Even crappy reality shows like Donald Trump presidency live and die on the success of their casting choices. And no one has been more “sensitive” to how important casting is to the success of his reality show than Donald Trump. Trump knows that it takes a criminal to play a criminal; actors can only ever pretend. That’s why Trump casts his family, his “friends”, his cronies, the people under his thumb. He knows they know how to “be” corrupt and treasonous without having to pretend. And when it comes to crazy people? Well, you HAVE TO BE crazy to support Donald Trump.
Crazy or corrupt. And both demand a deep dedication to authenticity to effectively pull them off. Good thing Trump’s rolodex is chock-a-block with both crazy AND corrupt.
With that dedication to authenticity in mind — and with little else to do during the transition except make the bad situation he created for America even worse — Team Trump has staged their own production of Ken Kesey’s classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. Because crazy people love crazy people.
First up — the lead — Randall P. McMurphy — the character inhabited by Jack Nicholson (rather than the other way around)…
Since he “alone can fix it” (having broken it irreparably first), Trump has taken the star role for himself. Thing is, Trump will get bored and lose focus about ten seconds after the curtain goes up. Just to get through the table read, we’re going to need a few “back up” McMurphy’s. Good thing that pantry is stocked to its rafters.
Also in the running for McMurphy (in no particular order) —
James Woods as McMurphy…
Or, Jon Voight as McMurphy…
Or Dennis Quaid as McMurphy…
Now, I know there are some who’d think “No, wait — if we want crazy playing crazy then the crazy brother is RANDY QUAID…
Ah, but here’s where Trump’s genius for keeping us on our toes comes into play. Randy Quaid gets cast as BILLY BIBBET (played by the excellent Brad Dourif in the feature)!
Same kind of “stunt casting” goes for the role of Chief Bromden (Will Sampson in the movie) —
This is a radical departure. In fact, it’s nuts. That’s why it works! Gary Busey plays the Chief!
The rest of the crazies on the ward —
— will be played by a rotating cast of has-beens, never-wassers and talentless fellow travelers — Stephen Baldwin, Stacey Dash and Anthony Sabato, Jr…
That leaves one actor as yet uncast (Scott Baio) and one part uncast.
The Republicans are now all-in on their power grab. The soft coup d’etat they started in 2016 has reached it’s moment of truth. There’s no going back anymore. Either the Republican Party will finish what they started — and bust a cap in American democracy’s noggin — or they’ll balk. Because, really, creating a state of permanent minority rule and then RUNNING IT SUCCESSFULLY requires more governing skill than any Republican is capable of. Republicans hate government because the suck at governing.
What scares the Trumpanistas more than almost anything is what will happen when Team Biden restores a functioning Department of Justice whose mission is actually justice (and not being the corrupt president’s consigliere). Think of all the oversight that never got done because of corruption. Think of all the investigations into Trump and all his cronies that AG Bill Barr either derailed or killed. Think of the counter intelligence investigation into Trump and his relationship with Russia that neither Team Mueller nor the FBI ever began because Rod Rosenstein — a real snake in the grass — made go away.
Take Russia out of the 2016 equation and Trump never gets past the primaries (never mind “winning” the presidency). Without Russia, Trump does not win. What more does one need to know? Russia won the 2016 election. And that cannot stand. Neither can the political party that aligned themselves with a hostile foreign power carrying out an open act of cyber war.
That’s something else the Republicans don’t realize they’ve done. The anger at them isn’t simple. It isn’t about one thing. It’s about a whole bunch of things — that ultimately come down to one thing (greed). But, as we stand here in the midst of the most important election this country will ever have, what will strike us is how many terrible, criminal, corrupt things the Republicans have done — and how much they deserve to be punished for every last bit of it.
Were it just the treason alone, of course, that would be bad enough. Perversely, the catalogue of Trumpian criminality is so vast that we’ve already forgotten that Donald Trump is the first president EVER to run for re-election having been IMPEACHED for cheating in the very election he’s now running in. We ain’t in Kansas here, Toto. Even Kansas isn’t in Kansas anymore.
Republican greed and selfishness have now resulted in actual American death. Their response to the pandemic can never be forgiven. They’ve effectively gutted the rule of law. That can’t be forgiven either. We will get it back in working order though — and when we do, Republicans will be shocked by how many of them suddenly have giant legal problems. Pretty much all of them will actually. See something, say something. See something, say nothing? We have to ask “Why?”
Why did so many Republican say nothing when they KNEW it was morally, ethically and legally wrong?
We’re angry now because we see the Republican Party and Donald Trump cheating out in the open. We see how we outnumber them. We see how we are the majority and they are not. That they are still trying to impose their will over us — well, frankly, that’s really pissing us off. Having been on the receiving end of sexual assault when I was 14, I know what this feeling on the back of my neck is. Donald Trump and the Republicans may not be physically assaulting us but the impact on our minds is no different.
We feel under assault because we are under assault. And, having told you to stop repeatedly, Republican Party, now that we’ve gotten to our feet, we intend to make you stop. You will not like how this ends.
I’m not saying the feeding frenzy around the Republicans as the accusations start to land won’t be fun to watch. It absolutely will be. The catharsis will be exquisite. That’s what will drive us, drive our fury: our need to catharsis our way past this moment of epic awfulness.
There’s an “uh oh” moment coming to the GOP as more and more Republicans realize that not only are they losing the election, but also they’re entering a winter wilderness of shame, investigation, indictment and financial hardship. You can already hear them begging for a deal if only to lighten their brutal sentencing.
And the sentencing for what the Republicans have done will be brutal — at least it will seem that way to them. As we all know, most Republicans are nothing but soft, white underbelly. They’re bullies at heart, good at kicking their victims when they’re down — but only if someone is holding them down. They’re charmless sociopaths out on a joyride.
In their calculus, the Republicans must think we’ll feel obligated to keep what they did because… that’s how criminals think. They don’t want to give back what they stole but then — IT’S NOT UP TO THEM. We The People are the victims of a crime perpetrated upon us by the Republican Party. In 2016, We The People voted one way — for Hillary Clinton and whatever she wanted to make of her presidency — but, instead, were given Donald Trump because the Republican Party had conspired with Russia to alter the results in three key states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
We will arrive here: Donald Trump is not now nor has he ever been the legitimate president. He had no right or business taking any oath of office (that he would break even as he spoke it). He’s the only fake in our fake news cavalcade. Having never been the legitimate potus with the legitimate authority vested in him, at no point did he ever have the authority to sign legislation into law, make presidential pronouncements, put together a cabinet or even nominate judges. IOW Donald Trump never had the authority to nominate a single one of the unqualified hacks he nominated up to and including Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barnett.
There really are a thousand very good reasons for Americans to be angry at Donald Trump. What he’s done to this country is, well, criminal.
What makes Barack Obama a superb leader (his approval rating’s 58%) — regardless of whether you liked or like his policies — is his limitless capacity to inspire those all around him to do better, be better. Not because Big Brother was compelling you to — for Big Brother’s benefit — but because being the best you could be would make your life better as well as everyone else’s. We v Me. What gave Donald Trump away as the worst possible kind of “leader” was his apparent belief that “I alone can fix it”. As the British half of my family would say: “BOLLOCKS!”
“I alone can fix it” is something only a delusional male would say. Same goes for the idea of the “rugged individualist”. Those are little boys who equate their refusal to color inside the lines with entrepreneurial spirit when, really, they’re just little boys who don’t know how to color. On a team, they’re the question mark — sure, they have a skill set, but will they feel like using it on the day we really need them? Libertarianism is so self-congratulatory, it’s a wonder libertarians can talk about anything else. They’re all mole rats convinced they’re eating caviar when, in fact, they’re feeding on the rot inside their own corrupt intestines.
I’ve been lucky in my show biz career. Damned lucky. Before I took my best shot at undoing all that luck, I got to work with extraordinary people. When I ran “Tales From The Crypt” for HBO, among my Executive Producers was Robert Zemeckis. Bob’s features include “Back To The Future”, “Forrest Gump”, “Castaway”, “Contact”, “Flight”. I wrote two of the three episodes Bob directed for “Crypt”. Watching Bob work — his process — was a master class in leadership.
First, Bob challenges with “the cool idea”. What if we could do “this” — “this” being something we’ve never seen before? Yeah, we all agree, that would be cool, but the problem is, it’s un-doable. “Oh, is it?” asks Bob with a smile. Bob has a way to get there. He’ll reveal it eventually. But, first, he wants to see how we might solve it — knowing there’s a possible solution. His goal — see what we might contribute to what he’s thinking. We can’t hurt what he’s got in mind, but we can definitely add to it. Ideas flood the floor — good, bad, indifferent. It doesn’t matter. Everyone in the creative team is invested and investing in finding that solution.
And then — as we (feel like we’re) collectively solving the problem — the problem gets solved. And we feel like we did it together! The truth is, Bob guided us all along. We don’t know where Bob’s idea ended and ours began. We solved the problem, not me. The environment was entirely nurturing.
Again: We v Me.
Making movies and TV shows is a crap shoot. Aspirations to greatness don’t always produce box office boffo results. How’s that old saw go — “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game”. Yeah — THAT. In almost every project Bob Z does, there’s a moment where Bob gathered the creative team all around him and told them what he had in mind. The idea was awesome. “Okay, guys,” Bob said, as he looked from eye to eye, “How’re we gonna do this?”
Joe Biden — regardless of whether he’s progressive enough for you (and he isn’t progressive enough for me but I do see him as a means to the end I want) — has been and will be a good leader because he draws on those same leadership skills. To him, a big part of leadership is LISTENING.
I’ll say it again: LISTENING. Leadership = Listening.
If you can’t listen, you can’t lead. Even if you’re a pirate by nature, surely you see that listening to your crew — even if only occasionally — could work out to your advantage. Donald Trump can’t even manage that because “he alone can fix it”.
Oooh, wait. I think I see our problem. We’ve misunderstood how Donald means “fix”. When HE says “he alone can ‘fix’ it”, he means “fix” the way a criminal does.
I may be talking myself out of my own argument here… If Donald means he alone can make everyone around him more of a criminal, then he’s absolutely right! To enter Trump’s sphere is to criminalize yourself. If you won’t compromise yourself (provided you haven’t already), you don’t get to play or stay in Trump’s world. Donald Trump is great at turning people into criminals! I may not like how that’s transforming people, but — in his own way, isn’t Trump making these otherwise mediocre Republicans “better”?
Hmmmmm… No. Even in criminal world, the REAL criminals — the Vlad Putins, the Kims, the MbS’s — see Donald Trump as a piker. He’s just a greed machine and a garden variety bully. He couldn’t kill anyone — for real — in cold blood. He’s too much of a wuss. He’ll throw money at someone — tell them to get blood on their hands. Even among criminals, that ain’t “leadership”.
Donald may be a black hole of corruption, but he’s not a super nova black hole of corruption. He’s simply not good enough.
Whew! That’s a relief. For a second there, I almost had to admit Donald Trump was good at something — as if he could “lead” in it.
It’s a stone cold fact: Donald Trump — alone — can’t fix OR LEAD anything.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?”
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”.
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?
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.
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.
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.