Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What makes a writer

My director friend Paul Lynch suggested that I do a post on what makes a writer. Easy enough to say, but I'm not sure there is anything that separates us from the others. And I'm sure other writers will say that my take on it is wrong. 

So here goes.

I really believe that writers are born, at least some of them. I wasn't so much a writer as a kid, but I read comics all the time and I went to see every movie I could in a little village in northern Manitoba. I've talked about the town in past blogs so I won't bore you with that.

There's an English saying that suggests the person at 7 is the person he/she will be. It's actually not hard to prove that; there is a documentary series made in Britain which follows a group of English people from every life style, poor to filthy rich over their lifetime.

It began with 7 Up, the name of the first doc. Each subsequent documentary caught up with them every 7 years. Thus the second doc was 14 UP. I think they're now in their late 50's. It's a really great series of docs that aired in England but you can find them on Netflix I would think.

And it proved, for the most part, that the people they interviewed at 7 were amazingly similar to what they were at their 40's (the last one I saw).  The rich ones quit the series halfway thru while the lower classes remained. 

So... how does that fit me?

What was the last movie I wrote?

The Town that Christmas Forgot.

It's a story about a city family whose car breakdown causes them to be stranded in a small remote town.

Sounds familar, right? There's also my best screenplay, Emperor of Mars, which is unabashedly my life at 12, which I recently turned into a novel. 

There are other scripts I wrote, but if you look at them, many are set in small towns or rural areas. And I never really knew it until someone pointed it out.

So how come I write city stories too?

I moved at 12 to the Windsor/Detroit area, coming from a village of 500 people to a city across the river of 5 million. And I absorbed every bit of it.

I believe writers reflect their upbringing, whatever happens to to them, good or bad, will reflect in what they right. I lived a perfectly normal life as a kid, lower middle class slightly and relatively satisfied. I did have tons of comic books and I did go see every movie I could but my ideas began to form in high school.

I was never really good at composition, and never won a writing contest. Rather it took me a long time to learn how to write something good, and that was a personal story, Emperor of Mars. For once, I had the story which included a true story about a radio broadcast where a supposed Martian was going to come to earth.

It only took me 8 years to figure out how to write something that was both entertaining and well written. Up to then, I was copying scripts I had read.

The Emperor script was followed by another script that got made, Betrayal of Silence, which was a drama about teen abuse in a Catholic foster  home. I still think it was one of my best scripts. A bit of trivia about it -- they filmed the first draft, no rewrites. That's rare.  And I knew the Catholic world, having attended Catholic school, although mine was with nuns and lay teachers.

Betrayal of Silence still holds up today, although it's impossible to find. All I have is a VHS copy.

The old saying, "write what you know" is true, at least for me. I wrote one supernatural suspense film, and until now, never considered writing another.  But with the cult fanbase out there, I at least owe them one more shot at Ghostkeeper. And Ghostkeeper, not a great movie, has now gone into horror culture since it was made in 1980.

Lessons here are this; if you're going to write, write what is familiar. That doesn't mean that you can't write anything you want, but be true to yourself and your history, that's where the real good stuff comes from.

Finally, I remember what happened when I tried to write out of my world, I wrote a big action piece and the response was "that's not Jim". What? I didn't know what they meant. What they meant was that the action piece didn't have my heart and soul into it. And they could tell.

I wish I could conceal that more, but I am what I am. And they know it.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Hollywood hurts

There as a big article in LA Times this week about the fact that more TV series were filmed outside of Hollywood, which in turn means that a lot of technical people are out of work and some are losing their homes.

Ever since Canada began to offer tax credits and incentives to get American productions up there, a lot of states began to see the light and they started. Two of the biggest ones are Louisiana and New Mexico, both of whom offer incentives as good as Canada. And since the Canadian dollar is at par more or less, Canada has been losing business it had when it was 69 cents.

American productions still come to Canada but not as much and the big centers are Toronto and Vancouver, while the rest of the provinces get a movie or two. Alberta has series but Saskatchewan has dropped it's incentives.

These incentives are basically money given back after the production is finished. It's a little more complicated than the American states who give incentives. In Canada, a certain amount of people need to be Canadian citizens and in some cases residents of that particular province. 

The Federal program offers money back also but has a 6 point demand on the top jobs; writer, producer, director, actor, editor and DP and sometimes production designer. In order to get money back 6 of 10 points needs to be Canadian talent. And the production company has to be registered in Canada.

The U.S. system is a little different, residency doesn't always have to be from that particular state.

So what's the rebates or incentives worth? Well, most credits (incentive, rebate and credits are basically the same thing - money paid back to the production after an audit) pay anywhere from 10 to 35%, meaning that a $10 million movie could theoretically get $3.5 million paid back to the producers. Each state and province has their own limits but you can see the advantage.

Back in the USA, there are 23 new 1-hour dramas starting to film and only 2 are being filmed in Hollywood. Considering that a 22 episode 1-hour drama series has a budget of around $60 million it translates to 840 jobs, according to the LA Times.

Also consider that in 2005 80% of the drama series were done here, but now it's more like 10%.  Unions claim that there is a 30% unemployment in the movie town, which is three times as much as the national unemployment numbers.

Of course the Writer's Guild has around an 80% unemployment rate so they don't have much on us.

But unemployment is real and people are losing their homes. Some move to New Mexico or Louisiana which as I mentioned seemed the hottest. New York is doing well, having 4 times the amount of filming as compared to Hollywood.

But don't cry for Hollywood yet. Almost all the sitcoms are still made here.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Do you believe the image?

Martin Scorceses said of the young people now that, "they don't believe the image".

This was in relation to how young people watch movies and the fact that they don't really believe the image the way our boomer generation and the generation before us viewed movies.

By young people, I would actually go back to GenX who were caught between my generation and not the new generation, with X meaning more or less a confused generation. They are essentially not old enough and not young enough.

It was a GenX'er who caught my curiousity as he described movies he saw as jokes or stupid or uncool. I was interested in how that attitude came about, it seemed that to like movies was uncool. By the way "cool" and "uncool" go back to the 1940's, and it's interesting that the expression is still with us.

Movies for us boomers were major entertainment in the 60's and through the 90's when we began to stop going to the theaters and rather would buy or rent VHS and DVD videos. One of the reasons was that during our 60 years of watching movies we had seen every kind of plot and storyline there is.

Enter the "Millennials"who were born with iPods in their hands and parents who wanted them to be famous. 

And they see movies as only one aspect of entertainment. They can watch a movie on their iPhone and stop to text and then actually take a live call. They call it multi-tasking. However multi-tasking really isn't doing two or three things at the same time, despite what people think.

A few weeks ago I was doing several things at the same time; burning a DVD on my iMac, finalizing another DVD from my TiVo, printing labels on DVD's on my laptop and using my other laptop to answer emails.

At the same time. 

Well, really not at the same time. Very few people can do two things at the same time. What I was doing was compartmentalizing everything, check the TiVo, walk over to the iMac then go back to my laptop to  insert a new DVD to be printed. It really isn't doing 4 things at the same time, it's 4 things in sequence.

The only difference is that kids now can do it faster. In fact they want to get things done as fast as they can.

So what about believing the images.

Sadly, at least to boomers, the kids are missing out on stories and characters because you can't enjoy a movie and text at the same time. I sometimes have my laptop as I watch a movie on TV and realize that I'm often missing some of the story. 

But the story isn't really important now either. Movies were magic to our parents and to us and we would enter a theater to be taken away to another world for two hours. That's what it was about.

Movies like Lawrence of Arabia and The Searchers and so many others gave us legendary characters that we would hope to be or at least partially be like them.

Since DVDs began to be sold in supermarkets it was the beginning of the end of the magic, they became just another product and in order to impress anybody they had to be big. Very big.

Avatar big. 

But even big doesn't work for the audience that much.

One interesting thing about Millennials is that they rarely watch the movies of the 1930's to 1950's, which boomers did, even though those movies were made years before they were born. There's still something about Bogart in black & white and Cagney on "top of the world" that make us believe.

So to Millennials, try to believe again, although I also realize that they are facing a world unlike ours, our generation only feared nuclear war, they fear they might miss out on the next generation of iPhones.

And a world of uncertainty.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Jinx

Beginning of a new year brings the apprehension of many writers. What's gonna happen this year, will I work, will I end up on the street and a hundred other things that can happen to those who don't have a regular job. I look for work every day, that's the difference between me and the people who drive to work every day.

And then there's the jinx, or bad luck.

It's bad luck to count on projects that might never happen. A lot of writers won't even tell you they might have a job for fear of it going away. But it seems they go away anyways. So I'm going to tell you what is lurking out there for me.

Putting aside my screenwriting book which will be published in a few weeks and continuing to fund Ghostkeeper 2, there were three different projects that might be good.

First, someone is reading my submarine screenplay. It's been optioned a few times but never made. Secondly there's the potential of a sequel to my Christmas movie which I felt was always there. And thirdly there is a strong chance that my lost airplane screenplay might get made.When I say, maybe, might, could etc, it means someone at this very moment is reading and/or deciding if they can make the movie.  Soon!!

As I mentioned at the beginning, many writers won't say what they're doing, nor that they have people looking at their material. I have a habit of openly answering that question if anyone asks.

In September of 2016, I signed a contract for Chaser, the movie that was optioned by a French company and whom will make the film hopefully. Not bad for an old guy.

As far as the potential for the other three screenplays, nobody knows. I often start off with a handful of projects that slip away by June.

How does anyone manage to live with those odds, mostly against me? 

It's freelancing. Never a guarantee that anything of mine will be sold let alone read and optioned.

I worked in an office once and lasted less than 3 weeks. 

But I'm not entirely alone on these projects I mention; in fact each of them came from a producer who would like to see the movie get made mostly because they also need a job. Like my friend says, what you need in this business is a guy with quarters and a rolodex. This is the old style of agents as well as writers who keep looking for that "someone" will say they want to see you work.

True, that's analog thinking, but substitute the quarters for a smartphone which also now doubles as a rolodex and voila... someone as hungry or hungrier than me.

So don't worry about me, I'm not alone in my quest to sell my screenplays. I have around 39 screenplays on the shelf (or is it the "hard drive).

And the rest of the year to sell at least one. Or two. Or maybe even three. I have a director trying to get producers to make another screenplay. He's been after it for at least 8 years. 
And nothing is happening.
And I finished my new script, which I think is not bad. 

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

And I'd like to thank...

 Another "aren't we wonderful" awards show is over and only the big one left on Sunday, February 24th. I dvr'd it so I could catch the awards I wanted to see, mainly best actor, best supporting actors (male and female) as they like to say. Goes back to Shakespeare's day when all actors were male.

With all the thanking going on it made me think about me. Well, actually me as in "writer".  We're a little more different than any other person in the movie business.

We work alone. 

Nobody to cheer us on, no group hugs, no nothing. Just a white screen in front of us waiting for our brilliant (or not so brilliant) words to be invented. I always thought that if I ever win anything I would simply say this:

"I'd like to thank somebody but actually I did it all by myself"

And writers do it by themselves. Sure, we might have a producer harassing us, or the occasional actor asking for more great lines, but generally we are alone in a room. Not counting those who "write" at Starbucks, we call that performance art.

So what happens when writers win. They thank their producer, not for his help but rather to have hired us. And we thank the actors of course, for not screwing it up too  much, and finally we thank our spouses and families and hope they won't complain if our next five screenplays don't sell.

But you can bet at the bottom of all this, we know that nobody would have had a job if it weren't for us. You can't make a movie without a story. So how do we have awards shows. Well, it's usually in a tent or hall somewhere and not covered by TV cameras because, after all, we're just the writers.

We're not like those scam Golden Globes which consist of around 75 foreign critics who sell their words to studios who give them freebies and trips. And we're not actors who get to dress up pretty and think the world revolves around them.

Am I bitter? Naw... here's why. I get to make the movie first.

About fifteen years ago I was working on a TV series in Vancouver as a writer/senior story editor. I had written an episode that started like this; 


Neon lights reflect on the wet dark streets of Chinatown as a soft rain mists across the steam rising from sidewalk grates. A man steps into streetlight, lost and disheveled… a desperate character.

Okay, so that’s the first scene in the screenplay I wrote. As I stood there I watched a crew of about forty people working in the rain, setting up lights, moving cars, putting up traffic signs, raising rain tents. Gaffers ran past me and actors were led to their trailers. Then an A.D. I knew walked up and looked at the street with all the busy crewmembers and then turned to me and grinned;

 “It’s all for you Jim.”

At that moment, he said what I already knew, all I did was write a handful of words and now a made-up shining city was coming to life and getting ready to make my dream come true.
Nobody can take that away from me.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Writer's Guild Christmas Party

The Writer's Guild of America, West holds a Christmas party where a few hundred writers and guests take over an upscale restaurant. Nobody really knows how many WGA writers there are, estimates go from a few thousand to 10,000 members. The west coast WGA is the largest.

Last one I was at was held at Beso, a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard and co-owned by Eva Longaria of Desperate Housewives fame. Eva also brought pizzas to the writers' strike a few years ago. And while her restaurant is way too upscale for the likes of me and other writers, we get a chance to hang out where wine bottles rest in a huge glass wall for all to see.

The event is free and we all get one ticket for a drink. Last year, after I used my ticket I bought a Manhattan and it cost $16 so you know that was my last drink.

Writer's come in all shapes and colors but mostly are middle-aged men with jeans and occasional sport coat or sweater. Mostly we look like we look at home or work. There were a few suits and some glitter costumes but ordinary is the look of the evening rather than the hipsters who regularly come to Beso.

It's a big restaurant with an upstairs private room and actor/waiters moving through the crowd with trays of beef tacos and thin pizzas. Tables were removed to accommodate  the crowd of loud writers and guests.

What's interesting is that I've discovered there are a lot of writers who work on various other things than movies and TV. I met a writer whose job it is is to create questions for Jeopardy, another writes a reality show where he figures out ideas for one of those housewives-of shows. I even met a radio news writer who was in WGA thru a separate guild in New York.

As I mentioned, men are in the majority here and women writers are fewer and minorities even fewer. It's changing a little, but not much. 

Talking to writers is never easy as many prefer not to really talk to anyone but their friends. Since both I and my guest Mary are pretty good talkers and we managed to talk to a lot of the crowd. Mary introduced me to Tom Schulman, an Academy Award winner who seemed quite friendly and not aloof at all. 

Of course there's nothing like success to make a person humble and there were some of those. I had my deal with the French company that had some good reaction but again the worst thing a writer likes is another writer who's working. Not always of course, but often.

In some ways, the party has the feeling like the employees broke into the owners mansion and are taking advantage of everything. A lot of the discussions I had were from unhappy writers and the lack of work or the lack of respect that writers get. 

I've never bothered with that, I always felt that I respected myself and didn't really care what my bosses thought of me and as long as I delivered, that's all that really counts. The truth is that most of the WGA members are out of work, I read a statistic that suggested around 85% of WGA members are not working. That beats the national unemployment rate for any other job, except for actors maybe.

But we choose what we wanted to do and that's how it goes; some of us are talented, others like me are lucky, and still others aren't sure why they became writers. I spoke to one of the actor/waiters who wanted to make some contacts with a writer who could connect him to a producer and I didn't want to tell him the odds of that happening as writers are the last people to be able to help anyone.

There's an old offensive joke wherein a young not very smart starlet anxious to get herself into movies sleeps with the writer.  Nobody cares about the writer.

That's the joke.     

But she isn't.

She also brought pizza.


Thursday, November 22, 2018



                                          To both of us