Friday, April 20, 2007

Blogs With Sharp Teeth

Named in honor of the new Harlan Ellison documentary, "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," which I saw at a Writer's Guild Foundation to-do last night. The doc's great and I think it gives the audience an inkling of what it's like to be in Harlan's presence. Readings, rants, opinions, knowledge and stories grab you by the throat, and who could be the same after an experience like that? It was great fun. The film was followed by an encore presentation of the Josh and Harlan Show, complete with microphones and complimentary bottles of water. Josh tried to be a good moderator and ask Harlan a few questions.

You can imagine how well THAT worked.

It was great to see Harlan and his lovely wife Susan, and A LOT of luminaries turned out to fete Harlan -- Richard Thompson (who did the score for the film, and WOW, it's RICHARD THOMPSON!), Werner Herzog (Werner Herzog!!), Ron Moore -- many more of Harlan's dearest friends and admirers. Just a fabulous evening, being all inspired n shit and talking to bunches of friends.

You can't help not being inspired by hearing Harlan talk. Sometimes, writers can get caught up in the bullshit and start to think of themselves as magicians. I think that allows a lot of writers the opportunity to kind of shine it on, to imagine themselves in their (insert choice of writer's retreat cliche here), with their (insert romantic writing tool here) scribbling feverishly on page after page of sweet linen as the muse works through them to compose works of genius. So they wait for the muse to strike them. But waiting isn't the same as working. It's the opposite, actually. Writing isn't the romantic, ethereal thing people like to make it out to be. It's WORK. Don't have an idea but need to pay the rent? Then you WORK to get ideas. And the best way to do that is to do it frequently. Your brain needs to be trained to think in a specific way, and that depends on what you're writing. For example, working in TeeVee is different than working in film and the only way to learn how to switch gears is to just do it, over and over again. And prose is an entirely different animal. Not all writing is banging away at the keyboard, either. Ideas can come from anywhere, so you have to be vigilant and you have to be trained to let the idea take root.

I like to do SOMETHING every day. I like lists. So I make A LOT of lists. Lists help me to organize potential ideas, and I've gotten almost to the point where I don't waste too much of my time on ideas that aren't viable. Almost. But even working over an idea that ultimately doesn't work is worthwhile. Writing bad scripts is worthwhile. So is reading bad writing. Imagine how much I learned from The DaVinci Code! When I've got something to write, I write it. But I also keep up with the idea generator. It's good to get into a rhythm. And writing means working. So do it.

In the past five months, we've written three pilots and a feature. We're thinking about our next feature, our next spec pilot, and what we're going to pitch during pilot season when it begins around July-ish. Just going, "I've got this year's sample, I'm Done" doesn't really cut it anymore. Writers have to generate a lot more work than that. I used to love it on the AOL boards when some neophyte would come on and proudly proclaim that he'd finished his screenplay. He wanted to know what to do next (i.e., who to talk to who would give him gobs of money so he could quit that job down to the canning factory). Every working writer in the place told him to put it in a drawer and write another. Then put that one in a drawer and write another. Lather, rinse, repeat. Needless to say, they always got pissed off. But if all you can turn out is one screenplay, this ain't the industry for you.

Harlan talks about writing being work in the film. It's no great mystery. It's a JOB. And you have to be both pragmatic and insipred by that. If you think that's the wrong attitude, take a gander at how many short stories, novels and essays Harlan's written and get back to me.

He also talked about his preferred equipment -- a typewriter. For you kids out there who don't understand this word, it's that thing Stephen Cannell pounded away on before victoriously yanking out the last page of the best episode of "The A-Team" and flinging it away. It's that strange clackety machine on which Jessica Fletcher wrote her cozy mysteries, which always ended with her avoiding certain capture (or, I wish). Of course, if you don't know what a typewriter is, then you don't know who Stephen Cannell and Jessica Fletcher are, either.

Ask your parents.

Anyway. I wouldn't know how to use a typewriter anymore. I'd freeze up. Every word would have to be precisely chosen. Every plot point would have to be perfect. Every thought would have to be crystal clear. But I've mostly learned on computers, so I think that way. I'd love to think, perhaps romantically, that I too could hammer away at a Smith Corona and produce brilliance. Maybe in an earlier time. But it made me think about rewrites. If there's one thing choking the hell out of Hollywood it's rewrites. Would producers and execs be so free with rewrites if they had to handwrite their notes on onion skin paper and hand them to a typist, who would take all freaking week to do them? I'm not so sure. But since typing on a computer is so fluid, doing rewrites is (for producers and execs) like MAGIC. Don't get me wrong; I don't think rewrites are unnecessary. I just think that for the most part, it's an abuse perpetrated by those with the purse strings. Which brings up another interesting point -- they don't pay you for the bloody things. Oh, you'll get first, second and polish money for a pilot but you're doing WAY more rewrites than just that. And forget about being on a show. They make a half-assed attempt at corralling it but the contract doesn't mean anything. And in features...! Erm, I don't know from experience. I've only heard. But it's true.

It would be nice if the Writer's Guild membership would put its collective foot down and refuse to do work for which it isn't paid. It'll never happen, but it's a nice dream to have.

I saw on John Scalzi's blog that he posted a picture of Fish!! I couldn't believe it! FISH, dudes! From Marillion! Cripes. Go to YouTube, type in Marillion, bask in their glory. I saw them on the Clutching At Straws tour at the Palladium. Bliss.

Actually, what I meant to say was, he is going to be at Penguicon this weekend. Penguicon. Have they run out of con puns, or is this a feeble attempt to tap into the repulsive penguin adoration market? Hmm. Anyhoo, he's going to be on a panel called "Limited Female Roles in Fantasy, Comics and SF." The description is thus:

>Why is it that a female character will either be raped or lose her child? Do TV writers have difficulty coming up with a motivation for women that isn't vagina-related? We rarely see every man's worst fear: castration. For equal rights, what if every time a woman gets raped on a show, they also neuter a male on the cast? The panelists will evaluate the causes and discuss this and other solutions.<

The first thing I'd say is that there are other wrongs being perpetrated upon female characters. It ain't just rape and babies. But let's talk about that for a moment. I'm really liking "Lost" this year, but the "if you're a pregnant woman you will DIE on this island" storyline is evidence of one thing on the writing staff -- Too. Many. Dudes. I don't subscribe to the "only women can write women" rule. I think that good writers can and should be able to create great characters, regardless of gender. But it's easier to create a great female character in a film or a limited series than it is to keep a show going beyond its expiration date. And when male writers -- even super good ones, like the guys on "Battlestar Galactica" -- are backed up against a wall, well... they back the female characters up against a wall and have at 'em. How many "chosen ones" have spurted out of some startled female character's womb? Too Goddam many to count. But everybody (for some unknown reason) can relate to Baby-in-jeopardy, right? That's what the testing says.

It's a shorthand way to get at the audience's emotions. Everybody understands wombs and what lives inside them, right? Target the womb, open the floodgates, baby, because your audience is HOOKED. It does basically say that the only difference between men and women is their equipment. It SUCKS to have to work on a show like that if you're a female writer who tends to think that men and women have more similarities than they're given credit for. Yes, of COURSE, there are major differences and those differences can and should be explored. But seeing babies and wombs used for plot points on show after show is just too effing much. That's one reason I haven't liked a domestic sitcom since the first few seasons of "Roseanne." It's idiotic, simplistic storytelling. America may like it, but it bores the crap out of me.

I saw "Grindhaus" (I prefer to spell it that way) last week and MAN, can Tarantino not write women. I mean, SERIOUSLY. He can't. At ALL. Maybe this is his fantasy woman, I dunno. But if he seriously thinks that this is how women talk to their girlfriends, he hasn't paid attention to anything any female friend of his has ever said. Of course, he's a dude so all he hears when a woman talks is the teacher's voice from Charlie Brown (I learned that from "Everybody Loves Raymond"). It's just painful. And wrong. And stupid. The last half hour is fun, but the first seventy-five hours... just awful. Enough on THAT. Quentin, go find your mojo, doll. Because it ain't around anymore.

This is a loooong blog post, and I'm not even done yet.

The other day, I read that some studio's making a movie where a Duckie (their word!) gets the girl. I kept reading the article, hoping that it would say that then the Duckie turns blind evil and the Blane has to save the Andie from him, but alas, the Duckie just... gets the girl. Talk about a fantasy. Duckies aren't boyfriend material, for all the reasons I've outlined in previous posts. Duckies are two-faced, manipulative little shits, not romantic leads. Why not have fun with THAT?

Lastly (yes, finally), to comments. Erin's all bent out of shape because sh was not given credit for helping to wreck Millennium as well. That is WRONG. She should definitely get some credit. We all wrecked it together, dammit! Dave and Michael made me blush with their praise for Millennium. Thanks, guys! Hopefully we shall one day be able to have that much fun again. The show still means a lot to both of us, since it's a perfect example of a well-run show. Michael also wants to know if we were asked to participate on the DVD. We were not. I think that if M&W had been running things, we would have been. But we weren't. However, with technology being what it is, perhaps we should just do our own Millennium commentary podcast...

Dave (another Dave) is here from the old MBATEOTU days! Hey, Dave! Congrats on the Lifetime movie. Nobody puts Lifetime in a corner!!! And my BROTHER is stalking me!! Yes, stalking me! He Googled me and found the blog! Gah! So now I have to be careful about what I say. Hmmm....

Them's comments in a nutshell. Thanks for reading, y 'all! Hopefully I won't have a Goddam cold for a week so's I can blog more frequently.

The one thing I'll leave you with is a few quotes from a terrific, lyrical book -- Lydia Millett's "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart."

"The ground is where history has happened, she thought, and when the future is mentioned many eyes are cast upward. Far above in space there are numerous phantom worlds, millions of light-years away. Their high meadows lie untouched, the white peaks of their green mountains blinding in the sun. Blowing grasses weave the shapes of wind across the wide plains and rivers run clear as glass. The planets there are home again, she thought: the land before we came. What we have done wrong can be forgiven, for there is the earth, reborn, again and again forever."

This book also has a jaw-dropping last line, but I don't want to give it away. Just read it.

So.

Writing is work, but inspiration is important, too. Get it wherever you can. When you're all adrift with no direction, remember this -- words inspire work. And words are all we have to go on.*

*Name the movie quote, win a pony.

np -- Lola Ray, "Liars"

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Wow! I'm famous!

Well, no. Of course not. But there have been a few interesting comments in the past few days that make me wonder. First off, this one doesn't make me wonder:

>So. You yet live.

I had to find out you had a blog from some dip**** dissing you on IMDb?

I'm so deeply hurt.

One word.

Quatermass.<

Well, well, well. The world of the internets is indeed small! You know you're famous when pisher finds you. Aloha, pisher!! And you can say dipshit on my blog. As for this IMDB thingy, you can diss people on IMDB? Are there boards or something? If that's the case, I would suspect that someone's dissing me over Millennium, chiefly because no other show I've been on went more than seven episodes. Well, that's highly disturbing for several reasons. The main reason is because shit, man... that show's been off the air for YEARS! Why are people still talking about it? Talk about having a lot of free time, not only to complain about me on some IMDB board but to send psychopaths -- and pisher -- to my blog. Now that's commitment!

Because of this, I wanted to explain something about the comments. They're moderated. What that means is, when you send in a comment it goes to me, and I can either accept or reject it. So far, I've accepted all comments... except for the most recent one, which is just a screed against me that obviously came from someone still posting and angry about Millennium even though the show's been off the air almost eight years. What's so lovely about it is that the guy is, of course, anonymous. Wow. SO brave. So angriest dog in the world dude, your comment has been rejected. Fuck off.

In the next comment, Mr. CrankyPants sez:

>Um--didn't The Riches pilot get good ratings? I vaguely remember reading that it did.

Irish Travellers with fakey southern accents, played by British actors?

More power to 'em, but I've met the real article, and this ain't it.

Seems like a good show, though.<

The pilot for The Riches DID do well. But I'm talking more about word of mouth, the way people go on about The Sopranos or Rome or The Shield. I wondered why nobody was talking about this show. And I'm sorry the show isn't accurate. Because really, that's what TeeVee's about -- accuracy. As we all know, there are really people with superpowers. There's an island in the middle of the ocean where weird experiments are taking place. And stars really can dance.

>Can I be excused to read a book, watch a classic movie, or walk my dog?<

Heh heh. You'll read my blog, but watching a good TeeVee show cuts into your high-and-mighty personal time? Now THAT'S rich! Of course you can read a book (no Harry Potter, please!) or watch a classic movie. Download The Amazing Mr. X for free (it's public domain) at archive.org. And you'd better walk your dog, or you'll be paying the price.

Mr. CrankyPants.

So. This is my blog, and I can say whatever I want. I don't surf the internets looking for mentions of myself, so if people are bashing me somewhere else, have at it. I know nothing. This is a personal choice that's been working for me so far. If you think I'm the Sanjaya of TeeVee, whatevs. At least that means I've got cool hair. Speaking of Sanjaya, I almost want to vote for him, to watch the entire American Idol machine collapse onto itself. I think some people (ten-year-old girls aside) are voting for him just because it's funny. You know, the way people voted for Bush. "Check it out, I'm gonna vote for the moron. It's okay. He'll never win." Good luck, Sanjaya! Keep the faith, dude!

np - The Mary Onettes, "R.U.N." Huh. Wicked cool band!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Mea Culpa, Edgar Wright, del Toro and Cuaron

I did not include them when I was talking about Eli Roth vs. competency. Edgar Wright directed "Shaun of the Dead" and the upcoming (and highly anticipated by me) "Hot Fuzz." I'm sure Hollywood will take notice eventually and offer him Transformers 3 or whatever (insert hack director here) rejects. Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron... well, along with Paul Greengrass, they're pretty much flawless. But who gets the big movies to direct? The same guys who somehow magically manage to spend a hundred million on a movie, get twice that for publicity, and watch the thing make a profit. I mean, couldn't a freakin' monkey direct these movies and have them make money? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The studios have decided that Brett Ratner and these guys are the only capable directors in town. They give millions to publicizing them. The movies make money. Wow. Who'd a thunk it?

Here's the really interesting thing about this. Say you're, oh, I don't know, let me pick a name out of a hat -- Craig Maizin. Say you're Craig Maizin, and you write "Scary Movie" and all these "parody" films that aren't really parodies. You're well compensated for your work. Like, ridiculously so. But face it -- you're writing crap. Now, there's nothing wrong with writing crap. Really. There isn't. But people who write, produce and direct crap invariably want to be artistes. If just ONE of these jackholes would go, "Yeah, it's crap, I know it's crap, but they pay me well," I'd fall over. They never do that. They're defensive and insist that they're great writers. If you're such a great writer, prove it. Step out from behind your safety net of dross and PROVE IT. I know great writers. I've worked with great writers. And guess what? they don't blather on about it. THEY JUST FUCKING WRITE. Whatg I love most about Maizin is that he's got a message board and he's currently got two genius writers on there schooling the crap out of him. I love it.

Likewise, TeeVee. Admit when shit doesn't work. One big problem with all of this is that it's not quantifiable. You can't point to something and blame failure on it. So that becomes arbitrary. It's pin the tail on the failure. Hmm. What should we blame THIS time? Take the SciFi channel. They've got a marginal commercial/massive critical success in Battlestar Galactica, but they can't develop or schedule any actual sci-fi because the audience won't watch it. But the executives' attitude about Galactica is one of frustration. They DO love the show. They just wish people would watch it. So I feel for them there.

However, then they try a fantasy show -- the Dresden Files -- and because it's not succeeding, they will dump the entire genre. This, to me, is coming from the NBC-Uni umbrella of fear. Because they never go, "Hmm. Maybe the show just, I dunno, SUCKS." It's easier for the corporate mentality to just forego the genre. Edouard wondered if American TeeVee still relied on a creative force. It really doesn't. It's all corporate, and corporations are heartless beasts that will drown a baby if it makes a profit. Profit is ALL they care about. They claim to care about quality but they'll knife a good show in the back if it doesn't get ratings. The days of standing by what you believe in are over. And this filters down to the people who are supposed to be creative. You start to second guess yourself, and you work with people who second guess themselves and try to read the minds of the folks who make the decisions. That will inevitably lead to shit. But nobody will ever admit it, because you don't have to. You can point to three million factors to explain why something doesn't work.

People have really lost their way in this business. Voice is being completely bled out of writing, even as writers are being praised for their voice. So a writer looks at something that, deep down, they know is crap, and they just listen to the people who swoon over it. It's become harder and harder to defend a creative voice. It's a lot easier to just give up and when the thing fails because too many cooks have crapped in the pot, you can go, "Well, I just did what they said to do. It's not my fault."

Having done this, I can assure you that it leads nowhere. But still, people do it. That's partly because crap gets on the air. And then you have to defend it as good, even when you know it's crap. This is the curious place TeeVee finds itself. Nobody can be honest. If you somehow get success, you have to just go with it. So we're all lying to ourselves and then the audience sits there, totally bewildered, forced to watch Amazing Race AllStars and cheer for Sanjaya on American Idol. Sad.

There's a really fine line to walk here -- to be precious, but not TOO precious about your work. Because at the end of the day, these are the people paying the bills. Sure, it's a huge scam and the creators and the audience are the victims. But it makes life easier just to admit you're a whore. Leave the money on the dresser. I'm gonna go work on the novel.

Wow. Despressing post. But hey, it's pilot season. It's supposed to be depressing! Next time I'll talk about fluffy kittens and otters holding hands.

np - The View, "Wasted Little DJs." Really, just one of the best songs of the year.