Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Suzanne Shepherd: A Gift of Fire" premieres

A documentary film I edited, "Suzanne Shepherd: A Gift of Fire" debuted last week in New York City.   The film is about Suzanne Shepherd, a gifted character actress who is also an influential acting teacher and theatrical director.  Suzanne is perhaps most recognizable in roles as mob mothers-in-law.  In "Goodfellas," she played Ray Liotta's Jewish mother-in-law.  On "The Sopranos," she played James Gandofini's Italian mother-in-law.

The film is a definite labor of love by writer/producer Wendy Sayvetz and features interviews with a wide variety of Suzanne devotees including Alan Alda, Danny Glover, Joan Allen, Bebe Neuwirth, the late Jill Clayburgh, director Larry Arrick and South African playwright Athol Fugard.  Wendy started filming footage in 2000.  While in Baltimore shooting the film "A Dirty Shame," Suzanne mentioned the prospective documentary to her director John Waters.  John Waters immediately recommended Steve Yeager to direct the film.  Steve had already won the audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his documentary about John Waters called "Divine Trash."  Steve brought me onto the project and the rest is history.

Producer Wendy Sayvetz with yours truly working on the
film in my dining room.  You'd be surprised how many
films were born or finished there!
The film was extremely well-received in New York by an audience studded with Academy Award winners.    Sadly, my lovely wife and I were unable to make the premiere since I had to spend the day locked safely away in a communications secure location in Washington, DC, working on my next film.  A pity.  It sounded like a great party and people loved the film.  I look forward to seeing the film next on the festival circuit!

Here's a little trailer we made a few years ago.

Be sure to read my book:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween Recommends

With Halloween fast approaching, I decided to recommend a few horror films for your viewing pleasure.  As you will see, my taste is rather conventional, but I hope you will find some hidden treasures on the list.  They are not listed in any particular order.

THE HAUNTING, 1963, d. Robert Wise

This is my current favorite.  It remains a chilling film despite its total lack of gore and deliberate pacing.  I grew up in a very haunted house.  If anyone asks me what it was like, I tell them to watch this film.  It's all about cowering under the echo of inexplicable bangings and footsteps at night, only to spend the day either denying what happened or doubting your sanity.   Avoid the 1999 remake starring Liam Neeson at all costs.

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, 1973, d. John Hough

Essentially the same plot as The Haunting, however, this film, scripted by Richard Matheson from his own book, revels in everything the earlier film refrained from showing.  It isn't as good as The Haunting, but it is fun on its own level.  It remains a guilty pleasure that reminds me of my many days spent at the Arcade Theater on Harford Road.  (Why did my parents let me see this film alone?)


This film best represents my childhood spent watching creature features every Friday and Saturday night.  I suspect that these classic horror films are too tame for today's cynical youth.  That is a pity, because  this film remains a masterpiece of cinematography, art direction, writing and performance.  Karloff is amazing.  He brings both tremendous empathy and menace to the monster.

THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, 1968, d. George A. Romero

I first saw this film on Super 8mm.  I didn't know what to expect.  The synopsis sounded corny to me, but the movie, with its gritty documentary feel, absolutely blew me away.  I literally sat stunned with my mouth wide open at the end.  

THE EXORCIST, 1973, d. William Friedkin

This film usually tops various internet lists of the scariest horror film, but I was actually quite dismissive of it for many years.  Initially, I felt it was cheap.  To me, it relied too heavily on shock effects and not enough on story and character.  I was wrong.  With the more people I have lost over time, the more the story of these two characters, a priest losing his faith because of his inability to save his mother and a desperate mother wanting to do anything to save her daughter, resonates with me.


Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but this omnibus film really scared me as a kid -- especially the third story:  A Drop of Water.  It remains a guilty pleasure, but now I prefer to enjoy it in its native Italian language.

PHANTASM, 1979, d. Don Coscarelli

If you truly analyze the script, you'd find it is a contradictory mess.  What really happened?  Still, coherence must take a backseat to mood.  I think Coscarelli manages to churn up some primordial fears concerning loss, death and the things of death, from the adolescent perspective, in this effective little film.

DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978, d. George A. Romero

Everywhere you  look, you seem zombies nowadays.  I think you have to bless or curse this film for that phenomenon.   This film about four people trying survive a zombie apocalypse in a shopping mall skillfully mixed gore with subtle social satire about our materialistic society.  It has been all downhill for Romero as his social statements became more heavy-handed in his subsequent zombie epics.

THE NIGHT STALKER, 1972, John Llewellyn Moxey

A cynical newsman begins to believe that a series of killings in Las Vegas are the result of a vampire in this made-for-TV film scripted by Richard Matheson.  This film, which updated the vampire myth and placed it in a thoroughly modern context, has been an influence on my own writing.  In my opinion, this remains one of the best vampire movies ever.


I was a huge fan of afternoon gothic soap opera Dark Shadows growing up, and it remained a pleasant memory until someone gave me a DVD of some of the original television programs.  Sadly, I found them unwatchable.  This film, however, another fond memory from my ill-spent youth time at the Arcade Theater, still works.  It does suffer from a little shorthand because the filmmakers expected the audience to be familiar with the characters, but it is a taut, well-directed horror film.  The TV soap actors successfully stepped up their game for the big screen.

THE SHINING, 1980, d. Stanley Kubrick

Stephen King hated Kubrick's adaptation of his novel, but it remains the best King adaptation.  It remains consistently creeping -- especially those little girls.  Kubrick tends to be a filmmaker with a chilly, cerebral approach, and horror is sometimes best served cold.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS, 1962, d. Herk Harvey

A woman emerging from a river after a car accident finds herself drawn toward a strange carnival in this genuinely creepy thriller made on a shoestring in Kansas and Utah.  I once visited the dancehall site on the Great Salt Lake in Utah that inspired the film.  It was as creepy as the film.

SPOORLOOS (THE VANISHING), 1988, d. George Sluizer

Technically speaking, this is probably a thriller or mystery rather than a horror film, but it remains a disturbing film that builds to a chilling climax that will stay with you for a long time.  In the film, a young man tries for years to find out what happened to his girlfriend who disappeared during a holiday in France.  Moved by his perseverance, the abductor makes contact with him.  Avoid the 1993 American remake starring Jeff Bridges at all costs!

HALLOWEEN, 1978, d. John Carpenter

Don't blame this film for all of the horrible slasher film that regrettably followed in its wake.  This innovative and compelling film still that introduced all of the tropes of the genre still works.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Crack The Sky: Mr. President

Over the course of my career as an editor, I have had the pleasure to work on a number of rock videos.  The highest profile artist I worked with was rapper Big Pun at the height of his career, but my favorites were recording artists with ties to my native State of Maryland.  During college I had some peripheral involvement with Timothy Ratajczak's videos for The Ravyns and Growing Up Different.  Later I had the good fortune to work with Greg Kihn, who had a couple of Top 5 hits in the 80s, and Nils Lofgren, who is now a member of the E Street Band.  However, I started at the top.  My first real video was for Baltimore's biggest rock heroes:  Crack The Sky.

I grew up musically ignorant.  I was obsessed with the movies, but my musical taste was very limited.  It ran from BA - the Bach keyboard pieces I learned on the piano - to BE - The Beatles.  Still, I definitely knew who Crack The Sky were.  The rock stations played their music incessantly.  My sisters had some of their albums, too.  What I didn't realize was that the band was essentially a regional phenomenon despite the fact that their first album was declared the debut of the year by Rolling Stone magazine.  It would be no exaggeration to say that in Baltimore, Crack The Sky was as popular as The Rolling Stones.

I first got to know John Palumbo, the chief singer and songwriter of Crack The Sky, when he opened a recording studio in Baltimore.  My friend Victor Giordano started working there as an engineer and, in my capacity as a broadcast producer for Smith Burke & Azzam, I started doing some radio spots there.  I must admit I was a little nervous when I first met John.  To a Baltimorean, it was like meeting Mick Jagger.

We got to know each other pretty well.  He called me his "mortgage payment."  I hung out quite a bit at his studio flirting endlessly with Terri, his sexy secretary.  One boring afternoon at the advertising agency, I edited a video to The Beatles' song "The End" which illustrated the story of America's involvement in Vietnam in two minutes.  John was one of the first people to see the video.  He immediately hired me to edit a video for a local band he was producing.  It was my first step on a career that has enriched and sustained me for over twenty years.

When I first met John, the Crack The Sky had just released "From The Greenhouse," an album that got some pretty good airplay all around the country.  I remember when I went one of my winding, driving vacations that summer, I dutifully made note of every place and every time I heard the title song on the radio.  When it came time to release the follow-up album, "Dog City," my friend David Butler was slated to direct the video and I was slated to edit it.  Here it is:

It was a great experience.  It is always great working with David Butler, and we were fortunate to work with one of my favorite cinematographers, the late Tom Loizeaux.  I was also delighted to get my niece Natalie in the video, and Joel, the son of my friends David and Teresa Miller.

I only have one regret when I think about my work with John Palumbo and Crack The Sky, and it has nothing to do with the video.  When I did that first video for John Palumbo, I asked him how much he charged to produce a song.  He asked why.  I said I wanted to record a song with my band The Atomic Enema.  He immediately volunteered to do it for free.  Then the strangest thing happened.  I got cold feet, which was odd, because I was always willing to play my songs for anyone -- especially the darker, more sarcastic ones.  (Like this one.)  I offered up an excuse.  I said, "I don't know, my band is so out of practice.  We haven't played in a while."  John said, "That's okay.  We'll play all the instruments ourselves."  Here it was.  What I always wanted:  To have one of my songs played by a real recording artist that I respected.  But I chickened out*....

Oh well.

At least I got to work with all the local musical heroes of my youth.

Except Face Dancer.....

*Interestingly, although I was afraid to play my songs for John, we ended up playing on the same stage at a party.  John was scheduled to close the show -- backed up by some members of Bootcamp, another popular local band.  I was supposed to do my Elvis impersonation right before him.  However, after John saw me in my custom-made jumpsuit, he suggested that we change places.  And we did.  So, technically-speaking, John opened for me. (Big Al Anderson, of NRBQ, also "opened" for me that night.)

Check out my book:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

James Denton talks Black Rider on Fox & Friends

James Denton seems to be doing the circuit to support my new film "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road 3."  Thanks, James!  I appreciate it.   Here he is on Fox & Friends:  James Denton talks faith, dark new film.

Check out my book:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God

James Denton talks Black Rider on the Today Show

Here's James Denton, one-time sexiest man alive, on the NBC's Today Show talking with Kathi Lee & Hoda about my film "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road 3."  Thanks for getting the press, James!  Now I wish I went out to the set and met you!

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The film is now available on DVD at Walmart and fine Christian Bookstores everywhere.    Speaking of bookstores, you should check out my book.  Here's the link to Amazon:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

James Denton talks Black Rider on Access Hollywood

James Denton discussed his dark turn on my new film "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road 3" on Access Hollywood.  The film will be available on Blu Ray and DVD on October 6th.

Check out my book:  "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God"

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Death of an Amway God

Bill Britt - June 1980
Bill Britt is dead.

So what?  Who was he?

Bill Britt was the leader of a vast distributor empire that sold Amway products.  Some people called him a businessman.  Some people called him a role model.  Some people called him a leader.  But to people in his organization, he was much more than that.  He was a god.

I should know.  I was a member of his organization.  His word was law.  He wasn't just an authority on the Amway business.  He was an authority on all things:  economics, politics, relationships and religion.  More than that, he was also a liar, a charlatan and a cult leader.

I don't mean to say that Amway itself, or Amway Global, or Quixtar, or whatever it is calling itself nowadays, is a cult.  It is just a company that produces and distributes a wide variety of products.  If you become a distributor and practice the business as taught in the various manuals that come with your official starting kit, you would probably make a little money.  However, you would not achieve the riches that Bill Britt and his ilk promised you that way.  They preached a different gospel within Amway, and Amway, to its shame, never reigned them in.   I understand why they didn’t. At the time, my leaders (idols), Bill Britt and Dexter Yeager, boasted that a third of Amway’s sales came through their organizations. If Amway got tough with them, they would simply start selling another product line. Amway would be crippled. As a result, Amway turned a blind eye to their excesses.

Before I go any further, let me give you my definition of a cult, which I culled from a number of books and resources. Here are the characteristics: A). A group sharing an all-encompassing “truth” outside of, and hostile to, mainstream thought. B). Strong, charismatic, unquestionable leadership. C). Isolation from outsiders. D). Use of mind control tactics to manipulate the followers. I believe Britt Worldwide met all of those characteristics.

The cultic mind control tactics began immediately. First was the love bombardment. When you joined, everybody wanted to shake your hand or hug you. They wanted to know your story. Your dreams. They were always willing to give you a ride to a function or help you out any way they could. They were your friends. They needed you, and, soon enough, you needed them, too. Why? Because as soon as your old friends found out you were in Amway, they’d run in the opposite direction!

“Murphy,” one of my friends warned me early on. “If the first word out of your mouth isn’t poker when you call, I’m hanging up on you!”

That reaction was not uncommon.

Then the isolation began. Your friends and family members who didn’t want to get in the business were declared negative or losers.   “Why on Earth would you want to hang with negative people who were trying to steal your dream?” our leaders would ask.

They’d say where you would be in five years depended on whom you associated yourself with now. If you wanted to be a successful Amway distributor, you needed to hang around with successful Amway distributors. They’re the ones who wanted to help you achieve your dreams. Keep away from the others. Even your family. They’d come around later, begging to get into the business, when you were rich.

Our leaders also used sleep deprivation. We were told the best information came out at informal sessions around four in the morning. Your goal at the massive weekend functions was to get yourself invited back to the hotel room of an Amway guru and discuss the business until dawn. My friends and I would find ourselves sitting cross-legged on the floor of cramped hotel room with twenty other people listening to a high-ranking distributor until we barely had enough time to get a shower and breakfast before the morning function. We prided ourselves on how little sleep we got.

They even tried to control the information we received. Amway seemed to be in the news quite a bit at the time. The big shots usually got a heads-up if there was going to be a negative story in a major newspaper, magazine or television program. We would be warned not to watch or read it. The stories were all lies.

When it came to isolating yourself, I got off pretty easy.  My friends Jim and Mike often found themselves in fierce arguments with their family and friends. Relationships were definitely damaged. I was much more low key. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice friends for the business.

One of the biggest accusations against Amway was that it was a pyramid scheme.   The online Free Dictionary define a pyramid scheme as "a fraudulent moneymaking scheme in which people are recruited to make payments to others above them in a hierarchy while expecting to receive payments from people recruited below them.  Eventually the number of new recruits fails to sustain the payment structure and the scheme collapses with most people losing the money they paid in."  I always rejected that claim.  After all, we distributors bought products wholesale and sold them to customers retail.  What I didn't take into account was the sideline that made Bill Britt and his henchmen their fortunes.

When my friends and I showed "The Plan" back in the early-eighties, our numbers showed that a "Diamond" distributor, an individual with six "Direct Distributors" in his organization under him, made $36,000 a year.  Then came the "nod-nod-wink-wink" part.  We were always told that Diamonds in the Britt organization made at least three times that amount of money.  However, they never really explained how.  I learned later it was through their "tool" business.

Our leaders were fond of saying that tools were needed for every occupation.  A carpenter needed saws and hammers.  A barber needed scissors.  A pilot needed a plane.  You get it.  What tools did a successful Amway distributor need?  Motivational materials:  Books, tapes, seminars and rallies.  The books were typical positive thinking books that you could find in any bookstore (but you always bought them from your direct distributor.)  However, the Britt organization produced their own motivational tapes and held countless seminars and rallies.  That's why the Britt "Diamonds" made so much more money than the normal Amway "Diamonds."  They made vastly much more money selling their books and tapes and staging their rallies than selling Amway products. 

And that's why it was a pyramid scheme.

At a rally in Virginia
The average Amway distributor could sell the official products he bought from his Direct Distributor to his retail customers.  That was the purpose.  However, educational materials that Britt Worldwide produced themselves have zero value outside of the organization.  They told you needed to buy the tapes and attend the seminars.  That it was impossible to succeed in the business without doing so.  They used every psychological tool in their arsenal to coerce, pressure or shame you into buying the tools.  Granted, in theory, you could return them if you quit, but I never knew anyone who did.  People who left the business were losers.  Most of the people who quit were so afraid of being stigmatized as losers that they simply slinked away out of the business with hundreds or thousands of dollars of tapes sitting in boxes in their basements.  (That's what my friends and I did.)  Those few people I know who tried to get refunds for the tapes were so stonewalled that they eventually gave up.

And to make matters worse.  They lied about it.

The direct distributors from Bill Britt on down swore left and right that no one made any money on the tools.  They were providing them at cost as a service.  But it was a lie.  Granted, low level people like myself perpetrated the lie unknowingly.  Britt Worldwide didn't initiate the chosen into the truth until they reached the level of direct distributor.  By then, they were generally too invested in the system, and too greedy, to complain or turn down a healthy stream of income.  I didn't start believing the rumors about people making money until an incident in our group.  A young woman joined and became an overnight success.  She reached the level of direct distributor, building an impressive organization, in just three months.  Then she abruptly quit.  When I asked why someone told me that when higher-ups told her about the books and tapes, she became disillusioned and quit.  Around that time, my higher-ups began a "Tape of the Week" policy.  They pressured everyone in the organization into buying a certain tape every week so that we would all "be on the same page mentally."  Now I recognized it for what it was:  A shameless attempt to milk their people for more money.  I wasn't surprised when the "Tape of the Week" was a more expensive double tape set.   Why sear the sheep for $3.50 when you could get $7.00.


If you think I am being unfair to Bill Britt and Amway, read the details of a recent class action suit from California.   Here's the complaint:  Pokornmy vs Quixtar.  Here's an explanation:  Pokorny Amway Settlement Explained

To make matters worse they cloaked their lies and greed under the veneer of Christianity.  Bill Britt and his crew of henchmen weren't content to be business leaders.  Their weekend rallies were held in sporting arenas that held 15,000-to-20,000 people and they all ended with a big church service on Sunday morning.  Who did the preaching?  The leaders like Bill Britt, of course.  After all, material success was all the proof you needed of God's blessing, so obviously the richest people in the room were most qualified to preach.   In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says:  "No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money."  Not so!  In Amway, we combined God and Money together in the person of Bill Britt.

I will save my detailed analysis of the Prosperity Gospel for another day, but I will say that the thousands of dollars I wasted on the tool business were insignificant compared to that damage that the Prosperity Gospel did to my faith.  I came into the business with a strong relationship with God built on child-like faith, prayer and obedience.  The Amway gospel was different.  According to them, God had established immutable spiritual laws that gave us to have and do anything we wanted provided we used the right words when we made our claims and had sufficient faith.  Essentially, it took God out of the drivers' seat.  They taught you that seeking God's will was a cop-out for losers.  Our will was God's will.  They reduced God to a spiritual force to be used to achieve our desires.  I knew this was wrong.  And I resisted it.  However, constant exposure to these teachings and philosophy, through the required books, tapes and educational seminars, eventually took their toll on me.  Instead of serving God, I expected God to serve me.  Instead of me being obedient to Him, I expected Him to be obedient to me.  That didn't work out too well for me, and it took me years to exorcise this heresy from my thought processes.

Still, despite the damage the prosperity gospel did to me, when I think of Bill Britt, I primarily think of the general hatefulness that he and his henchmen instilled in me.  He divided the world into winners and losers -- and 99% of the population were losers.  Your value as a human being was entirely dependent on your net worth,or your attitude toward the Amway business.  You could be poor as dirt and still be a winner if you were in Amway. 

Pretending to be Bill Britt
Today, whenever I find myself judging a person based on the way they are dressed or the car they drive or house they live in, I see Bill Britt smiling.

Now he's dead.  When I posted the news on my Facebook page, one of my old friends who survived the business with me said that he hoped Bill was burning in hell.   I don't feel that way.  I don't wish that fate on anyone.  Even Bill Britt.

It doesn't take long to find glowing eulogies about him on the internet.  Amway distributors from all over the world praised him upon his passing.  That's not surprising. 

In the world of Amway, he was a god -- but with a small g. 

A false idol.

For more, read my book:  The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God