03 December, 2012

Make. Good. Art.







               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

Mon-sheau And Those Russian Nazis


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.

… got into my car, I stepped on the gas and left.  When I got on the freeway, three Porches [sic] started following me.  I said, “Oh well, I guess I’ll have trouble with Mon-sheau after all.”  I started to go even faster toward the airport.  When I got there, my private plane was ready.  As I got into my plane, Mon-sheau put two henchmen into the cockpit.  They were the pilot and co-pilot.  Of course, I didn’t know that, but went on it anyways. 
            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

Who Dropped The 'Moneyball?'

            

            Aaron Sorkin wrote the Best Picture of 2011.
            
            Sadly, you'll never see it.
            
            Let me explain.
            
            On rare occasions, I’m lucky enough to get 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 to read the Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book ‘Moneyball.’  (Note there I wrote 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: 

           [Editor's Note:  A link to the script was here but, as of the 2014 Sony hack, "Sorkin's draft" -- before it was rewritten yet again after Director Bennett Miller came on -- has been deleted.]  

Sure, [Sorkin's script] is moving, funny, uplifting, honest, enlightening, surprising;  all the great things we want in a movie.  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.'  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.  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.  And 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 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 all 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 … 

       But first, more play-field leveling.

       The only version of the script I've read is Sorkin’s.  I’m sure there’s a version of Zaillian’s original out there -- and before Soderbergh made his rewrite when he was Directing -- but I sadly haven’t seen it (and before writing this, I looked).  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 really do read as much of his as I can.  So I recognize his pace, his verbal hiccups, his style.  And they explode 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.  Family.  Love and loss.  Guys working together, fighting together, and their women looking in on them (and they often 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, it's just ...

       I promised myself 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.    

BILLY
        Hi.

PAUL
        Yes sir.

BILLY
        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.

PAUL
        Okay.

BILLY
        Who the fuck are you?

PAUL
        I’m Paul DePodesta.

BILLY
        I don’t give a shit what your name is.

PAUL
        You just asked me who--

BILLY
        What are you doing? What do you do?

PAUL
        I’m a statistician.

BILLY
        I don’t give a fuck.

PAUL
        Well again, you--

BILLY
        You just cost me a left-handed set-up
        man.

PAUL
        I’m sorry about that.

BILLY
        You’re sorry?

PAUL
        I like Rincon.

BILLY
            (raising his voice)
        You like Rincon? You like Rincon? Who
        the fuck are you?

PAUL
        Paul Depo--

BILLY
        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
        to you.

PAUL
        He doesn’t most of the time.

BILLY
        He just did. So tell me what--

PAUL
        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...

BILLY
            (long pause)
        What?

PAUL
        I win at fantasy baseball.

BILLY
        You win at...?

PAUL
        Fantasy baseball.

BILLY’s nose to nose with Paul now...

BILLY
            (calmly)
        Did I misunderstand you or did you
        say that you’re here because you
        win at fantasy baseball?

PAUL
        I do.

BILLY
        I’d imagine it’s easier when you’re
        playing with fantasy money. You ever
        play actual baseball?

PAUL
        I was the equipment manager at Harvard.

BILLY
            (pause)
        Wow.

PAUL
        Can I give you some advice?

BILLY
        Absolutely not.

PAUL
        There’s no other first baseman like
        Giambi so I think it’s a waste of
        time to look for the summer stock
        version.

BILLY
            (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.
            (beat)
        Same idea.

PAUL
        Yeah.

BILLY
        Yeah.

BILLY’s thrown off now...something tells him he wants to keep talking to PAUL but he doesn’t want to admit it.

BILLY
        Some summer stock is good.

PAUL
        Some dinner theater is good.

BILLY
        Why are you talking to me?

PAUL
        Do you understand how conversations work?

BILLY
            (pause)
        Alright. I’m done here.
            (pause)
        You’re saying statistically there’s no
        first baseman like Giambi.

PAUL
        My statistics or your statistics?

BILLY
        They’re statistics, they’re the same.

PAUL
        No they’re not and that’s your problem.

BILLY
        I don’t have a problem.

PAUL
        You don’t have Rincon either.

BILLY
        I’m leaving.

But BILLY just stands there...

PAUL
            (pause)
        You’re actually just standing here.

BILLY
            (pause)
        Now I’m leaving.

BILLY exits down the hallway and disappears, but PAUL stays out there.  After a moment, BILLY reappears.

BILLY
        Show me.



      ?!

       Sorry, I’m not sure what to write there except, “?!”  I guess I'll try, “How 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 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 one 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 enough Sorkin in this film.  Scenes, moments, sure.  But the film isn’t given the chance at half as good of material his script.  (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 – when 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?
                
       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, actors’ performances, pace – 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, “With everyone that seems to love the movie, has anyone 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 'Brian's Song.'  And ‘Jerry Maguire.’  And ...

       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 any auteur -- and God I hate that word -- 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 sad – this moneyball got dropped.  

       Perhaps it’s best summed up in a quote my dear Diana shared with me;  this from Clint Eastwood on 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.’” 

       Hear hear.

       At the very least, we can be proud that Sorkin's draft 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 Zailian and Sorkin The Oscar two years in a row.