Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No more Dave

Okay, looks like Dave Letterman isn't here anymore. I tried to watch Jimmy Kimmel and lasted about 5 minutes. Didn't bother to set the other Jimmy nor any of the late, lates.

The trouble with the above copies is just that. They're copies.

Same band, same opening, same lame jokes. Only thing that changed are the faces and then they all look the same anyways.

The trouble is that the late-night talk show is dying slowly and what you're seeing now is the gradual end. The fact is there are too many late night shows, counting Conan.

The problem with me on this issue is that I watched the late night talk show start up and grow slowly. My favorite host was Steve Allen, who was truly talented in both comedy and music and did both well.

He was the first to do crazy bits like dropping into a vat of jello or commenting on people walking past the studio at night just to name a few things he did. Whatever you see now, even with Letterman was the result of Steve Allen.

What Letterman did was refine the jokes from both Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. Gags like comedy bits or having kids or animals on the show all came from Steve Allen but were a little more refined through Carson and Letterman.

But Letterman was the end of the late-night talk show from a creative angle. Kimmel and the others are just copies and telling stale jokes to an audience who thinks it's hip and cool. The only remnant of the original talk shows left is Conan who's been dumped onto TBS.

And I don't really think much of other TV icons. Take Carl Sagan, who was truly the introduction into the universe with his series Cosmos. Last year his replacement was Neil deGrasse Tyson who is quite good, but he's not Carl.

And when you look at it, there's a lot of copies who just aren't as good as the original. I still think Michael Keaton was the best Batman and Mel Gibson as Mad Max. Actually much of the new Max, Tom Hardy, is hardly in the new movie at all. 

I guess you can say that I'm being a little biased and not giving these newbies a fighting chance. 

But I'm not, I have a good selection of friends of all ages and whom agree with me. The original is always the best.

Sort of like those people who read a book which becomes a movie still prefer the book. The joke goes like this; "Two goats are eating garbage and one begins eating some old film. His buddy asks how it tastes. The other goat says "the book was better."

One of the movies I liked and which was from a book was Deliverance. It was just as good as the book. But I guess Dave is gone and Conan will be my new morning dvr.

As they say, change is inevitable.


Monday, May 18, 2015

The end of an era. Really.

 Only three more days left for watching a truly iconic television star. For those of you in Russia, Ukraine,Germany, France, Greece, Australia and South Korea on this blog, David Letterman is the biggest talk show host in America.

And he's retiring Wednesday.
America's TV talk show began as a radio show back in the 1950's, with Steve Allen (1954-57), a comedian and musician. When he went to TV he was the first late-night talk show host. Allen was a truly gifted personality, and Letterman is closer to Allen than any of the other talk show hosts that followed. Allen would come swinging down in a bird costume over the audience or play his piano while a TV camera outside the studio would show people walking by with his comments. Allen was my favorite of all the hosts.

After Allen left, a very different host followed, Jack Paar (1957-1962) who was notorious for not listening to the network, in fact he walked off once right in the middle of a show. But the biggest one was yet to come.

Johnny Carson (1962-1992) who had a game-show on TV took over the Tonite show. Carson was interestingly close to Letterman in that both came from the midwest and weren't that much into the movie star thing. Carson was perfect for his time and he put his brand on the show. He was truly the best in that there weren't really a lot of competitors and none of the competition never lasted.

But when Carson decided to leave in 1992, a battle ensued as to who would be heir to the Carson seat. In fact a movie was made about how Jay Leno (1992-2009) did some backstabbing in order to get the job even though Johnny Carson wanted David Letterman to take over.  

Letterman never forgot that and jokes about Jay on Letterman's CBS show often showed up. Instead of Carson's show, Letterman went to CBS where he stayed until Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Making him the longest talk show host of any late night show.

Leno had the show for 10 years but NBC decided he was too old and took Leno off and installed Conan O'Brian, who unfortunately lasted a year before the NBC people decided to put Leno back.

Conan was kicked out but resurfaced on TBS, a cable network.

So that's the history.

And why is Letterman different.

As with Johnny Carson, Letterman wasn't a Hollywood insider and a lot of his humor related to those audiences in the mid-west. He was just a guy who would get actors on his show but also a zoo guy who would bring animals to the show or kids who did bird songs. He brought ordinary people into his shows, the crew and other employees, guys who were fired out of rockets, dogs that jumped water, almost every type of person was on his show. Not in the audience but on stage. He'd give a jacket to someone in the audience. And the Hello Deli operator who had a deli under his studio and who featured Letterman sandwiches and sold Letterman gear as well. You don't see that on the glossy, loud night-time shows elsewhere. And he always referred to someone in the audience who probably asked him something in the warm-up before the show went on.

That touch is what people liked him, he was ordinary, like all of us. A little more money of course, but he never really mentioned it.

But my favorite Letterman bits was at Christmas where he had two people on, one was Jay Thomas, a minor comedian but who repeated his story about the Lone Ranger every year for at least ten years. And to top it off, Darlene Love would sing Merry Christmas Baby also. 

Christmas won't be Christmas anymore for me, although I have youtube. Friday's show had comedian Norm MacDonald on who barely make it to the end of his routine.

There's only two shows left, tomorrow Tom Hanks is on and the final show Wednesday on CBS is a collection of surprises.

Friday, May 15, 2015

More of the job I lost

So far you've learned about writer-killers and how they can spoil a screenplay mostly because they don't really help you along.

Sure, you just think that I'm just a poor sport and that they are the good guys.

Maybe they are, but Joe is known to tell writers like me (twice) very little except that he wants action, action, action. But once I started writing, he began changing everything I wrote. And the script analyst who seems like she's never done this job before, actually has never done this job before. I think she had a degree in music.

But getting down to the script, I felt from the beginning that it would not be a fun time. Here's why.

Some years ago I worked with a good producer named Steve. Steve read one of my scripts and that was enough for him. We talked about ideas and actually Steve came up with one. It was based on a screenplay that I wrote and directed called The Tower.

The Tower was a great idea, it was about technology in a office tower that uses heat from the bodies of people who work there everyday. This is actually real. But I made it for around $40,000 with a local TV crew and non-union actors and it turned out not that great.

Although one fan emails me now and then asking permission to re-do the film. 

Steve said I should write the version of The Tower the way I wanted. The deal was signed in a few days. I was going to rewrite a story for Paramount TV. 

Now here's the difference between Steve and Joe. Steve had his cards on the table from the very beginning, he liked the idea and most of all he trusted me. And I trusted him. I went away for a few weeks and wrote the script which was now called Dream House.

Steve read it, gave me a few things to change and that was it. I even ended up in Canada where they were shooting Dream House and did a few changes.

See how easy it is when you have someone who you can trust and who isn't afraid that you're going to take their movie away and say that you don't get their idea.

Remember this; Joe's first meeting with me rendered two things; 

1. Family in jeopardy.
2. Bad guys after them.
3. Woman is lead.
4. Thriller.

So there you go. That's the whole story. That's all he said.

What's missing?

A story. 

Sure, that's my job. But whenever I wrote something, Joe didn't like it. Then I rewrote and he didn't like it. Then they gave me some money and I didn't like it. Then he changed the entire treatment and I had to start over again.

And he didn't like it.

Notice the difference between Steve and Joe?

I remember a story from a director friend of mine where a producer kept after the writer to write "those precious pearls" that writers do.

So you can see this job was not going to work out, I didn't trust Joe for anything, even going back to the time he went into his office saying that he had a Canadian writer who's going to write a script for free. And that was about 20 years ago.

Some people never change.

So what does a writer do when he's fired. The very nice script analyst called me and softly said they were going with another writer.

It was a job but we didn't see eye to eye on the story and it would never really work out anyways. I've worked with mostly good producers and when you're working with someone who's confident and will let you do your job, well, it's a lot of fun. 

When you work with someone who doesn't trust you, nor anyone else, and who talks behind your back, it's not fun. And for the book, I'm not the only one who thinks like me.

Bottom line is that he will make his movie and in the end it doesn't really matter to him, me or you.

The next day I started a screenplay that I've been wanting to write as a spec, which I prefer because there aren't a lot of Steves out there in the big bad world.

I have three ideas floating around Hallmark.

And maybe I just might write my Christmas script.

Christmas on Mars.


Monday, May 11, 2015

How I got a job and lost it.

I think I mentioned that I got a writer's job which began in January and ended last week. I didn't want to do too much blogging on it because I wasn't really crazy about it and I didn't like the producer.

But last week they fired me. In Hollywood the actual words are "We're going to try this with a new writer."

And I wasn't all that upset about it. For one thing, this was the first time in 35 years that I was let go. Really. Actually I even took over a few jobs from writers who were let go. 

So I'm not all that upset.

But I could have used the money. I did get some and it could be that I might get more as there are Writer's Guild of Canada issues. But I'll let you know what happens with that. WGC doesn't like it's writers to get pushed around, WGA will send out hit men.

So I'm not all that upset. At all.

So here's the sordid story.

In January an agent friend put me up for the job based on my screenplay, The President's Heart. It was a big, wide story sort of like The Bourne Identity. My story was about an alcoholic doctor in Paris has to go with a woman marine in a helicopter to rush a living heart to the President, who is a woman. 

The Black List regards it as this:

“The premise of a presidential heart transplant is strong and commercial. It takes a personal need with a ticking clock, and transforms into a global crisis with a journey at its center. It's a smart base for an affordable political thriller which still has worldwide stakes. Making the protagonist a doctor was an intelligent decision, and introduces a fish out of water element that always plays well in a thriller. The setting - a chase from Paris to Luxembourg - is perfectly commercial.”

Cool, eh?

So what did these guys want?

A family in the woods chased by two bad guys. Nobody else.

First thing is, there is no comparison between the two stories. Secondly the producer was a guy I dislike, in fact a lot of people disliked him. He always likes to get writers for free. In fact, once I caught him talking to someone on the phone that "we have a Canadian who will write the script for free." His name is Joe. That "Canadian" was me. And I didn't work for free.

I hadn't seen him for years but now he was with a new network called UPTV. And if you've never heard of this network it because it was originally a gospel network. 

So they wanted to make a story about killers chasing a family. 

My first reaction was "Is this okay with the gospel people?"

He said it "has to be UP-lifting? Get it? UPTV means UP-lifting stories".

Oh, and the family had to pray at dinnertime. Honest.

And the story about a family being chased by bad guys was familiar. It should be, Joe wanted this story years ago and I was that guy who was going to write it for nothing. Funny how things come around.

Joe was re-inventing the same old story.

So here I was, years later, with a guy I didn't like and a story I couldn't really figure out. The only real note Joe gave me was this; "It has to be uplifiting."

There were no other things to work with.

This was the beginning of what writers call "A writer-killer." 

I've had a few, they are usually people who have no real talent in anything, sort of middle-management types. And Joe was certainly that.

I wrote a couple of ideas. Nope, didn't like it. I wrote more ideas. Nope. 

I had one experience which I speak of often in this blog. It was in Luxembourg in 1998 where I was story editing a screenplay that someone else wrote. An exec-producer showed up and began telling me what to write. Most of it made no sense.

And I'm not being arrogant. In fact the VP at Paramount had asked me to go to Europe because I can fix scripts fast and good. 

So the exec-producer (it's a title for someone who doesn't really do anything on a movie) decided to cut 8 pages of dialog in which the female lead and I worked on for a week. I refused to make his changes that would leave her 2 pages.

You don't want to see an actor who has pull on the set learn that her chance to really act in 8 pages go down to 2 pages? No way!! She came on set and simply said "we're shooting Jim's pages."

And it was over.

But here I was, on a new project with a guy who likes to get writers to write for free. 

Continued on Friday May 16.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Writer-Killers

If you are just beginning as a writer, you probably may have heard of a particular species of producers that can make you crazy. Probably some of them have already worked with you. 

They are known as "writer-killers." Or "w/k"

Right now, I am working with one of them and even after all these years, find myself wanting to throw all my pages away and go to the desert for a year.


Because these people, mostly men, can do that to you.  So who are they?

They are mostly middle-management type people, who really don't have a heart for screenwriters or screenplays, but that they want to be acknowledged to have some importance in whatever you're writing.

Just last week, I received notes that I was to change an entire treatment.  My eighteen pages were to be thrown out because he decided to do it another way.


Then he gave me the changes, which basically were information about characters, in other words, something that you write as description rather than content. 

It works like this; the w/k says about one minute things about what the character is thinking or remembering the love he lost years ago, or whatever.

But it all comes down to something you can't really write. Why? Because you're writing something that can't really be written, in a screenplay you write the present moment. That's the difference between novels and screenplays.

For example; in a screenplay I write "he walks across the street". Ok? But in a novel you can write "he walks across the street -- and remembers the woman he left behind."

See the difference? You can't show "and remembers the woman he left behind." 

 So how do you portray that thought? You might use it further ahead. But you can't really show it. The only thing you can do is voice-over, but everybody hates v/o.

But the w/k thinks his idea is brilliant. And if he has some power, he can add a few more ideas that can't really be put into a screenplay as he sees it.

So why get mad?

Because they will hang onto their dumb idea enough so that you have to find a way to somehow keep them happy.

Now if you have" f...k you" money then you can walk, but most writers don't have that kind of money and need the job.

Some of you might say that the producer should have all the cards, that you do what he says.  My take is that any producer you won't let you write anything except what he wants, is a bad producer.

Fortunately, I have worked with a lot of good producers and the difference is this; they're not scared of what you will write or not write, and they trust you, which is the most important thing. And they are great people who will work with you again and again.

But here's a good example that happened to me about a w/k who lost his battle. It rarely happens but this time, I won.

I was working on a film in Europe with a producer who was a friend and who rarely bothered me with anything, except maybe a logistical change (e.g. change living room to garage). But halfway through an exec-producer entered and from the time we met, it was battle after battle.

Okay, I'm not a timid writer, and I can be a jerk sometimes. But only when I get these kinds of people. And after 35 years, I know the game.

This incident occurred when I had written an 8-page scene with the leading woman, in this case a well-known actress. I had spent a few days with her on that scene which would be her chance to do some good work.

But the next morning the entire crew got new pages! This happens when there are changes in the scenes. This time, the scene I wrote was only 2 pages. Six pages taken out.

Something I didn't write.

Well-known actress caught me in the hotel and asked why I changed the scene. It was all new to me, and I knew who did it. The exec producer. Fortunately she had the power over him and went out on set and said "We're doing Jim's pages." The lesson here was what the exec had to learn; don't take away lines from the star.

Now this was enough for any writer to hear.

But I actually had more power than the exec prod because I was also working for the head of TV at Paramount and I would talk to him via phone often. But I didn't have to do anything, as famous actress saved the day.

Unfortunately I don't have that power on this project, but it's not as big of a project either. Regardless, beware of writer-killers. You'll know them when you listen to what they want you to write.

Lesson learned? Be friends with the actors, they will save you butt when you need a friend. Actors and writers are similar in that they are mostly chosen because of their looks and their pages. 

And we're all alone most of the time in small rooms.