Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What Happened

What the hell happened last week.

I'm still in sort of a shock of what is going on. Almost have to say what happened for this. I have emailed and phoned around a few of my writer friends and a few director friends and actors. It always gives me some help about whatever the hell is going on.

And one of my producer friends already wants me to work on my S.O.B. series.
Yeah? He's already even though the world has changed forever.

He wants me to look as though I just finished it. He's going to get S.0.B to a new president who was chief of marketing previously. The company is largely a female focus operation. We have two female leads, it's wide open for a female producer and directors and with a successful five hours it morphs into a continuing series.


This guy is crazy, ready to kill, the world is turning over (well, maybe a little?) and he wants to move. This was a series about two women who were married to the same man in his 60's and who died leaving an old Private Eye shop off Venture and Van Nuys and was married to both of them. Different times.

So... here I go again? My favourite town, where I lived for 28 years.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

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 newscameraman, 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 last August 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, March 11, 2020

Making a Short script long

One of the things one learns about writing along the way is that, in the words of Confucius, change is inevitable.

And when it comes to writing, you will be asked to change your story from the sensible to the illogical and sometimes from the illogical back to sensible. It is often said that a writer's best version of their script is the first draft. That making changes only satisfy the producer or production executive or actor only muddy the story up.

Clint Eastwood, in a recent interview said he went through a few versions of the screenplay Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples. Finally he realized one thing; that the best version of the screenplay was the original one that Peoples wrote.

This shows two things; that Eastwood had the sense that the original was better and that Peoples had written a good screenplay.

Unfortunately that's rarely the case.

I wrote a spec screenplay around 2003 called Field of Fire, a story about two military snipers stalking each other in Central Park. It was picked up by a company called Promark, now no longer in business.  Eventually it made the rounds and ended up with a producer I know who would direct.

But first I had to change it from Central Park in New York to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. And I had to change almost every location as well as much of the script. But a job is a job and it wasn't my best screenplay, nor even my favorite.

And once it was being filmed, it became clear that very little of the screenplay was being shot due to budget restraints and general lack of planning. It became a run and shoot production, rushing and grabbing shots anywhere they could.

When it was finished the rough cut was around 66 minutes.

Usually a rough cut is maybe 2 or 3 hours and for some it can go for many hours. This is the first version of the movie and the one where they throw in everything they can. Then the editor gets to cut it shorter to a reasonable viewing time. A feature length movie must be at least 75 minutes and it can be as long as it needs be with maybe a maximum of 3 hours these days.

For our movie, there was nothing to cut. The editor had used all the useable footage. All the cutting of scenes from the screenplay resulted in a feature that wasn't a feature yet. It needed at least 10 more minutes of good footage which translates maybe to about 20 minutes of shooting as there can be multiple takes and mistakes and camera errors and so on. And that's for the minimum requirement.

A page of screenplay is usually considered about 1 minute. Thus a 90 page screenplay comes out around 90 minutes.  It's not an exact science. Action moves faster than dialog for example. A 1 page action scene can come out at maybe 30 seconds.

They turned to me to figure out how to stretch it out.  Since I had been on the production as a co-producer, I knew early on that this would be a problem movie. When the script supervisor whispered to me that "they" were destroying my script, I was pretty much helpless at that point and decided to find something positive in this experience.

Now they needed me to fix the mess they created. I could walk away or I could do what I could. I wish I could have come up with something new but the only way to do it was to simply write a 30 page scene in one room with the principal actor.

Because we didn't have the money for anything else.

And that's where the flashback comes in.

I wrote a scene where the principal actor tells the entire story of the movie in flashbacks. This solution is not rocket science. In fact it's used often. I added two actors who were questioning him and they shot about 15 pages of the 30 I wrote. And Again, they rushed and cut short the dramatic scene I had written and effectively making it senseless.

And the movie reached a length of 84 minutes with tail credits. You can add a minute or so to the tail credits by slowing them down.

And it was awful. 

But I knew it from the beginning. My first draft of the screenplay was smart and tense with good characters. What came out of this one was cut-out characters and lame action scenes.

And what good thing did I get out of it? My scale WGA fee and H&P (health and pension). Sometimes that's enough.

So don't shoot the writer. You don't always know what they had to go through.

But right now I have to add pages to Casualties of Love, my micro-budget script because it was never intended as a feature film. And oddly enough, it comes back to one room and a bunch of guys and this time, a girl too.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Winners & Losers & why

All the gold in California
Is in a bank in Beverly Hills 
In somebody else's name
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 foodchain, 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 20 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.

And of course, he didn't return the call.


Wednesday, March 4, 2020

What you need to write

Sometime today I will begin to write the sequel to Ghostkeeper. My writing schedule has always been morning. And I usually write for no more than two hours. Today though, I have to write the blog first, which usually is around 8 am and takes me around 30 minutes or so.

There is a danger in writing so early, at least for me. You see, I like to be fresh, nothing should stand in the way of my writing. I don't want to listen to music, I don't have a coffee on my desk and I don't want phone calls.

What happens if the phone rings? Or if coffee is reachable?

Then I will find an excuse not to write for a few minutes. 

There are at least 300 books on screenwriting and most of them have their own theories as to how to write the great script. Yet, last Friday I listened to Ben Affleck at a screening talking about  how he co-wrote The Town and how hard it was to find a great script. I am not Ben's greatest fan, but that's another story.

The obvious question here is that, with all the screenwriters in the world running to Los Angeles and with 10,000 WGA writers already here... why aren't there a lot of good screenplays then?

A friend of mine and I have a theory, we realized that between us, we've probably seen every kind of genre, every twist, every surprise ending and every type of character there ever was. So what's left?

For a start, it helps to have lived a curious life, meaning that it helps if you are curious. About everything. Some of the best characters and dialog I've ever written was basically borrowed from watching real people living real life. 

And life experience is essential if you want to write, or act or direct.

For example, take Tom Selleck and Mark Harmon. As younger actors, they were considered "pretty boys", handsome in that Sears catalog kind of way but with little talent. But I watched a bit of their respective TV shows recently, NCIS and Blue Blood and I noticed something curious...

Whenever either of them were not in the scene, the scene felt empty. I've long said that the supporting casts of the procedural TV shows like CSI and NCIS are so bland that they could change shows and nobody would know the difference.

But Selleck and Harmon stood out. And I began to realize why.

They were older. Their faces had wrinkles. And they were relaxed and enjoying themselves because they had the comfort of confidence as well as years of experience and the access to options that they didn't have when they were younger.

They were easy to watch and comforting to an audience, and that's what made them interesting to watch.

The same thing goes for writing, the more you have lived, the more you have to write about. There are exceptions of course, but those are the talented ones. I've told you before that I'm not particularly talented, but I am stubborn has hell. It took me a long time to learn how to write good, maybe 6 years of writing bad scripts.

I'm still not good on story, my characters are colorful and believable and my dialog is pretty damn good. But stories are not the easiest thing for me. If they were I would have sold the 34 specs I currently still own.

Why haven't they sold? Well, because so far nobody likes them enough. Does that mean I'm a bad writer? No, it means that nobody's come along who likes them.

It's kind of like decorating your home; some friends will like it, some will be ambivolent and some will dislike it.

And like Tom and Mark, I am comfortable in my abilities. I'm never sure if anyone will like my screenplays, but like those two guys, I don't really care. With having written and/or rewritten 18 produced movies and having worked on at least 30 unproduced movies I know that I have accomplished my initial goal.

To be a working writer in Hollywood.

Now, I am forcing myself like crazy to end the blog and start writing. Maybe I should have a coffee first though? 

Monday, March 2, 2020

The cat might be dropped

Well, so much for Daisy the cat.

Agent loved the cat, two others loved the cat in my latest spec screenplay, Christmas Carole. I thought it was a moment of brilliance. But it seems Daisy was not appreciated by two producers. The first one wasn't a surprise, in fact I knew he wouldn't like the cat, because he didn't like my writing in the first place.

After all these years, my instinct kicks in pretty fast. I had given the agent a synopsis (which I hate doing) for another project, to which Producer A responded by not only not liking the story, he didn't like my writing.

That's not a good thing. And I know that once that happens, there ain't anything he's gonna like about my writing or me. So when he asked for the Christmas script I told the agent that it was a waste of time, but agents being agents, he figured why not.

Producer A didn't like the Christmas script. Especially the cat.

Producer B, who runs a very big company that has been around for 40 years or longer, loved the Christmas script, it was "cute and sweet". Well, I don't think of it as cute and sweet, but Producer B wants to show it to Hallmark.

But he didn't like the cat either.

So what do you do? I think the cat is a great idea, as do others. But those others aren't possibly going to make my script.

So Daisy might go the way of the dinosaur.

But I won't go down without a fight. If this script goes further, meaning that if Hallmark wants it, and the odds are at least even, given that my 2010 script did excellent in the ratings, then I would plead Daisy's case again.

Given that they could use a famous/has-been/well known actress could be used for the voice of Daisy, it would only enhance the story. And there are a ton of those actresses out there who would love the attention.

After all it's all about recent credits and every actor and actress wants credits as recent as yesterday. It means they're working.

But having done one of Hallmark's better movies last year (I say this because the producers  use my movie in their website), it doesn't guarantee anything. The industry has changed so much that there rarely is any allegiance to anyone. You may have written an Emmy winner but that lasts as long as the ceremony.

So here I am, now waiting to hear what Hallmark decides.

But there are four other producers who want to read it too, including one who works with another network. There are 2 other networks who might consider it, Lifetime (a natural considering it's a modern woman story) or ABC Family, and I have producers who made recent movies for both networks.

But I wonder if they'll like Daisy.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Has Hollywood Really Changed?

Back a few months ago I had an ongoing dispute on the blog with someone who used the name/pseudonym "Jerry" who, after I described some actions I did on a series I worked on, said that I never got work after that because of my behavior and also, that "the industry has changed".

Now I don't know who Jerry was and he/she wouldn't tell me, so I just stopped posting his/her comments and he/she gradually faded away (I think). But I did get work after that, preferring TV Movies to series and accumulating credits on 17 of them over the course of 14 years, not a bad record at all. And the most recent one will be shown in a month or so. 

Which brings me to The Pat Hobby Stories.

I had heard about the book but never read it. Simply, it's a collection of short stories about a down and out screenwriter in Hollywood who survives by hustling any writing jobs he can get. It's a great collection of stories about writing and what you have to do to survive in a business that rips your heart out some of the time and then praises you for a little bit to give you encouragement, only to be ripped up again.

In other words, it's Hollywood as it's always been.

But the twist here is this; it was written between 1939 and 1940. And it's author was none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, by this time in his life, was Pat Hobby, living from rewrite jobs to whatever he could muster. His successes were behind him, The Great Gatsby would be re-discovered in the 1960's and Fitzgerald died at 44 in the same year.

And while I read the book, a collection of 17 stories, I wasn't surprised to find out something else. 

It's the same today.

Nothing has really changed. We have computers, and Netflix and iPhones, but the business remains exactly the same. Exactly.  I can only assume that Jerry doesn't know Hollywood history, maybe because he/she is young and full of their self. And that's perfectly normal. I'm not knocking younger writers, hell, I was one once. 

There are a lot of movies about screenwriters, Bogart did one, William Holden did one, there are dozens of them out there, many you can still watch. And they all came before "The Player", the film most film students know of. And it was directed by Robert Altman who was 67 at the time.

There's also Day of the Locust, a brilliant film with Donald Sutherland and based on a novel by Nathanael West in 1939  . I read the book and again was surprised by the similarities in the business. Sure, the cars were different but the stories and the lives of the people in it are still here today.

And another great movie from the Coen Brothers Barton Fink, again a period piece about a screenwriter. And even Jeff Bridges was a screenwriter in Hearts of the West.

And there's one thing in common for all of them. The writer is always screwed. There's even a self-help book out called  "The Writer Got Screwed (but didn't have to). Honest, there is. I have a copy of it, written by Brook Wharton.

And before you think I'm starting to whine, I'm not, I rarely got shafted but that's mostly because I did have the protection of the Guilds.

And as far as not being hired again I offer this story; I wrote a script called Maiden Voyage, about the takeover of a cruise ship. It was made by by the British Company Granada. They paid me for the script but not the story. I had written the script as a spec, and they should have also paid for the story, as well as the screenplay itself.

They refused to pay.

WGA said they had 5 days to pay.

An exec told my agent this; "this might sour us for using Jim in the future". My agent said he'd pass that information along to me.

They paid up, very upset at me and my agent.

One year later, I met the same exec at a party and he shook my hand and said the movie turned out great and that it was because of my terrific script.

And we would work together again.

Was this the same guy who threatened to make sure I'd never work in this town again?

My agent said the saying is really "you'll never work in this town again... or at least until we need you."

Know this; Hollywood never really changes, it's about the dreammakers and those who finance the dreammakers. It's about breaking in, surviving, falling out and maybe, if you're really persistent and lucky, breaking in again.

Just ask Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese film director who continues working at the tender age of 102.