Monday, July 24, 2017

H&H Part 16 - Dancing with Elk and Greeks




One of the interesting aspects of working in the Rockies are the somewhat "wild" animals that walk nonchalantly along sidewalks downtown or in backyards. They are mostly deer and very little threat, if any.

Bears are rarely seen in the park and hardly ever seen within town limits, where they obviously become potential problems. The black bears are dangerous but the grizzly is most dangerous. I have seen only one black bear since I arrived and he was a few miles outside of town crossing the highway.

Elk, on the other hand are not really dangerous as they wander mostly in open park areas or around the edge of town and on the highways. I once saw an elk get hit by a transport truck and it was not a pretty sight, the elk had broken legs and couldn't stand up. Eventually they are shot by rangers. Unfortunately elk and other animals are frequently hit by speeding cars and trucks.

Here in Jackson, the elk are not really any threat at all. Except for spring time when the males begin to look for love. And any other elk in the same area is considered a threat to the male's territory and selection of mates.

And apparently they don't really discern between another male elk or a human being.

Two of the crew have already been chased by a male elk, trumpeting his love call or ready to stomp on the intruder. In spring they don't have antlers, those were lost in the fall but they still weigh about 600 lbs and can crush a human fairly well.

I say this because this is the morning I walk/run with Erica, the movie star. Sure enough she is there, ready to go, sun is not even over the eastern mountain range yet. I put on a good show as the marches up the road to the outskirts of town. Considering the steep road and the high altitude, I do reasonably well keeping up to her.

Then an elk appears. Male. Sniffing. Their eyes aren't all that good and from 50 feet away I look like trouble to him. Erica doesn't even bother stopping, marching straight ahead. The elk snuffs and paws, a sure sign he will attack.

Then Erica shouts at him, telling him to go away. She picks up some stones and tosses them at the elk who looks completely confused. I join the shouting and eventually he decides we are no threat at all and he leaves.

I decide not to hike with Erica anymore. Not only because of elk threats but also because I can't keep up with her. At an alleged 59 years, she is doing just fine.

The rest of the day is spent on rewrites of new scripts and starting my own script which will be one of the last ones filmed. By day's end I join Rino, the other writer and go to the Rocky Mountain Lodge, the most expensive and posh lodge in the entire area. Celebrities from the 1950's used to stay here, people like Bing Crosby and even Marilyn Monroe. It's definitely a 4-star tourist resort but tonight the bar has around 5 customers listening to a local band.

We head back to the Peak where the crew hangs out and where Erica has a handful of listeners as she tells stories of her encounters with movie stars as famous as she was. Jonathan is nowhere in sight. The bar is now accustomed to us and they pull together as many tables as we need, mostly for above the line people and maybe a few selected below-the-liners, whom the creative types allow within their circle.

I always fit on either side and managed to stay level-headed, but some people get carried away with perceived power. Like Kaplan, but fortunately he rarely comes here because I think he knows nobody likes him.

A bar patron wants to meet Erica and the manager brings her over. Erica plays the movie star part well, smiling and genuinely listening and talking to the woman. The woman, it turns out, is the girlfriend of Ari, the owner of the bar and she speaks Greek and Swahili as well.

Like many small resort towns, a lot of the food businesses in Jackson are owned by Greeks. Ari is an interesting case himself. He jumped ship twenty-four years ago in Chicago and never looked back. He worked hard and now owns two places in Jackson. And he seems to like us and our lifestyle, not to mention the money he's making in a quite winter.

Ari buys drinks regularly for us and in moments of introspection tells us of his life and tragedies. It seemed his son died in a car accident and is buried in the small cemetery outside of Jackson. In the weeks that follow, I will learn that not all is well at Ari's, but for tonight I pass on the fifth Ouzo shot and head home. The clock reads 2am.

Tomorrow is Sunday and a day of rest.


(Mon: A New player comes to town)

Monday, July 17, 2017

H&H Part 15 - Kaplan vs everyone






Producer Kaplan has decided that Jonathan and I rework Jonathan's wife's outline. The one that everyone from the network on down hates - except for Jonathan who will not or cannot admit his wife wrote a lame story for a quick buck.

This is because no matter what she writes, how bad it will be, she will get paid the script fee and then it goes to either me or Rino or both of us to rewrite it into a reasonably okay story. That's the unsung job of the story editor.

Right now I'm getting nowhere with both Kaplan and Jonathan and tension is high. Then Rino comes in and offers a few ideas that sound good to me but of course, not to Jonathan and Kaplan who then disagree with each other. Finally this wasteful tug-of-war continues for an hour until, not having any ideas that work, they give in to Rino and me.

And remember, this isn't a huge victory, all we accomplished is having to push up a bad story into something not quite as bad.

 Then Mahon the other producer, the one who is usually playing computer games, bursts into the office and demands that we "get the f..king scripts to the departments". This is in reference to the fact that the scripts are behind due to Jonathan's absence and indecisions and Kaplan's inexperience. Left alone Rino and I could have the scripts out on time.

Mahon tears into Kaplan, who's clearly embarrassed as this middle-aged woman is ripping into him. Finally it ends when Kaplan says "the scripts will be there when they're ready." Mahon storms out as she can't threaten much more.

A production assistant steps inside, wary of the shouting match that just occurred and tells me my chair has come. I've been sitting at one of those folding chairs, working for hours.

Well, at least I'm happier. 

I'm also starting my own script besides re-writing  Jonathan's wife's outline and working on another script from another writer. I find the only way I can work on multiple scripts with different stories is compartamentalizing them, giving each script a good 2 hours by themselves. I don't know how other writer/story editors do it, but this works for me.

Later, Kenny the Assistant Director enters. An A.D. as they're called neither directs nor assists. Rather they are sort of the Sergeant on the front lines, their job is to push the crew and director forward as time is money. They're also the boss of the crew and can make life horrible for a director if they see him falling behind.  They have no real say in the content, that is the script and story, that's purely the territory of the director, the writer and the actors.

Kenny lays down the law with Kaplan, his script, the avalanche one, is too ambitious, there's just too much material for a 5-day shoot, it has to be cut back. I knew this and Rino did also but Kaplan did not listen and nor did the network a thousand miles away.

And the director isn't much help, I know Rance, the director, from the past and we don't get along at all, he's very quiet, the word is that one ear is deaf and refuses to take suggestions from writers, at least from me. We had a small fight a few years before when we disagreed on an episode I had written. And since I had directed my movie Ghostkeeper before Rance made a movie, we've always had a bit of a contest going on. Seeing as I know his job as well as mine makes it a bigger playing ground.

Then I get into a small disagreement with Kenny, who's feeling pressure and a deadline to start the filming but when he starts to take it out on the writers, I react instantly and tell him to worry about his end, not ours.

And yes, I have my little ego too, but it rarely surfaces when I'm working with smart people.

After these exhausting meetings, Rino and I retreat to our office and Jonathan, as always, disappears. Some of the actors drift in, usually alone. The writer's office is usually off-limits to the crew as they really wouldn't have a reason to go there.

But actors are actors and they have time on their hands if they're not filming and besides, they might get a writer to write a few more lines of dialog for them. And I've done that if they're nice people. They have it even harder than writers so I empathize.

I generally like actors and have some for friends, and even though they can act like 6-year olds, vying for attention, they're not stupid. An actor can smell if you're lying about something, especially the character they're playing.

If you're going to lie to them about a scene or character, then do it as sincerely as you can. Because if they discover you were lying, they'll get you back. And I don't blame them. Nobody likes to be lied to.

One of the difficulties of working on a show like this is the fact that it's not a good show, the scripts aren't as good as they could be and we have no real leadership from Jonathan and zero from Kaplan or Mohan. And they are constantly putting up obstacles to our ideas and solutions.

And so it's hard, for me, to encourage the actors. Some know me and others are glad that I listen to them and also that I give them good dialog. But ultimately, the show suffers from the top down in spite of good intentions from Rino and me who have to try to change as much as we can. Only to have our ideas and work rejected.

I retreat to my hotel and pass Erica who said she would like to talk with me sometime, I know this will be about her role but I am just too beat up to want to talk script or dialog or scenes. Even with the movie star goddess I knew from my teen years.

I excuse myself and she tells me she walks up the mountain every morning at dawn and expects me to be there tomorrow morning.


(Fri: Dancing with Elk and the Greeks)

Friday, July 14, 2017

H&H Part 14: Filming finally begins





After all the preparation and the rewrites and everything else, the first day of filming begins. Rino and I are stuck in the office doing rewrites of the next episodes and the hallways where crew hung around are now almost empty. While it's nice to see them gone I sort of miss the noise, kind of like a parent who's kids have left the home.

Writing, after all, is the loneliest job on a film set, you don't really work with anyone else. Right  now Rino and I are working together on Kaplan's script after the network insisted we do the rewrite rather than Kaplan.

Since we both would rather write alone, we have to compromise by having one of us at the computer and one pacing the floor. We speak out lines of dialog or action and whomever is at the computer types it out. Then we read it, re-read it and decide if it stays or needs further revision.

Now and then we take a break, I go for a walk in the hallway to talk to Karen the accountant and Rino goes out onto the little deck outside our office sliding window where he can grab a smoke.Finally we finish enough work to take a longer break and we decide to drive to the set just outside outside the town.

The crew is filming at the Ranger Station, which, 2 months ago was planned as a large office in a cabin style. What we see on the set is a small cabin barely big enough for the desk and counter the art director built. I wonder how they will put the several actors inside as well as at least 10 or more crew members and their lights and camera. It's another screw-up from the producers.

The crew is given a "starting day" cake, courtesy of Kaplan and Mahon, both of whom they dislike. I've never been on a show where there was this much dislike of the people at the top. In spite of that everyone gobbles up the cake.

Being on set for a writer is mostly pretty boring, there's really nothing for you to do. And nobody really wants you there anyway as they're all working. So we hang out at craft services, which is a table with coffee, tea, sodas, juice, cookies, chips and more fattening junk food. There's always a pleasant craft services person there who also has little to do with the working crew.

When we finally get bored enough, we go back to the office and get notes from the Litman at the network. He likes my outline for the script I will eventually write and have a few minor suggestions, all pretty easy. Then they tell us something else.

They don't like Jonathan's wife's outline which both Rino and I agree on. Nepotism is widespread in this business and in this case, Jonathan's wife, still back in the east, came with the deal of writing one script. While I've heard she was a good writer her story is fairly basic, in other words, she didn't spend a lot of time on coming up with something new or fresh. It's more of a paint-by-numbers script.

Her script features a character who's a survivalist type, the network wants a pacifist and the production company wants a Rambo-style warrior. Neither side gives up. Rino and I come up with a character who uses a gun but eventually is talked out of violence. The network likes it.

Jonathan, however, is furious. Angrier than I've ever seen him. He stands up for his wife's story and will not back off. Kaplan says he and Rino and I and the network outrule him, a rather confrontational way to handle it, but I just stay out of it. In fact, Jonathan was going to send it to the network without even consulting us at all. But this time we win.

As the day winds up for us, I usually leave before 5pm, the crew continues to work but I head for downtown and some shopping. On the way out I stop by the art department where Cooper the art director is working.

He introduces me to Carrie, his assistant and one of the two sisters on the crew. She's in her late 20's, very pleasant and hard-working, wearing hiking boots which are the standard in a mountain town and t-shirts. Her sense of humor is similar to mine so we get along from the start. She also works with Lauren, the serious sister.

Carrie has scanned her face and she and Cooper print it and enhance it with software and then she proudly gives me a copy. She's a refreshing moment since the bitter tirade that we faced with Jonathan and his wife's script.

Outside, there still is snow, but melting and in late afternoon when it's barely light, the temperature is just enough to freeze the water into small ponds on the streets.



(Wed: Kaplan vs the Assistant Director)

Monday, July 10, 2017

H&H - Part 13 - More Erica



Above is the entire town below with a road leading to it and the magnificent Rocky Mountains far off. I made the shot on a tripod just after the last light went away.
 
My first personal encounter with Erica in the bar was somewhat unexpected.   She sat next to me and leaned in to say "Ah, the Writers, the storytellers". With that she had me on her side even more. While I've had experience with aging divas, Erica seems okay, she's friendly, smart and she knows the business.

And she has new breasts.

Erica pushes up her breasts, covered by a sweater and asks if I like them. I stumble a bit, she laughs, and I manage to say "They seem fine". She answers, "they ought to, they cost enough".

Unlike those of us who try to sound tough, she has proven herself on the field of battle in this often wicked business. Then she tells us her side of the Travel Day with my actor friend Paul and the driver, her side is as funny as Paul's. She has the attention of the table as she does this and I decided to leave as I had to work early.

Erica immediately announces that I hadn't said goodbye to her and I assured her it wouldn't happen again. She laughed and leaned over to kiss me on the cheek. I stay for another beer and her stories of being a young girl in post-war Germany, peppered with some nice bad words are quite honest and revealing. 

She mentions the subject of being German in Hollywood and the occasional Nazi name-calling which surprises me. At this point the director, drunk, makes some off-color German jokes as well, making a fool of himself. 

I finally leave and see the serious sister, Lauren and talk to her, much easier than trying to talk to Marilyn, her sister, only because I stutter whenever I talk to her. Lauren confides that Kaplan screws up things for the art department and she wonders how he ever got the job. So do I


But even Lauren's presence beauty isn't enough to keep me awake and I escape to the quiet of walking back to the hotel noticing there still is snow on the ground and we need it for our first episode.

Working on a movie or series is like being at a family reunion in many ways. There are people you know, people you've heard of and people you meet for the first time. The work is intense,  sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day for some of the crew.

This intensity ends in strong bonds among the crew, very family-like in that they get along most of the time and other times want to kill each other (figuratively of course). Add to that the fact that we are on location as well, friends and family are at least a 6 hour drive and in some cases across the country.

Unlike regular workers, film people work in spurts, a month here, three months there and a lot of unemployment so the intensity of relationships ramps up to fit that short period of time of work. And the relationships are fairly spread all over the crew for the most part although there is a separation between above the line and below the line. Above is the creative end, writer, director, producer. Below the line essentially is everyone else.

And it's similar to workers and executives and, depending on the production and the producer can be a good experience or a bad one.

Writers have their own little world as well, as mentioned, we are the only ones who, for the most part, work alone. Nobody ever sees us work, they see us in the office or sometimes on the set, but mostly they don't really know how we do what we do. All they care to know is that we can make their jobs hard or easy.

I remember one show that was filming in Vancouver and I had come out to the set around 10pm and, as it is common in Vancouver, it was raining. Trucks were lined up along the street, tarps were set  up to repel the rain and the crew and actors were hustling around.

At that moment, I realized that they were all out there because I had sat in the comfort of my office and typed five simple words: 

EXT. CITY STREET - RAINING - NIGHT 

Those words took me less to do than it took you to read them. I could have written DAY or INT. or anything else. But I chose this.

And now about 50 people were cold and wet and making a movie. 

Can that be considered the power of the pen (or computer)?

You decide.


(Mon: More trouble in River City)

Friday, July 7, 2017

H&H Part 12 - The Star comes down to earth




Spring is beginning to show up in the mountains, days are a little warmer, snow is melting on the brownish lawns and the Rocky Mountain sheep graze closer to town, with little concern for photographers or tourists.

I get a ride to the office with Karen the accountant who says Kaplan is really over his head and the local producer even more so. I keep wondering how these guys got those jobs. The local producer is easy enough, he comes with local financing and for the most part he really stays out of the loop. Still he is responsible for misjudging the costs of filming in a town 6 hours away from the nearest airport and city. 

And Kaplan, whom I'm sure some of you feel sorry for by now, he's another case. He bluffed his way into this job and is making it a difficult shoot for everyone from the writers to the crews and even the accountants and eventually the actors.

As the saying goes;  he must have pictures of the company CEO in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.

No subtleties there. It can be a kill or be killed atmosphere on films and TV shows, egos are huge and when a show goes bad like this, it begins to affect the entire crew who more than often decide to rough it through which I admire greatly. I only wish I could do the same.

At the office, I learn who's going to rewrite Kaplan's script, the one he tried to rewrite 4 times.

It's Rino -- and me. Together.

And the departments are beginning to ask us for scripts. We have to shoot in less than a week and the wardrobe department, the production design department and others need a hard copy of the script to study to see what's needed.

Jonathan, the head writer isn't anywhere around, he's in his condo even though he has an empty office here down the hall from us. Jonathan should be involved but the wardrobe girl, Nancy, says I'm the only one who anyone sees. Even Rino disappears from the office from time to time. At one point, when Jonathan dropped by, someone asked me "what exactly does he do?"

Next on the schedule is the reading.

This is the one, for any of you who have followed the blog, is my least favorite place during production. It's where all the departments get together to pick apart the script to say what they don't like, can't do or won't do.

And it's also the appearance of the real star of the show. Erica enters the room with a sweeping movement, like she's floating into the crowded room. In weeks later this talent will save me and an actor from serious harm.

Erica takes over the room completely and I figure she has earned it, she's been with the big stars, been in major movies and now to be in a "B" level series has to hurt a little. But as they say, there are no small parts, just small actors.

This reading goes the way I expected and we get 32 pages of changes and considering the script is around 54 pages, that's almost half. But it's mostly small stuff, much of it words that could be changed on the set and probably will be even though we still have to write it.

I suggest we leave it to filming, we don't need to re-do 32 pages for changes like "Todd looks at her", to "Todd slowly looks towards her direction". But Kaplan insists. Mahon sits quietly playing solitaire on her computer and Jonathan just tries to act like he's the head writer. Which he is of course.

I say I will do my best. I've learned you never let them think it's easy, make them feel that their suggestions will make the script ever so better. In truth later I do the 32 page rewrites in less than an hour. But I hold off handing it in for the rest of the day. And Rino, who was supposed to help, is nowhere in sight.

I stare at Erica now and then and am taken back to being a teenager in love with a movie star, never dreaming I would be this close to her. She still looks good, in her late 50's and very energetic. I sense she is checking us out, feeling her way around the room. It seems bigger than a little TV show with her here, it seems like a movie.

Ah, they don't make stars like they used.

It's clear in the meeting that the various departments  have little patience for Kaplan and one of the grips tells me they want to use him as grizzly bear bait since the rangers told us a grizzly is in the area.

After the reading, Jonathan goes straight to the actors to congratulate them on their "wonderful" reading and how he personally is going to make sure they get "brilliant" writing from "his staff" even if he has to step in personally.

Rino and I exchange glances, it's not even funny anymore for us.

Afterwards I meet Paul Patterson, an actor who comes from Windsor, across the river from Detroit, where I grew up as  a teen. Paul came in with Erica in the production passenger van and tells me a great story about how the driver didn't know who she was, or care but had to present her with flowers and a bottle of wine at the airport.

Erica is a little apprehensive, realizing she's riding in a passenger van with two complete strangers. She keeps her wine and flowers to herself and drinks it by the time they arrive, several hours later.

Ironically enough, that story became the screenplay, Travel Day, which began this blog and which I am now trying to finance for a fall 2010 filming.

Later, at the Peak bar, I am personally introduced to Erica and she mentions she has read one of my scripts and likes it.

I wonder how often someone gets a dream that comes through. I just did.

I've come full circle.


(Fri: Camera, sound, ACTION!.)

Monday, July 3, 2017

H&H - 11 Kaplan's bad news and the actors arrive




One of my winter shots.

The network sends a 4-page memo on Kaplan's 4th rewrite of his script, Episode 11 which will be filmed in two weeks. They tell us we're all wonderful and they're excited.

Excited is a commonly used word in the film business as in "I'm excited". It's along the lines of "Trust me".

Then they proceed to rip Kaplan's script to pieces. Kaplan's face pales but he tries to shrug it off when the network suggests someone else rewrite it in order to get a shooting script in time to film it.

None of us want to, not me, not Rino and not Jonathan. The decision will be made tomorrow and I suspect Rino will do it, that's what he's here for, to fix things.

I've heard the actors are arriving today and they'll be at the Mountainview, a restaurant bar that has become our official hangout, much to the joy of the Greek owner. While there is a ski resort here, it's at least 6 hours drive from the nearest city so week-day nights are pretty dead.

I show up and recognize Todd Lander, the male lead. He's a mid-range working actor who was a co-star in a western series. It's always strange how someone can be a lead in a series and get all the attention, and then once the show's cancelled, they're out there hustling for jobs like all the other out-of-work actors, waiting in the same hallways and offices for work.

Of course, writers aren't far behind them. We don't get the same attention, as audiences rarely care who the writers are. They know stars and Steven Spielberg.

Lander and I are both from LA so we have some common ground, he tells me he met Kaplan who told him that he felt our series is modeled after Gunsmoke, something I suggested to Kaplan way back in Vancouver. Now it's his idea.

Gunsmoke was one of my favorite shows and it was on for nearly 23 years, the longest running 1 hour shows in TV history. What made it work was that it wasn't about the lead players, rather it focused on someone coming into town, Dodge City, who had "baggage" as I like to say. In other words they brought something good to town, or more likely something bad. And that's when the regulars on the show got involved.

Our show could work on that level. If we had better producers and better scripts. But I still have hope.

Rino shows up and Jonathan, once again looking ill or hungover. Then the alliances begin, as anyone knows from Survivor. Rino establishes a rapport with Lander. Writers often try to get actors on their side so that if the director or producer resists something in the script, the actor will come to their aide.

And actors do the same. After all, we're the ones who write what they will say.

Jonathan seems in another world, he stumbles abit with his words and Lander glances at me as though to say "he's the head writer?" I feel for Jonathan, he's not a bad guy, he just seems burned out and unhappy.

The other actors show up, a Native Canadian, Ramon, who I saw years ago starring in Mel Gibson's movie Apocolypto. He's friendly and gracious and lives near Santa Fe. Then there's Macy, a model-turned actress, also friendly, a little apprehensive but willing to learn. Macy will, later on the show, give me one of the best compliments I have ever had.

The one actor missing of course the real star, Erica, who was a major star in Hollywood with the likes of Paul Newman, Peter Sellars and . She'll show up in a few days.

The director of the first episode appears as does Mahon the co-producer and Kaplan. They sit appropriately on the other side of the table. Ramon offers a suggestion to Jonathan to change his character name from Sam to Max. Jonathan mumbles and totters a bit, everyone at the table is beginning to realize he's drunk.

Then the director points out the crewmembers are sitting across the restaurant eating their dinners, where the director feels they rightly belong being "below the line" that term that delineates the creative people like us from the working "grunts" like them.

While I've had my arguments with crew, I still respect what they do and support them when I can, at least if I think they being made fun of.

But the highlight of the evening comes with the arrival of the Monahan sisters, Lauren and Marilyn. They are both blonde knockouts and are well known by our crew. Lauren is an assistant production designer helping the bearded production designer. Marilyn is an assistant.

They seem friendly enough, each is different, Lauren is wound a little tighter, more serious, feels she's in a man's world and fighting it, while Marilyn is more friendly with a sense of humor, although there seems to be some darkness behind those eyes. Both do enjoy the attention, although Lauren would deny it.

Together they are quite a potent pair and every guy in the place notices them. "You're drooling", says Karen, the accountant. She laughs and tells me it's always like this when the sisters work on a film or TV series. Karen's learned to enjoy it.

Later, walking on the way home, I see Marilyn and the lead actor Lander walking and talking, I guess he's not wasting his time, although he has a wife in Los Angeles. I try to avoid them and walk to my hotel when Marilyn calls me, she's left Lander and heads to me, joking about my seeming aloofness.

She is even more striking up close, and I begin a pattern with her that continues even to this day. I stumble and stammer trying to find something to talk about and usually say something really stupid.

I feel like I'm doing a bad Woody Allan but when I'm around her I felt like a nervous 15-year old. And on the occasion when we're in the same part of the world, I still act like that.

She has that effect.

Now the show is coming to life. Now we become a community of sorts, there will be fights, alliances, love, affairs, lies, betrayal, humor, adventure, illness, sadness, frustration, friendship made and friendship lost. 

"I'm excited" someone says.

(Wed: The Stars come to life)