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.