Travel Day made the top 50 movie blogs in 2010's MovieMaker magazine survey. It now has readers in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Ukraine, Russia, France, India, Moldova and Romania. Thanks to all of you for hanging with us.
I have worked in film and television for well over thirty years and in practically every aspect of the business from soundman to news cameraman,commercial writer, director and producer and screenwriter.
I have 20 movie credits as writer and about 30 hours of episodic. Credits can be seen under Materials on the left side of the blog.
Now in 2015 this blog started in 2009 as a real-time journal of the making of an independent feature film entitled Travel Day, but the project fell through but was optioned last year.
One of the best blogs was when I worked on a TV series blog entitled "Living in Heaven, Working in Hell" about a TV series that was a disaster. It started March 15, 2010 . Click below to the 2010 blogs
I will regularly post new blogs on Mondays and sometimes Fridays.
After Easter break the crew reassembled back in Jackson. I spent time with friends in Calgary. Kaplan was still back east. I end up at Ari the Greek's with Jorn the cameraman and Ari introduces us to a Polish man who made a fortune in peat moss from the Canadian north. Show-runner Jonathan is there and he seems happier than before. Rino, the other writer seems to be aloof now, and I suspect something is up.
All in all, it's good to be back in Jackson, Louise at Hava Java welcomes me with a quesadilla she's learned to make and a hot coffee. The locals at the bar are happy to see us back. And I missed life in a small town.
But nothing has prepared me for Finbar Riley.
It began when I walked downtown to pick up my copy of the LA Times. I passed two locals talking to each other and noticed that one of them, a short, thin man, seemed to take interest in me. He immediately stopped talking to the other man and instead followed me.
Having lived around Detroit for many years, my street sense is pretty acute and I knew within a few seconds, that he was following me. I entered the magazine store and turned to see him walk up to the door, stop, then step back a few feet and pace back and forth.
I got my paper, saw him outside and left the store and walked away. He walked right behind me, maybe 10 feet or less. Finally I stopped, turned around and confronted him.
"Are you following me?" I said.
Since I'm over 6 feet, the man looked up at me with cold eyes and said this;
"Tell the big boys Pablo's back in town".
Honest to God. That's what he said. What he meant I had no idea of, nor would I ever. But one thing for sure. He meant them.
Most friends of mine will testify I attract weird people. I don't know why, maybe, as a writer, I'm just curious and it seems to come out. I pay attention to people also and that may be a factor. But right now I had no idea what this man was talking about.
I continued walking back the 7 or so blocks to the office. And the little man was about a quarter of a block behind me. Finally I reached Louise's coffee house and turned inside. I tell her someone's following me. She looks out the window, and sure enough he's standing there waiting for me to come out.
"Oh, that's Finbar Riley", she laughed. I'm a little relieved as she says he's a local businessman and quite harmless. I tell her he's following me and Pablo. She has no idea what that means, that's just Finbar. Then she invites me to a party at her house.
By this time Finbar is gone. I step outside, like a kid hiding from a bully and walk back to the office where I tell the story. Everyone laughs and thinks it's great, usually it's the actresses who get stalkers. Yet I see headlines in the weekly paper:
"Writer gunned down on Main Street by Finbar Riley."
Someone suggests I go to the local police. I decide to do that just in case Finbar's behaving a little odd and has decided on some action to a stranger. I go to the Police Department and tell a civilian secretary. Not missing a beat, she says...
"You'll want to talk to Officer Dave".
Officer Dave sits in a small crowded office with his foot in a cast, a little soccer game that got a little out of hand, he laughs. He asks how the TV show is going and is happy to be a police advisor if I want.
I then tell him about Finbar and Officer Dave's smile fades a little. Dave tells me Finbar was a train conductor who somehow married above his station, a woman who comes from a wealthy local family. But after a few years, she got tired of him and is now in the process of dumping Finbar.
To make it even worse, she is carrying on a very open affair with a local divorced man called Mark Roberts. And since it's a small town, Finbar is not only angry but humiliated.
So where does good old Jim come in?
Officer Dave continues; Finbar has already threatened Roberts three times and assaulted him on the street once. The police have booked him, fingerprints and all. Dave says they really don't perceive him as a threat but they don't discount it either. He appreciates me telling him about my incident and adds that Finbar is an alcoholic as well.
But why me? I ask.
Officer Dave doesn't know, but maybe he thought I was Roberts because I look a little like the man who's stealing his wife. He adds that Finbar will probably forget about the whole thing by tomorrow, but if I want, one of the officers will drop by and remind him to not go threatening anyone in town.
"So who's Pablo".
Office Dave says he has no idea. I leave a little better, but again, visions of headlines like "he was so harmless", "never hurt a fly" spin in my head. Back at the office, the story has spread like fire and the lovely Marilyn coasts by and smiles her lovely smile, "hear ya got a stalker Jim", she says.
Now I feel like a real idiot. Why couldn't the stalker be Marilyn?
The pay-off comes later at Ari's bar when I explain the story to him. He points at a man standing at the bar nearby. "That's Mark Roberts." He could resemble me in some ways and wears an anarak coat the same color as mine. I wonder if I should introduce myself; "Hey Mark, I hear you're bedding Finbar's wife".
But I decide to leave it alone. And besides Erica the star has entered and demands attention.
I never do see Finbar again, but I heard a few years later that a train ran over his foot.
I've made a ritual out of going to a little coffee place on Sunday mornings for breakfast. The cottage was built in 1918 and has been turned into "Hava Java" serving expresso and lattes to the tourist trade and an increasing local clientele.
Louise, the woman who owns it, is a dark-haired French Canadian who's friendly and also fills me in on the local gossip. This will lead to some interesting situations in the next week. I show her how to make breakfast burritos like they do in little Mexican cafes in L.A. and she adds it to her menu. But right now there's the scent of slightly burnt biscuits and hot coffee and the world of television has been put on hold for one day.
Later my actor friend Paul and Loreen the production coordinator and Simone, a local P.A. drive up to Crystal Lake which is higher up and still covered with snow. Up there there's still 5 or 6 feet of snow and we struggle to get to the lake itself. Loreen manages to fall backwards, leaving a perfect snow angel in the deep snow.
I realize that I do enjoy this valley and it's people, probably because I grew up in a small town of only 500 residents. It seems like a million miles from Los Angeles and the deals and winners and losers. Up here it doesn't seem all that important what LA does. Life isn't all that hard in heaven.
But it's a little harder in hell. And that begins tomorrow.
Monday begins with a wake-up call from Marilyn, the sister who totally intimidates me just by saying "good morning, Jim". Turns out the power was off in the hotel last night and she is making calls to the cast and crew. I remind her that writers don't have to be anywhere until 9am at the earliest to which she replies, "If I had to get up, so do you." Why do women sound so incredibly great the first thing in the morning?
My smile turns to a frown when I get a call from the IRS who remind me I owe them taxes. So much for that property I wanted in Flagstaff.
Today, there's a new director coming and I have worked with him in the past, only he was acting in a series then. Morty Stuart is one of those great American character actors, his credits go back to the early 60's and played in a favorite film of mine, Kelly's Heroes, opposite Clint Eastwood.
Morty's a Texas native but has traveled the world and made more movies than anyone I've ever met. He's also translated his acting work to directing, something not uncommon for many actors. Morty's also got a good b.s. detector and I'm glad to see someone on my side of the fence.
His first indication of the way things are is when we spend 30 minutes in the production meeting deciding if a kitchen scene should be day or night. Rino and I have to resist Kaplan's opinion and Morty finally sides with us. Jonathan has shown up, as has Mahon as Morty is the biggest star we have here, even though he's directing. And they want to be sure they hand with the biggest star.
The rest of the day is quiet, one episode is being filmed and the next one, Morty's job, will start in a few days. The evening again ends at the bar where they set the tables up for us. Some of the locals don't like the attention we're getting but most of them are still excited about a series being made in Jackson.
And we're pretty open with the locals, often inviting them to sit with us and have a beer. I meet several people with whom I'm still friends to this day. Lauren, the serious sister sits on one side of me while Marilyn sits between two men who seem more interested in each other than her. Not that it's a bad thing.
Lauren has heard I tell good jokes so she asks me to tell her a joke. This is not always the easiest thing, to suddenly "be funny". I struggle to find something appropriate and have minor successes.
For the most part, drinking seems to be the big thing, drinking beer rather than wine or liquor unless it's for dinner. The bar is always lively and the TV shows hockey games. There are drugs in town, as the police tell me later, a lot of marijuana and cocaine. So far very little Meth.
And some of the crew indulge in that, a practice that goes back to the early 1900's when movie studios in California would go on location. They would hire circus movers who knew how to set up a set, pull it down and drive overnight to the next location. They used bennies mostly, uppers, as that's the only way they could stay up for such long hours.
And the movie industry grabbed onto it, going from laborers to crew and then to the cast. Since writers are in an odd zone between both sides, we rarely get involved in any of that. It's very rare for a writer going to re-hab?
Rino and I decide to walk to the Springwater hotel downtown where live music is playing and more of a local crowd. On the way there, Ari the Greek drives by, stops and drives us to the bar. Again I feel the comfort of a small town and people who know you.
We enter the Springwater and see our young actress, Mindy, in the Dead Animal room, so called because of a dozen or more stuffed moose, elk, deer and bear heads lining the wall. She's talking to a good-looking Search and Rescue guy who is just happier than hell getting this attention from a real actress.
The evening ends with me walking back to my hotel and I notice a ring around the moon. This is sometimes called a Hunter's moon and usually means cold weather. It also means that the week-end is over and work begins again tomorrow.
One of the interesting aspects of working in the Rockies are the somewhat "wild" animals that walk nonchalantly along sidewalks downtown or in backyards. They are mostly deer and very little threat, if any.
Bears are rarely seen in the park and hardly ever seen within town limits, where they obviously become potential problems. The black bears are dangerous but the grizzly is most dangerous. I have seen only one black bear since I arrived and he was a few miles outside of town crossing the highway.
Elk, on the other hand are not really dangerous as they wander mostly in open park areas or around the edge of town and on the highways. I once saw an elk get hit by a transport truck and it was not a pretty sight, the elk had broken legs and couldn't stand up. Eventually they are shot by rangers. Unfortunately elk and other animals are frequently hit by speeding cars and trucks.
Here in Jackson, the elk are not really any threat at all. Except for spring time when the males begin to look for love. And any other elk in the same area is considered a threat to the male's territory and selection of mates.
And apparently they don't really discern between another male elk or a human being.
Two of the crew have already been chased by a male elk, trumpeting his love call or ready to stomp on the intruder. In spring they don't have antlers, those were lost in the fall but they still weigh about 600 lbs and can crush a human fairly well.
I say this because this is the morning I walk/run with Erica, the movie star. Sure enough she is there, ready to go, sun is not even over the eastern mountain range yet. I put on a good show as the marches up the road to the outskirts of town. Considering the steep road and the high altitude, I do reasonably well keeping up to her.
Then an elk appears. Male. Sniffing. Their eyes aren't all that good and from 50 feet away I look like trouble to him. Erica doesn't even bother stopping, marching straight ahead. The elk snuffs and paws, a sure sign he will attack.
Then Erica shouts at him, telling him to go away. She picks up some stones and tosses them at the elk who looks completely confused. I join the shouting and eventually he decides we are no threat at all and he leaves.
I decide not to hike with Erica anymore. Not only because of elk threats but also because I can't keep up with her. At an alleged 59 years, she is doing just fine.
The rest of the day is spent on rewrites of new scripts and starting my own script which will be one of the last ones filmed. By day's end I join Rino, the other writer and go to the Rocky Mountain Lodge, the most expensive and posh lodge in the entire area. Celebrities from the 1950's used to stay here, people like Bing Crosby and even Marilyn Monroe. It's definitely a 4-star tourist resort but tonight the bar has around 5 customers listening to a local band.
We head back to the Peak where the crew hangs out and where Erica has a handful of listeners as she tells stories of her encounters with movie stars as famous as she was. Jonathan is nowhere in sight. The bar is now accustomed to us and they pull together as many tables as we need, mostly for above the line people and maybe a few selected below-the-liners, whom the creative types allow within their circle.
I always fit on either side and managed to stay level-headed, but some people get carried away with perceived power. Like Kaplan, but fortunately he rarely comes here because I think he knows nobody likes him.
A bar patron wants to meet Erica and the manager brings her over. Erica plays the movie star part well, smiling and genuinely listening and talking to the woman. The woman, it turns out, is the girlfriend of Ari, the owner of the bar and she speaks Greek and Swahili as well.
Like many small resort towns, a lot of the food businesses in Jackson are owned by Greeks. Ari is an interesting case himself. He jumped ship twenty-four years ago in Chicago and never looked back. He worked hard and now owns two places in Jackson. And he seems to like us and our lifestyle, not to mention the money he's making in a quite winter.
Ari buys drinks regularly for us and in moments of introspection tells us of his life and tragedies. It seemed his son died in a car accident and is buried in the small cemetery outside of Jackson. In the weeks that follow, I will learn that not all is well at Ari's, but for tonight I pass on the fifth Ouzo shot and head home. The clock reads 2am.
Producer Kaplan has decided that Jonathan and I rework Jonathan's wife's outline. The one that everyone from the network on down hates - except for Jonathan who will not or cannot admit his wife wrote a lame story for a quick buck.
This is because no matter what she writes, how bad it will be, she will get paid the script fee and then it goes to either me or Rino or both of us to rewrite it into a reasonably okay story. That's the unsung job of the story editor.
Right now I'm getting nowhere with both Kaplan and Jonathan and tension is high. Then Rino comes in and offers a few ideas that sound good to me but of course, not to Jonathan and Kaplan who then disagree with each other. Finally this wasteful tug-of-war continues for an hour until, not having any ideas that work, they give in to Rino and me.
And remember, this isn't a huge victory, all we accomplished is having to push up a bad story into something not quite as bad.
Then Mahon the other producer, the one who is usually playing computer games, bursts into the office and demands that we "get the f..king scripts to the departments". This is in reference to the fact that the scripts are behind due to Jonathan's absence and indecisions and Kaplan's inexperience. Left alone Rino and I could have the scripts out on time.
Mahon tears into Kaplan, who's clearly embarrassed as this middle-aged woman is ripping into him. Finally it ends when Kaplan says "the scripts will be there when they're ready." Mahon storms out as she can't threaten much more.
A production assistant steps inside, wary of the shouting match that just occurred and tells me my chair has come. I've been sitting at one of those folding chairs, working for hours.
Well, at least I'm happier.
I'm also starting my own script besides re-writing Jonathan's wife's outline and working on another script from another writer. I find the only way I can work on multiple scripts with different stories is compartamentalizing them, giving each script a good 2 hours by themselves. I don't know how other writer/story editors do it, but this works for me.
Later, Kenny the Assistant Director enters. An A.D. as they're called neither directs nor assists. Rather they are sort of the Sergeant on the front lines, their job is to push the crew and director forward as time is money. They're also the boss of the crew and can make life horrible for a director if they see him falling behind. They have no real say in the content, that is the script and story, that's purely the territory of the director, the writer and the actors.
Kenny lays down the law with Kaplan, his script, the avalanche one, is too ambitious, there's just too much material for a 5-day shoot, it has to be cut back. I knew this and Rino did also but Kaplan did not listen and nor did the network a thousand miles away.
And the director isn't much help, I know Rance, the director, from the past and we don't get along at all, he's very quiet, the word is that one ear is deaf and refuses to take suggestions from writers, at least from me. We had a small fight a few years before when we disagreed on an episode I had written. And since I had directed my movie Ghostkeeper before Rance made a movie, we've always had a bit of a contest going on. Seeing as I know his job as well as mine makes it a bigger playing ground.
Then I get into a small disagreement with Kenny, who's feeling pressure and a deadline to start the filming but when he starts to take it out on the writers, I react instantly and tell him to worry about his end, not ours.
And yes, I have my little ego too, but it rarely surfaces when I'm working with smart people.
After these exhausting meetings, Rino and I retreat to our office and Jonathan, as always, disappears. Some of the actors drift in, usually alone. The writer's office is usually off-limits to the crew as they really wouldn't have a reason to go there.
But actors are actors and they have time on their hands if they're not filming and besides, they might get a writer to write a few more lines of dialog for them. And I've done that if they're nice people. They have it even harder than writers so I empathize.
I generally like actors and have some for friends, and even though they can act like 6-year olds, vying for attention, they're not stupid. An actor can smell if you're lying about something, especially the character they're playing.
If you're going to lie to them about a scene or character, then do it as sincerely as you can. Because if they discover you were lying, they'll get you back. And I don't blame them. Nobody likes to be lied to.
One of the difficulties of working on a show like this is the fact that it's not a good show, the scripts aren't as good as they could be and we have no real leadership from Jonathan and zero from Kaplan or Mohan. And they are constantly putting up obstacles to our ideas and solutions.
And so it's hard, for me, to encourage the actors. Some know me and others are glad that I listen to them and also that I give them good dialog. But ultimately, the show suffers from the top down in spite of good intentions from Rino and me who have to try to change as much as we can. Only to have our ideas and work rejected.
I retreat to my hotel and pass Erica who said she would like to talk with me sometime, I know this will be about her role but I am just too beat up to want to talk script or dialog or scenes. Even with the movie star goddess I knew from my teen years.
I excuse myself and she tells me she walks up the mountain every morning at dawn and expects me to be there tomorrow morning.
After all the preparation and the rewrites and everything else, the first day of filming begins. Rino and I are stuck in the office doing rewrites of the next episodes and the hallways where crew hung around are now almost empty. While it's nice to see them gone I sort of miss the noise, kind of like a parent who's kids have left the home.
Writing, after all, is the loneliest job on a film set, you don't really work with anyone else. Right now Rino and I are working together on Kaplan's script after the network insisted we do the rewrite rather than Kaplan.
Since we both would rather write alone, we have to compromise by having one of us at the computer and one pacing the floor. We speak out lines of dialog or action and whomever is at the computer types it out. Then we read it, re-read it and decide if it stays or needs further revision.
Now and then we take a break, I go for a walk in the hallway to talk to Karen the accountant and Rino goes out onto the little deck outside our office sliding window where he can grab a smoke.Finally we finish enough work to take a longer break and we decide to drive to the set just outside outside the town.
The crew is filming at the Ranger Station, which, 2 months ago was planned as a large office in a cabin style. What we see on the set is a small cabin barely big enough for the desk and counter the art director built. I wonder how they will put the several actors inside as well as at least 10 or more crew members and their lights and camera. It's another screw-up from the producers.
The crew is given a "starting day" cake, courtesy of Kaplan and Mahon, ironically whom they dislike. I've never been on a show where there was this much dislike of the people at the top. In spite of that everyone gobbles up the cake.
Being on set for a writer is mostly pretty boring, there's really nothing for you to do. And nobody really wants you there anyway as they're all working. So we hang out at craft services, which is a table with coffee, tea, sodas, juice, cookies, chips and more fattening junk food. There's always a pleasant craft services person there who also has little to do with the working crew.
When we finally get bored enough, we go back to the office and get notes from the Litman at the network. He likes my outline for the script I will eventually write and have a few minor suggestions, all pretty easy. Then they tell us something else.
They don't like Jonathan's wife's outline which both Rino and I agree on. Nepotism is widespread in this business and in this case, Jonathan's wife, still back in the east, came with the deal of writing one script. While I've heard she was a good writer her story is fairly basic, in other words, she didn't spend a lot of time on coming up with something new or fresh. It's more of a paint-by-numbers script.
Her script features a character who's a survivalist type, the network wants a pacifist and the production company wants a Rambo-style warrior. Neither side gives up. Rino and I come up with a character who uses a gun but eventually is talked out of violence. The network likes it.
Jonathan, however, is furious. Angrier than I've ever seen him. He stands up for his wife's story and will not back off. Kaplan says he and Rino and I and the network outrule him, a rater confrontational way to handle it, but I just stay out of it. In fact, Jonathan was going to send it to the network without even consulting us at all. But this time we win.
As the day winds up for us, I usually leave before 5pm, the crew continues to work but I head for downtown and some shopping. On the way out I stop by the art department where Cooper the art director is working.
He introduces me to Carrie, his assistant. She's in her late 20's, very pleasant and hard-working, wearing hiking boots which are the standard in a mountain town and t-shirts. Her sense of humor is similar to mine so we get along from the start. She also works with Lauren, the serious sister.
Carrie has scanned her face and she and Cooper print it and enhance it with software and then she proudly gives me a copy. She's a refreshing moment since the bitter tirade that we faced with Jonathan and his wife's script.
Outside, there still is snow, but melting and in late afternoon when it's barely light, the temperature is just enough to freeze the water into small ponds on the streets.
My first personal encounter with Erica in the bar was somewhat unexpected. She sat next to me and leaned in to say "Ah, the Writers, the storytellers". With that she had me on her side even more. While I've had experience with aging divas, Erica seems okay, she's friendly, smart and she knows the business.
And she has new breasts.
Erica pushes up her breasts, covered by a sweater and asks if I like them. I stumble a bit, she laughs, and I manage to say "They seem fine". She answers, "they ought to, they cost enough".
Unlike those of us who try to sound tough, she has proven herself on the field of battle in this often wicked business. Then she tells us her side of the Travel Day with my actor friend Paul and the driver, her side is as funny as Paul's. She has the attention of the table as she does this and I decided to leave as I had to work early.
Erica immediately announces that I hadn't said goodbye to her and I assured her it wouldn't happen again. She laughed and leaned over to kiss me on the cheek. I stay for another beer and her stories of being a young girl in post-war Germany, peppered with some nice bad words are quite honest and revealing.
She mentions the subject of being German in Hollywood and the occasional Nazi name-calling which surprises me. At this point the director, drunk, makes some off-color German jokes as well, making a fool of himself.
I finally leave and see the serious sister, Lauren and talk to her, much easier than trying to talk to Marilyn, her sister. Lauren confides that Kaplan screws up things for the art department and she wonders how he ever got the job. So do I
But even Lauren's presence beauty isn't enough to keep me awake and I escape to the quiet of walking back to the hotel noticing there still is snow on the ground and we need it for our first episode.
Working on a movie or series is like being at a family reunion in many ways. There are people you know, people you've heard of and people you meet for the first time. The work is intense, sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day for some of the crew.
This intensity ends in strong bonds among the crew, very family like in that they get along most of the time and other times want to kill each other (figuratively of course). Add to that the fact that we are on location as well, friends and family are at least a 6 hour drive and in some cases across the country.
Unlike regular workers, film people work in spurts, a month here, three months there and a lot of unemployment so the intensity of relationships ramps up to fit that short period of time of work. And the relationships are fairly spread all over the crew for the most part although there is a separation between above the line and below the line. Above is the creative end, writer, director, producer. Below the line essentially is everyone else.
And it's similar to workers and executives and, depending on the production and the producer can be a good experience or a bad one.
Writers have their own little world as well, as mentioned, we are the only ones who, for the most part, work alone. Nobody ever sees us work, they see us in the office or sometimes on the set, but mostly they don't really know how we do what we do. All they care to know is that we can make their jobs hard or easy.
I remember one show that was filming in Vancouver and I had come out to the set around 10pm and, as it is common in Vancouver, it was raining. Trucks were lined up along the street, tarps were set up to repel the rain and the crew and actors were hustling around.
At that moment, I realized that they were all out there because I had sat in the comfort of my office and typed five simple words:
EXT. CITY STREET - RAINING - NIGHT
Those words took me less to do than it took you to read them. I could have written DAY or INT. or anything else. But I chose this.
And now about 50 people were cold and wet and making a movie.
Can that be considered the power of the pen (or computer)?
Spring is beginning to show up in the mountains, days are a little warmer, snow is melting on the brownish lawns and the Rocky Mountain sheep graze closer to town, with little concern for photographers or tourists.
I get a ride to the office with Karen the accountant who says Kaplan is really over his head and the local producer even more so. I keep wondering how these guys got those jobs. The local producer is easy enough, he comes with local financing and for the most part he really stays out of the loop. Still he is responsible for misjudging the costs of filming in a town 6 hours away from the nearest airport and city.
And Kaplan, whom I'm sure some of you feel sorry for by now, he's another case. He bluffed his way into this job and is making it a difficult shoot for everyone from the writers to the crews and even the accountants and eventually the actors.
As the saying goes; he must have pictures of the company CEO in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.
No subtleties there. It can be a kill or be killed atmosphere on films and TV shows, egos are huge and when a show goes bad like this, it begins to affect the entire crew who more than often decide to rough it through which I admire greatly. I only wish I could do the same.
At the office, I learn who's going to rewrite Kaplan's script, the one he tried to rewrite 4 times.
It's Rino -- and me. Together.
And the departments are beginning to ask us for scripts. We have to shoot in less than a week and the wardrobe department, the production design department and others need a hard copy of the script to study to see what's needed.
Jonathan, the head writer isn't anywhere around, he's in his condo even though he has an empty office here down the hall from us. Jonathan should be involved but the wardrobe girl, Nancy, says I'm the only one who anyone sees. Even Rino disappears from the office from time to time. At one point, when Jonathan dropped by, someone asked me "what exactly does he do?"
Next on the schedule is the reading.
This is the one, for any of you who have followed the blog, is my least favorite place during production. It's where all the departments get together to pick apart the script to say what they don't like, can't do or won't do.
And it's also the appearance of the real star of the show. Erica enters the room with a sweeping movement, like she's floating into the crowded room. In weeks later this talent will save me and an actor from serious harm.
Erica takes over the room completely and I figure she has earned it, she's been with the big stars, been in major movies and now to be in a "B" level series has to hurt a little. But as they say, there are no small parts, just small actors.
This reading goes the way I expected and we get 32 pages of changes and considering the script is around 54 pages, that's almost half. But it's mostly small stuff, much of it words that could be changed on the set and probably will be even though we still have to write it.
I suggest we leave it to filming, we don't need to re-do 32 pages for changes like "Todd looks at her", to "Todd slowly looks towards her direction". But Kaplan insists. Mahon sits quietly playing solitaire on her computer and Jonathan just tries to act like he's the head writer. Which he is of course.
I say I will do my best. I've learned you never let them think it's easy, make them feel that their suggestions will make the script ever so better. In truth later I do the 32 page rewrites in less than an hour. But I hold off handing it in for the rest of the day. And Rino, who was supposed to help, is nowhere in sight.
I stare at Erica now and then and am taken back to being a teenager in love with a movie star, never dreaming I would be this close to her. She still looks good, in her late 50's and very energetic. I sense she is checking us out, feeling her way around the room. It seems bigger than a little TV show with her here, it seems like a movie.
Ah, they don't make stars like they used.
It's clear in the meeting that the various departments have little patience for Kaplan and one of the grips tells me they want to use him as grizzly bear bait since the rangers told us a grizzly is in the area.
After the reading, Jonathan goes straight to the actors to congratulate them on their "wonderful" reading and how he personally is going to make sure they get "brilliant" writing from "his staff" even if he has to step in personally.
Rino and I exchange glances, it's not even funny anymore for us.
Afterwards I meet Paul Patterson, an actor who comes from Windsor, across the river from Detroit, where I grew up as a teen. Paul came in with Erica in the production passenger van and tells me a great story about how the driver didn't know who she was, or care but had to present her with flowers and a bottle of wine at the airport.
Erica is a little apprehensive, realizing she's riding in a passenger van with two complete strangers. She keeps her wine and flowers to herself and drinks it by the time they arrive, several hours later.
Ironically enough, that story became the screenplay, Travel Day, which began this blog and which I am now trying to finance for a fall 2010 filming.
Later, at the Peak bar, I am personally introduced to Erica and she mentions she has read one of my scripts and likes it.
I wonder how often someone gets a dream that comes through. I just did.
The network sends a 4-page memo on Kaplan's 4th rewrite of his script, Episode 11 which will be filmed in two weeks. They tell us we're all wonderful and they're excited.
Excited is a commonly used word in the film business as in "I'm excited". It's along the lines of "Trust me".
Then they proceed to rip Kaplan's script to pieces. Kaplan's face pales but he tries to shrug it off when the network suggests someone else rewrite it in order to get a shooting script in time to film it.
None of us want to, not me, not Rino and not Jonathan. The decision will be made tomorrow and I suspect Rino will do it, that's what he's here for, to fix things.
I've heard the actors are arriving today and they'll be at the Mountainview, a restaurant bar that has become our official hangout, much to the joy of the Greek owner. While there is a ski resort here, it's at least 6 hours drive from the nearest city so week-day nights are pretty dead.
I show up and recognize Todd Lander, the male lead. He's a mid-range working actor who was a co-star in a western series. It's always strange how someone can be a lead in a series and get all the attention, and then once the show's cancelled, they're out there hustling for jobs like all the other out-of-work actors, waiting in the same hallways and offices for work.
Of course, writers aren't far behind them. We don't get the same attention, as audiences rarely care who the writers are. They know stars and Steven Spielberg.
Lander and I are both from LA so we have some common ground, he tells me he met Kaplan who told him thathe felt our series is modeled after Gunsmoke, something I suggested to Kaplan way back in Vancouver. Now it's his idea.
Gunsmoke was one of my favorite shows and it was on for nearly 23 years, one of the longest running 1 hour shows in TV history. What made it work was that it wasn't about the lead players, rather it focused on someone coming into town, Dodge City, who had "baggage" as I like to say. In other words they brought something good to town, or more likely something bad. And that's when the regulars on the show got involved.
Our show could work on that level. If we had better producers and better scripts. But I still have hope.
Rino shows up and Jonathan, once again looking ill or hungover. Then the alliances begin, as anyone knows from Survivor. Rino establishes a rapport with Lander. Writers often try to get actors on their side so that if the director or producer resists something in the script, the actor will come to their aide.
And actors do the same. After all, we're the ones who write what they will say.
Jonathan seems in another world, he stumbles abit with his words and Lander glances at me as though to say "he's the head writer?" I feel for Jonathan, he's not a bad guy, he just seems burned out and unhappy.
The other actors show up, a Native American, Ramon, who I saw a few years ago starring in Mel Gibson's movie Apocolypto. He's friendly and gracious and lives near Santa Fe. Then there's Macy, a model-turned actress, also friendly, a little apprehensive but willing to learn. Macy will, later on the show give me one of the best compliments I have ever had.
The one actor missing of course the real star, Erica, she who was a major star in Hollywood with the likes of Paul Newman, Peter Sellars and . She'll show up in a few days.
The director of the first episode appears as does Mahon the co-producer and Kaplan. They sit,appropriately, on the other side of the table. Ramon offers a suggestion to Jonathan to change his character name from Sam to Max. Jonathan mumbles and totters a bit, everyone at the table is beginning to realize he's drunk.
Then the director points out the crewmembers are sitting across the restaurant eating their dinners, where the director feels they rightly belong being "below the line" that term that delineates the creative people like us from the working "grunts" like them.
While I've had my arguments with crew, I still respect what they do and support then when I can, at least if I think they being made fun of.
But the highlight of the evening comes with the arrival of the Monahan sisters, Lauren and Marilyn. They are both blonde knockouts and are well known by our crew. Lauren is an assistant production designer helping the bearded production designer. Marilyn is an assistant.
They seem friendly enough, each is different, Lauren is wound a little tighter, more serious, feels she's in a man's world and fighting it, while Marilyn is more friendly with a sense of humor, although there seems to be some darkeness behind those eyes. Both do enjoy the attention, although Lauren would deny it.
Together they are quite a potent pair and every guy in the place notices them. "You're drooling", says Karen, the accountant. She laughs and tells me it's always like this when the sisters work on a film or TV series. Karen's learned to enjoy it.
Later, walking on the way home, I see Marilyn and the lead actor Lander walking and talking, I guess he's not wasting his time, although he has a wife in Los Angeles. I try to avoid them and walk to my hotel when Marilyn calls me, she's left Lander and heads to me, joking about my seeming aloofness.
She is even more striking up close, and I begin a pattern with her that continues even to this day. I stumble and stammer trying to find something to talk about and usually say something really stupid.
I feel like I'm doing a bad Woody Allan but when I'm around her I felt like a nervous 15-year old. And on the occasion when we're in the same part of the world, I still act like that.
She has that effect.
Now the show is coming to life. Now we become a community of sorts, there will be fights, alliances, love, affairs, lies, betrayal, humor, adventure, illness, sadness, frustration, friendship made and friendship lost.
On one of my downtown walks, I find a local drug store that brings in out-of-town newspapers and agrees to bring in the Sunday LA Times at a cost of $5 which, considering how far away L.A. is, is quite reasonable. It's a week old, but better than nothing.
Back at the office Jonathan calls from his condo and says he likes my initial treatment for Episode 4, the first of the 2 scripts I will write myself, rather than rewrite other people's works. Rino offers his comments for the first time, he's generous with complements but with the feeling that the hammer will come down at the end.
Later I hang out with Karen, the accountant, remember what I said about accountants, you can't be nice enough to them. Helps to buy them a drink now and then too. But Karen is genuinely likeable and we get along well.
I'm introduced to the local producer, who is part of the financing and thus considers himself a vital part of the production. Karen tells me he's way out of his league and messes up frequently and that the other producers would like to dump him but they need his participation in the money end.
He's a nice enough guy, and his aspiring actress wife has a semi-regular part on the series. Word is that she's taking advantage of her husband's position and is quite opinionated. We shall see if her part grows as we move forward.
We have another meeting for the avalanche story, the one I rewrote. This is basically the job of the story editors; we take the first draft screenplay of the hired writers and rewrite it to our needs as well as make it shootable, in the sense that they might ask for 100 extras and we tone it down to 10. And as mentioned above, I get to write 2 scripts myself.
The avalanche episode is potentially difficult, the crew is already rumbling with discontent, there are several problems, the most being how to create an avalanche for very little money. Kaplan suggests a new scene in which it includes a snow cannon firing. This almost makes the director fall of his chair.
At this point in the game, you don't add new scenes, especially difficult ones, Kaplan, being an amateur, doesn't know this yet and the 1st Assistant Director says a resounding "NO". Kaplan backs off but it's clear the crew dislikes him as much as the office staff does.
At least I have company.
But we all know that Kaplan can be dangerous, we're over a thousand miles from the network and someone like Kaplan can begin a rolling snowball that could end in disaster. Mahon sits mostly quietly, playing Solitaire on her computer. Sometimes I think she's on meds or something because she only looks up now and then. Of course she has to deal with Kaplan on a personal level and I can feel sorry for her. But I don't trust her either.
And I realize Jonathan also deals with Kaplan on a more personal basis than I do and I see he's almost resigned himself to a long spring and early summer of futile arguments. He has rewritten Episode 12 and it's very ordinary, the characters are turning one-dimensional.
Writing believeable characters is hard, some writers can't do it. It took me about 5 years to learn how to write believable characters and my method isn't all that hard.
I don't make them up.
There's an old saying that anything a writer could write couldn't match real life and I take my lead from that. Every character I write is initially based on someone I knew, or I met, or even someone I may have watched for a few minutes somewhere.
Once in a truckstop, I saw an older man putting posters of his missing grand-daughter on the bulletin board. It was sad, yet it fascinated me, the look in his eyes, the emptiness. Then he noticed me and smiled half-heartedly. Nobody else in the truckstop took time to look at him or the poster.
Those are the moments I try to write, hopefully even partially successfully. I am grateful to those who inspire me and I feel like I'm giving them a nobility they deserve.
Jonathan doesn't seem to care anymore and his way of coping is disappearing into his condo sometimes for a few days. This way he doesn't have to be around Kaplan, Mahon or us. It must be a hard life for him, being the head writer and rarely working at the office.
I wish I could just let go like he does but my need to feel some pride and satisfaction in my writing keeps me much too honest for my own good.
Right now we're still struggling to keep the entire show in sequence even as we are writing the last 4 episodes now and hoping that they will make sense as they will air after the episodes we will film later.
But again, it's not rocket science. It's only a TV show and a not very good one at that.
Nobody sets out to make a bad show, but this one was doomed from the start and from the top. Kaplan has no idea what he's doing, Mahon plays on her computer games and now and then snaps at someone, the head writer is hardly around, the crew is unhappy and the office staff would like to drop Kaplan off somewhere in the mountains.
And I end up at Louise's coffee house whenever I can and read the Sunday LA Times. It's a week behind but it's big and fat and takes me the better part of a morning.
Most of the time I spend off hours is getting to know the locals, who, as I said before, are pretty excited about a TV series being done in their town. I've already made friends with several including Louise, who runs a coffee house near our motel and a couple who run an art gallery.
As well, I talk to the rangers themselves who were leary at first about talking to us, but now enjoy telling us stories that are often quite disturbing. Like many rangers they feel a kindred spirit to the animals and the rivers and the mountains, very few want to leave once they've spent time here in the Rockies.
An issue, as always, is the subject of wolves. And since we're doing a wolf script, I ask one of them about wolves. I learn a remarkable thing; that if one year is particularly bad in terms of finding food (mostly deer and caribou), that the following year, the female has a remarkable form of birth control that stops birth that could possibly not be fed. Biologists still don't quite understand this.
Rino had left a message at my hotel asking me to join him at the Peak tonight to listen to a blues band on tour. At least we still continue to get along. I just hope Kaplan isn't there, and I'm surprised at how his presence has affected me that much. The band turns out to be good and I meet someone from years before, with whom I worked at a TV station. One of those odd coincidences. He's looking for work. I give him Mahon's name but suggest my reference isn't particularly helpful.
Kaplan and Jonathan have a private meeting next morning, neither Rino or I were invited. More paranoia. Later Jonathan comes around and tells me there will be another meeting with all of us writers tomorrow. Normally, on good shows this isn't an issue, but on this show, with secret meetings and closed doors, it's not a healthy atmosphere.
After dinner I call one of my best friends, Phil Borsos, who passed away some years ago. It was he and I who were the only students who failed a summer film school. And it was he and I who were the only ones from that class who had a career in film and TV. our partnership produced an award-winning short film and established both of us as serious filmmakers.
Phil had made a feature film, The Grey Fox, about a train robber in the early 1900's, and the film won numerous awards in Canada and throughout the world. It launched his career in Hollywood where he went on to make features with major stars until his untimely death from leukemia at 41.
Phil had received an invitation from none other than Marlon Brando, he of Godfather movies and of course, Streetcar Named Desire, and On The Waterfront.
Brando, now in his eating years was massively overweight and eccentric, taken to odd behaviours, dealing with his children who were mostly trouble, and demanding outlandish sums of money from producers for any roles that were offered him.
Phil drove up to his home on Mulholland, got threatened by a vicious dog Brando kept, and was left waiting in his living room while Brando and someone else argued in another part of the house. Finally the big man appeared. Nearly 300 pounds big.
Brando immediately began to quote dialog from Phil's movie, Grey Fox, and that in itself was worth a picture. Phil couldn't believe this legend had even heard of his movie. And it was only the beginning.
Brando wanted to make a western. And he wanted Phil to direct it. Brando shouted to some unseen person and food appeared, fruit and chocolates. While he ate, he described the story to Phil, who was in movie-fan heaven. Brando was ready to start. He'd have his people talk to Phil's people tomorrow.
Even though Brando was a little wacky, he was still worth his weight in gold in any movie. Even at 300 lbs.
"What about the script", Phil asked. "Can I see it?"
Brando produced several pages of paper. But it was just some dialog and notes. Certainly nowhere near a feature film script that would be at least 100 pages. Brando said there was nothing to worry, they would have a script.
Phil was totally in awe. He had been in Hollywood long enough to take everything with some suspicion and a lot of doubt. But yet he might direct a Brando movie. This was bigtime director territory and it would elevate his status.
As he left, Brando came out to guide him backwards to the road, yelling "left, left... right, slow, easy." An Academy Award winner who turned it down, now directing traffic.
It was the last Phil heard from Brando.
Later he heard that Brando had demanded $1 million to write the screenplay from some producer who thought he could get Brando at bargain-basement prices. But the script fee never materialized as most producers in this town knew that you couldn't always trust Brando.
Like so many stories in Hollywood.
An agent once greeted me this way: "chickie-sweetie-baby-don't you ever die."
I woke up early one morning when it was barely getting light outside and realized I could get a great shot of the sun rising over the mountains. I grabbed my trusty Nikon and tripod and drove up to a spot where I knew I could frame the photo with pine trees. The sun came up, hung in for about 10 minutes and I squeezed off a 36 roll of Fuji Velvia. It was worth it.
But later in the morning I have a meeting with Kaplan that morning. The fact that I should even entertain his presence irks me to no end. This person has absolutely no experience at the job of producing nor has he the ability. I have worked with bad producers and good ones, but he is simply nothing.
He has his notes on my script and it's not long before we differ on almost every note and then he comes up with one line; "I know the characters better than you".
The fact that I and Jonathan have done more to the characters in the series in the last month than Kaplan did in the alleged 2 years that this was being developed. I've heard his wife is a marketing director at a radio station, Rino's wife is a psychiatrist.
I'm in interesting company.
I leave to go to the writer's office where Rino and I re-arrange the desks. Both of us place our desks so that our computer screens face us and the wall behind us rather than face the open area. This way we can avoid anyone coming in and reading over our shoulder as well as being able to face unwanted guests.
I call Jonathan who has remained in his condo for 3 days now, and Rino and I haven't heard from him. He answers, and agrees about the worthlessness of Kaplan's notes. In fact he disagrees with almost everything Kaplan's done since we arrived here. This goes along with the network guy, Litman, who constantly trashes Kaplan's script.
Jonathan asks me about Rino, if we get along and I tell him it seems we do get along. This is not an easy show mostly because of the two producers, Mahon and Kaplan. Mahon hates having to defer to upstart Kaplan, who simply is bluffing his way through this entire show.
You might wonder how we know Kaplan's script and notes are bad. Because after years of writing, you get to know what's good and what's bad, what works and what won't. My agent had a great comment once when I asked him to read a script a friend of mine wrote. Frank said he'd be happy to read it, he knew how hard it was to write a screenplay (incidentally I use both screenplay and script terms- it's the same thing).
Then Frank added, "I'd be happy to read the first 3 pages".
Just the first 3 pages? But a screenplay is at least 100 pages. Why only 3?Because a pro in this business can tell by 3 pages if the writer is good or not. Gordon Ramsay can tell if a crabcake is fresh or not in even less time. A pro knows their business.
Later Rino and I talk more and, while there is a secret side to him, almost bordering on paranoia ("they are watching us") we do seem to be able to work together with some respect and trust. To a point. He reminds me "it's only a job". Then to fuel my paranoia, Jonathan shows up and mentions he's going for dinner. Rino joins him but they don't ask me.
And I learn that Rino has a similar condo to Jonathan's. I make a note to always ask for "favored nations". It can actually be put into a contract and has been in several of mine. What it means is that I will get the same treatment and perqs as the other writers and/or producers.
Yes, I know, it sounds childish. But we do create the work, without us there is no show. And it's not so much about special treatment but that we are accorded the same treatment as our peers. The only time I used it was in Luxembourg when I requested a better car than a horrible Citroen with a speedometer in the dash and got a small Ford instead.
Later that night I meet Simone, the local production secretary and her husband at the Peak bar. Both down-to-earth people who are refreshing after dealing with the egos and insecurities of writers, actors and producers. Simone dislikes having to get Kaplan's laundry and make phone calls for him as well as other unreasonable demands. She states that he needs a good kick in the ass. I agree.
The locals here are almost all very friendly and helpful, many are excited to be working on a TV series. They don't always care for the special treatment some people demand, and I can empathize with that.
I walk home again, seven blocks, and pass deer sleeping in people's yards while TV sets flicker through the windows into the cold night air. The first episode is beginning to prepare tomorrow and this is the first test of the production unit to see if this whole crazy thing works.
Back to the TV series again where a terrific rainbow appears outside the writer's office.
As the TV machine begins to unfold, more crew arrive into Jackson and the actors should follow. We have a cast of relatively unknowns except for the lead ranger, who had a successful series a few years before. Our big star actually is a big star, or at least had her day. Let's call her Britt Winters and she starred with the likes of Peter Sellars, Paul Newman and many other big stars.
She was also one of my sexy idols growing up as a teen and this is not lost on me, for I will actually get to meet and know her. It's a big deal for me.
But for now I sit in the Greek-owned Tokyo Tom's sushi restaurant. I'm waiting for Jonathan and he shows up a half hour late. I joke that it must have been the traffic, seeing as that his condo is less than a five minute walk. Jonathan looks the same, gaunt and tired, and smells of beer.
Being around the same age, our conversation rolls around to the 60's and 70's, I worked for Bobby Kennedy, he worked with draft dodgers to Canada. Our mutual history makes it a good dinner and we laugh a lot. Yet, with that initial betrayal I am still not quite relaxed.
Later I walk home and notice a ring around it, Hunter's Moon as I've heard it referred to. And it suggests cold weather. And a new writer coming onboard.
The new writer arrives the next day. He's Rino, the one Jonathan and Kaplan arranged for. The one who just might also be the replacement for me. Rino is short, overweight, taken to hanging black jackets and black everything else. He also smokes like a proverbial chimney.
But after a few minutes with him, I realize he's one of those "who get it", he's calm, smart and knows what is going on. He's a little cautious about saying too much but I understand that.
Jonathan and Kaplan join us for dinner, Kaplan says we won't be getting a secretary and there's no word on the printer. This printer thing is becoming an albatross, how can we hand out scripts with no printer?
We notice the director of the upcoming first episode nearby eating alone so Kaplan invites him over. I've worked with him in the past, his name was Stacy and he was your average director with little imagination but friends in the business. Stacy proceeds to tell us what's wrong with our scripts, with the show and generally with life. And he drinks too much.
I've mentioned this before, the old saying that directors don't like writers because writers are the only ones who know they're faking it. Not all directors, just the untalented and insecure ones. Which probably is 80%. In 30 years I have worked with only 4 really good directors.
Stacy then goes on a jag about some low-brow action/sexy series that's been syndicated to Saturday 5pm slots, otherwise known as the graveyard. Rino and I exchange glance and a smile that suggests this guy could be trouble in the days to come.
TV directors differ to some extent from feature film directors. Feature film directors are usually better with character-driven stories and with mood and tone. And they get more money, much more money.
A feature film can shoot for 6 months, our single TV episode takes 6 days. Most TV directors start out as assistant directors, as time and schedule are tighter when you have to shoot a one hour episode in 6 days.
And TV directors don't get all that much say in how the episode looks. It has to look like the other 11 episodes. And because of that, they have little power as compared to the god-like stature of feature directors.
TV directors can go up to features, people like Robert Altman and the best known, Steven Spielberg who started out in episodic TV. But feature directors only go down to TV, indicating their career in features is pretty much over.
Power in series is tied into the writers and producers, many of whom are writers themselves. Since they are there for the full 12 episodes, they control everything. I have the least control of our group, as I'm outranked by Kaplan and Jonathan and Rino is an unknown.