Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Scene Of The Week: THE GODFATHER

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER has no shortage of great scenes, and this week we’re going to look at one of my favorites - Michael’s First Kill.

Irony and Contrast are two connected elements that make for a great scene. If a bad man has to do a bad thing, it’s not interesting. If a good man has to do a bad thing, *that’s* a scene! If a good man has to do something just plain evil for a good reason - that’s the stuff that makes a film memorable.

In THE GODFATHER we have three brothers vying for their father's love in order to inherit the family business - a Mafia crime family:

1) First born Sonny is strong, aggressive, combative... and won't take no for and answer. He's quick with his fists - again, we have traits that come to mind when we think of running a crime family.

2) Middle child Fredo loves drinking and gambling and women and will lie through his teeth to get what he wants. These are all traits that might be of value if he were running the criminal organization.

3) Then we come to Michael - he's studious, quiet, honorable, patriotic and could be the poster boy for traditional American family values. If you were to make a checklist of things that don't fit our image of mobster, you'd have Michael. He's completely at odds with the other characters in the film - he's NOT a criminal type at all. He's the least likely brother to be chosen to run the family... which why he is perfect for this scene.

Buy the dvd

With Michael as the protagonist of this scene (and the film) we have a story that is constantly interesting because it has built in conflict - Michael is NOT as tough as Sonny was, he is not as duplicitous as Fredo... How can he possibly survive as head of the family? The original reason why he's eventually chosen by his father is that he is the kind of "straight-arrow" non-criminal type who can lead the family out of criminal enterprises into legitimate business. But that choice hasn’t been made yet...

Michael (Al Pacino) has returned from WW2 a hero, has a girlfriend from outside the mob world Kay (Diane Keaton) and is on course to become a legit business man. But problems begin when Sollozzo (the great Al Lettieri) wants the Corleones to finance his heroin business, and the Don (Marlon Brando) refuses to become involved in the drug trade. Sollozzo causes some very violent problems like having Don Corleone shot while buying oranges. Now *someone* needs to get revenge and stop the assault on the family once and for all. Should they send violent Sonny (James Caan) or liar Fredo (John Cazale) - people who could easily pull the trigger? Problem there is that Sollozzo and his pet cop McClusky (Sterling Hayden) *know* they can’t trust those two. But the straight arrow law abiding Michael? He’s the good son, the one even the villains can trust.

Which makes him the perfect assassin... and also the most dramatic choice. Can Michael do it? Can a good man do a bad thing? Will he break down?

These questions create lots of suspense in the scene. But the scene is *filled* with suspense. Some of that comes from the good man doing the bad thing, but there are great moments - when he can’t find the gun behind the flush tank, and then that pause at the bathroom door where he wonders if he can do this. Then, we get a whole damned conversation with Sollozzo. As the conversation goes on, we wonder if Michael will ever pull the gun and do it. Time is running out. What if they finish dinner and Sollozzo and McClusky are still alive?



Because there are no subtitles for the conversation in Sicilian (it’s kind of a silent moment with talking) here’s what they say:

SOLLOZZO: "I'm sorry..."

MICHAEL: "Leave it alone." ( or ) "Forget about it."

SOLLOZZO: "What happened to your father was business. I have much respect for your father. But your father, his thinking is old-fashioned. You must understand why I had to do that."

MICHAEL: "I understand those things..."

[Waiter brings McCluskey's veal, then exits.]

SOLLOZZO: "Now let's work through where we go from here."

MICHAEL: "How do you say... ?" [Then Michael returns to speaking English.]

[After Michael returns from the bathroom]

SOLLOZZO: "Everything all right? I respect myself, understand, and cannot allow another man to hold me back. What happened was unavoidable. I had the unspoken support of the other Family dons. If your father were in better health, without his eldest son running things, no disrespect intended, we wouldn't have this nonsense. We will stop fighting until your father is well and can resume bargaining. No vengeance will be taken. We will have peace, but your Family should interfere no longer."

The great thing about a great movie is that everything gets tied together in a single scene: this is a *plot scene*, it's also a violent scene (and this is a gangster flick), and a character scene, and a story scene. It serves many purposes in the film, and is the thing that pushes Michael to the head of the family (also, Sonny gets machine gunned to pieces, so he’s kind of out of the running). It’s a fantastic scene from two fantastic movies (there is no GODFATHER 3 in my book), and there’s a good chance we’ll look at another film from one of the films later in the series. By the way, in the First 10 Pages Blue Book expansion that I’m working on, I have articles on *both* films’ opening 10 minutes. These are great films with great beginnings... plus great scenes like this one.

As usual, scene discussion in the comments section

- Bill

Friday, March 22, 2019

Fridays With Hitchcock: John Michael Hayes

Around 10 and a half years ago at this time we lost screenwriter John Michael Hayes at age 89 (November 19th, 2008).

Hayes was one of the first screenwriters I noticed. After watching a ton of movies, and realizing that someone had to write them, I started looking at the names of the writers in the credits of some of my favorite movies... and noticed Hayes’ name popping up again and again in Hitchcock film. He scripted REAR WINDOW from a short story I had read by one of my favorite fiction writers, Cornell Woolrich. Because I knew the short story, I also knew what was invented and changed for the movie - a bunch of stuff! Practically the whole movie is new material, since the story is about an invalid man and his male servant and the murder across the courtyard. Hayes also wrote the remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY and TO CATCH A THIEF for Hitchcock.









But I also knew Hayes from his script of Lillian Hellman’s play THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, the version that starred James Garner. I played that role in my High School theater department version. I was talking about CHILDREN’S HOUR on the day Hayes died, because I had just seen a screening of DOUBT - which is pretty much the same story but set in a Catholic school. And I knew Hayes from HARLOW and THE CARPET BAGGERS and NEVADA SMITH... and WALKING TALL. His name popped up on a bunch of films I’d seen.

Hayes began his career as a radio writer for shows like SAM SPADE (I had some of those on tape when I was a kid) and INNER SANCTUM (had a bunch of those on tape, too). After writing 1,500 radio scripts, he started writing movies and became Hitchcock’s main writer... which made him one of the top writers in town. He adapted BUTTERFIELD 8 and PEYTON PLACE for the screen in addition to the Harold Robbins novels. His last produced script was the Disney dog sled movie IRON WILL in 1994. He will be missed.

What were the first screenwriters you noticed?

- Bill

My books on Hitchcock's films...

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

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!

Films Included: NOTORIOUS, SABOTAGE, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, THE 39 STEPS, REBECCA, TO CATCH A THIEF, FRENZY, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE LODGER, THE BIRDS, TORN CURTAIN, SABOTEUR, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1955), SUSPICION, and NUMBER SEVENTEEN. 17 Great Films!

Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99 Click here for more info!



HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR





HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

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 52 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.

Click here for more info!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Treadmill

From 9 years ago...

So, I’m working on this script and I have a deadline. That means I must turn in a script by that deadline.

Now, I know writers who are always late turning in their scripts - and I think that’s not a way to keep getting assignments. They give you a deadline for a reason. Sometimes it may be arbitrary, but usually there is some purpose for the deadline. Because so many of my scripts have been for cable TV, there is usually an air date when the movie will be shown - and they usually know that date before I start writing! In this case, the producer knows he will shoot the film in June or July (and that will get locked down soon - he’s scouting locations now). That means I must have my script finished on time, or they will be on location with the cast and crew... and nothing to shoot! So the deadline has a purpose, and I can’t be late.

There are other writers I know who make their deadline by handing in 110 pages of typing - but not much in the way of a finished script. They just crap out something by the time the deadline hits. This is also a bad idea. You are turning in crap on time. The assignment isn’t to turn in crap, it’s to turn in a screenplay. Another thing about cable TV movies is that air date means they are gearing up to make the film while you are writing it - and your first draft will go out to talent. That means your first draft needs to *impress* talent. So it can’t just be 110 pages of typing on time... and it can’t be late. It has to be a really good, shootable, first draft. On this film, same thing - this first draft script will be used for casting (and probably everything else - scheduling, budgeting, the director will design his shots, etc) so the first draft has to be good and close to the final draft. Hey, it’s still going to go through changes, but we have a really good idea of what the script will be. The reason for turning in a good first draft isn’t arbitrary either.

No pressure there.

Every day I wake up and have to write.

It is my job, and I am on the clock.

I wake up, maybe do some warm up work - a blog entry or something else. Sometimes the warm up is figuring out what the heck I’m writing today, and scribbling some notes. Sometimes it’s setting up the Script Tip for tomorrow. But there is something I am doing while drinking the morning coffee (provided I remember to buy it) and trying to remove that layer of sleep fog. Now, here’s where humor comes in - after actually remembering to buy coffee yesterday, today I filled the Mr. Coffee with water and coffee grinds and started this blog entry... then realized somewhere along the way that I didn’t have a cup of coffee... then realized that I also hadn’t turned on Mr. Coffee. This happens often enough, that there are days I leave the house without any coffee, and still a little foggy. But I do all of the morning things on that list from THE LOOKOUT (shower... with soap), and go out into the real world.

Some days there are errands that must be done - post office, blue book folding and stapling, picking up blue books from copy place, and all of the normal stuff you have to do. I try to use that time to think of what I’m going to write - but sometimes the errand takes over, and I completely forget about the script.

Once I get to whatever coffee shop I am writing in this afternoon, I sometimes have to plan out the day’s work. I try to plan out tomorrow’s work at the end of the night, but that doesn’t always happen. Now, this plan can be anything from a few scribbled notes to a page-by-page outline to a scribbled dialogue exchange. Basically, I want to have some idea of what they heck I’m writing - the purpose of this scene at least. I’m not writing a first draft, I’m writing the draft that goes out to the stars, so I want it to be pretty good. Last week, I actually wrote all of the dialogue for a scene longhand, then did a rewrite of that dialogue *plus* plugged in the action when I typed it. The scene was the police interviewing the family of a missing woman, so they were looking for clues - and the family might even be suspects. While one cop did the interview, the other poked around the house looking for clues and chimed in every now and then when they found something interesting. You’ve seen this scene a million times on LAW AND ORDER, but every time it’s different because the crime and suspect and family are different. This is also an exposition scene - setting up information that will play out later. And, the police do not know at this time that the missing person was killed by a monster - so the scene has to work two ways: as the cops thinking it’s a normal case, and the evidence they uncover which is weird. Because they are cops, they don’t think “Hey! A Monster is behind this!” They have to think it’s a normal crime - and that means clues have to lead to a normal suspect (the red herring) *and* lead to the monster (when they look back later). So the questioning scene was kind of complicated, and writing it out longhand helped.

Now, I have to write 5 pages a day, rain or shine. If I fail, I must make up those pages by the end of the week (if possible). I like to begin each week fresh. That didn’t happen this week, but I hope it will happen next. I just don’t want the cloud of being behind hanging over me. If you reach a point where you are too far behind, it leads to despair.

I’m going to write 2-3 scenes a day on the average. Some days I have a lot of short scenes, but usually it’s 2 scenes of about 2 pages and a 1 pager. I try to break that up with a meal between the two main scenes, that way I can poke around on the next scene while I’m eating - scribble some notes or at least focus on it. This isn’t always easy, because I usually change venues, too - and end up at the coffee location where all of my friends are... and we all go to dinner. That can work sometimes, because it’s a real break in the writing - I’m thinking about something other than the script. But sometimes it kills momentum, and I have to figure out what the heck I was writing and why and get my head back into the game after dinner... Which is also tough because I’m at the coffee shop where my friends hang out. When everybody knows your name, it’s hard to get anything done.

Another thing that throws me off course is putting up tomorrow’s script tip - if I didn’t set it up while waking up, I have to do that now. That sometimes means doing a “polish” on an old tip to bring it up to date - and every once in a while it means a full fledged rewrite using a new film example. That takes time and takes me off course.

The other big distractions are message boards - I’ll take a break in the middle of a page and get involved in some message board discussion and forget what my script is about. I have to focus on the script again - and that can take a little time. This is why I try to get as much done before my meal as I can.

Now, some of you may be wondering why I write in coffee shops instead of at home. Several answers to that, but when I write at home I find that my sock drawers get ultra organized and I spend a lot of time digging through things in my office looking for that one notebook out of the thousand with the dialogue idea I had 10 years ago that might work in this scene. Basically - many more distractions at home, where all of my stuff is, than a coffee shop where all I really have is the laptop. My old laptop had a wifi card that had to be manually inserted, and that was great - it kept me off the internet. The new laptop has a built in wifi card - and that adds to the distractions.

But after my meal and all of this other stuff, it’s back to the script - usually for that second big scene of the day. Now, this is often the scene that gets the most outline work, because this is the scene that I write at the end of the day with the most distractions. When I’m on assignment like this, I often skip my regular coffee shop where everybody knows my name in favor of someplace else - and I do that maybe half the week or more. Problem is, you still need to be a human being while you are writing, and that means you still must have some contact with other humans. And your friends get pissed if you neglect them. So I usually cut down on meals with friends instead of cutout. This time I have a plan to do something really different - though I haven’t started, yet. I’m thinking about doing coffee shops in other areas of Los Angeles for 3 days a week. The problem with this may be that the new area will be a distraction. But I’m going to give it a shot next week. I’m hoping that mixing it up will inspire me... and as a writer, I can work wherever my laptop is, so why always take it to the same places?

Back to the second big scene - I work through that, and if I’m lucky, actually finish it and have enough time to think about what I’m writing tomorrow. Jot some notes while I’m still in the story.

Now, one of the things about the writing treadmill is that I’m so focused on the story that other things fall through the cracks. You know, I forget to turn on Mr. Coffee in the morning. So between the keys and screen of my closed laptop is a To Do List in a plastic sleeve. Actually, a pair of lists. One is the long range list, the other is kind of a weekly list - all of the little things I’ll forget when I’m so focused on turning out pages. Yikes... just like the Dymo labels in THE LOOKOUT. Right now there are 25 items on that list - some are producers I need to call or e-mail. Big problem often is that I don’t even look at the list when I open my laptop for fear I’ll get distracted. So the list of things that I’m afraid may fall through the cracks... often still falls through the cracks, But at least *some* of it gets done this way.

I stop drinking caffeine mid-day, because I already have enough trouble sleeping. But the difficult part of the writing treadmill is that you have to keep at the top of the game until the pages get done... and then, suddenly, it’s time to call it a day. Sometimes there is still enough time left to see a movie and unwind, but some days those 5 pages take the whole damned day, and there really isn’t unwind time - I have to go to sleep so that I can get up and go to work. Here’s where the insomnia strikes and screws up my schedule. Because even if I pop in a DVD, I’m still wound up and in the story. My brain hasn’t shut off. One of the things that helps is exercise - and that bicycle that I said I was going to buy a few months back is still at the bike shop unpurchased. I have been taking some long walks, lately - usually at my meal break. I am the only guy walking in Los Angeles (except crazy homeless people.) Problem is - walking takes more time than biking, so I have to get off my butt and buy a bike. I keep *not* walking because I don’t have the time, and that leads to insomnia, and that leads to screwing up a day and wasting even more time than if I’d walked. So, I have to get back to doing regular exercise - it helps when I’m doing a script on the clock.

My plan to make up the 2 days this week... hasn’t happened. It seems like I’m able to get up to my 5 a day, and keep that going... but the extra pages at the end of the day? Those haven’t happened, yet. Yesterday I spent more time walking than writing, and I needed that... but I’m now 2.5 days behind. That means every day next week I have to write 7.5 pages instead of 5 pages a day... and I’m not sure that I can do that. Maybe I can. But if I can’t, I’ve built in enough time so that I can *easily* make up those days before my deadline.

At the end of the day, when I’ve made my 5 page quota (and any make up pages) and I’m thinking back over that clever little bit of dialogue or character or action that really made that scene work, I feel like I really accomplished something... and then I have to go to sleep so that I can get up and go to work and keep doing that until the script is finished. It’s the treadmill - it’s the job - but I love doing it. A few months from now I will be watching them shoot this script in Hawaii - watching actors say my lines (or whatever they want to say instead of my lines) and all of this endless work will just be a memory.

But, until then, I have pages to write!

- Bill

PS: This whole deal fell apart! I finished the script on time, but the producer's money dropped out and he scrambled for a while to find another distrib that would finance him, which didn't happen. For a couple of years I thought this would get set up and start shooting... but now it is shelved forever.
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Revealing Information - NEW! Using the new thriller GRETA as an example.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Pizza, don't tell my doctor!

Movies: CAPTAIN MARVEL - Kind of blah.

SPOILERS!!!Z

I hated the action scenes, almost a shakycam feel. No character, no story, no emotions, no reversals. As if they just handed it to the stunt coordinator and said: They fight. The FRENCH CONNECTION car chase misses the whole point of the car chase in the original - it was a character scene all about how far Doyle would go. Would he kill pedestrians? The STAR WARS canyon scene was also blah - no close calls. You have to understand action scenes to shoot one... Or it's just unexciting.

The reunions on Earth also had no emotional punch. Wonder if that was stuff that never made it off the page?

There were times when I thought the film was written and directed by robots.

The records room thing with the automatic lights seemed like it was written for suspense... But not used that way in the scene. Was the first writing team's script brilliant?

How I would have done it: Vers would have been Jason Bourne with traces of memories instead of the Supreme Intelligence thingie. She keeps having these vivid, emotional dreams. Lawson dying in her arms. Maria and the kid... And their house. Make the house a symbol - iconic. Now, you're going to say they had memories... But they were all flat and unemotional. She and Maria dancing - but not the big emotional version of that. They were the robot version.

I would also have a nightmare where some unseen person shoots her after Lawson dies - and Jude tells her lots of new soldiers have nightmares about Skrulls.

Now instead of keeping her emotions in check, she is advised to forget about her dreams. (see how that works?) Jude tells her there is no such world as in her dreams. She needs to focus on being a good soldier, so that she will be ready for her first mission.

But Vers is obsessed with her dreams, her forgotten past, and searches for information about this blue planet from her dreams. But it doesn't seem to exist.

On her first mission, Jude introduces her and Djimond says "Who?" - a callback that also deals with her search for her past and identity. By the way - they shouldn't let her pilot the ship... flying should still be a dream until she discovers more about her past.

Once we get to Earth, things start to look familiar and we build to the scene where she sees Maria's iconic house - from her dreams! This is a big moment.

Another moment is seeing who shot her... Jude. I would have some blood on his boots trigger it. Lawson's blood in the past, someone else's blood present. And the payback line about never forgetting her dreams.

I also would have made flying more of a big thing.

Loved the falling down and standing up stuff. That was a strong moment. Also liked when we get the "Cuba" callback - this was cool because the mistake now becomes the code.

Larson is the bright spot in the movie - she and Jackson are a buddy action team and she's the funny one. That was also a missed opportunity - not much in the way of banter between them, so they have to pull it off with charm.

This is one of the lesser Marvel movies at a time when the Russo Brothers have helped lead the franchise away from the terrible 2s (THOR & IRONMAN & ULTRON) and given us some damned good films (many better reviewed by snooty critics than half of this year's Best Picture nominees). So this is a disappointment.

PS: the shopping center with the Blockbuster and Radio Shack? The dead shopping center where the NoHo dollar theater is! It was in the background of a couple of shots! Since they are always shooting stuff there, I'll bet some night when I was watching some crappy film last year that set was there!

- Bill

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

That's Exploitation!

From January 2010...

The last night I was in Northern California on my holiday visit, I had dinner and drinks and saw BITCH SLAP with my two oldest friends, Van and John. That almost didn’t happen. When I arrived in town those were the first two people I called - we often do New Year’s Eve together, and always see a bunch of holiday release films together and talk about those people we know who are no longer around and the great times we had when we were in our 20s... long ago. Got right through to John and we saw a bunch of movies (reviews are coming), but Van went right to voice mail... and his voice mail was filled. No way to leave a message. This concerned me a little, but I’d gotten a recent e-mail from Van so I knew he was alive and well... just hard to get in contact with, I guess.

Van is a character. The great thing about old friends is that you know what all of their issues are, have gotten mad at them a thousand times, and are now over it. Van is famous for being unreliable. Not in some serious way, he just gets side tracked sometimes. Also, he’s a dreamer... which is great when you are 20, kind of a problem when you are older. But no one on earth has a bigger heart, and when my life went to hell after NINJA BUSTERS fizzled and Wendy split, he gave me a job laying carpet and pointed out that there were other women in the world (mostly by example - you could drop Van into a Lesbian Convention and he’d convert some of them). But I can not count the number of times he’s been a no-show or ambled in hours late. Used to make me angry, now I just accept it. So, when I couldn’t get through to him I just figured it was the usual Van thing.

I kept calling and getting that full voice mail the whole time I was in the Bay Area, and John tried to call him with the same results. Finally I got an e-mail from him - hey, how come I hadn’t called him? All of this ended up being *my fault* - he had changed cell phone carrier, had a new number, and even *gave me his new number*. But I kept calling the old one, because I’m an idiot and it was on my cell phone. John was doing the same thing. Once I called the new number he had given me months before, he answered on the second ring. New Years Eve had passed and I was about to return home...

John and I had seen AVATAR in 3D without Van...

But BITCH SLAP was opening on Friday night in limited release! The perfect film for 3 guys who enjoy upper torso bundles of pleasure! I figured Friday might be crowded, and John was busy Saturday, so maybe Sunday? Sunday was a great day because the cast and writer would be in San Francisco that night! Except Van already had tickets for AVATAR on Sunday... so we last minute adjusted to Monday night. The next morning I would return to Los Angeles.

Van knows every single great hole-in-the-wall restaurant and bar in the Bay Area. When we were laying carpet, no matter what city the job was in, he knew the best place to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Van suggested we meet at this restaurant/bar called The Belltower which was a couple of blocks from the cinema. When I arrived, I recognized the place - we’d had breakfast there once and it was great. John arrived and we had a beer, and then Van showed. We had a great dinner, then went to the cinema...

BITCH SLAP!




The plot? Three hot chicks in the desert.

Directed by Rick Jacobson, who directed a couple of my movies and is a great guy - I may not agree with all of his artistic choices, but he *has* artistic choices and actually would listen to whatever I had to say. He wasn’t an asshole. After making a bunch of low budget films he moved to TV and directed a bunch of TV shows including HERCULES and XENA and now he’s a TV director.

He and one of the writers on XENA decided to bankroll their own film, made on the cheap, and the result is BITCH SLAP. The film uses all kinds of low budget tricks - most of the story takes place in a patch of desert in the middle of nowhere with a beat up old trailer and a windmill. Easy location to shoot at, and when things blow up and catch fire (which they do as the story goes on) probably easy to get permits and a fire marshal - not a burnable tree or scrub for miles in any direction.

The cast is also small: mostly the three women: Hel (Erin Cummings) who is all-business and dresses like a business woman. Camaro (America Olivo) who is the tough gal, just released from prison, who wears jeans and a tied off shirt. Trixie (Julia Voth) the stripper who appears to be all body and no brains, who is wearing a gold dress. The plot has them drive their vintage Thunderbird to this no-man’s land to find a buried treasure, and flashbacks fill in the details and provide plot twists. There are also two men who are part of the main cast, Gage (Michael Hurst) a gangster who has been skimming from legendary crime boss Pinky for years - and the buried treasure is that loot. He’s handcuffed in the trunk of the Thunderbird. And Deputy Fuchs (Ron Melendez) a cop who thinks the three gals might be in trouble and stops to help... and also becomes their prisoner - chained up in that old trailer. Five main characters, one main location, six breasts.

In a moment I’ll talk about some of the other money saving tricks they used - I’ll bet the budget was lower than you might guess - but first let’s talk about...

EXPLOITATION FOR FUN & PROFIT



The review in the Los Angeles Times complained that BITCH SLAP was an exploitation film send up without the send up... and this made me scratch my head, because I never got the memo that it was a send up, and when you read the poster or publicity stuff (they had a great gimmick to make you see it more than once - collectable postcards for each of the characters in the film, and they gave away a different one every night) there was nothing about this being a send up... it was pretty much advertized as a fun exploitation film that *knows* it’s an exploitation film. Which makes it just an exploitation film.

Back in the drive in days, there were lots of exploitation films - made cheap and filled with things that would attract and audience. Lowest common denominator stuff like fast cars and topless women and machine guns. A studio film might have all of those things in a pretty story - and those things serviced the story. An exploitation film was *about* the exploitation stuff, with a flimsy story connecting the elements. Now, some exploitation films had *great* stories connecting the elements, and now those films are considered art. Tod Browning’s FREAKS is a great film, but where would it be without the promise of seeing a bunch of side show freaks? And the suggestion of side show freaks having sex with a hot blonde woman? Hey - I gotta see that!

And the drive in exploitation films offered the same sort of forbidden thrills. Hey, what really goes on in a women’s prison where they evil lesbian warden enjoys whipping the hot naked prisoners? Hey - I gotta see that!

One of the things I hate in studio films, I love in exploitation films: “kitchen sinking”. So many of those A.I.P. drive in films seemed like a grab bag of cool stuff threaded together into a film. So you might have custom hot rods and acrobats and some rock & roll band and a bikini beach party and dogs that do tricks and martial arts and a monster... all in the same movie! Hey - I gotta see that!

I’ve seen studio films that try to throw in a little bit of everything and end up with nothing, and the reason why is that the film is supposed to be about the story... and just ends up being about a little bit of everything. A mainstream studio film is all about the story, and even though it may have fast cars and hot women and a machine gun, it’s not ever about those things. Those things are elements of the story, not the story itself. The exploitation is in the background not the foreground.

Someone on a messageboard a couple of months ago was lamenting the 50s and 60s when Americans went to see foreign films... and even though that was before my time sitting in a cinema seat, I can tell you from conversations with those older than I am - they went to foreign films to see boobies. American films had no nudity at all - we still had censorship under the old system. But foreign films managed to sneak in nudity and the censors didn’t seem to care, maybe because the films were “cultural” and had subtitles and not everyone was going to flock to see them. Except a surprising number of normal middle class Americans saw a bunch of foreign films... often featuring nudity or lingerie or lots-a-cleavage. Thank you, Sophia Loren! Hey - I gotta see that!

Foreign films ended up being exploitation films! Just, with culture!


And that is the problem with the poor exploitation film - it has no culture. It is honest about its intentions. You may see a foreign film for culture... um, cleavage culture... but you see an exploitation film for the exploitation. We always complain that people these days go to the movies for the explosions and CGI - the exploitation elements. And it’s funny that I will hate TRANSFORMERS and then have an excited conversation with another film fan about that amazing street shoot out in HEAT. Okay, why isn’t HEAT an exploitation film? Why is a long shoot out in some B movie just stupid and a similar scene in HEAT complete genius? Well, it’s that HEAT isn’t just that shoot out (and the other great action scenes). But, isn’t there room in cinema for a film that *is* just about the shoot outs? A film that isn’t going to try and pass itself off as culture, and just be its sleazy self? A film that knows that one of the main reasons why you go to see HEAT or some big budget Hollywood movies is the exploitation elements? “You’ll believe a man can fly.” “From the moment they met it was murder.” Movies are all about sex and violence and exploitables... Heck, how many pages would be left in The Bible if we cut out all of the sex and violence?


And another issue with exploitation is - why is some low budget genre flick that is aiming for being a just fun time, not good enough for a theatrical release in art house cinemas in select cities, and have critics for the L.A. Times show up and review the film; but a film trying to be “so bad it’s good” gets shown and reviewed? Why does society say it’s okay to make fun of exploitation, but not just accept a movie that may not have stars but does have plenty of stuff that blows up... unless there is a star in it or a massive budget? Why is *studio exploitation* taken more seriously than low budget exploitation? If John Sayles’ PIRANHA was released today, would Variety even show up to review it... let alone call it the best film ever made about the Viet Nam War? If DEATH RACE 2000 were released today, would anyone take it seriously? Or would it just be dismissed and sent to video and never noticed or reviewed? We used to have genre distribs like Canon and New World that made low budget action films and got them into cinemas and reviewed and on the mainstream radar, so that those stars and directors and writers could cross over to studio films. Where do you think directors like Jonathan Demme and writers like John Sayles came from? Does the Los Angeles Times review direct to video films? Nope... Rick Jacobson may have directed a stack of movies, but this is probably his first film that has ever been reviewed in print. Because it’s trying to be bad!

So, we come to BITCH SLAP which is honest about its intentions - it just wants to be a Russ Meyer movie. It doesn’t want to be a *send up* of a 1960s exploitation movie, it wants to *be* a 1960s exploitation movie. Hey, what’s wrong with that? Why can’t the Los Angeles Times critic just judge it as an exploitation movie? When I saw the trailer, I said to myself, “Hey - I gotta see that!”

CHEAP THRILLS

The film is what it is - good cheap exploitation. And though there’s lots of blood squibs, the level of violence is pretty tame for all of the machinegun fire. People get shot a zillion times and have little red dots on their clothes. And the sex? This film is one big tease! I don’t remember any nudity, though I do remember LOTS of cleavage and some simulated sex on a TV soap opera level. It just *seems* raw and nasty.


I mentioned the flashbacks, and they’re lots of fun. The movie opens with Trixie in her pretty party dress crawling through the burning wreckage of the trailer wondering how she came to be here, and we get a title card that says FOUR HOURS EARLIER and get a snippet of background, and then we go back to the wreckage for a minute or two of present day before we get a title card that says FOUR HOURS AND 8 MINUTES EARLIER... and that sets the tone for the flashbacks - they are frequent and often a little silly. I kept waiting for TWENTY YEARS EARLIER where the three girls are in the same crib awaiting diaper changes. This ends up being a great running gag that never seems to wear out its welcome.

The other thing is the split screen, which is over done on purpose... though not nearly as overdone as in the last OSS-117 movie. The thing I love and hate about Rick (director) is that he’s creative - in NIGHT HUNTER he did that shaky-cam thing in all of the action scenes, which I absolutely hated... even though Paul Greengrass swiped that technique a decade later for the second BOURNE movie. I loved what he did in BLACK THUNDER, though - he mounted the camera on a rig that allowed it to turn 360' (upside down) and slid the camera back and forth in the plane cockpit shots so that you could feel the plane banking and looping and doing all of the amazing dogfight stunts. That was genius! If the plane spun upside down in the dogfight, so did the cockpit shot of the pilot (our hero). So the split screen stuff in BITCH SLAP is cool 24-style stuff. It worked really well.

The film has some great confined cameos - characters whose roles are spread throughout the film but were probably shot out in a single day - by Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless (that Hercules/Xena connection)... with a twist! Lucy plays Mother Superior in a funny flashback that reveals that one of the gals used to be a nun in a convent who was *very popular* with the other nuns... and Sorbo plays the head of a spy organization in a bunch of little scenes probably shot in a single day, because one of the gals is revealed to be a top secret undercover female version of James Bond.


Here’s the confined cameo twist - Sorbo isn’t just at one location, he’s all over the place... thanks to green screen. The majority of the flashbacks are green screen shots. Now, this is a low budget movie that can not afford great special effects, and all of the green screen shots have those outlines that make them look like green screen... except thanks to SIN CITY and all of those stylized comic book films, we no longer need perfect looking green screen and effects as long as we can used a stylized cartoony background. And that’s just what BITCH SLAP does - the flashbacks are not real looking at all, they look like SIN CITY, so any imperfection in green screen or even location plate disappears. A scene in Russia where Sorbo meets with spy-gal Hel at a train station has a stylized cartoon look that adds to the production value instead of subtracts from it. The movie has these great surreal flashbacks that seem arty.

One of the other tricks the film uses is the old doorway in the ground gag - from A BOY AND HIS DOG. When they finally find the treasure, it’s not just some trunk full of cash - it’s a vault that opens into the earth, and they climb down a ladder to some gangster version of that huge warehouse from the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK filled with just about anything someone could steal... including nukes and heavy artillery and all kinds of loot.

BUT, WHAT ABOUT THE STORY?



The film is good sleazy fun. I laughed several times. The problem with making a “So Bad It’s Good” movie is that often it just turns out bad. The key to is to keep it funny, so that we know you aren’t taking this seriously. BITCH SLAP has enough gags to keep us laughing, and is so over the top in many of its scenes that you know they aren’t taking this seriously. Exaggeration is funny - and this film gets laughs from seeing how complicated it can make its Mexican Standoffs, and how crass it can make its simulated sex scenes. But some of the dialogue is raw instead of clever, and the characters are so paper thin there’s no way to mine anything but surface gags from them (Trixie pole dancing with a shovel while they are supposed to be digging is her best character-related gag). I wish it had been more clever, but maybe I’m the only one in the audience who cared about that? The plot and much of the action is contrived to the point of “Oh, come on!” - often for no reason at all the girls will get into a fight - maybe that was supposed to be a gag that didn’t work so it just seemed like a bad movie thing. I know it seems silly to point out that they needed a better excuse for their exploitation scenes, but that would have made me think “Bad on purpose” for those contrived scenes instead of “Just bad”. And the end of the film is just bad no matter how you slice it - there is a twist that is so contrived and sledge-hammered in that I walked away liking the film less. And both of my friends jumped on the end, too - so it wasn’t just picky Bill. You have to play fair with plot twists, folks! Hey, I saw the color of her underwear and figured out the twist - but the character doesn’t seem to know about their own double cross in the scenes where they are pulling the double cross! Again, this is one of those things where the film isn’t as clever as it needs to be. But those story issues aside - a lot of fun for 90 minutes!

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Pigeon Holing Yourself - and the equally kinky practice of Self Branding.
Yesterday's Dinner: Chicken Caesar Salad at Fuddruckers.




ALL SIX CLASSIC CLASSES!
Why break up a set? Get all of the Classic Classes on CD for one low price - and save on postage, too! SIX CDs packed with information! From IDEAS & CREATIVITY to WRITING INDIES to WRITING HORROR to the 2 part WRITING THRILLERS to GUERRILLA MARKETING. These classes used to sell for $15 - for a total of $120 with postage & handling. Buy the whole set and get 'em for only $70 including postage and handling (USA).

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Scene Of The Week: The Wind And The Lion

One of my favorite films is John Millius's THE WIND AND THE LION, and here's a great scene with Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Yosemite talking about a grizzly bear he's just killed...


The bear is part of the character's story thread - and shows up in several later scenes as it is stuffed and posed and eventually Teddy has his picture taken with it. Each scene with Teddy has some small bit about the bear - or maybe a large bit. He jumps up on his desk at one point to show the pose he wants for the stuffed bear.

The great thing about this "bear subplot" is that it allows the character to talk obliquely about elements of the main plot (a kidnaping in Morocco that may start a war) without being obvious or on the nose. In some ways, the dead grizzly is a "code" or a symbol that allows him to speak about the political situation without ever talking politics. I have a script tip about "symbolic dialogue" - when a character talks about one thing but is actually talking about something else.

This is a great technique to use if having your character talk about the plot situation would result in dull or obvious dialogue. Let them talk about something else... and let it have a second meaning about the plot situation.

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

It is a great film for 12 year olds of all ages - filled with larger than life characters and all kinds of romance and adventure.

John Milius is one of my favorite directors, and when I met him this was the film I mentioned loving - even though many of his other films are also among my favorites. I start every day listening to the Basil Poledouris theme to CONAN THE BARBARIAN, and I thought PUBLIC ENEMIES paled big time in comparison to DILLINGER. They remade CONAN and RED DAWN and neither worked. His movies were usually about two strong people in combat - and the respect the combatants had for each other and the honor of a good fight. In RED DAWN the Cuban villain allows the Wolverines to remove their wounded in one scene - even though he could easily kill them and end his problems. But he is a man of honor - even though he is the villain. Even though Milius and I have completely different political beliefs, he never demonizes the other side. Though he may not agree with the opposing government’s goals (or maybe even the hero’s government’s goals - governments are usually corrupt), the warriors on the battlefield are not evil guys. His antagonists are not two dimensional mustache twirlers, they are real people.

The great thing about having two strong forces locked in battle is that you get to explore each character... and there’s no shortage of action.




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

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




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

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

Milius Interview:


If WIND AND THE LION pops up on TCM, check it out. It might make you feel like a 12 year old again, and you might sword fight with a broom... and break something.

I love the Goldsmith score, but also love the cinematography and direction. Just in that Grizzly clip, there are some images so beautiful they could be paintings. Millius is one of those directors who is kind of forgotten now, but made some amazing films... and needs to be rediscovered by a new generation.

- Bill
eXTReMe Tracker