An Alternative Approach

In 2004, Eric Heisserer posted what are, ostensibly, a series of emails from an old friend. (The Dionaea House) Someone they knew way back when had committed a double homicide and suicide, and he was driven by guilt to try to find out what had happened to the guy to drive him to it.

As you read them, they start to imply something supernatural. A haunted house kind of story. The original series of posts ends in September 2004, with an addendum which then links to other blogs and even an instant message transcript.

There's more followup a year after the main body of the story took place.

With it, he creates a well-written spooky story that had some people wondering if it were true, some wondering whether he believed it to be true, a few playing along, and many more just enjoying a good scary story.

He also got himself the beginnings of a screenwriting career. He sold the screenplay (not sure if he sold the rights to the story and had a screenplay deal, or if he completed the screenplay before approaching studios) to Warner. While that project foundered, he has, in the few years following, landed some enviable screenwriting jobs: The Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, Final Destination 5, and The Thing prequel.

It's important to show originality as a screenwriter. Eric's example proves that it doesn't necessarily have to be with a screenplay. Despite the unconventional format of the epistolary story, The Dionaea House still has a beginning, middle, and end. It still starts with a strong hook, then builds slowly with background about the character and hints at the story. It follows conventional horror movie tropes (don't go in the house alone!) but presents them in a fresh and very contemporary way.

His writing career began in the tabletop RPG industry, so writing the story in an episodic way makes sense. Combine that with a strong sense of visual description, and you have a powerful story that you can "see" as a movie while you read it.

I just read that he actually sold a screenplay in 2000 and optioned one in 2002, so his breakout project was not his first rodeo in Hollywood.

Regarding the Dionaea House, he wrote the screenplay and then decided to create the online story and present that rather than try to sell a spec. He had begun creating the various sites that he was using to write the story, and, before the whole thing was online, it got indexed by search engines. (Knowing a little about site optimization for search, he accidentally did some great site design by having disparate sources linking back to each other with text containing similar words. This would increase the apparent validity of the site to crawlers.) He literally woke up one morning and there were millions of hits. It took on a life of its own, as many thousands of people believed it was real (or at least that he was really party to someone else's hoax) and reporters, ministers, and PIs contacted him about it. So, as with all Hollywood success stories, there was a bit of pure luck there - he just has a good enough story for it to catch fire when the match came near.

Women in Hollywood - Still a Long Way to Go

Hollywood is biased against women. (Everything I say goes for blacks, latinos, and asians as well - but I'm not as well informed about those issues, so I'll stick to speaking about women.)

I beat this drum often.

Why? Because it's true, as backed up by studies, and yet I am still told by people both in the industry and trying to break into it that it's a myth. I am told that there must just be few women trying to break in. Or (more insultingly) that it's all about talent and hard work, and that real talent will find a champion - implying that women are either less talented, or less hard-working, or both than men by a massive ratio. Because, again, statistics show that there are far fewer women in important roles in the movie industry.

I strongly believe that one of the most significant barriers to change in this is this lack of belief that there's a problem. This is backed up by the experiences of Geena Davis, who noticed, as she was raising her children, that there were not as many girls in the lead roles in kids entertainment. Her subjective experience was dismissed, so she started a foundation, and studied the matter - and then approached people with evidence. And many of them re-thought their casting, or their writing.

I understand when people dismiss the stories I relate. Stories about women I have talked to who have been told they can't write or direct action, or can't direct period. Who have been told they'd do better as a producer, because no one will hire them as a director. That no one will hire them as a cinematographer, because women don't work behind the camera. Or that they are not hired for crew because it's heavy, hard work, and out on location there might not be a place to plug in a curling iron. Or that women can't write for an international audience, because the asian market is mostly male. Women who have had men look past them and talk to their 15 years junior male assistant. Or been told that they are too pretty, and men won't want to work with them because their wives might get jealous of all the time they'd have to spend together. Or that Catherine Hardwicke was told she wouldn't even be allowed to pitch directing The Fighter, not because she's only directed teen fare, but "because it had to be directed by a man."

What I don't understand is how people can look at the statistics on women in film and still say there is not a problem, and a large one. How they can think that such large discrepancies would be based on anything other than discrimination. Some of it conscious, but most of it just a matter of guys relating more easily to guys in an industry that's all about who you know.

What are the statistics?
According to the most recent report by the Director's Guild about television series -

"In the 2009-2010 television season, Caucasian males directed 75% of the episodes surveyed; Caucasian females directed 11% of episodes; minority males directed 12% of episodes; and minority females directed 2% of episodes."

Per the most recent study by the WGA -

"women writers remain stuck at 28 percent of television employment, while their share of film employment actually declined a percentage point since the last report to 17 percent."

"These figures indicate a [...] gender earnings gap [of] $14,017. [...] Nonetheless, this relative gain on the earnings front for women film writers was offset somewhat by the recent loss in employment share"

From the 2010 Celluloid Ceiling report -

On the top 250 domestic grossing films:
- In 2010, women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working. This represents a decline of 1 percentage point from 1998 and is even with 2009 figures.
- Women comprised 7% of all directors
- Women accounted for 10% of writers
- Women accounted for 24% of all producers
- Women accounted for 18% of all editors
- Women comprised 2% of all cinematographers
- Women were most likely to work in the romantic comedy, documentary, and romantic drama genres. They were least likely to work in the horror, action, and comedy genres.

Why are these statistics shocking to me? Let's quote the LA Times: "A woman is more likely to hold a seat on a Fortune 500 company board (15%), serve as a member of the clergy (15%) or work as an aerospace engineer (10%) than she is to direct a Hollywood movie (7%)." I'd say that's a problem.

I do not believe for a moment that these statistics represent the interest, perseverance, or talent of women trying to work in the American film industry.

Oh, and as for those who believe that men are somehow inherently able to make more profitable movies?
On average, films employing at least one woman as director, executive producer, producer, or writer grossed approximately the same at domestic box offices ($82.1 vs. $81.9 million) as films with only men in these roles. (Study cited here)

The Importance of Actors

I recently watched "Letters to Juliette." It's not a film I would normally have watched. I like RomComs occasionally, especially when I want something escapist, but this movie seemed to be pitched to high-school girls and the leads seemed immature. I watched this movie despite that, because it had Vanessa Redgrave. And I like the idea of an older woman searching for her true love. Romance for grandmothers doesn't happen often in the movies. Even so, it almost lost me before she even arrived.

The familiar tropes are there, which is fine for a Romantic Comedy. The concept is a little bit different and clever. But the characters and dialogue fail miserably. The lead is dull and wimpy, with an annoying fiance and no clear reason for them to be together. None. Yes, we know the guy she's with at the beginning will be the wrong guy, but if there's no good reason for them to be in a relationship - it undermines the integrity of the characters.

Then you have the romantic interest, who is such a completely boorish, rude, pretentious little twit it's impossible to empathize with him, even when his motivation for bad behaviour is supposedly for a good reason (to protect his grandmother.) And even after spending time together, there's no real build of any connection between them. And the girl's project seems silly and selfish - there's no real depth of insight.

But then there's Ms. Redgrave.

She breathes, and makes it a moment. She takes the most trite lines and delivers them in surprising ways. There is a scene when she is reprimanding her grandson for being hurtful to Amanda Seyfriend's character - and the most obvious delivery of the lines would have been harsh or angry. But she sighs, and with a gentle gesture, turns it into a tender and affectionate moment.

Really, calling this a comedy is a stretch - there are a couple of funny moments, but they are handled poorly. The actors, mostly, are too weak to make their characters believable, funny, or likable. Except for Vanessa Redgrave. It was worth watching a bad film, just because it highlighted the beauty of her performance.

This film made it clear to me, too, the importance of good actors. A decent line will fall flat in a bad actor's mouth. An average actor may disappear when playing an average character - but a good actor, like a good photographer, may make even and ugly baby look beautiful

an old poem

this came up in conversation on facebook... I wrote this 20 years ago


I, curled tight,
buried under blankets
as if the brooding earth,
to the slow dawn
stretch, breaking open:
a shoot from the seed
serpent from the shell.

(warm as spooning on my back)
pierces me,
busts through my split hull
and out
my belly
spreading into a sheer skirt
illuminating my labia.

Nails graze my spine,
a drawn out sigh,
caress of sunlight
illuminating my body.

the seraphim rebirth:
tripled wings erupting
slow motion unfurling;
as shoulder blades
my back &
wings burst through.

I rise from my bed with the sun.
Demonangel darkness is
another shade of light.