Semi-Major Axis 1
A human being's ability to understand a foreign language is always greater than his ability to speak it.

- Walter Murch, "In The Blink Of An Eye"

X-Women and Hollow Men

In 2001, I wrote the below piece, “X-Women and Hollow Men”, for The Hollywood Reporter, about the explosion of female action heroes at the turn of the 21st century. I post it again here because it’s not available elsewhere online and to add to the discussion of the future of the female action hero. See Social Creature’s post, for example: The Next 21st Centry Superhero Will Be A Chick.

When the article was written, I was convinced we were on the verge of seeing a new generation of female heroes. The first decade of the 21st century, of course, marked a radical shift to a revolutionary conservatism that embraced hierarchy, violence, and a dismantling of law that has always shoved women into the background as property or, at best, as a type of technology for keeping the social structure intact.

I write female heroes, so this issue is important to me. And I have a four year old girl. I want to write a hero for my daughter to be inspired by that’s not just a boy put into a girl’s body. We can be deceived into thinking we’re seeing female heroes – onscreen and in print – and in real life too – when in fact we’re just seeing women playing the parts of men, and receiving great rewards for it. Kathryn Bigelow winning the Best Director Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker”, a movie just as easily made by Ridley Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer, is as clear an indicator of where we are as anything. Jane Campion or Julie Taymor are just not going to win Best Director. Not in this decade anyway. It is a man’s world. The game of success, whether in the entertainment industry or international poltics, is played according to masculine rules and there doesn’t seem to be too much getting around that for the time being. That global cultural truth affects then what stories we will hear. And it seems now to be resulting in that old chestnut of the female action hero who when you get to the heart of it, really is teenage boy’s transgender fantasy.

So here’s the Reporter piece, in full. Have things changed since 2001?

“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” So said John Wayne, epitome of the tough, indomitable Hollywood hero, over fifty years ago. It might have been the rallying cry of the action hero of this past year. The difference being that the new icons of unapologetic toughness are not cowboys or cavalry captains, they are women.

Past decades have given us female action stars, but only sporadically, and when women in movies have had physical prowess equal to a man’s, they have always had to sacrifice something for it. The Bond films have for 35 years featured dangerous female characters–Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), May Day (Grace Jones), all the way back to spike-toed Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). Each one gave the tuxedoed spy a run for his money, and each one was required to die before fade out–usually while suffering a wry Bond quip. Bond kept the power, the women were only borrowing it. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hunt’s Sarah Connor were icons of level-headedness and determination, but at the price of being outcasts, the only sane figures in disintegrating worlds. Female actors have always been prepared and equipped to bring the formidable roles to the screen, but either the audience or the industry–or both–have not.

But in 1999, a leather-clad Carrie Ann Moss, as Trinity, leapt into the air and defied gravity in the opening sequence of “The Matrix”. When she finally landed, kicking the asses of several men in the process, there was nothing in the movies that a guy could do that a girl could not.  Trinity was a character equal in all respects to the male hero. More importantly, the film felt no need to explain why she was so or to apologize for it. Neither did the audience. The floodgates opened and the year 2000 has brought a plethora of films featuring physically powerful and unapologetically dangerous women.

One of the first, and most unlikely, films to bring us a new breed of female action star was “Chicken Run” with a cast that was virtually all-female–as well as all-chicken and all-clay. The stop-motion action-adventure of barnyard hens trying to escape becoming chicken pot pies was a feminist remake of that most masculine of WWII classics, “The Great Escape”. Julia Sawahla,  Jane Horrocks, and Miranda Richardson, who lent their voices to the film’s principle characters, are all alumnae of the British comedy hit “Absolutely Fabulous”, which set its own feminist standard by celebrating female disfunction as enthusiastically as “Chicken Run” did female adroitness.

Unlike “The Great Escape”, “Chicken Run” allowed some sexual equity by providing three male characters–Mrs. Tweedy’s ineffectual husband, subservient to her that we assume he’s Mrs. Tweedy’s farm hand for the first half of the movie. The second is an old war hero Rooster, lost in memories–or delusions–of past glory. The third–token male romantic lead and token American–is Rocky Rhodes who is a coward and scam artist, played by Mel Gibson at his irresponsible, mercurial best. With feminine support, these men are dragged kicking and screaming into mature action and manage not to disgrace themselves too thoroughly.

“Charlie’s Angels”, an action film about women, by women, and for everybody, has a knockout opening tracking shot that sums up the new place of women in the movies. Moving through a crowded airliner, we are shown the gamut of female roles–a mother, a nun, a little girl, a woman leading a boyfriend into the lavoratory for an encounter, etc. We finally come to rest on a bad-ass L.L. Cool J, who, we learn, is also a woman–the Angel Dylan (Drew Barrymore) in disguise. “Charlie’s Angels” says 1. “A woman can be anything she wants,” and 2. “If you aren’t a girl, you can’t play this game.”

One of the masterstrokes of “Charlie’s Angels” is the casting of its men, which further underscores the power of the three female leads. The male leads are devoid of any macho mythology. Tim Curry is, after all, the world’s most famous transvestite, and Bill Murray played gay performer Bunny Breckinridge in “Ed Wood”. Crispin Glover gave the world Marty McFly’s ineffectual pop in “Back to the Future” and Andy Warhol in “The Doors”. Tom Green is irrepressible in his determination to look like an idiot at all costs. It was precisely this type of casting that let audiences be a part of the game of “Charlie’s Angels”, making it one of the highest grossers of the year. Men enjoyed the joke as much as women. The audience is not just willing to see a world where women take power, they will not settle for less.

In “X-Men”, the dark sister-film of “Charlie’s Angels”, women match the men super-power for super-power and then some. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the terrifying embodiment of masculine rage is presented with a partner in Rogue (Anna Paquin) who, though a mere girl, is equally, perhaps even more dangerous. As in “Charlie’s Angels”, the men are crippled, their power unstable. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) may be the mastermind, but he is also bound to a wheelchair, and his nemesis Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) is brilliant, but twisted by hate. Cyclops (James Marsden), in ruby-quartz glasses day or night, gives the impression of a blind man, and Wolverine is an alcoholic, and bad guy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) is a pre-verbal barbarian. The X-Women have no such handicaps. Jane Gray (Famke Janssen) has intelligence and the power to move matter, Storm (Halle Berry) is the power of nature, and Rogue steals power from those who would lay a hand on her–which in terms of the story, are men. Shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijin-Stamos) not only refuses to behave like a nice girl, she can, literally, be whoever she wants to be. With it’s most powerful male in a wheelchair, and it’s most powerful female still a teen, the “X-Men” paints a world of men on the way down, while their female counterparts are just getting started.

While the woman-warrior is new to Hollywood movies, in Asia she has been a staple for decades. Since the 1960s Chinese martial arts films have allowed women to retain grace and beauty and while giving them the ability to vanquish scores of foes, male or female, single-handedly. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reveals a new world of female action characters by revisiting something very old. “Crouching Tiger” is an entirely female action movie, an epic adventure about a brilliant young woman fighter who seeks greater power by stealing a magical sword. This young genius, Jen (Ziyi Zhang), is caught between the friendship of master swordswoman Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and the evil influence of the witch Jade Fox (played by Chinese action diva Pei-pei Cheng). The two males in the story are essentially supporting characters. One is the love interest, a young warrior who falls for Jen because of her martial prowess. The other is the martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) whose new dedication to a spiritual life keeps him remote from the central action. The women in “Crouching Tiger” are center the story, and the battles they fight are among the most thrilling ever filmed.

Even a year ago, the prevaling wisdom was that it was difficult for women to carry an entire picture. This year, they seem to have carried most of them single-handedly. In Rod Lurie’s political drama, “The Contender”, Senator Laine (Joan Allen) will not dignify with a response the accusations of the men trying to destroy her reputation. She refuses to play by any rules but her own. Women may not yet feel so empowered in the real world, but perhaps the new brand of movie hero will give them a start.

 

A Tale Of Two Star Warses, or Why The Phantom Menace Gives Us A Bad Feeling

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

I stepped out of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) onto the sidewalk in front of Mann’s Chinese, the second screening of opening day. As I stood there, arranging the debriefing session with my fellowgeeks, an awful thought kept surfacing – like a Dia Nogu’s algae-draped eyeball.

I thought…I thought, well…maybe I hadn’t enjoyed George Lucas’ long-awaited return as much as I should have.

I had “a bad feeling”.

But you can’t just say you have “a bad feeling” if you’re serious about studying and making movies. If something is astink, you are obligated to find out exactly why. We had looked forward to the return of the Star Wars saga for years, anticipating how wonderful it was going to be. It was not wonderful. Why?

The Phantom Menace is by no means entirely lousy. In fact, despite how universally the film is disparaged, it is not the worst Star Wars movie. The worst Star Wars movie is Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones (2002). Some of the film’s design is superb. Darth Maul – an exquisite cross between a predatory animal and a demonic monk – is one of the best character designs in all of Star Wars, and the final duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is one of the best action scenes of the entire saga.

Darth Maul

Darth Maul, beautiful & inconsequential

So what is the key failing of The Phantom Menace? It’s not the awful dialogue, which isn’t, on the whole, much worse than in any of the other Star Wars movies, discounting the babblings of the reprehensible Jar Jar Binks. It’s not Jar Jar himself either that destroys the movie. We would like to lay all the blame on Jar Jar: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for Jar Jar, TPM would be pretty good.’ No. No, it wouldn’t. And it’s not the performances either – though, it’s true, most of them are shockingly strangled and lifeless.

The central flaw is, as usual, a script problem, and it’s such a fundamental script problem that no amount of clever, high-tech decoration can disguise it.

In trying to sleuth out exactly why a story doesn’t work, it’s good to put it up next to a story that you know does work. The original Lucas masterpiece, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) – which I always call simply “Star Wars”, and so should you – is held up as a paragon of solid script structure, and for good reason. Its simplicity and clarity makes it easy to analyse and understand and, furthermore, it’s a movie everyone has seen, which makes it easy to talk about. It’s also one of the most successful entertainments in history so there ought to be some value in studying it carefully.

When we put the script for The Phantom Menace side by side with the script from Star Wars, one feature distinguishes them from each other more than any other, an element triumphantly strong in one film, almost laughably weak in the other. The stakes. The singular difference between the beloved 1977 original film and The Phantom Menace and the reason for latter’s failure is the height of the stakes.

High stakes are essential to telling a good story. “High stakes” doesn’t have to mean the threat of a bomb exploding in five minutes. A teen’s parents coming home in five minutes is more than enough to put us on the edge of our seats. It isn’t threats of physical torment that determine high stakes either – simply missing a bus can be the most devastating moment in a character’s life.

What determines the height of the stakes is how far apart the poles are of success and failure, as well as the character’s depth of commitment to achieving success. There is little middle ground in the best stories. In the movies we love, a character may strive for great success but the penalties for failure are equally great. The best stories not only have a Devil, they have a Deep Blue Sea.

In the greatest sports movies, for example, the stakes are rarely about whether or not the character will win. The character’s desire to win is usually paired with a penalty for failure that is psychologically catastrophic. In Chariots of Fire (1981), Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell certainly want to win but the tension of the story comes from their utter commitment to their calling, their commitment to their true selves. It goes beyond a desire to win a race. These men have left themselves no room to retreat; they are committed to an idea of themselves and of their futures. The genius of the Chariots of Fire script is that its climax hinges on the characters’ even greater commitment to personal honour and mutual respect, which is far greater than the desire for a medal.

It’s easy to think that death is the worst thing that could happen to a character. In the world of flesh and blood, this may or may not be true, but movies exist in the world of emotion. And an emotional catastrophe – one that is going to be communicated to the audience – can take a million forms and will almost always be more violent than any physical slaughter.

So back to our two Star Wars movies. Let’s take the five main characters from each film and examine the stakes each character faces -what action is asked of each character and what are the penalties of failure?

In Star Wars:

  • LUKE must deliver R2D2 safely into the hands of the rebellion. If he fails, the fully-operational Death Star will mean the end of the rebellion – and of galactic freedom.
  • DARTH VADER must retrieve the stolen Death Star plans and learn the location of the secret rebel base. If he fails, the rebels could destroy the Death Star and cripple the power of the Empire, and he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Emperor.
  • HAN SOLO must pay back Jabba The Hutt. If he fails, he will be a fugitive, fleeing bounty hunters and ruthless gangsters for the rest of his life (wonderfully, he does fail in order that the other characters may succeed).
  • PRINCESS LEIA must retrieve the plans for her fellow rebels. If she fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
  • OBI-WAN KENOBI must get the plans safely to the rebels. If he fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.

Looking at The Phantom Menace, we see a different picture:

  • QUI-GON JINN must negotiate a peace between the Trade Federation and the Naboo. If he fails, the Trade Federation may take over the planet Naboo. Never really clear why this would be a terrible thing.
  • QUEEN AMIDALA must stop the Trade Federation from dominating her planet, it would seem. If she fails she will no longer rule – and someone else will, I guess.
  • DARTH SIDIOUS must make Queen Amidala sign a treaty with the Trade Federation. If he fails, the status quo will probably continue.
  • ANAKIN SKYWALKER must increase his understanding of The Force and return to Tatooine to free his mother and the slaves. If he fails, he will have broken his promise to his mother. (note that he does fail, with no real consequences to anyone, including himself)
  • JAR-JAR must do what he can to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. If he fails, it’s doubtful the Jedis’ mission would be negatively affected and the status quo will continue.

The lack of consistent high stakes in The Phantom Menace is the movie’s main flaw. Almost across the board, the price of a character’s failing is simply that the status quo will continue or the slack will be picked up by some other character.

In Star Wars, the few main characters are the only people in the galaxy who can pull off the necessary task to resolve the conflict. In The Phantom Menace, few characters are really essential. If, say, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were cut from the story altogether, would anything in the world of the story have changed? I tend to doubt it. The Trade Federation probably still would have invaded and Amidala would still have been forced to lead some kind of armed resistance in the Act III.

If Anakin – who will become one of the most famous characters in cinema – had never appeared in the film, would there have been any alteration in the story? Not likely. Apart from the destruction of the Trade Federation command ship – a lucky accident – Anakin is superfluous to the story. And two Jedi Knights who are supposed to be expert negotiators could certainly have drummed up spare parts for their ship without resorting to gambling on the life of a child.

The Phantom Villain of the movie, Darth Sidious, who is manipulating the Trade Federation, makes many villainous pronouncements but for no clearly discernible purpose. We have no reason to think he would sleep any worse for not making them.

Compare that to Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin’s predicament in Star Wars, where the Emperor himself is counting on Tarkin and his armoured bulldog to solve the problem – and fast. And it is a big problem. The secret plans for the keystone of the Empire’s new military strategy are flitting around the galaxy somewhere, possibly in the hands of the very people they are trying to crush.

Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader

“I’m taking an awful risk, Vader.”

It’s been said over and over that if you want to make your hero’s story better, give him a better villain. Star Wars, in a very few strokes, conveys a great weight of responsibility on the villains. They can’t just decide to focus their energies elsewhere or wait for it all to blow over. If they fail, it’s their careers, their lives and the lives of all their associates, not to mention the staggering investment in money, manpower and ideological commitment that the Death Star represents.

Also note how in Star Wars all the characters – protagonists and antagonists – are bound together by the same problem. Whatever the outcome is, every character will be permanently affected. It is simply not possible for any of the principal characters – even the minor characters, for that matter – to pass through the story without being changed for the worse or the better. In fact, no one in the entire galaxy will be unaffected by how the story plays out. Those are high stakes. That’s how you tell a story.

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.”

Restorations: “Drums Along The Mohawk”; “Leave Her To Heaven”


Burbank, September 28, 2007 – Two classic films, John Ford’s DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939) and the film noir LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) were recently restored by DTS Digital Images utilizing the company’s proprietary Lowry Process (PDF). The films will premiere at the 45th New York Film Festival on October 12. The facility, a division of DTS Digital Cinema, provided full, 2K restoration services on both films. The movies are part of the festival’s retrospective program “In Glorious Technicolor: Martin Scorsese Presents,” sponsored by American Express and The Film Foundation. Scorsese will introduce the films and discuss the importance of preservation prior to the screenings.

“These classic films are an important part of our motion picture history and culture,” says Schawn Belston, vice president of film preservation at 20th Century Fox. “The restoration and preservation of these films was a collaborative effort by Fox, the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation. DTS Digital Images restored these and other classic films in our library using the most advanced image processing technology available today. We’re very pleased and excited to see these Hollywood classics projected at the festival.”

DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN were both produced in three-strip Technicolor format. DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK was directed by John Ford with Bert Glennon, ASC and Ray Rennahan, ASC sharing the cinematography credit. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN was directed by John Stahl. Leon Shamroy, ASC earned an Oscar for Best Color Cinematography for his work on the film.

“DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK presented some of the most difficult types of restoration challenges,” says Mike Inchalik, vice president, Strategy and Marketing, DTS Digital Images. “We were dealing with film elements that were several generations removed from the original. Because of significant fading of the CRIs (color reversal intermediates) in particular, most of the color information from the blue layer of the original camera negative was gone. There were also tricky issues to resolve, including misregistration, flicker, color breathing and grain build-up and image softening that results from the creation of second and third generation film preservation elements.”

Since the original three-strip negatives were no longer available, DTS Digital Images worked from color reversal protection copies and black-and-white YCM separations to reconstruct the films. Those elements were scanned and converted to digital files using IMAGICA film scanners that are specially designed to gently handle older, shrunken films. The images were then restored using the Lowry Process embedded in proprietary DTS software.

“The Lowry Process incorporates some very powerful imaging algorithms that have been fine-tuned over the course of more than 200 major feature film restorations performed over the past eight years,” explains Inchalik. “We’ve put a great deal of energy into inventing the right tools and putting enough computing power behind them.”

Inchalik notes that the original three-strip negatives had shrunk at different rates. As a result, there was significant misregistration photographed into the color reversal copies.

“There’s quite a science to digitally recombining those records and adjusting for the various rates of shrinkage to create a perfectly recombined registered image,” adds Inchalik.

In both restorations, DTS delivered a new negative, a digital archive, and a new HD master for serving home video markets that are all true to the restored films. The prints that will screen at the New York Film Festival were made from these new negatives.

“Restoring classics like DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is a tremendous responsibility that we take very seriously,” says Inchalik. “The breathtaking rate of technological change helps us recover and recreate the amazing experience of seeing these cinematic treasures as they were originally meant to be seen, and that’s exciting. Using the Lowry Process, we have also prepared the films for today’s high-definition home viewing environments, and for whatever formats the future brings as well.”

The Preservation Screening Program was created by American Express and The Film Foundation to screen motion pictures that have been preserved/ restored with funding from the Foundation. The goals are to connect today’s moviegoers with film art and culture from the past, and to highlight the importance of film preservation.

The 45th New York Film Festival runs September 28 through October 14 at the Frederick P. Rose Hall, Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and sponsored by Sardinia Region Tourism and The New York Times, features showcases, music documentaries and retrospective films. For more information, visit www.filmlinc.com/nyff.



Netflix Yes; LOVEFiLM nO

It was a no-brainer to put Netflix in my 2005 list, “10 Things I Love About The Film Industry”.

Netflix really has been revolutionary. By making virtually any DVD available on demand to anyone in the entire USA, it has smashed the local brick & mortar video store irrevocably, and it has altered the way people watch TV and movies as much as TIVO and digital video recorders have changed viewers’ relationship with the broadcast industry.

In the U.K. the most popular DVD-by-mail service is a company called LOVEFiLM.

LOVEFiLM is not Netflix.

The main thing that makes Netflix great is its genuine “on-demand” aspect. If I want to watch “Down By Law” (1986), “Gladiator” (2000), the entire series of “Freaks and Geeks” (1999), and “Andrei Rublev” (1969) – in that order – I will be sent “Down By Law”, “Gladiator”, the entire series of “Freaks and Geeks”, and “Andrei Rublev” – in that order. Rarely, and usually only in the case of extremely popular titles just after release, Netflix will be unable to provide a requested title. This is usually accompanied by ample warning from the company, and a reliable promise that the title will be sent as soon as it is available.

The other key to Netflix’s success – and it is a thing of beauty – is the Rental Queue. The Netflix Rental Queue allows you to fine-tune the order in which you want your movies to arrive. If you want to see Andrei Rublev first, and then “Down By Law”, then split up the discs which comprise “Freaks and Geeks”, maybe with 3 before “Gladiator” and 3 after, well, then no one’s going to stop you. In fact, to us morbidly incurably cinemonks, the populating and ordering and massaging of the queue is an end in itself. It’s a real pleasure to add movie after movie and then try to prioritize them, plan your viewing, create for yourself a 1st rate cinema education for the next year and a half. And of course there’s the maxing out of the queue and having to decide which individual title you will have to remove from the list in order to add another title that you want to watch.

And Netflix also has a good engine that encourages you to rate movies and then gives you solid recommendations based on those ratings.

If I were to make another list, a “List Of Reasons To Return To The USA”, Netflix access would go on it.

But, as I indicated, here in Britain, there is no Netflix. There is LOVEFiLM.

LOVEFiLM is very much like Netflix – up to the bright red envelopes in which the DVD’s are mailed and the white-on-red, black-bordered logo.

In the same way that minority ethnic groups can make jokes about themselves that no one else can, I being officially – and actually – British have to say that it’s a sad and wretched thing to see, over and over, Britain taking on ideas introduced from the outside and with the enthusiasm of an over-praised child, apply those ideas slap-dash to its own local situation while missing the core of what made the idea good in the first place.

Exhibit A: Mexican Food. What is Mexican food? Well, it’s – generally speaking – simple, meat and vegetables with spices often wrapped in a flour or corn tortilla, etc. I have eaten British-made Mexican food – I kid you not – which has been tuna and peas with chili powder wrapped in a pita. With cheddar cheese sauce.

Exhibit B: Sweet Potatoes. At University of Kent, a Thanksgiving dinner was arranged for the American students. Sweet, no? No. Traditionally, sweet potatoes are served at Thanksgiving. The American students were served sweet … potatoes. Yes, mashed potatoes … sweetened with sugar. There was weeping.

Exhibit C: British rap music and hip-hop. All I have to say is that if you don’t have genuine actual gangsters actually shooting each other with military-issue automatic weapons on a daily basis in your city streets, please, please, please avoid attempting rap music of any kind. It’s embarrassing for all of us.

And so, LOVEFiLM:

LOVEFiLM bills itself as “Europe’s NO. 1 Online DVD Rental Service”, but it offers relatively few continental titles, so I don’t know how seriously to take that assertion.

First off, LOVEFiLM is not a good name. I know some marketing person somewhere really worked hard on it and I appreciate that. But just step back and listen to the word: “Luvfilm”. The fricative “V” and “F” disappear into each other – and they are not helped by that disintegrating “ILM” sound at the end. “Lovfilm” sounds like the last thing a drunk might say before passing out cold on top of his girlfriend. Could we just have one hard consonant, please? Or an “S”? “LOVESFiLM” maybe?

And with the name “LOVEFiLM” you’ve already alienated half of your user base. Because no self-respecting macho-man-with-an-inferiority-complex is going to want to say to his colleagues on a Monday morning: “Hey guys, I joined LOVE-FiLM!” He would be shunned. Even I, who get weepy when Judy Garland sings “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, am loathe to say “LOVEFiLM” in mixed company.

But that’s nitpicking. LOVEFiLM has a similar engine as Netflix for rating movies, and then getting recommendations back. But it’s vague. And the accuracy of the recommendations doesn’t seem to improve much after a certain amount of rating. Whereas it is a pleasure to rate movies on Netflix and watch your recommendations gaining more and more focus, it’s depressing to rate film after film on LOVEFiLM and get back repeatedly “If you loved ‘The Seventh Seal’, you’ll love ‘Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves'”.

The LOVEFiLM rental queue – called, ironically, a “list” by LOVEFiLM, not a “queue” – is really not much of a queue at all. Whereas Netflix allows you to fine-tune your queued movies via an interface that allows you to assign an ordinal number to each, LOVEFiLM offers you the opportunity to put movies in one of three categories: “HIGH”, “MED”, “LOW” priorities. And that’s it.

The obvious – and typically British – problem this introduces is that it entirely removes the “on demand” aspect that makes DVD-by-mail appealing. The very point of having a rental queue is to be able to watch the movies I want to see exactly when I want to see them.

If I want to see “Down By Law”, “Gladiator”, the entire series of “Freaks and Geeks”, and “Andrei Rublev” – in that order (well, I’m not going to be able to get “Freaks and Geeks” because that is a particularly American tv series that executives somewhere have decided will not translate to the other side of the Atlantic and they are very wrong about that but you may insert your own imagined tv series) – the only way I’m going to have any chance of watching them in the order will be to put the one I want to see next in my HIGH priority list and put all the rest on the MED or LOW priority list. Because if they all go into the HIGH priority bin, they will be sent to me in an unpredictable order selected by some oily fingered worker at the LOVEFiLM distribution plant.

And that, if I’m lucky.

In a recent LOVEFiLM experience, my household received not a single one of the films in our HIGH priority list. We were told, after sending an email query, that none of the half dozen films tagged HIGH were available at present. And so, we were sent randomly selected titles from our very long MED priority list – one of these titles was a dull reality tv show about families building their new houses. That MED priority section can be a real quagmire of impulse clicks. We did watch the show. But our weekend was ruined. A queue that allowed you to put a title like that at the bottom of a long list would easily prevent such tragedies.

There is too the LOW priority section. But, let’s face it, the idea that you would select a bunch of movies so that you could put them in a list marked “Low Priority” – well, it’s kind of idiotic.

In LOVEFiLM’s defense, they do have a system to warn users that there might be a wait for a film. A gray, half-full hour-glass icon indicates: “It is likely there will be a short wait for this title.” A red, full hour-glass icon indicates: “It is likely there will be a long wait for this title.” However, I have yet to see the icon next to any of the HIGH priority movies we have requested that we have been refused.

The impression one gets, as a user of the service, is that LOVEFiLM wants to make it as easy on themselves as possible, but still get you to give them money. Apparently, it’s working because we continue to give them money.

I want to make clear that LOVEFiLM is not lousy. The service is perfectly adequate. But given the technology, expertise, and creative fire so readily available in this wide wired world of the 21st century, “adequate” is now synonymous with “insulting”.

If you want to become a multi-millionaire in Britain, you can – as I’ve said before – open a good, authentic Mexican restaurant. Or you can offer us the DVD-by-mail service that we deserve.

Nights At The New Bev

Just last week I was confessing that I didn’t see “Jurassic Park” (1993) until a year after it was released – and that I finally saw it at the New Beverly Cinema. And this week, Sherman Torgan, owner & operator of the New Beverly died of a sudden heart attack during his regular bike ride in Santa Monica at the age of 63.

At first I thought it was a noteworthy synchronicity, but then I realized that I mention the New Beverly so often in talking about my Los Angeles past that, at any given time, mention of the theater is ever only a few blog posts away.

At the beginning of the month, I’d swing by the New Beverly to get a new schedule – usually parking illegally on Detroit – usually snatching up a couple extras just in case someone else I knew wanted one. Nobody ever did want one, but that never stopped me. Occasionally, the floor of my car would have a few months worth of old New Beverly schedules strewn among the empty cigarette packs and unpaid parking tickets – tickets probably received near the New Beverly.

It was always exciting reading the schedule, circling all the movies you were planning on seeing – ignoring the fact that you were likely to get to a bare handful of them. But it was great to know that you COULD see them, if you wanted to – or that, if not you, at least someone was seeing them.

One of the great joys of my life has been attending movies by myself. It hasn’t always been voluntary. It’s not as easy to get people to come out to a screening of “The Valley Of Gwangi” (1969) as you would think. I have spent many nights alone at the New Beverly, and can still recall that calm clear joy of leaving the theater anonymously, strolling through the dark to my car, probably parked on Detroit, driving home with my mind blown my some cinematic revelation.

So many times, the New Beverly gave me “the first time I saw…” The first time I saw “Jurassic Park”, of course – let’s not mention that again – and the first time I saw “The 400 Blows” (1959) and “Hard Boiled” (1992) and “Mystery Train” (1989) and “Cremaster 1 & 2” (1996 & 1997) and “Audition” and “Chungking Express” (1994) and “Until The End Of The World” (1991) and “Aguirre: The Wrath Of God” (1972) and “The Lady Eve” (1941) … and, of course, and very appropriately too, the “Kill Bills” (2003 & 2004).

But one of the great treats the New Bev offered was seeing again, and again and again, all those movies that I loved, packing buttered popcorn and a diet coke on top of a belly full of El Coyote.

I once saw “Lawrence Of Arabia” (1962) at the New Beverly – which baffled my friends at the time. Why watch the quintessential widescreen movie in such an obviously inferior viewing space. Why? Because you have to jump at every opportunity to see “L of A” projected. And seeing “L of A” projected, even at the New Beverly, via a chewed-up print, was still an experience light years ahead of seeing it on my big screen tv.

I saw “Picnic At Hanging Rock” (1975), which bowled me over when I first saw it at school years previously – and was ecstatic to find that the movie was even better than I had remembered.

I saw “The Hunger” (1983) for the thousandth time – which is, you know … well, it is what it is. It’s Tony Scott’s best movie.

I – with every other cineaste in Los Angeles – lamented the physical state of the New Beverly. There was that famous soft drink stain in the middle of the screen. And though I never actually saw a rat or a cockroach, I believed in them. I believed they were there – watching. Time and again, my friends and I would have the conversation: “A bunch of filmmakers should get together to renovate the New Beverly. As a service to the filmmaking and filmgoing community. A new screen and sound system and new projector or two? Why, it’s chump change to some of these guys!”, etc. And I certainly was not the only guy in Hollywood who imagined including the New Beverly in his Oscar acceptance gratitude list, or fantasized that he’d renovate it with money out of his own pocket with state of the art equipment and subsidize ticket sales too so that they were actually cheaper than their already ridiculously low $6 double feature.

Oh, well.

Most industry support seemed to fall in the direction of the Aero Theatre, because – let’s face it – it was in Santa Monica. And though I do appreciate the Aero’s helping to widen the net of the American Cinematheque, how many times a year can you really watch “Manhattan” and “Sunset Blvd”?

Sherman’s family has closed the New Beverly Cinema until further notice. I’ve lived in London since last fall, and am likely to be here for some time, so the future state of the New Beverly won’t affect my day-to-day experience much. But I hope Sherman Torgan’s New Beverly will remain with us. It was his New Beverly, wasn’t it?

I saw Sherman repeatedly on the other side of the glass, rarely said more than “One, please” to him. What a profound and long-lasting effect this man I never spoke to had on me and on virtually ever other serious filmmaker east of Sepulveda. I said it before, and I’ll say it again, Sherman’s death really is a significant landmark in L.A. cinema – and for, I would argue, cinema around the world.

Hollywood Juicy Flake

Hollywood Blvd.

I remember Hollywood Blvd.

hollywoodman

It snowed in Los Angeles this week. Here in London, at 51 degrees north latitude, there’s not been a single flake.

L.A. Dreams Goodbyes

When I came to Los Angeles in Sept. 1985, I had hopes and dreams.

I was beginning my college days, attending a university with the most respected cinema program in the world. I had a couple scholarships to help defer the hefty tuition, including a National Merit Scholarship. I wanted to be a famous film director – or a poet, if the film director thing didn’t pay off. Self-esteem had never been a strong suit of mine, and despite people telling me the contrary, I always felt dumb as post. Still, since I was in 6th grade, I had a firm conviction that not only did film directors actually exist somewhere in the world, but that I could very easily be one of them. The more I studied, the more I learned, the more I began to see that undertaking such an occupation was a very real option. When film school professors whispered praises in my ears, my certain success was confirmed.

It is years later. I have been a paid screenwriter. I have made heaps of cash in the Spec Sale 1990’s. I have had a house in the Hollywood Hills. I have been arrested on Sunset Boulevard for drunk driving.

Somewhere along the way, the one thing that I came here for, the directing part, has escaped me.

Or, to be more honest, I have escaped it.

Yes, try as the gods might to hand me opportunities, I have evaded them at every turn.

One of my favorites was when a notable production company began talks with me about directing The Common Vampire – my low-budge, Scorsese-esque vampire script (I know, you also have your own low-budge, Scorsese-esque vampire script – tough luck, I got in first). I did everything I could, short of shitting on the producer’s desk, to avoid following through with that offer.

As John Cassavetes said to Martin Scorsese: “In order to catch the ball, you have to want to catch the ball.”

I have had so much blind faith – or stupidity, one might call it (and a healthy dose of stupidity is an asset for long-term success in any artistic enterprise) – during my time here in L.A. It is galling to see how much utter dread and fear have been lurking beneath it, taking a secret step back for every step I appear to take forward. When I have visited friends from my Ohio high school years, they always remark: “Wow. You always said you were going to go to L.A. and get into movies. And then you really did it! Wow.” And I stare back at them, a little baffled, and think: “Of course, I did it. Did you think I was kidding?” and I feel my heart sag a little when I realize that when they were articulating their big dreams back in the 1980’s, they were only kidding.

I have made films with the Alpha 60 collective, done the video podcasts here on the blog, experimented with moving images on my own. But this is still sketching, training, exercising. It is not what I came here to do. Asked a couple decades ago what the status of my motion picture career would be in 2006, the projected future would not have been a question of whether or not I had directed a film, but whether I had received Academy Awards for Directing AND Writing yet (having become most familiar with our beloved Academy over the past few years, and having attended a number of the shows, the prospect of winning an Oscar has become increasingly less interesting to me however)(I don’t think that’s sour grapes)(or is it?).

So, I’d better get on it, huh? Better roll up my sleeves and get on that sucker?

The irritating thing I’ve noticed – and to my chagrin, continue to notice – is that my life here in Los Angeles seems to have had some kind of subtle guiding principle behind it – that is, I seem to have been led and guided in spite of my ambitions. And I believe more and more – and this too is irritating – that my ambitions are sometimes a road to misery and chaos and death – a roadmap for taking me directly to the places I’d rather not go. So I’ve learned then to soften my grip on the reins, to trust that the horse has traveled this path more often than I and that he may not need second-by-second guidance to get me to the destination. In fact, my constant commands will probably end with him bucking me into the ditch and spoiling what might have been an enjoyable ride.

On Saturday, my wife and I will be moving to London – which is in England.

For years and years I have said that I would like to live in London – home of my foremothers and grandsires – but couldn’t tell you exactly how that would come about. Now, here we are, about to leave this L.A. that I’ve become very cozy-comfy with over the past 20 years, and I couldn’t really tell you exactly how it happened. It just…happened. Step by step, revelation by revelation. This thing that seems to always be taking care of the big picture – cagey bastard that it is – is subtle and quiet, and not to be denied.

I am very, very, very blessed. And I am very, very, very ordinary.

So the future? My future? Our future? On Saturday, we will get on the plane at LAX. When we land at Heathrow, we will get off the plane. That’s about as far as I’m willing to plan ahead these days.

Still, as I leave Los Angeles, in Sept. 2006, I have hopes and dreams.

Workers

L.A. Workers