Friday night I had dinner with the winning writers from the Austin Film Festival’s Writer’s Ranch at some restaurant in Silver Lake. They gave me an address on Hollywood Blvd, so I figured I’d take the tinker-toy subway from Universal and ride my bike the rest of the way. When I mapquested the address, the closest subway station was on Sunset... so I’d have to do some cycling.
A few years ago I was at the Austin Film Festival, and it was great. The festival seems to focus on screenwriters - they have amazing panel discussions jam-packed with name writers. When you are sitting on a panel with Terry George and Shane Black, you don’t want to answer questions - you want to join the audience and ask them. The coolest thing about Austin is the access - you spend the event hanging out with the people on the panels. The barbeque lunches put a speaker or two at every table, and when you aren’t seeing movies you’re hanging out in the Driskill Hotel bar with guest speakers. The year I was there Shane premiered his little directorial; debut KISS KISS BANG BANG, then took us all out for drinks, and while we were drinking, called Robert Downey jr on his cell phone and passed it around so that we could all tell him how much we loved his performance. I was a guest speaker and this was amazing for me. I would love to go back, but Austin is usually the same time as Raindance Film Festival - so I’m usually in London instead of Texas...
Every year they select a group of writers, fly them to Texas and stick ‘em out on some ranch with a handful of great writers tutoring them for a week. After that, they fly ‘em to Los Angeles for meetings with producers and dinners with pro-screenwriters and producers. Friday was the final night of the Los Angeles segment, and dinner with me.
Usually on Fridays I’m seeing movies with my friends - would have been HULK, since it won the coin toss over HAPPENING - but this week I was dining with writers at 8pm. I didn’t want to be late, so I took my computer home, cycled to the Universal subway station, zoomed to the Sunset station, and cycled... heck, a block to Hollywood Blvd. I rode down Hollywood Blvd looking for the address, and got about 5 blocks when I realized I was going in the wrong direction. When I retraced my steps and found the address, it was a block away from the subway station... and I was way early. So I locked my bike and killed some time in the bar, drank a couple of beers...
When the Writers Ranch people start to show up, I move to the restaurant table and introduce myself - a couple of people already know me, others have never heard of me. Hey, I’m not famous, I’m a writer.
Some bottles of wine are opened, some food is ordered “for the table” (I’m not really a fan of this - I like to have my own damned plate of food and shovel it down), and all kinds of conversation about movies and screenwriting begin. Because I’m a strong believer in theme - that every story usually has some sort of point and isn’t just blathering on and on - I’m going to focus on a conversation going on at the opposite end of the table, where a writer was lamenting the good old days of comedy films... the 1980s.
You know, at first I thought this was funny that the “good old days” took place when I was an adult, but there were a lot of great comedies made in the 1980s. Bill Murray deserves a special Oscar just for being in so many funny films. And *good* funny films. I mean, even MEATBALLS was a good movie - it had real relationships and real characters and was really funny. Man, what happened to those good old days?
First, I think the suits that run Hollywood are getting suitier. The film business is run by companies that make washing machines and walkmans - not creative people. So it's probably more of a numbers biz than ever before. They are playing it safe - and looking to spend their money on projects where even if the film stinks, it still has the elements that will make its money back. Cram enough crude humor or toss in Will Farrell and you’ve got a hit! Hey, maybe have Martin Lawrence dress up in drag again - that always works! It’s easy to compare WILD HOGS with GROUNDHOG DAY and see which film is hog heaven and which is hog hell. What happened to, you know, *art*?
THE GOLDEN AGE
My favorite films are from the 30s & 40s - and were both art and commerce. Commerce, because the studio was making films to make money, but they were also trying to make good films. The producers in the old days used to be guys like Jerry Wald, who began as writers and were promoted up the ranks to producers. In a way, the Golden Age of Hollywood was run kind of like TV is run today - writers were often the guys in charge. The writer-producers still had to answer to the studio chief and the bean counters - so they couldn’t make some film that was *only* art, they’d get fired. But they would try to make the best commercial films possible.
And the writers at the time were the best writers in the world. There was no such thing as an Indie film, so if you wanted to write an artistic film it *also* had to be a Wallace Beery wrestling film. But at least it had that “Barton Fink feeling”. The results were films like - well, CAPTAIN BLOOD is one of my all time favorite films so I always use it as an example, but you can use CASABLANCA if you want or any of the other hundreds of studio films that came out.
Goldman did those great articles for Premiere Magazine where he would list 5 films from 1939 and ask which won the Oscar... and the answer was none of those because they weren’t even nominated, then he'd list 5 more and 5 more and 5 more and 5 more and 5 more... all absolutely great films, but none were the Oscar nominees for 1939. Finally he'd list the actual Oscar nominated films, and you'd be amazed at the *depth* of great movies from whatever year the article was about. And every single one of those films was a mainstream studio film made for commerce. Westerns and musicals and horror films and action flicks and adventure films and fantasy films and romances. Studios made *genre* films. They made entertainment. It was all popcorn.
Problem now is - it ain't Jerry Wald producing films. It's some ex-lawyer or ex-agent or whatever... and they're being told what to do by the company that owns the studio - which makes washing machines.
I have a theory about the studio heads back then, too - the Sam Goldwyns and Louis B. Mayers and Jack Warners. These guys were mostly immigrant merchants who traded a business making gloves for a business making movies... and they made lots of money. So here were these rich but mostly uneducated guys who got no respect from the society pages. They may have millions, but they were not respected like other millionaires. So, even though they made popcorn, they wanted to make “respectable” popcorn. So they would adapt some classic romance or classic adventure - and we’d get THE THREE MUSKETEERS or THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK or ROBIN HOOD or KING SOLOMON’S MINES or Dr. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE or FRANKENSTEIN or even some popular novel like REBECCA or GONE WITH THE WIND. The idea was to appear to be cultured and sophisticated. It was still about making popular movies, but if they could make a huge hit film that also made them look intelligent? Heck, everybody wins. Now, I didn’t know any of these guys so my decades-later psychoanalysis may be just plain wrong. But I do know that the board of directors of a washing machine company doesn’t care if the films made by their entertainment division make them look sophisticated or not. We have lost the class as class system in America and now just have the money as class system. You can be a complete idiot, but if you invent a hulahoop, you know, for kids, and it makes millions - you are now in the upper class. Money is all that matters anymore.
DIRECTORS WILL HATE ME
And we can also trace much of the crap in cinemas today to the auteur theory. Here's the thing -Martin Scorsese is a freakin' genius. If he's directing the film and he gives me a note, it will be a good note. But Hollywood treats all directors as equals - and that means Michael Bay's note is just as "valuable" as Martin Scorsese's. And (name the hack)'s note is just as "valuable". So when some complete idiot director gives a completely stupid note that *everyone* knows will ruin the film, the director is God and his note is executed by the screenwriter. This makes no sense to me. But the auteur theory is that directors are Gods, and all of us mere mortals must just nod our heads and do what they say - even when we know it is wrong.
Add all of this up and you get films that aren't good - not because they are commercial - all of those great films from the 30s & 40s were commercial - but because they aren't good. Nobody cares if they are good anymore. They only care that they make money. Hey, writers can go off and make indie films if they want - Paul Schrader doesn't write mainstream scripts anymore, nor does John Sayles. They're off making their own films.
Or writers bail to TV, where the writer is God and the director is just some guy they hired for this week. Writers control TV.
Though I'm probably a masochist, instead of making my own films or writing TV, my plan is to keep banging my head against the wall to try and make *good* commercial films. So far - no luck. I try to write CAPTAIN BLOOD every time and by the time it hits the screen it's crap. Someone recently asked what film I wish I had written and I joked that I wish I'd written CROOKED - my original script was about the difficulties in trusting people post 9/11... and how we *must* trust people (even strangers) or we're screwed. Of course, the film is a bunch of crap without a single line of my dialogue, not even my *story*! Every single thing was changed in that film. But I don't want to give up on movies. Good *commercial* films do get made - the BOURNE films give me hope - so I keep plugging away, trying to say something between the lines.
DVD TO THE RESCUE?
My theory is that DVD may actually help make better quality films in the long run - because people *buy* a DVD (instead of rent, like VHS) they are making an investment in a film they plan on seeing more than once. If Film A sells really well on DVD and Film B doesn't, studios may wonder why that is and do something about it.
After seeing INDIANA JONES AND THE CRYSTAL SKULL with a bunch of friends, none of us wanted to see it again, and none of us plan on buying it on DVD. When the new editions came out, I bought RAIDERS and LAST CRUSADE... but not TENTPOLE OF DOOM. No way in hell I'm ever gonna see that movie again.
Now, hopefully someone at Paramount will notice that sales of DOOM aren't as good as sales of the other two, but someone still has to figure out that's because people just don't like DOOM... and figure out why... and make sure they don't make any more movies like that (too late - SKULL is almost a remake of DOOM!). But this may happen.
Problem is - for all of us who didn't buy DOOM, there are a bunch of people who bought the latest Martin Lawrence Dresses In Drag movie (or whatever) because they thought it was really funny. And maybe they’re right? If you laugh, it’s funny...
And that's the big quality issue with studio films - there are 2 different kinds of quality. One: is this a great film? Two: did it make me laugh or scream or whatever. Many "bad" films made me laugh, and I would buy them on DVD just to laugh again. BEERFEST made me laugh. I own the first JACKASS movie on DVD... and it still makes me laugh. I can not imagine any world where that film would get an Oscar. I don’t think JACKASS is a bad movie, and I don’t think BEERFEST is a bad movie. I think they are entertaining movies. So we run into this strange thing - often bad films are good. We may not want to admit that Martin Lawrence film made us laugh, but if we laughed a lot, we'll buy the DVD so that on that bad day, we can pop it in and laugh some more. It's a SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS thing (made in 1941). Sometimes, we don’t want to think, we just want to laugh... and there’s nothing wrong with that.
AIRPLANE and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and even TOP SECRET are among my favorite films. I love them. I wish they made more films like that. You might point to MEET THE SPARTANS as “that type of movie”, but that’s the crap version. Pick a 10 minute segment of AIRPLANE at random and I’ll bet it has more laughs that *all* of MEET THE SPARTANS. Heck, we’re talking about comedy films from the 1980s again, aren’t we? Maybe that was some sort of golden age of comedy... But the point I was trying to make is that those films are silly and stupid and have no deeper meaning and no importance. They are 100% popcorn with nothing for the art house crowd. Okay, maybe if the French can love Jerry Lewis they may see AIRPLANE as art, but when people talk about “serious films” and “social impact” and all of that other crap, they ain’t talking about AIRPLANE. It just makes us laugh.
LOTS OF SILT IN THE GOLDEN AGE
Another thing about the Good Old Days Of Great Movies... not every movie was great. One of the things about the Golden Age is that we didn’t have TV, so if you take all of the great things happening on TV and cable today and add them to the good movies that Hollywood does make, we probably get the same amount of great work total. Back then, *everyone* went to the cinema on a regular basis. Today, the dating crowd regularly goes to the cinema and everyone else stays home and watches those great shows on TV. Okay, it’s summer, so we’re getting a bunch of reality crap, but you can still see great made for cable movies and series while waiting to see what Jon Voight does on 24 next season. So entertainment, like liquids, kind of finds its own level.
And that was also true in the Golden Age. Back then, movies had a class system. The studios took their biggest name stars and put them in their best projects. Those were the big A movies that were events. When an A movie was on a double bill, it was with a B movie - the second tier stars in a second tier project. Now, arts is what stands the test of time - so some of those B movies are now considered better than some of the A movies. One of the great things about B movies back then is that some great writers would be behind them... and often sneak in their social agendas. That’s why some throw away sci-fi film like the original INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS is now a classic - a work of art. It deals with conformity and individuality - and maybe McCarthyism and the paranoia that created in America. Even some of the “meaningless” material like the Rathbone / Bruce SHERLOCK HOLMES movies ended up classics today because the characters and performances are great. I can even watch the movies from the tail end of the series, when Holmes is fighting Nazis (huh?) again and again because they are fun. They still have an entertainment value.
And, did any of us know that ANIMAL HOUSE or CADDYSHACK or GROUNDHOG DAY or AIRPLNE or any of those other films would end up "classics" back when they came out? Look at BLUES BROTHERS - now it seems to be a beloved film, but when it came out it was a flop... and people didn't like it. It took time for people to discover the hidden pleasures of that film. Sometimes stuff that seems like crap today may end up brilliant tomorrow.
But also on those double bills there was a newsreal and a serial.... and over the holidays I bought a bunch of serials from Alpha Video (I’ll probably do a whole entry on Alpha Video some day). Anyway, I watched a couple of SHADOW serials with Rod LaRoque and a couple of John Wayne serials, including THE THREE MUSKETEERS... as a French Foreign Legion adventure! These movies were completely disposable... and not very good. The John Wayne movie had John Wayne - and even though he was a new actor, he had something. They also had all kinds of great horse and plane stunts. But the stories were junk. The SHADOW movies were close to unwatchable. Ah, the good old days! All of these films had that “we don’t care, we just crank ‘em out” feeling. I think the problem today may be that when you have a star like Will Farrell who can open a comedy, they just crank them out like they did those serials. “We need a Will Farrell comedy for fall!” So they make it. And usually, it makes enough money to justify it’s existence, even if it has zero chance of lasting the test of time... We may have even forgotten it ten years from now. Hopefully we can nip bad movies in the bud with word of mouth and this new texting revolution which has Hollywood scared - people texting friends in line to see some other movie because this one stinks. They see this now in the hour-by-hour numbers... first showings on Friday night may be packed, but by Sunday everyone knows to avoid this film.
I think we already tell people to go see a good movie and avoid a bad one. And our friends usually listen to what we say. Biggest flop of the summer - SPEED RACER. That’s the *power* of audience members telling each other what they think of the film. We should always do that. And I think it really helps to tell people to go see some small film like THE VISITOR that they may never have heard of. A friend of mine who is primarily a horror guy went to see it because I said it was great - and he liked it, and told his friends about it. That's how a little movie like that finds its way into the top 10 (it was #10 for a couple weeks in a row, and was #12 last weekend).
But Hollywood isn't going to start making films like THE VISITOR all of the sudden, so we need to reward the good movies that Hollywood makes and crap on the bad ones. So if the new BATMAN movie is as good as the last one, I'm going to see it again. If the washing machine makers in Hollywood end up just scratching their heads and giving Nolan money to make some other film, or just hire him to make BATMAN 3 (or is that 7?) that's okay. It's rewarding good film makers and making sure we get another good film in a couple of years.
I don't think anything short of an armed coup is going to change the way Hollywood makes movies... and even then it would be short-lived success, because at the end of the day, it's all about money... and all about what all of those people who buy tickets want to see (and they may not have the same taste we do). I want to be entertained and be able to talk about the movie in some coffee shop afterwards... and think about for the next couple of days (or longer). I like good entertaining movies - art *and* commerce.
I think the way we change Hollywood as writers is to write great commercial material - something that can be a summer blockbuster *and* maybe get some Oscar buzz. That doesn't sound easy to me, but that’s my goal. Obviously a masochist.
After the dinner was over (remember that - the Austin Writers Ranch?) I wished all of the writers good luck, hopped on my bicycle and rode the *block* the subway station, where I managed to catch the last train to Universal City and then rode home. May have missed HULK on Friday, but managed to catch it on Saturday.
TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Nudist Westerns.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Ended up being a Togo's sandwich (tuna) because I lost track of time and had to zip to the Arclight cinema to watch....
MOVIES: MONGOL - Totally worth the price of the ticket. This is a big LAWRENCE OF ARABIA epic - some of the shots were so big they needed an even bigger screen! When you have this beautiful location - a wide plane with mountains in the background - and it fills the frame - and then two armies charge each other from either side of the frame... and you can see the pattern, their strategy, it's just cool. That’s one of the great things about the movie - you can see how the battles work - almost like chess men on a chess board.
Story is about Genghis Khan, the early years... and it's a *romance*. As a boy he and his father set out to find him a bride - one from a warring tribe, so they can make peace. But the kid falls for a girl along the way - she's smart and cute. They hit it off. He picks her, and dad is pissed off because this girl brings him nothing. No truce, no dowry, nothing. And the rest of the film focuses on their love for each other - even though this guy *is* Genghis Khan, so there are many battles. Film also reminded me of CONAN (the barbarian, not the talk show host), because the kid has to grow into a warrior... and then settle some scores. If you like GLADIATOR or CONAN or BRAVEHEART you will probably like this film.
Cinematography is just amazing - and the locations are amazing, too. And the battles are well shot and manage to be exciting *and* Oscar bait all at the same time (this film was nominated for Best Foreign Film).
But it’s not all chick flick romance - there are huge bloody battles. Heads get lopped off. And the audience *cheers* when some particularly nasty folks get killed in nasty ways.
After seeing the film I looked it up, and discovered that the people in Mongolia are pissed off about this film. Not because it depicts Genghis as a sappy romantic, but because the actor playing Genghis isn’t Mongolian - he’s *Japanese*. They make him up to look Mongolian... kind of like having Kenneth Brannagh playing Martin Luther King, jr. I didn’t notice he wasn’t Mongolian... and I’m not sure if I should feel bad about that or not.
One problem I had - there were places where I wanted *more*. I suspect they cut this film down to 2 hours, and may have left out some scenes I really wanted to see. One thing that I wished had been in the film is a Khan speech before the final big battle. Maybe that's the sappy Hollywood thing (or the sappy Shakespeare thing) but I thought it needed that big scene before the battle.
Oddly, guy who plays the villain is so good I wish he had played Khan. This guy has charisma to spare, and does this great back-cracking stretching thing that makes him human and tough.
Playing on *5* screens in the USA, and it was the highest per-screen average film over the weekend (beating that HULK guy) - so it will probably expand to more screens. Check it out!