Honoring Your “Problematic” Muse

A boost of inspiration might come from an anger or a moment of clarity but it will still require getting out of your own way.  We all may have to push ourselves and get over a fear of rejection and especially today fear of being demonized for an image or a perspective or even a reflex. You may hear people speak of your presumption that people should read what you wrote or your sense of entitlement that would allow you to picture yourself as an author of any kind.  That is the view from the outside in.  It is chatter and noise.  The imperfect author Thomas Harris wrote, “The worm that kills you is the temptation to agree with your critics.”

As far as I can recall, all of my writing has been with the conceit that maybe somebody else will identify with what I have written and feel that I have put it in an interesting way.  I’ve never been quite sure if I have a target audience, because I’ll accept a compliment from just about anywhere. Read someone’s novel, and chances are that you will wear whatever skin is taking you through the story. At no other time has it been easier for everyone to anyone in the free world to write as they like.  Getting an engine behind it or publishing or distribution – let alone marketing – is another matter.  Too often what we hear about it about who is being given something, hired, awarded, and who belongs to what permanent victim status or permanent privilege status. Most of that is noise that might be dialed down by staying off of Twitter, Facebook, and some youtube channels.  Much of it is clickbait over-simplification.  The rest is big money corporate spin from movie studios who can afford to pretend a mediocre movie is a vital social movement that will change everything for you and yours.

Hi.  I’m the old white guy whose opinion Brie Larsen doesn’t want to hear about what didn’t work for me in A Wrinkle in Time.  The good news for her is that she likely won’t see this post.  Also perhaps good news that I have at the time of this writing only seen about fifteen minutes of that film on Netflix and never got back to it.  Had to binge all of Russian Doll and get started watching The Umbrella Academy. The bad news is that nobody cares what an actor or any creative or executive wants to hear about a movie – one they are involved in or one they are just using as an example.  Who a movie is “made for” doesn’t matter.  A movie ostensibly “for kids” can be enjoyed by adults or not. Shaft may not have been intended for me, but I’m happy Roundtree was brought back for both the 2000 version and the 2019 version where he is the grandfather (and importantly the same John Shaft he was in the Seventies movies).  Your food may be another person’s poison.  That might mean no peanuts for you in the school cafeteria. I can take or leave Star Trek Discovery (STD they call it), having seen the first season, but I fully understand some of my fellow classic fans objecting to the caliber of writers being brought onto the team. In another galaxy, the Lucasfilm story group quietly dropped one of its members while there has been a firestorm in fandom closely examining the imdb listings and qualifications of each member to prove that in some cases ONLY a commitment to identity politics got some of them their job in the first place.

In my own work I have stewed lately over the current climate and the idea that those who like to use terms like relevant and decide what is relevant may shut out much of the material I have a passion to champion or generate.  I’ve written and ranted about the (for now) demise of my feature The Adventures of Porno the Clown, a live-action cartoon that would have been whimsical and cheeky.  One threat to it was that a number of prospective collaborators wanted to infuse it with improvisation and I did not. The other issue was that it was, after all, about a horny old white guy.  And a clown at that.  Throw in the fact that it was conceived ten years before the PoundMeToo and identity politics explosion, to pick away at it and make the square peg fit into the round hole of outrage culture would not have been satisfying.  My novelization of it may not have much more luck, but it at least would preserve any satire I had refused to buff off or dull down. One well know actress suggested I dumb it down, but I’m not sure how much dumber I could make a live action cartoon about a semi-retired porn clown.

Some people hate Blazing Saddles, Tropic Thunder, The Dictator, Team America: World Police.  Molly Ringwald, when PoundMeToo was at its peak, spoke out against elements of The Breakfast Club. This creates a pickle for those of my generation who love her for The Breakfast Club.  She mainly objects in hindsight to Judd Nelson’s criminal character Bender behaving like… a criminal.  He does and says highly inappropriate things, but the movie itself and by extension the writer-director John Hughes does not condone it.  Some may even object that it is an American Eighties movie and as such tends to have a white cast. Others may say it is too “hetero normative.” Whatever peccadillo may be placated for an interest group or on-screen representation, it would be an interesting exercise to ask people to recast a remake of The Breakfast Club – the Janitor, the Teacher, the criminal, the princess, the brain, the jock and the basket case.  What new problematic paradoxes can be created?  You have to be as inclusive as possible.  Which one is LBGTQ, black, Asian, or Native?  I don’t know if anyone ever showed up for a Saturday detention, or whether today the students would all be allowed to have their cell phones and sit in silence for the duration.

No writing or a movie needs to last forever, and one person’s food will be another person’s poison.  Others may click with it.  If someone from a Native community becomes a filmmaker, the stereotype might be (judging from what filters down through social media)  that their work will be documentaries about water contamination, suicide and glue sniffing. I would rather that person be less a social issue activist and more in love with cinema itself.  I don’t agree with Cronenberg that a movie “about movies” is about nothing at all.  The whimsical style of Robert Rodriguez may be what comes to mind when I think of Mexico, regardless of whether it gives real insight into goings on there. I think of a cool Desperado, a cool spy family, cool vampires, a cool revolutionary with a machete, and a cool cyborg. A Native Rodriguez is something I could cheer for. Each social group could contribute to the cinema of cool.  If you love to craft a joke or place camera frames in an interesting and exciting order, then it is worth putting blinders on to the fuss and false compartmentalization and shade throwing that goes on ostensibly in the name of progress.  They say that writing is caring, about yourself, your family, your community (outward in that order, according to the Dali Llama).  Your craft and your passion, your voice and yourself (even if you are descended from “the bad guys” of history) are what you must care about before you can honestly care about anything else.  Leave it up to the world to negate what you do – and expect that from some of them – instead of preemptively doing that to yourself.

 

Working with Murphy: Volunteering B

What can go wrong will go wrong, but it will be in that blind spot where it is unthinkable that the best intentions could pave the road to hell.

Working as continuity on someone’s film, I saw a couple of jovial crew guys proudly demonstrate how they had used the UHF dial of a television in a hotel room to watch the signal of the video tap for a nude scene in the next room.  I spoke to the hair and make-up guy who had no problem looking into it and scolding the problem away.  That kept the director and the producer out of the loop and nobody got fired. But the day had just begun.  The lead actress was in the make-up room for touch ups at one point and the make-up guy (he had a great name but I don’t want to tip off which production this was) asked what I think (of how the actress looks).  I quipped, “Great, you can’t see any mustache.” I got a scolding from him for saying, “the wrong thing.” I fully expected her to laugh, because it was outlandish to say that she would have that problem.  But you never know. Later, an actor was killing time waiting around and the actress joined us in chit-chat.  The actor suggested a game of “pick-up lines” which she could judge.  I had nothing.  I don’t believe ice-breakers are anything more than that.  I started to make fun of the politeness or vulgarity of one when it was my turn and chickened out half way through uttering my proposition.   The actor understood and didn’t help relieve the awkwardness.  I shouldn’t have participated.  I could have begged off and left.  Well, the director moments later took me outside and said, “You’re not helping me out if you’re saying disturbing things to the actress.”  I told him the context but he had to be concerned for how the young woman felt and so I spent the afternoon catching a matinee of U.S. Marshals.  Years later, the director would describe that actress as a psycho, but there is an art to walking on eggshells and I was naive at the time.

***

In more recent years, I found myself with down time and noticed a Facebook post asking for volunteers to help with a project that seemed to involve holograms or lighting illusions. I e-mailed and volunteered to bring a camera and this person listed me as being there to document.  So my contribution would not have been the load bearing pillar of the project, if logic means anything.  I had known this woman from play readings years before and almost being in one of my short films but I had only interacted on FB lately so I thought may as well be of use.  I decided to bring two cameras, the first for said documentation, the second maybe as back up but I hadn’t used it for a while despite being expensive.  It recorded on HDV tapes at 1080p but had to have its footage captured in real time onto the computer.  It was good for long, unbroken takes.  At the home of the hostess/producer, I shot images of her other volunteers setting up support posts related to the technology she wanted to demonstrate.  But she then mentioned that her own camera had a problem with shooting long takes (or some other issue) and suggested using the second camera for three hour-long takes looking at the back yard. I let her place and frame the camera each time and we let it record on three separate tapes. After the shooting was done and volunteering was winding down, it was easy enough to transfer images from my Canon Rebel card to her laptop, and then I had to delete my own personal pix that had to be copied, including some tests with action figures that fully proved my nerd-hood.

Capturing the video from a Canon HX-A1 tape was more of a challenge.  Now it turns out that she did not have a capture card or firewire and we were stalled for a while.  She suggested I leave the camera and tapes there and maybe by the next day she would have figured it out.  So my camera, stock, and tripod stayed there overnight and when I returned the following day nothing had been solved so I brought it home and spend another three or four hours trying to capture and then burn onto disc material from those three hour-long shots. I discovered that there was some pixellation flashes in the footage meaning that my camera heads might need cleaning. As well, the shape of HD-shot material on a regular DVD burn gave it a bit of a curve that had to be recorded.  I also had trouble with the third disc.  The first two were fine. I decided the expedient thing would be to make high-speed five-minute files of all three and post them on youtube so the footage could be viewed in HD and decided upon.  As well, I noted that I could be seen conspicuously walking around the yard to document which might spoil the effect. I sent a text to this effect, as well as e-mail, voice-mail, and facebook.  I also sent links to the three youtube uploads.  I noticed that at least two of them were actually watched or got a click despite not being shared elsewhere but I got no feedback or instruction as to the next step.  I figured I had sent a number of messages and so I should wait to hear back.  She didn’t even ask for the two discs that worked.   The date of the demonstration must have come and gone and no reminder or update or concern from this person.

Two weeks later I did finally get through apart from voice mails and she picked up.  I asked what happened and she said, “You have strange timing.”  I misinterpreted that and said I’d call again later and she said okay.  Voice-mail and… nothing.  Eventually, I wondered did she build up a specific date for demonstration and then blame me for not delivering the material?  She couldn’t possibly mean I waited too long to call — I had immediately done hours of capturing and disc burning the day after the shoot and updated her via text, phone (which went to voice mail), e-mail, and Facebook. How much more communication could I have contributed on my end?  I don’t know.

Months later, I see a post on FB about her having gone out west to recover from a project that apparently went wrong.  Still no communication though if she harbored anything against me.  I’m still looking at discs she never asked for and I was wondering if I should delete the youtube clips. I saw another FB post this time about the Wackowski series Sense8 and I only chimed in the same opinion as another person there – that I like their directing but I expect the show to be too preachy. More months pass.  Then I comment some quip under a link she posted about The Male Gaze in photography.

There was some back and forth and she seemed to have an edge far beyond the issues being talked about.  I pointed out that the blog she linked used as its three examples Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by the woman who shot the International Women’s Day PSA a few years back, and Avengers: Age of Ultron directed by a vocal feminist, and as its example of a movie that manages to avoid the male gaze toxin Mad Max: Fury Road which the article bent over backwards to claim had some “scientific” framing plan that forced women to the center and….. all the while ignoring that the movie was shot for shot the product of George Millers Seventy-Year-old Male Gaze and that if you liked Imperiator Furiosa she was his creation. This discussion (which I lightly engaged in while watching a movie at home) deteriorated into minor debate of the announced 2016 Ghostbusters remake and in hindsight I should have left one comment and unfollowed rather than be strung along and appear “sexist” by challenging the narrative. A fellow I had unfriended the year before chimed in.  I should have thought to block him.  He helped throw shade on me and provoke more back and forth despite my detached politeness.  Someone sent a few screen shots of the guy’s page and some hostile things said or intended to lure further fighting. Also a scene from Robocop where the villain tells women to leave the room before he assassinates one of Robo’s creators – to demonstrate the kind of hostility he had.

I complained on my page about the toxic person chiming in – leaving out names – and the woman I had helped build that up and put fuel to the fire.  I saw the next day that a direct message to her was not answered, and that she just wanted to have this open flame war so I removed my posts. (Should have saved a screen shot first) and the next day she was posting about it.  She tagged me over and over as she tried to paraphrase the discussion or argument about (for me) movies but for her maybe other things.  Her goal was to make sure others on my facebook were drawn to this and for her to play victim. She then tried to draw me into a confrontation with the guy I blocked.  I finally unfollowed her so I wouldn’t be provoked by any more of her time-wasting “woke” posts. Next day, I was going to check that mess of re-telling she posted and she had unfriended me.  So I remarked at least that is some kind of answer to my message thread after radio silence.  We had some back and forth of her characterization of me and her errant memory of a project from the year 2000.  She didn’t like being told her history was incorrect and was demanding some sort of apology for….. arguing about movies on her wall?  Anyway, she ended with “do not contact me again.”  So I blocked her and that should have been the end of it.

Very few people had the e-mail address I used when replying to her call for volunteers. So when I started getting alerts for Instagram profiles made in my name and Facebook accounts using that address, it narrowed down who might do that: one person. When I posted a commentary track on youtube about a guerrilla short from 2000, part of the account was about an actress who showed up and walked in protest despite knowing the script was about “women fight over an abandoned cigarette.” It was about the silliness of cigarette addiction.  Well this is the woman who walked and whatever she told herself I was still able to make my movie thanks to another actress stepping in.  So I had not harbored resentment over that, only caution.  Maybe not enough caution.  On that hardly used e-mail account I got a notice for a false profile with a message that said, “I have a podcast” or something to that sarcastic effect.  Granted, the first time I tried to record my commentary about that short I did a poor job lighting myself against a greenscreen and my face was dark and the sound was muddy.

That was likely the version she saw (monitoring my youtube after unfriending me). I deleted that and put up a better version but the second time I could not find a prop VHS tape that was part of my comment on the protest-minded woman.  She thought the girls fighting was sexist as a concept, and I brought up (this once) having set my VHS to record a movie she had been in where she went topless for a second. I said, “‘I’ll show you the shot,” and then opened the tape guard and pointed to the physical tape.  End of joke.  Not showing an image of nudity, only the plastic. The next time I attempted the commentary I had misplaced the tape so without that visual joke I didn’t bother.  While it might seem unusual to keep that tape, when DVD took over a lot of us got stuck with tapes we stored without ever watching them again, let alone taping over them.  And it had been recorded in the first place because of news that, hey, a “friend” was in a movie!  But I later learned that even that element of the feud resulted in open badmouthing and spin about my even mentioning a flash of chest in a low-budget movie to someone so political about the Male Gaze these days.  I know that at least one friend and his wife ghosted me after that, which I admit makes me sad.

On a personal level, I may have let myself waste a lot of time better spent on creative output sorting through some of the abuse from all that.  What can start as a harmless, helpful gesture of volunteerism can result in someone’s undisclosed expectations building into something super toxic.

***

To top it all off, I had to take my Canon HX-A1 in to Mississauga’s Canon tech office to get the lens and heads cleaned – and clearly stated that over the phone and at the intake desk – only to have an over three-hundred dollar deposit enforced and an equal charge on top of that because likely they would not make money simply cleaning the heads and lens.  Lots of life-wasting back and forth. And then I had to journey to a FedEx to pick it up. They had sneakily put more on the form than the straightforward question of what was being asked for.  They got people to agree to an overall diagnostics of the whole camera, which gave them an excuse to supposedly replace the main guts of the camera.  Like taking your car in for an oil change and having the transmission replaced. I looked for the Better Business Bureau and another intermediary and the dropped the additional $300 + but kept my deposit of the same amount.

A fool and his money.  A fool and his time.

 

 

Problematic, Triggering Tribes and Spin

Controversy doesn’t interest me much more than a blizzard unless I have to wade through it on the way to something I care about, be it movies or living life without a target on my back.

I thought about leaving this post for a different blog, maybe a dormant one, so it won’t contaminate the constructive spirit of this one.  But I’m here and I have the time and something to at least attempt to say.  Words can fall short of communicating the nuances of parallel concerns on a debate, so any time I weigh in on someone else’s thread I feel like it is less about pooling our perspectives in a search for truth and constructive solutions and more about someone extracting verbal DNA to reconstruct in their mind the whole person with whom they interact.

Even people I respect (otherwise they wouldn’t have been in my FB feel in the first place) will say, “Watch out for these phrases” as indicators of somebody’s political leanings and worthiness of deletion. Some are looking for the wolf in sheep’s clothing among their circle.  I have never worn sheep’s clothing.  I am not what you would call a whiteknight, nor an SJW (social justice warrior) as these terms are understood in web discourse. I may love many of the same things you do (Star Wars, and much of cinema in general) and hate the same politicians (Trump and his confederates, Doug Ford and his) but I will have feet of clay trying to – as they say – unpack the divides.

Within the same few days, there were two apparent controversies that split people.  I eventually saw the Gillette commercial ostensibly about toxic masculinity. Had I seen it without hearing that it was sparking a hubbub, I would not have thought anything about it considering that most advertising today has an element of virtue signalling. Having followed some of the discussion, be it from Joe Rogan or Ben Shapiro or more moderate voices, there seems to be a concern about using propaganda to soften men in general and steer them toward being more feminine, and the content about ridiculing “freaks” appears to be the driving force conceived and fueled by the “pink mafia” trying to reverse-bully men who feel okay with “punching down” jokes at their expense.  That seems to be the fuel of the blowback from some men.  I don’t know where I land on the matter.  I don’t feel any of the fashionable outrage for jokes about even the most sensitive subjects.  I am only annoyed by walking on eggshells.  There have been actual PSA’s not selling any product that have had the guys at the barbecue who shame a friend who boasts non-consensual conquest of a woman or some sort of domestic abuse.

The second apparent controversy is mostly artificially bolstered by Forbes magazine’s Scott Mendelson and The Hollywood Reporter’s Kyle Kizu who are upset with the fantastic and delightful news that the 2020 Ghostbusters 3 movie directed by Jason Reitman will ignore the presumptuous 2016 re-set by Paul Feig and instead it will be in-continuity with the Nineteen Eighties iteration Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989).  This choice by Reitman and ultimately Sony is a welcome corrective measure.  This is a subject upon which I have no problem offering an opinion.  Around 1999, there had been talk of Harold Ramis taking over as director of a new Ghostbusters movie, since Ramis had new heat as a director following Analyze This.  But Sony didn’t believe enough in it.  That would have been ten years after Ghostbusters II.  So ten more years were wasted by corporate dithering and lack of belief in that property.  Until 2009, Sony/Columbia had no enthusiasm about a third Ghostbusters.  They expected the back end for the main legacy cast to be too high so they thought the brand was dead.  But the video game of 2009 which involved voices and animation of the original cast sold very well and signaled to Sony that yes, duh, there was still potential interest in the brand.  The video game scenario was set only two years after Ghostbusters II.  Dan Aykroyd was most vocal about a planned third movie checking in on the original characters decades later in modern day.  Even the biggest hold-out Bill Murray in October of 2010 appeared in full Ghostbusters uniform at the Scream awards to support his appearance in Zombieland the previous year, which itself had him playing make-believe Ghostbusters with the younger cast of that film in a cameo.

Sigourney Weaver had spoken with optimism that a script in development would bring the team back together.  There was an appetite being stoked among fans for the return of Venkman and his iteration of Ghostbusters.  February 24, 2014, Harold Ramis died after months of illness.  As a co-writer and one of the core 4 Ghostbusters, his loss was enough for Ivan Reitman at the funeral to lose interest in directing the third movie.  Some of the fanbase felt you can’t get the whole band back together so maybe it was too late.  Bill Murray had been blamed for his reluctance to even read proposed script drafts during the vital four years while Sony had renewed its faith in the brand and Ramis was still alive.  This may be invalidated by Murray’s early references to the IP in Zombieland and at the awards show just as Sony’s interest had returned.  The jabs at Bill Murray are the only element I would dispute of the RedLetterMedia video Mr. Plinkett’s Ghostbusters 2016 Review, which otherwise is a vital and useful assessment of that misguided and wrongheaded remake. Feig was the flavor of the month after a few profitable moderate budget movies, and so he inherited the director’s chair and created an overly improv-laden, clueless, and self-congratulatory mess.  More proton pack blasts and cartwheels do not this kind of movie better, nor does coming up with new tech that can shred ghosts or “kill” them in a movie where they should be busted but where there is not even a containment facility until the end and the only trapped ghost is freed due to silly goading.  If you are only concerned about the excitement of seeing women as “scientists” or in “parapsychology” look back to 1982’s Poltergeist.  Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh is believable and also funny. (She won an Oscar for five minutes on screeen in Network (1976).) In the 2015 remake of Poltergeist, Jane Adams played an equivalent character called Dr. Brooke Powell – a year before Paul Feig would pat himself on the back for introducing the idea of female scientists in movies.  I mean, if you are willing to go further into make a full time job of it you can start with Kate Reid as Dr. Ruth Leavitt in The Andromeda Strain (1971) just for starters.  The point is that there are far better movies with far more engaging examples of women as scientists. Laura Dern as Dr. Ellie Sattler in a little movie called Jurassic Park, anyone? I’ll just leave this here:

The announcement that Ghostbusters 3 would ignore FeigBusters was a breath of fresh air to fans like myself.  And I’ll date myself.  I was 16 years old in 1984 when the classic Ghostbusters was released, and the year was so full of good movies that it wasn’t at the top of my list. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out that year.  Romancing the Stone was fun.  Beverly Hills Cop may have been the top earner at the box office. In 1989, Ghostbusters II would have to compete against Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as Batman and Back to the Future II. That year I was well into adulthood and less easily absorbed by movies, but as the decades passed the Eighties pop upon second look.  Maybe it wasn’t just my age, because directing seems less delegated and more amusing in much of the Eighties films. There was also an element of mischief that is lacking in the less human approach of today.  But the idea of the director of Juno doing a Ghostbusters 3 is very reassuring.  Somebody with vision who can also present quirky characters.

It is a shame that a guy like Kevin Smith defends hard reboots like FeigBusters by saying, “The original isn’t going away.  It’s on DVD.  You can watch it any time.” Well, the same can be said about FeigBusters now.  You can watch the 2016 movie as many times as you like.  It hasn’t gone away.  But the truth is that the “fans” or FeigBusters are not so much supporting a movie but a movement and their only interest is taking imaginary ground in a make-believe war with The Man, specifically a character I did not hear about until 2016.  The DNC deflected Bernie Sanders supporters by calling them – among other vile things – BernieBros who must only be objecting to Hillary Clinton’s gender and couldn’t possibly be inspired by Bernie’s history and clarity on principles.  Sony marketers and trolls came up with the term GhostBros for anyone who rejects FeigBusters, because after all it must be an objection to “funny women.”  Even though many of us loved the same year’s release Bad Moms which was genuinely funny but didn’t appeal to SJW movie critics – it made about five times its production budget and spawned a profitable sequel. It wasn’t bloated by the expectation that all fans want is a logo, a familiar song, and a light-show. Paul Feig had said, “We made a list of things to keep, the car, the logo and the song — we didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Therein lies the problem with Feig: He doesn’t know what is the baby and what is the bathwater. Feig and cast members Melissa McCarthy and Leslie Jones characterized the detractors of their film as “mother’s basement-dwelling man babies with neck beards and fedoras,”  not to mention the equivalent manufactured stigma that associates rejection of a mediocre movie with right wing or sexist sensibility.  Reprehensible tactics. This began somewhat with the well-documented case of Sony’s marketers or whoever curated the comments under the first trailer culling the posts that had reasonable and articulate responses and leaving only the most childish and racist or sexist posts to create the jumping off point of their narrative: if you don’t like FeigBusters, this is what is inside your soul.

I would stop short of saying that the same principle is at work with fallout from the Gillette public image upgrade.  Looking outside of my bubble or where my Venn diagram for movie discussion overlaps those on a Facebook page I check, there are indeed guys claiming to boycott Gillette or giving the link to order a batch of re-fill blades for the Vector 3 from China so it won’t financially profit the US end of it.  There are some who see it as the currency of being male, the benefit of the doubt coming through the door, to be devalued.  I would argue that having a President like Donald J. Trump has drawn a huge spotlight on the truth of the old boys’ club of Cryptkeepers who need to be disbanded and in some cases jailed. Among those with whom you can be candid, there will be rolling of eyes when something insane happens – like when you realize that indeed Matt Damon was removed from Ocean’s Eight because when asked about the PoundMeToo movement he said what everybody else was saying privately, that there must be a distinction between the gravity of sin in rape versus the slapping of someone’s behind.  Careers were taking hits that perhaps did not deserve that.  But it is like the history of revolution – it happens not in countries where there is a firm totalitarian system but in places where progress has begun and people are hungry for more. Hashtags that easily spread a message on twitter have helped radicalize people in a general sense at the expense of specifics.

Ocean’s Eight was in continuity with the George Clooney trilogy, so I was in full support of it until they cut Damon. Then I wanted for DVD.  In 2016, I refused invitations to see the supposedly re-titled Ghostbusters Answer the Call in cinemas but I did stream it illegally from a bootleg. Months later, I borrowed a DVD from the Toronto Public Library to listen to the commentary. That’s the one where Paul Feig can’t remember the title The Wizard of Oz and referred to it as, “some Disney movie.” I gave it a chance, but gave it no money.  On the other hand, it has taken a lot of my time and attention as all of these circular and imaginary tribe-driven arguments have played out.  I buy razors that are on sale, usually the cheapest. Gillette could put their money where their mouth is and charge the same for a lady shaver as they do for a men’s razor.  The co-writer of Ghostbusters 3 has on his imdb page the 2015 remake of Poltergeist, which is the only wrinkle. As with Ghostbusters, I prefer the “original” or at least the one that was well directed. But I know I’ll see it ASAP in the cinemas and happily fork over the admission.

 

 

 

Working with Murphy: Volunteering A

There are many reasons to volunteer on someone’s production or project.  Sometimes you seem to have a free weekend and you feel isolated and want to keep active and help someone out, especially if you are usually out of touch.  But volunteering can backfire.

1999 I suffered a spinal fluid pressure incident that damaged an optic nerve and created a blurry spot in the center of my vision for more than a month.  My first concern was, “Gee, I hope my vision is healed by the time Episode 1 is released.”  That shows how naive I was.  Meanwhile, some friends from college got a Calling Card grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation to make their short film.  I was pleased to be asked to comment on certain scenes during pre-production by the director. Then I was asked to participate in the shoot, arbitrarily as continuity, but as, “an ally on the set.” That phrase I learned later was from a book being passed around: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. I said I could help on the Monday of the shoot week but the Tuesday I was helping someone move and then I could resume on Wednesday and the rest of the week.  I was clear about this.

Filmmakers maybe don’t hear that kind of thing, so it has limited much of my volunteering in the years that followed.  They figure everything else is unimportant next to filming.  I felt I should not leave this prior commitment in a lurch and I felt that I had given full disclosure about it to my filmmaking friend.  He mentioned the Tuesday on set and I maintained my plan and repeated it.  Much of the first day shoot went well.  I did have to run to the porta-potty because of the water pills I was on due to my condition and having had two spinal taps I had been weakened somewhat but was recovering. I was still contributing and I recall that when the props guy showed up with an unsatisfactory example of groceries I suggested using the craft services table materials to help bulk up the bag which had to seem like a horn of plenty. At one point the A.D. took me aside to ask me to convey an idea she had for shooting and I tried to reassure her that the director was approachable and she could ask. I don’t think she did.  When a community photo was being taken of the crew and people at the location, I volunteered my own Polaroid instamatic. As I started giving instructions about how to frame to compensate for the lens, she just handed it back to me and I took the shot. In the car ride back to town she remarked, “People who aren’t enthusiastic shouldn’t be making movies.” Or words to that affect.  In hindsight she may have meant me, which is far from being appropriate.  If anything, I was a little sunstroke despite the director giving me his baseball cap at one point. I was not prepared to do math at the end of the day, and the A.D. advised me that calculating the amount of film shot was my duty. I was certainly under the belief that I had drawn a sketch on each continuity page and that each shot was accounted for.  Even though asserting myself to get the camera info between shots from the assistant camera guy was more of a chore than in film school.

Ultimately, I got a call from the director that night with an anxious tone asking if I was going to cancel the prior commitment and just work on the film Tuesday. I reminded him that all along I had told him that one day was the only one I couldn’t be available.  I felt emotionally torn by it all the same, but held my ground.  The next day I went to help out the other friend who was moving.  At the end of the day I was advised by my director friend that I would not be needed for the rest of the week because they would keep the person who replaced me as continuity.  I let them hang onto my Polaroid camera, so the last person to use it would have been that replacement. Years later I would loan it out again and that camera didn’t function.  I also became aware of the fact that the A.D. had badmouthed me and encouraged my replacement.  Also, the Tuesday shoot day went as follows. The crew rode in the hold of a truck to a location the producer had secured and the director looked it over and found it unsuitable so they returned to town and called to book another location for the following day.  Nothing was shot and there had been no need for continuity.  Months later, I was still in the loop enough to be asked by the director to join him on an audio recording trip and also to be present for some pick-up shooting and to comment on the edit.  I was invited to the final screening and I did get a thanks credit but there was a lot of turbulence and Roshomon alternate views of the story.  It is for the best that I don’t remember the last name of that A.D..

I had heard that she recruited a number of people from that crew for a film to be shot in my home town with a noted actor.  It is interesting how easily people can be dangerous to your reputation or how your best intentions can turn against you.  I’m not sure what the take-away is here.  But it caused me to volunteer less for others and work on my own projects over the next few years.

Writers’ Groups and Community

Between 1998 and 2006, I joined and left or got dis-invited from five writer’s groups. This is not counting participation and reviewing scripts on zoetrope.com and triggerstreet.com.  Typically these groups are started by people who want feedback for their own output and in some cases there is a bit of a control issue.  The last group I was involved in during those years had evolved through LIFT the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto.  Here is a group that rents equipment and facilities to non-commercial, personal films. But the screenwriting circle was run by a guy who wanted only writers trying to write for sale to the industry.  This meant a lot of reiteration of the Robert McKee and Syd Field kind of plot paradigm and nothing from the inside out or with insight into the writers.  There is the tired old chestnut distinguishing between a rule and a principle.  Today, there is increased talk about how the classic commercial paradigm is too confining.  I once used the word “dogmatic” and he asked me to define it.  I did, but couldn’t get over the air that he believed he was setting me up for embarrassment in case I failed to define it.

I happened to leave that group after my father passed away, when I wasn’t focusing on writing and had some personal issues to work through.  I had no real deadline and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t writing for the sake of writing.  I was then told it was supposed to be my turn to submit, so I did send the current draft of a feature script without combing through it for a final proof read.  This became an issue.  Again, this might have been another set up, this time seeing if I was truly leaving the group over grief.  Suffice to say, the tone of a meeting was set by this insufferable jackass. I had a run of dialogue between deliberately named characters Mack and Beth, and one might reasonably assume people would understand this is not an oversight, but the quality of laughter when it was brought up suggested the handiwork of the moderator.  His friend and second-in-charge of the group has gone on to make a handful of features.  But the head moderator of the group seems to have gone on to post some seemingly fake credits on imdb.  Ultimately, after each meeting the group would go for a beer nearby and I attended a couple of times but I had a night shift to attend in those days and so I couldn’t fully make the commitment to join and socialize, so that made me a bit of the odd man out and opened the possibility of letting my image be created for me.  I do remember a short being presented for discussion and I praised it for being satirical.  The woman who had written it flatly told me, “I didn’t intend it as hilarious”  so a few years later when she won the Toronto Urban Film Festival with it pretty much as written and Atom Egoyan was quoted as calling it great satire I was happy without being able to say I told you so.

Many of these little groups – some of which involved cold live readings, but mostly discussion of drafts or sections of drafts – seemed ineffective.  If I am given half an hour of a feature (25-30 pages) for comment I am unable to thoughtfully factor in the context. If we are asking each other to read a full draft, and the discussion is less about the specific dialogue and more about the broad strokes, then it may be more practical to show each other four page outlines that clearly show how the real estate of story and plot are to be spent over the first act, the two halves of the second act, and then the third act, what the turning points are and how key problems are solved.  The trouble is that most studios or filmmakers would love to get their hands on a true story outline that solves the broad strokes, just so they can have someone expand on it and steamroll the original writer into oblivion.  Most movies are professionally produced and often directed with style and the screenplay or plot is the weakest link.  The full drafts often submitted for the group to read and give notes on (including many of my own) are typically not ready to be seen by anyone.  They are too frequently knocked off because there is a sudden opening in the queue and something is due.

I also found that it is best to invite specific writers you respect if you build a group. Especially now, there is more division over how to approach humor and sensitive subject matter that it can detract from getting a useful tracking of how people follow a script and where interest levels peak or drop and what is muddled.  One group I had been invited to because I had filmed at one of the members’ houses and I had sat in during a reading and apparently my acting was well received.  This lasted until I had submitted something and a couple of members were concerned that I had not taken the same screenwriting course they had – one that apparently cautioned writers to banish anything “problematic” from a story or description, or anything that was not flaming progressive.  The friend who had brought me in was delicate when telling me this. Sometimes this kind of turn of events doesn’t come with a satisfying explanation.  I had to connect my own dots.  I looked back at my last draft where I was describing – for example – a cleaning lady who hated dirt.  I had drawn blank on the word “pristine” so I wrote in a place-holder “perfectly white” referring to her hands, but forgetting to put an asterisk on either side of the place-holder for later editing. Even something like that could have someone to get the wrong idea.

My take on writers in general is that many are gold rush seekers, and some just want to have the identity of writer, but most of us are interested in ourselves and the bubble around us.  They say you know someone by the company he or she keeps.  I was in that last screenwriting group for three years, and I am somewhat on speaking terms with one of the members but couldn’t confidently say many of the names even if I remember drafts of their scripts I’ve read.  I’m not even sure I like many of the writers I know.  I am certain that taking random opinions to heart has caused me to waste time exploring drafts of my work that were dead ends.  Meanwhile there are times I have written coverage on someone’s script and they appreciate that it is getting into how the themes are used and what personal issues the writer brought into it.  A story or script might be a message or clue from the unconscious, just as the initial spark of an idea and its euphoria is the tip of that iceberg hinting that the rest might be stored in the writer’s mind and that he or she is the person to develop it.

Jim Jarmush has said he will write a first draft in longhand and hand this to a typist and shoot that.  Woody Allen claims to use an old typewriter, then maybe circles a few things on it with pen for corrections and lets someone else retype it.  Meanwhile some of us are puttering away at multiple drafts instead of getting on with it.  One script I had been paid for each time I did a rewrite (for which I’m grateful) had been set aside by the producer and needed my encouragement.  It had table readings and yet no urgency of production until world events made the core premise dated.     I think initially a previous writer would not provide an electronic version because he wanted control.  So I retyped that draft and made some adjustments along the way and gave both a pdf and editable office document to the producer.  I had recommended printing it out and writing in concerns or edit notes onto that so that I could see the changes at a glance and go through it in the file to apply changes without unnecessary time-consuming re-reading.  But a poor typist was brought in to use different software and generate a new draft I had trouble wading through and could not embrace as a potential director.  I really needed to be able to track at a glance what had been dropped or changed and I was angry with the unseen typist who had made so many mistakes that this draft could not be presented to anyone.  To this day, I offer ideas on fixes but I know if I do it there is a psychological commitment. Not having the last word is one thing, and wanting to make a different movie is another. Even though I certainly want to see my friend have something to show for all the time and money that has already gone into generating the material.

During all that same time, over ten years, my clown epic had been refined to a point where I was livid when I discovered some key people wanted to do improvisation instead of the dialogue I had crafted.  That would have been too unwieldy and rob me of true closure that vindicated my writing.  But other filmmakers have their premise and draw in their collaborators and jump into pre-production without a finished script and have a leap of faith about improvisation.  I know myself enough to know that would not be my cup of tea. I like to have a common point of reference, a final script. I wonder if skipping those screenwriting support circles might have allowed me to just blunder ahead with whatever crazy drafts I had and make features fifteen years earlier.  I do know that if you are in a group just because you answered an open call or you belong to a co-up that entitles you to participate it won’t be as useful as notes from someone whose work you respect and who cares enough about the craft to ask what you mean if something is unclear and who may even care if you exist.  If you love the craft of screenwriting and some of its architectural demands then it won’t be so personal that it is uncomfortable – it is just about how information is set up and how prepared the reader/audience will be for what happens next.

In your twenties and thirties, a screenwriting group might be a way to network. It might also be a way to push people away with failing to be progressive enough or passionate enough with political opinions.  It is a double-edged sword.  Identity politics can wear you out.  And if you have notes on a script and by the time a circle comes around to you others have already said what you had prepared it will seem like a waste of time.  The funny thing is that a playwright I respect had once stated in a blog that, “You should not respond to feedback on a script right away.  Just take the notes and think on them and decide what is useful and what is not.” Something like that.  And yet how many times after a table read or screenwriting discussion do we expect writers to answer questions or justify something in the script? Maybe at the outset, the writer should ask what kind of feedback is helpful (tracking one’s interest in the scenes, characters, content) and that you have no intention of asking questions, only noting them to look over later.

Sometimes doing several stabs at a outline is more useful than any feedback.  Really kicking the tires of the story without generating a huge word count and getting lost in the weeds.  I encourage people to write but the concept of peers and peer review isn’t something to take as having blanket value.  Some say even random feedback is akin to what you get from the general audience anyway, but there is a skill to reading and evaluating just as there is a talent and craft needed for the writing itself.  Some people are armchair studio executives and others will putter with writing, off and on, like playing the lottery.

For years I could spend time reading scripts and noting my observations and generating substantial reviews on-line and in return getting reviews for my own scripts that were minimum word count b.s. proof that the person just skimmed the script. I know if I have spent a couple of hours reading a script or anything else (especially with an open word file for my notes and first impressions as I go) I will have something to say.  Making room for a lot of writers in a group to present their work for feedback requires commitment.  I might prefer to e-mail my notes if I can’t attend a meeting and be denied the e-mail address of the writer of the month because the moderator wants all discussion verbal and oral face to face.  (Really to make sure his/her role and authority as moderator is not rendered irrelevant.)  Even though that is not practical. Ultimately, some people might feel they need a sense of community and people to have a beer with or vent with but in practical terms a screenwriter circle is not practical.  Maybe one great script with a circle of producers and financers would be ideal.

 

Funding

Though I had a short partially funded by Bravo!Fact in 2001 and a longer one under the Emerging Artists grant of the Ontario Arts Council, I haven’t applied for much but screenplay contests since.  If I cultivated more of a head for business, I might have a more legitimate foothold.  Here is a good article with contacts for funding in Canada, posted by the National Film Board.

https://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2018/01/25/finance-canadian-independent-film/?fbclid=IwAR2yYadOqNvdi5rvKABJAFCYoVsyRVITLXLu1eOv9eLJgEeDYJ6Cw6ErkRI

 

 

Writing for Free

While in college, I contacted a filmmaker from my hometown and showed him some writing samples for the hell of it.  I had only met him as an extra on a feature he did, and that scene didn’t make the final cut.  I had written a couple of Star Trek: The Next Generation spec episodes because that show accepted submissions from fans, and I had written an original feature called Crotch, about a pornographer who has to retire as a condition of his pending marriage. They were, for good or ill, writing samples.  He invited me over to see an idea he might want me to work on.  When I got there and he pointed to the title and couple of paragraphs, I had a sinking feeling and had to say no because it seemed too exploitative.  I didn’t like the title and the two paragraphs seemed to represent two different stories.

A short time later, he called saying that he had to show an investor a four page outline and could I help by knocking one off in the next couple of days.  Back then I had a naive can-do attitude and felt I should try to meet the challenge, even while I was a full time student.  I went to the school’s Mac lab and knocked off four pages from handwritten notes I had made in my travels.  I sent this off, either as an e-mail or maybe he picked it up where I was living in second year. He made his deadline and next began to write a partial draft which was mostly a first act and a few other scenes.  He wanted to know if in a couple of weeks I could build that into a full draft.  I actually recognized at least one line from my Crotch script.  But I again took the challenge to name that tune in a short space of time.  He was acting in one of my short films, so at a rehearsal I handed him a 123 page draft. I could get into detail with character names and which elements I introduced, but I don’t want to open old wounds by naming the project.  One of the paradoxes of movie-making is that you may have a bad experience with people you otherwise like.

He showed the long draft to various unnamed people and then gave me their notes, a few of which were contradictory and many of which were against the use of overt “jokes.”  Ultimately, the next few drafts were about 100 pages.

Then between semesters he had me bus down to Toronto for a couple of weeks to stay with him and his family in a guest room and generate a final draft.  He presented me with something to sign and which he also signed a copy of, with his wife as witness that stated story by him and screenplay by himself and me as an agreement that this was how the credit would read.  At that point in the process, I had already contributed enough to justify this. There was a table reading, and then several days of pulling the script apart and putting the pages on a wall of the office and scrutinizing the flow of it.  Another writer strolled in one day to look at what we had done and he ostensibly had been hired to do a “step outline” which seemed like a step backward.  It turned out that what he had brought was a sample of his own start on an actual draft.  His approach for the opening had an entirely different gimmick. I don’t believe any of his work ended up in the draft but it gave me a strong gut sense of how when someone is being paid for work their output is given more consideration than the grind of ideas that come from the underpaid or free writer.

When I returned home, after a week or so he also visited our mutual home town and presented me with the latest draft.  It threw me because it had material from the earliest version and it seemed like a huge regression. I likely said some things in anger.  Then he said that our work on his home computer had gotten deleted and apparently even the floppy back-up we had used over those two weeks had a problem and he had to revert back to the older incomplete version.  It seemed implausible and I was depressed about it.  I mean how could both the computer and the back up floppy have been corrupted?

Today I might e-mail a back-up, which has its own drawbacks.  You might have a collaborator or friend with a huge archive of drafts you don’t want anyone to see.

Then two big movies came out with a similar premise or setting to the one we had been writing.  This director/producer decided to shelve his project and focus on something else.  None of his investors were interested now.

Eighteen years later, give or take, I happen to be chatting with this person while I am working at a security guard post and he mentions that he has only a few more days left shooting this film and names the title.  And this is the first I have heard that he got someone to finance the movie all those years later.  I might have wanted to set foot in the home of the protagonists and meet them.  But then the question might come up about why I might be so interested. When there was a screening, I was invited. I brought a friend who had been familiar with the background and recognized my sense of humor that had survived in certain scenes. I left a comment alluding to my only credit being in the special thanks list and wondering what the answer would be if someone asked what I was thanked for.  Shortly after that screening there were things going on in his personal life that made it impossible to broach the subject.  I also had an aneurysm by then.  But another screening eventually happened and this time three people asked about the writing in the Q & A and each time there was a version of the story that did not mention my involvement.  I was tempted to stand up and field those questions.

Eventually, I sent him a Facebook message with my concerns and reminding him of some contributions right down to spelling the word Valentine backward to create a character name which he then shortened a bit.  He agreed to meet, gave me a copy of the movie and a very small check for $200 which was what had been due for the two weeks I had written at his place nearly two decades before. I agreed to a small credit on imdb which I won’t disclose here but it was not co-writer which was indeed the truth.

My only conclusion from this is that it is generally unwise to start with someone else’s idea, which causes you as writer to have to get “right” the vision the person claims to have.  Your own unconscious will be working on that person’s story for months or years and it can take a toll. If you are getting paid up front and going through an agent so these agreements can’t be swept under the carpet, great.  There may have been positive aspects to this kind of collaboration, because someone else cares about it being done.  But it should be done with eyes open and also not over the internet.  I remember also jumping at the chance to write some radio dramas for someone only to discover it was a project that fell apart and the call had gone out to many writers anyway so it was all the more speculative.  Better to put your passion into something you control, and then direct it yourself.  If that is an option.