Horror Movies & Christianity: A Match Made In…

To be honest, I’m not sure there’d even BE horror movies without Christianity. I used to do a show for HBO called Tales From The Crypt. Among my executive producers — my bosses — were some of the biggest filmmakers working: Joel Silver (the Lethal Weapon movies, the Die Hard movies among other Big Budget Thrillers), Bob Zemeckis (the Back To The Future movies, Forrest Gump, Castaway), Walter Hill (48 Hrs, The Warriors, Southern Comfort) and Richard Donner. Donner directed the first big Superman remake the 1978 version with Christopher Reeve. He also directed The Goonies, Scrooged, the Lethal Weapon movies, Assassins and 1976’s The Omen. For the record, while doing Crypt, I also got to work with William Friedkin, director of that other testament to the horror-worthiness of Christianity, The Exorcist. I’ll get to that momentarily. The very cool thing about working with the people I got to work with is that I got to pick their brains. Donner is a big, animal-loving puppy dog of a guy, a stoner from way back. In talking about The Omen — and why it succeeded the way that it did — he was pretty clear. After experiencing the movie, plenty of people went home, opened their Bibles (probably for the first time ever) and found — right their IN THEIR OWN HOMES — the very words that had just damned the characters in the movie that scared the crap out of them. The movie’s mythology was their religion’s mythology. That fact itself touched something down deep in them. It made the horror more personal.

Alas, I did not get the chance with Billie Friedken to talk specifically about “The Exorcist” but working with him was both challenging and rewarding. Billie directed a terrific episode called “On A Dead Man’s Chest” — about a mysterious tattoo artist whose tattoos literally come to life. We put the episode in the world of garage rock bands and hard luck music clubs. The rapper Heavy D played the tattoo artist (a small part actually). Gregg Allman and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones also played small parts, giving us rock ‘n roll “authenticity”. Billie didn’t want big names for the rest of the cast. He wanted good actors who could play because they were rock musicians too. We cast Yul Vasquez and Paul Hipp. Tia Carrerra was the female lead and the wonderful Sherrie Rose was a groupie.

When my partner at the time — Gil Adler — and I told executive producer Joel Silver (the most actively engaged of the Crypt Partners in our quotidian lives) that we wanted to hire Billie to direct an episode of Crypt (Billie was experiencing a down period at the time), Joel — a firecracker of a human, apt to go off at any moment — warned us that Billie was a firecracker of a human, apt to go off at any moment. Gil and I — having learned how to handle a firecracker of a human as this was now our second season doing the show — told Joel we’d take our chances. For the most part, working with Billie was great. He saw Crypt as a way to get back to his bare bones, documentary-making roots. He didn’t want the band we were forming from our actors to sound in any way “produced”. If it sounded unpolished — good! If the sound quality was less than optimal — also good!

Our natural inclination was to pre-record our band’s music then play the tracks back during production with the actors pretending to play and sing. Billie wanted no part of that. We had our first creative fight. I argued for the better sound quality. Billie argued that he didn’t care about that. He wanted authenticity. Billie was, shall we say, persuasive. Quickly, too. About thirty seconds in, I surrendered. Billie didn’t care. He continued his argument — with increasing intensity and volume for another two minutes.

Finally, I managed to outshout him: “Jesus, Billie, you won the argument ten minutes ago! Stop already!”

Billie stopped. And smiled. He’d been having a blast watching me, waiting for me to finally do what I did.

But, back to Christianity and horror. If you Google “Christianity” and “Horror Movies”, the question that pops up is “Should Christians watch horror movies?” as if their tender sensibilities needed protecting (while, apparently, no one else seems to have this “tenderness” problem with their sensibilities). That framing fails to take into account how important Christian mythology is to having horror movies in the first place. Christianity did two things that Judaism didn’t as it emerged like the alien from John Hurt’s chest in the first Alien movie —

— For starters, Christianity promised that, if you believed in it, you could defeat death just like Jesus. In inventing Christianity, the Apostle Paul (Jesus had zero to do with it) focused not so much on Jesus’s “do unto others” teaching and more on the idea (not the fact since it did not happen) of Jesus rising from the dead. Consider the Big Names in the Jewish story — Abraham and Moses. When they die in the text, they die. There’s no coming back. No rising from the dead is even contemplated. On the other hand, with Christianity, zombie-fication of its hero was there at the start. The sales pitch was “Jesus is a good zombie!” Believe in him the way we tell you to and you, too, can be a good zombie just like Jesus. Judging by Paul’s results, he read the room brilliantly. People loved the idea of beating death. They still do. The second clever innovation: Satan. Hell — the way Christians think of it — really doesn’t exist in the Jewish mind. A guy who lives there like he owns the place — that doesn’t exist in the Jewish mind at all.

The closest thing Jews have to “hell” is “Sheol”, a bleak, shadowy place — “The Pit” or “The Land of Forgetfulness” — but wholly without any concept of “judgment or reward and punishment attached to it”. Aside from movies about overbearing Jewish mothers (Portnoy’s Complaint comes to mind though more because of the book than the movie), the only Jewish-inspired movie monster is the Golem. Even with plenty of “help”, the Golem ain’t much of a monster — movie or otherwise. It’s an empty vessel. Fill it with evil, it becomes evil. Fill it with good, it becomes good. As monsters go, Golem’s a total shnorrer compared to Satan.

I’m not sure human beings ever created a better character than Satan. When it comes to evil — and horror — Satan is one stop shopping. He’s also part of Christianity’s first innovation — defeating death. If that’s the carrot, Satan is the stick. If you don’t defeat death via Jesus, Satan awaits you, so, you might as well throw in your lot with Jesus. Where did this need for punishment come from? Suffering for one’s sins is not in any way organically Jewish. Guilt is — but that’s not born of paranoia. Jews are supposed to feel “guilty” for not living up to their obligation to make the world a better place for having been in it. Jews, if they’re being “proper Jews”, should feel every last bit of the world’s injustice deep down in their “souls” which should be the trigger mechanism for them doing something to change that injustice.

Movies have been especially good at pilfering bits and pieces from polytheism to create monsters. The problem almost always comes down to complexity. Make the villain too complex and the audience loses interest. That’s why Christianity’s “Satan v God” dynamic has been so successful for so long. God is good and Satan is bad. Who can’t get that?

The Catholic Church invented a whole hierarchy of good in response to the evils they perceived as threatening them. Paul invented the idea of the “Christian Soldier”. “Armored with faith”, these “heroes” set out to defeat a monster — the infidel. Hovering above and around it all, the specter of death.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula goes right at that Christian fear of death and turns it on its head. Dracula already lives forever! The thing that will stop that from happening (aside from garlic and sunshine): a cross! Christianity will stop a creature who, like Jesus, has found a way to defeat death. Oh, the irony — it burns!

My late friend Scott Nimerfro worked on Tales with me. Scott was much more an aficionado of horror movies than I am. Frankly, though I made a good living in horror, it’s not the genre I look to when it’s quittin’ time. Scott came from Minnesota. His family was kind of religious; if I remember correctly, Scott’s mom was born again. While Scott and I never talked about our religious feelings when we wrote together (we wrote several episodes of The Outer Limits together plus numerous pilots — some that we even sold — and a couple of screenplays), Scott always brought an insider’s sense of what scared Christians and what didn’t. Scott died in 2016 after a year-long battle with angiosarcoma. He would have laughed at the idea of Christianity and horror movies being a match made in either heaven or hell.

Can’t ya see it up there on the screen? Christianity and horror movies are a match made in Hollywood. But all the prerequisites for a bang-up relationship were there at the start. Throw in a talking snake and call “Action!”

Beware The “Franken-Christian”

In my time, I’ve written a few horror movies. The whole point of a horror movie, of course, is the monster. Good monsters endure, bad ones get forgotten instantly. I’ve written for a few “good” monsters — Freddy Krueger, for instance (I co-wrote a bunch of episodes of the “Freddy’s Nightmares” syndicated TV series back in the early 1990’s). Freddy, of course, is a great monster. Great mythology. Great character nuances (which, in a monster, are pure gold). I co-wrote “Children Of The Corn II: Deadly Harvest”. That was a crap monster, that one. Vague and mealy-mouthed (corn-meal of course). I also had a hand in the very good monster in “Tales From The Crypt Presents Demon Knight”, the first Tales feature film. Billy Zane gets full credit for turning what was, on the page, a pedestrian monster into what was, on the screen, a very good monster: fun, funny yet nasty & believably vicious. Then there was Lilith — the monster of “Tales From The Crypt Presents Bordello Of Blood” — a good idea for a good monster that got turned into a pedestrian idea for a monster because if you cast a movie for all the wrong reasons, you’ll screw up your movie. I worked with the “Walking Dead” team (briefly) when they tried to turn their show into an interactive arena event so I speak fluent “zombie”. While working on Tales From The Crypt, one of my bosses was Richard Donner, the director of horror classic “The Omen” whose wisdom about good monsters I drank like the finest, Jim Jones-iest kool aid. Yeah… I know a thing or two about monsters. And We The People have one right in our faces: The Franken-Christian!

How else to explain the mind-bending trip from “Do unto others” to this — the above picture. Or this —

What’s a non-Christian to make of American Christianity when it paints itself the way it paints itself? There’s no Jesus in any of this whatsoever. And yet, THIS monster has what it claims is Jesus’s face. Reminds me of a really good “Tales” episode directed by a talented guy named Bill Malone and starring a really terrific actress named Sherrie Rose: “Only Skin Deep”. A confident alpha male picks up a mysterious, masked woman named Molly at a costume party. Goes back to her place (in a funky warehouse space) where they have great sex — except she never takes off her weird mask. As the confident alpha male will learn, that “mask” is the face of Molly’s last lover — and she’ll be wearing HIS face when she goes out to party next time.

Molly was a very, very good monster.

Maybe the problem with too many American Christians is that they don’t celebrate Jesus’s life nearly as much as they celebrate his death. They’re less interested in “doing unto others” than they are in the ooga-booga and magical thinking that the Apostle Paul created out of whole cloth as he took his version of Jesus — and Jesus’s teaching — out to the Gentile world. The Jews rejected Paul’s version of Jesus because many of them, unlike Paul, had actually MET Jesus and heard him teach. Also — the Jews knew their mythology and knew that what Paul was trying to do with it simply didn’t conform to their understanding of it. Paul had little use for a living Jesus. He would have had no use for a Jesus who lived to a ripe old age and died in his bed, surrounded by loved ones. Paul needed a Jesus who was dead but (most importantly) who ROSE from the dead. Paul needed a Jesus who beat death as the basis for the church he imagined. It’s a genius invention — but that is what is: an invention. Jesus has nothing to do with it.

Ah, but “Franken-Jesus” does. Put together from disconnected parts, the Franken-Jesus preaches “do unto others” while practicing no such thing.

His followers, by design, are all Franken-Christians. They worship the falsest of idols.

And thus, the horror movie of American life fades in…

“TRUMPOCALYPSE: THE MOVIE” — Let’s All Play Casting Director!

U.S. Vice-President Biden smiles as he speaks with Croatian PM Milanovic in Zagreb

Take this to the bank: a movie or two WILL be made about the Trump presidency.  A few will nibble at the periphery of the experience, capturing the graft and the grift.  Some will try to capture its essence economically but that won’t satisfy.  One really had to experience the overwhelming “everyday” of it — the relentless, sometimes narcotizing fire hose of awfulness that got locked into the “on” position — to appreciate “it”.  This story could never fit into a feature film no matter the length.  This is streaming TV territory that audiences will want to both binge and purge at the very same time.  That’s why we should make the casting process as democratic as possible.  We’re invested in getting the best performances we can.

We’ve already seen a few actors play Trump — Alec Baldwin on SNL of course (which shouldn’t put him out of the running though I suspect he’d want to add a little nuance to the part if he gets the nod) and Brendan Gleason in Showtime’s “The Comey Rule” adaptation.  Late night hosts (Jimmy Fallon) and comedians (Bob DiBuono) have played Trump but they haven’t “inhabited” Trump the way we’ll need our actor to inhabit the part.

Quick casting note: having personally cast a lot of actors over my career, I can assure you: we never cast actors to “act”.  We cast them to “be”.  We cast actors to, essentially, play a version of themselves (with a different name and wardrobe) as honestly as they possibly can.  If they act the emotions, it won’t work.  The camera will see it and we’ll hate the actors as a result.  Much better that they just “open a vein” emotionally and let their hearts flow.  So — as you look at the roles, don’t think so much “who can ‘act’ this part, think “who already inhabits it in a way” because of who they are.  There’s a reason actors get so close associated with the parts they play.  They’re not playing anything.  They’re just “being”.

Back when I first threw down this post in the early years of Trump’s presidency, the story was smaller and simpler (if you can remember back that far).  It was corruption and Russia and a desperate attempt to make it to 2018 when (as we did) we could reassert control of the House at least and try to inject a little oversight into the toxic mix.  Since then… geez — what hasn’t happened?  This — is it a limited series even? — could go on for years as it’s still playing out in real time.

This will always be celebration of wishful thinking — not the TV series itself — casting the damned thing as if we could stay ahead of the story.  The Trump Age was brutal to people who write fiction for a living.  How could fiction possibly stand up to the reality we all lived through?  If a writer tried to sell what we all lived as a novel or script, they’d have been told to stop writing, period.  Way too over the top.  Way too crazy.  Way too everything.

And yet.

This post invites your contributions!  It’s an “open casting call” meaning everyone’s open to making a few casting calls.

CHARACTER              ACTOR

Donald Trump          Woody Harrelson, Alec Baldwin, Brendan Gleeson, Sarah Cooper

Woody Harrelson as Trump Woody Harrelson as Trump?

Alec Baldwin as Trump Alec Baldwin as Trump?

Brendan Gleeson as Trump Brendan Gleeson as Trump?

Sarah Cooper as Trump Sarah Cooper as Trump?

Mike Pence

mike-pence-sanctimonious Mike Pence as Mike Pence

Beck Bennet as Mike Pence SNL’s Beck Bennett as Mike Pence?

The Coronavirus

Coronavirus Coronavirus as Coronavirus

Bubonic Plague 2 Bubonic Plague as Coronavirus?

Spanish flu Spanish Flue of 1918 as Coronavirus?

Joe Biden

Jim Carrey as Joe Biden Jim Carrey as Joe Biden?

Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi as Nancy Pelosi

Meryl Streep as Nancy Pelosi Meryl Streep as Nancy Pelosi

Helen Mirren as Nancy Pelosi 2 Helen Mirren as Nancy Pelosi?

Mitch McConnell

mitch-moscow-mitch Mitch McConnell as Treason McTurtleface

Rudy Giuliani

Rudy Rudy as Rudy

Kate McKinnon as Rudy Kate McKinnon as Rudy? Kate can play whoever she wants!

Ted Cruz

ted-cruz-sexy-eyes Ted Cruz as Ted Cruz

Josh Hawley

Josh Hawley Josh Hawley as Josh

Roger Stone

roger-stone-communicated-directly-with-wikileaks-despite-denials-thumbnail-1511217-640x360 Roger Stone as Roger

Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn Michael Flynn as Michael Flynn

The Proud Boys

Proud Boys The Proud Boys as Themselves

Nazis Nazis — as The Proud Boys dream of themselves

Bill Barr

bill-barr-is-handsome Bill Barr as Bill Barr as the Worst AG in American History

Mike Pompeo

Mike Pompeo Mike Pompeo as Mike Pompeo

Lindsey Graham

lindsey-graham-looks-haunted Lindsey Graham as the most haunted, hunted man in America

Kevin McCarthy

Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy as The Guy Who KNEW Trump Was Getting Paid By Putin

Merrick Garland

Merrick Garland Merrick Garland as The Guy Who Will End It All For The Republicans

Steve Bannon            Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte, John Goodman, John Howard

Steve Bannon Steve Bannon as Steve Bannon (for comparison’s sake)

Jeff Bridges as Steve Bannon Jeff Bridges as Steve Bannon?

John Howard as Steve Bannon John Howard as Steve Bannon?

Ivanka                         Scarlet Johanson

Ivanka Ivanka as Ivanka

Scarlet J as Ivanka Scarlet Johansson as Ivanka?

Amanda Seyfried as Ivanka Amanda Seyfried as Ivanka?

Jared Kushner

Donald Trump, Jr.

Eric Trump

Melania Trump

Vlad Putin                   Mark Ivanir, Mads Mikkelsen

vlad-is-a-tough-guy1 Vlad Putin as Vlad Putin

Mark Ivanir as Putin Mark Ivanir as Vlad Putin?

Robert Mueller           Chris Noth, George Clooney

Don McGahn                Andrew McCarthy

Sarah Sanders              Rosie O’Donnell, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Robert Mercer            Greg Kinnear, Noah Emmerich

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Now let’s move on to a few new roles — JARED KUSHNER…

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Couple of thoughts — first — NICK JONAS —

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I know – Nick Jonas is 24, Jared is mid 30’s BUT — I think Nick’s youth works for the part because it will READ as such — and one thing Jared is most notable for IS BEING TOO YOUNG for pretty much everything he’s been tasked to do.  Too young and too fucking stupid…

Second thought — CHRISTIAN BALE — at 43, he’s a little old for the part but the guy’s versatile as hell.  And he’s got the tools to bring out all the passive aggressive, weak-link-in-a-weak-chain nuances that make Jared so Jared…

Christianbale

KELLYANNE CONWAY

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The obvious choice — because she INHABITS the character so hauntingly — is KATE MCKINNON.

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In fact, I can’t imagine anyone better.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s hers.

MORE TO COME…

ROBERT MERCER (CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA and one of THE Big Money Guys the Republican party RELY on.  He’s one of the reasons they pushed through a ‘tax bill’ that could completely bankrupt us with debt —

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But SOMEONE will have to play him in “TRUMPOCALYPSE:  THE MOVIE”. And April Lea — one of my readers on Twitter had this fabulous suggestion — GREG KINNEAR —

Grdg Kinnear

It’s like Greg was BORN to play the part, no…?

MORE CASTING TO FOLLOW…

“TRUMPOCALYPSE:  THE MOVIE” — CASTING

I’m just trying to get ahead of the curve here.  A MOVIE VERSION of this Moment In History is coming — not today of course and not tomorrow but — not too much longer after that.

As anyone in The Biz will tell you, casting is everything.  Get it right — you’re Golden.  Get it wrong — it doesn’t matter how good the script is, the direction, the design — you’re going down in flames colored purple by terrible acting.

Even a story as good as THIS — and stories will NEVER (I sure as hell hope) ever, ever, EVER get ‘better’ than this — could be undermined by bad casting.  With that in mind, here are my thoughts about who in the current crop of actors we should ‘think about’ for ‘Our Movie’…

First up — OUR LEAD of course.  Now, I know — first guy in everyone’s mind is Alec Baldwin —

And who doesn’t love when Alec Baldwin does his Trump (except perhaps for Donald himself — but then, he has no sense of humor — something our actors need to grasp and incorporate into their character).  And I wouldn’t say ‘No’ to Mr Baldwin; in fact, I’d love to see Mr Baldwin come at the character from a more ‘actory’ point of view — from within.  I’d want to talk about that for sure.  Maybe get a screen test out of him…

It’d be worth it (for him).

Let’s say we like what he does — a lot — but don’t quite ‘love’ it.  I have the ace card right here — the guy we should cast regardless of how good Mr Baldwin is because WOODY HARRELSON will be better — cos he can do just about anything.

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His INTERIOR range is amazing — and we’re going to need an actor with incredible emotional range to play a character with VIRTUALLY NONE.  It’s like getting an actor to sing off key.  The ones who can actually sing will automatically do it better.  They even know where off-key is.

So — think about it, folks — THIS GUY playing THIS GUY —

Can I sign him?  Please?

Next up was going to be Robert Mueller but circumstances have forced us to consider casting THIS GUY now instead —

steve-bannon

My first thought is JEFF BRIDGES.  Bannon is like The Dude’s soul-less Evil Twin — with a side of Gin Blossoms…

jeffbridges

Got some great suggestions on Twitter.  Sorry, ‘Dude’, but you have competition.  How about THIS GUY — NICK NOLTE…

…or JOHN GOODMAN…

See?  Casting is harder than it looks!  Keep the suggestions coming, folks

Okay — I WILL get to this guy but — he’s HARD…

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In the meantime — IVANKA TRUMP —

Ivanka

My FIRST thought?  SCARLETT JOHANSSON…

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It’s almost too on the nose… I bet Scarlett would tear up the part though.  Tear it up and have it for dinner…

This is a movie with multiple villains.  And each villain is very different from the others and very interesting.  But our Uber-Villain is THIS GUY — Vladimir…

Now, personally, I’d give it to my good friend MARK IVANIR (he played the Russian Spymaster a few seasons back on the BERLIN SEASON of HOMELAND).  Mark’s Russian by birth but grew up in Israel.  Knows his way around a villain while being an absolutely delightful person in the flesh…

But I know everyone’s a star-fucker so… I would also think about TCHEKY KARYO ( on the right — ‘La Femme Nikita’) or MADS MIKKELSEN ( on the left — ‘Hannibal’) while trying to talk you into my friend Mark —

Next up TWO THOUGHTS for ROBERT MUELLER) —

Senate Judiciary Committee

A great suggestion from Purple Mountains on my Twitter feed — CHRIS NOTH —

Chris Noth

Rock solid idea.  Another possibility?  A guy with surprising emotional range who you just plain like the moment you see him —

Clooney — George Clooney… ya think?

Since she’s ‘up to bat’ — let’s try n cast Sarah Huckabee Sanders —

sarah-huckabee-750x

I’m thinking MARY LYNN RAJSKUB (24 among lots of other great credits) —

Mary Lynn Rajskub

But PURPLE MOUNTAINS — on my Twitter feed had this very, VERY good idea — ROSIE O’DONNELL —

1200px-Rosie_O'Donnell_by_David_Shankbone

That’s gonna be a hard one.  And we’ve only just started thinking about it… Next up —

JARED THE ‘K’…

jared-kushner-trump-split-pending

The Donald Trump Players Presents “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” — Starring Real Life Crazy People

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.

For Nurse Ratched —

— think KIRSTIE ALLEY!
And, last — and very definitely least — there’s the “incomparable” SCOTT BAIO.
Ummmmmm, Scott? Since you never did have the acting chops (Joanie may have loved Chachi but one thing Chachi didn’t love was knowing how to act), we won’t be taxing you now. But, we do have a piece of wardrobe ready for ya…
And scene!

Dear Republicans: We The People Are Angrier At You Than You Realize

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.

Real Leaders LISTEN And Make Everyone Around Them Better; Donald Trump’s The Exact Opposite

Pete Souza’s wonderful photo of Barack Obama, bending down so the son of a WH staff member could pat his head.

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?”

That’s leadership.

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.

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.