February 12, 2008 03:22This Title Subject To Change
The very first episode of a television show I ever wrote (that got made at least) was called "Career Day." By the time the show's creators and story editors and producers got through with the outline, the only words I still recognized of my work were "career" and "day." The plot had changed so drastically that when I sat down to script it, I asked if I could change the title too, since it no longer had anything to do with high school career days. They turned me down. They said paperwork with the original title already existed, so we were locked in. Sure enough, episode nineteen of the first season of Student Bodies remains "Career Day" to this day.
Since then, I've found television titles to be less written in stone than I was first led to believe. In order to receive royalties for my episodes beyond the five-year buyout detailed in my contracts, I have to report the specifics to the Canadian Screenwriters Collection Society. Since getting heavily into animation writing a few years ago, I haven't sent in a single form concerning those episodes yet. It's not just laziness on my part. Increasingly, I've had to wait until my episodes air to confirm what they ended up being called. Sometimes it's just a word or two that gets switched, sometimes the title is completely unfamiliar. To give one example, the episode "Ricky Who?" I mentioned in yesterday's blog was "The Nobody" until I learned different searching through the official Ricky Sprocket website.
Lately, it's even been the names of the shows themselves that get swapped out right under me. I've mentioned Kid vs. Kat once or twice now, but when I first started working on it, it was called Look What My Sister Dragged In. More recently, I got a memo about Racer Dogs telling me that the show was now to be known as Turbo Dogs. I guess some focus group somewhere concluded that Racer Dogs didn't sound fast enough.
If you're having a hard time keeping track of all the various names of shows and episodes I throw at you, just do what I do. Wait for a geek out there on the web to write an episode guide. There's always some fan willing to keep track of it all for us.
Some of you have already noticed that my blog entries have increased dramatically of late. If you're having trouble keeping track of that was well, scroll to the very bottom of this page. There you'll find a new RSS feed option designed for people who are too lazy to go visit a web site regularly. I'm not exactly sure how it works, what you do with it, or how you go about getting it to do whatever it is it does. What can I say, I'm not twelve anymore. But I'm sure you crazy kids can figure it out, what with your hippy-hop music and your iPods and your internets, which, I'm told, is a series of tubes.
February 11, 2008 18:52The Germans Invade Again
Historically, the Germans are a tad, shall we say, grabby. Over the course of the first half of the 20th century in particular, they developed an unfortunate habit of marching into neighbouring countries uninvited and behaving badly. You know, doing rude things like not wiping their feet at the door, eating the last biscuits without asking if anyone else would like some, killing Anne Frank, and telling off-colour Bavarian jokes in polite company.
Now they've gone too far. Look, Germans, you can have Poland. Take Czechoslovakia if you must. But leave my toons alone.
I visit YouTube from time to time, to see if anyone has pirated more of my shows so I can link them (thereby further encouraging the piracy and illegal distribution of copyrighted material). So far there's only a few clips from my most recently aired cartoon, Ricky Sprocket, but one of them is from an episode I wrote called, Ricky Who?
I've seen other cartoons I've written show up online dubbed into a variety of languages, but this one is different. There's a kid -- some German child -- pointing a camera at a television with the sound off, making up his own dialogue. In German! How dare he!
Look, I'm sure his dialogue is better than mine, but that's not the point. Television is supposed to be a passive medium. You stare at it blankly and turn your brain off. In no way is it supposed to encourage creativity or inventive interaction. So knock that shit off right now young man, or I'll sue your ass for all the Euros or Deutsche Marks or Swiss bank account numbers or whatever it is you have in your piggy bank. Mostly because you're German and you have to learn: Don't touch what ain't yours.
What? I'm sorry? Oh. This just in. This clip is actually Dutch, not German. Oops.
I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the fine and noble German people, who have always gone out of their way to support my work, and haven't invaded a single country so far this entire century. Except Afghanistan. But that one doesn't really count because it was sort of an international invading-army gang bang.
I will now turn my rightful indignation on the Dutch, who also have it coming.
Umm. Your trade monopoly on the island of Dejima for over two hundred years was unfair to your European competitors and only encouraged feudal Japan's isolationist politics that would later necessitate their rush to join the arms race in the post-Meiji Restoration period at the end of the 19th century! So there.
Harsh, I know. But somebody had to say it.
February 06, 2008 18:02Ultra Violence Just Doesn't Cut It Anymore
When Taxi Driver came out in 1976, most people were really disturbed by the climactic shootout featuring a mohawk-haired Robert De Niro pulling out a variety of guns to graphically murder a bunch of pimps and pushers in a psychotically misguided attempt to save Jodie Foster. A small number of filmmakers who saw this film obviously had a different reaction. It got them thinking about how that sort of violence might play in a fun action movie. And thus, a decade later, the gun-fu genre was born in Hong Kong with the release of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow in 1986. Soon after that, extreme gunplay became an accepted standard of the modern action movie all over the world.
The same sort of thing may have just happened again. I saw it coming when Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998. As disturbing and horrific as the Omaha Beach sequence of the film was (so much so, post-traumatic-stress counselors were present to tend to some of the D-Day veterans who came to the premiere), I knew some sick bastard would see that film and think, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if a dumb action movie were allowed to be this unbelievably gory and violent?" Well, a decade later, we have arrived. And the sick bastard who sat in theatres ten years ago turns out to have been Sylvester Stallone.
In the past year, Stallone has revived two of his iconic long-running characters for new outings in theatres. Rocky Balboa proved to be a surprisingly low-key and mature final note to cap off his series of Rocky movies that ranged from heart-felt Oscar-winners to silly cartoons. Rambo, on the other hand, has proved to be something else entirely.
I've seen a lot of Stallone movies over the years, but the beast in this film is barely recognizable as Stallone. He's been so altered by cosmetic surgery and human growth hormone, he looks like some Frankenstein monster hybrid of himself, sewn together from bits and pieces of Sly, a gorilla, and whatever the fuck Tetsuo turned into at the end of Akira. Even Stallone seems to realize how scary he looks now, because for the first time in a Rambo film, he never takes his shirt off. It's like he's afraid his crazy man boobs might leap off his chest and devour the camera operator if they're exposed to the light.
The film catches up with Rambo twenty years since last we saw him. The thin plot involves him getting talked into ferrying some missionaries into Burma and, after they inevitably get into trouble, going back to rescue them. The female lead is Julie Benz, so you never have to worry too much about her fate. You know right from the start that even if Rambo fails to save her, Dexter will come and kill everybody on her behalf. Julie does bewitch the psychopaths.
What ensues promises to be a cornerstone in the next generation of American action movies. Rambo doesn't kill his enemies in this one. He liquefies them. No, no, not liquidates -- liquefies. Thanks to the same sort of computer-enhanced imagery we saw in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, we're treated to splatter effects that play out like the grand finale of a fireworks competition. Only here, it's not played as camp or comedy, it's dead serious. The end of the film (and I really don't think this qualifies as a spoiler because it involves neither plot nor a twist) has Rambo manning a huge machine gun on the back of a truck and turning an entire company of Burmese soldiers into pudding. Despite the mass-scale relentless slaughter that eats up about seven solid minutes of screen time, you may be left expecting additional Rambo-style action following this sequence. Something that would display his legendary Green Beret skills better than being the first guy to commandeer The Big Gun. But no. Stallone is a little too old to get himself mixed up in any hand-to-hand action more involved than a quick beheading or disemboweling with his orc sword (no really, his orc sword). The best we can expect is to witness him unsportingly mowing down his enemies from range before his bursitis acts up.
The movie isn't actually good or entertaining. It's more pointless and only perversely amusing. I'm sure plenty of people will try to write it off as dumb fun, a popcorn flick, a black comedy about violence. But there's something more disturbing going on here. Rambo is so earnest in its dark, brooding tone, it chooses to inject some highly wrongheaded political content. The Rambo series has always had a strange political agenda that, in each entry, was meant to be topical and, in retrospect, proved to be absurd. Who can forget Rambo III, with John Rambo hanging out with his buddies in the Mujahideen, helping them kill nasty Ruskies who, as Richard Crenna quipped, were experiencing their very own Viet Nam? Oh, how times change. Oh, how history alternately repeats and reverses itself.
This time, the political subtext is all about what's going on in Myanmar. Rambo, much like the leaders of the free world, refuses to acknowledge the political reality of Myanmar and insists on calling the country Burma throughout the proceedings. In an attempt to edjamacate all of us dumbass moviegoers, the film opens with actual documentary footage of atrocities in Myanmar that would be more appropriate in a Faces of Death video than a Rambo flick. It's one thing to try to ground your silly action movie in the real world, it's another to exploit actual dead and dying people as stock footage before your hero starts plucking arrows into bad guys. It's kinda like watching a Saw movie that has Jigsaw subjecting people to deadly traps because he's pissed off about the genocide in Darfur. It's not a comfortable mix.
Now, I know it's important in every action movie to establish that the evil doers are really super-duper evil so that we can feel all pleased with ourselves when the hero mercilessly slaughters them. But the massacre that happens in a peasant village to set up this fact goes rather above and beyond the call of duty. It's okay for the villains to shoot some civilians to illustrate to us that these are indeed bad bad men. But here we show them shooting kids, standing on the head of a child and bayoneting him, and tossing a baby into a burning building. All as part of a general chaos of murder and mayhem so extreme, even I, aficionado as I am, can't immediately come up with any parallel examples in the entirety of exploitation cinema history. Ok, Sly, we get it. They're bad guys. But it's a Rambo movie for fuck's sake, not Schindler's List. Let's dial the war crimes down a notch, shall we? I came here to have some fun, now I just feel dirty.
With no Richard Crenna around, there's not even a hint of the usual fleeting humour left in this entry to make it anything more than relentlessly bleak and dreary. The increasingly irrelevant MPAA rated this movie R, which is generous considering it's easily the most violent American action movie ever made. This is the organization that used to demand edits whenever someone got a paper cut. Now, it seems, no act of violence is too extreme to earn an NC-17. That rating is reserved solely for when characters put their weapons down and get busy making some sweet love. Heaven forefend American children see any of that. They might get it into their heads that sex is a good thing and perhaps more amusing than shooting total strangers in the head with a howitzer. We can only hope that this unexplainable R rating will open the floodgates to other, hopefully better, shoot-em-ups that will hit the same fever pitch of violence and gore without neglecting superfluous bells and whistles like plot, character and nuance. It'll never happen, of course, but let's keep hope alive just for the hell of it.
Stallone disposes of yet another Chicago Sun-Times reviewer. He's coming after me next, and yes, as a matter of fact, I am shitting my pants.
February 04, 2008 04:04Way Ahead Of Me
There hardly seems any point in making an official announcement. As industrious visitors to the site have already discovered for themselves, there's a new section in the left-hand margin that leads to a collection of some of my screenplays. The selection is limited at the moment to one short film, three episodes of half-hour television, and two cartoons. More scripts will be added in the future as I try to showcase a variety of styles and formats. Generally, the ones presented will fall into one of two categories -- "produced" or "unproduceable."
The reason for this is simple. Scripts that have already been produced can't very well be stolen. The end product is already out there, finished and viewable by the public, with all associated copyrights in place. As for the unproduced scripts, they're largely material that has died on the vine. They may have been promising stories at one time, but now I can't do anything with them because they involve other people's characters or concepts in projects I don't own. I was a gun for hire (who, in some cases, didn't even get hired), and all I can do now is bemoan what might have been and offer to show my readers the leftover blueprints.
Then there are the screenplays that haven't been sold or produced, but may yet have a chance. Some of these projects have been under option at various times, others have not. Unfortunately, they must all stay under wraps to remain viable properties. I can't show them to you, but there exist dozens of others from categories A and B that I can post as downloadable PDF files from time to time. Many have interesting anecdotes to go with them, and a few are even pretty good. So if you want to read some more of my work, you're interested in screenwriting, or you're a producer I directed here to download writing samples, dig in.
I know better than to make empty promises about when the next batch will be up, but I'm working on making a few more fit for public display. And, just for the hell of it, I'll leave you with this teaser… One of them is for an abandoned feature film project that proved to be the single biggest shitstorm of my career. So far, at least. A complete, scandal-laden blog will be in the offing when that screenplay finally goes online. It should prove to be quite the cautionary tale of dealing with non-union producers and other film-biz bottom feeders.
February 01, 2008 19:15Dogs Versus Cats
Work is wrapping up on my latest two cartoon shows, Kid vs. Kat and Racer Dogs, and I've noticed a trend. Since my days of writing very adult material concerning a bunch of Irish mobsters doing a lot of killing and screwing, the target demographic of my subsequent shows has gotten young and younger. This may be a natural byproduct of writing a lot of animation, but it seems my scripts are getting increasingly infantile. And I don't just mean in the potty humour department. Whereas Kid vs. Kat was geared primarily for kids, Racer Dogs is aimed at even younger children. Now I have my agent running around trying to get me work on a new show designed for pre-schoolers. If I get that gig, I expect my following project will have me writing for third trimester fetuses. After that, I was thinking about jerking off into a cup and focus grouping my sperm.
Much as I like warping the minds of future generations with subversive subtext layered into my episodes, I really need to write some new material for actual grownups. Or at least people who know their ABCs and don't wear jammies with stocking feet to their 8:00 pm bedtime. The problem with writing for children's television is that it doesn't help you improve your craft. In fact, it does damage to it. There are some excellent examples of brilliant storytelling aimed at children out there. None of them are on TV though. The television industry is already full of suits whose job is to cock-block quality from getting on the airwaves. When it comes to kids shows, the problem is further compounded by the standards-and-practices directives designed to protect children from anything that might upset, confuse, inspire, challenge or endanger them. Broadcasters live in terror that something they air may encourage some kid somewhere to do something that might cause some harm -- thus inviting a big fat lawsuit. Therefore, children's shows are increasingly designed to be the entertainment equivalent of a padded cell. No sharp edges for the kiddies -- they might put an eye out on the wrong idea.
As a writer, this means I'm often asked to cut things from my scripts like conflict, irony or, indeed, proper narrative. And, obviously, any props that might cause physical damage to a child have to go. Sticks and stones and nasty sharp objects are the sort of things that usually get targeted by broadcaster notes. But all too often they'll let their meagre imaginations run wild and come up some truly paranoid ideas about what might maim or kill one of the kids watching out there in TV-land. On past occasions, I've been told to remove such innocuous items as (I shit you not) sleeping bags, tiddlywinks, and ice cream.
As far as I'm concerned, if some kid gets a stupid idea in his head because he watched a TV show and then goes out and gets himself killed, that's just Darwinism, pure and simple. Clearly, they were peeing in the shallow end of our gene pool, and they're much better off being naturally selected to vacate the general swimming area. Hell, I grew up watching the Looney Tunes shotgunning each other in the face, and I always knew better than to play with guns. Or anvils or dynamite or rocket-skates for that matter. What sort of morons are we raising if we can't trust them to base their understanding of reality on something more practical than a goddamn cartoon?
No, I never went out and harmed myself or others based on what I saw on one of the many ultra-violent kids shows of my youth. The one that fucked me up was The Friendly Giant -- surely among the most tender, inoffensive, sweet-hearted children's programs ever devised by man. Nevertheless, I let it inspire me to do something truly stupid. It was thanks to one episode when Jerome the giraffe mentioned a skiing accident he once had. Never mind what a giraffe was doing on skis. For whatever reason, I got it into my head that having a skiing accident would be a really interesting experience. Perhaps I'd have known better if Sonny Bono had already put his head through a tree on a Lake Tahoe ski slope, but back then he was still singing "I Got You Babe" with Cher.
I didn't ski, but I did go tobogganing regularly. So on one of my next runs down a local snowy hill, I purposely threw myself off my red plastic sled and wiped out hard. And it bloody hurt. The thing is, I didn't go blaming The Friendly Giant, or Jerome, or that creepy rooster-in-a-bag, Rusty. I blamed myself for being such a moron that I let a dumb TV show inspire me to do anything more dangerous than change the channel. I learned, I moved forward, my DNA remained viable. That's how it should work.
These days, however, we're so determined to keep all the stupid little kids alive, we'll hamstring anything that might be entertaining to the smart ones. What's more, we can't even come clean and tell the slow ones that they're stupid because it might hurt their precious feelings. I once had a producer come to me and tell me I could never have my characters call each other names like "moron" or "idiot" because these were actual scientifically defined terms based on I.Q. tests, and it might prove offensive to viewers.
"It's not like they're going to write in and complain," I protested. "They're idiots!"
"No, they won't write" said the producer, shaking his head sadly, "Their parents will."
It always comes down to the parents. They're so determined to childproof the world, they're hell-bent to fuck it up for the rest of us. The dumbasses survive childhood only to have more dumb children of their own. That's how we end up with a world that has warning labels on coffee cautioning that it's hot, or instructions on industrial high-pressure air hoses that tell us, "Do not insert in anus." Really. Those are out there.
Well I say it's up to the parents to protect their own children. They're the ones who need to communicate to their kids that the world is full of hard, pointy, dangerous things. Things that will maim them, or poison them, or kill them, or hurt their delicate feelings. It's up to moms and dads to pass down basic survival skills to their offspring. It shouldn't fall on kiddie shows to pretend nothing in this world can possibly hurt them. Most kids will get it, understand, and thrive.
As for the others… Maybe, in the better interests of the species, responsible parents can take a less-evolved cue from the animal kingdom and eat their young.