Letting a Screenplay Go

Had a recent phone conversation with a local independent film producer I know, and it involved his anecdote about a writer he had met who wanted him to produce a film he had written but not to direct it.  The writer, despite having no directing credits, intended to direct.  “So,” my friend told this guy, “You want me to do the work of producing while you jerk off directing?”  I didn’t comment on that characterization and I think I only suggested maybe the writer should make some shorts and become confident about his directing and maybe put people at ease with samples of work.

What I didn’t think to say until after he conversation had wrapped was that  I can identify with the writer.  I also only want a producer to produce.  The right person should be in the right position.  Someone business oriented and who is a born producer is ideal to produce.  If that person gets the money and resources together, often times that person will install himself/herself as director whether or not there is a knack for the psychology of the frame and the displacement impact of a cut or the progression of shots in a sequence.  The craft of movie directing is under constant attack from the “coverage” sensibility that makes recording of a scene something rote and generic.

A producer with more contacts than the writer can also get away with using that leverage for arbitrary changes.  Too often what the “buyer” of a script (which may as well just be called the receiver in low budget filmmaking, where the value of a script might be more than the total budget of the film so there is no chance of getting that figure) might only want to see that the heavy lifting is there in terms of story and continuity.  But as much work as a writer puts into that, much of it is about adhering to formats of storytelling that are long established. The dialogue might be where the writer’s voice or style comes in, and filmmakers as well as actors might often feel free to trade out the written word for a paraphrasing or eliminate it all together.

If that happens, the originally intended writer-director has dropped a notch to screenwriter without getting a huge pay out and will not see the writing brought to life because now it is changed often arbitrarily and if enough has been changed (on whomever’s whim) the credit itself may now be shared with someone else.  The dangers would be greater if the screenwriter came onto a project embellishing someone else’s initial blurb or TV Guide summary.  A year can be spent contributing to fleshing out someone else’s idea, and in the end someone else gets credit and someone else gets paid.

If you have a fear about story ideas being stolen, the cold comfort you will get from far too many low budget directors and more experienced filmmakers is, “Well there are no original ideas.”  This is another reason to guard your dialogue and other quirks that make the script uniquely your own.  A filmmaker might look at a script as something that should just lay out the foundations and it should be straight line so that the performances and presentation can be the fun or wavy-line element.  This is the same principle of casting improvisation actors or live comedy actors who want to deviate and embellish rather than learn and rehearse dialogue, but even a comedy needs a grounded foundation and a sea level from most performers so the unusual element can stand out.

A writer can spend more time than anyone on a project and require the most personal connection and stamina to really bring something to it.  But as long as it is a buyer’s market, the most appropriate fit for the script might not be found.  The director should be the right fit, as should the casting.  If the wrong person makes an offer, and a desperate writer accepts it, the script will no longer be interpreted but instead it will be imposed upon and made to conform something that is not built into it.  An inexperienced writer with the right crew can realistically direct a movie as well as – if not better than – someone experienced who might have had a rote or “coverage” approach.  Not that I want to take the off-ramp to a tedious argument about what coverage is and how common it is.  (Wide establishing shot, close-ups of each character, “overs” or “dirty”  over-shoulder of each, maybe a cut-away shot, the goal being for the producer and editors to shape the scene according to their own whim and to not be limited by what the director wanted to emphasize.)

My own writing is typically “wavy line.”  That dictates a more subdued performance. And I might have something to offend everybody i one of my scripts, so if I work with someone who wants to play it safe the result will be luke warm and pointless.  Others might not have that purist sensibility.  And it might not apply to every script.  But people usually respect something to the extent that they paid for it.  If a writer is a pushover, differing to everybody else’s opinion, maybe their script didn’t stand for anything in the first place.  In  my case, I just want my gut impulses to be vindicated and I will not be vindicated if my decisions and my dialogue are traded out.  If a choice is six of one, half dozen of the other, then I want my own six to see the light of day and have its day in court.  Once I have a screenplay the way I want it, I now consider how to novelize it.  This doesn’t get the control issues out of my system.  It is just to flesh things out and serve notice that there is a version that can be enjoyed on its own. Screenwriting can be excellent but it is so common a challenge to take on that it gets little respect.  A stage play or a novel is given more credence.

A screenplay is really only worth writing to make money or to direct it.  You have to screen people, friends or strangers alike, to make sure they don’t need to piss in the soup.  If they don’t like your writing then you don’t have a leg to stand on with them other than floating the idea that you are savvy enough that simply stealing an idea can get their own variation slapped with a restraining order and their own reputation with investors destroyed.  You may record a table reading of your script, but KEEP THE DIRECTIONS, even if dialogue ends up taking over a reading.  Make sure it is not a cold reading , because it DOESN’T MATTER if the actors are bored.  They should not have phones out texting or answering messages while waiting for a line and then letting the rhythm die because of a pause as cures are missed.  They have to comb through the script for speed bumps and identify them so what you record and what listeners experience is a decent and lively presentation of the script, not a lot of stumbling over lines that give the impression there was something wrong with the words. A good actor can dance trippingly through mediocre words and a personality can come across that makes the whole seem of a piece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Internalized or Imposed Knowledge

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, except that some work is more satisfying than other work.  By a certain age I may have internalized my knowledge of movie making, especially directing the attention of the audience.  I need to decide on a sequence of shots, not just record content and see if it cuts together later. To feel I am directing a movie it is as much about use of the frame (placing the audience) as anything else.  Actors who have never acted may have a natural way about them that means walking through a room and giving a neutral expression can be more effective than someone who is on stage regularly and feels inclined to mug and gesticulate so the camera has to stay out of that performer’s way.

As long as the script is solid and the casting is appropriate, I can be free to DIRECT the movie.  I like to do that mostly on paper first, not under the gun.  Regardless of whether every shot by every other director has meaning or motivation, I will ask myself questions:

WHAT IF this shot matters or means something from below eye level or eye level or above eye level?

WHAT IF this wide lens elevates the scene and makes the mundane seem epic?

WHAT IF this shallow focus allows people to feel that the character in sharp and clear character feels isolated from the setting or other people?

WHAT IF these characters are only shown in the same shot or over shoulder when they may agree and only in singles when they are – overtly or under the surface – are apart?

WHAT IF an action or an image at the end of a scene can be answered or ironically followed by something at the start of the next?  Will that distract from or help unify the whole?

That kind of thing, on and on like that.  If I prepare to direct something and 90% of my satisfaction is going to come from pre-visualization and following through on the implementation of the vision, the last thing I want to hear is that the fashion is to be more “loose” and to just let the audience find what to look at like Altman and not direct their gaze.  There are a great many people working as directors who have the designation because they have excellent people skills but they may not bring much in terms of a vision.  That might make them very pliable and they can talk about their “authentic voice” because they choose subject matter or scripts that have a certain identity.  But to be honest, that kind of thing only means something for the director in question and his or her satisfaction using the medium as a platform.  For me, it is only the joy of the craft.  Once the screenplay is written and settled, it is less about voice and more about the articulation and grammar of the conveyance.

Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park portray people with a jaundiced eye and have more of a cautionary thrust.  The movies are more uplifting. If someone were to adapt those books with fidelity but the filmmaking was artless, there would be little point.

Meanwhile, in my own work, I already have specific shots I know I want and scene transitions regardless of whether the broad strokes of a story or the fine points of a screenplay draft have provided the opportunity as yet.  Just showing up and “going with the flow” makes no sense to me.  I have to know what I want and have a craving for it and be somewhat obsessed to go through the long haul and the sleepless nights of setting dates and following through with shoots.

I think it hurts the craft and the perception of director as a position if too many people are delegating the frame or not having a “camera boner” as Ana Lily Amirpour might call it for how a moment is going to be framed. The most lax approach would be like video recording a stage play, and we all know how detached that can feel playing it back.  To shoot for the camera can be both self-conscious and so focused that it feels of a piece with the content being followed.

With e-mail, blogs, tweets, or Facebook and Instragram posts people can say bluntly and sometimes artlessly and clumsily exactly what they feel.  If the delivery device for a message is something as cumbersome and labor intensive as a movie, maybe there had better be something besides the most obvious message and instead also the bonus understanding that you clearly understand and love the craft of movie making and respect and reward the attention of the audience.

I am busy watching a dream in my head which is just as loud as the reality around me.  If someone starts talking about numbers I will have to reorient myself and wake and then concentrate again to find my place again.  If someone were to ask me on set why I am directing and how I got there and what my qualifications are, I might be short with that person because it is not conducive to anything of use to me. If that person knows my body of work, then there is no need to ask.  If they don’t, there is only one way to interpret it:  Why isn’t someone more successful doing your job?  Luckily most people have the sense to let that go and then just get on with their own job.    I don’t have much interest in selling my feature scripts, since I intend to direct them myself whether I am deemed worthy or not by external measure.  The input of years of cinema being absorbed will demand the output of generating my own movies and continuing a vocation or a habit I have had since 1984.

I recall an interview with a cinematographer who said the worst movie making experience would be with a director who has spend years preparing something and is finally making the movie.  Because that person’t vision will be something almost set in stone and it won’t allow for a lot of flexibility (or for the the cinematographer to be a defacto co-director).  If that kind of concern can be drawn out early on, the right people can be recruited for a project.  I mean, frankly, at this point I have a few projects that have languished or gestated for years or decades and I know that following through on what has already been discovered is more important to me than letting it go and letting Murphy’s Law determine what else can be found and just coasting on serendipity and slapping my name on it at the end and feeling disingenuous.  Whether it is in the writing stage or story boarding stage or on the set, there is a degree of instinct and letting years of absorbed cinema work through the unconscious.  The labor for me is the technical aspect, and negotiating with people or vetting them insofar as I can.  What motivates me is a movie that does not yet exist but that I have already pretty much seen.

Twitchy Twitter, Tribes and Fans

This video should play as cued, from 2:09:28 where Robert Meyer Burnett (Free Enterprise) reads a letter of support I submitted regarding the mess of knee-jerk reactions people on Twitter had to one of his tweets about the riots.

For what it’s worth, a lot of us have chimed in to acknowledge how easy it is for imprecise wording can trigger some and cause allies to run away.

How to Kill a Golden Goose

Or the goose that laid golden eggs.  I’m not sure if the goose itself has to be golden.

  1.  Identify an IP you have or that you can obtain that has a history of success, either in viewership or box office or sales.
  2. Look at the market research for the built in audience and discover what the characteristics of these fans might likely be or have been and how your demographic is perceived.
  3. If this core potential customer was of high school age in the 1980’s, ignore their value in evangelizing the brand to younger family members or students or their sphere of social media influence because after all they are middle aged or older and irrelevant and on their way to the grave.
  4. If these be white or Caucasian, remember that they are the devil and if your new iteration of something includes even the same percentage of racial diversity as the original you can preemptively call them racists to shade their objections.  If they are male and heterosexual, call them bros or sexists or ‘phobes because that will cause a meaningful soul-searching on their parts most certainly.
  5. On your site, under any announcement or trailer, be sure to curate the comments so that reasonable and articulate objections to a proposed film or show or product are deleted as much as possible and what is left are the outlier comments from twelve-year-olds or carelessly vile and profane people that you can hold up as  ambassadors from the movement against your “deconstructionist” initiative.
  6. Disregard as “toxic fandom” any essay or review from outlets like Midnight’s Edge, Red Letter Media, or any loose network of influencers who use the hashtag “Fandom Menace.”
  7. Be sure to have someone ask directors, writers or actors if they can imagine the brand or IP being led by someone or subject matter that currently has nothing to do with it or that would interact strangely with other ingredients and confuse the palate.  For example, if your movie takes place entirely in a desert, have someone from an aqua fitness magazine ask why there is no swimming scene.  It will help force affirmative answers and steer the expectations of the audience – or at least the vocal activists on Twitter – and force eventual progress.  A mix of water and sand can be malleable, constructive mud.  If you are from pink news and ask Donald Glover whether his young Lando Calrissian is a pansexual or fluid, being young and hip he will answer in the affirmative. Never mind that the following year grown up Lando Billy Dee Williams will give a polite answer that is misinterpreted to a point where he has to bluntly say, “What the hell is gender fluid?”  By then, the macho fans who like smooth ladies’ man Lando have already been turned off by the affirmative iteration.
  8. What’s in a name?  Be sure to ask whether a new character can piggy-back on a brand even if the name doesn’t fit.  Asking Steven Spielberg if there could be a female Indiana Jones results in, “Sure.  She would have to be Indiana Joan.”  You can let the “toxic” fans chime in as to whether Robert Zemeckis already gave us Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone and its sequel.   Ask if James Bond can become Jane Bond or if he can be gay, without concern for how the love interest scenes will play and the abandonment of Play boy lifestyle appeal, you will most likely get a yes from every actor who played the part and most creatives because they can always chalk up the status quo to exhibitor indifference.
  9. Dump a lot of money into the production values and try to rope in some celebrities at least for cameos.  This will ensure that when the whole thing sinks it sinks deep. Make sure you have many pilot fish “producers” making money on the mere fact that something started shooting, regardless of their limited involvement.
  10. Completely rely courting only the new fan that hypothetically fits your idea of what a viewer or consumer should be, and depend on the idea that people who post on social media are also the same people who rush to see content from that franchise and buy merchandise and will put their money where their collective mouth is to bolster this variant that was “made for them” and not made for the old and irrelevant former fans it proudly trolls.  Or the trolls being trolled.  (All critical customer and market feedback is to be deemed as trolling, so it can be disregarded.)
  11. Clamp down on any actor – especially one who is notably liberal and progressive – who is critical of the new iteration of a character or disappointed by the direction of the story.  This might spoil the narrative that only right-wingers and fuddy duddies and latent serial killers complain about changes.
  12. If it ain’t broke, fix it.  Fix it like fixing a dog.

Print this out and keep it in your pocket for reference to make sure you are on track to run your career and spend, spend, spend like the most privileged, rich, white producers and studio bosses at the wine and cheese.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture Shock, Language and EthnoCentrism

It is not for me to say that I am not racist. That can only be an observation made by someone else. I will make no bones about being ethnocentric, and I am about as okay with that as the subtle pang of inadequacy I get from not being fluent in French at the very least, or Mandarin or any other number of languages.  It is supposed to stave off the onset of dementia.  Whether it is the visual language of cinema or an enjoyment of words, whatever background is the tool chest you have to work with.  If my reference points and pop culture call-backs are too old, or if wordplay in my dialogue will not translate overseas, that is on me and I have to accept that.

If you are from a mostly white city, it is fair to assume that most of your friends were white but also most if not all of your enemies and bullies were white. As an adult, I think everyone I can count as an enemy is the same complexion and speaks the same language and pretty much has the same politics and likes many of the same movies.

In first year of college, I rented a room with an African couple and eventually we got along. I called the police when the husband hit his pregnant wife with a phone and that bought me a lecture from his visiting brother. In second year, I rented from the girlfriend of a Jamaican guy I had made a music video for. I could write a whole blog about that but it was mostly okay. One time he was drunk and pointed to his girlfriend’s kitchen calendar that bikini shots and said, “Do you like black women?” I listed a few movies stars like Haley Berry and he said that doesn’t count and I called him on his little game. In third year, I was renting with a classmate and his girlfriend and I remember arriving at the place. Neighbors gave a rousing welcome and wave and I thought gee, that’s friendly.  My friend was more cynical and accurate, indicating his white arms and that they were celebrating new people of the same complexion. Our landlord Manjit had his kids, drawings on the fridge and it was clear that Father Knows Best sensibilities still existed.

Maintaining a bit of contact with someone from a directing workshop I attended, I was asked to recommend a movie to study for the craft of direction.  I immediately said Back to the Future by Robert Zemeckis. The person responded with a link to a movie the title of which I don’t recall but it began with an elegant shot gliding over the Ganges to people on the shore.  From that, what I got was that he was not really asking about movie direction. I’m not interested in simply recalling the material 1980’s American pop culture sensibility and imposing that on anyone, and I only have the most remote interest in deep diving into the specifics of politics, life and religion around the world. I am right handed and I would feel as much anxiety about writing with my left hand as I would moving out of Canada. I can still enjoy Forest Gump as a heartwarming story and others will call it, “Americacentric, baby boomer references with a man-child representing the naive USA.”  David O’Russell made a dismissive remark about Raiders of the Lost Ark, that it was, “The American adventurer invading and exploiting other cultures,” or words to that affect. Meh.  Nobody asked him, even though he was being interviewed.

There are jokes I may still laugh at that involve or comment on stereotypes and where those come from. The chickens have already come home to roost for my religion. Some Popes are better than others, and there are good people and yadda, yadda, yadda. I lived the first third of my life a couple of blocks from our parish church, and got my newspaper carrier job, lumber mill job and sacristan job there. (Sacristan has the keys to the church, opens and locks it, and sets up for services and sells the religious articles and vigil lights, that kind of thing.) I went to Catholic elementary schools and a Catholic High School, and we knew the Stages of Human Evolution.

People can dig at “Classic” literature and films, but they have yet to come up with lasting replacements. Should the works of Mark Twain, or anything on slavery or the American Civil War be stricken from schools?  I don’t know if it is any more necessary than prayer in schools.  I was an indifferent student and only eagerly read science fiction or horror as a teen.  In my twenties, when I didn’t have to, I ended up reading books I had faked reports on and only then could I have appreciated them.  People may need to find their literature and their religions later in life. I could sit in church and only perk up if a priest mentioned the Ark of the Covenant or made a pandering reference to The Force.  The Original Star Wars Trilogy is the other religion I had.  One would think these brands are deigned to please everybody, but…. well, I’ve ranted on those divisions in other blogs.

The Dam Busters was a major source for the final battle of the original Star Wars, so I finally watched it and though it is interesting to hear dialogue George Lucas directly pulled from that movie it is distracting right off the bat that somebody has a dog that is black and casually calls it by a word best left to rappers. King Kong is held up as great, but the original natives of Skull Island may not play today.  That said, I don’t advocate erasing anything from history. I once had a read-along Disney book from Song of the South called “Brier Rabbit and the Tar Baby” which seemed innocent at the time. I distinctly remember sitting with my family at age 9 watching the Roots Mini-Series, and yet I likely thought nothing of the name Toby someone gave our black cat.  I say that even if if it is embarrassing. If I had my way, Blazing Saddles might not be taught in school but I would find a way to make sure everybody I know saw it.  Might be a way to scare off the safe space culture that wants to retro-fit everything.

I don’t have to refer to bygone times to excuse anything.  There are people, no doubt, in the internet hive that would be up in arms over a show like Quantum Leap because no matter whose life he takes over he would be dismissed as a “white savior” fantasy.  I wonder whenever another Radio Raheem in film or George Floyd in reality is killed by aggressive police whether I would have the balls to fumble out my cell phone or other camera and record this and make myself a target of other cops, let alone also speak up or stand between a back person and the cops in case guns are drawn.  My expectation is that I would freeze.  I could surprise myself so I don’t have to be haunted for the rest of my life.  And in the most selfish sense, honest and sane cops and white people who do not count themselves as ists or phobes or criminals or maniacs have every reason to be furious not only about the murders but also about increased perceived division and shade thrown on those of us considered privileged.  Violence causes radicalization.

In Do the Right Thing, to be honest, I still don’t know what the title refers to. The mayor tells Mookie, “Always do the right thing.” He says, “Is that it?  Got it.” Years later, Mookie appears in another Spike film, Red Hook Summer where he is still delivering pizza for Sal but in another neighborhood.  So where did that get him.  The cop who choke holds Radio Raheem is responsible for his own actions. But what led up to it is Buggin’ Out who has spend the movie trying to radicalize everyone to make them boycott Sal’s pizza for only having photos of Italians decorating his wall despite most customers being black. (Something Buggin’ Out does a double-take to as if he has just noticed, despite going there since he was a kid.)  I don’t want to hazard a guess as to who is the Buggin’ Out of today, but there will always be instigators and hot summers and short tempers among the citizens that police have to serve and protect.  And there is no point getting into the weeds.  When Tarantino spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally after another rash of police violence incidents, the public face the New York police brought out to speak to the press said things like, “We’ve got a surprise for Mr. Tarantino.”  And, “He does movies about crime so he is in favor of crime.”  THAT was the PUBLIC face they brought out.

Never mind that much of the progress of history has alongside of it atrocities and exploitation and leaders looking the other way as empires were built. I don’t see The Spanish Inquisition or Pope Pius XII shaking hands with Hitler when I look at a priest, nor do I assume they are all pedos. If fact, being a priest seems pretty brave today.  Some of us want to see ourselves as the Canadian Brad Pitt character in Twelve Years a Slave, not condoning slavery. (Yet it was only last year that I heard about the Simcoe act and had any knowledge that Canada did at one time have slaves.)  At the same time, the last thing I would want is to come off as magnanimous for not behaving like a racist. That bar is set too low.  We are all being forced to look at the lowest examples of human behavior and an overly wrong-headed American President that Stanley Kubrick would find unbelievable.

When people mention reparations, we try to do the math and realize there would never be enough money even from the deepest pockets. Google says it means transitional justice.  I looked it up for the hell of it.  But we also have Jeff Bezos getting by without much tax and raking in money as a sort of coronovirus profiteer.  Gun manufacturers get subsidies. But with all the scum in office and their funding to keep the general public uninformed the fix is in.  Maybe the problem with looting and destruction is that it is not focused enough. But we can’t get too specific because nobody wants the secret service at their door.

A Good Day, Not a Dark Day, for Film

I still look forward to seeing Patrick Read Johnson’s feature 5-25-77 about his personal experience visiting Industrial Light and Magic, seeing a preview of Star Wars, and anticipating the official release day when others would get to know what he did, that cinema may have changed.  I reject the theory or accusation put forward by Peter Buskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and other sources blaming Jaws or Star Wars for a “blockbuster mentality” that killed brief golden era of the late Sixties and into the Seventies (Raging Bull being a 1980 film).  The theory goes that without Star Wars (released on 32 screens apparently, or at least under 40, with Fox coercing some exhibitors into accepting it or not getting to book The Other Side of Midnight which they wanted) there would be no hard cut to Hollywood only wanting big tent pole movies.  That spin overlooks the fact that a) Everything from Gone with the Wind to Abbott and Costello movies were moneymaking ventures, b) smaller movies and underdogs and sleeper hits as well as darker themes were still being made long beyond May of 1977, c) corporations from the oil, soda pop, and wine cooler industries were taking over the studios in the Eighties, and d) whatever artistic merit Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate and various other films might have had the indulgence of directors frightened a lot of money people and the era where Pauline Kael for example elevated directors (even perhaps over-rated ones like Altman, sorry) was over.  Not because of Star Wars.

First generation Star Wars fans (according to a former Disney executive who disclosed this in a radio interview and lit up youtube recently) are considered by the current regime of Lucasfilm – particularly Kathleen Kennedy – part of a disposable demographic:  fifty-year-old white males.  So instead, the effort it so attempt to lure a new built in audience that frankly doesn’t exist.  My own ilk loves the Original Trilogy and likes The Mandalorian as a close approximation of the tone.  By 1997 we were complaining of changes made in the Special Edition releases, which were further tweaked for VHS, and then for DVDs and finally for Blu Ray and then Disney + adding Greedo’s line, “McKlunkey.”  1999 was also declared a death of Star Wars because The Phantom Menace was a dramatic mess with elements like Jar Jar that played only to children and lowered the score card for Star Wars as a series.  Under Disney, there was raised expectations, followed by mixed feelings, and for many of us a heart-breaking problem with leadership and priorities.  The newer films look slick and have a generally snappy pace but are also burdened by Kathleen Kennedy’s misguided ideology.  “If you don’t like Luke Skywalker, stay away from running Star Wars, please,” would have been great advice before it was too late.

Shaft (2019) honors its brand in terms of tone and continuity, even more than the 2000 iteration John Singleton did.  It could cast a critical and sarcastic eye on the safe space generation without apology.  Too bad the movie did not make much money.  There are so few examples of a follow-up not just being used as a counterfeit and a front for the transitory moods of the moment.

When you see Poltergeist (1982), you take for granted Beatrice Straight as an academic at a university and a parapsychologist.  When you see The Andromeda Strain (1971) you accept Katie Reid as a scientists, and in Dreamscape we accept Kate Capshaw as a scientist.  We might withhold benefit of the doubt from Denise Richards as nuclear scientist Dr.  Christmas Jones in 1999’s Bond offering The World is Not Enough but not because of her gender.  But when Paul Feig made a big deal about inspiring little girls to become scientists because of his remake of Ghostbusters in 2016, it was a head-scratcher.  Ostensibly progressive ideas did not begin current year.  My generation grew up watching Norman Lear sit-coms, as well as Mary Tyler Moore and the MASH series.  We don’t have to be lectured on liberal think by the radicalized extremes of the day.  Feigbusters might inspire little girls to become con artists exploiting a belief in ghosts, or to be a transit worker who just wants to hang out with supposed scientists.  Having fancier equipment to “kill” ghosts and more proton streams, and being able to do cartwheels while zapping ghosts doesn’t make for a better movie.  Sony and anyone associated with that movie, as well as talk show hosts, played up a gaslighting of fans for whom a stigma was invented.  A few years later, as we anticipate Jason Reitman’s reinstatement of the original continuity and ignoring the attempted reboot, the sour grapes are now coming from the other end of the spectrum.  Good.  I wish only the best for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, as the new movie is called.   Even if it has been pushed to next March instead of this summer due to Coronavirus.  One hopeful theory bandied about is that the next wave of cinema will stop patting itself on the head for its messaging and just make better movies that put story and character over side-shade and ciphers that insult the audience.

Star Wars was a practical essay on cinema that had preceded it, greater than the sum of its parts, and just fun to watch.  It also served as a primer for its components and inspirations.  We might not sit through every black and white Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers serial, but we may give a chance to The Hidden Fortress or The Dam Busters, whether or not those movies play as well for young people of today as they did for George Lucas.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was also a visual essay summarizing the development of cinema and the best if can offer, coming from the fanboy whimsy of Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan and the best director in the world, Steven Spielberg.  Tarantino’s films like Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Django Unchained for example are also a culmination of one person’s broad exposure to and love of movies.  It is all about the love of movies and the transmission of that either overtly or subtly to the audience.

Right now the best way to watch the original trilogy is the De-specialized editions, which I believe may only be available as torrents. Had the bonus discs of the original trilogy been full DVD quality when they were made available with the second release of the Special Editions, we might have been satisfied to have that apparently laserdisc sourced version and not a low pixel dub that was designed to steer us toward playing the special editions.  Both Star Wars (later A New Hope) and Return of the Jedi have May 25 as the anniversary of release.  The Empire Strikes Back was May 17, 1980.

I like both iterations of the animated Clones Wars shows, and Rebels had some quite good episodes. Even though Revenge of the Sith is the least weak of the prequels, I have no feeling for that trilogy.  And the more I learn about the fix being in for the Disney era and how many things might have been so much better if, say, Dave Filoni had been put in charge of Lucasfilm instead of Kennedy, it makes the heart sink. People say Kennedy knows the “business” part of the job…. yet, once your source of movie funding is Disney and you only have to get your budgets from that one place just how much “business” acumen do you need?

Star Wars was like a drug and I kept going the the cinema as a regular habit attempting to chase the dragon of whatever magic I had felt from those films from 1977 to 1983.  The rest of cinema benefited from that because I saw most movies through the Eighties and Nineties at the height of my film going, and I could be the 13 year old going to On Golden Pond or 14 year old going to see Sophie’s Choice. Liking Star Wars did not limit anyone’s taste or interest but goosed a faith in the craft and an appreciation for anything well done.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaps of Internal Logic

Using some down time to binge watch the 1989-1993 TV series Quantum Leap, I mentioned this to a friend who asked if it holds up.  This led to me giving a long-winded answer getting into the idea that we may indeed live in a world or culture where the ultimate show about living in someone else’s shoes can still be dismissed as not progressive enough.  The show is often about trying to get someone back together or dealing with an historic social ill that won’t be resolved and instead there will be more personal struggles that can be resolved.  Quantum Leap was ambitious and its heart in the right place.  A Christmas episode with a Scrooge theme involved a Salvation Army shelter in danger of being demolished, and no doubt some who all-or-nothing in their ideology and have a tendency to over-reach may take issue over the american chapters of Salvation Army not having the most open policy toward LBGTQ, some of the most active internet activists. But for the most part, Boy Scouts and Salvation Army and any number of organizations that may have a blind spot are still well known for helping a great many people.  So the show goes on.  Most of us can still watch an episode like that and have it “hold up” as heartwarming without socio-political distraction.  You may have to go back thirty years for entertainment that isn’t putting Twitter appeasement first.

Having said that, loving the show, I encountered an episode in season three that unraveled my understanding of the premise.  I suffer from cognitive dissonance, having interpreted the mechanics of the premise one way and then hitting “8 1/2 Months,” written by Deborah Pratt whose narration you hear in the following intro clip.

I understand that Sam “stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished.”

WHAT I THOUGHT was that he then physically materialized in what they call in the future PROJECT Headquarters “the waiting room,” which I assume is a different room than the accelerator and with someone else’s consciousness or soul while at the same instant Sam Beckett’s consciousness has been transferred to that person’t physical body in the past.  It seemed to make sense (and not strain my willing suspension of disbelief) that we the audience will see Scott Bakula/ Sam Beckett in the clothes of that person for theatrical purposes because we are seeing who he is INSIDE but when he looks into a mirror or other reflective surface he is seeing what everyone else is seeing – the actual physical body that is still there in whatever past time period Sam has leapt into.

Whenever someone takes a photo or video of the person Sam occupies, the resulting image shows who is physically there:  the person from the past, not Sam.

He will see and hear his friend Al as a hologram helping him guess the purpose of his leap.  Children and anyone in an alpha state can perceive Al.  But as Al interacts with Sam, he sees the person Sam has leapt into.  Al finds himself in sexual conflict looking at a beautiful woman Sam has leapt into, so that reinforces the idea that physically the person from the past remains in the past with only Sam’s consciousness animating them.

WHAT WE ARE TOLD in this season three episode via exposition is gnawing at my brain. Sam has leapt into a young, very pregnant woman.  A lady from the hair salon at one point touches Sam’s (unseen by us) belly and feels a kick from the baby.  There is no reason she should feel the kick if the mother is not physically there.  Sam feeling it himself is explained by Al as the result of a neuro-link between him and the person whose life he is inhabiting, who is supposedly IN THE WAITING ROOM in the FUTURE physically.  She supposedly has the baby inside her in the future and Sam can only experience the discomfort and try to patch things up with her judgmental father and with the boy who impregnated her.   We are told by Al (for the first time in this episode, so they sure know it was not clear) that the people of the past see Sam as the other person due to a digital or holographic illusion.  That does not explain why Sam sees his host in mirrors.  And it is hard to swallow that everyone regardless of proximity is subject to some sort of hallucination or projection technology.  Supposedly according to this one episode by producer Deborah Pratt Sam and the past person PHYSICALLY travel through time to switch places so that the past person finds himself/herself in the future waiting room to be debriefed by staff of the project.  This creates so many new problems.

Will a physical time traveler carry viruses from one era to another like carrying disease to a new continent?  There is no decontamination between leaps. And is the person who arrives in the waiting room wearing clothes? Or wearing Sam’s clothes?  Because Sam clearly arrives after a leap wearing whatever suit or dress or bathtub his new identity is in.  If that person had been riding a motorcycle at the time of the leap, Sam finds himself driving a motorcycle. Is he wearing a leather jacket and protective gear or is that itself part of a magical projection people think they see?

I just can’t reconcile that new information with what I had thought I understood.

My instinct is, going forward, to pretend that episode doesn’t exist.  So far there is no indication that this elaborates or touches back on that version of how it all works.

I feel like when The Last Jedi came out and there was a campaign to remove it from canon.  Most shows I love have something that spoils it a bit.  The final episode of Quantum Leap, as I recall, was just strange.  The final episode of Dexter was also kind of traumatic and veered away from what I thought should have happened. But it is true that one bad or strange episode of something, one bit of whimsy that might have been an inside joke in a writers’ room, can taint much of something good.

As I finish watching the discs I have, I’ll see if this is resolved or whether I can just put it behind me.  Even the ending of this episode is convoluted in terms of (spoiler alert) Sam going into labor and the baby in the future waiting room disappearing before the mother disappears and before Sam’s leap. So then we have to fill in that the baby was in some neutral place before returning to the mother’s womb.  That is way too much complication.

In my own version of events, it just makes sense that Sam is only there in mind and the mother and child never physically left her time.  But that’s me.  As we are often told by creators these days, fans “don’t own” the shows they like.  But we can sure vent our confusion.

I mean I had been thinking a theater version of Quantum Leap might be possible if the physical Sam Beckett is always in the waiting room and simply changing his voice and behaviour as new people inhabit him during leaps.  We do not see that end of things.  But if the information in this one episode is correct, then that wouldn’t work.  Maybe I can go back in time to persuade Deborah Pratt to not write it that way.  But I would only send my consciousness, not my physical self.

 

 

 

 

Direct

A well told story might give the impression that anything we encounter along the way might have a use to solve a problem down the line. Watching a lot of Hollywood movies, this is especially reinforced.  Ideally, nothing is wasted and anything can have a through-line.  Back to the Future has layers of that in its construction.  What if your life is all about movies, even for decades, and that information either culminates in a future making movies or it does not? What if you are spinning wheels as a know-it-all and there is no reward for that?

What can go through your mind are motivated frame, when to use selective focus, when to cut on an active frame (leaving a blurred piece of the person running through), and why story boarding is more satisfying that leaving the images to the cinematographer.  But another aspect of movie immersion is that while empathy extends to the characters (fictional or otherwise) on screen, the heightened emotion and stakes can overwhelm our identification and as they say in Fight Club “turn the volume way down” on the everyday issues of reality.

What comes to mind is the Delroy Lindo musician character at his piano and ignoring his family in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. Or the depressed and neglectful father Mel Gibson plays in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver.  Time accelerates and I can be grateful if anyone has a fond impression of me despite my preoccupied disposition.  When I had some luck with grants a couple of times in the early 2000’s, I could justify being in that head space.  I may be a better writer now and have more resources, but I have to get over being fed up with people and their own goals which may not mesh with my own. I can prepare something for a year and see it fall apart because I have been doing “producer” work for which I have no particular knack instead of simply writing and directing.  But a lot of people are in that boat, including big directors from the Eighties who find themselves having to do what a producer might do – and as a result not generating many movies of late.

I may not like green screen, but I may use that where I did not expect to, just to simplify the logistics of projects.  I am eager to get actors on camera bringing to life certain scenes, even if I have to comp them into scale models.  That might be where more of my focus goes in the months ahead.  It also allows for having as few people around as possible in the post-Covid world.   And in an industry where people skills and connections will trump a knack for choosing the best shot for each beat of a scene, or the most appropriate transition between scenes, it will be more tempting to let the movie in my head overwhelm the conversations around me.  It will be vital to prepare people for that aspect of my psyche. So people know they are not being ignored or under valued if I am in a daydream state or concentrating on something not yet there.

 

 

Writing, Rewriting, Refining

Over the birthday of an actor who is to be the lead in a feature I cancelled in 2017, I did another scroll through the draft and also went through the simplified alternate draft I wrote that year to generate a 2020 output of it.  You never know whether a script will ever only be a script.  I had done some similar cherry picking for the novelization, which is now being copy edited or proof read, with the same concern that it may be the final product that conveys my vision.  But I still had to go back and pick through the screenplay itself in case opportunity opens up again to shoot it.  At least that aspect – the script – can be in a state of readiness.

In practical terms, this has meant introducing a trio of supporting characters earlier and letting us be invested in them so that they are more than an idea and we feel their absence in other scenes and appreciate their return.  That was the biggest adjustment. The Devil is in the details as they say. If someone were to make everything more colloquial and shoot it handheld, the unreality of this universe would be undermined as there are runs of dialogue that must be a unit and the subject matter was chosen for its visual potential and my own preference for a cartoonish formality.  If something sticks out as not being the right fit, I have to refine it.  I have a sense of relief again that now I can hand someone this draft and say I absolutely intend to shoot this.  It is not an idea or a stem cell; form follows function and it knows what it is. Ready to print. Ready to shoot.

The downside could arguably be that the more specific and clear your screenplay, the more resistant you will be to variations offered by others.  But that may be the trade-off. I know I will not be vindicated as a writer unless I have followed my own writing, for good or ill.  If someone likes it, they like my writing.  If I were to trade it out for improvisation or someone else’s rewrite (either more chaotic or more sanitized), even if it finds an audience and is popular it will not feel like my own work.  So as this final draft is presented to potential collaborators, it all still comes back to making sure they want to make the same movie. The script will decide which actors are appropriate, not the other way around.

Some people thrive on chaos and I don’t.  Had I shot the 2017 draft that represents most of the novelization, it would have been true to my intentions.  The current version also is, with the benefit of three more years of distance and contemplation.  It might be a good idea to scare off anyone who doesn’t want to commit to reading and learning the script at this point.  The story – as I often say – is just a container for the stuff I care about, specific dialogue and specific shots in my directorial plan.  If that sounds like tunnel vision, consider this:  The main character first appeared in a 2007 short, and was a name on a piece of paper since the early Nineties.  In 2008, I cobbled together what might have been called the first draft, and then on the advice of a prospective producer spent a year submitting possible outlines I would be willing to expand.  After settling on the final premise, many drafts lived their lives as submissions to the Canadian Film Center, and table readings and CineCoup.   There were many opportunities over more than a decade where drafts or corrected outputs would be sent around for feedback.  I went through the process of simplifying stages of the ending and “killing my darlings” that might have been amusing bits which had no function or detracted from the big picture.  There is a point where it has to become a closed system, as John Cleese would say.  Now it is a matter of getting competent and committed production infrastructure.

I have been told it might be too logistically complex for a first feature.  It won’t be my first feature by the time it is shot.  It is actually also fairly contained.  There are a couple of scenes that do involve a number of people but much of it is manageable.  Safety has always been a concern and more so in the current climate.  But watching the movie will not be a “safe space” which seems to be something that chokes out and smothers anything with the reckless charm of an Eighties movie or a Chappelle monologue. It will be fun and also frankly may have something to offend everybody.  It may offend or trigger the extreme right or extreme left, both of which are fair targets of ridicule.

A writer can only have faith that there will be a percentage of the creative community and potential audience that will share the same sense of mischief or sensitivity and edge and might appreciate a movie that represents an uncompromising blah bity blah, blah. I don’t feel comfortable saying “vision,” because it sounds pompous and in fact writing or directing are more a risk and a state of vulnerability than a god-like power position. I have gone through several stages of imperfection, so it does not arrive full blown but is fuzzy and has become more clear as placeholders and distractions have been improved and thumbnail sketches have been redrawn.  The only thing you can count on is honoring your own impulses and your gut as to what seems to spice and season a script and get it all effectively across. Wish me luck.