Posts Tagged writing
They forgot to make the final boss fight the hardest and most dramatic one.
That’s the simplest way I can sum up why the movie feels “okay” instead of excellent. I loved the beginning of the movie, the way it set its own pace and tone very deliberately, with a long, dialogue-heavy Senate committee hearing — essentially a small one-act play at the start of the movie, carried entirely by the performance of long pages of dialogue. The director, Jon Favreau (whose cameo role extends to an extended brawl of a fistfight with an anonymous guard stooge at the climax of the movie), surprised me again in the middle of the first act by setting up a classic, static proscenium frame and letting Downey and Paltrow tear into their dialogue, uninterrupted by cutting.
So engaging is the well-paced dramedy of Tony Stark’s life that the Iron Man scenes feel like an interruption. It tends to make me think that this really needs to just become a television series. That way, relationship arcs can take a whole season to play out their twists and turns, rather than having to happen in the space of two hours.
It reminds me of a side thought, that I wonder why it is that some of these Marvel movies get propelled with A-list talent, and some of them have to make do with less than stellar actors and directors. For example, the Fantastic Four movies basically used television actors. The guy playing Victor Von Doom could have easily shown up as a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 bad guy. And could easily go back to playing the equivalent now after having done those movies. Why does it seem like the FF always gets treated poorly when it should be the flagship, as it was originally, for the entire Marvel Universe?
Sam Rockwell, playing the corporate villain of this movie, busts out the Guy Fleegman goofball smarm, and at one point trots out the same dance moves he used when playing the villain of Charlie’s Angels. He manages a thing where we instantly know the character is the antagonist, but he’s also a cartoon, and doesn’t seem very threatening. Mickey Rourke is in there playing his role like he’s in an Oliver Stone prison movie, and Rockwell is acting like Daffy Duck. It kind of works because every once and a while in the same movie there’s a red and yellow suit with repulsor rays blowing things up and clanking. Scarlett Johansson is the only one definitely playing a comic book character. As an undercover shield agent, she gears up in a superspy catsuit (nice outfit, btw) and mows down a bunch of guys in melee combat, which I see has been perfected since The Matrix first pointed the way how to do it. The choreography of how she takes the bad guys out is smartly smack on, each move in it a superhero pose. I didn’t quite like the decision to use the Saving Private Ryan strobe-frame effect — in a way, it emphasizes the drawn-pose-ness I was just describing — because I found it distracting. I wanted to see the motion be fluid, not halted. It dampened the awesome for me, which was a little frustrating.
SPOILER WARNING. Spoilers for the end of Iron Man 2 follow.
Getting back to the ending, I thought that the script suddenly started skipping and dropping out, like a signal that was getting lost in noise. The script was good, it was fairly tight, it had a logic to it, and it had just the right sense of humor about when to wink at something preposterous it had just done to move things along. (“Well, that was easy.”) At the end, Iron Man has to deal with an army (and navy, and air force, and marine corps) of remote-drone iron men, as well as his friend in a bulked-up rogue suit, as well as the supervillain Mickey Rourke is playing (the final boss guy). The problem, script-wise, is that in the preceding scene, Sam Rockwell had just berated Mickey Rourke (who was building the fleet of drones for Rockwell) for not holding up his end of the bargain with the drones. But since there was a finished platoon of drones ready to go, I don’t know what he was talking about.
Of course, the end of the movie is 18 minutes of solid action. The problem is it doesn’t feel particularly imaginative. There’s also a little too much in the stew. There’s a lot of spatial confusion, with everything taking place in one Expo park. By the time Tony Stark says, “We gotta lead these things away from the expo park,” he’s been flying with them in chase long enough to be 300 miles away.
He dispatches the drones here and there, then there’s a fairly good fight with the two good guys against a ring of drones. This fight had imagination to it, was well thought-out. For example, they showed a couple of examples of the good guys trying to do the sensible thing and fly out of there, and they were each thwarted by an attack or a grapple. Then Tony busts out something cool, and just before I could mutter it to myself, his buddy Don Cheadle says, “Next time, my advice is use that first.” And then Tony has a response to that, one that videogamers are likely to follow the logic of. You don’t waste your super-bomb, you hold it until it can do the most damage, or a now-or-never moment when you’re overwhelmed.
Then you’re screwed, though, because now the boss guy is going to show up, and you won’t have it to use on him.
Videogames have a lot to teach the movie guys now about final boss fights. This fight should have taken the last 10 minutes of the last 18 minutes of action, with full choreography that told a story and had a beginning, middle, and end. And it should have been tied into the story and the plot and the character development. It has no resolution whatsoever for the character that Mickey Rourke has been playing. It has no resolution for that character vis-a-vis Tony Stark. I don’t know, did they write that and then cut it, or did they never write that?
And there’s always a trick to defeating the boss guy, because he’s just too tough to go down by ordinary means. They did come up with something along these lines, and it was okay. (This is why we leave the theater thinking, “That was okay.”) It just wasn’t really satisfying. It followed too much mess, and it was too short, and it was disconnected from the plot. Rourke should have first taken out Don Cheadle, raising the stakes for Tony Stark, because Cheadle is only there as a result of Stark’s stupid, selfish actions earlier in the movie. You know? And Tony should have figured out something clever to do in defense against those electro laser whips, having already encountered them once and seen how they work.
And, totally, totally, there should have been a deal where the new super power source Tony has created and installed in himself is the key to defeating the super bad guy, because it’s something the bad guy has not anticipated, and it means he’s less powerful than he thought. I mean, if you think about it, it’s weird that they didn’t do anything more with that.
Wait, I just thought of something even more weird. The scene in all the previews and trailers, where Gwyneth Paltrow kisses his helmet and then throws it out of the plane and he dives after it, isn’t in the movie! Bizarre. Instead, we get another scene of puffy Garry Shandling. (He’s good, but gosh he’s puffy these days.) Oh well.
There is an after-credits teaser. As you might guess from various hints along the way, it takes place in the New Mexico desert. I was so sure it was going to be a Hulk cameo (another set-up for the Avengers movie), but it wasn’t.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johannson, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Jon Favreau, and Mickey Rourke.
After spending most of the last week steeped in Series 4 of Doctor Who (a birthday present from my brother), that thing happened in my brain where it wanted to celebrate being flooded with tasty input by outputting something in kind. It just does this. It’s like an egg timer going bing and announcing a delicious meal is ready in the oven.
I had noticed, as I moved from watching the 13 episodes to listening to selected commentaries and watching the podcast documentaries, that my ears were attuned to scraps of information, juicy tidbits hungrily picked out and devoured, about the craft of writing for this particular series in the present incarnation. Just little things that Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat happened to say in passing, usually while other people were talking over them, that lit up a pathway for how you actually put a Who script together. It makes them less mysterious, less products of pure imagination and more about a couple of good idea seeds wonked into shape as a job you have to do. It’s a job I could now fully understand, suddenly, thanks to these morsels of information.
It was a lot of input. 13 hours, stretching to 20 with the supplemental materials. Steven Moffat’s 2-parter about the library had such a good script, was written so dazzlingly well, that I actually hopped up and down with joy at it when the episodes finished. “That man is the one to beat,” I said, or at least, match. That would have to be the goal, to write an episode as good as that. As wobbly as my self-esteem is, my sense of my abilities as a writer give me the gumption to believe that I actually can write an episode at that level of quality.
So yesterday, I had to go ahead and see what would happen if I wonk an idea of mine into shape as a Doctor Who episode. Extremely tentatively at first, I didn’t want to even write “The Doctor” or “sonic screwdriver” because it felt too much like writing fanfic, an activity that I tend to sniff at, because coming up with your own original characters and adventures for them to have seems like a better use of one’s abilities and time on the whole. In fact, I stole the seed ideas from another project I’ve been working on since this past spring. One or two times at least I paused while writing it to notice that parts of it seemed very Doctor Who episode-like.
I started with those and decided to see what it would all look like if I intentionally steered it towards being Doctor Who on purpose. It developed rather quickly and surprisingly from there, with ideas I couldn’t quite get to work together before now chunking together logically, and new ideas appearing every minute that made it all work better than it ever had in the original project, and a sense of “this feels really right” pervaded everything I wrote. In treatment form it seemed short, and yet in my mind I could see it like a whole episode on fast forward.
I wrote it in a blur in the morning then had another look before I went to bed, and I liked what I saw. There was a lot of snappy dialogue and a lot of Doctorish racing about, and some scary bits and some funny bits. There was a bit that reminded me of Russell T. Davies’s writing, and a bit that was very Steven Moffat, and even a bit that stuck out a little because it sounded like Douglas Adams. Picturing it in my head as a finished episode kept me sensibly in mind of the usual budget per episode, how many characters in how many costumes in how many sets, how many special effects would need to be done, and how expensive those might be. It was a bit dodgy on certain specifics, because essentially I was writing for a Doctor who has since been replaced by someone whose take on the character I haven’t seen yet, and for an unknown assistant. “Assume a female companion” I wrote in the upper margin, as a note to… nobody.
Well, right. Of course, what use is it to write this at all, even as a treatment? This is about the seventh time this year, about once a month since March, that I’ve cooked up something that I had virtually no hope at all of selling to the person or market it was aimed at, but I couldn’t help myself and I created it anyway, only to tuck it on a shelf and sigh. There are people around me who go mad when I tell them that I spend time and effort (and love) on projects that just go on the shelf, but imagine how I feel.
I mean, I have to be realistic. Along with my understanding of the craft of writing and storytelling — which I would love to demonstrate to such a high degree of professionalism that Steven Moffat (now the executive producer of the series) would exclaim, “I don’t know how it is that some guy in Texas of all places knows how to write for this series this well, but we’ve got to get some more scripts out of him!” — is an understanding of how they hire writers for Doctor Who. I believe that the proper way to go about getting that job is to live in the UK, have a UK agent, spend 12 or more years working your way up and writing for various BBC series, become known as someone reliable and a good bloke to work with. Then, if there’s an opening, which there are fewer of now that they’re going to a different format of a few movie-length episodes per season, perhaps the Doctor Who production office will give my agent a call and ask if I’m interested in writing for Doctor Who, and if I have any ideas.
Which I suppose would be a cool thing to do with my life, if I’d thought of it 12 years ago. Unless someone hands me a paycheck it’s just fanfic, and the world is full of people writing Doctor Who fanfic. They don’t take spec scripts for Doctor Who because they’d be inundated with well-meaning but unfilmable material. Moffat’s a geek himself, but he’s also a highly disciplined writer who’s earned his way into his current position the proper way, the way I just outlined. He doesn’t write fanfic, he writes real fic; he writes real episodes.
And so, on the shelf it goes. In a way, it helped me with the other project — if I remove everything I carved out to put into the Doctor Who treatment, the remaining ideas go together better, as if they had been wedged apart with things that only sort-of fit. So there’s a certain point to having gone through the exercise. Yesterday, my head was full of those words intended for that particular bit of writing, and now that they’re printed on paper those neurons that were all excited by it are resting again.
Actually, what’s in my head today are these words, for this meta-analysis of yesterday’s work, for whatever that’s worth. Had to get these down, too, so that tomorrow something else can shove its way to the fore.
Thoughts on “Coupling”
Well, it started with Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat. He’s the writer who, following the submission of a script a year for each of the four new seasons to date, all of them quite well received, is taking over executive producer and show-runner duties from Russell T. Davies from now on.
Having watched some of those Moffat episodes again recently, I decided to also look at “The Curse of Fatal Death”, another script of his, and then look up what else he’d done before all this Doctor Who business. In one of the Dr. Who dvd commentaries, someone tells him, “Well, Steven, you come from sitcoms, so…”
Sitcoms, eh? Well, that explains “Curse”, I guess. Which sitcoms? Oh, “Coupling.” I’ve heard of that, but never seen it. I’m led to believe it has a bit of a following, or else I wouldn’t have heard of it. I did a little pre-briefing research. Moffat had first written a series called “Joking Apart,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the break-up of a relationship he’d had. This was followed by “Coupling,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the new and lasting relationship he subsequently found.
I was more interested at first in the former than the latter, for various reasons that are completely obvious. Alas, though the two seasons of that series were released on DVD (by some fan of the show who bought the video release rights to the series from the BBC, when the BBC weren’t doing anything with them — kind of interesting), they weren’t available at my favorite local video shop.
They did have “Coupling,” though. There were four seasons (or four series, to use the proper term for a BBC program; or programme, to use the proper term for that as well), and my local video shop had all four of them. Right, let’s give them a whirl.
The show is about this group of 30-something friends: three ragingly heterosexual men, and three women, also ragingly heterosexual with one exception. They don’t do much except go to their mostly off-screen jobs and then hang out after work. The women drink wine and talk about sex and guys and relationships. The men drink beer and talk about sex and women and breasts and bottoms and panic attacks and how freakish women are about everything.
At the core there’s Steve and Susan, named after Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, the show’s writer and producer, respectively, who are also the real-life couple whose relationship some of the material is drawn from. Moffat describes them as being the most ordinary and normal of the characters, with the other four exemplifying extremes of (male and female) anxiety and (male and female) self-confidence. Sally is a tight pill of worries about looks and age and weight and the inexorable slide that takes place; of course she worries about ending up a tragic spinster. Jeff is a manic nervous wreck, a freak with an overactive libido who has experienced nothing but humiliating shame because of it, a paranoid who keeps numbered lists of the different types of fear and embarrassment that can befall someone, and who never fails to say the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, especially when trying to chat up a good looking woman. At the other end is Jane, a kind of flaky nymphomaniac whose wacky thoughts seem to come from some other planet entirely, making her a reliable source of absurd non-sequiturs; she also claims to be bisexual. And then there’s Patrick, a serial womanizer who breezes through life and sexual encounters with a relaxed self confidence and a lack of self-examination or reflection that sometimes comes across as dim-wittedness, but which is mainly just an inexperience at ever having to actually consider anything deeply.
Series 1. I didn’t like it at first. I kind of folded my arms and waited to laugh, but no laughter came until five minutes before the end of the third episode. Jeff finally said something so screwy and outrageous that I couldn’t hold it in, and made a “Bweh-heh!” noise. Then I laughed once during the 4th episode, again at something Jeff said. The fifth and sixth had intermittent but more easily won chuckles.
For something that I could have sworn I wasn’t enjoying, I was eager to start watching series 2 as soon as I finished series 1. Hmmm.
Moffat, the sole writer for all four series, takes these characters and, having established them and the show’s basic format, begins to have a lot of fun with them in the second and third series. There’s the rearrangement and swapping around of them to find new frictions and bounces in different pairings, notably the discovery of sparks between Sally and Patrick, and the dedication of episodes to exploring each of the characters a little more probingly to find new insights into their back-stories and facets to their already-defined personalities.
That’s pretty standard. Then there’s the continual effort to make the show work as a modern farce. The best of the farce episodes hurl these characters into mad situations at breakneck speed, culminating in a final scene where all the different threads that have been spinning in parallel all dovetail into a single shimmering explosion of comedy. Writer, cast, and director all know their jobs, and it’s terrific to see done properly, of course.
There’s another experiment going on, which is a playing with the format itself, and of place, time, and perspective. In retrospect, it makes Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes — and their intriguing exploration of what traveling around in time can look like if you take a step sideways from it and watch it going on from a different perspective — seem obviously a product of the same mind. (Though actually, it’s more proto-spect, since he wrote those later, but I saw them first; See also: Time, Ball of, Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.) In the first series, there’s an episode where Jeff tries to ask out a woman who speaks only Hebrew. He has an entire conversation where they each speak different languages and don’t understand each other at all, but seem to be making some kind of connection. Then the videotape literally rewinds, and we watch the scene again, this time with the woman speaking English and Jeff (and everyone else) speaking Hebrew. Moffat says in an interview that he meant to write a conventional series, but this experiment was so well-received that he allowed himself the license to get more creative about his storytelling.
So, in the second and third series, these formal experiments continue. There’s an episode where we watch the same events two or more times from differing perspectives, a split-screen episode where we watch the two sets of characters simultaneously in different places, and an episode where we see a past event as remembered differently by people; an episode where the screen flashes and announces that an auto-translation will now show us what the characters are really saying to each other as they purport to discuss something mundane; and of course the usual assortment of flashbacks, fantasies, and dream sequences.
The best episodes are where the formal experiment and the farce are both flying at the same time and working with each other to make something that feels original and fresh, and is genuinely funny. Probably the height of this is the end of series 2, which ends with everyone (the main six, plus an extra seventh) loudly declaiming that they’re either an Australian named Dick Darlington or a French woman named Giselle, a situation we the audience understand only because we’ve seen everything leading up to it from all the different points of view.
In fact, it’s clear that the show peaked in series 2, although series 3 is quite good and has some favorite moments in it. It goes a little deeper into the characters, which sometimes tames down the comedy, but keeps you interested. The show had the standard six episodes in the first series, an incredible nine in the second, seven in the third, and then six again at the fourth, which makes you feel the waning interest and energy of everyone involved.
In fact, the fourth series is a little disappointing. Probably famously so, though I haven’t researched it, but I can intuit this just from watching it. Most importantly, it lost one of the main cast members — Richard Coyle, who played Jeff.
This actually didn’t surprise me. Somewhere on the first series disc, there’s an incredibly brief interview snippet with Coyle, who was the only one in the cast who seemed 1) completely unlike their character, and 2) completely reticent to talk about the show or their work in it. Unlike manic Jeff, Coyle was reserved and sober and I immediately recognized the fact that this person was first and foremost a serious actor, and this role was just a job he got, and that this is all it is. I was not the least surprised to then read that he was classically trained as an actor, and probably equally capable of playing Hamlet as he was this insane breast-obsessed Welsh bloke. Further, everyone in the cast contributed to recording commentary tracks to episodes that centered on their characters — except for Coyle.
As soon as I looked at the fourth series dvd cover and did not see Coyle on it, I easily imagined that he had grown tired of playing this character and wanted to move on with his career. Three years is a lot, and the character (while growing a little) wasn’t that deep; the challenge of it had probably waned, and there was the danger of casting directors not taking him seriously because they assume he’s going to be like this character he’s famous for playing. I haven’t looked it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he next went on to play a steely, cold-eyed killer or some other type of villainous sod after he declined to reappear in the fourth season.
So, the whole fourth season is thrown off by having one of its linch-pins knocked out. I can sense the scramble. Some of the episodes bear the marks of having originally been plotted out with Jeff being there, only to be re-tooled to remove him (or to insert a replacement character called Oliver, who is as disastrous as Jeff when talking to women, but not quite the same nervous wreck otherwise). It puts me in mind of negotiations going on, trying to convince Coyle to stay on and give it another go, and him finally putting his foot down and saying, sorry, can’t do it — even while preparations are underway for the fourth series. The removal of Jeff also removes a fair amount of random comedy, as the character was known for launching into a bizarre monologue full of weird stuff from his brain, usually winding up with a memory of his chastising, castrating mother expressing her shamed disappointment with him. Sometimes these monologues were tied into a conversation the guys were having, and sometimes they interrupted these conversations as non-sequiturs, which Moffat admits at one point as being a little lazy: there hadn’t been enough jokes on this page, so it was time for Jeff to spout off about whatever. Still, they were funny, and now there was no Jeff.
He was also trying to explore the insecurities hidden within the crazy exterior of Jane, that her strange self-confidence was masking a frightened loneliness, but this made Jane considerably less funny as well. In some scenes in the fourth series, she’s the straight man, where she had been the equivalent of Jeff for the women: the one who could be relied on to say mad things when the scene hadn’t been funny for 30 seconds. So with neither Jeff nor Jane saying random mad things, the whole series feels a little off-balance and empty. Moffat feels like he’s running low on inspiration, and there’s a general sense that, while everyone seems to enjoy doing the show, and that doing another go-round made sense because of the show’s popularity, that they might all have rather been brave about it and stopped after the third series.
It’s the sort of reasoning that kept John Cleese from doing a third round of Fawlty Towers, I suppose. And he was right.
So, after watching all that, I went back and looked at the Moffat episodes of Doctor Who again. Now they very obviously sounded like the work of the same writer. It’s the same sense of humor, especially when the characters engage in light-hearted banter or act slightly crazy. It’s funny, because I had been associating the Moffat episodes with fright and horror, since they had that unnerving, make-the-kids-hide-behind-the-sofa quality to them. But it’s also true that they are playful, and crack jokes. It’s kind of like how after watching a ton of Buffy and Firefly that you easily recognize a line as being Whedonesque; there’s dialogue in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” that’s obviously Moffatesque. (Side note: there was a line of dialogue in Dr. Horrible that I laughed at and tagged as being particularly Whedonesque, only to learn in the commentary tracks that Joss Whedon’s brother had written that particular line — although, since he’s also named Whedon, it can still be called Whedonesque, I suppose.)
In general, though, a series with justifiable fan following. Good characters, funny jokes, well-executed farce, and enjoyable formal experiments in storytelling. Moffat is clearly a prolific writer who writes top-quality stuff; it’s not easy to single-handedly write a series, and he’s done it three times now. But secretly, he’s always been what he calls a “tragic” Doctor Who fan, and has now been given the keys to the Tardis, as it were. As his first act, he cast the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor, and I hope that works out. But it does make me look forward to the upcoming fifth series of the reincarnated Doctor Who.
Coupling: Series 2 and 3 recommended; series 1 probably a good idea to watch to get into the swing of things; series 4 a disappointment, but an interesting one and Oliver’s not that bad a character really, plus there’s a documentary on the bonus disc about how the series is produced from script to screen that I found quite interesting.
Sixgun Nightmare Part 6 – I Ain’t Drivin’
I spent the next couple of days in a grim mood, contemplating whether I should raise my concerns with Scott. Then came the weekend, and there was a large flea market event downtown called the City-Wide Garage Sale. One of the actors in Krone used to be in charge of it, and I thought I would browse for props and maybe say hello to the guy if I saw him.
At this point, Scott hadn’t given me any funds yet, so I thought I should be careful about spending my own money just on the promise that he would at some point reimburse me. I brought some cash, telling myself that spending any more than $60 was unnecessary. Then, stupidly, I ended up spending $80. I bought a bunch of fabrics — large, colored curtains, a large crocheted quilt, and some random items that looked like they could serve as tablecloths or floor rugs or wall hangings. That was all pretty good, but it cost more than I expected, because some of the pieces were $5 each, and some were $5 a pound, and the crochet was really heavy. $40 went away right there. I could have said, “Whoa, wait a minute. I didn’t mean to spend more than $25 here.” Then I should have put some of them back.
Then I really got swindled on some old tintype photographs. I thought I needed authentic little photos like that for the movie, but ultimately there were other places to get them for less. Or, doing a Google image search and some laser printing would have been a lot cheaper. It also became clear that the lady who was selling the pictures could have been haggled way down. When I replayed our whole conversation, it became clear to me that the pictures really weren’t worth very much and should have cost a couple of dollars at most, but instead I spent nearly $40 on them. As I drove away from the City-Wide Bad Deal Swindle, I felt slightly wiser and a lot cash-poorer.
I was really mad at myself, and then I decided to get mad at Scott instead. There was no reason at all that I should be spending my own money on this movie. None at all! In fact, why hadn’t Scott given me any money yet? Why hadn’t he told me where to go to buy props yet, if he thought he knew where I should go? Not only that, but he’d mentioned that I was supposed to get paid for the work I did before the shoot. Was that ever likely to happen? My mindset had flipped completely, from generous volunteering and extra effort to wondering where the hell my money was, and why should I do anything if I wasn’t getting reimbursed to do so?
Late on a Friday afternoon, Scott called and told me that they were going out to Willie Nelson’s ranch right away, so if I wanted to come, I should meet them in 20 minutes to a half an hour. I said okay. I grumbled a bit about the short notice. Fortunately, the meeting point was less than 10 minutes from me, but Scott didn’t necessarily know that. Depending on where I lived, at Friday during the start of rush hour, it could theoretically have taken up to an hour to get there.
I was the first to arrive, and I spent the few extra minutes nurturing suspicions. I had happily driven Scott the long distance to Tommy’s house and to the restaurant where we met Dale, but that was before I started thinking critically of the whole deal. In particular, I suspected that Scott was going to show up and tell me to drive. Well, ask me to drive, but with that assumption already in mind. I so strongly suspected this that I didn’t park in the parking lot where he said we would meet. I parked around the corner down the hill, and then walked to the parking lot, so that he wouldn’t be able to see my car. I didn’t want to give him the option of saying, “Look, your car’s right there.” I suspected he wouldn’t be springing for gas this time, he just wanted me to play chauffeur. Don’t take me for granted! I thought, grumbling.
The first to show up for the trip to Willie Nelson’s ranch, and the Western town set that’s built on the property, was Phil Curry. Phil is a quiet man, in his 50s, with a missing tooth on one side that you notice when he grins, which is seldom. That’s not because he’s ill-tempered, in fact, he’s extremely mild-mannered and patient. He sports the ponytail of an aging child of the 60s, has a bit of a hunch to his shoulders, a big truck of grip and lighting gear, and decades of experience lighting and shooting movies. If you work on movies in Austin for a little while, you will probably meet Phil Curry. In fact, I had already worked with him once myself, way back in 1996, which I reminded him when I shook his hand that afternoon.
“We’ve worked together before, actually.”
“Huh,” he mumbled. Phil mumbles. He has a very characteristic mumble. One grows fond of it.
“Ah yeah,” Phil mumbled.
“I was the sound guy on that,” I said. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Phil on that shoot, even though the only location was this one small house. I was the sound mixer, so I was always hidden in a different room from the one the camera and actors were in, connected by a cable to the boom operator. Phil would often be puttering around outside, setting up lights to shine in through the windows.
“So you’re doing sound on this?” he mumbled.
“No, actually,” I said, self-consciously laughing. “I’m going to be the Art Director.”
Phil chuckled. He shrugged his hunched shoulders. Sound guy doubling as art director. “Why not?” he mumbled, amused. He’d come across weirder combinations before. You never know with these tiny independent productions, his reaction seemed to say.
Later, after working with him for a few weeks and this time actually getting to know him a bit, I would realize that Phil Curry really, really loves making movies. I mean, that’s why it’s what he does with his life. Making movies is often a really crummy affair, especially at the low-to-no budget level. Phil works on big shows, medium shows, and small shows, in all sorts of conditions, and it’s because he loves it. One of the hardest and longest days we had, where Phil barely had a break for 13 hours, and there were all sorts of problems — at the end of it, I saw him walking around with a huge grin on his face, pleased as punch. Making movies! That’s what Phil Curry loves to do.
You gotta love Phil Curry.
Anyway, about ten minutes after Phil showed up, Scott and Scott Rhodes showed up in Scott’s white minivan. For a moment, I thought, oh dear, I was suspicious for nothing, because Scott had brought a vehicle big enough to take everybody.
“Hey,” said Scott.
“Hi,” I said.
“So, what’s the situation with your car?” Scott asked, looking around for it, and oddly not seeing it.
“The situation with my car is I’m not drivin’,” I said punchily.
“Ah — okay,” Scott said.
“What’s wrong with your van?” I asked. Seriously, what was wrong with it? It was disappointing to believe I had been right about my suspicions after all.
“Well, it’s having an overheating problem,” Scott said.
Hrmph. Well, that’s an excuse, I guess, but not a particularly convincing one. “Well, turn the air to the heater and crank it up,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess,” Scott said, disappointed.
“Seriously, that works,” I said. “I got through Death Valley doing that once.” That was back in college. I had a car that was prone to overheating, but when I turned the heater on full blast, it sucked that heat away from the engine, and kept it just cool enough for the car to keep moving. Then I opened all the windows and stocked up on water and gatorade.
In any event, I didn’t want to fucking drive. Scott opened the van and we piled in.
“We must be crazy,” Scott said as we pulled out of the parking lot. “Friday rush hour, and we only have an hour to get out there.”
“Yeah, that is crazy,” I said.
“Enhhmn, shouldn’t be so bad, maybe,” Phil mumbled.
In fact, as luck would have it, we avoided all of the traffic and zipped pretty quickly out Highway 71 to the ranch location. I think when Willie Nelson bought the ranch property originally, it was way, way outside of town. These days, with Austin having grown so much, it seemed actually not so far away at all. We even got there early.
We waited outside the gate until someone showed up to let us in. The guy that did so was not someone who works for Willie Nelson, but a Tae Kwon Do teacher. Willie Nelson’s tae kwon do teacher, I believe was the story. This fellow, whose name I never caught, had decided to make a low-budget martial arts movie on digital video — same camera I used for my movie, and same tiny budget. He used all of his students as actors and stuntmen, and some of his students had connections to get all sorts of fancy things in the movie for free — helicopters, jets, guns, I’m not sure what all else. When they were done, they decided it was good enough to show to some investors to get some money to redo it in high-definition video. They had also managed to convince Willie himself to be in it. Willie in turn volunteered the use of the Western set on his ranch. Phil Curry was hired to be the D.P. on the martial arts shoot, which would be in July. Thus, this was how Scott had managed to wrangle a deal for doing Sixgun there.
So, sure enough, there’s a Western town set on Willie Nelson’s ranch. Although we called it Willieville, it purports to be a town called Luck, TX. There’s a church — services every Sunday, led by Willie — a saloon, an Opry House, a bank, a feed store, a munitions store, a pharmacy, stables, and assorted other buildings. There was one super-nice building, the World Headquarters, which is actually where Willie Nelson’s private recording studio is set up, as well as a career-spanning stash of memorabilia. We weren’t allowed in there, that’s Willie’s private turf. It was kind of neat that it was there, though. It reminded you of the fact that you were honest-to-goodness on Willie Nelson’s ranch.
Scott hauled out a video camera and started racing around, planning shots. Some colleague of his had just shot a movie here a year before, and Scott remarked on how you could have three different directors shoot this same set of buildings, and it would look like three different towns. It’s all about where you put the camera.
I systematically poked around. I took the longest look inside the saloon, which was the most finished building in the whole town. Most of them were empty buildings, there merely to sport the facades. The saloon had a full interior, with a full bar, a few tables, a mirrored wall, animal head trophies, and a staircase leading up. There were some holes in the roof, and the windows were blown out. There was shattered glass on the floor, a zillion spiky triangles and slivers. Scott ran excitedly in and I had to warn him about the glass. It was already on my mind that I would need to clean up all that glass, and that I was going to feel responsible if anyone cut themselves on it.
It was dusty and grimy. There were some bottles behind the counter, but not that many of them, and they were filled with disgusting liquid.
The rest of the town didn’t have much to look at. Everything was extremely weathered, baked and warped and splintering after years of Texas summers. I tried asking around about when it was built, and heard different answers every time: for Barbarosa, for The Red-Headed Stranger, for who knows what. In any event, it was probably already 30 years old, and hadn’t been maintained. It was repaired or patched in certain places, evidence of another production having shot there and needed just one thing to be refurbished just enough to be useful. The rest was going to seed, with holes in the roofs and planks curling away from the sides of buildings. Rusty nails and dangerous, sharp screws poked out and jutted up and generally looked hazardous.
It was going to be interesting, all right.
A bony-looking guy with salt-and-pepper stubble and a black t-shirt emerged from a trailer home parked out of sight behind some trees. That was John, one of the ranch caretakers, and the overseer of the Willieville set. In a Scooby-Doo mystery, he’d be the — well, you know. So, John comes out there, pretty friendly, shakes hands all around, gets peoples names — (“Hi, I’m Rob.” “Hi Bob.” “No — Rob.” “Sorry. Rob? Ok.”) — and tells us that Willie Nelson’s daughter is the person you really need to get permission from. He gave Scott her number. Then he told us the gate code to get in if there’s nobody else around. He was very casual about it. I don’t think he expected anyone would remember it besides Scott, who wrote it down in his little notebook, but I remembered it. That would almost get me in trouble later on.
To be continued.