. That was a good ride, though - and despite the sore legs today, I may do something similar tomorrow.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bill Gets A Deal (part 3)

At the end of the third week of writing this script I have not been paid for, I get a phone call from another producer who wants to work with me. We have a meeting, and this ends up being the Hawaii project. It’s a great meeting, and I want to do that script. We discuss terms, and come to a basic agreement. I tell them that I’m working on this other project, but when I finish it I want to write the Hawaii script. I would sure like to get a contract and check from the facilities deal producer, so that I know I’m not wasting my time.

I send another e-mail about the contract to the director, and he asks how I’m coming along with the script... and can I send him pages? I make a PDF of the first half of the script and send it. Sure, they can crack a PDF and rip me off. They can hire someone to finish the script, too. But I tell the director I have more pages, this is just a sample. I mention that I’m getting kind of concerned about the check - I understand that the contract might be held up by lawyers going over wording and terms - that’s what they do. But I’m sending half of the screenplay - it would be nice to get that initial check for doing this work. Hey, maybe this half of the script is exactly what is needed to get that check and contract to me? Maybe this is “good faith” to the producer?

A couple of days later I get a contract and a check in the mail... for the Hawaii script. Okay, the Hawaii producer’s office is about the same as this other guy’s - neither owns a building, neither has an army of employees... but I’m still waiting on one contract and the other is in my hand almost instantly. Everything discussed in our meeting is in the contract. I’m happy with it. The check clears the bank. I’m now feeling guilty for giving the other script another week, because the Hawaii guy is “the better customer”. I feel like I owe the guy who does everything right a little priority.

But I do a fourth week on the script - which is now closing in on the end of act 2 - and when I get no contract and no check at the end of that week... I switch over to the producer who has actually paid me, figuring that when I get the contract and check I’ll take a week and finish the script. I write the first few scenes on the Hawaii script when I get an e-mail from the director...

With notes attached from the producer...

Now, many people over the years have given me notes. I have horror stories about notes... in fact, one of those is coming up. But usually the problem with the notes is that they are stupid and will ruin the script. In this case, they were mean. Insulting. Nasty. But I could deal with that. I mean, usually everyone tries to be tolerable until they have the completed first draft, that way you don’t quit on them. And even if people are difficult to work with, they all wear that fake smile (the one I wore at the meeting) until they get what they want from you. That fake smile is especially broad if they owe you money. It’s just bad business to be an asshole to someone you don’t have under contract, yet.

The big problem with the notes? “Where the hell are we going to get the money to film in Rome?” “How the fuck do you expect us to send a crew to Paris?” Stock footage. This guy didn’t understand stock footage! I actually found that difficult to believe. How can you be a film producer and not have the basic imagination required to understand that some static shot of Rome that doesn’t include any characters, just a skyline, is probably going to be stock footage. If his note had been, “Hey, where do you plan on getting this shot of Rome and how much will it be costing me?” that would be different. That is a reasonable question. And I actually had an answer to that.

The director’s e-mail said I should ignore the Producer’s profanity, that’s just the way he is... and the director thought the script was coming along great - very exciting - and he pointed out some of the scenes that I really liked writing. The director said he would be the one making it, so his response was more important than the producer’s. So, when would I have the script finished? When could he start rounding up talent?

I have to admit, I was pissed off and didn’t respond. I figured now that the producer had read *half* the script, he’d get his rear in gear and get me a contract and a check. You know, there was a time on this deal where, if the producer had plead temporary poverty and wanted to give me half the initial money up front and half when I handed in the completed script, I would have worked with him. But now? I want all my money. And when he didn’t get any more script pages from me, and asked the director what was up, the director would probably mention that I didn’t have a contract or check, yet. Then I’d get my damned contract and check, and send them the 20 or so pages I had yet to send them as a stall while I finished up the script.

So I went back to work on the Hawaii script. Finished it. Handed in the first draft... got a check! Like immediately! Had a meeting on the Hawaii script, got some really good story notes - this is like a dream job, because we’re mostly on the same page. The places where we’re apart on the Hawaii script are a few little things that will work out. Actually, one of the initial notes I thought would create a larger problem than it solved, so I explained my position, and they agreed with me. I found a different (better) solution and we are all happy. My job is to make the script the very best that it can be - and sometimes that means the script will change to become the movie the producers want to make. I need to make sure the changes work, even when I may not agree with them. Once they pay you, it’s *their* script. A good producer has some sort of vision for the script, and it may not be the exact same vision as you have... but if it is a good vision, your job is to help them make that movie.

Anyway, the Hawaii project is somewhere in its second draft, and I keep getting e-mails from the director of the facilities project asking if the script is finished. I ignore them. More e-mails. I ignore them. Phone calls... I screen them. But nothing, *nothing*, from the Producer. It as if he doesn’t care about this project at all...

And then it all becomes clear to me. You probably already figured it out. The producer doesn’t want to work with me, my director friend just wants to work. I am the bait... I am the director’s “facility deal”. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that this whole deal is being manufactured by the director. I’m not even sure this producer wants to make a movie. My director friend has discovered that this producer has a facilities deal, likes action movies, and has used *me* to get his foot in the door. Now he’s trying to use me to set up a deal with this producer, who doesn’t seem too interested.

There is nothing wrong with a director using one of my scripts as “bait” for a producer - that is one of the ways I sell scripts without an agent or manager. Sometimes I don’t even know the director - someone likes one of my scripts, hands it to some director I don’t know, and that director takes it to their best contact. I’m okay with this... but that’s not what happened here, because I had to write the damned script. Work was involved. If some director loves one of my *completed* scripts, no work is involved on my side. I want to find good homes for all of my scripts, and if that can also help a director or production manager or actor who has access to a producer I don’t know - great! But I suspect in this case, the verbally abusive producer was finding clever ways to say “no” and my friend the director was trying to convert that no into a yes. So my action scripts that were not a perfect fit to his facilities deal - no. My director friend probably said, “Bill can write something that will be perfect for you!” Thinking we still both end up with deals. He’s helping me make some money. But the producer keeps finding ways to kill this deal - and probably some of his bad attitude was part of this. If he’s a real prick, I won’t want to work for him, end of deal. But, stupid me, I don’t take the hint. Part of that is that I’m mostly dealing with me director friend... and part is that I do need a deal.

But not anymore. The Hawaii project is coming along great.

I eventually call the director and tell him my entire position on this thing... I’m dreading this phone call, but this guy is my friend. After I say my piece, he apologizes. He thought this would be a good fit for all three of us, but it seems like the producer wasn’t really as interested in making a film as we were. Maybe we can work on something in the future... with some other producer. I think that’s great - and tell him he if he finds a producer, I’ll let him take in one of my scripts. Everything ends up cool...

And now I have most of a script designed around a specific facilities deal that I do not have access to. Maybe I can find a way to change it a bit and make it easier to shoot anywhere. Welcome to Hollywood.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Symbolic Characters and HIGH FIDELITY.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Patty Melt at Paty's in Toluca Lake.
DVDs: FRONTIER (S) - from the 8 Films To Die For people... the 9th film. It's from France, starring French people, but other than that, it's basically just TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE with Nazis. After some government melt-down in France, a bunch of politically active 20 somethings on the run from the evil police state cops head to the outlands... the "frontier"... and hide out in an out of the way bed & breakfast run by some cannibal Nazis... and get chased and eaten one-by-one. Sure, there are meat hook scenes, and some tunnels that make you wonder if the writer really loved THE DESCENT, too, but mostly it's recycled. By the end of the film, I swear we have a CARRIE homage. You know, writing a commercial movie is difficult. People think it's easy. The problem is, you need to write something that satisfies the audience, but is still something they haven't seen before. Here we have something that they've seen before - with nothing to really make it unique. Nothing *creative*. From the country that brought us Jules Verne... we get this. I know there are talented and creative French writers and filmmakers out there. Why pick this for US distribution?

Bicycle: Okay, I'm not riding as much as I planned on. I ride every Thursday, because of the Thursday Night Drinking Group. We used to meet in the bar across the street from me (Residuals) but moved a while back after, well, an incident. For a while they were way down at the other end of the Valley, and the idea of driving back at 2am after drinking made me miss many a Thursday night. They moved again, to another bar... closer, yet still too far away to walk. So I showed up less frequently - not wanting to get popped bythe police driving home at 2am after a night of drinking. But with the bike? Perfect! Thursday becomes my prime bicycle day, and I ride all over... eventually finding my way to the undisclosed drinking location (the person involved in the incident is still trying to find the new location). So I get in a good bike ride on Thusdays... and usually ride on Tuesdays, and do short rides on Saturday... and sometimes Sunday. Problem with Sunday is that it's usually a movie day, and I'm just not ready to ride to the AMC in Burbank, yet. My legs just aren't ready for that. So Sundays I often go to Burbank, then walk around once I'm there. There is a Starbucks on San Fernando by the movie theaters, but it's filled with homeless people... so I walk a couple of miles to one of the two nearby Starbucks to work a little before going to the movies. I wish I were riding every day... but not yet.

- Bill

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Deal Or No Deal? (part 2)

After the meeting from hell, I look the producer up on IMDB (something I should have done before the meeting, but my director friend being involved and the producer’s office address told me that this guy wasn’t a wannabe) - and found out that this guy *worked* on all of those big Hollywood films on his office walls. He didn’t produce them, he was a crew member. So he has been in the business. As a producer he made that Gary Busey film and the other low-end stuff. Which makes him difficult to judge - is he the guy with his name on huge summer tentpole movies... or the guy who made that Busey film?

Either way - I need this gig.

I e-mail him a pdf of one of my produced scripts that matches the genre we’re talking about and a note saying I’d be happy to send him a copy of the DVD of the film, too.

I get no response at all. It’s as if I sent the e-mail into that pit in LORD OF THE RINGS that they toss the ring into at the end.

But here’s where things get strange, because that same afternoon I get a phone call from another producer about another script, and he wants a one pager... which I don’t seem to have. Then, *another* producer calls on a really old script, so I have to do a quick rewrite before sending it to him. And the 5 ideas get pushed aside for a few days.

Now, there are a couple of reasons why they get pushed aside. The biggest one is that this guy didn’t respond to my e-mail. That makes me wonder how interested he is in this project. I have to tell you, at the meeting he didn’t act interested at all. Maybe he was just trying to keep it cool, maybe this is all just a job to him. And the other reason is a bird in hand thing - these other two producers were interested in spec scripts of mine that were already written - scripts that I couldn’t wait to be paid to write, I had to just sit down and write them. Passion projects (even though both are genre stuff that you artsie types might find too commercial to be passionate about) - personal stories. When someone wants to make one of those, I do whatever I can to make that happen.

But, just as a woman who pays no attention to you is the one you most want to impress, when I do get around to putting together the 5 synopsis, I work my butt off to impress this guy. He may be insulting and abusive and doesn’t seem to give a damn... but I want to give him the 5 best synopsis he’s ever read. I want him to think these ideas are better than the big Hollywood films that he’s crewed on. I fine tune my 5 ideas until they are something that would sell to a major studio...

A week after the meeting I e-mail the 5 ideas to the producer and director... and get an *immediate* call from the director. Can I do a meeting with the producer later today? What time? Well, he’d have to call the producer and set it up. But if not today, tomorrow morning? Sure, get back to me...

My first thought is - how could the producer have even had time to read the 5 ideas and give them any thought so that we’d have something to discuss at the meeting. Is this just going to be a time killer meeting? Often, when producers are businessmen instead of creative types, they like to have meetings just to have meetings. Shows they are doing their job. I’ve had all kinds of development meetings where it was all about a “progress report” that could have easily been done by e-mail or phone and would have saved me driving all the way down to Culver City which would have allowed me to make more progress on the script. I thought our first meeting was kind of a time waster, but it was a meet & greet and the main purpose of meetings like that is to put a face to the other person and make sure they aren’t a crazed axe murderer or something.

My second thought is - wait, the producer didn’t call about the meeting, he has no idea there is going to be a meeting at this point. My director friend is the one who wants the meeting. He’s the one who seems most interested in working with me on this... He hasn’t insulted me or...

My third thought is - I need this gig. It will cover the year’s expenses, and *something* has to cover those expenses. Sometimes you take the bad job because it will fund the time to write some great specs. So a few months of dealing with this producer and I’ll have the time and money to work on a couple of passion projects and poke around on my big rewrite project. The sooner I have a contract and a check, the sooner I can relax.

The next morning I get a call from the director... he has the producer on the line, do I have time to talk? Sure! The producer says he read over the 5 ideas, and likes this one... but he doesn’t sound very enthusiastic and manages to sneak in an insult. Does this guy have Tourettes or something? He says he could probably shoot it mid-year. The director says that to shoot mid-year he’s like to have the script ASAP. When could I have it finished? Well, I say I can get him a first draft in about a month... but what about the check and contract? The producer tells me to send him something and he’ll look it over. Huh? You know, I’ve done dozens of deals and never once provided my own contract. Usually the producer has a legal department (I’m used to working with *companies*) and my lawyer and their lawyer battle it out in a a steel cage or something, and eventually come up with a contract. Often, the script has gone through a couple of drafts by the time the contract is hammered out. But I tell the producer I probably have a contract somewhere and I’ll get it to him. He clicks off, and the director and I keep talking for a while. He assures me that this producer is hyped about making this movie with me and I shouldn’t have any worries. The sooner he can get the script, the better... It will give him more time to find a great cast. You know, I want a great cast for this the better... It will give him more time to find a great cast. You know, I want a great cast for this project. A great cast elevates the film... and if this is going to be a facilities deal, finding actors willing to live in some Eastern European studio hotel may be a challenge. One of the issues with facility deals is that foreign crews often work much much slower than American crews, so your cast has to commit to a longer schedule. Often you can find actors who are interested in the experience more than the money. Sometimes European actors - the kind of people you normally see in art house films that may be nominated for Best picture - are more willing to work on films like this. So I want to get that script to the director ASAP...

After the call I start poking around for an electronic copy of some old contract that I can clean up and send this producer. I can’t find anything on my current computer, but I have a couple of old desk tops and laptops that may have contracts on them. I’ll search later, for now I’m going to figure out the script. The director has e-mailed me a list of all of the things available at the facility - including standing sets and props and photos. I do an outline, make some character notes, and pull some DVDs to watch for potential stock footage. One of the issues with any facility deal is that to best use what they have, you need to stretch it. Just like any other backlot, they may have some street sets and some buildings, and then all kinds of cool standing sets on the soundstages. But you need that bit of stock footage of New York to sell that New York Street Set. You need some Paris stock footage to sell the European Street Set. And if you do a little bit of re-dressing and use a piece of Rome stock footage, your story can do a little globe trotting without any real cost. So my plan is to open this story up and make it look like a huge budget film... using what is available at the facility.

When I told a friend of mine about this, the first thing he asked is how do you even know where to look for stock footage? Well, that’s part of my job. When you are writing scripts on a budget, you start to look for things that can stretch that budget - so that you can write a script that looks like a big studio film that can still be made on the producer’s budget. When I was doing stuff for HBO, that was the challenge - you had a film made for $3 million sandwiched between two big Hollywood films, and you wanted to make your film look like it belonged. You didn’t want the audience to think your $3 million film cost $3 million. You want them to think it cost $100 million. So you learn to keep your eye out for anything that adds production value. I see a film with “harvestable” stock footage, and I remember it. In this case, I was looking for stock footage that had been used at least once before in an inexpensive film - that way I know it’s cheap. Easier to sell a problem producer on something inexpensive than something expensive.

By the way - the place to find great “harvestable” stock footage: you want to find great footage from a film that completely flopped. George Lucas isn’t going to sell you footage from STAR WARS (starring Mark Hammill) but you might be able to buy some of that great sci-fi footage from SLIPSTREAM (starring Mark Hammill). The bigger the film flopped, the more likely the producers want to make a buck or two selling someone stock footage. I once spent a couple of weeks renting every flop sci-fi film just to see what kind of stock footage I might get from them. I also rented every flop war film - and there were a bunch of those, and many had nice battle scenes. The biggest mistake you can make when thinking of stock footage is to consider material from a film that made money. You need to *only* look at big flops.

The next day, I start writing. It’s been a while since I’ve done 5 pages a day, so my first week is just trying to find the groove again. I end up with about half as many pages as I wanted, and spend a day looking around for an electronic version of an old contract. Nada. I have some hard copies and a scanner - but is this really my job?

I call the director, ask if he’ll tell the producer that I don’t have a contract, and he’ll have to provide one. The director says that shouldn’t be a problem... and how many pages do I have? I tell him I had a slow start, but I’m picking up speed. He’s excited...

I go back to work on the script, and really do pick up some speed. The second week I get close to 5 pages a day. And some of the scenes are really cool! I do some great suspense stuff in one scene and come up with multiple twists in another. I’m really happy with this script...

But where the heck is that initial check? I may not have a signed contract, but I like to be paid for the work I’m doing. I’m working, but there’s no pay. I don’t want to call the producer, because I’m kind of afraid that he will yell at me or insult me. Well, I’m *really* afraid that after he insults me I’ll lose my temper and tell him to go to hell... and I need this gig. Look, the guy is difficult, but many people are. I need to just keep the smile on my face until I turn in my last draft. So I e-mail the director about the contract. He e-mails back that it’ll come, but how far am I on the script?

Somewhere in the third week, no contract, no check, I become less inspired. I’m still writing, just turning out fewer pages a day. I have a couple of other things to do - articles for Script and MovieScope, and kind of lose momentum. I get regular e-mails from the director, but have heard nothing at all from the producer. Nothing. No quick note to tell me the check is on its way. No e-mails about the contract. Nothing. Is this a deal or not? I’m beginning to wonder - but the director keeps e-mailing me about how excited he is about this project, and dropping some impressive casting names, and I’m seeing this as a go project. I’m going. The director is going... but the producer?

Is this a deal or not?

Friday - part 3.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Well Balanced Confusion and EXOTICA.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Sandwich on the run from Togos.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Anatomy Of A Deal...

After I returned from the holidays and the strike came to a close, I mentioned that it looked like I had one and a half deals. The half deal ended up dying a slow, lingering death... and now that it’s completely dead, I’ll tell you what happened....

So I get this call from a director I know. He had a meeting with a producer and when he mentioned my name, the producer went crazy... No, not in a bad way... this producer loved my work and wanted to meet with me on this project. I ask what the project is, and it’s an action movie in a subgenre I’ve worked in before. Right up my alley. Or down my alley, I get mixed up when it comes to metaphoric directions. Anyway, my director friend briefs me and then says he’ll call me back with a meeting time and date. I go back to whatever I was doing - working on a spec - and the phone rings a half hour later - tomorrow at 11am. And I available? Well, yes... but I haven’t even had time to think about the potential project. That’s okay, my director friend tells me, the producer will give me all of the details.

Well, the good news is that the producer’s office is close to my place, so I won’t have to add an hour or two for traffic. I putter around on the spec, but mostly I’m thinking about this potential deal. This producer must really want to work with me if he’s clearing his schedule to meet with me the next day... in the morning.

I show up at the meeting - nice office - turn down the water because I still have a Starbucks in hand, and wait... then the director shows, and both of us are waiting. This is okay, because I haven’t seen the guy in a while so we catch up... and then wait some more... and then, just when I think the game will be cancelled for lunch, we are brought into the office. Hands are shaken. Walls are covered with two kinds of movie posters - major Hollywood films and films that look low end that I’ve never heard of (but one stars Gary Busey). Okay, that makes sense - my office only has my movie posters, but my living room is filled with posters from some of my favorite films - mostly stuff from the 1940s like THE DARK CORNER and CALL NORTHSIDE 777.

The producer tells me a little about his company - but seems to be playing it ultra cool. If he’s excited about the possibility of working with me, or if he’s a fan of some of my films, he sure isn’t showing it. But that’s good dealsmanship - you don’t want the other guy to think he has all the cards. And that even comes up - the, um, quote factor. The producer tells me they are a new company and don’t have deep pockets (in a nice office) and really can’t afford to pay a screenwriter top dollar. I want to say that I’m not Steve Zaillian, but instead I say that I’m more interested in getting films on screen than getting paid a truck load of money (which is true, and explains why I don’t have truckloads of money). With this out of the way, the director and producer tag-team what kind of thing they are looking for. I have a spec that kind of fits, but they shoot that down due to a specific need they have for the project (a location where the producer has a facilities deal). They want to hire me to write something for them. Okay, I can do that. Along the way, the producer says something insulting to me.

Now, I could get pissed off at the insult, but I’m trying to land a deal, here. I needed a deal before the strike... and now I *really* need a deal. So I just smile through the insult. Maybe that’s part of his dealsmanship, too. If he acts like he really foes want to work with me, I have the advantage. If he acts like a dick, maybe I’ll compromise more to land the deal... and it’s kind of working. I mean, this guy knows the strike turned this into a buyer’s market. I need a deal... so I smile through the insult, and a couple of others that pop up. Just this guy showing me he has the cards - even though every time he makes one of these little remarks I become less interested in working with him. But, you know, I’ve worked with *many* difficult people n the past... though most of them wait until after I’ve signed a contract or delivered a script before they act like dicks. That’s just good business - when you get what you need, then you can be an asshole - but not before. You don’t want to screw up the deal before it happens.

But I smile through the insults and tell them how I work - that I’d be happy to either bounce around ideas with them or submit a few concepts and let the producer pick one (or use that as a springboard to bounce around ideas). Some producers have no ideas at all - they are business guys - and if you provide them with some raw material they will either find something that matches what they want or it will give them something to talk about. I have dealt with producers who seemed to be idea-less, so when they come up with something I’m sure it’s from the guy who pitched them before me and I try to lead them away from that idea... and to something of mine that I’ve always wanted to be paid to write.

This producer wanted to see some ideas, and also wanted to read one of my scripts. You know, I frequently bump into total strangers in this biz who have read several of my scripts... that’s kind of the way things work - people first know you by your words on the page and then meet you face to face. I thought that’s what this situation was, but maybe the producer only knew me from my films... and he still wanted to meet with me? I’ve seen my films, I wouldn’t want to meet with me.

Anyway, meeting ends, we all go to our separate lunches, and I have to come up with 5 action movie ideas that fit his facilities deal.

A facilities deal is a studio that will give you equipment, studio space, standing sets, and often crew in exchange for a cut of the film. Most of these deals are outside the USA, many in ex-Soviet countries (including Russia) and places like the Philippines and Mexico. Anywhere where the film biz was booming at one time and now it is not. I worked with a producer once who wanted the script to change every time he found a better facilities deal. The first draft of the script was in Australia, the second draft was in Mexico (where a US TV show shooting at a studio had just been cancelled around the same time a movie pulled out), then I did a draft in Portugal (I guess a studio there was cheaper), then the best draft of the script which was in an Eastern European country where many big Hollywood films had been made... until *another* Eastern European country became less expensive, and the last draft before I quit was in South Africa. You know, I think I may have left out a couple of places, but you get the idea - if there is a studio with a better deal, that producer was going to go there... and I was going to have to match the script to whatever climate and locations and standing sets the new studio had. Oh, and these were free rewrites. So a studio in, let’s say Bulgaria, has all of the equipment you’d find in any US studio, plus maybe a full fleet of old army tanks and other military vehicles, plus a standing set of The Vatican left over from some other film, and a handful of other sets and backlot locations. They will give a production all of this stuff, and maybe even a crew (but if they don’t a Bulgarian crew works much cheaper than an American crew - and probably worked on some film nominated for an Oscar that was made in Europe... in this same Bulgarian studio) - and the US producer just has to show up with film and stars and expense money. Some of these studios even have their own hotels! When the film is finished, the Bulgarian studio owns some territories - let’s say Eastern Europe and Russia... or on a big movie they may want Western Europe, too... and the US producer owns everything else. This is a low-risk deal because if the film flops, a large part of the production cost is taken care of... and that “flop money” may be enough to cover the rest of the costs... and maybe even make a small profit.

There are also modified facilities deals where the foreign studio just offers a discount on their services and the US producer keeps all of the territories. This is what most US studios do, they don’t want to lose the potential profits if the film is a hit in Bulgaria.

So part of the “fun” of coming up with the 5 ideas is that they have to use the production value elements at this foreign studio. I love a challenge, and start jotting down ideas for my 5 ideas. I want to come up with a bunch of ideas, so that I can pick the five best. No money has changed hands, and I'm already working...

Would any of the 5 ideas I pitch him be good enough? Will I land this gig, or be out looking for some other producer who needs a script?

Tomorrow - part 2.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Points Of Indentification and APOCALYPTO.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Burger at the Arclight in Sherman Oaks.

Movies: THE STRANGERS - The last time I was this scared at a movie was THE DESCENT, a film I knew nothing about. STRANGERS is a very simple film - 6 actors grand total, one house with a barm. That's it. That's all it takes. The big problem with bad horror movies is that they never take *talent* into consideration. They think they can just take HALLOWEEN and remake it, and it will be just as scary as the original. Well, that might work if Rob Zombie was as talented as John Carpenter - but Rob Zombie doesn't *understand* directing. Film direction is selecting the correct angle, the correct composition, the correct camera move, the correct juxtaposition of images... and doing all of these things at once for every single shot. The talent for a director isn't rewriting the screenplay, it's knowing how to shoot the screenplay for maximum impact. That takes knowledge of techniques - and talent. The guy who made THE STRANGERS has both. The movie opens slow - but he manages to use some of the Polanski techniques of keeping the shots just off kilter enough to keep us on edge. The film is all hand held - but not shakey. Just not smooth. They make us figure out the problem the Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman character are having, instead of just dump it on us. This is great, because we have to play story catch up (which keeps us busy before the bad things happen) and puts us on edge - we don't know what is happening.

Eventually, the bad things happen. And sound is a huge part of this film. Again - any movie can have someone knock on a door, here it scares the crap out of you.

A great example of creating suspense through technique is a scene where Tyler is in a closet/pantry with a slatted door and a bad person is just outside. This is similar to a scene in the original HALLOWEEN. We get shots of Tyler alternating with shots *through the slats* of the bad guy outside. And the bad guy doesn't just stand there - he's searching for her. Several times he comes toward the door, but doesn't open it. This builds the suspense. You know that eventually he will find her... but by alternating the shots it stretches out to an eternity of terror. I don't know if the director counted the frames and made each shot shorter than the one before - that's a suspense technique that increases tension - but I'll bet he did.

The film is just relentless. After a while you're winded, and I think because the story doesn't give us a possibility for escape, we eventually just get wrung out. The end is also kind of a let down, but the ride is so spectacular that I could forgive a weak ending. If you want to just have the crap scared out of you in a film that doesn't rely on blood and gore - just film techniques - don't miss this one.

You just know that some low budget idiot (or even a studio idiot) will look at this film and think they can replicate it with 6 actors and a house... without realizing that you need someone with actual skills and talent to pull it off.

- Bill

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Why Can't I Accept A Free Book?

I'm dead tired today because I spent the weekend (starting Friday morning) at the Book Expo America at the Los Angeles Convention Center - trying to find a new publisher for Secrets Of Action Screenwriting and the *8* books worth of material I have on my computer, waiting to be edited into books.

This whole thing began on Thursday. I was supposed to have a meeting with the director of film #20 to go over the new draft of the script. But Wednesday I had a door tag for the business cards I’d ordered, so I had to zip over to the other end of the valley early in the morning and pick them up. They looked pretty good. I had some other errands to do closer to home, and did those on the bicycle... waiting for the director to call me and set meeting details. Ended up at my local Starbucks, where I wrote up 4 book synopsis and a quick bio on a single page for the Expo. I actually wrote up 6 book synopsis - but they wouldn’t all fit on one piece of paper. I also put all of the frame-grabs of E-bay and Amazon and other places that have sold my book for up to $750 on a single sheet. Hmmm, still no call from the director. I e-mailed him... and by the end of the day, no response. I went home, printed up my proposals and the sheet with e-bay screen grabs, packed the last good copies of my book in a messenger bag along with some crappy copies (just in case), plus I throw in all of my script materials in case the producer calls and I have to cut my day short for a meeting. Then I set the alarm and went to sleep.

Okay, those of you with day jobs will think I’m a complete whiner, but I hate mornings. I worked swing shift most of my life, and worked graveyards at Safeway for a while, and am just not a morning person. The great thing about being a writer is that I can sleep until 10am... and sometimes until noon. Getting up early isn’t something I enjoy.

Alarm goes off Friday morning, I shower, grab my *heavy* bag of books, and take Los Angeles’ tinker-toy subway to the Convention Center... except it doesn’t go all the way there. It stops several blocks short, and you have to get on the “Blue Line” train and get off at the first stop. I knew I was in trouble when this guy gets on the subway in Hollywood with his sleeping bag and guitar and starts playing “for our enjoyment”. Except he’s awful. Then, he *insists* that we pay him for the entertainment. He’s aggressive, combative, he’s played - now we need to pay. I give him nothing. His music was awful, but I didn’t have to buy $4.15 gas or pay $15 for parking.

I have no idea how big this event will be, and the answer is *huge*. The whole Convention Center. Every publisher in the USA, plus printing companies, plus paper companies, plus shipping companies, plus distribs, plus... well - anyone that has anything to do with publishing books is there. I pick one of the halls and start walking. The aisles are packed with people. Everyone wants to hand me a book or book catalogue. Hell, my bag is heavy enough already.

The strangest thing - you’re walking down an aisle and... that’s Dr. Ruth! Hey! And over there, that guy looks kind of familiar... oh, it’s Dean Koontz! I talk to a couple of publishers of film books who might be interested (one seems very interested in not just the Action Book but all of my other books). I give away a few of the books in my bag, but there are still a bunch of crappy copies and a handful of good sample copies weighing me down. Oh, and the huge book that lists all of the attendees, and the map of the convention, and... well, heck, my shoulder hurts like hell from the bag strap.

By the end of the day, my legs hurt from walking... and the subway is *packed* with commuters, so I have to stand with the heavy bag on my shoulder. When I get home, I check my e-mail... nothing from the director.

I start to watch Jimmy Kimmel - but it’s a rerun (no FCC clips) and watch some Monty Python instead.... The alarm goes off.

I’ve slept more than the night before, still not enough. Grab coffee at Starbucks and go to the subway station. Oh, I’ve changed bags to my rolling bag. Easier on the shoulder. I’m also taking my laptop, because I want to check my e-mail mid-day, see if the director gets back to me. And I dumped all of the crappy copies of my book - I have enough good ones for anyone left, I think. No guitar guy on the subway today.

The other hall - just as many exhibitors. By the end of my day of walking up and down aisles - no publishers as promising as yesterday... but I also have a slightly different mission plan for the day... Hey! There’s Dr. Ruth again! She’s everywhere! That’s Stephen Baldwin - does he have a book? Oh, yeah - part of the plan today is to actually take some of the books they try to hand me. But only the ones I really want. I also want to grab some of the gimme-bags - most of them are canvas, and I can use them for shopping and other stuff.

Now, here’s the problem - I’m not good at free stuff. If someone tries to give me something for free, my natural reaction is to turn it down. I don’t know why this is, but I suspect because I don’t come from a rich family. You know how they have those swag bags at the Oscars? When you’re a struggling, starving actor nobody gives you anything. Once you’re a big star making millions, they give you bags of expensive stuff. Makes no sense to me... but that’s kind of how the world works. If you’re broke, no one gives you anything... unless there is either a string attached, or it’s charity (and there’s a stigma attached to charity instead of a string). When you’re poor, you still don’t want to seem so poor that you need to take a hand out. If you have money, no stigma in accepting a gift... in fact, I think famous folks *expect* to get things for free.

So I’m terrible at accepting free things. I was speaking at an event once, and they had a swag room where you filled your own bag. There was a table of electronics, and I stood in line with my bag. The company representative offered the guy in front of me portable DVD players and digital recorders and a video camera and all kinds of other stuff. He took it all. I took a wind-up emergency flashlight, because I might need it if we had another earthquake. I *wanted* the other stuff, but I had no actual need for it, so I turned it down. I didn’t feel comfortable taking it.

So, I felt like I was stealing something when I took the free canvas bags. I went to a couple of different publishers, grabbed a bag, hid it in my rolling bag, then sped away before the police tackled me. One of the bags I decided to use for books. I could have left the event with 200-300 books... and many people did. There were people with huge duffle bags on wheels filled with books. People with rolling carts. People who took a load of books home with them every day for 3 days.

My first book was the new Quarry novel from Max Alan Collins (ROAD TO PERDITION). He was there autographing books. When the very first book in the series came out, I was a kid... and I bought it. Since then I have bought all of them. And here was the writer! I talked with him for a while, he signed the book and I put it in my stolen canvas bag. A couple of rows over was the Mystery Writers Of America booth - with 4 writers autographing books. I love mystery novels... but I wasn’t familiar with any of the 4 writers, so I didn’t feel right taking free books from them. I didn’t have a use for those books (even though I may have read them and loved them and bought every book they wrote from that point on - which was the purpose of the give aways). Another of my favorite writers, Thomas Perry (BUTCHER’S BOY) was signing his new novel. Again, I hung around and talked to him. There was a line, but many people were just getting as many autographed books as they could sell on e-bay later. I could stand at the corner of the table and talk while he was signing. Cool. All of these people love their readers. And even though I had no actual need for James Patterson’s new novel, he’s the biggest name novelist in the USA, and he was at a table signing a million books... so I got in the line. He must have signed a million books that day, and was kind and treated everyone in line as if they were friends... and in a way, they were. You know, without readers a writer would go broke. Without an audience, a movie star is out of work. Without the audience, *we* (screenwriters) are working at McDonalds. We’re all dependant on each other. We all need the other to exist.

Anyway, I grabbed that book and a few others - only books that I had a use for. And turned down hundreds of others...

Then I bumped into a writer I know who was there with his 6th book. I knew this guy when he had zero books. He told me he was trying to find another publisher, and had meetings later in the day with several publishers. Trying to find a better deal.

And I realized that I was probably doing this whole publishing thing wrong. As usual, I was trying to do it all myself. One of my faults-that-I-think-is-a-strength is not asking for help or even looking for help. If I try to do something that normal way, and that fails, I try to find some other way to do it... instead of asking for help. So I end up being the screenwriter with a bunch of produced scripts... but no agent. And the guy with a screenwriting book that was #11 on the Amazon screenwriting charts and #1 seller at Sam French Bookstores... without a publisher. Without a book agent. The problem when you do it yourself is that you only have yourself. No one else has a stake in your success. No one else is there to help you. You end up alone against the world.


I was at a writing event once and had dinner with a bunch of speakers including a book agent. Somewhere, I have his e-mail address. He would remember me (or, at least, pretend that he did). I’m going to track him down and see if he reps non-fiction - specifically screenwriting books. Even though I think I have a publisher who is very interested, what if this book agent can find me a better deal? What if he can just guide me through this deal I may have set up?

Strange as it may seem, I’m going to try to be *less* independent.

So, for all of you folks that want to know when the new version of SECRETS OF ACTION is coming out - I’m planning on having a new publisher soon, along with a deadline for the revisions (which will force me to stop playing around with old scripts and new specs and just get ‘er done), and eventually a street date,

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Know When To Hold "em.
Yesterday’s Dinner: BBQ chicken at Century City Mall food court.

Movies: STUCK - Remember that news story about the Texas woman who hit the pedestrian, and the guy got stuck in her car window and took *days* to die in her garage? Well, Stuart Gordon has done a fictionalized version of that story, with Mena Suvari as a rest home nurse who runs into recently downsized and evicted Stephen Rea in her car. Afraid that this will ruin her impending promotion, she parks the car and Rea in her garage and waits for him to die... and this begins a face off between the two, as he does everything he can to escape the window or signal for help, and she hits him with a board and does other nasty things to stop him. The story has some twists and turns, some extreme violence and gore, but keeps reminding you of better movies. It’s crude, squanders its chances for suspense through inelegant direction, and works primarily due to the performances of its two leads.

Rea just won’t die, and that reminds you of BLOOD SIMPLE, which takes the same situation and does it a million times better - the reveal of the empty back seat where the dead guy was, the suspense of trying to get him before he’s seen by any other cars... and a truck is coming down the street! The sound of the shovel on pavement. Grabbing the guy just as the truck zooms past - almost hitting them! All of the suspense and surprises (the gun in Hedaya’s pocket) and gritty stuff of killing and burying a man in BLOOD SIMPLE is a real nail biter - and juts keeps building until you can take no more. In STUCK, there’s a scene where Rea escapes from the car window, and it’s just kind of bland. Where is he? Oh, there on the floor. No surprise, no suspense, no style.

While Rea is in the garage, there are several scenes where he tries to get help. One, with a just out of reach cell phone, reminds you of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN... except that film did it a million times better, and was *filmed* for suspense. Here we get one shot instead of using different shots edited together to build a rhythm and suspense. This also reminded me of a Hitchcock directed TV episode called FOUR O’CLOCK based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. In that story a man is tied up in his basement with a bomb ticking away, and a kid’s ball rolls up to the basement window. When the boy goes to fetch his ball, will he see the tied up man? When he sees the tied up man, will the man be able to get across that he’s in trouble and not playing some sort of game? Will the boy be able to convince his parents that there is a man that needs help? All of those things were big suspense elements in the Hitchcock TV episode, in STUCK we get a similar event... that has no real suspense. It just happens. No build. No small set backs. No little twists. Stuff just happens. When the boy goes back to tell his parents about the man stuck in the car window, it reminded me of another movie based on a Woolrich story, THE WINDOW, about a boy who witnesses his neighbors kill someone and has some problems convincing his parents that it happened. The great scene in that film that could have been in STUCK is when the parents take the boy to the killer’s house so that he can apologize to them... and now the killers know the kid saw them, and the killers are after the kid. Great suspense and great twist. Here - nada. Since I’m on a Woolrich roll, another Hitchcock Presents episode based on a Woolrich story - BOY WITH BODY about transporting a dead body in a car.... early in the film Mena Suvai has to get her car home with a dead guy stuck in the window... but the TV episode is unbearable suspense. Here - we get a quick scene where she drives past some policemen, but there is no build, no almost seeing her, nothing. It’s just flat.

So STUCK is just kind of there. A real waste of a potentially suspenseful story. And it seems like this film gets so close to many of these things that I wonder if they were all in the screenplay... but never made it to screen.

- Bill
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