Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dangerous beasts, lovely people - and screenings...

I had an epiphany on Saturday night at dinner at a friend's apartment. Everyone was talking about this mountain lion that's just been captured in Griffith Park. Then my friend's girlfriend mentioned that they can't let their dog out at night - because of a coyote she's spotted around their house. Oh, and there are rattlesnake warnings on forest trail signs.

So for the first time ever, I'm living somewhere with things that can actually kill you. This is kind of cool. In Ireland, we get wasps and vermin. That's about it. No predators apart from your fellow humans.

I have to say, my fellow humans here are a polite and friendly bunch. For all the rumours of L.A. being full of snobs and airheads, everyone's been lovely so far. I've met more assholes in Dublin, to be honest.

I've been to two Brits in L.A. brunches, which take place at Cecconi's on Melrose Avenue on Saturday and Tuesday mornings. They're a good idea - a chance for Brits, although this is a loose term - to meet up and have a chat about the crazy Americans. Things like, "why are decent spray deodorants impossible to find here?" and "What's with calling the hash sign on a phone the 'pound sign'?"

I went to a screening of an independent movie called Complicity on Sunday night. Directed by C.B. Harding and based on a dream he had (really - he dreamed the whole story), Complicity is a very effective thriller about a teenage house party that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Harding has made a very expensive-looking film on a very small budget, using a cast of young up-and-comers who are definitely going on to even bigger things. The script is tight and suspenseful, keeping you guessing right up to the end.

Many thanks to C.B.'s lovely wife Louise, who got me a seat at the very last minute!

Today I had tickets to a screening of comedian Mike Birbiglia's semi-autobiographical film Sleepwalk With Me, shown at the Writers Guild Theater (yes, the guild here have their OWN, QUITE LARGE, CINEMA. Take note, ISPG!).

"I'm going to tell you a story", Mike tells the camera at the start of the film, "And it's true.... I always have to tell people that". What follows is, according to the real Mike during the Q&A, about 70% true.

Based on his one-man show, Birbiglia co-wrote the film with This American Life producer Ira Glass. It covers his attempts to become a successful stand-up comedian and cure his dangerous sleep-walking, while trying to figure out his burned-out relationship with his girlfriend (played on screen by Lauren Ambrose). Birbiglia's character is called Matt and his parents are played by the legendary James Rebhorn and Carol Kane.

But there is a highly-realistic streak running through this movie that had the entire audience laughing from start to finish. You recognise parts of yourself in the script, and can't help finding them funny. Yet there is also a tragic undertone to the whole thing that only adds to the humour.

This is the 21st century Annie Hall, a finely-judged depiction of relationship issues, career disasters and trying not to kill your parents. It's my favourite movie of the year so far and if it doesn't rocket Birbiglia to stardom, there is no justice.

Cheeringly, the American public clearly agree. Sleepwalk with Me opened in 34 cinemas but decent word of mouth led to this being increased to 170 theatres.

After the screening, Joss Whedon moderated a Q&A with Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass, the producer. They had a recent amusing spat with him on Youtube, where they went to war with The Avengers and vowed to beat it at the box office!

The three guys were on fine form tonight, trading zingers and taking questions from the audience. Birbiglia had a lot of questions about how his now wife had taken the film (well, apparently) and whether his sleepwalking had been cured (sort of).

It was really interesting to hear how they'd tweaked the film to create more laughs by editing bits and adding scenes in. They certainly had a brilliant editor involved - the cuts alone make it one of the decade's best comedy films.

The Q&A was all in good humour, apart from one crazy guy in a green T-shirt, who tried to used the interview microphone to do an open-mike session and had to be frogmarched out by a massive security guard.

Then it was outside for wine, cheese and dessert - and a chance for a good gossip, for Danny De Vito and Tim Robbins were both present. We agreed that De Vito was even more mini than expected, while Robbins was much taller (seriously, the guy must be 6' 4").

My big thanks to the WGA Foundation, especially Kevin, for getting me in despite my Irish credit card not working on their site!

L.A. is an eccentric town, but I'm loving every minute of it. Now it's down to the hard work of finding an agent and convincing them to represent me...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The good, the bad and the very, very weird...

I've been here four days and already it feels like four months. In a good way.

I hiked up to Sunset Boulevard yesterday (literally, it's a massive hill) to meet British actress, writer and director Sarah Dawson for lunch. She's been in the States for years so had loads of useful info on living in L.A. and places to go. Thanks Sarah!

We met at Caffe Primo, where she's seen E from Entourage before. But sadly, no sign of him yesterday! I did see a guy after who could have been Adrian Grenier. But then again, I did have Entourage stuck in my head.

I squeezed in some writing (has to be done) before going for a meal with Frank, an editor from New York who's out here working on a movie, and his partner. We went to Roscoe's, which is a bit of a Hollywood institution. On the way, we passed the 1950's-era Formosa Cafe, where Guy Pearce confused Lana Turner with a hooker in L.A. Confidential. Someone's built a strip mall right beside it, which as Frank correctly pointed out, makes it kind of difficult to shoot anything set in the Fifties now. Plus it's really ugly (and who goes to a place called Crazy Rock'n' Sushi??)

Roscoe's is a bit of a throwback too, with a menu that I don't imagine has changed much since it opened in 1975. They serve fried chicken and waffles. On the same plate, with butter and maple syrup for the waffles. It was surprisingly nice - the chicken was AMAZING. And even the Prez seems to agree - there's a photo of Obama himself posing with the staff on the wall.

Today started out really dull, with the Hollywood Hills shrouded in mist. It was the June Gloom, but in August! Of course it burned off by 10am and the usual hot sunshine took up again. I have a pretty busy weekend planned so I decided to visit Graumann's Chinese Theatre this afternoon. It's obligatory - like a pilgrimage.

I've seen it and Hollywood Boulevard before, but going there is always an experience. You have the hand prints and the pictures of the elegant stars from yesteryear, and then the craziest people in the world everywhere you look. It's like all the people who failed the extras audition for The Grove for being too weird got sent there instead. Or maybe like the Cantina in Star Wars sent along some tourists.

Today was no different. There was a man singing into a bin. Not singing while sifting through the bin, he was serenading it. Another man struggling with his Spandex Spiderman costume in a stairwell. Two men doing karaoke and rapping about sucking balls.

All this in front of the Chinese Theatre, with bemused tourist families walking around in a daze. And I can see why they're bedazzled - after all, I'm a tourist myself. It's all bright lights, hucksters and expensive junk food. Everyone's selling something or trying to get noticed. Fittingly for a street famous for its hookers, it makes you feel cheap. And yet I have a soft spot for it.

I went to see the next movie showing, which was The Watch. A movie only watchable because of Billy Crudup's brilliant cameo as a creepy neighbour and Richard Ayoade from the IT Crowd, who's basically playing Moss in American suburbia. It felt good to see a film though - it reminded me of why I'm here. To write something that people want to watch.

Tomorrow, my first Brits in L.A. brunch (I can be an honorary Brit...)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

L.A. Reality

Well, 16 months after I first decided to go to L.A., I finally arrived here on Monday night. The temperature even at 8pm was toasty and I was lucky enough to get a taxi driver who was a born-and-bred Los Angeleno, so he gave me loads of useful information.

The apartment I'm staying in is fab and possibly the most fab thing of all is that it has a pool! Seriously, in this heat you need it.

I ventured down to the Melrose Avenue area yesterday in search of a cell phone and stumbled across both the vast and luxurious Writers Guild offices and The Grove, the maddest shopping mall in the world.

The Writers Guild offices made me smile, thinking of the tiny one-room office that the Screenwriters Guild have back home. This place is HUGE, all black glass on the outside and there's a jaw-dropping script library where you can go and spend 10 hours reading (which is what I felt like doing). It made me determined to become a member of the Guild like, yesterday. All non-WGA writers should go there on frequent pilgrimages to reaffirm their belief that they, too, can become Members.

The Grove is kind of like an outdoor shopping mall created for a film, complete with dancing fountain and an improbably good-looking, United Nations-like cast of extras. I kept expecting someone to burst in and do a chase scene - or a song and dance routine. Afterwards you go to the valet desk to collect your Lamborghini or in my case, order a taxi (No wheels for me. I'm the crazy Irish girl who walked there from Santa Monica Boulevard).

So far, I've seen a lot of typically L.A. stuff. Egg white omelettes everywhere. A burger advertised with no bun (WTF?). Lots of tiny lapdogs being taken unwillingly for walks (I am living in the gay capital of California). Botox shots listed alongside manicures. Some truly manic driving. People jogging everywhere, all the time. The best thing was a guy I came across on my walk this morning, who appeared to be auditioning for a record producer on his mobile phone on the street. He sang L-O-V-E by Nat King Cole. I hope it worked!

L.A. jokes aside, I'm really happy to be here and can't wait to get started on the road - however long and rocky it is - to becoming a repped, paid writer. And a member of the Guild.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Preparing for the big trip....

My last post got reprinted on Film Ireland's website and caused a fair bit of debate. I had complete strangers contacting me on Twitter/Facebook/by email to say that they agreed with my comments and other people telling me that they thought I was wrong/misinformed about the symbolism of tampons/just plain mean. I also got my very own anonymous internet troll. So in other words, it was a proper debate! Thanks to Mark O'Connor for writing the manifesto that sparked the whole thing off.

In other news, I have just five more days standing between me and L.A. And according to the lovely lady whose apartment I'm renting, 39 degrees of heat. For an Irish person, this is like going to live in a sauna. Anyway, I found a great place to stay for the first 3 weeks. It's in West Hollywood and the best part is, it has a pool! Plus my landlord is Tony Bennett's godson!

I've been trying to develop at least some sort of plan for what I'm going to do when I get there. Otherwise I might get to Hollywood and go into some sort of catatonic panic. This is, after all, the first time since I was 23 that I haven't had a job and therefore a schedule. So here is my (very loose) initial plan:

Days 1-3 - recover from jet lag, buy a mobile phone (or cell phone as I'll have to start calling them) and start to contact people I know in L.A..

First week - Explore neighbourhood, polish the 3 scripts that I mainly want to sell/use as samples, meet lots more people, attend a Brits in L.A. breakfast (which sounds great - breakfast and talking. What more do you want?), visit the Writers Guild offices and the Film Board office and start coming up with a list of agents/managers to contact.

Second week - Follow Doug Richardson's excellent advice on contacting agents and get cracking on getting repped. Plus I want to finish polishing my 3 main scripts and keep on networking.

That's as far as I've got! I guess I'll know more about what's possible/achievable once I've been there for a while so the above plan is very much subject to change. But it's important to have goals, and at the end of the day I've only got 12 weeks during this trip to achieve a as much as possible.

As ever, if you've done an exploratory trip to L.A. yourself or lived there for a while, I'd appreciate any advice you can offer!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Making Irish films that people want to watch: my thoughts on Mark O'Connor's manifesto

Mark O’Connor, the writer and director of the low-budget feature film "Stalker", read this manifesto out at the Fleadh, before a screening of Stalker.

I like the idea of someone putting themselves out there and bothering to write up a well thought-out manifesto. There’s something brave and maverick-ish about this. Vive La Revolution and all that! I like even more the fact that he had the balls to stand up and deliver it in public (it’s also printed in this month’s Film Ireland magazine btw).

However, I do disagree with him on a bunch of points. Actually quite a lot of points.

I do agree that we are experiencing a bit of an “Irish New Wave” and that there’s a lot of interesting stuff being made. I also agree with him that Charlie Casanova has an “astonishingly powerful cinematic voice” and is one of the most intriguing pieces of work ever made in Ireland. And on a no-budget at that. But…

He goes on to say that “We have for too long focused on perfecting the script when in fact some of the finest work in this country, such as ‘Tin Can Man’ and ‘Pavee Lackeen’, came about through a uniquely personal way of working. These films show that the logic of film can work in a very different way than a rigidly plotted out story on paper.”

This is where my heart starts to sink. Like most writers, I believe that starting a film without a properly worked-out script (not necessarily rigidly plotted, there has to be room for manoeuvre) is like starting to build a house with no clear blueprints. What do you think the final product will look like? If the builder is a complete genius and manages to make it work, it will still be great. If he’s an average Joe, well…

When this kind of point comes up, people always mention Mike Leigh. Yes, Mike Leigh can start with nothing more than an idea and improvise a whole film. But Mike Leigh IS a complete God at what he does. Most directors are not Gods (most writers aren’t either, for the record).

But there’s more.

“Unlike the ‘Auteur’ or ‘Shreiber’ theories favouring either the director or the writer as the true author of a film, the ‘Fís’ Theory holds that a true singular voice can only be attained when the director is also the writer. If the director does not write it then they must rewrite it and reinterpret it into their own vision”.

This reminds me of when I went to a screening of “Our Wonderful Home” by Ivan Kavanagh at JDIFF a few years ago. Following a silence during which you could smell the depression off the audience, a woman got up during the Q&A. She asked Ivan Kavanagh (rather pointedly) whether he thought it had been a good idea to write, direct and edit the film himself. She was heavily hinting that it might have been better to get another perspective.

For me, and I accept that this is not everyone’s view, film is a collaborative medium that relies heavily on a bunch of creative people working together. I write a script, a director directs the movie, someone else does the costumes, someone lights the set, etc etc. I have zero interest in directing and if a director has no interest in writing that should be okay.

Sidney Lumet wrote a brilliant book on making films where he dismissed as '''auteur' nonsense'' the notion that the director is the sole stylistic voice on a film, and he said he went out of his way to give credit to everyone from script girl to star. He discusses how he worked heavily with the writers on each of his films and always put story first. In other words, he respected the talent of those he worked with and got the most out of it.

Just to be clear, I’m not a writer who always thinks the director is out to mess with my script or who would resent changes being made along the way. I’d think it was strange if compromises didn’t have to be made, or if other viewpoints weren’t taken into consideration. But it’s a rare person who is just as excellent at writing as they are at directing. And I feel that a lot of people are out there doing both not because they can do both well, but because they don’t want to compromise “their own vision”.

If the only way a singular voice can be kept is if the director writes/rewrites the script where, then, does that leave a. directors who can’t write (should they just write shoddy scripts and shoot them? And b. what about writers who don’t want to direct?

That brings me to Charlie Casanova. I’m glad I watched it and I’m glad it was made. It looks fantastic and is a credit to its production designer and cinematographer. It raises great questions about class and about what the ruling class in the last administration were allowed to get away with – what they’re still getting away with.

I just wish Terry McMahon had let someone take a red pen to a script that was indulgent and wearyingly up its own arse (or up its own vagina in the case of the scene where Leigh Arnold inserts a tampon in front of Charlie). This is a film that is so “incendiary”, it thinks there’s something shocking about an act that half the population do many times a day for a whole week out of every month. Are tampons now sexy? Will Ireland now be full of panting men in front of bathroom doors, whispering “Show me the Tampax, baby!” Will Terry’s next film show a smear exam? My tongue is leaving my cheek now.

Apparently, CC is a “Protest film” and “the protest film is not conceived for the market. They are emotionally reactive, born out of necessity and a political and social consciousness”.

I don’t know – and I haven’t been able to find out – whether Charlie made any money, whether it made a profit or whether it even broke even? No one got paid, and I assume Terry put a fair bit of moolah in himself. Either way, should films not be conceived – at least to some extent – “for the market?”

I’m thinking of an Irish person at home on Saturday night, who wants to go and see a film. First of all, he or she is likely to dismiss an Irish film as an option – even if there is one available to watch in their local cinema. Let’s be honest about this. Irish people tend to think Irish films are shit.

And why is this? There are a lot of possible reasons – lack of proper distribution, poor development processes, lack of money, but I think the biggest problem is that the films are not, as a general rule, entertaining. I think the average person, who’s had a hard week at work and just wants to be gripped/made cry or made laugh for two hours, is not going to pay to see what may well be what a friend of mine likes to call a “tap-dripper”.

In case you think I’m saying that all films need to be Michael Bay-like (perish the thought), Mississippi Burning is a highly entertaining film as well as being powerful and informative. So is Medium Cool. So is an excellent Palestinian film called Amreeka. I remember watching the TV documentary drama "Who Bombed Birmingham" when I was very young and it’s stayed with me, scene by scene, ever since. It was so well written and well presented that it took me by the throat when I saw it.

But film is a medium that is designed for people to watch, preferably en masse, in a darkened cinema. I believe – and this is my manifesto if you like – that we need to think about the end user. The guy or girl paying for a ticket to watch something that we have created. We owe it to the audience to come up with something great, something that will leave them wondering, or laughing, or crying. And yes, thinking.

I watched two trailers for Irish movies today that (hopefully) will do those things. Two very different films, too – Citadel and Grabbers. I’m willing to bet that both of them will make money AND leave the audiences feeling like they got their monies worth.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mark on this last point – and I’d like to thank him for writing a manifesto that will encourage debate and hopefully lead to some great films being made. Because we think we can agree that we all want that.

“We need to build our indigenous film industry by making it about ourselves instead of trying to replicate the foreign model. For this movement to reach its full potential we need to promote Irish cinema as an important part of our culture and bring this new wave more into the mindset of Irish audiences. We need better models for the distribution of Irish film and we need our television stations to show more support for the industry. We should not be looking to work within a hierarchy but in a collaborative environment”