Friday, May 28, 2010

Indie or Not?

The subject of whether a film is an indie or a studio picture often arises. For example, take the science fiction film District 9, made for $30 million dollars. Some would consider this an "indie"as it was made without a studio or distributor.

In theory, this action-filled movie with CGI-created aliens should be that.

But I go back to the real intent of independent movies and that is certain filmmakers who choose to write something very personal to them, more often something that will rarely make back it's money. Again, Casavettes led the way when he made his initial two films for budgets that were less than what District 9 spend on craft services.

These are the movies that, if you live in a major urban center, would play for two weeks at the local arthouse theater. Movies made from the need of some filmmakers to "tell their story". Some of them are not very good, production values, at least up till digital video, were often terrible. But others manage to surpass their technical flaws by having a good story.

I checked the LA Times this morning as there's always a handful of indies playing at the Laemmle theater chain. This week they have the following movies, Holy Rollers, The Secret In Their Eyes, City Island, Mother and Child and a re-issue of the classic French movie, Breathless. 

Ever hear of these movies? 

Apart from City Island, a labor of love from actor Andy Garcia who struggles to get offbeat movies made while maintaining a career in studio pictures. He's arguably close to Casavette's methods of financing movies. Which is anyway you can.

These kinds of movies are the real indies, people who have a story to tell. They don't care about car chases or CGI monsters or tentpoles or sequels. Many of them make one movie and are never heard of again. 

So what's a typical real indie film? 

I once saw a film called Signal 7, made in San Francisco by Rob Nilsson. It's a movie about two would-be actors who, on the way to Hollywood, ended up as taxi drivers in SF and ended up staying there, working as taxi drivers. It's a study of failure and coping with it as these middle-aged men attempt to make something of their lives.

Signal 7 refers to a code among taxi drivers and warns them there's been a robbery or shooting involving a taxi. Ironically we hear about a "Signal 7", we  never really see it. Rather we become involved in these two sad yet noble men, making sense of their lives.

Technically, it was awful, having been filmed on 3/4 inch video which, when blown up to 35mm for theaters, looked like hell. But the amazing thing was this; after about 15 minutes, you get used to the low quality of the image and you know why?

Because you get involved in the story. It's that good.

But not all indie filmmakers disappear. For some, it's the start of a career. John Sayles began his career with The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Spike Lee hustled money to make She's Gotta Have It and Stephen Soderbergh did Sex, Lies and Videotape. All are still making films, albeit for more money and even for studios.

For awhile and maybe even today, many of these filmmakers used credit cards, people like Robert Townsend who made Hollywood Shuffle allegedly on credit cards.

For many years, the goal of all these filmmakers (and I use that term as most were writer/directors) was Sundance, Robert Redford's mountain hideaway where young independent writers and directors could learn from the masters for a few months each year.

There still is an air of independence at the Sundance Film Festival, but it's changed over the years, more movie stars walk down Main street than before, many of them now taking roles in lower budget "indie" films as their chances of nominations increase. But to his credit, Redford attempts to draw out the real indies and to keep the festival about emerging filmmakers who don't have the advantage of Hollywood agents and contacts.

So what about District 9?

It was done by an emerging Indie director, but the definition blurs.

Because, even though it is considered an indie film with no studio or distributor backing it, it was financed through Peter Jackson who made the Lord of the Rings films and who has more influence and money than all the independent filmmakers who ever came out of Sundance.

It's not hard getting money and distribution when you have the 900 pound gorilla standing behind you. But it's a far cry from maxing your credit cards to finish your little movie.

And even though it can be defined as an indie, it really isn't to me. It's future was decided before it started filming. And opening in hundreds of theaters the same day isn't the norm for the real indie filmmakers who are lucky to get 2 weeks in one theater in hopes of a better DVD deal.

Am I right? To a lot of indie filmmakers I am. To some others I'm not. But that's the great thing about movies, you don't have to like what I like.

Have a great week-end.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Back to the Future

Today I leave the world of episodic TV and get back to what I really enjoy a lot more.

Movies. Independent movies. 

What's the difference? There are essentially 3 kinds of movies, studio, MOW's (Movie of the Week) and independent, also known as "Indies". Studio movies are the big ones, Avatar, Ironman, Hangover, Robin Hood and Shrek. While those are all big budget projects at $200 million or more, studios also release smaller movies, mostly romantic comedies and family films that cost $35-70 million.

Then there's the almost forgotten "MOW, the much smaller TV relative to studio pictures. These began in the 60's and carried through until about 2004 when reality TV in the form of Survivor appeared and basically wiped out MOW's overnight. Reality was cheaper (TV movies averaged around $3.5 million) and faster to make.

In the months that followed hundreds of people who depended on TV movies were suddenly out of work as the big 4 networks went to reality shows. There were at least 3 parties at the Roosevelt Hotel lamenting "the death of the TV movie". The mood was like an Irish wake, drinks, gossip and "what the hell are we gonna do now?

I was one of those who were affected. After my experiences with series in Canada I was lucky enough to get a fair amount of TV movies, both originals of mine and rewrites on others. I spent 4 months in Luxembourg working for Paramount as well as Mexico and Canada, in my home province of Manitoba.

But reality TV killed almost all of us.

What survived was three cable networks, Hallmark, Lifetime and Sci-Fi Channel who continued creating movies mainly for their audiences. Hallmark was family, Lifetime was women and Sci-Fi, well that was for all those sci-fi types. I managed to write movies for two and rewrite one for Sci-Fi.

These movies were mostly done in Canada due to tax credits and their budgets went from $3 million plus down  to around $1.2 million. Licence fees for Sci-Fi at one point was $700,000 and the producers had to raise $500,000 or so on their own to barely pay for the making of the movie. These companies continue to do movies and at this moment, I'm very close to a deal for one.

And recently CBS has been making TV movies with Tom Selleck to fill in Sunday nights along with Hallmark movies. As reality series get overexposed, there is a hint that the network TV movie might return.

And finally, there's the stepchild of all those other movies, the "indie" film. Independent films are usually the territory of writers and directors who prefer to tell their own stories, films that don't have creatures, CGI or big stars. Budgets for indies can be in the millions but mostly they're done on budgets where the actors drive their own cars to work and writers, producers and directors defer some of their salaries to get their dream project done.

It can be argued that the first real independent filmmaker was John Cassavetes, who was also an actor (Rosemary's Baby among others). In 1959 Cassavetes made a ground-breaking movie, financed entirely by the money he made acting for studio movies. It was called Shadows, and dealt with interracial relationships.

It was filmed in 16mm black and white and mostly handheld. He followed this in 1968 with Faces, an ensemble piece. Most indie filmmakers credit Cassavetes with this new art form which mirrored the French filmmakers of the time. I've always felt his best film, a favorite of mine, is Husbands with him, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara.

Which movies are indies? Mostly ones some of you have never heard of. Movies like Frozen River, Pieces of April Little Miss Sunshine, Wendy and Lucy, Sweet Land. They were all movies made outside of the Hollywood System, thus the term "Independent films". They didn't rely on Paramount or Universal for their budgets.

Budgets for indie movies can be as low as $15,000 (Paranormal Activity) to $8 million (Little Miss Sunshine). Money for these movies comes from the makers themselves, family, accountants, lawyers, shopping mall owners, even credit cards and a hundred other sources.

Little Miss Sunshine actually had Hollywood stars, Greg Kinear and AlanArkin who worked for less money than they usually get. Frozen River had an Oscar nomination for Mellisa Leo, it's lead actress. Wendy and Lucy had Michelle Williams, a studio actress.

This is where the lines begin to blur. When is an indie not quite defined as an indie?

When it has stars.

Since many indies get Academy nominations now, big stars see the opportunity to "stretch their talents", in other words, get more attention to their acting chops and thus more shots at the golden boy. Actors who get paid millions will settle for a few thousand if it means a great script and the chance at a nomination.

So there you go, a basic primer on movies as they are today.

Where does mine come in? Well, you're looking at one, Travel Day, which I started almost one year ago with Shirley Petchprapa. Shirley directs and I produce. We had a good start but got sidelined by a producer in Canada who didn't deliver. Since Travel Day is a winter movie I closed it down until fall and filming late 2010.

But I've got a few more projects on the go as well.  So hang in there, we'll take the ride again and what made this blog one of the top 50 in January.

(Fri: Lay it all out)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Back to the show

They are well into the filming of my episode. The director meets me and says he's filming the scene as I had originally written it rather than the Kaplan/Mahon version. What's interesting here is that a director rarely goes over the heads of the producers but in this instance he did.

He also had the 1st AD talk to Mahon to keep her away from the actors and the scene itself. As the AD talks to her, she notices me but doesn't say anything. I figure I won't either. Let it go. The scene is finished and Mahon approaches the director and asks how it's going. He replies simply, "good." She leaves and he gives me a nod.

You would rarely see this on a series, I've seen it a couple of times on other shows. And while it shows the director's confidence as well as the actor's, it's also because they have spent time on the script with me or the other writers, including Rino and Jonathan who have experienced similar moments.

Believe it or not.

And my time is almost over. They are filming my first script and the second one will be filmed in September for which I probably won't be asked back since I had done all the necessary rewrites for it.

I decide to leave a week early as all the scripts are pretty much done and there's nothing left to do. Rino also is leaving at the end of the week. In 2 weeks, everyone will be gone and Jackson will be a tourist town again.

I take a day or two to say goodbye to the locals, Louise and the Greeks and even the stalker whom I meet one day on the street. He didn't seem to know who I was. I also visit the set and see the crew who worked tirelessly on this show and had some idea of the infighting between the writers and producers, but never really bothered us. Erica is there and says she'll see me at the bar and gives me a hug. Hugs are big on film crews.

I wasn't sure how I'd spend my last evening and figured it would end at the bar with the above-the-line crew as we all did for the last several months. But when I get to my hotel there's a message.

An invitation to dinner with three, count them, three of the most interesting women on the show. The two sisters, Marilyn and Lauren and Carrie, who scanned her face on paper and gave me a copy. What more could any guy ask for?

Naturally I figure someone else must have turned them down but I don't hesitate in answering YES!!

I rush through the bar, saying goodbyes. Karen the accountant says she'd miss my jokes, and we all promise to keep in touch even though most of the time it never happens. But in this case, I still do keep in touch with many of them. I see Jorn and ask him to come with me, he doesn't have to think twice.

Upon arriving at the restaurant just outside of town limits, I am in for another surprise. There, in the dim light and flickering candles, I realize there's something different about these three women,

No hiking boots and parkas and down vests.

Instead, they're all wearing light summer-type dresses, with hair done up and looking like three amazing Eliza Doolittles. The rest of the dinner is a soft blur, the five of us talk initially about the show, but then about things everybody talks about, life, hope, future. It's one of those moments you want to go on forever.

But like moments, they are soon gone as Marilyn's smiling candle-lit face dissolves into raindrops hitting against my windshield as I drive down the main street in early morning. The street is empty, I pass by the bars and cafes and shops that were part of my life for the last several months, snow had come and gone, leaves were on the trees and a few deer families took shelter under them. Resting in the cupholder is my last hot coffee from Louise, the coffee shop owner who said goodbye to me minutes ago.

I think of how small things can change a mood, a dinner, a sunny day, even rain falling. And it's then that a moment happens, one of those moments where you feel so good that even if you had to die that moment, you would still be happy. That moment came to me now.

It was not an easy show, I'd like to think that it was an anomoly, an abberation of how TV series should work. But I hear war stories from others in the following years that suggests it can  happen again.

When movies began in the late 1800's, a French theater critic was known to have said of them, "now there is an art form for the masses."Up till then art was for the wealthy and the aristocracy but movies, for a few pennies, gave ordinary people a glance into life they never had before.

I like writing stories and continue to do so and feel lucky I still can. As I write this my attorney is negotiating a sale for a Christmas screenplay. It's called The Town That Forgot Christmas. It's bad luck to go this far in mentioning a script sale, but if it doesn't there'll be others.

And what was that moment I described earlier?

A black bear stood at the edge of the highway as I approached in my SUV. This was just outside the town limits. He was on two legs, sniffing and watching and at the last moment, darted off into the trees.

I stopped and reached for my camera. He stood within the tall pines for another moment and watched me. Then with a seemingly bored look, he dropped to all fours and slowly waddled off into the deep forest.

Probably thinking; "some writer, he never even considered a bear episode".

Epilogue: I still keep in contact with Karen the accountant, Jorn the Cameraman, Dan the Production Designer, Ray the locations person, and a few others. I still talk to Marilyn now and then, and Lauren just a month ago. All are doing well. Rino has passed away.

(Wed: A New movie, a new start)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Me and IMDB

Funny thing happens when conflict occurs. My readership doubled in 2 days. This of course, relates to the phone book incident.

To clear things up about me, although many of you out there know me very well, I will explain my career span. I usually say it's around 30 to 35 years, depending on who's listening. But anyone who reads my bio knows I started in 1969.

Most of you weren't born yet. Or at least some of you.

My first job was at a local TV station, in the mailroom and over the course of 4 years rose to newsfilm camera and sound. After that I did commercials and documentaries up to 1979. In 1980 I wrote and directed my first feature, Ghostkeeper. That was followed by several Canadian TV  movies and series.

Now I don't know how many of  you can describe events 20 to 30 years ago in sequence, I sure can't. I always make mistakes. But there is no mistake in my "body of work". And all my credits aren't on IMDB. In fact this series I'm blogging can only be found by title, but it's not on my imdb credits. I also did some work on MacGyver but not much came of that and I didn't add it either.

Do I care? This might be hard for younger hipster doofus writers to understand but it really doesn't matter to me that much. I have enough credits on imdb to feel secure about, some good, some bad, some mediocre.

So what's IMDB.

For those who don't know, IMDB or Internet Movie Data Base, was started in England some years ago and has grown to be "the" movie industry guide. You can find out information about almost anybody, what they did, who's their agent, which gaffer was on which movie. It's the quickest way to find out if someone you're arguing with actually has made a series or movie. It's the new b.s. detector.

IMDB is mostly about actors, writers and directors but listings of crew are there as well. In addition there are "reviews" by odd people who I'm sure live in their parent's basement take the time to write what they think a movie is about.  My movie Ghostkeeper has some really good reviews, and also some that say it's the worst movie ever made.

And adding and/or changing a credit is a task in itself. They make it almost impossible as I found out when I attempted to correct an episode of Highlander which had a crew member as author of that script rather than me. It took almost 3 months and even then, was done by someone in an imdb forum.

I have one movie in development on IMDB, Ghosts of Odessa, which is legit. I also have been developing, including Travel Day, the movie this blog started out with, and a smaller feature for which I'm workshopping with actors presently. I didn't put them on IMDB because they weren't really being made, just hopefuls.

This is where IIMDB fails, in my estimation. Because anyone can post their movie as an "in development" category even if it's just a guy with a script. IMDB tries to separate the real productions from the ones that just want to have their name on IMDB.

So, for the record I have been in the business for 41 years, although my screenwriting career was only 29 years, but my film camera work was 8 years, although I still do it now and then for my documentaries. My documentary career started in 1973...

You can see where I'm going... so don't ask me when I did Lightning Force or Mom P.I, or Odyssey or any other unless you have a specific reason. Then I can go to IMDB and look it up.

And here's where the job descriptions begin to blurr. What makes it a little more complicated is that I'm not just a screenwriter, I also have worked as a TV newscameraman and soundman. I photographed several short films,  two of which won international awards. I wrote and produced and directed around 500 commercials and a handful of corporate films and documentaries.

So when someone asks me how long I've been writing, it's a complicated answer. Generally I go to 1980, when I wrote my first feature. TV work didn't start till 1992. So I can say I've been in the "business" since 1969 but I didn't start writing movies and TV until 1980.

Another reason I don't like go back too far is the most obvious. I'm past the magic age of 39, after which writers and actors and even directors begin to get grey. To my friends I've worked 41 years, to a prospective employer I've been around for 25 or 30 years.

In fact a recent age discrimination lawsuit has been settled in which some major agencies and production companies will pay millions to writers for age discrimination.

As far as the series in this blog (which isn't in my IMDB credits either)  it happened like I say it did, the characters, whose  names have been changed, are real and they were like that. The show lasted two seasons and it's ratings were horrible and at least I escaped at the end of the first season.

As far as differences between a series written in the 1990's vs now, nothing's really changed any more than if it were 1920. We just have iPhones and satellite TV, the business remains the same. Anybody who thinks different is either naive or delusional. 

(Mon: Back to the series)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Comments change

I've always been open with my blog and welcomed comments which, when they come, are almost always good. I've had only 3 critical comments since this blog started in August 2009 and kept them in. All 3 were about one thing I said that might have upset them, and that's too bad. No apologies.

The latest critique not only criticized  me but also suggested I could go to jail for throwing a phone book. It went on to attack me personally as to perceived failures in my career, none of which happened.  It even suggested ageism.

After 35 years in the business, I really don't have anything I need to prove. Like me or hate me, I don't give a damn.

Years ago I learned one thing from the internet, there's a kind of equality issue that happens, a wannabe amateur can become a peer to a professional by challenging them. I have wasted a lot of time arguing with someone who has no film experience whatsoever, but feels that they have as much to say as me.

The truth is, these wannabes don't know as much as I do, and while I don't mind their criticism, I will not tolerate their anonymity anymore. There are a lot of pretentous posers out there these days, they attend some film seminars, read some magazines, know a friend in the business, watch Entertainment Tonight and think they know the business.

They know the words, but not the business.

Filmmaking is not a democracy.  Directing is akin to being king. Ask any director.

But the most frustrating part is that I don't know who the anonymous comment poster is. I'm arguing with someone I don't know or can even see. Up to now I have kept  the comment area open because I have nothing to hide, nor do I restrict access to the blog.

But that has changed.

From now on, I will restrict comments that have little value other than personally attacking me.

But here's the way in; if you want to attack me, then I need to know who you are. I think that's only fair. Tell me your name and show me your credits. Simple as that. I'm wide open to you, revealing my good and bad side honestly and without  hubris. I expect the same in return.

I don't think this will affect 99% of you blog readers and thanks for the private emails on this subject.

We move on.

Friday, May 14, 2010

H&H Part 22: Mahon & Me

"It is difficult to make changes for two untalented son-of-a-bitches"
                      - Dan Curtis, creator of Dark Shadows 

The day begins with rain. The crew scrambles to get any shots they can as we have no cover set to go to or a studio, due to the fact that there are no such spaces in this small town. Another tactical error by the producers. 

And according to my sources, another Kaplan error in judgment is making the show run over budget. Evan Mahon has publicly expressed her anger at Kaplan's ineptitude, no doubt fueled by the frustration that he has more power than she does.

Mahon continues to behave like she's on meds during production meetings, mostly playing those computer games on her laptop. Then, out of nowhere, she stops and interrupts the meeting by saying we can't shoot in some particular location. We remind her that we're not talking about that scene and she goes back to her computer game.

I write a joke line into a scene where a female ranger is preparing for a date and asks another ranger where she can find a curling iron. He answers "in the barn". It's a Monty Python-type joke, no real punchline, just the question why a curling iron would be in a barn.

Mahon hates it and Kaplan vetoes it even though the others like it.

Later I work in the writer's office trying to fit in Mahon's and Kaplan's notes which are usually meaningless. They don't understand that changing one line on Page 3 can affect the entire script later.

And what makes it harder is that the actors and director like the script, as did the Assistant Director, Jorn the cameraman -- and the network.

One problem came from Mahon's inability to grasp the fact that a scene we had written for an airstrip was to be included into a scene at the base of a mountain. This would eliminate the need for a crew to move to another location, a savings of time and money. The Director, the AD and I had discussed this at a previous meeting at which Mahon had attended. Yet she didn't seem to remember.

So now she entered and asked when the script would be ready. I said when it is ready. She kept returning, interrupting my writing. The director was also lurking around but had the smarts to let me write. Not Mahon.

On about the 6th time, I finally lost it. She was saying I had screwed up by including the airport scene. (the one we discussed and agreed on).

As much as I can remember, it went like this:




And that was it. Mahon was stunned. For someone who constantly yelled and humiliated others, she didn't expect anyone would do that to her. She had no answer and turned around and went to the door.

But I wasn't finished.

I grabbed the huge phonebook from the city and heaved it at the door. It slammed just inches away from her head as she ran out.

Needless to say the entire production team had heard this and nobody wanted to find out what it was about. Two people later said that it was time someone stood up to her.

I finished the script, handed a copy to the director who smiled, and to the production team.

And that was that.

It takes a lot to get me going, but after a long walk in the mountains I was just looking at getting out in a few weeks when the show would be over.

(Next blog will be Wednesday as I'm traveling)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Heaven & Hell Part 21 - My Show

The time has finally come when my first episode will be shot. It's one of the two scripts I was given to write besides all the rewrite work on other people's scripts. The second of my scripts will be written later.

Kaplan offers some notes of which some are good. After he leaves, the director of this episode drops by to discuss his notes. He has several comments, all of which are not difficult to make. Many directors, especially TV directors don't like to have writers around as the old joke suggests "because we're the only ones who know they're faking it."

At the very basic level, every script belongs to the writer. In fact European countries only accept the writer as the owner of the story and script. Sure, the director brings it to life, but a script can stand on it's own as reading material, regardless if it's made or not.

But this director is very generous and ready to work with me. He has read the first draft and asks why a new scene was added, a "drug deal" with the dying man and his partner. He asks why I changed it to something stereotypical and not as good as my original script.

I tell him in two words:  Kaplan and Mahon, the producers. They thought it would add some edge to the story, I said it made no sense. Why did I change it?

You have a lot to take into consideration when making changes; a responsibility to the show and the actors. On the other hand, if you cross the producers (in this case, Kaplan and Mahon), you can get a bad rap for being "difficult to work with" throughout the industry.

And there's usually two reasons why someone can't get work in this business; either they're not very good or they're hard to work with.

And after a week of them keeping after me to make the changes, I did. But I also knew that the director, if he was good, would notice the changes and I know the actors would immediately.

This director said he would try to get the original script back. But I doubted it would happen.

Next came the actors.

They dropped by separately, as is the custom, nobody wants to share the script with another actor. Gunther, who was saved with me by Erica at the bar, complains about the "drug deal" scene in the new script. I tell him why I changed it and he shakes his head and says "they don't know shit."

After him, Franz, the actor playing opposite him comes in and says "I  noticed some changes". I tell him about Kaplan and Mahon's dumb ideas and he sides with me, the director and Gunther. So far 4 against 2.

Finally Erica comes into the office, grabs me by the  hand and takes me out onto the little ground-level balcony our office has. She says her character should have some faults and not be so perfect. Exactly the opposite of what her German producer wanted, which was having characters with no problems and riding horses in the mountains.

By now you must be getting an idea of the frustration of working with not very smart producers. Neither Kaplan or Mahon were "smarties" as Mel Brooks would say, instead they did more to harm the writing on the show than help it

Actors, especially star actors, like "the big speech". This is where they get to show how dramatic they can be. Think of Al Pacino in Scene of a Lady, or Denzel Washington in Training Day. Those scenes that win awards for actors.

I had written a scene like that for an episode, but it wasn't for Erica, it was for the supporting actor. The scene was about a wife's reaction to her husband's death was not sorrow but anger at him for betraying her. It was a good scene because it did the opposite of what the audience expected. Writers love to write this kind of scene but don't always have the right story. 

Erica wanted a scene like that. 

And since she wasn't in the new "drug scene", she really didn't care about it. This was all about her. It wasn't a hard thing to change so I said I would do it.

That evening the film crew had a baseball game with the rangers and local police and they beat us by ten runs. It was a relaxing moment, even with Kaplan there. Everyone was enjoying themselves, Lauren was adapting well to her new position as Art Director, Jorn the cameraman was looking forward to returning to his family after the show wrapped. And I attempted again to talk to Marilyn but stumbled on every sentence.

As I drive a police officer home he suggests we "buzz" a fellow officer who's on radar patrol but I decline, not wanting to get a speeding ticket as well as the impact of a few beers I had at the bbq after the game.

The next day they began filming my episode and I come to the set and meet the director, who's decided to shoot my original version " F..k them", he adds.

I can't really disagree.

(Fri:  Mahon & I face off)

Monday, May 10, 2010

H&H Part 21 - Hollywood Donuts

Back online again.

As usual, I end up at a farewell party at the bar for Dan Cooper, the production designer who's off to do two western movies, and he's not all that unhappy to be leaving our troubled show. He leaves Lauren in charge and when I act surprised she glares at me, I realize that the  woman doing a man's job issue has been misunderstood and I attempt an awkward back step. I've never thought that and have always respected women filmmakers and in some instances mentored them.

But later, Lauren and her sister Marilyn pass me little notes, letters from Finbar the stalker that they've written, laughing as I read them. They sit across from each other between men who do their best to impress the two sisters. For awhile I watch the dance that occurs between them and the men, and I realize I'm in writer mode now, studying people and what they do. They laugh at jokes, smile, nod and generally capture the hearts.

For me it's welcomed, not having to deal with Kaplan and Jonathan and Mahon and Hilda the German money.

Erica is there, getting attention from the men that are too far from the sisters. Raoul, one of the actors shouts at me to write a scene for him so I grab crayon and paper on the table and write a simple first-grade level page of a screenplay.

Someone jokes that it's a Kaplan script who left early after giving a farewell speech to Dan's leaving. I think Kaplan knows how much he's disliked. The crayon script makes its rounds, everybody adding a line and I can't help notice how good everybody feels, made better by knowing that the show is rolling towards the last episodes and soon it will be over.

Then Erica grabs my arm and says she wants to look at the moon over the river. Now you have to remember Erica was one of my fantasy loves as a teenager and now she asks me to go and look at the moon.

Do I need to say how I feel?

Died and gone to heaven.

The moon is indeed over the valley and it's almost like a Hollywood scene. We sit on a bench and talk; the show, the mountains, Germany, the Rocky Mountains, I learn more about her life, how she as a young girl remembered powdered milk after the war ended in Germany and how some Hollywood types referred to her as a Nazi. It was a long hard road to her success and I realize she has earned it.

Then I pitch her my plan. It had come up weeks before and lurked in my mind for days now. I had the perfect business plan.

Hollywood Donuts. 

I had noticed that there were no donut shops in Jackson. There was HavaJava but that was closed early. And a donut shop is different anyway. There were truckers passing through the town all night, heading for distant cities.

Erica didn't know what a donut was but influenced by the drinks she had, she came up with a name. 

Hollywood Donuts.

And our slogan would be "Hollywood Donuts Are Forever".

I didn't know what it meant, but it sounded good. We now knew enough locals to be able to finance Hollywood Donuts and it would feature the Erica combo, coffee and Black Forest Cake. Not officially a donut but it would be the signature treat.

But the night is just beginning.

At 11:30 Erica wants to dance so we leave the movie scene I created in my mind and head tot the often wild hotel bar downtown. There she succeeds in dragging me onto the dance floor and proceeds to show her stuff. For me, it's totally embarrassing and I do everything I try to get off the floor. She ends the dance by jumping on me and the crowd roars.

What happens next that is both scary and amazing.

I join Gunther, a German actor who was flown here to play the part of the dying man in the script I wrote. Gunther and I get along well and he says, of Erica; "she has a lot of energy".

Then I notice that three mountain types approach us. One is bearded, heavy set, no necks and obviously tough. His two buddies are pretty much the same, less the beards. Beard stands about a foot in front of me and says...

"So that's the movie star."

I nod. Then he throws his cigarette, it hits my chest and bounces off. Gunther steps closer to me. Beard then says "you movie people, you really think you're something". I say "not really". He stares blankly at me.

"They don't like Germans", Gunther says and I add, "And they don't like me." I lean into Gunther and say that if they swing at us we have to hit the one closest to us and then head for the door. It's suddenly become a western cowboy showdown. And Gunther and I are really not fighters.

The big guys move in and just as they step ahead... Erica literally flows in between us and the mountain men and says something that sounds like "you look very strong" at Beard who stops, momentarily dazed. They are completely stunned, and I'm not sure if it was her sudden appearance, or them realizing they are looking face-to-face with a real movie star, but she has them in her hands...

... at least for a few more seconds.

In which she grabs my hand, twirls like a ballerina and drags Gunther and I away as smooth as a good bourbon. The next thing we know, we're outside. Once we get into my SUV and drive away, all three of us laugh. Safe and sound, thanks to a movie star.

Erica nods, says "sometimes it works, sometime it doesn't".

(Wed: My episode is filmed)

Friday, May 7, 2010


Offline for awhile, will post Monday.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Heaven & Hell part 20: Bad to worse

Summer is now just around the corner, more tourists, less parkas. In the writer's room we get a call from the network in the east that the first episode does not look good. Everything I suspected (or knew) was correct. The first few scripts were fixed as much as possible but you can't make a good script out of a bad one. No matter how hard you try.

You can make it better, but not much. At least it wasn't mine. But we also have someone new to deal with.


Hilda is representing the German partners in this series, that's why we have Erica here and also a few other German actors. All of whom are very good and easy to work with.

Hilda is a different story.

True to stereotype, Hilda is a tough, stocky woman who orders rather than asks or requests. She is Littman's opposite and is here to exercise power for the European partner. I am introduced and then leave for lunch.

On the way to the Java place that Louise runs, I meet Mindy, the young actress who's a regular on the show. While no Meryl Streep, she does okay for the role. She walks up to me, holding a script, which, as it turns out was my episode, the one that I wrote about the German tourist who was dying and came to the mountains to end his life.

There are two subplots; one deals with Mindy's romantic dinner with the police chief and another subplot involving a stripper, which Kaplan insisted I put into the story against my objections.

Mindy had read the script and was all smiles. Then she gave me probably one of the best compliments I've ever had on a script.

"It's so Jim."

That was all. But coming from her it made me feel that my efforts to write good, solid drama and some comedy was working. And no matter what anyone else said, it didn't really matter.

And others would say not so kind things.

Hilda questioned the entire series, she wants more "family entertainment." Then she adds "why do all the characters have so many problems, why can't they just be happy and ride on horses and lets not have so many people in bed, my goodness (yes she did say that).

I do agree with the bed-hopping the characters do, not because it's racy, but because it's poorly done. Like most of the scripts we're forced to redo. It's clear now that Rino and I are the best writers here. Jonathan, who rarely leaves his condo can do good work, but he seems disillusioned now. And Kaplan, who initiated the sexy scenes, now looks uncomfortable.

Then we get to my script. The one Mindy likes and the other actors like.

"Ah, yes, Mark's (Littman the network guy) favorite script."

Kaplan bites his lip and Jonathan looks angry. But before they can say anything Hilda launches into my script full ahead. She rips almost every scene saying she wants happier characters.

And she doesn't like the stripper story, which I didn't like either. Kaplan forced it on me. But to Hilda it's even worse as she says about the stripper; "It's disgustiing, I mean, I know they have to feed their children but let's cut most of that character out."

Well at least she didn't want us to kill the stripper off.

Kaplan turns traitor again and goes along with Hilda's comments, which Rino and I know are mostly incompetent and useless. They both insist I make some major changes and I have 24 hours to do it as the episode begins shooting in one day.

This has put me between four sides; Kaplan, Hilda, Jonathan and Littman a thousand miles away.

Ah, the writer's life.

(Fri: Hollywood Donuts)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Secret Lives of Jackson

Okay, so I'm being a little dramatic but nothing much in the writing and fighting department so I'm going to catch up on the local gossip in Jackson.

I've mentioned Louise, the coffee house owner previously. Louise had invited me to a house party, one of 2 of our film crew to be invited, so I felt obligated to go. She has one of those houses built in the 1940's and now made more open and modern. The crowd is locals, mostly store owners like her and a few others.

Louise slides through the large living room, making sure everyone is happy. I sit at a wet bar across from a man who is mostly silent. Louise hugs me, gives me a drink and the man glares at me. Ray, the location manager of the series and the other one invited, tells me that the staring man is Louise's ex-husband, another Greek restaurant owner.

It turns out this is/was his house and Louise got it as a settlement. And to make it more interesting, Ray thinks Louise is flirting with me to push her ex's buttons. Not really what I need at this point, being worried enough about my stalker and even my job.

Ray adds that Louise has had plenty of affairs in town, which she later confirms, saying "yeah, they like to talk about me in town". I stay for another hour and then leave, walking back to my hotel. Spring is here now and the evenings are cool but bearable without a parka.

At the hotel the night clerk talks to me a little and I mention Ari the Greek. The night clerk is a tall, gangly man who has dark eyes that seem to be watching you. He says he knows lots about Ari and the other Greeks in town and tells me that Ari's restaurants have burned down three times under mysterious circumstances and that everyone in town knows and someday the "authorities" will know.

I see myself entering conspiracy world so I attempt to leave when night clerk asks if I'd like to see the video tapes he has of the fires. I politely decline, and go to my room. I hear the night clerk laughing and talking to himself. I make sure my door is double locked.

A few days later I learn that the night clerk was fired from Ari's restaurant and ordered by the court to keep away from the place. I also learn that Ari beat his wife some time ago and spent some time in jail.

Then we learn that Ari recently fired a waitress we all liked because she refused to serve liquor to customers after hours, which would be illegal. The TV crew is quite upset and draft a letter to Ari saying we won't frequent his place unless she's hired back.

The town is full of characters; one of them, Big Ed writes the horoscope for a local free paper and admits he makes them up. He says he even created a new sign, Saturn, whose predictions are always good. "Makes people happier," he adds.

Many of us find a new bar after the waitress firing incident and Ari's place is less busy, although now more tourists are beginning to come back to Jackson after the long, hard winter.

(Wed: The first completed episode is awful)