In The TV Ad Wars, Progressive’s “Flo” Kicks “Doug” (And His Emu’s) Butt – Fight Me!

If you’re a regular consumer of cable TV news, you’re also a consumer of all the ads the news channels run in a constant, mind-numbing cycle. Big Pharma and Big Insurance own the bulk of the real estate; at least, that’s how it feels inside my head. Big Pharma’s “slice-of-life” ads beg to be satirized, especially the part of each ad where — as we watch our characters living their best lives (now that they’re cured!) — a Voice O’ God narrator speed reads a list of the “cure’s worse than the disease” side effects. See how happy these formerly afflicted people are now? They wouldn’t be so happy if any of this drug’s side effects ever kicked in. While Big Pharma stokes our fear of getting sick, Big Insurance stokes our fear of every other bad thing that could ever happen to us: car accidents, natural disasters, death (especially death). Living life each day, it turns out, carries the risk that something bad or expensive could ruin all our hopes and dreams. What’s that old joke about how to make God laugh by telling “him” your plans?

Big Insurance wants to inflame every latent fear cowering in the shadows of your mind — and, like an arsonist who’s also a fire fighter, their whole deal is to step forward as the loving savior who’s got your back!

For a price, of course.

Insurance is an essential concept to our capitalistic way of life. But, talking about insurance — geez, could anything be more “middle aged” and dull? The insurance industry is run by bean counters to whom the green eyeshade look is “a look”. And their product, essential as it is, is boring. For a long time, insurance companies took an entirely “adults in the room” approach to marketing their product to the unwashed and uninsured masses. Nationwide was “on your side”, You were “In Good Hands” with Allstate. If something bad happens, “Like A Good Neighbor State Form is there”. According to the New York Times, that all changed in 1999 when the Martin Agency created the Geico Gecko “to both reinforce Geico’s name and help the public figure out how to pronounce it”. The Gecko clicked however. He was funny and strangely human. An audience that didn’t care about insurance stopped to watch the ads not because fifteen minutes would change our lives but because we wanted to know more about the guy pitching it at us (lizard though he may be).

Before too long, Progressive Insurance — who no one even knew existed — created Flo (and her team), Allstate created Mayhem, Farmer’s Insurance rolled out J. K. Simmons as Professor Burke and Liberty Mutual created the LiMu Emu and his partner/friend/wing man Doug.

What all these insurance companies did was create IP (intellectual property) — characters who, they hoped, would encompass essential elements of their “franchise” within it. When you see the character, you’ll think of that insurance company. If the character made you laugh — in a good way — you’ll not only remember the insurance company, you’ll remember them fondly. If that’s all that happens, the insurance company is already ahead. Branding is a massive undertaking. But, if you end up buying insurance too? Back up the Brinks truck.

Now, I can claim a little bit of real world expertise when it comes to marketing and creating a franchise character. I’ve written and produced TV and feature films within certain franchises. My first produced TV show script was for “Freddy’s Nightmares: The Nightmare On Elm Street TV Series”. I’ve put words into Freddy Krueger’s mouth. I’ve also written and executive produced “The Outer Limits” for Showtime. OL’s franchise is more thoughtful than Nightmare On Elm Street’s. The “Control Voice” was always the weakest franchise character among all the anthology series that ever succeeded. I mean, who is he? What is he? I wrote and executive produced that show for two whole seasons and I still don’t get that character.

I also reinvented “Tales From The Crypt’s” Crypt Keeper when I took over running Tales going into its third season on HBO. Here’s a muuuuuuuuch younger version of me in the middle of a writing session with the dude. Love-hate. Yup. That was us.

When I took over writing the Crypt Keeper, Kevin Yeagher (Kevin created the CK) had gone as far as he could with his amazing puppet (run by six puppeteers) as the Crypt Keeper sat in the same chair wearing the same burlap sack outfit cracking the same painful puns for 25 episodes. In fact, when my partner Gil Adler and I took over at TFTC, it was supposed to be the show’s final season. We were caretakers wheeling the body to the TV show graveyard. Except that’s not what happened. Gil and I reinvigorated the show, I reinvigorated the Crypt Keeper and HBO went on to order four more seasons, Universal ordered three Tales feature films, the Crypt Keeper got merchandised and co-branded with Budweiser beer (among other products) and the Crypt Keeper even got a kids’ show. Not bad for a literal “dying concern”.

The question I asked — it’s what got me hired — was “What does the Crypt Keeper do when he’s not being the Crypt Keeper?”

What does he do when he punches the clock and goes home? What are his hobbies? What does he like to eat and drink? Who are his friends? What does he think about? Giving the Crypt Keeper an interior life gave him a life. Having a life made him more viscerally real to the audience who embraced him as they hadn’t before.

That’s my operating principle. It’s the bar characters have to clear (in my mind) to be “successful”. If we measure success by durability, that some characters endure while others don’t — that’s a good enough yardstick for me. Once you create a good character however, the real hard work begins: casting. Get it right, you’ll create a magical feedback loop that continually builds upon itself and its own invention. Get it wrong and begin to plan on getting fired.

In the current TV ad environment, these characters are succeeding because of superb casting: Geico’s Gecko succeeded beyond every expectation in large part because actor Jake Wood imparts so much humanity to his character. The CGI people gave the Gecko great eyes. Jake Wood makes every emotion the CGI guys invoke play for real inside our heads. That’s way harder than it looks. Bravo, everyone involved, bravo!

Jake Wood, the voice of the Geico Gecko

Not every great character can be “filled in” with great detail. Allstate’s Mayhem — like Farmers’ Professor Burke — is a good running joke but not really a character. Dean Winters, the actor who plays Mayhem is always fun to watch and the spots are usually clever. But, does Mayhem have a family? What must a family of Mayhems be like? Uh oh… am I about to make somebody rich?

Dean Winters is Allstate’s Mayhem

Similarly, J.K. Simmons’ Professor Burke is a great comic conceit more than a character. I’m not sure this character’s inner life is crying out for further exploration; I’m not sure this character has a meaningful interior life. In order for his home life to be interesting, Professor Burke would have to be something completely different in his off hours. Like a sex addict or a serial killer.

J K Simmons is Farmers’ Professor Burke

That brings us to Flo v Doug.

It’s not a fair fight; Flo and her crew win hands down. I’m not sure if Flo’s creators — copywriter John Park and art director Steve Reepmeyer, at the Boston-based agency Arnold Worldwide — anticipated how successful their creation would be. In 2008, in that very first ad, It’s just Flo, incredibly upbeat and super helpful.

The team at Arnold got it spot on when they hired Groundling alum Stephanie Courtney. Courtney has an improv player’s ability to make every environment believable simply by how she’s “being”. How she’s “being” creates the environment for the audience. Courtney sells Flo’s hyper-realness by believing in it so utterly herself that we do too. That’s how improv works: the actor literally wills the world in their head into ours. Being a good improv player, Courtney also fills her character with inner life (to justify how the outer life should look and sound).

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Here’s the Flo character’s first appearance —

You get the feeling she really, really lives to work.

It took a while for the Flo character to move from the retail floor to the corporate offices, for her crew to arrive and become distinctive characters unto themselves (the character Jamie especially). To its credit, the creative team at Arnold didn’t quit at Flo. Each and every member of Flo’s team is a distinct character with a distinct inner life; each time we get a glimpse, it makes sense — even when it’s completely surprising as it is with the Jamie character. Improv can only flourish in a “Yes, and!” environment. If I begin a scene by asking my scene partner “Do you like my hat?” She better say something like “Why, yes — I do! And I love the tropical birds! What are their names?” That will keep the improv going whereas if she says “What? You’re not wearing a hat”, the whole thing will die right there, on the spot. Progressive has “yes, and-ed” Flo into a whole believably organic world.

Over time, Progressive would sell itself by extending Flo’s world — including Flo’s family (Courtney usually plays the whole clan herself). There’s a Thanksgiving spot that gives the concept plenty of room to run around in.

A believable inner life. That’s the key to a great franchise character.

Before we shift to Liberty Mutual’s Doug, I want to give a shout out to another great Progressive character with a deep (I’d even say “profound”) inner life — the “Motaur” — half man, half motorcycle —

Throw in the Dr. Rick character (the guy trying to teach people not to turn into their parents) and you have a whole network’s worth of great characters.

By contrast, Liberty Mutual sure does try hard. Their various spots include the “Park With A View Of The Statue Of Liberty” world (it’s like a half-baked idea generator) and the Doug-Emu teaming. Goodby Silverstein & Partners developed Doug and the LiMu Emu. Per Liberty Mutual’s own web site: “The humorous and over-the-top duo who appear on the scene to share their knowledge and help protect people from paying too much for insurance coverage. LiMu Emu and Doug bring a new twist to the classic buddy-cop duo – partners guided by the notion that it’s a crime to pay for things you don’t need – going above and beyond to ensure they do their duty.” 

Okay — a simple enough concept but… oy, if you have to work that hard to sell or explain “funny”, it means the thing you’re selling probably isn’t. It’s not that the idea of a solid blue collar guy being partnered with an emu isn’t side-splittingly hilarious… oh, wait — maybe that’s the problem. Doug and his Emu partner are amusing. They’re a single funny thought. A sketch with a solid if unremarkable guffaw in it — and that’s all. The idea simply can’t support much more than that. This isn’t a casting issue. Not at all. David Hoffman does everything he can with the character. He works wonders with very little meat on his character’s undernourished bones.

Giving Doug and Emu girlfriends was cute. Clever even. They’re awkward and awkward is funny. But even awkward needs somewhere to go. What makes an awkward scene funny is that we, the audience, wouldn’t want to be in such a scene because even just watching it is cringey-funny. In the commercial below, the series achieves something remarkable.: a moment of genuine humor that works within the concept but also points to the concept’s limitations. It occurs at the end, when Doug offers Emu some food…

The awkwardness of Doug offering Emu chicken is terrific because it’s real. It points to how inorganic all the other awkwardness is. It’s a testament to Hoffman’s acting chops that he gets a great underplayed moment from an overplayed character.

By contrast, the Progressive ads are a master class in squeezing every last drop of painful humor from awkwardness. Jim Cashman’s Jamie is a fabulous creation with a completely unexpected off-stage life. It’s the contrast between an awkward character and a secure, confident inner life that makes Jamie compelling and infinitely watchable.

Jim Cashman as Progressive’s “Jamie”

Now that that’s off my chest, I can turn back to MSNBC. Hey, look! A Big Pharma ad’s on! And I am grateful as can be that I don’t (think I) have any of the diseases those characters have. And, damn if the side effects don’t sound horrifying enough to make even the Crypt Keeper fear for the worst.

If You Haven’t Sampled The Faitheism Project Podcast, This Is A Good One To Sample

Our sister site — The Faitheism Project Podcast — just dropped its latest podcast and (okay, I’m biased), I really recommend it.

In “The Faitheism Project Podcast”, a devout atheist (me) and a Presbyterian Pastor (my friend Randy Lovejoy) sit down to discuss spirituality — as opposed to religion. They are, in fact, two very different things. And, once you make that distinction, a conversation about religion becomes less contentious because, as Randy and I keep discovering, all of us, really, are on the same kind of spiritual journey; we just use different vocabulary to describe it. The Faitheism Project Podcast opens up the discussion by removing judgment. It’s not about winning an argument. It’s about discovering our commonality where we least expect to find it.

In this episode, Randy lets his hair down. He talks with remarkable candor about his actual spiritual process — the path that led him to where he is. It’s been challenging in ways both spiritual and physical. He’s been to some pretty remote places, put himself in harm’s way because he truly wanted to help those who most needed help by going TO them and directly helping. We’ve all got a horrible travel story or two in our past — especially one where either food or water and our gut went to war with each other.

Randy’s stories beat anything I’ve got hands down — for which I am grateful.

In this podcast, I also do a tribute to my old boss the action movie director Dick Donner. Dick was my boss back when I ran “Tales From The Crypt” for HBO. Dick — if you don’t know — produced and directed the “Lethal Weapon” movies, “Scrooged”, “The Goonies”, “Timeline”, a gazillion TV shows (back in the 60’s) and the horror classic “The Omen”.

Dick had a theory as to why “The Omen” succeeded as massively as it did. And his theory had something to do with the family Bible that sat in many American homes (unread of course).

There’s also a YouTube version (if you prefer to watch).

Please enjoy!

Director Dick Donner Just Died; He Was A Lovely, Lovely Man And A Real Pleasure To Work For

Back in the 1990’s, my partner at the time (Gil Adler) and I were hired to take over HBO’s horror anthology “Tales From The Crypt“. That third season was supposed to be the show’s last but Gil and I managed to turn the ship around. We reinvigorated the show but — more importantly — we reinvigorated the Crypt Keeper. That resulted in Tales running for another four seasons (during which time we also produced two “Tales From The Crypt” feature films, “Demon Knight” and my own personal Waterloo, “Bordello Of Blood“. For that entire span of time, I had, in essence four bosses (five if we include HBO who are wonderful to work for because they let you do what they hired you to do!): Walter Hill, Joel Silver, Bob Zemeckis and Dick Donner. Dick died two days ago, aged 91. No cause of death was attributed but, hey — he was 91! And he had a helluva run across those 91 years.

Among the films Dick directed: the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, “Superman” with Christopher Reeve (the movie that revived that franchise seemingly forever) and “The Omen”.

Now, even though I’ve written a lot of horror and produced a fair amount of it too, I am not a horror fan. My idea of a great “horror movie” is Nic Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”.

But, when I got to work with Dick, his movie “The Omen” had already become a classic horror movie. Dick had a theory as to why it succeeded so well. It starts with the fact that plenty of Americans have “family Bibles” that, while they prize them as possessions, they have never — EVER — cracked them so as to read them. Can anyone blame them? Yet that book (that they hadn’t read) had a perverse hold on them. For the three people who might not know, “The Omen” leans very heavily upon the most possible literal reading of the last book of the canonical NT “The Book Of Revelation”.

Revelation is an example of “apocalyptic literature”. It was not the only such text written; it was the only such text canonized however. The work’s author (he calls himself “John”) relies on all kinds of symbolism that meant certain things to certain people back then but mean nothing to us today — unless you fill those symbols with newer invented meaning. It’s still invented meaning. When most modern people read Revelation without the requisite context, they think they’re reading literal prophecy. What’s worse, they think “literal prophecy” is a thing.

Dick’s theory was a lot of people with unread Bibles in their houses went and saw the movie — and heard all those pointedly prophetic quotes which scared the crap out of them. Or the references to “666”. Then they went home and found those Bibles and opened them to The Book of Revelation — where they found those very same freaky Bible verses including 666 — right there in their own houses!

That, Dick believed, was why “The Omen” was such a smashing success.

Of Movie Monsters & “Franken-Christians”

In my time, I’ve written a few horror movies. I’ve written or produced (or written AND produced) franchises like Freddy Krueger, Children Of The Corn, Tales From The Crypt… I’ve helped create really good monsters and some really crap monsters. After all, in a horror movie, the whole point IS the monster.

Good monsters endure, bad ones get forgotten instantly. Back in the late 80’s, I co-wrote a bunch of episodes of the “NIghtmare On Elm Street TV series. Freddy, of course, is a great movie monster. Great mythology. Great character nuances (which, in a movie monster, are pure gold).

I also co-wrote “Children Of The Corn II: Deadly Harvest”. In typical Hollywood sausage-making fashion, we made Children Of The Corn II — and re-launched a failed franchise — not because anyone wanted that movie made but because of a deal. That was a crap monster, that one. Vague and mealy-mouthed (corn-meal of course). Creepy but not very compelling (in my opinion).

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 fairly 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 “do what I say or else!”.

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

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

Netflix Broke Hollywood But, Then, Hollywood Had It Coming

The end of the pandemic means entertainment can finally get back fully onto its feet and start entertaining us. For Hollywood however, getting back onto its feet is already proving a challenge. That’s because what Netflix had started to break before the pandemic slammed into Hollywood, the pandemic finished breaking for good. If you now subscribe to HBOMax, for instance, you’re part of the whole new way the entire entertainment business must think of itself, its products, the audience and how to satisfy that audience with its products. Not only does your HBOMax give you access to HBO’s content, it gives access to the Warner Bros Studio (part of HBO’s larger family) who, as of now, will be releasing all their feature films to HBOMax on the same day they release them to theaters. This is important because it means one of Hollywood’s biggest studios sees that an end to the feature film exhibition business is in sight and this distribution model is probably going to replace it. Sorry, folks, but movie theaters will be where we go to see super hero movies, giant action and sci-fi movies and maybe the occasional musical (a la “In The Heights”). Event movies will be what we think of as “movies”.

Everything else will come to us via our TVs, our computers, our smart phones and our tablets — where they’ll stream to us whenever we want.

THAT idea — streaming — landed via Netflix.

Streaming disrupted TV viewing the way Napster disrupted how we acquire and listen to music. In Napster’s case, it provided a way to file-share music. Instead of everyone going to a record store and buying their own copy of an album, Napster let one person (having bought the music) share it with the world. Good for the world (if they like that song), bad for everyone who created the song and hoped to live off the royalties it would generate from people buying it. Back then, musical artists made their money via record, tape or CD sales. They toured in order to support their physical releases. Any money made touring was gravy. File-sharing destroyed that paradigm. In very short order, the whole music business flipped on its head. Album & CD sales having tanked (and, with people more and more buying songs rather than whole albums), musical artists turned to touring to make money, using their CDs, downloads and physical products as the “cost of doing business”.

TV in America, prior to HBO and then Netflix, was always driven by a number rather than by any storytelling idea: 65. Back in the day, the entire television business was built upon syndication as the profit generator. Syndication is when a show, like “Friends” gets sold to a broadcaster (often local) who wants to fill a recurring slot in their daily broadcast schedule. Say, every week day from 5:30 to 6:00 pm just before their local news broadcast begins. Those blocks can be very profitable for a small broadcaster. It costs them relatively nothing and they sell the advertising time to whoever they can. The TV ratings companies organized these syndication periods into “blocks of time” that they published as “ratings books”– periods of 13 weeks that measured how much audience any show got. Thirteen weeks of shows times five shows a week equals 65 episodes.

For a show to reach syndication then, it had to be able to generate a minimum of 65 different stories. That’s 65 different variations on the same theme. The Big Three Networks and Fox had two on-air “seasons” to fill each year: a fall season and a spring season. That’s why network orders were usually in the 22 – 25 episodes range. That’s a lot of air time to fill with non-connecting story. Roomfuls of writers rack their brains to fill that time. Frankly, from a creative perspective, it’s back-breaking. It’s simply impossible (with all the time and money pressures) to create 22 great shows per season. When I did Tales, our seasonal orders were for twelve episodes. Of that twelve, two or three would be excellent Two or three more would be very good and the rest would be mediocre if we were lucky. On orders of 22? The numbers break exactly the same.

For comparison’s sake: the BBC paid for its shows via TV license fees paid by viewers. That was their production fund. They did not even think of syndication. That’s why there are only, say, six episodes of great British shows like “Fawlty Towers”. They made as many as the idea warranted and then, most of the time, they stopped. Yeah, sure, some shows ran a season or two past their prime (“Ab Fab” comes to mind), but, for the most part, English shows rarely jumped the shark because they never had the time.

People who watch shows in syndication aren’t necessarily watching them in sequence which makes syndicating a continuous story pointless as too few viewers would be able to follow it that way. Consequently, syndication forced storytellers to avoid any sort of serialized storytelling whatsoever. There might be some sort of character evolution over the course of a season but it wasn’t going to be any sort of “arc” that altered the character profoundly. They sure weren’t going to die in a Red Wedding in the middle of a season.

This meant that if you wanted to try and sell a TV series, the idea had to be non-serialized and broad enough that you could think of at least 65 different ways to tell what was, more or less, the same story. If you stop to think about it, what audiences tuned in for back then wasn’t a show where every episode was a different watching experience, it was all the exact same experience from week to week. The sameness and lack of evolution was the whole point — and that was the engine that drove HOW anyone thought of TV and what might make a good, salable TV show concept.

Good quality TV shows are expensive to make — especially if you have stars attached to them. The license fee NBC payed to broadcast each new episode of “Friends” did not cover the full cost of making the episode. It didn’t come close to paying the six stars salaries. To offset those costs, each TV production was obligated to find a “deficit partner” who’d take a risk — gambling that the ownership they acquired by cash flowing the unpaid for part of production would pay them back handsomely when the shows finally reached syndication.

The wheels started to come off the TV syndication wagon when HBO turned from being strictly a broadcaster of recent feature films to a provider of original content, too. HBO’s business model didn’t require syndication to pay for a show’s production costs. HBO did that. Working for HBO (as I did when I made Tales From The Crypt), didn’t pay as well as the networks but then, at HBO you were creatively free while, at the networks, you weren’t. As we finished production of Tales, HBO (and Showtime) were beginning to put their shows up for Emmys. In their minds, they were now openly competing with the networks. Being unrestricted by network standards, creative people (as I can attest) began looking to premium cable as a preferable outlet for their storytelling. When AMC let Vince Gilligan stay true to Breaking Bad’s bad self, even basic cable was going places — with serialized fare — that CBS, addicted to closed-ended, CSI-type shows, would never, ever do.

But, HBO and Showtime and AMC all still released their episodes conventionally, one-a-week. Netflix threw that idea away. When Netflix released the entire first season of “Man In The High Castle” on the same day, refusing to string its audience along while also allowing them to watch the however they wanted — in bits and pieces or in one, big, streaming bite.

Hello, disruption.

This is not a small thing. From a creative point of view, how you think of a close-ended, syndication-friendly show that needs a minimum of sixty-five variations is entirely different from how you tell a ten-part serialized story that plays out over the course of one season.

To be fair, Hollywood’s never wanted to play by anyone else’s rules. One of the reasons the film business started in Los Angeles (apart from the weather) was its remoteness. Before the transcontinental railroad reached LA in 1876, it was “an unremarkable settlement producing wines and brandy along with meat, hides and soap from cattle.” When William Mulholland arrived from Belfast a year later in 1877, a mere 9000 called the place “home”. While LA’s population would surge to 300,000 within thirty years, it wouldn’t become “Los Angeles” until Mulholland’s vision for the city — fueled by water he was going to steal from the Owns Valley to the north — came to fruition. The truth is, LA should not be a major city; it doesn’t have enough water to sustain it. When the film business landed here in the first decade of the 1900’s, just before water started flowing through the aqueduct Mulholland was building for the city of Los Angeles, LA was still hard to get to and, considering the size of the space, unpopulated.

When the film business started, if you wanted to be IN the film business (what little of it there was), the first thing you needed was a camera. That meant you needed one of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopes. Edison wasn’t in the business of giving away his inventions for free. If you wanted to use a kinetoscope to make a movie, you needed to pay a license fee to Edison. That license could be expensive. Some clever burgeoning movie makers found a way to get ahold of kinetoscopes. Not wanting to have to pay for them however (Edison had ways of finding out and hunting people down), many of these renegades headed west, settling in Los Angeles because it was remote, hard to get to and, for a little while anyway, safe from Edison’s reach.

In the end, Edison caught up with everyone.

It’s a strange but glorious time to be in the TV business. Disruption is everywhere. So is hyper-creativity. Back when the networks ran things, storytelling was limited to likeable characters sailing through predictable situations. A character like Walter White could NEVER have made it past standards and practices intact. Everything that made Walter great would have been watered down so that he always stayed likeable. The networks could never have imagined a “Fleabag“. They would all have called security on Phoebe Waller-Bridges if she’d walked in the door to pitch it to them. Even “Fleabag” owed its ability to push the envelope to Netflix’s impact on the entire storytelling environment.

Netflix — by destroying syndication — reinvented storytelling. The death of 65 as an organizing principle meant storytellers were now free to just tell their stories as fully and as faithfully as they wanted. We can all see the result: TV has never been this good, not just in America, but across the world. What’s even better? Netflix has internationalized the whole TV-viewing experience. It’s made shows that, by all rights, should have been happy to be moderate successes inside their own countries full-on international successes. Take Netflix’s “Schtisl” about a Chasidic family in Jerusalem.

Back when I started in the TV business, everyone’s goal was to get a show “on network”. That’s how you’d know you’d arrived: you had a show on primetime on ABC, CBS or NBC. I was happy to have “Tales” on HBO but I knew it wasn’t the same as having “Friends” on NBC. These days? The thought of selling a show to any of them would feel like defeat — like the idea I had simply wasn’t good enough. Or big enough. Or worthy enough…

For Netflix.

Beware The “Franken-Christian”

In my time, I’ve written a few horror movies. I’ve written or produced (or written AND produced) franchises like Freddy Krueger, Children Of The Corn, Tales From The Crypt… I’ve helped create really good monsters and some really crap monsters. After all, in a horror movie, the whole point IS the monster.

Good monsters endure, bad ones get forgotten instantly. Back in the late 80’s, I co-wrote a bunch of episodes of the “NIghtmare On Elm Street TV series. Freddy, of course, is a great movie monster. Great mythology. Great character nuances (which, in a movie monster, are pure gold).

I also co-wrote “Children Of The Corn II: Deadly Harvest”. In typical Hollywood sausage-making fashion, we made Children Of The Corn II — and re-launched a failed franchise — not because anyone wanted that movie made but because of a deal. That was a crap monster, that one. Vague and mealy-mouthed (corn-meal of course). Creepy but not very compelling (in my opinion).

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 fairly 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…

Alpha Dogs Don’t Have To Be A-holes

Scott Rudin

Larger-than-life show biz alpha dog SCOTT RUDIN announced publicly today that he’s “stepping back”, having suddenly realized apparently that decades of acting like the biggest asshole in every room he was in has a downside. In my 35+ years in the show biz trenches, I’ve worked with and for many creative people equal in stature to Rudin — both as producers and as creatives. While writing and producing “Tales From The Crypt” for HBO and Fox, two of my executive producer bosses were action movie producer JOEL SILVER and genius director ROBERT ZEMECKIS. Both Joel and Bob are alpha dogs but very different kinds of alpha dog. Night and day. Joel was very much an alpha dog from the same part of the kennel as as Rudin — these guys are screamers. They’ve gotten it into their heads that they can say whatever they want to whomever they want without fear of consequence. They don’t need to show another human being an ounce of respect — but every other human better look at them with not just respect but fealty. That’s the alpha dog as asshole — the kind of alpha dog we expect. But Bob Z’s alpha-ness was just as apparent — even more apparent in many ways — because, when working with Bob, one felt his “alpha-ness” without Bob ever seeming to project it. Bob Z’s alpha dog is what actual leadership looks like.

My partner at the time Gil Adler and I took over “Tales” at the end of its second season on HBO. The third season, it was understood, was going to be the show’s last; everyone from HBO to the executive producers believed the show had run its course. Gil and I didn’t agree. I especially didn’t. I was a fan of the whole EC Comics world — Mad Magazine’s predecessor — since I was a kid. One of my biggest thrills ever was getting to meet EC’s & Mad’s publisher and organizing spirit William F. Gaines on set of Lethal Weapon II. After our first season running Tales not only turned the series around but gave it a future — HBO ordered two more seasons — our executive producer Joel had invited Bill Gaines out to LA to talk about a whole larger arrangement between the Crypt Partners and EC — and Joel graciously invited Gil and I to meet Bill in Joel’s trailer on the LWII set while he and Bill had lunch. This is the thing about Joel — he could absolutely be as mean and heartless as any ratty alpha. He also had grace and generosity within him. I personally experienced it. Joel may not be facile with these things — but has at least some semblance of these elements in his emotional makeup.

That’s what makes his acting like the other alpha so head-scratching. In the long run, being a screamer has not benefitted my old boss. Pissing people off and alienating them eventually makes your world teeny-tiny. Joel’s world got so small, he was forced to cohabitate with some very unsavory types — like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.

Joel Silver (on the left) w Ari Emmanuel

Alpha dogs in the Joel vein create a culture around them that mirrors their exact alphaness. Alphas like Joel find that appealing — and, so, endure the pettiness, abuse and tyranny because, in their minds, some day THEY will rule over a fiefdom just like this — in just this way.

On the other extreme was my executive producer Bob Z — the antithesis to the asshole alpha. I’ll get to Bob momentarily. In the middle was my EP Richard Donner, his company and its exec assigned to Tales SCOTT NIMERFRO. Scott was both a cynical studio creature and a true artist. I had the pleasure of working with both up close. A mid-westerner with a deliciously twisted, Coen-Brothers type sense of humor (they, too are mid-westerners), Scott loved, celebrated, mocked and used as inspiration that oddly mid-western way of seeing things. He loved bowling culture. Same goes for Bingo game culture. Scott hosted Friday evening “get togethers” back in the day where a bunch of us would suddenly “descend” like elite locusts on a bingo parlor out in the San Fernando Valley. It was incredible fun — if mildly disruptive for a night to the regulars. I wrote a bunch with Scott — loved every second of it — and I miss the guy; Scott died in 2016 from angiosarcoma, a rare kind of cancer.

Bob Zemeckis is every bit the alpha Joel and Scott Rudin are. Bob owns every room he walks into. Except Bob isn’t trying to do that. He’s just walking into the room. His alpha is confident in its own alpha-ness. It has no need to denigrate others to feel alpha. Bob’s a collaborative alpha whose own success rests on his ability to marshal others’ work and passion toward something he’d like to do. The trick is to make others take ownership in what you are doing. It’s Me vs We. Bad alphas turn everyone around them into variations of them all focused on “me”. Good alphas make everyone part of their “we”.

Bob Zemeckis

It was a pleasure working for and collaborating with Bob in part because of the kind of alpha he is but also because Bob loves to challenge those who work with him. Bob’s always looking for ways to tell stories filmicly in ways that haven’t been done yet because they haven’t been imagined. Remember “Forrest Gump”? Intermingling film characters from two different places has been going on from film’s beginning as an art form. The trick is integrating them seamlessly so you can’t see how they’ve been integrated. Woody Allen (whose films sadly are now dead to me) did it in “Zelig” in 1983; his Zelig character seems to interact with historical figures in newsreel photos. There’s a bit of interaction but it’s all physical. There’s no dialogue.

Zemeckis goes much further in integrating Forrest’s world and our world. In 1988, Bob integrated a fully-functional animated world into ours in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. I’m proud to say that Bob fine-tuned the integration he had in mind on “Forrest Gump” when he prepped for “You, Murderer”, the last episode of Crypt he directed. I won Bob’s trust toward the end of my first season on Crypt — the one that was supposed to be the show’s last. AS Crypt’s final episode (that wasn’t in the end), the Crypt Partners (Joel, Bob, Dick Donner and director Walter Hill) and HBO had agreed to splash out on something epic. Bob wanted to pay homage to one of his favorite movies ever, Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths Of Glory”, a World War One story starring Kirk Douglass.

Bob wanted to shoot a World War One story also starring Kirk Douglass. The trick: getting Kirk Douglass to do this episode of Tales From The Crypt. There’s a lot to balance here: Kirk Douglass was at the tail end of an illustrious film career. He was a true Hollywood God. Bob was A Hollywood God with the whole Back To The Future franchise to his credit. Crypt was a show that had made a big splash with big names (Arnold Schwarzeneggar had directed an episode, his first time behind the camera) but those days seemed well behind the show — which HBO was ending anyway. Like all our episodes, “Yellow” was based at least loosely on a comic from the EC canon. The story in “Yellow” was based entirely on the comic book’s story: a WWI general is forced to court martial and condemn to death his cowardly son whose cowardice killed a good soldier. The problem: the teleplay that had been written by the normally reliable Thomas Brothers was one-dimensional. It couldn’t update its way of thinking from the 1950’s source which made the script feel, well, dated. The trick with a franchise like Crypt is to keep all the good, nostalgia-inducing qualities while mitigating the bad. Bob knew he could never get Kirk Douglass with the script we had. He turned to me to fix it — as I started on Crypt as the story editor.

Most TV shows have a staff of writers. Up until the very last season (the one we shot in London) where we finally had ONE writer on staff (Scott Nimerfro), Crypt had never had any writers on staff. There was no writing staff except for me (though his name is on many scripts, my friend Gil did not actually write anything; do not get me started on how dumb I was out of friendship and loyalty). I wrote a bunch of my own scripts for the show and rewrote everyone else’s until it was camera ready. Except for Nimerfro’s. After the first time I tried to re-write Scott (he disabused me of that quickly) — and I understood that Scot got the show in the exact same way I did — I’d simply ask him how many episodes he wanted to write at the beginning of the season. He’d write them and essentially produce them. Scott’s episodes are easily some of the series very, very best.

My revision to the script got us Kirk Douglass. It got me a fan in Bob Z. So — when, many seasons later, Crypt contemplated ending its run again, they turned to Bob Z to direct the finale. Side note: news of our demise had, yet again, been premature. Crypt ran for one more season which we shot in London. Bob had chosen a comic story as source material: “You, Murderer” — a very noir murder tale told entirely from a subjective point of view — all the characters treat the reader as a character in the piece. As with every episode, the source comic was good for a title (mandatory), maybe the story idea in broad terms. Most likely the twist ending. Crypt stories are all little morality tales where, most of the time, the bad guy gets his comeuppance in the most graphic, horrifying, literal way possible. The guy who kills everyone else to be “head of the company”, say, will end up with his head on a spike outside the company’s HQ. Frequently however, aside from the title, the comic was utterly useless (with even the title feeling dated). All we could really take was the anarchic, laugh in your face, EC Comic sensibility. So — when Bob set up a lunch to discuss his final episode, I honestly had zero idea where he might take the comic.

I drove up to Bob’s Montecito estate (this was in 1995). We had lunch. We pushed the dishes aside and Bob looked across the table at me with a smile.

Now, here’s where working with Bob Z gets good. It’s the moment where he poses an impossible question but asks “How’re we gonna do this?” In every piece Bob ever makes, there’s at least one moment that — unbeknownst to the audience — is filmicly impossible. The shot or shots either cannot happen or cannot happen in any produce-able way — at least, that’s what we think watching the scene: how the hell did they do that? Every creative partner in the process was asked the same question at whatever point they entered the creative process — seeing what Bob wanted us to achieve, “how were we going to achieve this thing?”

That — right there — is Bob’s alpha dog genius. It’s where we can see that his focus is “we” and not even remotely “me”. An example — in “Castaway”, Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland has been stranded on the deserted island he’s on for a while before finally climbing the island’s central hill in order to survey both the island and the reefs that surround the island. As Chuck climbs the hill, the camera “perches” just behind, following. It uses the side of Chuck’s face, his neck and his shoulders as a kind of framing device. The camera keeps Chuck in the shot the whole time. At last, Chuck reaches the summit — a very, VERY narrow piece of real estate hardly big enough for Chuck to stand on as he slowly (his face, neck and shoulders still very much in the shot) turns, surveying the island, its reef and his chances of getting past the reef to rescue.

Here’s the problem: that’s a great shot but who shot it? This was well before the all digital Red Camera was invented. Bob was shooting film, not video. 35 mm film cameras, by comparison, were behemoths There’s nowhere for the crew to be and without the crew, Bob can’t get this amazing shot. So, to put it simply, where’s the damned crew? Where did Bob hide the crew that got this amazing shot? Nowhere as far as we can “see” — which makes the shot impossible. Which means, at some point as he first described to his collaborators the very cool, never-been-seen-before shot in his head, Bob asked them all “Guys, how’re we gonna do this?” Now, Bob wasn’t asking the question like a tourist to the set. He’d already thought long and hard about it.

Bob had some answers of his own. But, Bob also knew his might not be the best answer. The best answer might be someone else’s but Bob knew how to get other people to not just give him their ideas but insist he have them because whatever Bob was doing was what they were now doing too.

“All I really know,” said Bob, as we contemplated the comic’s title, “You, Murderer”, “Is I want to do a completely subjective single-camera camera point of view.” That’s already a challenge if the goal is stay inside that single-camera point of view. That means we won’t shoot the show how we normally would — master shot plus coverage for emphasis as needed. In a single camera point of view, there IS NO coverage. There are no other camera angles to consider, only the one. That meant there’d be nothing to cut away to. If the episode felt draggy, there would literally be no way to fix it via editing. What we saw would be what we had.

Bob added the first complication. The guy whose point of view we’d see the whole episode from? He’s a dead guy! And part of our story will be how he got to “be” a dead guy. Cool concept but how does one tell such a story? Never mind that — here’s one more creative complication: the dead guy? Bob wanted Humphrey Bogart to play him. To make that work, Bob had identified about a dozen places in the script where the “dead guy” passes a reflective surface — and sees himself — and then says something out loud. Bob was already well down the road to doing “Forrest Gump”. To Bob — who was using the Crypt episode to experiment — these little set pieces were the whole point of the exercise.

On the first day of prep — with the whole crew at his disposal (a thing that never happened because no director ever got the crew when they were prepping because the crew was too busy shooting the last episode), Bob invited the entire crew onto our “four wall set”. Most sets are three walls — with the fourth missing because that’s where the camera and crew are theoretically. But, because Bob wanted to have a subjective camera, the camera had to be able to look anywhere at any time — as if it was a corpse being dragged around, trying to figure out how to intercede on its own behalf. Walking from place to place, kneeling occasionally, Bob described how he saw the scene — and its one shot — unfolding. From one side of the set to the other and then back again. It seemed utterly impossible.

Of course it did! Bob chuckled delightedly as he looked out at our crew, ready to get to work. “Guys,” he said, “How’re we gonna do this? How’re we gonna get this shot?” The gantlet was thrown. It was up to us as a unit to rise to the challenge. Getting people to rise to a challenge instead of having a challenge imposed upon them is far healthier and far more productive for all concerned.

The truth is, guys like Joel Silver and Scott Rudin are physically incapable of treating others with the respect due them. Is it nature or nurture that makes them this way? I’m much more inclined to say “nature”.

Sylvester Stallone Has ALWAYS Behaved Like A Trump Voter — I’ve Seen It UP CLOSE

Heroes run TOWARD burning buildings, bent on saving people. Zeroes, on the other hand, don’t. “Actor” Sylvester Stallone has, it seems, very recently paid $200,000 to Donald Trump to become a card-carrying “member” of Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Old Pervert’s Club. Imagine surveying the landscape post insurrection and choosing to side with insurrection and bullshit and The Big Lie. This is Rocky — BEFORE he finds his soul in Adrienne’s eyes and STOPS being some low level mob boss’s leg breaker. The real Sly Stallone has always been THIS Rocky — the corrupt goombah looking for a feather bed somewhere in the mob structure. Now, I’ve never met Stallone in person. But I feel like I have because our lives intertwined almost every day while I was making the movie “Bordello Of Blood” in Vancouver, British Columbia while Stallone was making a movie called “Assassins” just across the border in Seattle. Our connection was my actress Angie Everheart who — at the time — also was Stallone’s fiancé. Spoiler Alert: Stallone treated Angie horribly. He cheated on her relentlessly — which I know because Stallone tried to get my production unit to help him do it.

“Bordello Of Blood” was the second of what was supposed to be a trilogy of “Tales From The Crypt” branded horror movies, a deal that arose after my then partner Gil Adler and I took over running the show going into its third season (1992). That was supposed to be Tales’ last season; HBO felt the show had run its course but Gil and I turned the franchise around. In particular, we reinvented the Crypt Keeper which, in turn, reinvigorated the show. We ended up running for another four seasons; part of that surge in the franchise’s popularity at the time was a three picture feature deal at Universal Studios. “Tales From The Crypt Presents Demon Knight” was the first feature we produced. It’s a solid, well-made movie — directed by the incredibly talented Ernest Dickerson — about a group of people trapped in a remote decommissioned church by a charismatic demon played by the also incredibly talented Billy Zane. After “Demon Knight’s” success, we set out to make our second Tales feature — which, initially, was going to be a nuanced, character-driven, psychological horror piece set in New Orleans. Circumstances, greed and a deal that had nothing to do with us interceded however and Universal pulled the plug on “Dead Easy”, the movie we were weeks away from shooting and, instead, assigned us the task of making “Bordello Of Blood” — a romp about vampire hookers living in the basement of a funeral home.

On paper, “Bordello” sounds great — if horror movies are your thing. But, as with most things in life, you still have to DO the thing to actually make it succeed. We didn’t so much “do” Bordello as Bordello “did” us. When you make movies for completely inorganic reasons — because of a deal rather than because you want to tell a particular story — you can’t be surprised if bad things happen and keep happening. That’s the story of the making of “Bordello Of Blood”. Every day making that movie was stupider than the day before it. When I think of the accumulated talent of the named filmmakers (my executive producers on Tales were Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Richard Donner and Walter Hill — some of the biggest movie makers EVER), it boggles my mind that we made so many silly, expensive, amateurish mistakes while making the movie.

One of our earliest amateurish mistakes was casting our villain.

Now, understand: every single one of us set Angie Everheart up to fail (which she did not). She acquits herself admirably. She brings everything she has to the job and she should be proud of her work. The movie has fans — and so does she. But… Angie’s miscast. She just is. Horror movies are all about the villain. How you cast Freddy Krueger is vital. “Demon Knight” works mostly because Billy Zane fills every frame he’s in with fun and menace. He was an experienced film actor when we cast him; all that experience helped because, frankly, the script was meh. Billy made a dogmatic part his (the rules behind our story’s mythology still baffle me and I helped write them). Angie didn’t because she couldn’t. In her defense, the part was even less “written”. She, too, was playing a monster beautiful on the outside, not-so-beautiful on the inside. While Billy had a pool of menace inside him, Angie did not. That’s the rub — she didn’t because she’s a super lovely person — on the inside!

Over the course of my career, I’ve cast hundreds of actors. I don’t think I’ve ever cast an actor to “act”. I’ve never wanted them to “act”. I’ve wanted them “to be”. In film acting, the camera sees everything — even things the actor doesn’t intend an audience to see. The harder they try to “act away” those things, the more “actory” their performance becomes and more the story as a whole suffers. Better to hire actors who, in some way, are like the character. That’s what most casting really is — hiring actors who are enough LIKE their characters that the audience won’t bump on them playing the part. What makes great actors great is their honesty, courage and willingness to be that honest for the sake of a story and an audience. The more real actors seem, the better they serve the story they’re part of. So — we hire actors “to be” and not “to act”.

Hiring Angie and expecting her “to be” Lilith (her character) was unfair. Originally, Gil and I wanted Robin Givens to play Lilith. Robin, we’d been told, could be tricky to work with. We didn’t care about that — FFS, we worked for Joel Silver — one of the most notoriously difficult people in Hollywood. Nothing Robin did could equal Joel. Also, instead of Dennis Miller (who plays the lead), we wanted Danny Baldwin. But Joel insisted on casting our three leads himself — his prerogative as the executive producer. I could devote a whole book to my “Dennis Miller Experience”. Dennis is a talented man. He’s very smart and wickedly funny. But, he’s deeply unhappy and seems determined to make everyone around him equally unhappy. He’s a bully.

At the time that we were casting “Bordello”, Joel had a movie awaiting release: “Fair Game” starring Cindy Crawford. Mostly a Big Action Movie producer, Joel was convinced that “Super Models Starring In Movies” was the next, big Hollywood trend that he, Joel, was inventing. “Fair Game” ended up bombing horribly — in part because Cindy Crawford is a very talented model but not a talented actress. So — when the idea of Angie came up — Angie, at the time, was a well-known, well-respected and sought after super model — it wasn’t entirely insane. But it wasn’t sound casting either. And Angie’s name came up only because her fiancé at the time — Stallone — was already working for Joel on “Assassins”.

We shot Bordello in Vancouver rather than LA because we were running away from the IA — the union that most of our crew belonged to. Joel was in a perpetual battle with the IA. While our crew was all union, their deal with us was “non-union” because, though we were one of HBO’s most popular shows, our budgets were tiny (by Hollywood standards). Some months before we started working on Bordello, the IA had struck another of our sets, shutting it down. In the childish tit-for-tat, Joel felt it was his turn to be the bigger asshole, so he pulled the movie out of LA and sent us north to BC. Never mind that it was June.

Thing is with horror movies? Night time is prime time. Scary things seem scarier in the dark. One thing you have very little of that far north in summer? DARK. Oh, sure, there’s a nighttime during summer — but it’s only a few hours. In Vancouver in July (when we were actually shooting), the sun doesn’t disappear from the sky until gone ten pm and the first traces of dawn appear in the sky around 2:30 am. That gives you four and a half hours of darkness in a nine to twelve hour shooting day. It makes no sense. Why on earth would you do such a thing — go make a movie somewhere antithetical to the movie you’re making?

Because we were going to be in Vancouver, Stallone apparently saw an opening. He began to needle Joel on the “Assassins” set in Seattle to hire his fiancé (he called her his girlfriend in related conversations) not just to “be” in our movie, but to star in it — as the villain. That was Sylvester Stallone’s idea for “Bordello Of Blood” — and damn if we didn’t do it! When Joel first approached us (“Guys, guys! I have a great idea — Angie Everheart as the villain in your movie!”), Gil and I balked immediately (“What? No, Joel, please don’t do that — we’ve already read Robin Givens and she’s great!”). Joel persisted though (because Stallone persisted).

Trying to find another voice that would appeal to Joel, Gil and I called Billy Friedkin. Billy had directed an episode of Tales the previous season and we’d had a great experience working with Billy. He had just directed Angie in a small role in his thriller “Jade”. “How is Angie as an actress — for our movie,” we asked Billy. We knew the role she’d played in “Jade” was small and, for Angie, very close to home (where she could “be” rather than “act”). “She’s a very nice person,” Billy told us — code for “she’s not right for the part”.

We took that professional assessment to Joel. No dice. “How about we screen test her!” Gil suggested. That way, Sly would be able to see it for himself. As someone who loved Angie enough to want to marry her, surely Stallone would come to his senses. We did the screen test. Angie gave it her very best shot but anyone looking at it honestly would have given up — if only because they loved Angie enough not to subject her to work she couldn’t possibly do justice to. Still, Stallone wouldn’t be happy on his movie if Angie wasn’t cast in ours. WTF!

We cast Angie. She really, REALLY is a terrific human being who deserved to be treated with respect — a thing her fiancé did not have for her. From the time she arrived in Vancouver — toward the end of formal prep — Angie would travel down to Seattle on the weekends to be with Sly. But, when we started shooting, Sly’s assistant called our production office and asked if there wasn’t some way we couldn’t “HOLD ONTO ANGIE” for the next couple of weekends.

Wait, what? “Hold ONTO Angie”? Why? No reason was offered. Just — Sly would like it if we could. Well, as there was 1) no justification to hold Angie for the weekend and, 2) even trickier, nothing for us to have her do instead of traveling, we declined. I mean, seriously — what did they expect us to tell Angie? “No, you can’t leave Vancouver cos you have to study your lines in this genius piece of crap script?”

On the plus side, Angie NOT visiting Sly meant she wasn’t coming back to our set with Angie’s lines rewritten (by Sly) and every bit of her performance already directed — again, by Sly.

Shortly thereafter, we heard some stories from the “Assassins” set that suggested exactly “why” Stallone wanted Angie on the Canadian side of the border. I cannot vouch for the following story’s veracity. It’s a great story nonetheless — and we heard it FROM the “Assassins” set. Stallone finishes a shot and returns to his trailer where a “pretty young thing” is waiting for him. Stallone doesn’t know that his wireless mic is still LIVE, still broadcasting back to the sound cart on the set. As the crew begin to gather around the sound cart, they’re treated to Very Famous Actor Sly Stallone having sex. Stallone, it turns out, has a few preferences (who doesn’t?) “That’s it, that’s it,” Stallone is heard saying, “Cup the balls… cup the balls!” There are a few “Stroke the shaft” thrown in, but what gets the whole crew laughing is “Cup the balls”.

The next morning, we were told, Stallone walked onto the “Assassins” set to find EVERYONE on the crew wearing the same t-shirt that read across its front “Cup The Balls”.

Did it really happen? I don’t know. But, I sure as hell hope it did.

It sucks to be a shithead’s co-conspirator. Toward the middle of the shoot, I needed to get away for a few days and arranged to fly down to LA to hang with my wife. Flying on other peoples’ dime is the best! As I settled into my first class seat — the section’s only passenger for that flight — and a drink was put into my hand while we waited to taxi from the gate — I felt a little of the stress begin to ameliorate. We were waiting, it turned out, for one last passenger to make it through the jetway. Finally, she did: Angie. She, too was flying home for the weekend.

Now, let’s be real — when a woman as statuesque and stunning as Angie Everheart greets you in a public space the way Angie greeted me, that should make a male glow from the inside. The whole rest of the world thinks beautiful women like you. For some reason, that matters. And, under most circumstances, getting to spend some quality face time with Angie (who’s actually very smart), talking about work but also about life — that would have been awesome. But, Angie sensed something was wrong with her relationship with Sly. She spent the entire three hour flight talking about Sly — how much she loved him. How excited she was for their future together.

And there I sat the entire time, knowing and thinking what a rat bastard Stallone was for cheating on her so relentlessly, so openly. So disrespectfully.

We finally got to LA, Angie and I said “See you Monday back in Vancouver!” and went our separate ways.

A few weeks later, Sly formally broke it off with Angie. I think Sly’s assistant called her to tell her. And my actress — not up to the part to begin with, having been cast only because Sly insisted — now had to be coaxed from her trailer because she was rightfully depressed.

Think of what actually happened here: Stallone wanted to break his engagement to Angie but didn’t have the courage to tell her to her face and then used US as a kind of mental “consolation prize” that HE had procured for HER.

I’ve always known that Stallone was a conservative. It’s neither here nor there to me. Don’t bring that crap onto my film set though. And do NOT infect my film set with it.

Stallone’s problem isn’t his conservatism, it’s that he’s a greedy, selfish pig who seeks approval from and community with other greedy, selfish pigs. If I was going to make a movie about greedy, selfish pigs — I’d know who to cast.

And now? I’ll even know where to find him…

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…