Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, June 21, 2010

Films Worth Seeing: Conspiracy (2001)

(This is the first in a series of recommendations of worthy but little seen films.)

"Conspiracy" consists, essentially, of a group of men sitting around a table talking.  That's normally a kiss of death for a film.  To succeed, a lot depends on the conversation, and, in this case, the conversation revolves around the best and most efficient way to murder all of the Jews in Europe.

"Conspiracy" is based on the sole remaining transcript of The Wannsee Conference, where the heads of various branches of the German government and military gathered together to plan and initiate the Final Solution.  This film is a re-enactment of perhaps the single most evil and shameful two hours in the history of Western civilization.   Many people foolishly equate prejudice and hatred with ignorance.  Not so, as this film clearly illustrates.  The men sitting around that table were all intelligent and well educated.  Most had college degrees.  Many had advanced degrees.  Of the fifteen participants in the Conference, shockingly, only four of them truly voice any opposition to the plan.  Even then, only one of them, Wilhelm Kritzinger, played by David Threlfall, offers anything close to moral outrage one would expect from a normal human being.  However, in the end, they all agree to the plan put forth by SS General Reinhard Heydrich, played by Kenneth Branagh. 

The film was produced by HBO and the BBC.  It was directed by the Academy-Award winning screenwriter Frank Pierson.  He won the Oscar for "Dog Day Afternoon" and was nominated for "Cat Ballou" and "Cool Hand Luke."   The film was written by the multi-Emmy-Award winning and nominated writer Loring Mandel.  He won an Emmy for this film.

The script is extremely well-written and well-researched.  The use of language comes as a rare treat to the ears.  With Hollywood's emphasis today on action and words that are easily translated into the global marketplace,  it is unusual to find any film today that features so much intelligent conversation between educated, albeit evil, people.

Well worth a look.  Check it out.

Here it is the trailer:

"Hidden Secrets" Revealed, Part 3, The Writing

Tim and I with our first checks for "Hidden Secrets"

Now that Tim and I had the assignment, we had to write the movie.

Being our first commissioned project with a new client, a great deal of effort was expended on our character descriptions and a very detailed beat sheet that covered the entire film.  Then, once the actual writing began, we would send over every fifteen or so pages to make sure we were on the right track.  This would prove to be a marked contrast to our later scripts for PureFlix.  Once we had gained their trust, the process became easier.  They would call us and discuss what kind of film they wanted to make -- usually a variation on some successful "secular" film.  We would send them a short treatment which would often only be a paragraph or two long.  They would send us a contract.  We would rewrite the contract and sign it.  They would sign it.  Then we would get started.  We would usually write an entire draft of the script before letting them read anything.  That process worked quite well up until our last, or should I say, most recent, project with PureFlix.  (I'll blog about that later.)

Once again, the film was structured like The Big Chill.  A number of friends of the deceased Christopher Hayden, would gather for the weekend and solve all their problems in the process.  (Hey, it's a movie.)  The film was envisioned as an ensemble piece with each character having a separate story and an arc.  Ultimately, it didn't work out that way, but that was the plan.

The main character would Jeremy Evans, the best friend of the unseen deceased.  We knew he would ultimately be the main character because he was being played by actor/producer David A.R. White.  He didn't hire us to write him a supporting role!  The other principal characters included Sherry Hayden, the sister of the deceased and the former love of Jeremy's life; Rachel Wilson, Jeremy's current near fiancee; Harold Mirfin, a high school friend of Jeremy and Christopher; Rhonda DeMeo Mirfin, Harold's judgmental wife; Anthony DeMeo, high school friend of Jeremy, Christopher & Harold as well as the brother of Rhonda; Sally Hemmings, Anthony's girlfriend; Michael Stover, one of Christopher's college friends; and Gary Zimmerman, Christopher's employer.  Those characters remained consistent throughout the process.  One character was lost.  In the original script, Christopher's high school sweetheart was also present.  She was a counterweight to Michael's character, but she was soon eliminated as his role lessened.

Tracy Melchoir as Sherry Hayden and
David A.R. White as Jeremy Evans.

Being a Christian film with a point of view, aside from being an individual each character also had to represent a problem.  After Sherry had broken up with him in college, Jeremy had given up his true calling as a minister and had fallen into sexual promiscuity and advertising.  I'll let you decide which one was worse.  Sherry was dealing with the guilt of a secret abortion after she got pregnant in college while cheating on Jeremy.  Anthony had given up on life after a knee injury ended his college football career and his dreams of being a pro.  Rhonda's sin is that she is too legalistic and judgmental.  Gary is an atheist.  And Michael is gay!

That's a lot of sin for a Christian movie.

Too much, we soon discovered.

Remember, the purpose of the film was to press all of the hot buttons, but it turns out that some people didn't want those buttons pressed.

Here's one of the problems with Christian films.  The gatekeepers -- the pastors of mega-churchs, the heads of radio and television ministries, and organizations that help decide whether little indies like this film get picked up by Christian Book stores -- want everyone to be saved, but they don't want anyone to sin or even talk about it too much!  Of course, if there's no sin there's no need for salvation.  And, speaking as a dramatist, very little conflict.  That's why practically all white Protestant faith-based films are so Pollyannish.  Why do I say white and Protestant.  Easy.  There is a very viable African American faith based market entirely separate from the white market.  In the African-American faith based film, people actually behave like human beings and even sin before coming to repentance.  Heaven forbid!  I have also seen a few, mainly Italian, Catholic lives of saints films.  Those films tend to reflect the spirit of Cecil B. DeMille in which all sorts of decadence and debauchery are depicted before the inevitable wrath of God and repentance.

Take for example Jeremy's problem:  Sexual promiscuity.  In the final movie, it has been toned down to essentially two statements:  "I've given into the flesh," and "I've done things I'm ashamed of."  Duh!  I could say the same thing about myself after eating a whole container of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.  If the purpose of the character was to illustrate the spiritual and emotional dangers of sexual promiscuity and the healing grace of God in response than we have failed.  If you can't honestly deal with the problem, than the solution will feel just as fake.  In my opinion.

But dealing with Jeremy was no problem compared to Michael.  Michael was perhaps the first person in a faith-based film personally dealing with the issue of homosexuality.  In the final film, Michael is a dour, morose, suicidal guy.  Not only that, to further placate the gatekeepers, we had the add a bit about him being molested as a child by a family member so that the audience would know it wasn't his fault.  He wasn't always that way.  Originally, he was a cheerful, colorful character.  Think Christian Oscar Wilde.  We made the mistake of giving him many of the best jokes.  Tim and I have subsequently learned to play it safe and always give the star the best jokes.  Nothing remains of his back story.  Originally, Michael was physically attracted to Christopher when he met him in college.  But, instead of getting sex from Christopher, Michael got Jesus.  Since then, Michael had wrestled with his feelings and impulses, but was moving forward in his Christian walk.

Corin Nemec as Michael.
Gay?  Or just an unfortunate clothing choice?

But that was not to be.  Jeremy and Sherry were both able to overcome the guilt of their sexual sin, which in one case even led to a death via abortion, and live happily ever after.  However, someone, I don't know whether it was at the production company or one of the executive producers, didn't feel that Michael deserved the same happy ending.   They felt that Michael, unlike Jeremy and Sherry, deserved ongoing, continual punishment for his sexual sin.   Hence, he had to be dour and suicidal.  The irony is that in the film, Michael tells Rhonda, "Are you saying God's grace is sufficient for your sins but not mine!"  I think he could have said that to someone on the production too.

(Man, I must not care if I am burning bridges!)

No one actually had much complaint with our resident atheist.  Originally, he was Jewish.  However, the powers-to-be decided to make him half-Jewish.  Tim found that ridiculous because you are either Jewish or you are not Jewish.  If your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish.  If your mother isn't Jewish, you are not Jewish.  You are never officially half Jewish.  The identity of your father is irrelevant.    Still, other than that, Gary managed to stay reasonably intact despite his stem cell research.  Probably because practically everything he says is immediately challenged by the judgmental and overly-zealous Rhonda.

John Schneider as Gary
"Christians?  Where are the lions when you need them?"

Ah, Rhonda.

Rhonda is always the most talked about person in the movie, and the character who consistently gets the biggest laughs.  (At her expense.)  A secular viewer once said of "Hidden Secrets" that "it has the nerve to make one of its most appealing characters, a stem-cell researcher played by John Schneider, an atheist, and the least appealing a scripture spouting hypocrite."  The hilarious thing that some Christian reviewers have gone as far as to say that there aren't really people like Rhonda.  Yeah, right.  Come on, if you claim to be a Christian, you are supposed to be honest.  The Christian audience responds so well to her because they have seen her in their own lives, and they want to see her get her comeuppance.

Autumn Paul as Rhonda
Remind you of anyone?

I remember seeing the film in a theater during its limited theatrical run.  We got talking to one of the other moviegoers and exchanged emails.  He later said that on the way home his wife asked him if she was like Rhonda.  He said he answered honestly and that led to a six hour conversation.  People know Rhonda, but I'm not going to say here, on this blog, that she's based on a real person.  Because, if I said that, that person would kill me.  (And Tim.)

(I've have to do a later blog about how much of their own lives, and the lives of the people around them, shows up in an author's work.  Complicated issue.)

Back to Rhonda.

The truth be told, I was Rhonda.

Over a period of time, I developed a position of trust with a friend who seemed to be searching to the point that we were discussing spiritual matters.  Then one day the subject of abortion came up and I laid into her about it.  Really laid into her.  I was sooooo right.  And, you know what, I probably was.  But was the Lord served?  A wall came up between me and that woman.  The openness was gone forever.  In retrospect, I think it's easy to see that I should have made sure my friend knew the Lord and then let the Lord deal with her heart.  And her politics.

Rhonda, to me, is a symbol of those people in the church who think that there is a political solution to the moral problems of the country.  There isn't.  Think about it.  What would happen if we quote/unquote succeeded?  What would happen if we codified every Christian belief into law, and, more importantly, everyone obeyed the law?  Would that save anyone?  No, of course not.  Christianity is built on faith not works.  No amount of political action will ever save anyone!  No matter who you vote in.  No matter who sits on the Supreme Court.  Historically, the Church has its greatest growth in times of persecution, not when Christians wield political power.  We have religious freedom in America.  In China, the church is still persecuted.  Where's the growth?  (I'll give you a hint:  Not America.)

Early Christians conquered the Roman world spiritually.  By the second century, the pagan temples in the East were empty.  The lives and hearts of people were changed.  It wasn't done through political protests.  It was accomplished through love, compassion, charity and grace.  And the willingness of Christians to die for their beliefs.  Widespread corruption didn't enter the Church until it became the official state religion of Rome.  Do we honestly want to repeat that mistake?

I may say that I love the sinner but hate the sin, but the sinner probably isn't going to see it that way when I'm hitting him on the head with a placard.  And who am I serving by hitting him on the head?  Jesus?   I don't think so.  Jesus said he came to call sinner to repentance not the righteous.  Everyone talks about how all Jesus talked about was love.  Not so.  He got pretty angry at times, and that anger was always directed at the religious authorities and the self-righteous.

Am I saying not to vote?  No, of course not.  Vote your conscience!  Am I saying not to try to right political wrongs?  No, of course not.  Make the world a better and more just place.  I'm just saying that, if you claim to be a Christian, but your zeal for an issue brings you to a point where you come to hate your opponents, you should probably reexamine your priorities.

Hey, there I go again being judgmental.

It's so easy to be Rhonda!

Let's get back to the subject at hand:  screenwriting.

The question many of you are probably asking is: Why, if the changes were so bad in your opinion, did you make them?

Because screenwriting is not just an art.  It is also a job.  Neither Tim or I woke up one morning with the dream to write a Christian version of "The Big Chill."  It was David A.R. White's dream.  Did Tim and I infuse it with our thoughts and personalities?  Yes, of course.   But it was ultimately David's film.  He was the one who willed it into being.

And, if you choose screenwriting as a profession, you have a professional obligation to give the person who hired you the script they want.  Even if it worse than your script!  This is where the rubber meets the road.  It's easy to write a spec script when you get to make all the decisions.  The difficulty comes in maintaining your voice and your integrity within the confines of someone else's vision.  That's what it means to be a professional writer.  In my humble opinion.

And what of the changes?

Some of them were a result of philosophical or theological differences.  However, the bulk of the changes were made to make the film more palatable to the audience of the genre.  Tim and I would later learn what happened when you didn't take the concerns of the "gatekeepers" into account:  Your access to the market is blocked.  As a result your investor doesn't get his money back.  Therefore, he doesn't give you the money to make another movie.

You want your investor to get his money back.  Whether you a making an action film, a horror film or a Christian film.  Perhaps especially if it is a Christian film.  After all, there's that pesky commandment that "Thou Shall Not Steal."

Therefore, although I sometimes chafe at the notes, I understand why they want the changes.  And perhaps they understand the market better than me.  Plus, not all the changes were horrible.  I do have to give Mr. David A.R. White some credit.  He actually contributed some entertaining moments to the film.

I believe Tim and I actually began writing the script itself in November 2005.  We didn't have much time.  It had to be done quickly.  They wanted to shoot in January 2006.  They needed to be casting by mid-December, before the Christmas holidays.

We had it finished with days to spare.

We were going into production.

Yeah, baby.

Hidden Secrets, Revealed, Part 4, Production

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Holyman Undercover Released

My new film Holyman Undercover was just released on DVD yesterday.  Here's the synopsis:

Join Roy as he says farewell to the farm and hello to Hollywood in this zany comedy.  Roy heads to Los Angeles to search for his long-lost uncle, and instead finds his fame and fortune playing Satan on a top-rated television show.  While pursuing the girl of his dreams, Roy's fantasy quickly vanishes when scheming networks, powerful producers and temperamental co-stars turn his life into the world's worst reality show.

I will discuss this film in great detail later in my blog, exhaustive detail, no doubt, but I do want to say that the writing, casting and production of this film was a delight.

Problems didn't arise until we started bumping heads with the gatekeepers of the faith-based film business about the "shocking" content of the film.  More about that later.  Much more.

How shocking is the film?  Buy a copy and see for yourself.

Here's the trailer:

You can buy a copy directly from PureFlix. I think we made more money if you do. Here's the link:

"Hidden Secrets" Revealed, Part 2, First Contact

David A.R. White & Kevin Downes
in "The Moment After."

I had my strategy.  Now all I needed was a script.  That was the easy part.

I always have five-to-ten somewhat developed script ideas rattling around in my head at any given time.  One of them was perfect.  It was called "I, John," a story about the apostle John, the son of Zebedee and the author of the Gospel of John, The Book of Revelations, and a couple of shorts letters, all of which have thankfully fallen into the public domain.  I had a budget in mind so I tried to limit the locations. Most of the action would take place in a Baltimore area hospital, with a few quick flashbacks set in Biblical-era Palestine and the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.  Finding a place in Baltimore that would pass for ancient Palestine would be difficult.  Auschwitz would be easier.

Gotta love Baltimore.

I wrote the script in about two weeks.  While I went through my usual rewrite process, I decided to research the independent Christian film market.  The first couple films I saw didn't impress me.  They were all about the message, which is fine, but they made no effort to entertain or engage whatsoever.  More importantly, the characters weren't real.  The Christians were perfect, and their opponents were simply straw men.  I found them ineffective on two levels.  One, no one is going to get the message unless you keep them watching.  Two, if you have a good product, why not let it compete in the arena of ideas.

Then I saw "Six:  The Mark Unleashed."  It featured some people I've actually heard of like Eric Roberts and Stephen Baldwin, as well as some Christian guys, David A.R. White and Kevin Downes, who between the two of them, also wrote, produced and directed the film.  Not only that, it actually took its story seriously and tried to entertain as well as enlighten.  I went back to Blockbuster and got another one of their films "The Moment After."  That film also tried to entertain.  I began to think these guys might be worth talking to.

Time to hit the computer.  I soon found that David A.R. White and the Downes Brothers, Kevin and Bobby, had a production company out in California called Signal Hill.  Now I had a decision to make.  Do I send them the script?  Or do I continue with my original plan to produce and distribute "I, John" myself.   Hmmm.  Finding Bobby Downes' email address tilted the scales a bit.  What could possibly be wrong with sending them the script to see what they thought of it?

At the same time, however, I was also pitching a horror movie script called "Desecrated."  You see, while I was writing "I, John," I was in the midst of my Ghosts of Slavery period where the main conflict was always, one way or another, a byproduct of that stain on our nation's soul.  (One of the first things I did when I met my lovely future wife Deborah was to head straight down to the National Archives and check the records to make sure that her family didn't own slaves.  They didn't.  I discovered instead that her father's family came over as indentured servants and were actually sold on a auction block to a Virginia farmer as if they were slaves.  As for my own family, I do take great pride in my 2nd great-granduncle George Farber who helped burn the South.)

George Farber

Wanna to read the pitch for "Desecrated?"  Here it is:

It's summer in the worst ghetto in Baltimore.  To escape the violence-plagued streets, two young African-American boys take refuge in a vast, overgrown urban cemetery.  While avoiding the watchful eye of the stern caretaker, Douglas Adams, the boys make contact with the seemingly benevolent ghost of John Woodson, who claims to be imprisoned in the cemetery.  However, after they free Woodson, they discover he is more powerful and more terrifying than anything on the mean streets.  Together with Adams, the boys must find a way to destroy him once and for all.

"Desecrated" was a semi-finalist in the Slamdance horror screenplay competition.  It is a taut, urban thriller that juxtaposes the known terrors of the real world against the unknown horrors of the supernatural realm.  It is a dark coming of age film with teeth.*

Okay, so I have about twenty emails out for "Desecrated."  Then I send one email out for "I, John" to Bobby Downes.  In a day or two, June 26, 2005, I get an email from some guy named David which simply says, "Send me your script."  The email indicated that his last name was White.  Unfortunately, he didn't say which script.  And, I had no idea who he was.

If you've been reading my blog from the beginning, and, be honest, you haven't been, you'd know that I keep very good records concerning pitches.  The name David White didn't appear in my extensive database.  Obviously, he was a reader, but for whom?  (For some reason, I simply did not associate him with the actor in the two films I had just seen.  Bobby Downes was the only person in my personal database associated with Signal Hill.)  I went to the Hollywood Creative Directory and checked all the names at all of the places of had queried with the scripts.  Nothing.

My wife said I should just email him back and ask him what script he wanted me to send him.  I didn't want to do that.  I didn't want David White, whoever he was, to think that I was pitching fifty different scripts to fifty different people.  I wanted to give him the illusion, albeit false, that he was the only person in the world I was interested in working with and that this was the only script worth reading.  Sadly, in the end, I had no choice.  I emailed him and asked him what script he wanted to read.  He said "I, John," but he wanted to know about the other one.  I told him that it was a horror script that he wouldn't be interested in reading.  He said he wanted to read that one too.  I was a little nervous about sending him the darker "Desecrated" so I sent him "Then The Judgement" instead.  During this exchange of emails, I also belatedly realized that he was David A.R. White, the actor I had genuinely enjoyed during my research.

I heard back from David the next weekend.  He called me.  Calling is always a good sign.  He said he really liked the script a lot, particularly the sense of humor.  However, the script wasn't for him.  He was very honest and upfront as to why.  He said that they, Kevin Downes and himself, liked to produce films that they could be in, and there wasn't a role for either of them in "I, John."  Instead. he wanted to write a comedy along the lines of "The Big Chill," but with Christian themes.  And he wanted to deal with all the hot button issues like abortion and homosexuality.

Frankly, the word comedy scares me.

Although I consider myself a good comedy writer, I had sworn off comedies in the early 'nineties.  Comedy is simply too subjective.  No two people think the same thing is funny.  The final straw for me was a script, co-written with David Butler, based on a story by Tom Brandau, called "The Premier" about a communist leader visiting the United Nations who sneaks out to taste life first hand in America.  The fall of communism made the script both very topical and utterly irrelevant.  One of the companies that read it sent it back with the coverage, which was disillusioning.  Not that they didn't like it.  You've got to expect that.  If you can't take a no, screenwriting ain't for you, my friend.  What bothered me was that the reader didn't get the humor at all.  Trust me.  There were four laughs per page.  Four!  That's always my goal when writing a comedy.

So now David A.R. White, star of stage and screen, wants me to write a comedy.  For money.  My mind is clicking.  One thing was certain, I didn't want to write it alone.  I think the most productive comedy writing happens when you're bouncing ideas off another person.  I knew who I wanted to work with:  Timothy Ratajczak.  I'd known him since college.  He'd written a ton of screenplays, mostly comedies.  He's sort of the Woody Allen of Baltimore, but the good Woody Allen.  Not the bad Woody Allen that would sleep with his Korean, pseudo-stepdaughter.

I ask David if I could work with a partner.  He's says, "You can do whatever you want, as long as I only have to deal with you."  I said, "Let me call you back." I call Tim and wake him up.  He's groggy.  I say, "Do you want write a Christian Big Chill?  For money?"  "Let me think about it."  "Okay, you fifteen minutes.  I need to know tonight."  Tim said yes, but he was very skeptical about whether it would happen.

I wasn't.  I knew we would write the script.  And it would be made.

Tim and I were on our way to becoming the Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel of Christian Cinema.  We just needed figure out which one of us was going to be which.

*Whatever happened to "Desecrated," you ask.  Not getting any bites from mainstream Hollywood, I tried to put it together myself as an indy.  Working with horrormeister Mark Redfield., I got the script out to some actors I thought would give the project viability to a mid-range distributor.  The names were Ken Foree for Douglas Adams and Robert Quarry for John Woodson.  Robert Quarry rose to horror fame in the early 'seventies playing "Count Yorga, Vampire."  He was the right age and anxious to work.  Ken Foree played Peter in the original horror classic "Dawn of the Dead," and had recently appeared in Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects."  Ken had just set up a production company and was already being approached by distributors.  He really liked the role of Adams, and the theme of the script.  The dance began.  His lawyer sent us a contract, but it was filled with blanks!  They wanted us to fill in the various amounts.  We wanted them to make the initial offer.  Things went back and forth until I got too tied up in "Hidden Secrets" to continue.  Then Robert Quarry died.

Robert Quarry, RIP

Anybody wanna buy a horror script?

Hidden Secrets, Revealed, Part 3, The Writing

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Recommended Reading

People often come up to me and say, "Sean, can you recommend some books to me about screenwriting?"

Actually, that's not true.  No one has ever asked me that, but I'm not afraid to volunteer the information.  And, I do have a blog to fill....  So here goes.

"Screenplay:  The Foundations of Screenwriting" - Syd Field

Syd Field is often sneered at today, but, when I began to write screenplays, his book was the best one currently available.   Much is made of the fact that he never wrote a produced film, but, as they say, those who can't do, do, those who can't, teach.  I would say that a lifetime of movie-going taught me form and structure.  Field taught me the mechanics.  He explained what I had been assimilating.

For a couple years, I bought pretty much every screenplay books that came out.  After a while, it all became redundant.  However, I know people who swear by "How To Write A Movie In 21 Days" by Viki King.  Or "Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting" by Robert McKee.  (Didn't read that book, but someone lent me cassettes of his class.  Interesting.)  One of the hottest books for a while was "The Writer's Journey" by Christopher Vogler.  I bought it.  Started to read it, but decided I didn't want to write that movie.  I have had people recommending "Save The Cat!  The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need" by Blake Snyder too.  I may check it out.

So what book is best?  Whatever one that inspires you to sit behind the computer while everyone else is out having fun.  Nowadays I am more likely to read film criticism and books that compare and contrast good and bad scripts.

"Adventures In The Screen Trade" - William Goldman

Love this book.  And the further I progress in my career, the more valuable I find it.  Ignore the structure of the scripts he includes, but pay attention to the stories.  This is more than simple, behind the scenes Hollywood gossip.  You will learn practical solutions to the political side of the business, i.e., dealing with producers, directors and stars.  I particularly enjoyed his analysis of the difference between writing a scene for an actor and writing a scene for a movie star.  He talks about DeNiro in the basketball scene in the "The Great Santini."  He says a star would never play the scene that way because, more than anything, they want to be loved.  He describes how the scene would have to change to suit a big movie star.  Lots of wisdom in this book from a two time Oscar-winner who certainly knows how to swim in the deep end of the Hollywood pool.  Good read too.

And, although Goldman generally disparages sequels, he produced one himself.  "Which Lie Did I Tell?:  More Adventures in the Screen Trade" picks up his career where his last book left off.  I found the book particularly relevant.  I reread it about a month ago after being removed from a project.  Tim Ratajczak and myself where hired to write a comedy.  Then, about three weeks before the shoot, the production company decided that the film had to be a drama instead.  We were removed and replaced by, of all people, a professional comedy writer.  Oh well.  (Believe me, no hard feelings!)  He was subsequently replaced by two additional writers.  The irony is that the first production Goldman discusses in his second volume was "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," which the original director, Ivan Reitman, envisioned as a special effects driven comedy in the vein of his hit "Ghostbusters."  The star, Chevy Chase, saw it more as a dramatic meditation on the loneliness of invisibility.  Those of you who saw the final film know who won.  It was strangely reassuring to hear how an Oscar-winner fought the same battle we did!

"Writers In Hollywood 1915-1951" - Ian Hamilton

A great history of the screenwriting business.

Nowadays screenwriting is hot.  Everyone wants to write The Great American Screenplay -- or at least a million dollar one.  That wasn't always the case.  Once upon a time, real writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, only came to Hollywood out of desperation -- leaving humorous tales in their wake.  It was not a respectable craft.  But some, perhaps against their better judgment, excelled at it, like Ben Hecht, Herman Mankiewicz, Nunnally Johnson, Robert Riskin and Frank S. Nugent.

It is a pity that those names are known to so few, but they are the unknown architects of Hollywood's greatest masterpieces.  Robert Riskin, upon reading an with interview his frequent collaborator, director Frank Capra, about the famous "Capra Touch" handed him 120 blank pages of paper the next day and asked him to give those "The Capra Touch."

The book didn't say whether Capra found that amusing.

"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:  How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" - Peter Biskind

This gossipy tell-all book tells the unvarnished history of the 'seventies cinema, which has rightly been called Hollywood's second Golden Era.  It is also a great cautionary tale because, if indeed the filmmaking mavericks profiled in this book did manage to save Hollywood, they mostly managed to destroy themselves through an excess of money, drugs and ego.   It is also a very entertaining read.  You've seen the films.  Experience the ego!

I found Peter Biskind's follow-up "Down and Dirty Pictures:  Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film" sadder because not only does it cover the rise of independent film, it also covers the collapse of the market.  I was a great devotee of independent film during the period covered in the book. I saw practically every film Biskind discusses in the theater.  I certainly didn't like all of them, but there was a certain exhilaration that any vision could find a home.  I don't believe that is true anymore.  When the major studios saw how much money the indy distributors were making, they simply bought them.  None of those courageous little companies are active anymore.

It was also sad to see how little money those filmmakers made.  At least the filmmakers in 'seventies made enough money to buy all the drugs they needed to destroy themselves.

When did Independent Film finally die for me?  I think it was back in 2005, the year the Greg Kinnear/Pierce Brosnan film "The Matador" played Sundance.  I believe it was that year that Robert Redford said in an interview that the average independent film cost $30 million to produce.  No, Bob, sorry.  Come on.  "The Matador" isn't an independent film.  "Eraserhead" is.

I remember going to DC around 2005 to see a screening of Cory McAbee's comedy/musical/sci-fi film "The American Astronaut."  It was a wild and unique and eminently entertaining film.  No one saw it.  Terrible distribution deal.  I couldn't help but think that if the film had been produced and released in 1992, McAbee would be the new David Lynch.

(Then again, I felt the same way about Lee Bonner and "21 Eyes.")

"The Hollywood Economist:  The Hidden Financial Reality Behind The Movies" - Edward Jay Epstein

You always hear about how this movie lost $100 million dollars and that movie lost $150 million dollars.  Ever wonder how the studios manage stay in business?  This book will explain how.  And, after you read it, you won't waste any more tears on those poor studios.

The studios aren't trying to remedy the fact that so many movies are "losing" money.  Paramount, the production company, may be in the red, but Paramount, the distributor, is doing fine.  And they likeit that way.  If the productions made money, they'd have to start paying all of those pesky net points they hand out to nobodys.

Like the writers.

I was already aware of pretty much everything I read in this book, but it did an excellent job of explaining the whys and the hows.

Like how 2001's "Lara Croft:  Tomb Raider," budgeted at $97 million dollars, only cost Paramount about $8 million dollars out of pocket.

Don't worry about the studios.  They're doing okay.

That's the reading list for now.

By the way, be sure to support independent film.  And, if you're not going to buy a copy of "21 Eyes," at least buy a copy of "The American Astronaut."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Will Hollywood Steal From You?

Will a movie company rob you?  Of course they will!

They will tell you that your net points have value when they know the reverse is true.  But will they steal your idea?  I am less certain of that.

I have been a little discreet on this blog about some of my more high-concept ideas.  That's because it's easy to steal a high-concept idea.  I feel it is reasonably safe to post the loglines for scripts like "Judy" and "West Rhodes" because the pleasure comes from the execution, not the originality of the ideas.  (If you think originality is highly-valued in Hollywood, you obviously haven't looked at the list of films coming to your local multiplex this summer.)  No one is going to read those loglines and steal those ideas.  It would be easier to buy those scripts than to try to recreate them from scratch.  I do worry about posting high-concept ideas -- where the idea is cool enough to make someone want to write their own version.  I have written a few scripts along those lines which include "Then The Judgement," "Mr. Inside," and "I, John."  Anyone could read those loglines and write a new script and I would have no recourse since you can't copyright ideas, only executions.

Will someone actually steal your finished scripts?  Unlikely.  Think about it.  You wrote the next big action epic.  You sent it to Jerry Bruckheimer.  He wants it.  But why would he steal it?  You're an unknown.  It'd be cheaper for him to buy the spec script from you than to hire an established writer to adapt a new version of it.  Still, don't even think about sending your script out to Hollywood without copyrighting it and registering it with the Writers Guild of America, west.  Better safe than sorry, but don't be paranoid.

Tim Ratajczak and I were approached last year by a filmmaker we respect about the possibility of writing a Christmas movie for him based on a true life story that the production company had already contractually acquired.  Tim and I were very interested.   They wanted to get our thoughts on the concept.  We wanted to give them our thoughts.  Unfortunately, it never happened.

The production company wanted us to sign an non-disclosure agreement before they would send us the treatment.  The agreement was very onerous.  We were liable to pay $100,000 in damages if we discussed the idea with anyone outside of the production company -- even if they hadn't suffered any damages as a result of our leak.  Tim sent the contract to our lawyer.  He said we'd be crazy to sign it and offered some alterations to the contract.  We sent our notes on the contract back to them.  They said they would make the alterations.  Many emails were exchanged.  No contracts were ever signed.  No thoughts were shared.  The project slowly died -- as far as we were concerned.  I thought it was quite absurd.  The project was based on a true life story.  They already had a contract with the subject.  What were we going to do?  Steal his life?  Trust me, we already have too many projects to write now.  We don't need to steal any.

So, I'm not too afraid about being robbed by a motion picture company.

Television, or should I say Cable, is another thing.

David Butler and I had an idea for a basic cable television series about writing for the movies.  (That's about as much as I can say.  I have to be very discreet.  I can't afford to alienate any cable network, even a thieving one.)  We did our research and put together a very nice package.  We detailed every episode for the first season.  We even visually described how the show would open, and the various transitions we would use.  Very nice.  Then we sent it off to a cable network that you've watched.  We didn't hear anything from them for about two months.  Then David got a call from the executive, who had been out on maternity leave.  She went through her waist deep pile of submissions and found our show.  She liked it.  There was only one problem.  The network to which we sent the show was about to change its focus.  She wanted us to rework the pitch to suit their new parameters.  Obviously, we were more than happy to do so.

We sent it out.  Then waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Nothing.

Until one evening I saw a promo on a sister network, owned by the same corporation, for the premiere of a show just like ours.  The title was only altered by one word.  No, no, no.  It couldn't be.  But it was.  They even opened the show with the same visual sequences we described.

What could we do?  Nothing.  You can't copyright an idea.  Only executions.  Even if we had a case, we couldn't afford to sue.  And, even if we could afford to sue, we would alienate a giant media conglomerate that would undoubtably blackball us.

So we had to give them a pass.   What choice did we have?

The show didn't last that long anyway.

I've seen this happen again with other producers I know.  One producer went to this big convention down in DC where producers get the opportunity to meet anyone who is anyone at the cable networks.  He had a great idea.  Pitched it to a network.  Their response?  Definitely not interested.  A couple months later he reads in the trades that they are working on exactly the same show.

Why would they do that?  Part of me thinks that they simply won't buy a show from a company that hasn't already produced a weekly show.   Shows aren't like scripts.  When you finish a script, that's it.  In fact, by the time the producer reads it, it is already done.  A show is different.  They need to know that you will be able to deliver on a weekly basis.  I think they must think it's safer to just take your idea and have it executed by a company who has a proven track record.

That bums me out because David and I both had basic cable production credits.  I would have thought we would have been considered reliable.  I guess we weren't.  My advice?  If you have an idea for a cable show, don't go directly to one of the networks.  Pitch it instead to a reputable cable production company.  You'll have a better shot with their clout behind you.

Or not.

Actually, the real question is:  Do you really want to have a basic cable show?  I've worked on a few of them and I feel that the only thing worse than not having a cable show is actually having one.  You'll never get rich on what they pay, and you'll end up working eighteen hours a day.

That said, I currently have two series in development.  A sitcom on one basic cable network, and a hunting show on another one.

What am I thinking?