Category Archives: Uncategorized


March 1st, 2017 4 Comments



Some of you may have noticed a certain absence of seriousness in my blogs, an ironic, mocking tone designed primarily to deflate my own sense of importance.




…no more.


I hereby take a vow of sobriety.


You have my promise—my word of honor—that I will renounce irony and wit, that I will embrace seriousness, gravity and thoughtfulness…for today’s blog.


(Don’t expect to see such straight-forwardness in these pages ever again.)


With this prelude, let me turn to the subject of the recent Academy Awards.


The whole town’s talking about the mistake at the climax of the show—La La Land winning the Best Picture award before losing it to Moonlight.


Shocking as this was, it was nothing compared to another mistake the public is unaware of—the inexcusable omission of at least three major names from “In Memoriam” segment.






Charmian was, of course, Liesl, in Robert Wise’s wondrous screen adaptation of The Sound of Music.



I remember where I first saw the film.


I remember my date for the evening.


I remember that amazing opening shot with the camera swooping down to meet Maria as she rushes forward into those hills filled with the sound of music.


I remember bits of dialogue, lyrics, scenes.


But most of all, I remember Charmian.


Her beauty.


Her charm.


Her innocence.


Her sensuality.


I fell in love with her that night in that theatre in Beverly Hills.


I’m in love with her to this day.


In fact, when I was privileged to spend some time in conversation with her a few years ago, I was tongue-tied until I finally managed to blurt out, “It’s about time we’ve met. I’ve been in lust with you for almost fifty years.”


How, I wonder, could the Academy have neglected mention of her passing?


Yes, her career in film was brief.


Yes, she is known primarily for one role.


But what a role! What a performance! What a movie!


A movie that shines forever in the memories of those who have seen it.


I’m shocked by her omission from the Academy tribute, and so I pay tribute to her here, in this little-read column,


Thank you, Charmian.


Thank you for lighting up my life and the lives of so many millions.


May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


Then there’s my old friend Robert Ellis Miller.



Robert directed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Rueben, Rueben—two of the finest films ever made.


He orchestrated what Alan Arkin himself considers his best performance.


He discovered both Sondra Locke and Kellie McGillis.


And yet he was not worthy of inclusion in the Academy’s tribute.


If he had done nothing but The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, he would have deserved special mention.


I discovered Heart while a graduate student at Princeton.


I used it to introduce my students to the vocabulary of the cinema while teaching film at DePauw University.


I went nuts when I eventually met Robert himself at a Hollywood party—“Oh, my God, are you Robert Ellis Miller?!?”


And I went crazier still when he expressed an interest in directing one of my screenplays—an event that, alas, was not to be.


One of the proudest accomplishments of my years in Hollywood was my friendship with Robert.


I tried to express my feelings about him and his work a couple of years ago in an article for CineMontage, and given the Academy’s shocking failure to acknowledge the passing of this amazing talent, I am trying again here.


The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is one of the films that gave me the resolve to turn my back on the security of a tenured professorship and ride the rollercoaster of Hollywood. But it did more than inspire me. It moved me. And that is what all great movies do. The best of them will tear your heart in two.


Robert did that, and so I say…




Shame upon the Academy.


I find it astonishing that Charmian and Robert were not enough for them: they also ignored the death of one of the greatest behind-the-scene figures in town—David Shepard.




His is, I suspect, a name unknown to most of you, and frankly, that’s the way he preferred it, for David, unlike most of us in Hollywood, was an advocate not for himself but for the art of the cinema—especially the art of the silent cinema.


David did things for people.


If Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody had an index, his name would have the largest number of entries. I will simply say that without his support, I would have been nothing more than a nameless casualty of the town.


He did things for people.


He brought people together.


He got things done.


The thing he did best was the preservation of our silent film heritage.


As Curator of Film at the late, lamented Blackhawk films and at the AFI, Director of Special Projects at The Directors Guild, Professor of Film at USC, and head of Film Preservation Associates, he—perhaps more than any other single individual—saved silent film for posterity, finding it, restoring it and reintroducing it to the public.


His friend Leonard Maltin wrote in a recent blog, “If you’ve seen a superior print of a film by Chaplin or Keaton, Griffith or Murnau, chances are David had a hand in restoring it.”


My last conversation with him concerned his friend King Vidor.


I had recently watched Vidor’s The Fountainhead, finding it stunning in its visuals and almost operatic in its storytelling, and I’d hoped to gain some insight into his work by peppering David with questions about him. David, not surprisingly, felt that Vidor’s best work was in silent cinema, and our relatively brief exchange was almost the equivalent of a graduate seminar. He followed it up a few days later with a typically generous gesture: I found an inscribed copy of the oral history he’d done with Vidor waiting for me in the mail.


David knew virtually everyone in town, everyone from George Cukor to Alexander Payne, and he’d done something for everyone he knew.


I think of the narrator’s lament in “Crazy Sunday,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictionalized version of the death of Irving Thalberg: “What a hell of a hole he leaves in this damn wilderness.”


In my case, it’s a hole in my heart.


And so I raise my glass to you, David, and to you, Robert and Charmian.


May you live long and prosper in the hearts of all those to whom you brought so much joy.


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April 18th, 2015 11 Comments

DJ & Cecil Puppets


In the brightly colored comic book world of my youth, I was infatuated with Time for Beany, a wonderful puppet show recounting the adventures of a wide-eyed boy named Beany as he sailed the seven seas on the Leakin’ Lena under the command of his pompous uncle, Captain Horatio K. Huffenpuff.


The characters were wonderful: their names alone told you almost everything you needed to know about them.


There was Beany’s faithful, if somewhat dimwitted friend, Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent.


There was, of course, the yogurt-loving Tear Along the Dotted Lion.


And let us not forget his fellow terror of the jungle, Mouth Full of Teeth Keith—the mangy lion with the slippery, ill-fitting dentures.


But my particular favorite was Dishonest John, whose black cape, black hat and black mustache announced his villainy to the world as he swept on stage, holding his cape in front of his wicked face and cutting loose with a nasty, sneering, sniggering laugh.


You had to love this guy, and I did.


The thing is, I’ve always been drawn to villains.


Ming the Merciless of Mong was always more interesting to me than Flash Gordon.


Jeffrey Hunter as Christ was a bit of a snore, but Frank Thring as Herod the Great stepping on his father’s corpse as he ascended the throne, now he was something!


And Darth Vader?


The Dishonest John of the future!


Who would not prefer his “foul stench” and unforgettable voice—the very embodiment of EVIL—to the nice guy heroics of Luke Skywalker?


I like villains, and I’m proud to say that my five year-old grandson is following in my footsteps.


In the games he plays during recess at pre-school, he always wants to be the villain. He almost always gets his wish. And he almost always get the holy crap beaten out of him as his good-guy friends, determined not just to overcome evil but to wipe it from the face of the earth, gang up on him with their fists flying.


He is undeterred, and I admire him for it.


I admire him for succeeding where I myself, in my high school acting days, failed.


I always wanted to be the villain, and I always ended up playing the dull, colorless, nice-guy hero.


I was, for example, doomed to portray Mortimer, that nicest of all bewildered nice guys, in Arsenic and Old Lace when the role I really wanted was Jonathan—Mortimer’s demented brother whose plastic surgery had made him a dead ringer for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein.


Now there was a role I could really have gotten my teeth into!


But it was not to be.


It turned out that my high school stage experiences were a preview of coming attractions—a trailer for my adult life.








It’s a sad story and I won’t go into it here, but you can imagine my excitement when I recently discovered that for one brief shining moment I actually achieved my life-long ambition to be proclaimed a villain.


I, it turns out, was the villain who destroyed a masterpiece of filmmaking art.


I learned about it this way.


A few days ago, I engaged in that most popular of current pastimes: I googled myself and discovered that I appear in a footnote to an academic essay entitled “The Screenwriter as Auteur: Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.”


A footnote? you ask.


Well, it’s not just any footnote.


I happen to be keeping very good company in this particular note.


My companion in academic esoteria?


Jeffrey Katzenberg!


The footnote cites the development notes I wrote for Jeffrey about Ephron’s script, and the text which this note documents holds me personally responsible for ruining Ephron’s work!


I can’t say that I fully understand just how I managed this because the essay’s author uses all sorts of wonderful words with meanings beyond my feeble understanding.


She is, in fact, a mistress of academic jargon and clearly more brilliant and insightful than I could ever hope to be.


According to her, I intimidated Ephron and her director, Mike Nichols, into cutting the heroine’s monologues and fantasies…or to put it in her own unforgettable words, “the film omits the diegetic Rachel and refrains from adding any goal or obstacles for the enacted Rachel, [and so] the film’s narrative fails to present a compelling narrative.”


There’s some other stuff about “syuzhet structure” and the film’s “fabula,” but the bottom line is this…


I SINGLEHANDEDLY…well, I may have a little support from Jeffrey.


Let me rephrase that.




I am so proud.


It turns out that I was, if only for a moment, what I’d always aspired to be.


I can almost hear Hamlet denouncing me.


“Oh, villain, villain, damned smiling villain.”


It was, I feel, a major achievement to have reduced one of the finest writers and one of the three or four most powerful directors in Hollywood to quivering jelly, shaking in fear of the consequences if they failed to execute my notes!


This strikes me as all the more remarkable when I recall an experience at director John McTiernan’s Wyoming ranch. I was there, working with him and Jonathan Hensley on the screenplay for Die Hard: With a Vengeance.


Jonathan and I had just received Fox’s notes on our work, and we were in despair—the notes were so wrong-headed and destructive.


Just then, McT walked into the room, took one look at our faces, and asked what was wrong. The notes, we told him. We just didn’t know what to do with Fox’s notes.


John’s response?


He picked up the notes.


Said, “I’ll show you what to do with them.”


And he threw them into the fire burning on the hearth!


Now John was big, but Mike Nichols was even bigger, and I—little ol’ me—had forced him to alter his entire conception of his film.


Now I have to confess that I didn’t even remember that I had done the development notes on Heartburn until I stumbled across this insightful essay on the Internet, so I headed out to our storage barn, dug up my coverage from my Paramount days, and found a copy of the coverage in question.


I started to read, prepared to be dazzled by my brilliance.


And what did I discover?


That I had loved the Annie Hall approach Ephron had taken to her material!




I’d loved the heroine’s monologues and fantasies?


The very elements the essayist claimed I had forced from the script?


Oh, I’d suggested they were a bit too verbose and could use some tightening, but search as I might, I could find no place in the notes where I recommended they be cut.


You can imagine my disappointment.


One minute, I had stood proudly in the villain’s hall of fame, heir to the legacy of Dishonest John, Ming the Merciless, Herod the Great, and Darth Vader himself.


The next, I was just another nice guy.


Oh, the pity of it!








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March 12th, 2015 4 Comments





Late sixties.


Weathered face.


Mouth open. Chin on chest.


Sound asleep in a worn easy chair.


PULL BACK to reveal…


…a busy FILM CREW hard at work on a practical set, moving cables, lights, and other equipment into place for a new set-up.


A WAG approaches the sleeping figure and lays a hand-written card on his chest: “WILL DIRECT FOR FOOD.”


The FLASH of a Polaroid camera, and we CUT TO…


…THE SLUMBERING FIGURE, awake now, holding the photo, joining the Crew Members assembled around him in laughter.


And that, my friends, is how I remember Billy.


William A. Graham.


Director of a dozen features and over fifty television films, including the first one ever made, he had started in the days of live television.


He had directed screenplays by giants like Rod Serling, Gore Vidal and Ernest Tidyman.


He had worked with Bruce Dern, James Coburn, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, and virtually every other major actor in Hollywood.


He had helmed a handful of classics—features like Where the Lilies Bloom and MOW’s like The Amazing Howard Hughes and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, and he would go on to do The Man Who Captured Eichmann.


At the time I met him, he was sixty-nine years old, had a thirty-nine year old wife, a four-year old daughter.


He rode a motorcycle to the office every day from what he called “the all too aptly named Carbon Canyon” where he had once stood on the roof of his home fighting a wildfire that destroyed every structure in its path…except Billy’s.


And he flew a helicopter, kept a boat on the coast of France, and had once sailed a private yacht around Cape Horn.


He was, in short, one of the most remarkable men I have ever been privileged to call a friend, but what I remember most vividly about him is that moment on the set of Death of a Cheerleader when he was caught napping and had a good laugh at his own expense.




It was the essence of Billy.


What? you ask.


Was he lazy?


Disengaged with his own project?


Too old and too tired for the responsibility of directing?




He had so mastered the craft of filmmaking, had such comprehensive knowledge of the script, such command of every aspect of the shoot that he could relax between set-ups, even nap if there were no immediate demands on his attention.


He was, in short, the calm eye in the middle of the storm that is filmmaking.


Nothing rattled him.


The first day of our shoot was dedicated to a sermon by a priest to his privilege parishioners.


Eugene Roche, the experienced character actor whose blue-collar look had inspired Billy to cast against type, gave a wonderful performance but kept going up on his lines.


And so it was that at the end of the first day, we were already behind schedule.


No problem, Billy said.


He’d make up the lost time in the days that followed by dropping a few of the set-up he’d planned for some of the other scenes.


The second day of the shoot, the Network demanded that we fire Bob Steadman, the cameraman Billy had worked with for years.


Now, I had written the film as a noir piece, and Billy, Steadman and I had agreed to go for a high-contrast look with lots of dark, deep shadows.


In those days, Networks hated that sort of thing. They wanted bright, uniform lighting so the images could easily be seen on television, so Billy had expected trouble and was prepared to deal with it.


Trouble is what he got.


The dailies were so dark they could hardly be seen, and the Network wanted Steadman’s blood.


Billy calmly refused to give it to them.


Completely confident in Steadman’s ability, he simply and calmly said there had to be a problem at the lab.


He kept Bob on the picture, the negative went back to the lab, a new print was struck, and guess what?


The lighting was perfect.


Another crisis averted.


And so it went, day after day, with Billy calmly meeting and resolving problem after problem.


No agonizing.


No complaint.


No muss. No fuss.


Billy had the confidence a good director must have—in his case, confidence backed by long experience.


Did he have all the qualities most successful directors seem to share?


Did he, for example, play God on the set?


If he did, he was a New Testament God—more loving father than vengeful tyrant.


Was he ruthlessly manipulative, willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted?


No, at least not in my experience.


But he got what he wanted…with kindness and reassurance.


Was he completely obsessed with his projects?


Yes and no.


He was in love with filmmaking and grateful that he’d been able to make his living at something he loved so much.


I remember at the end of a casting session, he turned to me and said, “Isn’t this fun? Can you believe they pay us to do this?”


He loved it so much that he sometimes made as many as three films in a single year.


Was he confident?


Oh, yes!


So confident that he could take those little naps between set-ups.






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January 21st, 2015 1 Comment



Years ago, I was on the faculty of an innovative school with a fellow by the name of Sam Kean.


A mainstay of Esalen, a touchy-feely type who was in many ways the incarnation of the sixties, Sam had written a book called To a Dancing God.


His thesis was that Apollo, the god of order and reason, had become too powerful in our society—a repressive tyrant—and that the time had come to overthrow him and put Dionysus, the god of spontaneity and creative disorder in his place.


I’ve always wished I could do that, but to be honest, the only place I’ve ever succeeded is on the page.


I once wrote a screenplay for Disney called Blood Money. The premise was simple. A tough, by-the-book FBI agent—the first female Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle office—is forced to recruit the services of a drunken ex-cop who quit the force because he hated the goddam rules.


She’s a feminist with a broomstick up her ass, and he’s an outrageous sexist. In fact, she first meets him when he’s playing tittywinks, using an opulently endowed barmaid’s cleavage as the cup.


These two characters are Sam’s Apollo and Dionysus, left-brain order and right-brain chaos, the outer me and the inner me.


When I begin a project, Apollo has the upper hand.


My first step is exhaustive, obsessive research—initially in libraries and on the internet and eventually on the scene of the story.


Take the example of Juggernaut, the sci-fi epic I wrote for director John McTiernan. The story of an alien machine invading the earth, it required weeks of study in the bowels of the UCLA library, where I read everything I could about NASA’s plans to send probes to other worlds and about the organic machines they planned to use to accomplish the task.


This led me to late-night sessions at Jet Propulsion Labs, where some of the world’s most accomplished scientists helped me work out the physics and the chemistry of my story.


Then it was off to the Central Plains of Montana.




Both John and I loved the notion of this highly sophisticated machine from the future landing in a remote part of a state where most of the residents still had one foot in the nineteenth century. We wanted to place the responsibility for stopping this technological marvel squarely on the shoulders of a small-town sheriff more comfortable on his horse than behind the wheel of his patrol car.


So…two weeks on patrol with a back-country deputy sheriff, questioning him relentlessly about his job, the scattered communities he served, the world in which he lived and worked—observing him and his friends, the way they talked, the way they dressed, the way they moved.


Then back to my study in Studio City, where my left brain continued to work away, preparing outlines, character sketches, notes.


Only when I felt I had completely immersed myself in the two worlds of my story…


Only when I was convinced that I’d learned everything I could about my characters and the place that produced them…


Only then could I let go.


I turned my back on Apollo and fell down in worship of Dionysus, giving my left brain a well-deserved rest and placing the burden of creation on the right.


How did I achieve this?


I isolated myself on the small power cruiser we kept at Channel Islands Harbor.


Allowing myself conjugal visitation only on the weekends, I locked myself up, saw no one, and walked the empty beach, waiting for my characters to start talking to me.


I’d get up at 5:30 in the morning, jog, shower, and after a quick breakfast fortified by a few quarts of coffee, go to work.


Work consisted of reviewing the basics of the scene I hoped to write that day, grabbing my pocket recorder, and heading to the beach where the white noise of the breaking waves let me slip away to the world of my story and encouraged my characters to speak.


I always felt that I myself had little to do with it. I was simply observing these people as they lived out their lives, making a record of what they said and did.


Once I had a scene on tape, I’d return to the boat and transcribe my characters words and action onto yellow legal pads, revising as I went, amused to find that when I was voicing the female players, I sounded a bit like Norman Bates voicing his mother.


I’d ordinarily do two or three scenes this way, and then, at the end of the day, I’d transfer the material on the legal pads to my computer, once again revising as I went.


A simple dinner, a book or a movie in the same vein as my current project, and early to bed before beginning the process all over again the next morning.


And when I finally finished and returned to Studio City, I would collapse, physically and mentally spent, afflicted with what felt like terminal cold or flu, abandoned by both Dionysus and Apollo, neither right brain nor left capable of functioning.


Do all writers work this way?


No, certainly not.


I am, I suspect, more controlling than most.


I give Apollo more than his due.


Most, I’m sure, are more like Jameson Parker, possibly the finest writer I’m privileged to know. Oh, he does his homework, but he often begins a story with nothing more than a character and a situation, and has no idea where his tale will take him.


Very different from Yours Truly who often knows the end of his story before he figures out the beginning.


Every writer develops his or her own “daily ritual,” but most of these rituals have elements in common: a rigid routine, isolation from the everyday world, a stimulant to stave off exhaustion.


And the objectives of these rituals are always the same…


To overcome the fear of the blank page.


To dwell in a world elsewhere—a world where the writer can observe his characters acting out their lives.


To meet the overwhelming mental and physical demands of the job of creation, a job that requires the blessings of both the tyrant Apollo and the dancer Dionysus.

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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.






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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.


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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”

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September 27th, 2014 2 Comments

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An adult, character-driven comedy-drama without special effects, action scenes or raw adolescent humor?


From Warner Bros?


The studio that practically invented the tent pole picture?


How did this happen?


We can only guess.


All I can say is that occasionally the system breaks down, and a terrific film with something on its mind manages to slip through.


Heads will certainly roll over a screw-up of this magnitude.


The film in question is This Is Where I Leave You.


Even the title breaks the studio rules, inviting cheap shots from critics like “This is where I leave this film.”


I’d advise you to stay with it…to the very end.


What’s it about?


Well, there’s another problem. The story can’t be reduced to a single sentence or phrase—a “logline” as the studios like to call them. It has no “high concept” for the marketing team to build a campaign around.


It focuses on Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a play-it-safe sort of guy whose comfortable world falls apart when he comes home early to surprise his wife on her birthday and discovers her in bed with his boss.


That’s shattering blow number one.


Number two comes not long after when his father dies.


Number three is a summons home from his widowed mother, who insists that he and his siblings hold a week-long shiva to mourn the departed.


Jason, with neither wife nor job, dreads the idea of being locked up in the same house with the other members of his completely dysfunctional family, all of them as messed up as he is, none of them capable of getting along with the others.


But Mother’s will be done.


She is played by Jane Fonda, who gives by far her best performance since her return to acting. An oversexed celebrity analyst, she is the author of a best-selling guide to raising children, a guide that focuses on her own family and reveals such humiliating secrets as the adolescent promiscuity of her daughter Wendy (Tina Fey) and the fact that her youngest son (Adam Driver) used to treat his penis like “a Tootsie-Roll.”


And so it goes.


One colorful, outrageous, eccentric character after another.


I can almost hear you saying, “Great. Another dysfunctional family reunion story. How many times have I seen that?”


Trust me.


You’ve never seen this story before.


It will constantly surprise you.


You will expect, of course, to have the movie end with multiple reconciliations and the resolution of its many conflicts, with the reassurance that they all lived happily ever after.


But in This Is Where I Leave You, they don’t.


They’ve grown, they have hope, they’ve called an uneasy truce with each other, but for every problem solved, a new one has arisen, and they leave their hometown with almost as many challenges as they brought to it when they arrived.


Outrageous, hilarious, and often very moving, This Is Where I Leave You is not a perfect film, but it is a thoughtful meditation on love—how hard it is to find, how hard it is to sustain, how impossible it is to understand.


My hat is off to director Shawn Levy, who’s come a long way from the Night at the Museum series, to writer Jonathan Tropper who so brilliantly adapted his own novel to the screen, and to the amazing cast.


And my condolences to the Warner executive who shepherded this film through the system to the screen. He or she is probably already looking for another job. There is simply no excuse for good taste in today’s corporate studio world.


An Afterword


I had the privilege of working with Jason Bateman years ago on a cable film that was supposed to be called Blood Brothers but somehow ended up A Taste for Killing. It starred Jason, Jim Cameron favorite Michael Biehn, and E.T.’s Henry Thomas. Michael had the flashiest role, but Jason was the stand-out…and a total pro–warm, friendly to everyone on the set, always prepared, ready to jump from reading Grisham’s The Firm between set-ups to complete immersion in his character the instant he was called for a shot. He was terrific then and he’s better now. Those of you who’d like the full story of the making of the film might want to check out the chapter I devote to it in Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody. Both the book and the film are available on Amazon.


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