Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Bucket

I have a bucket that I carry with me wherever I go. I collect things in it, hour by hour, day by day. Some of the things are ordinary like a piece of string or a broken watch, but other things are quite unexpected, like love letter or the lens of a telescope.

Yesterday I found a thumb tack on the bottom of my shoe; it went in the bucket, along with three dried chips of turquoise paint and an empty Coke bottle. While in the shower a bright yellow frog appeared by the open window, and I would have put it in too, but I left my bucket in the car, and by the time I fetched it, the frog was gone.

You have to be quick.

Often I will steal things, usually from my closest friends. They’ll be talking and a little golden coin will drop out of their mouth and tinkle on the floor. I’ll snatch it up when they aren’t looking and then call it my own. I don’t feel bad about it because they do the same thing to me. Just the other morning I spied a little porcelain bird that a friend had copped from my pail and had put into hers. I think she felt guilty, but I didn’t mind; in fact, I was glad that she could use it. I just couldn’t find a place for it anywhere, and it suited her collection perfectly.

I know people who leave their bucket at home most of the time, only taking it out when they think they need something. Of course, after just a few hours of searching they get bored or frustrated about not finding the thing they were looking for, so they put the bucket away. What they don’t realize is that you have to keep your bucket at all times and you can’t be so picky about what you collect.

Me, I’ll pick up anything.

Some people like fancy buckets made of tin, old-fashioned buckets made of wood, or electric buckets with flashing lights, but I’ll use whatever is handy. The container isn’t as important as the things you collect. You can use a cereal bowl or discarded Starbucks coffee cup, or even your pocket in a pinch. The mistake is to see something and tell yourself, “I’ll get that later, when I have more time,” because as soon as you turn your eyes away (from the bronze nail, the dead caterpillar, the silk yarmulke) it will disappear. You’ll never find it again.

Recently I’ve gotten in the habit of getting up very early and meeting friends at coffee houses. They bring their buckets too, and together we sort and sift and show each other what we’ve found. Often we trade: a rusty license plate for a silver toothpick, a rubber ball for scrap of shag carpet. It’s fun to share.

But most of the work I do alone, dumping out the contents of my bucket and deciding what to use, what to throw out and what to save for later. It’s really amazing what turns up if you keep your eyes open and you make sure to have your bucket with you.

For instance, while driving in my car, my cousin appeared in the passenger seat - not as she is now, a middle-aged mother of two, but as a child with fiery red hair and a doll that was missing its left eye. I didn’t know why or how she appeared, but I didn’t ask questions. I just collected her and her doll in the bucket as soon as I reached a red light, keeping an eye on her in my peripheral vision to be sure she wouldn’t vanish.

I sometimes put expressions in the bucket, like “posilutely splificated.” I put sounds in the bucket, like the popping of bubble wrap or the giggle of a barista. I collect attitudes, poses and gesticulations. I gather confusion and doubt. I pick up itches, headaches and ennui. I take things I don’t believe in, like ghosts or trickle down economics. It’s important not to be judgmental, and accept whatever appears in your path. Anything.

Do I sound crazy to you?

Well, if you haven’t guessed, I’ll tell you that the “bucket” is just my notebook. And the things I find are seeds: seeds for writing, seeds for filmmaking, seeds for acting, seeds for understanding, seeds for meaning. If you are an artist or creative person, you need to have a bucket, you need to take it with you everywhere, and you need to collect whatever you find. Whatever idea flashes in your head, write it down. Anything and everything.

Just put it in your bucket – it may look dusty and ordinary, but you may discover something rare and beautiful in it later. Don’t wait. Do it now. Right now.

Before it disappears forever...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Filmmaker's Life: Idea, Concept and Story Development - PART 1

My friend and mentor, Jacques Thelemaque, writes about his process of story development. (Click the link below)

A Filmmaker's Life: Idea, Concept and Story Development - PART 1

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Melancholy Baby" in Echo Park

Date: Monday, November 17, 2008

Time: 7:30pm - 10:30pm


Echo Park Film Center Street:
1200 N. Alvarado St.
Los Angeles, CA

Come and see what FA members and other members of the LA filmmaking community are up to creatively, and support the great work that the EPFC people are doing in our community. The center is a volunteer run organization that offers fantastic adult super 8mm film classes, youth classes, and much more, so we do ask that you leave a $5 donation at the door to help keep the Center going.There is a brief Q&A after each film, not to mention complimentary food & drinks. So come on out on the 17th and enjoy the following line up:


-"A Shade Before Pink" : by Jackee Chang

-"The Parrot Gang": by Grant Falardeau-"Birthmark" by David Woods

-"THE cycle": by Amanda Sweikow

-"Melancholy Baby": by Sean Hood

Hope to see you all there!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

National Accademy of Sciences meet Genre Hacks

For all you sci-fi nerds and science hacks out there, there is a nifty symposium that I will be attending and blogging about later this month. The idea is for "top scientists and engineers to discuss collaborations between science and entertainment and explore new projects." 

Here is the official announcement:

NAS and entertainment industry to discuss collaborations 

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is sponsoring a symposium to bring together professionals from the entertainment industry with top scientists. Film producers Jerry and Janet Zucker and Patrick Soon-Shiong, chairman and CEO of Abraxis Bioscience Inc., will co-host the event with the Academy. Participants will include directors, producers, script writers, designers, art directors, show runners, and prop masters as well as scientists, health and medical professionals, and engineers. The symposium is part of an initiative called the Science and Entertainment Exchange that was developed by the NAS to facilitate a valuable connection between the two communities. The Exchange is endorsed by the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, and Women in Film.

DETAILS: The symposium will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 19, from noon to 6 p.m. PST in the Creative Artists Agency Building, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles. Reporters must register in advance to attend; this event is not open to the public. For a complete list of speakers and agenda, visit

CONTACT: Maureen O'Leary, Director of Public Information, Office of News and Public Information at the National Academies, tel. 202-334-3875 or e-mail


  • BONNIE BASSLER, director of graduate studies, department of molecular biology, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.

  • RODNEY BROOKS, Panasonic Professor of Robotics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and chief technical officer, iRobot Corp.

  • STEVE CHU, director, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; professor of physics and professor of molecular and cell biology, University of California, Berkeley; and 1997 Nobel Prize winner in physics

  • NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, astrophysicist; and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City

  • V.S. RAMACHANDRAN, director, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego

  • J. CRAIG VENTER, president, J. Craig Venter Institute

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008


The Thinking Writer had a good link today on delving into the personalities of characters by finding their "personality type." He suggests Keirsey Temperament WebsiteThe best  personality typing system for me is The Enneagram. It's a little more writer friendly and less academic than Keirsey. 

And it's particularly fun when you go against type, imagining your action hero as a "Peacemaker" or your femme fatal as an "Individualist. Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog has a series of five posts on the subject, which you can read here.

Just my tip for the day.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Creative Cross Pollination

One of the frustrating things about movie development is the way executives, producers, and directors constantly reference their favorite movies. “This part should be like the bathtub scene in The Shining!” said one enthusiastic note-giver the other day. The danger in thinking this way is that your movie becomes a pastiche of images, characters, and story beats lifted from previous movies – and the viewer experiences not the excitement and shock of the original, but only the dull mediocrity of the copycat.

It’s natural for filmmakers to be inspired by their favorite films, but it can also be a creative dead end. This is a particular problem for the genre filmmaker struggling with dusty genre conventions. That’s why I advise Genre Hacks to look for ideas outside of the cineplex.

Try going to an art opening - there’s always free drinks and the people-watching can be just as creatively inspiring as the art. Just last night, I went to Gallery 1988 on Melrose Boulevard in Los Angeles, and had my mind bent by the surreal juxtapositions in paintings by Greg Simkins. Sure enough, driving home buzzing with seeming unrelated ideas for action sequences.

Try reading more novels, not with the intension of adapting them, but simply with the goal of entering a universe and encountering characters that are unlike anything you’ve seen on film. This week I began reading Per Petersons Out Stealing Horses, and I can think of nothing else but the glow of white-blonde hair in Norwegian twilight. It's spooky.

Try going to plays. Fetching young actors and actresses will be grateful you came and will feed you wine and cheese. Try attending an acting class, and bring along some of the scenes you are working on. Try listening to live music with your eyes closed and see what images bubble up from your subconscious. Eat in offbeat exotic restaurants and doodle caricatures on the napkins.

And when you do go to a movie, go the road less traveled. Instead of going to Saw V, see Let The Right One In. Instead of renting Iron Man, rent some obscure Japanese Animation. Writing a psychological thriller? Don’t reference Hitchcock yet again; try watching documentaries on factory workers – all those industrial machines could be a nifty place for a nightmare sequence or a murder.

At the end of the day, you will have to go back to your producers and executives and speak the language of common-movie-clich├ęs. They don’t have to know that your sea monster was inspired by a found-object sculpture, that a scene on a spaceship was inspired by a 19th century poem, or that the actress you’re thinking of when you write is not Elizabeth Banks or Angelina Jolie, but a redhead you saw little theater in NoHo.

They will just notice that you’re writing is alive, engaging and unexpectedly clever… just like their favorite movies.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Filmmaker's Life: The Lifeboat We Call Community

I would be nothing without my very peculiar community of film artists and circus freaks. One of these particularly talented freaks writes about community below:

A Filmmaker's Life: The Lifeboat We Call Community

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Filmmaker's Life: Final VisionFest Reminder

If you are interested in going to Visionfest at the Directors Guild of America, please click the link and buy a ticket (It's a fund raiser), or contact me directly at and I can get you in.

A Filmmaker's Life: Final VisionFest Reminder

Monday, August 4, 2008

VisionFest 08

About 15 years ago, I was one of eight founding members of the non-profit film collective Filmmakers Alliance. Now the group has over 400 members and has made hundreds of films.

This will be our 11th
Year presenting VisionFest, Filmmakers Alliance annual screening and celebration held at the prestigious Directors Guild of America Theater Complex - regularly attended by overflowing audiences, celebrity filmmakers, and press.

Watch the promo here:

A Filmmaker's Life: More VisionFest 08

It begins with the presentation of the Vision Award to an established filmmaker whose artistic ambition and excellence inspires emerging filmmakers around the world. Past recipients include MIke Figgis, Terry Gilliam, Wim Wenders, Allison Anders, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Werner Herzog, and Mark and Michael Polish.

This year's Vision Award recipient is filmmaker Kevin Smith.

The presentation is followed by the Los Angeles Short Filmmaking Grant, an award that I won two years ago. And that is followed by a program of the best short films produced through Filmmakers Alliance in the previous year. This year, my film "Melancholy Baby" will end the the program.

The evening finishes with an elegant but high-energy party in the DGA lobby catered by some of Los Angeles' best restaurants. So go to the
Filmmakers Alliance website, buy a ticket and COME!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Just Listen

I'm completely deaf in my left ear. Besides giving me a reputation for being "aloof" or "shy" at cocktail parties and noisy restaurants, my shoddy monophonic hearing has inspired in me a peculiar fascination with cinematic sound design. Perhaps it's only in movies that I can actually hear everything I need to hear. Maybe having only one working ear has made me more aware of sounds and how they color my emotional responses to what I see. Both my parents are musicians, so it might be that I experience all cinematic elements - color, movement, shape, plot, dialogue, effects, and so on - as a kind of music. For whatever reason, I don't just like to watch; I like to listen.

David Lynch is often praised for his surreal imagery. But, the next time you are watching one of his films, try closing your eyes. You will hear ominous roars, churning machines, the laughter of children, gushing liquids, and ripping metal. Now open your eyes and see how these disturbing sounds are juxtaposed with with images of a family dinner, a parking lot at Denny's, a smiling starlet, or a simple cup of coffee. Lynch's pictures are strange, but they are genius, in my mind, because of the sounds he marries them to.

The opening dream sequence in Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" is built with long moments of eerie silence punctuated by the shrill cry of a horse or the creak and snap of breaking wood. Remember the scene in which Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and the Police Captain? Watch the scene again and listen to how Michael's growing anxiety about the murder he is about to commit is revealed by the squeal and thunder of a nearby elevated train.

The image is presented to our conscious mind, but sounds work on the unconscious. This is why bad sound can ruin an otherwise compelling independent film - it's the annoying buzz that won't let us sleep when we aught to be dreaming. So, with this in mind, when I make films I spend a lot of time thinking about sound, even while writing the screenplay.

"Melancholy Baby," my short playing and this year's Visionfest tells the story of an agoraphobic man who falls in love with his neighbor by listening to her movements through their shared wall. The film is still in process at the time of this writing, but for me, it will be all about what the audience hears. Through the wall, he listens to her crying, coughing, walking, pleading, singing, and having an orgasm. We experience his loneliness through the groan and churn of an air conditioner. the gurgling pipes, the ring of tiny objects sorted into jars, and his nervous fingers tapping out a rhythm as loud as a drumbeat. These sounds are not "realistic." For him the world outside is an intimidating roar of birds, crows sounding off like air raid sirens. The audience hears the sounds as the main character feels them.

In order to get the sounds I wanted, I spent an entire production day "shooting sound" on the locations, recording everything from dog barks to footsteps, laughter and weeping. It was my only day as a director that I called "action" with my eyes closed.

Most of the time, of course, sound is just there to support picture, like Tonto or Sancho Panza. Most people think the sound is good if the dialog is clear, the music is catchy, and the explosions are loud. But for me, it's more than that. For me, one of the best parts of experiencing the most dynamic and power visual medium of all time... ... is listening.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Serial Killer's 12 Step Program

Many years ago Bob Weinstien and Kevin Williamson hired me to write a draft of "Cursed." At that time the movie was not going to be a teen-horror spoof in the vein of "Scream," but rather a gritty thriller in the vein of "Seven." Kevin, who was only producing at this point, wanted to do a story about serial killers and their "addiction" to violence - and more generally a film about addiction itself.

Although nothing from my draft ever made it into the Christina Ricci werewolf film, there was one element that I came up with that I was always very proud of, and that was "A Serial Killer's 12 Steps." So now, at last, I am publishing these 12 steps for all to enjoy.


1. Admit we are POWERLESS.
1. Discover your POWER (first kill).

2. Believe in a power GREATER than ourselves.
2. Believe you are GREATER than others. (You are godlike)

3. Decide to TURN OVER OUR WILL to God.
3. Decide to force victims to SUBMIT TO YOUR WILL.

4. Make a fearless moral inventory of OURSELVES.
4. Make a ruthless moral judgment of OTHERS (victims deserve it).

5. Admit our wrongs.
5. See that others have wronged you.

6. Be ready to have God remove defects in OURSELVES.
6. Be ready to remove defects in OTHERS (kill victims)

7. Humbly ask God to remove shortcomings.
7. Humiliate victims for their shortcomings

8. Make a list of persons harmed.
8. Make a “list” of people TO harm.

9. Make amends.
9. Take revenge. (Begin killing spree)

10. Continue personal inventory.
10. Expand feelings of superiority and omnipotence.

11. Prayer and Meditation.
11. Escalate risks for bigger thrill.

12. Carry this message to others.
12. Revel in media attention.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Filmmaker's Life: The Courage and Ego To Be Bad

So what are you doing Monday night? Would you like to see several of my earliest and shockingly worst films? Sordid tales of lust on black and white 16mm? Bathtubs filled with blood and young girls licking the ends of straight razors shot on super-8? My startling and embarrassing acting debut wearing a pair of red long john pajamas?

Go to the Echo Park Film Center. This Monday night, May 12th. And see just how bad my films were in the early 90's. You can read why my friends at Filmmakers Alliance and I would reveal our "worst and first" films here:

A Filmmaker's Life: The Courage and Ego To Be Bad

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fear Itself

More news on the attachments to NBC's anthology series "Fear Itself," for which I am writing the original episode "Echoes."

Click HERE for the skinny.

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

Saturday, April 26, 2008


I will be blogging about this writer's retreat myself soon. But, anyone who works in creative capacity - actor, writer, director, filmmaker - needs to create a trusted creative community for themselves. This tight group of trusted collaborators will constantly push you to the edge of your potential.

See Jacques' description of the weekend event here:


Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Filmmaker's Life: NAB 2008

I'm always urging genre screenwriters to make there own films (as director or producer). One important element in doing this is creating partnerships with companies that are creating new technologies.

For instance, I'm a big fan of the new RED camera. Read about Jacques' experiences with RED and other companies at NAB in Las Vegas in the link below:

A Filmmaker's Life: NAB 2008

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wrting plays, screenplays, or novels

In Response to my post “Why YOU should write Stigmata 3,” Martin Blank wrote this illuminating comment on the differences between writing screenplays and writing stage plays.

He writes:

I’ve spent most of my creative life as a playwright, exactly because I wanted to write personal stories. And I’ve been very lucky, as all ten of my plays have found a home, and full productions, some multiple productions. Lucky, indeed. As a playwright, I own the copyright and a theater literally has to GET IT IN WRITING FROM ME if they want to change a word. The down side, which I don’t mind at all, is in my best year I made $25,000 as a playwright. Most years it’s more like five to ten.

But I do just fine coaching actors, which I love to do. And it does not hurt that my wife is an executive for a technology company. I did get into the film world by the back door, as a small production company bought one of my plays after they saw a reading in LA. BUT my eyes where wide open. It was more than I ever made as a playwright, and I got lucky since it only went through a first draft, two rewrites, and a polish. I was the only writer. (I think!) And they were really nice.

On the other hand, I was more than happy to do notes. So it worked out fine. I don’t think the film will ever be made, but my agents think I have a fine sample. And if it gets made, well, I know I’ll be rewritten. So? I got to see the play produced twice exactly as I wrote it, before I ever signed over the rights to film. The only reasons I’d write movies again is for the money, which is not to say it can’t be or was not a lot of fun. It is. You just have to know what you’re getting into. Which is your very smart point.

I also teach playwriting from time to time, and tell people if they don’t want to collaborate, write novels! Which would lead me to my final thought: I know Peter Hedges a little, (he was first a playwright), and he wrote “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” as a novel. And they don’t get more personal. Then it sold to film. I ran into him on the street in NYC with his novel in hand years ago and he smiled a big smile and said, “Hey, they’re making it into a movie!”

So, while I sneak in to Hollywood from time to time, I would suggest for the most personal stories, a Novel. Maybe a play. On a stage, actors can truly make you better than your are on the page, or it can go the other way. But God love actors who do theater year after year. What makes most sense to me is to know the market you are working in and exactly what it has to give and not. In my experience, in film, theater, novels, if you talk to enough working writers they will tell you the score. My score, my real goal in writing, is TO HAVE FUN. So far, so good.

Martin Blank

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Getting To The Top of The Pile

Mike Le, a member of the Genre Hacks group on facebook, posted another funny story, which I'm reposting here for all to enjoy. Mike's blog, written as an ongoing comic, can be found here.

Mike writes:

Just before last Christmas break, another unsolicited script landed on my desk. Last thing I needed is more to read during my vacation, especially material that just randomly comes in the mail. I intended to simply pass it along to my assistant so she could tell the writer we don't accept unsolicited material.

But taped to the cover of the script was a $25 Starbucks gift card and a note saying: "Hope you enjoy the script and Merry Christmas!"

Granted, the generous gift will not change the quality of the script -- but it did change my mind about reading it. You gotta admire the moxie. It went straight to the top of my pile.

The next day, I was sitting at LAX waiting to board my plane. I was on the phone with a screenwriter friend of mine, whose comedy script I'm producing -- a comedy set in the world of competitive baton twirling. I'm telling her about the script that came with the $25 Starbucks giftcard, thinking she'd get a kick out of it. Her immediate response was, "You gotta send the gift card back."
"What do you mean?" I reacted.
"Either read the script or don't read the script," she continued, "But you can't accept the gift card. You're setting a nasty precedent."
"It was a Christmas gift," I defended.
"No, it was a bribe."
"I'm not a politician whose salary is paid by your tax dollars. It's not illegal to bribe me. In fact, I encourage it."
She didn't find my joke very humorous, awkward silence on the phone.
"Okay, okay," I said, "Let's put it this way -- this writer who submitted the script is an outsider looking in, she's not repped, she has no industry contacts, and she is sending her material to a company that doesn't accept unsolicited material. She is doing whatever humanly possible to get read -- so she used the holiday occasion to thinly disguise a bribe as a gift to appeal to my sense of materialism. Can't that kind of cleverness from a writer be appreciated?" I wanted to use the word "rewarded" instead, but decided to step cautiously.
"No," she flated responded. "It's so transparent on her part, and morally reprehensible on yours. She might as well have sent you cash."
"What if she baked me cookies?"
"That's fine."
"But what if baking cookies would have cost her more than $25? It's more convenient to just go to Starbucks and get a giftcard. She probably saved more time doing that, thus allowing her more time to write."
"You're reaching," my friend said. "I know I'm sounding like your moral compass right now, but I feel strongly about this. And I'm shocked someone such as you, who's a writer first, would be so flippant about it."
"Alright fine, let's say I do read the script and give her feedback. That means this writer is only paying $25 for professional coverage. Most pro coverage runs in the hundreds. Isn't that charity on my part?"
"Not at all," she said. "It's more of an insult to you. It's cheap. Your time is worth more than that. Read it because you want to read it, because it's your job and because it's the thing you claim you love doing. Don't read it because someone sold you on a gimmick."
I was silent, contemplating. "You're making me feel guilty," I said.
"That's my job," she responded, "And that's what I love doing."
We hang up and her words weighed heavily on me. I was going to send the gift card back.

On the plane, I decided to read the script anyways. It was okay, not great. But there was something very interesting about it that made me call my screenwriter friend as soon as I landed. "I read the script," I said into the phone.
"How is it?" My writer friend asked.
"I'm passing."
"You're sending the gift card back, right?"
"Remember when we sent your script to Ben Stiller's company?"
"Yeah, so?"
"And we sent an actual baton with the script? As a gimmick, right? For our project to stand out amongst their stacks of considers?"
"So it was okay for Ben Stiller to accept the gift, right?"
"Yeah, because it's a natural extention of the story. What's your point?"
"Well, this script I just read is a musical set in a Starbucks."
Silence on her end.
"I can keep the giftcard, right?"
She grumbled, "Enjoy your vacation." I could tell by her tone she conceded but didn't want to admit she was wrong.

It was a good vacation. I spent most of it writing in a Starbucks.

By Mike Le

Jacques Thelemaque On The Struggle To Stay Creative

This is a great article by my friend and mentor Jacques Thelemaque about the need for filmmakers to continue to make films, despite the obstacles of time and money.

A Filmmaker's Life: Breadwinning vs. Filmmaking - Resolving the battle with a short film

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Reality Hacks

Genre Hack, Julie Marsh, wrote and interesting and instructive piece (below) on how genre movies separate the viewer from reality. Budding genre screenwriters, take notes, she's created a new term:

Reality Hack

The moment when a narrative abruptly departs from reasonable expectations of the ordinary.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

Dorothy’s classic utterance shines a light on one of the most powerful opportunities afforded to the writer of fantastical narratives, in any genre, in any medium.

By the time a filmgoer walks into a multiplex, or sits down to munch microwave popcorn with Netflix, he or she has seen trailers, reviews, poster art, and maybe even an SNL parody. Viewers have a whole passel of pre-conceived notions, but when a writer does the job right, that crystalline moment when mundane physics, gravity and reason fall away, can still deliver a gut-punch.

The moment when a narrative departs from the reasonable expectation of reality is absolutely precious. Savor it. Make it sing, sting, or stun. The storyteller’s real job is to master the expectations of the reader/viewer, to move them off their spot and in a direction they might not have imagined or chosen. How better to demonstrate mastery over those expectations than to suddenly bewilder the audience’s sense of normal time and space?

HOW you separate us from our reality is an efficient way to re-enforce clear genre and establish tone. Since genre is where craft meets marketplace, this moment can really anchor your narrative to the climax.

    • Horror looks for a good scare or surprise.
    • Fantasy looks for wonder & escape, usually through a magic portal
    • SciFi looks for realism and a logical extrapolation of the known universe
    • Action looks for reality-bending, escalating thrills
    • Magical Realism wants a poetic or whimsical twist on reality, often linked to a POV
    • Broad Comedy wants an outrageous and/or disgusting set-up & demands a laugh

At some point, you want to firmly yank the “Reality Rug” out from under the viewer. But maybe not all at once. Contemplate WHEN:


A tease can be quite tantalizing. Most horror movies protract the very thing we all know is coming. As soon as you buy a ticket to something called ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, you’re gonna be pissed if something doesn’t jump out at you early and slaughter some poor sacrificial lamb we haven’t had time to care about by page 10. Characters early in the story are often heard to whisper: “What was that noise?” Think of the tease offered by the accumulated reaction shots of Haley Joel Osmet’s character in THE SIXTH SENSE. Every look accrues to a sense of dread and curiosity. “What does he see? What’s he so afraid of? How soon do we get to see it? Do I want to see it??” Ah, we do, but we don’t. That’s the beauty of the tease.


If you’re shopping for that requisite hook for your first 10 pages, what could be better than pulling off a surprising reversal in the first moments of the film? A solid reversal requires that you set up an expectation, but since this reversal conscripts pre-existing expectations of reality and physics, the audience has entered the theater with these firmly in mind. The more resoundingly you can defy those expectations the better. For some reason, the first moments of BUCKAROO BANSAI come to mind. The over-the-top comic book tone is established by the hero’s prowess as a world-class brain surgeon, a stunt followed by a land-speed world record attempt across a salt flat. The reversal comes when Buckaroo’s rocket car veers toward a head-on collision with solid rock. On purpose. Buckaroo, a recreational physicist, also happens to have discovered a way to pass through solid matter. He plunges into the rock face, entering the space between particles, and emerges unharmed. Not a bad hook.


If your science fiction or fantasy piece takes place in a completely alternate reality, time, or world, you may need to establish that boldly, up-front. Still, one must offer some familiar point of reference to create identification for the audience, so they step into the new world with you. If your job is to efficiently cast a whole reality, you better get started right out of the gate. Look at LORD OF THE RINGS, which grounds us lovingly in the Shire and establishes our charming notion of “home” for the next couple of hours. BLADERUNNER, on the other hand, opens with a shot of a stark, polluted skyline, with futuristic vehicles. It seems alien. Moments later we are grounded by the familiar conventions and costumes of Film Noir. Even a musical often opens with a song, and thereby inaugurates an irrational universe in which silly people are free to burst into song and music will mysteriously swell from no where to accompany them.

Whichever option you use, don’t wait too long to establish genre, tone, and degree of irrationality. For the departure from reality to succeed, the audience must be right there with you. If you wait too long, you risk that the audience will no longer be prepared to suspend their disbelief. I once read a script that spent 70+ pages weaving a drug cartel crime intrigue with a hidden agenda. When the hidden agenda turned out to be related to aliens, my jaw dropped.

Take the irrational universe of a Farrelly Brothers comedy. The absurd tone is established spectacularly up front and makes space in the story for just how broad and unreal the situations will get. Otherwise, they risk that the audience will think a late gag is unbelievable and merely dumb. Take the first joke in SOMETHING ABOUT MARY in which Mary’s mentally-challenged brother Warren is the brunt of an impossibly cruel joke. Warren is tricked into asking a cheerleader “Have you seen my wiener?” right in front of her jock boyfriend. Voila. Welcome to the lucrative world of gross-out humor and humiliation at the expense of handicapped people!

And remember, the absolute #1 Rule of Genre is that your job is to selectively break and undermine the “Rules.”

Julie Marsh is a writer, producer and professional story consultant working in all genres for film and games.

Her DVD on writing for Horror,
Genre Works: The Screenwriter's Guide to Horror
is available from Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

Her website is

Monday, April 7, 2008

Writing NBC's "Fear Itself"

I was recently hired by Industry/Lionsgate/NBC to write an original episode of NBC's upcoming series "Fear Itself." The director I'm working with is Rob Bowman (Reign of Fire, X-files). The episode is a story I've been dieing to tell for years, and I'm glad that all the players involved responded to it. You can read more about "Fear Itself" on Brad Miska’s website Bloody Disgusting.

The biggest challenge for me turns out to be the format. I’m a feature writer and I’m used to telling stories in three unbroken acts over 110 minutes. Even the Masters of Horror episode that I wrote, Sick Girl, was an unbroken 60 minutes. The format for an NBC one-hour episode is 42 minutes, broken into five acts and a teaser. Each act can be no shorter than six pages/minutes and no longer than nine. Of course, between each act will be a story-stopping three minutes of commercials. With each 6-9 minute act, I have to win the audience over again and hold them in their seats through the next break.

This is hard enough to do with a regular series episode where the audience is familiar with the characters and premise, but it is even more challenging in an anthology show where your characters have to be introduced, undergo a life-changing crisis and resolve it, all in a series of 6-9 minute nuggets.

So, I’m thinking of it this way: I’m writing six sequential (or you could say serialized) short films. Each short film has to set and reset the tone, each has to have a beginning, middle and end. Each has to have a kind of independence so that the audience, fresh from a commercial break or tuning in halfway through, will be drawn in.

It’s a tough assignment but I’m eager for the challenge.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Melancholy Baby - A Filmmakers Alliance Short Film

Last weekend I directed a Filmmakers Alliance short film called "Melancholy Baby" (aka "Zachariah," aka "Sounds Through A Wall"). The script, which I also wrote, won the Los Angeles Short Filmmaking Grant a while back, but I was having a lot of trouble finding the right elements to get it on its feet. It was only early this year that the pieces came together.

First of all, I found the right producers. Amanda Swiekow (Plus or Minus) and Cain DeVore (Mitzi & Joe) are not only talented filmmakers, they are long time friends who seemed to make it their personal mission to force me to stop putting-off making the movie. I've never had the experience of working with producers who so completely embraced every indie-film-nightmare and allowed me to focus so completely on directing. They were also fierce advocates of the creative ambitions of the film, refusing to let me compromise, even when I wanted to.

The next difficult element was casting the central character. The piece centers on the point of view of an agoraphobic man who spends most of the film listening to his neighbor through their shared wall. There is almost no dialog. I needed to find a talented and experienced actor who had the ability to play an extremely eccentric man while maintaining a childlike innocence. I wanted to find someone with a face you could look at for ten minutes straight and still find both interesting and empathic. It was a tall order, and I auditioned a number of really wonderful actors who just weren't... quite... right.

Then at a children's birthday party I watched actor Patrick Labyorteaux (Yes Man, JAG) from across the room and it struck me that he would be perfect for the character. I was right. Luckily, he was eager for this kind of intimate leading part, and was willing do it. I'm not sure I can even imagine another actor in the role now that I've seen him play it, but I won't say much more because I want everyone who reads this to see him in the film for themselves.

The minor roles proved no easier to cast. I ended up losing an extremely talented actress, and I had to recast with only a week before shooting. It wasn't until literally the night before that I was finally able to decide on Linda Tomassone (Confessions of A Dangerous Mind), who turned out to be both striking and mysterious in ways I hadn't expected - as well as extremely professional in juggling everything we threw at her on short notice. Likewise Filmmakers Alliance's own Sean Russell took a cliche-violent-ex-boyfriend role and turned it inside out, giving a performance that was both scary and authentic.

Fortunato Procopio
, who shot the Filmmakers Alliance Production "You Turned Back and Held My Hand" by Gabriella Toleman, created haunting visuals using Cain DeVore's famously unfinished house as modeling clay. He was also was admirably calm the night before shooting when we discovered that the brand-new RED camera wouldn't turn on.

Generally, the entire crew worked together with both intensity and focus. I was pleased and amazed by how quickly, professionally, and good-humoredly they all pulled off a surprising number of difficult and complex shots. By the time we wrapped, I was confident that the sound, picture and performances were outstanding, and I was convinced that it all was the result of the creativity of the cast and crew, assembled by the producers, Amanda and Cain.

It took a long time to get here...

My first FA "film" was shot in 1994 on Hi-8, with Filmakers Alliance co-founders Jacques Thelemaque, as the DP, and Diane Gaidry, as the star. Since then I've shot FA films on super-8, on 16mm, on 35mm, and even still photographs. I've been the DP on Sundance shorts; I've supported other FA films as screenwriter, PA, editor, boom operator, creative collaborator, and even sketchbook actor. My short "Shiva's Teardrop" played the first Visionfest event at the DGA over ten years ago.

But last weekend was by far the most rewarding experience I've every had making movies. It was the result of 15 years of FA support, FA workshops, FA collaboration, and FA spirit.

It reminded me that Filmmakers Alliance has always had my back, always pushed me forward, and never let me down.

THANK YOU!!!!!!!!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

They Can't Hear Your Pitch If They're Not Awake

Mike Le, a member of the Genre Hacks group on facebook, posted a classic pitch story, which I'm reposting here for all to enjoy. Mikes own blog, entertainingly written as an ongoing comic, can be found here.

They Can't Hear Your Pitch If They're Not Awake:

I pitched to an agent at CAA awhile back. He had some director clients I was looking to attach to a pair of my projects. It was my job to get him interested.

The agent was on the phone at his desk when his assistant maneuvered me into his office. I sat down on the couch as the agent lifted his finger, gesturing for me to be patient with him as he said into his head-set, "...I know I'm being vague, but you gotta over-look his diva-like tendencies. It's a job, it's good money, and you'll be working for the rest of the year, know what I mean? Sure, sure, there are horror stories, but people still want to work with him, and so should you. It's only to your benefit, know what I mean?"

As the agent kept his focus on the phone call, I took a mental catalog of his desk and noticed two large empty Starbucks cups by his computer.

The agent yawned as he continued speaking into his headset, " gotta think long term, know what I mean? His cache is only going to rise after the summer. What's good for him is good for you. Listen, I got a 4 0'clock sitting in my office. Call me if you have any other concerns, which you shouldn't. Bye."

The agent hangs up the phone and yawns again. How weird, I thought. I've been in the office barely 5 minutes and he's yawned twice, and his body language seemed very low energy. I guess it is late in the afternoon, and agents do have long days.

The agent gets up and introduces himself. He joins me on the couch. We jump right to it and I pitch the first project. Every writer thinks they're good in the room, and I am no exception. But I couldn't help but notice by the time I was half way done with the pitch, the agent has yawned three more times and his eyes were kind of glazed. It was frustrating -- I could tell he was only registering a fraction of what I was saying. As I continued to pitch, I saw behind him were 2 framed photos. One photo was that of him and a girl in a loving embrace (most likely his wife). The second framed picture was that of a new born infant.

I started to connect the dots. New baby, not much sleep. Coffee may have helped earlier, but now he's crashing. He's in no state to hear a pitch. I was f-cked. This was the worst condition to pitch in. But I would be damn if I was going down like this.

"Get up," I said.
The agent looked at me with surprise and went, "Huh?"
I stood up and repeated, "Get up."
A pause. Then hesitantly, the agent followed and got to his feet.
"It's an old family remedy," I said. "Just do what I do and I promise you won't yawn for the rest of the day."
I backed myself completely against the wall. He did the same against the wall across from me.
"Keep your feet as close to the wall as possible," I said, "Then lean forward as far as you can without falling over."
I bent over and the agent did the same, but not after almost tumbling over first. His assistant looked on from his desk, wondering what the hell we were doing.
"Now take 3 deep breaths," I said, "But on the third breath, hold it in for 10 seconds." I did exactly that, and he imitated my every move.

Once we exhaled on the third breath and straightened up, I told him, "Now shake your hands, then clap them together very loudly 3 times, because when you clap your hands it sends electrical impulses through your arms to your spine, which stimulates the brain." Simultaneously, we did exactly that -- CLAP! CLAP! CLAP! By now, other startled assistants were looking into the office.

"How do you feel?" I asked.
A pause, then the agent said, "I feel a lot more awake now. That was great."
"It never fails," I said, "Something my mother taught me."

Now, here's the thing: This technique was not an old family remedy. It was something I just made up on the spot. I had to do something to break him out of his daze and shake him up. All that mumbo jumbo science I was spouting was bogus. At the very least, I knew the blood rushing to his head when he was bent over would temporarily clear his mind. I didn't care if he would stop yawning for the rest of the day, I just wanted him to stop yawning for the next ten minutes. If he believed it worked, it was good enough for me. But I wasn't quite done yet.

I asked him how he got into the business. If it's one thing I've learned about Hollywood, is that people always wake up when they get an opportunity to talk about themselves. He told me his story, how he worked his way through the mailroom, 4 years at the desk, blah blah blah.

Finally, he was awake. I remained standing and quickly jumped into the second pitch before he could sit down himself (having him on his feet keeps him alert). His body language has changed. His shoulders were perked, his eyes more wide, he seemed focused on my words.

By the end of it, he gave me a long list of his directors who he thinks would be perfect for the project. He really sparked to my pitch. We shook hands, and I left the office.

I took my parking ticket to the assistant's desk.
"Do I need to validate?" I asked.
"No, it's complimentary here," he said, but then asked. "What were you guys doing in there?"
I smiled and said, "Making movies."

A Filmmaker's Life: Live It Up and Write It Down

A Filmmaker's Life: Live It Up and Write It Down

This is a great blog on the importance of filmmakers keeping journals and sketchbooks.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Casting Eric Roberts in The Butcher

I asked action filmmaker Jesse Johnson (an unapologetic Genre Hack) to write something amusing from his latest shoot. Jesse writes:

Writing about my latest shoot is like remembering the details of a fist fight: it's difficult to find anything amusing about it until some time has passed.

So I'll go back to the film I directed last year.

"The Butcher" was going to be my first real performance driven story - still a genre movie, in the gangster/crime milieu, but with significantly less action than anything I had directed before, and mercifully, with no martial arts.

We were looking for a name (Valerie Macafrye was casting). William Morris put forward Tim Allen as a counter casting idea for our aging, ex-enforcer lead, but after a month that didn't work out.

The same thing happened with Ray Romano - when it came down to the wire, playing an alcoholic killer who finishes the movie slaughtering twelve gunmen in a point blank gun fight didn't appeal to him so much.

Somebody said, "Eric Roberts is always available, Jack Gilardi told me so," and we laughed.

But time was running out. Our financing required that shooting take place during a certain window of opportunity, and if we missed that window, it would likely go away. No money, no movie.

So, I met Chaz Palminteri at the Four Seasons. He was nice, but as a director himself, he couldn't see how I was going to manage the 18 day shoot with the amount of action required. I said there wasn't much action! He said that there was, and that he'd probably be required to do his own stunts, and didn't fancy getting bruised up. I reminded him I had been a stunt coordinator for ten years, and his safety would be paramount, but he wasn't overly impressed with my explanation. He passed.

Of course, Eric Roberts was still available. We shook our heads.

We finally got our "big star" when Tom Berenger read and loved the script. But at the last minute signed to his TV show. That was 48 hours to the start of principal. We were at the end of our rope.

So we signed with Eric Roberts.

We were all reeling! But, the joke was on us. Eric, as it turned out, is awesome in the picture. Charming, quiet, and professional, he is a film buff and a historian, and just loved the work, really immersing himself in the character.

The rumors about him being "difficult" proved unfounded, and as to Chaz's predictions: Eric received a fractured rib, third degree burns to his hand, stitches above his left eye, and a bruised abdomen from a machine gun bolt, none of which I found out about until after shooting (Well, truthfully, I saw the bruise, but thought it was make-up, it was so grotesque.)

During a quiet moment, I asked Eric about his vetting process with regard to scripts, he laughed, and said that after the Oscar loss on "Runaway Train" he had asked his agent to find him scripts that were fun and paid, and that had remained his criteria. He was a happy and rich man who owned almost the whole of his city block in the Valley.

I thought about his answer for a while, and can't really find too much wrong with it.

My film turned out well, but of course will not be a theatrical release, a solid D2DVD, hopefully. The point to this is; if there is one, is that there is more to life than the prestige associated with an A picture...

But... that's what we all want really isn't it?

"The Butcher" will be a 2009 DVD release with a theatrical in certain territories. "Charlie Valentine" has just completed principal photography, and it's turned out ever bit the performance driven genre piece I hoped it would be.

by Jesse Johnson

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How NOT to Pitch to a Studio

On your way to the studio, get stuck in traffic. Use this time to review the pitch and discover glaring plot holes. Regret your decision NOT to rehearse the pitch beforehand so that it will seem more “spontaneous.” Arrive at the studio gate with sharp pains in your stomach. Finish your triple shot latte to help you focus. Forget to ask the guard what building you’re supposed to be going to, and get lost while parking.

As you walk past the soundstages, consider how all the events in your life have led you to this particular moment. Remember the girl who sat with you in a bean-bag chair in the seventh grade. Recall her recoiling from your cold, clammy hands, and squealing, “You are so NOT feeling me up.” Consider how this has become a metaphor for every botched opportunity in your entire life.

Now realize that while daydreaming, you have walked past your destination and nearly been hit by a passing tram. Maintain your dignity by waving at the tourists, knowing that you are a Real Hollywood Screenwriter on his way to a Real Studio Pitch…

… who is now 20 minutes late.

Later, in the waiting room, when the perky assistant asks if you’d like a bottled water, say no, and then wonder why you said it. As your mouth becomes drier and drier, decline to change your mind out of spite.

As you see that there are others in the lobby with you, waiting for their own pitch meetings, notice that they all have whiter teeth than you and much cooler shoes. They speak in confident whispers. They cackle with insider’s poise. Decide that they are a bunch of arrogant hacks. Page through your notes, but discover you can’t concentrate because you’re just so… thirsty.

As you look up at the framed posters on the wall of Hollywood Classics, get lost in fantasies of success and acclaim for your final film. Imagine yourself doing DVD commentary, or swapping cocktail chatter with Woody Allen and David Lynch. Compose your Oscar speech. Become smug. This way when the perky assistant tells you that the Big Executive is ready, you can be absolutely certain that all of your lifelong dreams are entirely dependant on the next ten minutes.

Begin to panic.

Arrive in the Big Executive’s office feigning an attitude of ultra cool detachment while understanding fully that you are fooling no one. As she sits politely, her pen poised expectantly over her notebook, make small talk about how you were almost killed by a tram.

At this point, a soft, rational voice in the back of your head will remind you that she is just an ordinary person, well-meaning and intelligent, who is just as eager to hear a good story as you are to tell it. Ignore this voice.

Instead, become paralyzed with rage and paranoia. Assume that this Hollywood gatekeeper is your personal enemy, the bane of artists worldwide. To her, it’s all about box office returns and bottom lines. Know that her friendly smile is secretly mocking you – judging you. Blurt out. “You wanna know what YOUR problem is?”

Silently pray you haven’t actually said this out loud. Fumble with your papers. Clear your throat. Feel your mind go completely blank. Look down at your notes, and discover they have morphed inexplicably into Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Then, without warning, remember the first beat of your story and abruptly begin pitching. Speak so quickly that the words gush out in an incomprehensible stream of gibberish. Continually glance up at the executive’s face to gauge her every reaction. When she stares blankly back at you, betraying nothing, assume that it’s all going terribly wrong.

When you see finally see an emotion cross her face, forget that you are pitching a horror film and that her revulsion is probably a good sign. Assume instead that she not only loathes your story, but that she hates you personally. She hates the dry-clicking sound your parched lips make in-between syllables. She hates your shoes.

As you continue to crash and burn, make up new story points and new characters off the top your head. Allow these impromptu thoughts to lead you into hopeless tangents. Make up further improbable twists and absurd details; then listen to yourself explain how at the end of the second act, your heroine vomits a three-foot-long centipede. Discover, as you listen, that you are pitching The Most Insipid Story Ever Told.

But then, when all seems lost, remember your story’s electrifying climax. Rise from the ashes. Speak clearly and emphatically. Finish with a crescendo of unexpected payoff and shocking revelation. Astound yourself, but resist the urge to burst into tears.

Bask in triumph.

As you stand to leave the executive’s office and she shakes your cold clammy hand, hang on her every word. Listen desperately for any sign of affirmation. Look for any indication that you might have gotten through. When all she says is “It’s really… very interesting. Thanks so much for coming in,” know with absolute certainty that you have failed.

Lose faith in yourself. Hate your pitiful life. Abandon hope.

Hours later, sit in your little office and sulk. When your agent calls and asks how it went, explain to him that it was perhaps the worst pitch in recorded history, and that you are seriously considering giving up filmmaking forever.

“I just called her,” your agent will say. “And she said the pitch went great. She loved you, and she wants to think it over.” Knowing full well that “think it over” is code for “you are so NOT feeling me up,” assume that your agent too has joined the vast conspiracy against you.

Lastly, as you turn off the light to go to sleep, describe these painstaking details to your long-suffering wife. After the long silence, do not – DO NOT under any circumstances – consider her suggestion…

“Honey, try to get some sleep.”

“I’m too anxious. I’ve got another pitch tomorrow.”

As you lie there, staring up into the darkness, allow her fingers to lace with yours, palm pressed against palm, dry and warm. For a moment, just one moment, be content.

(by Sean Hood - originally published in Written By)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Death By A Thousand Hacks

As a counterpoint to my entry “Why YOU should write Stigmata 3,” I’m now going to tell you how to protect your dream screenplay from a death by a thousand hacks. I’ll start with the hard truth.

The trouble with aspiring screenwriters (whether they realize it or not) is they think of themselves as playwrights instead of filmmakers. They write stunningly original and deeply personal stories and then expect “them” to make the movie just as they have written it. With a few notable exceptions, it never works out that way.

The most likely thing “they” will do with your stunningly original and deeply personal script is ignore it. Stunningly original and deeply personal scripts almost always lose money, and “they” won’t take the risk. In the very unlikely event that your screenplay is actually sold, every word will eventually be rewritten by others, probably by “hacks” like me.

Take the example of my own brother, Brendan Hood. He has been writing original and personal screenplays since he was 14. You can read his brilliant horror screenplay for the movie “They” here. The spec script bears no resemblance the film that was eventually produced. Now, read his sobering interview about the recent release of his follow up movie “Deaths of Ian.” The bottom line is that “they” took his screenplays, not once but twice, and rewrote every word.

Brendan Hood Final
Brendan William Hood

I say this not to vilify “them.” Would you risk millions of dollars of your own money on somebody else’s poetry? Most investors who get charmed into financing movies ultimately feel they were swindled by a bunch of flakes and charlatans. Read “their” perspective here.

And for the record, a lot of “them” (studio executives) turn out to smart, perceptive, and creative film-lovers who are just as frustrated as we are when good scripts get mangled by the development process. So don't blame them. You may even find that working with them on genre sequels and comic book adaptations is a lot of fun.

But meanwhile, there is only one solution for you and your stunningly original and deeply personal script: become a hyphenate. Direct it yourself, or raise the money yourself and own your own product. Start by scraping together a little cash for a short film. In the age of digital filmmaking, you don't have excuses any more. Most of all, remember that you are not a writer; the words on the page are just blueprints. You are a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker you should take responsibility for your own films.

For those filmmakers out there who are not cut out to be either producers or directors (and many screenwriters are not), form a close relationship with a producer or director that will last beyond a single film. Filmmakers who find the right creative collaborators, people who force them to make changes to their screenplays FOR THE BETTER, craft the the kinds of scripts that win awards and inspire the rest of us to keep on hacking. You can that too.

Joining Filmmaker’s Alliance is a great place to start.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Horror and Poetic Logic (part one)

Everyone who plans to attend the next filmmakers forum (Los Angeles), in which we will discuss "how to make a frightening horror film without gore," should read Jacques recent recent blog entry on poetic logic versus narrative logic. A Filmmaker's Life

At the forum I'll argue that it is these methods of poetic cinema, irrational juxtaposition and dream logic (or nightmare logic), that make great horror films, and that this is why many popular movies in the genre make little narrative sense.

It's no accident that most of the most famous cinema "poets," from Kubric (The Shining) to Bergman (Hour of the Wolf), Tarkovsky (Stalker) to Polanski (Repulsion), have all made horror movies.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Have Movie Critics Become Irrelevant?

Now that anyone and everyone with an internet connection can be a movie critic, what is the point of professional reviewers? Do we really need someone's professional opinion on NATIONAL TREASURE? Do I really need to read a professional's top-ten-list, which invariably amounts to a re-ordering of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, SAVAGES, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and JUNO, among the other anointed?

But skimming a top ten list in the Wall Street Journal, I came across this paragraph.

"Including a documentary that almost no one has seen may seem like an affectation, but my hope is to get you to see "Manufactured Landscapes," not to impress you with the fashionable obscurity of my taste. Discovering Jennifer Baichwal's film at the New Zealand Film Festival earlier this year -- it also played briefly in this country -- was a perception-changing experience. Inspired by the work of the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, "Manufactured Landscapes" starts with an eight-minute tracking shot down one aisle of a Chinese factory the size of a small town. Then it follows Mr. Burtynsky on a tour of industrial Asia in order to show -- without polemics -- the scale of man's activities, and the impact they're having on our planet. I thought I had some sense of that impact until I saw this astonishing doc."

What startled me about that paragraph is that the reviewer, Joe Morgenstern, felt the need to apologize for doing his job. It seems to me that when the internet is flooded with amateur reviews, the only legitimate function of the critic, who travels around the world to film festivals and who does nothing else but watch movies, is to find obscure and under-promoted cinema and bring it to the public's attention. I haven't seen MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, but I will now.

By extension, I hope that the Filmmakers Alliance posting board and blog give us a forum not only to discuss our all time favorites, but to share those obscure and under-promoted titles that we would otherwise never come across. As filmmakers we can discuss what our own movies could be in the context of these strange little movies that continue to inspire us.

As for the old fashioned newspaper critics and new fangled bloggers who snark and snipe about the next Batman movie, they're only waisting our time.

- sbh

P.S. Not that there's anything wrong with Batman. The trailer looks way cool, although Heath Ledger looks eerily like Brandon Lee in The Crow.