Somehow the topic of my first film (which has been in production since this summer) is headline news today --
-- the very same day iSpy is likely to be completed.
Thousands of people in the nation's capital protested the NSA's surveillance of millions of innocent Americans --
-- and SCREENPLAYHOUSE shot 'iSpy' in California, a satire about the dangerous apathy regarding NSA surveillance.
Once my batteries recharge, there will be more to come.
When the Edward Snowden whistleblowing story broke, I really didn't know what to think. On one hand I saw an individual sharing information that -- if true -- every American needed to know, and on the other hand I heard my government doth protesting too much by labeling one of their own as a 'terrorist'.
During the W Years I had an easy way to ascertain the truth. Whatever Dick Cheney said: the opposite was true. Every time. Were we using chemical weapons on the Iraqis? Cheney said nope. The truth was we were. We were using chemical weapons on innocent civilians... to protect them from... their leader who used chemical weapons on them.
During the Obama years we haven't had such a simple way to find the truth. What I've concluded is that whenever Obama talks about anything but the military, he's basically saying what he means. If it involves the military, it's Cheney time.
So when I heard our usually cordial and restrained Obama call Edward Snowden a terrorist and a traitor, I suspected the opposite was true. That Snowden was a decent chap telling the basic truth.
Stories have been breaking for months now supporting my conclusion that Snowden was doing his job as a whistleblower, as encouraged by none other than President Obama until he decided to change his position on whistleblowing.
Just because Snowden's leaks are embarrassing for several administrations doesn't mean Snowden needs to be in exile. Let's take this guy off the crucifix unless it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he's trouble.
... well Brian isn't really a California 'Pool Man'. He just plays one on Vimeo. Or will be in about a month or so.
When I create a piece like iSpy and populate it with characters, an astute viewer might attempt to play the fun parlor room game: where's the writer hiding. You study the characters and their dialog and attempt find little ol' me.
I have four teen players: a confused beauty queen, a greaser James Dean, an Enthusiastic Boy totally into superhero movies, and a Sassy know-it-all gal.
I've been told by two different people there's something eerily similar between myself and Enthusiastic Boy. And this would be kind of true. That I'm looking back upon myself from decades ago, only updated.
I'll admit that sometimes I can be as 'confused' as I can be 'sassy', but I blame this on the first stages of grumpy old man. For instance, when the Edward Snowden story first broke, I was very confused. 'Who?' 'Which one is that?' Then I got angry at how Snowden was being crucified by the media and press, which as you'll see inspired me to become... sassy.
But if you're looking for the screenwriter in iSpy, look no further than Brian Allen's Pool Man. Brian will play an everydude cleaning a posh swimming pool tucked away in a California foothill. What he overhears today's teenagers saying...
... makes him wonder if the swimming pool is the only thing that's a little cloudy.
We'll have to wait to see if his skimmer, chlorine, and baking soda have any influence over the young minds around him, but yes, that's definitely a little grumpy old man hiding inside the Pool Man.
That made casting this role tricky. Yes, we both have facial hair but no I wasn't seeking a clone of me. I originally attempted to cast this role with a muscled African American type -- perhaps to further hide the 'me' in the process.
What changed my casting goal was when Mr. Brian Allen responded to my ad in BACKSTAGE and I saw this --
Brian's reel is real good. He's funny, he's versatile, he's funny, he's hairy, he's funny, he's... funny.
Brian somehow seemed familiar to me. Where have I seen this guy before? It turns out I had never seen his work, but the work of two famous actors kept coming to mind. I can get in trouble when I do this, but I feel like Brian Allen is the lovechild of Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. He's not as manic as Robin or as mangy as Jeff, but there's nothing wrong with that.
To me, Brian Allen personifies that echo of a time and place long before everyone was so hip deep in their iDevices and worried so silly that Ben Affleck might play Batman in the least appealing Superman series yet.
In this way Brian Allen fits my short iSpy perfectly. And it's why I couldn't shake his entertaining reel once seen. And if this isn't enough common ground between us, he was born on the right coast just like me... a town away from my hometown.
I'm confident that one day soon Brian Allen will be a household name. A big star. And when that day arrives I'll drop by his Hollywood Hills home with a big smile and a new script. Brian will at first be confused, then a little sassy...
... and he'll tell me to get back to work cleaning his swimming pool.
I can't speak for today's teens, but when I was a kid the posters a teenager had hanging in their bedroom told you a lot about who they were. It seemed everyone I knew had at least one poster adorning their walls along these lines --
Somewhere in high school I decided to refresh my walls. Try out a new collection. I think I was standing in what was then the Harvard Coop Poster and Print area when I saw a series of black and white movie stills from yesteryear, in those hanging displays where you could slowly 'flip' through posters like pages in a giant magazine.
At this point of my movie knowledge I had no idea which movies these even were. I just allowed the images to speak for themselves and I selected three. Here they sort of are --
About a year ago I wasn't producing iSpy. I was feeling more ambitious and attempting to produce a 25 minute short. One of the lessons I quickly learned as a newbie producer was how very difficult it is to attach somebody actors to a script being produced by a 'nobody'. I was approaching all sorts of named talent -- sometimes literally -- and hitting an immediate wall.
Once I finally learned this lesson I regrouped and thought, okay -- maybe there were some sort-of-nobodies I could find that were on the brink of becoming somebodies. To find them would require putting on my talent scout hat. Over too many years of watching TV and films I've gotten pretty decent at spotting people on the rise.
My piece needed a young 20s 'Missy' that could be mousy, funny, and feel like she was circa 1972. I started websurfing all the improv comedy club troupes in Los Angeles -- like Second City, The Groundlings, etcetera. This was the precise advice I received from my dream somebody 'Missy' Charlyne Yi -- that hilarious young personality (on the left) I kindly/gently approached in San Diego a while back.
So I'm looking at the pages of players in such troupes and I discover many of them already have representation. I'm like, shinola, just getting into one of these troupes garners serious talent attention? I mean I'm happy for these peeps, sure, but getting all the more frustrated for my own interests. For even rising stars may already be out of reach.
But I wouldn't give up. I kept looking. Then I discovered this --
She's funny. Who is that? Noël Wells. Fit my 'Missy' like a glove. So I contacted Noel via her website --
-- and heard absolutely nothing. Sadface. Look, I'm not expecting people to jump and say ABSOLUTELY, but if you pay someone the compliment of a starring role in a 25 minute piece, they might find a quick way to say thanks but no thanks.
Then a month or so back I learn that she's on her way to SNL. Ahh. Now I get it. She wasn't just 'too busy' to reply to my request... she was actually too busy to reply to my request.
That's Noël opening last Saturday's SNL. I must say in the sketches I've caught her in, they don't quite know how to use her yet. She needs to find a character to make her own fast -- so that everyone knows what this talented young lady can do. The fact she helped open the show gives me the feeling they're perfectly aware of this gem of a comedienne.
Anyhow, the talent scout in me takes a bow. I hope people will find my iSpy casting as... inspired.
When my wife and I moved into our California condo about ten years ago, our complex provided us with something I cherish: a mix of every walk of life. My neighbors are every cultural and financial type and I wouldn't have it any other way... although I'd gladly silence the mega-subwoofer-hole in the adjacent complex. But I digress.
Ten years ago my complex had a generation of kids roaming about what my wife refers to as our 'campgrounds'. These children split off into all sorts of different groups. I got to know a bunch of them.
There was one group I didn't get to know so well. Boys that were brothers and cousins to each other, all Latino. Having grown up in a lily-white conservative Massachusetts town, it was simply a new experience for this curious screenwriter.
The first time I said 'Hi' to this group -- that were all under 12 -- they presented to me their fierce street personas. They led me to believe they were either moments from joining a gang or already in one. Trust me -- I'm not being racist here -- their message was don't mess with us, dude. And so I didn't.
Ten years pass. These little guys grow into young men. They eased up on the street thing, but I noticed something surprising about one of these 'bad' boys: he's always dressed up like Brando or a... Latino James Dean.
-- won't be me.
For those involved in the pre-production of my first super short film, this has been obvious for a while, but for those who are following my blog posts -- I didn't want to announce anything official until contracts had been signed.
Firstly, I've never officially announced 'iSpy' outside of this site's PROJECTS page. This project is a 4 minute short and the logline goes something like this: As four teenagers stare transfixed before the abyss of their iDevices and their summer superhero movie choices, a man cleaning their swimming pool attempts a discussion on real world heroism. I'd say we'll have to wait about a month or so to learn if that logline ends up being longer than the film.
So why did I let myself go as director? For the same reason I was seeking a director for my previous project TUGBOATS. Simply put: I respect craft. Though I've directed stage plays I've never been on a film set and directed actors, DPs, and the rest. I want my films to be the best that they can be -- not an opportunity to see how many credits I can nab. My films will never be about me but always about their stories.
What is terribly tricky inside (and outside) of Hollywood is finding a quality director that is willing to share the vision thing.
As Executive Producer and Writer, I own the vision of 'iSpy'. It's my baby. In television, this arrangement happens all the time. In film, it doesn't. In film it's understood that the director controls the vision. That's why most indie productions are created by director/writer types. This is also why most directors use scripts as 'starting points' instead of finished guides.
The thing is that these days the definitions of television and film are blurring into each other. Most films are shot on video. More and more films debut on television. Many people watch content on iDevices that can fit in their bags or pockets. And so as the definitions of content meld together, the relationship between producers and directors and writers meld too.
So from my viewpoint, it comes down to a project by project base. My iSpy project has funding and a script but could really use a quality director. Thanks to my amazing Line Producer Rukmani Bachel -- this quality director has been found.
(I must take a moment and praise Rukmani as my most fantastic resource or 'facilitator' as she puts it. So far she's far exceeded my expectations. She has earned a post of her own which will come along one of these days.)
What is a quality director? To me they share a central skill to a quality writer. You see, when we watch a movie, what we are doing is sharing a vision thing. A dream. Good movies let us 'sleep' within the dream and live every moment of it as an alternate reality. Bad movies constantly knock us out of the dream and remind us that none of this is actually happening.
So when you watch a film and say out loud, "That was stupid," you don't have a quality writer on board. Similarly, when you watch a dramatic scene but it lacks that emotional ooomph, it's not a quality director. If your imagination can dream better than the dream you're watching, all is lost. The more films anyone watches the better we all get at such imagining.
Rukmani considered my script of teenagers and recommended a director who has done quality work with teenage characters. That director is Nicholas Ozeki and was I ever impressed. His indie feature MAMITAS is on Netflix streaming and it's worth popping some corn and watching some evening soon. Here's a trailer --
Does that look like a USC Graduate Thesis project to you? Or does that look like a real film?
Now you know why I'm beside myself.
What impressed me about this film was how rarely I awoke from the dream. I was almost never reminded that it was a low budget independent film. For the most part it was extremely professional on every level. Simply put: it looked real.
That amazing look was the result of Nick's work with a quality cinematographer -- the subtle yet polished camera work of Andrew M. Davis. Mr. Davis has signed onto iSpy as well, and so having this team on my team is the stuff of goosebumps.
Having spent over a year looking for a quality filmmakers to join my cause has taught me to spot talent fast. Nick and Andrew strutted their stuff throughout the feature, but this early sequence blew me away --
What Nick did was find two amazing young actors, Veronica Diaz-Carranza and E.J. Bonilla. Nick didn't just find them but he made them work on camera. Whenever they shared the screen the movie was singing what I call the unforgettable and intimate spectacle of the human condition. Most film directors have no idea what to do with two real people talking. Director/Writer Nicholas Ozeki is already on his way to mastering this skill... and MAMITAS was his first film out of the gate.
Before we leave this image behind, let's look at the photography of Andrew Davis. Los Angeles is a disorganized mess of neighborhoods and foothills and back alleys. Very little of it is Beverly Hills. In the pictured scene two teens with different viewpoints and values can't help but flirt with each other. It's magical -- but the location isn't.
Or is it? During this sequence, that green tree in the background is always visible. So are the flowers to the right. The message here is that beauty and life can grow anywhere... even between two special people. There's more gold in this scene than in all the iPhone 5s' combined. Everything this sequence is happens to be everything THE AVENGERS isn't.
Now you know why I'm very excited -- not to mention particularly honored -- to have Nick and Andrew join my first film. I told Rukmani to take a cigar out of petty cash for all her great work, but she informed me that's not what petty cash is for. So I offered her garlic naan instead. She told me that is catering's responsibility.
So newbie a producer, so much to learn...
I'm old enough to remember when computers didn't have a mouse. When the computer section of The Harvard Coop had a few IBM machines strewn about, complete mysteries to anyone but serious math geeks and IBM employees. The small department was typically empty. Until one day in 1984, at one table, the rest of us got our first look at... a Macintosh.
Thanks to the Android Generation it is fashionable to bash Steve Jobs. Heck, he didn't even invent this machine as much as copy a prototype Xerox created but what clueless how to market, they say. True. But also: hogwash.
Steve Jobs changed your life, like it or not.
Unless you don't listen to digital music, carry a smartphone, use a tablet, or enjoy an elegant operating system, Steve Jobs is with you. Right now. I don't care if he wasn't the greatest guy in the world. Who really is?
What I care about is that he gave me the exact tools I needed when I needed them. Here are some of my faves --
As production proceeds on my first super short film iSpy this song entitled 're: generation' found me. This STS9 ditty speaks to my four teenage characters hanging around a pool... immersed not in the chlorinated water... but their iDevices.