Monday, December 31, 2007

Battle Plan

A-blogging I will go, in order to get the writing portion of my brain functioning so that I can work on my Boxing Day script.

On the eve of 2008, I reflect on where I am in terms of achieving my goal, which is to make a living making films. For me, that means acting, writing, or directing. Or some combination of those three. Here's what I did in 2007:

- I attended Slamdance as a result of my placing in the Slamdance Screenplay Competition.
- I completed the last of 23 episodes of Buddy Jackson as G. Stimpson Erdogan.
- I played the title character in the award winning 48 Hour Film Project film, The Kumbio Takedown.
- I signed with Linda Townsend Management and booked a couple of paid acting gigs including three days of extra work on Step Up 2, which was also my first time on a major motion picture set.
- I had a staged reading of my script, Pennsyltucky, in New York City as part of my Slamdance Screenplay Competition prize.
- I finished two more feature length scripts, School Girl and Designated Driver.
- I wrote the script for and acted in Halloween 420, a National Film Challenge film.
- I played Dr. Chin in Ten Sundays Productions' Abraham Lincoln.
- I started developing another feature length idea, Boxing Day.

I may be forgetting some things, but that's the long and short of it. It's not a bad list of accomplishments, but at the end of the day, filmmaking is still just a hobby for me. My current strategy for breaking into the business is to make a feature that will either get me noticed as a writer-director and lead to another feature, or just get me recognized as a writer and then land an agent. And there's also the outside chance that I get a decent role in a movie or TV series.

My quest to make a feature started earnestly toward the end of my grad school career with Confederate Dead. When that fell through, I folded up my tent and returned to D.C. Then I turned my attention to Pennsyltucky, with the hope of producing it with my film school buddies. When I couldn't muster the help to do that, I decided to just churn out feature scripts, which resulted in School Girl. For the better part of a year, acting in Buddy Jackson gave me my filmmaking fix. When it ended, I was more pumped than ever to make a feature. So I wrote a script that could be produced in the D.C. area for less money for Pennsyltucky, which is how Designated Driver came about. Designated Driver is still very much in the cards, but the frustration of trying to raise money made me want to make a feature for NO money. I've just been itching to do a feature for the longest time, so I came up with the idea for Boxing Day. The idea is to make a feature with a single location, seven actors, and shoot it in less than seven total days.

I don't believe there's a magic bullet that's going to get me into the industry. But what's been good is that I've been stockpiling scripts and developing a decent acting resume. So in six months or so, if I look to be in the same situation, I may pack up my scripts and my acting reel and make a go of it in L.A.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


It only took them a little over two months, but Benazir Bhutto's enemies succeeded in assassinating her. While she wasn't totally clean, she was the best hope for democracy and a moderate influence in Pakistan. It's a tragic and potentially explosive development in an already volatile region. The sad truth, I feel, is that western style democracy is an impossibility in a part of the world with so much extremism, today's event being Exhibit A.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What I'm Watching: Juno *SPOILERS*

I've been looking forward to seeing Juno for a while because of all the buzz surrounding it and for the Jason Bateman-Michael Cera reunion. Sadly, Michael Bluth and George Michael Bluth never share the screen, but the movie is still very enjoyable.

The plot is simple. The titular character, Juno, a 16 year old high school student, gets pregnant when she decides to alleviate her boredom by having sex with her friend, Bleeker. After briefly considering an abortion, Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. And hilarity ensues.

As I said, the plot is quite, quite simple. The fun of Juno comes from the humor of the dialogue exchanges. Screenwriter Diablo Cody concocts razor sharp and pop-culture imbued lines for her characters. At first, the dialogue is almost too clever for its own good. As I listened to the interplay between Juno and the convenience store cashier regarding her third positive pregnancy test, I thought "People don't talk like this." I was afraid the movie was going to enter a Mametesque place, but it settled down. Still, Juno is remarkably articulate and witty for a girl of her age.

Interestingly, there isn't much of an arc to Juno's character. Juno states that by giving up her child, it'll be like nothing happened in 30 odd weeks. By the end of the film, Juno has the child and makes good on her adoption promise. The one difference in her character is that she has admitted her love for Bleeker.

The story thread that interested me the most was the relationship between the adoptive father-to-be, Mark, and Juno. Juno starts spending time with Mark and develops a crush on him for their common ground in music and movies. It culminates in Mark leaving Vanessa, his wife, to return to his musical aspirations and, presumably, pursue some kind of relationship with Juno. Juno rebuffs him.

Two of my own scripts deal with men grappling with the expectations of adulthood, so this part of the plot was close to home for me. But I had problems with Juno and Mark's motivations. Just before seeing Mark for the final time, Juno puts on lipstick. If she doesn't want to be with him, why does she do this? And Mark says that he's not ready to be a father. If that's the case, why is he pursuing a young mother-to-be?

Also, I thought that Vanessa's character was almost too overbearing. She's sympathetic because of her desperation to have a baby, but there's only that single sympathetic trait about her. At worst she seems obsessed. Mark is made out to be the far cooler and down-to-earth person. You can hate him for his decision to leave Vanessa, but only to a point, because Vanessa seems shrewish. If Vanessa had been pregnant, he would have been far easier to hate.

But those are minor quibbles for a film that had me laughing out loud from start to finish. The writing and performances are fantastic and I think Ellen Page is worthy of Oscar consideration.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Drudge vs. Hillary

My friend Jerry got me hooked on The Drudge Report back in my CPC days as a caption monkey. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a news junkie, but I like to stay informed. And I sure wouldn't call myself political, but I find myself pulling for Barack Obama in 2008. I like him, in large part, due to his lack of "experience." I want someone who isn't firmly entrenched in the Establishment. What this is all building to is Drudge's ruthlessness toward Obama's main rival, Hillary Clinton. Drudge loves to run sensational headlines about Hillary and always accompanies them with the worst pictures of her. They're so breathtakingly unflattering, I've been inspired to download a few.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

WILD Party

Originally uploaded by Ciscovaras

To celebrate my birthday, I invited over two of the craziest people I know: Mireille and JP. You give these two a little chocolate cake, and they'll run you ragged. They dig karaoke, too.




Saturday, December 15, 2007

How I Pay the Bills

As my day job, I teach Adult Basic Ed for Prince George's Community College. I've been doing this since September of 2006. Currently, I teach language arts Monday and Wednesday evenings and serve as a computer tech Monday mornings. It's been a very rewarding experience. When I started out, my class had just three students. Now, I have classes with over twenty students and I can confidently go in and conduct an 90 minute long class. A number of my students have gone on to earn their GEDs, which is very gratifying. I had been teaching exclusively 16-18 year old students. Now I'm teaching all ages, 16 and older. I really enjoy teaching students who have gone through life without a high school degree and have made the decision to come back to get their GED. It's great to see.

This is where I work as a computer tech:



And this is my evening class taking a test:


But I'm not finished yet... Back in the summer of 2006, I started working for Telescript D.C. as a teleprompter operator. I did a number of freelance jobs at that time, but I had a long layoff until summer of this year. Since then, I've been doing a lot more teleprompting work. I've been able to go to a lot of cool places that I wouldn't have been able to go to otherwise, like the IRS, the FAA, the USDA, the Charlie Rose show, and Mars Candy headquarters. Here's a picture of the company. From left to right, the fulltime guys, Ethan and Mike, and Telescript D.C. owner, Bill:


The Big 3-0

I turn thirty this week. It feels a lot like what 29 felt like. I've actually felt I've been 30 since turning 29, and this past year was just like the months leading up to the electric chair. That sounds a tad dire.

It's just that there's a huge difference between what I thought 30 would be like and what 30 actually is. I thought by this point, I'd be standing on my own two feet financially. I thought I'd be working in my field of choice. I thought I'd be married and have kids. Now that I'm here, I don't necessarily regret that these things haven't happened.

I know that if I decided to take the 40 hour per week job and go the 9 to 5 route, I could. I still have confidence that I'll make it as a filmmaker. I still look forward to meeting my future better half. And while I love kids, I don't see myself as a father just yet.

Honestly, when I looked to the future, I couldn't see myself past 30. Since childhood, I saw life like a movie that ended at 30. Seriously, at the end of this "movie," I had become the man I aspired to be and there was crane shot that widened out and faded to black. I'm now seeing the truth behind every cliché that's ever been spouted regarding life. Life is a journey. There is no crane shot.

What I can say, entering the fourth decade of my life, is that I'm more determined than ever to get my filmmaking career going. It's at the top of the list. Ironically enough, I don't think I could have been a creatively successful filmmaker any sooner because I hadn't lived enough. To be an effective filmmaker, you have to have had a little bit of the human experience. I've had my heart broken a bunch of times, I've had my share of failures and successes, and now I'm ready to get behind the camera.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Where the Wild Things Are

I have, in fact, read books in my life. One I have had the pleasure of reading is Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I was surfing the internet, as I frequently do, and I saw a blurb about the upcoming movie adaptation of WTWTA by Spike Jonze, and it got me thinking about the book again.

I can't remember how old I was when I first saw WTWTA. I'm pretty sure that I was too young to be able to read the words. But Maurice Sendak's illustrations were absolutely indelible on my toddler mind. Truthfully, there are many things from my childhood that I've forgotten, but I haven't forgotten what the Wild Things look like. As I think back on the book, it was a sweeping epic. After all, Max's journey lasted several years. To the knee-high version of myself, WTWTA was equivalent to The Lord of the Rings. When I look at the book now and see that it's less than fifty pages, I think it just further shows the power of those images. The Wild Things didn't even have names, but each one was so uniquely rendered with its own personality.

It would be fair to say that this book had a profound impact on me. I spent hours looking at those illustrations, creating my own backstories for all of the Wild Things. Max was a boy with a vivid imagination, just like Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, another huge influence on the young me. There's still a lot of Max and Calvin in this head of mine.

I don't know how the movie will turn out, but I'm encouraged that Spike Jonze is directing. I'm sure this book would have popped in his childhood at some point. And anyone who handles the surrealism of Charlie Kauffman as well as Spike is definitely the person for this project.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Kitchen Nightmare's vs. Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares

I've long been a fan of British television, since I started watching Britcoms on public television. I became a regular viewer of BBC America when I got DirectTV and that's how I discovered Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. The show features celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, as he goes to struggling restaurants for a week and tries to turn them around. Over the hour long show, he drops about 1,000 F-words.

As a rule, I'm not a fan of reality TV. But Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares shows people in a REAL real situation, in real trouble, and Gordon goes there and tries to help them. Gordon is tremendously charismatic. Despite his foul mouth and colossal ego, he's incredibly talented and commands respect. From what I've seen of Gordon, my amateur psychoanalysis is that he's obsessive and extraordinarily competitive. So his seemingly abusive assessments of the restaurants he visits and their staff/ownership is a result of his incredibly high standards.

The show has a pretty natural progression. Gordon arrives and has a meal. He tears the chef a new orifice over the quality of the food. The next evening, Gordon observes a service to see how the kitchen operates. Then the healing begins, as Gordon retools the menu and serves as a therapist f0r the staff, mending bridges between co-workers whose relationships have become strained. By the end of the week, there's a new menu and a new attitude in the kitchen. Gordon comes back a month or so later to check up on the featured restaurant. Often times, the restaurant is doing better, but on more than one occasion, the restaurant has shut down.

Much of the show focuses on the actual food served in the restaurant. Gordon regularly preaches simplicity on the menu by utilizing fresh ingredients and not overpowering them. What separates this program from a run-of-the-mill cooking show is Gordon's personality. Because of his bluntness, he frequently runs afoul of hard-headed chefs and owners. But the drama is never forced. The show is very controlled in its presentation, put together in a documentary fashion. Music is used judiciously, never coercing an emotional response. Gordon serves as the narrator, letting the viewer in on his internal monologue which is both informative and humorous. It's a well executed, engaging, and entertaining show.

Gordon started his American television career with Hell's Kitchen on FOX, a reality series in which aspiring chefs compete for his or her own restaurant. I saw several episodes, and I found it entertaining, albeit in a much different way from Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Hell's Kitchen is all about competition. The producers dig into their bag of reality tricks to amp up the drama. There's almost never a moment without music, the editing is manic, and more than a few incidents feel manufactured. But over-the-top drama was the goal of the show and Gordon kept it entertaining.

I was excited to see that FOX was going to do its own version of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, entitled simply Kitchen Nightmares. This incarnation of the program featured American restaurants all of which are located in New York, New Jersey, or California. For a good analysis of the differences between the two shows, go over to Lee Stranahan's blog. Lee also recapped all of the American shows and even did some investigative journalism, calling up some of the restaurants on the show and asking them about the experience.

The huge difference between Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and Kitchen Nightmares is the entertain-or-die FOX presentation. They took a smart show and pumped in all the over-production of Hell's Kitchen. To be fair, the British version of the show would never work on FOX prime time. Food Network would be the best place Stateside for that program. Or maybe HBO with all of Gordon's profanity intact. I found the American version entertaining and watched the whole season, but in the season finale, the ubiquitous music and editing-manufactured drama finally had me throwing my hands up in exasperation.

Another difference that bothers my inner film geek is the photography. The British version has a cinematic, verité look. Virtually all the camera work is handheld and the cameras shoot 24 frames per second, giving it a film look. The American version is shot exactly like Hell's Kitchen. There are lots of hidden camera shots, crane shots, and the video looks like video. Another drama-creating trick that they use is creating a close-up from a wide shot. There are a ton of shots of patrons seemingly turning to see what the commotion in the kitchen is. Oftentimes, these shots are taken from a wideshot and zoomed into. It's a cheap trick that results in some degraded looking video.

At its best, Kitchen Nightmares is fun and forgettable. At its worst, it's dishonest and it insults the viewer's intelligence. Don't judge Gordon Ramsay and the original show by the American incarnation. If your a fan of COOKING shows, do yourself a favor and track down the original.

What I'm Watching: Flight of the Conchords, Season 1

I ingest quite a bit of information, whether it be on the internet, on TV, in magazines, or wherever. In fact, I tend to bombard myself with information stimulation for most of my conscious day. With all that input, I feel I should output something, and the blog shall be my venue.

I don't want to call this a "review." Writing reviews would hold me to a standard of critique and firmness of opinion that my noncommittal nature forbids. So instead, I shall entitle these entries "What I'm Watching." That also frees me to write about anything that appears on a screen, not just movies or television.

So now that you're completely breathless with anticipation, here's the first installment:

I picked up the Flight of the Conchords, Season 1 DVD at Borders the other day with a 40% off coupon (that's how I roll). For those of you hitherto unaware, Flight of the Conchords is a Kiwi (meaning from New Zealand) comic folk duo who double as actors, not unlike America's own Tenacious D. I was first introduced to FotC by my own Kiwi friend, Elric Kane, who sent me a Youtube clip of "Business Time." I remembered Jemaine Clement from his Outback Steakhouse commercials a few years back, which features a Kiwi as an Aussie, which is cross-cultural dynamite. Just imagine a Canadian playing an American. I mean, that NEVER happens and think of the ramifications if it did. Anyway, when I found out that they had a show on HBO, I had to check it out.

The show follows fictionalized versions of Jemaine and fellow FotC member, Bret McKenzie, as they try to achieve rock stardom in New York City. They do this under the hilariously inept guidance of New Zealand Cultural Consulate/band manager, Murray, played by Ryhs Darby. Other major characters in the show are Mel (Kristen Schaal), the band's singular, psychotically obsessive fan, and Dave (Arj Barker), their conniving slacker friend.

The plots of the 12 episodes are not complicated by any means. They typically involve a hare-brained scheme by Murray to promote the band, which fails spectacularly, largely because it wasn't a good idea to start with. If the plot isn't to do with the band trying to become successful, it has to do with Jemaine and Bret trying to get chicks. But the humor of the show comes from the characters themselves. Jemaine and Bret are portrayed as incredibly naive and go along with the most ridiculous situations. Fortunately, they're not made to look like idiots, so the show ends up being quite smart in an absurd way. Each episode usually features at least two musical numbers that always deliver on the laughs.

I can say without reservation that Rhys Darby as "King of the Dicks" Murray is the funniest thing on the program. As the person Jemaine and Bret trust with their careers, Murray proves to be not only incompetent but self-sabotaging. From his flaming red 70's anchorman coif and his rock n' roll goatee to his hilariously thick Kiwi accent, he's a comic gem.

I give full marks for the show, but the DVD is a real bummer as it includes absolutely no meaningful extra features. Flight of the Conchords was a borderline call for HBO going into next season. But, it's a cult hit and far less expensive to produce than some of HBO's other fare. My guess is that they skimped on the DVD. But then, this isn't a review, so I don't feel obliged to do any research to confirm my theory.

The Writers Guild Is Losing Ground

The Writers Guild Is Losing Ground

As someone who aspires to be a WGA member at some point (as an extension of being a professional screenwriter), the strike has been of interest to me. This article seems to be a bit of a bombshell. The long and short of it is that, as part of its demands, the WGA wants to include reality show writers among its members. This is being interpreted as a power grab by the WGA and an overextension that could cost the writers negotiating leverage.

It may well be a power grab, but I can also see it from the Guild's perspective as a CYA measure. The whole upsurge in reality television over the last several years has been a threat to writers. It's like Peter Gallagher's character, Larry Levy, from The Player, who basically said you don't need writers to make a movie. Reality television is the studios' best defense/threat against the WGA.

"Hey, what do I need you for when I can get a woman to marry a horse and follow them around for a week and a half?"

And there is certainly an undeniable amount of storytelling that goes into reality television, although it comes more from the editors than anyone else. And they've got their own union to look out for them.

While I see the WGA's possible reasoning, the producers will never budge on this. I'm no negotiating expert by any stretch, but maybe the WGA can set this aside and make it look like they're making a meaningful concession.

Jenna in Adams Morgan

Jenna in Adams Morgan
Originally uploaded by Ciscovaras

Synergy is a wonderful thing. Everything works with everything else nowadays. I have no excuse not to blog now.

I am no producer

Since summer, I've been working on my feature project, Designated Driver. The project came as a result of my failure to get my script, Pennsyltucky, made. Truthfully, I could have tried harder with Pennsyltucky, but I loathe producing and I couldn't find a person who believed in the project as much as I did.

While I haven't abandoned Pennsyltucky, my irresistible itch to make a feature gave way to Designated Driver, a film that could be made in my immediate area for a fraction of what it would take to do Pennsyltucky the right way. Even after stacking the deck considerably in my favor with this project, I'm frustrated by the morass of producing. And so I've decided to simplify even further.

Producing is a very thankless, creatively unrewarding process. At least early on. So I've decided to do something that requires practically no producing at all. Before getting to Designated Driver, I'm going to make a feature with seven actors, a handful of locations, and no money. This will serve two purposes:

1) I can exercise my directing muscles that have been inactive since I made Videopolis.
2) I will have made a feature, which will both rid a considerable monkey from my back and serve as something to flaunt in front of potential investors.

To Blog Again

Some time ago, I endeavored to maintain a blog so that I could practice writing and have some kind of journal of my rants and raves. Well, I think I went six months between postings.

I now have a URL of my name and I'm much more adept at writing than webdesign, so I thought I'd resurrect the blog idea.