Monday, March 31, 2014

The first draft is allways the best draft

I noticed that Lorenzo Semple Jr. passed away this week-end. For those of you who don't know who he was, Lorenzo was the originator of the 1960's Batman series. And he also did a lot of 70's features including 3 Days Of The Condor, King Kong and one of my favorite
movies, Parallex View with Warren Beatty. Pic on top is a scene from the movie, also poster used in ad campaign.

One of the interesting things about his career is that he was often rewritten by another writer or writers. The other interesting thing is that he didn't really care if someone else changed his first draft. 

His reason was simple, he didn't want to start arguing with the director or the producer or the movie star. He took his money and walked away.

While some writers, notably the "aspiring writers" feel that their screenplay is golden and that nobody will touch it, would think Semple is a sell-out. But after a few years, you learn that it's more likely you have no choice.

I've had my own experiences with rewrites but they go a little different with me. I've never really had a screenplay re-rewritten, in fact I rewrote at least ten of the credits I list on imdb. These were screenplays originally written by another writer. I have had a few TV episodes, notably on one of the two Highlander episodes I wrote but in TV that's much more common. As a story editor, I rewrote a few TV episodes from writers as well.

I was also rewritten on my Town That Christmas Forgot screenplay without consent of the Writer's Guild. The changes were mostly because of locations but when the "other" writer who wasn't guild claimed his rights, the guild quickly fired back, saying that he had to join the guild and pay $2000 entry. Needless to say my name stayed alone on the credit.

There's also one other issue besides having your screenplay rewritten. You lose some of the residuals, which are divided by the other writer or writers.

But here's another issue; just because another writer is hired, does that mean the screenplay is better?

Answer: Yes and no.

It all depends on the writers. I rewrote a screenplay for Paramount called Riddler's Moon. The sci-fi story was set in a drought in a Nebraska-like state.  That was okay until I flew into Luxembourg to notice that the fields were very yellow and very pretty. 

So the first change that was made was that the lush fields of yellow and green (mostly canola) were tainted. They were poison. After that I went through about 15 versions of the screenplay, some of them simply two or three pages.

Can a screenplay be filmed without rewrites?

Yes and no.

My first screenplay after Ghostkeeper was a story called Betrayal of Silence, way back in 1989. I had a story at that time but no real screenplay. Then a producer friend asked me if I could write a screenplay on it, as he had a window before year's end to take advantage of a tax credit.

This was around the end of November and they needed to shoot the screenplay before year's end. That meant I had to have a screenplay on or before December 1st. Two weeks.

I holed up in a hotel in Toronto and began writing. One of my strengths in writing is that I tend to write fast and somehow, with my producer coming in every day for an hour or so, I finished the first draft. 

I did some polishing, not much, and handed the screenplay to the Assistant Director on a Friday.  They began filming on Monday.

So I guess one can get their screenplay made without rewrites. The funny thing is that I think it's one of my best screenplays.

Getting back to the first draft, I would probably agree with Semple on rewrites. The best thing about the first draft is that it's entirely yours, just as you wanted it.  Handing it over to someone else can be hard, or it can depend on how much you get paid.

In most cases you don't get a choice.

And there are a lot of stories about having too many writers, there are dozens of examples of this where a movie just becomes so confusing nobody knows what it's about.

I've been lucky at that, having only three movies rewritten, two were minor changes and one was due to a producer who had a screenwriter friend. That movie is still on Amazon, called Maiden Voyage.

So what do you do if you sell your screenplay and someone else rewrites it; well, take the money and run.

Friday, March 28, 2014


I usually don't get into politics but have noticed that I get 8 people from Ukraine reading my blog. They are my people, so to speak. And I most certainly am with them for the struggle that's going on with that short KGB person.

My grandparents came to Canada about 100 years ago, they were peasants, farmers who were tired of being trampled on for the last 300 years by Poland, Austria and Russia. They came with only their clothes and went to the prairies of the Canadian west where land was
waiting. Canada wanted to fill in the vast lands of the west and Ukrainians were part of that.

My dad is second from the left, with a buttoned coat.

Not that it was always easy; Ukrainians and Jews were picked on, not to the extent in USA, but still were considered beneath the English and Scottish who had settled before. But this isn't about old wounds.

Ukrainians are believed to have begun settling in their land 44,000 years ago. Did you get that? Forty-four thousand years ago. And they were part of domesticating horses. This was long before England and Scotland. By the Middle Ages it was ruled by various groups and by the 1700's were ruled by the Cossacks. After that, it fell to the three countries mentioned above.

What about Ukrainian filmmakers?

One of the most influential directors was Alexander Dovzhenko who created a distinct style
of filmmaking which, though he was under the rule of the Soviets, still managed to make films with a Ukrainian twist. I've seen a few of his silent films at UCLA.

Another famous Ukrainian director was Sergei Bondarchuck, who also made feature films his way, even though both directors were under the Soviet rule. (By the way, I always wondered about the "chuk" added to many Ukrainians, myself included (Makichuk). 

One of the most famous films was Battleship Potemkin, strangely now in the news. One of it's most known scenes was shot at the Odessa Steps that has been copied several times in the U.S. with the most notable being Brian DePalma's The Untouchables, with Kevin Costner and Sean Connery. 

You should try to find a recent film, Everything is Illuminated, with Ilijah Wood and directed by actor Liev Schreiber who wrote and directed the movie from a book. He also plays Ray Donovan on Showtime.

Other notable Ukrainians are Milla Jovovich, Mila Kunis, Vera Farmigna (Bates Motel) and her sister Tiassa, Olga Kurylenko who did the Bond movie Quantum of Solace and with Tom Cruise in Oblivion.

And if you watch History Channel's Vikings, there's Katheryn Winnick.

Then there's the actors of the 1940's and 50's including John Hodiak and Nick Adams, and someone I knew, Jack Palance, who did a lot of major films, including the classic western, Shane, on of my favorites.

So there you go, a big hello to my Ukrainian friends whom I've never met and hope the best for. I was supposed to go to Lviv last year for a screenwriting seminar but the organizers couldn't get it together. Maybe yet, I'll get to the homeland. The photo of the farmhouse was built by my father and his siblings as well as his father and mother.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Breaking in.

Now and then I get asked how I managed to break into the movies, how I got to last this long and how can they do it. My answer usually starts off with this;

Find someone who's better than you are.

I don't mean better on everything but better than some things. And it helps if they're talented, it can make up for your own deficiencies. I have a lot and I'm just damn lucky I connected with a few people who helped me out.

Here's 9 steps how to do it.

1, I needed a summer job and got it a local TV station in Windsor, a small Canadian city across from Detroit. It all changed when my wife and I went to the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1972. It's where I met Phil Borsos. Phil had one outstanding asset.  I'm the bearded guy behind the blonde girl and Phil is behind the grey-haired lady.

2. He had talent. Lots of it.

And I knew two things quite well; how to shoot film and how to write. We complemented each other as they say.

3. It led to shooting a short film in 1975 called Cooperage. It was about a barrel factory. It made barrels out of oak wood for whiskey. We filmed it in 2 weeks and then got a good editor to edit it. It won the Canadian version of Oscars for short films and won in some other countries. And it was a finalist in the 1976 Academy award. 

It led to other jobs for me, writer, producer, director. But not much happened there either. Then I met someone else who knew how to get money. He got me $650,000.

4. Then I made Ghostkeeper, a horror film that wasn't all that great but was a feature film. But after that, I made some cheap movies and figured it was all over.

5. Then I met Paul Lynch. Paul is a director, probably known for Prom Night, another horror movie and also dozens of episodes of the Star Trek series. He got me an agent in Hollywood.

6. Then I got a green card through a weird circumstance, US Government was offering green cards to Canadians. All you had to do was write a letter. I wrote one. I got a green card. But the agent didn't work out too well, he never really found me any jobs.

7. Then I met Frank Balkin, brand new in the agency business, and when he went to a larger agency, he took me along. From then I got a hell of a lot of assignments and ended up with 15 or so movies, both mine and rewrites. 

8. Then around 2005, movies changed. Especially TV movies. In fact it was so bad we had regular parties at the Roosevelt Hotel lamenting the TV Movie. Nothing happened until 2010 when a lady in an office picked up my spec screenplay about a family stuck in a small town over Christmas. It got made.

9. Right now, today, I have three potential projects that will hopefully get made. One is a French company making a screenplay of mine as a French film; another is a screenplay for an actor with a fan base and another, recently, is a screenplay that a New Mexico writer/director wants to make.

Just one thing; those three projects can fall apart within months.

So, if you want to know how some writers make it, this is a fairly good example. Phil and I were friends until he passed away at age 41. I still think of him.

10. First step again; find someone who's better than you are. And have something that they can't do.

It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Today the new movies start and I couldn't help but notice the two lead actors in Divergent, another Y/A series of books where teenagers fight to be different. The leading actress, Shailene Woodley has a distinct look while the male lead, Theo James, looks like every other male actor on the CW network. For those who don't know CW is a little network which caters to young crowds. Shows like The 100, Arrow, Reign, etc...

In other words, Woodley has personality. Although she does look a little like Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games? Coincidence? What do you think?

Anyways, more and more actors, mostly male are beginning to look like each other, their faces and features are interchangeable. 

So here goes the baby-boomer rant.

Where are the actors who have personality?

Go back 40 or 50 years and you have these guys:

Cary Grant

James Stewart
Robert Mitchum
Paul Newman (and Robert Redford, of course)
Humphrey Bogart
James Cagney
Edward G. Robinson
Sean Connery
Jack Lemmon
Tony Curtis
John Wayne

Okay, that's enough I guess. But you get the picture. Most of you will instantly picture these guys in your mind. Can you picture the male leads in the Hunger Games?

In the studio days, studio heads picked out the stars. They did screen tests for everyone to see if they had that "thing". You can call it personality or presence, whatever it was they were the kind of actors that when they walked into the room, everyone turned their heads.

Who has it, how do you get it. My only answer is "genes". 

There are a handful of contemporary actors around, Depp has it, Robert Downing has it, and arguably Mark Wahlberg. Christian Bale has presence but he changes from movie too movie and it's hard to see exactly who he is. Matt Damon is also good, so is Matthew MacConaughey.

So we're left with Ed Norton, Toby McGuire and a lot of guys who look the same.  Remember who the star was in John Carter? Who played The Lone Ranger? Time's up.

Another aspect of personality and presence years ago is that it spawned imitators. Not actors but comedians like Rich Little and Frank Gorshin and many others. They were regulars in comedy clubs, late night shows and Ed Sullivan. One impersonator did JFK until JFK was assassinated. Who does imitators now?

The best, strangely enough, is Kevin Spacey. He can do a handful of stars dead-on. In fact he's going to play Johnny Carson in an upcoming TV movie. We have some jokesters, Damon does a great impression of Matthew MacConaughey. And a few people do Regis Philbin.

So where are the great male stars that have presence and personality. 

So far, maybe it's the CW actors.

A feminist once referred to the present-day actors as "little lesbians", which is quite funny and to some extent, very true. Many of today's actors are short thin little guys.

All I want is someone to stand up to Jennifer Lawrence in a movie. So far it's Jennifer 5 and male leads none.

Here's a little test. Who else could match the personalities of these two... Mitchum & Monroe.

Have a good week-end.

Monday, March 17, 2014

More writing less screenplays...

Some of my friends like to say that I don't really do anything but sit around. And they say that with a combination of sarcasm and envy. After all, I type a few words in the morning than go to lunch then have a nap and then maybe make some calls.

I'm sure you get the same thing, at least from the "civilians" who go to work every day, fighting traffic and crowded streets.

I don't really say much about that, they do what they have to do and I do the same. They ask me how do I handle not really working at a steady job. I say it's more secure than having a job up till the age of 50 and then being kicked out of that job they had.

In other words, there's no security to either of those worlds.

As I said in the previous blog, writing a screenplay takes me around three months and usually it's a spec screenplay that I hope gets made.

Last year I wrote The President's Heart, and as of now, it still hasn't gotten a buyer. Some people like it, two are considering, but nobody's read to bite. The year before it was Christmas Carole, which got four potential buyers until someone at Hallmark said they've already done it with another script.

One could say Hallmark has redone a few hundred screenplays.

The only reason my Town That Christmas Forgot got made was because a woman picked up the screenplay from a stack and read it and liked the teen-age girl in the screenplay.

Did it matter if it was done before? Hell, they're all Christmas movies so what's the difference. I've said that the only new idea for Christmas would be Christmas On Mars. I'm actually considering that.

But before, I want to write a pilot for a webisode that could maybe go somewhere. I won't tell you what it is for now, and maybe I might change my mind. I've always wanted to write a screenplay called Rock and Roll Heaven, sort of a fantasy style story that I've had spinning around in my head for at least 20 years.

But in between those ideas and a half dozen more, I'm writing a bathroom book, you know, the kind you leave in your bathroom for guests. 

I'm calling it "How To Not Get Beat Up In A Smalltown Bar."

You like? Or not?

It's a collection of stories from the many roadtrips I've done, at least a half million miles of travel. You get to gather a lot of stories and incidents. And the title is based on an actual incident in North Dakota.

So as of now these are the other things I'm writing;

1. Finished a proposal for Emperor of Mars to be filmed in Alberta hopefully 2014 but maybe it might stretch to 2015.

2. Selling more of my Working Writer's Screenplay book, which will soon be at the UCLA bookstore as well as Samuel Franch bookstores, BookSoup in Hollywood and of course Amazon. A Kindle version will be out soon.

3. Working with Jule, the 90-year old who flew in the Pacific during WW11 and is writing his memoir of that period of time.

4. A few ideas I'm kicking around; 

Convert a screenplay I wrote called Secrets Of The Salmon to a novel.
Get rights to Gentle Ben, the movie that made me a lot of $$$. I could write another.
Write my mother's last wish, her collection of calendars and how she outlined our lives. It'll be called Annie's Calendars.

So it goes. 


Friday, March 14, 2014

The other side of screenwriting.

I usually spend about 4 months of the year actually writing a screenplay, either feature or TV series pilots that get a little interest then get none. Well, one of them came back when a producer asked me to change it to be more like Homeland, the HBO series.

I told him that if I did that, it would be like Homeland.

He said yes, he'd like it to be like Homeland.

Then I said it would be Homeland and why would anyone want 2 Homelands. Didn't the producer thing the audiences would catch on?

Okay, I'm being sarcastic. And then he said he can't pay me for doing it anyways.

Those are the kinds of producers Hollywood is famous for.

But for the rest of the year I am doing presentations, proposals and sample screenplays.  Proposals take a lot of time but after 30 years of doing them, I have three basic proposals;

1. Low budget proposals with budgets under $100,000.
2. Medium budgets under $2 million.
3. Higher budgets around $5 - 10 million.

I have screenplays that could be made for $50-100 million but haven't gotten that far. 

So what goes into a proposal? 

You can find a lot of ideas and proposals on Linkedin, a website that I've often mentioned as "a bunch of wannabees who ask to be "friends" even though I have no idea who they are. It seems to be a version of "Like" in FB.
My proposals have now been pretty smart, having learned from a handful of proposals that producers have used on my projects. Emperor of Mars (EOM), the project I'm resurrecting (again!), was a combination of a $5 million budget and a $15 million budget. 

So what's the budget I am using?

$2.8 million.

What? After all that, I'm making it for 2.8? 

Yes, because of several things; the budget is low enough to let me direct it. I can get an Academy-award winning director to to it, but the budget would go up to over $5 million and we'd probably argue. He was already on board for one of the handful of proposals and is a good guy actually. 

And since I'm good at proposals, I wrote this new version of the EOM proposal. It deals with the history of the screenplay and the marketing. All of which is a best-guess at any time. But a pay-tv channel wants that information so I have to write it.

So what it adds up to over a year is that I spend far more time trying to get my screenplays made than writing them. And I also do something else; as I know how to use Apple's Final Cut Pro editing system, I am cutting trailers from my Ghostkeeper movie to add to the package going to the pay-tv people.

So, being a writer means that most of the writing that you'll do isn't about stories. And it's getting even tougher. The days of just being a writer are beginning to get more difficult.

(More about this Monday)

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Writer and the low budget films

The biggest budget feature I've ever written was around $10 million about fourteen years ago, most of them were around the $3.5 - $5 million range. What this meant to me was a signed contract, an option fee, the total fee "on or before principal photography" as the WGA contract stipulates.

But that was then.

Around 2005, those of us who wrote primarily TV movies began to see the end of it all. What happened is Survivors, the reality show. It changed the industry completely and it wasn't long before only a three producers emerged; Hallmark, Lifetime and ABC Family. 

My last movie for Hallmark was made for "under $1 million" as the producers like to say so that you don't expect to get more than the basic. But basic isn't bad at around $44,000 for a screenplay.

But while the older TV movies would take anywhere from 4 weeks to longer, the new TV movie takes lots less time.

How about 12 days?

The irony is that my Christmas movie, made for that much, looked pretty good. So what do you lose from shooting 12 days instead of 30?

Mostly you don't have time for "over the shoulders" shots and maybe 2 or 3 takes. But again, the movie still looks okay to an audience who doesn't know or care about "over the shoulders".

But there's another genre of films that go even lower. 

I'm involved in one project wherein I wrote a screenplay for a very low budget film, maybe around $350k or so. And that's where the money game takes a slow turn...  It's one of those deals where theycan't make all those lovely payments that companies like Paramount, Hallmark and Lifetime paid. Instead I do all the work and they promise to pay me when the movie gets made.

Writers historically get screwed, in fact there's a book entitled "The Writer Got Screwed (But Didn't Have To).  Honest.

I have a copy and also I mention the book in my Working Writer's Screenplay book.

It's sort of like "I'll paint your house and when you get some money, you'll pay me." Or how about "I'll fix your car and you pay me when you get some money".

What if you never get "some money"?

I tell myself once again, never take these jobs. 

Or at least until next time.

Now there's a new possibility, another screenplay I wrote some years ago. The people who want to make it are casual friends, and I'm always ready to make a deal of some sort because I know they don't have money to buy the screenplay. 

So here comes the WGA low budget contract, which allows a writer several options that could work for producers who don't have money. I wouldn't do this if I didn't know the people.

But it gets a little worrisome, I still have an option with a French company and hopeful they will make my movie sometime soon. 

And then there's Ed Burns, who made that $9000 movie and it looks great. 

Indie movies like his are common now with digital cameras but there's a saying going around, "the good news is that anyone can make a movie" and another saying; "the bad news is that everyone can make a movie".

So right now, I have to deal with 3 potential projects, in which I'm expected to wait until the producers have the money (and do some work as well). And you all know, or should know, that the odds of getting three movies made in one year is pretty much rare.

But all three parties are pretty good people and I know they want to make the movies as much as I want to see them made. I can use a new IMDB credit on my listing as the old one  from 2010 is becoming ancient.  

But I sure miss those days when companies paid real money.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Okay... Oscars

Well, the Academy awards are over for another year and I reluctantly watched it sort of, meaning that I'm so spoiled with DVR that I hate having to look at commercials. So, instead, I DVR'd the show and went off to do other things and in about an hour or so I played back the show from the beginning.

I did get texts from a few people who were ahead of me in time, but there was nothing really special that I couldn't wait for. 

I still don't like the build-up to the Academy Awards, meaning the Golden Globes award show which basically gave us the results that would happen. Sort of like knowing Canada beat Sweden in hocky at Sochi but going to the game anyways.

And following the Globes, which are really made up of foreign critics, was the SAG awards for the actor's guild, and followed by the Camera guild and the WGA, the writer's guild and the DGA, the director's guild. 

Had enough?  

So the Academy Awards are sort of a let-down, we saw the same actors and directors and writers already. Or at least smaller audiences for WGA and DGA as we all know movie stars are why we'll watch the oscars. So what happened?

Nothing. The oscars were simply a replay of the handful of the other shows.

So on that, here's some of the highlights for me; you probably have your own...

1. I wasn't expecting to like Ellen, but after awhile, she was not bad, early mentions were that she would have a "safe" show, instead of last year's Seth MacFarlane somewhat controversial show.

2. Liked Jerod Leto's speech, even mentioning Ukraine, which is my ethnic background and am obviously following every day as Putin tries to take over the country.

3. Loved Jim Carrey's imitation of Bruce Dern's role in the John Wayne movie The Cowboys in which he shoots John Wayne (who rarely died in any of his numerous movies).

4. I liked the woman who designed The Great Gatsby movie which I saw a few nights ago, the movie isn't great but the sets were incredible. Almost as good as Gravity.

5. I liked U2 playing an acoustic version of a song I never heard.

6. Wasn't sure about the selfie pic with a whole bunch of A-level stars but figured it was funny.

7. I liked the  supporting actress's speech.

8. I liked that alot of the technical awards went to Gravity, it really was a new way of making movies.

9. Didn't like all those soft actors like Channing Tatum and a few others, what were they doing at the Oscars... I figure it's to bring in the young people as Oscars seem to be the territory of 50 and above. 

10. Liked Bette Midler and the song, not sure why it was there though.

11. The best song was okay too, even though I never saw the movie.

12. Best director Alfonso Couaron - yes, just for technical achievement and taking me into space.

13. And as far as the writers, I don't quite understand Spike Jonz script Her, I was definitely for Nebraska but that's me, and for the original script, that too was predictable. But apparently the writer John Ridley and the director Steve McQeen are at odds, seems that director McQueen and writer Ridley are feuding. 

For what? apparently director wanted credit for screenplay (probably co-credit) but Ridley and the studio said no. From there it became war. Lots of dish on this on other websites.

So that's it.  A new year begins.