Monthly Archives: October 2014


October 22nd, 2014 6 Comments



Screenwriters are a pathetic lot.


They are, in the minds of their Hollywood colleagues, little better than idiot savants: dim-witted souls who occasionally get lucky and come up with a good idea badly executed, something anyone with an ounce of sense can improve.


Everyone in town has more talent than these hapless souls.


The studio executive who has learned everything he or she needs to know about story in a weekend seminar with Robert McKee.


The director who’s looking to put the stamp of his genius on the material.


And of course, the actors who love to improvise.


The talentless writer who often spends months or even years agonizing over his material has to be in awe of these colleagues and their ability to turn his sow’s ear of a screenplay into a cinematic silk purse, often with only a few minutes or hours of effort.


I have to confess that I am one of those unfortunate wretches, one who has been the beneficiary of my collaborators’ heroic efforts to improve my work.


Michael Biehn, in particular, comes to mind.


The hero of The Terminator—in fact, one of Jim Cameron’s favorite actors, Biehn starred, with Henry Thomas and Jason Bateman, in a film I called Bloodbrothers, one which USA Cable, in its infinite collective wisdom, saw fit to rechristen A Taste for Killing.


It’s the story of couple of young men from the Garden District of New Orleans.


Recent graduates of Tulane, they decide to spend their summer working one of the off-shore oil rigs to prove how big their balls are before heading off to law school in the fall. There, isolated on a platform, cut off from friends and family, they fall in with a charming psychopath who draws them into a web of violence and murder.


It was my attempt to reinvent Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.


Thank god for my collaborators.


The studio executives who, after declaring it the best screenplay they’d ever gotten their hands on, gave it to a director who had the good sense to loathe it.


The director who saved the piece by moving it from the dull, colorless confines of New Orleans to the fascinating arena of Houston.


And, of course, Michael, who rewrote the dialogue as he spoke it.


Here, for example, is my version of an early encounter between the boys and Michael’s character, a welder named Bo Landry.


One of the boys asks him if he makes things for the platform.


Bo replies, “Mostly I repair things.” Suddenly intense, he continues: “You know, they say the sea’s a creator. The mother of all life. She’s not. The sea’s a bitch. A destroyer. Sometimes she tries to smash things up all at once. But mostly, she just licks away at them. Rusting, wearing, ‘til there’s nothing left.”


Here’s Michael’s improved version: “Well, mostly I just repair things. Sometimes, the sea’ll tear things up all at once. Usually, she just licks away at them until there’s nothing left.”


Thank god for Michael.


I had tried to use the dialogue to give the audience a subtle glimpse of his madness, his vision of life, but Michael, in his wisdom, went for the more mundane, so that his homicidal tendencies come as a surprise when they finally surface.


I know some cynics might dismiss his changes as his inability to remember his lines.


Those with little sense and less taste might prefer my lines to his.


But as for me, I’m grateful that he saved me from myself.


Just think…the vast majority of the audience gives me credit for his brilliance!


I don’t know how I’ll ever repay him, but I keep myself awake at night trying to devise ways.


There you have it, folks.


An absolutely irrefutable demonstration of the reason the screenwriter’s rank on the set is just above that of the craft services person who serves the coffee and donuts.






Share Button


October 8th, 2014 2 Comments


In the beginning was the word.


Well…the book, actually.


Not a very good book.


But a very, very popular book.


A sensation, in fact.


I couldn’t wait to read it. I was familiar with Gillian Flynn’s work and was hoping that she would realize the promise of her early novels—that she would turn out to be the real thing.


Her first book, Dark Places, was dazzling—its opening, unforgettable.


“I have a meanness inside me, as real as an organ. Slit me at my belly, and it might slide out, dark and meaty, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.”


Libby Day, the sole survivor of her family’s slaughter by her older brother Ben, grows up hard, selfish, friendless—a mass of sharp, lacerating edges. But in her effort to clear her brother of the crime, she not only puts herself at risk; she unearths her own buried humanity. And that, aside from the clean, hard style, the complex characterizations and the innovative structure, is the wonder of her story.


With Dark Places and its successor Sharp Objects (whose protagonist is a profoundly disturbed cutter), Flynn staked her claim to alienated, deeply dysfunctional characters in whom she ultimately uncovered some core of humanity.


The books were not perfect. They were marred by some artifice in the construction of their complex plots—an abuse of the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, but they were great reads with something important to say about the human condition.


Then came Gone Girl.


In it she took things a step further, and in doing so, stepped off a cliff, creating characters so dysfunctional, so utterly lacking in humanity that it’s impossible to care about them or even believe in them, fashioning a plot so complicated and contrived that it defies credibility, writing a novel so nihilistic that it is about, quite literally, nothing.


And the movie fashioned from this emptiness?


Slavishly faithful to the book.


The screenplay was, after all, written by Flynn herself.


A condensation of her novel, it is the perfect vehicle for David Fincher, her cold-hearted partner in crime, whose vision of life is summed up beautifully by Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a hat box.


His direction is brilliant…and icy.


Easy to admire.


Hard to enjoy.


The cinematography is practically a parody of the brilliant, brooding work of Gordon Willis in the Godfather films—so dark it’s virtually impossible to distinguish interior from exterior, day from night.


Ben Affleck, always more dynamic behind the camera than in front of it, so underplays his role he’s almost not there.


Rosamond Pike is simply not sensual or seductive enough to be credible in the part she’s called upon to play.


It is only Tyler Perry, quite different from his counterpart in the book, who manages to bring color and life to his character.


To those of you who buy the ending of both book and film, I want to say this: I can make you one heck of a deal on this bridge I’ve got for sale.


I finished Flynn’s novel and Fincher’s movie wondering what is going on in the world today—a world where people seem obsessed with charismatic gangsters, ruthless meth dealers, charming serial killers, amoral ad men, and assholes befriending assholes in stories about nothing.


It is a question I’ll try (and probably fail) to answer in my next post.


Share Button


October 3rd, 2014 6 Comments


A round bomb skips like a stone across the surface of a lake.


It slams into the backside of a dam.


The dam goes up in a sudden blossom of flame.


And I, fourteen or fifteen years old, stand up and cheer. The Brits have done it! Dealt a devastating blow to the German cause in Europe.


I must have watched The Dam Busters on television half-a-dozen times back in the late fifties. It was one of those special films that inspired my obsessive love of the movies.


Little did I know that many years later, its director—Michael Anderson—would welcome me into his circle of friends.


Childhood heroes encountered later in life almost always disappoint.


The man is never as large as the myth.


Not so with Michael.


Compact, dapper, strikingly handsome, eyes full of merriment, he is warm, charming, funny…and one of the world’s best storytellers.


You should hear the one about the time he won an entire year’s production of a Champagne vineyard…in a drunken poker game! And you will hear it because Michael is currently writing the story of his life.


But I have another of his stories I’d like to share here…because it provides such insight into the difference between the studio system under its founding fathers and the studio system today.


After Around the World in Eighty Days, Michael was golden. In fact, he was Jack Warner’s favorite director. Now Jack wanted Michael to do a certain film. Michael had no interest in the project, and one day, in Warner’s private office, he summoned the courage to tell him.


Warner stared at him, pressed a button on his desk, and a concealed door swung open, giving the studio head’s favorite toady access to the office.




“Get me Michael Anderson in London,” Warner roars.


“But sir,” the toady timidly replies, “Mr. Anderson is standing right there.”






A pause as the toady dials the overseas number. Then…


“There’s no answer, sir.”




And Michael never did work for Jack Warner again.


In the old studio system, everything was up close and personal.


In today’s corporatized studios, everything is remote and bureaucratic.


Under the old system, decisions (and pictures) were made quickly and…well, decisively.


Under the corporations that control the studios today, decisions are deferred, bucks are passed, and pictures almost never get made.


None of this is to suggest that the old studio barons were fair.


They were not.


In fact, the Jack Warners and the Harry Cohns inspired as much fear as admiration. Michael’s story is convincing evidence of that. But these men knew the movies, knew them because they’d invented them, and they knew how to get them made.


It was, I’m sure, more than a little challenging to be a laborer in the film factory and to bend to the will of the despots who ran it, but you did have the satisfaction of seeing your work on the screen, satisfaction denied many of the talented folk doing hard labor in reinvented studios of today.


Michael Anderson worked successfully in the studio system, in the independent revolution of the sixties and seventies, and in the corporate shambles that followed. If you have any interest in the history of film, watch for his memoir. I guarantee a great read.











“a compelling book”

“a must-read”


Share Button