Thursday, December 23, 2010

North of 49

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

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

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

See you all next year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Is my screenplay good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? More money.

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

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

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

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

You have better chances winning the lottery.

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

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

Only 4.

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

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

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

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

So where are all the great screenplays?

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

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

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

I need to go shopping.

(Thurs: Christmas time)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Annie's Calendars

I've often been asked how I came about writing as a viable career and my easiest answer was always the movies. Since I can remember I loved the movies, I even remember the first movie I ever saw, Disney's documentary The Living Desert, and how a scene of a rattlesnake scared the hell out of me.

After all, it was on a screen 20 feet wide and 12 feet high. 

After that I was addicted to the movies and soon knew the names of actors and directors and writers. I knew that after the director's credit, the movie would start.

Since then I have written a pile of movies but I also worked as a newscameraman, soundman and almost every other job on a film, as well as directing 3 movies and scores of commercials.

But it always came back to the writing.

Just before my mother passed away last August she kept telling me to "keep the calendars". I knew she would write little notes on calendars, appointments, things like that. But it wasn't until after she passed away that I discovered the entire stash of calendars stuffed into a corner of her closet.

And they dated back to 1971.

On January 1976, she received a call from my brother Dave, in Hong Kong, on that same day she called me in Vancouver and added, on the same day that there was snow and cold. She would also note the hours she worked.

Annie worked mostly in cafes, the kind that you rarely see now, where a hot hamburger sandwich was more common than a flambe. She was the youngest of six and when her mother died, her father took another woman and sent Annie away, at the age of 15. She had barely an 8th grade education.

Her calendars started around 1971, but some may have been lost in the many moves we made.  Mostly they were like this:

On March 1973 she wrote "sick, one half day worked, $21.20."
On June 1973, "Dave got hurt in school, went to hospital".
May 1999, "found 15 morel mushrooms and went to breakfast to Roman Catholic church".
July 1975, "exchanged camera, bought better camera".
Dec 1979, "boys phoned, first snow storm and cold".
Nov 1981, "James came home".

I started reading the calendars a few weeks ago, having stashed them after her funeral and I began to see what she was protecting, even after she was gone.

They were her life, her diary. Very basic yet revealing the life of a family for almost 40 years. They were simple entries but yet very clear to me, even if the squares of the calendars were only large enough to write 3 or 4 words. So many of the entries bring back a memory to me, things I had forgotten.

And I realized that maybe, just maybe this was why I write. And oddly enough the same goes for my brother Dave, who also writes and works for a newspaper in Calgary as a writer and desk editor.

My mother was not formally educated, rather she was educated in hard work and sacrifice like most of her family and most people back in the 1950's. She didn't believe in credit cards nor in incurring debt, which would make her a rare commodity these days.

She also had a box of letters that date back to 1937 and lists of money spent every day, 5 cents for ice-cream, 35 cents for lunch, new scarf $1.75.

Her last entry though, was written by me, as I sat with her in the hospital. She wasn't able to write at this point, her anemia making her so weak she could barely lift her hand. Yet she insisted that I write in the calendar that she had another transfusion. I told her she had the transfusion weeks ago, but she insisted that I write down "Another transfusion".

So I did. Twelve hours later she passed away.

I always thought it was my dad who had the talent in the family, for a garage mechanic, he played the violin incredibly well, winning contest after contest even into his late 70's. And both Dave and I inherited a little bit of his musical talents. 

But it wasn't until now that I realized that the writing part came from Annie, with a strong dose of Hollywood movies. So this is my plan;

I want to read all of her calendars and see if there could be a book in it, a diary of a woman but not your average diary. I have mentioned this to friends and many of them say their mothers wrote their version of a diary in calendars so maybe it just might be worth it.

Lesson learned; don't throw away your mother's calendars.

(Mon: Fear of fear)

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Good, the bad and the possibilities

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

How did it work out? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Thurs: Something new)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty glamorous, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 6, 2010

There's critics and then...

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

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

Does it matter?

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

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

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

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

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

Does it really matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you ever make a movie?"

"Well then f...k off." 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Thurs: Final preparation for the reading)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Doubting the screenplay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what is the problem with Casualties?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mon: Preparing for the next disappointments)