Tuesday, May 27, 2014

All in the Family:The Making of Town Diary - Pt 3 - In Your Hometown

"Brenda and Eddie were popular steadies
And the king and queen of the prom
Riding around with the car top down and the radio on
No one looked any finer
Or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner."
-Billy Joel, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

"Going Home" and "You Can't Go Home Again" have been the theme of many a movie, not to mention two specific expressions that inspired one movie and one novel, respectively. Not to mention well, a lot, of Springsteen songs (hence the subtitle above). Sorry, Bruce, thought I'd give Billy a shout out here.

Early on, Jack wanted to write the story of a man in career midlife crisis who goes home, thinks he has found the "big story", and then has to make the moral choice of whether to tell it or not.

Brian McCauley was the lead character, and the hometown he goes back to is a fictional one (East Islip) by the Bay on New York's Long Island, similar to the one where Jack had grown up.

As we all know, our memories of our hometown can sometimes be more quaint than the messy truth, and it was at this junction that we hoped to find our drama.

I came up with the name, Brian McCauley. Growing up in the Bronx, I was always aware that one of the things that defined a person was their ethnic heritage. At the worst end of that are stereotypes that provoke fear, but for me, it was just the little touches that filled in the way we approached life. You either embraced your heritage or rejected it, or did a little bit of both, but it definitely had some influence on you. To me, Brian came from Irish-American stock.

Brian was a TV producer whose career had seen better days. He had some meaningless awards, and now, in his early 40s, he went home to do a "town diary" of his hometown. hoping it revived his career.

As both Jack and I worked regularly but were hardly household names - and in our early to mid-forties (Jack was a tad older than me) - it was a theme that we very much appreciated.

For the most part, Jack was very generous in giving me leeway to create the characters, while there were certain story points that he definitely wanted to hit.

When I looked at the actual shooting of the film, it would be easy to say the writing process was contentious, but, as I recall it now, it was not.

Once he gets home, he decides to stay with his parents, something you know as a film watcher is a bad idea. In his world, the mother was more supportive and understanding; he and his father would butt heads about the fact that he never got a "real job." It was something I very much related to, if, in my life, the parents were switched.

The characters were a lot of "townies," as Jack would refer to them; folks who had grown up here, never left, and who knew everyone's business. One of those older ones, Hartley, is talking at a bar one day about a cheerleader who drowned years earlier named Dottie Vaughn:

Oh, she drowned all right. What else?

I don't have a clue.

But I have all the clues!

And so begins our mystery, as Hartley is anxious for someone to finally listen to him, that the drowning was not an accident at all. Brian originally thinks he is just a crazy old man looking for attention, but soon begins to think that there is something to his story. Soon, he starts to wonder if a documentary that unearths an old, possibly sordid murder and even cover-up would not lead him back to success. He does, indeed, follow the clues, which wind up involving some old friends, including possibly Frank Ryan, his best friend as kids, and Frank's ne'er to well brother, Jimmy.

Brian goes over all of this with an assistant he hires, Veronica. It is here that Jack and I had a difference of opinion which, in fact, never got successfully resolved.

Veronica was young, pretty and smart. I thought it was a given that this would be our love story, and that a love story was needed. Jack vehemently disagreed. He said that work relationships never work, and that Brian would be smart enough to avoid it. I suggested that thought had little to do with it, and it would only be natural that this long-divorced man would be attracted to this woman who was not only physically attractive but had a fire and spirit that reminded Brian of himself before he became jaded. I thought a growing love story would heighten both the tension and the difficulties in making the right decision later in the script.

Jack insisted a relationship would not happen, but I did convince him to add a scene where Veronica, slightly attracted to Brian, invites him over for dinner. To satisfy Jack, I suggest that there is an attraction, but that Brian chooses not to follow up on it, for career reasons. What would actually happen with the scene would be something else.

The script was dotted with characters both of us were familiar with, including an ex-wife who wanted little to do with Jack. Both of us had one of those, so there was definite inspiration there. * There was also a shady sheriff (isn't there always), a fisherman (whose ethnic identity changed once we cast) and Brian having to deal with his old TV boss, Don.

Coming from a theater background, I was aware that some of my earlier writing was too dialogue-driven. This was something JR would often remind me, one of the few areas where he made suggestions on the script. JR would shoot and edit the film, and felt that he would make more of his contribution to story in those areas.

I seriously thought I had cut down on dialogue and did a good job of "showing" and not "telling", though it actually took rewrites after we started prep and even production to get to that point.

When we finally had the script to where we wanted it, we went about casting and putting the crew together. Those choices, for better and worse, in the next posts.

*Regular readers of this blog will know that my ex and I are great friends now. In the script, I accentuated the points that drove us apart, which are not part of our relationship now.

NB: In looking for the original Billy Joel music video of the song, I found this video that was done for no budget (according to the notes) by some students in a Mexico City filmmaking programming back in 1990. I tend to think that this was not exactly how Billy Joel saw Brenda and Eddie or Hicksville, but I love the spirit and enthusiasm the students brought to it - besides, it's not like Billy needs another hit. Congrats to director Robert Moutal - I wish EVERY music video had this much spunk!

Friday, May 16, 2014

All in the Family:The Making of "Town Diary" - Pt. 2 - The Girl Naked on Page 57

"When I was writing on commission I would never get writer's block. I would just write a shitty scene and make a note to write a good scene later."
-John Sayles at a writers conference I once attended

John Sayles doesn't know how he inspired me with that quote.

I went to Catholic grammar and high schools, and I loved English. IThe way I remember learning writing was very structured., with outlines and Letters and Numbers, not unlike this:

While having a strong feel for structure certainly helped me as a writer, it also held me back. To say I was overly-critical would be kind. The minute I strayed from a tight, structured format, or, Heaven forbid, had a dangling participle at the end of a sentence, it would stop me dead in my tracks, sort of.*

This made for some well-structured by dull scripts.

The Irish novelists were a great inspiration for me, and highest among them, James Joyce. His command of the language was masterful, as much like a composer of music as any author I've ever read. Still, I remember a teacher referring to his stream of consciousness style as "run-on sentences."

Really? Are you joking? Here was some person who had never written anything outside of an essay in their life reducing masterpieces to some formal sentence structure, a structure he certainly understood better than she did or he couldn't have turned it on it's ear.

I had a similar problem my first year at NYU when I had a teacher (grad teaching assistant, actually) take points off for similar flourishes on my part.

Make no mistake. I am no Joyce. Do not judge by the blog, either. I have chosen a more conversational  (yes, sometimes rambling) tone that I fully understand tweaks some rules of grammar.

By the time I started writing the script for Town Diary with Jack, my writing style was a little more free-flowing, based on getting the story down on the page. I approached writing like work, making sure I got to a certain point in the script every day. I took Sayles' advice to heart - just keep writing.

Jack and I first spent a lot of time talking, expounding, tossing ideas around and letting them grow. Jack could have written the entire script like that; I needed my space to hear the words in my head. I have now co-written a number of times, and I have never been able to have the two of us at a computer together. I know it works for some people - not for me.

JR stayed at Jack's apartment in Chicago, and I would fly out there as often as cost and Jack or JR's frequent flyer miles would allow.

Once we had all of our notes, I started going to "the office" every day, working from 10AM until 6PM with an hour break. "The office" was JR's editing suite. For me, if I was going to get the work done, I was going to have to treat it like a job, and I would set how far I had to get and push myself to get there. Then, I would get home, share it with Jack, and we would go over it.

As expected, Jack always had notes. Now, Jack had become a big fan of Robert McKee's Story, whose idea for structure is pictured in the first image at the top of this page. It worked for Jack. If I were to work like that, it would be a maze that I would never get out of, any creativity pummeled as I worried whether the molecular structure was about to go nuclear.

Jack and I were an odd couple in many ways - more on that as this blog goes on - but we both not only respected each other, but needed each other in the process. Jack needed me to actually take the ideas and get them on the page; Jack's attention to structure often reigned me in when I was straying off-course.

Often, I thought of something Sayles also said at that writers' conference, and maybe somewhere else as well. I'm paraphrasing very slightly, as he talked about the difference between working on the studio film Eight Men Out , about the Black Sox scandal, and working for Corman. I believe the reference is to Sybil Danning in Battle Beyond the Stars, but it could have been one of their other collaborations.

"When I was working on Eight Men Out, I would get these notes in meetings like 'we wish the plot point at the end of Act 1 were actually earlier in Act 2' . I'd walk out with no idea of what they actually wanted me to do. With Corman, he would say, 'You have the monster attack on page 55 and then again on page 57. Why don't you have the girl naked on page 57 and have the monster attack again on page 59!' That I understood!"

However, after some less-than-fruitful experiences in Hollywood, there was another Sayles' quote that rang true about this project:

"If you write a movie for Roger Corman, it's gonna get made. You saw it almost the next day."

Town Diary was gonna get made.

* Dangling participles still drive me crazy in written form, especially because they are so common in our conversational mode.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

All In The Family:The Making of "Town Diary" - We Have Met the Enemy...

"Everyone I like stays the hell away from me"
-Archie Bunker
I had a dear cousin, Bobby. He reminded me a lot of Paulie in one of my favorite 80s films, The Pope of Greenwich Village, which I discussed in a previous post. Bobby had a big heart, but could be, well, unreliable. He was, however, the Godfather at my Confirmation*,which means I chose him.

Everyone loved Bobby. Girls loved him because he was charming and handsome - there was no friend of the family that did not have a crush on him. Guys wanted to hang around with him because he welcomed everyone.

By the time of his parents' (my uncle and aunt's) 50th anniversary, the question of whether or not Bobby would show up at a function remained a very open one. My then-wife, Maureen, and I were seated at Bobby's table, along with his (I forget) four or five children. I had not seen them since they were little, but they now ranged from kids to pre-teens to teens, and, all of them had a lot of Bobby in them - the good looks, as well as the crazy side. The girls' hair was done up, one of the boys had a Mohawk. You get the idea.

The kids' mom, who Bobby had not married, not a big deal today, of course, but for Italian-Americans even then (late 80s), it was not as accepted. While waiting, we mused on whether Bobby would show up.

Mom turned to the oldest girl and said, "What do we always say?"

Smacking her lips like Joan Cusak's wonderful "Bridge-and-tunnel"** Working Girl (to me, she and Phillip Bosco were much more entertaining than either Meg Ryan or Harrison Ford) , she responded:

 "The best thing about being an Esposito is you can't marry one."***

You've seen all the Christmas and Thanksgiving movies, not to mention a majority of sitcoms. Whether it be the family from the Midwest, the Big Fat Greek Wedding Family, the Jewish family, the hippie family, the overly-conservative family; family means all that is good and wonderful and all that is crazy and embarrassing all at the same time. They are all dysfunctional in their own familiar and unique ways.

A film "family" is no different. There is working together and pulling apart; love, hate, bonding, jealousy. Because of the intense time spent together, and the stakes involved, all good and bad emotions tend to tip toward the extreme.

The seed of this project was planted many years earlier, on the first project where I met John Rosnell. I had a script at the time that started with a telephone conversation. "A telephone conversation, " JR said derisively. "That should be exciting."

Family always feels they can be honest.

In any case, it did put it in JR's head that I could write. Soon, I met one of his producing partners on commercials and PSAs for the American Dental Association, Jack K. Over the years. we spoke often over dinner about doing our own feature, which Jack would direct.

Originally, I would have been the AD and Stan the line producer, but by the time we got to doing it, Stan had passed away. It was over dinner at one of JR's favorite Italian restaurants in the West Village that we decided to set out on the project.

Jack had an idea for the story, which we would work on together. I would produce, Jack would direct, and JR would shoot and edit.

Jack lived in Chicago, and JR kept an editing suite there. Again, this was when we were always shooting 35mm film, so editing was a longer process.

This all started somewhere around 1998 or so, and for two years, we planned, met and wrote. I would fly out to Chicago and stay with Jack and John; Jack would come to NY and stay with JR.

It would be produced with funds JR and Jack had put aside from various projects, significantly less than $400K. It would be shot on 35mm, and everyone would be paid, something about which we all felt very strongly.

The fact that it was self-funded was a big factor in the emotional turmoil, as was the fact that Jack and I wrote the script.

Unlike other projects, we couldn't joke about the director, or the script ,or "the producers." One of JR's favorite quotes, "We have met the enemy, as he is us," turned out to be true.****

Every dime we spent we felt. It's the reason movies really should be made with OPM - Other People's Money. It's not just about not risking your money - it's about making rational decisions that are not impacted by the fact that the money is coming out of your pocket.

To be fair, my financial contribution was small, and only came near the end. Jack and JR were putting out their money , but since they had saved it for this project, they felt good about it.

We got going in earnest in late 1999, and set a start date for Summer of 2000.

Over the years, we had put together a strong crew, and we felt early on that we really wanted to be surrounded by people we knew and trusted. In fact, over time, I can't say anyone did not live up to their end of the work - in fact, many of them did spectacular work. The one thing we did not count on was the emotional factors involved in working on a project that we had self-funded with so many people we knew (sometimes too) well, from crew to production to actors.

How often have you thought, "If only I could make a movie I wrote, a friend directed, and I knew everyone on the project. Then we wouldn't have all these problems!" I have worked with enough groups of friends, lovers, spouses, etc. to know that it rarely is the Nirvana that people expect.

In the next post, I will discuss the script and the writing process.Two minds working as - two.

*In most cases, the term "godfather" in Catholic families refers to a title given at the sacrament of Baptism. This is chosen by the parents. However, at Confirmation, the sacrament where a Baptized Catholic knowingly makes a commitment to the Church (a better definition at link above).

**If you grew up outside Manhattan - whether it be Jersey, one of the boroughs, Long Island, etc - you were "Bridge-and-Tunnel." Manhattan-ites rarely used it as a compliment.

*** My mother's side of the family was not named Esposito. You know how this blog works.  I use it here for flavor, and so as to not embarrass a truly wonderful family.

****If you are not familiar with Pogo's work, the link above is a good start. It's quite good.

N.B. - In the last post, I mentioned a series on Jungle Software. That is coming. It involves scheduling an interview with the President of the company, and then taking that interview and presenting it in a way that illustrates the software issues we discuss, so it will take a bit of time. It is coming.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

We (Do Not) Have the Technology

"It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you of how powerful they are."
-Clive James

Once the technology to do something exists, there is nothing more frustrating than it not doing what you want it to do.

In preparing a short series on a software I truly like, Jungle Software, the makers of of Gorilla and other production systems, I was reminded of those instances of what happens when technology does not work to your advantage.

Case in point: On my last feature, the script was written in Celtx.

Yes, Celtx is free, and, as Stan used to say, oh, the high cost of free.

Understand that for many years,scripts were typed, schedules typed, call sheets hand-written, and stripboards were really strips of cardboard. That is all well and good, but once we moved on, we should never have to move back.

For me, the prime example of the "never go back" principle is the coffee cup lid.

One day, some bright person figured out that instead of having to tear open a portion of the lid randomly, the lid could be perforated to offer the perfect opening from which to drink.

Surprisingly, this patent suggests that the technology was created in 1980 - exactly 11 years after we put a man on the moon and thirty-five years after we harnessed the atom so we could kill more people more quickly. It seems the boys at NASA and/or the Manhattan Project, respectfully, could have figured this one out during one of their, well, coffee breaks.

What does this have to do with making movies, or Celtx, you ask? Making revisions and sharing.

I am not going to get into comparing every software option for screenwriting - and certainly there are a number of ways that work, including simple templates in Microsoft Word, but I think most people in the business would find Final Draft the most convenient software from both a script creation and, more importantly, production-friendly standpoint.

I have previously discussed the role of script supervisor and script revisions, so I won't repeat that here. On his wonderful site lineproducing.com, Stephen describes how to do revisions using Final Draft.

In the internet age, making revisions to any document and being able to share that document and those changes is important. Celtx made both of these difficult, even after we moved out of free mode and "upgraded" to some of their "premium" tools.

I am no tech whiz, and if it were just me, then I would concede a lack of sophistication with the software. However, the process stumped me, my production coordinator, my producer, and my First AD. It seemed at every step along the way, you could not, as they say, get there from here. You could do one thing but not the other You could do it on your computer but not share it. When even my aforementioned genius script supervisor could not do it, I broke down and hired a PA to retype the script into Final Draft, after which the revisions were simple and share-able.

This is not an attack on Celtx. This is the same frustration every time you discover that any advanced program (and I am not accusing Celtx of being an advanced program) does not do precisely what you want it to do, and it takes you longer to figure out how to do it than to have, say, just done it the old way. We encountered similar (but not nearly the same) frustration with Dropbox, and, to a lesser extent, Google Drive.

At one point, the director's email account was not properly receiving or sending emails, "eating" them, as we like to say.

Then there was the junction box we rented, which did not seem to get us wifi in some of the places we needed wifi.

These are, to be sure, Third World Problems. To use one of my favorite Hitchcock quotes, a child did not die. On the scale of progress of Mankind, these aberrations would have produced barely a glitch.

Still, once one gets accustomed to having these conveniences, being deprived of them seems all the more painful.

On the production side, there are certainly a number of companies that offer great software that save us time and effort, including EP Movie Magic, which I used to teach at New York Film Academy.

However, for a number of years, I have enjoyed using Jungle Software, which initially was just Gorilla, but has now grown to a larger family of production-related software. There are many reasons why Gorilla is the software I prefer, and I will explore those in a few posts where I interview Aaton Cohen Sitt, the President of Jungle Software.

Here's hoping that, until then, your version of Hal 9000 never says to you:

"Im sorry. I can't allow you to do that."