Apr 23 2007

“I Hear You Guys Are Going On Strike.”

I have a good friend who’s a camera operator on a big TV drama. He told me the buzz on set is that the WGA is going to go on strike, and he asked me if that was true. He’s a dear friend, and there was no rancor behind the inquiry, but it’s an inherently loaded question. If my guild goes on strike, that means his show shuts down production and he’s out of a paycheck indefinitely.

I’m hearing that statement, in one form or another, more and more nowadays — “I hear the writers are going on strike.” A lot of people in LA make their living in the entertainment industry, and many of them will be affected by a work stoppage. Sometimes I hear a touch of bitterness, because a WGA strike is out of their hands.

Well, guess what, folks. It’s out of mine, too.

We might strike. We might not. It all depends on how events unfold once the writers and the companies sit down to begin negotiations this summer. We’re all waiting with bated breath.

I don’t want to strike, but I don’t want the guild to eat a shit sandwich, either. Technology is bringing about great change in our business, and we don’t have a system in place to account for these new revenue streams. If we accept lousy terms, we’ll likely be stuck with them for a long time to come.

Uncertainty sucks. But there’s no real solace in being certain you’re screwed.

Anyway, I just wanted to provide an answer to all of you who have been wondering if the writers are going on strike. The answer is: there is no answer.

Fun, huh?

Believe me, nobody hates an unresolved plot line more than we do.

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Jan 09 2007

“Quiet” Makes Film Threat’s Top 10

Published by under Good News/Bad News

This is pretty cool.

Quiet, a short film written by Steve Barr and directed by Marshall McAuley, two very good friends of mine, made Film Threat‘s list of best short films of 2006.

Way to go, boys!

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Dec 26 2006

An Open Letter to the New Year

Published by under Who is this person?

Dear 2007,

No pressure, but I’m expecting big things from you. I don’t want to bad-mouth your predecessor, but 2006 could’ve done a better job. Sure, the Republican stranglehold on Congress was finally broken and Rumsfeld got the long-overdue boot, but my father didn’t even live to see any of it. And for that alone, 2006 goes down in my record books as Shittiest Year Ever.

Even my lesser heroes took a hit this year. After Mel Gibson performed self-immolation on his public persona, Michael Richards apparently thought that even that kind of bad publicity beat whatever hell of anonymity he’d found himself in. What am I supposed to do with my Kramer T-shirt now? There’s a Mad Max action figure on display in my son’s nursery. I guess I’d better take that down before he’s old enough to start asking questions.

Treat my heroes better this year, 2007. That’s my first request. If Harrison Ford winds up on You Tube in crotchless panties, I’m going to drink myself into a coma that lasts till 2008.

Something else you’ve got on your plate is the upcoming contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the AMPTP. Plenty of opportunities for disaster there. Try not to step on your dick, okay? Everybody’s talking about a strike, so the studios are already stockpiling scripts, which means, even if we reach an agreement, there could be a development slowdown once the dust settles, just like in 2001 (remember that Shitty Year That Was?). It’s going to take some grace to navigate these waters, 2007, but I’m counting on you. I’d like to keep feeding my family.

Hey, why not let me score a big spec sale in the stockpiling frenzy? It’s the least you can do after 2006 waylaid my indie project on its journey toward production.

Which reminds me — please put my indie project into production this spring. It’s the least you can do if you’re going to ask me to walk the picket line in the fall.

And, hey, as long as we’re talking about my career, can you try to get a certain A-list director to move forward with my big sci-fi project? I’m not getting any younger here.

Don’t look at me like that, 2007. I told you I’m expecting big things. It’s not like I’m asking the impossible. I didn’t ask you to end the genocide in Darfur or, you know, bring my dad back. (Though, if either of those occur to you…)

Look, I’m only asking for modest, realistic developments. This is your chance to make a real mark on my life. You want to be fondly remembered, like the year I lost my virginity, or the year my son was born? Or do you want to be thought of as just another 1993. Remember what happened in ’93? I sure don’t. And that’s my point.

You can do it, 2007. I know you can.

Happy New Year. Now get to work.

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Sep 12 2006

No Strings Attached

This is a rant. No, actually, it’s a desperate plea.

Can we please stop with the wire-fu?

Seriously. It was fun for a while there. We had some good times in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But lately, I just feel like we’re going through the motions.

Within the past decade, we’ve seen an increasing prevalence of action movies that are in blatant violation of the law. No, I’m not talking about Lindsey Lohan’s inevitable drug offense. I’m talking about Newton’s laws of motion. These movies defy gravity. And I think that sucks.

Now, I won’t argue that movies are, or should be, anything akin to a perfect replica of reality. From the time of George Melies in cinema’s infancy, the art form of the moving image has been used to subvert, heighten or completely ignore reality. And I love it for that. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s why we have movies like The Wizard of Oz, Brazil and Pretty Woman.

But, the action within a story must be internally consisent with the laws of that story world. And, unless that story world has a valid reason for rejecting the laws of phyics as we know them here on earth, what goes up must come down — and at a rate consistent with what we’d anticipate.

Not being an early fan of Hong Kong cinema, my first experience with wire-fu was probably in The Matix. And I loved it. I flipped for it. It was a reality-bending effect in a movie where bending reality was part of the fun. It was, in other words, part of the story.

But not once did I think, “Hey, that’s a cool effect! Let’s put it in every other action film from now on.”

Though, to be honest, my problem isn’t even necessarily with the wire-fu. It’s with the effect that bad physics due to wire-fu — and also CGI — is having on movies.

Suddenly most of our action films are brimming with preposterous action sequences. These movies are frequently derided as “cartoonish,” but let me tell you something — that’s an insult to cartoons. Even the Looney Toons of Fritz Freling, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones had a healthy respect for the laws of physics.

Sure, they didn’t always follow those laws, but they didn’t ignore them either. They played with them. They exaggerated them. They obeyed them right up to the moment when they didn’t — and that was the gag. Wile E. Coyote running straight off a cliff and NOT falling was the joke. And then, of course, he fell. Which was also the joke.

But how many modern action films have you seen — ones ostensibly based in reality — where something like this happens: an explosion detonates and the hero is sent hurtling backward through the air, following a trajectory so flat that Kiera Knightley could sue for trademark infringement. Even a 90+ mph fastball carves out a discernible arc as it sails toward home plate. Yet this actor, traveling a fraction of that speed, floats above the ground in a straight line.

Nobody’s fooled by this. We all know he was suspended by wires. The wires have been digitally erased, but you can still tell. How come you can tell? Well, because it turns out that human beings have a well-developed sense for how objects in motion should behave. We develop this ability at a pretty early age. We have to. Without it, we wouldn’t survive very long.

In this study, researchers found that between the ages of three and six, children develop the ability to predict the motion of objects under the influence of gravity and inertia. Here’s a salient passage:

Human adults are sensitive to a variety of effects of gravity and inertia on the motions of objects. In particular, a hand-held object that is released in mid-air looks natural only if it begins to move downward, an object that falls freely looks natural only if it undergoes appropriate acceleration, and an object that rolls off a cliff looks natural only if it moves downward on a parabolic path.
What are the origins of this sensitivity? Gravity and inertia have constrained the motions of objects through-out the history of the earth, and humans and other animals have evolved a variety of sensory and motor mechanisms that take account of their effects. It is therefore possible that humans have also evolved perceptual and cognitive mechanisms that are sensitive to effects of gravity and inertia. Alternatively, human adults have a lifetime of experience observing objects, and they may have learned about natural object motions.

It’s precisely because of this innate perceptive ability that animators will tell you one of the biggest challenges of animation is convincingly reproducing the effects of gravity. If an animated character jumps in the air and lands a fraction of a second too late, we sense that something is wrong — even if we can’t pinpoint the reason why.

But, for some reason, it’s become acceptable — sometimes even expected — for a movie character falling off a building to slow down, as the wire harness brakes him, instead of accelerating as he plummets toward his death. Or a CGI monster runs along the wall instead of the floor — not like a fly or lizard, gripping the surface, but bounding across it, as though gravity were suddenly pulling it sideways instead of down (I’m looking at you, Underworld).

Sure, sometimes these sorts of effects can look really cool. The problem is…

I don’t care.

When the hero suddenly, at the most convenient moment, displays an ability to defy the most basic laws of Newtonian physics, I no longer fear for his safety. I no longer worry that he can’t achieve his goal. I no longer wonder how he’ll defeat the bad guy.

I no longer care about him or his objectives. And, the moment that happens, the story stops working.

That doesn’t mean Superman shouldn’t fly. Of course he should. That’s why he’s Superman. But how come a mortal man who has simply studied martial arts can make gravity wait while he dispatches his enemies? Do they teach that ability at those strip-mall dojos? It’s one thing for Fantastic Four‘s the Thing to lift a car over his head; his superpower is strength. But there’s no good reason why he should take a punch and soar forty feet backwards in a straight trajectory. That’s just stupid. And it shows a frightful lack of respect for the filmgoing audience.

Wire work is a groundbreaking tool that allows for stunts that could never before have been safely attempted. And CGI has developed to the point that there is literally nothing a filmmaker can’t put on the screen (given enough time and money, of course). But just because we have these tools, that doesn’t mean we should use them every chance we get.

This isn’t a rant, or a desperate plea. It’s a call to arms. This sloppy storytelling (and that’s exactly what it is — a failure of storytelling) is ruining movies. It’s turning them into mind-numbing video games where the more that happens, the less we care.

Watch the stunts in an older film like Mad Max. When that guy flies off his motorcycle and goes ass over teakettle into a field, you never suspect that he’s got a wirework team keeping him aloft. His trajectory matches the distance and speed that he travels, which makes you instinctively cringe. And that keeps you in the story.

Nobody instinctively cringes at a wire work stunt.

10 responses so far

Aug 27 2006

Master of Your Domain

It’s a bit of a cliche in Hollywood that screenwriters are frustrated people. We have relatively little power and influence. We tend not to be household names. We’re easily and frequently replaced, and so on. The list of complaints is endless. But they all spring from one inescapable fact:

Screenwriters don’t make movies, we make screenplays.

That is to say, a screenplay is not a finished product. It’s merely one of many required components of a finished film (some wouldn’t even call it a requirement, but rather an optional step). So, the screenwriter pours his guts onto a page, revises it until his eyes bleed and, eventually, finally, at long last, gazes upon the fruits of his labor — a half-inch stack of paper with thousands of little black runes printed on it. Pages. With words. It’s quite a feat, when all’s said and done.

But it ain’t a movie.

It won’t become a movie until you add one director and a couple of stars, stir in a generous amount of financing, bake for about a year and a half, and then glaze with domestic and foreign distribution deals. It’s bad enough that most of these ingredients are on the endangered species list. It’s even worse when, in the end, the finished film bears little resemblance to the screenplay.

In other words, a screenplay has to pass through a lot of hands before it becomes a film. That’s a lot of complicated layers between the screenwriter and the audience — most of them well beyond our control. And let’s not forget: most screenplays — by a breathtaking margin — never make it past the stack-of-paper phase. You stay up nights and weekends writing your masterpiece, call in every favor trying to get People in Power to read it, and then try not to let them see you cry when they say, “Loved the script. What else you got?”

What else have I got? WHAT ELSE HAVE I GOT? Why you self-involved little prick –

I’m sorry, where was I going with this? Oh, right.

So, the screenwriter’s lot in life in inherently frustrating. That’s why it behooves us to look beyond the Hollywood landscape to find other means of getting our stories in front of an audience. Writing novels is one way, and there are a number of screenwriters who routinely bounce back and forth between scripts (where they are peasants) and novels (where they are kings).

Another route — and one that has really become much more viable in recent years — is to write a comic book. And I have several friends who’ve done exactly that.
Steven Barr and Danny Grossman co-wrote a screenplay a few years ago called Devil Water, an action/western/horror/comedy, but never managed to sell it. Recently, Steven saw an opportunity to repurpose the story as a limited series of comic books. The first issue of Devil Water is out now, through King Tractor Press.

Another friend of mine, Sam “Stormcrow” Hayes, has just seen the release of his manga-style graphic novel, Afterlife, through the Tokyo Pop imprint (not that you’d know, from the scant bit of marketing they do for it on their own freakin’ website — not even an image of the cover? WTF?).

The book will have to fight for attention in the crowded marketplace, but it’s already getting some pretty stellar reviews.

The payoff with the comic book route isn’t complete autonomy, since the writer must rely on an artist to interpret their work (although the writer might be responsible for chosing an artist, and can have approval authority over the artwork). But, in the end, the writer has something tangible to show for their efforts — a finished book on store shelves. The layers between storyteller and audience have been largely eliminated.

And there are other benefits as well. Both Steven and Sam got to attend this year’s San Diego Comic-Con in a professional capacity, as opposed to mere fanboys. And there is still the possibility that the stories they’ve written can find their way to the big screen — as an adaptation. By publishing the story in comic book form first, these writers are attempting to create what Terry Rossio calls Mental Real Estate. In fact, as a result of the publication of Devil Water, Steven and Danny have recently optioned their original script, which would otherwise still be sitting on a shelf.

Bravo, boys. Best of luck.

One response so far

Jul 22 2006

It’s (Not) Alive!

You hear cautionary tales about it all the time, but the true horror doesn’t strike until it happens to you.

CHDD: Catastrophic Hard Drive Death.

I spent the past five weeks traveling — visiting family and driving all over the northeast. I planned to do some work while we were on the road. After all, the home office is a nice comfort, but not necessary. I work on a laptop. My office goes where I go.

Two weeks into the trip, I settled down in an unused bedroom of my in-laws’ house to start polishing up my latest spec. Half an hour later, I noticed an occassional, faint buzz emanating from the left palmrest of my Apple Powerbook.

That’s where the hard drive lives.

As one of the few moving parts in a computer, hard drives make noise. But I’ve been using this laptop for a couple of years, and this was a new noise.

And it started to get worse. Louder. More frequent.

I made a panicked phone call to my Techie Friend, who had me run a couple of disk utilities that should tell whether or not the hard drive is starting to fail. The tests showed nothing. The hard drive appeared to be in good health.

But then something really disturbing happened. I went to save a file and, while the program was writing to the disk, the buzzing noise kicked in and the system froze. I got that spinning, technicolor pinwheel of death (you Mac users know what I’m talking about).

I was about to force quit when, all the sudden, the buzzing noise stopped and the system unfroze. The file had even been saved. But, disk utilities be damned, something was definitely not right.

As Somerset warned Mills, “This isn’t gonna have a happy ending.”

I transferred my working files to my wife’s iBook and, the next day, my Powerbook shit the bed. Wouldn’t even boot up. It was dead. Kaput. It was no more.

This was an ex-hard drive.

I shipped it back to Apple, and they replaced the hard drive. What that means, of course, is that everything on the old drive was gone. Just a ghost of ones and zeroes, lost to the digital ether.

The good news: I had a backup. I always backup. I’m practically religious about it. I’m gay for backing up.

The bad news: the backup was at home in Los Angeles, so I lost a couple weeks of laptop use. Which was annoying, but tolerable.

The great news: my backup procedure has always been to simply copy my personal files, not the programs themselves. In otherwords, I just drop my home folder onto an external drive. It’s a simple and quick system. The drawback is, in the event of CHDD, you have to reinstall every program and reset every preference. However, in one of the few strokes of good fortune to grace my pathetic life, I had recently changed my backup procedure. A couple months ago, I bought a new external drive — a 500GB Maxtor One-Touch Firewire drive.

My old external was also a Maxtor One-Touch, but I’d never used the one-touch feature. With the new drive, I decided to give it a shot.

Here’s how it works:

Before you use the drive, you partition it, creating a separate partition that is at least as big as your internal hard drive. Then you setup the Maxtor software, creating a backup script., which allows you to perform a complete backup of your hard drive by simply pushing the lone button on the front of the external drive.

It takes a while to run the backup. But, when you’re done, what you’ve got is an exact duplicate of the contents of your internal drive. You can even boot up from the external drive (which is exactly how you restore the backup to your new internal drive).

I had run my very first one-touch backup just a week before we left for our trip. So, instead of reinstalling several dozen programs and futzing with preferences and settings, all I had to do was boot up from the external drive and, using the Maxtor software, restore from the backup.

The results are, essentially, magic. It’s like the hard drive never died.

I’m going to make this full backup procedure part of my regular routine.

My work — the fruits of my labor — exists in an ethereal form on my hard drive. In years past, I made sure to have paper printouts of every version of every script I wrote. That practice filled up a four-drawer filing cabinet. But nowadays, I tend to deliver drafts to my employers as a PDF file. The last script I wrote, I never printed out a single copy. I don’t need to anymore.

That’s nice and convenient, but it means I have to take extra measures to make sure I don’t lose this stuff. I take this seriously. My work has value. I always felt that way, of course, even before I was getting paid for it. But now that I am getting paid, my work has value to people other than myself.

I simply can’t imagine the horror of having to call a studio executive and tell her that the script they paid me to write, the one I spent the past six months working on, vanished in a flurry of grinding noises inside my laptop. That would be a catastrophic failure — on the part of both the hard drive and my wee little brain.

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Jun 25 2006

A Midsummer Night’s Brief Update

I haven’t posted much lately. Work and some unexpected traveling have kept me busy. Also, I’m lazy. Also, there hasn’t been much fun news to report. But there are two developments worth mentioning.

A New Attachment

We’ve got a new director on board the Lucy Liu project (DEVIL TO PAY) — Antonia Bird.

This is exciting news. Antonia is a fine director (Priest, Mad Love). She made The Hamburg Cell, an excellent, understated film about the 9/11 terrorists. It’s an interesting piece because the protagonists are about as unsympathetic as you can get (i.e. mass murderers) and there are no real antagonists in the story. Ordinarily, that’s a recipe for a flat, conflict-challenged film. Yet, somehow it works extremely well.

I can’t wait to see what Antonia does with my script.

Meet My Shorts

Another, smaller recent development is that my short film, DUST DEVIL, is now online.

A special thanks to Rod Ramsey for making that happen (despite my total lack of cooperation).

The short played at last year’s LA Shorts festival, Shriekfest and the Haydenfilms Online Film Festival. It’s a flawed film, but there’s a lot about it that makes me proud. Also, everybody involved busted their ass on it, and I think it serves as a fine show reel for several of them.

Please check it out and lemme know what you think.

4 responses so far

May 11 2006

The DHS Ate My Weblog

Published by under Good News/Bad News

So, after a couple of friends notify me that my site is down, I contact my hosting service and come to find out that the Dept. of Homeland Security confiscated the entire server because some sub-human uploaded something that he probably shouldn’t have.
Meanwhile, the hosting service set me up with a new server, but of course my files are gone. And what’s on the top of my to-do list?
“Backup my website.”
I admit it. I was lazy. I didn’t back up any of my content. Lesson learned.
The good news is, by doing a few quick Google searches and clicking on the “cached” links, I was able to find all of my posts and most of the comments. So, I’ll be able to restore Who Are You People pretty soon, thus narrowly avoiding a global panic.
And this time, I’ll back up the whole darn site.
LATE UPDATE (May 22, 2006): Posts have been restored. I’ll eventually try to restore as many comments as I can.

7 responses so far

May 02 2006

Gone Tomorrow

The Revolution has failed.
Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios is winding down operations, just six years after it burst on the scene with the promise of quality movies at modest budgets. Well, I guess if you consider Gigli quality filmmaking…
It’s interesting to me that an autonomous studio predicated on “quality” films turned out such an unimpressive slate. There were a few fine films, like Black Hawk Down, and there were quite a few dogs — Hollywood Homicide, XXX, The Forgotten, the aforementioned Gigli (which has become synonymous with failure). But, perhaps most tellingly, the slate was comprised largely of films I’d never pay to see — Radio? Stealing Harvard? Christmas with the Kranks?
In other words, the Revolution slate was more or less exacty the same as every other studio. And I wonder if that isn’t indicative of what’s really wrong with Hollywood.
During Hollywood’s golden years, the studio logo at the head of a movie usually told you something about what was in store for you. MGM, for example, was known for its bright, lavish musicals and literary adaptations, Warner Bros. for its darker, grittier gangster pictures, and so on. But nowadays, to a large degree, studios really don’t have much of a brand — at least not in the eyes of the moviegoing public.
And it’s not even that I think studios need a brand so much as a passion for something — anything! Instead, what we get are movies that are born not from a desire to create something interesting, but from a desire to turn a profit. I’m not naive enough to believe studios should operate as charities or artistic patrons, but, in modern times, the business has changed in ways that encourage studios to focus solely on the bottom line.
Films are — by orders of magnitude — more expensive to make and market then they were just a few decades ago. And that has contributed to massive wide release patterns that put all of the studio’s eggs in one basket: the opening weekend box office reports.
Movies live or die based their opening weekend returns, which means that a film’s success is no longer determined by how much the audience likes the film (i.e. word of mouth). Instead, it’s determined by how many people show up on that opening weekend. So, we become more reliant on known quantities — sequels, prequels, remakes, etc. — in order to get asses in seats in front of 3000 screens on that first Friday night. If those people universally hate the film, no big deal. We’ve already got their money.
It’s this attitude that leads to movies like XXX: State of the Union.
It’s a scorched-earth policy. We make shit because we know the audience will buy it. But when all we sell them is shit, eventually they stop buying it. They stop trusting us.
And, as a result, it’s not just the movies that are disappearing by the second or third weekend. Now, apparently, the studios are becoming disposable as well.

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Apr 12 2006


Published by under Good News/Bad News

Screenwriters, by their nature, tend to immerse themselves in stories — movies, TV shows, books, comic books, videogames, whatever. After all, if we didn’t love stories, we wouldn’t be screenwriters, right? Yet, one of the unintentional side effects I occassionally run into is that I’ll write a line or an action beat that I later on realize came from a movie I saw years ago, or a book I once read. With luck, I’ll spot lift before I show the script to anyone. Sometimes I don’t (in which case it becomes an homage).
Recently, however, I had a different problem. I had an idea for a short film. I kicked it around a while. I fleshed it out. Finally I wrote the script. I ran it by some members of my film group. They dug it. I got excited. Started planning out the shoot. Even got a lead on a cool location. In other words, I was becoming emotionally invested in the project.
Then my manager read it and said, “I like it, but I feel I should warn you… they did this same story on Desperate Housewives last season.”
The thing is, I don’t watch Desperate Housewives. I know — it’s a great show. I should watch it. But I don’t. I try to limit my appointment TV, and DH didn’t make the cut.
In actuality, my story isn’t identical to the subplot on DH, but they both involved a kid killing someone, and the kid’s parents helping to cover it up. There was some brief rationalizing about making the short anyway. But, I didn’t entertain the idea for long. I didn’t want people to see the short and say, “Oh, they did something just like that on Desperate Housewives.” It’s just too humiliating. I’m expected to come up with original ideas. It’s not sufficient to explain, after the fact, that I don’t watch the show.
I might as well try to sell my space opera about Duke Skyprancer, all the while claiming I’d never seen Star Wars.
What kills me is that I lived with the idea for many months before becoming emotionally committed to it. It was only a couple days after deciding that, yes, this is going to be my next short film, that the anvil landed on my head.
Par for the course in the world of a screenwriter, I suppose. You can spend months researching a story only to open Variety one day to find that Steven Spielberg just signed on to make a film on the same subject. You lick your wounds and go to the next idea on you list.
“Keep kissing those frogs,” as my father used to say.
Or was it “Throw a hissy fit on your blog”? I can’t remember now.

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