Friday, November 25, 2016

Is Adapting Literature Still a "Beast"?

For decades in the entertainment industry, there had been an unwritten rule concerning the adaptation of books into movies – 
Books written in commercial genres end up making the best movies. Books that are considered “literature,” often get adapted into mediocre movies. 

I raise this issue because of the critical and box-office success of the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a movie from the screenplay and work of J.K. Rowling. There are few people who would disagree that Rowling’s artistic talent and success are certainly on par with Roald Dahl, now considered a literary giant even though his most influential work was in children’s books. 
Whether the Harry Potter books should be considered “literature” or fine examples of wonderfully written books for main-stream audiences might still be debatable. However, the original
publication of the Harry Potter books (the first one came out in 1997) led to a transcendent change in our pop culture - a new generation of young people, tempted to follow the siren of digital entertainment, instead discovered the passion of reading books.  
There was a lot of skepticism about whether it was truly possible to capture on film the dense, unique universe J.K. Rowling had created on the page. As it turns out, the filmmakers involved with the Potter movie franchise mostly got it right. But does the past success of the Potter books and the more recent success of “Beasts” mean that Hollywood has gotten better at handling well written books that are tough to translate to the screen? Or is it that the Potter books don’t necessarily qualify as “literature” in the traditional sense? 

Let’s consider two critically acclaimed books, both recognized as “great literature,” by a majority of critics and readers. “American Pastoral” is perhaps one of the greatest books written in the last two decades, and one of the many great books that author Phillip Roth has written over his long and distinguished career. The novel was recently adapted into a theatrical movie, which unfortunately falls short of capturing the quality of the source material. Written and directed by the wonderfully talented actor, Ewan McGregor, the adaptation fails in the way that many adaptations often fail, neither capturing the spirit and essence of the source material, while at the same time, failing to establish its own raison d'ĂȘtre as a film project.

In this Neo-Golden age of television, we might see TV as the natural place to host adaptations of challenging literary works. That's not always the case. I turn my attention to the adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant book, "The Corrections,” adapted recently as a potential series to air on HBO.
Even though there were many talented creative people involved (including Producer Scott Rudin) in the development and shooting of the pilot episode for the project, HBO ended up not picking up the project as a series. 
In an interview (with Kurt Anderson) about the failed HBO project, Noah Baumbach, the screenwriter (along with the novelist, Franzen)/and director of the pilot, attempted to share some insight into what happened — 
“The real reason I think we didn’t go forward with (the project as a series) was that it was too complex, and it was really too expensive for the kind of show it was going to be.” 
Baumbach goes on in the interview to define how adapting any great literary work is difficult, whether it is as a movie or a TV series - “I left (the failure of the TV pilot to get picked up by HBO) with a real appreciation for what is distinctly television and what is distinctly movies. Sometimes that gets conflated because we’re all talking about how we’re in a golden age of TV and TV is where more interesting stuff is going on. But I think what gets lost in that sometimes is that it’s really a different medium. For me, the challenge of looking at something over a long period of time, that was ongoing and had no end, where you’re just re-generating story for every episode.” Noah’s comments suggest that any appearance of change in the rules of adaptation (even for TV) is a misnomer. 

Perhaps there is a new appreciation for books written by authors like J.K. Rowling, John LeCarre, and Stephen King, all genre writers that have now achieved a higher status when considering their work as “literature.” 
But apparently what hasn’t changed is how literary authors and their efforts still challenge adapting their material as a Theatrical or TV series screenplay.   

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Here's a Professional Who's Forgotten about his Oath

Vivian Kubrick, the filmmaker and daughter of the great Director Stanley Kubrick, tweets that she "recoils in disgust." 
I share her revulsion. 

Last Wednesday, the "Dr. Phil " TV show teased a segment that would run on Friday's show. I'm posting this today because I didn't want to put up anything that would get more viewers to turn into the actual show. 

Actress Shelly Duvall is not mentally well and Dr. Phil decided to pay her a visit. He claims the purpose was to help her, but is there any doubt that the only one who will really benefit from the house call will be Dr. Phil and his TV show's ratings? 

There is a long history of performers in Hollywood being exploited when they hit hard times, from Bela Lugosi to Margot Kidder. Unfortunately, it’s part of our species' biological nature to gossip, to pay close attention to the ups and downs of the people we know; and even show passionate interest in the personal lives of people we think we know through the media - actors, singers, or athletes. I believe Hollywood performers often suffer the most from this mental vice because of another species' wide pre-disposition -- a desire/dream to become rich and/or famous by performing in front of the camera. This is of course the hidden explanation that lies behind the popularity of reality shows. 
None of the above excuses the exploitation of Shelly Duvall. And Dr. Phil's video segment is especially nauseating because Mental Illness in this country still has not turned the corner to becoming a disease that is handled with compassion by the general populace and serious attention by the decision makers who deal with the health care in this country. 
During the production of the movie, The Shining, Vivian Kubrick shot an amazing production documentary that ended up being a rare glimpse of her father at work. This is obviously where Vivian's connection with Shelly Duvall began. Forty years later, Vivian is not only crying foul on twitter, but also raising money to help pay for the real medical help Ms. Duvall desperately needs. 
It’s easy to forget that Dr. Phil McGraw is a licensed doctor, not just the host of a popular TV show. Upon becoming a practicing physician, Dr. Phil swore not to violate the Hippocratic oath. One of the sections in the modern version of the oath reads, “I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know.” And there’s a part in the ancient version of the oath that reads, “Practice two things in your dealings with disease: either help or do not harm the patient.” 
Hey, Doc, interviewing a mentally ill person in front of cameras and a crew, then broadcasting your “treatment” of her to millions of TV viewers seems like it should be classified as “harm,” even if your actions are not specifically covered in the DSM.   

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Icon Status of John Wayne

STAR POWER is a phrase often used in the Industry. 
Less heard is the phrase HOLLYWOOD ICON.  
Which begs the question – What actors in front of the camera today will end up being a Hollywood Icon in the future? 
It’s a tough call because the nature of Movies, and the business of making films has radically changed over the last fifty years. 
Even with all the cultural change, certain performers in the past have had no problem maintaining their status as Hollywood Icons. Marilyn Monroe continues to be on top of the Icon list. Her image is one of the first that comes to mind when the word "sexy" is mentioned. I also believe James Dean has maintained his lofty status as the poster boy of “Cool,” even among many younger filmgoers who have probably never seen one of his movies. 
However, not all of the classic Hollywood Icons have aged as well over the years. 
John Wayne is a prime example. 

At one time, the “Duke” was the biggest star on the planet. 
Indeed, his cultural persona became so huge, that what happened to John Wayne is what happens to many Hollywood Icons — they evolve to become... a metaphor. 
Marilyn and Dean became metaphors for “sexy” and “cool.” 
However, something strange happened after Wayne became a metaphor for “Manly Hero.” 
The transformation began as a generational thing - John Wayne was what your father (or grandfather) loved about movies. Not you. Or at least not those who were part of the generation that was staking a flag in the cultural landscape hoping to fight to make things different. And this generational shift ended up being the foundation for a deeper, more wide-ranging attack on John Wayne... his movies... and especially his gold framed, velvet icon image hanging on the living room walls all across middle America. 
For many people who had grown up in a progressive culture, questioning everything that had gone on before they were born, John Wayne represented not only what had been gravely wrong with this nation’s history, but the Duke was the star in the establishment's attempt to white wash all the sins from our past using Hollywood as its propaganda machine. 
While the cultural legacies of Marilyn and Dean were poolside getting a nice tan, the status of John Wayne’s legacy was being scorched. His status as an Icon was not only being questioned, but condemned in the same way many people now wonder why we have a holiday that celebrates Christopher Columbus. 

Once again we have the privilege of publishing an excerpt from The DVD Laser Disc Newsletter. Film critic Doug Pratt shares his thoughts on John Wayne’s most famous Western films. Pratt’s coverage of the Duke’s movies mostly stays within the boundaries of film history. There's no reference to John Wayne’s ranking on the Icon power list. 
That's my excuse to offer my opinion as to why I believe  John Wayne's Hollywood Icon status deserves a higher place on Monument Mountain.  After all these years, and all that has happened since the Duke’s films were first released, his star presence up on the screen still shines as bright as a super nova. 

Starting out with jet black hair and concluding with an entirely white mane, John Wayne’s character ages, becomes unglued, and then restores himself in Howard Hawks’ outstanding and
captivating cattle drive drama, RED RIVER, which has been released in a combination four-platter Blu-ray + DVD set, along with the novel that inspired the film, by The Criterion Collection (UPC#715515117012, $50).  Their first collaboration (and Hawks’ first complete western), Wayne adapted magnificently to Hawks’ breakneck staging in the 1948 production, seeming to react spontaneously to the world around him, even when things happen while his back is turned.  Montgomery Clift co-stars as Wayne’s partner, the film dramatizing the first time a Texas
cattleman took his herd from the south of Texas to Kansas. Not only does Wayne’s hair turn white (it was the first time he played a character substantially older than he actually was), but he adeptly and subtly conveys the pains of aging, having difficulty at times standing straight or mounting a horse.  (It is so subtle that in one of the analytical interviews in the supplement, Molly Haskell misreads the intentions of his stance.)  It was that maturity that truly defined Wayne’s super-stardom, in essence creating a father figure that has dogged America ever since. 

Wayne’s character becomes obsessed with guiding the herd in a direction that will unquestionably lead to ruin, while Clift favors a different but unknown alternate route.  The argument between them almost turns deadly.  Walter Brennan, John Ireland and Joanne Dru co-star, with a whole litany of well known western character actors filling in behind them.  The action scenes are breathtaking, and the production itself is impressive on a never-again scale, as hundreds of cattle were utilized during the shoot.  

On the two BD platters and the two DVD platters, one platter contains the standard 127-minute theatrical version, and the other contains a ‘pre-release’ version that runs 133 minutes.  Where the standard version has a chipper voiceover narration by Walter Brennan, the longer version has awkward fades to the pages of a journal, where you have to read for yourself what has happened during the transition.  On the other hand, while the theatrical version is properly trimmed to the essential aspects of the story, the movie is so darn good that you don’t mind at all the extensions that stretch it out a little more, adding a bit of character detail and story, or sometimes just taking in more of the environment.  The biggest change comes in the ending, which was trimmed for legal reasons rather than aesthetic ones, and therefore plays with greater satisfaction in its longer form.  On the whole, despite losing Brennan’s narration, the longer version never feels bogged down or in anyway less brisk than the tightened version, and it is the version we will recommend to friends from now on.
The full screen black-and-white picture is mostly spotless.  The
only flaw we could make out is that sometimes the left edge of the image is a little softer than the right edge, but that is a very minor quibble.  The picture looks beautiful, and is rendered with a pristine clarity.  The monophonic sound is also fairly clean and strong. There are optional English subtitles, and a trailer.
In something of a rarity, Wayne joins Dru and Brennan for the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation that was originally broadcast in 1949. Jeff Chandler gives a bland presentation of the Clift part.  You may wonder how they got all those cattle into the studio, but the radio presentation on the whole is quite good, filling in at least one plot point that is left dangling by the film (the fate of the character played by Ireland) and otherwise condensing the tale without compromising its essence.  Wayne’s performance is thrilling, and one moment, which has been altered slightly from the film for the abridgement, in which Wayne and Chandler’s characters discuss how a widow should be compensated when her husband is killed during the drive, gave us goosebumps.  
Peter Bogdanovich provides a 17-minute analysis, delineating the differences between the two versions and why they occurred, explaining why the film is one of his favorites, deconstructing a very clever shot that made it look like there were three times as many cattle as Hawks really had to work with, and talking about the highlights of his interviews with Hawks and what they revealed about the film. There are also 16 minutes of audio-only excerpts from Bogdanovich’s interview with Hawks in 1972, in which they talk about the development of the film, the actors (he wasn’t impressed with Dru, though we can’t imagine why not), some of the film’s logistics, and his previous work on a western with Howard Hughes.
The Haskell interview runs 16 minutes and essentially summarizes all of the most common interpretations of the film’s dynamics. There is also a 13-minute interview with film historian Lee Clark Mitchell who gives a fairly good overview of the Western as a genre and how Red River upended a number of its conventions, as well as summarizing the background of novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase.  An audio-only interview from 1969 with Chase runs 10 minutes, as he shares gossip about the production and talks about the research he did beforehand.  The paperback reprint of Chase’s novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisolm Trail, runs 187 pages and differs at times from the narrative trail taken by the film, although the basic Mutiny on the Bounty plot remains.

One of the most beautiful Technicolor westerns to have a narrative that matches the quality of its images, John Ford’s 1949 SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, has been released on Blu-ray as a Warner Home Video Archive Collection title (UPC#888574396039, $22).  Wayne plays a cavalry officer on the verge of retirement who goes out on one last patrol that quickly becomes a chess game with a group of marauding Indians.
 Running 103 minutes, the film has the format of a standard action western, with the specific events of the patrol taking up most of the film’s running time, but instead of having some sort of innocuous or blandly efficient opening act, the entire film is tremendously enriched by introducing both the emotional stress the hero is stoically undergoing because of his retirement, and an intensely considered variety of historical details that not only ‘color’ the film’s period setting, but directly affect the direction and momentum of the plot.  In other words, it is an artistic masterwork that readily conforms to the needs of the boxoffice.  The ending sort of wraps things up too conveniently, for the sake of the bottom line, but by then, the film’s parallel portrait of America and the hero, giving way to newer political forces and fresher destinies, is thoroughly established.  And Wayne’s performance rises to match the film’s aspirations.  While he is
given a few personality quirks to convey his aging reactions in relaxed social situations, when he is on the job, his steely concentration and informed analysis of his surroundings is unimpaired, and you see all of this in his eyes and in his manner.
Dru co-stars, with John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harey Carey, Jr., Victor McLaglen, George O’Brien and, delivering the one other magnificent, consummately felt performance in the film, hampered only by the limitation of her
screen time, Mildred Natwick.  Johnson is also terrific, and his character develops great depth by the film’s conclusion, but he has the disadvantage of gender. Natwick, like Wayne, is given an emotional life right from the start, and every nuance in her bearing and reactions is not only highly moving, but conveys a profound historical sense of how women coped with pioneer life.

The previously issued DVD was stupendously beautiful, but the BD surpasses it in almost every frame. The colors are the same, technically, but they are crisper, better detailed and more stable.  In shot after shot, what was already a gorgeous image becomes even more lyrical and thrilling.  The presentation is in full screen format only.  While the mono¬phonic sound has a more solid delivery, there is less to it that is distinctively better in comparison to the image.  There are alternate French and Spanish audio tracks, optional English, French and two types of Spanish subtitles, a trailer, and the 4 minutes of silent ‘home movies’ from the DVD, showing Ford and Wayne vacationing (ostensibly scouting locations in Mexico).

Moving away from character growth, Hawks cast Wayne as a steadfast lawman in the 1959 RIO BRAVO, which is available on Blu-ray from Warner (UPC#883929472178, $15), and it worked out so well that he essentially made the same movie again with Wayne in 1967, EL DORADO, available on Blu-ray from Paramount (UPC#883929389360, $20).  Hawks himself seems to age between the two films.  Both movies are highly entertaining action features, but the action sequences in Rio Bravo have a balletic quality to them.  Every movement erupts and flows in a captivating rhythm, while the action in EL DORADO, while still exciting, is more static, more like the work of any other director.  

Although the films are credited with different source works—Leigh Brackett, on the other hand, worked on both screenplays—the central aspects of the story are the same in both.  Dean Martin stars with Wayne and Brennan in RIO BRAVO, playing a former lawman who has turned to alcoholism after, so it is explained, a woman dumped him.  With the assistance of a young gunfighter, played by Ricky Nelson, the four undergo a siege in their jailhouse after arresting a powerful landowner, played by Claude Akins, while the landowner’s compatriots try to spring him.  There is a lengthy prolog setting things up in EL DORADO, but the narrative eventually settles into the exact same situation.  Robert Mitchum is a lawman who has turned to alcoholism after, so it is explained, a woman dumped him. Arthur Hunnicutt has the Brennan part and James Caan has the Nelson role.  Edward Asner is the prisoner.  Wayne’s scenes with Angie Dickinson in RIO BRAVO are the only instances where his character shows some development, as he is downright nervous around her at first, and just gradually becomes comfortable with her forwardness and confidence as the film proceeds.  His character appears to have long since past that point with Charlene Holt in EL DORADO.  It is Martin and Mitchum who get to do the big ‘acting,’ sobering up once things become dicey. 

Of course, in both films, the men bond like crazy—Wayne even kisses Brennan in RIO BRAVO—and the women, although they help out in a pinch, remain on the periphery.  In what was one of Hawks’ signature themes, the professionalism of both the heroes and the villains is so pronounced that it is integral to the entertainment—you’re excited, because the characters are doing exactly what is expected of them.  This is especially true of the Nelson and Caan characters, who consistently earn praise from Wayne’s character, thereby delighting younger viewers who normally have to identify with more inept and unsure generational representatives.  Although longer than standard westerns—EL DORADO runs 127 minutes, and RIO BRAVO, which has a culturally important song sequence featuring both Martin and Nelson that doesn’t advance
the plot but critically reinforces the film’s marquee appeal, runs 143 minutes—both films are brisk, intense, and utterly transporting. While Mitchum and Caan are more accomplished and versatile actors, under Hawks that is almost irrelevant, as he is able to get exactly the performances he needs from Martin and Nelson.  
Of course, RIO BRAVO is technically the better film, but EL DORADO (except for one dated comedy sequence in which Caan briefly impersonates an Asian to distract a bad guy) is just as much fun. What both movies succeed in doing is to convey to the viewer the sense of what it means to be engaged by a ‘Western.’ The town is relatively small and the townspeople not involved in the action are generally irrelevant, so that there is the western setting—a pre-technological society where guns are used to both defy and uphold the law—and invigorating action (EL DORADO is noticeably more violent, in that the consequences of the action are more palpable), which is so masterfully doled out that the interludes of character interaction, isolated and magnified by the setting, have a heightened appeal.  Add to all of that the basic histories that the actors themselves bring to the parts—the repartee between Wayne and Brennan is even more delightful if you’ve already sat through it in RED RIVER; conversely, Caan is thrilling because of what he
will be doing in the movies he hadn’t made yet—and the films become entertainment not just because of the action and drama they contain, but because they represent a quintessential aspect of
motion picture entertainment, and to that end, it is the centrality of Wayne in both movies that make them definitive experiences.

Both films are letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. RIO BRAVO was one of the first Blu-rays Warner released, and could use a decent upgrade.  The image is clean and the colors are generally tolerable, but fleshtones are a little too orange in the wrong light, and dark hair has a tendency to take on blue highlights.  The monophonic sound is also a bit soft.  Although there is no menu selection, there are alternate French and Spanish audio tracks and optional English subtitles.  We reviewed a two-platter DVD release of RIO BRAVO and the commentary from that release, featuring intercut enthusiasms from Richard Schickel and John Carpenter, is preserved, along with a 55-minute profile of Hawks, a 33-minute retrospective piece and a 9-minute profile of the ‘western town’ set. 

In contrast, EL DORADO looks crisp and the colors are stable and precise.  The monophonic sound is also stronger and clearer. There are alternate French and Spanish audio tracks, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a 6-minute interview with Paramount producer A.C. Lyles who talks in a semi-promotional manner about the films Wayne made for Paramount, a decent 5-minute promotional featurette from 1967 focussing on the artist, Olaf Wieghorst, who made the evocative paintings of life in the West that accompany the opening credits (he also has a very nice bit part in the film), and a really good 42-minute retrospective documentary about Hawks and the film.
The BD also has two commentary tracks.  One features Peter Bogdanovich, who had visited the set for a week and also famously spent quite a bit of time picking Hawks’ brain for posterity.  As with Bogdanovich’s other commentaries, the talk is a mix of terrific insider stories (“Duke didn’t like this horse.  I remember he felt the horse wasn’t great.  It couldn’t do things as quickly as he would have liked.  He was irritated by having to ride this horse, I think mainly because Howard owned the horse and rented it to the picture.”), knowledgeable insights about the movie’s thematic intricacies and Hawks’ filmmaking techniques, and, especially as the film advances, a less inspiring recitation of what is happening on the screen.  Overall, however, like his other talks, the value of what he has to say outweighs the drawbacks.

The second track features film historian Richard Schickel, with briefer inserted reflections by film historian Todd McCarthy and by Asner.  Asner shares a few tales about the excitement of having a decent role early in his career, and McCarthy sort of echoes Schickel, sharing the most established critical interpretations of Hawks’ work.  Schickel is more focussed on how the film fits into cinema as a whole than Bogdanovich is, but he also spent substantial time with Hawks himself, and provides his interpretation of Hawks’ career, and the delicate downshifting that was occurring as age caught up to the director.  “The notion of [the] somewhat comical drunk is so characteristic of movies of a
slightly earlier generation—after Lost Weekend, they didn’t do this so much—but the notion [of] the drunk as a comic, as opposed to a tragic figure, and one who was infinitely curable if you could get him to address whatever was the immediate problem that set him drinking was, it was not regarded as a complicated psychological state.  It was not necessarily something that required Alcoholics Anonymous to be summoned.  [It was] nearly always, in the movies, played for laughs, which I think says something about the waning power of the sensibility of older men like Hawks.  We do not see very many comical drunks these days.”

One of Wayne’s greatest, most heart-wrenching performances is in what is actually a secondary role—and that is the whole point of the film—playing a retired gunslinger who is building up a ranch so he can get married in John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only to lose his girl to a lawyer that he knows is just as good of a man, if much less adept with a firearm.  Released on Blu-ray by Paramount (UPC#883929489824, $15), James Stewart plays the central character of the film, the lawyer; Vera Miles is the pioneer woman they both have affections for; and Lee Marvin is a vicious killer hired by wealthier landowners to suppress the

movement for statehood that Stewart’s character favors.  Running 123 minutes, the film is suspenseful and entertaining, but it is also pointedly about the transition that the American West underwent.  On the one hand, Wayne’s character is almost God himself, giving his blessing on the direction civilization is taking, while on the other hand he is wracked with grief over the world that he is losing by allowing this to happen—it’s the same process that anyone with a child feels by helping that child grow and go forth into the world.  It is the way in which,
very much aided by Ford’s framing, Wayne communicates this greater sense while delivering the story at hand that makes his relatively brief presence in the film so powerful and enduring. Andy Devine also gives a surprisingly good performance, especially in his old age makeup scenes.  Edmond O'Brien, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and other recognizable character actors are also featured.  The black-and-white picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and looks spotless in every shot, with finely
detailed contrasts.  The remastered 5.1-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack is great fun, with many directional effects and a subdued but viable surround presence.  A mono track is also available.  There are alternate French, Spanish, Italian and German audio tracks, and ten subtitling options, including English.  

Friday, November 4, 2016

How an Ambiguous Tale Told by a Character can Enrich the Storytelling

The filmmakers of the HBO Show, WESTWORLDwere clearly ambitious in the way they chose to remake the 1973 Michael Crichton movie. 
Their creative approach was to dig deeper before laying the foundation for the series' storyline. 
Going that route opens up more possibilities for the writers tasked to write each episode. 
It means there is more to draw on when telling a story from one episode to the next.   
One of the great weapons in Professional Screenwriting is to have a scene where a character tells a story to another character (or a group of characters). 
Not every script has the organic opportunity for this to occur. 
However, when the project is right, this tool can be a powerful way to deliver to the audience an aspect of the storyline that will illuminate what had previously been hidden, whether it is about a specific character, a secret from the past, or even thematic aspects informing the script. 
Unfortunately, this writing weapon is often abused by screenwriters, used in a lazy, hackneyed-attempt to cover over plot holes or other inferior efforts in telling a good story. 
There are ways one can tell the difference when this technique is in the hands of an artful story teller -- 

- The Character’s story is written in a way that the ultimate meaning is Ambiguous. 

- The Story told by the Character has a specific purpose – usually along the lines of revealing something deeper, not only about the character who is relating the tale, but the reaction of the character on screen listening. 

The fifth episode of WESTWORLD begins with Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), telling one of the park’s early robotic creations, “Old Bill,” a story about his past. How the scripted story is produced on screen ends up being a perfect example of the two points cited above.   

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Unbearable Horribleness of Being Depicted on Screen

The Three Most Important Professional Screenwriting Rules when Writing a Script Adaptation about a Real Person or Event.

I recently read a memoir that the author is very interested in turning into a movie/TV adaptation. My observations about the book and adapting the work into a script reminded me of the Three most important Professional Screenwriting Rules in doing an adaptation, specifically when the source material is about a real person, who is still living. 

1 The Dead don’t have any rights. 

The Living do have rights, including the legal right to tell their own story. There are dozens and dozens of rules regarding script adaptations with real events or living people as the source material, but this is number one because a writer can potentially get into a lot of trouble if they don't observe this rule. 
When a Professional Screenwriter writes a script adaptation based on a living person as the focus of their story (and/or the person's life as the source material) they must have a legal agreement allowing them the right to pursue the project. There are exceptions to this basic rule, including a screenplay adaptation that depicts a living person who would be legally considered a “celebrity” or is in the “public spotlight.” However, this exception to the rules has complicated nuances, as do other exceptions to this basic rule. The bottomline is that the professional screenwriter should always get legal advice from an attorney who specializes in entertainment law before proceeding forward. 

2 When writing an adaptation, create a script that will entertain your audience. 

This is the Second Most Important Adaptation Rule, and the one that many non-professionals (and plenty of professionals) end up breaking. Many artists believe the highest creative calling is an adaptation that is accurate about the facts and they are almost always wrong. 
Making sure the adaptation is factually true with the source material doesn’t even come close to the importance in writing an entertaining script. Those who believe it should rank this high are writers might want to consider work on propaganda films or industrial videos. 
The entertainment industry also has a category of filmmaking called “documentaries.” People who choose to be entertained by a factual based depiction of an actual person / and /or real event can seek out the documentary version of the story. 
This rule is all about prioritizing the writing of an entertaining story rather than one that mimics a history book. The goal is to capture the spirit of the living person, and/or real event you are depicting in your story and doing this in the service of entertaining an audience. Those who lose sight of this prime directive are the ones who create movies that are difficult or boring to watch and rarely find a commercial audience. There’s little nobility in writing a script that stays true to the facts, but no one sees because it was either never produced or was shunned when it was seen. 

Not keeping the facts Holy in writing a script adaptation can be a problem for the real people being depicted in the story. This is why working with the main subject of your adaptation is often problematic. Many Professional Screenwriters never meet the subjects of the story they are writing even when given the opportunity. Contact with the source of your adaptation can be illuminating for the Professional Screenwriter, but there's always the chance that it will do the opposite - hinder the creative process. 

3 An adaptation should be relatable to the commercial audience taking in your work. 

No surprise that I rank this number three because of my hardcore philosophy of writing a script that will resonate with an audience. Meaning that your creative loyalty begins with you as the artist and the relationship you have with your audience. Everything else comes in second place when telling your story - the facts… the original source material… especially the person(s) that are the focus of the source material. 
Now this rule can be very much different when writing an adaptation of fiction, like a novel. The Professional Screenwriter who adapts a beloved book (or series of books) should probably heavily consider what the readers found enjoyable. But when considering a non-fictional adaptation, loyalty to the potential audience of your work is more important than living up to those who were there, or know the person who is the focus of your story.   

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Disruption in the Persistence of Vision for Film Directors

Why Theatrical Film Directors have largely given up the status as Auteurs when working on a Hollywood Studio Movie. 

There has been a seismic shift in our creative arts. In the Neo-Golden Age of TV, the Series Showrunner has become the New Auteur. The Shift has occurred not only because the Auteur in the TV World is the Writer, but also because the artistic influence of the director in Studio Feature films has been on the wane for a while as well. 

Since the early 1970s, the creative visionary in Studio Films has largely been the Director, but that has changed in the last two decades. The shift was slow at first, but it has accelerated over the last seven years. This is due to the studios moving more and more toward becoming Special Entertainment Event promoters, using all their resources to produce and release fewer theatrical films than ever before. Even more restrictive is the creative content the major studios seek when they choose to get behind a film project. The slates for all the Hollywood studios are now completely dominated by big-budget SF… Fantasy… or Supernatural Genre movies, many of which are sequels from Branded Franchises, and with an increasing number of the projects based on comic books as the source material (specifically Marvel and DC). 
This shift has wound up with the typical director on a Hollywood studio production being hired not so much for a unique, artistic vision, but for his ability to fit a filmmaking skill set into creating something much larger than just the mere production of a movie. We’re talking about the creation of an entity so powerful that it is capable of taking over the world — first in Japan on a July weekend, then conquering all of North America the following week. Europe and the rest of Asia are the final targets in the ensuing weeks. The Directors of major studio movie projects are being hired only if they can prove that they have the acumen to handle the production of a movie like a General handle the coordination of many different divisions of troops in tasked to come up victorious in a carefully laid-out campaign of war. 
Unfortunately, the shift of artistic influence does not seem to have helped the Screenwriter(s) working on the average studio film. Unlike what has happened in TV, the screenwriter working in the theatrical film world has traditionally been one of the lowest on the status totem pole when it comes to the creation of a project. And that still appears to be the case in many of the movies that have been produced in last the several years. 
Those who have gained more power are the people who represent the money, whether it is a studio executive, or the executive who represents the company covering the costs of the production. 
The impact of this shift from Director as Auteur to Director as Traffic cop has not necessarily resulted in badly made movies. I speak specifically about the amazing high quality that each Hollywood production continues to showcase such as state of the art technical effects; the highest level of craft on display such as costumes, production design, photography and acting. This has resulted in studio movies maintaining their huge commercial popularity with audiences all over the world. 
The exception to this is North America, where movie attendance has been generally in a slump for several years. Could this slump be attributed to the film director no longer having the same creative voice of other legendary filmmakers in the past? 
The job of a director today often times means sacrificing originality for a vision that matches a largely pre-determined blueprint for the project set up years ago when the property was first born, and/or when the Franchise was bankrolled by the studio.   

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Creative Blind Spot

Picture in your Mind Three Phrases if you want to Avoid 
the Creative Blind Spot

The Process of Creativity Often Leaves an Artist Blind when evaluating the Work. 
This is why so many who create develop methods of objectively gauging their effort so the work will end up becoming better as the creative process proceeds. 
Here are Three Phrases to Keep in Mind so You don’t experience a Creative Blind spot -- 

Slow is better than Fast 

When you conceive of an idea, take your time with it. 
There will be a burst of excitement about what you’ve come up and that energy is a great motivator to act. And I suggest you run with that energy for a bit and get the idea/inspiration out of your head and on to paper. 
But then you should take a breath. Actually, take more than a breath. Give yourself plenty of space before doing this next step – objectively evaluating the worth of your new idea. You’re looking for clarity and the best way to get that is with mental Separation and Space. 
Ideas often come with speed, but an artist who takes the time to evaluate objectively will be the one to figure out what is good and what is wrong.  

More is Better than Less 

If Captain Ahab had been a Writer or filmmaker; rather than a Whaler, he would still be making a huge mistake spending all his time Hunting One White Whale. 
Enhance your odds for success by increasing the volume of projects you create. 
Too many talented artists get bogged down obsessing over that one White Whale of a project they believe will be a game-changer for their career. If it pays off, the creative obsession with a lone project year after year after year can indeed change an artist’s life. 
But it rarely happens this way. And there’s a better path to take with the same goal in mind. 
In the More is Better than Less approach the prime directive is to work on your White Whale project for a set period of time, then move it aside no matter what stage you are in the process. Take the time to tackle a completely different project which you should promise yourself you will finish. Only then are you allowed to circle back to your White Whale for another round. This approach has at least two upsides going for it -- you’ll have more work to show when someone asks to see examples of your work; and working on other projects beyond the White Whale project will can't help but make you a better creator when you tackle more rather than less. The variety of experience will also enable you to have a clearer perspective when you turn your creative attention back to chasing the White Whale project.  

Shorter is better than Longer 

To be successful, an artist must often immerse themselves in the work, becoming obsessed with the world they are creating. 
But one can end up drilling too deep and along the way, lose their creative bearings. This can happen at many different stages during creative process. Some artists become blind while working on the development phase of a project. Some artists spend years and years of research on a project and never get to the point of turning the work into creativity. Others allow the research to “wag the creative tail” to the point that the work feels stuffed with details extracted from the research which ends up overshadowing the goal of telling a good story.  
Another Creative Blindspot can be summed up with one-word – indulgence. The creator becomes fixated on specific aspects of the creation -- style, themes, tones -- and the work suffers. Creative isolation can also lead to a blind spot when the time spent on a work without feedback can lead to a myopic process where the only person who ends up being gratified by the final effort will be the creator himself. 
Perhaps the most common hazard in working on a project for too long is the mental (and physical) exhaustion that will inevitably take its toll on the creator. When this occurs, the artist is often times blind to the finished effort coming off as overworked and/or creatively rushed, as if the goal at one point in the process was simply to finish the project, because the chance of achieving quality work had long ago been compromised.