Archive for the ‘reality tv shows’ category

Virtual Life

January 19, 2015

The holidays are over, and although we’re only halfway through the first month of 2015 I feel like I’m already falling behind. Each year I vow to get off to a stronger start on my writing and life goals, but I get distracted by college football bowl games, then the NFL playoffs, while systematically emptying the kitchen cabinet of accumulated Christmas gift cookies and candies. I often find myself in a funk too after spending time with my parents and siblings, temporarily reunited for a week or so at the end of each passing year.

It’s been tougher of late because my mother has been losing her short term memory as a result of Alzheimer’s. I first noticed signs of delusion years ago, but my father insisted nothing was wrong with her and doctors kept prescribing more and more drugs to treat whatever aches or pains she complained of. Meanwhile, he was taking more meds himself to sleep and deal with his own depression. I kept sending them articles and links to scientific studies that showed how important it was for older people to exercise and do physical activities to stave off common aging problems such as memory loss. That only angered my father even more. “You don’t know what it’s like getting old!” or he’d snidely cut me off with, “Oh, when did you become a doctor?”

The latter was probably a not-so-subtle jab at me for choosing to become a writer instead of a lawyer or some better paying profession they approved of. So I stopped offering any advice or help a long time ago, since they made it clear they weren’t interested in changing a damn thing about the way they were going to live out their remaining years. They have no hobbies, interests or desires to do anything other than sit in their living room and watch television. My mother used to read a lot, but a few years ago I recognized something was seriously wrong when we were talking about a book I knew she liked and she couldn’t recall whether she read it or not. That was the last time I bought her any books for Christmas or her birthdays.

Despite my differences with my parents, at least I used to be able to talk about books with Mom. She appreciated my intelligence and interest in writing more than my father, whose reading preferences  were Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. She also used that mutual interest in books as an excuse to call and complain about being mistreated by my dad. Those conversations often ended with her in tears or becoming hysterical to the point that my father would pick up the extension and start yelling at her for twisting the truth. The sad irony is now she cannot recall all those arguments and accusations, and he must endure hearing her repeat the same questions over and over, day after day, week after week, while having to watch her all the time. It must be hell for both of them.

Yet when we get together for the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas dinners, everyone smiles, acts like things are fine, and Mom even makes jokes… repeatedly, while we all pretend she’s normal. Dad doesn’t say much. I can’t tell if it’s the meds or if he simply doesn’t feel like he has anything worth sharing. We sometimes break out old pictures and ask them to talk about those times, but neither seems to trust their fading memories.

Anyhow, I’m writing this because I saw a movie review for “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore. I’m not sure I want to see it since it hits so close to home. However, I read the book, “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast, and have to say, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a very long time.  Here’s the Amazon link. It’s a comic book that is funny, honest, humbling, observant, sad and truthful about the disease of being human. If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, please get this book. I only wished I could have shared it with my mother.

As for my sibs, we’re all so busy with life and work, we don’t have much time to read all the books we know are supposed to be really good (I’ve got a stack from last Christmas I’m still trying to get through) so we try to talk about recent movies and TV shows we like. They’re always surprised at just how much TV my wife and I watch, but it’s not that hard to cram 6-7 hours of TV shows into 4 hours each evening if you DVR everything and fast forward through all the commercials, credits and redundant stuff. The fact is television can be a wonderful tool for entertainment, education and escapism. It can be a form of virtual life in itself.

Which brings me back to my folks and their chosen lifestyle of sitting in a dark room, blinds closed to keep the sunlight and outside world blocked out, eyes focused on the television. Okay, I can accept that. But why not make it the best experience possible then? I’ve suggested they get a better TV and offered to pay for high definition, got them a gift subscription to Netflix, and sent them recommendations on good movies I thought they would enjoy. Instead, they’re watching Fox News or CNN and banal junk.

I guess my point is, whatever you choose to do with your life, go all the way. In the end, when our memories flicker like dimming pixels on a screen, the only thing we will have are the transcendent moments when we felt we achieved something grand… be it real or not.

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Crappy Directing = EXTREME CLOSE-UP MANIA!

March 1, 2013

An old adage for screenwriters is don’t direct on the page — leave out camera angles, pans, zooms and CLOSE UP. Instead, describe your scene and actions in visual ways that convey how you “see” it played out on the big screen. Lately though, I feel like TV and movie directors are reading only the character names because it seems like every other shot in some films and a lot of TV series, are EXTREME CLOSE UPS of talking heads. In the Feb. 4 episode of The Following, sometimes half the screen was filled with shots of the BACK of Kevin Bacon’s head, unflattering profile shots of him, and more ECUs of some fat guy’s face.

When my wife and I went to see Les Miserables in a theater, it was because we expected to see an epic widescreen adaptation that brought the songs to life by showing us what it looked and felt like to be in that period of French history. During filming, actors on the set talked about the stench of rotting fish, which was part of the set designer’s efforts to make the movie as authentic as possible. So I had high hopes for the director’s vision… until I actually saw the movie. Between the silly handheld shaky cam effects and EXTREME CLOSE UPS, I actually got a headache and found myself closing my eyes so I could just listen to the music. On the rare occasions where we could see wide angle shots of the streets and city or characters interacting, we got a glimpse of the big screen experience Les Miz could have been. Alas, those moments were few and far between.

You might shrug it off as a matter of personal taste. As a writer, I disagree. If you write a scene that sets up conflict between characters, you want the audience to see the interplay and reactions — not just one head saying a line, followed by a cut to another head replying, with all the acting consisting of furrowed eyebrows, gritted teeth and other facial tics. I swear, when you watch Hawaii Five-O or The Following, the characters could be filmed in separate cities and spliced together without you even noticing — even when the two characters are supposed to be in the SAME CAR at the same time. What film school did these directors go to?!

In both of those TV series, the vast majority of shots are from the shoulder up. About the only time you see the characters’ legs is when they are running after someone or in fight scenes. Which is unfortunate, because good acting involves using the entire body. How a character moves or holds himself, their posture, fidgeting, can tell us a lot about who they are and what they’re really thinking or feeling. But the younger generation of directors (and writers, I think) believe it’s all about facial expressions and spouting snarky lines that are meant to show off the writer’s wit — not the character’s. It’s literally in-your-face, all surface, instant reactions. There are no bodies in their body of work, which makes their scenes as forgettable as the GIANT FACES that keep flashing on the screen.

Look at any of the classic films or TV series — especially comedies and sitcoms — that have stood the test of time, and you’ll hardly see any close-ups of talking heads, unless it is a particularly important or dramatic moment. That’s what used to make close-ups special. Now it’s just arbitrary. And unforgiving, especially for older or less attractive actors, thanks to high definition coupled with huge widescreen TVs in millions of homes these days. Moreover, the audiences are missing out on potentially funny or interesting bits of business they could be seeing. Watch some episodes from Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, M*A*S*H, any Hitchcock movie, and you’ll notice the subtle interplay of supporting characters… or even things in the rooms or setting that are interesting. Then turn on The Following or Hawaii Five-O and you’ll get to count nose hairs and moles on BIG HEAD SHOTS instead.

Anyhow, just wanted to get that off my chest. I wish more critics and viewers would publicly complain via Twitter and Facebook sites connected to movies and TV shows. It’s like people who SEND EMAILS AND WRITE FACEBOOK POSTS IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME. Gets kind of annoying, doesn’t it?

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

Rainy Day Tidbits

March 8, 2012

It’s been raining hard in Hawaii the past week, with heavy flooding on the island of Kauai and rare thunderstorms here on Oahu. Say what you will about climate change, but the weather has become more severe and unpredictable these past few years. My wife and I laughed when my folks gave us emergency lanterns as Christmas gifts, but damn, those battery-powered lights sure come in handy when the power goes off. Old people don’t get old by being foolish. They think ahead and plan for the worst.

I suppose I inherited some of my parents’ tendencies to anticipate problems, which is why I’m constantly thinking about Plan B scenarios or squirreling away things for “just in case” situations. I even do that with my blogs and TV show, jotting down tidbits, saving articles, in the event I don’t have any real news to impart. Today is one of those days since I’m in limbo on scripts and pitches I’ve been sending out, and just handed off a new screenplay I started to my co-writer. I don’t collaborate often, but I’m enjoying this project because it’s a big budget sci-fi action spec and we’ve been coming up with good stuff during the outlining phase.

Anyhow, back to the tidbits I had saved up for a rainy day blog post: more Australia notes! Before we went on our trip, a friend told me we should get Tim Tams, a chocolate-covered cookie that is popular Down Under. So I bought a box and thought they were good, but it wasn’t until I had a couple more that I got hooked. My wife really started to like them too. Next thing I know, we’re hunting them down in supermarkets where they have a dozen varieties of Tim Tams — my favorite being the dark chocolate mint version. Before our return home, we bought six boxes to give as gifts. One by one, however, the Tim Tams packages disappeared from the gift bag and wound up in our snack cabinet.

In a way, the Tim Tams remind me of reality TV series. You try one and think, eh, it’s okay… I can take it or leave it. But you keep watching, even though you know the shows are just empty calories. Like those insipid “Real Housewives” series on Bravo, which I hate… yet now and then I tune in, then find myself mesmerized by the sheer superficiality of these people, acting out their little personal dramas in front of cameras and pretending this is real life.

When we travel though, I want authentic experiences. I like to watch local news or read the papers, even if I can’t understand the language. It gives me a sense of what their “reality” is as compared to our manufactured American version of Real Housewives type life. I’m always curious to see what passes for big news in other countries. While we were in Sydney, the tabloid front page headlines were about the Wiggles breaking up. I vaguely recalled hearing about them being a music group that did concerts for young children… but in Australia they were huge, stars on the level of the Beatles, or so it seemed. Weird.

But the big hype on TV was for a new reality TV series called “Please Marry My Boy.” The premise was intriguing. Single bachelors who were still living at home would go on speed dates with women — while their respective moms sat in on the dates. The mothers then choose three girls who would live in their house for a few days. After about a week of seeing the commercials, I couldn’t resist tuning in for the premiere. It was pretty funny. The women didn’t know the moms were going to be present for the dates, and also choose the prospective mates for their sons. As you might guess, the sons weren’t always attracted to the same attributes of the ladies as their mothers were.

Coincidentally, while we were visiting the Old Gaol (Jail) in Melbourne, we happened to be there while TV crews were filming what appeared to be couples competing in “The Amazing Race.” The staff weren’t permitted to confirm what show was being shot, but after I got home and mentioned it in my Honolulu Star-Advertiser blog, I was contacted via Facebook by a person in Norway who said it sounded like I saw the Norwegian edition. It turned out they had a network of “spies” all over the world who were tracking the contestants and scouring the internet for sightings such as mine.

That got me to thinking about special edition ideas for Survivor. This year the twist is they started out by pitting women against men. Eh, battle of the sexes. But my recent travels made me wonder if people in different countries react the same way to certain situations. For instance, in Australia when the bus or tram is out of service, the sign in front says: “SORRY! NOT IN SERVICE.” By contrast, you’d never see that sign on a New York City subway train or bus. It would be more like, TOUGH LUCK. The Aussies we met, by and large, really exhibited a “No worries!” attitude whenever there was a problem or complaint.

We happened to be there during the Chinese Lunar New Year weekend, so we also got to see what it’s like being around 16,000 Chinese travelers in one place at one time. They are nothing like the quiet, reserved Japanese tourists we’re accustomed to seeing in Hawaii.  The Chinese were very loud, and in the words of some Australians who had to deal with the tour groups, “pushy.” Not all,  of course, but clearly they have a different temperament than Japanese travelers… or Aussies… or Americans. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if Survivor pitted groups from different countries against each other? Would they reinforce the image we have of certain people or break down ethnic stereotypes?

All I know is if you put the Real Housewives on Survivor, they’d probably all quit after three days of bitching and back-stabbing.

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.

Eddie Murphy Connection, Part 3

November 24, 2011

The day after I posted my EM Connection, Part 2, I was watching TV with my wife around 8 PM here in Hawaii when the phone rang. On the television screen, I saw the Caller ID: WME with a 310 area code. It took a couple of more rings for it to register. William Morris Endeavor, L.A., one of the biggest agencies in the entertainment business. Yep, this was a result of my Eddie Murphy contact that I’ve been blogging about. And it was in regards to a mini-treatment I had sent to my contact a week earlier.

The next hour I spent on the phone pretty much sums up my experiences over the last 15 years of screenwriting — which you may find discouraging or give you reason for hope, depending where you’re at in your personal timeline of trying to break into the TV or movie biz (or any other kind of artistic pursuit, for that matter). So let me quickly recap what happened prior to that call.

Long ago, I did freelance copywriting for a guy I met in Hawaii named James Arceneaux, who got into the music business, moved to L.A. and then wrote TV series pitches for him that sparked some interest among the Pointer Sisters (he was living with Anita Pointer) but didn’t get any traction with his other entertainment contacts. One concept was called REHAB, based on my personal experiences with recovery — this was before reality TV shows like A&E’s Intervention or Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab on VH1. Another was set in a Vegas pawn shop, where the Pointer Sisters characters worked during the day while pursuing their dreams of musical success by singing in lounges and casinos at night — this was before CSI and other series came along that used Sin City as their backdrop, and long before the reality show Pawn Stars became a huge hit on the History Channel.

James and I also developed another TV series drama concept that was really good… and I won’t tell you what it is, because that one is back in play now through the WME agent I talked to on the phone. It just goes to show that perseverance is everything, especially in an industry with such a short term memory and faddish mentality. You have to be prepared to keep your head in the game for the long haul. It might be five, ten, fifteen years before you get the call or email that changes your life. So if waiting that long is going to deter you, might as well pack it in now.

Anyway, about three or four years ago, I got a call from James, telling me he was now Eddie Murphy’s personal assistant. I’m not exactly sure how that came about, but I recall that James used to golf with Arsenio Hall (a good friend of Eddie’s) and other celebs when James was one of singer Bobby Brown’s managers. Of course, I tried to get James to pitch some of my movie ideas to his new boss, but he seemed reluctant to broach the subject since he hadn’t been working for Eddie that long. However, he did tell me Eddie was looking for a heist script and he wanted to play a character who was “smart” in some ways, but also a fish out of water… you know, like in TRADING PLACES and BEVERLY HILLS COP.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any clever ideas for heist plots/characters at that time. So I forgot all about it, until this past year when I read that Eddie and Ben Stiller had teamed up to make the TOWER HEIST movie. I kicked myself for not listening to James and really working harder to come up with something he could show Eddie. Jump cut to a month ago, when I get another unexpected call from James with another concept for a movie… which I can’t divulge since we’re getting a little heat on it.

Basically, James laid out his idea in broad strokes, adding that he had been talking to producer Brian Grazer — Ron Howard’s partner at Imagine — and director Brett Ratner about movies, and even got some screenwriting tips from them on what they look for in a script. Interestingly, the first thing James said was NOT to write actor-specific parts for Eddie or anyone else if we were going to try and get Grazer to read it. I thought those heavy hitters were all about packaging, but Grazer told James they would prefer to read scripts that weren’t tailored to individual stars because it gave them more flexibility and options. That makes sense. It also freed me up to create characters without having to worry whether so-and-so would want to play that part or not.

There were problems with the concept James came up with though. Namely, it was kind of derivative — in a good way. His instincts were on the money, but the trick was spinning the premise and adding enough twists to make it feel fresh and different. So I contacted another writer I’ve collaborated with in the past to see if he was game for this spec project. No guarantees, no money upfront. Just a chance for us to get our writing in front of my buddy’s contacts — like Grazer, Ratner, possibly Eddie, or maybe Eddie’s people, such as his team at powerhouse WME.

Using Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet approach, we came up with a story outline. Then we wrote a six-page mini-treatment to send James to see if he felt we were on the right track before we attempted to write any script pages. Didn’t hear back anything for a week, so I hit him up with an email. James called and said we had nailed it — his ideas were in there, plus we had come up with some cool stuff that would differentiate our project from other similar movies that were being pitched around town. So he sent it to his agent friend at WME and was going to meet with an A-list actor, who is building a new house down the street from Eddie’s place.

Sheesh… I’m at a thousand words into this post, and still haven’t gotten to the phone call details! Well, looks like there will be a Part 4 coming up. Have a Happy Thanksgiving. Today I’m feeling extremely grateful… although I still haven’t made that big script sale or gotten any of my stuff produced yet, I have reason to believe all my effort and work hasn’t been in vain. If just one person believes in your talent and has faith in you — whether it’s someone like James, a rep or your significant other — then you’ve accomplished something that’s worth being proud of. Thanks for reading my long, rambling missives. Now get back to writing!

Strange Obsession

September 6, 2011

One thing that good movies and TV series have in common is this: obsessed characters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Lately though, I think television has been the superior venue for stellar roles that actors would kill for. Look at Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad or my new fave thanks to Netflix streaming, Damages. Man, oh, man what great characters — especially for older actresses like Glenn Close (and younger ladies like Rose Byrne).

The male corporate villains in Damages are well written too. Actually, it’s hard to tell who’s the good guy or bad guy, which makes it even more fun and morally perplexing. Ditto for Breaking Bad. As a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, I was initially repulsed by the idea of making light of such a heavy topic: producing and selling crystal meth for profit. Oddly enough, my wife and I find ourselves sort of rooting for two drug dealers: the science teacher with cancer protag, and his young partner, a loser who becomes a sympathetic character as you get to know him better. As with Friday Night Lights, the acting in Damages and Breaking Bad is terrific throughout the cast, and even minor supporting roles become memorable thanks to great writing.

Of course, a TV series allows for much more character development and subplots than your basic 90-minute popcorn flick that has to make every second kinetic because time is money in the movie biz. They literally have to move customers through the theaters, churning them quickly in the hopes they get back in line for a repeat “ride” as if it were an amusement park or fast food place. Television, on the other hand, does best when it builds audiences and communities who want to keep coming back weekly for NEW shows and stories that expand the fictional universe these characters inhabit. In some ways, TV writing has to be even more compelling and hooky because you have to keep the viewer from flipping to another show during the commercial breaks or waits between new seasons. Not coincidentally, the other thing FNL, Breaking Bad and Damages have in common is they end each episode with a cliff-hanger moment that keeps you coming back for more.

Speaking of commercials, I also love Rhett & Link: Commercial Kings, which has been running on the IFC Channel. These guys are funny, smart and very creative. It’s a simple premise — find odd/interesting small businesses that need advertising help, then help them by producing low budget commercial spots that will get attention for being, well… goofy and funny. But in many ways, the commercials do everything you expect from slick ad agencies. They get your attention. They identify a problem that the product or service addresses. Then they ask for your business with the call to action. I’d love to see a parody or skit pitting the 60s Mad Men ad guys against Rhett and Link!

If you watch Commercial Kings, you’ll see that most of the business owners they feature are obsessed characters too. They really believe in what they’re doing, whether it’s daycare for pets, running roller skating rinks, or providing “green” coffins for eco-friendly burials.

It’s a clever idea for a TV show. By showing the “making of” the commercial stuff that goes into producing a 30-second spot they are promoting that business and, in effect, tricking you into watching a 30-minute commercial. In fact, I think I may try to do the same thing for one of our sponsors on my local TV show… but it’s not easy finding obsessed real life characters who are willing to expose themselves on television for all the world to see.

And that’s what makes series like Breaking Bad and Damages so entertaining to watch. When you think about it, the things we want so badly really won’t mean much when we’re dead and rotting away in an eco-friendly coffin we saw on Commercial Kings. But we go through life acting like everything we strive for is of the utmost importance. Then we tune into a TV series where people are so driven to protect their interests or reputations that they will lie, cheat, steal or kill to come out on top, and you realize that your comfortable little life isn’t so bad after all. At least you don’t have to worry about crazed meth dealers or ruthless lawyers knocking on your door in the middle of the night.