Things to Do

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.