Thursday, April 28, 2011

What to do when you can't write

One of the questions I often get asked, almost as much as "so, who's in your movie?" is this: "What happens when you get writer's block?"

My usual answer is "I don't have the luxury of writer's block."

In other words, a professional writer like myself doesn't worry about that, we just keep going. And I believe this with all my heart and soul. 

Except yesterday - Wednesday.

I woke up angry, had coffee angry, watched the local and international news as I read the LA Times and listened to Bill Handel on KFI yelling at people who don't believe Obama is a U.S. citizen. 

While multi-tasking like that sounds impossible, especially for an aging baby boomer, I really can do that. It comes from working in TV news where you are editing one story while listening to another. Also working in episodic TV, where you are often working on several different scripts at the same time.

You don't get all the words, just the key words that give you all you really need. A radio news director once told me all anyone needs to tell a story is 15 seconds, all the rest is adjectives. Try it. It works.

But, back to my anger. After I did all of the above, and it was barely 8am, I blurted out a bad word. You can take your pick, they all mean the same.

I can't start my Christmas script.

I can't figure out what it's about. I know it's about a girl juvenile delinquent who has to stay with a woman for Christmas week-end rather than go to jail. Neither wants to be with the other.

This was a script I should have finished two months ago. What stopped me from writing it was basically the same thing as now; I didn't have the damn story. So instead I focused on Ghostkeeper 2 as well as dealing with the re-release of Ghostkeeper 1.

I finished that  2 weeks ago and since then managed to outline a very thin plot on two pages. Then I found a bunch of Christmas moves, mostly old ones from the 1980's and mostly TV movies mixed in with some 40's movies. This would give me inspiration or as my director friend calls it a "homage" to the original.

It's also a great way to stall.

Last week I watched 3 Christmas movies. They gave me some ideas but not enough. This week I watched 3 more, one was so depressing I couldn't take it and fast-forwarded it.

I sat there like a little boy, sullen, waiting for someone to even dare say a word. Of course, nobody else was there, so that didn't account to much. I realized what was wrong.

I had Writer's Block.

And admitting it made me even angrier. There is nothing so frustrating as not being able to put a story together and, in my case, under pressure. Two companies are interested in my new Christmas script based on The Town That Christmas Forgot, which ran last Christmas on Hallmark.

Except my new script hasn't even started.

I know this; a writer needs an inspirational beginning, you know "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", or "Call me Ishmael". One of the best lines I wrote to start a script was "The first time I met her she was dead." I really liked that one.

But nothing for my hot new Christmas script.

But I know that it will pass, and that something will suddenly light up in my mind, something from long ago or maybe from the day before yesterday. Because that's how a writer's mind works. I hope.

So I wrote off the day, giving it to cleaning the kitchen, that always makes me feel better, and going for a bike ride, and trying to avoid any serious thinking about story and plot. And making sure to avoid contact with anyone who might even suggest that "it'll come to you."

GDSOB as my dad used to say, two separate words squeezed into one that my brother and I still use in emails and when we're in the same town.

But today is a new day and I already added 2 projects to the big whiteboard, a novelization of Emperor of Mars which I wrote a few years ago and another novelization of another screenplay that could make a good book.

Oh yes, and the Christmas script. I will begin that right after I finish this blog. Maybe vacuum first, then write.


Monday, April 25, 2011


One of the blog readers, Linh Mai, sent me an email that he's started a crowdfunding project. What's crowdfunding, some of you may ask? 

Basically, it's a way to raise money. Legally. Sort of.

How much money? A band from England raised $90,000 to cover costs of a US tour. I've seen some crowdfunding requests for $1200. Linh is looking for $25,000 for his project.

What kind of project? Almost anything. Movies, music, charities, surgeries, theater, you name it, anything that needs money to happen. I have thought of doing one as well for Casualties of Love, for maybe $50,000.

Okay so what is crowdfunding? Wikipedia describes it as this: "The collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their money and other resources together, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations. " 

Easier description: You ask the public for enough money to do something. It doesn't have to be a movie, it can be $10,000 to write a screenplay; or $10,000 to make a movie. Or, as Linh is doing, $25,000 so that he can do a demo reel of a movie project called The Last Cause that would then help to raise money for the real thing.

The idea is that anyone who comes across your website decides to put in money into the project because they have faith in it's potential. You can put in $1, or $100, or any amount as the project people are asking for. And in return you might not get anything. But losing $1 isn't that big of a deal anyways.

Think of it as being a "patron of the arts", like those rich Europeans who paid Van Gogh to paint them and at the same time, gave him money to eat and get paints.

But is this legal? What about the Securities Commissions, they have strict rules about investing in something.

The answer is simple; it is totally illegal.

It violates the Security Act of 1933, which was passed after the stockmarket crash of 1929. For the most part, at least so far, it's overlooked. And mostly because the majority of the projects seeking Crowdfunding are individuals doing simple, basic projects that are spelled out in a minimum of words. In other words, you're dealing with a guy or girl who needs some start-up money for a project. Or maybe the project itself. We're not talking millions of dollars.

Well, with the exception of President Obama, whose helpers did this during the election and look how much they got.

My first encounter with a version of Crowdfunding was way back in the 60's, when, as a kid, I watched Soupy Sales on Channell 7 in Detroit. Soupy was a kid's best friend, and once he asked his kid audience to go to their parent's wallets and mail all the pictures of presidents to him.

It was a joke. But it turned out to be no joke when kids did send him money and the FCC was not pleased.

How do you do it? Right now there are a few websites like devoted to film, music and other arts and they will, for a percentage, give you a web page of your own where you can post information, photos, video and music clips, or anything that you think would persuade those people who view your website to toss a few bucks in.

The website holds the money until the amount needed is raised. If it isn't raised, some let you use what you have or cancel everything and the money is returned. Linh's is on Kickstarter and there's also and you can look at his and the other people, all of whom are hoping to raise money.

It's something that doesn't really cost the artist anything, and if the project is good, word-of-mouth will spread and pretty soon, the artist has the money they need. There's no real idea of how many actually get what they're asking for, but the odds are far better than trying to get it out of Hollywood.

And finally, David Lynch himself is using Crowdfunding to help fund a documentary he wants to make. In return for a $50 investment, Lynch sends each and every Crowdfunder a self-portrait he drew.

Maybe I should consider this... hmmnn... 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Back to business

Finally getting back to business as I took a few days off again to go to the Mojave desert30 miles south of Baker CA. It's a pretty isolated area with the son of one of my oldest friends. He shot video and I shot with my little point/shoot camera.

Today it's back to getting money for Ghostkeeper with no friends, relatives or anyone coming to stay at my place. Having an excuse to not work is legendary among writers, at least many of the ones I know, especially me. 

I am continuing to pass out my proposal and script and hope to find some sales agents that might consider Ghostkeeper 2 in terms of some advance foreign sales that could help financing in Canada and lastly, the U.S.

Naturally I'd love for a distributor to simply write me a check, but that's also got it's attachments. With a single funder supplying the whole $2 million, you can bet they're gonna want their say in every aspect from script to casting to locations and even down to the muffins. 

The best scenario, at least for me, is to get several funders to play off each other,  allowing me to make the movie I wrote with fewer conflicts and confrontations. Add to that a funder who trusts me, and people like that do exist.

It's just a matter of finding them.

(Mon: The plan)

Monday, April 18, 2011

How to break into the business

Last week a director friend of mine and I exchanged stories of how we ended up in the film industry. It's a question I often get, "how did you break in". And as with all answers; it's a little bit of luck, a lot of motivation and more determination.

And even that doesn't help most of the time.

My friend Paul Lynch broke into directing after he quit school in Grade 9 after he failed French. He began drawing cartoons which led to a few jobs in Toronto and finally a magazine. Then he made a short film that led to a job at the CBC, the Canadian national network. And that led to a feature and he was off.

The big thing here was that it was in the late 60's and jobs were available. In fact the CBC advertised for 3 people to become directors. Only Paul and another guy applies. Imagine doing that now? You'd have a thousand at the door.

For me, it was a little different. I loved TV and movies, watched them as much as my parents would let me. I graduated high school and went to college in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. In my second year, I was looking for a summer job and at the government job listings, a clerk offered me several jobs. One of them was for a mailroom person at the local TV station.

At that moment, I could have gone a few ways; the job was permanent, which meant I would be lying when they asked me if I was indeed going to stay there forever. Yet there was something about that job. It was show business, okay, delivering mail, but the closest I had been to show business since I interviewed a Disc Jockey at the same station.

I decided to try the job out. I lied and said I would stay and I got the job. Monday morning I arrived at 8am and walked into the studio. The cameras were silent, nobody was there and I was alone.  It took all of five minutes.

I was never going to leave. Ever.

I stayed there for 4 years, moving to film editing, to radio, and finally to the newsfilm department where I learned how to shoot 16mm film. I even got married.

Then a newscamera job came up in Toronto, the big time in Canada. I worked in Detroit in news and thought it would be nice to work in Toronto, neat, clean, safe Canada. I lasted 4 months. They fired me.

So I had a choice, go back to Windsor/Detroit, or go to Vancouver where a friend I met at a film course, had always encouraged me to go west. My marriage eventually broke up and I made a few shorts in Vancouver, got a job writing, producing and directing corporate films in Saskatchewan and commercials in Calgary.

I made friends in Calgary with a fast-talking producer and when both of us decided to leave to make movies, it wasn't a suprise to anyone. It took a year for us to raise the $650,000 for Ghostkeeper, a supernatural thriller, it was the first local feature made in Calgary by Calgary people.

After that I never got a real another real film gig for 9 years.

So much for success. Why not? Well, I was in Calgary which in the mid 80's was hardly a movie town. A few American movies filmed there, and there were no tax incentives and very few features were made locally again.

I ended up in Toronto, a city I never liked and apparently it didn't like me. But the one thing I always did was write. I wrote a half dozen screenplays in that time and directed two of them on ridiculous budgets of around $40,000 each. Ideas were great but execution was pretty bad.

Then I got another break. A green card. America.

It came in a lottery that the US holds every year for certain countries. You wrote a letter saying you wanted to go to America and you waited. Thousands applied. Some wrote dozens of letters, some wrote hundreds.  I wrote one.

And I got it.

Paul, my director friend also got me an agent in LA. So in February 1990, I arrived, excited, ready to go. My agent got me a handful of meetings -- over a period of 2 years. So much for the magic of having an agent.

I left him for another, who was pretty good and during that time I got a job on a series. Back in Canada. Go figure.

That series led to another and another in Canada and it was obviously ironic that the country that never hired me before now wanted me because I lived in LA. It led to some TV  movies and I had a good run of around 12 years, even doing American films although I was mostly hired because I was Canadian and being that qualified for the ever-precious "Canadian Content".

And now, after 30 years,I'm working on making another film in Canada. A remake of the first film I ever made. How's that for a circle? Dramatic irony?

Friday, April 15, 2011

No blog today.

Having to run around for a few days. Will be back Monday.

Monday, April 11, 2011

JFK, RFK and cable TV

Not much going on with Ghostkeeper 2, two of the producers who are interested were not able to do much last week as one was sick in bed and the other had to wait for his connection to return from Europe.

Since all I'm doing now is sending out proposals and making contacts for everything from possible crew members to CGI effects that we  hope to use. 

So last week I watched The Kennedys all the way through. As you know, maybe some don't, that the 8-part $30 million series had some problems along the way. For one, History Channel, who originated it, decided at the last minute to pull the series due to "pressure from certain sources" as well as "it did not meet our mandate of history programs", to several other excuses including pressure from Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver.

This also happened with a series on Reagan as well several years ago.

No doubt one of the issues was that a Conservative, Joel Surnow, produced the Kennedy series. Being a die-hard liberal myself, and a Kennedy supporter, I wanted to see for myself.

It had me at the first episode.

It is probably one of the most interesting historical dramas ever made for television. It handled every aspect of the family, the father and sons and wives and their strengths and weaknesses. It's Shakespearean in it's scope, what a family!

And it addresses what a Republican friend of mine always resorts to "he slept with Marilyn" as her reason that Kennedy's name should never be brought up in public or compared to George Bush or any Republican who would never be unfaithful.

They were an incredible family, and had it all, money, tragedy, infidelity, drugs, association with mobsters. You name it, it's all there.

And the irony is that the producers actually make JFK and RFK heroic in their battles with the military establishment and in one episode, their stubborn determination to get a black student into a university in Mississippi over the anger of a racist governor. It led to riots but ultimately ended when JFK sent in the National Guard.

In short, what Surnow created is a brilliant history lesson about a time in America. JFK's speeches in the series reminded me of how inspiring he could be. And I identified with his back pain, having gone through that myself and put on a diet of pain-killers. It's not fun.

And the Cuban crisis brought back another memory. I don't think anyone who wasn't alive in 1961 could feel how we felt. JFK had issued a final threat to use military action should Russian ships go to Cuba with nuclear weapons. Over that week-end I went to sleep fearing that there would be nuclear war. And nuclear war isn't the same as a nuclear power plant releasing radiation.

Nuclear war wipes out everything.

Now we laugh about it, but that week-end, the world really almost ended.

But I have another association with the Kennedys. I worked for one.

In 1968 I jumped on a bus in Detroit to Indianapolis to work for RFK, Bobby. I was one of hundreds of volunteers whose job it was was to register voters. I got the inner city, mostly African American and this skinny white kid with a sportcoat and tie marched in.

It wasn't long before I realized how much African Americans loved RFK, I was greeted at the doors suspiciously at first but when I told them my job, they were more than happy to cooperate. I got coffee or water and sometimes cake and even a meal. Since I really had never experienced inner cities that much, since we don't have them in Canada, it changed my life forever.

And I even got to meet him as he arrived for a speech on a street somewhere in the inner city where  people crowded to listen to him. I shook his hand for a brief second and felt that I had  helped change history in my own little way.

A few months later, he was shot to death at the Ambassador Hotel. They sent me a letter, thanking me for my participation in Indianapolis and somewhere along my travels I lost it.

Moving on....

(Thurs: Update)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Actor's Life

Wayne Robson was a character actor I knew from his appearance in The Grey Fox,  one of the great Canadian movies and one directed by my close friend Phil Borsos, who passed away at the age of 41.

Wayne however, stuck around for awhile and was always working. He began with a small role in Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller with Warren Beatty, and went on to a full career mostly as a character actor.

Besides working in dozens of Canadian television series, he did American features that came to Canada to film. He also had parts in Incredible Hulk, Anne Of Green Gables and even Popeye with Robin Williams.

An actor's life has to be one of the hardest and often cruelest of any job you'd want. For one, you are always rejected and  not particularly because of your experience or craft, many times simply because of the way you look.

It can be said that a lot of people lose jobs because of the way they look, but actors can face this several times a day.

One of the best things about writing is that writers don't necessarily need a job in order to write. They can sit down and write a spec script that maybe can be sold or used as a sample of what that writer is capable of. My Christmas script, produced in 2010 was just that. I wrote it based on an experience I had. The script hung around Hallmark for 3 years, but then it was made.

And I got paid.

If I hadn't decided to write a spec about Christmas I would never have made a dime.

But actors, and for that matter, everybody else on a film set or studio, have to be hired before they can work. And of them all, actors are probably at the bottom of the list. Writers in WGA number around 8000, they won't really give an accurate number. Directors are less.

But actors number 200,000, according to Wikepedia. And that's only the ones in SAG, the actors union.

One way to have any kind of a career is to be a character actor. A good one always gets work. What's a character actor? It's not the star. Rather it's a supporting role, often smaller than the secondary stars. And they usually play the same type of part, the store owner or the buddy or the truckdriver. Actors like Dub Taylor, Strother Martin (who said the most famous line of any character actor ever, "What we got here is a failure to communicate", said to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

For women you have great character actresses like Cloris Leachman and Betty White and younger ones like Joan Cusak.

You see them in western movies, of which there are fewer and you see them in thrillers and sci-fi movies. They're usually there for maybe a few minutes, but you always seem to remember them.

Wayne perfected the Canadian character actor, he played second fiddle to the lead actors but could steal a scene simply by smiling. I once worked with Stuart Margolin, who had a great part in Rockford Files, an 80's series. Stuart was a co-star in a series I worked on and he was a master of stealing a scene. The lead actor could be talking and yet you'd be watching Stuart. How he does that, I don't know. But it works.

Another good thing about character actors is what I said above. They always work.

Most actors, if not all, become actors to be successful. I'm sure they all have the dream of being the star in a movie or play. The reality is so far from that. Average income for actors is around $8000 for the year. And the chances of being a star are less than winning at a lottery.

But a good director will surround the star with character actors. Wayne had that "little guy" thing that he did, and an engaging smile and you'd just like him in the scene, even if he just stood there.  He was familiar and comforting. That's the secret of a character actor.

Wayne died in his sleep. He was at Stratford, home to Canada's premiere theater stage. Many of the best actors in Canada worked that theater. Wayne was set to perform as Grandpa in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, which is to begin in June. As a friend of mine said, what better way for an actor to pass away, but to be rehearsing a great part at the best theater in Canada working with the best actors.

As a dying vaudville actor once said "dying is easy, comedy is hard".

We'll miss that smile, Wayne.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Cloud

                                                 "Hey, you... get off my cloud"
                                                                         - Mick Jagger

I'm in the Cloud now.

We're all in the Cloud. 

Before you begin to think I've lost it, I have finally caught up to an internet expression that I hadn't heard. Doing a bit of research I've discovered that it has several meanings, and probably even more.

Basically it's about all the things we do now because of the computer. There's hard drives and apps and networks and emai, things that enable us to pay bills, write screenplays, download tunes and film clips (and for some whole movies). All of this is "in the cloud".  All of those bits and bytes of our lives loom over us in a place that all is either well or a little shaky. All those 1's and 0's.

At least in my definition.

For example, my Ghostkeeper remake is now in the cloud for all to see. It hovers over me as I either sit around and wait or make calls to every person who I think could raise anything from $5 to $2 million. Ever dollar counts.

And I have good clouds and bad clouds. Saturday was a bad cloud as you can see below.

You know nothing good will come of this cloud. BTW I took this pic entering Utah from Idaho and sure enough that storm was one hell of a ride. Rain slammed down and a lightning rod hit about 50 feet away, blasting into the earth and smoking afterwards.

But at sundown the sky opened and gave me an incredible sunset and I could smell the earth.

And I was back on a good cloud.

Writers were among the first who tackled computers way back in the mid 80's, my first one was an Atari "word processor". Since writers write we grabbed onto the computer from almost the very beginning. Us and techie geeks.

I say this because most of my non-writer friends either don't know how to use computers or they use them under great stress. I'm talking baby boomer age, born from 1946 to 1964. 70 million of us in the USA. Biggest single group of living people in the history of America.

Besides writing on a PC I also learned to edit video on Final Cut Pro, which is a pro application as the title suggests. Walter Murch edited the last few Star Wars movies on FCP. I edit little short videos for  youtube as well as documentaries. Keeps me busy between movies.

So my cloud seems to be getting a little bigger now, with Ghostkeeper continuing  to grow.

And I can fire my life coach.


I don't have a life coach. But there are days...

I guess I just have to settle for my cloud.

(Thurs: Moving, everyone, moving)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Didn't post Thursday as I was spending some time up in Yosemite National Park, about a 4 hour drive from Los Angeles. As you can see there is still some snow but melting fast. You can see the falls in the background. It's really an amazing place and after driving a wicked curved road at 30 mph tops, I wondered how difficult it was for the U.S. Army when they chased native Indians into what is now the park.

Since it's still early, the park was pretty much quiet, very few cars as compared to the summertime week-ends where smog actually fills the valley. 

Back Friday, and ready to go for next week for Ghostkeeper. Two more creative people are supporting us, music composer Paul Zaza and music editor Carl Zittrer, both of whom worked on the original Ghostkeeper 1980.

All we need is $2 million.

(Mon: Plan A)