Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Road and back

I'm well known for my roadtrips, both planned and spontaneous. My ex-wife whom I have reconnected with recently reminded me of the roadtrips I took with her,  adventures that she would never have done herself. And these 1970's trips in my 1968 Mustang Fastback were with a folded roadmap, no GPS, no cell phones and no real destinations. 

Our first trip took us east, to Quebec, New Brunswick, Maine and New York. Many others followed including Europe and Great Britain.

This latest roadtrip as I said in the earlier blog, had several ranges of emotion; my aunt's death, my cousin's continuing quest at 71, to learn who her father was, the ties to old school friends, a family broken apart by a horrible crime,  an evening with my ex, a visit with an old friend who had her battles with herself and coming out of it.

This trip which I stared June 16 took me to Detroit and driving a rental to NYC to see an old friend and his family and discovering the villages north of the city where life seemed to be a movie to me. 

I drove to the Jersey shores to see my cousin, then back to Detroit, 4 days and 1500 miles. This time with GPS, iPod, cell phone and a computer. And all the appropriate chargers required.

I took Woodward Avenue north in Detroit, passing my the empty streets and shut-down businesses and burned-out houses, places I used to know as a teen, places I hung out at and created memories. 

Then Northern Michigan with my other cousin, where we met our other cousin (lots of cousins) to see my aunt, who at 98, passed away a day before I got there. I insisted I wanted to see her, she was the original reason for this trip.

But the funeral director (and I'll get to him in a minute) said it was too late, she was to be cremated. But he finally said they would bring her back for us to see. It may sound morbid to some of you, I guess it's an eastern European thing, ethnic, as my friend says. I was just used to seeing dead relatives and touching their hand.

The funeral director was quite the guy, wide-eyed, hand-shaking, he seemed to be drafted from used car salesman school, smiling, ready to go. Actually I loved it, made a note to use that in a future script.

Then off to Windsor where I stayed at two different places, both belonging to long-time French Canadian buddies from high school. This is where it  began to confuse me.

My life in LA is so different from Windsor, a city of 200,000 and depending totally on the auto business, my memories flowed back as we talked and laughed and quietly dealt with the losses of parents and friends.

It is true old friends are the best, but maybe it's only because they've known us longer and we don't have to prove anything to them. Maybe it's a sense of our own mortality and comforting to know someone knew us at 17.

Most of the people I met have lived their lives in one place, much different than the dozen or so places I've lived and worked in. I envy the sense of permanence they have,  yet I enjoyed the different places I've lived and worked in. 


Where would we all be without contradictions.

I think my longing for a new highway I've never been on comes from growing up on the vast openness of the prairies, where one drives a hundred miles to shop in a bigger town. But there's also a sense of  security in it for me, I am alone, or with a friend, the open road doesn't judge me or even care that much about me.

But it allows me peace and comfort and the possibility of something new or amazing around the next curve or the other side of a hill.

But it also isn't helping me finance Ghostkeeper, is it?

Back to work. Hope you guys stick around, the ride is gonna get bumpy.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Life, death and Washington Irving

After a few days in the New York area, including the real Sleepy Hollow town of Headless Horseman fame and the haunts of Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park, New Jersey and to a death in Michigan, I return to Detroit and the Windsor area where I lived from 1959 to 1974.

This trip was intended to visit my aunt in northern Michigan who was 98 years old but she passed away while I was in New Jersey visiting a cousin who lives on the Jersey shore. My cousin lost her mother at birth and never knew who her father was and after 70 years still is searching as his identity has never been revealed.

I returned to Michigan last Monday and then my Detroit cousin and I drove to a tiny town upstate called Interlochen, known for it's internationally famous music camp. It was there that our aunt had lived out her life, the last of my mother's family.

And once again, I met two cousins, her children. I have a lot of cousins, from 16 years old to 72 years old.

Being gone a week now, I have begun to feel guilty that I am not working on Ghostkeeper, it's rather difficult as I can't always access computer time. I will be back next Wednesday in L.A.

And Washington Irving?

For those who don't know, Irving wrote the classic Legend of Sleepy Hollow short story which some of you would remember as a movie with Johnny Depp. He also wrote Rip Van Winkle. Both stories were often remade as movies. Irving was one of America's early writers, he was born in 1783 and died in 1859.

Sleepy Hollow is a real place about 28 miles north of Manhatten along the Hudson and I went to the cemetary that is a few hundred feet from where Ichabod Crane sighted the headless horseman. The church, which is detailed in Irving's story, was build in 1685 and there are many grave markers that go back nearly that far.

I trudged up a steep hill past several magnolia trees and found the Irving family plot and stood over his grave. Not far away, Leona Helmsley of hotel fame bought her piece of land where a huge, ostentatious maousoleum was built for the wealthy "Queen of Mean".

Irving's headstone is simple and slowly deteriorating but remains far more important than Leona's, who left $12 million to her dog.

I looked down at Irving's grave and something came to me;  I said it was good to meet him, a fellow writer and I finished with this:

"Just to let you know, Washington, things are still the same for us writers, they still need us and they still don't want to pay us."

Somewhere, Irving must be smiling.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


How did I find myself in Ohio?

I had planned this trip a few months ago, flew to Detroit and drove thru Ohio to my friend's place outside of New York. This is my "get acquainted with old friends and family" trip, which I do from time to time.

It's a full trip, seeing a cousin in New Jersey Sunday and then another cousin back in Detroit. He and I will go visit the last living sister of my deceased mother, Aunt Nellie, who's 98 years old and still wonders why I stay in "Hollywood" as she likes to say.

Then I drive across the river to Windsor, where it all started for me, that little TV station that launched my life in movies and television. It's where I  met and married a wonderful woman who was also at the TV station. We split up a few years after and now, after 26 years, we're reconnected again, one of those Facebook things.

There's also my two high school buddies and a load of memories that I always enjoy.

But, on the movie side... it looks like I have at least 3 producers interested in my new spec, Christmas Carole, and I think a few more might be interested in the coming weeks.  I've been told Hallmark has it's quota for the year, but I also know that anything can happen.

It's very green here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Politics & the movie business

"I'm the money." 
quote from Shakespeare in Love

There was a feature in Sunday's LA Times about someone called Ben Shapiro who wrote a book called Primetime Propaganda - The True Story of How The Left Took Over Your TV.

In his book, he says this:

  • Shows like Friends and The Simpsons are "insidiously brilliant leftist propaganda."
  •  A Gunsmoke episode promoted civil rights.
  •  The Mary Tyler Moore Show embraced the radical feminist movement.
  •  Happy Days creator Gary Marshall is anti-big business liberal with socialist leanings.
 Okay, by now some of you are furious, some agree, and some don't give a damn. And I tend to steer away from politics in terms of internet duels. But I have been asked this question from time to time by my more conservative friends.

All two of them.

The question is: Are conservatives denied the same opportunities as liberals in the film/TV business?

What do you think?

Well, first of all nobody asks you your political leanings when you take a meeting. It is always about the idea, the story and ultimately the screenplay. As they say, the word business is part of the phrase show business.

But there are far more liberal people in this business than conservative ones. The most simple explanation is this; liberals tend to be attracted to show business, to tell their stories. Conservatives tend to go after big business. The Arts vs the business world.

Like I said, that's the simple explanation.

Conservatives tend to be very religious, some overly religious. One of my conservative friends is super Catholic and the other is strongly Jewish. I'm a Catholic who hasn't been to church for 40 years.  I get along fairly well with the Catholic woman but we never discuss politics. Her answer to anything I rant about is "Teddy Kennedy".

The Jewish friend and I actually go at it now and then, but have learned to laugh it off. We can coexist.

But most Republicans I know of are the crews, not so much the storytellers. One grip once asked me why "you writers" always write stuff about life instead of good war movies? A few days later he wanted to show me his trunk full of automatic weapons.

There are a handful of liberals who changed parties, one of the Zucker brothers (the Airplane movies) became conservative after 9/11. His last movie, about beating up Michael Moore died at the box office. For one thing, it wasn't funny.

Shapiro mentions that TV played a major role in helping the civil rights movement like it was a bad thing. He quotes agents who told him his political views would make it impossible to get a job in this town.

Take me, I'm Canadian, have my green card, which gives me all the rights of a U.S. citizen except for voting or serving on juries. My friends usually smile and say I'm lucky! I am liberal in politics, which would be interpreted as leftist here whereas in Canada I'm considered middle of the road. Canada's Conservative party, in power now, is more like middle of the road Democrat here.

Nobody's ever denied me work as a Canadian, in fact they didn't ask if I was Canadian. Well, except when it came to filming a US show in Canada, my status was desirable as I would qualify for content rules.

Are the liberal Americans trying to take over the country with such propaganda like Mary Tyler Moore, Sid Caesar, Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, Dick Van Dyke Show, the Mod Squad which featured a black actor in a series (along with Bill Cosby in I Spy).

Maybe they are, I certainly don't consider politics when I write, I write from my life and how I interpret the rest of the world. Do I make jokes about Conservatives, of course I do but I'm sure they make jokes about Canadians.

When John Ford directed The Grapes of Wrath from Steinbeck's novel, the rage that came from the conservatives was enormous. Republicans actually threatened Ford and Zanuck who ran 20th Century Fox, igniting a controversy over migrant workers conditions in the 1930's. Zanuck was being pushed against releasing the "socialistic and communistic" movie that dare suggest a problem within America.

One image I remember before Obama was elected, was a white woman from the south, crying out on CNN, "Where is my America? I want my America back". I realized then that the America she wanted was 1955 and that America is never coming back.

But the bottom line is this:

Mr. Shapiro also recounts his troubles trying to sell spec scripts. 

Really?  Is there something there I don't get? Are you just mad because you think they passed on your specs because of your politics?

Note to Mr. Shapiro, I am a left-leaning writer who worked for Bobby Kennedy in Indiana in 1968 and I have 34 spec scripts on the shelf I haven't sold. And never once has anyone asked me my party affiliation for the 18 movies I worked on.

Maybe your stories just aren't very good.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The cat might be dropped

Well, so much for Daisy the cat.

Agent loved the cat, two others loved the cat in my latest spec screenplay, Christmas Carole. I thought it was a moment of brilliance. But it seems Daisy was not appreciated by two producers. The first one wasn't a surprise, in fact I knew he wouldn't like the cat, because he didn't like my writing in the first place.

After all these years, my instinct kicks in pretty fast. I had given the agent a synopsis (which I hate doing) for another project, to which Producer A responded by not only not liking the story, he didn't like my writing.

That's not a good thing. And I know that once that happens, there ain't anything he's gonna like about my writing or me. So when he asked for the Christmas script I told the agent that it was a waste of time, but agents being agents, he figured why not.

Producer A didn't like the Christmas script. Especially the cat.

Producer B, who runs a very big company that has been around for 40 years or longer, loved the Christmas script, it was "cute and sweet". Well, I don't think of it as cute and sweet, but Producer B wants to show it to Hallmark.

But he didn't like the cat either.

So what do you do? I think the cat is a great idea, as do others. But those others aren't possibly going to make my script.

So Daisy might go the way of the dinosaur.

But I won't go down without a fight. If this script goes further, meaning that if Hallmark wants it, and the odds are at least even, given that my 2010 script did excellent in the ratings, then I would plead Daisy's case again.

Given that they could use a famous/has-been/well known actress could be used for the voice of Daisy, it would only enhance the story. And there are a ton of those actresses out there who would love the attention.

After all it's all about recent credits and every actor and actress wants credits as recent as yesterday. It means they're working.

But having done one of Hallmark's better movies last year (I say this because the producers  use my movie in their website), it doesn't guarantee anything. The industry has changed so much that there rarely is any allegiance to anyone. You may have written an Emmy winner but that lasts as long as the ceremony.

So here I am, now waiting to hear what Hallmark decides.

But there are four other producers who want to read it too, including one who works with another network. There are 2 other networks who might consider it, Lifetime (a natural considering it's a modern woman story) or ABC Family, and I have producers who made recent movies for both networks.

But I wonder if they'll like Daisy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Ghostkeeper Commentary

Well, I finally had my first commentary track on a movie.

It started with the distributor who will be re-issuing the 1980 version of Ghostkeeper, the "supernatural thriller" that I wrote and directed and produced through my company, Badland Pictures. 

The movie made some money then disappeared into obscurity, as most of you who read the blog know already, so I won't expand on that. Just maybe a reminder how it resurfaced around 2005 among horror/suspense fans in England and Europe. While the fanbase was small, it was fun to contact them and talk about the movie. Good for the ego too, of course.

I often said that it just goes to say that if you hang around for long enough, someone is bound to say something nice about you. And at least half of the amateur reviews were nice, even good.

Then I got the call from a distributor in Seattle, called Code Red, who specialize in horror/suspense thrillers. They had found 2 35mm prints of the movie in storage in New York. I had lost track of the 35mm prints over the years and since nobody was asking for them, I forgot all about it.

This all changed with Code Red's interest.

The guys at Code Red hunt around for obscure and lost thriller movies and I would take it that they call every lab or other place where a movie print, long gone, exists. That's how they found Ghostkeeper.

So, after 30 years, I was standing inside a recording studio called Private Island Trax, somewhere off Pico not far from Sony. With me were Riva Spier who played the lead and Murray Ord, an old friend, who played her boyfriend. I see Murray,who  lives in Calgary, often as I go there to visit friends and family. But I hadn't seen Riva in many years.

Murray and Riva hadn't seen each other in 30 years.

It was a great reunion for them and me and we spent the week-end hanging out and talking about the movie. In the years that followed, and the fanbase that was created, the movie got better for me, although some of the dialog is quite bad and I cringe at some of the lines I wrote.

But hey, it was my first feature script.

The commentary, for any of you who have never seen how it's done, is quite simple. We sat in a small recording studio, along with Jeff McKay, who was there for Code Red and who was ready to ask question if we left empty spaces of talk.

A great guy, Jason, handled the audio boards, all digital of course. Inside the studio we had mics for each of us, and earphones to listen to each other as well as the soundtrack.

On Friday I got the three of us together to look at Ghostkeeper at my place. The interesting thing here is that everyone had a different take on the whole thing, wanting to see the movie, not wanting to see it, interrupting each other, changing ideas and thoughts until it began to sound like total confusion. Opinions flew as to how it should be done. Finally we abandoned the screening and went out to a local bar.

But Sunday, we were ready.

It took maybe five or so minutes to "get it", a little bit of apprehension, but in no time we had it rolling. Since I knew more about the production side, I tended to say the most, dealing with camera issues, schedules, locations and other details. Murray really enjoyed it as did Riva once she got into it.

Riva probably spoke the least, considering that while she was the lead, she was pretty much a stranger in the production, as 99% of the cast and crew were from Calgary as was I and Riva came from Montreal at the last minute. Aside from myself and Murray and one or two other crewmembers, she was pretty much by herself.

The whole experience went well and at the end, everyone was still pretty excited, that lasted for several hours as we celebrated over again at Outtakes, a great little restaurant in Studio City.

It continued to have an air of unbelievability in some ways, a reunion for a lost and obscure movie made  years ago and a new lease on life for the movie through strange coincidences including 20-somethings who found poor quality copies of Ghostkeeper and passed the word around.

This most likely would not have happened in a pre-internet era. And of course, I'm not the only one who's movie has been discovered by horror/suspense fans, there are a lot of them.

Ghostkeeper is far from perfect, but it seems to resonate more now, maybe age has matured it, one advantage of our location  is that it isn't dated in the sense that there are no cars or cell phones in it and the snowmobiles that we used look pretty much the same as they do now.

But all three of us continue to be amazed at how this all came about and it's something that can't be taken away.

In addition to the commentary I'm getting an interview with John Holbrook, who filmed it and Georgie Collins, who wonderfully played a crazy woman. Georgie, incidentally is now 86 and when I spoke to her about the sequel, she said "I think I'd like to take on that old bird again".

Georgie will be in the new Ghostkeeper 2.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I will not deal anymore with loser producers, and this time I mean it.

You would think that after all the years I've been in the business that I would learn about producers and promises.

One of the hardest things to do when you're looking for money is to trust anyone who promises he can find it. And I emphasize "he" as I've only ever dealt with one woman producer who didn't come through anyways. I don't mind women producers, just never found any.

In fact I'd prefer a woman producer because they tend to be more honest.

I was dealing with a producer, and I use that term lightly, who hasn't had a film made for at least 25 years. One would suspect that maybe he wasn't that good of a producer. So why would I even speak to him?

Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sparky, and that's not his real name, comes on like gangbusters. He always has a 5-picture package of which two screenplays are mine. There's no option of course, but I would say that 70% of the scripts I hand over to producers aren't optioned.

Because they have no money. 

I gave my Ghostkeeper 2 screenplay and proposal to Sparky who immediately told me he'd get it to the "right people" and mentioned real names, all of whom could finance my movie.

But that was 3 months ago.

And I hadn't heard from Sparky for a month. Okay, he did have jury duty for 2 weeks. So finally I email twice and learn he's in San Diego and will be back soon and call me Monday. That was last week and no call. I try again this week. He answers.

He can't meet because he's really busy with other projects. 


What other projects?

Like I said, Sparky hasn't had a film made in over 25 years. But bless his heart, he is confident that this package of a handful of screenplays will be done.

And the irony is that I know they won't be made.

Sparky is an old school producer, someone who sounds like the most confident producer on the planet. He really believes he's gonna do it. So what's his biggest asset?

His arrogance.

Sparky once told my director friend that he'd let the director direct a movie he was trying to get made... if my friend found the money. To which my friend asked Sparky why would he need him at all?


But yet...

You never know what people are capable of.  And that's the weakness of guys like me. We want to believe. It makes me feel better and I can tell you I've got a producer working for me. And I should know better. And I should know the basic law of movie-making.

Don't trust them and don't loan them any money. And never let them drive your car.

Sparky, like a lot of producers, is usually broke. It's funny how producers who raise millions of dollars often end up broke. I know at least five producers whom I've worked with who ended up broke. One recently called to see if I knew where he could find a place to live -- for $500 a month!

And they're not necessarily small time guys either. Sam Spiegel who did major features in Hollywood ended up broke. And why, you might ask? One producer was quoted as saying that he made lots of money, unfortunately he spent a lot more.

There's a great line in Mel Brooks movie The Producers in which Zero Mostel, a down on his luck producer, sees another producer on the street in a limo with a showgirl. Zero shouts "that's right baby, when ya got it, flaunt it."

I do feel sorry for producers generally. They have no union and they have no scale fees. Some producers I know usually end up having to dig into their fees to help finish the movie. I know of 4 producers who made movies I wrote who ended up with nothing.


Because they're responsible for the budget. A director goes 2 days over budget, guess who's responsible to pay for those days. The producer. After all he's the money guy.

Where does that leave me?

I'll see Sparky again, but I'll also be talking to other producers. My dream is to find a smart woman producer who I know will be far more honest and with more passion than those guys.

I'm getting a stiff neck.