Friday, August 31, 2012


I got up today ready to work and walked into my office and realized something.

The screenwriting book is finished! Done. Toute les finis, oui!

I was so used to dragging myself to the laptop and begin writing that I forgot all things end eventually and the book is finished. Well, not really. I've sent it to 5 people including my brother who's an editor at a newspaper and a friend who edited books.

Once they get a look and offer suggestions, I'll either publish it myself on Amazon as I did with Emperor of Mars, or I'll use a publishing company, still undecided.

In the meantime, I'm cleaning up old emails and other stuff and beginning to work on Ghostkeeper 2, the sequel to Ghostkeeper which was re-released for the 30th Anniversary DVD in May 2012.


 Have a good week-end and holiday...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The 405 incident...

... In which your loyal writer nearly gets rammed from every side at 65 mph.

I'm known for my excellent driving skills and reflexes, even at my age. Driving came natural to me on the wide open prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan where a drive to see a movie could be 100 miles away. And coming home the same night.

But I got my wings in Detroit way back in 1970's where you learn pretty quick that you can get wiped out on the John Lodge Freeway. And then there's the streetsmarts that you learn. Like when you're driving down Woodward at night and a car pulls up, it's best for you to be in the outside lane so that anyone assaulting you has to go around the car. 

I travel all over the western states and Canada and have put hundreds of thousands of miles on my handful of cars. My current car, an Explorer has 230,000 miles and is in such good condition that my mechanic said he'd buy it whenever I decide to sell it. It helped that my dad was a mechanic.

And after I come home from any of my travels I thank the road god for keeping me safe one more time.

I've never really had many accidents, one was my fault when I crossed a street in my trusty 68 Mustang and got hit by a truck. Then there was the time in Detroit when I was driving my friend's Mazda to Vancouver. I got hit from behind in a blinding rainstorm even though I had stopped 20 feet away from the stalled car on the Interstate ahead of me.

It turned out to be an 8 car crash and the guy who hit me pushed me into the first lane (the first lane is the shoulder lane, lanes go 1, 2, 3 from the right shoulder). The seat broke backwards and I fell back, waiting for someone in that lane would hit me. But nobody did. I got out, saw 8 cars in my previous lane and realized I was okay but the Mazda's truck looked like an accordion.

Turns out the guy who hit me was drinking and because I didn't hit anyone I was free to go. But I had to get a state trooper, a woman, to help me bend out a rear fender. I also realized that my friend's wife had put her china in the truck as she was afraid the movers would break them. When they managed to open the trunk, the china wasn't damaged.

I had a number of near-accidents in snow and ice but always somehow made it out clean. 

Then there was South Dakota.

I was traveling at twilight on a 2-lane highway heading south to the Black Hills which ran along the Wyoming state line. Twilight is never a good time on the flat plains because animals come out and hang around the road and sometimes for the warmth created by sunlight.

I saw 2 deer grazing on the side, then a few miles up, more deer. The sun was gone and there were dark shadows and I was traveling the speed limit, 65mph. I saw more deer and was amazed at the numbers, there must have been 20 or more.

Then I saw two more deer ahead of me,  one in each lane and both looking towards me.

I had less than 30 seconds to figure out what to do. The ditches were steep and if I hit the brakes I would roll, If I tried to go around them, I could roll too. And if I hit one of the deer, I could die.

Then something came to me, a corny expression, you've heard it I'm sure...

Like a deer in your headlights.

I had my headlights on for safety on 2-lane highways and I thought, if the two deer didn't move an inch, I could fly right between them, there was enough room.

I never even saw them react as I shot between the two. I made it. After a minute or two I realized how close I came to buying the farm, as they say. I stopped, got out, walked around and just shouted.

Which brings me to the 405 freeway heading from the valley to Santa Monica. It was 7.30am and I had my bike on my Explorer and was watching traffic around me as usual. Then I noticed a car had stopped at the off-ramp to Wilshire I think, or Santa Monica. It seemed the driver had taken the exit by mistake and wanted back on the freeway.

I was in lane 2 and there was a car in lane 1 just to my right and ahead by two car lengths.

Suddenly the stopped car backed up! Right into lane 1 and the guy on my right side. It all happened in seconds.

Lane 1 car hit the breaks to avoid hitting the car backing up, and as he did he turned his wheel to avoid the car and thus coming into my lane. We're talking 1 or 2 car lengths away. His car screamed as brakes smoked and he was turning around at about 170 degrees, almost facing me.

I  glanced at a mirror for a second and saw cars behind, but I turned my wheel left and saw a hole between the revolving and smoking car and other cars to my left. Just like the deers. I aimed for that hole and prayed nobody was in it in my blind spot.

Nobody was. I shot thru and looked back at what seemed like a dozen cars stopped. By the time I figured all this out I was a mile away.

One more for Jim

Monday, August 27, 2012

No Blog today

Working on a deadline on the screenwriting book as well as dealing with a potential investor in Ghostkeeper as well as a possible producer in Canada. Will have some stuff to tell later.

Also survived a near 5-car collision on the 405 freeway, thanks to my sharp eyes and reflexes. More on this too.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Happy Birthday 3-year old

3 years ago today this blog was created to follow the adventures of myself and Shirley Petchprapa as we hoped to make a movie out of a screenplay I wrote called Travel Day.

Somehow it was picked to be in the top 50 film blogs of 2010 in spite of the fact that the financing fell through. Rather than end the blog I kept posting and now have almost 400 separate posts.

Now finishing it's 3rd year I am still blogging with new projects and my take on the business.  In the past 3 years I wrote about my adventures on a TV series in the Rocky Mountains as well as telling you about Ghostkeeper, the feature I wrote and directed in 1980 and now released as a 30th Anniversary DVD. 

I also published a novelization of my screenplay Emperor of Mars and am currently wrapping up another book on screenwriting which I hope to publish in September.

There's a lot of people still hanging on, some leave and some new ones arrive. I have readers in the US, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Hungary, Russia, South Korea, France, India and Ukraine. 

So thanks for hanging on, I hope to bring some new projects in the next month.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Why write?

A group of us were talking about the various jobs we had before we entered into the movie business and it seemed that I was the only one who really couldn't do anything else.  I worked as a limo driver once, it lasted 2 months. I worked as a security guard in Vancouver watching over Nissan cars on an island and that lasted about 2 months.

I think I hold the record for shortest time on a job back in the 70's when I got the job Friday and by Sunday was driving across Canada, leaving the job before I started.

I had an office job for 2 weeks and left, of course that was late 60's when there were plenty of jobs around. All I really wanted to do is go to movies and watch TV. Even my favorite school teacher wrote that I was "a little lazy" in both Grade 6 & 7. 

That all changed when I got a job in the mailroom of a TV station. I knew instantly this would be my life and it became that. It was the best job in the world for me. And after 2 months there was an opening for a beginning editor and I took that. A year later at the same TV station I got a job in the photography and news department.

It really was a time of opportunity as I skipped across the country working at TV stations where there was almost always a job opening or a job to be opened in a few months. And after several years of TV jobs, I began to write screenplays.

The first few were pretty bad but I kept at it, even when I was out of work, I always wrote. And that's when people started to ask me why I wanted to write.

First, it wasn't for the money, in fact very few writers make tons of money while most of us are lucky to have one movie made. I was a little luckier, I got 19 movies produced and the odd thing about it is that I don't really think it was me.

Writing is watching and listening and the good writers do this all the time. My Grade 6/7 teacher did say I was curious and that's one of the best assets of any writer. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said that when they began writing songs, he was suddenly aware of other people and what they did or said.

He would hear a certain phrase or a couple of words from someone on a street and suddenly would begin to compose a song and after awhile he admitted that it was almost voyeuristic. Yet he kept listening and watching and realized that he was becoming an "outsider".

And that's what a lot of writers become be it songs or movies.

Someone once asked me what I do. I said I write happy endings.  He looked at me and couldn't quite understand. I then said that my job is to give people stories that make them feel good but also to give them some diversion from the world they live in.

Of course not all movies have happy endings but the experience is still there. The audience knows that the Titanic will sink, but that at least Kate would live.

Experts say that people go to horror movies to experience a near-death sort of thing, they can watch death but once the movie is over, they are still alive.

So I write and continue to write for as long as I can type and then I will speak the words into a software until I can't speak anymore. 

Because it's the only thing I know how to do.

Okay, I can also take photographs and shoot documentaries and edit them as well.

As far as writing, I have finished the first pass of the screenwriting book and am organizing and rewriting and already have a screenplay I want to write beginning in September.

And Friday is going to be a special day for this blog. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hollywood hurts

There as a big article in LA Times this week about the fact that more TV series were filmed outside of Hollywood, which in turn means that a lot of technical people are out of work and some are losing their homes.

Ever since Canada began to offer tax credits and incentives to get American productions up there, a lot of states began to see the light and they started. Two of the biggest ones are Louisiana and New Mexico, both of whom offer incentives as good as Canada. And since the Canadian dollar is at par more or less, Canada has been losing business it had when it was 69 cents.

American productions still come to Canada but not as much and the big centers are Toronto and Vancouver, while the rest of the provinces get a movie or two. Alberta has an AMC series but Saskatchewan has dropped it's incentives.

These incentives are basically money given back after the production is finished. It's a little more complicated than the American states who give incentives. In Canada, a certain amount of people need to be Canadian citizens and in some cases residents of that particular province. 

The Federal program offers money back also but has a 6 point demand on the top jobs; writer, producer, director, actor, editor and DP and sometimes production designer. In order to get money back 6 of 10 points needs to be Canadian talent. And the production company has to be registered in Canada.

The U.S. system is a little different, residency doesn't always have to be from that particular state.

So what's the rebates or incentives worth? Well, most credits (incentive, rebate and credits are basically the same thing - money paid back to the production after an audit) pay anywhere from 10 to 35%, meaning that a $10 million movie could theoretically get $3.5 million paid back to the producers. Each state and province has their own limits but you can see the advantage.

Back in the USA, there are 23 new 1-hour dramas starting to film and only 2 are being filmed in Hollywood. Considering that a 22 episode 1-hour drama series has a budget of around $60 million it translates to 840 jobs, according to the LA Times.

Also consider that in 2005 80% of the drama series were done here, but now it's more like 10%.  Unions claim that there is a 30% unemployment in the movie town, which is three times as much as the national unemployment numbers.

Of course the Writer's Guild has around an 80% unemployment rate so they don't have much on us.

But unemployment is real and people are losing their homes. Some move to New Mexico or Louisiana which as I mentioned seemed the hottest. New York is doing well, having 4 times the amount of filming as compared to Hollywood.

But don't cry for Hollywood yet. Almost all the sitcoms are still made here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Heat and character actors

It's hot in the valley. Last week every day seemed to be 106F, and it looks the same for this week so I am in a bad mood, sort of. I feel like a prisoner, kept inside in the cool of A/C. Just stepping outside is like into a fire.

On top of that I didn't feel like writing a blog today because it's too hot.

But one of you posted a question about character actors. She said I often speak of character actors,  it's interesting that she said that as I never really thought of it. But I guess I do, so for those who don't quite know about character actors, here's a bit more information on these people. The actor above is Elisha Cook Jr.  and was in countless western movies. The best way to describe character actors are those actors in movies that you always recognize but never know their names.

Basically character actors are the other actors in a movie whose job is to support the stars. Take The Dark Night Rises,  Batman's the star but there's several actors around him, Gary Oldman for example who played the police chief. Oldman isn't a leading man anymore as he gets older but he is an excellent example of a character actor. Ann Hathaway is a star in that she still plays lead roles in movies.

Character actors are the backbone of movies, John Goodman is a character actor, he usually plays big, over the top characters somehow connected to the star, an example is The Big Lebowski, where Jeff Bridges is the star. 

Character actors usually have a specialty and play that role in different movies. Steve Buscemi is a character actor also, often playing a weasely kind of character like he did in Fargo. In fact Fargo had a lot of character actors.

They're not restricted to men, there are probably just as many women who are character actors also, often as they get older. Both men and women who are character actors are not really able to "carry" a movie, meaning that they don't have that extra star quality that makes them a total star.

 Kathryn Joosten is a really good  character actress who was a neighbor in Desperate Housewives. She can count on working forever because she's good and she basically plays the same part over again... usually a snoopy neighbor.

One of the best things about being a character actor is that they are almost always working as there are a lot of character roles in a movie, but only one or two stars. Sometimes character actors get big starring roles, but not often. There's a movie out now, The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Render who came to attention in the Iraq war movie, The Hurt Locker.

To understand what I mean all you have to do is look at him, he's a good actor, but he's not Matt Damon.  I predict he will eventually become a character actor, and actually probably will work even more. Character actors also tend to be better actors than stars.

I watched a movie called Man On A Ledge with the actor from Avatar, Sam Worthington. He stands on a hotel ledge while a police suicide specialist tries to talk him inside.  The cop is played by Elizabeth Banks who is good in romantic comedies with a big cast around her. However she can't really handle a serious role and you can see this between her and Sam, who has a good presence.

Character actors like Jane Lynch bring a comfort zone to the stars, they are funny or scary or unusual in some way and they are essentially the foundation of every movie. They are the workers and the stars are the CEO's.

There is a lack of real stars now, they seem to have disappeared. We still have Tom Cruise and George Clooney but the star system which began in the 1920's ended around the mid 1960's. It created stars like Bogart, Cagney, Hepburn, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman and hundreds more.

Now we have few real stars that an audience would go to see even if the movie is bad. While character actors don't get the big star treatment, they fill in every movie with their particular look and attitudes. Movies wouldn't be very good without them. 

My good friend actor Chris Sullivan can probably add even more .

 And we can't forget Danny Trejo.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Heat and work

Hot weather finally hit L.A. It's been around 106F in the valley for the last 6 days and expected to stay that for the week. Not really uncommon and not as bad as the rest of the country.

I'm pushing through my book on screenwriting, should have a finished version in a  week or so. I'm finding new ways to use my lectures as well as my experience, I'm combining instruction with stories of the business and some of the people I've worked with. I discovered a lecture that I didn't remember on the subject of the Christmas movie, The Town That Christmas Forgot, for Hallmark 2010. 

The lecture went back to 2002 when I pitched it to a producer I knew. He liked it and we took it to CBS.  I really didn't remember it at all and called the producer yesterday. He didn't remember either and then I re-read it to him and we began to piece it all together.

The central theme of the book is the Christmas movie, I choose it as an example rather than picking the usual suspects like Chinatown, Titanic and others. I feel that seeing every aspect of the writing is much more instructional than quoting scenes from The Godfather.

When I began the book I wasn't sure that I could find anything that would be different than the hundred or so books on screenwriting, but I think I am different. One of the things my former students and friends said is that I actually had movies made. Most of the screenwriting books are written by people who have never sold a screenplay while I have 19 produced credits. I'm not using graphs and equations either, just solid writing examples.

But we'll see. This is a short blog mostly because it's so damn hot and I didn't have a topic I liked today.

And who's the two kids? That's me on the left and my buddy Lefty. I was show business from the beginning!!!


Monday, August 6, 2012

Writers and Robots

A few months ago I worked on a 4 minute trailer for a proposed documentary on Raoul Walsh, a director who started in silent movies and continued until the late 1960's. I shot some interviews with the few remaining actors who worked with him and then edited the entire piece for the producer. 

To do this, I work in Final Cut Pro (FCP) which is a Mac-based editing software, one of the top 3 professional editing systems. It took me a year or two just to get the basics but I can manage it fairly well now.

After I finished, I showed it to my director friend who quickly noted something interesting; I had filmed interviews, edited clips of movies, did "pan and scan effects" (zooming and panning within a photo) added music I composed on my iMac and put the titles in. All by myself.

And that's when he broke the bubble.

"You know that you've taken away the jobs from at least 8 people".

It didn't take long to get the message. I had, in fact, taken away those jobs be doing it myself. This would never have happened, even in the 1990's but technology shot ahead and now everyone can edit and play with images.

And what about those people who did the jobs I did alone. They lost their jobs. A company called Lightning Dubs made copies of dvds, videos, everything. They had 3 offices. When I had to make a PAL dub (European standard for DVDs) for a festival in Italy I was surprised to find that they now had one office.

Because of guys like me?

Well, yes.  But I couldn't afford to pay them what I can do for nothing. 

It's a difficult thing to consider, and another example of something that our society doesn't want to deal with; there will never be as many jobs as there used to be, between technology and outsourcing, a lot of jobs will never return. And a lot more are going to be robots.

Except for writers.

There's a lot of things robots can do but there's one thing they can't do. Be original. Robots have to be programmed otherwise they can't do anything. There's a great example of the robot built to compete in Jeopardy, the TV game show. It won over the humans but not because it knew a lot.

Rather because it was fed the information. The difference is like this; If you ask a robot/computer and a human the same question, what ocean is on the west coast, the robot will answer faster but the human will answer with an image in their mind, maybe a holiday on the Pacific, or an evening on a boat. A computer only answers what's fed into it, it doesn't extend it's memory.

The same thing goes for content, meaning material, meaning words and thoughts. The famed Quantum Phsyics author Michio Kaku, said that now and in the future, there is an insatiable appetite for creative art, meaning writing or images or almost anything that is created. In his book, Physics of the Future he says this:

"Novelists, scriptwriters and playwrights will always have jobs since they have to convey human conflicts and triumphs and defeats"

So, as Bill Murray says in Caddyshack, "I got that going for me".

And what's the biggest flaw in computers and robots? Kaku says "common sense". A GPS unit can tell you where to go and how far it is, but it can't tell you how you feel when you see a rainbow on the horizon or a sunset on Pacific Coast Highway or having that great apple pit at a lonely truckstop.

So I guess this means I and all the other writers have some job security. At least for the moment.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Working with actors

I've had many opportunities to work with actors, mostly on episodic TV and on a few movies. They come in all shapes and sizes and attitudes.  Some are nice, some aren't and some are just hard to get along with.

I always thought that of all the jobs in film, actors have it the hardest. They get picked for a variety of reasons, they're good, they're pretty, they're not pretty and a whole lot more things that directors and producers are looking for.

And when they're working, sparks can fly and not the romantic ones. Rather it becomes a game of topping the other one. I watched two comedians on a show I wrote going at each other, trying to be funnier. It was funny for awhile and then it changed into something really dark as they hammered at each other with lines that cut harder and harder.

Working on a series brings a writer into the world of politics and power. I worked on a series about a waitress who helps a private detective (remember that genre?) in her off time. The role of the detective was played by a well-known character actor. It was evident from the beginning that the character actor was a far better actor than the star.

The star became "difficult" to us, which really was her way of getting attention. In table readings, the character actor was really good and the star attempted to do what he did but it didn't really work at all.

Not all actors can act well and character actors are a saving grace for writers because they not only can act, they can help you write better. Table readings happen when you get the entire cast together to read a new script around a table. There's usually questions and discussions.,

It became apparent that the character actor was liked by all the actors, especially the ones who were there for just one show. What happens in these readings can really be difficult when one actor says his line doesn't work. Immediately the other actors feel they also have to question the screenplay.  This can become a battle.

The character actor was smart, since everyone looked up to him, he'd say he was fine with the script and leave it at that. That way competition for attention didn't really occur. But afterwards the character actor would see the writers in their office and offer his notes.  It's a little sneaky, but saves discussing dialog for hours with every cast member.

Working on a series gives a writer an idea of which actor is better, which one they can count on and which one to avoid. You learn who can handle the dialog better and you tend to write for them more. Competition among actors is brutal sometimes.

On the other hand, actors can save a writer. It happened to me on a movie we filmed in Europe with an actress who played captain in a Star Trek series. I had seen her in the hotel restaurant and introduced myself and she asked me to join her. She was smart and good and she knew the business and didn't have to prove anything.

Later in the movie, I wrote a big dialog scene for her and with her, it was around 7 pages which is a lot for an actor to learn. Most scenes are half a page or a page or two. We worked on it for a few days and then it was ready to shoot.

However the executive producer thought it was too long and told me to edit it. I said it wasn't and that she and the network were fine. This became a disagreement with him and I. I would not change it.  To spell it out more, I was working for the network not him.

When the day came to shoot the scene I was in the hotel lobby when the actress saw me and approached. She asked why I changed the scene. Someone had rewritten the scene from 7 pages to 2 pages. She was furious. It didn't take me long to figure out it was the exec producer who actually had his secretary write the new scene and place it with the 1st assistant director who handles the scenes.

The assistant director then called me and asked why I changed it. I told him I didn't. Now they were almost ready to shoot and didn't know what to do, obey their boss or me and the woman.

There's something I left out about the actress. She was the star, and she was also the lead in a Star Trek series. What this means is she has power. 

She showed up on set with my original pages and said those were the pages we would film. Needless to say the director listened to her.  I burned a bridge with that executive producer and to this day,  I was never sorry. 

There are a lot of egos in this business on all sides and it all comes down to one thing; we're all chasing that dream and when you consider that the "dream" is something you can't touch or see or feel until it becomes real.

Kind of silly, really, we're just a bunch of kids who never grew up.  But without us, it would be a boring world.