Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Movie Lines

From A Decade Ago....

Every Friday night I go to the movies with the same guys - we’ve been going to the movies together for years. Some weekends there may be 3 or 4 movies opening, but only one real choice - so that’s what we see. But some weekends there is a big discussion of what we should see over dinner - and it’s like a movie debate. Kind of Siskel & Ebert, but based entirely on the trailers and poster and cast and director and writer - we haven’t seen the film, so we argue about the elements that went into making it and any clues from the trailer on how it turned out.

The trailer for a comedy with only a couple of good jokes loses - if that’s the best they have, why pay $11 to see the jokes that weren’t funny enough for the trailer? Action movies and thrillers can be the same - if the action scenes in the trailer look lame, imagine how bad the ones in the film are? And sometimes you see a trailer a half dozen times and still have absolutely no idea what the film is about - hey, if *they* can’t figure out what their film is about, how can they expect me to figure it out?

Sometimes it comes down to actors. As a group of guys we have discovered that any film with Jessicas Alba or Biel is an instant “yes”. It could be an awful movie like CHUCK AND LARRY or INTO THE BLUE, but we’ll watch it. Sometimes you will see a movie you know is probably going to be bad because there’s someone in it who gives a great performance every time - which explains why I’ve seen almost everything Sam Jackson has ever made. But you have to convince me to see a Nic Cage movie. But some of the Friday Night Guys like Cage - and we debate other elements of the movies.

By the time we get into the line at the cinema, we know what we are going to see. We know what time the show starts, and we are prepared to buy our tickets. Because we may all be in different lines, there is often a kind of race to see who can get their tickets first. I use cash, some of the others use credit cards and the automated machines. If it’s AMC, I have a frequent viewers card and get free stuff sometimes. I have thousands of points, and go to the cinema often enough to snag free tickets or popcorn or drinks. I also have a card at the Arclight, which I go to less frequently. But by the time I’m next in line I am ready with movie title, time, cash, and card.

Which puts me either in the minority or in a slim majority. Maybe it’s just my luck - which is usually bad. But the people in front of me usually don’t have their money ready - and spend all kinds of time digging through their purse or wallet... and then they don’t have their card handy... and then they want to pay with coins that are also at the bottom of the purse or pocket... and then they don’t know the time their movie is starting (and there’s a 7:30 show and an 8:00 show, and they buy a ticket, then realize they wanted the other one)...

And more and more often I’m behind a gaggle of teens who don’t know what they want to see, and don’t discuss and debate, until they get to the front of the line. They could have figured it out before getting in line, but that never occurs to them. The strange part of this as a movie consumer - an something that is critical doe us to understand as screenwriters - is that these kids are *going to the movies* but not going to a specific movie. Sure, they will decide what movie they want to see eventually (please not at the front of the line while the rest of us are waiting and waiting and waiting behind them) and they will use the same criteria that my group of Friday night guys do - trailers, story concept, cast, poster... okay, maybe not the Jessicas part - but they are going to the movies more for social reasons than to see a movie. They are there every Friday night (holding up the line) to see some movie... any movie. They are the true movie consumers. They aren’t there because they can’t wait to see MAX PAYNE, they are there because they are there every Friday night with their group of friends to see *something* - to be decided later... when they get to the front of the line.

So when you wonder why they don’t make more movies targeting (fill in the blank - women over 40, men over 40 (that’s me), Asians, Lesbians, Lebanese-Americans, Liberals, Conservatives, Nudists, Albinos, People In Wheelchairs, Pleasantly Plump Americans, men over 70, women over 70, Lebanese-Americans over 70, etc) - the reason is that those groups don’t just show up at the cinema on Friday night to see a movie - whether there is something they want to see or not. My guess is that if every Friday night for 3 weeks there were 3 new movies and all of them were about Lebanese-Americans Over 70, those danged kids would still be at the front of the line every week trying to decide which movie to see.... then texting their friends about how much it sucked from inside the cinema - their cell phones giving off more light than that Jamie Faar movie on screen. They are regular movie goers, and the other subgroups are not.

But can we get them to figure out what they want to see *before* they get in line? And can we teach these new generations to think about people other than themselves (like me, standing behind them with my money in hand - exact change sometimes, decisions made, card ready, prepared to buy a ticket (that is what the line is for) and not talking on my cell phone or texting or doing anything else that will distract me or in any way slow down the purchasing of the ticket so that the other people can get to their movies on time and not have to sit in the very front or very back rows)? “Be considerate of others, the world doesn’t revolve around you,” as my mom would say. It takes the same amount of time to decide at the front of the line or not in line - so why not do it the way that doesn’t get in the way of others? What’s the matter with kids today? Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?

Standing in line... bitching at the hands that feed me.

- Bill

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

DVD Extras & Fletch

From way back in 2007...

I love movies, have seen a pile of them, and often read up on my favorite films to learn some of the cool stuff about how they were made.

Recently they released a new set of Film Noir flicks, including THE BIG STEAL, and the LA Times did a blurb about the set... but they neglected to mention what I thought was the most fascinating bit of background on that film. The reason why that film was made was to spring Robert Mitchum from jail. Mitchum had been busted for smoking pot (something he did regularly) and was serving time in county lock up... not in the Paris Hilton section, he was in general pop. There were photos of him behind bars, both in his cell and on a work detail. So the studio came up with this scheme to get his sentence reduced - they created a film starring Mitchum and put it into production. After shooting a chunk of the film without Mitchum, they went to a judge and claimed the film would crash and burn, costing the studio a bunch of money, unless Mitchum was available to work. Hey, Los Angeles is an industry town, and by this point they had shot everything they could without the star... so the decision was made to cut Mitchum’s sentence so they could finish the film. And if you watch the film closely, you can see how Mitchum’s footage was often shot during a different season than the other stuff - winter in some shots and spring in others.

Anyway, because I love stuff like this, one of the things I enjoy about DVDs are the extras. On VHS you just got the movie, on DVD you get all kinds of fun stuff. There’s a great extra on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST that goes to all of the film’s locations *today* and shows you what they look like. There is also a huge doc on the composer, Ennio Morricone (the reasoon why we have Morricone as a film composer is because he and Leone were childhood friends, and Leone asked his friend to write music for his movies)... plus the usual behind the scenes and interviews and tons of bonus material. I love to watch deleted footage - though usually you can see why those scenes were cut. I love all of this stuff.


So, on my recent DVD binge, I bought a bunch of stuff including a new special edition of FLETCH that promised all kinds of fresh bonus materials.

Okay, some background...

I love mystery and crime fiction. Back in the 70s, I was looking at the new crime fiction on the shelves of some bookstore (probably B Daltons) and stumbled on this new book called FLETCH by Greg MacDonald with a blurb from James M. Cain - one of my favorite writers. Cain said this was a great book... and that was enough for me to pick it up and read the first page. Wow!

So I waited until it hit paperback and bought it (I still have that copy). Clever, funny, lots of plot twists, great lead character who was obviously inspired by Woodward & Bernstein. And when the next Fletch book came out, I bought it. And the third Fletch book. And the spinoff books about Flynn. And every Fletch book that Greg McDonald wrote. Oh, and his non-series books, too. This guy was an amazing writer - he could fool *me* with his clever plot twists. The books won all sorts of awards, too.

So, when they announced they were making a movie, I was excited.

When they cast Chevy Chase, I was heartbroken.

Fletch is *clever* and *intelligent*... Chevy Chase does prat falls.

But two things looked promising: the script was being written by Andrew Bergman, a mystery writer himself (The Big Kiss Off, Hollywood & Levine) who knew how the genre worked... and also how to write movies - he was co-writer on BLAZING SADDLES. The film was going to be directed by Michael Ritchie, a very clever satirist who made one of the greatest films of the 70s - SMILE. Ritchie made sophisticated comedies, not prat-fall films. He also made political and social films like DOWNHILL RACER and THE CANDIDATE. Also, I had actually met him - he lived in Berkeley, California and often premiered his films at Bay Area film festivals. I was a kid then, and would often sneak past security to meet the film makers. We’d had a couple of conversations. If there was anyone who could turn this great book into a movie it was Ritchie.

So, the film comes out and it’s good news / bad news.

The bad news is that Chevy Chase has a fantasy sequence and wears goofy disguises and falls down a few times.

The good news is that they took care to keep the mystery plot and keep each and every clue so that you could play along. (The way mysteries work - they are interactive - the audience has all of the clues to solve the mystery and is racing the detective character to solve it. Bad mystery films don’t “play fair” and leave out the clues.) The book had 2 different mysteries, the movie combined them... but actually added the clues to set that up. It’s a really well crafted mystery. And Chevy Chase tones it down - because the story is serious, he has to be serious much of the time.

The film is probably Chevy Chase's best work... and one of the few good mystery films to come out of Hollywood since CHINATOWN.

There are Fletch lovers who hate the movie because of Chase - and I can understand that. But Hollywood is going to cast a star in the lead role, and who else was there?

They’re looking at doing a new Fletch movie with a new star... and I have no idea who could play him. (Who do you think should play Fletch now?) Can we clone Cary Grant or William Powell?


Which brings us back to the extras on the new FLETCH DVD...

The exec at Universal who approved of the extras on this DVD needs to be fired... or better yet, escorted to the Hollywood border and banished for life. I have never seen worse extras on a DVD - these extras are so bad, I would rather have a version of the DVD without them.

The extras completely disrespect this film.

I want my money back.

So what do we get for extras? A completely self-indulgent film starring the *producer of the extras* who thinks that he is funny - but he is not. He does a pile of lame gags that are not funny, and interviews some cast and crew members - which would be okay, except at least half of the interviews are about *him* - the producer of the extras! He's some guy in his late 20s who obviously thinks the world revolves around him. After a few minutes, you're tired of the guy - his ego is *massive* and his talent is minuscule.

No Chevy Chase interview - which is weird because Chase has done all kinds of low budget films lately - many haven't even been released (BAD MEAT).

Also - nothing about the Fletch novels by Greg McDonald - the *source* of the character and story. The novels were so popular that they bought the rights to use the novel's logo for the movie. But from these extras you would never even know there was a book - let alone and entire series. And you's never know these books are big award winners, and bestsellers. They just ignore the books completely.

Which is too bad, because you could make an amazing little doc about the books. You see, McDonald wrote them out of order. Things mentioned in passing in the first book end up being the central plot in later books... which take place before the first book. It’s kind of like MEMENTO - except it doesn’t work backwards, it’s scattershot. You read FLETCH AND THE WIDOW BRADLEY and he’s newly divorced from his first wife... when he was divorced from his second wife in FLETCH. Oh, this is a prequel! And at the end of the series McDonald wrote FLETCH WON and FLETCH TOO - which start the series chronologically. Anyway, an extra sorting out this jigsaw would have been a great addition... but the extras don’t even mention the books.

Instead of any behind the scenes, instead of anything about the books, instead of anything about the director (who made some great stuff - and made Robert Redford into a big star), instead of anything that focuses on the very clever plotting of the story (from the book), we get a short about the extras producer and a bunch of random clips from the film.

Someone at Universal should lose their job over this.

All they had to do was call me, and I could have filled them in.

How does one get a job producing the extras for a DVD? What are the qualifications? What are the *responsibilities*? Do they realize how important this stuff is to the folks who buy DVDs? And - the most frightening question - do these guys think these cruddy DVD extras will lead them to a feature directing gig?

What are your favorite DVD extras... and your least favorites?

- Bill

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

You Have *Potential*!

From 2009...

In the remake update post (about HOUSE which starred William Katt) we talked about this crazy idea that the director they love is hotter than the one I know because their guy’s film hasn’t been released yet. That gives him *potential*, where the director I have a connection to has just made a film that was released and got great reviews.

Ages ago when my friend Jim and I were doing our Russian film we ran into the *potential* thing when we were casting our lead. This project began when Jim and I were wandering around Location Expo (an event that no longer exists) and stopped by the booth for the St. Petersburg Studios. Communism had just fallen in Russia, and after decades of government run film industry, the studios were scrambling to make money. We had a meeting with them, and discovered that we could make a movie in Russia for very little money. I put together a treatment for a RED HEAT type film in reverse - starting in Texas and going to Russia - with the cool idea that the “hero” would be killed on page 10 and the comedy-relief sidekick would be thrust into the hero position and have to track down the killer. That’s when we got a call from Mosfilm, who heard we were thinking about shooting a movie in Russia and wondered if we would like to meet with them before we signed any contracts with St. Petersburg. They had a brand new office in Los Angeles to try and attract movies to Russia - even though only a couple of indie films had shot there so far.

Mosfilm made us an offer we could not refuse. They had Panavision cameras and an onsite Kodak approved lab and an onsite hotel and undercut the other guy’s prices and, the clincher, had access to some buildings set for demolition (we could blow them up) and some military equipment we could have access to (helicopter chase for cost of fuel) and could use their connections to get us locations like Red Square.

Oh, and they had a couple of conditions - they wanted to be co-producers and cast Russian stars in the Russian roles. That’s a condition? We loved it! They had head shots and video of some stars, and the ones they were pushing were great. They had an actress who had been in a recent Russian film that had played in the USA, and had done a Playboy spread to promote the film. Yes! They had Russia’s biggest rock star, who wanted to get into acting, and showed us his music video. Yes! Everyone they showed us was someone who would add to the film. Their motivation was to make sure the film was a big hit in Russia and some ex-Soviet countries that they would keep as part of the deal. These were places that US distribs didn’t have a foot hold in, yet, so giving them away cost us nothing.

I wrote the script, taking place in Moscow and using all of the materials we now had access to... and the result was a film we could make for a budget of around $1 million that would look like LETHAL WEAPON - we had a helicopter chase! We blew up an apartment building! We had a big dock-side action sequence!

What we didn’t have was an American star.

Jim was (and is) a clever guy. He had bought the mailing list from one of the trades, and had the home addresses of a bunch of movie stars and famous folks. And he had begun looking for our American star - bypassing agents and managers and going directly to their home address. Our financial contacts might get us around $1 million, but not that much more, so we weren’t targeting Tom Cruise... we were looking at B movie stars. We already had the late, great, Steve James as our villain. Steve and I had been trying to put together a movie for a while - he was a great actor (from John Sayles films) who was usually the side kick to Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff and had starred in a couple of low budget films. The problem with most of the stuff he was in was that it never showed what an amazing actor he was. This guy had done theatre in New York. I didn’t think we could get the money for our film with him as the star, but villains are always big juicy roles... and Steve said yes. I wrote a part for him that would make him the star he should have been. A great villain with some big juicy acting scenes.

But for our star... We came up with a list, and the guy we really liked was Thomas F. Wilson. Who? The guy who played various versions of Biff in all of the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies. He was a stand up comedian, great for the comic relief role (which turned into the lead on page 11). And if you watch the three B2TF movies, he’s an amazing actor. I honestly think that’s why his career didn’t really take off after the trilogy - you can’t tell it’s the same guy playing Biff in all those films! He’s the teen Biff, the fat Biff, the handsome Biff, the cowboy Biff, the loser Biff, the billionaire Biff... he’s completely different in each role - even *physically* different (losing or gaining weight). So, we had a meeting with him... and he brought along a team of managers and agents and lawyers and gardeners. A half dozen people! After getting through all of their BS, we finally got a chance to talk with Tom, who was a very nice, very funny guy, who was interested.

We took our package to our #1 distrib/money source. We had put together a sheet that showed all of the movies Tom had been in, what their domestic and worldwide grosses were. Beside the B2TF movies, he’s been in ACTION JACKSON and a handful of other movies that made a bunch of money. So, we are looking at a guy who seems like an easy sell...

But he was not. They didn’t know him by name. They said, you put his name on the poster, and nobody knows who that is. Find us the name that everybody already knows.

They didn’t care that his films had made a ton of money, they didn’t care that this film would cost them $1 million and look like a huge studio action film... they wanted a name they knew.

Every other distrib/money source we had a contact with told us the same thing.

Lesson learned: Just because someone is a great actor who has been in movies that everybody in the world has seen does not make them a bankable star.

So, Jim and I went back to the list, and cycled through a bunch of actors. Some were turned down by the distrib, some of them turned down the project. We had met with some line producers who had made one of the handful of US films to actually shoot in Russia, and they said the biggest problem we would have is that after decades of working under the Soviet model, most Russian crews worked about as fast as those people behind the counter at the DMV. We would have to double our shooting schedule because they moved so slow. We had included this in our budget and schedule... but the big problem with a star, even a B movie star, is that their time is money. We had the same amount to pay for twice the shooting time. Some stars turned us down because they didn’t want to leave home for two months, others didn’t want to work for half their rate.

Then we had a meeting with William Katt at Stanley’s on Ventura Blvd, and we found our star. First, everyone knew who he was from GREATEST AMERICAN HERO and CARRIE and a bunch of other stuff, including one of my favorite films, BIG WEDNESDAY. Second, he had a great attitude about the project - looking at this as an adventure, going to a place very few people had been to before. He wasn’t as concerned about the money, he thought just going someplace cool would be worth it. So, we had an interested star who completely fit all of the distrib/money source’s conditions.

We had a meeting with them, figured we’d walk out with a start date and a million bucks...

But a strange thing happened. They said, we love William Katt, but if you could get us Brad Pitt we’d fund this thing tomorrow. And we said, Brad who? At this point in time, Brad Pitt had done two movies - a low budget horror flick called CUTTING CLASS and an indie film called JOHNNY SUEDE. Neither film had made any money. But Pitt had *potential*. He *might be* a really big star. Word on the street was that he was the next big thing.

So, Jim and I went through our distrib/financing contacts looking for someone who would give us the money based on the people we had now. A real TV star who everyone knew who had starred in some great films (CARRIE, BIG WEDNESDAY, etc) who was more interested in the adventure of making a film in an interesting location than making a pile of money. We were pretty much ready to go... and everyone said, Get us this Brad Pitt kid and we’ll give you the money. And again, we said Brad who?

So, I rented CUTTING CLASS on VHS, a silly slasher movie where Pitt played the villain... and really didn’t understand why they would want this guy. He was okay, but he wasn’t even the star of the movie! Jim tried to track him down, but I don’t think he had a subscription to Hollywood Reporter at that time so he wasn’t on our list. After spending a lot of time, we found out that *everyone in town* had been told that Pitt was the next big thing and that everyone in town was fighting to hire him, and that there was no way in hell that he would be in a low budget film that would take two months of his life to shoot in Russia.

We went back to our first choice in distrib/financing and told them that Brad Pitt was a no-go. By now, William Katt had gone on to do another movie or two and was unavailable for a while. Thomas F. Wilson was doing a stand up comedy tour, also unavailable. Everyone else we had talked to had gone on to some other project and we would have to wait for them.

What I didn’t understand was why Tom Wilson was a “no” because the audience wouldn’t recognize his name on the poster, yet this Brad Pitt guy was so hot... when the audience would not only not recognize his name, they wouldn’t know his face or any of the movies he had been in. This distribution company did some small theatrical releases and the rest went to VHS and cable. It was common to list the star’s most popular films on the back of the VHS box. That means even if the audience doesn’t know an actor by name, if they recognized his face and wondered where they know him from they can flip over the box and discover this guy was in a bunch of films they have seen and liked... and they rent the movie. And the answer was... Tom Wilson may have been in a bunch of hit films, and he was a known quantity... but Brad Pitt was *hot* because he had *potential* - he was unknown. He hadn’t made a flop yet, or made a film that didn’t turn out, or proven that maybe he wasn’t the next big thing, yet. This makes no sense to me - but in the fear-driven film biz it's part of the way they operate. Of course, Brad Pitt really was the next big thing - even though it took him a whole bunch of movies to become a star - so maybe all of these distribs/financing sources were right. If we had been the ones to get Pitt instead of CUTTING CLASS, we’d... well, let me ask you - have you ever heard of CUTTING CLASS? Yeah, that’s what I thought. So it didn’t matter whether we had Pitt or not.

What happened while we were jumping through all of these hoops trying to find a star was that the “Russian Mafia” had begun shooting up Moscow and kidnaping Americans for ransom and all kinds of other things that made no one want to make a film in Russia right now... and our project just died. The only thing that really remains from it is the frame of the story-board that I used as an illustration on the front of my book. We had a bunch of the big action scenes story-boarded to make it easier to communicate what we wanted to our crew, and make filming a little faster and more efficient. A couple of years ago I did a rewrite on the script because I had a producer with some Russian connections interested, but the producer was... unusual... and that rewrite was lost when Fry’s repair guys wiped my hard drive to replace a plastic hinge on my laptop. I thought I had it backed up on my desk top and on a disk, but both ended up being the old version. Pisser.

The big lesson I learned from all of this is that *potential* beats experience in Hollywood. So, you have potential... I just have experience. You could be destined for greatness! I have written a movie about robot hookers from outer space for Roger Corman. Use your potential!

- Bill

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Broken In

From over a decade ago!

I bought these shoes *many* months ago - leather cross trainers - just before going on some adventure. When I first bought them, they were a little stiff. I was doing a lot of walking on whatever adventure that was, and these shoes were *not* comfortable. I probably ended up with some “new shoe blisters” - maybe you’ve had those, too.

But now, these shoes are completely broken in. Soft. Comfortable. They now completely fit my feet... and they are also worn out and ready to be replaced. Scuffed up, wearing out.

I just bought a new pair of Levis, and they are kind of stiff. It’s hard for me to find Levis that fit, because I’m tall... but not freakish tall. Though I could probably shop in some big and tall store, or go to somewhere that has extended sizes, my size of Levis can be found in a normal store. So that’s where I shop. But the strange thing is, Levis are *not* consistent in length size. So two pair that are supposedly the same size may be just enough different that one fits perfectly and the other is half an inch too short (what we used to call “floods” when I was a kid). So shopping for jeans requires a little work - and I own a couple of pair of Levis that are that half inch too short. The pair I’m wearing now are absolutely perfect. They were kind of stiff when I first bought them, but I’ve broken them in - and now they are perfect. The new pair of Levis is still in my closet - wore them a couple of times, but they just aren’t as comfortable as the pair I’m wearing now.

Of course, this pair of Levis came out of the washing machine with a hole in the right side back pocket - where I keep my comb - and I know that every time I wash them that little worn out section will wear out even more... and soon these perfect Levis will be worn out, and I’ll have to break in that new pair.

Why is it that just when something becomes broken in and comfortable, it’s days are numbered?

You can apply this to screenwriting any way you want.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Understanding protagonists.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Soup on a rainy day - that chunky sirloin burger stuff.

DVD: VANISHING POINT - one of those 70s films that is simple and complex at the same time. Barry Newman delivers cars cross country. He makes a bet with a guy that he can get this Dodge Challenger to San Francisco over the weekend - which means driving non-stop at top speed. When a highway patrol cop wants him to pull over, he just says ef-it and keeps on going. This brings in more police, and road blocks and helicopters and all kinds of problems... but Newman just keeps going. Most of the police cars crash - usually due to their own mistakes. A pirate radio DJ played by Cleavon Little turns Newman into a folk hero - while broadcasting information from the police radio to help Newman avoid road blocks. Newman becomes an anti-authority symbol. Everyone wants him to avoid the police - and the police must stop him to retain control. The entire problems of a nation are played out with a speeding car and a police chase. Along the way, Newman meets a strange old man in the desert who gives him life advice and a naked babe on a motorcycle who wants to give him something else. Great car chase stuff, amazing stunts, things that make DEATH PROOF look mega-lame... and an ending that is simple, yet so complex you will be thinking about it for days afterwards.

Pages: Talk about strange - yesterday I had an idea for a new spec and wrote 5 pages on it. That may be all I ever write on it, who knows.
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