Friday, July 21, 2006

A Lifetime In Vegas

A large part of this working vacation is finishing the horror script for Lifetime. It was supposed to be finished on the 1st of July, with holiday that means the 10th. You see, the 4th is a holiday in the middle of the week, and that pretty much closes down the biz for the whole week. Even if I turned in the script on the 5th, no one would get around to even looking at it until the 10th.

The good news about writing in Vegas - nobody here knows my name. I don’t have all of the distractions of home, where even in a random Starbucks there is someone who knows me and wants to talk. Let alone, my normal haunts. I am a creature of habit, and those habits lead to nothing getting done. For a long time I wrote at Priscilla’s in Toluca Lake... until I realized I was spending 95% of my time chatting with friends and only 5% actually writing. Unfortunately that’s what’s happening at my new writing places. It’s nice to have friends around - I go to dinner with the same revolving group almost every night - but sometimes I spend more time talking than writing. If I stay home, I spend more time doing all of those work avoidance tasks. So the good thing about Vegas is, no one here to distract me from writing. A slight problem is that the Starbucks with wifi (some don’t have it) that I need to post my daily tips closes at 6pm and isn’t open on the weekend. That means I can’t put off going on line until my work is done... and the internet is a powerful lure away from work. But I’m sort of doing okay.

The bad news about writing in Vegas is that it’s Vegas. It’s a 24 hour city and I am an insomniac. 3 of my days here have been wasted because, well, I was wasted. For instance, a few nights ago I actually finished my pages, put up my script tip, did a little thinking about my next day of writing, and went to see PIRATES again at a late show. The movie is about two and a half hours long, maybe three hours once you put in trailers and commercials and stuff. Anyway, I got back to the hotel really late. But instead of going to bed, I thought I’d have a couple of beers. Free beers. Free beers that come with gambling. The bad news was that the cocktail waitress was kind of slow making the rounds, so I had to gamble a lot to get 3 free beers. The good news is that I didn’t lose money, well, not much money. I basically paid for my 3 free beers. But the worse news was that there are no clocks in casinos, and I really had no idea how late it was... or, rather, *early* it was when I finally decided to call it quits and go up to my room. Most of the next day was spent sleeping. I raced down to put up my tip, but really didn’t get any work done on the script. I *did* waste time online, though. So I’m sort of behind on the script.

This whole horror script for Lifetime doesn’t make any sense. It began with my COMPLEX script, which has been to Lifetime 3 times. The last time it had a producer and director and the director actually went to Montreal and scouted locations - brought me back photos of the apartment building we’d be shooting at - indoor pool instead of outdoor pool, and more New York urban than the very So-Cal suburban building in my script. But after getting that far is was a victim of quotas - Lifetime had made enough genre films for the year and were only interested in women’s issues.

The script fell back into my hands, and I tried to set it up in a strange deal - a supporting actress wanted to star in a movie and had found the money to make the film... all she needed was a script. I didn’t know this woman, a pair of writers I know did. But they didn’t have a female lead script. But, since I knew they wanted a chance to direct, and this woman would allow them to direct this film, I told them they could use my script to close this directing deal. They said that was nice, but they’d really rather at least co-write something. I know these guys - they have egos the size of Jupiter. They want it all to be about them. I never co-write with anyone, but thought why not? The woman *has* the money, so the film will get made. I’ve had a frustrating few years where nothing got made, and this might start the ball rolling.

So I agreed.... and then realized why I hated co-writing. They expected me to be the typing monkey while they threw completely nonsensical ideas at me. And they never wanted to work! Weeks pass between meetings. They keep putting things off... until it has been *months* since we first started talking about this, and all we really have is the treatment I banged out for free and some talk. After a while, I asked if all of time we had wasted was working against us - was she finding another script? They said "no", but she had a different answer. She was tired of waiting for them to find or write a script, and took her money somewhere else. They wasted a chance to direct because they wanted to be the writer-director-producer-Gods on the project. I think they were afraid if they went with COMPLEX and the film was successful, I’d get all the credit. Like I care?

So when the Lifetime producer called me about COMPLEX, asking if it was sill available, it was. There was a new person in charge of Lifetime Movies, and they had done a little research. Seems the genre films attracted more viewers than the issue films. And the genre films cost less to make - they didn’t need that Emmy-bait cast the issue films needed. So Lifetime was gearing up to make more genre films. And with the Lifetime Movie Channel (all abusive ex-husbands all the time!) they needed *more* genre films and different genres. When I met with the (same) director about COMPLEX, he asked me what I was working on. I said I was just starting this horror film about a single mother who... And he cuts me off. Single mother? Lifetime might want this! I pitch him the rest of the story, and he asks if I have a one page synopsis and if he can show it to Lifetime. Well, of course.

The next week, I have a meeting with producer and director. Lifetime loves the idea - horror is hot and they want to jump on the horror bandwagon. In fact, they’d love to see a 15-20 page detailed treatment. Now, the bad news is that Lifetime does not pay to develop scripts, so I would have to write this on spec... but I was already doing that, right? So now I’d be writing a script on spec with a deal at the end of the rainbow. But Lifetime would like to read a treatment, just to see where the story is going, and make suggestions on where they would like it to go. Would that be okay?

I decide it would. I was writing the script anyway - might as well have a producer who makes movies and buys scripts waiting with a checkbook.


I spend a week and a half writing a treatment. Should probably have taken me less time, but I was preparing for Denmark and Hong Kong at the same time. Somewhere along the line, I ask if the new folks at Lifetime ever got around to reading COMPLEX... and the director tells me no. In fact, it was never sent to them - they were so excited with the horror story that they’re focusing on that. I finish my treatment and deliver it before Denmark....

They read my 23 page treatment and we have a meeting after I’m back from Hong Kong. "Do people have to die in this script? Do there have to be victims other than the leading lady (who survives)? Can there be a love story? Can more of it be about parenting? Can the cop be the love interest... and her ex-husband? Do we really need this "letting go of anger" theme? (It means characters have to be angry.) I don’t understand the supernatural element - can we get rid of that? Too many suspense scenes - there’s one ever 15 minutes (right before the commercial breaks, I explained). This whole first act has to go - we hate it."

Some of the notes were from not paying attention - the director questioned a supernatural element in the middle of the treatment that had been set up in two earlier scenes. When I pointed this out to him, he became defensive and told me he though the set up material had been a joke. This is one of the things I hate most about these meetings - the ego issues. Look, he skimmed the treatment and missed something - no big deal, just admit it. We’re all busy people. But instead he wants me to either lose the supernatural element or spend more time setting it up. Right. Same skim & ego issue with the little bit of dialogue in the treatment - he hated it. Except what he hated was the opening scene dialogue that was part of a crime show reinactment... and written trite on purpose.

Oh, and then we had the kind of note I hate the most - the ones that show lack of imagination. The ones that require you to take them step by step through something that everyone in the audience will instantly understand. In this case, it was an *in scene* segue from reality to reinactment. I swiped this from a DePalma film called SISTERS which opens with a guy in a gym changing room watching a hot blind woman enter by mistake and begin taking her clothes off. At first we think it’s really happening, then it’s revealed as a CANDID CAMERA type game show. I wanted to do the same thing - open with the serial killer attacking a victim, then after the horror stuff was over, the trite dialogue pops up and the lighting turns crappy and we realize we are watching a reinactment. If you were to ask me if this is real or reinactment, I’d say BOTH. It changes at the end. But the director couldn’t see how that was possible and hadn’t seen SISTERS. He also hadn’t seen many of the horror movies I brought up as example - this is going to become a much larger issue later on. So I have to make all of these changes that do not improve the screenplay...

"Oh, and can we still get the script by July 1st?"

So I throw away the whole first act and now have to start from scratch with the same deadline. And their notes really make no sense - they are turning a horror story into a woman in jeopardy thriller (Lifetime staple). With no victims other than the leading lady, this guy isn’t much of a serial killer, is he?

I decide that since I’m not being paid, I’m going to ignore the really stupid notes and see how may of the others I can work in. Problem is, now some scenes that worked with the cop being just a cop are not going to work if he’s the ex-husband and the love interest and the father of her child. This guy is now the center of the universe! What an amazing coincidence that he’s assigned to the case! I do some fancy footwork and hide as many coincidences as I can. But this is hard work. Time consuming. I had solved all of the story problems in my outline stage, and now they had given me more problems. I had to solve these on the fly - as I’m cranking out pages.

So, the script missed its deadline and I’m in Vegas playing catch up... and slowly coming to realize that this script is going to suck. Because their notes have destroyed it. The characters were all reflecting the "letting go of anger" theme - but now they’re not. Now they aren’t characters at all - just names. And the relationship between the female lead and cop doesn’t work at all. I have a way to make it work with him being her ex-husband, but it’s 100 times darker than the original version. Lifetime just isn’t going to stand for it. And I’ve toned down the horror so much it’s bland.

This script isn’t going to make Lifetime happy, and it doesn’t make me happy.

That kind of adds to the lure of the gambling tables. I could be down there getting free beers right now! I started out writing a spec, then I was working on a script for Lifetime, now I think I’m writing for nothing. Just wasting my time....

Well, not really. I still have my original first act (with human tongue removal) and I think with a week or two of rewrites can turn this thing into a real creepy, scary horror script. The idea was always really good - and most of the writing can be salvaged.

So the current plan is to finish the script in the next week, send it to Lifetime, wait for them to reject it, and then start turning back into what it would have been without their notes - an easy to sell spec horror script that’s kind of THE RING (characters) meets NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (story elements).

Lesson learned: write specs the way you want to write them. Hmm, I already knew that!

Oh, and if anyone is interested in a really creepy female lead thriller that Lifetime keeps *almost* buying called THE COMPLEX... I guess it’s still available.

- Bill

PS: I've decided to rewrite a couple of scenes and let the blood flow. If Lifetime *does* want it, they'll make me cut it... but at least there is some horror in this horror script!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Hong Kong Adventure (part 2)

Friday, the day before my big 2 day class, and Richard’s 87 year old mom is going to take me sight seeing in Hong Kong. Their condo (which has a beautiful view of the city) has it’s own little bus that goes to the Central District and back every hour. We hopped on the bus, and a few minutes later we were in the Central District.

Hong Kong is an island filled with HUNDREDS of towering skyscrapers. The Central District is a dense concentration of buildings... and people. One of the amusing things about the Central District is that they have double decker buses in the streets filled with people... and double decker sidewalks! There are enclosed walkways connecting all of the buildings. The streets are so crowded, you *need* the overhead walkway. And they are airconditioned - something else that you need. Hong Kong is hot and humid in May. Even on the second floor sidewalk, you are pushed along by the river of people. Everything is double or triple decker in Hong Kong - they build *up* because there is no land available to build *out*.

And they build using old fashioned technology. A few buildings away from Richard’s mom’s is a building under renovation... and the workers are using bamboo scaffolding. In fact, the workers seem to have no fear of heights - I see them carrying heavy equipment and building supplies as they jump from one piece of scaffolding to another like monkeys. I know a few stunt men in Hollywood - and they wouldn’t do the things these workers are doing without being cabled in. These guys are crazy!

Richard’s mom leads me across the Central District on that second level of sidewalk until we come to the ferry building. We’re going to take a ferry boat across the harbor to Kowloon and have lunch at the harbor. The Octopus Pass works here, too. We get onboard the ferry and start across the harbor, passing all kinds of interesting ships. At Kowloon we walk through the packed, hot streets passing bunch of tourist type places. The cruise ships dock there, so most of the businesses cater to them. Lots of souvenir places. Richard’s mom leads me into a tall building filled with a dozen restaurants, and we climb stairs until we find one she likes. We step inside... and it’s freezing! They have the air conditioning blasting, and the sudden change in temperature from really hot to cool is shocking. It’s a dim sum place, so we order a handful of different items from the menu and will grab some stuff off the cart if we’re still hungry. The food is amazing - the dumplings (some with interesting savory vegetables) have thin skins made of rice flour, rather than the thicker flour based skins. You could see what was inside the dumplings. Interesting. This was an upscale restaurant, lots of businessmen...

And it was so chilly Richard’s mom waved over a waitress and asked for a shawl. I thought this was weird. The waitress returns with a warm looking shawl with the restaurant logo and drapes it over her shoulders. The house shawl - they way they have house ties and house jackets. I look around, and there are a dozen women wearing house shawls.

The food was great, and we did grab a couple of things off the carts moving through the restaurant. Then a really strange dessert cart rolled by - dessert *soups*. I had to have the red bean dessert soup! Just too weird! The soup is served hot, and it’s... red bean soup. Sweetened with cane sugar. A strange idea for a dessert, but it tasted okay. You should try it sometime.

Oh, I left out the strangest thing about Hong Kong! Every single elevator has a thin plastic sheet over the buttons for hygiene - and a note above the plastic tells you that this sheet is changed every hour or every three hours or whatever. They don’t want their fingers to touch a button that someone else’s fingers have touched. Because all of the buildings are so tall, I must have been in a hundred elevators while I was in Hong Kong and they all had the plastic over the buttons.... But in that chilly restaurant at every table were people sticking their chopsticks into community bowls of food and then putting them in their mouths. Double dipping. So touch: spreads germs, but mouth to mouth: no germs. Makes no sense to me.

After lunch (they took that shawl back at the door) we walked to another ferry terminal and took a ferry to the terminal near the Peak Tram. The tram has been in operation since 1888, taking people up the steep side of the peak - through neighborhoods, past houses and very tall buildings, until you come to the peak overlooking all of Hong Kong.

At the peak, we walk around, looking at various views of Hong Kong below us. I ask Richard’s mom if she would like to stop and take a rest... she says she’s fine. *I* would like to stop and take a rest! I’ve been walking all over the place! I’m tired! Richard’s mom is a mountain goat or something - climbing the side of the hill, to get a better look. We walk all over the place - and a rickshaw driver asks if I would like a ride. “No.” “You want a picture in the rickshaw?” “Sure.” I sit in the rickshaw, and his partner takes some pictures (my camera) and then he tells me it will be a bunch of money Hong Kong. I should have taken the rickshaw ride.

We get a cold drink at a McDonalds at the Peak shopping center (tourist trap). The McDonalds have strange things - rice cakes instead of bread-buns, and “You’ll love the red cabbage!” and some kind of beef in sauce thing between the rice cakes. They also have Big Macs.

Just as it’s getting dark, we take a bus down the hill to the Central District and take the private bus back up to the condo, where Emily the maid has prepared dinner. Emily is very nice - she always has coffee ready for me in the morning. The first morning, she made me a plate of really soft fried eggs and some toast. I’m not really fan of eggs, but I ate them... then told Emily I don’t usually eat breakfast (I don’t) and would just like some coffee. From then on, when I stepped into the living room she would be there - waiting - with a cup of coffee. Like she was psychic.

One morning I wanted a refill, and didn’t want to bother Emily, so I went through the door into the kitchen and servants area and poured a cup from the coffee maker. Emily walked into the kitchen and freaked - I’m not allowed in the kitchen! I should just call her next time, she would bring me more coffee - that is her job. It’s strange that the doorway into the servants area of the house (and the kitchen) is like the Berlin Wall. Later, I was talking to someone and found out that *all* of the maids in Hong Kong are from the Philippines, and they all have Sunday off. There’s a park section in the Central District that turns into Manilla on Sunday afternoon. All of the maids congregate there.

After dinner, Richard wants to take me someplace special. We drive to Central and park, then he starts walking up these steep streets - we’re climbing the peak! We go from street to street to street, and I have no idea where we are going or why. At every intersection I have to turn around so that I can see what direction Richard is pointing - he’s still walking a few paces behind me. We climb up into an area filled with night clubs - packed with young tourists. It’s like some college party the stretches for blocks - Spring Break in Hing Kong. We keep climbing. I’m exhausted. I’ve done my walking for the day, I want to sleep. We climb higher and higher up the hill, I keep asking where we are going and Richard finally says he’s taking me to a trendy night club. Swell - tomorrow morning at the crack of frigging dawn I’ve got to get up and tech a class, and the night before I’m going to get drunk. That’s if we ever make it to the night club - we’re passing dozens, maybe hundreds of clubs and bars, but Richard has one at the top of the hill he wants to go to.

We manage to get there before my legs give out... barely. They are throbbing like crazy due to all of the climbing, and my feet *hurt*. I’ve spent the entire day walking up hill! We take a seat, I ask what kind of beers they have - Carlsbourg is the answer.... beer from Denmark. So I sit in some Westernized night club in Hong Kong surrounded by 20 and 30 year old white people and drink Danish beer. The Hong Kong experience! I really don’t understand why we are here. Not much conversation happening - I get the feeling this whole thing is Richard trying to impress me by taking me to some trendy club... as if I’m Paris Hilton or some celebrity. I don’t care about trendy clubs - I’ve drank beer in parking lots and had a good time.

After having a few beers, I tell Richard that I am tired and need to get some sleep before I teach my class. He asks if I would like to take the escalator back. Huh? We go one street over from the street we came up, and there is an *escalator* instead of a sidewalk. Going up and going down. See, we didn’t have to *walk* up that steep hill, we could have just taken the escalator like everyone else. It’s really strange that there’s an escalator on a regular street - not part of a shopping center or business. It’s a city escalator. Another unusual think about Hong Kong. The problem with going down by escalator is that there are patches with only one escalator beside stairs - and at this hour the escalator is going up. So I end up doing a bunch of walking anyway.

I drag myself back to the garage, we get the car, and drive back to Richard’s mom’s condo. The exercise has me exhausted, but also has the blood flowing. I can’t sleep. I lay there, listening to the air conditioner, trying to sleep. Finally, my eyes drift closed... and too soon after that my alarm goes off. Time to teach my class. We have to be there by 8am, and Richard wants to be there an hour before that to get breakfast... I don’t really eat breakfast, but I’m up at 6:30am so that I can be ready to go by 7.

Guess what? The only place open for breakfast is McDonalds. I drink coffee and wonder why people love the red cabbage so much.

Richard has been telling me that sign ups are slow because Hong Kong isn’t much of a seminar city, but the place I’m teaching the class is a huge building - a couple of floors of which are rentable class rooms and auditoriums for seminars. There are bunch of Learning Annex type classes going on, and a big video screen that lists them all (including mine). The room itself is nice - there’s even a built in video projector that I attach to my laptop. Problem is, I can’t get my DVD of clips to work in my laptop. Some clips play, others don’t. Kind of frustrating.

When we ride the elevator up to the room, I put mark on the plastic. When I ride down at lunch, there really is a new sheet of plastic over the buttons.

At lunch, I tell Richard and the rest of the class that I need to rest my voice, so I will be eating alone - please don’t take offense. Here’s the strange thing - this will be the first meal I have eaten on my own. I walk down the street toward the tunnel (used in a Jean Claude Van Damme movie produced by Ashok Amritraj, who produced many of my films) - this takes me away from big business and toward small businesses - car repair shops and neighborhood grocers and... little restaurants. I walk until I find a restaurant without any English on the sign and go inside.

Everyone inside is Chinese. They bring me a menu - in Chinese - and some warm green tea. The waitress says something in Chinese, I smile. I look over the menu and figure the lower the price, the less likely I’m going to get some “delicacy” that I wouldn’t want to eat. I point to two low price items, and the waitress goes away. I look around at the families and workers in the restaurant - just regular folks. There’s a soccer match on TV, and everyone is watching. A few minutes later the waitress returns with my food - something that seems to be Chicken with vegetables in a tangy sauce and some dumplings. There is also white rice... that has eggs in it. I guess everything in Hong Kong has eggs in it. I look around for silverware and notice a wood box with wood chopsticks sticking out of it. Used wood chopsticks. Stained wood used chopsticks. Washed, I guess, but the wood has absorbed food, liquid, germs. Well, everybody else is using them... I grab a couple and eat my lunch. The food is great.

Next day I do the same thing in a different Chinese restaurant. Same kind of families and working guys on a lunch break. This time a Jet Li movie on the TV. I end up ordering squid and rice and some fish cakes. I would never have ordered the squid on my own - not much of a fan of rubbery seafoods, but I ate it anyway. Using wooden chopsticks that hundreds of other people have used before me. Maybe that mechanic watching the Jet Li movie used them yesterday. I was either going to die or I wasn’t. It still seems strange that they don’t want to touch an *elevator button* that someone else touched, but they will eat out of the same bowl and use the same chopsticks that dozens of other people have used. I don’t die, so maybe they know something that we don’t?

The class goes well - small (so I’m not making any money other than my advance) but good students. They’ve seen a bunch of movies and asked good questions. One of the students hd her birthday on Sunday, and Richard bought her a cake . We had a little birthday party.

After the class, one of the students wanted to buy me a drink and talk to me about project. I usually don’t want to talk about other people’s projects - 99% of the time the conversation goes something like “Can you get my script to Kate Hudson?” Hey, if I could get *my* script to Kate Hudson, don’t you think I’d do that first? But Richard insists I talk with this woman. She’s Stanley Tong’s *sister*. Um, okay! Stanley Tong is the guy who directed all of those great Jackie Chan Hong Kong movies. Oh, and she used to be married to the guy who starred in FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH - probably the first kung fu movie I ever saw. So we have a drink or two after class in the fancy Italian restaurant where everyone in class had lunch on both days. She has a project about Christian winemaking that she’s trying to set up, wants to know if I have any suggestions. Christian winemaking? She tells me the story (in detail) and I have no suggestions at all afterwards. It’s a really odd project. I don’t know how many people want to see a movie about *pagan* winemaking, let alone a winemaking movie with a strong Christian message. Anyway, I give her some basic advice, thank her for the Carlsbourg and Richard and I leave.

The next morning we drive to the airport at dawn, and I have the longest day of my life! I start at, like 6am on Monday in Hong Kong and arrive in Los Angeles at, like, 10am Monday. I could sleep for a week!

Which is why I’ll never get rich doing these classes... heck, I don’t even make a decent wage when you take all of the time into account. Whenever I fly somewhere to do one of these things, it’s usually a full week (time to get over my jet lag) and I usually do some sort of preview class. So that’s a week... plus a few days before that week when I’m preparing for the class and a few days (often a full week) after when I’m recovering from the class (and the jet lag). So that’s over two weeks of my time spent on the class... for which I receive, well, about what my buddy Louis makes as an Executive Assistant for a VP at Fox in a week. Would have made more if we’d had a bigger crowd - but that wasn’t in my control. Obviously, I’m not doing this for the money... Las Vegas Screenwriting Conference still owes me for a year ago! Denmark will probably never pay me.

It’s cool to travel to places like Hong Kong and Denmark, and if there’s a film festival I usually get to see a lot of movies I wouldn’t normally get to see. And teaching the class forces me to think about screenwriting - and that improves my own writing. I could make a lot more if I just stayed at home and wrote scripts... but then I wouldn’t know about “house shawls” and plastic sheets over elevator buttons that are changed every hour for hygiene. That’s cool stuff to know!

- Bill
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