Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dog Ears #8: Backstory 4

There was a time not too long ago when even the thought of reading anything in the Backstory series made me feel all icky inside. The four installments of Backstory are collections of interviews with screenwriters of different eras (1 is "The Golden Age", 2 is 1940s and 1950s, 3 is 1960s, and 4 is 1970s and 1980s) compiled and edited by Marquette film professor Patrick McGilligan. Thanks to my own efforts and the gift-giving prowess of Mrs. Word Player, I now have all four books in the excellent but largely out-of-print series, but after a really rough time writing my fifth screenplay Blood is Thicker (still unfinished after working on it for 11 months of '06 and early '07) I couldn't stomach reading all these success stories for a while.

You can't make this stuff up

Thankfully, time heals wounds of this sort pretty efficiently, so when I peeked into the one volume I hadn't read yet a few weeks ago I was happy to discover that my appetite for intimate conversations with working writers had returned. It's funny how the same words can be exasperating one day and inspiring the next...

The following are anecdotes, insights, self-recriminations and new lingo taken from Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s.

p. 29 "The banalities of married life are, for me, far more interesting and more poignant than the intensity of romance. There's something I find deeply moving about ordinary life."
re: his script for NADINE (1987)

p. 35 "There are two models (of screenplay structure). In one, plot grows out of character. This is the (Howard) Hawks model. In the other, character grows out of plot. This is the [Otto] Preminger model. When I do the architecture on a script of my own, I follow the Hawks approach. I do it so that characters become more complex, and they don't tell you where they're going until they get there."

(Cohen's script for PHONE BOOTH, ultimately made in 2002 with Joel Schumacher at the helm, was once considered by Alfred Hitchcock.)

p. 77 "(Hitchcock) seemed very, very intimidated by Lew Wasserman and the Universal executives, who had more or less undermined his confidence in himself. While making him a very rich man, they'd also destroyed him as an artist. Hitch had severed his ties with [composer] Bernard Herrmann, for example, who had been a close friend and great collaborator, and mainly it was the Universal executives who poisoned his mind against Herrmann and convinced him he needed somebody like Henry Mancini to write songs and a hipper musical score. Which he never got, by the way."

p. 91 tsuris: |ˈtsoŏris; ˈtsər| noun, informal
trouble or woe; aggravation.
ORIGIN early 20th cent.: from Hebrew.

p. 95 "Therefore I consider that slapstick–literally slapstick–is not entirely what I do. Only some of it turns out to be slapstick. Slapstick comes from vaudeville–it comes from what they called "the slap stick" (slapping sound as he demonstrates), which made that sound."

p. 106 roustabout: noun
an unskilled or casual laborer.
• a laborer on an oil rig.
• a dock laborer or deckhand.
• a circus laborer.
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from the verb roust

"All of this taught me one important thing that carried over to writing. If you are capable of making a living out of your talent and imagination, you are a privileged soul. As to the actual writing, you learn about writing by reading. And then you learn to make use of your own particular attitudes, gifts, and skills by–writing, writing, writing."

p. 113 "I don't pretend to be a scholar about the history and evolution of screenwriting, and I think you have to approach it as a craft rather than an art. But it's the old story; if the craft gets good enough, it is an art."

p. 116 "My clearest impression is that (Michael) Eisner wanted movies to be a kind of pleasantly flavored chewing gum and was almost physically uncomfortable in dealing with anything about the dark side of the human heart."

Remind me to tell you my Harry Dean Stanton story some day

p. 122 (re ALIEN) "I named her "Ripley" (after "Believe It or Not"); later, when she had to have a first name for ID cards, I added "Ellen" (my mother's middle name). I called the ship Nostromo (from Conrad: no particular metaphoric idea, I just thought it sounded good). Some of the characters are named after athletes: Brett was for George Brett, Parker was for Dave Parker of the Pirates, and Lambert was Jack Lambert of the Steelers."

p. 128 "My favorite description of the dilemma of screenwriting comes from David Giler, "Your work is only read by the people who will destroy it."

p. 151 "What I do realize is that I mustn't have a single word that's not absolutely necessary, no "Oh yes, I see," nothing like that. You have to compress and compress and just give them the essence."

p. 170 "That's what the STAR WARS saga is about–it's about following those things which are strongest in you and imposing them on the world. Making a career in Hollywood is like that if you want to do your own work. If you want to do what they want you to do, it's easy. You just say yes. But if you want to do what you want to do, you're constantly manipulating the chaos of the system."

p. 176 "That's what all great tragedies are about for me–that in this adherence to a single idea, we sometimes sacrifice everything."
re: his script for BODY HEAT (1981)

p. 217 "What's amazing to me when I think about it, is that while Hollywood in general prefers plot-driven stories (they ask, "What's it about?"), thirty-three of my thirty-five books, all character-driven and talky, have either been optioned or bought outright for film."

p. 229 "I'm very sympathetic to those characters. I feel that the middle class is not treated in terms of tragedy. You have to be very rich or very poor to be thought of as a tragic figure."

Thulsa-Thulsa Doom y'all

p. 296 colloquy: |ˈkäləkwē| noun ( pl. -quies)
1 formal: a conversation : they broke off their colloquy at once | an evening of sophisticated colloquy. See note at conversation .
2 a gathering for discussion of theological questions.
ORIGIN late Middle English : from Latin colloquium ‘conversation.’

p. 299
PM: Was Robert Shaw really as drunk as they say, shooting the scene?
JM: He was totally drunk.

(Shaw had just been busted screwing the nanny by his wife, and kept interjecting his drunken thoughts about the situation into the Indianapolis scene from JAWS, a scene that Milius wrote as a favor to Spielberg. What we see in the final product, of course, has all the nanny bits cut out.)

p. 328 (this next bit speaks to questions I had after viewing TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967), written by Raphael)

PM: What was the genesis of the film you did make next, TWO FOR THE ROAD?
FR: (My wife and I) used always to just pack up and travel together. While we were driving down to the south of France from London on one of these trips, I said, "Imagine if we met ourselves as we were ten years ago," and of course the idea revealed itself as a movie.

p. 381 confrere: noun
a fellow member of a profession; a colleague : executives from the four broadcast television networks, along with their cable confreres.
ORIGIN mid 18th cent. : French, from medieval Latin confrater, from con- ‘together with’ + frater ‘brother.’

"The difference between a movie and a novel is that a movie is just the surface of things, and the meanings and emotions can only be implicit."

Monday, December 10, 2007

My Word... it's Bond.

Yesterday the New York Times informed me that will be directing the next Bond film, the second in Daniel Craig's sure-to-be-illustrious reign. The fine article, written by Terrence Rafferty, pointed out that Swiss-born Forster (best known for directing FINDING NEVERLAND and the upcoming THE KITE RUNNER) is not only the first Bond director who wasn't born in "the Commonwealth," but he's also the first to be born after the release of the first Bond film DR. NO in 1961. In fact, Forster was born in 1969, two years before I was and only four years before Roger Moore's first Bond, LIVE AND LET DIE.


One can only hope Forster will cast a "Bond Girl" as close to perfection as Eva Green was

Ian Fleming's master spy has played as important a role in my development as almost any fictional character. The first Bond I saw in the theater was FOR YOUR EYES ONLY in 1981, and I can still remember the preadolescent tingle that Sheena Easton's theme song gave me as I wore out the cassette copy of the soundtrack for months afterwards. Mother and Father Word Player would dutifully record the ABC Movie of the Week on our "war horse" top-loading VCR whenever it was a Bond movie so I could see them without staying up past my school-night bedtime. I even read several of the officially sanctioned John Gardner Bond books that revived Bond in print fifteen years after Fleming's death (License Renewed and For Special Services were particularly good.)

In retrospect, the odds were good that I'd marry someone who'd gotten Pussy Galore's autograph

All of this accumulated Bond trivia and youthful devotion would come into play on two notable occasions in my adult life. The first contact Mrs. Word Player and I ever had came over the phone, and years before we met face-to-face. In the days before the internet, workplace trivia disagreements had to be settled by calling someone else in. This was the case when she and a workmate, who was a UNC chum of mine and had moved to LA around the same time as me in '95, had some Bond trivia they needed settling. He said he had a friend (me) who would know, they called and we had the brief conversation that would serve years later as the foundation of a much longer one that lead quickly to l-o-v-e.

Oddly enough, that wasn't even the story that popped to mind as I read the Forster article on Sunday. My "other" Bond story came rushing back, and led me to a box deep in storage that contained a prized possession from the day I met James Bond.

Tis better to've been Bond and lost ...

After working on THE FAN, I took a job as office assistant for a wonderful British producer named Kathy Eldon. A few days a week I would drive up to her cool apartment off Sunset Plaza and answer phones, read scripts, etc. Kathy's primary project was developing the artwork and journals of her son Dan Eldon into various book, documentary and film projects. Dan was a celebrated photojournalist who had been tragically killed at the age of 22 in Mogadishu, Somalia, when demonstrators who were rioting over a U.N. massacre turned on him and three fellow journalists and stoned them all to death. Since my time working for Kathy, much has been published from Dan's life, but the only book I've personally looked through is called The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon, which I highly recommend.

As it turns out, Kathy was friends with Aussie actor George Lazenby, who portrayed Bond in 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. She had George over for lunch one day and, knowing what a Bond fan I was, invited me to join them. I was extremely nervous beforehand, but once we all sat down Lazenby was charming and easygoing, and didn't mind at all answering my questions (although they were all ones he'd certainly answered a million times before).

He freely admitted that he'd gotten caught up in the whirlwind of fame surrounding his ascension from world's top male model to Connery's heir, and that a combination of arrogance, listening to bad advice, and poor management by his trusted advisors led to him turning down a multi-picture deal to continue as Bond. Instead, he signed what appeared to be a sensational deal to star alongside friend and mentor Bruce Lee in his next films. This proved to be the beginning of the end of his acting career, as Lee died shortly before their first film together (GAME OF DEATH) was to begin shooting, and in fact Lazenby had plans to have dinner with Lee the very night he died of a sudden heart attack.

I remember that he seemed more broken up about losing his friend Bruce Lee than about losing the Bond job, which humanized him when he could easily have come off as a sad sack who blew his big chance. He went on to marry tennis star (and member of the Kennedy clan) Pam Shriver, so I doubt he's doing too shabby these days.

Shortly after my lunch with Bond, a close friend (we'll call him Mr. CFA) flew out to LA and attended a party with me at Kathy Eldon's. Lazenby was there and, despite having imbibed a fair share of cheer, remembered me and talked briefly with us. CFA and I laughed for days afterwards at Lazenby's remark that we looked like brothers (even though we look nothing alike).

My brief time working for Eldon was pivotal for yet another reason, and one which I just remembered has another Bond moment embedded. Another expat friend of Eldon's was director , and when Michael told Kathy he needed an assistant (as his latest film IL POSTINO was soon to be released), she sent me over and I landed what turned out to be one of my best and most difficult jobs.

Fast forward to the days following IL POSTINO's five Oscar nominations, when Radford's phone was ringing off the hook with congratulatory calls. One of them went like this:

Hello, Michael Radford's Office?

Yes, is Michael There?

(knowing instantly who it was)
May I tell him who's calling?

Yes, this is Sean Connery.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Re-issue! Re-package!

Best of! Most of!

There was a time not long ago when I made two year-end lists every year, one for the best films of the year and one for best albums. Recently, for a variety of reasons (that can mostly fit under the odious umbrella of getting older), my consumption of new movies and music has declined steeply, which makes it impossible for me to make Top Ten lists for 2007.... just don't have 'em!

I didn't see ten new releases that I loved, and I certainly haven't bought ten records that were released this year... yet I AM in the mood for Top Tens. What better reason to dig through the computer, see what lists have survived, and see if I still feel good about my choices. Maybe you'll find something old to make new again? So, with no further ado... ooh, I can already see some I wish I could change... and some I've numbered and some are in no order at all... and some are missing (damn you catastrophic hard drive crash of '03) oh well...

TOP 10 RECORDS of 2001
Minus 8: "Elysian Fields"
Miniflex: "Sud"
Wagon Christ: "Musipal"
The Avalanches: "Since I Met You"
Jack Dangers: "Hello Friends!"
Daft Punk: "Discovery"
Bjork: "Vespertine"
Syrup: "Different Flavours"
"Dubplates from the Lamp" (Pork Records Sampler)
Herbert: "Bodily Functions"

TOP 10 MOVIES of 2001
LOTR: Fellowship of the Rings
Donnie Darko
Mulholland Drive
Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Moulin Rouge
Waking Life
Monsters Inc.
Ghost World

I admire a proper self-sabotaging band name like Crazy Penis

TOP 10 RECORDS of 2002
Royksopp: “Melody A.M.”
Mr. Scruff: “Trouser Jazz”
Gusgus: “Attention”
Meat Beat Manifesto: “RUOK?”
Playgroup: “Playgroup” + “Party Mix Vol.1”
Tosca: “Different Tastes Of Honey”
Crazy Penis: “The Wicked Is Music”
Funki Porcini: “Fast Asleep”
Jazzanova: “In Between”
Cornelius: “Point”

TOP 10 MOVIES of 2002
1. Punch Drunk Love
2. 24 Hour Party People
3. Adaptation
4. Spirited Away
5. About A Boy
6. Bowling for Columbine
7. The Ring
8. LOTR: The Two Towers
9. Signs
10. Dogtown and Z Boys

Ironically, THE RING may not hold up on video, but it was terrifying in the theater

TOP 10 RECORDS of 2004
Mylo: “Destroy Rock and Roll”
Crazy Penis: “24 Hour Psychedelic Freakout”
Arthur Russell: “The World of Arthur Russell” (reissue)
Kerrier District: “Kerrier District”
Wagon Christ: “Sorry I Made You Lush”
Manzel: “Midnight Theme” (reissue)
Rjd2: “Since We Last Spoke”
Quincy Jones and Bill Cosby: “The New Mixes, Vol. 1”
Jack Dangers: “Forbidden Planet Explored”
Air: “Talkie Walkie”

TOP 10 RECORDS of 2005
Isolee: "We Are Monster"
Annie: "Anniemal"
Eugene McDaniels: "Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse" (reissue)
"Cherrystones Hidden Gems" (compilation)
Recloose: "Hiatus on the Horizon"
Boards of Canada: "The Campfire Headphase"
Beatfanatic: "The Gospel According to Beatfanatic"
Madrid de los Austrias: "Mas Amor!"
Tosca: "J.A.C."
Ralph Myerz and the Jack Herren Band: "Your New Best Friends"

Towa Tei is one of the most underappreciated pop musicians of the last twenty years

TOP 10 RECORDS of 2006
Darkel: “Darkel
The Whitest Boy Alive: “Dreams”
Audion: “Suckfish
Nightmares on Wax: “In A Space Out Of Sound”
Major Swellings: “Noid 1978”
Van Hunt: “On The Jungle Floor”
Alan Braxe and Friends: “The Upper Cuts”
Luke Vibert: “Kerrier District 2”
Towa Tei: “Flash”
Burt Bacharach: “The Look Of Love” (3-disc compilation)

The Queen
Casino Royale
Talledega Nights
An Inconvenient Truth
Thank You For Smoking
A Scanner Darkly
The Science of Sleep
The Holiday
Inland Empire