Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Gray Swan

This is not a review of “Black Swan”, it is a response to it. It’s been awhile since a film affected me so strongly. Sure, on one level, the film is about ballet but that is just on the surface, what drives the plot.

The film is about so much more.

The film is about film, painting, writing, acting, singing, music and on and on. Anyone who wants to create, to engage in art, doesn’t do it passively, they give of themselves, they throw themselves into the creative process.

“Black Swan” really struck a chord with me because, even though it is about ballet on the surface, it is really about all art and anyone who struggles to create something. At one point the creative director of the ballet criticizes his star dancer for being too perfect, too precise, mechanical, cold and distant and, to me, it came off as Darren Aronofsky, the director of the movie, making a statement about big-budget Hollywood movies --- this film is relatively low-budget, shot with really grainy film and herky-jerky hand-held camera movement.

I remember watching “It’s Complicated” not long ago and being so distracted by how obsessively good the lighting was in one particular scene. It was ridiculous, I could tell that, in this kitchen location, a light or lights had been set up “just so” in order to make a bowl of fruit stand out, not even a bowl of fruit that was an important prop, a plot device. It was like this throughout the whole movie and not just this one film, most “big” films. It didn’t have anything to do with art per se -- all due respect to the DP and the gaffer who are obviously master craftsmen -- it was about technical precision.

Artists don’t just wake up one day and suddenly decide that they want to be artists, it is not intellectual at first, it is instinctual, we are drawn to create, to perform. I teach screenwriting at an art school. My students want to be filmmakers. I don’t think that any one of them had a meeting with their high school guidance counselor, had to come up with something to say and spat out “I want to go to film school.” Okay, maybe one or two of them once said “Well, um, I like movies, can I go to college for that?” No, I like to think that, like me, they had a long-standing burning desire to create, to express themselves, their worldview, to tell stories and to connect with others, to make work that resonates.

Still, even if we are “good at art”, it is often not enough, we want to be great at it, we want to be perfect.

While I was into acting, theater and film from a very early age, by the time I became a teenager, I think I wanted to become a stand-up comedian, I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live. I inhaled comedy, studied it, practiced it, listened to Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin over and over again.

I saw Cosby at the York Pennsylvania State Fair when I was 15 and it was breath-taking, life-changing. I am pretty sure that I had never experienced that level of stage craft before but I know that I have never witnessed anything quite like it since. The show was so coherent and cohesive, like an intricate puzzle with many, many pieces that all fit together. Cosby came out on-stage, did one joke that served as something like a thesis statement from which every other joke evolved, even developed into a seemingly unrelated tangent but always came back, always had something to do with the original joke, which he would touch on for a bit and then go off in another direction and so on.

I think I knew, at that moment, deep down, that I could probably never attain that level of perfection, the thing that Nina, Natalie Portman’s character in “Black Swan” is obsessively after.

Also, in a really lucky moment of self-realization, while I was slitting the throat of my comedy career, I admitted to myself that I probably didn’t have what it takes to become an actor. Sure, I had talent but I didn’t have the looks, the body and, most importantly, the drive or the thick skin to make it in the world of making it as an actor.

A friend of mine who was a year ahead of me in high school was nearing graduation and, when I asked her what she was doing about college, she said that she was going to film school and, of course, my reaction was “Well, um, I like movies, can I go to college for that?”

Who knows? Maybe we seek attention and crave adulation. I always tell my students about the role of art in society, that artists are vessels for the human experience, that they cannot help it but take in the world at large, the things around us and then re-present or represent everything from their perspective, hopefully in a way that resonate with those who look at whatever it is that we do. Whatever the reason, we can’t do anything else, our art consumes us.

I can even see the beginnings of it, to a degree in my kids. Three weeks ago, my 16 year old daughter got up on a stage and with grace, poise and passion performed a long, intricate, complicated Beethoven piece in a recital. That one performance was the result of hours and hours of practice during which I can tell you, she sometimes resembled not Vladimir Horowitz but Keith Moon. Sure, practice makes perfect but if can drive you mad sometimes.

My 13 year old daughter has had a number of poems, short stories, book reviews and articles published in very high end literary magazines for young writers. Last year she entered two novel excerpts into a competition for homeschoolers. Both of her entries were among the five finalists and, in the end, she wound up in first and second place. Still, there is little that I can do when I see her in the agony of writer’s block or suffering the self-doubt and second-guesses about our talent that all artists go through.

Choosing an artistic path can be a painful, scary thing. Art succeeds when others respond to it. In order to get a response from an audience we have to put it, ourselves out there, be it as a ballerina, a singer-songwriter, a poet, a painter. Somewhere down the line, we say to ourselves “I think I am pretty good at this” and, in a best case scenario, we work up the confidence to create something, to show something, to play something and people agree with us and encourage us --- often to pursue often at the expense of learning how to do anything practical or developing marketable skills.

I wanted to be a perfect stand-up comedian and I could have driven myself crazy in pursuit of this goal. There is a scene in the wonderful Jerry Seinfeld documentary “Comedian” where, in an effort to rebuild and reinvent his comedy career from the ground up, he pays a visit to Bill Cosby who comes off as uncharacteristically laid back and humble, almost like a holy man of comedy. Seinfeld leaves the meeting speechless, his breath taken away. He is inspired. Maybe if I could have met Cosby when I was 15...

I don’t strive for perfection. I feel like I can never be perfect, that maybe, if I am lucky, I will be good enough. I am not perfect and I never will be. Most of the time, I think I am a pretty good screenwriter. Sometimes I wonder if I am fooling myself or anyone else when I say that this is what I “do.” I learn something new every time that I sit down to write and I know that I can never learn it all, that there isn’t even an “all” to learn, that it is infinite, that it keeps going, that I will never be the black swan or the white swan but somewhere in between, the gray swan.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The horror, the horror?

There is very little new under the sun, it is often what you do with familiar elements, how you employ them in unconventional ways that is most impressive. Often, for many writers, the first instinct is to go with the obvious plot element, the idea that pops into your mind first, which is usually something that you have seen in another movie, probably more than once. So, it can be a really good discipline to recognize that first instinct and then look for something else.

A few nights ago, I delivered the screenplay for what I call a non-scary horror movie. I like horror movies and I like slasher films but I feel that it has all been done before, we all know what is going to happen: much of the time, a group of kids is going to find themselves in a situation where they are getting killed off one by one, end of story.

For me, the "horror" elements, the stalking and killing scenes have been so over-done that it's become monotonous, not very scary and, too much of the time, just an excuse for the f//x guys to go wild with gore -- who cares about the killing anymore?

Let me digress and talk about sex for awhile. Sex, yes, that got your attention. I usually fast forward through sex scenes. Why? Because I know what happens when people have sex. No matter how many variations we can come up with, it usually comes down to some version of Insert “Flap A into Slot B.” Yes, characters having sex is often an important plot element but actually seeing them have sex is usually superfluous and, when you get right down to it, gratuitous. Put it this way, I haven’t seen many sex scenes that further my understanding of the characters. They had sex, fine. They did it this way and that way --- probably unimportant.

I do not watch porn. I really have no need to watch people doing it. Bill Cosby once said “When I am hungry, I don’t watch a film of two people eating.” However, when I worked in a video store, one of my responsibilities was fixing broken VHS tapes. I would cut out the damaged section of the movie, splice the tape back together and test it out to see if it would play.

Sometimes I had to work on porn tapes and I would have to watch them in order to gauge the success of my repair work. So, here I was, for the first time, with a pile of porn tapes that I had to look at and what did I do? I fast-forwarded through the sex scenes and watched the “dramatic” material in between the sex, looking for acting and good dialogue. Needless to say, I found very little of either -- acting or good dialogue.

So, it is sort of the same thing with me and horror films. What I like to see in horror films are the non-horror moments, character development, who these people are and how they are dealing with the situation ---- something that I rarely see. So that is sort of what I set out to do in this horror screenplay.

Bear with me: It is about a group of bitchy, popular high school girls who bully an outcast, a lonely, awkward, artsy "weird" girl and who commits suicide.

The story zips ahead four or five years and the girls are now "adults", not really friends with each other anymore, largely out of touch until one of them dies mysteriously. They all reunite at the funeral and hang out for awhile afterward.

Old feelings are stirred when they discover that there might be a connection to the their friends murder and the suicide of the girl in high school or that it could just be a coincidence. They all start becoming acutely aware of this event from their past --- stories about teen suicide, internet bullying etc. everywhere they go. One of them even stumbles upon a tribute video to the girl on You Tube.

Then another girl dies. Then another. One girl really believes that there is a connection and that, if they go to the police they might be able to figure out who the killer is and get protection but the other girl(s) don't want anyone to know their story etc., etc.

Eventually, it comes down to the "good" girl, the one who wants to come clean about their involvement in the girl's suicide, and the "bad" girl, who is now an up-and-coming actress who doesn't want to jeopardize her career. They argue, the bad girl is really mean to the good girl, who storms off, distraught.

SPOILER ALERT -- If you really think that you might actually watch this film and you do not want the end to be ruined, skip the next paragraph.

The killer shows up, the bad girl runs to get the good girl only to find that she has committed suicide just like the first girl. The killer gets the bad girl, The End.

I left out big chunks and important details of the story but my point is that this is almost an anti-horror horror film, there are some scary moments but, mostly, it is about the girls sitting around, talking about feeling guilty or denying their guilt about what they did. Definitely not been-there-done-that --- whether or not it will translate into a successful film is another question.

Years ago, when I was writing film reviews for a national magazine, I got a “fan” letter from the director of a horror film that I liked and wrote a good review of. The director thanked me profusely and expressed appreciation for me because I really “got” what he was trying to do with the film. We stayed in touch, became really friendly, when this project emerged, he asked me to take a crack at the screenplay and I jumped at the chance. He is under no obligation to me to use my screenplay, he just asked if I wanted to do something with his premise and I took the challenge. With great trepidation, I sent the screenplay to the director, knowing that he wanted to make a horror film but that, what I wrote was more of a talky, indie art film with sporadic horror elements. He wrote to me halfway through reading the screenplay and told me that he plans to shoot it. I believe “shadow.man” will be produced in Houston early next year. Be afraid? Be very afraid?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Not Waiting To Exhale

I should be grading my students screenplays but I am not. I should be grading the revisions of the screenplays that I graded last week but I am not. I should be working on at least one of the three feature screenplays that I have committed to write but I am not. I should be working on the revisions of the feature that I doctored over the summer but I am not. I should be working on one short screenplay and revising another but I am not.

I should not be holding my breath, thinking anxiously about what is going on in L.A. but I am. I should know better, I have been down this road before. People have expressed interest in producing my work in the past. One-time Indie hot-shot production company InDigEnt was interested in my favorite screenplay, Incorporated, years ago and I even had informal commitments from name talent but it never happened. Aftermath was optioned last year, the option expires in almost two months, the producer told me that they were hoping to shoot it this fall, which, last time I checked, is sort of around now. No word on any Aftermath production. Come January I could be faced with an offer to re-option it and send it back into development oblivion for who-knows-how-long or I could regain the rights and try to make it happen on my own, once again. No, I have learned to not hold my breath.

And yet, here I sit, grasping for air as my mind runs wild. Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. I do have work to do, stuff to keep me busy and, if I ever feel idle time creeping in, there is always Facebook.

I had a speaking engagement last Thursday night. I’d compiled a bunch of clips from movies depicting inter-faith relationships between Jews and others. First I gave a little speech about movies, the film industry, relationships and cultural identity, next I presented the clips and then I moderated a discussion between an audience of nearly 300 people and a panel of rabbis and people in “mixed” relationships. Good times. It went well, I was “on”, knew my stuff, engaged, entertained and even got quite a few laughs.

I got home later that night, checked e-mail and found one from a former student who works in development for a fairly prominent producer-director, a guy who has had his fair share of hit films, worked with big stars and so on. The last time that I spoke with this student, he asked if I would be interested in adapting a beloved children’s classic for this director -as if it has not been made a number of times already. No, I would not be interested in adapting this book for the screen. “Yes”, I enthusiastically replied, “I could really get into doing that.” It never happened. Good thing I wasn’t holding my breath.

The e-mail last week was not about adapting a beloved children’s classic:

From: R**** T**** <****@gmail.com>
To: David Greenberg
Sent: Thu, November 4, 2010 10:08:23 PM
Subject: low budget noir

Hey David:

Thanks for the birthday wishes.

I was wondering if you had any unproduced low-budget noir scripts? W***** is looking for something low-budget while he's in L.A.
R**** T*****
S******** Studios
(323) ***-****

If I did not have a low-budget noir screenplay sitting around, I would not be writing this post. A few years ago, an author hired me to adapt his steamy, sleazy novel about a beautiful young gold-digger, her much older billionaire husband and the guys who kidnap her into a screenplay. Even he acknowledged that my version of the story was much better than the book that got published.

I know in my heart that I have done all I can do: I have written a really good, deliriously nasty low-budget neo-noir that can be easily adapted to their specifications, I have sent it in -- heck, I even cut this student a little break a few years ago when he needed a decent grade from me in order to graduate. So, no, I am not holding my breath, not letting my mind run wild with fantasies of this being “the one” that finally makes it happen. No, I am not doing any of those things but I am not doing much else. Maybe it’s time to get back to those other student screenplays because you never know...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Spring Break" Summer Vacation

In 2010, I have doctored no less than four feature length screenplays, written two features from scratch and written a short history of photography as part of The Daily Book Of Photography” that will be published in hardback on October 1rst.

August 2010
I woke up in the dumps on a Sunday a few weeks ago, depressed, defeated and demoralized for some reason. Not for some reason, some random reason. I decided to give up, to finally close the book on this stupid, pointless dream of being a writer or a filmmaker or, dare I even mention that I had considered doing both --- writing and making movies?

Everywhere I turn, it seems like someone I know is making a film or knows someone who is making a film and that’s what I want to do, what I have wanted to do for so long and I am not now, nor have I ever really been doing it.

Keep in mind that I was in a really bad mood, just feeling bad. I know that it is all crap. With all due respect, many of the films that have been made by some of the people I know, are quite unlikely to go anywhere -- maybe a festival screening here or there, but, more likely, straight to dvd oblivion if they go anywhere at all.

Of course, that is the dream, or at least part of it, anyway: make a film and have people see it. Sure, making a film, having millions of people pay millions of dollars to see it, would be pretty nice too but is, at this point, maybe unrealistic for me (and others) anyway. Don’t get me started on the topic of the movies that millions of people are paying millions of dollars to see.

Anyway, I’d had enough. I had spent the past few months struggling through a re-write or re-conceiving of a screenplay by someone else who feels that he has a good chance of getting it made. Why was it such a struggle? It was a half-decent screenplay to begin with and, after months and months of working on it, I am not sure that I can say that it is notably better, different or even good. I did not feel especially creative or inspired while working on it.

So, I simply don’t even know if I can write anymore, if I ever could write, if I should even bother trying. I submitted query after query, responded to ad after ad, really worked the system as best as I could but never got any bites, not even any responses. I decided to call it quits.

Okay, you know that this is just me whining, is not the complete truth. By my estimate, since 2003 or so, I have probably sent out 8000 e-mails to producers, directors, production companies -- some of who were actually soliciting writers. Of the 8000 e-mails, I have probably had 200 responses, of the 200 responses, I have gotten about 20 jobs, of the 20 jobs, fewer than 10 paid anything and, in the end, 1 feature film that I was hired to write was produced, albeit with a screenplay dramatically altered by the director and 1 original screenplay has been optioned.

Okay, so maybe I have nothing to be embarrassed about, I have beaten some considerable odds but I do feel that I have earned the right to be demoralized.

Later that Sunday night, not exactly out of the blue, I was asked to write a draft of “Spring Break Massacre 2” and, believe it or not, getting the gig really changed everything --- well, if not everything, a lot of things, primarily my attitude.

No, “Spring Break Massacre 2” is unlikely to make anyone forget “Citizen Kane” but I was really psyched to be writing it and enthusiastically threw myself into the project. I was not going to be much money from it but it was better than no money. A family film that I wrote -unwisely, for deferred pay- was supposed to shoot this summer and, had the investor not backed out in pre-production, it would have paid me almost ten times as much as “Spring Break Massacre 2.”

However, at this point, it was not about the money, it is really about the work and, oddly, I felt invigorated, like I had gotten a second chance, like I might be able to put off quitting for awhile.

So, I got a treatment from the director of “SBM2” and got down to business, felt “it” while writing and banged out half of the screenplay in a matter of days. Now, if anyone actually reads this blog, I am going to guess that this reader has not seen the original “Spring Break Massacre.” Shot in just a few days, for a few thousand dollars and then mired in a prolonged legal battle, it was finally released to DVD this year and, apparently, is doing killer business, especially overseas and nothing inspires sequels like a solid return on investment from the original.

As I was turning in my pages in ten page blocks, I was getting regular updates from the director as he was meeting with producers and investors. Time was getting tight and, fast as I was writing, they needed a script a.s.a.p. but, it seems, more than my script, he really wanted creative input and feedback, to be sure he was doing the right thing. Midway through writing my screenplay, I heard that they had made changes to the original treatment and commissioned another draft of the screenplay by another writer but, the director told me, I was to keep writing my version.

The second treatment was written, approved and then a third treatment was written, this time by the producers and investors who had decided to shoot for a comedy with slasher film elements rather than the slasher film with comedic elements that I was initially asked to write. A new screenplay was written, sent to me for my opinion and I really liked it.

There are now one and a half lines of my dialogue and a scene that was adapted from one of mine by in the new version and I am cool with it all. This is the way the business works and, in the end, I predict that “Spring Break Massacre 2” will do even better than the first one. My credit went from “co-writer” to “additional dialogue by” to, finally, in part at my suggestion, “special thanks to...” Shooting starts November 15th.

So, it was back to the dumps for me. No fat credit on a likely dvd “hit”, no paycheck, no new prospects on the horizon -- though the SBM/SBM2 director has “Bait & Tackle”, a screenplay that he asked me to write last year.

September 2010
I am currently writing a short film for another director. The guy who gave me my first screenwriting jobs back in 1996 just asked me if I am interested in collaborating on a feature idea that he has. I am open to anything, expecting nothing but hoping for something.

At one point last week, I found myself chatting with three people at the same time on facebook. One guy was a twenty-something 2010 film school grad who is finding life in the “real world” to be a bit of a wake-up call. Another guy was a thirty-something guy with one feature under his belt and a new short film that he was expressing anxiety about. The third guy was a forty-something successful commercial director who is eager to do more, to make features and has a lot to offer but is frustrated by his experiences with “the industry.”

So, there I was, licking my wounds, just about at rock bottom with nothing to lose, not much to look forward to and what did I find myself doing? I listened to people, I was there for them, present, supportive and encouraging when they needed someone to talk to and, while I am not going to support my family or realize my dreams by doing this kind of thing, I felt good.

Monday, July 12, 2010

1 in 4000

Why bother anymore? What’s the point of trying to make art, to be creative, to even dream about being successful, let alone earning a living doing something I love? These are questions that I feel that I should be asking myself regularly, if not every day but I am not. For some reason I am still trying to do it.

I once heard Barbra Streisand relay an anecdote about a young, aspiring actor asking her “Should I be an an actor?” to which she replied, “If you have to ask, the answer is ‘no’.”

As I have probably written before, I always just assumed that filmmaking and screenwriting were youthful pursuits that I would eventually grow out of when it came time to become and adult and make a living. But it hasn’t happened, I haven’t grown out of those dreams and I am not exactly making a living as an adjunct professor. I am basically getting by, still scrambling for work semester-to-semester, getting a screenwriting gig here, a book gig there (the photography book that I contributed to comes out in the fall) and I even have a speaking engagement coming up, moderating a discussion on depictions of inter-faith relationships in the movies.

Anyway, to “promote my name”, “get myself out ‘there’” (and see a lot of movies for free) I contribute reviews to IndieTalk.com. The last statistic that I saw on the matter, said that, at any given time, there are approximately 4000 indie films in production around the country.

When I read the trade magazines and check out IndieWire, MovieMaker and I look at the actors, directors and producers who I am friends with on facebook, all of whom have this thing and that going on and I imagine all of the actors, directors and producers I am not friends with, 4000 films seems an accurate number --- even if less than 400 will ever see the light of day, play a festival or two much less get some kind of distribution regardless of quality. Of the dozens, if not hundreds of titles that have passed through my dvd player over the past five years or so, I have seen some really good, worthy films wither away without ever finding distribution and I have seen barely competent productions secure solid deals.

So, last Saturday I received and watched a film by a young writer/director/cinematographer from South Jersey. “No Footing” is about a young woman who, eighteen months after graduating from college with a degree in fine art, finds herself working in a copy shop, designing business cards and flyers, stuck in a rut, watching helplessly as friends from high school get real jobs and start families. The film is by no means great but it is a decent little low-budget indie with nice production values, camerawork and acting, better than most of the films I have had to review and, more than anything, I really related to it on many levels.

Watching a film about a girl just out of college, full of hopes, dreams and ambitions, it was pretty hard to avoid looking inward and back at the twenty-three years since I graduated, wondering what I have done with my life, how much I have accomplished - or not.

Don’t think, for a moment, that I am complaining. I have a good life, a beautiful family, nice house in a great neighborhood and there is some money trickling in.

Back to hopes and dreams? Okay, I can’t exactly complain there either. In 1988, after working on two feature films, back to back with only one day off between them and, somewhere in there seeing Woody Allen’s “Crimes And Misdemeanors”, I decided that I wanted to be a screenwriter.

A lot of people want to be screenwriters and part of the way I earn a living is by teaching people how to be screenwriters. It’s a hard field to break into and, if I haven’t exactly broken into it, I have made a little dent in the door. If everyone who wanted to be a screenwriter, was actually working as a screenwriter, there might be a whole more than 4000 a year movies out there.

I had a volley of e-mails back and forth with the director of “No Footing” and tried to be encouraging as he told me that the film has been rejected from festival after festival.

I am re-writing a screenplay for someone who has a good chance of getting it made. When I finish that screenplay, I am writing a short comedy. A filmmaker whose films I have not liked in the past, who sent me a screenplay to read that I wound up trashing, has asked me how much I would charge to re-write a screenplay of his that is likely to find funding, I told him and he agreed to my rate. Who knows where any of this will go, if it will amount to anything? I do not know but, for some reason, that does not stop me from moving forward.

Does “No Footing” sound interesting? It might. Do you want to see it? You can’t, it has not yet gotten a distribution deal and there is no guarantee that it ever will but there is hope.

Monday, June 21, 2010

No, but I read the...

How do I know that I am back from vacation?
1) It was about 90 degrees in Philly today.
2) I didn’t take any naps.
3) When I look out my front window, I don’t see any water.
4) I didn’t read 200 pages of fiction today.

I could probably go on and on but that would be depressing so I am going to focus, for awhile anyway, on #4 but re-phrase it. How do I know when I am on vacation? I average about 200 pages of fiction or creative non-fiction a day. Yes, I read about 800 pages last week. Of course, that number is nothing for big readers or “real” readers. I do enjoy reading, I just don’t do enough of it when I am not in Maine for a week. I read. Of course, I read. It is a big, big, big part of my job to read. In the heat of the school year, I can read as many as fifty student screenplays in a week and, if that sounds like a lot, it is but it is not the same as 800 pages of fiction.

Screenwriting, as I teach it, is almost the antithesis of conventional prose writing and it takes me awhile to adjust to reading books. Screenwriting is closer to music composition than it is to prose. A film, like a symphony, is meant to be experienced in a single, uninterrupted sitting. Would you leave an orchestra’s performance of your favorite Beethoven piece mid-way through and then return the next night to hear the rest of it? Have you ever driven around longer than necessary or stayed in the driveway after your arrival because your favorite song was on the radio? Screenwriters and filmmakers strive to create a piece of visceral, visual music, something that draws you in, sweeps you up in it’s drama and carries you away. Do not hit the pause button!

So, I read a lot of fiction while I was away: “A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby and “The Corrections” by Jonathan Frazen. Wow. I am so glad that I am a screenwriter because I could never be a novelist. As a writer, I love to read books that would be ill-suited to cinematic adaptations. I love reading a book and thinking, “This could never be a movie!” Partially, I think that movies and fiction are completely (okay, largely) different art forms and lately, I feel like I have been coming across a number of books that are really thinly veiled movie-bait. All due respect to her, but it is pretty hard to not imagine Rowling sitting there, writing Harry Potter and thinking “This would be a great movie!”

I remember reading “Shopgirl”, the harrowing, hilarious novella about clinical depression by Steve Martin, truly one of my idols and such a major influence on me. “Wow,” I thought, “this could never be made into a film, how wonderful.” Later, on NPR, I heard Martin talking about how he thought that the book could never be made into a film --- and then changing his mind about it. Needless to say, I was disappointed with the film version (for the record, I haven’t liked most of his films), disappointed that Martin had second guessed his first instinct about the book and even more disappointed that he had miscast himself in a crucial part. We’re cool now, he made it up to me with his memoir, “Born Standing Up.”

Of course, I had to go ahead and dare myself, I couldn’t just let things lie, could I? What’s the point anyway, I would have found out soon enough. With great trepidation, a gnawing in my gut, I made a quick trip to IMDb and found that adaptations of both “A Long Way Down” and “The Corrections” are on the boards for 2011 and 2012. I guess that’s the way it goes. Maybe I’ll just read the dictionary on vacation next year. Maybe I’ll just work on screenplays while I’m away --- I would have gotten so much more work done this year if I had not brought so many really good books with me.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Vacation: Had To Get Away

Yes, in case you're wondering, I did hear the old Go-Go's chestnut "Vacation" on the radio today as I was scurrying around, taking care of last minute stuff before heading off on our annual jaunt to the coast of Maine tomorrow.

Everyone is really looking forward to being away. A look into the future (aka the five day forecast) shows chilly temperatures and rain for our first few days and we don’t care. Being away is about chilling, it is about what we don't do as much as it is about the activities we have planned. We plan to sit and read and sit and read and sit and read -- with regular long, long walks on the beach that lies just beyond our yard. I can’t rule out the possibility of a board game or two entering the equation.

Beyond reading and walking however, I plan to write. With the blessing of little to no internet access to distract me, last year, I wrote two screenplays in about four days. Granted the legwork had been done well in advance, I had treatments and notes ready to go so, when it came time to write, I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

So, I am going for it again, I have screenplay to rewrite or re-imagine for someone, a director who already has one feature to his credit and feels that this old script could be his next project but that it needs to be taken to a new place. Even though I sort of like it as is, I am under orders to add some Alfred Hitchcock, some David Lynch, some John Ford, some Salvador Dali and a little Fellini. Fun. Picture "Twin Peaks" meets "Touch Of Evil" with a dash of "The Exorcist."

Next, to lighten the mood, another Philly director has asked me write a short comedy about a model becoming an actor. I am looking forward to this project too because it is a world that I look forward to playing in and also because I rarely get to flex my comedy muscles on the page.

Oddly, I think I am a pretty funny guy in real life. I am not someone who suffers from an over abundance of self-confidence in many areas but I do think I have one healthy sense of humor. Sometimes I genuinely feel that my mission in life is to make people laugh and, okay, if it's not my mission, it's something I have been pretty good at since I was little and it seems to make people like me. Nothing too odd about that. What is a little odd, or maybe not, is that when I sit down to write, what comes out is rarely funny (go ahead, start singing “Tears Of A Clown”), instead it is my dark, sometimes very dark, nasty, misanthropic side gets to come out here and there. I guess it's all about balance.

Finally, if I get through these two projects and I don’t get another paying gig, I might actually have time to work on something of my own, something that, of all things, balances dark and light, humor and horror, just like me, just like life, right? That’s what I like.

AN UPDATE on various projects:
The Mumbai trip seems to have been a bust. Nobody was interested in the projects that my director friend was pitching. Too bad, actually a bit of a surprise but I guess that’s the way it goes.

The family film is now in crisis. The investor just backed out so it is unlikely to shoot this summer. Of all things, a former student who is now working in L.A. contacted me to see if I knew anyone who might be interested in working on some family films. I have put him in touch with the director of the film that just lost its backers and.... who knows?

However, if I do my job well and finish the “Twin Peaks” meets “Touch Of Evil” screenplay, it could shoot later this summer.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Oui. Non. Oui. Non.

I should be looking for some work now because, as of this past Tuesday, I have taught my last class and I am basically unemployed until September.

I should not be looking for screenwriting work.

I should not be entertaining new screenwriting jobs, especially jobs that might only sort of "pay" somewhere down the line but, once again, this is where I find myself.

I have projects. I am doing a radical overhaul on a creepy, supernatural/religious thriller, making more "Twin Peaks" meets "Touch Of Evil." It is a good screenplay to begin with and making it better has been a lot of fun, it's like adding more icing to the icing on the cake.

There are the Indian projects that I am waiting to hear about: two films, one is an original story and the other is an adaptation of a novel. The director is in Mumbai pitching them right now.

So, why did I respond to an ad for a writer? I guess I thought I might get paid.

They got a lot of responses from writers, narrowed it down to me and a few others and picked me. Nice.

Details emerged. The film is a foreign production set in the U.S. but with an international flair. That is, these guys have a lot that they want to tackle in this film, big issues that make the news every day, topics that involve the U.S., other countries and the relationship to the U.S. and these other countries -- not to mention the cultural/ethnic element.

They are unhappy with the screenplay that they have and they want me to fix it. They sent it to me, I didn't like it, found it heavy-handed and, even worse, not compelling and I told them so. I passed on the job. End of story. Or so I thought.

So impressed with my perceptions about the screenplay and my brutal honesty, they asked me if I would write a radically new version of the screenplay, incorporating their agenda and "whatever it needs" to make me as a writer interested in writing it. I agreed.

Then I got their agenda.

Notice that I have not mentioned what issues they want to deal with?

Sure, I have political views and thoughts about society but I have never been one to wear them on my sleeve per se. Yes, you can tell that I am an earthy crunchy liberal democratic Jew just by looking at me, you really can.

I appreciate the need to be vocal about issues and push the agenda but I not the one to do it and the producer and director of this film have a lot of things to express in no uncertain terms and I am not 100% comfortable giving my voice to them. I agree with some things, disagree with other things but, no matter how I feel about their message, I do not think that I am the one to deliver it for them, certainly not as emphatically as they want to have it expressed. I backed out of the project, told them that I am not up to the challenge --- and politics or not, it was a challenging project (no female characters allowed???) and really more than I think I can handle at this point. Give me a good haunted church any day and I'll be happy.

They have responded with another e-mail, this time appealing to me as an artist who should stretch, who should challenge myself with this project. I haven't responded to the e-mail.

They have already called twice today. I let the machine get it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What now?

What now?
I don't think I have posted anything here for about a month. Bad blogger, bad!

As usual, I am deep in a little of this, a little of that, hoping some of it sticks, blooms, grows, does something productive etc. There have been so many projects that I have worked on and, yes, gotten paid for, that have not gone anywhere and it's tough because everything is out of my hands.

I get hired to write something, I get paid (some of the time anyway, even if it is less than minimum wage) and, naturally, I want to see it get produced. No, actually, it is not enough for me to get paid to write screenplays because a screenplay in and of itself is nothing but a pile of paper until someone turns it into a movie. A symphony is nothing but lines and dots on a piece of paper until musicians perform it. A blueprint is just a picture until contractors use it to make a building.

So, no matter what I am working on --- yes, I wrote a screenplay about a vegetarian who becomes a cannibal --- I give it my best shot, make it as good as possible because I want to satisfy the client, I want to get hired again and, yes, because I want to see the movie but once I deliver the script, I am usually out of the game. I am not a producer, I can't get a film made. Similarly, if a film of mine does get made, I am at the mercy of those who are making the film, hoping that they take care of my baby. Don't get me started on this element of cinematic childcare --- let's just say that I need to explore other options. For the record, the cannibal film was produced but without, so I am told, my script because, in the words of the director, my "dialogue was too good for the caliber of actors we can afford." Yes, I got screwed on that one.

So, as summer 2010 approaches, I eagerly anticipate, once again, the actual production of one of my screenplays. "The Scare" (their title, not mine), a psychological thriller that I did a major overhaul on, is supposed to be shooting this June in New York. "Painted", a family film that I was hired to write, is in pre-production according to the website, as of May 17th and expected to shoot in California during July and August.

Finally, word from L.A. is that, after being on the back-burner for a few months, "Aftermath" is moving up to the front-burner in anticipation of a fall shoot in L.A. and I can only hope that childcare does right by me this time.

After way too long, I am coming to realize that I shouldn't be such a baby about people screwing with my work, re-writing my screenplays in production etc, because so much of my work these days is re-writing other people's screenplays or taking their ideas for films and turning them into my idea of how to turn it into a screenplay.

So, as mentioned before, I am deep in it, reading screenplays for people, doing a major overhaul on one for a director who has people ready to hear his pitch, waiting for word from Mumbai about a project that is being pitched there right now, working on a treatment for an adaptation of a book that I can barely get through and reading screenplays for former students who both plan to shoot their films this summer.

The mail just arrived and in it was a rough copy of a new film by Benny Mathews, who wants my opinion. Years ago, I reviewed Benny's film "Santeria" for Home Media Entertainment Magazine, really liked it and he sent me a "fan" letter, thanking me for understanding his film so well. We have been friendly ever since and hope to collaborate on something one day.

(I also got a "fan" letter from "Shoot 'Em Up" director Michael Davis because I raved about his previous film "Monster Man", because I was the only reviewer who "got" the film and, on the strength of my review, he speculated that it would get a theatrical run in Europe, which would then pave the way for a bigger budget follow-up, which wound up being "Shoot 'Em Up.")

I am also expecting an advance copy of "Green", the second feature by my former student, the wildly talented Nick Gregorio. Nick co-wrote, produced, directed, starred in the wonderful "Happy Birthday Harris Malden" which made a little splash in the indie world a few years ago and I am really eager to see this new film, having read the screenplay last year. Nick stopped by my class yesterday to say "hi" and that the DVD would be coming soon.

If I can't yet see my own work produced, it is genuinely gratifying for me to see other people in my circle get to see their work produced. They know that I'm here for them and I know that they're here for me. Now, that's good care!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Has it come to this?

Read the attached article here, "Has Hollywood Finally Killed The Screenwriter."
Yikes but, the fact is, it's pretty dead on.
People hire me to write screenplays for them, I write the script and they tell me to make changes and I make changes until they stop telling me to make changes.

In my class yesterday, a student whose script goes into production this weekend as a group project, had to sit and watch in horror as he officially lost control of it, as the producer said to him, "I have to play producer here and say that the script is finished, there's no more time to tinker with it."

Brutal, yes. Heartbreaking for the writer, yes. Hard for me to see it happening to another writer, yes. But, I have to admit that that producer did the right thing. The script had been revised by committee several times and the production was two days away from the first table read, six days away from shooting. Sometimes it just has to be like that.

Of course, in my experience with "Aftermath", the producers optioned my 80 page screenplay and hired me to do re-writes. Over the course of six months, I turned in numerous drafts, I got over 120 pages of notes, the page count eventually rose to 106 pages and then, of all things, began to decrease to, guess what....82 pages, where it now stands.

Last week, I turned in first draft of a screenplay to the producer/director who hired me. He took out some of my stuff, added in some of his stuff, sent it back to me for another pass and then, after that, asked me to change/add/replace some more material.

I don't know what I am exactly saying here but this is the way it is: Go strong or go home(?).


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Who, what, where?

I have a screenplay due on April 15th. I am not even at 50 pages into it yet and the goal is 90. Am I worried? Not really. I have a solid treatment and lots of notes to work from. It should be a breeze. Of course, it won't be and I will be scrambling late into the night, early morning and, quite possibly, the late afternoon to finish it.
Why? Because I just finished doctoring another Bollywood screenplay, I am doctoring a thriller and, because the muse hit (and when she hits, she hits hard), I paused to write a short film for a director who is looking for material.

So, I am having trouble keeping track of what I am working on, where it's going, who I am supposed to be working for and what I am supposed to be doing next/now --- so I blog.

Back to the real world --- one of the guys who I am writing for is im-ing me on fb.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Paranormal trend

Okay, big surprise, when a movie hits it big, everyone wants to do their own version of it. Case in point, in the space of about an hour yesterday, I was asked to work on two different "Paranormal Activity" type screenplays by two different producers and this is in addition to the one I already worked on back in January. Whatever works.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Just say "yes"?

Moments ago, I got a Facebook comment from a nearby filmmaker who has a Sundance-backed feature brewing. He says he could use my help with something --- presumably this feature with the pretty decent budget. How can I say "no"? I need to get something out there that has my name on it. I need to make some money. Simple, right?

I am currently doctoring a US/Bollywood screenplay, writing a family film and a short sci-fi political allegory. On top of all that, I recently dusted off a pet project, the treatment for a screenplay that I'd started last year and now think could be a viable project for me to produce --- much like "Aftermath", the script that was optioned to an L.A. producer last year, it is a grungy, low-budget real time piece.

The question is: How do I do it all?

There is one school of thought that says beginning screenwriters should not work for free or deferred pay because it sends the wrong message to producers who think they can walk all over us -- which, to some degree, is true. On the other hand, I have to start somewhere, get my name out there so that, maybe, someone will hire me.

So, I guess that's why I do it, say "yes" to everything, even if it kills me.

I have the Indian script due on 3/31 but it's going well. The family film is due 4/15 and it's going well. Will I ever get to the point where I can write one or two screenplays a year and be happy? If I do get to that point will I be happy or will I miss the days when I had to run around, chasing down gigs that might or might not pay, might or might not get made?

Or will I just get a real job?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Blahg! What am I doing? Where am I going?

In my defense, I read scripts all day and when I am not reading them for students or friends, I am writing them, so if it seems that I barely blog it is because I barely blog.

What am I doing? Well, in January, February and the beginning of March, I wrote a book on the history of photography. Okay, I didn't write a book, but I contributed 45 250 word articles on the subject to a general book on photography. Fun!

At the same time, I was doctoring a screenplay, a creepy psychological thriller set primarily in an old apartment. Since, I love Polanski's creepy apartment films "Repulsion" and "The Tenant" and, sure, why not, "Rosemary's Baby", I used this opportunity to attempt something like one of those. Of course, I was working from an existing story, had little time and even less hope of actually getting paid for this thing so I did what I could with what I was given to work with. I hear that it is supposed to be shooting now but, what do I know, I am only the writer/co-writer/doctor.

Now -- it should be now, I should be writing right now -- I am working on a family film. More fun! Next up, a re-write of an Indian film.

I better get back to work.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

something like a bio?

Okay, my parents were beatniks/hippies who more concerned with saving the world through progressive education than they were in earning a living and providing for their family. They separated when I was 10, divorced when I was 13 --- that year (1978) my father took me, my sister and twin brothers cross-country for six months. Fun!

I returned to the alternative private high school that my father had started (private school free for me, why not?). I developed a crush on classmate back then and we have been married for almost 18 years. We have two daughters.

My parents had both been show-biz oriented as kids. My mother was actress up through college (she found out that she was pregnant with me two weeks before her graduation, thus the end of her acting career) and my father was a professional tap dancer as a teenager.

So, I guess I got the show-biz genes from them, started acting as a kid and also became a movie junkie, not just watching them but reading about them and the behind-the-scenes of production, finally starting to make my own Super 8 films when I was 9 at elementary school. Have you seen "A History Of Violence"? The Oscar-nominated screenwriter was two years ahead of me in school. Quentin Tarantino's executive producer was in my class from nursery school to sixth grade. The producer of "Lost In Translation" was two years behind me.

So, from an early age, I wanted to be a filmmaker and I always just thought that I would grow out of it and get a "real job." Never happened.

I always say that screenwriting or filmaking is like drinking, smoking or doing drugs ---- it might look appealing to some people even though we all know that it usually only winds up being destructive and we know we shouldn't do it, do it anyway and, by the time we decide that we want to stop, it's pretty hard.

I was a film major at Temple, an unremarkable student. I worked on two feature films back-to-back a year after college. I went from working (for free) on a low-budget indie film where everyone did everything for three or four months, finishing on a Saturday and going to work on a big budget Hollywood film on the following Monday, working one boring job day in and day out, making buckets of money and the study in contrasts was really life changing.

I saw so many inflated egos and so much financial waste on the Hollywood film that it really turned my stomach. It was during this time that the whole 'independent film' movement was becoming more high profile and I drifted towards it creatively and philosophically. I liked those kind of films and I wanted to make those kind of edgy, offbeat films.

I took a bit of time off between 1988 and 1990 to be the primary care-giver to my mother when she was terminally ill. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 1985 she became an AIDS activist, working as a volunteer to help patients because she felt that like cancer had been when she younger, people were afraid to talk about AIDS. People Magazine did a story about her, she was on the cover of the Philadelphia Inquirer and was ABC News' Person Of The Week in 1988.

In 1991, a screenplay of mine was a semi-finalist for the prestigious Sundance Institute's screenwriter's lab ---- out of 500 applicants, they chose 24 semi-finalists and from them, 12 got into the lab.

In 1995 my short film, "The True Meaning Of Cool" won an award from the American Film Institute. The art of film is getting people to believe that they are seeing something when they are actually seeing something else. So, when I say that I have an award from the AFI, people are impressed. The reality is that I entered the film into 30 festivals, was rejected by 29 and was a runner up in the AFI sponsored contest. So, sure I have a hunk of plastic on my desk that says AFI but the illusion I've created is less impressive than the reality. Everyone does this!

Really, the bulk of my adult life has been in retail, much of it in video stores, something I loved for quite a long time. I was the movie guy in an extremely high profile, popular store, part of a staff of wacky characters, all of whom were incredibly knowledgeable about film. I drifted into teaching in 1999.

Now, I am an adjunct instructor, barely earning a living, always scrambling for work. My original screenplay "Aftermath" was optioned by an LA producer last year, I got a chunk of change (most of which went to pay for my daughter's bat mitzvah) and I am waiting to see if they actually make it, give me more money and, hopefully, see my career launched. I have written or doctored 20 (give or take) screenplays since 2006, one of which was produced but with a script radically re-written by the director and the rest of which are either in various stages of development or just gathering dust in the office of the person who hired me to write it.

My hope is that one or two of these scripts will be produced, take off and launch me so that I can make a living as a screenwriter and eventually direct my own stuff.

I left a lot out but I guess that's it. Any questions?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rated PG? Me?

So, it looks like I am going to be writing a PG family film. NOTE TO SELF: No matter what, climax cannot involve the kids riding their bikes REALLY FAST in order to save the park/school play/wildlife preserve/grand old building/mythical creature/magic animal etc.

Pre-sold franchises

Well, I think that they're going to keep going with the super-hero movies because they are pre-sold franchises, known entities with built-in fan bases that will come out in support or out of curiosity.

It's so hard to introduce anything "new" these days -- which is why we see so many movies based on TV shows, comic books, video games, toys or other...

See More movies, ditto Broadway plays based on movies and now, more and more, pop music.

Apparently ticket sales are brisk for the Green Day musical opening in April. Of course, things like this have been going on for years.

Great as it is, "Singin' In The Rain" was conceived a venue to showcase the pre-existing music and that's what begat "Mamma Mia", "Tommy", "Movin' Out", "Jersey Boys" and so on. The concept is really being taken to the extreme with the "Spider-Man" play with music by U2 -- if that ever winds up happening.