If You Think Living During A Pandemic Is A Bitch, Try Storytelling In It

And we thought things for storytellers were bad because Donald Trump’s awfulness supersedes anything any writer could ever think up.

And then the coronavirus walked in our door. Of all the gin joints in all the world…

We know how ya feel, Bogie, we know how ya feel…

Trump’s story is so hard to tell that our news media hasn’t gotten within miles of even figuring out how to tell it — never mind actually telling it. In their defense, what can you do about a candidate or president who lurches quite happily from calamity to calamity? I don’t know… maybe stop lurching after him? Maybe stop following him down every damned rabbit hole? But, I digress.

If you make your living by making up stories, it sucks when reality keeps belching out content far more inventive than anything you could imagine. Donald Trump isn’t even the worst villain riding this supersonic shitwagon. There are plenty of others: Mitch McConnell, Bill Barr, Mikes Pompeo, Pence & Flynn. Every one of these characters would fill one story all by themselves as villain. What did we ever do to deserve a whole Justice League Of Villains?

Oh, right — slavery.

I digress again.

Fictional storytelling before the coronavirus landed was already a fool’s errand. The coronavirus pandemic just made it hopeless.

Never mind what anyone says. Dialogue’s gonna be rewritten ten thousand times before it even gets to the actors — and then it’ll get rewritten ten thousand more times. First thing visual storytelling demands is being clear on what the audience sees. If you’re working in a visual media — as a screenwriter or TV writer — this is job one.

Think of it this way: before the pandemic you were a show taking place in real time — and half of your episodes were in the can when the lockdown came. Your show took place in a time when people didn’t social distance or wear masks. Bars were open and packed. Restaurants, too. People could go on a date — to a movie.

Then the pandemic hit. Production stopped for months. And months. But, let’s say circumstances ease enough so that — if your company can successfully follow 20 pages of protocols and requirements without anyone getting sick — you can go back to work, finishing your season. One problem. While your show was in hiatus, reality changed.

The literal reality in which the show had been taking place is not the literal reality we live in anymore. People can’t go to movies on dates. There are no movie theaters. And dating — it’s more complicated now (though no less essential). Coronavirus is like an STD on steroids. A show about a person with an active sex life has a problem now it didn’t have before.

And did I mention everyone wears masks now? Yeah, they wear masks — and they’re likely to be wearing masks for the foreseeable future because of the wretched hash Donald Trump and his band of pirates made of our response to the virus. That means that if your show takes place in real time — in our collective real time where we all live? Everyone better be wearing masks.

If our show said “I don’t care!” and shot the rest of the season the same way they shot the first part of their season — with no one social distancing or wearing masks, acting as if the virus never existed — they would be making a period piece.

People NOT wearing masks would be as costumed, in a sense. The same way good wardrobe is meant to draw our eye toward it (and reflect elements of character and environment), someone maskless will get our attention. We no longer live in a world where people walk around maskless. But we used to. That’s what the audience knows. Stories rely on immediacy — especially stories that take place in our contemporary world. Put that story in the past and — even if we love the characters deeply — we’ve still surrendered a big piece of the story’s drive — it’s immediacy.

I just finished a Zoom story meeting with another writer. It’s a TV project about a fish out of water who lands in LA. It’s based on a real person. She’s genuinely fascinating — and Russian. The work we’d done all had to be re-evaluated; a draft was written before the pandemic and the lockdown.

Now we had to try to imagine what our character — who’s single and sexually active — would do in a world where being single and sexually active just got harder? Keep in mind — if we got super, SUPER lucky, we could be in front of the cameras with our TV show in… super, SUPER lucky — 6 months. It’s never going to happen but let’s say. The soonest we could possibly be on air so people could binge us? A year. If we’re super, SUPER lucky.

What will THAT world look like? We’ll probably still be wearing masks. Will bars be open? Will restaurants? Or will most of them be gone — victims of the economy that started to come back far too late to save them. Will movie theaters still be off limits? Will spectating at live sports events? It’s hard to write scenes that take place in a setting that might not realistically be open anymore. That might not even exist as we knew it.

No one’s going to go with a story that says “He walked into a bar. Or maybe he didn’t because they’re all closed so he stood outside where the bar used to be.” Chrissakes — shoot the table read instead. On Zoom. It’ll be easier.

John Lewis Was A Case Study In HOW We Could “Do Unto Others”

I once wrote an episode of The Outer Limits (the reboot on Showtime) about a cool future technology that’s used for dark, nefarious purposes. Yeah, that could be pretty much any sci-fi story. This tech asked a question — what if we could take the talents, skill sets or abilities from one person and “implant them” into another person?

The downside to this technology — in the episode — was that the skill set couldn’t be in two places at once. If it was being implanted into someone else, it’s because it no longer existed in its original host. In the episode, the character “Mad” Joe Dell’s legendary jazz chops could be removed from Joe Dell and given to someone who’d bought them — from the company that took them from Joe Dell.

The excellent Bill Cobb plays the character Joe Dell — a legendary jazz musician whose jazz talent gets “taken” from him by a new technology — and implanted into someone else — who’s paid to get it.

Joe Dell (and most of his family), thought Joe was moving into a retirement community. There was no explanation for his rapid decline into total dementia — and then his death. But Joe hadn’t actually died. He’d been warehoused — until every last drop of his jazz chops could be squeezed from him.

The episode ended happily. Joe’s teenaged grandson Ronnie catches on to the monstrous scam being pulled and gets his grandfather back — legendary jazz chops mostly complete. So, here’s my storyteller’s sighed “What if…?”

What if we could transplant John Lewis’ legendary humanity, his empathy and humility into the heads of every single Republican?

But the “skill set” we’re talking about isn’t like jazz talent. It doesn’t require all the micro-skills being a jazz legend demands. All this skill set requires is that we care about other people at least as much as we care about ourselves. Ya know — “Do unto others” and all that.

What if we could get Republicans to “Do unto others” like it was a super power? Or a normal human capacity…

Imagine if Mitch McConnell forgot how to be a cynical treason turtle and, instead, cared about America and every human living within its borders.

Imagine if Bill Barr put down his perverse Dominionism and, instead took up Jesus’ message.

Imagine if Mike Pence’s sanctimony suddenly morphed into love of something other than Donald Trump’s ass.

Imagine if every single Republican who thought Jesus wanted them to be rich vs decent suddenly realized, “NO! HE WANTS US TO BE DECENT!”

We won’t bother imagining any scenario where Donald Trump suddenly acquires humanity. Mary Trump’s book spelled it out clearly and emphatically: Trump has no capacity for humanity and probably never did. He’s a sociopath just like his daddy. Indecency is hard-wired into Trump’s corrupt DNA.

But, if everyone else suddenly acquired John Lewis’ innate decency — if every Republican who’s enabled Trump (in other words, every Republican who still proudly calls themselves “Republican”) — then we wouldn’t have a problem with Trump. Our collective decency would not tolerate his presence.

He’d be gone already and no longer a clear & present danger.

I know — that’s why stories are stories and reality is reality.

But a storyteller can dream, can’t he?

Will Covid-19 Be The End Of Feature Films & Movie Theaters?

I’ve been writing & producing feature films & TV shows for 35 years. Boy, has this business changed. And then changed again.

In 1985, when I arrived in Los Angeles from the East Coast, the feature business and the TV business were strangers to each other. One did not cross over freely from one to the other. If one went from TV to features — that was you graduating to “stardom”. If you went from features to TV — that was you dying a slow death.

Back then there were 3 major TV networks and Fox — more still a novelty as a network than an actual network. There was cable TV and a smattering of satellite.

Cable was the low rent district of TV. If you couldn’t sell your idea to ABC or CBS or NBC (or Fox), you went the syndication route that distributed shows to mostly independent stations that played your show at two a.m. sandwiched between bleak reruns and even bleaker ads.

There was also HBO and a newish rival called Showtime. HBO was slowly evolving away from being purely a premium movie channel. Their big hit show at the time was called “Dream On“. It was an okay situation comedy chock full of TV references and occasional nudity.

That was it. That was the landscape. The goal — become the next William Goldman (who wrote one of the best screenplays ever “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” in addition to “The Princess Bride“, the screenplays for “All The President’s Men” and “Misery“. TV was not in any way on my radar.

Why would it be? In feature films, you could do anything. Write anything. Use whatever language you felt your characters and story needed to speak. If one was lucky enough to score a feature deal (either with a studio or an independent producer with development cash), you’d get notes. But you wouldn’t ever have to deal with a Standards & Practices department. You’d never get lawyers telling you to change things in your script on the off chance that you might get sued.

HBO was the first game changer. They became a must-have premium service when they transitioned into a content provider. One of the shows that convinced HBO to keep-a-going down that road was Tales From The Crypt — which I took over and co-ran from its third season onward. Tales ambitiously pursued feature film talent — and got some pretty big names to bite: Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Tom Hanks, Kirk Douglass, Dan Ackroyd, Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig among other. Tales helped change Hollywood’s perception of TV as a place where big named talent simply couldn’t go.

The Sopranos” closed the deal.

David Chase took his mob show to every network — and everyone said no. Their problem? Who could sympathize with a mobster? How could a traditional “bad guy” be our hero? How could an audience like a guy who cheats on his wife, steals things and murders people in cold blood?

And how could a gangster have emotional problems?

HBO had both nothing to lose and everything to gain from being both open-minded and ambitious. They weren’t throwing their money at crap. But they weren’t bound by traditional TV’s traditional way of thinking either.

I worked for HBO for 5 years on Crypt. I got a total of three script notes the whole time. That’s across almost 50 episodes! You can’t imagine what that kind of creative freedom is like. Creative executives who let you be creative is rarer than you realize. At least it used to be.

Plenty of other shows on other outlets moved the ball forward.

Meanwhile, at the majors, CBS was solidifying its reputation as a network for senior citizens. Fox rose on the success of a reality show — “American Idol” but also a bit more edge: “The X-Files” and “Married With Children“. To their credit, they were pushing the envelope. But they were still handing creative people notes from Standards & Practices.

I sold a pilot to Fox — a cool show called “Fear Itself” about a group of researchers tasked with investigating why certain peoples’ worst fears were being manifested out in reality (example — an arachnophobe’s heightened fear of spiders was manifesting their nightmarish, over-sized spiders into reality where they were killing and terrorizing people). The plug got pulled however when the network head at the time (a guy named Peter Roth) feared our show would step on a show that Chris Carter (he created “X Files“) was developing for them. That’s the biz.

Game Of Thrones” finished the transformation in the public’s mind. TV was no longer the ugly duckling. Netflix made TV a Golden Goose.

Like HBO, Netflix realized that the money was in providing content, not being a glorified movie rental house. And, because Netflix had no schedule, they released their shows in their entirety. Whole seasons that their audience could binge on. The whole world changed its TV viewing habits.

Something else happened that was important. Order sizes changed.

Back before HBO and then Netflix changed the business model for TV shows, the entire financial structure was based on getting a show into syndication. Syndication was both second life for a show and (as with “Seinfeld” and “Friends“) perpetual life. Syndication worked via a 13 week schedule that “stripped” a show (broadcast it at the same time every day) during the regular week. The math’s simple: 5 episodes a week times 13 weeks equals sixty-five episodes.

“65” was the magic number. A show idea had to have at least 65 possible episodes in it to be financially viable and therefore worth pursuing. Another important facet of stripping a show — the audience must be able to drop in and drop out without feeling like they have no idea what’s going on. That means each episode must be “closed-ended”. No “continued’s”. No serialized storytelling.

American series producers went all in for the 65-episodes or bust model. The BBC, for comparison’s sake, never did. That’s not to say that the Beeb didn’t follow that model when they had a show that could fit the mold but it wasn’t their guiding principle. That’s why they only made a handful of episodes of great shows like “Fawlty Towers“. They were taking them as far as the creators thought they’d go — not to the bank regardless of how empty the idea had become.

The network model was orders of 22 episodes and up. For a while, Showtime was in the “firm 22’s business”. When I co-executive produced “The Outer Limits“, we had an amazing amount of job security. Showtime had ordered TWO 22-episode seasons. It wasn’t quite like working for IBM one’s whole career but it felt great knowing one had a job after a season finished.

And while some shows were serialized of course, closed-ended storytelling was the norm until Netflix and its full-season release concept pretty much killed it dead. From a creative standpoint, it’s the difference between writing short stories vs writing novels. A self contained episode is a short story (same as a feature film). A series (now) is a novel — sprawling and dense and expansive as it wants to be. As dark and compelling as it wants to be too.

Breaking Bad” was another game changer because it broke the rule of who a TV “hero” could be.

Look at the story of Walter White. It’s epic yet intimate. It’s scope yet exquisite detail. That’s what having “time” to tell a story does for a storyteller.

These days, the norm is anywhere from eight to twelve episodes though ten’s pretty standard. If the show’s roughly 30 minutes, that’s a five hour story we’re telling (broken up into 10 chapters). If it’s an hour — that’s a ten hour feature to plot out and write. That’s a lot of stretching out a story gets to do.

To judge by the world’s reaction, they love it. Amazon, Hulu,

Features meanwhile have stagnated creatively. They’re are an expensive risk even under the best of circumstances and movie studios are nothing if not risk averse. The sad fact is, big movie studios don’t know how to do little movies. In the early 90’s, Miramax was putting the studios to shame at Oscar time. The studios hated that (even though they had no idea how to make the kind of movies Miramax made) and bought up the little independents thinking they could simply put out arty movies under a more respected banner they owned.

But the studios — being risk averse — couldn’t keep their hands off the independent studios they’d just bought. Like network Standards & Practices censors, they immediately inhibited every bit of creativity — then wondered why there was so little creativity on the pages they were given. Within a few years, the little independents like Miramax were toast.

The studios threw in with the only thing they know how to make: spectacle and super hero movies. How many times has Warner Bros remade Superman & Batman so far?

If we took Marvel off the table, would there even be a movie business at present?

When Covid-19 closed the movie theaters, it drove a stake into the exhibition business’s failing heart. Netflix had already experimented with releasing its own features (like the Coen Brothers The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” both on its platform and in limited theatrical release so it could still be Oscar-worthy). While other studios were forced to push back releasing the latest James Bond movie or the latest Batman movie, Netflix released its new Will Ferrell comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga” straight onto its platform — at no additional charge to its subscribers.

These days, even Meryl Streep will do TV shows. That’s like God coming to your house to hang out just because. Television has continued to mine subjects and characters it never dreamed of before. Think “Fleabag” or “Killing Eve” or even “Mrs. America” with its deep dive into the history of modern American feminism.

I admit to being biased against superhero movies. I can’t bear their sameness.

The thought of writing a feature is unappealing these days. What would be the point, really? Aren’t there already more than enough lost causes?

Aside from producing spectacle bigger than a home theater set up could create, there’s not much business left for the movie business. They gave up on intimate storytelling at least a decade ago. Intimate storytelling is finally giving up on it.

We’ll miss movie theaters — for the spectacle of course but also for the group experience. Comedy especially works better in a big house filled with people laughing uproariously. I learned that the first time I ever saw a Marx Brothers movie in a theater (as opposed to on my little TV). I’ve been a Groucho fan since the first time I saw “Horse Feathers” at 14. One of the local TV stations in Baltimore — WJZ — played classic comedy films between 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm every weekday back in the 1970’s (boy, have things changed!)

I knew “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup” and “Monkey Business” and “A Night At The Opera” and “A Day At The Races” were funny movies. I didn’t get how funny until I saw “Duck Soup” at college (for the umpteenth time) albeit with a big audience that howled with genuine delight from start to finish.

Yeah, comedy plays better with a big audience. But it plays well to a smaller, quieter audience too.

It’s going to be a while before movie theaters open and stay open. They’ll need to be “staying open” before any of the studios go to the trouble and expense of distributing product to them. The stone cold reality is, we don’t know when that will be.

There was time, believe it or not, when movie makers were certain that talkies would never succeed.

My hero William Goldman nailed it in his wonderful book “Adventures In The Screen Trade“. When it comes to making the best possible decisions, it’s simply a lost cause because “nobody knows anything”.

We’re living that dynamic every day now — not just the movie business but America. “Nobody knows anything”.

I bet the movie version will be good. The TV version will be better.

Every White Person Has To Own Their White Privilege If They’re Ever Going To NOT Be Racist

A recent production of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” in Washington, DC.

First things first: racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not up to the racist or the person who might be racist to decide whether or not they’re racist. They’re a little too close to the subject to judge.

So — no white person can say “I’m not a racist”. It’s not up to you. I know — that makes it tricky. “How do I know I’m not being racist at any given moment then?”

You don’t.

The fact is, we’re all “racist” in that we differentiate between ourselves and our immediate tribe with everyone else. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Other social animals do it too. Survival instinct, ya know?

But, being intelligent animals (or, at least, fancying ourselves intelligent), we have the ability to check our impulses and native instincts. It’s a little like not shitting the moment the urge hits you like, say, a horse might. Humans have learned — go elsewhere to do that — may we suggest the bathroom? Just like with moving our bowels, sometimes it’s just not convenient to do it. So we hold it in for as long as we need to.

Because we can.

It’s not a matter of denying our racism, it’s a matter of keeping it in check at all times. The goal is, in time (with personal experience), eliminate those feelings altogether. It’s a little like changing one’s bowel habits — to extend the metaphor. A bad diet produces bad bowel habits with plenty of bloating and discomfort and difficulty that only gets worse over time. If you change your diet though — voila!

I was having prostate issues. I cut back on caffeine. Now I don’t have prostate issues.

And we all know how important it is having adequate roughage in your diet to help clean everything out. Maintaining a diet instead of eating whatever you like is hard work.

So’s not being a racist — and you have to do it every single day.

I know the moment I realized I was an “institutional racist”. Now, I grew up an “other”. I’m Jewish. I was told by my culture that I was a “Chosen People”. Considering the cruelty visited upon my tribe, perhaps it would have been better for us if this god creature had chosen someone else. I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust where institutional racism became industrial racism.

I am old enough, sadly, to remember knowing there were quotas — unspoken but understood: a certain number of Jews or Blacks or Latinos or Chinese or Japanese or Indian (if any) to be invited into “the club” — a private school, a country club, a college.

I do know the sting of not having privilege.

But I don’t know it — personally — on the scale my black and brown brothers and sisters have been forced to endure. Having white skin, there was always the chance for me to “pass” for a bit — until the real white people heard my last name or stopped to reconsider the shape and cut of my nose. White Europeans are bullies — cultural and otherwise. But certain tribes were always excluded from Christian privilege. Romani people were one. Armenians were another. And, of course, there was always the Jews.

Still — white European culture and bullying are pervasive enough — and, by the time I was born American Jews had begun assimilating enough — so that I was afforded a significant amount of white privilege even though lots of that privilege was denied me. I still had some white privilege where others had none.

It’s just a fact.

I grew up outside of Baltimore, Maryland in the 70’s. My parents were ardent theater-goers. There was a big theater downtown called “The Mechanic” (after one of it’s big donors — last name Mechanic) where big touring productions of Broadway shows played. A few blocks away was Center Stage, an Equity LORT theater that staged original productions using Equity actors. Real quality stuff. Great plays with lots of great actors — known, unknown, about to be known.

It was 1982. The year after I graduated from college. I was visiting from New York. My parents had subscriptions to both the Mechanic and Center Stage but couldn’t make that night’s Center Stage performance and didn’t want to waste the tickets. They gave them to me. I was able to use one of them.

The show was James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner”.

Right off the bat — though I loved theater, though I’d just graduated from Vassar College as a DRAMA major — I hemmed and hawed. “That,” I told myself, “Is going to be a boring couple of hours.” That was my fear. How could a show about black people possibly be interesting to me?

Assuming that other peoples’ cultures are uninteresting is… if not exactly racist, it’s stupid. Let’s call it racist adjacent. In my defense, I went. I was lost but not a lost cause.

The Amen Corner‘ is about Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a storefront church in Harlem. Margaret is fiercely protective of her teenage son David — especially when her estranged husband (David’s father) Luke (a jazz musician) returns to them because he’s dying. Margaret has always painted Luke as a weak man who left his family because he loved playing music more than supporting them. To Margaret’s growing unease, her son David is showing a similar passion for music over a passion for, say, God.

But Margaret, it turns out, hasn’t been entirely honest or faithful to the truth. Luke didn’t leave her — causing her to find God for salvation — she found God first. Her single-minded devotion to God — to her own religious impulses — caused her marriage to break up. Luke didn’t leave her, she left Luke — who still loves her.

The play asks a lot of hard questions about faith and culture and religion and community and love, and, of course, racism. Racism sits beneath everything.

Whether or not “The Amen Corner” is a great play from a literary standpoint — I don’t know frankly. I’m amazed it hasn’t gotten more attention. If theater is meant to not only entertain but inform, “The Amen Corner” checked off every box there was and then some.

I walked in the door, figuring I’d get a little sleep and ended up so emotionally drained that I was literally the last person to leave the theater when the evening’s performance was finished.

The leads — Frances Foster and Bill Cobbs — as Margaret and Luke — were exceptional. The story grabbed me early and would not let go of me. But that wasn’t what left me drained and touched so deeply that — as I write this, I can feel the same awe I felt then. I was racist to think Black culture would bore me.

That night, James Baldwin, Frances Foster, Bill Cobbs, director Walter Dallas and the rest of the magnificent cast opened my eyes. Of course it’s not boring! It’s human! And all human drama is interesting. All human drama teaches us something. Only an idiot or a racist would turn up their nose at learning more about the other people with whom we share the planet and the present.

That Black culture was as rich as my culture wasn’t the point. That Black culture touched me as deeply as my own — that I understood its values and its struggles and could see myself in their place and care as deeply about their pain as about my own.

That’s what happens when you realize how much we all have in common.

Important point to make here: I do not deserve a medal for this. I don’t deserve a cookie or praise even.

I’m just meeting an obligation — the same obligation everyone has — to come clean. As the name of my blog says — I aspire to live Bullshit Free. It would be bullshit, for instance, for me to say I’ve never benefited from white privilege.

Now jump forward 39 years to 2001.

I’m in my second year as a Co-Executive Producer on Showtime’s sci-fi anthology “The Outer Limits“. I adapt in interesting idea that was pitched to the (all white) Outer Limits writers room about an invention that can “mine” the talents and skill sets from seniors so they can be “passed on” after they die. But those talents and skill sets can also be stolen — “mined” from these seniors before they’re fully ready to “surrender them”. It was, at heart, about warehousing old people.

We shot “The Outer Limits” up in Vancouver but the main production office was based in Los Angeles. While we cast most of the show in Vancouver, LA always cast the lead or leads. I never had any real say over who my main actors would be but I can’t think of a time when the actors cast for me let me down.

The episode — “Fathers & Sons” was about a black family. The dad (played by Anthony Sherwood) was a middle-of-the road guy with a middle-of-the-road job and approach to life. His very ordinary life was a kind of rebuke to his dad — an itinerant jazz musician — who lived with the family (because he was pretty much broke). The dad was especially fearful of the impact his father was having on his son — who aspired to be a jazz musician just like his grandpa.

Gee, it even sounds like “The Amen Corner“. The two leads LA cast were the grandson Ronnie Dell — they got Eugene Byrd — and the grandfather Joe Dell. For Joe, LA cast Bill Cobbs. I didn’t write the episode (borrowing heavily from “The Amen Corner“) expecting to get Bill Cobbs. I just got Bill Cobbs.

Sometimes you have to think the Universe is speaking to you. Or trying to.

I didn’t even make the Joe Cobbs — “Amen Corner” connection immediately. To be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with Joe’s work. Or, I didn’t think I was. Joe’s like a lot of great character actors: they work a lot but you don’t necessarily know their names (even when you cast a lot of actors).

When I looked up Joe’s credits out of curiosity, there it was: “Luke in ‘The Amen Corner’ at Center Stage”.

Ho-ly shit!

I won’t bore you with the long conversation Bill and I had about “The Amen Corner”. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with some huge actors (well, their names were “huge”) — Kirk Douglass, Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Brad Pitt, Whoopi Goldberg (just after she won her Oscar too), Steve Coogan, Joel Grey, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Tim Curry, Ewan McGregor & Timothy Dalton to name but a few. Working with Bill Cobbs was right up there with those guys.

I hope like hell I didn’t creep poor Bill out, I became so reverential. It’s nice to be able to tell performers you like how much they mean to you. It’s even better when you can tell them that while you’re working with them.

Having an open mind means having an open mind — not a semi-open mind. Being legitimately too tired to go to a show is one thing. To not go because you’re a systemic, institutional racist?

You NEED an evening of theater to sort you out.

Screenwriting & Storytelling In The Age Of Coronavirus

The Age of Trump made fiction-writing redundant. No one could write characters or a story half as batshit bonkers as what we were living through before coronavirus and get away with it. Now, we’re just out in the stratosphere of “Whatever!” Twists might surprise us as they happen but nothing really surprises us any more.

Stories will now exist “pre-coronavirus” and “post-coronavirus” — exactly like with a war. If you were writing a love story on December 6, 1941, you had to revise it the next day — after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor — because a war started and the world all your characters lived in were going to war too — whether you knew it or not. Any visual storyteller who shoots a video where people are dressed like they used to — without masks or other protective accessories — without social distancing — is telling a period piece. Everyone might as well be wearing petticoats.

Shows like Fox’s Empire — as of now — gave up on the idea of finishing. In Empire’s case, the show’s creators are bailing on shooting the series finale for that very reason. Their show takes place in the present. In the here & now. That is, Empire took place in the present that was — in the there & then. Having to choose between suddenly (but inexplicably) wrenching their story and characters fully into coronavirus world or building coronavirus world into their story (very inconvenient when you’re wrapping your story up and lots of what you planned relied on the characters living how we used to), Empire’s producers (I think wisely though my heart breaks for them) chose to just “walk away”. To allow their creation to end where it did when the virus struck.

Like the show itself was a victim of covid-19. Which it absolutely was.

Simple conventions that storytellers have relied on forever now have to be rethought. Bars and restaurants might open again but they won’t look like they did pre-coronavirus. There won’t be “packed restaurants” or “pulsating night clubs” or “crowded bars” here in reality for a while. That means it’ll be tricky to write about them. It’s pointless to write a scene in movie script that no one would ever shoot because it’s not how people act anymore. It’d be like our love story writer insisting on his love story taking place in a world where Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor or Corregidor or Nanking or anywhere else. It’d be like writing Casablanca — except everyone just “shows up” in North Africa for no reason — the second world war no longer being a “thing” for them to worry about. No need for exit visas or Nazis or Vichy French.

For reference — I’ve spent my career in the entertainment business. I’ve been a writer & producer in film & TV for over 35 years. I’ve run TV shows (HBO’s Tales From The Crypt & Showtime’s The Outer Limits), sold pilots to Fox, ABC, HBO and the old UPN. I’ve written and produced feature films (Children Of The Corn II fer pete’s sake, Demon Knight and Bordello Of Blood!) I’ve written stories that take place in the past, present and the future. I’ve had to imagine how humans might problem-solve in a future beyond my imagining.

That’s one of the challenges for all of us who’ve been cooped up in our homes, imagining new TV shows to fill the void now that everyone in the whole world has watched everything on Netflix and Hulu and Amazon for the thousandth time. What world will our new creations take place in? What are the rules? If we get them wrong, the “here and now” we’re describing will turn off our audiences.

It’s like getting a character wrong. Writers have to know people better than even their therapists do. We all have experienced the great story idea ruined by characters who don’t act like anyone we know. The moment a storyteller loses her audience, it’s over. The audience is gone for good — hoping the next story they decide to invest in pays them back a little more generously.

On the one hand, one can see the coming waves of infection-and-death, shut-down-and-re-opening as an obstacle. Or, one could see them as an opportunity to tell a story that’s never been told before — putting modern, tech-savvy humans up against a primordial foe who sees their bodies (and cells) as a cheap sex hotel where they can slum for a while and reproduce.

The very good news for the world’s TV audiences is that when storytellers are allowed to get together in the same place again to practice their art, the stories they tell will be amazing. On the one hand, they’ll be familiar because we’ve all just endured the same wrenching experience together. On the other hand, we hope, they’ll be eye-opening for what’s new in them: new insights into human beings and how we react to stress; that’s pretty much the basis for all storytelling.

If the writers get it all wrong and don’t come up with a single binge-able idea coming out of the coronavirus quarantine, there’ll always be reality. When all else fails, we’ll know, if we want real entertainment that can’t be beat for compellingness, all we have to do is turn off the TV and walk outside.

What If We Could Make Sports As Virtual As We’re Making Everything Else?

Back in the day, I was a Co-Executive Producer for two years on a Showtime sci-fi series called The Outer Limits (it was a re-boot of the sci-fi show that ran on ABC in the 1960’s). Thinking “sci-fi” comes naturally. Not being a hard core sci-fi guy though (like everyone else on the staff was), I tended to think character first, technology second (my favorite episode was sci-fi lite — it was about a neurotic, nosy woman who’s suddenly able to hear what all her neighbors are thinking; Jane Adams played the role & Helen Shaver directed the episode).

I once wrote a short story about a future world where war has been taken off the real battlefield and put into a virtual battlefield. By international agreement, the world’s countries have agreed to make their armies “imaginary”. They reflect all the manpower, machinery and dynamism that their country can realistically produce — and in what amount.

The threat of losing virtually — and being forced to either cede territory as a result or sue for peace (and have to negotiate a surrender) has made war rare except among rogue states. Among the first world nations though — virtual war is the only war. When America is forced to fight such a war — and loses, the General responsible commits an act of murder in the aftermath — an ironic (if heavy-handed) reflection of just how civilized humans can ever really be.

In a sense, the architecture already exists to make all war (old-fashioned bombs n bullets war, that is) virtual. The same goes for sports.

We know how to turn real world data into a virtual player whose skill sets and animation accurately reflect that data. With some tweakage to accuracy — and ways to bring in all the real-time data points that would reflect real time action (in a football game, that would be a minimum of 100 data points — 2 teams with 40-man rosters + coaching staffs + officiating crew) all producing real time assessments, predictions and animations that — with some additional tweakage to the humanization of the players characters — look and feel almost like the real thing.

So — in real time — both coaching staffs would call virtual plays in real time to virtual huddles from which the virtual players would all break to go run — or audible out of. Each player would be responsible for his own character (even if his character is sitting on the bench). If the Quarterback character runs an audible and calls the snap — all his players will have to do what they were going to do — which the massive server being used will animate in real time for a world-wide audience to see. All 22 virtual players (being run by their real counterparts) will have to react to the ball (which will have its own set of virtual real time rules to follow).

Now, keep in mind — the players won’t be able to live on their laurels. They’ll be training the whole time between games — just like they were going to do. There will be metrics and measurements that they’ll have to input (via devices that actually measure the data) so that their data and all opposing players’ data is always completely up-to-date and “real”.

Because the computer knows instantaneously what the play’s outcome will be, the computer also can visualize the play and how it plays out with perfect coverage that “just so happens” to always be in the right place at the right time — with multiple perfect angles. Because the computer knows for a fact what happened on the field and what didn’t — with its physics pretty much always perfect — there won’t be any call for “field officiating”. Refs will be left in (at first) mostly for nostalgia purposes. I’m not sure yet what (if anything) game related they could do, but — in time, their role, too, will be automated. You know Major League Baseball wants to go here already, don’t ya?

Want to watch the game? That will cost ya. We could do this in tiers. The more you pay, the more inside dope ya get. The closer to the actual flow of data you get. Perhaps there’s even virtual interaction with the players. Perhaps we create virtual stadiums with tweaks to view you get (and, at any time, you can also watch the basic “here’s the game” view the general, cheapest-tier-buying pubic will get.

The cheapest tier would be exactly like what we have today. It’s free — except there are ads. Buy a subscription and the ads go away — replaced by actual content.

The Giant “What-if” we’re going to have to solve — “what if we could never feel safe again in huge crowds where anyone in it could literally kill everyone else — without even knowing?” The venues, the teams, the networks broadcasting the games — everyone will have to worry about getting sued for contributing to all that death. It won’t matter how long it takes to snake through the system, the nuisance of it, the cost — it will all be burdensome and it will hang over everything.

Two years from now (at a minimum) when not only is a viable, safe vaccination created but is distributed and given in sufficient numbers to get us all headed back to whatever normal is, then we may begin to fill stadiums again. But, sci-fi being what it is, by then another unintended consequence may be threatening our health. Climate change has already melted parts of the perma frost, releasing organisms into the present that have been literally frozen into the past. We have no idea how our bodies will react to or handle these things.

Maybe that’s more horror movie than sci-fi. I’ll put my Tales From The Crypt hat on later.

Here’s The First Great “Life In The Time Of Coronavirus” Horror Movie

I have to be honest. The idea wasn’t mine — it was my wife’s. But the moment she said the premise, the rest of it played out almost instantaneously in my head.

That happens with me. I’ve written a few horror movies (“Children Of The Corn II”, “Tales From The Crypt Presents Bordello Of Blood”) and wrote/produced “Tales From The Crypt” for HBO. I mention this “only” to lay down my bona fides. I’m not just a garden variety psychotic — I’ve actually made money at it.

What my wife pitched was a play on “Blow Up” (London photographer inadvertently photographs a murder in progress — but only after looking more closely — blowing up — the photo).

Her idea was this: someone watching a zoom meeting — a group of girlfriends, say — sees something in the background of one of those friend’s screens that makes them thing something bad’s going to happen.

That was it. The rest of the movie (with a few variations) came to me. Since no one knows when anyone will get to shoot such a movie — and figuring that by then this will be too faint a memory to mean anything anymore, I’m spending it here.

Here’s the horror movie — the thumbnail version: grab some popcorn.

There’s a group of girlfriends — 18 – 20 year olds. A few are quarantined alone for various reasons. A few are quarantined in small family groups — mom & dad plus a sibling. Normal family tensions.

But one of the girls — let’s call her Sophie — her family situation was strange to begin with. This is not a family you’d want to be quarantined with in the best of times. Let’s say there’s a bit of insanity in the family gene pool, the one exception being Sophie — who sees her friends and her Zoom connection to them as her only “lifeline”.

Did we mention that just as states and cities were ordering everyone into quarantine, Cousin MORGAN came to stay. In a family of crazies, Morgan’s the one all the other crazies won’t fuck with. He’s that crazy. And, having just gotten out of jail because of the approaching threat of coronavirus — he’s landed here because it was closest.

Did we mention also that Sophie’s family lives in a run-down old mansion (Grey Gardens style) — up a hill, around a bend — on the other side of the tracks from where all her friends live.

All Sophie’s friends adore her. They’ve all “taken care” of her, in part because she 1) came from the other side of the tracks but 2) was cool about it. All Sophie’s friends love Sophie — and are incredibly afraid of Sophie’s family — especially Cousin Morgan who they’ve always heard about.

Now — the fact is (back story here — we’ll learn all this as we go but, this being narrative — and a thumbnail — I’m dropping it here) most of Sophie’s family though eccentric and weird are harmless. But Cousin Morgan’s the real deal. And Sophie, her friend and the audience have every reason to be genuinely afraid of him. As far as we know.

Remember — our point of view in to Sophie’s family is Sophie.

The group has a Zoom call as the movie begins. We get how everyone’s quarantine is going day 1… day 5… day 15. For most of them, it’s a matter of muddling through — which they are. For a few others, the family dynamic is wearing them down. No one’s a child here. They’re all young adults and the ones forced back into their “high school bedrooms” (physically and emotionally) are beginning to bristle.

In Sophie’s case, it’s gone way beyond “bristling”. And that’s where — as Sophie’s friends begin to realize what’s happening in Sophie’s house (and what could happen to Sophie), the horror movie conventions begin to play.

What worries Sophie — the virus might be spreading inside her house. Her dad quarantined himself in his bedroom a few days ago. Locked the door too. Said he took in enough food and has water (there’s a private bathroom off his bedroom) to keep the door shut and the rest of the family safe. He won’t talk to them. Says hearing their voices is too hard. Only texts the others. He’s texted how exhausted he feels. Hard to breathe.

Problem is, Dad was the only thing in the house to balance Uncle Morgan — and what Sophie’s friends have seen are “hints” in the background of Sophie’s Zoom window that suggest she’s more a hostage than anything else.

And then, one night, Sophie doesn’t answer the Zoom invitation.

The horror movie is “what do Sophie’s friends do”. They’ll have to get to Sophie’s house, of course. One will at first — and give us a scary first-person, “Blair Witch” style creep-through of the carnage that’s already there.

She finds Sophie — tries to get her out — only to get killed by Uncle Morgan. A few more friends arrive. They get dispatched too. So does the cop who shows up.

Social distancing becomes an issue. The town’s on lockdown, say — because it’s suddenly a hot spot. The cops are stopping everyone who’s out and about — which will slow down Sophie’s friends at crucial moments just when Sophie needs them most.

One last friend (the one we’ve rooted for most) tries to save Sophie and nearly does when she realizes the terrible, terrible secret at the heart of it all — the real monster of the piece? It’s Sophie. SHE’S the one who, because of the quarantine, flipped out and massacred her whole family.

Sophie’s worse than a contagion. And, as the movie ends — she walks away — right into the sequel.

As we say in the business — “Scene”.

Dear Dennis Miller: Just Shut The Hell Up!

Apparently, world wide pandemics cause all sorts of lowlifes and scum to come out & start yowling. Today, comedian & failed sports color commentary guy Dennis Miller went on Sean Hannity’s show with some fresh “comedy stylings” about life in the times of coronavirus. Dennis — being Dennis — he sees it all from the coronavirus’ point of view.

Because that’s the kind of “person” Dennis is.

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/fox-news-host-sean-hannity-cracks-up-over-dennis-millers-coronavirus-jokes-but-not-everybody-was-laughing-2020-04-16

I think Dennis Miller is a very talented man. I do think he can be incredibly funny. But around all that funny is so much hurtfulness — Dennis makes the mistake of laughing at his audience rather than getting his audience to laugh with him. Comedians in general are not a happy bunch. That’s why they do comedy. It’s part of their therapy.

Dennis is an unhappy man. I’m sorry for him. But he needs to work on himself before inflicting himself on any more people. Not that that’s going to happen any time soon.

Clearly, Dennis Miller has not changed one iota since I worked with him while making the feature film “Tales From The Crypt Presents Bordello Of Blood” in 1994. As a matter of fact, the story of that movie fills a whole chapter in a book I’m writing — “How To Live Bullshit Free: A Practical Guide To Not Killing Yourself”. The chapter about Dennis is called “Bordello Of Blood: How NOT To Make A Movie”.

I wrote & produced the show Tales From The Crypt for 4 seasons (everything after season two). It was a great gig. How could it not be considering the amazing people I got to work with while doing that show. With very few exceptions (a handful of people, really), everyone I got to work with from the very biggest people (the first thing Tom Hanks ever directed was an episode of Tales From The Crypt for me) to the craft services person was awesome. It was awesome on steroids.

We also got to make two Tales From The Crypt feature films — “Demon Knight” and the aforementioned “Bordello”. “Demon Knight” has achieved a kind of minor cult status. It’s a pretty good movie — very well directed by the super talented Ernest Dickerson and the cast is wonderful to a person (Jada Pinkett, Bill Sadler, Billy Zane, CCH Pounder, Charles Fleischer, Thomas Haden Church, Dick Miller). Bordello, on the other hand…

It’s got its fans. But I’m not one of them. I know too much. I was there every stinking day of that movie’s inception, pre-production, post-production & post-post production. Part of me still lives in that goddamned thing’s shadow.

For real.

Like I said — I wrote a book. I write openly, candidly & very, very honestly about Dennis (and a lot of people whose names you probably know: Sylvester Stallone, Angie Everhart, Joel Silver, Cory Feldman, Bob Zemeckis — and Dennis Miller). I didn’t write the book to settle any scores. I have none to settle. The book is me walking through my life to point out where I (I now realize) made mistakes that I now choose to build on (having survived a deep, deep depression and a suicide attempt).

The point is — on part of my journey, I worked with Dennis Miller. He’s a talented man but an asshole. If he insists on opening his yap — I’ll open mine.

I’ve included the whole chapter here. I apologize if all you want is the Dennis Miller dirt — it’s in there. But I do promise the rest of the story is worth your time. It’s hilarious. Painfully hilarious (painful to me mostly — making that movie was a daily dose of the Battle of Waterloo). And Dennis features prominently in that nightmare.

Imagine — having a nightmare experience while making a horror movie.

As my non-writing producer friends like to say “It practically writes itself”.

CHAPTER FOUR

BORDELLO OF BLOOD:  HOW NOT TO MAKE A MOVIE

If you’ve never been to Vancouver, British Columbia, you’re missing something.  

Flying into it can take your breath away (same as flying into LA can – on a clear day when you can see all the way from Catalina to the San Gabriels).  There’s the same juxtaposition of ‘gleaming city’ against a backdrop of mountains.  But, while LA sprawls like a languid teenager, Vancouver sits properly, its posture perfect.

Vancouver is really, really Canadian in all the best ways.  And it’s perched between so much Natural Beauty it should be illegal.

The first time I ever visited Vancouver was while Gil was shooting The Hitchhiker for HBO. 

From the point of view of the American entertainment business (there IS a Canadian Entertainment Business, too) – Vancouver is a service town.  In our case, American productions – originating in LA – use Vancouver because labor is less expensive and the exchange rate between the American & Canadian dollars usually favors us.  Canadian productions also used Vancouver as a service town – for productions originating in Toronto.

Back when Gil first worked up in Vancouver, the talent pool (crew-wise) wasn’t anything like it is now: deep.  When Gil first started working in Vancouver, there were about two good, professional-caliber crews.  After that, you couldn’t be sure what you were getting.  Not that the people weren’t well-meaning and talented – they just lacked the experience that most larger American productions preferred.

When we arrived in Vancouver to scout ‘Bordello of Blood’, the situation had improved considerably.  Still, as we cleared customs, Gil and I, Greg Melton our production designer and Tom Priestley, our director of photography, weren’t thinking about the crew we’d get or the city we’d be getting it in.  We were miserable.

Our very skilled Vancouver production manager – Colleen Nyquist – set us up in the Sutton Place Hotel and got to work shuttling us around.  But none of us wanted to make the movie we were there to make.

I don’t know for sure why Universal cancelled ‘Dead Easy’ and made us do ‘Bordello of Blood’ but I’ve always had my suspicions. Again – I don’t know this but – here’s my theory…

At the time (1994), a company called DREAMWORKS had just formed.  For those who don’t know, this is the Entertainment Behemoth created by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.  From the moment it launched, everyone wanted to be in business with them.  Who wouldn’t?  That, I believe was what scared Universal Pictures – who became worried about one of the prizes in their talent stable – my boss Robert Zemeckis. 

Just as I see Bob Z as my mentor, Bob saw Steven Spielberg as one of his.  And Universal – my theory – was afraid that Bob might migrate his deal away from them and TO Steven (David & Jeffrey) and their brand-spanking-new High End Production Company.  Among Bob’s strengths is fierce loyalty.  And one of the people that Bob Z has always been incredibly loyal to is his original writing partner Bob Gale.  The Two Bobs wrote all the ‘Back To The Future’ movies together – and Bob Gale is a First Class Writer.  But he’s not a director in the way Bob Z is (though Bob Gale has directed).  

The Two Bobs met when both were film students at USC.  The Film Department, at the time, wasn’t the Juggernaut it is now.  It was the late 70’s – Academia loved the French New Wave and hated Hollywood. The two Bobs preferred Hollywood.  They thrived nonetheless at USC. Wrote a ‘first screenplay’ together: “Bordello of Blood”.

It is entirely possible that at some point, because he’s a great and loyal friend, Bob Z (and, perhaps because also it gave Bob Z a way to ‘help’ Universal keep him on their roster instead of leaving for DreamWorks’) asked Universal to purchase “Bordello”.  They did.  For $500,000. 

Having spent half a million bucks (again, I’m speculating based on what I know), Universal wanted to ‘lay off’ the money – find a way to spend it rather than lose it.  And then it struck them – they already HAD a project on their schedule that would solve their problem.

Next thing ya know, ‘Dead Easy’ is dead.  We were now making ‘Bordello of Blood’ as the second Crypt movie (whether we liked it or not).   And, while they were having a go at all our hearts, Universal turned to me and said, ‘You’ll rewrite the script, yes?’

As in ‘You’ll re-write your boss…’.  Feeling like I was being set up to lose, I called Bob to ask what he wanted from this.  “Go make a movie,” he said, genuinely.  He told us not to worry about rewriting the script.  Whatever the script evolved into was just as good as what it already was.  That helped.  But it did not put any of the toothpaste back into the tube.  The assignment was still ‘Bordello’ and not ‘Dead Easy’.

Let’s be real – creative latitude was limited.  We were prepping for a movie script we’d only just read.  Just because we’d stopped making one movie and started making another didn’t mean the clock had stopped.  We were given a few more weeks to prep – pushing our start date into mid-summer; the goal was to have the movie ready to distribute by The following Halloween (1996).

There wasn’t time to re-invent anything.  And THIS was the script the studio bought.  They didn’t have a problem with it.  It said ‘Zemeckis’ on it.  That’s what mattered – and it did make total sense – from their point of view.  

This is a good time to digress and explain WHY I’m even bothering to tell this story:  The making of ‘Bordello of Blood’, a movie that, really, nobody cares about.  It ain’t the movie itself that’s the point.  It’s the deeply flawed process by which we made Bordello that’s instructive. 

I’ve mentioned before that the assembled talent and experience should have at least produced a polished turd at the end of all the squeezing and straining.  Instead we produced a below average turd.  Over the course of the two+ years we spent working on the project, we might have made every conceivable mistake possible – and a few really creative ones no one had thought of before.  Hooray for us.

From the get-go, we were making a movie we didn’t like.  As you’ll see, we cast actors we shouldn’t have, shot the movie in a place we shouldn’t have, treated our Canadian crew in a way we shouldn’t have, and, for good measure, treated the fact that we were IN Canada in a way we shouldn’t have.

We didn’t make these mistakes for any reason other than the fact that we were hooked on our own bullshit. 

When I watch ‘Bordello’ these days – through fingers splayed over my eyes – I am mostly aware of how the Making of Bordello was a kind of ‘Master Class’ on ‘How NOT To Make A Feature Film (or a TV show for that matter).  But it’s so much more than that.  ‘Bordello of Blood’ is like a master class in ‘Bullshit’ itself.

The movie story was basic:  Down-on-his-luck detective discovers a local mortuary is actually fronting a den of voracious female vampires.

That’s it.  The whole shebang: a movie about vampire whores.  It doesn’t sound quite as awful to me now as it did then.  But it doesn’t hold a match to the movie we were supposed to be making

I put the ‘money’ – what little of it there was – into the two main characters – RAFE and KATHERINE.  I won’t even pretend that we ever talked in detail about the characters, who they were, why they did whatever the fuck they did… It was hard to justify anything any of the characters did.  That’s why we made them quirky instead.

Unless we’re talking about Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn’s character in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ – whose quirkiness is the point), most writers make a character quirky because they hope like hell that the boring secretary’s compulsion to build cheddar cheese castles with fudge-and-boysenberry turrets in her filing cabinet makes her less boring.  Only if we get to the bottom of WHY she’s doing it could she be even remotely interesting.  But no one is that quirky: Quirky for no reason.

And yet, we went there with Rafe Gutman.  He was quirky-for-no-reason. 

I cannot tell you how HARD it is to write a character or a scene if you don’t intrinsically understand them. How can you write dialogue for a character whose voice you can’t hear or whose thoughts you can’t ‘speak’?  How would you really know what they’d do?    

In order to write a character, you have to understand them from the inside out and on the most intimate level.  Actor Robert DeNiro was famous early in his career, for knowing how to play a character only after he could say definitively what the guy had in his pockets.  Writing a character is like that.  Only deeper.

If you really know what you’re doing, the characters literally speak for themselves.  They really do just – ‘speak’ – while you type away furiously, trying to keep up with them. 

RAFE GOODMAN, the hero of Bordello, never spoke for himself like that.  He came to us a small town detective – in an environment (small towns) where a detective probably wouldn’t find a lot of work (remember – college kids with limited real-world experience imagined this; they grew up to be very talented filmmakers, but they WEREN’T talented filmmakers when they wrote this script).  Not seeing a way toward real and relatable, we plunged deeper into ‘quirky’.

We made Rafe’s office an abandoned movie theater.  Couldn’t tell ya why.  Inside, the seats were all stripped away and Rafe’s desk was set up just beneath where the screen used to hang. Surrounded by junk and chaos.  Quirky by the bucket. 

To make it quirkier still, we kept Rafe in the dark cos there’s always a movie being projected. Needing to somehow tie this back down to ‘reality’ and our story, we added one more quirk:  Rafe was an aficionado of porn.

Which brings us to Katherine – now working as a church secretary – but, formerly, a well-known adult film actress named ‘CHESTY O’TOOLE’.  You see where this is going, yeah? 

Rafe turns out to have been a fan of Katherine’s when she was ‘Chesty’.  So at least they have ‘something’ to talk about when they first meet.  If the premise were any thinner, it would be in an ICU, hooked up to life support.

Katherine has come to hire Rafe to look into the disappearance of her good-for-nothing brother, Caleb.  Rafe goes to the bar where Caleb was last seen – meets the same guy who directs Rafe toward the same funeral home.

But, when Rafe goes to the funeral home, nothing happens.  The funeral home looks like a funeral home. Rafe stumbles onto the truth:  there are vampire-prostitutes – living in the ‘basement’ where they hold nightly orgies that always end up with the vampire whores – led by Lilith, their self-appointed ‘queen’ – ‘consuming’ all the guests. 

A taut, psychological thriller this was not.

One more ‘story’ complication:  The church for which Katherine serves as secretary, is run by a charismatic televangelist who, it turns out, was responsible for bringing Lilith from the place where she’d been hidden to this very town where, the televangelist hopes, she will ‘consume’ all the sinners.

It doesn’t work out that way, of course.  Does it ever?

The climax of the movie occurs – at night time – in the LARGE GLASS MEGA-CHURCH from which the Charismatic Televangelist broadcasts his Big-On-Production-Values religious services.  The Good Guys live happily ever after while the villain gets it in the end.  At least we think she does.  It’s a horror movie, right – which means there never actually is an ending…

Revisions had to happen fast.  The goal was to get up and running and into production as quickly as we could.   

Script notes (thank you, Scott) were downright cruel.  And absolutely right.  It’s like in tennis (or most ball sports) – if you don’t play the ball, the ball will play you.  For the first time, I was keenly aware of the politics going on all around – and how ill-equipped I was to engage in them.

There were other issues brewing.  Since we weren’t going to New Orleans, the first thought was we’d shoot Bordello in LA.  But the IA was still in the catbird seat.  Our Los Angeles production would therefore be under a union contract – which was not in our budget. 

Having no choice (and savoring a chance to stick it right back to the IA), Joel decided to move our production OUT of Los Angeles (which, in addition to being a big ‘Screw You’ to the IA also was a Big ‘Screw You’ to our crew).  We should have put our foot down, Gil and I.  I wish we had fought back at least a little.

But there was another possible reason for ‘Why Vancouver?’  Joel was about to go into production on “Assassins’ starring Sly Stallone and Antonio Banderas with Dick Donner directing.  While ‘Assassins’ was shooting in Seattle, Joel could hop across the border to Vancouver – a quick 30 minute plane ride away. 

So, just like that – we were off to Vancouver in May 1994 to meet and job interview Canadian production managers, scout locations and hunt for a stage space.

Now, let me say right here, right now – it is (almost) always wonderful being in Vancouver.  If you could take ‘Bordello of Blood’ out of the experience of being in Canada (getting to keep the money, the per diem, the terrific housing), being In Vancouver was fantastic.  It was summer.  The days lasted forever.  The restaurants (though not as incredible as they are now) were still incredible nonetheless.  Canadians are unfailingly polite (even when they shouldn’t be).  Take away the damned movie and being in Vancouver was like being PAID to go on vacation for four months.

Problem was, ‘Bordello of Blood’ & Vancouver were a package deal.

FIRST VISIT TO VANCOUVER

It is a natural human instinct to try and make lemonade from the couple of squished seeds, lemon skin and pulp life gave you.  And so, we took our situation and began to concoct a lemonade stand in our heads.  The only customers for the nasty ooze would be us but – by that point, if I remember, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome was beginning to kick in.  We were still getting paid and we were still making a movie after all…

And being driven around Vancouver by Colleen – Our too-competent-for-us Production Manager – the idea of being in this beautiful place with its endless summer-long days filled with gorgeous light – it started to seduce us.  

While we weren’t going to have our LA crew with us, we were going to bring up several key department heads – Production Design, Wardrobe and the Editor.  Our production designer – Greg Melton – joined us for the trip north.  Remember – the talent pool wasn’t anywhere near as deep as it is now.  And we needed to maintain a continuity of look; Greg had been Crypt’s PD since Gil and I took over.

I never had the chance to tell Greg to his face what an amazingly talented person he is.  I’ll do it here:  Greg, man, you were consistently amazing. 

Being an anthology, we never had the luxury of standing sets (aside from the Crypt).  We had to (well, Greg had to) ‘reinvent the wheel’ every episode – create a whole world out of nothing – then tie it to locations we’d find outside the studio.  Sometimes, the ‘guiding principle’ behind your production choices isn’t what’s on the page, it’s what’s expedient for the schedule.  This is one of those places (in TV production) where literal circumstances on the ground often force you to invent, re-invent, write or re-write on the fly. 

Having collaborators who can easily keep at your wing makes life so much easier and Greg Melton is a designer who can zig and zag like a Zen Master.  Aside from once or twice, I don’t think I ever saw Greg sweat.

Also joining us for the ‘recky’ was our Director of Photography Tom Priestley. 

We found all the locations we needed – including an abandoned power plant outside of town that would have cost a bomb to build.  And – most important – we found the Crystal Cathedral-like church that plays throughout the script and where the movie’s climax would take place.  Our church was actually the convention space at BC Place on the inlet just off English Bay. 

Then Colleen pulled the last bit of ‘Wonderful’ from her pocket:  A stage space big enough to build ANYTHING inside it with enough room for our whole crew and maybe every other crew in Vancouver.  Just east of Downtown was an old, abandoned GM factory.  With a quick cleaning, the offices became functional and the factory floor – which went on and on and on – became ‘The Home of Bordello of Blood’.  How lucky for it.

We made our relationship with Colleen formal and, as we headed back to LA, she began to put her crew together.

BACK TO LA – CASTING

Turns out – even a disaster doesn’t always feel like a disaster.  And we didn’t know yet – emphasis on ‘yet’ – that we were in the midst of a disaster.  We were still feeling plucky, angry at our misfortunes and heady from having just spent a few nice days away in a beautiful location – working hard but eating well to make up for it.  We felt ‘upbeat’ about Bordello.  Okay, it wasn’t going to be the movie we wanted to make, but – the climax in the glass church was going to be awesome!

With that improving mind set, we started looking for actors.  All the small parts would be cast up in Vancouver using the local talent pool.  The leads and supports would all be cast in Los Angeles. 

We had gotten pretty good response from the agencies when we sent out ‘Dead Easy’ – our New Orleans psychological thriller script – for casting.  We did not get the same reception when we sent ‘Bordello of Blood’ out.  Don’t get me wrong – the agencies all came back with lots of head shots.  But they weren’t the ‘caliber’ of talent we’d gotten before.  We weren’t surprised.

Joel focused on our leads.  He casts instinctually – from his gut – his instincts having been mostly very good.  But nobody’s perfect.  Being the boss, Joel would have final say over three leads.  Not having the same casting instincts as Joel, Gil and I focused on the script for casting clues.  For Rafe, we liked Danny Baldwin.  For Katherine – Bridget Wilson.  And for our villain – Lilith – Robin Givens. 

Joel liked how we were thinking but wanted time to come up with a few ideas of his own.  We turned – reluctantly, uneasily – toward the secondary roles.  There were four especially important ones: Reverend Current (the minor villain), Caleb (Katherine’s brother), McCutcheon (the funeral director) and Prather (the henchman).

For Reverend Current we got Chris Sarandon – lovely guy.  Would work with him again in a heartbeat (I hope he still feels the same way). 

For Caleb we went ‘family’:  Corey Feldman.  Corey had worked with Dick Donner on ‘The Goonies’ and Dick – being an empath – saw a kid desperately in need of a lot of TLC.  I would not want to grow up in this business the way Corey did.  It’s not good for your ‘soul’ (whatever you perceive it to be if you perceive it at all).  The part was perfect for Corey and it made Dick happy that we could help Corey (and cast a good actor for the role in the process).  Win-win.  Not many of those to go around.

For McCutcheon, I asked our casting director – Victoria Burrows – to bring in (among the other actors) my friend Aubrey.  Aubrey Morris (who passed away a little ahead of this writing) played Mr. Deltoid (a small but memorable role) in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Mr. Deltoid is the ‘hero’ – Alex’s – parole officer; Aubrey plays Deltoid with a deliciously affected smarminess).

Excuse me while I geek out for a moment.  Aubrey was a great dinner companion with thousands of amazing stories to tell about his career – including his career in the London theater.  He appeared, when he was at the Young Vic, in a production of ‘Arms And The Man’ by George Bernard Shaw – a production Shaw saw; GB Shaw took a liking to young Aubrey.

You may not know the name George Bernard Shaw if you’re not a Drama Major or Theater Person.  But, in the English Language – if we’re talking theater – there’s Shakespeare at the very top – and then there’s Shaw.  He wrote ‘Pygmalion’ (which was turned into ‘My Fair Lady’), ‘Man And Superman’, ‘Candida’, ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’, ‘Major Barbara’.  I studied Shaw at Vassar.

And here was my dinner companion telling me about having drinks with Shaw himself – and getting hit on by the Great Man. 

I know we read other actors for Aubrey’s part but, fortunately, Gil felt as good about casting Aubrey as I did.  In the greater scheme of things, having Aubrey to hang with was one of the few good things that happened during Bordello.

For the part of Vincent Prather, we read little people (because it was written that way), finally casting Phil Fondacaro.  Now, I’ve worked with actors of short stature before.  I don’t exactly tower over anyone myself.  It never occurred to me that being of short stature gave Phil a particular kind of celebrity.  An amazing kind of celebrity.

I had so much to learn still…

CASTING OUR LEADS:  DENNIS MILLER

As I said – Joel casts instinctively.  He goes with his gut.  And his gut was screaming at him NOT to hire a Baldwin to play the lead in our movie, but to hire Dennis Miller instead.  I honestly don’t know why.  I can only assume that Joel liked Dennis’ comedy.  I know it wasn’t Dennis’ politics. 

Dennis Miller is a very talented man.  He’s smart, well-read, intensely analytical.  He’s funny, too, of course.  And he’s Dennis Miller.  People don’t show up for a job and suddenly turn into somebody else.  We hired Dennis Miller and we got Dennis Miller. 

That puts the onus squarely on us.  But even Dennis knew he wasn’t right for the movie.  His audience was not our audience.  He hated the script. 

He turned us down.  Said he’d play the part only if we gave him $1 million – figuring that would be the end of the discussion.  No one had paid him, to that point, anywhere near $1 million to act in a movie. 

Joel said yes to Dennis.  Yes to $1 million.  That’s pocket change now, but back in 1994 – to us – that was more money than god.  It was certainly more money than was in our budget for the actor playing that role.  We had $500.000. 

Universal wasn’t interested in Dennis – but wasn’t uninterested enough to FORCE us NOT to hire him (a bizarre conundrum).  Universal more or less wanted us to take our money, go make our movie, give it to them and otherwise leave them alone.  As far as Universal was concerned, we could have any actor we wanted – so long as WE made up the half a million dollar difference.

We tried one last time to plead for Danny Baldwin – for the budget’s sake.  No dice.  Hire Dennis, cut the budget.  We chopped the money from the one place we had money to ‘play with’ – special effects makeup.  We were cutting money from the thing our audience was coming to see – Great Special Effects Makeup – and putting it into an actor they couldn’t have cared less about.

Not a Phi Betta Kappa decision. 

But, did we resist it as hard as we could have?  The more I think of it now (hindsight being so warm and snuggly), we should have walked off the movie.  We should have at least threatened to walk off. 

We surrendered instead.  That never seems to work out well.

THE ERIKA ELENIAK PROJECT

When Joel put forward the idea of Erika Eleniak instead of the actress we had read and wanted (Bridget Wilson), we were surprised and, actually, pleased.  We liked the idea.  A lot.  But Erika brought baggage with her – of a kind.   

While we knew we had Dennis about two weeks before shooting began, we didn’t cast Erika until the weekend after we began shooting (as usual, on a Thursday). 

We had started with two fairly light days of work – scenes in the bar where we meet Caleb’s friends and the biker who turns them on to the bordello.  I was having preliminary conversations with Erika’s agent about wardrobe and other minor issues when he dropped a bombshell on us:  Erika had a problem with the script.

“A problem?  What kind of ‘problem’?  How can there be a problem – she said ‘yes’?”

“Erika is uneasy with her character’s past”.

“Her… past… You mean that she was a porn star?”

Bingo.  Erika’s manager told me (I think with a straight face) that Erika didn’t want to play porn stars and strippers any more. 

All well and good.  Actresses should want to grow as artists.  But she accepted the role of a porn star, I explained, trying to keep pieces of my brain from flying off into space.  She said ‘yes’ to playing a former porn star who’s a character in a movie called ‘BORDELLO OF BLOOD’.  Did her copy of the script come with a cover page that said ‘Hamlet’ by accident?  I could appreciate her disappointment then.

But Erika’s manager was insistent.  He didn’t care if the changes Erika needed screwed up story points including scenes we had already shot (okay – we hadn’t shot scenes that would be screwed up, but he was asking for the impossible).  Except it had to be possible.  Otherwise, Erika would not be getting on a plane the next day to be in wardrobe the day after that, and then on set the day after that. 

I have a photo that was taken that Saturday.  Gil and I had gone out for brunch with our wives.  Before the food even arrived, Gil and I were outside on our phones – Gil putting out one series of fires and me begging Erika’s agent to please, please, please be reasonable. 

It’s not like we could bore in on Erika’s character for insight and something to write about.  Too much poking and prodding would bring the whole flimsy house of cards down. I needed a reason for Rafe to recognize Katherine.  Her having sold him insurance once just wouldn’t cut it.

Finally, Erika’s manager relented – slightly.  We settled on a compromise.  Erika’s character had been an OVERWEIGHT porn star named not ‘Chesty O’Toole’ but ‘Plenty O’Toole’ and had slimmed down to the point where she was now unrecognizable as ‘Plenty’.  My god – it even hurt to type that it sounds so idiotic.

But, the compromise got Erika onto a plane the next day and that was what mattered.  I wasn’t allowing myself the ‘luxury’ of thinking about what impact that would have on the rest of the movie.  I would drive off that bridge when I came to it. 

THE ROAD TO ANGIE

Angie Everheart is a wonderful person.  My experience of HER – just her (and not all the baggage that came with her) – was entirely positive.  I liked her as a person.  I respected her (and respect her still) as a person.  I empathize with her.  Empathized with what she was going through at the time with her significant other – Sylvester Stallone.  The problem was she was acting in our movie.  And we were asking her to do something not in her range (certainly not in her range then when she had just started acting).

As we entered pre-production, Joel was already in production on ‘Assassins’ in Seattle.  At the time, Stallone was still engaged to Angie. 

Apparently, one day, on set, Sly approached Joel with a ‘genius idea’ – to cast Angie in our movie as the villain.  In the Real World, suggestions that strange get met with a cocked eyebrow.  In the movie business it got a ‘Hmmmm, let me think about that…’.

Prior to casting Angie, we read about two dozen actresses.  Lots would have worked.  We gravitated toward Robin Givens.  Word was she ‘could’ be a challenge to work with, but it would have been those same ‘odd angles’ in her personality that would have given shape to her version of the character.  Remember – we don’t cast actors to act, we cast them to be.

Aside from Meryl Streep and a handful of technically genius English actors who really can vanish inside another human being’s psyche and being, we hire actors because of who they are and not because of who they can act like.  Within the context of ‘who they are’, we need them to be brutally honest.  We need them to expose their emotions as nakedly as they can.

In my opinion – Robin Givens would have been a better Lilith because she started out a lot more like Lilith.  Less ‘acting’, more ‘being’.

But here again, Joel was listening to his guts and his guts were telling him he was ahead of the curve on the next Big Movie Trend – and the ‘Supermodel turned Super Star Actress’ wave was going to be led by Cindy Crawford when her movie ‘Fair Game’ opened. 

Unfortunately, ‘Fair Game’ performed poorly at the box office and another ‘Great Movie Concept’ died on the vine. 

But that was in a near future that would not benefit us.  We wouldn’t learn in time that audiences didn’t care one way or the other about Super Models in Movies.  It didn’t make anyone buy a ticket that wasn’t already going to buy one.  We were going to be part of that data set.

We pointed out to Joel that what made Billy Zane’s performance in Demon Knight work so well was that he ‘had villain chops’ whereas Angie had more ‘sweet-natured-Super-Model’ chops.  Joel wavered. 

We learned that Billy Friedkin had worked with Angie – playing a small role in Billy’s feature Jade.  We got Billy on the phone.  “Can she handle the part,” we asked.

Billy paused.  Too long.  Way too long.

We thanked Billy, hung up and got Joel on the phone.  What if we shoot a screen test, we suggested – hoping that by showing Joel what we meant – that Angie, while good, earnest and determined, just didn’t have the gravitas needed to play our Villain. 

Joel responded excitedly.  We had just stumbled on the way he’d play it to Stallone – who was advocating very hard for his fiancé.  We’d shoot Angie’s screen test and show it to Joel who’d show it to Sly.  Everyone would come to their senses and not do this to us, to the movie and to Angie. 

Except when Joel and Sly sat down and watched Angie’s screen test, they zigged when zagging was expected.  In retrospect, I suspect Sly wanted Angie on our movie set so that she wouldn’t hang around on his.  We were being used as a kind of beard.  The most important character in our horror movie was being cast as a means for another actor on another movie set to ‘have the freedom’ being in a committed relationship didn’t afford him – to fuck around.  To philander.

For real.

In my mind, people can do whatever the fuck they want.  They can behave like immature children every day of their lives if it’s what they want. But they do need to own their behavior.  Our movie didn’t matter to Sly Stallone.  Angie Everheart didn’t matter to him.  I hope he’s been a big enough, secure enough man to own that.

For better or worse, Angie was now our movie villain.

I really, really want to be clear about this:  I have no problem with Angie’s performance in ‘Bordello’.  Once we cast her, we made a decision.  And we KNEW – we absolutely knew – what the ramifications of that decision would be.    

Allow me to jump forward in time 5 years to 1999.  I’ve just been hired to go aboard ‘The Outer Limits’ as a Coordinating Producer.  The first script I wrote for OL is called ‘Alien Radio’ – about a Howard Stern type radio guy who, after humiliating a desperate UFO Believer on the air, learns (when the UFO Believer dies horribly in front of him) that the UFO Believer was absolutely right – there ARE aliens – and they ARE living inside people…

I wrote the script thinking of Howard Stern.  The actor-voice I had in mind was Denis Leary. 

My chief executive producer on Outer Limits that first year – Richard Lewis – cast, as Joel did, instinctually (and, sometimes, with his own ulterior motives).  Richard – for his own reasons – decided that the part should be played by the actor Joey Pantoliano – who Richard went ahead and hired.  

Now, I had worked with Joey a few years before – on Crypt.  I didn’t know Joey well, but I knew his ‘voice’.  I knew his cadences – world-weary Jersey Guy with a bone dry wit.

When Richard cast Joey, he made a choice that ran counter to how the script was written.  That doesn’t mean the choice was bad or invalid.  It just means the actor and the part were starting out with a glaring incompatibility.  Those don’t just vanish – they persist. 

We shot ‘Outer Limits’ in Vancouver but our production offices – where Richard was most of the time – were in Los Angeles.  My episode ‘Alien Radio’ was chosen to be first up for production.  A small honor.  Our show runner was uber-mensch Sam Egan.  By the time Richard saw the first day’s dailies down in LA, we were already well into DAY 2 (of 7). 

I had no problems with Joey’s performance in the first day’s work.  But Richard, it turned out, did.  He called me and before ‘Hello’ was even out of my mouth, Richard was asking me – pointedly – how the hell I could let Joey fuck up my script.

 “What’s Joey doing to the script?” I asked (knowing what the answer was).

“His energy’s all wrong,” said Richard. 

Well… kinda yes and kinda no.  Kinda yes because the script was written for a different character type than Joey.  But kinda no (almost entirely no actually) because Joey was playing Joey to perfection.  “Joey’s doing a great job,” I told Richard, “He’s acting exactly the way we hired him to.” 

“But he’s ruining the episode,” Richard insisted.

Again, he pressed me to ‘do something’ about Joey.  Again, I put my foot down.  I told Richard that I didn’t want to go to my lead actor on the second day we were working together to tell him, in essence, that I thought his performance sucked (when I absolutely did not).  I did not want to tell him to ‘act like’ someone else – because that’s not a good idea.  It would guarantee a confused, terrible performance and a toxic set. 

I told Richard that if he wanted to tell Joey he was unhappy, he could do it himself.  Richard demurred.

In part, I think, Richard saw that I was right.  It IS like the old saw says – casting IS 90 percent of producing. 

Angie gave us everything she had.  I bet, if we had thought a little harder about how to work with her, how to play to her strengths, we could have helped her even more.  That was our failure of imagination.

Playing villains is harder than it looks.  For starters, you can’t ‘play’ it.  You have to ‘be’ it.  If you skipped over the previous digression, go back and read it. 

The ‘Do It Like This’ example is Billy Zane in ‘Demon Knight’. 

Billy was the perfect Crypt Feature villain – equal parts malevolent and sardonic.  What we needed from Angie was a ‘Billy’ performance.  That was asking a lot.  And wasn’t like there was a whole lot on the page to work with.

ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?

Before production began, we had to approach our Canadian crew with a difficult request.  Dennis, at the time, was doing a show for HBO.  The show went up live on Friday evenings.  That meant Dennis was not available to us Thursdays (for rehearsal) OR Fridays (or much of Saturday since he’d be traveling and recovering).  On a tight schedule like ours, that was unworkable.  So, we agreed with Dennis to shift our week – and make Thursday-Friday our weekends during production while we worked Saturday & Sundays (everyone else’s weekends).

Most American crews would do that without even thinking.  Our Canadian crew had a problem.  And rightfully so.  Not getting to be with their families on weekends was not part of the deal they made with us.  These wacky people had it in their heads that you work in order to live – not that you live in order to work.  And – strange thing – working on our movie did not rise to the level of ‘So Important That You Do It Just Because’.

Coleen, our production manager put her reputation on the line.  She promised her crew that the experience would be worthwhile.  The crew relented – and began to regret it almost immediately.  So did Colleen.

Monday morning rolled around.  We had a female lead.  We had two days in the can.  We were feeling good and we were on location at one of Vancouver’s strip clubs. 

Dennis had flown in the night before and was driven to the strip club, so he could meet Gil and we could all talk about Dennis’s work on the movie.

If the rest of the movie had been like the first ten minutes of meeting Dennis, regardless of how the movie turned out, the experience of making Bordello would have been fun, funny and fantastic.  Dennis was low key and affable.  He made a joke that relied on a ‘Bert Remsen’ reference.  I laughed – because I knew who Bert Remsen was (he was a long-time character actor).

Dennis looked askance at me – surprised that someone would get an obtuse Bert Remsen reference.  “Look at you, Katzy,” he said.  He might even have been genuinely impressed with me.  If he was, that didn’t stick.  The name however did. 

As we chatted, I learned that Dennis’ wife was Canadian – she was from Vancouver – so, for Dennis, his doing the movie was a kind of home-coming.  Everything was lovely and Kumbaya.  Inside my head I even flashed on Dennis and I becoming chummy over the course of working together – of finding synergy of some kind.  Working together was going to be pure joy.

I drew Dennis aside to update him on the changes we had just made to the script – to Erika’s character.  I handed him the latest draft. 

Now, again, I have to contextualize.  The script I handed Dennis – telling him, ‘please, feel free to contribute’ was entitled ‘Bordello of Blood’, not ‘Casablanca’.  Dennis opened the script to his first scene and pointed to his very first line of dialogue. “I can’t say lines like this,” he said. 

I looked at the line.  Whatever it was, Dennis was right.  It wasn’t written for Dennis.  It wasn’t written in his cadences or his rhythms; and it was nowhere near as clever or witty or ‘Dennis’ as Dennis.  As written, Dennis’ dialogue would have sounded silly coming from him.  So, it was a Fact Of Life that Dennis was going to ‘tweak’ his dialogue at the very least. 

“Here’s what I’ll do,” he said:  He’d work with Gil to nail down what each of his scenes was about.  Then, with that in mind, he’d ‘find’ his dialogue on his own.  In other words, he’d improv. 

It had ‘Danger, Will Robinson’ written all over it, but I said “Sure, Dennis” – adding quickly, “But you and I will work on it, too, right?” 

Dennis nodded, smiling.  But he had no interest in me helping him.  Why would he?  I had just handed him a script filled with proof that I had no idea how to write for him.

We moved on to the next topic – Dennis’ trailer.  Because he was our million dollar star and because he was also doing his HBO TV show at the same time as our feature, we agreed to provide Dennis with the best, most tricked out, hi-tech (for the time) motor home in all of not just Vancouver but Western Canada – all so that Dennis could be in constant contact with his writers back in LA – not an unusual request for a comedian prepping for a weekly live broadcast on a major cable network. 

The motor home, I assured Dennis, was already in place back at our studio space, ready for him to call it home.

We had a van take Dennis back to the hotel.  Bordello was feeling like it might be all right as a film-making experience.

Meanwhile, another van headed to the airport – to pick up Joel who was flying in from his set in Seattle to spend a few hours on our set in Vancouver.   But what sounded remarkably simple turned… well… remarkable – but for a lot of other reasons.

Before I go on, remember what I said earlier about Joel.  He’s outrageous.  He’s a little nuts (I say that as someone who’s way more nuts).  He doesn’t act or react like your average person.

That’s because he’s not your average person.  I don’t say this to apologize for what I’m about to describe but to explain the context.  The same idiosyncrasies that make Joel a great producer also make him prone to what normal people might think of as ‘odd behavior’.  Yeah, it probably is ‘odd behavior’ but it’s a package deal.  It comes with that particular model of ‘Larger-Than-Life Movie Producer’.  I don’t know many creative people who aren’t ‘strange’ in one way or another.  Joel is just more ‘noticeably’ strange…

Joel flew across the border in a private jet.  When it landed at Vancouver International Airport, Joel had to clear customs – same as everybody else.  Except Joel had just travelled across an international border without bringing any sort of personal identification with him whatsoever. 

Because Joel was driven most everywhere by people who worked for him, Joel never had to bother carrying a driver’s license.  Though I’ve always assumed Joel could drive, I had never seen him behind the wheel of a car – or of any of his company’s 4X4’s. 

And, because Joel was traveling private – where you didn’t have to present ID or your passport to check in – and because this was way before 9-11-2001 and things were significantly more lax around airplane travel – Joel was never asked prior to arriving in Canada to prove who he was.

Except, now that he WAS in Canada, Joel’s inability to prove who he was presented a gigantic problem.  For him and for us.

Canadian Customs held on to Joel for hours.  I’ve no doubt he insisted that they KNEW who he was cos EVERYBODY knew who he was.  But they didn’t.  And the longer they held Joel, the angrier he got.  By the time they released him – in a completely different part of the airport than our transpo guy was expecting him – Joel was primed for battle.  He tore through the airport like the Tasmanian Devil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

By the time our transpo guys found Joel – and got him into one of our production vans – Joel was hitting nothing but high notes.  The first place transpo took Joel was our studio facility at the GM Auto Plant.

Colleen, our production manager, had staffed the front office and nearly all the support crew with highly skilled women.  They were not prepared for Joel when he blew through the office that morning. 

I got a call from my assistant that I had better get the fuck over to the studio right fucking now – because literally the entire production staff was about to walk out the fucking door and quit.

By the time I reached the office, some of our staff were indeed on their way to the parking lot.  I pleaded with them to go back inside, promising to make it up to them somehow (how exactly, I didn’t know – but somehow!)

Being too Canadian for their own good, everyone agreed to stay.  For the moment.  I jumped back into my car and raced back to location.  I found Joel in the production trailer hanging with Gil – in a much better mood now that he’d spent his rage. 

If I had the moment back, I would say something to Joel – respectfully, as I should have, to my boss.  I would explain (and I believe he would get) that what just happened was not cool – certainly not for a producer of Joel’s caliber.  It did not reflect well on him – or on us as a production unit.  I would quietly remind him that no one – not even a movie producer – can treat people like that – especially when they work for us and we rely on their feeling respected to deliver their best.  Being a good person down deep – Joel would have heard it.

Or he might have fired me.

THE DENNIS CONUNDRUM

It didn’t take long for Dennis’ daily revisions to his dialogue to ripple across the production in various ways.  While Dennis’ improvs were getting him from entrance to exit, vital pieces of story information weren’t making it into the scenes. 

Without those vital pieces of information, the story – such as it was – stopped making sense. 

Next problem:  Dennis’s schedule was wearing him out even before we got up to speed.  Understandably – it was a brutal schedule.  Every morning, he’d send his assistant to my office to ask – very nicely – if we could shoot Dennis out early so he could go back to the hotel and sleep.  What that meant – in practical terms – was this:  We’d shoot the ‘master’ and Dennis’ side of a scene first with full cast.  Then, when we ‘turned around’ to shoot the ‘other side of the scene’ (the other characters interacting with Dennis), the rest of the cast would ‘act to’ the Script Supervisor (who was sitting by video village behind the camera).

And the script supervisor would be reading the lines that Dennis had improvised – rather than the lines the other actors had rehearsed to.  Sometimes the scenes made sense and sometimes they, um, ‘strained’ to… The rest of the actors didn’t always get Dennis’ references and clever but obscure jokes.  But they’re there in the movie just the same.

Then – because Dennis wasn’t ‘there’ for the rest of the cast, they began to resent him.  And because he was improvising all his own dialogue, they began to feel disconnected from their own dialogue and characters because their dialogue didn’t always jibe with Dennis’ improvs; nothing really made sense.

Angie, meanwhile, was flying off to Seattle on her ‘weekends’ to be with Sly. 

On her first southern jaunt, Angie told Sly about all the confusion surrounding the script.  Sly leapt into action.  He began rewriting Angie’s dialogue (dropping even more story details) – and directing her how to do it.  Fortunately, that only happened once.  A few weeks into production, Angie’s trips south stopped. 

Now, I don’t know for a fact if anything was going on between Sly Stallone and anyone else on the ‘Assassins’ set in Seattle.   I only know that, after the second weekend Angie flew south, we were contacted by someone in the ‘Assassins’ office asking if there was any way we could ‘hold on to Angie’ the next weekend – so that she couldn’t fly to Seattle. 

As we told them – ‘No’ – because what would we DO with Angie instead?  Take her on a long hike?   

We heard a story from the Seattle set.  I do not know if it is true (it could be bullshit).  But it’s a hilarious story.  Just to be safe, I’ll go a little vague on who it’s about. 

An actor goes into his trailer, unaware that the wireless mic clipped to his wardrobe is still LIVE and BROADCASTING to the Sound Cart.  Awaiting the actor in his trailer – a willing sexual partner who the actor instructs to ‘Stroke the shaft’ and ‘Cup the balls’. 

As the sex continues in the actor’s trailer, more and more of the crew begin to crowd around the sound cart – to listen to the show.  Before long, each ‘Stroke the shaft’ or ‘Cup the balls’ is getting bigger and bigger laughs.   

The next morning, the actor arrives on set – and finds that everyone in the crew is wearing the same t-shirt that reads in big, bold RED letters: “Cup The Balls, Stroke The Shaft”.

Like I said – our people heard stories from their people.  No idea what was true and what wasn’t. 

By the third week of production, our ‘issues’ had ceased lurking beneath the surface.

The cast had fallen into two camps:  The Dennis Miller Camp – which contained Dennis and his assistant – and Everyone Else.  Corey was especially ticked off at Dennis.

I sat with Corey in his trailer one night listening to some of the music he’d made.  It was raw output – some good, some self-indulgent, some crap, some a tweak or two away from genius.  Corey wanted to get one of his songs onto Bordello’s soundtrack.  I told him I would do what I could, but that decision was not one they offered to people at my pay grade. 

The reason I had gone to Corey’s trailer was to massage a sensitive subject – his travels across the border.  Because he’d had some legal run-ins related to drugs, each time Corey went from America to Canada or Canada to America, there was the possibility that he’d be held.  I wanted Corey to promise me he’d be mindful of his situation and his responsibility to ‘be there’ for us.

Of course, Corey understood.  It wasn’t a question.  The movie business may have made him miserable inside but Corey’s a pro.

The subject of Dennis came up.  The rest of the cast wanted him to be more respectful, Corey told me.  They wanted him to stop going home early.  I promised I’d try to do something to fix it.  I lied.  

Other problems:  Indulging Dennis was slowing us down.  We weren’t making our days the way we should have and that was costing us money.  Bigger problem still:  We were starting to doubt that the local Special Effects Makeup crew was up to the task of delivering believable special effects makeup.  We were asking guys with lots of enthusiasm but limited experience doing what we needed them to do to deliver an A Game they didn’t have and couldn’t have. 

We weren’t shooting the movie in Vancouver because it was the home of great special effects makeup talent.  Keep in mind – we had slashed the special effects makeup budget to pay for Dennis.  Throwing money at our problems was not an option.  Spending the limited money we had wisely was – but knowing how to do that takes experience – and we had flown fifteen hundred miles north of ‘experience’.  

One of the big set pieces that worried me was the ‘shoot-out’ in the bordello.  Rafe (Dennis) breaks into the mortuary basement – water guns ‘blazing’ (his water guns are filled with holy water which, the conceit was, cooks vampire flesh).  Lots of cast.  Lots of extras.  And Dennis.

Dennis, between takes, entertained.  He was incredibly funny.  And then he focused on one of our extras – a man who, though costumed, clearly had a very large penis.  An unusually large penis actually – even flaccid.

I was laughing too hard at what Dennis was saying to actually hear him.  But as funny as Dennis was, I felt awful for the poor extra – whose gigantic package had become the center of the known universe.  Again – I do not blame Dennis for doing what a comedian does – with a subject that begged for his attention – and an audience that was eating it all up. 

The onus was on the on-set producer to step forward and defend the extra – if gently and gracefully.  Alas, ‘he’ didn’t.

The next big set-piece on the schedule came a few days later.  Rafe enters the scene – a torture chamber set – leaps over a bannister, lands, picks up an axe and buries it in Lilith’s shoulder.  Gil and Tom Priestly had devised a very clever shot – positioning the camera behind Lilith so that she’s in the extreme foreground) as Rafe lands, grabs the axe and strikes Lilith with it – cleaving her shoulder in two (in the extreme foreground).

So – lots of elements – a stunt, a locked off master for our special effect and then dialogue (including important information we need to justify the movie’s climax in the glass church several scenes later).  If we screwed the pooch on any single element in the day’s work, we could take the whole damned lot of it and toss it into English Bay.  Better yet – set fire to it all first.

Dennis’ assistant was waiting for me that morning when I walked into my office.   As soon as she started with how tired Dennis was, I stopped her.  Not today.  Today just wasn’t possible – for all the reasons above – which I explained to her (pedantically, I’m sure). 

“Dennis won’t be happy,” she said.

Something in me snapped.  “I don’t care!” I said.  I reiterated how complex the day’s work was (even more pedantically).  If we screwed up any particular element the whole day was a waste. 

She didn’t look convinced.  “Okay…” she sang, heading out the door.

I stowed my exasperation and got on with my work – making sure (now that Dennis was ours for the day) that everything else went smoothly for Gil.  Also on tap – another visit from Joel.  This time (we were assured), Joel would have his passport with him – which he did. 

Joel arrived at our studio space and headed immediately for Dennis’ trailer.  Apparently, what happened there went something like this: 

Joel: “Dennis – how are you?”

Dennis: “I’m tired, man, I’m really tired – I’m doing your movie and my show, and I’m exhausted but Katzy won’t shoot me out early so I can go back to the hotel and sleep.”

Joel: “What?  You’re tired and Katzy won’t let you go back to the hotel and sleep?  If you need to go back to the hotel and sleep, you go sleep.  I’ll take care of Katzy.”

Joel headed inside to where we were shooting, scanning the faces, searching for mine.  Finally, he found me – “Katz– Katz:  C’mere, c’mere!”

There are moments – as you are called to answer them – that you know in your bones will leave bruises and permanent marks. 

As I landed beside Joel, his voice went up a few dozen decibels – the better to be heard all over our noisy film set. 

“I gotta tell ya something,” Joel Silver told me in a voice so loud people in KAMLOOPS could hear it, “Your people skills ARE SHIT!”

Joel went on for a bit but stopped, having realized that my eyes had glazed over like the Possum character’s in ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’.

I had just experienced the most ironic moment of my life:  Joel Silver, a man whose reputation as an obliterator of employees was so well known that movies like Swimming With Sharks were made about him, had just told ME that MY people skills were shit…

It took a moment to find my voice.  I started to explain how complicated the day’s work was.  “It doesn’t matter,” said Joel.  “Actors are all assholes!”   He described some of the soul-crushingly stupid things he had to do to keep Bruce Willis going on Die Hard.  

Joel could see I still wasn’t ‘getting it’.  He told another story to illustrate his point. 

Michael Jackson, Joel began, was shooting a music video.  The producers told the crew there was only one hard, fast rule:  Do Not Talk To Michael.  Period.

Michael sees a prop assistant wearing a cast on his broken arm.  Michael approaches the prop assistant.  Asks the prop assistant how his arm got broken.  The prop assistant answers Michael – which the producers see.  They fire the guy – for talking to Michael.

The next day, after hearing the prop assistant got fired, Michael shows up for work wearing a makeshift cast – just like the fired prop assistant’s – OUT OF SOLIDARITY.

Michael doesn’t go to the producers and demand that they rehire the prop assistant, he does this instead. 

Joel arched his eyebrows at me.  “See?”

Ummmmmmmm… I stare at Joel, defeated – still not getting it.

Joel drew closer to put the pieces back together.  You have to do what your actors want, Joel insisted.  If you don’t they’ll kill ya, they’ll fucking kill ya!  I nodded, a sour knot of dread in my gut.  Not only was Dennis gone for the day, but it had just become impossible for me to say ‘no’ to him ever again.

Of course, the day’s work got screwed up because Dennis wasn’t there.  And, though we didn’t pitch it all aflame into English Bay, we might as well have…

Now here’s the punchline:  The biggest irony wasn’t Joel Silver telling me my people skills were shit.  It was that Joel was right. 

On that day, over the course of that project – my people skills (whatever they had been before) had indeed become shit. 

Retrospect has advantages – boy, does it.  But it wouldn’t have been rocket science to have taken a moment – when Dennis’ assistant first came to me that day – and said, “You’re right – let me tell Dennis myself what’s happening today, so I can explain it to him.”  Maybe Dennis would have gone along, maybe he wouldn’t have.  I never gave him that chance.

As Joel correctly pointed out – my people skills were shit.

I’m not telling this story because now I feel awful about it.  I’m telling it to describe how bullshit took over my life.  I didn’t realize how right Joel was at the time.  That there is bullshit.

Before we completely sail on from the Land of Shitty People Skills – midway through production, Sly broke up with Angie via long distance.  On the one hand, it wasn’t surprising.  On the other hand, she took it as badly as she had every right to.

To her credit, she showed up every day and was an absolute pro despite how torn up she was inside. 

As we began to rally resources and planning for our climax in the glass church, we learned that the special effects makeup team was well behind.  They tried to reassure us that they had the situation under control, but it was simply too complex for them.  We had set them up to fail.

I got on the phone to Todd Masters.  He agreed to come up and work with our Vancouver crew through the climax.  If anyone could save us from ourselves and the mess we were in, it was Todd – at least where the special effects makeup was concerned. 

With Todd working with us, I felt we had a fighting chance to get out of Vancouver alive – at least we had a shot at getting out of town with a movie that would cut together. 

Our last big set piece before the climax was the confrontation between Rafe and Caleb (Corey, remember) at an abandoned power plant.  Why an abandoned power plant?  Because there WAS one outside of Vancouver (in Surrey) and it looked cool when we scouted it.  So, we wrote it into the script.

Like anything else in the movie made sense?

All-Nighters are never fun.  Your body and brain are forever at war: ‘No, no, no – we don’t start work now, dude, now’s when we crash!’ 

It had been four weeks on a movie no one liked making with a Canadian crew increasingly alienated from its American producers.  The actors had all taken sides against the star.  We were already over budget and in danger of falling behind schedule.  We were a week away from shooting the movie’s climax and weren’t entirely sure we’d have special effects or special effects makeup that would rise to the occasion.

The night’s work began at ‘Magic Hour’ – sunset – when the light is… ‘Magic’.  In Vancouver on that Height-Of- Summer Day the magic began around 10:30 pm – as the sun finally eased past the horizon.  Because there’s so much water in the air, the sunsets in Vancouver on days when the cloud cover permits you to see them are beyond words.

We catch some great wide establishing shots of the power plant and Rafe (a stuntman actually) climbing over the high security fence that surrounds it.  That done, we move inside for the rest of the night’s work. 

First up – a fight scene that ultimately comes down to Rafe and Caleb – Dennis and Corey.

Coming into the fight choreography, Corey was pissed at Dennis for all the reasons we already knew.  But Corey also was angry at Dennis because of things Dennis had said to him and about him.  Personal things apparently.  As we blocked the scene, Dennis continued to needle Corey.  And, while they were choreographing the fight scene – AN ACTUAL FIGHT BROKE OUT.

It didn’t last long.  Not more than a few errant swings – all by Corey.  The awkwardness of it wasn’t helped by the crew cheering for Corey like he was Muhammed Ali (or Gretzky before he betrayed Canada and went to LA).  No one leapt in to stop the fight.  The fight choreographer – more by accident than design – blocked Corey’s two shots to Dennis’ face (thankfully!)

Slowly we went back to work – but with lead in our feet. 

Falling behind schedule put us in a tough spot.  We still had to shoot the movie’s climax in our glass church – Vancouver’s BC Place – and we had one night to do it now with no options if we screwed up (something we were getting good at). 

And then we crashed headlong into ‘The Biggest Folly of The Whole Stupid Enterprise’:  The ‘nighttime’ we were counting on in which to do ALL OUR WORK – shoot THE ENTIRE CLIMAX OF THE MOVIE – was going to last no more than three to three-and-a-half hours.  Because it was July and we were in Vancouver – and when you’re that far north at that point in the summer?  That’s how it is.

The sky simply did not become dark enough to shoot as night until well past 11 pm.  After the first hints of sunrise appeared in the eastern sky around 2 a.m.?  Shootable dark was good for no more than another 15 minutes depending on which way you were pointing the camera.  We were shooting a horror movie – which relies on darkness – at a time and in a place where darkness was notoriously absent.

We simply hadn’t considered it. 

Ironically – it was having the ‘glass church’ at BC Place for the climax that ‘sold us’ on Vancouver – that sent us on our way south thinking, ‘Ah well, at least the ending will be spectacular’. 

‘Spectacular’ was about to fuck us completely.

We looked into hanging blacks to cover all that glass.  Did I mention we were already over-budget? 

We looked at rewriting the script.  Unfortunately, we’d already done that.  To cut it back any further would be pointless; our audience needs an ending to justify the time they spent with us. 

We were going to have to dream big with the climax – get what we could – and hope like hell we could fix it in post.

There’s an old joke – “How do you make god laugh?  Tell him your plans”.  Time on a movie set works the same way.  How do you guarantee you’ll need ten hours to get the job done?  Have five in which to do it.

That five hours felt like five minutes.

I would compare the feeling to bailing water out of a rowboat that is going down no matter how fast you bail.  And you know it.  So do the sharks in the water.

Knowing we didn’t have an ending in the can slowed our pace even further.  When our next weekend rolled around, I decided to head south and spend a few days with my wife.  How perverse must things be that, in order to preserve your sanity, you have to escape to Los Angeles?

One of the perks I enjoyed was getting to travel first or business class.  As I strode through Vancouver airport, I felt my mood lightening.  The problems hadn’t gone away.  For the moment, I just didn’t care about them.

I boarded the plane.  Slipped into my first class seat and heaved the biggest sigh I’ve ever heaved in my life.  The Flight Attendant smiled – sensing the relief that came with the sigh as she set a glass of red wine down on my tray table.  She told me we’d be pushing back shortly.  There was just one more first class passenger we were waiting on.

Good, I thought.  I’d have company there in first class – as it was just me at that point.

And then the ‘other’ first class passenger entered.  It was Angie.  Doing exactly what I was doing – escaping to Los Angeles for her sanity.

Can I tell you – it is genuinely gratifying when a woman as beautiful as Angie Everheart greets you like a long-lost friend and hugs you – for all the world to see.  And I was glad to see Angie.  And getting to know her during those hours on the flight was genuinely rewarding – there was so much more to her than I realized. 

But as the flight went on, and the subject turned to Sly – and how hurt Angie still felt – I cringed a little, feeling guilty for having kept Sly’s secret.  She was torn, understandably, between missing the man she loved and reviling the shit who’d betrayed her.  As Angie went on, a line from Sly’s first ‘big’ movie popped into my head like an earworm and wouldn’t go away.  Lords of Flatbush.  Stanley – Sly’s character – is arguing with his girlfriend.  She threatens to reveal his big secret: “I swear, Stanley, I will tell everyone you cry after you come.”

Angie asked me what I was smiling at.  “Happy to be heading home,” I said.  But what I really was smiling at was the question that had popped into my head:  Did Sly cry after he came? 

Reaching LAX, Angie and I said good-bye, see ya ‘Monday’ (Saturday actually – our weekends were still screwy) and headed our separate ways.

We shot the movie’s opening sequence on the last day of principle photography – a series of shots of Prather (Phil Fondacaro’s character) and his weary crew trekking (it says in the script) to the furthest reaches of Tierra Del Fuego to find Lilith’s corpse.

We actually shot it just beside the snow-less Cypress ski slopes above West Vancouver.  Even with the extended daylight (this time being to our advantage), we dragged and dragged – and barely got what we needed. 

No one’s heart was in it.  It was a hot day in Vancouver.  It was sweaty.  There were mosquitos.  Everyone just wanted it to be over.  

A few weeks before we shot our ‘martini’ (the last shot of the day – or the whole film), the question was raised – ‘Where will the wrap party be?’  The American producers weren’t asking – the Canadian crew was.  The American producers knew well enough to not bother planning a wrap party since the crew was unlikely to show for it.  Feelings were that bad. 

Colleen threw a wrap party anyway – at her house.  The Americans weren’t ‘not invited’ but the invitation to us wasn’t exactly ‘effusive’.  It was still far kinder than we deserved.  Determined to try and make the best of it, I went. 

I think I know now what it must have been like to be a leper.  With a bell on.  Who’s otherwise naked.  Some things, you really can’t put a good face on. 

We packed up and headed home to LA, not having a finished movie in the can.  The climax wasn’t there.  It needed work.  Same with the makeup special effects.  Todd continued working with us to try and recreate – as economically as possible – a flaming Lilith Monster.

The goal was to be ready for release by Halloween 1995.  It seemed do-able.  But Universal didn’t seem in a hurry to finish Bordello.  Eventually they bailed on Halloween. Our release date got pushed to August 1996.  

August.  The Doldrums of Summer.  Where movie releases go to die.

But before we got there, we had reshoots to do.  We spent a few days back at the Van Nuys Airport (where we’d shot ‘Demon Knight’) doing pickups with Dennis, Angie and Erika. 

Finally, toward the end of the process, Bob Z came aboard to shepherd the movie its last few steps.  Bob tightened the cut and came up with an idea for a scene that… except for one pickup – we absolutely did not shoot because it wasn’t in the script.

There’s a scene in the torture chamber where Lilith (Angie) confronts Katherine (Erika).  Bob Z saw a way – using what we had (plus the pickup mentioned) to create the ‘illusion’ that Lilith and Katherine were engaging in a bit of lesbianism.

It’s not much of a scene – as scenes go – but, watching Bob Z more or less ‘invent’ a scene out of bits and pieces of what we had shot – massaging it and rearranging it – was like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling (well – in our case, the Sistine Chapel Bordello).

Halloween 1995 came and went.  Crypt Life went on.  We had a TV Movie to do for Fox and the last season of ‘Tales From The Crypt’ ahead of us.  The malaise we developed in Vancouver endured and grew.  So did our loss of purpose. 

Since We Have Time On Our Hands, Let's Talk About The Best Main Stream Movie Sex Scenes — Here's MY Top Three…

If you don’t know what The Decameron is, look it up. It’s 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio‘s story of 10 Florentines quarantined during the Black Death at a luxurious villa (seven women, three men) who tell each other stories (100 in total) to fill the time. We’ll have a few Decamerons of our own when this is all done and said, no doubt.

Instead of a story, i’d like to compare notes with whoever reads this (if you have any notes you’d like to compare of course). Having written & produced a few film or TV sex scenes, I can tell you flat out — there’s nothing sexual about their production. It’s all choreographed.

For me, sex scenes will always be epitomized by the one I wrote/produced while doing Tale From The Crypt for HBO. Tobe Hooper directed the actors James Remar and Vanity in an episode called “Dead Wait”. Tobe imagined a cool sex scene to open the show (it runs while the opening credits run). The only problem — the shot was a “oner” — a single shot with no coverage (the other shots we use to put together a scene visually).

The shot depended on actor timing, camera timing and all sorts of hard to predict elements that made shooting it arduous. With 15 takes behind us and time running out, Tobe finally seemed to have the perfect take — and just as James Remar went to exit the frame — ending the shot — James Remar’s very erect pecker let up into the bottom of the shot, “ruining it”.

Nothing sexual had happened between the actors but it would have been super hard to be doing what those two actors had been doing — in the days before anyone thought about safe movie sex — and not get sexually aroused.

My list is short. As you can already see. Maybe it’s knowing what I know. I doubt that because these couple of sex scenes touch something that transcends the physicality of the love-making. They actually get to a place where, unfortunately, sex itself too rarely gets — the deeply human. The connection to both self and another that sex creates.

Number 1 (And There’s No Discussion To Be Had On The Subject): “Don’t Look Now”

For starters, Don’t Look Now is a great movie. It’s a great psychological thriller with an ending that — no spoilers here. It’s a gut punch and a great pay off.

Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie are a couple living in England with two young kids. He’s an art restorer about to begin a huge project in Venice, Italy, to repair a stained glass window in one of the city’s many basillicas when their 10 year old daughter dies, drowning in the pond on their property.

Picking up their story in Venice as the restoration to the stained glass window finally begins, we see them getting ready to go out to dinner one night, early in their stay. They’re still a couple in crisis, dealing with their own guilt. Director Nic Roeg (a director of photography by trade but an excellent “cutter” as well) intercuts the couple getting ready to go out for dinner that night (including brushing their teeth) with them making love, we get the feeling, for the very first time since “the accident”.

The intercutting of the mundane with the sex takes away all the glamour but leaves the emotional directness of it. The story has always been that Sutherland and Christie actually had sex on the set that day. Regardless of whether they actually did or didn’t, they achieved something harder actually — the feeling that they had. Call it acting. Call it filmmaking.

Call it “The Best Mainstream Movie Sex Scene Of Them All”.

What makes it even more astounding? It’s the only sex scene I can think of that features any level of intimacy between two married people.

Number 2 (And There’s Not Much Discussion Here Either): Desert Hearts (1985)

It’s 1959 and Vivien (the wonderful Helen Shaver — I’m biased; I’ve worked with her) has moved to a dude ranch outside of Reno, Nevada to establish residency. She wants a quickie divorce from her cheating husband. Cay (the equally wonderful Rebecca Charbonneau — I’m biased; I’ve worked with her, too) lives on the ranch. She’s a sexual free-spirit, bi-sexual but more inclined to women. She sets her sights on Vivien.

When they finally do consummate their affair, the more sexually comfortable Cay leads the way. The sex scene reflects both Cay’s wolfishness but also Vivien’s curiosity and uncertainty.

Director Donna Deitch, herself a gay woman, ” …raised the $1.5 million needed for the production budget with a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and sales of $15,000 shares to stock brokers and individual investors. The largest group of investors were lesbian and feminist women in several cities of the U.S., and the largest single investor was a gay man. She gave fundraising parties and published a regular newsletter to keep investors informed about the project’s development. Raising funds took almost four years. She eventually sold her house to cover completion costs.”

Deitch wanted to tell a mainstream story about characters that, up until then, rarely if ever got treated as “main stream”. She succeeds as do both actresses. The rest of the movie is just as good, by the way.

Number 3: There is No Number 3

You can Google “best movie sex scenes” and they’ll give you lists of 25… 50… 70. It’s filmed simulated sex — yes. But is it “good”? Let’s just say “it’s edible”. Consuming it won’t kill you. But it won’t make you happy either.

The reason these two films are on my list is because they both contain something elemental that is NOT on display in any other film that I’ve ever seen. But, hey — I’m here to be educated. And, turns out, I’ve got plenty of time.

Dear Rich People: Your Money Will Not Comfort You As You Die

My wife and I finally caught up with HBO’s amazing “Succession”. We’re about to finish season one. The Roy family — mirrored after the Murdoch’s — are an object lesson in what happens when a family substitutes money for love in all its relationships. Spoiler Alert: the relationships always lose.

I’ve never been flat broke. Never been homeless. I’ve always had someone I could throw myself at if I got beyond desperate. I’ve always been lucky that way. But I have lost everything I’ve worked for. I’ve declared bankruptcy and lost my family’s home. That was after being relatively rich. Being in show business — and having succeeded at it — I’ve had many years making very good money. Shame depression robbed me of some very prime years but — that’s Life, ya know?

What coming back from deep, deep depression taught me was very fundamental. Things — possessions — really don’t matter. Only love does. When you get to that final moment — when your sentientness recognizes it’s about to stop being sentient — a taking of stock will occur. You will recognize what you can “take with you” — what will you be remembered for most in a headline-only culture?

If it’s being rich over being loved, that final moment will be even more irksome for you as you realize, holy shit, they were right — you can’t take it with you. The money stays here. It couldn’t give a damn about you. You’re just a warm place where it parked for a while. And now that you’re dead, dead, dead, it will find someplace else to hang out. Meanwhile your “loved ones” become increasingly ironic in name: “loved ones”.

What makes the Roy family in “Succession” soooooo much fun to watch is that they ring so painfully true — the rich love their money far more than they could ever love each other. They honestly do believe that the goal is the biggest pile of money rather than being the most (genuinely) loved.

Ah, but what do we mean by “loved”?

Let me throw down an example — poor guy — never had a dime (or a shekel) to his name. He preached a simple (frankly Judaic) message: above all, love — do unto others as you would have them do unto you; if you have two brain cells, that “unto” is “love”.

I don’t know where the fictionalized Murdochs will end up, but I know where the real ones are heading. It’s all the same place: The rich Father who everyone despises will end up so despised (because he valued money over everything) that the money he so loved will end up in someone else’s hands (someone he hates perhaps) precisely because those who should have loved him didn’t. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t.

The die was cast, turns out, at the beginning. Tragedy is inevitability with scene breaks. The values tied to money over humanity were delivered via mother’s milk. Such is doom.

Again, remember — there’s a big, big difference between how we, here in the outside world, see the Rich (imagining that their money has solved every problem they could possibly have) and how the Rich see the Rich. There, on the inside, they know how loveless it is. They know how no serious relationship can ever happen without legal scrutiny first because, well, THE MONEY.

Sounds like slavery to me.

We’re in a war here. The rich — having gotten richer — want to be richer still. The Republican Party has launched an outright coup d’etat — they’ve busted a cap in the Rule Of Law and tossed the body out into the street as a warning to us. They’re not screwing around. They intend to install permanent minority rule whether we like it or not.

That was the point of election 2016 (the coup d’etat) and now election 2020 (the coup de grace just without the grace).

Ah, but Republicans have one big problem. They’re a minority. When push comes to shove and people REALLY take sides? I bet those willing to “die for Trump” is a far, far smaller circle of crazy than we suspect.

They’re schoolyard bullies relying to their reputation as schoolyard bullies to cow us into submission. Those bullies have a bigger problem than the first one actually. The people standing up to them? Women. Lots and lots of women. And people of color too. Lots and lots and LOTS of them. When we restore the Rule Of Law to its rightful place and begin to live up to the ideals on which this country was founded, we will owe a massive debt of gratitude to African American women.

Despite everything this nation has heaped on them as a group and as individuals, they have remained constant. They saw through this country’s racist awfulness to the ideal we were betraying and held firmly to it. If we do survive this, we will owe a hell of a lot of that to them.

Their faithfulness should be our ideal. Their capacity to love despite the harshness of their circumstances should be a daily lesson about survival, hope and courage.

My group can relate a little. We’ve been kicked around a bit by the Christian world. We still ache to contribute to it regardless. Go figure.

There’s a saying in the Talmud (I mention this as an atheist but a cultural Jew) that resonates with me: “Save one life and you save the world”. I think Jesus had that idea in mind when (if) he preached. He wasn’t about churches and their rules — in fact, Jesus taught that one didn’t need the temple or any of its priests; one could speak directly to God. And God, Jesus taught, would listen.

Jesus also taught how unimportant money was in the greater scheme of things. Those following that teaching — those already doing unto others — get it. When you love other people as much and as best you can, you get a remarkable amount of love flowing back at you. That’s REAL wealth. And when it comes to building actual wealth — it’s a good place to start from.

Will one ever get Roy-Murdoch-Republican wealthy by loving other people instead of money? Of course not. But then, who wants to end one’s days in the poor house like they always do?