Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Book Report: The GREAT WAY Trilogy

From 3 years ago... The Great Way Trilogy by Harry Connolly. The first book was just on sale, so it's topical again!

May contain light spoilers... but I also may lie about who survives, so there!

THE WAY INTO CHAOS


Best Movie Ever Made

My friend Harry Connolly (20 PALACES novels) has a new epic trilogy and the last book was released yesterday... but I have already read it along with it’s brother and sister. Harry’s first 20 PALACES novel CHILD OF FIRE was one of Publisher’s Weekly’s 100 Best Books Of 2009 and got a starred review. The first novel in this new series also got a great starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, so you don’t have to take my word for it’s quality. It kicks ass.

My plan with the first book, THE WAY INTO CHAOS, was to read a chapter or two every night before going to sleep, except every danged chapter ends with a cliffhanger and you end up reading the next chapter and the next chapter and the next chapter and suddenly it is 4am and you realize you have to work the next day (well, that same day), and... There’s a chapter that ends with the hero falling off a flying boat into a city overrun with monsters! How are we expected to just set the book down and falll asleep? Impossible!

There are two protagonists, and if you pay attention to the art next to the chapter number you’ll know which this chapter is about.

“Tyr” Tejohn is a legendary warrior without a war, who ends up with a cushy palace job as weapons instructor and bodyguard to the slacker Prince. A good thing, because age has crept up on Tejohn and his knees and eyesight aren’t what they once were. But he still has his hands full, the Prince would rather get drunk and cause trouble. When the Empire suddenly falls to an unknown enemy (monsters they call “grunts” who hunt, kill & eat humans), Tejohn must get the Prince and his slacker friends to safety... but what if there is no safety?

Cazia is one of the Prince’s slacker friends, a spoiled teenaged sorcery student who may be the last survivor who knows how to cast spells. She and Tejohn don’t like each other, but both are sworn to protect the Prince. So we have our sword and our sorcery... in a world which has suddenly gone to hell. All of the characters are fully formed flesh and blood people and the world created is complex and fascinating. I particularly liked how before the fall of the empire, the ability to sing a song that tugs the heartstrings of the audience is more valuable than gold. The book also does a great job of giving both male and female characters equal time, so whether you’re looking for epic battle scenes with an aging warrior or a magical story about a teen sorceress learning how to use her powers with the fate of the world at stake, this book has you covered.

Publisher’s Weekly called it “immersive, thrilling, and elf-free epic fantasy”, and even though this is epic fantasy, the story is more like King Arthur and Merlin than Lord Of The Rings. The magic is logical and well grounded: one of the handful of spells turns air into water... which might even be possible through science. In other words: I had no trouble believing any of it even though I’m more into crime fiction these days. Oh, and though there is violence there is no sex of any kind. This is something I might have read as a teenager.

THE WAY INTO MAGIC


Best Movie Ever Made

The second book in the trilogy is my favorite, it’s the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the trilogy. That’s not to imply there are singing teddy bears who live in a tree house city in the third book (though there are talking alligators in a log city at the bottom of a lake, but they’re scary as hell!). Tejohn our warrior and Cazia our apprentice sorceress split up on two different missions to try to save whatever’s left of their world... and both face darkness within that they never knew existed.

Tejohn travels across the ravaged land to find the Prince’s wizard uncle who may know a spell that can save mankind from the grunts... before there isn’t any mankind left to save. Now that the empire has dissolved, his status is no longer currency and he finds himself struggling to survive as a commoner (and worse). In the past he could roll into a city and they would give him the best room and meals and anything else he wanted, he was a “Tyr”... now that his privilege is gone he must pay for everything in labor (which doesn’t get him much). Plus, all of the kingdoms which were in alliance as the Empire are now fighting among themselves, and Tejohn speaks the language of the enemy. No shortage of battles... and Tejohn comes to realize frightening truths about himself that he never wanted to know.

Cazia leads two other girls into the forbidden Valley Of Qorr, where monsters lurk... and perhaps the answers to where the grunts came from. Yes, girls. Not women. Cazia is only 15 years old, and with her is the preteen Princess Ivy who is betrothed to the Prince in an arranged marriage, plus a beautiful slave girl Kinz. The three go on an amazing adventure which could have been a full length novel in itself. When I was a kid MYSTERIOUS ISLAND was one of my favorite movies, and the Valley Of Qorr has all of the adventure and monsters of that film... or maybe of the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s big fantasy adventure, and these three girls are challenged every step of the way. But just as Luke Skywalker learns about the darkside of The Force in EMPIRE, Cazia learns about the darkside of sorcery on this adventure... and it takes a toll that I will not spoil for you.

The great thing about these books is that *anyone* can die in them, and all of the characters are so well drawn that you care about even the minor characters. There’s an old woman traveling saleswoman who turns everything into a deal and has so much personality that she leaps off the page. Also, the world building continues in this book, and the details are amazing. The way an oxen herd is fed as it is on the move is impossible to forget. Oh, and note how fleshtone is part of the class system in this world... that’s kind of fun. One of the great things about all three books are the bits of mystery: in this book we discover that someone from the surprise attack on the castle in the first book has survived... but we don’t know who that is until it is revealed later in the book. Is it the King? The Queen? One of the other characters we grew to love who we thought died? Things like this help drive the story. The other great thing are the characters dealing with the dark sides... and throughout all three books the idea that everything they know is wrong. They see the world from their point of view, and when that world is destroyed they see things as they really are... which is often the opposite of what they believed it to be.

Though everything gets worse for our two heroes in this book, they get better for the reader!

WAY INTO DARKNESS


Best Movie Ever Made

The final book continues to twist expectations. Tejohn and Cazia are reunited and find the Prince’s Master Sorcerer Uncle, who has extremely poor housekeeping skills. They develop the weapon that can kill the “grunts”, but now they need an army to go into battle and use that weapon. Problem is, soldiers are the first casualties in any war... and now they are left with farmers and children. Tejohn and Cazia try to round up an army: Tejohn at the Twofin Fortress where he knows there are a handful of good soldiers, and Cazia in the castle of her estranged father (which is far enough away from ground zero in the grunt attack that they may not have been attacked yet). Both find situations are not exactly as they seem, and must resolve these problems before they can put together any sort of army...

Once again, anyone can die in these books. There’s a character we come to love who doesn’t make it until the end of the book. That one shocked me, and I had to reread that scene because I just could not believe this person would die. Again, well drawn minor characters make the whole story seem real. There are a bunch of old women servants to the Master Sorcerer Uncle who both love and hate their jobs, and we completely understand each of them. Because the story pushes forward, there are also characters who kind of get left behind (like Kinz) who I really want to spend more time with. The side effect of well drawn characters is that you don’t want them to die or have their subplot stories end.

The other thing that drives this final chapter is the question: why? Why did the grunts attack now? Where did they come from? What do they want (other than to eat people)? And who is behind all of this? These answers are the real solution to the conflict, because if they can find out *why* they can prevent it from happening again. This requires Tejohn and Cazia to form some strange alliances in order to get information... like those scary as hell alligators in their log city. The alligators (Lakeboys) regularly feed on humans, so you are never sure if they are working with Tejohn and Cazia to save themselves from the grunts... or if they are just preparing dinner.

One of the interesting things about this book is a chapter that plays like a scene from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I know that sounds crazy, but there is a scene in this book that has the same feel as that trippy light show end of the Kubrick film. This plays into the idea that everything we know is wrong... that we see the world around us through our eyes and we may not see the truth (which is more complicated). Sometimes we think it’s all about us, when really it has nothing to do with us... we’re just so vain we think that we are the center of the world when we don’t really matter that much. Though these are sword and sorcery fantasy novels filled with sword fights and intrigue, they also have characters who are forced to reevaluate their lives and a story that might make the reader stop and think about our world here on Earth (where we don’t have as many sword fights or giant birds).

I finished reading the third book a few days ago, and I already miss Tejohn and Cazia and Princess Ivy and Kinz. I felt as if I went of this epic adventure with them... and I want to go on another one!

(click on any of the covers above for more info on Amazon!)

Bill

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Flashback: On Set Rewrites... Overnight!

Those screenwriting Gurus like McKee hate flashbacks, but I think they are part of the language of cinema... and a good way to fill up a blog. So here's another thing that happened long long ago in a far off galaxy...

One of the things the WGA fought for a couple of contracts ago was the ability for writers to visit the sets of the films they have written. Some of you may find it shocking that they weren't automatically allowed on the set. Didn't we create the story? The scenes? The dialogue? That great car chase? No one would be there if it weren't for our script. That Teamster eating doughnuts and sitting on the apple box in the shade behind the star's trailer? He wouldn't be there without that script! Shouldn't we be allowed to watch our fantasies become reality?

But Hollywood thinks of writers on the set as a hooker the morning after - her job is done, why is she hanging around? We've got a movie to make - can we get this useless person out of the way? Usually by the time they are actually shooting the film, the writer is long gone. We have slaved over the script for years, sold it to a producer, that producer has taken years to set up the film, then it finally starts production... and we've written and sold a half dozen scripts by then. It's not uncommon for it to take ten years for a script to reach the screen, by then we may not eve remember our own story!

Plus all of those other writers the studio brings in to "re-energize" a stalled project. This may not make any sense, but it's a fact of the biz. Let's say you've written a really hot script called SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and it sells for big money to Universal Studios and the hottest actress in the world, Julia Roberts, signs to play the lead. But they have trouble casting the male lead and the film gets pushed back a couple of times... then completely loses momentum. How do you resurrect this project? You have to get the trades talking about it again - make it an exciting project again - so you hire a big name writer to rewrite the script (that sold for big money and signed the top star in the world). Maybe this writer improves an already good script, maybe they just change a few things but "re-energize" the project. Make it hot again. Take the deadest project in Hollywood and hire Diablo Cody to rewrite it and it's suddenly hot again. A script with a new writer is GOING SOMEPLACE... a great script that is just sitting on a studio shelf is dead. It's like Woody Allen's shark analogy in ANNIE HALL.

Add to that every director has his own "pet writer" that he brings in to implement all of those notes that might get shot down in the normal development process - stuff like having the Sheriff of Nottingham *also* be Robin Hood because it's a "cool idea"... and when that doesn't work, just make it a typical Robin Hood movie instead of the hot script about the Sheriff of Nottingham that sold for big bucks and everyone loved. What you end up with is a reality where the writer who worked so hard to create that script in the first place may be estranged from the project by the time the film gets made. I had a film that I was the original writer on, but by the time the thing got made so many other writers had worked on it that even the producer seemed to forget that I was involved in the project. They would need a Greyhound Bus to transport all of the writers involved to the set and clean out a dozen Cost Plus Stores to provide us all with a director's chair.

On most of my films I've been the only writer (except for director's girlfriends) so I've been allowed on set. In some cases I have been at war with the directors by the time we started filming, creating a very tense set visit... But I'm a nice guy and directors usually don't mind having me around. Some directors even LIKE me.

FREE LUNCH


I usually time my set visits to coincide with the dinner break. Once a day (sometimes twice) a truck rolls up with tables and chairs and sometimes even a tent and another truck follows with a catered meal. These meals usually offer a choice of main courses (fish, chicken/meat, vegetarian), are usually all-you-can-eat, and are often prepared on the spot (some of the companies have portable barbecues). Anyone on a film crew will tell you that the most important thing on any shoot is the food - it's the thing the crew looks forward to - and Producers know this. The food is usually really good, and if you're involved in the production (the writer) it's also free. I try to get in as many free meals as possible during the filming. This not only gives you a chance to meet the crew (the people actually making your dream come true), because you're "above the line" you get to sit at the adult table - with the movie stars and the director and the producer. This helps your career - plus you get to pal around with movie stars.

You want to make friends with the star for many reasons, at least one of which is you'll get to see the "dailies" - the footage shot the previous day. Dailies aren't shown in a theater any more, they're usually shown on video in the star or director's trailer. I was sitting in a star's trailer watching dailies where I first realized how important it is to have writers on the set.

THEY FORGOT TO SHOOT...




Many of my scripts have big plot twists, and this one had a doosey! A character with key evidence was assassinated by the villain's henchman in an earlier scene... but survived! Now the hero has to protect the witness as he tracks the villain - a conflict because the closer he gets to the villain the more likely the villain will discover the witness is still alive. I had a great scene where the hero and henchman fight - and the whole time the hero is trying to keep the henchman from seeing the witness in the next room. Except the dailies for that scene have the witness IN THE SAME ROOM as the henchman! The henchman actually puts a gun to the witness' head in a director-improvised bit of business. Later scenes where the henchman reports to the villain (and fails to mention the witness he shot in an earlier scene has been miraculously resurrected) have already been shot!

I attempt to tactfully mention the continuity problem to the director who tells me not to worry about it. Yesterday's location is gone - no chance to reshoot anything - maybe they can fix it in editing. The director never admitted he either forgot what the scene was about, or never understood what the scene was about in the first place. But even if the reason for the witness character to be in the room was a location change (from a 2 room office to a 1 room office) there were things I could have done as a writer to make that scene work. I could have fixed the continuity error with WORDS instead of making the editor try to reconstruct the footage they shot into a scene that made sense.

To tell you the truth - I don't think the director ever understood what the script was about, so even if I had been on set I might not have been able to do anything except lose an argument with the director on his "brilliant improvised action gag" of the henchman taking the witness hostage. I later found out he had never read the script... he had only read the coverage.

On another film I didn't get to see the dailies... I had to witness a huge script screw-up on the big screen at the premiere (which I was invited to... probably by accident). I am a meticulous researcher and had read a stack of books and hung around with cops in order to make my script realistic. One thing I discovered was a public misconception about a particular aspect of a police investigation... so I used that as a plot twist. The audience would naturally assume one thing, then I would have the detectives reveal the truth. I even had actual national crime statistics in the dialogue - shocking facts that most American's didn't know. I always hope to start a post-theater (or post-video) conversation in my audience about the theme of the film or one of these weird facts I uncover.

Except this film had gone through an on-set rewrite. The actors playing the detectives thought weird fact was just plain wrong and that my FBI crime statistics were made up off the top of my head. They talked to the director, who had no idea how much research I had done (they usually don't) and the three of them rewrote the whole scene... based on that common misconception that was about 180 degrees wrong. That meant the big plot twist was gone... so they had to make up a clue that lead to the killer on the spot. A clue that had never been planted in the previous 80 pages. A clue that just popped up from out of the blue in a scene about a completely different subject. Anyone want to guess how convincing this clue was? It only I had been on set to explain how much research I had done and point out how the whole darned solution to the mystery was based on that common misconception.

IS THERE A WRITER IN THE HOUSE?


But you have to be careful what you wish for. While my HBO World Pemiere movie GRID RUNNERS (ala VIRTUAL COMBAT) was filming I dropped by the set for dinner one night and the director said the words I've come to dread: "Boy am I glad to see you! We've been calling you all day!" Whenever the director WANTS the writer to come down to the set, it can only be trouble. They were shooting at this huge glass and chrome skyscraper that was a victim of LA's real estate boom-and-bust. The place was empty, not a single business on any of the floors. The perfect location to shoot our evil corporate villain's lair. They had shot a bunch of scenes and were preparing to shoot the big end action scene where the villain tries to escape by helicopter from the helipad on the roof of his building and the hero and heroine try to stop him. The hero only has a handful of bullets left and has to use them to keep the helicopter from landing on the helipad... which means he has no bullets to take down the villain. But they ARE on a roof, so you can guess what happens.

Except they won't be on a roof.

The location was perfect except for two things: no rooftop helipad and no access to the rooftop. Could I completely rewrite the scene to take place in the courtyard in front of the building? By 5am tomorrow (so they can make copies of the new pages and have them on the set in time to film first thing in the morning)?

1) Why would the helicopter try to land in the courtyard?
2) What could replace the excitement of the rooftop fight scene, where our hero keeps getting knocked to the edge (and once OVER the edge) of the roof.
3) How can the villain fall to his death if the scene is at ground level?

Plus two dozen other problems I would have to deal with. It's not just changing the slug lines, it's rethinking the entire scene. It was about 7pm when I showed up for dinner... and they had set up in the courtyard. So I couldn't even get a good look at my location until AFTER they had broken down the tables and got rid of the catering trucks. Swell!

I was distracted through dinner - probably making the cast think I was aloof and remote and "artistic" - then I had to wait around until the caterers left. The whole time the clock is ticking. Every minute the crew spent folding chairs was a minute I couldn't spend working on the rewrite. Finally I had the courtyard the way it would be tomorrow morning when they would start filming... and realized I had nothing to work with! You couldn't land a helicopter there if your life depended on it! So the part of the scene where the helicopter lands and the villain is racing towards it and the hero has to shoot at it? Not gonna work. Unfortunately they had already shot the scene where the villain calls for the helicopter... I was stuck with having a helicopter in the scene.

Driving home I remembered something I planted earlier in the script that I could use in this scene... and by the time I got home I was ready to write. I worked all night and got the new pages faxed to the production office by 5am. I missed my daily dinner visit that day - I was asleep. I never got to see them film the scene I had slaved all night to rewrite. Some parts of the new scene got scrambled because I wasn't there to explain them and the director and cast didn't have time to analyze the pages... but I'm sure the result (including a great villain's death) were better than anything that might have resulted from the director and actors improvising a scene for the new location off the top of their heads.

Do I think writers should be allowed on sets? I think if producers were smart they would insist on it. Who else knows the script as well as we do? Who else could have remembered that thing they planted in act one that is EXACTLY what is needed to make that act three rewrite work? Hey, I can sleep some other time... I've got rewrites!

- Bill

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

ATLIH: American Film Market...
Let's Sneak Upstairs!

From 2006...

The lobby rats don’t have badges, so they are trapped downstairs for the entire market, but I’ve got a badge, so let’s sneak upstairs and I’ll show you all of the treasures available at the American Film Market...

My first film market badge was issued in 1988 and sports a smiling photo of the 1988 version of me - thinner, and a lot hungrier. I was still working in the warehouse at the time, still trying to break in. I had first attended AFM two years before with my buddy Van Tassell - and no actual badge. We were lobby rats most of the time, but for a couple of hours I was Transferable, James Transferable. A couple of distribs who we had some tenuous connection to had allowed us to roam the hallways with their spare badge when it wasn’t being used (GFD - who distribbed NINJA BUSTERS and Reel Movies who had some Paul Kyriazi movie that Van shot). The next year, I convinced a local newspaper reporter I knew to cover AFM for my hometown paper... and give me his badge when his weekend at the market was over. In 1987 I had a badge... with someone else’s name on it. And someone else’s photo. It’s a lot like that fake ID you took to the liquor store in High School - the old driver’s license you found in the trash that used to belong to someone named Wong Chen. I had to figure out someway to doctor the photo to look more like me. I had a moustache in 1987... same one I have now. The reporter didn’t have a moustache, and looked different than me but had dark hair, so I thought the moustache would be enough to pass a quick glance by the security guards.



Every year for AFM they hire a legion of security guards and set up check points throughout the hotel. You can climb the circular stairs to the 5th floor, but then you run into checkpoints where they want to see your badge. If you go to the stairs, you’ll find a checkpoint there, too... and one at each set of elevators. Then, on every floor there are guards at every elevator bank and in the stairwells checking badges. Also, roaming guards on every floor. It’s easier to break into Fort Knox!

But in 1987, I have a badge. Someone else’s picture on it, and a magic marker moustache drawn on. Most of the time, the guards do a quick look at your badge - and if you hold it up for them, *you* control what they see. It also makes you look like you are cooperating, which makes you less likely to be scamming your way in with a fake badge. But every year, someone gets caught trying to scam their way in... and security cracks down for a day or two.

So after a couple of days of smooth sailing with that fake moustache, I’m suddenly stopped by a Security Guard in the hallway who asks to see my badge. Seems that Lloyd Kauffman from Troma had been flaunting the fact that he had been using an old badge with the wrong date and color since the market began... and security had decided to crack down and show Lloyd who’s boss. So all of us suffer... including those of us with fake moustaches drawn on their badges.

I try to hold it up for the Security Guard - controlling it - but he grabs it for a closer look. He compares the doctored photo to me - and beads of sweat start to break out on my forehead. I’m screwed. Maybe I should have anticipated this, and drawn on beads of sweat? He squints at the photo. I’m really screwed. I’m wondering if he’ll make me walk down the stairs in hand cuffs. If he makes me wear leg irons, too, I won’t be able to handle the stairs.... or the stares.

Finally, he hands it back, thanking the name of the guy on the badge... But when he hands it back, his thumb presses against the magic markered photo... and the moustache comes off on his thumb. Now there’s this huge smudge where the moustache once was... and a huge black smear on his thumb.

The badge swings back on its lanyard, and I’m praying it lands *backwards* around my neck so that he can’t see the photo. No such luck. If the Security Guard looks down at the badge, he’ll see that other guy’s face... with a smear of black under the nose. But he doesn’t look down at the badge. He scratches his nose, smearing some black ink on his face, and moves on to the next person in the hallway. I’m free! Until the next checkpoint. But I have the magic marker in my pocket...

The following year, I made a deal with the hometown reporter to cover AFM for them. And some year later, I began covering it for Scr(i)pt Magazine (and others). So now I have a badge with my own photo on it. When I get to the 5th floor security checkpoint, I show the guard my badge and they wave me through.

THE MOVIES

The first thing you notice once you’re upstairs are the posters. Outside every room is a poster for their hottest film mounted on the wall, and there’s also usually an easel with some other poster mounted on cardboard. If the company wants people to think they have class, they don’t have actual posters - they have this very serious looking list of the movies they are offering with the cast and directors names. Everybody else has your standard posters - only more-so. Because these posters are there to SELL the movie - and beauty has nothing to do with it. In the old days, the posters were all art work - but a drawing could lie... it might show a giant creature or an amazing stunt... that wasn’t in the movie. So now all of the posters are photos.

One of the fun things to do at AFM is to try to figure out the “theme” for this year. One year every single photo had an exploding helicopter in the upper left hand corner. The film might be a rom-com, and it would have that exploding helicopter. Though, finding a rom-com at AFM is not an easy task. AFM films are all about what sells - and that’s usually testosterone instead of estrogen. Things are usually exploding on AFM posters. Again - things are distilled to their base elements - tits & explosions. I’m sure someone once tried exploding tits, but that didn’t sell... This year we had maniacs with glittering knives - hundreds of them. It’s almost as if they all have the same photoshop elements and just place them in a slightly different location on the posters. The backgrounds tend to be red or green. A few of the companies got a picture of a spooky house that the other guys didn’t get - so their posters are slightly different... but the same as each other. Horror movies are still hot - both with the big budget guys and the low budget guys.

In the old days (maybe 3 years ago) AFM was segregated. The companies on floors 5-8 made bigger budget films - often for cable nets like HBO or Lifetime or Showtime. That was the domestic deal, and they were at AFM to sell foreign. Plus, there were companies like Franchise and NuImage that made star-driven theatricals. Add in the upscale indies like New Line and Miramax and the Studio indie branches. Though some of these companies had low end movies, they all had some big expensive film as a “market flagship”. Those were the featured posters mounted on the wall outside the doors. If you went down to the 4th floor, you’d find low budget companies and low end foreign companies. The further down you went, the lower the budgets - the third floor had all of the real crap, and the 2nd floor? Stuff shot on consumer camcorders! Basically, of you stayed on the 5th-8th floors you might see posters for bad movies - but they were *expensive* bad movies... like BATTLEFIELD EARTH.

A couple of years ago, the guys in the basement began climbing... the segregation was over and really crappy low budget films can now be found on *every* floor. In fact, across the hall from The Weinstein Company’s high end art house stuff you’ll find ALIEN RACE INVASION and THE STORY OF O: UNTOLD PLEASURES. Everything is mixed up, now! When the middle fell out of the market, the really low budget guys moved up... and now sleaze and cheese are on every floor. Every other doorway has an easel with a bad photoshop poster of a second rate topless babe and a dude in a crappy mask with a knife. Just inside the doorway is a TV monitor showing never-ending clips of topless babes being chased by dudes with knives. This stuff looks like it was shot on my parent’s home movie camera... with about the same bad lighting - maybe camera mounted floodlights. The sound was recorded with a tin can and kite string... and you don’t want to think about the acting or dialogue in these films. You can never be sure if it’s the completely awful OTN dialogue or the monotone and slightly brain dead delivery that is at fault.

For me, one of the funny things about the crappy posters are the names above the title. Every poster has about 3 names above the title - but nobody you’ve ever heard of. Most of these folks are non-union actors from Wisconsin (where the film was made). You don’t know their names or faces - and after the film was over they went back to their day jobs... and you’ll never see them again. Many of these films are shot on weekends, and nobody gets paid. The funny part is - the films at AFM are the *best* of these home made movies. You can’t even imagine how bad the worst are.

PEOPLE I WANT TO KILL

Walking the hallways upstairs are foreign buyers and small distribs and out of work actors hoping that someone will hire them. This year, Pauley Shore bumped into me as he and his manager made the rounds looking for work. There are Playboy girls and faded stars and people who should probably be in rehab. I think drug habits fuel more AFM films than anything else - some actor needs to buy his heroin, so he has to make a dozen films a year. That’s another poster game to play at AFM - who is in the most movies this year? There are years where someone like Michael Madsen is in half the films... or Gary Busy. Sometimes it’s people you don’t expect to see in a dozen AFM films - like Bokeem Woodbine. Man, what happened to his career? This year, there was a noticeable shortage of films starring Casper Van Dien... what’s up with that?

I bumped into a fellow screenwriter upstairs, who has a new really low budget film about a werewolf boy band. Haven’t we seen this story before (even if we haven’t - it sounds like we have). He told me it was the producer’s idea - he just scripted it. Having worked with several producers at AFM, I can tell you that most of them don’t have very good ideas (but they think they do). If they do have a great idea, it’s because they stole it from some other writer. One of the producers I worked with takes credit for every single idea in every script of mine they made - even though most were specs that had been sitting on my shelf for years before I even met the guy. The pisser of this is that other producers believe him... and so do some directors.

There’s a producer I’ve worked with *once* that I want to kill. He screwed me over - he’s screwed over almost everyone I know. And he’s *proud* of screwing people over. When my lawyer threatened him with legal action, he told him to go ahead and sue - if he lost, he’d just close that company and open a new one. I’d never see a cent. So, if I see this guy standing next to the 8th floor railing at AFM, I have to be restrained... or else I’ll push him over. I’m not the only one - I know a half dozen people who really want to kill this guy. He’s at AFM every year.

I also bumped into a DP friend who wants to kill another producer-director. This guy makes films dirt cheap, with cast & crew working on deferral (they get paid when the film sells). One problem - the producer-director says the films aren’t selling for enough to pay anybody. So my DP friend went to AFM to check out the sales... and discovered these films are making a ton of money. The producer-director has a new luxury car and just bought and expensive home... and my DP friend had to take a part time job because he worked with this guy on 3 films (expecting an eventual check on all 3). So, he’s waiting to see that producer-director standing near the 8th floor railing. Just a little push...

My big plan for AFM was to find a distrib... and maybe funding... for STEEL CHAMELEONS. I talk to a bunch of people, get some interest in *other* projects, but nobody bites on my sci-fi project. I end up with a huge stack of cards, though - people to contact after market. Maybe one of them will be interested in my sci-fi action movie?

I check out the sales on SOFT TARGET, and bump into the star - the first words out of his mouth are about how he and the director made all those improvements on my script - so I should thank him. This makes me wish we were standing near the 8th floor balcony railing. Then he tells me the good news - after a year, the film finally has a domestic distrib... Lions Gate. The film comes out in February. They’ve changed the title to CROOKED (and when I go to Lions Gate and look at their DVD box art - the star is nowhere to be seen! After listening to all of his bullshit about having to make the changes because his fans wouldn’t accept him as *potentially* crooked, it seems he doesn’t even have enough fans to make it on the front of the DVD! Instead, the co-star is shown firing two guns). Anyway, then he shows me the trailer for his new movie - and it’s got real stars and lots of production value and... well, as the director told me in the lobby, he learned his lesson on SOFT TARGET and didn’t screw up the new movie. *I* got screwed big time.

Then he tells me that he may have a 10 picture deal and will need some new scripts. He has a better chance of winning an Oscar than getting another script from me.

SCREENINGS

Back in the old days when AFM was in Beverly Hills, they would take over *every screen* at the Beverly Center - 14 or 16, I can’t remember - and screen all kinds of movies. I could spend a whole day cinema-hopping from one explosion-filled action flick to the next. Now, they have a couple of screens on 3rd street in Santa Monica. My online friend Jonathan King has a new comedy-horror film (picked up by Weinsteins in the USA) about killer sheep. It was playing at AFM, so I talked my way into a screening pass and went to see BLACK SHEEP. It was great! Funny and gross - about some genetic experiments on sheep in New Zealand that go wrong - and there are hundreds of sheep for every human in that country. So - now it’s killer sheep versus humans. Plus, there are "weresheep" and some zombies - everything you need in an AFM movie!

I also found out that one of the horror films I’ve mentioned here was going to screen, and grabbed a pass for that. Remember the writer with the PR firm? He made that horror movie with *one* zombie? Well, it was actually showing! Now, they had a pretty good budget on that film - many times more than we had to make BLOOD PREDATOR. They went through their agency (WMA) and got a real cast of actual movie stars to work for less than their quote as a favor. Once the film was finished, he had all kinds of trouble finding a distrib - and he was going to put his PR firm on it. Well, the PR firm also had no luck finding a distrib... but eventually he found a foreign sales company - one of those basement companies - who took on the film because of the cast. They could throw those names on the DVD box and some unsuspecting people would rent it.

So I go to see the film with low expectations... and the thing is playing at something called the Fairmont 5. I thought I knew every single cinema in Los Angeles - but I’ve never heard of the Fairmont 5. I walk to the address... and it’s the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica. Okay, now I’m confused - they have a movie theater in the hotel? No - but they have taken 5 rooms and put in DVD projectors and folding chairs. This is where all of the low rent movies are screening.

A handful of us end up on the folding chairs... including horror director Rolfe and a couple of other horror filmmakers. We have pre-screening conversation about the general state of low budget horror... and I keep waiting for the Greatest Writer In The World to come in and take a seat - this is his movie’s big screening. Every time any of my movies screened at AFM, I was always there. It’s kind of cool to see how the movie plays to an audience... and whether the buyers get excited. I remember at the CRASH DIVE screening, this distrib from - maybe Poland, my memory is hazy - saw my badge, realized I was the writer, and was all over me. He bought the film for top dollar and asked if I had written any other films at the market (and he bought those). He had me pose for a picture with him later. That guy was a fan. I figure if I’m at the screening, I can help promote the film - even if all I do is laugh at my jokes when they show up on screen. At least ONE person will be laughing, right?

But this guy was a no-show for his big night.

When they started the film, I couldn’t blame him. Basically, the movie is MY DINNER WITH ZOMBIE - a 90 minute, 2 person conversation. Boooooring! No horror at all. And shot like crap - not a single interesting shot in the whole film. Flat story and flat lighting and flat shots. But it was funny to watch the distribs... kind of like a game of survival. Who can make it through five minutes of the movie? Not that guy - he snuck out. How about ten minutes? Not those three - they left at about seven minutes. By the 15 minute mark, not a single distrib was left in the cinema! They showed the rest of the film to Me and Rolfe and Paul (BLOOD PREDATOR director) and the two horror film makers. And we laughed and groaned and made comments outloud. Afterwards, we all agreed it was one of the worst films we have ever seen - a horror movie with no horror!

There was one scene early on where one of the *big names* tells the hero that they’ve narrowed down the places this zombie might be to 12 locations... and every time he goes into one of those locations he has a 1 in 12 chance of being killed by the zombie. Okay - that’s a pretty good set up for 12 suspense scenes, right? Except, we get a montage with a shot of the hero just walking in each of the 11 locations until we get to location #12... where he discovers the zombie just standing there waiting to be captured. A second later, the zombie is in his cage and the movie is a non-stop talkfest. This director *ignored* the chance for suspense! Booooring!

I have no idea how many territories this film sold - but all of those distribs walking out - well, *bolting* out, makes me think it was not the big hit of the market. Meanwhile, good news on BLOOD PREDATOR - the film sold a handful of countries - including Japan for top dollar. Though we don’t know the exact number, it looks like Japan may have paid close to the production cost... and the foreign sales company is excited by the feedback they’ve been getting. They plan on making a deal with Sci-Fi Channel for domestic. If that happens, we all celebrate!

PARTIES

Speaking of celebration, one of the cool things at AFM are the parties. In the old days, companies tried to out-do each other by throwing the biggest, greatest party... now, fewer parties and most are small. No more renting out some huge restaurant and buying everyone a free meal, these days they tend to rent out some room in a bar and provide some crackers - you have to buy your own drinks. Last year I went to the party for some low budget horror movie where you have to buy your own drinks... and they showed the movie on all of the TVs in the bar. Problem was - the movie stunk. Really stunk. So once the food was gone, so were the people. With the middle range companies gone, and the low end companies not throwing any parties... that left the handful of big companies. And those guys have suddenly become picky about who they let in. They only want to buy drinks for potential buyers - not party crashers like me.

Since the parties are by invitation only, and they don’t advertize them anywhere - you need someone who is good at overhearing to tell you where to go. The go-to-guy is a lobby rat who knows where every single AFM party is and always crashes them. This guy is a character - he has the worst toupee I have ever seen in my life... and dandruff. He is always dressed in a worn blue leisure suit from the 70s. But it’s that toupee - the thing looks like it’s made from nylon thread. It looks nothing like human hair... and sometimes it’s a little askew - at a rakish angle. I know that dandruff is from the scalp, not the hair, but there’s just something weird about a heavy dusting of snow on the shoulders of that worn blue leisure suit that just seems out of place on a guy wearing such an obvious toupee. Anyway - if you had an invitation to the Miramax or New Line parties, you saw this guy there - because he crashed them. He crashes every party. I spot him in the lobby and ask where the big parties are - and he rattles off the information like Mr. Memory in THE 39 STEPS... and all are by invitation only, and nothing I can really see myself crashing. I’m hanging out with Paul from BLOOD PREDATOR and we could use some free food and free drinks.

We decide to wander over to the hotel next door, which has the overflow companies. Only a few companies, but maybe one of them is having a party we can easily crash? No sign of a party - no group of people getting ready to go somewhere. So we decide to just grab a beer in the hotel bar. We had a drink with the DP guy there last night. As we’re looking for a free table, I happen to look *down* to the hotel’s courtyard...

And there’s a party down there. Paul and I wander down the stairs, to where there is a guard standing in front of a sign announcing the French Film Commission is having an AFM party. Our badges say Press - and that’s the kiss of death of you’re trying to get into a party. Everybody knows all the Press ever do is mooch. I show the Guard my badge, expecting to get turned away... and he waves us in!

Free booze. Free French bread. Free cheese. Posters for all of the French films at market. We eat and drink until they start taking away the food. There’s nothing in life better than free beer. By the time they close everything down and kick us out, we have lived up tp our press badges. Tomorrow is the second to last day of market - when they begin packing everything up. Market is pretty much over. I’ve given out a bunch of cards, and talked to a bunch of companies. Now all I have to do is remember to get back in touch with them after market - often tricky because of Thanksgiving... then the rest of the holidays... then Sundance. “After market” usually ends up the end of January... and by that time I’ve usually forgotten all about it and am waist deep in some spec script. But at least for me the market ended on an up-note... the French Party.

- Bill
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