Monday, October 27, 2014

Oscar hopefuls?

 A bunch of us were talking about Oscar hopefuls and the fact that none of us have really seen anything worthy of it. By this time last year I was already excited about Nebraska and the Cohen Brothers Inside LLewyn Davis and American Hustle.

There was some murmurs about Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena.

And so far this year -- nothing yet.

Okay, there's Birdman with Michael Keaton's return and maybe Dear White People. There's a few weak maybe's like St. Vincent with Bill Murray doing the same thing he does in every movie he makes.  And if Gone Girl is nominated for anything, I quit.

There is one movie however that I am looking forward to, enough to actually pay to see it on the big screen rather than at a studio screening which is filled with film people.

That movie is The Imitation Game, a rather bad title but a good movie. It's based on Alan Turing, a mathematical genius who was able to crack the German war machine's code machine. Experts say that his discovering how the Germans send codes probably made the war two years shorter.

Turing actually created what would be one of the first "computers". However the story gets a little darker...

Turing, it turned out, was gay, and banned from any more work with computers and anything else in the same type of work. He was pretty much finished and died by eating an apple dipped in cyanide.

Sounds like an Oscar nomination to me.

But let's wait and see what happens. 

Friday, October 24, 2014


Someone asked me what it takes to write a screenplay. Is it the idea, is it a concept, is it something magical?

This goes back to my classes at ULCA, which I did for almost three years. Most of the students took classes to see what this screenwriting thing is about, since film schools suddenly popped up everywhere, inquiring minds wanted to know.

The truth is that most of them never came back mostly because it was a lot harder than they thought. And no, it's not my fault, I can show you my evaluations. And the ones that are left will most likely give it a try, I'd say out of 15 students, probably two or three would give it a try. Some keep trying and trying.

One of the problems I noticed was this; most of the students were writing and writing and ended up with nothing in the way of a story. They were more into technique rather than story.

In short, most students didn't have a story.

There's a difference between technique and story. Technique is about how you write it, story is what you write. And most of the students had no real story in their hearts. Just technique, making sure you separate the first act from the second or use the right button  for the scene.

So who does have stories?

You all must know one person who's always telling you about where they went, what they saw and maybe even give you some anecdotal insights.

Those are usually the story-tellers.

Take my example; I just finished a new book in which I tell stories I remembered on all my road trips, about half a million miles worth. I also have a very good memory of all of them, including the motels and hotels and truckstops and more. Actually I have a perfect memory of them.

And I always told stories as long as I remember. 

Some are good, some aren't, but I always notice something worthwhile. Like sitting in an empty cafe in a Montana town with a waitress and I noticed a sign beside the cash register (the register was 1050's vintage). As the waitress was telling me about how she changed her life by coming to Forsyth (the town) I noticed a hand-written sign on the wall. 

It read; "When Mary B. comes in for breakfast make sure she pays before she eats".

It caught my attention immediately.  Who was Mary B. and why does she have to pay first?

I asked the waitress and she said that Mary B was a local who drank a lot overnight and would appear at the cafe for breakfast and then forgets to pay before she leaves. 

A simple story. But my mind began to create stories about Mary B. I even wanted to wait and see if she showed up. But she didn't.

Most of my friends are always surprised at the things I notice, but that's why I'm a writer.

And that's why most screenwriter students, or even just people who buy the software and hope it creates magic for them, most of them never make it. 

Because they're not looking around.

There are exceptions, those people you see in coffee houses, but I think most of it is what a lot of us refer to as "performance art". Pretending to be a writer.

I can't work in public, there's too much to see all around me and there's a story with anything.

So what do you look for?

Look for a Mary B. Or the girl next to you at Starbucks talking on the phone to someone and who's mad. Why are they mad?

It all sounds kind of child-like, but that's where the best stories come from. 

It took my a few years to figure this out; I was writing screenplays but they were just imitations of movies I saw. They weren't real, just bland copies.

It wasn't until I started using real people in my screenplays that my work got better.  Because I wasn't making it up. It was real.

So what do I mean by that?

I use pieces of real people.  One screenplay that got me a lot of attention and was optioned was about a drug recovering female studio executive.

"She" was made up of an alcoholic female exec I knew, but there were other pieces of people I used, one was me and my father another was a woman I know who lived in the Pacific Northwest, another character came from a high school buddy.

All of these formed one person. 

Try it sometime and you'll have a good story. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Passion and awesome

One of the most used words these days is "passion". The Webster dictionary offer these choices:

- any compelling emotion
- strong amorous feeling
- a strong fondness

I hear this word often from actors and actresses and writers and directors. They all have passion for their work or at least think they have. 

I really don't think I have passion. I like what I do but I don't go overboard.

After all, it's only a movie.

I do like traveling the highways of Canada and USA, but I'm not crazy about it, I just enjoy the solitude of travel and seeing how other people live, what they do, what they talk about. I like that. 

I also like In 'n Out hamburgers (#3 with grilled onions) but I'm not passionate about it. And
I don't think it's awesome either.

People tell me I must have passion to enter a world of writing words that will translate to movies. But I really don't. I like it and sometimes I hate it when I have to write something for a producer that doesn't know very much.

My biggest problem is that I never really wanted to do anything, I hardly ever lasted at any kind of normal job and was thinking I might be a psychologist. I even majored in Psych for two years before I got a summer job at a TV station.

One word I could use for my so-called career is "luck."

If anything I had a combination of luck and knowing someone else who had talent. That's the best way to get into this business and without it, you're dead.

My first piece of luck was getting the job at a TV station and that took me across the country, I worked in five different TV stations over a period of fifteen years and then won a lottery to the U.S. That was luck. And I almost lost it because I moved and a friend found the letter that admitted me to the U.S.

Another piece of luck was knowing my friend Phil, we met at a film school where both of us failed. But he had talent and I knew how to shoot film and we did a short film that ended up
as a finalist in the 1976 Academy Awards.  Phil's the one on the right with brief case, I'm the geeky one. 1975.

See what I mean. Luck and knowing someone who was talented.  Phil was passionate about filmmaking, he lived it and fought to get movies made and finally burned out at age 41 leaving a wife and two great boys. Phil was the only person I know who was truly passionate, so much that it destroyed him.

But all these actors who say they're passionate doing a remake of some zombie movie or any movie with Jeniffer Aniston aren't really passionate, it's just a word they heard somewhere and it sounds cool.

Passion is dangerous, and that's probably why I wasn't passionate. I never took it seriously anymore than I took Catholic religion. 

Awesome, on the other hand, is true when it appears, and it's not a hamburger or a new iPad, it's something that makes you lessor than it is, like a rainbow over the Grand Canyon or looking at Earth from the international space station.

That's awesome.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Now what do I do?

Beginning a few weeks ago, I have had four different people talking about my screenplays and the possibility of a new screenplay. But I never really took them seriously because most of the time, nothing happens.

Until one of the group actually wants to work out some ideas for a movie.

And then everything falls to pieces. Me, writing a new script? Must be a joke. 

Yes, that's what happens when the unexpected becomes expected. And that means one big thing. I have to find an idea.

I always have ideas and most of them are stashed in my files so that's where I go to find ideas I came up with, newspaper or magazine clippings that have good ideas and just about anything that I can remember. That's the first thing.

The second thing is -- can I write it. Can I create a new story and get it to outline stage and then to screenplay stage? When will the producer realize that I don't have any ideas.

Well, I'm not alone. Most screenwriters feel this way, at least most of the writers I know. It's the old saying "be careful of what you ask for" or something like that.

Can I deliver a good idea?

The only problem is that not only do I have to deliver a good idea to the producer, I also have to deliver it to the network or studio where they will take it apart.

And that's been my story for the last thirty years. I went through this every time I wrote a screenplay for someone. I sweated it when I handed the script over. 

We're still at the talking stage but it seems like we can do something even though I'm sure the producer will drop me in the next week or two. When he finds out I'm a horrible writer with no new ideas.

You think this is all crazy? 

It is, every time. 

Have a good week-end, I'll be sweating it out on an idea or two.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Watching yourself


I caught a bit of one of my movies over the week-end and while watching, I was curious about some of the scenes and, in particular, dialog. I wasn't sure that I was the one who wrote it, I didn't remember writing those words.

So I dug out my screenplay from some old file and compared it. Surprise, it was my writing. I just didn't remember it. I went through a few other pages, same thing, so it was me, I just forgot about it.

It's always a little odd watching your old movies, I asked some of my writer friends, they said the same thing. One friend was convinced someone rewrote his scenes. But in the end, they just forgot.

We all have our favorite scenes, usually some great dialog that sends shivers down your back. And for the most part, others didn't really care.

After I made Ghostkeeper in 1980, I didn't get a chance at another movie until a few years later, and as a screenplay only.  I wrote a b-movie which I called Bush League, about an all-girl baseball team that gets into trouble with rednecks in the mountains. I thought the title was funny.

I sold the script for $7500 in 1985 dollars and said goodbye. When they made it, I got story credit and there were about five other "writers" who claimed writing credit. Actually about 80% of the script was mine, they just added some nude scenes. 

Needless to say, I didn't show the movie to my mom. They also changed the title to Blood Games, which I guess was okay, I liked my original title better, it had a bit of fun.

I also rewrote a lot of scripts, most of them a "page 1" job, meaning that I started rewriting from the first page. This is where the original writers scream and shout. But, they gave away the rights to the producer and, in this case, the producer wanted me to rewrite the script, not the original writer.

There's issues in this type of job. First and foremost, the original writer gets the full credit and residuals. But the rewriter can also get a piece of that money which original writers don't like for obvious reasons. Some of the rewrite jobs I took were as a "Creative Consultant" while others had my name attached.

Credits for the script are in sequence, the first writer gets first credit, anyone who follows is second or third. WGA doesn't allow more than three credits. So what if five other writers added a few scenes? They get paid for their work, but they don't get residuals.

I've only had two movies that were rewritten by someone else, one was Maiden Voyage and the other was the Christmas movie, TheTown That Christmas Forgot. Maiden Voyage, about a ship that gets taken over by bad guys was rewritten by a friend of the producer's which obviously was a favor to his writer buddy.

The Christmas movie was changed a few times, but mostly for locations. I had written a winter screenplay with a scene where two men go hunting for a father who is lost in the snow covered mountains.

Since the film was being shot in August, it was impossible to shoot an exterior winter scene that big; so they simply changed the scene to the inside of a building. The dialog was mostly mine, with a few changes here and there. There were some fake snow scenes on one side of a street and anytime there was an exterior it was on that street.

In the end, with some computer graphics, the movie looked like it was shot in wintertime.

I had several TV episodes where I write the first draft and if I wasn't a story editor, someone else will make the necessary changes.

Changes are interesting in screenplays, sometimes they make the story better, sometimes they don't. It's all what someone perceives. 

Funny thing about watching my old movies and TV episodes, I don't really do it unless I want to see something specific and that relates to sometime I'm doing now. Since I've been writing for a lot of years, many of my spec scripts are pretty dated. I have some where the phone isn't a cell phone, it's a regular corded phone.

So what if someone wants the script? I dust it off and change it. Pretty easy.

And finally, don't look for Blood Games, it's really bad.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Real life is better than made-up life

I'm working with a producer for some Hallmark movies and we are kicking around a few ideas. And before you start rolling your eyes about Hallmark, it's a viable market. For one example, I get around $2000 in residuals every year from one TV movie about a bear and a boy. I've been getting it since 2002 and it still keeps coming.

So there.

The great thing about TV movies (or MOW's "movie of the week) is that they really get made fast because the market needs them. There's basically three big companies, Hallmark, Lifetime and ABC Family. There was a time back in 2002-05 when everyone was making them.

But that changed with Survival, the reality show that killed TV movies, except for the three above.


You hear a lot of producers and directors who say "just make up a story".  Well, I used to do that when I started writing, making up characters like it says in some of the better-known screenwriting gurus (most of whom have never sold a movie).

They told me I should make a history of the characters, name, where they live, where they were born, age now, what's their job, what's their problem, etc. etc. 

Well, I did that, and the screenplays were very generic and dull. The made-up characters didn't feel real. And why should they, they were made up.

Ever hear that joke about some weird thing that happened in the newspaper, something that "a writer couldn't have written that"? The idea is so crazy it can only come from real life.

After five years or so I wrote my first "real" character. I wanted to write a story based on a newspaper article about fish. Yeah, fish. It was about how salmon go out to sea and then come back three years later to the very place they were born.

I liked the title of the article, "Secrets of the Salmon".

Then I had an idea about someone who comes back home after many years to confront the father. I was trying to find a good female character to be the lead but I tried the "create" method but it wasn't real.

I was working on another screenplay with a development exec who was a woman and pretty tough, we'd go for lunch and she'd down the vodkas. After a few weeks, I realized I found my character for Secrets of The Salmon, it was her.

So I whipped together a character mostly based on her, but also parts from me and other people I knew.  And I knew something else. My characters from then on became based on real people and it showed in my writing.

Jody Foster's company, Smart Egg loved it. And ABC optioned it.

I never looked back again. 

My most recent script is based on a doctor friend and all the ideas I have come from research rather than my fake creations before I wrote Secrets.

Try it, it's a little difficult at the beginning, and it can be tricky. But once you linked onto it, it works pretty damn good.

Have a good week-end.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Survival list for screenwriters

There's probably a lot of writers who have posted their particular ways of surviving the craft or at least hanging on. Here's my suggestions;

1. Just because someone wants to read your script, they probably will say it was nice and if you have anything else.

2. When you get two or three or even six people interested in your script, they'll probably disappear within a week.

3. If you only have one script, you might as well quit. 

4. If you have ten specs on your shelf, you might have a career. And your writing will have improved.

5. If you have thirty-two specs on your shelf, you have a career. And you'll be really good at this writing game.

6. Buy a guitar and learn how to impress everyone with your version of Stairway To Heaven.

7. Find a favorite place to go to when your deal falls through. I go to the Reel Inn on Ocean hwy near Topanga and then to Serra Retreat in Malibu where you get the best view of Malibu there is, and you can contemplate. I don't, but it's a nice place to hang out for an hour or two.

8. Listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival's best hits.

9. Consider reading Gone Girl but don't do it. It'll just make you more unhappy.

10. Encourage your friend who just sold a script as much as you can, not because you are happy for them, but maybe he'll take one of your scripts in to his contact.

11. When you're out of ideas, watch as many episodes of Twilight Zone because almost every idea was done and you can copy it.

12. When you have a lot of ideas, find the one you like the least.

13. Make sure you get a 310 area code, and 818 and 323 because the others will show that you're an amateur.

14. Avoid writing at Starbucks, no script ever written there was ever made. Instead watch the people.

15.  When someone calls you on the phone to buy a script you forgot about, ask them why they chose that script.

Or just ignore me, it's Monday and I'm way behind everything.

Friday, October 3, 2014

It's Friday and more movies

Friday is the day when theaters in USA and Canada release the studio movies and also a stack of movies you've never heard of, nor will they ever go anywhere, with maybe a few to Netflix.

The big gorilla this week is Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, based on the novel. It should do well due to the book as well as a "chick-flick" as they used to say. There's also a movie from Jason Reitman who did Juno and whose dad is Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters. It's called Men, Women & Children. It was supposed to go to the web but not sure if that is happening.

That's the big movies, the ones that go to every theater in America and Canada (Box office earnings includes Canada). But here in L.A. and NYC, there are at least a dozen movies you'll never see. They are:

The Little Bedroom - story about a guy in his 80's in Switzerland

The Supreme Price - documentary on a tragic Nigerian family.

Lilting - Mother loses child and tries to understand. From China.

The Liberator - doc on Simon Bolivar who battled Spanish soldiers.

Annabelle - Horror film.

The Good Lie - Reese Witherspoon rescues Sudanese boys.

Left Behind - Another chapter of the religious movie this time with Nicholas Cage who seems to be making a dozen movies himself each year.

Peril - a "psycho-drama" about a tragedy in a small Scottish town.

Blue Room - A French mystery who-dun-it.

Color - Cartoon movie about a boy who finds color crayons come to life.

Drive Hard - An Australian movie about car chases and action. A poor man's version of Mad Max.

There's a few more movies, but I think you get the feeling already. The best of these will probably make it to netflix but usually these small indie movies usually play for one week in a movie theater in LA or NCY and this helps them get a little more money from Netflix and all the other buyers.

And this happens every Friday, ten more new movies from people we've never heard from before. And the same fate awaits them.

That's show business.