The Constant Gardener, infant edition

Constant Gardener Yesterday, I saw The Constant Gardener.

My quick review: I respected the filmmaking, but I can’t say I loved the movie. Throughout the entire film, I was so far ahead of the Ralph Fiennes character that I found myself thinking more about African theatre, diplomatic passports and shallow-focus lenses than what exactly had happened to poor Ralph’s wife. However, I’ll probably see every movie Fernando Meirelles makes. He’s terrifically talented.

More interesting than the movie itself was the film-going experience: it was my first outing to a Monday Morning Mommy Movie at The Grove.

The whole Mommy Movie concept is pretty basic. Every Monday morning, the theatre shows one of the new releases. Generally, it’s not a kid’s movie — last week, it was The 40-Year Old Virgin. Parents are allowed — encouraged — to bring infants. The theatre lights aren’t turned down all the way, and there’s table set up for changing diapers. There’s also a stroller-parking area outside the theatre.

Depending on whether or not you have a baby, this is either the best thing that ever happened, or a quick descent into Hell. I don’t think anyone accidentally bought a ticket for the Mommy movie, but if they did, I’m sure they quickly got their money back.

At first, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy the movie over the constant din of fussy infants, but it’s amazing how quickly you tune it out. It’s all a matter of expectation. If you expect a quiet movie theatre, one crying baby will ruin it. If you expect noise, it doesn’t bother you a bit.

One phenomenon I hadn’t expected was the seven-minute rule. I don’t know if it’s really seven minutes, but next time you’re at a dinner party, pay attention to the ebb and flow of conversation. About once every seven minutes, it gets really quiet for some reason. Then in starts up again.

It turns out, the same thing happens with babies. One minute, the auditorium will be filled with cries, then it will suddenly get quiet. It’s spooky. And welcome.

The whole think struck me as a particularly ripe arena for a Wedding Crashers-style comedy about guys looking to pick up MILFs, since it would be so easy to strike up a loaded conversation about onesies, breasts, and butt paste.

For the record, “Mommy Movies” is pretty heterosexist, but I’m not getting up on my soapbox. There were only a handful of dads in the audience. Most weeks, I’ll be one of them.


Hey, why didn’t my comment get posted?

questionmarkAs a fairly-frequent commenter on other people’s blogs, I know how frustrating it can be when I’ve spent a few minutes working on the perfect riposte, only to have it disappear somewhere in the void. So I thought I’d explain a little bit about how comments on johnaugust.com work, and why they sometimes don’t show up right away.

In the beginning, there was spam. It cluttered your box. Then came blogs, and soon followed comment spam. These are short, meaningless posts that generally link to some site involving gambling or prescription drugs. In most cases, the comments are not made by actual humans, but rather by automated programs (bots), who scurry around the web looking for open comment systems.

In order to keep this site from being overrun with comment spam, there are a few safeguards built-in:

  1. In order to comment, you have to type the required word from the 16-word phrase. This is sort of a home-brewed solution, but it’s worked fairly well.
  2. Comments that have certain words (or combinations of words) are flagged for review. These comments are logged in the system, but won’t show up until the administrator (me) approves them.
  3. The same applies to comments with three or more links in them.
  4. Comments from certain spammy IP addresses are automatically flagged for review.

The three-links rule is often what trips people up.

If you’ve posted something and it hasn’t shown up, be patient. The system will automatically kick me an email when a comment gets flagged for review. Unless I’m swamped, I’ll usually get around to approving it the same day.

Thanks for posting.

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Dear Governor Schwarzenegger: Marry Me

Dear Governor Schwarzenegger Arnold,

I want to get married.

ArnoldNot to you, since you already have a wonderful wife and family — and I’m not the home-wrecking sort, unlike other celebrities I could name. No, I want to marry my partner of five years. That’s why I’m writing. I need your help.

Right now, we can’t get married. Unlike movies you may have seen, the obstacle in our case is not a generations-old family feud, nor a mystical curse, nor a war that has torn this great country apart. What stands between us and the altar is bureaucracy.

I know you love freedom and hate bureaucracy, so I thought you’d want to know.

Some backstory, since we’ve never met. Like you, I come from the film industry. I’m a screenwriter. I wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, along with some other movies you unfortunately didn’t star in. (This can be rectified.) My partner Mike is an MBA. He’s clever. He balances the checkbook. Like you and Maria, we complement each other.

Right now, we’re registered domestic partners. California currently has pretty good domestic partnership laws. You signed them, so thanks for that. As Californians, Mike and I have benefits basic human rights that we wouldn’t have in any state other than Massachusetts. We’ve also spent a couple of thousand dollars to draft up wills, trusts and powers-of-attorney to get us a little closer to marriage-equivalence.

But we’re not married.

Do you remember when Britney Spears married that guy in Vegas earlier this year, only to have it quickly annulled? Well, for that day or two, she and whatever-his-name had vastly more rights than Mike or I have ever had. They could file joint taxes. They could adopt children. They could inherit each other’s property. (Probably a better deal for him.) In the eyes of the law, they were more legitimate than Mike and I could ever be.

And the Britney coincidences continue: she’s about to have a baby; we just had one. Her new husband, Kevin Federline, was an unwed father; I am an unwed father.

That’s the uncomfortable truth, Governor, that has me writing to you today. I’m an unwed father. And I don’t want to be.

Sometimes, being unmarried is merely aggravating. For instance, I recently got into heated words with a representative from my health insurance company, who told me I would have to adopt my own daughter. Never mind that my name is on her birth certificate. “With gay people,” she explained, “we have to have official adoption papers.” (Fortunately, her supervisor corrected the misinformation.)

Sometimes, being unmarried is more troubling. It’s no shock that there are some places in this great country we probably don’t want to travel as a family, and that’s not going to magically change overnight. But even in Los Angeles, everyday life is subtly different for us. To wit: when your kids were little, did you carry copies of their birth certificate in the diaper bag, just in case some overzealous official questioned whether these were “really” your kids?

Look, I’m a realist. Letting Mike and I get married won’t suddenly make everything better. There will still be bigots and assholes, and women who cluck their disapproval at the grocery store. However, affirming the right for us to marry would take away one official sanction against gay people. People will still discriminate, but they won’t feel like they have the state backing them up.

And here’s where you come in.

By the narrowest of margins, the California legislature has just passed AB 849, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. It says civil marriage is defined as the union of two people, without specifying gender. Now it’s up to the Governor to decide whether to sign it into law, or veto it.

That’s you, Governor Schwarzenegger. And that’s why I’m writing.

In your movies, you always play the hero. Do it again. Sign the bill.

I know you’re worried about the political implications. Personally, I think you’d get a big boost for standing up for what you believe, damn the conventional wisdom. But in case you need to fall back on your Hollywood career, know that I’m offering to write Terminator 4 for you. Hell, I’ll write Jingle All the Way 2. That’s how important this is.

I’m also urging all my friends and readers who live in California to take two minutes and call the Governor’s office: (916) 445-2841. I did. It’s absolutely painless, like voting for American Idol. And there are local numbers, too, for much of the state:

Fresno: 559-445-5295

Los Angeles: 213-897-0322

Riverside: 951-680-6860

San Diego: 619-525-4641

San Francisco: 415-703-2218

Your spokespeople have said that you prefer to leave the decision up to the courts. I doubt it. You’re a man of action. Take action. Sign the bill and marry me.

Sincerely,

– John August

Update: (9/30/05)

Governor Vetoes Gay Marriage Bill. Arnold, you broke my heart. But at least you stood up for the current domestic partnership laws, and promised to fight any backsliding.


Please state your purpose

questionmarkI’m in the middle of applications for USC and UCLA, where I hope to get an MFA in screenwriting.

Any tips on writing the ultimate statement of purpose? Also, what kind of references play well? Should I get industry types or not — I have a couple of contacts in L.A.

I notice you went to USC. Was it very expensive?

– Matt
London

Last question first: yes. Film school is and was expensive. In my case, it was definitely worth it, but for every film school grad who’s making a living at it, there are probably three who aren’t. It’s certainly not like an MBA, where you’re pretty much guaranteed to get some kind of decent job at the end.

I was tempted to dig back through the archives (which are probably on floppy disk) to find my original application letter for the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. Laziness trumped temptation, and I didn’t. But here’s my recollection of my “statement of purpose”:

I want to learn about the film industry in a comprehensive way, everything from loading a camera to analyzing a marketing plan. In specific, I’m curious to learn how the industry learns from its successes and failures, both critically and commercially.

My letters of recommendation came from a journalism professor and a marketing professor at Drake, and a film instructor I’d had for a summer program at Stanford. I think if you have a film-related reference, use it. But make sure at least one of your references is someone who knows you well and can really speak to your unique strengths with specific examples. To me, there’s nothing worse than a hollow, generic letter of recommendation from someone who seems to be a near-stranger.

For USC requirements, I also had to take the GRE exam. Apparently, the Stark program doesn’t really care about the scores, but I’ll gloat and say I did well. I really miss standardized tests.

The Stark program didn’t ask for a writing sample, so I didn’t need to send in anything for that. What’s weird to realize is that back then, I really didn’t know what screenwriting was.

How to get into film school
Is film school necessary?


O Great Rosenfeld!

rosenfeldThe fifty or so friends and family on my Christmas card list this past year got signed copies of Daniel Wallace’s O Great Rosenfeld!, which tells the story of a hapless prehistoric tribe.

Daniel describes it as a kid’s book for adults. Being a crass Hollywood type, I say it’s Quest for Fire meets The Office.

Either way, it’s very funny.

Daniel, you may recall, wrote Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, which became the film of the same title (though not subtitle). My adaptation of his novel was the first screenplay he ever read. He liked the format so much he became a screenwriter himself. (He’s also a witty illustrator, which benefits Rosenfeld greatly.)

As of last Christmas, O Great Rosenfeld! hadn’t yet been officially published, so Daniel and I did a special press run, with numbered copies. Friends who got the book would always ask me where they buy it for their friends, but Daniel was always a little evasive on the answer. He said something unusual was happening with it, and that he’d tell me when he could.

It turns out, Amazon bought the book as part of its new Amazon Shorts project.

Most of the stuff available on Amazon Shorts is bonus material from top authors: essays, short stories, deleted chapters. Think of them as the literary equivalent of DVD extras. Everything on Amazon Shorts is delivered electronically, and best of all, it only costs 49 cents. (Of that, the writer gets a very significant portion, since there’s no printing or storage costs.)

Daniel’s O Great Rosenfeld! is divided into two parts, so it costs a whopping 98 cents to find out what ever becomes of “Our Esteemed Leader, Rosenfeld, and His Tribe of 33 and 1/2 Followers” as they strive to protect Sally, the most beautiful woman in their tribe. It’s money very well spent.

And if you’d like Daniel to sign it, he probably will. He’s a friendly guy.


Corpse Bride article in Script magazine

Corpse Bride />The new issue of </a><a href=Script magazine has a long-ish article about Corpse Bride, interviewing both Pamela Pettler and yours truly about the story and process. Pamela, Caroline Thompson and I share writing credit on the movie, but I was never really clear who wrote what and when. From the article, it appears that Caroline wrote a detailed outline, while Pamela wrote the first real script. I was the in-production guy, who did tweaks and fixes, smoothing out rough spots and writing lyrics for a few new songs.

Since it wasn’t a WGA-covered movie — animation often isn’t, much to the WGA’s chagrin — there wasn’t a normal arbitration process to figure out who got what writing credit for the movie. Fortunately, the final credits as determined by the studio seem right to me. Again, since it’s not WGA, none of us will get residuals. Which blows. But we knew that going in.

The movie, incidentally, is great.

One of the cool/weird things about working on an animated movie (this is my second, after Titan A.E.), is that you get to see the entire movie a lot while it’s in production. Every couple of weeks, I’d get a new tape via FedEx from London, showing the newly animated scenes and the pencil storyboards for what was about to shoot, with a mixture of real and temp voices for all the characters. In all, I’ve probably seen the entire film 20 times in various incarnations.

About a month ago, I finally got to see the finished product at a test screening in the Valley. The movie is flat-out gorgeous on the big screen, with the stop-motion animation having a realer-than-real quality. It’s so sharp that it looks 3D.

But what really surprised me is that all the story tweaking we did along the way feels so seamless. You wouldn’t know that characters got added and dropped along the way, or that significant points of backstory were still in discussion midway through shooting. Or that it wasn’t always so musical.

All films, including live-action, go through major changes during editing, but with this kind of animation, there really is no distinction between production and post-production. Once you shoot a frame, it’s finished, forever. So it’s heartening to see that the nail-biting decisions paid off. It feels like it was shot from a locked, finished script. It wasn’t.

The other great lesson you learn from writing animation is surrendering your monopolistic control over every little word, the cinematic “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Moving from the page to the (miniature) soundstage means going through the storyboard artists, who often find new ways of playing a beat that you never considered. During production, a lot of my job was tweaking dialogue to match new bits of business that the artists had invented. While actors in a live-action movie will improvise, that kind of multiple-voices collaboration doesn’t happen as often. In the case of Corpse Bride, it really helped.