Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Since it’s the holiday season I’ve been going to the movies more often. (I still can’t believe how terrible THOR 2 was.) It used to be you’d take your seat early, the theater was quiet, you relaxed and settled in. It was nice.
Apparently theater owners have decided that wasn’t nice. First came music before the show. That was okay. Non offensive hits introduced by mildly-offensive disc jockey Kris Eric Stevens. Soon the hits gave way to new songs record companies were trying to get you to buy. This practice is still going on in places. Tell me, have you ever, even once, heard a new song at a movie theater that actually became a hit? “Here’s the newest from Sonya Goldschmidt…” “Who?” “…available now on Sony Records.”
And now we have a barrage of video featurettes – featurette being a polite name for blatant commercials. Several theater chains show “First Look,” a pre-packaged mish mosh of making-of clips, trailers, and ads. Michael Douglas effusively waxing on about how great it is to work with Robert DeNiro – like that’s going to make us want to go see a movie that is essentially THE HANGOVER for seniors.
When “First Look” is over they recap. “We took you behind-the-scenes of the great new movie LAST VEGAS, we introduced you to the brand new X-Box, and we met the stars from ABC’s big new hit, BACK IN THE GAME.” As if they were doing us a favor.
After that comes the flashy logo for the theater chain. We really have allegiance to AMC over Landmark. The truth is WE DON’T CARE. Your theater was close and the show time was more convenient. Period. Plus, someone is going to buy out your theater chain in a year anyway and it’ll be something else.
You think you’re finally getting to the previews, but you’re wrong. There are Coke ads. Mazda ads. In LA there are LA TIMES ads. Then there are commercials for one-night-only operas and prize fights the theater is going to show closed-circuit.
Previews yet? Almost. A thirty-second animated dazzling theater chain billboard announcing the previews.
Then a half hour of previews (with the sound often turned up to pain inducing decibel levels), another announcement reminding you to turn off your cellphones, a quick ad to buy gift certificates, a reminder of safety features, two ear-splitting logos for THX and whatever mega sound system they’re using, a thirty-second elaborate theater chain billboard announcing the feature presentation (for a long time AMC showed a young couple sitting in their seats, then plants and trees sprang from the ground lifting their chairs until they were watching while sitting in a forest. Huh???), and then mercifully the movie (unless it’s THOR).
In an attempt to maximize the experience theater chains are offering new features. Loveseats in theaters (maybe the worst idea ever unless you’re on a date with a sure thing), cocktails and waiter service during the film. First off they’re distracting to those around them, and secondly, they just inflate the already inflated price to provide these useless amenities. The novelty of sipping a dry martini while watching BAD GRAMPA wears off pretty quick.
I don’t need espresso bars, I don’t need seventeen varieties of popcorn salt, I sure don’t need loveseats – I want clean theaters, clean rest rooms, unobstructed views, decent sound, the air conditioning not turned up to 30 degrees, screens that aren’t smaller than my iPad, convenient parking, real popcorn, and ushers to monitor the house and toss out cellphone users. I’ll liquor up after the show.
The big question is how to present this to theater owners so they’ll really listen? I know! Do an animated film with bunnies.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
I’m always fascinated by the creative process as it applies to writing. Even though I’ve been doing it for xihety3ytpw years, I’m always looking for new tips, new ways to maybe improve the process. Artists create in so many different ways. Sondheim writes his lyrics lying down with a yellow pad and soft-lead pencil. He tries not to compose too much music at the piano because his left hand doesn’t play as well as his right so it will often revert back to familiar chords. That’s something I didn’t know. And the ninety-minute documentary is filled with those nuggets. I didn't know he drank while he wrote either. See? I get useful tips that I can use in my own writing.
He explains the thinking behind certain songs. He discusses the difference between lyric writing, which can be poetic, and poetry. He explains how Cole Porter used to write. He shares how Oscar Hammerstein II approached songwriting as if he were writing short stories.
Sondheim offers some great observations of other writers as well. My favorite was from William Faulkner. According to Sondheim, Faulkner once said a writer needs three things: imagination, observation, and experience. He can get away with having only two of those but no less than two.
There are also some terrific idiotic quotes. Frank Sinatra explaining the meaning of “Send In The Clowns”: “You fall in love with a girl, she leaves you, send in the clowns.”
Most of the footage comes from various TV interviews over the years and the filmmakers really did their homework. I had no idea he had been a guest on every talk show except Diablo Cody’s. But the interviews are cobbled together to make one cohesive commentary even though from paragraph to paragraph he goes from 80 years-old to 20 to 45 to 60. He even switches back and forth between color and black-and-white.
Among the topics explored in the documentary: collaboration, mentoring, hits, flops, dealing with failure, a song’s purpose, defending your work, puzzles, peer pressure, coping with critics, writing as if you were an actor, the moments of joy and hours of frustration, and using Joan Crawford’s career as an inspiration for a song.
Sprinkled in are a few tid bits of his personal life. Stephen was an only child and when his mother was being wheeled into the OR to have a pacemaker implanted she gave him a note that said, “I have only one regret in my life and that is giving you birth." The fact that he became a gifted composer and not the guy who shot up a crowded movie theater says a lot about his character. And therapy.
Some of the other showcased songs were less successful. The worst was “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker sung in a decedent pre-war Berlin setting. On every level: What the fuck?!
The overall message of the program was write what you love. Write with passion. Respect and learn from past masters and pay it forward if you are lucky enough to succeed. Also, stay out of Ethel Merman’s way.
His many words were music to my ears. SIX BY SONDHEIM airs periodically on any of the twelve HBO channels and HBO GO. It’s 85 minutes of great television. Fast forward through the Jarvis Cocker mess.
Monday, December 09, 2013
Today’s is from Ellen.
Hi, Ken. I'm a novelist working on a script, so it was interesting to read this reverse take on what I'm experiencing.
Two questions for you: Was writing a novel harder than you thought it would be? And also, do you think the experience will benefit you as a screenwriter?
It wasn’t harder, but it was sure different. I could never get into a character’s thought process before writing in prose. And I never had to be as descriptive before. You can’t just say INT. APARTMENT – DAY and leave it to the art and set department to design something for you. My stage direction in screenplays tends to very sparse. The apartment is a mess. Period. Done. On to the fun stuff.
The other thing I was struck with is that a novel becomes the finished product. Scripts are always works-in-progress. Once you get it on its feet things change. Sometimes the end result is nothing like you intended. Writing prose you have the last word. I find I like that for some reason.
I also enjoy that as the narrator I have a voice. I can express opinions and make observations. Certainly you can express your point-of-view through a character, but sometimes they’re not on the same page as you. Or have the same perspective as you. I don’t need there to be a character with a Ken Levine P.O.V in a novel.. I can provide it myself thank you very much. I like that too. It's like being able to provide the commentary track to your movie right on the movie itself. (Now there's a concept.)
And literary characters never question their lines. They never ask what’s their motivation? They never refuse to do nudity. They don’t require a twelve-hour turnaround between shooting days. And as opposed to actors, they welcome stage direction. They’ll say the lines just like you tell them to. He said accusingly. She said with a slight touch of anger. Write those indicators into a script and see how your actors respond. Think the first twenty minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
It’s also nice that budget is not an issue in prose. The writer has a blank check to go to elaborate worlds, stage parties with thousands of extras... I mean, guests, globe hop if he so desires. You’re not paying for background people and having to feed them, you don’t need government approval to do scenes in certain countries, you don't need permits to shoot on city streets, and all your special effects go off perfectly without a hitch. You’re never delayed because of weather. No Teamster locals are going to go on strike preventing you from writing chapter six.
So I’ll definitely write more novels. Did the experience help me to be a better screenwriter? Honestly, no. Screenwriting has its own set of rules. On the other hand, I became a much better screenwriter once I became a director. I have a way better feel for how actors approach material and what they need to realize my vision. Screenwriters sometime forget (me included) that real human beings have to say these words and do these actions.
Ellen, for you to tackle a screenplay, I think if you’re skillful in dialogue (a tool you need in prose) you should be fine making the transition. The only thing I’ll say is remember, to convey a character’s emotion or motivation you have to do it via behavior. You have to find clever ways for characters to express their inner feelings based on the choices we see them make, their body language, and other behavioral clues. You can’t just say what he’s thinking. Thought bubbles like in comic books are frowned upon.
Good luck, and allow me to take this golden opportunity to once again plug my novel. MUST KILL TV. When was the last time you treated yourself to a really funny book? For $2.99 be a sport. Don’t make me have to go back to writing screenplays. Here's where you go. Thanks.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
Thanks to Dan Hoard, Josh Lewin, Dave Sims, and Ian Eagle for being such gracious hosts and tolerating a total geek with an iPhone camera.
Saturday, December 07, 2013
I give Carrie Underwood props for bravery. That’s a big role to fill in front of 30,000,000 viewers and I thought she did the best she could. She’s a great singer. But she can’t act. She just can’t. There were moments that were painful. But then moments that were magic when she sang. I know there are purists who disliked the fact that a young country singer was playing Maria, but if young singers don’t embrace this music and expose other young people to it, the music will fade into the mist. Sure, it would have been way better if Anne Hathaway did it, but if I were running NBC I’d take Carrie Underwood – subpar acting and all – in a heartbeat.
Broadway pros Laura Benanti and Audra McDonald were solid (although I’m not sure there were African-American nuns in Austria back then… maybe so), and the kids did a great job. Some of those sets were very unwieldy. Anytime there was a scene on that mountain I held my breath. There were a few bobbles along the way but frankly, that’s what made it fun. It was LIVE. As long as the kids didn’t screw up (which thank goodness they didn’t) I was happy. Kids don’t need the trauma of goofing up in front of 30,000,000 people here in the day of snark.
With the success of SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE, we can expect other big name musicals to get the same treatment. Please Fox, don’t do MY FAIR LADY with Brittney Spears. The next one or two will be attract interest and then by the time they do PAJAMA GAME with Lena Dunham the trend will be over.
But congratulations to all concerned... except Wal-Mart. Thank God I could fast-forward through their commercials.
What did you guys all think?
Friday, December 06, 2013
Jerry Smith gets us started.
Are series regulars on any level paid for shows on which they don't appear? For example, of the last two Walking Dead episodes, one featured none of the main actors and the next featured long shots of a few of them with no dialog. How do stars feel when they are not the subject of their shows?
It all depends on their contracts. Most series regulars sign for “all episodes.” In that case they get paid whether they’re in an episode or not, although generally they are in every episode.
Some actors will sign for a partial season like eight out of thirteen. If you have a show with a large cast like THE GOOD WIFE or MAD MEN you will often sign actors for partial schedules.
As for WALKING DEAD, I don’t know whether the series stars all got paid or the producers knew before the season they were not going to need the main cast for a couple of episodes and made deals for say ten of thirteen.
Laura Es asks:
I've been reading many multi cam scripts, and noticed they always jump from scene E to scene H. Is there a reason why there are never Scenes F and G?
Yes, F looks too much like E and G looks too much like C. Camera assignments are marked on the floor with white tape. Example: the third camera move in the second scene would be B-3. Camera operators have to be able to clearly distinguish where they need to go. They can’t be looking down thinking is that C-4 or G-4?
From John Philipps:
I was at the Two and a Half Men recording yesterday. There were 7 pre-recorded scenes showed on the audience screens. I heard laughter on the sound track besides our audience laughter. Did those laughs come from the crew or a test audience during recording, were they added digitally, or did I just hallucinate?
Also, pre-shot scenes don’t get the same level of laughter as live performances. They just don't. The temp laugh track can help prompt the audience a little.
On shows I’ve directed or produced I will sometimes pre-shoot a scene and instead of showing that, have the actors do a dummy version live on the stage. Example: a scene of two people in a car driving. Instead of showing the pre-shot scene I’ll just have the two actors sit in two card chairs and play the scene live. I don’t film it. Just record the audience. We then take the actual laughter and lay it in the pre-shot scene. I know. Sneaky, aren't we?
And finally, from Hamid:
I love that Cheers always kept its title sequence in an era where every show revamped its titles and jazzed up its theme tune each season, so I wondered if the network ever tried to persuade you guys to change the titles over the years? I know it was slightly altered after Nicholas Colasanto passed away but I think that was the only change.
The comment section awaits your question. Thanks.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
The fear of every play-by-play guy is screwing up a big call. This is clearly bogus but hilarious just the same. It's the "radio call" of the miraculous Auburn win over Alabama. The creators are Robert Clay and Josh Snead.
By comparison, here is the real radio call by Rod Bramblett for Auburn radio.
Congratulations to all the nominees. Some fun additions. HOUSE OF CARDS and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK -- two Netflix shows made the cut. Also nice to see that THE GOOD WIFE was recognized again. Notably absent: GIRLS. Anyway, here's the complete list of nominees. Some tough races. A lot of truly excellent writers are nominated in all categories.
This of course is bad news for the Sky Mall. Admit it, the only time you scanned it was when you couldn’t continue reading and loving MUST KILL TV on your Kindle (was that subtle enough?).
It’s good news for passengers at a time when we don’t get much good news. Flying coach has now become the cattle car scene from DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. We’re charged for everything from luggage to pillows, blankets, food, five inches of legroom. In case of emergency I fully expect you soon will have to swipe your credit card before the oxygen masks drop down. In case of evacuation, American Airlines Platinum members exit first.
I’ve been on a number of charter flights with baseball teams and we never had to turn off our electronic devices. And how’s this for spitting in the face of death? Our chairs weren’t all in the upright position. Some extreme daredevils even had their tray tables down. During taxiing even! Not once did the captain come on the PA and say, “Well, due to one of you reading old text messages we now find ourselves in a no fly zone and so instead of landing in Cleveland we’ve just been attacked by two surface-to-air missiles.”
Make no mistake, I’m all for safety. And if there are legitimate reasons for shutting down devices or keeping seats in their most upright positions I’m happy to be the first one to comply. But sometimes I wonder. Yes, if there are new more improved navigation systems that eliminate any interference by electronic devices, then the revised rule makes sense. But is that the case? I’m just askin’.
Meanwhile, I plan to enjoy it as long as I can. Those Sky Mall people have powerful lobbies in Washington.