Wednesday, March 31, 2010

H&H Part 7 - Preproduction

The big day arrives. We began pre-production. We're using the big room, as now every department from props to camera to make-up is here. It's where everyone gets to throw their in their two cents worth and to remind every other department how indispensable they are. It's here where they tell the others they can't possibly do what is required...

... But because they're so brilliant, they will find a way.

It's a meeting I prefer to avoid.

As my cameraman friend said;  "It really takes 3 people to make a film, a writer, a cameraman and an actor."

And he is right to an extent. But right now we've got about 30 people in the room and each one gets a chance to say their piece. Things are accomplished thru power and intimidation. And Mahon's favorite expression here is "it'll be what it'll be". In other words,  don't start getting big ideas.

And Writers are known for creating the most problems, after all they write the scripts with imagination and creativity and thus don't really know how hard it is to actually re-create some things on the set.  And to some extent they are right. Especially if the writers are amateurs like Kaplan.

But most of the writers I know are perfectly capable of writing something that can be done, so I'm not too worried.

And again, the crew doesn't really like the writers, nobody sees us work, we float in and out, maybe step onto the set now and then, and have to be consulted about many things like "what did you have in mind for a late model sportscar?"

Writers don't really have many friends on a shoot, although we tend to hang our more with "above the line" people rather than below the line. There's a joke from a Woody Allan movie wherein an office exec asks if it's legal for someone above the line to marry someone below the line.

What it is is this; above the line refers to the creative people, writers, actors, directors and the producer. Everyone else is below the line. There is an unwritten law that these different classes do not mix all that well. After all I can talk about writing while a gaffer talks about his HMI lighting kit. Not all that much in common.

I have a bit more empathy to the crew as I have worked at almost every job on a film set and can do many of them so I tend to make friends amongst the crew and certainly on this show, stay away from the above the lines, because so far all they've done is betray my trust.

Mahon excels at these meetings, there is noticeable conflict between her and Kaplan and somehow I sense Kaplan has the upper hand despite his lack of talent and inexperience. I wonder if this is because he's male and she's not. It occurs more often than not on movie and TV productions.

I know the DP, the Director of Photography, Jorn Olsen, we worked together on a previous series and he's a good cameraman and a good friend. He confirms my feelings that this show will not be as much fun as the one we worked on.

As they all go over the first script, big things get smaller. The star's grand lodge is now a modest dining room, our Ranger cabin is not as elaborate as we had written because "we couldn't get that big cabin". And it continues getting smaller. But this is normal on all shows although there's less of the good stuff here mostly because of the lack of work on the producer's part.

I also meet Ben Cooper, a production designer who has mutual friends. A big, bearded man, Ben sits quietly through-out the meeting although he doesn't miss a beat. Later we talk about our mutual friends and he confirms my feelings once again,  he seems to take to Kaplan andMahon like a root canal.

I now have Beth, the accountant, Jorn, the cameraman and Ben the production designer on my side. It makes me feel a little more confident.

I'm asked if I can change a few things and they're mostly cosmetic although I don't give in easily just to establish my position.

By the end of the meeting, all departments have established their power in the room, although there is a definite arrangement. The below-the-line food chain goes like this;

The production manager is the sergeant major of the production. Their job is to keep the show moving, to make sure everything is where it's supposed to be from actors to caterers. They plan the shooting schedule and push the director when needed to hurry up.

The Camera department is next; after all they create the look of the show visually. A good example is the X Files show, it's style was dark and wet (due to being shot in Vancover) but it suited the stories which were dark and twisted and eerie. My friend John Bartley was the DP for the first 4 years and did a remarkable job that is still copied to this day.

I put the Production Design department after the Camera department, which some would dispute. I go back to my friend's idea that 3 people can make a movie. And you need a camera more than you need someone to build the inside of a house. But production design is important if you have the money. I shot Ghostkeeper in an old hotel and we didn't add one single item to the set, it was all there. We didn't even hire a production designer.

Sound comes next, usually a Soundperson and a boom person. The boom person holds an extendable pole with a microphone at the end for some scenes. Other scenes use wireless mikes. Sound is as important as picture to me and they can be as creative as the DP and the writer and director.

Next come the various technical departments, the gaffers, essentially electricians, the grips, who operate cranes and dollies, the makeup and hair, script supervisor, transportation, location managers, caterers and others I can't think of right now.

And either they or their head people are at this meeting. And they all have at least one complaint.

Finally the meeting is over and I head out for a beer at the Peak, a bar within a hotel which has slowly become our hangout place. I sit to a husky bearded man who is slightly drunk and who tells me he has a 3/4 wolfdog. This is like having a Porsche in LA, something to be proud of. But the Rangers have told me these half wolf/half dog mutations often have to be shot by rangers after they suddenly "go wild" and rip a kid's hand off.

Rangers would prefer people not breed these types of dogs but right now, this guy thinks it's great. Then he changes to talk of grizzlies including a stuffed one in this hotel, which was killed by a train while sitting on the track.

And if that wasn't enough, he also tells me of a woman ranger who got killed by a "griz" because she was having her period and the bear smelled the blood. I've heard this before but wasn't sure if that was just an urban myth.

But just in case, I'll be careful who I walk out in the woods with.

Later in my little suite, I call a friend in L.A. who tells me two cops were shot execution style nine times when they pulled over a car. He followed up with a bomb going off in a San Bernardino police station and a cop coming out of another station was shot by a 10-year old kid.

Here in Jackson, it's snowing and the town is quiet.

Monday, March 29, 2010

25 years later

Last Thursday I got an email from a fan who had seen a movie I made back in 1986, The Tower, and who thought it was a great little cult film. This was totally unexpected as the movie was low budget ($25,000) and shot on ancient 3/4" video which cannot even compare to the quality of consumer HD cameras you can buy now for a few hundred dollars.

Back in 1986 3/4" video was an accepted format, being that there was no digital video yet, not even for the networks who used 1" or 2" videotape.

The email said that a group of movie fans were screening the film on Saturday, along with a short I had made with my partner in Vancouver in 1975. My initial response was shock, as the movie is not very good at all. In hindsight, though, I came to realize it's one of those offbeat movies that a small but tight audience of 20-somethings enjoys watching.

The Tower is based on real technology wherein sensors in office buildings capture heat from human beings and converts it to energy. This exists in cold weather areas in Canada and the U.S.

My take was what if the sensors also captured feelings, like love and hate, and as it captured those feelings it wanted more. Much the same way humans want more. And it begins killing humans to get more love and/or hate.

I got the go-ahead from a producer called Lionel Schenken who was the Roger Corman of his day, making movies for very little in partnership with a local TV station. He paid the creative side and the TV station supplied the crew in exchange for Canadian rights. Lionel sold international rights and made a ton of money.

The trade-off was that it had to be made for little actual cash and that meant home-made effects and non-union actors. In addition the crew was primarily experienced at hockey games and didn't really care about actors. 

There were a lot of fights with them, but I finally finished it, edited the first cut of the movie and turned it over to another editor for cleaning up.

Then I forgot about it. In fact I didn't even mention it in any of my credits. I made a few dollars and never wanted to see it again.

Until this group of Toronto cheapo movie fans discovered it. Someone once said that if you wait long enough, someone will say something nice about you.

So there it was, a screening. I did a video intro from Los Angeles and uploaded it to the fan in Toronto, who screened it for the audience. He shot video while there and it looked like a lot of laughing and fun. They even found two actors who were in the movie which was also great.

I'm not sure I would have gone to Toronto just for that, but what was interesting was this; one of the actors, Kenner Ames, said he didn't quite believe that we had made this funny little movie and he was now, after 24 years, standing in front of an audience talking about it.

I didn't quite believe it either.

But then again, my horror feature Ghostkeeper, has a bigger following and a distributor who wishes to re-release it as a special edition.

The irony is my best work gets very little attention.

But what the hell, take whatever they give you.

The best remark was from one of the audience, many of whom have now found me on Facebook, when he said "it's not a great movie, but it's better than a lot of the stuff we see now".

Go figure.

(Wed: H&H cont'd)

Friday, March 26, 2010

H&H Part 6 - They Wait

Jonathan and Kaplan are waiting in our new office, as seen above. It's bigger than the other rooms and the motel put in a long convention table where we can sit across from each other. Sort of like Reagan and Gorbachov during the SALT talks.

With one exception, they didn't try to humiliate each other or throw big phone books at each other. This will come later. 

As mentioned we have only 4 of the 12 scripts needed for the series which begins in late fall. And just to make it difficult the last 4 episodes will be filmed first so that the winter we have now (you can see the snow outside the sliding door) will be shown at the end of the season next winter.

Make sense?  Well, it's not unusual for a movie, but series have some problems with shooting the last episodes before the first ones. And this has to do with two main factors: 

The actors and the writers. 

It takes the actors a while to "grow"into their roles, and I accept that, as they need to find the characters. Whereas a movie is a "one-of" it's not so hard as it's one movie.  But think of a series as 12 movies (albeit 1 hr movies) so it can be hard for some actors to play what they are at the end. They need to play the part awhile so they can make it more real. It's a legitimate request.

And then there's the writers. They too need time to figure out the characters, roles can change as we learn which actors are better than others and which ones the audience seems to like the most. You can never tell what will happen in a series. Maybe a lead actor can drop out, be fired or die. It has happened.

Take Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard. It was written for Sybil but, according to a friend who directed several episodes, it was quite clear from the first episode that Willis was the attraction, no doubt due to the fact that he was and is a very good actor. And Cybil became very "difficult" to work with.

I worked on a series with Stuart Margolin, a great character actor whose biggest role was Angel on Rockford Files. Stuart is smart, talented and wise. Let me explain;

The series had a woman in the lead who was not really very good. However she was the lead. We would have table readings (on tables like the pic above) where the entire cast of any particular episode would read thru the script. Not really acting, just reading. These would include the guest stars of that episode as well as the regulars.

Since Stuart was really the most experienced actor, the others would follow his lead. What you have to avoid here is to not let one actor get stuck on his lines and start suggesting changes. Because what happens next is the other actors take their cue and start asking for changes in their lines.

And this can destroy an entire script in less than 1 hour. Without control, you can end up having to write new lines for even someone with 1 sentence to say.  There's an old actor's joke about an actor reading a new script for his lines; "bs, bs, my line, bs, bs, my line" and so on.

What Stuart taught me was this; after a reading, we would instantly ask Stuart what he thought. He'd consider it for a beat and then say, "I'm alright with it." The others would take their cue, nobody would dare bring up a problem if the most experienced and famous actor was "okay with it."

It was brilliant. 

Because, after the reading, Stuart would wander over to my office or Kim's and, in private, suggest a few changes in his dialog. And more than often, his lines were better than mine.

So, back at the office now, Jonathan has taken time to leave his condo to join the group and  looks his usual gaunt self, Kaplan is Kaplan and Mahon now serves us notice; she needs scripts ready to go in order to plan the shooting schedules.

Mahon is in her 40's, has paid her dues with the company and now has to deal with Kaplan,who has no experience, and they both have producer titles. And it's clear by her words and her manner that this must make her crazy some times.

But she's right. Kaplan assures her that they'll be ready. Jonathan and I glance at each other, knowing full well we don't have the time since 8 scripts have not even been written yet. Then I hear a minor bombshell.

They're bringing in another writer, Rino Tersigne, who I do not know.  My first thought is that he's coming in to replace me. But conversation changes to the printer that we still don't have. Kaplan's senseless answer is 'we planned on it but it's not gonna happen".

I ask what will we give our cast, not to mention the crew. There's silence, then Mahon suggests we use the accountant's printer. I remind them it's dot-matrix with a wide carriage suited for spread sheets, not scripts. Not to mention that Beth, the accountant and her assistant use it all the time.

Mahon says "guess you'll just have to use it when they're not".

I know what you're thinking. THIS is what big time writers and producers talk about??

It's all true, word for word, and I just wanted to give you an idea of what a bad TV show is, how petty and how idiotic it can get.

Next we argue about Software, of which there are two main screenwriting softwares, Screenwriter, which I prefer and use, and Final Draft which they use. There is some compatibility here, but we decide to use whichever ones we prefer.

Besides, we still don't have a printer.

Then Kaplan lies about my overdue check, says it was sent to the company office instead of here. How do I know he was lying?  Remember how nice I was to the accountant and why it was important. Because she writes the checks.

And she told me later that Kaplan droppped off my 2-week old invoice just before he came into this meeting. 

Later I read his rewrite of Kaplan's script and it still was bad, I wondered how he ever got this job and figured it was just his talking and lying skills. Jonathan went to a nearby bar to read over the new drafts, which seemed to confirm the idea that he drank whenever he could. I actually feel sorry for him a little, but then I remember Vancouver.

After the meeting, I hit one of the town bars, it's been less than a week and I already have local friends who are thrilled to know a TV writer but also I appreciate their normalness.  As I walk back to my hotel at night, and pass by deer sleeping on lawns, I see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, great smears of green that undulate across the star-filled sky.

I think it over, yes, there's aggravation and lies and betrayals, but I'm making good money, I'm doing what I love and tomorrow is another day.

(Mon: Preproduction)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

H&H Part 5- The Lay of the Land

Who's the most important person on a production, be it TV or features?

Easy. The accountant.

Why? Because they are ultimately the ones who pay you with something that's real. A check. Sure, the producer signs the check but the accountant is the one who makes them sign it.  Having the accountant on your side gets you that little piece of paper that translates into real cash.

And they can be nice about it, or they can be not nice about it. They can put it at the bottom of their "to-do" list, or at the top.

I am an accountant whore.

Accountants, aka bean counters, generally are not hip, cool dudes. They are numbers people, not creative types unless you count the ones in the stock market downfall, but that's another movie. They think of us creative types as bitchy, whining, demanding and general pains in the ass.

So the first thing I do is make friends. I have been known to bring flowers and chocolates if the head accountant is a woman, or a bottle of single malt whiskey if it's a man. Or sometimes both.

I am lucky this time. With three people already against me on the show I meet Beth who it turns out is friendly and street-savvy. And she thinks Kaplan is an idiot. I like her better with every hour.

Another reason to befriend the accountant is to gain access to the copy machine. That is worth it's weight in gold. Not to mention internet access.

We get along great and she even tells me she is concerned over the financial areas, there's too many things not worked out and a general lack of experience shooting on locations.

The show is already over budget. 

Filming on location is very expensive normally but this time it's going beyond that. We will have a full film crew and actors and new actors coming in each week to a small town in the mountains 6 hours away from the closest major airport. In good weather. And we still have a good month of winter.

What will cost the production is what we don't have. There is no studio here, not even an empty warehouse that we can make work. There are no film services that include film labs, equipment houses for cameras and lighting gear and hundreds of other things. 

The Executive Producer who wasn't from Vancouver made a deal for motel rooms at $35 a day, thinking that meals were included. They weren't. Whatever respect I  had for the producers seems to be dwindling by the minute.

Normally this kind of show would film in a studio lot in a bigger city and a second-unit crew would come out and film sequences that requires the actors being out among the mountains. Or at least an airport that could bring in what we need.

But not here. Cameras break down, we are screwed. We're shooting film and that has to be taken to a lab in Vancouver by car to the closest major airport, which again, is 6 hours away. Then more hours lost as the film waits to catch a plane to Vancouver.

And then there are the scripts.

We need 12 scripts.  So far we have 4 scripts, each around 50 pages or so, for a 1-hour episode. And they still need some work. But we don't have the remaining 8 scripts. I have two to write, Jonathan has 2 and we will hand 4 more to free-lance writers. Kaplan might get another but both Jonathan and I dread that.

The dream is to have all your scripts ready at the get-g0. This way you have lots of time to rewrite and clean them up. We begin shooting next week with only 4, meaning we will have to work as fast as we can to get the other 8.

And remember each script has to go to the network and production company offices over a thousand miles away. And it takes time for the executives and their flunkies and stooges as Jethro said in the classic Beverly Hillbillies series. And this can take days. And they can tell us to rewrite it again because it may feel "light" or "with no arc" or "soft".

Then there's the conference calls once a week wherein the network tells us what is working and not working -- for them.

Okay, it's not brain surgery. And it's not finding a cure for cancer.

But we're gonna earn our money, regardless.

I leave Beth and she says most of the crew already here usually ends up at the bar near my motel and she'll see me there. I'm glad we get along, for the obvious reasons of getting my money, but more importantly because she's someone I trust. And like.

Downtown Jackson is brisk with locals going about their business. There's a new breed here besides the railroad workers and the tourists. It's dozens of LL Bean dressed men and women who have for reasons of their own, left the cities they lived in behind and chosen God's Country.

They have bought souvenir stores, coffee houses, upscale clothing stores and restaurants. And they add a cosmopolitan air to the staid town. Not Aspen by a long stretch, but certainly a junior relative.

I stop at the local post office to see if any forwarded mail has come through and meet a friendly French girl who's cheerful demeanor is catching. She, like the entire town, knows about the filming to happen and is totally excited.  Outside I  meet a woman Ranger who also is friendly and offers advice on where the best hikes are, the best coffee, the best cafes and much more.

All of this beings a sense of community to me, they like us (so far) and want us to be here as it provides the local economy with more business during the winter slow period.

So for the moment, I'm in a good mood, enjoying the easiness of the life style here, surrounded by 12,000 foot peaks that are spectacular.

And of course, there's always the Chinese fortune cookie I got yesterday...  "could"??

(Friday: Part 7 - They Wait)

Monday, March 22, 2010

H&H Part 4 - The Town

The drive to Jackson, high in the Rockies is therapeutic, away from Jonathan and Kaplan and having to deal with their agendas, each of which are basically to make sure they come out on top.

I had doubts about joining them, but realized that the money is just too good to pass up and at least I will go in with some support from the network. At least for the time being. And from now on I'm the payroll and will receive a weekly of $2000 (remember this was several years ago) and per diems of $350 to spend as I wish, and of course hotel/motel accomodation.  And the two scripts I have been assigned to write will pay around $20,000 each. All of this for 6 months.

Sounds like a lot of money, but considering that I might not get another job for a year or even two... it isn't all that much.

Jackson is set in a valley with towering peaks all around, it's both a tourist town and a working town as the railway comes through the valley to a shunting yard, creating work for locals after the tourists are gone. There is skiing but it's too far off the beaten path to really matter.

I find the motel where our production offices are, the entire wing of the place. Beds have been removed and replaced by desks and chairs and conference tables. I find the production office and meet some of the crew. 

A series our size utilizes a lot of people, over all maybe as much as a hundred.  Most of the crew are the same as me, from Vancouver or other areas and locals fill in the jobs that require basic typing and business skills.

Writers are usually looked upon as suspicious. We don't really have to deal with anyone else except a director or producer or network head so we have little to do with the rest of the crew. Our work happens in closed rooms, by ourselves, writing sometimes is not a team sport and so they are curious about us.

I make it a point to be friendly and easygoing as I will need favors from them in the next few months and it's best to make friends. 

Then I meet Liz. 

Liz Mahon is the other producer besides Kaplan. She's not a pleasant person and bitches immediately, complaining about the lack of snow, the hotel and the lack of preparation. Since preparation is the producer's job I wonder why she doesn't realize that. When I ask for a printer in the writer's office, she says "goddam it, great, you don't have a printer"?

I tell her the production needs to get one, because, of all the crew, we need a printer the most. And a secretary to help us, which was also promised besides a printer. She sizes me up;  "are you going to be trouble"?

I just smile and say "I hope so".

But I'm realizing that my conflicts with Jonathan and Kaplan are only scratching the surface of this job, that there will be many more of these people to be wary of. I know I must make my alliances right off the top, much like Survivor to make sure I don't get screwed.

Is working on a series as bad as that?

I apply the old rule; it all begins at the top. When I worked with Kim from Vancouver on a series, he was the creator and producer and it reflected his intelligence and caring as well as a remarkable talent for writing. His show was not only easy, it was fun.

This show has already begun with 3 potential enemies, and all three at the top end of the balancing sheet. Remember they said they were disappointed in my work. And then the network head praised my work. For that I will suffer.

And remember, Jonathan was dragged off in a strait jacket on one of his previous series.

My motel room is spacious, as you can see in the picture above, it has 2 rooms, one with a kitchen suite but I would rarely eat there. I unload my six month supply of clothes, winter, spring and summer, and set up my computer even though I will be working out of the office.

Jonathan I learn will work out of his suite across the street, he has a ski-condo type accommodation, fireplace, a loft for a bedroom. Well, he is the head writer. But any room is fine with me anyways as I will rarely be there for any period of time.

I do a walk downtown, about five blocks, even though business in the town in January is slow, you can tell that summer is their big tourist season. They have Greek restaurants, Chinese, Italian, steak houses, one French restaurant and two sushi joints.

And several hotel bars.

Where more than once I will almost get into trouble through no action of my own, rather with the leading actress. But that's for another blog.

Without tourists, most of the men in the bars are tough and hardy, lots of workboots and plaid shirts and very opinionated. A tall heavy man sitting at the bar next to me tells his friends, "there are eleven types of women, lesbians, transvestites, feminists, liberated, hookers..." and turns to look at my reaction, hoping for a challenge.

My food arrives and I'm spared the confrontation. And since I'm neither of the categories in his list, which he never completes, I feel safe.Later I would learn there is a disproportionately high female gay population here, and was told they have less hassles than in bigger cities and towns.

And since this semi-working town also caters to tourists, there is a greater toleration. At least that was what I was told. Gay men never really entered any conversations, oddly enough.

Walking back to my motel I notice the silence. There is virtually no sound. No cars, no stereos, no trains. Just silence. Then to add to the picture, I see two deer munching on brownish grass by a house, paying very little attention to me as they continue foraging. Nobody in town seems to even notice them anymore. In the weeks to come I will see deer, moose, a black bear, elk, lots of elk, and marmots.

And right now it's heaven.

I finish the night by watching the news on a Detroit channel on cable. It's ironic as I started my career in TV at a station across the river from Detroit and am now over thousand miles away, and watching the same reporters I used to work with.

But my sleep isn't easy, I dreamt of the show, of my writing, whether it will make up for the bad start, whether I'll last. It becomes that running uphill kind of dream, where you try and try but can't seem to make any progress - or escape.

No matter what else I think; this will be a battle.

(Wed: The work begins) 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Heaven & Hell Part 3

This is the third of a continuing blog detailing the adventures of working on a TV series which I entitle "Living in Heaven, Working in Hell" referring to being able to live in an incredible setting, the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and having to work with difficult partners, bosses, producers and others.

Travel Day still exists and I will continue to keep you up on it's progress as well as Chaser, the screenplay we will film a trailer for in order to fund the full production.

But back to Vancouver.

After Jonathan and Kaplan said they were firing me from the job, their sudden turn-around wanting me to stay was a shock. To this day I don't know why they kept me. I only knew that they would have to pay me a bundle to go and this way may have been cheaper. Or maybe the network guy Litman liked my writing. In fact  he had said it was the best script of all 3 we were working on.

Over the week-end I did a marathon rewrite of the Avalanche story, creating more depth in the characters. I have found that rewrites on screenplays usually revolve around 2 things: character and clarification.

Clarification is simple; it's where a reader doesn't quite understand the action taking place, it might be confusing or maybe incorrect. Those rewrites are easy.

Character is different. Nobody can really define character, the description is: A collection of features and traits that form the individual nature of a person; moral quality. Easy enough to define, but how do you write it.

I write it by giving the role some defining characteristics, they might be shy or brave or both. They might like babies or cats. They like sugar in their coffee or they are angered at the sight of injustice. Those are characteristics. In other words, give them characteristics that relate to the reader and then the viewer. Make them empathetic, like you or me.

Character is what creates conflict and that in turn creates story. The Terminator's character is that of focused killer while Sarah Conner's character is of strength, bravery and fear.

Monday morning I send the script to the network. Litman loves it and even the distribution head of the network, Al Roadman thinks it's one of the best scripts he's ever read.

I never really handle compliments well as I know the down side, they expect more of you than the others. So I just smile and say I'm glad they like it. And knowing that I've set the bar for Kaplan and Jonathan doesn't sit well, regardless if I think it was a good script or not. I will pay for forcing them into a corner.

And it doesn't change the way I feel about Jonathan and Kaplan. They are not to be trusted. Not even with who pays for lunch.

This mild paranoia would increase but eventually turn into anger and disappointment.

Two days later I'm told we head for the location where we will live and work for 6 months. I'm getting tired of raining Vancouver and look forward to life in a small town. The last night I meet my ex, Carole, for a few drinks and we catch up on each other's lives. She is married and doing well and I'm glad we are still friends.

As I walk her to the car, she tells me that the Australian Shepherd dog we had bought years ago is in the car. The dog, Sookie, is older now and in severe pain, something that her breed seems to have. But her excitement at seeing me after about 3 years is so sincere, the little dog serves as a truth in the world of lies and betrayal I am putting myself in. It would be the last time I saw her.

I watch them drive off into the rain and thing how precious life is, even in the form of a speckled blue-eyed dog who displayed that fantastic trait of unconditional love that animals have. And for the moment Jonathan and Kaplan are not that important.

24 hours later I am driving my Explorer, which I drove from California, into the Rocky Mountains and my new 6 month job. Ahead of me, work, friends, enemies, women, a crazy man, rangers, grizzly bears and a silly TV show that in the end, didn't matter that much at all.

(Monday:  Settling into a new world)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Heaven & Hell part 2

After meeting Jonthan, I finally met Kaplan. He was, in my view, a sociopath, in that he didn't really know how to work with people, he laughed at jokes that weren't funny and was very awkward in group meetings. And, as I would learn, he would say whatever was needed for the occasion.

I had read a book once about a writer who took a job as a prison guard for a year then wrote about his experiences. He said there were two kinds of criminals; those who just had bad luck and those who were dead serious criminals with no conscience. The writer concluded that the latter often end up as middle management.

This was Kaplan.

Heartbreak Pass was a fictional town set in the Rockies and our lead characters were park rangers and a woman who ran a hotel. The woman was played by a once famous actress in the 1960's  who played opposite to actors like Paul Newman and Peter Sellars, among many others. She was also a teenager's dream. At least this teenager.

Essentially the show was like that 70's series Dallas, a soap opera set against the towering mountains.

Kaplan and I did not get off to a good start, he was a GenXer with a "soul patch" and a brushcut favored by Keanu Reeves in Speed. He had virtually no experience in writing or producing and how he got his job is still a mystery to me. The classic joke here is that he must have had pictures of the company's CEO in bed with either  a dead girl or a live boy.

Regardless, I set about to try and work with him.

Ed had already cast his opinion; Kaplan could not write as shown by the script he wrote which Kaplan had given to me earlier. Now we were in Vancouver, staying at the hotel where film crews usually stay, right in the heart of downtown. My first warning was how Kaplan screwed up hotel reservations, a tiny thing but the indication of things ahead of us.

There are others to mention, but I'll do that in subsequent blogs. For now it was the three of us in a hotel. Our job now was to begin writing scripts for the 1 hour show. The scripts were usually around 50 pages or so, good for the 48 minutes they would be shown. The rest of the 1 hour was commercials.

We needed 13 scripts for 13 episodes. At this point we didn't know who the actors would be yet. It was to be the beginning of many screw-ups and a general incompetence from the top down.

Vancouver was always a great place to be in, even if it was raining. I also had an ex whom I lived with, who was there and we remained on good terms, having lunch now and then. So, all in all, I hunkered down with a script written by another writer from outside whom I had worked with in the past.

His script was very ordinary and obviously with no real care. He didn't really give a damn because he got paid for the script regardless of how bad or good it was. And since it became my job to fix it up, he was long gone. We hired a few outside writers and besides my writing my two original screenplays, I was the guy who fixed up bad scripts.

Fixing scripts is a difficult thing to explain, it's all about depth and perception. Good writers make you turn the page to see what happens next, bad writers have you bored by Page 4 as you've seen it all before.  I had a pretty good track record for fixing scripts and would continue to have it afterwards so I went right into it.

The three of us would have dinners and lunches and talk about the scripts and life and marriages, at least showrunner Jonathan and I would. Kaplan would rarely talk about himself, and more than once told stories that were actually stories we told a day or two before. Except he would put himself into the stories.

My writer's script was huge, avalanches, helicopters, dogs and snow. All of which could easily cost more than the budget of each episode, which at $500,000 an episode even at that time, was very low. My job was to make it more interesting and to cut back expensive items like avalanches, or find some other way to do it.

We worked in our own rooms, which was unusual for me as I always worked with other writers on series jobs, all of us in the same room, talking over the story. I didn't think this was the best way,  as story editing requires participation from all writers.

But this was another warning shot I missed.

We also had conference calls with the network executive, Mark Litman, who was tough, take no prisoners guy who used hyphenated obscenities more often than not.  He dumped particularly on Kaplan's script... "this is sh..., pure shi...".

By week's end we exchanged scripts, theirs were very ordinary rewrites, no real attempt at making it better.  They hadn't addressed my notes nor Litman's. And as of now, we only had 4 scripts with shooting to begin in weeks.

Remember I was hired the week before. So it wasn't my fault we didn't have at least half the scripts needed.

Then came the hammer. They had read my rewrite and said they were both "disappointed" in my rewrite. Ed sat across from me and said they knew I wasn't happy being here with them, which was true to an extent. But I had bills to pay and I could make it work I thought.

I realized Jonathan was covering his backside by putting the blame on me, he couldn't blame Kaplan, as Kaplan was also one of the producers.  This would be the first betrayal of many from Jonathan. I went to my room visibly shaken and called my agent.

Then I called a well respected writer/producer friend, Kim, who wasn't surprised, "the s.o.b. has done it in the past and he's just covering his own job. It made me feel a little better but I still had a sleepless night.

The next morning at breakfast,I showed up ready and said I was leaving, I'm going home and they could do the show without me.

Jonathan, looking haggard from what would be a recurring drinking bout the night before delivered the words. "we thought you'd want to stay".


What happened between last night and today?

I stared at them for a beat before I could talk. "What about the rewrite?"

Jonathan suggested I "take another stab at it".

(Friday: The Rocky Mountains)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Living in Heaven, Working in Hell Part 1

Since Travel Day is being pushed back to a fall shoot and Chaser is being developed with a trailer we will make in April, I'm going to take a little detour for the next month or so.

That detour will be a blog based on a TV series I worked on a few years back and from which I kept a journal of the goings-on. After showing it to several friends they thought it would be interesting to almost anyone who ever watches television. As with my blog I treat it as honest and real, even to my own participation, which wasn't always great. 

My original title was "Living in Heaven", Working in Hell". 

The first part of the title refers to the fact that the series was being shot in the heart of the magnificent Rocky Mountains as in the photo above, which I took. The second part refers to the people I worked for and with. It's where I learned that working with someone not as good as you usually ends up in conflicts and frustration.

Now, I'm not the best writer around, some studio execs and producers have called me an "A-List" writer, meaning that I'm in the same league as the big guys, Goldman, Towne, and others. Of course others say I'm anything from an average "hack" to just ordinary. 

I like to think I'm a craftsman, someone who took a long time to learn how to write good.

Does that mean everything I write is great? 

No. Sometimes I write for the money, sometimes I write for myself. Sometimes I'm good, sometimes not so good. For example, I can't write sitcoms, just don't know how. Wish I could, but it just isn't there. And I can't write sex scenes; maybe it's my Catholic upbringing or maybe just because I wouldn't want my mom to see them.

My journal begins at the beginning of course, and follows my adventures in the Rocky Mountains, Vancouver and Los Angeles over the course of 6 months. I've changed all the names, including the series name for obvious reasons as you'll see. And it's almost impossible to see the series as it disappeared as fast as it came out. 

Which is part of the reason I kept a journal. 

Heartbreak Pass was a great example of good intent coupled with inept producers and a handful of writers who were either inexperienced or incapable of carrying the pressures of series writers.

I was hired as a Senior Story Editor, a position afforded me due to working as a writer/story editor on a few other series before this one. My job had two functions; first I would be the one who rewrites all the scripts that came from other writers for 13 episodes. Of those 13 addition, I would get 2 scripts of my own to write.

There would be a "Show Runner" above me, sort of a Head Writer one step over me and almost a producer him/herself. Also called an Executive Story Editor. And in this instance, one of  the producers would also write a screenplay. A producer who had never produced anything of note except a music video and whose writing was so bad that even the network ripped it apart.

The crew was fine, all mostly between the ages of 25-45, they carried out their duties as well as they could. The crew and the rest of us writers, producers and directors would be living in the tourist town I'll call Jackson for 6 full months. Half of a year spent from January to June. In a town with a population of around 4000.

Ironically I was almost fired before the series got underway.

It began when I flew east to meet with showrunner Jonathan Worthing, a pale and gaunt man who reminded me of a burned-out teacher in his 50's. Later I would find out why. For the moment though we shared battle stories of past series over glasses of draft beer. He, along with a producer I hadn't met yet, were the creators of the series.

There would be many more "creators" as I was to find out later.

One of the producers, Dan Kaplan, Jonathan told me, was a real talker, who talked his way into the job without any credits in series TV, or for that matter in anything. He was a fast talker, Worthing said. He even had written a script and, according to Jonathan, the script was awful.

The TV business can be quite small, and I had done homework on Jonathan. Apparently he was known for losing it on a series years before. There can be a lot of pressure in series work and he had snapped one day on that show and had to be "restrained", carried out by paramedics in a straitjacket.

As we drank more, I could see this in his eyes, he had the look of one whose days were sometimes tortuous battles with staying sober.

But right now I was thinking of the money I would be making, which is always a nice thing, and the fact that I would be spending 6 months in paradise, I loved the Rockies, went to film school there (which I failed) and skiied and hiked all over them.

But my dream was cut short when, two weeks later, Jonathan and Kaplan said I was fired off the show. And it hadn't even started.

(Wednesday): "We just don't think your work is very good, Jim")

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Top Ten

Okay, you know it's a slow week when I post a blog about my top 10 movies that people should watch. I'm also working on a rewrite for that person I mentioned in an earlier blog and am doing quite well on it.

Shirley's gone to Lone Pine and Death Valley for a few days and I'm also working on a budget for Chaser as well as a potential investor for Travel Day. Just when you think it's gone, it comes back in the form of some oil people who might, just might decide to finance a movie.

Notice I didn't say "best movies of all time". No, these are the movies that influenced me and I'll tell you how and why. And as expected, they're pretty much old movies as very few influence me anymore. 

These movies were the ones I would  have wanted to write or make. They influenced me in terms of dialog, character, story and so many other things. They made me want to be in this business.

Here goes. 

The Searchers (1956) probably made the biggest impact on me and has continued to be a major influence on my wanting to make movies. It's a western made in 1956 by John Ford, a director who won 6 Academy awards. Still a record.

It's an epic story set against the magnificent landscape of Monument Valley with John Wayne playing his best role, that of a bigoted, war-torn veteran of the Civil War who goes on a classic 5-year journey to find his niece, taken by Commanche Indians.

Ford had a way with story; he would add character to even the smallest role by using metaphors and leaving some aspects unrevealed, which made the characters only stronger. My brother Dave and I often quote dialog from the movie in emails.

Ironically, in the 1970's, I learned that a lot of other filmmakers chose The Searchers as one of their major influences. These included Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorceses, Peter Bogdonovich, Francis Coppola and George Lucas (who actually shot a scene in his last Star Wars movie that was a copy of a scene in The Searchers). 
Best line: "That''ll be the day". (rumored to have inspired Buddy Holly's song)

Two For The Road (1967) is arguably the best film on marriage ever made. It stars Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as a married couple on the verge of breakup. The story happens in 3 different times, the present when they are bitter and unhappy, in the recent past when they are beginning to get bitter, the past when they were married and the long gone past when they met.

The transitions are seamless as the story uses road trips to show their falling in and out of love. The scenery, shot in Europe is an added bonus. The screenplay by Frederic Raphael is minimalist at best, some scenes have only one or two lines of dialog.  Best line: Marc: What kind of people just sit in a restaurant and don't say one word to each other? Joanna: Married people."

The Deerhunter (1978) brings a world I know into focus. The Vietnam era film follows 3 Eastern European young men as they leave their factory town to go to Vietnam. With Robert DeNiro and first-timer Meryl Streep and a great cast, this movie reflects very much the people I knew in Detroit, my cousin and his friends and my own Eastern European background. 
Best line: Stanley, see this, this is this".

The Parallax View(1974) is probably the most paranoid movie I've ever seen. Starring Warren Beatty at his prime, it offers a well-constructed conspiracy theory to the assassination of a political figure. Beatty, a reporter begins to notice people he knows are dying in strange but seemingly believable accidents. What connects them is the fact they were all at the scene of the JFK-like assassination.

The movie never really explains much, which makes it that much more frightening. Dialog is minimal and the feeling that someone is watching you even followed me after I left the theater. A great political thriller, similar to All The President's Men but goes further. 
Best line: "I'm dead, Bill, I just want to stay that way for awhile."

My Darling Clementine (1946) is another western from John Ford and almost equals the epic theme that The Searchers did. It's based on the real life Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone. While it takes liberty with the true story, it creates a mythology that goes way beyond a simple cowboy movie.

With Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan and Ward Bond, it's a story of revenge and the contradiction of those who fight for the law and those who fight against it. Again shot in Monument Valley and in fantastic black & white film, it transcends it's genre.Best line: "Wide awake, wide open town, Tombstone, you can get anything you want there."

Bullit (1968) is another great example of a film transcending it's genre. While on the surface a regular cop movie, it had Steve McQueen who brought a quiet yet intense quality to the role. And of course the famous chase scene in which McQueen did at a major part of the driving.

This was the first really amazing car chase scene and, filmed on the winding and hilly streets of San Francisco, with no CGI effects. What you see is real. You lose yourself in the story, it's as confusing as Chinatown, but it doesn't matter because McQueen, nicknamed "the King of Cool" is leading you.

So inspired by the movie, I bought a green 1968 Mustang fastback of my own. Best line: Frank, we must all compromise".

The Candidate(1972) is another, almost forgotten film of the late 1960's dealing with the trade-off of political candidates. With handsome Robert Redford at his height, it tells the story of a JFK-ish son of a politician who is cajoled into running for the US Senate against a conservative candidate.

Interestingly the movie is timeless in it's portrayal of politicians, nothing has changed today,except for cell phones. And the ending is frighteningly accurate now as it was then. Best line: "Ed: You're the democratic nominee? Bill: "you make it sound like a death sentence."

The Wind and the Lion (1975)is another period piece, set in early 1900's and deals with an American woman held hostage by a Moroccan tribal leader. While based on a true story it was wildly enhanced by its writer/director John Milius who also wrote at least a few versions of the screenplay for Apocolypse Now.

With Sean Connery as the tribal leader and the beautiful Candice Bergen as the hostage, the movie is a sweeping epic (as they say) set in the North African desert and Washington DC where Brian Keith does the best Teddy Roosevelt ever on film. Best line: (to Theodore Roosevelt... "you are like the wind and I like the lion."

Mean Streets (1973) which is one of Martin Scorceses earlier features, his most accomplished up to that date. It's a great study of what would evolve to his other films later on. With a very young Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel, it tells the story of 20's wannabe gangsters who live in New York's Italian section. Shot for very little, the characters take the lead in their motivation and dialog and it often rambles but still has an energy that Scorceses never lost. best line: Johnny: We don't pay mooks". Pool player: What's a mook?"

Husbands (1970) is, to my mind, John Cassavetes's best film. It's a study of 3 friends who lose a 4th friend and decide to go on a week-long binge of drinking, fighting and trying to figure out what is left in their own lives. Shot in a documentary style and supposedly improvised (although there was a screenplay), it's a totally revealing study of people as only Cassavettes could do.

Cassavetes directed and also played one roll and Ben Gazarra and Peter Falk played the other two. There are scenes that feel like they are real, that we're watching real people and not actors. At times it's you almost feel voyeuristic in watching these men strip away the safety nets of their lives as they look for answers to their own lives. Some scenes go on forever, but the intensity never leaves the screen. Best line: "Don't believe truth, Archie, just don't believe truth."

There you go.

Next week: More about making our movie.

Monday, March 8, 2010

How I got close to the Academy Awards

I don't know if I'm getting older and the Academy awards getting less interesting, or it's just not as good as it used to be. I liked Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, and don't give a damn about Miley Cyrus and those other kid actors who look all the same.  I think Miley might be the anti-Christ.

But I was once a heartbeat away from getting a nomination.

Yes, for the Academy Awards. The Oscars.

Back in 1975, when I moved to Vancouver to  join Phil Borsos in a film company we called Rocky Mountain Films,  a name we derived from the time we spent at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the heart of the Rockies.

It was a tiny company, Phil and me and two theater chairs and a table in a small corner office on Hornby Street in Vancouver. We hardly ever got work and had side jobs, Phil at the film lab and me at a local TV station, working evenings. We even had both names on one card as that's all we could afford.

Phil had always wanted to make a film on a cooperage, which is/was a barrel factory and we somehow put together a crew and camera and film. I would shoot it and Phil directed. We got some assistance from the National Film Board who was skeptical of our abilities and limited their participation to providing 16mm film.

Halfway through, we brought in Tim Sales to help us film, as I was working 18 hr days with the TV job at the same time. And the Film Board looked at our footage and decided it wasn't up to their standards. 

This would come back to haunt them.

We finished the film, called it COOPERAGE and began showing it around. I got a job in Saskatchewan and we communicated constantly. We entered every festival we could and even the Canadian Genie awards, similar to the Academy Awards.

Then Phil and I made a 35mm print and took it to Hollywood.

A film, to qualify for Academy consideration has to play 1 week at an L.A. theater. We persuaded the Laemmle chain to let us play it at one of their theaters, the Los Feliz after we screened it for them.

Then we would drive to the theater every evening and the projectionist would put it on after the last feature show ran, usually around 11pm. Then we waited and took back the print. We repeated this every day. Technically it was being shown in an LA theater even though most if not all the audience had already left the theater.

Then we got a call from Phil's girlfriend that Cooperage had won best short in the Genies in Canada. It beat every National Film Board short film, and nobody ever beats NFB shorts in Canada.

We wondered if they still felt that our little film was "up to their standards". In fact the local newspapers called the NFB for their reaction.

After that the film took off and eventually made nearly $29,000, and this was back in 1976. We won several awards and finally made it to the Academy Award selection. But we didn't win and we weren't in the final 5.

But we were finalists for the top 5 and I guess that's not bad for two unknown guys from Canada who made a curious little short film about a barrel factory.