Monday, August 31, 2009

Blog 7: Screenwriting -- The writing process

I've told you how Travel Day came to be and this deals with the process. There are no specific rules to how one writes, some like me write in the mornings, some in the afternoons, some write at night. I'm a fast writer, others are painfully slow, a friend of mine can toil over one page for a day, I can do 5-10 pages on a good day.  Does it make a difference. No. Good scripts come from any method. So do bad scripts. We mostly all use computers, there are a few I know who still use typewriters. I use Screenwriter software, others use Final Draft, both can do the job but Screenwriter is more writer-friendly.

Screenwriters can be an odd bunch, some rarely like to talk about what they're writing, many are secretive, a lot of us are envious of other's work, some don't care at all. But the one thing that affects all of us is that once we finish our screenplay and hand it in, they are going to hire someone else to rewrite it. And it happens more than you think. 

I have been rewritten once for a movie called Maiden Voyage, it was a friend of one of the executives at Granada. I have rewritten other writer's scripts at least ten times, because I was a friend of the producer's. And that's how it goes. I rewrote a script called Riddler's Moon to the point that barely 10% of the original remained. 

However I never got the credit. 

Even the script supervisor wondered why I didn't take a credit. The reason was simple, it was the deal we made. I took an ambiguous credit, "Creative Consultant" in the titles. I also got a weekly salary and a great trip to Europe for 4 months.

As I mentioned before, there are basically two types of screenwriting, being hired to write a story and writing a "spec" script on your own.  I have done both. You have less freedom when you're hired, but you get paid all the way through. You have more freedom in a spec, in fact total freedom, but you might never sell it.  

Writers get people who tell us that their life story is incredible, and should be a movie, and that I should write it and they will split the fee. This is what someone once said "most people want to have written, rather than to write". And my answer is to tell them that their story is so great and so rich that I could never write it as good as them.  Then I watch the smile disappear from the faces. 

It took me around 4 weeks to write Travel Day. I use a software called Power Structure, which I believe to be the best of a lot of structural softwares. It's simple to use and the support from Mark is great. It asks questions of you, and offers a program that resembles using 2x4 index cards, which was what we did pre-computer days. Maybe that's why I like it.

Someone asked me once about "writer's block" wherein a writer is stuck for an idea, kind of like being stuck in calm on a sail boat. I answered that I didn't have the luxury of writer's block, not when someone was paying me to write. The truth is that I do get stuck, but when I do I turn off the computer and go for lunch, or shopping, or a drive into the Mojave, anything just to get away. And sure enough, in an hour or a day, a solution comes to me and I begin again. But when the script is finished and it's time to show it to someone else, that's when things get interesting. 

That is called "screenplay development" and that's in the next blog.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blog 6: 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."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blog 5: Screenwriting -- The words come first

Before the actors take the stage, before the DP lights the set, even before the donuts are on the table and even before anybody even knows there is a story... 

The writer is there, sitting in front of a blank page, desperately trying to think of something else he or she wants to do than this. As I mentioned, I have written and rewritten a total of 16 produced scripts, both mine and others. I have also around 30 hours of episodic (this number changes depending on the wine I drink).  And a lot of those movies aren't great, some aren't even very good but a few came through pretty good. In almost all the cases, it was due to notes from producers and or development executives. 

And in all cases, the bad movies were from people who knew very little about anything while the good movies were with who knew their stuff and made my work better.  In addition I have worked on around 20 screenplays that made it to development but not to production.  Travel Day was a spec script, and for those readers who aren't familiar with the term, it's a screenplay I decided to write entirely on my own with no guarantee of ever being sold, or maybe even being seen. 

I have 24 of these specs on my shelf now, and I think they all could be made, unfortunately the powers-that-be think differently. And maybe they're right, or at least half right. That's what writers live with, a basket full of ideas nobody else cares about.

I am not great at concept movies, I couldn't write The Hangover if I tried, and I wish I could, I'd have a lot more money than I do. I tended to write good character studies, and it got me work and a reasonable career. One thing someone once pointed out to me was that my endings seem to always be unresolved, ambiguous. I realized they were right. I finally had a style, I thought. But after awhile, I didn't really ever figure out why the endings were the same, be it movie or TV episode. So I left it alone. Meryl Streep doesn't try to figure out why she can become so believeable as any character. Best to leave the muse alone.

I taught screenwriting at UCLA once, and I'll do a blog on that up the road, but I came up with what is being written in Hollywood these days. And it hasn't changed in a hundred years.  If you want to write something that can be sold, consider this, in order;

1. Movies made from novels and books.
2. True life stories
3. Remakes and sequels
4. Original screenplays

You can see where the original screenplay sits in the scheme of things. If you don't believe me, open your newspaper entertainment page.  So naturally I picked # 4 because I don't know how to write those other stories, or maybe I don't like to. Maybe that's why I don't have a Porsche, but I like my 96 Explorer. And it's paid for. Ever seen what a tune-up costs for a Carerra?

And I don't mean the first three "genres" are bad or unwatchable, many of them are great, unless you count Taking of Pelham 1,2,3.  But I learned late in my career to write what I write good, rather than what I would probably write bad.

So now you know more about the odds of ever getting Travel Day made. And you're probably wondering why I want to punish myself by choosing the hardest kind of movie to make. It all goes back to what I said in the first blog, it's never easy. For anybody who tries to get a movie made.  A director named Peter Hyams, I believe, was credited with this:

"Being in the film business is like being married to a beautiful woman who cheats on you, and you know she cheats on you, but every so often she dresses up and you take her out for dinner and look at her and's all worth it."

What I take out of that is that most of the time this business breaks your heart but every now and then it's worth it.  My ex told me that I was one of the few people she knew who was living his dream, you know, that kid in the picture to the left... that's all he ever wanted.

That's why I'm here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Blog 4: A bit of a departure from movie-making

I've had a bad day today, and nothing to do with the goal of this blog. Ted Kennedy died yesterday and with him goes an era, my era, my salad days as the saying goes, occurred during the Kennedy reign, I was in gym class when JFK was shot and I worked for Bobby in 1968 and now Ted, the last of the crew, is gone. 

I was one of a few hundred college students who were shipped to Indiana to work for free for Bobby. If you saw Emilio Estevez's BOBBY, I was one of those young guys with sports coats and ties.  My job was to register voters in the ghettos of Indianapolis and I will never forget the faces of the African Americans who opened their doors to this very Canadian white kid, how much they believed in him, how gracious they were, giving me food and water and coffee and on more than one occasion a beer or whatever they could find.

They loved him, loved the promise that the Kennedy's held for the little guy. They knew they were rich and spoiled, but that also meant they had to work harder for the poor and the children and the immigrants. And few families gave back as much as they did with the blood of three, Joe, Jack and Bobby.

The very reason I'm here in America, is because of Teddy and his immigration bills. Teddy in fact, has undoubtedly had more bills pass and has had more influences than any Senator or Congressman in the last 50 years. 

Yeah, I know, they were womanizers (they didn't have to go to Argentina) and the mob helped them get elected and all the rest of that stuff, but nobody did as much for the average people as they did, and because they had so much, they felt it was their duty. Probably a Catholic thing, I still think that when things are going well, a voice inside me says "You're gonna die". Ah, Catholics.

So I trust you don't mind my little departure from movie making, after all, it's the end of a major part of my influences, my values and my hopes. 

Okay, back to movie making.

Blog 3: The screenplay

Travel Day is the story of an aging actress who was once one of the many sex symbols of the late 60's and early 70's and is now relegated to smaller roles.  It's basis comes from my experiences over the past 20 years in television series and movies. Some were better than others, some were not great and some were just plain bad.  My best moment was heaving a phone book at one of the producers as she fled out the office door. Those were the days. 

The premise of the screenplay is a "travel day", that time given to actors and crew to reach a distant location.  The story focuses on one such day that began with our aging star reluctantly traveling with a bit-part actor and a teamster driver in a large 15 passenger van heading to a location in a remote area far from any city. The odd couple threesome have little to say to each other and in some ways, worlds apart. The star clings onto her gift basket and wine and offers nothing in the way of conversation. 

Then they meet a young girl, hitchiking in a frozen wilderness. 

I had wanted to write this screenplay for several years but never got around to it until my actor friend reminded me of some of the stories we shared on that series. But it wasn't until a few years ago that I finally wrote the screenplay and the characters became more alive and colorful than I imagined they would. 

All of the script was based on the experiences of myself and Paul Jolicoeur, during that time. I also added a new character, the 15-year old hitch-hiker, to balance the age group which now ran from 15 to 60'ish.

I had always intended Travel Day to be a no-budget film made by myself and a handful of friends and I never showed it to my agent or anyone else. But a year ago, I got interest from Sally Kirkland, who was an Academy nominee in the late 1980s' and a year later from acclaimed Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann. Their interest made me think of  a bigger movie,maybe even one where everyone got paid!  

But what ultimately got me motivated was a hat-trick of circumstances; my 85-year old mother's  near passing away, a dry spell of creativity for me, and a talented and energetic director named Shirley Petchprapa.  My mother recovered fully and Shirley wanted to direct Travel Day as, by this time, I really wanted someone else to direct it and she was perfect for the job.  

So finally I had run out of excuses as there was more incentive to make Travel Day, now supported by two great actresses and a smart director. I now had the chance to make another film like I had done in the past. Once again, I would be the producer and the weight of the production would fall on me. 

And make that kid in the picture with the truck realize his dream again.

Coming next; we begin the process of film development.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Blog 2: Tuesday update

I've made a change in the blog name, mostly to help search engines find us as the old name would lead to travel locations.  And just a reminder that I will post Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with occasional updates when something interesting happens.  

We'll also be posting materials for anyone to download, including script, business plan, budgets, and anything else that pertains to the development of a feature film. I'll have the links for those who might want those materials soon. And again, thanks for making our first day a successful one.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Blog 1: Making Movies the Hard Way

To begin with, I was pretty apprehensive about starting a blog on how I plan to make a movie. Samuel French has dozens of books just on this subject (right next to the hundreds of books on screenwriting) and what could I possibly add.?

But I wanted to share the ups and downs of looking for money for a movie and figured that this might be the best place to do that. Some people might get a kick out of it, some might not care, others might find a little encouragement.I’m not an Academy winner or flavor of the month (although a short I filmed and co-produced made it to the Academy finalist list) rather, I’m a working writer, producer and director like so many others.

The blood of this industry.

The reason for this blog comes from several places and all are connected to one, the world of movie-making. I invite you to follow the process from screenplay to the development and funding and, hopefully, to the production itself. I wanted to call the blog Making Movies the Hard Way because, put simply, there is no easy way. Ever.

Along with the business, technical and artistic sides, I will also talk about the people; the talented, the untalented, the crazy ones and the rare angels and saints. And since I have been in this process more than once in my 30-plus years in the business, my friends assured me I could keep you entertained.

Easy to say for them, they get to watch me run and fall and get up and fall again in one of the worst recessions in a long time. I will post new blogs Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and anytime if something good comes up like someone writes me a check for $400,000, or maybe $50.

So hopefully you’ll stick with me until the end, wherein I actually get it made. If I get it made. And that’s a hell of a big “IF”.

You know the odds.