Archive for the ‘addiction’ category

TV or not TV, that is the question…

February 12, 2015

Lately, I’ve been hearing advice from script consultants, agents and managers, who say screenwriters should put their spec sale dreams aside and focus on creating original TV series material. The theory is there are more opportunities for unproduced writers in that venue, which extends to cable channels and alternative viewing platforms such as Netflix.

Makes sense. I’ve been shopping around my television series pitch for years, and got some nibbles, but no bites. It was called Rehab, and it was based on my time spent in an addiction treatment center many moons ago before I got clean and sober, and began writing again.

What I always loved about the idea of writing for TV was that you had latitude and time (provided the series stayed on the air) to explore multiple story lines and incorporate different themes that might be related to a wide variety of things I was personally interested in. For me, Rehab was an opportunity to delve into the nature of addiction and recovery — the physical, psychological, and spiritual elements of a condition that reflects American consumerism. We’re a nation addicted to instant gratification. And yet our need to experience new sensations in search of an altered state of consciousness dates back to the first primates who got tipsy on fermented rotten fruit.

Thanks to the miracle of DVR, I’m able to record dozens of programs and series that span the gamut from PBS documentaries to guilty pleasures like the new Empire series on Fox. One reason I tuned in was I saw Brian Grazer’s name was listed as a producer, and it was about a fictional African-American drug dealer-turned-rap/hip-hop music mogul. An old friend of mine who moved from Hawaii to L.A. to pursue a career in music wound up living with one of the Pointer Sisters in her Beverly Hills mansion, then was hired by Eddie Murphy to be his personal assistant. He pitched me his own ideas for a TV series centered around the music biz, years ago. He told me Grazer used to visit Eddie a lot, but I don’t know if my friend ever had a chance to chat with them about his TV premise.

Anyhow, early in the first episode, we learn the father is dying and intends to leave his Empire music biz to one of his three sons. Which son, he hasn’t decided yet, but he makes it clear who he favors. If that sounds familiar, you’re probably also watching the Shakespeare Uncovered series on PBS and recognize what the smartest son says as a tip of the hat to its source of inspiration: “What is this, King Lear?!” Yep, it sort of is. Which is cool — the vast majority of the audience that will be tuned into Empire are more interested in seeing his ex-wife Cookie, just released from prison for doing time on a drugs charge, throwing her shoe at the King and slapping her sons around. Yet these viewers are being unwittingly introduced to classic Shakespearean themes at the same time!

As much as I respect the Bard, the truth is I’ve always had a difficult time reading or listening to his plays unless someone puts the words and story in context for me. The beauty of DVR is I can go from watching Empire and hearing the reference to King Lear, then follow that episode with the King Lear dissection on Shakespeare Uncovered. Once I had a better understanding of the play, I resumed watching the next installment of Empire with renewed interest in Cookie’s role — was she based on the Fool, or some other character in Lear’s world?

Then I went from the urban street language and hip-hop music of Empire to the very proper English accents and manners of Downton Abbey. The juxtaposition of these two worlds amused me, and reminded me that at the heart of both are themes about family ties and the desire to hold on to power in societies where the haves and have nots are clearly delineated. While I’m not sure if Downton Abbey was inspired in any way by the Bard’s work, I did notice Hugh Bonneville — who plays the patriarch of the family — was the host of A Midsummer Night’s Dream episode of Shakespeare Uncovered. It turns out his first big acting break was a role in that comedy.

It makes me wonder. If Shakespeare were alive today, would he prefer writing for film or TV? Would he create something like Empire or Breaking Bad? I know this much: he sure as hell wouldn’t write something as bad as Fresh Off The Boat, the ABC sitcom that was supposed to be a groundbreaking TV series for Asian-Americans like myself. Ugh. Please put that show out of its misery.

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Posts from Christmas Past

December 24, 2014

Note: Of all the articles, screenplays, blogs and other stuff I’ve written over the years, this piece I wrote for the old Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s 2008 Christmas Day print edition best sums up the story of my life… and why I feel so grateful to be where I am today. BTW, OC16 is running a Christmas show marathon on channel 12/high def 1012 that will include a special Career Changers TV compilation of stories from past episodes. For daily viewing times of our regularly-scheduled show, visit www.CareerChangers.TV. Mele Kalikimaka!

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A Wrong Turn Leads to the Right Place by Rich Figel

Like many people, my wife and I collect Christmas ornaments as souvenirs from places we’ve traveled to. My favorite is a delicate piece from Venice made of green, white and red glass shaped into candles. It’s missing one candle though. That’s why it holds special meaning for me.

In recovery, we’re taught to live in the present because we can’t undo the past. I try not to dwell on the wrong turns I made. But I can’t minimize the wreckage alcohol and drugs caused in my life either. My flame could have been snuffed out by two drunk driving accidents I had when I was a reporter in New Jersey, fresh out of college. I was lucky. No one was injured by my reckless disregard for others. Instead of giving up drinking, however, I gave up driving and moved to New York.

All of that was a distant memory when Isabel and I took our first trip to Italy in the summer of 1999. This was a reward of sorts for living sober. To make the most of it, we studied guidebooks, listened to Italian language tapes in the car and carefully planned our itinerary months in advance. Nothing was left to chance — or so we thought.

After nearly 24 hours of flying economy class and long layovers in Newark and London, we arrived in Venice. Our luggage did not. Wearing smelly clothes, we checked into our hotel on the Lido, a small island across the lagoon. International movie stars flock here for the annual Venice film festival. But when we opened the door to our room, my wife’s face dropped. It looked dingy and rundown, nothing like the charming photographs on the website. The trip of a lifetime was off to a disappointing start.

Things began to look better the next morning. The hotel’s breakfast room had a a glorious view of San Marco, where the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica are located. We hopped on the vaporetto, an unglamorous water bus, and as we cruised down the Grand Canal, I became oblivious to the stifling heat and the B.O. of tourists crowded around us. I only saw the fading grandeur of this dream of a city.

Venice on foot is a different matter. The guidebooks are useful as long as you stay close to the major tourist sites. Venture into the heart of the city, and you soon discover that streets often go by two names, smaller canals and bridges don’t correspond with maps, and many passageways are dead ends. We got completely lost, which can be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. But we were like those couples on “The Amazing Race” TV show, who blame each other for every mishap. When we returned to the hotel and saw our luggage had been delivered, I thought we had turned the corner.

Wrong again. The next day was even hotter. Shorts and bare shoulders are forbidden in Italy’s centuries-old churches, so we had to dress appropriately and sweat it out in line with hundreds of others who were waiting to get into St. Mark’s Basilica. You’ve probably seen pictures of it: the Byzantine domes in the background while lovers embrace amid flocks of pigeons. Since we were quarreling, the grubby birds were merely a nuisance to us. We came to see the church treasures — not for romance.

A group of German tourists were ahead of us. They seemed to know where they were going, so I followed them. Awed by the marble geometric designs under our feet and the ornate ceilings above, I missed the entrance sign for the museum where the church relics are displayed. Before we knew it, Isabel and I were back outside the Basilica. Despite my pleas of ignorance, a guard told us we had to stand in line again if we wanted to reenter.

Screw it, I said. We decided to move on to a less famous church. According to our map, Santi Giovanni was a short walk from there. But I made a wrong turn somewhere. What should have been a 10-minute stroll became another frustrating excursion that stretched into an hour of wandering around in a steamy maze.

Finally, we found Santi Giovanni. It is huge. Inside, the soaring vaulted arches resembled the bow of a gigantic wooden ship turned upside down. The stained glass windows and altars were works of art. Yet it felt strangely empty to me. We walked over to another section that was like a small chapel. As we were leaving, a priest walked past us with a beatific smile on his face.

Back in the main area we saw the German tourists again, standing in the center of the church. The men had cameras around their necks and their heads were bowed. They stood in a circle, holding hands, and began to sing a hymn in perfect harmony. Their voices filled the church. It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.

Tears streamed down my face. Perhaps it was their devotion, or the acoustics … or maybe it was the collective effects of being weary and flustered, but the church that seemed cold and dead to me was brought to life by their singing. I looked at Isabel and she was crying too. Neither of us is religious, but I felt blessed to be there with her. Had we not gotten lost and taken so many wrong turns, we would not have been here to witness this moment. I held my wife’s hand and listened in rapt wonder.

When the men finished, they simply smiled at each other — the same smile I saw on the priest’s face as he walked past us. Then the Germans quietly left and we never saw them again.

That was in 1999. Two years later, after the devastation of 9/11, we went through the ritual of decorating our Christmas tree. It was a somber time. Isabel’s business, which depended on tourists visiting Hawaii, was struggling. I worried about the future, and stopped writing. What was the point? Nothing made sense.

A couple of days later, the tree toppled over. It was a mess. The strands of lights were tangled and twisted. Ornaments were strewn about. A glass candle from the Venice piece had broken off. Isabel was at work, so I asked a neighbor to help me stand the tree back up. I restrung the lights and was able to glue together some of the broken ornaments, but the glass candle wouldn’t hold. I couldn’t fix that one.

While I was washing my hands and thinking to myself that the tree didn’t look quite as nice as it did before, I heard a commercial on TV. It said it was all right to grieve for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but the best way to respond to terrorism is to live.

I broke down and cried. There I was, fretting and cursing earlier because our tree fell over and some ornaments broke. It was nothing compared to what happened three months before. I thought about the church in Venice, and how lost I felt at different times in my life. I can’t say if it was chance or fate that I survived the car wrecks and alcoholism, to wind up here with Isabel in Hawaii. I can only wonder, and be grateful for what I have.

So each year when I unwrap that ornament, I remember how fragile life is. I think about the missing candle, and it puts everything in perspective.

Blacklisted: Blood Moon Revenge!

October 8, 2014

To paraphrase Heidi Klum on Project Runway: One week you’re down, the next week you’re up when you are a writer. In my last post, I expressed my disappointment that the spec script I wrote for the Industry Insider contest (Sheldon Turner round) didn’t win the whole shebang or seem to garner any attention when results were announced. But in my heart, I felt it was good work — so I took another shot at the Black List. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can click here for background info.

Aside from the Nicholl Fellowships competition, the Black List is one of the best ways for unrepped or unproduced screenwriters to get their scripts read by legit industry professionals — managers, agents, producers, development execs. However, on their 1-10 rating scale, you need at least one evaluation score of 8 or higher from their paid readers to really get noticed. Two paid evaluations at $50 apiece can put you on their Top Lists page if the average score is over 7. Of course, a dynamite logline and catchy title can generate downloads by professionals even before you get your paid reader’s scores.

I had submitted other scripts before, and the best I did were 7’s across the board for my coming-of-age dramedy, LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET, which made the Nicholl quarterfinals in 2013. (I bring that up because I attended a University of Hawaii weekend workshop with the writer/director of SHORT TERM 12, who won a Nicholl Fellowship in 2010 — which inspired me to resurrect that old LOST script because of his success. More on that workshop in my next post!)

To be honest, I was half-dreading what the Black List readers would grade it because I had just gotten an e-newsletter from a screenwriting “consultant” who proclaimed that you should never have flashbacks, visions or dream sequences for any characters in your script other than the protagonist. In this consultant’s view, it would “confuse” the reader and shift the focus from the hero. But what if the hero isn’t really a “hero” in the usual sense, and perhaps the secondary characters’ backstories are equally essential to the story?

That was the case in my BLOOD MOON draft. One of the big takeways I got from working with a Writers Store story specialist as part of the Insider contest was the need to develop my characters more fully. Normally, I don’t like using voiceovers, flashbacks or dream sequences. To me, those are kind of cop outs. Yet more and more, I’ve noticed in good TV series and many films that those techniques are being used to tell non-linear story lines that eventually merge together in the present and can deliver a powerful payoff when used right. Admittedly, it was a bit risky to give my supporting characters equal flashback/dream sequence time in the script since I was challenging the reader to see the parallel plot lines between the protagonist and antagonist(s).

My first Black List evaluation came back with the 8 score that had eluded me all this time. The second reader’s comments were in some ways even more positive and could be seen as a “consider” or “recommend” (excerpts from both below) but came in at a 7. Those two scores put it on the Top Scripts page for awhile, which has gotten me about a dozen pro downloads in the past week. No contacts though, so maybe nothing will come of it. However, it does illustrate how subjective this business is. Even the Black List evaluations can be puzzling when the reader’s scores don’t seem to match their comments.

For example, here’s quotes from the “Strengths” and “Prospects” comments by both. Guess which was the 8 and which was the 7 rating — and remember, 8 is a reader saying they recommend industry pros take a look at it…

Strengths: With its neo-noir setting, flashes of deadpan wit, and spring-loaded plot, this is a terrific script with lots of potential. Above all, its characters are excellent. Michael McVay, an opiate-addicted detective in perpetual withdrawal throughout the story, makes for an excellent hard-boiled-style protagonist, one whose cynical demeanor masks his underlying decency. The other characters – Jack, Willow, Benjamin Mori – are equally good. Benjamin Mori makes for a complex villain whose motivations are not so cut-and-dry as to be entirely unsympathetic… Prospects: The prospects for this script should be quite good. Although it may be old-fashioned in certain ways (for one, it isn’t spectacularly over-the-top in its gore or its premise), it never feels irrelevant or outdated, but merely modest in its ambitions… It would be quite cheap to produce, and with the right cast and director something extremely good could come of it. Although there is still plenty of room for improvement, this is a terrific script that deserves to be given a close look.

Strengths: This script pens an evocative modern Film Noir. Its strong characters and moody world tie an equally strong premise, plot and dialogue into the tight and requisite story rope that makes for a very compelling film outing. Yet MICHAEL’S goal to solve the Yakuza-cursed murders simultaneously unfolds as a personal road of redemption; both his gritty past and tragic losses finding a spiritual rebirth in his fulfilling the Blood Moon curse…albeit through death. The material also does a masterful job of creating an intricate tableau of humanity where good guys turn out to be bad and perceived villains leave one breathless with a surprising good turn. Prospects: As penned, this script connects and executives/producers alike will be drawn to its story locale and cultural interplay. Additionally, this script stands as an excellent writing sample. If an outright spec sale does not materialize, a writing assignment may emerge. This material comes across solid on both fronts and collaborators can revel in this accomplishment while moving onto another project, knowing that they have their “calling card” script already in the bank…

Both readers pointed out weaknesses and made some good suggestions — which also contradicted each other. To me though, that’s a positive since they both saw the potential to go in different directions. And keep in mind, I wrote over 50 pages of the first draft in one week in order to meet the contest deadline. Anyway, the first comments were from the 7 rating and the second one gave me the 8.

They both focused on the characters more than the plot or hook, and I have to credit my story coach from the Writers Store for hammering that into my head during our weekly phone sessions. Which just goes to show that even old dogs like me can learn new tricks if they keep an open mind. Speaking of which, in my next post I’ll share some things I picked up this past weekend from Destin Daniel Cretton, the Nicholl Fellowship winner and writer/director of I AM NOT A HIPSTER as well as SHORT TERM 12. It may change the way you approach screenwriting.

The Secret to Writing Success

February 28, 2014

Part of my recovery was joining a “mastermind” group inspired by the seminal Think and Grow Rich self-help book. That was  25 years ago after I first got sober — and have stayed sober ever since. My AA sponsor was into Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins and the like, so he suggested we work on career goals that coincided with our efforts to rebuild our lives. Anyone can stop drinking or doing drugs for awhile, but you still have to pay bills and make money while you’re clearing the inevitable wreckage that comes with addiction.

Given a second chance at the life I wanted, I told the group my goal was to be a professional writer. Since I had been a reporter and done some ad copywriting before I went to rehab, it wasn’t much of a stretch. But I was aiming higher — I said I was going to write a screenplay about my 28-days in an addiction treatment center, and maybe a book about it too. They applauded and in the ensuing months, at our weekly meetings they encouraged me to keep writing. Eventually I completed my first feature script, and met with a Hawaii Film Office contact who had worked on TV shows like Hill Street Blues. He had me send pitches to one of his Hollywood producer friends, but nothing came of that nor my rehab-inspired dark comedy. Yet, to me it was proof that positive thinking and working towards written goals could make things happen. I’ve kept to many of those same principles, year after year, plugging away at both new and old goals, with varying results.

However, when it comes to self-help gurus and their pitches for books or seminars that will reveal the secrets to success, I remain highly skeptical because I don’t think there’s much anyone can add to the basic advice offered by people like Napoleon Hill, Earl Nightingale or Zig Ziglar. Which boils down to one main concept: We become what we think about. Of course, that hasn’t stopped latter day self-help “experts” like Rhonda Byrne from cashing in by repackaging old ideas in The Secret  (remember that book phenomenon? Even Oprah bought into it!) or guys like the one I just met in Honolulu recently, who offered a free seminar on “Becoming a Best-Selling Author.”

Hawaii attracts dreamers and schemers by the drove — people who see these islands as an earthly paradise where fantasies come true. Naturally, there’s a lot of older hippie types, artists, New Age entrepreneurs, yoga instructors and life coaches, all selling something to one another. And many of them do have interesting life stories to tell — which is probably why they showed up at the same seminar I went to. To be honest, I went with the intention to sell this self-help guru on buying time on my Career Changers TV show to promote his seminars and services, provided it was all legit.

What followed was an entertaining and inspiring hour of anecdotes about how he went from being an unemployed software engineer to a highly-paid motivational speaker — $10,000 to $20,000 per engagement, he claims — after figuring out the secret to marketing yourself: self-publish a book, then spend the next few years promoting just that one book and making deals to reach the number needed to call it a best-seller. As a marketing tool, his approach actually makes sense for people who want a career on the speakers circuit, or who want to present themselves as an authority on a particular topic. In other words, the dreamers and schemers who feel compelled to share their stories of spiritual/professional/personal self-discovery. People in Hawaii are always discovering new things about themselves!

But he also offered practical advice on how to do it, which I jotted down because it was a good refresher course on Self-Help 101. First, commit to do at least one thing each day toward achieving your main goal. He suggests 90 minutes per day. But he feels the one-a-day approach will require about ten years for the big pay-off, so if you do two or three goal-oriented things each day, you can cut that time in half or better. That’s pretty doable if you have your own business (as many of those in attendance did) or don’t have to, you know, work for a living (and there’s many affluent transplants here who live off their investments). Oh, and btw, for just $2,995 — today only! — he will personally guide you through the process of self-publishing your book.

Then he broke down the costs of producing and printing enough copies to sell or give away, and showed how easy it was to cover the cost of his services and publishing within a couple of years. All you need to do is get someone else to pay you a grand here, a grand there to speak to their group and tell the story behind your book. It’s that simple. The thing is, he’s right. You can write and self-publish a book that will pay for itself, if that’s what you’re content with. Most writers want more than that though, and the self-promotion part is hard for introverts like myself.

On the plus side, he reminded me that I need to stick to that one-thing-a-day goal setting approach. In the weeks following that seminar, I finished a draft of a script, restarted work on a book project, picked up new sponsors for my local TV show, read a couple of books on my “to do” list… all by just tackling each project one page, one call, one email  each day. There have been times when I felt too tired or uninspired to do anything… then I looked at the guy’s flyer and said, screw it — I’m not gonna pay him $3K to teach me something I already know! And you know all this too.

The funny thing is when I pitched him a spot on my show as a sponsor for his upcoming “Best-Seller” publishing conference, he said he couldn’t afford the $2,000 I quoted him. Hey, if he just got ONE client off his own televised sales spiel, he’d make a profit, right? Guess he just didn’t have that much self-confidence, after all.

Halloween, Past and Present

October 22, 2013

artaddictaHmm, who was that masked man?

(NOTE: This is a piece I wrote for the defunct Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which was published in their Sunday editorial section back on Oct. 28, 2007. I used to do a weekly column about addictions and recovery, and thought this was an interesting take on why we like Halloween so much.)

Halloween is a drunkard’s dream — a strange brew of revelry, scary stuff, and for many adults, copious amounts of alcohol. It’s one of the few occasions on which the crazier you behave, the more people cheer you on. Any other time you’d be arrested.

Before I got sober, it was my favorite holiday because I could be whoever I wanted to be. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell the truth.” Give him a flask though, and it gets trickier to tell whether it’s honesty or the booze talking.

Throughout history, masks have been associated with man’s two-faced nature. Shamans wore them to ward off evil spirits, heal the sick or communicate with the dead. Ancient Greek actors used masks to convey emotions and amplify their voices. And of course, masks have been used for comedic effect dating back to the first Neanderthal who put on a boar’s snout for yuks.

Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of costumes that make Halloween parties so much fun. When you see a man in drag, what is he really saying about his sexuality or phobias? Is the office assistant in that skintight Elvira dress hinting she’s not so prim?

Then you have the “witty” costumes that make reference to current events or historical figures. Those people are saying, “Look at me! I’m much smarter than that schlub in the Austin Powers get-up!” Avoid them at parties unless you are Mensa material.

In college, like most young adults, I tried on various personas. But my Halloween creations were more like bad performance art. One year I was the back half of a dining table, with my head sticking through a hole so it appeared to be sitting on a plate. Another time I was the fictional frontman for an awful punk rock band, Nick Nucleus & The Amoebas. I told everyone we “split up” during our first performance of “Mitosis Boogie.”

My sophomore year, I became a demure Geisha with the help of heavy make-up applied by a girlfriend who loaned me her kimono. I didn’t think I was going to fool anyone; my hairy eyebrows were a dead giveaway.

However, I forgot about the “beer goggle” effect that lonely men experience after too many drinks. While I was at a frat party on campus, I went over to the keg for a refill. Loud disco music thumped from the speakers. A clean-cut guy held the tap open for me, smiled and shyly asked me to dance. As I raised my bushy eyebrows in bemusement, he blurted: “Oh, shit.” Then he laughed and suggested we could still dance. I think he was joking.

I’m not sure why so many guys enjoy being a woman on Halloween. Women tend to stick with their own feminine gender roles — just trashier. Naughty nurses, sexy school girl uniforms, and the old standby, slutty kitties. It makes you wonder whose fantasies they’re acting out, and why they so willingly objectify themselves. Not that I’m complaining.

Another reason to like Halloween is the paradoxical aspects. It started as a Celtic pagan festival to mark the change of seasons, a time when the worlds of the dead and the living overlapped. Yet the same morbid holiday gives young ladies an excuse to display their inner kinkiness. It’s sex and death in the same Trick or Treat bag!

A psychologist could explain better what our costume choices reveal about us. All I know is in my younger days, the masks I wore allowed me to morph from an introvert with stage fright into a trickster who did things my “normal” self never could do. Like hijacking a New York City parade.

I used to live near Greenwich Village where they have an outrageous Halloween parade every year. The only costume left in the store was one of those cheap boxed sets that kids wear over their clothes. It was the “Joanie Loves Chachi” set. Somehow I wound up in front of the parade as it meandered towards Seventh Avenue South, where I frequented a jazz club by the same name. Musicians from the “Saturday Night Live” band and David Letterman show were regulars at that bar, so I thought it would be fun if I led the parade there.

I was like the Pied Piper of drunks and degenerates. Hundreds jammed into the small building. It got so crazy that the ungrateful club owners ordered me to stop partying and work behind the bar as unpaid help. On the bright side though, my homage to “Joanie Loves Chachi” won the Worst Costume prize.

Alcohol was the elixir that fueled my alter egos. But the hangovers and blackouts left me feeling empty and spent. There was no real me. Just stories about someone I didn’t recognize as myself. The Wolfman probably felt the same way the morning after a full moon.

I have a picture of myself from the day I checked into rehab, four years after the parade fiasco. On my face is the same look of bemusement I had when the guy at the kegger realized I wasn’t a chick. It’s as if in that moment, the mask had come off and I finally knew the truth. I was an alcoholic in need of help. Thankfully, I got it.

Many addicts don’t get that opportunity. Maybe it’s because we see their mug shots and they scare us — they are monsters, who will corrupt your children or kill someone. They have to be banished, locked away like the boogeyman who hides in our bedroom closets. The reality is most of them aren’t much different than me or you.

What we see in the masks worn by others, more often than not reflects our own fears and desires. Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. I look at them now and they remind me of addicts, caught between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. I was one of them. But that party monster has been laid to rest, along with my other alter egos.

Plastic Fantastic Lover

January 19, 2013

I was going to write a follow-up to my post about the new Black List script service that’s getting buzz because it offers another means for unrepped screenwriters to be discovered by Hollywood. Then former manager Jason Scoggins, who’s been tracking script sales through ItsOnTheGrid.com, launched Spec Scout, which also gives writers a chance to have their screenplays rated by professional readers, so I was waiting for my reviews to compare the two (between contests, BL and Spec Scout, I’m beginning to wonder if there are enough qualified readers to go around). In short, I had mixed results with both, which I’ll eventually write about.

However, the big news here in Hawaii is all about Manti Te’o and the revelation that his dead girlfriend never actually existed. They interrupted regular programming to broadcast the Notre Dame press conference because his life story had been built up to mythical proportions in the lead-up to the college football national championship game when number one ND got shellacked by Alabama. Manti is a terrific linebacker and by all accounts is a model citizen — such a good guy that you almost could feel he was going to get blindsided. Early into my recovery, one of the things I learned from AA is that we shouldn’t idolize any role models or put anyone on a pedestal, because humans are, well… human. We all have feet of clay, and to some degree we are all delusional. Especially writers and artists.

Ironically, the ones who have been the hardest on MT, are the so-called sports fans who spend most of their petty lives wrapped up in their own fantasy world of athletes and teams they follow as devoutly as religious fanatics or groupies that bow down to the “gods” they each worship. On sports message boards, these grown men hide behind made-up tough-sounding screen names and often post images of nubile young ladies they lust after in their own puerile fantasies. Yet they blast MT for being naive and gullible, and ask how he could be so stupid to fall for a girl he only met online and spoke to on the phone. This coming from guys who walk around in public wearing shirts with the names and jersey numbers of men they follow in fantasy sports leagues, while going into very real fits of anger or depression when “their” team loses.

It also reminded me of something a professor said in my Philosophy of Art class at Montclair State College, many years ago. The topic was Platonic love, I think, and he pointed out that the essence of love is desire. And what is desire? It’s wanting something you don’t yet have or cannot attain because of obstacles that make the yearning even stronger. In the Age of Facebook, it’s even easier to succumb to desire and yearning for someone who isn’t physically attainable because of actual distance or self-imposed limitations (oh, yeah, the dreaded lost love or first love from school days who reconnects via FB!). Little messages and email exchanges take on a life of their own in our imaginations as we fill in the details to suit our delusions and need to feel loved or appreciated. The problem with real flesh and blood relationships is they get messy because our flaws become all too apparent when we come together in the physical world.

Which brings me to the delusions of writers. It’s both necessary and unfortunate we must create fictitious identities for ourselves to survive criticism by others, who in their own universe deem themselves worthy of judging our work (for a small fee, of course). It’s necessary to believe in your own talent when no one else does, because in the end, it doesn’t really matter what others say. Life will go on, you will succeed or not on your own merits, and we all die sooner or later.

Having read the feedback from “professional” readers at BL and Spec Scout, I can honestly say some had good suggestions and pointed out things that could be improved; and some didn’t seem to know much about screenwriting or writing in general. It was as if they took a few film classes in college, read a smattering of books, cribbed notes from agents/managers, and voila —  they “knew” what constituted great writing. What they’ve really learned is how to come up with more creative ways to say “no” and pass on stuff they personally didn’t like or get — or more precisely, didn’t think the agents and producers they work for would like.

Now don’t misquote me… I’ll be the first to say 90 percent of the scripts and book drafts out there aren’t very good. But when I first began writing scripts, we talked about the goal being “workable material,” which I think is much closer to the reality of movie making. Screenplays aren’t novels. They are blueprints for directors, producers, actors and crews of people to construct an elaborate illusion from. True, bad scripts will never become good movies — and good scripts sometimes become terrible films. But rarely do any scripts, be it Nicholl Fellows or Oscar winners, achieve greatness on the page alone. It takes real people to breathe life and energy into our words. It takes conflict between directors, producers and actors to find — or create — actual subtext as opposed to what some reader thinks is subtext (or lack thereof).

You want proof? Take a list of movies made from Black List scripts or films written by Nicholl Fellows in the past few years, then look at their Netflix ratings by the general public. What you will find is the vast majority of movies — even the most popular rentals — are usually coming in at between 2 to 3 (on a scale of 1 to 5). Also, many of the films that do get 4 or 5 stars are documentaries… such as CATFISH, which I was recommending to people on Twitter and Facebook two years ago. Maybe it’s because reality is often more interesting than comic book stories that producers want to remake into modern myths (most just turn out to be tedious, overblown CGI exercises that require wearing plastic glasses).

Funny how CATFISH is now part of the lexicon, while so many blockbuster summer movies were forgotten the week after they came out. When it comes to judging original material, the truth is Hollywood agents/producers/readers aren’t very good at predicting what will be a hit, or what will stand the test of time. If they were as smart as they would like you to believe they are, 90 percent of the movies released would be rated higher than 2 or 3 on Netflix, and would have made more money than they did.

Anyhow, for some reason, the old Jefferson Airplane song, “Plastic Fantastic Lover” came into mind just before I wrote this blog. It may be about television… or computers? I’m not sure, but after all these years, it seems relevant again. That, my friends, is art.

Her neon mouth with the blinking soft smile
Is nothing but an electric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She’s part of a colorful time

Super-sealed lady, chrome-color clothes
You wear ’cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You’re my plastic fantastic lover

Your rattlin’ cough never shuts off
Is nothin’ but a used machine
Your aluminum finish, slightly diminished
Is the best I ever have seen

Cosmetic baby plugged into me
And never ever find another
And I realize no one’s wise
To my plastic fantastic lover

The electrical dust is starting to rust
Her trapezoid thermometer taste
All the red tape is mechanical rape
Of the TV program waste

Data control and IBM
Science is mankind’s brother
But all I see is drainin’ me
On my plastic fantastic lover

Violence as Sport

May 4, 2012

The suicide of former pro football great Junior Seau struck me for a couple of reasons. He had ties to retired NFL players who live in Hawaii, and some of them openly speculated that years of taking blows to the head may have contributed to his depression and taking his own life. Coincidentally, last night I happened to watch “I Am,” the documentary by Tom Shadyac — yeah, the ACE VENTURA director — which also concerns depression and suicidal thoughts that were a result of a head injury he suffered. (BTW, if you haven’t seen it yet, put it on your Netflix queue. It may change your life. More on that in a future post.)

It also reminded me of a column I wrote for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin back in 2007 when pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife, son and himself. After rereading it, I thought it was worth sharing again because it’s a commentary on our thirst for violence. There’s an amusing sidebar about my interview with a MMA fighter named Jason “Mayhem” Miller too. Not long after I wrote that piece, he got a gig in a MTV series called “Bully Beatdown.” I kid you not. He hosted the reality show in which pro fighters would go around beating up bullies on behalf of the persecuted victims. Sigh.

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IT’S IN THE SPORTS, NOT THE STEROIDS

Addicted To Life / Rich Figel

NO ONE really knows why pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife, son and then himself. But that hasn’t stopped sports writers and radio call-in shows from speculating about “roid rage.” Every time a wrestler or fighter flips out, we hear about the “dark side” of steroids. What we should be talking about, though, is the dark side of sports.

Granted, pro wrestling isn’t technically a sport. It does qualify as entertainment, however, and there was a time when it was mostly harmless fun. They were big, colorful characters. The action in the ring was too cartoonish to be taken seriously. But after the likes of Hulk Hogan came along, it became a pumped-up freak show, driven by money and the need to satisfy the public’s appetite for violence.

I fear that same mindset is now behind the marketing of no-holds-barred extreme fighting. In the wrestling ring, Benoit was known as the “Canadian Crippler.” Ultimate fighting and mixed martial arts events hype guys with nicknames like “Beast Man” and “Mayhem.” Except extreme fighting is not scripted like pro wrestling matches. The savage pounding you see is quite real.

Before you assume this is a rant about how brutal sports have no place in a civilized society, let me say that I am a hypocrite. I love football. In high school, I even had a nickname. They called me “The Kamikaze” because on kick-offs I would run down the field at full speed, and hit opposing players who outweighed me by 50 to 100 pounds. Crazy? Yes. But there’s nothing like making a clean, one-on-one tackle in front of cheering fans. It’s a rush — a natural high. It was also an outlet for the anger I carried around.

Among alcoholics and children of alcoholics, you’ll often hear them talk about parents who didn’t drink or do drugs, but were “rage-aholics.” I think it runs in families, and for some, sports can be a good way to channel anger or aggression. But when players or fighters are rewarded for acting like ruthless thugs, should we be surprised when that behavior spills over into real life?

WHICH BRINGS ME back to the dark side of modern-day sports. Everything has been amped up — the size and speed of athletes, the spectacle of every sporting event from Pee Wee football on up to high school and college games. For “old school” ‘Bows fans like me, it’s a turn-off to see University of Hawaii football being sold like, well, pro wrestling … the mascot who looks like he belongs in a tag team match with Zulu the Warrior … the phony, prerecorded conch shell trumpeting the team’s slow-motion walk out of the giant inflatable helmet with the huli-huli smoke billowing out. It’s a bit over the top.

What’s more disturbing, however, is being in the stands with the New Breed of UH fan, who is also amped up — bigger, louder, drunker and cruder these days. Most of them have never put on pads in their life. But when an opposing player goes down from a concussion-producing shot, they whoop it up the same way they do while playing “Madden NFL Football” on their PlayStations.

Yet it’s precisely those kinds of blows to the head that can lead to suicidal depression and violent outbursts years later for former football players, boxers and wrestlers, long after the cheers have faded away.

More and more, there seems to be a disconnect between actual violence and “fantasy” violence — the kind of thing kids grow up with now in video games, and movies that ratchet up the action to mind-numbing and ear-shattering levels. Sports are becoming an extension of those fantasies. But to be a player, you have to do whatever it takes to compete. The fans demand it. And the athletes are willing to sacrifice their bodies, because they are addicted to the adulation. They live for the rush they get while performing for us.

All drugs, including steroids, can be used for good purposes or bad. I won’t argue they should be allowed in sports, because greed and the need to win have already resulted in widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. Former NFL players who are crippled for life have admitted they were willing to shoot themselves up to continue playing, and didn’t regret it because they loved the game. Fighters, baseball all-stars and even professional cyclists have copped to cheating by using drugs of one sort or another. And it’s largely because winning is all that matters these days.

BEFORE WE blame drugs for destructive behavior, we should consider why certain individuals are attracted to violent sports. I think we’d find that many of them were walking time bombs to begin with. Perhaps the reason no one ever heard them ask for help was that their voices were drowned out by the roar of the crowds who only wanted to see them beat another human into submission.

Chris Benoit might have injected the steroids that triggered his tragic actions. But it was paid for with blood money from fans who are hooked on the sound and fury of violence as entertainment.

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REGULAR GUY LURKS BENEATH WILD SHOW-BIZ PERSONA

I’M NOT A FAN of wrestling, mixed martial arts or other forms of extreme fighting. I don’t understand the allure of watching grown, sweaty men grappling and putting their faces in close proximity to other sweaty guys’ private regions. I fail to see the sport in watching one man straddling another, as the rabid crowd exhorts him to pummel the crap out of someone who is curled up in a fetal position.

That said, my interest was piqued when I saw a paid newspaper ad that was taken out by Jason “Mayhem” Miller earlier this year. He was in the news last December when a Circuit Court jury acquitted him of charges related to an incident in which he kicked in the door of his girlfriend’s apartment at 6 a.m. and allegedly assaulted a man who was visiting her. As you may have guessed, alcohol was involved. Hence, my interest.

In the ad, he said he wanted to “make amends” to Cathy Tanaka (whom he got back together with) and her family. He blamed himself for what happened, and said he had stopped drinking alcohol. The cynic in me wondered if this was a PR move orchestrated by his manager or lawyer. So I called him to ask that very question.

He was in Los Angeles at the time, which was a relief, since you do not want to be in the immediate vicinity of a guy named “Mayhem” if you happen to say the wrong thing. I was also a little leery about interviewing him because the brief flashes of him I saw on TV were kind of scary. He appeared to be psychotic.

HOWEVER, Jason was funny, smart and refreshingly candid. I told him up front that I didn’t get the whole ultimate fighting thing. He didn’t bother to defend it or explain it. He also didn’t make a big thing about quitting drinking. “It wasn’t as Hollywood as I thought it would be,” he laughed.

No rehab, no tearful breakdown at a 12-step meeting. He simply made a decision to give up alcohol and told his friends: “Yo, I’m done.”

His drinking buddies didn’t believe him.

“When they pushed me to drink, I just went the other way,” Jason said. He enjoys being different, and dancing to his own tune, no matter how off key it might sound to others. It’s part of his charm and show biz persona.

Talk to him awhile, though, and you find a real person underneath the bravado.

He was an Army brat, who had problems in school. At 16, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and says he was given amphetamines for it. “I was so amped!” he recalls. Around the age of 17, he started fighting after a friend showed him some moves. He got into judo, jujitsu and kick-boxing. Mayhem found his calling.

HE SAID his dad was an alcoholic, which is maybe one reason he didn’t start drinking until he was 19. Jason would abstain while training, but after the fight was over he’d go “power drinking.” He had blackouts. “I knew I had a problem. My girl would have to tell me what I did.” There was a very real possibility of him going to prison in December because of past fights he had gotten into while drunk. He knows how lucky he is too that he didn’t kill someone with his fists in those brawls he can’t remember.

I asked him about steroids. “A lot of fighters use them. It’s part of the business,” he said. But he says he’s never shot up. If they were legal, he admits he would consider it. (In Hawaii, there is currently no drug testing of MMA fighters.)

His most surprising revelation was that he takes Zoloft. He calls them “steroids for the mind” to increase his serotonin levels. Jason was diagnosed as having depression and being bipolar. He’s been taking Zoloft for the past year and says it makes him feel “clearer” but doesn’t take away his edge.

I don’t know if a happy, well-adjusted individual makes for a good fighter, though, or how long a career he’ll have. At age 26, he thinks he’s got another “10 good years” at least. I asked, “What would you be doing if you weren’t fighting?”

“Exactly!” he answered, not realizing I didn’t intend it as a rhetorical question. Then he laughed again and said he might have been a “violent TV star or comedian” and probably would have “gravitated toward Hollywood.” Figures.

Pro wrestling, boxing, extreme fighting — it’s show biz. As long as the public is willing to buy tickets, the Chris Benoits, Mike Tysons and guys like Jason “Mayhem” Miller will give them what they want until they have nothing left to give. I hope, for Jason’s sake, he knows when to quit. Just as he did with drinking.