Monday, July 30, 2018


Screenwriting -- The development process

One of the most dreaded processes in a writer's life, at least for me, is the development "phase". It can be inspiring and a delight, or it can be pure hell. I once worked with a "D-Girl" (a term for a Development executive, most often a woman) called Amy, whose nickname was "the anti-Christ". And she lived up to her reputation as she would go out of her way to demean and attack you. 

On the other hand I once worked with a woman who had drinking issues among other flaws, including foul language that still amazes me, but she gave me a set of the best notes I have ever had, I still keep them. Development is generally dreaded because it means the producer or production company or studio has read the screenplay and now wants to add their input. Some might say they paid for it so they can rip it apart. I think it's the fact that they can't write and just want to punish me for being able to write.  Regardless, it's the next stage of development of a movie and it can be hell. 

John Levoff who was head of drama at Paramount/UPN always used to start the meeting with me by saying "Page 1", meaning that notes were on every page of a 110 page screenplay. It's like you have been sentenced to life. But John was a smart exec and this was just his way of joking and making me comfortable. He'd have suggestions for maybe a dozen pages and not hard to do at all. I enjoyed working with him and Steve White, the producer, both had ideas and both gave me freedom to disagree. 

What makes this stage hard sometimes, besides the particular exec or producer, is that I arrogantly think that no word need be changed.  And that's where it gets hard. A good note will surprisingly inspire you, they do come up with good ideas. A bad note can turn your stomach as you try to figure out how to change a script set in a barren landscape to a lush, green countryside with brilliant yellow canola crops. This actually happened on Riddler's Moon. And I did find a way. But ultimately you find a way of compromising, although sometimes through grueling arguments and even fights. 

Back in 1990, I wrote a screenplay called Cardinal Sins, based on a story I had about teen abuse at a Catholic adoption home (my Catholic guilt story) in just over two weeks with my producer Dick Lowry. We sat in a hotel until it was finished and then the first draft was handed to the Assistant Director who broke it down to shooting days and they began filming 3 days later. 

Not a word was changed, except for the occasional actor's changing a line to suit them better, which normally happens. 

No development phase. No D-people. It can be done. Not that I would recommend it, we had no choice as we had to shoot the film before the end of December and it was now December 1st. This was because the film was funded to be made before January 1st due to tax breaks.

 But I saw the movie a few months ago and you know what... it still works.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Producer

One of the most common questions I get about movies is "What does the producer do?" So far I have not dealt with the producer, because, at this time, I am the producer. I am also looking for another producer who can help find financing.  

In short, the producer finds the money. 

Sometimes he has it, but most of the time he has to find the money from private investors or a studio or distributor.  Someone once asked me how he could become a producer, my answer was that it was easy,  "just find me $2 million." That is what producers do. Generally they option the screenplay and then begin to put all the pieces of a movie together, they find the script, hire the director, start casting actors with the director, begin looking for crew, do budgets and generally supervise the production even after it's finished. 

They are the first ones in and the last ones out. And the best ones are legendary in both their movie choices and the showmanship required to stay at the top. Who makes the best producers?

To be honest,  conmen, thieves, used car salesmen and bank robbers. 

They have to sell a product that does not exist and to do that, you practically have to stretch the truth.They were common for decades, the cigar-chomping guys and the smooth ones in expensive suits, but there are fewer of them, and ironically, they were better than many of the producers now because they always got the money somehow without getting help.

That's not to say all producers are like that. I've worked with both, and some like Norton Wright and Steve White, are honest and smart and they get the job done. But there are others who are just plain criminals. Every now and then they get arrested and charged with some phony scam they were running.  And this isn't just small time, MGM has had it's share, as had other major studios and companies. I know of one who was arrested for "creative accounting" and was just released due to lack of evidence, and he's back on the street, doing $5-10 million dollar movies.  They just don't make 'em like they used to.

Where does that put me?  I take my lead from Norton and Steve, maybe it's a little harder, but I prefer that way, my mom would be very unhappy if I were doing it any other way. I also happen to enjoy doing budgets and proposals as with Travel Day, it's an essential part of being a producer. I did the budget on Ghostkeeper, my first feature, with a calculator, way before computers. Now I use software like Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduling which makes it much easier. 

And having done the movies and TV shows I have, I always snooped around the producer's office and the accountants and picked up valuable lessons in how money is spent. Nobody ever talks to accountants so I have a habit to bring in chocolates on the first day. Yeah, it was shameful, but they liked me, and they told me how money is spent and lost. I became so aware of money being thrown away I would always tell the craft services people to divide muffins into 4 pieces as most people won't eat a whole muffin and end up leaving it somewhere or throwing it away. 

Don't get me started on water bottles and cell phones.

More Monday

* This comes from a previous blog.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

About talent

A comedian once said this; "when did every child become gifted"? 

Talent is one of the most overused and least understood words in the world of art, be it painters, musicians, actors, writers and so on and so on. It is a word I use rarely and with conviction when it is warranted. To be honest, talent has been misapplied probably 90% of the time.  

Take me,  I'm a good writer, have a respectable reputation and can come up with some pretty great words.  But I'm not talented. I know people who are talented and I'm not like them.  Paul Newman said that he did not come to acting easy, that it took him a long time to figure out how to do it right. I agree with him, it took me a long time to learn how to write and I see myself as a craftsman, I learned the trade and can do it well enough that people appreciate it. You may not like my story, but you can't say my writing is bad. 

And I'm not being modest, I'm perfectly happy with my craftsman label, I'm still amazed people pay me to write words. Talented people are different, and they stand out from the very beginning. Look at your grade 1 class, that guy or girl in the corner who didn't look like everyone else, who wore odd clothes or who would draw a perfect face instead of a stickman, that's the one who's talented.  

Meryl Streep is talented, Sharon Stone is not,  both still work, one simply can't help but being brilliant every time out.  I watched Sharon Stone on that Actor's Studio show, and Sharon couldn't stop talking about how she plays her character. Ever see Meryl discuss acting? She has no idea how she does it, it's just there.  

The rest of us have to fight to get "there" and most of the time we don't make it. But sometimes we do get there, only for a moment, and the air is sweeter. 

I have known less than a handful of talented people in this business, my friend, Phil Borsos, and I made a short film COOPERAGE, which won awards all over the world and ended as finalist in 1976 Academy Awards.  The brilliance came from Phil, he would come up with shots I would never have dreamt of.  But I shot one great scene that we used under the credits, and it was perfect.  

Phil's first feature THE GREY FOX won 11 awards at Canada's version of the Oscars and Francis Coppola distributed it in the US to universal acclaim.  Talent is rare.  And those who are usually don't know they are nor do they care. And the danger of too much talent is the incapability of regular life. Look at Brando, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix.

Where does that leave the rest of us? 

Consider this; a studio executive once told me "you need three things to succeed in Hollywood, talent, craft and discipline," and then he added, "and talent is the least important of those three."

*First blog 2009.


Friday, July 20, 2018



The words come first

Before the actors take the stage, before the DP lights the set, even before the donuts are on the table and even before anybody even knows there is a story... 

The writer is there, sitting in front of a blank page, desperately trying to think of something else he or she wants to do than this. As I mentioned, I have written and rewritten a total of 16 produced scripts, both mine and others. I have also around 30 hours of episodic (this number changes depending on the wine I drink).  And a lot of those movies aren't great, some aren't even very good but a few came through pretty good. In almost all the cases, it was due to notes from producers and or development executives. 

And in all cases, the bad movies were from people who knew very little about anything while the good movies were with who knew their stuff and made my work better.  In addition I have worked on around 20 screenplays that made it to development but not to production.  Travel Day was a spec script, and for those readers who aren't familiar with the term, it's a screenplay I decided to write entirely on my own with no guarantee of ever being sold, or maybe even being seen. 

I have 24 of these specs on my shelf now, and I think they all could be made, unfortunately the powers-that-be think differently. And maybe they're right, or at least half right. That's what writers live with, a basket full of ideas nobody else cares about.

I am not great at concept movies, I couldn't write The Hangover if I tried, and I wish I could, I'd have a lot more money than I do. I tended to write good character studies, and it got me work and a reasonable career. One thing someone once pointed out to me was that my endings seem to always be unresolved, ambiguous. I realized they were right. I finally had a style, I thought. But after awhile, I didn't really ever figure out why the endings were the same, be it movie or TV episode. So I left it alone. Meryl Streep doesn't try to figure out why she can become so believeable as any character. Best to leave the muse alone.

I taught screenwriting at UCLA once, and I'll do a blog on that up the road, but I came up with what is being written in Hollywood these days. And it hasn't changed in a hundred years.  If you want to write something that can be sold, consider this, in order;

1. Movies made from novels and books.
2. True life stories
3. Remakes and sequels
4. Original screenplays

You can see where the original screenplay sits in the scheme of things. If you don't believe me, open your newspaper entertainment page.  So naturally I picked # 4 because I don't know how to write those other stories, or maybe I don't like to. Maybe that's why I don't have a Porsche, but I like my 96 Explorer. And it's paid for. Ever seen what a tune-up costs for a Carerra?

And I don't mean the first three "genres" are bad or unwatchable, many of them are great, unless you count Taking of Pelham 1,2,3.  But I learned late in my career to write what I write good, rather than what I would probably write bad.

So now you know more about the odds of ever getting Travel Day made. And you're probably wondering why I want to punish myself by choosing the hardest kind of movie to make. It all goes back to what I said in the first blog, it's never easy. For anybody who tries to get a movie made.  A director named Peter Hyams, I believe, was credited with this:

"Being in the film business is like being married to a beautiful woman who cheats on you, and you know she cheats on you, but every so often she dresses up and you take her out for dinner and look at her and's all worth it."

What I take out of that is that most of the time this business breaks your heart but every now and then it's worth it.  My ex told me that I was one of the few people she knew who was living his dream, you know, that kid in the picture to the left... that's all he ever wanted.

That's why I'm here.

NOTE: This was written  August 28, 2009.  I began adding photos later on.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Getting closer

Yes, I'm still in a blog problem and hopefully will get it going next week. I will, for the moment, take some older blogs, going back to 2009. Might be fun or maybe some interesting stuff. Here is the first blog,  August 24th 2009. I thought that italic should work. Some liked them and some didn't. Today is actually July 13, 2018.

For some reason I decided that the letter type should be "filmic."

Blog 1: Making Movies the Hard Way

To begin with, I was pretty apprehensive about starting a blog on how I plan to make a movie. Samuel French has dozens of books just on this subject (right next to the hundreds of books on screenwriting) and what could I possibly add.?

But I wanted to share the ups and downs of looking for money for a movie and figured that this might be the best place to do that. Some people might get a kick out of it, some might not care, others might find a little encouragement.I’m not an Academy winner or flavor of the month (although a short I filmed and co-produced made it to the Academy finalist list) rather, I’m a working writer, producer and director like so many others.

The blood of this industry.

The reason for this blog comes from several places and all are connected to one, the world of movie-making. I invite you to follow the process from screenplay to the development and funding and, hopefully, to the production itself. I wanted to call the blog Making Movies the Hard Way because, put simply, there is no easy way. Ever.

Along with the business, technical and artistic sides, I will also talk about the people; the talented, the untalented, the crazy ones and the rare angels and saints. And since I have been in this process more than once in my 30-plus years in the business, my friends assured me I could keep you entertained.

Easy to say for them, they get to watch me run and fall and get up and fall again in one of the worst recessions in a long time. I will post new blogs Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and anytime if something good comes up like someone writes me a check for $400,000, or maybe $50.

So hopefully you’ll stick with me until the end, wherein I actually get it made. If I get it made. And that’s a hell of a big “IF”.

You know the odds.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Getting closer

 Writer/newscamera guy angry at 1968 Mustang in small town called Kamsack. Later in the day we got kicked out of town for long hair. 1972

Okay, we're getting closer to the original version of the damn thing. What I have to do is to fill in the image, not sure if it can be the same one, I always wanted it to be the same.

 Oh, my ex was there too. We laugh about it now. Earlier in the day my uncle wanted to kick us out too. 

Yeah, kind of a cheap way to keep all you blog readers coming back again.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Sorry about the blog


I still can't get the front cover going so I'm going to keep fixing it until it comes back complete on the blog as it should be.

So hang on, the basic blog will keep going by Friday.