18 November 2009

"Jim Kelly, don't make me fight you!"

The Robotard 8000, the comedy writing machine known for the middle finger-shaped screenplay Balls Out, just released its latest masterpiece, an animated television pilot script called "Asshole Ninja." That's the type of perfect title that allows you to know, instantly, whether it's something you would enjoy or not (though my mind keeps transposing the words into "Ninja Asshole," which might just be the script working on a metatextual level to convey the ninja's utter assholity). While it doesn't approach Balls Out - few things do - it's a fun, brisk read with a couple of knockout set pieces that had me suffocating from laughter. Download it here and give yourself a much needed rest from the crap you normally consume.

Beware: Unrelated Meandering Thoughts Section

The other night, Jake Adelstein appeared on "The Daily Show" to promote his new book about the Yakuza, Tokyo Vice. It certainly had me hooked: anything with Tokyo + a lurid noun will grab my attention. I disturbed myself, though, when I felt genuine excitement at a grisly tidbit he related during the interview. Adelstein mentioned that, due to stricter gun control laws, the Yakuza are turning more often to the samurai blades of old as an offensive weapon in power struggles. As an example, he spoke about a young gangster who had recently gotten his jaw cut off in the typically bubble gum Tokyo neighborhood of Shibuya.

My first reaction was "Awesome! It's just like a Kinji Fukasaku movie!" Then I had to remind myself that someone out there was actually feeling the physical pain and effects of having their jaw removed, and that's really not appropriate for another person to take pleasure in, no matter the criminal status of the victim. Then I promptly forgot about that and started thinking about how I would stage and shoot such a moment for maximum Fukasaku-tude. This is what too much exposure to the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series will do to you.

But really, it's the same reaction everyone has to driving by a car accident - the slowing down to see more, the dual reaction of "That's awful. I wonder if I can get closer." We're drawn to conflict provided it's not happening to us or anyone we care about. Whether we view it as practice for when the shit does go down in our own lives, or whether we're just an exquisitely fucked up species, we desperately want to poke at the horrible things that exist in this world without getting dirty ourselves.

Being a writer and filmmaker adds an extra dimension to it. When I hear a great true life story or an intriguing fact about murder and mayham, my creative side raises an eyebrow. I could be shaking my head at news of the latest terrorist attack somewhere in the world, bemoaning the pitiful state of humanity, all while my hands are busy taking notes on the details. "Christ, that's awful. There's no way I can make it play."

Moments of unsettling self-realization aside, I've generally made my peace with this darker aspect of human nature. If we didn't have it, all of our stories would be shallow and boring: "Tim goes to the bank to withdraw money, but it turns out he has less than he thought. After consulting with a financial advisor, he resolves to save more by cutting back on expenditures." We live that shit, we don't need to see it in our entertainment. And yet, I still think that no matter how fantastical your plot may be, it still needs realistic moments that can connect with people and their own experiences - the relationship between two characters, for example, or an ambitious plan coming to a more mundane, believable conclusion. It's a balancing act, as is everything in this life.

11 November 2009

Why I Love Paul Kinsey

Like most fans of quality television, I am an avid watcher of "Mad Men," which just ended its third season with a solid finale that saw its cast finally shake off the ennui and kick ass. It did, however, leave me feeling trepidatious about the potential future of one of my favorite minor characters on the show, Paul Kinsey, wonderfully played by Michael Gladis.
By all rights, I shouldn't give a twopenny fuck for Mr. Kinsey. He received very little screen time over the last season and for good reason - he's a pompous ass who condescends to those he perceives to be less educated or intelligent, a wannabe bohemian who still tries to hide his presumably poor New Jersey upbringing. Most of the time he does little work, preferring to goof off and play pranks while bemoaning the fate of an artist stuck in the soulless advertising industry. And yet when it's time to let people go, he clings to his job and momentarily forgets his creative aspirations. He's the type of person who manages to be very smart while simultaneously being very dumb.
But I identify more with him than any other character. Season Four could open with Betty Draper's plane nosediving into the Nevada desert and I'd still impatiently demand to move on to Kinsey. (I think January Jones is great in the part, but the show could dump ol' Betts and I wouldn't lose any sleep.) I think this attachment comes from equal parts recognition and alarm: Paul is the person all us writers fear we really are. To put it into Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck terms, if Don Draper is who we want to be, then Paul is who we see in the mirror everyday.
From the glimpses we have of his working existence, Paul appears to be the copywriter who fills in the words at the very bottom of the medicine ads. While more talented people get the grand ideas, he is left to perfect the minor details no one cares about. He is probably extremely knowledgeable about grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and "proper" English usage, but he cannot write anything that moves an audience, not even in "Death is My Client" and other extracurricular creations. Worse yet, he realizes this, and can do nothing but hope and pray the muses strike him with inspiration.
It's no wonder he was left behind when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was formed. When he sees the remains of Peggy's office, he knows he wasn't wanted or valued, a wrenching revelation. It's a cosmic comeuppance Paul doesn't deserve - he may be a prick at times, but he's not an outright asshole like Pete Campbell or Don (please keep in mind that I actually like and enjoy those characters), and he's the only one in the office who went down South to fight for the civil rights movements. Paul may parade around his African-American friends in an attempt to be hip, but at least he tried to do something good. (Speaking of which, when is Carla going to be more than a one-dimensional stereotype?)
Any writer who hasn't "made it" (and likely those who have as well) recognizes some aspects of his or herself in Paul Kinsey, and so we cheer for him and wish him well, even if he's talking down to Achilles the Janitor after getting high and touching himself inappropriately in his office. I'm not looking for wish fulfillment, though. Kinsey could toil in obscurity for the rest of his days and I would be happy, so long as we see him doing it. If he's one of the characters who doesn't make it to the fourth season, it would feel like the show is doing what most of society does to the real Paul Kinseys, tacitly acknowledging "You don't matter." But if we stick with him and watch him fail, it would be some sort of validation for all those who, for whatever reason, never see the fruition of their own dreams.

05 November 2009

The Hard Boiled Productions Website

Chris and I (mostly Chris) have created a website for our production company, Hard Boiled Productions. The site (which you can find here) has all of the films we've made thus far, an interview we did for The Reel Skinny podcast, and a News link we intend to update...well, whenever we have some news. It's still in the beginning stages, so if you have any (constructive) criticism, fire away. And while you're at it, take a peek at Chris' new solo website.

We also wrote something of a mission statement for Hard Boiled Productions, which I'd like to post here in its entirety:

The world of contemporary filmmaking is in a state of turmoil at all levels. Hollywood and independents alike churn out identical films structured with the same rigid formulas and trite characters. Some rays of light shine through, whether it's an epic television series, a dazzling scene in a mediocre film, or a summer blockbuster that contains a shimmer of deeper ideas. Meanwhile, new technology is shifting paradigms. Theatrical windows, Internet piracy, Blu-rays, digital video players, streaming, etc. etc. You've read the articles. In short, no one knows how the upheaval will play out, or even when it will end. Major studios are clinging to recognizable properties, independents are desperately seeking distribution, and micro-cinema guerrillas are clamoring for attention from audiences and high rolling producers.

Into this chaos leaps Hard Boiled Productions.

We believe people will always want to hear and watch good stories populated by intriguing characters. The media formats change, but our baser instincts never do. We believe that while there may be only so many basic stories, there are new ways to tell them and alter or entirely break the existing formulas. Our only rule is "Don't be boring." We acknowledge that this means different things for different people, but embrace it all the same. We believe that stories should contain an honesty and truth about life and how we experience it, no matter the setting or genre. We believe that the audience is smarter than most people give it credit for, and more diverse than the demographics it's normally forced into. Viewers in rural Arkansas can enjoy a cerebral life-in-crisis melodrama as much as viewers in Tribeca can enjoy massive robots smashing cities. We believe profits and awards are wonderful to earn, but do not set the value of a film's worth. Producing a unique work that changes our audience is much more gratifying.

Creating and conveying stories is what we do. If moving images hadn't been invented, we would be novelists, playwrights, or circus performers. It is in our blood, our spirit, our souls, and we will do it for the rest of our lives. We have no other choice.

03 November 2009

TUMBLER: the echo

The sister film to TUMBLER: the boom is now online. I can't find any words better than those Anthony Griffin composed to explain what we were going for, so you'll find his synopsis below the film and another embedded copy of the boom further down.

TUMBLER: the echo from AEG on Vimeo.

Facing a crisis of conscience after scamming people in New York City with his friend Spencer, Wayne returns home to Chicago in an effort to reconcile what he's done with his life to his ex-girlfriend, Michelle.

This film was made as part of Project Twenty1, a filmmaking contest where teams are given three weeks to complete a film based on a common element. This year's element was "key" and Team with No Name (aka UFO) partnered with another team based in New York City, Hard Boiled Productions, to craft a unique story arc that used the theme as a way to understand the characters and situations as a whole shared in both short films. Of course you can also watch the films independent of each other but what fun would that be, right?

Team Hard Boiled's film, TUMBLER: the boom, won the prize for Best Writing while TUMBLER: the echo won for Best Music.

01 November 2009

"If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh!"

I've been thinking lately of Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy, Sullivan's Travels, even though I haven't seen it since I was in college five or six years ago (holy shit, really?). The "message" of the film has remained with me, and as I'm currently in a somewhat fallow period inspirationally speaking (someone give me an assignment fer Christ's sake!), it's cropped up in my mind as a creative beacon.

For those of you who haven't seen it - and though I'm kind of giving away the ending, I'm not really spoiling it for you, and it's not like you were going to watch it anyway - Sullivan's Travels follows a young hotshot film director who wants to make an extremely serious film about the plight of the poor working classes, one with a title you may recognize: O Brother, Where Art Thou? The studios just want him to make more silly comedies, but he says "Fuck that noise" and travels the United States disguised as a homeless wanderer to gain insight for his masterpiece. Zany misadventures involving Veronica Lake ensue. At the end of the film, the director is on a chain gang and living a miserable life. When the prisoners are given a brief respite to watch a Disney cartoon and laugh their asses off, he realizes that silly comedies, by giving the working classes a chance to let loose and be happy, do more good for them than pretentious dramas.

Frankly, I prefer The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck was the shit.

It reminds me of what my college professors told me about Sergei Eisenstein and the invention of montage. He wanted to wield it like a plow, furrowing the brains of viewers so that the seeds of Soviet Communism could take bloom and lead to the true worker's paradise. As it turned out, regular ol' Ivan Ivanov hated that shit, and preferred to be propagandized by Hollywood pastiches. Maybe that's why I Am Cuba never took off as it was supposed to (it is a brilliant fucking movie, by the way).

How does this relate to me? Ideally, I would have oodles of money to make movies about any subject I damn well like - the demolition of the Edwardian Era by World War I, for example, or the colonization of an alien world by rapacious humans (wait...cross that one off). But I don't have oodles of money, so when I write something I want to film, I have to keep in mind what resources I do have - namely, whatever people, props, and locations are available in everyday life, and that's if I'm lucky. And so that leads to ideas of what might be called, for want of a better term, social realism, which have an unfortunate tendency to be not so entertaining.

While I don't agree with Sullivan that all downtrodden people want or need to see are mindless comedies, I do think that if you're going to create a work of art for the general public, it better not bore the fuck out of them. While we cinephiles may be able to endlessly debate and analyze every "Chaos reigns" moment a provocateur throws our way, most folks just want to have a good time. And I want to give them a good time while also telling stories that interest and captivate me, and that hold a certain degree of truth about human life. It's not the type of thing I think about before embarking on a project - "Hold on, what does this torture porn say about our daily existence?" - but if you're being honest with your characters and your story, it will emerge naturally. Star Trek may be sci-fi, but people recognize that all Kirk really wants to do is get his fuck on.

The best compliment I can receive is not an award (sorry, Project Twenty1), but a person coming up to me or a collaborator and saying "I went through something just like that." We get it a lot with Duly Noted - it seems as if everyone has had a roommate who leaves dumb, anal sticky notes as reminders or warnings - and that is probably why it's the film we get complimented on the most. But I've heard stories of former emergency personnel identifying with The Tin God, and a woman once told us that she had dated a guy just like Spencer in TUMBLER: the boom, God help her.

Maybe that's the highest goal of art: letting people know that they're not alone, and that we're all in this together, whatever it is.

After writing all that, I'm no closer to hitting upon a solid story idea than I was at the beginning. This is stuff I think about, but when it comes to brainstorming, I have to put it behind me and search elsewhere. Starting from the point of "I want to write a script that addresses the following modern issues" will result in didacticism. You just have to open your mind and your gut and hope something wanders in. And when it does, you know it instantly. Like the pearl growing in a clam, it starts off as a small grain of sand you latch onto, slowly building it up with additional nuggets and goodies until it's a beautiful curio to place on the shelf.

See what I mean? I wasn't feeling that simile, but I wrote it anyway. And now look at the fine mess we're in.