24 April, 2013
It was originally eight hours long.
Let me explain.
My dear friend Diana and I had the pleasure over the last two weekends to view (on the first Saturday) Richard Attenborough’s classic Chaplin and (on the very next Saturday) Chaplin’s classic The Kid. And viewing them like that – the first, of course, being the biopic of the previous genius’ life; the second being one of the genius’ classics – was profound. To see them “together” like that was –
Sorry, I did say they were both in the theatre, right? We aren’t talking a DVD on the couch with laundry going in the background. This was how they were meant to be seen. Uninterrupted, great print, great sound, with an audience; and great crowds, both (natch, these were fans), but – talk about how they were meant to be seen – Kid even had live piano accompaniment. You revisit these two like that? A week apart? Well, you can’t help but argue how good Chaplin was.
And argue isn’t even a fair word. Obviously so much has been written about him; the good and the bad. His work in front of and behind the camera, the marriages, the kids, his relationships with Fairbanks and Pickford, Smile and his own mad family. So even as good a biopic as Chaplin is – and it is; if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, I stand by how well it holds up – all you really have to do is watch one of his and there’s indeed no argument.
I’ve seen Chaplin several times, own it, championing it is easy. But I hadn’t seen The Kid in years so I was looking forward to seeing how well it held up. Sure, we’ve all seen that famous shot of Chaplin and Jackie Coogan reunited in the car, remember the bit of The Kid helping The Tramp “fix” the windows, The Dream Sequence, but it was the little stuff I found so refreshing. The bookends with The Mother, the early stuff with The Tramp and The Baby, the bits with The Cop and The Bully Brother. How funny it was. (Diana and I saw Kid at The Billy Wilder Theatre in Westwood, part of that wonderful program’s Children Series, so there were kids in the audience – young kids, four or five – and they laughed. Pun not necessarily intended, Chaplin’s Kid is so good that kids today were enthralled.)
But back to that other great movie we saw, Chaplin. Hike up to the Hollywood sign; yep, it’s really there. Drive up La Brea in Hollywood; yep, his Studio is still there (now under Kermit The Frog’s wonderful eyes). Oh, and you’ve heard of that little company United Artists? Yep, really devised by Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford (and that other little what’s-his-name D.W. Griffith). Los Angeles has so little history – real history – that I can’t help but revel in her movie versions. (Those of you that know my relationship to Lone Pine know this.) Well, there are a few wonderful places still left in L.A. from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Find them. Revel in them yourself. You won’t be disappointed. But I … well, didn’t digress just there, but … diverted. Anyway …
We’re at the Chaplin screening -- at Grauman’s still beautiful Egyptian in Hollywood where Diana’s own film Citlalli’s Prayer premiered, thank you -- and there’s a wonderful Q&A beforehand, in which I learned that Chaplin was originally an eight hour miniseries through Universal. Attenborough & Co were all set, ready to go. We’re talking Mr. Downey Jr. cast – and this quick article won’t even touch on his genius, nor Mr. Barry’s unarguably perfect Score – the sets had been built, they’re a week from shooting.
And Universal pulls the plug.
Well, Attenborough can’t let go and goes shopping, finally landing with the prescient TriStar (and Carolco and Canal+; yep, it takes the three of them to pickup the project). Problem is the idea – subtitle that the budget – for the eight hour miniseries is out the window. It has to be a cut down to a feature. Eight hours to two? Attenborough & Co go back to the drawing board. (Beautiful moment here is, remember, they already had the sets and cast and crew waiting. So what’s Attenborough do? Personally pays to keep everything in a holding pattern. You read that, right? He personally paid for it. Yeah, that’s passion for a project.)
Okay, mini series has to become a movie. So that old slouch William Goldman is brought in for rewrites. (And if you’re just in from distant lands, “slouch” is a little sarcasm there. He only has two Academy Awards.) So what’s he do? In his invaluable book Which Lie Did I Tell? Mr. Goldman says it thus: “When Richard Attenborough asked me to come in and help with Chaplin, I read several books about the man. And I thought it might make a terrific flick. Because of his childhood. Charlie had one of those lives even Dickens wouldn’t have dared dream up. Poverty, sure, lots of that. Love, nope, none of that. But a lot of people are poor and unloved, no big deal. It was the madness that rocked me. Chaplin had madness in his family. His mother was insane. And when he was a teenager, he had to put her in a lunatic asylum. Chaplin’s horrible early life stayed with him as he performed and came to America and got to Hollywood and – this is true now – for reasons no one will ever know, he was doing a movie and wandered into a prop-and-costume shack, tried this on, that on – and exited as The Tramp. Arguably the most famous image in the first century of film was born full-blown that day. He went in as Charlie, came out a little later with the shoes and the hat and the cane, and stood there blinking in the sunlight. That’s how I wanted to end the movie. This unknown little guy, blinking and maybe experimentally waving his cane around and walking that most famous of all walks. My logic was the audience knew what happened to The Tramp. Let’s leave before that. Attenborough, a very bright man, understood my point. He had a different problem. He loved the childhood, yes, but he was just as moved by the end of Charlie’s life, when, ancient and infirm, he was at last allowed back to Hollywood for his honorary Oscar in 1977. If you have seen that real footage, you know how moving it was. If you haven’t, try and find it somewhere. It will rock you.”
Here you go, class --
Goldman continues, “So Dickie loved the childhood, yes, but he also loved the old man’s return. The movie had to include both. Problem: movies don’t [condense time] well. Because it’s not just the makeup that bothers you in time passing. [You get a line like] “Charlie Chaplin, my Lord, it’s been ten years since we last saw each other, back in London it was, when my daughter played the ingénue in that West End revival of The Importance Of Being Earnest and you liked her and we met backstage. This was just before you got her pregnant.” Yeah, it was clunky. Sir Dickie wanted me to come in and somehow, to use his word, “declunk” it. I came up with the Tony Hopkins part. I decided that since Chaplin wrote an autobiography, and since he was a famous man living in Switzerland, it would not be ridiculous if his book editor came from London to discuss final revisions. The editor could ask whatever questions we wanted to get us to the next dramatic sequence. And could also, if possible, shoulder some of the dreaded exposition that infiltrated the story.”
A brilliant declunking, sure, but then he says this – which indeed rocked me because I love the movie. “Chaplin was a worldwide commercial flop. What was [my input] worth? You decide.”
You see, as much as I love the movie, as much as I love Chaplin – his work, but I indeed have a soft spot for the man himself – I’d forgotten that the movie somehow “didn’t work” (yes, they really say that). Why? I don’t know. As I wrote in the beginning, “I stand by how well it holds up.” So why did people “not get it?” (Yes, they really say that too.)
I think because of time.
Not that time hasn’t been kind to The Tramp – and God this is such a bullshit Hollywood thing to say – but when the movie came out. (Sadly, it’s true how important that is.) People just weren’t ready for it. Why? I don’t know again. Figure that out and you own the world. (Point in fact, you think someone knew to release Star Wars in the Summer of ’77? Just to give you an idea of some of the movies leading up to it, how about Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, Network, Carrie and Marathon Man? Now I picked those because of how good they are. But people were suddenly in the mood for Flash Gordon. Why? I still don’t know. But it happens.
So Chaplin comes out and not so much. I don’t really want to go on and on here, but there’s an old adage that if you have a good script and cast it well, the heavy lifting is done. We don’t have to talk about The Kid here, do we? Natch to both. But just between us, does Chaplin have both: a good script and is it cast well? For me, natch again. So why did it flop? Only one reason. Money. It just didn’t make enough when it was released.
Aw, and you thought it had something to do with story.
In that great clip of Mr. Chaplin accepting his honorary Oscar, we hear Daniel Taradash (President of The Academy at the time, but he also wrote a little movie called From Here To Eternity) say that Chaplin once said, “My only enemy is time. Well, we respectfully disagree … time is Charlie Chaplin’s dearest and eternal friend.”
I’m a writer, and I don’t think too shabby, though anyone that knows me knows I don’t champion that high an opinion of my art, so there’s a wonderful conundrum there. And, yes, I digress yet again. Point being, I’m sitting there in the theatre – at The Kid – and thinking, "Here’s a guy that came up with this wonderful story – and remember he Wrote It, Acts In It and Directed It – AND IT DOESN’T HAVE ANY DIALOGUE." Sure, there are the occasional cards that give us time and place and necessary lines – the necessary bits of information – but there’s no conversation. And keep in mind, I’m one of the great champions of Woody Allen and Aaron Sorkin who shine in their conversation. Well – as Diana pointed out so well – just look at Chaplin’s and Coogan’s and Purviance’s eyes in this. What’s more to be said?
But then, as an opening card of The Kid reads, “A comedy with a smile -- and perhaps a tear.”
If I could only be mad enough to write a line as well as that.
Could any of us that write words for a living …
03 December, 2012
It seems like it's something of a nostalgic week here at The Campfire. First, I posted what remained of a story I found in an old box; something I wrote when I was nine. Then my dear friend Andy Gattuso sent me this, a 2012 University Of The Arts Commencement Speech given by legendary writer Neil Gaiman. And it truly is breathtaking. For any artist, whether already trying to make their way in the world; for no matter how far you get, how successful you are, we're all still trying to make our way in the world. Or if you're just starting out, ready and willing to beat your head against that brick wall -- and be ready -- there are still moments of grace and passion like this speech that come from The Great Ones, of which Mr. Gaiman undoubtedly is.
But why is it nostalgic to me, you ask? Fair enough. Well, the first (real) screenplay I sat down to write -- this is 1992 -- was an adaptation of Mr. Gaiman's 'The High Cost Of Living.' You haven't heard of it? I'm not surprised. The film never got made. I just wrote it. For me, mostly, as I continued this storytelling passion of mine. As I continued learning the craft. I loved the story -- still do -- and it was invaluable, as Mr. Gaiman reiterates here, in making those necessary mistakes that are often more valuable than the successes. Since then I've written fifteen more screenplays, created four television shows, spec'd three teleplays and ... blah blah blah. Oh, you haven't heard of any of those either? Eh, one day I'll get there. After all, I too am still beating my head against that brick wall. All the while making mistakes, sure. But, also, all the while learning.
All the while making good art.
Thanks for sharing, Andy. You've always been in my corner. And I'll always love you for it.
27 November, 2012
Every writer starts somewhere. Even yours truly.
While going through boxes in a recent move, I came across a story I wrote when I was nine. The pages were taped together like a scroll -- why did I do that? -- but, sadly, the beginning and anything after are missing. At the left you can see a pic of one of the pages, and what follows is their transcript.
I hope you enjoy.
As soon as I was asleep, the Russian henchmen emptied the gas tank and took all the parachutes with them as they jumped out of the plane. I woke up, looked out the open door, and saw the two parachutes get smaller and smaller.
I looked at the controls, and saw that the plane was losing altitude! Then I looked out the windshield and saw I was about to hit a tall cliff. I looked around for something to jump out on, but as I looked in the closet, I hit the cliff! I hurt my arm very badly. It felt like it was broken. I got out of the closet, stood up and got my things. I got some water for my arm and then got out of the plane. I almost slipped on the slick mountain side. I got out my ACME mountain climber and off I went. I got into my climber and started down. Oh! I forgot to tell you that my ACME mountain climber is a type of car that you sit in.
As I was going down I saw Russian men and artillery planning to attack North America! I said to myself, “I have to stop them!” Then in Russian I heard, “Hey, what are you doing?” I turned the mountain climber around and shot a Nazi. I got out and changed from my clothes into his clothes. “Luckily I learned Russian in Historical Studies at The University College of Southern America.” I also got his gun and equipment. I looked like a natural Nazi of Russia.
I snuck down into the camp at night and got out my knife and cut a small hole in the main tent. I saw them talking about the death of the man I killed. I was a little afraid. I walked back out the hole I cut and backed out fast! I walked into the tent like the man, with a limp. The Nazis said, “Oh, you made it! We thought you were killed! You’re one of our best fighters you know!” “I am, oh? Yes, of course I am! Remember the time…” “Save the war stories, Lt.,” he said and I said, “Sorry, sir.” “We leave in the morning at dawn.” “Yes sir. I guess I’ll get some sleep.”
But what they don’t know is that I didn’t go to bed. Besides, I don’t even know where my bed is! So I walked off to a tent so that it looked like I really was going to bed. Then, all I did was circle the tent and then hid behind the tents [sic] shade. When Mon-sheau went back into the tent, I got up from my hiding place and started for the tent. As I snuck up to the tent, two more henchmen, different from the ones from the plane, captured me. Then Mon-sheau came out from his tent and said, “Hello! I thought you were Sgt. Michael Holland of The Secret Service!” “Yeah, maybe I am! What’s it matter to you?” “Maybe nothing, but still just the same you are! Take him to the cellar. Maybe he won’t be so lucky now! And also maybe I’ll feed you to the alligators!” Mon-sheau said. “That wouldn’t be wise,” I said, “I bit my tongue once and tasted awful!” “Get out of here!” Mon-sheau said.
The henchmen took me to a deep dark cellar with barred windows under a regular looking tent. Then they locked me up with chains against the wall. As soon as they left, I got my chisel with my feet, and threw it up in the air. I caught it in my teeth and started moving my head so it would rub away the metal chains. About an hour later I finally cut the chains on both my left and right hand. I snuck to the door very quietly and saw the keys were still in the door! I said, “Good stuff! Now I can get out of here tonight!” I unlocked the door and had to fight my way out! It was kind of hard because I’m still sore from my bad arm in the plane crash and after the fight it hurt even more than before!
When I got out I headed straight for Mon-sheau’s tent. I went to the hole I cut but when I got to the hole I couldn’t find it! It must have been sewn up. So I finally found the spot because I saw the stitch going up and down. I cut even a smaller hole. I could barely even see it! But with my ACME micro lens I saw right through the atom hole ...
24 January, 2012
Aaron Sorkin wrote the Best Picture of 2011.
Sadly, you'll never see it.
Let me explain.
On rare occasions, I’m lucky to get the opportunity to read an A-list script before seeing its end product. Two wonderful experiences were the Ted Griffin-Steven Soderbergh ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (better than the original, another rare occasion) and the wholly underrated by anyone who hasn’t read or seen it; Joss Whedon’s Pilot for ‘Firefly.’ I loved both those scripts and eagerly looked forward to seeing what Cast & Crew would bring to them. In both instances, Cast & Crew shined.
Flash forward to now (ish) when I get the opportunity to read the Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book ‘Moneyball.’ (Note there that I write Zaillian and Sorkin, not Zaillian & Sorkin, and that’s intentional, but more on that in a bit.) The ‘Moneyball’ script is breathtaking; and, no, I’m not using that word lightly. If you don’t believe me, have a little breath taken for yourself right here:
Sure, it’s moving, funny, uplifting, honest, enlightening, surprising; all the great things we want in great movies. And, sure, people see Sorkin’s name and jump on board (I did) but I’ll go ahead and give Zaillian his due credit right now. If you don’t know his name off-hand, how about these? ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘Gangs Of New York’ and ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ just off the top of my head. But then get a rewrite from Aaron Sorkin – and this is what I meant about “and” and “&;” Sorkin did a rewrite, they didn’t write it together – and how could it not be great? Sorkin’s the master of witty pace and dialogue, not to mention he’s living in his wheelhouse: the behind-the-scenes look at something (in this case baseball, but he’s hit it out of the park with a sports show, The White House and late night sketch comedy). Honestly, how could it not be great?
Well, the script is. It’s better than great. As I say, breathtaking.
But the end product? Um ...
To be fair, a couple of things to level the playing field. First of all, scripts in general aren’t meant to be read by the theatre going public. I’ll say this very quickly, and certainly don’t mean to insult anyone, but, to be honest, most people don’t know how to read a script (just like most people don’t know how to watch dailies; but I digress). More importantly, movies (and TV shows) are the end product of a hundred – hundreds – of different people coming together to make that end product. So the script, like the Director and Grip and Script Supervisor and Sound Designer and Publicity Agent, are there to serve The Story. It’s a blueprint by which everyone will build their movie. Looooots of chefs in the kitchen (and, to continue being fair, that’s usually a good thing). But reading a Script and then seeing its end product? It’s rare. (But if you get the opportunity, gooooolden.) Add to that THIS minor inconvenience to all involved with ‘Moneyball,’ I got to read the script and see the movie ON THE SAME DAY. So that’s not easy for any Cast & Crew. After all, I had all these wonderful expectations very fresh in my mind’s eye going into the viewing and … well …
But first, more play-field leveling.
For second of all, the only version of the script I got to read was Sorkin’s. I’m sure there’s a version of Zaillian’s original floating somewhere out there, but I sadly haven’t seen it (and before writing this, I looked), so if anyone can, please send it to me. But I read a lot of Sorkin. Let me say that again. I read a lot of Sorkin. I don’t just WATCH ‘A Few Good Men’ and ‘Malice’ and ‘American President’ and ‘Sports Night’ and ‘West Wing’ and ‘Studio 60,’ I READ as much of his as I can. So I recognize his pace, his verbal hiccups, his style. And it explodes in this script. Not just is it stat filled (natch) it’s stat filled in a way that makes someone like me who can at-best SPELL the word “sports” follow what’s going on. And then, beyond the baseball, it’s that wonderful behind-the-scenes style of his. The failure and triumph. The family. The love and loss. The guys working together, fighting together, and their women looking in on them (and they so much stronger than the working and fighting). It’s great STORY. Really, Sorkin at the top of his game.
But the movie? I’m sorry, I really am, but it's ...
I promised myself that I wouldn’t compare and contrast – after all, spoilers! – so I won’t say, “there’s this great scene in the script where” and then argue why it should have been in the film. What I will say, simply, is that all of the script’s HEART doesn’t make it into the film. It tries, and I give Cast & Crew a lot of credit for trying. But all the CHARM of the script either falls flat or simply isn’t there.
All right, I lied. One (not spoilerish) moment. This is the scene right after Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) doesn’t get his player from The Cleveland Indians and (basically) meets Jonah Hill’s character (Pete in the film, Paul in the script).
INT. INDIANS’ FRONT OFFICE - LATER
BILLY comes into a bullpen with many cubicles. He walks through the cubicle maze, looking over the partitions, until he finds the preppy kid from Shapiro’s office.
I’m going to talk like this in a
congenial way and smile and nod
like we know each other and you
do the same.
Who the fuck are you?
I’m Paul DePodesta.
I don’t give a shit what your name is.
You just asked me who--
What are you doing? What do you do?
I’m a statistician.
I don’t give a fuck.
Well again, you--
You just cost me a left-handed set-up
I’m sorry about that.
I like Rincon.
(raising his voice)
You like Rincon? You like Rincon? Who
the fuck are you?
I don’t care! I have never heard of you.
I have no earthly idea who you are. I
want to know why Mark Shapiro listens
He doesn’t most of the time.
He just did. So tell me what--
I’m in seven fantasy baseball leagues
and I win all seven every year.
And now BILLY’s stepped off the edge of the world...
I win at fantasy baseball.
You win at...?
BILLY’s nose to nose with Paul now...
Did I misunderstand you or did you
say that you’re here because you
win at fantasy baseball?
I’d imagine it’s easier when you’re
playing with fantasy money. You ever
play actual baseball?
I was the equipment manager at Harvard.
Can I give you some advice?
There’s no other first baseman like
Giambi so I think it’s a waste of
time to look for the summer stock
(pause--a little stunned)
That’s...What? That’s exactly what I
said. I said that exact same thing
yesterday except I said dinner theater
instead of summer stock.
BILLY’s thrown off now...something tells him he wants to keep talking to PAUL but he doesn’t want to admit it.
Some summer stock is good.
Some dinner theater is good.
Why are you talking to me?
Do you understand how conversations work?
Alright. I’m done here.
You’re saying statistically there’s no
first baseman like Giambi.
My statistics or your statistics?
They’re statistics, they’re the same.
No they’re not and that’s your problem.
I don’t have a problem.
You don’t have Rincon either.
But BILLY just stands there...
You’re actually just standing here.
Now I’m leaving.
BILLY exits down the hallway and disappears, but PAUL stays out there. After a moment, BILLY reappears.
Sorry, I’m not really sure what to write there except, “?!” I hope it comes across as a typed emoticon for, “How the fuck do you WRITE a scene as good as that?!”
I promise I won’t continue pulling direct references. For one reason, it’s simply too depressing that a scene as good as that was cut into the imitation that appears in the film. Because this is a key moment. This is the moment that made us believe in the Pete character and “thinking his way,” believing his crazy idea could work, that everything Billy Beane, clearly a smart guy, a clever guy, a good General Manager, has done hasn’t worked so far, and he might try something as crazy as this to help his team win. Not to mention Pete doesn’t totally back down in front of this giant (I love the statistic exchange that ends with, “You don’t have Rincon either.”) This was THE SCENE. But the scene in the film? Most of the feeling throughout the film? You’re not sure why Beane would have tried this. In fact, in the movie, you kinda agree with everyone arguing with him. But have this scene? Have an exchange like, “I win at Fantasy Baseball” and have it mean EVERYTHING? Priceless. And I don’t want to take anything away from Mr. Pitt or Mr. Hill (both, at press, nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively). They’re actually very good in the film, as, honestly, they generally are. And I was excited at the prospect of seeing them rattle off Sorkin dialogue. But, alas, there just isn’t all that much Sorkin in this film. Scenes, moments, sure. But the film isn’t given the chance at half as good of material as Sorkin’s script is. (And not just their characters, but nearly all of them. For instance, I cried when reading the script – read that again if you have to, I cried when simply reading the script – as Scott Hatteberg is brought on the team and his wife overhears the good news from the kitchen. Ready to beat the dead horse? In the script, literally breathtaking. In the movie? No better than “eh.” And that IS sad.)
So what happened?
Who dropped the Moneyball?
The short answer is, obviously, whomever made the decision to not go with Sorkin’s rewrite. As I say, I haven’t had the chance to read Zaillian’s original, so I don’t know if the film went back to his or is yet someone else’s uncredited rewrite of Sorkin’s rewrite of Zaillian’s original. (Follow that?) So is the short answer we blame the director, Bennett Miller? Possibly. After all, a film’s director can shoot any version of any script he or she wishes. But, to be fair, he did ‘Capote’ and that was a very good film. (The always wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman is in ‘Moneyball’ as well.) And Miller’s DIRECTION here – camera placement, overall pace, actors’ performances, overall EXECUTION – is perfectly fine. He knows how to direct a movie. But did he pick the right script? (While ‘Moneyball’ was nominated for Best Picture – sorry to the hard work done by their Cast & Crew, but yawn – Miller wasn’t nominated for Best Director.) Or was Miller over-ridden by one of the (again, sorry, yawn) eight producers (of which Mr. Pitt himself is one)?
I don’t know; nor am I writing the great ‘Moneyball’ Making Of, so, to be fair, I’m not digging too deep to find out. After all, that isn’t what my writing this is about. I simply couldn’t help but say, “But have you read the script?!” ‘Cause THAT’S the movie. And if THAT movie had been made, it’d not only win Best Picture, but become an instant classic, rivaling that of 'The Babe Ruth Story,' ‘The Natural’ and ‘Jerry Maguire.’
As I was saying, it’s always dangerous for any end product to read its script – especially one by Sorkin – and then see its Movie or TV Show immediately after. Your mind’s eye simply carries too much into it. Of course, with something like his own ‘Few Good Men’ through ‘Studio 60’ – and the much anticipated HBO series 'The Newsroom' – he had some control to continue his pace into that of the actors and editing. But that doesn’t mean an auteur can’t bring something of their own to it. Reiner did brilliantly with both ‘Few Good Men’ and 'American President,' as did Fincher with ‘Social Network.’ Their Cast & Crew ENHANCED the work. But I’m sad to say – and it is genuinely saddening – Miller’s Cast & Crew – and these are hundreds of really talented people – just didn’t get it. I think it’s best summed up in a quote my dear friend Diana Kongkasem shared with me (this about Clint Eastwood being a writer’s director).
“I’ve learned that when you have a good draft of a script, you just shouldn’t mess with it anymore. When I worked with Don Siegel, he’d get a script he liked and say, ‘Let’s not kill it with improvement.’”
When trying to catch the badly thrown ‘Moneyball,’ at the very least, we can be proud that the script is, at press, also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. And if The Powers That Be have any sense at all, any legitimate power, they’ll ignore the movie while giving