My First Review: DECEIVED

When I was asked if I would write a monthly film column for Aftertaste magazine, I jumped at the chance.  What could be better than having a real platform (as opposed to my non-public living room) where I’m invited to share my experiences, joke about my enlightenments and make a fuss of my frustrations!  But then the inevitable happened – the months just kept coming, one after the other.  Sooner than planned.

Last week I attempted to turn on my computer and it simply did not go on.  After two and a half unpleasant hours of tech support, I learned that my hard drive had failed.  It was gone.  Dead.  And there was nothing I could do about it.  They would gladly ship me another one, but unless I had any back-up discs, everything on the hard drive had been killed.

I began to panic and rapidly search for ways to somehow see if any of my previously unpublished articles, unread screenplays, storyboards, poems, or recipes could be salvaged.  Maybe I could get back my address book, expense report, emails, or find out if all my FIRECRACKER marketing materials were still alive.  But on Tuesday, my outlook changed.

After lunch, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of relief.  Perhaps I’d only been hungry, but it felt like a total burden had been lifted.  So I elected to just get rid of it altogether and order a new computer.  I didn’t care if all of my documents were lost!  I was suddenly hungry for a new beginning!  I chose DELL because I don’t like the cult over at the other place – where people think they are better than others.  Plus, DELL has better customer service.

Then I thought – if starting fresh feels this incredible – I might as well throw everything away!  I gathered a bunch of big black trash bags and got to work.  I only had a couple of days before my new computer would arrive – so there was no time to waste!  Out went the folders, the papers, the pictures!  Away with the demos, the tapes and the discs!  I did keep some items of value, however.  The Plez Letters got their own box, but everything else was history.  My history. And there was no reason to keep any of it.  I still have my memory!  When I’m old and lose my mind it won’t matter anyway!

I couldn’t believe all the crap I had.  And it was all crap I thought was important!  Did I really need to keep the screenplay to a film I’ve already made?  Did I really think I would listen to those unsolicited CDs?  They’ve sat there unheard for over a year!  When I’m eighty, will I really want to sort through that box of high school memorabilia?  Who in their right mind really *needs* that unsightly stack of FLAUNT magazines?  They didn’t review the “Wamego” documentary anyway – so fuck ‘em!

When I finally made it through all the crap in my office, I decided the furniture needed to go next.  Out to the curb.  Then I decided to get a much better set of storage units.  I found some inexpensive systems at TARGET and spent another day assembling them.  Re-storing, organizing and shelving only the important crap felt great.  And by the time I finished getting the office back together again – the new computer arrived.  It’s awesome. Jet black – really fast – with a big flat-panel monitor.  Delicious!

I am now a firm believer that all seemingly horrible events are only truly horrible if we want them to be.  And in the end, if we want to turn them into positives, we can if we choose to.  Though no one ever does, it seems to me.  Usually people are so trapped in their misery that they never want to escape it.

Which brings me to DECEIVED with Goldie Hawn.  This woman (Adrienne Saunders) really reminds me of one of my family members.  She’s direct, unafraid of confrontation, and honest.  It’s a refreshing version of the typical woman-finds-out-her-husband-isn’t-really-her-husband movie.  What’s this version like?  Well-crafted and smart.

Maybe it’s just the clever way Goldie Hawn plays the role – but I sensed that there was little that could provoke her to curl up in the corner and shake with fear.  No matter what happened (the guy at the museum is dead, there’s some Egyptian necklace causing all this commotion, her apartment is broken into, her life is a total wreck, her dead husband really isn’t dead, etc.) she never cowered.  This woman was upset because she’d been lied to.

In a scene with John Heard, who plays her husband, she asks, “Why didn’t you just tell me?”  It was the way she said it that gave me the idea if he’d been honest with her from the beginning – she might have even helped him!  But he lied to her and seemed more interested in denial.  Big mistake.  Sure, it isn’t ethical to participate in jewelry fraud, murder, and pretending to be someone else – but the bigger problem is hiding it.  In the same scene (I think) he asks her, “Wasn’t I a good husband? Didn’t you feel loved?”  Clearly, he had parents and neighbors who taught him it was more important to look the part of Happy American than it was to actually be one.  Like there is some sort of shame associated with being anything else.  Sound familiar?  (Not familiar to films like this. I meant, familiar to our entire culture.)

I must make special mention to Thomas Newman about his score: Please, Mr. Newman, get off that goddamn xylophone or whatever the hell it is.  The theme for “Six Feet Under” is fine – but not every movie needs to sound exactly the same.  (Obviously “Six Feet Under” was scored years later – but still.  You scored DECEIVED over twelve years ago.  Enough is enough!)

On my street we believe it’s always better to be honest about something than it is to deny it.  No matter what it is.  Because it will – mark my words – come up at some point.

If you’ve killed someone, stolen some priceless treasure, faked your own death, and have problems with your mother – just get over yourself and be honest about it.  There are people who can help you.  Maybe not the 95% who will judge you, condemn you, or blame you for not living up to their expectations – I’m talking about the other 5% who will be supportive and understanding.  (This is the same 5%, it seems, who favor the separation of Church and State.)  If you make the choice, however, to deny it and pretend nothing happened – well, you will have a miserable life and die unhappy.

If you feel like the whole world is against you, or your life changes dramatically, simply eat something spicy and you’ll be fine.  You might even find the courage to do away with all that crap and move on.

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004)

WAITING TO WORK

If you are serious about wanting to get your film actually made, you should avoid Hollywood altogether.  Trust me.  No one but The Majors make movies in Hollywood.  The players you would think would be the most involved are precisely the individuals least interested in the activity.  What?  How can you say that?  Well, because it’s true!  People go to Hollywood to be in a continuous state of development.  Why?  BECAUSE THEY ARE LAZY.  They do not want to work.  They do not want to be productive.  They want to stay in bed or lounge about the fucking pool sipping martinis.

No one in Hollywood will return your calls because there’s just no time!  They will tell you they’re SO swamped.  People in the movie business are SO busy.  Try so busy scheduling their August holiday!  Think you can call back in September?  Guess again!  From September to November people in the movie business can’t manage a conversation because all capable speaking skills are being sucked up by Toronto and the other fall film festivals.  No one works in December, regardless of religion, and when they return after the New Year, all available time is spent obsessing over Sundance.  And, of course, February is out of the question because everyone is obsessed with what happened or didn’t happen at Sundance.

April through May is lost to Cannes.  This leaves only March and a slim chance to reach anyone by telephone during hiatus (June and July).  Please note: no one in the industry seems to understand how to use e-mail.  Unless you’ve got Spiderman 7 in the works, or the latest “special effect’s show,” the only real chance you’ve got is to make your film on your own.  Think you want to involve the movie business?  Heed this warning!

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying time off from time to time but must we remain “off” so much of the time?  And what are people doing in their off time?  Playing videogames, chatting with online strangers, playing golf, attempting yoga, gorging on wine and cheese.  Whatever happened to productivity?  Come to think of it, maybe Hollywood isn’t the only place contaminated with laziness.

There are 365 days in a calendar year.  104 of them are wasted by people not working on the weekends.  That only leaves 261 days to get any work done.

Think it stops there?  Guess again!  We can’t forget the holidays!  (FYI: The movie industry observes every holiday known to man, and not just the major ones.  I used to think they did this to avoid offending any major cultural or religious group.  But, it seems to me that most everyone in the U.S. does it as well—even people who are deliberately offensive on a daily basis and clearly cannot be attempting to avoid offending someone!)

We have Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, Good Friday, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Labor Day (by all means a special day to deliberately not work!), Columbus Day, Election Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas…and those are just the Bank Holidays!

We can’t forget Chinese New Year, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Purim, St. Patrick’s Day, April Fools, Passover, Easter, Tax Day, Cinco de Mayo, Nurses Day, Mother’s Day, Armed Forces Day, Father’s Day, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Halloween, All Saint’s Day, Eid al-Fitr, Hanukkah, Ramadan, and, of course, Kwanzaa!

I found the following on the website for the Pennsylvania Department of Banking: “When a fixed holiday falls on Sunday, it shall be observed on the following Monday; when it falls on a Saturday, it may be observed on the following Monday.  Independence Day, July 4, 2004, will fall on a Sunday and, therefore, must be observed on Monday, July 5, 2004.  Christmas Day, December 25, 2004, will fall on a Saturday and, therefore, may be observed on Monday, December 27, 2004.”

Are they kidding?  No!  We wouldn’t want to overlap a weekend with a holiday for a chance at yet another day off!

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, people take yet another two days off!  Yes, two whole days.  (No one should have to work with a hangover!)  I’ve never understood why people celebrate the coming of a new year.  Are they excited that yet another year has passed?  Are they thrilled at the notion that in the coming year they only have 24 days to work?  Or, are they thrilled at the idea that 341 days will be spent not doing ANY?

On my street, there isn’t a reason to take a vacation.  We don’t need a break from our lives.  We need no escape.  We happen to enjoy what we’re doing.  That’s a rare thing these days—actually having enjoyment at your place of work.

I used to get really frustrated.  It seemed that every time I turned around people were finding any excuse possible to avoid doing any work.  Now, I see it as a gift.  While millions are sitting around by the pool, playing golf, taking a holiday, the rest of us can get the upper hand.  My advice is to encourage other people to take even more time off from work.  This way, you’ll be able to accomplish more while they’re gone.  And if you’re as efficient as some, you might even get the desired results before they get back.

If, on the notion you dislike your life and don’t really want to do any work, I suggest moving to Los Angeles and getting a job in the movie industry.  If the move seems daunting, taking any job seems to do the trick regardless of the location.  Don’t worry. You’re sure to find a place where you don’t have to do anything!

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004)

So you want to be a screenwriter?

You’ve decided to write a script and make it big.  You’ve found a great story that, for some reason, you think other people want to read (or see for that matter).  You’ve written it and are now ready to shop your script to producers and directors.  Shopping your script is the first mistake, which I shall address on another day, but if you are determined to have someone else make your movie – there is something you should know.

Not only has The Industry become lazy and formulaic when it comes to storytelling (and you’ll have to comply as well), it is now imperative that every screenplay must look and feel identical.  Coming up with a good idea to write about is one thing.  Coming up with a good idea people are willing to pay for is another.  But the most important thing – the thing they never tell you – is that you MUST BIND YOUR SCRIPT LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!

Never mind the story.  Never mind the content.  It’s come down to this: If your script does not have those common, unsightly and second-rate brass “brads” attached to the top hole and bottom hole – your project is worthless.  They will tell you that only amateurs go to Kinko’s.  Because “everyone” knows you MUST OBEY THE RULE OF THE BRASS “BRAD”!

Never make the horrible mistake of placing it in a three-ring binder.  And never, ever, put “brads” in all three holes!  Because “everyone” knows you’re supposed to only use the top hole and bottom hole.  A writer I once knew told me his script was returned unread because he’d placed a “brad” in the center hole.  As ludicrous as this might seem, this is no joke.  It’s really happening to people.

Most of Hollywood can’t understand how to read something unless it has these brass fasteners.  But let that be a lesson.  Do I really want to work with people who are obsessed with the binding and not interested in my cast, financing, marketing plan or that seemingly, from their point of view, irrelevant part known as cinematography?  Come to think of it: No… I don’t.  I want to work with people who can understand pictures and sentences, too.

On my street, I bind scripts professionally.  I love the look and feel of it.  The appearance says: QUALITY.  DISTINCTIVE.  IMAGINATIVE.  And those emotions happen before reading the first sentence!  Going one step further, I like to include photographs and sketches that assist in setting moods and atmospheres – the kinds of things that separate a motion picture from a novel.

Still, it doesn’t do any good.  Several years ago, a woman named Elizabeth called me from Miramax and said she was excited to read my script.  I made the horrible mistake of sending it to her.  Several days later, she telephoned and told me, “It’s perfect for Dimension, so I sent it to them.”  I was livid because she was passing it around without my approval.  I asked for her to return it at once.

I received the script the following day.  When it arrived, I found it had been completely dismantled.  The crucial photographs were removed from the script, and the binding was replaced by those stupid second-rate brass fasteners!

Now, it’s not like I only had a few pictures.  I’d actually placed one on every other page. So it was clear to me that someone had wasted an entire afternoon going through the script page by page and removing 125 pictures.  Isn’t that silly?  They had to make it look like all the other scripts in order to understand it!  Also, I looked up on staples.com and those stupid “brads” are called “standard punch brass fasteners.”  So next time you hear a dimwitted industry executive say “brads” you will know the extent of his or her mental capacity.

There is something to be said about going against the norm.  Doing things in an unorthodox manner separates you and your material from the millions of people and scripts milling about the basin.  But for some reason – fear of not fitting in, perhaps – most people will continue to worship the “brass brad mentality” and end up looking like everyone else.  Sure, they’ll fit in.  But no one will see them because seven million other people have done exactly the same.

My advice?  If you feel the need to write something clever – simply eat something spicy and the feeling will pass.  You’ll be much happier in the end.

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine in 2004.)

How the Short-Man Syndrome influences contemporary filmmaking

You’re probably wondering how the Napoleon Complex relates to film.  You know, that complex in men (and some women) of below-average height that manifests itself in pounds of packed-on muscles, buzz-cuts, loose-fitting tanks with objects and phrases that all spell RAM?  That same kind of bully has taken over the world of independent film.  This new breed of filmmaker is one that feels the need to compensate for the fact that they don’t make real movies by repeatedly making short films that are all bang and no guts.

No matter trying to explain to him that he’s just making a video that no one wants to see.  He won’t listen.  He’ll just revolt by putting you down and then hire an army-sized crew to make yet another short.  (Though, for the life of me, I can’t imagine how he can convince a dozen people to carry one camera box and a couple of blank SD cards.)

Despite the moniker, the Napoleon Moviemaker isn’t necessarily small.  He’s just angry.  He’s tall, petite, fat, or thin.  The only way to identify the Napoleon Moviemaker is by recognizing his arrogance and mercilessness – especially to other filmmakers.  Why?  Simply because people interested in the art of visual storytelling dare to ask him: “What’s your movie about?”  He has no answer.

The Napoleon Moviemaker has no idea what he’s doing. Yet, somehow, he can convince entire groups of people to partake in his “film-making.”  That’s film-making with no storyline.  No character development.  He uses gore and extreme violence to highlight his seven-to-nine minute opus.  Girls are often seen without clothes – which, I agree, saves prep time while omitting the need for a costume budget.  Also undressed is the script.  The longest line of dialogue tends to be “Dude, what’s up?” though if you look at his script (if he’s bothered to write one) you will notice it’s spelled “Wassup?”

Psychoanalytically, if we examine the images he has chosen to show us, we can begin to dissect the probable causes of his predicament.  His tedious need for (primarily female) nudity is a signal he hasn’t actually been intimate with another person.  Having a naked (female) cast allows him the opportunity for a closer look that’s not available to him otherwise.  What follows is quite disturbing, though.  Typically, the Napoleon Moviemaker will create elaborate scenes where said naked person (female) is screaming and being brutally killed while trying to outrun a zombie or some other grotesque beast (which symbolizes said moviemaker).  The blood and gore associated with killing off the primary character, coupled with the length of the movie, suggests he’s probably afraid of long-term relationships, which is why he can only commit to projects that fill up his week-end.

Everyone knows a Napoleon Moviemaker.  But on my street we try and steer clear of them.  They’re trouble and should be avoided at all costs.  I don’t want to make shorts. I’ve never wanted to make shorts.  If I was forced to make something that lasted less than fifteen minutes, I’d make a music video.  Or a commercial.  That wouldn’t be so bad. There would at least be a purpose behind it (promoting the product or music of said video).  I’m not going to enable the short-maker with my silence any longer.  Enough’s enough.

Short films are annoying.  Just when you think they might get interesting they’re suddenly over.  It’s true that one can tell a compelling story in a thirty-second commercial.  But a commercial has a purpose.  It’s selling something.  The short film isn’t selling anything (except maybe a feature, but then why not just make the feature?)  Filmmakers with N.M.S. (Napoleon Moviemaker Syndrome) will make excuses to justify why they won’t make a feature (the money, the resources) but the truth is they’re just afraid to commit.  So the next time you come across a filmmaker with N.M.S., confront them.  Get them a FREE DVD of the feature documentary “WAMEGO: Making Movies Anywhere” and force them to watch it.  Hold their hand if necessary.

How to avoid N.M.S. altogether?  If you feel the need to make a movie, but are unwilling to make a feature – simply eat something spicy and the feeling will pass.  You’ll be much happier in the end.  And so will we.

(Re-written from a draft originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004)

A Chair is a Chair is a Chair

Have you ever heard someone comment, “My, that’s a bad chair!”?  I doubt it, for there really is no such thing as a ‘bad’ chair or a ‘good’ chair.  There are simply different levels of craftsmanship involved in making a chair, and, of course, a variety of finishing techniques and overall aesthetics.  Some chairs are spit out on an assembly line by the thousands, while other chairs are made by hand.  Some chairs have cushions, some have armrests, and others even have accessories (i.e. little cup holders, rocking abilities, foot rests, etc.).  In any case, it remains a chair.  The purpose of which is to be sat upon.

The people who sit on chairs all share the same activity.  They sit.  Sure, some people have poor posture, but in general, I can’t see how someone could be a ‘good’ sitter or a ‘bad’ sitter.  Never do people go to a dinner party and loudly complain, “Francis, look at the way you’re sitting in that chair!  It’s bad!  Just awful!”  In fact, it makes me wonder, how, exactly, could Francis be sitting badly?  His rear end is fixated on the seat!  Both feet are on the floor!  Sure, he’s got a bad back, which makes him lean a little to the left, but nevertheless, Francis *is* sitting in the chair.  The only way, from my point of view, Francis could fail in his sitting, is if he weren’t sitting at all!  It would seem to me that only when one stands is it appropriate to attack their ability or talent to sit.  “Francis, you’re NOT sitting!”  Perhaps those few people who, in their attempt to sit, miss the chair completely and plummet to the floor, are guilty of poor sitting, but the indignity of missing the chair would seem to be punishment enough, without adding insult to injury by bringing their failure to their attention.

Like the people who fail to sit in chairs, I believe it’s only acceptable to attack an actor when he or she has failed to appear in a film.  Michelle Pfieffer, for instance, is bad for failing to appear in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Likewise, so are Whoopie Goldberg, Demi Moore, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon and all the other actresses who didn’t appear in that film.  Shame on them.

Don’t get me wrong – some actors look great in any movie, while others do not.  Jodie Foster, for instance, looks equally as great sitting in a plush sofa from Eddie Bauer as she does swiveling on an Eames with black leather ottoman.  Other people, like Ned Beatty, for instance, aren’t necessarily the best looking sitters.  There are some people, without a doubt, that should avoid sitting on certain chairs.  But that is all about looks, not general sitting ability.

Movies, it can be argued, like chairs, are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – they simply have different levels of craftsmanship.  What’s the difference in how Thomasville, Broyhill, or Ethan Allen chairs are made?  Very little that I can see.  Sure, the shapes and textures differ, but they seem to be built in the same fashion.  Much like films made by committee, they seem safely appealing to most, and, I agree, manufactured with skill (read: they aren’t going to fall apart).  Ron Howard’s movies are like these.  So are Martin Scorsese’s for that matter.  There is nothing more or less exceptional about either.

Some chairs, like those sold at Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel, are constructed with equal skill, but have aesthetics (and prices) that appeal to a different buyer.  Alexander Payne makes this kind of work.  Clint Eastwood reminds me of Eddie Bauer.  And don’t get me started on Robert Redford and his overpriced Sundance clothing line!

Marketing and selling a motion picture is just like marketing and selling furniture.  Pottery Barn needs to sell thousands, if not millions, whereas Eames is happy to sell a few hundred.  BLAIR WITCH, while poorly made, still sold millions.  That movie in particular is just like furniture sold at Wal-mart.  And in retrospect, the people who buy furniture at Wal-mart are, probably, not going to buy an Eames.  And, like an Eames, EYES WIDE SHUT, while one of the best-crafted motion pictures ever made, didn’t appeal to the masses.

Within all of these examples lies genre.  The genre of Pier 1 furniture is a very different genre than that of Broyhill.  Quentin Tarantino films, which resemble Pier 1 (read: often made with cheap components), tend to fall apart a lot sooner than, say, a Broyhill nightstand, which has the solid construction of a Francis Ford Coppola film.

You can tell what kinds of films people like by taking a look around their living room. What kinds of furniture do they have?  Do they prefer to sit upon a chair made of plastic, mesh, wood or steel?  Do they sleep on an air bed or a top of the line Sealy?  Where do they eat dinner – on the floor, on the sofa, or at a solid oak dining table?

On my street we understand movies are like pieces of furniture.  We know what separates a Horchow from an IKEA.  We acknowledge there are similarities and differences.  But whether it’s manufactured by the thousands or made one at a time, the bottom line is – it’s only a movie.

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004)