Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

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.

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

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

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.


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:

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.

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.