Monday, July 30, 2012

Uhhhh... actors.

And then there's actors.

First of all I feel for actors as they get judged by how they look, how they talk and generally if they can bring audiences to laughter or tears. Writers just have to give someone a screenplay and then they get paid. Much easier on the ego.

I'm gonna get a comment from Chris on this but I'm coming from my own experiences with actors.

You may have heard about the Modern Family cast above went into the new season and then promptly pulled a strike of sorts. They obviously planned this and made sure everyone was in solidarity. The show was successful,  the network was making plenty of money and besides, the Friends cast was getting $1 million per episode each!

The Modern Family cast was making around $60,000 according to LA Times, nobody knows for sure but they wanted a bigger piece of the pie as they feel that they are responsible for the success of the show.

You're reading this from a writer who's worked in episodic. What do I think?

First of all, they're nowhere near the Friends phenom, nor even close to Seinfield and there really isn't a breakout star from the show except for Ed O'Neil. He made his rep in the sitcom Married With Children and is probably paid more than the others as he has the street credits. He's paid his dues.

The other cast members are good but are basically character actors, none of them have the presence of Ed O'Niell or Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad, or James Gandolfini from Sopranos.

Whatever the asking price was it seems it'll be around $170,000 to $180,000 each episode with some increases if they stay for 9 years. I guarantee it won't be around for 9 years. Why? Because it's a novelty show, a 1-note premise that will eventually tire.

Maybe this sounds like I don't like actors. I like some and not others. A veteran director friend of mine said once that if you want a good actor, they're gonna be "good". Not exciting particularly, nor outstanding, but they'll say the lines and stand where you want them to.

But if you want a great actor, well, these people are a little crazy and that's why they're great. Classic example is Brando, there's Robert Duval, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and a handful of actors. These guys give classic performances like some actors dream of.

A lot of actors are really insecure and I think it comes from a business where you're judged on your looks more than anything else. While actors who know their craft are usually easy to work with, those who aren't all that good can be hell. And if they somehow become stars it's super hell.

There's an old actor joke where the director tells one actor that the scene is all about him and then the director tells the other actor the same thing.  The joke infers that they will go at each other, in words and action, to overpower the other. I've seen it with actors and with comedians and it isn't pretty.

But one thing is missing in the demands.

What about the writers?

This may come as a surprise to some of you but actors don't make up their lines. After 40 years in the business, I still get asked this when I tell them I'm a writer. Their answer is always "I thought they make up the lines".

There's a great quote from Norman Jewison, who directed Cher in Moonstruck where she won an Oscar. She thanked her hairdresser.

Jewison was known to have said: "Well at least she didn't do it all by herself".

So how much does the actor bring to the table. To their credit they must figure out what or who they are on screen and it's not easy. I've been to some actor schools and watched and would never be able to reveal myself the way actors have to. I do appreciate the abilities and craft and when it works, it works great.

So does this ensemble cast deserve more money? Ask someone in Kansas that question and you'll know what to expect. But here in Hollywood; they do deserve it because their helping to make the show a success and you can bet the writers are making far more than they are. And once the run is over, they're out on the street again more often than not carrying the brief bit of fame that they had.

Bottom line is "who's more important - the actor who's hired to play his/her part or the writer who created the show and it's characters?"

And by the way when I say actors, I mean that in the British term, male and female, the term actress comes from a French word, actrice. But come Emmy or Oscar time, they even  occasionally mention the writer who gave them the words.

Because without us, they wouldn't know what to say.

(Thurs: Actors Pt 2 - good actor/bad actor)

Friday, July 27, 2012


I still remember the first time I saw Variety.  It was at a newsstand in downtown Detroit, just off Woodward Avenue. I was a kid from a town of 500 people in northern Canada and my father moved us to Windsor, across the river from 5 million people in the Detroit area.

I think it was 50 cents and I wasn't even sure what it was but I bought it. I took it home and begin to read it even though I couldn't understand terms like box office boffo, exec ankles, backdoor pilot, biopic and ozoner. Translation is 1) movie makes lots of money, 2) executive leaves studio, 3)  TV movie becomes series, 4) biography picture and 5) drive-in movies which sometimes were called "passion pits".

It was like reading a whole new language and I took every bit of it in. It took me a year or so to figure out all the terms they used, a writer would "pen" a movie meaning a deal was made for a writer to write a movie. 

I kept buying Variety for years after that and also discovered Hollywood Reporter. Both of them were essentially newspapers for  the entertainment industry mainly in Los Angeles and New York. They were daily newspapers and had week-end newspapers which were the ones I was able to get. The dailies didn't get as far as Detroit.

And I wondered who else would buy this specialist newspaper; where there that many people in Detroit who were in the entertainment industry. Later on I realized that the entertainment industry in Detroit, mostly radio and TV, had both papers mailed directly to them. Remember mail?

In the scheme of things, it was another step towards me falling into the movie and TV industry and I often wonder if it was an accident or intended to be. I really like being a writer and a director and a filmmaker in general and am lucky to have a hand in each of the Big 3.

When I went out on my own as writer and director I continued to get Variety, but being in Canada, I was only able to get the week-end ones, but a week late. It didn't matter, I devoured the material, mostly about how much movies made, who was making them and what was in the works.

I learned terms like "above the line" which refers to the "talent" in a movie, the writer, the director, the producer and the stars". Crew was relegated to "below the line". DJ, for radio announcers was termed by Variety. A documentary film as a "doc".

Variety excelled at headlines as you see above, the line "stix nix hix pics" refers to the fact that rural movies didn't do well in rural communities.  One of the best was "Wall Street Lays An Egg", which refers to the crash of 1929. 

Variety started 107 years ago and covered the entertainment scene since then, with broadway plays, silent movies and onward up till now.

And now, it's in danger of disappearing altogether. As with all newspapers and magazines, Variety is struggling to keep going. They and Hollywood Reporter have internet versions but the daily papers are losing to instant internet news. Variety is the only remaining daily print publication exclusively covering movies, theater and TV.

It's sad to see it go, but I catch my entertainment news for free as do most people in this business with the exception of IMDB-Pro and it's just too easy to do that than to walk over to a newsstand and buy a copy.

Still it's like losing an old friend and the thrill and excitement this kid had when he read about the business that someday he would be part of.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Museo Nacional de Antropología | Mexico City

During our short time in Mexico City, we took a walking tour to the National Museum of Anthropology and History. We wanted to share some photos because it's a must-visit in Mexico City.

The museum is divided into rooms that are dedicated to ancient Hispanic civilizations like the Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecas, Mixtecas, Purépechas, Olmecs and others. It really helped having a guide to point out interesting displays (because the place is huge) and share background information. I didn't know much about the history in this part of the world and was just soaking up every bit our guide was sharing.

Also, the museum building has an impressive design. There's a giant concrete "umbrella" in the center supported by one pole. It was designed and built by Mexican architect, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez in 1964. 

One more post from Mexico City, then Cuba! Also, I'm getting really anxious to update the blog with a new look and can't wait to share it with you all. 

- Julia

Giant concrete "umbrella" covering the center courtyard of the museum.
View of the city from underneath the umbrella.
This sculpture has a bowl on top that was used to hold human hearts during sacrificial ceremonies. 
Seeing things like this makes me want to travel back in time.
The original Stone Of The Sun (Aztec "calendar").
A reconstruction of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs (located in the center of modern day Mexico City). 

Monday, July 23, 2012

The book

I'm putting back the Variety posting, will do it Thursday.

I'm now about 46 pages into the book on screenwriting and finding it relatively easy. Of course it's based on my 2 1/2 years of teaching extension classes at UCLA, which ended around 2003.

It was a toss-up between writing that or doing a novelization of another screenplay I wrote that got great responses and was even optioned by ABC, until the exec who optioned it was laid off. In cases like that the network or studio kills his babies. Not a very nice term but very real.

I've been a little wary of writing a book on screenwriting, given that there are at least 100 or more books out there. In other words who wants a new book?

I gave those 46 pages to a handful of friends who I can trust will be honest and asked them if I had anything.  A couple have emailed back, one spoke to me on Sunday. They all said it was "compelling" and informative.

Those words could mean a lot of things but they added that due to one factor, the book should do well.

That factor is -- that I actually had movies made. 18 of them. Half were rewrites, where I was hired to rewrite entire screenplays, mostly on location. Those were in Luxembourg, Canada, Mexico and here in Los Angeles.

So what's the difference between me and those other 100 books?

Most of those books were written by people who never had a movie made.  And of the ones who did, there were only a few who had one or a couple made.

Would you want to fly with a pilot who's flown once, or 18 times? And then there's the 30 hours of episodic too.

But before I get too "Mr. Highshot", as my Manitoba friend says, I have another element I'm adding to the book. Essentially it's a take-off of this blog.

I've written this blog for almost 3 years, 3 blogs a week at first, for a year or long and now 2 blogs a week. That's a hell of a lot of posts and some repeated in that time. The blog was in the Top 50 film blogs of 2010 by Movie Maker magazine.

Since then, both screenwriting magazines, Creative Screenwriting & Screenwriter, have disappeared. There might be alternatives on the internet but I couldn't find any.

Back to the post; I am utilizing two elements in the book, first using my lectures from UCLA and updating them as well as combining stories that are similar to the blog. In short I'm attempting to show people how I write (as compared to how to write) . This worked for UCLA and will work again in book form.

I've also woven in stories of the film business, gathered over 40 years, which should provide insight into the world of writers, not just diagrams and catchy phrases that some people use.

It's another re-invention of sorts, my last movie was 2010 and I have a 3 projects being looked at but I've been around the block enough to know that it means nothing. Writing books thru Amazon at least offers the chance to sell a book or two and keeps my mind fresh.

The book on screenwriting should be finished in August and then I'll see what it's future will be like. And at the same time, I'll start writing a new screenplay on a totally different subject.

(Thurs: Death of Variety)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Long not so lonely road...

My last blog was about s handful of old TV shows from the 60's and the theme they all seemed to have as compared to the present. A lot of my friends in their 50's and 60's complain about how bad the shows are now and  in some ways, they are bad.

I seem to be inbetween in that discussion, there certainly were bad TV shows (My Mother the Car?) but there was a middle ground of discovery that seems to be lost now. Of course we didn't have dvds or internet where we could watch and rewatch and rewatch TV series or movies on out TV or iPhone.

For us every episode was a 1-of as they say in TV language, meaning that episode you would watch one night would be gone forever, it might replay once but that was it. That episode was gone.

But something else changed, not for the better particularly.

Most of the TV shows even up to the 70's had one story editor and a producer and most of the scripts were assigned to freelance writers, with exceptions like Rod Serling who wrote many Twilight Zone scripts  himself. Sterling Silliphant wrote a lot of Route 66 scripts as well. There were a few others also.

But it changed in the late 70's when writing staffs became more popular. There were writing staffs on sitcoms even in the 50's, but maybe two or three. Variety shows like Sid Caesar's Show of Shows had a bigger staff including Woody Allen and  Mel Brooks.  Those shows needed a lot of laughs and so had big staffs.

By the late 80's dramatic TV shows began to get larger staffs and today you can see head credits, wherein you see a dozen or more names with titles like producer, executive producer, co-executive producer, co-producer and a few more names.

But they're all writers, with the exception of a real producer, the guy who actually makes up a budget, hires crew and cast and worries about over-spending. Some drama shows have 10 to 15 writers.

So what's my problem?

I worked on several TV series where there were, at the most, 4 writers but the best show I worked on had 2 and 1/2. Let me explain, there was the showrunner, myself and an assistant director who was being tested as a potential writer. It was a good show because the show runner was good. I've been on series where the showrunner isn't good and it becomes a contest over who has power over who.

On that one show, we did 13 episodes, I had 2, the showrunner had 4 and 1 for the new guy. We also farmed out a handful of episodes to freelance writers. 

If you wonder what 3 writers, or for that matter 15 writers, do in the writing room? Mostly argue. But with 3 we settle it quickly, with 15 I can't imagine anything getting settled. It's like having 15 opinions on a movie, with lots of yelling. It isn't all yelling but there is a lot of ego, depending on who has more history and awards.

What often happens is tha the loudest people get heard more, although the politics after the meetings can usurp previous agreements wherein the star actors can access the showrunner, who often is the creator of the show, to fix their lines of dialog without having to deal with other actors. And their egos are even bigger.

So you can have a dozen writers and a handful of actors who all think they're right. And the question is; is the show better for it?

I think no. One of the executives who helped create 100 TV channels (now more than 400) said that when they created all those channels they envisioned bold new dramas and other shows for every niche audience there is.

But he admitted, what they created was mediocrity.  

A few shows work with a large writing staff, shows like Breaking Bad, Madmen and a few others but today the Emmy Awards were announced and none of the major networks were up for best shows. Even with all those writers they have.

What's that old expression? Too many cooks spoil the soup? 

(Mon: The death of Variety?)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I AM Powerful!

I love Glenda from the Wizard of Oz when she says, "Go away you have no power here." I've adopted that to mean... the goodness and the light coming from me is way too strong; you have no ability to affect me.

We all have dreams that we must release into the universe. There are times when people who don't wish us well try to block those dreams. But, as long as you know the power that's within you, no one can block any blessing or dream that God has for you. Just remember Glenda, the good witch or spirit, who told Dorothy that she's always had the power. It comes from within... it lives in your heart. As long as you know that you have nothing to fear, you'll live an abundant life!

The ability to manifest great things in your life comes from being grateful for what you have... and serving others in some way. It can be as small as helping someone see great potential within themselves that they may not have seen before. It could also mean using your life to inspire someone to step out on faith. We all have a purpose that's divinely connected to each other.

When you travel just remember the stranger that you meet may be someone who was sent to help you discover more about yourself. My intuition always guides me to the truth, so I've learned to trust it. On the occassion that I meet somenone who connects me to my purpose, I know that the universe is at work guiding me to something bigger than myself. Power comes when you can connect the dots.

Mexico City | 2 of 3

It didn't take long to notice the all the maroon and gold bugs on the streets. Mexico City is known for the Volkswagon Beetle taxi, and at their height in 2006, about half of all taxis were Beetles (that's 50,000 bugs). Today there are 3,500 and next year that number will be 0. Because of safety and pollution reasons, officials have decided to expire all their licenses by the end of the year. We considered ourselves lucky to see them before they go extinct.

- Yuriy

During a walking tour of Mexico City, we stopped to watch this spiritual ceremony. 5 Indians from the region of Papantla climb to the top of a 50 ft. pole, tie a rope to the top and wrap the other end around them. Then 4 of them jump and as the rope slowly unwinds, they spin and get closer and closer to the ground. While the 5th sits on top and plays a traditional flute. This is done as a way of prayer for fertility and rains.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of Mexico City is the oldest and largest cathedral in the Americas.
Delicious street tacos with grilled cactus on top.
While eating dinner at a sidewalk cafe, we watched a man hire a couple of musicians to play for his wife. He joined the musicians in singing, and then took his lady's hand and they danced away in the middle of the park, like they were the only ones there. It was quite nice to see.