Thursday, December 18, 2014

A movie that's full of drumming and utterly devoid of sex, and that's where the parallel with my high school years ends.

You know what’s cool about being in the DGA? Christmas. This time of year I get screeners for a ton of movies that are hoping to be considered for awards. 

I know, right?

A couple of nights ago I dropped Whiplash into the DVD player. It's a story about a young musical student (played by Miles Teller) and his relationship with an abusive teacher (played by JK Simmons, who must have had a blast with the role because he gets to be a completely glorious asshole).

The fact that I’m singling out this movie might lead you to believe that this is an attempt to influence the voting. Nope. A lot of good films came out this year and I’m going to leave it to the Academy to decide whether Whiplash happens to be the best of them.

The reason I’m bringing it up is because it does something I’ve never seen before. Both the protagonist and the antagonist are pursuing the exact same thing. 

Exact.

The two characters tell you (by way of actions and dialogue with other characters) exactly what they intend to accomplish and the lengths they’re willing to go to accomplish it, so the movie doesn’t even have to fall back on a “surprise” reveal to justify their actions.

From a story point of view, that’s an extraordinary thing to pull off. And I happen to think it does. Despite both characters’ single-minded determination (see my post from June 5, 2009 about that) to achieve said goal, the film is able to create and elevate the conflict all the way through to an ending that’s simultaneously surprising, satisfying, and totally, perfectly, completely inevitable.  

Okay, I lied. I would like to influence the voting. Members of the Academy, take a look at the dramatic structure of this story. And consider nominating Damien Chazelle for Best Screenplay.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Sundance Kid is autistic (and no, I’m not qualified to diagnose, but I do know a thing or two about autism)

Two nights ago, while my seven-year-old daughter struggled with a pencil and paper to work out the answers to her math homework, my six-year-old boy listened to the problems and called out the answers.

It’s kind of neat (or annoying, if you happen to be a seven-year-old) that he can figure out the answers to second grade math problems in his head. What’s more remarkable (and even more annoying) is his technique. He runs at a high backed chair, throws himself at it headfirst, and calls out the answer to the problem as he lands in kind of a headstand. 

"Thirty-two!"
Dashiell reminds me of Robert Redford

You ever see Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid? it’s one of the greatest movies ever written (by William Goldman, who also wrote The Princess Bride, by the way). 

See it again. And take a close look at Sundance. The character. 

He’s introduced at a card game where he keeps winning. Dashiell’s like that. He figures out the way things work and then uses that knowledge to make them work better. At six, he can already beat me at checkers sometimes and no, that’s not saying a lot, but bear with me here because I’m going to make a point and it’s going to be a good one.

The man Sundance is playing against is convinced he’s cheating and it looks as if there’s going to be a shootout. Sundance doesn’t like to be called a cheater. The movie leaves it pretty ambiguous as to whether he actually cheats, but I’m convinced he doesn't because Dashiell wouldn’t. He knows the rules and he abides by them. He hates losing, but he hates cheating even more.

Look at this picture upside down and the resemblance is uncanny.
Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) walks in and offers the man a way out. All he has to do is invite Sundance to stick around. He doesn’t have to mean it and Butch even promises that they won’t. He just has to make the gesture. My son is the same way, except for the shooting someone part. He has a powerful sense of right and wrong. Calling someone a cheater when he’s not is wrong but everything can be made okay if you simply acknowledge that you messed up.

As the Sundance Kid walks out, the card player calls after him. "Hey, Kid." But Sundance doesn’t respond. That’s my kid in spades. His mind is busy –– so busy that it’s sometimes impossible to get his attention. 

But the things that seals it? When Sundance needs to prove he can shoot in order to get a job as a payroll guard in Bolivia. Percy Garris, the mine owner, tosses a piece of clay or wood or something into the street and tells him to shoot it. Maybe it’s a plug of tobacco.

Sundance misses. 

“Can I move?” Sundance asks. When he moves, he can’t miss. Put my kid in a chair and make him sit still and he can’t even begin to do the math he’s supposed to be learning in first grade. But let him loose…

I don’t know if William Goldman intended it, but I’m going to say he’s written The Sundance Kid to be autistic. I know what you’re thinking. Redford makes eye contact. He holds a conversation. He’s funny. Even charming. He’s also principled, dedicated, and extraordinarily physical.

The sign needed straightening.
All these things are like my son. My son who can climb anything, has a hard time responding when people try to get his attention, believes intensely in fairness, and can solve second-grade math problems in his head, but only when he’s running full tilt at a chair. 

Autism isn't limited to the stuff we used to think it was. I know this because Dashiell was diagnosed as autistic about six months ago. 

I always knew my boy was a little quirky. Now we have a word for what makes him different, a word that doesn’t change him at all, but hopefully can get us some understanding and extra support at school where they seem to think sitting in a chair is the only way to solve a problem.

If not, maybe my son will grow up to be a notorious outlaw.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Ratio of Elsa To Anna And What It Means

Anna? Where are you?
This Halloween, my seven-year-old daughter went trick-or-treating as Elsa. You know, Elsa? From Frozen?

If you haven’t seen Frozen, you’re either living under a rock or don’t have a seven-year-old daughter and my guess is you’re not living under a rock.

Frozen is an animated film about two sisters –– princesses –– the older one of whom has difficultly controlling her power to make stuff freeze. When she –– Elsa –– ascends to the throne, she inadvertently unleashes her power on the assembled and runs away in fear, leaving the kingdom in an icy grip. The younger sister –– Anna –– goes after her and it’s only through Anna's love that she can save Elsa and the kingdom.

Anna is the protagonist. She’s also the more interesting of the two. But like I said, my daughter decided to dress up as Elsa. As did her best friend. And, based on my very unscientific research, 97.23% of girls between five and nine who expressed a preference.

In fact, a dear friend of mine –– Tamara Thompson, founder of the brand strategy consultancy SenseTruth –– happened to be at Disneyland on Halloween and mentioned that of the thousands of princesses she saw, just about the only ones she saw dressed as Anna were pretty obviously the younger sisters of girls dressed as Elsa and too young to have chosen their costumes themselves. In fact, when two sisters were older than around four,  it was apparent that both insisted on being Elsa.

This squares with what I noticed at a Frozen sing-along I took my kids to at a local park this summer.

The question is, what does this tell us? Why do girls want to dress not as the hero of the movie –– the one who’s brave and funny and resourceful and kind –– but as the character who inadvertently hurts others, runs away from the problems she creates, and needs someone else to rescue her?

In my daughter’s case it can be explained by the fact that Elsa wears a turquoise dress. Turquoise is my daughter’s favorite color and has been since… um, well, since she first saw Frozen.

Hmmmm...

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to survive a slasher film.

The last time I hung out with Wes Craven, he was kind enough to share his thoughts on the philosophy of the slasher film.

One of the things he said was that the genre was about morality: only the most morally pure teen would not only survive, but vanquish the slasher. Vanity, greed, sloth, and particularly lust were the distractions that turned all the other teens into victims. 

I know. Simple, right?

Naturally, I decided to flip the notion on its head. I wrote a script –– a coming-of-age-as-a-slasher flick –– the premise of which was that only the most morally impure slasher would survive and vanquish the teens. It’s probably the strongest film I’ve written, so thank you, Wes.

The reason I mention all this is that I was issued a challenge by Alexandra at Man Crates, a company that ships gifts for men in custom wooden crates that have to be opened with a crowbar. She wanted to know what I’d want in a crate in order to survive a horror movie I found myself trapped in. 

You know where I’m going with this, right?

If I’m trapped in a slasher film, it’s a pretty safe bet I’m not one of the teens. At my advanced age, I’m more likely going to be the slasher. So here’s what I’d need:

  1. Music. Killing, like editing, depends on rhythm. I’ll take boxed sets of Zepplin, Stones, and AC/DC, preloaded onto an iPod Shuffle (Product Red, of course) because the battery is going on the one I have. 
  2. Polyester clothing. You know what a bitch it is to get blood stains out of the pima cotton and wool blends I normally wear? While you’re at it, throw in one of those jumbo-sized jugs of Tide, the kind with enzymes in it. 
  3. A good knife. I’m partial to the Misono UX10 Gyuto 240mm, but I could make do with a Shun Premier 10”. Wusthoffs have great handles but you really give up a lot of blade flexibility.
  4. Coffee. Slasher films take place at night and I gotta stay awake. Lately, my brew of choice is Extracto Guatemala San Pedro Necta. 
  5. A buddy. I know slashers work alone, but this is my story and I think a slasher buddy movie would be more interesting. Jack Black would be fun, but of course he’d probably end up turning on me at the end. How about Steve Carell? I bet he would die well.
  6. A good motivation. Sorry, but so many slasher films fail here. Why? Why do I want to kill all those young, beautiful people who have no concept of mortality or morality and who spend disproportionate minutes of screen time taking showers, getting wasted, and having sex… Um, never mind. 
One last thing. A crow bar. 

Oh, and Alex? Send it separately. And first. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Not about film. Not about advertising. This post is about the future.


Ophelia Belefant, Founder and Curator of The Heart Show
Last year, my daughter, who was in kinder-garten, heard about kids whose hearts needed to be fixed. It was part of a presentation for a fundraiser –– kids would jump rope to raise money for the American Heart Association.

She was really affected, but she didn’t know how to jump rope. If she couldn’t jump rope, what could she do, I asked? She thought for a moment and then said she could make a painting and sell it.

I tend to be a big thinker, so I prodded her to think about how she could do even more. What she came up with was an art show.

She invited all the kids in her class to participate. I got canvasses and paints for everyone, and asked my favorite local patisserie to let us take over for three hours one afternoon. I made up forms for a silent auction. Then I called up the hospital where she was born –– which has a highly regarded pediatric cardiology unit –– and told them what we were up to. The executive director of the foundation came to the show and accepted the donations from the kids.

Long story short, the kids raised $375.

More important, they realized that their efforts could generate immediate results.

And my daughter got to see first hand that the first two steps toward accomplishing anything are figuring out what you want to do and then believing that it’s possible.

My daughter is putting on the show again this year. And my son, who’s in kindergarten himself –– is inviting his classmates to join in, too. That means twice as many artists and hopefully, twice as much money raised for pediatric cardiology.

A radio station found out about the show and interviewed my daughter, too, so maybe we’ll get even better attendance than parents and friends.
Your very own invitation. Please come.

So here comes the ask:

My kids have identified something worthwhile that they want to contribute to. If you like the sounds of it, we sure would appreciate it if you’d help.

The show is in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday. Come by if you can. We’ll have a silent auction where the highest bidders will bring home some stunning art created by five- and six- and seven-year-olds.

I created a Facebook event where you can find out more information, see the masterpieces (once I photograph them all), and download an invitation you can forward to friends, members of the press, and art collectors you know.

https://www.facebook.com/events/592990744114266

If you can’t make it, consider writing a check to the Randall Children’s Hospital. Put “The Heart Show” on the memo line, so whatever you give will add to what the kids bring in. Here's the address: 2801 N Gantenbein Ave, Portland, OR 97227

These kids –– all kids –– are the future. And this is why I’m so passionate about what my daughter and son and their classmates are doing. I sincerely hope that all of them come to believe that good can be done and that they can be the ones doing good. Not just the kids putting on the show, but also the ones benefiting from the money raised.

Thank you.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The second greatest birthday present I ever received and I’m going to share it with you!

Three years ago, my children –– who were two and a half and four at the time –– decided that the perfect birthday present for me was a chicken costume.

I’m not making this up. 

They came up with this idea all by their precious little selves, in spite of all the exposure they'd had to mass produced coffee mugs and ties emblazoned with the words “World’s Greatest Dad.” 

My kids are a lot like me in that when they know something is great, they won’t settle for pretty good. They knew they'd come up with the perfect present and they made my then wife drive all the way to Beaverton to find one that they could give me. No birthday present before or since could possibly give me as much joy. 

Only one came close. And you know what’s weird? I got it the same year. 

But before I can share it with you, I have to give you a little backstory. 

Back in the 1970s and 80s, Ed McCabe was heralded as one of, if not the greatest copywriter ever in the history of advertising. He created legendary ads for Volvo, Perdue, Nikon, Cutty Sark, and a bunch of other brands. And I had the incredible good fortune to work for him. 

An ad Ed did in 1973. Makes you feel like
a schmuck for not buying a Volvo, doesn't it?
You weren't hired to work for Ed, you were chosen. And we who had been chosen went to a lot of trouble to be sure we were worthy of the grace we had received. We behaved more like acolytes than employees, studying the Gospel According To Ed and exhorting those who weren’t pure of faith to see the light, quoting him the way young Chinese communists used to quote Chairman Mao.

“A good ad makes you feel like a schmuck for not buying the product.” was one of my favorites.

I found great solace in Ed’s wise teachings. One passage, “If you need an exclamation point, you need a new sentence,” I took to heart, vowing that that I would never, as long as advertising would have me, ever use an exclamation point. Ever. It was a vow of celibacy, sort of, and I even popped the 1 key off the electric typewriter the agency had issued me because as any votary can attest, the best way to resist temptation is to remove it, never mind that a lot of what I was called to write was coupon ads for toilet paper and it's kind of hard to type "Save 10¢" without a 1 key. 

Over the years I've found that there were other ways to be righteous in advertising and my position on some of Ed’s edicts softened. I came to understand that a good ad doesn't have to make you feel like a schmuck after all, although I still maintain that it does have to make you feel. But god damn it, I held onto that exclamation point rule. 

In retrospect, I was like a carpenter who refused, on principal, to use needle nose pliers, even once in a while when you couldn’t get the claw end of a hammer into that tiny space up under the eaves to remove a staple from the old siding because Jesus said not to use them, never mind that Jesus probably wasn’t the kind of carpenter who had call to renovate a Portland four square.

Back to my birthday.

You know how kids are. They pile on top of you, get all excited to give you the best birthday present in the history of birthday presents, and then suddenly they’re off making an art project out of dust bunnies while you sit there, wondering whether it’s okay to take the chicken costume off now because it makes your nose sweaty. If you’re me, you do. And then you log onto Facebook in hopes of finding something, anything, that will prolong the incredible birthday love rush.

And there it was. A birthday greeting. Three words: 

Happy birthday, Brian!

From Ed. 

McCabe.

I try not to swear when the kids are around but I’m pretty sure I used the F word. That’s okay, though, because dust bunny art requires intense concentration and they probably didn’t even notice.

To say this was a big deal was kind of an understatement. This was a  big deal!

Sure, advertising and I and probably even Ed had changed a huge amount in since I wrote coupon ads at Scali, and sure, I’d reconsidered a lot of what I learned from him as I progressed in my career, but when I came to actually putting into practice something Ed specifically told us –– told me –– not to do, I always felt like I was kind of betraying the guy. Like I'd need to be ready with an explanation in case he picked up the phone and called me on it

Here was Ed himself telling me that it was okay. 

That was three years ago today. Today, on the anniversary of that birthday, I want to give the gift to you. 

If you shared my obligation to avoid exclamation points, I hereby release you. Let it go. 

Not because I said it's okay or even because Ed said it's okay, but simply because we are in the business of communicating and the reason we have rules at all is to guide us, not constrain us. 

The point is, do what works. And by the way, a really good way to figure out what works is to know your audience and genuinely care about them. I gotta believe that's what got my kids to come up with the chicken costume in the first place.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I have a problem and it involves John Cleese and a camel.


Back when I was first getting into directing, I heard John Cleese interviewed on the radio and he said something incredibly profound. something that helped me to become a better director. A much better director.

Here’s the problem: I can’t find the quote.

I've done Google searches on every version of what I think he might have said and I came up with nothing (although –– kind of random –– I did stumble onto a quote by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that made me laugh out loud).

As far as I know, it might not have been John Cleese who said it. Hell, it might not have even been said, which would be kind of Charlie Kaufman-esque when you think about it, how my understanding of comedy was informed by a quote that was never actually uttered and that somehow, I'm convinced I got to be a better director because of it.

Doesn’t matter. I believe it to be true. And that brings me to the camel.

Watch this spot which you've already seen:

Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 10.37.07 PM

Ask people what the spot is about and they'll tell you it's about a camel that's happy it's Wednesday. Which it is. Only it's more. It's about a camel that's always happy it's Wednesday.

And how do we know that? The camel's office mates.

The camel is funny. Great voice. Perfect performance. Beautiful visual effects. But what's truly funny is that even though it might be our first time hearing him go on about hump day, it's their millionth.

That's what makes this spot work. So well that according to AdWeek, this spot was one of the ten most watched commercials of 2013.

And here's where I finally let you in on you what John Cleese may or may not have told me: People's reactions to something funny almost always make the funny thing funnier.

Take away the coworkers and this spot wouldn't have sucked. But it wouldn't have been nearly as good.

John Cleese knows this. I know this. And now you know this, too.

If I were wearing a hat, I'd be tipping it right now to the Martin Agency and the creative team there who worked on it (the spot, not the hat): Joe Alexander, Steve Bassett (who I used to work with back at Chiat and who is truly one of the most courteous people in advertising), Wade Alger, Sean Riley, Ken Marcus, Molly Souter, Samantha Tucker, and Emily Taylor.

But mostly I'd be tipping it to Wayne McClammy, the director. For seeing what the spot could be and letting it be just that.