Monday, August 13, 2018

Annie's Calendars 


I've often been asked how I came about writing as a viable career and my easiest answer was always the movies. Since I can remember I loved the movies, I even remember the first movie I ever saw, Disney's documentary The Living Desert, and how a scene of a rattlesnake scared the hell out of me.

After all, it was on a screen 20 feet wide and 12 feet high.

After that I was addicted to the movies and soon knew the names of actors and directors and writers. I knew that after the director's credit, the movie would start.

Since then I have written a pile of movies but I also worked as a news cameraman, soundman and almost every other job on a film, as well as directing 3 movies and scores of commercials.

But it always came back to the writing.

Just before my mother passed away she kept telling me to "keep the calendars". I knew she would write little notes on calendars, appointments, things like that. But it wasn't until after she passed away that I discovered the entire stash of calendars stuffed into a corner of her closet.

And they dated back to 1971.

On January 1976, she received a call from my brother Dave, in Hong Kong, on that same day she called me in Vancouver and added, on the same day that there was snow and cold. She would also note the hours she worked.

Annie worked mostly in cafes, the kind that you rarely see now, where a hot hamburger sandwich was more common than a flambe. She was the youngest of six and when her mother died, her father took another woman and sent Annie away, at the age of 15. She had barely an 8th grade education.

Her calendars started around 1971, but some may have been lost in the many moves we made.  Mostly they were like this:

On March 1973 she wrote "sick, one half day worked, $21.20."
On June 1973, "Dave got hurt in school, went to hospital".
May 1999, "found 15 morel mushrooms and went to breakfast to Roman Catholic church".
July 1975, "exchanged camera, bought better camera".
Dec 1979, "boys phoned, first snow storm and cold".
Nov 1981, "James came home".

I started reading the calendars a few weeks ago, having stashed them after her funeral and I began to see what she was protecting, even after she was gone.

They were her life, her diary. Very basic yet revealing the life of a family for almost 40 years. They were simple entries but yet very clear to me, even if the squares of the calendars were only large enough to write 3 or 4 words. So many of the entries bring back a memory to me, things I had forgotten.

And I realized that maybe, just maybe this was why I write. And oddly enough the same goes for my brother Dave, who also writes and works for a newspaper in Calgary as a writer and desk editor.

My mother was not formally educated, rather she was educated in hard work and sacrifice like most of her family and most people back in the 1950's. She didn't believe in credit cards nor in incurring debt, which would make her a rare commodity these days.

She also had a box of letters that date back to 1937 and lists of money spent every day, 5 cents for ice-cream, 35 cents for lunch, new scarf $1.75.

Her last entry though, was written by me, as I sat with her in the hospital. She wasn't able to write at this point, her anemia making her so weak she could barely lift her hand. Yet she insisted that I write in the calendar that she had another transfusion. I told her she had the transfusion weeks ago, but she insisted that I write down "Another transfusion".

So I did. Twelve hours later she passed away.

I always thought it was my dad who had the talent in the family, for a garage mechanic, he played the violin incredibly well, winning contest after contest even into his late 70's. And both Dave and I inherited a little bit of his musical talents.

But it wasn't until now that I realized that the writing part came from Annie, with a strong dose of Hollywood movies. So this is my plan;

I want to read all of her calendars and see if there could be a book in it, a diary of a woman but not your average diary. I have mentioned this to friends and many of them say their mothers wrote their version of a diary in calendars so maybe it just might be worth it.

Lesson learned; don't throw away your mother's calendars.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

So if you're dreaming about California
It don't matter at all where you played before
California's a brand new game
                    -Gatlin Brothers

It seems that most movies about Hollywood tend to show the down side of the movie business. You've got A Star Is Born (1937, 1954 & 1976) about a famous actor who mentors a rising star only to see her eclipse his fame, or Sunset Boulevard (1950 ) about a screenwriter who becomes a "companion" to a faded silent movie star and pays the ultimate price. There even was a movie called "The Oscar" and a dozen more, including the Robert Altman film, The Player, about a producer who kills a screenwriter.

Ironically, the best book and movie on the business to my liking was Nathaniel West's classic Day of the Locust (1979), a brilliant study of those who come seeking fame who end up with nothing. While the book was written in 1939 the only difference between then and 2010 is that the cars are better and we have iPhones.
My "crowd" is mixed, a few wildly successful people, some successful, some less so and some at the bottom of the ladder. Then there's those who border on complete delusion as a means to validate that they too are successful. Needless to say those categories above don't always end up at the same table. It's almost as though success fears failure in others as it might be catching like a virus.

Something else that hasn't changed is the amount of people who still come to Hollywood to become stars. While in the 20's to the 70's, it was mostly actors and singers, now it includes screenwriters and directors. And they all are still consumed by the knowledge that they have what it takes.
Take the blonde girl, mid 20's who looked across the room at the party, it was still early and guests were just arriving. Then she spotted two older men standing near the bar talking. It took her a second to decide to move and she approached them, smiling.
"Hi, I'm Serena".
The two men were myself and my director friend Paul. It didn't take much to figure out why she selected us. The other guests were either around her age so early in the evening or were couples talking to each other. Serena was an actress, and that was not really her name.
The party was a party  given by a studio owner whom I had known since my Calgary days. His Hollywood Hills home, "just a short drive from Jack Nicholson's place", overlooked the entire valley and as I stood at a glass bar the size of my kitchen, a bartender poured drinks as we watched the fires in the San Bernadino mountains 20 miles away. For a moment, I felt guilty, knowing that not far away firefighters were desperately trying to save hillsides.
"Beautiful house, isn't it," she said.
Whatever Serena didn't have, she did have confidence, the kind that always amazes me as I never really had that when I began. I probably still don't have it that much. I see that confidence so often with the young actors and writers and directors but also know that confidence in itself isn't all that important.
Actors are the biggest casualties in this city of dreams. There are more of them for one, approximately 200,000 according to SAG, and they're not counting the actors who still haven't gained admission to the powerful union.  The WGA has about 8000 writers and at any given time, less than 2000 are working.  DGA has around 2500 - 3000 directors, most of whom are not working.
So you can see the odds against even getting a job let alone hanging onto it.
Think of it this way, every day I look for a new job. Same for the actors and directors and crew. Those on a series have a little job security... at least until the show is cancelled. And some shows get canceled after the 2nd episode is aired. Job security is a word we've never considered. 
And when we find a potential job, 90% of the time we get rejected.

Why do some people win and the majority lose? Hard question to answer. There is the talent factor, no doubt a leading contender for the big time. But as the studio exec told me, craft and discipline are more important. And then there's the main two reasons why someone doesn't work.
Either they're not very good or they're hard to work with.
Who loses? Everybody else. 
But it's how you lose that counts. 
A lot of them give it a good shot and if, after a few years it doesn't work out, they drop out and find a regular job and forget about it. While a steady working actor can earn up to $50,000 a year, the majority make around $8000. A year.
Higher up in the food chain, you have the character actors who, with a hit series and maybe a movie or two a year enjoy a somewhat full career and they can even buy a home. And of course, we can't forget the stars who make as much as $20 million a picture. Like Sandra Bullock.
Sandra recently dropped her fee to $10 million to show how much she loved the script to The Blind Side. Now that's showing real bravado.  And it will end up getting her an Oscar nomination and I predict, a win. Meryl Street is nominated twice and that will cancel her out. Besides she has enough Oscars.

But there are those others; the desperate ones who don't know when to give up. And they tend to be those who really aren't that good at what they do. Not that you have to be good; look at the cast of Friends, not particularly talented, except maybe for Courtney Cox, and look at them -- a hit series and they're millionaires.
But they won the lottery in the same sense that you or I would if we bought a ticket. Really. For some reason they had "chemistry" as they say, something worked, their chemistry, the world was just ready for that show, and it was well crafted by the writers and directors.
But that's lightning in a bottle, as executives like to say. It rarely happens twice.
But back to Serena. After 10 minutes of the usual party talk she looked at us in the eye and said, "so what do you do?" We told her. She moved closer. She also focused more on Paul than me; writers don't hire actors, directors do. I saw my host and excused myself as Paul listened to her story about the last movie she was in.
After all, writers don't hire actors. Writers don't hire anybody and nobody even sees them sometimes, our work is done before the crew and actors are hired. And I've learned not to bring business cards anywhere because I have the bad habit of handing them out. 
And those people do call you.
After 28 years I have met many Serenas at parties or functions or even in coffee houses and once crossing a street. As I crossed a young woman was crossing beside me and when a car screeched she commented on the crazy drivers. I agreed, told her to watch all around. It took her almost at the curb when she said; "so, are you in the business"?
The thing of it is that yes, it is flattering to have a good-looking woman talk to me and sometimes it's quite sincere and I have been known to help writers who are starting out. But after many years I have learned to stick to writers whom I may be able to help or at least read their work.
But my best story about meeting on a street was when I took a bad fall on my mountain bike  at an intersection and several people came to help. My wrist was totally broken, in an "S" shape. Two people helped me, the girl taking her leather jacket off so I could lay my head on it. The other person was an older man, maybe 70's and he asked my name and what I did as a job to see if I was fully conscious. I told him I was a writer. He smiled and said so was he. And the girl said she was a special effects person for the movies.
I take a spill on my bike on Ventura Boulevard and the two people who come to help me are in the film industry. Small world.
And the old guy? He was Marty Krofft, who created a ton of kid series for CBS in the 1960s and 70's. Anyone over 40 would know his name.
He gave me his card and said, "call me when you're better".
I did call him months later. He never returned the call.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Film School and reality

I've been asked often
about the difference between film school and reality. UCLA is one of the top 4 film study programs in the U.S graduating Francis Coppola., the others are University of Southern California (USC), of famous for George Lucas, American Film Institute AFI), a highly regarded private school that turns out some great people and New York University (NYU) famous for Martin Scorceses. So I was pretty excited about actually teaching screenwriting at one of the big 4. In my case it was UCLA.

Especially since I dropped out of Henry Ford College in Detroit after two years, preferring a job in a TV station mailroom. But UCLA hires working screenwriters for their extension classes and degrees don't matter.

I taught every semester spring, summer, fall, winter. And the best part was that it was online. Not a classroom situation which meant I could (and did) teach at home or even on t he road, so it didn't interfere with regular work. I had a class, 15 students, mostly adults taking an extension course or two. And there were grad students who were taking the course for credit.

I got the hang of the software easily and began the class. I installed forums for discussion, a Chat Room where once a week they could all ask questions, and a program for whatever the course was that semester. There were courses in writing a full screenplay, writing the first act, writing good characters, and many more.

I had always wanted to help writing students if I ever got to a point of reasonable success, which I did at that time. Ironically this was because nobody ever really helped me that much, I really  had to work for whatever opportunities I got.

After several semesters I began to notice that for the most part, people were taking classes for entertainment, housewives in Ohio or factory workers and just ordinary people. There were maybe 40% of them who wanted careers, but for the rest, they were being entertained by a real, live screenwriter in Hollywood. Many would take a course of two then never come back. And for one reason.

The hardest part of writing... is writing.

And it became clear that the University wanted me to encourage them to take more courses and it finally reached a point where I became disillusioned, realizing that 95% of them would never be writers. I got tired of lying to them. Out of the 250 students, I think there were 4 who might... with a lot of luck and hard work and moving to Los Angeles might... just might get a career going. I finally left teaching and returned to the rejection of the real screenwriting world.

I also failed in the minor film school encounters I had myself. An instructor told me and my friend Phil Borsos, that we shouldn't even attempt a career in this industry. Needless to say, Phil and I were the only two of the two schools we attended... who ever went on to a career in this business. And a short film that went to the Academy Awards in 1976 as a finalist.

Film schools are incredibly expensive, it can cost well over $100,000 to get a degree in film. As far as I'm concerned someone could take that money and actually make a movie and learn how to do it. Interestingly enough, a degree still doesn't really count in this business, talent, craft and discipline are more valuable than a piece of paper.

At least on the creative side.

If you want to be on the business side, lawyers, accountants, CEO's, etc, then a degree is important. There still are many students who get a degree and go on to a good career, but these also are the good ones and my feeling is that they would have made it with or without film school.

Since Movie Brats Lucas and Coppola and the others, who were the first film students to succeed in the real world, the number of film schools have multiplied by the hundreds. Before that it was people who had no film schools to attend. They worked at any jobs, fought the Great War, and were accomplished authors and writers.

What disturbs me is that all these film schools, and there are hundreds, are graduating students into a work situation that has few opportunities. You've probably read about the amount of WGA writers unemployed and directors and actors. And crews. Lots of grips and gaffers and make-up people and more are unemployed.

Yet universities and private schools churn out thousands of students each year.

How can you succeed in the light of these odds? 

You have to want it.

You have to want it badly enough that you will sell your soul to the God of Film. The one who teases you with success and just as quickly snaps it away just as you reach it. Of course it doesn't happen to all of us, just most.

So to go or not to go to film school is a difficult choice, what it does is allow you to learn and make films, but on the other hand you could spend that tuition on just making a film by yourself and making mistakes and learning right there.

One of the best schools in some ways is by a guy called Dov Simens, who teaches 2-day classes for a few hundred bucks. He has compressed his course to give you basically a 4-yr college education in 3 days. If you don't believe me, check his website. I don't even know the guy but everyone in Hollywood knows about Dov, and he has a real good list of successful students. Although I'm not sure he's still doing it.

And you or your kids can save $100,000.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Things I shouldn't have done



In response to a comment on relationships in the film business, someone asked about my burning bridges with good companies, rather than the less respectable parties I mention in that blog.

Generally I try to not burn bridges with companies who are fair and treat me well, but sometimes my ego can get in the way, as with these examples.

I did 2 movies for Granada, a major British production company, the second of which I supplied the story and screenplay, while the first was only for the screenplay. I was owed payment for the story and they refused to pay, so I sent the WGA on them. With pressure on them, they paid and then turned around and hired another writer to rewrite the screenplay.

They never used me again, but I was owed the money, so this example is a conflicted one; should I have not asked for what I was owed and maybe get a job, or should I get paid for what I did.

Writers are always asked to write or rewrite for free, always. They'll pay for the script but then discretely ask for polishes and rewrites, all of which have to be paid for as per their being signatory to WGA guidelines. But that doesn't stop them from asking. And if you refuse to work for free, they just might hire another writer, probably a friend of the producer, to do the rewrites for money. And you lose the money and probably more work up the road.

Who said producers had to be fair?

Then there was a Universal TV series I was up for, it was a "re-imagination" of the Three Musketeers. I love that term re-imagination, obviously created by a board meeting of executives.  I arrived at the studio, having read the script, which was, to my feeling, not very good

But a job is a job.

I met the 2 writers and it was almost immediate dislike on both sides. They weren't very good writers and I wondered how they got this series. They began by saying they didn't really like my writing sample, Emperor of Mars, which got me more work than any other script I wrote.

Okay, I can deal with that. They don't have to like one particular script of mine, I have 20 others on the shelf. But the meeting was going downhill, whatever I tried to come up with, they didn't like and I knew then that even if I got the job, it would be hell because we were simply not on the same level. I learned long ago that if you work with people not as good as you, you will be sorry.

Then one of the pair asked if I liked the rapping. 

The rapping?

He then went on to explain how one of the Musketeers "rapped" his dialog rather than speak normally.  Like P-Diddy and 50 Cent and all those other guys. These 17th Century Musketeers were hip and cool apparently.

I was speechless. It was at that moment I realized this was going nowhere for me and them. I just stood up, thanked them for the meeting and walked out. I wasn't hired and they did 7 episodes and it went off the air in 2 episodes. And I never got a call from that department of Universal again. I lost out on money but also the stress and frustration.

But the biggest one was one I truly regretted. It was with Amblin' Entertainment. You might know it's boss -- Steven Spielberg.

I had written a screenplay called Rage, about road rage when it was in the news every other day and featured a male cop and a female traffic helicopter reporter. My agent Frank set up the meeting saying they liked it. Amblin' then was on the lot at Universal and was a rambling Spanish-style hacienda on a chunk of land near the studios. I always liked going there, it had a good feeling, the people seemed reasonably happy and it reflected the informal ambience of it's boss.

I met with two people, can't remember their names but we sat down and they talked about how they liked the script. I felt pretty good, already seeing the movie being made and meeting Steven himself maybe. 

Then they asked about one of the characters and suggested he be dropped.

 I said he should stay there, he was vital to the story. They didn't think so. I was quite adamant about it. Then they said they'd like more of a Men In Black feel to the story and wondered if I'd like to rework it.

I still can't believe what I said.

I said I didn't really like Men In Black, and that my story was very different and couldn't imagine how I could possibly change it.

Once again, they suggested I might want to try.

I said I wasn't sure. We chatted a little more, exchanged some jokes, I finished my coffee and they looked at each other, the meeting was over.  I left thinking this deal would be already happening with my agent. When  I got home I called Frank, ready to hear the great things they had to say about my work.

Frank said they decided to pass. Because they thought it would be too difficult to work with me on the script. I didn't believe it, how could I have misunderstood them. Then I replayed the meeting by stepping outside of myself.

And I realized how I must have sounded.  Contrary, argumentative and difficult. Much of that arrogance came from the response to Emperor of Mars, the screenplay that every exec in town had at one time,  and the complements heaped on it, Steve Tisch, producer of Forest Gump, said it was one of his favorite scripts. I got meetings with Paramount, Universal, Warner's, with Ridley Scott's company, Dustin Hoffman's, and virtually every name that was anybody.  No wonder I felt so good about myself.

And then I remembered that saying; there are two reasons people don't work in this town... either they aren't very good (I was reasonably good, they did like the script) or they are difficult to work with.

Difficult to work with. That was me.

I learned the lesson that day, and still haven't had a meeting at Amblin or Dreamworks yet. But ultimately it really doesn't matter if you burn bridges as most development executives one meets usually are gone with 2 years and replaced by new ones who don't know you.

That's the great strength for writers and directors; you last longer than the d-girls and boys who turn you down. Of course the ones who buy your scripts are gone too. 

Monday, July 30, 2018


Screenwriting -- The development process

One of the most dreaded processes in a writer's life, at least for me, is the development "phase". It can be inspiring and a delight, or it can be pure hell. I once worked with a "D-Girl" (a term for a Development executive, most often a woman) called Amy, whose nickname was "the anti-Christ". And she lived up to her reputation as she would go out of her way to demean and attack you. 

On the other hand I once worked with a woman who had drinking issues among other flaws, including foul language that still amazes me, but she gave me a set of the best notes I have ever had, I still keep them. Development is generally dreaded because it means the producer or production company or studio has read the screenplay and now wants to add their input. Some might say they paid for it so they can rip it apart. I think it's the fact that they can't write and just want to punish me for being able to write.  Regardless, it's the next stage of development of a movie and it can be hell. 

John Levoff who was head of drama at Paramount/UPN always used to start the meeting with me by saying "Page 1", meaning that notes were on every page of a 110 page screenplay. It's like you have been sentenced to life. But John was a smart exec and this was just his way of joking and making me comfortable. He'd have suggestions for maybe a dozen pages and not hard to do at all. I enjoyed working with him and Steve White, the producer, both had ideas and both gave me freedom to disagree. 

What makes this stage hard sometimes, besides the particular exec or producer, is that I arrogantly think that no word need be changed.  And that's where it gets hard. A good note will surprisingly inspire you, they do come up with good ideas. A bad note can turn your stomach as you try to figure out how to change a script set in a barren landscape to a lush, green countryside with brilliant yellow canola crops. This actually happened on Riddler's Moon. And I did find a way. But ultimately you find a way of compromising, although sometimes through grueling arguments and even fights. 

Back in 1990, I wrote a screenplay called Cardinal Sins, based on a story I had about teen abuse at a Catholic adoption home (my Catholic guilt story) in just over two weeks with my producer Dick Lowry. We sat in a hotel until it was finished and then the first draft was handed to the Assistant Director who broke it down to shooting days and they began filming 3 days later. 

Not a word was changed, except for the occasional actor's changing a line to suit them better, which normally happens. 

No development phase. No D-people. It can be done. Not that I would recommend it, we had no choice as we had to shoot the film before the end of December and it was now December 1st. This was because the film was funded to be made before January 1st due to tax breaks.

 But I saw the movie a few months ago and you know what... it still works.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Producer

One of the most common questions I get about movies is "What does the producer do?" So far I have not dealt with the producer, because, at this time, I am the producer. I am also looking for another producer who can help find financing.  

In short, the producer finds the money. 

Sometimes he has it, but most of the time he has to find the money from private investors or a studio or distributor.  Someone once asked me how he could become a producer, my answer was that it was easy,  "just find me $2 million." That is what producers do. Generally they option the screenplay and then begin to put all the pieces of a movie together, they find the script, hire the director, start casting actors with the director, begin looking for crew, do budgets and generally supervise the production even after it's finished. 

They are the first ones in and the last ones out. And the best ones are legendary in both their movie choices and the showmanship required to stay at the top. Who makes the best producers?

To be honest,  conmen, thieves, used car salesmen and bank robbers. 

They have to sell a product that does not exist and to do that, you practically have to stretch the truth.They were common for decades, the cigar-chomping guys and the smooth ones in expensive suits, but there are fewer of them, and ironically, they were better than many of the producers now because they always got the money somehow without getting help.

That's not to say all producers are like that. I've worked with both, and some like Norton Wright and Steve White, are honest and smart and they get the job done. But there are others who are just plain criminals. Every now and then they get arrested and charged with some phony scam they were running.  And this isn't just small time, MGM has had it's share, as had other major studios and companies. I know of one who was arrested for "creative accounting" and was just released due to lack of evidence, and he's back on the street, doing $5-10 million dollar movies.  They just don't make 'em like they used to.

Where does that put me?  I take my lead from Norton and Steve, maybe it's a little harder, but I prefer that way, my mom would be very unhappy if I were doing it any other way. I also happen to enjoy doing budgets and proposals as with Travel Day, it's an essential part of being a producer. I did the budget on Ghostkeeper, my first feature, with a calculator, way before computers. Now I use software like Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduling which makes it much easier. 

And having done the movies and TV shows I have, I always snooped around the producer's office and the accountants and picked up valuable lessons in how money is spent. Nobody ever talks to accountants so I have a habit to bring in chocolates on the first day. Yeah, it was shameful, but they liked me, and they told me how money is spent and lost. I became so aware of money being thrown away I would always tell the craft services people to divide muffins into 4 pieces as most people won't eat a whole muffin and end up leaving it somewhere or throwing it away. 

Don't get me started on water bottles and cell phones.

More Monday

* This comes from a previous blog.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

About talent

A comedian once said this; "when did every child become gifted"? 

Talent is one of the most overused and least understood words in the world of art, be it painters, musicians, actors, writers and so on and so on. It is a word I use rarely and with conviction when it is warranted. To be honest, talent has been misapplied probably 90% of the time.  

Take me,  I'm a good writer, have a respectable reputation and can come up with some pretty great words.  But I'm not talented. I know people who are talented and I'm not like them.  Paul Newman said that he did not come to acting easy, that it took him a long time to figure out how to do it right. I agree with him, it took me a long time to learn how to write and I see myself as a craftsman, I learned the trade and can do it well enough that people appreciate it. You may not like my story, but you can't say my writing is bad. 

And I'm not being modest, I'm perfectly happy with my craftsman label, I'm still amazed people pay me to write words. Talented people are different, and they stand out from the very beginning. Look at your grade 1 class, that guy or girl in the corner who didn't look like everyone else, who wore odd clothes or who would draw a perfect face instead of a stickman, that's the one who's talented.  

Meryl Streep is talented, Sharon Stone is not,  both still work, one simply can't help but being brilliant every time out.  I watched Sharon Stone on that Actor's Studio show, and Sharon couldn't stop talking about how she plays her character. Ever see Meryl discuss acting? She has no idea how she does it, it's just there.  

The rest of us have to fight to get "there" and most of the time we don't make it. But sometimes we do get there, only for a moment, and the air is sweeter. 

I have known less than a handful of talented people in this business, my friend, Phil Borsos, and I made a short film COOPERAGE, which won awards all over the world and ended as finalist in 1976 Academy Awards.  The brilliance came from Phil, he would come up with shots I would never have dreamt of.  But I shot one great scene that we used under the credits, and it was perfect.  

Phil's first feature THE GREY FOX won 11 awards at Canada's version of the Oscars and Francis Coppola distributed it in the US to universal acclaim.  Talent is rare.  And those who are usually don't know they are nor do they care. And the danger of too much talent is the incapability of regular life. Look at Brando, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix.

Where does that leave the rest of us? 

Consider this; a studio executive once told me "you need three things to succeed in Hollywood, talent, craft and discipline," and then he added, "and talent is the least important of those three."

*First blog 2009.