Is Silence Golden? The 2011 Academy nominees…

January 24th, 2012 No comments

Nine Pictures. One statuette…

In a bold move, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made good on their promise to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from their recent unwieldy total of ten contenders to a much more reasonable nine films. If ever there was any question that the Academy moves quickly to institute change, this should forever address that issue…

Silent vs. 3-D?

The Best Picture nominees for the 84th Academy Awards include very few surprises. Audience darling, Golden Globe winner and Oscar campaign veteran “The Artist” was nominated for Best Picture, one of its 10 Oscar nominations. It does mark the first time since the inception of the sound era that an (ostensibly) silent film has been nominated, which is Oscar history. Also nominated is “Hugo,” which received a total of 11 nominations. Golden Globe drama winner “The Descendants” also did well, garnering a Best Picture and 4 other Oscar nominations. “The Help”‘s popularity at the box office elevated that film to a Best Picture nomination, as well as 3 acting nominations. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” earned him his best reviews (and box office) in years – and a Best Picture nomination, along with similar nods for original script, directing and art direction. Another veteran director, Steven Spielberg, received a Best Picture nomination for his “War Horse,” although his other film of 2011, the motion-capture ‘animated’ film “The Adventures of Tintin,” was a no-show in the animated film category.

Rounding out the  pack of nine nominees are “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life.” Of these, only “Moneyball” received multiple acting and adapted screenplay nominations, while ‘Tree’ scored nominations for veteran director Terrence Malick and Best Cinematography. Having another large field of Best Picture nominees does little to solve the traffic jam that is the Oscar telecast, but given the speed with which the Academy addressed the Best Picture nominee overpopulation issue, it’s a sure bet they’ll fix that moribund telecast… any day now…

Director

The Best Director field is broad this year. Oddly, despite directing two films in 2011, Steven Spielberg is NOT represented, but his pal Martin Scorsese, whose “Hugo” earned him his best reviews and audience acclaim in years, is. Alexander Payne, who won the statuette in 2005 for “Sideways,” is nominated for directing “The Descendants,” as well as for adapting its screenplay, along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Michel Hazanavicius, best known in his native France for lowbrow spy spoofs, is the surprise of the directing nominees. His “The Artist,” a Golden Globe winner for comedy film, is reaping the benefits of a carefully-orchestrated Oscar campaign, complemented by wild audience acceptance. As noted above, Woody Allen is nominated for his popular “Midnight in Paris,” his seventh nomination as director (he won once before, for “Annie Hall,” for which he also won an original screenplay Oscar with Marshall Brickman). Finally, iconoclastic film director Terrence Malick was nominated for directing “The Tree of Life,” a film that has confounded, enthralled and agitated moviegoers, often simultaneously. A legendary perfectionist, ‘Tree’ is only Malick’s 5th film in 34 years, although he is rumored to have a couple of films nearing completion.

Best Actor

The Academy’s nominations for Best Actor seem to fall into two categories: favorites and newbies. The favorites (at least among audiences)?: George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Clooney won the Golden Globe for his “The Descendants” role (against Pitt). The newbies? Jean Dujardin of “The Artist” and Demian Bichir of “A Better Life.” Dujardin won the Golden Globe for comedy actor, and is probably the betting favorite for the actual statuette. The wild card? Longtime screen vet and first-time nominee Gary Oldman, whose turn in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has also earned him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination as Best Actor. In light of Oldman’s long and varied career, it’s surprising to learn this is his first Oscar nomination.

Best Actress

As with the Best Actor category, the race for Best Actress seems split into the familiar and the new. Familiar faces show up in the form of gender-bending Glenn Close, who adopted a male persona in “Albert Nobbs,” and ubiquitous Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, whose performance as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” has earned her both critical plaudits and jabs, mainly because her portrayal of Thatcher includes depictions of her as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Streep has been nominated for a record 17 acting nominations and won 2, but her last win came in 1983, for “Sophie’s Choice.” Close has now earned six nominations, but no Oscar statuettes. Up against these two legends are relative newcomers Rooney Mara, Viola Davis and Michelle Williams. Although Mara (the lone non-technical nominee from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,”) has never been nominated before, this represents Davis’ second nomination (the first was for 2010’s “Doubt”), and Michelle Williams’ third (following “Brokeback Mountain” and last year’s “Blue Valentine.”)

Notably absent…

Sony’s Christmas tentpole film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was noticeably overlooked in Academy nominations; apart from Rooney Mara’s acting nod, as noted earlier, every other nomination was for technical contributions, leaving director David Fincher (and the film) basically shut out. Director Stephen Daldry, (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), failed to score a nomination for directing, his first time ever; Daldry has been nominated for each of his previous films, “Billy Elliot,” “The Hours” and “The Reader,” but has never won. Similarly, Bennett Miller, a directing nominee for his 2005 “Capote,” failed to make the directing cut, although his film “Moneyball” did for Best Picture.

Who?

A few high-profile performances appeared to have gone unnoticed in this year’s performances. Although “Hugo” received the most Oscar nominations, its star, Asa Butterfield, did not receive one; his performance, criticized as flat by some critics, clearly underwhelmed the Academy. Michael Fassbender, hailed for his unyielding performance as a sex addict in “Shame” and as psychiatrist Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” was totally overlooked by the Academy. “The Descendants” actress Shailene Woodley was also passed over for a nomination as Best Supporting Actress, but the mistake here seems to be the Academy’s, since her performance was exceptional.

Success is no guarantee of… success? 

Having your movie do well at the box office during the last year (a increasingly difficult proposition given declining B.O. dollars and attendance) offers no assurance you’ll also cash in at Oscar time. Of the year’s 10 biggest moneymakers, only 1 got a ‘Best Picture’ nomination, and that was for animated feature “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Despite a fierce campaign to garner gravitas, the Harry Potter series earned billions at the box office, but no Best Picture nomination for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Likewise with the sleeper hit “Bridesmaids,” although Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo were nominated for original screenplay (against Hazanavicius’ “The Artist”, Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” – also Iran’s Foreign Language Film nominee, and dark-horse candidate “Margin Call,” written and directed by J.C. Chandor for a relatively microscopic budget of $3.3 million). 

Still to come: Original & Adapted screenplays; Supporting roles and more…

David Fincher must hate Harvey Weinstein…

November 30th, 2011 No comments

Stylish Cinema or Marketing Campaign?

Poor David Fincher. He must feel as though Harvey Weinstein has it in for him. This is the second year in a row in which Fincher is releasing a much-heralded movie adaptation, timed for year-end impact – in this case “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and Harvey Weinstein’s The Weinstein Company is releasing a counter-programming one-two punch of “The Artist,” a stylized black & white ‘silent’ film, along with “The Iron Lady,” a biopic of Margaret Thatcher featuring the latest incredible transformation of star Meryl Streep. Last year, Fincher’s “The Social Network” was an Oscar frontrunner even before its October 1st release, but at year’s end The Weinstein Company released “The King’s Speech” along with a savvy blitz for industry recognition, eventually walking off with Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay Academy statuettes. Fincher and company had to settle for Best Editing, Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars, despite 5 other nominations for directing, actor Jesse Eisenberg, best picture, sound and cinematography.

Haven’t I seen this before?

Based on the first of the late Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salandar trilogy, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a demanding tale of dark urges and violent retribution, and perfectly suited for Fincher’s cool, detached directing style. The original film adaptation was made in Sweden in 2009, and followed quickly by “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” all of which feature disgraced journalist Mikail Blomkvist and emotionally-scarred (and pierced and tattooed) computer hacker Lisbeth Salandar. Fincher’s English-language adaptation (by “Schindler’s List” Oscar-winning scribe Steve Zaillian) is likewise set in Sweden, ostensibly to convey the bleakness of the story’s tone and setting. Set to open on December 21, 2012, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is considered Sony’s prestige year-end film, and this marks the second time in two years that the studio has gone head-to-head with The Weinstein Company’s Academy Award ‘For Your Consideration’ publicity machine.

So, if bleak simply isn’t your thing…

The Weinstein Company’s “The Artist,” starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, is a mostly-silent, black and white romantic comedy about the early days of Hollywood and the advent of ‘talkies.’ An extended homage to the ‘magic’ of the silver screen, “The Artist” has received a textbook Weinstein release: opening over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in only 4 U.S. theaters, the film is benefitting from the numerous appearances Harvey Weinstein has made thumping the project, one of several his company is rolling out during year’s end. Enthusiastic word of mouth and a platform release is the hallmark of a traditional Weinstein Academy Award campaign.  Another well-touted Weinstein Company release is Michelle Williams’ transformative turn as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn,” based on the journal of a young man assigned to help her during the filming of 1957’s “The Prince and the Showgirl.” So The Weinstein Company seems to be working a ‘zone defense’ on Fincher, using three of their releases to siphon off industry acclaim. (And box office bucks; although to be fair, the audiences for the films seem markedly dissimilar).

How will it end? The suspense is… familiar.

There’s no way of telling whether Fincher’s dark drama will be a hit – although Larsson’s novels’ remarkable international popularity and the successes of the orginal films in Sweden suggest a built-in audience. What seems certain, however, is this: the Weinstein-Fincher rivalry won’t be going anywhere soon. After all, there are two more Larsson books waiting for Fincher, if he chooses – and another year-end award season coming in 2012 for Harvey to contest. So I guess it’s safe to bet you haven’t heard the last of this competition.

Billy and Oscar: Like Crystal & Gold

November 11th, 2011 No comments

 

Apparently, the 9th is the ‘Crystal appearance…’

It didn’t take long for the Motion Picture Academy and newly-minted Oscarcast co-producer Brian Grazer to announce their choice to replace Eddie Murphy, who stepped down in support of disgraced producer Brett Ratner. Once again, the Academy has dipped into the past (although admittedly the more recent – and seasoned host – past) to find their next show host: Billy Crystal will host the February 26, 2012 telecast, his ninth outing as MC. Crystal is a solid choice for host, and a personal favorite. Still and all, I personally had hoped this shake-up would give the Academy to make an out-of-the-box choice, but the Motion Picture Academy is so slow to change it’s a wonder they have gotten it together to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from 10 to a more realistic number this year.

Despite all this ‘last minute’ change occurring more than three months before the Oscarcast, it’s hoped that Crystal will retain his faux movie appearances at the start of the show, but perhaps lose (or at least update) his satirical ‘musical salute’ to the nominees. Much has been made of the telecast’s ratings slide in recent years, and returning to an old template for the show may be a mistake. We’ll find out together, on February 26th, when Billy Crystal returns to host the 84th Annual Academy Awards.

Billy Crystal\’s 2004 Oscarcast opening 

 

Oscar: ‘Slurs are for jerks’

November 10th, 2011 No comments

Is Gervais Golden?

It’s the start of awards season, so Hollywood is gearing up to pat itself on the back. The Golden Globes are just a couple of months away, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is still debating whether or not to ask Ricky Gervais to host again. His edgy, ‘knock ’em down a peg’ style of humor last year was equally hailed as a breath of fresh air and reviled as thinly-veiled contempt. Frankly, I thought he was hilarious, but, then, he never made fun of me.

Academy to Ratner: slurs are for jerks

After Brett Ratner made a homophobic slur at a “Tower Heist” Q&A last weekend, calls for his resignation as an Academy Awards producer resulted in Ratner’s quitting the post on Tuesday. This was rapidly followed by the exit of Eddie Murphy, who had been named host shortly after Ratner was made a producer. Academy President Tom Sherak made a statement saying Ratner’s stepping down was “the right thing.” Privately, the Academy was livid at Ratner’s insensitive remarks. (When asked whether he rehearsed his actors before filming, Ratner flippantly responded “Rehearsing’s for fags.”) Since, Ratner has issued a letter of apology, but his recent interview with Howard Stern in which he graphically described his sex life proves that Ratner is still not ready for prime time. To add financial injury to homophobic insult, “Tower Heist” opened very soft this weekend, pulling in only $24 million; B.O. prognosticators had expected at least $25 million, so the film’s opening was weak, and isn’t helping the Ratner ‘brand.’

Bring in a fresh Producer…

Since there are only about 3 months until the Oscar telecast on Sunday, February 26, 2012, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has jumped to replace Ratner. They didn’t have to look far, naming Ratner’s “Tower Heist” producer Brian Grazer as Oscarcast co-producer, along with the previously-named Oscar producing vet Don Mischer.  It’s clear, from the naming of Ratner and his hosting choice Murphy, and now with Hollywood titan Grazer (his “A Beautiful Mind” won the 2001 Best Picture Oscar) that the Academy is looking to ‘jazz up’ its annual spectacle, since recent years have seen a real dip in the famous ceremony’s ratings. Last year’s pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway was widely criticized as a transparent move to inject ‘young blood’ into the show – and it proved a real disappointment. It remains to be seen who Grazer will tap to host the awards ceremony, but he has strong ties to a number of comic (and dramatic) stars. Some names already mentioned are Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks. Stay tuned!

Layers of Meaning: September 11th

September 11th, 2011 3 comments

Every day has a special significance to someone.

There are birthdays, wedding days, anniversary commemorations… But few days are as filled with significance and remembrance as September 11th. Since 2001, 9/11 has become a national day of remembrance.

Can I borrow your date?

The scars left by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will always be evident – in lost family as well as challenges to how America balances its senses of security and tolerance. In so many ways, it has changed the way we live, from how we travel to the way our government is structured. Apart from such significant changes, however, are the subtle shifts that take place in the shadow of such a profound tragedy. Those whose special dates of remembrance for their anniversaries, birthdays and other commemorations were on September 11th now have a solemn task: to reconcile their personal celebrations with the nation’s grief. 

Reasons to Smile

On September 11, 1948, more than a decade before Osama Bin Laden was even born, my parents married. Today they celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary. On September 11, 2001, their 53rd anniversary was co-opted by national tragedy. Fortunately for them – and all their family – their sense of love and commitment is strong enough to endure all that life has thrown their way. They continue to love one another and cherish the time they have together, a lesson they have passed down to all of their 6 kids and 14 grandkids – and now they eagerly anticipate two great-grandkids on the way.

It’s the weekend after Labor Day; in my family, that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the Day-Hicks Family Reunion (or Hicks-Day, depending on your fidelity to history). Regardless of what you call it, the Family Reunion is a long-standing tradition I have written about before in For Bards Blog. Held by my mother’s family, the event has slimmed down from its peak years, but the reunion has always drawn relatives living in the central Massachusetts area, as well as a healthy dose of those living hundreds of miles away. An old-fashioned, pot-luck affair, I always looked forward to the reunion to run around with my many, many cousins as the adults reminisced about days gone by and changes to the family. I miss the family reunion, and wish I could be there today.

It’s not every day that a guy praises his brother-in-law, but that’s what I find myself doing today, 9/11, because it is my brother-in-law’s birthday. Born a scant 40-something years ago, he is an accomplished chef, although, somehow, he is also a chartered accountant, a pilot and a magician. (For all I know, the guy’s a Jedi master as well. Let’s face it: he’s clearly an overachiever.) But he’s had to share his date with America ever since he was in his 30s.

Every day is special

Those who previously counted September 11th as ‘their day,’ now share it with America – and the world. What was personal is shared – and perhaps that is the way it should be. My parents anniversary, my family’s reunion and my brother-in-law’s birthday – all today, along with the nation’s remembrance of a historical tragedy – will be in my thoughts. I will continue to celebrate 9/11 for its significance to my folks and my family. I will also be grateful for the fact that my best friend from high school, who worked in one of the World Trade Center towers, had opted to take time off from work to visit his sister in California when the planes hit. Similarly, I will remember with sadness the young man who grew up next door to me in upstate New York, who,  on 9/11/2001, was a bond trader on the 105th floor of tower #1.

Stories and more stories

With the sunrise on September 12, 2011, America will resume life as usual. Cautious, vigilant, wary… but usual. Our lives were changed by 9/11, but they shouldn’t be diminished. For me, September 11th will always be my parents anniversary, my brother-in-law’s birthday. And, it will be time of remembrance. But no matter how I commemorate the big events in life, I’m comforted by the fact that there will be a sunrise the next morning. And it will be beautiful.

Murphy to Oscar: “Oh-Tay!”

September 8th, 2011 No comments

  

I read the news today. Oh boy.

I smell a Ratner…

Still stinging from criticism of the less-than-stellar 2010 Oscars telecast last February which paired actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco as show hosts, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced that Eddie Murphy will host the 2011 Oscarcast. That’s right: Eddie Murphy, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member turned 80s and 90s box-office powerhouse. While still a recognizeable figure, Murphy’s star has faded substantially in the past decade, despite maintaining a lucrative job voicing the character of Donkey in the “Shrek” films, as well as receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Dreamgirls” in 2006. Even still, Murphy, whose last film was box office dud “Imagine That,” will be seen in the upcoming “Tower Heist,” opposite Ben Stiller and Casey Affleck, directed by Oscar co-producer Brett Ratner (who works alongside seasoned Oscar producer Don Mischer).

Can “Pluto Nash 3D” or “Re-Meet Dave” be far behind?

Ratner has expressed a desire to resurrect the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise with Murphy; the 3-film series made nearly a billion dollars in box office receipts from 1984 to 1994. Still only 50, Murphy broke-out in stand-up comedy and was made a cast member of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 19. Two years later, he made his feature film debut in Walter Hill’s successful “48 Hrs.”, then cemented his box office stature with 1983’s “Trading Places,” a bona fide blockbuster hit. A number of hit films followed (“Coming to America,” “The Nutty Professor”), but by 2002 Murphy’s film roles grew increasingly formulaic, and he was saddled with a series of high-profile flops, including “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,”  “Norbit” and “Meet Dave.” Clearly both Murphy and Ratner believe that “Tower Heist,” in which Murphy plays a thief recruited to help steal $20 million believed hidden by a Bernie Madoff-like con man, will revitalize his career. Early buzz on ‘Heist,’ which features a supporting cast filled with the likes of Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe and Matthew Broderick, is strong.

Have I seen this one before?

The Academy has drawn on comedians to host the Oscarcast many times before: Bob Hope was considered the show’s ‘unofficial host’ for years. Johnny Carson hosted the show numerous times, and Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and even David Letterman have hosted (although Letterman was a one-shot wonder, as were subsequent ‘edgy’ comic hosts Jon Stewart and Chris Rock). It’s hoped that Murphy’s stand-up experience and career longevity will restore the Academy Awards telecast’s steadily declining ratings, but that a tough bet to make, given that Murphy’s dated appeal and R-rated humor may not  translate to a network awards show.

In other Brett Ratner-related news…

Whether by coincidence or design, another Ratner crony re-surfaced this week: Chris Tucker, of “Rush Hour” fame, announced he was set to join director David O. Russell’s comedy “The Silver Linings Playbook,” the director’s follow-up to last year’s box office hit “The Fighter.” Tucker hasn’t been in a film since “Rush Hour 3” in 2007, after hemming and hawing 6 years to make that film. Although he was (and remains) attached to a crime script at Warner Brothers called “The Rabbit,” it seems likely that Tucker’s next two projects will be Russell’s  ‘Silver Linings,’ as well as “Neighborhood Watch,” opposite Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. Tucker is a mercurial figure who has worked with visionary directors like Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown,”) and Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”) before finding financial and career stability with Ratner, with whom Tucker has made 4 films: the 3 “Rush Hour” films, as well as “Money Talks,” Ratner’s debut feature. Presently, Tucker is performing a standup comedy tour, set to end in November.

Beverly Hills Cop-out?

Eddie Murphy’s hosting gig at the 2011 Oscars next February probably won’t change much in terms of the show’s ratings decline. Despite Murphy’s $7 billion (with a b) in career box office earnings, what needs to be changed at the Oscars is the show, not its host. The Academy has already decreed that the number of Best Picture nominees will not be the 10-title phone-book list of recent years, itself a promising start. It’s clear the different producers of the last few years have taken stabs at originality, but the Academy Awards telecast remains a real relic of old Hollywood. Like the movie business itself, which is declining in the numbers of ticket buyers, the Academy Awards TV broadcast is going to have to find a new, sustainable model if it wishes to enjoy continued ratings – or relevancy.

Endings: Grace note?

September 1st, 2011 No comments

The ‘Holy Trinity’ of Story

Every screenplay has a beginning, middle and ending – and, as has been noted more than once before in For Bards Blog, the ending is usually the hardest part to get right. For those reading a novel or otherwise immersing themselves in some form of entertainment, reaching the ending is usually a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you have a feeling of accomplishment, but it is inevitably tinged with a sense of loss: this vicarious experience has drawn to a close. For a screenwriter, creating a solid ending that resolves their story to the audience’s satisfaction is a tricky balancing act, but hopefully it gives birth to the urge to create anew. Often it leads to re-examination, second guessing and unlimited fussing in the name of ‘getting it right,’ even though it’s possible the first choice may have been the right one. In other words, it’s hard to let a project go, but it’s necessary. Your script must be complete before it can be produced – and the desired throngs can enjoy it on the big screen, from beginning to end – at which point it will be their turn to yearn for more …

Lasting Impressions

Whether your script is a comedy, a drama or anything else, it will first be judged on its ending. Just the way making a good ‘first impression’ is important when meeting someone, the ‘final impression’ a reader or studio executive takes away from your script’s last page is likely to make the difference between a ‘consider’ or a ‘pass.’ (If you’re lucky enough to garner a rare ‘recommend,’ you probably nailed it way before the last page.) So the ending of your screen story is vital to the success of your project – and you should ensure that it hits the correct notes to offer your audience an entertaining, insightful and emotionally satisfying experience.

The End… or is it?

One of Hollywood’s latest ‘innovations’ in terms of story endings harkens back to the earliest days of film, when all movies were shorts, and many were serials. Now movies have ‘bulked up’ into $200 million behemoths, so studios must hedge their bets by implanting a cryptic plot point at the end of their tentpole films so that they have pre-positioned a sequel in their (presumed) franchise. All superhero films have them, every ghost story, all genre-mashups… If you are lucky enough to get your script made these days, it had better have franchise potential – if you decide to work for a big studio, that is.

Still a place for dignity

Fortunately, there still is a market for original films with challenging themes and endings. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: if you’ve written a screenplay with a ‘downer’ ending, or something that is open-ended, be prepared for requests to change it to something ‘more commercial.’ Because even if you’re fortunate enough to sell your screenplay, the people who bought it still would like to make money off of it, and if that means changing the ending, they will. It’s called show business, not show art. The best way to avoid having your script’s ending changed is to write the strongest one possible in the first place. And that’s where an experienced story analyst can help make a difference.

Omega and Alpha

Endings are part of the nature of things. Everything that has a beginning has an ending. In screenwriting, the one trick to an ending that is emotionally resonant and satisfying is this: there is no trick. There is only hard work, trial and error, and solid writing. So go out there and write – and re-write, if necessary – your screenplay’s ending. But finish it, with a real ending you can justify; if you can argue successfully for a downer, open-ended absurdist nihilstic finale, then that’s probably the right ending for your work. Get it right, and get it done. That way you can start your next  script with a clear conscience…

That Does Not Compute!

August 19th, 2011 No comments

One of the perils of being a writer in the digital age is the prevalence of high-tech gadgets and newfangled gizmos we depend on to get our messages across that are far more complicated than either of those old standbys the pencil or (if you remember back far enough) the typewriter. Sure, some writers still trust in the ‘old ways,’ but most writers these days have surrendered to the digital revolution. As such, we have grown increasingly dependent on these electronic tools. When they work well, they make our lives easier. When they stop working – well, that’s a horse of a different color, to use an anachronistic metaphor.

Presently I find myself bedeviled by computer problems: my stalwart laptop is little more than a shelf for papers and assorted bits of detritus on my desk, since it chose to stop working after a recent software update. And my old workhorse PC is fighting for life after a botched hardware upgrade; using intuition, accumulated past fix-it knowledge and a lot of wishful thinking, I have managed to resurrect the PC with an archaic version of its operating system. That’s the bad news. The good news? I can still write and post, which is something I rely on to maintain my sanity. And that ain’t nothin’, as the expression goes…

But even without digital devices, one can – and should (if you consider yourself a writer, that is) write. It’s been said that artists are compelled to create, and that is especially true of writers. Without a medium and a message, a writer is just another featherless biped (with apologies to writers who have either feathers or a different number of legs). Having a story to tell, even if it is just about your battles with bits and bytes, is life’s blood to creative writers. So a computer malfunction shouldn’t stop you: after all, who tops the food chain when it comes to electrical productivity devices? YOU. Your brain, the most complicated and powerful processor there is, runs on electrical impulses. And, if you play your cards right and behave, it should never present you with ‘the blue screen of death.’ Let’s hope not, anyway!

So is there a moral to this story? Of course. There’s always a moral – or a point. And here, it’s this: you can write anywhere, on anything. The concept for the hit ’80s TV show “Miami Vice” was was two words scrawled on a cocktail napkin: “MTV Cops.” And it made NBC and Michael Mann millions. But I’m not suggesting using serviettes as your writer’s medium of choice. A pad of paper or a notebook along with a pen or pencil will do just fine. Quill pen and parchment? Sure. Even crayons and wrapping paper, if that’s your thing. In short, it doesn’t matter what you write on. It simply matters that you write.

Therefore, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald from his masterpiece “The Great Gatsby,” “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” At least that’s what it feels like writing on a computer that has seen better days, using an outdated operating system and browser. But it gets the job done, and that’s good enough for me. Because the secret isn’t writing efficiently – it’s writing well. And using old equipment to accomplish that? Well, it doesn’t diminish the pleasure I get from creating. Stated another way, I’ll allude to Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” which garnered 4 Academy Awards out of 7 nominations (including a win for Colin Welland’s original screenplay). In the film, which outlines the competition at the 1924 Olympics between runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, Liddell, son of missionaries and a devout Christian, explains that when he runs, he “feels God’s pleasure.” I can relate, because when I write, I feel the unmitigated joy at the opportunity to express myself. I own a couple of computers because I just do. But I write because I feel I must.

 

Subject Matter? Yes!!

August 11th, 2011 No comments

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up…

It’s every writer’s eternal quest: finding something ‘interesting’ to write about. I’ve addressed the subject of subject matter before in For Bards blog, most recently last December: “What Should I Write About?” In that post, I described a holiday dinner I attended with a group of friends: a Hollywood set dresser, a Tony-nominated playwright, a TV costumer, a Hollywood studio executive assistant and a last-minute addition: a screenwriter, the son of a famous British knight. And me, of course – after all, every historic party requires its amanuensis.

And that’s where it started to get interesting…

As I wrote last December, the dinner was wonderful – and the company was delightful. All of us had known one another for years, with the exception of the last-minute guest. He arrived after the party had started, a bottle of wine in hand, and proceeded to work his charm – and obvious self-promotion – over the rest of the group. His reputation had preceded him: our host’s dear friends from out of state explained that the man was working on a hush-hush screenplay, and was staying at an acquaintance’s home in ritzy Pacific Palisades as he worked out the final details of a sale to a major studio. Tall and charming, he was the son of a famous British knight connected with the music industry, and possessed a melifluous voice that was alternately soothing and authoritative. In short, he was a real character.

A real character

As I wrote last December, this dinner could serve as subject matter for any number of stories: a “Big Chill” reunion tale, “Home For the Holidays” comedy or – as I’ve subsequently discovered – a flim flam caper. Because that screenwriter son of a famous British knight? He left one item off his resume: con man. In the months since, I’ve come to learn that this man, who really is the son of a knight, has taken advantage of friends, acquaintances and strangers for years. Apparently he has a screenplay, since he later shared some of it with one of the dinner guests (although it’s not clear it’s really his),  but no ‘multi-million dollar deal’ as he’d repeatedly mentioned at dinner. It turns out the out-of-state pals who vouched for him with our dinner host were also taken, for loans and hospitality, and his Pacific Palisades landlord was similarly stiffed. We’ve since surmised that even the bottle of wine brought to that holiday dinner was probably pilfered from his host’s wine cellar.

Prodigal Son or Problem Child?

So the amount of story material yielded from this holiday dinner of late 2010 has increased exponentially. Now it could be a comedy about a huckster, a straight-up drama dealing with identity, or a character study of an antisocial persona. In short, discovering a wolf in our flock of sheep upped the creative ante considerably. Because drama is conflict, the opportunities for fashioning a story out of this experience are manifold. Since learning of this con man’s modus operandi, I’ve also discovered he has been doing this for years; he has been disowned by his illustrious father and left a trail of broken relationships in his wake. Were it not for the force of the man’s personality, I’m certain he would’ve been unmasked as a fraud years ago. His ceaseless self-promotion at dinner was strange, and perhaps should have been take as a red flag, although let’s face it: in Hollywood, people love to brag about their successes. Ironically, in my experience, the most successful people brag the least.

Interesting story – but it needs an ending…

For someone looking for story material, I’ve proven there are at least a few takes on something as simple as a dinner party. The revelation that one guest was a con man adds depth to the story, perhaps propelling it into its second act. Was the con man there to steal something? To find another victim? Taking a day off? There are so many options open to this story, and very few dead ends. The one thing the story presently lacks is a solid ending. Is it a happy ending? A righteous one? What if the ending is simply a new beginning? There are so many choices open to a creative writer – so now all you need to do is create.

The morality of the story…

There may be no moral to this story, but there certainly is morality involved. The con man guest isn’t necessarily the most important character to the story, but he’s a valuable one. His conflicted morality offers multiple plot lines and story points – all necessary to a successful screenplay. So, what have we learned? A dinner party can provide story material, but its story potential multiplies when someone (or perhaps more than one) at that party has a secret. As a writer, your job is to reveal any secrets in a way that makes your work relevant, compelling and entertaining. It’s a tough job – but, hey – you’re a writer, aren’t you?

 Are you up to the task?

Cowboys tie Smurfs

August 1st, 2011 No comments

 

It’s a Tie: The Smurfs win!

As the summer movie season heads into its final month, the preliminary box office report is in for the past weekend, and the winner is… “The Smurfs.” But wait… Didn’t “The Smurfs” tie with “Cowboys & Aliens” at a reported $36.2 million each for their opening weekends? Well, technically, they did. But Sony and Columbia’s animated, 3-D, kid-oriented feature outperformed for its opening, while Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” series follow-up underperformed. And there’s always the ‘liar’s poker’ aspect of preliminary box office – frequently it turns out that the margin between a ‘tie’ or even a $100,000 ‘squeaker’ finish is far wider than studio ‘estimates’ suggest. In other words, sometimes people inflate figures to enhance their company bottom line. Gee, when did artifice, insincerity and self-interest creep into Hollywood business? Oh, right – never mind. [As this post was being completed, the final numbers came out for the weekend: “Cowboys & Aliens” $36.4 million, “The Smurfs” $35.6 million.]

Favreau got smurfed like nobody’s business

“Cowboys & Aliens,” which cost $163 million to make, is writer/director Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” follow-up, and producing partners Universal, DreamWorks, Reliance and Relativity were depending on Favreau’s mojo with fanboys to drive the film’s opening. The movie participated at Comic-Con last weekend, and its stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford have been grouchily honoring their publicity obligations, but this project seems to have fallen on Favreau’s shoulders, and getting gang-smurfed at the weekend box office probably came as a rude surprise to him. It doesn’t help matters that “Cowboys & Aliens” was shot in (apparently now passe) 2-D, so it did not get the 3-D premium coin its diminutive blue Belgian competitors enjoyed. Western films, in general, have been poison at the box office in the last few decades, with a few notable examples like last year’s remake of “True Grit” or 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.” Just a handful have made it past the $100 million dollar B.O. mark, and “Cowboys & Aliens” will have a tougher time making it there now that it has opened lower than hoped. Let’s face it, though: “Cowboys & Aliens,” a genre mash-up, is about as much a ‘Western’ as next year’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” can be called a ‘Lincoln biography.’

The (small) Blue Man Group

It’s pretty clear Sony’s marketing machine revved-up and ‘got its smurf on’ in a big way. In addition to a huge advertising campaign, the company pacted with Build-a-Bear, FAO Schwartz and McDonalds to grow awareness of the film among the Smurf set. Neil Patrick Harris dilligently performed his PR duties with a smile, appearing across the TV channel spectrum. As a result, the $110 million production resonated with youthful audiences, who, accordingly, dragged along at least one parent to pay enhanced 3-D prices for their tickets. Tellingly, “The Smurfs” was on 355 fewer screens than ‘Cowboys,’ so the final B.O. totals should be interesting, to say the least. The end result was a happy weekend for director Raja Gosnell and the folks at Sony and Columbia – at least until the final B.O. figures come out. [See the end of the first paragraph for ‘Cowboys” narrow margin of ‘victory.’]

‘America’ comes in third; ‘Love’ loses big…

Last week’s number one film (it opened at $65 million), “Captain America: The First Avenger,” slipped dramatically (62%) into 3rd place, with $24.9 million, but its box office take (and B.O. stalwart Harry Potter – see below) bested the only other film opening last weekend, the adult-skewing “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Disapointingly for Warner Brothers, ‘Love’ brought in only $19.3 million from more than 3,000 screens, earning it 5th place  for the weekend, behind the ‘boy-wizard-who-could,’ Harry Potter. Although it claimed most of the adult audience (and a more-than-half female audience), “Crazy, Stupid, Love” simply couldn’t beat the world’s love affair with Potter, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” earned $21.9 million over the weekend, giving the final picture in the Potter series the notable achievement of being its first of the Potter franchise to make over $1 billion at the box office. ‘Hallows Pt. 2”s domestic total is $318 million, but the film has earned over twice that overseas, with $690 million (and counting!).

Coming Soon: Even More Remakes!!

If you haven’t gotten enough of Hollywood’s ‘creativity’ in terms of re-inventing (exploiting?) franchises they already own, get ready for next weekend’s “Rise of Planet of the Apes,” from Twentieth Century Fox, starring graduate degree record holder James Franco. In the alternative, if quality adult drama appeals to you, there’s “The Whistleblower,” starring Rachel Weisz.

See you at the movies!