Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 143: A Director's Medium

Since it's Halloween, everybody and their avatar is posting horror videos. But you want to know what's really scary? I mean jolts up the spine, hands get clammy and blood turns to ice water scary…?

It's that first time the guy (or woman) who's going to direct your script tells you how they want to approach the material.

You've babied it from three words on a napkin or an image you got while taking a shower. You've sweated  through weeks of writing and re-writing.

You've fought the good fight at the network, incorporated all of their notes without compromising your vision, chopped a couple of things to make the line producer happy, added a monologue so your lead has something new for his reel and now…

You're face to face with the immensely talented artist who's going to breath life into it all. And s/he says…

"I'm thinking spaghetti western meets Eastern European art film."

"How do you feel about losing the first two acts and starting the story there?"

"I don't like being locked into a shot list. It's too confining."

"I try to over-cover and then build the show in the edit suite."

"I know the network has signed off. But I really am the best dialogue man in the business."

Every one of those is a direct quote I've gotten from a director on the first day of prep along with the always interchangeable. "I get the show but the (horror/comedy/crime show) thing is feeling "been there, done that" and I'm honestly not at my best with (kids/animals/actors). So how about we kind of go-against genre and make it -- Fresh?

Directors. When they're good they make everybody around them look like a genius.

And when they're not…

You spend a lot of late nights hoping you are one.

It's widely accepted that film is a director's medium and television is a writer's medium and while I know what that means, I don't.

Yeah, I get that there needs to be one overarching vision and that devolves to the last guy to handle the ball on a movie and the one who's going to be back at the factory next week in TV.

And while the audience appreciates only having to get inside one head in order to follow the story, they have an even easier time if one head takes a smooth hand-off from the other and improves the clarity of the vision.

In those instances, two heads really are better than one.

Which means each head better be screwed on straight to begin with.

Or you get this…

Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Star Whackers

"They are demons dispatched by Satan to lower the standards!" -- Bill Hicks

The first time I met Randy Quaid, he was in shackles. They weren't the real kind, like the ones he may be wearing today as he sits in a Vancouver jail fighting an extradition warrant and claiming refugee status to escape "The Star Whackers".

quaid 1

The shackles he wore at our first meeting were movie props on the set of "The Last Detail". The film was Randy's first major role and it would lead to an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

We worked together for about a week, just a couple of young actors star struck by the presence of cinema luminaries like Jack Nicholson and Hal Ashby and hoping they'd be happy with our work.

A year earlier he'd been a janitor in LA, having ridden there by bus from Texas after making a notable debut in "The Last Picture Show".

Decades later, after a career studded with brilliant performances in such iconic films as "Midnight Express", "The Missouri Breaks", "The Long Riders", "Christmas Vacation", "Brokeback Mountain" and more than 100 others, he's abundantly proven his talents.

Recently, however, he seems to have fallen on hard times, with the good films fewer and further between combined with a number of run-ins with the law.

I don't know if he has personal problems, medical problems, substance abuse issues or whatever else might be behind what's happened to him. But I do know that when he says there are "Star Whackers" out to finish him off he's not lost in some fantasy world.

The "Star Whackers" actually exist.

I have personally seen them at work.

I have witnessed their destruction of many a fine artist and successful career.

Unfortunately, the "take-everything-far-too-literally" entertainment media, who seem to treat celebrity quotes the way Christian and Islamic fanatics interpret their holy scriptures, think Randy is talking about some shadowy group of psychotic killers stalking the streets of Beverly Hills.

He's not.

Nor is he in the grip of some paranoid delusion when he says that said "Star Whackers" killed Heath Ledger and David Carradine and he might be next.

I'm sure he's painfully aware that Mr. Ledger took an overdose of prescription medicine and Mr. Carradine succumbed to auto-erotic asphyxia. He probably doesn't even spend much time wondering whether the deaths of those two close friends was accidental or of their own choosing.

What he knows with certainty is that the "Star Whackers" drove both men to seek solace in the instruments which ultimately ended their lives and he can quite conceivably see himself meeting the same fate.

This is a tough business. You fight hard to get to the top, battling rejection, dejection and outright heartbreak, giving up valued aspects of Life to realize your dreams. Once you get to the top, you discover you have to fight even harder to stay there, ever aware of what's been lost for what's been gained.

That breaks some people. It forces others onto paths that make no sense to those who never had need to walk them.

ledger 1

I once shared a quick handshake with Heath Ledger.  He was in Australia for the opening of "The Patriot" his first major Hollywood film. One of the last things he'd done down under was a short-lived series called "Roar" which was manned by the same crew I was working with making "Beastmaster". And they were all eager to see him again and celebrate his success.

During the premiere, somebody in the film asks Ledger's character where he learned to ride. The stunt coordinator of both TV series seated in the back row hollered out "I did!" and a laughing Heath shouted back, "He's not lying!"

Watching Ledger with his friends later reminded me of a lot of actors I've met over the years. Guys just starting out and brimming with life and talent, knowing they have something special and aching to show it to the world.

After his death I spoke to some of those we'd both worked with. The Heath Ledger of his final days was not the one any of them remembered. They reasoned all the tiny cuts had finally been too much to bear or to keep a clear head while handling.


David Carradine I met a lot when he was making the "Kung Fu" series reboot in Toronto. The shows I was working on shared a lot of cast and crew back and forth with his and it was routine to drop by their studio to talk to next week's director or last week's guest star who needed to come back for some ADR.

The stories of Carradine's alcohol abuse were legion and legendary. I was told about days when he couldn't even stand up so he was laid on the studio floor with a filing cabinet on its back next to him and the camera above so it would appear he was standing up and part of the scene.

Sometimes the various attempts of co-workers to intervene or ameliorate David's affliction would have some success and his talents would re-emerge, but sooner or later the "Star Whackers" would come calling and he'd spiral down again.

The post-mortem consensus among most of his co-workers was that they didn't know how he had managed to take it for so long.

Who are the "Star Whackers"...? David Mamet describes them this way:

"These folk, with nothing much to do, and in the manner of functionaries down through time, schemed all their waking hours to increase and consolidate power."

In Hollywood, there are two ways to become powerful. By creating something or by destroying someone else's dream.

When I first began meeting studio and network executives in social rather than professional settings, I noticed that many of them had the same unusual tic. They'd be talking about one thing or another and the conversation would drift to territory in which they had secret information.

They would always make these half turns in their chairs, shooting quick glances to make sure they wouldn't be heard, then lean close and softly feed you a piece of incredibly salacious dirt.

Over time, or on days when tidbits were forthcoming from several sources, I began to realize that what one of these minions was telling me contradicted what I'd been served from somebody else.

A wise cop I once knew told me he never believed anything a confidential informant told him. He just filed it. If he heard the same thing from a second informant, he pulled that jacket from the files. But he still didn't do anything.

If, however, the same information came from a third source, then he could act.

His reasoning was that all kinds of people are trying to put all manner of things over on all sorts of other people for reasons he had neither the time nor intellectual capacity to untangle.

Therefore, always wait until you know for certain which way the wind is blowing. Only then can you find a true course.

Actors, perhaps more than other creatives, are at the greatest risk of being buffeted by what's said about them -- and especially those actors who have achieved some modicum of recognition.

It's their faces that sell newspapers and tabloid magazines and entertainment gossip shows.

They make enemies by not liking a script to which some producer needs their attachment to be green-lit. They get on the wrong side of agents they won't dump their old agency to join. They irk publicists by turning down repetitive interviews or refusing to come up with a chili recipe in order to get squeezed into a magazine they've never heard of. They chafe other performers by beating them out of cherished roles or getting better reviews.

They sleep with the wrong people or don't get into bed with those who believe they're the right ones.

I've seen network and studio executives trash their own stars, the very people who are saving their jobs or keeping their kids in private schools because they wanted minimal raises, a 12 hour turnaround or even a couple of days off because a member of their family has died.

On virtually ever show I've staffed I've fielded calls from someone within the industry wanting details on some story they've heard about a member of my cast. I usually let them spin their wheels until we get to the inevitable. "Anyway, that's what I've heard…"

"From who?"

There's never an answer to that.

The first rule of "Star Whackers" is nobody ever identifies a "Star Whacker". You never know if they actually heard something or they just made it up themselves because -- well, because it might "increase or consolidate their power".

Or what they think is power.

Less than 24 hours after Randy Quaid was jailed in Vancouver, Toronto Producer Ari Lantos was feeding the media frenzy by talking up his own experience with the troubled or troublesome star.

Reading of his trials and tribulations while working with Quaid on a film called "Real Time", you almost feel sorry for Lantos; best known for co-producing a couple of barely released films that haven't made a dime and the hardly watched CBC series "Men with Brooms".

It seems the actor's main artistic transgression was in choosing to portray his character as an Australian even though his background is of no consequence in the script or to the finished product.

So if it made no difference why bring it up…?

1. Because it creates the perception that the reason the movie didn't make any money might've had something to do with its unfortunate choice of cast rather than what might be more correctly laid at the feet of someone else?

Sometimes actors make choices that seem outlandish, not because they're trying to be difficult but because they're not getting the creative assistance or direction that they need.

Sometimes they're just finding some way to challenge themselves or to get motivated enough to come to work in the morning because no other logical reason exists.

If you have the misfortune to sit through "Real Time" you'll know what I mean.

2. Because it gets you on the good side of somebody who already has a beef with Mr. Quaid?

Five years ago, Quaid filed suit against the distributor of "Brokeback Mountain", seeking $10 million and claiming he had agreed to work for less money because he'd been told the film was "a low-budget, art-house film, with no prospect of making any money."

It has so far earned over $210 Million.

3. Because you've got another movie coming out soon and it never hurts to have your name bandied about?

Kid, I know you're still green, so I'll cut you some slack here.

If you think you can best build your reputation by kicking somebody when they're down that's your call.

But I'm not the only one in the business who could tell you completely verifiable stories about people you admire or maybe want to emulate that would make you vomit blood.

Sometimes I think we should tell those stories.

And then I realize that would make us no better than the "Star Whackers".

Instead of joining the crowd screaming for blood around the Guillotine, please keep Randy Quaid in your prayers. If you don't pray, at least do a little hoping that he finds a way to overcome this ignominious moment and get back to doing what he does best.

There are already enough people trying to destroy him.

And they're very good at what they do.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Maybe Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things


In 1972, director Bob Clark, who would later create cinematic icons like "Porky's" and "A Christmas Story" spent $70,000 to make his first film, a quickie horror flick called "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things".

It was about a bunch of teens who dig up a corpse named 'Orville' they use in a Satanic ritual intended as a joke. But somehow this causes others of the dead to rise and well, complications ensue.

The movie went on to earn a boatload of money and launched Clark's career.

For the most part, people who make horror movies are pretty honest about their intentions. They're just trying to make a buck.

Others who engage in similarly ghoulish activities, however, often wrap their activities in the loftier guise of scientific study and education. But, make no mistake, it's really about the money, with most of it coming these days from the public purse.

mermaid 13

In 1842, showman P.T. ("There's a sucker born every minute") Barnum created a sensation by presenting the "Feejee Mermaid" in New York.

Certified as an actual mermaid captured off the coast of Fiji by noted biologist Dr. J. Griffin, the beast was actually the top half of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fish. And Griffin wasn't a doctor at all but merely one of Barnum's carnie pals.

Still, the cream of New York society lined up to visit Barnum's exhibit, assured of its scientific and educational importance.

A few years ago, the same kind of audiences began lining up to see "Bodies: The Exhibition" a showcase of human bodies dissected to display internal organs or posed at various activities.

Great pains were made to assure the public that the cadavers had been legally acquired and meticulously preserved through a process called "plastination" perfected by an esteemed anatomist named Gunther von Hagens.

That, combined with the fact that the displays were usually housed in prestigious museums or science centers heavily subsidized by Government money gave the concept an air of respectability and importance.

When the first "Bodies" exhibit debuted in Toronto I somehow received passes to the opening. But having spent a few years working on the "Friday the 13th" TV series where we spent an inordinate amount of time creating realistic body parts, I really didn't have any interest and passed the passes to the upwardly mobile family next door, who thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for their kids to rub shoulders with Toronto's elites.

The kids, being a couple of normal 12 and 13 year olds, later regaled me with all the cool directions your testicles apparently went while playing various sports, being most impressed by the gravity defying testes of a certain skateboarder.


I didn't give much thought to "Bodies" until a couple of years later when I discovered the same exhibit featured in the casino atrium of the Las Vegas hotel I was staying in.

I wondered how such a scientifically important presentation had been demoted from internationally recognized halls of learning to tawdry sideshow status.

Then I noticed that the hotel across the street was featuring a treasures of the "Titanic" exhibit that had recently played at another prestigious Toronto museum while also being lauded for and sold on its educational importance.

In talking to one of the guys managing the hotel I learned that there's a kind of circuit these exhibits travel. Like movies that go from first run theatres to re-run houses to cable and then TV, most of these important cultural events eventually end up in Casinos and County fairs.

Many of the society matrons who lined up to be seen while seeing Barnum's "Mermaid" would be aghast to learn that you now find it in a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" emporium.

And you wonder how many soccer moms would have forked over $25 a head to "educate the kids" if they'd first spotted the exhibit at "The Agua Caliente Casino and RV Park".

I'm not saying that you might not learn a thing or two from getting a close up look at some skateboarder's nuts in mid-hammer or by checking out a diseased lung. But I'm wondering what your kids are also learning about ethics.

And I'm also not one of those people who places a lot of value on the mortal coil once its been shuffled off. But I do think there are some lines you don't cross.

So part of me wonders if some of the people who donated their bodies to science really wanted people gawking at the 5 month old they never got to carry to term because it was still inside them when they died.

And anybody who has taken even a rudimentary drawing class knows that a leg muscle in the midst of running has a completely different configuration from one climbing stairs. So that means von Hagens and his associates have to be doing a lot of manipulation with their corpses before they shoot them up with all those fancy resins.

Did those who thought their bodies would be used to train surgeons really okay being contorted from a marathon runner to a ballet dancer before spending eternity swinging a baseball bat after some Dutch rubber expert had calculated which direction their dick was going to point?

Meanwhile evidence seems to be mounting that some (maybe all) of the folks on display may not have wanted to end up skinned and looking very much alive under any circumstances.


Following a Congressional Inquiry and an investigation by New York's Attorney General, the company behind the numerous "Bodies" shows now acknowledges on its website that "the bodies were not formally donated by people who agreed to be displayed". And what's more, "cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons".

Indeed there is now mounting proof that most of them were purchased at $300 a pop from the government of China, which already openly admits it is executing prisoners for transplant organs. The fact that most of the specimens on display are in excellent physical condition further implies that their deaths may have been far from natural.

Kinda puts a different perspective on that cut-open mom with her unborn fetus, doesn't it?

Although "Bodies" exhibits are still a mainstay of Canadian museums and science centers, they are now banned in a number of much more lucrative American markets like New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

I guess that means it's still okay to teach Canadian kids there's nothing wrong with exploiting the dead or dehumanizing someone in the name of science or education -- and especially if there's money to be made.

But you'd think a federal government that prides itself on standing up for human rights or companies like Telus, which sponsors the current Vancouver "Bodies" incarnation, might want hard proof they're not participating in some sideshow scam with more real horror attached than any Hollywood shlockmeister ever imagined.

And if you still don't believe making a buck is what is really driving this enterprise, check out the latest use Gunther von Hagens has found for his little rubber friends.

He's selling them online.

For a mere 70,000 Euros ($99,000 Cdn) you can buy your own Chinese corpse. A head will set you back 22,000 Euros ($31,000). If those are out of your price range, you can get a transparent body slice for about $150 (shipping and handling extra).

Not a bad profit margin on $300 worth of dead guy and some acetone.

No word yet on when the human skin lampshades and necklaces of ears and teeth become available.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lazy Sunday #142: Old Jews Telling Jokes

I blame Myron Cohen.


These days Myron Cohen is one of the answers to a trivia question about artists who shared the stage of "The Ed Sullivan Show" with "The Beatles". Meaning that as out of place as he may seem in such company, Mr. Cohen's act was once witnessed by more than 70 Million people one cold February evening in 1964.

70 Million people! That's like 15 seasons of "Being Erica".

But Myron was a star long before anybody had heard of "The Beatles". He'd started out as a garment salesman in New York. Nervous about meeting new people and hopeful of making a good impression, Myron used to tell jokes to warm up his customers. Eventually a few of them mentioned that his comedy was better than his garment samples and he might want to try show business. So he did.

I don't think anybody knows how many times Myron appeared with Ed. Like Topo Gigio and those guys who spun plates, he just seemed to be there more often than not. He worked "clean". He specialized in detailed anecdotes, sometimes only telling one joke during an appearance. And his humor could be appreciated by those from 9 to 90.

I know that for a fact, because I was around nine when I first saw him and a 90 year old relative sitting on the same couch laughed harder than I did.

I even remember the joke.

A Jewish grandma is walking her 2 year old grandson along the beach when a huge wave picks him up and washes him out to sea. The grandma screams and wails, begging God to return the boy. Sure enough, the next wave in deposits the little guy at her feet. Grandma picks him up and holds him close, then looks up to the sky and says, "He had a hat!".

Myron Cohen made me love Jewish comedy long before I even knew there were Jews.

That joke probably killed in the Catskills and left them weeping with laughter at The Friars Club, where other Jewish comics would nod knowingly and mutter a quiet, respectful, "Now, that's funny.".

There was an art back then to painting an entire picture to get to a punch line with a universal truth or an affectionate dig at somebody everybody knew or had in their own family.

These days, most successful comedians riff on situations and observations or gun down the audience with one-liners. The funny story told with a sly wink and a self-deprecating edge is still around but the practitioners are a dying breed.

To make sure their stories will never be forgotten, a guy named Sam Hoffman has created a website where contemporaries of Myron Cohen keep his art alive, telling jokes they've been telling all their lives.

Jokes that never get old and make them younger while telling them.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Best Show You Can't See On Canadian TV


For a while I prayed that some network executive in Canada would buy the Canadian broadcast rights for the new FX series "Terriers". Because it exemplifies everything I've always believed about how you make the kind of good television we're capable of creating here.

You can make it cheap. You don't need big stars. You can take chances. You don't need to swing for the fences to be successful. If it's honest and it's well done, you'll find your audience, get the critics on your side and still make something that you can point to with pride.

"Terriers", created by "Ocean's Eleven" writer Ted Griffin and Executive Produced by Shawn ("The Shield") Ryan, is also run the way a TV series needs to be run. Creative first. Best idea wins. Egos left well outside the door.

Lawyers and money guys -- this is what we're doing, please just find a way to keep the lights on and our asses out of jail.

For a primer in how all that works, avail yourself of one brimming with insight podcast here.

Then I started wondering if the reason nobody was broadcasting "Terriers" here was because of how badly much of what has been debuted or renewed for the current Canadian TV season would appear when compared with what it offers.

There are folks insisting they've created the new "Rockford Files" who might discover they've not only been vastly out-Rockford-ed but that you don't need to club an audience into submission the same way you do a baby seal.

There are those who till the fields of "dark brooding underbelly" and "kinky urban relationships" who'd be shocked at how dark and kinked the human animal can actually become and how such story-telling can still be achieved with taste and humor.

Ultimately, I don't know why "Terriers" is not yet available to Canadian TV viewers. I just know it should be. Because it is head and shoulders above anything else in the current procedural genre.

Tagged with a title taken from street slang for an LA private eye, "Terriers" follows the course first charted by Dashiell Hammett, "Down these mean streets, walks a man who is not himself mean…".

Its lead character Hank Dolworth, played by Canadian born actor Donal Logue, is a man who has been broken by Life but hasn't given up despite how often his demons have made him give in.

Partnered with former (?) thief Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) Dolworth is now an unlicensed private investigator in a California beach town. Their cases are what you'd expect their cases to be if you've read any of the vast "LA Noir" oeuvre that includes everybody from Philip Marlowe to J.J. Gites.

This is the kind of stuff that made Elmore Leonard and James Elroy famous but now probably has both of them chewing at their typing fingers wondering how they never managed to craft the plot twists and unexpected character turns which occur in almost every scene of "Terriers".

This is television created in an utterly fearless fashion. One recent climax turned on an off-color reference bereft of profanity but in the circumstances so shocking, I not only wondered how it had gotten past "Standards and Practices" but had even been uttered in the traditionally no-holds-barred atmosphere of a writers room.

In a season lacking in hits and ruled by a surrender mentality in which series with plummeting ratings are given full orders, somebody here has to bite the bullet, finally believe in what made them go into television in the first place and get this show to a Canadian audience.

Failing that, they give even more of their viewers an excuse to break Geo-locks or find torrent streams in order to be thoroughly entertained. If our networks want these people back on the couch, they're going to need to let the dogs get up there too.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Elephant & The Jet

"I don't want to ride an elephant. I want to fly a jet!"

                        -- Bobby Draper "Mad Men" # 413

Two of the more significant television series of 2010 concluded their seasons Sunday. By the end of their runs both "Mad Men" and "Rubicon" were Internet and media darlings, each episode endlessly autopsied with significance read into every line of dialogue, nuance of performance and even choice of props.

Within 24 hours of their final fade-outs, in-depth reviews were everywhere as some debated how Don could possibly have chosen Megan over Dr. Faye and others predicted where the other Atlas-McDowell shoe might drop.

I'm going to engage in some of that here, but not to figure out what motivated the showrunners to take these directions, but to hopefully explain why one ("Mad Men") was magnificent television while the other ("Rubicon") ignominiously crashed and burned.


I may come off as a fanboy here and that's okay, because for the last 13 weeks with these two shows, that's what I've been.

Everybody who has ever been party to even an insignificant television series or film has had to deal with the ruminations of the rabid fanboys and fangirls. All of them wanting the material to be far more than it is to serve some personal agenda or perspective on life. My own reactions may be similarly skewed.

My first experience with fan analysis was on the CBS series "Adderly", (pre-cyberspace) when we arrived to set up shop for the 2nd season to thick envelopes containing a bound almanac of the 1st season compiled by the Adderly Fan Club.

The impressive volume was a combination episode guide, fan magazine and collection of clippings and reviews with guesses and suggestions about what it all meant and where it was going.

They suggested plots, exotic locales for the series' espionage team to visit as well as possible romantic couplings among the cast. There were also detailed examinations of everything said, done or shown in a close-up to determine "what it really meant".

I've never had a lot of time for semiotics, the science and meaning of imagery, when it comes to film and video. I've always figured all of that is far outweighed by the immediacy of the experience and its initial rush.

Back in University, I bailed on a Shakespeare class halfway through the semester when I could take no more of a professor who treated the plays as if they needed to be overlaid with some kind of Bible code to be fully appreciated.

For those who go for those things, apparently "MacBeth" can only be explained through the prism of the Book of Matthew -- or was it Luke...

There's a famous story of Henry Fonda attending a semiotics lecture at UCLA on John Ford's "My Darling Clementine". After listening to a professor do 20 minutes on how Fonda's posture perched on a corral fence referenced any number of icons of Americana, the actor recalled that he'd been thrown from his horse the previous day and he only sat as he had because his ass was too sore to be comfortable any other way.

Everything in popular culture can't be approached like it's fodder for a doctoral thesis. An audience is a living, breathing entity and they have to be engaged on a sensory level as much or more as they are intellectually.

In the "Adderly" assessments, somebody went on for pages about our hero's secret agent ID Number -- which was actually the license plate from my car. Another detailed the hidden meanings of a scene that had only been shot the way it was because we had 20 minutes and the set was already lit in that direction.

Sometimes we try too hard to make something more significant than it is. And as a fanboy of both "Mad Men" and "Rubicon" there were far too many morning-afters where I read the line by line picking of the carcass and wondered what secrets to the Universe somebody thought was being revealed and how much that process took them from simply experiencing the show.

Yeah, there's always an underlying theme or intention to every screenplay. But it isn't secretly encoded into every fucking line!

As Dr. Freud once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!"

The whole point of drama is to get you caught up in the world of the characters, present a point of view on some aspect of the human condition and make you think about that while being entertained. "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants".

Which I'm sure some "Madmen" pundits could interpret as premature ejaculation while those stalking "Rubicon" assume a fluoridated water conspiracy.

Great TV happens when a showrunner ignores all this nonsense and just makes the show. Bad shows happen when somebody begins to believe the fanboys are validating their importance and/or play to it.

I'm on record somewhere as HATING the first 3-4 Fourth Season episodes of "Mad Men". I didn't like Don's tailspin. It made me uncomfortable. The whole way of life at the new agency seemed out of whack. Characters I'd come to love weren't acting the way I was used to them doing. I thought the series writers and producers had lost their way or run out of ideas.


And then I got it. Matthew Weiner didn't want me dryly observing Don Draper's personal crisis. He wanted me along for the ride, to feel it, to get inside it and wear it the way the character was. Most of the show's audience had no experience with the 60's. Showing it to them wasn't enough. They needed to be trapped there and discover what it was really like.

Don had to struggle with the 60's version of being a man in the corporate America of the time. Peggy had to provide the same experience from the point of view of a young woman. Similar roles were required of everybody else. And the audience needed to ride that rollercoaster with them.

And from there on the series just flew. The ride was visceral. It made you feel like you were there. And you could relate all of it to life in the 2010's as well.

I don't know why anybody couldn't see Don was destined to end up with Megan. Hell, I wanted to end up with her! Sure Dr. Faye was nice and all. But when you're a guy with a whole cargo hold full of baggage, you don't want to go home to "Honey, we need to talk!" every night. Not in 1965 and not today.

Dr. Faye always represented the elephant in the room that Don Draper needs to confront. And that's not happening until sometime in the final episode of the series -- because that's when the ride ends.

If you need citations for all this look no further than the best Henry/Betty scene of the season and "There are no fresh starts. Life continues." or look to the Bobby Draper quote above proving the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. So until there is no next season, Don's just being Don and flying Air Megan.

Television can either endlessly ponder the elephant in the room or it can take you for a great ride. "Mad Men" opted for the latter and confirmed its place in the pantheon of great television.

"Rubicon" stuck with the elephant and probably signed its own death warrant.


For 12 episodes, I really wanted AMC to renew this series. Now, like Truxton Spangler, I just don't give a shit.

If "Rubicon" comes back, I won't be there. And I don't know how anybody who lived and breathed its slow hunt for the truth could have felt anything but utter disappointment with its season finale.

"Wait, there's an even bigger conspiracy!" Sure there is. You kids go ahead without me.

I LOVED this show. It was smart, it was original and made it very clear from the get-go that it would take its own sweet time going somewhere very special. There were marvelous twists and turns along the way. Characters you thought were minor players blossomed into wondrous creations opening doors to entire worlds of possibilities you had never considered.

Actors like Jessica Collins, Lauren Hodges and Dallas Roberts utterly blew me away on a weekly basis. Christopher Evan Welch and Arliss Howard did the best work of their careers while James Badge Dale and Michael Cristofer foreshadowed a final showdown of epic dramatic proportions.

"Rubicon" was the thinking man's "Lost". And whether the showrunners actually had an ending planned, they convinced me they did and that when it arrived, and the secrets were revealed I would be presented with, in the words of somebody in "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- "Something wonderful."

Instead, we got any edition of "The Alex Jones Show" or -- a tired "Rich guys run the world" conspiracy where nobody can be trusted.

Instead of taking the Post-9/11 paranoia somewhere we haven't been, "Rubicon" decided to eschew the jet and just keep talking about the elephant in the room.

I lay the fault for that at the feet of the series' replacement showrunner Henry Bromell.

Now I know absolutely nothing about Henry or the man he was hired to assist and at some point replaced, "Rubicon" creator Jason Horwitch. I don't know why a change was made at the top or at what point in the season it occurred.

I also have no idea which elements that Horwich created remained unchanged or were replaced, redirected or wholly rebooted. But if Episode 13 was always Horwich's intended destination, his vision needed to be altered and wasn't. And if the end point was Bromell's call, then AMC needs to start looking for another showrunner.

Because for all the (somewhat unprofessional in my opinion) "That was me. That part's my idea. I came up with that." and other self-serving personal back-patting that appears in this interview, Bromell delivers a climax even a porn starlet would have trouble faking.

AMC might want to consider changing their motto from "Story Matters Here" to "Where Bullshit Walks".

If I were to detail all the dramatic mistakes we'd be here forever and others here and here have already done that heavy lifting.

Suffice it to say that the needs of the audience were forgotten while virtually every character they had invested in suddenly made a 180 degree shift that canceled their previous incarnations.

The turns were also ham-handedly executed as if somebody who'd never seen the show was parachuted in to jab a needle in its arm and just put it to sleep no matter how suspicious the dispatching might look.

Kale, the quietly deadly puppeteer always playing two moves ahead and seen struggling to keep his hands off Truxton Spangler's throat in Ep. 12 suddenly decides to hide and fight another day, providing proof of "what those people are really like" to every homophobe watching.

Andy, a brilliantly played island of innocence and positive life force turns out to be just another secret agent in a turn so mangled the writers forgot that the DVD record of her address was made weeks before she even moved into the apartment.

Or did Will just conveniently live where he could be monitored even when he was above suspicion?

Every sequence in which Andy struggled to understand Will's strange ways and her shocked discoveries about him now ring completely false because they happened when she was alone and as such would have reacted completely differently if her surprise persona wasn't just some desperate showrunner's afterthought.

Try justifying any of these new personalities through a re-viewing of past episodes. You can't. They just don't fit. And therefore nothing you see on "Rubicon" in future can be trusted, not even Will or his quest. For all we know he's Spangler's kid just trying to watch the old man's back and keep him on his game.

If there unfortunately is a Season 2, ask yourself how long it'll take Andy's professional survival instincts to kick in and realize she's got to off the Kid Extra who can be seen in the BG snapping a picture of her with Katherine Rhumour moments before the woman is murdered.

Of course, she somehow didn't know Will had stashed those all important files in the apartment she spent so many hours alone in so she (or more accurately the writing team) will probably forget the little girl too. Although the writers might have Andy suddenly remember if they need a crushing revelation for Will somewhere around the slow crawl toward Ep 211.

In my own fevered version of where "Rubicon" was headed, I had expected surprises like "The Sting" where much of what you'd seen had been concocted for the benefit of the villains as well as to reward the folks at home who paid attention for 12 weeks.

In my Ep 13, the massive operation in New Jersey was a ruse from which the tanker video was broadcast to make Spangler and his associates think their plan had succeeded. Otherwise why would Will have spirited all files related to the Houston white paper out of API where somebody else might've stumbled on what he had discovered before the trap was set.

After weeks of being told these plodders were the smartest people in the world, we would finally have the thrill of getting to see them be that.

In my construction Grant was in NJ to prevent Spangler from getting something Kale and Will didn't want him to learn from his newly turned acolyte. Imagine how many new depths that character would have had after knowing he'd been used. His almost obsessive need for acknowledgement and self-affirmation would have provided hours of story potential.

I even toyed with the possibility that Katherine Rhumour was one of the boys from the lake or that her husband had killed himself not to protect her but because he was the only one of the original group to grow a conscience over his lifetime and couldn't live with what she had become.

In the light of Ep 13 explain to me why he killed himself again? Because he was just tired of being a homicidal sociopath or when the other homicidal sociopaths said he had to he knew they were making a sane decision???

I'm not saying any of my plot directions would have been great. But they would have at least given the audience something satisfying to take away from the "Rubicon" experience instead of the rehash they were served. They could have been the ride in a jet that "Madmen" gave its audience as a reward.

Maybe I should have sensed something was up in Ep 12 when Kale presented his completely bogus take on Roman history. Okay, maybe Cato, like Thomas Rhumour, killed himself so his family could make peace with Caesar. But that's not what the word Rubicon signifies.

Rubicon has had only one real meaning since Caesar took his army across the river of that name in 49 BC. It's a point of no return, a place from which there is no going back. You've made your choice for good or ill and now you must accept the consequences.

"Rubicon" has no chance of coming back and achieving either its former attraction or the willingness of its audience to re-engage. AMC needs to accept the consequences, cancel it and move on.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 141: The Billion Dollar Question


The photograph above is one of the most iconic of the Vietnam War era. Protestors facing phalanxes of police outside the Pentagon in Washington, placing flowers in the muzzles of loaded guns. It epitomized not only the "Peace, Love and Groovy" vibe of the time, but just how far the paranoia of the establishment had drifted from the reality of those questioning their actions.

Photographs like this one convinced many that maybe it was those who controlled the police and not the protestors who were out of control. And it lead to a mass awakening with regard to the freedoms we were losing and led to the birth of a kinder and gentler society.

And look how far we've come…

The above video was shot during the G20 demonstrations in July in Toronto and immediately went viral creating an internet sensation of "Officer Bubbles", Toronto Police Services Constable Adam Josephs.

In reaction to the video, several people posted mash-ups and cartoons riffing off the event. And now Constable Josephs is suing Youtube and trying to get the names of those he claims have brought him “ridicule, scandal and contempt both personally and as a member of the (Toronto Police Service)”.

I don't know if Const. Josephs is a really good cop who had one unfortunate moment caught on camera. I don't know if he's what good cops and criminal defense lawyers call a "cowboy" letting his possession of a badge and uniform get the better of him at times. I don't know if he's just a guy instructed that morning by superior officers to "send a message" to anyone opposing the conference.

I just know that whatever world of shit he's been living in since this video was posted probably just got a whole lot worse.

He's probably been the butt of jokes from fellow cops. He might have the brass wishing he'd just go away. It can't be pleasant interacting with any member of the public who now recognizes him.

Certainly his career scrapbook would look better without clippings from all the major Toronto papers and magazines calling him all kinds of derogatory names.

Our feelings we with difficulty smother

When constabulary duty's to be done

Ah, take one consideration with another

A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

                       -- "The Pirates of Penzance" Gilbert & Sullivan

But he didn't sue any newspapers for libel or fellow cops for slander. As far as I know he hasn't demanded the backing of his union or from his Chief for what went on.

In a lot of ways this guy may be as much a victim as the young woman he appears to victimize.

Maybe suing Youtube is the only alternative Constable Josephs felt he had under the circumstances.

And if it was, although the laws governing satire likely have him whipped, I hope he gets the money he's after. Because in re-opening this can of worms, I think he might have turned the spotlight back on what really went on at the G20 and some people might not want him being a cop anymore because of it.

I spent four years writing and producing true police stories for the CBS series "Top Cops", in the process spending hundreds of hours on police ride-a-longs and many hundreds more in the company of good cops and bad both on the job and off.

Many of the cops I profiled became close friends. A few became people I interacted with professionally and left behind as quick as I could, hoping they soon wouldn't have the powers and privileges of cops anymore.

Like I said, I don't know what kind of cop Adam Josephs is and I certainly have no idea what he's like as a person. But I get a lot of clues to how his fellow officers may be treating him now from watching the reactions of the female officer standing next to him in the infamous video.

She's the one initially confronting Courtney Winkels, the young woman eventually arrested; not for blowing bubbles but for wearing a bandana and knapsack and having a lawyer's phone number written on her arm -- meaning she fit the criminal profile of violent activists (as well as many of the activists sworn to non-violence).

She was officially charged with "Conspiracy to  Commit Mischief" because she was carrying a bottle of eyewash in her knapsack, a knapsack that had its contents previously searched and okayed by other police officers and which she was carrying as a member of the Toronto Street Medics.

You can tell the female officer doesn't like not getting a straight answer from Ms. Winkels, but she knows that is the woman's right as a Canadian and deals with her with reserve and even a little good humor.

"Yeah, we've got somebody who doesn't like the police presence or maybe even me in particular but nobody is even disturbing the peace here let alone committing a criminal offense".

This is the kind of cop you want around when people are emotional, tempers are frayed and somebody just needs to chill everybody out.

When Constable Josephs steps in to tell Ms. Winkels she is in danger of being arrested for assault, you can see a range of emotions sweep over the female officer's face. First, there's a kind of "Oh come on, we don't need to escalate this…", followed by a look of defeat because her strategy is no longer viable and then you can see her bite all of that back and not publically question his actions.

And that's what good cops do too. Your partner may be behaving like an asshole, but you're both part of the "thin blue line" and you don't reveal any dissatisfaction with his actions in public. There will be time enough for that later.

And given the nature of video, there's a chance Josephs wasn't out of line, that something happened prior to this particular camera being turned on that gave him a reason for behaving in the manner he is.

Maybe the female officer just got there herself and hasn't been able to fully assess the situation. From this video clip alone, you can't really know.

What needed to happen here was for a senior officer to step in and either suggest Josephs "go do (something) over there" or put Ms. Winkels in his face much like a baseball manager does when one of his players has a beef with an umpire.

Cooler heads needed to prevail. And there appear to be a number of ranking officers nearby so I begin to wonder if something more is at play. Such as if there were some other orders being followed. Something perhaps revealed in the video that's also available on Youtube but hasn't gotten nearly as many plays…

Now the nature of video and the intent of those who filmed it might make you question the motivations in this piece as well. But those images of brute force and unmotivated paranoia are stunning.

Something really un-Canadian is going on here…

Following the G20, the charges against Ms. Winkle and more than 900 others similarly detained were dropped. On their behalf, a $42 Million class action suit has been filed against the city and the police forces involved. Many individual lawsuits are pending.

Maybe Constable Josephs doesn't deserve the kind of ridicule he's been subjected to since July. But some explanation is also long overdue to the rest of us for what went on. Yet I don't see anybody at any level of government either stepping forward to say the actions of men and women like Constable Josephs had their complete blessing or contravened their instructions.

Some lay the blame for all this directly at the feet of Prime Minister Harper for even agreeing to host the G20 let alone hold the party in Canada's largest city. And maybe they're right.

Some wonder if the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, a group that once insisted Tasers were completely safe and we needed a long gun registry, traded their silence on the gross violations of our civil rights in return for all the new hardware a Billion dollars in security costs purchased for their jurisdictions.

And I ask how what happened on the streets of Toronto has played absolutely no part in the city's current municipal election campaign, where people on all points of the political compass should be asking tough questions of their own chosen candidates.

Outgoing Toronto Mayor David Miller personally endorsed Joe Pantalone, a loyal member of his administration; yet few of Pantalone's supporters seem concerned that the previous administration and particularly Miller's appointed Police Chief initially denied and then confirmed that Toronto cops had used rubber bullets on non-violent demonstrators and never explained why they seemed to abandon the streets to those more violent.

Nobody supporting candidate George Smitherman seems to be questioning that the McGuinty provincial government that he was long a part of secretly granted special powers to the police just hours before the G20 began.

And if Rob Ford is as Right Wing as even he claims, why isn't he being asked if he supported the way the Toronto Police Services behaved last July?

Outside of "Officer Bubbles", everybody seems to want all of what happened to just be forgotten. 

But sweeping issues like these under a rug is what leads to our rights becoming even more curtailed in future.

Hundreds of law abiding Torontonians, including two National Post photographers carrying accreditation, a TTC employee innocently walking to work in full uniform and a one legged man sitting in a public park were dragged away and criminally charged because officers so-far-unnamed simply didn't want them where they were or felt a need to throw their weight around.

And once they can do that with impunity, nobody with even a bottle of liquid bubbles is safe.


Enjoy your Sunday.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Your Choice of "Canadian Values"


(The) two basic strategies are: on the right, "People are swine -- endorse my position, or join them in my estimation"; and on the left, "people are essentially good at heart, can't you see that, you sick fool?" -- David Mamet "Bambi vs Godzilla"

There have always seemed to be two solitudes in Canada. First it was French and English. Then it was East and West. Now it's Left and Right.

We lost our bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council Tuesday, polling fewer votes than Germany and Portugal.

The days leading up to the vote were marked by Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff urging the UN's member nations to deny his country this international honor to illustrate the world's displeasure with us and particularly the foreign policy initiatives of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

This struck me as somewhat petty.

Imagine, if you will, that Mr. Ignatieff was a Toronto Maple Leaf fan (which he could well be since he more or less hails from there right now). And let's say his beloved Leafs were knocked out of the Stanley Cup Finals by the Montreal Canadiens who then went on to face either Phoenix or Nashville for the mug, both teams a lot of us feel should rightfully be housed up here.

Piqued that his hated rival might snag some Glory, would Mike be telling the rest of the world to cheer against the Canadiens?

Well given that he wouldn't want to alienate the Quebec vote, of course he wouldn't. But I guess he felt it was okay to alienate those who might like to see Canada receive a little more recognition on the international scene.

Of course, the more rabid of Conservatives blamed Ignatieff for the loss, giving him far greater credit than he probably deserved. But it was the media coverage following the vote by the completely unbiased CBC that caught my attention.

CBC Journalists continually made the point that several nations (predominantly in the Middle East and Africa) were indeed unhappy with Canada. In the Middle East because of our recent condemnations of terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and refusal to embrace the concept of Israeli Apartheid. And in Africa by those who don't like how much harder the present government has made it for them to collect foreign aid.

The vote was followed by what felt like an interminably long Liberal Party press conference where the point was repeatedly made that we have drifted very far from the traditional "Canadian values" the rest of the world has come to know and love.

For those of you a little fuzzy on what those particular values are (or were) they can be best summed up by a famous Canadian beer commercial you can find here. Basically, we're not Americans, we don't live in igloos, we're proud of being Peacekeepers -- and we like our beverages homebrewed and cold.

Occasionally a clip would appear with a representative of the government stating that we lost because the Harper Conservatives refused to compromise their  "Canadian values" of supporting human rights, defending the only democracy in the Middle East and making sure our foreign aid dollars were wisely spent.

As you can see, we have two widely different ideas of what constitutes "Canadian values" these days.

CBC followed the press conference with its regular schedule of early evening round table discussions, continuing to exhibit its lack of bias by interviewing panels comprised of former Liberal cabinet ministers and UN Ambassadors as well as foreign policy experts from the other party of the Left, the NDP.

The discussions mostly confirmed that the rest of the world doesn't like us much anymore because of our "mean-spirited" government, which doesn't reflect those traditional "Canadian values" of peace-keeping, not being American and not offending Middle East extremists or corrupt African dictators too much.

I don't think the igloo thing was really all that important to anybody.

Overall, the point was we're being especially un-Canadian by not saying "Sorry" to as many people it isn't our fault we upset as we used to.

These hours of discussion meant that the CBC didn't cover three stories which were being reported widely elsewhere today.

1. Police in Thailand made 155 arrests in cracking a human trafficking ring preparing to ship a freighter loaded with Tamils to Canada.

You may recall that a couple of months ago a similar ship arrived in British Columbia where our "mean-spirited" government didn't welcome them with open arms because they weren't sure if they were refugees or Tamil Tiger terrorists or victims of human trafficking.

Despite the fact that nobody on the ship could ID either the Captain or any member of the crew, according to CBC Journalists and their roundtables, the government actions did not reflect our traditional "Canadian values."

2. The last session of Parliament was marked by acrimonious debate as opposition MPs and Senators attempted to prevent several tough-on-crime bills from becoming law. These MPs and Senators pointed to Statscan crime statistics showing an annual decline in the crime rate as proof such laws were just "mean-spirited" and counter to traditional "Canadian values".

However, it seems the real numbers, when not being parsed or spun reveal that violent crime is actually up 316% and overall crime up 131%.

Odd how CBC spent most of the summer defending the necessity of gathering statistics and then doesn't report findings as stunning as these.

3. A few months ago, Michael Ignatieff made a point of not offending China by bringing up human rights abuses during a trip to Beijing. And despite being one of the first to congratulate Barack Obama on his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, he still hasn't said a word about the one just awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

I guess, in the end, it comes down to whose version of "Canadian values" you embrace. And I know it's hard for a lot of people to give much consideration to the values of those long depicted as being on the lunatic fringe of Canadian politics and especially the people who'd vote for them.

People like those who live in Brock, Saskatchewan near the border of "red-neck" Alberta and who continue to elect Conservative Members of Parliament. Before that, they even elected candidates from the even more evil, insensitive and "mean-spirited" Reform Party.

What urban dwelling, politically correct and/or sensitive Canadian could ever share the "Canadian values" people like that embody?


Last month, 29 year old Owen Strutt of Brock, Saskatchewan, already banged up from a rough summer, promised his elderly parents Lois and Ken that somehow, some way, he'd get the harvest in. Unfortunately, Owen was killed in a truck rollover two weeks ago, apparently after swerving to miss a wild animal crossing a lonely country road.

His parents were devastated, of course. Doubly devastated, since they would lose this year's entire income along with their only son.

But their neighbors wouldn't let that happen.

And last weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, 30 of them left their own families and turned up at the Strutt farm and in one very long day took the entire wheat crop off 1000 acres.

Others in the community stored the grain and brought meals to the men working the fields.

If we really have two different sets of "Canadian values" in this country, one espoused by politicians and one somewhat opposite that is reflected by the actions and character of a bunch of prairie "red-necks", I think I know exactly which one I'm more likely to embrace.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

For all the Canadians reading this, I hope this day affords you the opportunity to gather with friends and family and give thanks for all the good things that have come your way.

For all you Americans, who still don't understand why we celebrate Thanksgiving a month before you do, this simple explanation…

It's mostly a weather thing. The seasons change sooner here. Our harvests are done. But also, if you look at a map you'll notice that we're bigger and we're on top of you. Technically, America is our bitch and we get to go first.

thanksgiving turkey

More important, if any of you are in need of something to read before the tryptophan kicks in, here's something about the meals of the season I wrote a long time ago.

Please pass over a little more breast, honey. No, silly -- from the bird…

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 140: Jai Guru Deva Om

So begins the refrain from "Across the Universe" written and sung by John Lennon on the Beatles' last album "Let it Be".

Translated from Sanskrit it means "I give thanks to my heavenly teacher" or according to some "I give hope to my heavenly teacher". The literal translation is "Glory to the shining remover of darkness".

Any of those works for me.

Yesterday was remembered as John Lennon's 70th birthday although he died tragically at the age of 40.

So, I guess that means today is the first day of the rest of his immortality.

As a guy who came into his teens just as The Beatles arrived, they have always meant a lot to me. I sometimes meet music fans born after their final records were released and despair at what they missed because the experience was so indescribably wonderful.

There was the unbridled fun of the early albums that probably culminated in "Rubber Soul", a vinyl disc I literally played the grooves out of over a summer weekend learning the chords to every one of its cuts. And from there on each of the band's releases was not so much another great record as a map to the next phase of your life.

In a decade roiling with change, John, Paul, George and Ringo piloted us safely through the cascading destruction providing both comfort and inspiration.

"Revolver", "The White Album", "Sgt. Pepper", "Abbey Road" and "Let it Be" each forced you into a new stage of introspection, greater questioning of your beliefs and a wider understanding of the world. Plus you could still dance and party to them!

The Beatles and particularly John Lennon had all been in and out of Transcendental meditation, drug experimentation and any number of spiritual and Life experiences by the time they were ready to embark in different directions. And because of the turmoil surrounding the final record, his song almost didn't get released at all.

But it did and today "Across the Universe" is universally recognized as Lennon's most delicate ballad. But it was born out of an argument with his first wife and for me exhibits the transformational ability of an artist to channel personal pain into uplifting beauty.

In Lennon's own words:

"It started off as a negative song. She'd gone to sleep and I kept hearing, 'Words are flowing out like endless streams...' I was a bit irritated and I went downstairs and it turned into a sort of cosmic song rather than, 'Why are you always mouthing off at me?'..."

Glory to the shining remover of darkness.

No wonder that in the process the artist realizes that he's only the messenger through which the message flows… "I give thanks to my heavenly teacher".

Yet by his actions proves why he was created in the first place… "I give hope to my heavenly teacher".

In the weeks leading up to Lennon's death the world seemed to be going to Hell in a hand basket. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan. A lot of other evil crap seemed to be reaching the overflow level. And then -- like him -- it was gone.

The Planet seemed to recalibrate to some semblance of sanity.

Maybe he was one of those special lives snuffed to redeem some fault in us. Maybe his passing just made a lot of people remember how precious he made life feel and step back from whatever mayhem they were contemplating.

Or maybe, for the first time, enough people finally listened to what he'd been saying.

"Sounds of laughter shades of life are ringing
Through my open ears inciting and inviting me.
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns,
And calls me on and on across the universe."

I don't know which part of creation John Lennon now calls home. I just know he's still out there somewhere, still as vibrant as the words he left behind.

Glory to the shining remover of darkness.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, October 08, 2010

How Do I Know You Can Write?

writing with blood

All writers know it's difficult convincing others that you can write. Every big name from Ernest Hemingway to Aaron Sorkin was repeatedly turned down at their beginnings, earning far more rejection slips than offers to option their material.

In later life, many authors of note wear those rejections as a badge of honor, proof that they prevailed and overcame their detractors, confirming the entertainment industry rule that "Nobody Knows Anything".

Most screenwriters will also not enjoy the breakout success of a first script. And even the writers of "Rocky" or "Thelma and Louise" eventually acknowledge that maybe they weren't really concocted in a week of frenzied creativity or preceded by a drawer full of stuff nobody else ever saw.

There are even writers who won Pulitzers, Tonys or Academy Awards who never sold another original piece. Many had lucrative careers rewriting and revising the work of others or by being rewritten or revised themselves. But no single line credit with their name on it ever reappeared.

A degree of success does not also guarantee a career.The membership rolls of every guild and union of scribes are littered with the names of those who captured lightning in a bottle only once or twice, renewing their memberships for decades thereafter without ever being hired again.

Some of that's just Life. Shit happens. The puck doesn't bounce your way. Scholars have spent lifetimes trying to understand how Harper Lee could write "To Kill A Mockingbird" and never pull anything of note out of her typewriter again.

Less erudite Canadian screenwriters sit in smoky bars, confused at why the incredible talents responsible for "Corner Gas" just haven't been as funny elsewhere.

Does some of the pressure to repeat and three-peat bring about self imposed failure? Perhaps.

But no writer who has achieved even minor success ever sits down at their laptop thinking they have to immediately swing for the fences. They know their craft and that there are steps they must go through to write the next one, many far more plodding and difficult than just stepping up to the plate and waving a hot bat around.

I've often wondered if it's not the writers but we who set their bar too high. Did Harper Lee read those initial reviews of her first novel and mutter, "Fuck, the only place you go from here is down! I better learn to live on my royalties."?

Does some comedic genius suddenly have to make his jokes work for the suits in the network boardroom long before they can be enriched by an actor's timing or presented within the warm familiarity of sets the audience will come to identify as the place where "Funny" can be found?

Maybe true greatness is measured by always being better or funnier than you were before. Although that seems an odd criteria to use in television where sameness is almost demanded and talented guys like David E. Kelley won't have to write about anything but gangs of oddball lawyers from Boston until it's time to drive him to the retirement home.

Or maybe, the inability of some writers to rediscover their muse is because of something else…

As difficult as it is for writers to convince others that they can write well, it is growing even more difficult for producers and showrunners to determine if they can write in the first place.

I can assure you beyond any reason to doubt that when a producer picks up a script, he wants it to be the best thing he's ever read. Because Producers hate to read. It really eats into all that time we could be spending pursuing starlets and separating dentists from their investment funds.

Or filling out forms if you happen to be a Canadian producer.

Not only that, but if the script is really good and I can get it made, I might never need to read another fucking script for the rest of my natural life. I'll either be sailing in the Caribbean or hiring minions to do my reading for me.

But if the producer is making a TV series or he's the showrunner in charge of one, he needs to know something more than how good the script is.

He needs to know how much of it the writer actually wrote.

And that is becoming almost impossible.

Not that it hasn't always been somewhat of a crap shoot.

Back in the day, as almost any former head writer or show producer prior to the coining of the term "showrunner" will tell you, a show's writer or story editors never took credit for a freelance writer's work.

For all the reasons detailed in Stephen J. Cannell's must see TV Archive videos you just didn't do it.

Call it professional courtesy, call it an awareness that the writer's work was usually less at fault than the capriciousness of networks and studios. Even if you had to sweat out a page one rewrite or even a completely new script less than 24 hours before the material was needed on the floor, you never put your name or somebody else's on it.

If the original freelancer wanted his own name removed, fine. But then he (and only he) got to stipulate what went under the "written by" credit. And he still got all the money and residual payments.

Somewhere else on this blog, I've told the story of attending a Gemini Awards ceremony where all five of the nominated TV Drama scripts had been written by either myself or a fellow showrunner. We shared a drink at the back wondering if whoever won would acknowledge either of us for helping them get up to the podium. We figured he or she wouldn't -- and we were right.

That night's winner gushed kudos to parents and a wonderful agent, who would later pressure us both to rehire his client. But there was no mention of who did the actual writing or even contributed to the apparent brilliance.

To be honest, I don't think either of us cared. The winner was a pretty good writer and could at least be counted on to deliver on time. I'm pretty sure one or both of us hired him again.

But gradually, his work dried up. I recall a network executive confiding his disappointment in a development deal which had faltered. "The guy's got a Gemini. I thought the script would be better."

I never told the exec who really wrote the award winning script. Its true provenance could never have been fully proven anyway. But that lack of proof is becoming the norm for those writing TV scripts today. And there are a number of reasons.

The first is the proliferation of writers rooms. You see photographs of the writing staffs of television series all over the place now. Gatherings of smiling folk still bleary-eyed from late nights writing, re-writing or trying to write their show.

They break both bread and stories together, some specialize in main plot or subplot or dialogue or punching up somebody else's dialogue. All of them espouse enormous respect for the skills the others bring to the table. Their showrunners appear on internet chat shows, extolling the virtues of "the team" and how everybody understands the core values of the concept and is pulling in the same direction.

I've had the experience of running writers rooms where scripts were discussed generally and then the writer was tossed back into his pit alone until a new draft emerged. And I've experienced rooms where pages were group written line by line. Nobody facing the gaping maw of the endlessly chewing machine cares how it gets fed. Whatever works best for the show is just fine.

But I've also had the experience of sending the writing staff off to do Jell-O shots with their Guild buddies on a Friday night, sharing tales of their ludicrous network notes while I sat down and wrote what we would be shooting Monday morning.

Because I'd hired people who weren't as good as their scripts said they were. Because I didn't fully know what they had actually contributed on their last series.

The sad reality is that I can't look at a script sample from your last show in an era of gang writing and know for certain that this is what you can do.

Any produced script has always contained elements the writer didn't conceive, the lines an actor extemporized, the scene the director added for the Executive producer's concubine, the third act turn gelded by the network. But usually you can find the original creative current winding its way around and through the impediments.

But now I read those scripts and wonder if this is the work of this writer or of a team that can't recreate something this good unless I hire all of them.

My determination of how a writer got to be where he is becomes further impeded when I try to look past the script and assess how or why he got his last gigs.

You always assume somebody was hired on merit. You know they might have bought drinks for somebody on the show, slept with the producer or maybe met her at a Sorority reunion and that's all part of the game. However they got hired, you assume they were assigned scripts and deserved singular credits on merit.

But you'd be wrong.

Networks, particularly in Canada, are well known for insisting that staffers be graduates of specific schools. Maybe that school has a valued reputation. Maybe it's where the network has plowed some money or been part of pre-vetting the candidates. Maybe there's something trendy about the place. Doesn't matter.

A network minion sees that institute on your CV and you're in.

In the same way that nobody who ever went to Harvard has ever been sued for medical malpractice, legal malfeasance or literary plaigarism, if you did time in Camp "X" you must be James Bond!

Similarly, it seems a lot of Canadian writers are still being hired based on the color of their skin and not the content of their character -- I mean, scripts.

And no, I'm not talking about all those white people on almost every cover of "Canadian Screenwriter".

According to representatives of the Writers Guild of Canada, they are regularly approached by producers seeking writers "of diversity" to fill out their staffs. In other words, a writer's abilities are of less importance than adding a little somethin' somethin' to the production.

Despite the fact that Clause A110 of the Independent Producer Agreement states:

"There shall be no discrimination against any Writer, Story Editor or Story Consultant because of race, ancestry, place of origin, creed, religion, gender, age, record of offenses (other than offenses related to copyright infringement), marital status, family status, disability, sexual orientation or political affiliation."

Despite all that, Guild staff still feel obligated to provide some producers with a short list of those who could be classified as "diverse".

To the Guild's credit, and the credit of other groups such as the National Screen Institute, they have worked hard to provide the tools and experience writers disadvantaged by the above classifications have never been able to acquire.

Maybe somebody needs to have a look at who's not getting into all those Harvard Film Schools the networks are financing up here.

The heart-breaking reason such diversity outreach is necessary is that any development executive (who's being honest) will tell you that ticking off a few "Diversity" boxes scores you big points with the CRTC and government funding agencies.

All that might have evolved with the best of intentions. But if you're a "diverse" writer who walks into my office, I look at your resume and have to wonder if you're this good or you're just the hot Asian chic somebody hired to make some bureaucrat at the Canadian Media Fund like them better.

The sad truth about Canadian show business is that while the vast majority of artists long ago stopped noticing that somebody's from the Rez, too many in the executive offices and government bureaucracies still won't help that aboriginal minority artist get anything made if it's about white people or the black immigrant experience because the logos they slap on those projects don't alleviate enough of their condescending liberal guilt.

Okay -- so enough of all that. How do I know you're somebody I want to hire on my next show?

Forget the script from your last show.

Forget the spec script. Even colored birds can mimic "Polly wants a cracker".

Don't tell me where you went to school or were hired to intern.

Show me what you wrote all on your own. Show me what comes from your heart. Show me how you see the world.

I don't care if your format margins are perfect. I can teach you that while I'm walking you to your office.

Just show me what you can do. If I'm smart enough to see it you've got the job.

If I'm not that smart, or I need you there to fulfill some other agenda -- you don't want to work for me.