Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Remember you are going to die...

Saw this clip today about Steve Jobs:

A scare with cancer (diagnosed with but undergoing successful surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004), along with a lifelong belief to live every day as if it were his last, has influenced all of Steve Jobs' major decisions. "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Jon Stewart on Crossfire

(NOT TO BE MISSED: If you've never seen the clip of Jon Stewart on Crossfire, the video link is in this post, just scroll down.)

When I was a kid in the 70s, my dad used to watch news debating shows every Sunday afternoon. "Watch" might be a bit of a stretch... they'd play in the background while he tinkered around the house. I'd often wander into the kitchen to find his solitary cigarette burning into its way into the kitchen sink while talking heads would hover on our trusty 11 inch Sony Triniton.

Even if I didn't watch them much because I couldn't yet grasp the context of their debate, those old news shows seemed pretty good (similar in tone to The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour or any NPR news show). As I grew older, I learned to appreciate who was talking, and why, the pros and cons of their debate, who sounded sensible, who didn't, etc.

Then, in the early 90s, shows like CNN's polemical Crossfire and Hardball emerged, and I began to loathe the trend towards sensationalist bulldog news shows. Producers of The Howard Stern Show had taught one valuable lesson to all news program producers: listeners and viewers who hate a show are twice as likely to listen to it or watch it. Hatred, after all, is not the opposite of love... apathy is. To hate something implies you care enough about it to continue having a relationship with it. Case in point: I'm not a fan of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly or Chris Matthews, but I sometimes watch or listen to them to see how big of a nobhead they're going to be. (NB: I am also very careful not to buy anything advertised on their programs.)

And so, a few months ago, I watched a 2004 video clip of Jon Stewart as a guest on Crossfire and instead of playing their sensationalist game, Stewart turned the tables on the bulldogs and got brutally honest with them. The Executive Producer of The Daily Show happened to be sitting in the audience (next to Crossfire's producer... can you say, "awkward"?) and remarked: "You could feel the air being sucked out of the room."

This is positively one of the best pieces of TV I've seen all year—not because it's conflictual or sensationalist, but because Stewart articulates exactly what I've wanted to say to these guys for years. Just thinking about it gives me sweaty palms.

Not long after this broadcast, I heard CNN "transferred" the bowtie guy to another program.

And eventually, Crossfire was cancelled.

If we're to move ahead in this country, we're better off if we put a stop on the silly partisan polarization this country seems to have become obsessed with since the mid-90s. Perhaps the adversarial model works well for legal trials, but in a political forum, dismissing what people say or do because of their political leanings accomplishes one thing very effectively: it puts people on the defensive—and if they're on the defensive, how can they be open to anything you have to say? Play the ball, not the man.

When we can all sit in a room and remain civil with someone who holds beliefs completely contrary to our own, we'll have finally moved beyond these sensationalist news programs and angry AM talk radio shows which foster self-righteousness, divisiveness, prejudice, and... well, hate. It's not sexy, and it doesn't sell news, but it will make our blood pressure come back down.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Today's Sidesplitter

This commercial, directed by Spike Jonze, is the kind of filmmaking I love:

Five Cribs

The other day, my wife and I were searching for a baby crib. We knew what kind we wanted and asked one of the lady clerks to look for it in their store database. My wife wandered off so it was just me and this lady.

"Oh," she said, "I see we have five of these cribs in the back of our store."


"Great," I said. "We'll take all five." Complete deadpan.

"Really???" Her shocked face was priceless. I waited a fraction of a second...

"No, I'm just kidding. We just need one."

"Phew! I was going to say, that's a little weird—"

"Actually, I wasn't kidding: we do want all five."


...I held the deadpan for a couple of seconds. Inside, I was howling with laughter.

"No, seriously, I'm just kidding. We only need the one."

"Ha ha, you got me. That was funny."

"Actually, no I really am serious, we want all five cribs."

She didn't fall for it a third time. But hey, it was worth a shot, right?

We laughed about that until my wife and I left the store. Fortunately, the lady had a good sense of humor about it (not everyone does). A simple practical joke like that can really lift spirits... and it costs nothing at all.

As my wife and I were buying the crib mattress at the checkout, that same lady came up to our cashier and told her, "Make sure they get five mattresses."

She must have thought she had the last laugh, but I happened to be back there yesterday and asked one of her colleagues to tell her that "some guy came in here asking for five cribs. Weird, huh?" I was sure she'd know it was me. She must have smiled all day because of that, because I know I did.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Breaking The Story

When journalists are the first to publish news, it's called "breaking a story", but the meaning is different for film and TV writers: to "break the story" is to find the beginning and end of a story and all its "chapters" (i.e., in TV, the parts that lead up to the credits and all the longer bits between commercials).

I've often thought the story of Jackie Robinson would make for an amazing film, and it even looks like one is already on the way. If you don't know who Jackie Robinson is, watch this 10 minute clip to see how he left an indelible impression on America:

The question here is, with so many interesting parts of his life to tell, where does the story begin? How much of his life do you tell? Which parts are more significant than others? If you tell everything in his life, it's probably not going to be emotionally powerful. Where does the story start? And where does it end? These are the demons storytellers wrestle with all day... and often all night, too.

In 1990, a 2 hour 40 minute movie-of-the-week retold the events behind NASA's shuttle disaster in Challenger. They chose to tell the story from Christa McAuliffe's viewpoint, because she was the first teacher to be going into space. That's a good idea, but to me, this movie was an enormous letdown because they spent 160 minutes building up to the shuttle takeoff and ended it right before the explosion. In my opinion, they broke the story off prematurely: I know how the story publicly ended, but I wanted to see how NASA dealt with the disaster, how McAuliffe's family reacted, how the public received the news. It was like 3 hours of foreplay and no climax. Dude—killing me a little bit inside. I need the payoff.

When I think about Jackie Robinson's life, I start thinking about what might be the most emotional moments, the ones with the most tension. That's the climax to lead up to, the crucible we're willing pay $9 to experience. There are many variations to choose from, but which serves the story the best—his entrance into the major league? His momentous walking onto the baseball field on April 15, 1947? His funeral procession? His funeral? Do you start with the funeral, and do the whole film in flashback? Do you start with him in the dugout on April 15 and do flashbacks until that scene... and then tell the rest of the story from there? Do you start with him as a little boy? The story can be told 100 different ways and each of them isn't wrong—but some of them will have more emotional impact than others.

In TV, this process is run through heavy scrutiny because TV viewers haven't paid money for a move ticket, so they won't stay tuned unless the story is intriguing enough to run that evening's gauntlet of commercials. The opening "teaser" has to hook the viewer without mercy, and subsequent acts must end with worthwhile cliffhangers. Sometimes, as in the first season of Alias, every episode's story is broken off early to be continued in the next episode, which is what made it so imperative not to miss any episodes. Most series, though, conclude the episode with some fitting resolution, especially as their viewers become more loyal.

If Jackie Robinson's story does get told next year, we'll see how they do it. If it were up to me, I'd probably tell parallel stories. Start with his funeral procession to get an idea of just how important Robinson was, then flashback to Robinson in the dugout waiting to go out, then flashback again to Robinson as a boy to appreciate why his going out on the field was so important. All the while, inserting clips of the funeral procession and ending with the moving funeral speech, and synching that speech to Robinson's climactic walking onto the baseball field. The game itself seems emotionally redundant—his walking onto the field was the most electrifying event we herald now. You could end with Robinson sliding into home, but that might be a little cliché... and that kind of realization is the nuts and bolts behind breaking the story.

Breaking the story is as much fun as it is excruciating. Like Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry once said, "It's like having sex with someone you really don't like and after you come, you think to yourself, hey, that wasn't so bad after all."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Remember "Cog"?

About a year ago, I talked about Honda's famous viral commercial, Cog. When I showed Cog to my filmmaking friend Max, and told him that its complicated Rube-Goldberg-like chain reaction had not been done with CGI but had been shot as live action in 606 takes with a price tag of $6 million, his reaction was firm and unshakable: "I don't believe it. No way. Uh-uh." Not that I can blame him—that was exactly how Honda execs reacted, too!

And today, I'm glad to say I can show Max that Cog was a live action shoot. I found a four minute documentary showing how Cog was made, and it still blows my mind. As I've said before, Cog isn't simply a great commercial—it's great filmmaking, and on every level. Its initial concept, the ingenuity of the chain reaction's design, the perfect execution of its filming, and the sound... my god, the sound... just listen to the hum of that rotating metal piece! Amazing. Really, when people go to this much effort to film something, they deserve to have their work shown as far and as wide as possible.

Here's the four minute documentary on the making of Cog:

And, again, here's Cog:

Friday, March 02, 2007

If you scoff at global warming...

When Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth won Best Documentary at The 79th Academy Awards this year, I could have told you what my Christian Republican friends were already thinking: "Hollywood is so liberal."

It's too bad such an important message can be so easily dismissed because of partisan politics. In fact, it's damned near tragic, in the ancient Greek meaning of the word.

So for anyone who thinks global warming is still fiction, consider this news clipping from January 31, 2007:

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is due to release a report in Paris on Friday entitled Climate Change 2007 in which 2,500 scientists from 130 countries unequivocally state that the current trend towards potentially catastrophic global warming has been induced by human activity, which began with the dramatic increase in fossil fuel use during the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century....

The report is not without its critics in the scientific community. One senior British climate expert quoted in The Observer warned that the report’s predictions are relatively rosy, given its painstaking consensus process: “The really chilling thing about the IPCC report is that it is the work of several thousand climate experts who have widely differing views about how greenhouse gases will have their effect. Each paragraph of this report was therefore argued over and scrutinized intensely. Only points that were considered indisputable survived this process. This is a very conservative document—that's what makes it so scary.” —Source

I don't want global warming to be true because my lifestyle would have to change and my country, among others, would have been responsible for bringing about this ensuing disaster. But it looks like it is true. I could be wrong, but in the worst-case scenario, I can afford to be wrong.

The problem is that we can't afford to let the opponents against global warming be wrong... there's just too much at stake.

This is no time for polarization and petty squabbling—this issue affects everyone on the planet. The consensus of 2500 scientists across 130 countries says we're responsible for global warming, so our responsibility is to take them seriously, regardless of our political persuasion.

What can you do? Start by having an open mind and informing yourself—watch An Inconvenient Truth.