Thursday, August 31, 2017

THRILLER Thursday: The Prediction

The Prediction

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

Season: 1, Episode: 10.
Airdate: 11/22/1960

Director: John Brahm
Writer: Donald S. Sanford
Cast: Boris Karloff, Audrey Dalton, Alan Caillou, Abraham Sofaer, Murvyn Vye, Alex Davion.
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: John L. Russell (PSYCHO)

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The unfortunate gentleman you’ve just observed has had a most terrifying experience. You see, his business is *pretending* to be clairvoyant... but the glimpse he just had into the future was true, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. Imagine if you will, the plight of a man who finds his premonitions concerning those he loves coming true in the most horrible and violent ways. The name of our play is “The Prediction”, and appearing with me are Miss Audrey Dalton, Mr. Alex Davion, Mr. Abraham Sofaer, Mr. Alan Caillou, and Mr. Murvyn Vye. Let me assure you my friends, this is a thriller.”

Synopsis: In London, night club psychic Mace (Boris Karloff) is a fake... a great showman who entertains the audience with predictions of happy marriages and surprise good luck and other lightweight predictions... but tonight is different. Something weird happens to Mace and his beautiful assistant Norine (Audrey Dalton) realizes he’s going off script... when a skeptic asks who will win the big boxing match tonight, Mace screams that they must stop the fight because one of the boxers... Tommy... will die in the ring! When Mace tries to run off the stage, he trips and goes down, and the club owner Gus (Abraham Sofaer) has them drop the curtains. Backstage, Mace asks Norine’s loser father Burton (Alan Caillou) to race to the Boxing Match and stop the fight before Tommy gets killed. Burton races off...

Mace rests in his dressing room, worried that his crazy performance will get him and Norine fired. Because his beautiful assistant’s father is a drunk and a loser, Mace has become a father to her and takes care of both of them. He’s very protective of Norine... so when Gus knocks on the door and says he needs to see Mace immediately in the club. It’s a surprise party for Mace! Gus loves Mace, he’s the club’s best act. But the party is broken up by Gunner Gogan (Murvyn Vye) the manager of Tommy the boxer... who accuses Mace of making money from his fighter’s death. What? Seems that Burton *didn’t* warn anyone that Tommy would die, instead he bet against him and made $100! Gus and the others have to pull Gogan off Mace, and they tell him that Burton was sent to warn them, didn’t he? Gogan goes to find Burton...

Nadine has a secret fiancé, Grant (Alex Davion), her father Burton does not approve of their relationship. Grant wants her to marry him, now... run away and find a priest. But her father is a huge problem that has to be solved before she can get married...

Mace finds Burton in a pub, drinking and fooling around with a woman half his age (who may be a hooker, at the very least a woman of easy virtue)... spending that $100 as if there is more where that came from. And isn’t there? If Mace can keep making predictions, Burton can keep betting and winning! Mace and Burton have an argument, and Burton splits with the hooker (or whatever). Mace has another vision: Burton will be murdered!

The hooker (or whatever) leads Burton into a dark alley where a huge dude hits him in the head with a brick and steals his money and goes off with the hooker (or whatever). She was part of it all along, luring him to be mugged.

Mace feels *guilty* over Tommy and Burton’s deaths. “Did I forsee Burton’s death? Or will it to happen?” He’s a mess. When he hears that Gogan has been arrested for Burton’s murder, Mace has Gus call the police anonymously and give them the names of the hooker (or whatever) and her accomplice. He just *knew* the names! Then he has another vision... and warns Gus not to cross the stage to meet a man named Harcourt. Gus says he doesn’t know anybody named Harcourt.

Outside the night club: Grant asks Nadine to marry him now that she doesn’t have to take care of her father (I know that sounds terrible, but the dialogue makes it work). Grant has been transferred to another city and wants her to quit as Mace’s beautiful assistant and come with him. Nadine says she can’t just quit... and goes into the club. Grant follows her in to watch the show and try to change her mind afterwards.

Gus goes out on stage... when he gets a message: some guy named Harcourt is waiting in his office. Harcourt? He starts to cross the stage to his office... when a hanging sandbag falls from the rafters right at his head! But Mace runs across the stage and knocks Gus out of the way, the sandbag misses both of them.

Harcourt is a police detective who wants to know who made the anonymous call about Burton’s murder... because they were right. Was this a witness to the murder who didn’t come forward? Gus protects Mace by telling Harcourt that there are many phones in the club, and it could have been anyone. But Harcourt is suspicious.

Mace and Nadine do their act... when Mace has another vision and starts yelling for a man named Grant to come forward, he knows a man with that name is in the audience. Grant this is Mace’s way to break up the relationship and keep his beautiful assistant... and ducks out the back doors. Mace yells that the man named Grant must not make his trip... because he will die!

Later in a pub: Grant tells Nadine he is leaving the next night and wants her to go with him no matter what Mace says. She says no.

Grant goes to Mace, says he loves Nadine and wants to marry her... and Mace says: Great! Congratulations to both of you! I want whatever makes Nadine happy. Grant asks about the prediction, was it just a ruse? Mace says it was real, and Grant *will* die if he travels tomorrow night. Grant doesn’t believe him, and *needs* to leave tomorrow night to get to his job on time. So Mace tells him if he sees a sign that says “Edinburgh, 50 miles” he needs to turn around and come back. Grant agrees to this.

The next night, after the show, Mace and Nadine have a big emotional goodbye. And he warns her about the “Edinburgh, 50 miles” sign. Nadine leaves, gets in the car with Grant and drives off...

And Mace has another premonition: Grant and Nadine will be in an accident and a fire will burn them to death! Mace grabs Gus and they try to chase them down and stop it.

Now we get all kinds of clever stuff right out of Mace’s premonition as Grant and Nadine drive down the highway at night. This is where the story gets fun, because offhand things Mace said like “You’ll need a raincoat” even though it isn’t raining start to become true, and that makes us start to worry that both Nadine and Grant will die in a fiery car wreck. They do almost hit a stalled truck full of refuse in the middle of the road (at night) but Grant brakes at the last minute. The truck driver’s flare had burned out. Truck driver asks if they will tell the repair service at the big truck stop down the road to send help back, and they agree and drive off... just as the truck driver tosses a bent up old road sign deeper into his truck bed. What do you think that sign said?

Meanwhile, Mace and Gus as speeding to save them... take a short cut... and get to the big truck stop before they do, asking an attendant if they’ve passed by yet. Nope. So they head down the road towards Grant and Nadine. After only a few minutes Mace asks Gus to stop the car, and Mace gets out in the rain and stands in middle of the street with his hands up... just as Grant and Nadine’s car rounds the corner towards him! Grant tries to stop the car, but the asphalt is slick and they skid into Mace... killing him! And a minute later, the big truck stop behind them EXPLODES in a giant fireball! So Mace gave his life to prevent Grant and Nadine from going to that truck stop. The end is both a twist and emotional.

Review: The great thing about having Boris Karloff as your host is that he’s also a fine actor, and in this episode he is completely believable as the paternal fake psychic (the kind of role he might have played in a film) and gets two pretty good emotional scenes where he gets a chance to act. Though not one of the great episodes, it’s a lot of fun and there are some nice twists along the way.

The fake psychic who becomes real is a great plot, better used in one of my favorite Cornell Woolrich novels THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (made into an okay movie with Edward G Robinson). That book has a great prediction: that a man will die at the claws of a lion... and takes place in *New York City* where that seems unlikely... until a lion escapes from the zoo! The great twist in that book is that the man dies at the feet of one of the lion statues in front of the library. Here the fun is in watching all of the small elements of Mace’s prediction come true, which builds dread that the big one will come true. That’s a great writing technique, by the way: have a prediction and piece by piece have it come true, leading us to believe it will *all* come true... then find that twist where it comes true im an unexpected way!

For a TV episode, it feels much bigger than whatever its budget was: the two cars on country roads at the end has a great deal of production value, and the night club set seems very real. The pub gets used twice in the story, so it earns its keep.

Once again we are on the right track! This is the type of story I think of when I think of the THRILLER TV show. Something that is either straight suspense or creepy weird tale. Will next week’s episode stay on track? It stars Elisha Cook, jr and a pre DICK VAN DYKE SHOW Mary Tyler Moore and has some elements of SPEED!


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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.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: THE UNDERNEATH

Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh.
Written by: Soderbergh based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Peter Gallagher, Elisabeth Shue, Alison Elliott, Paul Dooley, the great William Fichtner.
Director Of Photography: Elliot Davis.
Music: Cliff Martinez.

The remake of one of my favorite films CRISS CROSS, Stephen Soderbergh’s THE UNDERNEATH (1995), which was his fourth film... and not a success. After the failure of this film he dove off the deep end, making some crazy low budget films... and found his soul again. It’s odd to think of Soderbergh as a crime film director, but when you look at the genre he keeps coming back to again and again it’s crime films... from OUT OF SIGHT to OCEAN’S 11. This is his first crime film, and he decided to remake a classic... which seldom works. My guess is that after SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and the *great* KING OF THE HILL and the equally interesting KAFKA, he decided to do something mainstream that would earn him the studio cred to do that Clint Eastwood thing where you make one movie “for them” and they allow you to make one movies for you. But all of that backfired. The “one for them” flopped...

Not because of the cast. Peter Gallagher plays the role Burt Lancaster played in CRISS CROSS. Sexy TV actress Alison Elliott played the ex wife played by Yvonne DeCarlo. The always creepy William Fichtner played the creepy Dan Duryea role. Paul Dooley played the “Pops” character. And Shelly Duvall pops up as the nurse in the hospital, and Joe Don Baker plays the guy who owns the armored truck company in cameos. These are all good actors, and Fichtner shines in his role. So, what was the problem?

Every screenplay is made up of millions of choices, and every movie ends up being those choices plus a million other choices. The problem is, if you make one major wrong choice it all falls apart. Though you may think the idea of remaking a classic film like CRISS CROSS was the wrong choice, there are plenty of remakes that work. The problems usually come with the choices made while remaking the film. For a while Warner Brother was planning on remaking one of my favorite films THE LAST OF SHEILA (which is a great mystery film) as a *comedy* and getting rid of the mystery element. That never happened. But the big problem with remakes in Hollywood is often that they come up with some crazy drastic change that kills the story. Hey, the reason why the story was successful in the first place was because it *wasn’t* a comedy (or whatever). Why not fix some of the little problems instead of screwing around with what made it successful in the first place?

The *good* changes in THE UNDERNEATH end up being instead of his younger brother getting married as the excuse he uses to himself for the reason he comes home again, it’s his *mother* getting married to the “Pops” character. This is great because “Pops” is going to be the casualty in the robbery, so in this version it’s his mother’s new husband who gets killed! More emotional, right? The other change is that instead of his old friend who is the cop who comes after him... it’s his *brother*! Again, upping the emotional ante. These were both great changes.

Another change was the addition of a “nice girl” to give Gallagher a choice between his exwife (who is nothing but trouble) and this nice girl played by Elizabeth Shue. He meets her on the bus coming back to town, and she works in the bank branch where the robbery will take place in this version. Part of the new robbery scheme is to use information he gets from her to help Dundee’s gang pull the robbery. That makes her an unwilling accomplice, cool idea!

But all of these good choices are undercut by the bad ones.

Instead of our lead leaving town because he’s still hung up on his ex wife and even Los Angeles isn’t big enough for the both of them, Gallagher is a gambling addict who spends every cent the couple has on sports betting, and when he loses so much that the mob is going to kill him, he leaves town... leaving his soon to be ex wife to deal with all of the crap he’s left behind. Not only does this make our protagonist not a sympathetic guy, it removes the core of the story... that he’s still hung up on his ex wife. That’s the engine that runs the machine, and they remove it. Oh, and he never worked for the Armored Truck company, so there’s this silly convoluted way for him to get hired. Oh, and since the ex wife isn’t really a fan of his, the really uncomfortable scene in CRISS CROSS where he’s caught by Dundee with his ex and comes up with the robbery thing as an excuse and then must go through with it... no longer exists. All of the big dramatic scenes from the original are gone.

And by making the protag a major screw up, having the cop be his brother this time around robs all of the drama from that! In CRISS CROSS the cop was his old friend, who really liked him and thought the ex wife was trouble... and that scene in the hospital when he confronts Lancaster and says he knows Lancaster had to be part of the robbery is a *heart breaker*. The cop knows his best friend became a criminal and has to deal with all of those mixed up feelings... and Lancaster has to deal with them, too. It’s like when your parents say you disappointed them... man, that’s tough to take! Now that the protag is a screw up, and *he* is the problem? No drama at all. The brother cop doesn’t have his heart broken because he never trusted his brother in the first place. He is *established* as hating his brother (Can’t believe you wore our father’s suit to mother’s wedding).

And the robbery is almost an anti set piece here, with Pop’s death being just another thing that happens. No drama.

The film uses different tints, as Soderbergh would later do in TRAFFIC, but here I could not figure out what the purpose was. Soderbergh also does a fractured chronology, a dozen times more fractured than CRISS CROSS but not as fractured as THE LIMEY. At first I though the colors (blue and green mostly) were past and present... but then we got a past scene that was green and I was confused. Then I thought it was story threads, with the robbery plot being green and the romance plot being blue, but it wasn’t that, either. There’s a scene that changes from blue to green midway, but then changes back. I rewatched that scene a couple of times but still can’t figure out why.

The other thing Soderbergh does is an extended POV shot when Gallagher is in his hospital bed. It’s not all one shot, but we don’t see Gallagher in the hospital, just his POV. The problem here is that it isn’t used to effect. Instead of creating paranoia, it’s just a long POV shot. Because there is no focus on people passing the pebbled glass and the man sitting in the hallway just out of view as in CRISS CROSS, there is *absolutely no suspense in this scene*. It’s like a stunt shot that undercuts all of the emotions! Instead of finding a better way to do the scene, it’s a *worse* way... which is just a show off shot. Michael Bay filmmaking.

And the film ends with a pointless and illogical twist that kind of undercuts the whole movie. I liked this movie more when I first saw it than I did when I watched it right after CRISS CROSS. It’s a misfire from a director who went on to do some really good crime films (THE LIMEY really is one of my favs).

- Bill

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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Friday, August 25, 2017

Hitchcock 20: BREAKDOWN (s1e2)

There's a great new documentary video series focusing on the 20 TV episodes that Hitchcock directed called HITCH 20. This episode of the show is a great HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episode called BREAKDOWN with Joseph Cotten as a ruthless businessman who downsizes a loyal long time employee... and then ridicules him for breaking down and crying. It's really a lot of fun, so take a look:

Of course, I have my own books focusing on Hitchcock...




Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!


Only 125,000 words!

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We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 53 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

Films Examined: “Rear Window”, “Psycho”, “Family Plot”, “Topaz”, “Rope”, “The Wrong Man”, “Easy Virtue”, “Lifeboat”, “Bon Voyage”, “Aventure Malgache”, “Elstree Calling”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Stage Fright”, “Champagne”, “Spellbound”, “I Confess”, and “The Trouble with Harry”, with glances at “Vertigo” and several others.

Professional screenwriter William C. Martell takes you into the world of The Master Of Suspense and shows you the daring experiments that changed cinema. Over 77,000 words.

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

THRILLER Thursday: The Devil's Ticket

THRILLER: Devil’s Ticket

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

Season: 1, Episode: 29.
Airdate: April 18, 1961

Director: Jules Bricken
Writer: Robert Bloch adapts... Robert Bloch!
Cast: Macdonald Carey, Patricia Medina, Joan Tetzel, John Emery.
Music: Big lush Morton Stevens score... heard it somewhere before.
Cinematography: John Russell.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The name of our story is The Devil’s Ticket. It has to do with an artist, and they tell us that one picture is worth a thousand words. You will see Macdonald Carey, Joan Tetzel, Patricia Medina, and John Emery. Now there’s a rogue’s gallery if I ever saw one! And I can assure you they’re up to no good, as you’ll find out for yourself if you have the courage to stay with us.”

Synopsis: A Pawn Shop as the sun sets. Pawn Shop owner Spengler (Robert Cornthwaite) is nervous as he closes up, makes sure all of the doors and windows are locked as if he’s expecting an invasion... that’s when the bell over the door begins ringing like crazy. He carefully opens the front door... what could be on the other side? A creature? Sees his cat jumping up and grabbing the bell cord. Brings in the cat, relocks and bolts the front door, and goes to the counter where there’s a HUGE pile of money. He starts counting it when the back door BLASTS open, and fog enters the Pawn Shop. A voice startles him: it’s Satan, saying they had a deal... and now it’s time for him to pay. The cat freaks out...

Crappy apartment: Hector Vane (Macdonald Carey) and his wife Marie (Joan Tetzel) sit at the dinner table eating the last of their food. They are flat broke. He’s a painter who does amazing portraits which capture the souls of his subjects... but everyone wants abstracts these days. He hasn’t sold a painting in ages. He looks for something to take to pawn for a few bucks so that they can eat... realizes they have nothing left except his ratty old coat, and his paintings. He swore he’d never pawn a painting, but...

Pawn Shop: Hector goes to pawn one of his paintings, but Spengler isn’t there. A strange man lets him in... he doesn’t introduce himself, but he goes by many names (Satan played wickedly by John Emery). Satan loves the painting, but tells Hector that he’d rather loan him money on another commodity. In a sly and subtle scene, Satan introduces himself without names, explains that he will pawn Hector’s soul for 90 days in exchange for Hector’s dreams of success as a painter... but at the end of those 90 days Hector must return and give Satan the pawn ticket *and* a painting of someone else... a painting that captures their very soul. Hector’s soul will be returned, but the subject of his painting will lose theirs.

Hector puts the pawn ticket in the pocket of his ratty coat and heads home...

Where Marie tells him a gallery just called, they want to do a one man show of his work. Not just any gallery, but a big uptown gallery where rich people go to buy paintings! Any skepticism about whether the new pawnshop owner was Satan or not disappears.

The Gallery: *All* of Hector’s paintings sell for top dollar, and there are art collectors eagerly awaiting whatever he paints next! They are *rich*!

Luxurious apartment: Hector and Marie sit at a massive dinner table eating a feast. The same scene as before, just with a whole lot more money.

Hector goes to the Pawn Shop with a painting... a landscape. Satan tells him that’s not the way it works: it must be the painting of someone you know... and it must capture their soul. Their soul for yours.... and he has 26 days left to paint and deliver the picture.

Hector tells Marie he’s going to their old apartment, now his studio, to paint. She doesn’t understand why he kept that place... why not find a nice studio? They can afford it. Hector says he likes to be reminded of where he came from...

But really, he uses the studio to meet his mistress Nadja (Patricia Medina) a model he never got around to painting... but bedding? That’s what he does now instead of paint. Nadja wants him to ditch his wife and go to the Mexican Riviera with her. Problem is, the day she leaves is the day he needs to deliver his painting.

Hector sees a psychiatrist Dr. Frank (Hayden Rorke, Dr. Bellows from I DREAM OF JEANNIE) and explains the whole Satan thing. Dr. Frank doesn’t believe in Satan, thinks this new Pawnshop Owner is just some dude playing with Hector’s mind. He only has Hector’s soul if that’s what Hector believes. Hector asks if the dude isn’t Satan, how come Hector became instantly successful after making the deal? Dr. Frank agrees to go to the pawn shop and talk to this guy who may or may not be Satan.

At a fancy restaurant, Hector has dinner with Nadja... and tells her he *will* go away with her.

When he goes to see Dr. Frank the next day, the doctor is gone and Satan is behind his desk. Satan warns him not to do anything like that again. Don’t go to the police, don’t call a lawyer (“In my time, I’ve had dealings with many lawyers”), just deliver the painting... in 13 days.

Hector thinks he has a solution: he will paint Marie... who he no longer loves. But as he paints his wife, he falls in love with her all over again. This creates a problem: he finished the painting with just over 2 days until his pawn ticket and the painting are due... but now he’s fallen back in love with is wife.

When the wife is out, he brings his mistress over to see the painting... and she reacts like a madwoman! She can see that Hector is still in love with his wife just by looking at it, so she SLASHES the painting to ribbons! Then she runs off, saying their relationship is over. To make things worse, the phone rings and it’s Satan reminding him he has 48 hours to deliver the painting.

Hector locks himself in his room and paints nonstop for 48 hours... falls asleep. Marie knocks on the door, he says come in... that the painting is finished. As soon as he delivers it to the customer, they can run off together... a second honeymoon. Marie leaves for a moment, then returns... tells Hector he has a visitor. It’s Satan.

“You know why I’m here. Give me my painting!”

Hector invites Satan in, tells him he will really like the painting he’s done, it really captures the subject’s soul. He unveils the painting, and it’s... Satan! Hector explains that Satan kept asking for *his* painting, so this is a painting of *him*, as per contract. Satan is shocked, he has actually been bested by a mortal. This has never happened before! Satan tells Hector to give him the pawn ticket and Hector’s soul will be returned, and he gets to keep all of the fame and fortune he’s built for the past 90 days plus any he makes for himself in the future. Hector asks Marie to get him his old coat...

She returns with a brand new one. “Surprise!” She got him a new coat for their second honeymoon! Hector asks what she did with his old coat? Marie says it was so old and ratty that she burned it...

Satan smiles at Hector, “Now it’s your turn to burn!”

Review: Bloch adapts Bloch this week in a clever little weird tale probably from Weird Tales Magazine originally. There have been some Bloch short stories adapted on Thriller before, but this is the first time he did it himself. Though best known for PSYCHO, Bloch is one of the great horror writers of the 1950s and one of my favorites. I probably discovered him through Norman Bates, but stayed for Weird Tailors and all of his wonderful short stories and novels. He is the master of the clever writing with lines like “He cut off her scream, and her head” and “He'd captured her heart, and put it in a glass jar”. In this episode there’s all kinds of clever lines, like Satan’s line about knowing a bunch of lawyers.

Even though this episode has a built in ticking clock, with the 90 day pawn ticket and the days ticking down throughout; this is more a twist end story than a tale of suspense like YOURS TRULY JACK THE RIPPER (which also has a twist end, but manages to build some real suspense and dread whenever one of the women goes walking after dark). No suspense situations in this episode, it ends up being more of a drama about the toll of success. Part of the problem might be the direction, which is typical TV so some of the things which might be milked for suspense end up being used for surprise. But the*type* of story is less suspense and more twisted tale.

Macdonald Carey is a really odd choice for the lead, who is supposed to be a young struggling artists and is even called “young man” by a couple of characters... Carey was not young when this was made. The other characters were adjusted upwards as well, with Nadja his mistress looking late 30s... compare her to the hot young artist’s model from YOURS TRULY! Even though Carey seems to old, that age adds a layer of desperation which may not have been there with a younger actor. This old man has been struggling all of these years and *still* hasn’t made it?

Just as beatniks were part of the time period so they pop up in YOURS TRULY, having an analyst or psychiatrist was also an element of the times... and shows up in this story, When Hector goes to see Dr. Frank, that would make more sense at the time than going to the police... people went to their shrinks. Their shrink would solve the problem. One of the elements of a thriller story like NORTH BY NORTHWEST is that the authorities have to be taken out of the equation... so Roger Thornhill is accused of a murder and can’t go to the police for help. Here, Hector goes to his shrink for help... and we must remove the authorities from the equation... so Dr. Frank’s power must be nullified. That kind of tells us something about the power of psychoanalysis at the time period: it’s equal to calling the police!

How do you show Hector worrying about his pawned soul? You can’t *show* someone’s soul, right? So you need to find a symbol of their soul... and that’s the pawn ticket. I call this a “twitch”, it’s a physical manifestation of the protagonist’s emotional conflict. He’s worried about his soul, so he pulls the pawn ticket out of the pocket of his ratty old coat and looks at it, and we understand that he’s worried that he might lose his soul. You find a symbol, and this one comes directly from the story. It’s a great device to show us what is going on inside a character’s head. Every time Hector takes the ticket out and looks at it, we understand what he’s thinking.

Speaking of that ratty old coat, because it’s the big end twist, in order to “play fair” we have to establish that the wife wants to get rid of that coat and make sure that’s understood by the audience but also forgotten by the audience (to make it a twist). Here’s where *the story* makes this work: Hector has a secret reason for keeping the ratty old coat that his wife doesn’t know: the pawn picket in the pocket. So even though it makes sense for him to throw away the old coat, we know why he wants to keep it. Several times, when the wife is wearing new clothes and Hector puts on his ratty old coat it makes sense for her to comment on it... and the audience doesn’t notice that they are being set up for that twist at the end. We’re so busy worrying that the wife will discover the pawn ticket that we don’t realize we’re being set up for her *not* discovering the pawn ticket. That’s some good writing!

Probably because I’m more into the suspense based episodes, this one is in the good category but not in my great category. It is very entertaining, and John Emery kills it as Satan... he milks every one of Bloch’s clever lines!

Next week we look at an episode that may have inspired Stephen King’s CARRIE.


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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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: THE IPCRESS FILE

Director: Sidney J. Furie
Writers: James Doran, W. H. Canaway
Starring: Michael Caine, Sue Lloyd, Guy Doleman, Nigel Green.

One of my favorite movies.

Sort of the “anti-Bond”, but made by the producers of the Connery films. Harry Palmer is The Spy Who Does Paperwork in this predecessor to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. There is a form for everything - a form to get a gun, a form to fill out if you fire the gun... and if you manage to shoot someone? No end to the amount of paperwork! This is the *government* - it’s all about filling out forms. Forms for stake outs, forms to requisition a car, forms for *not* discovering any information. Harry hates paperwork, but he’s a genius at sifting through it for clues - to find an enemy agent with no known address, he checks for parking tickets.

The great thing about IPCRESS is that it makes the job of spying mundane - a bunch of boring stake outs and surveillance jobs - then it explodes with action that seems much bigger due to the contrast. The great Michael Caine plays Harry as a problem child who probably needed a good spanking many years ago and now knows *exactly* how far he can push authority before it pushes back. He uncovers a plot to kidnap British scientists, brainwash them until they spill all of their secrets, then wipe their memories clean so that they are unable to function. The cool thing about this 60s film is that it uses all of the real brainwashing devices from the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, which wasn’t made public until the 70s. How they knew about these things in this film, I do not know. Were there CIA leaks that ended up in (novelist) Len Deighton’s hands?

His boss, Colonel Ross (Doleman), hates him and has him transferred to Major Dalby’s department where he has to fill out stacks of paperwork as they try to find a kidnapped scientist who has been put up for auction by an espionage agent for hire code-name, BlueJay (Frank Gatliff) an Albanian who sells secrets... and people. Dalby (Nigel Green) “doesn’t have the sense of humor that Ross has” (which was none at all) and cracks the whip on Harry again and again. Harry finds a friend in team member Carswell (Gordon Jackson, from THE CREEPING UNKNOWN) and a love interest in team member Jean (Lloyd) - who may be a spy for Ross’s department. That’s the kind of paranoid movie this is - the spies are spying on other spies! Ross keeps trying to get Harry to hand over the file on Dalby's investigation, code named “Ipcress” because that word was written on a piece of audio tape found in an abandoned warehouse they think BlueJay was using. When they play the bit of audio tape, all they get are strange noises - what do they mean? To add to the paranoia, there’s a CIA Agent who is spying on Harry, and someone in one of the departments may actually be working for BlueJay. You can’t trust *anyone* in this film!

I love movies where intelligent guys get sent into the field, where they are clueless, and must fight to survive. Harry gets in so much trouble, and the story is so clever and twisted and has so many double and triple crosses that I can watch it again and again... oh, and it’s visually really really cool.

The director, Sidney J. Furie, comes up with the most inventive angles and shots I’ve ever seen - which is one of the reasons why this is one of my favorite movies. There is a whole fight scene shot through the glass of one of those red British phone booths - mullion coming between Harry and this huge bodyguard - and every other interesting combination of foreground and background is used to make the fight scene really interesting. Furie re-imagines action scenes as chess matches or tennis games and stages them in unusual ways. Because Harry wears glasses, the element of sight is used in both action scenes (when Harry’s glasses get stomped it changes the outcome of a fight) and other scenes (Harry with glasses off looks over a blurry crowd of scientists and sees a person who does not belong) - the glasses become part of the way the story is told.

Here is our introduction to Harry Palmer...

Other great visual elements include one of the greatest twist-reveals ever put on film, a shot through the keyhole of Harry’s flat of an intruder with a gun, a Polanskiesque shot where a door is opened to hide one character so that we focus on the other, the camera mounted on an armored car that batters down a door - we see it all POV, a Busby Berkeleyesque choreographed prisoner for money exchange in an underground parking garage with a deadly twist, the whole IPCRESS brain washing sequence - which includes an amazing Christ-symbolism bit where Harry jams a rusty nail into his palm to try to avoid the brainwashing, a multi-level following scene in a building, and an amazing ending where a brainwashed Harry must decide who to kill and who not to kill.

SPOILER: One of my favorite bits in the script is when BlueJay kidnaps Harry... and he wakes up in a crappy cell in some old industrial building, and BlueJay tells him that it would be pointless to try to escape, because he's in Albania. How can he get help if he does not speak Albanian? Where would he run to? He has no passport, no identification. Even if he escaped, he's still trapped in this foreign land. Then they proceed to brainwash him using the IPCRESS method... "Listen to me. Listen to me. You will forget the IPCRESS file, you will forget your name..." Harry jams that rusty nail into his palm, "My name is Harry Palmer. My name is Harry Palmer." But he loses the nail... and the brainwashing begins to work. That's when Harry decides to escape... running out of the old industrial building where all of the signs are in Albanian, to... Downtown London! He was never taken to Albania! The whole thing was a ruse to make him not try to escape! This is one of dozens of little story touches that make IPCRESS FILE a really cool movie.

A great clever screenplay coupled with great inventive direction and Michael Caine at the top of his game surrounded by a bunch of great British actors. Oh, and the musical score is one of John Barry’s best! They made two sequels in the 60s and a couple in the 90s (with an old Michael Caine) but the first one is the best. Check it out!

- 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.
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