Archive for August 2010

Doll Movies and What They Say About Us

August 24, 2010

Took me awhile, but I finally saw LARS AND THE REAL GIRL… and loved it. The reason it was so low on my Netflix queue is because I have a dirty mind. By now, you probably know the premise: a painfully shy introvert finds love with a life-sized sex doll. And there’s the rub. I assumed the movie would involve lots of tawdry innuendo or have him consummating his fantasy affair with the doll.

I figured this would not be the sort of fare my wife would enjoy. She’s no prude, but neither of us are into raunchy sex comedies. Yet LARS isn’t about sex. His relationship with the doll is chaste and respectful. The script by Nancy Oliver does a masterful job of avoiding the obvious gags you might expect to see, and went in a completely different direction than I thought it would.

Although Lars’s brother reacts the way most normal people would, the script and actors make it seem perfectly plausible that the brother’s wife and others would go along with the shrink’s suggestion that they pretend the doll is real. If Lars is mentally ill, it’s possible the doll can be a tool to uncover what it is that makes him so fearful of human contact and real relationships. The people in the small town snicker at first or shake their heads in disbelief… and then they accept the doll as one of their own, since they like Lars and care about him.

Now, this is where I have mixed feelings about the story. It moved me to see these ordinary folks going out of their way to treat Lars and his doll with such kindness. (If you haven’t seen it, I won’t give away the ending — just rent it and see for yourself, okay?)

But afterwards, I realized what was unreal is the notion that most Americans are a tolerant, understanding people who embrace weirdos and those who are “different.” We want to believe that’s still true of us. Sadly, all you have to do is turn on the news and watch the overt demonstrations of hatred and intolerance that are happening daily throughout the country. If Lars was gay, black, Mexican or a Muslim, he would have been run out of town with the doll jammed halfway up his you-know-what.

Credit the writer though for making me feel a bit less cynical for a little while, anyway. I wasn’t familiar with Nancy Oliver’s work, so I checked her IMDB credits. As it happens, she used to write for SIX FEET UNDER, a Showtime series I really liked. Hope she writes more movies — we need more un-Hollywood stories that are inventive and different.

I too wrote a script involving a doll that a character believes is a living being — or at least that’s what the protag thinks. The original version was completed over 10 years ago and did well in the contest circuit. Producers were interested in it. There was just one problem, and it circles back to my earlier criticism of the American public: it involves Muslim characters, and that scared away potential investors.

Here’s the logline for THE DOLL (a.k.a., DOLL KILLER and VEIL OF DECEIT): An aspiring actress is hired by a wealthy Muslim woman to be a nanny — to a life-like baby doll. Then the seemingly-crazy woman accuses her of killing the REAL baby, and the girl must use her acting skills to elude police until she can find out why she was framed for murder.

The answers involve religion, cultural differences and abortion. Readers compared it to THE SPANISH PRISONER crossed with a female FUGITIVE. Contest judges like Christopher Vogler (author of The Writer’s Journey) and Andy Fickman (produced ANACONDA, directed RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN) really dug it. Andy even told me he thought it was “wicked-weird” and asked me to call him when he got back to L.A. from the Maui Writers Conference, where my script came in second place in that contest. But Andy never called back.

The first draft was written before 9/11 happened. I shelved it for a few years because I recognized that audiences might not be ready for a movie in which Muslims play a major role. The thing was, I portrayed them as flawed humans with the same desires and needs as anyone else. They weren’t terrorists or anti-American fundamentalists. A writer I knew who has sold scripts, asked a film critic from the Washington Post what she thought about my premise and she was blunt: forget it, because Muslims will condemn any movie that shows them in a negative light. She had received death threats simply for reviewing films that involved Muslims or the Islamic religion.

So I had unwittingly chose a topic and characters that were destined to draw flak from both Christians and Muslims. Still, it’s won awards and been a finalist in a bunch of screenwriting contests. Currently, it’s a Top 20 semifinalist (out of a thousand entries) in the Silver Contest. I’ve had five different contest judges, who are producers or work in the movie biz, tell me they personally were interested in trying to get it made. Each time though, they later got back to me and said, “Sorry… the financing isn’t there for this project.”

If you’d like to read it, contact me and I’ll email you a pdf copy of the script. Hey, if LARS AND THE REAL GIRL could be made, why not THE DOLL?

MOSQUE CONTROVERSY ADDENDUM: Sheesh, I completely forgot why I wrote this post! As a former New Yorker who lived in Manhattan before moving to Hawaii, it saddens me to see a city comprised of so many immigrants, caving in to the hate-mongerers (i.e., Fox News and its audience).

Their anti-mosque argument is silly if you think about it. Logically, would Muslim terrorists be more inclined to attack a city that bans mosques and persecutes Muslims… or a city that embraces Muslims and allows them to practice their religion — the same way we allow Jews, Buddhists and 57 varieties of Christianity to worship however they want to?

Moreover, it would be stupid for Muslim terrorists to attack a city where there are mosques and peaceful Muslims! Doesn’t anyone remember how the world — including most Muslims — condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which also killed Muslims?

BTW, in the last episode of MAD MEN, one of the partners objected to pitching the Honda account because he still viewed the Japanese as the “enemy” even though WWII had ended some 20 years earlier. Perhaps, Fox News would like to revive hatred of that enemy as well.

“Mad Men” and Other Ad Tales

August 3, 2010

From the start, I was a big fan of the Mad Men series on AMC. Although it was set in the 60s when I was still in grade school, I could relate to that time period. It also reminded me of New York City in the go-go 80s when liquid lunches and heavy boozing after work were kind of a throwback to the business world depicted in Mad Men. Plus, I almost wound up working for a top ad agency in NYC, not unlike the ones Don Draper was competing with for accounts.

Life comes full circle in unexpected ways sometimes. Today, a phone chat I had with an inventor in Hawaii for my Career Changers TV show, which I produce for a local cable channel, led to a discussion about two writers from the Mad Men series that we both had met at screenwriting workshops held at the University of Hawaii. His story shows how networking and a little chutzpah can lead to book and TV deals.

Since he doesn’t want to go public on the TV stuff yet (and I may be working with him on those projects), we’ll call him “Don.” Anyhow, when Don got my email requesting an interview about his inventions, he checked my CCTV website bio and Googled my name to see if it was worth his time to grant me an interview (he’s been doing national TV and radio shows, so he can be picky). He saw that I was a screenwriter, which opened the door for him to talk about other things he’s been working on.

Don said he took the UH screenwriting workshop with Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, the Mad Men writers, because he had a true life love story he wanted to pitch to them. Part of the workshop is pitching your TV series concept, so Don figured they might be interested in his movie idea even though their background was television. Before Mad Men, the married couple wrote for a number of series, including Baywatch Hawaii, which is why they continue to do the UH workshops.

Well, Andre and Maria loved Don’s pitch. They collaborated on a TV series proposal, but nothing came of it. When I last spoke to the Jacquemettons a couple of years ago, they were on the verge of selling their own TV series, which I believe was set in Canada where they live. In all likelihood, they probably just got too busy with other projects to devote much time to selling Don’s series idea.

However, he didn’t take it personally or let that stop him from developing other ideas for TV and movies. He’s an inventor. And he likes to collaborate. So he found a published book author to help him write a book, which is now out. He also has a great idea for a kids TV series that I hope to work with him on.

All of this is happening for me because instead of complaining about my scripts not selling, I decided to produce a local TV show about changing careers and finding your calling. Yet it brought me back to the very thing I want to do: create TV series for a national audience and make movies.

Another coincidence involving the Mad Men writers and my little TV show is that the two Honolulu daily newspapers merged recently, which resulted in many staffers getting the boot. I contacted one of them, Charley Memminger, who has won national awards for humor writing, and asked if he’d like to do some on-camera stuff to lighten up the show. He said, sure, and we’ve been having fun with those humor segments. Charley also knows Marie and Andre from working with them on the Baywatch Hawii series — and he got that gig thanks to a screenwriting contest.

The Maui Writers Conference used to be one of the better screenwriting competitions because the finalists were read by working producers, agents and managers. Ten years ago, Charley’s comedy script placed first. My suspense screenplay took second place. The manager who ran the contest got a request from the producers of Baywatch Hawaii asking if he knew any writers on Oahu, who could add some authentic local flavor and laughs. Charley got the gig, and was paid well to work on a half dozen episodes… which never got aired. The show was canceled. But Andre and Maria would subsequently get a call from an old friend, Matt Weiner, who had showed them his a few script years earlier for a TV series about ad guys in the 60s, which they really dug.

It’s all about making personal connections, then staying in touch with those contacts. Where it goes or how it plays out, you never know. But that’s why you enter contests, sign up for workshops, pitch ideas to whoever will listen, and do whatever it takes to stay in the game. You must have the mindset of an inventor.

Bonus link: Interesting NY Times article on why MAD MEN has struck a chord with the public and critics alike… “The Allure of Messy Lives.”

Ad Agency Addendum: After college, a friend whose dad was a high level exec at Grey Advertising, helped get me an interview there as a copywriter. The dad took me to lunch and after a few drinks, offered to help me by “borrowing” some of their TV commercial scripts for major clients. He suggested I write some sample commercials that were similar to those…

But when I met with the head copywriter she looked them over and said, “They’re good — except they sound too much like the stuff we already do. I like this one though,” she said, pointing to a script that was totally my own concept. I didn’t get the job. Had I stayed true to my own ideas, today I might be working on Madison Avenue, instead of writing screenplays in Hawaii and blogging about “Mad Men.”