Wednesday 27 May 2015

"The Sopranos", Terry Winter, and thinking outside the square

Terry Winter was a producer on The Sopranos. How did he get the job? Keep reading.
I ended up taking a job at a big corporate law firm and was bored to tears. I was the world’s worst lawyer, and it was pretty clear to me that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. So I did some soul-searching, and you know, my deep, dark secret, once I was able to admit it to myself, was that I wanted to be a writer. Once I was able to say out loud I want to be a TV writer, I want to be a sitcom writer, which is where I kind of started, the world opened up for me.
So I packed up and I moved to L.A. I’d never been west of Chicago. I didn’t know a soul, but I just quit my job and I showed up in Los Angeles and started writing spec scripts.
I got a job as a paralegal just to pay the bills during the day and I started writing at night. I wrote a couple of sitcom specs that people really liked. But you need an agent to get a job and you need a job to get an agent. It was this catch-22 that I found myself in. I would cold-call agents and try to get them to read my stuff, and weeks would go by and then they’d forget who I was, and I thought, God, I’ve gotta figure a way to break into this.
So I went down to the Writer’s Guild. At the time they offered a list of agents who would take unsolicited manuscripts from people, and on the list was a guy I went to law school with -- just sheer coincidence. So I called him up; he was an attorney in New York.
I said are you an agent now? And he said, No, I’m a real-estate attorney. I’m bonded as an agent, but I really don’t know anything about it. And I said, I don’t either, but I know I need an agent, so you’re it. Congratulations, you’re representing me.
So we made deal where I would create basically a phony agency with his name. I did this out of the Mail Boxes Etc. on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I got a voice-mail system and letterhead printed up. I said I’m gonna submit my work under your name, and if I get anything, I’ll give you ten percent like a real agent.
I took a day off from work and hit like every sitcom office in L.A., which at the time, there were like 26 sitcoms on the air. And I just walked in wearing a baseball cap and said, Yeah, hi, I’m the messenger from this agency and here are the scripts you wanted. And I thought, all right, at least my scripts are in the building where people theoretically could hire me.
A couple of weeks went by and I got a call on a Friday from Winifred Hervey Stallworth, who at the time was the showrunner for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and she was calling for Doug, who was my agent. And she said, Yeah, Doug, it’s Win Hervey from “Fresh Prince.” I read Terry Winter’s scripts and really think they’re great. We’d love to maybe talk to you about having him come in to pitch.
So I called Doug in New York. At this point it was like 4 in the afternoon in L.A. and 7 in New York, and he was already gone for the weekend. So I thought, Oh, God, I’ve gotta wait until Monday now. And then it occurred to me that Doug didn’t really know anything about being an agent, so I thought, you know what, I can just call and say I’m Doug and it’ll be easier to cut out the middleman.
I called her and she said, Oh, great, Doug. Oh, you know, “Fresh Prince” is sort of a teenage-oriented show. Does he have like one more teenage kind of script?
And I said, Yeah, he just finished a “Wonder Years” spec that’s really terrific -- which was a lie. I didn’t have anything else at that point; she had everything I wrote.
I said, Terry’s out of town for the weekend, but I could probably get this to you by Tuesday. And she said, Yeah great, Tuesday’s fine.
I hung up the phone, and from Friday night until Tuesday afternoon, I cranked out a “Wonder Years” script, and then I threw the baseball hat back on, went as a messenger again and showed up at the office, flung it in the door, made sure nobody saw me, because at this point I was like the messenger, the agent, the client …
And they called me back and had me in to pitch some ideas.
That was my first foot in the door.
Shortly thereafter I got accepted into the Warner Bros. sitcom writers workshop, which is really a godsend. And that led to my first job on a show called “The Great Defender” on Fox. That show was co-created by a guy named Frank Renzulli. Frank and I became good friends.
A couple of years later I got a videocassette in the mail from my agency; it was a pilot for The Sopranos. I watched this thing and I said, Oh my God, I have to be on this show. I know these guys. I grew up in Brooklyn sort of around this kind of world a little bit. I called my agent and said, You’ve gotta get me on this show.
My second call was to Frank, who was familiar with this world as well and, as it turned out, Frank had seen the pilot and he was in fact meeting with David Chase later that week. It turns out that Frank was the last guy David hired on the show, but Frank talked me up quite a bit to David, and when there was an opening, David brought me on, too.
I got to learn at the feet of David Chase at “The Sopranos” for nine years and watch him run that show, so when I had an opportunity to run Boardwalk Empire, I felt like I had learned from one of the best ever.

I love these stories about people who saw a way, and took it. Ballsy. Just wish I was like that. Anyway, read the whole story HERE, on The Wrap.

First posted:  22 October 2011

'Actors of Sound'

Lalo Molina is the director of Actors of Sound, a documentary film about Foley art. Lalo studied film in Mexico City. In 2003 he moved to New York, where he earned an M.A. in media studies with a focus on film. He is an independent filmmaker with a track record in shooting and editing videos, documentaries, travel shows, news, and web-branded content for broadcast TV, online media companies, and advertising/PR agencies including: HBO, Mundo Fox, Turner TV, Univision, Meredith, Yahoo, FIFA, and HITN. Actors of Sound is his debut as a documentary director.

The film features interviews with directors, sound editors, and Foley artists.  Last week he launched a Kickstarter campaign to enable people to contribute the funds needed to finish. The money received will be used to complete the post production stage, and to promote and distribute the documentary.

Take a look at the trailer.

  IMDb  |  Kickstarter | Vimeo

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Making use of story fragments

If you're like me, you have a bunch of partial scripts lying around, things that started out as a good idea, but eventually went nowhere. I started thinking about some of mine after I read the following quote from the 2011 BAFTA Screenwriters' Lecture by Charlie Kaufman.

I wrote Being John Malkovich while I was waiting for [the next sitcom] hiring season. My idea was that I would write a script and use it to get work. I had this idea that someone finds a portal into someone's head, and I had another idea that somebody has a story about someone having an affair with a co-worker. And neither one was going anywhere, so I just decided to combine them.           Charlie Kaufman

And that reminded me of a quote by Shane Black from Tales from the Script, a collection of interviews with fifty Hollywood screenwriters, about how he approaches writing a screenplay.
I play Tetris obsessively with scripts, and realise that I still have nothing resembling a finished draft, because I’m still stuffing ideas in and hoping that these three things will come together to form one hybrid. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang started as a romantic comedy. Then it was a straight comedy. Then I added the detective character, and it became this dark thriller. Then I went back in time to the forties and tried to get some of these old-time detective pulp novels involved, and say everything I had to say about that. By the end it’s sort of this mishmash. It’s a pulp-style, homage, fairy-tale, retro, film-noir, comedy, “kids in the big city,” Capra-esque murder tragedy. You know, it’s everything stuffed together. For some reason, that one worked—but you can play that game forever and never get anything done.  Shane Black
If your script isn't going well, maybe think about mashing it up with another idea.  

First posted:  15 October 2011

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Michael Caine, "Acting in Film" and "Harry Brown"

I've been having a bit of a Michael Caine time lately. The guy's amazing. He's made over 150 movies, and is still going strong.

First I read his book, Acting in Film: An Actor's Take on Movie Making. This is a riveting, compelling read. He talks about acting, but much of what he says can be applied to screenwriting. 
There was no place allowed for the likes of me in the firmament of actors. Almost anybody has it made today compared to my chances thirty-five years ago.
Flawless (2007)

Let me run through my curriculum vitae before I landed my first role.  See what you think of my chances. I had worked in a laundry. I'd done a stint in a tea warehouse. I'd worked pneumatic drills on the road. I was the night porter in a hotel. I washed dishes in all the best restaurants. I remember making jewel boxes at one time. And I was a soldier.
Get Carter (1971)

It's very difficult for people to comprehend that when I say I was broke at the age of twenty-nine, that I literally didn't have the price of a bowl of spaghetti down at the local diner. They think being broke is being down to your last couple of grand in the bank. My bank was in my pocket, and my account was full of lint.
The Quiet American (2002)
Chances are, you've had some formal higher education. Well, to me and my parents, going to grammar school was higher education. I had no classes to go to, or instructional videos to watch. But I was a tremendous reader of books. And from the pages of those books I discovered what other people's lives were like. They weren't like mine. And I became determined to change my life. I wasn't exploring the possibility, I was determined.
The Actors (2003)

If you really want to become an actor, but only providing that acting doesn't interfere with your golf game, your political ambitions, and your sex life, you don't really want to become an actor. Not only is acting more than a part-time job, it's more than a full-time job. It's a full-time obsession. Anything less and you'll fall short of the mark.
It's a great book, full of the wisdom of the years. You won't be disappointed. 

Harry Brown (2009)
Next I watched him in Harry Brown (2009). It's a simple story, told in an uncomplicated linear fashion, but with immense power. Great script, great acting, great direction. And one of the few films which distinguished itself in my experience by the way it employs both sound and silence. There's much a screenwriter could take from the film. Recommended viewing. 

Harry Brown reminded me of one of Michael Caine's early films, Get Carter (1971). In the first he's the lone avenger of a murdered best friend, in the second he's the lone avenger of a murdered brother.

Get Carter (1971)
One of the interesting scenes in Get Carter takes place in a pub early in the movie. Caine arrives and orders a beer "in a thin glass." Further along the bar we're shown a man taking a drink, and, if you're paying attention, you'll see a hand with six fingers (okay, five fingers, and a thumb). Go on, count them. This isn't CGI or film trickery, it's real. A little joke Michael Caine enjoyed, particularly as almost no one watching the movie ever notices.

The Princess Bride (1987)

The "six-fingered man" made a notable reappearance in The Princess Bride (1987), some sixteen years later.

Michael Caine has made at least six movies since Harry Brown, so I still have some catching up to do. 
First posted:  20 October 2011

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Courage, and the making of a good first impression

Simplicity. The heart of a good short film. Here's one written by Jason McKinnon and directed by Eric Gamache of 17 West Productions.  

4 Stops: A young man riding a subway has less than four minutes to speak to a beautiful stranger, without being creepy, sprayed with Mace, or attracting the ire of the Transit police.

First posted: 17 October 2011
(... and I never found a better short film in all the years I searched for them. Well done, Jason McKinnon!)