Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oscars and performances

While I usually post on Mondays, I wasn't happy with my post-Oscar blog, mainly because I would be giving a pretentious film fan some ink, as they say. There is a big difference between those who talk and write about films and those who actually make films.

The day-after articles tended to be not great, even though the ratings were higher than last year's awards where the Academy hoped to draw in the young people with Anne Hathaway and James Franco who weren't very good.

Someone wrote that this year's award show was for white men in their 50's and older. Well, I guess that's me, and I did like the show. Billy Crystal was funny and I thought the show was okay.

But one of the problems for the Academy Awards is that there are so many award shows before the Oscars so by the time they come on people are tired of seeing the same actors grab other statuettes and/or awards.

When I was a kid, it was magic, but we didn't have 200 plus channels then. And dozens of awards shows for film and music and everything else.

A lot of people resented the fact that a French movie won most of the awards even if they filmed the entire movie in L.A. and it was handled by veteran Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. And Oscar-caliber movies are often not audience favorites, rather they are performer favorites.

And then there was the best actress award which surprised everyone and started dozens of whispers and tweets as to why Meryl got it instead of Viola, you know the kind.

So what do I think?

Well, if you consider that playing real characters seems to win more than playing made-up characters, then it's the norm. Meryl played Thatcher brilliantly, as she does with every role.  Here's a few others who won:

Colin Firth played King Edward, Helen Mirren played Queen Elizabeth, Reese Witherspoon played June Carter, Sandra Bullock played a real person in The Blind Side, Forrest Whitaker for Idi Amin, Julia Roberts won for Erin Brockovich.

And then there's Sean Penn for Harvey Milk, Jamie Fox for Ray Charles, Charlize Theron played that crazy woman killer. And there's a lot more.

What do you think?

And speaking of performances, a lot of people think that big long speeches in a movie where the star shouts and yells, is good acting. The model for this was Al Pacino in Scent of A Woman where he "ate the scenery" in his big speech at the end of the movie.

For those unfamiliar with that phrase, it simply means an actor takes over the stage and drowns everyone else around him/her to make his big speech.

But shouting is easy, it's harder playing softer. My best example was Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford, where Mary Tyler Moore plays a controlling wife to Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton plays her messed-up son.

Moore and Hutton got nominations, Hutton won but the best part was played by Sutherland as a quiet, long-suffering husband. Much harder to play that convincingly, no shouting, no grand speeches, just looks and quiet thoughts.

But the award shows are finished for another year and I don't have to see big ads shouting vote for me in the LA Times every single day since January.

And I can remember 1976 when a little short film called Cooperage was a finalist in the Short Film category at the Academy Awards that year and lost out to five other films but for a moment, my partner in Rocky Mountain Films, Phil Borsos  and I came as close as anybody could.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Blog to come

I posted a blog today that, after consideration, I decided to delete it. It wasn't much, some Oscar talk (I liked the show) and some other stuff that ultimately wasn't really of any value. I try to make every blog move forward as well as having content that will be of interest to all of you.

I should have something more interesting by this afternoon.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ads and Oscars

You've probably noticed (or maybe not) three ads on the top left of the blog. I haven't really taken sponsors before but had an opportunity to advertise my book, Emperor of Mars, in exchange for one, the Jobs link. It was only for one month and will end next week. In exchange I had a banner for EOM on their website for 30 days.

The other one is similar, but at least valuable to readers as it offers comparisons of video editing software and digital cameras. This will last for a month at most.

And finally there's two new ones I added today, an indie film that needs some advertising and while they had nothing else to offer, I figured the least I could do is help them. Thus you'll see a link to their trailer and a link to the screenwriter's interview.

I end the week with 20 pages of my Christmas Train screenplay, I never write on week-ends, or at least almost never, as those are my days off and I don't do anything. Well, maybe a little editing on FCP for my Ghostkeeper trailer.

The big deal this week-end, of course, is the Academy Awards, lots of parties at all levels A to D, as they say. I also have a producer considering a screenplay I wrote some years ago so I'll see what happens with that next week.

Weather is warm, sky is blue, a lazy week-end ahead. 

One more thing; looks like my novel Emperor of Mars has passed into the 2nd tier of a novel contest on Amazon, winner gets $15,000 and a publishing deal. Wouldn't that be nice. But there's 999 others in the second tier.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Can you make a hard copy?

I was one of the first writers I knew who used a computer, inspired by my writer friend Steve Wright who had a Kaypro "portable computer" that weighed about 20 lbs. In 1986 I got an Atari (before they got solely into gaming) where you inserted the OS program, pulled it out and then inserted a floppy disc wherein you entered your screenplay disc.

One big disadvantage was the fact that you couldn't put a whole screenplay on a single disc and if you wanted to use Scriptor, arguably the first newly developed screenwriting software back then, you actually had to divide the screenplay into quarters. One disc would take 25% of the script, then the other, etc. When you were finished, you hoped the 4 different discs would print out one screenplay.

Still it was an improvement over writing. At least for me. I know there are people out there with typewriters who say it doesn't matter what you write with. And they are right.

For them anyways.

I was always a lazy writer, I didn't like rewriting on typewriters and with good cause. Because you had to retype the entire page just to change one or two lines of dialog. No easy cut and paste or copy. You had to retype the entire page over again even if the change was a single sentence.

You could also "white-out" the offending words with that white sticky substance that Michael Nesmith's* dad created (see Monkees). Then you'd roll the sheet of paper in again and line it up as close as possible in that whitened space. This worked for a sentence or two.

So when I got the Atari, I could actually move sentences around, whole sentences, even paragraphs. Amazing. It was even a greater change than when I got my first IBM Selectric, the King of typewriters. Before that I used a manual Underwood and an electric Smith-Corona.

Words now gone from our society. 

My first laptop was a Zenith I bought in 1989 and it had a 20meg Hard Drive. That's "meg" not "GB". And I figured this space was all I would need for the rest of my life. And it weighed only 12 lbs, and most of that was a battery.

Color screens didn't exist till much later.

But what I did like was the editing as I said, and it made me a better writer. Because now I could go back and change things I didn't like or the producer or director didn't like. My first feature, Ghostkeeper, was typed on a IBM but that was 9 years before the Zenith.

The next big stage came when we could actually send a screenplay through the internet. Before that we would print the screenplay or go to a printer or better a university copy room (much cheaper) and either mail or hand it over to whomever wanted it. 

That next stage was remarkable for a lot of reasons, the best being that we didn't have to print it on our printer and didn't have to pay copy shops. We saved money!! And faxing a screenplay could take a good 30 to 40 minutes, even an hour on your average fax machine. One page at a time!

But it all wasn't flowers and roses.

A lot of producers either didn't know how to receive screenplays or didn't have the right program. This was before universal PDF's. And they hated... and I mean hated... to read the screenplay off a computer monitor. One problem was that the screens weren't color yet and you had to read white on black or other basic colors.

And even when color monitors came out for everyone, and your script was a white page with black writing, they still didn't like it.

They liked to hold the screenplay, to feel the paper, it was real. The image on the screen wasn't. To tell you the truth, so did I. I would print a copy of a new script, sit down with a coffee and read it and use a red pen to make notes.

But eventually, all things change, and now it's the only way to send screenplays, everyone can read PDFs and even print them out if they want. 

We don't have to print them for anyone else too. 

Until today.

My agent friend wants to read two screenplays which he feels can interest a particular producer and he is computer-illiterate. I am trying to teach him cut and paste for a week now.

He wants "hard copies".

So now I have to print them out on my laser, punch holes in them and put those tiny, lovely copper "brads" into the holes. They're also called Brass Fasteners. I use these once or twice a year.

And I have to admit, I still do like to print out a fresh new screenplay and hold it in my loving hands and have one last look before I push it out into a cruel and uncaring world.

But there's another side to the story. For a long time I collected screenplays and often read them over and over. They sit in a rack in my office and I realized I hadn't read any of them for years....

Now I read other screenplays on my laptop screen and the stack of a hundred or so hard copies are collecting dust.

But I can't see throwing them out. Maybe I want to read Local Hero this year, or Hoosiers.

And I built that rack all by myself and I don't want to ever throw it out. Ever.

Oh, and Michael Nesmith, well, he was one of the made-up television rock group The Monkees and his father created White-Out, that miraculous substance that everyone used on their typewriters.

He's the one at the top. "Here we come...da da.."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The value of being LinkedIn

I don't care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
                                                                - Groucho Marx 

A few years ago I found a website called Linkedin which promised to be a vital connection source for the film industry to find partners and investors for our movies. Actually it's more than just filmmakers, it's a connecting source for all businesses. You can post jobs and look for jobs too.

But let's look at the film end of it.

They have a couple of different sites independent filmmakers,  feature financiers, etc. I joined two of them, I think, and every morning would go through the postings anxious to find my angel (a term used by filmmakers to describe someone who puts the first money into your project or helps you get your money).

Most of the posts were self-guided, in that "I need money for my project". These posts were often answered by ambiguous "angels", people who would be able to find you money, but first you have to give them money.

Yeah, right.

There were also posts from service companies and individuals who would also be glad for you to pay for their services once you get going. Grips, gaffers, accountants, consultants and many more.

But where were the angels that I was led to believe were in abundance on Linkedin? In that first year I didn't find one single posting that would help me finance a movie. Instead all I got were emails asking me to connect with them.

Sort of a working world version of Facebook.

Pretty soon I had 50 people, none of whom I knew. More followed, would I link up with Sarah or Fred or Jack or Mahmood, and they were actors, actresses, lots of people who called themselves producers even though they had no credits. And again, nobody I knew.

It didn't take me long to see that Linkedin was Facebooking as hard as it could. I got emails from more people I didn't know, lots of people wanted to link up with Jim. Trouble was, I was of more value to them than them to me.

And that brings me back to the Groucho Marx joke, if I was the highlight of their connections, I feared both for them and me. Then, about a year ago I began getting old friends asking to join up, and of course I "accepted".

I realized that I had never sought out anyone, mostly because nobody I ever came across, really didn't have the ability to help me at all. More than likely, most would be happy for me to hire them.

Since then I rarely go to Linkedin, they send me notices that I haven't been checking my messages, which consisted of, yes, more requests to join me. But then I learned that Linkedin also does it's own requests to me, in the form of re-requesting me to accept people who I didn't accept. And even friends of mine who did accept.

So I have to accept a friend who was already accepted.

I'm getting a headache.

Is there value in Linkedin? People say there is, yet when I question them closely, they really have never got a single reference, job or funding. It sounds terrible to be interested only in someone who can get you money, but that's what the film business is about; finding and getting money.

But they assure me it's a matter of time; you can't win if you don't try.

I think I'll stick to a lottery ticket. The odds are better.

Monday, February 13, 2012

How come screenplays are so bad

Why can't anyone find good screenplays anymore? I hear this all the time. Everyone hears this all the time.

So why aren't there any good screenplays around?

Good question.

As I said in the last blog, there sure are a lot of writers around and a lot of movies that get made. So where are all the good screenplays hiding?

Well, for one thing nobody wants to make good screenplays. In my opinion, however humble that may be, one of the reasons is that good screenplays aren't always hot. Look around at what "they're looking for" taken from a popular internet screenplays for sale site. These are real: 

We are looking for completed feature-length sci-fi scripts with highly original concepts and compelling characters. When pitching, please make sure you’re able to pitch the hook for your story in one sentence or less. 

Submissions must be for contemporary material, and should be gritty, dark, and character driven. Please also note, we prefer material with female leads, few characters, and some violence and sex. 

We are looking for completed feature-length contemporary, female-driven romance scripts. The female lead must be aged 20-40. By romance, we mean scripts such as “The Notebook” that emphasize love over comedy hijinks. We are not open to submissions that do not currently have the female role between the ages of 20 and 40. 

We are looking for completed feature-length uplifting scripts. In other words, scripts that reassure life-affirming values and messages such as "Bella," "The Family Man" and "The Blind Side." Budget will not exceed $500,000.

We are looking for completed feature-length character-driven dramedy scripts, i.e. material in the vein of “Juno” or “The Descendants.”  

I think you get the idea, and this is just a sampling of "what they're looking for". In other words, they're looking for a copy of the latest hit or something that fits a genre, horror especially.

And they're looking for completed screenplays.

Okay this is the "B" level, maybe some of the ads a "D" level, but you will find major studios on these sites also. Because they just want a copy of the latest hit.

So what's a good screenplay? Well, Hugo is good, even Descendants is good in spite of what I might think of the whole movie, and Woody Allan's Paris movie is arguably the best screenplay this year.

But you don't see producers looking for an Alexander Payne screenplay, or a Woody Allan screenplay. No they want a copy of a commercial hit, or at least a semi-hit.

Emperor of Mars has been around for 22 years! It's  not a great script, but it is a good one, it got me into meetings with virtually every studio and network in Hollywood, and for those who doubt it, I'll be glad to post my agent's list of companies who loved it. 

They just didn't want to make it.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of good scripts out there. In fact there's even a list of good scripts made up each year that were passed over or never made.

You can find it at:  http://www.deadline.com/2011/12/the-black-list-2011-screenplay-roster/

See what you think about them. They aren't necessarily good scripts, but they stand out mostly because of the writing, which is good. It's ironic that the word "good" implies something that's great to read but probably won't  be made because it isn't a copy of something else. 

And maybe that's the reason they're good, one word... originality. Maybe another word... fresh.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Writing again

Finally, after nearly a year, I'm writing again. I've more or less caught up to the various projects, including promoting the Emperor of Mars novel and the Ghostkeeper re-release which also includes a "Ghostkeeper Week-end" at the Deer Lodge.

Writing is what I do best, although I'm not bad at filming either, but writing is what, at the end of the day, I come home to.

I get email promos from The Writer's Store in Burbank offering a wealth of books, webisodes, links, seminars, workshops and every other possible promotion to writers that one can imagine. There's even support in the form of writer "life coaches" who will push you to write blockbuster screenplays.

They have books on how to make a film for $10,000 or $10,000,000, how to write successful loglines, queries and 1-sheets, how to finish the first 10 pages, how to find great characters, classical writing (vs unclassical?) and a hundred other variations of the same thing:

How to write a screenplay that will sell.

All you have to do is take one or more of the courses, of which most are taught or written by people who have never had a movie made. You can even get a screenwriting degree online.

I remember taking in a seminar from Robert McKee years ago just for curiosity. He gives a good show, after all he is/was an actor. And the audience enjoyed his enlightenments, which were actually fun to know.

But the problem comes on the day you begin to write; all of a sudden McKee's advice seems to be in the way, rather than a solution.

In short it's sort of like learning to fly; the instructor shows you, on the ground,  all the things you have to do to stay up. Then when you do go up, he/she's right beside you.

But for writing, once you start to write you're on your own. Imagine if that was a flying course.

Still people pay lots of money for all of these courses and rarely figure out that they're not doing the one thing they should be doing --


I learned to write by writing; for those who go back to 2009 when this blog began, I mentioned this and will repeat it; you must write in order to learn how to write.

How do I know? Remember I taught UCLA extension classes for 2 1/2 years and of the 250 or so students only a handful kept at it. Four of them. And neither of them have sold a screenplay, but they continue to write.

If you want books, there are literally around 300 books on writing; go to Amazon if you don't believe me. I have 3 books; The Art of Dramatic Writing, which was written in 1946 and still in print, also 500 Ways to Beat the Script Reader and for format and a basic guide, Syd Field's Screenplay.

I rarely look at the books, but this time I dragged out Art of Dramatic Writing and forgot how brilliant it is; it's not even for movies, it's for playwriting; but the rules are there, the basics from the Greeks and the rules that followed.

If you write, you should try and find the book; it's got all you need.

One point, I hear all the time that there are no good screenplays anymore, I saw Alexander Payne and George Clooney say this a few days ago; there are no good screenplays.

Even with all the help you can get from a hundred or more screenwriting gurus? How can that be? You'd think that brilliant screenplays should be everywhere, just like they advertise in their ads.

You'd think so.

I started screenwriting by re-typing The Deerhunter screenplay on an IBM typewriter. It gave me the feel of a real screenplay and I re-typed several other scripts, learning more than any of the books I read gave me. Even though it was someone else's work, I felt like I had written a real screenplay.

Anyways, I gotta start writing, it's already 9:30 and I am starting to feel the muse nazi is yelling at me to start writing and never mind talking about writing.

(Mon: Part 2 of Writing)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Back to Shooting

You're looking at Howard Hughes home in Los Angeles. For those who saw The Aviator with Leonardo as Hughes, they did some filming here. It's now owned by an agent. So how did I get there?

As mentioned in a past blog, I still occasionally shoot some video for friends or for a particular effect I might need. For the last two weeks I've helped out my friend Marilyn, who is an author of 2 books on film directors, George Stevens and Raoul Walsh.

Marilyn is considering a documentary on Walsh, who was a studio-based director rather than the more flamboyant directors like Huston or Ford. Walsh showed up on Monday, got his assignment and then went and made it. 

Among those assignments were legendary movies, White Heat with James Cagney, High Sierra with Bogart, Objective Burma with Errol Flynn. He also made The Big Trail, just at the beginning of sound movies, John Wayne's first big role.

Since I will gladly take any filming assignment just to shoot something, I said I'd help her out. She has a list of older actors, all of whom worked for Walsh, who died in the early 1960's. Since they're all at least in their late 70's and most in their 80's,  she wanted to get interviews with as many as she can find, or who want to.

Last week I filmed Jack Larson, who to many boomers, was Jimmy Olsen in the 50's Superman TV show, for those who remember "faster than a speeding bullet"...

Olsen's first role was in a 1948 Walsh war movie called Fighter Squadron and he recounted, with amazing detail, almost every bit of his part in the movie, as well as great stories about other actors and the Hollywood of the early 1950's. 
As we approached his Frank Lloyd Wright home, he walked out and I immediately saw Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter. Well, maybe an older Jimmy Olsen but instantly recognizable.

But now - Howard Hughes.

Hughes never really had anything to do with Walsh, but because the owner of the house had something to do with him, we filmed inside the place. Afterwards we had a tour of the place which included Hughes' "vault", which apparently was used to keep his fortune in, or at least that which he wanted to be close to.

The home can best be described as Spanish-Moroccan, he bought it in 1928 for around $135,000. Inside, the rooms are spacious and light pours in from different angles,  giving it a comfortable feel.

One of the most interesting points of the house is that it's on a golf course and, if you saw The Aviator, you saw Leonardo land his airplane on the course and walk to his house.  Some of those scenes were filmed there, the landing probably at a place much more accommodating than a golf club.

I'm enjoying shooting again, even if it's video, the camera is like an old friend I haven't seen for awhile and I still have the feel of filming.

A film student, David, who is helping me film the interviews is enjoying the Hollywood history lesson he's getting from the places we've been so far, and it's nice to see someone his age connecting to the history of the town. And Hughes was certainly history, as was Walsh.

We're going to have a few more interviews and I'll add to the blog if they're interesting. In the meantime, I'm working on my Christmas screenplay.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Writing again

Finally after a month of post-Christmas organizing and deciding what I want to do this year, I'm finally back to writing a screenplay, my first since last April. It is a "spec" as we say, in that nobody has hired me to write it but I have a good chance to sell it.

Mostly because two producers already are interested.

Not that it means anything, interest can be as fleeting as that wonderful woman I met at a party some time ago, the perfect woman. Which reminds me again of that line from a director in which he explains Hollywood in a great metaphor... 

"The film business is like a beautiful woman who's married to you and you know she cheats on you but yet, when she dresses up and you look at her across the table at a restaurant, you continually say she's worth it." 

I think it was one of the Peters, Yates or Hyam. And for the women, yes, you can change it to suit your particular preference.

Back to writing.

I'm often asked where I get my ideas from and it's not really hard to explain. From everywhere and everybody around me. But it wasn't so in the beginning; when I was starved for ideas and couldn't think of anything.

As I've said before in this blog, writing did not come easy to me; I never really went to film school as there were few film schools in the 70's and the one I did take I failed in. But I had good company, my friend Phil Borsos also failed.

But we were the only two who ever had a career in that whole class.

I learned to write, shockingly, by writing. And writing and writing. It took a good 5 years of writing before I began to see stories around me, I was a slow learner. But once they did, they came in droves.

The script for Town That Christmas Forgot came from 3 different stories and if you haven't seen it, it's about a family that helps a small town remember the joy of Christmas.

The first story happened to me an an ex and her 3 kids as our car broke down in the middle of nowhere in Oregon and the little town that we stayed in for a few days. The second story was about a dying coal mining town in the Rockies of which I made a documentary. And finally the last story; wherein the movie town has it's Christmas Pageant, came from the little Christmas pageants I remember from my small village of 500 people.

Another script, Bender's Hamlet, dealt with a writer who is trapped in a life of teaching he hates until he encounters a 93-year old student who teaches him how to live life. This came from my own experiences with that student, who became a close friend till his death. I added a subplot about gypsies based on my 4 years of dealing with the "King of the Gypsies" who was an impossible person, but who gave me a keen insight into American Gypsy life.

Those and a handful of others were personal scripts, stories of real people and real places.  So you're asking about those other scripts, like sci-fi and action stories.

I'm okay with those genres, although they're not my favorite; if you check my imdb you'll see I've done 8 or so sci-fi and action scripts and I don't mind them, but they're harder to write, at least for me, because they usually tend to be made up. A director once said that making an action film is easy, you chase someone up the mountain and then turn around and chase him down.

So what am I beginning to write; it's a Christmas script called The Christmas Train. Since Hallmark is always on the hunt for new holiday scripts and after all I sold one that did very well in the ratings, enough to be shown in 2011 several times in both the U.S. and Canada, I figure it's got a decent chance to get made.

It's based on a train traveling on Christmas Eve and focusing on four stories of which I started out with the following words;

A new love, an old love, a lost love and a thief.

The basis of this story is once again, from my life, when I took a few train trips including one halfway across Canada, another with my former partner, Carole in the early 80's and finally one I remember as a child. Add an image I got from that woman at the party, her memory of learning to walk on a train trip.

Some people would wonder why I would expose so much of my ideas in a public blog, I know writers who won't divulge a single word of their new screenplay. But everyone writes differently, no one writes like I do, and I don't write like others.

Of course, my writing only happens in the morning; I'll go for 5 pages every day which is how I work best. However I usually do 4, sometimes 6. Every writer has their own pace. I have a friend who barely gets 2 pages a day.

And for me, it's always morning; I can't write after 6pm and I leave the afternoon for other work; doing a new budget for Ghostkeeper 2, doing more to sell my book, considering another script after this one, building a website for Emperor, doing an audio promo for the book and a dozen other things.

If only I got paid for all this work.

But I'm looking forward to this and it should be finished by the first week of March, leaving lots of time to circulate it and find a potential buyer.

Either that, or it ends up in that stack of around 30 or so scripts that never sold. Or I can novelize it like I did Emperor of Mars, now on Amazon.