Archive for February 2010

Free Talk by Disney Animation Pro

February 21, 2010

Living in Hawaii can be a disadvantage if you’re trying to break into Hollywood. However, we’re also lucky that Hollywood professionals love to come here to unwind, and on occasion, work. My first feature script option was a result of attending a University of Hawaii screenwriting workshop given by Michael Miner, who cowrote the original ROBOCOP movie.

This Weds., Feb. 24, you can attend a lecture at Kapiolani Community College by Bruce Morris, who has worked on big Disney animation projects. There’s a good Star-Bulletin article about him that you can check out if you’re interested in knowing more. Details on the free talk are at the bottom of this post.

It’s not impossible to get a major studio to read a screenplay or treatment from an unproduced writer. In fact, DreamWorks Animation read my family/adventure spec about the mythical little people of Hawaii, MENEHUNES and a treatment called PET LAB FREAKS. I didn’t have an agent or any connections there. I just wrote up a good pitch and used an e-query service that sent a mass email blast to producers, managers and agents. You can imagine my surprise when I got a reply from the DWA assistant, Ben Cawood, requesting the script.

Of course, I knew it was a longshot that anything would come of it. The reality is that companies like DreamWorks, Pixar and Disney all have projects lined up for the next decade or more — and most of them will be developed in-house. I’m guessing assistants like Ben just want to make sure they aren’t missing out on an undiscovered gem that a competitor might find before they do.

Ben eventually sent me an email saying he and the head of DWA, Kristine Belson, had read MENEHUNES and liked a lot of the elements but felt it was really more of a live action film. Do I really think the top person at DreamWorks Animation looked at my script? Nah. I think Ben says that so aspiring writers don’t bug him to give it to someone higher up the chain at DWA after he passes. I’d probably do the same if I was in his shoes.

He did leave the door open for me to submit other scripts or treatments, so I came up with a totally CGI story concept. PET LAB FREAKS is about a P. Diddyish mad scientist who wants to be a fashion designer, so he creates genetically-engineered designer pets for rich people. Problem is his lab “mistakes” have defects that would make them terrible pets… so he plans on killing them. Yikes!

A perky celeb’s assistant finds out about his plan to destroy the unique misfits, and rescues them — only to have the “Oki-Doki Pets” escape into the city of L.A. where their “defects” prove to be assets that allow them to survive, while the mad scientist and his goons try to recapture them.

Ben said Kristine Belson read that treatment too, but they were passing because there were other genetically-engineered pets/animal movies already in the CGI pipeline. Kristine got fired at DWA, but her movie HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (exec producer) is now being released.

Anyhow, if anyone’s interested, you can download and read my MENEHUNES (aka STINKY FEET AND THE SECRET OF MENEHUNE GULCH) script and PET LAB FREAKS treatment.

Stinky Feet (7.09)

PET LAB FREAKS (4.24)

And here’s info on the Bruce Morris lecture…

“What Is a Story?: The Art of Visual Storytelling”

» Place: Ohia Building Room 118, Kapiolani Community College, 4303 Diamond Head Road

» Time: 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday

» Admission: Free

» Call: 735-3879

» Workshop: Morris also will lead a free storyboarding workshop from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday at KCC’s Koa Building room 102. Reservations required because of limited space. Call the above number

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We Are the World: Remakes Suck

February 17, 2010

By now, you’ve probably seen the remake of Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” with new talent. I use the word “talent” loosely, since some vocals apparently needed help from auto-tune technology. I accept that good songs will always be covered by other artists, bar bands, and hopeful American Idols who will re-interpret classics to show how “original” they are… which is my problem with the current state of the music and movies biz. Very little seems new these days.

It’s one thing to put a fresh spin on old tunes, or update black and white films from another era. But to take an event like the recording of “We Are the World” and use it for the crisis du jour, just seems… I dunno, unoriginal. The same goes for hip-hop that relies heavily on recycled beats and riffs from songs that were popular before these guys were born. As for movies, do we really need a remake of Weekend at Bernie’s? I kid you not. It’s in the works.

Anyhow, I have a personal connection to the original MJ song through a friend. James Arceneaux (father of former Hawaii football star Darnell Arceneaux) had started a local publication about cheap eats, called The Budget Gourmet, in the mid-80s. In exchange for free meals and drinks, I wrote restaurant reviews despite having no credentials to be a food critic. It folded after a few issues (not because of me) and James reinvented himself as a music publisher.

He began by working with local talent, produced a few demos and hired me to write his promotional materials. Then he moved to L.A. and I lost touch with him. A few years later, he called: James was living in Beverly Hills with Anita Pointer. He had made some music deals and was now trying to break into the TV biz. James wanted my help to write TV show pitches for the Pointer Sisters to star in. I came up with what I thought were great concepts. Alas, nothing came of those ideas.

However, around the same time (1994) I won a scholarship to attend the American Film Institute TV Writers Workshop. The AFI is a prestigious school for aspiring movie directors and screenwriters, so I was excited to be spending a month at the L.A. campus on their dime. And of course, James said we should get together while I was in town…

He took me to a birthday party in Venice Beach for a talented young black actor named Glenn Plummer. Since I had recently quit drinking, it was an awkward scene for me. Although it was fairly mellow — mostly beer and wine, some reefer, lots of dominoes playing — I wasn’t used to being sober at parties. Also, I was one of the only non-blacks there. Glenn was cool though. He saw this short half-Japanese guy in an aloha shirt standing off to the side, and came over to chat awhile with me.

Later on, the son of Motown legend Berry Gordy dropped by, along with other hip, young musicians, models and actors. When it came time to leave, James suggested I crash at Anita’s mansion instead of going back to the cheap fleabag motel room on Franklin Avenue that I had rented for the month.

The Pointer Sisters were off performing in Atlantic City, so she wasn’t around when James gave me the tour of her house way up on the hill, overlooking the city. We walked past a wall where her gold and platinum records were displayed. But what really caught my eye was in her small music room, which James used as a mini-recording studio. On the wall was a framed copy of the lyric sheets for “We Are the World,” signed by all the original artists who were there that day. Wow…

The rest of the mansion was nice, but everything else paled in comparison. Except for one other piece of paper James showed me. We were in the four-car garage looking at his and her collection of vehicles, when he reached into a cardboard box and pulled out a letter: it was a handwritten note from Bruce Springsteen to the Pointer Sisters, telling them how much he liked their version of his song, “Fire.”

James shrugged and said he couldn’t stand Bruce’s voice — but conceded the Boss did write great songs. Being from Jersey originally, I couldn’t believe Anita had relegated a piece of Springsteen memorabilia to a box of junk in her garage.

Just goes to show that when it comes to tastes in music, whether it be originals or remakes, everybody’s a critic.

Things I Failed At In This Post: Was unable to capitalize on the AFI TV Writers Workshop connections (pitches rejected); failed to use the Pointer Sisters connections to get representation by Hollywood agent; didn’t stay in touch with James to develop other TV/film project ideas.

Update on James Arceneaux: He and Anita eventually went their separate ways. He is now Eddie Murphy’s personal assistant — and yes, I’ve been trying to pitch James ideas for Eddie’s next movie! No luck yet.

Best/Worst Cashiers in Hawaii

February 13, 2010

In my prior post about part-time jobs I held as a kid, I left off in high school when I worked at a supermarket in New Jersey. Back in the 70s, it seemed like most of the cashiers were teenagers, who viewed it as a temporary job. Today, I see a lot of middle-aged women ringing up groceries, and many of them aren’t going anywhere. This is it for them.

If they’re happy with it, fine. But where I shop in Kailua, you get the feeling that half of them are just going through the motions for a paycheck. No smiles. No sign of life in their eyes. They’re like robots — extremely slow moving robots. The ladies at Don Quijote are so slow it seems they are consciously pacing themselves to expend the least amount of energy possible during their shift.

In general, Safeway’s employees are better trained and move a little quicker. At Foodland, they’re pretty good about opening additional registers whenever one has more than three people in line. The Longs cashiers are okay, but if it’s a coupon book weekend, be prepared to wait… and wait. Wherever you go though, avoid the dazed-looking checker wearing an “In Training” tag.

Yes, I know it’s hard to be motivated doing that kind of work. Opportunities for advancement are nil. It’s mundane and repetitive. Still, that’s no excuse for not doing the best job you can do if someone is paying you a salary. Anyway, that’s what I was taught by my parents and that was my attitude growing up.

I took pride in being fast on the register. My line moved quicker than the others because I had agile fingers and could recall fruit and veggie prices without having to consult the produce list repeatedly. I was a good bagger too, making sure to distribute the weight and crushable stuff properly. However, I was not a perfect employee… I was a teenager, after all.

One night during my senior year, I went out drinking with my buddies and woke up feeling nauseous and terribly hungover. Yet I still made it into work on time. Unfortunately, it was extra-busy that day and the lines were backed up. Since it was customary for guys to wear ties at Shop-Rite, my shirt collar was buttoned up and I was sweating bullets…

I kept glancing at my fellow cashiers, while stifling the urge to heave. Then after I paid out change to a customer and closed the register drawer, I started to choke — the bottom of my tie was caught in the closed drawer!

Jerking my head back only made it worse. I kept hitting the button to open it, but the drawer was stuck. Customers in line were leaning around each other to see what the hold-up was. I had to signal another cashier to get help. A couple of minutes later the store manager arrived with a key to unlock the drawer. Embarrassed, I asked for a break, went up to the men’s room and threw up. Then I returned to my register and finished my shift. Because it was my job.

Takeaway idea: Even if you have the crappiest job in the world, the time will go by faster if you try to do your best and make customers happy. (But don’t go to work nauseous and hungover. You will regret it.)

Case in point: At the Kailua Post Office, there’s a long-time worker named Dennis, who always greets customers with a smile and tries to help them with any of their mailing needs. In my eyes, he’s a true professional. We need more people like Dennis. (Okay, so he’s not a supermarket cashier. But he does use a cash register.)

Bonus Tip: From NY Times Career Couch column, make yourself indispensable to your company by suggesting ways to improve business.

Worst part-time jobs?

February 9, 2010

This weekend while waiting in line at the Don Quijote store in Kailua, I flashed back to my days as a part-time supermarket cashier in New Jersey. Since the “Donkey” checkers (their store nickname, not mine) are perhaps the slowest cashiers in all of Hawaii, I had plenty of time to reminisce about the wide variety of jobs I held as a kid and high school student.

Back in the 60s, even small children were expected to do chores in exchange for an allowance. Boys who were old enough to ride a bike, would often get a newspaper route. In winter, you could make a buck shoveling snow for neighbors. And of course, there was the summertime lemonade stand (in our case, we also shilled our old books and toys — my sister is still pissed I sold her “Easy Weaver” loom for a quarter).

Today’s kids don’t seem to have the same opportunities to experience capitalism in the raw. They’re too busy with homework and video games, or their parents supervise everything they do, including sports activities. So is it any wonder young people seem ill-equipped to deal with the real world when they get their first jobs now?

As a 10-year-old, I learned about responsibility and basic bookkeeping from having a small paper route. I also learned how to avoid nasty dogs, and when it was best to collect from nasty customers. Tips were earned, not expected.

By age 12, I moved up to sales. I was part of a crew that went town-to-town hawking newspaper subscriptions under the guise of a contest. The boys who got the most new orders would win a trip to Cape Kennedy! In reality, we got paid a commission for each subscription. Since I was a cute little hapa kid, I did well. But I felt a twinge of guilt whenever I signed up an elderly half-blind woman, who thought she was helping me get a chance to see a rocket launch.

In high school, I got a job as a dishwasher at a nursing home. Sometimes I had to vacuum the halls or retrieve food carts from patients’ rooms, and I’d witness feeble, senile old men banging their hands and heads against their mush-laden trays. That sort of thing makes you face your own mortality. It made me want to live for the present, and I swore I’d die before I ever got that old.

But I also met young nurse’s aides there, who I flirted with — and the matronly ladies in the kitchen were Studs Terkel characters in their own right. Despite the smell of old people and impending death in the adjoining hallways, it wasn’t all bad. Still, I was happy to move on to another job working with black foster kids from a lower income area during my senior year… I should explain why I was working during high school, I suppose.

I asked my parents to send me to a Catholic high school because the public high school wasn’t very good, and I wanted to get into a decent college. However, it was a little expensive to go to St. John Vianney in upscale Holmdel. I told my folks I’d work part-time to help pay the tuition. SJV also ran an after-school program for disadvantaged children, which is how I became a tutor and babysitter to a pack of rambunctious 10 to 12-year-old boys who called me a “honky” whenever they were upset with my rules. (In my defense, little Charlie stuck out his chest and told the others: “Rich ain’t no honky. He E-talian!”)

It was an experience that made me briefly consider teaching as a career. Very briefly. Their emotional needs were so great, and it was frustrating knowing there was so little I could do to help them once they left the center. Quite honestly, I don’t know how teachers do it.

I left that job for better pay as a supermarket cashier at a Shop-Rite store in Matawan… Which brings me to my next blog post on how I nearly strangled myself while checking groceries one day, and my nominations for best and worst store cashiers in Hawaii.

So what was your worst (or best) part-time job growing up? And do you think it’s true that today’s kids are missing out by not working part-time jobs?

Winning Ugly: The Three R’s

February 5, 2010

No, I don’t mean reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. I’m referring to Brad Gilbert’s keys to “Winning Ugly,” a book about tennis. Yes, tennis. Brad is best known for being a scrappy player who went on to become Andre Agassi’s coach and is now an ESPN tennis commentator.

I’ve always believed that sports can offer valuable lessons for succeeding in life and the business world. But the best thing about sports is most players will get to learn by failing many times. Even the very best tennis players will lose points in a game, or games in a set before winning a match. What distinguishes champions from average players is how they handle those mini-losses and make adjustments.

The three R’s that Brad Gilbert discusses in his book are meant to be practiced after every point played, regardless of whether you won or lost that point…

Release: Let your emotions out so you’re not thinking about the last point too long. It’s done, let it go.

• Review: Reflect briefly on what you did, and make a mental adjustment.

• Reset: Focus on now. Play one point at a time. Concentrate on the positive things you CAN do. Don’t dwell on prior mistakes.

Yet we have all had “bad” days when even those steps don’t seem to help our game. So what do you do then?

Well, cheat… okay, you shouldn’t actually cheat. Sometimes though, you have to get into your opponent’s head by doing the unexpected. For instance, I’m not a serve-and-volley type player — however, when my groundstrokes are sailing long or I’m mishitting a lot of balls from the baseline, I’ll start coming to the net just to get my feet moving. I often will blow easy volleys, but I find that if I put just one shot away it can change my mindset.

So if your job hunt is not going well, or your business is struggling, take a tip from Brad: release… review… reset. Then do something different or unexpected to change things up. You might just surprise yourself!

Today’s sports-related link: David Brooks, a conservative NY Times columnist, has an interesting piece about the role of sports in ethics training. He discusses an essay by a Duke professor that traces the evolution of sports from the Greeks (individual athletic feats) to Romans (state-sponsored spectacles, Lions vs. Christians blood matches) and the British tradition (civilized team play emphasizing sportsmanship). Prof. Gillespie says big-time college sports have reverted back to the Roman model. What do you think?

Here’s the article link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/05/opinion/05brooks.html?emc=eta1

Politics: Failure to Communicate

February 3, 2010

Why is it Americans are so generous when responding to foreign disasters such as the Haiti crisis… yet when it comes to helping poor people in our own country, so many turn a deaf ear to pleas for health care reform?

Thousands of people die each year in the U.S. because they don’t have insurance, or can’t afford health care in the current profit-driven system. Over 40 million have no insurance, which places more burden on emergency services that the rest of us wind up indirectly paying for.

But to listen to G.O.P. legislators, Fox News, and Teabag Party factions, we don’t need no stinking “ObamaCare” programs to help rectify that situation. Remember, many of these right-wing conservatives opposed Medicare too when it was first proposed and their hero, Ronald Reagan, came out against it. Now these same anti-everything forces say, “Don’t you dare touch my Medicare!”

Maybe we need to have a big star-studded charity fundraiser to provide better health care for America’s poor and uninsured, just like they did for Haiti last month.

Unfortunately, politicians and media are pandering to the angry mob mentality that looks for scapegoats to blame the recession on. In reality, it was eight years of Bush/G.O.P. tax cuts for the wealthy, reckless economic policies and the foolish invasion of Iraq that put us in this mess.

Yet you have to hand it to the Republicans for the way they sold the public on their agenda. They repeated 9/11 over and over to convince Americans that WMDs in Iraq were a threat to us. No WMDs were ever found. They kept insisting that tax cuts for rich people would trickle down to the middle class. Didn’t happen under Reagan, didn’t happen under Bush. They said less regulation of banks and corporations was good for the economy — well, it was great for greedy bankers and Wall Street wheeler-dealers, who cashed in while the real estate bubble was about to burst.

Make no mistake, ordinary, average Americans were equally to blame for going along with the “majority” who elected Bush/Cheney. The problem is liberals, progressives and Dems haven’t learned how to sell their reforms to the public. They have failed to communicate basic, primal messages:

– Conservatives and Republicans had eight years to do things their way. And they FAILED miserably by their own admission!

– Health care costs are out of control and bankrupting average Americans — again, because nothing was done in the past eight years to fix the problem. Another example of FAILED G.O.P. POLICIES.

– The Conservative/Republican/Tea Party mantra of “Just Say No” to reform is their self-fulfilling prophecy that “Big Government” doesn’t work — first they screw up the economy, fail to fix things while they’re in control, then say: “See! Government is the problem!” Yep, the government THEY were running.

Sadly, I have little faith in the current crop of Dem politicians — locally or nationally. They don’t seem to have the guts or backbone to plainly state problems, offer common sense solutions, or stand up for basic civil rights such as gay marriage. They let fear of a public backlash rule them, instead of leading the way and educating those who are misinformed or just ignorant.

I say we should treat elected officials the same as business CEOs: pay more to attract the best qualified leaders, judge them on results and fire inept officials. That’s how it works in the real world.

End of rant. Got something to say? Post it here… after all, politics and government ARE career choices!

Today’s takeway thought for politicians: In recovery and 12 Step programs, they say “FEAR” stands for “False Expectations Appearing Real.”

Grow a spine, Democrat leaders!