Archive for September 2010

New Versus Old “Hawaii Five-O” Thoughts

September 22, 2010

The reboot seems to be getting generally good reviews, and here in Hawaii it’s practically heresy to badmouth a local production with such a strong connection to the past because of the iconic theme song and Jack Lord’s stoic character. Plus, we loved seeing all the aunties and uncles in background shots and it was fun to identify real places that were pretending to be other locations.

Sorry to say this, but I was underwhelmed by the premier episode and had some bones to pick with the directing/editing choices made… and those criticisms apply to many other contemporary TV series and movies. I’m not a fan of all the EXTREME CLOSE-UPS on big widescreen high-definition TVs or in films. I hate the ADHD editing of action scenes in which you can’t even tell who’s hitting who or what’s happening (conversely, I’m tired of the slow-motion Matrix “bullet-time” gimmicks too). And for some reason, it seems a lot of the new TV series have to employ flashbacks within flashbacks or other time-jumping tricks that get annoying. As my wife says, “Just tell the damn story!” The last bit was directed at the pilot of The Event, which seems to be part Lost, part Flash Forward, part V I’m guessing from the hints that we are not alone.

I just did a separate post on the rebooted Hawaii Five-O on my Honolulu Star-Advertiser website blog, so if you want to read more of my ramblings on that topic, please click here

What say you? Thumbs up or down on the new Five-O or The Event?


Locations, Part 2

September 15, 2010

Picking up where I left off, location does matter somewhat when it comes to being a professional screenwriter. But great writing trumps all other “rules” or concerns. The system is designed to cull the weak and the lazy from the herd. Your job is to be creative enough to overcome whatever obstacles are put in front of you. That’s what real writers do.

Getting back to the controversial blog post by a former TV staff writer/contest judge that ignited a slew of heated threads on message boards, she made another location-related statement that even produced screenwriters scoffed at: she said writers should set their stories in major metro areas like San Francisco… where, coincidentally, my finalist script from the contest she judged last year was set. I don’t have the exact quote handy from her post, but I think she was advising against using obscure places that audiences wouldn’t relate to, or would increase production costs if you had to shoot on location.

Which raises a good point, regardless of whether you agree or not: the setting you choose can make or break a story. It can serve as inspiration for you when you hit the wall and need to go deeper. You can research that locale, mentally wander the backstreets and alleys until you find your “aha!” moment for a scene or plot twist. But there are practical considerations as well that you must address. For instance, the aforementioned script of mine set in San Francisco, was actually based on a true life murder of a Japanese fortune teller in a luxury Honolulu skyrise. The original version — which was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival and quarterfinalist in the Nicholl Fellowships — was set in Hawaii and featured mostly local Asian-Hawaiian-chop suey mix characters…

And that was a problem for agents/producers. While the exotic island backdrop was a plus in screenwriting contests, the lack of “American” roles (white people) immediately became a negative for Hollywood readers. Sure, if you cast the right A-list actor or actress, you might be able to overcome that objection if your cast is predominately non-white. But it’s awfully tough. The other reason I changed the location to S.F. was  that I was unable to get any prominent producers or talent from Hawaii to even look at the script. It seemed that once I changed the locale to the mainland, I got more reads and interest.

Locations can play an integral role in TV series too. I’m still kicking myself for missing an opportunity to cash in on Las Vegas. Back around 1994, way before CSI or other series set in Sin City were on the air, I got a call from a music producer friend who was living with one of the Pointer Sisters in her Beverly Hills mansion. They wanted to go into TV, so we spit-balled ideas. I came up with Vegas Dreams. The concept was the sisters were an “older” musical act still trying to break into show biz, keeping their dream alive by singing in seedy Vegas dives and lounges. During the day, they worked in a Vegas pawn shop, where people who were worse off than them came out of desperation. Of course, the kind-hearted sisters would get involved with the hard luck stories, and that would dovetail into their ongoing quest to headline a big casino show.

The reason I chose Vegas was I could see what was happening there — bigger and more fantastic mega-resorts were springing up left and right, while just a few blocks away you could see that for many of the residents who lived and worked there, life was harsh. It was the classic illusions versus reality conflict that could make for interesting drama and comedy. But my friend and the Pointer Sisters didn’t respond to the pitch, and preferred another idea I had (which went nowhere).  Back then, Vegas was still sort of a joke to most Hollywood people. People from Hawaii love gambling, however, and my wife and I got hooked on going to Vegas on low-cost package trips before it became the hot place it is now.

What I failed to see is the possibility of doing a reality-based series set in Sin City. Around the same time, I was doing research on pawn shops because a guy I knew was working part-time in one and it sounded pretty interesting. I saw all kinds of potential for TV stories involving the objects that were being pawned, and why the characters were forced to pawn their most treasured possessions. When the Pointer Sisters passed on Vegas Dreams though, I shelved the idea.

Flash forward, and CSI comes along in the year 2000. They tap into the illusion versus gritty reality theme, high rollers and lowlifes rubbing elbows or rubbing each other out. Three years later, the series Las Vegas debuts (never watched it). But the one that really gave me a sick feeling in my gut was when Pawn Stars started airing last year… sheesh, why didn’t I think of scrapping my fictional Vegas Dreams plot, and going with a reality approach? Sigh.

Now I’m working on a new reality TV series concept. Set on a cruise ship that travels to exotic destinations… with a dating show angle, pitting computer match services versus human match-makers. Stay tuned for more details in future posts!

Location, Location, Location

September 8, 2010

Among my failed attempts at careers unrelated to writing, was a three year stint in real estate. I got my license just after the market in Hawaii had reached its peak, largely driven by Japanese buyers who set off a frenzy of selling and flipping properties in the late 1980s. Around 1990 the bubble burst in Japan, and prices deflated just as I was trying to build up my clientele list. The company I worked for was Locations, Inc., which took its name from the old saying that the three most important things in real estate are: location, location, location.

I was still selling real estate in 1994 when I optioned my first screenplay and won a scholarship to attend the American Film Institute TV Writers Workshop at their L.A. campus. After I accepted my $1,000 check from AFI President Jean Firstenberg, I told the assembled Emmy-award winning writers who were going to be our mentors during the month-long program that there were great deals in Hawaii if any of them were looking to buy a vacation home. They laughed, and Jean commented that their goal was to get me out of real estate and into the TV business. It didn’t quite work out that way.

At the time, I didn’t think it was necessary for me to be in L.A. to succeed as a screenwriter. I had made connections through the University of Hawaii screenwriting workshops, and contests — including the one that got me into the AFI program (more on that later). However, I should have set up meetings with agents and managers while I was there to take advantage of my association with the AFI and the option I had just signed. I had no idea how difficult it would be to get repped once I returned to Hawaii.

Years later, after I quit real estate to focus on screenwriting, my optioned script was dead in the water,  and I had no agent or manager. Then I got  a major case of writer’s envy when I read that Lizzy Weiss was credited with co-writing BLUE CRUSH, a movie about surfer girls on Oahu’s North Shore — my side of the island! She was one of the ten writers in my AFI writers workshop group. Lizzy grew up in California, went to New York University film school, then returned to L.A. after the workshop. From what I recall reading, she worked at MTV and that eventually led to her selling her first script.

Meanwhile, I had written scripts set in Hawaii that involved local legends and folklore, which did well in contests but weren’t getting much interest from producers or agents. Had I moved to L.A. or made more business trips there, perhaps things would have turned out differently. But I love Hawaii, and the month I spent on Franklin Avenue staying in the aptly-named Mirage Hotel convinced me I wasn’t cut out for that scene.

Eventually, I did sign with a Hollywood manager who liked my family/adventure script about the mythical little people of Hawaii, called the Menehune. Her name was Cathryn Jaymes, and she was semi-famous for being Quentin Tarintino’s manager for 10 years before he dumped her to sign with a William Morris agent — that she introduced him to. CJ also repped a martial arts actor named Mark Dacascos, who was from Hawaii (he’s the Chairman on Iron Chef America and was on Dancing With the Stars). She was looking for projects set in the islands that Mark could be in, so my home address helped in that instance.

The downside was it was difficult maintaining a long distance relationship with a manager via emails and occasional phone calls. Agents and managers like to set up meetings for their clients. CJ’s house in Studio City was also a place where Tarantino and his original writing partners used to hang out. For a writer like me, being out of sight was being out of mind when she was having lunch with people like Guillermo Del Toro or chatting on the phone with Oliver Stone. Before she passed away earlier this year, she admitted to me that it was tough for her to rep writers who weren’t in L.A. Then again, maybe my scripts just weren’t good enough. The thing is I don’t know what her contacts thought because I never got direct feedback from the people she supposedly sent my stuff to. Out of sight, out of mind.

Anyhow, the reason I’m writing about this is the subject of location came up in the recent controversy over a blog comment made by someone who used to judge scripts for one of the bigger screenwriting contests. She flippantly asserted that if the writer’s address on the title page wasn’t in L.A. or New York, she might dismiss the script right off the bat because that person had no chance of breaking into the biz if they didn’t live where the action was. Perhaps, she was being facetious or exaggerating things, but it was a dumb thing to say… except, there was some truth to it. The blogger/contest judge had worked on staff for a TV series, and the reality is you pretty much have to be living in L.A. or New York if you want to work in television. If you want to write movies, pitching and taking meetings to get assignments for studio projects is another reality. And those meetings happen in Hollywood.

Yes, there are exceptions and specs sell from time to time by writers who wouldn’t be caught dead in LaLaLand. But if you’re young or can afford to make the move, and are convinced that you have what it takes to work in television or the film industry, there’s only one way to find out for sure if you can cut it: put yourself in a position to maximize your chances of success. Be there.

Yet there is another way to make location work for you. Write something extraordinary about a real or fictional place that resonates with readers, no matter where they live or work. Then use your local connections — many states have film offices and some have their own screenwriting contests to promote that state as a potential movie location. The indie movie, SUNSHINE CLEANING, got discovered through a Virginia-based screenwriting competition.

Which brings me to my last point related to contests. On other screenwriting message boards, I keep reading comments by wannabe writers who say it’s not worth entering anything but the big ones like the Nicholl Fellowships or Austin Film Festival. That’s bull. If you think your script is good enough to beat out 5,000 other entries, why wouldn’t it be good enough to win money or prizes in contests that “only” get 200 to 500 entries? Moreover, some of the better small contests have agents, managers and producers reading the finalists. And then there are ones like the AFI contest I entered that got me into the TV Writers Workshop.

For that one, you had to write an Afterschool Special, which are now extinct. But back then, a number of Emmy winners got their start writing and directing those hour long drama/comedies that were actually geared to stay-at-home moms — not kids. In 1994, Kurt Cobain killed himself and MTV was still popular among young people, so I wrote my version of an Aftershool Special that dealt with depression, alcoholism, addiction and suicide. Some of the AFI people thought it could have been a good movie… and had I stayed in L.A., who knows. Maybe it would have happened. But I have no regrets… I live in Hawaii, after all.