Thursday, September 24, 2009

I was there and I saw what you did...

In an early episode of the seminal TV series “Miami Vice”, ultra cool and extremely fashionable cops Sonny Crocket and Rico Tubbs cruise through the city -serious, determined, somber - as Phil Collins’ classic “In The Air Tonight” simmers and builds to it’s famous thundering crescendo. It was 1983, MTV was exploding and Michael Mann’s TV series was one of the first to incorporate music video techniques and, in turn, probably influenced more than a few videos itself. In any event, I think it inspired a lot of kids to drive around in the middle of the night approximating some degree of their own fashionable gravitas with Collins’ song blasting through the sound system.

Not much of this was new to me. The song was actually released in 1981 and, during that summer, the summer that I was 16, and hanging out on Philly’s legendary South Street, on at least one occasion, it was on the radio, playing in the wee, small hours of the evening as I rode in a car, cruising through the city while most of it’s residents were asleep on a hot summer night.

In the ‘60’s, South Street was Philly’s answer to Greenwich Village, the center of all things Hippie. By the late ‘70’s, many of the hippies had sold out, grown up, died off or otherwise moved on but the street remained a cultural center, albeit with an increasingly mainstream commercial vibe.

1981 was a strange time to be growing up I say, fully realizing that it is probably the growing up part that is strange, rather than the era during which one grows up. I have little doubt that, 30 years from now, there will be 45 years olds thinking about how strange it was to be growing up in the early 21rst Century. In 1981 there were still some hippies around but there was also the emerging punk-new wave sub-culture and the gradual cooling off of Disco Fever. I found myself in the middle of it all, still listening to classic rock but eagerly embracing punk and new wave and mixing it up with some beloved 70’s funk and bubblegum – you know, “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70’s”.

A typical night usually began with a terrible movie at a grungy theater on Chestnut Street, an hour or so of video games at Spaceport or Zounds before heading to South Street for a series of long, leisurely strolls up and down the street, taking in the sights and sounds, bumping into friends, hanging out and, well, let’s face it, checking out girls.

Of course, I was not the only one experiencing this activity. In certain circles throughout Philly, this hanging out on South Street period is a time honored tradition, a rite of passage, if you will, even though there was not much in the way of rites or passage. It’s not like I had never stayed out really late or engaged in a bit of underage drinking but doing it on South Street felt so much better, and probably appealed to the budding filmmaker in me. I probably soaked it all in, assuming that it would make for some good reminiscing later on, in the future, when I might be prone to reflect to on my youth.

As in many rites of passage stories of this type (think “American Graffiti”) there was a girl, doing the same thing, being young, sort of free, hanging out on South Street with her friends around the same time. I saw her almost every night that summer, her auburn blunt cut, pouty bee-stung lips and a style that captured the times, not exactly a hippie, not totally punk but an original mix of both that she pulled off effortlessly.

She parked herself beside me, on the car I was leaning on, watching a bassist and drummer rock out. She slipped a Marlboro between her lips and smoked like she’d learned to by studying old movies; her way of saying “You know, you look like a really sweet guy but you have to know, somewhere deep down, that I am way out of your league.”

I, with my cascading Jew-fro and glasses that could have doubled as storm windows dominating my face, looked straight ahead, innocently ignorant to basic boy-girl 101 moves like making eye-contact, much less small talk. I must have been out that day.

Still, she stood next to me, I saw her frequently that summer, never exchanged a word and, writing about it almost 30 years later, I guess it made an impression. I heard later, after asking around, that, if we were all talking about the same girl, her name was Lisa and, within a few years, she had become a model.

I did a play at theater off South in the spring of ‘82 but, that summer, I was sent off to my dad’s place on Long Island where, instead of staying out ‘til 2 or 3 every night, I was getting up at 4 or 5 to work on a farm every day.

Nobody ever said anything to me and while my parents, ex-hippies themselves, were not especially restrictive, I suspect that they might have worried that I was up to no good during those late nights on South Street. Granted, the guy I was spending all of this time with was 19 and had a bit of a reputation ---no names here, he is a successful businessman now— nothing beyond flagrant curfew violations and the occasional public consumption of alcohol by a minor ever took place. Still, this improbable Fonzie-Richie Cunningham-“American Graffiti” dynamic was suddenly put on hold.

As mentioned, for many kids in Philly, hanging out on South Street during summer nights, is a time-honored tradition but, within that tradition, seems to be a built in period of disillusionment: the next summer is never as good as the first and, is often bad, lending itself to another time-honored tradition: talking about how the street had changed from one year to the next, how it used to be so much cooler. Okay, I grant this to the kids who came before me and the kids who came after me but, in my experience, the change from ‘81 to ’82 was like day and night. When I got back to town from my hard labor experience on Long Island, I was eager to hit the street once again even though I’d heard that things were different.

Gone was the sole beat cop who walked up and down the street; replaced by teams of officers who seemed to be on every other corner. The mix of hippies and punks were still around but there was a new element emerging: guys in muscle shirts, shorts and white socks pulled up to their knees who just seemed to be waiting for someone to look at them or one of their short-shorted-high heeled girlfriends the “wrong way.”

My hanging out on South Street officially went into the history book.

I never really spent that much more time on South St. after the summer of 1981. In ’83, hanging out on the street after a David Bowie concert, my friends and I were stopped for violating curfew --- remember that, at 16, I sat on the steps of the TLA dinking a beer at 2 A.M. --- but we were not cited for anything because three of us were in the company of a responsible 18 year old: me.

In ’86, after a semester of college in London, I got together with some of my flat-mates for a proper “glad to be back” cheesesteak at Jim’s. The “malling” of the street was in full swing.

By the late ‘80’s songs like “In Air Tonight” and Steve Winwood’s Madison Avenue bait “Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do?” were the stuff of ubiquitous rain slicked, neon lit, city at night, “Miami Vice”-esque gag-worthy beer commercials. Ever the media savvy lad, I once even caught myself running through the city at night with friends, thinking to myself “Wow, Miller time, I feel like I’m in a beer commercial, cool.”

In 1991, I worked at the TLA Video on 3rd street. In ’92, my fiancĂ©e and I went to the Eyes Gallery and bought tons of 1920’s Mexican postcards of happy couples to use as our wedding invitations. Within the past 15 years or so, there have been increasingly ugly incidents on South Street and, yet, I firmly believe that the tradition of hanging out continues.

I never saw Lisa again. In a best case scenario, she went on to have a decent life and got older, like me. I teach college students now and sometimes get paid to write screenplays. For the past 17 years, I have been married to a girl I fell in love with when I was 14 – and, okay, if she is, in fact, in my league, she is a starter while I am, as always, a bench-warmer. We have two daughters who, if I have anything to do with it, will probably never hang out on South Street.

About ten years ago I heard a demographic statistic that said that people, especially men, tend to return to the music they listened to between the ages of 16 and 20. My family doesn’t share my passion for popular music to quite the illogical level that I do, so we rarely listen to it in the car (okay, I’ll admit it, mini-van) but, every now and then, I’ll be driving around alone, “In The Air Tonight” will come on the radio and I’ll turn it up, just slightly, and glance back in time for awhile.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How I Got Into Film

A guy I went to high school with messaged me on Facebook and asked if his girlfriend’s brother could get in touch with me for some advice on getting into the movie business. How did I get into film? That’s easy. Who doesn’t like movies? Sure, I got hooked early but even that’s not unheard of. When I was a kid, my parents had this huge collage of classic movie stills that I would stare at. This was before vcr’s and video stores so, if my father wanted to show a film in a class, he had to order an actual print from this a catalogue. I spent hours with that big book, pouring over synopsis after synopsis of old movies. That was it for me, the beginning and the end, after that, there was very little else that would captivate my interest, stir my passion and spark my creativity.

How did I get into the film business? Now that's a hard question because I hardly feel like I am in the film business. Yes, I did it, I have now done what thousands upon thousands of people are trying to do, I have sold a screenplay (did not get paid especially well), I have been hired to write or work on screenplays for other people -- again, not very well paying, actually minimum wage or less and that is not an exaggeration.

So, to backtrack, I made my first (animated) films when I was 9, bought a super 8 camera when I was 10 and made films with friends. Around that time, I saw “Jaws” and “North By Northwest” on the big screen, something clicked and I just said something like “this is what I want to do” to myself.

Also, around this time, I saw “Rocky.” Now, “Rocky” means a lot of different things to a lot of people around the world. For a film geek growing up in Philly, the thought that this virtual nobody could write a screenplay set in Philadelphia, shoot it in Philadelphia (huh, not all movies are produced in L.A.?), see it become a big hit and win the Oscar for Best Picture was mind-blowing, exhilarating and inspiring.

I think I always thought I would grow up and out of this silly dream of making films for a living but it never happened.

When I was 16 I found out about film school. You mean, you can go to college and study movies? I did go to film school and I guess I am pretty glad that I did though I am not exactly sure what I got out of it. For someone who loves film, it was total immersion, I learned theory/aesthetics, history, production etc. and I loved it.

A year after I graduated, I heard that an indie film was being shot in the small Maine town where my dad lives. I got the number of the production office and started calling, asking for a job, having nice conversations with the production manager but no job offer. I decided to take a leap of faith and go up to Maine. I walked into the production office and said "I'm here."

I then proceeded to tell the guy about all the classes I took in film school and the guy said, "Okay, can you go put up that tent with those guys?" I put up the tent, came back, he asked the other guys how I did, they said "well" and he said "Okay, you're hired. We don't pay."

I worked on the film for the next three months, pretty grueling, back-breaking work, doing everything from picking up the producer's dry cleaning to hauling equipment to directing traffic to assistant camera to body double and so on. I worked in every department. At one point, I worked 45 hours straight, not going home, not changing, not bathing, not really sleeping, not getting paid and I loved it!!! I was working in the movies.

I finished that job on a Saturday and two days later, started work on a big budget studio film, a wild study in contrasts. I had one job in the set building department that I did six days a week for three months, got pretty bored but made buckets of money.

So, after that, I never worked on another feature film set. I focused on writing screenplays and studying the ins and outs of the industry. I wrote low budget indie type stuff that everyone was doing in the early ‘90’s, stuff that I could produce myself if I could raise the $30-50,000 (which I could not) and I eventually made a short film that won an award from the American Film Institute. Pretty impressive, AFI, right? No, not really, it was a runner up award from a rinky dink contest BUT it was still the AFI, I can call myself an AFI award-winning filmmaker and that opens doors, attracts attention.

Through a contact at a record company, I got a couple of low-rent screenwriting jobs, adapting some non-fiction books into ideas for films that could feature soundtracks by the record company's artists.

I didn't get another job for 10 years and then it was after a couple of years of scoping out production companies and screenwriting classified ads online. I estimate that, since 2003, I have probably sent out 7000 e-mails to various people, most of whom never got back to me. Of those 7000 e-mails, maybe 2% ever responded back to me, of that 2%.....Well, you get the idea. I have had 10, give or take, paying screenwriting jobs in the past 3 years, one feature film was produced (though the director totally re-wrote my screenplay), I sold an original screenplay and a short film was just shot in NYC. Two other features (that I have not been paid for) are tentatively set to shoot later this year.

So, how to get into film? On that indie film in Maine, it was my bosses second film. Prior to getting into film, he had managed a restaurant in Manhattan and, I guess, if you can do that, you can do anything. This guy has gone on to be a huge producer in Hollywood, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for producing "There Will Be Blood."

A girl who I went to grade school with, who was in my class from kindergarten to sixth grade, is now Quentin Tarantino's executive producer and, while it's been 20 years since I have seen her, I was not aware of her having any film experience. A guy at the same school but two years ahead of me was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for writing "A History Of Violence" and he dropped out of film school mid-way through, moved to L.A. and worked his way into the business.

So, my suggestion to people who want to get into film, is to make films, either put your own stuff together -shorts or features -- make them good enough to attract attention. So that means that you need to know how to write a proper screenplay and how to do all of the nuts and bolts technical production stuff OR you can become a specialist. I am a screenwriter now but at one point, I could take apart a camera and put it back together with my eyes closed. Not anymore. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a gaffer.

Do it for love, because you love film, love working on films. You can work on making your own films or you can work on films for other people, just sniff around the local filmmaking scene if there is one where you live. You might (probably) work for free BUT you never know who the next big filmmaker will be, maybe you, maybe someone you meet.

Work hard, have fun.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Screenplay Is Only The Beginning

Yes, we all have to write a first screenplay to get it out of the way. It is a gradual learning process and I learn something new about screenwriting every time I sit down to write.

Oh, yes, you might think that you sell a screenplay and that's the end but, no, you can be kept in limbo doing re-write after re-write. In my case, the producer who bought it, bought an 80 page screenplay, by the time I made all of the requested changes, it had ballooned up to 104 page before gradually coming back down to 98, 96, 92, 86 and, finally 82 pages! They told me to make all of these changes and then we whittled it all down until it was nearly identical to the original screenplay this process had made it much stronger.

To recall "Pretty Woman" again, remember that the screenplay was originally a dark, gritty drama about life on the street? TRUE STORY! Julia Roberts says that from the time she signed on to do "3000", as it was originally called (referring to the number of dollars it takes to hire her for a week), to the time the film was made, the only thing that did not change was her character's name.

So, something to consider, things to ask yourself before proceeding:

1)What kind of movie is this? What genre does it fall into? Mixed-genre films can be a tough sell because the distributor doesn't know how to market them.

2)What other movies is yours like? This is really important. Nobody wants anything original, they want movies that are like other movies that were big hits. If you are going to be pitching a movie, you want to be able to say "This is 'The Hangover' meets 'Pretty Woman'", referring to two big hits because, the bottom line is the bottom line -- how much the film will cost compared to how much it is likely to make, based on other similar films.

This is just something to consider because writing a screenplay is only part of the battle, getting someone to produce it and then someone else to distribute it are massive mountains to climb and the further and further you try to climb, the less and less control you have.

I sold a screenplay in January, got hired to re-write it, turned in my final re-write in July and now I am done, out of the picture, technically removed from the project. The producer can --and probably will -- hire another writer to work on my screenplay.

I remember seeing the film "Georgia Rule" a few years ago and thinking that, somewhere down the line, it had probably once been a pretty good screenplay but through the development process it was altered, watered down and ultimately diminished

So, my general rule of thumb is that, while it is important to have a really good screenplay, it is more important to have a marketable screenplay.