Tuesday, December 25, 2007

We wish you a Merry Christmas...

I said I might go on a rant about the whole politically-correct holiday thing, but I decided I don't feel like it.

So Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

We built this city...

So, we have Rock Band. The purchasing of which was primarily precipitated by my roommate Brian's winning a PS3 in a holiday raffle1, and us needing games for it.

We've been down with Guitar Hero since the first game. Right around the time Guitar Hero II came out I was unemployed for a period of around six months, with a really good severance package (best and worst job I've ever had, remind me to talk about it sometime) and unemployment benefits. This was also the post-production period on RvD2. So I had no job to speak of, and when I tired of rotoscoping lightsabers, I turned my attention to Freebird.2

We also had Guitar Hero on the set of the film I shot this summer -- not only GH2, but Guitar Hero Encore: Rockin' the 80s.

Point is, I really played a lot of Guitar Hero this past year. When I played Encore, and when GH3 came out, I started off in "Hard". Not "Easy" or "Medium." Admittedly, not "Expert" either, but I'm not familiar with a lot of these songs. And now with Rock Band I find myself doing the same (and playing on "Expert" the songs I do know).

I'm something of a musician. I was in marching band in high school. I played first chair clarinet and I was Drum Major my junior year.3 And I'm a little ashamed to admit that I sight-read the songs in the Guitar Hero/Rock Band series far, far better than I ever sight-read actual sheet music.

There are some annoying bits, I will say. First off, the upgrade to PS3 means wireless controllers for all. Which is, you know, cool in the sense of less clutter, but also means battery life and signal strength and such become an issue.

The drum set is cool and Brian really likes it. Which is good, because I'm going to need a LOT of practice before I can play those worth a tin shit. From what I hear, unlike the guitar, if you can learn the coordination necessary to play the drum "controller", you've basically learned the skills necessary to play a real drum kit. It certainly takes a fair bit of concentration, although it was 2AM and I was starting to really fuck up on the guitar before we tried switching. So maybe when I'm fully awake I won't have quite so much trouble.

The "Overdrive" (formerly "Star Power") little gyroscope or whatever fucking device they have that registers the guitar tilting "towards the heavens" is broken, but it turns out that pressing "Select" also activates it. Takes a little getting used to, but the button is right by my pinky as I strum so it's not a huge problem.

The huge problem is that apparently there's such a thing as strumming "too hard" on these things. All us Guitar Heros are used to strumming until we hear that solid "click". If we don't hear the "click" the note doesn't register. Well, the new guitars do away with the solid "click", presumably to cut down on the amount of clicking and clacking you do when you're SUPPOSED to be rocking out. That's cool, although I miss the tactile sense that I DEFINITELY hit the note. But something is wrong with our guitar, because if you do more than just SLIGHTLY tweak the strum bar, it registers as two notes and fucks the score and multiplier.

Apparently, along with the tilt-sensor, this is not an uncommon issue with these guitars. We're getting a presumably "working" one on exchange.

Exchange or no, the little "solo" keys higher up on the neck are fucking pointless. A solo almost invariably will dovetail directly with a previous phrase, so there's no time to even shoot your hand down there, much less actually LOOK at the guitar to make sure you're pressing the right goddamn buttons. Also, they have the "benefit" of not needing to be strummed during the solos, but you can just press the right button at the right time.

The problem is, part of being able to play the game really well means I've trained myself to press the appropriate button a split-second BEFORE the note arrives, so it is ready for the attendant strum. Well, in high-fret solo mode that just means I fuck up EVERY SINGLE NOTE by a split second for the first half of the solo, and then I start to concentrate really hard and overthink what I'm doing and wind up fucking up the SECOND half, too.

Luckily, it's perfectly possible to play the solos just like any other part of the song, with the regular frets and strums (presumably for backwards-compatibility with Guitar Hero controllers), so like the "Overdrive" problem, I don't ultimately really have to deal with it.

The singing part of the game is quite fun and I do pretty well with it, so I'm looking forward to doing that more when we've got the whole "band" together. I've even done a trial run of singing WHILE doing the guitar. So far I can manage "Wanted Dead or Alive" and "Learn to Fly." But no REAL point in that, ultimately, since the idea is to make it a four-player game and we'll have four players here for it.

Still, I wanted to see how difficult it was for the real rockers who play and sing. I can only conclude it's pretty tough, because it's damn hard in the game.

A quick word about song choice: AWESOME selection in Rock Band (GH3's song selection left a great deal to be desired for me) and I'm looking forward to the day we unlock "Epic", among many others.

Last comment: I've always wondered how musical performers could play/sing the same song every night on tour for, like, 20 years. Madonna still does "Like a Virgin" in her concerts, I hear. I got a taste of that life our first night with Rock Band. Between all the occasions where the game chooses a "random" song to challenge you on, and the few songs we'd unlocked, we wound up playing "Creep" and "Say it Ain't So" about a million times each, and I was going kind of nuts.

  1. "Holiday raffle" is a gross oversimplification of how he won the PS3, but that's another story and he can get his own blog.

  2. I was over the moon when I heard that they were putting Freebird in GH2. THAT song takes a Guitar Hero.

  3. I would have been Drum Major my senior year, too, but they dissolved the program to put more budget money on our shitty football team. The year I was drum major we took Sweepstakes (basically a Best in Show award) at every competition; the football teams never even made it to local playoffs. I'm pretty bitter about the dissolution of the band -- and moreso about the administration's baldfaced lies that they were doing "everything they could" to keep the program afloat -- but at least we went out on top.

Monday, December 17, 2007

With great power...

So, sorry for not posting much of substance lately. Holidays and all. I will be back on track with some theoretical/ranting posts after Christmas (although I may take the opportunity to do a little rant re: political correctness and Christmas/Xmas/Holidays).

Meanwhile, now that humans have begun harnessing the power of the genome, we can finally give such marvelous novelty gifts as glow-in-the-dark cats.

Now, according to the article, the scientists did have a rational reason for doing that -- it's a much easier pitch to the lay-public when they can SEE the effect science has had with their own eyes, as opposed to "see these bands on the chromosomes under the electron microscope? We moved those. Science!" So making living creatures who are genetically (and benignly) altered clones is a great way to make a point: We know what we're doing, we have an unprecedented level of control.

But that's also, of course, potentially a bad thing. Even though I'm not sure I have a lot of ethical objections to manipulating the genome, there are basic logical ones: how do we know that the adjustments we make will be benign? Natural selection creates an equilibrium; unfit mutations do not survive or produce less offspring and thus the gene pool balances out. But what if, through artificial selection, we introduce a mutation that we think is good but turns out to be bad, and the usual equilibrium process winds up wiping out the new mutation, which by artificial means comprised an entire generation of a population?

Bad times.

And even if there's nothing but good that could be expected from this, I expect people to miss the point entirely. Either by getting up in arms about the existence of glow-in-the-dark cats (without understanding their implications), or worse yet, by WANTING a glow-in-the-dark cat or other designer pet (likewise).

Although it is good fodder if I ever get around to writing a sci-fi social satire.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Closer We Get, Part 2

Same guy, same principles, new application. Someone give him a grant already.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The closer we get...

...the more it seems like this should have been how we interacted with computers from the beginning.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Colin's Bear Animation; or, Thanks for Nothing

I may feel free to go on a rant about trade schools sometime in the near future. In the meantime, I present you with this.

In case you only watch the videos I embed on this page, and never go to their actual YouTube pages, here's the description from YouTube, which is important.

So this video was created by a third year student at UOIT. This is the final animation for an Animation Arts class. My friend Colin used all the techniques that were taught by this professor. And as you can see, he made the best animation with what was taught.

Be prepared to watch it multiple times. It gets funnier each time.

You want me to show you tough? I'll show you tough.

I'm still on the look-out for some other good YouTube fight scenes. Meanwhile, here's how not to get cast in a kung-fu movie.

Most people I know have seen Shaft and his backflip-gone-wrong, and I've seen the rest of this video but I'm not sure everyone who reads this has, so here you go.

There are dozens of uploads of this video, all from the same two not very good quality sources, so after going through all of them looking for a good one, I just picked one arbitrarily. It gets the point across.

Monday, December 10, 2007

In Soviet Russia, ass kicks YOU

So, I just got turned on to this scene from a movie called Undisputed 2. Sequel, presumably, to Undisputed. I have not seen either, but I LOVE a good fight scene.

This fight scene -- apparently the FIRST fight scene in the film -- definitely makes me want to see the movie. The action is maybe a bit too wushu to be believable in a kickboxing tournament, but I can forgive that because of the levels of awesome it achieves. And unlike many fight scenes today, the action is extremely well-shot. There's no cheating in quick cuts here. Just great, brutal choreography and performances.

I'm going to check YouTube for some other of my favorite fight scenes.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

And now for something completely different.

There's some good news to go along with the bad.

-Ray Park, best known as Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace, has just been cast as Snake-Eyes in the upcoming live-action G.I. JOE movie. That is so cool. I've had the outstanding fortune of working with Ray on our Descendants teaser, and he's still attached to star in the feature if the writer's strike ever ends. Besides the fact that it's going to put the heat back on his name, and make it easier to sell a movie with him attached, Ray is just a great guy and I'm just terribly excited for him. He deserves it.

-My good buddy Travis has at long long last released "Six in the Morning," the sequel to the popular "Three in the Afternoon". I've seen it. I liked it. We will have to podcast about it.

-RvD2 Behind the Scenes DVDs are at the replicators and should be ready around the Christmas season. They look great and I think all our fans, those who donated and those who ordered DVDs specifically, will be pleased and find them worth the wait.

-Haven't done a YouTube find in a while. Got a Robot Chicken sketch for ya today. If you're an RC fan you've probably already seen it. I had seen it before, but it's been a while, and for those who haven't, I thought I'd share.

The funniest part, to me, is how scandalized Mario is by the "Princess" and her proposition.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Because I could not stop for Death...

My maternal grandfather, Edmundo Palacios, passed away at 8:20 PM on December 4, 2007. He was 74 years old.

I'm sad, but I'm not bereaved. I think that he would want all of us to go on with our lives and not let this bring everything to a halt. He died, but we didn't, and we have to keep living that way. I'm still smiling. I'm still laughing. I can miss him without dying with him.

I like to think that's enlightened. Possibly it's just horrible. Judge as you see fit.

My first experience with death was with my other grandfather, my father's father, Frank Scott. I was three years old when he died. The only memory I have of him is a withered old man in a hospital bed. I remember being struck by how the mucus in his nose seemed to have solidified into two very green plugs. Looking back I think maybe this is a false memory, that he may actually have been on an oxygen tank with two tubes in his nose. But that's not what I remember, and I really just don't know.

Though that is the only memory I have of him, I know that I was very close to him when he died. I also know that I had not had any knowledge of death or dying, so it never occurred to me that the time I saw him so sick would be the last time I saw him.

I was with my parents on a business trip to China when I found out what it meant to die. I asked them when I would get to see "Grandpa Scott" again.

I remember the look they gave each other when they realized they were going to have to tell me the truth. My mom took me back to the hotel room and explained death to me.

I remember crying until the sun came up.

My parents tell me that a few months later, I started crying inconsolably, apparently out of nowhere. When they calmed me down enough to articulate what my problem was, it seems I had come to the understanding that someday, inevitably, I would die.

Death and I have a strange relationship.

What it comes down to, really, is I've spent 21 years thinking about it, wrestling with it, and, in my own ways, coming to terms with it.

I've held imaginary eulogies for my loved ones throughout my life -- when I'm alone, I'll just get it into my head to think of what I'd say if someone I cared deeply for died. So I say what I think I would say in such a situation. I usually end up crying.

I don't know why I do that. It's a very strange thing to do. I'd like to say it prepares me for what I know may someday come (assuming I survive any one of them and not vice-versa), and also makes me focus on what I adore about these people. But it's still a goddamn weird activity. The only defense I have to keep from sounding completely psychotic is that I didn't do it OFTEN, and I haven't done it in many years. Still, I did it every now and then, so there it is.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I was kind of ready for this. To say nothing of the fact that my grandfather has been sick for a long time. The guy has had like four heart attacks -- but kept on ticking. About a year and a half ago he got some kind of fibrosis -- not cystic, but I don't know what it WAS. Anyway, it fucked up his lungs, and over the last 18 months he just withered away. His bodily organs shut down and his heart, overworked and prone to attacking as it was, finally gave up on Saturday.

For a long time he had avoided going to the hospital near the end. I think he knew that if he went in, they'd never let him back out. And he wanted to die at home.

My grandfather started dating my grandmother when they were 17 and 14, respectively. They married at 21 and 18, and moved to America a few years later. They were married 53 years, and they have lived in the same house since coming to America. I get that he wanted to die at home. I get why.

But he had a heart attack, my grandmother panicked and called 911. And even though he signed a Do Not Resuscitate order, a call to 911 by a spouse or other designated decision-maker overrides that in some bullshit bureaucratic way. Not only did they resuscitate him, but they ALSO put him on a ventilator1, which he ALSO explicitly stated he didn't want. That if it came to a choice of dying or artificial life support, they were to pull the plug.

I hear he bit the doctor who put the tube in. I say good.

Apparently he had a heart attack yesterday and they resuscitated him again. He was pissed about that.

At any rate, I got a call this morning. "The doctor says if anyone wants to see him, they need to come now. Not in two hours. NOW."

I rushed down to the hospital and saw him in intensive care. I had seen him on Sunday as well, but only briefly. He was conscious, though he couldn't talk because of that fucking tube down his gullet. To be fair, he probably didn't have the strength to talk even without it, but I'm still pissed that it was even there.

I'm lucky. We knew it was coming. They finally decided to honor his wishes and take him off life support. We were told to say our goodbyes.

My mom, being a fatalist, made sure to tell us every time he got sick, since the very first heart attack, that "this could be the big one." So in a way, to me, my grandfather has been dying since I was 14. I've had to think about what that meant. I've had to come to terms with it. I was prepared.

I held his hand and looked in his eyes. I told him I loved him, that I would miss him, and I said goodbye. I kissed his cheek. He squeezed my hand.

Through all of this, I was fine. It was only when I returned to the waiting room and saw my grandmother crying that I broke down a bit. My grandfather was ready. I was ready. She wasn't. I had never seen her cry before.

She's always been a very practical woman. She also kind of lives in denial of unpleasant things. I don't think she had really allowed herself to consider the ultimate consequence of my grandfather's sickness. She had finally accepted that she had said goodbye forever.

That's what really broke my heart today.

Times like this I almost wish I still believed in God. I think that moment tested my "faith" as an Atheist more than it would have as a Christian. It would have made it easier just to relapse and put it all in the hands of a higher power. I wish I could give the "better place" platitude, but I can't, because I don't believe it. I don't believe he's anywhere. He's gone.

But I can't say that to my weeping grandmother. And I can't lie to her about what I believe. What the hell COULD I say? The "his suffering's over" line didn't feel right either -- it was TRUE, but just felt inappropriate. I just sat with her and let her cry.

I was close with my grandfather growing up. My grandparents helped raise me. My father was often out of town on business and my mother couldn't handle me on her own. We lived 3-4 days of the week at my grandparents'. 2

In high school I kind of withdrew from everyone for reasons I don't need to go into here, and that meant everyone. That period of my life did a lot of damage to my relationships with my family, some of it forgivable (and since forgiven) but much of it irreparable.3

I then went to college and carved my own life out even more. Part of it was being stuck on campus, without a car until my junior year. And after that, my habits had changed. It's not that my grandparents had done anything wrong, but I was living a different life and I just didn't get around to seeing them much. None of my family saw me much from then until, well, now really.

Would I do it differently? I honestly don't know. Selfishly, the life I was leading made me happy and I had to pursue it. They say they understand. I really believe so. I certainly hope so. Ironically, my grandfather's feelings upon dying were, according to my grandmother, not anger at me that I hadn't been around as much, but anger at himself that he wouldn't be around for me if I needed him. They've just always been ready to be there if I needed them.

My brother thinks that I'm not upset now, but it'll hit me sometime later. That may be true. All I know is what I said before. I'm sad, but I'm not devastated. And maybe it's because, all things considered, I've been more ready to let him go, more used to not seeing him as often. My sister, by contrast, is a total wreck. She visited almost every day. I hope she'll be alright but I just don't know what to say.

But like I said. For my part, I told him I would miss him, that I loved him, and I said goodbye. I meant every word, because even though I wasn't around, I was always thinking of them. He heard me and said it back as best he could. I'm one of the lucky ones.

One more thing, and I saved it for last because I want it to stick with you the way it stuck with me.

As I held my grandmother, as she cried her broken heart out, across the waiting room a man was playing with his infant daughter. She couldn't have been more than 18 or 19 months old. She was born right around the time my grandfather started his final, long decline.

Her dad was doing that thing where you pretend to throw the kid up in the air without really letting go. She was in one of those funny little jumpsuits, her wispy toddler hair done up in a "ponytail" that stuck straight out the top of her head. She was looking up at the ceiling with a huge open-mouthed baby smile, almost laughing but not quite.

She was so beautiful.

  1. You've seen it in the movies -- it's that accordion-thing. It's attached to a tube that is forced down your throat, and it breathes for you when your lungs/diaphragm don't have the strength.

  2. They have a lot of stories they tell about me, describing, with great and inexplicable affection, the type of child that ought to be smacked 'til it puts him right.

  3. For example, my younger brother never had the support of an older brother that he should have through his formative years. I wasn't there for him, and he needed someone. I think he put a lot of trust in me because I was very much there when he was little, then suddenly I closed myself off and the bottom dropped out. Changing it now doesn't change it then. Him forgiving me doesn't change it, either. I have to live with it.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Storyteller's Responsibility

Recently, there's been talk of a new Knight Rider series. This is not the first, nor probably the last, old-school TV series to be re-booted, reimagined, or remade in the new millennium. On one of the many message boards I frequent, there was a recent discussion about the Knight Rider re-imagining, and re-imaginings in general.

Putting aside, for the moment, the fact that the "argument" at hand was pure idiocy -- someone was insisting that the new KITT doesn't look enough like the old KITT and therefore the new show was worthless and an insult to the fans, even though a) the KITT design is not endemic to the storyline and perfectly sensible to update to a newer model of car, or even a concept car, and b) the official new KITT design hasn't been released, so the argument was actually regarding a fan rendering which, much like the person making the argument, has no grounding in reality -- the point raised was interesting, especially given the side I found myself arguing.

The argument, at its core, was that re-imagined versions of a story are often so distantly related to the original concept that, with a few changes, it could have been its own, "original" concept, instead of "pissing on" the nostalgia and "alienating the fans of the original". Ignoring, again, how ludicrous it is to imply that because KITT is not a 1982 TransAm nor does it (theoretically, mind) have a similar silhouette, the entire enterprise is a wash, we'll go with another example that was brought up: the new Battlestar Galactica.

I do not watch Battlestar, so I can't really talk too much about the story beyond my cursory knowledge of the basics. It's not that I have anything against it, I just haven't jumped in yet. And since the next season has been announced to be its last, I figure I might as well hold off until they wrap it up and hear from Ryan, who DOES watch it, whether the journey is worth it. But I don't need to watch the new Battlestar (nBSG) to know that the argument that it has replaced the original series (oBSG) is, to use a word I can't use on that particular board, utter horseshit. The original series is still there. You can still watch it, it hasn't been changed or erased. The new series is something else. End of story.

To argue that the new series shouldn't be named Battlestar Galactica if it's not going to be the original series is also absurd. The BASIC story is the same, and that's the story that they want to use as their foundation.

Before I get into that too much, though, I just want to point out a seeming contradiction in my thinking, which I realized during this argument; it was my determination to resolve the contradiction, either by forcing myself to accept that I can't have it both ways and to drop one side of my contradictory argument, or by understanding how there was, in actual fact, no contradiction.

I often take filmmakers like George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers to task for screwing up the story in their series. My first post in this string was a mini-essay on how Lucas had no right to change Star Wars the way he did, in terms of the originals, and I barely touched on how horribly he mangled the telling of the prequels AND cut the legs out of the originals in the process. It is his responsibility, I argued, to stay true to the zeitgeist and the cultural impact by allowing the story to be what it is, and what it has become.

But at the same time, I found myself arguing that the makers of the new Knight Rider, and nBSG, and all other series reboots, have no responsibility to the nostalgia of the original fans, particularly when said nostalgia is so blinkered that the smallest change might as well render the whole thing meaningless in their eyes.

So which is it? Does the storyteller have a responsibility to his audience and their nostalgia, especially when the story is an established part of the cultural fabric, or is it his open prerogative to create a new story at his whim, nostalgia and fan-loyalty be damned?

Well, I had to think about this pretty hard before I realized the truth of the matter: putting it that way, it's a trick question, and a false dichotomy. Putting it that way, the answer is "neither". The storyteller's responsibility is not to his audience's love of the minutae incidental to the telling of the story. Nor is it to his own whims in a given moment, to changing the story just because it's in his power to change it.

The storyteller's responsibility is to the story, to the world and the characters necessary to tell the story. Always, and only.

The storyteller's only responsibility to the audience is to provide them with enough believable detail (take careful note that the word I used is quite intentionally not "realistic", but "believable") to accommodate the suspension of disbelief the audience will need to make. A greater suspension usually requires proportionately greater detail.

The storyteller's only responsibility to himself is to make sure the story is told to his satisfaction. BUT, his satisfaction must at all times derive from a sense of the truth of the story, of the reason the story deserves to be told.

In "first-run" versions of the story, that means being true to the source. The Matrix sequels and Star Wars prequels fail because they were not true to the stories that they had begun to tell and which they were, ostensibly, continuing.

The Harry Potter stories deserve to be told in as faithful a way as possible, because they have never been brought to the screen and therefore the story has not yet been told in that medium.1

But, if a story must be RE-told, I would go so far as to say they had BETTER make some radical changes from the last time, to give it a new relevance and purpose. Otherwise why should you tell that story again?

For example, I've often thought of how cool it would be to make a new Wizard of Oz film, using the visual effects techniques unheard of 70 years ago. Think of the flying monkey effects! Think of the powers of the Witch of the West!

But then I think: why in the hell would I do such a thing? What could be added to The Wizard of Oz that wasn't accomplished the first time, story-wise, to warrant using new techniques to tell the story?2 I could never answer that question, and always abandoned the notion.3

Why do a Battlestar Galactica today about the future that the 80s envisioned? We need a Battlestar Galactica about the future as it appears to us.4

Some stories have NOT been properly translated to the screen. The recent Beowulf is an example of a film that I think was worth making, even though it was not a reimagining. To the contrary, it was the first film to treat the material faithfully, directly. But still with a purpose, of telling the story and wrestling with the material in a new way. Instead of just telling the story of a man who kills monsters, it tells the story of a man who epitomizes the Neitzchian concept of a man who fights monsters becoming a monster himself, and tells us that the people we revere as heroes are still, in the end, human beings.

Beowulf has been told before, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the events of the story. But it is only Zemeckis' version that has found a PURPOSE in re-telling the story, a truth that the events of the plot (altered somewhat from the ancient manuscript, arguably to their improvement) can help to express.

This isn't to say that everything a storyteller writes or makes is going to be gold. I somehow doubt that Knight Rider is going to be brilliant, no matter what the car looks like. It'll probably be silly fun and hopefully it'll have the sense not to take itself too seriously. And the design of the car will undoubtedly be dictated less by nostalgia and more by whichever car company is the highest bidder for what is, ultimately, a weekly hour-long commercial for their product.5

But hey, it could be brilliant. It really could, and what will only emphasize its brilliance is that no one in the world will really expect it to be so.

Jaws was just supposed to be (and expected to be) a B-movie adaptation of a bestselling book. The ONLY reason they gave it to a relatively inexperienced director was because of its bestselling pedigree: there was no way he could screw it up too badly. What Spielberg delivered was an astonishing film capturing the reality of the human characters within the world of the story.

The PLOT was about a giant shark eating people, and there was plenty of that. But the STORY was about how different people deal with fear in different ways. Denial, horror, anger, helplessness, or a powerful resolution to set things right.6

As in real life, the heroes aren't heroes to us because they killed the shark; they're heroes to us because they even ATTEMPTED to kill the shark when they were positively scared to death.7 The fact that they succeed lets you leave the theatre elated, but you're on their side and cheering them on well before that resolution comes.

A lesser filmmaker than Spielberg would have made a film about a shark killing people. No subtext, no real story. People die and then the shark dies the end. You can see many of these lesser films on the shelves of your local Blockbuster Video.8 I count the sequels to Jaws among these lesser films, where the monster shark becomes a gimmick for adrenaline and scares, but there's no STORY being told.

Spielberg saw the opportunity to do more. He did more, and Jaws was a success that defined the term "blockbuster" and that the studios are still trying to replicate today.

No matter what the PLOT of your film is, the specific events of your film or your novel or short story or whatever, make sure that the events tell a STORY -- a human story -- worth the effort.

Fuck nostalgia, fuck expectations, and fuck you and your ego. None of that matters. What matters is: is it a story worth telling, about characters worth knowing, and are you doing it justice? The story is what matters, and the second you put it on paper or on a screen it doesn't belong to you anymore, so you'd better get it told and then get the hell out of its way.

That's your responsibility as a storyteller.

  1. To Rowling's credit, and by contrast to The Dark Tower, she managed to stay completely true to her story and to her style, despite various changes in her life such has marriage, children, and becoming the richest woman in Europe.

  2. One could argue that a film could be made that skewed closer, plot-wise to the original short novel by L. Frank Baum, but ultimately that still doesn't answer the question: what more is there to the story that was present in the novel -- not the plot, but the story being told -- which could warrant such an exercise? Having read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I can't personally say there was anything that they really lost out on story-wise, even if plot-wise they left out the part about mice saving Dorothy from the poppies.

  3. It should be noted that, just because I couldn't think of a worthwhile new way to tell the story, doesn't mean such an endeavor was impossible. The Sci-Fi miniseries premiering this last weekend, Tin Man accomplished just that, taking the concepts presented in the original story, such as a man with no brain, and an evil witch, and re-seating it into a much different tapestry and interpretation of Oz mythology. Whether or not the re-imagining is to be judged "successful" is, I admit, purely subjective (I have the first episode TIVO'd but unwatched), but I think most viewers would rather see a "bold reimagining" of a well-known story, than a tepid rehashing of a story that was already told in cinematic form, completely and competently, almost a century ago.

    To say nothing of "Wicked", the best-selling book and its generally sold-out Broadway adaptation both. Author Gregory Maguire has built his career on re-imagining classic children's stories, usually from the "villain's" point of view.

  4. This gets into the theory of what sci-fi is all about in the first place, which is not to try to predict the future, but to extend the problems and fears of TODAY to their extremes, and wrestle with today by holding up a mirror we call "tomorrow". But that's a topic for a future post.

  5. And a sure-fire successful one, too; I don't even know what it looks like but I'll tell you right now, if I had the money, I'd fucking buy a KITT car at the drop of a hat. And I'm not even into cars. Slap those red running lights on the front of any shiny black car and I'm sold.

  6. Frank Darabont's recently released film version of The Mist, which I also remember reading about on Coming Soon as much as a decade ago, happens to tell the same story. Although it takes the decidedly more cynical view that fear drives the majority of people to madness and violence. Not a feel-good movie, that one.

  7. Yes, even Quint. The reason the fisherman is so angry and hateful, especially towards the shark, is because he's so terrified of its power, the way it can make him helpless and destroy him without fear or remorse of their own. He wants to destroy the shark so he can conquer this fear that rules his entire life. All of the characters have this kind of depth throughout. And this was supposed to be a low-budget schlock film. Is it any wonder Spielberg has the reputation -- and the track record -- he does? He refused to settle when anyone else would have.

    Now try to read that kind of depth into the characters of one of the Resident Evil movies. I dare you.

  8. I once decided, years back, that I wanted to have a "shark day" where I rent all of the non-Jaws shark movies in Blockbuster and watch them in a marathon. Since then I've had to amend the plan to being a "shark week". There are so fucking many of these movies.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Childe Stephen to the Dark Tower fumbled

Stephen King spent more than 20 years writing a fantasy series he called The Dark Tower. He only just completed the 7-book cycle in 2004. The series technically began and ended his career, although Carrie was published before The Gunslinger, and he has continued to write and publish since "retiring" with the release of the final volume, simply called The Dark Tower.

There are three things I would change about the series: Book 5, Book 6, and Book 7.

In 1999, King suffered a near-fatal accident when he was hit by a van during a morning jog. Understandably, it fucked him up something mean. Not just physically, although after he managed to not die he was still confined to a wheelchair for almost two years after the accident. But psychologically, emotionally. 1

The first thing he wrote post-accident was non-fiction, a book on writing cleverly titled On Writing. It took nearly three years to get back on the horse with Book 5 of The Dark Tower, Wolves of the Calla, in 2003. The previous volume, Wizard and Glass, had been published in 1996.

The bitterness about his experience was clear even in unrelated projects. 2 When King wrote the teleplays for the miniseries "Kingdom Hospital" in 2004, which was a remake of Danish series "Riget (The Kingdom)", he added a painter character as the main character, who was admitted to the eponymous hospital after...getting hit by a van during a morning jog. Unsurprisingly, the man driving the van is not cast in a sympathetic light.

But the bitterness was not only directed toward the man who caused his pain; it's present in his feelings towards his fans, who were not as sympathetic as perhaps he deserved. When he got back to writing The Dark Tower, he spoke in interviews about how fans at book signings, etc, would come up to him and tell him that they were glad he didn't die -- not for his own sake, but because if he had, the Dark Tower series would have been left unfinished.

It seems to me that this attitude -- which was, he implied, not the minority -- engendered in him a resentment towards the story and towards his so-called "fans", with the painful realization that none of them really cared about HIM, only about the work.

I personally believe it was this that prevented him setting back to work on the series for a few more years. I think he spent some time wondering if he even should. "Fuck me? Fuck you, guy. Fuck all of you. You're not going to get the end anyway, how do you like that?"

But then he got back onto it. And when he did, he wrote FAST, turning the final three books of the series out within 18 months.

So what changed?

Well, he realized that, even though he created the story, it was bigger than him now. He had a responsibility to the story whether he liked it or not. The unfortunate part is, he decided to write that into the story.

It is established in the first three books -- the very first, in fact -- that the world of the Dark Tower has a close, direct link to our own. It's also established that many of his works tie into the Dark Tower mythos, with references to other stories or DT terminology. But in Wolves of the Calla he takes it further. The book includes a priest character, Father Callahan, from his novel 'Salem's Lot, and throughout the book they travel between the two worlds, ours and theirs. At the end, they bring back a book from our world that Callahan finds upsetting -- 'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King.

It just goes on from there. Basically the main characters discover and accept that King is their author, their creator, but he has stopped writing their story and they will fail in their quest to reach the Tower unless they get him going again. So in Book 6 they actually pay King a visit and demand that he finish the story. The book you're reading is about the characters telling the author to write the book you're reading. And in Book 7, they intervene in his accident, making what would have been a fatal accident into a near-fatal one instead.

Metafiction, huh? Good times. As someone with a degree in English, I can appreciate the fact that he basically wrote an essay to the reader. A "this is how it is. The story commands me now. This story, and its need to be told, ultimately saved my life." But unfortunately, and ironically, he sacrificed the story in order to tell us how important the story is.

It's like meta-metafiction. He managed to take the power back from the story, by telling the story of the story telling him to tell the story, and all I wanted was the story itself goddammit, and that managed to go mostly UNTOLD!


I get upset.

Anyway, I'll get to the actual point of all this in my next post. For real.

  1. You would, perhaps, think that someone like Stephen King would already be about as fucked up as it was possible to be without actually going out and eating peoples' intestines. But not so. Storytellers and creative types in general do tend to be a little bit fucked-up by their nature, that's what makes their work powerful. But people who write horror fiction are, for the most part, surprisingly well-adjusted. They do, after all, get to vent their inner psychotic safely, and on a regular basis.

  2. Although, when speaking of King and the Dark Tower, one can make the argument that very few of his projects are "unrelated".

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Red-Headed Step-Prequel

So I've been doing a lot of thinking lately with regards to the responsibility of a storyteller. To what extent are they responsible to the story, the audience, and themselves? Where is the balance?

As anyone reading this knows by now, I can take a while to form my argument when it comes to this kind of thing, so I'm going to break it up over a few days so it's more bite-sized. I will also attempt to think of clever titles for each installment so as not to get boring, but no promises.

Anyway, to begin:

George Lucas, and his supporters, like to point out that Star Wars was Lucas' story, and so it is his prerogative to do anything he wants with it.

Greedo shoots first? Done.

Hayden Christensen in Return of the Jedi? It's in.

Midichlorians? Shit, why not.

The fact that the specific reference in my second link is lost in the PAGES of changes listed should finish making my point. If not, see also the pages for A New Hope (which wasn't even originally called that), and The Empire Strikes Back.

In terms of intellectual property, Star Wars belongs to Lucas. He can do whatever he wants to monetize it -- and he does. But as a STORY, as a MYTHOLOGY and a CULTURE, I think it's out of Lucas' hands. Legally he may have the right to alter it in whatever way his whims dictate, but he is violating the purity and the impact of the story every time he does so.

Aside from the fact that George Lucas is a prime example of someone who NEEDS a guy on set to go "George, that's a stupid idea," the story doesn't belong to him anymore. As soon as you make it part of the fabric of culture, part of the language of the zeitgeist, you have to be ready to let it go and find a life of its own.

Storytellers call their stories their "babies", their "children." Star Wars was Lucas' firstborn, and he didn't know quite what to do with it. The "child" wound up getting reared by a huge team of people, producers and executives who all had their input and influence on making it the film it was. They're like the teachers and friends a child makes in school. Then the film went out into the world and took on its own life.

If it were a child, it would be acceptable and expected that George let it go. But what he did, instead, was give up his next two children for adoption. Then he later kidnapped his adult firstborn, medicated it heavily, and then locked it in the attic for good measure. He also invoked his rights as the biological father of the other two to steal them away from the families that REALLY raised them, brought them under his roof against their will and then forced them to live under his rules.

And then 30 years later, he had three more kids, but THIS time he sheltered and homeschooled them to make sure that they had all the values and beliefs he wanted. I think we've all met the weird homeschooled kid. (Don't get me wrong, there are cool homeschooled kids too, but they're pretty rare and typically not strictly "homeschooled" so much as privately schooled by a group of parents.)

If George Lucas did to his real kids what he did to the original trilogy, child services would SO have had his ass. And there's nothing to be done for the prequels but to shake your head, just like when you meet the socially maladjusted homeschooled kids. "It's not their fault," you say, "their parents made them that way. They probably would have been cool if they'd been let out to play once in a while."

Now, don't get me wrong. There is NO question that legally, Star Wars is George Lucas' property, and I and many of my colleagues owe him gratitude for being progressive, and not suing the bloodstained zombie Christ out of us for playing in his backyard. But that doesn't mean I have to be okay with the way he mistreated his films.

Just because you created something, doesn't mean you control it forever. A storyteller should treat his "babies" like his babies. You have to have responsibility without demanding control.

More in my next post.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fingers crossed...

The writers and the AMPTP go back to the negotiating table tomorrow. I have high hopes that they will reach an agreement quickly, but it's not like the AMPTP was negotiating in good faith before. There's a good chance they aren't doing so now, either. I think there's a good chance that the AMPTP is only doing it to try to swing public opinion back in their favor. "Hey, we tried to negotiate. But those darn writers were just being too unreasonable and walked away!"

Don't back down, writers, and don't be fooled anyone else by the AMPTP's word-games. This is a big deal. The studios stand to make billions off the writers' work. The writers deserve a portion of that.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Movie Review: Fido

Okay, you like zombie movies? You like Shaun of the Dead? Go rent Fido. (If you like zombie movies and haven't seen Shaun, you stop reading right now and go see it. We can't be friends anymore until you do.)

The funny thing about me is that I like the idea of zombie movies, but rarely their execution. Typically they seem to forget that they're supposed to be zombie movies. Dawn of the Dead? Both the 70s version and the recent version use the zombies as a bookending thing -- the zombies lead them into the mall, then are the reason that they must leave. But they aren't really zombie movies. They're movies about people holed up in a mall, and oh yeah there's zombies outside.

28 Days Later? I have a friend, who is an executive at a big name studio, who has her own metaphor, inspired by 28 Days Later, for when a film utterly derails itself in the third act: "Going to the mansion." I discovered this when I pitched a movie to her once. Admittedly the third act was a problem and that particular story has been fixed (I like talking to her because she gives really good notes). She was with me for the first two-thirds of the movie and then when I got to the third act she hissed through her teeth like she'd been stung and said, "Okay, do you REALLY want to go to the mansion?" I just love that metaphor.

(I know 28 Days Later likes to say it's not technically a zombie movie, but we all know it is. I have not yet seen the sequel.)

Land of the Dead? Good God, if Romero wasn't credited as the man who created the "zombie genre" I'd say he has no business in it. Frankly, even given that he is, I'm still tempted to say so based on Land of the Dead. It was a post-apocalyptic movie, but not really a post-ZOMBIE-apocalypse movie. The survivors are living in fenced-off cities, the wealthier survivors live in a hoity-toity skyscraper, and the story is really a struggle between the classes. And oh yeah there's zombies outside. Oh, and one of them is intelligent and has compassion for his "people" for some reason.

Zombie Honeymoon was okay but a lot darker than I expected. Also didn't take the concept as deep as they could have. We can still be friends if you haven't seen it.

The reason I love Shaun of the Dead so much is that it is a perfect zombie movie. It's violent and scary and the zombies are a constant and immutable threat. But the other thing that's great about it is that the characters aren't behaving like you're supposed to behave in a zombie movie. It's like the movie chose to follow the "wrong" characters, and it's just brilliantly funny. Horror-comedy is hard to do well, and the Shaun team does it wonderfully. (Their "wrong characters in the right movie" concept also worked beautifully in Hot Fuzz.)

Fido is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to Shaun of the Dead. Remember how the zombies had been leashed and "tamed" at the end of Shaun? Fido starts with that premise, although with a slightly more sci-fi bent, in that they have special collars that, when activated, make them tame and not-face-eating. When deactivated, well, shoot for the head. It's also set in a fictional 1950s where World War II, from what I can tell, didn't happen. Instead what we got was the Zombie War, which has left small pockets of suburban humanity trying to live a normal 1950s life inside giant fences, on the other side of which is the Wild Zone, where zombies roam uncontained and uncontrolled.

I won't give you the whole of the story because you really should see it, but suffice it to say that the logline I've heard, "A boy and his zombie", is perfectly accurate. There's some great actors in here -- Carrie-Anne Moss and Dylan Baker as the parents, with Billy Connelly as the eponymous zombie -- and the filmmaking is impressive. If you're a filmmaker, I suggest checking out how the shooting and lighting style evolves from a brightly-lit, three-camera backlot look to a more modern/realistic style and look over the course of the story.

But overall, the best part, for me, was that it never forgot that it was a zombie movie. Little touches and glimpses of life made it clear that the filmmakers had considered all aspects of a post-Zombie War society, and it was part of the fabric of the film's culture, not just a McGuffin. That's how you make a zombie movie, and I'm not sure what the ratio of sad/wonderful is in the fact that the only movies that seem to be able to get it right are the comedies.

But the good comedies are comedies because they take the rules very seriously, just the characters don't. The zombies are still killing people horribly, but the other characters seem unaware of the horror. The little boy in this does a great job of acting like he's in a Lassie movie instead of a zombie movie, reacting to his zombie's murder of a neighbor with the "aw, shucks boy" guilt of a kid in some other movie finding that the dog tracked mud all over the brand new carpet just hours before Dad's new boss was coming over for dinner! Hijinks!

I'd really love to see a good, serious zombie movie, but I almost have to wonder if they need to be comedic to work. Certainly Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide (apparently in development as a film by Brooks himself) is extremely funny, but never in a punchline-y way. No, it's funny precisely because it's NOT funny, because it takes the notion of a zombie outbreak as a given and with utter seriousness describes how to get through it. The follow-up, World War Z, is less funny, and I'm personally hoping that it stalls in development hell (it's currently optioned by Brad Pitt's "Plan B Productions") long enough for me to have a shot at it, because I would really like to make that into a film.

But until that day comes, if you're a zombie lover who hasn't seen Fido, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I'm going to stop promising to cover topics in my "next" blog post, and just say "a later" blog post, so I have something to come back to in the lean times. We'll call them blog residuals.

I say that because I said in my last post I was going to touch on the subject of humility, but I've decided I don't want to do that today, so I won't. I have a lot of other, more current stuff to talk about.

Case in point: There's a new Ghostbusters game coming out.

This is, as my friend Travis likes to say, a big damn deal.

To use another Trav-ism: Let me explain something to you.

I love movies. I'll go into how loving movies, especially as a filmmaker, goes through the same stages as loving a person in a later blog post (see how I brought that back? Four years of college, right there). But I've been watching movies as long as I can remember. And the first three films I ever saw were:

The Wizard of Oz

In that order. I loved all three of those movies, even though I'll be the first to tell you I didn't understand a goddamn bit of them. They were just the most wonderful things to me, with their music and their personalities. And Ghostbusters has the distinction of being the first film I saw in theatres. I didn't get the jokes, but I knew Venkman was funny. The dry/sarcastic thing informed my own burgeoning sense of humor. (Being fat in middle school added just the right dash of self-deprecation to make me the pundit-in-my-own-mind I am today.)

And when a Ghostbusters cartoon came out...heaven. (The Real Ghostbusters, not to be confused with Filmation's GhostBusters, which was an impossibly bizarre cartoon based on a short-lived 1975 live-action series in which, as IMDB explains, "Two guys and their pet gorilla hunt spooks." That's right, pet gorilla. The cartoon was a spin-off about their sons, who had apparently inherited both the family business and the gorilla.)

I (i.e. my parents) bought all the toys (including the fucking gorilla, because I was unclear on the distinction), got the funny-smelling purple slime mashed all into every carpet in the house when I would use it with the official Firehouse playset, the whole nine.

People are surprised when they find out that I'm 24 and yet didn't grow up a fan of Transformers. But I had ghosts to bust, goddammit.

I knew every line of the film and could recite it at the drop of a hat, although I still had no idea what I was actually saying. ("I feel so funky" while writhing around on the floor pretending to be slimed was apparently a favorite of mine.)

And about five years after the original film, when Ghostbusters 2 started advertising? Dude. I could've shit Bono, I was so excited. Saw it opening weekend, and for all I remember multiple times. I wore out the video tapes -- as we still brooked such bullshit as VHS back in the day -- just watching and watching.

So then, years later, the internet has arrived. I'm still movie-obsessed, although, as mentioned before, I haven't actively realized yet that movies are and rightfully ought to be my life's passion.

While browsing through Coming Soon -- an Ain't It Cool News precursor that, like most websites, didn't have its own domain and so was impossible to find without bookmarking it -- I discover that there's a Ghostbusters 3 in the works.

(One thing I really miss about Coming Soon, is that the news was sorted according to the title of the rumored film. I remember reading about I Am Legend on Coming Soon; back then it starred Ah-nold, my man Ridley Scott was directing, and Will Smith was "that kid on Fresh Prince.")

Well, in these heady early days of consumer internet, do I take that lying down? No sir. Straight to Yahoo! I go (the major search engine at the time, before the benevolent Google-beast consumed us all). I found a Ghostbusters fan site. With a MESSAGE BOARD! It was really little more than a glorified listserv, but man, even just looking at that Wayback Machine page takes me back. I REMEMBER those guys. Tim the Terror Dog (or TTTD), Paranorman, Jen Spengler, Simone...goddammit, good times.

Well. Needless to say, I was on there ALL THE TIME. Or at least, as "all the time" as having to pay for dial-up access and deal with dial-up speeds would allow. See what I said about VHS.

The GB scripts were some of the first scripts available online, through that site, and I initially learned script formatting by studying those scripts. I later learned the difference between a shooting script, which is what those were, and a screenplay, which is what you write first.

With GB3 interest in a lull in summer of '98, I, being the scamp of but 15 that I was, decided (under a fake name) to pretend to "leak" some pages from the "Ghostbusters 3 script", which was of course a forgery which I wrote myself. Based on the premise that Dan Aykroyd had talked about, it was a scene where Egon tests a new device that accidently sends Ray to Hell for about two minutes.

I thought it was a good scene at the time, a lot of cool visual concepts. Now I just have to shake my head and give younger self an affectionate pat on the head ("Cabs in Hell are RED, see? Instead of YELLOW!" although the description of the diabolical Statue of Slavery does still strike me as inspired), but hey, the board loved it.

It didn't take long for them to figure out it was a hoax, because like an asshole I had misspelled Ray's last name "Stantz" as "Stanz", but they weren't upset. They wanted me to write more. So I did. I wound up writing a 180 page script for GB3 filled with all manner of fanwankery. Walter Peck was back, and the terror dogs, and all the characters from the spectacularly mediocre Extreme Ghostbusters.

I wound up rewriting it a couple times, mitigating the fanwankery somewhat but not fully, and posting it online. I must have continued to revise it even after posting it, because I remember calling it Ghostbusters: Lost Dimension at a certain point, yet the title on the page remains simply Ghostbusters 3.

And indeed, the script is still there, under a legacy site (I can't BELIEVE after almost ten years the page still exists) but I'm not linking to it because it's not good. I also wrote a GB4 script, Ghostbusters: Feast of Samhain -- also not good, also a fanwank -- because I was 15 and marching band season was over and I had nothing else to do with my life. I damn near wrote a GB5, too, but apparently I found something better to do with my life because it never became more than a vague outline.

The thing I will say in my defense is, I wrote each script in like 5 weeks, because I didn't know or care that they were crappy. I kind of wish I could get that cavalier attitude back just in the service of pounding out the first draft of a given project.

Anyway, blah blah blah. I loved Ghostbusters, and I had every intention of going to the premiere of Ghostbusters 3 -- a premiere which was imminent, damn you! Imminent I say! -- in full costume, so I found out how to make the costumes. GB3 never happened, but I and two friends of mine went as Ghostbusters for Halloween, complete with plywood proton pack I had built myself. Besides some cracked paint, it was pretty goddamned accurate thanks to plans by one Norm Gagnon, who was Paranorman on the board and is apparently still furnishing the better fan projects with his GB propping expertise.

I'd gotten the premiere bug, and so when The Phantom Menace came around, I thought it would be great to go to THAT in costume. Then, I got the notion that it would be great to get in for FREE by working with the theatre and agreeing to put on a show (a lightsaber fight) and greet the guests and otherwise earn our tickets with publicity. The theatre actually agreed to it, but they wanted to see the fight first.

Well, my first attempt at choreographing a lightsaber fight was positively an abortion. It all wound up going utterly to shit and we wound up dropping the whole in-costume thing, paying for our tickets, and just enjoying the movie because we didn't know any better. And the lightsaber fight blew us fucking away. And the rest is history but that's besides the point of the story.

All that to say: fuck yes, Ghostbusters the Video Game. According to the official site and other sources, the game's storyline is being written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis themselves, and is closer to a true GB3 than we will ever have again. Taking place after the events of GB2, in the early/mid-nineties, it apparently has to do with a "new ghost attack on New York that only the Ghostbusters can stop".

The incredible inanity of sites saying that's the story premise, as though it's insight, makes me want to yell something incoherent like "Well son of a goddamn duh!" What the Christ else WOULD the story be? But frankly, I don't care what the story is. It's Ghostbusters.

It's a new Ghostbusters story.

Ghostbusters is getting a new resurgence. There's the game, and there's the recent release of the appropriately named Return of the Ghostbusters two weeks ago.

It is probably too much to hope that the popularity of the game and concordant blitz of Ghostbusters loving all over the internet will lead Sony and the cast and director to decide that they do want to make a new Ghostbusters movie. But I'm going to hope anyway. I'd even take a Rocky/Die Hard "We're too old for this shit" self-aware new Ghostbusters movie (actually that might be a pretty sweet direction to take, and revitalize the franchise with the new guys they'll inevitably and reluctantly recruit).

If nothing else, Travis and I are going to make a Ghostbusters fan film.

"You mean THE Travis? The one you mentioned earlier in this very post?" Indeed, the very same. Incidentally, he also happens to be THE Travis behind Three in the Afternoon, Six in the Morning, and the cameraman for RvD2. Also my war buddy on a certain film project that I'm still trying to decide how much I want to talk about on here. Also co-host of Shooting the Bull, which we WILL record another of someday soon I swear. Long story short, we're homies, and we're going to be doing this thing shortly after he gets to L.A., because we've got a great premise and it would just be tons of fun for everyone.

And if no one stops me, I might even dust off the old GB3 Final Draft file and see if I can do anything with it, using my highly developed sense of less-shitty.

They're the best, they're the beautiful, they're the ONLY...


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Insecurity, Part 3: Question Yourself

My apologies to any regular readers I may have who were disappointed that I didn't finish the "series" yesterday. I have no excuse, it just didn't happen. I hope today makes up for it.

Anyway, back to it.

I believe that when it comes to creativity (I hesitate to say "art" just because of the hoity-toity connotations), there is a good insecurity and a bad insecurity. On Tuesday I talked about the bad insecurity, where you try to gain validation for yourself or your talents by way of comparison with others. Today, as I hinted at the end of that entry, I want to talk about the good insecurity, where you seek to always improve yourself or your talents by way of comparison with yourself.

It's possible that insecurity isn't the right word for it. A better, less loaded-sounding word might be "introspection". Whatever you want to call it, what it boils down to is the question "Is what I'm doing the best I can do?"

I'm going to pick on M. Night Shyamalan one more time, since that's become a theme here. I think MNS has lost a sense of introspection (yes, you COULD call it a "sixth sense", but you shouldn't, because I will slap you). I think he was successful with his first film, and he has decided he can do no wrong, and just throws his first ideas onto the page and onto the screen.

I could make the same comments about the Wachowskis, or George Lucas. Success becomes laziness when you decide that anything you touch is gold.

I mean, in the case of George Lucas, it's sadly true. As I've often said, Lucas could have shit on a blanket, filmed it decomposing for 2 and a half hours, called it Revenge of the Sith, and would still have broken box office records with it.

(Some would argue that that's kind of what he did, but I digress.)

(It still would have been better than Episodes I and II. Okay, I'm done now.)

Now, on the other hand, you have a filmmaker like Spielberg. I know I keep bringing him up but if nothing else, everyone knows who the hell he is so it's an easy example. Plus, whether you love him, hate him, or are indifferent, I really do think he's the single most influential director the American movie industry has ever known, second perhaps to Georges Méliès (but some of you had to check Wikipedia to find out who that was, didn't you? So you see my point).

Even though Spielberg's name will instantly make a movie successful, I don't think he's resting on his laurels. It seems like he's always trying something new, always trying to make the best movie he can. He asks others for their thoughts, he allows the input of others to inform his decisions. He doesn't surround himself with yes-men.

If you are a filmmaker, it is important that you are capable of looking at what you are doing, stepping to the side for a moment and asking yourself "Is what I'm doing the best I can do?" Not only that, but I think it's important that you have at least one person on your team that you can trust to ask you that question if you don't ask it first.

I mean, if ONE person George Lucas respected had stood up and said "Now hold on here, George. Where are you going with this midichlorian thing?" and forced Lucas to explain it to him, it would have accomplished one of two things. Either Lucas would have realized that there was a better way to accomplish what he was trying to get at, and changed it, or he would have thought it through and made the midichlorian thing important to the story. Instead, he just kind of dropped it after the middle of Phantom Menace and hoped no one would notice.

I'm not saying you should have a no-man, either. But you need at least one person that you know is looking out for the story. That should be you, but for when you get all caught up in the excitement of a new idea, you need someone else to pull you down to earth and ask "Where are you going with this?"

If it really is the best idea possible, then you should have little trouble explaining why and convincing them. But listen to their objections, because answering them will only make your idea more solid.

Question yourself. Answer yourself. And if you wouldn't accept the answer from someone else, don't accept it from yourself. There's a better idea. Keep looking.

One last thing about insecurity, and this one is mainly directed at the...er...directors.

A common mistake a lot of beginning directors make is thinking that a movie has to be 100% "their vision". They have to come up with ALL the ideas no matter what and it has to be theirs theirs theirs. This again is all a kind of insecurity.

What you have to realize is that you're the director, not the dictator. You have to be able to make a decision about everything if no one else has any ideas, but you should also be open to hearing the ideas of others if they DO have them.

Basically, as the director, you decide the destination, and you make sure you keep going in the right direction to get there. That's where the name comes from.

What is the movie you want the audience to see? That's what is meant by having the vision. You don't have to have all the ideas, but you do have to decide whether or not the ideas presented to you will get you to the destination as well as, or hopefully better than, your own ideas. And most of the ideas you hear WILL be better than yours. There's no reason to insist on going down Avenue A when Avenue B goes in the same direction and will get you to your destination just as well or better.

If it won't work as well, be able to articulate why. Don't just say "Nah, we're going to do it my way." Explain. Explain to yourself as much as you're explaining to them, because being a director isn't about HAVING the best ideas, it's about KNOWING the best ideas when you hear them. If you're open to your cast and crew, they will help you make a better movie than you could make alone, and everybody wins when you do that.

One of the comments to the first post in the "series" brought up a good issue with humility. I'll touch on that in my next post.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Insecurity, Part 2: The Better-Than Fallacy

Today we continue our conversation regarding insecurity, and what I refer to as the Better-Than fallacy. To wit:

To the less mature mind, the only way I can be good at something is if you are not good at it. Since good is seen as being a dichotomy, only definable in relationship to bad, if I am going to make myself look good, I have to make everything else look bad. So when you're talking to other people, or about other peoples' work, you tend to be overwhelmingly negative. This sucks and that sucked and look how clever I am to know the better way to do it.

The expectation, so laughably absurd that even the person himself doesn't fully admit it at the time, is that the world will fall at your feet in awe of your majestic brilliance. Which, of course, is not the case. You just seem like a dick. And usually, an inexperienced or uninformed dick.

As in any walk of life, the more you know, the more you discover you don't know, so in ignorance, you think you know EVERY damn thing. It's interesting to me to be on the other side of it now (albeit only JUST on the other side) and see all the statements people make about what I've done. Most of the time my reaction to people's comments is "Yeah, I can see how that makes sense knowing NOTHING about how this project came about. But from my perspective, that's not how it would have or COULD have worked out at all." I like to believe I have more patience for those situations, remembering when I was the ignorant one.

Let me give another example of this kind of behavior. On message boards discussing the new RED camera (plenty of posts to come on that, you betcha), there's a lot of talk about "the death of film." Recently there was a thread about Spielberg's refusal to switch to digital, preferring the look and workflow of film.

Well, there was a fucking UPROAR about it, I'm here to tell you. People calling Spielberg a no-talent hack and saying "fuck him" and going on about how he and everyone else who refuses to switch to digital is going to get steamrolled by progress.

What the fuck?

Let's not kid ourselves. If Spielberg had come out and embraced RED, all that talk of "no talent hackitude" would not have ensued. No, Spielberg would be a genius and a pillar of filmmaking history -- even though the content and quality of his body of work is utterly unchanged.

No, what really instigated the "backlash" is that these are people who are insecure about being on the bleeding edge, they need validation that they've made the right choice, that they're talented and special, and Spielberg rejecting digital is a slap in the face to their egos. So they have to try to bring down Spielberg (good luck with that) so that they can be "good" by being "better than" him.

Of course, as I say, "Better-Than" is a fallacy, because you do NOT have to be better than anyone else to be good at what you do, at least not in a creative industry. Is Michel Gondry better than David Fincher? Is Peter Jackson better than Steven Spielberg? Mix and match to continue the line of questioning?

I'd much rather re-watch Eternal Sunshine twice than re-watch Zodiac once (and could do either within the same running time). But I'd watch Fight Club five times before I tried to sit through The Science of Sleep again.

It's damn hard to compare Jackson and Spielberg, and hard to think of a "bad" Spielberg film, but I tell you what, I'd rather watch Lord of the Rings than The Terminal. Though I'd still rather watch that, or one of Jackson's schlocky early pieces like Dead Alive, before Science of Sleep.

Are these better filmmakers than each other, then? I couldn't say that. In my examples, is one a better film than another? I don't think you can say that either. All I can say is which I LIKE better, which I ENJOY more, and as I learn more, I'm more capable of articulating why.

I took a dig at M. Night Shyamalan yesterday, because I think he's been in a steady decline since The Sixth Sense (which I maintain is goddamn brilliant and a perfect film). But does that mean I think I'm "better than" him as a filmmaker? Would I make "better" choices? Not exactly. It just means I would make different choices. I still cross my fingers for good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes every time M. Night puts something out, because I want so much for him to blow me away again.

All of this, again, comes back to insecurity, and whether it's externalized, or internalized. The younger, and less experienced, feel that they have to be better than everyone else in order to be any good at all. The more experience I gain, the more I realize that two people can both be good at something in different ways, and the only person you ought to worry about being better than, is yourself.

I'll wrap this conversation up tomorrow (at least, I expect to) with a discussion about what I believe is the artistically healthy internalization of insecurity.

Had some great comments on yesterday's post, I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts today.

Monday, November 12, 2007

On Insecurity, Part 1

As of this writing, I am 24 years old. That's not that old, but it's fascinating to me to look back even from here. It should go without saying that I'm a much different person than I was when I was 14, and I was different at 16 than at 14, and different at 18 than at 16, etc. What amazes me, though, is how different I am at 24 (about halfway to 25 at the moment) than I was at 23. How much different I am likely to be at 26 than I am now. And I can't even fathom who I might be at 30.

The older readers of my blog (if I ever have any) will be thinking "Well, duh." The younger readers of my blog may not believe me. I know when you're younger it seems like at a certain age you get it "figured out", and you don't HAVE to change because life is smooth sailing. Whether or not that's the case, you change. Every experience you have changes you.

The main thing that changes -- at least, hopefully -- is insecurity. Now, this is not to say that you will never be insecure. As a filmmaker (and therefore an "artist" in some sense) you will probably always be insecure. And, I will argue in this "series" of posts, you SHOULD be insecure to an extent, because security leads to laziness and laziness leads to the death of your art. What's important is not eliminating your insecurities, but channelling them.

Now, first a little bit about where I'm coming from on this:

Where filmmaking is concerned, at least in terms of this generation, I'm what you might call a "late bloomer". Most of my generation started shooting with their family's VHS camera when they were 10 years old, or younger (Ryan made his first short film -- which he refuses to show me -- at the age of 9).

M. Night Shyamalan likes to put his crappy childhood films as special features on the DVDs to his crappy adult films. I could bore you with a list but I won't. The point is, the fact that it didn't actively occur to me to make a film until I was about 17, makes me a relatively "late bloomer".

Looking back, it seems the obvious choice, and it seems like it was "destiny." I never picked up a camera, but I would put on little skits with my siblings, and I always thought of them as "movies", not plays. I always loved movies, and especially visual effects fascinated the bejeezus out of me. I started "directing" my family's Christmas videos when I was two years old ("Okay, so you record the door, and I'm going to burst out going 'It's Christmas!' and run for the presents!"). So it all makes sense to come to this.

Now, also among my generation, there's a common bit of hubris. The phrase is "the next Spielberg". Usually said in the first person. People say it to each other sometimes, I've had it said to me. I don't know that it's true, but it sure would be nice.

Here's the thing. I don't do the false humility bit and I don't like it when others do, either. I know that I am very talented, and very passionate, at what I do. I make no bones about that. But am I the BEST at what I do? Or will I be, when my skills are sufficiently developed? I don't know, and honestly, I don't really think so. I think I can make good films, I hope I can make great films, but no one bats 1000, and even Spielberg takes the occasional misstep.

Still, as I say, I am aware that I am talented, and have been since I was young. And when you're young, knowing you're talented tends to make you a dick. When I was younger, and first starting out in filmmaking, I was a dick about it (some will say I still am, but I'll address that later).

Why? Insecurity.

See, at that stage you still rely on the validation of others to define you (no matter how much you say you don't). So even though you know you're talented, it means nothing to you unless the REST of the world knows you're talented. And this leads to the Better-Than fallacy.

This entry is really freaking long already and I've barely even gotten to my point. Still, I don't want to bore your pants off (at least not unless I'm paying for dinner) so I'll stop here, and we'll pick up tomorrow with the Better-Than fallacy.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The cake is a lie...

So I spent most of the wee hours last night playing Portal, part of the Orange Box released by Valve. Very fun game, you play a test subject solving puzzles with a portal gun. You can open one here, the other there, and transport yourself instantly. Probably the best part of it is the writing of the A.I. in the testing facility. It has a hilarious personality, switching from kind and encouraging to vindictive and abusive, sometimes within the same sentence.

For those interested in puzzle games who don't have an XBOX or the dough to buy it on PC, you can play the 2D Flash version for free here.

I plan to get back on pace with blogging tomorrow. I started this blog when I did in part because I thought Descendants was almost rolling and so I'd be able to blog through the process, but the writer's strike has kind of buggered that. Still, there's a lot of interesting stuff and developments out there to talk about, so I'll get on that.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Tracey Fragments

So, I just became aware of this film called The Tracey Fragments. It's an independent Canadian production starring Ellen Page (Hard Candy, X-Men 3) as a girl telling the story of how she came to find herself as we find her at the beginning of the film: naked beneath a shower curtain at the back of a bus, looking for her little brother, who thinks he's a dog. Though I haven't seen the film as of yet, it is apparently shot and cut in a "multi-pane" format sort of like Ang Lee's Hulk.

By now you're surely thinking "Social thread", and I would normally agree, but for one fascinating initiative. If you go to the film's website there is a "tab" labelled "Re-Fragmented". If you go to this tab, you will find the entirety of the raw footage for the film, everything that was shot (approximately 20GB), available for free.

That's 100% free, no strings, non-commercial download. They expect, and in fact encourage, other filmmakers to edit music videos, trailers, or even an entirely new cut of the film. They have also made the film's score available for free under the Creative Commons license.

Also included in the bundle is the Final Cut Pro project files for the filmmakers' version of the film. So if you have Final Cut, you can examine just how the film was ultimately constructed by the filmmakers.

This is, of course, a big deal. Imagine if other filmmakers jumped on this kind of share-and-share-alike bandwagon. Imagine what YOU can do in a creative community like this. And if nothing else, imagine what you could learn. Want to be an editor? Here's an exercise for you to practice with: Download the files and the script, but do NOT watch the final film. Instead, use the footage and the script to create the version you, as an editor, conceive. Then compare it to the final project. Find out what you like better than their way, and what you think they did better than you did.

There's also a contest, the best UGC (user-generated content) entry will win a Final Cut Pro package. I'm not entirely sure what value that is when the people getting the most mileage out of the files already use Final Cut, and only Canadian residents are eligible, but there you go.

I know nothing about the film or its content besides what I've already told you, and the film has not been rated by the MPAA. So there's a chance there will be offensive or inappropriate material in the film. Almost certainly there's language, and from the trailer it appears that there is some sexual content as well. Be aware of that possibility going in. I'm not endorsing the film itself, but I definitely endorse the initiative and possibilities the film represents. They follow directly on from yesterday's post regarding the democratization of content and the rebirth of the read-write culture.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

On Content and Copyright

I'm going to have a lot more to say on this subject in the future. My father is an attorney who quite literally wrote the book on copyright law in the digital realm. I personally have made my "fame" (if not my fortune) piggybacking on the success and love of fans for their favorite franchise. So this is a big deal and it won't go untouched-upon.

But for now, let me just link you a video, a TED-Talk. TED is a fascinating concept -- it stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and is an annual meeting in Monterey, California where 1000 luminaries, from those three worlds, come together to share ideas.

That's the main goal: sharing ideas.

I'll undoubtedly post more TED-Talks in the future, as well, but for now, I was pointed to this one and it's extremely significant. I've never attended a TED conference and will probably never be invited to do so. But I'm with them, and believe in what they're aiming to achieve. And so, I share these ideas with you.

EDIT: Tried to post a video, but their embed code is faulty. A link will have to do.

Check out the rest of their site while you're at it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Strike

So, the WGA has gone on strike. For a brief overview explanation as to why, check out this video, which explains it in simple, direct terms.

You can also find much more experienced screenwriters than myself discussing the strike, such as John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), John Rogers (Transformers [story]), and Craig Mazin. I can only assume the latter's blog title, the "Artful Writer", is somewhat satirical, given that he's the man behind the scripts for Scary Movie 3, 4, and the upcoming 5, and that's just about it. Don't let that fool you, though, he's got a lot of intelligent things to say about the business, and is THE foremost blogging authority on the WGA strike. So if you really want to know what's up, go read the Artful Writer.

How does this affect you? Well, if you watch a lot of TV, you're fucked. The last writer's strike, in 1988, lasted 5-1/2 months. That puts us through mid-March, based on precedent. Most TV stations are going to be wrapping up the season early and going into reruns, because they don't have new episodes coming. Your favorite late-night shows are already on re-runs, more than likely, both out of solidarity and out of the fact that they've lost their writing teams.

The film industry won't be hit as hard in general. The films that will coming out in the next 6 months are already in production. The writers can't do any kind of rewriting or polishing, but anyone who ISN'T WGA can do so (you'll see a lot of actors and directors doing polishes over the next few months; or rather, you probably won't see it, but it'll be happening). It's ironically AFTER the time the strike ends that things are going to get frantic. You're going to see a lot of crap getting pushed out even faster and with less QC-ing than usual, to make up for the lost time in the production rhythms.

How does this affect me? I'm not in the WGA, after all. Well, no, that's true, but the issue is that I EXPECT to be in the WGA at some point. And that means that I can't scab, I can't do any writing in a union-type situation.

And that means Descendants.

I'm really upset about this. I just turned in a new revision of the treatment, I was all geared up to get the script together and set it up at a studio...and now this. It's going to kill our momentum, but there's nothing we can do.

Damn it. I was SO excited to be moving forward with this. On the upside, the writer's strike doesn't affect me as a director, so assuming that the producers sign off on the treatment I got in before the strike, there's a lot we can do in terms of moving forward on the project based on what we know about the story, locations, casting, etc. But still...argh.

I understand why the WGA is striking, and I know it's for my future benefit, which is why I won't be breaking the strike. But man...why couldn't they wait until spring when we were up and rolling? Heh.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Movie Review: American Gangster

There was an Italian author in the 60s and 70s, by the name of Italo Calvino. He was a novelist and a short story writer, and though he's obscure to most modern readers (especially since the idea of being a "modern reader" is itself alarmingly obscure), he's notable for defining his work to be indefinable. If you pick up a Tom Clancy novel, you know what you're getting. Stephen King, you know. But if you lived in those days and picked up the latest Calvino, you had no idea what you were in for. He made it his goal that everything he did should be completely different from anything he had done before. Perhaps it's this lack of marketability that makes him obscure, but it's also, to me, what makes him fascinating.

In the same way, I think Ridley Scott has done that with his own career. All the movies he does are different from the others. Who would believe, on a surface level, that the guy who did Black Hawk Down is the guy who did Thelma and Louise?

As such, Ridley Scott has a strange fame, to me. If I see a movie preview, and it's directed by Ridley Scott, I often decide I'm going to see the film. And it's kind of strange, because I'm really not a huge fan of his work. Gladiator was okay, and Alien is great, but Legend was more than a little shaky, and Blade Runner is downright boring.

That's right, I said it.

He's a solid filmmaker, he generally hits all the right notes (with the repeated exception of Blade Runner) and his filmmaking is impeccable, but I don't know if he has a specific style. And maybe that's what interests me. Maybe, like Calvino, I'm fascinated by the notion of always re-inventing oneself as a filmmaker.

I've said for a while now that, if I ever make it big, I don't want to be "the guy who makes action movies" or "the guy who makes sci-fi movies" or "the guy who makes horror movies." I'd love to be all of those things, and more importantly, I'd rather be "the guy who makes good movies." I don't know if I feel that way about Ridley Scott, but he's certainly not letting himself get put in a box.

His latest film, American Gangster, is another decent-but-not-great film. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star in the based-on-truth story of a Harlem drug trafficker (Washington), and the narcotics officer who eventually brings him down (Crowe). Make no mistake, though, the story is REALLY about Denzel's rise to power and fall from grace, about a nobody becoming a somebody.

It suffers from some of the same problems as other biopics -- kind of meanders, no real "conclusion", although it has a better one than most -- and I think it also suffers from Denzel's performance a bit. The man is an Oscar winner, but I think that's making him lazy. He's becoming the guy you get because you want that performance. You don't hire Denzel because you think he can play the character, you hire Denzel because you want the character to be Denzel.

Nowhere is this more apparent, to me, than when Denzel gets "angry". It's always the same. He gets kind of pouty, he pushes his chin down into his neck and twitches, looking like a petulant child. Then he randomly lashes out, throwing his arms around, shouting, and typically repeating himself several times. I guess this is intended to make him sound "genuine", the way "real people talk". To me it just sounds like Denzel isn't as interested in acting as he is in being Denzel, repeating that Oscar-winning performance even when it's inappropriate to the character. And that's a shame.

Russell Crowe does alright, with what he has to do. His character has a divorce/child custody subplot that goes absolutely nowhere and adds nothing to the story, aside from his "revelation" that he isn't a good father -- which doesn't affect the rest of the story at all, and merely contributes to the already somewhat bloated running time.

Now, it's definitely not as poorly paced as Jesse James; I didn't feel like looking at my watch every 5 minutes wondering when it would be over. It kept my attention almost all the way through. But it COULD have been shorter without mucking anything up, and in my mind that means it SHOULD have been shorter.

As I said above, Ridley Scott is a solid filmmaker and you could do worse, especially as a filmmaker, than to study how he does things. They all seem very textbook now, but I think (and I'll need to watch a lot of earlier stuff to verify, but I'm pretty sure) that's because the "textbooks" relied heavily on him in the first place. But is American Gangster necessary to see on the big screen? I don't really think so.

Two other things: this is a movie about heroin. If you're needle squeamish (as I am), you should know that going in (which I didn't).

Second, a friend and potential future collaborator of mine, Bari Willerford, plays Joe Lewis, and gets a pleasantly surprising amount of face-time, though no actual speaking occasions. Still, pretty cool.