Saturday, April 25, 2015

5 War Movies I'd Like to See Made

In no particular order, here are five historical conflicts that I think would make excellent films.

Forty Days of Musa Dagh
Pronounced 'Moosa Da,' (or Moses' Mountain) this site in modern Syria was once a part of the Ottoman Empire. During the 1915 genocide, six Armenian villages—5,000 people—fled to the mountain and fought off assaults by the Turkish army. With its back to the Mediterranean, Musa Dagh held out for 53 days. As food and ammunition dwindled, the embattled Armenians managed to signal passing French warships. The survivors were taken to safety in Egypt.

Not surprisingly, Turkey has fought like a velociraptor to keep this film from being made. A 1930s production was scotched by Turkish diplomatic pressure on the U.S. State Department and MGM. Sly Stallone and Mel Gibson both backed off Musa Dagh projects after Turkish grousing. President Obama won't even call it a genocide, referring to the Armenian massacre as a 'great catastrophe.' A 'great catastrophe' is the 2004 tsunamis or Chicago Cubs baseball. What happened in Turkey was genocide.

Book to Read: Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel.

Operation Buffalo

Marines along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) were given a thankless and 
bloody task of checking North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam. Untouchable in North Vietnam for political reasons, Russian-made artillery concealed in caves constantly shelled the Marines. By fighting at times of their own choosing, then retreating back to safety across the DMZ, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) controlled the tempo of battle. As if matters weren't bad enough, Secretary of Defense McNamara decided that a nice barrier built during the fighting would control infiltration. Finally, Marines were worn down by constant patrolling, a poor supply chain, and saddled with new M16 rifles that jammed

In the face of all that, an understrength Marine company was ambushed and shot to bits in July 1967. The subsequent relief of the survivors, attempts to recover the dead, and a massive NVA assault across the DMZ highlight the bravery and dedication of men locked in a futile war of attrition. 

I once had the rights to a book about this operation, but hopefully someone else will find the money and energy to bring this project to life.    

Book to Read: Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ by Keith William Nolan.

The Forest Brothers

A Baltic Red Dawn, people in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia waged guerrilla war against the Soviet Union until the mid-1950s. Overrun by Russia in 1940, then Nazi Germany, then Russia again in 1944, the Baltic peoples were under no illusions as to what awaited them under brutal Soviet occupation. In desperation, many waged a forlorn battle with the invaders, hiding out in forests and fighting until betrayed by communists serving in British Intelligence. After Stalin's death, an amnesty ended most of the conflict, though isolated units soldiered on until the 1960s. 

Some films have been made in the Baltics, but there's still plenty of David vs. Goliath, brother against brother material to fill up 120 minutes. 


The Great Siege

In 1565, the world superpower was the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Annoyed by the raiding of the last crusading order, Knights of St. John, the Sultan commanded a huge fleet to sail to the island of Malta and crush the knights. With a split command, the Turks invested the knights' forts, hauled up artillery and attempted to batter the walls into a degraded state for a final assault. The ensuing siege, the politics, tactics, and personalities of the opposing commanders would make for fascinating viewing.

This movie is probably too non-pc for at least another generation. Nevertheless, given Turkey's attitude, I would release it as a double feature with Forty Days of Musa Dagh.  

Book to Read: The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford

Neptune's Inferno

In a series of battles lasting six months, the U.S. Navy lost five-thousand men wrestling the Japanese for control of the seas around Guadalcanal. This is a film made for CGI as the U.S. fritters away their advantage in radar because senior officer don't trust the "new fangled thing." Japanese night fighting tactics and torpedoes are decisive early on. Lots of command in-fighting on both sides in a back-and-forth brawl that saw the United States reduced to a single damaged aircraft carrier in the whole Pacific during the fall of 1942.

This ought to be the 21st Century equivalent of In Harm's Way except we won't blow up model ships in a big tank.

Book to Read: Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Genealogy Writing Tools

Paul Mudie

Finished a 7D script. A small marketing assignment is all that stands between me and my Dunwich book. Since much of the backstory will be a continuation of the original Dunwich Horror, I find myself veering off to build the genealogies of Professor Henry Armitage and his peers. This is because one of his descendants, a grad student party gal, will end up deciding the fate of Earth.

On their website, the Social Security Administration allows you to peek back in time at the most popular baby names of different decades. John and Mary were tops back in the 1880s. Noah and Sophia ruled the roost in 2013. Since names change like fashions, it's a handy tool.

As for family tree construction, I'm using the My Heritage Family Tree Builder. A free download, it's helping me manage a growing thicket of fictional relatives.

And a fine Sunday to you all.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Lobo on the WB 3

D.C. Comics was very cool about the whole project. We sent them a script and they signed off, seemingly content to let us create the best animated Lobo we could.

My days evaporated, coordinating with everyone and writing story outlines. Scott's crew drew up the props for the first script. We were excited, digging the ideas, seeing the potential. Mike even put up a large cork board in my office covered with 3x5 cards—the mark of a show. On a Friday in mid January, the machine hummed, primed for the official production start the following Monday.

That morning, Jean called me up to her office.

Lobo was cancelled. 

Jamie Kellner and the WB finally decided they didn't want it. 

There are seven stages of grief. I never got past denial. It was like showing up at church and learning a man had shot your bride because he didn't like the bouquet.

JEAN MACCURDY TO THE RESCUE?

The Nest 

For the rest of the day, Lobo swirled around the bowl as Jean worked the phones. There was no one savvier in the ways of corporate politics. If it were possible to finesse the show onto the air, you could summon no greater champion than MacCurdy. I'm not entirely sure who she called, but I would bet on Dan Romanelli, Bob Daley, Jamie Kellner, Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein—two marketing guys who actually laughed out loud if they thought something was funny. (They were Old School that way.)

Nevertheless, by mid-afternoon Lobo finished circling the porcelain and disappeared in a surge of blue water. 

No one was willing to force a show onto the WB over Kellner's wishes. 

How did the production get so far? The WB knew we were spending money. They knew what was coming. But because they couldn't make up their minds earlier, artists who had reported for work that morning were turned around and pointed back out the door. 

The mood was depressed and ugly. 

I sent out my last memo, shutting down the production.

Bob Doucette arrived late to that year's pitch fest, but he had an idea for a series called Detention. (Rag-tag group of kids defying school authority.) Needing a replacement, the WB snapped it up and rushed the show into production. 

And that was that.

Jean had run the TV animation division for years with no one else but Joey Franks. There were no development executives. There were no executives attached to every show. There wasn't even a lawyer in the building. Warner Legal would visit every few years and tell us safe ways to parody, but they never overstayed their welcome. (Except for annual Sexual Harassment Seminars. These were conducted by a pair of Warner lawyers who kept insisting, "We are not the thought police," as they threatened to patrol artist cubicles and rip down 'offensive drawings.'  The seminars mysteriously halted after Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, never to return for the rest of my tenure.)

In the end,  the ratings finally killed us. Our shows tracked older than the 7 to 12-year-old demographic that advertising was sold around. 

And Warner TV animation no longer enjoyed the informal protection of Steven Spielberg. Having co-founded DreamWorks, he was now a competitor.

And so the growth of middle management commenced. 

ALONE WITH HANNA AND BARBARA

Muppet Wiki

To be fair, enlargement had already begun, with an exec. brought in to handle the Cartoon Network and another exec. hired on in general. Nice people, but Jean had been magnetic north for too many years. That's where the compass pointed. That was the only direction that mattered. Jean had taste. She could tell crap from fudge. And she trusted the writers and artists. With the new regime at Kids' WB, if they didn't get a joke, the joke was out. That meant a show's humor was now indexed to comedic sensibilities honed at Harvard Business School and sharpened by countless development meetings.

(At the same time, Kids' WB pretty much left Bruce TimmAlan Burnett Paul Dini  and the other batlings alone. Batman Beyond had premiered and the new regime wisely chose to let it breath.)

And while I  remained on staff at Warners for nineteen more months, my big dog days were deader than Earth Shoes. After Lobo, I never came close to running a show again. And minus a show, I no longer rated an assistant. Mike and I packed up the 3x5 cards and bid farewell as he was reassigned. I tried writing a script for Detention, but the network rejected it. I wrote series premises and direct-to-video ideas. I wrote a pair of Batman Beyond scripts, which I enjoyed. Of course, there was my trip to Cambodia with Kathy Helppie, the State Department and the Agency for International Development. But that's for another day. 

Eventually, I lost my nice corner office on the fourth floor, ending up on 14, down the hall from Hanna and Barbara. They had capacious ceremonial offices and their own secretary, but nothing else to do except continue aging. 

The Main Man resurfaced twice more. There was an attempt to sell Lobo to Saban who wanted to pay $75 an episode. We thought it was an opening bid, but that's the way they rolled. Then Warner Online chose to do Lobo as a Web series—hot thing at the time. I wrote the episodes, but suddenly everyone had an opinion including D.C. Comics, an accountant, and a security guard who had several high concept ideas but didn't mind if I wrote them up and took the credit. (As everyone knows, you can never have enough voices when it comes to comedy.) With my contract up soon and not due to be renewed, I Alan Smithee'd my way off the project. 

LA AENEID

The Aeneid

When I finally departed Warners in August of 2000, there was a lawyer assigned to TV animation with his own office in the building. There were executives by the gross. In addition, there were all kinds of other new faces with jobs that had nothing to do with writing or drawing an animated TV series or paying the people who did. I'd never met the woman who oversaw my out processing and collected my parking and building passes. Rugg and Ruegger and Rich Arons and many others without an 'r' in their name had already moved on. The place I left was a memory. 

Like Aeneas wandering the Mediterranean, I sought a new work life, hoping in the back of my head that the old Warners would somehow reconstitute somewhere in the TV animation industry. But that's like hoping high school will reconstitute without the embarrassments and awkward moments.

I welcome the new and cherish the old.

And remember the Lobo that almost was.

Lobo and the WB 1

Lobo and the WB 2

(Thanks to Paul Rugg@Froynlaven and Garrett Gilchrist@OrangeCow for linking the Lobo posts. For some reason, I can't get Blogspot to cough up the rest of the non-porn, non-Russian sites where I'm linked.)

(This is an update of a blog post titled Main Man Mania from back in 2008.)

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Lobo on the WB 2

Since the WB was equally chilly to all shows pitched, Jean figured she had nothing to lose and selected Duck Dodgers and Lobo for the next stage: focus group testing.

Change was definitely in the air. Nickelodeon focus tested shows. Warner TV Animation flew by the seat of their pants ... or used to. I had zero faith in focus groups and felt at that point that neither show would ever see daylight.

Back into editing with Al and Boyd. Using some Steven E. Gordon art and Boyd's characters, we put together a Lobo focus group reel for whoever did focus groups. Al and I did likewise for Daffy.  (I seem to recall Jeff Bennett providing the voice overs.) By now, it's late October, early November. If the network wanted a series in Sept. '99, we needed to start production soon.

On focus group day, I stayed in my office.

Gonway
LISTEN TO THE CHILDREN

Jean gave me the results: boys and girls really liked Duck Dodgers. But boys had gone stratospheric over Lobo. (Lobo broke things and didn't take any lip. What's not to love?) Pre-production began for twelve half-hour Lobo episodes. (Once a production number is assigned, you know it's serious. ) Jean told me to start writing the first script. With marketing in our pocket, the Main Main looked solid. But Duck Dodgers was still in the hunt.

Mike packed up our pitch materials and we took the Duck Dodgers show on the road. Specifically from Sherman Oaks to Burbank and the executive building on the Warner lot. We'd be pitching to studio head Bob Daley. This was more of Jean playing three-dimensional chess. If she couldn't green light a show, she could still ensure that powerful players liked what she liked.

Bob Daley didn't laugh, or really smile at all. But he paid attention. You could see his mind working, following along with the story and characters. At the end, he pointed to one character model and said, "That guy doesn't look like any of the other characters. But other than that, it's Okay."

People started asking me which show I'd pick to run. But Lobo had the hot hand.

As I wrote the first script, there were pre-production meetings. Composer Richard Stone was fired up to do music. (We aimed at creating some kind of cool outer space theme blended with Metallica and Nine Inch Nails.) Andrea Romano would be voice directing. But Boyd Kirkland was suddenly being tugged in another direction. It looked like we'd need a new producer.

Keane Eyes Gallery

LOBO SCRIPT

By early January, I'd finished the script. Basically, Lobo was a bounty hunter, hung out in Al's Diner with Al and Darlene, and had been summoned by Vril Dox. Dox hires Lobo to retrieve a witness who has information harmful to interplanetary super creep Ernest Mann. Mann wanted to help everyone by conquering all life and placing it under his loving care. He had created a force of eerie minions: children with big Margaret Keane eyes who morphed into horrid velociraptor-like monsters. Mann was defended aboard his huge space craft by massive robots, each with more firepower than a drug cartel.

He also carried the largest bounty in the universe.

Lobo disobeys orders and decides to dangle his witness as bait to draw out Mann. Traveling to a seedy dive on a depressed planet, Lobo and his nervous witness wait for someone to rat them out to Mann. It doesn't take long. Lobo ends up in a shoot-out with one of Mann's iron-packing robots and loses his witness, who is captured and transported to Mann's vessel. Lobo follows, sneaks aboard, rescues the guy, battles Keane children, more robots, and confronts Mann, but fails to capture him,  barely escaping in a running fight that eats up most of Act III.

Finally, having delivered the witness, he relaxes back at Al's. But Lobo vows to eventually collect the bounty on Mann.

And that would be our season arc: first, middle, and last episode involving Lobo and Mann. I figured I'd write those and hired  Mitch Watson and Ken Segall to tackle several of the other scripts. They would include villains like Sunny Jim and Cosmic Bob. Bob's character description billed him as "one of the deadliest men in the universe because he can shoot rays from his nose."

Basil's Films

AND WILLIAM H. MACY, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN

By now, it was early January 1999. Boyd Kirkland was gone, returned to Batman for, I think, a Mr. Freeze direct-to-video. Scott Jeralds replaced him as co-producer. As Jean had approved the script, Scott's crew jumped in and did a fantastic job boarding. Scott put his own spin on the character design, reducing Lobo's bulkiness even more while keeping the muscles and menace. Darlene became more wholesome, less jaded. Another crew was hired and artists started reporting in.

Meanwhile, Andrea Romano assembled a great cast. She'd once again lined up Brad Garrett as Lobo, and cast William H. Macy and Linda Hamilton for voice roles. (Macy would've been the witness, while I don't recall who Linda Hamilton would've played.) Paul Rugg had a part as Vril Dox assistant.

Duck Dodgers was backburnered. Lobo barreled on toward it's production start date.

Tomorrow: A meeting with Jean. Phone calls and reality. What came next.

Lobo on the WB1

Lobo on the WB 3



Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Lobo on the WB

Here's more on what happened with D.C. Comics Lobo and the WB back in the day.

DAWN OF THE MAIN MAN

In early 1998, Jean MacCurdy asked me to write up a short premise for a possible Lobo animated TV series. Created by the late Roger Silfer and Keith Giffen, Lobo was a tricky character for the Kids' WB. Designed as an over-the-top biker-intergalactic bounty hunter, Lobo's legend included murdering everyone on his own planet as well as regenerative powers that made him pretty much impossible to kill. My suggestions were to keep the contempt for authority, make him more vulnerable to counter-violence, and direct his mayhem toward appropriate targets such as space villains and lawyers.


Lobo from Superman episodes
Jean liked the take and ordered a one minute pitch video. Voiced by Brad Garrett, Lobo had appeared in a pair of Superman episodes. So editor Al Brietenbach and I culled the material and crafted our sixty-second saga with me voicing over the Superman material on top of instrumental cuts from "Bad to the Bone." Catchy. But nothing came of it. Soon after, I was drafted on to Pinky, Elmyra and The Brainforgetting all about the Main Man.

PITCHING KIDS' WB

That fall, the studio was gripped with pitch fever. By then, Jean had lost the authority to green light afternoon and Saturday shows to Jamie Kellner and his growing phalanx of WB execs. For the TV animation division to get something on the air, we had to pitch the WB in addition to Warner Bros. marketing. Artists and writers were in a frenzy pulling material together—a show meant job security. My hands were full preparing pitches for three different projects: 21C, Duck Dodgers and Lobo. 21C was the dark horse, an idea of mine—an homage to anime—about a Buffy-like high school girl in the twenty-first century battling lobster men and strangely pathetic robots while shopping for cute tops. Rhoydon Shishido drew some hilarious artwork, but the pitch dance card was full and the show eventually dropped from consideration.

DUCK DODGERS

Duck Dodgers makes an interesting point.
Duck Dodgers was based on the 1953 Chuck Jones cartoon. In this version, there was a human chick teamed up with Daffy and Porky. Jean asked if I could swap her out with Lola Bunny—keep things in the Warner family, as it were—while toning down the ogle aspect and emphasizing her competence. Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone, who worked on Space Jam, supplied the art. (And went on to run the show a few years later when it eventually aired on Cartoon Network.)

With Lobo, the late Boyd Kirkland and I began with my premise, the one-minute video, plus artwork, I believe, from Steven E. Gordon. Boyd standardized the characters, making Lobo less massive, while I worked on a quick, snappy presentation based on showing the video first, then introducing two-dimensional models of characters from the comics like Al and Darlene. (Plus one Steven E. Gordon creation—a human villain with a round, yellow, have-a-nice-day happy face. We called him "Sunny Jim," and made him exceptionally nasty.)

A TALE OF TWO PITCHES

The TV animation division pitch room featured a huge marble-topped table in the shape of the Warner Bros. shield logo. Gathered around this ornate table would be marketing execs. on one day and the WB execs. on the other. I would deliver the pitches for Duck Dodgers and Lobo. My assistant, Mike Miscio, and I had practiced like a magic act. He'd cue up videos and tapes, set down and take away character stand-ups, and generally keep things moving. However, he wouldn't wear tights. I was wrong to ask. 

First up were the marketing guys. Duck Dodgers went fine. They laughed and were very receptive. But they went nuts for Lobo. They were howling after the one-minute video, engorged with toy madness. They could sell this show in a micro second. It was basketball with a hoop three feet off the ground. We were fired up, humming with energy, preparing our Emmy acceptance speeches. 

Then came the execs. 

Buzzfeed
I don't remember how Duck Dodgers went, but I'm guessing badly. In any case, it couldn't have been worse than Lobo. The one-minute video was met with dead silence. The pitch: dead silence. Some coughs. It was as if smiling, let alone laughter, constituted an implicit agreement to buy the show. My confidence fled like air from a slashed tire. Having done stand-up, I knew the only thing to do was amp up the energy and finish with a smile. Finally, like gum surgery minus Novocaine, it ended. As Mike collected our gear, I wished only to leave behind a fragmentation grenade.

Recapping the pitches, no one knew what to make of things. Were both shows dead?  

Tomorrow: Jean weighs in. Focus group? A surprising outcome.

Lobo on the WB 2




Sunday, April 05, 2015

Solemn Easter 2015

Image: Great Wallpapers
As I attend services today, I will be grateful my church is in Los Angeles and not Kenya or Nigeria or Iraq, or Egypt where Muslim fanatics cull out the Christians for slaughter. In certain places, Christianity carries a heavy price tag. What does my faith cost me on this warm sunny day in Southern California? My prayers go out for the repose of the souls of the dead in those lands, and their families. It's the least I can do, which seems to be my default religious position. That's probably why Barabbas is my favorite Easter film.

I'm exhausted from the last six weeks of multiple projects. However, a fine soft cover version of Fifty Shades of Zane Grey will be available by the end of this week on Amazon. Those of you who don't cotton to Kindle devices will be able to grasp a fine paper version—a real book, if you will—filled with English words in pleasing arrangements.