Have I Told You This One? Episode 1: Who’s Your Daddy?

There are a lot of stories I tell people over and over. And like my dad, I tell them to the same people over and over. I’m going to start laying them down here and tell people who haven’t heard them to read them. Doubt that will work, but either way, at least I will have a place to keep them in case I forget them myself.

Back in 1999, I was an assistant sound editor on a movie called Titan AE. It was an animated feature not done by Pixar in an era when ONLY Pixar was making solid animated movies CG or otherwise. I liked Titan AE while we were working on it, but sadly it hasn’t stood the test of time.

The sound supervisor on the movie was a guy named Matt Wood. He’s done tons of stuff since including being Bib Fortuna in Phantom Menace and the voice of General Grievous in everything that has General Grievous in it. Matt gave me my shot on sound assisting which I didn’t take full advantage of, but that’s a different story. (Maybe see this post for some related perspective on my frame of mind during that period.) Part of Matt’s job as the supervisor is to attend the temp mixes and the test screenings. The temp mixes are for executives to see what they’re paying for. The test screenings are to see how the various demographic slices respond to the movie. The executives send junior executives to the test screenings to assess and make recommendations.

Here’s a little background on the studio structure. If you’re a junior exec and you’re any good, you get upgraded pretty fast. If you stink, you get fired pretty fast. Most of your success is predicated on your ability to understand your demo(graphic) and market the movie properly. Or cover your ass if you didn’t market the movie properly. If you marketed the movie properly, it should kill the opening weekend. And if you designed it for the demo properly, word of mouth and repeat viewings will keep the movie from hitting the 60% attendance dropoff from the opening week to week 2. Now you know.

Matt Wood attended a series of temp mixes where the main executives at Fox Feature Animation (now defunct) didn’t bother to show up. Then he went to block of test screenings for 7 to 14 yr olds, 15 to 18, and 19 and up. The youngest group pretty much loved the movie. Of course they would pretty much love anything where they get free popcorn and soda on a school day. So my personal thought is the results were skewed. The oldest group was medium on the movie, but it was old school Don Bluth animation and it was rather dated compared next to Toy Story 2 or Bug’s Life. The sweet spot, the 15 to 18 group, the group that will see a movie 10 times if they love it, that’s where everyone had their eyes.

That group is tough to read, though. Painfully self-conscious and awkward, they won’t react in the open even if they like something. So when they really laugh, it means something. Near the end of the film, there’s a Han Solo moment where the heroes are under fire while planting charges to destroy the evil queen and Goon, a character you thought was dead, comes in and shoots the last two baddies so Matt Damon and Bill Pullman can blow it all to Hell. Upon his surprise re-entry into the story, Goon fires and shouts, “Who’s your daddy?! GOON’S your daddy!!” Well the theater just exploded. The high school kids laughed themselves crazy and were writhing in their seats. Good stuff.

Fifteen minutes later when the credits rolled, Matt was standing in the lobby when a 5’5″ shaved-bald white guy in his early 30’s approached him. Matt could tell from the $3000 suit that this person was a junior exec from Fox Feature Animation. A full studio exec would be wearing a $6000 suit and would let some hair grow even if he was balding. There’s a confidence that comes along with being a top movie studio exec that simply must be witnessed to be believed. But that’s another story. This junior guy was giddy beyond belief, probably because he figured his promotion was already on his desk after that screening, but he wanted the movie to have extra punch. He hustled up to Matt like he was going to pee his pants. He pointed to Matt. “Matt Wood! My man!” he said. “The Goon line killed in there! Great work!” (exclamation points necessary). Matt replied, “Um, thanks.” The guy gave Matt a double point in the face. “I heard it was your idea to add that line. Great line, man!” Matt kind of looked around because this guy was straight shouting and pointing in Matt’s face. “Well, it was John Leguizamo’s improv, but yeah, I cut it in there.” Another double stab, “Yes! YES! Are there any other references to his father we can use?!”

Now, I know you’re thinking this is a joke, but it’s true and I’m telling you exactly as Matt told ┬áit to me. It’s a second hand story, but one of my favorites. How could anyone think the reason that line scored because it was about Goon’s father? Also, had he never seen Star Wars? Also… there are too many “also’s” in this scenario. I don’t expect everyone to get the “who’s your daddy?” joke, but seriously? His suggestion is to add more father references. The real threat here is not this guy, there are lots like him out there in every corner of the industry. The thing that sticks in my head is what if it wasn’t Matt this guy was talking to?

Many people working in the film biz just follow orders to the letter regardless of how ridiculous they may be with no questions asked. If Matt was one of those people, he would have pored over the recordings for days looking for more daddy lines, and when there weren’t any, he would have booked Leguizamo at great expense to improv some more lines, all of which would have been forced because even someone as funny as Leguizamo couldn’t just fire off daddy jokes that would work in an animated sci fi movie for kids. Thankfully Matt wasn’t (and isn’t) that sort of person. He came back to work, told us the story every time we asked to hear it, and did absolutely nothing to add “daddy” lines.

I shudder to think how many movies went South because some out-of-touch junior exec made an off-hand comment to a hard-working studio staffer. Not that Matt is a slacker, but he started working at Skywalker when he was 17 and has seen the type come and go. He knew daddy jokes weren’t the problem with the movie and more likely than not, the very guy who asked for the changes would have the lines pulled a week later. Turns out the movie ended up missing the mark with their demographic. They slapped a bunch of weird songs by expensive artists like Seal, Luscious Jackson, and Jamiroquai. I don’t know about you, but none of the 15 year-old boys I have ever met liked Luscious Jackson in their action sci fi. And no amount of daddy lines can save a movie from a Seal track. Needless to say, the movie didn’t do that great and vanished onto the dusty shelves of the video store.

Hey Kids, Do Your Homework!

I started a new idea and have been cranking away on it (intermittently) for a few weeks. I thought the idea was cool, the plot was cooler, and the name was the coolest. Then I thought, wait a second, what if someone else thought of that name? NAAAH! Impossible. But it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick look on Amazon, right?

WHAAAAAAT? Turns out there’s not only one SF book with the same name/concept, but like thirty. I’m still ok because my story is character-based and the world can be changed. But damn, seriously? I thought I was special. Turns out I’m only as special as thirty-something other self-published books. Oh well.

This reminds me of a lesson I learned a few years back. I worked on a movie called Hart’s War. The director’s name was Greg Hoblit (don’t look him up, yet). When the movie was over, he took the whole post sound crew out to dinner and I ended up across from him at the long table. We talked about basketball and he did what he could to convince me he could dunk. I never really bought it. I asked him about Primal Fear because I knew that was his first feature. Like a dummy, I asked how he got that picture. He said, “They brought it to me.” The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Co: That’s cool, how did they line you up with a picture like that?
Greg: From my television work. They thought it was a good fit.
Co: You were in television? Did you work on a series?
Greg: Yes. I created Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue.
Co: Oh. Heh. More wine?

Then the waiter brought his steak covered in mushrooms. The next part of the conversation went like this:

Co: You don’t like mushrooms?
Greg: I f***ing hate mushrooms. I can’t eat them.
Co: What happens when you eat them?
Greg: I die!

Here’s where I took a big risk. I wanted to keep the chit chat going. He had taken the snub from the young guy pretty well, but I could tell there was a little tension as if his face were saying, “who’s this punk who doesn’t know who I am?” I had a few glasses of wine in me so I went for it.

Co: You die?
(he was pretty much shouting at me in the Larkspur Inn, the most expensive restaurant in Marin County, a mecca for expensive restaurants. Yes, people were looking from other tables.)
Greg: Yes! I f***ing die if I eat mushrooms!
Co: Is that what happened last time you ate them?

Dead silence as he stared at me. The rest of the table and half the restaurant was waiting for the response. Swear to God it was right out of a movie. He laughed. Not loud, but it was enough to ease the mood. Then his steak showed up with no mushrooms and we talked about basketball and the actor Marcel Iures who was amazing in this movie that Greg was so disappointed with. The studio had ruined the surprise with the trailer and cut out the best parts of the drama in favor of more courtroom scenes. But Marcel as the evil Nazi was amazing.

Anyway, my original point was that you gotta do your background checks. It’s impossible to know everything and if you move forward with that attitude, you’ll get burned over and over. All reading is research and all research counts.

More stories soon.

Buzzer Beater

I have mentioned before that I play in a men’s recreational basketball league with a bunch of (much younger) friends. A few Sundays ago, we were down by 2 with 15 seconds left and I made the tying shot in the lane with four guys hacking the crap out of me. Did I get the foul? No, the ref called travelling. There were so many people around me that he didn’t see that I dribbled. Even then, I only took one step! Disappointing, sure, but what happened next is what is stuck in my brain. They missed a free throw and we got the ball back. It was in-bounded to me. I shot-faked, dribbled left and popped a three. Missed at the buzzer. Just short. A shot I make probably 50% of the time. It felt great, right in line, just off the front of the rim. I make it, we win and I’m a hero, I miss it and everyone else wishes they had taken the last shot.

So why is it, after a whole game of flat play and missed shots, that it feels like the last shot made all the difference? The guys were all cool and didn’t hold it against me, but since then, I’ve had dreams where I made that shot. I wake up in the morning still aggravated that I missed it. In an effort to put some relevance on this thing so I don’t feel so absurd that I’m spending so much time replaying that shot in my head, I tried to find analogies in life for the last second shot. The buzzer beater.

Here’s what I came up with: the buzzer beater is the basketball equivalent of the overnight success. People love those stories. They love to hear that M. Night Shyamalan or Robert Rodriguez (old references, I know) showed up out of nowhere with a movie and hit it big. Same thing with the last second chance to win. It’s always a highlight on ESPN or on Youtube. There’s even blog space dedicated to the best buzzer beaters organized by NBA season. People like to think all success can be summed up in the last moment of the desired goal. Want to win the game? Hit the basket that puts you ahead. Think nothing of the exertion of the preceding 47 minutes and 59 seconds. Want to be the next JK Rowling? Or Darren Aronofsky? Just pull a kick ass book/movie/album out of your pocket.

I’m not treading any new territory in pointing out that success takes hard work and years of preparation, and that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is my personal problem: I look back and only identify the complete ideas that have gone nowhere. I just want to change the finish on them and receive the cheers. I dream about that final moment and what follows. Just like the game where I wish I had made the last shot. What I should be doing is evaluating the whole game and thinking about the accumulation of mistakes or lapsed effort and applying that to the next project.

A week ago, we were in another final second situation in the men’s league, but this time the opposing team hit the final shot and won at the buzzer. I could have put my arm up and contested it, but I had already realized the truth. The whole game had led to this moment. Make or miss, we didn’t deserve the win. Is that any way to think? My answer is no. That doesn’t work either. You can’t blame a loss on a missed last gasp, but you can’t pass up the chance to win, either. You must try. At every possible opportunity.