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Monday, May 5, 2008

Street Warrior: A Hack's Love Song

One of the things hacks love to do is complain. We complain about directors and producers ruining our beloved scripts. We complain about not getting any respect. We complain about not getting paid. That's why it was refreshing when Genre Hack, Alex Greenfield, sent me this account on his recent project Street Warrior.

Alex Greenfield writes:

There are all kinds of horror stories from the trenches of genre hackdom. How not to pitch a studio? Been there. B-Dogg's (by which I mean Brendan Hood's) experiences on THEY and IAN? Done that. Busting ass to book STIGMATA 3-ish genre sequels? Sure! Little indie companies who want never ending work for no money, producers who rewrite you despite only a passing acquaintance with the English language, insane deadlines, having to rewrite live television on the fly because key talent failed to pass drug tests… well, that last one was pretty specific, but you get the idea. Plenty of writerly nightmares. But that's not what I'm here to talk about.

See: sometimes being a genre hack is smooth like butter. Sometimes it's nothing but joy interlaced with a little passing absurdity for flava. Not that long ago, I was talking to Big Poppa Sean my experience writing STREET WARRIOR for Larry Levinson Productions and Spike TV, and he thought it might be fun to share the story with others. In this case, gentle reader, the "others" are you. Like LOST, only not on an awesome island. So here we go.

Last October (2007), I was hard at work on my second bit of genre goodness for Levinson, a mini-series for Ion Television called METEOR: PATH TO DESTRUCTION. I'd already finished DEADLY BREED, a movie for Spike that turned out to be too expensive because it featured a pack of monstrous dogs as the antagonists. Anyway, I'm sitting there working on a sequence in which our hero battles a rogue cop in the garage of an isolated gas station in the midst of a deadly meteor shower when the phone rings.

It's Michael Moran, my producer at Levinson! I figure he's just calling to see how things are going with no idea that I'm about to hit the Levinson Trifecta. We start the conversation on the usual banter on movies (praising THERE WILL BE BLOOD), he asks how METEOR's going and encourages me to have the gas station explode ("we have this location in Encino we can blow up!") and then he asks me if I remember the series of action movies on Spike TV they're producing.

As it happens, I do. BREED was one of them, and several months before when I was still hacking for WWE (I was the head writer of SMACKDOWN) he had me pitch on a movie called DEATH MATCH but ended up hiring someone else. I remind him of this, and Mike says that the third time may be the charm.

"You want to pitch a movie called STREET WARRIOR?" he asks.

"What's it about?"

Mike laughs at the question and says, "well, it's called STREET WARRIOR." See: turns out they sold the title. Just the title. No logline. No story. That's a gig I want. Mike gave me carte blanche to go wherever my little heart desired inside a few guidelines. The movie has to be set in California, it has to follow the Corman formula (a fight every ten pages or so), and we need some nudity for the R-rated dvd/vod version. Otherwise, free reign. Yeah… Mike pretty much rules.

Fucking outstanding. So I think about the idea for the rest of the afternoon and call Mike back. "What about something like GET CARTER meets BLOODSPORT?" Mike totally gets the idea. We talk a lot about the tropes of the Canon actioners in the '80s, about the memes of tournament-based fight movies like ENTER THE DRAGON and THE QUEST, about new-school fighting styles in everything from BOURNE ULTIMATUM to UFC. Then he sends me to work.

The treatment came easy. Too easy. When you've been a genre hack for a while, you begin to get the sense that things that come easy never sell. Only in this case, I wrote the treatment in an afternoon (the story of an ex-con just out of Leavenworth who returns to his shitty Inland Empire hometown to find his brother has disappeared down the rabbit hole of underground, no-holds-barred fighting and has to follow him down), sent it to Mike and the next day he hires me. The contracts were done in less than a week, and the commencement check was in my hot little hands in another.

Then, we don't think about the movie again for two months. Instead, I keep working on METEOR. Go through two drafts on it. Mike calls right before Christmas and says he has good news and bad news. Good? We're ready to proceed on STREET WARRIOR. Bad? "We have to shoot in the first quarter of the year, so we need it really fast." He does give some sharp notes on the treatment: adding a love interest for the hero, pulling out a "meaningful" plot about dog fighting (why hadn't I learned the DEADLY BREED lesson?), altering the relationship with the brother. On the whole, though, it was off to script.

I wrote it in two weeks and have never had any writing come more easily. It was more like taking dictation than writing. Like I was just furiously trying to keep up with the movie I was seeing in my head. None of this was the best part. The best part were the notes.

After the first draft was done, Mike brought in his production manager, Erik Heiberg, another producer, Randy Pope and some other key members of the team. They all gave notes. It was far and away the best notes session I've ever had. I mean, this shit was just FUN. Were there complaints? Suggestions? Plot changes? Of course, but this wasn't that awful experience we hacks sometimes have of people giving notes that are, well, just plain stupid. This was colloquy among a group of people who all believe in the project, who all want it better, who all want it to kick ass.

The ideas flew fast and furious, each one building on the last. We added an awesome escrima fight. We moved the action from a UFC style cage to a filthy pit in an industrial building. We took a one-dimensional femme fatale and turned her into a three-dimensional human being. We broadened the villainy of the Big Bad to Bond dimensions. It was a blast. I turned the script around and for the next session of notes, the director came aboard.

I'm sorry to admit that I'd never heard David Jackson's name before I talked to him on the phone. One look at his IMDB page and you realize that he's been around forever creating really fantastic episodics and MOWs. The man's just a genre juggernaut: WITCHBLADE, LONE GUNMEN, SMALLVILLE and half-a-dozen others in addition to tons of more main-stream dramas. He was perfect, and his notes were perfect.

He added this small touch to a scene that shifted the tone of the whole piece. This small moment where a woman puts her comatose husband's wedding ring back on his finger in a hospital room while our hero watches. This may sound like nothing, but it means EVERYTHING to the movie. All of David's direction was like this – little pebbles that send waves crashing to the shore, all spoken in this calm, measured, completely assured voice.

The whole writing process was unique in my experience. There was never an argument. I mean, there were disagreements, but there was never that sense of people so entrenched in their own ideas that they were unwilling to listen to other points of view. There was never a sense of ownership, only of collaboration. It was what the development process ought to be.

Once again, I rewrite. It comes easy. We lock the pages for the final round of small revisions. Because here's the thing: I got my last round of notes on March 3rd. Production started on March 11th. Let me restate this, because if there is an opposite of development hell, this is it. I wrote "FADE IN" on STREET WARRIOR on December 24th. On March 11th, I was on the set for the first day of principal photography.

I gotta say, I was nervous as fuck. I mean, I've written six writing assignments and sold a spec (twice, the same spec twice), but this is the first to actually get produced. I wrote and produced every week at WWE, but in the live TV environment it's just a little different. STREET WARRIOR is a freaking movie! There were trailers and extras and a huge crew and the whole nine yards. You hear horror stories of how writers are treated on the set, and I just imagined that I would be… I dunno… that the crew would throw rotting fruit at me or whatever.

Not so much. It was absolutely fantastic. When I first got there, an AD whisked me to the video village to meet the folks I'd been talking to for the previous month: Erik, David, the other UPM, Jim Wilberger. They were welcoming and awesome. I got lost on the way to the set so got there a little late and they were in the midst of shooting dialogue scene from late in the movie in which our hero is brought to the villain's palatial estate for a little evil monologuing. They brought me a chair to watch from the village, but I wanted to go out to the set.

I wandered over to stand behind the camera and watched the dastardly underground fight promoter, Mr. Pope and his beautiful-but-deadly assistant, Ms. Lee confront Campbell. David called action. Like Roddy MacDowell used to say, "magic happened." Seeing Nick Chinlund, Jane Park-Smith and Max Martini play off each other saying words I'd written only days before was this totally mind-altering experience. There was just this reality to it. After David called cut, I wandered back to the video village and Erik and David literally laughed at the look on my face. My smile was preposterous. It stayed on my face for the whole week I spent out on the set.

The actors were just fantastic. They breathed life into the characters. As Campbell, the hero, Max Martini almost seems to have sprung from my imagination. You fucking believe that he is the toughest son of a bitch walking the earth, but with this tiny vulnerable space just below the surface. The way he spoke was almost eerily close to what I heard in my head, and he's a hell of a nice, laid-back guy off camera. The whole cast was great. Far better than a little action movie like this should warrant.

Jane was so awesome as Ms. Lee that David had me put together some more scenes for her. Nick's Mr. Pope was a revelation about the whole craft of movie-making: his every line reading was totally different that what I imagined when I wrote the script down to the inflection. Where I imagined bombastic, he went small. Where I imagined menacing, he went gregarious. You know what? His readings were better than anything I could conceive of. He created a depth to the character that wasn't on the page.

The crew was just as great. David ran the set like he ran the notes meetings we did on the phone. He was always calm and always willing to share his process. I hounded the poor guy, looking on the week as a sort of crash-course in real-world filmmaking. He was extremely generous in explaining every decision and would make a hell of a teacher. The guy was just a solid pro. If any of you hacks out there need a guy to direct something you've written, look David Jackson up. Erik, Mike and Jim were all great for putting up with me as well. Hell, everyone was. I probably talked more to Chris Showerman - the key stand-in – than just about anyone else.

Especially the stunt guys. As you might expect in a fight movie, they did a huge amount of work. Sonny Tipton, the stunt coordinator and Feddy B, the fight coordinator did just amazing work. Coming out of WWE, I wrote the fights very specifically – almost move-for-move. Sonny and Freddy (and stunt performers Jake Swallow and Chris Carnel and their whole team) made them better than I ever could have imagined. They went right from the page sometimes, and at others they went completely with their guts (always willing to explain changes). They made the fight scenes $2million dollar TV movie look every bit as good as the krav maga fights in the BOURNE ULTIMATUM. It was just outstanding to watch. WrestleMania good (and for me, that's as big a compliment as you can give).

If this is being a genre hack, I never want to be a literary writer.

I guess the sum-up is this: when I arrived in LA to watch STREET WARRIOR get produced, I was thinking what I wrote above. I was thinking that THEY are producing this movie I wrote. By the end of watching the first shot, I really felt that WE were making this movie together.

That's what it's all about for me: the sense that filmmaking is "we." "Us." That we're in this together. If I could make STREET WARRIOR 2, I would do it in a second. Not because the subject itself is that fascinating, but because the people who made the movie are people it's a joy to work with.

Plus, you know, the paycheck.

By Alex Greenfield

2 comments:

Cunningham said...

Excellent story, Alex. I was the former Director of Marketing for York Ent. and I have been in the situation of having to come up with titles for a pre-sales package we wanted to do for AFM. It's a lot of fun, but hard work coming up with a title that hits the nail right on the head.

A title has to communicate sooo much - subject matter, genre, tone - the whole concept wrapped up in a oneor two word title (to better fit on the DVD casewrap).

And on top of that, you have to come up with artwork to sell that concept... A post in and of itself.

When I've worn my screenwriter hat, I've been called in after the title and the artwork are complete and they need a story that fulfills the promise of the art and title. That's the fun part (which clearly you've experienced) as you can go anywhere as long as you hit the concept and the budget parameters. It's pulp, and it can be a lot of fun as it has to be good and be there by tuesday.

vilgodizal said...

Alex, and Sean - thank you so much for posting this. This is what I've always believed, that the process is a WE process, not always ME. I've worked in the cutting rooms on big and small features and what I loved the most was the sort of family you adopt for the nine months or so it takes to make a movie; all of you know what to do and all of you work like fiends to get it done. It's as if you're in the military and are bonding with the other soldiers around you because you're all fighting on the same side.

Glorious stuff. This is why I'm here. It's why we all are.

Thank you!
Sean