All That Jazz

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 1.10.11 PMNormal people use the time between New Year’s Eve and going back to work on that dreaded Monday to -– well, come to think of it what do they do? I have absolutely no idea. And what is normal anyway? Again, I got nothing.

What I spend my time doing – and have done for most of my life at this time of year – is to go to the movies. For as long as I can remember (Note: And that’s long before anyone, even Louis B. Mayer, got screeners in the mail) I’ve spent the primary part of the post Christmas holiday season catching up with all of the “prestige films” the studios have mostly kept from us.

This is not simply because I’m Jewish. I probably haven’t been to temple in at least five years and even then I think it was only for a bar mitzvah. Though I did walk through several synagogues on a trip to Italy this summer, which really doesn’t count since they were FAR outweighed by the at least 437 churches I also managed to stroll through

Where were we? Oh yes, the cinema.

Go on...

Go on…

These days the cinema means lots of things. It could be going out to the mall or your local specialty theatre and paying a bit too much to see a movie that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. It could also be watching something old you may or may not have seen before on television that you or the majority rule will be fun holiday viewing. If you’re a bit more privileged or connected or facile, it can even be watching a DVD of a current motion picture now playing in theatres at home or at a friend’s house via a screener, day and date VOD, pay cable or, um…some other means (Note: Please do NOT write in and ask what some other means means).

I admit to doing all of these in the past five days (Note: Not the some other means, I don’t want to be expelled from show business any more than I already am). Which brings me to about six and a half films just seen in a relatively short period of time. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Which doesn’t mean I LOVED them. I liked them all and each did what all good films do – made me think while also entertaining me at the same time. Yet in every case there was something sort of, well, missing. Until today… when I caught up with a small movie that was actually released in October called Whiplash.

hitting the right beats

hitting the right beats

It’s excellent, disturbing, thought provoking, a little over the top and emotional – though not entirely emotionally satisfying. Frankly, at the end you’re of two minds and are not sure exactly what to think or who to sympathize with. Which is precisely what was missing from the other five and a half films that I merely LIKED though really did enjoy.

What were the other films? Oh, perhaps a few you might know or have heard of:

  • Unbroken
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year

These are some of the best and brightest the awards season has to offer and will no doubt be crowding around the Oscars along with a few others. Yet none of them has the unpredictably and sheer verve 29 year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle brought to a story we’ve essentially seen many times before – that of teacher who for good or bad pushes that potentially special student beyond the limits of where we (or perhaps they) ever thought they could go. In this case it is in the unlikely scenario of an aspiring drummer and his jazz musician professor, which works because it’s visual. Yet it really could be any one of us up there – if we allowed ourselves – who ever went to school and met that key catalyctic person. Go figure.

He already has that "Oscar glow"

He already has that “Oscar glow”

There is no point telling you any more than that or building up a film beyond the point where it could possibly live up to expectations. The only thing to be said for sure is that J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor who plays the teacher, will indeed be the one person in the movie who will be winning the Oscar this year. That you can take to the bank because he shares the common denominator of all great performances that rivet you in films – you are never quite sure what he is going to do. He pulls you in, scares you, seduces you and then…well, you’ll see. It’s terrifying, sad, difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn away from in fear that you will miss something you might not want to have seen in the first place. This is to take nothing away from Mr. Chazelle, who manages to capture it all in the most original ways.

Taking a cliché genre, any genre, and turning it on its ear without selling out what we love about it to begin with is no easy feat. Yet it can be done. Look at the best films of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Thomas Anderson – not to mention Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski – and you begin to understand. It takes not only hard work but NERVE, VERVE and the DESIRE to do this in the first place.

Don't believe me? Try some tanis root...

Don’t believe me? Try some tanis root…

One fears that writers, directors and studios have begun to lose their taste for such things. Scratch that. Most people working in the movies know that to a certain extent this is true. Yet that doesn’t mean that one still can’t come up with something quite wonderful.

For instance, The Imitation Game is a very engaging, sad and illuminating look at Alan Turing – the brilliant, secretly gay British logician who broke the secret Nazi Enigma code and became the single biggest contributor to the Allies victory in World War II only to commit suicide less than a decade later after his arrest and sentencing for homosexual behavior. As superbly acted, clever and well-made as the film is there is little surprising in it if one knows anything about the story. Even for those totally unfamiliar, it pretty much follows the traditional dramatic route because you know from the beginning that victory is afoot and who will be primarily responsible for it – and even how.

The war.. from two fronts

The war.. from two fronts

Unbroken follows a similar path though not quite as adeptly. Still, it is not without its merits. The unbelievably true story – as its billed – of former U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini surviving a devastating plane crash and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II – delivers everything it says it will deliver. Those are summed up in the adjectives you no doubt have seen in large font on most of its ads: SURVIVAL. RESILIENCE. REDEMPTION. It has all of those many times over. In fact, there is not a moment in the entire motion picture where it doesn’t – which is the problem. As reassuring as that can be to any of us as audience members, it is seldom what makes a really GREAT film.

Take Wild and American Sniper and substitute any or all of the descriptions above. As we roam through the 1100 mile solo hike Cheryl Strayed took through the Pacific Northwest in order to recover from personal trauma or tag along with Chris Kyle on four tours in Iraq where he becomes the most accurate and lethal sniper in US military history, there is excitement and wonderment yet a dulling reassurance of how it will all wind up. Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper expertly pour themselves into each of their roles and give us everything and more than you’d want as their onscreen counterparts. Yet one can’t help but feel deep down that five minutes of any one of their real life adventures were much grittier, exciting and certainly much more morally questionable than any one chunk of time during their entire films.

The great outdoors... in full hair and makeup

The great outdoors… in full hair and makeup

As for Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year it goes like this. The former is essentially a stoner detective comedy-drama set in 1970s L.A. and is a charming mess that will drive you crazy if you try to follow it as a whole but can certainly be enjoyed in parts and with the help of the chemical aid of one’s choice. The latter deals with working class business moguls making it beyond anyone’s dreams and, well, I only saw one-half because I felt I had already seen it many times before (Note: See earlier Scorsese reference). But again, one could and most assuredly will do worse this year. Annie or Transformers 3, anyone?

Which brings us back to Whiplash.

There will be blood

There will be blood

Part of the reason we loved the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is we never quite knew what he was going to do or where he was coming from. The best I could figure was total nihilism in order to counter the absolutely useless, insensitive, meaningless materialistic world of today. I’d never seen anyone evil-ing their way through a film for no reason other than every reason – tapping into every bad, justified personal insult each of us has ever dished out or had to endure. No one had ever done that in a movie before in just that way to such great effect up to that point and the mere discussion of it makes me want to pop in a DVD for that scene where Joker Heath saunters through Gotham City wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Oh how we miss you

Oh how we miss you

Movies can simply be great entertainment and that is what’s wonderful. They can also be just polemic enough as they tell the story of a social issue in a satisfying way and that certainly is enough to be memorable.

But what we don’t have much of anymore are the films that make you angry, make you think or seem familiar yet will sneakily unearth something awfully important (or importantly awful) at stake in such a way where we do not know at all until the bitter end absolutely what will happen. The end of Whiplash confounds certain audiences and critics because it is precisely the correct ending of a film that gets it absolutely right even though you are convinced from time to time that it is absolutely missing the boat.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

As a screenwriting teacher I talk to my students a lot about heroes and villains. That no one is all good (and if they were you’d hate them) and that every supposed monster believes somewhere deep down they are 100% justified to be doing the things they do. I mean, why do anything bad or good if you can’t on some level enjoy your actions? That includes reveling in your evilness. After all if you’re going to dare to be that bad and do a high wire act of contrariness to the rest of society and its mamby pamby meandering rules you better or might as well enjoy it and feel like its for a reason.

The teacher captures exactly that in Whiplash in a way I’ve never experienced before. Just as the heroic student – played with superb finesse and skill by Miles Teller – shows us that being a great guy all around is a lot more complicated than the teachings in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” gives one credit for.

Especially if you are a drum...

And don’t get in his way.

I am going to try to remember all of that and more as I continue on the script I’m currently writing as well as the next time I stand before a new group of students (Note: That would be next week) talking about what makes a good movie story. I will also recall and note that the writer-director of Whiplash, Mr. Chazelle, was himself once a young drummer who studied under a mentor of questionable methods and that this movie was inspired by, but not actually based on, real life events.   Yeah, you write or make what you know about because when you give it your all and forget about who’s going to watch and why – you have the chance to show it to us in a true and very real way we all have never experienced or even thought of before even if it would seem like we have. At one point in time, that was what movies were all about. And I’m sort of missing it at the start of this new year.

Fighting off the Dark Side

How I spent this week

This week at an event at the Writer’s Guild a very successful writer sat on a panel and, when the subject of “Brokeback Mountain” came up, he attributed a good part of the film’s crossover success with not so much the quality of the film but the fact that the straight audiences were more comfortable with a gay romance ending in tragedy – the implication being this was not something he wanted to see onscreen.

“Oh, really,” I thought, resisting the urge to reach for a large sock with manure I keep hidden for occasions like these. Then I sort of answered back from my seat that his comment was “ridiculous” when a friend nearby piped in he agreed with said panelist.  Feeling as if I were now surrounded by pod people in my own community and realizing I was not on the panel and therefore couldn’t get on my soapbox the way I would among friends, family or in my own classroom (or blog), I quieted down and let the panelists fight it out.

How you can take a film as fine as “Brokeback Mountain” and complain about it, especially if you’re a gay writer and are among gay writers as he was, is beyond me but hey – it’s a free country so far – knock yourself out.

American Splendor

The point is not whether you can or you should but that it’s a matter of opinion, of taste – of what you want to see.  He’s entitled to not want to see one of the finest gay films ever made, just as I’m entitled not to want to see silly, stupid but award-nominated foolish films about gay people like “I love You, Phillip Morris” or dumb ones like “Eating Out with Naked Boys Who Cant Put More than Two Sentences Together” (Note: I’ve combined several titles).  Taste comes in all shapes and sizes, which is the good and the bad news.  If you have good taste like mine there are likely people who will share it.  If you have bad taste like that panelist and the friend who agreed with him, well, you have an even better chance people will share it.  I can say that since both fit much better into the commercial universe than I do.  But that’s the subject of another blog.

a recent photo of myself

For me, being a writing teacher and mentor is a bit like taking on the persona of Jiminy Cricket if he had the benefit of humanity and the Internet.  Meaning – I try to be a bit of a ubiquitous conscience to my students and their work, urging them on in the direction that they (not I) truly want to go in while understanding both their issues and the real world writers must operate in.  Oh sure, there’s structure, drama, storytelling and all that.  But at some point most young writers “get it” and really just need someone to keep them on the path they’ve chosen for that particular story.  At the point they are, it’s highly likely they can become derailed at one cross comment from any would-be panelist or one discouraging word from someone like myself who is in a position of authority and perhaps secretly enjoys abusing their power (which I don’t – I reserve that only for the blog).

What is seldom in question (for them) is what story to tell.  That’s pretty easy.  Most writers have an idea of what they want to say or they wouldn’t be writers to begin with.  This is not to be confused with the notion that most writers have the courage to sit down and actually write the idea that they want to write.  That is something else entirely and part of the reason that I do what I do.

I want to be the Jiminy Cricket for all the potential “Brokeback Mountain” writers out there.  To urge people to tell the story they really want to tell – be it tragic, politically incorrect, totally “uncommercial” by Hollywood standards or, on the flipside, hopelessly commercial and potentially very sale-able.

Where a lot of writers and artists in general go wrong is looking for the secret formula, the magic answer of how to fit in via subject matter, execution of craft or style of dedication.  It took me decades to learn that it really doesn’t matter if you write in the morning, evening, afternoon or all day, just as long as you do it.  It is irrelevant whether your idea is “big and commercial” or “small and indie,” just as long as you have one and are actually working on honing it.  And the road taken by five others of your friends and colleagues could very well say nothing about the path that you want to or even should be taking unless they inspire you or at least challenge you to do better.

Script Potion #9

What counts the most – the utmost – is choosing your subject AND your path and how you will walk it down your own road.  I can’t imagine Ang Lee, Focus Features, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal imagined the tragic end of the “Brokeback” screenplay they were about to make would make it universally palatable and cause it to gain worldwide boxoffice attention and reviews any more than I can imagine that decades ago fiction writer E. Annie Prouix decided to write the short story it would be based on because she only felt comfortable with a gay story of tragic proportions.  (In actuality, it came out of some real life guys she observed or heard about at the time). The story and the film came out of passion, and an idea and a resonant character as all really good films do.  The critiques and sociological observations and/or rejections of it come out of the kind of analysis that can only be done on a panel of those of us in the entertainment industry.

Writers, or artists of any kind for that matter, need only take note of what moves them.  And know that it could be more than likely that what moves you might not move anyone else.  But, more likely than not, if it does move you, the chances exponentially increase that your telling of this story will move or entertain others.  Because you’ll be bringing that much more of yourself and your passion to it.  That’s the way this art stuff works.

Yes, you need to have craft.  And certainly, you want an audience.  And without a doubt, there are small tricks of the trade you can employ to attract audiences, readers and/or fans.  But what is paramount, even universal (to name two studios), is what you’re bringing personally to the subject matter – not what you think or anticipate or fear or hope other people will bring to it.  To be blunt, who gives a shit what anyone else thinks???  I mean, if you start there you become merely a people pleaser, and not even a particularly good one because it’s been my experience that when asked most people don’t really even know what they want.

Once when I was getting notes from a producer and felt very confused a more experienced writer friend of mine took pity on me and heard my endless story of details and notes and contradictions on this particular project.  Finally, after a lot of venting on my part, she looked at me and said, “don’t you realize that if you even do two of the notes they’ve given you they’ll be thrilled?  You have to understand that if you were to take all of their notes and do them, they would hate what you came up with.  Part of your job is to take what they’re telling you, the moment or moments that are not there for them right now, and give it to them in the form that makes sense to you.”

The pen definitely is mightier

This writer is sooooo smart.  And so real.  And guess what?  She was passing on words of wisdom to me that she had gotten from a writer from the generation before her.  And that guy was not only super smart, but he had an Oscar.  Actually, he has two.  Not that Oscars are the arbiters of anything but, well, it does give one some kind of cultural gravitas, as I can personally testify to since my mere attendance at the ceremonies this year got me a lot more attention and/or readers about it than I probably deserve.  But that’s contemporary life in a nutshell, the subject of still yet another upcoming blog, I suppose.

In any event, I am now officially passing this advice on to anyone listening to people on the news, or others in authority and/or peers on an industry panel with whom they disagree.  Feel free to disagree but don’t assume the other person is necessarily right about what they’re saying if in your heart of hearts you vehemently disagree with them.  It is your right (and actually, obligation) as an artist to fully disagree in the execution of your art to perhaps prove them wrong.

That’s what I plan to do with Gay Writer Panelist who claims  “I Don’t Happen to Like or Relate to Stories like ‘Brokeback Mountain” cause they’re, well, so retro.”  Oh really?  Well, wait until you see the next idea I’m working on.  I can’t wait to piss you off some more.  Because at the very least I know, at the same time, I’ll be more than pleasing myself.  And that’s the only real hope I have of reaching beyond your grasp and to others who feel, or have yet to feel, exactly as I do.  And, as an artist, that reach, and the achievement of it, is no small thing.

In fact, it’s another reason why we do what we do.

From GreginHollywood.com:

CRA-ZEE

I was once interviewed to work on a movie that is very, very famous by a very, very famous producer who was so crazed on cocaine that this person not only screamed at two assistants in the office during our interview but barely sat down behind his/her (I am not revealing gender) desk or in his/her chair during the entire interview.

Right around this time an Oscar nominated writer friend of mine was in a meeting with a top studio executive who, each time he/she tried to punctuate a point, heaved a basketball he/she was playing with behind his/her desk at my writer friend  — who was female, by the way, not that it really matters cause she could probably catch a basketball better than me.  Which she did from said producer.  In fact, I asked her – what did you do when you caught it?  Her Answer:  I threw it back, of course.

I didn’t get the job on said movie (thank goodness, the producer and director were apparently a nightmare) and my friend’s meeting never brought her a deal to write the movie she was pitching.  This is not surprising.  Contrary to popular belief – really CRAZY people seldom provide prospective employment or breaks to those of us seeking them.  And in the rare times they do – you often wish that they hadn’t.

I bring this up right now because every year some of my students find themselves working in offices with especially “crazy” people.  I don’t mean difficult and demanding.  I mean CRA-ZEE.  How do you define cra-zee?  See above two paragraphs.

Click me for NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!

Difficult and demanding are okay.  A little crazy is okay too.  What is not okay is CRA-ZEE.  Ever.

Here’s what CRA-ZEE people, particularly in the entertainment business, like to do.  They like to tell young people that if they can’t deal with the impossibly impossible toxic environments said CRA-ZEE person creates, that they don’t belong in the entertainment business.  They like to tell young people that their dreams are impossible to achieve if they can’t suck it up and take constant or even sporadic abuse or harassment or “just joking that you’re taking the wrong way.”  They like to promise nice and wonderful things in a moment of weakness and then pull the rug out from under a young (or even older) person for a myriad of personal reasons that have nothing to do with the person whose balance they have just messed with.  They might not do this on purpose (or they might, depending on the level of cra-zee).  But that doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that they can do this at any given moment at what appears to be the least provocation.

Advising everyone to STAY AWAY from these people at any costs might seem obvious given what we know about contemporary mental health.  Or even ill-advised given what we fear about the current job market and chances for advancement in the business we call show.  But after spending all my life in the biz, this much I can tell you – No good will ever come from associating yourself with the CRA-ZEE.  To you or your psyche.

Now let’s be clear – this is not the same thing as paying your dues with difficult people or doing a series of jobs you might feel unworthy of your vast “talents.”  I bring this up because of a NY Times article this week on a lawsuit filed by two former college interns against Fox Searchlight.  Essentially one of these interns, a student from Wesleyan who interned in the production office on “Black Swan” (wow – I’d like to have done that) was complaining about not getting any dollar salary this time.  Of course, part of the internship agreement is that the “pay” is college credit for your labors (as you would receive if you were in a classroom doing intellectual labor) and all of the experience you can garner by having an inside seat into the production process of a film that, as it turned out, was one of the biggest financial and critical success of the year, if not the decade.

But on closer inspection, I couldn’t help but feel that “pay” was only part of the complaint (that’s the cra-zee part, as opposed to the crazy).  Said student seemed particularly angry that during the internship his duties consisted of “getting coffee, setting coffeemaker, cleaning and preparing the production office” etc. etc. Well, as an advisor to hundreds of students in internships over the years to that I say – did you get to observe other aspects of the production?  Was EVERYTHING done behind closed doors?  Did you have no opportunity to talk to or observe anyone having to do with the film at all?  Did you not get to read and review any documents associated with the production?  Did you never get to speak to ANYONE at all on the film?  And mostly – were you in a position that was difficult and demanding (not so much for what your job was but for what your job wasn’t on the surface) OR were you put into an environment that was CRA-ZEE that was run by CRA-ZEE people who treated you CRA-ZEE-LY?

If it wasn’t any of the above CRA-ZEE and just merely crazy, I say to said Wesleyan student– welcome to the dues paying biz, bud.  It sucks but we’ve all been there and live in the real world.  And consider the fact that – if you don’t cotton to the idea of putting in time learning to do what you want to do without getting paid – then this business might just not be for you.  Because any writer, producer or director will tell you that they create and do lots of work on their own for which they might never get paid for.  It sucks.  It’s not fair – but as Roxie Hart says in Chicago – “That’s showbiz, kids.”

Get to work, interns!

In no way, shape or form take this to mean that I don’t want every one of my students to get paid for the internship work they do.  But I also want world peace, single-payer health care and the head full of hair I had when I was 21.  None likely will happen even though technology has made it possible for me to get that head of hair if I want to look like Nicholas Travolta Elton John Cage, which I don’t.

Bottom line is – we live in a capitalist society in recession and you take the work experience where you can get it.  College is one of the times in life where your number one goal needs to solely be gaining knowledge – not making money. (Hopefully, all of life is about this – and to some extent it should always be number one – but I’m making allowance for those who think differently).

Yes, if you were my student and you were ONLY in a room making coffee and doing the dishes, I’d tell you to leave, because that would qualify as CRA-ZEE.  But don’t mistake the CRA-ZEE for the insanely difficult and demanding.  Because part of what you’re learning by being put in these kinds of situations is how to navigate the shark-infested difficult and demanding waters and not wind up being CRA-ZEE or inflicting the CRA-ZEE on yourself (or others).  That might seem CRA-ZEE, but actually – it’s merely life.  Which is crazy enough on its own.