Twenty First Century Films

popcorn

Movies aren’t what they used to be.

This is the GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION!

Movies suck.

What did you binge watch lately?

There is NOTHING to see at the movie theatre!

Can I borrow your Netflix password?

Movies, in general, have taken a critical bashing as of late and it’s not entirely unwarranted. Let’s face it, the Suits are drunk with sequels and superheroes and don’t really give a hoot what makes sense or doesn’t if it can deliver millions of bodies in potential theme park rides, sequels, spin-offs and merchandise.

Oh how the mighty have fallen #TeamJen #Argowho?

Oh how the mighty have fallen #TeamJen #Argowho?

Films have taken on the business school lingo of a precious asset – a property that exists not solely for its financial value at the theatrical box-office or, heaven forbid, its creative content. Rather, they are seen in most of the top towers and executive suites as a commodity to be leveraged into many, many smaller and larger off-springs –much like a Triple Crown winning horse that is put out for gelding after it serves the greater good.

That’s fine. For them. But it’s not the entire story of 21st century film.

Quite randomly last week I came upon a new list put out by the BBC. NO, DON’T STOP READING! This list actually applies to you – the moviegoer. Or more broadly, the movie fan. Instead of surveying critics and audiences to compile a list of the 100 greatest movies of all-time, or some such subset that would spotlight drama, comedy, action or presumably, even porn or snuff films in the future, they tried something novel. (Note: No, not an actual novel, as in reading – we all know no one does THAT anymore).

Why read when you can see Emily Blunt in the movie version? #duh

Why read when you can see Emily Blunt in the movie version? #duh

Yes, the Brits had the tenacity to compile a list that I, Mr. Movie Fan, had never seen before. That would be the top 100 films of the 21st CENTURY.

Huh? What is that – a list of 10, or maybe 20 movies, most of which none of us have ever seen before? Or want to see? No, surprisingly not at all.

Okay, technically the list is of 102 films and it does stem from 2000-2016 which means the first year it charts is technically not a part of the 21st century – which began in 2001 (Note: Apparently 2000 was an irresistible film year one couldn’t turn away from). But who really cares? The point is, this is a very narrow period where 177 film critics from every country in the world (Note: Antarctica was the exception, which brings up the whole question of climate change and access we don’t want to get into) actually agreed there were 100 plus movies, many of them AMERICAN, that are actually worth watching, remembering and…wait for it…HONORING.

Believe it Olivia.

Believe it Olivia.

In case you are wondering – no, there is not a sequel in the bunch.

In case you are further wondering – yes, there is exactly ONE superhero film in the bunch and you probably have already rightly guessed which one is indeed The ONE. (HINT: Uh no, it’s not The Matrix. Plus, Neo is not really a superhero and anyway, he first appeared in 1999. As for the 2003 sequels – well, let’s not go there).

Which is the pill that helps me take a nap?

Which is the pill that helps me take a nap?

What this list reminds us of is that – WAIT, there are lots of movies I’ve enjoyed in the last 15 (okay 16) years. Sure there are too many clunkers, or cynically made assets. But maybe, just maybe it’s worth forgetting the Netflix password every once in a while and instead go out to an actual theatre before the art form, as we know it, dies altogether. Or worse yet – becomes solely a corporatized asset.

Please be good. Please be good. Please be good. #clingingtohope #heygirl #lalaland

Please be good. Please be good. Please be good. #clingingtohope #heygirl #lalaland

A complete list will be shared below but how about just the top six right here?

  1. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)
  2. In The Mood for Love (2000, Wong-Kar-wai)
  3. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas-Anderson)
  4. Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
  5. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
  6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry and written by CHARLIE freaking KAUFMAN, OKAY?)

All of them original, beautifully made and meaningful. Are they my top six or your top six? Perhaps not. But they are inarguably as good as many of the classic movies from decades before.

Added bonus: This phrase being added to our world.

Added bonus: This phrase being added to our world.

Certainly, any LIST inherently has its head-scratchers and personal duds and this one is clearly among them. Notice I stopped at six because #7 is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which you couldn’t pay me enough money to endure five minutes of ever again. Perhaps this confirms the long held belief that I am a philistine, but that is not the point. We all have our personal Trees. And in fact, I’d pay to watch other glorious Malick films such as Badlands and Days of Heaven over and over if you didn’t bring up the subject of #7 ever again.

That dinosaur sequence though. #neverforget

That dinosaur sequence though. #neverforget

As for some others The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis ranked #10 and #11 respectively. David Fincher’s Zodiac was #12 and Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant Children of Men was #13.

 You want less, well, pretentious? (Your word, not mine). Pan’s Labyrinth was #17, Mad Max: Fury Road was #19, The Social Network was #27, and Wall-E was #29.

Favorites of mine like CHARLIE freakin’ KAUFMAN’s Synecdoche was #20, while Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was #22, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was #24, Christopher Nolan’s Memento was #25 and Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her came in at #28.

Let’s also give separate credit to The Dark Knight at #33 because, well, think of the odds against the whole thing working the way it did when there was merely a blank page and no real concept but a history of…ASSET. 

See Ben, this is how it’s done.

See Ben, this is how it’s done.

As I continued down the list I came across any number of films (40, in all) I hadn’t seen, some I really didn’t care for (Okay, I admit it – I’m too old for Wes Anderson) but others I had forgotten had come out in the not so distant past. Of the latter how about: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, City of God, Brokeback Mountain, Melancholia, Moulin Rouge, Inglorious Bastards, The Great Beauty, The Hurt Locker, Her, Amelie, The Pianist, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Spotlight (Note: I have a very short memory) and Requiem for A Dream.

What pleased me most about this list is that it coincided with the first week of the fall screenwriting class I teach.  The list of top 100 films on everyone’s mind are usually the 1, 2, 3 classic movie punch of Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca. Certainly, these are all great, timeless movies – as are many of the others on that usual classics list.   But for young people – as well as for some of the rest of us – consistently remembering these as the best of what the big screen has to offer can’t help but feel a little depressing at some point. Because it evokes a golden age that is long gone and, very likely, will never return.

Le sigh.

Le sigh.

This is why the BBC did Americans and moviegoers worldwide – not to mention the future of film – a great service by compiling this new grouping of films. Perhaps it doesn’t evoke a new golden age (though maybe it does) but it does prove the movies are alive and well and can be for some time to come. Though only if we get out our pods and mosey on down via our people mover of choice to check some of them out. Judging by the newly motivated faces on some of my students perusing the list, this will continue to happen in the near future. But at the very least, we could give them a little help.

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Watching the Gross

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I thought I’d grown used to the movies I like grossing very little money but it’s sobering. Still, this shouldn’t be surprising. I can now get into films as a senior citizen in some places. I know, I’m shocked too.   When I went to see the Steve “Jobs” movie a few weeks ago I almost passed out. But still paid full price.

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Clearly, I’ve permanently strayed from the “youth” demographic Hollywood covets no matter how many times my peers say 50 is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, 80 is the new 20 and death is something that happens to OTHER people. That’s scary enough. But to realize that not one of my favorite films is among the 50 top grossing movies of the year – well, that’s positively un-American. It’s like my entire country has turned on me when I wasn’t looking. And in more ways than one. On the other hand, it’s not the first time. I lived through the eighties, Ronald Reagan and Forrest Gump winning the Oscar yet I am still here whining about it all as our first African American-president completes his second term of office and Birdman was last year’s best picture winner. Inevitably, these types of things, as well as life, do run in cycles.

And yet…

Hard as it is to recognize I have come to understand that like many Americans the movies are my touchstone. Each year at least a handful reflect what myself and our culture were thinking or feeling en masse and, when they worked really well, even showed us alternative ways to cope. Did Michael Keaton really go out the window at the end of Birdman? Who cares – it raised the question of just what are the alternatives we all face when trying to survive as an artist of any kind. And if one believes, as I do, that anything you attempt to do well in life does indeed have some sort of artistic element to it, it is essential we continue to consider these questions. And spend less time pondering how high of a gilded wall we can build around ourselves to keep out those who are different. Ironic, isn’t it? That a country built on a melting pot of difference should be faced with the 2015 Shakespearean question of how we engineer and preserve our current gene pool to exclude as many others as possible.

There’s a reason why, at its essence, drama hasn’t really changed very much since the Elizabethan period or even as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Still works!

Still works!

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to The MOVIES, 2015.

If you’re a member of a Hollywood guild each year you’re fortunate enough to receive DVDs of many of this year’s movies so you don’t have to move your privileged ass off the couch and make the effort to go to the movie theatre if you so prefer not to. (Note: Well, you wouldn’t either if you didn’t have to and had a decent TV setup at home – give me a break)

So being the lazybones (nee whore) that I am I decided that after gorging myself on turkey I’d continue gorging myself on some of the movies I got in the mail and have not yet seen. I also decided to go out to the movie theatres and pay for a few others as well as attend several industry screenings (Note: Yes, for free – I’m not only getting lazy in my old age but also cheap). And what continued to amaze me is that without exception the films that I really enjoyed continue to make very, very little money at the box office. How long before these types of films are not made at all? I fear, not very long.

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I'll ask Matt Damon)

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I’ll ask Matt Damon)

Now before you go saying I’m part of the problem because I’m not going out to see my films enough – you’re only partly right. Like all of you, I should venture out and support my local theatres more than I do. But also know that part of the marketing budgets of all production companies include sending out free DVDs to guild members not to be kind but to get us to VOTE for said film in an enormous array of awards competitions that the industry will use to promote the winners and get you/us – the audience – into the theatres to see or into the stores to buy or into our heads to stream. For better or worse that’s the way the system works. Bottom line dollars.

I suppose this explains why as a Writers Guild member two of the early DVDs I received were for Furious 7 ($353 million domestic box-office gross) and Jurassic World ($652 million). Did anyone really think these would win any writing awards? (Note: That question was rhetorical). No, it was about spreading the word. Well, fyi, I’ve previously seen both a Furious AND a Jurassic movie before and was entertained. I tried briefly with both of these. Oh God. I might be old but I’m not brain dead. Yet. Which is why I turned them off.

As for some of the others – well, here I am to do the job that I was sent to do by the studio overlords – spreading the word. (Note: As if I wouldn’t give my opinion anyway).

TRUMBO

He is Spartacus?

He is Spartacus?

This is the story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and how his intellectual liberal leanings sent him to jail for a year in the 1950s merely for being subversively un-American as a member of the Communist party. (Note: Think of him as a Muslim under a future Trump administration).

More interesting is the tale it tells of how Trumbo, once out of a jail, worked secretly writing tacky low-budget movies under assumed names and got his other unemployable writer friends jobs doing the same via a hidden writer’s clearing house he ran out of his house. With the help of his wife and children. Who answered five different telephone lines and served as their script couriers.

As played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, this Trumbo is a witty, erudite crusader, family man who takes advantage of the people around him while at the same time loving them and his country in the most unorthodox of ways. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that will surely get him an Oscar nomination. The movie takes a long time to get going and in the first half especially feels a bit like a choppy, TV movie biopic from the 1970s. But ultimately it’s smart, breezy, clever and not without some meaning. And slickly made by director Jay Roach.

AND — It’s made less than a $1 million after three weeks of limited release.

Verdict: Watch it.

TRUTH

Would you... Rather?

Would you… Rather?

I was where most of you probably are on this. Robert Redford playing Dan Rather in a movie that shows us how Rather got pushed out of the anchor chair at CBS because of a 60 Minutes story he did on George W. Bush’s questionable military record of service? A story where sources recanted their original claims but nevertheless a story that was never proven factually inaccurate?

#1 – I don’t want to hear any more about Dubya. #2 – Redford is about as similar to Dan Rather as I am. #3 – It’s my private time, I want to be entertained by a film not forced to think about unpleasant stuff I was forced to live through all too recently.

Well, the film is not really about Dubya at all but about how the news you see on TV is put together and just how influential political dynasties can be “behind the scenes.” More importantly, Redford might not look anything like Rather but he’s got his speaking cadence down pat and is ultimately absolutely believable as the veteran Texas newsman – in fact it’s the best he’s been in a movie in many years. Who knew? Not any of us because no one is going to see it. Since it’s release in October it’s grossed about $2.5 million.

Oh, and then there’s Cate Blanchett starring as Rather’s real-life producer Mary Mapes, a tough-talking Texan she gets exactly right because she doesn’t slather on the accent but instead accentuates her intelligence. The whole film is smart. And –

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING.

SICARIO

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

My students will hate me for this because they seem to love this movie. Why? I have zero idea. Emily Blunt is as good as she can be as an FBI agent drawn into the web of breaking up a Mexican drug cartel by her CIA overlords as well as by others. But…it’s a labyrinth of action with character development and logic so spare as to be almost non-existent. And after a while it simply becomes preposterous. And a bore.

I’ve experienced first-hand as a writer notes on the strategy of throwing audiences right into the world of a movie without much of a convincing setup and allowing the viewer to play catch up. This sometimes works – as it did in the first season of True Detective. And it often times fails, as it does here. But then again, it depends what you mean by failure. Sicario has grossed $49 million in the U.S. alone and another $34 million overseas so far. That makes it a bit more than a modest success in the world of the balance sheet of a film with no above the title movie star or director. It’s also a world where logic and dialogue don’t matter as much the various kinds of actions that are ultimately delivered.

Verdict: SKIP IT. Though you could do worse (Note: See Furious AND Jurassic).

CAROL

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner... what can ya say?

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner… what can ya say?

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two seemingly mismatched women falling in love in the repressive 1950s under the direction of Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, HBO’s Mildred Pierce). This movie was MADE for me!! You’d think.

It’s beautiful to look at. Cate Blanchett’s mink coat and shimmering blonde hair and red lipstick are breathtaking. As is every single room, piece of jewelry and choice of scenery and period motor vehicle and hotel room and tacky apartment and cheap motel room. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s a movie in love with artifice – and itself. The drama is real and sometimes palpable but as someone is said to have once said, “it’s like watching paint dry.” The same emotional beats are played over and over. Time and again.   It’s based on the seminal lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952.   But never for one moment do you feel as if you’re watching anything other than a book unspooling in movie time without any of the nuanced language that made it so special.

The two actresses are wonderful. Everything is pretty. And it does show us how much a great deal of the world has changed. But…well….

Verdict: PASS – which is not to say there is not a great deal of skill and intelligence here. Would I watch it before Jurassic and Furious again? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I should just force myself to get all the way through the latter two for the first time. Though Carol needs the money more. It’s grossed about $500,000 in 10 days of limited release. And I doubt there’s a ton more to come. DVD/streaming sales? Maybe. But…OK, I’ll stop now.

BRIDGE OF SPIES

A Spielberg movie written by.... The Coen Brothers?

A Spielberg movie written by…. The Coen Brothers? 

I popped the DVD to this in and had low expectations. I mean, it’s the tale of the reluctant negotiator spy type American hero of the 1950s as played by Tom Hanks and directed by Steve Spielberg that somehow you believe deep down in your soul you’ve seen before…. but directed by Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman or by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Except it’s not any of those. Or really that much like them.

Tom Hanks is very good, very believable and very likeable – in an authentic, throwback Americana way. It’s a tough act to pull off an insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator in period clothes but somehow you buy it all. At this point it’d be shocking if Mr. Spielberg did not direct an infinitely watchable movie. And this one is pretty darn watchable – thanks also in great part to Mark Rylance’s brilliantly understated performance in a role you need to see rather than read about from me. He anchors the film. And if you think that’s easy when you’re not a movie star, you’re wrong.

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING. It won’t change your life but it’s engaging. Though at a $67 million box-office gross it’s the equivalent of Trumbo or Truth in dollars for a Spielberg pic. That may not be fair but it’s the way the industry thinks. And for our future films bodes a bit ominous.

Feel free to agree – or disagree. But just know the top five grossing films of 2015 are Jurassic World ($652 million); Avengers: Age of Ultron ($459 million); Inside Out ($356 million); Furious 7 ($353 million) and Minions ($336 million). And that’s just in the U.S. alone. Films that are more adult – nee a bit more complicated or intellectually challenging – are in trouble. And need our support. At theatres, on DVD, or yes, even for free. It’s who we are. Or were. Our choice.

Oh you'll be adding me to that list pretty soon....

Oh you’ll be adding me to that list pretty soon….

P.S. Note #1: I did very much enjoy Inside Out but it’s an animated film and they’re in a category of their own. This is not a snob thing but everyone likes at least one animated movie a year except a dear friend of mine who I still can’t convince to embrace Aladdin – the gayest animated movie that’s ever been made. I’ll work on him, though.

P.S. Note #2 – Just got home from a screening of The Danish Girl. Eddie Redmayne and his co-star, the Swedish film actress Alicia Vikander, will both receive Oscar nominations. As will others behind the scenes. It’s mainstream yet unusual. Thought-provoking though not too complicated. And timely in that it follows one of the first medical cases of gender reassignment. Verdict: See it. People actually speak in full sentences, and often more than one sentence at a time. Plus, nothing blows up.

At least that’s something.

Gettin’ Woodsy with Meryl

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Anytime you get to spend a few hours with Meryl Streep and Tracy Ullman is a good time and I was fortunate to spend three or more with them some days ago during a screening of the new film musical Into the Woods and the q & a session afterwards.

Yes, most of the rest of the cast were also onstage as were the director, writer, producer, costume designer, cinematographer and, well, others. There were also 1000 plus people seated in the audience with me. But the movie, those two actors and okay, pretty much everyone else either live or on digital associated with the film, were delightfully entertaining and articulate. Will this movie change the world? No. But what really will at this point?

When the real news is a small country hacks into a major studio’s computer system and successfully prevents the release of a film it assumes will be offensive in spite of the fact that it hasn’t even seen it yet, well – what movie or story about one can top that? And what can take your mind off of it? Certainly not the batch of depressing, heady, dramatic or just plain bland and/or derivative holiday films in store for us this season.

We get it.. enough already

We get it.. enough already

I’m extremely grateful and privileged to be part of two Hollywood unions – not least of all for the fact that right around this time of year I receive free DVDs of most of the these movies to screen at my leisure. But between Unbroken, Still Alice, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year and that much needed remake of Annie, can it get any creepier, heavier, or just plain sad? (Note: You decide which adjective fits which film). And Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to you too.

Oh and I'm just a ball of laughs...

Oh and I’m just a barrel of laughs…

I tend to watch mostly heavy, sad or heady movies and I certainly gravitate towards writing them. But there are moments when even I need a break. There will be hell to pay from my much more “serious” friends, colleagues and family members but Into the Woods gives you just that break without making you feel as if you’ve just spent 120 plus minutes in a game of Candy land where unearned life lessons abound around scenes, dialogue and characters designed to primarily service the product placements that surrounds them. Yes, we’re talking about the Annie trailer here.

So let’s continue with Into the Woods.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote the Broadway musical 27 years ago as an homage to fairy tales while simultaneously taking to task the happily ever after endings they traffic in. The movie, like the stage show, is deceptively escapist except eventually it’s not. If one allows oneself to be transported by it there are earned lessons that resonate in a post-9/11 world. That’s an entire universe away from NBC’s recent much ballyhooed live production of Peter Pan – a stunt idea that felt merely like a moneymaking, ratings grabbing event.   This Into the Woods movie feels like it has a reason for being – and therefore a reason to be seen. When will the powers-that-be learn? Maybe never. But they’re looking to make money, not to complete thoughts.

still processing this...

still processing this…

Don’t go in with too raised expectations. This is simply a good, old-fashioned musical that looks great and feels just weighty enough without hitting you squarely over the head with its message continuously. It diverts you for two hours (not three – yay!!!) into a strange magical alternate universe where not everything works out as you hope but as it seems meant to – much the way it occurs 90% of the time in life. (Note: The latter statistic is based solely on my own many decades of living, breathing and seeing countless outcomes and, trust me, if anything I’m underestimating the number).

Speaking of numbers, at one point during the Woods talk back it occurred to me there were a dozen members of cast and crew onstage at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills throwing out occasional pearls of wisdom about being a working cast and crew member on the top tier of the entertainment industry. Shouldn’t other artists, or aspiring artists, or even the rest of us movie gossips at least get to hear the best of what they had to say rather than having to hunt it down via some website where, given all the Internet traffic this week, we will be buffered into oblivion and quit before it even starts?

the cast about to drop some truth bombs...

the cast about to drop some truth bombs…

So — this goes out to everyone. You may or may not like the film (Hint: Drop the sour face, or as my Aunt Nan used to say – the farbissina punim – and at least give it a chance) but you will certainly find value in at least one or two of their thoughts. And if you don’t, you should. Yes, should.

TOP 10 WORDS OF INTO THE WOODS Q&A WISDOM FOR INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS

1. If a really talented person suggests your next project to you, it would be wise to listen. Director Rob Marshall scored big with his 2002 movie musical version of Chicago and following that level of commercial success many doors open for you. So it was not surprising that a hot director of a movie musical would get to meet with the royalty of musical composers – Stephen Sondheim – and be allowed to review his quite large body of work for the possible adaptation of his next big screen project.

St. Stephen

St. Stephen

But rather than push for a preconceived idea of what he wanted to do, Mr. Marshall instead chose to engage in an extended discussion of Sondheim’s canon and what he hoped to do creatively in the future. According to the director, Into the Woods was actually Sondheim’s choice of the show of his that would best suit Mr. Marshall. I would’ve been happy to do any of them, the director admitted, but he finally looked at me and said, I think you’re really right for this.

2. You can love doing the kind of job you most assuredly turned down three times before. Meryl Streep plays the gloriously wicked witch at the center of Woods but she didn’t initially want to play it. The actress recalls that the moment she turned 40 years-old she was quickly offered three different witch roles and as a quasi political stance couldn’t see herself being thrown on the casting junk heap because moviemakers were so quick to age a woman of her age out. But having now proven her point many times over, at the age of 65 she realized the opportunity to get to be in a Sondheim musical was just too good to pass up. And yes, she chose to reveal her current age matter-of-factly and quite normally – which was probably the most political act of all.

Werk it, gurl!

Werk it, gurl!

3. Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. The development of big budget films being what they are, it wasn’t until he was watching the ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 three years ago that director Rob Marshall was able to finally personalize the themes of Woods. The moment he heard Pres. Obama tell the surviving family members of those who died on that day that you are not alone, he was immediately reminded of the classic Woods song No One is Alone and realized the inherent dangers of the contemporary world can cause life to turn on a dime, just as they do in fairy tales, and that you cannot necessarily save the people you love.  And to the naysayers: No, we’re not saying this movie is a 9/11 musical. Grow up.

4. When you audition, have a little fun. We all audition for jobs but for actors the process is a stressful part of their continuously free-lance lives. So Chris Pine – known more in the movies as Star Trek’s bad boy Capt. Kirk rather than a singing prince, decided that if he had to demonstrate his chops as a crooner he’d rather do Sinatra than attempt Sondheim. That’s why he chose to sing Fly Me To The Moon for his audition. And got the part of what he gleefully describes as a gloriously two-dimensional prince.

Oh but that HAIR!

Oh but that HAIR!

5. Don’t be thrown by what others say or even imply about you. Anna Kendrick, an Academy Award nominee for Up in the Air and the second youngest person to ever be nominated for a Tony Award, was a bit taken aback prior to filming. That was because wherever she went people would stop her and feel compelled to say, I think it’s so interesting that you got cast as Cinderella.

Turning to the q&a audience the actress asked: Now what does that fck-ng mean? Well, we all know what that means. But really, who fck-ig cares what they think?

Hate on haters

Hate on haters

6. Do your best even when you are told there is no chance you will get the job. James Corden, the very funny British comic actor who plays the Baker, did a staged reading of the Woods screenplay in New York but was told from the outset that it would in no way ensure or even make likely he would be cast in the film. Not being delusional Corden told the screening audience he gave the reading his best anyway because he was happy to even be included and knew movie parts like that have to go to someone famous. But he was so memorable that day that Marshall promised to go to bat for him and eventually landed him the part. As for Corden, he’ll be a lot more famous in 2015 when he replaces Craig Ferguson as the host of CBS’s Late Late Show.

7. You can have a career AND a personal life. The day Emily Blunt was cast as The Baker’s Wife she found out she was pregnant with her first child. This news was quite ironic since the entire story arc for her character is that she is a woman who cannot have a child but desperately wants one. The actress assumed her pregnancy would likely cost her the role but when the filmmakers found out they decided to proceed anyway and hide her behind trees and behind and to the side of James Corden. By the time filming ended she was seven and a half months pregnant and a lot more challenging to hide – a fact that Corden suggests we check out for ourselves with a remote control and the pause button when we’re watching the movie on DVD.

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

8. Writers are inherently cynical. Sondheim collaborator and multiple Tony Award winner James Lapine was tasked with adapting the book of his stage musical into a screenplay. This meant the challenging work of dropping the key conceit of the storybook characters presented directly addressing the audience from the stage and figuring out a way to re-dramatize the action for moviegoers. But the writer was not particularly overwhelmed by the challenge because he is convinced that nothing will ever happen with any project he ever works on, particularly for the movies. I am not sure why but somehow that was immensely reassuring to me. #YouAreNotAlone.

9. Always Cast Meryl Streep First. Granted this is a no-brainer but it is worth noting that once it was decided that Woods would be a film, the first person Rob Marshall approached was M.S. When she said yes, the doors to every actor in the world flung wide open. She also knew all of her lines on the very first day of rehearsal. See, cause that’s also part of the job.

She can do no wrong

She can do no wrong

10. Try to work with your friends. Of all the people onstage Tracy Ullman and Meryl Streep were clearly having the best time. They insulted each other, giggled together and seemed genuinely happy to be there. In fact, Ullman had to force Streep to face front when the compliments began flowing for her performance – at one point physically turning Streep’s body and chair back towards the audience so her friend could be properly appreciated.

Their friendship dates back some 30 years to another film (can you guess which one without looking at IMDB? Hint: It’s good and…). And in the course of the evening one couldn’t help but wonder if yet one more could be in their future. When producer Marc Platt noted that there was indeed a movie version of the hit musical Wicked in the works both Ullman and Streep wildly motioning that they would love to play the younger versions of Glinda and The Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz prequel for the big screen.

Right. I know. They were joking. But is it any more ridiculous than hiring ____________________   and ______________________ .

Feel free to fill in the blanks.

And Happy Holidays.

Spinning

It's all about how you see it.

It’s all about how you see it.

There is an old adage that the more specific you get, the more universal your message will be.  That’s why when Pres. Obama pointed out the 102 year old African American woman in the audience at his State of the Union speech who had to wait six hours in line to vote in Florida in the presidential election in November, his shout out was not corny but resonant to so many people. We’d heard stories like this for more than a century of minorities, especially women, discouraged or deterred from voting, but what made this one especially affecting was that several new details had been added.  It was not just an older Black woman but it was a 102 year old woman.  It was not a story of civil rights-like voter suppression from 50, 100 or even 150 yeas ago.  It happened within the LAST year.  

That’s also why the gun violence/“they deserve a vote” section of the speech also worked.  We’ve all seem victims of gun violence from both sides – the shooter and the shooted and the respective families of each.  But there was yet another new twist on it this time.  Due to the proliferation of assault weapons used in so many of these mass shootings, firearms which blast up to 30 bullets in five seconds, many more people die in record time.  But because any one of these individual blood fests – Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech – can cover a greater number of people and acreage, more than one or two humans these days also manage to escape or survive and then, live to testify.  Whether it was the young man in the Colorado movie theatre who has become an anti-gun activist despite the bullet fragments still lodged in his body or the fighting spirit of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her ability to resume life after a near fatal brain injury, it’s really just simple math: the greater the area and number of victims you’re dealing with the more likely the percentages that something will go wrong and someone will live to speak out against you.   Once again – old story, but with a new slant.  Of course, there was the classroom of 20 dead children and 5 adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school where everyone did die, proving there are exceptions to every rule.  But let’s face it, the lack of survivors and extremely young median age of everyone in that 2012 mass shooting only made that tragedy even more unique and caused it to stand out given the norm of the  “aughts” decade of where we now all reside.

Putting your own “contemporary” spin on an old story is something we all do either on the page or in real life, whether we know it or not.  Actually, it’s impossible not to do it if the yarn takes place in or is being told through the lens of someone who lives today.  But often times we feel quite insecure about it – as if we’re unoriginal or ripping off some other tale of woe or happiness that we particularly liked either consciously or subconsciously.  And if me writing about the notion that no story is new except for the personal spin you put on it sounds as if you’ve heard it before – well, you probably have.  But perhaps not put exactly this way.  See, addressing an issue in an opinion piece is no different than creating a story from ground zero to tell your friends, or writing it down in short story, play, screenplay or book form for your readers.  Or verbally addressing a crowd, or talking to Matt, Diane, Oprah, Katie, Jay, Dave, Jerry Springer or the nation or the world in an interview.  A version of every story in the world has been offered in some form ad nausea.  You might swear it’s new because you’ve never heard it, or the people who were around the last time it was told are long gone, but pretty much someone or something has done it prior.  And perhaps better (though certainly different) than the version you’re hearing or seeing now.  And if you need any proof of that just look at the various movie versions of Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally and 500 Days of Summer after watching Two for the Road and Scenes from A Marriage and see if you don’t see what I mean.

It's even hard for your face to be original!

Uh… Who’s that girl?

Perhaps this seems corny or obvious even though I don’t mean it to be.  Yet that’s a normal reaction in any discussion of archetypal stories, archetypal behavior or archetypes in general, since the very essence of the word is defined as:

“A symbol, term, statement or pattern of behavior – a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated.”

In other words, any discussion of cliché become cliché because a. it is literally about cliché and b. because it has been done and talked about so much before.

The most famous of these thoughts were advanced from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which rethought some of the work of the famed psychiatric mind of Carl Jung, both of whose works were re-adapted by Christopher Vogler for, of all things, screenwriters in the movie business two decades ago in what is now considered a bit of a movie industry how-to masterwork entitled The Hero’s Journey.

And here for your viewing pleasure...

And here for your viewing pleasure… click for closer view

THJ was quite popular among studio executives and adult storytellers of all ages in Hollywood as it helped crystallize a “formula” for storytelling (and who in the entertainment biz doesn’t want that all knowing formula) that had been written about for decades and probably centuries but in different language.  Simply put, it states that if you’re trying to weave a compelling tale you FOREMOST must have in your tale certain kinds of characters that will compel fellow humans to listen, buy movie tickets or read about.  These include: a hero, a villain, a mentor, a love interest, a best friend, a jokester and so on and so on…. i.e., recognizable types human beings have been known to respond to en mass  (Note: it was no coincidence Vogler first conceived his “adaptation” of these theories in a seven page film studio memo while an employee working at — Disney)

We can bellyache all we want about this – “oh please, it’s the same old thing over and over; that book was from the nineties, this isn’t new; I’m tired, I need a drink, and why am I reading about something that was popular 20 years ago when we know they didn’t have the web back then and, let’s face it, computers have changed everything”  – but the dirty little truth is that when utilized judiciously (and sometimes blatantly) it always works.   Even a discussion of it often evokes enough controversy to warrant validation because the fact is I didn’t twist anyone’s arm to read this but for better or worse, most of you are still reading (I think).  And – if you are still reading – it means you’re curious to know more about old stories, archetypes, THJ and why they work (or at least, what I am going to say about it) – which in itself lifts it very essence above cliché and thus reinforces the following point:

When you or anyone else puts your own individual SPIN on the familiar it immediately CEASES TO BE SUCH.  And will in that moment can be seen in some NEW WAY.

One foot in front of the other..

One foot in front of the other..

This might be an obvious intellectual insight but it is shocking to me in how many moments of real life so many of us (myself included) don’t truly believe it.

This became apparent to me earlier this week when I decided that a new piece of writing I’ve made a bunch of notes on for myself wasn’t really worth doing because I felt like I didn’t have anything new to add to the subject despite pages of observations to the contrary.   But lucky for me, after teaching several days ago to a group of many young yet like-minded writers, I’m not sure I still feel this way.

Standing, sitting and sometimes pacing before 40 different students in four different classes I had to listen to any number of story outlines, ideas, detailed treatments and verbal pitches for 40 separate original story ideas for either film or television and noticed something sort of funny.  What was universally the biggest fear of each creator of these many wonderful, uh, narratives, were self-doubting thoughts like – “I know this has been done before,” “right now this is incredibly cheesy,” “I know/don’t want this to sound(s) like —- (fill in film) or an episode of — (fill in TV show from the past) or, my favorite, “This is a bad rip-off of —- but I can’t think of anything else, and maybe, really, I shouldn’t do this at all and just think of something else.  If I even can.”

Truly, anything old can be new again.

Truly, anything old can be new again.

After all these years I couldn’t believe how another old adage is true – you reflect what you give off.  Meaning the question in my own mind became – was my own self-defeatist attitude so unoriginal that I was literally seeing it among a group of people in their early twenties who had not been writing even half as long as I have? And then I wondered – “jees, is this kind of thing contagious and am I infecting them with this type of thought unwittingly?  Or is this something they came to on their own.  Something that, dare I say it, is archetypal?”

Well, here’s the good news:  I don’t think I’m the Typhoid Mary of writing teachers.   But like Jung and many of his ilk who studied along with him realized – there are certain archetypes, specific kinds of behavior that are endemic to all humans.    And since most writers and would-be writers are human (notice I said most – there are a few exceptions who shall go nameless – Okay, Shakespeare, Proust), it is not unusual they would share these exact feelings of self-doubt, albeit exhibit them all in their own individually unique forms of expression.  Put another way:  When you put your own individual spin on a behavioral cliché, it ALSO ceases to be a cliché.

Accepting all this as a given, it feels not out of line to occasionally ask oneself this cliché question – How do I become the hero of my own story?  I think the answer is to go by the above advice and let whatever we dare to hang out – knowing there are no guarantees but knowing there are also no rewards if we don’t try to spin out something.

Find yourself

Find yourself

Brenda Euland, writer extraordinaire said in her wise and seminal book If You Want to Write, that no one will tell a story exactly the way that YOU tell it.  She hung out with Louise Bryant and John Reed and a bunch of other New York Bohemians almost a century ago but spent most of her later life back in her native Minnesota where she was known mostly famously as a prescient writing teacher who periodically gets rediscovered over the decades, usually after the latest “how to” fad passes.   Lest you think her personal story of a bohemian who hangs out with famous people in N.Y. doesn’t get famous herself, goes home with her tail between her legs, and spends the rest of her days handing out advice as a teacher to help people do the very thing she didn’t manage, sounds familiar (nee archetypal) – it really isn’t.  Ms. Euland was, indeed, a talented writer.  But fame and recognition is a funny thing.   Despite all evidences to the contrary, some people become known for, or grow into, that which they had never planned at the outset, fame or not.

Other times, they seemed destined for greatness, or at least worldwide recognition at the outset and nothing and no one can stop them.  Watch Beyonce’s HBO Special, Beyonce: Life is But a Dream, and determine for yourself whether you think this is fair or even true.  Then consider the work of filmmaker Michael Bay and do the same.  Then perhaps the oeuvre of our greatest living playwright of the last century, Edward Albee, now represented on Broadway in a yet another great revival of his classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and note it was not this play but several of those that most of us don’t know because they were not well-received that are his own personal favorites.  Of all the artists I know of, Albee manages to be the least cliché, the least archetypal, in work or in his life.  Yet even he admits to feeling about his plays, especially those that have trouble on the outside, like a parent who wants to protect the most vulnerable of their children from the vagaries of a cold, cruel world.  Talk about cliché.  Talk about archetype.  Yet re Albee – never was.  Never will Be.

The SugarMan himself

The SugarMan himself

Then finally – watch a documentary called Searching For Sugar Man – a real life story no one could have written for fear of being not cliché but ridiculous.  It tells the tale of a singer named Rodriguez, a brilliant 1970s songwriter-balladeer who seemed destined for stardom a la Bob Dylan, according to industry experts, at even one listen, but whose two outstanding albums sold quite poorly in reality.  Meaning they did zilch.  Consequently, Rodriguez then disappeared from public sight in the US, yet someone got hold of his album in South Africa and from the mid-seventies on he became a star on the magnitude of Elvis, especially since it was believed that one night on stage he grew so despondent at the acoustics and audience response to his music that he blew his brains out in front of a live crowd.

There was one problem with this folktale, which endured for a decade and a half – unchallenged – it wasn’t true.  Until someone got the idea to research the details of what happened to him and the real Rodriguez was found outside of Detroit – having spent life as a poor day laborer with no knowledge of his stardom overseas, but still in possession of the ability to sing, write and perform in almost the same manner he had decades ago.  Plus – and this is the best part – he was also found to be content with the financially difficult life he had and the children he had raised despite the stardom and financial bonanzas that eluded him.  Though he enjoys making music still, he doesn’t do it all the time, gives away money from his occasional South African tours to his family and friends, and just continues on.  His story is a true original.  A real life non-cliche because it twists the story trope of the talented artist who is never accepted and lives penniless for the rest of his days in bitterness or drug/alcohol abuse into a real life happy ending that seems unbelievable but can’t be because it’s true.   One wonders – how many others like that are there out there and who is going to tell them?