Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 300: Go Riders!

Later today, I will pick up a couple of growlers from a local brew pub and venture into a Tiger den of Hamilton fans more adept at tailgate cooking than rooting for a winning football team –- like mine.

And I shall feel no fear of losing the wagers I will be offered, for I come from the Valley of the foot-bally Green Giants where our motto is…

The Tiger Cats will venture into said Rider Valley this evening where the predominant colors will be green –- and white…

A blinding, arctic white…

A man sits on the sidewalk at the Grey Cup parade held on Albert St. in Regina, Sask. on Saturday Nov. 23, 2013.

Poor Kitty.

Cold Kitty.

Little Mauled up Fur…

No, it won’t be pretty. Somebody should really call PETA.

Go Riders! Grey Cup 101! Nothing like winning at home!

Enjoy your Sunday.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Syd Field

In the Summer of 1979, I was hired by a couple of producers in Hollywood to write a movie.

I was still mostly acting back then, but I had a couple of Canadian writing credits and for one reason or another they either liked my stuff or I came cheap.

The initial excitement of “making it” wore off in a couple of days as I met a handful of fellow screenwriters about my own age. They usually had about the same number of produced titles as I had –- with one difference –- I’d actually heard of the movies they’d written while nobody in LA had seen anything of mine.

About to get an insecurity complex, I decided to spend as much time acquiring the writing education I’d never had as I did writing. And I soon found a slim volume by a guy I’d never heard of named Syd Field.

To be honest, hardly anybody had heard of Syd in the Summer of 1979. His book, simply titled “Screenplay”, had just come out and LA was not yet a breeding ground for script gurus and screenwriting conferences.

I read Syd’s book and frankly was a little put off by it. Because it made the craft of writing look so damn simple and the process of creating a story as step by step as changing the washer in a faucet.

I felt duped. But I also had the nagging suspicion he knew what he was talking about. Because when I applied his simple “paradigm” to my own script –- it got a lot better.

A week or so later, I saw an ad for a weekend course Syd was teaching based on his book and signed up. I think it cost me about 40 bucks -- not to mention two whole days away from the beach and exploring old movie haunts.

The class was small, maybe a dozen people sitting around a chewed up set of tables on mismatched chairs, while Syd mapped everything he’d written about on a blackboard.

The other writers seemed as sceptical as me. We had sweated blood and banged our heads against IBM Selectrics for years trying to churn out something decent. And this teacher, who wasn’t even one of us, more accurately a guy who basically wrote coverage, was making it sound as easy as snapping together the pieces of a hot rod model kit.

But once again, when you applied his theories and tried out his suggested adjustments, not only did the scripts get better but they seemed to suddenly push all the right buttons for the studio guys.

I figured Syd Field might be onto something.

A year later, back in Toronto with Syd’s dog-eared book of wisdom now opening all kinds of doors for me, the newly forming Writers Guild of Canada asked me to organize some writing workshops.

The first call I placed was to Syd, who was genuinely excited to come to Canada in the middle of winter to espouse his approach to writing.

He was a wonderfully down to earth guy, not at all inflated by his growing success, even though his book was now flying off the shelves in a world where everybody and their dog walker seemed to be “working on a screenplay”.

And when his workshop was done, the Toronto conference room seemed evenly split between those who felt they’d had their eyes opened and those insisting he was selling some kind of snake oil.

Oddly, none of the snake oil crowd ever amounted to much.

But a lot of the ones who continued to follow Syd’s “rules” made out like bandits.

By the time he passed away yesterday, Syd Field had spawned countless writing careers that have resulted in both personal fortunes and Billions in earnings for studios large and small. His list of former students who have won Oscars, BAFTAs, WGA and WGC awards and even a few Genies and Screenies is formidable.

Yet to the end he remained an easy going guy who just wanted writers to have an easier time creating better movies.

There are those who moved on to other script gurus, including myself. And there are many who blame Syd’s Paradigm for making so many films simplistic and predictable.

But that dog eared copy of “Screenplay” from 35 years ago still sits next to my computer and still gets cracked open now and then. 

For those writers inspired by Syd know that it wasn’t his rules that made movies bad. Because like all things creative they were merely a rough map, a line of torches in the darkness, simply showing a path you could then walk in any way you chose.

Syd, like Joseph Campbell, John Truby and Robert McKee, understood that human story telling has a biological component. Its structure is embedded in our DNA. Understanding that while the Human Genome has only 23 markers, each of the billions that are its product have our own unique and original story.

Syd brought millions of stories into the world, including my own. And for that, I, and anyone else who writes, owes him an endless debt of gratitude.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Slaughter Nick for –- Mayor?

First, Canadian actor Rob Stewart saved Serbia from a brutal dictator. Now the city of Belgrade wants him to run for Mayor.


Maybe Toronto should think about hiring him. I mean, well, they could do worse…

And it would be a shorter commute for him from Brampton.

More important for you Canadian film and TV types, this is how you engage an audience and make them want to see your movie.

Rob Stewart helming one of the great cities of Europe? As with so much of this amazing Canadian story -- weirder things have happened…

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 299: Screenwriters

Screenwriters. You can’t make a great movie or TV series without one. They are the spark which ignites the creative flame.

The image we screenwriters have of ourselves and our trade is an almost holy one. Dedicated. Ethical. Seekers of truth and lucid communicators of the human condition. The smartest guys in the room. But quiet about it and not at all stuck up.

We are the reason everybody else works.

Steven Spielberg steps onto the stage at the Academy Awards and intones, “In the beginning there was the word…” and the rest of the auditorium silently nods –- and we know he’s giving us the props we deserve –- and hope our quote ticks up, when that mantra is repeated at our next meeting.

We attend endless seminars and conferences where those with recent credits or a bundle of past triumphs speak in hushed tones about “the craft” and “passion”.

We laud those fellow scribes who were blacklisted for refusing to water down their vision. We toast those who never gave up no matter how often they were put into turnaround or had their series cancelled before it was given a chance.

We’re all about courage and determination and not going home until it’s perfect.

And several times a year one of us writes “Sharknado”.

“The Lone Ranger”

“A Good Day To Die Hard”

“Battleship”, “Alien 3”, “Green Lantern”, “Red Sonja”, “Xanadu”, “Super Mario Brothers”, “Catwoman”, “Battlefield Earth”, “Megaforce”…

I’d include all the Canadian films Telefilm has pumped tens of millions of your tax dollars into, but I wanted to mention titles somebody has actually heard of.

As Screenwriter William Goldman, a worthy role model and, let’s face it, pretty much a God to most of us who share his trade, said in his inimitable “Adventures in the Screentrade” -- No studio executive ever goes home to his wife and says, “Guess what, honey! We decided to make ‘Megaforce’!”

Except that one of them did.

And some screenwriter wrote it.

And likely got a development deal for “Megaforce II – The Return of Ace Hunter”.

And I’ve always wondered who these guys are. Where do producers find them? And what makes development execs fall under their spell, never asking the tough questions they level at the rest of us?

Who decides to park “craft” in a drawer for the weekend and churn out “Identity Thief” or “The Last Exorcism: Part Two”?

Who’s the guy pissing on Dalton Trumbo’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, muttering “Paddy Chayefsky was a hack” in Starbucks and not wearing their cardigan over their shoulders with the sleeves tied in front?

Well, I think I’ve found him. And he’s all too real and unsettling.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

More Stuff You Can’t See In Canada

In the Somalian city of Barawe this week, the terrorist group Al’Shabaab sent trucks with loudspeakers into the streets ordering people to turn in their televisions and satellite dishes, deeming that watching TV shows harmed their spiritual lives.

Halfway around the world in North Korea, 80 people in 7 cities were rounded up and executed by firing squads. They had been found guilty of watching TV shows beamed from South Korea, such programming having been determined to “cause changes to people’s mindsets” by the government.

One of the programs designated as most harmful in this regard was “Desperate Housewives”.

Luckily, nobody’s confiscating flat screens or frog marching audiences into soccer stadiums in Canada for public dispatch –- at least not yet. But everywhere you look, somebody here is throwing up even more barriers to prevent you from seeing all kinds of new programming.

Last Friday, Amazon, purveyors of books, DVDs, music and just about anything else you might want to buy online, debuted two new sitcom series for those who subscribe to their “Amazon Prime” delivery service.

Two things before we go any further:

One –- we need to come up with another term to describe TV series that you don’t necessarily have to own a television to watch.

In the same way that you can’t call Netflix a broadcaster because they don’t program or schedule anything, just letting you initiate the process and get what you want when you want it like any video store or Vegas hooker; we need a term for shows never intended to run first on Global and then on every fricken Shaw owned channel forever or until people stop believing everybody still drives a 1989 Ford Focus and has never heard of a cellphone.

And Two –- somebody needs to explain to me how “Amazon Prime” in the US gets you same day free shipping plus monthly free downloads of movies and music as well as specially produced “shows” –- while “Amazon Prime” in Canada gets you same day shipping if your entire order is in stock and it isn’t a statutory holiday.


Friday, Amazon debuted “Alpha House” written by Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau, which stars John Goodman and (Canada’s own) Clark Johnson and “Betas” featuring Joe Dinicol (also Canadian) and some guy in the writers room with a wonderfully twisted string of dark one-liners.

But you can’t see them in Canada.

Amend that. You can see the pilots by going to (not .ca) and clicking Amazon Prime. But if you want to follow where those shows go from there –- well, you’re outta luck.

And you’ll be further out of the pop culture loop a few months from now when Amazon debuts the first of its dramas –- “The After” the latest creation from Chris “X-Files” Carter.

And there will be many more since a company that’s basically a big mail order warehouse currently has more original drama and comedy pilots either shot, shooting or about to go into production than all of Canada’s broadcasters put together.

Almost daily now, I get email reminders from the CRTC (Canada’s Al Sha’baab and Kim Jong-un wannabees) that they need to hear what I think about the state of Canadian television. Well, how about this…


And not only has the industry been smothered to death because our over-protected broadcasters never felt the need to actually make very much content, let alone content desperate to attract an audience; but it’s going to have a tough time reviving because we can’t even watch what other countries are making that we have to compete with.

It won’t be too long before we’re as behind the times and out of touch as Somalia and North Korea.

Check out “Alpha House” here. And watch “Betas” here. And do it before they come for your screens or suggest something’s been done to alter your mindset and you’d best hurry over to the soccer stadium.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 298: Canada’s One Man Army

Canada is notorious for ignoring its heroes. There’s something about the national psyche that strives for anonymity. We don’t want to be noticed, singled out or made a fuss over. And we go out of our way not to tell the stories of those among us who would be celebrated in other cultures.

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day. And if any Canadian broadcaster programs a movie about our war veterans it’ll probably be that inexcusable piece of shit “Passchendaele”, which has little to do with history and even less relationship to the real Canadians who fought in the First World War.

But our participation in WWII, when we took a larger and more important role is even less a subject of Canadian films and TV. The fact that the dwindling number of warriors from that generation have never seen their stories told onscreen is nothing short of a national disgrace.

It leaves the impression that we might have been there and maybe did our part and all. But it wasn’t like we did anything anybody else couldn’t or wouldn’t have done.

And while we smugly snigger at Hollywood’s war heroes, the cornball patriotism of John Wayne, the undefeatable heroes portrayed by an endless stream of stars; the truth is that there was one among us who would make even Chuck Norris hang his head and whisper, “I’m not worthy”.

You’ve probably never heard of Leo Major. And once you have I guarantee you will feel two emotions:

1) Disbelief that this man’s name never came up in any history class you ever took.

2) Disdain for anyone who claims to have programmed film or television in this country and did not fight to make his story known.

What follows is a simple list of Leo Major’s character traits and accomplishments on the field of battle. As you pin on your poppy tomorrow morning and partake in the eleven o’clock moment of silence, let those acts of remembrance note that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, just like him.

Men and women whose blood may flow in your own veins, who once walked among you as teachers, storekeepers or that quiet nondescript guy who caught the same bus home from work that you did.

They might even be one of those frail and bent 80 year olds nearby struggling to make it through one more Remembrance Day ceremony.

But their lives and their stories have been denied to you -– and you have been made lesser people because of that not knowing.

Maybe the story of one man you’ve never heard of can spark the change we need in finally beginning to tell our own stories to ourselves and realizing that we are worth telling stories about.

Learn. And Remember –- and Enjoy Your Sunday.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Brent Butt Predicts The Future

All over the free world this morning, people who believe in honesty, accountability and a certain level of decorum from their elected officials are beginning to wonder if there’s anybody worth voting for anymore.

In Toronto, a mayor who apparently embraces the “high” part of higher office, apologized for royally fucking up by promising to stop doing whatever he was doing, hire a driver and stay in his basement when he drinks.

South of the border, a President who won the Nobel Peace prize a short while ago is overheard bragging to aides about how good he has become at killing people.

Billions in tax dollars gets blown on gas plants that don’t get built and dysfunctional websites that do. And every day some new whistleblower is coming out of the woodwork to reveal how much we’re secretly being used and abused by those we elect to look after our interests.

Is there nobody left you can trust?

Well –- I’m picking Brent Butt and the comic brain trust behind the Canadian TV series “Corner Gas”.

There’s an unwritten rule that every successful Canadian TV show has to let a few politicians have cameo appearances.

It’s actually a requirement buried in the incomprehensible boilerplate in the contracts we producers have to sign in order to get money from Telefilm.

To be honest, it’s a win-win for everybody involved. The politician gets to appear human and the media turns up on set for the day, guaranteeing at least one mention in a Canadian newspaper during your run.

But a wily showrunner or subversive scribe can use these guest appearances to let the Public know what kind of person they’re really dealing with.

Last week, an RCMP investigation into Senatorial expenses alleged that Senator Pamela Wallin mighta been cookin’ her books. And while many in her home province gasped “Not our Pam!”, a few folks recalled Pamela’s cameo appearance a while back on “Corner Gas”.

Art imitating Life or vice versa? You be the judge.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Lazy Sunday #297: Higher And Higher


One morning last week, I popped into my local coffee spot for a brew and strapped into the car for a long commute. An hour later, I was still in the parking lot, mesmerized by an interview on “The Howard Stern Show”.

It’s a shame many people still avoid Stern, feeling the self-appointed “King of All Media” is just another potty mouth radio shock jock.

Truth is, the title has stuck for a reason. There is simply nobody better at getting to the heart of the subject at hand.

The interview I didn’t want to risk missing a word of in rush hour traffic was with former Van Halen lead singer and distiller of a superb line of Tequilas –- Sammy Hagar.

Hagar was there to promote a new album. But he and Stern immediately took off on a tangent, discussing how creative inspiration comes about. That led to a wonderful insight for anybody making film or television as well as music in what makes artistic collaborations work.

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion among Canadian TV types about if/why/how come the current “Golden Age” of television might be passing us by.

Those with experience in the business have tagged everything from risk averse network executives to non-writing showrunners and a lack of time and money as the culprits.

But one issue we seldom mention is a fairly rigid “way of doing things” that has begun to permeate how we go about the production process.

Take scriptwriting as one example.

I’ve never been able to get my head around writer rooms continually located a thousand miles from or working months prior to where or when the actors and directors turn up; or those that seem predetermined to take a Marxist Collective approach to what is released from the room to the production.

TV production is by its very nature chaotic, chaos created by those collaborating adding to or subtracting from the original intent to create something seldom fully envisioned on the page.

As Nicholas Ray once noted, “It’s never all in the script. If it was, why bother making the movie?”.

Yet, this latest “Golden Age” has seen the deification of Showrunners and the sense that Mathew Weiner’s attention to detail or the writing approaches taken by Vince Gilligan or Kurt Sutter are the only keys to their series’ successes.

It’s like some kind of writers’ revenge for the Auteur theory and the possessory directorial credit. But I’d bet all of the guys mentioned above would be the first to tell you how essential the nameless background singers, roadies and groupies attendant in their bands were to what it created. 

Yet. My social media feeds are rife with scribes bitching about intransigent directors and thespians who don’t thesp as expected, those respective jurisdictions being everything from bumps in the road to an IED that has blown everything to pieces.

Oh, the other Creatives are online weighing in as well, bemoaning their own problems in making the scripts they’ve been delivered work.

On one hand, all this signifies an industry with too little shelf space and far too few opportunities for the size of its creative community. But it also illustrates a system built to maximize efficiency while insuring the impossibility that a real chemical reaction might happen.

If there is one characteristic of virtually every TV series produced in Canada, it is this –- they’re predictable. You always know where the story is heading and how the lead characters will be affected.

But predictable doesn’t make for excitement or leave the door open for the surprises that keep audiences wanting more or becoming inspired to alter the way they think about things. 

All great bands, just like all great TV series, are the result of several disparate elements combining in just the right amounts. But here it often seems that efforts are made to keep a critical mass from sparking anything not tightly pre-formulated into life.

Sadly, there’s just no basic recipe for making television. And the necessary chemical reactions can’t even begin to happen when the artistic ingredients are isolated from one another or not influencing and restructuring each other on a daily basis.

That’s hard for an industry built on copycat product to comprehend. And trying to explain the often subconscious decision-making that determines how one artist determines which hill is worth dying on and when’s a good time to step back and let another artist take point is hard in the best of scenarios.

But Hagar explained the process brilliantly and taking his cue, Stern drove the interview into all kinds of uncharted artistic relationship territory.

What’s most striking is that given the history of “Van Halen”, Hagar and fellow interviewee, bassist Michael Anthony, have every reason to be as cynical about the music business as most Canadian TV people are about their industry.

But what they serve up instead is a cheerful and accurate assessment of how artistic temperaments operate when creating something truly unique.

In a lot of ways, TV series are just bands with the various craft Creatives being its assorted players. Yes, there’s often a dominant voice or multi-level head-butting, but in the best of them, the overall power of the final product is the result of a unique chemistry being nurtured and allowed to evolve.

Maybe if we got that part together, the roadblocks arrayed against innovative television in Canada might be easier to get over and around.

Please give Sammy and Howard an hour of your time. I believe you’ll find it very worthwhile.

And… Enjoy Your Sunday.

And a taste of what comes from finely tuned collaboration.