Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Monsterpalooza Magazine Debuts



My love of the movies was nurtured on many late Friday and Saturday night watching the great Universal and not so great American International horror films.  Once a month, like many fans of my generation, I fed my fascination with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

Now there is a magazine to fill that void:  Monsterpalozza Magazine.

It is a glossy magazine loaded with pictures and informative stories published and edited by Michael Heisler and the mighty Mark Redfield.*  Mark Redfield is a Baltimore-based actor, writer, artist, director, producer and noted SAG cheerleader.  I worked on many feature films with Mark over the years, and I always enjoyed our epic movie discussions while we worked -- whether they be about Laurel and Hardy shorts, the pros and cons of the various James Bonds or Hammer horror films.  Mark has an encyclopedic knowledge of film surpassing even my own.  I am happy he is finally putting all of that knowledge to good use!

Mark is also putting me to good use as well.  Mark hired to me to do an in-depth interview with the rising, young filmmaker Mike Flanagan for the debut issue.  Mike is a fellow Towson University graduate and I have long been a fan of his work.  We were friendly rivals when my first feature film "21 Eyes" and his cerebral thriller "Ghosts of Hamilton Street" started playing at the same film festivals.  I thought Ghosts was a brilliant film that never got the distribution it deserved.  In this issue, I talk to Mike about his award-winning, soon-to-be-released feature "Absentia."

So check out the debut issue of  Monsterpalozza Magazine.

And check out Mike Flanagan's "Absentia."  Here's the trailer:



*BTW, just to prove what a small world it really is, the art director of the magazine is Theresa Ratajczak, cousin of my longtime screenwriting partner Timothy Ratajczak.


   

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Betrayed" sweeps Peer Awards



Forgive me for patting myself on my back (I am probably the first blogger to do so), but "Betrayed," the featurette I wrote for the Counter-Intelligence Division of the F.B.I., won a number of Peers Awards from the National Press Club.

Here's what it won:

Best of DC:

Betrayed.  Rocket Media/FBI.

Directing:  Fiction, Short:
Gold.  Betrayed.  Rocket Media/FBI.  Tom Feliu, director.

Editing:  Fiction, Short, Under 70 minutes:
Gold.  Betrayed.  Rocket Media/FBI.  T. Scott Snider, editor.

Scriptwriting:  Fiction, Short, Under 70 minutes:
Silver.  Betrayed.  Rocket Media/FBI.  Sean Paul Murphy, writer.*

Director of Photography:  Dramatic Short
Gold.  Betrayed.  Rocket Media/FBI.  Johnny St. Ours.

Education/Training over $25,000:

Gold.  Betrayed.  Rocket Media/FBI.

Internal Communications over $50,000:

Gold.  Betrayed.  Rocket Media/FBI.

Thanks for everyone who helped make this film possible.  I believe it will soon be playing on cable on the Pentagon Channel once some issues are resolved with the Screen Actors Guild.  Be sure to check it out.  

*Oddly, no Gold award was issued in this category.  So my script won the top award.  So there!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Sarah's Choice," Part One, "In The Blink Of An Eye"



In a sense, "Sarah's Choice" began with "In The Blink of an Eye," a film my partner Tim Ratajczak and I didn't end up writing.

This movie began with an email from actor/producer David A.R. White.  It was a short email with three possible story ideas, each expressed in a mere sentence or two.  More interesting were the physical parameters of the project.  It had to be shot in a small Mexican resort town with a luxury yacht serving as the main location.  Why?  Because they had an investor with access to those elements.  Many of you might be thinking that this is an insane way to make a movie.  That, perhaps, you should come up with a compelling idea first, then find locations to fit it.  That, of course, is the ideal way, but this happens more often than you would think.  Even in the glory days of Hollywood.  For instance, Laurel & Hardy's first feature "Pardon Us" came about because Hal Roach had access to a large prison set MGM had built for their movie "The Big House."  This is not unusual -- particularly in the world of low budget filmmaking.  When you have access to a location with production value, you use it!

Other parameters included the cast.  David, obviously, wanted to be in the film.  He wanted to play a disillusioned or burned out cop with a past.  He also wanted a romantic subplot and his love interest was to be played by his real life wife Andrea Logan White.  That way he could kiss her in the film without the more prudish members of the target audience complaining that he was committing real-life adultery.  Additionally, we were to write a strong, supporting "star" part for the DVD box name.  In this case, they were considering Eric Roberts or Gary Busey.  (They ended up with Eric Roberts.)  As usual, you had to write a character who could be seen periodically throughout the film, but whose work could be completed in one day.  Piece of cake.  That's all part of the job when you're a professional screenwriter.

So Tim and I got to work.  One of the three ideas was a "Groundhog's Day" rip off.  We avoided that concept.  Although most PureFlix films tend to be Christian versions of successful secular films, Tim and I both preferred to work on original concepts whenever possible, and sometimes it isn't!  We spent the weekend working on a two page treatment and sent it to David.  He loved it.  He sent it around to the other partners at PureFlix.  They all loved it too.  In fact, they wanted to get Tim and I on a conference call with all of the managing partners that upcoming Wednesday evening.

That was strange.  We had never had a conference call with all of the managing partners before.  In fact, neither Tim or I had spoken with Byron Jones, who seemed to be in charge of marketing, but we were well aware of his presence.  We used to joke about him being the in-house Pharisee.  Aside from marketing, his major function at the company seemed to be to make sure that we never wrote anything that could possibly offend anyone in their target audience.  He also took personal responsibility in wringing any subtleness out of the scripts.  In one script, he used the find and replace function to change every incidence of the word "Jesus" to "Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."  By the time he was finished, even our skeptical characters were saying it!  In the inevitable salvation scenes, Tim and I would try to express the characters thoughts in a few choice sentences.  By the time we saw the final films, those few sentences would be transformed in wordy paragraphs that dotted every theological "i" and crossed every spiritual "t."  Plus, someone had to be on guard against any possible Catholic references, but that's another story.

However, even stranger, the appointed director Chad Kapper was going to be on the conference call.

That was really strange.

In film school, the auteur theory, that the director is the author and guiding force on a film, is an accepted fact.  That, however, is not always the case in the real world.  They are usually the boss on the set during production itself, but not even that is an absolute.  I have seen many a directorial flourish vetoed on the set by the producer.  Especially on a PureFlix set.  PureFlix is a producer-driven production company.  The director is, essentially, an afterthought.  In our previous projects, the director wasn't brought into the mix until after the script was already written, revised and locked.  Therefore, it was quite unusual for us to have one involved at the treatment level.

I was not unduly concerned.  Chad had made an appearance during the post-production of "Holyman Undercover" and I thought he had made a valuable contribution to the film.  I welcomed his presence on this project.  That said, however, I don't remember who told us or how we were told, but we were informed that Chad wanted his young son to be the star in the film.  No one involved was comfortable with that.  I was just hoping Tim and I would not have to be the bad guys.

The conference call began, and, after the obligatory five minutes of patting each other on the back, we got down to business.  Chad didn't like the treatment.  Not at all.  He thought the concept would be improved if we shifted the emotional core of the film from a husband and wife relationship to a (drum roll, please) father and son relationship.  We, as expected, disagreed.  Things soon went from bad to worse.  How bad?  Tim can sometimes get sarcastic when he's unhappy.  Well, he went from sarcasm to dead silence.

The conference call ended without any resolution.  Tim called me back immediately afterwards and asked how we could get off this project.  I said we couldn't.  I wanted to get off the film as badly as him, but, if we quit, we would lose all our credibility as professional screenwriters.  Plus, of course, they were ultimately going to side with us over Chad.  We had done a number of pictures with these folks.  They loved us.

I recently read the book Writing Movies For Fun and Profit.  One point the authors make is that the writer is always the easiest person in the room to fire.  I discovered that truth the hard way before I read that book.  Despite our long and profitable relationship with the company, I got a call the next morning from the producer.  He told me that, perhaps, Tim and I weren't the best people for this project.

We were fired!

Yay!

The only mistake we made was not asking to be paid for the work we did on the treatment.  Although I am a firm believer that writers should be paid for everything, I was afraid that, if we pressed them for money on this project, they might decide to keep us on it rather than pay us for nothing.  Sometimes it is better not to be paid.

So Tim and I were free of the film which, one day, would be called, "In The Blink of an Eye."

Or so I thought.

Blink was supposed to be PureFlix's next film, but it was hit by a number of delays.  "Sarah's Choice" arose during that process and fell under the lens first.  I was very excited by the project and mentioned it to a producer friend of mine named John Molli.  I thought he might like to get involved and he did.  He called Pure Flix and provided most of the financing.  While they were talking, they mentioned Blink.  John helped out with that movie too!  (Yes, they got someone I brought to them to finance a movie I got fired off.  Gotta love Hollywood!)

Then, suddenly, Chad left the project.  It was directed by a promising, young DGA member who used the name of Michael Sinclair.

Then, suddenly, I was back on the project:  as the film editor!  And I think I did a great job.

The final script, which managed to incorporate to one degree or another all of the ideas in the original email, was credited to Jon Macy, Byron Jones, David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe.  I once asked David how the final script came into being.  It was a long, complicated story which included the involvement of other writers as well.  It was an interesting tale best not repeated here.

That said, during the sound mix of "Sarah's Choice," Russell Wolfe asked Tim and I about a scene he had really liked.  We explained how we built it upon things people had told us about their own real-life experiences.  Afterwards, Russ said, "That's why you guys are real writers.  Whenever we try to write something, it ends up like "In The Blink of an Eye.""

Don't know what he meant by that.

Eric Roberts and yours truly

After Blink was released, Tim and I met Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts, an actor whose work I long admired, at a horror convention.  Tim asked him to sign his copy of Blink.  When he handed Eric the DVD, Eric studied it for a moment before asking, "Am I in this?"  Yes, we told him, and refreshed his memory.  He had never seen the film or the DVD artwork.

Looks like Tim, a writer fired from the project, has the only signed copy of the film!

Here's the trailer:


"Sarah's Choice," Part 2, The Writing

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
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, September 21, 2011

Greg Kihn: Horror Show



Baltimore native Greg Kihn had a couple of Top 5 hits including "The Break Up Song" and "Jeopardy" back in the glorious 1980s.  He was even cool enough to have Weird Al do a parody of one of his songs, but, to me, the most impressive album he did was for my friend Jack Heyrman's Clean Cuts label.  The album was called "Mutiny" and I just loved it.

Greg came back to Baltimore to do a follow-up to "Mutiny" called "Horror Show," and I was invited to edit the video.  It was directed by David Butler and the performance segments were shot entirely in my house.  Why my house?  Because I had a screening room in my basement and a bunch of 16mm projectors.  David wanted to do a black and white video with film footage being projected over him.  The original thought was to project footage from public domain horror films like "Night of the Living Dead" over him singing the song.  However, Jack also had some terrific 16mm home movies his father, who had served in the OSS, took in Germany right after the end of World War II.  That's the bulk of the footage we used.  And it was perfect.

When Greg arrived at my humble abode, we soon discovered we had something in common.  No, not musical genius.  He had enough of that for both of us.  No, it was a love of film.  He noticed I had a copy of a magazine called The Big Reel where film collectors traded their wares. Greg didn't collect films, but he said he once had a sizable collection of movie posters.   Groovy.

After we completed the performance portion of the video, Dave and I snuck into the most scenic and ritzy boneyard in Baltimore:  Greenmount Cemetery.  The final resting for generals, admirals, senators, congressmen, judges, governors, mayors, writers, athletes and even Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.  Greenmount is very particular about who they let film in their cemetery so we neglected to inform them of our presence.  Guerilla filmmaking at its best.

The video was a labor of love, which is another way of saying extremely low-budget.  I think David shot it himself on High 8.  I edited it on the Avid at Sheffield Audio Video Recording.  I didn't make a cent on job.  Jack had done us all too many favors over years.  I was only too happy to do one for him.  Plus, now I can always brag that Greg Kihn (CENSORED) at my house.

I really enjoyed the song and the video.  It always make me kind of sad about guys like Greg.  I think he was doing the best work of his career, but the radio stations weren't listening like they used to back in the 1980s.

Their loss!

Here's the video:


Some other fun videos I edited:
Crack The Sky: Mr. President
Nils Lofgren: Alone
Face Dancer: Red Shoes

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.


"Run On" released in Brazil


Run On has been released in Brazil.

Not much to say about it.  I just find the foreign materials amusing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Betrayed," or, I Was A Screenwriter For The FBI


"Betrayed" is a terrific forty-something-minute narrative featurette I wrote for the Counter-Intelligence Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Chances are very slim that you will ever see this film unless you work in the counter-intelligence community.  It is a training film to make people aware of the danger signs that one of their co-workers might have been compromised.  What is fascinating is that instead of making a traditional training film, the powers-to-be decided they to make a narrative film to try to capture the emotions as well as the minds of the viewers.

That isn't the way things normally work.

Here's the plot:

Doug Collins has been a highly-respected analyst at the FBI for twenty-five years.  He is liked and admired by all the members of his team, but they've seen changes in Doug recently:  an attractive young girlfriend, working odd hours, increased frustration at work.  And then there was the time he was seen texting on his Blackberry from inside the SCIF.  It's all probably nothing.  They know his recent divorce has been tough on him.  It's not like he's a spy.  But what if he is?  What is the price of silence?

So how did I become a screenwriter for the FBI?

The film was being produced by a Northern Virginia company called Rocket Media Group.  Normally, they would hire a copywriter for a training film, but since the FBI wanted a narrative film, they decided they needed an experienced screenwriter.  The producer/director of the film, Tom Feliu, called a friend at the office of Baltimore's most famous resident director and asked for a recommendation.  Someone in that esteemed office recommended me and I was soon brought onto the project.

A famous resident Baltimore director,
who will remain discreetly nameless here.

In my opinion, the success of project depended entirely on decision made in my first meeting with the FBI.  To me, it was essential that compromised agent, Doug Collins, be portrayed as a real human being and not a stock villain.  I wanted his slide from patriot to traitor to be realistic and understandable.  Furthermore, I thought it would be good for him to take the first step out of a misguided desire to help his country.  Fortunately, everyone, Tom and the folks at Rocket Media, and our handlers at the FBI were in total agreement.

The details for film grew out of meeting and conversations with various FBI Special Agents with direct knowledge and experience in these matters.  The counter-intelligence community is very tightly-knit and every agent in those meetings knew at least one of our recent traitors.  They walked Tom and I through non-classified reports on the careers of many traitors and explained their motives and methods.

The time I spent with those agents were some of the most memorable in my life.  My admiration for them and the work they do is boundless.  They live in a complex, high-stakes world of secrets and lies.  Not even their spouses or children can know exactly who they work for or what they do.  Imagine that.  Never being able to tell your family or friends about your successes or failures.  Never being able to complain about the boss....  Or get a high-five when you've earned one....  I don't think I could do it.  (I mean, look at me, I've got a freaking blog!)

I was determined to do right by those valiant men and women.  My greatest struggle was to find their voices.  I have probably seen hundreds of movies with FBI agents portrayed in them, and none of those films captured the voice and attitude of the people I found myself working with.  I hope this film succeeded.

There was some talk that they would add classified material to program.  Fortunately, they didn't.  Otherwise, I would not have been given a copy.  That would have been too bad, because the film turned out very well.  Tom did a great job directing it and the cast was excellent too.  The production values, per minute of screen time, were much higher than any other film I have worked on and it shows.  Plus, when you're the FBI, you have no problem securing great locations in DC.

When the film premiered, the cast and crew was invited to watch it with an audience of movers and shakers in the intelligence community.  The agents who guided us through the process were extremely happy with the final film and they believe it will be very useful.  Also, happily, the audience found the film realistic and believable.  They didn't find the characters or the things they said phony.  That was great.

I wish I could show it to you, but, since I can't, here's the trailer for the film "Breach" which is based on the most damaging case of espionage in American history.  Some of the agents I met and worked with on "Betrayed" were actually portrayed by actors in this film.


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.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Me, Post-Death

An exposed human skull in Baltimore's
historic Mount Auburn Cemetery
It started with what seemed like a summer cold on July 2nd.

It got worse and worse.  Coughing.  Hacking.  Tremendous shortness of breath.  Weakness.  Inability to sleep.  Waking up in the middle of the night literally choking on mucus.  And let's not forget a myriad of weird and dangerous side effects from the self-prescribed mixture of over-the-counter drugs I was using to combat the symptoms.

In August I decided to see my GP.  He listened to my back.  Sounded like pneumonia.  That was a relief!  I didn't want to be the kind of guy who'd be waylaid by some stupid cold or flu.  The Doc prescribed some antibiotics and told me to get an X-Ray.

The X-Ray came back.  No pneumonia.  Time for the specialists.  Time for the MRI.

The result:  Swollen lymph nodes.  Sadly, I have learned the hard way that the adjective swollen is only positive when applied to one organ.  And the lymph nodes are not that organ.  I was told not to jump to conclusions, but everyone was thinking the same thing:  The Big-C.  Lymphoma.

They needed to do a biopsy.  Not a needle one.  They needed to make an incision down below my throat and yank out enough of a lymph node to see what was going on.  It was a routine operation.   Out-patient.  I would come in around 7am on Tuesday, August 10th, and I would be home in time for lunch.

It didn't quite work out that way.

After they lifted me onto the operating table, I remember the anesthesiologist saying, "I'm going to give you a little of this."  The next thing I remember was waking up in the Intensive Care Ward with a tube down my throat.  I immediately reached to get it out, but discovered that my hands and legs were secured.  Fortunately, the nurse came in and immediately removed the tube.  Before she left, I asked her if she could untie my limbs and she did.  Glancing around the room, I saw a calender on the wall but since I wasn't wearing my glasses, I couldn't quite make it out.  But it looked like the 11th.  I asked the nurse, "What day is it?"

She said, "Wednesday, the 11th."

"What time?"

"10:30."

"AM or PM?"

"AM."

I couldn't believe it.  I had lost an entire day.    Half-joking, I asked her while she was walking out if I had died or something.  She started with a slow, "Well...."

(That's never the response you want to hear when you ask someone if you had died.)

She continued:  "You didn't quite flat-line on everything."

Oh.  That's a relief.

Here's what happened.

Apparently the operation was a complete success.  They brought me back out of the general.  I was conscious.  The surgeon informed me that I didn't have cancer, but instead a serious though much more easily treated disease.  I was talking.  I was happy.  Then, as they were waiting to move me to post-op, I fell into a deep sleep.

A really deep sleep.

The kind of deep sleep that your vet puts your dog into when he's very old and sick.

The kind of sleep you don't wake up from.

I have never gotten the whole story of what happened and I doubt I ever will.  Apparently my blood pressure suddenly shot up, and when they brought it down, they brought it down way too far.  All the way down.  I stopped breathing completely.  I've received conflicting reports about the status of my brain waves.  In other words, I don't know whether I was really dead, or, as they would say in "The Princess Bride," only mostly dead.  I have no memory of any of that -- or of viciously fighting off the staff of the Intensive Care Ward when they tried to put the breathing tube down my throat later.  (I know it was bad because four members of the staff came and apologized to me the next day for how roughly they treated me.  I just laughed and said, "Don't worry, I don't remember anything!")

I didn't realize the significance of what I experienced until the following Tuesday when I went into the audio studio at Clean Cuts to record a temporary narration track for my nearly completed documentary feature "Sacred Ground:  The Battle For Mount Auburn."  The film is about community activists and family members battling a Methodist church for control of Mount Auburn Cemetery -- which, for years, had been the only cemetery in the Baltimore area where African-Americans could be buried.  It is a registered historic landmark that has fallen into such horrifying condition that bones litter the ground and weeds cover all but the highest monuments.  It is a tale of grave robbing, grave recycling and every other awful thing that could happen in a cemetery.

I will leave it to another blog to tell how that the documentary came into being, but, as I was recording my narration over the grim images, it suddenly became very real to me how, if things had gone a just a hair differently, not only would I be dead, I would already be buried.  And gone forever.

It was very sobering.

And exhilarating.

It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  Talk about putting things in perspective!  Not only did it make me appreciate what was really important, it taught how little of what I do is ultimately important at all!  I didn't come away wanting to rearrange my priorities.  I came away wanting to dump most of them!

Prior to the operation, while my health was rapidly declining, Netflix helpfully placed "Flight From Death:  The Quest For Immortality" in my recommended queue.  The theme of the film is that human beings are the only creatures that comprehend that we are going to cease to exist and that all culture and civilization was born out of death-defying myths we created to give ourselves immortality.  This profound death anxiety at the core of our being is the cause of war and conflict between people of different cultures, religions and philosophies.  When confronted with a death-defying myth that contradicts our own, we must destroy it before it calls into question our own accepted concept of immortality.

I had long ago accepted Christianity as my own brand of death-defying mythology -- to use the filmmakers' terminology.  Frankly, I find no mythology necessary to believe in God.  No faith either for that matter.  Faith is needed to believe and trust in God's promises, and what brand of God is most accurate, but I find God's existence inherently obvious and logical.  Others may disagree.  I could spend a great deal of time on that subject, but that's not really the purpose of this blog.  Ask me about it sometime later if you'd like.  The two thoughts -- they are ultimately too mundane to be called revelations -- that struck me as a result of my near death incident involve immortality and control.  I believe what I have come to realize is true whether you believe in God or an afterlife or not.

If I am right and there is a God, and I have chosen the proper brand, then my consciousness will survive this earthly existence in another plane of existence.  I will have immortality.  But not here.  Not in this material world as it exists now.

In this material world immortality is impossible.  Whether you be Christian, Hindu or Atheist.

How can it be achieved?  By accomplishment?  What kind?

Let's look at Alexander The Great.  They didn't call him "The Great" for nothing.  Few human beings have done as much to shape Western Civilization as we know it.  He was a giant military and political figure whose deeds and reputation has survived for over two-thousand-and-three-hundred-years.

Good for him.

But, of the millions of other people who lived in his time, how many others do we know by name?  One thousand?  Two thousand?  Probably less.  And, of those we know, what do we know of them?  Their personalities.  Their lives.

And what of the Great Alexander?  Will they still be talking about him in another twenty-three-hundred years?  How about fifty-thousand-years?  How about a million years?  I don't think so.  Even Alexander will be lost in wash of time.

Others seek immortality through their families.  They take pride in the fact their genes will survive in the children of their children for as long as men walk the earth.

But how satisfying is that immortality?  You may provide a microscopic splash of chemicals to a strand of DNA but nothing of your personality or consciousness will survive.  These descendants of yours might end up with gall bladders consistent in size and color with your own, but, trust me, they will not know you.

Can you name all eight of your great-grandparents?  I can.  I know what they looked like.  I know what they did for a living and quite a bit about their characters and personalities.  Can you name all sixteen of your 2nd-great-grandparents?  I can, but I don't have pictures of all of them.  And the details of their lives are vaguer.  Can you name all thirty-two of your 3rd-great-grandparents?  I can't, despite a great deal of effort.  Trust me.  There is no personal immortality even in family.  Your descendants will forget you.  They will not think you had any bearing whatsoever on their existence.

I must admit that when I first dreamed of becoming a writer I hoped to write an immortal work.  I foolishly thought that books lasted forever.  Most won't see a third printing.  There are books I read and loved as a child that are gone now.  Will people still be reading Stephen King two thousand years from now?  Hard to say, but my guess is no.  Of the tens of thousands of books written by the ancient Greeks and Romans, how many are we still reading today?  A hundred?  Two hundred?  Even the Bible makes direct references to earlier texts which no longer exist.

Then again, I'm a filmmaker.  My prospects for immortality in my work is even more hopeless.  I have written quite a few films and hope to do more, but I am not so certain people will be watching them one hundred let alone one thousand years from now.  Think about it.  When was the last time you sat down and watched a film from 1911?  I have probably watched more silent films than the average bear and I can't remember the last time I did.  But, you may say, those films were silent.  If they had sound, we'd still watch them.  Really?  If they were shooting films five hundred years ago, do you think people would still be watching them for enjoyment?   They would seem so primitive to us and, chances are, the dialect would sound so foreign to our ears that the average viewer wouldn't be able to stand them.  Only archaeologists and historians would find them interesting.

So what do I say?  Screw earthly immortality.  It is unattainable.  Every moment spent in its pursuit, knowingly or unknowlingly, is wasted.  There are more important things to do.  What are those things?  You decide for yourself, but they're not going to grant you immortality, and, in any real sense, they will not survive once you and people who knew you die.  And they will die.  So will you.

My only hope for immortality is spiritual.

The other lesson I learned was about control:  That we have none.

None.

Christians will be among the first to tell you that they believe that "God Is In Control."  They'll even put it in quotes like I did.  However, when you talk to them about their plans, you'll discover what they really mean is that "God And I Are In Control."  At least that's the way it was with me.

Control is man's most cherished illusion.  How many couples get divorced because their spouses were trying to control them?  How many dictators have seized power to control their people?  How many nations have gone to war to control other nations?

Everybody wants to believe they are in control, but, trust me, you're not.  It's an illusion, but a very strong one.  I think it is easier to surrender immortality than control.

One Saturday night, about two weeks before my ill-fated but illuminating operation, I was given a very important lesson on control.  My lovely wife and I decided to stay home and play some 500 rummy and watch some stand-up comedians on Netflix.  My breathing was shallow to begin with, however, as the night progressed, it became increasingly shallow.  That was disconcerting because I was not exerting myself in any matter that would warrant such a reaction.  I was simply playing cards and watching TV.  I had no control over it whatsoever.  Since nothing I was consciously doing was causing the change, there was nothing I could consciously do to stop the process short of going to the hospital.  It's hard to abstractly measure such things, but I would have to say between 6pm and 11pm that night, I probably lost sixty percent of my already diminished breathing capacity.  Part of me was genuinely frightened that this downward breathing trend would continue until I simply couldn't breathe anymore, which would be very bad since I have really grown accustomed to breathing over the years.  However, part of me was watching myself react to this utter loss of control.  I was wondering what I was going to do.  How long would I wait before I told my wife and asked to go to the hospital.  Fortunately, around 11pm my breathing stabilized.  In the morning, it had returned to normal.

This brings me to my routine biopsy that nearly cost me my life.  Obviously, when you let yourself be drugged, you are no longer in control.  You have surrendered it to others.  However, you hope they are in control.

My younger brother, who works in a hospital, says I am making too much of this incident.  That my life was never really in danger.  That the doctors were in control.  Really?  I don't think so.  If they were truly in control they would have never let me stop breathing in the first place.  The fact that, thankfully, they had the skill and training necessary to bring me back in no way means they were in control.

What do we control?  What we do for a living?  Sure, until you get fired.  Who we marry?  Sure, until your spouse decides they don't love you anymore.  Where you live?  Until your house burns down.  Think about it.  Do you have habits or vices you've been trying unsuccessfully to quit?  Why can't you do it if you are truly in control?  But let's go even deeper.  Do you even really control your own thoughts?  Don't you have thoughts you prefer not to think?  If so, why do you think them?

Control is an illusion.  You are not in control.  Neither am I.

In a sense, professionally, I have given up on control decades ago.  As a film editor, I have always viewed myself more a craftsman than a creator.  I have a strong sense of what is right and appropriate at a given moment in a sequence.  However, I know the ultimate decision-making power belongs to the person who hired me.  It's their film.  And, in the end, even if it is wrong, I will do it their way or they will simply fire me and get someone else to do it.

As a writer, I find it harder to yield my so-called control.  A screenwriter, in a sense, becomes a god over a fictional new world.  We create the environment.  We create the people.  We want our people to do what we want them to do.  It is hard to give them to another bigger god who may want them to do things differently.  However, if I want to take my little people from a piece of paper and put them on the screen, I need the producer.  Or at least his money.  And, you know what, sometimes a producer can actually change things for the better.

So where do I stand now?  Screw control.  I will still try to follow my conscience and do what I believe is right in given circumstances, but I will not waste any effort battling for control for controls' sake.  It is an illusion.  For example, although I fully plan not only to recover my previous state of health but rather improve upon it, I do not believe that will make me live one minute longer.  I do not believe I have any control over how long I will live.  I will endeavor to become healthier simply to enjoy a higher quality of life while I do live.

Jesus once asked, "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"

In case you're wondering, the question was rhetorical.  The answer was, and remains, no.

I can live with that.

BTW, here is an old test trailer for the Mount Auburn documentary:



PS.  I am feeling much better now.

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.



Thursday, September 1, 2011

"Marriage Retreat" Released


"Marriage Retreat," my fifth produced feature, has just been released on DVD.

It will probably be a couple of months before I have the opportunity to blog about this film in detail which is just as well.  I must hone my skills at diplomacy between now and then.  From start to finish, this was an utterly crazy and out-of-control project.  This is also the first project where my co-writer Tim Ratajczak and I were truly rewritten.  Sure, we had had lines and scenes cut and added before, but this was the first time we were truly rewritten from the ground up -- and we were rewritten by everybody:  Actors, producers, the director, craft services.  That guy who walked by and had a few ideas....  You name it.

For many of the principal people involved, the most surprising thing about film is how well it ultimately turned out in the end.  I must say that I think Sean The Film Editor had more to do with that than Sean The Screenwriter, but judge for yourself!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Bag": A short history of yet another short film

Kathy Norland and Micki Quance in "Bag."

Like two of my previous shorts I Will Not and Maestro Percival, Bag was written for a timed contest.  The previous films were written for The 48 Hour Film Project.  Bag was written specifically for the much more leisurely-paced 168 Hour Film Project, which is also a showcase for budding faith-based filmmakers.  All of the films were based on Bible quotes drawn at random.  Here's how Tim and I got involved.

Tim and I had finished the "Holyman Undercover" script.  Since that film would supplant actor/director David A.R. White's one man show of the same name, Tim and I were commissioned to write him another one man show.  David imagined the show on a larger scale and wanted to include some musical numbers with singers and dancers.  One of the potential dancers was an actress named Micki Quance.  She mentioned to David that she was involved with a team that wanted to make a film for the 2007 contest.  The team, spearheaded by Jim & Kathy Choiniere of Excellent Journey Pictures, had previously participated in the contest which was actually judged by some legitimate notables in the business.  They wanted to win.  And, just to make the task almost impossible, they wanted to win with a comedy.

During the course of their endeavors, Micki asked David A.R. White if he knew any comedy writers.  David recommended us.  Micki called us and we happily agreed to do it.  However, at the time, we were under the impression that the film would also star David's wife, Andrea Logan White.  That was good.  We always enjoyed working with ALW, as we call her.

Andrea Logan White with yours truly.

Being a gimmick festival, there was nothing for Tim and I but await the Bible verse which rollicking comedy short would be based.  It came during a horrible ice storm in Baltimore.  We sat around Tim's phone waiting, while I wondered how I was ever going to be able to get home later!  Finally, the call came from the production team.  We had our verse:    Proverbs 1:18-19.

For those unfamiliar with the verse, it reads:  "These men lie in wait for their blood; they waylay only themselves!  Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it."

Let the hilarity begin.

Seriously, folks, you'd be hard pressed to find a Bible verse less conducive to comedy, but this is exactly what separates professional writers from amateurs.  (Pay does, too.)  We took stock of what we had:  Two desperate actresses in the leads, and decided to write a film about two desperate actresses.  They are both broke and ready to give up when they find a Louis Vuitton handbag in the ladies' room of restaurant filled with cocaine.  Trying to find a way to profit from this find, they bring more and more people into the deal and eventually lives are ruined or lost (depending on what version you see.)

We finished up the script in a couple hours and emailed to the team.  Now I don't pretend to know the politics of what was happening out in California, but we soon found out that Andrea Logan White was no longer one of the leads.  Now Kathy Norland, who appeared in other Excellent Journey Pictures, was playing opposite Micki.  Andrea was relegated to playing the mother of another character.  Then she was out.  Don't know how.  Don't know why.  She was certainly a good enough actress to play any of the roles.

All I know is one thing:  You do short films to get feature film work.  Therefore, I don't see the benefit of firing the wife of a partner in a production company that produces as many as four or five feature films a year and distributes many others.  Pure Flix is definitely a mover and shaker in the genre they all wanted to be involved in.  I'm not saying that Andrea deserved the role simply because she was David's wife, although her presence on the film was one of the reasons Tim and I agreed to become involved.  But, as I said, I don't know what happened in LA, but, it seems to me that firing the wife of the head of development of a very active production company is exactly the kind of self-inflicted wound you should try to avoid in the film business.  But that's just me.

Enter the director:  Micah Costanza.  He is a thoughtful and intelligent filmmaker, but, like so many other directors his age, a little overly-influenced by a certain Quentin Tarantino.  He wanted to change the end of the film into a Tarantino-esque bloodbath where the participants shoot it out and most of them die.  He thought it would be hilarious -- like the scene in "Pulp Fiction" where they drive the adrenaline needle into Uma Thurman's heart.  Well, let me tell you something about "Pulp Fiction."  I saw it in the theaters twice the week it came out.  The first time was at a theater a couple blocks away from my old university.  The audience roared with laughter during the adrenaline needle scene.  I later saw it at a theater in a small suburban town twenty miles or so outside of Baltimore.  That same scene played to horrified silence.  Somehow, I felt the audience for this particular film festival would fall into the latter category.

Tim and I already had Christian comedy experience.  We felt we were already pushing the envelope dangerously far with the drugs.  We felt murder for laughs would kill the film.  I always felt that the script should have been filmed like a lost episode of "I Love Lucy" -- with Lucy and Ethel getting dangerously in over their heads.  I felt that would help take the sting off the drug material.  The director disagreed.  The production company hedged its bets.  It allowed Micah to shoot his ending after he had shot the script.  They edited the version without the shootings for the contest, but later edited the Tarantino version for other film festivals.

Micah actually did a great job directing the film.  It looked great.  It had great production values and was very well-acted.  I particularly enjoyed Nathan Kress as Albert -- the juvenile drug mastermind.  (He later starred as Freddie Benson in the Nickelodeon series iCarly.)



The film was completed and submitted and it actually won in a number of categories.  It won the overall Audience Award, it won Best Comedy, and Nathan Kress won a special acting award for his performance as Albert.  But, just in case you think the gatekeepers had relaxed their standards on what was acceptable in a faith-based film, "Bag" was not included in the DVD they released every year of the winners.  They obviously felt that the audience in the theater was intelligent enough to understand the film, but they did not have the same confidence in the folks at home.

Gosh, didn't see that coming....

This film was an interesting experience.  I had been very lucky up to now.  This was the first time I had a truly basic and fundamental disagreement with the director about how to handle a script.  Fortunately, it worked out fine, but it definitely illustrated the plight every screenwriter will face one day.  How you handle it will decide whether you have what it takes to be a professional screenwriter.

Here's the film:



Here's the alternate ending.



Friday, May 27, 2011

Nils Lofgren: Alone

Signed Cover Art for the album Damaged Goods
Although this blog is primarily devoted to my so-called career as a screenwriter, I have always intended to devote some space to my many experiences as a film editor.  Now I have the perfect excuse to start.  Earlier this week, writer/director Brian Keller found a copy of a video we did together for Nils Lofgren back in 1995.  It was one of my most pleasurable experiences as an editor.

I have always been blessed.  I managed to make my avocation, screenwriting, my vocation, but I have always loved my day job:  editing.  I still do.

I began editing in college, but really honed my skills while working as a producer in the broadcast department of the advertising agency Smith Burke & Azzam (now GKV ).  I went freelance in 1990.  By 1995, I was a very well-established as a freelance editor in the Mid-Atlantic area.  My speciality was television commercials.  Granted, they're not as romantic or as exciting as movies or television shows, but, on an hourly basis, they certainly pay better!  I was loving life.

Brian Keller was an instructor at Towson State University when I was a student.  I never took any of his classes, but we certainly crossed paths in the Film Lab and became friends after I graduated.  Brian soon left academia for the advertising business as well.  One day, I walked into work to find him as my new boss.  However, Brian soon left to form Keller Pictures.  When I left the agency, Brian was one of my first employers.

Brian and I both worked quite a bit out of Sheffield Audio Video Productions, a post-production facility located in the rolling countryside north of Baltimore.  I would sublet their brand spanking new Avid editing system for weeks at a time.  At some point, Sheffield hired a new producer/sales rep, whose name eludes me at the moment, who had a connection with Nils Lofgren.  He got the video.  They wanted an experienced director so they hired Brian, and, somehow I happily ended up with the offline edit.  (Sheffield's mighty Rick Larmore did the online edit.)

Nils Lofgren is best known today as a guitarist and back-up vocalist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, but he has had a long and varied career as a solo performer, songwriter and session musician.  He played with everybody: Neil Young, Crazy Horse, The Rolling Stones and even a Beatle.  You can't do much better than that.  He also grew up in the DC suburbs, and that was where he was recording his new album Damage.   However, he would be shooting and editing his video for the song Alone outside of Baltimore.

Frankly, I can't remember if I visited the set during the shoot.  Probably not.  I was extremely busy at the time, but I was very excited about working with Nils.  I was not, however, as excited as some of my friends and clients, John Noble and Jeff Millman, who were both gigantic Springsteen fans.  They literally gave me a list of about twenty questions to ask Nils about his experiences in the E Street Band, and, believe me, I asked them all before the week-long session was over!

The Sheffield sessions took place in the night.  Nils was rehearsing with his band for an upcoming tour during the day in the DC suburbs and would drive to Sheffield to work at night with us.  It must have been a pretty grueling schedule for him, especially when you considered the commute.

Quite out of character, I was a little nervous at first.  Especially since before the first session, the producer came in and firmly warned everyone about not mispronouncing Nils' name.  Now, Nils is a local boy.  A Marylander.  I knew who he was, and I knew how to pronounce his name.  However, after a ten minute lecture about his name and the wide variety of mispronunciations -- including one he really didn't like -- I simply had to many unacceptable words floating around in my brain.  Needless to say, I mispronounced his name the first time I addressed him.  Nils just laughed.  (Fortunately, I didn't use the really bad one!)

Why, you may ask, was this edit, which took place over five consecutive nights, so pleasurable?  Because of the boss:  Nils Lofgren.  He was an absolute dream to work with.  Despite his grueling schedule, Nils was relentlessly friendly and entertaining.  He focused on the task at hand*, but he loved to talk.  And the stories.  Oy Vey!   He knew all the greats in the music business and he had a great tale about all of them.   And do you want to know what's funny?  None of the stories were negative.  He only had positive things to say about the other people he met and worked with.

It was unbelievable.   Frustrated by his unmitigated optimism and cheerfulness, I picked up a Sting CD sitting nearby and said, "Admit it, he's an a**hole."  "I always heard that too," Nils replied, "But I went out with him and Bruce on the Amnesty International Tour and...."  Then Nils proceeded to tell an amusing story which revealed how Sting really was a nice guy.  Impressive.  I told Nils he had to write a book.  Nils just laughed.  He said if wrote a tell-all, he wouldn't get any new stories anymore.  To honor Nils' confidence, I will not repeat any of the stories he told us here.

That said, I did continue with my list of Springsteen questions from John and Jeff.  On the last night, I was down to one final question about an unreleased song Nils had recorded with Bruce.  I started asking about it, but stopped halfway through.  He asked why.  I said, "We're here doing your solo album, we shouldn't be talking about Springsteen."  Nils answered, "Hey, I'm as proud of the stuff I've done with Bruce as I am with anything I've done on my own.  If your friends have a question, just ask."  I did, and he answered.

As a guitarist myself, I did ask Nils one practical question.  I asked how he was able to sing one melody line while playing a different melody line on the guitar -- a skill way beyond my abilities.  His answer was the very model of simplicity:  "Practice."

Nils was not the first celebrity I met or worked with.  He was, however, the first one I made sure I got a picture with.  Here it is:

Nils Lofgren with America's favorite Fat Man.

After the sessions, we all went our own ways.  I received an invitation to one of his concerts, but I was too busy to attend.  A pity.  I would have liked to have stayed in contact with him.  John Noble later got a ticket to a warm-up show for the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band reunion tour in Asbury Park.  He took me with him, and I was hoping to worm my way backstage to see Nils, but the security guard was unsympathetic.

Here's the video, which was nowhere to be found online, until now:




The band:
Nils Lofgren - vocals, guitars, keyboards, accordion, percusion
Andy Newmark - drums, percussion
Roger Greenawalt - bass guitar, percussion, samples

The song was written by Nils Lofgren.  It was produced, recorded and mixed by Roger Greenawalt at Omega Recording Studios in Rockville, Maryland.

*As an editor, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon over the years.  There are two kinds of performers.  The ones who refer to the character on the screen as themselves, i.e.., "I like that shot of me better."  And the ones who refer to the character on the screen in the third person, i.e., "I like that shot of him better."  I don't know which perspective would be considered more healthy psychologically, but Nils always referred to the person on the screen in the third person.

Be sure to check out my book "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God."


Some other fun videos I edited:
Face Dancer: Red Shoes
Greg Kihn: Horror Show
Crack The Sky: Mr. President


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Writer Tip #6: Hone Your Scripts!



You've just finished your new script.  It is a work of utter genius.  You can't wait for the bidding war between the studios to begin.  So you send it out.

Big mistake.

Don't do it.

Please.

Don't send it out until you've truly read and revised it.

I know what you're saying.  I read through it twice.  I've found all the spelling and grammatical mistakes.  I gave it to my mother and my best friend and they both said it was great.  Much better than my last five scripts.  It's time to pitch it and make a million.

Think twice.

Personally, I don't like to send out a spec script until after I've written an entirely new screenplay.  I break that rule all of the time, but that remains my ideal goal.  I need to work on something new before I can look back at a script with any degree of true objectivity.

When I was but a boy screenwriter, I enjoyed some initial success.  No produced films, but genuine excitement and interest in some of my spec scripts.  I did really well with the first few.  Why?  Because they were really honed.  I am, by nature, pretty prolific.  I have dozens of ideas bouncing around in my head vying for my attention all the time.  When I finish one script, I start on the next one.  Between projects, I would reread and revise my older scripts.  As a result, the first couple of scripts I sent to Hollywood when I finally got a good agent were really sharp.

Then, in retrospect, I could see that the quality of my work was slowly dropping off.

Since I finally had someone who was anxious to read my scripts, I would ship them out with little more than a cursory polish only to find them generating less and less interest.  After a bright start, my career was stalling.  I am currently reworking some of those scripts.  Looking back at them now, it is easy to see why they didn't sell.  The problems were fairly obvious.  Had I put them aside for a couple of months and gained the proper objectivity back in the day, my career would have been considerably different.

Let me give you an example.  A friend lent me a best-selling, Holocaust-related, non-fiction book that she thought would interest me.  It did indeed.  Reading it, I came up with a unique and fascinating way to handle the material.  So what did I do?  I wrote a rough draft to see if it would work, and I was satisfied that it did.

Now the book had been on the market for about a year and it didn't seem to be in production anywhere.  So I called the publisher.  The rights were available.  The publisher was very pleased that a screenwriter represented by a decent-sized agency had written a rough draft on spec.  When I tried to explain how I handled the material, the publisher gave me the (reasonably well-known) author's phone number and said I should talk directly to him.  I called him and we had a great chat.  He liked how I handled things and asked to read the rough draft.  I sent it, and I never heard from him again.  Why?  Because it was sloppy.  It was riddled with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and unrealized moments.  I had talked the talk, but the work wasn't sufficiently professional.   I had thought that, one author to another, he would be able to look beyond the form to the substance, but he couldn't, and why should he?  He had put his best effort into his book.  He deserved the same courtesy from me.  (In my defense, I wrote that script on a typewriter.  Back then, before the days of the word processor, a rewrite required a lot more labor!)

Had I taken the time to hone the script, I could have partnered with the author and his publisher and my agent to get the film made.  It could have been my breakthrough moment.  It wasn't.  Because I rushed things.  I was simply in too much of a hurry.

Don't make the same mistake!

When you think you're ready to send out your script wait another month or so.  Read it again.  Have some trusted colleagues read it.

Remember:  In Hollywood, people will only read your script once.

Other tips:


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



Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Instant Queue: Emperor of the North



I like a good train movie, and "Emperor of the North" provides a pretty wild ride.

Robert Aldrich was a great action director.  His films included classics like "The Dirty Dozen," "Flight of the Phoenix" and "The Longest Yard."

"Emperor of the North" follows the tradition of those films, but failed to achieve their box office success and remains little seen today.  Some people say it failed because it didn't have a female character to hook the female audience, but, if that were true, how do you explain the success of the other films I mentioned?  I don't think there was a single woman in "Flight of the Phoenix," and the only women in "The Dirty Dozen" were prostitutes and ready-to-be slaughtered Germans.  No, this film failed because it was too dark, too grimy and ultimately too unsatisfying -- even by 1970s standards.

That said.  It is a pretty good action film on its own terms.

The plot is simple.  It's the height of the depression.  Poverty and unemployment are rampant.  Many men roam the country looking for work or better opportunities and many of them do so by riding the rails.  The always reliable Lee Marvin plays a "A No. 1" -- a legend among hobos.  He goes and does what he pleases living by his wits and guts.  He soon finds himself being tailed by Keith Carradine's "Cigaret" -- an annoying, boastful young hobo.  The third character in this piece is Ernest Borgnine's Shack.  Shack is the sadistic conductor of the No. 19 train.  Shack would rather kill a man than give him a free ride.  Obviously these characters were bound to collide, and, after a series of events, Marvin announces to the world, through a message written on a water tower, that he intends to ride Borgnine's train to Portland.  Carradine tags along for the life-or-death struggle.

Although Marvin was the star, Borgnine steals the film right out from under him.  Too many people are dismissive of Borgnine because of his role in "McHale's Navy," but he could play a very compelling bad guy.  Remember, he's the guy who beat Frank Sinatra to death in "From Here To Eternity," but that character was a sweetheart compared to Borgnine's character in this film.  Shack is a vile, evil creation.  In lesser hands, he would have been a one-dimensional bully, but Borgnine gives him the occasional flash of humanity.  After a series of encounters with the hobos leave the train on course for a possible head on collision, Shack shouts out an offer of a temporary truce to his antagonists.  Not out of fear of his own safety.  No, it seems more out of a sense of duty to the railroad.  He might have a passion for violence, but he also has a more understandable sense of duty.  Granted, it is that very devotion to duty that fires his sadistic rage.  Hobos steal rides from the railroad.  Therefore, it is his duty (and pleasure) to make sure no such thefts occur on his train.  His entire ego is built around the fact that no one has ridden his train for free.

So why did the film fail?  Easy.  A lack of character arcs.  No one changes.  No one learns anything.  Therefore, the violence is pointless and unfulfilling.  In "The Dirty Dozen," which also featured Marvin and Borgnine, the selfish, unreliable death-row prisoners ultimately learn to work together as a team and show a willingness to sacrifice for each other.  The violence transformed and cleansed them.  In "Flight of the Pheonix," the men put aside their prejudices and egos to work together as a team and as a result are ennobled by their ordeal.  The same is true of "The Longest Yard."  The egotistical quarterback, Burt Reynolds, grows by putting his future on the line for his prisoner teammates.  The audience gets to go home happy.

There is no such moment in "Emperor of the North."  Shack never doubts his course of action:  People who try to steal a ride on his train deserve death.  Marvin learns nothing either.  He steps into the film a legend among the hobos and his legend only grows.  At the very least one would expect Cigaret, the young would-be protege, to grow as a result of Marvin's hard won wisdom, but the film deprives the audience of even that victory.  The conflict, therefore, was pointless.

In the 1970's, Hollywood briefly produced some films that deliberately gave the audiences unhappy or unsatisfying endings.  This is one of them, and it suffers as a result.

Still, if all you want is tough guy action on a train, you need go no further.



Thursday, May 12, 2011

My Instant Queue: The Hospital


While insanely striving to write the rough draft of a commissioned script in a week, I found myself drawing inspiration from 1971's "The Hospital" -- an extremely black comedy by the Academy-Award winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky.  Over his career, Chayefsky won three Oscars for screenwriting.  Other writers accomplished the same feat, but only Chayefsky won all of those awards as a solo writer.

Early in his career, Chayefsky strived for working class realism in his dialogue, as exemplified by his Oscar-winning script for "Marty."  However, by the 1970's Chavefsky hit his stride capturing the articulate musings of disillusioned elites like George C. Scott's character Dr. Herbert Bach.  Bach is the chief of staff of a large New York hospital who finds his life in shambles.  His marriage is ending.  He despises his children.  He suffers from impotency.  The only thing that gives his life meaning is his work, and now the hospital itself seems to be sinking into a sea of incompetent insanity.

George S. Scott is magnificent as Bach.  His riveting performance here rivals his performance as Patton.  Each of his monologues is a set-piece.  I have always said that the key to successful screenwriting is providing dialogue that actors want to deliver.  These are speeches actors would kill for.  One of my problems with Hollywood films today is that they rarely feature highly-intelligent characters speaking articulately about their situations.  What we have today is mainly the grunts of superheroes.  (They are easier to translate for the all-important foreign markets.)

Chayefsky lavished equal care on the smaller roles.  I have included a few segments of the film below.  I think the conversation between the nurses after the first dead doctor is discovered is a small gem.  That conversation would be cut out today simply to keep the film moving.  A pity.

The clips are definitely worth watching.  The second clip ends with Scott's Bach talking to a psychaiatrist.  It is one of the best monologues I have seen and it is played to perfection by Scott.

That said, ultimately, I don't think the film works as a whole.  To me, it goes off the rails once Bach becomes involved with the much-younger, and weirder, Barbara Drummond, played by Diana Rigg, who was most famous for playing Emma Peel in "The Avengers."  Perhaps it is my own fault.  Perhaps I am asking too much from a film which, at heart, is essentially a farce.  Still, I think the first act of the film is absolutely magnificent.

Part 1:



Part 2:








Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Will Netflix Kill The Indie Film Market?



The death of Hollywood has long been predicted and long avoided, but I believe it might finally be at hand.

I feared piracy would destroy the movie business the same way it destroyed the music business.  And piracy destroyed the music business -- make no mistake about that.  Illegal downloading and file sharing deprives recording artists of a large percentage of their income.  The self-justification of the people who enable this activity is pathetic.  They claim to be striking a blow for the common man by the sticking it to evil corporations who deserve to be robbed.  In the end, however, they are only stealing from the artists they claim to admire.  Sickening.  They should be ashamed of themselves.*  I wrote songs long before I wrote movies.  I'm glad my talents took me in the direction they did.  I would hate to be in the music business today.

Movies, I feared, would follow the same fate once high-quality compression technology made feature films files small enough.  A number of webpages allow you to stream films currently playing in the theaters online.  Personally, I never found those pages too much of a threat because of the poor image quality.  You cannot duplicate the theater experience by watching a cruddy, postage stamp sized picture on your computer.  One day, however, someone will tie streaming video to your high-quality home theater, and streaming will become a real threat.

That day has come.  Thanks, Netflix.

I long resisted Netflix.  I was a loyal Blockbuster man.  I liked walking down the aisles and looking at the DVD boxes and artwork.  I often found intriguing films this way that I would have never sought out on my own.  Sadly, Blockbuster, which once wielded unbelievable power in Hollywood, is now dying.  Killed by Netflix and Red Box.  I will miss it.  The same way I miss record stores.

After my Blockbuster closed, I had no choice but to give Netflix a chance.  Friends and relatives have been singing its praises for years -- especially since the advent of their streaming instant view.  Having made the conversion to HD and Blu-Ray, I was somewhat revolted by the idea of watching streaming movies on my television.  I didn't want to take a step backwards in quality.  But, after I hooked up my Roku box, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of their movies.    And the quantity.

Some friends have told me that they canceled cable after getting NetFlix.  I can't see myself going that far, but I am considering canceling some of my beloved, and tax deductible, movie channels.  In the past, I spent most of my time in front of the tube watching films on HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz or The Movie Channel.  Now, I would have probably canceled all of them already if I didn't want to miss some of their original series.

Netflix has definitely affected my DVD and Blu-Ray purchasing decisions.  I simply will not buy a movie that I can watch streaming on Netflix.  It just seems absurd.  Why buy something when you have complete access to it 24/7?   This is a much larger threat to DVD sales than the traditional movie channels.  On cable, you have to wait to see a movie until the network chooses to show it again.  If I knew I would want to watch a movie repeatedly, I went out and bought a copy.  I have hundreds of DVDs.  That said, I find it easier to pick up the remote and turn it on via Netflix than it is to go over to my shelves, find the DVD, and put it in the player.  (When given the opportunity, I will always choose Blu-Ray over instant view.)

On the bright side, I suppose this is suppressing piracy too.  Why would you waste the space on your computer to download an illegal copy of a movie when you can stream it anytime you want legally?  Why buy an illegal DVD?  It doesn't make sense anymore when you can get Netflix Instant view for eight dollars a month.

Hollywood doesn't seem so worried right now.  They have been giving Netflix and some of the other services pretty good deals on streaming rights.  Now that the practice is proving very profitable, they will start charging Netflix what they charge the cable networks for rights to their movies.

But what about the independent filmmaker?  We're the ones who will be getting hurt.

DVD sales have been the main source of income for independent filmmakers.  Local broadcast stations buy very few movie packages anymore.  It's all network and syndicated programming.  And, there is so much product available today that it is very hard to get a small indie films on cable television unless you have some big name stars.  DVD was all we had.  And DVD sales are dropping through the floor.  Part of it is the general state of the economy.  Part of it is streaming.

Two of my films have been available on Netflix instant view:  "21 Eyes" and "Hidden Secrets."  How much did they pay for the rights?  Discretion prevents me from reporting the details here, but, let's just say I would rather people buy the DVDs!

Okay, okay.  I might be a little premature.  Hollywood might survive online streaming.  They've survived everything else, but streaming is no friend to the independent filmmaker.

Heaven help us!

The grave of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
There might be enough room there for some indie filmmakers.

*Before anyone busts me for being a hypocrite, I do occasionally "borrow" photos and artwork from other internet sites for this blog.   And, yes, I am ashamed.

Friday, April 8, 2011

"Holyman Undercover," Part 3, Bad Times


David A.R. White, Sean Paul Murphy, Timothy Ratajczak
in my dining room with a book on Scientology.  Hey, 
what's that doing there?

Good times, bad times, you know I had my share....

Co-writer Tim Ratajczak and I returned from LA with the sense that we had a fun, little movie on our hands.  The initial edit went smoothly.  I would cut sequences together, upload them for my masters, and hone them.  Before long, we locked picture for the first time.  Everyone was happy.  Or were they?

The first hiccup came from writer/director/producer/actor David A.R. White's camp.  His agent saw the movie and didn't like what he saw.  If you remember, he had pushed David to play both the naive Roy and his wacky, worldly uncle Brian.  He wanted David to be the next Tyler Perry and Uncle Brian to be his Medea.  He felt the central relationship should be between Roy and Brian instead of Roy and his love interest Annie.  Now that's a fine idea.  Tim and I could have certainly written a film like that.  But we didn't.  And you can't decide on a change like that in post-production.  Especially since Brian ends up in jail halfway through the film and stays there until the last scene.  That change would entail extensive re-shoots which we were not going to be able to do.  The film was now in disarray.  David was now certain the relationship between Roy and Annie didn't work.

Enter Chad Kapper.

Chad Kapper is a commercial director from Ohio.  I don't know how or when he became involved with Pure Flix, but he offered to do some animation and special effects for Holyman Undercover.  He wanted to add a few animated bridging sequences into the film.  Ultimately, we only used his opening credits and his Amish sex education film, but he did the movie a great service by convincing David that the Roy/Annie relationship worked after changing the order of a few scenes.  Thanks, Chad.  We would meet again.  And it would be complicated.  But that's another couple of blogs!

Now the picture was locked (again).

The sound mix was a blast.  David A.R. White and producer Michael Scott flew into Baltimore to do the sound mix at Clean Cuts, an audio facility owned by an old friend of mine named Jack Heyrman.  Tim and I, as well as executive producer Matt Richards, sat in for the sessions and added quite a few jokes.  The commentary track we recorded at the end of the sessions captured the good spirits in the room.  Everything was fine.  Until....

The industry screening.  As I related in the previous blog, a studio muckity-muck saw the film, muttered some mild praise and offered a warning about our angelic retarded boy Jake.  Sadly, Jake was consigned to the cutting room floor.  I wasn't happy about it -- particularly since I discovered after my last blog that the guy who played him, Josh Sussman, became a regular on the hit show "Glee."  Would it be nice to have a regular from "Glee" in your film?  You betcha!

Josh Sussman of "Glee," formerly of "Holyman Undercover"

Soon thereafter we decided to have a few impromptu test screenings.  Our target audience was Christian 'tweens and teens.  A friend of mine went to a church where the pastor's son had movie screening every week in his home.  I asked if they would be interested in showing the film and filling out some questionnaires.  They said yes.  The next Saturday they had the screening.  Twenty-five Christian youths aged thirteen-to-twenty-one.  Exactly our target audience.  The film starts.  They start laughing.  They literally laughed all the way through the film.  People even requested to back some bits up to watch them again.  We were in heaven.  Lights up.  Time to hand out the questionnaires.  As we did, the pastor's son asked whether they should evaluate the film as normal people or evangelicals.  I said to answer the way they felt most comfortable.  They took the evangelical route.

Yikes.

You'd never believe that the people who filled out those questionnaires were the same people who laughed uproariously throughout the entire film.  Not a single good review.  They hated it.  We were getting comments like:  "Failed to display the entire gospel" and "Didn't show enough of God's wrath."  What?  I didn't even know we were supposed to show God's wrath!  We wanted to give that a rest this time.

I didn't want to share the questionnaires with the folks in LA.  I told them to trust the laughter, not the words, but they didn't hear the laughter.  They could only see the words.  The panic was starting.  Some friendly gatekeepers were shown the film.  They hated it.  Everybody hated it.  I arranged a screening at my church on a night when we had some youth events.  The gatekeepers there made the youth leave the sanctuary before the screening!  In other words, they prevented the people at whom it was aimed from seeing it.  It was sad.  Every faith-based film has a mission.  "Holyman Undercover" was no exception, but it was beginning to look like it would never get to fulfill it.

David A.R. White, Fred Willard and Matt Richards

Basically, our mission was to reach the Christian teen market.  Like all teenagers, Christian teens feel the pull of peer pressure and not all of their peers are Christians.  In fact, most of them aren't.  Therefore, the teens find themselves under enormous pressure to put aside their beliefs to become cooler and more acceptable in the eyes of the world.  That's what "Holyman Undercover" is all about:  A young man, who, after leaving his sheltered home, feels the need to conform to the world to gain popularity and win the girl he loves -- not realizing that it was his individuality -- including his faith -- that originally caught her interest in the first place.  I believe that the original version of the film clearly made that point in a humorous and entertaining manner.  Not only did we feel that this film would speak to Christian teens, we felt it was funny enough that they would be able to share it with their more jaded, secular friends without embarrassment.

Additionally, on another level, the film dealt with evangelism in our post-Christian culture.  Our hero Roy's Uncle Brian considered himself to be a missionary but strictly an undercover one.  He was one of God's self-appointed secret agents.  Feeling the world would reject the straightforward Christian message, he wanted to spread the gospel subliminally through gimmicks.  In reality, of course, in his heart Uncle Brian really only wanted fame and popularity and, although he claimed he wanted to be true to his faith, he wouldn't let it get in the way of his goals.  Roy, after achieving instant success and fame, went another route and openly proclaimed the gospel, but achieved no more success more Uncle Brian because he was relying on celebrity and personal popularity to persuade people.  But the press conferences and magazines covers ultimately meant nothing.  The megaphone is never as important as the heart.  In the end, Roy's most effective tool for evangelism turned out to be the witness of his life, which he found himself sacrificing for more worldly popularity.

So, for a goofy comedy, we felt we had covered an awful lot of theological bases.  The gatekeepers disagreed.

The most important gatekeeper is The Dove Foundation.  Most Christian bookstores will not carry a film unless it carries The Dove Seal of Approval.  Now, if you're like "Fireproof," and you have a major studio and six million dollars in P&A money behind you, you don't need the Dove Foundation.  But if you're an independent faith-based film, you need them, and they hated this film.  Hated, hated, hated it.  Everything about it.

I wish I had a copy of their original review.  It was unbelievable.  From their reaction, you would've thought we were sacrificing blonde, blue-eyed virgins to Baal on a pile of burning Bibles.  Now, granted, we were the first faith-based film with prison rape in it, but come on....

The editing began.  A strenuous effort was made to cut everything unacceptable in their eyes out of the film.  As I mentioned in my earlier blog on "Hidden Secrets", the gatekeepers like films where people get saved, but they loathe to hear about, let alone see, what they were "saved" from.  Well, I discovered one thing they liked less than seeing sin and that was "making light of it."  I remember hearing a radio preacher saying that he felt he had a great sense of humor, but he could never laugh at something that Jesus died for.  That doesn't leave a lot of area for comedy.

We cut version after version of the film to no avail.  (I shouldn't say "we."  I had already handed the film back to California by then.)  Nothing we did mattered.  They just hated the film.  They refused to give it the benefit of the doubt or consider its audience or purpose.  Ultimately, however, we discovered, it wasn't the drug references they hated most.  It wasn't the implied homosexual prison rape.  It wasn't the so-called violence.  (They actually gave this film a higher violence rating than PureFlix's "In The Blink of an Eye" which featured numerous murders including a woman being shotgunned and leaving a graphic trail of blood as she slid down a wall.)  No.  It was our little Jennifer Lyons.  She was just too sexy for Christian cinema.

According to the gatekeepers of various stripes, the single most objectionable scene in the film is the one where the network executives tell Roy that they want him to date Jennifer's character, Tiffany, for publicity reasons.  Roy says no.  Insulted, Jennifer goes over and gives him a steamy kiss thinking that it will sway him, but Roy ultimately remains unimpressed.  That kiss was simply too much for them.  Even a minister I met in Baltimore, who was known for watching secular movies and incorporated them into his sermons, said he had to leave the room during that kiss.  Really?  Folks, trust me, it wasn't that bad.  The Hays Office wouldn't have blinked an eye.  So, okay, we cut the kiss out of the film but it was still a no go.  Jennifer was too inherently sexy for the gatekeepers.



Tim Ratajczak with the impossibly-seductive Jennifer Lyons.

David A.R. White was worried about the sexiness of the Tiffany character in the script stage.  However, we needed her.  We wanted to show all of the temptations that normal people, even Christians, face.  With that in mind, David went out of the way to make sure that her clothing didn't reveal anything.  Additionally, we tried to make her a comic seductress rather than a sexy one, by giving her a lot of goofy gestures and having her make goofy animal noises.  More than once, before a take, I saw David walk over to Jennifer and ask her to zip something all the way up.  Jennifer said David was the first director who asked her to put more clothes on!

This is why, generally, faith-based films are dismissed as being so phony.  The gatekeepers want films about people overcoming things like sexual temptation, but, under no circumstances are we to show any sexual temptation.  Why?  Because they say they don't want their children exposed to it.  Really?  I wonder what planet they are living on.  They don't seem to know that their children are exposed to things a thousand times worse than "Holyman Undercover" dozens of times a day. What do they think they are watching on TV?

Remember our first test audience I talked about earlier?  As I was leaving, I asked them what they had watched the previous week.  They said they were watching the DVD boxed set of the animated series "The Family Guy."  Huh?  Now that is a truly raunchy television show.  Funny too.  Could anyone who watched and laughed at that show be offended in the least bit by "Holyman Undercover?"  Of course not.  While they were watching "The Family Guy," I'm sure they weren't complaining that it didn't reveal the whole gospel or that it didn't show enough of God's wrath.

The key was the question the pastor's son asked before they answered the questionnaire:  "Should judge the film as normal people or evangelicals?"

As normal people, they had laughed all the way through it.

As evangelicals they felt the need to judge it.

I never thought that's what it meant to be an evangelical.

Oh well.

They like the film in Brazil.  It's doing really well there.

(BTW, there are two versions of the film available on DVD.  The highly-edited Christian version and the mainstream version.   I highly recommend the mainstream version.  Unfortunately, nothing on the box indicates which version of the film is inside.  However, generally, I believe you can get the mainstream version at secular websites like Amazon.com.  The other version is available at websites like Christiancinema.com.)

Here's the trailer.  (Seems innocent enough to me, but what do I know.)



Earlier blogs on the film:

Holyman Undercover Released
Holyman Undercover, Part 1, Pre-Production
Holyman Undercover, Part 2, Good Times

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
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.