Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Um, Can You Help Me...

I hate it when I have to ask the wife to whip off her shirt to get people's attention. But -- now that I have...

About a month ago, the Canadian film business seemed to step into a vortex; and in a post on finding our way out, I asked for thoughts I could pass on to the Heritage Minister. I've received a few strategies from readers and fellow bloggers, while others have posted their own opinions elsewhere.

In a profound example of how an outsider can see the problem with a clarity beyond the locals, may I recommend a trip to Bill Cunningham's place for words that are particularly inspirational.

Today's events -- Jim Shaw back to writing cheques to the CTF after winning a Task Force investigation and a settled ACTRA strike hitting a new snag, -- would suggest that we're in for a wholesale change in the way we do business and maybe this time it should be us, instead of our betters in Ottawa, who determine where we're going.

So, if you have ideas on making the Canadian industry stronger, better or at least more interesting, add your comments to this post or send me an email address I won't publish, so I can hear from you in private. "Forgive me father for I have sinned, I had unclean thoughts about Mary Walsh and Bubbles..."

Anyway, as I said before, your ideas will be passed along and they will be heard and considered.

Thanks for stopping by.

Okay, Hon, you can put your shirt back on. On second thought...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Kung Hei Fat Choi

Today is the Chinese New Year, welcoming the year of the Fire Pig, 4705. A Jewish producer friend tells me 2007 is year 5768 in the Jewish calendar, adding that this means that for 1063 years Jews had nowhere to eat on Sunday nights.

New Year is the biggest holiday in the Asian world, so more than half the planet is out lighting firecrackers and exchanging gifts. Therefore, I thought I'd offer a small Chinese gift of my own to mark the occasion.

A few years ago, a director from Hong Kong called to ask for my help in dramatizing the story of a gruesome torso murder that had occurred in the Chinese Canadian community. I get calls like this all the time. Some work out. Some don't. And a few add something special to your life.

The director's name was Ho Yim. I'd never heard of him, but I was familiar with the case he was describing and didn't think it offered much more than the chance to do a quickie splatter film. But he insisted he was a serious filmmaker and would send an example of his work to further persuade me. A few days later, a videotape arrived.

To that point in my life, my exposure to Chinese cinema amounted to Bruce Lee, a couple of epic martial arts films and a passing awareness of the cheap historical soaps and modern comedies I surfed past on my local multicultural station.

The film I was sent was "Tiengo Niezi" later released in English as "The Traitorous Prince" and "The Day The Sun Turned Cold".

It's the story of a young man whose father is murdered and ten years later begins to suspect that the killer was his mother. This leads to an agonizing study of the nature of justice, revenge and whether "doing the right thing" is ever the right thing to do.

It was nothing short of a masterpiece and I decided that if this guy wanted me to personally hack off body parts for his torso movie, I was in.

Ho flew to Toronto and we spent a couple of weeks working out the story and planning how it could be shot in Hong Kong and Toronto. During that time, he dragged me to a half dozen Chinatown video stores to introduce me to actors, technicians, film styles and storytelling forms literally foreign to me. Like most occidentals on their first visit to a Chinese restaurant buffet, I was overwhelmed with the exotic delicacies that were available.

Ultimately, the film fell through. But a couple of years later, Ho and I ended up in LA at the same time, both "under consideration" for major studio projects. Mine was a Sci-Fi series featuring biker babes in black leather. Totally brainless but based on a popular comic book and at least the casting sessions were fun.

Meanwhile, Ho's agent was breaking him into American features. I'll never forget an afternoon we spent poolside at the Oakwood Apartments as I tried (and failed) to help him make sense of the latest draft of "Alien: Resurrection". Both of us, more familiar with working on shoestring budgets and stories with a point, could not fathom how such vast fortunes had been spent to get material to a final and still unshootable stage, nor why a franchise we both loved was allowed to be so devalued in the hope of wringing a few extra bucks from its audience. Watching Ho struggle with the material was like seeing Michaelangelo try to make art with an Etch-a-sketch.

That "Nobody Knows Anything" Hollywood adage applies on so many levels.

But as we both waited for people far more astute and connected than ourselves to determine our career paths, he took me to out of the way theatres and continued my education in Asian film.

This year's favorite to win the Academy Award, "The Departed", is based on the 2002 Chinese film "Infernal Affairs" as well as its prequel "Infernal Affairs 2" and sequel "Infernal Affairs 3". Both the offspring are as good or better than the original and equally imaginative in their realization. To be fair, Martin Scorcese's version is less a remake than a brilliant cultural rethinking of the original.

But I still get a giggle reading the Hollywood Insiders who can't imagine how a "Departed 2" can be in the works with all the stars of the original...uh... departed. That kind of analysis reminds you of how overburdened Hollywood is by the rules of Syd Field and Robert McKee as well as the standard studio marketing models.

In much the same way good art triumphs over commerce, Chinese film overcomes the system that governs its people. There is no better way to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Pig than to buy a ticket to see or to rent a Chinese film. If I may recommend some of my recent favorites...

Currently in theatres:

"The Curse of the Golden Flower" -- featuring a final battle scene that makes "Return of the King" look low-budget.

"A Battle of Wills" -- just drop dead inspired from start to finish.

Recently on DVD:

"Hero" -- which will remind you why films are in color.

"Myth" -- Jackie Chan as you've never imagined him.

As well as modern classics like "Days of Living Wild", "Kung Fu Hustle", "Shaolin Soccer" and "Exiled".

If you want to sample Ho Yim, please see "Pavilion of Women" with Willem Dafoe or his latest feature starring his son "A West Lake Moment".

Friday, February 16, 2007

Rescuing You From Television's Death Grip

Somebody once told me that the purpose of television was to give people something to masturbate to so they could fall asleep and not hear the raccoons going through the trash outside their trailer.

I used to think that was a joke, but it's making more sense all the time.

The major networks spend their seasons retooling formats, finding new islands to drop survivors on or hiring hot models to hold briefcases. The list of pilots for 2007-2008 reads less like an attempt to lasso an ever elusive audience and more an exercise in how many ways can you make "CSI" without using those specific letters in the title.

TV in Canada? They're still trying to decide who should pay to make something.

Perhaps most dishearteningly, the networks you depended on to tell you what's happening in the world would rather endlessly discuss who might end up with Anna Nicole Smith's rotting corpse.

But there is a light in this darkness. A new player arrived a week ago and is already slamming them right out of the park.

If what you see below does not shake you to your core, prove what the web can do that TV can but does not and have you phoning your local MP, congressman and anybody else who cares to scream about both the state of the world and what the media is denying us, then I have seriously underestimated the intelligence I've found in this blog community.

This film is also the work of Canadians Shane Smith and Eddie Moretti and should have the locals asking why they're not the most familiar faces on Newsworld or Newsnet.

A link follows the video. Brace yourself. This is the future.

VBS.TV can be found here.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Anna Nicole Show

You work so hard at constructing a story; give it a solid foundation of inner logic, track the motivations, ensure characters act and speak in a believable and consistent way, avoid “Deus Ex Machina” (I know, “if it was good enough for Euripides…”) and coincidence (I know, I know, “if they didn’t happen there wouldn’t be a word for them…”) and else wise bang your head against the keyboard until you’re certain no Development Exec in the latest from Fred Siegel or Barney’s can find a loose thread to pull the script apart.

You work; you slave -- and along comes Anna Nicole Smith.

We all know “Truth is Stranger than Fiction”. Long ago somebody augmented that with “Only because fiction has to make sense”. But can you imagine scripting this story (as someone inevitably will) and trying to have it make sense?

An old Hollywood writer I know calls dramatic lapses in logic, “Refrigerator moments” meaning you watch the final credits and get all the way to pulling a beer from the fridge before you say, “Hey, wait a minute…”

Another writer buddy insists you’re not good at your craft until you can turn these into “Jacuzzi moments”, meaning you’ve written the movie, cashed the check, made an appearance at the premiere and plopped into the Jacuzzi with a bottle of Bollinger before anybody says, “Hey, wait a minute…”

He claims such professional expertise explains Steven Spielberg’s entire career.

Which still leaves us with Anna Nicole Smith – now in a refrigerator while a bunch of guys in Jacuzzis plot to claim the paternity of her baby and perhaps the tens of millions the little dickens might be due to inherit.

How do you possibly build a believable story of how or why any of these people were in Anna Nicole’s life to begin with, let alone became happy hangers on to the train wreck? How do you make any figure of authority who even considers their applications for paternity seem rational and worthy of their position? How does anybody in this tragic cartoon come off looking good?

I swore I’d never, ever ask another writer this question, but – who do you root for?

I got stuck in a long commute on the weekend and ended up hearing sound bites from the two guys who’ve been claiming they’re the father for months. I don’t remember their names and can’t tell them apart anyway, so for the purposes of what follows, I’ll call them Quagmire I & II after the “Family Guy” character they’ve so obviously patterned their lives. Quagmire III arrived on Saturday, Prince Frederick von Ahnhalt, husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, who at 90 is 30 years his senior. Among other bizarre quips, the Prince commented that Ms. Smith was “A little girl and all men like to be with little girls” (speak for yourself your highness) and my fave, “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed – but now she’s dead, so….” (So…? At least he’s not a necrophile?).

Between this guy and Prince Charles, it’s understandable why the Prince who sings wanted to be known as a symbol instead. I’d say it goes a long way to explaining the French Revolution too, except Frederick isn’t a real prince. He apparently bought the title from one who needed money.

This triple threat to identifying humans as intelligent life forms was followed by Ms. Smith’s sister, claiming that her niece was conceived with frozen sperm previously (I should hope so) extracted from the 212 year old Texas oil guy who died and left her a couple gazillion bucks. She was also quoted as saying she knew “That evil bitch” (her sister) would get the last laugh.

Meanwhile an LA Judge overseeing the paternity trial ordered Miss Smith’s body to remain on ice until the court received a DNA sample because he didn’t want anybody pulling a “bait & switch” with the baby.

There are people who “bait & switch” babies? This is common knowledge?

I’m given to understand that the little one’s share of the inheritance is somewhere between $447 Million and zero depending on how all the current trials and appeals shake out. Making all this even more bizarre, since the winner of the baby stakes will probably then have to spend millions in legal fees to maybe get – nothing…

All day long, the thing I couldn’t get out of my mind was this – what goes through the heads of these fricken people – and why is their insanity allowed to intrude on my own?

I’m sure you do the same thing as me on occasion – you drive down some street, look at the houses and wonder what really goes on behind those doors. But this scenario is even beyond my overactive imagination.

I’m as into hot blondes as the next guy. Okay probably more than the next guy but this isn’t about me. My point is – just how desperate or delusional are you to believe you have any semblance of a relationship with someone as out of control as Anna Nicole Smith? Even Quagmire I & II must know you don’t get to be Playmate of the Year by shaking Mr. Hefner’s hand, for God’s sake!

And yes, “Love is Blind” and “The Heart Knows” and any lyrics you want to quote from a Dan Hill song. But watching footage of Anna Nicole stumbling along on the arms of these bozos convinces me they weren’t as much into her as the spotlight she weaved around in or the cheques she was looking to cash.

I mean, how many face plants does the mother of your supposed child have to do before you take some time off from filing legal briefs and look after either her or your kid?

And yes I know that addictions are terrible things and it’s tough to get help for somebody that doesn’t want it. But please – nobody was even trying here. Maybe least of all the people in our own business who kept handing her reality shows and award presentation appearances so they could carve off some of the money the rubes paid for the sideshow.

How come we outlawed circus geeks and dog fights, but we still license this kind of freak show?

According to the hordes of “fans” who spent the last hours of her life taking camera phone pix they’re now flogging to the media as she did double shots at the Hard Rock Seminole Casino 24 hour bar, "she was a happy drunk". Bob the bartender claimed this scene had been going on for weeks, describing the recently deceased as “plastered pretty much all the time”.

Here’s a tip for all your Florida State Troopers a little shy on this month’s quota. Hang around the Hard Rock. They don’t cut off anybody, no matter how many times they have to be hauled out of the pool and given mouth to mouth. And if I ran the Hard Rock, I'd be thanking "Bob" for how much the liability insurance kicks up next week.

Meanwhile, the Prince explains that she so much wanted to be a Princess that he tried to adopt her. But Zsa Zsa wouldn’t sign the papers. Can you even begin to imagine that conversation? “Honey, I know you think I’m banging her, but I just want her to be our little girl. You know how much I like little girls!”

Whoever would have cast Zsa Zsa Gabor in the role of the voice of reason?

According to Prince Fred, he loves his wife and didn’t want to further upset her, so he dropped the adoption idea and carried on a secret ten year affair instead.

Don’t you wish sometimes there really was a God, so he’d come down and smote these monkeys instead of letting them dominate our airwaves and take even more time away from stories that actually make sense – or at least entertain?

I recently saw a film entitled “Idiocracy” about a future world where the dumbing down of our society has led to people becoming – uh, really dumb. Luckily it was released before Ms. Smith took her final nap, so it can still claim to be Science fiction.

There’s a great editorial in today’s LA Times, explaining how the mainstream media ended up all over this story. You can find it here. I accept the reasoning, but not the justification.

This circus is going to go on for weeks and the same network people who keep asking me to make characters believable will be all over it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Karly Curls

Everybody has a sore spot. An old sports injury that flares at an inopportune moment; the bad back that tightens without warning; a something or someone that pops up from time to time to remind you life can be incredibly unfair and unjust.

For me the wound that just won’t heal is Karla Homolka.

Karly Curls. Schoolgirl Killer. Serial Rape Enabler. Paul Bernardo’s “Better” Half. She came into my life uninvited and thanks to a Justice system that refuses to admit it made a mistake and allows ever greater injustices to be perpetrated, she just won’t go away.

For those who don’t know the story, there are a ton of books on the subject and endless web sources. In brief, Karla and her husband Paul, the perfect suburban couple, were responsible for the deaths of three teenage girls, Leslie Mahaffey, Kristen French and Karla’s kid sister Tammy. They also drugged and sexually abused other women. Many believe they were responsible for other deaths. They videotaped their crimes.

When the police finally arrested Paul, Karla offered to testify against him in return for lesser sentences, claiming to be a battered wife and unwilling participant in what had gone on. Shortly after the deal was done, the incriminating videotapes were discovered. But, according to authorities, nothing could be done to undo what became known in the Canadian press as “the deal with the devil”. Karla served 12 years for Manslaughter and is now a free woman, living under a new identity in Quebec.

She popped into the news this week with rumors that she has had a child.

I’m not a believer in Capital Punishment. But I do believe that someone who kills should not be given the opportunity to do it again.

Part of the process I used in writing and producing “Top Cops” was spending time on the job with cops. That included being present at a number of homicide scenes. Some were mundane, some appalling. My first was a decapitation, my last made Hannibal Lechter seem like a Vegan.

But all of them had the same emotional impact. Being in the presence of someone who has died violently hits you with an enormity you’re never quite prepared for. The whole scene roils with both the echoes of the savage, uncontrolled emotions that caused it as well as the unfathomable dimensions of what’s been taken away.

Trust me – it’s not at all like “CSI: Miami”.

Oh, sure, there are cops who go for the gallows humor or play the tough guy role. Everybody grieves differently and everybody deals with horror in their own way. And no matter how much we all intellectually know we could perpetrate such crimes, there’s no description for being in the presence of the act.

Paul Bernardo went to trial in Toronto in 1995 and a US network I had done a show for asked me to attend. They were considering an MOW and wanted me to write it. I knew a little about the case but not much more than the average person. You needed passes to get into the courtroom and the network arranged one for me and one for a reporter from their NY affiliate, who was arriving to do a story.

The Reporter was standard issue, attractive, energetic and excited at breaking a story the American media had not paid much attention to. Paul would be her OJ.

The trial had been going on for a couple of weeks, but we were there for the appearance of the star witness, Karla Homolka; one of my duties being to short list the actresses with network obligations who could play her.

The courtroom was packed and I had to explain the differences from a US courtroom for the Reporter. The robes. The dock. And a video system that had been installed to both serve justice and protect the public and the victims. Video monitors were placed where they could be seen by the Judge, the Jurors, the Accused and the Witnesses. But they could not be seen by the public. However, the audio portion was made available in open court.

We took our places. The Judge and the Lawyers took theirs. Bernardo was brought in by his Jailers. He struck me as the kind of guy you saw all over Bay Street (our version of Wall Street). Well dressed. Well groomed. With the same pointless demeanor and detachment from life you see in a lot of people in the financial trade.

If you saw Christian Bale in “American Psycho” you’ve seen Paul Bernardo.

Karla arrived from a different holding pen and the spectators all craned and buzzed in reaction. I didn’t think she looked as attractive as she had in the newspaper photos. She was calm, conservatively dressed and well spoken; initially taking pains not to make eye contact with her ex, the Accused. When she finally did, it reminded me of the way one of my ex’s had looked at me in divorce court. Detached but familiar, knowing this was the last time we’d ever be in the same room together.

The Crown Prosecutor led Karla through her testimony, sticking to the script written in their deal. Battered wife. Terrified and unable to stop the monster she was married to. Wanting so much to save “those poor girls” and her sister. But she was just so damn small and helpless and trapped.

Karla wasn’t a very good actress – and by this time she’d had time to practice. Having sat through many police interrogations where both the interviewing officer and the eyes on the other side of the one-way glass are watching for any hint of a lie; I couldn’t fathom how anybody had bought what she was selling. But they had. It was a good story and now they were all stickin’ to it!

When Paul’s Lawyer had the opportunity to cross-examine, he tore her tales apart. Within an hour I was convinced that while Paul was a nasty piece of work, Karla was beyond any evil I have ever encountered.

And this wasn’t due to some brilliant lawyer building “reasonable doubt” in the Jury. It came from the words and actions of Karla herself. All around me the faces and the reactions were the same. Nobody believed a word she was saying. Not one word.

And then they played the tapes. Over and over and over. Minutely re-examining the hours before the murders in heart-breaking detail.

I won’t describe what I heard. Not that I can’t. I won’t. Nobody else needs the images in their head that were put into mine that afternoon. What became obvious to every person in that courtroom was that despite the truly unspeakable things Paul Bernardo had done, it was Karly Curls who did the killing.

By the end of the day, the Reporter was devastated. She may not have been much of a journalist, but she knew what she’d witnessed could not be repeated. And I knew this was one script I would not write.

The Reporter flew home, but I went back. Not because I’m some kind of masochist, but because I had to understand. Not understand what had happened in that quaint suburban house of murders on the shores of Lake Ontario, that was painfully clear; but why the Canadian Justice system was so avidly pursuing such a massive miscarriage of Justice.

Don’t get me wrong. Paul Bernardo deserves to spend every second of the rest of his life in prison. But he should have had company.

A couple of years later, the production company I was working for was asked to bid on a screenplay based on the case called “Invisible Darkness”. It was well written and got to some of the “truth” but not in a way that would have made anyone question the “deal with the devil”. About a year ago, a fairly trashy US film called “Karla” came and went in about a week. It too followed the official version.

I’m not one of those who thinks certain stories shouldn’t be told. I’ve sat with the families of murder victims I’ve portrayed. I’ve seen the pain that reliving their loss causes and wouldn't want to be a party to creating more of it. But all of those cases ended in Justice. Those families had the closure that Justice provides and were able to look at the dramatic portrayal of their loved ones as making a difference, either in preventing a similar crime or raising awareness of a problem.

The victims in the Bernardo/Homolka case did not receive Justice and that’s why the feelings about it run so high whenever the story reappears. But something bigger keeps Justice from happening and I still don’t know why.

We all understand that Governments lie and sometimes Justice is perverted to serve a “greater good” or to protect someone or something larger than the rest of us can understand. And often I wonder what that something or someone was here. Who did Karla get to or who needed to keep her free? What person in power did she touch at some level or who needed to protect her? Even my best conspiracy theory generator can’t come up with one that makes sense.

So now Karla may have spawned and the powers that be insist she’s rehabilitated, has served her debt to society and/or has the right to build a new life. Maybe that’s true. Maybe I should just forget it and move on.

But those tapes of children being tortured keep playing in my head and the images I get tonight are of a woman in a garret nursery in old Montreal, cooing over a cradle -- just like the last scene in “Rosemary’s Baby”.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

How To Succeed In Canadian Showbusiness

A recent comment on Ken Levine's blog had this perceptive insight into the current state of the entertainment business...

"I am convinced of two things:

One, that most people have a perception that entertainment is somehow magically manufactured for their pleasure. It doesn't occur to them that real, live human beings with talent create the stuff.

Two, the people who actually run the industry believe this is how their business should work, and they wait feverishly for the day when they can do business without having to use (or pay) these pesky 'content providers'."

Maybe it's just me, but I've noticed a profound change in network and studio execs recently. They're usually bubbly and excited, eager for a new challenge and to be inspired. But they're tense now and cautious. There's a visible inertia that comes from uncertainty.

Not that there aren't good reasons to be uncertain. Ongoing audience fragmentation and evolving delivery systems aside, decision makers north of the border are contending with labor strife, funding issues and the confusion that follows corporate mergers and market consolidation. Their American cousins are dealing with looming labor strife, similar consolidation that's reducing jobs and shelf space as well as a complete lack of hits from the current TV season.

If you want to see how that impacts creativity, take a look at the pilot offerings from the four majors and CW for 2007-08. Almost 70% are police procedurals.

Its also becoming clear how fully the distribution tail is now wagging the production dog. Nobody wants to do anything unless they "know" they'll make their money back.

An LA associate tells me that studios no longer consider the merits of a pitch or a script so much as its potential to translate into mobisodes, video games, ringtones and a catchy T-shirt. In that world, unless somebody thought "We'll always have Paris!" would sell tanktops and there was an opportunity to franchise "Rick's American Cafe" nationwide -- we'd never have seen "Casablanca".

Content may be King -- but Buzz has become God!

That's a tough reality for anybody whose primary skill is creating stories and believable characters not wearable dialogue like "I'm with Stupid!". It reduces the need for people who've spent years honing their craft in theatre school and makes you wonder why anyone need bother to learn shot making from Scorsese or Hitchcock for a two inch cellphone or ipod screen.

I think Mr. Levine's commenter is remarkably prescient. And I can offer you a Canadian Showbusiness success story as an example.

Two weeks ago, Jodi Behan was just another out-of-work Toronto actress. Today she's moving to Los Angeles to capitalize on her stardom as YouTube's "Bridezilla".

If you've missed "Bridezilla", it's a badly filmed 5 minute video that purports to be a bride-to-be losing it over a bad wedding day "do" and shearing off her hair. The clip caused a minor sensation on YouTube after a debate began over whether it was fake. As a result, it was viewed more than 2.4 Million times in its first week.

The clip was conceived by an ad exec who'd been brainstorming a campaign for styling products with his server at a local bistro and shot as a commercial test. There's little about it that's creative or unique including Ms. Behan's acting.

And yet, to date, she has received offers from high-powered agents, lucrative television and movie deals and an invitation to this year's Academy Awards.

She was flown to New York to work the media circuit and is now off to L.A. for television and movie gigs involving "big-name actors."

Now, I've been around long enough to know its not unusual to see acting jobs go to personal trainers and the mistresses of investors. I once had a studio head call in a panic after seeing dailies on an actor she'd hand-picked as the guest lead on a two-parter. The poor guy was utterly appalling. I asked what had made her choose him. Seems his head shot had made all the girls in the office damp. Nobody at the studio or network had bothered to look at a single second of film or even read him.

We practically killed ourselves writing him out of part two and as much as we could of the remaining shoot of part one. Later, we shot new scenes to further reduce his role to that of a minor player. Needless to say, both episodes of the series were not up to their usual standard.

I honestly don't know whether or not Ms. Behan has talent. For her sake, I hope she does, because "Bridezilla" is already seriously last week's news on YouTube. And for me her "success" exemplifies just how lost the development people really are.

Buzz may be calling the shots but it doesn't last. It might help you survive and appear to have succeeded today, but it leaves you with nothing to build on tomorrow and echoes even more hollowly the day after that. There may be a moment of mass awareness in "Bridezilla" -- but there's also no video game, no ringtone and no T-shirt.