Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Among the Magnolias

Halloween should be a wild and crazy night in Magnolia Park. When I visited in late September, this lively section of Burbank (on Magnolia Blvd., east of Hollywood Way) was already gearing up for haunted holiday fun. Yummy Cupcakes was touting “Spooktober – 31 Days of Monstrous Cupcakes,” and the various funky vintage clothing boutiques were luring customers with racks of trick-or-treat-worthy finery. I was in Magnolia Park to visit Dark Delicacies, which calls itself the Home of Horror. (It specializes in scary books and videos; owners Del and Sue Howison are huge fans of my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers.) At Dark Delicacies, it’s Halloween all year ‘round. The same clearly holds true for Halloween Town, a neighboring business crammed so full of elaborate monster memorabilia – like the skeleton of a two-headed baby -- that it had to  move its costume store to a separate building down the street.

It’s fitting that Magnolia Park is bordered by Hollywood Way, because there’s something very Hollywood about this stretch of the middle-brow city of Burbank. Shoppers who venture here are looking for something outlandish, like an antique lamp or a retro evening gown. Even the names of the stores – Junk for Joy, Pimp My Pooch, Hubba Hubba (which advertises “1930s thru 60s Cool Stuff for Guys n’ Dolls”) – suggest the notion of shopping as entertainment. There’s also a spray tanning spot called Blush, as well as a salon with the monicker Wax Poetic. The area offers edibles too, of course, ranging from the healthy to the gooey. Rocket Fizz bills itself as an old-fashioned soda and candy shop. The last Friday of the month has become Magnolia Park’s official Ladies' Night Out, complete with discounts, music, wine, food trucks, and henna, to suit the tastes of hip women on the go.  

Along with all the recreational shopping opportunities, Magnolia Park seems to specialize in services for those with showbiz aspirations. This isn’t a huge surprise, since Burbank is the home of  Disney, Warner Bros., and many movie and TV production companies. It’s a Wrap thrift shop offers what it calls “production wardrobe sales,” geared to those who covet Hollywood fashion sense. (Maybe you too can dress like Don Draper!) The Awards Studio advertises media make-up classes. A print shop announces its rates for script copying. Elsewhere, beneath a sign that proclaims “Studio Rental by the Hour,” there are spaces available for film shoots, casting sessions, props and wardrobe storage.

Right next door to Dark Delicacies is a business that caters totally to movie folk.  The Writers Store is the place where I first – circa 1983 -- touched a computer keyboard and heard the magic word Microsoft. For years it was located on Westwood Blvd. in West Los Angeles, but now it’s firmly ensconced in Magnolia Park. The Writers Store is the place to go when you want to buy movie-related software, browse how-to-write-a-screenplay books, take classes, or sign up for a consultation with a technology expert. Tell Mario I said Hi.

I’m not sure how the Writers Store plans to celebrate Halloween, but there’s no question that Dark Delicacies will be going all out. So will Halloween Town and 8-Ball, which sells old movie posters and vintage horror art. And next year at this time they’ll be joined by Creature Features, where you can buy a kit to build your favorite monster. If you like things that go bump in the night, it’s clear Magnolia Park is the place to be. Even if there’s not an actual magnolia tree in sight. Which makes things perhaps even spookier. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

“Cut to the Chase": The Wit and Wisdom of UCLA Extension Screenwriters

Despite what you might have heard, most screenwriters don’t lead glamorous lives. In Hollywood they’re a lot like Rodney Dangerfield: they get no respect. Even when a writer is lucky enough to sell a screenplay, it often gets rewritten to the point of being unrecognizable. That’s because everybody – the producer, the director, the star, the producer’s girlfriend – wants to have a hand in shaping the final draft. Especially these days, the original ending may wind up being scrapped if it doesn’t test well with a preview audience. And all too many movies bear the stamp of being designed by committee.

Many’s the writer who finds himself (or herself) barred from the set. That was the case with Diane Lake, who wrote the original draft of the Oscar-nominated Frida, the Frida Kahlo biopic (starring Selma Hayek) that won two Oscars and was nominated for four more. Lake also had to survive a messy arbitration process involving her writing credit on the film, along with competing claims from several others who contributed to the shooting script.

Still, creative people continue wanting to write movies. And UCLA Extension’s world-famous Writers’ Program is there to help make it happen. I’ve been fortunate to teach in the Writers’ Program since 1995. That’s where I first met Diane Lake, along with a host of talented screenwriters who are also gifted teachers. We teach in classrooms on the UCLA campus; we teach at satellite campuses spread across the L.A. area. And, more and more, we teach online, educating students all over the world about the art and the craft of screenwriting.

Now the ever-enterprising Linda Venis, director of UCLA Extension’s Department of the Arts, has compiled a new handbook tailor-made for aspiring screenwriters. Its full title is Cut to the Chase: Writing Feature Films with the Pros at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. A number of prize-winning instructors have contributed chapters that nicely demystify the screenwriting process. I read the book with great pleasure, enjoying practical tips on such matters as how to get started, how to use note cards to structure a story, how to shape scenes, and how to know when your work is finally finished. There are plenty of vivid examples, many of them culled from recent films. (The King’s Speech is a particular favorite.) And several chapters offer exercises I wish I’d thought of myself.  Philip Eisner’s contribution, “’Show, Don’t Tell’: Visual Screenwriting,” includes an exercise borrowed from the novelist John Gardner. Eisner habitually asks his students to “write a brief character sketch, using objects, landscape, weather, etc., to intensify the reader’s sense of the character. . . . The students must limit their descriptions to external, objective reality—the kinds of things a camera can film.” Here, says Eisner, is one student’s brief but powerful submission: “She rides in the passenger seat of a dark sedan, her hands tightly clutching the perfectly folded American flag.”

I’m reluctant to single out favorite chapters, but I truly enjoyed my buddy Karl Iglesias’s savvy suggestions about writing great dialogue. (As he notes, you should never underestimate the power of silence.) And Deborah Dean Davis’s blunt and funny essay on how to launch and sustain a screenwriting career is a hoot. (She gives clothing advice, marital advice, and suggestions about how the power of chutzpah can help you navigate the winding byways of Tinseltown.)

Will all this good advice change your life? Hard to say – but screenwriters from Earl W. Wallace (Witness) to Kevin Williamson (Scream) to Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight) have the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program to thank for jumpstarting their stellar Hollywood careers.

Aspiring writers might enjoy my talk at the San Fernando Valley branch of the California Writers Club this coming Saturday, November 2. Here’s the complete info.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Kids from Brooklyn: Danny (Kaye) and Sylvia (Fine) and Woody (Allen) and Spike (Lee)

It must be something in the water. Over the years, the number of talented people coming out of New York’s most populous borough has been staggeringly high. I recently toured the picturesque section called Brooklyn Heights, strolling through the neighborhood where Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, Thomas Wolfe struggled with Look Homeward, Angel, and Betty Smith explored domestic life in the popular novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ironically, they all wrote about misery while living with a view of the New York skyline that’s downright gorgeous.

Though newly home, I’m still in a New York state of mind. A young man I know and love is a budding writer of music theatre. A showcase of his original work -- Dorks, Drunks, and Dinosaurs: The Songs of Jeff Bienstock – just lit up the stage of a small but trendy cabaret theatre. The Laurie Beechman is on fabled 42nd Street, a few blocks west of Broadway.  Jeff, though, does not call Manhattan home.  One of his catchiest songs, “California Time,” may be a paean to his native Santa Monica. But, like so many young folks with creative aspirations, he’s turned into a Brooklynite.

Appropriately, I’ve just seen a small exhibit housed in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.  Called “Two Kids from Brooklyn,” it pays tribute to the careers of Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine. It’s accompanied by clips of Kaye in some of his many guises: clowning in films and on television, conducting the New York Philharmonic, serving as UNICEF ambassador to needy children around the globe. Kaye may have become a citizen of the world, but he started out in Brooklyn. And like so many entertainers of the day, he began by performing as a “tummler” (or comic master-of-ceremonies) in Borscht Belt summer resorts. That’s where he met another kid from Brooklyn, Sylvia Fine, who had a talent for writing witty songs. One of these, featuring a pseudo-French hat-maker called Anatole of Paris, was debuted by Kaye at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos. He later used it as the finale of his nightclub act, and in 1947 it became a dream sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Obviously, Sylvia Fine was a great help to Danny Kaye’s career. As she often put it, “He couldn’t afford to pay me so he married me.”

A later kid from Brooklyn, Woody Allen, didn’t hone his comic talents in the Catskills. Rather, while still in his teens, he was earning big bucks for supplying TV performers with material. His involvement with Sid Caesar put him in the company of some of the best comic writers in the business. By the Sixties, he was performing his own material, then went on to write, direct, and star in some of our best-loved films. His portraits of Jewish homelife in Brooklyn are iconic – I’ll never forget Alvy Singer’s family living under the roller coaster in Annie Hall – but Allen himself eventually moved to a two-story penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.    

Spike Lee has devoted much of his directing career to films with an unmistakable Brooklyn flavor. The gritty neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant has always been his particular territory, starting with his NYU thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.  Later Lee portraits of the area include the impish She’s Gotta Have It and the dark, disturbing Do The Right Thing.

In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta’s character finally makes it out of Brooklyn to start a better life in Manhattan. Today’s Brooklynites prefer to stay put, but I hope some of them make it to Broadway.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fathers and Sons: The Pickle Family Lives On

Ever hear of the Pickle Family Circus? It was a purebred Northern California creation from the 1970s, evolving out of the satirical San Francisco Mime Troupe and adding a whole lot of juggling. One of the Pickles was Bill Irwin, who later clowned on Broadway in Fool Moon and then won a Tony for a deadly serious role in the 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (On film, he was the dad in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married; children know him as Mr. Noodle from Sesame Street.)

I knew about Bill Irwin. But not until I saw Humor Abuse at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum did I ever heard of  Larry Pisoni. Humor Abuse is a fascinating one-man show in which Larry’s son, Lorenzo Pisoni, grapples with his father’s legacy. Lorenzo’s parents, Larry and Peggy, were Pickle Family founders. From a very young age, their young son was incorporated into the show, performing intricate and sometimes dangerous clowning routines. Lorenzo loved circus life, but winning favor from his hard-to-please father was sometimes tough. It was only in later years that Lorenzo came to realize the scope of Larry’s personal failings, and the extent to which they kept his dad from having a happy life.

An important point comes out late in the show: when a baby boy was born to the senior Pisonis, Larry gave Peggy two name choices for the new arrival: Lorenzo or Geppetto. As it happened, Larry’s own clown name was Lorenzo Pickle. And when pint-sized Lorenzo was old enough to perform, he joined his father for a Pinocchio routine, in which the spotlight was on Larry in the Geppetto role.  So, whichever name Peggy had chosen, she would have been naming her new son after his dad’s alter ego. Poignantly, when his circus years were long gone, Larry started introducing himself socially as Lorenzo. The real Lorenzo, of course, was disquieted by this borrowing of his personal nomenclature. So a play that’s chockfull of fun and games turns out, after all, to be an exploration of identity, and what it means to be a father’s son.

Seeing Humor Abuse made me realize how many father-and-son pairs exist in Hollywood. Some have been mutually supportive. (See, happily, Tom and Colin Hanks.) Others have had relationships that are fraught with tension. Peter Fonda, always at odds with his famous father Henry, consistently chose roles that the older Fonda would have found offensive. Just try imagining what the heroically all-American Henry Fonda, who’d starred as Abe Lincoln and Tom Joad, would have thought of his son’s renegade biker roles in The Wild Angels and Easy Rider. Many’s the Hollywood son who has never managed to live up to his father’s level of accomplishment and acclaim. (I’m thinking of Patrick Wayne, who was given forgettable roles in his father’s The Searchers, The Alamo, and The Green Berets.) But it also can be awkward when a son far surpasses his father’s screen achievements. Harry Hoffman, father of Dustin, was once a set decorator for Columbia Pictures. When a scene in The Graduate was being shot in the lobby of L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, Harry was invited to watch. As Dustin, in his first big movie role, cringed with embarrassment, his dad tried to get involved, offering his advice on the filmmaking process to anyone who’d listen.

Rance Howard was and is a working actor, one of those familiar faces that pop up in small roles in big films. His son Ron became a celebrity at age 5. More later about their very special relationship. (Maybe I’ll save it for Fathers’ Day.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sunset Boulevard: The Street Where Dreams Are Born

In the film version of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, schlockmeister Harry Zimm (known for his direction of the Slime trilogy) has a second-floor office on the Sunset Strip. Just overhead looms an enormous billboard featuring Angelyne, the buxom, bubble-headed blonde who for years epitomized somebody’s idea of Hollywood glamour.

Angelyne and the Sunset Strip just seem to go together. The perennial starlet and the winding thoroughfare that abuts the Hollywood Hills: both represent the triumph of style over substance. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is set west of the Strip, in that tony stretch of Beverly Hills where stars (and oil sheiks) have built opulent mansions. But as you drive east across the Beverly Hills border into West Hollywood, Sunset becomes a place of entertainment and commerce. Sidewalk cafés. Boutiques. Liquor stores. The Whisky a Go Go, where the Doors used to be the house band. The Roxy, where I saw Tim Curry in the U.S. debut of a stage musical called The Rocky Horror Show. The Viper Room, where River Phoenix died.

Some associate the Sunset Strip with a hit TV show about private eyes. But for me the Strip has always meant Roger Corman. In the course of his long career, Roger was several times headquartered on Sunset, and he often told me how much he enjoyed that locale. His very first office was over a quasi-British pub called The Cock ‘n’ Bull. In the Sixties, while shooting The Trip, he captured the swirl of night-time activity without permits, by seating his cameraman in a wheelchair and having him pushed through the throngs of young hippies who then crowded the Strip’s narrow sidewalks  

When I first came to work for Roger at New World Pictures, we were housed in a shabby penthouse suite at 8831 Sunset, reached by a rather sexy glass elevator. Tawdry movie posters hung everywhere (“It’s Always Harder at Night . . . for the Night Call Nurses”), except in Roger’s own office. On his walls, he favored large placards that had been given to him by a French producer after the 1968 student revolts in Paris. They were emblazoned with revolutionary slogans like «Salaires Légères, Chars Lourds» (“Light Salaries, Heavy Tanks”) and «Le Patron a Besoin de Toi, Tu n’as pas Besoin de Lui» (“The Boss Needs You, You Don’t Need the Boss”). These sentiments may have been fitting when Roger took on the Establishment with The Wild Angels, but they seemed curiously out of place as décor for a rising film producer known for his skinflint ways.

If we New World folk ventured out at lunchtime, we could cruise the aisles of the wonderful Tower Records, or eat sandwiches in a dim booth at the Ramada Inn coffee shop next door. I often brought a bag lunch, but there was no good place to eat it. So I’d wander the Strip, sometimes venturing into one of the posh residential enclaves just to the north. That’s where a man in a long white Bentley tried to pick me up, claiming there was a party at Robert Wagner’s place. No telling what might have happened if I’d gone along for the ride.

One thing that didn’t exist on the Strip in the early 1970s was a good place to buy books. Now, happily, there’s Book Soup, one of those classic independent bookstores that stoke the literary imaginations of serious readers. Right now, copies of my insider biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, are sitting on a Book Soup shelf, waiting for customers to give them a good home. Enough said.