Thursday, December 23, 2010

North of 49

Headin' north for Christmas, not quite the North Pole but in the same country. Gonna see Claus and his peeps as well as snow, snow, snow...  

.. and here's what it looks like in the Mojave Desert, east of Palmdale. 

Have a great holiday, drive safely, share and enjoy family, even if Uncle Harry is obnoxious.

See you all next year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Is my screenplay good?

I was going to write a blog about the fear that consumes writers when they face the rewrite but got distracted by something else.

I was persuaded some time ago to join Linkedin, which professes to be a networking website where you can interact with other professionals in the hopes of accomplishing your goals. Linkedin has many different forums for probably every business there is from flower shops to film, law, accounting and so on.

Having started way back in 1992 on the internet I became wary of forums for one major reason; I would end up arguing with some kid in Indiana about the movie business. I realized it was a waste of my time having to deal with someone who didn't know anything about the movie business but felt he/she was my peer.

Last week, someone on the Those in Film forum offered to read screenplays and offer his comments and advice. All for$150. The person said he worked for some major agencies and knows how to improve a screenplay to sell. All for $150.

Thus ensued a continuing discussion, sometimes heated, as to the value of these kind of "consultants".

My take is simple; if you gotta pay for someone to read your script you probably don't have a good script. And I know of what I speak; I taught screenwriting extension classes at UCLA for a little over 2 years and learned two things;

First, the university encourages the instructors to get students to take more semesters. My first class was writing the first draft screenplay; later the course was dissected into 3 courses, the first act, the second act and the third act.

Why? More money.

In this way, the student would complete a screenplay in 30 weeks. Over six months.

Now while some writers take years to write their screenplays, most first draft screenplays can be written in 4 to 6 weeks and maybe even 10 weeks (the length of the semester). By stretching it to six months you almost forget what you learned in the first semester.

I'm not considering the really talented writers;  they do what they do well and can take 1 week (Dalton Trumbo) or years (Terrence Malik) but they as F. Scott said, are not like you or I.

There are dozens of websites now offering to read your screenplay in exchange for money as well as screenplay sites like Ink-tip, who charge $60 for you to post your screenplay on their site for 6 months. Along with a few hundred of your fellow writers.

You have better chances winning the lottery.

Yet aspiring writers, many of whom feel that purchasing Screenwriter 2000 or Final Draft means that yes, they are writers, will fill these websites with their screenplays. After all, anybody can write a screenplay if they have the software. Why it practically writes itself.

Secondly the truth is this; very few of those aspiring writers are really good, in fact very few are real writers. Of the over 200 students I had, and I've mentioned this before, only 4 of my students could, if they really worked and made some important connections, were capable of writing a real screenplay.

Only 4.

And yes, that's my opinion, but again, not everyone is a brilliant painter, or actor or insurance salesman or whatever. The plain truth is that all of us are just mostly average. I claim no talent, even after writing and/or rewriting 18 feature length produced screenplays as well as at least 70 unproduced screenplays.

What I am is downright stubborn, it took me a long time to learn how to write well. And I even slip now and then.

The impact of all these people who want to write screenplays has encouraged new cottage industries including screenwriting gurus, almost 300 books on screenwriting (go to Amazon sometimes), screenwriting classes at almost every university, week-end workshops with failed actors who shout down at their audience, 3-day filmmaking classes, probably hundreds of websites with courses, software for screenwriting, production, budgets, storyboarding.

The list goes on and on and one is tempted to ask;

So where are all the great screenplays?

With all of these screenplay gurus soliciting and recommending screenplays, there are fewer good movies now than ever before in our history of film. With so much access to experts and so-called experts and books and movies, there just doesn't seem to be a whole bunch of great, memorable movies.

But for now, I have to deal with my own demons; the rewrite of Casualties Of Love, which I'm holding back, in typical writer procrastination, until the new year, and a "fresh look" at COL that I'm sure will result in a brilliant screenplay...

Well, maybe not brilliant, maybe it's gonna be even worse than the first draft.

I need to go shopping.

(Thurs: Christmas time)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

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 newscameraman, 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 last August 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.

(Mon: Fear of fear)

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Good, the bad and the possibilities

Okay, the reading of Casualties of Love is over. Rather than typing the entire title over, I will lower my pride by using initials from now on, as in COL, which everyone does not anyways.

How did it work out? 

The actors were very good and even got better on the second reading. But the script was not good, for reasons I'll go into in a minute. The possibilities though are good for COL becoming  a movie.

We had five actors including Chris, whose blog link you can find on my blog page on the left side. David, a Chapman university film student operated the DV camcorder for both readings. And a very good actor, Mary, read the scene descriptions. 

The first reading was more for the actors becoming comfortable with each other and quickly fell into their roles, trying different ways and managing quite well. Chris, a seasoned actor with a terrific voice helped them as he played the role of the rock star with a British accent, although Chris is Irish.

The second reading was better, as it often is and the actors began to try other things sometimes, sometimes it worked, sometimes not particularly to my view, but still good.

But one thing didn't work as well as I hoped, and I really knew it wouldn't from the beginning.

I had written COL as a play, 70 pages, and being a play it tended to go against the subtleties of film. Translated this meant the script was too much over the top. Too many rants and too many points of view that were uncomfortably me.

Remember that plays need to be louder and bigger, at least most of them, because the actor's voice has to carry to the back of the theater. While it works fine for a theater with 45 seats, it needs extra effort to reach the back row in a 200 seat theater. Broadway often uses headset microphones, and not only for singing.

My director friend Michael very perceptively caught this also and said simply "it's too much you". And he is totally right. It would work great as a play, but I don't want to do a play.

And one of the actors made an interesting statement; he said that now, in these days, it's cheaper to make a movie than set up a play with a 6 week run. You would think that having a cast of 5 or 6 actors in a small theater would be cheap. But digital video is cheaper.

Given that even I shoot documentaries and edit them on Apple's Final Cut Pro software, tossing a few actors in front of my camera isn't that much more.

So, as my old friend Phil Borsos, who passed away years ago used to say; "This is what you have to do Jimmy." And then he'd launch into a very specific and detailed instruction.

What I have to do is rewrite the screenplay, that's obvious. But I need to separate the characters, make them stand out more individually. In short build their character development as many screenwriting books tell you.

And for an old dog like me, who knows this and who even taught it at UCLA extension, I'm surprised I didn't catch it sooner.

So now I face a major rewrite but one which I know where I  have to go. And at the same time I will begin editing the nearly 4 hours of video into a 2-3 minute clip that I can show investors.

And not only that, I also have to come up with a Christmas movie sequel to my Town That Christmas Forgot (last showing Dec 14 6pm EST) as well as sending out two pitch for2 different  series pilots as well as writing a feature Christmas story.

But I can't start too much now, after all it's Christmas and the movers and shakers of Hollywood are slowly beginning to not return calls and plan their trips to Sun Valley and Aspen. And I'm going to Calgary, but will be meeting with some people on two other potential projects.

So for now, I'll edit the COL video foortage and make notes towards the rewrite. And try to make a hit list of possible investors. And remember not to call them until after Christmas.

(Thurs: Something new)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Life of a writer/producer (with no money)

Today is Thursday and tomorrow, Friday the 10th, we're going to have the reading with the cast of The Casualties of Love; 4 men and 1 young woman. For those of you who are new or haven't been here for awhile, here's the "pitch" as they call it;

The Casualties of Love is the story of three men facing 40 and realizing that some of their dreams will never happen. So, instead they decide to kidnap an aging rock star to attempt to persuade him to not sell his music to advertisers.  But things take a turn when a young transient enters the story. 

Okay, so that's the basic premise and pitch. I could make it more edgy and mysterious, but it's a pitch to me from me, so this will do. Some producers now ask for the entire story in one sentence. That's totally ridiculous but it is the future.

I can see a producer asking for a pitch in 3 words. Maybe only one word.

Besides the actors there will be myself, a production assistant, David and maybe a few "guests" that might pop in, those being director friends of mine. Also we have a "Reader", someone who specializes in reading the description parts of a screenplay, keeping in tune with actors reading dialog parts.

So as of now, I am the writer, director and producer. I'm also getting that big Starbucks coffee box, muffins, water, powerbars, juices, not to mention also scripts that I printed up, even though most of the actors will have printed up their own scripts from a pdf Chris sent them.

Chris Sullivan is my co-partner on this venture, he's also playing the "aging rocker", Chris is an Irish actor and musician and also keeps reminding me to move forward on the project.

I rented a small theater off Sunset near the 101 freeway, $15 per hour, undoubtedly the lowest rate in town. And it has on-street parking that is absolutely free, something vitally important to cast and crew.  Even if the crew is 2 people, me and David.

So today drive around picking up the food and packing the scripts, the video camera, tapes and a rented "shotgun" microphone. Friday morning I head out early as traffic is a killer going into Hollywood from the valley. On the way I will pick up fresh muffins and coffee.

Pretty glamorous, eh?

I was doing this as a production assistant way back in 1979 and now 31 years later am still doing it. No limo, no perqs, no personal assistant. David will no doubt help, he'll  probably shoot the video and maybe run an errand or two.

As of now, nobody is really helping me raise the money for the film. I intend to edit a 2-minute video to show a handful of potential investors, mainly people I know who can and have put small amounts of money into projects.

Casualties of Love is a "no-budget" feature film; or as defined by the actor's union "SAG", an "ultra-low budget". Meaning that they give breaks on actor's rates and demands. This was instituted some years ago as SAG realized that a lot of SAG actors, given the choice of not paying their rent or working non-union, would take the non-union job.

So SAG came up with a somewhat reasonable scheme to allow their actors to work in "ultra-low budget films".

Same goes for me as a member of WGA, which also has a somewhat complicated version of SAG's deal. In any event, once the film is sold, both SAG actors and WGA members (me) have to be paid full rates.

Generally, both SAG and WGA really don't want to deal with these kind of projects but have to as not all their members are million-dollar actors or writers. In fact very few are.

So, tomorrow, from 10am to 3pm, we will have 2 readings, the first one going pretty fast and the second one, hopefully more polished, a bit longer. Ideally we can finish in 3 hrs. I took 5 hours just in case.

Monday you'll hear all about it. Wish me luck.

(Mon: What happened, what didn't happen, what went wrong, what went right)

Monday, December 6, 2010

There's critics and then...

Ever since the internet became the "great equalizer", making the average person as powerful as the select few, I am still out on whether or not it is a good thing. Does a guy in Butte Montana offer a professional film critique as good as a film reviewer from the industry trades, Variety and Hollywood Reporter?

There are now hundreds, maybe thousands of amateur reviewers who offer their opinions of the latest feature films, TV and DVD films and for the most part they really don't know how to review a movie because they don't know how a movie is made and whether it works or not.

Does it matter?

It matters to me. I had a handful of amateur reviews on Town that Christmas Forgot, and it was half and half. Some liked it and some didn't. But they weren't really objective in anyway, rather it was simplistic.

"I thought it was boring and the actors and director were horrible".
"It was a different kind of Christmas story and was refreshing to watch".

There you go, two opposite reviews of my film. Naturally I prefer the 2nd one, but ultimately both of them are simplistic, much more like two friends talking over a beer or burger. The first one is useless, just a mindless comment, the second one actually does hit on one interesting point; my movie was a little "different" from most Hallmark movies, this coming from two other reviews as well as the production company that made it.

Film critics, real ones, need to have a thorough education in movies, they need to know how films are made, why they are made and who made them. Directors and actors have patterns, as do writers and critics often take this into consideration.

Also they are knowledgable in the history of films, going back, yes, to the silent movies. The pros aren't always right, but they can write 1200 words in detail describing what elements of the movie are good and which aren't.

Does it really matter?

All that matters from the audience point of view is that they like it or hate it. If someone not in the business tells me they liked a movie, or didn't like it, I'll go with that. Very simple. But if they start telling me the editing was bad or the actors weren't very good, then we have a more difficult communication.

It's kind of like a Boeing 747 jet liner (and forgive me for this comparison), most people can tell you how an airplane flies, but only pilots and designers who how it actually flies. What I can do is to tell in detail why a movie works and sometimes doesn't work.

And even this is difficult, because I can be wrong in some ways also, but I can be amazingly objective, even on a film I didn't like. And I'll be right in describing the problems with the movie, I have learned something after 41 years in the business, not including my childhood when I realized that certain directors made better movies than others.

I have a friend who works in sales who sees herself as both a brilliant photographer and an expert in movie criticism. Truth is she is neither; digital cameras have made it easy for the average person to take pictures, but that's all they are.

And for her knowledge of films, it's limited to those entertainment TV shows and magazines. But she's constantly telling me soundbytes she's heard or read, which makes her even more of an expert.

There's an old saying about that and it goes like this: 

"Did you ever make a movie?"

"Well then f...k off." 

Okay, that's a little hardline. But sometimes you have to redeem your value. Incidentally that saying comes from a friend of mine when he was critical of a 40 yr film veteran.

What's amazing is that while people profess to know about movies, thanks to Entertainment Tonight, which in the 80's began giving week-end box office reports to the TV audience, they always insist that if I start talking about their work, I don't know anything about that.

I learned early on about opinions on the Internet and while I generally don't get involved in arguments, sometimes I do and realize that there's no real way to win an argument with anyone because it's not face to face.

I started way back in 1990, with Compuserve, the original IPS, even before AOL, and got hooked on forums. I saw how easily one could get drawn into arguments with people who really didn't even deserve a minute of my time.

Even the WGA Writers Action website, accessible only to WGA members gets into arguments, and these are all professionals. One such dispute went so far that one party was so devastated she was considering leaving the forum forever.

But like it or not, we are living in the world of people who know everything but as another saying goes;

The good news is that everyone can make a film.
The bad news is... that everyone can make a film.

And then there's also the legitimacy of a review. To that I offer the legendary Earl Dittman. Earl made a name for himself because he would call almost every new movie a great one. He'd say "Fast moving", "A fun ride", an "Instant Classic" and of course, "One of the best this year".

And of course, we started seeing his quotes on bad movies to which the studio was only too happy to include.  After a few years of this, his reviews became a joke in the industry.

And to that, I am preparing for the reading of Casualties of Love on Friday, we have a theater and actors and I'm looking forward to that. 

(Thurs: Final preparation for the reading)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Doubting the screenplay

Chris and I have decided to do the reading a week from tomorrow (Dec 10th) with the actors for Casualties of Love after a lot of stalling on my part mostly.

And that stalling comes with the fact that I will have to spend some money for the theater and for 5 actors who will each get what we call "gas money", but is really a sort of payment that barely could be a tankful. Also getting gas money is a production assistant who will probably operate the video camera and another assistant. I might also have a friend or two, directors, to watch and offer ideas afterwards. And I buy  lunch too.

The other reason for stalling is that I don't quite like the script. 

Yes, it's my script, and I want to do it, but I realize that something is missing in it and I don't know what it is.  Some people have read it and thought it was okay, but when I say something is missing, they offer a pile of suggestions. Unfortunately none of the suggestions led to a solution.

Is this a writer's block? I always answered the issue of writer's block by saying I couldn't afford to have writer's block. Certainly when a screenplay assignment is due, it has to be ready. 

But when it's my script for my film, I begin to have doubts. And not only for Casualties of Love, but for all my scripts. All 34 unproduced scripts and even some ideas.  One script that always inspires me is my favorite, Emperor of Mars, but yet, even that one has me uncertain some times.

Welcome to the world of the independent freelance writer. Any writer who is certain their script is perfect is rare, at least among the writers I know.

But what is the problem with Casualties?

I think it has to do with the last act. Simply put, I don't think it works. Yet. There is an ending and it's an okay ending, but somehow I know it can be better.

Fortunately that's why I'm having a reading of the screenplay; to find the holes and mistakes and bland dialog that stops the movie in it's tracks. A film has to move forward and every scene must move it a few more feet at a time.

Right now I have an ending that doesn't really offer a twist of any kind. And that's deadly as a bad ending can kill a sale. So right now, I'm waiting for the Patron Saint of Screenwriters to drop a friendly inspiration into my mind. But more than likely it will come from somewhere out of the hard drive in my brain that always comes to the rescue.

And it might happen today or tomorrow, or even at the reading where I at last get to hear the words spoken for the first time besides the hundred times I've heard them in my own mind. Writing is a lonely business and sharing can bring wonderful surprises -- or horrible realizations that what you've just written is awful.

But I'm also using the reading for a sales tool. Once completed I will take the video home and edit a promotional trailer, a 5 minute clip of the best material that I can show potential investors that I am serious. And that some money has already been spent on the project.

Investors don't like to be the first in, they would rather see someone else there first. Gives them a little more confidence that the project is real. Of course, the oldest saying in Hollywood (besides "I can put you in the movies") is "Don't invest your own money". Of course that suggests you have money in the first place.

So, today we tell the actors we chose that they are the lucky ones, they get to read the screenplay for Chris and I and my director friends. And I get to figure out the third

(Mon: Preparing for the next disappointments)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Did they change your script?

There is a website created by WGA writers and for WGA writers only. It's where we can rant, complain, argue and generally have some support and sympathy for our own. Not to say we always get along, there have been some pretty heavy disagreements from time to time.

There are some jokes about writers and forgive me if they offend you;
"Did you hear about the Polish actress -- she slept with the writer". 

"The writer on set, is like the hooker who's finished her work but is still hanging around. You don't really need her but you can't tell her to leave"

"Writer comes home, cop tells him his house has burned down, his wife assualted, his kids gone and his agent called. Writer reacts and says "My agent called?"

"Writers are just schmucks with Underwoods" (Jack Warner, studio head) 

There are probably many more, but those are the ones I have heard.

Then there was the time I was turned down for a writing job because I had a stammer (you know, like King George), they figured I'd write like I spoke. Really.

I posted my Christmas movie on the writer's website and got some nice comments. Then someone asked the one big question; "Did they change your script?"

This is one of the most feared subjects; the sanctity of the original screenplay. Imagine if you'rer working at a desk in an office and hand in your work, then your boss takes it to another staffer to rework and rewrite it.

This is also what often happens to writers; other writers rewrite them ad more than often, other writers rewrite the other writers. Sometimes it does make a better screenplay, mostly it creates mediocrity. TV writing is a hotbed of changes and since their schedules are shorter and more often (a TV show has to be filmed for every week) they change the script even when the episode is being made.

Features are different, since it is a one-of; not a series of films, but just one. Changes are also made, and on set but generally it's not as hectic as series.

So, did they change my beloved script? Short answer, "yes".

Did I mind? No.

First of all, it was about 75%  of my original words, for a writer that's a huge success. But they changed several scenes but this was done for a simple reason; the budget of the film was incredibly low, they filmed it in 12 days which is an almost unbelievable schedule.

And as I said in the previous blog, they filmed it in late August in blistering heat. Lots of fake snow had to be used. And they had to take some outdoor scenes I wrote and put them indoors simply because the outdoors couldn't be filmed. So several scenes were changed to indoor sets and they worked well.

There were some dialog changes but that's natural as actors and director often change bits of dialog here and there to make it sound more natural. I don't mind this either. And I don't really want to be on the set because then they'll ask me to come up with a line and I really don't want to. It's their baby now, they can diaper it.

It's also a screenplay that I knew would be made by others and I have the ability to let it go when they pay me. If they want more changes, I'll do them, but only if they pay. And that's WGA/WGC rules so I'm not being fussy.

The only thing I didn't like was that, in their haste, they didn't have time to grab more reaction shots or do another take or two that was better than what they had. But that's time and money.

And after all that, I liked the movie, it wasn't all mine, but 75% was and that's more than I expected. And I'm onto my next Christmas screenplay, even with all the Christmas movies out there, they want more.

(Thurs: Planning that damn reading this time for sure)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Travel Day review

At the risk of being honest, here's what I thought of my Hallmark movie The Town That Christmas Forgot. My biggest concern was not really the actors or the script - it was something a lot more obvious.

How do you make a feature-length movie that is set in a remote mountain town in the dead of winter, in a blizzard, on an extremely low budget and a 12-day schedule. And how do you do it in the heat of a summer day in southern Ontario? Some 1-hr TV episodes take longer and have budgets10 times as much.

Well, somehow they did it. The opening shot is an SUV driving through snow-capped mountains with some digital snow blowing by. And it worked just fine. Remember this is a Hallmark movie and the Hallmark audience is there for the story and the heart.

And on that beat, it works quite well, the cast is good, particularly Stephanie Belding, who has a million dollar smile, a producer friend said she should be a star. And Rick Roberts who plays the father is solid and fatherly, yet we see another side of him during an almost fatal accident. Lauren Holly, of Picket Fences fame holds up her end as the only "Hollywood star" in the movie.

There were changes in the script, but mostly due to budget constraints; I had characters searching for a lost man in the wilderness, they couldn't do this on their budget, as it was filmed on hot summer days in Hamilton.

Instead they opted for a mining accident with two characters; a great idea -- it's all interior and thus, they saved money. And ultimately,the scene was about the same thing as my original scene.

The production design is really well done, even on a light budget, down to the moo-moo creamers on the table. In case you're not old enough, those are coffee cream holders in the shape of a cow and you pour cream through the cow's mouth. I grew up with these items in cafes and wrote it into the screenplay.

You'll notice not a lot of exterior shots, and when they do one, it's usually a very limited angle of the entrance to a building, very few dollies if any.

And again, remember this isn't a $100 million Tim Burton movie; it's Hallmark and they do family, albeit probably a 1950's family. But more than a million people will have seen this movie by the time Christmas rolls around, and that's a million people who have seen my work.

Are there things I didn't like. Sure, but not many. There were some awkward edits which I attribute to the director simply not having much time to do more takes or reaction shots. And sometimes the whole town is represented by 3 or 4 actors, larger groups would cost too much, but every movie has these problems.

The worst part of the movie: The constant titles on the screen advertising movies and the hideous "30 Days" to Christmas balloon on the bottom right of the screen. At least they didn't have news headlines running along the bottom.

Bottom line from the producer; "it works because it has heart".

(Mon: Back to Casualties)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Click on new schedule above for Town That Christmas Forgot with both US and Canadian time slots and channels, otherwise nothing new for the rest of the week as Thanksgiving takes over the next several days as Americans eat and shop. I'm cooking for my American friends and just might slip in some poutine! Eh?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving and my movie

Since Thanksgiving is coming up, the entertainment town has literally shut down. The big guys have run off to Aspen and Santa Barbara and Vegas, leaving their lessors to answer the phones and plan their own dinners.

So it goes with Badland Company, the staff have the week off, the "staff" being me. And maybe that hummingbird that greets me every morning, waiting outside the window for the Loquat tree to blossom again.

It took me years to figure out why Canadian thanksgiving is more than a full month ahead of the American holiday. It was patiently explained to me by an old man who said simply, "our winter comes earlier." Duh.

But this year, there's an added bonus for me, and that's my Hallmark TV movie will premiere on November 25. Thanksgiving Day, a great timeslot. It's also going to run several times right up to Christmas. The movie, starring Lauren Holly, will also play on Canadian TV on the W Channel aka the Women's Channel. They also placed it in aother great timeslot, Christmas Day. Two showings.

I even have the initial schedules for both cable channels. One thing to remember is that the times listed are EST, so if you're on the Pacific and have satellite, it's usually 3 hours behind. Meaning 8pm in EST is 5pm PST.

So here goes:

W Channel (check time zones for right time)

Dec 1   10pm
Dec 14   7pm
Dec 18   1pm
Dec 19   3pm
Dec 21   7pm
Dec 25   4pm
Hallmark Channel (all are EST timezones, could be 1-3 hrs difference)

Nov 25  8pm & 10pm
Dec 1    8pm
Dec 5    2pm
Dec 6   12:00am

You can also see a webpage at 

There will be additional screenings for Hallmark after December 6th, so I'll post those when I get them.

About the movie, consider this; It was filmed in Hamilton, south of Toronto in late August. Remember, this is a Christmas movie, an "evergreen". My screenplay begins with a fierce snowstorm and I'm curious to see how that can be filmed in late August/early September.

CGI maybe. Probably, but the budget was really low, around the $1.1 million range and you don't get a lot of production value for that. Also consider it takes place in a dying coal mining town with lots of extras that revolve around a pageant thought up by a local woman.

I haven't seen the movie yet, they are sending me a copy but I'll have my TiVo on anyways. It's a nice little friendly movie, and I hope it works. I've already got the sequel on my mind and have received some good interest.

And as far as the business, it pretty much slows down after Thanksgiving, the month of December is more of a clean-up and look pretty month, not to mention the best time for tourists as travel slows down in the 3 weeks between the two holidays. The town is virtually empty, well, sort of, lines are shortest during that time at Universal and Disneyland and all the other parks.

So have a good short week, eat lots of turkey, that tryptophane is a myth. I'll be cooking for my close friend and his daughter and we'll finish dinner just in time to watch The Town Christmas Forgot at 5pm in L.A.

(Thurs: Turkey!!)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why that Actor and not the other...

This is often the most mysterious aspect of casting; why do you pick one person over the other. My earliest experiences in casting were for commercials which I directed as well as writing a few also. This was mostly local commercials and a handful of nationals.

Once, I had the dream assignment for a commercial I was directing.  My assignment was to find a beautiful blonde woman for a newspaper commercial. I was ready for this and when I arrived at the casting, I learned there would be 35 blonde women around the 25 year old range. 

As it turned out, it wasn't fun, it was harder than anything I'd done till then. Why? Because I was really trying to find the right actress, the one with that extra bit of personality or, as we like to say; "presence".

Presence is what MarilynMonroe had. I had read that if Marilyn was in a room, she wouldn't be noticed that much, but put her on the big screen and she shouted presence. Or "Star quality", as others might call it.

But after about the 23rd blonde actress, I honestly didn't have any idea of whom to cast. And when the 24th blonde actress entered, I actually couldn't speak. She sat down and I just stared at her.  Not because she was pretty, but because I had seen so many in the last 2  hours that I had overdosed on blonde.

Yeah, I know, sure Jim, it's tough job. My reaction was to laugh, not at her, but at the absurdity of what I was doing. The poor girl wasn't sure what to do, and I tried my best to explain that I wasn't laughing at her. I always do my best for actors and actresses to make them feel comfortable, wanted and needed. But after 23 of them, they all began to look the same.

And that's where the casting for Casualties of Love comes in. We had to cast 3 male leads, around 40 years old and a female lead around 21. We videotaped all 12 people that we had narrowed down from about 50. One great thing is the website I mentioned, "Now Casting" as it not only has head sheets but also video clips of some of the actors.

I decided to read the male actors with the same sides, a few pages of dialog. From this Chris and I could decide who the better actors were and thus, we could make the different parts work for whichever actor was best suited.

Now there are as many ways to cast as there are directors and casting directors. Since we are on a low budget, we were also the casting directors. The actors came in, they read for the parts and they left.

Usually Chris and I exchanged opinions right after an actor would leave and there would be 10 minutes before the next actor entered. But evaluating an actor's live performance and how they come across on video are sometimes two different things.

We had 4 girls for the 21-year old role and both Chris and I settled on one particular girl who had good reactions in her reading, very subtle rather than over-the-top. The men were different, each one had their method of acting, some memorized the pages, others never even looked at the script until they arrived.

Some were more forceful than others, some quiet, some flat. I always find it curious how 8 actors can say the same lines and yet be so different. I tend to go with honesty, by that I mean which performance sounds real and honest. Think Robert Duvall, who continues to be so subtle that sometimes you don't know he's acting.

But a few days later, after I cut the video into clips and shared it with several friends, all of whom were directors or writers or even actors. And a whole new list appeared. The 21-year old role seemed to work better by a girl who used motions, rather than the subtle one.

And the men came across as almost exactly as they did live, except for an exception or two. And after two weeks, and more comments from my film friends (male and female), I reconsidered some of the choices again.

As of now, I'm going to look at the casting dvd again, this time with the distance I had by going to Toronto for 10 days. Since the reading will take place in the next week or so we need to solidify our choices.

And even then, nobody knows exactly how these 5 actors will work with each other, which ones will shine and which will not. Or maybe they all will. Wouldn't that be nice.

(Mon: Mars)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Picking actors

For the last week since I got back Chris and I are selecting actors for the script reading. It can also be called a table read for the lead cast with dialog to sit around a table and read their lines. Smaller roles are not really needed at the read.

This reading is a little different in that it's not for the film. It's just for me. 

At this point, Casualties of Love still has not been passed around potential investors. This will begin after this reading. In fact there's no guarantee that any of the actors I select will even be in the filming of Casualties. I was sure to tell them exactly that.

So why would they want to read a script that they might not even be hired for? 

Well, a gig is a gig, and one more step for an actor in their journey for attention and bigger parts. It's also something they can use on their credits. As I've mentioned in other blogs, credits are the lifeblood of an actor, director and writer. If your last credit was 4 years ago you don't exist anymore in the minds of agents and producers.

This theory goes with the suggestion that since nobody's hired you, then you must be either too old, not very good or hard to work with . Yep, it's a cold, hard business. AndI haven't had a credit in 4 years. But it's a lot harder for actors than writers, writers are the only people in film who don't have to have a job to work.

By that I mean we can write screenplays, "specs" as they're called. In fact the Hallmark movie called The Town That Christmas Forgot which will premiere November 25th, which I wrote, was a spec script, meaning there was no producer who had hired me to write it. It was literally "discovered" in a stack of other screenplays at Hallmark.

Specs are risky, they mostly don't get sold. I still have 34 specs on my "shelf" that haven't sold. I'm a little different then other writers though, I am very prolific, writing at least one or two specs a year. It's paid off several times.

And why can't I guarantee that one or all actors at the reading will be in the movie? This is where business begins to interfere with art. I need money to make Casualties. Not a lot, in fact very little, maybe as low as $10,000. After all my friend Randy at Doubleshot Films made 2 movies for $10,000.

And there's one thing about investors; they're going to want to see some guarantees when it comes to investing their money, even at $10,000. And that revolves around two things; distribution and cast.

What's the first thing anyone asks I say I'm making a movie? It's those three little words, the same, every time.

Who's in it?

So my investors will want to see who I can get for practically nothing. Remember that even low budget investors always think it's a big movie with a crew of 70 and stars... even for my miniscule budget that allows for donuts rather than cupcakes. My budget isn't even the cost of parking for big movies.

But yes, they'll want to see a "name", someone who has been in a big movie and that the dvd cover will show that name with a reference to the actor's participation. After the investors realize that I can't get George Clooney for the part (and  believe me, I've been asked that by investors more than once) they will settle for less.

More like someone who had a supporting role in a George Clooney movie.

So I can't guarantee these actors a part in the real movie. I can sure try to have them, fight for them and to be honest, they probably will be in the movie. But I'm upfront with the reality... they might not be in it.

See where I'm going. This reading coming up is primarily for me, so I can hear the words being spoken and -- acted. I will take notes as well as record it on digital video. Afterwards I will go through the whole screenplay again, filling in holes, cutting back long speeches, generally trimming it to a tight screenplay.

And the actors will give their all, as most actors do, because that's what they do.

(Thurs: The Reading)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Have we seen it all?

On a little departure, but still within the film business, I'd like to bring in a debate that my friends and I have quite often.

Why are movies now so bad -- or are they? 

First, this analogy, I saw an ad in today's LA Times for the new Audi. What does a car have to do with movies? Well, look at the car. Yes, it's a pretty car, and the reviews remark on it's "fresh design". But is it really fresh.

To be honest, it looks a lot like every other car today. 

Can't they come up with a really new radical design? Or have they just run out of ideas for anything new. Have they seen every possible design for a new car. Is there nothing left? 

And you know where this is going.

Movies, TV, music. Have we reached the point where there's nothing new left? Being of the aging baby boomer species we often agree that simply, we have seen every kind of plot, every twist and every idea ever used in a movie or TV show. I started attending movies at the age of 8, which means I have had exposure over 56 years of watching stories unfold on every type of screen.

But ironically, I hear this from younger people, especially those under 30, like the kids who attended the Ghostkeeper screening. In a dialog after the screening they  mostlyt agreed that the product coming out now was simply not very good.  And that's one of the reasons they came to see Ghostkeeper, and all the other obscure movies.

For the record, Ghostkeeper is not a great movie, there are major flaws in it, but the ambience of the movie and the feeling is what really worked.

But have we run out of ideas?

Look at the spat of movies this year, remakes, sequels and overdone romantic comedies.

There is the argument that today's young writers who grew up in  the mean streets of suburban shopping malls and vacations to Hawaii have no stories to tell. One of the stories they seem to favor is this; 

Young man returns to his home town to find old girlfriend and a distant father ends up with his dog dying. 

That is a movie. I saw it. Now consider this one: 

Young man returns to home to come to terms with sick dad and has to deal with the wealthy life he left behind. And sleeps with his brother's girlfriend. 

Both ideas sound the same. Except for one thing. The first movie came and went, the second went on to become a classic movie.

It was called 5 Easy Pieces and starred Jack Nicholson. I don't remember the name of the actor in the first one.

So what's different? It's the same question as where are the great actors of today. Most of the leading men in their 30's are just not very interesting now, compared with the past. One feminist referred to the Leos and Brads and Eds were nothing more than "little lesbians". Oddly enough women actors are much more evident, better and have more presence than the young male actors who are more eye candy than having presence.

I'd take Cate Blanchett over Ed Norton anyday.

Another element is that the writers before me and up to my generation came from hard times, wars and a generational change that still influences the world today. You get a lot of stories if you've been in war, Rod Serling was in war and most of his stories dealt with the oddities he saw.

Is it far to compare timeframes when debating this; maybe, maybe not. There are exceptions; movies that are unique, or movies that simply take your breath away. Avatar was a spectacular movie but the screenplay was pure 1970's. And movies like Winter Bone are simple yet moving.

And not all movies from the 1940's to 1970's were good, there were a lot of good ones, but also a lot more bad ones. It's just that the good ones now are average and the bad ones really bad.

What do you think?

(Mon: The Singularity)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Curious Diversion

Sorry for the long empty blog the past 2 weeks, something interesting came up and I went to Toronto. In doing so, I completely forgot my passwords and couldn't get on the blog.

So what was so interesting?

There has been a small but faithful following that has been growing around the first feature I ever did, Ghostkeeper, which I wrote and directed and produced through my Badland company way back in 1980.

As most who read this blog know, the movie sort of came and went. But in the late 90's, it became a minor cult film in Germany and England, there were even good reviews!!

Last month I got a call from Jonathan Culp in Toronto who had acquired a 16mm print and asked if I wanted to introduce the screening and do a Q&A afterwards. Ironically Toronto isn't my favorite city but I figured it would be fun.

So on the day, I gathered three friends, Jim, Dave and Steve as my "peeps" and we entered a low ceiling basement in a late 1800's brick warehouse that once was a coffin factory. Perfect.

I was greeted by the owner and Jonathan, who had called me, there were a handful of people (I expected maybe 5 in total) already there, in costumes presumably for Halloween. We were led to the "Green room" and offered beers or liquor and for a moment, we felt like those guys in the HBO show Entourage. Just a lot lower on the food chain.

I was called out to intro the movie and the house now was around 70 or so,  all of whom were probably not born when Ghostkeeper was made in 1980. The screening was great, laughs at the bad stuff, groans, some genuine scares in which my friends and I also participated in the comments.

When it was over, they had a raffle and I picked the grand prize, which was a collection of old movies and some t-shirts. I signed 3 autographs, and we talked with the kids for an hour or so and then hit the nearby bar until 2am.

There was more on my agenda than just watching Ghostkeeper, I also saw friends I hadn't seen for up to 10 years and I met my ex-wife whom I hadn't seen in 26 years. She cooked a great dinner and we started too catch up to our present lives, which, after that long, barely got started. If you've seen Avatar, you might remember the line "I see you" near the end, it was most appropriate for our evening. And if you haven't, you should look it up.

(Thurs: casting on Casualties of Love)

Thursday, October 28, 2010


My first feature was a suspense-thriller called Ghostkeeper, which I wrote and directed way back in 1980 through my Badland Pictures company. At that time I lived in Calgary and a friend of mine, Doug MacLeod, knew the son of the owner of the Deer Lodge Hotel in the nearby Rocky Mountains.

The hotel is right beside the famous Chateau Lake Louise, known all over the world. The Deer Lodge was much smaller and not as well known. It was also closed during the winter.

Doug and I figured out a basic plot; young couple get trapped in the empty hotel by a mad woman and chaos ensues.

It did a bit of business, got some good reviews, primarily for the spooky ambience and some bad reviews like "worst movie ever made". I used local actor friends and a union crew and we shot it for around $650,000 which would be roughly equivilent to around $1.5 million today.

My Vancouver friend John Holbrook shot it and did a beautiful job considering it was often below zero temperatures and real snow falling. And I got a great editor, Stan Cole, who edited, among others, the classic A Christmas Story. Both of them helped make it better.

But what happened afterwards was truly amazing.

About 5 years ago, I noticed more reviews of Ghostkeeper, even though it had been out of circulation for almost 25 years. Horror fans in Germany and England were finding copies of it and watching it. Again reviews were mixed, "great movie" or "horrible movie".

Then I heard that the kids that get hired to work the Deerlodge Hotel, now open all year, actually found copies and would watch it together.

Then I got a call from a British critic who raved about it, followed by a British distributor who wants to release it as a DVD.

Just goes to show you that if you wait long enough, someone will say something nice about you.

Then, last month, I got an email from someone in Toronto who found a 16mm print of the movie and was going to show it to his cult film group and wanted me to attend.

Now the truth is, Ghostkeeper isn't a great movie, it was my first screenplay and had some flaws. We had financial problems during the last week and as a result I couldn't shoot the spectacular ending I had written. 

So I made up the last 20 minutes. Every day I would go to the hotel and find out who we had in terms of the small cast. Then I figured out what we could do for nothing, then we filmed it. And somehow, Stan put it together so that it had a sense of coherence.

What I learned was that, even now, it gets differing reviews. But it doesn't really matter because the good ones are good, the bad ones don't get it. It does have a creepy atmosphere, from the real steam that comes from the actor's breath to the real snowfalls that we filmed at around -25 F.

I am the first one to admit that some of my movies weren't very good. Some are not bad, a few are pretty good. But Ghostkeeper was a surprise to me, I had all but forgotten about it. And it's where I learned a great lesson, find the best cameraperson and editor that you can afford because in the end, they will save you.

So... I am taking time off to go to T.O. and introduce the movie to the horror/suspense crowd and then sit back and answer questions afterwards. I'm also going to visit family and put a bit more closure on my mom's passing.

Casualties of Love is on hold for 2 weeks, actually I'll be doing a rewrite on it, so it's not completely on hold. We hope to do the reading around the 2nd week of November and then after that I hunt for money to film it.

Here's one review that's relatively good and believe it or not, this is the mood I was going for:

Director JIM MAKICHUK thankfully resists gilding the lily and permits the frozen Canadian landscape to play its own chilly tune. There’s no spray-on frost on these windowpanes. Snow encrusted trees tower like glittering skyscrapers and we’re shown that walking a few feet through the accumulation is a feat in and of itself. Filmed on location in a preexisting lodge/hotel, the devil’s in the details everywhere you look.

(Mon: What the fans say)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Casting Actors Pt2

We had a good start on Friday casting two roles for Casualties of Love. The two roles were "Andrea", described as someone who "carries an on/off confidence"  and "Kenny" described as a person who "admits to an ordinary life".

There are five roles in the entire screenplay, my Irish/British friend Chris will play the "aging rock and roller", and we have another actor who will play another role.

So I used the role of Kenny to audition seven actors who would become either Kenny, Michael or Lou. This was a quicker way to do it for our low budget purposes; all we need are 2 really good actors for the other male roles and, with seven reading, we were sure we'd find them.

We rented a small theater just off Sunset for $25/hr. It's a small complex of 3 theaters adapted from storefronts that were vacant. I rented the biggest one as it had a lobby attached and could serve as a waiting area for actors, large enough that they wouldn't be crowded.

Chris did the most work, he had posted a notice of our needs (October 7, 2010 blog) on and had about 35 actors respond. We could see their headshots and even some video clips on the website. It's quite helpful and saves having to deal with agents and managers who might make demands like money.

I know they have to make a living, but my budget simply doesn't have that much money. There were only two of us - Chris and me, to handle casting chores. I typed up a notice to put on the door and some "sides" (2-4 pages of dialog from the script) in the lobby and then set up my own digital video camera on a tripod.

I've written about casting and how it seems intimidating both for the actors and me, but I seemed to slip into it easily, since the actors are all friendly, whether this is real or not doesn't really matter, and Chris and I are relatively easy to deal with.

We had four younger girls who  would play a 17-year old tall girl, I wanted someone tall so that she could appear to handle herself in the company of four men, not only in the role but also off-camera. We decided to get a production assistant who would be a woman also to make our "Andrea" more comfortable.

As they began to read their parts, with Chris reading his part, I began to see holes in the screenplay as well as watching the performances. That's why a reading is so good for anything, series or movies. There is one piece of dialog for Andrea to say dealing with recording equipment and when the first girl read it, it sounded way too complicated for the audience to understand. I made a note of that; SIMPLIFY.

Each of the girls handled the role in a different way, some used a lot of physical expressions while others sat quietly with subtle looks. Subtle works best for my script. I also began to realize that the role was "too young", that it should be someone older, maybe 20.

I firmly believe that casting is subjective, I might think someone is good, Chris might think they're average and unless it's Meryl Streep I don't think any director is really sure if they've made the right choice.

Our group of actors were pretty much an eclectic group; some memorized the 2-4 pages of dialog, some didn't. Some needed to do 2 takes, others nailed it the first time. There's no real rules to this either, actors can be as different as possible from each other.

All of the actors we looked at were unrecognizable faces, they had roles in TV series, some movies I never heard of, and maybe a few supporting roles in features that were released. The girls were young, maybe 18 to 24, I'm guessing, and the men were close to 40 which was the age group I was looking for.

What was lacking was a diversity, they were all like me, except for a few Hispanics and one thick-accented Italian Swiss actor whom I couldn't really use as someone who grew up in Los Angeles. I never put specific ethnic groups in the casting list and don't know why I didn't get more ethnic groups.

This subject often comes up and hits a bit of a wall with writers; do we write characters based on ourselves or diversity. I grew up with little diversity, my home town's only diversity was my own ethnic group; Ukrainians, who often experienced subtle but mean-spirited discrimination up until the early 1960's.

A prime-minister of Canada once said that the country should return the vomit to the country that threw it up. Nice words for a leader of the country, eh? And Ukrainians were often forced to change their recognizable last names if they wanted work in the cities.

Later, growing up a teen in Windsor, Ontario, I knew only French-Canadians and Italians. The only other ethnic groups I ever saw were in movies. That would change when I began to work in TV in Detroit.

Thus the idea of casting with different ethnic groups can become a confllict between art and political correctedness. In Emperor of Mars, I originally had one character an African American which actually would be valid.

I based it on the fact that there were many African American communities on the prairies of the midwest. My character was also not a supporting one, but a lead opposite the other lead.

The irony was that there were no African Americans in my little town in western Canada, nor within a few hundred miles as far as I knew. So historically, my character of Nicodemus would not have existed in my community. Same went for Hispanics. But the character of Nicodemus was an enigma of sorts, an "everyman" and he would stand out in that community because, at the end of the movie, you understand why.

However, there were many Chinese who worked the railroads in Canada and a lot settled in small towns opening "Chinese-Canadian" cafes as well as the stereotypical laundries. I did include them in Emperor, as well as a Jewish family.

And there is a strong undercurrent of discrimination throughout Emperor of Mars, it was what I remembered and what  still is part of me after all these years. You never forget others making you feel less than them.

But discrimination isn't an issue in Casualties of Love, and as I watched each actor do their thing, I noticed that, while they looked similar, each had a different take to the material.

The thing you want, I think, is to believe the actor reading your dialog in front of you. It doesn't matter who they are, what color they are or anything else; you need to believe that they are that person for 2 minutes.

Some use body motion, others sit still, some lean forward and some walk around the stage but ultimately the question is do I believe them. And when I realize I'm not being critical of the actor in front of me, when I suddenly realize I'm listening to the character I created on paper come to life... I know something is there.

And if they take my words and make them even better in tone or attitude, that's what you look for in casting. With stars, it's mostly the look and the name and whether or not they are available. You're buying a franchise, not an actor.

But with these actors reading for me, I focus more on the acting and the ability they have to take me into a world that I created and that doesn't really become alive until the actors reach the emotional level that makes them real.

No matter who or what they are.

(Thurs: Picking Actors)