Friday, December 30, 2016

In defense of PASSENGERS

Every now and then I see a film get a reaction that makes me wonder if I saw the same movie as the rest of the audience. When OBLIVION came out, it was so aggressively panned that I waited until DVD to view it, upon which I discovered a very entertaining, well-made sci-fi film. Slightly more recently, I felt that the aggressive hate for TOMORROWLAND felt quite out of proportion to the mildly disappointing but still interesting film.

And then there's PASSENGERS. Last weekend, it felt like you couldn't swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting someone ready to tell you that the premise was creepy, or that the film was sexist, or that the ethics of the film were appalling.

In a nutshell, here's the premise of the script by Jon Spaihts: Jim is one of 5000 passengers in cryo-sleep for a 120-year voyage to a new colony planet. Due to a completely unprecedented malfunction, his chamber wakes him after 30 years, making him the only person set to be awake for 90 years. He can't go back to sleep and though the ship is programmed to tend to his needs, his only companion is a robot bartender. In other words, he's facing the prospect of never having human contact for the rest of his life.

This is tantamount to solitary confinement, a practice that many psychologists consider inhumane. This article from Gizmodo calls it "the worst kind of psychological torture" and in fact, "solitary confinement beyond 15 days leads directly to severe and irreversible psychological harm. But for some, it can manifest in even less time." We need to take this into consideration and then note that Jim spends an entire YEAR alone on the ship before he comes very close to attempting suicide.

Human beings are social creatures and without that interaction, Jim is trapped in hell. However, he's tech-savvy enough that he knows how to wake up someone else. Company would go a long way to relieving his pain, but there are other ethical concerns. Jim discusses this with his bartender, likening it to being trapped forever on an island, but having the power to transport one person there, knowing that you were ruining their life.

This one interaction alone shows that the film is aware of the ethics behind Jim's predicament. By questioning it in such a way, I don't understand how anyone could come away from the film thinking the movie sees what Jim does as pure. It's largely about the question of if you could make your personal Hell more bearable by condemning someone else to join you. He ultimately awakens the beautiful Aurora, leading her to believe another malfunction is to blame for her state.

Where many of the critics seem to miss the mark is where they equate Jim's actions with a violation of sexual consent. I think it's offensive to actual rape victims to equate anything in this film with sexual assault. To me, what Jim does is not about sex so much as it's about human contact. He needs a companion ship that isn't necessarily sexual. Sure, the water is muddied because the two DO fall for each other and there's no lack of sex appeal on the part of Aurora's portrayer, Jennifer Lawrence.

If Jim had woken up a man, someone who he felt would be his Number One Bro, would we still be having this debate? PASSENGERS seems most interested in the morality behind alleviating your pain by sharing it with someone else. I don't even know if I'd necessarily argue that the film comes down on the side of it being right, but it DOES depict how a desperate person might come to believe this is the only course of action available to them.

Seriously, could YOU face the prospect of 90 years alone on a ship? How far would you have to be pushed before you convinced yourself you HAD to have human contact? And once you arranged that, would you really be forthright with the fact that you caused the malfunction? Jim certainly makes selfish choices, but they're selfish choices in the midst of an incredibly painful experience. I also don't believe you have to choose between being sympathetic to Jim and sympathetic to Aurora.

Aurora rightly is furious when she learns Jim engineered her awakening. "You MURDERED me!" she screams, more than once. The blossoming romance is immediately dead, and she begins a period of shutting him out. At this point, I thought the film might explore her isolation as a way of depicting what her loneliness might drive her to. This path could lead her to understanding Jim's horrible decision, even as it isn't necessary for her to condone it.

Instead, the third act brings Jim and Aurora together to resolve the increasing malfunctions of ship's systems. It turns out that an asteroid impact is to blame for the damage that shut down Jim's pod and that the other damage it caused has built up into a reactor malfunction that will destroy the ship. To save everyone, Jim has to go outside the ship and open a door manually so Aurora can vent the reactor while he's stuck in the path of the radiation. It means certain death, and indeed, he takes the direct blast with only a small shield to deflect it. Though Jim told her not to come for him, Aurora dons a spacesuit of her own and risks her life to bring him back, where he is resuscitated.

There's some criticism that the third-act crisis is a convenient way to let Jim off the hook. If he hadn't woken her, then there would have been no one else to help him save the ship and the entire crew. Aurora is presented with a situation where she can say, "If he hadn't woken me, I'd be dead."

This would be a more fair criticism if the film embraced it. I believe it does not. A couple points to recall:

- As the crisis reaches its peak, Aurora suggests waking some of the crew. There's no hesitation on her part, even though this means they would share her fate on the 90-year voyage. In the context of this moment, doing so would directly save 5000 people as well as herself, so yes, there is a "needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few" scenario. But she's not without self-interest here either. Remember too, that Jim would have died had he not acted to preserve his own sanity.

- Aurora goes against Jim's wishes when she risks herself to save him. Jim is content to die saving everyone else. Is her motivation romantic? I don't think it necessarily has to be, and the film allows for the interpretation that it's not. Aurora surely knows all the details of Jim's horrible year alone and what being that alone did to him. If Jim dies, this is the fate she's facing - the total abyss of loneliness for the rest of her life. Is risking herself for him a purely selfless act? Or is it one she willingly takes because it would be better to die quickly than in the lingering slow torture Jim endured?

Taking those together, I don't think we can discount that Aurora comes to understand what pushed Jim to awaken her. She's stared that same fate in the eye and it gives her what she needs to accept his choice. The ending is not about letting Jim off the hook so much as it's about pushing Aurora to her limits. In the end, she needs companionship just as much as Jim did. This is why I feel that even if there had not been an immediate crisis, Aurora would have eventually thawed things with Jim. Whether that came as a result of madness, Stockholm Syndrome or genuine empathy is a matter of debate.

Moreover, this is easier to see if you're not determined to equate Jim with being a "stalker." He's not a calculating and manipulative predator. The film more accurately diagnoses him as a drowning man grabbing for any life preserver. You can decry his actions, but the point of the film is to make you ask, "What if you were the one who was drowning?"

It disturbs me that we see art being attacked for merely exploring complex scenarios like this. Back when Indecent Proposal was made, did people think that just by making the film, the creators were advocating that a married woman sleep with a billionaire for one million dollars? If we discourage art that asks uncomfortable questions or explores moral grey areas, what will be left with? You can be uncomfortable with Jim does and still acknowledge that the film doesn't endorse it by building drama around it.

Passengers is the story of a man pushed to his moral limits. The more I examine it, the more I suspect the film is rejected out of hand by viewers uncomfortable contemplating what they would truly do in Jim's shoes.

Bonus: I wrote an article for Film School Rejects in which I worked out how Jim and Aurora could have used the functioning medical pod at the end of the film to take turns sleeping long enough for both of them to make it to the colony within their lifespans. You can find it here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A tribute to Carrie Fisher: actor, author, and Princess Leia

"If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable." - Carrie Fisher.

It's ten years ago, almost to the day, and thanks to one of my closest friends, I'm sitting in the Geffen Playhouse for the first public performance of WISHFUL DRINKING, Carrie Fisher's one woman show. With the above quote, our evening begins, taking us on a hysterical and candid tour of the life of the woman best known as Princess Leia. Before the evening is out, she has become much more than that for many audience members, she's become Hollywood royalty, a bipolar sufferer, an addict, a mother, a writer with a keen sense of self-deprecation, and (perhaps most remarkably for anyone who came just because of her connection to a galactic freedom fighter) a human being.

For someone who achieved iconic status at 19, that is no easy task. The show touches on this, in some semblance, as she quips that "I'm not famous. Princess Leia is famous and I look like her."

Carrie, with all due respect, your mother was Debbie Reynolds and her union with your father was so famous that announcement of your impending arrival made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. I'm gonna call bullshit on that "I'm not famous" line.

Today we mourn, for Carrie Fisher has left us at the too-young age of sixty.

Like many of my generation, Princess Leia was my introduction to Carrie Fisher. Also in line with most men of my generation, Carrie Fisher was my first crush. I think. There's a chance it was Vanna White and right now I'm not writing Vanna's obituary. (Though with the kind of year 2016 has been, who knows what the next week will bring.) Leia was bold, brassy and she didn't take shit from anyone. Think of how many young men grew up seeing this "damsel in distress" snark back to her captors and then take charge of her own rescue. That had to have an impact. Over the last several days, I've seen women of all ages pay tribute to how much of a feminist icon Leia was to them. I have to believe that many a young boy grew up more enlightened because of seeing kickass women like Leia.

And there's no doubt that Leia is one of the most iconic, perhaps MOST iconic badass women in popular culture. She's on that particular feminist Mount Rushmore, probably with Ripley and Sarah Connor as companions. (I'd love to recognize a non-genre female as the fourth one, but let's face it, it's Lois Lane.)

I've gone to San Diego Comic Con every year for over a decade and soon after I started attending, there was an explosion of cosplayers wearing the iconic golden bikini Leia wore in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Now, like most men of my generation I had a certain affection for that outfit, but it surprised me to see such passion from the opposite gender. As I observed a gathering of some 40 such fans for a photoshoot, overheard snatches of conversation left little doubt they were TRUE fans. (They invoked the Star Wars Expanded Universe, mentioning things like "Thrawn," "Mara Jade," and "Jania.) I had a few instances to make conversation with these ladies (and BELIEVE me in that situation you are trying hard to make eye contact, so engaging them in substantive topics is suggested) so I asked, "Why this outfit?" The answer usually was some version of "Because she's a badass in it!"

I think of that whenever I see a thinkpiece attacking the "sexism" of Slave Leia. And then I think of Carrie's perfect reply to a father wanting to know what to tell his daughter about the merchandising of Slave Leia: "Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage."

(And I think most of the male appeal for the outfit is a mix of this and how attractive the performer appeared in it. For most of them I don't think it promotes slavery any more than a Dark Side Anakin cosplay advocates child murder.)

I saw some tweets today chiding people for honoring her "only" as Princess Leia. There was a weird sort of shaming going on, an implication that not genuflecting on her writing career was some kind of disrespect. Poppycock, I say! Mourn how you choose to mourn. That doesn't take away from the fact she was an accomplished and witty writer of several books and an accomplished script doctor. During the 90s, she worked on HOOK, SISTER ACT, and THE WEDDING SINGER.

You might not realize that because she never sought credit for her rewrites. Today on Twitter, Robert Hewitt Wolfe relayed the following anecdote:











"I had one professional interaction w/ Carrie Fisher. We were on an arbitration panel together, got on a conference call to determine credit. These calls are anonymous, but I recognized her voice immediately. Carrie Fisher was a top notch script doctor... but spent the call passionately defending the credit of the original writer over the parade of rewriters and script doctors. Fisher saved Writer A's [WGA-speak for "the original writer"] credit. It would have been understandable if Carrie Fisher had sided with rewriters like herself, but instead she protected the little guy. It's noteworthy... praiseworthy, in fact, that Carrie Fisher never sought or accepted credit on the scripts she rewrote. She was all class."

For those not in the business, screen credit means royalties, and that's a huge loss of income for a writer who get's arbitrated off the credits. Some rewriters try to secure their place by changing as many details as possible just in a bid to grab credit. A rewriter who fights on behalf of the writer who originated the project is a true class act.

I'm traveling this week, so I'm tabbing this obituary out on my iPhone from my hotel room. As it happens, the same hotel room where I rewatched THE FORCE AWAKENS the night before. I think it was a great gift to us that Carrie was around to resurrect Princess Leia one more time to see her continuing to persevere in the fight against evil. It may have been a great gift for Carrie herself too. There are too few roles for strong women of a certain age in Hollywood and it makes me happy she got to experience that once more.

There is still one more outing for General Leia, as Carrie had completed next year's EPISODE VIII. Inevitably, talk will turn to how her loss will impact the conclusion of the trilogy. I like to think that some of this is about people hoping that an icon like Leia is allowed to retire with dignity, to honor Carrie. There are bigger concerns than a film, but I get that Leia meant a lot to many men and women and it's hard to picture her fading away, suddenly gone from the narrative mid-story. So I will strive to take the "What this means for EPISODES VIII and IX" talk in that spirit. No one can bear seeing Leia die after losing Carrie Fisher. Hopefully the character is retired with grace.

I only met Carrie Fisher once, during a time when I worked on a small film in which she appeared. We were on location when I glanced down the street and saw a diminutive woman approaching from about a half-block away. She had a trenchcoat and dark glasses on, so I didn't yet recognize her but even at that distance, she walked with such authority that I found myself involuntary standing straighter, almost at attention.

Some people in power carry themselves with such authority that you can feel it before they speak. And here was five feet and one inch of pure "Don't mess with me" headed my way. My gut reaction was that this was either a studio exec or a producer headed to set. It wasn't until she was almost upon me that my brain went, "Wait, isn't that.."

I tell this so that you can understand the strength and charisma she carried herself with, and how in those moments I first saw her, none of that was mortgaged from identification with Princess Leia. That was pure Carrie.

My only regret is I never had a conversation of significance with her, though I do hope whoever is showing her around Heaven is stocked with a great deal of the vice she indulged in on set and that it was mandatory we had plenty of on that production: Diet Coke. Farewell Carrie Fisher.

Friday, December 23, 2016

My ROGUE ONE reflections over at Film School Rejects

I haven't written a full review of ROGUE ONE, and at this point I'm not likely to. For the most part, I enjoyed it, but my immediate reaction was that it didn't work for me the way THE FORCE AWAKENS did. Since last year, I've watched THE FORCE AWAKENS at least seven times and the film still works just as well for me as it did after my first viewing. In some ways I might find it more re-watchable than parts of the original trilogy, but beyond that, I can't think of too many films in the recent past that have made me WANT to rewatch it that many times without getting weary of it.

(And I can only blame one of those rewatches on the writing process of THE MAKING OF STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII. By the way, if you still haven't checked out that script that I wrote with Brian Michael Scully, you can find it here.)

I bring that up by way of mentioning that "not as good as THE FORCE AWAKENS" is far from a condemnation from me. I thought ROGUE ONE was solid entertainment, particularly once it got going. The early segments of the film drag as all the pieces come into place. What matters is that it finishes strong. From the point where the team assembles against orders to get the Death Star plans, everything seems to click into place, and we get another JEDI-esque finale with several battles advancing on different fronts.

Outside of Jyn, I felt disconnected from most of the characters, and that's where THE FORCE AWAKENS gains a lot of its edge over this film. Donnie Yen's Chirrut has some clever moments, and the novelty of a blind devotee of the Force taking down superior forces never gets old. Okay, and K-2SO was pretty awesome. The movie managed enough base hits and triples that I came away satisfied.

Of course, the Darth Vader scenes were the sort of moments fans have been hungering for for 30 years, particularly the hallway scene. But that also speaks to one of my bigger issues with the film in general. This is the first Star Wars feature film to venture outside the Saga Episodes, and the first place we go ends up being a very direct prequel to the original film. I have some concerns about these "Star Wars Stories" only going to the most obvious places in Star Wars history, and for further discussion of that, check out my piece "The Known Unknowns of Star Wars" at Film School Rejects.

While you're over there, click on over to my second ROGUE ONE story, "7 Films That Could Be Headlined by Creepy Dead CGI Actors." As you might infer, I felt that the use of VFX to resurrect Peter Cushing as Tarkin yielded somewhat mixed results. But if we get past the ethical issues, think of all the new performances we could enjoy!

Have a good holiday everyone, and if you get a chance, please buy my book, "MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films." It's a great last-minute stocking stuffer for the film geek in your life!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I'm a guest on the Law & Order podcast "These Are Their Stories!"

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a MASSIVE fan of Law & Order. My essay declaring Jack McCoy one of TV's greatest characters will attest to that, and I've been known to berate you to track down some of the best episodes of the series.

Thus, when I recently learned that there was a new podcast devoted to Law & Order called "These are Their Stories," my first thought was "How can I become a guest on this?" Fortunately, the creators of the podcast, true crime writers Rebecca Lavoie and Kevin Flynn were kind enough to oblige and booked me an episode from Season 18, the period of the show where Jack McCoy was the District Attorney of New York, and had to deal with an Executive Assistant DA named Michael Cutter who was even more of a maverick than Jack used to be. It's an under-appreciated era of the show, and while this episode in particular, "Tango" is not representative of that era at its best, I think we got a great conversation out of it.

If nothing else,  you can learn my favorite detective team in all the franchise, as well as my favorite legal team. I got the sense that at least one of those answers surprised the hosts.

Go here to listen to the episode. You can also download the episode here.

You can find the homepage for These Are Their Stories here.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Film School Rejects: The Flash and Supergirl as my wife's gateway drug to geekdom. Plus MORE articles!

I know my posting has been sporadic the last few months. There are reasons for that and I'm hoping to redress that as we head into 2017. If time permits I'll do a couple belated reviews for some recent films, and with luck, I'll have seen enough of the major 2016 releases to do a Top 10 or Top 20 post. One factor in my absence here is that I've been writing a bit more for Film School Rejects. This has been going on for a few months, and I've neglected to cross-post those over here.

Yesterday, FSR published my most recent essay: How The Flash and Supergirl became my wife's gateway drug to superhero fandom. It's a reflection on how the Greg Berlanti shows are making an incredibly complex mythology accessible to people who never would have considered reading a comic book. You can also learn how the most intense fight of my marriage was over the time travel logic of The Flash.

My other recent articles are:

Gilmore Girls "Final Four Words" Leave the Most Important Conversation Unsaid - An exploration of the abrupt conclusion of the recent series revival by contrasting it with one of the best-received series finales: Angel.

Reclaiming the Fun Side of Batman - I take a look at the recent animated film Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, to push back against the idea that Batman always has to be serious and gritty.

An Appreciation of That Thing You Do on its 20th Anniversary - A loving tribute to one of my favorite films, and a deep-dive into how the Extended Cut of the movie can show how critical the right edits can be in taking an okay film to the next level. The longer cut of the film has so many unnecessary moments that were (rightly) removed for pace and repetition. It's a wonderful opportunity to extrapolate how Tom Hanks learned from and corrected his mistakes.

6 Films That Are Still Waiting for Their Legacy Sequels - In a film culture that's brought us the re-quels like Creed and The Force Awakens, what other library titles might be ripe for a reboot with new protagonists treading familiar paths while being mentored by their predecessors?

A Look Ahead to What the Next 15 Years Holds for the Lights Out Franchise - Using other horror franchises as a template, how much the other slots in the inevitable Lights Out box set be filled?


As FSR publishes through Medium, you can follow me on Medium here.  I'm going to try to be better about flagging these over here, but that's a good way to see articles as soon as they post.

Also, with the holiday season approaching, I'd like to again remind everyone that my book Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films is a great stocking stuffer for the film geek in your life. It's only $5 on Kindle!


I always feel like a self-promoting whore when I do this, but any time I plug the book on Twitter, I get replies from people who say they had no idea it existed. The extra cash would definitely come in handy this holiday season, so if you've enjoyed my posts and would like to leave me a tip for the holidays, please consider buying the book.

You can find all my Michael F-ing Bay posts here. This one in particular is a good all-purpose primer on it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Be the lightning bolt - Some thoughts on the last week

I haven't posted much lately. A lot of that has been work commitments, but for the past week, my silence has been because I've been trying to process the aftermath of this election. My candidate lost, which is something I've lived through before. People I know voted for the other guy, which is ALSO something I've lived through before. This time is different.

I don't want to re-litigate Trump vs. Hillary because I've got a lot to say about this aftermath, but I think we were handed about as clear a contrast as possible. Hillary was a flawed, albeit extremely qualified candidate with a long record of public service working towards the betterment of people. Was she unblemished? No, but I feel like we have to get over the "purity myth" of politicians. You go to war with the army you have, not the one you want. In Trump, we had a man with no history of public service, a lot of very questionable ties to Russia. His entry to the campaign came with a lot of ugly racist statements about Mexicans and illegal immigrants. And then, after a detour to attack captured POWs, he called for a total Muslim ban. At that point, even Paul Ryan rebuked him.

I'll admit that even at that point, as shocking as his comments were, I felt secure that they were disqualifying to such a degree that we'd never have to worry about this man facing a general election. But he kept going and going, like the Energizer Bunny. In any logical world, it was inevitable that the preponderance of these gaffes would catch up to him. But they didn't.

There's a metaphor I've been using a lot this year: "Luke Skywalker under the stairs." It's referencing a moment in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Luke, after having been goaded into a fight with Darth Vader, has retreated into a hiding spot. He's determined not to fight, but Vader keeps taunting until he finds the one nerve to hit. At that point, Luke leaps out from under the throne room stairs, lightsaber blazing and unleashes hell upon Vader. Lightsaber strike after lightsaber strike. By the end of it, Vader's on his back, disarmed and beaten.

That's how I felt as we got within 12 months of the election. I know I have friends back home who had... shall we say... strong opinions about Obama. I'd hoped that eight years of vast improvement and prosperity would turn them around, but primary season made it clear they somehow perceived Obama as the worst thing to happen to the Presidency. I behaved during the first few Trump months, figuring that some of them were just sharing Trump stuff to gawk at the car crash.

And then I hit my red line. It was the infamous "Sheriff's Star" dog whistle that was a clear anti-Semitic meme. I was proud of the bravery shown by a New York Observer columnist named Dana Schwartz, who wrote an open letter to Trump's son-in-law and campaign manager Jared Kushner, expressing her concerns that this was being seen as support for the anti-Semetic alt-right. Kushner also happens to be Schwartz's BOSS. Which... look, I like to think I have balls, but to openly suggest to your boss that he's encouraging Neo-Nazis takes BALLS. It's worth noting that Schwartz had already taken days of really ugly abuse from alt-right trolls when she did this, so she knew when she wrote this, it was only gonna draw more.

But it was the right thing to do. She appealed to him to have Trump denounce it. For his part, Kushner gave a response that started with "My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite" and basically proceeded from there. It didn't really address the core issue - that Trump's campaign seemed to be courting the anti-Semite vote - and it was in line with the rest of the campaign rhetoric, wherein his surrogates tried to convince us that it was not a Star of David in the meme, but rather a sheriff's star.

Bullshit.

I'm of Jewish descent, but not EXACTLY Jewish. I never attended Hebrew School, never had a bar mitzvah and my mother's not Jewish, so in the strictest sense, I am not. However, half of my family is and my wife and her family are. I've read that children of mixed-religion families are more likely to consider themselves Jewish because of the cultural history attached, and that's generally where I fall.

We all grew up with the Holocaust as part of our past. I don't discount that non-Jews are equally capable of understanding that horror, but when you're growing up, that history is one thing that reminds you that no matter how much you look white, there is a LARGE segment of the population that is capable of seeing you as The Other.

I never faced anti-Semitism growing up in the suburbs of the midwest. I don't even think I knew the word "kike" until high school and THAT only came from controversy over lyrics in a Michael Jackson song. You can't even blame this on me going to a lily-white school. My high school had a higher percentage of black students than white and even there, I never felt anything you'd perceive as racial tensions. The most racist remarks you'd encounter might be something like someone observing all the black kids walk around with their pants sagging.

Bottom line: I grew up in a world where it felt like we were all educated enough that the Holocaust could never happen again and that my generation was bridging all the racial divides we'd read so much about in our history books. It's not that racism was gone, but it felt like strides forward were being made. The few bad apples were the minority and people were basically good at their hearts.

The Holocaust seemed like the red line we could all agree would never be crossed. It's why Holocaust deniers are so vile. The people responding to Ms. Schwartz weren't denying the Holocaust, but they were celebrating it. There was a lot of "We're warming the ovens up for you, kike" and when I checked the mentions of several other Jewish journalists, it was clear this was NOT an isolated block of support for Trump. It was also equally clear they had interpreted the meme the way Schwartz had.

Kushner didn't address any of the rising anti-Semitism the campaign was contributing to. There was no apology to the Jewish people for causing any pain. There was just denial, "Oh it doesn't mean that. Oh, you're being hyper-sensitive."

Their earlier attempts to incite hate against Mexicans and Muslims had been undisguised. Even if they had offered an apology, it would ring hollow. This was unique. This was an anti-Jew dog whistle. If it was unintentional, the easiest solution would be to offer apology. The denial, "Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite," infuriated me because that's not really the issue. He doesn't have to BE an anti-Semite for his actions to empower anti-Semites. All this did was provide cover for people whose own bigotry drew them to Trump, but didn't want to admit it.

I'm sure that my friends who voted Trump convinced themselves, "Well, I'm not an anti-Semite, racist or homophobe," and are offended at the suggestion that supporting Trump makes them one. Empowering homophobia IS an act of homophobia. Empowering anti-Semitism is an act of anti-Semitism. And as I said, this was not a difficult dilemma. The Trump Campaign was made up of values that every decent person should be able to reject without much introspection.

My generation grew up without really being tested with regard to bigotry, at least not in the way our parents were. Our failing might be the belief that our work stops with "I am not a bigot." We confer our own moral purity and because we're not faced with daily opportunities to affirm it outwardly, we believe that's enough. It breeds complacency and we start to think that "it can't happen here."

I've seen more anti-Semitism in the last year than in the 35 years I lived before it. It was drawn to the Trump agenda like moths to a flame and with Steve Bannon of Breitbart News acting as campaign manager, it's clear the alt-right had a mouthpiece. They saw it and anyone paying attention would have seen what a Trump victory would embolden.

THIS was my Luke Skywalker under the stairs moment. You were either with the crowd that thinks Hitler didn't go far enough, or you're with her. I'd say "it's that simple" but it's even simpler than it would have been with almost any other candidate. Trump had no coherent policy, nothing that should pose a moral dilemma in terms of rejecting the rest of his slate. For the sake of argument, if he had an economic plan that made sense, would boost the economy, help the middle class and reduce the deficit, I could see someone being mildly torn - at least up until the anti-gay stuff and the sexual assault confession and allegations.

There was no such policy, though. Where there were shreds of a policy, experts almost unanimously agreed they'd bring ruin to foreign relations, the economy and the environment. I'm saying this so it's clear - his agenda had plenty of reasons to reject it even if you discount every racial and sexual issue he barreled into. We're not dealing with a case of "Damn, he has great ideas, but he believes some horrible things."

Easy to reject, right?

And yet I saw the Hillary bashing memes still surfacing via the Facebook pages of old high school friends. Some were subtle about their Trump support, others flagrantly "liked" his page and passed forward his words from time to time. I admit, I deliberately provoked a few of them, drawing a firm line about a month out saying that I could not be friends with anyone who supported this man.

That was part threat, part truth. I was cutting off less as a matter of principle and more because seeing that kind of moral failure in a person forever changed how I felt about them. I have old friendships that are forever tainted by the knowledge that these people were so easily capable of performing mental judo to excuse someone who saw me as less of a person, who were indifferent to the numerous ways my gay friends would be caused pain under this agenda, who were not disturbed by disrespect shown to veterans, to Mexicans, to women.

These people, these Trump voters, sat in the same history classes as me. I watched their faces go pale alongside mine as Holocaust survivors would tell stories that MUST not be lost to time. When we learned about the Asian internment camps of WWII, I remember how hyperaware we were of our Japanese classmates, and how WRONG what was done to them seemed. But now, when you replace "Asian" with "Muslim," that same repulsion didn't exist.

It's easy to hate some faceless bigots in a small town in Podunk Red State. To see your old friends fail the "What would I have done in Nazi Germany" test is... it's soul-crushing.

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." Do you recognize that quote? It's from Anne Frank's diary, written while she was hiding in an attic from the Nazis who would eventually kill her. I want to agree with her, but the hardest lesson of this past week might be that... I don't.

I figured Trump's victory would empower some ugliness. I didn't expect to actually WAKE UP to reports of violence and harassment. It took less than a day for people of color to start being harassed by groups of white men. The less fortunate ones were physically assaulted, while some were merely intimidated and told to "get out of the country." The KKK was openly celebrating in North Carolina.

When you see that happen so quickly, you realize it's not as simple as just blaming Trump. These people were already here. They were hiding, walking among us, like some sort of xenophobic sleeper agents. And a lot of them are YOUNG. My generation was supposed to be the enlightened ones. We were supposed to be learning from the past. Sure, there were some bad apples. You can't help that, but as a collective, we were post-racial, right?

Observing a switch flip THAT quickly is like watching reality break before your eyes. Evil rose because we all convinced ourselves it was impossible something that ugly could happen without us knowing about it. If we were less certain of the virtue of our fellow man, maybe we'd have seen it before it boiled over. There's not inherent good in this world. We have to make it.

It's hard not to feel broken after these election results. The Republicans targeted minority voters in several key states and worked to depress turnout (and again, made no effort to disguise what they were doing). The FBI Director released a letter designed to inflict maximum damage on the Clinton campaign soon before the election, a letter that turned out to contain no new information. The media couldn't be bothered to talk about ANYTHING but Hillary's emails. Yet, despite all of that sandbagging, Hillary Clinton still not only got more votes than Trump, but one of the highest popular vote counts of this century.

And she still lost. We played their rigged game, we got the votes and she STILL lost to a guy who offered nothing and rode in on a bandwagon of hate and misogyny. Even just as an abstract concept, that feels hopeless. When you have friends who you know will suffer a lot of pain because of this, it's... look, I'm out of synonyms, it's bad.

I don't have the rousing "let's go fight" speech that undoubtedly would come out of the mouth of Captain Picard, or Kirk, or Buffy, or Superman or... you get the picture. I've spent a week trying to conjure the words, but they all sound hollow in the face of this past year. What I can offer you is this...

There's a movie I watched a lot as a kid called Short Circuit. It's about a military robot who's struck by lighting and develops a cuddly personality. His fellow robots remain instruments of destruction, but "Number 5" becomes a decent person. Right now, that's my metaphor for humanity. We're not basically good, but some people get struck by lighting and evolve beyond expectations.

Be that lightning bolt. Make it possible for someone to evolve. 

I think again of Luke Skywalker in a fighting frenzy until he has the Dark Lord of the Sith at his mercy. In that moment, he's beaten him, but that's not what saves the soul of the man who once was Anakin Skywalker. That table is turned when an unbowed Luke faces the Emperor head-on and becomes the target of all his evil power. It's that act of bravery that provokes Vader to finally turn on his dark master. He throws off years of lies and hurls him to his death.

Should the next few years become a fight for the very soul of our nation, don't be afraid to take the impact of that dark lightning. Take that stand and maybe, just maybe, those who have been blinded by the dark can save themselves and us all.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

SUPERGIRL premiere reaches new heights with Superman

I've been away for a while working on other projects, but I couldn't let the opportunity go by to comment on the SUPERGIRL season premiere.

Back when SUPERGIRL was announced, I wondered how they'd handle the Superman issue. It's tricky doing a show about an offshoot character when the main franchise character is controlled by the movie division. I thought a cool way to get around this would be to start the show after some version of "The Death of Superman." It explains why Superman is off-screen and would have given Kara an interesting arc about her struggle to fill the shoes of a beloved hero. Then, at some point many seasons down the line, Superman could have always been resurrected and spun off into his own show.

Instead, the creators opted to just keep Superman an off-screen presence. While I know some people complained about the Super-cousins conversing only in IMs, I think that was the smart play. It implies communications between them, even while it kept Clark off-screen. Not bringing in Superman until Supergirl had time to establish herself and stand on her own legs.

Introducing Superman to this universe was bound to be a challenge. Even though Supergirl is the junior partner, it's still her show. She can't play second fiddle, but at the same time... it's SUPERMAN. He's supposed to be the greatest and purest hero. If Kara showed him up at every turn, it undermines Superman's reputation and the way he's been built up on the show. The challenge: how do you make Superman everything he's been hyped up to be and not turn Kara into a supporting character on her own show?

That's a tough needle to thread and they pulled it off. The first smart move was to put them up against a challenge that needed both of them to fight. Of course, the Venture crisis is the latest in a long line of aerial disasters throughout the Superman mythos. (Hey, when your main character flies, you want to structure an action sequence that takes advantage of that.) It gives Clark and Kara an easy win and a good opportunity for teamwork.

A lot of shows decide that when a new character comes in, they should have a strong conflict with one of the main characters. Sometimes it works, but just as often it can prompt a reaction of, "Who's this asshole who got here five minutes ago and is giving shit to the characters I love?" ER did this constantly, and in most cases, all it did was make the new guys harder to like. I'm glad the show fought the urge to play up the tension between Superman and Supergirl.

Melissa Benoist again proved she's the show's MVP when she was completely endearing as Supergirl gushed over how awesome it was to finally do a rescue with Superman. After so many years of grim heroes taking their job seriously, it's refreshing to have a hero who does good and is all "That was SO cool!" On top of that, she was so happy that Superman saw how competent she was, like a proud child showing off for her parents. It takes some skill to have a character as strong as her somehow be the everyman audience surrogate, but that moment underlined why the show works -despite her powers, Supergirl still feels very much like one of us.

Of course, Benoist also benefited from a strong scene partner in Tyler Hoechlin. In all my fancasting for the part, I don't think he ever would have been on my radar. Part of this is because within the show, Superman would probably have to be in his mid-thirties and Hoechlin is barely older than Benoist. (The premiere lampshaded this with a fun throwaway.) It would have been great if the stars aligned to give one-time Superman Brandon Routh a shot at the part, but I get that once he entered the Berlanti-verse as Ray Palmer, he was never gonna be Clark Kent again.

Hoechlin might be our best small-screen Superman yet. His introductory scene showed he had a good grip on a Clark that was earnest and nerdy without being an over-the-top geek and he radiated the same calm and confidence as Superman that Christopher Reeve did. Reeve is always going to be the gold standard, and right now I'm putting Hoechlin in the same class as Routh and Cavill, who are just below Reeve.

Hoechlin's other big moment to shine was against Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant. Despite a pretty significant age difference in real life, the two played off each other so well that Cat's crush felt kind of sweet and not at all like a "cougar" joke that other shows would have gone for. Flockhart has consistently been one of the stronger cast members and it's gonna hurt to lose her as a regular. Hopefully she'll make frequent visits because she and Benoist bring out the best in each other, and Cat's the sort of defined and dominating female character that we have too little of on TV these days.

The later part of the show also found the balance between the two Super-cousins. Two action scenes required them to split up, but in both instances, the writers were careful to let Kara "kill the bull." She's the one who saves Lena Luthor's helicopter and she's also the one to reinforce the building's collapsed foundation. Each time, Superman was given a challenge worthy of his powers while the big emotional wins were delegated to Kara. Superman wasn't undermined to build up Kara and the integrity of both characters was respected. It seems effortless on-screen, but I'll bet many hours, if not days of discussion went into servicing both heroes properly. It's nice work all around.

Shorter takes:

- I hope we eventually get to meet this universe's Lois Lane. For the Berlanti connection, I'd love to see former EVERWOOD co-star Emily VanCamp land the part, though I'm sure her Marvel contract prevents that. But after some thought, I think I landed on an even better possibility: Autumn Reeser.

- I was surprised they broke up James and Kara that fast, but I'm okay with them putting the breaks on things. James reads as so much older than her that it makes for an odd pairing. They're like a big brother/younger sister type of dynamic more than anything else. He and Lucy didn't seem like a great couple but they at least felt more on each other's level. A Kara/James match-up might work better in later years after she's matured a bit.

- Wynn working at the DEO is an abrupt move for the character and feels more like an effort to get Jeremy Jordan closer to the main action of the plots.  Back when SMALLVILLE decided that "the Lana problem" could be solved by tying her into the mythos more closely, we got that dreadful witch plot. Hopefully this works out better.

- With Wynn no longer at CatCo and Cat herself on the way out, does James have anyone to interact with at work? I guess he and Kara will be partnered there, but pulling Wynn out of that world takes away a pretty important scene partner for Olsen.

- I'm sure that eventually Lena Luthor is gonna end up on the dark side, but rather that try to outguess her agenda or when she'll show her hand, I think I'll just sit back and enjoy the ride.

- In a sad coincidence, the debut of a new Superman came on the 12th anniversary of Christopher Reeve's passing. I wrote a tribute to Reeve six years ago on this date.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In the wake of DON'T BREATHE's success, what can we learn about writing horror films?

Horror is a genre that, as a whole, doesn't get a lot of respect. That seems a little unfair when you consider that the misses in that genre probably aren't significantly greater than the misses in any genre. Maybe the disdain has to do with the fact that slasher films have frequently been less highbrow and less polished efforts, while the respectable successes always get gerrymandered into more highbrow categories. Thus, we get the notion that PSYCHO isn't a horror film, it's a "Hitchcockian thriller." SILENCE OF THE LAMBS isn't a horror film, it's a "psychological thriller."

The success of DON'T BREATHE this past weekend should be a reminder of all the virtues of this much maligned genre. Here, in the waning dog days of summer, a new film opened up with $26.1 million. According to Box Office Mojo, that's up 43.5% from the same weekend last year. That fact alone would probably be reason to celebrate, but it gets even better. It was made for less than $10 million, which means it has a FAR shorter road to travel before its in the black and starts making money. And guess what? All of this was achieved with any big name stars.

That's the thing about horror - it's perhaps the one genre left where it's understood the concept is king. The box office proves that audiences don't need that extra nudge to go see something that looks interesting to them. I've always felt that same philosophy was transferable to other genres, but there remains this conviction that a project needs "marketable" names to earn a green light. (And if any of you have ever dealt with foreign financing, you understand how insane it can often be to try to put together a cast that the money men deem worth their investment.)

When I was still working as a reader, horror was probably one of the more frequent genres I read. Sadly, it was probably also the genre where I detected the most laziness on the part of the writers. Too many were seemingly satisfied with being generic. Perhaps it's that old snobbery at work again, it's "just" horror, so why work to make it good, right? Since DON'T BREATHE is likely to provoke another wave of horror writers, I want to pontificate about what I think makes a great horror film.

I took a look at many of the horror releases of the past several years and when you see the profit margin on the low-budget entries, it might inspire you to see how strong your affinity is for that genre. Blumhouse's success with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has been talked to death at this point. Of the six films in the series, five of them were made for less than $5 million, and until the penultimate release, THE MARKED ONES, worldwide gross was always well over $100 million. Then again, the final film cost $10 million to make and it only made $18 domestically. ($59 million was taken in overseas.)

When you look at the PA numbers, you can see the first dip happened with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, which is probably not coincidentally the first film in the series where the story really seemed to be treading water. The lack of payoff likely discouraged attendance at the next entry, and by the time the final film rolled around most viewers who had cared were long gone.

Blumhouse's other franchise THE PURGE seems to be holding strong. The first film grossed $64.5 million domestically and each sequel's domestic take has risen. The films keep getting gradually more expensive, but both sequels have taken in over $100 million worldwide. I didn't like the original film at all, but something about this hook really seems to appeal to people.


The INSIDIOUS films are also a huge success with regard to the budget to box office ratio. The first one cost $1.5 million and earned $97 million, and it's the lowest grossing of the three.

Lesson: in a franchise, keep finding new angles within the framework of the concept. Making a horror film cheap isn't enough; having an inventive story and scares matters.

So what kind of horror story do you want to tell? My own interests lean more towards the Hitchcockian end of the spectrum. I like character-driven horror stories. For me, it's always more unsettling when the evil is relatable to something in the real world. This is part of the reason that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was so effective - getting lost in the woods felt like something any of us could have done and the lack of any on-screen visual effects meant that viewers weren't immediately triggered to feel, "Okay, that's clearly fake so I'm now very aware I'm watching a construct.

Great horror stories start with primal emotions and fears. LIGHTS OUT had a supernatural killer, but the film cleverly reveals that her power is that she is strong in darkness and is invisible in the light. She might not be able to hurt you in the light, but you can't stay out of the dark forever. And when that moment comes, she's ready to kill you. It's a smart primal fear to build off of because studies show that fear of darkness is an evolutionary trait, not a learned one. On a visceral, gut level, the average person is likely incapable of NOT being triggered by this film.

A NIGHTMARE OF ELM STREET uses a variation of this, giving the killer power in his victim's nightmares. Everyone has nightmares and surely there are few people who haven't woken from a terrifying dream at some point. Those emotions are what makes Freddy Krueger such an effective bad guy. It also makes for a strong thematic through-line to hang a feature on. This will have to be a story about the heroine confronting her worst fears and surviving.

You can't neglect theme in horror films. Like the primal fears, these will be the elements that resonate with your audience on more than just a superficial way. LIGHTS OUT plays as an allegory for depression, and perhaps specifically trying to deal with a loved one who suffers from it. Any idiot can write a monster leaping out of the darkness and get a momentary scare from the audience. The REAL scare you want is the kind that lingers for days, that becomes a dull buzz in the viewers head even long after the end credits have rolled. You'll find these factors present in both supernatural and non-supernatural films, so no matter the horror subgenre you're working in, you want to be thinking about these questions.

Lesson: Theme matters, so have one. (And it should probably be in your mind as you're breaking the story, not tacked on after everything else is figured out.)

Let's take a look at some recent horror films that were either standalones, or the first in their series:

Supernatural horror
Insidious - $97M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
Sinister - $77M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
Lights Out - $126M worldwide on a $4.9 million budget.
Ouija - $103.5M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
Unfriended - $64M worldwide on a $1 million budget.

For me, Unfriended is the one of the bunch I wish I wrote because it had the most inventive high concept premise (the entire film is told via laptop screen, through Skype calls and chatrooms.) It's a much smaller story than the others, but it understands how to use its limitations to reveal things about the characters. That said, Sinister's pitch-dark ending is the rare horror finale that really, deeply chilled me. It absolutely earns that visceral punch from everything building up to it.

Non-Supernatural Horror
The Purge - $89M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
The Gift - $58.9M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
The Visit - $98.5M worldwide on a $5 million budget.

THE PURGE goes for a less repeatable concept and casts itself in the near future, where the laws have established The Purge, a yearly free-for-all where all laws are suspended and anything goes, including murder. I didn't particularly like this film, nor did I find the premise credible at all. However, that same hook is what drew people into the theaters, wondering, "How will they pull this off?"

Lesson: Sometimes audiences will go for something wildly original even if it's implausible.

THE VISIT, however, is far better at drawing on real-world fears. There are themes of aging and dementia, even invoking our pity for the elder folks and seemingly kindly grandparents, who seem to be succumbing to senility. Seeing that visited upon adults can be very hard on children, though by this point, it's likely a part of most childhoods. There's a twist near the end that's inventive, but might be too clever for its own good. It's something of a knife to the gut, but it's also the point where the film trades any poignant identification for visceral thrills. To be honest, sometimes that can work. It's like when Spielberg was told that blowing up the shark in JAWS was a ludicrous twist. His reply was some version of: "If I've got them in my hand for two hours, they'll believe anything I show them in the last five minutes."

Lesson: Take an experience that one might find unsettling or uncomfortable and amp it up to its possible worst case scenario. The old folks' deterioration lingers far more than the twist the film pulls in its third act.

It's THE GIFT that casts its spell by being grounded from minute one. Simon and his wife Robyn meet Gorod, an old classmate of Simon's who is instantly a little TOO friendly. Simon remembers him as "Gordo the Weirdo," an awkward kid in high school. It's archetypical enough that every viewer will either identify with Gordo, or think of their own "weirdo" they knew in high school. Simon doesn't like Gordo's efforts at becoming a friend, but Simon's wife is more receptive. It's a neat writing trick that makes Robyn empathetic, gets the audience feeling a little bad for Gordo, and makes us wonder if Simon's just being protective, a jerk, or if he's right to be wary of Gordo.

Every twist in this movie comes from pure character, even as it escalates into a stalker thriller. Having written a stalker thriller, I learned that a key rule is to keep the stalker relate-able. In the case of my script, several people said they found themselves on the stalker's side and were hoping he could just explain himself in the end and make everything okay. I like a movie where it's possible to empathize with the bad guy because it usually means the writer has done a good job of making that person a fleshed-out character.

Lesson: Character is king. A good tip is to plot only the character stuff first on its own and see if it holds together without the scares goosing the excitement every 15 minutes.

With supernatural films, when you're using paranormal creatures to personify abstract ideas or fears, you can sometimes get away with a lighter touch on the character work. If your story takes place in the real world, everything MUST have depth to it. That's what makes Hannibal Lector so scary and fascinating at the same time. It's what draws us into Clarice Starling's crusade to capture Buffalo Bill and be taken seriously as a woman in a man's world. Those are Academy Award-winning roles because so much effort was made to make them more than just "the cop" and "the psychopath." If you're writing a movie like this, your standards must be higher

One of my favorite horror films of all time, SCREAM, would not work if there wasn't recognizable human emotion driving the killers' plan. You can argue that their motivations are taken to a severe extreme - people have killed for revenge and notoriety before, but few have probably gone after as many bystanders just to serve the narrative they plan on selling to the cops. Also, the film plays fair with all of its cheats. Every misdirection is clearly motivated and directed so that it makes sense in hindsight.

SCREAM's other strength is that its heroine is at least as interesting as her adversary. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET got this right in the first installment, then forgot it for several subsequent entries. Write the kind of role that could stay interesting across several films. The horror films that get a bad rap tend to have weak, barely developed characters.

Lesson: from a character standpoint, there's really no great distinction between writing a horror film and writing any other genre. Characters shouldn't be two-dimension just because they're eventually canon fodder for the slasher or supernatural threat.

This year has seen a lot of strong horror and thrillers, some low-budget, some not. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, THE SHALLOWS, and THE INVITATION are three that spring to mind with one thing in common - they're all limited locations. Two of them are confined not just in setting, but in time span too. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the exception, spreading its story out over several months, but that also uses the claustrophobia well, like a pressure cooker for inter-character tension. The situations are more extreme, but the intensity can work as a trigger for the viewers own emotions.

Also, I'm a sucker for these sorts of locked-room or limited location thrillers. If you can come up with an original hook to confine a story to a few sets, you might find yourself with some buzz around your story.

Lesson: containing your locations doesn't just have to be a limitation of budget, but can be an asset in forcing tension to a heightened and extreme level. This can be useful with a more heightened premise that doesn't immediately conform to some of the relatability issues I discussed above.

This obviously isn't everything you need to know about writing horror, but give it some thought when working on your next horror script. Do it right and you'll have created the sort of film that critics will keep finding reasons to label as "elevated genre" or "thriller" or whatever "respectable" term they're using for horror that week.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A tribute to Law & Order's Adam Schiff, Steven Hill

Longtime readers of this blog know of my deep affection for LAW & ORDER. It was one of three shows (the other two being ER and HOMICIDE) that acted as my gateway drugs into modern television drama in the mid-90s. For my money there has never been a better procedural drama than the original L&O. The caliber of writing was not just the best of its era, but it stands above many shows even in this later period of "peak TV." 26 years after its debut, the writing of the early seasons still holds up, save for a few instances where everyone has rather quaint views about the internet and cell phones. I'm trying to imagine TV drama from the 1970s holding up as well during the time frame when I discovered L&O.

I came into L&O casually in the fifth season and then fell hard for the show in season six after it did a then-unusual crossover with HOMICIDE. Pretty much concurrent with this, I was channel-surfing and stumbled upon L&O reruns on A&E. Except... there was something weird. There was no Jerry Orbach, no Sam Waterston. They were replaced by Michael Moriarty (whom I vaguely recalled having seen stories about a couple years earlier, when he quit the show after attacking the Attorney General in the press) and Paul Sorvino. So how did I know that this was Law & Order?

Because Adam Schiff was there.

Even with so much around him that was different, Steven Hill still held court with the same wry wisdom and "Make a deal" drive I was so familiar with from his scenes overseeing Sam Waterston. He was a comfortable presence, a constant amid the regularly changing casts. For a long time he was an answer to the trivia question, "Who was the longest-serving cast member of Law & Order?" Sometimes it was inaccurately claimed he was the only one left from the very beginning, though actually joined in the first episode after the original pilot. Still, he outlasted everyone else from the first season by the time he departed the show after season 10.

Steven Hill died this week at the age of 94. Just looking at that number makes me feel like we should be celebrating his longevity rather than dwelling on mourning his loss. It's never quite that easy, though, is it? The man's resume is quite remarkable. It makes it all the more ironic that to the best of my memory, the only project I saw him in outside L&O was The Firm. This is not a career-encompassing obituary. For that, I'll direct you to Variety's excellent memorial.

In the Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion written by Kevin Courrier & Susan Greer, Hill's co-star Jill Hennessy recalls an exchange with Robert Duvall. "On the set of The Paper, Robert Duvall said to me, 'So I hear you work with Steven Hill on that Law & Order. He's the best working actor today, bar none.'" In another anecdote, showrunner Rene Balcer fondly stated, "I love writing for Steven Hill more than anyone else. He's one of the few actors who will call and tell the writers to give him fewer lines. And then when you give him the lines, he'll say give him fewer words. Then you give him the words and he'll say 'Give me fewer syllables.'" He didn't need long speeches to make an impact.

Hill never thought the show would be a huge hit. "I felt, especially in the beginning, the format was so predictable," the Companion quotes him as saying. "I wondered how long people were going to be able to take this. I was never a detective story buff; I could really care less. I didn't have the patience for the whodunit puzzle but the audience never tires of it."

Schiff would usually pop up for three or four scenes in most episodes, often to get cranky about the state of the case on McCoy or Stone's desk and to advise them to "make a deal!" A lesser actor might have played Schiff like the demanding boss from hell. Instead, Hill was a presence that was at once fatherly, Yoda-like and disciplinarian.

Though he had been on the show for four years before Waterston arrived, the two actors quickly fell into a dynamic reminiscent of a father and son. With Jack's complicated history with his father, it was easy to see how he'd look up to Schiff, even while his rebellous nature often put him at odds with that same affection he sought. Jack McCoy needed Adam Schiff. The younger man's righteous crusades were as noble as often as they needed to be reigned in. In Schiff existed the one person who could yank McCoy's leash when needed and still have his back.

Law & Order always worked best when Jack was the crusader for justice who wielded the law like a sword in pursuit of what was right. But a character like that can only exist so long as he has someone above him bound by the rules of the real world, someone who can throw cold water on Jack's windmill tilting. Neither Dianne Wiest nor Fred Thompson's characters were up to that task after Hill left. Wiest was a wishy-washy presence at best. Thompson's character's more conservative nature led to some interesting clashes with Jack, but you never felt like McCoy respected him in the same way he did Schiff. If Jack pulled an end run that Schiff disapproved of, even if he got away with it in the courtroom, you knew there'd be consequences for the two men's friendship. Thompson's Arthur Branch felt like the sort of arrogant boss one would enjoy disobeying.

(This is also why I feel like Abbie Carmichael was a lesser assistant for Jack. On paper it seems interesting to give him a partner who's even more of a loose cannon than he is. The problem is that it weakens Jack to not be cowboy in the room, and it forces him to play Schiff's role, thereby rendering much of the Schiff/McCoy dynamic moot. It worked better when years later, karma got its revenge on McCoy by putting him in Schiff's office where he didn't have the luxury of bending the rules so far. And naturally, he was given an Executive Assistant DA who bent the rules even more aggressively than Jack himself did.)

People who accuse Law & Order of being nothing more than a plot-driven procedural have overlooked how much the character relationships are woven into the fabric of the cases. It's also escaped them just how important the actors and their characters are to the stories. Steven Hill was irreplaceable as Schiff. His dry comments often either helped cut to the core of a point for the audience, while bringing a bit of humor to the moment. I recall one moment when Claire Kincaid expressed frustration with a miscarriage of justice, only to be reminded by Schiff, "We don't make the system, we just try to survive in it." Hill gave those words the weight of a lifetime of experience. You could easily understand that he meant "we can argue about how the world SHOULD be for hours, but at the end of it, we'll still be back here with the same problem. Find a solution that works."

In another episode, former ADA Jamie Ross returned as a defense attorney and twice out-maneuvered her former bosses. Upon hearing that Ross's strategy had caught even McCoy with his pants down, Schiff remarked, "I knew there was a reason I hired that young lady." He even has the opportunity to rub it in later when another of Jack's strategies blows up in his face.

Steven Hill always played Schiff like he was the smartest guy in the room even as he was resigned to the reality he'd be ignored until proven right. And maybe three or four times a year, the writers would give Hill a story where Schiff had even more to work with. The seventh season finale "Terminal" involves a case where the governor wants the DA to seek the death penalty, but Schiff feels it's not warranted. Concurrent with this, Schiff's wife has suffered a stroke and is hospitalized on a ventilator. The governor removes Schiff under the pretense that the family crisis has impaired the DA's judgement. McCoy follows Schiff out the door and the two of them take the governor to court. There's a nice moment where the courtroom histrionics of McCoy and his adversary are trumped when the soft-spoken Schiff stands up and sums it up in a brief speech that ends, "The governor thinks he's above the law. He's not." Few actors have the presence that could make such a simple statement carry real import.

And then there's the moment at the end of that episode. After signing the DNR for his wife, Schiff stands by his wife's bedside as her ventilator is turned off. The entire action of the scene is played on his face. We hear the machines, the breathing and the heart monitor. We hear the ventilator deactivated, the heartbeat briefly continuing... and then clear beeps of distress preceding a flatline. Hill lets out a whimper - not an agonized cry but a brief whimper that one might mistake for "No..."

Even typing this now, I can hear that moan in my head and it's agonizing. His wife dies right before his eyes, and rather than going for overwrought tears, Hill chooses to play Schiff's pain in a more subtle way. It's all in his eyes and he looks so... lost. It's one of the most affecting depictions of death I can recall seeing on TV, and it's all evoked with such minimalist directing and acting. Hill made you feel Schiff's loss by allowing the audience to project their emotions onto him.

I could quote Schiff all day. My favorite Schiff one-liner might be from "Double Down," where he notes a defendant "confessed to a murder to avoid being prosecuted for a murder. I'm putting this one in my memoirs."

Someone pointed me to a collection of his best one-liners, and I'd like to end this on my favorite McCoy/Schiff exchange from "Showtime."

Schiff: "Started with a murder, ends with an execution. You got what you wanted. Take the rest of the week off."
McCoy: "It's Friday, Adam."
Schiff: "So it is. See you on Monday."

Farewell, Steven Hill.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Reader question: Microbudget films as exposure for writing

Rita writes:

Big fan of the blog. You've no doubt covered this before but is there any article i can reference that manages the expectations of someone who wants to make a microbudget film to get exposure for their writing?

My friend's boyfriend seems to be talking her into spending almost 50k she inherited on a film he would direct based on a play she wrote that is not filmic at all. It's a series of vignettes that sort of tie together at the end and she (and he) seem only vaguely to know what they're doing.

Is there even a market for this kind of stuff? I've seen some pretty lame films of this sort made as vanity projects but it seems to me that making a trailer or short first might make more sense?

This guy has never directed a feature before and there are no named actors in it but I guess since brothers McMullen people have succeeded this way. 50k though? She could produce three plays for that that people might actually SEE. 

A lot to unpack here, based on a lot of x-factors. $50k in some ways is both ridiculously small for a feature budget and also a helluva lot of money for one individual to put into a film on their own. My first piece of advice would be for your friend to not invest more money than they can afford to lose. If $50k represents the entirety of her nest egg, I'd proceed with caution.

Not having read the script, I can only go by your description of it. My gut reaction was that it didn't sound marketable at all, and then I realize you might as well have been describing the V/H/S series of films. My friends Radio Silence did a segment in the first of those and on the strength of that were hired to direct a film called Devil's Due. Another friend of the blog, Gregg Bishop, shot a segment for the third VHS and was then hired to direct the feature version of Siren, a short from the first V/H/S. Gregg, by the way, made his first feature for $15k.

So yes, the right concept with the right execution and the right marketing can open doors.

BUT

It has to be the right concept. The Blair Witch Project was a microbudget work of genius. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the first found-footage film ever, but it definitely created an explosion in that genre of film. My concern is that you don't think the idea is filmic and that you don't think the director knows what he's doing. You need a strong hand at the helm for ANY film but it's especially important in a microbudget where corners may have to be cut and the director needs to know his vision inside and out.

My thought would be that if they really are a series of vignettes, is there any reason they can't just shoot ONE of them first as its own short film? At that point, she'll have seen him in action, she'll have seen how well his vision translates to storytelling, and it might give her a better idea of if she should invest in the rest of it.

But concept is king. This can't just be some run of the mill quiet drama. It's gotta be something like BURIED, which takes place entirely in a coffin, or THE UNINVITED, which takes place largely in one location and uses that claustrophobia to the film's advantage, or PRIMER, which is approaches time travel in a completely unique and complex way.

Also, while the writer probably will get some heat for a microbudget breakout success, it's important to note that the director will get a lot MORE heat for these projects. (Though often in these sorts of films, the director IS one of the writers, so from a certain point of view you COULD say the writers get some notice for these kinds of films. So from where I sit, your friend's boyfriend stands to gain a LOT from this arrangement - he gets a film paid for and he gets the lion's share of the heat if it breaks out. She's footing the bill and has to answer to him.

From where I sit, your friend holds all the cards and she's assuming almost all the risk. I'd just make sure she's thought all this through.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reader question: How does one join the union as a script reader?

Shayna writes:

I was hoping I could pick your brain about the story analyst world... 

I'm currently a freelance reader, whose potentially looking to one day not be a freelance reader. I've done the agency thing, I've done the publishing thing and I'm really hoping to steer clear of the assistant world going forward. The few freelance jobs I've had have basically come to me and I've been exhausting my search for additional jobs, but as you know they're nearly impossible to come by. 

If I were looking to get further into this, would it benefit me to join a union? And on a separate note, is there anywhere else to look for these jobs, besides entertainmentcareers.net?

She's talking about the Story Analyst's Union, which is part of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. There are benefits to Union Membership, particularly with regard to pay. A few years ago it was something like $27/hour. That sounds good, but you have to realize that before the Guild can accept any new members, they have to check their roster and make sure that not a single active member is available.

As you might expect, that usually means that it's a hard union to break into. Very early in my career, I asked the SVP of Development at my company about how one goes about getting in, and he laid out that above scenario, while noting it was virtually impossible to break in. I'd think it's even MORE difficult now as reader jobs have disappeared, leading the union members to cling even tighter to their claim.

All of this goes back to my earlier advice - you don't want to be chasing jobs as a script reader. Find a different area of the business that excites you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Aaron Sorkin MasterClass in Screenwriting is as awesome as you expect it to be

As longtime readers of the blog know, I'm very careful when it comes to endorsing products and services. So long as there are plenty of free and cheap screenwriting resources out there, I'm always wary of sending business to services and charlatans who charge hundreds of dollars for their expertise.

When I do endorse a product, I always make sure it's one that I've used myself. I've thrown my weight behind the Black List and I've paid to post four scripts up there. Last year, I was invited to check out the MasterClass video series with Dustin Hoffman and recently I was granted access to an even more relevant MasterClass - with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.



Aaron Sorkin probably needs no introduction, but manners demands that I do so anyway. His first film was an adaptation of his own play, A Few Good Men. Subsequent films include Malice, The American President, Moneyball and The Social Network, for which he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. He's enjoyed similar success in television, having created Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom.

A Few Good Men is one of my favorite films and one of those that if I come across it while flipping channels, I have to watch the rest of it. The Social Network deservedly won the Oscar because it manages to tell a very complex story with complete clarity. The script deals in multiple timeframes, including two separate depositions as framing sequences and the audience is never once lost or disoriented. When this class was announced, I saw one snarky person retweeted into my feed who sneered, "I don't think there's anything at all about screenwriting I'm interested in learning from Aaron Sorkin."

Look, I'll admit I wasn't the biggest fan of Studio 60, but it's petty bullshit to use a writer's weakest moments as the disqualfier for anything they have to say about the craft, you need a serious attitude adjustment. When someone like Sorkin offers the chance to pick their brain, you shut up and listen.

The Master Class is a series of 35 videos that total nearly eight hours of viewing. That's $90 for eight hours of viewing. That's a cost of less than $12 an hour. Think of it like this - would you pay $25 to see Aaron Sorkin give a two-hour talk about screenwriting at the WGA Theater. I bet many of you would, and on a per-minute basis, that would cost you more.

Sorkin has broken the class into a suggested viewing schedule that paces the videos out over six weeks. I wasn't able to take that leisurely tour, but it makes sense to me and if you look at it that way, you're paying only $15/week.

There are several components to the class, delivered in Lesson Videos, which take the form of direct lectures and workshop sessions. In the workshop, Aaron works with about a half-dozen students. In some segments he reads a scene from their script and offers critiques. What's refreshing is he's a very encouraging teacher, always finding something positive to say and offering criticism in a way that's instructive without being rude. He's also upfront when he's out of his own depth. (He tells one student who's skilled at action writing that he doesn't know any advice to give because action writing is his own weakness. He jokes that if he had written that scene it would have just been two people talking.)

There's also a multi-video series where the same students become Sorkin's writers room and as an exercise, they begin to break what would be the first episode of the fifth season of The West Wing. (In other words, they try to figure out how Sorkin would have continued the show, had he not left at the end of the fourth season.) I've been able to see three different showrunners in action in their writing rooms, and I can tell you that Aaron leads the discussion very differently than most. (However, there's also a power disparity. In other rooms, you'll find co-EPs and midlevel writers who bring a lot of experience to the table. Aaron is essentially working with staff writers, so the dynamic is different.) I say this because it's not a perfectly accurate representation of a writers room, but it's still a very instructive series on a lot of levels.

The real gold is in Sorkin's direct lectures. If you are interested in screenwriting and either didn't attend college or your college didn't have a Screenwriting course, these lecture videos are an excellent way to begin thinking about the basics in a way that's digestible and encourages you to apply these lessons to deconstructing films you've seen.

One of Sorkin's fundementals is the idea of the "Intention and Obstacle." The Intention is what the main character wants, what's their goal, what's their drive? If the movie is about a cross-country drive to San Francisco, why is it important that they are going now? What are they going towards, and just as importantly, why do they need to be there at a certain time? Sorkin points out that it's a better movie if they NEED to be there by, say, Thursday for a job interview. That's better than if there's no tension at all for when they arrive. The obstacle, of course, is what is getting in the way of their intention, and Sorkin goes through a couple examples.

In other videos, Sorkin shows a scene from his work and deconstructs various aspects of the writing. He puts us in his head as he crafted the scene, showing why specific choices and lines of dialogue were chosen to carefully reveal something about the characters, or to push the drama forward.

I especially appreciated a video where Sorkin described himself as a "rules guy." He believes there are absolutely rules of drama, principles that all great works conform to. However, he wisely reminds the audience not to be led astray by "fake rules." The real rules come from Aristotle's Poetics. The fake rules would be guru-speak like "Never use voiceover."

Each lesson is accompanied by a PDF that recaps the basic point of the lesson and offers further assignments and resources. These assignments might be something like "Pick a movie to watch tonight. Critically look at why the movie works or doesn’t work. If you find yourself using snarky terms, remember, that doesn’t help you diagnose the script. Keep a journal and write down what works about your five favorite and what doesn’t work about your five least favorite movies. Share your findings with your MasterClass classmates and see if they agree or disagree."

I wasn't able to participate in any of the community discussions due to time constraints, but I'm sure they'd be a useful resource. Similarly, I wasn't able to make use of the Office Hours feature, where students can submit video and text questions for Aaron to answer. Even before factoring in that added value I feel like the class is well worth it.

I give the Aaron Sorkin MasterClass my enthusiastic endorsement. Particularly if you are new to screenwriting and really have a desire to understand the fundamentals, this class is a fantastic resource. In the grand scheme of things, $90 is a bargain for all of this. Christmas and Hanukkah aren't that far off, so if you can't commit that cash yourself, put it on your wishlist. You can find this and every other MasterClass at www.masterclass.com.

Monday, August 8, 2016

SUICIDE SQUAD is a massive disappointment

As the lights dimmed in my theater this weekend, I realized that despite the multiple trailers I'd seen, the trailers showcased the premise but nothing about the actual story. I still really didn't have any idea what the main plot of SUICIDE SQUAD was going to be.

Two hours later when the lights came up, I STILL wasn't sure I knew the actual plot.

It is not a good sign that each WB/DC movie gets successively worse in quality. I liked MAN OF STEEL quite a bit, probably more than most. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN was a massive disappointment, one not really reversed by the longer Ultimate Cut, and now arrives SUICIDE SQUAD, which might not be the Worst Superhero Movie Ever (CATWOMAN, STEEL and last year's FANTASTIC 4 all are objectively worse). On the other hand, if you're debating exactly where a particular movie falls on a "worst" list, chances are more than a few things went wrong on the way to release date.

Much has been made about the behind the scenes drama of SUICIDE SQUAD, particularly in articles like this one from The Hollywood Reporter. I don't know how accurate this story and those like it are. I've heard gossip rumblings both ways. Speaking as someone who has worked for companies that have made some real stinkers, I can tell you that with a movie this misguided, there's plenty of blame to go around. The culprit is never JUST studio meddling. The problems start when you develop the script wrong, or you hire the wrong writer, or you put the wrong director at the helm, or the producers don't understand the genre that they're making, or the film is miscast, and so on. You'll usually find bad creative decisions made at multiple levels and they all compound each other.

The strongest stretch of the film is the first twenty minutes or so. Intelligence advisor Amanda Waller, played wonderfully by Viola Davis, foresees that the next war will be fought with metahumans. Her plan is to bring captured criminal assets under the thumb of the U.S. Government, recruiting them for suicide missions in return for leniency. This is actually the fourth live action incarnation of Waller so far (following Smallville, Green Lantern, and Arrow) but Davis is such a cold sociopathic presence that she makes all other contenders irrelevant. There are a lot of questionable decisions in SUICIDE SQUAD, but Davis's casting is one point where writer/director David Ayer nailed the bullseye.

As she assembles her team, we're treated to flashbacks of these criminals' origins. At times, it's a bit choppy, but the sheer entertainment value of the vignettes eases those transitions. Deadshot, played by Will Smith is an early standout. He seems to be played a bit more irreverently than in the comic and Smith seems to be having more fun here than he has in a while. While he's not a metahuman, he IS an expert marksman who never misses his shot.

I'll get to the other members of the team in a minute, but first I want to address a plotting issue. In these sorts of team movies, it helps if everyone has a different skill set or super power, and that each one is essential to the solution. Think of OCEAN'S ELEVEN. You've got the charmer, the tech guy, the bomb expert, and so on. In superhero terms, look at the first X-MEN. It all builds to a climax where every character's power comes into play and is critical to how they work together.

I bring this up because it's a failure of plotting that SUICIDE SQUAD's objective doesn't rely on each character's powers. In fact, for much of the film, the end goal of their mission is only vaguely defined. Let's look at each character and consider the logic of their recruitment.

Deadshot - Okay, having a perfect marksman makes sense. He's in.
Killer Croc - mutant monster who eats people. Okay, muscle makes sense.
El Diablo - Shoots fire from his hands. Definitely some kind of application for that.
Captain Boomerang - Expert thief whose gimmick is boomerangs. Um... really?
Harley Quinn - Homicidal nut case with no super powers and armed with a baseball bat. Okay, Waller is just screwing with us at this point, right?

Harley is at least entertaining, probably the MOST entertaining member of the cast. Half the time you forget Boomerang is there, he's so boring. Margot Robbie, on the other hand, fully commits to the role of the Joker's girlfriend. The character is a bit of an odd fit for this mission, though. There's really no point at all where her recruitment makes sense, and the one instance where she DOES get to do something critical, it's a moment that could have been given to any of the characters.

Because Harley's involved, a subplot is built around the notion of the Joker coming to get her back. I feel very strongly that you could cut every present day scene of the Joker and not impact the plot at all. (My own theory is that Joker's involvment was once limited to flashbacks and at some point in the rewrites, they couldn't resist trying to beef up his role.) The most interesting thing about the Joker in this film is his seduction of Harley, and even that is only shown in fleeting glimpses. It's a waste to having him hanging around outside Harley's origin, and it might have been better to make the mission somehow involve a hunt for the Joker.

And just from an acting standpoint, Jared Leto won't erase anyone's memories of prior Jokers. The script doesn't provide many opportunities for the character's delightful lunacy to pop to the surface and this gangster incarnation had me longing for the days when The Joker was a ghoulish prankster who'd create smiling fish rather than a brutal sadist bent on topping how sick he was.

I'm going to have to wade into spoiler territory to discuss the film's other main villain - The Enchantress. She's a witch several thousand years old who's possessed an archeologist named June Moon. Waller arrogantly believes she's got her under control, but the Enchantress manages to betray her with the help of her brother and then begins building... some kind of machine that will supposedly wipe out humanity. This is the mission the Suicide Squad are assembled for.

Naturally with this being a superhero film, those end-of-the-world stakes are represented by a giant glowing portal in the sky. For everything in the third act to come down to this feels so uninspired. The character beats of the story are fun, but character is totally divorced from plot. I had a lot of problems with Batman v. Superman, but you can't deny that from the first sequence, there is a clear and distinct mission to link character motivation with the core conflict of the story. Even the battle with Doomsday is more motivated in character than SUICIDE SQUAD's climax.

So many beats are mishandled on the way to that climax. There's some business where the team is deceived about who they are sent in to retrieve from the war zone. This reveal is botched, both in when the audience is let in on the twist and then later when the squad members realize they've been duped. I wish to stay out of spoiling too many late-game turns, but Waller's status during the third act is another piece I really don't buy at all. I feel like the film plays it safe.

Speaking of Waller, I was glad to see her amoral attitudes made the transition from the comics mostly unscathed. Whenever she showed up in a storyline, I tended to loathe her, which is the exact correct reaction because she's usually an antagonist to the "good" heroes like Superman and Batman. Davis had so much presense that I found myself thinking, "Oh man, it's gonna be awesome to get her and Affleck in the same scene eventually. Batman facing off against her will be intense."

SPOILER

Well, they take that potential and they throw it away in a credits scene that has Waller and Bruce Wayne face to face. It's a fairly mundane scene too, and it also makes it clear that Waller knows Bruce is Batman, and that Wayne knows she knows. It takes so much potential tension out of that dynamic, robbing JUSTICE LEAGUE of a moment where we could see Waller put it all together, or have Batman realize his secret is compromised. Placed in this context, the moment is completely unearned.

END SPOILER

There's so much wasted potential in this film. I want to say that Robbie, Smith and Davis save it, but the truth is that they don't even come close. The plot, the editing, and the whole aesthetic are just too much of a mess. I haven't even gotten into the goofiness of how Katana is said to have a knife that captures the soul of the person she kills, and how the team BARELY reacts to a statement that nutty. (Later she talks to the blade.) Hell, Harley gets more reactions when she pretends to be hearing voices.

And the less said about The Enchantress's pelvic throbbing, the better. It was one of those points where I was physically embarrassed for the actress that this was what 70% of her scenes boiled down to.

When SUICIDE SQUAD was announced, it felt like it was going to be a weird one-off that played as more of a tangent to the DCU. After BvS under-performed, the narrative shifted to how this film would become the one critical to selling the mass audience on the DC filmic universe. Personally, I think the first expectations were more accurate. And if the box office doesn't come out the way WB expects, they'd better hope a lot of viewers see it that way.

This is easily the weakest comic book movie of the year. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE was an uninspired letdown that wasted a lot of talent on a weak script, but even that wasn't as eye-rollingly bad as this film is. This film left me wanting The Joker to get locked up in the DC Vault for a good long time until someone has a story worthy of his involvement.

SS is a dud, but it doesn't necessarily foretell doom for the rest of the franchise. I think this means that WONDER WOMAN probably really is their last chance to right the ship. JUSTICE LEAGUE will still be made, of course, but a botched WW film means a strikeout for WB/DC before JL gets up to the plate.