Thursday, January 26, 2012

Podcast Rollcall: Scriptnotes

Genre: TV & Film Info

What It's About: The feature and television industries (but mostly feature) from the point of view of the working screenwriter.  In each edition, hosts John August and Craig Mazin address issues relevant to movie writers, from interacting with your collaborators to understanding residuals.  Not a "how to write well" seminar, this podcast is centered on the day-to-day business issues commonly encountered by screenwriters.

Why You Should Care: Because the hosts have years of knowledge and experience to share.  August and Mazin each have over a decade of professional work under their belts, as well as a variety of experience working with the union and other writers' organizations.  Their collective knowledge is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the business operations of professional screenwriting.  Plus, they're interesting and amusing guys to listen to.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 40 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Men Who Would Be King by Nicole LaPorte

This week, Joe reviews books that are on the older side, but still relevant.  On Monday, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" by Peter Biskind.  Today, "The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks" by Nicole LaPorte. ]

I remember when DreamWorks was founded.  It happened right around the moment in time when it would matter the most to me: my mid-teens.  This is the period in most people's lives when they develop their individual tastes and identities.  For me, both my taste and identity were centered around movies and TV.  I watched as much as I could.  And when I wasn't watching, I was reading about the stuff I wasn't watching.  The people, the places, the technology, the methods, the money; I wanted to know about all of it.

So it completely blew my mind when I pulled that certain issue of Entertainment Weekly from my mailbox -- I had put my allowance toward buying a subscription -- and learned that Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen were starting a brand new studio of their own.  I didn't know it was possible to start a new multimedia studio in modern times.  It seemed to me that, like religions, movie studios were things that had to be started long before any of us were born.  But if anybody was going to start a new studio, of course it would need to be these powerhouse producers.  What a monumental thing to happen in my lifetime!  I couldn't wait to see what would come of it.

Nicole LaPorte's "The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks" begins with everyone in Hollywood feeling pretty much the same way I did.  Anticipation was high.  DreamWorks was the first new American studio in 60 years and promised to be a haven for artists (commerce was to have second priority).  But questions abounded.  What exactly would DreamWorks provide that other studios didn't?  Could a new studio sustain itself financially without a back catalogue of properties providing a steady money stream?  And why would Spielberg -- with the ultimate sweetheart deal at Universal Studios -- and Geffen -- already a billionaire from his years as an agent and record label founder -- even want to participate in such a thing?  (Katzenberg was the only one who needed a fresh start, after falling out with Disney.)

DreamWorks had a fascinating roller coaster of history, and LaPorte details every step of the process from its bumpy start to its rapid ascent.  (Remember, this studio won three consecutive Best Picture Oscars with American Beauty, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind before it was even 10 years old.)  But how did such a successful independent venture get bought out by another studio only 12 years after its founding?  And how did it buy back its independence two years later?

LaPorte's descriptions of the people, the places, and especially the meetings are snappy and colorful.  (So many of DreamWorks' key press conferences seemed to occur on those rare, rainy Los Angeles days.)  Even something as simple as the brainstorming session that led to the company's name is told in just the right amount of detail to capture your imagination.

Much of my personal delight in reading "The Men Who Would Be King" stems from my familiarity with the events it covers.  Unlike "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," I was alive when all these things were happening, and I was paying attention to the way they unfolded in real time.  It's interesting to revisit these moments now, with new layers of information and context, and compare them to the way things were originally portrayed in the media.  For a Hollywood history junkie like me, it's great to not only get more behind-the-scenes information, but to confirm what I'd hoped had been true all along: that I was watching history unfold while it happened.

As with "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," you'll want to take what you read here with a grain of salt.  (Does Steven Spielberg really have an "escape pod" motorcycle always at the ready at his Amblin office?)  But while the truths contained in this book may be embellished, you can still count on walking away with a better understanding of how it all played out, and the personalities that made it happen.  If you're an entertainment lover of any kind, "The Men Who Would Be King" is essential.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

[ This week, Joe reviews books that are on the older side, but still relevant.  Today, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" by Peter Biskind.  On Thursday, "The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks" by Nicole Laporte. ]

Baby Boomers lived their entire lives convinced they were the best thing that ever happened to American culture.  They had the best ideas, they had the best music, they had the best politics, they had the best sex, they had the best drugs.  You can try to argue any of these points; but it doesn't matter, because you don't know what's best anyway.  They do.

Peter Biskind's 1999 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" carries forth the legend that Boomers had the best films.

"Legend" is the right word, as Biskind's book definitely stems from the "print the legend" school of reportage.  While Biskind aims for journalistic accuracy, he cops to printing conflicting information and rumors, and allows his readers to entertain different possibilities while acknowledging that his account may not be precisely what happened.

Covering the span of Hollywood history that began approximately with Easy Rider* and ended with Raging Bull, Biskind details the shabby state of America's post-studio system movie industry and the events that allowed, almost accidentally, a bunch of young hippies with unrefined ideas to take creative control of mainstream filmmaking.

Resent the Boomers all you want, but there's no denying that this is a period of American film history well worth exploring.  A perfect storm of cultural circumstances -- the crumbling studio system, television threatening to replace theatrical exhibition, a youth culture fighting for civil rights and free love while simultaneously being called to war -- allowed for what was ultimately a brief window of time wherein the decision-makers at the major film studios acknowledged that they had no idea what to do next, and ceded control to pretty much anyone who looked to be "with it" and talked like they knew what they were doing.

Biskind's book is written as a series of anecdotes, one leading to another.  I like his style of taking advantage of a natural break point in the middle of one story to introduce people or places that will take the lead in an upcoming story.  For example, in the middle of a long chapter about Warren Beatty's travails while making Bonnie and Clyde, Biskind will step away to write a couple paragraphs about Francis Ford Coppola shooting Finian's Rainbow.  The only connection between the two events is that Beatty was editing and screening Bonnie and Clyde on the Warner Bros. lot at the same time Coppola was shooting Finian's Rainbow there.  But it gives Biskind an opportunity to add a little texture, and to also get some low heat on Coppola and George Lucas before those two go on to dominate later chapters.

Books like this, by their very nature, must augment a certain time or place or person.  An unavoidable side effect is the aura of exclusivity it creates.  "You weren't there.  And it's over now, so you never can be there."  Again, it's that kind of Boomer mentality of, "We did it best.  Sucks for you that you'll never be as awesome."  It's worth noting, however, that Biskind's book was published in 1999, which means he was researching and writing it while the independent film movement of the '90s was in full swing - an era of freedom and creativity in American film history that some would argue rivals the New Hollywood of the '70s.  A bit of a blind spot on Biskind's part.  (Although it's been a long time since I've read it, I remember John Pierson's "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes" being a good book about '90s indie film.)

"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" is certainly flawed, and the veracity of many of the stories and anecdotes can be called into question.  But the historical facts of that period of filmmaking seem to be in line and, well, as for those questionable anecdotes... what can I say?  I'm a sucker for them.  So I fully recommend this book.  It helps if you find film history as fascinating as I do.  Although these histories may be peppered with inaccuracies and self-mythologizing -- and really, what history isn't? -- this is an entertaining and informative book, though best taken with a grain of salt.

*The book's history actually begins with Bonnie and Clyde and some mention of Mickey One, which predate Easy Rider.  But that clearly would have made for a less catchy book title.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My Favorite New TV Show of 2011

Over the last few years, I've come to dread the month of October.  The television networks -- both broadcast and cable -- have settled on October as the month to just pummel us with all their new stuff.  Not interested in a slow rollout, they bombard us with all of our returning favorites, and a huge crop of new shows vying for our time and affection.  (But mostly time.)  On top of that, I'm always trying to squeeze in as many horror movies as I can to celebrate Halloween.  This leaves me with a maxed-out DVR and an overstuffed Netflix queue which don't resolve themselves until sometime in the dead of December when, all of a sudden, everything in entertainment just stops.

Nearly lost in the shuffle of all that noise was the show that became my favorite of 2011...



The story revolves around Nicholas Brody, a Marine sergeant missing in Iraq and presumed dead for eight years.  Discovered during a raid, he is returned home to a family that had attempted to move on without him.  Meanwhile, CIA agent Carrie Mathison is convinced that Brody has been turned by the enemy and is planning an attack on the U.S.  But Mathison's questionable mental state casts doubts on her suspicions.

"Homeland" is part political thriller, part investigative procedural, and part family drama.  While the hook of the show is trying to figure out whether or not Brody plans on staging an attack, episodes spend as much time dealing with issues of post traumatic stress, reintegrating into family life after eight years of captivity, infidelity, politics and more.  No aspect of the show is uninteresting.  You won't find yourself merely bearing the family scenes in order to get to the investigative scenes.  "Homeland" is always gripping and suspenseful.

Every aspect of this show is a home run.  The characters are strongly written, and the cast elevates the material further.  Damian Lewis, who first got my attention in "Band of Brothers," gives another outstanding performance as Brody.  Claire Danes has grown from being America's sweetheart in the early '90s to possibly being one of its best actresses.  Her turn as Carrie Mathison -- a performance that balances intelligence with recklessness and a controlled mental disorder that's straining to get out -- comes hot on the heels of her Emmy win for "Temple Grandin."  And Mandy Patinkin, who is always great in every role he plays, is -- surprise! -- great as the smart and stern yet fatherly Saul Berenson.

Needless to say the story and plotting are incredibly intricate, with believable twists and turns; a show like this would fall apart otherwise.  In fact, the only thing that's a letdown about this show is the opening title sequence.  While the broadcast networks have all but eliminated the opening theme song over the last decade, the cable networks have picked up the slack by creating some of the most interesting show openers ever.  "Homeland" attempted a somber, evocative newsreel montage, but ended up with something bland.  That's a shame, because everything else about the show is just the opposite.

"Homeland" is full of surprises and goes against your expectations at every turn.  Whatever's going on, it's never quite what you think.  And yet, the resolution is not a cheat.  And the conclusion to the season manages a rare feat: it's a satisfying, non-cliffhanger endpoint, but still provides a clear view of how the story will expand and grow in the next season.

This show is a must-see.

Surprisingly, "Homeland" is based on an Israeli TV series that I'd be very interested in checking out.  The version I saw is so specific to the politics and the mood of the U.S., I can't imagine what it would look like to see this story played out under a different political system.

Monday, January 9, 2012

My Favorite Movie of 2011

I feel like I'm stuck in some sort of alternate universe where a Steven Spielberg movie is a little-known underdog that I feel compelled to champion.  And yet that's exactly where we find ourselves, with this particular movie underperforming at the box office and inspiring little discussion in the culture at large.  Still, I stand behind my choice.  My favorite movie of 2011 is...

The Adventures of Tintin

Okay, technically Tintin has not underperformed.  Opening first in Europe, it had earned some $250 million before U.S. audiences even had the option of seeing it.  And yet, when the time came, Americans mostly chose to not exercise that option.  And that's a shame, because Tintin is easily the most fun I had at a movie theater in 2011.

Tintin is an unironically intrepid boyscout of a character who is somehow not obnoxious.  The story begins when he buys a model of a ship at a flea market only to discover that there's suddenly quite a bit of interest in this item.  As a freelance journalist (although he looks a hair too young to have a full-time job and live on his own), Tintin takes it upon himself to investigate the mystery of the ship.  The action takes off from there and never slows down until the end.  Some critics have complained about the relentless pace of the movie, but I found it exhilarating. 

Also exhilarating was the discovery that Spielberg can still design an action sequence like a director 40 years his junior.  Better, actually, since his experience gives him more confidence in his shot compositions and timing.  Pay particular attention to the virtuosic chase through Bagghar, which plays out as one long, unbroken shot.  Spielberg effortlessly maneuvers his camera around characters, sets, vehicles and explosions, moving all the pieces around precisely without feeling stagy.  You're so drawn into the action that you may not even notice this is one continuous shot.

The motion capture computer animation may be a turnoff for some.  That was certainly my biggest hesitation about going to see this movie.  We all have the same complaints - dead eyes, plasticine skin, the revolting uncanny valley effect.  But I actually think they found the right range of realism for the characters in Tintin, leaving them cartoony enough to avoid appearing repellent (with the exception of the Milanese Nightingale, who I found distracting).  Hats off to the character designers.


I'd never heard of Tintin before going to see this movie.  The comics dating back to the 1920s, the cartoon series in the early '90s, the enduring worldwide fame of the character... I knew nothing about any of it.  All I know -- all that matters -- is that I got swept up in this movie pretty much from the first frame, and had a great time the whole way through.  A brilliant, globe-trotting action-adventure, Tintin is the movie Indiana Jones 4 should have been.  If you haven't already, check it out.