Monday, August 29, 2011


Mediocre - of only ordinary or moderate quality; barely adequate.
                        -Websters Dictionary

The subject of mediocrity recently rose it's mediocre head while I was driving in L.A. I was noticing all of the late model cars, SUV's, Crossovers etc. etc.  I was daydreaming slightly, wondering what kind of vehicle I would buy if I decided to trade in the old Ford Explorer with over 200,000 miles on it.  I came to a conclusion after a few blocks.

All the cars look the same. All the SUVs look the same. All the cross-overs look the same. 

When I was around 8 or 9 years old, my dad used to play a game with me when we were driving. Since I didn't have an iPod or DVD player, this being the late 50's, I had only my imagination. Our game was simply "what kind of car is that coming up to us?"

The first one to identify an oncoming car was the winner. One of us had to shout out "Ford", or "Chevy" and so on. At this point I'm sure half of you have left my blog to check your apps, but hang around. The thing was that every car had it's own distinctive shape and design and they had bright colors. Look around today, sometimes it seems every car is white, black, gray or silver. 

The point of this in today's language is that you can't really identify most vehicles approaching because they do look the same. My friends ask me when I will let the Explorer go but I plan to keep it. My inspiration is a man from the eastcoast who bought a Volvo in 1961 and has accumulated 2.1 million miles on it and is still driving.

At 201,200 miles I have a way to go.

And that 1968 Fastback Mustang above was my 2nd car.

But mediocrity isn't just about cars. I began to realize it's around us in almost everyway. Apple launches the iPad and within a year every other company capable has an imitation that looks the same. 

Clothing now for twenty-somethings doesn't reflect anything but a lack of imagination for a specific look, rather a collection of mediocrity. The 1920's had a radical change, as did the 1940's, the 1950's and certainly the 1960's. Give a mention to disco days and after that styles seemed to get mixed up with each other.

One of the creators of 100 channel cable and satellite services (now up to 200 channels or so) said that when he and his partners were creating the superchannel lineup at a time when most people had maybe 5 to 20 channels, they felt they were creating a radical new medium.

But after 10 years he realized what they really did create. In his own words; mediocrity.

Music is another example. In the mid 60's a whole new generation came of age (yeah, me too), much of the music was pure, meaning it wasn't really a copy of anything. In the book Laurel Canyon, by Michael Walker he brings up the point that people like Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Steve Stills, Neil Young, John Phillips and many others were singing a completely new style of music. Their own.

Nash says that they would just write songs and release them and some worked, some didn't. Today when one singer has a hit song, the record companies immediately send out scouts to find a dozen other singers who look like, and sing like the one with a hit song.

I still think most of the younger female singers all sound like Maria Carey.

And going back to cable TV, while the creators hoped for exciting and brilliant broadcasting and niche audiences, what resulted was the showing of older TV shows over and over again. At one time you could watch 4 or 4 Seinfelds on the same night.

One could argue that this was going on during the 60's and 70's but with 5 channels in Detroit/Windsor nobody played repeats because they didn't have any. You could see I Love Lucy however, which is still playing.

And of course, getting back to movies, all you have to do is to see the remakes Hollywood has put out, some successful like Rise of the Apes and some flops like the new Conan. With Knocked Up, came another series of copycats, some good, some bad.  And titles seemed derivative or at the best, lame.

So what's the answer? Are we living in mediocrity?

You can take your lead by reading about The Singularity, which relates to quantum physics and the rapid development of computers and, ultimately robots as smart or smarter than us. It's a theory that suggests technology is moving faster and faster and teens today will be left behind by technology by their early 30's and even their kids won't be able to catch up.

Quantum physicists like Miciho Kaku suggests there are three consequences of The Singularity; one is that robots take over like Terminator and destroy us, secondly the world will be a perfect dream place where all is wonderful for humans, and the third is that everything stays the same as now.

So there you go - identifying cars to Terminator. And here's my favorite car, it was a 1968 Ford Mustang that I bought for $1700 in 1969.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What "they" are looking for among other things

There are now at least a dozen websites that can help the aspiring screenwriter write a box-office blockbuster. All that is needed is either Screenwriter or Final Draft softwares. Oh, and the guidance of sure-fire screenwriting gurus to guide you.

For a fee, of course. 

How about this one: 21 Steps to a Powerful Rewrite.

With these steps you can:

1. Triple the quality of your screenplay.
2. Cause you to win contests.
3. Attract producers to your writing.

With promises like that, especially implying that this will happen, who wouldn't attend. And there's no charge* (asterick as written in the ad). But it's limited to only 100 callers. All you pay is long distance fees.

Yes, this is a "tele-seminar".

As you remember, I actually did teach screenwriting for UCLA extension classes for just over 2 years. Eventually I left because it was taking too much of my time for very little money as well as I was burned out from the amount of work I did for the students. I taught an on-line course with people from all over the USA, Canada and even Europe.

The biggest difference between onsite (which I did once) and online, is that the online teacher is always accessible. Day or night. It become more than a part-time job to me as I seriously cared about what I taught and how it was received.

And the one thing I learned from it all was this; I can show you how to write a screenplay but I can't show you how to write a great screenplay. For one good reason.

That part has to come from you. 

And most aspiring writers don't have it. And they likely never will. There is no shortcut to writing, you have to write. And write and write. You wouldn't believe the amount of students I had whose dream was to write one blockbuster then go off to be a dentist or supermarket manager. Really.

Am I bursting someone's dream?

Maybe, but I'm being real. Writers write, simple as that.

I took a week-end course once with Robert McKee, arguably the most noted screenplay guru along with Syd Field. He was very entertaining and had just enough rough edges that made the audience swoon. Everything he said made sense, it seemed so logical. As I left, everyone was buzzing about how brilliant he was and how it all seemed so easy.

But on Monday, all alone in my home office, it all dissolved into two things; me and that damn screen. An empty screen waiting for words to appear. And all the advice from McKee seemed to feel like a great movie you watched and after a few days, made you smile. It wasn't instruction - it was entertainment. And he's brilliant at it.

But it didn't help me write.

I had to resort to the usual thing; feel guilt until I forced myself to write. And since I had been doing this for years, I knew that I would do it even if it was guilt that forced me to write.

I'm sure these gurus can help some people, but it's ironic that almost all of them have never sold a screenplay. Isn't that like someone teaching you to fly who never has flown alone themselves?

One thing I did notice was that when I taught at UCLA, the majority of students signed up for my class because I had a dozen or more credits in features and episodic. And again, if you look at the instructors at UCLA, you will find very few who are still working, someone said you should never put a UCLA extension credit on your resume, it suggests your career is over. My agent even refused to put the credit on my credit list.

And of course, I mean this in the nicest way.

The last time I did a course at UCLA it was for "the Rewrite" and I had 15 students with screenplays anywhere from 70 to 150 pages. Try writing 5-8 pages of notes for that many people in a week!

I did that. And it was soon apparent this was a full-time job. All for $180 wk. And when I and a few other writers suggested the school cut the numbers back they said that was a great idea but not possible. Just remind the students to take the next class next semester.

If you're contemplating one of those screenwriter guru's course, by all means take it. You might learn a few things and you might not. But I'm sure they're all fun, lots of jokes, lots of fundamentalist-type speeches that might even inspire you.

Just keep in  mind that when you write, you won't be in a crowd enjoying some entertainment a little bit of inspiration. If you get that much, it'll be worth it.

And I don't know what a "tele-seminar" is.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The digital state of things - what you want or what they want.

I missed my Thursday blog due to the ongoing conflicts between my Mac computer and Final Cut Pro,  an editing software that cost around $1200 and was intended as an upstart "affordable" software to do battle with the gorilla in the room, namely Avid, which has been a standard in digital editing for years.

I started editing on FCP about ten years ago and it took me a good 2 years to really become comfortable with it. You might ask why film editing for a writer and sometimes director and/or producer?

I started out in editing, got a job at a TV station and I cut in 16mm commercials into the late movies for the station. In addition I worked in TV news, first as a soundman and then later as a news cameraman on the streets. I also edited news stories.

Somewhere afterwards I began to write, produce and direct commercials and corporate films and finally filmed, along with my partner Phil Borsos,  a short film called Cooperage, about a barrel factory that won several international awards and was a finalist for the 1976 Academy Awards.

Then came my first feature, Ghostkeeper, followed by my moving to USA in 1990 and a reasonably good list of screenwriting credits.

And then, with digital video, came home editing and this changed my life once again. I didn't care for the amateur systems and since I got comp classes at UCLA while I taught extension classes there, I took several FCP classes with DV (digital video).

What it gave me was a whole new world of creativity, because now I could shoot and edit a complete documentary or short film all by myself. Gone were film costs, lab costs, post production costs.  I could do it all on a Mac. (Incidentally 90% of what I do is on PC). As I write this I am finishing a documentary I shot on Highway 50 in Nevada, dubbed the "loneliest highway in America". In fact the highway image at the top of the blog is a still from my Hwy 50 doc. 

I also shot and edited a 45 minute doc on my home town's 100th anniversary and sold over 200 copies at $20 each.

Then came High Definition.

I held out for years but in the last 3 weeks, I was dragged into the HD world whether I wanted to or not. Which brings me to the title of this blog.

The digital world gives sharp and clear pictures. But getting something finished isn't always easy. It's a world of codecs and formats and conflicts between the edit system and the information found in HD. There are a hell of a lot more 1's & O's than DV and a lot more problems.

Going back to flatbed film edit systems, all that you needed to know was that you flipped a switch ahead or back and the film would go in that direction. The only technical part came if the machines broke down. Which they rarely if ever did.

Not so with digital. I am finishing the "extras" for the Ghostkeeper 1980 re-release and had footage from two places, Calgary and Vancouver, with interviews of one of the actresses and the DP.

The actress footage, about 47 minutes, was done with the Canon 5D slr, in other words a still camera that has suddenly become hot for filmmakers as it's chip is equal to the size of a 35mm film frame. That means a better picture.

However the sound was done on a separate recorder. Which meant that I had to sync up the sound with the picture. In film it was done with the help of a tuning fork in both the film camera and the recording player. Now you would think that would be easy in digital as film is so "analog".

But no, you sync digital video and audio manually with a slate or "Hand Clap". Why digital doesn't have a more sophisticated system is a mystery. Film cameras had it for maybe 50 years or so.

Problems started at the outset, and continued, the colors were wrong, the sync wouldn't sync and on and on. And the other footage wasn't very sharp and had dropouts. Now remember this is all the wonderful digital age system.

Thankfully, I had Shirley. You remember her from Travel Day, the film that Shirley and I attempted to make, and the title of my entire blog. Not only is she a genius at FCP, she also knows codecs and all that stuff.

But another sync problem happened over the wk-end and I'm back, to some point, at the beginning. I spoke to the distributor Friday and he's okay with it but will contact the dvd duplicator later this week.

So I have another 48 hours or so, and I still have to edit the now fixed-up footage of the DP.

This is why I go on mini-vacations.

And yeah, that guy with the hair and the beard is me a million years ago.

Monday, August 15, 2011

5 Things to do in LA if you're a writer

Yesterday a writer friend of mine who is now heading up a film course at a Vancouver school asked me if I could recommend 5 places that every aspiring writer should either do or visit if they came to L.A. for a few weeks.

I spent some time thinking and ruling out the obvious; Universal Tour, Disneyland and that stuff. I figured that it should relate to writing or for that matter acting as actors and writers share the same dreams much more than the other crafts. There are more of them than any of the crafts as well, considering there are well over 125,000 SAG actors and 10,000 writers in WGA and God knows how many who aren't in either guild.

After all isn't everyone in America writing a screenplay?

So here goes, and in no particular order.

The Academy Library is a must. This is where everything you ever wanted to know about the movies going back to 1881!  There are screenplays, photographs, production materials, notes, biographies as well as any single topic associated with motion pictures. And the building is classic southern California.

One pointer, the staff regard this museum as though it was Fort Knox, the security is equal to airport inspection, but it's all free and you can spend hours, even days in it. You need ID. 

Hollywood Heritage Museum is just opposite the Hollywood Bowl and is one of the earliest studios built in Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille and Jessie Lasky converted the barn to a studio and you can examine the early filmmakers through photos, letters and a lot of old cameras and gear.

Studio tours at Warner's and Paramount are also great to see if you've never been in one. I still get excited like a kid when I get to go to a meeting or screening at any of the "lots". Universal's tour is ok, but much of it is about the rides. Paramount and Warner's take you onto the working lot. It never fails to inspire me. 

Formosa is a restaurant and bar on Santa Monica next to the Samuel Goldwyn Studios (formerly Pickford-Fairbanks Studios. The Formosa is filled with history starting in 1925 and was host to almost every big star there was, Bogart, Warren Beatty, Brando, Bacall, James Dean, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly and so many others including Brittany Spears and even Paris Hilton. Order a dry vodka martini and sit back and imagine the scene 60 years ago and ask about the scandals even up to Shannon Dougherty's brush with the law.

Then there's the writer's best  movie, Sunset Boulevard from 1950 with William Holden playing a down and out screenwriter who becomes a lover to an aging silent star, played to perfection by Gloria Swanson, herself a silent movie star. Joe Gillis (Holden's role) lives in a grand apartment building at 1851 N. Ivar just a few blocks from Hollywood Blvd. The building is still there and worth a look either before or after watching the movie.

And that's it for now. Let me know if you like this, I can drag out a lot more.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

No blog today, editing

Can't do blog today, I'm slowly going crazy with my editing of extras for Ghostkeeper. One of the cameramen in Canada decided to do 2 soundtracks, ambient sound and the sound on a lavalier mic on Georgie Collins.

What this means is lots of extra work for me, usually all I need is a single audio track from one mic, but no, it can't be that easy. I'm going from my Mac to my PC, where I find videos on Youtube and articles on how to sync different tracks.

It all seems so easy until I try it. Then nothing works.

I'm also not a particular tech editor, I can edit well enough but more from the creative side than the mechanical side. I can drive my car great but don't ask me to replace the engine or find out what's wrong with the transmission.

That's about the way I feel right now.


Monday, August 8, 2011

The Language of Writing

                    "Writing is language. The use of language. The language to 
                    create image, the language to create drama.  It requires a 
                    skill of learning how to use language."
                                                                                   - John Milius

There's the old argument that says writers are born to which some people suggest anybody can write. I know this; it took me a long time to learn how to write well, those who have followed this blog from the beginning probably remember the number of times I've said that.

Several years ago I taught screenwriting at UCLA extension classes and had about 250 or so students over the course of a little over 2 years. And of those 250 or so, I thought maybe 4 or so could become screenwriters.

Depending if they could live in L.A., constantly write, make contacts and know somebody who is working, be it writer, director, secretary, grip, anyone who can introduce you to someone who then can introduce you to someone else. And so on.

I wrote my first story in Grade 4, at least as far as I can remember. And it was about a young boy who wanted a bike. Obviously a self portrait. I did get the bike. I wrote a few stories in Grades 5 & 6, inspired by a young, beautiful teacher who took a liking to me. She continued to be an influence through the years and only recently passed away.

On the other hand I was not nurtured and primed by my parents, my dad was a mechanic who worked in a garage and my mom was my mom. My dad went to school as far as Grade 11, my mom had to drop out at Grade 8 to work for her father, a farmer. My father also played the violin professionally, something he loved more than anything else.

So there's a bit of talent in the family.

And then there were the movies. In a small farmland town of around 500 people, we had one theater and played one movie for three days and another for another three days. Sundays they were closed.

I quickly began to see every movie I could and from 5 yrs old to 12 yrs old, movies were my inspiration.  I learned to read the credits, names of writers, actors, directors and even cameramen and someone called Edith Head who seemed to be on every movie.

Later as a teen in a big city I took a "Famous Writers" course, advertised in the back of comic books. But it didn't work out, more of a scam to take money than how to write. I wrote some stories in high school and college but nothing of any significance.

It wasn't until I got a job at a local TV station that I wrote professionally, and that was as a news writer. From there I never looked back.

The language of writing, when it's great, is not apparent. And that's the hardest part to teach, that is to write something that nobody notices. Bad writing is easily noticed, same as bad acting.

As Milius says, one has to learn the language of screenplays. You can also probably say that one should also learn how to read the language. So many studio and network readers now have no real idea how to tell a good screenplay from a bad one. They focus instead on the twists or the premise.

And far more people think all you need to become a writer is to buy Screenwriter or Final Draft, the pro softwares for all screenwriters.

And there's no shortage of "experts" ready and willing to help the aspiring screenwriter make their screenplay a blockbuster. The fact that most of these experts have probably never had a movie made or even never have written a screenplay defies any kind of logic.

Who would you rather have climbing a mountain with you on your first time; an expert climber or someone who's read a book about climbing?

And that's not an exaggeration.

The language in a good screenplay takes you into the story without you even knowing it, you feel, taste, smell the story, it takes you into a world of visuals. You can picture the movie fromo good language.

It took me a long time to learn these things, and it followed a typical formula, at first I copied screenplays. Literally. I rewrote The Deerhunter on my IBM typewriter twice. I copied the styles of Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas and even William Goldman and many others. 

I began to notice in the last dozen years, writing flowed easily and that once I had the characters nailed down, I could write a screenplay in a few weeks. And the language did flow with the story.

But ultimately, there's one element that nobody can guess. The writing can be great, but the story can be bad.

And nobody can foresee that.  Let's end with another Milius quote.

"You're either born a writer, a storyteller, or you're not. "

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Chemistry Test

Recently I've been hearing about something called the "chemistry test". Naturally I thought it had to do with chemistry, as in bunsen burners and bubbling glass containers. But no, it's not that at all, it's something more abstract. 

It's about actors.

Apparently the producers and studios want to be absolutely sure that the lead actors have chemistry, otherwise known as attraction,  compatibility, comfort and any other vague quality that might translate to the movie.

Basically it's about how two actors relate to each other.

 Bogart and Bacall had it. Astaire and Rogers had it. Hope and Crosby had it. Sean Connery and Candice Bergen had it. And lately Owen Wilson and Marion Coitillard had it.

Harrison Ford and Karen Allen had it in the first Raiders of the Lost Ark. But in the sequel with Kate Capshaw didn't have it.

Chemistry with actors is difficult to define, and there are probably as many theories as there are actors. Simply put, it means that the two actors, usually leads, seem to fit like a perfect glove.

One of the best examples is the Thin Man series with Nick and Nora, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, who were probably one of the first couples that looked and felt like they really were in love with each other. It's also fun to count the number of cocktails they could down in the course of an 80 minute movie.

So now there is a chemistry test. 

They take two actors, usually one is a big star and one is lessor, although it's not a rule. It's hard enough to learn lines but now to see if you get along and what's more, you can't really fake it. Chemistry is real, either it's there or it's not.

Johnny Depp and Angelina had no chemistry in The Tourist, just read the reviews. Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise had none, but Cameron and Jim Carrey had. And I'm sure Johnny and Angelina didn't test, they're too big. What it comes down to for you is this:

You enjoy watching them.

 It's a magic of sorts that works sometimes, sometimes not.  And the irony is that it has always been going on in Hollywood. They would test every actor together within the studio system, nobody was too big to not test, at least not for them. When a big star was tested, it was more likely for the actor who would play with them.

Testing seemed to disappear after the studios lost their actor talent to independent agents but it seems it is back.

Unfortunately, we don't have the caliber of actors we had in the 30's right through to the 80's. Watching most of the young "stars" now is less than exciting. Put Ryan Reynolds with Emma Stone and you have zero chemistry.

I'm sure there will be some who disagree but the movies show it. Some of the last few romcoms, Friends with Benefits and Crazy Stupid Love for example, took steep dives even with alleged "star power" of people like Ashton Kutcher and Steve Carrell whom some reviewers even remarked on the lack of chemistry between him and his female lead.

But the king of chemistry is probably Jack Nicholson, who seemed to work with all the actresses he worked with, Diane Keaton especially. He's one of those guys you always like to watch.

But there are fewer of them.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A weekend with ideas.

I get asked often how I get my ideas. I've done a blog or two on this before but thought I'd update it a little more. First of all, I can't speak for all writers, probably even most of them as everyone would say something different.

But in the end it's all about one thing; a good story. Hopefully a good story.

Most of my screenplays are based on real events, either happening to me or to someone else. I learned a long time ago that real stories and real people are far more interesting than making them up, as some screenwriting books suggest.

I could never make up the stories I hear.

In June I went to visit my 98-year old aunt in Michigan. While there I visited my ex-wife, whom I hadn't seen in 26 years and we had a great evening talking about the good times we had. I realized afterwards that a lot of us boomers are at that age now when spouses are beginning to pass away, and I think we're going to see a lot of movies about that.

I even used it in my Christmas Carole script, which is being considered by two prodcos.

I also saw a cousin who, at 71, still doesn't know who her father was. Her mother died 6 days after she was born and that bit of closure, knowing who her father was, remains open,even though he would be long gone. That little bit of mystery remains.

This week-end I went to San Francisco to see a friend of mine who wrote a good book on how movies are made. She and her daughter who's 12, are going to Shanghai for a year, maybe too as her daughter is genius level and experts suggested she learn languages to slow her down a bit so she wouldn't end up in University at 15 or 16.

Her daughter now speaks fluent Chinese and both are looking forward to the adventure, and an adventure it is, my friend will also be teaching English for Chinese students. 

Later in the day I drove west of San Francisco to Half Moon Bay in search of the legendary "Maverick" surf site, known for it's breath-taking and dangerous breaks. There were two aged wood crosses there, surfers who lost their lives. There already is a movie in the works.

The irony of "looking" at Maverick is that it's 2 miles offshore. So the only way an audience can see it is with binoculars or telescopes.

After that I had asked locals for a good breakfast cafe and was given bad directions but ended up at a little cafe on the side of the road. Several people were inside the tiny cafe and Stephanie, the owner, came out smiling, immediately I began asking about her place and she was only too happy to talk. That's her place above.

Turns out this is her 3rd restaurant, having left another cafe further south for her ex-husband and some family. Her smile and determination was contagious, I felt she could weather any storm, rain or life.

Later that same day I ended up at Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch a hotel of sorts with several houses and a bed & breakfast feeling. At the bar I met a corporate pilot who was the same age as me, divorced and enjoying his lifetime job. The bar overlooks a pasture where sheep graze.

He began talking about living in Nashville and having musical friends, some of whom had encounters with fame and some who still searched for it. His stories didn't dwell with flying but rather with the demands of musical artists and the goals and failures.

So right there are a handful of stories, from my cousin to a pilot in Clint's bar (where, occasionally he comes in to play the piano now and then). Each of those stories could, with the right writer, or even me, be developed into a full screenplay.

The thing with it is, you need to be responsive to people, some pseudo writers sit in cafes in the corner working at a screenplay (I call that performance art) and shutting out the world. You never get a good story by shutting out the world.

If there was a secret to writing, it's that you watch and listen. Does this mean you're stealing ideas? Maybe. I like to think it's borrowing, it isn't their whole life, maybe just a piece of it. William Faulkner said he found all the characters in the world in his little Mississippi town, and his books translated all over that world.

One thing that is essential in this is that I am very unconfrontational, if that's a word, people feel at ease around me and that is something I worked on very hard. People tell me their stories and it all revolves around one thing;

I listen.

We all want the same things, the only difference I think is our point-of-view. I like this movie and you like that. Otherwise we reveal ourselves to everyone we come into contact with... especially writers.