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Film Flame


by Mark Ebner, At Large (Archive)

The 1999 Words Into Pictures screenwriters conference kicked off on Friday with what looked to be a line-up of decent panel discussions. Organized and co-chaired by Academy Award winning writers Callie Khourie (Thelma and Louise) and Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), this event drew the cream of the a-list in support of the Writers Guild Foundation wing of the WGA.

The cattle call crowd herded daily into the Loew's Santa Monica Hotel seemed an equal division of hopeful local writers, out-of-town scribblers, and out of work film executives. While the men-to-women ratio in attendance seemed even in the audience, there were far fewer women sitting on the panels. Which brings us to our first session designed to examine the dearth of female-focused films coming out of Hollywood...

Chick Flick Vs Dick Flick:

Overpaid action hyphenate, Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero) kicked off the discussion declaring "Female writers write soft things --I'm about edge and intensity. The edge and intensity that bridges the gap with the 'dickhead flicks' in the middle. You know, the ones starring Brian Bosworth and Dolph Lundgren."

Brushing Black's bluster aside, Warner Brothers VP Courtenay Valenti explained that the guilty issue for a big studio is "the incredible pressure to put movie stars in them," and producer Buffy Shutt claimed that it is getting increasingly harder to make a Steel Magnolias, or any film with an all-female cast for that matter. Nonetheless, the consensus labeled Titanic a successful chick flick because it was bringing the women back to the box office 5 or 6 times.

LA Weekly film critic Manohla Dargis began to debate the absence of underdogs in movies today, complaining about the Pretty Woman Syndrome, where "women are whores," or worse yet "fabulously wealthy architects" or "successful book editors in New York City." She then stumped the panel, asking them to name a good recent underdog film. The panelists tossed out Rocky and An Officer and a Gentleman, but those two were 80s flicks, and they starred men.

While the question asking how to attract Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers and beyond to the movies went unanswered, writer Leslie Dixon (Outrageous Fortune, The Thomas Crown Affair remake) correctly cited Jerry Maguire as "the perfect crossover film." But, like Officer and Rocky, Jerry Maguire dropped years ago...

A quick peek into the panel on Moral and Creative Rights caught screenwriter Nick Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) quoting Robert Towne (Chinatown): "Get the gross and respect will follow." Then, in a sparsely attended Meet The Writer session, Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) was found explaining how he outsmarted an audience that expected that a guy who could only move his left foot in the beginning of a movie would be able to walk in the end...

The Indie 500: Writing for Independent Film:

Sundance programmer, Geoff "Mr. Independent Film" Gilmore moderated this discussion featuring the real deal, Robert M. Young, who discussed the struggles of making documentaries like Sit In, during the civil rights demonstrations and the similar-themed narrative film, Nothing But A Man in 1963. "Independent Film is something that no one can take away from me," said the elder statesman of the panel.

Scott Rosenberg (Con Air), however, appeared a bit disingenuous, arguing that his independent films were for Miramax. "Pre-Disney buy," he hastened to point out, adding "I've never re-written a writer, never been rewritten" -- a remark some in the audience had trouble believing.

Audrey Wells (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) spoke of selling out upfront in your career (George Of The Jungle) in order to afford your independent ticket (Guinevere); then Don Roos (The Opposite Of Sex), a guy who pens studio fare that seems independent like Love Field, started dropping anecdotes:

"Independent producers are star whores," said Roos of the money people behind The Opposite of Sex. He implies that, without Christina Ricci, there would have been no film. "I was a shmuck with a script saying 'Please, let me! ' They could have put in Nipsy Russell and JoAnn Worley."

The bottom-line benefit for Roos is that, in independent filmmaking, "There are less people. Less people talking, less notes." And his word to the wise who want control of their films is "Don't take the money for as long as possible."

Alain Berliner (Ma Vie en Rose) makes his films overseas, a task fraught with equal up and downsides. With no real studio system in Europe, "you're independent by essence," says the Belgian filmmaker. Yes, there are new funding entities in Europe that appear like studios with their mainstream decision making, but -- according to Berliner -- they haven't changed the rules of the game. Berliner still runs across the "too many cooks syndrome" when he has as many as three countries financing his efforts, but the he still gets final cut. Every time.

Like Wells, Rosenberg fully concedes to whoring in the system to get outside of it. "The money I make on Armageddon and Con Air will pay for three Beautiful Girls" he says in all seriousness, until he realizes he went from being a whore to a trick with the slip of the tongue...

In the horror panel, I Know What You Screamed Last Summer, someone was trying to make the argument that The Shining didn't work, because "For horror to work, you have to take pity on the main character." Ironically, Scream-maker Wes Craven actually identified bad horror writing as "recycling somebody else's demons rather than having the courage to face [your] own." In defense of the send-up sensibility of Scream as scribbled by Kevin Williamson, Craven offered, "Well, he exploited it very intelligently." "Everybody would love to have The Exorcist again," concluded producer Neal Moritz, "but they're really hard to find."

Is This The Golden Age Of Notes? , an otherwise dormant panel on the development process at movie studios was buoyed back to life by the playful moderator, Ed Solomon (Men In Black). He blew the lid off the often arcane development process. Said Ed, "I got a note once that read, 'This has got to be more original... Like that scene in Poltergeist.' Then he went on to shred directors-as-auteurs claiming that directors have "at best -- style, at worst -- eyesight."

While the other panelists seemed to tap-dance around the topic, Marc Norman (Shakespeare In Love) came off like a cheerleader for development execs. Of course, with Oscar in hand thanks to the dramaturgy of Tom Stoppard, what's he got to complain about?

The most timely discussion of the conference was Guns Don't Kill People... Writers Do. Does Hollywood need a code of conduct regarding violence in cinema? Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential) thinks not. "Writing is self-censorship to begin with," said Helgeland. "So, I wouldn't know how to respond to a code." Then he focused on the media-as-culprit for magnifying the violence to appear like it's a new phenomenon. "Responsibility," he says to a smattering of applause, "is to be true to yourself as a writer."

William Mastrosimone (With Honors) believes Helgeland's viewpoint is "dangerous and ivory tower," yet he climbs a white tower of his own, articulating his core-belief that "cinema is a campfire among which young people gather around in the global village." He posits that violence in Hollywood motion picture product harms children worldwide, yet is quickly shut down by Stephen "Kaboom" De Souza (Die Hard), who comes armed with a library of facts to the contrary. De Souza argues that in peace-loving Canada they watch exactly the same product we serve, and there aren't any Columbine massacres. He then attributes the low violence rate north of the border to the unavailability of assault rifles, whereas here in the states we have unregulated stop 'n shop guns shows in every other hotel banquet hall. He does have a point. Another notoriously non-violent society would be Japan -- a calm, orderly country where the number one comic book (according to De Souza) is titled Rape Man.

So, writers don't kill people... studios do. "If studios want to take authorship credit," exclaims De Souza, "they can be responsible for killing people."

"We're trying to make sense of something that doesn't make sense," says moderator Dan Petrie, Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop). "People read Catcher In The Rye and shoot John Lennon. The idea that Hollywood is in collusion to desensitize our kids is insane." And beyond that, in an un-checked free market such as ours we'll never find out if there's a cause and effect.

Producer, Sean Daniel (The Mummy) points his cursor to the internet. "That is truly the campfire," he deflects, arguing that the President and the FTC should be checking the internet and the video game industry for violence being marketed to children.

Passing the buck may appease at podium level, but with Congressional sanctions looming, the issue is too serious to side-step. Old school TV writer Sy Gomberg cautions writers to take responsibility for what they write. "We have to take responsibility," says Gomberg. "Or somebody else will. I am terrified of censorship." Helgeland will have none of that. "What if a teenager kills himself after seeing Romeo and Juliet," he asks. Mastrosimone counters, "We all our responsible. It's our technique we have to change -- from Peckinpah up until today. Movies that associate killing with enjoyment." De Souza shields his scapegoat position with the historical defense of Shakespeare's violent, non-redemptive writings, Richard III and Titus Andronicus, and Helgeland glibly bottom-lines his position regarding the glorification of the gun: "Life and death situations are entertaining, and it helps to have a gun involved."

The audience leaves this panel with one question in mind: When Hollywood is censored and violence continues, who falls next?

The Writer As God panel is next, wherein the a-listers reveal their personal muses. Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) sums it up in two words: work habits; Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men) in one: desperation. The Florence Nightingale of this panel is author, Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way). Cribbing from her own book she insists that "morning pages" -- at least three pages freehand -- will stir the creative juices. "Art is an image-using system" says Cameron. "A listening process. Part listening to ourselves, part listening to something else." Her first muse? Her ex-husband Martin Scorsese of course. "I fell in love with him and his art," she swoons. When someone asks Cameron what the odds are that she'll sell something she's working on, she invariably replies "Thank you for sharing -- fuck you. The odds are much higher if I finish it."

While "merging left on freeways" gives Cameron "lots of ideas," she does not believe in treatments. They [treatments] take the juice out of it," she says. "Trust the gut process of writing," she encourages. During the Q&A portion of the panel, one query got Cameron to admit she did an uncredited rewrite on Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver, but the quote of the day belonged to Jimmy McGovern (Priest): "When a character doesn't do what you want, that's going to be a great script. If it does, then writer-as-God strips the character of his free will, and that's gonna be a Hollywood movie."

As the panelists shuffle off the dais, a Hollywood hopeful practically begs Sorkin to read his spec script for Sorkin's hit show Sport's Night. Sorkin looks down at the scrub and says "Sports Night, Stage 6. Send it to me, I'd be happy to read it." Yeah, riiiiight. If the muse strikes him...

Day 2 of the conference commences with a line out the hotel door for a discussion on feature agents and managers tauntingly titled Will She Know What This Is Regarding? Well, of course that's the blue light special of the conference, but The Big Picture: Movies in the year 2000 looks, featuring a real live studio head (Fox's Bill Mechanic), to be a bit more controversial. And it doesn't disappoint...

Variety editor Peter Bart and CAA agent David O'Connor concur that millennial options for the writer will only serve to confuse the writer. Bart goes as far as declaring that there will be "more ways for writers to be impoverished. Nobody will watch the internet." And Bill Mechanic feigns denial of the possibilities of the internet to bolster his defense later on.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan laments that for movie studios, "the worldwide billion dollar gross is the grail that creates the fear of making movies too sophisticated." He further regrets the "two-tier system" of art films and big studio films that buries deeper the presence of intelligent mass entertainment. "I don't want to feel that gap," he sighs.

Now, even though Mechanic holds a healthy chunk of Titanic grosses, he still suggests that the industry is piss poor. "You're better off being a grocer than in the movie business," says the CEO. O'Connor takes the devil's advocate position, pointing out that the industry can't be in too bad shape if Time-Warner and Newscorp stock are doing so well. "But," says Mechanic, the multinational's big question is always 'Will the movie business affect our corporate earnings?" Okay, so the biz is in a precarious position at best. So, what else is new? If executive salaries and their exit packages were cut in half along with exorbitant star salaries, the industry would at least seem a whole lot healthier than these overpaid doomsayers portend.

Bart jokes that George Lucas would define the future of the movie business thus: "I will make all the money, and you will make none." To which Bill mechanic would say "amen" -- as long as he's the distributor.

At first Mechanic makes light of internet piracy. What will he do about it? "Try to get the pirates to invest in movies," he cracks. "They're the only ones making money." His serious solution to keep pirates temporarily at bay will be, he warns, "to hold simultaneous worldwide openings of big films."

Next, Mechanic is hit with a hardball question from the audience: "Is X-Men (a project long in development at Fox) an example of the development process gone amuck?" Taken aback and speechless for a beat, Mechanic recovered to mount his defense. "Is Bryan Singer out there?" he asked. "Ed Solomon, are you out there? It's taken us awhile. And it's an example to me, actually, of the system gone right. Maybe not the development system working efficiently. But to what Kenny Turan was talking about earlier, the dumbing down of pictures -- we've actually spent six years trying to un-dumb it down, trying not to turn it into Batman -- not that I wouldn't take the box office of Batman -- but I think it's time for a different kind of comic book movie, putting a smart director on it like Bryan Singer, and putting good writers on it to give it a character base, taking out the special effects... whittling it down into a smart picture." Then he backflipped. "The writers kept thinking that studios are stupid, and kept writing stupid action when we wanted character."

Whoah. It was Mechanic who told one of the earliest writers, Ed Solomon, that his script was too smart -- in effect giving orders to dumb it down. It was Mechanic who hired Christopher McQuarrie to come in and work on character and dialogue. Which is it? Who were the writers that snubbed the studio with dumb action sequences? Mechanic's "spin" didn't work in this forum. Nonetheless, the studio chief declared that "X-Men [and presumably it's ten writers] is the poster child for the doing things right."

After that attempted cover-up, the dialogue turned back to the internet -- amounting to a wholesale attack on Harry Knowles of aint-it-cool-news.com, and a testament to just how powerful he is perceived to be.

O'Connor is driven crazy by Knowles because most of the stuff reviewed on his site are "works-in-progress." "Ain't' It Cool affects the outcome of a movie," warns the agent. "And it's wrong to judge scripts and works-in-progress."

Mechanic cast Knowles as the devil himself for successfully sending out spies to find the lone test screening of Titanic in the wilds of Minnesota. "I met Harry," says Mechanic, "and said 'You could have killed that movie.'" As a result Fox is not going to pre-screen certain movies -- David Fincher's latest in particular. "We won't let other people judge for the public," declares the studio chief. Uh... Harry's spies are the public.

Turan asks why the industry just didn't ignore Harry from the beginning. As O'Connor shakes his head, ICM head Jim Wiatt says "It's naive to think Harry can be ignored." And why is O'Connor shaking his head when the bulk of scripts sent "blindly" to Harry are covered with CAA script jackets?

Mechanic spins a tail that Knowles denies:

"Basically we do ignore him [Knowles]... He reviewed Michael Mann's new movie -- line by line, revealing all the plot points -- saying 'Fuck you Bill Mechanic." And I wrote him back saying, "Fuck you, it's not my movie."

Well, this debate on Harry Knowles got the kid's URL out to a few thousand more people (these panel discussion were taped), and won't stem the flow of info coming his way through the wires that cannot be ignored.

At lunch, I swear heard the following being barked into a cell phone:

"This project I got about polo is a cinematic feast for the eyes. Yeah. People don't realize that polo is the second most deadly sport in the world. Yeah, and the wonderful thing about this project is that it's never been done! Tommy Lee Jones is big into Texas polo. I've got him on hold."

The conference came to a close with Laughter, The Silent Killer. What should have been a riotous gag-fest quickly became a bad Politically Incorrect segment focusing on the career of Adam Sandler. Despite the stellar cast of comic characters including Albert Brooks, James L. Brooks, Hal Kanter, Ed Solomon, Harry Shearer and Janeane Garofolo -- this conference capper didn't "kill." It bombed.

But overall, Words Into Pictures 1999 was much better than the one held two years ago. Some of the panels not discussed here like Killer Deal Making 101: You got what? and Sex And Sensibility: Hollywood when it sizzles -- Facing sex head on were lively, provocative, and at times even edifying. Missing was the presence of more studio heads to be held accountable in public and a sense of community between the audience and panelists.

Unlike the Austin Heart Of Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference, Words Into Pictures is boldly impersonal. In Austin, the screenwriter wannabes can actually hang out with the visiting writers between panel discussions and after hours. A lot of the a-listers in Santa Monica over the weekend seemed like they couldn't wait to get in their SUVs and split immediately after their appearances. That's the shame of it, because all earnest writers on the outside want is a little contact, a little camaraderie, and a little luck.



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