Thursday, February 27, 2020

Thriller Thursday: THE GUILTY MEN

The Guilty Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

ATLiH: Rubber Gloves Of Death!


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

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

And that’s a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She got maybe two steps, max.

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

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

Wearing rubber gloves and Halloween masks.

For 90 very very long minutes.

With absolutely no nudity, motivated or not.

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

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

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

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

- Bill

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Thriller Thursday: Child's Play


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Never Say Never: Big Egos And Bad Notes!

From 11 years ago...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never say never.

- Bill

Friday, February 14, 2020

Fridays With Hitchcock: Torn Curtain (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Bill

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



Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!


Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!


UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.



USA Readers click here for more info!


We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 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.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020



One night, sitting in Residuals Bar in Studio City (where the DRAGONHEART script was conceived) and drinking a Guiness, I was telling one of the stories that usually end up on this blog - a story about some poor misguided person in the film biz, and one of my friends said: “Where do you find these people?” I replied, “I bet I know all the losers in Hollywood”.... and they said that should be the title of my autobiography (or this blog). But instead, this blog ened up being called SEX IN A SUBMARINE due to a crazy script note I got from HBO on CRASH DIVE, and ALL THE LOSERS IN HOLLYWOOD was a title without a story... until now.

When looking for regular features for the blog for 2018-2019, I thought it would be fun to tell a bunch of those stories of the oddballs I’ve met in the almost 30 years I’ve been in this business. I’m changing all of the names to protect the very very guilty (and avoid meeting lawyers) but the stories you are about to read are true... well, mostly true.


Built in 1956, the Casa Vega restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks has been a celebrity haunt since they opened the doors. Cary Grant was a regular, as were Marlon Brando and Michael Jackson and Jane Fonda and Dyan Cannon... these days Gwent Sefani and Al Pacino and Tom Hanks and the Spielbergs and the Kardashians and even George Clooney (when he’s in town) are part of the dinner crowd. The place is a fake adobe villa with a terra cotta roof on the main drag of the San Fernando Valley... just down the street from where I live. The drinks aren’t cheap, but for a while when I was getting lots of stuff on screen (and the production bonuses that come with that) I’d often meet friends there for a drink or two. A couple of times I even had dinner, but never spotted any celebrities, though one night they told me that Clooney was buying drinks for the house the night before. Just my luck!

Often at a table in the bar was a producer who I will call Martin, though his real name is... oh, wait, that could get me in trouble. You could tell Martin was successful because he didn’t care what the hell you thought of him. He was dressed down, as if he might be on his way to the bowling alley down the street, but wore a Rolex on his wrist... and was rumored to drive a blue Ferrari Testarossa - and I actually saw him pull into valet parking in that car once. So I was a corroborating witness on that part of his legend. I didn’t even know they made them in blue - I thought they were all bright red.

Martin would hold court at his booth, and wanna-be actors and actresses and directors and writers would often fight for a seat. I was usually with my friends, but a couple of times when I was there alone I just sat at the bar. Gotta be cool, right? Can’t look desperate. I often wonder if that theory has lost me jobs in the past? I know people who fawn over people and end up being thrown a bone now and then - and use that to move up in the business. A director I know started out by becoming everyone’s “number one fan” and then asked everyone he knew who was important if they’d be in his short films - and ended up with stars and directors and others in short films that he’d show to the next level of people in the business and a producer ended up hiring him to direct a real movie, just based on the names in his short films. I don’t do that stuff... but where would I be if I did? Could I be driving a blue Ferrari like Martin?

But playing it cool kind of worked - a few times I got invited to Martin’s booth and tried to figure out just what films he had produced. This was in those dark ages before IMDB when you had to read the trades or watch all of the credits to know who was involved in a film. So I was always looking for clues when I was invite over to his booth. Once Martin mentioned that he was working with Swayze on his new film, so I combed the trades for what film Patrick Swayze was currently working on. Another time he said he was negotiating with Stallone for the lead in his new film. He’d name drop and I’d search the trades for the project. The problem was, the trades didn’t report on everything. Hollywood Reporter had a weekly list of films in production, pre-production, and post production - but they were bare-bones listings and the ones with Stallone or Swayze or whoever else he’s mentioned starring didn’t list all of the producer credits. I’m not going to tell you how much time I spent looking for clues to his films... because then you wouldn’t think I was cool anymore.

He’d often name drop movie stars and big time directors and tell stories about them that only an insider could ever know. He’d talk about all of the red carpet movie premieres he went to - and sometimes would describe some actresses dress... and when they showed the premiere on Entertainment Tonight, that’s the exact dress she was wearing! So even though I could never find the Stallone project that he was working on, I knew that there was one. He’d tell stories about stars and name directors and other producers that not only sounded true, sometimes the same stories would pop up here and there in the press... so they *were* true. At some point in all of this, I was going to Casa Vega in hopes of being invited over to his booth. How could I turn this into a script sale?

See? I’m not cool.

One time when I was at the bar, he was at his regular booth... with an incredibly beautiful woman. No one else was invited to the booth that night. She had to be an actress, right? The next big star? Had to be. I wish I was a producer!

So, an actor I had worked with on one of my little cable movies had a supporting role in a huge summer blockbuster from Warner Brothers, and invited me to the premiere. They had given him a handful of tickets and I guess his first choices were all busy or maybe he wanted to make sure he had great dialogue in the thing I was writing or whatever. He invited me. I had to wear uncomfortable shoes. I was going to be at this big premiere that Martin had mentioned he was going to. *That* was my chance to land a job, right? Instead of me being invited over to *his* booth where *he* had all of the power (and I was just some idiot writer), we would both be on equal ground at the premiere. Either at the premiere or the after-party I would casually pitch one of my scripts to him, saying I was just finishing it up... and let him ask to be the first to read it. He knew I was a working screenwriter and had just written an HBO World Premiere Movie - not exactly a Warner Bros summer blockbuster, but there was a full page advert in TV Guide for the film, which I’d once showed him (I was showing it to my pals at the bar and he wanted to take a look, so I was still cool, I think). Hey, we’re both on the red carpet and I mention the new script, and...

So I get to the premiere with the star of my next cable flick and his entourage and start looking for Martin. It’s not like you can look for the blue Ferrari or something, the way these things work is that the red carpet is all about photographers taking pictures of stars... so supporting actors and their entourage are either ushered in first or saved until last. Big producers like Martin are not in the same group as we were... I did spot some other stars - Nick Nolte was there! Why didn’t I bring my VHS of 48 HOURS for him to sign?

Once inside, I looked around for Martin, couldn’t spot him. Also looked around for that hot actress, just in case that was his date. Couldn’t spot her, either. There are ushers who take you to your section, and we were not sitting in the same section that Martin would be sitting in. We were in the seats where supporting actors who were in a few scenes but had their credit in the end roll rather than the opening titles were seated. It was still cool for me - lots of familiar faces. Hey, it’s that guy! Hey, it’s that woman who plays magazine editors! Hey, it’s the guy who plays blue collar guys!

After the movie, we are walking back to the valet stand to retrieve my actor friend’s SUV that we all carpooled in from the Valley, and I happen to glance at one of the event security guards - and it’s Martin. What? I go up to talk to him, and he’s already telling me that he’s just filling in as security at this event, not a day job or anything, just a favor for a friend. You know, just helping out They were a man short and he... just happened to have a suit that matched all of the other security guy’s suits. I told him it was cool, I just wanted to say hello. It was awkward.

The next couple of times I was at Casa Vega, he nodded to me but didn’t wave me over to his booth. It was an interesting kind of avoidance you see in Hollywood where people smile and nod and greet each other - then move on as quickly as possible.

A couple of months later he invited me to his premier.

Yes, he was an actual producer. He had made a low budget horror film starring the *brother* of a big movie star. Same last name, different first name. Also, different level of talent. There was no red carpet for his premiere, and it was an old theater in the Valley... he did pull up in his rented blue Ferrari - there’s a company that rents luxury cars. The movie wasn’t very good - there was a top secret government lab in the story, and the official government sign outside the building had a misspelled word. Oops! The monster also was one of the worst rubber suits I’ve ever seen, and the actor within - not the movie star’s brother - moved like a human. Not convincing. The story seemed as if it had originally been a father and son drama that got a last minute rewrite into a monster movie because some distributor told Martin that horror sells. As far as I know, the film was never released - not even on VHS or DVD or anything else... even with a real movie star’s brother. People think that every movie gets to DVD (or VHS back when this took place), but probably most independent films don’t even make it that far. They end up in film cans in people’s garages. I have no idea if that’s what happened with Martin’s film - but I never saw it anywhere, and even just now when I looked it up on Amazon I didn’t get any hits.

There are a lot of star’s brothers in movies. And star’s sisters. And star’s children. And probably even star’s parents. Some are talented, some are not. Remember, Eric Roberts is the great Oscar nominated actor from STAR 80 and RUNAWAY TRAIN and his sister is the one riding his coattails. There are a whole bunch of actors who end up in the business because they are related to someone famous. This particular one wasn’t very good, but he had a famous last name.

I went to Casa Vega with friends a few times after that, and Martin was still holding court at his booth. I’d nod to him and then drink with my friends. I decided not to blow his cover. Heck, he had a day job - no sin in that. Heck, he probably met the movie star’s brother at some event where he was working as a security guard! He rented an expensive car - not the only customer at that luxury car rental place. Hollywood believes in surface over substance - if you look like a big shot, you are a big shot. You can rent cars and clothes and luxury apartments and arm candy, and how can they tell you apart from the people who don’t rent or lease those things but *own* them? And half of the “real people” rent or lease some of those things anyway. Show don’t tell. As Fernando used to say, "It is better to look good than to feel good." It’s better to look important than to really be important - less responsibility. This business is full of people who fake it until they make it... and sometimes end up just faking it forever...

And in Hollywood, no one can hear you scream.

I wonder if Martin worked the Golden Globes on Sunday night?

- Bill

Friday, February 07, 2020

Fridays With Hitchcock: TOPAZ (1969)

“Topaz” (1969)

Screenplay: Samuel Taylor based on the novel by Leon Uris
Starring: Frederick Stafford, John Vernon, John Forsythe Roscoe Lee Brown.

This film was based on a big best selling beach read by Leon Uris - one of those ripped from the headlines things about the secret shenanigans behind the Cuban missile crisis, filled with as much intrigue between the sheets as behind the doors of the embassies... and a cast of thousands. And the major problem with TOPAZ is probably with the source material's scope. Novels are an entirely different medium than screenplays and the movies that come from them. There are many things that you can do in a novel that just don't work in a movie. As I noted in the last chapter, a movie is viewed all in one gulp and we expect the story to flow and the pieces to connect to each other. Usually the audience does what I call the “skin jump” where they imagine themselves as the lead character and live the story on screen vicariously. They imagine they are James Bond or Indiana Jones or Neo from THE MATRIX or the character looking for love in a romantic comedy.

A book is a completely different animal – though there *are* books that you might read in one gulp, for the most part books are read chapter-by-chapter and we put a book marker in and set it aside. We may take days or weeks or even months to read a single book. So the focus is often on the *chapters* rather than the overall story. Even if a chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, it also usually works as a self-contained unit, giving us someplace to put a book mark and set the book aside. Due to the way the story is delivered to us – chapter by chapter – a book can be episodic and doesn't need to be from the protagonist's point of view. Because we can “get into a character's head” it is easier for us to identify with everyone, even the antagonist. We can bounce from character to character without ever being pulled out of the story. So the problem with adapting some novels is that they work so much differently than a movie works that our best set is probably just to toss the book and just run with the concept... or just leave it as a book. Some things are more at home in the medium they were created in.

The big problem with TOPAZ is that there is no lead character - it bounces back and forth between characters - so most of the scenes “star” minor characters that we haven't really gotten to know. The tone also works against it – a “ripped from the headlines” story often plays like a “just the facts” documentary, which means low key drama and less focus on emotions and drama. Combine that tone with no lead character to identify with and we end up with a story that was probably exciting in book form but ends up dull on screen. The screenplay is by Sam Taylor who wrote VERTIGO, but his skill set may not have been able to tame this all- over-the-place novel. The film just isn't very good, but does contain an amazing experiment which makes it well ahead of its time. Twenty five years before PULP FICTION, this film does a very similar story experiment.

Experiment: A big one! The film actually has four plots - and each is like its own little story. Like PULP FICTION, different lead characters in each story with some overlapping characters who show up in more than one story, and one character who connects all four. It's a great experiment that probably comes directly from the novel's structure – but like most experiments, it ultimately fails. But let's look at it anyway, since PULP FICTION shows that it *can* work. Here are the four stories...

In Denmark: A top ranking Russian and his family defect to the USA.
In the USA: While the Cuban delegation is in town, secret documents are photographed that hint at Russian missiles sent to Cuba.
In CUBA: Spies find the Russian missiles.
In FRANCE: A high level spy ring in the French government is exposed.

Wow, that seems almost linear and not nearly as complicated as the movie is. But when Frederick Stafford (who?) walks into frame, we have no idea who the hell he is and he has to “earn” our identification... and in TOPAZ the characters are each on screen for only a brief time before we are on to the next character. Not enough time to get to know them, let alone like them or care about them or hope they resolve whatever problems we really don't have enough time to learn about. So that Hitchcock aversion to paying star salaries backfires in this film.

Nutshell: In the USA segment, an American CIA agent (John Forsythe) wants to bribe the secretary (Donald Randolph) to Castro's right hand man (John Vernon) to steal his papers.... but doesn't want it traced back to the USA, so he goes to his pal in the French espionage pal (Frederick Stafford) who is having problems with his wife (Dany Robin) to get his son-in-law (Claude Jade) to provide a sketch of the secretary so that his agent (the late great Roscoe Lee Brown) whose cover is a florist, can pretend to be a reporter for Ebony Magazine in order to get past security and bribe the secretary so that he can photograph the papers. Oh, and Castro's right hand man has a head of security and the florist has an assistant and the son-in-law is obviously married to the French espionage pal's daughter and... well, there are no shortage of characters in this one segment alone! And the character who does the actual spying stuff is Roscoe Lee Brown - a peripheral character who we will never see again.

That's the big problem with the story - in the Cuba section it's not any of our main *Cuba story* characters who sneak onto the military base to photograph the missiles, it's some characters we've never seen before who are only in this once sequence... so when they are in trouble, we don't care. They are disposable characters... and *all* of the characters in this film are disposable - they do their little bit of the story and then we never see them again.

It's like a movie about the extras instead of stars.... and there are no movie stars in the film. Zilch. Hitchcock had paid *half* the budget of his previous film TORN CURTAIN on Newman and Julie Andrews' salaries and that film bombed... so he ditched stars completely for this film, and it suffers because of it. The closest we have to a lead character is the French espionage guy played by Stafford - but he never goes on any dangerous missions himself - he hires someone else. Which means he ends up with soap opera plots - his marriage is in trouble, he's having an affair with an agent, his wife is having an affair with a guy who ends up being a Russian spy, his daughter and son in law have issues... All kinds of silly things that make for a great beach read, but don't work very well on the big screen.

Hitch Appearance: A nurse pushes him through the airport in a wheelchair... then he stands up and walks away.

Music: Maurice Jarre does an okay score that sounds a lot like his JUDGE ROY BEAN score - so maybe he recycled it.

Bird Sightings: Hey, a seagull ruins their whole mission in Cuba!

Hitchcock Stock Company: John Forsythe was an odd choice for romantic lead in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY.

The whole film is kind of ho-hum and shows the problem with doing experiments in a script and film - most experiments fail. That’s why we call them experiments. Even though some of the experiments in Hitchcock’s films don’t entirely succeed, they usually have a handful of great scenes to make up for it, or the experiment itself is interesting to watch (like in ROPE). Here we discover the importance of having a protagonist who is involved in the entire story - *the* pivotal character in each segment. We learn this because this experiment fails in this case - four stories with four different protagonists squeezed into a 143 minute film doesn’t give us much time to care about any of these people or get to know them... so they remain chess pieces moved around the board to tell the story. The more you split the focus among different protagonists, the more you split our emotions so that we don’t have time to care. We take a closer look at this film and it’s episodic structure (and how it paved the way for PULP FICTION) in HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR.

- Bill

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



Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!


Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!


UK Folks Click Here.

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French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

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USA Readers click here for more info!


We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 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.

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Espania Folks Click Here.

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