Archive for February 2012

Infinite Quest: Travel Reads

February 21, 2012

David Foster Wallace was born today, Feb. 21, 1962. He committed suicide Sept. 12, 2008. Prior to his death, I had read pieces by him that I liked and saved (before I “knew” who DFW was) such as the NY Times Sunday Magazine article he wrote about tennis great Roger Federer. I didn’t realize at the time it was by the same author who wrote about a father working as a bathroom attendant, with graphic descriptions of the sounds and smells that were part of the work atmosphere (“Brief Interviews With Hideous Men”). Where the Federer essay was filled with allusions to physics and athletic grace, the meditation on daily restroom scenes showed a kind of ugly beauty in bodily functions… well, at least as far as the words go.

I should clarify that I had heard of DFW years ago since I read book reviews, and more than one person suggested I read “Infinite Jest” because I was writing a newspaper column about addictions while pitching a TV series idea called REHAB. They told me it was about addictions to drugs, alcohol and a new type of video entertainment. It also involved tennis, and I later learned that DFW was an accomplished tennis player, which explains his admiration of Federer’s game. But when I took one look at how big the book was — over 1,000 pages! — and found out it included extensive footnotes, I kept putting off reading it. It sat unopened on my desk for a long, long time after an aborted attempt to get through the first 30 pages.

So in preparation for my vacation trip to Australia, I decided “Infinite Jest” would be the only book I bought with me. We were going to be attending quarterfinal matches of the Australian Tennis Open, and there was a good possibility we might see Federer play. (As it turned out, we didn’t see Roger’s match, but got to see Rafa Nadal and Novac Djokovic win their QF matches). The deeper subject of depression and addictions has always been of interest to me since I’m a recovering addict with borderline manic depressive type symptoms. I suppose that’s probably true for many writers out there. Plus, it was a 10 hour flight from Honolulu to Sydney, which meant that if I got bored with the book, it might help me sleep.

I tried, really tried to “get” it. But it just felt like work for me to keep track of who’s who and what was going on. Yes, it’s supposed to be challenging, and I like irony, especially satirical irony, and I appreciate writers who dare to be different. However, when you need to carry around separate bookmarks for footnoted sections and the main story, while flipping back to prior sections to pick up plot/character threads, I dunno… it just didn’t seem worth the effort. I mean, I liked parts of it, and loved some of the ideas. Yet much of it felt like I was reading the work of a pretentious university student who was showing how smart he was. In other words, it reminded me of the kind of stuff I would have liked to have written when I was younger and more ambitious. The drugs, the radio talk shows, the riffs on the advertising world and sports. It’s the kind of book that’s more fun to talk about than to actually read.

And yet, here I am, wanting to pick it up again after thinking about it a little. That’s what addiction is, isn’t it? When I read his passages on a character’s suffering from depression, it was impossible not to think about his own struggles and suicide. It was difficult for me not to reflect on the drug overdose death of my longtime AA sponsor, who was bipolar and addicted to prescription meds. I also could relate to the sections that involved tennis and what motivates athletes to compete on a higher level — the way he describes it, sports becomes more work than joy… more about the fear of losing and self-image than competing. That’s how I felt about playing high school football. Even now, when I play tennis against my wife, I often forget it’s supposed to be fun because I’m so intent on proving myself.

In a sense, I think writers get caught up in the same mindset: we feel as if our “success” as writers is what will define us in the end — and that’s the joke, I guess. We can invent our own fictional worlds, alter public perception of who we are by what we write, but time and reality still takes its toll on us all, no matter how much you achieve. You could be Federer or a bathroom attendant, David Foster Wallace or an unknown, uncelebrated blogger like me. It doesn’t matter. You can laugh or cry about it. I choose to smirk at our infinite quest for meaning.

I wish I could have gotten to know David Foster Wallace and talked to him about the nature of addiction, the futility of our existence, and the sad, sorry state of the human condition. It could have been interesting. Perhaps even fun. I would have loved getting out on the tennis court and hitting balls with him. Maybe swap stories about crazy ass stuff we did while drunk or high. Then chat about the next crazy idea for a book or movie we were working on.

In lieu of that, I guess I’ll just have to pick up “Infinite Jest” and take another crack at it. The mark of a great writer is they always leave you wanting more.

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Timeliness

February 14, 2012

Most of my ideas for TV or movie projects are inspired by actual events or people I read about in newspapers and magazine articles. The twists I add usually come from either some personal connection to the subject matter, or playing the “what if” game that combines elements from two different, seemingly-unrelated stories.

But the news angle doesn’t stop there for me. As a former journalist and marketing professional, I’ve always tried to tie my pitches into today’s headlines, while anticipating what might be trending tomorrow. The problem though is you will often find that the people you are pitching to are more interested in what’s doing well right now at the box office, and your idea might be ahead of its time. Then a few years go by, and you see a new movie/TV series or book come out, which is similar in concept because other writers were inspired by the same news item or event… and they stuck with it, while you (or your agent/manager) felt you should shelve your draft if it didn’t get any traction.

Sure, I agree you should move on to new projects if your work is getting passed on when it first goes out. However, as a veteran screenwriter once told me, good screenplays or books are like real estate. Just because it didn’t sell right away, does not mean it won’t sell later depending on what’s currently hot in the marketplace. Sometimes you can find a new, timely angle that can transform a fixer-upper into a property with great potential.

I’ll give you a personal example. When Whitney Houston died, my first reaction was sadness. As a recovering alcoholic. who did copious amounts of cocaine in the ’80s and smoked a lot of grass in the ’70s during my college days, I’m no stranger to substance abuse. I also party’d with a number of talented musicians in NYC when I was hanging out at jazz clubs in the Village. Whitney’s mom, Cissy Houston, used to perform at Seventh Avenue South, my home away from work. It was owned by the Brecker Brothers, well known jazz artists in their own right, and frequented by members of Dave Letterman’s house band, along with guys from the Saturday Night Live orchestra. I remember seeing a black and white flyer posted on the SOS door announcing the appearance of Cissy’s daughter, Whitney. She looked so young and cute. Although I didn’t go to that gig, I heard she was great — high praise coming from a tough crowd that was accustomed to seeing the best jazz talent in the world perform on that small stage upstairs.

After I moved to Hawaii in 1985, it didn’t surprise me her career blew up big time. But it never occurred to me that I’d meet someone who was related to Whitney here on Oahu. As it happened, I wound up doing a little freelance copywriting for James Arceneaux. In prior blog posts, I’ve recounted how he went into the music biz, then became Eddie Murphy’s personal assistant. Over the years, we’ve collaborated on a few ideas for TV series and movies. Anyway, James never made a big deal about it, but had told me Dionne Warwick was his aunt. Dionne’s cousin is Cissy Houston, so he’s also distantly related to Whitney. He had a much more direct connection to her though. James moved to L.A., where he lived with Anita Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters) in her Beverly Hills mansion. At the time, he was one of Bobby Brown’s managers.

Since I was working on TV pitches for him and Anita, I sent them my REHAB series idea. He said Anita was especially interested in that one because her younger sister, June, had a drug problem. James asked if I would be willing to talk to June about my rehab experience. I said, yes, of course. But she never called. Around the same time, James told me that Whitney’s drug problems were creating problems in regards to Bobby Brown’s career. I thought I was hearing things, because Bobby was the one with the bad rep — not Whitney. In time, news reports would confirm everything James told me off the record years before it became public knowledge.

Eventually, I wrote a bible for REHAB that was shopped around briefly to a few studios. The small prodco that was taking it into meetings said the studios were only interested if I could turn it into a reality TV series, the hot new trend back then. I told them that would be difficult because of anonymity issues with treatment centers, which is why I presented it as a scripted drama/comedy series that would be “ripped from the headlines”… those headlines would include Whitney’s arrest in Hawaii for possession of marijuana, along with other famous entertainers who were in and out of rehab.

In the subsequent years that pitch was sitting in my desk drawer, I saw reality TV series such as A&E’s Intervention and VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew become solid hits for those channels. I’ve seen scripted medical dramas come and go. I saw Breaking Bad score big with dark comedy about drugs and addiction… and I kept thinking, sooner or later, someone will either make my REHAB series or greenlight something just like what I had in mind.

So when Whitney’s death and history of drug problems hit the airwaves this past week, I took a chance and emailed an updated version of my REHAB pitch to one of the big agencies. Less than an hour later I received a reply from an agent in their television division saying he was “definitely interested” and would be reading my bible this week. Will anything come of it? I don’t know. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you believe in the core concept of your project, don’t give up on it. Markets and attitudes towards the topic material can change with the zeitgeist. You may think I was being opportunistic or you can accuse me of trying to cash in on a personal tragedy. The way I see it is my TV series could help troubled souls by showing them there is life after sobriety. In Whitney’s case, I think her real addiction was to fame.

Design Inspiration

February 6, 2012

It’s hard to tell in the photo above (click to enlarge) but that’s actually part of the famous Sydney Opera House in the background. The short bald guy in the foreground is me, looking out towards the harbor while reflecting on the story behind the iconic structure… which is really quite inspiring. During our two-week visit to Oz, my wife and I had many wonderful experiences — a ghost tour of The Rocks in an old section of Sydney, seeing Nadal and Djokovic play in the  Australian Tennis Open (separately in their respective quarterfinals matches, not the epic five-set finals they played) which was in Melbourne, snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef up by Cairns (pronounced “Cans” for reasons no one could explain), feeding wallabies and petting koalas at a wildlife park, and so on. But the guided tour of the Sydney Opera House stands out most in my memories of our trip.

To begin with, it wasn’t what I imagined from photos I’ve seen before. I was always under the impression that the “shells” were smooth white surfaces. As you get closer though, you see it’s more like ivory or an off white shade, and if you squint hard at the picture you’ll see the surface is actually composed of many small tiles that form geometric patterns and are in different shades of white, forming designs within the structural design… which is ambiguous too. To me, they always looked like seashells. To others, they resemble sails — which makes sense for a couple of reasons: the opera house is on the water, surrounded by sailing vessels, and the designer’s father was a shipbuilder. In fact, Danish architect Jørn Utzon said parts of the interior were meant to be similar to the bows of ships and you can see that clearly when you stroll around inside the opera house.

But supposedly Utzon said the basic concept came from peeling an orange and taking apart the segments. He did some rough sketches and entered them in a contest that received a little over 200 submissions. Most of those were polished architectural drawings that were very detailed. But Utzon’s entry was so different it stood out among the more conventional designs and approaches. No one was sure how it would be constructed — or even if it could be built. Yet his radical/graceful/controversial vision was so unique that he was given the commission despite the lack of specifics in his initial plans.

When was the last time you heard a pitch for a movie or book that made you feel the same way? Something that would inspire others to champion the concept and risk their careers on making that idea into reality… and then motivate those involved to keep going every time they encountered obstacles or naysayers. That’s Act 2 of the story. The cost estimates were miscalculated or intentionally low-balled to get approval, and of course it cost much more to build than was anticipated because of the unique design elements. Inside, the materials used were mostly natural and selected for their acoustical properties. To pay for it all, the Aussies came up with a creative financing approach: they ran a lottery to raise the funds needed.

But due to delays and conflicts, Utzon eventually left the project before it was finished and never returned to see the completed Sydney Opera House in person. Think about how sad that must have been for him and those who were close to Utzon. But, hold on… there’s the “fake” ending in every story, and the “real” ending that leads to the resolution. In this case, after years went by, there was a reconciliation of sorts. Utzon never returned to Australia, but was asked to resume work on the opera house because it’s still a work in progress. Some things he wanted to do originally are now being addressed. During the tour we saw examples of his revisions, and you see a big difference between the utilitarian get-it-done stuff and his vision of how certain rooms were meant to be… and he was right. His way was better. Utzon died in 2008, but in his final years had left enough plans for more improvements and changes that will take another decade or two to finish.

When I heard that last part, it brought a tear to my eyes. I often wonder if any of my crude “sketches” or ideas for movies and books will ever come to fruition. Then you behold something like the Sydney Opera House and you realize that it starts with a boldness, a willingness to ignore conventions and think in broad, simple strokes. Maybe if you can dream it, they will build it. Powerful ideas are organic things that take on a life of their own that will outlast us. Be bold.

For another take on my Aussie trip, here’s a link to my Honolulu Star-Bulletin blog post on that.