Sunday, February 26, 2017

On and Off the Screen - Bill Paxton Projected an Energy that was Palpable, Positive, and Infectious.

Such heartbreaking news about the death of Bill Paxton. 
He was a very talented and accomplished artist. 
He was also something special in Hollywood - a really nice guy. 
No surprise his transition to acting stardom was different than most – Bill started out working in film production as part of the crew (in the art department), and eventually made his way to performing in front of the camera. 
When I first met him, I wasn’t yet working as a professional in the entertainment industry. I was covering the production of a movie for Fangoria* magazine. Bill was acting in a little horror film, Braindead, to support the effort of the fledging director, Adam Simon. During my time with him, Bill could not have been more giving and enthusiastic about helping me. Indeed, what I experienced then, ended up being true for his entire career -- on and off the screen, Bill projected an energy that was  palpable, positive, and infectious. I believe it was one of the reasons everyone in the industry always wanted to work with him. Even if he had not been an extremely talented and creative artist, you’d want him on your set because he would make everyone else feel great. 

I’ve been in and around this business almost my entire life. In all those years, the only time I shamelessly behaved like a total fanboy was with Bill. At one point I couldn’t resist and asked him to recite one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite films of all time, Aliens
Without missing a beat he did it for me. 
It was so cool. I was beside myself hearing him say the words. 
The thing I need to point out was how Bill seemed to be equally as high knowing he had made my day. 
“Game Over.” 
I can’t believe the news. A truly wonderful guy… is gone.   

* I'm aware the news of Fangoria and it's future. I wanted to post my reaction last week, but working a project 24/7 has prevented me from sharing my thoughts.

Monday, January 30, 2017


Communicating on a deep level, within the constricted confines of the feature screenplay format is where the art can be found when discussing the craft of screenwriting. 

The canvas for writing a screenplay is finite, specifically the limit of time allowed for a writer to tell his story. This is the one aspect more challenging than what faces writers of novels who can take as long as they creatively want to tell their tale. 

Storytelling within the limits of a theatrical screenplay is about conveying a ton of information to the audience, communicated simultaneously on several different levels. In Professional screenwriting, one uses “shorthand,” usually by employing the ever-changing Film Language to convey information to the audience about the story. This is one of the most important and demanding features in the screenwriting craft. Those who have a great understanding of this aspect of writing, and do it well, are the writers who create work that is clearly identifiable on the page and up on the screen. 
The basic screenwriting level is focused on the storytelling, utilizing the craft to allow the audience to orientate themselves to the main plot, and the characters they will be following. The other levels of screenwriting communication are what expert writers operate in at the same time and in the same space as they reveal their basic plotline. These are the levels that creatively expand and deepen other aspects of their storytelling. 

One of my favorite films, MICHAEL CLAYTON (Screenplay and Direction by Tony Gilroy) expertly displays the craft of multi-level storytelling. Especially noteworthy is how the introduction of the eponymous main character is handled at the beginning of the film, an opening sequence essentially comprised of two main scenes, and two shorter scenes of the main character walking/talking on the phone and then driving in his car. 
I wanted to share some thoughts on the introductory scene/and adjoining scene with the main character walking and talking on his mobile phone. My goal is to highlight how the filmmaker considered every moment up on the screen as an opportunity to tell his story. 
Before proceeding, you can take a look at the scenes under discussion -  

A summary of the basic narrative of the scenes begins with the introduction of the lead character, Michael Clayton. He's playing (literally) in an underground poker game. We get an entertaining verbal back and forth between one of the card players and the main character which elicits a couple of laughs. 
We cut to Michael Clayton checking out of the game, and then leaving the warehouse. He becomes aware for the first time that someone has been trying to call him. He tries to return the calls while riding the elevator to the street level, but is unsuccessful. The moment he steps out into the street a colleague at his law firm connects with him as he's walking to his car.  

And that's the basic beats of the sequence under examination. However, along the way, the filmmaker throws in a ton of artistic elements, executed succinctly, and on the fly, each one operating on several different creative levels, a continuous stream of information to the audience about the world they are about to jump into. Here is a list of some of the important creative elements that operate below the basic level of revealing the main narrative to the audience --

- Michael Clayton not only gambles, he's obviously been indulging in this vice for a long time. We can see this in his demeanor during the game. And this point is confirmed when one of the other players in his dialogue refers to the last time they played, something that happened many months (or even years) ago. 

- We quickly learn that Clayton has not been successful at gambling. Apparently he was so bad, that he apparently quit for awhile. We know this because winners don't give it up, only losers. And it explains why the other character in the scene had not seen Clayton for awhile, during the time when our lead character tried to stop gambling. 

- We can deduce that Clayton has a gambling problem because he obviously quit, but has recently returned. (As he checks out of the game, the overseer of the game remarks, "Nice to see you again,") The fact that Clayton is now playing again makes us wonder if there is a specific reason to explain his addiction renewal.  

- Regardless of why and when, the fact that Clayton is gambling after he tried to get out shows that he’s behaving in a self-destructive way. Obviously this is a key character trait, maybe the whole point of these scenes is that our main character has a self-destructive personality and the filmmaker needs us to witness this. 

- During the scene’s dialogue, we discover Clayton was a partner in a restaurant that went belly up. We don’t know any details about what went wrong, but we’ll find out more later. The dialogue in this opening scene could be about anything, but note when the screenwriter is not letting any opportunity go by. In this case the filmmaker is planting into our heads the beginning of something significant, a very consequential plot beat. 

- Clayton works for a prestigious law firm. 
We discover this as Michael speaks on the phone to a colleague, a lawyer on vacation in Burmuda attempting to service an important, rich client in the middle of a crisis. He needs our main character's help. He wants Clayton to do what he's been hired to do at the law firm.
At this point, we don’t know for sure if Clayton is actually a lawyer himself. In the next scene we will discover that Clayton is indeed a lawyer, but one who doesn’t actually practice law, and there’s a big reason for that. This intell will end up being one of the missing pieces to his character's jigsaw puzzle. This scene introduces that concept because he’s being called out, not to provide legal advice, but to clean up a mess made by one of the firm's important clients. 

- In these scenes, only one thread directly impacts the main plot moving forward — Michael needs to drive to Westchester and meet with this rich client involved in a hit-and-run incident. 
I point this out to illustrate how everything in this sequence is truly about establishing aspects involved in storytelling other than advancing the basic plot of the movie. 

- There are symbolic aspects to the scenes operating on additional levels. For example - when he gets the call from his law firm, he tries to call back while riding in an old warehouse elevator, and when the steel cage is shut, we get the feeling that this represents where Michael is with his relationship to the firm he works for – at the beck and call of his cage keepers. 
More significantly is the symbolism in locating the poker game at the basement of a warehouse. This represents where Michael Clayton is in his life, apparently at the bottom. But things could get worse. He doesn’t know it yet, but in a few hours, Clayton will be in jeopardy of permanently winding up underground...  six feet underground. 

- There’s a major factor in these scenes that involves the storytelling we’re about to take in (but the audience has no idea of knowing this upon the first viewing). The entire sequence (and the later scenes in Westchester) will be used to “time stamp” the narrative so the filmmakers can employ a non-linear plot line to tell their story. The time stamp will allow the audience to keep track of the when and where of the plot as it unfolds. 

There’s so many more elements communicated throughout this short sequence that I could go on and on with my list, but I hope the above will suffice to prove what great writers do when working on a script. 
Let me close by citing something the opening scenes in Michael Clayton doesn't do – Spell out in an obvious way, all the points above. Accomplishing deeper, faster, and with subtlety means trusting your audience in the same way you trust your capabilities as an artist. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How a Quote from Shakespeare continues to Resonate in our Modern World

A federal judge in Brooklyn temporarily halted parts of President Donald Trump’s sweeping executive order aimed to block the entry of refugees and impose a de-facto ban on travelers coming from several Muslim-majority countries. The American Civil
Liberties Union had Filed the action in Federal court.  


The line of dialogue was written for Dick the Butcher, in ''Henry VI,'' Part II. Dick was a follower of the rebel, Jack Cade, who believed the best way to become powerful was to disrupt a society's law and order. 
The passage has often been misinterpreted and misused over the years as a swipe at those in the law profession. However, Shakespeare (who in his own life was very litigious) intended the dialogue as a compliment to attorneys and judges who might be the only thing standing between justice and anarchy in a civilized society.   

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Walking the Walk

At least 750,000 people were in downtown Los Angeles as part of a series of protests in cities nationwide collectively called the Women’s March. 

One of my daughters was one of them.

The Video above was created for my Wife's company.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My Bi-Polar Post

New Yorker unveils Trump inauguration cover early. 

2016 might have been the Best Year Ever for 
Here are some great covers from the last 12 months - 

High Times magazine is leaving New York for...
Los Angeles.  

"'The center of the cannabis universe has moved to California,' said Matt Stang, chief officer at High Times. 'New York used to be a liberal bastion.'" 

Yeah, but I bet the actual move from East to West coast will take longer than planned -You totally need to chill out, man. We’ll move your desks when it feels right. 

Besides Hitting the Plastic Reset Button No One in the News Media appears to be Doing Anything Different

2017 was supposed to be different in the way the Media covered the Political arena.
However, two weeks into the new year and it doesn’t look like anything has changed. 
There are so many things wrong in Journalism and the way they cover the world, that I don’t know 
where to begin. Let me start by mentioning two areas that should change, one at the Micro level and the other at the Macro Level. 

MICRO: At press conferences, if you are a reporter who continues to ask two questions when called upon, then you’ve learned nothing from the past. Can you give me one instance when the person behind the microphone answered both questions? 
And when has the person at the podium ever tackled the tougher question of the two? 
Asking two questions also opens up more opportunities for the person to find a place where they can verbally duck both questions. 
If your goal as a reporter is to have the answer to your question go viral, I strongly suggest the best strategy would be to ask one really good question. If your question doesn’t get answered, the verbal failure will end up being much more revealing. 

MACRO: There is a way to maintain journalistic ethics and still respond relevantly to the way things have radically changed in the world. The whole Trump/Russian Intel Dossier situation is a prime example of how out of touch the media is with the changing times. 
I believe that Buzz FeeD did the right thing in publishing the Trump/Russian Intel Dossier. And why I feel this way is the beginning of why I believe the rest of the media needs to update their standard of ethics regarding such situations as the Trump/Russian Intel Dossier. The rest of my answer is on the longish side so if you’re interested in reading more you’ll find it on my Addendum Page.    

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Friday, December 23, 2016

How Should I Proceed?

My Answer to an Online Question about Screenwriting 

Charlie Frazier, a Screenwriter on Facebook asks me: 

I'd like to advance a script that I've written. I have one that has already attracted a director who loves the script and has worked with an A list actor who we both agree would be perfect for one of the lead roles. How should I proceed?

Charlie, because I don’t know any other details than what you share with me in your question, the content of my response is general rather than any specific advice. I still hope my answer will contain some useful information.

Here are the First Five Things you should consider as you Proceed… 

1 ) If you have an Agent and/or Manager and/or Lawyer get their advice. 
If you’ve done the above… great! 
But perhaps at the moment this is not an option. You should use the interest in your project to get an agent/and/or manager /and/or lawyer. 

2) Evaluate your expectations for the project. 
Write the answers down to this point so you can remind yourself what you were thinking when the process of setting up your project began. The process of getting a script professionally produced takes a long time, even under the best of circumstances. It’s easy to lose your compass along the way. 
Hopefully, you can play the “long game” and not make any decisions that come from a place of… Fear. Fear that if you don’t jump all over the situation being offered you will miss out. 
Fear that if you don’t give in to everything that other parties ask of you, you’ll be making a mistake. 
Fear as a source that drives any decision that overrides common sense, and smart long-term thinking. 
The number-one reason screenwriters make bad decisions is because there is an emotional desperation to get to the next step in the process. Always be aware that one step forward, may wind up being several steps backwards if the move isn't smart.  

 3) Check out the Director who has shown interest in your project. 
Check him/her out in big way, as if the person is someone about to take over your house while you leave the country for several months. 
You especially want to know these major things – 
3a What the entertainment industry (production companies / studios / producers) thinks of the talent and marketability of the director’s work? 
Who represents the director (agent/manager/lawyer)? 
3b What is the perception among talent and craft artisans that have previously worked with the director? 
3c What are the creative thoughts the director has about your project? 
Many writers may ask why 3c isn’t more important than 3a and 3b. There are at least two important reasons why your main concern should not be on 3c. 
When a director can’t get your project made because no one believes in his/her talent and/or capabilities as a filmmaker this person is valueless as an asset when trying to set up your project with financiers, studios, production companies, a producer, or an actor. This is true even when you and the director feel like creative blood brothers about your project. 
Secondly, in many ways seeking a perfect artistic match should not be the measuring stick for proceeding forward. This negates the inherent strength that often lies behind many great filmmaking ventures -- a gathering of singular, but different talents with the goal of creating something greater when working in unison. A director may see your script differently than what you originally intended, and that could be a good thing. Different could be better, something many writers are unable to see clearly because of their myopic vision concerning their own work. 

4) Check out the Actor who is interested in working with the director on the project. 
Follow through on points 3a, 3b above.  
People often assume that an “A” list actor can get almost any project produced, and of course that’s not true. 
The less obvious point is this – Certain “B” List actors can get a greenlight on a certain type of project as long as it falls in a specific budget and genre. It's complicated. 
This is why anyone thinking about attaching an “A” List Actor definitely needs to check out if the performer actually brings added cache to your project’s package. 
And the above question is also what you would be asking yourself about the director as well – Is the director a real asset to a package that includes your script? 

5) Think about the Best Terms for a written agreement (“Best Terms” defined as “Reasonable and Customary” in regard to the other party you are dealing with, but the specifics and overall consideration of any agreement to be in your “Best Interests”) that would allow your project to be taken off the market if you were to go ahead and allow the director to become attached to your project. 
For instance, if you felt like the director was a value to your script, and his connection to the “A” list actor was potentially worth exploring, then work out an option agreement concerning your script that allows the director to explore the “A” list possibility. 
But don’t think about working out any agreement if there are major red flags in carrying out the due diligence concerning points three and four. 
You would be wasting everyone’s time. 
And you would potentially also cause your project to become compromised by going down an avenue that proves to be a waste of time because you haven’t squared away the issues in point number two. 
The number two reason screenwriters make bad business decisions is because they think with their heart rather than with their head. Don’t ignore the red flags. You won’t be sorry in the long run for choosing reason over misguided hope. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Authentic Voices of "RECTIFY"

The TV series, RECTIFY, ends its four-season run on the Sundance Channel tonight. The show premiered on April 23, 2013, and those who have watched it from the beginning will be sad to see it depart. However, RECTIFYdid pull off something rarely achieved by an excellent TV show – the series did not overstay its welcome. 
Quite the feat for a show that began with the premise of a death row inmate released from prison after 19 years (for a crime he may or may not have committed) only to face the daunting challenge of picking up, and starting over while being surrounded by a family that as it turns out will face the exact same challenge in their lives as well. The series had a 30 episode run, which ended up being the perfect amount of time to tell its long-form story. 

RECTIFY always maintained a high level of creative quality, especially in one specific area of the craft – Dialogue. For the Professional or Non-professional Writer, there is a lot one can learn from watching the series.   
One of the most important Professional Screenwriting Rules about writing dialogue (especially in writing in the drama genre) is to begin from the notion that in real life, people seldom say what they really feel or are thinking. What is left unsaid by characters, or what is said in place of what is hidden is usually a great place to begin if you are a writer working on a script.  
The wonderful thing about RECTIFYis that the whole series was essentially a study on the process of communication, or mostly non-communication, between people living in the modern world. From the very first episode, all the principal and supporting characters in the series struggle, scene after scene, with the basic goal of any inter-personal relationship – to communicate effectively with one another. In many ways, the entire run of the show was obsessed with depicting characters attempting to make life-changing breakthroughs in the way they connect with other people, whether they are family members, persons from their past, or members of the surrounding populace one encounters daily in a modern world. This is why, 30 episodes later, the series ends up being a remarkable master class for any fledging writer or Professional who wants to see how the craft of writing dialogue can be brought to the level of art. 

I want to point out Three Key Areas in the way series creator/show runner, Ray McKinnon, (along with the other writers/writing staff that contributed creatively to the series throughout its run), managed to use dialogue as they focused their creative attention on a basic flaw most human beings suffer from — the ability to meaningfully communicate with one another. Before we begin, take a look at this scene from season one that depicts the main character, Daniel Holden, interacting with his sister-in-law, Tawney Talbot, shortly after he has been released from prison. Note how the filmmakers establish very early on the creative focus of the show when Tawney says, “I just didn’t know what to say exactly.” 

1 The Characters in RECTIFYspeak with consistently Authentic Voices.

One of the biggest challenges in writing for dramas is writing dialogue that comes off in the way real people actually speak. It’s a challenge so difficult that often a writer will just suspend the test and write dialogue that reflects a reality more consistent with the universe of their creation/story, not with real life. I actually take this approach with almost everything I write, which is probably why I appreciate writers who can create dialogue that is both authentic sounding and yet… entertaining. Throughout the series, the characters in Rectify exchange dialogue that might at times have a colorful phrase or two, but mostly is filled with banal or rote expressions, sprinkled with plenty of silent pauses. In other words, authentic sounding. Here is a typical scene from the series with the “authentic” dialogue on full display. 

2 - Like real life, often there is an undertow, a sub-text, that is working beneath the surface as people interact with each other. 

This second point is at the heart of any well-executed scene of dialogue between two or more characters. And this is one of the reasons RECTIFY was a wonderful series to invest in as a viewer. Below all the banal, rote phrases and silent pauses, there was a dynamic undertow that energized even the most straight-forward scenes of interaction between the show’s characters. The undertow currents flowing below and between the principal characters were set up from the outset, and then carefully modulated during the run of the series. This subtext running below the surface was even there when one of the main characters interacted with a supporting or walk-on character in the storyline - a neighbor, store customer, a supervisor, or apartment manager. All the scenes in RECTIFY seemed to be charged with the type of underlying issues - status, sexism, self-worth, fear, prejudice, etc. – that often inform anyone’s daily interpersonal interaction with another human being. This led to not only great storytelling, but also relatable human drama. 

3 The dialogue in RECTIFY really shines when the characters end up using the same banal or superficial banter as a communication weapon. 

This is the area where the writers of the series pay off their consistent authentic pitch, and rote verbal choices that inform most of the show's dialogue. These are the scenes that display a level of craft you usually only get from great playwrights or screenwriters who specialize in exploiting the nuances of human behavior through words. In RECTIFY, the verbal interaction between (emotionally locked down) familial characters is in the use of words with a sharp edge, rather than the blunt side of a hammer to make their point. The setting for this scene is a quiet dinner between parents and son, interrupted when the other son drops by unannounced. 

As the series played out its final year, the episodes were still pre-occupied with the theme of interpersonal communication. The biggest change with the final episodes was that some of the characters, both main and supporting, were finally making profound personal connections. Not having seen the final show of the series yet, I’m betting that the characters who end up better off than when the show premiered are the ones who have become more comfortable speaking their mind rather than verbally hiding behind a mask. 

Throughout the four seasons of the show, the filmmakers behind 
RECTIFY used the dynamic interaction of dialogue to explore a theme that metaphorically informed the show’s premise — any of us can wind up in a prison with the only means of escape is to meaningfully connect with yourself… and with other people.   

Monday, December 12, 2016

Brave New Binge World

I know I’m a few weeks early in making Predictions for the coming new year. 
However, I couldn't wait to share my thoughts on a trend that I believe will end up changing the way TV shows are produced and distributed not only next year, but for the forseeable future. 
This last week Netflix announced that the streaming service was in the process of doubling the amount of original series available to subscribers in 2017. Netflix aims to have a minimum of 1,000
hours of original content by the end of next year. The company is set to spend quite a bit of its $6 billion budget for TV series and films on creating and acquiring TV series/Movies with the goal to make at least half of the shows and films available to subscribers be Netflix originals. No doubt Amazon will attempt to keep up with their rival's plan for the domination of worldwide entertainment viewing.
Why this is significant is because each time Netflix and Amazon premiere a new TV series, that show’s season run is available to their viewers. This has led to a trend in streaming audiences binging on TV shows when they have the choice to see an entire series all at once rather than waiting week after week to watch single episodes. 
I highlight this because I honestly believe it will continue to have a huge impact on all levels of the entertainment business. On the production side, it's already begun. In the last two years, there have been more production companies/producers of TV series than ever before who are contractually obligated to shoot, post, and deliver the entire season's worth of episodes to a Network. For the longest time, the standard operating procedure was for production company/producers to shoot, post and deliver chunks of a season's episodes to the Network, then working to stay ahead by at least three or four episodes of what is broadcast on TV to audiences. 
This process led to the eventual success of many TV shows in the past. When the producers saw how early episodes were playing to audiences, they would then augment the future shows to highlight what was working, whether it was a storyline, or an actor in the cast who was resonating with audiences. 
All of that will become ancient history as Netflix and Amazon continue to finance a large bulk of TV series in the future. Audiences who subscribe to Netflix and Amazon (and for years, binging on DVD sets with a season or complete series run of a TV show) are becoming spoiled with the option to binge on a show at their own pace. Delaying the gratification of the modern TV viewer will become more and more of a challenge to those who continue to broadcast TV shows in the old-fashioned way. 

I believe the first to suffer will be the major broadcast networks who continue to air episodes of TV shows on a nine-month schedule. Even shows that have 10-13 episodes might eventually suffer if the series run is spread out over four or five months. It’s not that viewers won’t watch if they are already fans of a particular show. The challenge will be getting a new series launched when audiences don’t have the patience to commit to watching four episodes spread over a month or more.  

I don’t believe the pay channels (HBO, Showtime, Starz, Epic), will sit still as this trend continues to change the viewing landscape. I see them spreading out the runs of their marquee shows in less, not more months. And it will be one of the pay networks above that make the initial move of having all the episodes of a TV series available on the same night the series is premiered. 

The longer-term ramifications will be that Sports programming will start to become more valuable as well as other “live” televised events. But with football and other network sporting events showing a recent drop in the ratings, that will not be the entire answer to what will continue to be a steady drop-off in ratings for prime time broadcast shows. 
Having the complete arc of a quality TV Series at the audience’s beck and call will end up rewarding those who deliver. Right now, Netflix and Amazon are positioning themselves to be the ones who reap those rewards. 
All of this change I hope will end up being great for professional creators. 
But who really knows? We're talking about the entertainment industry. Only a fool believes he can predict where a single brick will land after a building is brought down by a series of explosions.   

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.