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An Insider’s Peek at Hollywood, Part II

26 Mar

by Roger White

I suppose I had my one real insider’s look at how Hollywood works some years ago, when I attended a screenwriters’ session on how to “pitch ideas” to producers during an Austin Film Festival annual gathering of would-be writers.

A panel of so-called idea people (a Hollywood oxymoron if I ever heard one) sat at a table and critiqued writers’ script ideas, based on approximately 30 seconds of monologue. If writers didn’t have what the idea people called a high-concept proposal, if writers paused for a breath, if writers tried to explain a complex plot turn, they were toast.

The guy who won the pitch contest did so with the following idea, I kid you not:

“So you’re walking along the street, a nice sunny day, and suddenly everything goes blank. Then you’re like HOLY F@#K!! WHERE AM I?!”

“Ooh,” said the idea people. “Nice.”

Cursing and yelling seemed to be high on their list. “High concept,” to these folks, who I must say all looked to be about 25 to 28 years old, meant explosions, gruesome terror, betrayal, deadly animals, killer robots, slasher horror, or Brad Pitt. This particular pitch session occurred as the movie “Snakes on a Plane” was in production. One of the idea people could hardly contain himself as he explained what a fantastic high-concept film this was going to be—a classic in the making.

“Imagine it,” he gushed. “Snakes set loose on a plane! Don’t you see? There’s no way off of a plane. And all these snakes are slithering all over the place!”

I sat and wondered how this expert panel would have rated the opening scene to the 1951 epic “A Place in the Sun,” in which Montgomery Clift is quietly thumbing for a ride along a lonely stretch of road. It was then and there I realized I would never be a Hollywood screenwriter. No, not sour grapes. I’m just not young and stupid enough.

Am I alone here? With very few notable exceptions, this is the state of film-making today. If it bites, blows up, bleeds, beheads people, or is Brad, it’s got a green light. If we run out of ideas, we do it all over again as a sequel.

Even my kids, teenage movie buffs both of them, understand by now the banal, bottom-line instincts of your basic Hollywood producer. Both my daughters are big “Twilight Saga” fans, but even they balked at the notion of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Wind—Part II.”

Did I say “Wind”? I meant “Dawn,” of course. This latest gem, which opens in November, is a part two within a multi-part series of movies, mind you, all of which are looking more and more like the same vampire movie with simply fresh blood and longer fangs.

This got me thinking again. What if the great citizenry—that’s us—rose up and dictated to Hollywood: No More Sequels! I know, I know what you’re going to say, what about “Godfather II”? Simple, this is the exception that proves the rule. Just about every other sequel I can think of never should have seen the light of day. Here are just a few: “Basic Instinct 2,” “Caddyshack II,” “Grease 2,” “Jaws: The Revenge,” “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” “Dumb and Dumberer,” “Blues Brothers 2000.” The list is damn near eternal.

I shudder to think of the results if such movie-making titans as director Stuart Rosenberg (“Cool Hand Luke”) or Robert Mulligan (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) had been under similar pressure to squeeze out sequels. Oh, the horror.

Come to think of it, there’s no time limit on butchering classics. They have a new “Three Stooges” now, for crying out loud. So, as much as it strikes terror in my heart, you might look for these titles soon at a theater near you:

• “Cooler Hand Luke: Revenge of Them Damned Eggs”

• “To Sir With Even More Love”

• “Citizen Kane II: Rosebud Returns”

• “The Ten Commandments II: God’s Revisions”

• “Real Gone with the Wind”

• “Bonnie and Clyde Part 2: They Were Only Flesh Wounds”

• “The Post-Graduate: Revenge of the Robinsons”

• “Mockingbird II: Rise of Boo Radley”

• “Dueling Wizards of Oz: I’ll Witch-Slap You”

 

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.

Ever Wonder What’s in Your Belly Button?

10 Jul

by Roger White

Writers spend a lot of their time sitting around trying to figure out ways to make money without really working at it. This is why they are writers in the first place. I’m not implying that writing isn’t work, but let’s just say that one doesn’t develop a chiseled physique by pounding a keyboard nine to five. An office full of women that goes quietly bananas when a fire truck crammed with firemen pulls up (I have witnessed this on more than one occasion) would certainly not react in the same schoolgirl fashion if a fire truck full of writers stopped in.

“Oooh, just look at that Norman Mailer. He composes the sexiest similes.”

“That’s nothing compared to Ginsberg’s hunky hyperbole. Is it hot in here?”

I can’t actually think of a circumstance in which any fire truck anywhere would be manned by writers, but just go with it. Imagine Truman Capote desperately steering the back end of a hook-and-ladder, and you’ll see my point, whatever that may be.

Ah, yes, my point. The reason I bring this somewhat unsettling vision to mind is that as I was wrangling with the notion of writers possibly being the laziest creatures on earth, I wondered what other professions go to absurd lengths to put hamburger helper on the table without actually doing any useful labor.

You know what I came up with? No, not politicians. Researchers. Let me qualify this conclusion by noting I’m not referring to real researchers, like those earnestly looking for cures for cancer, heart disease, and other true menaces to mankind (such as Glenn Beck). No, I’m aiming at the fringe element here.

And I do mean fringe. Are you aware of some of the “research projects” out there that are receiving perfectly good grant money? For example, serious cash is being spent as we breathe on an investigation into what is in the average person’s belly button. You read it right. There is a whole team of navel nabobs working on the Belly Button Biodiversity project, in which about 100 suckers, er, volunteers agreed to have their belly buttons swabbed. I’m serious here. Being paid to contemplate one’s navel.

“We’re probably the only ones studying human belly buttons on such a large scale,” Jiri Hulcr, the head navel guy, told msnbc recently.

I would wager they’re the only ones studying human belly buttons on any scale—except maybe a few creepy old men in North Dakota basements. Hulcr, a post-doctoral candidate at North Carolina State University, reported at least 1,400 different bacterial strains in the human navel so far. I’m sure the military will get hold of this and use it somehow. “Look out! He’s got a belly button!” Rumor has it this crack team will next focus its efforts on ear wax uses, toe jam flavors, and dandruff flake tensile strength.

You think that’s bad? Take a gander at these studies (say it with me now, I’m not making this up!):

Professor Bonnie Nardi of the University of California Irvine got a fat $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the difference between how Americans and Chinese play the World of Warcraft. I’m not even sure what the World of Warcraft is—surely a video game of some sort—but according to Nardi, the Chinese are more interested in the aesthetics of the game, such as background colors and schemes, while Americans are more concerned with body count and kill ratio. Sounds about right.

Researchers Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach collaborated on the following groundbreaking and crucial report: The Effect of Country Music on Suicide. Actually, I don’t see this one as that absurd. A bit on the obvious side, perhaps, but not absurd. Stack, by the way, who has authored 219 articles on suicide, said in an interview with the medical journal The Lancet that his biggest fear is death. His second biggest fear is Johnny Paycheck. Okay, I made up that part.

How about this one? Three French types spent much time and treasure comparing the jumping performances of dog fleas versus cat fleas. Yes, flea vaulting. For those sitting on the edge of their seats, the dog flea significantly outjumped the cat flea, in both length and height of said leap. I had my money on the cat fleas, all the way. I’ve been avoiding my bookie for weeks.

I’ve saved the best, however, for last. Three intrepid psychology fellows at the University of New Mexico traded in their lab coats for low-cut polyester shirts and gold chains, filled their pockets with dollar bills, and set out to determine the effects of lap dancers’ ovulatory cycles on their tip-earning ability.

Ready for this? And I quote: “A mixed-model analysis of 296 work shifts (representing about 5,300 lap dances) showed an interaction between cycle phase and hormonal contraception use. Normally cycling participants earned about $335 per five-hour shift during estrus, $260 per shift during the luteal phase, and $185 per shift during menstruation. By contrast, participants using contraceptive pills showed no estrus earnings peak.”

Now that, my friends, is putting your tax dollars to work. I hear an intensive, exhaustive follow-up study is in the works. I’ve written UNM for a press pass to cover this next key phase of research personally, but, alas, no response so far.

Ah, well, it would probably involve a lot of work.

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.