Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Michael Bay's The Rock turns 20 today - An excerpt from MICHAEL F-ING BAY

Today is a special day in the history of film because it is the 20th anniversary of the release of Michael Bay's The Rock, one of his best films to date. In commemoration of that occasion, I am reproducing the chapter dedicated to The Rock from my book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.

The book is currently available on Amazon.com at a cost of $4.99 on Kindle or $10.99 in paperback. For more information about the book, you can check out this post.

The Rock (1996)

Release date: June 7, 1996 
Story by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook 
Screenplay by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner 
Produced by Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer 
Budget: $75 million 
Domestic box office: $134 million 
Global box office: $335 million

Every iconic filmmaker has that movie that is not their first production, but the one that will dominate their filmography for the rest of their careers. For these truly brilliant directors, that masterpiece usually arrives within their first three films. Steven Spielberg had Jaws, George Lucas had Star Wars, Quentin Tarantino had Pulp Fiction, and David Fincher had Se7en. For Michael Bay, that movie is The Rock.

Whether or not The Rock is Bay’s absolute best film may be a matter of debate. It happens to be my personal favorite. When I want a film that will challenge me and make me think, I of course will reach for Transformers: Age of Extinction. As we have discussed, that film easily represents a creative pinnacle in Bay’s career. But when I’m in the mood for something with a less political bent and more rollicking good fun, I reach for The Rock.

Though Michael Bay is without peer, as I examine this film, I of course find myself paralleling him with Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh burst onto the indie film scene in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape and spent over the next decade becoming known for unusual indie films outside the mainstream. It would not be until 2000’s Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich that Soderbergh would truly make a mainstream film with a major star. But even then, one could argue that its status as a true-life Oscar bait film salvaged Soderbergh’s reputation. No one would dare call it slumming to direct a film that won America’s Sweetheart her first Oscar.

This is why it was still jarring when Soderbergh dove headfirst into big-budget, star-driven, genre filmmaking with Ocean’s Eleven just a year later. With a cast that included superstars George Clooney and Brad Pitt, this remake of the 1960 Rat Pack film aspired to be nothing more than a fun romp. It was the pinnacle of studio filmmaking, elevated by the technical skill and keen directorial hand of the auteur. Ocean’s Eleven will probably never be named first when cinephiles are debating what his best film is, but that doesn’t take away from how perfectly structured, masterfully performed and expertly executed it is. It’s certainly among the best in its genre. What Ocean’s Eleven represents to Soderbergh, The Rock represents to Michael Bay. Yes, we know that deep down, Bay is capable of far more complicated work than this, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of The Rock any more.

Many of Bay’s later productions saw him being brought on in the early stages, sometimes developing the screenplay from the ground up. That is not the case with The Rock, which began life as a screenplay from David Weisberg & Douglas F. Cook. It was originally bought by Disney for Caravan Pictures, but found its way to Simpson/Bruckheimer. They commissioned rewrites and by the time the script made it to screen, at least seven writers had their crack at it, including Mark Rosner and Aaron Sorkin. However, Bay’s closest collaborator was Jonathan Hensleigh, who was denied screen credit following a Writers Guild of America arbitration proceeding. (Bay would later write an open letter to the Guild in The Los Angeles Times decrying the verdict.)

Still, the point is that this was not a project initiated by Bay so much as it was reshaped by his influence. The result was a compelling thrill-ride that showed how good an action movie Bay could make even when coloring within the lines on a killer high-concept premise. The hook: tourists on Alcatraz Island have been taken by rogue Brigadier General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris), a decorated war hero with an entire group of U.S. Marines on his side. They threaten to deadly VX-Gas at San Francisco if their demands are not met - $100 million paid to the families of soldiers who were killed on secret missions, soldiers whose families never got compensation.

To get onto “the Rock,” the Pentagon and the FBI need to recruit the only man ever to successfully escape Alcatraz, John Mason. Mason – played by Sean Connery – is a British spy that they’ve been holding for the better part of 30 years. Mason and chemical weapons expert Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) are sent to the island with a SEAL team in order to lead them through the same security measures and uncharted tunnels Mason himself used to escape back in 1963. Unfortunately, the entire SEAL team is killed upon arrival and it falls to the British spy and Goodspeed – who’s never been in the field before – to stop the missiles and end the hostage situation.

This is flat-out one of the best premises Bay has had to work with in his career. It’s such a good premise that it would have been easy to get lazy in the execution and simply coast on the hook. However, even as Bay amps up the scale of the action scenes, he introduces a lot of depth in places where we don’t expect it.

One of the most critical and subversive moves of the film is that it introduces the “villain” first. Hummel has some humanizing moments at a military funeral and then at his wife’s grave. It’s a very deliberate decision to not have his first scene be the more conventional entrance when he leads the team on a raid to steal chemical weapons, or later when the team seizes control of the island. A lesser film would see Hummel as a plot device, just an antagonistic force to motivate Mason and Goodspeed onto the island. Here, he’s allowed to be a human, complicated character. He’s possibly the most multi-dimensional of any of Bay’s antagonists.

Harris’s performance sells Hummel as a man who commands respect the instant he walks into a room. You believe this is a man who has made his bones in the military. There’s no effort at making him into a lunatic or a suave, wise-cracking madman, as so many action villains are. He’s there to do a job and he’s fully accepted the consequences of that task. Further cementing him as the anti-Hans Gruber is the moment just before taking hostages where he tells kids from a school group that they should find their teacher and get back to the mainland. He needs hostages, but he’s not putting kids in harm’s way needlessly.

It presents an interesting dilemma to the viewer. Is Hummel wrong? Do we even want to see him fail? Of course, the U.S. government cannot give in to terrorism, so Hummel and the military are on an unstoppable collision course. Even when Hummel’s men kill the SEAL team, it doesn’t tarnish our view of him. He first tries to get them to surrender and when a sudden crashing spooks Hummel’s men, they open fire and kill all the SEALs before the confusion is sorted out. It’s clear Hummel finds this regrettable, but from his perspective, these men were enemy combatants who made the confrontation necessary.

With all the possible motivations and villains Bay could have chosen, this was the one he was drawn to. This version of Hummel was the one who emerged after seven writers, many more drafts, and a lot of reshaping of the script over years. It’s no accident or whim that Hummel was developed like this. After later films like Pearl Harbor and Transformers, Bay got tagged as a very pro-military artist. While that’s not necessarily untrue, Bay’s willingness to criticize the military through the character of Hummel shows that he’s not the military hawk/stooge he’s often painted as. It’s rare to see this direct a criticism of the military, but one should remember this was made pre-9/11, in the peacetime days of the Clinton Administration. The attacks on the World Trade Center would change much of the culture, including Bay’s films.

It’s also possible to read into this film a criticism of America’s foreign policy. Though most of Hummel’s team is made up of soldiers he’s directly served under, some of them, like Tony Todd’s Captain Darrow, are new to his unit. Darrow and a few of his men take to their role as mercenaries perhaps too easily. They’re younger than Hummel and less disciplined than the career military man. While Hummel sees his actions as a regrettable necessity, Darrow and his men appear almost thrilled at the prospect of committing violence. Every step of the way, they are the unstable force pushing Hummel to commit more reckless and violent acts. It suddenly becomes clear why supervillains like Lex Luthor tend to employ henchmen who are merely benign idiots rather than trigger-happy head-cases.

This conflict comes to a head when Hummel cannot bring himself to execute a hostage and then ensures that a rocket he launched gets redirected out to sea before it detonates. Realizing he’s been beaten, the leader calls for an abort to the mission, but Darrow and two other men revolt when they realize this means they won’t be paid for their efforts. A Mexican standoff ensues and when the dust settles, Hummel is dead and it’s up to Mason and Goodspeed to find and stop the final rocket before the other men can launch it.

Is Bay making a statement about the military of old and the military of the present? The old guard joined up because they believed in honor and patriotism. Their values would not allow them to harm civilians. The military that Darrow represents is a blunt instrument, concerned only with their own self-interests. When those interests align with the military, things go well, but honor and pragmatism seem not to dictate the mission.

This challenging of a black-and-white past with a more complicated present is a theme continued via the character of James Mason. This British spy has been locked up since the Cold War because he stole some of J. Edgar Hoover’s most prized secrets. As one of the film’s more arch lines tells us, “This man knows our most intimate secrets from the last half century! The alien landing at Roswell, the truth behind the J.F.K. assassination. Mason's angry, he's lethal, he's a trained killer... and he is the only hope that we have got!”

It’s left to the viewer to weigh the morality there. Mason might have stolen secrets, but it was on behalf of a government that was not in conflict with the U.S. then. Further, we’re reminded that these secrets were cultivated by J. Edgar Hoover, who “kept secret files on prominent Americans and Europeans. De Gaulle, British members of Parliament, even the Prime Minister… this guy had dirt on everybody in the world.” That this isn’t a simple black-and-white matter feels very deliberate, as campy as it is to claim that aliens actually came to Earth and that there’s a JFK conspiracy that was known all along.

Remember, Mason escaped Alcatraz in 1963 and there was only one month and eight days left in that year after JFK was shot. The implication is that either Mason discovered the truth about the assassination very soon after it happened, was caught quickly and then escaped just as swiftly… or somehow, he uncovered the conspiracy before the assassination. In fact, that is the only scenario that’s possible because the prison itself was ordered closed on March 21, 1963. The script tap-dances around this, but the larger implication seems to be that the Kennedy Assassination was a government conspiracy that, at a minimum, Hoover knew about long before it took place.

And people think that Bay can’t be subtle when he wants to be.

One also cannot discount the obvious connections between Connery’s character and his iconic role as James Bond. It’s fairly easy to read Mason as a stand-in for James Bond himself. In his prime, he was skilled enough to escape difficult incarceration at least once, but likely more. (His Alcatraz escape happened in 1963, but his daughter was conceived in the mid-1970s. This suggests either he was on the run for a decade, or that he was recaptured soon after Alcatraz and then sprang himself again at a later date.)

On one hand, it’s an expression of incredible patriotism to depict that America was able to keep James Bond behind bars for most of the last 30 years. On the other hand, these are the men who stopped James Bond from preventing a Presidential assassination. The Rock takes place in an alternate reality where James Bond failed and the bad guys won. It’s a dark slap in the face to the escapist nature of the ‘60s spy films. That Bay buries all of this subtext inside of what appears to be a mere casting in-joke only underlines how much brilliance permeates this film.

The only explanation for how The Rock failed to achieve an Academy Award nomination in the face of such brilliance and political criticism that the Academy was unaccustomed to finding such depth in a simple action film. The five nominees that year were The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, and Shine. It was clearly a year where the Academy made a point of rejecting conventional Hollywood films, and only a bias against the genre, Bay and Simpson/Bruckheimer can be responsible for the omission here.

Fortunately critics were not so blind. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars, saying, “Director Michael Bay (“Bad Boys”) orchestrates the elements into an efficient and exciting movie, with some big laughs, sensational special effects sequences, and sustained suspense.”

Ebert’s praise of Cage is not misplaced. The actor’s Stanley Goodspeed is a true anomaly in the Bay canon: a leading man who isn’t a man’s-man. The everyman is not a frequent visitor to Bay’s world, and more often than not, that type is treated as the comic relief. (Transformers’ Sam Witwicky might also be a notable exception.) Goodspeed is not a field agent, he’s a chemical expert with the FBI who happens to be in the right place to get caught up in the Mason situation. His knowledge of the chemical weapons means he’s drafted into the field, making him a true fish-out-of-water.

What works about this is that Goodspeed’s more nerdy qualities aren’t just there to make Mason look more masculine by contrast. Goodspeed is allowed to handle himself pretty well for a novice, where other films might have turned him into an annoying sidekick that the British spy was saddled with. This is a true two-hander, with both men earning each other’s respect. Two early interactions sell this. The first is Goodspeed’s interrogation of Mason, where he stammers nervously until eventually trying to put on a tough guy act. Mason’s bemusement at this unpolished agent actually helps humanize the prisoner a bit. As his gentlemanly tone starts to win over Goodspeed, it has the effect of disarming the audience as well. It’s a deft ballet that both characters emerge from more fully developed.

The second moment comes a bit later after Mason’s provoked a chase through San Francisco. He arranges a meeting with the daughter he’s never seen before. Goodspeed figures this out and calls in Mason’s location. As Mason concludes his chat with his daughter, several police cars pull up. The daughter recoils, assuming that her father broke out of jail and these men are here to take him back. Goodspeed allows Mason to preserve some dignity, saying that he’s with the government and “Your father is helping us to resolve a dangerous situation.” The audience thinks better of Goodspeed for doing Mason that kindness and Mason’s appreciation of the same also conveys that he recognizes the significance of this as well. With those moments out of the way, the stage is set for the film to become a true two-hander.

Cage is the perfect actor for Goodspeed, perfectly deploying his manic energy. He’s able to sell Goodspeed’s nervousness when he’s out of his element and then quickly shift to his authority when he’s on familiar terrain. To wit, there’s a scene where a still-twitching body unnerves him, but then a minute later, he has no problem snapping at Mason when he fears Mason’s ignorance of the chemical weapons might accidentally kill all of them. Cage’s performance allows Goodspeed to have some “action hero moments” without compromising his everyman qualities. Mason could not have stopped the bad guys by himself and the film is wise to make Goodspeed every bit as integral to the situation as the British spy is. Bay takes a “normal guy” and evolves the film to the point that he’s able to shoot him like a hero. It’s a welcome change from the then-current Schwarzenegger and Stallone action types who sprung to the screen as fully formed bad-asses, akin to Athena bursting forth from Zeus’s skull. When it comes to the characters in The Rock, Hummel has depth, Mason has charisma, but it’s Goodspeed who has the true character arc. A character like that is the key to an effective action film.

This would also seem to be the place to take stock of how the women fare in this Bay outing. This is a very testosterone-heavy film, with only two women of any real significance. One of these is Mason’s daughter, who only appears in one scene and is more significant for how she motivates Mason than for any agency of her own. The second is Goodspeed’s pregnant fiancĂ© Carla. She too has little significance beyond giving Stanley an emotional tie outside the mission. As played by Vanessa Marcil, she’s got a little spunk to her, even proposing to Stanley when she realizes she’s pregnant. However, she makes little impact on the plot. It is worth noting that neither of them yet conform to the prototypical “Bay-type” of woman. As attractive as both actresses are, they are dressed like regular women, not rock video extras. There’s no undue leering at their curves and neither one conveys the idea that they exist largely to be eye candy. Eventually, the supermodel-in-a-music-video female visualization will become a Bay staple, but not yet with this film.

This film was also the first true translation of Bay’s music-video aesthetic to feature film. The camera is frequently in motion from shot to shot even as the pacing of the shots is exceptionally fast. The “Trivia” section for this film on the Internet Movie Database claims that there are about 2900 shots in the two hour and six minute running time. The average shot length is 2.6 seconds and the median shot length is 2.5 seconds. I recall at the time, some viewers complained that the film itself seemed to have Attention Deficit Disorder, but it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t make for a powerful viewing experience.

With this film, Michael Bay changed the look and pacing of the action film forever. James Cameron had been the reigning god of action films up to this point, but going forward, Bay’s influence would become more apparent in the works of Brett Ratner, Peter Berg and Simon West.

In 2011, Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge said, “Michael Bay has recognized the energy of an action sequence can replace the logic of it… By getting in there and mixing up the angles, he creates the same sense of excitement and confusion through editing and camera placement that you would if you were actually in the fight.”

Perhaps intentionally invoking Bay’s history as a commercial director, Debruge put his finger on the method of the Bay aesthetic, “If you look at a Michael Bay movie, you’re watching 2 1/2 hours of money shots and quotable tag lines. Every shot is designed to send tingles up your spine. When I watch a Michael Bay feature, I feel like I’m watching a full-length trailer.” This sort of visual style is critical to decoding every Michael Bay film. It began in The Rock and continues throughout all of his other films, no matter the subject matter. The story and subject bend to Michael Bay, not the other way around. In many ways, he’s the purest embodiment of the auteur theory.

The commentary on The Rock offers further examples of Bay’s meticulousness and his understanding of his audience. In the second half-hour of the film, Mason makes an escape attempt and leads a massive car chase through the streets of San Francisco. It’s a good opportunity for Bay to blow up cars and even a trolley, though by the end of the sequence, Mason is back in the hands of the authorities. Explaining his motivation for this, Bay says:

“Actually, I had a fight about the car chase with one of the writers, because I felt his is a way for me to help, after all this complicated setup, to help suck the younger audience back into it… one of the writers said ‘I've never heard of a director talking about demographics.’” Bay says he gave him a simple answer “If you’re given 60 million dollars, you’d better fucking know who you’re selling this movie to, because it could be the last time they ever give you 60 million dollars again.”

An audience will forgive a lot if they are enjoying themselves. Bay understands this like no other. So much of his visual language is built around triggering certain emotional responses and touchstones. Other artists try to achieve this connection with their audience through a strict adherence to story logic and meticulous visual coherency. What Bay comprehends is that this inherent order is a lie. Film is a symphony of emotion, and if you as an artist know the right stimulus/response buttons to trigger, you can evoke that experience without being dependent on the old “rules.”

Certainly Bay makes movies he wants to see, but buried within that desire is a yearning to make movies that the audience will enjoy. Because of this, it’s tempting to affix him with the label of “Sell-Out,” but ultimately, his concern is with customer satisfaction. Elsewhere on the commentary, he talks about how he observes an audience during his test screenings: “When they start to fidget, when they start to look at their watch, you know you've got a problem with your film.”

Michael Bay’s films are designed for audiences. They are built for that theatre experience and his obsessive determination to get this right marks him as a true showman in this business. The Rock is a film that can please on superficial levels, but still carries enough weight to appeal to those viewers hoping to find something deeper. It is a banquet for all appetites, and Michael Bay is dedicated to ensuring everyone has all they can eat.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Puppet returns to YouTube on Future World!

As promised, my appearance on Future World's New In Box is here!

The hook of the show is that host Chris Waild asks people what childhood toy they always wanted but never got. With that list in hand, this taller (seriously guys, Chris is a giant), thinner Santa Claus takes to the internet and supplies the toy, which is then unboxed on video before its new owner.

When the invitation was extended to me to appear on New in Box, the obvious question was "What to ask for?" My instant impulse was "Castle Greyskull!" I owned a lot of He-Man action figures (and even a She-Ra, which I got no end of shit for when I was a kid), but never had the coveted playset. However, that thing is huge and I knew there was no way my wife would let me bring it in the house. Ditto for my second choice, the Ghostbusters Firehouse. This led me to the next most obvious toy: Optimus Prime.

None of you will believe this, but I swear I didn't think about the straight line from Optimus Prime to the Michael Bay Transformers films to my book about Michael Bay. For one thing, I had no idea that Chris was going to purchase my book and become perhaps its biggest fan. When you watch the video, I know it looks like this was a brilliantly Machiavellian scheme on my part to turn the whole thing into a commercial for MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, but I wish I was that clever.

Nor did I expect Chris to give such a passionate plug. My assumption that the mention of the book would be limited to a passing mention in my introduction. The effusive praise for everything about the book? That's all Chris, and in fact, the uncut version of that was probably almost twice as long!

But he's a smart guy, so you should go here and buy my book. It's only $4.99 on Kindle!

I really, really enjoyed appearing on the show. Chris and his team were a delight and it was some of the most fun I've had shooting a video with the puppet. I even got a cool toy out of it!

Future World's YouTube Channel can be found here.
Future World's Twitter: @ftrwrld
All episodes of New in Box are collected in this playlist.

A tale of sexism and self-respect on a Hollywood job interview

This story's been on my mind these last few weeks. A few years have gone by since it happened, so I feel pretty secure in telling it with a few identifying details removed/obscured.

I was interviewing with two producers for the job of assisting both of them. On the face of it, it seemed like a good job. The production company was flush with cash, they had a couple high-profile projects on the horizon, and I knew someone who worked with one of the two. He'd given me the highest recommendation possible.

Some context for those not in the business - I did some calling around to people working at production companies and studios. Knowing the job description, which would be assisting TWO executives full-time, I tried to get back a reasonable estimate of what the job SHOULD be worth. The studio friends told me "Two execs? At that level? $70k." Those with production company experience quoted me a wide range, with $40k on the low end, and $60k on the high. (Those who lowballed it later acknowledged that they'd have raised their estimates if they knew it was for two execs.)

So I take a meeting with these guys and OH MY GOD there were moments I seriously thought I'd stepped into Entourage. One of the two was relatively professional and the other was a like a caricature of a Hollywood producer, and a caricature written by someone whose only experience in the biz was other caricatures on TV. The guy's a big talker with an overcompensating swagger and someone who you got the sense saw every conversation as a dick measuring contest.

But in the back of my mind I'm thinking "Worst case scenario: do a year here and having this place on your resume instantly makes you more desirable around town." So as the quasi-racist and definitely sexist statements pile up, I resolve to choke down my disgust and do my best not to wince. This becomes sorely tested when they come around to the subject of hiring some new support staff.

 "....and we're going to hire a receptionist."
- "A HOT receptionist!"
"Yeah, I've checked in with a couple of modeling agencies. We'll probably go that way."

This was soon followed up with a discussion of how they were dead set on hiring a guy for this assistant job "because you know how women are.... we want someone we can have fun with." Given what happened later, I kinda wish I'd just trashed the interview and said, "No. What do you mean? Tell me 'how women are.'" If nothing else it would make for a better story.

The casual sexism disturbed me at the time and it still bugs me now. The meeting had all the professional decorum of a locker room. I'd been out here for a number of years at the time and I'd never seen such blatant sleaziness during a job interview. Usually people at least TRY to put on their best face then.

Okay, there was one other weird interview I had within a year of moving to town. It was at a small production company, at a point where I had only two internships on my resume. I was meeting with the company principal about being his assistant. He glances at my resume, says "You interned for Jenny Smith?" (not her real name) "Yes," I brighten, taking his recognition for approval.

"JENNY SMITH IS A FUCKING CUNT!" And then he just lets the statement hang there. I have NO idea how to react to that. Laugh? Ignore it? Try to change the subject? I honestly can't remember what happened next. I think I merely looked shocked and after an eternal long silence, the assistant he brought in with him shifts the subject.

But back to the guys determined to hire a model. This line of discussion also lead to talk of how there'd be a lot of "dinner meetings" and some surprising interest in if I was married and for how long. I've been on plenty of interviews where family life comes up and this was different. I felt like I was being interrogated while Mr. Entourage squinted, cocked his head and ran my words through whatever Doucebag processor was also regulating his libido.

When I repeated the conversation verbatim to my wife, she drew the same conclusion I did: "It sounds like you're going to have to go to strip clubs with these guys."

Still, we agreed that if they were paying what it sounded like this job would be worth, and the opportunity to contribute was as great as they said, I'd be a fool to turn it down. (Sadly, there's so much sexism in this industry that if you discounted any job offered by a male pig, the pickings would be very slim. Not that I haven't worked for some great bosses in the past, but if you're around long enough here, you'll run against a lot of the bad eggs.)

Not long after that, I get the call. I passed the interview. Now I have to meet with their HR person. No disrespect to anyone who works in HR, but my experience is that these people have no soul. At the time of this interview, I hadn't yet had some of the more scarring run-ins, so I made the mistake of believing I was dealing with a human being.

I meet with the HR woman and after a few pleasantries, we get to the REAL meat of the meeting - salary range. I didn't go well. The woman interviewing me balked when I told her what a job assisting ONE high level exec at a studio was paying - and that I deserved AT LEAST that for two. Her answer? "If we were looking to pay that much, there are much more qualified people I'd be talking to than you."

Again, here's where Future Bitter would reach back into the past and tell himself, "This meeting just ended. Your relationship with this company just ended. Get up and walk out while you can take your self-respect with you." Alas, I sit there helpless as the offer goes from metaphorical insult to literal insult.

I ask what they DO think would be reasonable. Are you ready for this? "$32,000," she says. "Frick and Frack [not their real names] really like you and they really want to give you a chance even though your resume doesn't have all the experience they were looking for."

Again, this is the point where someone with self-respect would walk out. Instead, I continue to be polite as the woman says, "Let me go back to them and see if there's any room for more."

There is. And I know there is because Mr. Entourage spent half the interview boasting about all the money he was spending. Like, discretion is not in this guy's vocabulary.

A week later I get the call from HR. "Hi, I just wanted to see if you were interested in doing the job for the number we discussed."

"Honestly, for what they say the job is, that number is an insult. I can't do it for that little." The Mortal Combat graphic "FINISH HIM" keeps flashing before my eyes, but I remain almost unfailingly polite as I terminate the call.

And that was the point when I really came around to the notion that I didn't necessarily NEED an industry job if I already had a decent network and just needed something that paid the bills while I kept writing.

And the irony now strikes me that if I named who these guys were, there are plenty who'd think I was the unprofessional one for smearing them like that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Promos for the Puppet's big return on FUTURE WORLD!

Several of you have asked me in both emails and Twitter if we're ever going to see the puppet again. I don't see any permanent sort of return in our future because those videos eventually became a drain to produce with just a two-man team.

However, that doesn't mean he's gone forever. Tomorrow, I'll be making an appearance on the latest NEW IN BOX from Future World. Future World has several running series, including a very funny series called LEGO ADULT, which consists of promos for fake Lego sets that are relevant to adult situations, such as Soul Sucking Day Job and TV Shippers Survival Kit.

In NEW IN BOX, host Chris Waild asks people to name the childhood toy they wanted the most but never got. Then he goes online and buys it, with the unboxing of the cherished toy being the centerpiece of the video. You can find all the videos here and they include items such as Crystal Pepsi, a Ghostbusters Ghost Zapper, and a Hey Vern! It's Ernest! Talking Doll.

My episode debuts sometime tomorrow. Here are some fun promos:

And check out one of my favorite NEW IN BOX episodes here:

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Did I like X-MEN: APOCALYPSE? I'm still not entirely sure

As I left X-MEN: APOCALYPSE this weekend, my gut assessment of the film was "about average." Then I thought about what that statement meant as I attempted to mentally rank the six films. After deciding it wasn't better than the first film, I slotted it in fifth, coming out only ahead of the painfully bad X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. The more I contrasted the first film and the latest entry in my head, the more I couldn't help but think about the role that timing plays in how a superhero film is received.

The original X-MEN film from 2000 seems positively quaint and low-budget now. Hell, even then it felt like a much smaller film than the recently-concluded BATMAN series, and two years later it would be significantly exceeded by Sam Rami's SPIDER-MAN. The first X-MEN is not the sort of film that a studio wagers its whole summer on, not today at least. It does the job of grounding a fantastical comic universe in a world that feels somewhat like ours, to the degree that it feels almost entirely divorced from the more comic-booky APOCALYPSE.

So I can't help but ponder, if you reversed the two, would a 2000 release of APOCALYPSE blow me away with all the VFX eye candy and the undeniably comic book plot? If it wasn't for the superhero fatigue of YET ANOTHER spandex-fest where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, would I treat this film's flaws more charitably? Would a 2016 version of the first film strike me as too small and too scared to embrace its comic book roots? Was that first film simply in the right place at the right time to be the leader out of the gate of a new superhero renaissance?

I honestly don't know. The fact is, though, with so many comic book superhero movies in the last eight years, we have a strong baseline for what the genre is capable of exploring on-screen. "Good enough for a comic book movie" isn't gonna cut it anymore. There were moments of APOCALYPSE where I was entertained, and plenty of other moments where I felt more sure than ever that superhero fatigue is real because so many moments felt like tired retreads of other films.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is still my favorite X-Men film and I think one reason it succeeds is it clearly understands its characters and makes their motivations and agendas critical to driving the story forward. The series always uses the relationship between Professor Xavier and Magneto as the core central conflict. The one wants to find a way for mutants and humans to peacefully co-exist; the other wants to lead mutants on a conquest of humanity. What DOFP does so well is that it makes the plot hinge on a battle for Mystique's soul - will she choose Xavier's way or Magneto's? Further, we know that if she isn't stopped, the entire future is doomed.

So right there, we're dealing with a character-focused story because not only does Mystique need to be persuaded to back down from her agenda, but Wolverine needs to get a broken Xavier back in the saddle again AND Magneto needs to be recruited to their side and brought along because he and Xavier side-by-side are the only two people who can bring down Mystique. Yes, there are superhero battles, but interpersonal conflict is at the core of all of this and it's conflict that's directly tied to the overarching themes of the series.

APOCALYPSE falls short of that depth. The plot is about the resurrection of the god-like First Mutant, Apocalypse and his intent to bring about the end of the world for all but the strongest mutants. To that end, he recruits his Four Horsemen - Angel, Psylocke, Storm and Magneto - and kidnaps Xavier. This leaves a reluctant Mystique to pick up the pieces and lead Xavier's students into battle to stop Apocalypse. With Magneto's power being critical to Apocalypse's plan, the good guy's gambit is to appeal to Magento to switch sides. That's not going to be easy because the former villain has just suffered the devastating loss of the family he'd built over the last ten years after a quiet life in seclusion. Anti-mutant paranoia led to their murder, and Magneto is again on his "kill all humans" kick.

There are moments where the pieces briefly snap into place perfectly and you can tell that if the script had been given a little more time, the result could have been something as compelling as DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. Regrettably, the filmmakers only had two years between films rather than the standard three or four and the rushed nature shows. I don't like doing this, but I'm going to have to spoil some of the climax in the next two paragraphs.

In the third act, Magento is using his abilities to mess with all the metal under the Earth's surface. Basically, it seems that he's going to lay waste to everything above ground by tearing up the planet from the inside. Visually this means he hovers while generating a magnetic orb and CGI debris floats around him. Mystique appeals to him, saying he may have lost one family but he still has people who care for him, people like her. Significantly, she's brought Quicksilver with her - who is the son that Magneto never knew he had. It feels like we're being prepped for a big emotional beat here...

...and then the film balks. Quicksilver chickens out of identifying himself to his father and even after Magneto switches sides, Quicksilver opts to keep that secret. It's unsatisfying to deny the audience that resolution, compounded by the fact we really don't understand what's going on with Quicksilver's thought process. What makes him clam up? What is it like for him to REALLY see his father? What's he hoping to get out of that encounter? It's a surprising blind spot in a film that seems to want to explore Magneto's family.

And let's talk for a minute about the Four Horsemen. Just based on how Magneto's handled, Apocalypse doesn't seem to be using any sort of mind control power when he recruits them. They all join up of their own free will, but their motivations for doing so don't seem to go much beyond wanting power. Angel, Psylocke and Storm are all ciphers. There are hints of a little bit more going on with Storm, particularly her idolization of Mystique, but these three don't add much at all.

Olivia Munn as Psylocke is particularly bad. Halle Berry's acting was a popular punching bag for fans but Munn makes her look like an Academy Award winner... for CATWOMAN. Say what you will about Oscar Isaac's over-the-top and often cheesy performance as Apocalypse - it suits the movie. He blasts it out to the cheap seats, but there's not a moment where you can't feel his conviction. He's not mocking the material and he fully commits no matter how ridiculous he looks.

I was almost inclined to go easy on Munn, with the defense that she was just hired as eye candy. (No one else's costume has a "boob window" for instance.) Then I remembered Rebecca Romijn in the first film and how she gave an actual presence to an eye candy role - without the benefit of almost any dialogue. Watch Mystique in that film and you see there's thought and purpose behind every gesture. With Psylocke you can see all the gears turning in the actress's head about the pose she's going to strike or the scowl she's going to wear. The same goes for Lady Deathstrike in the second film. She and Mystique were two of the breakout stars in the early film because of what those actresses were able to bring that wasn't necessarily on the page. With the right casting and the right chemistry with the other actors it feels like Psylocke could have been that for this film. Instead, the miscasting only compounds the errors of the thin writing for the character.

In fairness, the script doesn't do right by Mystique either. The writers give her the same sort of reluctant hero arc they used last time on Xavier, but with less successful results. It mostly just takes the air out of the character. Jennifer Lawrence seems bored, and I can't really blame her. The resolution of that arc doesn't immediately leave the makers of the next film any place interesting to go either.

This is also the first time the film appears exhausted under the weight of its own cast. There was a point where I felt like I'd been watching for 45 minutes already and we were still in introductory material. I admit I can't readily think of a more efficient way to lay the same pipe, but that probably also speaks to how uninteresting some of the scenes were. Maybe the way to do this would have been to commit to making this Magneto's film and try to structure the first act around his journey, branching out to the other stories where thematic connections were possible.

How well this works for some viewers might depend on how excited they are to see the mutant cast drastically expanded. Younger versions of Scott Summers and Jean Grey join Xavier's school, and Nightcrawler ends up being brought in after Mystique saves him from captivity. It's fun to get some new action figures on the board, but it comes at the expense of the established cast - who all have sizable parts to play in this film.

The visual effects are occasionally subpar. The sequence where an entire city is destroyed on screen evokes no reaction from the viewer because of how artificial it feels. It's not that the CGI is terrible, but it's just a few hairs shy of photo-real. It doesn't help that none of the devastation is shown from a human POV. The city might as well have been empty for how little we feel for the people who lived there. It's baffling because Singer knows better. In a "save the city" sequence in SUPERMAN RETURNS, we're abundantly aware of all the people in peril and how Superman's actions are all about preserving that life.

It's also hard to ignore the problems with this sequence on a storytelling level - Magneto murders millions, if not billions. It's hard to walk the character back after that kind of attempted genocide, no matter how much his character arc justifies his motivations. The film could have ended with Magneto escaping justice in a "lives to oppose the X-Men another day" sort of resolution. Instead, the filmmakers opt for an ending that sells out Xavier's character.

Even dodgy CGI can't mar the film's best sequence - the big Quicksilver setpiece. It's not quite as inventive as the Pentagon sequence in DOFP, but its the one part of this film where the filmmakers are clearly having a ball playing with all their toys. It's also an action scene with real action and peril rather than people merely floating and striking poses amid CGI graphics. In terms of action sequences, this might be Bryan Singer's most disappointing film. It's a shame to realize that after looking back on two and seeing how well he constructed many of the setpieces there.

Is it a bad movie? When films like THOR: THE DARK WORLD, CATWOMAN, and WOLVERINE have shown us the lowest points of the genre, it's hard to lump APOCALYPSE in with them. Release this in the same summer as BATMAN FOREVER (which was pretty well-received at the time, don't forget) and it probably feels like a much better film.

On the other hand, it's a letdown and a disappointing entry from a team that's shown they're capable of so much better. We've reached the point where the characters' growth has stopped being the driving factor of this franchise. This is the most "comic book" X-Men film because the VFX eye candy has finally overcome the themes and the character development in the franchise. APOCALYPSE is like Chinese food - fun while you're taking it, but leaving you hungry an hour later.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The writers of the spec script THE MAKING OF STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII revealed!

In recent years, May the 4th has come to be recognized as an unofficial Star Wars holiday, as in "May the Fourth be with you." The practical result of this is that for the entire day, most geek sites turn into complete advertisements for Star Wars, whether they're posting new Star Wars-related news or reblogging old content it seems no story is too small so long as it's Jedi-related.

This most recent holiday saw the release of an unusual spec script: The Making of Star Wars: Episode VIII. If you are part of the online circle known as Screenwriting Twitter, you probably saw some discussion about this, spawned by this tweet:

A writer drafted their own spec script about the making of a Star Wars movie that hasn't even finished filming yet, then made it available on the internet via both the Black List and an open download, making certain to put it out on May the 4th. It was clearly an attention-seeking tweet from Making Episode VIII, and in reacting to it by telling everyone, "Don't do this," Mr. Sweeney was clearly giving the author exactly what he wanted. How do I know this?

Because I am "Making Episode VIII."

The script the account was shilling was authored by me and my friend Brian Scully. The whole gag was my idea, and it actually started as an April Fools joke. The last few years, the internet has been a horrible place on April 1st. As one observer noted, it's like people think doing something like "Your mother was just killed! April Fool!" counts as a clever prank. I wanted to do something that was fun, but that wasn't necessarily ruined if people didn't think of it as "real."

In the wake of THE FORCE AWAKENS, I also saw how some sites were so hungry for Star Wars discussion that they'd repost seemingly every scrap of Star Wars content out there. More than one site was regularly building stories around fan theories that originated on Reddit! It felt like nothing was too ridiculous to be spotlit and that was when I hatched my plan.

The final thing that motivated this prank was when I saw several geek sites devote space to the totally nothing story of a guy trying to crowdfund the cost of billboards to promote his WAYNE'S WORLD 3 spec script. I've blogged about my part in spreading that story before. If you Google "wayne's world 3 gofundme" you can see exactly how far this story spread, branching out from a tweet from Geoff LaTulippe after I tipped him off to this campaign. I go into more details in my older post, but for me, the spreading of this story was just a sad comment how a completely irrelevant story got spread just so the phrase "WAYNE'S WORLD 3" could provoke some clicks.

In a way, I guess I wanted to prove how easily an empty-content story could be spread, even if it was clearly some kind of troll or goof. It seemed completely doable that we could get at least a few of these sites to post about The Making of Star Wars: Episode VIII.

I sent an email to Brian Scully with the pitch: I'd seen a growing genre on the Black List in recent years - scripts about the "making of" famous films. It seemed ripe for parody, and merging it with my April Fool's idea gave me the notion to do a script about the making of Star Wars: Episode VIII. Because of the ridiculousness of such a script, I insisted that if nothing else, we needed to have fun writing it.

At this point, there were less than two months before April Fools. I pitched to Brian that we would not break out the plot or work from any kind of outline. Instead, we could take turns writing each day. I would write at least three pages, then send it to him and he'd have a day to think about it and get me back at least three pages of his own.

I'd done this sort of "write the other guy into a corner" approach back when I was running a TV show in college, and though I'm a meticulous outliner usually, a few years back I wrote a comedy script entirely by coming up with the high concept hook and just going where the story took me. I found it to be a refreshing exercise because each day started with "What's the most obvious choice? Great - now let's do the opposite of that and see where it takes us." Obviously, that was just for the vomit draft, and I later went back and refined the script.

But Scully and I were both coming off of several very dark feature scripts, so this seemed like a wacky palate cleanser for both of us. Before I go any further, I want to stress how FUN the writing of this script was. Every time my inbox revealed new pages from Scully it was like getting a gift. I couldn't wait to see where he'd taken the story and figure out how to pick things up. It was the most creatively reinvigorating thing I'd done in years. It felt like a great low-stakes way to warm up the writing muscles before getting back in the game on a real spec.

In practice, we ended up not sticking to the trading-pages-every-day thing. Real life got in the way, and soon it was clear we should bump our deadline from April 1st to May the 4th. Even then, as weeks slipped by and Scully and I found our time consumed by day jobs and other projects, we started writing in longer, less-frequent bursts. So when you read the script, don't assume that the writing changes hands every three pages because that's not at all accurate.

We occasionally traded a few emails about future directions, but most of it was on the order of "I've got an idea for Mark, so if you want to set this up..." or "Here's what George Lucas should be up to." Some of my favorite bits in the script came up on the fly, though. Fairly frequently, we not only would advance the script, but go back and rewrite earlier pages as well. There are a couple scenes that are clearly just me or just Scully, but also a lot that are a hybrid of our efforts.

While we made our deadline and turned out a script that - while a bit loose - still is a lot of fun to read, we were only partly successful in our bid. It was easy enough to get Screenwriting Twitter to talk about it, chastising this attention-seeking as unprofessional, all while giving this trolling the attention we wanted. Seeing friends say "Don't do this," all while spreading word of the stunt, it reminded me of my resolve in recent years to not give undue attention to people pulling these stunts. Having said that, I know it's VERY temping when faced with an annoying clueless newbie to make a spectacle out of their lack of tact.

Alas, the conversation on Twitter never broke out in a way that inspired any of the geek journalists to write about it, even in a "laugh at the idiot" sort of spirit that motivated their WAYNE'S WORLD 3 stories. In that sense, my main objective failed I guess I have to give them props for not being completely without integrity, especially since I specifically targeted people who I thought would be easy marks, given that they were the first to post about WAYNE'S WORLD 3. I suppose we could have planned a more elaborate rollout and fake website, ala BALLS OUT, but that seemed like the point where we were going too far and putting too much effort into it. The actual writing was fun. Making a website? That would have been work.

But even if that didn't work as well as we hoped, Scully and I both had fun writing it and seeing the reaction from people who did venture into the script. It got me using some writing muscles that I hadn't flexed in a while, and has made me more energized to dive into new scripts. Maybe we don't give enough credit to just allowing ourselves to be silly sometimes. The next time you're stuck while writing, maybe try something like this... though it probably is more efficient to just write a short film rather than a full-length screenplay.

There doesn't seem to be any reason to maintain the subterfuge anymore, and if you're interested in seeing the result of our insanity, you can find the script online here, and also on The Black List here.

Monday, May 16, 2016

BATES MOTEL: Does this story only work because we know the ending?

I don't know how I'd manage to recruit a control group for this experiment, but I'd love to know how BATES MOTEL plays to someone completely ignorant of Norman Bates's future. Does it work as a TV show if it has to stand on it's own merits, or do some of its flaws get a pass because the audience gets the thrill of seeing TV Norman take big leaps closer to being everyone's favorite cross-dressing serial killer?

In an ideal world, a prequel would stand as compelling without being propped up by Easter Eggs or callbacks (or is that "call-forwards") to its originating art. BETTER CALL SAUL seems to pull this off quite well, proving completely accessible to people I know who've never watched BREAKING BAD. It'll be intriguing for me to see how this plays out because BCS's Jimmy McGill is much more likable and sympathetic as a human being than his future incarnation Saul Goodman. Will people who root for the success of the scrappy Jimmy be disgusted when he evolves into the slimier, unapologetically ambulance-chasing Saul?

That's not to say that I don't feel like you can see the connection between Jimmy and Saul - just that Saul fans are having a rather different experience from Jimmy fans, and I find it fascinating that thus far, the show seems to work on both levels. The same could be said for the Mike character. On BREAKING BAD he was a villain with an occasional sympathetic side. Here, I really feel for the guy in a way that makes his eventual end feel far more tragic for me. (And if I was experiencing Mike's story chronologically, probably less satisfying.)

But BATES MOTEL... I enjoy it, but I'm not sure if it'd seem cohesive if we didn't know the destination. The season four finale airs tonight and the previous episode ended on what appeared to be the major step in Norman's evolution that we all knew was coming - the murder of his mother. As depicted on the show, it was actually a murder-suicide attempt, with Norman attempting to snuff out both him and his mother with carbon monoxide poisoning. It would have worked, if not for the arrival of the sheriff, who vents the room before Norman succumbs, but can only futilely attempt resuscitation on Norman. 

It doesn't help that BATES MOTEL is not a show without many faults. Going back to season one, I've basically zoned out whenever screentime shifted to "the pot storyline" all about the drug trade in the nearby town. I completely understand why it's there - to get five years of story out of this concept, there needed to be larger mythology. Developing the setting is a natural step, but too much of the drama there has felt incidental to Norman's transformation.

Season one also had a brief phase of what I call the "Norman Bates, Sex God" era. I don't find it inexplicable that he'd be appealing to some women. He's got that "lost scruffy puppy" sort of vibe and I can totally buy that some girls would want to take him home and clean him up. I DON'T buy one of the hottest and most popular girls in school hopping into bed with him. (And if I'm not misremembering, he actually had TWO such conquests in season one!)

It feels weird to say this, but there was a point by the second season where I wasn't watching the show through the lens of it being a PSYCHO prequel. I'm not sure what led me to drop my guard, but I remember being blindsided by a midseason episode where Norman suddenly started acting out and it became clear that he was speaking in the Mother persona. I won't lie - it was genuinely cool to see the birth of the character as we know him/her in the Hitchcock film.

But I have to wonder how many plot turns read as acceptable only because the audience knows where the story HAS to go. Having Norman committed this season was a good start because his erratic behavior through season two and three had gone past the point where one can justify Norma as being in denial about how sick Norman is. Of course, this creates another conundrum - if Norman's mental issues are well-documented does that compromise an outcome where he ends up quietly managing the family hotel, with the locals completely blind to his homicidal tendencies?

Hell, just in the short term it seems strange that Norma's death won't get more serious scrutiny from the police. I'm sure the show will deal with this somehow, but Norman's spent four years leaving behind clues to his psychosis so the real trick is going to be making it credible that none of the authorities piece any of this together.

I'm in for the long haul here, regardless. It's nothing short of criminal that Freddie Highmore and especially Vera Farmiga haven't been Emmy winners for their work here, though Farmiga has been nominated once. The wonderful Olivia Cooke might have started getting more mainstream notice from ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, but BATES MOTEL had her first. It's not easy to appear alongside Highmore and Farmiga and not get blown off the screen but Cooke holds her own in a quieter role as the one undeniable innocent among the players. That fact is also why I've been dreading the moment the plot requires her death. I've feared the show won't conclude without destroying the last bit of innocence in Norman's world.

As I said, there's a lot I genuinely like about the show, but it's impossible for me to know if I'm rationalizing some of it's larger flaws because of some kind of tunnel vision towards the resolution. Do I have any other BATES MOTEL viewers in my readership? What do you think?