Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: THE HITCHHIKER (1953)

Directed by: Ida Lupino.
Written by: Ida Lupino, Collier Young, Daniel Mainwaring (uncredited), adaptation by Robert Joseph.
Starring: Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Tallman.
Director Of Photography: Nicholas Musuraca.


THE HITCH HIKER is a low budget film from 1953 that just kicks all kinds of ass. Basically it’s three men, a car, and the great outdoors... but like the three person, two rooms ALICE CREED, you never notice that it’s a low budget movie because it’s so well made, well written, and intense. They gave a damn when they made this film! They knew they didn’t have money, so they made up for it with suspense and drama and some amazing *ideas*. A great idea costs nothing, but has a ton of production value. The amazing idea here is... an eyelid that is scarred so that it permanently open. Yes, that actually is a great idea. Wait until we get to it, and you’ll see its brilliance.



The film opens with a title card telling us this is based on a true story, and that this same thing could happen to you. So I did a little googling and discovered it really was based on the true story of Billy Cook, a notorious killer. Cook’s mother died when he was five years old, and his loving father took all of the children to live in an abandoned mine and fend for themselves while Daddy exercised his new found bachelorhood. Billy and his siblings were eventually discovered by child protective services and put into foster homes... except for Billy. Because Billy had a deformed eyelid... it never closed. The whole side of his face was a mess. He ended up under state care and eventually tried his hand at crime and was arrested at age 12 and sent to a reformatory for boys. He enjoyed hurting others, and when he turned 17... was transferred to a state prison. While in prison, he beat a few fellow inmates with a baseball bat... showing really poor sportsmanship. He was released at 22, found his father and told him he planned on buying a gun and making his living through robbery, armed. Billy drifted into El Paso, TX just before Christmas, 1950, bought a gun, and went out to the highway and hitchhiked. He robbed and killed anyone who would pick him up, stealing their cars until they ran out of gas and then hitchhiking for a lift into the next town to buy gas. He killed an entire family: father, mother, three kids and a dog, near Wichita Falls, Texas and dumped the bodies in a mineshaft in Missouri. He hitchhiked and killed to Blythe, California, where he killed a traveling salesman from Seattle and threw his body in a ditch. By this point in time he was wanted throughout the USA and every cop in the Southwest was actively looking for the hitchhiking killer. Hitchhiking, Billy kidnaped two men on a hunting trip, James Burke and Forrest Damron, and forced them to drive him south and across the border into Mexico... and on to Santa Rosalia. Once they reached Santa Rosalia, Burke and Damron knew they would be killed, but an odd thing happened: The Chief Of Police of the small Mexican town had been reading the American papers and recognized Billy Cook and captured him without a gunfight. Handed him over to the FBI, and he spent the rest of his life in prison. Cool true story, huh? And... that eyelid!



The film changes the names to protect the innocent and guilty, turning Billy Cook into Emmett Myers (William Tallman, DA Hamilton Burger on PERRY MASON) but keeping that creepy deformed eyelid. The movie opens with a (face unseen) Myers hitchhiking, getting picked up, killing the drivers and taking off in their cars. Again and again.

Then we cut to garage mechanic Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien from DOA and THE WILD BUNCH) and his best friend draftsman Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy from IN A LONELY PLACE) getting away from the wives for a week of fishing and camping, tooling along the back roads of California, when they spot a hitchhiker next to his car... and stop to pick him up. Hell, it’s *miles* to the nearest gas station and this is a back road. Who knows when another car will pass by?

The Hitchhiker sits in the darkness in the back of the car, not very communicative. When they ask about things like a gas can he becomes argumentative, but people can be grumpy if they’ve been standing there waiting for a ride for a while. It’s frustrating. Bowen decides to offer him a cigarette, but when he turns around he sees the gun pointing at him. They have picked up the notorious Emmett Myers who kills *all* of his victims. It’s only a matter of time before they are dead.

But Myers has made the most wanted list and needs to get across the border into Mexico... and since everyone is looking for one man, he figures he has a better chance as one of three buddies going on a fishing trip. He keeps the gun on Collins and Bowen and makes it pretty clear they are alive only as long as he needs them. This begins the road trip from hell, where Myers does everything he can to torture the two on their way south of the border to Santa Rosalia where a ferry boat will take him to the Mexican mainland... where he can vanish.



Simple story, but what makes this work are great performances by Tallman (who can go from unassuming gangly guy to crazed psycho in an instant) and the other two leads who are regular guys faced with a terrifying experience, plus intense pacing. This story comes up with a million things that can spark violence...

When they stop for gas at a service station, Myer demands minimal conversation... but the service station attendant is friendly and that means they have to be rude to him. Then they drive off without taking their change.

When they pull over in the middle of nowhere so that Myers can chart his path to Santa Rosalia with the least chance of being caught, he has Collins pop the trunk... and in there with the fishing equipment is a rifle. As Collins reaches for it, Myer *taunts* him to try something... he’ll be dead before he gets it out if the trunk.

The gun belongs to Bowen, who was in the army and says he’s an okay shot. So Myer arranges a little target practice. He has Collins walk way out in the desert with a tin can, and when Collins tries to set it on a rock, Myers tells him just to hold it... no, hold it closer to your body... closer. Then sees just how good a shot Bowen is. He either shoots the can out of his friend’s hand from hundreds of feet away with a 22 calibre rifle, or Myer shoots him. Bowen has no choice but to shoot... and hits the can! Of course, Collins practically pisses himself. Myers keeps having Collins hold the can closer and closer, and you just know that one friend is accidentally going to kill the other. Really intense! But all a game to Myers, who laughs and takes control of the rifle.

Though Myers is no criminal mastermind, he’s also not an idiot. He has a method to get both men in and out of the car so that he can keep the gun on them the whole time and they have little chance of escaping or trying to overpower him. He has thought this through. They keep to back roads in Baja, avoiding cities or large towns. And they pull way off the road to camp...





And here’s where the tension kicks in. Because due to that eyelid defect, Myers always sleeps with one eye open. Who knows if he’s asleep or awake? There are three camping scenes, and each one is filled with tension as they can’t figure out if they should make a break for it or not. The always open eye is starring at them. Every time they think they might be able to sneak away because it seems like Myers is sleeping, that always open eye looks right at them! The three scenes are filled with tension just because of the *idea* of that defective eyelid. Yes, it's from the real guy... but realizing that it could be used for scenes like this was purely the work of the writers. Cost of all of this suspense? A little make up around the eye.

Some of the other fun: Stopping for provisions at a Mexican grocery store: Bowen speaks Spanish but Myers doesn’t want him to be speaking any Mexican to anyone! Except the store owner speaks no english. Bowen almost gets shot, as does the store owner's cute little girl who wants to talk.

Myers takes Bowen’s expensive watch.

When they hit a bump, Collins hits the car horn and it *sticks*, drawing attention to them! Now Collins has to stop the car and repair the horn under the gun (literally) so they can get back in the car and zoom off before a man with a donkey reaches them.

Collins gets pistol whipped when he can’t find a working radio station in the middle of nowhere that has US news bulletins so that Myer can find out if the police are closing in one them. Collins is beaten so bad he can no longer drive and Bowen has to take over.

Myers wants them to move faster, and the car gets a blow out and almost wrecks... then they have to change the tire and a young Mexican couple driving by asks if they need any help (and almost gets killed). Again, Collins and Bowen have to be very rude to them in order to get them to drive away.



Things escalate until Collins just loses it. He breaks and becomes such a loose cannon that Bowen is afraid Myer will just shoot him. But Myers *loves* that Collins has broken under the pressure: proves Collins is weak and Myers is in control. That night when they camp, Collins decides to make a break for it and Bowen goes along. They wait until Myers’ eye is closed, worried that the other eye is still staring right at them. And race into the bushes... but Myer’s other eye pops open, and he chases the two running men... in the car! A great low budget NORTH BY NORTHWEST scene, and then Collins is hit by the car and they are recaptured.

They drive to an abandoned water well, and Collins and Bowen are sure they are about to be killed and dumped into the well. Lots of tension. But eventually they move on, by foot after the car’s gas tank is torn open by a rock, and get to Santa Rosalia, which both men know is the end of the line for them. This is where they die...

Made on a very low budget, this film with a limited cast that takes place either inside the car or in the desert has all kinds of thrills, May seem tame compared to THE HITCHER, but still intense. Lupino is one of my favorite directors, a great actress from the golden age who gave an Oscar calibre performance in one of my favorite films THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, was amazing as the *tough* blind woman in another favorite film ON DANGEROUS GROUND, and the tough bank robber’s girl in HIGH SIERRA... who decided to direct and stepped in when the director of a film she was starring in became ill. From that point on, she and her husband (magazine and screenwriter Collier Young) formed a production company The Filmakers, and began making films with Lupino as director. She just did it. Their first films were social issues movies that are still relevant and kind of shocking. OUTRAGE is a movie about rape that is more cutting edge and honest than any film on the subject made since. Somewhere along the line she worked with another one of my favorite directors, Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY, THE LINE UP), and learned all of his cinematic tricks... and she became what she called “the poor man’s Don Siegel” making hard hitting crime films like this. (Siegel's other protege was an actor named Clint Eastwood.)



Her direction style is like Siegel’s: deceptively straight forward. Nothing showy or flashy, yet still completely in control of the story, using angle and composition and movement to amplify the emotions. She also knew how to create suspense and tension, and soon on THRILLER Thursday we will get to her amazing episode GUILLOTINE. In HITCH HIKER she manages to give the film a documentary feel (it *is* based on a true story) and still use cinematic techniques to amp up the tension. For a film made on a budget it still packs a punch.

Oh, and I guess I should mention this film was secretly cowritten by my favorite screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST... now on BluRay! and the original INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS, and from Oakland!) who had his credit snatched away by producer Howard Hughes because Mainwaring did not share his politics (he was a friend to blacklisted writers and “fronted” for a couple of them). Lupino and Young ended up with screenplay credit. So here we have one of my favorite directors with one of my favorite writers and a buck fifty budget making a nifty little low budget thriller. Hey, it’s public domain, so you can watch it free!

Bill

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lancelot Link Monday: Oscars!

Lancelot Link Monday! Oscars! Oscars! Oscars! Who will win Best Picture? That ended up being a more complicated question than anyone thought this year! While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...




Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...


1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Get Out ........................ $33,377,060
2 Lego .......................... $19,208,097
3 Wick ............................ $9,358,982
4 Great Wall ...................... $9,125,960
5 50 Shades ....................... $7,792,655
6 Fist ........................... $6,571,348
7 Hidden .......................... $5,805,737
8 La La (not winner) .............. $4,689,292
9 Split ........................... $4,098,990
10 Lion ............................ $3,832,257


Both ROCK DOG and COLLIDE opened wide but failed to make the top ten.

2) Winners List.

3) Best Picture Winner Return On Ivestment.

4) Red Carpet Photos

5) Jimmy Kimmel's Opening Monologue.

6) Parties.

7) Opening Number.

8) Party Photos.

9) Screenwriter's Roundtable.

10) Independent Spirit Awards Blue Carpet.

11) Spirit Award Winners.

12) Spirit Opening Monologue.

And the Car Chase Of The Week:





Bill

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IMPORTANT UPDATE:

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Dinner:
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Bicycle:

Movie:

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Thriller Thursday: THE GUILTY MEN

The Guilty Men

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 6.
Airdate: 10/18/1960


Director: Jules Bricken
Writer: John Vlahos
Cast: Everett Sloane, Jay C. Flippin, Frank Silvera, John Marley.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: John L. Russell




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Three boys from the slums. One wanted to be a doctor, one wanted to be a lawyer, and the third... he just wanted to be Mr. Big. All three achieved their ambitions with surprising results, as sure is my name is Boris Karloff. They are the guilty men, and that’s the name of our story. That sound you hear is a heart beat. A heart beat that held together a fantastically powerful organization dedicated to big business. The big business of crime. Let me assure you my friends, this is a thriller.”

Synopsis: Kind of a precursor to GODFATHER and GODFATHER 3, the story begins with a boy names Cesare is running down a city street at night, then climbing a fire escape to a New York City rooftop that looks a lot like the rooftop set from VERTIGO... where two other boys are hanging out. The other boys ask what happened when they hear the police sirens from below, and Cesare tells them he got the money to pay for their father’s funeral... $400. His brother Tony is outraged, but Lou asks if he’s going to need an alibi. Cesare says no alibi required, he’s a clever kid and got away clean. Tony doesn’t think their father would want to be buried in a fancy coffin bought with dirty money. Papa wanted the boys to get good jobs and be decent people. Brother Cesare disagrees: “I don’t want the neighbors to laugh, we couldn’t give the old man a decent funeral, capice? We needed the money so I got it, it don’t matter how.”. “It matters to Papa, how many times he tell us a man who lives by violence, he dies the same way.” “I gotta wise saying, too: He who takes gets, and it don’t matter how. You just take and take and take.” These three boys in the slums of New York in the 1920s talk about their futures... Tony dreams of being a doctor, Lou dreams of being a lawyer... and Cesare dreams of being the biggest mobster ever known.



Now we get a montage of Cesare Romano’s rise from that kid on the rooftop to crime kingpin through stock footage and newspaper headlines. As prohibition comes in, he rises to the top, and when prohibition is voted out he organizes all of the other bootleggers into a crime syndicate that controls all of the illegal vices people crave. When the feds begin cracking down, he turns his front businesses into *real* businesses and is able to walk away from Senate hearings a free man because his hotels and shipping and other businesses are legit... they make a ton of money (even though they are still used as fronts from some criminal enterprises). Which takes us to 1960, present day...

An aging “Charlie” (Cesare) Romano (Frank Silvera) is meeting with all of the mob bosses beneath him who form The Syndicate, and some are angry that they so corporate that they are no longer criminals. Leading the pack is Gans (Jay C. Flippin) who thinks they should focus on heroin and other hard drugs before someone else moves in. Charlie says they made record profits *legally*, why push their luck? Mob Lawyer Lou (Everett Sloane) agrees. But Gans is the up and comer, like Mantegna’s Joey Zasa in GODFATHER 3, and thinks heroin is the new Prohibition... and they could become so powerful the government couldn’t touch them. Charlie gets angry and... collapses to his chair, grabbing for his heart pills.



At Charlie’s estate, doctor brother Tony (John Marley... from THE GODFATHER) attends to Charlie as Lou looks on. Charlie and Tony are hardly on speaking terms these days, but Tony is still his doctor. Tony tells Charlie he needs to get his anger under control, that’s what triggered the heart attack today... and then calls his bother scum for being part of the drug trade and says goodbye to Lou and goes back to the hospital. When he’s gone, Charlie and Tony discuss their heroin business... should they drop it? Tony says they should either drop it or get into it 100 percent. Charlie wants desperately to be legitimate, to put his criminal past behind him and decides to get out: *not* allow any part of the syndicate to import or sell drugs.

At the next meeting, Charlie proposes they stop being part of the drug traffic... Gans argues that it’s millions of dollars being thrown away, and they should *focus* on the heroin business and make even more money. Lawyer Lou offers to mediate the dispute between the two men, and most of the other mobsters are dismissed from the meeting. Charlie and Gans face off, the argument becomes heated, comes to blows... and Charlie has another heart attack, reaching for his pills. Gans pulls them away. Charlie reaches, reaches, reaches for his pills. Can’t get them. Dies of a heart attack.



Twist: Lawyer Lou was in on it... afraid that Gans *would* take over the mob, and the mob is 98 percent of Lou’s business. He couldn’t survive if Charlie lost control, so he went along with Gans and kept his job.

Charlie’s funeral: all three boys together again, but one is dead.

Gans in now in control... and wants to go full force into the drug business. When some of the legit business guys and Lawyer Lou think they should not get into it, or at least be very very cautious, Gans rubs out one of them making it look like suicide. The problem with the suicide? It splashes mud on everyone else in the syndicate including Lawyer Lou. For Lou the plan has backfired: he never really wanted to be *Gans* lawyer. In trying to save his income he has sold his soul and is liable to go down with *Gans*. He decides to turn states evidence against Gans and the mob... not knowing that Gans has his phones tapped, and after cutting a deal, leaves to turn himself in... and is shot dead in the street by Gans. But the police arrive and shoot it out with Gans and his men, the end. Everyone who lived by violence has died by violence.



Review: There are a handful of THRILLER episodes that are crime dramas and seem like rejected episodes of THE UNTOUCHABLES that found their way to THRILLER. This is one of them. Many TV shows take a while to figure out what they are, and that must have been even more difficult with an anthology show like THRILLER. There are no continuing characters and no continuing storyline, and for a while no specific *genre*. Hitchcock has a history of films which set the tone for his show, but even that show had occasional episodes that didn’t seem to fit. Hey, it’s television, we have to make a one hour show every single week! Eventually THRILLER would find itself and center on suspense with a touch of weird tales thrown in, but this week it was a crime drama.

And the accent is on the *drama* here, as most of the episode takes place in the mob’s boardroom with dangerous men... talking. This episode could easily have been a stage play about corporate politics instead of organized crime. So it seems slow and stagey, and they chunk of stock footage from some other gangster movie or show with all of the car chases and explosions and tommy gun fights looks even more like stock footage because of it. And doesn’t really inject any action into the episode. Even the three murders on screen, Charlie’s and the other mobster who doesn’t go along with Gans and Lou’s, don’t have any have action. Lawyer Lou’s is the only one with the kind of action you’d expect in a gangster story: he gets plugged in a drive by. Charlie’s comes closest to being suspenseful (THRILLER materialz) because they have to hold him away from his pills long enough to die. Actually an okay scene. The other murder is off screen, with only the discovery of the body on screen. Imagine THE GODFATHER without the violence or the pageantry.

The scene with Charlie and his pills comes in the last half of the episode! That gives you an idea of how much talk there is. And after Charlie is dead... more talk!



One of the great things this episode does is give us a “bridge” between the boys and their adult counterparts, most notably with Cesare/Charlie who slaps his hand on a table hard when making a point. We end with the boy Cesare slapping his hand down and, after the credits and montage, begin with Charlie slapping his hand down on the board room table. Easy for the audience to understand that the boy is now this man. Things like this are part of old school screenwriting and I fear are being lost these days.

It’s great to see John Marley in a GODFATHEResque story made almost 15 years before that film... but his character vanishes at the end. After Charlie’s funeral he isn’t in a single scene. I would have squeezed him in at the very end, just because he *is* the surviving brother. Technically fine, and watchable. But the *next* episode gets us back on course to what THRILLER would become.

FADE OUT

Bill

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Flashback: My First Agent

A rerun from the first year of the blog...

Another one of those flashbacks that screenwriting gurus hate...

After my first screenwriting career writing Drive In Movies (NINJA BUSTERS) ended, I got a job working for Safeway in their liquor warehouse. Driving a fork lift and Big Joe stacker. I did that full time for almost ten years, writing scripts in my spare time and on my days off. I wrote just under 30 scripts in that decade... and got an agent on one of them.

Now I had a Hollywood agent! Cool! I had sent out about a bunch of query letters - targeting agents in Los Angeles. My thinking was - because I lived out of town I wanted an agent who lived in the same city as the producers. Why should both of us be out of town? I kept hammering the same list of agents with query letters until I got somewhere around 3 positive responses, sent scripts and signed with the first agent to say "yes".

This was a mistake.... but what was tragic at the time I now find pretty funny. I had somehow signed with the worst agent in the world - and every time I thought it couldn't get worse, it always did!

My agent had an LA address - in the San Fernando Valley. The letter he sent me was on cheap letter-head stationary and filled with blotches of white out. I was working on a Commodore 128 computer and my query letters were mistake-free, but this was the mid-1980s and the world was still switching over from typewriters to computers. Many offices still had their big IBM Selectrics and bottles of correction fluid. I figured the agent's secretary wasn't as worried about impressing me as I had been about impressing them. And they were probably using the old stationary for me, and saving the expensive stuff for people who mattered.

My agent (it was cool to say that) asked for 10 copies of the script I'd sent him. I made them up and sent them in 2 shipping boxes. He said he would begin sending them out right away. I went to work every day hoping to come home to that phone call that would change my life. When it didn't come for a few months, I decided to call my agent for a progress report. He answered the phone himself, said the script had gone out and he was still waiting for responses from producers. I told him I had a NEW script, and he asked for 10 copies. I made them up and sent them on my next day off. For a while I was sending ten copies of every new script... and my agent would send them out and we'd wait for the producers to get back. The producers always seemed to be looking for rom-coms or comedies or some other genre than what I'd written. Was he sending them to the wrong producers? He wouldn't tell me who he'd been sending the scripts to... so I decided to help by sending a list of suggestions for each of the scripts I'd already sent him.

After that he began sending me the rejection letters or telling me what the producers had said over the phone. I was getting photocopies of letters from The Thom Mount Company and Silver Pictures and other big companies praising the scripts, usually saying that they were developing a similar project or were looking for a script that could star a particular actor, and make sure that they get a chance to read any new scripts from this writer. Mount and Silver wanted to meet with me, but my agent told them I lived out of town. He took care of sending follow up scripts, and I often disagreed with his choices but at least my agent was actually calling me on a regular basis - cool!

I continued to send 10 copies of every new script, and a list of potential buyers. I read an ad in the back pages of Variety looking for a jungle adventure script... and sent a copy of that ad with my new script TREASURE HUNTER (which originally took place in the Amazon). I pressed him to send them the script, he finally did, and the company wanted to option it! My first Hollywood deal!

It was a German production company, and they weren't going to pay for my airfare or hotel. My agent said he'd do the whole deal himself, but I wanted to BE THERE. So I took the time off from work, bought an airplane ticket and made a hotel reservation, and flew to Los Angeles. I was about to get my big break! Despite the cruddy letterhead, my agent had landed me a deal! I had the greatest agent in the world!

I would find out just how great my agent was when I flew to Hollywood to make the deal. I landed at LAX and waited for my agent to pick me up. Whenever a Mercedes or BMW circled near the arrivals area, I expected it to pull to the curb. They just zoomed past. In Hollywood, presentation is very important - so I knew that he drove a fancy car... even if it leased. I was driving a fairly new blue Ford Taurus at the time (thanks to Safeway Credit Union). Maybe my agent drove a Rolls? Or was sending a Town Car? I kept smiling at drivers whenever a luxury car passed by...

Eventually this beat up old Datsun 4 door pulled to the curb, and my agent swiped all of the junk off the passenger seat so that I could sit down. I had to throw my single piece of luggage in the back seat - he told me his trunk was full (of what?). The passenger window was broken and a piece of plastic tarp had been duct taped over it - it was hot but you can't roll down a piece of plastic tarp. Okay... so my agent didn't drive a pretentious luxury car... or keep his old crappy car very clean.... he probably made up for it with his skills as a deal maker, right?

We went directly to the meeting in Beverly Hills. A small office that I think was on Beverly Blvd. The producer was there, as well as a director. These guys had made a couple of small films with casts from recently canceled TV shows and people like George Kennedy who usually played the sidekick. Their previous film starred George Lazenby - the only one film James Bond. This wasn't going to be a big blockbuster, but was going to be a big film for these guys. I was excited.

When they made their first (low) offer, my agent wanted to take it. I thought we should at least TRY to get more money. Because my agent was playing the good guy, I decided I'd better play the bad guy - I told them when they were ready to make a serious offer, they could contact my agent... and I left the office. My agent was shocked. I got about halfway down the block before the pudgy little producer caught up with me, explaining that was just a starting point in the negotiations.

We agreed on $40,000 with a $5,000 option for six months.

When we got back to my agent's pseudo-car, he chewed me out for making waves - I could have blown the deal! Why did I leave the office and make the producer chase me? Why did I ask for so much money? Why didn't I just let him handle the deal?

As we pulled away from the curb leaving a thick cloud of smoke that drifted over Beverly Blvd, I asked if we'd be going back to his office. "NO!" Instead he'd buy me a celebratory dinner. We'd closed a big deal ($40k is a big deal?) and now it was time to celebrate. Would he take me to Chasens (down the street) where Hitchcock dined? Or Spago? Or Mortons? Or one of those trendy LA places where the stars hung out? "Do you drink?" he asked me. A weird question - but maybe he was going to splurge on a bottle of champagne. Some restaurants had better wine cellars than others. If he was planning on order a bottle of Dom Perignon 1957 (like James Bond) you probably have to select a restaurant that has a bottle in their cellar. "Yeah. I've been known to have a beer or two." "A beer drinker! That's perfect!" Sure - a beer drinker would be more impressed with a bottle of 1957 Dom than a wine connoisseur would. We drove into the luxurious Hollywood Hills...

And over the hills into the Valley. We ended up at this crappy bar near the Van Nuys airport that had beer by the pitcher... and a free Happy Hour buffet. After buying the pitcher and handing me a glass, he pointed to the chicken wings and mini-tacos and said "Dinner!" Not exactly Chasens or Spago... or even Denny's. I ate as many chicken wings as I could, but still ended up hammered and hungry and half-deaf from the airplanes flying right over the bar's roof and landing a few feet away. After happy hour was over, he drove me back to my hotel. I ended up walking down the street to a Denny's and getting an actual meal as soon as he was gone.

The next morning I took a taxi to his office before my flight. It was an 8 by 8 room without any windows over a motorcycle repair shop in the slums of Reseda. No secretary - no room for a secretary. With the door closed, the place was like a cave... or maybe like a closet (except for the din of guys using power tools to repair motorcycles). His office might have been in Los Angeles, but it was about as far away from Hollywood as you can get. I found out that his other clients were mostly washed up rock bands from the 1960s - one hit wonders that you didn't know were still around. He was a nice guy, but not much of an agent. I flew back home that afternoon, got my $5,000 check a few weeks later, but the Germans never made the film and allowed the option to expire.

A couple of months later I went to the American Film Market in Los Angeles for the first time (and adventure I'll chronicle later) and I collected a stack of business cards from companies looking for scripts. One particular company had just co-produced their first feature with a Swedish company - a low budget horror movie - and planned on making a couple of films a year. They needed scripts! I'd pitched them one of the scripts that the Mount Company and Silver Pictures had liked, and it was EXACTLY what they were looking for. The VP of Production told me: "Have your agent messenger it to me on Monday." Cool! I had a potential deal with a brand new company with an upcoming theatrical release. I was in on the ground floor.

I drove by my agent's office on the way home and over the din of power tools told him to make sure he messengered a copy of that script to the company on Monday morning. I offered to stay over an extra night and take it myself, but my agent yelled that he'd take care of it. The entire 8 hour drive home I was excited - I probably wouldn't be working at the warehouse much longer! I worked all day Monday on adrenaline (no sleep) but still had trouble falling asleep that night. Every day when I came home from work I expected a message on my machine from my agent that they wanted to buy the script. By this point in time I knew the Southwest Airline schedules by heart and knew the best inexpensive motel in the Beverly Hills area to stay in (the Holloway). I was prepared to fly down as soon as I got the phone call from my agent. After a couple of weeks with no message, I called for a progress report. My agent didn't know anything. I kept calling every week - still no word from the production company. Did they hate the script? Nina Jacobson at Silver and Bess Semans at Mount had loved it. Maybe they were waiting for the release of their horror movie? I called my agent every week for a progress report... MONTHS later he admitted he still hadn't gotten around to sending my script! By that time the film had come out, become a huge hit, and the window of opportunity had closed. Every agent in Hollywood was sending them scripts. The horror film was NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the company was New Line Cinema. Since then they have TWICE paid $4 million for a screenplay... and recently produced the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

I fired my agent soon afterwards. By then I had sold COURTING DEATH to a Paramount based company on my own and my second career in screenwriting was about to begin.

- Bill

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: DAVE (1993)

Happy President's Day!

Director: Ivan Reitman.
Writer: Gary Ross.
Starring: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella, Ving Rhames.


This week, because the President's Day Holiday was yesterday in the USA, we're going to look at the Carpraesque DAVE (1993) about a nice guy who runs a temp employment agency and has a side job as a celebrity look alike for the President, who ends up becoming the temp President when the real one goes into a coma. This is a sweet film that managed to do it all: it’s a great film about American Politics, it has traces of romantic comedy, it’s shows the corrupt back alley deals that go in on (a version of the real life Keating Five Savings And Loan Scandal), it’s about a regular guy taking on the establishment (like Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON) and it’s a fun comedy. Oh, and it’s probably the first film I ever noticed Ving Rhames in, because he steals the show as the President’s #1 Secret Service Agent. He has a line at the end that makes me tear up every time I see the movie, and the way that line is set up is a great lesson in screenwriting.

Crap, now I have to talk about that, huh?



First we need to have the story set up...

Okay, the story has Dave Kovick (Kevin Kline), a nice guy who just wants everyone to have a job on Monday morning so that they can pay their rent by the end of the month, picked to be a “decoy President”... not by the Secret Service, but by the President’s cronies played by the always evil Frank Langella and comic turned actor Kevin Dunn. You see, the President has a girlfriend (played by Laura Linney before we knew her name!) and would like to slip away from the press to meet with her in a hotel. So while Dave is leading the Press in one direction, the real President is going in another direction. The President is stiff, overly serious, and a bit of a dick. Dave, while walking down a hallway in front of the press accidentally adds a little humanity to the President, and is sure they will be mad at him for doing that. You know, he could use the extra money being a Presidential decoy now and then.

But the President’s tryst with his girlfriend goes wrong... he has a stroke mid stroke and goes into a coma. Usually the Vice President would be sworn into office at this time, but Langella and Dunn think the V.P. (Ben Kingsley) is a “boy scout” who won’t go along with the President’s not so nice policies; and hatch a scheme. *Dave* will continue to pretend to be President (but be less visible for a while), they will keep him away from the First Lady (who sleeps in a separate room anyway) (played by Sigourney Weaver), the V.P. will be sent on a tour of foreign countries to get him out of the way, they will pin a scandal on the V.P. while he’s away to discredit him, accept the V.P.’s resignation, and then Dave will appoint Langella acting V.P... and then the President will “have a stroke” and Dave will go back to his temp employment agency as the real President will publically go to the hospital and... well, Langella will take over as President and run the country instead of just being the puppet master behind the President. Great plan!

Except for Dave.

While pretending to be the President Dave is a nice guy who realizes the President’s policies are often not so nice. They often benefit the President’s cronies more than the American people. So when President Dave has a chance to do something good, he does it... making Langella very angry. Dunn is the “pivot character” here who starts out as an antagonist but is won over by Dave and becomes his ally.

Which brings us to that great set up and pay off...

Early in the film, when Dave first gets the job as temp President, he asks the Secret Service Agent played by Ving Rhames if it’s true that Secret Service Agents would take a bullet for the President. Rhames says he would gladly sacrifice his life for the President. Dave asks if Rhames would take a bullet for *him*? Rhames gives him a look. Dave realizes he’s in trouble if someone shoots at him...

This is a great gag...

But also secretly sets up one of the last lines of the movie, when Rhames says he’d gladly take a bullet for Dave. This is one of those big moments that comes out of nowhere and makes your eyes moist.

DAVE is one of those films that manages to be both sweet and savage at the same time. If you haven’t seen it, or just haven’t seen it in a while, check it out.



Bill

Thursday, February 16, 2017

STRUCTURING YOUR STORY Blue Book - Coming Soon!

Coming Soon!

STRUCTURING YOUR STORY Blue Book


WHAT IS STRUCTURE?

William Goldman says the most important single element of any screenplay is structure. It’s the skeleton under the flesh and blood of your story. Without it, you have a spineless, formless, mess... a slug! How do you make sure your structure is strong enough to support your story? How do you prevent your story from becoming a slug? This Blue Book explores different types of popular structures from the basic three act structure to more obscure methods like leap-frogging. We also look at structure as a verb as well as a noun, and techniques for structuring your story for maximum emotional impact. Most of the other books just look at *structure* and ignore the art of *structuring* your story. Techniques to make your story a page turner... instead of a slug!

SUBJECTS INCLUDE: Creative Steps, Hero’s Journey, Save The Cat, Seven Act Structure, Nine Act Structure, Leap-Frogging, Navajo Story Circle, Asian Structures, War Movies & Heist Films (2 Acts), Freytag’s Pyramid, Sequencing, Structural Freaks like “Pulp Fiction”, and strange story forms. How to use Chapters, Flash Backs, Parallel Chronology as in “Run, Lola, Run”, scrambled chronology as in the films of Nicholas Roeg, the importance of “flow”, and many many other freaky storytelling methods! Also professional techniques to structure your story - scene order, withholding information, twists, proper use of flashbacks, and dozens of other methods to create an exciting story.

Coming Soon!
Introductory Price: $3.99 ($1 off!)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Do You Care? Act Like It!

From *ten years ago*!

Okay, I’m not an actor... I don’t even play one on TV. I have done some acting in the past - in high school it was the only creative class available (for some reason, they didn’t have creative writing class - just your standard English) - but I never really wanted to be an actor. Much of my time in acting class was either trying to see Janet Englebert in her underwear backstage, or trying to round up actors to be in one of my projects. Let me tell you - being the straight guy in an acting class gives you an advantage. I took exactly one semester of acting in Community College - to find a girlfriend and cast my short films. That worked out okay.

I have some friends who act, and my friend John directs stage plays in the Bay Area. So does my friend Dennis, who I met when I cast him in a short film I made about killer mice. I know a bunch of people in the Concord/Walnut Creek, CA area who act, and when I moved to LA I was also appearing every weekend at the Onstage Theater in Pleasant Hill, CA in a play called CHEATERS - I was a Televangelist on the TV. It was kind of fun, because I was on stage almost 400 miles away from where I was working on a script - you *can* be two places at once!

5 SECONDS OF SCREEN TIME

Since then, the only acting I do is a cameo in films I write. The Hitchcock thing. One summer I saw every single Hitchcock movie at the Telegraph Theater in Berkeley. The funny thing was - there was this group of people (together) who would just get up and leave after the Hitchcock cameo! They missed some great movies because they onky saw a few minutes of them.

So, I always write in a "featured extra" role with the intent of playing it. When they made TREACHEROUS, they shot it Mexico and didn’t pay for me to fly down... so you won’t see me in that movie. I’m also not in HARD EVIDENCE (shot in Canada). You’ll find me in the non-USA cuts of VICTIM OF DIRECTOR as the dead guy in the morgue that Pete Spellos is about to cut open - they cut me out of the USA version. That was a difficult role (dead guy) because I wrote all of this funny material for the Medical Examiner... then Pete knocked it out of the park with his delivery. I had to remain still (I was dead) while this actors was saying hysterical things a few inches away. I ruined a take when Pete took a wax pencil and - like an artist - trying to figure out the perfect place to make the incision, marking it with the pencil.

I’m also in VIRTUAL COMBAT as a homeless guy with a sign that says "Will Work For Credit" at the railroad yards. I’m in NIGHT HUNTER as the piss stained drunk who grabs the hero, looking for a handout, and almost gets him captured by the police. That’s actually my favorite role - I get a big juicy close up. I’m in INVISIBLE MOM (shot at the same time) as TEAMSTER #2. They "forgot" to call me for CRASH DIVE and BLACK THUNDER and CROOKED. I show up in CYBERZONE as one of the guys in the "pirate bar" and spent the day watching Brinke Stevens strip over and over again - not a bad day! For STEEL SHARKS I played the fattest whitest guy in the Iranian Army - and the director hated me and cut me out of the movie after keeping me up *all night* waiting for my scene. Sometimes I’m in the film, sometimes I’m not. It’s never in the contract, I just make a deal with the director. If the director doesn’t like me, I probably won’t be in the movie.

READY FOR MY CLOSE UP

Well, my friends at the SoCal Film Group (I plug them in the new issue of Script Magazine) asked if I would do a cameo in a short film... and they put me in a role with almost no dialogue (they don’t know I’m a thespian) as Pizza Delivery Guy. So, I did half of my role a couple of weeks ago and finished it off yesterday. Though I think it all worked out, I was not ready for me close up. After having dinner with my friend Louis I planned on spending an hour in Starbucks reading over my script - which I hadn’t looked at for weeks... but one of the writer-directors of those horror movies from the Trilogy Of Terror entries was there and would not stop talking about his new project - so I showed up on set completely unprepared - the director’s nightmare. I read over my lines, did okay - except I kept forgetting some clever wording in one place. I eventually got one take right. Yeah, this from the guy who is bitching about Busey ignoring his dialogue in CROOKED.

But let me tell you about a couple of weeks ago - the short is a fake DVD behind the scenes extra... on what has got to be the worst movie of all time. So it’s interviews (yesterday) along with footage from the movie and out takes (shot a couple of weeks ago).

Now, if you live outside the USA you may think that shorts are a big thing... because they actually make them and show them in your country. Not here. No one ever sees shorts. They play in film festivals - then no one ever sees them again. Studios don’t fund them, producers don’t fund them, the government doesn’t fund them... Short films are made by someone cracking open their piggy bank and convincing people to work for free. There’s no profit, so there’s no pay. The *film* is the payment - and most people work on shorts in exchange for a copy of the short when it is finished. An actor might want it for their reel, same thing with the DP and director and... well, the craft services (snacks) were really good on this film, but I can’t see this short getting the craft services person any work. Hard to tell how good the food was when you watch the movie. But - this is a no pay gig. You make short film in the USA because you love making movies.

Which brings me to this actor a couple of weeks ago. I have almost no dialogue - nothing to memorize. This guy is one of the leads in the fake bad movie - and this is a scene from the movie. He has freakin’ pages of monologue. Okay - no pay... but this guy has it memorized. Not only does he have it memorized, he figures out physical things to do (business) while he’s doing the monologue that are... Genius. I mean - amazingly funny. He does the monologue - and we have to bite our tongues to stop from laughing - it’s an OSCAR worthy performance. Brilliant. Cut... let’s do it again. And he does a different version with just as much energy... and different really funny business! He does several takes - all at full force, all with really funny business. He’s doing amazing work, all for a copy of the short film.

I feel like a slacker for just memorizing my *line* and offering the director a couple of different ways I can say it.

There are people who don’t give their all when they are writing. You don’t want to be one of those people. You want to be the person who blows everyone away with your commitment, hard work, passion, creativity, and preparedness - even if you are just working for a copy of the danged short. You want to be the writers who goes the extra mile - even if there is nothing in it for you...

Because writing well is its own reward.

And people *do* notice.

- Bill

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: American Friend (1977)



Directed by: Wim Wenders.
Written by: Wim Wenders based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kruezer, Gerard Blain, Sam Fuller & Nicholas Ray
Director Of Photography: Robby Muller.
Music: Jürgen Knieper.

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is getting a longform TV version from the writer of LUTHER, so let's look at another story in the Ripley series...

One of the things I have realized over the years is that the films you saw when you first *really* got into movies become your favorites because they opened doors in your mind that you didn’t even know existed. Often someone younger than I (that doesn’t take much these days) mentions one of their favorite film... and it’s some movie I think is a piece of crap. Of course, I saw it later in life when whatever door that movie opened for them had already been opened for me... so instead of being amazed at whatever the film did, I compared it to all of the other films that did that and found it lacking. But the same thing happens to me frequently: those young people who had the door opened by their film finally get around to seeing mine and think, “What’s the big deal?” This has taught me to be less judgmental about those films people love. Better that they love films than not love them!

So, in the 70s I caught this film because someone called it “Hitchcockian” and became a fan of Wim Wenders (to this day). This is not the usual Wenders film at all, but I found it fascinating that he actually understood how to make a suspense film: he knew how to use the camera to tell the story and use editing to create suspense. When someone shows that they know how to do something difficult like this, I cut them a lot of slack when they go off and do their own thing in their own style. So I was a fan of his films which are often valentines to America. He can take a 9 year old girl and turn her into the tour guide for America - seeing our world through her eyes... or show us small town life in Texas, or give us a Hollywood full of conspiracies and crime, or the great America road trip... in Germany! But I first discovered him with this Hitchcockian film based on a Patricia Highsmith RIPLEY novel about a normal dad and husband who discovers he is dying of a rare disease and is offered a fortune to leave for his family... all he has to do is kill a guy. A total stranger. A mobster the world would be better off without. Could you kill someone to help your family?



As you can see, BREAKING BAD's concept really owes a lot to AMERICAN FRIEND... the idea of a quiet intelligent man doing terrible things that are against the law to provide for his family because he is terminally ill... and killing a bunch of gangsters in the process... is the basic story of both. In both the lead must keep his side job secret from his wife and kid, and when it is discovered instead of appreciating the *huge* personal and emotional sacrifices he has gone through to provide for his family, they turn against him and he must fight to win them back. The parallels are strong between the two... which makes me wonder why nobody ever mentioned it.

Wenders was a genius for combining Highsmith’s RIPLEY'S GAME and RIPLEY UNDER WATER (the second and third novels in the series after THE TALENTED MR.) and then taking Jonathan's point of view instead of Ripley's. Instead of being the puppet master's story, we get the puppet... who finds himself in over his head just to provide for his family after he dies. The story is filled with twists and turns and has a bit of that 70's stillness used in films like THE PARALLAX VIEW. The film is also filled with music, and a love for The Beatles... and Volkswagen Beetles. Beautifully shot by Robby Muller, with a great score by Jürgen Knieper (who also scored RIVER’S EDGE), the film has a deliberate pace that works for the story...

Jonathan (Bruno Ganz who would later play Hitler in that DOWNFALL movie that you haven’t seen but *have* seen that one scene where Hitler loses it in a million memes) is a picture framer whose wife (Lisa Kreuzer) works for an auction house, and when he is introduced to Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper, I wish it had been John Malkovich who played this role in a remake) he refuses to shake his hand. Ripley feels insulted, and later when a Paris mobster Minot (Gerard Blaine) is looking for an assassin who can not be traced back to the mob, Ripley gives him Jonathan. You see, Jonathan has a rare blood disease may not have long to live. So Minot approaches Jonathan and offers him a second opinion at the most prestigious hospital in Europe... all expenses paid... as long as Jonathan listens to his offer afterwards. Jonathan goes in for the test... and Minot creates *forged* results saying that Jonathan is knocking on death’s door. Then offers Jonathan a job killing a mobster on a train. Here’s the thing: worst that can happen if Jonathan is caught is that he’ll die before trial, and his family will still get the money and be provided for. Jonathan reluctantly agrees... and then goes to kill the man. Except it’s never as easy as you think. This leads to one of the most intense suspense scenes I’ve seen as Jonathan can’t find the right time to shoot the guy... and every second he hesitates is a chance to be caught!



Eventually he kills the mobster, only to find out there are more mobsters to be killed and Minot wants Jonathan to kill a well guarded mobster on a train. (Lots of trains in this film, it *is* by Highsmith who wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN). This time he is *way* over his head and his whole life spirals out of control. One of the things I swiped from this film for my HARD EVIDENCE script that was made for USA Network was the way the protagonist feels he can’t tell his spouse about this problems, when he needs all of the help he can get. Eventually Jonathan admits everything to his wife and they team up to resolve the conflict... though not in the way they thought.

One of the great things are all of the cameos by film directors. Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray (playing the dead painter Derwatt from RIPLEY UNDERGROUND) and Lou Castel. Wenders was a real fan of American noir films and cast his heroes in the film... later he would make a documentary about Ray’s final days.



The film is an interesting hybrid between studio movie and European arthouse, technically really well made but still focusing on character and those small moments (I love when Jonathan is playing with his son or trying to get two halves of a frame to come together. This film along with Wender’s Polanskiesque GOALIES ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK are slick Hollywood style films with that indie bent. He knew how to do dolly shots and crane shots and make a film that looks bigger than it probably was. His other films like ALICE IN THE CITY and THE WRONG MOVE and KINGS OF THE ROAD have a ragged indie feel to them. Oh, and this film landed him a big Hollywood picture, HAMMETT (the dude who wrote THE MALTESE FALCON based on a novel by Joe Gores... though the movie throws out almost everything from the book), and the failure of that Hollywood film lead to the success of PARIS, TEXAS and WINGS OF DESIRE. He’s done some interesting work since then on films like UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD and THE END OF VIOLENCE and the doc BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB and he has a new movie out this year.



- Bill

Monday, February 13, 2017

Lancelot Link Monday: Pre-Oscar Awards

Lancelot Link Monday! As we close in on the Oscars Big Night, other awards are given out! You know how it's the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & *Sciences*? Well they gave out the science awards! You'll see a clip of this on the real Oscars - usually they find the hottest young actress in Hollywood and put her in the skimpiest gown and then have her call the names of the nerdy tech guys when they win - and it's that time in middle school when you were secretly admiring Debbie Morrow's new cleavage right before the bell rings and you had to put your science book in front of your trousers so that yo could leave the room without embarrassment. I think the Academy is secretly considering putting the screenwriting awards in the Science Awards because screenwriters are, for the most part, not pretty. Who wants to see us on camera (aside from our moms)? While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...




Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...


1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Lego Batman ................... $55,635,000
2 50 Shades ...................... $46,797,825
3 JW2 ............................ $30,015,000
4 Split ........................... $9,321,110
5 Hidden .......................... $8,000,000
6 Dog Purpose ..................... $7,365,335
7 Rings ........................... $5,820,000
8 La La ........................... $5,000,000
9 Lion ............................ $4,083,000
10 Space ........................... $1,760,000


Note the big numbers for the top three films - this was a crowded weekend! SPLIT at #4 is a huge hit, made for pocket change. Once again, this year's box office is beating last year's. Hollywood is doing great!

2) Well, He's Really Big In China!

3) BAFTA Award Winners (British Oscars).

4) Technical Oscar Awards Winners.

5) Tim Sutton On Violence In Indie Films.

6) PLANET OF THE BATMANS?

7) Coen Brothers - THE BIG SCARFACE? "My little friend really tied the room together."

8) We Have Some Notes On That Scene...

9) MGM Buys The Rock's New Film At Berlin Film Market.

10) Scriptor Award Winners.

11) The Failure Of Charlie Kaufman.

12) WGA Contract Update... Will I Have To Run My Strike Tip Again?

And the Car Chase Of The Week:



Okay, not a car chase...

Bill

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Thursday, February 09, 2017

THRILLER Thursday: Mr. George.

BEST OF THRILLER THURSDAY: Mr. George.

(Though I have the next episode in season 2 ready to go - I haven't pulled all of the images, yet... and am exhausted today. So I'm playing hooky and doing a rerun.)

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 32.
Airdate: May 9, 1961

Director: Ida Lupino
Writer: Donald Sanford based on a story by Stephen Grendon
Cast: Gina Gillespe, Virginia Gregg, Lillian Bronson, Howard Freeman.
Music: Sweet Jerry Goldsmith score.
Cinematography: John Warren.
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Our little friend Priscilla is obviously on urgent business. But in a cemetery, you say? Ah, my friends, this is no ordinary child as you can see, oh no indeed. You see, she has a very special friend and protector resting here. Oh yes, to the rest of the world her friend is properly deceased and quite quite cold. But since Priscilla is not aware of adult concepts of life and death she simply knows that Mr. George has changed his address. That’s the title of our story, Mr. George, and it concerns the fearful effect his untimely demise has on our leading players. They are: Virginia Gregg, Lillian Bronson, and Howard Freeman... and most importantly, Priscilla herself as played by Miss Gina Gillespe. And Mr. George. I warn you, hold tight to your own concepts of life and death because before the hour has ended Priscilla and her special guardian may change them.”



Synopsis: A mansion (Munster House) at the turn of the century. A little girl Priscilla (Gina Gillespie) watches from the top of the stairs until the adults have left the entryway to the house, then sneaks out to see Mr. George... at a graveyard. She goes to his tombstone and leaves a note on his grave... she wants him to come back and live with them.

Meanwhile, the adults are discussing their problem. Priscilla’s mother was wealthy and owned this house. When she passed away, the house and money was put in a trust for Priscilla with Mr. George (the family lawyer... and maybe Priscilla’s mother’s lover) as executor. Now that Mr. George has died, the trust will be passed to Judge Lambeau... who doesn’t trust these adults, who are Priscilla’s cousins: slightly crazy Adelaide Leggett (Lillian Bronson), stuffy Jared Leggett (Howard Freeman) and scheming Edna Leggett (Virginia Gregg). Edna’s dreams of wealth aren’t going to happen on the monthly allowance from Priscilla’s trust. Edna is already scheming: if Priscilla dies, they are next in line for the fortune. Jared goes upstairs...



Just as Priscilla returns. She waits until he’s gone before sneaking upstairs to her room... but she hits the squeaky step, and Edna races out to catch her. But Priscilla is already gone. Did she hear them plotting?

Edna tries to convince Jared to make sure Priscilla has some sort of accident. Jared tells her not to say such things, especially around Adelaide, since she’s crazy and there’s no telling what she might do... and if she did something and was caught, well, she’d be out her share of the inheritance, right?

In Priscilla’s bedroom, the rocking chair next to the bed begins to move and Mr. George’s ghost (voice of Les Tremayne) talks to her. He verbally tucks her in, wishes her a good night, and then the light goes out (by itself?). It’s a really sweet scene... with an unseen ghost.

In the morning, Priscilla runs downstairs to find the cook gone. Edna has fired her along with the rest of the staff. Priscilla goes outside and has a tea party with her doll. She tells her doll how much she misses Mr. George... then the wind blows through the trees and Mr. George’s voice says that he’s back, to watch over her. She thinks Mr. George is playing hide and seek with her, and looks all over for him.



In the house, Adelaide grabs Edna and points out Priscilla talking to herself. Is Mr. George out there somewhere? Or just the kid’s imagination?

At breakfast, Priscilla tells them that Mr. George was talking to her. Jared tells her she must go to her room, and when she is ready to forget this nonsense she can come down. When she’s gone, Edna tells Adelaide she read in the newspaper about some children who climbed in an old trunk and the lid locked... and they suffocated. If such a thing were to happen to Priscilla, they’d all inherit her money.

Adelaide goes to Priscilla’s room and says she thinks she knows where Mr. George might be hiding... up in the attic. Let’s go up and look for him. Adelaide and Priscilla go up to the spooky attic, where Adelaide tries to get Priscilla to look in an old trunk. But when she gets close enough to push inside, Mr. George calls for her to run to her room. Adelaide yells for her to come back... and the trunk lid falls on Adelaide’s neck and kills her!



After Adelaide’s funeral, George’s sister Laura Craig (Joan Tompkins) comes to visit. When George was ill and thought he might be dying he wrote to Laura... telling her all about the evil cousins. There’s a nice moment where Edna, dressed entirely in black from the funeral, and Laura, dressed in a white hat and light colors; do a sort of verbal tug of war over Priscilla. Edna orders Priscilla go upstairs to her room, and they escort Laura out of the house. Darkness wins.

When Edna goes up to Priscilla’s room, the rocking chair is moving and the little girl is talking to Mr. George. Of course, Edna can’t hear him and thinks Priscilla just has an over active imagination. Orders her to stop fooling around and go down to dinner. Now. When they leave Jared walks past... and sees the rocking chair moving on its own. Could George’s ghost be haunting the house? Could George’s ghost have killed Adelaide?



The next day, Jared sees Priscilla on the swing and thinks this might make for a good accident... so he begins pushing her on the swing. Tells her his arms are getting tired and she should get off, then tries to push the swing at her head! Mr. George tells her to run to her playhouse, quick! The swing blasts at her head, missing it. Jared yells for her to come back... then notices the swing has stopped midair. How is that possible? Then it shoots down and hits Jared in the neck... killing him. Great swing POV shot as it moves back and forth over Jared’s body.

Another funeral wreath on the front doors of the house.

Edna finds Priscilla playing hide and go seek with her “imaginary friend” and punishes her. Priscilla says it is Mr. George. Edna asks how can she know who it is if she can’t see him? It’s all in her mind. Is it? Edna sends Priscilla to her room, then there is a knock at the door... Laura Craig. Judge Lambeau has given Laura custody of Priscilla. Light and darkness face off again. Edna can stay in the house. Laura will come to pick up Priscilla at 10am tomorrow.



The next morning Edna ties a piece of string across the top of the stairs and calls for Priscilla to come down. Priscilla starts to run down, but Mr.George tells her to go down the *back stairs* and go to the playhouse. Edna keeps yelling for Priscilla to come down stairs this minute! When she gets no answer, she goes upstairs to grab her... making sure the string is disconnected first. Priscilla isn’t upstairs. Edna blows a gasket and races downstairs... but the string *connects* all by itself! Edna trips and falls down the stairs to her death.

Priscilla meets Laura at the playhouse and they board the streetcar for Laura’s house. Priscilla tells Mr. George that he’ll have to hurry or he’ll be left behind. Mr. George tells her that Laura will look after her now, so this will have to be goodbye. Priscilla says goodbye to Mr. George (dare you not to cry) and the streetcar takes Priscilla to her new home, as the front gate to the old home closes by itself.



Review: This is a strange little story! A tale of ghosts and murder and revenge... that’s charming and heart warming! How do you maintain that balance for an hour? In a strange way this is similar to last week’s episode, since it deals with an underdog character surrounded by schemers... except this underdog is a completely innocent little girl who gets her revenge through her best friend who is a ghost. Not an evil ghost, but a protective ghost. Last week we had an adulterous wife and no shortage of men who don’t mind that she’s married, this week we get Killing Cousins. Both stories feature dark humor and a whimsical tone. It’s impossible not to root for the happy little girl when these downright evil people descend on her and try to steal her inheritance. While they scheme, she has fun! While they fight amongst themselves, she plays in the play house! They are all about money, she is all about just having a great time. And guess what wins in this parable?

One of the great things about this episode is that all three cousins die *by their own schemes*. Adelaide tries to trap Priscilla in an old trunk, and the trunk lid drops on her neck and kills her. Jared tries to kill Priscilla with the swing, not realizing that what goes up (out?) must come down... and the swing slamming into his throat and killing him. Edna creates the tripline on the top of the stairs, and then trips on it herself. It’s as if their own evil is killing them (with a little help from Mr. George).

Hey, Mr. George is an amazing character! He is never seen, but manages to make a real emotional impression on us. We love this (dead) guy! He seems to be as happy and playful in death as Priscilla is in life.



I mentioned the score in the credits, it’s a sweet Jerry Goldsmith score that kind of reminds you of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The innocence of childhood with a touch of seriousness (for those lessons we learn in childhood). In fact, this is kind of the ghost story version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD... similar tone of small town (even though this is a turn of the century city where Priscilla knows the driver of the horse drawn streetcar). There’s a real feeling of a simpler time.

Though this is Ida Lupino’s second episode on the series as a director (of nine), this shows what a remarkable director she was. She manages to maintain that tricky tone for the hour without a single fumble. She also does some wonderful camera work for an hour long show shot in a week. Other directors seem content to just set up the camera in the easiest spot and let the action unfold in front of it. Here Lupino opens with a complicated moving shot and then continues to pepper the episode of with great angle (that shot of the two evil aunts) and does an amazing shot where the camera is *on the swing* with Priscilla’s POV on the swing, and later a Swing Eye View as the swing passes back and forth over dead Uncle Jared. Cameras weighed a ton back then, so I have no idea how she pulled off this shot. It’s also a *haunting* shot, as the swing drifts back and forth over Jared’s corpse.

I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m a huge fan of hers, and her work in Film Noir both in front of the camera and behind the camera is remarkable. But how could her work as director on THE HITCH HIKER prepare her for an episode like this? This sweet, tear inducing, ghost story? Before her stint on THRILLER she directed 8 episodes of my favorite western show, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL. This is such a sweet episode, that it’s hard to believe she was directing a manly man western show before this! Or that she would direct the ultimate edge of the seat suspense episode of THRILLER only a few episodes from this.

Next week an episode directed by Paul Henreid (Victor Lazlo in CASABLANCA) about a famous pianist and his rival... and a war that goes beyond the grave.

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Passing Notes

From a decade ago...

Part of this job is taking notes... and trying to figure out which notes to follow, which to discuss, and which to discard. Sometimes discarding the note requires a whole lot of discussion first. I have no idea how much of my life is spent trying to figure out notes - but probably more time than I spend writing the script in the first place. I guarantee there will be many more blog entries about notes.

I have a handful of buddy action scripts that feature a male and female team. After 48 HOURS, there was a flood of action movies featuring culture clashes - running all the way up to RUSH HOUR. I thought that eventually someone would want to explore a different kind of clash - and what is more different than male and female? And, it was a good way to explore my love and confusion for the opposite sex... in scripts where lots of stuff explodes real good.

But I never expected that in this day and age producers still would have trouble with a story where women have guns. Producers keep telling me to change the woman into a character some rapper could play - and not Lil Kim (even though she has firearms experience) - a *male* rap star. If it were only that easy. Imagine trying to change ADAM'S RIB into a story about two male lawyers - just can’t work.

So, when a producer became interested in one of my male-female buddy action scripts and *didn’t* want me to change the woman into a man, I thought this was a good sign. One of these scripts might finally make it to screen.

Now, no money had changed hands, yet. So it’s the beginning of the producer-writer relationship - you want them to like you so that they will pop the question: can I give you a big fat check for your screenplay? You don’t want to say the wrong thing.

The notes at this stage usually aren’t for a rewrite - they are just feedback on the project. Kind of a getting to know you stage. You are learning what they intend to do with your script once they buy it. But one of the things that often happen at this stage is a request for an unpaid rewrite. Here’s how that works - the producer says they have a great connection with a studio, and want to set up your script there. But, you see, there’s one or two little things that need to be done to make the script "studio quality" before they take your script in. You see, they only have one shot at this, and they want it to be the best shot - your best shot, too. So, if you could just do these couple of minor changes, the script will probably end up at the studio. Sometimes they pull out the "reputation" argument - they have a reputation as a producer, and they just can’t give the script to the studio like this. They don’t want the door to close on *them*.

The reputation thing frequently steams me - because often the studio they are taking this script to has already shown interest in other scripts of mine (through other production companies actually on their lot) and this producer would be *lucky* to ride my script through the studio gates. I’m the one who should get to play the reputation argument...

But that’s not the way to get them to pop the question and give you that big fat check.

So I play nice, and smile and try to explain why I think the changes they request will turn something that already is "studio quality" into the sort of cheese they’ve been making. Many notes are designed to file down any sharp edges in the script and make it... bland.

On this script, the producer doesn’t play the reputation card, but they do want me to do a rewrite before he takes it in. If the notes are reasonable, I may do that. I figure this guy already likes the script the way it is - he doesn’t want me to change the female cop into a male rapper cop - maybe the notes will be minor changes that actually improve the script?

And the first note is just a dialogue change. There’s a scene where my female cop first meets the male cop and she has a witty remark. Could that remark go to the male cop? Well, maybe not the same remark- but some witty remark. Lose her line and give him one? Sure, I think I can do that.

The second note is also a dialogue change... in fact, it’s another witty remark by the female cop. The male cop already has a witty remark - but can I lose hers?

The third note... the fourth note... the fifth note...

All of the notes are about giving the male cop all of the witty lines. Now, this is *banter* where the two trade insults - and by removing her lines, all we have left is the male cop insulting the female cop for the entire script.

The first note I get that isn’t about dialogue is about a scene where the female cop saves the male cop’s life in a scene - which is a set up for a later scene where he saves her. And throughout the script part of their relationship is based on her saving his life - so he owes her. Guess what the producer wants to do? Can we switch the script so that the male cop saves her in the earlier scene... then also saves her in the later scene?

So, I start out discussing these notes. The problem with the dialogue notes is that if it’s all him insulting her - it stops being funny. Part of these exchanges are the back-and-forth nature... they build to (hopefully) bigger and bigger laughs. Without the back-and-forth there is no build and the it won’t be as funny.

The producer disagrees - it’s just better without her responses. It just is.

So I discuss the relationship between the two - and how that will suffer if everything is one sided.

The producer disagrees again.

Anyway - no matter how I try to explain why it’s better if you have two evenly matched people playing the game, he’s not having any of it.

Now, here’s where this guy went wrong: he didn’t bring in the audience. It was all "because he knows what works". If he had explained to me that the audience for films like this are 15-25 year old males who are already insecure around women and by having a woman be an equal or even *potentially* dominant character would scare them away - and the movie would flop, I would have understood that. I’m not sure I would have made the changes - but I would have really given it some thought.

As it was, these notes were discarded. The producer obviously had problems with women and wanted me to change the script to make him happy. Just as I am going to consider notes that may change the script from what *I* want in order to make it a better script, I am also going to discard any note that will change the script just to make it what one person wants - be that a star or director or producer. Notes are to improve the script or make it more "filmable" - sometimes changes need to be made for location or cast or other practical elements in order to physically make the film. I’m more than willing to make those changes, even if they end up with some silly stuff like changing the fear of spending time in a Mexican prison onto the fear of spending time in a Canadian prison (HARD EVIDENCE). Some things just have to be done in order to get the film made.

In this case, I told the producer I disagreed - I thought the notes would ruin the script.

And that pulled the plug on the deal.

And maybe closed the door at this production company, because instead of being a discussion of what might work or not work in a movie - it was all about what he thought worked (no reason). His instincts. His experiences in the trenches as a producer.

Now, I also have instincts. I also have experience in the trenches.

As a writer, I often know what works and what doesn’t just by instinct. That might be good enough when I’m writing the script, but it’s not god enough when I’m discussing the notes with a producer. There I need *evidence*. You can’t discuss feelings and instincts and opinions. We all have those. The only thing we can discuss as facts. That means we need to be able to figure out why one thing works and another doesn’t so that we can discuss the notes. We need to be able to cite evidence when we discuss notes, so that it’s not "he said, she said" but creative decisions based on a logical reason. And this goes for both sides of the table - producers and development executives need to be able to explain the reasons behind their notes.

So, that one isn’t going to get made. On to the next chance for glory....

- Bill

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: The Wind And The Lion

One of my favorite movies, and probably one you have never heard of... now on BluRay thanks to the wonderful people at Warner Archive.

Many people think that after the dark films of the 70s, STAR WARS came along and changed everything with its rousing story of adventure. But adventure was already a major component of 70s films, with John Huston’s epic adventure THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and this fun swashbuckler released a couple of years before STAR WARS and written and directed by one of Lucas’ friends, John Milius. There are sword fights and romance and cliff hangers and fantastic stunts and it all takes place in a world far away and many years ago.

It is a great film for 12 year olds of all ages - filled with larger than life characters and all kinds of romance and adventure. And *knowing* that it's a boy's adventure story it often takes the point if view of a 12 year old boy in the story.



John Milius is one of my favorite directors, and when I met him a few years ago this was the film I mentioned loving - even though many of his other films are also among my favorites. I start every day listening to the Basil Poledouris theme to CONAN THE BARBARIAN, and I thought PUBLIC ENEMIES paled big time in comparison to DILLINGER. They have tried remaking CONAN and RED DAWN without success and I believe part of that is because they missed Milius' point. His movies were usually about two strong people in combat - and the *respect* the combatants had for each other and the honor of a good fight. In the original RED DAWN the Cuban villain allows the Wolverines to remove their wounded in one scene - even though he could easily kill them and end his problems. But he is a man of honor - even though he is the villain. In the remake we have evil Korean villains who have no trace of humanity or honor. Just *eeeeevil*! Even though Milius and I have completely different political beliefs, he never demonizes the other side in his films. Though he may not agree with the opposing government’s goals (or maybe even the hero’s government’s goals - governments are usually corrupt), the warriors on the battlefield are not evil guys. His antagonists are not two dimensional mustache twirlers, they are real people.

The great thing about having two strong forces locked in battle is that you get to explore each character... plus there’s no shortage of action. This is something today's film makers (and production execs with stupid notes) should consider. Hitchcock said "The better the villain, the better the picture", and "better" includes being more fleshed out and dimensional. If a giant asteroid smashes earth, we don't *feel anything* about the asteroid... it's just a rock. We can't hate the asteroid... it's just a rock. The problem with the Korean villains in the RED DAWN remake is that they were just rocks... no trace of humanity that could pull out our emotions.




With THE WIND AND THE LION we have a story loosely based on an actual historical event - the kidnaping of two Americans in the middle east and the quest to get them back unharmed. In real life it was 64 year old American citizen Ion Perdicaris and his son, kidnaped by Berber warrior Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli and his horsemen from his villa in Morocco to secure a ransom and political power from the Sultan... and President Teddy Roosevelt famously said: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!” and moved in the Marines. As a romance between a dashing Berber warrior and some 64 year old dude probably wasn’t going to play in 1975, Milius changed the 64 year old man into an attractive young woman with her *two* children and as I said earlier, has the story seen through the eyes of the boy. Not accurate history, but it’s an adventure film not a documentary. Most of the other characters and even some of the dialogue remains true.

The film is a true epic - big action, big emotions, big romance, big stars and an amazing Jerry Goldsmith score. It’s like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA meets RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Sean Connery plays the Raisuli as a handsome sheik on horseback, a young Candice Bergan played Eden Perdicaris, and Brian Keith steals the show playing Teddy Roosevelt. The film is filled with great sword fighting scenes and some of the most amazing horse stunts you will ever see - lots of horses *indoors* on stairways and rooftop chases!

What is interesting is that our kidnaper is the *love interest* and the male lead in this story. The main conflict is between the Raisuli and Teddy Rosevelt... who never share a single scene. This telegram (from the film) sums up their conflict: “To Theodore Roosevelt - you are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours. - Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, Lord of the Riff, Sultan to the Berbers, Last of the Barbary Pirates.” Roosevelt sends his Marines to track down the Raisuli, and rescue Mrs. Pedecaris and her children.




Since Roosevelt and the Raisuli never share a scene, the story finds some excellent other forms of conflict. Mrs. Pedecaris is a prim and proper woman who is used to servants and elegant accommodations and manners... who is kidnaped and forced to take an extended camping trip in the desert where there is no indoor plumbing and no indoors. She wears many layers of clothing to preserve modesty, but these things aren’t exactly camping and horse riding attire. The Raisuli doesn’t help his side by chopping off the head of a thief in one scene... and forcing Mrs. Pedecaris to find a way to change clothes in front of his band of Barbary Pirates. So we have Pedecaris against the Raisuli, constantly battling each other (and falling in love along the way... this *is* a movie).

But we also have the politics. The Raisuli’s reason for kidnaping Mrs. Pedecaris is to force the Sultan and his uncle the Bashaw (Vladek Sheybal, who tangled with Connery in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE) into removing the foreign influences from the country. The place is *filled* with Americans and English and Germans and everybody else trying to make deals for the country’s resources, and sell European goods (like weapons) to the Sultan. The country has become corrupt, and the Raisuli believes they will be conquered through commerce by the west. The Germans end up the main negative influence in this story, probably because of those spiked helmets. But does this remind you of any other political situation? Wait, there’s more... because the USA sends in the Marines (lead by Steven Kanaly) to protect their interests and rescue Mrs. Pedecaris... which seems a bit like Viet Nam. Now, one of my other favorite Milius films BIG WEDNESDAY is *about* Viet Nam... and in that film he has one of the three leads make the decision to serve his country with honor while the other two don’t go to war. So Milius doesn’t seem to be on the anti war side of Viet Nam. But there are still traces of a meddling United States becoming involved with a foreign conflict that is such a rat’s nest that there’s no way we can understand it, let alone do anything to solve it. The real conflict is between the Sultan & Bashaw and the Raisuli... and the Raisuli is the Bashaw’s *brother*! (Wait, does that make the sultan Raisuli’s son? Maybe, never brought up.) There is nothing America can do to resolve the internal politics of this country.



Teddy Roosevelt is portrayed as a President who must do *something* after an American is kidnaped. He sends his Ambassador (the great Geoffrey Lewis) to try negotiation with the Sultan, hoping the Sultan will grant the Raisuli a section of the kingdom that will be free from foreign influences... but the Sultan is fickle and would rather play with his German machinegun. Many of the scenes concern Roosevelt’s love of nature, the building of the national parks system, and the Grizzly Bear he has shot on a hunting trip and wants to have stuffed and mounted... not as an inferior to humans, but as a fierce animal (kind of the king of the American jungle). John Huston plays his *slippery* Secretary Of State John Hay, who tries to manipulate the President... without success. The politics on both sides are convoluted and confusing... only the individuals like Roosevelt and the Raisuli have honor.

This film has a rousing score by Jerry Goldsmith which I bought on vinyl probably the day I first saw the film (there was a Soundtracks Only store in San Francisco) and I have it to this day (and a CD without as many scratches). If you don't know who Goldsmith was, he was probably the greatest modern film composer... and I prefer him over John Williams. He also scored CHINATOWN and THE BLUE MAX and THE OMEN and... well, lots of great scores! The film was shot by Billy Williams who was nominated a few times for Best Cinematography Oscar but only won once for GANDHI. Stunts by Terry Leonard, who also did the stunt coordination on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and APOCALYPSE NOW and RED DAWN and most recently on AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2.




When the film came out I was a teenager and movies still opened on Wednesdays and only opened in major cities... played there for a month or two, then opened in the suburbs (which used to be called “Roadshow”). So, to see the movie on opening day, my friend Dave and I drove all the way to San Francisco and saw the very first matinee. Not packed. But afterwards, we pretended to sword fight all the way back to the car. I saw the film one more time in San Francisco, then once when it played “roadshow” in Concord. This was one of those movies that got me excited about making movies when I grew up. I wanted to do big, exciting, swashbucklers like this!

The film was not a big hit, nor was it a flop. It did okay. What I always find strange is how people will find fault with some movie... and then ignore the same problem in some movie they like. The two big things critics disliked about this film were Sean Connery’s Middle Eastern accent (which sounded Scottish) and that they changed the kidnaped dude to a kidnaped chick. Has Connery ever had an accent in a movie that wasn’t Scottish? Did we ever care? And how many movies based on some true event stay completely true to what happened? They all dramatize things! Were there major complaints about SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE bending the facts? No - it was a movie! I think the critics thought it was *fun* when movies had been gritty and serious for the past few years. The year WIND came out was the same year ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and DOG DAY AFTERNOON and SHAMPOO came out. Nobody could see STAR WARS in the crystal ball. WIND AND THE LION wasn’t one of the top ten films that year, though a film Milius did some uncredited writing on called JAWS was #1.

THE WIND AND THE LION is one of those films that people fall in love with. I still love the film and watch the DVD probably once a year... and now it's out on BluRay!

Milius Interview:


Check out THE WIND AND THE LION on BluRay. It might make you feel like a 12 year old again, and you might sword fight with a broom... and break something.

One of my favorite films.

- Bill
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