Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lazy Sunday #369: Another Narrative At Play

This week I had the pleasure of seeing a wonderful new movie starring Al Pacino entitled “Danny Collins”.

Central to its plot is the difference between the life stories we tell and the realities of life itself.  Writer/Director Dan Fogelman confronts that from the film’s first frame with “This film is based on a true story –- a little bit”.

Any good story teller knows that any story changes according to imagination, personal bias and how you want to move your audience.

No writer fictionalizing a true story cleaves strictly to the facts. Facts get in the way. They complicate the flow of the narrative, hamper revelation of character, allow the audience to get ahead of you and generally screw up what could be a really great tale.

Journalists often hate their jobs because they are required to stick to the facts and as the man said, “Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense”.

And lately we’ve had a spate of high profile events where journalists opted for a really good story over telling the truth.

Ultimately, the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, was not a story of rogue cops and innocent victims. Yet many still recite the false “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” mantra.

Rolling Stone Magazine this week apologized for its Virginia State Fraternity Rape story after the Washington Post and other newspapers did the basic grunt work of their trade and found not only not a single shred of criminal evidence but plenty of proof that Rolling Stone’s editors had not done their jobs.

And yet that story is still up on the Rolling Stone website.

What these represent is the triumph of a narrative over a truth. Like any good conspiracy theory, a narrative that plays into our fears, our biases, our personal take on how the world works ultimately replaces reality. The narrative makes more sense to us than the harder and messier truth.

As an example -- many times every day, my social media feeds are filled with posts and reposts on GMO foods or climate change or secret government backroom deals that will eventually remove all of my human rights.

There may well be some truth to them. But I’ve been around long enough to know when somebody’s busily pushing my buttons. And that makes me ask “Who benefits most from this?”.

Some of you may dismiss the guy in the video that follows as just another corporate stooge paid to lie to you. But perhaps he is not. Perhaps he’s just somebody disturbing an accepted narrative with either some hard truths you don’t want to hear, or a side of the argument you’ve never experienced.

Give him a chance.

And Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 368: How To Be Annoying

I’m not sure if this was a good week or a bad one for the people who enjoy annoying other people.

On one side, actress Ashley Judd, after being threatened with sexual violence by Twitter trolls who didn’t like her playfully dissing their basketball team, sued her attackers.

On the other, actress Eva Mendes, similarly attacked for playfully dissing sweat pants, offered a retraction AND an apology.

A friend of mine recently asserted that it now takes three people to tell a joke. One to Tell it. One to laugh. And one to be offended.

Now maybe all of those third parties were always offended. I once dated a woman who insisted that jokes she didn’t find funny were actually thinly disguised attacks on the butt of their humor.

Needless to say, we didn’t last long.

But people either finding or manufacturing offense are becoming more common these days. Some days it feels like CNN, FOX and the CBC can’t fill their newscasts without finding something immensely unimportant to stoke outrage about.

And even though that might bolster some demographic, it succeeds at the same time in utterly annoying another.

I’ve always believed that Life is less about what happens than how you choose to deal with it. Because ultimately, you’re the one making the decision to be happy or sad –- or annoyed.

Let me give you an example.

Gluten.

According to Medical stats, less than 1% of the population is Gluten intolerant. Add another 1% for those with borderline issues. Yet “Gluten Free” is all the rage in the Foodie community.

Not long ago, a friend who serves as a Deacon in his church told me that a group of parishioners had lobbied for a Gluten Free Communion host –- those little wafers that represent the body of Christ.

He shook his head and added, “We checked. And they’re available”.

I imagined a coming Sunday at the altar rail as the acolyte with the regular wafers would be waived aside for the one with the more acceptable alternative.

So much for the “unworthy for the crumbs from thy table” homily, huh?

Now – you can feel annoyed about that. Or – you can be annoyed at me for not being sensitive to the Celiac afflicted. Or for something I’ve said about Christians.

But how about chuckling at the human condition and moving on.

If that’s tough for you, you might try the option of booking a life coach. Maybe one like JP Sears.

Sears is an authentic and professional emotional healing coach, international teacher and world traveler whose work empowers people to live more meaningful lives.

And one of the tools he uses in that work is humor.

Recently, Sears released a video on living Gluten free, which is actually a lesson in “How To Be Annoying” – or maybe how to realize you’re being annoying and look at who you are (or who’s annoying you) with some bemusement.

It works.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Clueless

Image result for jean pierre blais crtc

A decade of boneheaded moves by Canada’s broadcast regulator, the CRTC, were the original inspiration for this blog. And over its life I’ve repeatedly weighed in on just how dim-witted or out of touch our CRTC Commissioners have been with their decisions.

The last was a couple of months ago with the first rulings based on last year’s marathon “Let’s Talk TV” gong show set of hearings. The basic premise being that our regulators remain so far behind the current realities of the business that whatever they propose will do more harm than good.

I expected I’d write another when the second shoe related to unbundling was dropped, which it apparently will tomorrow. And I’d anticipated another when the Commission then moved to pay back the Broadcast Delivery Units (your cable guys) for the money they’ve lost as a result of the other recent decisions.

But JP Blais and his partners decided to make that their 2nd shoe last week, eliminating Canadian content rules for daytime hours, no longer enforcing genre protection (as if anybody adhered to their genre anyway) and pushing for quality over quantity.

Blais acknowledged that no decision by the CRTC makes all of its stakeholders happy, perhaps hoping to calm the expected storm from negatively impacted Creatives, Independent Producers and Canadian nationalists.

But I took it as an admission that, as always, they just really don’t have a clue.

A couple of obvious examples (at least obvious to anybody who has actually created a TV show or followed the history of same) regarding the quality over quantity shift:

1. Just because you spend a lot of money on a show does not mean that more people will watch it or that it will sell well in foreign markets.

You’d think that would be patently obvious in Ottawa and its CRTC Gatineau suburb, where decades of investing tens of millions into movies that have never made a dime has been the bureaucratic norm.

Anecdotally, in 1990, I was writing and producing a TV series entitled “Top Cops” which at one point attracted one in every four television viewers in the USA. This was despite the fact that our budget was half that of Steven Bochco’s “Cop Rock” which debuted at the same time and lasted barely a handful of episodes.

The cash we spent was also far less than Canada’s revered “Road to Avonlea” which we regularly out-rated in this country.

The same could be said for another line on my resume, “Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension”, which got bigger numbers on Global TV at a fraction of the cost of that network’s then flagship series “Traders”.

But it’s clear somebody at the CRTC has bought the line that Canadian shows don’t get an audience simply because they don’t match the budgets of the US competition.

And while it may be true that “Kenny vs Spenny”, “Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays” or “Strange Empire” would have gotten far more viewers if they had cost $2 million per, the likelihood is that they all could’ve benefited from an element of mass appeal.

And have the Commissioners, none of whom has ever budgeted a dramatic series, paused to consider how much of these expanded budgets will actually show up onscreen in the first place?

Or will the money be used to overpay US Stars who will replace Canadian talent or cover their travel costs and per diems? Maybe it’ll go to the directors who will also be imported, since they’re not on the initially released protected list like local screenwriters.

Maybe Canadian accountants will merely get as creative as many are in Hollywood. Heck, if you can bring in foreign talent, why not just offshore the payroll department to the people who already know how to play those games?

2. Then there’s the mandate to bend the production rules to create more programming based on successful Canadian novels.

Setting aside what qualifies as a “successful” Canadian novel for a moment, I assume this means more Margaret Atwood and fuck all you younger writers who’ve spent the last few years in film school learning how to craft your own stories.

I guess nobody at the CRTC has bothered to check on whether “Barney’s Version” has made its money back yet (even with all that US Star power). Or whether Maggie’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has turned a profit after 20-some years. Or notice that the movie version of “Surfacing” barely got released.

But maybe Ms. Atwood’s producers on that one just needed to throw a few million more into the budget.

What all of this exemplifies is that the CRTC regulates the way it has always regulated. Not as people who understand the business they endlessly apparently examine –- but as elite government bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats who believe any problem can be solved if you just throw enough money at it. And throw it at content they and their friends might watch if the networks would only produce the wonderful new novel they passed around up at the cottage.

And after venting all that –- what all of the “Let’s Talk TV” decisions really amount to is this…

They won’t make anything better.

Because the industry the CRTC regulates is being changed by market forces moving faster than new hearings can be scheduled.

Tim Cook

Forget Netflix. By Fall, AppleTV will be streaming HBO and a package of 25 Networks (none Canadian) for $40 per month.

If Shaw, Rogers and Bell don’t sell the same package of unbundled channels for that price or lower, they’re done.

The Canadian consumer the CRTC waited 20 years to finally listen to has moved on. Purchasing, as they have illustrated with Netflix, what they want to watch, not content that is government mandated or packaged to support unwanted channels.

News and Sports will be next. News is already streaming via any number of online options and mobile apps like the one released this week by Reuters.

Reuters TV app: customisable shows are ceated by algorithms

The first Sports channels are in the Apple package. More will follow via Google and Amazon and others as yet unimagined.

Yes, that means the way we fund Canadian programming will have to change -– or not if we’re producing less of it.

But that financing won’t come from OTT services. Because they’re free market forces who only pay for what their subscribers will make it worth their while to purchase.

Perhaps that means that the “Let’s Talk TV” process will have been a success.

Canadian consumers will finally get what they want instead of what it has been decided is good for them. Or what needs to be done to shore up broadcasters who don’t create their own content or to keep cable companies afloat.

And Canadian Creatives won’t be on government welfare anymore, shaping what we create to fit somebody in power’s vision of what the country should be –- instead of what it is.

Content has always been king, a reality against which the CRTC has consistently fought to protect some perceived yet out-dated industry status quo.

And much as the Commission may feel it must now dictate how Content is realized to remain relevant, it clearly hasn’t a clue.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 367: The Butterfly Effect

We all know the feeling. You have something to accomplish and you wake up with nothin’.

Coffee. The stimulating effect of the shower. The Alpha state of walking the dog. None of that makes any difference. The Muse has fled.

And then…

There’s a vibe. A glimpse. A whisper of something. A light breeze fans the embers of imagination. Something begins to come…

From where?

How?

What causes the change?

Chaos Theory suggests that the flutter of a Butterfly’s wings in Africa can ignite a Hurricane half a world away.

Could the same be true of creativity?

How about kindness?

I’ve been writing these Lazy Sunday posts for 7 years now. Sometimes they’re concocted weeks in advance. Sometimes they’re stream of consciousness. A lot of Sundays I’ve woken up with nothing.

Like this morning.

And then I saw this story on “CBS Sunday Morning” and wondered at its implications.

I hope it inspires something in your own day –- or your tomorrow – or maybe next week. Science says that the beating of a butterflies wings takes time to become noticeable –- even to those watching it happen.

Enjoy Your Sunday. 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 366: Day Old Stubble

I’m hurtin’ this morning. And it’s not just the alarm going off an hour earlier than expected.

I’ve had houseguests from Saskatchewan for the last week and you know how we prairie folks get when there’s steaks to BBQ and dill pickle vodka on ice.

So I’m hurtin’. Don’t want to shave. Don’t want to shower. I used to do that a lot on Sundays. People’d ask why I hadn’t shaved and I’d say it was against my religion. Then they’d ask what my religion was and I’d say “Not Shavin’ on Sunday”.

Charming and to the point. The way conversation should be when you’re hurtin’.

Charming and to the point like the wonderful Saskatchewan band “The Rusty Augers”, whose new album I’ve been hearing a lot of this week.

Those of you in the rest of Canada may not have heard of “The Rusty Augers” and that’s a shame. They don’t vote Liberal so that gets them on the “do not encourage” list at the CBC.

Those of you getting border radio out of Yorkton will be familiar with songs like “The Esterhazy Man and The Kamsack Woman” or “George the Government Worker”.

Baseball fans in America are loving “The knuckleball”. All of the above up on Youtube for the rest of you. Or you could pick up the new album “Inaugeration” on iTunes. It’s their fourth, an homage to Gram Parsons by Paul McCorriston and his lovely wife Holly.

It’s a shame so much talent in this country gets ghettoized by the parochial nature of our media. Maybe a bigger shame that like me this morning, they don’t seem inclined to clean up their act.

Enjoy Your Sunday…

Friday, March 06, 2015

Hey, Lets Help ISIS Kill Itself!

The world is consumed with finding a way to end the chaos being spread across the Middle East by the psycho-killers of the Islamic State.

But at ever stage we seem confounded by national, cultural or political concerns that prevent us from stopping the rapes, enslavements and wholesale slaughter of the innocents.

Some don’t want to put “boots on the ground” or their own military in harm’s way. Others worry about offending their own Muslim populations or worse, painting a target on them. A few hope this gang of thugs will simply wear themselves out.

I’ve got an acquaintance who’s both a veteran and a crack shot. And he has wondered aloud if he should make himself available to some mercenary group, like that German Motorcycle gang who has taken up the fight.

Worldwide, guys with recent military experience have done the same, despite their governments trying to talk them out of it, either for their own self-preservation or the self-preservation of those in government who don’t want to commit to action.

It’s as we’re all hamstrung and impotent in the face of true evil.

But today I found this article about how Youtube is making Millions off ISIS. Unintentionally, of course.

It seems the algorithms that really run that place are positioning web ads in front of the combat and recruiting videos ISIS posts.

Of course, Budweiser, Johnson & Johnson and others are none too happy with that and have demanded their ads be removed.

But wait a second…

Maybe this solves the problem for everybody who’d like to see ISIS put to rest.

What if the money those ads earned was simply diverted to a fund that financed a mercenary army to go after these sick dickheads.

The planet is filled with trained mercenaries and soldiers of fortune more than capable of going against ISIS. And this could pay them to do that, plus provide the purchasing power for any arms and equipment they might need.

The World’s governments could simply throw up their hands and say, “Hey, it’s got nothing to do with us!”. And even the corporations involved can’t be held responsible for the position some rogue algorithm has put them in.

ISIS has become extremely adept at feeding their vile message to impressionable losers. But now every video they post would be funding people intent on coming to kill them.

Perhaps we go a step further and append ads for Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage or Red Lobster so the potential recruits have to sit through that before getting amped for Jihad.

Maybe we run ads for NGOs advocating the education of girls and the rights of women, or the importance of preserving ancient relics. Every mind that’s changed becomes one less soldier that new mercenary army has to kill.

I’m telling you, this could work. And as long as our governments remain loathe to confront ISIS, it might be the only option we have.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Copy Cats

My first schoolhouse was a small one in Southern Saskatchewan. Grades 1-4 were housed in one room and 4-8 in another.

My first teacher was Mrs. Hellman, a perpetually positive woman who used the first half hour after lunch to read us all a story.

It was probably a smart move, since us kids were either pooped from an hour of playing outside or snoozing off our thermoses of Campbell’s soup and baloney or Velveeta sandwiches.

Thus, she began working her way through “Lassie Come Home” a chapter at a time. And one afternoon, she set the novel on a stool before us Grade Ones asking us to draw a picture from the story while she did Arithmetic with the older kids.

I was already pretty handy with crayons and set to work recreating the book’s cover while others of my cohort depicted one of Lassie’s hair raising adventures.

When it was once again Grade One’s turn, Mrs. Hartman returned to assess either our imagination quotient or story comprehension or whatever and became very upset with me.

I felt I’d crafted not a bad rendition of the Scottish Highlands and thought my dog pose was particularly accurate. But she accused me of tracing it, then realized that wasn’t possible and became a touch amazed at what I’d accomplished.

This led to a conversation with my parents suggesting I had an artistic bent which oughta be pursued -– and the rest, shall we say, is history.

Now I’m not telling that story as some anecdote of my time as a child prodigy. Because I wasn’t that at all.

But since there were no such things as art galleries, art schools or even libraries in my part of the world, my artistic learning curve involved what was around me – primarily comic books.

I became a comic book copy cat. And over time, spending a lot of time between the covers of comic books taught me the rudiments of visual story telling.

It’s identical to what a lot of kids (and not so much kids anymore) do these days in finding their creative footing. They copy. Only now they copy from a myriad of media using After Effects, Photoshop and Digital cameras.

I hear a lot of artists bemoan this new age of copying. They’re annoyed by fan fiction. They’re irked by intrusions on their copyrights. And they’re aghast that some of these kids get movie deals from a 2 minute Youtube clip that they haven’t achieved despite hundreds of hours of Prime Time programming.

I look at it a little differently. While I once sympathized with the lot of those breaking into the business today having it so much harder than I did –- I now wonder what I might’ve achieved if the technologies around us had been available to me at their age.

How many fewer pointless pitch sessions would I have endured if crowdfunding had existed? How much easier would it have been to audition for or have a script read by a wider range of producers? How many stories could I have shot, cut and distributed myself instead of seeing them executed as a lesser vision by those not as committed to the work?

172751 smallville.man principal

Last week, two Copycat films appeared on the Internet. One, “A Smallville Man” was created by LA visual artist Mauricio Abril which tread on several copyrights, including those of DC Comics and iconic rockers the Foo Fighters.

An animated gem intended merely to showcase Abril’s talents it appended the following disclaimer: “This is a not-for-profit independent film honoring the legacy of Superman and the Foo Fighters. It is in no way meant to officially represent DC Comics, Warner Bros, Foo Fighters, or RCA Records. Superman and all related elements are trademarks of and copyrights of DC Comics. "Walk" was written by the Foo Fighters and published by RCA Records in 2011's "Wasting Light."”

And all those copyright violated folks not only left Abril alone, they actually championed him. “Superman: Man of Steel” artist Jon Bogdanove described Abril as somebody who "so gets it."

Less generously received was LA producer Adi Shankar’s reboot of “The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” franchise  entitled “Power/Rangers” which debuted to 6 Million hits its first day before a forced takedown edict was issued to Youtube and Vimeo by rights owner Saban Entertainment.

A darker, dystopian take on the original, not unlike what Christopher Nolan did to “Batman”, Shankar with director Joseph Kahn, had intended the piece as both an homage and an opportunity to flex their creative chops. And they included a similar “not-for-profit” disclaimer on the film itself.

After a day or two of nasty lawyer letters, Saban seemed to relent, belatedly realizing perhaps, that Shankar had stoked some interest in a title most haven’t paid much attention to in a while.

And while some have suggested “Power/Rangers” tests the future of Internet freedom, for me it exemplifies how some of us have to shift our perspective on the works that we “own”.

Yes, Creatives deserve to be rewarded for their creations. And God knows its so hard to get an honest accounting from a lot of people in our various copyright worlds. Therefore, we resent the idea of others profiting from what we haven’t.

And remedying that issue (especially in Canada, where government agencies get financial reports that artists don’t) might go a long way to prying our cold, dead fingers from the throats of kids just trying to make their mark.

I have no idea who illustrated the “Lassie Come Home” title I copied. But without their work and a teacher who didn’t report me to the Copyright police, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

And maybe that’s a model we should all practice. Because “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” as the man said. And isn’t it better if some of the carrying forward were done by somebody who “so gets it”?

A SMALLVILLE MAN

POWER/RANGERS

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 365: Danny And The Wild Bunch

If posts to this blog have been sparse of late, it’s because I’m up to my eyes in rewrites.

To be honest, I actually enjoy rewriting. Each pass gives me the opportunity to know my story and characters a little better, to weed out the extraneous and sharpen the clarity.

But sometimes, you’re rewriting for the needs of production. There’s not enough money for this or too little time for that, so you need to make adjustments.

I honestly enjoy most of those too. Screenwriting to me has always been as much about problem solving as story telling.

But sometimes…

Sometimes what they asked for is not what they want when the script finally drops over the transom.

Studios and networks are notorious for having a low startle response. If something appears to be trending, they immediately want to imitate. If the genre seems to be peaking they’ll suddenly want a little less of that direction.

As an example, there are some in Hollywood this weekend suggesting Universal overreached with “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Seems despite earning half a billion dollars worldwide, the rapid drop in attendance after the first week suggests the sequels might be in trouble.

As if any Hollywood film gets into profit anyway, but…

There will likely be calls tomorrow morning from Development Execs suggesting writers who spent the weekend doing research in some dungeon wet room chewing on a ball gag –- might want to shift the next draft toward an upbeat date movie.

And that’s when rewrites become annoying –- and a chore.

It’s one thing to hone what you’ve written. It’s another to make a hard Left because the money’s coming from Brazil or the only tax credit formula that works is in Latvia.

And then everything becomes something unintended…

That’s the theme of Robert Rugan’s multi-award winning “Danny And The Wild Bunch”, which examines how the characters in your script react to being evolved.

And you thought Network Execs could be nasty…

Enjoy Your Sunday…

DANNY AND THE WILD BUNCH - Short Film from robert rugan on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 364: Mukbang

We’ve all had the (pleasure?) of having someone use Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to send us an image of what they’re about to have for lunch.

Or dinner.

Or breakfast.

Or at 3:00 am after their local has closed and kicked them into the street.

It’s an affliction I’ve never quite understood.

Not long ago, I had the real pleasure of dining in a Vegas eatery operated by a noted Food Network chef. It would never have crossed my mind to instant message anybody with where I was having dinner let alone what exactly was on my plate.

Such was not the case for the party next to me, all four of whom were recording stills and video of what they’d been served like some kind of Food Paparazzi and feeding them to the Internet.

Later, in meeting our chef and host, they gushed at how much they loved his TV show.

Okay, so maybe this was all just another reflection of our celebrity culture –- or our obsession with basking in the warmth of a nearby celebrity body.

Or maybe –- it was the glimmer of a new age where what we have normally accepted as legitimate forms of employment are being replaced by something else.

Anybody who works in TV is well aware that the coming of the Reality genre has led to every gym rat thinking he could be the next action star and every guy doing renovations handing over his pilot concept for his own DIY series.

But I discovered something this week that made me realize that networks that thrive on Reality, networks like HOME & GARDEN and FOOD might not be around much longer.

It’s something called MUKBANG.

Let me make this simple. The highest rated series on the Food Network hovers around the 600,000 mark. That’s a US figure. Here in Canada it’s, of course, far less.

But just one of the shows involved in Mukbang pulls in 300 Million viewers.

300 Million.

That’s the Superbowl.

Every week.

Sometimes more often.

And it’s about food.

Mukbang is a cultural phenomenon that might not have reached these shores yet. But it’s coming. And its stars earn small fortunes for doing nothing more than what all of you do right after sending your Instagram image…

The Food Network is doomed.

Enjoy Your Sunday…

Monday, February 16, 2015

Searching For Candy

John Candy - Searching for Candy

A short while ago, I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed by British writer Tracey Morgan for her biography of Canadian actor and comedian John Candy.

Unhappy that her publisher had requested “more scandalous content” and aware from talking to those who knew the man that he lived a far from salacious life, Tracey has decided to self-publish her book.

She’s currently crowd-funding the project and already 40% of the way to her goal. If you can help bring the full story of this amazing Canadian to fruition please make a contribution here.

Both hard copy and e-editions of the book will be available shortly. And you can follow the project here.

John gave so much joy to so many people. It would be great for those who remember him to learn just how special he was.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lazy Sunday #363: Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone

I caught a concert by one of my Country icons this week – Lucinda Williams. Backed by members of Dallas Bob Dylan cover band “Buick Six” and “Wallflowers” guitarist Stuart Mathis, it was an evening that bounced through so many genres the music might as well be labelled Current Americana.

Williams has always been hard to pin down, one of the reasons she’s so rewarding to listen to. But at her heart she’s simply a phenomenal songwriter building on genes of a celebrated poet father that have travelled through every environment from Bayou swamps to dry West Texas prairie.

It’s kinda pointless to write about somebody who’s been in-depthed by everybody who wants to work for “Rolling Stone”. And I’ve always figured it was kinda cruel to rave about a concert that’s come and gone and therefore inaccessible to anybody reading the review.

But I found this –- a mini-set Williams and her trio did for Seattle FM station KEXP the night before she played my town. Simply follow the video below to Youtube and click on the appended KEXP links.

And Enjoy Your Sunday…

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

John Hunter

image

While writer muses come and go at their will, each of us is granted a mentor. Very early on I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of the best screenwriter Canada has produced, John Hunter.

I don’t remember how John and I first met. All I know is he was a produced writer and I wasn’t. But it was around the time that his first feature “The Hard Part Begins” went into production.

I think what brings mentors and acolytes together is something each needs from the other. I needed to learn how to write. John needed somebody with whom he could talk about writing.

He didn’t pretend to have a grand vision of the art form. He wasn’t a screenwriting guru or extensively concerned with syntax or style. He simply wanted to understand how and why stories were told the way they were and what stories each of us might hold inside and could share.

We both had Prairie backgrounds and John’s general theory of why the flatlands produced so many artists was simple. There was nothing there. You had to make everything up. And the isolation also meant that when you did speak to someone, you had better have something worth saying and worth listening to.

It was comparable to being a Canadian screenwriter in the 1970’s. There weren’t many. And when they got a chance to make a movie, they had to make damn sure it was a story that hadn’t been told before.

And that’s how he approached the writing process. It was about the writer as much as it was about the subject matter.

John was also drawn to unique characters rarely depicted on the silver screen. “The Hard Part Begins” was about itinerant country singers far from the big time.

He followed that with “Blood and Guts” a film he also produced, a movie about itinerant wrestlers far from the big time.

But unlike artists who go back to the same well, John was about finding turf he may have already explored and discovering new levels he hadn’t known (or that an audience hadn’t suspected) were there.

While “The Hard Part Begins” ends with the hero losing, “Blood and Guts” finds both dignity and redemption in defeat. Fittingly, it also marked the historical point where Canadian film moved into another gear, leaving behind its low budget roots to play on a bigger stage.

blood and guts

John understood that as each of us grew and matured as artists we’d find new levels and angles to a story. Who we were determined the final story as much as the tale we were trying to tell.

He never gave notes or direction. It was your story. Why were you telling it the way it was being told? Why were you taking it in the direction it was taking?

I’ll never forget a discussion on my first feature, where I was struggling with a scene that just didn’t work for me. He dismissed my concerns with a concise, “I don’t think you’re going to make it any better”.

To this day, I’ve wondered if he meant the scene was perfect or that the guy writing it had simply reached the limits of his current level of talent.

But John’s mentoring was not limited to writing. He networked me, introduced me to people and circles of the business I either didn’t believe I belonged with or was ready to encounter. Only later did I realize that exposing me to film icons and other working artists expanded who I was and therefore what I could accomplish.

More than most, he also understood that film was a collaborative art and each of the artists making a film brought something to it that no writer, no matter how accomplished, could do alone. We all needed to really know each other before we could truly do our best work with each other.

John produced my first feature and did his damnedest to get a second one off the ground. At the same time he moved to another writing level himself.

His next film “The Grey Fox” would win international acclaim and garner a Genie award for Best Screenplay. It was a remarkable piece of work in its understanding of the cinematic process. A feature length script with less than 100 lines of dialogue, massive chunks of the story rendered completely visually.

During its writing, John also found time to help draft the first Canadian Independent Producer’s Agreement for a still to be born Writers Guild of Canada.

It was a lengthy negotiation in which he also demanded I serve, insisting it would be my generation of writers who would have to make it work. And he was right. That agreement made it possible for Canadian screenwriters to finally have Canadian careers.

By the time it came into effect the gold rush of the Canadian Tax Credit years was upon us and every screenwriter in the country had more work than he or she could handle.

During those years, John and I spent a lot of time in LA. We visited the shoot locations of films we’d loved, drank late into the night with movie people we’d revered and continued our discussions on writing. Probably around tables where other writers had done the same for decades.

During that time, our paths diverged. I went into television and John wrote a lot of terrific scripts that the hustlers and rug-merchants of that high-flying time either couldn’t get released or where the final print ended up in some bank vault until loans could be repaid.

Among these was a dark little classic called “Cross Country” which escapes its cage from time to time and might just be the most twisted Canadian murder mystery ever written.

John would draw on that era for “Hollywood North” his final feature. By then he’d won a Writers Guild of Canada Award for his only foray into series television “Dead Man’s Gun” and resurrected Gordon Pinsent’s beloved Rowdyman persona in “John and the Missus”. But most of his writing had evolved as well as he moved from screenwriting to novels.

John Hunter passed away on February 2nd. And don’t feel bad for not knowing or harbor some resentment at yet another notable Canadian artist going unmentioned in the press. Even John’s closest friends are only hearing the news today.

He wanted no funeral or memorial, no celebration of his life. Perhaps he’d reached the point in his evolution as a writer where he felt his own story had been told and needed no further embellishment.

Or perhaps he knew that his life was part of our own stories now and we should all tell it in our own way, as best we could.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 362: Enjoy Your Intermission

While a lot of you are still buried in snow, it’s Sunny and warm where I live. Buds are on the trees and the first flowers are beginning to bloom.

I’m not saying that to make you feel bad or envious. But as a reminder that Summer is on the way and you might want to take some time to make plans.

Plans that in my life always include a trip to a Drive-In theatre.

It’s also (both where you and I live) awards season – the time when the various facets of the film industry celebrate themselves.

The Oscars are a couple of weeks from now. The Golden Globes were a couple of weeks ago. Between them are separate celebrations of writers, directors, actors and producers, as well as countless confabs of critics naming their own list of winners.

But amid all this self-congratulation, there’s nary a word said for the people who do as much –- and maybe more –- to bring the movies to all of us and foster much of the affection in which the Award recipients bask.

And that got me thinking about the people who run those Summer Drive-In theatres. They’re a special breed. As special as the folks on the red carpet and just as important to the industry.

None of them will ever receive a shiny trophy or be granted access to a gifting suite. But for them, none of that matters. A fact beautifully communicated in Tansy Michaud & Adam Carboni’s exceptional little film “Enjoy Your Intermission”.

Allow it to warm up the day where you are and…

Enjoy your Sunday.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 361: Lucha VaVoom

Image of Lucha VaVOOM poster Halloween 2012

Nothing sells in show business as well as sex and violence.

Back when I was up to my waist in the horror business, I wandered into an LA movie house one afternoon to catch the latest sequel of a long running scarlet cinema franchise. At some point the actors paused the gore-fest to emote 30 seconds of character development.

The crowd was having none of it with one aficionado in the back screaming out their mantra, “C’mon! Fuck or Fight!”.

We love our sex and violence –- or as it is known in Mexico, “Sexo y Violencia”.

One of the cultural touchstones of Mexican S&V is Lucha Libre (Freestyle wrestling) which also has a long film tradition in which its masked heroes confront buxom female villains or rescue damsels in distress from strip joints and discos.

A dozen years ago, that meme evolved into a Los Angeles theatre attraction known as “Lucha VaVoom”.

It’s hard to describe “Lucha VaVoom”. But it features Luchadors (wrestlers) both Rudos (bad guys) and Technicos (the good ones), who go by such names as Chupacabra and Dirty Sanchez.

It’s also one of the few places where you can still see the politically incorrect art of midget wrestling (Los Minis).

Sharing the stage (ring) with the wrestlers are exotic ladies known as Buxoticas (Strippers), as well as comedians, dancing chickens, melees in the audience and much, much more.

If you’d like to attend a performance of “Lucha VaVoom” the next time you’re in LA, you can buy tickets (and merchandise) here. Or you might catch the company on one of its national/international tours.

Many scholars have written essays and doctoral theses on our enjoyment of sex and violence or our recent affinity for post-apocalyptic and zombie apocalypse worlds.

I think the motivation is as simple as our need to get away from the rules, regulations and restrictions of real life, to be part of something where the regular borders of behavior don’t apply.

“Lucha VaVoom” epitomizes all of that. It’s a hugely entertaining evening. And as the show’s MC emphasizes at its beginning:  “This shit’s gonna get weird. So fasten your Holy Fuck belts…”

And Enjoy Your Sunday.