Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The 405 incident...

... In which your loyal writer nearly gets rammed from every side at 65 mph.

I'm known for my excellent driving skills and reflexes, even at my age. Driving came natural to me on the wide open prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan where a drive to see a movie could be 100 miles away. And coming home the same night.

But I got my wings in Detroit way back in 1970's where you learn pretty quick that you can get wiped out on the John Lodge Freeway. And then there's the streetsmarts that you learn. Like when you're driving down Woodward at night and a car pulls up, it's best for you to be in the outside lane so that anyone assaulting you has to go around the car. 

I travel all over the western states and Canada and have put hundreds of thousands of miles on my handful of cars. My current car, an Explorer has 230,000 miles and is in such good condition that my mechanic said he'd buy it whenever I decide to sell it. It helped that my dad was a mechanic.

And after I come home from any of my travels I thank the road god for keeping me safe one more time.

I've never really had many accidents, one was my fault when I crossed a street in my trusty 68 Mustang and got hit by a truck. Then there was the time in Detroit when I was driving my friend's Mazda to Vancouver. I got hit from behind in a blinding rainstorm even though I had stopped 20 feet away from the stalled car on the Interstate ahead of me.

It turned out to be an 8 car crash and the guy who hit me pushed me into the first lane (the first lane is the shoulder lane, lanes go 1, 2, 3 from the right shoulder). The seat broke backwards and I fell back, waiting for someone in that lane would hit me. But nobody did. I got out, saw 8 cars in my previous lane and realized I was okay but the Mazda's truck looked like an accordion.

Turns out the guy who hit me was drinking and because I didn't hit anyone I was free to go. But I had to get a state trooper, a woman, to help me bend out a rear fender. I also realized that my friend's wife had put her china in the truck as she was afraid the movers would break them. When they managed to open the trunk, the china wasn't damaged.

I had a number of near-accidents in snow and ice but always somehow made it out clean. 

Then there was South Dakota.

I was traveling at twilight on a 2-lane highway heading south to the Black Hills which ran along the Wyoming state line. Twilight is never a good time on the flat plains because animals come out and hang around the road and sometimes for the warmth created by sunlight.

I saw 2 deer grazing on the side, then a few miles up, more deer. The sun was gone and there were dark shadows and I was traveling the speed limit, 65mph. I saw more deer and was amazed at the numbers, there must have been 20 or more.

Then I saw two more deer ahead of me,  one in each lane and both looking towards me.

I had less than 30 seconds to figure out what to do. The ditches were steep and if I hit the brakes I would roll, If I tried to go around them, I could roll too. And if I hit one of the deer, I could die.

Then something came to me, a corny expression, you've heard it I'm sure...

Like a deer in your headlights.

I had my headlights on for safety on 2-lane highways and I thought, if the two deer didn't move an inch, I could fly right between them, there was enough room.

I never even saw them react as I shot between the two. I made it. After a minute or two I realized how close I came to buying the farm, as they say. I stopped, got out, walked around and just shouted.

Which brings me to the 405 freeway heading from the valley to Santa Monica. It was 7.30am and I had my bike on my Explorer and was watching traffic around me as usual. Then I noticed a car had stopped at the off-ramp to Wilshire I think, or Santa Monica. It seemed the driver had taken the exit by mistake and wanted back on the freeway.

I was in lane 2 and there was a car in lane 1 just to my right and ahead by two car lengths.

Suddenly the stopped car backed up! Right into lane 1 and the guy on my right side. It all happened in seconds.

Lane 1 car hit the breaks to avoid hitting the car backing up, and as he did he turned his wheel to avoid the car and thus coming into my lane. We're talking 1 or 2 car lengths away. His car screamed as brakes smoked and he was turning around at about 170 degrees, almost facing me.

I  glanced at a mirror for a second and saw cars behind, but I turned my wheel left and saw a hole between the revolving and smoking car and other cars to my left. Just like the deers. I aimed for that hole and prayed nobody was in it in my blind spot.

Nobody was. I shot thru and looked back at what seemed like a dozen cars stopped. By the time I figured all this out I was a mile away.

One more for Jim .

Monday, September 17, 2018


Do you believe the image?

Martin Scorceses said of the young people now that, "they don't believe the image".

This was in relation to how young people watch movies and the fact that they don't really believe the image the way our boomer generation and the generation before us viewed movies.

By young people, I would actually go back to GenX who were caught between my generation and not the new generation, with X meaning more or less a confused generation. They are essentially not old enough and not young enough.

It was a GenX'er who caught my curiosity as he described movies he saw as jokes or stupid or uncool. I was interested in how that attitude came about, it seemed that to like movies was uncool. By the way "cool" and "uncool" go back to the 1940's, and it's interesting that the expression is still with us.

Movies for us boomers were major entertainment in the 60's and through the 90's when we began to stop going to the theaters and rather would buy or rent VHS and DVD videos. One of the reasons was that during our 60 years of watching movies we had seen every kind of plot and storyline there is.

Enter the "Millennials"who were born with iPods in their hands and parents who wanted them to be famous. 

And they see movies as only one aspect of entertainment. They can watch a movie on their iPhone and stop to text and then actually take a live call. They call it multi-tasking. However multi-tasking really isn't doing two or three things at the same time, despite what people think.

A few weeks ago I was doing several things at the same time; burning a DVD on my iMac, finalizing another DVD from my TiVo, printing labels on DVD's on my laptop and using my other laptop to answer emails.

At the same time. 

Well, really not at the same time. Very few people can do two things at the same time. What I was doing was compartmentalizing everything, check the TiVo, walk over to the iMac then go back to my laptop to  insert a new DVD to be printed. It really isn't doing 4 things at the same time, it's 4 things in sequence.

The only difference is that kids now can do it faster. In fact they want to get things done as fast as they can.

So what about believing the images.

Sadly, at least to boomers, the kids are missing out on stories and characters because you can't enjoy a movie and text at the same time. I sometimes have my laptop as I watch a movie on TV and realize that I'm often missing some of the story. 

But the story isn't really important now either. Movies were magic to our parents and to us and we would enter a theater to be taken away to another world for two hours. That's what it was about.

Movies like Lawrence of Arabia and The Searchers and so many others gave us legendary characters that we would hope to be or at least partially be like them.

Since DVDs began to be sold in supermarkets it was the beginning of the end of the magic, they became just another product and in order to impress anybody they had to be big. Very big.

Avatar big. 

But even big doesn't work for the audience that much. John Carter (John Carter of Mars) and Battleship both flopped. Batman worked because of Chris Nolan and his use of character and action made it enjoyable.

One interesting thing about Millennials is that they rarely watch the movies of the 1930's to 1950's, which boomers did, even though those movies were made years before they were born. There's still something about Bogart in black and white and Cagney on "top of the world" that make us believe.

So to Millennials, try to believe again, although I also realize that they are facing a world unlike ours, our generation only feared nuclear war, they fear they might miss out on the next generation of iPhones.

And a world of uncertainty. And yes, not all of them are pretty people but most are.

And who's the guy in the photo?

Robert De Niro in one of his first movies

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


Character writers? 


One of the best things about actors was always the character actors. Think of actors like Strother Martin, Dub Taylor, Walter Brennan and women like Cloris Leachman (still working), Agnes Moorehead and so many others.

These weren't the stars, they were the supporting cast. And they sure supported the stars, some of whom weren't really great actors in the first place. In short, a star was famous, a character actor was what made the movies enjoyable.

One of the best lines of dialog ever came from Strother Martin, who could forget "What we got here is a failure to communicate" from Cool Hand Luke. If you haven't seen Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman, see it.

There's another thing about character actors, good ones always worked. Whereas Hollywood is filled with almost stars, fallen stars and aspiring stars, those stars often dimmed. But a character actor would always find a job.

I worked once with Stuart Margolin, who played Angel on the 80's series Rockford Files. He was the co-star of a series I worked on. It was amazing how he could get the attention of the viewer simply by doing a little "business" as they say, a look, a twitch, an expression. That's all it took to get the viewer to focus on him.

Character actors never got the attention that the stars did, but they worked a lot more often.

So how does this relate to writers?

I suppose every writer has always hoped of making the big time and had dreams of climbing the stairs at Academy award time.  But few do. Remember, there are around 10,000 screenwriters in the WGA, although it's hard to really get an exact number.

But every now and then, one of the lucky ones gets to climb those stairs. And the rest of us watch and dream.

I can divide writers into 3 categories; the famous ones,  the one-hit wonders and the ones who somehow manage to work most of the time. The character actors of the writer's world. There are those who became famous; Robert Towne, William Goldman, Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black and a handful of others. These writers lasted for a long time and are still writing.

And then there's the rest of us. I always wanted to write a biography entitled "Working My Way to the Middle". Well, I never really was serious, besides I didn't have time, I was working a lot. And I still am.

I know two writers who sold one screenplay and have never sold anything else again even though they try and try. Nobody knows why, it's just the god or goddess of writers who decides and he or she isn't telling why or how.

I've had a good run with 18 movies, some of which were rewrites, all of which were "Page 1's" as the term is used. Meaning a rewrite that started at page 1, and going through the entire screenplay.  I've been rewritten twice on movies, more on series.

And now, as a aging screenwriter, I continue to write and have plans to write at least 2 specs this fall and winter as well as continue to look for funding for Ghostkeeper 2 and Emperor of Mars. I'm also considering a "crowdfunding picture", wherein funds are solicited online. It's an interesting format, I might do a blog on that whole premise.

So there it is, some writers get an assignment a couple of times in their career, others become stars, but some of us are lucky enough to find continuous work, not as highly paid as the star writers but working more often than not. 

I'm one of those writers who always am writing a new spec script. To date, I have around 42 spec scripts, still not sold.  

But going back to character actors. I'm not happy with the loss of many character actors by age and there are very few new character actors. The term defines certain actors, not the stars, are character actors; they usually have a certain look like those you see above. 

The problem today is that character actors seem to look the same. You can see above, the old actors have certain looks that are different than the others. 

Try to find them now. 

Most character actors aren't as unusual as the older ones, but sadly most are gone.

Monday, September 10, 2018

King of the Gypsies 

Beware of anyone calling himself the King of the Gypsies who phones you and says he's decided you will write his true story and "Not that bullshit story that Peter Maas wrote". You will write the true story of Steve Bimbo Tene, whose life was first translated into a book by author Peter Maas and later made into a feature film with Eric Roberts and Susan Sarandon.   (Some of you probably don't know either of them)?

I knew about as much of gypsies as any average person, that they wear bandanas and tell fortunes but Steve would change all of that.

It seems a lawyer suggested me to him and he decided I would be the one to tell the real story of his quite incredible life. And that as a consequence, Steve would drop in and out of my life for at least 20 years. The book, based loosely on his life but with added drama and fiction by Maas told the story of an American King of the Gypsies back in the 70's and was a best seller. Maas also wrote Serpico, later a movie with Al Pacino and Valachi Papers, a Mafia expose that also was a best seller and movie.

I agreed to meet Steve in a public place as I had no real idea who or what he was, or for that matter, if he was the real Steve Tene. I had seen the movie but that was my only experience with gypsies. He showed up, as he always did later, with his "peeps", usually a nephew and a tall, gaunt man named Richard. After seeing stacks of articles and letters he carried in an office box, I realized he was the real thing.

I spend 6 weeks taping Steve as he told me his life story, which seemed to change significantly depending on the mood he was in. It paralleled the book but the book took more dramatic twists, in it Steve fought and killed his father for the throne.  In reality there was no real King of the Gypsies, at least in America and his father was very much alive. There were a few in Europe who claimed it, but author Maas felt that if there wasn't one in America there should be. Yet, what fascinated me was this enigma of Gypsies, of which little is known.

The book and the movie became a curse to Steve, sort of like being the fasted gun in town, other gypsies were usually gunning for him. Needless to say this was not a comforting thought to me. But there was a fascination with this character who, when he needed money, would go to Vegas for a few days, tell some fortunes in bars, and come back with cold hard cash.

I wrote an article for a local magazine and Steve disappeared soon after that. But he would return, calling me from Palm Springs or Riverside or Orange County and ask me to visit and consider writing a screenplay or a musical play. Or maybe lending him some money.

His life was always turbulent, someone was always out to get him, his sister was trying to send him to jail and he was always near death. At least that's what he said. But, as I learned, he was a Gypsy, and I learned not to trust them too much, they are amazingly like they are portrayed.  Steve said the Gypsies had a curse put on them because they made the nails that were used in the crucifixion of Jesus. But that God had also given them the gift of scamming so that they could earn a living.

Steve also taught me a lot about Gypsy culture, that they originally came from India, and settled in eastern Europe where they managed to make a living by working metal into swords as well as their well-known fortune telling which continues to this day. Even now, I can usually spot Gypsies in every venue from classic fortune telling to repairing driveways and hundreds of other scams.

Interestingly enough, Steve was illiterate, he said Gypsies never sent their kids to schools because they didn't want to be known about, they preferred to roam the country without social security numbers or addresses. It has changed a little now, with internet and cell phones, but they still manage to keep hidden.

It is estimated that there are 2 million of them in the U.S. and the amazing part is that they exist without most of us "Gadji's" (a Gypsy name for everyone else) even realizing it. Honor and revenge play a big part in their lives, even as their young attempt to break away from centuries of hidden existence. I remember once when Steve had a dog training business (shortly before the Palm Springs cafe business) I had arrived and told him there was a Ford F150 driving by. He glanced at a man who clearly was there to protect him, who reached in his jacket for a gun, walked outside, and came back to say it wasn't Steve's nephew who had sworn to kill him.

I kept thinking that nobody wanted to kill the writer, they just wanted him to write a story.

When he wasn't dying or being targeted or lied to or threatened, he was planning a big musical and I was to write it, in spite of the fact I've never written one before... nor aspired to. Steve was full of ideas and for a man who couldn't read or write, managed to survive amazingly well. He remembered house addresses from the 1960's, his music teacher's phone number when he was 16. I began to realize his life was full of inaccuracies and contradictions. Some stories had different endings, others were changed completely to suit his mood.

And he had moods. Steve was a tragic figure, and I guess, as a writer, I was fascinated with it, wondering where it would lead to. Then there were the late night calls when he yelled and cried and wondered why his life was so full of hell, and sometimes I just hung up because I was not of his world and somehow, the only one he could trust.

I asked him once what he would like on his grave, and he said he would like to be compared to Mighty Joe Young, a giant gorilla in a 50's movie by the same name, and a copy of King Kong. That he gave life his best.

In a way, I compared Steve and his people to the wild horses I filmed a few years ago in the remote deserts of Nevada, both lived their lives by their own rules, asking no one to feed or help them. And somehow both man and horse managed to survive by their own rules and once you see that, you somehow feel an appreciation and admiration for them as they fight a losing battle. Because eventually, society will swallow them up and we'll lose another independent species, man and horse.

I never did write "the true story" as Steve had always wanted. One of the problems was that he changed his story now and then.  But he also did have real interest in it, as I had met two credible literary agents who were offering a good amount of money for Steve's story. But whenever a deal was offered, Steve always turned it down.  And after awhile, the offers stopped coming.

It's been 2 years since I got a call from Steve, the last one was to tell me his Gypsy food cafe folded, he lost his condo in Palm Springs, but that he had a new idea for the play.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

On The Road

I first read Jack Kerouac's landmark novel On The Road when I was fifteen. Needless to say it was a landmark moment in my life and one that remains an essential part of who and what I am.

The book is basically a rambling collection of stories around a handful of characters in the late 1940's. It was published in 1956 and immediately became a classic example of that period of time in America. Kerouac and his friends were literate, many were university students and others were just plain crazy people.

What's significant about the book is that it was arguably the first book about young people looking for something else besides the world they saw as different after a world war. And rather than look for jobs, they decided to travel across the country for no real particular reason except adventure, drinking, lots of sex and drugs.  And also seeing a country that was recovering from four years of seeing soldiers dying in Europe and the Pacific.

It was also the beginning of the Beat Generation, which would lead to rock and roll, jazz,  beatniks, hippies, the love generation and a feeling of discovery of another America. The one that was waiting to be discovered with cars, something that didn't happen that much in the 20's or 30's.

And it changed my life.

Not so much the drugs and sex, but the feeling I always had when I traveled across the great prairies and the Rocky Mountains and the truckstops where so many characters I've noticed and whom filled my screenplays. It was my adventure.

Kerouac wrote the book on a long roll of newsprint, he wrote on a typewriter at a frenzied rate, no doubt fueled by other substancesHe was from a French Canadian family in upstate Massachusetts and wrote not only of the lifestyle of the road but also of the discovery of what the country had become, from lonely towns to cities and in a way that made it all sound like a movie to me.

I have driven probably a million miles in the last 40 years, my trusty Ford SUV now has over 2600,000 miles and three more Fords, including my 1968 Ford Mustang, similar to Steve McQueen's movie Bullit.  My friends say that all I need in life is a tank of gas and a highway I've never been on. The highway photo at the top of this blog is in Nevada.

And this brings me to the movie. Finally after years, someone has made On The Road. Francis Coppola, who made The Godfather, optioned it 25 years ago with the intention of making it but never got it together. Finally he gave it to Brazilian Walter Salles who made The Motorcycle Diaries, about the early days of Che Guevara. This took 8 years to get made and finally it will premiere Dec 21st.

But I always wondered if the book could be a movie. It's style of prose is completely different than most novels, it rambles, it rolls along. Sentences continue for forever and the energy was either felt or not. And that's the dilemma. Can it make a movie?

The early reviews were mixed, which I expected and I am uncertain about the outcome. I will see it, I have to see it, but yet a part of me doesn't want to be disappointed, not since it means so much. 

I guess I'll see if the adventure remains. Below I'm on that road I talked about, stuck with my 68  Mustang around 1972.


Monday, September 3, 2018

The Bear and me...

About two weeks ago I received another one of those green envelopes from the Writer's Guild of America. It's the envelope every writer loves to see because of it's contents.

Commonly called "Residuals", it comes down to this; money we get for not doing anything.

A lot of writers at this point will say "No, Jim, we've earned that money."

But a lot of others will say "it's free money." Even my director friends, who also receive residuals agree. It's kind of like you're walking down the street and someone hands you $100 or $2000 just like that.

What are residuals? It's a payment for every time one of my shows, either feature film or TV series, is played somewhere in the U.S. and Canada and all over the world, sort of. I'll explain the world later.

These residuals usually add up in formulas I never quite understand, sometimes annually and sometimes bi-annually. The amounts vary from $2000 to as low as 35 cents. An actor friend of mine actually received a residual for $00.00. It cost 47 cents to mail it.

And the bear?

Well, that's Gentle Ben, a movie I wrote in 2000 and that plays or sells dvds all over the world. The residual check I got recently was for $1200 so that bear is working for me. I get a complicated list of where it played and how much it earned but the bottom line is that it's essentially "free money."

Why do I say that? Well, I was paid Writer's Guild Minimum for writing the screenplay. They paid me when I handed the screenplay over. Done. The cameraman gets paid and they're done. The editor is paid and they're done.  The lighting person is paid and they're done.

Only writers and actors and directors get residuals. But there is a catch with writers, naturally, in which we lose a little of that free money. And this ties in with foreign "royalities" ( another word for residuals).

It goes back to copyrights. When I write a screenplay I own the copyright in much the same as someone can copyright an invention. It belongs to them no matter what and forever. 

Except in America.

Studios, notorious for cooking their books (aka stealing from us) learned long ago to "buy the rights". But how can they when international law says the copyright stays with the writer? Well, they figured out that if they hire the writer under the category "Work For Hire". What this means is that they have bought the copyright and you don't own it anymore. Regardless of international law. And guess who shares your residuals? 

Yes, once again the big guys figure out how to get back some of that money they paid you.

However, Europe and Canada  and other countries collect and pay writers a royalty (also called a "foreign levy) that is based on usage, how often the program/movie is played. And the writer gets all of this money. So even if Gentle Ben is paying US residuals I also get the foreign money once a year and it's for several of my movies and totals around $1200 a year. It gets lesser through the years but I know my bear will keep paying me out, even if it's
.99 cents

My script fee was around $21,000. 

So that's why I see it as free money. I didn't work for it, I didn't write a word or even ask them for money, they just send it to me. And the bear has been feeding me for 18 years so far.

Thanks, Ben.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Crooks and Angels 

This blog goes back a little on a re-release of Ghostkeeper on DVD and now has gone to Blu-Ray. The distributor has acquired 2 35mm prints that were in storage somewhere in NYC for probably almost 30 years. He has screened them and apart from some scratches at head and tail, which is pretty normal, they are both good.

What happened next was that he transfer the 35mm film to digi-beta, which is the standard intermediate these days, and costly. But so far he's paying the bill. Naturally he'll get his money back before I see my share but this is also normal.

Distributors usually share income with producers, or in this case, me. But the key is that well-known game called "expenses". Something that the producer can rarely pin down. A receipt for $250 for a dinner could be for a potential sale -- or a great dinner for the distrib and his/her spouse. 

And it does happen.

The word on my distrib is that he's pretty honest, this coming from some people I know who have dealt with him. And he keeps in touch with me regularly which is also a good sign.

 But for many distribs, stealing is just "doing business". And it's been going on since movies began. There are probably a dozen cases each year in which a producer has to sue the studio or network or other distributors for money owed.

Director and producer Peter Jackson sued New Line saying he was underpaid by at least $100 million. Their usual claim is that the movie isn't in profit. Considering that Lord of the Rings has made at least nearly $1 billion, it seems unlikely that it's not in profit.

And that's where the fun begins as the studio lays out such a complicated structure of who gets what and how much that it takes years to figure it out, if ever. So it becomes a game of who can last longer. 

I did not see a penny from Ghostkeeper 1980, the investors got a mild return and the distributor died after a few years. But I learned my lesson and this time, will have a better deal. 

For what that's worth.

And then there's angels. 

The term comes from businessmen or "money" as they're often referred to (as in "he's the money") who appear at the last moment, just as a film seems to be faltering in raising the needed funds.

So there, like an angel, he/she appears not with glimmering sunlight, but with a briefcase full of money. And it happens more often than you think. 

But there's also a catch; these angels aren't always doing it for love of the movies; they're doing it because they can negotiate a deal in which they get paid even before the other investors.

As the old saying goes "why do you think they call it show business?" 

I'm still not at that point, all I've done is an "exploratory" as political candidates call it. But next week I begin to hold my hat out and hope that someone takes the first step. I do have  almost the rest of the year to raise the almost $1.2 million.

One of the ironies is that it's harder to raise $1.2 million than $100 million. This is because with a $1.2 million budget you're not going to get big stars (there is an exception which I'll tell you about), or big special effects or a comic book rip-off. What you get are actors nobody's heard of, or some 2nd or 3rd level actors, a short schedule and basically a drama, and dramas don't sell well. 

With $70 million you can get Dustin Hoffman or Robert DeNiro or the latest hot guy Bradley Coopper or maybe even Ryan Reynolds (whose appeal continues to defy logic). And the producers can make more money. And not with special effects.

The exception to the b-actor movie is that now alot of movie stars are turning to low budget films, and not for the craft or the love of it; no, they have realized that one can be nominated for an Oscar in a good story made cheaply.

Take Nicole Kidman this year, and Annette Bening, both who did low budget character-driven stories. Michelle Williams, who has done big movies, did Wendy and Lucy, made for under $500k. 

But for now, I'm happy the 35mm print of Ghostkeeper will be released on dvd and Blu-ray and other markets by late summer. And it's one step closer to shooting Ghostkeeper 2.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Indie or Not?

The subject of whether a film is an indie or a studio picture often arises. For example, take the science fiction film District 9, made for $30 million dollars. Some would consider this an "indie"as it was made without a studio or distributor. Of course, movies now can be made for 150 million dollars.

In theory, this action-filled movie with CGI-created aliens should be that.

But I go back to the real intent of independent movies and that is certain filmmakers who choose to write something very personal to them, more often something that will rarely make back it's money. John Casavettes led the way when he made his initial two films for budgets that were less than what District 9 spend on craft services.

These are the movies that, if you live in a major urban center, would play for two weeks at the local arthouse theater. Movies made from the need of some filmmakers to "tell their story". Some of them are not very good, production values, at least up till digital video, were often terrible. But others manage to surpass their technical flaws by having a good story.

I checked the LA Times this morning as there's always a handful of indies playing at the Laemmle theater chain. This week they have the following movies, Holy Rollers, The Secret In Their Eyes, City Island, Mother and Child and a re-issue of the classic French movie, Breathless. 

Ever hear of these movies? 

Apart from City Island, a labor of love from actor Andy Garcia who struggles to get offbeat movies made while maintaining a career in studio pictures. He's arguably close to Casavette's methods of financing movies. Which is anyway you can.

These kinds of movies are the real indies, people who have a story to tell. They don't care about car chases or CGI monsters or tentpoles or sequels. Many of them make one movie and are never heard of again. 

So what's a typical real indie film? 

I once saw a film called Signal 7, made in San Francisco by Rob Nilsson. It's a movie about two would-be actors who, on the way to Hollywood, ended up as taxi drivers in SF and ended up staying there, working as taxi drivers. It's a study of failure and coping with it as these middle-aged men attempt to make something of their lives.

Signal 7 refers to a code among taxi drivers and warns them there's been a robbery or shooting involving a taxi. Ironically we hear about a "Signal 7", we  never really see it. Rather we become involved in these two sad yet noble men, making sense of their lives.

Technically, it was awful, having been filmed on 3/4 inch video which, when blown up to 35mm for theaters, looked like hell. But the amazing thing was this; after about 15 minutes, you get used to the low quality of the image and you know why?

Because you get involved in the story. It's that good.

But not all indie filmmakers disappear. For some, it's the start of a career. John Sayles began his career with The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Spike Lee hustled money to make She's Gotta Have It and Stephen Soderbergh did Sex, Lies and Videotape. All are still making films, albeit for more money and even for studios.

For awhile and maybe even today, many of these filmmakers used credit cards, people like Robert Townsend who made Hollywood Shuffle allegedly on credit cards.

For many years, the goal of all these filmmakers (and I use that term as most were writer/directors) was Sundance, Robert Redford's mountain hideaway where young independent writers and directors could learn from the masters for a few months each year.

There still is an air of independence at the Sundance Film Festival, but it's changed over the years, more movie stars walk down Main street than before, many of them now taking roles in lower budget "indie" films as their chances of nominations increase. But to his credit, Redford attempts to draw out the real indies and to keep the festival about emerging filmmakers who don't have the advantage of Hollywood agents and contacts.

So what about District 9?

It was done by an emerging Indie director, but the definition blurs.

Because, even though it is considered an indie film with no studio or distributor backing it, it was financed through Peter Jackson who made the Lord of the Rings films and who has more influence and money than all the independent filmmakers who ever came out of Sundance.

It's not hard getting money and distribution when you have the 900 pound gorilla standing behind you. But it's a far cry from maxing your credit cards to finish your little movie.

And even though it can be defined as an indie, it really isn't to me. It's future was decided before it started filming. And opening in hundreds of theaters the same day isn't the norm for the real indie filmmakers who are lucky to get 2 weeks in one theater in hopes of a better DVD deal.

Am I right? To a lot of indie filmmakers I am. To some others I'm not. But that's the great thing about movies, you don't have to like what I like. 

One good thing for these movies is netflex and other distributors.

Monday, August 20, 2018


Re-inventing boomers

Or like anyone under 30 needs to hear this

Some time ago I dropped by a restaurant here in Sherman Oaks called Corky's. It's one of those classic 60's places like Norm's, huge meals for decent prices and photos of the valley on the wall going back to the 1930's.

I was there to hear a friend of mine sing in the bar which itself was classic. There were a handful of people there, a guy at the bar and definitely a 60's or 70's feel to it. You'd almost expect Jim Garner as Rockford enter to get info from a con man.

My friend was also the lead actress in Ghostkeeper way back in 1980. She never really sang until last year, never even imagined singing. Even her ex-husband was surprised. Like most of us she had her ups and downs and managed to raise her daughter and send her through school after the divorce. She also teaches yoga.

In her late 50's, she would qualify for that almost new word reinvention that's being used more and more as boomers age. Just to qualify it, boomers are that age group born from 1946 to 1964, meaning the oldest ones are 65 and the youngest are around 47.

So what about writers? 

I posted this question on the WGA writer's website, not the official one, but a separate website only accessed if you're WGA. I got 3 replies.

Out of at least several hundred writers. 


Does that mean 99% of WGA writers are under 46? No, it means either they don't care or they don't want to bring it up. More writers than you think have short careers, some with one screenplay to their credit. How does one reinvent themselves when all they do is write.

I've often said that much of my survival in this business was due to the fact I was experienced in making films, filming, editing, sound and other aspects. I'm still doing this and at present have a pilot for a half-hour travel series unlike anything out there so far.

I did the pilot myself, along with a friend, filming in Nevada and then editing it. You've probably seen the 5 minute trailer for it, it's on the list on the left side of this blog. I've also just finished the novelization of Emperor of Mars and hope to have it on Amazon in the next few weeks.

And I decided to write a book on screenwriting. Isn't that what you do when you don't have a real job? Like we need another book on screenwriting?

Why not?

Mine is based on my UCLA lectures as well as probably some of this blog that deals with writers and writing. And it wasn't my idea, okay, so don't start on the ego thing, this is more the practical thing.


Nobody's buying my screenplays right now, although I have two companies looking at two of my scripts. Other than that I'm holding for miracles until probably next year as 3 companies say they want to make it, the trouble is that Hallmark has it's quota of Christmas scripts this year with deal from Larry Levinson, who brings movies in cheaper than anyone else.

The only other markets have specific topics; Lifetime only wants true woman-in-jeopardy stories, ABC Family wants family stories.

But it gets better and worse. Better for boomers and worse for under 30's. Several studies show that a significant amount of under 30's are found to be unreliable and not much interested in jobs. Not all of them, okay, but a significant amount.

As a young comedian said on Letterman when he found difficulty in finding a job, "it was obvious that my parents hadn't told the world how brilliant I was".

Bummer, huh?

I remember my grandfather, who at 67 spent his days staring out the window until he finally died. Boomers seem to want to hang onto youth no matter what it takes. Employers find they can use retired boomers for less money and can count on them doing the job.

And then there's Kirk Douglas is 100 and wasn't stopping writing, just quitting the show.

So I guess I'm still a bit away from being a Walmart greeter, but I'm practicing the smile just in case.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Martian wouldn't say that 



For those of you who have been around since I started back in August 2009 and for anyone new you've probably noticed how often I focus on incompetent executives or directors and producers. There are a lot of them, to be sure.

But I also mention the good ones, which, unfortunately are fewer than the others. More often than not, those who are not particularly welcomed are the ones who know it all. They know all about filmmaking, distributing and generally anything else.

Some years ago I submitted a screenplay to a producer. I hadn't heard from him for months until I saw him at a party. I asked if he had read the screenplay, he said yes and then mentioned it was a lot like the French film Alphaville.

That seemed odd as it was nothing like Alphaville, an offbeat futuristic movie. So I asked him if he had ever seen Alphaville. His answer was; "no but a friend told me about it."

So how would you rate that comment on your script? Or your pasta?

So I decided to share other writer experiences with studio and network executives and let you be the judge.

These come from a book called "A Martian Wouldn't Say That", mostly a collection of memos from TV execs. The title refers to a note given to a writer on My Favorite Martian, a sitcom of the 60's,  and referred to dialog written for the actor playing the Martian.  Of course the logical comment would be "how would you know that?"

Here's several real notes from execs:

"We cast a black actor as our lead but the way you've written the dialog, we can't tell that."
  That's what we intended.
"Then how will the audience know he's black?" 

"Considering today's sensibilities, when you discuss euthanasia, be sure you do so in a positive light".

"We have run the sequence of the barmaid serving drinks over and over. There is too much cleavage."

"Please consider eliminating the child abuse and homosexual references, they are no longer popular with audiences." 

"In this script, Beverly is described as "on top of everything". Please define "everything."

"This is the best script of Addams Family we've read in a year. Attached are the notes for the rewrite".

"I think you're making a mistake having so many French involved in the production of Les Miserables." 

"In response to your list of suggested writers for your upcoming pilot; who is Truman Capote?"

Sent to Joseph Wambaugh, ex LAPD officer & screenwriter: "Regarding scene on page 38, we don't think cops really talk that way. Please correct. 

"I'm really excited by your new script, those who read it tell me it's exceptionally good."

And this is what we deal with at least half the time, sometimes more. Who was it who said movies are high school with money.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Annie's Calendars 


I've often been asked how I came about writing as a viable career and my easiest answer was always the movies. Since I can remember I loved the movies, I even remember the first movie I ever saw, Disney's documentary The Living Desert, and how a scene of a rattlesnake scared the hell out of me.

After all, it was on a screen 20 feet wide and 12 feet high.

After that I was addicted to the movies and soon knew the names of actors and directors and writers. I knew that after the director's credit, the movie would start.

Since then I have written a pile of movies but I also worked as a news cameraman, soundman and almost every other job on a film, as well as directing 3 movies and scores of commercials.

But it always came back to the writing.

Just before my mother passed away she kept telling me to "keep the calendars". I knew she would write little notes on calendars, appointments, things like that. But it wasn't until after she passed away that I discovered the entire stash of calendars stuffed into a corner of her closet.

And they dated back to 1971.

On January 1976, she received a call from my brother Dave, in Hong Kong, on that same day she called me in Vancouver and added, on the same day that there was snow and cold. She would also note the hours she worked.

Annie worked mostly in cafes, the kind that you rarely see now, where a hot hamburger sandwich was more common than a flambe. She was the youngest of six and when her mother died, her father took another woman and sent Annie away, at the age of 15. She had barely an 8th grade education.

Her calendars started around 1971, but some may have been lost in the many moves we made.  Mostly they were like this:

On March 1973 she wrote "sick, one half day worked, $21.20."
On June 1973, "Dave got hurt in school, went to hospital".
May 1999, "found 15 morel mushrooms and went to breakfast to Roman Catholic church".
July 1975, "exchanged camera, bought better camera".
Dec 1979, "boys phoned, first snow storm and cold".
Nov 1981, "James came home".

I started reading the calendars a few weeks ago, having stashed them after her funeral and I began to see what she was protecting, even after she was gone.

They were her life, her diary. Very basic yet revealing the life of a family for almost 40 years. They were simple entries but yet very clear to me, even if the squares of the calendars were only large enough to write 3 or 4 words. So many of the entries bring back a memory to me, things I had forgotten.

And I realized that maybe, just maybe this was why I write. And oddly enough the same goes for my brother Dave, who also writes and works for a newspaper in Calgary as a writer and desk editor.

My mother was not formally educated, rather she was educated in hard work and sacrifice like most of her family and most people back in the 1950's. She didn't believe in credit cards nor in incurring debt, which would make her a rare commodity these days.

She also had a box of letters that date back to 1937 and lists of money spent every day, 5 cents for ice-cream, 35 cents for lunch, new scarf $1.75.

Her last entry though, was written by me, as I sat with her in the hospital. She wasn't able to write at this point, her anemia making her so weak she could barely lift her hand. Yet she insisted that I write in the calendar that she had another transfusion. I told her she had the transfusion weeks ago, but she insisted that I write down "Another transfusion".

So I did. Twelve hours later she passed away.

I always thought it was my dad who had the talent in the family, for a garage mechanic, he played the violin incredibly well, winning contest after contest even into his late 70's. And both Dave and I inherited a little bit of his musical talents.

But it wasn't until now that I realized that the writing part came from Annie, with a strong dose of Hollywood movies. So this is my plan;

I want to read all of her calendars and see if there could be a book in it, a diary of a woman but not your average diary. I have mentioned this to friends and many of them say their mothers wrote their version of a diary in calendars so maybe it just might be worth it.

Lesson learned; don't throw away your mother's calendars.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

So if you're dreaming about California
It don't matter at all where you played before
California's a brand new game
                    -Gatlin Brothers

It seems that most movies about Hollywood tend to show the down side of the movie business. You've got A Star Is Born (1937, 1954 & 1976) about a famous actor who mentors a rising star only to see her eclipse his fame, or Sunset Boulevard (1950 ) about a screenwriter who becomes a "companion" to a faded silent movie star and pays the ultimate price. There even was a movie called "The Oscar" and a dozen more, including the Robert Altman film, The Player, about a producer who kills a screenwriter.

Ironically, the best book and movie on the business to my liking was Nathaniel West's classic Day of the Locust (1979), a brilliant study of those who come seeking fame who end up with nothing. While the book was written in 1939 the only difference between then and 2010 is that the cars are better and we have iPhones.
My "crowd" is mixed, a few wildly successful people, some successful, some less so and some at the bottom of the ladder. Then there's those who border on complete delusion as a means to validate that they too are successful. Needless to say those categories above don't always end up at the same table. It's almost as though success fears failure in others as it might be catching like a virus.

Something else that hasn't changed is the amount of people who still come to Hollywood to become stars. While in the 20's to the 70's, it was mostly actors and singers, now it includes screenwriters and directors. And they all are still consumed by the knowledge that they have what it takes.
Take the blonde girl, mid 20's who looked across the room at the party, it was still early and guests were just arriving. Then she spotted two older men standing near the bar talking. It took her a second to decide to move and she approached them, smiling.
"Hi, I'm Serena".
The two men were myself and my director friend Paul. It didn't take much to figure out why she selected us. The other guests were either around her age so early in the evening or were couples talking to each other. Serena was an actress, and that was not really her name.
The party was a party  given by a studio owner whom I had known since my Calgary days. His Hollywood Hills home, "just a short drive from Jack Nicholson's place", overlooked the entire valley and as I stood at a glass bar the size of my kitchen, a bartender poured drinks as we watched the fires in the San Bernadino mountains 20 miles away. For a moment, I felt guilty, knowing that not far away firefighters were desperately trying to save hillsides.
"Beautiful house, isn't it," she said.
Whatever Serena didn't have, she did have confidence, the kind that always amazes me as I never really had that when I began. I probably still don't have it that much. I see that confidence so often with the young actors and writers and directors but also know that confidence in itself isn't all that important.
Actors are the biggest casualties in this city of dreams. There are more of them for one, approximately 200,000 according to SAG, and they're not counting the actors who still haven't gained admission to the powerful union.  The WGA has about 8000 writers and at any given time, less than 2000 are working.  DGA has around 2500 - 3000 directors, most of whom are not working.
So you can see the odds against even getting a job let alone hanging onto it.
Think of it this way, every day I look for a new job. Same for the actors and directors and crew. Those on a series have a little job security... at least until the show is cancelled. And some shows get canceled after the 2nd episode is aired. Job security is a word we've never considered. 
And when we find a potential job, 90% of the time we get rejected.

Why do some people win and the majority lose? Hard question to answer. There is the talent factor, no doubt a leading contender for the big time. But as the studio exec told me, craft and discipline are more important. And then there's the main two reasons why someone doesn't work.
Either they're not very good or they're hard to work with.
Who loses? Everybody else. 
But it's how you lose that counts. 
A lot of them give it a good shot and if, after a few years it doesn't work out, they drop out and find a regular job and forget about it. While a steady working actor can earn up to $50,000 a year, the majority make around $8000. A year.
Higher up in the food chain, you have the character actors who, with a hit series and maybe a movie or two a year enjoy a somewhat full career and they can even buy a home. And of course, we can't forget the stars who make as much as $20 million a picture. Like Sandra Bullock.
Sandra recently dropped her fee to $10 million to show how much she loved the script to The Blind Side. Now that's showing real bravado.  And it will end up getting her an Oscar nomination and I predict, a win. Meryl Street is nominated twice and that will cancel her out. Besides she has enough Oscars.

But there are those others; the desperate ones who don't know when to give up. And they tend to be those who really aren't that good at what they do. Not that you have to be good; look at the cast of Friends, not particularly talented, except maybe for Courtney Cox, and look at them -- a hit series and they're millionaires.
But they won the lottery in the same sense that you or I would if we bought a ticket. Really. For some reason they had "chemistry" as they say, something worked, their chemistry, the world was just ready for that show, and it was well crafted by the writers and directors.
But that's lightning in a bottle, as executives like to say. It rarely happens twice.
But back to Serena. After 10 minutes of the usual party talk she looked at us in the eye and said, "so what do you do?" We told her. She moved closer. She also focused more on Paul than me; writers don't hire actors, directors do. I saw my host and excused myself as Paul listened to her story about the last movie she was in.
After all, writers don't hire actors. Writers don't hire anybody and nobody even sees them sometimes, our work is done before the crew and actors are hired. And I've learned not to bring business cards anywhere because I have the bad habit of handing them out. 
And those people do call you.
After 28 years I have met many Serenas at parties or functions or even in coffee houses and once crossing a street. As I crossed a young woman was crossing beside me and when a car screeched she commented on the crazy drivers. I agreed, told her to watch all around. It took her almost at the curb when she said; "so, are you in the business"?
The thing of it is that yes, it is flattering to have a good-looking woman talk to me and sometimes it's quite sincere and I have been known to help writers who are starting out. But after many years I have learned to stick to writers whom I may be able to help or at least read their work.
But my best story about meeting on a street was when I took a bad fall on my mountain bike  at an intersection and several people came to help. My wrist was totally broken, in an "S" shape. Two people helped me, the girl taking her leather jacket off so I could lay my head on it. The other person was an older man, maybe 70's and he asked my name and what I did as a job to see if I was fully conscious. I told him I was a writer. He smiled and said so was he. And the girl said she was a special effects person for the movies.
I take a spill on my bike on Ventura Boulevard and the two people who come to help me are in the film industry. Small world.
And the old guy? He was Marty Krofft, who created a ton of kid series for CBS in the 1960s and 70's. Anyone over 40 would know his name.
He gave me his card and said, "call me when you're better".
I did call him months later. He never returned the call.