Thursday, November 20, 2008

From Matewan

Squeaking, clacking and low rumbles of a mile-long coal train are echoing outside of my window as I write this. The tracks are only a quarter mile away and it is sound I have heard often over the last couple nights. The streets are shiny wet from a light snow that is falling but not quite sticking.

I'm in a decrepit hotel in Matewan, West Virginia -- the area famous for the Hatfield-McCoy feud, among other also-violent happenings, mostly involving coal mining and unions, sometimes a flood. We drove the poorest Appalachia to get here. Matewan, with a population of about 498 is actually quite a bit larger than the 'towns' we went through to get here. All no more than a quarter mile in diameter, restricted by the mountains, these collections of buildings exist only because of the railroad tracks that wind through the bases of the mountains – the tracks upon which is delivered the coal, coal, coal.

Most of the buildings in these railtrack-side towns are prefab or trailer homes. I think that carting things away is too expensive or too much effort for many. Junked cars, appliances, etc. pile up next to buildings and frequent burned out shells of homes stand next to still-occupied ones. There is no shortage of churches. The denominations one would expect in this land – Baptist, Revival, Methodist, Zionist, Fundamental, are all within walking distance of any domicile in these towns. But even the churches look sad and more than a handful have been abandoned; left to be devoured by the elements. No matter what your beliefs, a house of worship crumbling down upon itself, is one of the bleakest sites to see, especially in a town that is not quite dead.

The mile long trains laden with Coal frequently lumber down the tracks and the massive coal mines themselves, appearing suddenly as one goes around a bend in the road, are an impressive sight. In one place, we actually drove under a huge conveyor belt that moved coal from the mountain on one side of the road, to the tracks on the other side.

Disturbing to see are the areas where strip mining has occurred. Huge swaths of forest, hundreds of feet across – one seemed to be about a mile across, are gone, bare ground chewed into by machinery. They look like bomb blasts. And another form of mining that I was not aware of is also taking place: mountaintop removal. I leave it for the interested person to click on that hyperlink to learn more.

I took this picture not knowing what exactly was being said. Click on the picture to see it in full size -- then zoom in on the sign to see what caught my eye. Googling provided the answer. It is the sign of one Mick McCoy, an English teacher in these parts. Were it not for that sign, I would not have become aware of this insidious form of mining.

Tomorrow will be cold so I'm preparing as best as possible. It's hard to believe that I'll be back in L.A. in a few days. It seems so distant from where I am right now.

Another horn of a diesel engine has sounded. Another mile-long train, cars piled high with coal is beginning to pass. I'll go to the window to watch it, then to sleep.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What day, what hour, what state?

We are getting to a point where we really have lost track of what day it is. Since our day off doesn't fall on any particular day, certainly not the weekend, it is no help, chronologically speaking. Time, the actual hour, is also getting a bit tricky. Bouncing back and forth through time zones does that. And states? All I know is that I'm experiencing an east coast autumn this year. Twice. Much of the areas we are traveling look similar to where I grew up in Pennsylvania, though the moment the locals speak, it is obviously the deep south. Today was a dreary gray, rainy day. The temperature is mild for the moment, though I fear the inevitable plunge of the mercury for which I am not fully prepared. I'm hoping that I'll be back to sunny Los Angeles before that happens in earnest.

I am enjoying the hotel we are currently in. Little things like complimentary breakfast, a microwave in the room and decent internet make all the difference in the world. We were dreading the next location; a place that was quite unlikely to have these amenities (not to mention fitness rooms, a bar, LAUNDRY!, etc.) Once we discovered that the commute wasn't much different, we petitioned to stay in this hotel. Petition granted, we are happy that our current beds and bathrooms will remain the same. In a couple days we will be heading to the new location, Salley, South Carolina; a town with a population of 412. Our crew will actually, temporarily, increase the population of that town by 2% as well as completely screw up their ethnic demographic. Even the people who live here (here being Lexington, South Carolina) have, for the most part, never heard of this tiny burg.

Should be interesting. There, we will be shooting part of the "Chitlin Strut", the event for which this town is known.

Getting here from Austin, Texas was one of those trips one hopes never to repeat. At the airports we have a combined 36 cases of equipment and personal luggage. Most of these are massive cases that store lights, cameras and grip equipment. At the Continental gate, one of the first camera guys checking in was told that his personal check-in bag was too heavy. He was then given the bleak information that the weight limit was 75 pounds, well below the 95 pounds that other airlines had placed. We all turned to look grimly at the mountain of equipment cases looming behind us. This was very bad news.

The arguing of a harried producer with the airline resulted in nothing. This was not a problem that money could solve. It was either ship them by ground, or by Fedex or lower the weight somehow.

With about ten cases well over the limit and with a shoot the very next morning, we had no choice but to open up the cases and move things around as best as possible – shifting things from one case to another in order to get some of the 95 pound cases to weigh 75 pounds. It is certainly not a good way to move expensive equipment and with cases of open camera gear; tripods, large lights, cables, etc. spread out on the airport floor as we moved things around, it was not a great way to start the morning of travel. We hoped it was a final kick in the teeth from Texas, rather than portents of South Carolina. We did finally succeed in getting things on board and happily flew out of Austin. Hopping on another flight in Houston, we watched from the windows of quite a smaller plane as the baggage handlers below the wings argued with each other about the mountain of equipment that was supposed to go into the belly of the plane. The shaking of heads, staring at our cases, more shaking of heads, and furrowed brows shifted to the sounds of much thumping and banging as they loaded our stuff aboard. After about thirty minutes, this was interrupted by an announcement from the captain that 'some' people wouldn't be getting their baggage on this flight as ten 'random' bags were going to be removed due to weight issues. Our intrepid producer stomped down the aisle of the plane to the front, where the powers-that-be were getting off the intercom, and explained with frustration that if all our equipment didn't arrive with us, thousands of dollars worth of production were at stake.

I heard that it was a rough and bumpy takeoff, with more than one crew member cursing under their breath as they stared out the windows. I heard that it seemed to take a long time to get up to speed for take off. I don't know. I was asleep as something about being on a plane puts me to sleep as well as a tranquilizer dart. I did awake briefly for a jag of turbulence that really made one aware of just how fast we were flying. Arriving at a tiny airport, we finally, after much checking and cross checking saw that we were only missing a couple lights and a monitor. We got lucky and the show went on without hitch.

Meanwhile, some innocents aboard that plane didn't get their luggage because of us and our obnoxiously large cargo. We, the crew, apologize. Blame Continental. They should have known better from the start.

Now, it is eleven thirty (or is it eight thirty?). Tomorrow is another day. What day? Uh, I don't know.

I do know that I'm tired and the bed is calling.

Good night.

Friday, November 07, 2008

From Austin

Road journal? No, sorry. The days have been too long and I've been rolling into bed pretty quickly after shoots.

I happily watched Obama's victory in Mercedes, Texas. For our day off, I went to South Padre Island, waded into the Gulf of Mexico and had a Margarita and burger at an outdoor beach café that, with the peeling paint, weather beaten wood paneling and 'Creedence' playing over the busted speaker – couldn't have been more perfect.

Mercedes itself is like a town out of Last Picture Show. Now, I'm in Austin, which is quite a cosmopolitan city. However, from the vantage point of a hotel room, there's not much difference between the two. We'll be having a day off in Austin, so I'm looking forward to a bit of fun. I haven't been here in quite some time, and am looking forward to it.

About the shoot itself, I really can't say much. Confidentiality contracts and all that. However, it's a doozy. Eventually, I may spill the beans.

From Austin, we go to South Carolina, and then Kentucky, or Missouri. I don't know which. Then, supposedly home, by the 24th. Wow, that date seems far off right now.

If something exciting happens, I will recap.

Sorry for the tepid entry. Gotta sleep.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hittin’ The Road

Got a gig that will be taking me out of town for about eight weeks over the next three months. When a job happens, it tends to happen fast. For this one, I had about a week notice and just got my itinerary this past Friday. I leave tomorrow morning – so, wheeee, of I go.

That's show business. Like working for the government, one is often required to drop everything and just go - wherever. Thankfully, the people that I hang with and the woman that I'm seeing, are also in the business and familiar with its turbulent nature. However, it is not easy on social life or whatever other jobs you are involved with. I have to unfortunately give up two projects I was very excited about.

Being a single person now, plans for house care - cat, bills, plants, trash – also take on a different level of planning than in the past. And what about voting? Aargh, absentee ballot mail-ins are tricky when you don't know what address things should be sent to.

I will try to blog a little from the deep south of the United States, which is where I am going to be in about 30 hours. It'll be interesting… especially on November 4th.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Those who don’t remember the past… etc.

"We're in the Money,"
lyrics by Al Dubin, music by Harry Warren

We're in the money, we're in the money;
We've got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We're in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong.

We never see a headline about breadlines today.
And when we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye

We're in the money, come on, my honey,
Let's lend it, spend it, send it rolling along!

Oh, yes we're in the money, you bet we're in the money,
We've got a lot of what it takes to get along!
Let's go we're in the money, Look up the skies are sunny,
Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong.

We never see a headline about breadlines today.
And when we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye

We're in the money, come on, my honey,
Let's lend it, spend it, send it rolling along!

"Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,"
lyrics by Lew Brown, music by Ray Henderson (1931)

People are queer, they're always crowing, scrambling and rushing about;
Why don't they stop someday, address themselves this way?
Why are we here? Where are we going? It's time that we found out.
We're not here to stay; we're on a short holiday.

Life is just a bowl of cherries.
Don't take it serious; it's too mysterious.
You work, you save, you worry so,
But you can't take your dough when you go, go, go.

So keep repeating it's the berries,
The strongest oak must fall,
The sweet things in life, to you were just loaned
So how can you lose what you've never owned?

Life is just a bowl of cherries,
So live and laugh at it all.

Life is just a bowl of cherries.
Don't take it serious; it's too mysterious.

At eight each morning I have got a date,
To take my plunge 'round the Empire State.

You'll admit it's not the berries,
In a building that's so tall;

There's a guy in the show, the girls love to kiss;
Get thousands a week just for crooning like this:

Life is just a bowl of . . . aw, nuts!
So live and laugh at it all!

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,"
Lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Mystery Berries and taste alterations

My close friend, B, ever the curious and adventurous person, read about the newest "rage" among food-hounds several months ago; a mystery Berry that originated from Ghana or some other like-mysterious place that does strange things to your taste buds. I'm not sure of the exact science, but it is evidently a protein blocker or something of the sort – rewiring the tastebuds in such a way that things, especially sour things, don't taste the same.

After much research, B found the berry in a tablet form and ordered it. The tablets sat in his refrigerator for the better part of the summer, while he and his wife, E, waited for the perfect time to host an event where we would indulge in these curiosities. Two weekends ago, that day arrived, and with much excitement, I received my invitation for their first "Flavor Tripping"party.

What will they do?

E is one of the best chef/cooks/bakers I know (among her many talents) and an invitation to their home for lunch or dinner is always anticipated with delight. But on "taste tripping" day, the guests were requested to bring foods from a specific list, that, when laid out on the table, likely resembled the feverish nightmare of a culinary student before final exams. A bizarre amalgamation of Limes, Vinegar, Grapefruits, Feta Cheese, Blue Cheese, Peaches, Tomatoes, Radishes, unsweetened chocolate and more; the foods were carefully selected based on their strong character and texture, not how they would complement each other… or if they were even pleasant or edible to begin with.

With a little trepidation but mostly a lot of laughing, we, the lucky invitees, all popped the tabs, er, pills – the instruction being to let them dissolve on our tongues; swish them around, etc.

They had no real taste, being almost "Tums" like in consistency and flavor. I noticed no difference at all in the way my mouth or tongue felt.

'E', (B's wife) was the first to test the supposed effects of the berry. She took a slice of lime and boldly bit straight into it. We watched her face as she chewed on it… "It tastes wonderful… sweet." She proclaimed. We all were convinced she was lying, but there were no tears or grimaces to contradict the words. Could this indeed be?

'B' followed, also biting into a lime slice. He started laughing and at first we weren't sure if it was because he had been fooled by his wife or because, truly and bizarrely, the lime tasted good. He swore that it tasted great.

Enough for me, I grabbed a slice and doing the tasting-equivalent of jumping off a bridge, bit into the lime deeply. It was sweet, a wonderful taste. I couldn't believe it. This was no longer a lime, no bitterness or sourness remained. It had now become a fruit that I would pick from trees and eat with happy abandon.

Shortly thereafter, everybody started digging into the various foods. We would excitedly tell each other what we had discovered. We drank white vinegar by the table-spoonful, a slightly sharp cidery taste; huge forks of Feta now tasted like cream pie, oranges were now a fruit that might have been produced by the Gods. Unsweetened Cooking Chocolate had become a dark chocolate that might have been produced in Belgium.

Some food didn't taste so good and some food – radishes for instance, became bland – like mistakenly eating a waxen verisimilitude instead. Grapes suffered a similar fate. But overall, the effect of these mystery berries was stunning. As I was indulging in these normally potent foods, I had the fear of consequences. How much vinegar and how many limes can one ingest before the stomach cries foul? After all, just because one is anesthetized doesn't mean that the nail through the hand won't hurt in the morrow. Happily, there were no evil consequences. The effects of the mystery berry lasted for about an hour. Toward the end, the formerly wonderful lime started regaining its bitter strength, the Feta's strong 'Goatiness' returned, the wonderful Autumnal tasting punch… a Grapefruit/Bitters/Ginger/Lemon Rum concoction became – undrinkable.

So, for those who enjoy food, are a bit adventurous and have friends that are like-minded, I recommend investing in these Mystery Berries. It was a unique and entertaining culinary experience.


Il Trittico was fantastic. I had no complaints except maybe for the last "choice" made in Gianni Schicchi. Suor Angelica, the 2nd of the three parts was stunning. The soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky, was out of this world. I really believe she will become known as one of the great voices of opera. WOW.

A few days later, I had a chance to see the final Dress Rehearsal of Madama Butterfly as directed by Robert Wilson (Einstein On the Beach). This is a very famous production, having been performed in Amsterdam and L.A. before. There is a filmed DVD of the Amsterdam production available. Of the L.A. Opera production I saw, the voices are excellent.

Robert Wilson's Production of Madama Butterfly

But honestly, for all the hoopla of Wilson's production, I'm not so sure what I think of it. It is definitely "Butterfly" for the experienced. My complaint is that the ultra minimalist and stark nature of the production doesn't complement the music. This is the point, of course – forcing the audience to really listen to the music. However, the minimalism is so extreme, the emotions of the performers so blank, that it seems but one step from being a recital. Don't get me wrong, this is a wild way to see it and if one has the chance, one should. The costumes are beautiful and daring as is much of the choreography. Just don't expect to see things like… props, or smiles, or tears.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Crazy times in the Valley

I am just now catching up on email – flagged at the time of receivership, to be replied to promptly. My gosh, there's nearly a month of responding to catch up on!

The last few weeks have been consumed, spent in a bizarre and sordid world from which I'm still trying to wash off the stench. I think, like all overly-impressive experiences, it will take time. Suffice to say, I was working in a documentary capacity in the world of show business whose production takes place primarily in "the valley". Those who know what that means will, well, know what that means. Those who don't… eh, don't worry about it. You're probably better off.

I will say, (remaining vague while yet attempting to convey my thought) it seems, much of the time, people do end up in the situations they deserve. There are those that, no matter how hard one tries, will always shoot themselves in the foot. They are incapable of escaping the situation they are in; not for wont of chance but simply a lack of vision. No matter how hard one attempts to show them a way, a path, they simply can not comprehend or see it – much less start down it. They see nothing but the most basic of landscape directly in front of their feet, frequently through distorted vision. Nothing can be done and it is best for a sane person to simply walk away.

There may seem to be a certain callousness in these words (if they make any sense at all), a certain lack of social caring, but over the last couple weeks (and year, in general) I have seen that some people simply cannot be, or refuse to be "picked up by the bootstraps." They will cut those straps as soon as they are pulled taut.

On another note, an upbeat note – I have been spending the most delightful time recently with someone that for now, I will only call "S". It's so nice how the day can seem brighter, colors richer, (and any other cheesy hallmark platitude) when you've shared common laughs, thoughts, memories and opinions with someone. It's great when there's that "click".

This weekend, courtesy of a friend of "S" – we will be seeing Il Trittico at the Dorothy Chandler! This atypical opera (actually 3 little operas) has some wild stuff going on in it. One of the three (actually the third of the three), Gianni Schicchi opens with a standard sounding orchestral melody – that is then followed by a bunch of people grumbling and moaning – which then turns into the melody. It's a rather "Russian" sounding start, coming from Mr. Puccini, though the opera itself is a comedic one about greed. Were it truly Russian, it would be a tragedy about greed in which the entire village eventually suffers. And I really am only describing the first few seconds of the opera. It very quickly heads, sonically, "back to Italy."
I've read some preliminary reviews that have lauded this particular production, so I go in with high hopes. Sometimes, opera production can go horribly wrong when directed by "stars". This production is directed by none other than Woody Allen (Gianni Schiacchi) and William Friedkin (Il Tabarro and Suar Angelica). I'm not expecting to see any cleverly-written-kvetching or high-speed car-chases on stage, but I do know they aren't playing the operas entirely straight either. I'll let you know how it goes.

Now, onto the email, then to figuring out what the next step in my adventure shall be.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Panavision Cameras and Gillette Razors - Authentic and Pricey

Several days ago I went to a screening at Panavision, a name synonymous with "cinema".

Located in Woodland Hills, this is where well-financed productions go to rent camera equipment (one cannot purchase Panavision equipment). Away from the rooms of lens, camera bodies, insurance forms, harried producers, Directors of Photography checking the accuracy of lens focus marks – is a screening room. Located in a section of the building that looks to be the same décor as when it was first built (a classic art-deco style, all burled-maple formed wood panels, light from inverted pyramid sconces) chairs and couches in that 'ancient Egypt' look that art-deco riffed off, this area is a tribute to self and cinema. Academy awards, won for technical achievements through the years, are displayed in glass cases, and hanging from the rich, wood-paneled walls of a hallway leading to the screening room is a fantastic collection of photographs by George Hurrell. These enormous prints, measuring 3x4 feet (or more) are of the most beautiful faces of Hollywood's golden era – Jean Harlow, Clark Gable Betty Davis, Tyrone Power, etc. At the far end was my favorite enormous print, shot in 1937 in the style that Hurrell made famous. Soft filtered, in spectacular mid-note, it was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood's music scene of that era, Jascha Heifetz.

Jascha Heifetz (1937) Photographed by George Hurrell

In the foyer immediately outside the screening room was a collection of cameras, important for their various technological achievements. Under glass was the camera that shot the deep water footage of the Titanic for Titanic; interesting and actually quite small. The first 'video-cinema' camera that was built in the 1980's was a large, ugly thing; a 'silent' camera (meaning supposedly quiet) from who knows when, even larger. Most impressive for me though, was the largest of them all, a behemoth, half the size of a refrigerator. This camera, a 65mm camera (a frame the size of the palm of my hand) was the actual camera that shot – West Side Story, It's a mad, mad, mad, mad, world – and most awing for me – Lawrence of Arabia. This monster of a machine, something that would take four men to move, was the camera that was taken into that desert to shoot some of the most amazing footage ever. There it was—the real deal.

And of real deals, fakes, authentic, etc, here is quick story that is not esoteric, or symbolic in the least.

Ever since I made the decision to shave, not just my face but my entire head, shaving is a routine that has occupied slightly more thought and time. With the increased surface area, usage of razor blades has gone up. I use Gillette Razor, "Mach 3 blades". I hate that Gillette used the same trickery as a drug dealer to get me to use their product; giving away free kits in the mail and then – having hooked me, (the user) – charging exorbitant prices for the blades. As I use the blades until they become a dull, ineffective experience, I have been thinking there must be an alternative. There is no reason I should have to pay these high prices. So, as any wise person would do, I went online to do some price-busting. Lo and behold, I found them! There they were, mass quantities of blades being sold on ebay for good prices. I quickly ordered a box of 16 and with excitement waited for their arrival. A few short days later, the small package was tossed over my gate, direct from China. As my head was ready for a shave, I quickly grabbed the package, loaded up the blade handle, lathered up my head and passed the blade over.

AHHHHH!!! Roughness, disaster – and suddenly, I looked like something out of an extreme-boxing movie as blood spewed from the open gash in my head. Perhaps spewed is a strong word, but it was not a minor knick. As I tamped toilet paper to my head, I looked at the blades closely, comparing them to my old blade. It took a close examination to determine it, but determine it I did – counterfeit.

With a heavy heart and a half shaved, bloody scalp, I went to the local drugstore, gave "the dealer" my money and returned with real Gillette Mach 3 blades. At about two dollars a pop, they are the most costly personal hygienic product I use – but as I passed the razor over my head, I do have to admit, they're a damn fine product. And I guess my shampoo and hair-stylist costs have gone down.

And finally: in my last entry I quoted a couple lines from one of the best songs about 'fun California life' there ever was, California Sun. Though the Rivieras are actually not the originators of the song, their version is the best: better that the Ramones, Dick Dale, etc. They nailed the feel of the music, the time, the mood, etc. Man, they got it.

And they were from Southbend Indiana.


Monday, August 25, 2008

California Sun

And we're out there having fun,
In the warm California sun…
The Rivieras

Yesterday was spent in a way that is actually not very difficult to do when one lives in Southern California; it's just that it's a bit easier to stay home and 'work', be 'responsible', clean the dishes, the house, or just to 'bag out' for whatever reason. Volleyball at the beach.

I met with friends in Malibu where, for the cost of parking, some aches, pains and spots of red skin where suntan lotion was missed, I had one of the most enjoyable days of the year thus far. A friend, someone I hadn't seen in twenty years(!) was in town and I took her to this California ritual that, alas, has been too infrequent in recent years. Being from New York, it was a glorious 'fish out of water' experience for her. Perhaps, the first in a series of seductory steps in moving her and her husband west. Being in "the business" it wouldn't be an insane move.

Lest it seem a perfect day, I am typing this with my left hand gingerly hitting the keys. One desperate leap for the ball ended with my face firmly planted in the sand, and outstretched fingers jammed back further than should be. There were a few injuries, mostly ego – but overall – about as close as it gets to any ode-to-life-in-California pop song of the early sixties (with twangy-reverb'ed guitars and thumping Tom-Toms, naturally).

It was a good conclusion to two weeks of birthday celebration; beginnings, endings and renewals. It seems clichéd to think it, too ostentatious to write it (but I shall): I now return to life and work with the hope and feeling that a new era may have begun.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

But Content DOES count

My last blog-diatribe got a lot of grumbling under the hood. There was some speculating that I was targeting specific people with my rant, which I should make clear, I wasn't. I was targeting a type of person that has been driving me crazy. If there were any targets, there were several magazines I had in mind. Magazines tend to, by necessity, overblow things and package them to make them seem more important than they are. Heck, it is the duty of a magazine to be a marketing tool. However, I will admit there was one 'zine in particular of which I was thinking. I am not guilt free. Once upon a time this magazine was great. I still have a subscription to it. However, in recent years, with the purchasing of it by larger, less caring entities, it (and even worse, its online version) have gone to a ridiculous "why everything you know is wrong, and why we can tell you what is right" and the top ten reasons these things are hot" tabloid silliness. Even more annoying, the online version of it has largely become a series of RSS feeds masquerading as original material. Blech. I'm tired of websites that do nothing more than aggregate and gather other people's content.

Again I will not mention a name – and likely cause even more conjecture as people try to guess which magazine I've soured on.

The other side of the grumbling and commenting came from people arguing that marketing is something that many artists and creators don't get, and that it is important beyond what they realize.

Yes, of course marketing is important. I could easily play devils advocate and argue it as being the most important aspect of entertainment. And it depends with whom I am discussing this. Neophytes just getting their first baby out there generally don't know how to promote something. For those people, lessons in marketing, showing the trickery of the sales magicians, is important. So, I need to make clear that I was really talking about pretty large Hollywood product and savvy low-budget filmmakers and distributors who are imitating the marketing style of these larger entities – and in both cases – with nothing behind the marketing. I was talking about marketing that exceeds the budget (in terms of money AND time spent) of the actual product.

Let me complain a bit more about something else:

Style over substance. Last night I saw a series of short films. Most were mediocre, a couple stood out as above-average. What really drove me up a wall (and this is a common "Hollywood" issue) were the movies that had the gloss of a high end movie – all the production and post production value – but without a decent story. It's really a pity when a movie looks and sounds fantastic, but is lacking in story. Huh, I just described half of what comes to the big screen, didn't I?
Oh well. No one ever said that making movies was easy. It's a long series of hurdles and there are so many ways to fail.

I guess something to be remembered by all "civilians" that read this blog too; no one, no independent filmmaker, no studio, makes a movie with the intention of it being a piece of junk. Everybody hopes the movie they are making will be decent.

Tonight – Birthday bash in the Hollywood Hills.

Next blog entry – pictures of the bash.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Content Counts

A few days ago, I started a blog entry that remained nothing more than a draft. I have bunches of them; orphans with tidbits of ideas, incomplete ranting, too personal thoughts, etc.

This to-never-be-published entry was about marketing and networking of self vs. production of actual quality material.

The crux of the thought was how I see a lot of filmmakers, writers, musicians, etc. lamenting how they can't make it in the business. How, somehow, they are being held down by the powers that be. Because of this, they have taken distribution and exhibition, recording, productions, etc. into their own hands and now – if only they yell loudly and plainly and long enough, people will hear and see them for the great undiscovered artists they are.

To which I call Bullshit.

I have a right to call bullshit too. I've made some good stuff, but I've also made less-than stellar work. I know what it's like to try to wrap something up in enough fresh, shiny paper to try to fool people. Hey, it's the nature of all show business. This is not something that is unique to "indie-(fill in the blank)". I know, more than most, the importance of marketing. I know that with all the noise out there, it is important to delineate oneself. I know that without a horn tooting your greatness, you may go nowhere.

BUT… a lot of people produce a mediocre (or less) product and then spend the next couple years trying to convince people (themselves included) that they've made something good. It's the basis for a lot of time wasting seminars, festivals, websites, alternative distribution approaches, etc. The simple fact is, It's the product that counts. If it's good, not a lot of promotion or marketing is needed. It WILL be found.

And here… to make a point of what I have just written is Emily Elbert. I saw a simple youtube clip, nothing more. No fancy flashing lights and bells. Nothing claiming to be the next coming of an Internet god or some high-tech (WHATEVER). No "DIY Innovative, I am writing a book about how I'm doing this cool thing online, our band will be the first to perform while free-falling from low earth orbit, I'm using Myspace and facebook to.... blah blah blah."

Just a girl and her guitar in front of a locked down camera. It was enough to put a huge smile on my face and make me seek out more. I predict big things from her.

Another example of content counting….

I will say that I haven't seen the movie. It could suck. Based on this trailer though, I think it will, at worst, be a very pleasant romantic flick. Or it could be a great movie.

The point is that there is but one difference between this movie and 7000 other zero budget indie flicks.

The difference is… it's GOOD.

This may all sound like a curmudgeonly attitude, but I really want to make clear, in this amazing day and age of youtube, etc. - this is great news. It's a better time than ever to be that little artist with the huge talent. After all, it is because of the Internet that I am now aware of Emily Elbert from Boston; same goes for Alex Holdridge and his movie.

Bottom line, don't worry so much about how you're going to get found amongst all the other stuff. Just worry if what you're doing is good enough to get found.

That's what I'm doing.

Fellowship of the Mouse

Sunday morning... Cup of Coffee, warm breeze blowing the curtains, "innocuous music - playlist" playing quietly on the iPod.

This past Friday, on a lark, I sent my package 'o materials to the Disney Fellowship competition. This is another Big-Kahuna type contest. My opinion is, for screenwriting, the only competitions that currently matter are The Sundance Screenwriters lab, The Disney Fellowship, and the Nicholl Fellowship (for which professionals are not eligible).

Others may be a nice pat on the back, maybe a few bucks or some free software, but not really much more. I'm not saying a pat on the back, money or software is a bad thing – it's just not of long term importance.

I'm open to listening to other opinions on this, but proof – as in produced credits, real agents, acquisitions, a career of some sort –is the real pudding here.

Back to the digressed-from story: the sending of the package of materials.

In keeping with the austere "Maushaus" moniker for which they are known (in Hollywood, at least), Disney demands that things be notarized; legal agreements signed that make them untouchable in the event that your script is worthless, stolen, ideas borrowed from, etc. So… to the notary I went to comply with said corporation's fearful lawyers.

Here's where the story is amusing or daunting, depending on your constitution. The notary asked me what I needed officiated. With a slight grin of self consciousness, I mumbled, "A Disney fellow--."

"Oh", she interrupted, putting a real world flavor on the statistics of the numbers of screenplays submitted, "The ABC Disney thing. The deadline is today, isn't it?"

She then when on to tell me that she had thought about taking the day off, but decided against the idea because she knew it would be a busy Friday… because of this specific deadline!

"Young, old, every type of person comes in to get these notarized." She looked at my application, expertly jumped to page (whatever, I don't remember), and marked things off.

She mentioned there was a church around the corner where I could do some quick praying, if so desired. She also mentioned how neat-o she thought it was that all sorts of people applied – that there were dreamers of all ages, shapes, creeds, etc.

Yes, Los Angeles is ground zero for all things movie-related. Screenwriting, being the most accessible, inexpensive (and deceptive in its appearance of ease) is easily the most 'done' thing these days. I dare say there are more, hopeful "screenwriters" than hopeful "actors" these days. Though hopeless self-deception is a large part of the majority of people trying to do either, physical attributes need not stop the hopeful screenwriter before he or she treks from Kansas or New Jersey or Pennsylvania - or wherever, to the City of Angels and dreamers.

So, in this little notary in Atwater Village -- one of three within a two block area – I was reminded by how many people there are, writing, writing, writing -- their 120 page lottery tickets.

It reminded me of when I first moved to L.A. Returning the truck we'd driven across country, the desk clerk asked if we had made sure to remove everything from the truck. "Did you check under the seats, didn't leave anything – wallets? A soon-to-be-a-hit screenplay?"

I laughed; found it an apropos, "welcome to Hollywood" question. My partner in "west coast hopes and dreams" didn't find it funny at all. It chilled her. I tried to calm her nerves by reminding her that most screenplays were beyond bad. Small comfort: "what if what I write is bad? What if I'm no good?"

Ah, the artist's hopes and fears… for which there are a myriad of people ready to exploit both, generally for a fee.

The Nicholl Fellowship is $30.00
The Sundance Lab is $30.00

At least, besides the cost of notarizing, the Disney Fellowship entry is free.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Third Draft Finished… and outta here.

I have just finished the third draft of my screenplay. I feel a mixture of emotions that have classically indicated that this… is a pretty good draft. I've sent it to a few trusted people who will read it and hopefully comment on it – in a kind, yet useful manner. Then, I shall re-write it yet again, hopefully minor adjustments, some tonal adjustment, nothing major.

Some detailing of the emotions in completing the V3 rewrite; other writers and creators will sympathize:

Exhaustion – I guess that explains itself. However, beyond physical exhaustion, there is also the mental. This script, more than anything I've written, has dredged through things from my present and past like no other. I have exploited myself to such a degree that I feel as spent as a twenty year old Appalachian strip mine.

Fear – Fear that the script is not a diamond but rather, a turd. Either may still be in the rough, but one or the either it is. When you write an action flick that doesn't work, it's not as brutal as when you lay your heart out on paper The fear is being melodramatic, sophomoric, etc.

Excitement – It feels good. Excitement that it actually might not be a turd, but rather a diamond.

Sadness – yes, strangely there is sadness. It's a common depression most commonly called the "Post-Partem blues" Generally reserved for pregnant women, creators of other sorts are common sufferers of this malaise also.

Relief – The relief that I am, once again, through the storm. The relief that yes – I had one more story in me. Relief that I'm going to make deadlines.


Allowing myself to walk away from the computer, today I will go sailing. I haven't been on the boat in many, many months and a spirited race will do me good. I must quickly review my knot-tying abilities and put together the kit o' clothes, sun tan lotion and proper shoes. A three hour tour will be a nice respite…

Perhaps it is the script, perhaps it is this point in my life - I have been reviewing my past, sending some "hello" messages out in virtual bottles and reconnecting with some people.

Over the last several months, I have been having a wonderful e-mail correspondence with two friends from High School who found me and one from college. Reminisces quickly dispensed with, it is fun to read and write to these dear women; to hear about their family and work related woes and triumphs. They have also been so helpful in this time of transition.

In part, thanks to them, the chime announcing incoming email has taken on new and pleasant excitement. Though it's generally a sure fire stock tip or Viagra, emails from real people, from friends, are so nice, aren't they?

And today, most surreal, thought provoking and yes, I admit - heart rate quickening, I received a reply email from a person I sent an exploratory email to several days ago. I shall refer to her only as "D". She was one of the most important people in my past, leaving an indelible mark in my mind and heart. Now, fifteen years later, a lifetime later, we are communicating again for the first time. It'll be cathartic to catch up with her.

No excuses in these days of digital connectivity. If there's someone out there you've been thinking about communicating with, do it. Time is fleeting.

And now I'm sailing.

In the next issue of Stefan Avalos Tells All…

Scott Kirsner's new book,

Inventing the Movies:
Hollywood's Epic Battle Between Innovation and the Status Quo, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs

The Last Broadcast figures prominently into this book, which is pretty cool. I'll give a full report, but upon cursory view, it seems this could potentially become the defacto reading about what the title espouses.

Friday, August 01, 2008


Writing, rewriting.
Deadline approaches so soon.
It is almost good.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This Earthquake had a good Publicist

The news of the earthquake reminded me of something I've observed about many movie related events; festivals, premieres, etc. It seems a lot more impressive once the P.R. people have handled it than it really was.

Lest the cropped images on CNN of crumbled brick walls, huddled masses of people standing on sidewalks, burst pipes and flooding intersections create an image of havoc, even momentary, let me assuage those notions. It's all in the way the photo or video is framed. Keep that in mind if you view this slideshow from the LA TIMES to show the mayhem.

Here, 34 miles from the epicenter, the house rocked back and forth for about ten or fifteen seconds. Then it was over. Had it continued, yes it would have been quite something else. The rhythmic nature of the rocking causes a sympathetic increase in the movement of things; like the cat crossing a bridge, it would theoretically become very destructive over a bit of time. But not this time. A woman that grew up in Ca, wrote me last night, describing her earliest earthquake recollection:

Running out of the house, my little brother and I watched as the front lawn looked like someone had grabbed one corner and flicked it like a carpet, the thundering shockwaves rolling through the grass. Our precursor to the SUV, an International Harvester Travelall, was bouncing down the driveway.

When the lawn looks like someone is flicking a carpet. Hmmm… okay, then I'll be impressed.

All rocking and rolling distractions beneath me aside, my writing continues. After copious re-outlining, meta writing, head banging and hair pulling (okay there was no hair pulling), I think that the "writing" portion of the rewrite will officially commence after I post this. Hopefully it will go at a speed that is satisfactory.

The temperature continues to be perfection and I continue to be thankful.

Now, if only my replacement battery for my notebook computer had come back from China the way it was supposed to, I could sit outside and write.

More on that later.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


So, it was a nice shake back and forth and my friend in Sierre Madre felt the same....
I wonder where the epicenter was. This wasn't nothing.
Update: 5.8 in Chino Hills - about 34 miles east of Silver Lake.


I kid you not, these are their initial, top news points.

Click on image for full size humor

ABC - letting you know what's really important.
(in case you forgot, ABC is owned by Disney corp.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Cutting the Trapeze harnesses

I don't know what happened to me, but I feel like I was slammed with a 2x4. Muscle ache, headache, nauseated stomach, no desire to get up out of bed… EEKS.

So today, rather than berate myself and force myself up into an attempt to work, I just stayed in bed… 'til 2:30PM!! I am feeling about 80 percent better, but man it really sucked.

I went to a Royal Crown Revue show last night in Pasadena that was fantastic. A beautiful night sitting on a blanket beneath palm trees lit with little white bulbs; listening to and watching top notch players putting on a show from the Levitt Pavilion, life doesn't get much better than that.

But I think the hot dog I ate may have been the culprit to my intensely sick day.

While drifting in and out of sleep, I had a chance to ponder a couple things. One, it's not a whole lot of fun being alone and sick. There's nobody to take care of you, ask you how you're doing, be concerned; not even the sounds of someone else in the house.

Oh, well. Too bad.

Also, as I drifted in and out of sleep, I had a chance to ponder the date itself: July 25th.
Everybody has their important anniversaries, days to remember, moments in time. July 25th is one of them for me. It is a sad one – about as sad as they get. However the event took place many years ago and it has been many years already that I could talk about it without undue emotions raging.
My mother died on July 25th, a long time ago -- when I was twelve. For the first years, it would be an intensely sorrowful day, but as time goes on memories are smoothed, pains lessen.

The reason that I bring my mother's death up today is because in a couple weeks, I will turn the same age my mother was when she died. In a couple months, I will be older than she ever lived to be.

Several days ago, I dragged an old photo album out of the garage and for the first time in quite a few years, looked at pictures I had taken as a child. For my tenth birthday, my requested present was an SX-70 land camera. I loved taking pictures, and as a child, I diligently wrote on the Polaroids: who, what and when these pictures were of. As I'm looking at them now, it is striking me just how young my mother was; already in these first pictures, taken in 1978, she is younger than I am now.

So, today, I feel a bit like a circus performer. In a year when a lot of safety lines have been cut and nets removed, I feel that this is somehow another harness, removed and dropped to the ground far below. These are not my choices; they are just the nature of time, continually moving forward.

I'm swinging yet further into a space that some of those I looked up to never travelled.

Yeah, it's a bit disconcerting.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

So, what happened?

My cat is walking around my legs, desperately trying to get some attention – while maintaining her cat-cool-aloofness, of course. She's not the only one that hasn't gotten my attention for several weeks. I am slowly returning to the world; returning calls, doing bills, buying food, and acknowledging the weather gods with a hearty THANK YOU. This July has easily been the most pleasant July I've ever experienced in Los Angeles, or anywhere else for that matter. I was very fortunate not to have to deal with insane heat beyond the insane heat generated by the Sundance Screenwriters Lab Deadline.

People reading this blog with any kind of regularity know that I was working around the clock for the last three weeks and the emails I've received, wishing me luck and rooting for me have been too kind. Thank you all! I'm deeply touched.

So what happened? Did I do it?

Short answer:
Yes, I did it! I wrote a feature length screenplay from July 3 to July 20th. Okay, I'm no Ed Wood but hopefully, neither is the screenplay.

Longer answer:
The screenplay is merely a first (okay, v1.7) draft. It needs a lot of work yet.

To say that writing a screenplay in seventeen days is not easy would be putting it mildly. In fact, one book about screenwriting uses the shocking, "Write a screenplay in 30 days!" title in order to entice potential readers that it has a method to do something entirely mad.

Overall, I'm not impressed by quantity, so I'm not lauding these things. I think a fair amount of time to spend on a first draft of a screenplay is two to three months.
(disclaimer: I mean a screenplay that is worth anything. A formulaic slasher can be churned out in three days)

So, how did I actually do it? I'll tell you. This may be useful for anyone who finds themselves under an intense deadline, even if only self imposed. Of course, it's common knowledge already, so most writers reading this probably do this already.

Outline, Outline, outline!

That's my biggest advice. I've learned that unless I do this, I will run into trouble. I think most writers work this way, so it's not the most insightful advice there is. But good advice always bears repeating. I'm typically a big fan of cork boards. Sticking ideas on them and moving them around – getting a nice 42 inch screen to see your story, with complete drag and drop capability, crash proof, no batteries required, and lightweight – ah, that's the stuff. In this case, I didn't really have time for the cork board – and my cork board currently has another story outline pinned to it that doesn't actually belong to me. Though I don't think it'll ever be used again, I decided not to pull the pins, as it were.

Instead, I went straight to outlining in MS Word, and kept outlining until I had the entire story figured out. Even as I neared the end, I refused to give in to the temptation of starting on the script. I've fallen victim to the "I'll figure the last scene out when I'm writing the script" before, and knew this temptation was not to be followed. In fact, even though I had an ending to the story months ago, getting it right took a couple days of thinking, walking, talking to myself, writing, erasing, repeat.

There is something very nerve wracking about holding a steady course and not shifting to the next phase, when a deadline is inexorably moving toward you. Around July 11th, I got that last scene figured out and jumped into Final Draft and wrote the two words that signal the start: FADE IN.

I also calculated that I needed to pump out about 10 pages a day in order to make the deadline.

The first day, I wrote the entire first act. Like the day, the act was too long -- about 37 pages and it contained a lot of stuff that was tripe. But it was good to get a big jumping start. I knew that output wouldn't last, so I relished seeing that page count.

I then did two days of about fifteen pages per--getting to the point that many a screenplay dies – the dreaded middle. Getting through the middle was a process of five pages here, two pages there.

With about three days to spare, I got something that actually "weighed" the right amount; that is to say, I had a 108 page screenplay (about 21,000 words). From there, I re-wrote it to be a more cohesive piece.

Then, I read it with a friend. We spent about eight hours with it and then I got back to work for the last 30 odd hours.

And there you have it.

I didn't use any illicit drugs to stay awake.
I didn't drink Red Bull or any other energy drink.

However, I did go through 3lbs and 4 ozs. of coffee beans (which I grind to an extra, super fine talcum powder consistency for ultimate brewing delight)
That's a lot of coffee.

Enough about me for the moment.

Proof that good things occasionally happen to nice AND deserving people in this town, I want to heartily congratulate my friend Chad Damiani and his writing partner J.P. Lavin on an absolutely amazing and exciting story!

The Hollywood Reporter writes:

'Capeshooters' finds home at Warners

Bryan Singer in talks to produce the superhero project
By Steven Zeitchik and Borys Kit
July 22, 2008, 08:51 PM ET

With one comic superhero lighting up its boxoffice, Warner Bros. is trying to develop another potential comic franchise by acquiring the superhero project "Capeshooters," with Bryan Singer in negotiations to produce.

J.P. Lavin and Chad Damiani will write the screenplay, which follows two down-on-their-luck slackers who specialize in shooting videos of superheroes. They find themselves on the run when they uncover evidence that a legendary superhero actually is evil.

Read the entire story about Chad's cool day here.

Once again, Congratulations Chad and J.P. May the project GO and may it be franchised!

Ah, much more to write… but I must get back to working on my v2 of the screenplay. I can't say why, but there is no rest for Johnny quite yet.
I now have an August 15th deadline to contend with. Thankfully, I have clay to mold now.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Foreign Levies – the DGA – do nothing, opt out, or object?

I'm running on no sleep here from the screenplay I've been working on. I have a few things of which to blog, but for now I want to put this into the ether.

This entry will be subject to editing and revisions and possible retractions. I do suggest that if this affects you, that you consult with some legal counsel.

That said, here is my opinion, based on conversations with various parties about the FOREIGN LEVY/DGA CLASS ACTION SUIT situation…
It's a topic that generates a lot of passion and I've tried to wade through it and get to the nitty gritty. Hopefully, this makes some sense.

If you're a motion director with any work that has played overseas, you may – you 'may' (they claim not to know where a lot of you are) have gotten a letter regarding a class action settlement. The fact that I'm writing this today, July 21st, the day of the actual deadline for making a stink or not -- is hopefully not closing the barn door after the cows got out.

I think not, because there are others who have been very actively involved in this and I think the whole thing will blow up. I apologize, but the Sundance deadline took precedent.

Some of you might know that I wrote an article regarding the entire foreign levies debacle.
If this entry thus far means nothing to you but you're interested in knowing what it's about, you can read the article here.

Basically, in this class action suit, you have three choices:

  1. Do nothing – which means that the decision of the suit would be how your future, in regards to foreign levies goes.
  2. Opt out – for which the deadline is… today.
  3. Object – for which the deadline is… today.


I will say right out – I don't think the settlement is great. There is wording that is missed, things that are NOT addressed, the deal around which the suit is based is one that was brokered by the guilds and the AMPTP. It is not the deal which really affects non guild members in regards to foreign territories.
We're affected by a different deal – the AFMA (IFTA) deal. Even if these deals are the same… they're different entities. We're talking a very specific lawsuit. The details count. Plus, since a lot of these movies are also produced by the writers and directors – the producer part of you is owed a lot of money because by someone... who?

I personally would like these issues to be addressed and answered before I accept the outcome of a class action suit - one that will cost me money already owed, as well as money in the future.

I could go on, but for now I'm just going to tell you what I have learned – first by listening to others, and then doing some due diligence with other class action suits.

It might seem that opting out is the way to go. However, it's not. This is a cut and paste explaining it (from a BELKIN class action suit)


Objecting is simply telling the Court that you don't like something about the settlement. You can object only if you stay in the Class.

Opting out is telling the Court that you don't want to be part of the Class. If you opt out, you have no basis to object because the case no longer affects you.

In short, if you hope to be part of a better deal – which I sure as hell hope to be a part of :


Do not opt out.

More coming soon.

But now, I have to sleep.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sundance Screenwriters Lab letters are coming…

The Sundance screenwriter’s lab is sending their selection/rejection emails out.

How do I know? I just got one.

Yes, I entered the Sundance Screenwriting Lab for 2009 a couple months ago. I dutifully wrote my ideas for a brand new screenplay, updated my bio, wrote and rewrote a cover letter, a synopsis and the first five pages of the theoretical screenplay. I put it all in a manila envelope with some of my hard earned money and then with a quick kiss and wish for good luck, dropped in the mailbox.

Like anything where hope hinges on a few words, where mood and spirit can be raised or dashed in an instant -- clicking on this email does make the heart skip a beat. No matter how blasé one tries to be, there is a slight nervous tingle in the index finger pushing down on the mouse button. After all, as any knowledgeable screenwriter will tell you – this is a very important competition; the kind that can theoretically change a person's life.

Does one click on the mouse assuming a, “Thanks, but no thanks” response is about to be read?
Does one go in with the attitude that “The Secret” and all the other “power of positive thinking” gurus propose?
Does one go in saying to oneself, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.”
Does one petition a supernatural being?

My style is the, “Eh, doesn’t really matter. Just read the damn email and get on with your life.”


Dear Stefan:

Congratulations! Your submission, I AM THE PRISONER, has been chosen by our selection committee for the next round of the review process. Please send your completed script to the Sundance Institute office (see address below my name) so that it is received in our offices by Monday, July 21, 2008. Also, please include your application number xxx-xxx and name on the cover page of your screenplay.

We will make final decisions for the 2009 January Screenwriters Lab by mid-December. You will be notified by December 15th via e-mail.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me via email.

Thanks again for your application; we look forward to reading the entire screenplay.

Xxxxx xxxxxx

So that is what a “ray of sunshine” type of email looks like!

It also means that I now have to deliver a feature length screenplay within 19 days. Let’s see, if I estimate a page count of 110 pages (a safe number) that means having to write about 5.7 pages a day – every day.

That doesn’t include a re-write.
That doesn’t include a chance to give it to a friend for notes.
That doesn’t include much time for anything.

It’s a conscious thing these 'Sundance Powers that be' are doing. It puts writers on the spot, likely eliminating quite a few in the process.

It is a major order!

So, it looks like I have to seriously gear up, get it together and go.

I do have an outline written. I do also have the first five pages done.

I just purchased two large cans of Trader Joes House Blend Coffee. I'm ready!

Let the coffee start flowing, cancel any plans for vacation and full steam ahead.

Wish me luck!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Hey, this movie’s soundtrack sounds like…

Please join on this entry and add your own discoveries. I intend to add to it as I think of new examples – and perhaps gussy up the writing a bit too.

This is music geek stuff so it will either generate nothing, dead silence… or it may end up being something that search engines send a lot of music geeks to.

It is not uncommon to hear classical music in a movie. However, beyond identifying Beethoven or, more frequently – a Russian, like Stravinsky in a soundtrack, it is more fun to recognize a sound cue that is reminiscent of something else.

It's no accident when it happens and might be for any number of reasons.

  1. The guys writing this stuff, the Williams, Korngolds, Hermanns, Newmans – they all know, (or knew) music as well as anyone and so are having musical fun with the job.
  2. When a movie is edited, temporary music is used to demonstrate the mood and final effect desired. Frequently, to the chagrin of many composers, the director falls in love with the temp score and thus asks for, "Something that sounds just like this, but different…"
  3. Face it, there are only so many different ways to score an ominous, or exciting, or (fill in the blank) scene – given a certain type of music. Eventually, something is going to sound like something else.

For people that aren't familiar with "classical music", but who did like a soundtrack score, this is a great way to get turned on to new (old) music.

I'm going to start a list with some easy ones. Please add in the comments and I'll add to the list.

Click on the links in the first example to actually hear the sections. I'll start with three easy ones.

Frequently, Gustav Holst's The Planets is used in a movie. Even though it wasn't that originally, it does make for great movie music. The following however is just a bit of a sound alike. Both scores are "original":

THE PLANETS (Mars, Bringer of War) - Gustav Holst

STAR WARS (Death Star explodes) - John Williams

  1. Basket Chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ballet of the Chicks from Pictures at an exhibition. I'm not picking on John Williams. He just writes so many scores in the classic style that it's inevitable his name will come up frequently. Mussorgsky is also frequently mimicked in film scores.

  2. Erich Korngold "hinting at" Puccini's Tosca. I have always thought that Tosca (and most of Puccini's other operas) are the ultimate Cinematic experience. Even though they aren't cinema, the tenets of cinema are purely there. I just learned that Korngold said the same thing, which makes me happy. If one is to have a thought that is not original, it is at least nice to have it validated positively. Korngold was a serious classical composer so -- he sometimes mimicked himself! I hear hints of Puccini in a lot of what Korngold does. A specific is the Adventures of Robin Hood's "Procession sequence" and the morning mass in the first act of Tosca.

About Korngold, I should note - he was very (practically) a contemporary of Puccini and was called by some, "the Puccini of Austria" - so I hesitate to use the word 'mimic' with him.

I know there are some music fans/movie fans that read this so ... get to work. I want Mahler references, I want obscure stuff!

And finally - I'll end with this clip... what is this music from?
Can you picture it? Is it a Hitchcock film? or maybe a Scorsese movie?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Looping Dialogue – when it doesn’t work

With the L.A. Film Festival in full swing now and with a special connection to free passes, (thanks, B) it makes for a great escape from the HOT – HOT - HOT place that is my house. Yes, we're in a heat wave and it's brutal. There comes a point when the fact that it's a "dry heat" doesn't really matter. 105, 107… those temps are hot no matter what. Even when a person can survive, electronic equipment creaks away dangerously. The keyboard of my notebook computer is hot to the touch. The Ipod shouldn't be used in temps like this. Heck, it's even starting to approach the max storage temp of 113 for a lot of electronic equipment. What does one do in Palm Springs where it did exceed that temp if one isn't home?

I finally saw the new Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull movie last night. I'm sure enough people have seen it that I don't need to review it. It was – okay, it sufficed. I was bothered by a few things: story wise, magnetism was treated in the most ridiculous manner ever – even if you believed it within the context they set it. Surviving waterfalls effortlessly (waterfalls that make Niagara look small) was too much – even if using the Temple of Doom measuring stick. However, something more bothered me that really pulled me from the movie in the beginning, and it's something that probably hasn't been mentioned in any reviews. It's entirely a tech-geek thing, but on a subconscious level, it does affect everyone watching a movie.

Here goes.

It appeared to me that Harrison Ford's dialogue was entirely looped for the first fifteen or so minutes of the movie. Other sections were looped also, but my attention wasn't as obviously drawn to them. Here it was. It wasn't as obvious as the looping in the first Mad Max movie, but to me, still obvious.

To give a quick background for those who might not instantly know what I'm talking about, "looping", or ADR, as it is popularly called now, is when the original dialogue (that was recorded during production) is replaced. This happens for a bunch of reasons – poorly recorded, too much extraneous noise, etc. Sometimes it's done to actually change a line reading. In a controlled environment, the actors (or a voice "double") record new dialogue, matching to the lips on the screen. To do it well, not only do the lips have to match and sync up perfectly, the inflection has to match also. Additionally, we, as an audience, have come to expect a certain 'proximity' to the voice in relation to the distance the actor is from us on the screen. In other words, if the actor is way off in the distance, it would feel unnatural if it sounded like the microphone was three inches from the actor's mouth. This means that doing ADR right is as dependent upon the audio engineers as the actors.

When it's done properly, you can't tell. Most movies – especially larger movies, have looped at least 10% of the dialogue. Sometimes, especially in action movies or movies with a lot of exterior locations 90% or more of the movie has been looped.

Done right, you don't notice it. But somehow, for some reason, it wasn't done right, I noticed it, and it bothered me – pulling me out of the movie before it even got off the ground. I'm not sure I ever got back into it – and I was very aware of the fact that I was watching a movie. In other words, I never quite suspended my belief. Too bad.

And now that I've drawn your attention to it, perhaps when you see the movie, it will bother you too. Sorry.

Other quick note.

Yes, George Carlin died. That's big news and an enormous loss for the world of comedy. Don't need to comment on that much more because it's such big news and others have much better things to say and write.

Did you know that Stan Winston died? That's a major loss for the Special Effects world. Some of the larger movie moments we have collectively said WOW to were created by him and his company – the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the morphing dude in Terminator, the list is long. It's a big loss.

For me, as I have been in a bit of a news blackout in the last week, the person I'm bummed about most is Cyd Charisse, who died last week. Rather than comment on her passing, I will break copyright law and include a youtube video. Intead of the most obvious clip, her incredible number in Singin' in the Rain - here's something different, though still similar in style: a dance number from a movie called, Party Girl.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Moviemaker Article – on newsstands now

Brief heads up for you filmmakers: an article I wrote about 3D Previsualization is in the current issue of Moviemaker magazine.

This, for anyone following the saga – is not the article that has given me such grief over the last several months. This is a fun tech-geek article about some awesome software I use called Antics3d.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Make ‘em Laugh – I’ll try

I'm working on a couple new stories right now. Eventually, I hope they will become scripts. For now, they are outlines, ideas, and hopes. I can't call them scripts yet.

One of them is the genre I fear the most – comedy. Though I am a fairly humorous person (sometimes just looking at me is enough to make people laugh), writing comedy is damn tough stuff. I have a story, a premise – even a beginning, middle and end – that would lend itself well to being a nice romantic comedy. So now I need to really figure out how to do it right.

There are a ton of theories about what defines comedy. My idea has always been – Drama is the middle of the road. Once you exaggerate any aspect of it, you create a genre. Accentuate the absurd and you have comedy, accentuate the unknown and scary – horror, and so on. I don't know that it is a sophisticated view about story telling, but hopefully it's a start.

Any ideas out there? what do you think is comedy?

Yeah, a pie in the face or farts are funny – but what else is comedy?

Tell me. I can always use a good laugh.

And just in case my blog title made you think of this… here you go. Some of the best cinematic moments of all time.
Guaranteed to make you laugh.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Universal Studios – uh oh.

I awoke this morning to news that part of Universal studios was on fire so, I grabbed my trusty camera and headed up to Mulholland drive to see what I could see.

As I drove up the 101 toward Universal, the smoke was graying the sky, turning what would have been another perfect blue sky day into a smoggy looking gray. Of course, being the valley, that sometimes happens no matter if a studio is burning or not. :)

Thanks to the gas prices and the fact that it's Sunday morning, there was almost no traffic, so I was able to get to what I predicted would be the perfect vantage point in about ten minutes. I wasn't the only one who had the idea as about twenty other people with cameras of all sorts were also looking down at the sight.

No question, Mulholland Drive provided a very good view.

And finally, if stills aren't enough, I shot a little video...

What else…?
Oh, I played the mega millions lottery on Friday. I just checked my numbers and... I WON!

No lie!

Are all my problems solved? Not quite. My ticket is worth a cool twelve bucks.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sydney Pollack 1935-2008

Cancer claimed Oscar winning director, producer and actor Sydney Pollack Monday at his home in Pacific Palisades. Pollack won his Academy Awards for best director and best picture for "Out of Africa." He was also nominated as a director for "Tootsie" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and as a producer on last year's "Michael Clayton." He also played a major role in 'Clayton.' His first acting credit on IMDB was a 1959 episode of "Playhouse 90," but it was on the movie "War Hunt" in 1962 that he met Robert Redford and formed a long professional association. "Mr. Pollack's career defined an era in which big stars and the filmmakers who knew how to wrangle them retooled the Hollywood system"...
(From LA Obvserved - Kevin Roderick)

I had a chance to hang out with Sydney Pollack at a film festival in Belgium about ten years ago. We spent an evening in a hotel bar where he excitedly discussed flying airplanes—a passion of his. After detailing a harrowing flight where he ran very low on fuel (fumes, evidently) while trying to land in pure fog, he asked us all to not repeat the story, explaining that it might not be so entertaining to the insurance companies that do "key person" insurance for directors.

He was a good director and, from my rather limited experience, a generous person.
What I really found appealing about him was that he was a multi-faceted person.

And I think in the back of my mind I always expected to see him again and talk about airplanes some more.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Fear of Rejection

Let me preface this by writing that I'm not depressed, merely contemplative.

I think rejection is my greatest fear. That's probably very universal so I don't think I'm unique or about to unleash any insights that were never before realized. To the contrary, I am only putting these things out there in order to hopefully excise them from my own psyche, even if only slight.

I have probably missed more opportunities because of the fear of being rejected than from actual rejection; from not asking that girl to the ninth grade dance to not pitching that person a project. When I put this fact in writing, it seems pretty sad—but I bet I'm not the only person by a long stretch.

Of course, actual rejection isn't so hot either. And when you create something and hand it off in a mercantile exchange, art and commerce can be tricky and cruel bedfellows. About rejection in writing, I read an excellent blog, which sums things up pretty well.

I am in an unknown point right now in many aspects of my life. I suppose we really all are, though we might fool ourselves with plans. Fact is you never really know what's going to happen next, do you? In my life currently, I face potential rejection from all sides; I certainly don't know what's going to happen next about a whole lot.

The "article" (I put that in quotes now because it has become an entity unto itself) has not pleased the powers that be. I don't know if it means that it has been killed or not. I hope not. It represents a lot of work and more importantly, I believe it is good; insightful, interesting people putting forth their ideas on the topic. However, the decision is not mine. At this point, I'm simply wondering aloud. I've already been quite demoralized by the email flurry over the last several days and am fully prepared for a final thumbs down. It would be a nice bit of icing on top of everything else in my life, but that is what it is. Que sera sera, and all.

Now, onto other things/. I have a list of projects I must get through and time is only moving forward.
And that reminds me of lyrics from a They Might Be Giants song: Genius in their simplicity, I am envious not to have their wit. Even without the clock-like melody or the Iron Hammer 'DUN DUN' of the guitar -- "TIME (DUN DUN) is marching on (DUN DUN) --- I think the brilliance shines through of Older.

You're older than you've ever been.
And now you're even older.
And now you're even older.
And now you're even older.

You're older than you've ever been.
And now you're even older.
And now you're older still.

TIME! Is marching on.
And time.. is still marching on.
This day will soon be at an end and now it's even sooner.
And now it's even sooner.
And now it's even sooner.
This day will soon be at an end and now it's even sooner.
And now it's even sooner.
And now it's sooner still.

You're older than you've ever been.
And now you're even older.
And now you're even older.
And now you're even older.

You're older than you've ever been.
And now you're even older.
And now you're older still.

One last story for the entry: A couple days ago as I was stuffing yard trimmings in the trash, I heard the sounds of "Dammi i colori!" start playing from a neighbor's yard. Probably my favorite aria in the world (Act 1 Tosca), my heart lurched, my eyes filled with tears and I stopped in mid yard-trimming-stuffing. I was filled with the emotion of the aria -- it set off everything from the last several months. But more than anything, I was absolutely thrilled that someone in my neighborhood was listening to opera. The music went on to another aria; a greatest hits type collection. I was absolutely ecstatic. The world is good, there is hope!
Finally, under the guise of perhaps borrowing their trash can as mine was full, I had to go to the neighbor – to tell them how wonderful it was to hear my favorite aria, to share in the beauty of it.
I went to the house, the music growing louder as I approached -- and finally stood at the front porch. The house was locked tight, no one was home. But on the patio, baking in the sun, a large portable CD/Tuner player was blasting the music.

Evidently a timer had kicked on and was playing the CD for no one - but me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Art of Movie Trailers

My brother asked me some advice regarding movie trailers. He has something in mind for a project and wants to mimic a trailer. It got me to thinking that it might make for a fun blog entry.

For the slim possibility that there is actually a person that doesn't know what a trailer is… it's the "coming attraction" previews of a movie. I have a friend that complains about them—saying that they give away everything in a movie. He refuses to watch them. I, on the other hand, love to watch movie trailers. They make me giggle with excitement, make me feel like a little kid, or groan with despair, frequently saving me the thirteen bucks or whatever it costs to go see a movie nowadays. That's because, my friend is right; most trailers do give away pretty much everything in the movie. They can save me a lot of agony.

And, as everyone knows, most are actually better than the movie.

The movie trailer has come a long way, and has really ramped up as an art form in the last fifteen to twenty years. Once upon a time, they were a hodge podge of the best moments of a film. Many were cut from an actual print, so the sound would cut miserably and jarringly. There was little attempt to put something together that was smooth, that flowed – or even captured the spirit of the movie.

It's amazing to watch old trailers and see how bad they actually were. I won't even bother going any further back in time than the early 80's to illustrate the point.

With a new Indiana Jones movie about to be let loose, the Indiana Jones website is an excellent trip down memory lane as well as a fascinating study in the evolution of trailers. What's really amazing is to see how bad the first Raiders of the Lost Ark trailer is. I remember it too—seeing it on television. The theatrical trailer for Raiders is a bit better. A bit. What is interesting about it, is that it still has a 1970's sensibility; it leads you to believe that Raiders might be a serious, dark movie—perhaps a thriller. There is actually very little hinting at how much fun it will be. The trailer for the theatrical re-release a couple years later specifically reminds the audience "THIS IS A FUN MOVIE!!!"

However, these trailers are all very primitive by modern standards. Oddly, the new Indiana Jones trailer is NOT to be viewed as an example of a good trailer. It's quite poor. I don't know why but I'm hoping it's because Steve and George aren't too concerned. They know the movie will be a monster hit even if they just showed a still of the title for two minutes and thirty seconds.

So, for filmmakers, this might be of use and for the general public, it might be of interest. Here is what the modern movie trailer has evolved to: Generally they are about two and a half minutes long and consist of five acts. They may or may not have voice over, and they may or may not have flashy title cards helping to move the plot along.

The best trailers don't need a voiceover or title cards. These are crutches, but are such standard practice, that no one really criticizes them much.

Watch almost any trailer these days and you'll see how the five act breakdown works. This is not to be confused with the five act structure commonly used by Shakespeare. It is a structure unto itself; basically a classic three act structure with a tease-in and a tease-out.

  1. A teaser lead in.
    1. Very brief, sometimes over the production/distribution company logo, sometimes audio only. Sometimes just a few seconds long. It could be from any point in the movie.
  2. 1st act of the story. This is where, if there's a voice (usually Don LaFontaine) it will say, "In a world" or… "When John Doe thought he knew…"
    1. The movie is set up.
  3. 2nd act of the story. In a trailer, this is where the problem that will be the premise of the movie is detailed. Not dissimilar from the typical three act structure.
  4. 3rd act of the story. This is where, if Don has been saying things he now says, "Now, he has to…" The solution being something like save the world, get the girl, or something. (it might actually incorporate a lot of the actual 2nd act of the movie)
  5. A brief lead out.
    1. Sometimes this is after the title card. It could be very quick – just a couple frames, or it could be a few seconds long. If it's a horror movie, something horrible happens. If it's a comedy, a punchline that was set up a little earlier will be delivered. It could be from any point in the movie.

Boom. Done. Now go see the movie.

When I started cutting trailers for my own movies, I studied countless trailers. While cutting the Ghosts of Edendale trailer I was most impressed by the trailer for The Others. I think it's a masterpiece as trailers go. Damn fine movie too. Watch both and you'll see they're five acts.

For trailers of this coming summer, here are a comedy, Tropic Thunder, and an action movie, Dark Knight. Both perfectly made, both two and a half minutes, both five acts.

So, there you have it. Check it out. See if you can spot the five acts in a movie trailer.