Look Left
There is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.

- Stephen King, "On Writing"

My movie shame: 20 beloved movies I have never seen

Movies have always been my Great Refuge. I went to the best film school in the world, for years I was employed by a center for motion picture study actually called the The Center for Motion Picture Study, and I continue to bash my head against the walls of the asylum of The Industry. Still, I harbor a secret shame. A secret shame of unwatched films. There are dozens of classics – beloved must sees – global cinematic touchstones – that I have never seen.

So here it is. My shame. My confession. Twenty universally beloved movies that I haven’t seen (yet):

  1. Alexander Nevsky (1938)
  2. Cabaret (1972)
  3. Carnival of Souls (1962)
  4. Children of Paradise (1945)
  5. Clerks (1994)
  6. Don’t Look Now (1973)
  7. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
  8. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
  9. The General (1926)
  10. The Grand Illusion (1937)
  11. Klute (1971)
  12. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  13. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
  14. The Mummy (1932)
  15. The Navigator (1924)
  16. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
  17. Say Anything (1989)
  18. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
  19. Anything directed by Andrzej Wajda
  20. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

What’s your shame?

Cinema Paradiso ending - Jacques Perrin


The Art Spirit


My copy of The Art Spirit

I’ve been re-reading The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri.

My dad brought the book over from the States when he and Mum came over to visit in 2007. The copy is a brown-paged paperback, now with a torn cover and shot binding, the pages no longer hanging together.

It’s one of the best books to and for artists I’ve read. For example:

“If you have the idea that an artist is not a decidedly practical person, get over it.”

Robert Henri (pronounced HEN-RYE) was a prominent voice in New York’s “Ashcan” School of realist painting in the 1920’s and a teacher at the legendary Art Students League of New York. He died in 1929, leaving a legacy of dedication to craft and honesty that saturated American painting in the 20th century. You can view the complete collection of his paintings here.

The Art Spirit addresses itself primarily to painters. Painters have much to teach writers. Just as writers have much to teach dancers. And dancers much to teach cartoonists. And cartoonists gardeners. And gardeners mathematicians, etc.

Betalo The Dancer by Robert Henri

Henri’s “Betalo, The Dancer”, 1910

Artists, no matter what their gang affiliation, are all in the same classroom. The separation of disciplines is just window dressing. The essentials of making art – the underlying spiritual principles – whether in a bonsai or a ballet, are universal and mature artists borrow methods from other disciplines as easily as enlightened masters borrow from each other’s spiritual practices. It’s only fundamentalists who see a division between music and filmmaking, writing and painting, fencing and calligraphy. I’m not against fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are great for copywriting and branding – and some fundamentalists get rich, you know. But the artist is the one who, when he hears Robert Feynman talk about physics, suddenly understands how to solve that problem with his protagonist in the second act.

I’ve tended to be a screenwriter. I’m stained to the bone in movie-thinking. When Henri talks about “pictures”, I think “moving pictures” and I find his words apply effortlessly well to movies as to canvas. But they are also pointers toward the artistic life, an artist-way of thinking and working with the world. The canvas becomes the world, the world becomes the canvas.

If you’re a painter, illustrator, draftsman, sculptress, The Art Spirit will be of obvious help.

But if you’re an actor, a singer, an editor, a therapist, a matador, it may speak to your process just as directly. If it does, then maybe you and I are friends.

If you’re the Amazon type, you can buy the book here.

Robert Henri photo

Robert Henri, 1897

“When a drawing is tiresome. It may be that the motive is not worth the effort.”

“Art is certainly not a pursuit for anyone who wants to make money. There are ever so many other better ways.”

“It is not easy to know what you like. Most people fool themselves their entire lives through about this.”

“Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.”

“Technique must be solid, positive, but elastic, must not fall into formula, must adapt itself to the idea. And for each new idea there must be new invention special to the expression of that idea and no other.”

“You can’t know too much about composition. That is; the areas you have to fill, their possibilities. But you must, above all, preserve your intense interest in life.”

“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”

London Screenwriters Festival, sequences & me

Barton FinkThe London Screenwriters Festival may well be the biggest and best conference for screenwriters on Earth right now. There used to be a plethora of L.A.-based writerfests – I’ve been to a lot of them – with William Goldman and Syd Field dropping in for a chat, with pitch fests and panels, with lawyers and agents trying to get you damn kids to wise up and patchoulied practitioners of The Artists Way imploring you not to quit five minutes before the miracle. Last month’s Story Expo in Los Angeles is one of the remainders of that legacy and had some great guests (like Syd Field). But the 21st century home of the screenwriter convocations seems to be London.

Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I?

And not just because I’m a screenwriter living in London.

Or because I’m going to be speaking at the London Screenwriters Festival.

“Oh, Neal, are really you going to be speaking at the London Screenwriters Festival?”

“I am. As you well know.”

I’ll be doing a talk called “8 Sequence Structure: The Screenwriter’s Ultimate Weapon”. I know, I know. It’s a bit flashy, but people are always more likely to attend a talk if they feel like they’re going to get a weapon out of it. You just can’t have too many weapons nowadays.

I’ll be going over the importance of the sequence is story structure – and the 8 sequence paradigm specifically – as taught by Frank Daniel, one of the great screenwriting teachers of the 20th century. Using sequences in screenwriting will get you a lot farther then trying to put together a story with 3 Acts. Relying on a 3 Act Structure to get you through writing a movie is a bit like relying on your knowledge of the alphabet to get you through the writing a novel, or relying on your knowledge of swimming to get you safely back to shore when your boat has capsized in a hurricane, or relying on your knowledge of the Force to hit an exhaust port only two meters wide with your dad trying to kill you. I guess “inadequate” is the word I’m looking for.

I’ll be going into depth – or as much depth as one hour allows – into what a sequence is, how it functions in the story, and the competing theories on why feature films have eight of them. And I’ll try to pass on some of Frank Daniel’s nuggets of wisdom too, as well as some of my own experience using sequence structure to in the Hollywood trenches.

It happens Sunday, 27 October, 2pm in Tuke Hall, Regent’s School of Drama, Film & Media. See you there!

The Camera Is Mightier Than The Gun

Walking home from dropping my daughter off at school today, I was treated to the sight and sound of a driver shrieking obscenities at another man as he crossed the street carrying his two year old. I missed what sparked the driver’s outrage. I suppose it was something having to do with the father’s not stepping into or across the road according to the driver’s master plan. I’d like to imagine the driver was still drunk from the night before – nursing a crippling hangover – or maybe he was feeling hopeless and broken-hearted about the implosion of capitalist civilization and the destruction of the ecosystem, both of which will result in the deaths of many millions over the next few decades. Whichever, it was a verbal outburst seething with violence and the driver didn’t give a flying fuck how many school kids were within earshot. The Rage

But the interesting bit was when the dad, two year old cradled in his arm, charged back to the car, chased it out into the street as it pulled away, and punched it. Maybe he was still drunk from the night before too, or perhaps his honor and dignity – and that of his child – had been irreparably damaged. Or maybe he was too out of sorts about that whole end of civilization routine.

I really wondered if the two men were going to go for it there in front of the school, the driver leaping out, letting his car coast off down the hill into someone’s front yard, and the father swinging his two year old like a mace, clubbing in the driver’s head, with the boy’s blinky-light shoes flashing. And I found my own anger boiling up with theirs, spontaneously, sympathetically. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later Rage is real and very contagious. I wondered what I would do if/when they started going at it. Would I jump in and try to stop a fight? Would I thrill to kicking in the head of the bad guy? Would I take the two year old in the midst of his being wielded to inflict the fatal blow and pull him aside and tutor him the way of all righteousness?

No. I would start shooting.

I would start shooting. I would pull out my phone and start recording it. That seems to be what I do. I would want a record of it, something that the cops could be shown maybe, should the event precipitate arrests. I would want a record of it anyway.

If you’re a writer, a thing doesn’t really seem to exist until you write it. If you’re a filmmaker, a thing doesn’t really seem to exist until you shoot it. I know that sounds pretentious, but it seems to be true for so many of us. Maybe because we’re so saturated in a world of electronic illusion and fantasy that intimate moments, moments of real human interaction, positive or negative, have to be passed through our chosen medium before we’re able to perceive them as being real. I know this happens on a large scale with news and media and that dreadful succubus The TV. In our world, nothing is real until the screens say it is real. A thing can be half real, mostly real, but it will never be a real boy until the screens say it is.

Yes, I would start shooting.

I visited the Occupy London camp in front of St. Paul’s last year. One time when I was there, a young German man – perhaps a bright, up & coming intern at Barclays or RBS – burst into the Encampment’s Welcome Tent, iPhone camera blazing, trying to get the Occupiers at the desk to admit that because they accepted anonymous donations, they might be laundering money. I felt a bit sorry for the German. He was deep in enemy territory and was just a corporatist footsoldier following orders. But he was there to make mischief. And this is war.

As I watched him doing his level best to generate anti-populist propaganda, I felt that anger rising – The Rage.

So I started shooting back. We faced off in an iPhone triangle, a social media intoxicated Quentin Tarentino tableau, each capturing the photons bouncing of the other, each accusing the other of villainy and more villainy, with the cameras confirming the reality of it all.

Is the pen/camera really mightier than the sword? History still can’t make up its mind on that one. But bullets and fists and guns are inevitably vectors for The Rage, the pen and the camera vectors for truth. Maybe. But we do have a choice.

Free Webinar – Social Media for Business Development

Neal Romanek on the webPepper Stark, premier consultants for the stock photography industry, have invited me to give a free 30-minute webinar this Thursday, June 30 at 3pm GMT, about how & why businesses should be using social media. The talk will be geared primarily toward the creative industries, but it’s applicable to any business trying to reach the whole world on a shoestring budget.

Info & sign-up for this Thursday’s free sample webinar:


Then in two weeks, on Tuesday, July 12, 3pm GMT, Pepper Stark and I will be serving up a full two-hour webinar, entitled “Social Media For Business Development”, that will get into the specifics of developing a social media presence. I won’t just be giving the usual patter about how Twitter and Facebook are indispensible to your marketing strategy, etc. I’ll be helping participants understand the core social principles behind social media, so they’ll be able to adapt to and exploit whatever new web-based wonderland lies just over the horizon. In this talk I’ll also discuss using transmedia techniques for enhancing your business presence. The cost of this full 2-hour version is only ₤49 (about $78) and spaces are limited, so sign up early.

Info & sign-up for the full July 12 webinar, “Social Media For Business Development”:


Looking forward to seeing you at both events – and your Friends!


The Valley Of Gwangi (1969), The Dinosaur Is The Father Of The Man

(article originally written for Mark Deniz’s
“Monster Appreciation Month”)

I first saw The Valley Of Gwangi in 1973 or 1974, well after its 1969 release. I was about 5 or 6. It remained my absolute favourite film of all time until I saw Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) a year or two later.

I went on a summer afternoon. My older brother took me. Sean was my advisor in all things marvellous and adventuresome, and it’s possible that, were it not for his influence, I’d be an accountant at some fertilizer company, rather than day-in, day-out trying to build castles in the sky – or outer space – and make a living in them.

We lived in Minot, North Dakota then, Minot Air Force Base, a main base for the Strategic Air Command’s B-52 deterrent. A cold, cold place in a cold, cold war. My dad’s day job was to fly in the belly of a B-52 across the Pacific Ocean to the Soviet Union, say hi, hang a louie, and then return home – ideally without receiving orders to continue into the Asian continent toward targets whose names were conveniently located in the seatback pocket in front of him (a seatback pocket with a couple padlocks on it, of course). Yes, just like in Dr. Strangelove (1964). In those days, the USSR and the USA had both made a commitment to send the planet back to the prehistoric era, providing certain eventualities came into being.

While my dad plowed the skies in a bomber heavy with thermonuclear weapons, I was hitting the peak of dino-fever. Dino-fever is like chicken pox – almost every child catches it. If you don’t manage to catch it until you’re an adult, well, it can be quite dangerous and cause you to develop weirdness. I caught it early, but have never recovered from it. The world of the early 1970′s conspired to make my dinosaur baptism vivid and indelible. It was at this same time that National Geographic published a set of four high-quality hardback children’s books. One of them was simply called “Dinosaurs” – the others in the set were about killer whales or spiders or some stupid thing. The book featured dramatic prose descriptions of Mesozoic life, illustrated by paintings done by National Geographic veterans. It was the time of the Sinclair Oil dinosaur – ubiquitous in the American prairie states. And it seemed so marvellous to me at 5 years old that something as serious and grown-up as gasoline station should fly high a brontosaurus mascot. And it was the time – oh, most marvellously – of Aurora’s “Prehistoric Scenes” model kits. Aurora’s scarlet-plastic Pteranodon model, featuring an optional torn wing for super-realistic dino-combat, was the first of many of those kits that I longed for and collected and fussed over and played with until they were plastic shrapnel.


Comic book ad for the drool-worthy Prehistoric Scenes model kits

I suppose the screening must have been a special kids show at the base theatre. We walked there over baked brown grass under a sky cross-hatched with vapour trails and punctuated with sonic booms. I insisted on calling the movie “The Valley of THE Gwangi”. He wasn’t just any Gwangi, he was THE Gwangi. And maybe I thought it scanned better than “The Valley Of Gwangi”. Kids make music naturally, and dinosaur movie titles have always been the best playground for the poetic alchemy of childhood – “The VAL-ley OF the GWAN-gi”. Gwangi was majestic and eternal – he deserved poetry. I think I called it “The Valley Of The Gwangi” until I was confronted with seeing the original movie poster in my mid-20′s and just couldn’t for the life of me find a second article in there.

Cowboys and dinosaurs. There could have been no better movie experience in heaven or earth. When you’re very young, you’re inclined to swallow everything you see onscreen, but Ray Harryhausen’s prehistoric beasts seemed to me – even at that young age – TRUE. I had the thought “Yes. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly the way dinosaurs are supposed to look and move and sound.” Of course, in reality, it’s not. Harryhausen’s dinosaurs don’t really even match the paleontological knowledge of the day. In fact, during production, there was even a certain amount of vagueness over whether Gwangi was a Tyrannosaurus Rex or an Allosaurus. But the dinosaurs in Gwangi seemed to correspond to what was in my imagination, and that is always the most important thing in filmmaking – reality not as it really is, but how we deeply believe it is. Ray Harryhausen’s creations weren’t lumbering, walnut-brained juggernauts. They lived, they burned. They were hungry. Even the choice of making Gwangi’s skin color a deep indigo gave him an extra edge, a uniqueness, a personality.

Gwangi CU

That The Valley Of Gwangi appears to be a remake of King Kong (1933) should be no surprise considering the film was originally a project by Ray Harryhausen’s spiritual forerunner, the special effects genius Willis O’Brien, who created all the ground-breaking effect for King Kong. Willis’s original idea had cowboys finding dinosaurs in the Grand Canyon, rather than the semi-mythical Mexican wasteland in the final film. Willis O’Brien didn’t live to see the completion of Gwangi.

The Valley Of Gwangi was filmed in Spain and a certain European flavour rubbed off on the movie. The old gypsy crone and her dwarf son are elements out of the Old World, quite bizarre in a Mexican setting and Gwangi’s appearance in a bull-ring carnival show, which also features an elephant, definitely doesn’t feel like Mexico.

Gwangi in the churchThe film’s conclusion, featuring Gwangi hunting down our heroes inside a cathedral – not to mention the finale of his spectacular, operatic demise by fire – is among the best endings of any monster movie ever made. And the symbolism of the church against an ancient dragon certainly comes out of Old World Catholicism.

The Valley Of Gwangi was THE dinosaur film until Spielberg’s monster-masterpiece Jurassic Park (1993). Perversely, I avoided Jurassic Park when it was released. I finally saw it projected, almost a year later, at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A. The New Beverly is beloved. It’s a beautiful old temple. But state-of-the-art viewing experience is not what comes to mind when you think about filmgoing at the New Bev. I was knocked out by Jurassic Park, even on the coke-splashed screen at the New Bev, with its inferior sound system and seats like something out of a WWII-era cargo plane. But I bought the deluxe CAV laserdisc set soon after and watched the movie relentlessly.

Spielberg directly lifts Gwangi’s introductory scene moment for moment in Jurassic Park. In The Valley Of Gwangi, the cowboy explorers are chasing an Ornitholestes – indistinguishable, in movie terms, from Jurassic Park’s Gallimimus – and suddenly the film’s eponymous carnivore pops out of nowhere and snatches the fleet-footed animal up in its jaws. Our first daylight glimpse of Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus Rex mimics the moment beautifully, with the T. Rex bursting into the open and snatching up a Gallimimus.

What perverse inner quirk – like a chip on my shoulder – kept me from seeing Jurassic Park when it came out? That movie had been made for me and there was no doubt that it was going to deliver the Mesozoic goods. I can only guess that I couldn’t bring myself to let go of Gwangi, my first great love.

One last “Gwangi” confession: When I was a teen, and a rabid gamer, I ran a Boot Hill “Valley Of Gwangi” adventure. Boot Hill was TSR’s Wild West pen & paper role playing game. I firmly believe I am the only person alive to have run a Boot Hill “Valley Of The Gwangi” RPG adventure.

Tyrannosaurus attacking Gallimimus

Spielberg's homage to The Valley Of Gwangi in Jurassic Park

I Have A New Agent: Blake Friedmann

I have new representation. My agent for all writing work, throughout the known universes, is now Conrad Williams at the Blake Friedmann Agency.

I’ve been all antsy to tell you, but I was advised to wait for just the right time – April Fool’s Day.

Blake Friedmann Literary, TV & Film Agency Ltd., located “in the heart of London’s Fashionable Camden Town etc.” already represents some superb writing and directing talent, and some stunning fiction authors too. Agency cofounder Julian Friedmann (Twitter: @julianfriedmann ) also manages Twelvepoint.com, formerly Scriptwriter Magazine, one of the world’s premiere screenwriting resources. Co-cofounder Carole Blake (Twitter: @caroleagent ) reps too many great book authors to list. Okay, here’s a list. I’m very proud, and humbled, to be brought onboard.

Conrad Williams also represents Mark Chadbourn, director Roger Spottiswoode, and even repped Neil Gaiman long ago, before the Saxons left. Conrad’s assistant is Katie Williams.

Conrad is the first agent I’ve had on this side of the pond, and I’m looking forward to finally taking meetings with all you self-important philistines who haven’t been returning my phone calls. Ha ha. Just kidding. I wouldn’t meet with you if you were the last producers on Earth – or, you know, depending on what we can negotiate. Seriously, can I have a job?

I’d like to inform all past representatives and advisory staff – agents and lawyers and accountants and masseuses and centurions and those weird pale guys with the hats who are talking to the Emperor in Return Of The Jedi (1983) – that I couldn’t not have done it without both your helps. And that I’m deeply proud of the sweet music we made together in Hollywood in the back of that van. Furthermore I intend to prosecute.

I can always be contacted here on the site, but if you’re intimidated by my stunning sexiness and facility with transsmedia wordism constructitude – and many quite are – Conrad Williams is your man:

Conrad Williams
Blake Friedmann Literary, Film & TV Agency
122 Arlington Road
London NW1 7HP

Telephone: 020 7284 0408
info [at] blakefriedmann.co.uk

Escape From L.A., Pt. 2

(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, Jan. 2010)

L of Amph 16:9

– Read Part 1 of “Escape From L.A.”

And so, with growing dread, I came to understand that this tedium I was experiencing was actually a booming Hollywood screenwriting career – getting your latest brilliant spec read, getting a meeting, hearing about their project, pitching them your take on their project, waiting, waiting, waiting for your agent to call – and repeat ad infinitum. Ad infinitum. And if you are very lucky, someone will accidentally pay you a great deal of money to pour your heart and soul into their project, everyone involved knowing but never saying that the project will almost certainly never be produced.

I was pitching a television series idea to the production company of a woman who has produced at least one of your favourite sci-fi movies and had an arsenal of good writing samples to show and not the worst track record, and I was no closer to actually getting a story in front of an audience than back when I was on the plane to LA at age 17. I realized my entire career – and the careers of many successful writers I know – had been a case of shaking an apple tree year after year, waiting for oranges to start dropping.

I hope I don’t seem complete ungrateful. I do like apples but I just don’t want to spend any more time eating apples, wishing they were oranges.

So I moved to London.

It wasn’t quite as simple as that but it was a complete and fairly dramatic relocation. My wife had an opportunity to work here and I was suddenly completely committed to giving up the apple tree shaking thing. We sold everything. We brought the cats with us.

By the way, I am a British subject – my mum was born in the shadow of Upton Park Football Stadium – so rest easy that I’m not just another foreigner come to steal employment from decent working folk.

After arriving, I began to have The Conversation again and again. I would say to someone, ‘I’m a screenwriter and I’ve permanently relocated to the UK.’ They would stare in baffled silence, then reply, almost with tears in their eyes, ‘Why??…’ There were no screenwriting jobs to be had here, there was no film industry here. Why was I moving away from success? I would press on, explaining that, you know, I am also eager to write comics and a wide variety of genre-based cross-media content. They would immediately call the police and inquire as to the name of my social worker.

It seems to be accepted universally – and I mean ‘throughout the known universe’ – that success as a media writer is directly proportional to one’s proximity to West Hollywood. If you crunch the numbers, you’ll probably find an element of truth in that. However, it is also universally accepted that your success in politics is directly proportional to your proximity to Washington DC. ‘Success’ has a broad spectrum of meaning and doesn’t necessarily mean ‘in your and everyone else’s best interest’. Just because McDonald’s has sold billions doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing going.

One December Within a year of arriving in the UK, I had more writing jobs than I’d had in the previous five years in Los Angeles. One of these was writing an historical thriller featuring swordplay, bullfighting, torture, and ‘contemporary political resonances’ – i.e. my dream project. I was paid literally peanuts for the work. Yes, literally peanuts. Okay, maybe not literally peanuts, but it was a South African based company paying the bills and I feel confident they could have paid me in peanuts if I’d asked.

Though the money was nothing like LA money, I was writing for enthusiastic indy people who were flying on a wing and a prayer and I was being paid to write. It was such a thrill to go through the whole process from beginning to end with producers who were rabid to make a movie. I wrote a short, too, that was made by the same producers and was able to practise, practise, practise the screenwriter’s real craft – making a good movie. However, I had to supplement the screenwriting income with journalism for some media trade magazines as well as temping at a firm that sold pipes and ducts.

It was encouraging – and enlightening and instructive – to see how, when I was willing to try something completely new, trusting like a fool that a solution would materialise, that something things worked out surprisingly well.

There wasn’t any logical connection between moving house and the surge in work but I’d like to think that on some metaphysical level or other, I’d suddenly become open to possibilities outside my previous, ultra-narrow assumptions. Having a dream, a vision, is vital to success, yes, but clinging desperately to a single narrow idea – at least this was the case with me – makes one’s whole life look like the view down a toilet roll. Many, many possibilities, things that might have leap-frogged you into another dimension, pass under your nose unnoticed. When I’m clinging so tightly to an idea of myself and my future, white-knuckled, the odds are good that somewhere deep down, I don’t have much real faith in the idea. When I’m absolutely clear about what I want or, more importantly, about who I am, then it’s easier to loosen my grip a bit and look around and be open to all the myriad possibilities, idiotic things like moving to London and expecting to be able to write movies.

There have been a few surprises in the relocation. One was hearing it would take a London-based company several months to read a writing sample. I felt like I was living in the 19th century. Kind of quaint actually, if it weren’t so irritating. The biggest surprise has been the stunning amount of talent I see in the UK. If I may be very American for a moment: This country has talent and ability coming out its ass (also “arse”). Unfortunately all this talent seems too often paired with a not-at-all-amusing self-deprecation and abdication of responsibility. Over and over again I see people looking to the US as the source of all the best ideas, as the only place to be taken seriously, certainly as the only place a vision could ever become reality. I want to shake them – hard.

There has been a great deal of moaning and groaning about the economy and the decline of this or that vital industry. But when I hear news of yet another formerly unshakeable media enterprise tottering, I feel encouraged and grateful that I left the US at the right time – perhaps not a moment too soon. 20th century business models are collapsing and although we try to shore them up and repair them in the same way a doctor tries to prolong the life of a heart patient who refuses to give up smoking and eating bacon, they are not going to last. If they do, it will be in some kind of zombie-fied, tax-payer subsidised condition far removed from a dynamic, real world economy.

A producer I know got the green light on a Friday for a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh starring Brad Pitt. On Monday, the studio head called back to say that the deal was off. It was too great a commercial risk in this climate. Newspapers and book publishers are merging or closing everywhere and LA-centric media production is going down with them.

This is all good news. For me. For you, too.

Where some people see collapse and destruction, many of us see exciting change and the promise of real renewal. Something entirely new is going to rise from the ashes of the 20th century media industries, something marvelous and global. In fact, it’s already here and a many of us are jumping on at the ground floor.

Of course, LA will continue to be a hub of media production; just not the hub. I love LA very much but it is isolated in a distinctly American way from most of the world. Cities that are truly interconnected – sometimes to their own chagrin – with the rest of the world have a head start on cities and countries that are protectionist and attached to 20th century, pre-global thinking.

I do wish the best of luck to all my friends still playing the studio screenplay game in Hollywood but I am very grateful to have jumped into the lifeboat when I did. While they are still shaking apple trees, hoping for oranges, I plan to be making and writing pictures of all descriptions and formats, and sharing them with my audience and my partners all around the globe.

Lean Lane at Shepperton Studios
On “Lean Lane” at Shepperton Studios

Escape From L.A., Pt. 1

‘(Los Angeles) is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade, and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees. They’ll be goin’ round this town shoutin’, ‘Bring out your dead.'”

– “Withnail & I” (1987), Bruce Robinson

(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, Jan. 2010)

When I was 17 years old, I set off for Los Angeles to attend the Cinema-TV Production School at the University of Southern California. On the plane I read William Goldman’s  “Adventures In The Screen Trade” and planned my future.

I knew – everyone knew – that if you wanted to make movies, you had to go to LA. You also had to have a degree from a top-rate film school. A writerly alcohol and drug habit was a good idea too.

I know today – having learned through experience – that I was starting my life’s journey based on a complete pack of lies. But I was 17 years old and it was the 1980s. When you’re 17, starting a life’s journey based on a pack of lies is…well, it’s what you do, isn’t it?

I graduated from film school with a host of brilliant classmates. Some went to Portland and Seattle and actually made movies; some went back home to Texas or Connecticut. The rest of us went out into LA to seek our fortunes. Post-film school life in LA was exactly halfway between “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and  “The Big Picture” (1989), a fantasy veering crazily from cynical gloom to sweet comedy and back.

95% of my USC classmates began their course determined to win at least one Best Directing Oscar but the attrition rate of Cherished Film School Dreams looks a bit like a casualty roster of WWI pilots. By the time of our graduation, many of my friends had traded in their ideal visions for something more bite-sized and realistic. Why? A good film school’s job should be to impress upon its students that filmmaking is a bizarre and tedious process that sane people ought to avoid. And USC has one of the best film schools in the world. Also, students began to learn that there was a massive array of supporting crafts that go into a film production and discovered that one of these fired their hearts and imaginations in a way the vague, grandiose vision of ‘Oscar-Winning Director’ could not.

There were a few emotionally-immature, mental defectives – I among them – who refused to surrender the dream (while increasingly suspecting that they were utterly unemployable in any normal work). We graduated and began to write spec screenplays – lots of them – and gave them to anyone and everyone who pretended to want to read them.

Screenwriting is hard, thankless work. Though not like digging ditches or mining coal, obviously. Digging ditches is something useful and beneficial to society. 1000 hours spent fretting over an urban melodrama about vampires hasn’t been on the Nobel Committee’s application form for some years. But because it is hard work, rather than churning out new material, a few of the devoted dreamers became obsessed with rewriting the same screenplay over and over again – infusing it with a Great New Idea with each pass – until the thing read like a transcript for the blind of a David Lynch movie written by a teenage girl on ecstasy. Thankfully, most of them gave it all up before they went mad.

In a very few years there were only a handful of us left, writing one spec screenplay after another, each waiting for his or her particular stars to align.

My stars aligned early on. One of my first sci-fi screenplays was optioned by Mario Kassar – the Old Hollywood-style movie gangster who brought us “Rambo”, “Total Recall”, “LA Story”, “Basic Instinct”, “Terminator” and  “Stargate”. It was in the twilight years of the era of script mega-sales, those days when coke-addled producers would shell out $3 million for an idea written by Joe Eszterhas on the back of a McDonald’s napkin.

I had the obligatory ‘tyro screenwriter’s mega-deal’ article in “Daily Variety” and every major director whose career started in British television advertising was on the verge of saying ‘Yes’ to the film. Then, just as quickly, it all petered out and I was left in the tragic position of living in a big house in the Hollywood Hills, with a view of Catalina on a clear day, transported into the world of an A-List screenwriter.

I pitched ideas to every company of note in LA. I joined the long queues of writers brought in to give a fresh perspective on whatever proposed sci-fi/action/fantasy property Company X was developing. A few of those projects, after years in development purgatory, finally did escape and audiences seemed to like them. They usually ended up with a single writer’s name on them but I’m sure all of us who sat there saying to execs “The villain in Blade must under no circumstances be Count Dracula” feel a certain attachment to those projects, like when you receive news that someone you had a fling with has become married to a jerk not nearly as attractive and talented as you.

With growing dread, I came to understand that the tedium I was experiencing is the bulk of the work in a booming Hollywood career. Get your latest brilliant spec read, get a meeting, hear about their project, pitch them your take on their project, wait by the phone for your agent to call, repeat ad infinitum. Ad infinitum. If you are very lucky, someone will accidentally pay you a great deal of money to pour your heart and soul into their project when everyone involved knows but never mentions that the project will almost certainly never be produced.

I was pitching a television series idea to the production company of a woman who has made at least one of your favourite sci-fi movies, had an arsenal of good writing samples to show and not the worst track record, and I felt like I was no closer to making movies than when I was on the plane to LA at age 17.

Then it occurred to me that movies are made by people who are making movies. You know what I mean? Marathons are run by people who are running marathons, cakes are baked by people who are baking cakes. Am I making sense? It’s the simple and obvious that has always eluded me. The Hollywood studio system is about not losing money first and making movies second. That is how many successful businesses operate. It’s how NASA operates. NASA’s primary purpose is not to send stuff into space, it’s to allocate resources and personnel in such a way that everyone at NASA still has a job next year. Imagine my surprise when I realised my entire career – and the careers of many successful writers I know – had been a case of shaking an apple tree year after year, waiting for oranges to start dropping.

I hope I don’t seem a complete ingrate – I do like apples – but I just didn’t want to spend any more time eating apples, wishing they were oranges.

So I moved to London…

Waiting for Movie Stars 2

(end of part 1)

– Read Part 2 of “Escape From L.A.”

Avatar (2009)

Saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) yesterday afternoon in 3D at the Shepherd’s Bush VUE Cinemas in London. Went with my Dad who has seen more movies than I am ever likely to see, including the 3D masterpiece, “Bwana Devil” (1952).

One of my first thoughts was: Now I know what the Act III of “Return Of The Jedi” (1983) should have looked like.

“Avatar” isn’t Jim Cameron’s best movie. That honour still goes to “Aliens” (1986), as beautifully plotted an action movie as there has ever been. A respectable horror movie too, but it is primarily an action movie. Still, I really found “Avatar” exquisitely beautiful in its design and execution.

Already I’m getting flack from Film World Colleagues, who thought the movie ham-fisted. Where I saw delightful design choices, they saw lipstick on a pig.

The fact that there is nothing new in its premise – that “Avatar” is “Dances With Wolves” (1990) / “Little Big Man” (1970) / “Lawrence Of Arabia” ?? (1962) / “Fill In The Blank” In Space – seems a weak criticism of the movie, though it’s been trotted out a lot over the past couple weeks.

Wes Studi (far left) in "Dances With Wolves"

Native American actor & Vietnam vet, (far left) leads a Pawnee raiding party in Dances With Wolves. He played Eytukan in Avatar

Cameron has deliberately kept the story simple, obvious even, to provide a solid framework on which he can hang all his beautiful decoration. To get clever with both design and story at the same time could invite Unmanageability – the bane of Cameron’s existence. Cameron has always kept his plots and characters very simple, virtually mechanical in their efficiency. When he has tried to reach for more complex and subtle (relatively) themes and plotting, the movies have suffered. And, recalling the tales told about the production of Cameron’s two “wettest” movies, “The Abyss” and “Titanic”, his crews have suffered too. For Cameron, “Keep it simple” is a mantra that leads to success.

The story structure in “Avatar” is really quite adroit – solid and simple. As any good writer will tell you, “solid and simple” is actually hard to pull off, because false notes – and there are some in “Avatar” – stick out like signalling antennae on an alien lifeform.

The movie has a skeleton of very simple, rock-solid sequences – like its cousin “Dances With Wolves”. “Dances”, one of the longest movies to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award, flies by for most people because it is constructed of straightforward, firmly constructed sequences. Knowing where the story is going – having “seen it before” – carries the audience along. We are always anticipating the next beat. We know what is supposed to happen next, more or less, but we don’t know exactly how it will be presented. And that is the way expert storytellers do it – just ask Hitchcock.

Oh, and Cameron stole the entire “Avatar” idea from me. I wrote, in high school, a story of a race of simple blue-skinned aliens who lived on a jungle world. A human male is drawn into defending them from a highly technological man-machine who wants to take the blue-skinned guys’ precious, sacred mineral.

Naturally, I plan to sue.

Of course, I ripped off – and still do – all the other sci-fi writers I knew and loved. “Avatar” is a conservatively plotted, “classic sci-fi” story, in the vein of one of the Heinlein or Asimov books. It absorbs all the flavours and styles that those great 20th century sci-fi authors – and their hundreds of imitators – spun and then sings it back in Cameron’s voice. Just as I did in my own voice via my high school “Avatar” precursor.

We are in an age of illustration in movies – and we have Peter Jackson to thank/blame for it. The goal in so many big studio movie adaptations is not to bring new insight to a story or a franchise, but to illustrate an existing property faithfully. Peter Jackson’s stunning success rested on giving audiences exactly the “Lord Of The Rings” that they had imagined – plus a bit more. A lot of people – well, myself anyway – watched the “Lord Of The Rings” movies thinking, “Wow. If I had a bit more imagination, then that is exactly how I would have imagined it.” In other movies, the source material has been so sacred that barely a word or beat is changed in the film adaptation – “300” and “Sin City”. I think “Avatar” follows in this tradition, illustrating a sci-fi story already existing in the back of our collective imaginations. Dragon riders, floating mountains, glowing forests with trees the size of skyscrapers – we all know bits and pieces of these from books and wall calendars and dreams. It’s as if Cameron has supplied the movie to a story we had known about all along.

There’s much more to say about “Avatar”. For one, its political stance is fascinating to me. It’s a major studio movie by a major studio director that takes an aggressively anti-neocon POV. Very unusual.

But I’d like to hear your comments, then we can get into some discussion.

Watch the Avatar trailers

Click to watch the Avatar trailer