Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Art of the Pitch, Part One, Or, Batting For Singles

I'm pitching a script again -- and enjoying every minute of it.

I am currently pitching a script called "Judy," written with director Lee Bonner, to production companies. Will it sell? Who knows? But people are reading it, and that's a good first step.

But, you say, I thought production companies didn't read scripts unless they arrived via an agent or lawyer. That's not entirely true. If your goal is make a $150,000,000 star vehicle, then you're right. The people who make those films will probably not read your script unless it comes to them from CAA, but, if you're like me, and your goals are less lofty then you will get some reads if people like your pitch.

I would love it if someone wanted to spend $150,000,000 making "Judy," but, even if I were William Goldman, I don't think it would happen. I know this is not the kind of tentpole film studios want to produce. When you subtract the remakes, sequels, and films based on books, you'll see that there is little opportunity at the majors for spec scripts by unknowns, or near unknowns. (Except for comedy.)

Back in the olden days, when I was represented by the late, great Stu Robinson, first at Robinson Weintraub and Gross and then later at Paradigm, I always felt I had a shot at the brass ring with the type of scripts I was writing: dramas with a strong, but understated, sense of humor. Stu was very supportive. He got me great rejection letters from Hollywood notables, like Barry Levinson and Richard Zanuck. (Lee Bonner knows Barry Levinson, and, when I got the rejection letter from him, Lee verified that it was indeed Levinson's signature.) A number of people in Hollywood enjoyed my script "The Long Drive," and I came extremely close to selling my next script "The Fourth Mrs. Jones." Then Stu died, leaving me an orphan, representation-wise.

I have made half-hearted attempts to get an agent since then, however, I have been reasonably content sending pitches around myself because of my new strategy of batting for singles. Real Hollywood, the majors, only make a few films a year, but tons of movies are made each year by smaller production companies and cable networks. Those are the people I am trying to reach. Lifetime. Hallmark. SyFy. They all make movies. Lots of them. They don't pay a million dollars per script, but they do pay. And I think they should be paying me.

The rest of you screenwriters out there can swing for the fences. I'm just aiming for a few infield hits.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

20 Movies, or, Confessions of a Misspent Youth

(The Arcade Theater located in the northeast Baltimore neighborhood
of Hamilton. It has been converted into a church.*)

This is not my list of the twenty best or greatest films ever made. Who needs to see another list of films topped by Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Consider this list instead a film-going biography. It is a collection of films that helped inspire my interest in motion pictures in one way or another. Not all of the films are great, some aren't even good, but they all had an impact on me.

1). LAUGHING GAS (1914) d. Charlie Chaplin. Before there was DVD there was video, but, before video, if you wanted to be a film collector you actually had to collect film itself. My family took Super 8mm home movies, so we had a projector. The next step was simply to start buying the films. I believe this Mack Sennett produced short was the first film I bought at the E.J. Korvettes store in Towson. It was a terrible 50 foot Atlas Films print, but it was cheap and introduced me to the world of film collecting and the great silent comics who are too little seen today. As for the film itself, this early Mack Sennett short can't compare to the great shorts Chaplin would be making for Mutual two years later, like EASY STREET and THE IMMIGRANT, or the features he would make in the twenties and thirties, but it started him on the path toward them.

2). MA AND PA KETTLE (1949) d. Charles Lamont. Sunday morning was a good time for comedy in Baltimore during the late-60's. WBAL, Channel 11, ran an eclectic list of films including the Ma & Pa Kettle series, the MGM Laurel & Hardy features, and the Paramount W.C. Fields and Joe E. Brown films. WJZ, Channel 13, ran comedies that included the Blondie and Francis The Talking Mule series. The bulk of the comedies they ran were more or less low-brow studio programmers than classics, but it was nonetheless a good comic education. My hat's off to the programmers at those stations! (And let's not forget The Three Stooges shorts that WBFF, Channel 45, used to run before school every morning.)

3). THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) d. James Whales. If Sunday morning was the time for comedy, Friday and Saturday nights were the time for horror. I grew up during the classic period of horror hosts. In the Baltimore Washington area we had Sir Graves Ghastly, Count Gore DeVore and Chiller. There was nothing like staying up late and watching an old B&W horror movie. The first time I saw THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, I was spending the night in my grandmother's house sleeping in the room my great-grandfather had recently died in. Talk about getting into the mood! I loved this film: Karloff's performance, the gothic sets, the photography. I still enjoy it. It was on these Friday and Saturday nights that I first began to notice the difference between studios and production companies. I knew if I saw the Universal logo before a film that it would be good, and that if I saw the American International logo before a film it probably wouldn't be as good. I was confused about the Universal films that I watch that had the Universal International logo. I thought it was a combination of the two companies.

4). THE GOLD RUSH (1925) d. Charlie Chaplin. I first saw Chaplin's classic tale of the tramp during the Alaskan gold rush on WBAL. (They used to run a silent film from the Paul Killiam collection once a month.) I must've missed Bambi in the theaters because this film, not that Disney classic, was the first film to make me cry when the Tramp is stood up by Georgia Hale on New Years Eve. This film remains my sentimental favorite of Chaplin's features, though CITY LIGHTS might be a better film. I would also like to commend PBS for another silent film series called The Silent Comedy Film Festival, hosted by Herb Graff. It was a great introduction to the lesser known comics like Lloyd Hamilton. In the afternoons, PBS also ran great old films like....

5). M (1931) d. Fritz Lang. Watching foreign films in their native language? In Baltimore? Cool beans. I was really riveted by Peter Lorre's performance as a child murderer being hunted by police and the underworld in this German classic. It is still an influence on me. Thank you Channel 26 for introducing me to so many classic foreign films.

6). TWO TARS (1928) d. James Parrott. Laurel and Hardy had a long career in the talkies, but, amongst aficionados, their late Hal Roach produced silent shorts show them at their best. This is one of their symphonies of slow-boiling mass destruction as motorists in a traffic jam take out their frustrations on their fellow motorists and their vehicles. I bought my print of this film mail order from Blackhawk Films. I waited anxiously each month for their catalog. The three films on the front pages were usually on sale for half price. This was one of them. This was around the time I began to toy with the concept of getting into the movie business. I was inspired by the books I read about the atmosphere of the Hall Roach studios which produced shorts by Laurel & Hardy, The Little Rascals and Charley Chase, among others. I thought it would be cool to recreate that environment.

7). THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967) d. Wolfgang Reitherman. This was the first Disney animated feature I remember seeing in a theater and it remains a favorite today. I saw the film at the Northway Theater at the corner of Harford Road and Northern Parkway. The theater later scandalized the neighborhood by becoming the first X-rated movie house in the area. I must confess that I tried, with no success, to sneak inside through the back door.

8). FIVE CARD STUD (1968) d. Henry Hathaway. With this film let me begin my praise of my local neighborhood theater: The Arcade. If I am a filmmaker today it is because of all the Saturday afternoons I spent in that theater. Nowadays, I can look back and see that it was a second-run house. It seemed to change films every week, and frequently had double features. (Once, they played six movies back-to-back, including the MST3K favorite RING OF TERROR.) Looking back, I think my parents started letting me go to the movies alone, or with my siblings, when I was quite young. Back in the late 60's, they played a lot of westerns like this one featuring Dean Martin or BANDOLERO featuring Dean Martin again (and Jimmy Stewart) and the late John Wayne features.

9). DESTROY ALL MONSTER (1968) d. Ishiro Honda. I wasn't a gigantic fan of the Japanese monster movies, but this monster free for all will always hold a special place in my heart. For a number of years, the Arcade would have a free Halloween matinee screening of this film. The place would be filled to the brim. Kids filled the seats and the aisles. (Talk about a safety hazard!) Trust me, there was more action in the aisles than on the screen.)

10). 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) d. Stanley Kubrick. Although the Arcade was a second run house, our local drive-in, The Timonium, was a first run theater. When my parents wanted to see a film (with the kids) we saw it there accompanied by grocery bags full of homemade popcorn. I remember seeing this movie and being fascinated by it, although I doubt I understood it. I do remember my mother saying of my computer programming father: "Only you would like a film about a computer." I would see this film in revival many times in the future; often on the giant screen of the Senator Theater.

11). LO CHIAMAVANO TRINITA aka THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970). d. Enzo Barboni. It seemed like this spaghetti Western comedy about two brothers, one a slacker and one an outlaw, played at the Arcade a couple times a year and that was fine with me. I really enjoyed this film and its sequel a great deal. It made me wish me and my older brother could wander around the West righting wrongs. Sadly, if my brother saw it, the film didn't have the same impact on him. Plus, we didn't have any guns, and we lived a long way from the West. So much for righting wrongs. Still, this is a film I would love to remake.

12). VANISHING POINT (1971) d. Richard C. Sarafian. I also saw this desert car chase flick at the Tinomium Drive-In. It was the second film of a double feature. I think my parents must've thought we were all asleep in the backseat, or hoped so. It was an R-rated film. (Actually, back then it was probably rated M for Mature Audiences.) It was my first "adult" film and it had a scene with a topless girl riding a motorcycle. I don't remember much more of the movie than that, but I do remember that.

13). THE NIGHT STALKER (1971) d. John Llewellyn Moxey. Yes, a made-for-TV movie. They made quite a few good ones back in the early-70's, including Steven Spielberg's feature debut DUEL. I really loved this movie and considered it one of the best vampire movies ever. I still see shadows of this film, and HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, in some of my horror stories and scripts. (BTW, if you're like me and watched Dark Shadows when you were a little kid do yourself a favor: Don't get the recently-released DVDs. The show doesn't hold up. Not at all.)

14). THE DOBERMAN GANG (1972) d. Byron Chudnow. What can I say? This is the best film ever made about dogs trained to rob a bank. This film helped usher in a decade of B-movie schlock at the Arcade. Enjoyable schlock. They seemed to play this film all the time as part of double features, often with its own sequels. Years later I managed to get a 16mm print and most of my backyard film festivals start with the last reel of this film -- the robbery. To me, one of the sad things about the movie business is that they keep remaking great films that you don't want to see remade. What they should do is remake films like this one that could be really great with a little honing and some better acting. If I had the power, I would do it. Hard to believe, but this film hasn't even been released on DVD yet.

15). THE LADY VANISHES (1938) d. Alfred Hitchcock. By the time I saw a 16mm print of this film at an Enoch Pratt Library off Sinclair Lane, I had already seen most of Alfred Hitchcock's American films on television, but I was ignorant of his British films. This one blew me away, and it remains my favorite of his British films. I sw this film with a friend Bob Kuzyk. As soon as it was over, his father picked us up and rushed us home because he didn't want us to miss something historic that was about to happen. The date: August 8, 1974. The event: The resignation of President Richard Nixon. (Note: Bob Kuzyk told me that he thinks we might've seen Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL that say instead. All I can say for sure was that Gerald Ford was President later that day.)

16). ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930) d. Victor Heerman. I was already a gigantic Marx Brothers fan by the time I saw this film. In fact, this was the last of their films I saw. It ha some kind of copyright problem and it was out of circulation for years. When it was reissued in 1974, it had a limited theatrical run and I saw it was the Towson theater. It was a beautiful print and a wonderful experience seeing it for the first time in a theater with a large audience. The experience was further enhanced by the fact that they showed a beautiful 35mm print of Laurel & Hardy's HELPMATES before it. That was great too. Actually, my early childhood fascination with the Marx Brothers taught me something I had never expected. I always assumed the actors mde up the stuff they were saying, but when I read some books about the team, I learned that their lines were written by other people. Frankly, I was a little disillusioned, but I quickly got over it. My first attempt at screenwriting was trying to combine a number of Marx Brothers routines into a new film.

17). JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977) d. Franco Zeffirelli. Sorry, Mel, but this TV mini-series remains the best depiction of the life of Christ -- although Mel can certainly stage an impressive crucifixion. This film became my favorite Easter perennial on TV, replacing THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, which we used to watch every Easter for as long as I could remember. (How long did we watch it? I seem to remember watching it before we even had a color TV. Color helped.) Ah, the perennial film... You always counted on the yearly showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and the seasonal Charlie Brown specials. Locally, WBFF, Channel 45, was the king of the perennial film. They always played THE LONGEST DAY every day during the whole week of June 6th. They would also always play A NIGHT TO REMEMBER on the April 14th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Cool.

18). STAR WARS (1977) d. George Lucas. Here it is, God help us, the CITIZEN KANE of my generation. It played in Washington at least a week before it came to Baltimore. I remember seeing the ads on the DC television stations and I was dying to see it. I still remember waiting in an impossibly long line at The Towson. And, I must confess, I loved it. But, nostalgia notwithstanding, I do draw the line at Jar-Jar Binks.

19). NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) d. George Romero. This zombie masterpiece was totally off my radar screen until my friend Bob Kuzyk lent me a Super 8mm print of it in 1979. I found it stunningly effective with its once state of the art gore and gritty documentary feel. I still think the first reel is one of the best and tightest I've seen in any film. Stong enough to make you forgive some of the bad acting that followed. This was also the first film i watched with a girl who would soon be my first girlfriend, who was a friend of my sister. She later said she was disappointed that I didn't walk her home that night after showing her this scary film. I did, however, ask her out soon afterwards to see the sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD. I believe that was May 8, 1979 at the Golden Ring Theater. It was, perhaps, not a fortuitous choice for a first date. Years later, I had better luck with the DVD of LA CONFIDENTIAL. I ended up marrying that girl.

20). APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) d. Francis Ford Coppola. In the fall of my first semester at Towson State University, I saw Coppola's heady Vietnam masterpiece. This film, more than any other I had sen up to that time, demonstrated the raw power of film. Now I started studying the classics, but the joys of my B-movie youth never quite left me. As a friend Jim Proimos once said, "CITIZEN KANE is a great film, but if I had my choice I'd rather be watching HORSEFEATHERS." Amen, my brother.

*Interestingly, just as the movie house of my youth found religion, I, too, have been making my mark in faith-based films.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Calling Doctor Script

I had an interesting experience, although professional discretion prevents me from giving you all of the details.

I recently went to Blockbuster and took out a western I had been hired to do a rewrite on. We, Tim Ratajczak and I, were contacted by the prospective distributor of the film. The distributor thought the story had potential, but that the script shot itself in the foot. Tim and I were interested if only because the production company apparently had a former James Bond on board to play the villain. (He ultimately wasn't in the film.)

They sent Tim and I the script via Final Draft. (If you're a screenwriter and you're not using Final Draft, you're not serious about your craft.) I read it first, and, frankly, I thought the writing was really terrific. It was succinct and visual. It really put you in the action. Frankly, the writing itself was as a good as I had read in scripts by pros like Joe Eszterhas and Paul Attanasio. I read about twenty-five pages and called my contact and asked why am I reading this? He asked me what page I was on. I told him twenty-five. He said keep reading.

Two or three pages later, the story went completely haywire. It was way too dark and violent for their intended audience. Additionally, characters no longer behaved like rational human beings. There was indeed a great deal of work which needed to be done.

Tim and I were initially contracted to read the script and offer solutions to the problems. We came up with a detailed list of ten problems and their solution. This lead to a conference call which revealed that the production company was not excited to have us involved in the process. I felt bad. No writer likes to be rewritten, but, on the other hand, I felt we had real solutions to real problems. In the end, the production company said they would let us rewrite the script if we could rewrite it within the next seven days. Our schedules did not permit that, so they took our notes and went their way and we went our way. The distributor and the production company soon parted ways as well.

The film came out straight to video a little while ago. It was picked up by a good distributor. The reviews were very mixed, and seemed to point to some of the problems Tim and I had with the script. I took the film out not knowing what to expect, and I was happy to see that it wasn't bad. From the credits, it appears as if the director had rewritten the script and fixed the most glaring and damaging problems along the same lines that Tim and I had suggested. That was good to see. It showed our work wasn't in vain and that somewhere, somehow, we had helped the film.

Monday, October 12, 2009

F**k The F**ks

This might be an odd post after singing the praises of the delightfully vulgar "Black Dynamite," but I would advise aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers to watch their f**king language.

The simple truth of the matter is that a constant barrage of vulgarity will only limit your options. If the language in your film warrants a hard-R or an NC-17 rating, your chances of profitability will fall dramatically. You will never get any over-the-air broadcast, or even any basic cable if every other word in your film is f**k. Sure, the premium channels will run films like that, but, unless you have a major distributor backing you, you're not going to be on HBO anyway! Additionally, and more importantly, although WalMart will carry the major studio releases regardless of the language, trust me, they will not carry your little independent film if it is filled with vulgarity. I know what you're thinking: F**k WalMart. Well, just remember that 30% of the DVDs in this country are sold by WalMart. You may want to check with your investors first before you decide whether you need Walmart or not.

The first feature film I edited was called "Charm City." It was a slacker/college romp along the lines of "Clerks," and, true to the genre, it was exceedingly vulgar. The producers and director took it to LA. A few months later I heard back from them. They wanted to know if there was anything we could do about the language. It scared some distributors off. In fact, the film never found a distributor. This is not an isolated case. I am aware of other films limited or damaged by their vulgarity.

Yeah, but what about Kevin Smith? What about Martin Scorsese?

You're not Kevin Smith.

You're not Martin Scorsese.

Watch TCM (Turner Classic Movies.) The writers and directors of those films managed to convey the whole gamut of human emotions without the F-word.

It might behoove you to do the same.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Black Dynamite

Last night I attended the New York Premiere of the upcoming blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite along with my lovely wife Deborah and my writing partner Tim Ratajczak. The three of us were the guests of the mighty Matt Richards who was one of the producers of Black Dynamite. Matt had also the producer of Holyman Undercover, which Tim and I co-wrote along with star/director David A.R. White.

There's the trailer:

I found the film very funny, and I believe it will be a sleeper hit of the fall when it hits the theaters next week. As I watched the cast and crew enjoy this special moment, I couldn't help but think how the success of this film could change the lives of the people involved. Every movie, no matter how good or bad, that gets made is a miracle in its own right. It takes so many of the right people to say yes at the right moment to make a film happen. And the odds against a little independent film like Black Dynamite getting a genuine theatrical release are astronomical.

This film was such a labor of love for everyone involved, particularly for writer/star Michael Jai White and writer/director Scott Sanders. I hope this film takes everyone, including the mighty Matt Richards, to the next level.

I'm just glad I got to go to the party.

Right on.

(Photo: Deborah Murphy, Michael Jai White, Sean Paul Murphy, Matt Richards.)

Why Blog?

It seems absurd to blog. Be honest. It does.

If you're like me and you work in a relatively public business eventually you will say something that will alienate someone you work with or someone you would like to work with. Especially if you are as careless with your words and opinions as I am.

Once upon a time, when I was but a boy screenwriter, a DC-based location manager/production supervisor/producer Carol Flaisher asked me what I thought of a particular film. I told her I thought it sucked. She then informed me that the producer of said sucko film wanted to read one of my scripts. Obviously, that information led to me to reevaluate said producer's work. Now it was plain to see that he was a genius. And I was grateful I didn't have a blog gleefully attacking his movie.

Therefore, expect this to be an exceptionally boring blog.

I will not be attacking people.

I will not be controversial.

I will not be political.

I will not be religious.

I will not be worth reading.

(BTW, the producer discreetly unnamed above didn't like my script. So, yes, once again I can admit that his work sucks. At least for now.)