Posts Tagged ‘screenplays’

Captain Fantastic

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Vito & Todd

Vito & Todd photo by Marcia

“We may divide thinkers into those who think for themselves, and those who think through others. The latter are the rule, and the former the exception.” Arthur Schopenhauer

As the inauguration of Trump fast approaches, many frightened Americans talk of moving to Canada, in much the same way frightened Americans spoke of moving abroad when George Bush became President. But Canada and other safe haven countries only want us these days if we are wealthy or possessed of highly desirable technological skills. Thus we common folk must consider other responses to the new regime.

One vision of a response to the madness currently gripping and deforming American life is the 2016 movie Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, a California writer, director, and actor who lives in Berkeley. I mention where he lives because I seriously doubt that a writer/director living in Los Angeles could have written a screenplay as far outside the Hollywood box as Captain Fantastic. That Ross also raised millions of dollars to make this fairly outrageous movie and was able to land a distribution deal resulting in the film turning a profit is nothing short of miraculous.

I will not spoil the film by recounting the plot, but I will say that Captain Fantastic bears some resemblance to the excellent 2003 American film Off the Map, and the dreamy Swiss/Italian 2014 film The Wonders. All three films involve adult couples seeking to live independently of the dominant capitalist paradigm, and each of these movies focuses on the children of those seekers as they collide with the outside world.

I found Captain Fantastic by turns funny and sad and disturbing and uplifting and maddening and deeply moving; and twice during the movie I had to get up and go outside to catch my breath and calm down, but not because the film is violent; it is not, thankfully. Marcia and I have been talking about the movie for several days now, and that alone makes Captain Fantastic a rare American film for us.

Meanwhile, here in the so-called real world, we are facing a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court poised to wreak havoc on our already inadequate healthcare system, dismantle Social Security, remove constraints on industrial pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and enact laws to benefit the wealthy and further punish the beleaguered lower and middle classes as defined by income and assets. These same dangerous people are anti-women, anti-minority, anti-peace, and anti-anybody other than white Christians. And that is why so many people are afraid, and why so many people wish they could leave the country.

“There are three kinds of economist. Those who can count and those who can’t.” Eddie George

I am currently writing a new screenplay, having recently rewritten an old one for a director in Canada. I had not immersed myself in the screenplay form for more than a decade, and the rewrite got those juices flowing again. And though the odds of getting a movie made of anything I write are not quite as good as the odds of winning the national lottery, should I ever buy a ticket, I do enjoy the screenplay form and love imagining the scenes I write coming to life.

Yesterday, under the influence of Captain Fantastic, I read what I’ve written so far of my new screenplay and thought: I wonder if I’m writing this story in lieu of trying to flee the country.

Speaking of fleeing the country, it was recently reported in various mass media outlets that Ford Motor Company was about to spend a couple billion dollars opening a new plant in Mexico. Then President-elect Trump bellowed at Ford for being un-American, Ford cancelled the Mexico plant, and instead says they would invest 700 million dollars in upgrading a Michigan assembly plant. This would reportedly save at least 700 American jobs and give a much-needed boost to the Michigan economy.

Was any of this true? Maybe some of it was sort of true, but probably none of it was true. Ford Motors now says they are proceeding with plans to increase production in Mexico by enlarging their existing facilities there and not opening a new plant. Does this give us more reason to doubt Trump’s credibility? Yes. Ford Motors stated they prefer doing business in Mexico because they feel oppressed by so many federal and state regulations in America having to do with decreasing pollution and increasing safety and requiring the payment of taxes, and they are hopeful that under Trump they won’t have to worry so much about those annoying things.

So what are we common folk to make of all this? I think that henceforth we must assume anything we hear or see or read in the news (not counting really good fiction and neighborhood gossip) is probably not the whole truth, or even part of the truth. Did Donald Trump save 700 jobs in Michigan? Unlikely. Why did Obama expel dozens of Russian diplomats for something that may not have happened? We don’t know. Why are automobile manufacturers still allowed to make cars that run on gasoline? Because unregulated capitalism cares nothing about the environment.

The most popular American movies nowadays are animated films featuring animals behaving like goofy people and speaking English, live-action films set in other galaxies featuring humans with British accents, films about wizards and vampires rife with astonishingly bad dialogue, and films about impossibly strong and violent people who say very little as they run amok. Oh, yes, and films about morons and bimbos are popular, too.

Captain Fantastic is entirely about Now and full of real people dealing with the many and complicated challenges of being human. In this way, the movie reminded me of my favorite movies from the 60s and 70s, movies exploring contemporary society from the perspectives of people for whom the dominant cultural paradigms do not serve—movies about eccentrics and rebels and artists and innovators who are questing, as many of us were in those days, for ways to live healthy and meaningful lives on spaceship earth.

Cautionary Tales

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Photo of Molly by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2012)

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg, and I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” Ray Bradbury

Before the advent of personal computers, CDs, digital cameras, digital recordings, the interweb, cell phones, e-books, cyber pads and downloadable everything, long before Amazon and Google and Microsoft, when manuscripts were still typed on typewriters and editing was not instantaneous (which may have been a good thing) I met a man, a writer, who told me a cautionary tale I will never forget.

I was in my early twenties and hoping to become a successful writer and musician, though at the time I had yet to sell a story and was making peanuts playing my music in the bars and café’s of Santa Cruz, California. A friend of mine showed the writer one of my short stories, and when the writer finished reading my youthful creation, he told my friend he wanted to meet me. And so on a foggy August morning I hitchhiked from Santa Cruz to the writer’s fabulous home just south of Carmel, hoping the writer might open a door or two for me on my way to fame and fortune.

Living with the writer in their fabulous stone house perched above the Pacific, just a few doors down from where Henry Miller lived, were the writer’s exuberant wife and two willowy teenaged daughters, a third daughter off to college, the fourth and eldest daughter living in Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a television producer.

The writer, however, was not exuberant. He was, in fact, deeply depressed and dying of despair. “I’m fifty-one,” he grumbled, leading me from the sunny kitchen to his dark little den. “How old did you think I was when you saw me? Be honest. Seventy, right? I might as well be.”

A portly fellow with terrible posture and wispy white hair, his outfit a crumpled blue suit and a drab gray tie, the writer dropped heavily onto a little gray sofa and gestured for me to sit opposite him in a well-worn leather armchair, my view of the ocean negated by heavy brown curtains.

“Why do I wear a suit?” he asked, giving voice to one of my questions. “Dignity. A feeble attempt.”

“So…” I said, curious to know why he had summoned me. “I appreciate…”

“Your story is rough.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m being kind. It’s barely a sketch. Ever heard of depth? What’s the hurry? Description? Beware generalities. What are you reading? Faulkner? Chekhov? Steinbeck? Never mind. There was something there. A spark. I was interested. You got me hooked somehow. The pace? I don’t know. But then you let me down. You call that an ending? I know it’s all the rage now to just stop, but…” He shrugged. “Still…you have a unique voice. There was a real person telling the story. That’s rare.”

Before I could muster a reply, he went on.

“You know what I’m about to do?” He nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Spend fifty thousand dollars to publish my own fucking novel. Is that pathetic? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I hate that I have to do it myself, but I have no choice. New York spits on me.” He gave me a baleful look. “I’ve written eleven novels. Good novels. Seventy short stories. As good as anything they publish in the fucking New Yorker. Never sold anything. Thirty years. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, confused by his revelation, my friend having told me the writer was fantastically successful.

“So where did I get the money to buy this house?” He lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out. “Money for this life of luxury? Money to send my girls to the best schools? No, my wife is not an heiress. No, I didn’t inherit a thing. I did what I did because we had four little kids and no money and no future and my wife was about to leave me because I wouldn’t take a job, wouldn’t give up my dream of selling a novel and having my book reviewed in the New York Times. That’s all I ever wanted. And I’m telling you, what I did was the death of me.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, battered by his anger, “but I don’t know what you did. I don’t know anything about you except that my friend said you were a successful writer and wanted to talk to me.”

“I’m gonna publish my own fucking book,” he said, closing his eyes. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care if they think it’s an admission of failure. Fuck them. Fuck everybody. I earned it. I paid with my fucking life.”

“Well…Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol,” I said, wanting to assure the writer he was in good company. “Twain self-published…”

“How did I get my money?” he roared, pounding the sofa with his fist. “I sold an idea for a television show. An idea. Not a script, not a story. An idea. A sentence. And after the show was a hit, I wrote scripts for the fucking thing and they didn’t want them. For the show I invented.”

“How…”

“My wife knew this guy…we were living in a dump in San Jose. I’m talking rats and roaches and wreckage. Four kids. No money. Any day now I’ll sell a novel. Right? Wrong. So her old flame comes to visit and he’s horrified by how poor we are. Wants to help. Buys us a shitload of food, fills the fucking refrigerator to save his sweetheart, and we get blind drunk and he picks my brain. We stayed up half the night and made a long list of ideas. I’m not even sure I came up with the one he sold.”

“How…”

“His wife’s brother was a big shot Hollywood agent. The thing ran for nine seasons. Reruns forever. And the money has only just now stopped coming in, seventeen years after he sold the stupid thing. But I’m still gonna publish my novel.”

“Beatrix Potter self-published…”

“Killed me,” he said, bowing his head. “Never wrote anything good ever again. And you know what I do now, day and night, year after year?”

“What?”

“Try to think of another idea I can sell for another fucking television show.”

 “There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

When I was in my early thirties, my literary star having barely lifted off the horizon before it began to sink, I was twice hired to read screenplays before they were turned into expensive motion pictures, and to make suggestions about how the stories might be improved. In each case, I caught an early morning flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, spent a couple hours listening to the director talk about his movie, had lunch with my Hollywood agent, and then flew back to Sacramento with the script.

One of the movies was a bloody saga set in Brazil, the other a bloody multiple murder mystery set in Los Angeles. In my opinion, both screenplays were so badly written and so poorly conceived, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to film them, yet they both were filmed at enormous cost, one never released and the other loosed upon a few theaters for a few days before fading into oblivion.

I never saw either movie, but I did propose many changes to each screenplay, changes I thought would make them both better than bad. In the case of the multiple murder mystery, the director dismissed my ideas as ridiculous. I suggested there only be one murder, with the private lives of the two detectives given greater prominence, their human comedies juxtaposed with the tragedy of murder.

“But the whole point is escalating violence,” said the director, yelling at me over the phone. “I thought I made that perfectly clear. Violence is the main character. I didn’t ask you for new ideas, I wanted my ideas improved.”

In the case of the bloody Brazilian saga, I made a second trip to Los Angeles to discuss my thoughts face-to-face with the furious director. “You want me to take out most of the violence?” he asked, glaring at me. “This isn’t a character study, it’s a chase. A bloody fucking chase. And you think the boys shouldn’t die at the end? But they have to die. That’s the whole point.”

“They escape,” I said, seeing the boys escaping from their murderous pursuers. “So the movie ends with hope.”

“But there is no hope,” said the director, deeply dismayed. “That’s the whole fucking point. No hope.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging apologetically. “It was just an idea.”

“Well,” he said, frowning at me, “I’ll consider it.”

But in the end he went ahead and killed the boys.

Robbery

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)

Someone broke into our car last week while we were in Cotton Auditorium for another marvelous Symphony of the Redwoods concert, Marcia in the orchestra, I in the audience. I left our car unlocked, having lost the habit of locking up since I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley six years ago. The thief or thieves took a water bottle, a pair of dark glasses, and several CDs. They did not steal the stereo or wreck anything, but the invasion left us feeling sad and cranky. Marcia always locks her car, and I will do so henceforth, though it pains me to feel I must.

I’ve been robbed several times in the course of my life, each robbery ushering in a time of self-review. I’ve had six bicycles stolen, each theft necessitating the purchase of my subsequent mount, along with new and improved locks and chains. And because riding my bicycle was, until quite recently, my primary mode of transport, I understand very well why we used to hang horse thieves.

The grandest material theft of my life befell me two days after Christmas in 1979. I had just moved to Sacramento and was renting a house in a demilitarized zone—poverty to the south of me, wealth to the north. For the first time since childhood, and after more than a decade of living a monk’s life, materialistically speaking, I was relatively affluent. In quick order I had acquired an excellent stereo with fabulous speakers, a fancy camera, a state-of-the-art electric typewriter, and several items of new clothing, having theretofore shopped exclusively at the Salvation Army. Friends were visiting, one of whom was a professional French horn player, another a professional guitarist. We went to the movies and were gone from the house a little more than two hours.

Upon our return from Going In Style, an appropriately bittersweet comedy starring Art Carney and George Burns as elderly bank robbers, we found my front door wide open, lights blazing, the house thoroughly sacked. Gone were my friend’s one-of-a-kind French horn, my other friend’s one-of-a-kind guitar, and most of my possessions, new and old. The thieves had driven a van up onto the front lawn and backed it up to the front door. They took the beer from the refrigerator, the sheets and blankets from my bed, every last one of my newly acquired gadgets and articles of clothing, as well as my entire record collection (seventy albums or so) including nine Ray Charles albums, my favorite jazz, Ravel, Debussy, Stevie Wonder, the Sons of Champlin double album, Leon Bibb, Buffalo Springfield…everything except a Laura Nyro album left to me by a long lost girlfriend.

I immediately called the police and was informed by an extremely irritable woman that unless the thieves were still on the premises and actively stealing things, it would be two or three days before they could send anyone out to take a report. She said they were currently experiencing a tsunami of crime and the non-violent nature of what had happened to me combined with my unimpressive address made me a low priority for the overworked gendarmes. I thanked her profusely for being so compassionate and understanding, but my tone must have betrayed my dismay, because her last words to me were, “Hey, it could have been worse.”

“True,” I replied, though she had already hung up. “They might have taken my piano, too, if only it wasn’t so heavy.”

In my life review that followed such a thorough erasure of my physical assets, my first thought was that the robbery was a clear sign I should not have moved to Sacramento and that I should quickly change course and move to Mendocino, which is where I really wanted to live. But I did not love myself well enough to heed that intuitive wisdom, and so I stayed in Sacramento for fifteen years, bought a house, married, divorced, gave up the house, and finally fled to Berkeley where more bikes were stolen and more self-reviews pointed me to Mendocino, though I would wait another eleven years before finally trusting the wisdom of that recurrent impulse.

Not that I regret the twenty-six-year delay. What is done is done. Regret is a venomous leech, so rip that sucker off and get on with things. Right? We rob ourselves by dwelling in self-pity, just as we rob ourselves by not expressing our feelings—happy or sad or angry. We rob ourselves by staying in rotten relationships and rotten jobs. And that, I think, has always been the greatest gift of being robbed—a wake up call, a reminder to discover and expel those parts of our lives that are self-robberies, self-swindles, self-sabotage.

Betrayal is another kind of robbery. I was lifted out of my first long stint of poverty by the sale of the movie rights to my novel Inside Moves. I had long aspired to write and direct movies, and to that end I had been writing screenplays for several years, as well as writing novels and short stories and plays. The agent handling the movie sale of my novel informed me there were two offers, one from Robert Evans who had recently produced The Godfather and Chinatown and Love Story, and one from Stephen Friedman who had recently produced The Last Picture Show. I was told that Friedman was offering twenty-five thousand dollars more, but the agents advised me to take the offer from Evans because they said he had a much better chance of getting the movie produced.

And I said to the charming agent handling the deal, “I just want to remind you that I very much want to write the screenplay of my novel. Is that a possibility?”

“No,” she said, laughing delightfully. “Bob has some big names in mind for that. Let’s get the movie made and then we’ll see about getting you some screenwriting gigs.”

Since I had yet to learn anything about the true nature of the movie business, I agreed to the deal with Bob Evans, and he did, indeed, hire the now-famous Barry Levinson and Barry’s then-wife Valerie Curtin to write the screenplay for Inside Moves. But then Evans dropped the project and it was relegated to limbo for a couple years. I subsequently published a second novel, Forgotten Impulses, and one of my suitors for the movie rights to that tome was the same Stephen Friedman. I flew to Los Angeles to meet with him, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m still angry that you didn’t go with us on Inside Moves, especially since we offered you more money and the screenwriting gig.”

“But (name of agent) never told me you offered me the screenwriting gig.”

“Fuckin’ agents,” he said, scowling. “I told her you were born to write that screenplay.”

Hilariously naïve, I went directly from my meeting with Friedman to the agency representing me wherein dwelt the beautiful woman who was my official representative in Hollywood, and when I informed her of what Friedman had told me, she smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, that’s true. He did want you to write the screenplay, but we thought it would be better for the project to go with Evans.”

“But…so…you lied to me.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, her voice dropping to a husky whisper. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that in this town. Things are far more complicated than you realize. This business is all about relationships and the balance of power.”

A few weeks later, I was informed that I had been assigned to another agent in the esteemed agency representing me, another charming woman who “totally got” my yen to establish myself as a screenwriter; and to that end she encouraged me to write treatments for the movies I wanted to write. A treatment is a thorough synopsis of a movie’s plot accompanied by detailed descriptions of the characters, with snippets of scenes and samples of dialogue. I wrote a dozen of these cinematic treatises for her over the next few years, virtual novellas, and at least one of them caught the eye of a powerful producer at Tri-Star. My enthusiastic agent called me from a celebratory lunch with that producer at the Beverly Hills Hotel to let me know a lucrative deal was imminent, after which I never heard from her again. However, a few weeks after her exuberant phone call, I was informed I was being shifted to yet another agent at the esteemed agency representing me.

Then a year or so after that, I went to see a new comedy from Tri-Star with my friend Bob, and about five minutes into the film, I realized we were watching a movie based entirely on my treatment, down to the minute details of the characters I’d invented, the content and order of the scenes, and much of the dialogue. There were, of course, things in the film I had not imagined, but for the most part the movie stayed remarkably faithful to my treatment. I knew well enough by then there was no way I could prove the theft and win any sort of settlement, though the story and characters were entirely mine, which knowledge simply added to myriad other sad and discouraging things I had learned and was learning about the big money end of American culture. I felt robbed, yes, but this time I also felt stupid for having trusted Lucy yet again to not pull the football away, so to speak, right before I was about to kick a winning field goal.

I am currently reading The Horse’s Mouth, a wonderful novel about an artist, a painter, a truly gone cat, his art more important to him than anything else, even friendship. And he is forever coming to the conclusion that everything that happens to him—everything that has ever happened to him—is not only the result of his own actions, but precisely what he requires to continue evolving as an artist.

Bums At A Grave

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The first movie I remember seeing at a movie theatre was The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye, Basil Rathbone, and the very young Angela Lansbury. 1955. I was six years old. As we left the Park Theatre in Menlo Park, California, I distinctly recall turning to my mother and announcing that I was going to be a movie star like Danny Kaye. To which she replied, “Don’t be silly.”

Three years later, 1958, my parents took me to see Alec Guinness in The Horse’s Mouth, after which I proclaimed, “That’s what I’m going to be. An artist and live on a boat.” To which my father, a psychiatrist, replied, “Just what we need, another narcissistic sociopath.”

Both The Court Jester and The Horse’s Mouth have stood the test of time for me. I’ve seen them several times in the intervening fifty years, and I still consider The Horse’s Mouth to be one of the very best depictions of a person who cares more for his art than for anyone or anything else.

When I was nine, Willy Mays supplanted Danny and Alec as my supreme mentor and hero, and led me off my artist’s path into the glory of baseball and eventually basketball, my twin obsessions until late high school when I was felled by what the western medical doctors called a hot case of ankyllosing spondilitis, which ailment cut short my dreams of athletic glory, returned me full steam to writing and music and drama, and shortly thereafter saved me from going to fight in Vietnam.

When I dropped out of college at nineteen, I knew what I wanted to be: a professional writer, actor, and musician—Danny Kaye and Alec Guinness rolled into one.

Despite a thousand setbacks and highly annoying poverty, I held to this vision of myself, worked day and night at my writing and music, and at twenty-eight was rewarded by having my first novel published and made into a major motion picture. A year after that, I published my second novel, and Warner Brother paid me to write the screenplay for Laura Ziskin, famous most recently as the producer of the Spiderman franchise.

And though by the age of thirty I hadn’t made buckets of money, I had made a goodly chunk of change, so I decided to make a little film of my own to prove to myself and others that I had the chops to offer myself as a director of my own movies. This, of course, was in the days before digital anything, when making a good-looking movie, even in sixteen-millimeter film, was extremely expensive; and so was born my truly minimalist fifteen-minute fictive film entitled Bums At A Grave.

Within a year of completing the film, my career, so bright and promising (in commercial terms) had collapsed. Bums At A Grave became but a reel of celluloid in a canister that lay on my dusty shelf for nearly thirty years. And then a few weeks ago, at the urging of several old friends who remembered the movie and wanted to see it again, I had the film transferred to DVD in a good lab in San Francisco.

Seeing Bums At A Grave for the first time in twenty-eight years was a fascinating walk down memory lane for me. I wrote the script in 1979 when I was living in Santa Cruz, California. The film is set in 1933 during the Great Depression, and seems remarkably predictive of Now. We filmed it in the summer of 1980 shortly after I moved to Sacramento—a two-day shoot in 105-degree heat near Grass Valley. Richard Simpson was the cinematographer and editor, Doug Peckham handled sound, Bob Smith produced, Patty Nolan was continuity person and assistant-to-everyone, my brother Steve starred as Willy, and I co-starred as Trevor.

For years prior to the Bums shoot, I studied movies in search of filming techniques that particularly pleased me. This meant I had to go to movies multiple times, since VHS technology had barely been born and DVDs were not yet a glimmering in the eye of the future. I did not and do not like quick cutting from one scene to another. I very much enjoy action within a still frame, slow tracking shots, and a slowly pivoting camera on a tripod. No handheld shots, please!

Thus when I wrote the script for Bums At A Grave, I intentionally minimized the need for edits while creating setups for active and changing points of view. This not only made for more pleasing cinema, it saved money in those days when even 16 mm shooting and editing was expensive.

For instance: characters at a distance can move (in the course of a scene) to the forefront of the frame where a slow zoom to a close-up can add up to three or four “scenelets” in a single take without the need for an edit.

Bums At A Grave screened at the 1980 Filmex film festival in Los Angeles for an audience of 1200 hardcore film buffs and movie biz folks. They loved the film, laughed uproariously at the Republican joke (Reagan our brand new president in 1980), and gave us a rousing ovation at the end. While we were in LA, we screened the film for Laura Ziskin, and to my everlasting delight Laura pronounced, “Your agents are missing the boat with you. They should be pushing you as a director.”

But life, as the poets say, intervened and I took another road in the opposite direction of Hollywood. Today, at last, you can see scenes from Bums At A Grave on Youtube. Turn up the volume and have some fun. Or view the entire fifteen minutes of Bums At A Grave, Admission Free, at Underthetablebooks.com.