The word escapes me

For the past few months, I’ve been at a loss for word. Not words, but one very specific word. It refers to knowledge that would only be known by people in a specific group. One would use it thusly…

“The distinction between italic and oblique is obvious to a type designer, but is frankly a little too blank for everyone else.”

I really needed the word. But I couldn’t remember it.

I started asking people, smart people, if they could help me figure out the word. No one could.

I Googled “pertaining to a specific group.” I got page after page of words, but not the right one.

I was 90% sure the word started with ‘e.’ So I actually went through the dictionary, page by page, looking at every entry for the letter ‘e.’

But I couldn’t find it.

Then last week, while walking through an almost empty theatre, I heard someone say something magnificent: esoteric.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

es•o•ter•ic (es-uh-ter-ik) adj. Intended for or understood by only a particular group: an esoteric cult. See synonyms at mysterious. Of or relating to that which is known by a restricted number of people. Confined to a small group: esoteric interests. Not publicly disclosed; confidential.

I have no idea what the person was talking about. I just heard that one word, and felt the relief of an agonizing itch being scratched. I immediately emailed myself the word, just in case.

Just today, I found a Reverse Dictionary Search site, which I’ve already bookmarked for the next word I can’t remember.

I’m setting the TiVo for Bubble

BubbleSteven Soderbergh’s new movie, Bubble, opens in theaters today. I’ve hardly read anything about the movie itself, because all the publicity is about the unique (some say troubling) distribution strategy: reducing the traditionally months-long window between the theatrical release and the DVD release to mere days.

Of course, DVDs have always come out a few days after a movie. They’re called bootlegs.

The film is also debuting on HDNet movies tonight. I wasn’t sure we got that, but it turns out it’s been there all along, right at channel 78. So that’s where I’ll be watching it.

Also, I had assumed screenwriter Coleman Hough was a pseudonym for Soderbergh (like “Peter Andrews” the cinematographer), because Hough’s only real credits are Soderbergh’s indie movies. But then I found an actual article about the woman.

So I apologize for doubting her existence.

Ops stops

One strange aspect of writing a blog is recognizing that one’s online narrative doesn’t always match up very well with reality. There is a lag between when events happen and when you write about them.

Take for example Josh Friedman’s recent and scary brush with kidney cancer. As his real-life neighbor, I knew he was on the mend before anyone online knew there was anything wrong. Quite understandably, Josh didn’t blog about the situation while he was in the middle of it. But it was weird watching the two realities diverge. Josh’s readers would write in to me, asking why Josh hadn’t posted for so long. I knew, but it wasn’t my story to tell.

I’m just glad it has a happy ending.

In the dramedy of my own life, one story thread I’ve let drop is Ops, the one-hour drama Jordan Mechner and I developed for Fox.

For those who’ve tuned in late, Ops is an adventure-drama about two guys who run a private military corporation. They’re the sub-sub-contractors for a giant corporation like Halliburton, providing field operations in really dangerous parts of the world, such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Venezuela. Week-to-week, our heroes could be delivering a blood shipment, rescuing a kidnapped executive, or training a security force. Tonally, it’s probably closest to Three Kings. You could also think of it as a modern-day Western.

Ops was originally Jordan’s idea. He’d been researching private military corporations, with the intention of writing a feature. As he described the world to me, I felt it was really more of a TV drama. Much like the detective shows of the 80’s, you were following two guys. You didn’t just want to see them on one mission. You wanted to see them in a new predicament each week.

Jordan agreed, and we decided to write it together.

Our first hero would be THEO VANOWEN, the experienced soldier who is not only the brawn but the tactical brains — he could tell you exactly how many men you needed to guard an airstrip. His partner JOE McGINTY would be the business side of the equation: the salesman, the negotiator and problem-solver. While there would be other supporting characters, the show really falls on their backs.

We pitched the show to our agents at a hotel bar. (Since I’m represented at UTA, and Jordan’s at ICM, it was helpful to have a neutral location.) The agents loved the idea, and suggested we pitch the show to Fox. Two days later, we did. Fox (the studio) quickly bought it, and set it up for Fox (the network) as a put pilot. That was the end of September, 2004.

There was an article in Variety about the show a few days later.

While Jordan and I were writing the pilot, we met with the physical production department about location and budget strategies, since the show would no doubt be expensive. We also had preliminary meetings with actors the studio and/or network liked.

We turned in the pilot script in November, and were met with thunderous silence.

After a week or so, we got notes asking about the tone, and asking questions about certain plot points. We addressed those concerns as well as we could, but there was no question we’d lost mojo. Something was bugging them, but what? It was only after a few drafts that we got our answer: they liked the characters, but weren’t crazy about the A-plot. At all.

For the pilot, we began with a teaser in Afghanistan, then segued into a kidnap-and-rescue in Venezuela. The studio liked the Afghanistan part, but was eager to speed up the story. We tried an Alias-like jump-ahead structure which was interesting but a little gimmicky. No one really liked it.

We met with Gail Berman, president of Fox (the network). She said that what she had really been hoping for was more literally Three Kings. Happy to oblige, we pitched a new pilot that had our heroes trying to deliver a shipment of human blood from Turkey to Kirkuk. Everyone loved it. Jordan and I went off to write our new pilot, which was tentatively slated to shoot mid-season.

Then Gail Berman left Fox, to take over as president of Paramount.

She was replaced by Peter Liguori, who had mostly recently run FX. One of the shows he had developed at FX was “Over There,” an Iraq war drama that was not fairing well in the ratings. Concerned, we called our people at both Foxes, but were assured that the Iraq-ish-ness of our new pilot would be no problem.

Much happier with our new pilot, we turned it in. We got a lot of small notes about tone and comedy, which we tried to address. Everyone professed to love the pilot (several Fox folk called it their favorite), but we never got any word from Liguori about whether or not we would be shooting the pilot.

While we were waiting, I had a baby, and Jordan wrote Prince of Persia. So we were both busy enough.

Nearly a year after we’d set up the project, Jordan and I finally went in for a meeting with Liguori and approximately 10,000 Fox executives. (Okay, maybe just 11.) Peter Liguori, for the record, is friendly, polite and thoughtful. He explained that his reluctance to proceed with Ops was the subject matter, and the Iraq setting in particular. And yet he really admired the show, and wanted to find a way it could work.

Generally, I’m the eager-to-please guy, which explains why I wrote a whole new pilot for Gail Berman. But I wasn’t going to write a third pilot without some commitment from Liguori. He agreed we could start casting and looking for directors based on the current pilot script. Meanwhile, we’d be writing a brand-new pilot that would feature a new A-plot set somewhere other than Afghanistan and Iraq. (We chose Brazil and Uzbekistan.)

And this is where I last left the story, blog-wise. We were casting. When I mentioned that Alexis Denisof and James Marsters had come in, I got lots of gushing Buffy fan mail. In reality, we were pretty far down the road with two actors Fox loved: LL Cool J and Luke Mably. Those two weren’t the only choices; we were lucky to have a lot of interest from talented people.

Then something strange happened.

LL Cool J was “offer-only,” which means he wouldn’t come in to audition beforehand. That’s pretty common for a star at his level. Every day or two, I would get a call from LL’s agent asking if we were still interested in him, because Fox business affairs hadn’t called to start making a holding deal for him.

So, every day or two, I would call the powers-that-be at Fox and say, “Hey, let’s make that LL deal.” But it wouldn’t happen. And I could never get a clear answer on why it wasn’t happening.

Finally, I ended up just calling Liguori to ask why they weren’t making LL’s deal. Was Liguori having second thoughts about making the show?


In fact, he had decided he didn’t want the show after all.

And suddenly, just like that, Ops was dead.

Our phone conversation was at noon. We had another casting session scheduled in an hour. So my first call was to the casting director, telling him to cancel the session and send the 30 or so actors home. Then I called Jordan, who was bummed. He had just finished seven pages of the third pilot.

He sent them. I read them and gave notes, just for the hell of it. We sent a big basket of muffins to the casting agency to thank them for their hard work, and called it a day.

When a pilot is announced, it shows up in Variety. Everyone knows about it.

When a pilot dies, it dies quietly in the corner. So for the next week, I kept getting calls from agents about their writer/director/actor client who would be perfect for Ops. It was awkward to tell them that the show was kaput.

In reality, the show wasn’t fully dead, because Fox (the studio) still had the right to take the project to other networks. One of the reasons I didn’t blog about Ops’ demise earlier is that we were still under consideration at NBC and Showtime. They both ultimately passed, which is good, because I had mentally moved on about an hour after the phone call with Liguori.

One aspect of the Ops situation that might perplex some readers is that the show was announced as a “put pilot,” which means that when Fox made the original deal with Jordan and me, one of the conditions was that they basically promised to shoot the pilot. In reality, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a put pilot.

In the case of Ops, there was a substantial penalty that Fox agreed to pay in the event they didn’t end up shooting the pilot. In a few months, I’ll get a check with a few zeroes for my trouble. Given how much time and money it would have taken to shoot the pilot, it’s almost certainly for the best the train stopped where it did. There’s no sense producing a pilot if the network didn’t want the show.

To the degree there’s a silver lining, I can now offer a bunch of new stuff in the Downloads section. In the Ops category, you’ll find stuff from all three versions of the pilot, along with the sides we used for casting.

On the whole, I’m proud of the show that never was. It was my first experience writing with a partner, and Jordan was a great collaborator. While I probably wouldn’t choose to write with someone again, it was good to learn that I could if I had to.

I’m really not angry with Fox or Liguori. I understand his decision, although I wish he’d reached it a few months earlier. The various incarnations of Ops took about six months of my writing, and a sizable chunk of my brain space. The mental real estate can be reclaimed, but there’s a real opportunity cost to the time I lost. I could have written two features in that time.

Or blogged more.

Anyway, that’s the story of Ops. It feels good to have my real-life narrative a little closer to my online version.

Writer and Director and Disaster

Do you think it’s bad for the movie, if the story, the screenplay and directing is being done by the same person?

– Karri Tahvanainen
via IMDb

Not if that one person is extremely talented. Some of my favorite movies come from writer-directors, who carried the project from conception to completion.

But there are certainly writers who shouldn’t direct, and directors who would be better off leaving the words to someone else. For instance…

No, actually, I won’t name names. But it’s not hard to think of a few examples.

It may be helpful to compare the attributes of a writer to the life of a director.

WRITER: works alone, sets own schedule, implements notes
DIRECTOR: works with crew, follows production schedule, gives notes

The job of a writer and the job of a director are fundamentally different, which is why so few people are great at both.

But I think there are situations where the writer is justified in choosing to direct his own material, even if he is a misanthropic slow-poke who has trouble communicating with others. Some stories have such a unique vision and voice, they can really only be told by one person.

For example, Kevin Smith often gets ragged on for his directing, and I think even he’d admit that his films don’t always look that great. His camera work isn’t inspired. His staging can be awkward. But the fact is, a “more talented” director couldn’t make a Kevin Smith movie. His films rely on a certain attitude and personality that only he can provide. Terrence Malick’s CLERKS just wouldn’t be the same.

Why most scripts never become movies

questionmarkOn September 5th you had said that “most scripts don’t become movies, and a hundred things could go wrong in the process.” What exactly was meant by this, and of the scripts that you have written and you deemed worthy of the silver screen, how many actually made it there?

via IMDb

We’ll start with the second part first. By my count, I’ve written 18 feature-length scripts. I have seven produced credits, which means I have a 39% production rate.

That’s actually not bad. It gives the illusion of being prolific when in fact it’s just a combination of luck and careful picking. As I’ve said before, my favorite genre is “movies that get made.”

I’ve also done significant-but-uncredited rewrite work on seven other screenplays, five of which have been made.

Your question includes the qualifier, “[that] you deemed worthy of the silver screen.” I can honestly say that at the time I wrote them, I considered every one of my scripts worthy of the screen.

Now? Not so much.

But for the sake of example, let me list my never-made scripts and briefly explain why they won’t be playing soon at a theatre near you.

Here and Now
My first script. Nicely written but largely plotless.

How to Eat Fried Worms
Was actually made this year, but with a script by a different writer.

A Wrinkle in Time
Was made for television, with a draft that pre-dated mine.

Untitled Zombie Western
Will probably get made at some point, in some form.

Fenwick’s Suit
The studio didn’t like my script, and let the underlying rights lapse.

The studio thought it was too expensive for what it was.

Thief of Always
The director and the author hated my draft. Hated.

Secret Project I Can’t Talk About
Will hopefully get made soon.

The two studios bickered and dickered until the underlying rights fell out.

Probably will get made at some point, in some form.

In a perpetual holding pattern at the studio.

Studios develop a lot of projects that never end up getting made. Every few years, an outsider with a lot of money will come to Hollywood and vow, “We’re not going to waste money. We’re only going to develop the projects we’re going to make!”

And a few years later, they’ll have a dozen projects in various stages of development, and maybe one or two movies. Because it’s not just the script that determines whether a movie gets made. You need the right director, the right stars, the right way to market the movie. You can be a week from shooting when a hurricane destroys your location, or a strike shuts down production. Or the exchange rate takes a dive.

As the screenwriter, there are hundreds of variables I can’t control. So I consider it a minor miracle any time a movie gets made.

Virtual Sundance

parkaIt’s quiet in Hollywood this morning, because a large percentage of the town in is Utah for the Sundance Film Festival.

For those who’ve never been, let me give you a quick impression of what it would feel like if you were there.

  • First, imagine everyone you’ve ever worked with, both good and bad.

  • Next, put them in parkas and boots.

  • Arrange them all in a long line stretching down the sidewalk. It’s very much like the queue for a Star Wars movie, except the film in question is a vulgar Hungarian “comedy” about three generations of masturbators. (Note: I actually saw this film.)

  • Add a Weinstein.

  • Call in favors to get on the list for the secret Beastie Boys show.

  • Somehow get into the secret show, only to realize that a room packed with two hundred people in parkas is pretty miserable.

  • Go to sleep, wake up, then see a few movies you probably wouldn’t bother watching on cable.

I’m not at the festival this year, partly because I just got back from the “other” Sundance: the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. I was an advisor this year, helping five filmmakers work on their upcoming features. The projects were all terrific.

Two of my advisees have films in the festival this year. So Yong Kim’s film In Between Days is intimate and amazing, and a perfect example of why digital filmmaking allows for new kinds of storytelling.

Photographer Carter Smith has his short film Bugcrush in the festival. Looking at the trailer, you’d think, “Hmm. That looks disturbing.” Trust me: the film is so, so much more disturbing than that. In a good way. Mostly.

Unless you have a thing about bugs.