Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Game Of Cages by Harry Connolly

From 2010 at around this time...

Last year, the official book of my long London plane trip was CHILD OF FIRE, my friend Harry's first published novel... except it was released the day of my flight and I had to wait to buy it until I got back home. The book was great - Dash Hammett meets H.P. Lovecraft - and was one of Publisher's Weekly's Best Books Of 2009. It got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, too... and many other great reviews.

I am not an Urban Fantasy reader, I read crime fiction... but CHILD OF FIRE reminded me so much of Hammett's RED HARVEST and THE GLASS KEY and Jon Latimer's SOLOMON'S VINEYARD - real hardboiled stuff. Brutal, tough, and sparse writing that packs a punch. If anyone can get through the first few pages of COF without gasping, they're blood runs cold.

Well, Harry has been busy writing, and has two sequels to CHILD OF FIRE on the way, and GAME OF CAGES hits bookstore on Tuesday... and also got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly and is getting great reviews from everyone else, too.

I pre-ordered through Amazon, and just got the e-mail that it shipped. Cool!

The next book in the Twenty Palaces series will come out next year... but it's too early to pre-order that one.

Couldn't be coming at a better time for me - I have been re-reading the Richard Stark Parker books as they are reprinted from Chicago University Press (my old copies from the 70s have fallen apart from re-reading) and just began reading PLUNDER SQUAD again... but the next batch of Parker reprints won't come out until March 2011, so this will help take care of my fiction addiction.

There is also a Kindle edition...

(click the cover.)

For those of you who are aiming for a paperless office and a paperless life (how does that work in the bathrooms?).



OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS:
A secret high-stakes auction:

As a wealthy few gather to bid on a predator capable of destroying all life on earth, the sorcerers of the Twenty Palace Society mobilize to stop them. Caught up in the scramble is Ray Lilly, the lowest of the low in the society—an ex–car thief and the expendable assistant of a powerful sorcerer. Ray possesses exactly one spell to his name, along with a strong left hook. But when he arrives in the small town in the North Cascades where the bidding is to take place, the predator has escaped and the society’s most powerful enemies are desperate to recapture it. All Ray has to do is survive until help arrives. But it may already be too late.

“Connolly keeps you turning the pages and wanting more.” —C. E. Murphy

"Connolly doesn't shy away from tackling big philosophical issues--whether good ends justify evil means, how many civilian deaths can be justified in the pursuit of creatures that can destroy the world--amid gory action scenes and plenty of rapid-fire sardonic dialogue." --Starred Review from Publishers Weekly

"This has become one of my must read series." Carolyn Cushman, Locus Magazine


Hey, if you enjoy action packed books that take no prisoners, check it out! On bookstore shelves tomorrow.

To order GAME OF CAGES on Amazon (or for more info) CLICK HERE.

To order CHILD OF FIRE on Amazon (or for more info) CLICK HERE.

So now that my order has shipped, I am busy watching my mail box...

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:
TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Negative Goals - how can you show someone trying *not* to do something?
Dinner: Hummus sandwich at Togos.
Pages: Nada - read action script for rewrite assignment.
Bicycle: No.
Bicycle Accident Recovery: Feeling much better. Giant elbow scab looks awful. Wrist is better - there are ways of bending it that hurt, and too much weight on thumb or fingers hurts, but I forget it's injured until I do something like grab some heavy grocery bags with a couple of fingers... ouch. Still wearing the wrist brace to prevent myself from doing anything stupid and making it worse. Also works as a reminder not to carry heavy grocery bags with two fingers on that hand. I'll live.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Scene Of The Week: The Wind And The Lion

One of my favorite films is John Millius's THE WIND AND THE LION, and here's a great scene with Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Yosemite talking about a grizzly bear he's just killed...


The bear is part of the character's story thread - and shows up in several later scenes as it is stuffed and posed and eventually Teddy has his picture taken with it. Each scene with Teddy has some small bit about the bear - or maybe a large bit. He jumps up on his desk at one point to show the pose he wants for the stuffed bear.

The great thing about this "bear subplot" is that it allows the character to talk obliquely about elements of the main plot (a kidnaping in Morocco that may start a war) without being obvious or on the nose. In some ways, the dead grizzly is a "code" or a symbol that allows him to speak about the political situation without ever talking politics. I have a script tip about "symbolic dialogue" - when a character talks about one thing but is actually talking about something else.

This is a great technique to use if having your character talk about the plot situation would result in dull or obvious dialogue. Let them talk about something else... and let it have a second meaning about the plot situation.

Many people think that after the dark films of the 70s, STAR WARS came along and changed everything with its rousing story of adventure. But adventure was already a major component of 70s films, with John Huston’s epic adventure THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and this fun swashbuckler which were released a couple of years before STAR WARS and written and directed by one of Lucas’ friends, John Milius. There are sword fights and romance and cliff hangers and fantastic stunts and it all takes place in a world far away and many years ago.

It is a great film for 12 year olds of all ages - filled with larger than life characters and all kinds of romance and adventure.

John Milius is one of my favorite directors, and when I met him this was the film I mentioned loving - even though many of his other films are also among my favorites. I start every day listening to the Basil Poledouris theme to CONAN THE BARBARIAN, and I thought PUBLIC ENEMIES paled big time in comparison to DILLINGER. They remade CONAN and RED DAWN and neither worked. His movies were usually about two strong people in combat - and the respect the combatants had for each other and the honor of a good fight. In RED DAWN the Cuban villain allows the Wolverines to remove their wounded in one scene - even though he could easily kill them and end his problems. But he is a man of honor - even though he is the villain. Even though Milius and I have completely different political beliefs, he never demonizes the other side. Though he may not agree with the opposing government’s goals (or maybe even the hero’s government’s goals - governments are usually corrupt), the warriors on the battlefield are not evil guys. His antagonists are not two dimensional mustache twirlers, they are real people.

The great thing about having two strong forces locked in battle is that you get to explore each character... and there’s no shortage of action.




Here we have a story loosely based on an actual historical event - the kidnaping of an American in the middle east and the quest to get them back unharmed. In real life it was 64 year old American citizen Ion Perdicaris and his son, kidnaped by Berber warrior Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli and his horsemen from his villa in Morocco to secure a ransom and political power from the Sultan... and President Teddy Roosevelt famously said: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!” and moved in the Marines. As a romance between a dashing Berber warrior and some 64 year old dude probably wasn’t going to play in 1975, Milius changed the 64 year old man into an attractive young woman with her two children and has the story seen through the eyes of the boy. Not accurate history, but it’s an adventure film not a documentary. Most of the other characters and even some of the dialogue remains true.

The film is a true epic - big action, big emotions, big romance, big stars and an amazing Jerry Goldsmith score. It’s like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA meets RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Sean Connery plays the Raisuli as a handsome sheik on horseback, a young Candice Bergan played Eden Perdicaris, and Brian Keith steals the show playing Teddy Rooselvelt. The film is filled with great sword fighting scenes and some of the most amazing horse stunts you will ever see - lots of horses *indoors* on stairways and rooftop chases!




When the film came out I was a teenager and movies still opened on Wednesdays and only opened in major cities... played there for a month or two, then opened in the suburbs (which used to be called “Roadshow”). So, to see the movie on opening day, my friend Dave and I drove all the way to San Francisco and saw a matinee. Not packed. But afterwards, we pretended to sword fight all the way back to the car. I saw the film one more time in San Francisco, then once when it played “roadshow” in Concord. This was one of those movies that got me excited about making movies when I grew up. I wanted to do big, exciting, swashbucklers like this!

The film was not a big hit, nor was it a flop. It did okay. What I always find strange is how people will find fault with some movie... and then ignore the same problem in some movie they like. The two big things critics disliked about this film were Sean Connery’s Middle Eastern accent (which sounded Scottish) and that they changed the kidnaped dude to a kidnaped chick. Has Connery ever had an accent in a movie that wasn’t Scottish? Did we ever care? And how many movies based on some true event stay completely true to what happened? They all dramatize things! Were there major complaints about SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE bending the facts? No - it was a movie! I think the critics thought it was *fun* when movies had been gritty and serious for the past few years. The year WIND came out was the same year ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and DOG DAY AFTERNOON and SHAMPOO came out. Nobody could see STAR WARS in the crystal ball. WIND AND THE LION wasn’t one of the top ten films that year, though a film Milius did some uncredited writing on called JAWS was #1. THE WIND AND THE LION is one of those films that people fall in love with. I still love the film and watch the DVD probably once a year.

Milius Interview:


If WIND AND THE LION pops up on TCM, check it out. It might make you feel like a 12 year old again, and you might sword fight with a broom... and break something.

I love the Goldsmith score, but also love the cinematography and direction. Just in that Grizzly clip, there are some images so beautiful they could be paintings. Millius is one of those directors who is kind of forgotten now, but made some amazing films... and needs to be rediscovered by a new generation.

- Bill

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

That's Exploitation!

Since Sunday (6/12/22) I was with my Northern California peeps having burgers and beer and seeing a movie...
From January 2010...

The last night I was in Northern California on my holiday visit, I had dinner and drinks and saw BITCH SLAP with my two oldest friends, Van and John. That almost didn’t happen. When I arrived in town those were the first two people I called - we often do New Year’s Eve together, and always see a bunch of holiday release films together and talk about those people we know who are no longer around and the great times we had when we were in our 20s... long ago. Got right through to John and we saw a bunch of movies (reviews are coming), but Van went right to voice mail... and his voice mail was filled. No way to leave a message. This concerned me a little, but I’d gotten a recent e-mail from Van so I knew he was alive and well... just hard to get in contact with, I guess.

Van is a character. The great thing about old friends is that you know what all of their issues are, have gotten mad at them a thousand times, and are now over it. Van is famous for being unreliable. Not in some serious way, he just gets side tracked sometimes. Also, he’s a dreamer... which is great when you are 20, kind of a problem when you are older. But no one on earth has a bigger heart, and when my life went to hell after NINJA BUSTERS fizzled and Wendy split, he gave me a job laying carpet and pointed out that there were other women in the world (mostly by example - you could drop Van into a Lesbian Convention and he’d convert some of them). But I can not count the number of times he’s been a no-show or ambled in hours late. Used to make me angry, now I just accept it. So, when I couldn’t get through to him I just figured it was the usual Van thing.

I kept calling and getting that full voice mail the whole time I was in the Bay Area, and John tried to call him with the same results. Finally I got an e-mail from him - hey, how come I hadn’t called him? All of this ended up being *my fault* - he had changed cell phone carrier, had a new number, and even *gave me his new number*. But I kept calling the old one, because I’m an idiot and it was on my cell phone. John was doing the same thing. Once I called the new number he had given me months before, he answered on the second ring. New Years Eve had passed and I was about to return home...

John and I had seen AVATAR in 3D without Van...

But BITCH SLAP was opening on Friday night in limited release! The perfect film for 3 guys who enjoy upper torso bundles of pleasure! I figured Friday might be crowded, and John was busy Saturday, so maybe Sunday? Sunday was a great day because the cast and writer would be in San Francisco that night! Except Van already had tickets for AVATAR on Sunday... so we last minute adjusted to Monday night. The next morning I would return to Los Angeles.

Van knows every single great hole-in-the-wall restaurant and bar in the Bay Area. When we were laying carpet, no matter what city the job was in, he knew the best place to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Van suggested we meet at this restaurant/bar called The Belltower which was a couple of blocks from the cinema. When I arrived, I recognized the place - we’d had breakfast there once and it was great. John arrived and we had a beer, and then Van showed. We had a great dinner, then went to the cinema...

BITCH SLAP!




The plot? Three hot chicks in the desert.

Directed by Rick Jacobson, who directed a couple of my movies and is a great guy - I may not agree with all of his artistic choices, but he *has* artistic choices and actually would listen to whatever I had to say. He wasn’t an asshole. After making a bunch of low budget films he moved to TV and directed a bunch of TV shows including HERCULES and XENA and now he’s a TV director.

He and one of the writers on XENA decided to bankroll their own film, made on the cheap, and the result is BITCH SLAP. The film uses all kinds of low budget tricks - most of the story takes place in a patch of desert in the middle of nowhere with a beat up old trailer and a windmill. Easy location to shoot at, and when things blow up and catch fire (which they do as the story goes on) probably easy to get permits and a fire marshal - not a burnable tree or scrub for miles in any direction.

The cast is also small: mostly the three women: Hel (Erin Cummings) who is all-business and dresses like a business woman. Camaro (America Olivo) who is the tough gal, just released from prison, who wears jeans and a tied off shirt. Trixie (Julia Voth) the stripper who appears to be all body and no brains, who is wearing a gold dress. The plot has them drive their vintage Thunderbird to this no-man’s land to find a buried treasure, and flashbacks fill in the details and provide plot twists. There are also two men who are part of the main cast, Gage (Michael Hurst) a gangster who has been skimming from legendary crime boss Pinky for years - and the buried treasure is that loot. He’s handcuffed in the trunk of the Thunderbird. And Deputy Fuchs (Ron Melendez) a cop who thinks the three gals might be in trouble and stops to help... and also becomes their prisoner - chained up in that old trailer. Five main characters, one main location, six breasts.

In a moment I’ll talk about some of the other money saving tricks they used - I’ll bet the budget was lower than you might guess - but first let’s talk about...

EXPLOITATION FOR FUN & PROFIT



The review in the Los Angeles Times complained that BITCH SLAP was an exploitation film send up without the send up... and this made me scratch my head, because I never got the memo that it was a send up, and when you read the poster or publicity stuff (they had a great gimmick to make you see it more than once - collectable postcards for each of the characters in the film, and they gave away a different one every night) there was nothing about this being a send up... it was pretty much advertized as a fun exploitation film that *knows* it’s an exploitation film. Which makes it just an exploitation film.

Back in the drive in days, there were lots of exploitation films - made cheap and filled with things that would attract and audience. Lowest common denominator stuff like fast cars and topless women and machine guns. A studio film might have all of those things in a pretty story - and those things serviced the story. An exploitation film was *about* the exploitation stuff, with a flimsy story connecting the elements. Now, some exploitation films had *great* stories connecting the elements, and now those films are considered art. Tod Browning’s FREAKS is a great film, but where would it be without the promise of seeing a bunch of side show freaks? And the suggestion of side show freaks having sex with a hot blonde woman? Hey - I gotta see that!

And the drive in exploitation films offered the same sort of forbidden thrills. Hey, what really goes on in a women’s prison where they evil lesbian warden enjoys whipping the hot naked prisoners? Hey - I gotta see that!

One of the things I hate in studio films, I love in exploitation films: “kitchen sinking”. So many of those A.I.P. drive in films seemed like a grab bag of cool stuff threaded together into a film. So you might have custom hot rods and acrobats and some rock & roll band and a bikini beach party and dogs that do tricks and martial arts and a monster... all in the same movie! Hey - I gotta see that!

I’ve seen studio films that try to throw in a little bit of everything and end up with nothing, and the reason why is that the film is supposed to be about the story... and just ends up being about a little bit of everything. A mainstream studio film is all about the story, and even though it may have fast cars and hot women and a machine gun, it’s not ever about those things. Those things are elements of the story, not the story itself. The exploitation is in the background not the foreground.

Someone on a messageboard a couple of months ago was lamenting the 50s and 60s when Americans went to see foreign films... and even though that was before my time sitting in a cinema seat, I can tell you from conversations with those older than I am - they went to foreign films to see boobies. American films had no nudity at all - we still had censorship under the old system. But foreign films managed to sneak in nudity and the censors didn’t seem to care, maybe because the films were “cultural” and had subtitles and not everyone was going to flock to see them. Except a surprising number of normal middle class Americans saw a bunch of foreign films... often featuring nudity or lingerie or lots-a-cleavage. Thank you, Sophia Loren! Hey - I gotta see that!

Foreign films ended up being exploitation films! Just, with culture!


And that is the problem with the poor exploitation film - it has no culture. It is honest about its intentions. You may see a foreign film for culture... um, cleavage culture... but you see an exploitation film for the exploitation. We always complain that people these days go to the movies for the explosions and CGI - the exploitation elements. And it’s funny that I will hate TRANSFORMERS and then have an excited conversation with another film fan about that amazing street shoot out in HEAT. Okay, why isn’t HEAT an exploitation film? Why is a long shoot out in some B movie just stupid and a similar scene in HEAT complete genius? Well, it’s that HEAT isn’t just that shoot out (and the other great action scenes). But, isn’t there room in cinema for a film that *is* just about the shoot outs? A film that isn’t going to try and pass itself off as culture, and just be its sleazy self? A film that knows that one of the main reasons why you go to see HEAT or some big budget Hollywood movies is the exploitation elements? “You’ll believe a man can fly.” “From the moment they met it was murder.” Movies are all about sex and violence and exploitables... Heck, how many pages would be left in The Bible if we cut out all of the sex and violence?


And another issue with exploitation is - why is some low budget genre flick that is aiming for being a just fun time, not good enough for a theatrical release in art house cinemas in select cities, and have critics for the L.A. Times show up and review the film; but a film trying to be “so bad it’s good” gets shown and reviewed? Why does society say it’s okay to make fun of exploitation, but not just accept a movie that may not have stars but does have plenty of stuff that blows up... unless there is a star in it or a massive budget? Why is *studio exploitation* taken more seriously than low budget exploitation? If John Sayles’ PIRANHA was released today, would Variety even show up to review it... let alone call it the best film ever made about the Viet Nam War? If DEATH RACE 2000 were released today, would anyone take it seriously? Or would it just be dismissed and sent to video and never noticed or reviewed? We used to have genre distribs like Canon and New World that made low budget action films and got them into cinemas and reviewed and on the mainstream radar, so that those stars and directors and writers could cross over to studio films. Where do you think directors like Jonathan Demme and writers like John Sayles came from? Does the Los Angeles Times review direct to video films? Nope... Rick Jacobson may have directed a stack of movies, but this is probably his first film that has ever been reviewed in print. Because it’s trying to be bad!

So, we come to BITCH SLAP which is honest about its intentions - it just wants to be a Russ Meyer movie. It doesn’t want to be a *send up* of a 1960s exploitation movie, it wants to *be* a 1960s exploitation movie. Hey, what’s wrong with that? Why can’t the Los Angeles Times critic just judge it as an exploitation movie? When I saw the trailer, I said to myself, “Hey - I gotta see that!”

CHEAP THRILLS

The film is what it is - good cheap exploitation. And though there’s lots of blood squibs, the level of violence is pretty tame for all of the machinegun fire. People get shot a zillion times and have little red dots on their clothes. And the sex? This film is one big tease! I don’t remember any nudity, though I do remember LOTS of cleavage and some simulated sex on a TV soap opera level. It just *seems* raw and nasty.


I mentioned the flashbacks, and they’re lots of fun. The movie opens with Trixie in her pretty party dress crawling through the burning wreckage of the trailer wondering how she came to be here, and we get a title card that says FOUR HOURS EARLIER and get a snippet of background, and then we go back to the wreckage for a minute or two of present day before we get a title card that says FOUR HOURS AND 8 MINUTES EARLIER... and that sets the tone for the flashbacks - they are frequent and often a little silly. I kept waiting for TWENTY YEARS EARLIER where the three girls are in the same crib awaiting diaper changes. This ends up being a great running gag that never seems to wear out its welcome.

The other thing is the split screen, which is over done on purpose... though not nearly as overdone as in the last OSS-117 movie. The thing I love and hate about Rick (director) is that he’s creative - in NIGHT HUNTER he did that shaky-cam thing in all of the action scenes, which I absolutely hated... even though Paul Greengrass swiped that technique a decade later for the second BOURNE movie. I loved what he did in BLACK THUNDER, though - he mounted the camera on a rig that allowed it to turn 360' (upside down) and slid the camera back and forth in the plane cockpit shots so that you could feel the plane banking and looping and doing all of the amazing dogfight stunts. That was genius! If the plane spun upside down in the dogfight, so did the cockpit shot of the pilot (our hero). So the split screen stuff in BITCH SLAP is cool 24-style stuff. It worked really well.

The film has some great confined cameos - characters whose roles are spread throughout the film but were probably shot out in a single day - by Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless (that Hercules/Xena connection)... with a twist! Lucy plays Mother Superior in a funny flashback that reveals that one of the gals used to be a nun in a convent who was *very popular* with the other nuns... and Sorbo plays the head of a spy organization in a bunch of little scenes probably shot in a single day, because one of the gals is revealed to be a top secret undercover female version of James Bond.


Here’s the confined cameo twist - Sorbo isn’t just at one location, he’s all over the place... thanks to green screen. The majority of the flashbacks are green screen shots. Now, this is a low budget movie that can not afford great special effects, and all of the green screen shots have those outlines that make them look like green screen... except thanks to SIN CITY and all of those stylized comic book films, we no longer need perfect looking green screen and effects as long as we can used a stylized cartoony background. And that’s just what BITCH SLAP does - the flashbacks are not real looking at all, they look like SIN CITY, so any imperfection in green screen or even location plate disappears. A scene in Russia where Sorbo meets with spy-gal Hel at a train station has a stylized cartoon look that adds to the production value instead of subtracts from it. The movie has these great surreal flashbacks that seem arty.

One of the other tricks the film uses is the old doorway in the ground gag - from A BOY AND HIS DOG. When they finally find the treasure, it’s not just some trunk full of cash - it’s a vault that opens into the earth, and they climb down a ladder to some gangster version of that huge warehouse from the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK filled with just about anything someone could steal... including nukes and heavy artillery and all kinds of loot.

BUT, WHAT ABOUT THE STORY?



The film is good sleazy fun. I laughed several times. The problem with making a “So Bad It’s Good” movie is that often it just turns out bad. The key to is to keep it funny, so that we know you aren’t taking this seriously. BITCH SLAP has enough gags to keep us laughing, and is so over the top in many of its scenes that you know they aren’t taking this seriously. Exaggeration is funny - and this film gets laughs from seeing how complicated it can make its Mexican Standoffs, and how crass it can make its simulated sex scenes. But some of the dialogue is raw instead of clever, and the characters are so paper thin there’s no way to mine anything but surface gags from them (Trixie pole dancing with a shovel while they are supposed to be digging is her best character-related gag). I wish it had been more clever, but maybe I’m the only one in the audience who cared about that? The plot and much of the action is contrived to the point of “Oh, come on!” - often for no reason at all the girls will get into a fight - maybe that was supposed to be a gag that didn’t work so it just seemed like a bad movie thing. I know it seems silly to point out that they needed a better excuse for their exploitation scenes, but that would have made me think “Bad on purpose” for those contrived scenes instead of “Just bad”. And the end of the film is just bad no matter how you slice it - there is a twist that is so contrived and sledge-hammered in that I walked away liking the film less. And both of my friends jumped on the end, too - so it wasn’t just picky Bill. You have to play fair with plot twists, folks! Hey, I saw the color of her underwear and figured out the twist - but the character doesn’t seem to know about their own double cross in the scenes where they are pulling the double cross! Again, this is one of those things where the film isn’t as clever as it needs to be. But those story issues aside - a lot of fun for 90 minutes!

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Pigeon Holing Yourself - and the equally kinky practice of Self Branding.
Yesterday's Dinner: Chicken Caesar Salad at Fuddruckers.




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Wednesday, June 01, 2022

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
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