Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Film Courage Plus: Writing On Deadline

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

Screenwriting means working on a deadline... sometimes an insane deadline:

I know you don’t want to hear this, but most spec scripts (screenplays written to sell) are never sold... they are “job applications” for paid writing assignments. You know, adapting some comic book or novel or board game or toy or whatever into a movie script. The *job* of writing. And like every job, there are deadlines.

Writers like to fantasize about quitting the day job and just sitting at home in their Pjs writing whenever the inspiration strikes. Being an artist. But reality is completely different - for a professional writer, writing becomes their day job and they have all of those things they hated from the old day job. Idiot bosses? Yeah, there are producers I’ve worked for who make my old day job bosses look like geniuses. Catty co-workers who blame you for their mistakes? You will encounter those, too - true story: on one of my films for a cable network the director came up with a scene that was so expensive it would bust the budget. I told him there was no way the producer would keep this scene in the script, because it not only served no story purpose it would cost as much as every other scene in the script combined. I suspected it was just some power play on the part of the director - to see how far he could push the producer, to see if he could get his way - but I told him I didn’t want to write the scene. He insisted. I wrote the scene. The next story meeting, the producer turned to me and said he was surprised that I would write a scene like that into the script; didn’t I know this was a cable film not a summer blockbuster? Before I could say it was the director’s idea, that director turned to the producer and said, “I told Bill it was a budget buster, but he didn’t listen and wrote it anyway.” And you thought your day job was bad! But the other thing from your day job you will have to deal with are deadlines. You can’t just write when inspiration strikes, you have to write to get things finished on time.

And the closer the project gets to production, the more those deadlines become etched in stone.

One of the production companies I wrote HBO World Premiere Movies for was Royal Oaks (no longer with us) and they were a factory for cable movies. At one point they were making 36 movies a year for a variety of cable networks. That was in the mid-1990s when every new start up network had their own movies, and when established networks like USA Network had 48 original movies a year. Add in Lifetime and all of the rest and there was this insane need for MOWs, and Royal Oaks supplied a chunk of them. Oh, and they also made movies for Studio’s Home Entertainment Divisions (direct to video). There was a “big board” on the wall that showed all of the projects and where they were at on the road from idea to finished film delivered to the network or studio. 36 films with 36 deadlines. And within each large deadline (delivery) were smaller deadlines - like the treatment and each draft of the screenplay. As I’ve said before, on a movie for HBO like STEEL SHARKS before I even pitched the story there was an airdate. A time slot at HBO that the movie would fill. If I didn’t get the screenplay finished in time, they wouldn’t finish making the movie in time... and HBO would be showing a test pattern or something on March 26th at 9pm.

You may not want to think of making movies as if it’s a factory, but at a production company or a studio that’s exactly what it is. They make movies as a consumer product just like some other company makes shoes... in fact, there was a point in time where a shoe company owned a studio! If you think that big studios don’t have big boards like Royal Oaks did, tell me - what are the release dates for the next ten Marvel movies? How about the next five STAR WARS movies? Okay, how about the next three FAST & FURIOUS movies? All of those deadlines! Most of those projects don’t have screenplays or writers or even story ideas! But they already have deadlines. That’s the film business! It is a business!

So you will need to get used to working on a deadline.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work,” Stephen King

“If you wait for inspiration to write; you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter,” Dan Poynter


LAZY WRITERS!


I have self imposed deadlines on my spec screenplays, and try to treat them as if they were any other (real world) deadline. The reason why is that without a deadline I wouldn’t get anything done... I have to be my own boss and crack the whip on myself. Just as my protagonists wouldn’t be rushing to disarm a bomb if that big red LED cliche timer was set for five years from now, I wouldn’t have any real reason to finish a script if there was no deadline and my natural laziness would take over. And I am naturally lazy. I think most of us are. Our default mode is - check out Facebook and then maybe get lost reading articles on something you find mildly interesting and then maybe watch a little TV and then... hey, time for bed! I can do nothing like a pro! But a pro writer needs to write - so I have deadlines and page quotas and write as if it’s my job, because it *is* my job.

And even if it is not your job now, you *want* it to be your job, right?

That means you will need to be able to write quality material on a deadline.

There are folks on message boards who think being forced to write on a deadline results in bad writing. They are probably not going to make it as a professional. Actually, they *could* make it as a professional if they quit fighting the idea of deadlines and just accept that is part of the job and they’ll have to learn how to incorporate deadlines into their writing. People always fight against what they fear - they proclaim that “X is the downfall of creativity!” because they know they are not good at X and they fear X so they want to avoid doing X at all costs. Hey, the world isn’t going to bend to you, you will have to bend to the world. You will have to grow and learn and figure out how to deal with X like everyone else has. Just the way things are. In real life there are deadlines, and fighting against the idea of deadlines is not going to make them vanish. There are still those big boards at production companies and studios listing the release dates for movies that have yet to be written, and when you land one of those jobs you will have to make the deadline no matter what Douglas Adams may have said.

TWO METHODS


There are two methods to make deadlines - Slow & Steady and Holy Crap This Is Due Tomorrow! You know these two methods from when you were in school and had homework. Slow & Steady is the recommended method - what your mom and teachers told you to do - and what I will tell you is the best way to do things. Not that you will listen... but it makes me feel better to know that I’ve told you.

Slow & Steady: In another of the Film Courage segments I talk about How To Be Productive (Even If You Have A Life) and talk about how I managed to write 3 screenplays a year while working a day job (and having a life) by writing one good page a day. Just one. Because those single pages add up to 3 screenplays by the end of the year. Once I “went pro” I used the same method, just upped the number of pages per day to 5. Five pages a day is a screenplay in a month. Yeah - a first draft, but still a screenplay. And that will result in you making almost every deadline you will encounter as a professional screenwriter. In the BREAKING IN Blue Book we look at assignments and deadlines, and how you will often “stack” assignments (take more than one job, because you never know if anyone will ever hire you again) and being able to do a draft in a month will cover you even if you stack a couple of assignments. You will make your deadlines. Slow & Steady wins the race.

The other method - the one your mom and teachers warned you about - is Holy Crap This Is Due Tomorrow! and you know how that works when you pulled those all nighters after procrastinating for a couple of weeks and not doing your homework. You didn’t use the Slow & Steady method, so the only thing left is to just drink a whole pot of coffee or a six pack of Mountain Dews and write the damned thing. There are people who prefer this method to Slow & Steady, but I’m always afraid I’m going to end up with 30 pages to write and 5 minutes to write it in... and I’m just not that fast. I’m also afraid that I’ll burn out halfway through or that some unforseen event will sidetrack me. Heck, when I stacked a couple of projects with tight deadlines once, I ended up with walking pneumonia afterwards. I’d worked myself into exhaustion. What if that exhaustion and pneumonia had struck when I was only halfway done with the script? I’d have missed the deadline!

One of the things that helps me on tight deadlines is that the Slow & Steady method creates a confidence that the Holy Crap method does not. If I know I can write 5 pages a day, every day, and not suffer burn out... I can adjust that up to 10 pages a day if need be. And I’ve had those crazy deadlines where I needed to turn out 10 great pages a day to make my deadline because there was a Start Shooting date on the big board. I think I talk about some of these deadlines in this Film Courage segment.

But in the real world of screenwriting, you will need to know how to use both methods. Because even though Slow & Steady is preferable, you may end up with some insane real world production deadline like I had on GRID RUNNERS when they had to scrap the Act 3 I had written due to a change in location and I had to write a brand new Act 3 *overnight*. There was literally a production crew sleeping while I was writing, and when they woke up in the morning and went to the set to shoot that day’s scenes? Well, I had to have finished writing them, get them to the production office so that they could make copies, and then those copies had to be sent to the set so that they could film them. The closer your project gets to production, the more important making those deadlines becomes! When the project is *in production* missing a deadline means the cast and crew have nothing to do (but are still being paid) and the film may crash and burn as a result. Yes, movies get shut down when the screenwriter misses a deadline. You may cost the production company tens of millions of dollars! Do you think they’re going to hire you again after that? That *anyone* is going to hire you again? So you need to be able to use both the Slow & Steady method and the Holy Crap method as a professional screenwriter, and I really think that using the Slow & Steady helps a lot when you need to do the Holy Crap method. But maybe that’s just me. No one really cares which method you use, as long as you make the deadlines.

Because, like any other job, this one has deadlines. Often hard deadlines where a cast and crew is waiting for you to finish so that they can start. So start training for those deadlines *now*!

Good luck and keep writing!

Oh, and instead of a tip jar... if you liked this why not buy a book over there? Thanks! -->

- Bill



Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Trailer Tuesday: Death Machines

Three years ago I returned from almost a month working on a film written and directed by my friend Paul Kyriazi called FORBIDDEN POWER that’s a typical kung fu-hot alien babe-BASIC INSTINCT-biker bar fight-love story-THEY LIVE! Like conspiracy of businessmen-chess match-yachting--devil doll-car chase-noir-computer programming-supernatural-actual train wreck-country western-workplace drama-nuclear missile launch codes-piano bar-rubber run before a date-shoot out-dead body disposal-action flick. You’ve probably seen a million of them. A year ago I saw the finished film at a Festival in Las Vegas. Here’s a still from the film...



This is a low budget film, shot in Seattle in 3 weeks (was supposed to be 2) that I ended up “producer” on - which means any job that no one else wanted to do I got stuck doing. Paul promised short days, and I’d spend most of my time sitting in a chair doing continuity. Nothing strenuous. I arrived a few days early so that I could wander around Seattle (a city I passed through on my way to Vancouver a few years back to teach a class, but haven’t *really* been to since I was 5 years old and my parents went there on vacation). So I was put to work the minute I got off the plane building sets and moving heavy stuff for days that often went 17 hours and got *no* days off until the last week of the shoot when I got a day off an spent it doing that Seattle sight seeing... when I should have just stayed in bed and slept! It was a great adventure, working with old friends I’ve known since I was 18 years old and saw this movie...



My connection to this movie? It was directed by Paul Kyriazi, who got me into the biz when he gave me 2 weeks to write NINJA BUSTERS. Paul went to the same community college that I did, and took the same film class. I would constantly bump into him at the movies - which was strange when it was some cinema 30 miles away from home showing some obscure samurai film. DEATH MACHINES was made for drive ins, shot on 35mm and probably Panavision (scope) for not much money. I saw it at the "premiere" at the Pleasant Hill Motor Movies... which is now a shooping center. No champagne at this opening, but beer was smuggled in, along with some friends, in the trunk of the car.

Paul tells a funny story about the plane explosion - they bought the plane from a guy, blew it up, then sold him back what was left for parts. The truck that drives through the restaurant? A real closed restaurant waiting to be torn down - they did it for real. The building that explodes - also set for demolition. That's how they could do this for pocket change.

The money for this film came from Ron Marchini, who wanted to be the next Chuck Norris. He wasn't much of an actor, so I think they made his character a mute. Ron has gone on to have a low budget career in action films.

DEATH MACHINES has so many bad lines, my friends and I quote them... and most of these guys worked on the film! "Hey, there go the guys that cut off my arm!" The Dragon Lady's accent is so thick you want subtitles. "I have him compweeetwy under my contwow!"

NEW TRAILER:


But here's the thing - this movie was made local, played drive ins, and was (I think) #11 in the USA when it opened in July 1976. It was a successful summer movie. Most of that is due to the big scenes on a small budget - which was creativity instead of cash. One of the things I learned from Paul, that's even in my article in the current Script Magazine, is to come up with a handful of "How Did They Do That? shots" - like the plane taxiing, starting to take off, then exploding. Did they kill the pilot for that shot? Doing something unusual or seemingly impossible on screen adds production value, and may not cost you very much money (just creativity).

And if you can sell back what's left of the plane as parts...

And now the film has been rediscovered and there's a new trailer and a Collector's Edition BluRay complete with extras and commentary track and cast interviews and other cool stuff. Paul did an introduction at Toho Studios Samurai Village backlot set. For some reason Paul's work has been rediscovered and is now playing festivals.

deathmachines
Click box for Amazon info.

So now Paul is making this new film, FORBIDDEN POWER, to capitalize on all of these blue ray special editions of his films from the 70s and 80s that are coming out. What was once drive in cheese is now some sort of low budget classic. NINJA BUSTERS being rediscovered is what started all of this. So blame me...

You can rent FORBIDDEN POWER on Amazon.

A couple more pictures from the Seattle shoot...











- Bill

Friday, September 25, 2020

HITCH 20: REVENGE (s1e1)

There's a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that I have been a "guest expert" on, and the new season begins in a couple of months. So here is the very first episode - the "pilot" - which is without me:

This episode is REVENGE, and the story is a corker: a man's wife is brutally raped and he extracts his revenge when she recognizes the attacker on the street. I actually prefer the remake done in the 1980s, due to casting: Where Ralph Meeker (who played Mike Hammer) seems like the kind of guy who would have no problem extracting revenge, the remake had David Clennon (who always plays geeks with triple chins) who has a great deal of trouble with the physical aspects of revenge... making it even more gut wrenching.









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

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!

OTHER COUNTRIES:


UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

And....

HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR






USA Readers click here for more info!

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.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

THRILLER Thursday: The Cheaters

The Cheaters

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



Season: 1, Episode: 15.
Airdate: Dec. 27, 1960


Director: John Brahm
Writer: Donald Sanford based on a story by Robert (PSYCHO) Bloch.
Cast: Henry Daniel, Mildred Dunnock, Harry Townes, Jack Weston, Paul Newlan.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith takes over from Rugolo.
Cinematography: John Russell from PSYCHO.
Producer: William Frye and Maxwell Shane.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “When a man shuts himself off from his neighbors, when he conducts mysterious experiments behind locked doors, there’s bound to be talk. There were those who whispered that Dirk Van Prinn was a sorcerer, and worse. He might never have been remembered at all, had he not his research lead him to the discovery of a most unusual formula for making glass. Dirk Van Prinn hanged himself before dawn. His story might have ended there if he’s had the courage to smash those spectacles. But like many another scientist he could not bare to destroy his own creation. Too bad, because years later others tried them on. In The Cheaters, our story for tonight, a junk man named Joe Henshaw played by Mr. Paul Newlan, a little old fashioned lady named Miriam Olcott played by Miss Mildred Dunnock, her nephew Edward Dean played by Mr. Jack Weston, and finally a man who discovered the real purpose of the spectacles Sebastian Grimm, played by Mr. Harry Townes. What they saw through those yellow gold lenses they never forgot. And neither will you my friends, because as sure is my name’s Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller.”



Synopsis: Two hundred years ago, inventor Dirk Van Prinn creates a special type of glass after many failed experiments, and fashions a pair of glasses. These are not rose colored glasses, kind of the opposite. When Van Prinn looks in the mirror while wearing the glasses, what he sees drives him mad and makes him kill himself.

200 years and a commercial break later, junk man Joe Henshaw (Paul Newlan, who was also in the Big Blackout episode) has paid $100 for the contents of the long abandoned house where some crazy inventor used to live. It’s kind of like the sixties version of STORAGE WARS. His wife Maggie (Linda Walkins) and partner Charlie (Ed Nelson, who is almost as many episodes as Karloff) think he was crazy to pay that much! $100? What if there’s nothing inside?

Henshaw and Charlie go to the spooky old house and poke around inside... nothing worth anything in here. Henshaw climbs upstairs to Van Prinn’s laboratory... where the door is locked. Must be something good inside? They break open the door, and all of the lab equipment has already been taken away. There are shelves of books... which turn to dust when you open them. An old desk may be worth something... but the wood is rotted. The only thing Henshaw can find is a pair of glasses hidden in the desk... and he could use a pair of glasses.



When Henshaw gets home, Maggie is all dolled up and has an impressive meal laid out. What’s the occasion? It was Henshaw’s birthday a few weeks back and they never celebrated. Charlie comes over with some booze and it’s a party. But when Henshaw puts on the glasses he found in the old house, he can *hear* what Charlie and Maggie are thinking... he can see the truth. Maggie has been cheating on him with Charlie and they plan to kill him and take over the business. He pulls off the glasses, and they’re both just having a normal conversation. He notices a word etched in the old fashioned frames: Veritas... “truth” in Latin. When he puts the glasses back on, they’re planning his murder so that he can be together... get him drunk enough and... Henshaw takes off the glasses and walks outside to his junk yard, finds a crow bar, comes back inside and kills them both. A policeman (John Mitchum, Robert’s brother) hears the screams and arrests Henshaw.

A couple of years later and after the commercial break, Miriam Olcott (Mildred Dunnock) is an old woman confined to her bed and her room by her nephew Edward Dean (Jack Weston) and his wife Olive (Barbara Eiler). She wants to go out, but Olive says she should just take a nap. But Miriam sneaks out of the house and goes on an adventure. She goes wandering through the town, stopping in stores to look at things. She eventually ends up walking past Henshaw’s place, where some other junk dealer has bought the contents and is hauling it away. She spots a pair of antique glasses and buys them for a quarter from the junk dealer. Shopping excursion over, she heads back home...



Where Edward and Olive are waiting for her, worried. The reason why she must stay in her room is because if she wanders off she may just get lost and forget where she lives. Miriam says she was out shopping and tries on the glasses... and hears what they are really thinking. That’s she probably stole the glasses, she’s a senile old problem and they only reason they take care of her is that she’s worth a fortune and when she dies they inherit... except they hoped that she would already be dead by now. What’s keeping her so long? She takes off the glasses, shocked, and they tell her that her doctor is on his way, and Edward and Olive are heading out for the night.

When the doctor arrives, Miriam tries to tell him her nephew and his wife want to kill her, but the kindly doctor just believes it’s dementia and tries to calm her. He goes downstairs to get some brandy to calm her, returns and pours her a glass. Miriam puts on the glasses and discovers that her kindly doctor is in on the murder plot, and plans to get her drunk and push her down the stairs tonight while Nephew and Wife are out tonight establishing an alibi. She grabs a knitting needle, and when the doctor brings her the glass of brandy, stabs him to death.



A couple of years later and after the commercial break, Edward and Olive have inherited all of that money and are attempting some social climbing with their new found wealth. They have a costume party at their house and have invited all of the wealthy important people in town, including a judge and a semi famous writer, Sebastian Grimm (even though he’s a prick). Edward dressed as Benjamin Franklin, hoping to impress everyone, but Grimm (Harry Townes) does nothing but ridicule him because everyone knows Franklin wore spectacles.

The men go into the parlour to play poker, and Edward is trying to impress them with large bets... and losing money to everyone. Olive brings in some muchies... and Aunt Miriam’s antique glasses. Edward puts them on, and really looks like Ben Franklin! Even Grimm says those antique glasses make him look perfect. Edward is happy for a moment, until he hears what the other men are really thinking... they want to keep playing so they can take away all of Edward’s money that they don’t think he deserves. One of the players is cheating, and has hidden a pair of aces under his arm. Edward can’t believe these guys are cheating at cards, and calls the guy on it. The guy manages to make the accusation backfire on Edward... and make him look like a sore loser who is making false charges. This turns into a fistfight between the two men, and Edwards gets punched in the face, falls over and hits his head... dying.

Grimm scoops up the glasses...



A few months and a commercial break later, Grimm tells his wife Ellen (Joan Tompkins) that he has been researching the glasses and has discovered all of the past deaths, starting with Van Prinn’s suicide, and believes these glasses show anyone who wears them the truth. But he has not put them on because he believes the glasses were invented not to learn the truth of what others think of you... but the truth about yourself. Grimm has written a new book about the glasses, except for the last chapter. The last chapter will come after he learns the truth about himself.

He goes to Van Prinn’s spooky old house, climbs the dark staircase to his laboratory, sits in front of the same mirror where Van Prinn put on the glasses... and puts the glasses on and looks in the mirror. And sees the truth about himself. And screams and goes mad, ripping nis face off with his bare hands. And just before the fade out, he drops the glasses and crushes them beneath his shoe. Then probably hangs himself.



Review: Now that’s more like it. A nice little Weird Tales type story about how dangerous the truth can be, written by the dude who wrote PSYCHO. I’ve read this story (and most of Bloch’s stuff) and it’s interesting how an episodic short story is a perfect match for a TV show with commercials. Each segment ends at the commercial, so we begin the new segment with different characters. This makes up for those early episodes with glacial slow pacing. Though the show is still kind of blandly directed, it moves quickly, has a cornucopia of stars, and wit (from Bloch’s story... that guy was a sick comedian who wrote lines like this one from PSYCHO. “It was the face of a crazy old woman. Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream... And her head.”). The puns on “cheaters”, from the reading glasses to the cheating card players and couple elevate the story.

My bland direction comment is mostly about the scenes in the spooky old house, where production design did a great job of hanging cobwebs and covering everything with a believable 200 year old layer of dust, but the shots end up bland angles so the all of the spooky stuff goes to waste. The Brahm and Sanford team did well with PREDICTION and WATCHER, so maybe there was a time crunch with this episode? It is 4 stories with 4 casts and that might have lead to the pedestrian haunted house stuff. The cast has fun with their roles, especially Weston, who is a comic actor playing a petty social climber and manages to give a nuanced performance. Mildred Dunnock also has fun playing a possibly senile old woman who turns into a sly killer. Townes and Daniel are always great, and here both play their roles to the hilt.

One of the nice touches is how they create “glasses vision” so that the audience knows we are hearing the thoughts of the characters rather than what they are saying. The lighting scheme is changed, with the lights low and angled up, creating a spooky look. This way they can cut from a shot in “glasses vision” of people speaking to a shot normal lighting and we know that now we are hearing what they are actually saying.



One of the things that doesn’t work as well is having the lines they are saying when we are hearing what they are thinking replicate the lines they are actually speaking... just with a few different words. This is a great concept, but in practice we end up hearing most of the same words twice in a row. They might have been able to make this work with some better dialogue editing, but they may have been afraid the audience might have become confused.

The December 27th airdate makes it almost a Christmas episode!

A good episode, and next week another Bloch based episode that features a dozen mirrors... and Shatner! Can he stop himself from looking into all of those mirrors?

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Film Courage: Are Writers Damned?

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

And the first segment...

I had done a full day of classes at Story Expo, it was the hottest day on record in Los Angeles (since broken a few times), I was seriously dehydrated after running from class to class all day, and the first question they ask me is...

A softball questions to start out with, like...

"Are Writers Damned?"

How the hell do you answer that?

Well, yes.



In Woody Allen’s Oscar Winning ANNIE HALL, there’s a great scene where Alvy Singer, who’s perfect relationship has fallen apart, sees the perfect couple walking down the street and decides to ask them the secret to the success of their relationship, and their response is: “I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And the woman responds, “And I’m exactly the same way.”

Writers are not shallow and empty, and we have something to say. Where “civilians” move through life not thinking about other people’s secret motivations and hidden agendas and all of the other things that your Mom might be *really* thinking when she says that you could use some new shirts, writers can’t help but think about these things. We know 57 ways to kill someone with a ripe tomato, thanks to research on that screenplay, and when we are in the produce section of the grocery store and see the seemingly nice little old lady trying to find the perfect tomato... we wonder just who she is planning to kill. Is it me? I don’t even know her! But what if this is some sort of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN club, where a hundred people swap murders so that there is no way for any of them to be a suspect, and she ended up doing the murder for some long forgotten person who considers me their enemy? Someone like that guy from SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE who has spent his life tracking down Billy Pilgrim for splashing mud on his trousers decades ago? I once spilled a drink on a guy in a suit in a bar, and that guy had been hitting on this woman, and maybe I ruined his love life forever and now he was part of this Murder Tanda and had given my name to that nice little old lady in the supermarket who was going to kill me with that tomato that she has just selected? As a writer I am constantly thinking about stuff like that - which is probably why I have insomnia - not only is my mind still working and I wish that I could shut it off, but I am a little worried that tonight might be the night that the nice little old lady strikes. I don’t really want to sleep through getting murdered with a tomato.

So we tend to look at the world a bit differently than most people, and over-think things and we can be a little bit paranoid because we know what evil can lurk in the hearts of men... and nice little old ladies. So we are probably damned.

But what about the writing part, Bill?

NO RESPECT!

The other way that we are damned is that nobody knows that screenwriters exist. There’s that line from IN A LONELY PLACE about how the audience thinks that movie stars make up the dialogue themselves, and if they become big enough stars - they do. Heck, even screenwriters don’t know who screenwriters are! A few years ago, for fun, I made up a quiz about who wrote what famous film and posted it on my website... and none of the screenwriters who frequent the site could get all of the answers right (without looking them up). Lots of “I didn’t know that writer wrote that!” Heck, if screenwriters don’t know who wrote the screenplays for movies that they have seen and loved, why would civilians, let alone hot underwear models (you may choose whatever sex you want - they will not be choosing you in return). So screenwriters are never famous. If you subtract the famous *playwrights* who became screenwriters, and writer-directors and famous novelists who became screenwriters, you probably don’t know the single name of a screenwriter who just *writes screenplays*. Like you want to.

So your plans to become a famous screenwriter?

The other common fantasy that goes along with famous is rich, and we have all seen those deals in the trades where some new writer’s screenplay was in a bidding war and sold for $1.2 million. Hey, I can write 3 screenplays a year if all I do is write one page a day, that’s $3.6 million a year... that ought to attract the underwear models! I can buy a Lamborghini every year! I can live in a mansion! I can eat my weight in lobster twice a day! I will be rich! Except, that’s not really how it works. Because that $1.2 million works like this: The $1 million is when and if they make the film - and only around 10% of the screenplays they buy or develop ever get made. So the odds are against you ever making that $1 million. The $200k is what you will be paid - for the screenplay and all of the rewrites, and these days they sometimes decide not to do the rewrites (great! until you realize that you won't be paid that part if the $200k)and you might end up with just over $100k total. That still sounds pretty good, right? But that’s for a screenplay that sold for $1.2 million - which is a huge sale that makes the trades. And a sale - you see, most screenplays don’t ever sell. There are around 1 million screenplays in circulation in any given year and fewer than 100 sell to studios. Okay, there are screenplays that sell to low budget genre companies and companies that make films for Lifetime and SyFy Channel and Hallmark... for much much less. A friend of mine sold a screenplay to a company that makes SyFy Channel movies... for $2k. I didn’t leave out any zeros. This is a tough business to make a living in! Most of the professional screenwriters I know make an okay living... But I often joke that if I had kept my job at Safeway Grocery I would probably be making more now (as a District Manager or something).

So your plans to become a rich screenwriter?

And if you are looking at those million screenplays and fewer than a hundred sell, that means that a whole bunch do not sell. The writers wrote them for nothing!

Or did they?

And that is the key to avoiding being damned.

The writing itself needs to be its own reward.

MOTIVATIONS

If you're having a problem getting your scripts finished it may be tied to your motivation - maybe you aren't writing because you want to tell a story, perhaps you're writing because you want fame and glory. Guess what? There is no fame and glory in the screenwriting world - name the three Oscar winning writers of CASABLANCA. You probably can't, and you're the MOST LIKELY person who could do that (you want to be an Oscar winning screenwriter). So if your motivation is fame, is having people acknowledge and love you... you're in the wrong business. Screenwriters are either ignored or blamed or crapped on.

If your motivation is "I like to write" or "I need to write" then it's all about writing and writing is what you should be doing (actually, you'll already be doing it). This is the motivation you want to have - the need or desire to tell stories. That way your motivation is all about the work - not the rewards. I hate to be a cold blanket, but this is a business where the rewards are few and far between and usually out of our control. The only thing really in our control is doing the work. So writing needs to be its own reward!

If your motivation is "I want to write to prove I'm somebody important" or "I want to write to prove my enemies were wrong" then it's not about the writing - it's about your personal problems. If you are writing to solve personal problems (and trying to solve them by changing OTHERS) your focus isn't going to be on writing, so you WILL have trouble finishing scripts or starting them or anything else that has to do with WRITING. If your motivation for writing is anything other than "to write", you're going to run into problems because those other motivations will get in the way of your writing.

If you aren't in the biz because you have to tell your stories, because you're PASSIONATE about writing, you're in for a future of heartache. You don't see screenwriters on eitherr of the Jimmys or Colbert. You don't see them interviewed on ET or Access Hollywood or any other TV version of National Enquirer. Screenwriters just toil away in obscurity... we write because we have stories inside of us that they have no choice but to tell. We are writers.

A writer writes.

I have a stack of unsold screenplays that I am now planning on adapting into novels. I also have a stack of unread screenplays - no one ever requested them. Many of those are from early in my screenwriting "careeer" where I was writing typical genre screenplays instead of focusing on an amazing high concept that could attract producers from the logline alone. Those unread screenplays are good - just not interesting enough. Some I have rewritten with a “high concept injection”, others I have figured out how to adapt into novels with a more interesting central idea. Everything that I have written, from my very first screenplay, is written. It is not just some idea bouncing around in my head, it is something that was fleshed out and set on paper or floppy or whatever. It actually exists. And that is the key to being a successful writer - actually writing.

A writer writes.

A sure fire way to be damned as a writer is to focus on the things that you do not control, instead of the things that you do control. If you focus on the prestige or the money or the respect or anything else that is completely outside of our control... you are going to end up damned disappointed. Even if you are a successful screenwriter, not everything you write will end up on screen, and I guarantee that what ends up on screen isn’t going to be the way you wrote it. Probably mentioned the huge list of unsold and unproduced screenplays by multiple Oscar winner Robert Bolt, and even Oscar winners will get rewritten by a string of other writers. That’s just how it works - out of our control. If you focus on the stuff that you can’t control, you will go crazy. But there is one thing that you control 100% - that is the actual writing. Getting pages done every day. Writing a stack of screenplays that may or may not sell - but they are accomplishments! You wrote that screenplay! You got to Fade Out!

So you probably aren’t ever going to become rich and famous and respected and have your choice of underwear models to fly to Europe with for a weekend with The Countess, but you are going to actually accomplish something that very few do - you will have a growing stack of screenplays or short stories or novels. So if you want to be a writer, you need to enjoy (in some way) the writing part.

Writing needs to be its own reward.

That’s the way to avoid being damned.

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill



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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Trailer Tuesday: TIME AFTER TIME (1979)



TIME AFTER TIME

Director: Nicholas Meyer.
Writer: Nicholas Meyer based on the novel by Karl Alexander.
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen.


I’m sure when you read the title of this week’s movie you thought about the Cyndi Lauper song and wondered if the movie was named after it... well, it’s the other way around. Lauper’s song was inspired by a late night TV showing of this film.

TIME AFTER TIME is a great sci fi thriller romance, which seems like one genre too many, but like TERMINATOR (made five years later, but with many of the same story beats) it manages to balance all of these genres effortlessly. This was Nicholas Meyer’s (STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN) first film as a director, and you’d never know it. He was a novelist and screenwriter, hot off THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION and for some reason they let him direct a film and adapt the novel by Karl Alexander (whose dad wrote OLD YELLER). Okay, the real backstory is that Meyer read his friend’s novel and optioned it, wrote the script, and somehow bargained his way into directing. Wait, the backstory on that is that Meyer had been directing short films for most of his life, which lead to a job at Paramount doing publicity for movies like LOVE STORY. Even with the back stories, getting a shot at directing a film like this is amazing.

And with a cast that pits Malcolm McDowell against David Warner? Wow!



The story starts in 1893 London where a Prostitute staggers out of a pub and is brutally murder by Jack The Ripper... we never see his face, only his musical pocket watch.

A few streets away, H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell in cute mode) is having a dinner party for fellow scientists and intellectuals where he will unveil his latest creation. But they are waiting for Wells’ best friend Dr. John Stevenson (David Warner) who breezes in late, saying he had an emergency operation to perform. Wells believes that with civilization progressing as it has, there will be no war or violence or famine in the future... it will be a utopia. And his new invention will prove this... it is a time machine. He takes the group to the basement, where he has built the time machine, which travels 2 years per minute. Explains how it works, including that it will automatically return to the present if the key is not in the ignition. Wells is a little afraid to try the time machine...

That’s when the cops knock on the door... they have traced Jack The Ripper to this very house! When the police search, Dr. Stevenson has vanished but his medical bag contains... the bloody knife and souvenirs of Jack’s latest murder. Wells’ best friend is Jack The Ripper! Not finding Dr. Stevenson, the police search the neighborhood... but Wells checks the basement. The time machine is gone! When it returns automatically (because the key is in Wells’ pocket) he discovers that Jack The Ripper has escaped into 1979! Utopia will be destroyed by this serial killer!

Wells grabs all of his money and jewelry (from the maid) and chases Jack The Ripper into the 20th Century...

Ending up in an exhibit of H.G.Wells stuff (including the time machine) in San Francisco. There’s a great bit where he swaps his time travel damaged glasses for a pair in his desk drawer... part of the exhibit!

Now we have a *great* fish out of water story, as a guy from the late 1800s has to figure out how to navigate San Francisco in the 70s. Every small thing we take for granted becomes fuel for comedy as he tries to adapt. Oh, and there is heartbreak when he realizes instead of utopia, things have gotten much much worse!

Time After Time DVD - Buy it!

When he goes to exchange his British pounds for US dollars, he realizes that Jack The Ripper would have to do the same thing, and goes from bank to bank in San Francisco’s financial district until he finds the one... the Bank Of England... where cute Currency Exchange Manager Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) (who hasn’t had a date in ages find this British Gentleman *very* attractive) offers to show him around the city... if he’s traveling alone. So we start our love story, with all of the usual things you’d find in a romantic comedy, plus the “age difference”. Wells *does not* tell her he’s a time traveler from the 1800s, that would end the relationship in an instant... he lies. And you know that eventually that lie will be discovered and end the relationship.

Oh, but this isn’t just a high concept time travel romantic comedy... Jack The Ripper is lose in San Francisco and starts killing women! Amy tells Wells that the other oddly dressed British Gentleman was looking for a hotel, and she suggested the Hyatt Regency (which must have been base camp for the production because Justin Herman Plaza and the other surrounding locations get a work out!). Wells zips over to the hotel and faces Jack The Ripper... his friend John Stevenson.

And here we get what makes this film great. Because at the core it is about the relationship between these two men who are close friends... but this serial killer thing has come between them. There’s a great scene between the two, where Stevenson tells Wells that he belongs in this violent time period completely and utterly, just as much as Wells does not belong here. Wells is so crushed that his friend is downright evil that he’s practically speechless. When he threatens to take Stevenson to the authorities, the killer knocks him down and takes off running and we get an elevator chase in the Hyatt hotel (same elevators that were used in HIGH ANXIETY) and an interesting foot chase in the environs around the hotel. There used to be a cinema there that I may have even seen this film in back in 1979, and they run right past the entrance. Stevenson ends up being hit by a car and rushed to the hospital, where an administrator later tells Wells that he died. Jack The Ripper is dead.

Back to our romcom... until the murders continue and Wells realizes that Stevenson was not killed (it was an administration mistake, since none of these guys has any ID) and now Wells must find Jack The Ripper and stop his bloody reign of terror. Lots of nice chase stuff, and the “room mate is murdered and we think it’s the leading lady” gag that would later pop up in TERMINATOR.

Wells’ secret finally comes out, endangering his relationship with Amy... and when Wells goes to the police he sounds like an escapee from an insane asylum, which means he is on his own when it comes to capturing Jack The Ripper. The film has one of the most romantic endings of any film... rivaling SOMEWHERE IN TIME which would come out the following year.

One of the things I love about this movie is how we are put in Wells’ shoes and *learn* how things work in the 20th Century. There’s a great scene where Amy takes him on a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to the redwoods, kind of retracing the trip from VERTIGO... and Wells studies all of her actions as she drives the car, figuring out what everything does. He stares at her legs as she hits the gas and the brakes, and she thinks he’s just appreciating her gams. All of this comes into play later, when Wells is forced to chase after Jack The Ripper and a kidnaped Amy in her car... realizing how much easier driving looks when a cute woman is doing it. He manages to smash into half the cars in San Francisco. It’s a great chase because it’s both exciting and funny.

One of the places where this film hasn’t aged well is the score by the brilliant Mikos Rozsa, which just seems too big now. Rozsa is one of my favorite film composers, but I think a story about a man thrust into the 70s needed a more contemporary score. It just seems intrusive at times. But that’s a small thing in a fun film. I have no idea what the box office was like, but the reviews were all great, and the film is one of the inspirations for BACK TO THE FUTURE, to the point of having both films use the same date (November 5) in the story... and of course, Steenburgen is the romantic interest in BTTF3. Oh, and that Cyndi Lauper song!

Clever stuff: H.G. Wells second wife was named Amy Robbins, and the prime suspect in the ripper murders was Dr. Stephenson.

If you haven’t seen it, check it out... just for a “cute” version of Malcolm McDowell.

Bill

Friday, September 18, 2020

Fridays With Hitchcock: Jonathan Coe on SABOTAGE

Novelist Jonathan Coe talks about Hitchcock's SABOTAGE in this BBC clip.

The media player is loading...



- Bill



Of course, I have a couple of books about Hitchcock, SPELLBOUND is in the one that is on sale today...

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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!

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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.

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- Bill

Thursday, September 17, 2020

THRILLER Thursday: The Poisoner

The Poisoner

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



Season: 1, Episode: 17.
Airdate: January 10, 1961.


Director: Herschel Daugherty
Writer: Robert Hardy Andrews
Cast: Murray Matheson, Sarah Marshall, Brenda Forbes, Jennifer Raine, Maurice Dallimore.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith, kicking ass.
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline.
Producer: William Frye.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Thomas Edward Griffith, the man who made this lovely picture the destroyed it, really lived. He was a writer, a painter and a critic. Now, in each of these arts he displayed talent, but his real genius lay elsewhere. We have the testimony of Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and other famous witnesses that Griffith was the master of the gentle art of murder. A dabbler in the occult and a connoisseur of the exotic, Griffith was far ahead of the medical men of his time in the lethal science of toxication. In simpler terms, Griffith was a poisoner. That’s the name of our play, The Poisoner. And among those threatened by sinister gentleman played by Mr. Murray Matheson, are his wife played by Miss Sarah Marshall, her mother played by Miss Brenda Forbes, her sister played by Miss Jennifer Raine, and his uncle played by Mr. Maurice Dallimore. Oh, by the way, if in the course of our story someone brings you a cup of tea or a spot of brandy... I suggest you let *them* take the first sip.”



Synopsis: A somewhat unusual *true crime* episode, also unusual because it’s an Early Victorian Era period piece which takes place on London’s foggy streets. I’m sure part of the allure of this story was that it’s a Jack The Ripper type tale about a fellow who was very well known at the time who killed just about everyone he was related to by blood or marriage... and got away with it!

Thomas Edward Griffith (the actual fellow was named Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, and more on him in the review section) (played by Murray Matheson giving an amazing performance), was a social climber. Not born into a wealthy family, both parents dead, he desired the prestige and admiration of a member of high society... so he decided to “fake it until you make it”. He lived in a luxurious house filled with pieces or art and antiques. He threw lavish parties so that he could be seen with members of society much higher up the food chain than he was. His clothes were tailored by one of the best. He drank the best brandy and dined at the finest restaurants. Even though, he was close to broke.

Although he’d inherited from his father, his Uncle George (Maurice Dallimore) was executor, and detested his lifestyle... so he was kept on a tight allowance. Uncle George thinks he should sell all of the crap in his house and get a job... but Thomas has never worked a day in his life and has no intention of starting now. He spends his days as a catty critic for a newspaper known for his clever insults, painting watercolors that are good enough for a gallery show or two, and writing witty little booklets on a variety of subjects of interest to the social set. Things a member of high society would do. The problem is, his lavish lifestyle means that he is going deeper and deeper into debt...



Enter the beautiful society woman Francis Abercrombie (Sarah Marshall) , hot and half his age. She is sophisticated, well dressed and travels in the same elite social circles. Thomas marries her before anyone else has a chance to ask... planning to live on her fortune and wait for his Uncle George to die so that he can get his hands on all of his inheritance instead of just his month allowance.

At the lavish post wedding party, his water color painting of his wife is on display over the fireplace. All of the society men think she’s hot, and are jealous of Thomas... which is everything he has ever wished for in life. To further this adoration, he introduces his beautiful wife to all of those members of high society he wants to impress... Then the door opens and these two yapping white trash women and their cat enter: his mother in law and sister in law! You see, his wife is flat broke as well; and like him, was a social climber hoping to marry into money. He ends the party before he is completely embarrassed by these uninvited guests...



Mrs. Abercrombie (Brenda Forbes) is a drunk old woman with a loud mouth and all sorts of complaints about almost everything. There’s a shot where she bends over, most unladylike, and you half expect to hear loud flatulence. Maybe that was planned but the censors said no. New sister in law Helen (Jennifer Raine) is confined to a wheelchair for some reason, and has nothing good to say about anything. If mother complains, sister is an Olympic contender... bitching about everything. And they, of course, have a cat. Oh, and Mrs. Abercrombie has sold her house and all of her belongings to move in with Francis’ new rich husband.

That night, Thomas opens an ornate cabinet exposing a selection of items, selects a “Borgia ring”, fills it with poison and puts it on his finger... then, acting like the perfect host, secretly pours some poison from the ring into a brandy decanter and offers it to his new mother in law... not realizing sister in law Helen is watching from her wheelchair upstairs. Thomas goes upstairs, into his wife’s bedroom, and tells her that everything will be alright. That’s when Mrs. Abercrombie drinks the brandy and drops dead... and Helen screams, and calls Thomas a murderer!



After the funeral, Francis and Helen return with... the family attorney. Mrs. Abercrombie’s death was ruled natural causes, even though Helen believes that Thomas poisoned her. But instead of Francis inheriting the money... it goes to invalid sister Helen. Thomas will never get his hands on a cent of it. Thomas storms out...

How could things get worse? When he returns, Francis tells him that his Uncle is here, waiting for him in the guest room upstairs... and some creditors have come and threatened to cut off his food and booze and some other things if he doesn’t pay his long overdue bills. Wonderful...

Thomas gets a lecture form his Uncle George about those creditors... and how he should sell everything and get a job and live within his means. Thomas would have liked to ask for more money, but he can’t for fear Uncle George will cut his allowance and *force* him to work. He shudders at the thought of working. Before Thomas can poison Uncle George’s brandy, the old man takes a sip and keels over! Snoopy Helen is watching this from the doorway and once again gets to scream “Murderer!”



But Uncle George is *not* dead... he’s just had a heart attack and must remain in bed resting for a few weeks. Hey, and uninvited house guest... more fun for Thomas! The doctor tells Thomas to make sure he takes a pill every so many hours and that it can be taken with a glass of brandy as a stimulant (medicine has changed over the years). Thomas is not going to be subjected to *weeks* of lectures by this old man, so he poisons the brandy decanter, and when Uncle George wakes up, tells him to take his pills with a glass of brandy as per doctor’s orders. Uncle George takes his medicine... and dies... and snoopy sister in law Helen was watching through the keyhole the entire time!

Thomas discovers her spying, and walks towards her menacingly... she backs up her wheelchair in fear... going over the edge and down the staircase (like Arbogast in PSYCHO), breaking her neck when she lands. Thomas quickly hides in the room with his dead uncle, as his wife Francis comes out of her room and sees her sister dead at the base of the stairs. When she screams, Thomas comes out of the room and asks what’s wrong... but Francis isn’t buying it, she *knows* that Thomas killer her sister. Then she spots dead Uncle George on the floor behind him. Thomas says Uncle George must have had another heart attack and died... but Francis points to the *dead cat* next to the spilled brandy and accuses Thomas of killing both of the dead humans plus the cat plus her mother.



When the police come, Thomas has a packed bag ready for jail. He explains to the policeman that it’s probably a waste of time to arrest him, since the only possible witness against him is his wife, and a wife can not testify against her husband. They take him anyway... charged with three murders.

Jail. One huge cell filled with a bunch of smelly criminals. A bucket to poop in.



Thomas is immaculately dressed, sitting at a table writing; when the officers come to take him to the court room for his arraignment hearing.

At the hearing, the Prosecutor makes his case for triple murder by poisoning. When he’s finished, Thomas asks the Judge if he may speak... and then tears apart the Prosecutor’s case. There are no witnesses, one of the victims died of a broken neck, another was ruled natural causes, the third had just had a serious heart attack and no trace of any known poison was found in his system by the medical examiner. The Prosecutor says there are poisons that are *not* known that there is no test for at this time. Thomas counters that until these poisons are discovered and there is some way to test for them, there is not a shred of evidence and to waste the court’s time any further...

And the Judge dismisses all charges.



The officer who arrested Thomas comes to the jail cell release him, saying that some day he will find the evidence that convicts him. Thomas explains that it is no longer possible for him to be convicted of those crimes... it would be double jeopardy. Before being released, Thomas writes out a check on his dead Uncle George’s account and gives it to the officer... to be split among his cellmates. Thomas says goodbye to each of the cellmates, and hopes each uses their share to follow their dreams.

When he returns home, Thomas tells his wife Francis that now only she stands between him and the inheritance from her mother and sister. He prepares two glasses of brandy and lets her see him putting poison from his ring into one of them. Then tells her she has a choice: drink up now, or continue their marriage with each’s money pooled into one happy household account. Francis runs upstairs to her room...



Thomas looks at the water color painting of Francis over the fireplace, takes the poker, and crosses it out (his marks replicating the “spider web” used in the bumpers of the show, leading me to believe at some point they planned on fading from the “spider web” to the defaced painting, then didn’t do it). Then takes the two glasses of brandy upstairs, kicks in his wife’s bedroom door, and again gives her the choice between drinking poison and living with him happily ever after.

Before she answers, someone banging on the front door. The police Officer has come to arrest him. Thomas explains that he *can not* be arrested for any of those three murders, even if he were to admit that he committed them: double jeopardy. So the Officer is wasting his time... please go away.

The Officer smiles and says he’s not being arrested for murder, but for forging his dead uncle’s signature on that check. Which the Officer witnessed, so it’s open and shut. Thomas will be shipped off to Australia to prison where he will spend the rest of his life doing hard labor...

He asks for one final drink before he’s taken away, grabs the poisoned glass of brandy and downs it... falling over dead.

Twist!



Review: Based on the true story of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, and fairly accurate. His mother died in childbirth, so he went to live with his grandfather who was the editor of The Monthly Review, and grew up in a literary household. Thanks to a family connection he went to a private school (where that family connection was headmaster) and learned how to live amongst the wealthy, even though he was not wealthy himself.

He was a social climber on the fringe of high society and did have an exhibition of his paintings at the Royal Academy and wrote art criticism for several magazines and newspapers... as well as booklets on a variety of subjects. And he did poison all of those people and got away with it. In fact, he even poisoned at least one other person! In reality when those creditors came after him he and his wife *moved in* with Uncle George... who died shortly afterwards. He fled to France at one point, was arrested for carrying strychnine in that trick ring of his and spent six years in prison, then we he returned to England he was instantly arrested to stand trial for forgery. Instead of taking a dose of his own poison, he was sent to the Tasmanian prison colony. He worked on the road gang, later as a prison hospital orderly, and eventually was allowed to paint portraits of many important people and their family members... and those portraits exist in museums and collections today. The history of the Tasmanian Colony can be seen n his paintings. He was the subject of Charles Dickens’ “Hunted Down” and Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel “Lucretia”, Oscar Wilde’s “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”, and pops up as a character in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client”. The most famous poisoner in history!



Murray Matheson is perfect in this episode. He’s one of those actors who was on almost every TV show as a guest star, and you probably recognize his face. He was the bookstore owner who helped BANACEK in every episode. Here he gives an amazing performance where he’s both vain & dismissive and sympathetic. Oddly, you identify with his character and *want* him to knock off these white trash relatives by marriage. Matheson seems to have fun treating everyone as his inferior, and the audience wishes they were that clever and witty and stylish. This performance is similar to some of those great Vincent Price performances in Corman’s Poe movies. It’s a brilliant performance, and it turns this episode into one of the better ones.

All of the other performances are great, especially Brenda Forbes and Jennifer Raine as the mother and sister in law from hell. As I said, when Forbes bends over unladylike you can almost hear her loudly passing gas... even though that is not on the sound track.

The period setting and production design makes the episode seem lavish. There are horse drawn carriages and spooky foggy nights and that elegant house... it seems more like a movie than a TV episode.

The score by Jerry Goldsmith (CHINATOWN) is amazing. The Pete Rugolo scores had all been variations on the THRILLER theme music, and when Goldsmith took over it took him until this one to really leave his mark. This is a great score (on the DVD it’s an isolated track, so it may end up on my iPod eventually), and really gives us a look at the great film composer that Goldsmith would become in just a few years.

This is a fun episode that would have been at home on HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, which is a good thing... because we’re about to go back to spy novel adaptations for a while. Just when it was getting good, we go back to the ho hum!

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Film Courage Plus: Spec or Contest?

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

So here is the seventh one about having a great high concept spec *or* a high quality script that wins or places in a contest like the Nicholl. After doing all of my classes they grabbed me and interrogated me when I really wanted to just go home and take a nap.



In the clip I note two of the common ways to get into screenwriting - through spec scripts going out to market and through winning or being a finalist in one of the major contests. Spec scripts tend to get read due to their interesting concepts (“What’s it about?”) and contests are often more focused on the quality of the writing rather than the concept. Of course, there are a million spec screenplays in circulation in any given year and maybe 100 of those sell, so quality of writing is a massive component in spec screenplays as well. But whichever way gets you in, all roads lead to Hollywood... and Hollywood movies. You might write the awesome high concept screenplay which leads to an assignment writing that summer tentpole movie, or you might win a contest and land an assignment working on a summer tentpole movie. These days Hollywood is pretty much all tentpole all the time, so if you are a contest winner - be prepared!

There was a time - only about a decade ago - when Hollywood still made a certain number of mid-range movies, some of which were “prestige” films or dramas, but these days those films are made independently. Outside of the system, and usually written-directed-produced by the same person. They find the funding and make the film - no screenplay is actually sold (the film is funded). A movie like SPOTLIGHT doesn’t come from a studio, but from a filmmaker - Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film and secured the funding through his THE VISITOR producer Jeff Skoll. If you read my daily Script Tips you know that I've been a big fan of McCarthy since his first film THE STATION AGENT (which he found funding for). If you want to work outside the system and do your own thing, it has never been easier to do that. You can make a film for pocket change these days... and many people do. If you don’t want to write tentpoles and don’t want to make your own films, there are still some options available: TV is expanding right now, and even though many shows are high concept and similar to tentpole films (check out anything on the CW) there are still shows that are more low key and dramatic oriented like SHADES OF BLUE. The other option is to head to film festivals and find a director who needs a writing partner - some of my favorite genre films lately are the work of the director & writer team of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle. If you are a great writer there is a place somewhere for you in the business - studio or indie or TV or YouTube or whatever they come up with next. Every entertainment media needs *stories*, and that’s *us*. Finding your home will require that you open your eyes a little wider - if you are not writing the kinds of movies that are being made (and don’t want to write them), you’ll have to find the place where your type of writing is needed. Wait, how many ways to break in is that now?

The first thing you need to figure out is what your skill set is. You need to know what you do well, so that you can match that to a media and a method to break in. Heck, I have a book called BREAKING IN with dozens and dozens of ways to break in... but what’s important is what you are breaking in to... Studio films? Indies? Television? What are your skills and how do they match the media? If you want to break in to studio films, know that you will be writing studio films. There are people who want to write indie type stories for studios... and that seldom happens. Even if you win a contest, chances are if a studio based producer hires you it will be to do a rewrite on some high concept tentpole or comic book movie or maybe a board game turned into a script. That’s what Hollywood does - make big expensive mass audience films. No matter how you break in, that’s what you’re in for.

CONTESTS


I look at different contests in the Breaking In Blue Book, and note that the King of all screenwriting contests is The Nicholl fellowship, which is run by those people who give out the Oscars every year. These days the Nicholl pays up to five winners $35,000... but it’s not just about the money, Hollywood producers and agents and managers *fight over* the winners! In fact, even if you don’t win they will fight over you: finalists and even semi-finalists usually get meetings with producers and agents and managers. Of course, there’s a reason *why* semi-finalists are still pretty damned good... there are *thousands* of entries every year (over 7,500 in 2014) and only about 5% advance to the competition quarter-finals, and only about 2% make it to the semi-finals and about ten entries reach the finals.

The Queen of screenwriting contests is probably Austin, and danged if my friend Max Adams didn’t win both the Nicholl and Austin in the same year with two different screenplays! This is probably why you should grab Max Adams’ book (in addition to mine).

The Prince of screenwriting contests is probably TrackingB, because winners and runners up land agents and managers, and the finalist judges are often development people who end up fighting over the winning screenplays. Where Nicholl and Austin just get you on Hollywood’s radar, TrackingB gets you in front of the buyers. The Younger Prince is Tracking Board’s Launch Pad, which is the direct competition to the TrackingB contest... Again finalists are read by people actually in the business who read and buy screenplays for a living, which means if you have a great screenplay this contest will launch your career.

In you win the Final Draft Big Break Contest, you can have a drink with me, since I’m at the big party where they announce the winner every year... along with screenwriters much more famous than I am (last year Max Landis was drinking with my group... so nobody really cared that I was there). So, maybe have a drink with all of the more famous people first.

Other good contests: PAGE, Scriptapalooza, SlamDance, ScriptPipeline, Sundance, BlueCat... and probably some that I’m forgetting, since I’m not a contest guy. Since I was a professional screenwriter before all of these contests began, I’ve been ineligible to enter them.

The thing to watch out for with small contests are the ones which are just money making schemes. Do your research! There have been some interesting scandals in the contest world, including one a few years ago where a small contest run by a script consultant had one of the contest readers admit that they didn’t read all of the screenplays... and I don’t mean they just read the first 10 or 20 pages of each screenplay (which isn’t unusual for first round on small contests, since you can usually tell a really bad screenplay after only a few pages of poorly written sentences), but there were some screenplays that they never read a single page! I discovered that another contest that is part of a small film festival had *no* “celebrity” judges and every screenplay was “read” by the person running the fest/contest and she pocketed all of the entry fees herself. I have no idea if she read all of the screenplays or even if she read any of them! It was all about her making money. The good news about fly-by-night contests like this is that the internet spreads the warnings, so usually all you have to do is Google some contest to find out whether it has had problems in the past. Always do your research!

Since I can’t enter contests, I write and send out spec scripts.

SPEC SCRIPTS


Spec screenplays are the most versatile choice (even the screenplays you enter in contests are specs, right?) because there are so many different ways that you can submit them. In addition to contests, you can submit them directly to production companies (after a query and a request) and to managers (again - query and request) and agents (query and request), plus there are many other ways specs can open a door for you. One thing to keep in mind: the reason why anyone will request your screenplay is that the *concept* sounds interesting. Mangers and Agents and Producers are *business people* who only earn money when a script sells or a writer lands a writing assignment. (Producers are last paid, so they need a screenplay or writer who can create something that gets made if they want to get paid.) Even managers and agents who may be looking for writers they can send out for assignments will be looking for specs with great concepts (unless the writer is one of the handful who wins a contest). The way an Agent or Manager introduces a writer to potential employers is through specs - and the way they get people to read specs screenplays is the same way *we* get people to read our spec screenplays: a killer logline or killer elevator pitch that’s all about the concept. If your concept is dull or mundane or something that doesn’t sound like something millions of people worldwide will be lining up tp pay to see, it will be difficult to get and Agent or Manager to request your screenplay... and then difficult for that Agent or Manager to get reads for you. Yes - there are exceptions. Nothing is an absolute in this business. But you may have noticed that everything in the world is cutting frills and focusing on profit, and Agents and Managers and Producers are no different. Even with referrals, someone is going to ask, “What’s it about?” and then it’s up to the concept to sell them.

This is the reason why there is so much focus on that concept, and why so many new writers fail by writing a script that’s based on a dull or mundane idea. I used to say that TV was the only place where Private Eye and Cop stories were wanted, but if you’ve watched TV of late you may have noticed that the trend for *weird* cops and detectives has gone to extremes - a zombie who eats the brains of victims to solve crimes? So, unless you plan on using the contest method make sure you begin with a great idea! One of these Film Courage Interviews has my “100 Idea Theory” - where you should come up with 100 great ideas and then select the best of them all to script. A well written screenplay with a bland idea is going to be tough to get reads with... and a terribly written script with a great idea isn’t going to get you very far, either! As I’ve said before - there is no “or” in screenwriting. If the question is: which is more important, concept or execution? the answer is: BOTH!

But spec screenplays can also *travel*, and I think that’s come up in one of these Film Courage segments. This is a business of referrals, and there are referrals you know about and ones that you don’t know about. If someone reads your screenplay and thinks it’s great and passes it to someone else in the industry (“You’ve gotta read this!”) that screenplay can travel all over town, from one person to another, and eventually land somewhere that matters. I’ve said before that a great spec script given to the *wrong person* or just left on the street in Beverly Hills has a pretty good chance of being discovered and landing you a gig. There are so few screenplays that get everything right that one which does will go places. People who complain about the gate keepers in Hollywood don’t understand that those gate keepers are *actively* looking for that great screenplay that will earn them points with the boss and further their careers. Everyone wants to be the one who discovered the next big thing!

That next big thing could be *you*!

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill
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