What Makes a Second-Rate Movie Second-Rate?

Flew home today. 11 hours. Means two things: I’m gonna be tired for the next week, and I had to endure a string of probably-not-great movies. The final film I chose to watch today was a 2021 western from Lionsgate titled “Catch the Bullet.” It was not great. It wasn’t even very good. I watched the whole thing. Thus, the life of a traveller. At least it scored me a blog post.

What is it about a movie that makes it second-rate? The acting? The story? The filming? The music? It can be all of the above. It was the acting which caught my eye (not in a good way) right at the beginning of the film. What makes acting bad or at least not good? It’s not always obvious right away. There’s a very subtle line between believable and not believable acting. After the first words of the film were spoken, I could tell there was something off. The intonation not right. The facial expressions flat. These were, for the most part, actors who would never make it into a big budget film. They had limited range and they were showing it off. The most well-known actor in the group was Tom Skerritt. Skerrit is a good actor, no doubt, but he wasn’t given much in the way of dialogue to show off his chops much.

The story? Cliched. I often wondered what the point of the movie was. Nothing original going on here. It could have been a ’50s B-movie western and it would have fit right in. A marshal’s son was kidnapped and I didn’t feel much of anything for either of them. I’m a sucker for an emotional film – especially involving children, but this was just flat. Why couldn’t they have contacted, for example, Mark Sasse and said: “Hey, Sasse, can you do something with this script for us?” I would have been delighted. Maybe could have even given it a theatrical release instead of straight to VOD. Yes, I’m that confident that I could have improved it. There was nothing much likable about any character, and the actors kept doing stupid things that seemed unrealistic. But my dark-pouched eyes watched every second of it. Couldn’t look away.

The filming? The Indian attack scenes were ridiculous. So simplistic. They didn’t even look like real native Americans, but I couldn’t tell for sure since the Indians all died very quickly without much fuss. For being excellent trackers and knowing the land like none other, they were not good at hiding from gunshots. It was like: I will stand up from this rock so he can shoot me. And he did.

But for me, the most cringe-worth part of this movie was the music. I pondered it this evening, and this movie made me create a movie-score rule of thumb, which I had never thought of before. The score of a movie shouldn’t set the tone of the film. It should accentuate the tone of the film. The film’s tone should come from the acting and the style of filming, and the music should add needed depth and warmth to it. But that’s not how this movie’s score played out. The music was so obvious that it was telling the audience directly what they should be feeling and what was coming. The music didn’t seem to be created specifically for this film. It seemed like stock music that was plugged in without much afterthought. When a viewer spends much of a film critiquing its music rather than the story, well, there’s a problem on the prairie. Call the marshal and arrest these film imposters! They are WANTED for poor film-making.

There are many facets which can make a movie second-rate, and “Catch the Bullet” had them all.

West Side Story: A Worthy Re-Make

I don’t make it to the movies much these days. Mainly because what Hollywood puts out typically bores me. But musicals, yes, I can’t resist. My last film was IN THE HEIGHTS which was fabulous. When I heard Steven Spielberg was remaking WEST SIDE STORY I had two reactions: 1) why? It’s such a great film as is 2) Hmmm, but I still want to see what the talented director does with it.

I’m glad I did.

West Side Story 2021 is a glorious pull-back to the original era. The scenes are gorgeous – the show-stopping dance routine in the street was mesmerizing. Of course, we know how good Leonard Bernstein’s music is and how invigorating Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are, but what would there be left to tell?

Plenty. There were some wonderful new settings to many of these familiar songs. Gimbel’s department store even made me “Feel Pretty.” The pacing, though sometimes a little bloated by Tony Kushner’s dialogue which could have been curtailed a little (but hey, he’s a dramatist and I know those dramatists love to drama, so I’ll give him a pass), there was a slow and steady build to the payoff. The tragedy of the rumble, the lies which were meant to protect which end up hurting, the almost horrific rape scene when the white Jets, minus their two leaders, almost do the unthinkable until Rita Moreno inserts some right-headed morality into the mix. Then the ending. The pay-off was worth it.

The film’s theatre roots are undeniable. You might catch yourself saying that is not believable, or they rushed that too fast, or how could they fall in love so quickly, or how could she forgive him just like that … but it’s theatre, man; it pushes the dramatic envelop for the wonderful feelings at the end. And by wonderful, I don’t mean happy. I mean tangible. It has heart, as all good pieces of theatre should.

This is a beautiful, well-made film. Spielberg showed his magical touch of heart and tenderness in bringing this to a re-birth. Both films tell the story in wonderful ways. Highly recommend.

Ponderings on My First Show in 2 Years

Live theatre gets into the blood. When the curtain opens, and the nerves take over, and the hair stands on its end, and the bumps on your skin realize that it’s time, finally, after such a long hiatus, one begins to understand just how much the cult of theatre has seeped into the blood stream.

Last evening, we finished our final show of the Rodgers’ and Hammerstein classic “The King & I.” It ended just days past the two year anniversary of the closing of my last show in December 2019, Seussical. Yeah, two very different shows.

In April of 2020, my nearly produced show “Crazy Love” was washed away by that thing we all know about. I’ve been in theatre hibernation since then, but what a life-giving experience to have to wait so long to get back on the stage. I typically go from one show being finished to starting almost immediately on the next show. It’s been that way in my life for years. But being forced to pull away and not do live theatre made me realize just how much I missed and how I always want it to be part of my life.

The Palace. I built this with my students.
We took the colored panels I had made for the show “Crazy Love” and then tried to retrofit them into the palace design that I had. I had some talented students who created the color textures.

When I do a show, I’m typically doing it all. And I love it all. Stage design. Lighting design. Sound design. Of course, to accomplish this, I basically fall off the grid for a couple months just trying to get all of the work done. I’ve had people tell me they think I’m crazy. I am. Obsessed, even. But when the students hit the stage, and the bows are over, and the tears start flowing from students who didn’t know it was going to feel like this; who didn’t know theatre would seep into their being; who didn’t know how much satisfaction and benefit they would finally get from all those long and boring rehearsals; it makes it all worth it.

So I LOVE it. And I’d be CRAZY not to continue. And that might just be a reference to my next show. The students started clamoring recently about what the plan. “What about next semester? What are we going to do? Are we going to have another show?”

How can I say ‘no’? That’s not an option. Not with the ghosts of the stage pulsing through my body’s every beat.

(PS: But I will take some time before starting the next show. I need to get back to writing. I miss that too. I’m a man divided. And I like both halves equally as much.)

Reading, not writing, with the end in mind.

On my fabulous writing retreat to Tbilisi, Georgia (which I’ll have to post about another day), I finished the first draft of my 11th novel. This one is a sequel to novel 10, my first baseball novel. I’ve had so much fun writing both of these stories, and now that I have an ending, I get to read it for the first time with the end in mind.

What? I don’t write with the end in mind? Not a chance.

This will tell you everything you need to know about my writing process. While others will outline ad nauseum, I just write. Seat of the pants kind of stuff! Just hang on, let the ideas flow, start chaining them together, start to figure out what the characters want, and then they lead me on the chase to the ending.

Last week I wrote two endings. The first was horrible and I hated it. Then I had one of those brilliant moments, the kind that occur too infrequently and I knew, just knew, what the ending should be. The characters finally told me. I, as the writer, had goofed it all up because I wanted to finish it. The characters knocked me on the side of the head and said, “You idiot! We never would have done that!” They were right. So I changed it, now I love the ending.

So with complete draft on hand, I get to read it through for the first time with the end in mind. This is my revising process. I will begin to scour through the details and see if anything doesn’t fit now that I know where the story ended. Then once I get a solid revised draft, I’ll read it again, this time out loud to focus on the language and how it sounds and what could be improved. And then I’ll read it again … you get the point. Eventually I’ll get tired of reading it and send it on to my editor to let her do her magic.

But it’s always a good day when I get to read the entire story now knowing the ending.

I’ll post much more about the story later on, but it does have a title: THE LOST LINEUP.

Subtitle: Myths & Tales of the Winasook Iron Horses, Book 2.

These two books were inspired by the writings of Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella, best known for his novel SHOELESS JOE which was turned into the movie, Field of Dreams. (Coincidentally, this happens to be my favorite movie!) Anyways, I did a Kinsella. In SHOELESS JOE, he used a real-life writer, JD SALINGER, as a character in his book. So to play tribute to that, I use Kinsella as a character in my book. What great fun I had crafting his character. If he was still alive, I hope he would have enjoyed how I portrayed him. It would be a very fun role to play if it ever was turned into a movie.

Coming in 2022.

What’s Your Nostalgic Soundtrack? Mine’s Bob Seger

Growing up, I listened to 96KIX out of Pittsburgh. It was my music destination. Circa early 80s, the station did a countdown of Pittsburgh’s top 300 songs of all time. I was glued to the radio for days as this gimmick was stretched out for maximum effect. I had a notebook and I meticulously listed each song, rank number, and artist as it worked down to the region’s top tunes. Once it was over, you could order a printed copy of the list by sending 96KIX a self-addressed stamped envelop. You bet I did it! I can still picture myself scouring that list when it came in the mail, and seeing which ones I had missed in my notebook. What sticks out to me today about that list is I remember clearly which artist had the most hits in the top 300. Yes, it was Bob Seger with fifteen tracks. I was thrilled, though I think, if memory serves, his top ranking song hit only #11, narrowly missing the top ten. That disappointed me.

I was a huge fan of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. There was tremendous respect for his song-writing prowess and the nostalgic feel of his songs, even though I didn’t know what that was back then. I remember one incident on the school bus. Someone typically had a boombox playing a variety of KISS or ACDC, neither one my favorite. But sometimes we would listen to the radio, and on one occasion, Seger’s “Night Moves” came on. Everyone listened, the song progressed, etc…, until the acoustic guitar faded to silence. One of the leaders on the bus, a senior, yelled to everyone. “Quiet! Listen!” And then the melancholy words spoke back into time, a time that no one on the bus understood, yet we all respected:

“Woke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered, starting humming a song from 1962, ain’t it funny how the night moves, when you just don’t seem to have as much to lose. Strange how the night moves, with Autumn closing in.”

Then the acoustic guitar started again, and the refrain picked up to a crescendo. It is one of the most beautiful, poignant, and perfect songs ever written. We knew it then, and I certainly know it now, especially with Autumn closing in. It’s hitting close to home, and I’m humming a song from 1976.

There’s a wonderful, poignant truth in Bob Seger’s music. It is full of heart and life and regret and mistakes and living life to the fullest. My favorite modern band is Needtobreathe, and I have noticed that at times I hear Seger in their music, and I love that.

On occasion, I head over to Youtube and remind myself of the tremendous list of songs that he had written. For heart, poignancy, and in-your-face nostalgia, his work stacks up against anyone. One of the greatest. If you haven’t heard any of these ten in a while, treat yourself. And yes, I think all of these were on 96KIX’s top 300:

  • Mainstreet
  • Turn the Page
  • Old Time Rock’n Roll
  • You’ll Accompany Me
  • Still the Same
  • Fire Lake
  • Against the Wind
  • Roll Me Away
  • Like a Rock
  • We’ve Got Tonight

Upon Reading the First Half of Atlas Shrugged

645,000 words. 1200 pages. Ayn Rand’s classic epic, first published in 1957, is not for the faint of heart. It requires time, patience, and – in my opinion – a thoughtful demeanor to allow it to resonate.

I’ve been wanting to read it for years. I had even bought a paperback copy and had it sitting impressively on the shelf for five years. A few months back, I decided that it would be my goal, my task, my yearlong commitment, if need be, to actually read the thing.

Well, I’m nearly halfway through it. And my thoughts?

It’s remarkable. The prose is not the most elegant. It can get bogged down at times with a lot of details. But my goodness, it’s easy to see why this novel has had such a profound impact on the 20th century. And reading this with pandemic America and runaway bureaucracy and businesses struggling to find workers as the backdrop, it is almost frightening to realize how this book saw into the future.

First the terrific title. What would happen if that which holds the world on its back (Atlas) decided to shrug with indifference one day? What would happen if the innovators were forced out of the market? What would happen if the great men and women of industry would cease to produce? What would happen if the visionaries of society would no longer – or perhaps more precisely – no longer be allowed to pursue their dreams? What would it do to prosperity? How would it affect society?

There are some truly remarkable passages that I have dog-eared so I can revisit at some point. Some that have sparked writing ideas of my own. Others which are stewing in my mind as I try to understand their philosophical underpinnings.

This is a book of passion: passion for work, passion for love, passions between two of the remaining pillars of industry who will not be bullied into kneeling to the alter of sacrifice for the common good. Because they know, that sacrifice for the common good never achieves its goal. It’s the great debate of intentions vs results. Intentions to improve society mean nothing if those actions actually end up destroying it in the end. You know, the old saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are some amazing speeches in this novel. A couple I wouldn’t mind memorizing myself and developing them into dramatic soliloquys. The messages of these speeches are unmistakably modern. Speaking directly to the vast entrenched bureaucracy which has been conditioned to ignore such messages and warnings.

I have chosen to read it slowly. I’m glad I did. I’m always eager to continue, but I also like to pause and allow it to ruminate. That’s a mark of a truly great book.

As I wade into its second half to truly discover “Who is John Galt,” I can’t help but thinking, with a sigh, where is John Galt? The world of 2021 might need your services.

(Full review when finished – Give me a few months.)

Three Cheese Pizza & Vietnam

I love to make pizza. Yesterday, I made a simple three cheese pizza. Here are the cheeses.

Mozzarella, gouda, parmesan. How I came to this combination has its roots in my ten years living in Vietnam. Before I explain, let’s look at the final product.

Delicious. I’m not afraid to tell you. You might wonder how gouda ended up on my pizza.

I moved to Haiphong, Vietnam in the summer of 1994. This was shortly after the U.S. had lifted the embargo against Vietnam. Yes, the embargo originating in the Vietnam War nearly three decades earlier. If you’ve been to Vietnam in the last fifteen years, you would not have recognized the Vietnam of 1994. It was slowly emerging out of severe poverty and an ’80s decade of turmoil and despair. Just ask a Vietnamese about the “thoi bao cap” – the time of state-sponsored economy – and they will tell you stories. All sad. Don’t ever wish for a government controlled economy. But that’s for another day.

When I arrived in 1994, I called it Vietnam BC – Before Coca-Cola. That will tell you the lack of foreign goods and influence at the time. As I got accustomed to the new foods – I was not an adventurous eater at the time – I longed for some American staples and comfort food to get me through. They were hard to come by. Cheese – especially – was difficult if not impossible to find. Milk and dairy was never part of the Vietnamese diet, so we just had to get by without it. On a trip to Hanoi, we once found the “Laughing Cow” processed cheese. You know the round, soft, overly-processed stuff that might taste okay on a cracker. Well, once we decided, out of desperation, to make Laughing Cow Cheese Pizza. It did not go well. At all. In fact it was disgusting. We had to live without pizza.

Until the day I shall always remember. I was riding my bicycle in the center of town and I passed a small shop with a refrigerated glass display case. I saw something round and orange on the inside. I stopped to inspect. It looked like a massive block of cheese. Gouda. At that time, I had never heard of gouda but discovered it was from the Netherlands. Okay, Europeans know their cheeses. Let’s try it. I took home a chunk, and upon first bite it had that taste. Cheese. Real cheese. Heavenly.

With the newly found goods, a pizza couldn’t wait any longer. It could not have been worse than Laughing Cow. Gouda shredded nicely. Pizza went in the oven. It melted wonderfully. It came out of the oven. It smelled incredible. We ate. Instantly in love. We had pizza. Real pizza. Gouda cheese pizza. We would survive.

As time went on, other cheeses became available, but we had become so enamored with gouda that it continued to make it onto our pizza. And I soon learned that it blended well with mozzarella, giving it a little more vibrant flavor.

To this day, I love to mix gouda on my pizza and I have a desperate younger self who used what was available to thank. Give it a try.

Cast the Flies Away

The other day I was in the middle of a drama class when a student pointed to my hand. It was bleeding. Apparently, in the throes of drama combat, I had ripped off a chunk of skin from the back of my hand. I had no idea what I did. No matter, a tissue and pressure took care of it after a while.

Sure enough, a couple days later, a nice scab had formed – just the way nature intended. The injury, the badness, the scar was still there, but it was healing. I thought nothing of it.

A couple days later – today, actually – I was at the swimming pool getting that vitamin D in the morning sun when I noticed an irritating fly doing his thing around me. You know, bothering me. Zooming around like a fighter pilot – quick attacks – annoying flyovers – the consistent buzzing impervious to swatting or yelling. After a few minutes of sustained attack, it became obvious that this fighter pilot was not going in a random pattern. He had found a permanent landing pad. A runway of decay. Yes. My scab. The fly couldn’t get enough of my scab.

Swat. Back to the scab. Swat. re-circle and in for a landing. Swat. Swat. Futile. If I wanted to do any reading, I just needed to allow the pest to enjoy my scab. I did.

But my brain didn’t stop there. I thought of a quick parallel to life. A mini-lesson, will you. Isn’t this fly like some people? They look for the wound, the scab, the weakness, the vulnerability and that’s where they land?

I talked to the fly. “Fly, look at my body. I’m in my swim suit. There are many other more desirable places to land rather than the scab, isn’t there? Why pick the worst part? Why not enjoy something better?”

The fly didn’t respond.

Unfortunately, some people in your life might not respond either. They focus only on the bad. Only on your weaknesses. Isn’t it time to be done with the flies who celebrate your hurt but don’t compliment you on your strengths? Those who focus on the negative and continue to land on your old wounds?

We all have imperfections and scars in our lives which need to heal. Just don’t allow the flies to distract you from those in your life you can count on most.

What the day will bring

Success requires persistence: Persistence in the face of failure and in the boldface boringness of life. It’s the belief that hope still lives, from day to day, and that one glimmer, no matter how small or insignificant, can rotate quickly to something unexpected.

I received an email today. An acquaintance in the film industry recommended me to a casting director in a Hollywood movie. Yeah, it was a very unexpected email. My first response was: what? You want me to help you find actors? Well, no, they wanted me to send in a casting video of me reading the script. So I naturally thought, no, no, I’m the wrong person. I write. I direct. I teach theatre. I teach the art of acting to my students, but me act? No. Then I heard myself talking to my students: don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

Okay, okay. So I did it. I made a little video of me saying some lines. The specifics are hidden behind a NDA, so I can’t get into them. But, the day was a pleasant reminder of a couple of things:

  1. You never know what the day will bring.
  2. If it brings something unexpected, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.

The first point is very encouraging to me as a writer. It’s easy to get discouraged trying to market one’s books or trying to have a theatre group produce one’s play. I’ve run countless promotions. I’ve sent out scripts to hundreds of places. There are always small successes along the way. The good review. The reader who tells their sphere about this new to them author. The festival that produces the play. And I celebrate each of those accomplishments. But you never know what the day will bring. What email will come from a certain fan. What opportunity will arise out of the blue. What producer might stumble upon your work and love it. What publisher might finally see the potential of a piece.

The point is to keep going. If you write, like I do. Keep writing. Keep marketing. Keep networking. Keep reaching out into your spheres. Keep doing the little things. Most importantly, keep writing (or whatever it is you do).

Today’s opportunity came from a person who saw a couple of my plays. I hadn’t seen this person in two years, but when a movie producer came along looking for a specific person, I happened to be unexpectedly in the crosshairs. It’s so weird how that works.

Whether anything comes from this is immaterial in my view. It’s a wonderful reminder to control the things you can, continue toward the goal you’ve set for yourself, and be ready to react when the timings right.

I’ll let you know if I get the part.

Writers: Screenplays and stage plays. Boy, are your rights different.

I’ve been watching with great interest the Netflix documentary The Movies That Made us. In its two seasons, it has delved into eight different blockbusters from the 80’s and 90’s, which redefined genres and succeeded even in the face of many production challenges. As a writer myself, I’ve especially been interested in how the scripts were developed and the myriad ways writers were hired, fired, cast aside or used in various ways. What I found to be especially fun to see is how scripts for the stage and scripts for the screen are used in different ways and go through completely different processes. There are certain expectations that a playwright will have that, for example, a screen writer will not. I’d like to dive into some of these differences I thought were interesting.

First, let’s go over a few of the rights a dramatist would have when their play is being performed in a professional or amateur setting. This particular list comes from https://www.dramatistsguild.com/rights in case you went to find out more. Here are a few highlights:

  • Playwrights own the copyright to their work. When it goes into production, they don’t give that up.
  • Scripts for the stage should not at all be altered or changed WITHOUT the consent of the playwright. A director does not get to change the script or language to suit his or her own needs. It must be in conjunction with the playwright. The playwright has the final say.
  • If the playwright does agree to some changes, and allows the director to add some dialogue, for example, those changes belong to the playwright’s copyright, not the director. There is very specific case law about the only circumstances in which a dramaturg or director would get co-writing credit.
  • The playwright must receive royalty from a performance if done by a professional troupe or if tickets were sold.

What about screen plays? What was fascinating for me about watching the documentary is that options for scripts are purchased by studios. At this point, they own them. They may get the original writer of the script involved in the movie-making process, or they may not. Once the studio owns them, they have complete autonomy over the creative process of turning that script into a movie. The screen writer might be fired. It happens all the time. The director might decide to hire a new writer and the script will go through many revisions, sometimes daily, until it morphs into something quite different from the original. The original screen writer has no recourse or say in this process because he or she forfeited their rights when the script or book or whatever source was purchased as an option.

In one of the episodes about Pretty Woman, the writer, in heart-wrenching fashion, said that was my baby. They were changing it beyond recognition. That’s the way movies work. When the director gets a screen play, that’s the starting point and he or she sets the vision, changes the tone, brings in past experience, and then revamps, remakes, rewrites it in their own image, so by the time it arrives on the big screen, it is as much a story of the director (if not more so) than the original writer.

But the stage is different. The stage preserves the rights and vision of the writer in a very specific way. What you see, hear, and experience is very much how the playwright intended. Of course, the director of a play will certainly make their mark and set the vision, but the language and story is very much that of the writer.

If you wrote something that a movie studio purchased as an option, would it sadden you to see it go through a transformation? It would for me. But you know what, I’d still be willing to do it in order to see one of my stories come alive on screen.

Any takers?