I’m being distracted from doing my own work. Lectures on Transcendental Meditation talk about the busy ocean surface and the quiet stillness of the depths beneath. When we spend any amount of time on social media or the internet in general it is the surface, choosing our words carefully but knowing that inevitably someone will challenge, reduce, misinterpret or misrepresent what you have said. You can end up communicating more with people you dislike than supporting people you love. You can debate whether or not a movie studio deserves your admission fee and whether you should boycott Star Wars because JJ decided that the Death Star you saw incinerated into a cloud of tiny cinders has chunks that landed intact on Endor without bursting into flame entering the atmosphere and that the Emperor you saw dropped into a shaft and explode is still alive. Even in these blogs, I have mentioned that too much.
You can enjoy the new trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife which seems like a respectful follow-through on the 1984 and 1989 films, perhaps the 2009 video game that involved the same cast. Or you can be further distracted by dimwits who are now taking their turn at sour grapes upon realization that the 2016 Paul Feig iteration – a remake that pretended the events of the Eighties had not taken place – is wiped from canon with the corrective measure of the new Jason Reitman film. It is not worth engaging. There are some witty youtubers riding the coat tails of anything that has a marketing campaign, anything trending on Twitter. They have to because that is their full time job, uploading something with a headline that might get clicks. It doesn’t mean that any of us need to know the judgement or expectations of these pundits. A significant number will lure me in to listen about Hollywood trying to coax non fans of various IPs traditionally appealing to males by flipping them or using them as a vessel to carry an eye-roll ostensibly feminist message expecting to alienate the original built in fan base or shame them into accepting the change “because it is good for society.” I don’t think as a movie buff since about 1980 I have ever paid to see a movie for the good of society.
I once belonged to a screenwriting and script reading circle in which I was eventually asked to leave because I had not taken the same course as the rest of the group. I had sat in to help read as a guest and they liked my reading and input; I had shot a film in the home of one of the members. It was years later before I learned that the reason someone in the group spoke against me was that I had written something that was not P.C. or was not advancing a progressive agenda. This is both horrifying and comforting. At least it wasn’t necessarily the work itself. But I don’t know – especially in Canada which tends to lean to more ostensibly progressive and insular in terms of the left – whether I will get the traction required to beat the system and get my stuff out there. Self marketing is the worst part of any creative life. I have a book to publish, but have not yet reached out. I have several screenplays, but I don’t know for the life of me why anyone would invest money in them. Even a good film is a huge risk. And am I willing to play ball, to change the nature and intention of a work to appease the taste or politics of an investor or collaborator? Not really. And that may well be a character flaw on my part. It may also be the saving grace that allows me to continue seeking out and properly vetting collaborators who want to make the same movie or create the same final result or enjoy the same challenging process. I don’t thrive on chaos. I don’t even trust what people call chemistry. I’d rather go from unknown to known.
I don’t have the power to say: The next Star Wars movie will be Mace Windu starring Samuel L. Jackson. He has been consulting The Whills about an incident where someone has violated the World Between Worlds and messed with time portholes to throw off the balance of the universe and the birth or death of the wrong players. Master Windu accepts their challenge to enter the World Between Worlds and set events back to to the way they play out in the (now non-canon “Legends”) books. Mara Jade properly is allowed to meet Luke Skywalker as in Heir to the Empire. Leia ends up having twins with Han, so she is already pregnant at a time when she might have conceived Ben Solo. When Windu is done setting time into proper motion again and undoing the damage, he destroys the tample that houses the World Between Worlds so nobody can infiltrate it with mischief again.
That would be my pitch to set Star Wars right. It would infuriate Kathleen Kennedy and the Lucasfilm Story Group that she hired. But if I had the power, I would find a way to politely fire them anyway.
I don’t know what the result will be of changes to the James Bond world in its upcoming new film No Time to Die. A woman taking the 007 designation may or may not work. I would have been happier to see what Danny Boyle would have done as a traditional Bond film. You don’t pick up a sleeping baby. Sometimes people get restless with formula. Mork and Mindy season one is great, and naturally fish out of water. Dexter season one has him seeming far more alien than following seasons. Time is bound to soften a premise or eliminate the strangeness that defines it or even compromise the reality around it. Some ideas can’t be sustained for a long haul. That is a drawback of the Daniel Craig iteration of Bond using a continuing story and stretching to create connective narrative tissue. It will then feel the pressure of time. When Bonds were barely connected (maybe having Richard Keil as the hit man “Jaws” in two movies), the episodic approach kept the character eternal. An actor would age out and someone new could come in. Dame Judy Dench as M was actually a smart move that in no way compromised the series. She was able to bring a scolding tone to Bond without seeming like a reach. Previous men as M were taken for granted and could not make much impression. Desmond Llewellyn as Q, and eventually John Cleese were able to express irritation with Bond over the likelihood that he will destroy whatever gadget they give him. After this iteration of Bond, if there is a reset it should be to explore whatever Danny Boyle had in mind.
I would have accepted a Naiomi Harris Eve Moneypenny standalone film or a Jeffrey Wright Felix Lieter standalone. Some wouldn’t but they could have been done for Netflix. It would be a leap to spend $200 million on a movie about the new actress playing an agent that takes over the number 007. That would be a bridge too far. The brand is James Bond 007, not ________007. And if sexism is part of the appeal, frankly that should not be a concern. Bond is a fast living character and may attract men who read Maxim or “bros” as you want to call them. Even “assholes” should be allowed to enjoy your movie. They shouldn’t have to pass the Phil Donahue Character test. And much of life’s humor is in the theme that the best laid plans of mice and men may not work out.
As I stare down the barrel of my own writing work, I admit I am spooked by “the moment we are in,” as Stephen Colbert once repeatedly put it to each guest. Do I have to wait until the bubble of progressiveness bursts? Is there a road back? Do I just sit back and enjoy my DVDs of movies from the Eighties? There are still three major feature projects immediately on my plate. One is in progress but being re-configured, another was cancelled but is still on the back-burner. These, arguably the most important goals of my life, get sidelined from time to time either out of work or those ever-present surface distractions of the turbulent ocean. Time to, as they say in Fight Club, turn down the volume on all of that. When I am in process, and scrutinizing something in a scene or letting the urgency of a moment push it into shape I am feeling on track and engaged in something meaningful. I am also in my comfort zone. I know that actually making a movie is outside of that comfort zone, because of time pressures and coping with what might go wrong. So before the crunch I have to stick to my principles and make sure that I am defining the project and not let it be set off balance by the interjection of inorganic input. Engaging people can be the real challenge, because the project makes it conditional. We have to be up to compatible mischief.
Right now it is about dealing with what is in front of me, the things I can control, the progression of ideas and the shaping of a coherent premise and narrative people can grasp and dialogue that might amuse. I feel like I should roll back the clock 30 years. Don’t say “someday” to yourself. Time is of such value. I love watching movies and TV series and tell myself this is all productive but even that needs to be a reward for making progress in my work. I might be doing a music video in coming months, and might help someone tidy up a long gestating script. But these things will have my focus when they need it and I can’t be in suspended animation waiting for a shoot. If I had money tomorrow I likely would easily prep my suspended clown movie. That is in the best shape. And the novelization would be published with some of that money. But even basic housekeeping has to be tended to. I have old scripts and other writing on floppy discs (hard ones from late Nineties and early 2000’s). Have to extract files from Microsoft and Mac discs in a world where those slots for floppies just aren’t available so much. I have to also convert more VHS material to DVD or data with a new VHS to DVD machine. I have to sit through some poorly labeled tapes and get some of that done. All big things are made up of little mundane things.
It could also be argued that I should get my personal life in order or all of my writing is about – one way or another – having no life. But I’m prepared to accept that. I mean I have no interest in just getting by. There is that scary part of the brain that could dispassionately step off the planet earth at any moment unless there is a concrete follow-through on all the work I’ve done to this point. So even if I have set some things aside from time to time I have not given up. I am however prone to being seduced by the killer of time and the sapper of energy and vitality, wrong viewing, wrong reading, wrong food, wrong exercise. I can be supportive of other artists, but even that has narrowed somewhat thanks to ideological divides and potential pissing contests that get in the way of the intricate goals on the horizon and not revising what is in the mind’s eye as excellent and worth working toward.
In the past, each completed project gave me a morale boost to fuel the next. If something goes off track or I’ve been given (and naively accepted) a false resource that collapses, it can be difficult to just transfer energy to something else. I think people talking to themselves may be re-living conversations where they could have anticipated the worst and come away with dignity and saved some time. I can grind my psychological gears in a quiet moment wasting energy on a “would-could-shoulda.” Things may have gone the same way ultimately sooner or later. Maybe sooner if you put a fine point on it.
If it feels like there is some Faustian embargo in the air, you might be making the wrong deal. If someone wants to be the creative power behind the throne, they can get their own throne. And as I’ve said before, if someone doesn’t have faith in you as a director or doesn’t like the script, you’ve got no leg to stand on with that person and why walk into that burning house? If on the other hand they want to impose something on the film – random shtick, improvisation, ideology – it will negate or compromise your sense of authorship. It is one thing to improve a script, kicking the tires, questioning logic or continuity. These are things the writer can answer and figure out without losing the sense of authentic authorship. A full range of talents have clung to a credit even if it meant arbitration and even if it meant that everybody knew the best lines came from someone else. But if what motivates you is the work itself and seeing your own ideas vindicated (or giving them every chance to be vindicated), it is worth remembering that Jim Jarmush claims that he writes a screenplay in longhand, one draft, and gives it to a typist and then just makes his movie. I suspect there are many critical darlings who do that and if something seems unclear in the movie it is taken as artistic ambiguity. It is not unlikely that a first draft and final draft will have the same percentage of people who like or dislike the resulting movie. Se7en famously had many drafts generated in the development phase, only to have its original shocking draft by Andrew Kevin Walker find its way to David Fincher’s attention so he could insist on reverting to that. The Verdict was adapted by David Mamet and then compromised by others until director Sidney Lumet insisted on discarding the development and reverting to Mamet. Those seem like no-brainer choices, but it took a good cook insisted that not everybody had to piss in the soup. Especially if you are a writer-director, you are gong to take the heat for a mediocre movie so you may as well be gambling on your own taste and your own work rather than someone else.
Discussion of movies from a fan perspective can generate some of the worst ideas for how it “could have been better.” One guy re-edited The Last Jedi just to make sure that in his version Admiral Ackbar is still alive. There are many things wrong with that movie, and that character should have had an on-screen death and one with nobility (maybe securing an oxygen mask onto Princess Leia before floating off dead in the vacuum of space). But even with a Lucasfilm Story Group and producers looking at the script, and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they went with Rian Johnson’s whims and took their chances. Each writer has to take his or her own chances. You might even be satisfied just writing character descriptions and an outline of scenes and letting others expand on that. But however long the process, you arrive at a point where you say THIS is the script I want to translate into storyboard drawings and finally stage for the camera. Not a hundred other variations which you have considered and discarded.
The internet has accelerated the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” and also the consequences of answering with honesty. People can insist on being called something they are not. It may be personally vital to know that a writer-director credit reflects your actual writing and your direction. I would feel false if I did not plan my own shots and the progression of images. That is where my satisfaction comes from. Simply gathering people together to shoot something is not in itself cathartic. It is kind of a necessary evil. Most of the anxiety will come from just how the house of cards will fall. Some people thrive on chaos, but I don’t. I wouldn’t invest in chaos.
There are people who push to destroy the auteur theory of direction, where “A film by” credits are seen as giving too much importance to the role of director. I don’t really come down on either side of those false binary options. The designation of director – let alone writer – can be given to anyone from a fraud who shows up and takes credit for everyone else to someone coming from a Hitchcock perspective where film grammar and psychology motivate the shot choices and the audience is being directed by the person they have been told is doing so. None of us has to be a genius or feel like one to achieve the latter description. It might help to be obsessed with finding the best shot for a moment or an interesting and appropriate way to transition between scenes. I’ve done short films that people hated and written screenplays that some people did not get, but I honored my impulses in any case and that is a big part of it.
So many processes appear to be about stripping the finger prints from a work. The issue celebrated might be the subject matter or a sociopolitical bent and not the WAY something was written or the WAY it was directed. Style may be stripped away, and for me style is a big part of what makes me love cinema.
Does this blog make me look fat?
What I call finding confidence, facing fear of rejection and risking my ego someone else today might call “straight white male entitlement.” Each person has one degree or another of the still, quiet voice in the back of the mind urging on a nugget of an idea or something larger, a poem, a script, a joke, a short film, a longer story. Ignoring it until it goes away or becomes just a thought or a memory of a vague dream just might be acceptable for some people. If it won’t go away or you feel it nagging and wanting to live outside of your head, as custodian of that impulse or plan or whimsy it will be a challenge to wade through the noise and clutter of today’s outrage culture and the more amusing distractions of each day to keep an eye on that goal and keep on attempting the messy version of it or the interim version as it becomes more and more what you mean. It is the transition between the euphoric spark of an idea, which is perfect, and the execution of it which involves one or more stages of imperfection.
Right now I have some boring goals that might allow me to better get a handle on the work I have to do, even the work I have enjoyed and that is a part of me. I have to 1. Lose weight, so that I can 2. reduce the medication I take, so that I can 3. better focus and hold a thought and think several stages down the line to complete creative works that had years before been my compulsion. That’s a disclosure nobody needs to know, but maybe one with which others have to grapple. I have to tie a lot of ideas together. I have a considerable in-box of projects that have to be wound up and resolved into something entertaining to others. But I also have to push past a sense of drifting and excessive relaxation. It is deceptive. And when I do drag my middle-aged butt to the gym early enough to avoid the crowd and get the right stationary bike that functions properly and then get into the pool while I can claim a lain for myself and feel like I have kick started my day in a responsible way maybe I’ll avoid foods that bog me down and make me sleepy and kill half my productive hours.
A blog or a comment on social media takes less energy, so it can be a lot of superficial remarks and half-baked thoughts that add up to nothing but make me feel as if I have done my duty as a citizen of the internet in correcting someone else’s information about whatever controversy or director or movie or politician. And then I will still be left looking at that in-box of partially complete and existentially vital work to be done.
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.
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.