12-27-97: I think I'll survive another year
Year's end closes on us like the mouth of a great anaconda, and we face a future fraught with fizz. (I have no idea what I mean by "fizz," I just needed an "f" word that wasn't obscene).
The virus that moved in last week is still here, putting its feet on the furniture and drinking all the beer and making a damned nuisance of itself. My illness gets neither worse nor better. I've squeezed in a few hours outlining the first book of my Starship Troopers comic book mini-series and have nearly finished figuring out who gets slaughtered and how and when.
My entire life has gotten shabby this year. The house needs paint and plumbing. The car door doesn't open from inside. The chimney broke in an earthquake and we can't use our fireplace. And yesterday the floppy drive in my Mac died, and me sitting here with about four hundred discs holding this year's version of MacInTax. (I don't have a CD-ROM drive. If I did, I'm sure it would be broken, too.) When my laser disc player broke (again) I decided to cut bait on that particular hobby and sold my discs, bringing in about $1000.
Materialism is expensive (duh). My mother used to tell me, "Everything you own, owns you." It's true. As I feel more and more severely treated by my possessions, I find a great release in gettting rid of stuff. I'm actually glad the laser discs are gone. My laser disc player has held me in its grip too long, like the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors demanding, "Feed me! Feed me!" Or in this case, it's "Fix me!" Now, when the damn thing breaks again, I can ashcan it and be rid of one more troublesome component. When I look at new stuff that I might buy, I ask myself, "Will it fit in the shopping cart I'll probably be pushing around Venice Beach next year? Is this something I can leave inside the cardboard box we're living in under the freeway overpass while we leave 'home' to scrounge for aluminum cans?" Very little that's worth buying fits these criteria.
I'm sorry to be closing the year on such a negative note, but the truth is, this year has pretty much stunk. Good riddance to bad rubbish! Pah! Phooey on youey, 1997! Toddle off on those spindly old legs of yours and get your boney backside out of my sight! There's a new year comin' to town and his name's 1998, so bugger off!
12-20-97: Critical liquids
If you're at all like me (and if you are, you have my sympathy), one of the critical liquids in your life, right up there with water, mother's milk, and tequila, is WD-40, the miracle spray-on lubricant that cleans, protects, displaces moisure, stops squeaks, loosens rusted parts, and never goes out of style. This stuff is great, right? But my problem is, I'm always losing the little red tube that sticks into the nozzle and lets you squirt WD-40 into whatever gunked-up hole it's needed in. I've got cans and cans of perfectly good WD-40 sitting around like archeological artifacts, totally useless because I've lost the damned little red tube!
That is, I used to have useless, tubeless cans of WD-40 cluttering up my shelves, but that was before I called 619-275-1400, corporate headquarters for WD-40 Amalgamated (or whatever it's called). I conveyed my problem to a very nice lady who offered to send me a dozen little red tubes, a veritable lifetime supply, absolutely free! They arrived in the mail the very next day. Yee-hah! Now that's what I call Christmas!
I also went in for a physical exam this week. Not much to it, really, but "at my age" (a phrase I've come to detest) one has to consider one's prostate, which means your physician snaps on a latex glove, greases up an index finger and instructs you to bend over.
Meanwhile, I've come down with a virus that's been knocking on everyone's door begging for lodging. It spreads its sleeping bag in your throat and then slowly expands its living space into the lungs and surrounding membranes. Finally your body loses its patience and decides to kick the bum out. The battle rages for weeks and exhausts both you and the available supply of Kleenex Cold Care facial tissues. I'm in my first week of this home invasion and feel incapable of doing anything but lying around and dozing...in other words, I feel perfectly normal. But I'm preparing for it to get much worse.
Luckily, the old PowerBook still cranks up in the morning and I can lie on the sofa and peck away at my Starship Troopers comic book in between naps.
We're staying home for Christmas, which is fine by me. I'll be staying home more literally than my wife, who is gallivanting around San Diego this weekend without little-ol'-infectious-me. I'll be watching bad movies and reading a terrific book by C. J. Peters, Virus Hunter, about his years working for the Centers for Disease Control tracking down various epidemic-producing viruses. Considering that Julie and I both came down with the flu last Christmas and that I'm sick this Christmas, Virus Hunter seems like appropriate holiday reading material.
Hollywood-wise, the town is pretty much shut down but I did get a call from a producer I worked with at Fox, Tarquin Gotch, who is now independently hustling projects around TinselTown. He asked for copies of two of my screenplays, Maladjusted (the film we were going to shoot ourselves for $15,000--maybe I should post some version of the journal I kept during the Maladjusted days as a warning to would-be young filmmakers not to make the mistakes we made) and Returns, which spawned my novel, Many Happy Returns, which Tarquin also wants to see.
12-13-97: No wonder I'm poor
It's embarassing to admit that you've basically goofed off for an entire week, but there it is, the cold, hard truth staring me in the face. I did talk with Eric Lewald, my RoboCop editor, who was submitting a villain idea of mine for another episode, but haven't heard back. And I received, signed, and returned the contracts for the planetarium show in Kansas City. I had an idea for the framework - that the show would be narrated by a pair of aliens who are debating the possibility of life on other worlds, such as Earth - and emailed it to the planetarium director, Mike Bakich, but haven't heard back from him yet. And I spoke with my contact at Universal Studios, the person who wants to option my live action, s-f sitcom, The Nuclear Family, and sent her the Dal presentation.
The little bit of work that I did was beginning the Starship Troopers mini-series, four issues to be published by Dark Horse, arriving on shelves in June 1998. The overall synopsis has yet to be approved by the licensing people at Sony/Columbia, but it's been approved now by three Dark Horse editors and by the film producer, Jon Davison, so I'm confident enough to proceed.
Just watch: by proceeding without all the approvals in place, it'll be rejected now for some bizarre reason and I'll have to start over, and this week will have been truly and totally wasted! But right now I'm having fun outlining the first issue and getting to know the characters.
My only excuse for this sloth is Christmas and its companions, Hassle and Distraction. The mercury is dipping into the forties at night and barely rising into the mid-sixties during the day here in SoCal. That's as close to winter as I ever want to see again, having had thirty-five years of snow and ice when I lived in Kansas. Whenever I get lonesome for snow, I put on Doctor Zhivago until the feeling passes.
Anyway, I began a "tradition" of sorts a few years ago of not getting my Christmas letters out until January or February of the next year. I'm firmly back in that groove again this year. Just when everybody's sick and tired of Christmas, stuffing the plastic garland back in the storage box and beginning to dread the credit card bills, along comes my letter, penned by a guy who's been sick of Christmas since the mid-1980s and who shows no sign of improving. The condition is chronic.
Hollywood closes down this time of year, so I'm not expecting any word about anything (The Nuclear Family, Dal, either horror movie that's making the rounds again) until sometime in January at the very earliest. It's like living in the Twilight Zone...even moreso than usual, I mean.
12-6-97: There's that "rule of three's" again
Three good things happened this week.
First, I got word from my new, new Dark Horse editor, Jamie Rich, that the Starship Troopers four-issue mini-series that had been scheduled for "late '98" had been moved up to June 1998. This means I can expect a contract and get started on the series immediately.
Another piece of good news is that, after only fifteen months, I finally have a literary agent who'll represent my novel, Many Happy Returns. My old pal, George Beahm, recommended me and Returns to his agent, Stuart Bernstein, who recently sold George's photobook Maine Haunts. Stuart read my book, liked it, told me about a couple of typos, and I sent him five copies of the manuscript to distribute. He's in New York, which is the best place for a literary agent to be. My hope is that the recent resurgence of interest in the horror field has reached the East Coast and someone will see the wisdom in publishing the damned thing.
And finally, Mike Bakich of Science City in Kansas City has agreed to the few changes I had suggested in our contract for the planetarium show and I'm expecting new, signable contracts in the mail any day. Then he'll provide me with a bunch of facts which I'll weave into a family-friendly planetarium multi-media extravaganza!
11-29-97: Turkey week
Two big turkeys were a pair of springboards I sent to Marv Wolfman, the co-creator and co-editor of a series for Bohbot called Pocket Dragon Adventures. Marv, whom I've known for years through our comic book work, rejected both springboards.
Maybe I'll have better luck with the two RoboCop springboards I sent in.
It's a good week to have little to do, since it's Thanksgiving and all. Julie and I spent it with Mike Valerio and Rosie Taravella and a delightful group of their friends, including Tom Mason who will be editing a new cartoon series for Nickelodeon. The series was co-created by a former editor of mine, Doug Langdale, with whom I worked on Project GeeKeR. I'll have to find out the story behind his lack of involvement with the series before getting involved. I've reached the point where I'd rather be miserable because I'm not working than miserable because I am working.
If you can't be interesting, be brief, so that's this week's journal entry.
11-22-97: My butt's in a chair but my eyes are on the stars
First, I want to note that MGM came through and messengered a check to my agent who forwarded a check to me on Saturday which dropped through my mail slot on Tuesday. The angry mob of torch-bearing creditors who'd stormed the Strnad castle dissolved back into the night, muttering and vowing to return if we fell behind again.
So things are fine if you don't get me started on the McCaughey Septuplets. I mean, this multiple birth of seven children to a mother with tubes turbocharged by fertility pills is not the miracle of God that the parents claim. It's a perversion of nature and I can't understand why anyone would look on it as a good thing. Humans were not meant to produce litters! Now, if a pig gave birth to seven piglets, it'd be okay. Pigs are supposed to have litters. They have the teats for it. But when was the last time you saw a human woman with seven breasts? Also, piglets are pretty sturdy things compared to two-months-premature human babies who can't even breathe without the help of tubes and wires and pumps.
What we have with the McCaughey Septuplets is scientific monkeying around in the natural processes of conception and birth, resulting in an explosion of fecundity which, if it happened to the cells in your lungs, you'd call it "cancer." So we get seven underweight, underdeveloped babies weighing between two and three pounds, plus a few ounces, that science now has to struggle to keep alive through artificial means (more than forty medical personnel crowded the delivery room, seven teams of experts) until they're viable. Then they'll be dumped into the care of two clueless parents who'll have to focus all their energies on raising seven identically-aged children, a challenge greater than any two human mortals should face.
What really galls me is that the McCaugheys' birthing of seven children is viewed as some kind of achievement worth rewarding with free Pampers (I hope they live near a landfill), a van, even groceries and a house. I just have to shake my head at the things our society chooses to reward, in this case "managing to cram seven embryos into a single womb like college students stuffing themselves in a phone booth."
When humans are an endangered species, I'll applaud such multiple births. Until then, I think that the birth of septuplets is just another example of science run amok.
See...I told you not to get me started!
Since the topic of this journal is ostensibly "the writing life," here's what I worked on this week when I wasn't railing about the McCaughey Septuplets:
I waited for notes on my RoboCop script. Maybe I missed a window of opportunity or something by turning it in a week later than I'd promised, because it pretty much just sat in my editors' overburdened hands for another week or so before getting turned in to MGM for executive review. Like a pair of working class Iowans suddenly saddled with seven infants, Eric and Julia have been overwhelmed with Robo-work and have fallen behind on script reviews. Maybe I'll hear something next week.
To fill my time, I called Disney, my favorite studio in the whole world, to try to cadge another Hercules script. Editors Ken Koonce and Michael Merton (editors like to travel in pairs for safety) are forwarding me some recent scripts and a list of synopses to help me prepare some springboards.
I also called Marv Wolfman after reviewing material he sent about his new series, Pocket Dragon Adventures. This series is notable as the first animated series to be created under the auspices of the Writers Guild of America, rather than the other animation untion, the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists. This doesn't mean much to viewers, but it's the first step toward a recognition by Hollywood that cartoons are actually scripted and not just made up by the artists. I've long felt that animation writers were in the wrong union, since we are not cartoonists, and should be represented by the WGA.
And my agent, Candy Monteiro, forwarded me a "bible" to Universal's new Woody Woodpecker series. They, too, are open to pitches.
I can't possibly write for all of these series at once, so I'll have to see which ones spawn the best ideas and go in that direction.
I also received a contract from Science City in Kansas City, Missouri. Back when I lived in Wichita, Kansas, I worked at the local planetarium as the "book store manager." Naturally I had to turn that job into a writing opportunity and collaborated with the assistant director, Mike Bakich, on a planetarium show. Time has gone by and Mike's obtained a post at the KC planetarium. He emailed me to see if I'd like to collaborate with him on another show and I said, "Sure!" If we can come together on the fee schedule, this project will be a "go" very soon.
11-15-97: Welcome to the pit
One mark of a great writer is his ability to write about a character who's depressed without being depressing, or one who's boring without boring the reader.
So, I'm not a great writer. I'm boring and depressed and writing about myself, so here you are, stuck in the muck. Welcome to the tar pit!
A phone call from one of my RoboCop editors, Julia Lewald, came in while I was riding my bike last Saturday in an effort to postpone my first heart attack. She seemed to think that the script was okay and promised notes sometime soon.
With nothing much to do, I've been catching up on my RoboCop reading, finally getting through the rest of the outlines, scripts, and updates that my editors have sent through email. I also worked up and emailed another RoboCop premise.
MGM Studios has gone public, and so far (as I write this on Friday morning) the stock is down $1/share from the initial offering price on the first day of trading. If you're interested in buying a few shares of MGM stock, let me assure you on one point: They are definitely NOT wasting money by throwing it at freelance writers! I know because, A) they low-balled us on the RoboCop series, and 2) they still haven't paid me my "commencement" money, even though I turned in the first draft script last week.
Okay, I'm not just depressed, I'm also pissed off. So what else is new?
Ah, I'm just being cranky. Maybe it's all just "start up problems" as MGM claims. As someone said once, "Never attribute to malice anything that can be explained by incompetence." I'm sure a check will show up any day now! Everything will be fine, the bills will get paid, the show will be great, the laughter of children will fill the air, the clouds will part and the angels will sing! All together now: Zip-a-dee-doo-dah...!
Late-breaking bulletin: My agent just called and said that MGM is messengering a check to them at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The check from my agent to me should go out Saturday, and by Monday the Strnads will be solvent again.
Meanwhile, another possible assignment has come through, from someone I've known for years in the comic book world. He's worked in animation for several years, also, but our paths have somehow never crossed before now. More on this show as plans finalize.
The highlight of the week has been a review of my Starship Troopes comic book, "Brute Creations," and of this site as well, in Tony's Online Tips, a daily (yeah, daily) column by Tony Isabella. Tony's been in the business for a long time, as long as me. His first review was 100,000 years ago, a work of mine that appeared on cave walls. It starred a character I called "Sharp Stick Man," chronicling his adventures as he stalked and killed an antelope. Anthropologists have taken this story as fact, proving that early men made and used weapons, but I made it all up! Heck, we didn't have sharp sticks back then! This was pure science fiction! Anyhow, Tony liked both the Starship Troopers comic book and this web site, so check it out! The review is in the archives, #152, November 14, 1997.
11-8-97: I screw up royally
The only writing I did this week was on my RoboCop episode. I really messed up the outline and I paid the price at the script stage.
There are a couple of distinct script formats. I call them the "one line" format and the "drop line" format. The effect of using one format over the other is substantial. You see, in timing out episodes so that they come out to precisely twenty-two minutes (a thirty-minute show minus eight minutes of ads and titles), producers will tell you exactly how many pages your script should be and which format to use. Of course they all disagree on these points based on their own experience, so one thing you have to do is find out up front which format to use and how many pages to write.
For some reason, I've almost always used the "one line" format in which you might write something like the following (totally made up for this example):
FULL ON ROBOCOP as he strides TOWARD CAMERA. His leg opens and he withdraws his blaster and aims it at us.
In the "drop line" format, you'd right the same thing as:
FULL ON ROBOCOP
as he strides TOWARD CAMERA. His leg opens and he withdraws his blaster and aims it at us.
Obviously, the "drop line" format is going to eat up script pages like I-dunno-whut. Plus, the RoboCop producers were wanting thirty-three page scripts, down from the 36-42 pages that I've been asked for in the past.
My brain, however, had apparently gone on holiday and left me to write my RoboCop outline without its help, because I proceeded to write an outline with as much story as I'd normally cram into a one-line, forty-page script. The outline was approved with some modifications and I went to work writing the script.
Naturally, as I worked on the script, I found myself at the end of Act One (that is, on page eleven) and only about a third of the way through Act One as detailed in the outline. Massive changes were in store and I had to deal with them on the fly, surgically excising huge chunks of action and then stitching the remaining scenes together in something like a coherent structure with tantalizing act breaks in all the right places. I think the resulting script works quite well, but it was hard, time-consuming work and I just know that the notes committee is going to say, "What happened to the scene where such-and-so happens? That was my favorite part!"
I turned the script in to my Wonderful and Forgiving (I hope) editors, Eric and Julia Lewald, on Friday. I'll keep you posted as to their reaction.
In other "news," no more details yet on Universal's alleged optioning of my live action s-f sitcom, The Nuclear Family, as negotiations plod along. I imagine communication is flying between my agent, Candy Monteiro, and the Business Affairs folks at Universal, but I don't know. Meanwhile the other partner of the Monteiro Rose Agency, Fredda Rose, informs me that she's sending out my screenplay, Returns, again. I wrote Returns, a horror screenplay, five years ago and it got nowhere. Now, however, thanks to Wes Craven and the success of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Hollywood is once again interested in horror and Returns is quite literally returning from the dead. I based my unsold novel, Many Happy Returns, on the screenplay, so maybe there will be more interest in that as well.
Oh,yeah: as you can read below, my laser disc player went into the shop the same day I came home with four boxed sets of discs to watch over the two weeks that my favorite laser disc store was moving. I heard from the shop late Thursday that I could pick up my machine any time I had $170 to give them. My discs were due back on Friday. I have $7.55 in the bank. The discs will go back to the store totally unwatched, except for the one that the machine ate. And I guess I'd better run a few bucks to the bank in case they charge me the monthly $8.50 service charge before I get the check from MGM that was due last week.
If you plan to make your living as a writer, read those last three sentences again.
11-1-97: Pity the poor yuppie
Saturday, when I should have been working on RoboCop, I drove out to Hollywood to be interviewed for television. "Television" in this case means a very low budget program, The Anti-Gravity Room, that isn't aired in my country (the U. S. of A.), and the interview took place in the producer's apartment, shot by a crew of two. On the plus side, everyone was exceedingly sweet and accomodating and I had a genuinely fine time meeting them and babbling in front of a camera for a few minutes.
The occasion for this flirtation with fame was the "advertorial" I wrote for Details magazine. Publicity hound that I am, I sneaked in plugs for Starship Troopers and The Nuclear Family, even though the former may not happen until late 1998 and the latter may never happen at all.
The next day resulted in what we call a "star sighting." My wife Julie was in charge of organizing a Master Gardeners event at the Huntington Botanical Gardens and the keynote speaker was Ed Begley Jr., an ardent environmentalist and electric car enthusiast. Julie introduced me and Ed was very gracious.
Monday I heard an enormous crash from the direction of New York City and realized it was my mutual funds smashing against a concrete floor. By the end of the trading day, the Dow was down 554 points. I quickly dropped a check in the mail, hoping to buy a couple more shares before the prices went back up. That, of course, was the voodoo magic required to goose the Dow back up (almost) to where it was before the fall, so that by the time my check arrived, I was paying top dollar again. The next day was a "down" day, and after that...aw, the heck with it! Let it ride!
Meanwhile, moving right along in the Pity the Poor Yuppie Department, my favorite laser disc rental store, Laser Blazer, is moving. They're closing for a couple of weeks, and they offered a rental deal in which you rent on the last day they're open and return the discs to the new store two weeks later, paying a one-day rental fee. I rented four boxed sets that contained far too much material for me to view in a single day. So far, so good!
I loaded the first disc in my laser disc player, which proceeded to rattle and bounce like an out-of-balance washer while simultaneously issuing a whining, grinding noise. I hit the "eject" button and the drawer holding the disc opened part way with the disc stuck firmly half-in and half-out the machine. I pried it loose and examined the disc for damage. A circular scratch had been etched halfway through the disc as if the machine had been commanded to cut a music-CD out of the middle of the laser disc.
So, on the first day of the big rental deal, my machine enters the shop where it will stay for approximately two weeks. I'll return the boxed sets of discs unwatched, and have already had to seek out and buy one of the sets, for $100, to replace the damaged disc. Repair of the laser disc player will be $160-180. The whole thing serves as a reminder that all technology eventually comes around to bite you in the butt.
Work-wise, I've been plugging away on my RoboCop cartoon script. The reason for the new show is that the license holder for RoboCop toys wants to relaunch the toy series. The toy manufacturer has significant input on the series because they're footing the bill, and they're aiming at basically a six-year-old audience. As a result, Robo has become a kind of magic Swiss Army knife who can pop virtually any kind of gizmo out of his robot body as needed, much as a child playing with RoboCop toys on the kitchen table will come up with stuff willy-nilly as it occurs to him.
The problem is, what works on a tabletop doesn't work in a real television show. If Robo can, say, pop jets out of his back and fly in Scene 8, the question occurs: Why didn't he fly in Scene 2? And why doesn't he fly in Scene 21? And if he can do virtually anything...if the boundaries of his abilities aren't strictly defined...how do you (the writer) push him up against his limits, which is how you maximize drama? The toy manufacturer wants Robo to have all kinds of gizmos, but the quest for drama demands carefully defined limits. This isn't an insurmountable problem but it makes it harder than it should be to write.
So it's taking longer than it should and I'm getting depressed and the depression makes it harder to write which makes me even more depressed...it's a vicious, downward spiral that can be broken only by slapping myself repeatedly. SLAP! SLAP!
Hey, I feel better already!
10-25-97: An unofficial rant about rants, and a tiny bit of work gets done
Still waiting for notes on RoboCop and word on the Starship Troopers mini-series. I'm getting nervous. Two or three "days off" are heaven. More than a week is a financial crisis a month from now.
I passed a couple of days getting my checking account in order. We had some mail stolen a few months ago, and a check to GTE for a phone bill resurfaced as a bleached and forged check to somebody name "Robert Radford." If you know him, tell him he's on my list. Anyway, it screwed up the account and we had to close it and juggle money around and the new account has never been fully reconciled...until now.
I also had time to read a few more of the Rants in the Unofficial Starship Troopers Page. I love these guys who rant about a movie they haven't seen yet! What a hoot! Here's one of my favorites, dated 11 Jun 1997 (the movie was completed in mid-October). "Bill" is responding to either the official Sony website, which was in the very early stages of construction (and, incidentally, was created by an entirely different group of people from those who made the movie), or to the first trailer for Starship Troopers. Bill says, in part:
The first time I saw it I diagnosed it as nothing less than a rape of the whole novel. My first guess was that they were going to retell the story of the Indians and the European settlers (politically correct version #1) with the bugs in the role of the Indians. You can see how they'd do it. The bugs, though horrible to look at, are in reality gentle kindly folk with good intentions and a cosmic natural vision of the universal brotherhood of all living things. Meanwhile, the evil federal government (represented by evil-white-European-males (EWEMs)) has greedily stolen (to mine the rare mineral Bullshitite) their ancestral sacred breeding/burial/spitting grounds, thereby committing the bugs to a holy war to reclaim said grounds. Our hero will discover the truth just in time to avert the complete destruction of the universe/galaxy/rings-of-Saturn and thwart the EWEM dominated federal government. Sheesh!
I understand that the complexity of the novel, with the multiple flashbacks and social commentary would be difficult to film. And it's clear the production is intended solely as an action/adventure, but, if anyone is ever to make the science fiction equivalent of "Gone With the Wind" or "Lawrence of Arabia," this is the novel to do it from. Unfortunately, these guys are trying to make the next "Independence Day." A lousy, adolescent effort with no legs. Five years from now, no one will have the least interest in seeing either.
"Sheesh" is right! First, Bill writes a scenario of his own devising which he ridicules the filmmakers for, then, without benefit of speaking to anyone involved in the film, he divines the filmmakers' "intentions." He caps it all off with a look to the future, mystically perceiving what people will think of this as-yet-unscreened opus five years from now and where it will stand in the history of cinema.
Looks to me like Bill is sitting on a motherlode of his own "bullshitite"!
I don't care if people pan Starship Troopers, the movie. Everybody's a critic, including me, and we all bring our own biases and preferences, life experiences, points of view, and insights into the theater with us. They hover over our shoulders as we write any critique. It would be nice, though, if critics would at least see the film before condemning it.
I guess it's the popularity of Heinlein's novel and its highly esteemed position in s-f fandom that attracts such polemics. Even the wise and normally levelheaded Maggie Thompson of The Comics Buyer's Guide - an avid s-f fan - succumbed to anti-Troopers hysteria. Her review of part three of the three-part comic book prequel to the film included not a single word about the comic book beyond a perfunctory listing of credits, but she managed to squeeze in an observation about the (yes, unseen) film:
From all appearances, the film will pay little attention to the messages or dramatic evolution of the book and will simply be a big bug-blaster of a special effects vehicle.
Maggie is usually the voice of reason in the contentious world of comic books. Seeing her fall to the madness is like watching Dr. Marcus Welby break out with the sweats in the middle of a Swine Flu epidemic. At least she qualified her statement with "From all appearances," but I have to wonder what those "appearances" are. The movie trailer ? (Hardly an objective source - more the cinematic equivalent of P.T. Barnum shouting "This way to the egress!") The comic books? Fan mail from some flounder?
All the brouhaha from s-f fans, no matter how uninformed, is good news for Sony/Columbia. People who go to a movie to be outraged pay the same admission as those who go to be entertained. And they're all subject to the spell of a good film. Starship Troopers puts images on the screen that no one has seen before...and it's thematically faithful to the Heinlein novel. I think that a lot of today's naysayers will be seeing it more than once!
On Thursday I received notes from MGM on my RoboCop outline. They want to play it more "cartoony" than I would have, but otherwise the notes were pretty light. I promised the script for next week.
Also, I received a call from my pal Mark Verheiden, informing me that his television show, Timecop, had been cancelled after airing four episodes. More episodes will be shown on ABC since they're already produced, but there will certainly be a Timecop "lost episode" (the one currently in production) that won't see the light of day until it's broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel. I'll have a long lunch with Mark next week and we'll lambast the networks, a standard feature of the writing life.
10-18-97: Killing time (and maybe a mini-series)
Notes on my RoboCop outline didn't show up on Monday or Tuesday, as expected, and my Starship Troopers editor has left Dark Horse Comics and I don't know who his replacement is so I don't have final notes on that project (a four-issue sequel to the film), and I finished my Gen-13 Bootleg two-issue series on Monday, so I took Tuesday off and went to Laser Blazer and rented Freaks, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Arrival, and one of my favorite sex comedies, the under-rated Blame It On Rio.
Laser Blazer rents and sells laser discs. They're also getting into DVD, which I see as replacing my beloved laser disc format in the next few years. (Forget Divx, and if you don't know what that is, follow the link to find out!) Already Pioneer has cut back on its laser disc production as the "cutting edge" folks switch loyalties, there are more used laser discs in the bargain bins now, and I'm sure that the 12" laser disc would soon be as anachronistic as the 12" vinyl record.
Me, I don't have the bucks to buy into every new bit of technology willy-nilly. I don't see that DVDs offer that much more quality, and I buy so very few discs (I mainly rent) that the slightly lower price doesn't entice me. I missed out on the Betamax format thanks to not having any money but was able to get in on the VHS format that's proven so durable, so I've learned that waiting is not such a bad thing. (For more on the ever-thrilling subject of waiting, see my article, "Now and Then.")
We have a revolution in television technology coming up. Television is going digital, so pretty soon you'll need another converter box to watch the new, digital broadcasts on your old, analog television set. And sooner or later we'll have high-definition television (HDTV) with a wider screen and double the resolution of our current system, and you'll have to buy a whole new set for that. At that point, DVD will have to upgrade to accomodate the high-def picture, so maybe that'll be when I hop onto the DVD bandwagon and start buying discs of the hundred-or-so movies I really, really want to own, the ones I'll play over and over again in my dotage.
Meanwhile, VHS tape just keeps rollin' along. I'm passing up the $125 laser disc reissue of the Star Wars trilogy with all the improved and new footage in favor of the $39.95 (at Best Buy) widescreen VHS version. The content is all there and the films look and sound great...not as good as laser disc, but plenty good enough until television makes the digital leap. By then, laser discs will be passé also.
I really think that improved sound is the biggest enhancement to television lately (second to Buffy the Vampire Slayer). My wife and I were watching that laser disc, surround-sound version of Close Encounter of the Third Kind last night, and the low bass rumble of the ships was shaking the floor and the music was gorgeous, and it was so-o-o-o much more enjoyable than listening to a movie through a tinny three-inch speaker like televisions used to come with (and some still do). Even run-of-the-mill broadcast stuff sounds much more natural and full than it used to.
I also made a journey into North Hollywood to discover Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, a bodacious video store of almost legendary reputation. For more on that odyssey, click right about here.
Anyhow, back to the subject of writing. Like I said, I finished my Gen-13 Bootleg story. As much as I wanted to do "He Has His Mother's Eyes," I have to say that my editor, Scott Dunbier of WildStorm Productions, made the right choice in selecting "Hangin'" instead. It's at least as much fun as "Eyes" would have been (for the reader, I mean) and has much more emotional kick and more chances for interplay among the characters. I'm very happy with the way the story turned out, and I know that Sean Shaw and Kevin Nowlan will do a terrific job on the art, so I'm looking forward to seeing this one in print.
About mid-week I called Dark Horse Comics to ferret out my new Starship Troopers editor, and it proved to be Phil Amara. We talked a little bit about the sequel mini-series, and he dropped a bombshell on me: It's been postponed until late in 1998.
"HUH?" I replied. "Where's the sense in that?" He could find none, and after thinking about it for a few days and discussing it with others, no one can figure out what in the hell the publisher is thinking.
I attended a screening of Starship Troopers last night and let me tell you, there's stuff on the screen that you've never seen before! The human actors are a bit beautiful and Melrose Place-y for my taste, perfect to the point of seeming computer generated, but the bugs...oh, the bugs! Absolutely incredible scenes of carnage and terror!
So, what is the point in coming out with a comic book sequel a year after the film hits the theaters? I just don't get it! And neither could the producer, Jon Davison, whom I ran into after the screening. (They really need better lights in the Sony/Columbia parking lot!) Phil is going to talk with publisher Mike Richardson, and maybe Jon will give him a call, too, and we'll see if we can get to the bottom of this puzzle.
Getting old is the pits. By the time you hit the forties (I am neck-deep in the forties as I write this) you know what you like, what you hate, and basically how things ought to be. Not the naive, idealistic, and simplistic "how-things-ought-to-be" of the twenties, but a well-grounded and experience-based, practical, dirty hands knowledge that comes from three decades of mucking around with things that aren't how they ought to be.
And you know that things are not ever going to be as they ought unless somebody makes it their business to make them that way. The only thing that happens by itself is decay. If you want to make a positive change, you have to get busy.
So, two things have been bugging me that I thought I could do something about. The first was a T-intersection in Santa Monica where a two-lane street meets another two-lane street. Common sense (and the law) would indicate that the right lane would have to turn right and the left lane would have to turn left, even though no signs told drivers what was expected of them. After all, if you turned left from the right lane or right from the left lane, you'd cut off or ram into other cars, right?
Well, this bit of logic was beyond the neural networks of L.A.-area drivers, so this intersection had become a sort of demolition derby where, apparently, anything was allowed since there were no signs to tell drivers otherwise.
I called the city of Santa Monica and spoke to a traffic engineer, described the intersection and the problem, and he said, "We'll take care of it." His tone of voice conveyed to me the message, "I'm bored with my job, my shoes pinch, I have a caffeine headache and I couldn't care less about your stupid street signs so go away and quit bothering me, I have troubles of my own." I expected no action.
To my utter shock, four days later the signs were in place. I called the engineer and thanked him profusely, feeling enormous guilt for having maligned him in my mind.
My other crusade was for speed humps on my street. It's a residential street with two schools in a four-block stretch and a posted 25 mph limit, so most people drive forty. Traffic volume is fairly heavy and the noise is just slightly less than if somebody was feeding a corpse through a wood chipper outside your window. If you park on the street, kiss your car goodbye. (My 1977 Ford Granada, a real tank of a vehicle, ended up in the neighbor's front lawn burning like a torch at two in the morning because I'd stupidly left it beside the curb one night. The little Mazda 626 that hit it suffered a crumpled fender. So much for "bigger is safer" if you drive a Ford, which, incidentally, I do not recommend.)
I started tracking down traffic engineers for the city of L.A. by phone and, after only a dozen calls, zeroed in on the official Speed Hump Program. I got a recorded message telling me that I could request a Speed Hump Information Package, and did so.
The Speed Hump Package described which streets were eligible for speed humps and mine seemed to qualify with one possible exception - it might have too much traffic. Still, I forged ahead. My next step, as outlined in the Speed Hump Package, was to write a letter requesting speed humps, which I did.
I then received a petition which I need to get signed by 75% of the people living in the block where the speed humps would be built. Once the petition is completed, I can send it in and the City of L.A. will order a traffic study which may take six months to complete. Then they'll decide if my block is one of the thirty locations selected per fiscal year to receive humps. In all of Los Angeles. Thirty.
Chances seem slim.
I'm thinking of moving to Santa Monica, where about ten blocks away, when some invisible line is crossed between Los Angeles and Santa Monica, my very same street does sport speed humps. And happy, smiling homeowners actually get some sleep at night.
Another reason to flee Hell-A is that the City charges a business tax on writers. Yes, sitting at home during the day and typing is considered a drain on City services that requires a business tax if you're lucky enough to ever sell anything. And what do I get for my business tax? Nothing. Not even a speed hump.
So I was busy this week getting signatures on the petition and stuff like that, so who had time to write?
Okay, actually I did manage to pen a RoboCop outline that was favorably received by my story editors and which will be presented to MGM next Monday. This freed the rest of my week and the weekend for getting back to my Gen-13 Bootleg comic book, the second of two issues I'm writing.
Coincidentally, as I was struggling with a Gen-13 outline that just would not, could not come together into a coherent story (having written the first book under deadline pressure without knowing what would happen in the second book), Scott Dunbier of WildStorm Productions called needing, A) a synopsis of the second book, and B) a cover idea. I pulled the requested items out of my...hat...and concentrated on the plot of the book itself.
Luckily I was able to pinpoint where my outline had gone wrong...on page two, as it turned out...and was soon keyboarding my way to a satisfying conclusion.
10-4-97: Robo rides again!
It's full speed ahead on a new RoboCop animated series. The studio is MGM, supervising executive is Jay Fukuto, one of the "good execs" from my days at Disney Television Animation, and the editors are the beautiful and talented Eric and Julia Lewald. I wrote up some springboards and ideas for villains, and they got one of my ideas approved and assigned me a premise. I started work on an outline and got two acts written before the weekend hit along with a planned trip to San Diego/Coronado/Mexico.
The only negative note in the RoboCop scenario is that MGM's Business Affairs department is low-balling the writers on their fees. They know that work is tight and that if anyone doesn't want to take MGM's offer, "there are ten more writers around the corner who'll be happy to do so" (as Business Affairs told my agent).
It's really too bad that these studios don't look on writers as resources worth cultivating. Instead, they foster an antagonistic relationship in which you feel that, if you work hard and diligently, you're just letting them "win." I've never known a writer to purposely turn in crap just because he's getting paid less - since, after all, it's his/her name that goes on the show - but you certainly aren't motivated to "go the extra mile" or put that little bit of extra time or consideration to the work when you know that you're viewed as just a replaceable cog purchased on a "lowest bidder" basis.
And of course, things change and sometimes it's a sellers' market in which there are more jobs than writers. Then, of course, you respond by charging studios as much as possible. I've charged as much as 165% my normal fee in such times, which is nothing less than gouging, but this particular studio had been low-balling me previously and I wanted - and got - revenge.
The studios really depend on the writers' good feelings toward their story editors to smooth down the hackles raised by the Business Affairs folks. In this case, Jay Fukuto and the Lewalds are indeed delightful folks who are good at engendering positive feelings in the creative staff despite the manipulations of the Business Affairs jerks.
9-27-97: What a load of crap!
No, I'm not whining about network executives or story editors or producers again. I mean the load of crap in my office.
Installing the new desk meant a major redesign of the office. Our house was built in 1950, back when people thought they had everything and were happy. In reality, they had a fraction of the stuff we have today and we're miserable. Observations on materialism aside, the rooms in houses made in 1950 (ordinary, blue collar-type houses, I mean, like the one I own one-zillionth of) were quite small. They had tiny closets and very few electrical outlets. So our office is about the size of the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle, and it has to house two desks, two filing cabinets, two computers and related accessories, a stereo system, all my dinosaur models and books, reference materials, nearly four hundred videotapes, and all my wife Julie's junk. Julie is a Master Gardener, and she has reams of reference material about everything from root knot nematodes to verticillium fungus, so she takes up a lot of space with her own stuff.
The new desk is much bigger than my old one, so something had to give. One filing cabinet ended up in the pantry. A bookshelf found a home by the back door. A little table with a single drawer is homeless, currently taking up space in the living room in front of the front door for us to trip over.
But mainly, I dealt with the videotapes.
I've been taping stuff since the dawn of VHS. I have tapes whose boxes say "two hour tape," meaning they pre-date both the LP and EP modes. Many of them contain movies taped off broadcast television in the SP (best quality) mode and then dubbed down to the EP (no quality) mode during times of poverty when I was recycling tapes. They might have been acceptable fifteen years ago, for viewing on the six-inch television screens popular at the time, but they hardly hold up to today's standards. And most importantly, they consume shelf space.
So I dumped over two hundred movies, more than 125 tapes. Of course this meant (since I am anal retentive) going through all my tapes one by one, entering them in the computer including the ones I was dumping so I'd know which movies I had to replace, cross-checking them with the card file which was a mess (tapes with no cards, cards with no tapes), noting which tape numbers were available for new tapes, and combining all the tapes onto one bookshelf. This project consumed three days.
I still have a lot of miscellaneous items to sift through and put somewhere, but the Big Job is done. The tapes are in order, properly catalogued and shelved, and I have three boxes of tapes to sell in our next garage sale. And I got no work done at all.
On Tuesday I heard from Jamie Smith of Netter Digital that they're passing on Dal.
Thursday featured a story meeting at MGM regarding a new animated series, which I devoted Friday to working on, creating villains and springboards. More on this show next time, when the "cloak of secrecy" is lifted somewhat.
9-20-97: Truckin' 101
This week was devoted to finishing the first of my two issues of Gen-13 Bootleg. I faxed the script to WildStorm on Thursday night because I had to get up early on Friday morning to pick up a chair.
You see, my wife Julie is a scavenger. She haunts the alley behind our house, her radar tuned to treasures that our neighbors have discarded. Our usual method of dealing with this jetsam is to let it sit around behind the shed until we get sick of it, then we throw it out. Now and again, though, she scores big.
The mother of the wife of one of her bosses passed away and her boss asked if Julie wanted a nice teak desk with a typing extension. Julie said, "You bet!" and we drove to Burbank (normally, about a 45-minute drive from our house) on Wednesday evening to pick it up. While there, we were offered the beautiful leather chair that went with the desk. We couldn't fit both items into our Toyota pickup so we planned a second trip for Friday morning.
I drove to Burbank on Friday, leaving our house at 8:00 a.m. and then spending half an hour just getting on the freeway, and then traffic was heavy in the northbound (my) lanes because of an accident in the southbound lanes that everybody going the other direction had to slow down and gawk at. I arrived in Burbank ninety minutes later. I loaded up the chair and took surface streets, no freeways, back home, arriving around 11:30.
This weekend we'll tear the home office apart and switch the desks and rearrange all the furniture, giving Julie my old desk and trying to find something to do with hers.
Meanwhile, my agent, Candy Monteiro, received a contract offer from Universal Studios regarding my sitcom, The Nuclear Family, which Universal wants to option. I think that this deal may be doomed because I'm adamant about remaining attached in some material way and not letting them simply buy me out.
I created the show so that I could work on a show, not so that I could collect a quick check and then go away. I'd rather sell the idea to a puppet troupe if that meant I could continue to be involved, rather than sell it to a major studio and get squeezed out.
Anyway, we'll see how the negotiations go.
9-13-97: A bolt from the blue
I devoted Monday to reworking my Starship Troopers sequel mini-series synopsis. I combined some elements to make more room for bug battlin', and changed the last book drastically to introduce and explore Heinlein's powered armor concept. Faxed it to Dark Horse Comics and Jon Davison at Sony/Columbia on Tuesday and launched into Gen-13.
I worked on Gen-13 for a day and a half, then had lunch with my AceVentura, Pet Detective editor, Tom Mason and he gave me notes on my first draft script. I was delighted to hear that the producer, Larry Katz, called it a "home run," especially since it was so difficult for me to write (see below). Of course, that doesn't mean there weren't notes, and time was short to deliver the rewrite. I promised to have the rewrite done by Friday noon, but then vowed to myself to get it done sooner since Tom bought my lunch.
Incidentally, I have to go on record regarding one thing: I hate the Farmer's Market in Santa Monica on Wednesdays at noon! There is no place to park in the downtown Santa Monica area on Wednesdays at lunchtime, thanks to the bevy of women who flock to the blocked-off streets downtown to load up on organically grown produce! Tom works in Malibu, I'm in the Venice area, so it's natural for us to meet in the middle - Santa Monica - for lunch. The Santa Monica Place parking, the public parking, and anywhere else you might stash a vehicle on Wednesdays at noon...all are full, and you circle endlessly, like a vulture, waiting for some dame to stash her melons in the back seat and give you a spot. Which is why I chose the Crocodile Cafe for lunch last Wednesday, because they have their own parking lot...which was full even though there was a less-than-capacity crowd in the restaurant. I snagged a place along Ocean Boulevard, just by luck, and Tom parked in a lot somewhere down in Long Beach (I exaggerate, of course), and we eventually got together, but dammit, people, we've got cartoons to write, here! Just wait'll you wake up some Saturday morning and don't have any Ace Ventura, Pet Detective to watch, all because some forty-year-old former hippie decided that she absolutely, positively needed pesticide-free kohlrabi for her dinner salad!
Anyway, I turned in the rewrite on Thursday around noon and went back to work on Gen-13. I'd previously turned in the first seven pages to get the penciller, Sean Shaw, working, and I knew that I'd plotted myself into a pit, that I'd set up a situation that I had no clue how I would resolve. Then I worked on Ace for a week, and one evening, while grilling some chicken in the back yard ("Where were you on the night of September third, Chucky?" "Squawk!") and staring into space, I had a brainstorm that dropped the solution right in my lap.
Some writers proclaim the virtue of writing quickly, of getting down on paper that first, fresh idea before it evaporates, and not laboring over anything too long. I'm not one of them. To me, every scene or sequence is like a tide pool, that little pool of water that settles in the rocks when the tide is at its ebb. When you first glance in, you see an empty pool of water. But if you stare at it for a few minutes, you'll find that seemingly-barren pool to be absolutely teeming with life! That thing that looks like a rock, moves. That lump of beach tar, complete with bits of gravel stuck in its surface, is a living thing. That "empty" crevice is home to a family of crabs. And so forth.
So it is with scenes and sequences, in my experience. The top of the brain is where the cliches lurk, where whatever I most recently saw or read resides. If I want to push a scene deeper or further out, if I want to surprise myself and (with luck) the reader, I need to gaze into the scene for a few minutes longer. When I do, I discover life in it that I didn't see at first glance.
Luckily, a lot of this peering-in can be done subconsciously, just by going off and doing something different, preferably something physical and non-writing-related. I think that my digression into Aceland, after writing those first seven Gen-13 pages, allowed my subconscious to work on that unresolved plot problem, so that when I again had time to sit and think about it consciously, the answer was waiting for me.
This happens all the time.
Also well worth noting this week: the arrival of a huge box of food from E.A.T., courtesy of the Details folks! Brownies, cashews, and various gourmet (some even healthy!) goodies, along with a thank-you note for the "amazing job." Amazing? Aw, shucks! I expect I have Michelle Cardone at Details to thank, so...Thanks, Michelle! I'll start my diet next week!
The story, by the way, appears in the October '97 issue of Details.
9-6-97: Sweatin' the Ace
Some projects are just harder than others.
Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (the cartoon series) was a hard one. Either you click with a character or you don't, and I didn't click with Ace. Not that I couldn't write my episode. It was just harder than it should have been and it took longer than it should have. My kind and generous editor, Tom Mason, cut me some much-needed slack and let me turn in the script on Friday rather than Wednesday. Whatta guy!
I probably got my CatDog editor, Dean Stefan, mad at me, too, by not getting back to him right away on the springboards I gave him last week. I called on Friday and got his voice mail, left a message, and I hope to talk with him next week.
Dave Chipps from Dark Horse Comics called. He'd had a conversation with Jon Davison about the Starship Troopers comic book mini-series and told him how much he wanted to use powered armor in the comic book. Jon agreed to let us introduce powered armor in the series, so it'll be showing up in the latter half of the four-issue series.
Sean Shaw, the penciller on my Gen-13 story, called. His fax machine ran out of paper on Friday when Scott Dunbier of WildStorm Productions faxed him the first seven pages of my script, and he only got the first three. Mysteriously, all fax paper disappeared from the small town where Sean lives and he couldn't get any more until after the Labor Day weekend, so he wondered if I could dictate the remaining four pages to him over the phone. I did. He's very enthusiastic and we're both looking forward to seeing how the story turns out.
It's hot. Hot hot hot hot hot. And we don't have air conditioning. Thank you, El Niño. I must seek shade and water, maybe some sand.
8-30-97: Not dead after all
Yes, August 29, 1997, came and went without any hint of the global nuclear holocaust predicted by the Terminator movies. I know...I was disappointed, too. Now, instead of becoming a freedom fighter battling the machines, I have to finish these scripts I've promised.
I faxed my Gen-13 Bootleg premises in to Scott Dunbier, the editor, at WildStorm Productions on Sunday evening for him to discover bright and early Monday morning. Over the weekend I'd finished reading nearly all of the Gen-13 and Gen-13 Bootleg comics he'd kindly sent me for reference and I had a couple of ideas for fun stories. One of them, "He Has His Mother's Eyes," was definitely pushing the envelope of good taste, but it was my favorite. Unfortunately, I once again went too far and this premise was rejected, but the other one passed and I'm working on the script. It's probably the better story, if truth be told, just not as outrageous.
Whatever medium I'm working in, from Saturday morning cartoons to adult comics for Penthouse, there's always a limit on what's acceptable. There's also, always, a gray area where the envelope is being pushed. Sometimes the joke or idea gets by, sometimes not. If the joke makes me laugh, I usually put it in and let the editor or someone else decide that it goes too far. (Yeah, I've actually gone too far for Penthouse Comix! They liked the joke but figured they'd have trouble getting it past the Canadian customs agents. It had to do with a German shepherd.) Anyhow, I'm sorry I don't get to write "He Has His Mother's Eyes" for Gen-13 Bootleg, but ideas never die and it'll surface again somewhere, tailored to other characters. Meanwhile, if you're curious and want to read the synopsis, click on Eyes. Remember that this is not polished prose, but just one guy talking to another guy, telling him the story he has in mind.
Monday I worked on CatDog springboards. A springboard is a one- or two-line description of a story idea, like what you'd read in TV Guide. I wrote six springboards and then went out drinking with my wife, Julie. Over margaritas at Acapulco we hatched up six more springboards and I faxed them to my story editor at Nicktoons, Dean Stefan, when we got back home. On Friday afternoon, while I was out, I received a message on the answering machine that a couple of the springboards looked promising.
I also got a call from Tom Mason on Monday, telling me that my Ace Ventura outline had been approved and I was "go" for script. In keeping with their program of speedy payment, Odyssey Entertainment, the producers of Ace, sent a check for the outline immediately--my agent had it by Thursday. Since this is the end of the month (mortgage due, car payment due, everything due) I'm especially appreciative.
The Gen-13 and the Ace Ventura scripts are due the same day next week. This happens, and then you find that you're not only a writer, but a juggler. Thursday evening I faxed Scott Dunbier of WildStorm Productions the first seven pages of Gen-13, leaving me Friday and the long weekend (Monday is Labor Day) to write the Ace Ventura script. Then I'll zip back over to Gen-13.
I usually like to outline an entire comic book before beginning the script, but the artist is waiting for script pages and I didn't want to hold him up. Of course I'll wish later that I'd put something in those first seven pages (or left something out), but when the schedule is tight, you do what must be done. The artist can't draw, the inker can't ink, the colorist can't color, the letterer can't letter, and the editor can't edit until the writer does his job, so I have a lot of people depending on me to get my stuff in promptly. All that training in school to get your homework done on time was for a reason, I guess.
Also got notes and a contract from Dark Horse Comics regarding the upcoming Starship Troopers mini-series, which will come out after the film, hopefully beginning while the film is still in theaters. The editor, Dave Chipps, is unfortunately leaving the comic book field and Dark Horse's Oregon office to return to his beloved New York City. He's been a good editor and I'll miss working with him.
Finally, a call from an animation editor I've worked with in the past hints at work to come in a couple of weeks, an animated series based on one of my all-time favorite s-f movies. The project is still technically "in development" so is very hush-hush, but I'll let you what I can as soon as I can!
8-23-97: Can it get any hotter?
Yeesh! It's a heat wave! I know it's southern California and all, but I'm supposed to be on the cool side of town, near the ocean, with breezes and stuff like that. To make it worse, on two days I had to drive forty-five minutes each way for meetings in the San Fernando Valley (known simply as "the Valley," spawning ground of the so-called "valley girl" and junk, y'know?) where it's a good twenty degrees hotter.
One meeting was with Netter Digital, the Babylon-5 folks. Tod Mesirow (see below) and I met with his friend Jamie Smith, a cat lover, to try to sell her a dog show, Dal, that you can read more than you want to know about in the Cartoons section. I also left a proposal for The Nuclear Family, an s-f sitcom. Jamie was very sweet and encouraging, so I'm hoping for the best.
On Thursday I met with my CatDog story editor and his boss, producer and creator of CatDog, Peter Hannan. They showed me the pilot cartoon and it's hilarious. I promised to fax in some premises next week. See the Cartoons section for a sketch of CatDog!
I also received every Gen-13 comic book ever published from Scott Dunbier of WildStorm Productions/Image comics. Reference, don'tcha know, for my two-issue stint on Gen-13 Bootleg. Even if they don't pay me, I can sell the comics to my local shop and do okay! So I've been immersing myself in Gen-13 and wondering how in the heck I'm going to keep up with my predecessors.
I received a very few notes on my Starship Troopers mini-series for Dark Horse, from Jon Davison, and I'm waiting for word from my Dark Horse editor, Dave Chipps. If his notes are as light as Jon's, it'll be a piece of cake! Sounds like famous last words, eh? It's a damn fine story, though, if I do say so myself (if I don't, who will?) and I'm looking forward to working on it.
Also, there's been a development regarding my s-f sitcom, The Nuclear Family. My agent, Candy Monteiro, tells me that Universal is interested in optioning it for development. Lots and lots of stuff gets optioned and never made, but optioning (i.e. Universal pays me a small amount of money to have the exclusive right, for a year or so, to present the material to producers and networks in hopes of selling the show to someone who can put it on the air) is the first step in a long and Rube Goldbergian series of steps that may eventually lead to a television show.
"Who's Rube Goldberg?" I hear some of you ask. He was a cartoonist whose newspaper strip consisted of an unprecedented series of "inventions," ("contraptions" might be a better word) presenting long, convoluted and bizarre means of achieving simple ends. A cigar lighter, for instance, might start with a man pulling a chain that opens a panel between a cat and dog, dog sees cat and starts barking, barking startles chicken that lays an egg, egg rolls down trough and lands on seesaw lever that activates toaster, etc. etc. etc. until finally a match is struck and the cigar is lighted.
Anyway, Goldberg's contraptions seem to have become a metaphor for much that goes on in modern life...such as computer operating systems, the government, and television show development. In the case of The Nuclear Family, the chicken has been startled and the egg is rolling down the trough!
8-16-97: Where'd it go?
The week, I mean.
I had one project to work on, my Ace Ventura, Pet Detective outline. But I also had a meeting scheduled with a person at Fox Kids Network, a person who had the ear of Margaret Loesch, who buys shows. A fellow named Tod Mesirow had called some months ago about pitching Dal to an executive he knew there, and I'd put together the Dal presentation, and we'd scheduled a meeting that had to be postponed when our contact got sick. Then she went out of the country for awhile, and finally we'd managed to reschedule the meeting for a date about six weeks later.
Then Tod went out of town for a shoot, and when he got back I had to inform him that Margaret Loesch was no longer with Fox Kids Network and that they were kind of in chaos because of a new deal between Rupert Murdoch and Haim Saban of Saban Entertainment. Haim is sinking a ton of money into Fox Kids and decided that he, rather than Margaret Loesch, should make the programming decisions. So she's gone. Tod called his contact and found that she, too, was leaving.
So, no meeting after all, but some phone calls and emails got exchanged and new plans were made.
I also did some job hunting and have gotten my foot in the door at Nicktoons and their show CatDog, working for another Disney friend, Dean Stefan, who is story editing there.
I also had a nice chat with Ken Pontac of Danger Productions, the Bump in the Night folks, about a show I've created called The Nuclear Family. He's interested in pitching it around, but he's busy writing a screenplay for the next two months. Meanwhile, Tod Mesirow and I are pitching it, and Dal, if all goes well, to another production company next week.
On the comic book front, Scott Dunbier of WildStorm Productions called and asked if I'd like to script a two-issue story arc for Gen-13, and I said "yes." He's sending me reference material. Also, I had a conversation with Jon Davison about the four-issue Starship Troopers sequel, got notes, and need to do some rewriting before sending the story premise to Dark Horse.
All this monkeying about has scattered my brain cells and made it hard to concentrate on the Ace, so I'm working this weekend and will definitely finish it up by Sunday. This is lamentable progress - an outline should take me three or four days - but that's how it goes sometimes. I hope my Ace story editor, Tom Mason, doesn't hate me for taking so long.
8-9-97: Someone does me a favor
We all see bumper stickers spouting the phrase "Commit random acts of kindness" but we seldom see the philosophy put into action. This week I was on the receiving end of just such an act and I'm very grateful for it:
My third stab at an Ace Ventura, Pet Detective premise was accepted and I was paid promptly, receiving a check two days later.
Now, to those fortunate souls who draw a weekly paycheck, that may not seem like much, but to a freelancer, it's heaven. And I know that such things don't "just happen." Somebody took it upon themselves to make their job a little harder, to put in a bit of extra effort, to get me paid right away.
These days, especially, corporations actually put off paying freelancers as long as possible because some bean-counter in Cash Management has told them how much more interest they can earn on that freelancer's salary by letting it sit in the corporation's bank for an extra week or two. Never mind that the freelancer has rent or mortgage to pay, utility bills coming along every month as regular as a vegetarian on a high-fiber diet, has a family to support and the usual assortment of minor emergencies to wrangle with - it's more important to some corporations to "maximize earnings" for the stockholders (and for the executives whose annual bonuses are tied to the stock price) than to allow the creative talent they depend on to earn a decent living. My story editors at Disney, for example, were on staff for four months before receiving their first paycheck, and their case is not exceptional. If all the paperwork flows properly, Disney will pay a freelancer within a month at best. If things don't go well...cross your fingers and screen your calls because creditors will be on your ass.
So to receive payment from the Ace Ventura folks so quickly, at a time when the money is sorely needed, is like winning the lottery, or as much like winning the lottery as anything that isn't winning the lottery can be. So...Thank you!
Otherwise, it's been a slow week. And hot. Beastly, primordially, dawn-of-time hot. And my house isn't air conditioned except by a cool ocean breeze that turned into a hot ocean breeze this week. We had every fan in the house turned on and spent Tuesday at the beach. I had no work and it was our wedding anniversary and we were broke; add 'em up and you get The Beach. The heat wave has broken and on Friday I began work on my Ace Ventura ten-page outline, due sometime next week.
8-2-97: Udder nonsense
You never know when you're going to offend someone! In this case it happened during the Details assignment.
One of the advertisers for whom I'm writing blurbs is "Milk." I love the "Got milk?" ads and figured I could have some fun with the blurb. They sent me a five-page fax all about milk and noted that the problem they face with college-aged men (the Details audience) is that they leave home when they go away to school and leave milk behind, living instead on a nutrient-deficient diet of coffee and sodas.
So I wrote a blurb that went like this (all in caps because it's for a comic book):
SHE WAS YOUR FIRST AND TRUEST LOVE. YOU FELT HER DEEP IN YOUR BONES. YOU SWORE YOU'D LOVE HER FOREVER...THEN YOU WENT AWAY TO SCHOOL AND LEFT HER BEHIND. HOW COULD YOU?
MILK. YOUR BODY STILL CRAVES HER TASTE, HER PURITY, HER CALCIUM AND EIGHT OTHER VITAL NUTRIENTS. SHE STILL LOVES YOU. SPEAK HER NAME...SHE'LL BE THERE.
I thought it was kinda cute. "Milk's" p.r. firm thought it was "too sexual" and sent suggested copy that I modified very slightly. The new blurb (unapproved, as I write this): THE AVERAGE JOE DRINKS HALF A GLASS OF MILK A DAY. SO WHO WANTS TO BE AN AVERAGE JOE? RETHINK YOUR DRINK. MAKE IT THREE A DAY, FOR THE CALCIUM YOU NEED.
If college-aged males are more concerned with their calcium levels than they are the opposite sex, then the times are indeed a'changin'! (That reference, I know, truly dates me!)
Wednesday I met with Jon Davison and Ed Neumeier about the Starship Troopers comic book mini-series. They'd like to maintain continuity with the film on this one, since it will come out so closely on the heels of the film, maybe even while the film is still in theaters, so it's ixnay on the powered armor for now, as well as the Skinnies. However, the neodogs are in.
Ed suggested that we use the character of Carl from the film. Jon concurred but is anxious to avoid all "likeness licensing," which is where you have to pay the actor who played Carl to use his likeness in the comic book. (Carl, btw, is played by Neil Patrick Harris, all growed up.) Ed's suggestion is that we just forget about making Carl look like Neil, which sounds infinitely wise to me. "Likenesses" are a big hassle in comics, where you not only have to pay the actor (a fair practice) but need to jump through all sorts of hoops to get the likeness approved, even going so far as to hire additional artists to make the faces look right.
My assignment is now to write a premise for the mini-series and bounce it off Jon and Ed. I faxed it in on Friday afternoon, but apparently they all get off early on Fridays as I could only get their voice mail. Ah, Hollywood!
On Thursday I faxed in my third Ace Ventura, Pet Detective premise after having the first two rejected. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one. (Just try to type in that position!) I'll be seeing my editor, Tom Mason, on Saturday at his barbecue so maybe I'll hear something then. Or not. Maybe we'll just throw back some drinks and toss a few horseshoes.
7-26-97: My Life As A Dog ends
Nine days of company,six of which were spent sleeping on the living room floor next to the dog. And my wife. We had fun, the company's gone, I'm sleeping in the bed again. With no dog.
My Ace Ventura premise was rejected and I got guidance from the producers on writing another. I turned it in on Thursday evening so it would be available to my story editor (the ever-chipper and eternally young Tom Mason) for a Big Story Meeting on Friday afternoon. I haven't heard from Tom since. Story meetings are the bane of any writer's existence, so maybe he's crawled into a bottle or beamed up to a comet or something.
I made arrangements with Jon Davison and Ed Neumeier to meet and talk about an upcoming Starship Troopers comic book mini-series to be published by Dark Horse Comics. We had some depressing weeks ("we" being my editor at Dark Horse, Dave Chipps, and myself) during which some lawyer told us that we couldn't do anything in the comic book that wasn't in the movie OR totally made up. In other words, we couldn't use anything from Heinlein's Starship Troopers novel unless it was contained in the upcoming movie.
This was a bummer because, for budgetary reasons, the movie folks had to drop the powered armor that made the book so cool. Also, they just didn't do anything with the Skinnies, the psychic dogs, the bald-headed female pilots, and other items that simply didn't fit in a two-hour movie. Now, according to this lawyer, we couldn't use them in the comic book, either, even though we don't have the budgetary or length limitations (assuming there are further comic books after the mini-series) of the moviemakers.
However, Jon Davison intervened and we got permission to use anything in the novel we wanted to use, and for me that means everything. I'm working up some ideas and will meet with Jon and Ed next week.
The Details magazine project continues. I've written all the advertising blurbs and the Uranus joke (see below) is in. For now. Lee Jeans have been holding up the works and may be dropped, which could be a disaster if Details wants to eliminate their page from the story, which would leave an awkward gap in the continuity. However, Kate Carrington at Details assures me that they'll just run the Lee Jeans page sans advertising blurb. Which, by the way, ran in part: "Lee Jeans for Women, the brand that fits-- Your style. Your life. Your butt." This was temporary copy while I waited for some guidelines from Lee, which may not be forthcoming. Again, you read it here first.
7-19-97: A blurb bites the dust (probably)
My Ace Ventura sample (which turned out to be four pages rather than two--once I'm on a roll I just can't quit!) was accepted and I am officially "on board." I wrote a premise called "No Newts Is Good Newts," a proposed Halloween episode. They are reportedly faxing contracts over from New York.
The Details project continues. I think we have the story worked out, and now we're working on the ad blurbs. Every advertiser has their "copy points," i.e. sales points they want to bring out in the ad copy (the text). These points will vary depending on who's faxing the text over.
Sony faxed over info on their video game, Blasto, for the Sony PlayStation. Blasto features Phil Hartman as the defender of the solar system, vaporizing aliens who attack Uranus. My blurb was: "Don't be caught with your pants down when aliens attack Uranus!" I was hoping to go down in history for that line but now it's in jeopardy, not because it's in bad taste, but because someone else at Sony wants to emphasize the PlayStation over Blasto. Shed a silent tear, and remember that you read it here first!
Milk, another sponsor, sent a five-page fax on the virtues of drinking milk. Uh...we've got a single comic book blurb to work with here, guys. Gonna have to do some summarizing!
All in all, it's been a fun assignment and the Details gang has been great to work with.
7-12-97: A slow week.
The only "real" (i.e. paying) work came from the Details magazine job, the "advertorial" in which I built a story around a dozen or so "product placements." They liked my outline and sample page but had notes for changes on the outline: make it less like the previous year's project, do more UFO stuff. So I wrote a second outline with more UFO stuff and sent it in.
Now, Kevin Nowlan, the artist, is sweating his deadline because we're hitting delays that shorten the amount of time he has to illustrate the story. So he's asked me to fax him whatever I turn in so that he can start sketching characters and working things out even though the final script hasn't been written. I sent him the new outline in which aliens chase our roller-skating hero through their spaceship.
Details loved my new outline...until it reached the final approval stage, the publisher. She'd made some additional commitments to the advertisers regarding how their products would be presented and my outline didn't fit her promises.
So the people I'd been working with got together and wrote a new outline based loosely on mine but throwing out all the UFO stuff they'd asked for more of. (Sorry, Kevin, but we won't be needing those aliens you've designed!) I'm now scripting a first draft.
On the Ace Ventura front, I wrote a sample, my editor Tom Mason liked it, punched it up a little, and turn it in to the producer for his decision on whether or not I make the grade. I have a lunch meeting with Tom today.
7-5-97: Three projects this week.
First, a five-page Timecop comic book story for Dark Horse Comics. They called up with an extremely tight deadline and I said, "Sure! No problem!" Then I had to come up with an idea for a Timecop story, get it approved by series producer Mark Verheiden (creator of Timecop the comic book and subsequent movie), do some research, write it up, get notes from Mark, and do the rewrite. Luckily, Mark okayed my first idea and only had one note, so the project went smoothly. Bless you, MV, bless you!
The second project is another rush job, this one for Details magazine. It's a 12-page "advertorial" telling a story constructed around product placement: Hugo fragrance, Sony headphones, milk, etc. I submitted an outline and a sample page, and now I'm waiting for notes. Comics artist Kevin Nowlan will be illustrating this opus, assuming it gets the final OK.
The third project is for Morgan Creek Productions. I'm trying to get an assignment to write an episode of the cartoon show Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. Despite my credentials, the producers aren't sure that I "can write the Ace," so I'm researching the show and will soon work up a two-page sample. Does the auditioning ever end?