Monday, March 26, 2018

Did They Change Your Script?

There is a website created by WGA writers and for WGA writers only. It's where we can rant, complain, argue and generally have some support and sympathy for our own. Not to say we always get along, there have been some pretty heavy disagreements from time to time.

There are some jokes about writers and forgive me if they offend you;
"Did you hear about the Polish actress -- she slept with the writer". 

"The writer on set, is like the hooker who's finished her work but is still hanging around. You don't really need her but you can't tell her to leave"

"Writer comes home, cop tells him his house has burned down, his wife assaulted, his kids kidnaped and his agent called. Writer reacts and says "My agent called?"

"Writers are just schmucks with Underwoods" (Jack Warner, studio head). Just a note for some of you, Underwoods were typewriters a hundred years before laptops.

There are probably many more, but those are the ones I have heard. And yes, there were women writers. In silent movies a lot of women wrote the words on the screen and there were a lot of them since then.

I posted my Christmas movie on the writer's website and got some nice comments. Then someone asked the one big question; "Did they change your script?"

This is one of the most feared subjects; the sanctity of the original screenplay. Imagine if your working at a desk in an office and hand in your work, then your boss takes it to another staffer to rework and rewrite it.

This is also what often happens to writers; other writers rewrite them ad more than often, other writers rewrite the other writers. Sometimes it does make a better screenplay, mostly it creates mediocrity. TV writing is a hotbed of changes and since their schedules are shorter and more often (a TV show has to be filmed for every week) they change the script even when the episode is being made.

Features are different, since it is a one-of; not a series of films, but just one. Changes are also made, and on set but generally it's not as hectic as series.

So, did they change my beloved script? Short answer, "yes".

Did I mind? No.

First of all, it was about 75%  of my original words, for a writer that's a huge success. But they changed several scenes but this was done for a simple reason; the budget of the film was incredibly low, they filmed it in 12 days which is an almost unbelievable schedule.

And as I said in the previous blog, they filmed it in late August in blistering heat. Lots of fake snow had to be used. And they had to take some outdoor scenes I wrote and put them indoors simply because the outdoors couldn't be filmed. So several scenes were changed to indoor sets and they worked well.

There were some dialog changes but that's natural as actors and director often change bits of dialog here and there to make it sound more natural. I don't mind this either. And I don't really want to be on the set because then they'll ask me to come up with a line and I really don't want to. It's their baby now, they can diaper it.

It's also a screenplay that I knew would be made by others and I have the ability to let it go when they pay me. If they want more changes, I'll do them, but only if they pay. And that's WGA/WGC rules so I'm not being fussy.

The only thing I didn't like was that, in their haste, they didn't have time to grab more reaction shots or do another take or two that was better than what they had. But that's time and money.

And after all that, I liked the movie, it wasn't all mine, but 75% was and that's more than I expected. And I already am thinking of a new Christmas movie.

With odds at 98 to 1, being me the one. Don't hold your breath. 

By the way, that's me at the top of the page with a writer friend from Canada. I have the RCMP cap, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They are actually real policemen and don't wear red on duty.

Friday, March 23, 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 wrote that 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.

 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". (she always called me James)

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 Ukrainian people back as far as 1895. 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, March 21, 2018

My 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 300,000 miles and I've had several cars. 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 part of a documentary I did. 

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.

I finally wrote a book of my road adventures last year. It consists of stories of people I've met.  You can see it on Amazon.

It's called "How To Not Get Beat Up In A Small Town Bar".

Monday, March 19, 2018

More about agents

There's a joke that goes around about agents; a writer returns to his home to find his house burned down. Police stand outside as he's horrified and asks what happened. Police say his wife was attacked, kids kidnapped, dog killed, house burned down and... his agent called.

Writer listens quietly and the turns to cops and says,  "My agent called?"

Agents - they love you and they forget you and the good ones take you out to lunch two or three times a year. 

In the "old days" there were lots of agents around hungry for someone who is known, or someone who might get known and then the agents will get a nobody at all, but might be known.

That was me way back in 1980's. I made Ghostkeeper and was pretty hot in Canada, however I lived in Alberta where the only movies made by locals were little shorts and documentaries. 

Living away from the film centers of Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal, there was not much of anything in the way of "agents". However some agents gathered a handful of film  writers, although episodic writers were better known.

I got a job in Toronto without an agent, but a company that made video features for international companies. Usually the films were action styles, and cost around $10,000. I wrote and directed three of them. I think I got around $1000.00 for the whole movie.

Then, after having a breakup from my wife, I wrote a weird story about a girl's baseball team who traveled through redneck country and got in trouble. You can find it on youtube and my credit was "Story by Jim Makichuk".  Actually about 75% of it was mine but I got a credit.

I had a great title, but they changed it to Blood Games.

Cheap, huh.

Then, I met a director at the Toronto Film Festival who knew a friend who met me in Vancouver and recommended me. The director told me he could get an agent. Turned out, he connected me to my first agent.

So I started in LA with that movie and wrote a screenplay based on a radio program I listened to driving to L.A. I had to write it fast as the producer was going to shoot in 2 weeks. I sat in a hotel in Toronto for 2 weeks and turned out it on the first day of filming.

And it turned out to be a good movie. Much better than Blood Games.

And I got the director's agent who wasn't very good. But I got another agent and another and kept "moving up", as they say. Ended at Endeavor which is a major agency. However my agent quit and so did I. 

But agents are still around, always looking.  

One more thing; I'm having problems with Blogger, it should enter my blog but takes 4 or 5 times before I can get my real blog. Getting someone to fix the damn thing.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Financial Core

I'll start with a story about Jon Voight, the actor made famous in Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman.  A few years ago, Voight was asked by a friend to be in his low budget movie. So low that it was non-union. Voight belongs to the Screen Actor's Guild, known as SAG. As with all unions, including my own WGA and WGC (Canada) they're pretty tough on producers with good reason.

Actors and writers regularly get screwed. 

Back to Voight. He agreed to be in his friends movie as a favor. However, when SAG found out they went wild. They told Voight he could not do it, or they would kick him out of the union. This wasn't some new actor or some unknown actor, it was an Academy-nominated famous actor. But SAG was not bending.  Now, you have an Oscar winner and about 40 other nominations who has been told he cannot help his friend. It left Voight with one choice.

Financial Core.

Financial Core is a little-known and infrequently used and what it does is allow a union member, any union, SAG or UAW or United Steelworkers, any union, to take a non-union job and still retain his union status to a point.

It's a very odd law that was started by an individual in a union in the mid-west who protested against his union deductions going to support a political candidate he didn't support. Basically he wanted his share of the money going back to him and whichever candidate he wanted to donate to. In short, as long as he pays his dues and fees, he is allowed to stay in the union without having all the rules apply to him.

How did actors and writers get into it?

Somehow, it translates to SAG, WGA and even DGA in that the member who chooses Financial Core can work on non-union productions and still retain his/her membership in that guild. But they lose the right to vote and the monthly magazine and the wrath of other members who can shun him. They can't vote nor go to the parties and miss out on other neat stuff.

But they remain in the union nontheless.

And the guilds hate it. As a matter of fact, they won't even talk about it and sometimes deny it exists. And it's not just about the person who chooses to go "core". If one does it, others will do it and the union will lose money they collect from the producer and actor.

Back to John Voight. He did go Financial Core and did start his friend's movie, but it was closed down after union protesters shut it down. All was relatively quiet until 2005, when Voight was nominated for Best Actor in a TV movie by SAG voters.

But that's not the best part.

SAG refused to allow him to go to the ceremonies. This wasn't the Academy Awards, just the SAG membership who vote for whom they think had exceptional performances that year for movies and TV. And Voight wasn't allowed in. And just because he had won an Oscar and had been nominated four other times as well as a few dozen other awards, they were going to show him that he would be sorry.

No tux, no limo, no meeting his peers at the ceremony. And no after awards dinner either.

The same applies to the WGA, during the strike some writers continued to work under the table while others chose Financial Core. It's hard to pay your bills sometimes and since WGA would not even consider any breaks. After the strike, the union leaders wanted revenge on those who either lied or went core, but very little came of it except for hard feelings.

Were the writers wrong, should they be punished? It's a tough decision, and you need to realize that the writers themselves have conflicts as well. There are roughly 8000 members of WGA, and of these there are less than 2000 who are working, although it's almost impossible to get the guild administration to give an accurate number.

That's an unemployment rate of 80%. The U.S. rate of unemployment is 10% (although realistically it's more like 15-20%). The guild has writers who make $2-4 million a year and the majority wait for residual checks while earning nothing.

I know unions very well, having grown up in Windsor, Ontario, across from Motor City itself. I worked on the line at Chrysler and later covered the UAW beat both in Windsor and Detroit. I also belonged to a television union, NABET. Unions are essential, otherwise the owners would completely take advantage of employees. Can you say Walmart?

To it's credit, WGA has a low budget deal in which the writer is paid a small amount of the minimum scale rate and then, when the film is sold, the writer gets full payment.  The minimum scale is around $42,000 for a budget under $2 million and it has to be guild sanctioned. Non-union work is a no-no.

What happens if you do a non-union job?

You can get thrown out of the guild, you can get fined the full amount you earned or you can get slapped on the wrist and told not to do that.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Sorry, had a lot of work last week

I've think I'm getting some work for on-line screenplay working, I mentioned it before and I have to set up stuff in order for the "machine" to make it work. I should be dropping posts here more and also making a few bucks.

Here's me with a real Oscar at Jack Larsen's home, he was known way back in the late 1950's for the TV series of Adventures of Superman. No he wasn't Superman.

He was Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter. The other Superman movies were in the 70's and 80's. We interviewed him about 8 years ago and he was one of the few actors left who remembered Raoul Walsh. He was good working director, no big movies but a lot of great movies. Jack was in one of them.

We had a few more actors as there weren't that many left.  You really should get some Raoul Walsh movies, they are great little stories, had Errol Flynn and others. By the way he lost an eye in a car crash and wore a patch over one eye.

I shot and edited a version of which I'm trying to find. Here's a pic.

 And here's Jack Larsen again with me. Same house as above. He passed away September 20th 2015. Nice man.


The end.


Friday, March 2, 2018

Got a job

Back again...

Well, I had some dealings with an online screenwriting job for a university. It's not completed yet but I will be teaching screenwriting.

Have I done that before? Well anyone who's read way back remembers. And it was a great university, UCLA, one of the best film and screenwriting schools in the world. This one isn't it, but very close. West Coast.

But I will continue writing screenplays, of which was the one that you followed two weeks before. I'm not sure how long it'll take to set up but I hope to get some students in this year.

Just to see what I've done before, here's a page or so of what some of my students said about me and my work. Of course I picked out the best ones but, read them.

So this is what one student thought. I've had mostly very good  with some who didn't like it and most were good.  This was over 4 years, 2000-2004. Now I get another shot at being a teacher. I actually really like it too.

And I continue my screenplay, the one a week back.