Archive for January 2010

Occupations in Movies

January 23, 2010

After posting my thoughts about the movie JULIE & JULIA, it occurred to me that how I react to TV shows, films and books, is largely based on whether it feels “real” or not — and a big part of it boils down to the protagonist’s occupation as portrayed in that story. Does his or her job/work experience seem authentic?

In many high concept Hollywood films, the characters’ jobs often seem generic or fall into “fantasy” categories: superheroes, super cops, secret agents, lawyers who bear little resemblance to actual attorneys we encounter, or slacker types who are gross exaggerations of young adults.

(I’ve also heard Hollywood agents and script readers complain they get lots of screenplays by aspiring screenwriters in which the protag is an aspiring screenwriter. Ugh. There is nothing more boring than watching a writer at work — it’s mostly procrastinating and reading blogs/message boards on the internet, with occasional spurts of typing in between.)

Two movies I highly recommend are foreign films in which the protag’s job is significant to the plot: DEPARTURES, a quietly moving Japanese film about a young man who loses his Tokyo office job and winds up in the business of preparing the deceased for funeral services; and AMREEKA, a heartbreaking depiction of Middle Eastern people trying to adapt to life in this country. Ultimately, both are heart-warming films, largely because the characters find their identities through their work and the people they work with.

DEPARTURES shows us an unusual occupation with rituals that allow the living to reflect on loved ones who have died. In a way, it reminded me of the Showtime series, SIX FEET UNDER, which was set in a family funeral home business. But SIX FEET was more of a soap opera about the living, and used the gimmick of dead people talking to characters at times. DEPARTURES is a simpler, straight-forward tale about dealing with death.

AMREEKA shows us what it feels like to be a Middle Eastern person in post-9/11 American. Ugly racial profiling… subtle and blatant forms of discrimination… and not surprisingly, a tough job market for anyone who looks Arab or might be a Muslim. The protag is a charming, overweight, college-educated divorced mother from Palestine, who moves to a Chicago suburb with her teenage son. (Funny scene: upon her arrival, the U.S. gov worker looks at her passport and asks, “Occupation?” She replies, ” Yes. Forty years we have been occupied!”)

Although she has several years of experience working at a bank, she can’t get a bank job here — nor any other kind of office work. She winds up at a White Castle flipping burgers alongside high school drop-outs. Ashamed, she deceives her son and relatives they’re living with, telling them she’s been hired by the bank next to the fast food joint.

Yet she makes the best of a bad situation and befriends co-worker Matt (she cheerfully says his name means “dead” in Arabic — he responds, “Cool!”) the blue-haired guy with the pierced lip, while introducing him to her version of a falafel burger. It just rings true, like the writer knows what it’s like to have a crummy job. And the way she handles herself seems so… American. Instead of complaining, she goes online in search of better job opportunities, and falls for the old multi-level “HerbalLose” health product scheme that offers a chance to make big money working from home.

But if you watch American-made movies and TV shows, you’d get the impression that we are primarily a nation of sexed-up doctors/lawyers, witty cops, cleavage-baring criminal scene investigators, rogue government agents, and highly-paid corporate executives who never have to worry about their mortgages.

My advice is to skip the high concept crap and add DEPARTURES and AMREEKA to your Netflix rental queue.

BONUS WRITING TIP: As a UCLA screenwriting professor said in a workshop class I attended, all good movies are about the main character finding out who he or she really is. And isn’t that what life is all about too?

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Classes for Hawaii Actors

January 23, 2010

Sure, acting as a career choice is a longshot, right up there with screenwriting. But if you got the bug and can afford to sign up for classes that will improve your skills, I say go for it!

As with screenwriting workshops at the UH, sometimes the connections you make in class can lead to actual jobs or opportunities in the entertainment biz. That’s how I optioned my first screenplay to the co-writer of the original ROBOCOP movie.

Below item appeared in today’s Star-Bulletin about Scott Rogers’ acting classes. Students of his have landed roles in TV series and movies…

Film class sale lasts until Feb. 1

If you are interested in getting into the film industry, Scott Rogers and the Actors Ohana are offering their “once-in-a-decade” sale. Three-month classes are discounted $50, so instead of participants paying $540 to attend once a week, the cost is $490. Twice-a-week sessions have been reduced to $550.

Rogers has coached principal actors on both movie sets and national television shows. He also served as an acting coach for 20th Century Fox studios and has directed more than a hundred professional productions. Special rates will be available through Feb. 1. Call 596-8300 or visit www.AmericanFilmActor.com for more information.

“Wired” to Fail: Info Overload

January 18, 2010

Last night while lying in bed, I had an anxiety attack. My mind went into overdrive, running through a checklist of things I had to do this week. I stopped it by repeating a mental mantra: One thing at a time. That one thing was to shut down my brain and get some sleep.

It worked, sort of. In the morning, I made my to-do list, which really was a rewriting of last week’s to-do list. But this time I stuck to the “one thing” mantra and began finishing off small tasks I had put off. Do the easy stuff first, and the more involved projects won’t seem so daunting later, I figured.

One of the easier tasks is providing links to useful info for our http://www.CareerChangers.TV site visitors, who are looking for jobs or starting their own business ventures… or perhaps you’re a writer too, trying to break into the entertainment biz like me. Well, I’ve got some interesting articles for you!

Whether you’re an entrepreneur or want to be in entertainment, you should make a point of subscribing to Wired magazine. Many times I’ve clipped Wired articles that seemed like sci-fi or movie thriller material — and sure enough, those stories were bought by Hollywood companies or turned into best-sellers.

More importantly, Wired is on the cutting edge of high tech trends and news. It makes you think about the future and could give you ideas for improving your business. It can also inspire you to be more creative.

The January cover story is “FAIL: SCREWUPS, DISASTERS, MISFIRES, FLOPS… Why LOSING BIG can be a WINNING STRATEGY.” There’s a bunch of pieces related to that topic.

Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s what THIS blog is all about! And I started it before I had any inkling Wired would be doing a feature on failure. But that’s been the story of my life as a screenwriter. Many of my “weird-concept” scripts were based on developing trends I anticipated from my readings and social observations. However, Hollywood likes to stick with tried and true formulas or copy successful hits. In some ways, my screenplays and TV series ideas were ahead of their time…

For instance, back in 1994 I pitched an idea for a TV show called REHAB, about fictional counselors — who were recovering addicts themselves — working in a Hawaii treatment center that dealt with all types of addictions and compulsions. Studios and producers rejected it, saying they didn’t think there was a market for a drama/comedy about such a dark subject. Too much of a “downer” I was told by an insider.

However, one company later asked if I could turn it into a reality TV series. I said it would be tough because a key component of most recovery programs is anonymity. What legitimate treatment center would put real patients on TV?

I failed to consider just who would be willing to air their darkest, saddest secrets and stories of addiction: destitute people who might be offered free help in exchange for their cooperation… and publicity-seeking celebs!

A&E was the first cable channel to strike ratings gold with “Intervention.” That series focuses on addicts’ substance abuse problems, which leads to them getting into treatment at the very end of the show (or not as is sometimes the case) after the climactic intervention scene.

It wasn’t that much like my REHAB concept, so I kept pitching my idea as a fictional TV series — which coincidentally had a cast of characters that was very similar to GREY’S ANATOMY, a series that came out after my REHAB proposal was shopped around to the studios.

Other reality shows about addictions appeared on MTV and HBO, and I started seeing more TV series that featured recovering alkys and addicts in their story lines. But my jaw dropped when I first heard about Dr. Drew’s CELEBRITY REHAB series!

That was the one angle I completely missed. Even though I had outlined episodes in my series proposal that were “ripped from the headlines” about celebs winding up in rehab for various misdeeds, it didn’t occur to me that washed-up actors and D-list celebs would want to air their dirty laundry on prime time.

Of course, the show has become a huge hit for VH1, and Dr. Drew has now spun off a CELEBRITY SEX REHAB series from it, as well as follow-up reunion specials. Unfortunately, I don’t think the series does a very good job of portraying what actual recovery and treatment is really all about… and that was the original goal of my failed TV series idea.

Oh, sheesh — this post was supposed to be about the Wired mag “FAIL!” issue and another interesting article I came across related to writing…

Here’s a somewhat depressing Wall Street Journal story about how it’s gotten nearly impossible for aspiring writers to be discovered through “slush piles.”

The Death of the Slush Pile

Even in the Web era, getting in the door is tougher than ever

On Hollywood: Death of a Manager

January 12, 2010

For new screenwriters, one of the hardest things to do is get representation in Hollywood. Without a manager or agent, your chances of selling a script are pretty slim. It took me years to get a manager with real connections, but one ill-advised email ruined that relationship overnight.

My former manager’s death last week was written about in entertainment blogs because she is credited with “discovering” Quentin Tarantino and repped him for 10 years. Her name was Cathryn Jaymes, but in all our email correspondence, she was just “CJ.”

She was the antithesis of Tarantino — didn’t curse or use profanity, proud of her “midwestern values.” Very close to her father, who was a minister. Very loyal to her clients and business associates as well…

The loyalty thing was a big issue with her. As recounted in Jane Hamsher’s “Killer Instinct” book about Tarantino and the making of NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Cathryn was dumped by QT after he made it big. He became a client of the powerful William Morris Agency (in fact, CJ told me she introduced him to the WMA agent he signed with).

His rationale was CJ’s job was to launch his career, and he saw no need to continue paying her 15 percent of whatever he made. Since agents get 10 percent and entertainment lawyers also get a piece of the pie, you can see why he might jettison a small-time player like CJ… except one could argue he wouldn’t have had a career if not for her belief in his talent, back when Tarantino was a young actor working in a video store.

The details of how she helped him succeed are told in “Rebels on the Backlot” by Sharon Waxman, who now runs http://www.TheWrap.com. I tipped off Sharon that CJ was near death after getting a Google Alert link to a Twitter message from Hawaii-born actor Mark Dacascos: Cathryn had inoperable tumors and was preparing for the end.

I met Mark a few years ago, when he came back to Honolulu for a showing of the film, ONLY THE BRAVE. Cathryn had arranged that meeting, and I was thrilled because I admired his work in the French film, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (check it out on Netflix!) and also was a fan of the TV show, IRON CHEF AMERICA (he plays the Chairman — not quite as flamboyant as the first Chairman in the original Japanese series though).

One reason CJ took me on as a client was that she was searching for movie projects Mark could star in. As fate would have it, I had written a family-friendly adventure script about the Menehune — the mythical little people of Hawaii. My pitch was sent out to hundreds of agents, managers and producers via an e-query service, and landed in her email box…

Cathryn immediately replied and said she’d like to read the script. When I Googled her name, I was astonished to learn this was the same manager I read about in “Killer Instinct.” The book said she stuck by QT even when everyone in Hollywood was rejecting his scripts. I wrote in my journals that I wanted a rep like her. And thanks to the internet, she was actually contacting me!

I proceeded to pitch other completed screenplays to her, which she was also interested in. Often, you never hear back from agents or managers if they don’t think they can immediately sell that script. Managers tend to be more forgiving and take a more active role in developing new writers… just as CJ nurtured Tarantino’s talents, along with his friends Craig Hamann and Roger Avary.

About a month or two later, I got a phone call from Cathryn on Super Bowl Sunday 2004. She was coughing, sniffling, and I could barely hear her because she talks quietly. The long distance connection between Studio City and Kailua, Hawaii wasn’t great either. She said she loved my MENEHUNES script and wanted to rep me. I thought I was on my way, finally, after years of writing and coming close on selling other scripts without a rep.

But it didn’t work out the way I planned. That first call may have been foreshadowing. Illness was a problem — she later told me she had recovered from cancer, yet she continued to smoke cigarettes. Then her father was dying, and for months she spent weekends commuting to San Diego from L.A. to be at his bedside. After his death, she battled depression. Still, she continued to tell me she believed in my writing talent and said my imagination was “unparalleled” — high praise that kept me going despite my self-doubts.

During that period, there were communication problems. Option contracts I was supposed to review and sign weren’t forwarded to me. Follow-up calls to producers weren’t made. I had no idea if she sent out my stuff to people she was going to contact on my behalf. She wasn’t replying to my emails, nor emails of another client of hers that I knew.

After two years of working with her and nothing to show for it, I sent an email to another screenwriter who once was repped by Cathryn. He was still good friends with her, and had some success writing for TV and films. She had asked him to give me notes on two of my scripts, so I knew she respected his opinion.

I put “Confidential” in the subject line and asked the writer if I could talk to him about Cathryn. Since he knew her on a personal and professional level, I felt he could give me an honest assessment of her health and state of mind before I started looking for a new rep.

Somehow that email got forwarded to CJ! He claims he didn’t do it. Maybe it was accidentally sent by him (I checked and it wasn’t me). In any event, she took it very personally, and accused me of being disloyal by questioning her abilities to do her job.

In hindsight, I should have just talked to her directly about my concerns. Worse, I hurt her feelings, and I regret that. I offered apologies and sent letters to explain my actions when she wouldn’t return my calls.

The irony is I had hoped one day she would be talking to Sharon Waxman about her Next Big Find: me. Instead, it was me telling Sharon that CJ was dying. Here’s the link to the piece Sharon wrote about her:

http://www.thewrap.com/quentin-tarantino-movies-cathryn-jaymes-12637

Career Lessons from “Julie and Julia”

January 7, 2010

Over the holidays, my wife and I watched JULIE & JULIA, which is based on the true story of how a blogger found fame and fortune with a simple gimmick: she would cook hundreds of Julia Child’s recipes within a year’s time and write about the experience. Eventually, the NY Times did an article on it, and voila — Julie the blogger is offered book deals and sells her story to Hollywood.

It’s a pretty good movie. Especially the parts about Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep. Amy Adams did an adequate job of playing Julie Powell, except she’s a bit too pretty and perky to accept as someone who has to “struggle” or experience real failure… whereas Meryl’s character is overweight, bigger than life, and actually does have to overcome publishers’ rejections.

According to the movie, Julia spent something like eight years learning to cook while working on the book with two other women who initiated the project. But the first attempt was too big in scope — the women were creating an encyclopedia-sized French cookbook series! The publisher turned it down.

However, a pen pal of Julia’s loved the draft that Julia later sent to her and the friend showed it to the publishers she worked for (against Julia’s wishes), who saw the business potential in it. On top of that, Julia’s husband encouraged her to go on TV, which was a novel thing to do at the time.

In short, Julia Child was no overnight sensation. She had to revise her life plans (went from office work to cooking); revise her book concept after years of working on it; and was willing to take a chance on TV, even though Julia’s looks and voice would make her worthy of lampooning on television.

By contrast, Julie’s “experiment” in blogging/cooking had some bumps in the road, but landed her in the limelight in a matter of months thanks to the insta-fame nature of today’s entertainment and news media biz. Did she earn the attention? Sure. Clever concept. Good execution — if her blog wasn’t entertaining, she wouldn’t have the following she garnered. And she kept at it until she got the NY Times coverage that put her over the top.

But in the long run, it’s Julia Child who we will remember and value precisely because of all the time, effort and love she put into her recipes, books and TV shows. Her success was a byproduct of doing something she was passionate about — fame and money weren’t her real goals.

Yet we can also learn plenty from Julie… experimenting on the internet through blogs and web sites can yield success stories like hers. Coming up with clever gimmicks isn’t as easy as you would think — believe me, because I’d love to come up with one myself!

Got a blog idea you think might be a hit? Post it here. Maybe we can collaborate or other readers might have suggestions to make it work. In fact, this post is an experiment. I’m trying to find topics that will generate more readers and comments. And I’ll keep tossing stuff out there until I find my niche, just as Julie did… but I’ll continue working on my “recipes” for movie screenplays that stand the test of time, the way Julia Child has.

Bon appetit!

The French eat frogs -- how about geckos?

Goals vs. Expectations

January 5, 2010

By now, you’ve probably read a few articles about making and keeping New Year Resolutions (link to tips on that below). My take: goals are good, but high expectations can backfire. Why? Because most results rarely live up to the “dream” of success or happiness we fantasize about.

When I first began writing screenplays, I had visions of hanging out with famous directors and producers, while watching movie stars acting out roles I had created. And yes, I thought about selling those scripts for big bucks. Fifteen years later, I’ve seen parts of my dream come true and come close to having my scripts produced… but each time the project hit roadblocks and died. My high expectations resulted in bouts with depression.

The only thing that has kept me going are two sayings I write on my monthly desk planner, which I use to remind myself what the real goal is. The first bit of borrowed wisdom: Write with no attachment to outcome.

In other words, don’t worry about whether it will sell or not. Trying to alter your vision to accommodate ever-changing trends or fads is only going to make you crazy. But telling a good story is timeless. More importantly, at the very least you will get some satisfaction just by completing the goal you set for yourself. What happens after that depends largely on luck, fate, chance, and more work. Of course, the payoff for hard work is being able to capitalize on the lucky breaks when they come your way.

The second saying on my desk planner is some zen advice: When you cease expecting, you have all things

Think about that for a moment. Isn’t it true that we are most depressed when we become fixated on things we want or hope will happen, as opposed to appreciating what we have right now?

I no longer have high expectations for my screenplays. I’ve done as much as I can to learn the craft, network, market my scripts, and stay informed about the movie business. But my focus has shifted to finding other venues to write in that allow me to share my stories — blogs, newspaper columns, playwriting, and local TV projects. If one of my movie scripts sells I’d be very happy. But it’s not the end-all or be-all for my life. I’m more grateful for the little things and less depressed about the big picture these days.

So here’s my goals for 2010: produce useful, entertaining CareerChangers.TV shows and blog posts… write one new movie screenplay… complete my first non-fiction book (adaptation of existing INUGAMI script)… and finish my stage play about an aspiring terrorist with migraines who seeks medical help from a drug-addicted doctor with a midlife crisis.

So what are your goals? If you want to put it in writing, you can start here by posting a comment. The first step to make things happen is sharing it with others.

Here’s the link to an article about tips on sticking with your New Year’s Resolutions: http://tinyurl.com/yl8k62x

Happy failings!