Monday, August 31, 2015

Farewell to a true master of horror, Wes Craven

My first Wes Craven film was Vampire in Brooklyn in 1995. I saw it at the age of 15, which is still just about young enough to like just about every movie you see. I don't remember much about the film from my initial viewing, nor could could I tell you how my opinion of the film evolved over time because my recollection is that it was one of the worst films I had seen in a theatre. I never have walked out of a film, but this one really, really tested that resolve.

Little did I realize that a year later, Craven would release one of my all-time favorite films, SCREAM. I've written a number of tributes to SCREAM on this blog in the past including this meditation on writing lessons from SCREAM and a tribute to the film's lead character Sidney Prescott, my pick for horror's greatest heroine. And then there's this piece about why I like Wes Craven's characters. Most recently, I defended the lowest-grossing Nightmare on Elm Street sequel - Wes Craven's New Nightmare, as it celebrated its 20th anniversary.

I wrote the first of those posts during the inaugural year of this blog. Soon after I published it, I gained a new Twitter follower - Wes Craven. Okay, Hollywood being what it is, it's more likely it was one of his assistants or his social media team - but at the time I was thrilled at the fantasy that I was a DM away from asking Mr. Craven to do an interview. I never had the guts to try, figuring I'd wait until I'd interviewed enough "big fish" so that my request wouldn't be laughed at out of hand.

Alas, I'll never get that chance. Wes Craven died yesterday of brain cancer at the age of 76. As I looked over his filmography, one fact jumped out at me - five of his best films were released after he turned 55: Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Scream, Scream 2, Music of the Heart and Red Eye. In an industry that often over-values youth and what's new, Craven not only reinvented horror at least once in his social security years, but also proved this Master of Horror could handle mature drama and turn out a tight thriller. (Red Eye tends to be underrated. I'll grant that the third act is a come-down from what lead to it, but most of it still works remarkably well.)

The closest I ever got to my Craven interview was this talk with his creative executive Carly Feingold. It's worth a read for the look behind the scenes of some of his later films.

It felt like Craven had at least one more great film in him. It's awful that he left us so abruptly. His illness wasn't publicly known and he was still booking projects. There was an intelligence he often brought to the horror genre that is frequently absent in other films of that ilk. Some of his best movies are streaming on Netflix, so spend an evening this week watching a few of them in tribute.

Or perhaps the sleepless nights that result from those viewings are an even finer way to honor the man. Rest in peace, Wes Craven.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Check out Go Into The Story's interview with John Gary

Scott Myers is running an interview this week with my friend John Gary over on Go Into The Story. John is one of the many fine people I've met through Twitter over the years, and we've bonded through our similar outlook on the business at times, as well as our mutual histories as agency readers.

John's having a big week, as Deadline just announced that his screenplay SARAH has been acquired by Lionsgate's Summit. Buried in Deadline's announcement is the additional news that John is rewriting a film called OFF-WORLD for Paramount, with Josh Duhamel set to star.

(Having read SARAH, I'm rather perplexed by Deadline's comparison of it to LUCY. I don't see the two as being similar at all, beyond the fact both star young women and have action sequences.)

A lot of what John says in the interview really resonates with me. Speaking about the job of script reading, John observes:

"It is very easy to get stuck with velvet handcuffs when you’re pulling in good money for work that is pretty easy, not all that time consuming, you’ve been doing it for awhile and you’re getting the good scripts and you have some respect at work, and you’re complacent and it’s easier to read another script than it is to write something of your own. But in the end, you have to write."

SO. TRUE. I have lived this.

Later, John discusses how he reversed a cold streak in his career:

"I looked around and saw other people, other friends, and they were finding some success, so I knew there was a way in. I took a step back, and I said to myself, “What am I missing here?” and the thing I was missing was I was writing what I thought I should write, instead of what I wanted to write. I’d been listening to too many other people, and I’d stopped listening to myself.

"I fired my manager. I joined a small writer’s group. I needed to get back to what works for me creatively. I needed to figure out again what I liked to do. I’d forgotten by then. I’d gotten too wrapped up in chasing the machine, pining for success. But writing what you love is only half of the equation. Writing what Hollywood loves is the other half.

"I have this theory, and it’s a theory about who you are as a writer and what Hollywood does. It’s a Venn Diagram. There’s one circle – what Hollywood does. There’s another circle – what kind of writer you are. And this includes what you like to write and what you’re good at and what kind of writing really lights you on fire. The intersection of those two circles: that’s what you should write."

 Four parts have been posted so far, with more to follow.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

And don't forget to check out an archive post of mine: John Gary and the Hope Machine.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

On Mystery Exec and the value of your own identity

I usually keep the twitter-specific drama to Twitter, but this week one particular event occurred that seemed worth noting. The anonymous tweeter known as @MysteryExec nuked his account. The gentleman behind this moniker claimed to be a studio executive of some kind and in recent years, had taken to semi-regular "sermons from the mountain top" imploring his followers to "Be the Change" and support new and diverse voices in Hollywood.

I'll be honest with you - I was not always a fan of the guy and a lot of that had to do with my conviction he was a fraud. I remember what his account was when it launched sometime in 2010. He was less of an idealistic force for change and more like a bad parody of someone's impression of Kevin Spacey in SWIMMING WITH SHARKS. When an account goes from boasting about all the chicks he's banging while knocking back liquor to suddenly being very pro-feminist, it's hard not to see someone putting on an act. Neither incarnation really rang true as a real exec's voice.

In fact, there was one time I tweeted "If an account has 'Mystery' in front of it, you can bet that whatever follows it is total horseshit." Within seconds he replied, "oh, like YOU'RE so scintillating!" It seemed curious to me that my stray comment would have gotten so far under the skin of a person who was what they claimed to be.

But even I called a truce of sorts, eventually. I refused to follow him until late last fall when I saw that he was boosting the signal for some causes I feel strongly about, particularly anti-piracy and stronger voices for women and minorities in film.

Last night, I tweeted some thoughts about what we can learn from all of this. What follows is an edited transcript:

I don't blame people for feeling mislead by Mystery Exec. I don't like when anonymous accounts misrepresent themselves. No matter how transparent the ruse. I've seen people say that they really responded to a lot of his thoughts calling for more diverse voices in film, among other calls to arms. If what he said provoked you to think about things differently, that isn't diminished by learning Santa isn't real.

But I also keep coming back to the fact that everything he said - he didn't need a fake executive pose to give it weight. It's a genuine shame he felt he couldn't express those opinions while being honest about who he was. Or what he was.

Look, I'm a script reader. I'm LOW on the totem pole. And via my blog and twitter, I've reached a lot of people here and made a LOT of contacts in real life. And I've made a lot of good friends. And it's NOT because I'm anonymous. And it's NOT because people love readers. It's because i have a voice of my own. And I've found people who respond to that. Or they found me. I'm not important, but people listen.

I'm sorry that ME closed himself off from that by maintaining total anonymity. I'm sure there are a lot of good friends he could have made. The first time a working writer asked me to coffee, the idea someone WANTED to meet me was so foreign I didn't realize it WAS a legit invite.

You can make good friends on here. I've made very strong friends. I've made bonds that have helped my career, for sure. I use the moniker so this isn't the first thing that pops up when people google me. It wasn't so I could drop gossip or put on an act. This is 100% me. I strive to be intellectually honest here. After all, who'd pretend to be a Script Reader?

So if you must take a final lesson from this Mystery Exec thing, let it be this. Don't be afraid to be yourself.

You don't need a fake Mystery moniker to have value.

Also, keeping up an act is HARD.

Thank you, and have a good evening.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Reader questions: How much should I worry about budget when writing? and writing later in life.

Kris writes --

As I'm currently trying to grind out my first feature-length spec, a bit of a harrowing thought crossed my mind; something that often is discussed in various podcasts and blogs of this nature -- keeping budget in mind when writing.

I'm confidently certain that it can happen to any screenwriter might get swept by the imagination he/she puts unto paper, but also understand that studios ultimately answer to what can be afforded, with X amount of blockbusters eating up studio funding.

Anyways, this concern of mine came into fruition amid writing my script; where a teenaged protagonist undergoes a transformation early on and remains in her changed form (a centaur) for the rest of the story. Given that the story is geared more as a drama with supernatural elements -- the focus more on the protagonist's decision to act on her sudden change, and how her family is affected by it -- I don't know of too many films that would have the level of practical-SFX integration I assume would be needed to budget (of course, if on fate's good luck it ever gets picked up); especially for the centaur FX.

I feel the transformation is key in the story to help conceptualize the forced change the character faces to keep it in the story, but also understand how a studio may not pick it up if they deemed it too expensive for a smaller tier film that would likely not be blockbuster material. And I must admit if a potential producer would ask me how much budget I thought the film, my vague understanding of SFX budgeting, being a screenwriter, would cripple my ability to answer effectively.

Given the aforementioned scenario, and writing skill aside, would it better to tailor down the SFX featured in the script to make it appealing to potential producers? Or can I try my best to make the premise and script solid enough that if the script was green-lit, that the SFX projections could be adjusted during pre-production? Also, in your experience, what is often the biggest reasons for a otherwise solid spec reliant on SFX to be rejected due to budget concerns?

Just my opinion, but I feel like it's not the writer's responsibility to budget their film. If the idea you're working on will not work without VFX, then embrace that and write to it. If someone likes your story but feels the price tag is too high, you can always cut back. There's something to be said for writing a budget-conscious script - such as if you're writing a limited-location thriller in a bid to keep the budget down - but once you're in fantasy land, I say embrace it.

Scripts might get rejected because they're too prohibitive to produce by those particular makers, but you'll find most producers stay in a particular price range. Blumhouse is never going to make a TRANSFORMERS-sized film, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to take your TRANSFORMER-sized idea and cut it to the bone just so smaller producers can work with it.

Also, there's a strong likelihood that your first spec is just going to be something that opens doors for you and never gets made. Write the best version of your idea, then worry about where the money comes from.

 Johnny asks:

I'm in my late 40s and over the past several years I've begun to finally screenwrite (features and TV pilot specs) after years of being a really keen film lover. More recently I've been involved with several short films written by others, in a crew capacity.

My screenplays have received decent external feedback, including a few 6 ratings on the Blacklist. I write on a consistent basis, read screenplays, and do a lot of networking and attending film/screenwriting industry events.

I don't intend to give up my (non-film industry) day job anytime soon, and have a family to support. So my question is: what are your views for someone like myself or older who has a passion and dedication for screenwriting, but happened to come to it a bit later in life?

My view is that you're going to have to be ready for the long haul. Does ageism really exist in this business? People say it does, but I've never seen a newbie script from an older writer treated differently from a newbie script from a younger writer. I don't think that's the most insurmountable obstacle, though. If your writing is brilliant, you can probably overcome that.

I don't want to start this debate again, but the biggest handicap you'll have as an older person will be the result of where you settled. If you live in L.A., you're in a good spot because you're surrounded by potential contacts and you'll be able to take meetings at the drop of a hat.  Aspiring writers who are determined to stay out of L.A. are making things more difficult for themselves for many reasons, and I discuss that in this post.

(Whenever I say this, people often argue all the reasons why they don't WANT to move: they don't want to uproot their family, their job, etc. That's fine. That's a valid choice. But I'm under no obligation to reassure you that you're not forgoing any benefit by staying out-of-town. There are tangible advantages to being in L.A. - thus, when you forgo them, you place yourself at a tactical disadvantage. Yes, there will be exceptions, but a few lone exceptions do not disprove the odds or nulify the "rule.")

But if you've gotten decent external feedback, you're still enjoying writing, and it's not actively hurting you to pursue writing, keep with it.  As an older writer, you can't put your family's livelihood at risk by blowing too much on coverage, or seminars. If it's a choice between spending money on your kids and spending money on writing, indulge your kids.

A lot of people pursue writing expecting some kind of instant gratification or validation. Sometimes I feel like that attitude comes with being young and arrogant. When you're not responsible for anyone else, sometimes that attitude can be a positive. The conflict you're going to face is that you have to make your family your priority and your younger competition can afford to make writing and networking the priority.

You seem to have recognized that at the start. That's a good sign. It's not easy for ANYONE to make it as a writer so never put work out there that you know could be better.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

We'll miss you, Jon Stewart

At this point, the internet is probably saturated with Jon Stewart tributes, and so my first thought as I embark on this post is that you probably don't need another one. Still, as a long-time fan of Jon's, I couldn't let the occasion pass without paying tribute to one of my favorite comedians and one of the sharpest media critics of the century.

I've watched The Daily Show since before there was a Jon Stewart behind the host's desk. I vividly recall debating with my freshman roommate if the show could survive the loss of the comedic wit of Craig Kilborn. (For the record, I was pulling for Jon, he was convinced that Stewart would be a pale imitation.) It took about a year for Jon to really begin turning the show into what it would become. When Kilborn ran it, it was focused more on celebrity news and strange local weirdos who would become the butt of the jokes in remote pieces. The show was far less interested in politics and didn't aspire at all to be a media critic.

The 2000 Presidential campaign set the stage for TDS's practice of puncturing the pundits and their role in packaging the campaigns. Mo Rocca, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert were sent on assignment in TDS branded trenchcoats and crashed a McCain press conference to ask him hard questions taken from Trival Pursuit cards. Two things stick with me about that field report - my disbelief that they could get away with being that irreverent during a supposedly serious campaign, and that McCain was savvy enough to play along with them in good humor.

(Moments like that were part of what made it feel like such a betrayal in 2008 when McCain decided he needed to appease the psychopath wing of the GOP and seemed incapable of those spontaneous moments of humanity, instead sticking to fear-mongering talking points.)

It was stunts like that that helped make politics feel relevant to college students like me. Bob Dole got it, and served for an election or two as an election analyst for The Daily Show. Contrary to Fox News's Bill O'Reilly's assertion that Jon's audience is made up of "stoners," studies have shown that viewers of The Daily Show are among those most informed about current events.

I don't think it's necessarily true that TDS viewers get ALL their news from Stewart, but that it's likely viewers of the show feel compelled to seek out more information. Jon is a gateway drug in that sense. I certainly know that many times one of their pieces led me to google the topic of a story, though I confess it was often out of a motivation like, "Louis Gohmert can't have ACTUALLY said that, can he? How does this jackass get elected?!"

Another Stewart trademark is the practice of taking a public figure or pundit's statement on something, and then digging back to find them staking out the opposite position on the same or similar issue. For instance, during Bush's tenure in office, Fox News often scoffed at anti-war protestors, essentially calling it treasonous not to fall in line with the President during a time of war. You know how this works, once a Democrat was elected, those same voices were the loudest calling for open dissent.

It seems like it shouldn't be revolutionary, but it felt that way. For too long, the media never called out a politician on blatant hypocrisy like that. Part of that might be that Stewart rose up just as our culture had multiple 24 hour news channels with a lot of time to fill. Such a setting afforded pundits and public figures plenty of opportunity to hang themselves with their own words. It also didn't hurt that DVR technology made it exceptionally easy to archive these broadcasts, so it's not as if Stewart's writers needed access to CNN's archives when they had to compile a montage of Wolf Blitzer's biggest gaffes. It's still amazing how easy it is to catch people contradicting themselves. You want to shake some of these guys and say, "You know you're being filmed, right?"

For many of us suffering as neo-conservativism threatened to impede any progress in this country, Jon Stewart was comfort food. He was that voice in the darkness letting us we weren't alone here in this asylum, reassuring us that we had not lost our minds. Through comedy, he demonstrated that Fox News was a flat-out evil media organization that distorted the narrative beyond all recognition in service of some truly deplorable agendas. Do you know how skilled one must be as a comedian to expose how dangerously ill-informed at least half the country is by some really scary people in power - and to still draw laughs from that horror?

And contrary to conservative opinion, he took plenty of shots at Obama. It's not his fault that the Bush Administration gave him a lot more to work with, though. Jon's targets were hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty, two traits that neither political party is a stranger too, even if one party currently seems to trade in it more heavily than the other.

And yet beneath all of that, it always felt like the priority was to make his audience laugh. Some of his critics feel that it's somehow inappropriate for comedy to contain any elements of social satire. The instant their beliefs became the target of the joke, they cried that it was unfair for Jon to claim he was a comedian when he was clearly some kind of propagandist. It's kind of sad that most of Jon's critics were more willing to debate whether or not Jon was a comedian or a shill than they were to address any of the points or charges Jon would make in one piece or another.

A poll called Jon Stewart "America's Most Trusted Journalist" for a reason. He was the straight-shooter who never failed to back up his attacks with video evidence. It seems unfair that he leaves the arena while human bile Rush Limbaugh continues to spew garbage like blaming declining teenage sex on the acceptance of homosexuals. I'll miss my daily antidote to the latest lunacy from Donald Trump and the NRA, but after 15 years of daily exposure to the ugly side of politics, you can't say Jon hasn't earned his own respite from those horrors.

Come back anytime, Jon. You know you'll always be welcome.