Friday, February 28, 2020

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Del Toro Talks Hitchcock.

I thought we'd let Guillermo Del Toro talk about how Hitchcock influenced his films and more... - Bill

Of course, I have my own books 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 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.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Thriller Thursday: THE GUILTY MEN

The Guilty Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

ATLiH: Rubber Gloves Of Death!


As usual, the names and details have been changed to protect the very very guilty!

One of the things about low budget movies that bothers me these days is that so many of them just suck. Now, I fully understand films made on low budgets have little or no money to do things, but often it seems as if no one on the film is trying to make up for that with creativity, imagination, and passion. It often seems like they just don’t care. I know that good films, even great films, can be made for no money. I see films in festivals made on a shoestring like FAVOR and DOWN AND DANGEROUS and FOREV and JOE SHERMANN SONG and dozens of others (sorry if I didn’t mention your film) that just kick ass. They are often *better* than anything Hollywood could do on a Hollywood budget. I also see some films that don’t quite work, but you can see the filmmakers really trying to make something excellent, they just didn’t have the cash or some small thing sunk them. But often I see low budget films where it seems like nobody gave a damn...

And that’s a problem.

Recently I rented a low budget film that a guy I know was involved in. A sci fi action flick. Now, I can get behind a cheap sci fi action flick. I interviewed the guys who made SIX STRING SAMURAI before the film came out, and *that’s* a wild ride! But this film just sucked... because the people involved obviously didn’t care. They were just making a product - and not even a very good one.

The way to become a loser in Hollywood is not to care. Even if you are making a cheapo genre film, make it the best it can possibly be. Not the best you can make it, because you always want to stretch and grow - so make it the best it can be (which is better than you can do... you have to stretch). In this case, the writer-director just didn’t care and made 90 minutes of pure torture.

This was one of those “Mockbusters” - a cheapo film designed to have enough similarities to a big studio blockbuster to maybe fool someone into thinking it’s a prequel or sequel or maybe that studio blockbuster available in a RedBox kiosk or on the shelves at Walmart at the same time it’s in the cinemas. These films basically use the TV adverts and trailers of the big studio blockbuster to help sell their cheapo version. Before striking gold with the SHARKNADO movies, producer The Asylum made a ton of these - even being sued by studios because they copied the posters and other elements of movies like BATTLESHIP (AMERICAN BATTLESHIP) and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED) and THOR (ALMIGHTY THOR) and TRANSFORMERS (TRANSMORPHERS) and 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (18 YEAR OLD VIRGIN) and I AM LEGEND (I AM OMEGA). But this wasn’t an Asylum movie - it was made by other folks with the same scheme. Can I tell you the biggest problem with a “Mockbuster”? You can easily compare it to the actual big budget blockbuster... and these films don’t compare well.

The story opened on a space ship... which was the worst CGI exterior I have ever seen (why not use a model if you can’t afford good CGI? This looked like a really bad cartoon of a spaceship. Heck, you could build your own unique model of the space ship - all that takes is time *before production begins* when you don’t have a cast and crew waiting.) And when we cut to the interior? It was some office with a drop ceiling and a visible drinking fountain in the background (how would that work in zero gravity?) and there was a gameboy console or something on a desk. Nothing was done to dress the office to make it look like a spaceship. The space ship had drop ceilings and florescent lights and a drinking fountain and square windows with vertical blinds. WTF?

I worked on a friend’s sci fi movie where he took cardboard and curved it to look like a space ship wall and painted it gray and made some oval windows with black cardboard sheets that had little LED lights punched into them as stars. Cost him a couple bucks total. He also built a pretty nice control console and put a couple of $29 desk chairs behind it (the actor’s bodies covered the chairs, but they could turn like STAR TREK chairs). The console had knobs and buttons and blinking lights and screens with green gel and lights behind them. Basically, he took a couple of weeks before he made the film to build the space ship set in his garage. It looked amazing on film. This film made by this looser that I paid real money to rent? No time spent on anything!

The story had a spaceship filled with hot female prisoners crashing on an alien planet, and (of course) the aliens want to capture the women and mate with them... because if a spaceship filled with *alien* females crash landed on Earth, the first thing you’d think was: can we have sex with them? Sure, they’re green and look like lizards or something, but can we have sex with them? That’s the whole danged plot! Except the escaped female prisoners are attractive human women.

Now here’s the thing about cheapo films like this - they are exploitation flicks. My friend Fred Olen Ray says that “nudity is the cheapest special effect”, and many a bad film I rented back in the VHS days and watched with buddies from work while drinking beer and eating pizza were saved by nudity and inventive action and some funny lines. Here are two things about nudity (female or male or aliens wearing rubber gloves for some reason) - and these not only appeared in ever version of my SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING book, they go all the way back to the xeroxed “generic script notes” that spawned that book: 1) A rape scene is **not** a sex scene (it’s a violence scene, and if you write it or film it to be “sexy” that’s just plain disturbing and wrong), and 2) All nudity must make sense! If a character just gets naked for no reason, that’s stupid! They have to get naked for a logical reason! Fred has a movie (don’t remember which one) where a character gets completely spattered with blood when one of their friends is killed by a monster, and what would *you* do if you were covered in blood? Wash it off! So the character takes a shower - and now we get a suspense scene where we know the monster is out there and this character is *vulnerable* because they are naked. Hey, it’s the danged “Psycho” shower scene, but with a monster instead of Mrs. Bates. I’m not saying this is art, but you understand why the character takes off her clothes. She’s not just disrobing for the pervs in the audience - there’s a logical reason. Nudity has to make sense! Even a crappy film where nudity might be the only thing that saves the movie from being torture needs to have *motivated* nudity. Or else it just seems cheap (which it is, but we don’t want the audience to be thinking that). Even with the six pack and the pizza, you want the story to make some sort of sense.

When I pitched my BLADE RUNNER type script STEEL CHAMELEONS about the underground railroad for androids that wanted to pass as human... and ended up getting paid to write a movie about robot hookers from outer space, I decided to write the exact kind of movie that my buddies from work would want to see. A six pack and pizza movie. Funny, lots of action, some inventive elements, maybe a little parody of some popular film snuck in there (EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in that case) and some *motivated* female nudity (and even some shirtless dudes in case someone watched it with their girlfriend). Fred directed that, by the way. So you might have watched that film and thought it was stupid, but it would at least be *fun* and include all of the elements the target audience wanted to see. “Hey, I saw this movie, and it was terrible... but funny and had a cool spaceship battle and beautiful women.” (Or hunky dudes, if that’s what you enjoyed). But there’s a *criteria* for films like this... do you think this film delivered on any of the required elements?

The aliens chasing our escaped women? Well, they obviously bought some cheap alien masks the day after Halloween, and then had the actors playing the aliens dress in jeans and long sleeve shirts (so they didn’t need to do full body make up). Oh, and tennis shoes. But what about the *hands*? The alien hands that would be grabbing for these escaped women? Well, instead of doing any sort of make up, they just gave them yellow rubber gloves. Worst looking aliens *ever*! I did better stuff when I was making super 8mm films in High School!

Then the rest of that film was filled with “we don’t care” costumes and “we don’t care” acting and “we don’t care” sets and “we don’t care” props and a “we don’t care” script and, worst of all, no action! Most of the film was two or more characters standing somewhere talking about action that had happened earlier. No action scenes at all!!!!

You know what’s almost as cheap as nudity? A foot chase or a fight scene. Or even a shoot out - when I was doing those stupid super 8mm films in High School I had toy guys from Toys R Us painted to look real, and created cool muzzle flares by wrapping match heads in aluminum foil and heating the end (this was built into the toy gun - a disposable cigarette lighter to do the heating). The match heads exploded out of the barrel, which looked really cool at night. I also used flash bulbs built into those Toys R Us plastic guns with a battery that connected when the trigger was pulled. And blood squibs - a bent piece of aluminum tubing hidden in the victim’s shirt, plastic aquarium hose going down the body connecting the tubing to a lens cleaner bellows taped onto the bottom of their shoe, filled with Kayro Syrup blood. The victim stomps on the bellows and the blood sprays from their chest! You could shoot them in a long shot! People always wanted to know how I did that - because there was no visible special effects rig and the victim could show their empty hands on camera (no trigger in their hands). As long as the foot was angled right or off screen. So if I could do a cool shoot out when I was an idiot High School student, someone making a film that I could rent from a legit rental source could probably do the same... if they cared.

Now, here was the funny part: this was obviously shot in the woods somewhere. Once they were off the flying rental office, they landed on some wooded planet where the female prisoners escaped and those aliens in Playtex gloves chased them. Except they didn’t. There was no chasing in the film at all. When the hero woman escaped, she instantly twisted her ankle and was recaptured within seconds.

She got maybe two steps, max.

Then it was back to evil alien in bad Halloween mask making a never ending speech gesturing with his rubber gloved hands as if he had been interrupted while scrubbing the toilet as attractive female hero just sits there listening and waiting her turn to make *her* never ending speech. If I had the woods, I would sure as hell use them for a great foot chase. I would have characters hide and almost be discovered, generating suspense. I would have spent the time to write a great script, because the one thing a low budget film has as an advantage is pre-production time. The more time you spend in prep, the more you can solve problems long before they pop up on set. The more you can craft something exciting that won’t cost a lot of money to make. I would have taken the time to write the greatest script ever. I would do a big action chase thing like MOST DANGEROUS GAME, but with aliens! MOST DANGEROUS GAME was a low budget film when it was made...

But here? No chases, no danger, no nothing... just people sitting and talking.

Wearing rubber gloves and Halloween masks.

For 90 very very long minutes.

With absolutely no nudity, motivated or not.

And no hunky dudes, if that’s what you enjoy.

And nothing they said was clever or amusing - it was dead serious, as if they expected the audience to take all of this stuff as if were Shakespeare or something. Hey, wait, Shakespeare is damned funny! All of that clever word play and those dirty jokes for the groundlings!

But nobody involved cared enough to make this even slightly amusing, or have any chases or suspense or action or anything else that people might want to see. That’s what makes the writer-director of this mess a loser. They didn’t care. They were just trying to fill 90 minutes of film so they could collect their check and go home.

You have to care. You have to do the best that can be done with what you have. You have to give it your all... even if the movie is about robot hookers from outer space when you wanted to make something like BLADE RUNNER. It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.

- Bill

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Trailer Tuesday: OSS:117 - Nest Of Spies

Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius.
Written by: Jean-François Halin and Michel Hazanavicius.
Starring: Jean Dujardin, François Damiens, Khalid Maadour.

Before there was the Oscar winning film THE ARTIST, the same team made a couple of silly spy movies starting with...

OSS 117: CAIRO - NEST OF SPIES - Imagine carefully recreating one of those 1960s James Bond rip-offs, even down to the cheesy rear-screen projection whenever anyone is in a car or on a motorcycle. The same lighting style and film stock and use of stock footage and the occasional model plane as in those old films. The same costumes and acting style and... well, it looks like a film they found in a vault somewhere and are showing it for the first time. That’s OSS 117: CAIRO - NEST OF SPIES. Because an early 60s spy movie would look silly, now, they give this film the full AIRPLANE treatment - the characters are dead serious, the film is absurd.

The OSS 117 spy series has been a staple of French cinema since 1956, when OSS 117 IS NOT DEAD was released, but really kicked into gear in the James Bond era with a film a year for a while in the 60s. OSS 117 TAKES A VACATION brought the series to an end in 1970... but this film brings back the character in a great mix of Bond parody and GET SMART. The spy (whose name goes on forever - even in the non-parody films) is this completely clueless moron who accidentally manages to save the day. His main talent seems to be saying the exactly wrong thing at the wrong time - angering everyone around him. Movie opens in WW2 where our hero and his best friend Jack steal the plans for the V2 from the Nazis in a scene that could be from one of those serials INDIANA JONES is lifted from. One of the silly things in this film are the title cards - we get a stock footage shot of the Colosseum... then the word ROME in huge letters. The Eiffel Tower stock shot lingers before we get PARIS in huge letters.

Our hero (Jean Dujardin) gives the crazy code phrase at a restaurant, gets the counter phrase, and is taken to a back booth to meet his boss, who tells him that Jack is dead! He was working in Cairo, where a militant Muslim group, the Soviets, a King’s niece, and a bunch of other bad guys are all involved in... something.

They’re sending our hero down to find out who killed Jack and what all of these bad guys are up to. But first - a flashback to our hero and Jack frolicking on the beach together... Which seems *very* Gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that... by the way, this is the 25th year anniversary of SEINFELD’s first episode). From here on, every flashback of our hero and Jack becomes more and more Gay until they are in that beach scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. And later in the film, a henchman has a flashback of him and another henchman on the same beach frolicking together.

Anyway, our hero flies to Egypt, where a dozen suspicious looking guys in the airport follow him, and we get every spy movie cliche... done to the comedy extreme. The French espionage agency’s cover in Egypt is a poultry company - with a warehouse full of chickens that crow when the lights are turned on, because they think it’s morning. This isn’t just a running gag - our hero can spend hours turning on and off the lights. Unlike other spy movies where the cover job is just a cover - there are shoot outs (and fights using chickens as weapons) with other countries spy organizations over the poultry business. It’s not enough that millions of dollars in Soviet arms were stolen... the German poultry business is losing money to the French poultry business in Egypt!

My favorite gag in the film has our hero wake up with one of the hot women from the story, with a terrible case of “bed head” - hair sticking up everywhere - but when he runs his fingers through his hair it ends up *perfectly* in place. Another gag has one of the fellows following him giving him the wrong code phrase again and again - each time our hero beating the crap out of him. Eventually, the guy gets it right - he’s not some bad guy spy, but his contact from the British Secret Service. He also shows the girl how his gun cocks... um, again and again. He causes an international incident when he stops a priest from calling people to prayer (and a dozen other times he is so insensitive to the locals that you wonder why they don't kill him). The double-triple-multiple crosses. An underwater scene where our hero holds his breath for about ten minutes. Enjoying a massage wayyyyy too much. And there’s a musical number that really gets out of hand. This movie has so many silly things going on in it, I was always laughing at something. Sometimes, just the way the movie gets some 1960s cheesy spy thing dead on is funny.


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Friday, February 21, 2020

The French Hitchcock?

If you've seen INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, the movie playing at Shoshana's cinema that gets bumped for the Hitler Assassination Plan is called LE CORBEAU (THE RAVEN) - she has to take the letters off the marqee. The film was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is often called the French Hitchcock. Clouzot also directed a couple of my favorite films, WAGES OF FEAR and DIABOLIQUE. He is a great director - knows how to build tension to the breaking point. LE CORBEAU was only his second film, but it still works decades later.

LE CORBEAU is about an alof handsome young doctor in a village hospital who begins to get threatening letters signed by "The Raven". The letters accuse him of having an affair with an older doctor's pretty young wife... and of being an abortionist, who may even have been the one who knocked up all of the women he's accused of aborting. Because he wasn't born in the village, he's seen as an outsider... and when word gets out people believe these rumors.

The old doctor's wife also gets a letter from The Raven... and soon half the village are getting threatening letters accusing them of some rumored activity. The Raven knows *everyone's* secrets! Who can it be? The old cuckold doctor and young doctor basically must work together to find out who is The Raven. And there are some *great* suspects and a really shocking twist end. Actually, a double twist.

Though this is an early film of Clouzot's - not as suspenseful as DIABOLIQUE, it still packs a punch and has some very well drawn characters and it will keep you guessing until the end. The alof doctor is an interesting protagonist because he has a deep dark secret - and we think we know what it is and we are completely wrong. The character is a twist.

If you're curious about French films made during WW2 and during the Nazi Occupation, check this one out. Oh, and look between the lines for a message about living and working in Nazi Occupied France.

- Bill

Of course, I have my own books 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!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!


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.

Click here for more info!


Thursday, February 20, 2020

Thriller Thursday: Child's Play


Season: 1, Episode: 2.
Airdate: 9/20/1960

Director: Arthur Hiller.
Writer: Robert Dozier (THE CARDINAL and the Ryan O’Neal version of Elmore Leonard’s THE BIG BOUNCE.)
Cast: Frank Overton (Dad), Bethel Leslie (Mom), Tommy Nolan (Hank).
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: Bud Thackery.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Sometimes children become so lost in a world of imagination, they’re unable to find their way back. Then there is only danger before them, sure as my name is Boris Karloff. We’re concerned now with a boy whose imagination brings him to a crisis involving not only himself but also his family. A crisis that begins, but does not end as child’s play. Let me assure you my friends, this is a thriller!”

Synopsis: Kind of a scaled down version of THE SHINING, minus the supernatural elements. An ignored, love starved wife (Bethel Leslie) makes a last ditch attempt to save her family by insisting that her cold, self centered, workaholic husband (Frank Overton) and their completely neglected son Hank (Tommy Nolan) spend three weeks vacation in a remote mountain cabin where they will have no choice but to bond and heal. Great plan, but ahole Dad claims one room as his office and spends the whole time working (he’s a writer, like Jack from THE SHINING) and forbids any disturbance for the entire three weeks (though demands that his wife keep his coffee cup full). So, no healing for the family again this year.

While the wife sulks, the son (who is used to being completely ignored by his parents) spends his day imagining epic adventures outdoors... playing cowboy sheriff chasing an evil desperado named Black Bart. The episode begins in media res with an incident from close to the end of the episode where Hank points a *real* rifle at a terrified fisherman...

But our story opens with Hank playing with a toy six shooter and pretending that a fallen tree near the cabin is a dangerous cliff he must balance on the edge of wile chasing his quarry... as his Mom calls him in for lunch. She comes out and asks him what he’s doing, he explains the perils of falling off the end of a cliff, and she tells him he needs to hurry up and get across or he’ll miss lunch. That’s when Dad comes out, and orders him to come in right this very minute... and Hank falls off the log, screaming all the way down...

This is a great way to show the family dynamics and set up Hanks’s underlying motivations throughout.

Mom pulls Dad aside and explains the reason why Hank is spending this vacation in his imagination is because Dad is completely ignoring him. Dad says he’s very busy, doesn’t have time for this, and Mom suggests he take a break and take Hank hunting this afternoon. Dad says he’s too busy this afternoon... but maybe tomorrow. Which is what he says *every day*. They go in for lunch...

Hank tries to engage his Dad in conversation... but Dad is pretty much a dick. When Mom suggests Dad take Hank hunting this afternoon, Hank gets excited and starts talking about the animal tracks he spotted this afternoon... Then Dad says he’d like to take Hank hunting, but can’t: has too much work. Hank is broken hearted, excuses himself. Dad lashes out at Mom for putting him on the spot like that. An argument begins that will last the rest of the episode.

Hank puts on his toy gun... then sees the real rifles in the gun rack. Grabs one, fills his pockets with shells, and goes out to play.

Most of the rest of the episode focuses on the argument between Dad and Mom, with a few shots of Hank wandering around in the woods with a loaded rifle, chasing “Black Bart”. Dad wants to know why Mom doesn’t punish Hank more often, why she allows him to play let’s pretend instead of dealing with reality. The more Dad says things like this, the more we realize that he’s the reason why Hank is this way. Dad just wants to be left alone for the rest of the vacation so that he can work. Unlike Jack’s novel in THE SHINING, this Dad writes completely accurate technical articles... and has no understanding of imagination. At one point the argument escalates so that Mom admits she has been considering divorce, and this vacation was supposed to get the family back together... which leads Dad to snap back that she hates his job. Hates that he works. Why can’t she just raise the kid and do the housework and leave him alone!

Dad asks Mom why Hank is even here, why didn’t he go to the summer camp he went to last year, so that he’d be out of their hair and Dad could get some work done? Well, it seems that Hank has been kicked out of the summer camp for acting out last year. He tried to play William Tell by shooting an apple off another kid’s head! Dad asks why she didn’t tell him so that he could punish Hank? Mom says that may not have been the best solution to the problem, and Dad says he’s punish Hank when he gets back from playing. This guy is never going to win Dad Of The Year or Husband Of The Year.

Meanwhile, Hank has happened upon a Fisherman (Parley Baer) and aims his rifle at him. Fires a couple of shots when the Fisherman starts towards him. Then they both sit down while Hank figures out what to do next.

Mom and Dad’s blow up leaves Dad alone in his office... finally realizing that his family is disintegrating and maybe he should stop being a major dick. He decides maybe he will go hunting with Hank afterall, goes to grab the guns... and realize that one is missing! Mom and Dad are worried, Dad says he’ll go out and get Hank... and loads up the other rifle. Um, WTF? Dad is going to shoot his son? Mom mentions the rifle may not help the situation, so he reluctantly puts it back on the rifle rack and they go to find Hank together.

Meanwhile, Hank has gotten the Fisherman to put an apple on his head, and the Fisherman is doing everything in his power to talk Hank out of shooting at it. The whole thing ends up about the William Tell trust test thing, and Mom and Dad find Hank in time for Dad to offer to take the Fisherman’s place and put the apple on his own head. Hank shoots it off, and the family hugs each other. Oh, and Dad’s name is *Bart*.

Review: Unlike the first episode which had too much happening for an hour long show, this episode is simple and direct... but suffers one of the same problems that first episode had: basically a drama until the end, when everything happens at once (and it feels rushed). For a show called THRILLER, these two first episode manage to spend 3/4 of the show on the build up (without suspense or thrills) and then try to cram in all of the thrills at the end. Though this show is about a kid trapped in fantasy world running around with a loaded rifle, the majority of the running time is that argument between Mom and Dad. When we get a shot of Hank with the rifle, he’s just walking around. (Though, at one point they have him cross a waterfall which is dangerous.)

It’s more than halfway through the running time when Hank stumbles on the Fisherman... and then they just sit down on the ground while Hank figures what he’s going to do with him. The last ten minutes (of a 50 minute episode) is when we get the William Tell Apple On The Head thing... and it’s only the final 7 minutes where we have Mom and Dad and Hank and the rifle (and the Fisherman, of course) all in the same scene! So, 7 minutes with some thrills in a 50 minute episode! Oh, wait, I forgot to subtract the family hug screentime.

The problem is, instead of focusing on the kid with the loaded rifle wandering around (and eventually holding a man hostage) which is suspenseful, they focus on the husband and wife arguing... which is boring. This argument doesn’t even work as a discussion of baseball statistics while a bomb ticks under the table, because there is no bomb until the last 10 minutes! The suspense stuff is rushed instead of stretched until it becomes unbearable. That’s how suspense works: because it is the anticipation of an event, we want to stretch out that anticipation. So instead of Hank trying to shoot the apple of the Fisherman’s head in the last 10 minutes, that should have been bumped forward. Instead of being in the last quarter of the episode, it should have been either at the halfway point... or maybe at the end of the first quarter. The show should have focused on the suspense of the kid with the gun rather than the bickering parents.

Frank Overton who plays the Dad is all one note ahole, even after they are out searching for Hank together at the end. It’s as if he’s still an ahole, and after this hug he’s gonna paddle the hell out of Hank. The performance needed to better show Dad realizing the errors of his ways and softening, the Overton didn’t do that. Overton was the Sheriff in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD who says “Let the dead bury the dead” at the end and lets Boo Radley off the hook... a compassionate performance. So maybe it was Arthur Hiller’s direction, though Hiller is a damned good director. The Dad character just never changes, when that is kind of the point of the story.

Also, the child actor who plays Hank is *way* too old. He’s a teenager, in a role that seems written for some one younger.

Music by Pete Rugolo is great this time around, lots of primal percussion instruments.

By the way, I really dislike stories that equate an active imagination with being violent and dangerous. Why do writers write stuff like this? There are freakin’ serial killer scripts (and movies) about kids with imagination who take it too far and kill a bunch of people. Um, I have an active imagination and am one of the least dangerous people I know. I kind of suspect those without imaginations are more dangerous, they may lack empathy. I can imagine myself in someone else’s shoes, they can’t. It almost seems like this episode was written by the Dad character at times!

The show will *soon* find its footing and live up to its name (episode 5, ROSE’S LAST SUMMER has some great hints of MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, and episode 7, THE PURPLE ROOM, is great stuff!), but these first couple of shows are not the best examples of the show I fell in love with as a kid.



Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Never Say Never: Big Egos And Bad Notes!

From 11 years ago...

Hollywood is a small world... where you keep bumping into the same idiots again and again.

Now, I’m sure that many people see me as an absolute prick - I’m one of those writers who isn’t always easy to work with... and I tend to have a big mouth that is always flapping about how this director ruined this script. Problem is, I really believe just because a film is made as entertainment doesn’t mean it can’t also be good. Many of my favorite films are really great genre films, some of which were made on the cheap but still pack a punch. So I’m always fighting to make the film the *best* that it can possibly be... and that often makes me “difficult”. When someone wants to make some change to the script that will make it stupid, I’m going to argue against it. I’ll probably lose, but that’s not going to stop me from trying to stop them from making a bad film.

I believe my job as the screenwriter is to be the brains of the film. To keep the story on track, to make sure we are going to film the very best version of that story there is. Even if we are making a film on a limited budget for a producer who is more interested in explosions and boobs (but probably not exploding boobs) we can still make a great film. There are great genre films made all the time - hey, have you seen the Spanish film TIMECRIMES yet?

But this business is filled with people whose egos are bigger than their talent. People who want things changed “just because” and end up shooting themselves in the foot by making a terrible film. My advice is to avoid dealing with people like that... but Hollywood often seems to be *mostly* people like that. The note I always joke about - “Why can’t they be cowboys?” came from a *studio* based producer, and the reason why there is a pointles sex scene on a submarine in CRASH DIVE is due to a note from HBO. I’ve had meetings with that producer's company at Warner Bros who wants to put a giant mechanical spider in every screenplay - check out Kevin Smith’s rant about this guy. It doesn’t matter the size of the budget or the importance of the project, there are notes and ideas that will turn a good script into a stinker *everywhere*. If you wonder why so few good films get made, it’s because it’s difficult to put all of the pieces together.. and some of the pieces are idiots. A film is only as good as the stupidest person involved.... and there’s at least one idiot on every film.

Here’s one of the things that you never want to learn, but you do anyway: usually it’s better to work with a nice idiot than a complete prick who may also be an idiot. Oops - didn’t I say somewhere up there that I am often a prick when it comes to stupid script changes? Damn! I’m the bad guy in my own scenario! But the thing is - if you are going to be working with someone on a film, doing rewrites for a couple of months before they shoot, you want to work with someone who isn’t going to be a daily battle. People who believe you are in some sort of power struggle and they must control the script to win. Every day is a fight, and they go out of their way to sabotage you. I’ve worked with those people, and *never again*!

But even someone who is not a prick can be difficult to work with if their ego is so big it gets in the way of making a good film. And there is no shortage of people with massive egos in Hollywood. Many times I have been working on some film where a completely wrong turn is made, and everybody knows it, but the guy who made the wrong turn is completely unwilling to admit they made a mistake... so they insist on going in the wrong direction! Everybody knows we are about to drive off a cliff, but nobody can stop it because they guy who made the wrong turn is more powerful than anyone else on the project (or people think he or she is). The film ends up awful, and everybody knew that would happen halfway through Story Meeting #2 when they heard that bad note.

Here is what I find frustrating about this - if only that person with the massive ego had just listened to everyone around them, they would have made a better film that would have made more money and cost less and audiences would have liked it more. Of course, sometimes people with massive egos surround themselves with sycophants, so all they hear is “Genius idea!” and Bill saying “That will ruin the movie!” I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve worked on where someone in power (often the producer, director, or star) has a really bad idea that will sink the film *and* cost the producer more money, but has no logical explanation for why this change should be made. I ask what the reason for the change is, because sometimes there’s a “note under the note” - an actual problem, they just have the worst solution possible. I can come up with a better solution - often one that improves the entire script - and we can all be happy.

Hey, nothing is perfect including my scripts, and I just want to make everything better. If someone spots a problem that needs to be solved, I want to get it solved. If someone spots a weakness that needs to be made stronger - I want to fix that! My goal is always to make the script the best it can possibly be, so that the movie can be the best it can possibly be. Part of a good writer’s job is to ditch your ego and focus on making the script better. Bad writers never want to change a word - it’s all about their ego. Good writers want to make any changes that make the script better, even if it makes them look like an idiot in the process. I would rather look like an idiot in a story meeting and have my name on a good film... of course, so far the good film part hasn’t happened for me.

I am a commercial guy. I write the kinds of movies I regularly pay to see. I’m not trying to turn TRANSFORMERS 2 into an arthouse film, I just want to make the best popcorn film possible. You know, I really liked BATMAN BEGINS and that is a superhero movie... and I liked the PIRATES movies (yes, the first one is best) and those are based on a theme park ride. I am also a huge fan of SLITHER and THE HOWLING and the original PIRANHA and all kinds of sleazy little films that deliver the thrills without sacrificing the quality. I love action movies, and would never want to cut out the action part... I just want to make sure the story part is the best it can be as well. In fact, you would think that the reason why someone hires me (or you or whoever) is because they want an *expert* doing the writing, not some guy standing in front of Home Depot looking for work. They aren’t hiring a *typist* they are hiring a writer. You would think when it came to the writing part, they would at least listen to what we had to say. You hire an expert to get the expert’s knowledge and experience, right?

But often in Hollywood it seems like they hire the expert just to cover their butts. “Hey, we threw two Oscar Winners and the guy who wrote last year’s #1 movie at the script, so we had the writing part covered!” They don’t actually *listen* to those writers, they just order them to write the awful version of the script and try to make it work without removing what makes it awful. The best example of this is probably ARMAGEDDON - a film that probably every name writer in Hollywood worked on. In interviews, all of the writers *hated* the scene where the Mir Space Station explodes for no apparent reason, and they all fought (individually) to get that scene out of the script. What is it doing in there? It serves no purpose and makes zero sense - why would you need to refuel that close to Earth when we can fly to the moon and back without any problem? But when every writer fought against that scene, ego rather than logic won out. There was no reason for the scene - the director just wanted it, and the director is god... and many of them believe they are gods. You would think that after every name writer you hire says the same thing, you might stop to consider that all of them are right... but in Hollywood ego is stronger than anything. ARMAGEDDON isn’t the best movie ever made, but it was a hit. Many movies where ego is substituted for logic and quality aren’t as lucky... they stink and the audience can smell it from the trailer.

You’d think when you asked the egotistical producer why they think the modern day bank robbers should be cowboys, they’d have some logical answer. But often you get a “it just feels right that way” when it doesn’t make any sense at all to do it that way. Even if you are just going to spend $2-3 million on one of the little movies I’ve written, you don’t want to make a change on a hunch that makes no logical sense when what is already on the page makes complete sense. Yet that happens again and again - with the change torpedoing a perfectly sound script. And often these "hunch changes" add cast and locations to the budget, but take away the excitement or novelty or high concept. Sometimes the ego thing is so strong that a change is made because the great idea in the script didn’t come from the director or producer... so they remove the great idea and add... nothing! The film becomes complete crap, costs more and earns less, but at least that person’s ego is stroked! They got their way!

There are some stars out there who have a policy of never hiring any actor who is better than they are, so that *they* will be the actor who shines in the movie, not some other guy. No Morgan Freeman cameos in these star’s films! No role for Robert Duvall or Gene Hackman. These stars want to be the center of attention - even if that means they surround themselves with second string actors. They are afraid of being upstaged by someone better than they are. They *demand* that the producer only hire people they approve of - and as “stars” they have enough power to get away with this. But this is so short sighted! Just like anything else, when you work with people better than you are, it forces you to learn and grow and make those artistic leaps that make *you* better. I *want* to work with people better than myself - that challenge is what makes it fun and exciting for me. I don’t want to be surrounded by people who *don’t* challenge me - then it’s just the same old thing. I don’t want to ever work with directors or producers or stars who agree with everything I say. I want the kind of spirited intelligent debate that makes my scripts better than I could have ever written them. Film is collaborative - and I am interested in working *with* others in order to improve my script and make the best possible film.

But there are people who don’t want to work *with* you, they want to work *against* you - thinking that this is all some big competition that they need to win.

On one of my films, the director shows up at the first meeting so overly assertive I would like to punch him. Now, directors are assertive by nature - and I have worked with a whole bunch of them at this point, but this guy is pushing so hard it’s obvious he’s trying to break me. This guy, for whatever reason that might be solved by a product sold through e-mail spam, needs to smash down everyone around him so that he can be on top. He is so verbally abusive to me at our first meeting that I tell the producer he’d better be Orson effing Welles when he gets behind the camera. The producer thinks this is funny, and mentions it to the director, who shows up at our next meeting with a baseball cap that says “I AM Orson Effing Welles” - and tells me if I don’t shut up and treat him with respect (ie: as the god he believes he is) he will have me replaced (on my original script). Now, someone else might have told him to go eff himself, but I said nada - I did not kiss his ass nor call him an ass. I said, let’s get to work on the script. To me, it’s all about having the best script possible. I will work with anyone and put up with almost anything to make a good movie.

The director has this idea - why not add a boat! Have a whole scene take place on a boat! I mention that the cable network has given us a set budget - and transplanting a scene from the original location which is used several times in the screenplay (making it sort of amortized) to some boat that will only be used once will increase the budget without really giving us anything. The original location has some great production value (coastline overlooking the ocean - beautiful), why does he want to change it? Because he’s Orson Effing Welles and he says so, why do I need any other reason? He just “feels” it will be a better scene in a boat. I ask *why* he feels this - can he explain it to me, so that it will help me get his vision on screen (remember that line for when *you* are dealing with an egotistical idiot). The guy can not explain why - and it’s not because he isn’t articulate enough, it’s because there really is no reason - it’s all just some idea off the top of his head that he hasn’t really thought through.

I suspect these folks do not *want* to think too hard about these bad ideas, because then they will realize for themselves that they are bad ideas and will realize that the man behind the curtain is a fraud... and they really aren’t The Wizard Of Oz or a god or Orson Effing Welles. I suspect that everyone with an inflated ego is trying to hide their inabilities. You know what the problem with that is? The people with the biggest egos are the ones who should *never* be in change because they have the most inabilities. The squeakiest wheel should be replaced, not oiled.

So, I make the change, and a scene that worked well at the original location gets shoe-horned onto a boat and doesn’t work as well and will cost the production more. I turn in the script, there’s that long reading period - it takes them as long to read it as it took me to write it - and we have our big script meeting with the producer... And the very first thing the producer says is: “Bill - why is this scene on a boat? It worked better before... and where do you think the money is going to come from? You know how expensive it is to shoot anything on water.” And the director turned to the producer and said, “I told Bill it was a bad idea when he came up with it, but he insisted on writing it that way.” And I’m sure there was post-meeting discussion about replacing me with a writer who understood how to write for the budget limitations of pay-cable movies. I wanted to tell the producer it was not my idea, but that makes it look like *I’m* the one playing politics instead of the director.

Another thing I’ve learned is that the least competent people know all of the ways to blame others and get away with it - they have remained employed-while-incompetent because they know how to make it look like everyone else’s fault in such a way that the innocent who get blamed can’t complain without making themselves look guilty. They know how to play the political side of film making to cover up their lack of knowledge when it comes to the technical and artistic sides. So, I vowed never to work with that director again.

There are a handful of people I have vowed never to work with again. They can ruin any script... and seem to set out to do that very thing. They have made my Never Again List.

But here’s the problem - Hollywood is a small town. You keep bumping into the same people again and again. A couple of days ago I get a call from a guy I know who has read a few of my scripts - he knows of a new company looking for projects so that they can sell them at AFM. These guys have the money to make a couple of films, have the distribution experience to sell them, and have connections with actors and directors... only one problem - one of the guys in this new company is on my Never Again list. In fact, he’s on many people’s Never Again lists. He has an ego bigger than his talent, and has a way of turning a good script into crap by the time it hist the screen.

Okay, the big projects is slowly inching its way along - you know how some movies took ten years to get to the screen? I’m starting to worry. My last film was released 2 years ago... there are people who think I’m dead, like John Wayne in BIG JAKE. Do I have enough hair left to work with this guy again?

I always hope these guys learn some sort of lesson from the ego-driven flops, and that they’ll actually listen when you explain why their hunch idea will not only cost more, it will screw up the film so that it earns less. You know, I’m not fighting the bad idea so that I can be top dog or something - I’m still the writer, which puts me *beneath* the guy who gets the donuts - I just want this to be the best film possible so that the film makes a lot of money and people like it and the producer ends up making a lot of money and having people tell him how much they loved that movie they made from my script... and all of that may trickle down into the producer buying another script from me or hiring me to write their next project. I am a smart enough screenwriter to know that my ego isn’t as important as the film - if some scene I really love doesn’t work as well as some other scene that the idiot back-stabbing director comes up with, I am writing the director’s scene idea. The best work wins, not the best man (or the man with the most ego and power). If I can not explain why one scene works better than another, I have no right to complain or fight for my “hunch scene”. “I just feel that this scene is better” is just ego talking - not reason. It’s that Hollywood Brain Cloud from Terry Rossio’s column - that thing that attacks people who have lived in Hollywood for a while and makes them believe that their really really bad idea is a great idea. That they know what works because they’ve been doing this for years - and their *hunch*, their *feeling*, trumps any logical explanation anyone else might have for why it doesn’t work or why some other idea works better. It’s that raging ego telling them that they are always right - especially when they are wrong - and they should destroy anyone who does not agree with them... or who might be able to prove they are wrong.

So, did I tell my friend *not* to send this new company my scripts because at least one of them is a complete idiot who will probably let his ego get in the way of making a good movie? Did I tell him that I have vowed never to work with that one guy again in my life?

You know the joke about the guy who shovels elephant poop all day long at the Circus who was asked we he doesn’t quit his job?

Never say never.

- Bill

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Trailer Tuesday: DAVE (1993)

Hey, yesterday was President's Day!

Director: Ivan Reitman.
Writer: Gary Ross.
Starring: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella, Ving Rhames, Kevin Dunn, Ben Kingsley, Laura Linney.
Produced by: Lauren Shuler Donner.
Cinematography by: Adam Greenberg.
Music by: James Newton Howard.

Yesterday was President’s Day in the USA, and as Andy Warhol once said: In the future we will all be President for fifteen minutes. There is no shortage of movies about Presidents, from YOUNG ABE LINCOLN to ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, from INDEPENDENCE DAY to NIXON to JFK. There have been movies about real Presidents and fake Presidents, so finding a movie about a President wasn’t the problem... picking my favorite was.

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

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

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

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

But the President’s tryst with his girlfriend goes very very wrong about 15 minutes into the film... he has a stroke mid stroke and goes into a coma. Usually the Vice President would be sworn into office at this time, but Bob Alexander and Alan think V.P. Gary Nance (Ben Kingsley) is a “boy scout” who won’t go along with the President’s not so nice policies. So they hatch a scheme. *Dave* will continue to pretend to be President (but be less visible for a while), and they will keep him away from the First Lady Ellen (who sleeps in a separate room anyway) (played by Sigourney Weaver who really deserves more love - she’s great in everything), V.P. Gary will be sent on a tour of foreign countries to get him out of the way, then they will pin a scandal on the V.P. while he’s away to discredit him, accept the V.P.’s resignation, and then Dave will appoint Bob Alexander acting V.P... and then the President will “have a stroke” and Dave will go back to his temp employment agency as the real President will publically go to the hospital and... well, Bob Alexander will take over as President and run the country instead of just being the puppet master behind the President. Great plan!

Except for Dave.

While pretending to be the President Dave is a nice guy who realizes the President’s policies are often not so nice. They often benefit the President’s cronies more than the American people. So when President Dave has a chance to do something good, he does it... making Bob very angry. Alan is the “pivot character” here who starts out as an antagonist but is won over by Dave and becomes his ally. Now that I’ve given away everything, let’s take a look at how it all works, starting with....


The opening scene has Marine One Helicopter landing on the White House Lawn, and President Mitchell (Kline) and his wife Ellen (Weaver) get off the helicopter. Mitchell is handed the leashes for his two cute little dogs, and they smile and wave past the press and into the White House.... Where Mitchell immediately throws the leashes on the ground and gets away from the dogs and his wife. An aid grabs the leash off the floor and takes away the dogs. President Mitchell and Ellen sleep in different bedrooms on opposite ends of a hallway....

Cut to...

The Grand Opening of a Car Lot, where an Announcer introduces the President Of The United States... who comes out riding a pig! It’s Dave Kovic (Kline) who looks like the President except for his hait style and color, he doesn’t wear glasses, and his general attitude - he’s a goofball. A cheerful and funny guy who does a great imitation of the President as he makes his pitch for the new car lot. Watching him is Secret Service Agent Duane (Ving Rhames - with hair) who later approaches Dave and explains that for security reasons they often employ a double for the President. Would he be interested in serving his country?

Kline does a great job of making these two very different characters - they walk and speak and move and thing differently (the thinking part is writer Gary Ross’ work). You believe that these are two different people. After Dave covers for President Mitchell so that he can boink his secretary Randi (there’s a name) and has his stroke, Secret Service Agent Duane doesn’t take him back home in the limo... he takes him to the White House, where he is needed to pass as the President while he is recovering from his stroke... and stay away from the First Lady!


One of the things that I find interesting is the connection between thrillers and comedies - the same plot can often work for either genre. WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S is a comedy about two guys and a corpse having to pretend that the dead guy is alive so they will not be arrested or worse. Is that a thriller or a comedy? Both Comedies and Thrillers often deal with secrets and plot twists and people pretending to be someone else. Don Winslow’s thriller “The Death And Life Of Bobby Z” is about a guy named Tim who resembles reclusive drug lord Bobby Z, who is sent undercover to pretend to be the drug lord and get information on the suppliers and everything else so that the FBI can bust everyone...

But suspense builds when the drug lord’s girlfriend shows up, along with some other people who might discover that he’s just a guy named Tim pretending to be drug lord Bobby Z... and then they will kill him. He can’t make a single mistake... and that girlfriend is a *serious* complication.

And that is the same plot as DAVE... with the First Lady as the drug lord’s girlfriend, who is going to know that he is not the President. There’s a sequence where Bob and Alan give Dave all of the background on the President, and “test” him on this knowledge until they are sure that he can pass as the President long enough for them to set all of the other parts of their plan to make Bob the President into motion... but he must stay away from the First Lady....

Which sets up a series of suspense scenes that create *laughs* as Dave tries to act like the very serious President Mitchell... even though he’s kind of a goofball.

There’s a great montage of chances for Dave to blow it - and he comes very close a few times. A photo op with babies, bowing to the Japanes Prime Minister, staff meetings, and a great set piece where he is testing some giant robot arms at a factory and ends up dancing and singing “Louie, Louie”. The political panel shows all notice the big change in him... and even though they are positive about these changes... it’s a big chance that they will discover that he’s not the President, just some guy named Dave.

And there’s a scene with the First Lady that is very tense... and Dave manages to fool her into believing that he is her husband. Maybe.

She sees him playing with the dogs on the White House lawn - rolling around on the grass with them... and that is not something that her husband would ever do.

The big scene is a visit with the First Lady to a homeless shelter for kids. In the limo on the way there, she asks why he bothered to come since he doesn’t care about the homeless or children. When she crosses her legs, her dress falls open a bit and he looks at her legs... great legs. But this is something that *Dave* would do - President Mitchell hasn’t been attracted to her for years.

At the Homeless shelter for children, while the First Lady explains the bill to help homeless children to the press, Dave notices a kid all alone in the corner and goes over to talk to him. This is a great scene - but also filled with suspense because this is not something that the President would ever do. Dave does some close up magic to entertain the kid, and then has a real heart to heart talk with him... and the First Lady notices all of this. She has started to catch on that this is not her husband...

Which builds suspense.


Bob Alexander forges the President’s *veto* on the Homeless Shelter Bill - kicking all of those kids out onto the street.

Dave is in the Presidential Shower, when the First Lady storms in - angry as hell. She wants the President to turn and face her - naked - in the shower. And Dave is sure that she will figure out he isn’t her husband. He’s naked. Standing before her. She is angry that after pretending to care about that homeless kid, he vetoes the bill and kicked him out onto the street....

Dave confronts Bob Alexander - who tells him that he is *not* the President. If Dave can find $650 million, they can have the Homeless Shelter.

Now, Bob Alexander has seriously underestimated Dave. $650 million is an impossible amount of money. Where will a guy who runs a temp agency and rides a pig pretending to be the President come up with that kind of money?

Dave calls his accountant friend Murray (Charles Grodin at his Charles Grodinest) and they look over the federal budget and find $650 million that is being obviously wasted.

The President calls a meeting, and Bob is angry - *he* calls the meetings, not this fake President. Dave goes over each of the obviously wasted budget elements - having to fight each department because wasting $32 million isn’t important. That kind of money is trivial. By the end of the meeting he has over $650 million... and reinstates the Homeless Shelter Bill. And all of the department heads feel *good* about this. As does Alan - Bob’s co-conspirator.... and that’s a big moment. Alan is now siding with Dave instead of Bob. Earlier I called Alan a “pivot character” - he starts out on one side and pivots to the other side... and this shows that he actually sees Dave as being a leader. Bob still thinks of Dave as that guy who rides the pig, but Alan sees him as a real President... even if he’s an impostor. There’s a great scene where Bob and Alan are on either side of a door - and Alan remains on his side. He doesn’t cross over to Bob’s side.

The First Lady lets Dave know that she knows he is not the President... and wants to know what happened to her husband? Dave and Secret Service Agent Duane go to the basement of the White House, where a make shift hospital has been set up... and the President is in a permanent coma. He is brain dead.

Dave fires Bob. Wait? Can a guy who impersonates the President fire people? Bob has created a Frankenstein’s Monster, who has turned against him. Because everyone believes that Dave is the President, they believe that he can fire Bob....

Bob begins his smear campaign against Vice President Gary being involved in a Savings & Loan Corruption Scandal... and adds the President, pushing for his resignation.

We get a great MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON scene as Dave and Vice President Gary have a private conversation, and Dave asks how Gary started out in politics. “I was a shoe salesman. Not very happy about it. One day, my wife says to me, ‘Why don't you try running for office? You know, you talk about it all the time. Why don't you just go do it?’ So I tell my boss I have a dentist appointment, and go down to the registrar of voters on my lunch break... next thing I know I'm a councilman. My wife was my campaign manager, we had a budget of two thousand dollars - with advertising.” Gary is a good guy, who got into politics to help people... grass roots, front line politician. Which is why Bob doesn’t want him to be President - he’s a “Boy Scout”.

Dave says that he will address Congress and the Senate over these allegations...

“I'm the President, and as they say, the buck stops here. So I take full responsibility for each one of my illegal actions. But that's not the whole story. I think the American people are entitled to the real truth.” He opens a briefcase and pulls out papers. “I have here evidence in the form of notes, letters, and written memoranda, proving that Bob Alexander was involved in each of these illegal acts, and in most cases planned them as well. Now, allegations of wrongdoing have also been made against Vice President Nance. Now, as this evidence will prove, at no time and in no way was the Vice President involved in any of this affair. Bob just made all that up. Vice President Nance is a good and decent public servant, and I want to apologize for any pain that this has caused him or his family.”

Dave continues....

“I’d like to apologize to the American people. You see, I forgot that I was hired to do a job for you. And it was just a temp job at that. I forgot that I had 250 million people who were paying me to make their lives a little bit better. And I didn’t live up to my part of the bargain. You see, I think there are certain things you should expect form a President. I ought to care more about you, than I do about me. I ought to care more about what’s right than about what’s popular. I ought to be willing to give up this whole thing for something that I believe in. Because if I’m not, then maybe I don’t belong here in the first place.”

Then, Dave has a stroke and falls to the floor. An ambulance takes away the President, and the Vice President is sworn in as President...


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

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

This is a great gag.

But also sets up one of the last lines of the movie, in the ambulance after they have taken the Real President in a coma to the hospital, when Rhames says he’d gladly take a bullet for Dave. This is one of those big moments that comes out of nowhere and makes your eyes moist.

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

- Bill

Friday, February 14, 2020

Fridays With Hitchcock: Torn Curtain (1966)

Screenplay: Brian Moore.
Starring: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova, Wolfgang Kieling.
Director Of Photography: John F. Warren (a HITCHCOCK PRESENTS DP who also worked on THRILLER).
Music: John Addison.

Hitchcock's *other* Cold War movie (I'm not counting NORTH BY NORTHWEST - which uses the Cold War as a backdrop but isn't really about the Cold war) is much better than TOPAZ, but still a lesser Hitchcock film. As I've probably said before, despite the insistence of critic Robin Wood that the 60s films were Hitchcock's best, mostly they are disappointments with a good scene or two - Hitchcock was believing his press and coasting. Though Hitchcock hated having the studio stick him with big movie stars like Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, they are part of what makes this film a hundred times better than TOPAZ. The film has a few cool shots, one great scene, and some other scenes that are okay. It's a watchable film, Hitchcock’s 50th film.

Nutshell: TORN CURTAIN is about a top nuclear scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) who attends a conference of atomic scientists in Denmark with his fiancé and assistant Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews). Michael was working on the “Gamma Missile Program” which is top secret... but the government cut his funding. Michael seems distant and secretive and she thinks he may be up to something strange - perhaps having an affair - and she starts to follow him and spy on him. In the mix is a creepy East German scientist Karl who also seems to be following Michael around town. Sarah spies Michael picking up a plane ticket at the concierge desk and she asks him about it. He tells Sarah that he plans to skip the rest of the conference and fly to Stockholm, where he’s been offered the funding to continue with his research. But Sarah discovers his plane ticket *wasn’t* to Stockholm... it was to Berlin in East Germany. Behind the Iron Curtain!

When Michael defects to East Germany, Sarah follows... and now Michael is stuck behind the Iron Curtain with her... protecting her and trying to keep her from discovering exactly what he is up to. Is he cheating on her with the enemy? Nope - he's actually faked his defection in order to get close to one of *their* Atomic Scientists and work with him long enough to find the answers the United States needs for the Gamma Missile Project. Only a nuclear scientist could get this information from another nuclear scientist: no spy would know what to ask. But once Michael has his information, not only does he have to escape from behind the Iron Curtain, he must get Sarah out as well... Michael ends up kind of like that spy stuck with the bureaucrat from Hitch's pitch - except she's his fiance as well. Michael must fulfill his mission *and* make sure the woman he loves doesn't get killed in the process.

Experiment: No big story experiment in this film... but Hitch mentioned in “Hitchcock/Truffaut” the difficulties he had working with method trained Paul Newman.

Hitch Appearance: In a hotel lobby with a baby on his lap.... Here it is on YouTube:

Score: This film is probably most famous for being the movie that resulted in divorce between the long-term team of Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Hitch rejected his score, and hired John Addison.

Great Scenes: One of the greatest Hitchcock scenes is in this not so great movie - the murder of Gromek. Hitchcock thought movies make murder too easy - casual almost. When someone was killed on screen back then, they’d get shot, clutch their chest, and fall over dead. Since it was the 1960s, there was some blood... but not much. But even if you think about films today, the hero sprays a bunch of bad guys wit machine gun fire, there’s a blood squib, then they all fall over dead. It’s over in a second or two. That makes it look easy, and Hitchcock wanted to show how difficult it was to kill a man. This scene is intense, scary, messy, and makes the typical movie scene where the good guy kills the bad guy into a long and frightening experience.

Paul Newman’s scientist Michael is followed to his contact in the underground’s farm by East German Agent Gromek, and must prevent him from calling the police and having them all arrested. With a taxi driver waiting just outside te farmhouse, this must be a silent fight - they can’t use a gun and they can’t let Gromek use his gun. Newman knocks the gun from Gromek’s hand, the farmer’s wife grabs it, realizes it will make noise... and grabs a huge knife instead. But when she stabs Gromek, the blade breaks off inside him, and he’s *still* grappling with Newman. She hits him repeatedly with a shovel, and eventually he goes down... but he’s still very much alive. As Newman catches his breath, Gromek moves to his feet, opens the window to call for the Taxi Driver. Newman and the farmer’s wife, pull him away from the window and slam it closed... and Gromek proceeds to strangle Newman! This guy just won’t die! Eventually the farmer’s wife turns on the gas oven without lighting it, and they drag the fighting Gromek to the open oven door, stick his head inside... then have to hold him seemingly forever until he finally succumbs.

That is the single action or suspense scene in the first *88 minutes* of the film. The problem with this story is that the structure is all wrong: not much happens in Act One and Act Two, and then Act Three (the escape) is full of action scenes. Though there are some minor suspense scenes earlier, nothing that really gets the blood flowing! Small stuff like Sarah discovering his plane tickets and Karl the East German scientist helping Sarah find the bookstore. It’s all small potatoes stuff that’s not very exciting.

So Act Three is start and stop escape scenes... There is an overlong sequence on a bus trying to escape from East Germany that has a few tense moments. The bus is a fake, identical to the real bus, and filled with fake passengers, running 10 minutes ahead of the real bus. The problem is, the police are all over the place looking for Newman and Andrews by this time, and they are stopped and searched. Tension builds as the police check everyone’s papers, and we know Newman’s and Andrew’s papers are forged. After that bandits rob the bus... and the police decide to give the bus an escort! Now the police are *with them* the whole time, and the *real* bus is catching up to them! Some tension here... but the scene goes on four times longer than it should.

Other scenes - an escape from a research facility surrounded by police, an escape from the ballet - surrounded by police, an escape from the post office - surrounded by police... and for those of you who are fans of TOP SECRET, the bookstore scene! It’s always fun to see the exact scene parodied in a ZAZ film, and TORN CURTAIN has that scene. Somewhere in all of these escape scenes is an *endless* scene where they have coffee with an old East German woman who wants them to sponsor her moving to the United States... and an equally endless scene at the Post Office looking for a specific employee who is part of the underground... before the police surround the place. And if anyone can explain the reason why the ballerina *freeze frames* in the ballet scene, I'd love to hear it (yes, we get to watch a huge chunk of *ballet* in Act Three).

In my HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE book we look at the suspense scenes which all revolve around *escape* - and even though not all of them work, we look at how they *were supposed to work* or *could have worked* with lots of step-by-step information on how to make escape scenes work.

TORN CURTAIN is too long, not enough real suspense, and seems to have the scenes in the wrong acts - it doesn’t build to and ending as much as peter out to an end. Both Paul Newman and Julie Andrews seem way too low-key to make this work. Newman was a Method actor, and gives a quiet and realistic performance without any trace of personality... and Hitchcock relied on the personality of the actors to carry the characters. Working in the old studio system, where they cultivated exciting larger than life stars like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, he seemed to struggle in the new gritty version of Hollywood. This film was made a couple of years after Cary Grant starred in the best of the Hitchcock imitations, CHARADE directed by Stanley Donen, and the same year Donen directed another Hitchcock homage ARABESQUE starring Gregory Peck in a story very similar to TORN CURTAIN. Though this is not Hitchcock’s best film by a long shot, it does have an interesting idea and is much better than TOPAZ.

- Bill

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!

Price: $5.99

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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 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.

UK Folks Click Here.

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