Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Trilogy Of Terror: Part 1.... The Acting Dead!

From 2006...

Ready for some really scary stuff?

This is a fable, even though the stories are true and the names have been changed to protect... well they aren’t exactly innocent, are they? A fable is when a story has a larger meaning, but I’m going to let you figure out that meaning on your own and take away any lessons you want. Our little fable concerns four people who set out to make horror movies. Horror films are hot these days...

We’ll begin our tour of this gallery of gore with the actor. You don’t know his name, but you know his face. He’s mostly a TV actor, but he’s done a bunch of movies, too. If the movie is about a prosecutor, he plays the defense attorney’s 2nd chair. If the story is about a defense attorney, he plays the #2 prosecutor - the sounding board guy. He also plays corporate VPs and the detective in a buddy cop movie who isn’t one of the buddies and FBI Agents. Oh, and I’ve seen him play a gangster before - but he’s kind of too clean cut for that. Basically, he’s *one* step down from the important characters in the film - a guy who gets two dozen lines in the whole film. That makes him a character actor - but one who is almost always working. Problem is, he’d like to be a star. Wait, that’s not the fable part - it’s not about hubris.

So, several years ago he started making his own movies, starring himself (of course). He’d gather together some other character actor friends and make a serious drama... but the films have no story at all. They are like a collection of really great scenes. You haven’t seen any of these movies, because none have ever found distribution. One actually played out of competition at Sundance one year (probably because of all the names in the cast) but no distrib picked it up. You need more than just some good TV names in your film, the disrib needs to make money from the film... and these films don’t even have a *story*. They are “actor porn”.

For instance, one is about four guys in their 40s who play golf together every Tuesday morning. The film isn’t about the relationship between the four guys (though there was a little of that), most of the film is about each one of the guys in some big dramatic scene. The scenes aren’t thematic - it’s not about 4 guys and their love lives, or 4 guys dealing with growing older, or 4 guys learning to accept (or not) how their lives turned out. That would be some form of story. No, the film was just a collection of great scenes with these 4 guys... and, of course, my character actor acquaintance getting twice as many scenes as everyone else. Only fair - it was his money. One character may have a big blow up with his wife. Another character might have a great big dramatic scene with his boss. And there was a scene where a character has a melt-down at a fast food place. None of the scenes were connected in any way - except these 4 guys played golf together every Tuesday morning.

After I saw the film, I thought it was like one of those books they sell at Sam French, 25 GREAT SCENES FOR ACTORS, shot with the same 4 actors and a couple of scenes where they golf together.

Because I know this guy, I’ve tried to give him a little advice about story... all of which he’s argued with or completely ignored. “It’s all about the truth of the dramatic moment, not some contrived story”. Okay... Every time I do my class in Los Angeles, his name is on the comp list... and he never shows. But after the third film he has funded out of pocket wasn’t picked up by *any* distrib for *any* medium (not DVD, not TV, nothing)... and his wife was about to divorce him, he decided to make a horror film (because they’re hot right now, and he can make some quick cash and save his marriage).

So he asks me for a little advice. I *give him* some Blue Books and the Horror CD and advise him to watch 5 to 10 horror movies and *study them* - figure out how and why they work. Then apply that information to his script. Kind of my basic advice.

So he makes his film... Whenever I bump into him, I ask him about it... and he tells me it’s great. The best horror film ever made. That’s good, because his wife files for divorce. He also missed pilot season for the first time ever. In other words - everything is now riding on this horror film. Now *that’s* a dramatic situation!

There’s this strange and illogical phenomena where the more important something is to a person, the more important it should be to everyone else in the world. If it is important for you to sell your next script, your next script is the best work you’ve ever done. It has to be, because if it’s just your average script, you’re screwed. This makes no sense at all - the script is the script and it doesn’t get better or worse depending on how much you need a sale. But this is often the way we think. So the more that was riding on my friend’s film, the better that film became. Had to be great, or he was screwed. In reality, it’s just creating and believing your own BS. Jim’s a good actor - and he convinced himself that he made a great film.

He rents a screening room on Sunset, to show the film to distribs. And he’s managed to get all of the major players to show up. He rounds up some folks to fill all of the empty seats in the screening room - a “warm body” audience to laugh and scream. Because I’m not an actor the distribs might recognize, I get to fill a seat. See - I’m good for something! This will be the first time I’ve seen one of his films on the big screen... and without the words “For Screening Purposes Only” not fading in and out at the bottom of the screen. I take my seat, he does a little speech to the distribs, the light dim, and...

We get off to an okay start - a maniac escapes from a mental institution, grabs an ax, steals a car. He doesn’t kill anyone, yet, but it’s early. Then we get some hot teen actors going on vacation at a cabin in the woods... then Jim playing the Town Sheriff (he’s still trying to ride this film to stardom) who warns the kids about the escaped maniac. Then we get about 20 minutes of completely unrelated big dramatic scenes with the kids (plus two, count ‘em, two, with the overly educated Town Sheriff chewing scenery like crazy.) (Dude, you won the audition, take it easy!) None of these scenes are about the maniac. A handful of the distribs sneak out during these 20 minutes.

About 30 minutes in, one of the teens is *discovered* dead on the back deck of the cabin. Killed by an ax. There’s blood and a lot of it... but we didn’t see the character killed or chased or anything. The guy’s just dead. Some FX guy has done great job of creating gore - but it just sits there.

This leads to maybe another 20 minutes where the teens have big dramatic discussions... but they seem more interested in chewing scenery than being afraid of some maniac with an ax (or that one of their friends is chopped up on the back deck). All but one of the distribs sneaks out during these 20 minutes. To tell you the truth, I want to sneak out, too. And I almost do. But what am I going to tell Jim the next time I bump into him? So I stick it out.

Another kid is found murdered with an ax. We never see the kid killed, we just see him dead. No stalk, no slash... just a body. This, of course, leads to about 20 minutes of big dramatic scenes about the nature of life and responsibility and all kinds of other things that start a little laughter in the screening room.

It’s difficult not to laugh when people are wasting time with these big dramatic scenes while some maniac with an ax is killing them one by one offscreen. Why don’t they *do something*? Why don’t they shut up and try to stop the maniac? Or at least run for their lives? The last distrib sneaks out sometime during these scenes. Now the screening room is nothing but shills. The screening room is being rented by the hour, and maybe Jim can get a partial refund if he stops the movie right now... but he keeps the projectors running. Like some maniac with a movie, he traps us in that screening room and forces us to watch the whole film.

“Stop me before I screen again!”

And it doesn’t get better. Another teen is found dead, which leads to another 20 minutes of big dramatic scenes. Not only are the dramatic scenes kind of funny given the situation, they also make the film boring. It’s all talking heads. And because the big dramatic scenes often have little or nothing to do with maniacs and axes, it’s almost as if the scenes are at war with the story... and the scenes are winning. There is no stalk, no slash in the entire stalk & slash movie. No suspense. No dread. No violence. The closest we get to anything even resembling a horror film is the dead people who are discovered *after* the action. The best gore money can buy.

Of course, the film ends with a 30 second battle between the leading lady and the maniac with the ax - no chase, no struggle, she just kills the sucker - the end.

Afterwards Jim says there’s a celebration at the Standard Hotel (rooftop) bar - he’s buying the drinks. If he’s buying drinks, I’m going next door. I want to be paid for my time. He compares the film to *Oscar Winner* SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and I mention that SILENCE wasn’t just Hopkins and Foster having endless conversations. “Yes! My film is better than that because I minimized all of the chase bullshit and focused on the drama.” My only response was to agree with that.

Jim thinks the distribs will begin calling in the next few days. They don’t. A couple of months ago, he calls me to ask if he can sleep on my sofa for a while. SAG has screwed up on some residual checks and he’s broke. All of his money was tied up in the movie... and his divorce pretty much wiped him out. I really want to tell him that he should have just listened to me and made a real horror movie, instead of some actor’s showcase. But instead I tell him this isn’t a good time for me, and suggest another mutual acquaintance who would hate me, now... except SAG got Jim his residual check before he was evicted, and he just landed a recurring role on a new TV show. For a couple of weeks I was sure he would end up sleeping on my sofa. I’m too nice to say no to people who are really in trouble... but part of me wants to start a serious discussion about personal responsibility that will drag on for 20 minutes until someone finds me hacked to death on the patio.

The next segment of our Trilogy Of Terror deals with a director I know who decided to make a horror movie... because horror is a hot genre right now. And that screenwriter who hired the PR firm, who decided to write and direct a horror film... because horror is a hot genre right now. Stay tuned... the really scary stuff is yet to come!

- Bill

15 comments:

Unknown Screenwriter said...

I don't know... THIS tale was pretty scary... LOL.

Or as you say on your Horror CD, "PRETTY SCARY STUFF!"

Cool post.

Unk

wcdixon said...

uh..(shiver)...'actor porn'...(shiver)

Great story. But I swear I saw the movie you describe on one of the Canadian Movie channels this summer...any chance in hell of that?

Anonymous said...

I come from a theatrical background and my father is a theatre actor. I understand this guy.

This is why film is a collaborative medium. I know writer turned directors who put the damn camera on a tripod, do a scene, put the camera on a tripod do the next scene, blah blah blah. This isn't a movie, it's a recorded rehearsal!

There are writerly movies, there are actorly movies, there are directorial masterbatory exercises - and they can even be good! But the material must ultimately be interesting

wcmartell said...

See, I think those movies-on-sticks *aren't* well written. If you're writing for a visual medium, you'd better be thinking about how the pictures are telling the story...

But there is "actor porn" and "writer porn" and "director porn" and all kinds of other stuff that works for some small % of the audience but not anyone else. That's why it's nice to have other people involved - even if all you do is argue with them.

And none of these suckers have any sort of distribution at all - so whatever you saw in Canada was some other horror story I don't know about!

- Bill

PS: "Pretty Scary Stuff!" is a Count Floyd quote.

Anonymous said...

Funny story, Bill.

Next time someone wants to make a horror movie, drop me a line, and I'll write it for them.

EJ Pennpacker

PS: Yes, it will feature deaths and chases and blood!

Stephen Glauser said...

When I began reading I thought that the film in question was Cabin Fever and we were going to get a feel good story out of the deal.

Too bad for your actor friend that it didn't work out. It must be tough to put all your marbles into the middle without knowing that your film will be great. Why not take advice from a tried and true screenwriter? Just dumb.

Anonymous said...

Good storytelling, Bill. This blog has quickly become one of the high points of my day, the other part being Scott Adams' (DILBERT) blog.
-ObiDonWan

RJ Schwarz said...

Looks like some tripod bashing and I remember decades of films where the director put the camera on a tripod and shot the scene without shaking it around or ummotivated camera movements.

Am I missing something?

Jeff O'Brien said...

Man, if that guy could tell a story half as well as you do Bill... bravo.

Emily Blake said...

I think there's a real misconception that horror movies don't have to about anything. As long as characters talk a lot the action doesn't have to do anything but be gross. Throw a couple of clever conversations in and you don't have to show any actual conflict.

I saw a movie last night that went with the saem theory. Complete lack of an attempt to tie everything together. It was like they decided to throw a bone to meaning and focus on lots of blood and crappy CGI.

deepstructure said...

great story bill. it's amazing when people don't or won't do their homework when it comes to creating films.

lol @rj. sorry, but i agree that the camera should move or at least not be set up front and center like a theatre pov.

besides, there's a big difference between visual-storytelling and "unmotivated camera movements."

Mystery Man said...

Hehehe...

That's hilarious. That made my day. I know ten guys just like him, too.

"Actor Porn," "Writer Porn," and "Director Porn" - SO true. So what is PORN? That's a different branch of Actor Porn, isn't?

Great post.

-MM

wcmartell said...

Porn is SEX PORN.

- Bill (will sit through Action Porn, but other types often bore me.)

moviequill said...

discovering your father's cobweb covered stash of 1970s era x-rated vhs tapes (and even one on reel to reel!) is what I define as SCARY PORN

RJ Schwarz said...

"lol @rj. sorry, but i agree that the camera should move or at least not be set up front and center like a theatre pov."

I'm not defending the Woody Allen style of setting up the camera once for a scene and letting it run like a play. If you use a tripod and get a bunch of camera setups you may have a more interesting result than a steadycam.

eXTReMe Tracker