Tuesday, February 24, 2015

No surprises

Had too much work yesterday to blog. 

Watched a bit of the Spirit Awards on IFC, which "used to be" about independant films, you know the films where people scraped up enough money to make a little movie anywhere from $25,000 to maybe $500,000.

Well, those days are gone and the films that were up for awards at the Film Independant party on Venice Beach Saturday night before the Oscars. For one thing, a lot of the independent films were the same as the Oscar films. Almost all except for Clint's American Sniper, which made more money than all of the other films put together.

So what's the difference between the Spirit Awards and Oscar nominees?

They all have major actors in them. Stars, as we say in America.

So what happened to those cheapie little "indie" films?

They got famous actors who earn millions of dollars.

Why did they get famous actors who get paid so much?

Because famous actors like Jennifer Aniston will do anything to get a shot at the Oscars by playing a role that isn't dumb movies like Aniston usually makes. So they defer their big salaries in hopes of their peers acknowledging how wonderful they are and that they worked on a real heartfelt movie.

And as far as budgets, indie films now are considered to be "indie", have budgets lower than $20 million. Fifteen years ago budgets were all under $500k with unknown actors, writers and directors.  That's gone, only the big guys can make small movies now.

And it was sure there at the Oscars.

The only real "Hollywood movie" was Clint's and was totally ignored. Because it made money.

Personally I thought it was a dull show, Doogie Howser is a good actor but not a presenter. Ever since Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal left the Oscars, there hasn't been a really good host.

Hope and Carson are gone, of course, but Billy is still around. Too old, I guess.

Ratings for Sunday's Oscars were 16% below last year and the lowest rating since 2009.

I was glad Eddy Redmayne won for The Theory of Everything.  It seemed to be very international, with British winners and Mexican winners.

But I still think the best film I saw this year was Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Gotta get back to work.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Canadian screenwriter

Last week one of the earliest screenwriters in Canada passed away. When I say "earliest", there weren't a lot of feature film screenwriters in Canada until the early sixties. 

John Hunter was one of them, born in 1938, a Manitoba boy just like me.

He was one of those people who helped the fledgling Canadian film industry discovered, or maybe discovered the film industry itself. There were films made by the National Film Board of Canada, but we really never included them, as they were government films showing wilderness films and animals and maybe a few Eskimo documentaries (now called Inuit). 

NFB as we knew was very hard to get into, almost impossible. 

The first time I saw a true independent feature was in 1969 by a filmmaker called Don Shebib. And he made Going Down The Road for around $25,000. There were always Quebec films but English Canada finally had our own filmmaker. I remember him coming to our TV station and we were all pumped up to see a real Canadian film.

John became one of those pioneers and while Hitchcock started with silent films, we were a little bit behind but caught up quickly.

John's first feature, The Hard Part Begins, was very much what the Brits called "kitchen dramas", which was usually about losers, in fact so was Goin' Down the Road. I was never really sure why we made so many of these sad stories but eventually they began to open up.

He set his story around a country singer facing the fact that he's almost over as far as being a music star. And to make it even worse, his female singer is getting offers, without him. While this sounds sad, John found nobility in the singer and even set his story in Paris, Ontario. Yes, there is one. The movie is gritty and the music was amazing.

This was a big deal for filmmakers, that we could actually make movies without NFB.  And John followed up with more gritty stories about characters that get lost along the way. He also referred me to Paul Lynch, a director who filmed several of John's screenplays. I happened to be at a party in Toronto and was introduced to Paul, who immediately said that "Hunter" as we called him, said I was a reasonably decent writer.

It led to an agent in L.A. and the rest of me is in my blog.

But back to John. He met another friend of mine, Phil Borsos, who I talk about previous to this blog. Just go back to Feb 9, 2015 for that blog.

What happened next is that Phil always wanted to make a western based on a true story about an aging American train robber coming out of jail and deciding to rob banks in Canada, which were rarely if ever robbed.

What came out of the collaboration of John and Phil was arguably one of the best feature films ever made in Canada, The Grey Fox. It won the Canadian version of an Oscar, the Genie, and took home at least 20 wins that night including two nominations from the American Golden Globes.

I'm not sure if any other Canadian film ever won so many awards.

After that I met John now and then, we seemed to be on different sides of the country, but when he lived in Vancouver, I would drop by and he would talk about movies and why some are good and why some are bad. And why we have to write.

One of the last times I saw John was In Vancouver and met with Gary Fisher, another close friend to John, and we swapped our usual stories about bad producers and why it was so hard to make films in Canada.

I met John again in 1995 when Phil passed away at age 41, and we both sat and talked about Phil and about what we would miss about him.

Ironically, John passed away on the same day and month as Phil, 20 years apart.

I always treasured those moments with John, he had a subtle sense of humor and always was graceful and ready to help those moments of emptiness that writers fall into.

Monday, February 9, 2015

On talent

 Webster's definition of talent is "any natural ability or power." So what does that mean, specifically. The closest in a Gallup definition focuses on one word, "natural". 

But that still doesn't really explain what talent is, or who has it and who hasn't.

Take me.

I often get told that I have talent but the truth is, I don't have talent. How do I know this?

It goes back to my short time in film school in the Canadian Rockies where I attended the Banff School of Fine Arts. The fine arts were mostly music, art, photography, singing and all those other arts.

What was I doing there?

Well, my then wife Brenda  and I spent the summer there, her taking photography and I took a film
course. The thing here was that I had already worked in television for 2 years and probably knew more than the teachers. I didn't really care because this was two month holiday for both of us.

It's also where I met Phil Borsos, a 19-yr old filmmaker from Vancouver. We both liked each other's work and made our obligatory short films together. It was the beginning of a great friendship. And it was a lesson in how to make some success in the world of film and TV.

Every class member had to make a short film over the two months we were there. I had no great ideas so I made a 10 minute documentary of the town, playing with the idea of the tourists below the school and the school itself, set amongst the incredible Rocky Mountains. Brenda shot this photo of us, Phil on left with shaggy hair and me with beard.

Phil's idea for his short film was about a trumpet player who blows himself up.

See what I mean?

I made my film by walking around town and filming tourists and then artistic people at the school. Very lazy.

Phil asked me to shoot his short and we had to hoist heavy wood doors up 8 stories of the school's residence just so that Phil could put the actor up higher than the mountain view.

So, who's the one with talent?

Obviously, Phil.

We both said goodbye and left to our respective homes, Phil in Vancouver and me in Windsor, a little city across from Detroit.

Two years later, and me getting fired at a TV news network, I ended up in Vancouver as Phil
and I always talked about starting a company. So we did. Rocky Mountain Films. And we shot a short film about a Cadillac car and a car salesman. It didn't do much. I'm on the dolly and he's kneeling down.

Then Phil came up with another idea. He wanted to make a short film on a barrel maker who made wooden barrels for whisky. In fact it was one of the few remaining barrel factories in the world. Phil had seen it as a teenager and always wanted to make a film of the place.

So we started to make the film with help from the NFB, also known as the National Film Board, a government agency that made films and assisted people making Canadian films. They gave us film stock (no Digital at that time, 1975), and cameras, one Arri S and a French Eclair camera. Both were 16mm film cameras.

Right from the start, Phil had the crazy ideas, and they always worked. I easily shot the scenes he wanted and it was a lot of fun. I was working at a TV station at the time, 4pm to 10pm and after a week of filming, I was exhausted between the two jobs. We got another cameraman, Tim Sale, to finish the film.

After that, we gave it to an editor, who was pretty tough and hard to work with. I got a job at a TV station in another province and then Phil called and said it was done. I flew there and looked at it, it was pretty good. It was called Cooperage, which is the technical name of the factory.

However the NFB said it didn't have it's standards. Simply put it was inferior. 

We thought we liked it.

We liked it so much that we made a 35mm print, now 15 minutes long, and put it into the 1976 Academy Awards. 

But before that, the Canadian film awards came and guess who won for Best Short Film?

We did. 

We beat every NFB film that year.

It felt good.

And then, the Academy Awards came and we didn't win. But we were finalists.

So where does this go?

It's where I learned how to stay in the film business, by finding someone who really is talented and someone like me who worked very hard and very stubborn. If I wasn't talented I was gonna be as good as I could. 

And I did that. And am still doing that. But without true talent, I would never have made it this far. And maybe Phil wouldn't have made it without my ability to film and to come up with ideas and that both of us loved making Cooperage so much.

We stayed close friends for years until, at age 41 in 1995, Phil passed away from leukemia, way too early. It was around this time of the year.

I miss him dearly, and keep in contact with his wife and his two sons, both incredibly talented.

So that's what talent is. At least to me. Go figure. Paul Newman once said that acting was very hard for him, he didn't really have a talent for it and had to work very hard.

I like that.

And one more thing; both Phil and I were the only two people in that film class that failed.

We failed totally.

But as of this day, nobody else in our class ever came even close to our accomplishments. And as for the course, in hindsight, both my ex and I agree it was one of the best years ever.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Thrill is gone even more

Continuing on the last blog, when the magic was gone from the movies, what would become of the movies we boomers loved so much. 

It changed from magic to sarcasm. 

I noticed this about ten years ago, which coincidentally was a bad year for TV movies, of which I made about twenty of them. There was even a party at the Roosevelt Hotel (where the first Oscars were presented in 1929) which we called "The Death of the TV Movie" party. 

And if you want to know why it died, it was because of a little-known TV show called Survival

You know, that island thing that has been on forever it seems. And inspired stuff like The Housewives of Orange County, Ice Road Truckers etc...etc...etc. 

This was the beginning of the GenX'ers and Millennials who listened to their parents praise movies like Easy Rider, The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, French Connection, The Godfather, Jaws, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Rocky (the 1st one!), Raiders of The Ark, Star Wars, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and at least a few hundred more.

And except for Star Wars, none of the movies above required CGI (Computer Graphic Image). They had real people. But real people began to fall away and instead, images of people performed impossible things, take Spiderman, for example.

Movies became more about the making of them, not about the stories. 

For example, this year I really wasn't excited by any of the movies. The Imitation Game is good but really an HBO movie, same as The Theory of Everything. Selma is the same and the others I didn't really care. I didn't want to sit to almost three hours of Boyhood.

As I mentioned before, I did like Jake Gyllenhaal's Nightcrawlers and I think Angelina Jolie deserves at least a nomination for Unbroken, far more interesting than American Sniper.

So why am I so down on the 21st century list?

There's no more really good character movies, nor really any adventure movies. Maybe it's because everything has to be either a $200 million movie or a $200 thousand movie. The trouble with both is that the directors, many of them commercial directors, often can't make a film longer than 30 seconds. 

And the others are film school graduates who don't seem to have stories except for that classic "boy returns to home town to find girl he loved/wanted to love/wants to kill or doesn't know what they want" genre.

The big problem for me is that they don't have any stories, real stories with real characters. Of course that's because I'm a boomer.

So where do we go?

I think that, already millennials are probably re-editing movies on their smart phones rather than look for good stories. 

So what now? You missed the magic, and the feeling that comes with it, the kind of feeling that you would never forget. CGI can't beat Annie Hall or Chinatown, or Deliverance.

Or Ferris Bueller.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The thrill is gone

The baby-boomers 1946-1964, me included watched movies differently than the following generations, Gen X and arguably the Millennials (there's a few rogues in between but they're not important). 

Some of you might hear boomers say that movies aren't as good as they used to be, or the actors aren't good or the stories seem to always be about CGI effects and zombies.

In truth they aren't as good, at least for us. The reason is simple, we've seen every possible plotline in thousands of plotlines. It's hard to find a movie that isn't like something else. But there's also something missing.

We really believed in movies.

Coming out of WW2, the studios began to face that evil empire known as television. And they really didn't know what to do. Movies began to look like bad TV. They had giant wide screens but the content wasn't enough.

And Elizabeth Taylor helped close the studios down.

She made Cleopatra for $1 million salary. This was the first big price ever. Before every actor worked for a studio and not negotiate for a part. Liz changed all that. Of course there were others doing it but her's was the biggest. And it flopped.

Some people say it still hasn't made it's budget.

So what did we  believe?

We believed that there really were a thousand extras on the wide shots because there were real people standing so far away from the camera you needed binoculars to see them.

It was real.

Okay, there were some special effects in movies, big studio movies like War Of The Worlds. But even then, if we didn't believe it all, we believed it could happen. Aliens attacking Earth. Of course the cold war made us feel that the aliens could well be Russians.

And then there was morality. Morals. Meaning bad guys get their just fate and good guys always win. Naturally that's not the case in real life but movies are not real life either. 

We even had cartoons where someone or something died. You should watch Lady And The Tramp from Disney, everyone cried. And Shane, the great western (although a little bit too long) where Shane the gunfighter rides away from a small boy and off to die after a shoot-out. And the boy shouts after him in echoes. 

Every kid cried at that movie.

And in the late 60's we got The Graduate, which spoke directly to us boomers in our teen and early 20's times. We examined society and that led to a lot of things including sexier movies and of course, Viet Nam. Which brought rebellion and marching against the war. 

It all worked more or less until the early 1980's. Something new came out on TV.

Entertainment Tonight.

Up to then, the general public knew little about how movies are sold and what actors are having feuds and what is an agent or a manager. We knew nothing of these things. 

And the biggest thing to happen -- happened.

The weekly gross of current movies.

Suddenly we all begin to see what happens that isn't on the screen. We learned how much actors got paid and how much a movie made, and if it was a flop or a hit and who was in trouble and everything we didn't know about movies.

And I said to a friend; "This is the end of movies as we knew it."

From now on the smoke and mirrors we used for movies to make the movies real suddenly were exposed. Sort of like when the magician tells you how he really made a rabbit disappear. People now knew how movies were made.

They knew how much movies cost, who was hot and who was not and a thousand things they never knew before.

The magic was over. Movies were fake now, because the audience knew how they were made.

So what happened next?

More Friday...