Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Old Burt Lancaster

This week we’re going to look at Burt Lancaster’s career when other actors had long since retired. Robert Mitchum continued to play tough guys, Lancaster played *retired* tough guys the way Clint Eastwood plays roles like that today.

Lancaster was an interesting guy... A working class kid who was a high school athlete, landed a college sports scholarship but dropped out to become a *circus acrobat*. He also worked as a singing waiter before WW2, and when he returned from the war he auditioned for a play and landed on Broadway... where he was discovered by a talent agent (who would later become his producing partner). He was a handsome athletic guy who could sing and dance... and make women swoon. His first role was the *lead* in THE KILLERS with Ava Gardner directed by Robert Siodmak (who directed CRISS CROSS and some other great Lancaster films). Lancaster was kind of like the George Clooney of his day: he didn’t just want to play handsome men in typical Hollywood movies, he wanted to control his career... so he formed a production company and began making his own films. Like Clooney, these were often the kind of edgy and unusual films that the studios *wouldn’t* make... like SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. And Lancaster grabbed his circus pal Nick to do stunts and often co star in films. Lancaster was nominated for a pile of Oscars, won one for ELMER GANTRY, and continued to make interesting films throughout his career (a string of great films with John Frankenheimer, and the recently released to BluRay THE SWIMMER which is probably the weirdest movie ever made with a Hollywood star). But when he was getting up there in years... he seemed to be rediscovered.

Though the movie that really brought him back (he didn’t go anywhere) was ATLANTIC CITY in 1980, I’m going to start off with the only movie he directed, THE MIDNIGHT MAN (1974), the story of an old tough guy ex cop working as a security guard on a college campus who finds himself at the center of a murder investigation. It’s kind of a geriatric private eye movie that deals with aging and action at the same time, I think most people have forgotten it. Susan Clark and Harris Yulin from NIGHT MOVES pop up, and screenwriters Quinn Redeker (DEER HUNTER) and Bill Lancaster (THE THING) (Burt’s son) play roles. It wasn’t a hit, but I think it got some good reviews. I read the novel (“The Midnight Lady And The Mourning Man” by David Anthony) and probably saw the movie when it opened in my town. Haven’t seen it since, and I’m curious what it looks like now that *I’m* older.

1900 (NOVECENTO) (1976) is one of my favorite movies, but a completely acquired taste. Bernardo Bertolucci’s sprawling story of Italy from the year 1900 to 1976 stars Robert DeNiro and a young handsome Gerard Depardieu as childhood friends from different sides of the tracks who fall in love with the same woman (Dominique Sanda). DeNiro is the son of the wealthy estate owner, Burt Lancaster... and Depardieu is the dirt poor kid of the senior field worker, Sterling Hayden. This film is filled with beautiful images and an amazing performance by Donald Sutherland. Lancaster and Hayden, two old tough guys, are great in the early part of the film when the two lead characters are little boys. This was one of several films that Lancaster made in Italy as an older actor.

ATLANTIC CITY (1980) was the film where people noticed Lancaster all over again, playing a retired mobster living in Atlantic City and pretending to have once been more important than he really was. He hooks up with a young casino worker played by Susan Sarandon, who applies lemon juice to various places on her body... and wants to get enough money together to move to the south of France. She’s married to a bum who steals some drugs from the mob, and brings a whole world of hurt down on them... and Lancaster’s mostly tall tales of being a mobster turn to action reality. This is a kind of a film noir mixed with Italian neo realism... and shows an Atlantic City that no longer exists. The city before it was rebuilt with all of the new casinos.

LOCAL HERO (1983) is a great film. If you haven’t seen it, stop everything you are doing now (except breathing) and check it out! This is a gentle comedy by Bill Forsythe about an oil company flunky (Peter Riegert) sent into a small Scotland town to convince the residents that they should accept and love the new oil company refinery that is going where their town used to be... and move the heck out. This is one of those great movies that feels like a life changing experience, and is kind of the prototype for many UK comedies to come like WAKING NED DEVINE about unusual occupants of small towns. When Riegert runs into trouble getting some townspeople to sell the homes that have been in their families for generations for something as silly as *money*, the big boss (Lancaster) comes to town to convince them... and ends up recapturing the magic of small town life and decided that maybe this isn’t the right spot for a refinery.

Just for fun, I’m throwing in TOUGH GUYS (1986), a buddy comedy with very old buddies... Lancaster and Kirk Douglas are the old version of the kind of gangster roles they played, just released from prison and trying to figure out how the world works now. The film is uneven, but has some funny scenes that I can still remember... including one where Lancaster and Douglas end up in a gay bar without knowing it... and are asked to dance. These two guys realize they are never going to fit in with the world now... and decide to go back to their armed robbery past.

And though his career still had a few films to go, let’s wrap it up with FIELD OF DREAMS (1989), because I saw it on the big screen at the Egyptian Theater about a year ago and it was still an experience. Lancaster plays Moonlight Graham, who played only one game in the Major Leagues and then retired to become a country doctor. Lancaster plays the old version of Graham, again playing the old retired tough guy... this time a retired athlete. Lancaster began as a high school athlete and gets to play the old version of that in FIELD OF DREAMS.

Even at the end of his career, Lancaster was charming and charismatic and commanded the screen in every scene... and still virile as hell. One of those larger than life movie stars who had a great onscreen third act playing characters who were old but still cooler than I’ll ever be.


Monday, August 28, 2017

All Work And No Pay...

From 2012... the Mayan End Of The World year...

A while back the WGA sent out a survey on whether producers had asked for that extra (unpaid) rewrite or “sweepstakes development” or a producer asking for the writer to spec a script for the producer (often for a sequel or remake or adaptation - what would normally be a paid assignment) - which seems to indicate that these practices are on the rise.

Though I have always been against working for free on someone else’s script (why not work for free on *my* script?) I have written that free extra rewrite on occasion to fix some development mistake or keep them from going to some other writer who will just screw up my script. And my policy has always been that I’d rather write another 15 page treatment than have to do a major rewrite that throws 110 pages away to start from scratch. And part of this business is endless meetings where I pitch my take or pitch some stories - and am sometimes asked to have a one page leave behind in the event they like my pitch and want to “send it upstairs” to some network or studio or the guy I probably should have been meeting with in the first place.

But you know what? That business-as-usual free stuff can easily be abused.

Here’s the thing - I get miffed when some script *I was paid to write* doesn’t get made. That gets depressing after a while. You feel like you are doing a lot of work for nothing - and when you write a scene or character or bit or dialogue that you really love and are proud of... no one will ever see it. If a tree falls in the forest...?


Last year looked like it was off to a great start: I had a bunch of potential deals circling, including some where deal points were being negotiated. I have a script that keeps almost selling and getting me meetings every once in a while at studios – and someone wanted to buy it! That someone was the co-producer of an Oscar winning film! Plus, I had one of the stars of a big theatrical action flick who was interested in a screenplay (well, the producer on the project was interested – the star seemed uninterested in anything). And the producer of a new film from the director of a big Bruce Willis film you have seen was also interested in a screenplay. Things were *happening*! Then, one by one, all of these deals fell apart. And so did *everything* that was going to happen last year.

My Big Theatrical Remake Project seemed to be officially declared dead (or at least dead to me) last year. That was a project where I did several extensive treatments (free) before we went to screenplay, and I really thought we had a great script. There were studios who were interested in the project... but somehow decisions were made not to go with any of them. There was a better deal over the horizon somewhere. One of the things that is “business as usual” in this town is the page one rewrite on an “old” screenplay that everyone loved just to make it “new” and “fresh” so that it can be resubmitted to the same people who loved the old version. This seems completely backwards to me, since you risk making changes that will turn off the people who loved the first version. But this is a common way of reviving a stalled screenplay - and films like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE which began as a big budget Julia Roberts movie at Universal get a rewrite by another writer when it stalled out in order to become a modest budget Miramax film with Gwyneth Paltrow. When a project dies - no matter what the reason - they rewrite the script. On my project, the rewrite notes sounded like they were taking the script in the wrong direction and I bailed rather than have a really bad version of the script exist with my name on it. Yeah, the producer will just hire someone else - and have to pay them... but maybe that makes them think twice about those notes?

On TREACHEROUS I did a strange version of this a few times - a free rewrite every time we approached a new star. In the Mickey Rourke draft he was a boxer. In the Rutger Hauer draft he was a soccer player. Each time I personalized the script for the star the producer was going after... and all of the old versions were garbage. I suspect at this time, if my script on the Big Theatrical Remake Project isn’t completely dead by this point in time, *my* script is garbage and they actually have hired some other writer to “take it in a new direction”... which will be farther away from what made the original film great and farther away from the version a handful of places seemed eager to make... but much closer to never being made. So, does that screenplay exist in the box or not?

Another recent Genre Assignment that was supposed to shoot crashed and burned – which I had seen coming from a mile away. It was a weird situation from the start. I don’t really think the producer wanted to make it, it seemed like the *investors* wanted to make it. This is a problem in the indie world – a producer wants to make something that has little chance of making a profit so no one will give him or her money for that project... but some genre film that will make money is easy to get funding for. So the producer starts to make the genre film (hires a writer) but their heart isn't in it, and they don't push it hard enough. They lose interest... because they really want to make whatever their passion project is... one time it was a serious drama about astronomy. I think I may have been partially at fault in these cases – I always try to make the genre story into something better than the title and logline given to me and this often makes the producer think the genre script maybe could be changed into the more artistic project they wanted to make... and it just can't be that. For that astronomy producer I actually included astronomy as part of the genre story - which may have actually caused more problems than it solved. Instead of simply making the great version of some silly genre film, they want to make something the project can never be... and ended up making nothing. Another script that may or may not exist in the box. Dead or alive?

So last year had some assignments I got paid for that just stalled out, and some spec sales that just stalled out, and that’s frustrating. I’m in the business to *tell stories* and that means the scripts have to go all the way to screen. I know the odds of that happening even once money has changed hands are about 1 in 10... but I still *try* to target companies that actually make movies rather than develop projects that are either alive or dead - we have to open the box and look inside to be sure.


Add to that a number of projects that were “If you write this, they will come!” and then nothing came. These are kind of the sneaky Write On Spec deals because it’s *my* script. I’m just writing my own script on spec... because someone says they will buy it. If they *don’t* buy it, I have just written a screenplay I was going to write anyway. Sounds good to me... and I’ve done this several times. Weird problem - I don’t think a single one of those deals came through. I still own every single script I’ve written on spec because someone is interested.

The ultimate version of this was a meeting I had ages ago on a sequel in a popular horror series. The first couple of films had been theatrical, but now they were being funded by the home video department of the studio. I pitched my sequel idea and the producer loved it, but... It would be much easier for *him* to pitch to the studio if there was a treatment - something fleshed out. Hey, I’ll write treatments for free - so I wrote up the treatment for him. He read it, gave me some notes, I rewrote the treatment... We worked on this for months - back and forth, fine tuning that treatment until it was amazing. And then he submitted it to the studio. The studio decided *not* to make another film in the series, and I was stuck with the treatment. Later I wondered if the producer *knew* they didn’t want to make another film in the series and my treatment might have been his way to get them to change their mind. Nice if I had known that ahead of time.

Years later, I had a producer looking for horror projects, and I pitched that same idea as a stand alone non-sequel (a couple of changes and a slightly different killer) and he loved it and wanted to read the treatment. So I did a rewrite on the treatment to remove the series elements (and improved the heck out of it) and let him read the new treatment - and he loved that, too. But... See, he couldn’t afford to develop the script, but he needed a completed script to get the funding (might have even been the same studio home video division as before) so - could I write the screenplay for my idea for free? Sure. Oh, and because of a financing window closing soon - could I have it finished in 3 weeks? Sure. So I worked my butt off and delivered a shootable first draft in 3 weeks that would knock the socks off the funding source...

And what I did not realize is that there was a bit of “sweepstakes” writing going on here, and he had several writers specing their ideas for him... and he submitted a half dozen scripts and let them pick and they picked someone else’s. Though I still own that screenplay and it almost gets made every once in a while - the producers who told me if I wrote it they would buy it? Did not buy it.

There’s a treatment somewhere on my website called THE GHOST which began with a producer who claimed he owned the rights to a comic book series, and he wanted me to write a treatment (free) to securing financing so that they could pay me to write the screenplay. This was a slam dunk deal, I was told. I wrote the treatment, did some free revisions... and somewhere in there the producer dropped the bomb that he did not actually own the comic book rights, and my treatment was to get his financiers to pony up the money for the comic book rights. Great! I do work so that someone else can get paid! Except (as usual) it didn’t work out - some other company had already bought the rights to the comic book. The lesson I learned here was - make sure the producer ACTUALLY owns the rights before you do any work. So that lesson was applied to both the NYT Best Seller I adapted (they owned the rights) and ANGELS & DEMONS (they owned the rights). But the comic book thing? I ended up making some major changes to my treatment so that it could be a stand-alone story that maybe I could sell to someone else. So far, no luck.


Last year I had a similar situation - a treatment that everyone loved... but in this economy producers are not developing things like they used to. If there was a script, there was a sale. Now, you might think by now I would have learned this lesson - but since this was *my story* and the treatment was always popular, when they told me they would buy a completed script (but not pay me to write it) I wrote the script. If nothing else, situations like this get me off my lazy butt and cranking out pages. I think when I look at my emotional conflict that the “We’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday For A Screenplay Today” physical conflict brings to the surface, it’s that I am a lazy person who is motivated by *hope* that some damned script will sell and get made into a film. Without the *hope* I get burned out and do less work...

And that is the big problem, here - the giant asteroid headed towards Earth.

If I begin to believe I’m writing for the trash can with no *hope* of having the script made, I lose my motivation for writing, and begin that downward spiral. I think we all feel this way. We hit that point where we wonder if writing screenplays is pointless. If we seem to always get the stick and never get the carrot, we lose our enthusiasm for writing. And it seems to be one damned stick after another. The tough part of this job is to self motivate - to keep plugging away even after you feel that it may end up a waste of time. Part of that is actually *enjoying* the writing process - and that’s usually what keeps me going. Though it may end up that not a single living person ever reads this screenplay, that line on page 27 is something I’m proud of, and the characters and story were fun to write. Though sometimes writing can be torture, I guess I’m a masochist.

But last year I wrote another screenplay because someone said they’d buy it... and nothing happened. Though they didn't buy it, I still own the script and have since had another producer interested in it as a much bigger film... but then not go forward because they were really looking for something in another genre but really liked my script. I'm sure that script will sell eventually, but it didn't sell last year... and it didn’t sell to the people who got me to write it. Is it alive in the box or dead... and why the hell did I spend my time (time is money) on that script instead of some other script? The problem with these Wimpy Deals is that they trade on hope - they *abuse* my hope.

Someday has to be Tuesday, right?


But here’s the thing about all of these free spec things - even if it’s my treatment and I planned on writing it eventually, I did it *now* as a favor to the producer. Every free rewrite is a favor to the producer. Those free treatments that radically change the story every time - a favor to the producer. And just like any favor (helping you move, taking you to the airport) eventually there needs to be reciprocation. Now, here’s the thing - I owe lots of people favors and will eventually pay them off. I do lots of favors for people, and if they pay it forward or thank me, we’re even. I don’t tally favors I’ve done for people (but am aware of favors others have done for me - weird, huh?). But there comes this point where I realize I am doing all of the favors and getting nada. Not even a “Thank you”. The favors become *expected*. And that’s when I start to feel like maybe I’m owed something.

There is a company I've pitched to every year for probably a decade – but has yet to buy anything. What pisses me off the most about this company is that every year some script of mine gets me a meeting where they want me to pitch ideas for their current specific needs... and then they pick about 3 or 4 of those ideas and ask if I would type up a page or three on each because it will make it easier for them to pitch to the studio... so I do this, and then nothing happens. Sure, I’ll do free treatments and free synopsis... but these are *favors*.

This has been going on for *a decade* with these guys. I have typed *hundreds of pages* of treatments and synopsis. There were times when they were looking for projects in 3 different genres, so I would come in with a bunch of ideas in each genre, they would like 3 or 4 in each and I would type up a short treatment on each, and then nada. Zip.

All work and no pay, makes Bill an angry boy.

Last year I pitched one they really liked – which had franchise possibilities – and they wanted me to type up a treatment for free so that they could go to the studio... and I did that... and then nothing happened. That ended up being the last straw with those guys, because I had typed hundreds of pages for projects that never happened and I could have just as easily written a few screenplays. Oh, and these are always hurry up we need them tomorrow morning at 9am things.

I am never going to pitch to them or write them anything again.

Screw them.

The next time someone passes them one of my scripts and it gets great coverage and they go, “Hey, that’s Bill! We love Bill! Let’s get him in here!” and they call me, I’m going to tell them to go eff themselves. They will probably be confused by that response, but they have had ten years to find some project to actually pay me for - and haven’t done that yet. And they have had open assignments that they filled with other writers. Writers with agents or managers who closed the deal - or who had other clients they wanted to work with. The worst part of this is that some of these films have sucked big time.

But I wonder if the writers on those open assignments wrote the scripts on spec? That may be why they didn’t “throw me that bone” - they know I won’t spec a whole screenplay for them. Which means that “bone” does not exist. For all I know they end up with the bad scripts because they *still* don’t spend any development money even once they have gone to script. Maybe I am *lucky* they never hired me when they needed a screenplay written? But if that’s the case - it’s worse than I thought... everyone was doing work for free. Those deals may have been like the scripts of my own I speced for people that I’m still stuck with. Dead in the box or alive? DEAD.


The problem is money... and it seems like over the past few years things have gotten worse. There isn’t the development funding there used to be - so producers either need to find that *perfect* script that they can just shoot tomorrow, or find writers who will work for free. When the producer is looking for something specific, they would rather have it written on spec to their specs than spend the time searching for one that already exists. The producer can’t afford to pay for the treatments or rewrites or whatever - and so that *cost* is passed on to the writer. And it *is* a cost. Time is money. The time I spend writing a bunch of free treatments could easily be used to write some script that *I* want to write, and that I think will have a better chance of selling. The time I spend doing that free rewrite that screws up the script because the producer “isn’t quite sure what’s wrong with the story so let’s make them cowboys and see if that works?” is wasting **my** time on a draft that doesn’t have a chance in hell... But no matter how much I discuss the reasons for the odd changes with the producer - he can not articulate why he’s *sure* the cowboy draft will be the one that gets the financing or that he can take into the studio. But it’s just a waste of my time, and I know it.

Part of the job is pitching your take on projects - and that burns up a ton of time for the writer. You have to read the material (book, comic book, watch the original film, etc) and then formulate the new version of the story - and that really means write a beat-by-beat treatment or outline and figure out the characters and find a bunch of great scene ideas - just so you can go in and pitch... and you are one of a couple dozen writers who do this. All so that the producer can hear a bunch of different takes and decide on one. Hey, wasn’t there a time when a writing assignment was just *assigned* to some writer after reading their material? The producer finds the writer they believe fits the material and hires them. Now, instead of the *producer* making that decision it gets passed down to the writers - a bunch of us basically write different versions of the same movie and then the producer picks the one they like. So they hear 24 pitches and pick one and the other 23 writers go home empty handed after reading a 478 page book and figuring out how to turn it into a 110 page script.

It's "auditioning" for a job - an actor doesn't get paid to audition, do they?

That would make sense if I could do an audition or two every day to try to land a job... but these things take *weeks* to put together. And after a good actor that everyone loves who keeps getting call backs auditions over and over again, the casting director tends to go out of their way to find them a role on something. They get thrown a bone.

Look - if the producer is the one who can’t pay me, the producer needs to GET THEIR SHIT TOGETHER and figure out *exactly* what needs to be done in the free rewrite to trigger the money flowing to *me*. No experiments. No whims. No giving me notes without *thinking* first. No asking me to write some treatment that has ZERO chance, or is the producer trying to get a door open using *my* work. The producer needs to be responsible. If you ask a writer to do a treatment or synopsis or - heaven forbid - a screenplay for FREE, you’d better be damned sure that it has a 80% chance of turning into money so that you can pay the writer. Asking writers to do a bunch of work you’re going to just throw against a wall to see what sticks is having the writer finance your incompetence.

For me the biggest issue is - no Thank You. No acknowledgment that I have done this production company that loves my work a bunch of major favors for the past decade. I have done a pile of unpaid labor for them, but they have done nothing for me. And I am not the only one. I’m sure there are other writers who have written a stack of free treatments and pitched takes on projects where they had to read some 478 page novel for them and never even got a thank you for it. The reason anyone does free work is to eventually get paid, and if that eventually never happens - well, you feel used and screwed over. I know I do.

Now, this is coming from a guy who is constantly saying that’s just the way the business works. No one in Hollywood has time to be polite. I’m not some new guy who gets miffed when some script that has traveled all the way up stream to the top gets a pass and no one tells me. No one owes me a rejection note or phone call. I’ve been doing this for 22 years, now - I know how the business works. But the unacknowledged favors seems to be getting worse.

That is the real problem. The WGA survey shows that this is not an isolated thing. *Many* producers seem to be asking for favors without reciprocating. As writers, we think “Hey, this might be the way in!” and it’s only writing a few pages, right? But that survey means writers have been complaining. They have reached the point where they are getting angry about the free work without even being thrown a bone. No eventual pay for all of the work - and that leads to complaints to the union... or at least whispers loud enough that the union is sure to overhear. Other writers may have already given that “Go eff yourself” response - or be one free treatment or one pitch or take away from it.

The solution is actually simple - when a producer asks a favor of a writer, and the writer delivers... the producer needs to realize that they now *owe* that writer a favor.

Or at least a Thank You.

When the producer is deep in “favor debt” to a writer? Time to pay them with real money. Hey, I know that your budgets have been cut and things are worse now than they were a few years ago... but they are worse for *all of us*. There seems to have been more abuse in the past few years than ever before... and it's time for that to stop.

Know when it’s time to throw the writer a bone... and if you owe too many writers too many bones? That’s a serious problem - what are you going to do about it?

What the hell did Harlan Ellison say?

- Bill (probably burning a bridge or two)





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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Scene Of The Week: THE THIRD MAN

The scene of the week is a nice bit of threatening dialogue from THE THIRD MAN, and a reunion between two old friends Holly (Joeseph Cotton) and Harry (Orson Welles)... after one of their funerals. The great thing about this conversation is how charming and fun Harry makes his threats and his justifications for criminal activities. He's a bad guy you just want to hang out with.

The British Film Institute selected THE THIRD MAN as the Best British Film Ever Made - and it's hard to argue with that. It does a million things right, it has one iconic scene after another, some amazing lines (this scene doesn't have the film's best lines!) and is a great thriller with a huge action-chase set piece at the end which has been lifted in dozens of other films. If you haven't seen it - check it out. Actually filmed in the rubble of Post WW2 Vienna!

This is one of my favorite films - and I can watch it again and again. The characters, scenes, and story are all great. The story has a really messy and messed up romance - can you fall in love with your dead best friend's girlfriend and not have it be just a little awkward? I also love the humor in the film - like all great thrillers it straddles absurdity. The yappy little dog. Saved by a speech on cowboy literature. The misplaced slide in the slide show. It's a great example of how to balance a film.

Comments section is open for discussion of the scene.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Emotion Pictures - Tip #1 - it's all about making the audience feel something!
Dinner: I've been brown bagging lately - to keep from eating so much fast food.
Bicycle: Short ride, even though Sundays are supposed to be my long ride day. I stuck around the dollar cinema area in NoHo so that I could see THE CALL.
Movies: PAIN & GAIN - Could this be Michael Bay’s best movie? A small time crime flick, based on a true story, that seems to focus more on characters than explosions. Marky Mark, The Rock, and Anthony Mackie are body builders in Miami who fall under the spell of a TV self help guru who preaches that material things are all that matter and you should DO whatever it takes to get them. Well, there’s this obnoxious rich guy (Tony Shalhoub) who works out at their gym; why not kidnap him, force him to sign over his house and car and boat and money to Marky Mark, and then they dump him on the side of the road, broke and powerless? Sounds like a plan!

Except Shalhoub continues to be a prick and won’t sign over anything... instead he insults Marky Mark for being too stupid and lazy to *earn* the money like he did. So they beat him with sex toys until he gives in and signs, then try to collect... except the contracts need to be *notarized* and that requires that a Notary witness Shalhoub’s signing of the documents - can’t exactly bring a Notary down to the adult novelty goods warehouse where they have him tied up, can they?

It’s one damned thing after another, because these guys *haven’t * thought their plan through and aren’t very bright. They’re the kind of body builders who use steroids because it’s a short cut. They want the riches without the work. But they are DOERS and find a Notary at the gym they can coerce into signing and stamping their documents... and now all are rich! Marky Mark moves into Shalhoub’s mansion... and the neighbors like him better than the old owner.

But soon their money is spent and they need to kidnap someone else - this time a sleazy phone sex company owner. And here’s where things go very wrong, and the phone sex guy and his bimbo girlfriend end up dead on Mackie’s brand new carpet in his brand new house with his brand new wife coming home in a couple of hours. Which requires a trip to the hardware store for chainsaws and rubber gloves and all of the things one would need to chop up bodies into little pieces and dump them in the swamp. Somewhere in here Shalhoub - living in a crappy motel he can’t even pay for - hires a retired private detective (Ed Harris) to get his stuff back. And things begin unraveling even more...

The problem is, Bay is Bay. The story takes place in Miami, so there’s no shortage of shots of fast cars and girls in bikinis and all of those things from BAD BOYS. He uses all of his style-without-substance camera tricks, and the characters are all surface. Yeah, they aren’t very deep characters to begin with, but for a story that focuses on the characters we need to dig a little deeper into their lives. The Rock carries a skateboard everywhere, just got out of prison where he found God... but that’s the extent of his character. It’s just a bunch of surface things. You know, even people who aren’t very bright are still *people* - they have fears and dreams and regrets and secrets and souls. Even though this was based on a true story, I think Bay should have pulled out his checkbook and hired Elmore Leonard to write the book first, then adapted that book. These guys are the type of small timers that Leonard understands and could create vivid living characters - which this film really needs. It’s kind of ironic that a film about guys who are all about surface materia goods ends up all slick surface with nothing much underneath. Bay *is* these guys! He’d rather do his signature shots than find the shots that best tell the story. Style over substance. But the story is so loopy and fun that it even works with Bay’s direction - making this his best film so far.

DVDs: KILLING THEM SOFTLY - On the other side of the spectrum from Michael Bay is Andrew Dominic who adapted and directed this film. An ultra-low-key director who seems to like slow paced character studies... he should have directed PAIN & GAIN! This film is based on a book by the great George V. Higgins, who I discovered after seeing THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE with Robert Mitchum. I read a handful of his novels, and Higgins’ thing is dialogue. His stories are about small time crooks who sit in bars and cars in the middle of the day and discuss the problems in their mundane lives with witty street language. What Quentin Tarantino didn’t steal from Elmore Leonard he stole from Higgins - his books are like all of the Jules and Vincent conversations strung together with a really mundane shooting or two. Higgins’ stories * use* the mundane and ordinary to make his small time hoods into real people - those guys at the end of the bar who seem like regulars. His characters talk about all of the small problems associated with crime - in EDDIE COYLE one of the big issues is what happens to the family while you are behind bars... how do they pay the mortgage and buy groceries? By focusing on the details of criminal life, and using his gift for witty street dialogue, Higgins took us into the world of criminals. His books were like the anti-GODFATHER - no glamor at all!

In this film, based on COOGAN’S TRADE, Ray Liotta plays a charismatic host to an illegal back room poker club... one of those small time mobsters on the front lines. His club was robbed once by a couple of young punks - and the mob sent an enforcer to make sure Liotta didn’t hire the two punks himself. The enforcer (a nice Sam Shepard cameo) *likes* Liotta, so when he says he didn’t do it after a mild beating, he lets him go. But the robbery has caused *all* of the mob’s poker games in the area to shut down for safety reasons, and that costs them. Years later, Liotta get drunk and admits that he hired the two punks - but by then everything is okay and the mob does nothing. Hell, everybody loves Liotta - he’s a great guy.

But a low level criminal nicknamed The Squirrel, who runs a dry cleaners, realizes that if Liotta’s illegal poker game is robbed *again* everyone will naturally suspect him... and no one will suspect The Squirrel. So, he hires a couple of punks - both fresh out of prison - to knock over the illegal poker club. These two losers are the center of the story - one is a heroin addict who steals pure breed dogs and sells them in Florida (but driving them there - they shit and fart and bark the whole way - is a hassle) and the other doesn’t have a car or a job or anything - and their bar and street conversations about their dreams and regrets make the story come alive. The poker game robbery is tense - because they are idiots and keep screwing things up. They use thick dish washing gloves which make it hard to handle the crappy guns they bought. They get the smallest size nylon stockings - which smash their faces when used as masks. They are completely incompetent... But manage to pull off the robbery.

So the mob calls for hitman Brad Pitt to clean up the mess. He’s met by Driver - the guy who handles all of the mob’s business transactions. Driver and Pitt have a series of car conversations about the job which focus on the small stuff - Driver complains that nobody in the mob will make a decision, they never agree with each other, and *he* ends up having to do everything. Pitt (Coogan) knows The Squirrel and doesn’t want to be the guy who pulls the trigger on him, because it means listing to the guy beg for his life and get all emotional and make all sorts of excuses. Pitt wants to hire a subcontractor hitman played by James Gandolfini...

But that ends up a nightmare. Gandolfini is a drunk womanizer who is henpecked by his wife and does nothing but bitch and complain. Pitt ends up just putting out this guy’s fires - he insults the hotel staff and runs up his bar tab and room service and has a parade of hookers he refuses to tip - and still hasn’t hit The Squirrel. Pitt spends all of his time trying to find some way to get Gandolfini off his ass... and eventually gives up.

Then Pitt shoots some people in bloody but mundane scenes and restores peace and balance to the mob world so that the illegal poker games can begin again.

So, this is my type of movie, and (unlike PAIN & GAIN) the style of direction perfectly matches the subject matter and story. But for some weird reason Dominic takes a book written in the early 70s and plops it into the 2008 financial melt down and *fills* it with radios and TV with George W. Bush speeches about bailing out banks and GM... and then campaign stuff from the Presidential election. This stuff is sledge hammered in so hard it threatens to capsize the whole film. Michael Bay subtlety. Actually, worse than that. You want the *story* to demonstrate the theme or point or whatever - not some obtrusive radio broadcast whenever two characters are in a car or TV broadcast when they are in a bar. Aren’t there any radio stations that play music? Don’t TVs in bars usually have the game on? If the idea was to parallel the financial melt down with the mob’s financial melt down after the poker games were closed - why not just stick with the mob story and let *us* draw the parallel? Come on! This is a movie that appeals to a smart audience, so why dumb it down? Why not *use the story* to make your point?

- Bill

Monday, August 21, 2017

Self Imposed

From 2011...

If you wander into the Studio City branch of the Los Angeles Public Library system, as I do every once in a while when I need to do research that can’t be found online, you will find a couple of rows of computers you can sign up to use in the back... and probably at least one homeless guy (with a duffle bag containing all of his belongings) surfing porn while the librarians discuss how to get him the hell out of there. In the old days, before computers, there were rows of typewriters in some libraries that you could rent for 25 cents and hour... and just like those rental computers in Kinkos, they were often being used by students who didn’t own a typewriter but still had to turn in typewritten papers in order to get a grade. Years ago Ray Bradbury, who did own a typewriter, bought a couple of rolls of quarters and went to his local public library to write a novel. The reason for going to the library is that a limited number of quarters equals a limited number of hours and the minute you sit down to that keyboard the clock is ticking. You need to get pages written! By the way, that novel was FAHRENHEIT 451.

Writers do all kinds of tricks to get themselves focused on writing. As I write this, the greatest living writer of private eye fiction, Lawrence Block, is *somewhere* writing a new novel. He’s not telling where. He’s been posting on FaceBook, but makes sure any clues to his location are impossible to figure out (a photo through his hotel room window has a view you could find in a million places). This is a common thing for novelists - they go to writers retreats or some strange city’s hotel room without their normal life’s distractions and lock themselves away in order to get a book done. Raymond Chandler was once famously locked in a room with a week’s supply of booze and a typewriter so that he could finish a project. Whatever works to get the pages done.

I usually look at time away from home as a way to get things done. Over the holidays I wrote a new script, and that wasn’t the first time I’ve done that. I”ve written several scripts over the holidays, using the time I spend out of town as a self imposed deadline. I wrote JUST BEFORE DAWN in 2 weeks over the holidays... and thought I had a deal for it when I returned... but the deal fell apart.

This time over the holidays (Thanksgiving to New Years - extended vacation) I planned on writing the new script *and* working on the book rewrite... but only managed to get the new script finished. Part of the reason for not getting things done was hanging out with friends, and that’s an acceptable excuse. The other part was a deal that seemed to be about to close any minute, my lawyer doing a great job of keeping things going in my absence. But the strange distraction of having to hop a plane at any minute for a meeting, and the strange way the deal was evolving from spec sale to some other sort of strange thing that didn’t make any sense, kept distracting me from writing. I was that dog in UP and the deal was the squirrel. The deal kept falling apart and then coming back together again and again, and it became a crazy soap opera where I had to know what happens next... and that took time and focus away from the work I was supposed to be doing. That deal eventually fell apart. It involved an actor whose name you know.

But over the holidays, while the deal looked like it was going to happen, airfares went on sale and I bought a round trip ticket to an undisclosed location. I thought I’d probably be doing rewrites on the deal in January and I had this other script I needed to get written, and would probably need some time off in late February. Plus - the airplane tickets were a deal! But when that spec sale fell apart, I got bummed out and thought maybe that week of vacation might be the consolation prize.

Except, like a squirrel, another spec deal popped up with its own set of strange elements and my hard working lawyer was busy again hammering out contract points. Once again, this was a distraction that kept getting in the way of my writing the new script, and at one point I went a little crazy about one of the deal points and probably spent a whole week doing nothing but bouncing off the walls. But this deal also crashed and burned at the last minute a day before I left for vacation. So, I was behind on the new script, and had not finished the rewrite of the Action Book, and had not done a pile of other things on the To Do List (new Script Tips? Um, never got around to writing any).

So, I decided to take this vacation week and write. I wouldn’t lock myself in my hotel room, but I’d be in a strange city without any of the usual distractions with a limited amount of time. I would not be able to finish the Action Book rewrite, but I could get a huge chunk of it done and finish the rest at my leisure. I decided to tackle the chapters that needed the most work, get them out of the way. I was looking forward to crossing off chapter after chapter and finishing the week with all of the heavy lifting done on the book rewrite. I would come home with things crossed off the To Do List!

Except, that hasn’t really happened. It was a great plan, but I managed to impose all kinds of problems on myself that sabotaged my self imposed deadlines. The first thing that happened wasn’t really my fault - I twisted my leg and my trick knee decided to become tricky again... as I was leaving the plane. So, I start off in pain. On top of that, I hadn’t been sleeping well, and that carried over on vacation for a while - then I ping-ponged between not enough sleep and over sleeping. But the biggest hurdle I imposed on myself was a frustration/depression/anger over having two deals crash and burn. That nagged at me - was there some reason? Was it because the scripts sucked? Was it because I’ve lost it? Was it because I’m out of touch?

Standard “Writer’s Paranoia” - when there often doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the business, you start to wonder if maybe your whole career is a mistake... and someone finally caught on. Or maybe there was an expiration date no one told me about, some sort of LOGAN’S RUN for my screenwriting career? These worries are silly, but like those squirrels they can keep you from focusing on what’s important.

Add to that the idea of starting with the most difficult stuff - which isn’t exactly a confidence or momentum builder. I *struggled* with the most difficult chapter to rewrite for freakin’ **days**! The plan was to knock off a chapter a day, and when that didn’t happen I became even more frustrated/depressed/angry. Crap! What if I never* get the book revised? What if it takes me months when I’m working on it full time? This made me want to avoid work, rather than continue... and I was on vacation, wasn’t I?

But here’s where I really screwed up - when I was playing hooky, I just felt guilty over not working... and didn’t enjoy myself much. Man, I just ruined a whole week! I didn’t get much done and I didn’t have much fun.

I have not gone to the movies. I brought 4 new DVDs with me, and have not watched any of them. I brought a book with me, and haven’t opened it. I have walked past a museum almost every day I have been here, and have not gone inside. Whenever I have done anything touristy, I have felt guilty about not writing.

So, now I have the most difficult chapter rewritten, but lots more to do. And I have to get back to work on the new script, because I really should have spent the week working on that - people are waiting. That means - I’m going to have to self impose a deadline to get that new script *finished* and just forget about the squirrels and forget about those self doubts and f/d/a about having a couple of deals crash and burn late in the game.

This is being written on the last full day of my vacation, and I think I’m just going to just say screw it and take the rest of the day off. Then, when I get back to Los Angeles, write like a son of a bitch to get this script finished. Maybe I’ll take another self imposed vacation week to get a few more chapters of the book rewritten.

Meanwhile, my lawyer has been working his ass off while I freak out and it seems one of the dead projects may be alive at some other place. The director from the busted project seems to have carried my script to a company that wanted to hire him. Maybe I'm not a fraud afterall?

If you have trouble getting pages written, find some way to create a self imposed deadline... then actually write!

- Bill

PS: Folks, no cheering up needed! I'm fine. Part of this blog is sharing what I am feeling, especially if it's something I think you guys might also experience. I don't want to be some god-like Robert McKee that you are not allowed to make eye contact with and has no emotions. I'd rather be as honest as I can.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Scene Of The Week: GOODFELLAS

If you've read Secrets Of Action Screenwriting you know that one of my favorite writing tools is *Magnification*, which I learned in Dan Arnold’s acting class in High School. The basic idea is to make something normal sized and make it much bigger. Stakes and conflict and emotions are all raised. Something average becomes something larger than life... large enough to fill that big screen. This works with concepts, emotions, and understanding the emotions of your characters.

This scene also deals with *Tension* - which is unresolved conflict. To create tension you must have a conflict... and the conflict needs to be ongoing and active and not solved. Once you resolve the conflict, you remove the tension. If you allow the audience to forget the conflict, you remove the tension. On Fridays when I do the Hitchcock entries, there are a couple on tension and suspense and “poking the tiger” to keep the audience aware that there is an existing conflict. If you don’t poke the tiger the conflict dissipates and you lose all of the tension.

Buy the dvd

So here is a scene that uses both elements, and it’s one of my favorite scenes. From GOODFELLAS (1990) written by Nicholas Pileggi, based on his true crime book. Directed by Martin Scorsese, and it’s like his 15th feature film. He’s one of my favorite directors, never really had a hit like his fellow “Hollywood Brats” but is always doing great work. Ages ago, when I was fresh out of high school, I sent him a letter asking if he’d read one of my screenplays... and he said yes! I sent some crappy early screenplay and got a great letter back from the head of his production company telling me to stick with it, etc. The polite brush off - but the guy never had to be polite in the first place. That script was ANYONE CAN LOSE and a friend asked me about it a couple of days ago - it’s one of those scripts with some great scenes but the story doesn’t work well. People remember it and wonder if I ever figured out how to fix it. Nope. But, back to GOODFELLAS...

Henry Hill is a small time crook way out on the fringe of organized crime, who wants to move up. So he looks to make some new friends who are equally ambitious and see if they can team up to move up the mob ladder... and become the new generation of organized crime. Now here’s the thing - this is kind of like meeting someone *and* a job interview, and the people you are meeting may be armed and may have just killed someone five minutes ago.

So let’s use our magnification tool. Remember those times in your past you were hanging out with someone who you wanted to impress... and *didn’t* want to offend? Might have been a job interview or a first date or meeting your romantic partner’s best friend or some other situation where you were hanging out with someone important and didn’t want to screw it up. Now, because we are all human, we have probably all screwed up in this situation at least once. I am socially inept and have some for of social tourettes that kicks in when I'm with people I need to impress - so that I always say the completely wrong thing. I get nervous and probably try too hard and end up saying something stupid. Because of that, I work hard *not* to do that when I meet people I want to impress, which makes me even more nervous... But you’ve probably blown it a couple of times, right? Now we’re going to take that anxiety and that mistake and *Magnify* it. We’re going to raise the stakes and emotions and turn that first meeting into a life or death situation. You are hanging out with a guy who kills people. You don’t want to say the wrong thing in this situation, you don’t want to accidentally offend him...

Funny how?

Great scene, and see how they keep “poking the tiger” to keep that tension alive?

This is a great example of how to take a “throw away scene” and make it so entertaining that we’re talking about it 23 years later... but it also helps us identify with Henry (Ray Liotta) and is the perfect introduction to Tommy (Joe Pesci).

While we’re on Joe Pesci - he won an Oscar for this performance, and his speech was: "This is an honor and privilege, thank you," because he didn’t think he was going to win and had no planned acceptance speech. Pesci as been in a bunch of great films, and is always great in lesser films. Would you believe his first time on screen was in HEY LET’S TWIST (1961) because he was a Rock & Roll guitar player for the featured band The Starliters... and even recorded a Rock & Roll solo album as a singer: “Little Joe Sure Can Sing”! He was a childhood friend of Frankie Valli, and was instrumental in the formation of The Four Seasons (he’s even a character in JERSEY BOYS!). So the whole Rock & Roll career, then a new career as an actor that leads to an Oscar win and another nomination plus a bunch of memorable films.

( Joe Pesci plays guitar in a band on The Lucy Show (1966) - Carol Burnett co-stars.) Magnification and Tension work hand-in-hand in this scene, but they can work separately as well in scenes. Tension is a great scene tool, and when I get around to doing the Scenes Blue Book there will be a whole chapter on tension techniques.

The comments section is open for discussion of the scene.

- Bill

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mamet Memo

David Mamet sent this nice little memo to the writers of THE UNIT, which contains all of the basics of screenwriting in very few words...

Mamet's Memo

That's like a whole screenwriting course in a page.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: COINCIDENCES - How many can I have in my script? Are bad coincidences okay?
Dinner: Movie Hot Dog...
Bicycle: Short ride.
Pages: Couple of pages.

Monday, August 07, 2017

WGA's Top 101 Scripts!

From 2009..

The WGA selected the top 101 scripts of all time a couple of years ago, and not one by *two* Pauley Shore films, plus Carrot Top's movie made the cut!

Here are the top 25, with a link to the WGA page with the rest...

Screenplay by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Based on the play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison

Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Based on the novel by Mario Puzo

Written by Robert Towne

Written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles

Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Based on "The Wisdom of Eve," a short story and radio play by Mary Orr

Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

Written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr.

Written by Paddy Chayefsky

Screenplay by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond. Based on "Fanfare of Love," a German film written by Robert Thoeren and M. Logan

Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo. Based on Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather"

Written by William Goldman

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Peter George and Terry Southern. Based on novel "Red Alert" by Peter George

Screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Based on the novel by Charles Webb

Screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson. Based on the life and writings of Col. T.E. Lawrence

Written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond

Written by Quentin Tarantino. Stories by Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary

Screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal. Story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart

Screen Story and Screenplay by Budd Schulberg. Based on "Crime on the Waterfront" articles by Malcolm Johnson

Screenplay by Horton Foote. Based on the novel by Harper Lee

Screenplay by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett & Frank Capra. Based on short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern. Contributions to screenplay Michael Wilson and Jo Swerling

Written by Ernest Lehman

Screenplay by Frank Darabont. Based on the short story "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" by Stephen King

Screenplay by Sidney Howard. Based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell

Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Story by Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth

Screenplay by Noel Langley and Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf Adaptation by Noel Langley. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

The next 76 in the big parade!

- Bill
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