Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Wild Tales": Flying the Unfriendly Skies

There can’t be anyone who hasn’t heard by now the story of Andreas Lubitz. He was, of course, the Germanwings co-pilot who seems to have deliberately slammed a plane carrying 150 people into a mountain peak in the French Alps. The possibility of a suicidal maniac at the controls is just one more reason for all of us to shudder when thinking about our next trip into the “friendly skies.” But I didn’t expect the full horror of the situation to hit me at my local movie house.

Last weekend I finally caught up with Wild Tales (or Relatos Selvajes) the darkly comic film from Argentina that was nominated for the 2015 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. Written and directed by Damián Szifrón, and produced by Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, Wild Tales is a morbid but hilarious exploration of people behaving badly. This anthology film brings together six short vignettes united by the theme of revenge. Here the grotesque is the norm: death by rat poison, death by butcher knife, grim encounters with a hammer and an oversized mirror. One segment, “El Más Fuerte,” is a rapidly escalating tale about the consequences of road rage. Another, which translates as “Till Death Do Us Part,” kicks off with a joyous wedding reception, then introduces jealousy, sex, an orgy of destruction, and a blood-stained bridal gown. The stories are carefully crafted, and the ending of each is rarely predictable. (In one case a vengeful explosion turns a sad-sack into a local hero.) Basically, though, it’s hard to tell which comes off  worse: Argentina’s tangled government bureaucracy or basic human nature.

The opening segment, called simply “Pasternak,” is the one that took my breath away. It starts out with an attractive young woman, a fashion model, showing up for an airline flight. Once aloft, she discovers that each and every one of her fellow passengers has some sort of long-ago connection with her former boyfriend, a fellow named Gabriel Pasternak. There’s a music critic who barred his way into a conservatory, a teacher who labeled him hopeless, a shrink who failed to help him solve his problems, a best friend who let him down . . . .  And guess who turns out to be the purser on the flight, the one who’s just barricaded himself in the cockpit? There’s a final twist that I won’t spoil: it’s simultaneously delicious and horrible. Yes, life sometimes imitates art, but this coincidental overlapping of screenplay and current events was (not just for me, I’m certain) a bit too close for comfort.

But leave it to the Argentineans to look at the world through a glass, darkly. (I guess the cynical Argentine approach to life reflects a bizarre national history that includes, among other oddities, the eccentric regime of Juan and Evita Perón.) When I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons, I was privileged to work with Héctor Olivera, best known for a sardonic 1983 political film, Funny Dirty Little War, that won international prizes. Though Héctor, a courtly white-haired gentleman, was a respected filmmaker in his own country, he seemed happy enough to direct Concorde schlock like Barbarian Queen and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. We’d come up with the scripts, send a few leading actors down Argentine way, and let Héctor do the rest. I worked directly with him on Two to Tango, an English-language version of an Argentine hit-man thriller, and on Play Murder for Me. (Yes, I have credits on both films.) 

Muchas gracias to Argentine journalist (and Facebook buddy) Andrés Fevrier for reminding me of those wild and crazy days. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Christopher Plummer Makes an Impression

Today the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of The Sound of Music will bring Captain Von Trapp to his knees. As part of the festivities, Christopher Plummer has been invited to leave his handprints in the forecourt of Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theatre. And he’s tickled pink about the honor.

I’ve been a bit in love with Christopher Plummer since long before I ever saw him perform. As a stage-struck kid in SoCal, I read plays and kept up with Broadway news. Several of the shows in which Plummer starred were so entrancing on the page that I knew he must have been wonderful. My tastes were rather literary, and I loved J.B., a verse drama by the poet Archibald MacLeish that used a circus tent as a setting for a stylized rendition of the Biblical story of Job. Under Elia Kazan’s direction, Pat Hingle played an Everyman figure caught in the middle of a tussle between a God-like Raymond Massey and a Satanic Plummer. Of course it was the dark role played by Plummer that captured my imagination. In the following decade, he took on another near-demonic figure in Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt for the Sun. This time he was the ruthless conquistador Francisco Pizarro, butting heads with the noble and doomed Incan lord Atahualpa (played in a loincloth by, of all people, David Carradine!)

I never saw Plummer perform the great Shakespearean roles: Iago (opposite James Earl Jones), Macbeth, King Lear. I was, however, dazzled by his portrayal of the swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac, in a version of Rostand’s play televised in 1962 on the wonderful old Hallmark Hall of Fame.  

And of course the man has made movies. The Sound of Music was one of his very first feature films, and the role of the gloomy widower who blossoms into Julie Andrews’ romantic swain never struck me as ideal casting for Plummer. But he plunged into movie-making, appearing in many guises in everything from Inside Daisy Clover to The Return of the Pink Panther to A Beautiful Mind to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In 1999’s The Insider (based on a true story about the evil machinations of Big Tobacco) he won acclaim for his impersonation of TV journalist Mike Wallace. He was first nominated for an Oscar in 2010, playing a dying Tolstoy in The Last Station, then took home a statuette two years later, as another dying man who owns up to his homosexuality in the rueful Beginners. (At 82, he was the oldest person ever to win an acting Oscar.)

Now he’s featured in the new Al Pacino film, Danny Collins. This and other upcoming roles appeal to him because, as he told the L.A. Times, “they're not all boring, old men dying.  Even though I am kind of 85 now, I think I can pass for late 60s, 70, so maybe there's a few more years yet. I'd love to play a dashing young thing, though, who jumps in and out of Rolls Royces, who has a huge wardrobe that I could take home afterward.”

Plummer’s still-youthful spirit was well on display a year ago when he brought to L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre a selection of brilliant words, brilliantly spoken. A Word or Two is a one-man show devoted to his love of the gorgeous language of poets and playwrights. It’s highly personal but not confessional: we learn next to nothing about his three marriages nor his feelings toward Julie Andrews. What we do learn is how a lonely little boy took to Lewis Carroll, and to Shakespeare, finding joy in speaking great words aloud.   

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Inside Scoop on Newsies (and Joseph Pulitzer)

Newsies is coming to town.  The roadshow version of the Broadway musical will be setting up shop in Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre this week. Although on Broadway Newsies was nominated for eight Tony Awards, the motion picture that inspired it did not do nearly so well. It was released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1992, not exactly a golden year for musicals on the big screen. As a movie, Newsies was a financial and critical flop: the only awards for which it was considered  were Razzies in several categories. The producer of Newsies, Roger Corman alumnus Mike Finnell, earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Picture. And  the great Alan Menken (of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast fame) actually won a Razzie trophy for the year’s Worst Song.

Yet somehow the much maligned movie has become a cult hit, with youthful fans aplenty. It’s fun to look back on it, and see exactly who was involved. Among the singing and dancing New Yawk newsboys who go out on strike against Joseph Pulitzer’s World, the most prominent is played by none other than an eighteen-year-old Christian Bale. (He took on this role some three years after he shot to fame as an incarcerated English schoolboy in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, Empire of the Sun.) And Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher who’s pretty much the villain of the piece, is portrayed by one of Hollywood’s finest, Robert Duvall.

 Yes, in 1899 there really was a short period in which a band of scruffy newsboys, who purchased newspapers wholesale so as to make a living hawking them on New York street corners, did strike against the World, as well as William Randolph Hearst’s Journal. Leave it to Disney to add some romance, some picturesque physical jeopardy, and some razzle-dazzle song and dance routines. But the real story shows up in my colleague James McGrath Morris’s fascinating biography of Pulitzer. In order to cut expenses, “The World raised the wholesale price of the paper from 50 cents per 100 to 60 cents. . . . Trimming a dime from a newsboy’s take might not seem like much. But when this amount was spread over the paper’s vast circulation, it could make up an entire annual deficit of nearly $1 million. Pulitzer’s managers bet that the ragtag collection of immigrant children, who often didn’t even speak the same language, could hardly put up much resistance. They were wrong.”

 To crush the strike, the World recruited homeless men as scabs. They were quickly attacked by the newsies, and the bad publicity proved an embarrassment to Pulitzer and company. They offered the strikers a sop: permission to return unsold newspapers for credit. Within a week, the strike was over. Morris comments, “The World was the richest and most successful newspaper enterprise in the nation. At any time Pulitzer could have put an end to the strike by giving the boys a chance to sell the World at the same rate as they sold other papers. But he chose not to. Although he himself had once been a teenager living on the streets of New York, Pulitzer showed no mercy over a dime.”

The contradictions in Pulitzer’s life are dazzling. As an immigrant boy fleeing anti-Semitism in Hungary, he started with next to nothing. His pluck, determination, and verbal skills led him to Horatio Alger-type success. He lives on in his contributions to the journalism school at Columbia University, including the prizes that bear his name. But his was not a happy ending. Jamie Morris has a great – and maybe a movie-worthy -- tale to tell. 

Biographer James McGrath Morris (whose most recent achievement is “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press”) will be a featured speaker at the sixth annual conference of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, on June 5-6, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The public is most welcome! 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Inside the Room -- Hanging Out with the TV Mavens at UCLA Extension Writers' Program

Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s been (gulp!) two decades since I started teaching screenwriting workshops through UCLA Extension’s world-famous Writers’ Program. I’ve realized over the years that, although I know a great deal about screenwriting, I don’t have a clue when it comes to writing for television. That’s why I approached with great interest a 2013 publication edited by Linda Venis, who directs UCLA Extension’s Department of the Arts. The book is Inside the Room: Writing Television with the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. (The companion volume, which deals with writing for the big screen, is called Cut to the Chase.)

The room in the book’s title refers to the place where a writing staff meets regularly, under the direction of a showrunner, to hone ideas into workable TV episodes. The art of collaboration is one of many things that contributors to this volume have to teach. As veteran TV writer Alison Lea Bingerman warns, in a chapter titled “Launching and Sustaining a Television Writing Career,” “I’ve watched several writers’ careers go south because they always  had to be the smartest kid in the room.” 

While giving constructive advice, the book also introduces us to a lot of jargon that TV writers favor: the cold open, the act out, the callback, the tag, the bible, for starters. Contributors Julie Chambers and David Chambers (whose credits include The Simpsons) are particularly good at coming up with snappy aphorisms like “Think and write in screen time.” They give specific tips for how to shape a comedy spec, while others clue us in on writing dramatic specs and pilot.

Screenwriters too start off their careers by circulating spec scripts, but they do not generally base them—as TV writers do—on existing characters and premises. Joel Anderson Thompson, who’s written for House M.D., advises readers to “think of writing a spec as being allowed to throw a big party in someone else’s house while she’s out of town. You can do almost anything you want, so long as you maintain the owner’s level of cleanliness and leave her furniture in the same place.” Phil Kellard (who produced My Two Dads) clarifies: “When you write a spec of a current show, you have the distinct advantage of working with an established world and characters; you are following a template. This is where aspiring sitcom writers need to start their education.—you’re Picasso copying the great masters of figurative art; after that, you can invent Cubism or write a sitcom pilot.”

Perhaps my favorite chapter is Richard Hatem’s “The TV Year,” in which the reader imagines herself coming up with a spec idea for a pilot, refining it, pitching it, writing it, recalibrating it, selling it, casting it, shooting it, and then waiting for that golden moment when it will—or won’t—become a network series. Hatem knows enough about TV to remind us of what works: “Television is about comfort first and novelty second.” And he knows enough about human nature to warn the reader about the emotional toll that this field can exact: “You know that you will feel bad if your pilot is not produced. You will instantly put on ‘the failure coat,’ that heavy, wet garment you’ve spent so many years schlepping around in, feeling embarrassed and ashamed and angry and self-loathing in varying degrees.

(I admit it: been there, done that.) 

Hatem  concludes, “It’s a horrible feeling, but it is familiar. It’s a part of your life, and there’s not much you can do about it. Like rain in Portland, it’s just the cost of doing business.”

Spring quarter at UCLA Extension starts soon. For more information, phone The Writers’ Program at 310-825-9415 or visit www.writers.uclaextension.edu  Online as well as on-ground course offerings make it possible for students worldwide to take advantage of The Writers’ Program’s many offerings.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

“In Bruges”: On St. Patrick’s Day, Here’s Blood in Your Eye

 Well, no, I’m not Irish, not even a wee bit. But Ireland seems to keep cropping into my thoughts. I’ve played Irish characters in long-ago school plays. My favorite authors include James Joyce and (more recently) Colm Tóibín. One of my favorite recent vacations was a trip to the Emerald Isle.

 Even my moviegoing experiences are starting to take on an Irish coloration. Years ago, I fell for a glorious little indie, Waking Ned Devine, which was full of  wild Irish deviltry and a dollop of black humor. (Who can forget the late David Kelly as the naked old man on the motorcycle?) I’m also a fan of Dublin-born Jim Sheridan’s emotional take on the Irish Diaspora, In America. Last summer I was captivated by a somber drama about an Irish priest facing his own mortality. Calvary, which starred Brendan Gleeson, was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, who has also shown he can be funny in The Guard, pairing Gleeson with Don Cheadle as a very mismatched pair of law-enforcement types. (Call it Ireland’s offbeat answer to Lethal Weapon.)

But on this St. Patrick’s Day I’m here to talk about John Michael McDonagh’s kid brother, Martin. Born in 1970, Martin McDonagh is today considered one of Ireland’s most important playwrights. I don’t know all of McDonagh’s stage work, which includes such award-winners as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman. I did, though, see The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which starts out like many another rural Irish gabfest, complete with fiddle music and a cozy cottage set, but ends with one of the most startling conclusions I’ve ever witnessed in a theatre. Suffice it to say that if you’ve experienced The Lieutenant of Inishmore, you won’t soon forget it.

Even while winning acclaim for his theatre work, Martin McDonagh has been obsessed with film. It’s been said that he counts among his biggest artistic influences such cinema greats as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Quentin Tarantino. No surprise: he too leans toward projects that blend comedy and cruelty, and he too has a fascination with bloodshed.  In 2004, McDonagh, wrote, produced, and directed Six Shooter, a morose tale that won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. This success led to the opportunity to make In Bruges in 2008 for Focus Features.

In Bruges is set in a Belgian city known for its pristine medieval architecture. It was filmed on location to take advantage of the local splendor, but In Bruges is not the best possible advertisement for tourism. Within the film, there is sinister activity at every turn: robbery, drug-dealing, assault, even murder. At its core is yet another odd couple, two hitmen laying low after a bungled job in England. Both are Irish-born, but as played by Colin Farrell and the inevitable Brendan Gleeson they are as different as can be. Gleeson’s Ken is stolid, philosophical, resigned. He’s charmed by Bruges. Farrell’s Ray, by contrast, is twitchy, given to emotional outbursts. He hates Bruges. In fact, at one point he concludes, “Maybe that's what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges.”

 There’s one more key character, played by Ralph Fiennes as a brutal crime boss with an unexpected moral code. Throughout we feel the sort of sardonic sentimentality of which the Irish are somehow capable. 

I don’t know if In Bruges has traveled to the Middle East, but McDonagh’s stage work is surprisingly popular in Iran’s capital. I wonder how they celebrate St. Pat’s in Tehran. By donning a kelly-green chador, maybe?  

Erin go Bragh!