Sunday, March 24, 2013

Big Dumb Movies

Step into the Wayback Machine with me, Sherman, and take a trip to the ancient era of 1982, when yours truly and his writing partner, Roy Thomas, were briefly Warm in Hollywood.

Thanks to a script we'd written for Ed Pressman (which would eventually become the less-than-we'd-hoped-it-would-be "Conan the Destroyer") Roy and I enjoyed a momentary notoriety as the go-to screenwriters for Big Budget Fantasy and/or Science Fiction Films. We were pursued by top agents, we were offered hot (or warm) projects ranging from The Mad Magazine Movie (don't ask) to John Carter of Mars (we wanted that one desperately). We wrote a script for Orion Films called X-Men: The Movie; we sold a science fiction film based on a one-line pitch (which was later became an entirely different movie when the studio head decided he didn't think audiences would turn out for a movie based on time travel -- this was the year before "The Terminator," "Back to the Future," and "Star Trek IV"). We were for a time the Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci of our generation, though with considerable less long-term success than those snot-nosed punks, probably because they're much more talented and business savvy than we were.

(Hi Alex, Hi Bob; love you guys!)

Anyhow. In our capacity as Momentarily Warm Writers (otherwise known as Flavor of the Month, though in our case it lasted a couple of years) we had a ring side seat to the spectacle of Hollywood's earliest attempts to quantify and formularize what at least one producer we met called The Big Dumb Movie.

We have all lived in the Big Dumb Movie world for the last thirty-odd years, so it might be fun to have a look at what some people were thinking back in the prehistoric days before the Big Dumb Movie became a fully-fledged category of Hollywood-processed entertainment.

I'll post more about this era in future blogs, but for now, I'd like to explain the concept of the Big Dumb Movie as it was explained to us by a Hollywood Producer who'd been around a while, and to put the time period I'm talking about in historical context.

First, the context: Roy and I sold our first screenplay in 1979, while Hollywood was still trying to get its collective head around the triple whammy of "Jaws," "Star Wars," and "Superman: The Movie." We owed our first sale to the fact that an assistant at the production company we pitched to knew our work from comics and vouched for us with her producer. Hard as it may be to believe today, but in 1979, a history of success in comics was actually an obstacle to overcome for the eager new screenwriter. Most producers of the time were in their 40s and 50s and their cultural references, at best, were formed and frozen in the 1950s, or maybe the early 60s. The younger producers, like Ed Pressman, were products of the 60s counter-culture, and imagined themselves to be "hip," but there was a world of difference between hip in 60s terms and the geek-hip of today. Roy and I were extremely lucky to find a sponsor-producer who was willing to overlook our shady comics career to buy our first script. Even luckier that he had an assistant who went to bat for us based on that shady comics career.

After that first script, we became acceptable commodities, allowed a seat at the grown-up table, though we were relegated to the then-ghetto of fantasy and science fiction films. Producers and studios were all floundering about, trying to get a handle on Big Budget Fantasy, with mixed success. (Anyone here remember "Krull?" Anyone? How about Disney's "The Black Hole?") Independent producers and low-budget productions had more success -- Ed Pressman and Dino de Laurentiis made "Conan the Barbarian," Jim Cameron made "The Terminator" -- but generally speaking, Hollywood producers had No Clue how to make the kind of Big Dumb Movie that has become a summer staple the last three decades. Primarily because they thought of it as a Big Dumb Movie, is my guess.

So, what exactly, in the mind of the producer who explained it to me, is a Big Dumb Movie? A Big Dumb Movie is a movie with a big budget (the big part) based on what the producer perceived as a dumb idea (ie: a rebellion against an evil Galactic Empire led by teens with light saber swords). (Alternately, a Big Dumb Movie could also be a big budget High Concept Action Film. That takes us into Die Hard territory, which I'll approach in another blog.)

How, you might wonder, do you approach making a Big Dumb Movie as a producer if you cynically believe you're making a fundamentally dumb film? Good question, which is why Roy and I got hired for several writing gigs during this period, and why we were momentarily Warm: hire people who've written or directed other Big Dumb Movies and hope they know what they're doing. Of course, since you believe the entire idea is dumb already, you won't really respect anything they say or follow their actual suggestions, but at least you can explain yourself in terms other cynical producers will understand. You hired the guys who are supposed to know these things! Is it your fault they made something dumb? (Actually, yes, because you wouldn't let them do anything smart, since, by definition, you were making a Big Dumb Movie, and the dumber the better, right?)

I mention all of this because last night I saw "Olympus Has Fallen," which is the very apotheosis of the Big Dumb Movie approach to filmmaking. And in my next post, I'll explain why I think that.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The B-Movie Time Machine

A few nights ago I watched a B-movie adaptation of Richard Stark's "The Seventh," called "The Split," starring Jim Brown, and released in 1968.

Not a great movie, though it has its moments. (It also has a phenomenal cast: Ernest Borgnine in his pre-Wild Bunch "muscular" phase; Warren Oates; Jack Klugman -- Quincy! -- as a ruthless getaway car driver; pre-Bonnie & Clyde Gene Hackman; James Whitmore; Julie Harris; and the lovely, hopelessly-miscast Diahann Carroll.) The central heist is well-imagined (it should be; it was taken directly from Stark's book) and reasonably well-staged, and there are a couple of nice character beats with Warren Oates and Klugman, but overall, the movie is something of a mess. There are structural leaps and plot bumps that make no sense, and the director seems to be struggling to make the material mean more than it does. Tonal shifts arrive with breathtaking clumsiness, and there are logical leaps that defy rationalzation.

That said, it's a wonderful B-Movie Time Machine.

Anyone who's watched a Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Laurel and Hardy comedy shot on location in Los Angeles in the early 1900s is being given an opportunity to look over the shoulders of the film makers into the world as it was. Downtown Los Angeles was the silent comedian's back lot, and if you want to know what early 20th Century urban California was like, all you have to do is watch a Keaton two-reeler from 1921. ("The Goat" being a perfect example.)

Similarly, if you want a view of Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40s that reflects the city as it actually was, watch a Republic serial. Big studio productions shot their exteriors on the studio back lot, and while the serials also did some back lot shooting, most of their car chases and exterior action sequences take place in and around the San Fernando Valley. (If you'd like a great view of what the Valley looked like in the late 1940s, check out the flying sequences from "King of the Rocketmen" -- the Lydecker brothers who created those effects did so by stringing wires between two hills on Mulholland Drive, with the Valley in the background.)

In the late 40s and through the 50s, film noir took low budget productions to the streets of The City with Six Million Stories (New York) while Dragnet dragged us back to Los Angeles. All of these movies provided us with an unwitting documentary view of mid-century America in the background of sometimes otherwise undistinguished stories.

Which brings us to "The Split."

Anyone familiar with Los Angeles as it is today will experience several minor (and one major) shock watching this movie. The 405 Freeway at Mulholland Drive features prominently in one car chase, and it's stunning to see the empty hills and half-deserted highway of 1968 (today this intersection is the site of a massive construction project, the freeway is constantly packed with cars, and the hills are crowded with homes, schools, and an expansive museum, the Skirbal Center). LAX is visited; so is Pacific Coast Highway; so is downtown Los Angeles. All are familiar and yet weirdly different -- LAX is surrounded by, well, nothing; Pacific Coast Highway is a slum; and downtown Los Angeles is several decades from the wonders of gentrification.

The real shocker, though, is the centerpiece of the film -- the heist at the Collesium.

The Collesium, of course, is physically unchanged, but culturally its place in Los Angeles' daily life is astonishingly different now from what it was in 1968.

In 1968, the Collesium was an NFL stadium, home to a professional football team.

There is something truly surreal about watching a movie involving Jim Brown as a professional thief executing a heist from a football stadium, and it's particularly surreal when the stadium in question hosts a team that no longer exists. (The Los Angeles Rams; there may be a Rams team somewhere in the world, I don't care, the L.A. Rams are no more.) The only thing that would've made it more perfectly meta would be if the Rams had been playing the Cleveland Browns.

It's a B-Movie Time Machine, and if it isn't worth watching as movie (though I think it is) it's certainly worth watching for its view of a world now lost to the smoggy past.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Writing for a living is Hard, and other Obvious Observations

I'm one very lucky son of a bitch.

I recognize this, believe me. Most people never have the opportunity to fulfill any of their childhood dreams, but I've been lucky enough to fill many, if not most, of mine. It helps that my childhood dreams were relatively modest (though at one point I did want to be Robin to my dad's Batman, a notion which for some reason he didn't embrace with an enthusiasm equal to mine). When I was nine years old, I decided I wanted to be either an actor, an artist, or a writer -- in other words, I wanted people to pay attention to me and admire me for something I performed or accomplished. (Childhood narcissism is so cute and simple, isn't it?) To that end I started to perform plays and make movies with my friends (the acting part), I started drawing (the art) and I started writing (the, uh, well, the writing). It was my good fortune that I had parents who either encouraged or permitted or idly stood by and scratched their heads while I pursued these dreams. And it was my great fortune that I grew up in a time and place that made the potential accomplishment of any of these dreams even remotely possible.

If you read the biographies of many authors, you may find that their life stories follow two different patterns. Some writers write for a living, other writers write as a hobby.

To clarify: Some authors are what I'll call (in my insufferable superiority) part-time, non-professional writers -- people who have paying jobs which allow them to make a living (or scrape by) and who subsequently write, more or less, as a hobby. I don't want to suggest that writing as a hobby is somehow less serious or less worthwhile than the alternative (which I'll get to in a moment), I'm simply using the term to make a distinction. People pursue hobbies because they have the time and freedom to do so, and because they want to. Hobbies are, to an extent, an escape from the stress of work. By definition, a hobby may be difficult or hard or require a great deal of effort and commitment, but it is not work. Work is something you do to pay your bills and support yourself and your family; it may be difficult or easy, it may require great effort or no effort at all, but it does require a commitment, and while it may often be fun, fun is not an essential ingredient. The essential ingredient of work is that you must do it in order to survive.

To further clarify: As opposed to the authors described above, other authors are what I'll call (in my insufferable superiority) full-time, professional writers -- people who write to pay their bills and earn a living. They may enjoy writing (and most do) but the central reality of their writing lives is that they write to make money.

For most of my adult life I was a professional writer. I wrote to earn a living, and I was lucky enough to earn a very good living. I recognize that: I was lucky. There are many talented writers trying to earn a living who are unable to do so. Why the light of fortune shined on me and not on them, I have no clear idea. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time. I grew up in New York City in the 1950s and '60s, was well-educated, and happened to approach the comic book business for work at a time when the business was desperately eager to embrace new, younger writers and artists. I didn't have a lot of competition. I was good enough and energetic enough and ambitious enough to embrace the opportunity fate offered me. And I made good.

But here's the thing: temperamentally, though I was a professional writer who wrote for a living, emotionally I wanted to write part-time as a hobby. The same good fortune that opened the door for me to become a professional writer at 16, and gave me more than four decades of success as a professional writer of comic books, novels, screenplays, and television episodes, closed the door for me to pursue writing purely for the love of it.

I made a bargain with fate at the age of 16 and was well into my 50s before I finally managed to break free. And once again, I was incredibly lucky to find a way to do so.

Remember those author biographies I mentioned earlier, when I said the life stories of authors tended to follow two different patterns? The part-time authors are usually academics, or people who have successful professional careers (doctors, lawyers, politicians, police men or women, etc.) who write in what they amusingly call their spare time. (I really admire people who work full time and then dedicate the remaining hours of their day to struggling with words.) In contrast, full-time authors are often people who pursued other careers with little success until they fell into writing as a last-ditch effort to put food on the table. Some of my favorite authors are in that second category (usually writers of genre fiction), though several writers I greatly admire are in the first. I'm sure you can think of several in both.

Because I started writing professionally while I was still in high school I never really faced the choice of pursuing a different career. If anything I felt I had no choice. I was earning a living doing something I loved -- in fact I earned more money than my father, who worked hard, long hours at a job he didn't enjoy. Faced with the opportunity to continue to earn money as a writer (and with the example of my unhappy father's working life providing a view of the unattractive alternative) I naturally embraced a career as a professional writer. Like I say, I was lucky, though at the time I was too excited by the apparently endless possibilities before me to understand both how lucky I was, and what a devil's bargain I was making.

Here's the thing I've discovered about myself over a forty year career as a writer. I'll put it in the second person because it's easier for me to do so, but I don't mean to suggest this is a universal truth:

When you start writing because you love to write, and you end up writing because you have to write to survive, you eventually find yourself unable to write at all.

By the time I quit my career as a television writer about six years ago I'd gotten to the point where it was a daily struggle to face an empty page. After four decades of writing to make a living I'd lost my enthusiasm for writing. In fact I developed an almost pathological aversion to the physical act of sitting at a keyboard. The thought of writing filled me with an emotion I can only describe as horror. I hated my working life. I wanted out, desperately.

I got out.

I've spent the past six years gradually rediscovering the original love I felt for writing. I've consciously avoided taking on assignments that might require more than a casual commitment. I take my time writing scripts when I do take assignments (to the considerable grief of my editors, I'm certain -- sorry, Joey; sorry, Jim). I write deliberately, and as thoughtfully as I can. I try to approach writing as a hobby -- as a passion project, a way to express my personal vision of the world, and whatever insights and with whatever empathy I can bring to that vision. As a result I've written very little in the last half-decade, but what I have written, I've written because I wanted to write it. Not because I've had to. I'm now working on a Young Adult fantasy-horror novel, and I'm loving every minute of it.

The fact that I've found the freedom to do this after a lifetime of pursuing a career as a professional writer is nothing short of miraculous. I recognize that. Very few people get a second shot as pursuing their childhood dreams... especially when they've already had a first shot, and enjoyed considerable success doing what they thought they wanted to do.

I am, as I say, one very lucky son of a bitch.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.