Monday, September 28, 2015

Not being John Malkovich

This is a little bit of a departure, but still within movie limits.

I don’t remember the first time someone said I looked like John Malkovich, nor that I looked like John Lithgow. Personally I prefer Malkovich as I’d put Malkovich’s great scene against Clint Eastwood in In The Line of Fire against Lithgow’s 3rd Rock From The Sun romp. My first Malkovich comment was from a friend of a friend and it seemed that mostly women who said I resembled him. 

To be honest, there is a slight resemblance, at least to me, and I am in the movie business as well having written a dozen or so TV movies and a few features. One of the early notices was at LAX while I waited for a friend at the gate. I noticed two men about twenty feet away were looking at me then talking, glancing back and forth until one approached and asked if I was John. I smiled and shook my head “No, sorry.” They had to leave but I think they didn’t believe me. 

Then there was the time I visited Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley and joined a group of four. After awhile I caught a woman glancing at me, turning away. She said something to her husband and he glanced back but didn’t want to be obvious. I wondered if something was wrong but they continued to sneak looks at me. As we toured I asked questions from the docent and this time they smiled at me like we three had a secret. Finally the tour was over and I was walking to my car when the woman approached first and said what Malkovich probably hears a lot, “Excuse me, are you…” I stopped her and said with a smile, “No, I’m sorry, I get that sometimes.” Husband came up and quickly caught his wife’s disappointment. I felt bad now. I almost wished that I did say yes.

This has happened at least twenty times with a group of mellennials  at the restaurant at the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard last Sunday. Before that, about two months ago with a group of African-Americans having pizza on Van Nuys boulevard in Sherman Oaks. As I passed, one spoke loudly, “Hey, John.” I turned around to see who he was talking to. It was me. I said  I wasn’t “him” and my now usual “I’m sorry.” However, the best story happened in Paris, naturally. My brother Dave and I had traveled to France for two weeks and found a nice little hotel on Taylor Street near Republique. 

We stayed for several days and ended each evening at a small cafe on a corner, looking very much like a movie set. There was a tiny alley on one side and a busy street on the other. The alley had several small shops including a barber shop for Africans. I noticed that every time we went to the cafĂ© we saw several men in the barber shop shouting and waving their arms at each other. Being a writer, I was curious about this situation and on our last evening in Paris, I told Dave that we should go over there to see what the fighting was about. Dave was a little apprehensive but I figured we’d be okay, the worst they would do is tell us to go away.

We began to walk towards the barber shop when a very large African stopped us with a raised hand, which lowered until he was pointing at us. Then he looked straight at me and said those words. “John Malkovich.” I shrugged and said I wasn’t John Malkovich; rather my name was Jim Makichuk. That was always my out whenever being stopped, both names are very similar if you say them fast and it often leaves the person confused long enough that I could leave. But he was not convinced, “You are John Malkovich.” And with that he introduced himself as Etionne and took me by the arm and led me into the shop, with Dave behind. 

Inside, Etionne began to introduce me to the group of six friends. Most smiled but some were suspicious as I made the rounds, shaking hands. Finally I asked why they argued every night here and the big African said “politics and sports.” So it was simple, happens everywhere in the world. He then introduced me to BobX, the African owner who gave haircuts and whenever an American rapper would be in town, BobX would be picked up and taken to whatever hotel the rapper was staying for a cut. Then Etionne said that we should all retire to the bar for wine. So he, Dave and I and BobX along with four more Africans crossed the alley right back to where we started earlier. 

It soon resulted in some deep, serious conversation about life. I learned that it was very hard for them to get work, most didn’t have much education and so they hung out at BobX’s shop while their wives and children were at home. BobX was talking to Dave about the problems of being African in Europe and that he was always afraid that his business would fail. At one point he looked Dave straight in the eye and said “Dave, all I would ever hope for in my life, is to be like you.”

It stunned Dave who answered by saying BobX’s life was way better. But BobX was not changing his opinion, “Dave, you have the good life.” Dave, who is a newspaper man had no answer. In hindsight BobX was right for both of us brothers as compared to the uncertain lives they lived. I smiled and agreed with BobX. We stayed for about two hours and finally it was getting late and we all got up, Dave and I were flying out the next morning so we shook hands, exchanged emails and Etionne looked at me and said quietly, “Thank-you John”. 

This time I simply nodded “Yes.”

I was thinking of putting two photos side by side for you to judge but then I thought that some of you might say I didn't look like John at all, and some would say a little and others a spitting image. So instead I go to the movies and take a great line out of John Ford's movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Spec

 I have just finished a new spec script, for those who don't know what a "spec" is, it's a screenplay that a writer writes on his own, with no buyer. Thus the term spec or speculative and which is defined as theoretical, risky, uncertain and unpredictable.

 Doesn't sound good, right?

Why would anybody write a screenplay without having someone ready to buy it?

In my case, of the 10 screenplays that I wrote, three of them were specs. So that's about 3o% of my sales. There's also the rewrites I did for other writers screenplays, and that was ten also. But not specs, of course.

So you can say that you have a 30% chance of selling your unsold script. In my case, I have written 35 specs since 1980 and the last one produced was a Christmas movie called "The Town Christmas Forgot."

Why so many?

Because I like to write, in the words of my last agent, "Jim is a writer who actually likes writing". Well, right now the screenplay called Chase, now going to be made as a French, was a spec. I've have several specs that a few producers are trying to fund now. Sometimes these take years.

The oldest screenplay is Emperor of Mars, a spec I wrote based on my early years in a small farming town in Manitoba called Benito. Population 539. Emperor was "almost" made three times and was optioned another four times.  

It also was my entry into Hollywood when I moved to LA. in 1990. My first agent never really did anything with Emperor for 2 years and when I left him, I got a good agent who took Emperor to every network and studio in town. 

And I recently had an inquiry about Emperor a month ago and once again, I hope to see it get made. That would be around 30 years!

But some movies took longer than that.

So why write specs if they don't sell.

Well, you never know. If anything, it's better to write something when you don't have a job, it gives you something more than hanging out with buddies at Starbucks and talking sports.

I've said this often, writers are the only people in the film business that don't necessarily have to wait to be hired.

What does that mean? 

It means you can write a spec script and even if it doesn't sell, it could lead to something else. That was the case with Emperor. It still hasn't been made but some of the people who read it gave me a job for another screenplay and especially for rewrites of other writers screenplays. 

And they paid for the rewrites or original scripts.

This time I wrote a TV series pilot episode, around 60 pages, it's about a man in his 50's who was married to one woman and dumped her for a 24-year old girl and he suddenly dies, leaving a shabby detective agency to both of the women with the stipulation that they will each get $1 million if they stay for a year. Of course, I'm hoping for a few years.

But there's something else about writing a spec and it shows up when you're not writing. It's easy to get lazy and wait for someone to call, but since you have time on your hands, you can write a spec. 

And it could be sold.

Or they liked your writing but want you to write a screenplay for them, or a rewrite of someone else's script.

That's what I mean about writers not having to be hired when directors, camera people, actors and everyone else have to be hired to work.

Writers can work for themselves and have that 35% chance of selling a spec.

Monday, September 14, 2015

CGI vs real effects

I was at a cafe with a friend recently when he told me he had seen a film called  Jason and the Argonauts made in 1963. This was his twelfth viewing and he was still excited. We both started talking about one thing - the special effects that were skeletons who would fight real humans with swords. They were the imagination of Ray Harryhausen, above.

One of the skeletons is above, and the real size. But when you see the movie, they are the same size as humans and vicious with the swords.

And they were all made of clay over frames.

Today, the basic millennial would probably either thing it was something dumb from the past or something really cool. 

But there is one thing different from what we call CGI, or Computer Generated Imagery. While these effects are created by 1's and O's, Harryhausen's was real, to a sense. It was a real skeleton although the size that you see above.

What's the difference? It's real. You can hold it in your hand. It will last forever. You don't need to turn on a computer or smartphone.

Harryhausen first saw King Kong, which was the first big stop-action movie where King Kong was also a small gorilla but huge on the big screen. I think most people have heard of the movie and a lot who saw it.

But CGI addicts say that the effects aren't as good, sure they're okay for ancient movies but nothing like CGI.

But ultimately, both CGI and stop-action (they would shot one frame of film for each movement which took days and days) gave the audiences a thrill.

So ultimately both formats worked. 

But there were also other methods used in the days of film. There were a lot of movies, especially westerns, where entire cities and mountains were set in the background. They were made by painting on glass.

 In these two frames the scene above is real and glass paintings finished the scene in the frame below. Sometimes, they were just a door or a road. But they were from incredibly talented artists and while you know it's not real as with CGI,  again, you can touch this painting.

One of the best was Albert Whitlock, who created this entire scene by painting on glass.

And again, you can see this and other mattes in museums, especially in the Academy Award offices, where they have displays now and then. It's not 1's and O's.

So what you're saying now is, "so what? It looks the same as CGI.'

But the difference is that humans actually created mattes and little skeletons that scared the hell out of me, and they were real things, that you can touch.

And the scene on the beach where Charlton Heston realizes that the planet of the apes is really Earth. This shot was filmed at Zuma Beach near Malibu and what's left of the statue of Liberty was painted in on glass.

I know that CGI is almost perfect in replicating humans and Mars and anything else.  And the last Apes movie was incredible. But the key was that it had a good story. Not as good as the first Ape movie but close.

But one thing is missing in the new CGI-laden movies is that they're beginning to get boring because they're too good. I watched Mad Max but wasn't really as thrilled as the 2nd Mad Max which didn't have any CGI, while the new Max claimed to be mostly real, they had CGI also.

So ultimately it doesn't matter, a new generation will like it's special effect and the older generation manages to still "remember when we first saw King Kong..."

But there is a mechanical feel to CGI, I know there's hundreds of people who create images from dots but there's something about watching an image that you knew one or two people actually painted it on glass.

Or twisted wire with clay and created King Kong.

Maybe I'm just another boomer whining, but there is a greater feel I think, for something that is tangible, rather than 1's and O's.

I do like CGI for what it can do but I try to remember the guys who took wire and clay and made stories that people cried over.

Maybe it's what reality will be in the future or sooner. The thing is, every movie generation thinks their movies had the best effects. I guess it's like mom's cooking over Chipotle.

Regardless, we all go along with CGI and stop-action animation and matte paintings, none of it is real.

Even Kong had to die.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Catching up and something new

I got email from the French director on my screenplay called Chase, or in French  "La Pursuite" which is the word for chase. The project looks like it can go later this fall, but I never count on anything until it's finished production.

The screenplay was originally an idea I had about a man who thinks he's seen a man in a van who has taken a girl off the street. However, my guy has different memories of the incident and he's not sure so he decides to follow the van which becomes suspicious. 

My story takes both my guy and the van into the Mojave desert. I wanted to see if I could get any attention on a script about essentially "a guy in a car for 90 minutes". My then agent suggested I never show it too anyone... it's too "artsy".

It wasn't long after that I got email from two men from France, actually one was Canadian. They liked the script. I had a meeting with them and it all sounded good.

However, this was two years ago and they were working on other projects. But this spring they finally put the deal together and are hoping to shoot this fall.  They translated the screenplay into French  and I managed to make out most of it as I took French in school in Canada. 

They also changed some of the scenery as they don't have deserts in France. Just streets.

 So for now, I await their efforts to find the financing. The script has changed some, but basically the same story. And I hope to be able to go there for at least a week or so.

Then there's S.O.B.

I began to write a pilot for a TV series on spec, entitled S.O.B. but it's not quite what you think. But first, here's how the idea came to be.

Three years ago I reconnected with my ex-wife, as she had lost her current husband and her niece "found" me on FB. We were married in 1971 and divorced in 1976, with no real hard feelings.  Needless to say, we are now close although we live in different places of the continent.

That's when I got an idea for the pilot.

What about two women who married the same man, at different times, who now learn the husband is dead and has left a down and out private-eye business to the two women who had never met.

One in her 50's and one in her 20's.

Here's where my ex-wife comes in,  she's the "older woman" of the pair. And I picked one of the waitresses at Crave, a local joint for coffee and food. Then I imagined what would happen between them, how they got along, if they got along. 

Then there's the catch: If they stay together at the business, they will each get $1 million from a life insurance policy.  If they don't get along, they don't get the money.

So I finished the first draft and today will re-read it over again, as I already have a dozen or so changes. 

And then what?

Then I have an agent and a manager, both of whom could take the project to a network or whatever works now, as in Netflix, etc. Amazon might be a good idea as their new projects don't seem to work that well.

And, keeping with memory, I have a storyline in this first 1-hour pilot episode about someone who has anterograde amnesia.

There's no real reason that I picked two ideas that are similar, the pieces seemed to fit, Chase was written about 7 years ago and S.O.B. was stewing for 2 years and didn't really take off until this spring and my ex, who by the way is thrilled to be my inspiration.

Life is strange and in this case, fun.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Posting tomorrow, due to holiday.

Have some interesting things to talk about tomorrow, my new project and an old one that may be resurrected.