Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Arousal Feedback Extension!

"Holy shit! I still have to write that feedback for Ross!"
"Crapper—that feedback is due on Halloween??? I'm a goner!"
"There's no way I'll read 117 pages by tomorrow!!!"

If any of the above describes you, there's no reason for you to be scared, even if it is the day when the dead are meant to walk the earth...

I have family in town and am completely distracted and wouldn't be able to read feedback even if you gave it to me on time. Which is why I'm granting all you slackerheads another week to give me feedback on Arousal. (Latecomers: Arousal is my feature horror script I'm shooting in the spring and I'm offering a story consultant credit for anyone daring enough to give me their honest feedback.) On November 8, all my relatives fly back out of town and I'll be able to give all your wonderful comments the attention they deserve.

So congrats—your executioner got a rain check until November 8th @ midnight.

Lucky bastards.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Half Life News Anchor

For years, our wasted youth has played Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, Battlefield 1942, Doom, Quake... and now, finally, we finally have something useful to show for it: customized newsfeeds anchored by virtual characters. Swank-hay.

This isn't exactly shocking news... the idea of using a virtual character in a visual narrative like news has been tossed around for years, and even done in a rotoscoped form with Max Headroom, but it's never been a fully automated news delivery service like this one. Here, see what they say about it and remember to keep your mouth from dropping open:

News At Seven is a system that automatically generates a virtual news show. Totally autonomous, it collects, parses, edits and organizes news stories and then passes the formatted content to an artificial anchor for presentation. Using the resources present on the web, the system goes beyond the straight text of the news stories to also retrieve relevant images and blogs with commentary on the topics to be presented.

Once it has assembled and edited its material, News At Seven presents it to the audience using a graphical game engine and text-to-speech (TTS) technology in a manner similar to the nightly news watched regularly by millions of Americans. The result is a cohesive, compelling performance that successfully combines techniques of modern news programming with features made by possible only by the fact that the system is, at its core, completely virtual.

This is the shape of the future—highly specialized news broadcasts. If you're only interested in North Korea, stamp collecting and the price of wheat, you'll get a news broadcast on only those items, including blog commentaries if you so wish. It's the sexiest way to aggregate information I've seen so far, and it's only in its infancy.

More on News at Seven.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dilbert Creator Loses Voice

Scott Adams, the guy who created Dilbert, recently lost his voice due to something called Spasmodic Dysphonia—permanently. The number of people who have recovered from this disease? Zero.

But it's a weird kind of disease because it doesn't mean your voice is completely silenced in all contexts: Adams can give public speeches, but can't talk to people off stage. He can sing to people in private, but not talk to them normally. Bizarro.

Adams, the perennial optimist, experimented with various exercises and studied his own voice. Eventually, he stumbled upon poetry... he could speak in a normal voice using rhyme, and continued to do so until he actually kick-started his own brain and dislodged whatever wooden shoes had been thrown in there.

So now he can speak again. Thanks to rhyme! This is an astonishing story of perseverance, cleverness, and (dare I say it?) divine beauty.

Here's an excerpt:

Just because no one has ever gotten better from Spasmodic Dysphonia before doesn’t mean I can’t be the first. So every day for months and months I tried new tricks to regain my voice. I visualized speaking correctly and repeatedly told myself I could (affirmations). I used self hypnosis. I used voice therapy exercises. I spoke in higher pitches, or changing pitches. I observed when my voice worked best and when it was worst and looked for patterns. I tried speaking in foreign accents. I tried “singing” some words that were especially hard.

My theory was that the part of my brain responsible for normal speech was still intact, but for some reason had become disconnected from the neural pathways to my vocal cords. (That’s consistent with any expert’s best guess of what’s happening with Spasmodic Dysphonia. It’s somewhat mysterious.) And so I reasoned that there was some way to remap that connection. All I needed to do was find the type of speaking or context most similar – but still different enough – from normal speech that still worked. Once I could speak in that slightly different context, I would continue to close the gap between the different-context speech and normal speech until my neural pathways remapped. Well, that was my theory. But I’m no brain surgeon.

The day before yesterday, while helping on a homework assignment, I noticed I could speak perfectly in rhyme. Rhyme was a context I hadn’t considered. A poem isn’t singing and it isn’t regular talking. But for some reason the context is just different enough from normal speech that my brain handled it fine.

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.
Jack jumped over the candlestick.

I repeated it dozens of times, partly because I could. It was effortless, even though it was similar to regular speech. I enjoyed repeating it, hearing the sound of my own voice working almost flawlessly. I longed for that sound, and the memory of normal speech. Perhaps the rhyme took me back to my own childhood too. Or maybe it’s just plain catchy. I enjoyed repeating it more than I should have. Then something happened.

My brain remapped.

My speech returned.

Not 100%, but close, like a car starting up on a cold winter night. And so I talked that night. A lot. And all the next day. A few times I felt my voice slipping away, so I repeated the nursery rhyme and tuned it back in. By the following night my voice was almost completely normal.

Here's the whole incredible story.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Think small.

Two items of big news today—

1) Scorsese is downgrading to low budget film projects.
2) So is George Lucas.

First, here's what's up with Scorsese (italics in the articles are mine):

Scorsese set to 'quit' Hollywood
Scorsese's latest film, The Departed, topped the US box office

Film director Martin Scorsese says he plans to take a break from Hollywood to make low-budget films. His latest movie, The Departed, cost $90m (£48.5m) and topped the US box office, but Scorsese says he is finding it harder to make films in Hollywood.

"When there are very big budgets there is less risk that can be taken," he said at the Rome Film Festival. The director said his next project would be a "small-scale" adaptation of Japanese novel The Silence. Written by Shusaku Endo, the book tells the story of two 17th century Portuguese missionaries. "I have wanted to do it for 15 years," Scorsese told reporters.

Career high
The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong drama Infernal Affairs, and stars Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Nicholson plays a crime boss in Boston who plants a mole inside the city's police force, just as his own organisation is being infiltrated by an outsider. The film gave Scorsese the strongest opening weekend of his career, taking $27m (£14.4m) at the US box office.

The director said film studio Warner Brothers had been supportive during the shooting of "an experimental film like The Departed, which we only finished three weeks ago. But I don't know how much longer that can hold out, with regard to what kind of movie they - the major studios - would like to make and the kind of film I'd like to make".

And this article passed my desk last week. Ironic that it comes so soon before Scorsese's announcement... perhaps a trend is in the making? Complete article follows:
Lucas tilts at studio tentpoles
'Star' man sees shrinking pic biz

George Lucas has a message for studios that are cutting their slates and shifting toward big-budget tentpoles and franchises: You've got it all wrong.

The creator of "Star Wars," which stamped the template for the franchise-tentpole film, says many small films and Web distribution are the future.

And in case anyone doubts he means it, Lucasfilm is getting out of the movie biz.

"We don't want to make movies. We're about to get into television. As far as Lucasfilm is concerned, we've moved away from the feature film thing because it's too expensive and it's too risky.

"I think the secret to the future is quantity," Lucas said.

He spoke to Daily Variety after the groundbreaking ceremony for the renamed School of Cinematic Arts at USC.

He gave $175 million -- $100 million toward the endowment, $75 million for buildings -- to his alma mater. But he said that kind of money is too much to put into a film.

Spending $100 million on production costs and another $100 million on P&A [Print & Advertising] makes no sense, he said.

"For that same $200 million, I can make 50-60 two-hour movies. That's 120 hours as opposed to two hours. In the future market, that's where it's going to land, because it's going to be all pay-per-view and downloadable.

"You've got to really have a brand. You've got to have a site that has enough material on it to attract people."

He said he's even discussed the subject with Pixar's Steve Jobs and John Lasseter.

"If you don't do very many movies, and you're really lucky, and you really know what you're doing, you can get away with it. But you know at some point you're going to lose a game."

Lucas said he believes Americans are abandoning the moviegoing habit for good.

"I don't think anything's going to be a habit anymore. I think people are going to be drawn to a certain medium in their leisure time and they're going to do it because there is a desire to do it at that particular moment in time. Everything is going to be a matter of choice. I think that's going to be a huge revolution in the industry."

That doesn't mean Lucasfilm is diving into online distribution, though. "Having had a lot of experience in this area, we're not rushing in," he said. "We're trying to find out exactly where the monetization is coming from. We're not interested in jumping down a rat hole until such time as it finally figures itself out."

Nor is Lucasfilm's exit from features instant or absolute. "Indiana Jones 4" is still in development. "Steve (Spielberg) and I are still working away, trying to come up with something we're happy with. Hopefully, in a short time, we will come to an agreement. Or something," Lucas said, without a great deal of enthusiasm.

Lucasfilm also is working on "Red Tails," a film about the Tuskegee airmen of WWII.

"I've been working on that for about 15 years," he said, adding that he's also been working on "Indy 4" for 15 years.

And Lucas Animation does plan to start making feature films -- eventually.

"Right now we're doing television, which looks great. I'm very, very happy with it," he said of his toon division. "And out of doing the animation, we're getting the skill set and the people and putting the studio in place so we can do a feature. But it's probably going to be another year before we have the people and the systems in place to do a feature film."

Lucas admitted the big-budget strategy has done well for him in the past, but said, "We're not going to do the $200 million investments."

He calls himself "semi-retired" but reiterated his plans to direct "small movies, esoteric in nature," after his other projects are launched. He expects to serve as exec producer on the two features and the TV shows, including a live-action "Star Wars" skein.

At the USC groundbreaking, Lucas was honored amid cannon shots of confetti and fanfares from the USC Marching Band for his gift, the largest in the school's history.

Other bizzers in attendance included Lucas pals Robert Zemeckis and Spielberg.

Lucas said the gift is intended to set an example for the rest of the entertainment industry, as well as other universities.

"In a lot of industries, the people in the industry give a lot of money to the schools that produce the people who are their employees," he said, pointing to the auto industry as an example. "The film industry doesn't seem to be too enthusiastic about that idea. I'd love to see the industry do more.

"As self-interest, it's good to have the best trained people working for you. And the best trained people come from film school.

"The world of moving images hasn't had a lot of respect (in academia)," said Lucas. "But it's the major form of communication in the 21st century."

This $175 million, he said, is meant to "put other universities on notice that this is an important discipline that needs to be fostered."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Gore vs. Suspense

Had an epiphany of sorts last night about Arousal, in part due to a long email convo with the same person who had such ad adverse reaction to it last week. It shows you can always learn from the ones who don't like what you're doing.

Rather than tell you what this reader said, I'll just quote them:

The truth is, I felt conned. The beginning of your movie is really very good. I was trepitatious, nervous, nail biting and excited-scared. Then just completely fucking horrified and repulsed. The shift is really sudden and nasty. It suddenly becomes this whole other animal....

I believe subtle nuances make a good movie. The intimation of something frightening is much more interesting than the obvious.

Movies like Psycho are psychologically terrifying without being over the top visual.

Your movie, half way through, becomes something that moves from suggestively scary, to downright ugly. I couldn't watch it.

And my reply:
I have been pondering the nature of gratuitious elements in stories at length since our recent communications. The question you say—the "why?" factor—is the core of the issue, in my view. But instead of "Why does this element in the film exist?", the broader question might be better framed as "Why does this film exist?" Certain stories require certain elements: take those elements out, your movie won't make sense. If they can be taken out, then they're needless to the story, and thus gratuitous. If it's graphic sex or violence, then it's equivalent to watching porn or a snuff film. (See? I've been listening! tee hee)

My challenge from the start of this project was: how do I write a story including sex and violence but where none of the sex or violence is gratuitous? For the story, then, I would argue that the sex and violence are crucial to the development of my story...


The story itself may be called gratuitious. That I cannot, in good faith, dispute. The story might even be called an excuse to show a lot of sex and violence. But no more so than the sex in Boogie Nights, right?

I forgot to add here that the answer to "Why does this film exist?" for Arousal is more commerical than artistic, i.e. I'm making this film to be financially successful, not really to make an artistic statement (there is a tiny artistic statement in there, but let's face it—it's a hack and slash film I want to sell so I can make enough money so I can do this full time).

Then I came to my small epiphany:
I wouldn't want to see Chainsaw Massacre, but I would see Scream. I'm finally starting to see your point now...

I'm sitting here kind of speechless, because I'm thinking of Session 9, and that film is almost entirely bloodless, but it's terrifying because everything is suggested. There could be ways to tone down the gore and even ramp up the tension. Jaws is another example which I'm sure you must be thinking of. Blair Witch, too.

In my scramble to gain attention and guarantee marketability, am I trying too hard by being so graphic? Session 9, a personal favorite, is so great because everything is left to the imagination. That got me thinking about Brad Anderson, the director of Session 9, Happy Accidents, and The Machinist, all great films which build a lot of suspense with a tiny amount of gore, if any at all.

Arousal, though, is in a different genre. It's more akin to 28 Days Later, Dawn of The Dead, Wolf Creek. It follows more in the tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than Scream, and that was a concscious choice, but I wonder now if some of the more extreme bits can be toned down to increase the suspense more.

Kevin Costner once said that acting is deciding whether or not to kiss someone—once you kiss them, it's action. Mostly, people prefer the former because there is still some question as to the outcome. A child covered in blood, standing 10 feet away and staring intently at you is probably more frightening than that same child violently attacking you because when he's just standing there, you don't know what the hell the he's going to do.

In the movie The Car, James Brolin has the demon car pull over, but the car does nothing. It just sits there. Parked. You can't see anything inside. There are no door handles. It's dark and menacing, a powerful black beast quietly preparing to pounce. Like waiting for Mulder and Skully to kiss, that delicious tension is endlessly watchable.

As I go into Draft #3, I'll be keeping this lesson firmly in mind. Since the story is, at its core, about how seeing sex and violence stirs us—or arouses us—from the numbness of everyday life, I'm unclear how much can be toned down. The town scene could certainly be revamped to insinuate rather than blungeoning the audience with an overt display of the macabre.

Warning to all feedback readers: I'm leaving town next week and won't be back until Monday evening, then 2 days later I have guests in town for two weeks. So if you want any kind of coherent reply and/or discussion, please get your feedback in within the week. Otherwise, you'll have to wait until after November 8.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Arousal WARNING!

I received an email from a feedback reader for Arousal who said they weren't finishing the script, that the script was a snuff film, and that they wanted to block me from their Myspace friends.


I'm keeping this person anonymous because I don't wish to mock them or single them out—feedback is feedback. It's neither wrong nor right. In point of fact, this kind of reaction is ten times more valuable than laudative remarks and I'm trying to figure out why she had such a strong reaction, especially since I've received remarks like "I LOVED IT!" and "You're sick, but you have a good screenplay."

But it got me thinking... Arousal does have a lot of sex and violence in it. And I wrote it specifically so it would. I had hoped to make the storyline require sex and violence or else it wouldn't make any sense. How, for instance, can you tell a story like Boogie Nights without showing them shooting a porn? How can you show the erotic quandaries the protagonist faces in 9 1/2 Weeks without at least a few sex scenes? How can you not show Jake watching the dancing naked lady in Body Double?

So here are some words of warning to any of you feedback readers who haven't read the script yet:

  • Arousal is a horror film—it is meant to get under your skin and yank your strings. If you don't have some kind of reaction to it, I haven't done my job.

  • Arousal was written to be easily marketable (and easily filmable).

  • Arousal has a lot of sex and a lot of violence.

  • Arousal is about a hemorrhagic fever—a virus that makes you bleed from every orifice—so you will see a lot of blood.

  • Arousal uses sex to explore different aspects of sexual arousal, but also to contrast sexual arousal with the clinical definition of arousal, which most people know as "fight or flight".

  • When you combine sex and violence, you get rape. So of course, rape is going to be a recurring element.

  • I love and respect my wife, my two cats, and everyone else, especially women—Arousal's gritty subject matter doesn't mean I'm a twisted homicidal snuff filmmaker. One need only read my yawner headstrong romantic drama 62 Blocks to Battery Park to know I originally didn't want to write horror films to make money. (I hasten to remind everyone that James Cameron's second try as director was Piranha 2. Not even Piranha 1, but Piranha 2!)

  • Not everything written in the script will get to the screen—there are some horrifying scenes I threw in at the last moment that I'm unsure about because they are too extreme, and frankly, may be gratuitous. This is why I have feedback readers.

Consider yourself warned!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Sacramento Cop Shoots "Lunatic Messiah"

Just grabbed this off the teletype. Check out that last para!


Bad Highway Productions
1412 21st Street, Suite B
Sacramento, CA 95816

Ross Pruden, Publicist

Principal Photography to Start on Feature Film Halloween 2006


October 3rd, 2006

SACRAMENTO, CA -- On Halloween day, Doc Maxwell -- full-time police officer and President of Bad Highway Productions -- will begin shooting Lunatic Messiah, a psychological thriller feature film. Pre-production started this week at Bad Highway's new office space in midtown Sacramento.

Maxwell was still a full-time police officer when he incorporated Bad Highway Productions five years ago, but temporarily went part-time last year to ramp up his film company. "I looked at Sacramento's film community," says Maxwell, "and thought a small production studio making high-quality films without million dollar budgets was a niche market which had not been exploited enough. Because digital video has leveled the playing field for indie filmmakers, I had intended Bad Highway to just produce shorts and features but when I read the script for Lunatic Messiah, I knew immediately I wanted to direct it myself. Lunatic Messiah was a perfect fit for Bad Highway because its story was intriguing but it could still be shot inexpensively without sacrificing any quality."

Producer Meaghan Sinclair is equally enthusiastic about the project: "We have a great team working on this project so I can't wait to see this film get to principal." Still photographer Greg Pond of Greg Pond Photography in San Francisco will lens the feature: "Bad Highway has used Greg in the past," says Maxwell, "and we really like his work, so we're giving him a lot of freedom to make this film look however he wants." Maxwell has already cast actors from Sacramento, including Aysha (Something In The Clearing, Lost & Found, and Deer Season), Matt Lengerich (7eventy5ive, 99 Pieces), and Tyler Cook (Nine is Mine, 7eventy5ive), but is always looking to cast extras for the larger scenes.

Lunatic Messiah follows the life of a man encountering society's apocalyptic collapse and the subsequent deteriorating sanity he faces. Writer Steve Papineau's first feature film Claude's Cafe was an official selection at 2005's New York Film Festival and his last feature film, The Scorpion and The Chainsaw, is currently in post-production. Papineau cites Saw and The Night of The Living Dead as major inspirations for Lunatic Messiah -- "Like those classics, I wanted to set Lunatic Messiah from the standpoint of a main character dealing with an outside gone crazy."

Bad Highway's next project production is Arousal, a horror feature film written and to be directed by a writer living in Sacramento. For more information about Lunatic Messiah, please visit www.lunaticmessiah.com/press or call Ross Pruden: 415/823-0672 or lunatic@rosspruden.com

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Arousal, Draft #2: Ready for scrutiny!

Draft #2 is shiny. Come and get it.

If you didn't get an email about the script in the last hour, email me at ross >at< rosspruden.com to get the script.