Monday, December 26, 2011

Back to the beginning

 My real feature film career really began in oil-rich Alberta and specifically in Calgary, which when I was there had almost 300,000 people, and now has over 1 million. One of the remaining icons was the Husky Tower, above, which in its day was the highest structure in the city.

Today it's crowded in between towering buildings that for the most part, deal with oil. Think Houston set near the Rocky Mountains and you have Calgary. A dozen or more major oil companies from the US and Britain and even Canada play their oil and gas games here.

In the US, Obama has to deal with the pipeline which would stretch from oil sands northeast of Calgary and extend all the way to Texas. This issue is coming up in 2012 and the problem deals with the usual suspects; those who want oil and those who want to preserve pristine land. 

But this isn't about pipelines. It's about movies.

Before Calgary I worked in television all across the country, starting in Windsor and Detroit and then to Vancouver and Regina. And then Calgary where I worked as a "writer/producer" for commercials. After 2 years of commercials I wanted out and I wanted to make a movie.

Another writer/producer, Harry, left before me and we got together to make a movie he wanted to produce. But that fell through and Harry had a handful of investors who were still excited about financing a movie. It would be a shame to see them go away.

So I came up with an idea with my friend Doug who did government educational films. Doug knew the owners of the Deer Lodge Hotel in the heart of the Rockies and a little over 100 miles from Calgary.

The hotel was a perfect place with a 1920's feel to it, but also incredibly creepy. It was a natural. 

Back in Calgary, Harry talked 6 investors, most from oil money, who wrote 6 checks for around $650,000 (around $1.6 million in today's dollars). As this was 100% tax shelter money (meaning investors could write off 100% of their investment), we had to hurry as that money had to be invested before the end of the year.

I wrote a screenplay, my first real one, with some help from Doug and my brother and we rushed into production, starting around Dec 3, 1980. It was a full union shoot with IATSE (grips, gaffers,make-up, etc), ACTRA (actors) and Harry, me, Doug and a few others.

We shot it in 15 days, with a great help being that it was set in one building and the surrounding snow which gave it an isolated feeling even though a major ski resort was a couple of miles away.

We stayed at one of the ski resort motels as the hotel was closed for the winter and had no heat. As we began filming, I began to notice that the actors seemed to be living their parts, and not always aware of it. And the crew gradually began to feel it as well, they acted like there really were ghosts there.

At the end of a day, nobody wanted to hang around to clean up unless they had someone else around. The dark halls and the constant cold was not particularly cuddly. And I began to realize that of the six characters in the movie, there were two other ones, two that nobody really paid attention to --

The -25 degree weather and, of course, the hotel.

And they were just as real as the flesh and blood that walked down the creaky hallways. While filming, we used torpedo-like construction heaters that blasted heat down the hallways that gave us about 15 minutes as we had to turn off the heaters to film with sound. Then the cold began to  creep upon us again.

One critic said this of the ambience of the movie; paraphrased "you had a choice, either say in the hotel with a crazy old woman or go outside into the freezing cold".

(Wed: feuds, snow and the money running out)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The true north...

It's 6 degrees in Canada. Well, not actually all of Canada, but in Calgary which is a short distance from the incredible Rocky Mountains, already snow-capped and camera ready. I stepped out of my dad's old Sable (which was the source of a week of blogs back in 2009 as I traveled across the prairies while waiting for the car to break down in minus 40 degrees) to see a great evening sky.

The 6 degrees is in celsius not fahrenheit. For Americans 6C translates to about 42F. Cold for SoCal and Arizona but pretty warm for anyone living along the US/Canada border. It's warm enough to wear a sweater.

I'm sort of home for the holidays, with my brother who's a copy editor at the big newspaper in town. It's also the place where I made my first feature film, Ghostkeeper way back in 1980.

I've already had breakfast with Doug Macleod, who got his first feature credit as well, he was the production manager and went on to become an excellent producer. Doug was also credited as co-writer. 

Then there's Murray Ord, one of the film's stars and also a good friend for over 30 years. Murray and I will visit Georgie Collins who played the "old woman" in the movie. Georgie is 86 and as bright and sharp as she was at 56.

Then there's others, crewmembers and actors and friends so it's going to be a great time. We're also going out to the Deer Lodge hotel where we filmed Ghostkeeper. The hotel is still open and the management has already been in line for the DVD, which will be released in February.

The hotel also wants to sell copies, which is great, seeing that it's a horror film, although more of psychological horror than explicit.

So it is Christmas mixed with the Ghostkeeper movie theme, so....

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow....

Friday, December 16, 2011

Politics of Low Budget filmmaking

Recapping Monday's blog, I discovered a new way to make Ghostkeeper 2, the sequel to my 1980 film Ghostkeeper. #2 was budgeted at just under $2 million, and at that, was difficult to finance.

What broke the budget barrier was the use of a Canon SLR that shoots HD video was well as it's primary purpose, that of a single lens reflex camera meant to shoot still photography. And it's small and extremely portable, meaning that you can film more in less time. 

To put it simply; I can cut down a budget of $2 million to just under $500,000. Maybe even less. And come out with a product just as good, maybe even better.

But there are issues, as some would suggest. 

The camera package would be far less than for a 35mm shoot or even the popular "RED" digital camera. For one thing, John (the DP) prefers to use a Nikon similar to the Canon 5D. With the Nikon he can use older Nikkor lenses, many of which are damn good lenses. And you can pick them up at really good prices.

Add to that the camera body, less than $2000, add the accessories and it's about a third of the price of a regular movie camera package. You could even add a spare body at that price. 

But the issue is this;

While the technical advantage works for the camera package, as well as editing on Final Cut Pro (of which I can use), the "other" part of making the movie is labor. And the unions. 

While we can cut the price of cameras, cutting weekly and day rates is another story. There's two ways to do this; first you just grab a dozen people and head out to the mountains and just shoot it. Fast and quiet, don't bring attention to  yourself.

Second is a little harder; you talk to the unions and hope they give you a break. 

One major note here; I'm talking about shooting in Canada, in the mountains. Shooting in LA is far easier, I could pick up a non-union crew at bargain-basement rates, maybe even a union person who needs a job for a few weeks.

The advantage here is that there's so many crew members in the L.A. area, that nobody is really going to bother with you, there's too much going on. 

But Canada is a smaller crew base and it's harder to pull off. Union people have been known to protest non-union shoots to the point where they either hire union or leave.

Another point here for anyone who thinks we're taking advantage of people; our pay rates would be probably half of what union pays, but this goes for "above-the-line" also, meaning I get the same cut, in fact my cut would be lower than anyone else on the crew, and I would be doing three jobs, writing, directing and co-producing. 

What would I get: Probably around $5000 for the whole thing, meaning months of working on the project, doing the budget on MMB, writing, directing and signing checks. But there's a catch here dictated by WGA. I will eventually get paid.

This matters if and when the movie is sold. Once it's sold, I have to be paid my minimum WGA writer's fee. But only if the film is sold. And only if it makes  enough money for me to get some. 

And this goes for the crew, who would also share in a portion of any sale, in accordance to what they were paid on the shoot. And they would have worked maybe 4 weeks at most.

Another factor also exists; some provinces in Canada are not getting as much movie production as a few years ago when the Canadian dollar was almost 65 cents. So now any movie that comes in is welcome and compromises can be had.

Unions can help, but you always have to be straight up with them, you can't pay the stars $100,000 and the gaffers $500 a week. But that makes sense.

I'll be up in the mountains next week and try to figure out how best too do this; there's other issues, even at a low budget. One big one is accomodation, food and per diems, which can kill a low budget production, 4 weeks on a shoot would easily take 25% of the budget.

To deal with this I would go back to the Hollywood of the 1940's and 50's wherein the studio would go on location for 2 weeks, shoot every exterior they could, then go back to the studio and built sets to shoot for 4, 5, 6 or more weeks. Thus I would spend maybe 5 days on location with a full crew, and pick-up shots with a minimum crew of 3 or 4.

While all this sounds like a lot of work, I really enjoy it, figuring out how to do the technical and logistical side while also remaining faithful to the story and the tone of the movie.

And there's the potential of working with the original 4 actors, one of which is 86 now, as well as the DP, John and a few others. All this after 32 years, it would be completing a circle.

But we'll see where this goes for 2012.


Monday, December 12, 2011

A new idea for Ghostkeeper 2?

Edward Burns came into the film world by making a feature film called The Brothers McMullen, for $30,000. The film was successful and it led to several other features with real budgets and famous actors. In between he acted in some movies, including Saving Private Ryan.

Like many directors, he found that making his movies became harder and harder. So after making multi-million dollar movies, his newest movie was made for far less.

How about $9000.

He used the now common Canon 5D SLR. For those who don't know what this is; here's a little history.

Digital movies changed in a major way in the last few years. Where you had your "camcorder" you could also take video still photos as well. Not great. But then Canon came out with a brand new still camera series which included the 5D,  but with a remarkable twist.

The Single Lens Reflex camera has been around for at least 60 years, it's the one your parents had until digital cameras came along. What makes the Canon not just a picture-taking camera, it can also shoot video.

So what's the big deal? Your camera shoots video too. My point and shoot Nikon shoots video.

Well, the Canon 5D not only shoots video, it also shoots 4K. Yeah, another abbreviation to deal with.

But it's simple, 4K stands for the size of the chip in the camera. Whereas your regular HD cameras have chips 1/4 of the size or so, the Canon has a chip that is the identical size of a frame of 35mm film.

For camera guys, and remember I started as a news cameraman, this was ground-breaking. One of the weaknesses in digital was always depth-of-field, meaning that everything was always in focus.

Film, on the other hand, had a great advantage (and still has) by reducing depth of field when you needed it to. You know those shots in movies where the background is out of focus but the actor is clearly sharp. That's depth-of-field. Every movie uses this, everyone ever made. At least on film. It's a little more complex but it's enough for this purpose.

Now, HD is even closer to film and the best part is that you can buy a Canon D5 with lenses for under $10,000. Compare that with the price of a Panavision 35mm which costs around $120,000 (nobody really knows because they're only for rent). And even the Red camera being touted will cost around $40,000 with accessories.

The Canon 5D is now practically essential on all movies being made, even if it's just a secondary camera to grab shots that would take a big rig an hour to take. You just lift it up and shoot. It's used in tandom  with big 35mm & digital camera units, especially for action scenes where you can see as many as 10 of the Canons covering every aspect of the action.

But how does this deal with Ghostkeeper 2?

Well, besides being a fraction of the cost of a camera rental from a renting house, it's easy to use, light and portable and can give you an image equal to any movie shot today. And now Nikon's got into the act as well.

And it represents a new shot for Ghostkeeper 2 as I can cut the budget to less than a quarter of the original $2 million budget.

But it's not that easy, the camera deal is attractive, but there's more than that to deal with.

(Thurs: The politics of low budget filmmaking)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Canadian Irony

"In Canada when I did strange things, people looked at me. In the U.S. when I did the same, they paid me."
                         - Michael J. Fox

That quote from Michael J. Fox has more to it than one would really think. While the true north, strong and free remains my home country it also presents some contradictions in the world of writers in particular.

In the 1980's, I was at the early stages of what now is a booming business in Canada which got it's big push when Americans began to come to Canada during the booming tax shelter days. Money was everywhere, and so were lawyers and accountants with schemes that would find ways to hide money in a 100% tax shelter. Eventually the government caught on and ended it.

But the Canadian crews had learned from the U.S. crews and it wasn't long before writers emerged on a whole pile of series the likes of which had never been seen before. With new networks, Canadian series took off. And not just the kid shows.

Like the U.S., the industry was primarily centered in Toronto and Montreal, and after a few years, in Vancouver. And that was about the time I left the country.

I had made a movie in Calgary, Ghostkeeper, and finding work in Calgary was hard. There was none. I didn't want to move to Toronto or Montreal. So I got a Green Card through a lottery way back in 1989 from the U.S. government.

And a funny thing happened when I moved to the U.S.

I got more jobs in Canada.

Now this could be defined in a few ways, but mostly, it was the identification of being in "L.A." and actually living there. The same people in Canada who wouldn't hire me because I wasn't from Toronto, suddenly took interest in me.

With the premise that because I lived in L.A., I must be good. Of course, that's ridiculous, but a job is a job.

I'm not the only one who thought this, I have a half dozen writers and directors who agree with the idea that having an LA address ironically made us more employable in Canada. In one year alone I wrote 2 screenplays and rewrote 4 screenplays of other Canadian writers, which took me too Luxembourg, Winnipeg and Mexico. My best year.

But it did not sit well with Canadian writers living in Canada.

I belong to two guilds, Writer's Guild of Canada and Writer's Guild of America, commonly referred to as WGC and WGA. They have mutual agreements so that Canadians living in the US can still work in Canada and vice versa. It's got some complicated wording but essentially all is happy within the two guilds.

But some writers in Canada began to complain. "Why should he/she take away Canadian jobs when they live in LA".

The answer was, to my mind (and others) because I am Canadian. In the first years,70% of my work was done for  Canadian productions from 1990 to 2000 while living in LA. In that time I worked on 4 Canadian series in Canada and 1Canadian/French show (Highlander) in the U.S.

Then I got into a little dispute with the head of WGC when he wrote an editorial in the WGC magazine about the carpetbaggers stealing Canadian jobs. It wasn't in exactly those words, but the intent was there.

I wrote him a letter saying that I'm just as employable as anyone else.  But I'm leaving out some crucial details. His answer was that I and any other Canadian writers who betrayed our country, should not be let back in.

One big reason I and other Canadians in the US got work was particularly upsetting to the head of WGC.

The big advantage we had was that US Companies doing movies and series in Canada received tax credits for having Canadians on the crew. And tax credits meant they got more money.

In a weird formula, the federal government said any company who wished Canadian financing must have this; 6 out of 10 points in "above the line".

There were 2 points for the following; Producer, director, writer, star, and 1 point for editor, production designer, cameraperson.  So a company could have a U.S. star and then mix the above labels to at least 6 points.

And to make it more confusing, not only did the feds ask for this, so did the provinces. If you wanted to make a movie in Vancouver, you had to go by the same formula, more or less, except everyone had to be from British Columbia. Same as Ontario and Montreal.

It then became harder for people like me to get work in Canada because of my LA address. But it also became harder for a Canadian in Ontario to work anywhere else in Canada too.

In my letter to the WGC head, I said I have as much right as anyone in Canada to work there and not only is the system unfair to me, it's unfair to every writer in Canada.

Eventually the system was altered but by then I was working on US productions so it wasn't as important. My last movie in 2010 was with WGC and I  never left L.A. even though it was filmed in Ontario.

But I don't deny that it gives Canadians living in the U.S. a bit of an edge on both U.S. and Canadian writers working and living in Canada.

And if you can understand all of this in one reading, I have the greatest admiration. Like this business, it's all a little crazy.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Rambling Monday

Bunch of things as I begin to wind down to Christmas in the Rockies, still hope for a meeting or two, roll out a winter parka and get that damn book out this week. I had to make some changes which caused some reformatting but I should get the 3rd proof tomorrow, if it's clean, then it's good to go.

WGA party was as always, crowded with lots of people I don't know. In fact there was nobody I knew, fortunately we both are starters and thus met a handful of writers, everyone from a soap opera writer to a game-show question writer and some hopeful aspiring writers who somehow got into WGA (you have to get a WGA signatory company contract in order to join the Guild).

This time they rented a club in the heart of Hollywood and as usual, the first drink was free and anything after that was around $13 but for some reason tickets seemed to be available. It was loud and noisy and the average age was probably around 35, maybe less.

What's always interesting about writers, at least the WGA members is their look. It's very generational in that there's the old writers like me, and the older ones and then the middle aged ones and the young ones.

All in all you wouldn't think this bunch of people had anything in common.

And to make it more challenging, there are no real rules, an old guy can wear jeans and t-shirt, a young kid can wear an expensive sport coat, girls can come in red dresses or black jeans or anything. We're tall, short, thin, fat, a typical cross section of America (and Canada) and thus the variety of costumes and behaviors.

The younger ones think they know everything, the older ones think they don't know enough and somewhere between there's the ones who don't care.

And then there's the working ones. Ah, the lucky ones who are getting a paycheck. It's also the divider often in conversations; the working ones tend to stay with other working ones and the unemployed stay with other unemployed.Of course there's crossovers all the time.

And then there's the usual 2nd or 3rd question after "Hi, I'm......

"So... what are you working on now?"

This question solicits the following answers:

Not much
I'm developing a project
We're working on a spec
I'm working on some ideas
I got a deal with Hallmark and Levinson
We're going to pitch NBC.
I'm a guest of a WGA writer
I know the doorman

And many, many more. I remember the first time I attended a union meeting in the early 1990's at the Sheraton Universal. There were about a thousand writers there, filling two huge auditoriums.

My first reaction was that most of the writers looked like me. Meaning white, European and eastern European heritage. There were women and Asians and African Americans, but the majority was the proverbial white anglo-saxon look.

There's more diversity now, 20 years later, but not as much as there could be. I think probably the least represented if you count population, were the Hispanics. I might be wrong, but how many Hispanics do you see on TV shows and movies with respect to their portion of the American dream?

There was also something else I wondered about. Since the WGA has allegedly around 10,000 members, most of which live in Los Angeles, the turn-out for the party was maybe 200 or so "give or take".

Where are the others?
Maybe they just stay home.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Taking jobs away

One of the topics our little group discuss over Sunday breakfasts at the Figtree restaurant on the beach in Venice, is the subject of jobs. Not necessarily for us but for the country.

Having grown up across from Detroit and with lots of relatives in Detroit, I know all too well how hard hit Detroit is, their unemployment rate is around 15% while the reality is closer to 35% if you discount the suburbs.

I've always said that many jobs have simply disappeared, never to return no matter who's President.

Take my book, Emperor, it took 2 people to get it published. There was one formatting expert who will cost me around $150 and a graphic artist who has cost me $250. She did the front and back covers I posted a week ago.

And that's it.

My director friend Malcom has a background in publishing and graphics and he figured that I just took jobs away from around 20 people. Now this would be pre-computer era. All those people, typesetters, readers and more.

So 18 jobs have disappeared. Never to come back.

And how about this; I'm doing a favor for a friend in a week or two. She has written books on directors and wants to interview a handful of older actors who worked with the director in question.

Since my background is camerawork, mostly film but lots of still photography also, I said I could help her out. I would film the interviews and then edit them into whatever she needed.

Here's who was left out:

An assistant cameraperson
A soundperson
A lighting person
The processing lab
The counterperson at the lab
An editor
A colorist
An effects person (titles, fades, dissolves, etc.)

How's that. 8 jobs lost.

I can do all of those jobs now with digital cameras (I will rent one for about $150/day) as well as a wireless microphone ($35/day), a reflector and maybe a light ($50), tape/memory card ($50) and lunch.

When I finish, I will take the video to my iMac where I  have Final Cut Pro, used by many feature and TV editors who prefer it to Avid, the industry standard. I learned FCP when I had comp courses at UCLA when I taught screenwriting extension classes.

In short, I can do it all.

Of course, the argument is; is this a good thing? If you're an editor looking for work, it probably isn't. Or a cameraperson.

And of course, there's the often repeated saying; "the good news is that everyone can make a movie, the bad news is that everyone can make a movie".

If this is what's going on in the film business, if I can literally make a movie for free, what does it speak for every job in the country.

Fresh & Easy, a British food store has locations in L.A. and they don't have cashiers at all, it's all scanners. Ralph's has 6 scanners in Sherman Oaks. Robots are making cars and work more efficiently and better than humans.

Where are these jobs Republicans are claiming to have if they're elected? Trickle down does not work as we've seen, and they're mostly delusional. Or just lying.  A politician lying?

The American worker hit his/her peak in 1973, meaning that was the moment when the average worker made the most money, say when a dollar was worth a dollar. It went downhill from then.

And American industry peaked in 1979. That was when America had it's highest level of industry, everyone was working. And that went downhill steadily too. A lot of experts say that industry is no longer driving America, now it's consumers.

Neither of these ever came back, there were spikes now and then but as of 2010 it was 65 cents.

So how can consumers drive the economy if there's so much unemployment (average is just around 9% but doesn't include those who stopped looking, and that's more like 15%)?

I think that as population increased, there are simply more people who can buy things. Go by Fashion Square here in Sherman  Oaks, yesterday there was a half a block of traffic going into the Mall and Macy's in particular.

Go figure? Who are these people? While unemployment is high, I can only think that there are enough people (and sales) that they continue to drive the economy.

And of course, I told you often that of the alleged 10,000 writers in WGA that only 1500 or so are actually working.

So don't complain to me.

And there's always "The Singularity". You know, when computers take over completely. Just like Terminator.