Monday, November 29, 2010

Did they change your script?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I mind? No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 26, 2010

Travel Day review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mon: Back to Casualties)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving and my movie

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

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

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

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

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

So here goes:

W Channel (check time zones for right time)

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

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

You can also see a webpage at 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Thurs: Turkey!!)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why that Actor and not the other...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mon: Mars)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Picking actors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who's in it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Thurs: The Reading)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Have we seen it all?

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

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

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

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

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

And you know where this is going.

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

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

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

But have we run out of ideas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'd take Cate Blanchett over Ed Norton anyday.

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

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

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

What do you think?

(Mon: The Singularity)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Curious Diversion

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

So what was so interesting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Thurs: casting on Casualties of Love)