My article about the TV show ‘Preacher’ posts to Elmore magazine

19 Jun

Actor and executive producer Seth Rogen (Superbad and Pineapple Express) and show runner Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad) did what fans of the comic book series Preacher thought impossible. They adapted Garth Ennis’s comic for the small screen and created season one as a prequel to Garth’s storyline on AMC. Season two airs on the AMC network tonight, June 19.

The show stars Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, a man possessed by a hybrid angel/demon, and his volatile hell-raising girlfriend Tulip O’Hare, played by award-winning actress Ruth Negga.

The writers crammed a lot of craziness, fire and brimstone into the first season. And this looks set to continue in season two, as the cast embarks on a road trip to find God.

Speaking at the SXSW 2017 “Making of Preacher” interview session hosted by Terri Schwartz, Seth Rogen, Sam Catlin and Garth Ennis discussed trusting your instinct, knowing where to draw the line, and translating the ideas in your head.

Schwartz: Welcome back to SXSW. You guys premiered the Preacher pilot here last year, right?

Rogen: Yeah, one year ago we showed the pilot here, and it was one of the most stressful days of my life. But it went well. Thank God we’re back.

What was the moment when you realized “Ok, this is how we can bring this to life in a way that no one has done before?”

Rogen: The truth is, we pursued it for years. The first meeting Evan and I had for Preacher was in our trailer while we were filming Pineapple Express in 2006. Then television went from being like the thing you watch on Thursday nights to like an amazing platform to do incredibly innovative things that you probably couldn’t even do in movies..

Ennis: A lot of executives who were further down the ladder the first time around, who were desperately trying to persuade their bosses that Preacher would work and it was the way to go, all of a sudden found themselves a bit higher up the ladder. And they were now able to say “This is the thing to do…Its time has come.”

Sam, you once described the comic as “profane, perverse and psychotic.” Did you break boundaries for the sake of breaking boundaries?

Rogen: I don’t think you ever want to do something just for the sake of doing that thing. We wanted a show that was audacious. I think when you’re reading the comics there are a lot of things that just can’t believe you’re seeing, you can’t believe you’re reading. You just can’t believe the story’s going in that direction. Those were things that we really wanted to have in the show.

When something is potentially on for years and years, it really has to have some emotional grounding, so it can never feel like you’re doing anything for the sake of doing it. It always has to feel like it’s born of character and story and emotion.

But once we feel like we have that, then we like to try to push it to the most original place that we can. Because there is so much on TV right now, originality is one of the beacons that calls people.

There are a lot of great things on TV right now, but there’s not a lot of great things that you’ve also never seen anything like them before. And that’s what we’ve talked a lot about trying to do.

Garth, what are your thoughts on some of the changes that were made?

Ennis: I think they made sense out of things in the comics that are just taken as given. I like the way that I can see that Jesse’s life as a preacher has grown over time. I like the fact that reasons are given for Tulip and Cassidy to be there, rather than just being coincidence.

In the comic book, everyone meets up by chance. I think I was just trying to get it rolling as fast as I possibly could. And also, I was 24 when I wrote that stuff. When you’re 24 you’re just thinking, “Let’s get on with it.”

On the show you’re going to need much more material. So it’s obvious there are going to be new things; there are going to be changes. I think they’ve come up with the right ones.

You set up many mysteries in season one. Did you have to stop yourselves from including too many?

Rogen: I think the first season deals with a lot with Jesse’s father’s side of the family. I think in season two we start to ask the question, “what was his mother’s side of the family like?”

How did you develop God as a character for season 2?

Catlin: It’s very challenging, because in Preacher God isn’t an idea, he’s not a way of looking at life; he’s a guy who’s out walking around. He’s missing and Jesse’s gonna be on his trail.

Have you guys received any notes from AMC telling you to lean away from some of these elements?

Rogen: We have not received a lot of that, honestly. They want the show to be good and they want it to represent what we all set out to make in the first place. We’ve had a couple of ideas that required like maybe a 10-minute phone call…But I do not feel like we are neutering our ideas, or holding back on the content that we want to be putting out there. If anything I’m shocked we are able to push it as far as we do.

Garth what has been your response to seeing some of these scenes coming to life, and knowing that some of the more controversial things are coming down the road?

Ennis: When we did the comic it was more by stealth. The imprint of DC Comics who did it—at Vertigo—had very sympathetic people in charge, but the actual publishers, the actual executives in charge of DC Comics overall, were not sympathetic. We got as far as we did by stealth, not by meaning to, but by not getting noticed by the wrong people. Now the right people are in charge, and that’s why the TV show is able to go as far as it can.

Do any of you have any concepts that you’d love to bring to life if you didn’t have to worry about backlash or limitations?

Ennis: Ninety percent of what I do is done without any restrictions but my own. In fact, in a couple of instances I’ve written stories where I’ve run into my own limits before I run into those of the publishers.

Rogen: Something I learned years ago is that the idea that you’re joking about between takes, when you say “no, we can’t do that,” that’s exactly what we should be doing. That’s the type of thing that people will really respond to. I’ve seen that happen first-hand, where there have been jokes between takes, and I’ve said, “You know what would be funny? If one of us said this: but that would be just too fucked up.” Then one of the other actors just says it the next day and it winds up in the movie, and being the line that people think we thought of for years and year and years.

If your instinct is “we can’t do that, but it would be really good to do that,” then you should do that.

Audience Member: How do you know where to draw the line?

Rogen: You’re asking a guy who almost started a war with North Korea! [The Interview in 2012.]

I guess you know I’m not the best person for knowing where that line is. I’ve found that you don’t know where the line is until you look back, and think “oh, that’s where the line was—a thousand miles back there?” Yeah, the line is not a deal. We talk more about, “Will the audience get this?” Or, “Have we done the work we need to do to translate this idea from our brains into the eyes and ears of an audience?” That’s what I think we do the most.

It’s almost like translating. The challenge has been taking into consideration every way they might not interpret it correctly, and taking into consideration every way that you might not do your job correctly in making them understand this thing that you want them to understand

But to me there is no idea that is not explorable. There’s only the limits of your abilities to articulate why you feel it’s an idea worth exploring, and articulate why you think the audience should be listening to your take on this specific idea.

Ennis: I would say when you’re talking about creativity, start with where you want to get to, and worry about the rest later. Because when you try to get published, or when you try to get your film distributed or whatever it is you’re doing, you’ll find out pretty soon where the limits are then. But you shouldn’t be thinking about that when you’re putting a story together.

There’ll be plenty of time to have people tell you “no.” But in the beginning, do what you want.

Please also read my article and see my photos on Creative Screenwriting’s website at:

https://creativescreenwriting.com/preacher/

My interview with Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

12 Jun

Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail discusses the importance of story authenticity, portraying mental illness, and playing with memory.

Hit television series Mr. Robot on the USA Network stars actors Rami Malek as vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson, and Christian Slater as the eponymous Mr. Robot.

To date the show has been nominated for six Emmys and received numerous awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Television Drama Series.

Mr. Robot was created by Sam Esmail, who thought about the storyline for 20 years before even putting pen to paper. In an exclusive interview with Creative Screenwriting, Esmail discusses the process of creating characters based on real people, the importance of personal experiences in storytelling, and how they have taken their time to reveal the relationships between their show’s characters, as they explore abstract concepts such as memory, truth, and the consequences of one’s actions.

You took great risks in writing season one of Mr. Robot. How did those risks contribute to the show’s longevity?

Honestly, we didn’t look at it as risks at the time. We were just doing what we thought was authentic and real, and we were exploring the character that we all were intrigued by and compelled by.

As long as those things felt good to us in the writers’ room, that was something that we were always on board with.

Because we hadn’t seen anything like this exactly on television or in the movies, to be honest with you, risk was something that just never factored into it. Once you start letting those external forces enter into the creative process, then it ends up being more about research and what you think the audience will like or what the audience hasn’t seen before. So we tried to keep that out and just really tried to tell an interesting story about a compelling character.

Your characters come from a variety of backgrounds, but they all share a similar mindset. How did you create them?

I’m very much about ‘you write what you know.’

This is pretty easy for me because I have a lot of friends in the tech world and in the hacker world. I’ve also just read about hacker and tech news just as a hobbyist. So I’ve been around these people and it’s really a very interesting subculture that I actually never thought was accurately portrayed in Hollywood, whether on film or TV.

I just really drew a lot from that, and I drew a lot from my own life, from people that I know. I took as much as I could from personal experiences, as well as from other writers in the room. Authenticity is kind of our motto in the room, and not only goes for the technical accuracy on the show, but for the people as well. In fact, more so for the people, because we wanted these to be very specific and very real people.

Your protagonist Elliot Alderson suffers from a mental disorder. How did you research his psychology for the show?

Again, he is based on people that I knew, and also from my own personal experience in dealing with social anxiety.

We also have a psychologist as a consultant who deals with people with Elliot’s specific disorder. We involve her in the writing process a lot in terms of just breaking a story to begin with, to kind of get into his whole point of view.

What it ultimately comes down to is that we want the experience of watching the show to feel like what a person suffering from this disorder feels, how that person would experience the events that happen in Elliot’s life.

So it’s a combination of bringing a consultant on, as well as just doing a deep dive into the disorder, and the friends and the people that we know with the disorder, and getting those details right. Ultimately it really comes down to showing the details, and showing the anguish of the day-to-day struggle of it.

I think that’s the thing that really resonates with Elliot, and the way that Rami portrays it. He asks those questions. Even if the script doesn’t have everything, Rami then thinks about it. He takes the time to dissect it and says, ‘Well, how would somebody with that disorder walk, how would someone with that disorder walk across the room?’

That’s not on the page, that’s something that Rami then researches on his own. And he also talks to the consultant. Then he gets that behavioral detail in there as well. Because authenticity is such a priority, it really just kind of all comes together from everyone taking a deep dive into their own respective department and figuring out that research. 

You portray a lot of his memory problems through hallucinations or visions and dreamlike sequences. Will we see more of these kinds of sequences in season three?

Yes, that’s sort of the rhythm of the show. I liken it to when you’re standing very close to a painting and you think you’re seeing one thing, and then you take a step back and you’re seeing a bigger picture. Then you take another step back and you’re seeing an even bigger picture. Every time you take that step the story gets reframed in a way.

That’s the way that I think we tell our story. There is a linear story, but as we fill in the details of the past, the present starts to get reframed. So we have this circular logic to our storytelling.

For example in the first season, you are following this relationship between Elliot and Darlene, and then once we reveal the past content of that relationship, everything before it gets reframed. So yes, that’s definitely going to be a device that we use moving forward.

It’s interesting that the audience doesn’t really know if what we’re seeing is real or simply Elliot’s perception of reality. Is Elliot’s perception of reality a metaphor for a current social and political environment?

Yes. I don’t think we intentionally do that, but because I bring so much of who I am, and how I feel about the world, and my worldview into the show, and I encourage the other writers in the writers’ room to do the same thing, it can’t help not be. These are the issues that are important to us.

We always talk about the show as almost being a period piece­­—almost—of 2015. Because this show still lives in that year, yes of course it is going to include the moral relativism of the world, and this sort of contradiction of truth and reality that we’re seeing now. That’s all sort of incorporated into the theme of the show.

Elliot makes his biggest game-changing decisions while not under the influence of either street drugs or prescription meds. Is this also a social statement?

Again, I don’t know if we make social statements. I don’t feel like it’s that direct, but we definitely include our own worldview.

When we make choices like that, we really first come from a place of character. We come from a place where we ask, “Is this the truth for Elliot?” And then we take a step back and ask, “What are we saying in general?” Because obviously TV is a mass entertainment form, and we know that in every episode we have a theme and we always want to speak to that. So yes, every decision we make, we always try to factor that in. It ultimately always comes down to a question of “Are we being honest in terms of Elliot’s emotional training?”

I noticed that Elliot’s disorder directly contributes or correlates to other characters’ deaths. How is he being impacted by other characters’ deaths?

I think Elliot is a very internal guy. He often doesn’t speak much, but then says a lot in his mind. Which is the contrast, and the way we use the voiceover: he is very verbose and open to us, who he considers as friends, but to others—to the outside world—he holds everything in internally.

Literally, season two is about that war within. That’s where most of the action in Elliot’s storyline took place, because we wanted to kind of underline that point. Elliot, the person he is to the outside world, is not the same Elliot that is living in this chaos within himself.

So these deaths are obviously impacting him, but in a very internal way; he’s internalizing all of that and that will reach a boiling point. That’s what this series is all about: how much of this can Elliot take on? How much of the consequences of his actions can he keep internalizing?

If the first season focuses on Elliot’s awareness and season two is the internal battle, then the third season is full-on disintegration.

Let’s look at some of the other characters in the show. Elliot’s sister Darlene  remembers their mother, and not their father being abusive. So their stories are completely different.

You’re right to see that contradiction, where her interpretation of the past is very different than Elliot’s.

That’s where we play a lot with memory. Elliot obviously has those issues where he is repressing both people and whole swaths of time. Again, this circular storytelling that we’ve embraced, is the reflection of how Elliot starts to remember things. As those pieces come in, you’ll start to see that the present storyline will continually be reframed because of the information we learn.

In season two, it seems that Darlene has grown up. How has her increase in commitment to her cause spawned that growth?

Darlene has her own sets of issues. I always say that the first season was really getting into Elliot’s head. The second season is about getting into everyone else’s.

Darlene has her own demons, and her own path that we have just started to scratch the surface of. It led to her being a murderer, and the way that Carly (Chaikin) plays that is in the moment after. As you look into her eyes, you ask, “Is that who she is, or is that not?” Is she playing a part, or is she really this way deep down?

The FBI agent Dominique DiPierro (played by Grace Gummer) suffers some serious internal injuries as well as physical injuries during the course of the show. What will motivate her to keep working?

I’ve always looked at Dom as sort of the flip side of Elliot. Whereas Elliot has weaponized his loneliness to essentially take down the economic order, Dom on the other hand uses her loneliness as a way to dedicate her whole life to law enforcement and to bring about justice. Those are the two polar opposites.

Grace, who brilliantly plays Dom, kind of speaks to that in the finale of season two, when she tells Darlene that she doesn’t necessarily think that she is a good detective, but the only reason that she’s gotten that far is because she has no life. She has too much time on her hands, and she has dedicated all of her time to it.

I think that’s what makes that character so special. There is a little lack of self-awareness about how good she is, but on the other hand she makes a good point about herself: she does have that flaw and uses it as strength.

The characters are so deep, so ‘flesh and blood’, that it seems like you’ve been working on them for years. Is that correct?

Well, not necessarily pen to paper. In writing anything, there’s always that gestation period where you’re just thinking. I actually think that most of writing is thinking.

So I’ve been thinking about it for years. I would say that I’ve had it in the back of my head since I was in college. It starts with just that inkling, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to tell a story about these people?’ It grows as other details come at you. Then you hit the monsoon of details, and it finally kind of translates to enough excitement for you to get on the laptop and say “I have to write this.”

So yes, in that way it’s probably been 20 years. Pen to paper, once I got to that point, and once I allowed all the forces over those years to sort of coalesce and come together and motivate me, then it just took a few months to actually write it.

My review of Jethro Tull posts to Elmore magazine

2 Jun

Performing hit songs that stretch back more than four decades, Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson delighted fans with a classic, progressive, folk and theatrical rock show for more than two hours plus—one encore—at Austin City Limits’ Moody Theater.

The band opened with 1969’s “Living in the Past,” the title track off their 1972 compilation album. Today the song’s lyrical meaning remains as mysterious as the commercial appeal of its uncommon 5/4 time signature. Anderson, a 69-year-old multitalented musician, danced across the stage while playing flute, guitar, Bouzouki, harmonica and singing lead vocals to his original 15 sophisticated and stylistic songs.

Vintage concert footage of Anderson intermittently projected onto a video backdrop together with a plethora of colorful iconic images poetically timed to his song lyrics. “Aqualung” brought an audience of mostly Baby Boomers to their feet before the percussive encore, “Locomotive Breath,” drew the memorable night to a raucous close.

Celebrating a lengthy musical career that spans 30 albums, Anderson led outstanding younger musicians: Florian Opahle on lead guitar, Scott Hammond on drums and percussion, John O’Hara on keyboards and accordion, and David Goodier on bass. Hardcore fans and those who missed the tour will enjoy Jethro Tull — Songs from the Wood, a 40th anniversary three CD and two DVD set released this May.

 

 

My story about the Texas Film Awards posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

20 Apr

It is a golden age not only for television but also for independent films. At least, it is according to the Austin Film Society’s founder and artistic director Richard Linklater, speaking at the press conference for the 2017 Texas Film Awards.

At the panel of this year’s Hall of Fame Honorees, Richard Linklater, together with Honorees Hector Galan (Children of Giant), Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jeff Nichols (Loving), and producer Sarah Green (Midnight Special), discussed a wide range of issues related to filmmaking and screenwriting.

Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to attend.

Sarah Green kicked off the panel with a discussion about her work on Song to Song with Terrence Malick.
Green: It’s about sex and drugs and rock and roll. There’s this just unbelievable young kid named Ryan Gosling, you’ll like him. Rooney Mara – she’s incredible. Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop – there’s so many – Bérénice Marlohe, Val Kilmer…It kind of just goes on and on. The Black Lips, the Red Hot Chili Peppers – some of these are performing and some are interacting with other actors.

Jeff Nichols then talked about his Oscar-nominated film, Loving.
Nichols: It wasn’t until I got behind the curtain with Loving, that I realized just how far away all my other films were from ever being considered in that world.

And that was illuminating for a lot of reasons.
And Tye Sheridan talked about his new movie, Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg and due to be released in 2018.
Sheridan: The film is based on a sci-fi novel written by Ernest Cline. It takes place in the future. And when I read it I just thought “wow, it’s such an honest depiction of where we’re headed in our world right now. It’s the technology and the kids playing video games – that social world.”

If you work in film, it’s everyone’s dream-come-true to work with Steven Spielberg. I was working with the best of the best.

Talking next about funding, Green said that more companies such as Amazon, HBO, and Netflix are providing funding for movies.

Green: More is better when it comes to financing opportunities. We want every opportunity we can get, and then it’s a question of “what’s the best distribution company for that particular movie, that will get it seen more on television, that will get it seen more in the theaters?” I love that there are more opportunities.

However, panel moderator Steven Gaydos said that a gulf still exists in Hollywood between large budget studios, and mid-level independent or specialty film companies.
Linklater: It’s excruciating to talk about, but I think it’s kind of true. But with that said, we’re sitting here with a guy who got that rare film made – and I’m talking about Jeff NicholsMidnight Special.

Nichols: I feel like I live in a bit of bubble though, because I’m a rare exception in the year 2016 to get a film like Midnight Special released. So I know my experience is unique. It took somebody at the top to reach down literally and give me that opportunity.

That’s what’s so great about Rick’s [Richard Linklater’s] career. I use it as a model because he’s been able to move back and forth between those worlds. He seems to be having fun in all of them.
Linklater: I think you have to be really practical in your approach. You know, it’s storytelling. You ask “what does this story need?” Well if it’s a period film it needs a bigger budget, so I’ll try to take this one to the studio. Or if this one’s a really intimate little story, let’s just keep that at home.

I think a filmmaker gets into trouble when they take that personal indie film and get a huge budget – that’s where careers go off the rails. So, you have to just be humble and try to not to spend any more than you have to.

It’s the golden age of television, but if you really think about it, it’s also the golden age of documentaries, you know? I think that’s clear. And if you really think about it, it’s the golden age of indie cinema.

Take the Oscars and the recent recognition for a film like Moonlight. If it had come out in 1985, back then indie films didn’t hit the mainstream awards shows. A couple did: there were nominations for John Pierson [who produced some of Linklater’s first films, along with those created by Spike Lee, Michael Moore and Kevin Smith]. But it was weird for an indie film to break through at that time or to receive recognition.

Green: It also matters how much they’re spinning it, how they’re releasing it. It’s not just about the most money, but it’s about the money that’s spent, and how much they can put behind it, and whether they actually know how to release a film of a certain type.
Galan said Latinos have become one of the most under-represented ethnicities in American cinema today.
Galan: There are more Latinos in America than there are Canadians in Canada. But you just don’t see that represented on the big screen, even on the small screen, to the degree that reflects the population.

It’s true that a lot of people look at us in LA as gardeners, maids and people who take care of babies. It’s real complex because we do have Spanish-language networks. So, some of us speak Spanish and some of us don’t. It’s very very complex.

When there are a 25 million eligible Latino voters in a 54 million population, with 18,000 Latinos turning 18 every month in this country, there’s still a lot of representation that needs to happen.

A member of the audience asked Linklater if he knew what might happen to The Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, that has provided incentives for filmmakers to make their movies in Texas since 2005, but is now at risk.

Linklater: I just shot a film [Last Flag Flying] in Pittsburgh. So it’s a real issue, but I think there’s some hope to getting us back to where we were.

And we’re a good industry. We moviemakers bring hundreds of millions of dollars in to Texas, we bring in the jobs, clean industry and that’s just the business.

But I worry more about the cultural representation. If you tell Texas stories you’ve got to tell them in Texas. It’s kind of sad; last year, Hell or High Water, a story set in West Texas, was shot, as the producers for the movie have said, “as close to Texas as we could.” They shot it in New Mexico.

We would feel a lot differently about The Last Picture Show, if they had shot that in Colorado. So culturally, for our own stories, our own borders are important.
When a member of the audience asked what the future holds for documentarians, Galan responded with an impassioned plea to filmmakers to tell the stories of undocumented immigrants in Texas affected by raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Galan: Now is really an important time for documentary work. At one time, people were predicting the death of the documentary. I think today it’s more important than ever, especially for us Latinos.

I have so many friends out there right now who are hiding, people that I know. It’s like when I was in Germany – and I’m kind of telling you some history – but I would go to Munich or Heidelberg or some of those places in Germany that were still standing after the bombings in World War II. I imagined what it must have been like for those people hiding and knowing that the Nazis were coming for them. That’s happening now. A lot of people don’t know.

People are afraid to go out of their homes. People need to report on this and the division that is happening.

Finally, this reporter for Creative Screenwriting magazine asked Green what the future holds for women screenwriters and filmmakers.

Green: It’s our responsibility as producers, and the studios’ responsibilities as financiers, and everyone’s responsibility, to ensure that all voices are heard.

Whether it’s people of color, whether it’s different genders, whatever those stories we need to be telling are, we need to make sure that we are training those people, that we are providing those opportunities.

Please also see my story posted on Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at:

https://creativescreenwriting.com/texas-film-awards/

My interview with Daniel Pyne posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

20 Apr

Bosch show runner Daniel Pyne discusses writing plot twists, research, and updating novels for the screen, and offers great advice for screenwriters.

Screenwriter, novelist, show runner, producer…In a career spanning over 30 years, Daniel Pyne has become known for his knack of creating works filled with suspense and twists.

He is also a busy man. He published his latest novel Catalina Eddy in March, he is the show runner for season three of Bosch which airs this weekend on Amazon, and his next film Backstabbing for Beginners will premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Despite this, Pyne remained self-effacing as he spoke with Creative Screenwriting about writing plot twists, research, and updating novels for the screen.

How did a graduate from Stanford with a degree in economics become a screenwriter and a novelist?

My father is a painter and a sculptor. He didn’t want me to go into a creative field, so economics sounded to him like a really practical degree, although it really wasn’t. It was almost like philosophy of mine. But what it did help me do is understand what I was getting into, and it’s helped me divorce the business of Hollywood from my art.

Name a couple of movies that inspired you.

I came of age in the ‘70s, so I was very influenced by The Godfather and The Conversation, by Apocalypse Now, M*A*S*H, and all the Robert Altman films. I also liked the French new wave stuff like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Melville, and all those French directors from the ‘60s.

I was really interested in early French films by Jean Vigo – noir. What else inspired me? There were lot of films, foreign films – I mean (Federico) Fellini was huge. I love Fellini.
You studied screenwriting at UCLA?

I took one film course at Stanford. My father would watch old movies on TV. I think I got a love for movies from him, but it wasn’t until I got to UCLA that I was really exposed to the critical studies of film, and film as an art form.

Where did you learn your trademarks in screenwriting: shocking twists, reveals and betrayals?

I like turns in stories. That goes back to novels – the idea of an epiphany – of a reversal, some kind of reversal of fortune. But I was very influenced by thrillers – by Alfred Hitchcock and The Third Man, detective stuff by Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett (who wrote The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Miller’s Crossing). And I did love the notion the loner in the dark streets, battling and trying to find their way, trying to find the good.
Which comes to your mind first, the twists or the story?

Usually the characters come first; some kind of situation with a character put into a dilemma comes first, and the twist comes last. The twist, I always hope, is a natural consequence to what’s happened before. It’s just how things play out.

How did you research your current screenplay, Backstabbers for Beginners?

It is based on a non-fiction book by a whistle-blower named Michael Soussan. It is about a corruption scandal at the UN that happened in about 2003 with the UN Oil-For-Food Program, a multi-billion dollar program to feed the Iraqi people, when they were hit by sanctions because of Saddam Hussein – weapons of mass destruction and all that.

Your 2004 adaptation The Manchurian Candidate is based on both Richard Condon’s original novel, and George Axelrod’s script for the classic 1962 film. How did you approach this project?

I did do an extensive amount of research as I was writing it around 2002–2003, and the events in the world were overtaking us.

I had to keep changing the script because things that we would make up would actually happen. They were already old news: things about the corporations and the military/industrial complex, corruption, and a lot of the backdrop of the 2000 election.

You wrote 25 episodes for The Marshall in 1995. How was the experience of writing for a television series?

My first jobs were Matt Houston and Miami Vice, so I had been well-trained as a show runner. The writer is king in television. So you really do get to have a lot of power, and have a lot of influence over what gets made.

Staying with television, you became the show runner this year for Bosch, based upon the best-selling novels about Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly. Where does Connelly’s storytelling begin and yours end?

He is an executive producer, so he’s on staff. The Bosch show universe is like a parallel universe to the books, because we’re using some of the plots of the books to tell the series each season, but in a different order from the order that he wrote them in, and 20 years later.

So a lot of times, the science of police work and technology has changed, and changed the way the crimes play themselves out and get solved.

Bosch is also a little bit different. In the books he’s a Vietnam veteran and in our telling he’s a Gulf War veteran, and the order of events with his family and his personal life change.

It’s a lot like doing an adaptation. I feel like a part of our responsibility is finding Michael Connelly’s voice in the novel, and making the direct translation of that.

It’s like adapting Sum of All Fears (a screenplay that Pyne and Paul Attanasio wrote as an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel) or Manchurian Candidate. You have the luxury of having original material to build your structure on, but at the same time you have to figure out how to do it cinematically and dramatically as opposed to in prose.
What is the best advice you have given your students at UCLA and at Sundance?

The best advice I can give is: you write a script, you send it out, you see if it hits the market place. And if it doesn’t, you write another one. Don’t either give up because one didn’t, or keep slogging that single script thinking that somehow that’s your ticket.

It’s a career; it’s not a single thing.

I have gotten the same advice from novelists. A lot of novelists have written novels that they didn’t get published, and they just wrote another one. You learn from it; you get better. You never know what’s going to hit the marketplace; that’s the part you can’t control.

You have also worked as a film producer, director, novelist, journalist, advertising copywriter, cartoonist, sculptor and silk screener! How have these experiences contributed to your storytelling?

Copywriting taught me economy, because with advertising I wasn’t so good at the selling part. It taught me to do economical writing, and commit to writing things with very few words.

You have been quoted as saying “the narrative becomes more important than the truth.” This concept seems to define your novels?

I like to write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, rather than the other way around. I like to write about people who have normal abilities and have to rise to the occasion.

I like those kinds of stories, and I am also fascinated by memory. Fifty Mice deals a lot about memory: how we remember what we remember, what we remember, whether what we remember is true or not, and how we delude ourselves.

Then we have the whole idea of fake news and alternative facts, but I haven’t quite gotten into that yet.

All of your work seems to possess similar touchstones about memory.

We can’t ever remember anything exactly the way it happened, as the mere act of remembering changes it. It is already changed when you’ve experienced it, because you’re looking back on it with a certain emotional framework.

That is really fascinating to me, especially in storytelling and cinematic terms. Because the way that we tend to write memory in films and in novels is as flashbacks, and as very accurate flashbacks.

I’m more interested in a jumble. Our memories jump around. They’re not accurate flashbacks; they tend to be almost like dreams. That’s how we remember ourselves; it’s the whole concept of our identity.

Do you have any tips for writers?

The only rule is don’t be boring. You need to engage and pull the person through. I’ve tried to apply that to everything – to prose too. You want to pull your audience or pull your reader through the story, as opposed to pushing them. You want them to be anticipating where you might go.

The books that we love are the ones where we think we know where they’re going, and we can’t wait until they get there, and when they get there they surprise us.

Also please see my article about Daniel Pyne on Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at:

https://creativescreenwriting.com/daniel-pyne/

 

My Gareth Edwards (Rogue One producer) story posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

19 Apr

Gareth Edwards discusses never giving up, not letting fear get in the way, and the importance of remaining fluid.

British screenwriter, director, producer, cinematographer and visual effects artist Gareth Edwards became recognized as a maverick for digital storytelling in 2010 with his feature debut, Monsters.

Edwards then directed Godzilla in 2014, and that work led to his job directing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in 2016.

In his keynote address at Austin’s SXSW Conference this year, Edwards told his audience that directing the Star Wars movie fulfilled a lifelong dream. Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to be present, as he discussed the inspiration of Star Wars, not letting fear get in the way, and the importance of remaining fluid.
Inspiration

My dad was a bit of a film buff. When I was very young, my parents forced me to watch this film that was kind of artistic and groundbreaking and sort of revolutionary at the same time. Some of you might have heard of it; it’s called Star Wars.

I instantly knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Right there and then I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going join the Rebel Alliance and help blow up the Death Star.

Filmmaking Lessons

I had a book called The Steven Spielberg Story. This thing was my Bible. There was a chapter inside about how he got to make films. There’s like a little checklist. So I did all those things.

I made films with my father’s camera—check. I went to university—check. I made a professional short film—check. Then I sent it to Hollywood producers and I got given a very polite rejection letter.

So I did this kind of ‘low-budget passion project’ called Rogue One: Star Wars. It’s an amazing thing; it’s living the dream. This is Star Wars, this is what we were promised as kids; this is what they promised in the brochures.

Gary Whitta who was the storywriter on the film, was naming everything, and said “Gareth you’ve got to name something.” So I go off and I go to a very well known coffee shop. They finally give me my coffee and when they ask me for my name, I told the barista “It’s Gareth” but they wrote ‘Scarif’ on my coffee. Scarif became the name of the tropical planet occupied by the Imperial Army in the movie.

I was very lucky that I managed to make Star Wars. You know, it’s not enough to make a good Star Wars film, you need to keep trying to make a really great one.

I remember one of the last things we ever shot was that Darth Vader scene. It was an idea from my editor Jabez Olssen, who pitched it to co-producer Kathleen Kennedy, and she went for it.

We said ‘We’ve got to see Darth Vader one more time at the end,’ and she went for it. So we had three days on the set.

I gave myself one cameo in Rogue One at the very end, when Darth Vader is pursuing Princess Leia. There is a guy, a rebel soldier who I feel saves the day. As they’re going down the corridor, he pulls the lever that launches the ship: that was me.

So never ever ever listen to anybody when they tell you something is ‘impossible.’ Because if you never give up, you can sometimes join the Rebel Alliance and blow up the Death Star.

We had a choice of whether to put this guy K-2 in a suit or use CGI. We tried the guy in the suit thing. But there’s a reason that C-3PO moves kind of the way he does: because his suit is so restrictive. So we ended up going CGI and doing motion capture.

Alan Tudyk is very much responsible for K-2’s character. He was the funniest guy I’ve met. On set he was given complete free range to tell any jokes that he wanted to.

Warning: This section contains plot spoilers!

The Ending

We wrote the first draft and just assumed that a lot of people were going to die, but not the essential characters: they would never let us kill them—that would never be allowed. So for the first draft in development, they survived.

But as soon as everyone read it, Kathleen Kennedy said “Surely they should die, right?” And we said “Ooh, can we do it?”

I kept waiting for them to go back on that decision, and throughout the whole process—honestly until the last week—we kept waiting for that little note that said: “You know, I know it’s cool they die and everything, but…”

It never came; so we got to do it.

Picking your Scenes

If you could have a time machine and send yourself the film before you start making it, you would realize ‘Oh, I don’t need that, I don’t need that, and I don’t need that.’

You hear people talk about that Vader scene, but when we shot it I didn’t think it was a special moment in the film; it just felt like something we needed to do. It just was another scene amongst all the others. It was only in the premiere when it got such a reaction and people started saying things afterwards, I went ‘OK.’
Advice for Screenwriters

Don’t let the fear of doing something bad get in the way; get them out and get them done.

And avoid excuses. If you do anything in your life towards your dream, you have succeeded way more than someone who just quit and never did it. You can’t really fail. The second you start, you won. You did something with your life.

The Journey

The journey is as important—actually more important and is more rewarding—than the destination. I think if I’d seen this guy on stage who made all these films I’d be very jealous of that guy. But as that guy on stage now, I’m actually jealous of the guy who is at the beginning. That’s an exciting adventure that’s ahead and don’t let it pass by. Enjoy it.
Remaining Fluid

I think at the start of this process we said we should be really fluid and let the film speak to us, and see what the film needs to be, and change things and keep adapting.

It used to be that a film had a pre-production, production and post-production. They were all completely separate. And now because of digital technology everything is blending together.

We had edit-suite cutting before we had even written a script. We were just starting to build stuff together and have a look and see how the storyboards might work, and we were writing when we were in the thick of end of post-production.

It just became this completely fluid thing.

For instance, that Darth Vader scene, that got suggested in September—pretty late in the day. Everything was fluid, and it’s an insane way to make a film, it’s really exhausting. But if it leads to the result, and people don’t shout at you from across the street and say you’ve ruined their childhoods, I will take that.

Please also see my story as it appears on Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website: 

https://creativescreenwriting.com/rogue-one/

 

 

My review of the documentary about Stevie Ray Vaughan posts to Elmore magazine

5 Apr

The DVD documentary, Lonestar: Stevie Ray Vaughan 1984-1989, delivers in 108 minutes a roller coaster of emotions about Texas’ beloved late blues guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, beginning with his debut, Texas Flood, and ending with his death at 35 years old in a helicopter crash August 27, 1990 outside East Troy, Wisconsin. The disc features photos and rare film footage recorded during concerts and behind-the-scenes interviews with friends, former band members, and those within Vaughan’s inner circle including his last girlfriend, Janna Lapidus LeBlanc. In archival videos, Vaughan himself gives a painful testimony about how he overcame an addiction to drugs and alcohol and began to live a sober lifestyle.

Following the success of his Grammy-award-winning album, In Step, Vaughan began his fateful final tour on May 4, 1989, performing 147 shows over 18 months. This writer had the privilege to see Vaughan perform live along the shore of Mountain Shadow Lakes in El Paso on May 29, 1989. That desert hot day, without a spot of shade to be found anywhere within a 20-mile radius, fans responded to Vaughan and his musical entourage with near hysteria. The Dallas native opened with his first mainstream hit single, nominated in 1984 as the best song of the year, “Cold Shot,” off his Couldn’t Stand the Weather album.

Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble, recorded three studio and several live albums, earning them a controversial mix of both praise and criticism over a tumultuous five-year career. In Austin, his legacy continues. At Auditorium Shores Park in 1994 the Austin Parks and Recreation Department erected a life-size bronze statue created by artist Ralph Helmick in the musician’s likeness, complete with his signature hat and trench coat created. Most often Vaughan performed on his hybrid 1962-63 Stratocaster nicknamed “Number One,” also referred to as “First Wife.” Those who remember the bluesmaster, will weep in sorrow at his tribute; newcomers may find inspiration. This film, the sister to Sexy Intellectual’s documentary, Rise of a Texas Bluesman—Stevie Ray Vaughan 1954-1983, makes widows of us all anew through archive songs and images. 

Please also see my article as it appears on Elmore magazine’s website at: 

http://www.elmoremagazine.com/2017/04/reviews/films/lonestar-stevie-ray-vaughan-1984-1989

 

My interview with O’Haver and Turner posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

24 Mar

Netflix’s original biopic The Most Hated Woman in America is about the life and death of atheist crusader Madalyn Murray O’Hair. played by Melissa Leo, founded the American Atheists movement, and led the controversial legal battle which culminated in the Supreme Court’s ban on official Bible reading in American public schools in 1963. This, together with regular appearances on television talk shows where she delivered foul-mouthed diatribes against her opponents, led to her being referred to as “The most hated woman in America”.

Writer-director Tommy O’Haver and his co-writer Irene Turner researched their screenplay from primary sources to recreate this much-publicized true story. Creative Screenwriting spoke with them about portraying the essence of the truth, flashbacks, and getting the death right.

Which of you came up with the idea for the screenplay?

Tommy O’Haver: It actually was neither of us!

Our producers, Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman, had seen our previous film, An American Crime, which I directed and Irene and I co-wrote, and they liked it a lot. We sat down with them and they pitched us a movie about Madalyn Murray O’Hair. So we jumped into the research and thought the story was incredible. I was amazed that it hadn’t been told in a film yet, and we were all in.

Irene Turner: She was just such a polarizing, inspiring, strong and difficult woman. And Tommy and I said “we definitely must do this.”

How did you research the story?

Tommy: Luckily there’s a ton of articles and writings on Madalyn and television appearances. There’s just so much material out there on her and her family and life. So that’s where it started.

Irene: For some stories, the tricky thing is just flushing out what little you know. But in this case the tricky thing was sifting through, what seems to be the most important details to bring out in a short amount of time. Because she wrote so much about herself, and people wrote so much about her, that it was sometimes overwhelming.

Tommy: Sometimes the stories were contradictory in fact.

Irene: For example, her relationship with her son, Bill Murray Jr. In newspaper articles and interviews he has talked about it from one perspective, while she spoke about it from a different perspective. That’s the biggest thing, trying to figure out the truth of that relationship from what they both said about each other.

Tommy: And you have to assume that probably the truth was somewhere in the middle; at least that’s what we extrapolated.

What of her other relationships?

Tommy: She had a very conflicted relationship with both of her parents. In fact, it’s hard to say whom she fought with the most. I think Madalyn basically fought with everybody. We tended to soften her relationship with her mother for narrative purposes.

Irene: But she was definitely closer to her mother, and also her mother lived longer. So there was a definite tie there that she did not have with her father.

Tommy: A lot of people, in fact even their son Bill Jr., said that Madalyn’s biggest issue wasn’t necessarily with God, it was with men in general. She had a lot of bad relationships with men. There’s an allusion to that in the script, with a brief quote from Madalyn. I’m glad that comes through.

Madalyn’s granddaughter, Robin Eileen Murray, disappeared in 1995 with Madalyn. How did you create her character (for actress Juno Temple) when so little is known about her?

Tommy: It’s interesting, because Melissa Leo as Madalyn is obviously the centerpiece of the movie, but it’s very much an ensemble. There are so many characters around her that are interesting.

On the page a lot of those characters maybe didn’t feel underwritten per se, but they didn’t sort of jump out as important as they are. So it was amazing bringing actors into the mix and then having them give those characters flesh.

Juno Temple doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue. But just her presence brings this force to this character who is very integral to the entire story.

Could the same be said of Jon Garth Murray (portrayed by actor Michael Chernus)?

Tommy: It was a very similar situation to Robin, where on the page he only had a few lines, and he was always being berated by his mother. It almost read as comic relief on the page.

Then when I got Michael Chernus involved, he came in and seemed to inhabit the role. He did a lot of research. I sent him videos and articles, and things like that; I did this with everyone. Then he came back to me and said ‘I think he’s kind of a sad person and I really feel for this guy.’

So a character that maybe felt slightly one-dimensional in a quick read becomes a real person through the magic of production.

Dichotomy made Madalyn a compelling character—unlikeable, but interesting. How did you go about fictionalizing her?

Tommy: A lot of her lines are direct quotes from Madalyn herself. Some of the best lines are things she actually said.

In terms of process, it was about letting the actor discover their version of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I provided Melissa Leo with a lot of research, and we discussed the character several times, but she sort of fell in love with her, and said ‘I’m going to do my version of Madalyn Murray O’Hair which I would hope if she were alive, she would respect.’

Irene: When we’re writing we’re portraying as much of the truth and the essence of the truth as we can find.

I love Madalyn. I’m glad she wasn’t my mother, but she was a fighter and an iconoclast and someone who just never gave up. Some of her anger at the establishment I totally get. The idea is you bring as much truth as you can, and as you work with the actors they bring another layer. They’re the ones who have to take the words and to interpret them. You just try and keep getting at the truth as much as you can.

Tommy: Gary Karr (portrayed by actor Rory Cochrane) really was a wild card. He was unpredictable; he was tough and scary.

Irene: It was nice to able to write a character that volatile.

Tommy: He’s kind of a contrast to David Waters, (portrayed by actor Josh Lucas,who’s all about control.

Tell me about how you created Danny Fry (portrayed by Alex Frost.)

Irene: The tragic thing about Danny is he seems to be a grafter, just a small time con man who tried to get into some schemes that he screwed up. He had a daughter that he cared about that he was trying to get back to.

Clearly the whole kidnapping was way above his pay grade in terms of being a criminal. It was great as a screenwriter to have this contrasting third guy who really kind of wishes he hadn’t gotten himself into this, and doesn’t know how to get out of it.

He’s actually not that hardened and is much newer to crime and much more vulnerable.

The flashbacks in the film really provide so much backstory about Madalyn and Waters’ relationship. How did you write the Christmas party scene, when Madalyn tells her guests about Waters’ criminal past?

Tommy: That was a written and more physical representation of what actually happened. She used her newsletter to mar his name, and he was furious. She wrote some diatribe about him in the American Atheists Newsletter that totally embarrassed and infuriated him, and set him on this path of revenge.

Irene: He had also stolen money from her.

Tommy: Yes, it was in an earlier draft. But it was very complicated, and for simplification purposes, we ended up dropping that subplot.

Irene: But she had embarrassed him. So we took the essence of that, which was the embarrassment in a public setting.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?

Irene: Getting her death right. What happens when someone who has spent her whole time as an atheist faces death? That seemed really important to me. It’s a small thing, but it’s also a huge thing. It’s like sticking the landing in Olympic gymnastics. You better get that right.

There were other things that were probably harder to discover, but that’s the one that just felt the most important, and in that sense the most difficult.

And what was the easiest part?

Irene: Stealing dialogue from Madalyn!

Tommy: I was going to say the exact same thing. Finding great lines from Madalyn. Because she was an incredibly intelligent, witty person, and she had a lot of great lines.

Irene: We’d find stuff and we’d just laugh.

Tommy: It was only difficult in deciding which ones to use and which ones not to use.

It surprised me in the movie when Madalyn says “In the end, family is everything.” Did she want her family around her to control them, or were they meaningful to her?

Irene: She loved her kids and her grandchild so much. She just had so many of her own issues. If you read her diary you see that she was so vulnerable. She cared so much that they would succeed and be happy. She just was her own worst enemy.

Please also see my interview as it appears on Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at: 

https://creativescreenwriting.com/most-hated/

My Garth Brooks story and photos post to Elmore magazine

20 Mar

After delivering a SXSW keynote at Austin’s convention center downtown, March 17 mega country artist Garth Brooks hinted about delivering a secret show in town. Then just a bit after 10 p.m. Brooks tweeted a photo of a wagon wheel with one broken spoke with the message “let’s get started.”
Brooks showed up at the 52-year-old honky-tonk about 11 p.m. with body guards greeted by Broken Spoke proprietor James White. Afterwards the mega country star performed a whole set of greatest hits beginning with “Friends in Low Places,” along with George Jones’ “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today,” George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning,” and Merle Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me.” Audience participation reached a fever pitch when Brooks sang Joe Nichols’ “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” as more than 500 people sang the lyrics from the Broken Spoke’s dance floor, with their smart phones raised above their heads.
Between songs, Brooks told his audience, “If I had known there were honky-tonks like this back when I started out, I never would have left.” He also said “You all have fun like this every day,” and “I haven’t done anything like this in a hundred years.” At the end of his set, Brooks told the audience “It’s never good to end the night with a down song, except this one,” and he sang “The Dance.” The crowd demanded an encore, and afterwards Brooks handed over his acoustic Takamine guitar to White as a parting gift. “I didn’t know he was gonna give me a gift too,” White said afterwards. “I will always remember the day Garth Brooks played on stage at the Broken Spoke. He was right on every song. It was so crowded I could not leave the stage, but I really did not want to. It was exciting. Completely unexpected. That’s the way he rolls!”
More than 50,000 fans are expected to attend Brooks’ outdoor concert tonight on Auditorium Shores.

Please see my story posted on Elmore magazine’s website at: http://www.elmoremagazine.com/2017/03/reviews/shows/garth-brooks-at-the-broken-spoke

To see 2 of my videos of Garth Brooks performing at the Broken Spoke please go to the KVUE local ABC affiliate website at:

http://www.kvue.com/features/sxsw/garth-brooks-surprises-austin-with-broken-spoke-show/423666224

My review of the 2017 Ameripolitan Awards posts to Elmore

22 Feb

Lance Lipinsky, nearly stole the show before accepting the Rockabilly Male Award at the fourth annual Ameripolitan Awards, held February 15th at Austin’s Paramount Theater. Lipinsky had costarred in the Tony Award-winning musical, Million Dollar Quartet, and at the Grand Ole Opry. His band, The Lovers, released their debut album, Roll, last summer.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ prerecorded message from Nesbit, Mississippi appeared overhead on screen as Silvia and Brett Neal accepted the Master Award on his behalf. The Neals and singer/songwriter Dale Watson cofounded the Ameripolitan Awards in 2014 to honor artists who represent four roots branches of country music: western swing, honky-tonk, rockabilly and outlaw styles. Between set changes, Watson and Asleep at the Wheel’s front man, Ray Benson, served as the night’s emcees, providing impromptu commercials for two of the show sponsors, Lone Star Beer and Tito’s Vodka. Presenters Rosie Flores and James Intveld also provided an outstanding duet performance. Other music awards went to Leona Williams, Jake Penrod, Gary P. Nunn and the Bunkhouse Band, Lara Hope, The Silver Shakers, Kristyn Harris, Pokey LaFarge, The Western Flyers, Darci Carlson, Hank3, the Dallas Moore Band, Chris Casello and James Riley.

American original singer/songwriter and musician Junior Brown received the Keeper of the Key Award. Brown’s unique song lyrics and hook phrases, such as “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” previously earned him a 1996 Country Music Association Award. Brown performed while playing his “guit-steel,” a double-necked invention that melds both guitar and steel guitar attributes. Lil’ Red’s Longhorn Saloon in Fort Worth received the Venue Award and the Festival Award went to Nashville Boogie. Absent from the night’s proceedings due to the flu was presenter James White, proprietor of the Broken Spoke. The house band included: Chris Crepps, bass; Mike Bernal, drums; Don Pawlak, pedal steel guitar; Jason Roberts, fiddle; Redd Volkaert, guitar; Joey Colarusso, saxophone; Rick White, trumpet; Ken Mills, trombone; and Danny Levin, piano. For more information about the awards and a full list of winners, head to the Ameripolitan Music Awards’ website at: http://www.ameripolitan.com/2017-winners.html

Please also see my article as it appears with my photos on Elmore magazine’s website at: http://www.elmoremagazine.com/2017/02/reviews/shows/2017-ameripolitan-music-awards

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