Tag Archives: William Goldman

“Star Wars”, the ladies and the $350 million Disney disaster “John Carter”

John Carter loses Walt Disney’s shirt

What’s in a title? Well, in the case of Disney, maybe a $200 million loss on their movie John Carter after they inexplicably dropped the second part of the original title John Carter of Mars.

One theory about why the movie has been such an utter box office disaster is that no-one knew who the character was nor where or why he was fighting aliens. According to some reports, people coming out of screenings did not even know the film had been set on Mars. Oh! – and, in Hollywood’s post mortem, it was felt potential women punters had no idea there is a central romance in the movie. And the little ladies only love a war movie if it has romance, says Hollywood (e.g. Gone With The Wind).

Writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created the John Carter character before he created Tarzan but today, while everyone has heard of Tarzan, culturally no-one knows John Carter. This is a fact which seemed to bypass the Disney publicity team, who sold the movie heavily on the name.

Titles are, of course, not unimportant.

Star Wars was originally going to be called The Adventures of Luke Skykiller (sic). When producer Gary Kurtz and director George Lucas decided to re-title it The Star Wars, 20th Century Fox researched reaction to the title in shopping malls and came back saying: “Women will not go see a movie with the word ‘War’ in the title.”

The studio, according to Kurtz, always disliked the title (until it made mega-millions) but could not come up with a better one.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books on John Carter of Mars influenced many sci-fi movies from Star Wars to Avatar and many books and movies in-between and before, which also ironically means the new Disney movie feels slightly derivative. John Carter may have been the original, but, by now, audiences have  seen most of it before in other films.

Disney’s strange removal of all reference to Mars in the title John Carter may be because the studio took a bloody nose Mars Needs Moms last year. The movie’s budget was a reported $150 million + marketing costs; its worldwide box office gross was $39 million. The old rule-of-thumb (not altogether true today on mega-budget movies which require additional mega marketing budgets) was that, to break even, you had to gross 2.5 times your negative cost. So, roughly speaking, a $50 million movie had to gross $125 million to break even.

Mars has been doing badly of late. Columbia Pictures are currently re-making the 1990 movie Total Recall with Colin Farrell in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role and someone working on the special effects tells me it is not set on Mars. And let us not mention the normally superb Brian De Palma’s 2000 aberration Mission To Mars (budget $100 million; box office gross $110 million) nor Tim Burton’s 1996 Mars Attacks! (budget $80 million + marketing $20 million; box office gross $101 million)

It might be cheaper to go to Mars itself. In a BBC Radio 4 documentary last Tuesday, rocket entrepreneur and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claimed he could send people to Mars for $500,000 per person.

Me? I prefer Edinburgh and I am here this weekend for a two-day event organised by the Guardian newspaper in which both Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and 20th Century Fox’s former vice president Sandy Lieberson explain how the original Star Wars movie was made.

According to Gary Kurtz, one of the inspirations for Star Wars was – yes – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books about John Carter of Mars.

Getting down to figures, the Disney movie of John Carter, based on Burroughs’ first (1912) John Carter book A Princess of Mars, cost $250 million to make and $100 million to market… and last week Disney announced they reckoned they would make a $200 loss on it.

“None of it worked on any level,” Sandy Lieberson said yesterday afternoon in Edinburgh. “Not on the marketing, the production, the casting, the chemistry. So it’s a perfect example of talented people, lots of money, the sky’s the limit and you come up with a dud.”

Before the original Star Wars was made, Gary Kurtz had tried to buy rights to the John Carter of Mars books as well as rights to Flash Gordon and to Akira Kurosawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress, but negotiations failed. So George Lucas made up his own story which, originally, was about a courier taking mysterious substances from one place to another.

Until a late stage in the scripting, robots C3PO and R2D2 were bickering bureaucrats, as in The Hidden Fortress.

George Lucas and Gary Kurtz had wanted to cast Hidden Fortress star Toshiro Mifune in the Star Wars role of Han Solo (eventually played by Harrison Ford), but Mifune’s English was not good enough. For the briefest of moments, according to Kurtz, Lucas suggested: “Why don’t we make it in Japanese with sub-titles?”

According to Kurtz, Lucas would snip tiny little bits of his own hair off when he had trouble writing. If Kurtz’s secretary arrived in the morning to type-up what Lucas had written (in long-hand on yellow paper) and found lots of little bits of hair lying around, she would say, “Boy! That must have been a bad night!”

Gary Kurtz agrees with the oft-quoted (by me) famous movie-making maxim of William Goldman in Adventures in The Screen Trade that “Nobody knows anything”.

“You never know in advance,” Gary Kurtz said yesterday afternoon. “This is one of the troubles. I don’t envy studio executives at all. I never wanted to be one I was offered a couple of times to be a part of the production team at a studio, but I couldn’t see it, because it is very difficult to predict about projects.”

The example he gave was director Robert Wise and Julie Andrews. “They put together The Sound of Music,” said Kurtz. “It was a famous musical on the stage but it worked brilliantly as a film. The very next project they wanted to do together was another musical that was really well-received on the stage – Star!

“And it didn’t work at all. Yes, the music was different. But on the stage it had worked. Why didn’t it work as a film? It’s one of those things that’s impossible to analyse. It’s almost like a chemistry experiment. You put in all the ingredients, you mix it all up and you stand up and put the burner under it and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into the most beautiful liquid possible. Other times, it just blows up in your face and you don’t know why.”

To hell with philosophising about movie-making, though. Were there any ‘romances’ among the crew and cast during the making of Star Wars?

“No,” according to Gary Kurtz. “Everyone was too tired. On the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, yes. But on the first film, no.”

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The effect of the London Olympics and a cup of tea on the Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Roadshow at London’s Shaw Theatre yesterday

The famous repeated mantra in William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade is that, however experienced, nobody knows for certain what will work or what will happen… Nobody KNOWS anything.

Ever since I blogged that I only very rarely remember anything I dream, I have been occasionally remembering a tiny snippet of a dream here-and-there. This is partly because I have bits-and-bobs of a cold hanging round my nose and throat and brain and I keep waking up during the night coughing.

Last night, in my dreams, I was at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and bought a cup of tea, but the assistant behind the tea bar topped it up with orange juice instead of milk.

“Oh! Sorry, sorry,” she said. “I’ll replace it. I’ll do it again.”

“No, don’t bother,” I replied. “It might work. It might taste interesting.”

Nobody KNOWS anything.

You can never tell what may work at the Edinburgh Fringe – or what may happen.

I dreamed about the Edinburgh Fringe last night because, yesterday afternoon, I went to an Edinburgh Fringe Roadshow in London.

This year, the London Olympics overlap the first nine days of the Fringe in theory – or the first twelve days in practice, given that many shows start on the Wednesday preceding the official start of the Fringe.

I asked Kath Mainland, Chief Executive of the Fringe, if this was a good or bad thing for attracting audiences to Edinburgh in August.

“Well,” she said, “we’ve been talking a lot about whether that will impact or not. We’ve been doing a lot of additional marketing and moving a lot of marketing earlier. We’ll be doing a lot more in London to counter that. Whether it will have an effect or not, who knows?”

You can never tell what may happen at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Nobody KNOWS anything.

Even Doug Segal – who performs an excellent mind-reading act – does not know what may happen in Edinburgh.

Last year was his first appearance at Fringe and he got full houses. His show was in a relatively small venue at the Free Festival, where performers are charged nothing by the venues and the audience is charged no admission but can pay what they think it was worth at the end. It is like indoor busking. And with the same uncertainty.

Doug said he made about £150 each night for his hour-long show and, over the course of the Fringe, broke even. This is a rare thing at the Fringe; most people lose money because of the cost of accommodation, travel and staging/publicising their shows.

You can never tell what may happen at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Not even a top-notch mind-reader.

Nobody KNOWS anything.

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How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?

Yesterday, a 15 year-old girl asked me:

“How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?”

I told her: “The only way to become a writer is to write. It sounds silly, but it’s like juggling. The more you do it, the better you get.”

On the other hand, I can’t juggle, so what do I know about it?

Always beware of people who use similes about things they don’t know even the first thing about.

And who end sentences with prepositions.

I also told the 15 year old girl she had asked the wrong question.

“You don’t want to know what subjects to write about,” I told her. “You want to know who will buy and/or read the stuff you write. You don’t want to look at anything from the perspective of you writing something; you want to look from the perspective of someone reading what you write.”

That’s the only decent piece of advice I have about writing.

Never think of yourself as a writer.

The worst thing anyone can ever do is think of themself as ‘a writer’. If you do that, your mindset will be wrong. You will think, “How would a ‘real’ writer say this?” and you will copy the way you think a ‘real’ writer should write and it will be crap because you will descend into cliché.

Plenty of people write in the same way, but who wants to write like the lowest common denominator Fleet Street hack?

A famous actress with a great life story once talked to me about writing her autobiography. The most important thing, she said, was that she wanted to write it herself and for the book to be her own thoughts in her own voice. Eventually, the publisher persuaded her to have an experienced Fleet Street journalist ‘help’ her with the autobiography.

I picked up the published book in Tesco one day and looked at the first page. It read like any book serialisation in any tabloid Sunday newspaper. It was written in cliché Fleet Street sentences. It probably sold well because she was a famous actress, but not because it was well-written and not because she herself had written it.

In 2003, Random House commissioned unknown Scots comedienne Janey Godley to write her autobiography. She had gone into a meeting with an editor at their imprint Ebury Press with little hope of getting a book commissioned – nobody had ever heard of her – but, when the editor heard just a little of her life story, Random House virtually ripped her arms off to sign her up.

I was asked to actually edit the book which was published as Handstands in the Dark (a terrible title – it should have been called Good Godley! – but Ebury insisted). I had a meeting with Ebury after the contract was signed at which it was discussed what editing this book might involve, because Janey had never written anything for publication before.

It might involve doing nothing. It might involve tweaking. It might involve a lot of literary shepherding. It might involve writing the whole thing from scratch if it turned out Janey could not do it herself. They wanted to publish her story; she was staggeringly charismatic to talk to; but no-one knew if she could write for print.

As it turned out, she was a brilliant writer, though I had to give her advice in the first few weeks of the process. Of course, it might have been wrong advice – what do I know? – but I don’t think it was.

She used to send me stuff she had written almost every night. Because she was writing an autobiography, at first she delivered lots of facts.

This happened, that happened, then this happened, then…

This can wear the reader down and also it does not actually let the reader share the experience of what happened, which is the whole point of writing the thing. You can get bogged down in facts with no humanity. Writing is not about facts; it’s about emotions and thoughts. The facts, however interesting, are only the skeleton for the meat. People are interested in people, not facts.

I told Janey to find key incidents which epitomised the period or the emotions of what was happening to her at the time and then to describe those key incidents and emotions as vividly as she could.

“Write more about less,” I told her.

One way to make the incidents more vivid was to try to find any of her five senses that were key to the moment. A ‘key’ moment is literally that. It opens up a doorway to something. If she remembered an incident, what was the first thing she remembered inside herself? Which of her five senses was most vivid? Use that key sense of the moment and it opens up a whole emotional experience which readers can share.

When Marcel Proust wrote his autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past (which, of course, I have never read) he ended up writing seven volumes after drinking one spoonful of tea in which he had soaked a piece of madeleine cake. The taste triggered involuntary memories of his entire childhood – all the tiny details came flooding back to him.

He wrote: “The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old grey house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.” Just seeing the madeleine had not brought back these memories. He needed to taste and smell it.

Describing what is seen or heard is obvious. Perhaps smell and taste come next. But touch is important too. If you describe the rough or smooth texture of something, the object becomes more alive.

You can write that you sat on a sofa. Or you can write that, as you sat on the cream sofa with its three dark brown coffee stains, your fingers ran over the rough-textured woollen blanket which Fred had half-thrown over its back that drunken night.

Of course, you don’t want too much of this – it could end up as bad as having endless adjectives in front of the noun. Who wants to read too many sentences about a noisy, black, frightened, one-eyed Shetland pony?

I told Janey that, if she remembered one key sensory detail of any incident, include it. So, in one sentence, she wrote:

“Three plain clothes detectives were standing around, their cold breath drifting up and turning white and blue in the flashing lights of the ambulance.”

I think that description is all-the-more vivid because Janey chooses to write “white and blue” instead of “blue and white”, but that would take a whole extra thousand words to discuss!

In another sentence, she writes:

“I ran up the stairway with one policeman behind me, my bloodied shoes sticking to the wooden stairs as I went.”

It is, of course, the fact that the bloodied soles of her shoes stick slightly on the wooden stairs which makes it so vivid.

Handstands in the Dark is not a book you forget easily. The rather stunned publisher at Ebury Press said details stayed with him vividly for days after reading it. And Janey wrote every word in it. I very carefully did not suggest words or phrases. Which can be a problem with publishers.

My experience is that people who can write do so. People who want to write but can’t write become publishers and then try to write through other people, often messing up writers’ text and downgrading it to cliché mulch. This, it should be said, did not happen with Janey’s book which Ebury were not allowed to see until the manuscript was completed and which went on to be both a Top Ten hardback and Top Ten paperback bestseller.

An extension of the truism that “those who can write do and those who can’t write become publishers” is that those who can’t write start courses teaching people how to write. That is not always true, but it often is,

The only way to learn how to write, as I told the 15 year old girl yesterday, is to write and write and write.

But don’t sit down with a black sheet of paper or computer screen and think you are creating the words that come out of you. Instead, turn it round 180 degrees and, as you write, think you are seeing the words appear for the first time and you are the reader not the writer. Put yourself in the position of someone who does not know what is coming next.

The first sentence should intrigue the reader into wanting to know what the next sentence is going to be. You want to hook the reader. So, imagining yourself as the reader, you know what has to be written to explain more about what is being said – what is needed to understand more about the argument or about the plot. But you don’t want to give the readers 100% of the information. You want to ‘hook’ or intrigue them into constantly wanting to know more.

Keep ‘em wanting more.

My template was George Orwell, who I think was a great communicator though a shit novelist. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful book. But the human beings in it – particularly the heroine – are badly drawn. He was a journalist and writer of ideas – his non-fiction like Homage to Catalonia is masterful. Animal Farm, which is really a non-fiction book masquerading as a fictional story, is amazing. But he was not a good novelist.

Me?

I think layout is almost as important as what you write. Make sure it looks easy-to-read on the page. Vary the lengths and look of the paragraphs. Mix prose and quotes. Don’t have big impenetrable-looking chunks of text. Make it look easy to read and it will be easier to read.

My own big problem is I need deadlines to write anything. So I will just go off out to Tesco now.

Do what I say, not what I do.

Always easier to say to a 15 year-old.

And remember William Goldman’s oft-quoted but oft-misunderstood recurring warning in his brilliantly incisive Adventures in the Screen Trade the best book I know about the creative process and full of great Hollywood anecdotes:

Nobody knows anything.

Maybe it is a pity it has taken me 1,766 words to mention that.

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All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.

(This blog appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Yesterday I had lunch with a comedian in her twenties – not inexperienced but not yet fully supporting herself on her comedy performing. She is having an early career crisis. She’s no fool. Very sensible of her.

She thinks maybe she may be wrong giving up pretty-much everything in her private life to pursue her might-never-happen career.

She has little social life outside the one-night-stand Open Spot comedy circuit and (as she is from North West England) she is away from all the people she really knows and loves; she is alone on Planet Transient; she no longer has a boyfriend and she is struggling to make ends meet, working in a day job that bores and frustrates her. She does well, is playing lots of gigs but gets to bed late after her comedy work and has to get up very early to commute to her busy day job which allows no time to think about or arrange anything in her more-important-to-her comedy world.

This is the reality of one of the most glamorous jobs in Britain: being a comedian in your twenties.

“Perhaps I’m just wasting my time,” she said to me over lunch. (Obviously I was paying). “What if I never succeed and don’t get anywhere within sight of success? I’ll have wasted years of my life for no reason. I don’t even like London. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be. Maybe I should just go back up North, get a job where I can have a life, find someone to marry and settle down and have children and I know I’d be happy watching them grow up.”

I told her, if she did that, life would be less stressful but she would never know if she might have succeeded.

“If you try and fail, at least you will know what the outcome is.” I told her. “If you go home and have a happy life in tranquility with a husband and children – and that’s assuming you can find a good relationship – it will always be gnawing away inside you What would have happened if… You WANT to do comedy. It’s a vocation, an urge inside you…

“More than being a nurse or anything else. If you don’t play it out as far as you can, you will never know for certain what might have happened. On your deathbed, in sixty years, you will still be looking back on your life thinking What might have happened if… If you do not try, you have the certainty of not succeeding. If you do try, you risk failure – but you could succeed. It’s a toss-up between the certainty of failure and the possibility of success.”

If there is a safe option with an almost certain outcome and a riskier option, my advice is always to take the riskier option. Not knowing if you might have succeeded is infinitely worse than having failed. Taking the risk will at least bring closure.

Mind you, this may not be good advice because it is what I have done throughout my life. Once, in a rare job interview (I have usually not gone through application processes), the prospective employer sitting across the desk from me said:

“John, you seem to have an unfocussed CV.”

He took this as a negative factor; I have always taken it as a positive factor.

There is a Charles Dickens book (I can’t remember which – possibly David Copperfield) in which the central character, as a young man, stands outside a building and the narrative goes:

“I looked at the premises which, for the next 50 years, would be my work place.”

Times have changed, of course. But the ‘safe option’ can drive a truly creative person potty with frustration. You’ll end up walking through Tesco shooting random people with an AK-47. Figuratively if not in reality – and don’t be too sure it won’t be in reality. Uncertainty and adrenaline are attractive, provided you can eat and (in rainy Britain) have a roof over your head.

“But when will I know for certain if I have failed and when to give up?” my twenty-something chum asked me.

“Ah,” I said, “I haven’t got the foggiest. I am making this up as I go along.”

There are no right decisions.

When nerds in the mists of time first tried to program a computer which could play chess, they found it was impossible because the computer was unable to make the first move. The number of potential ramifications of the first move were and are virtually limitless. The computer would have sat there calculating potential first moves for longer than Ken Dodd’s career.

You can’t tell the outcome of any move early-on in chess. Nor in showbusiness. Nor in life. The butterfly theory comes into play.

No choice is simply between Path A and Path B because each of those paths then has literally hundreds of potential avenues which may lead off them. And every one of those hundreds of avenues each has itself hundreds of other sidetracks leading off them which may lead to a dead end or to a sparkling idyllic end result. It’s not a single path you choose; it’s a spider’s web spanning the rest of your life.

The way they eventually programmed computers to play chess was to limit the number of moves ahead which the computer took into consideration. In effect, the computer makes the best bet it can on the limited evidence available.

Choosing a ‘safe’ option may lead unexpectedly to awful consequences. Choosing a ‘risky’ option may lead unexpectedly to unforeseen opportunities which then lead on to a sparkling idyllic outcome which you had never thought of aiming for.

Comedy and successful creative careers generally have a terrifyingly high percentage of luck about them; they are about being in the right place at the right time. You can’t know where/when that place/time might be. So keeping as many options as possible open is the wisest move. Being in as many places at as many times as possible is the best option.

“Put yourself about a lot, love” is the best – indeed, only sensible – advice.

A risky proposition with an uncertain outcome may turn out to be a good idea further down the spider’s web of life.

So, if you are a girl in her twenties and I make a dodgy-sounding proposition to you, look on me kindly.

If you are an aspiring comedian, take my experienced opinion into consideration. You are almost certainly not as funny as you and your friends think you are. You will probably screw up your personal life and your mind by attempting to do comedy. And you will make no money out of it.

But I could be wrong.

To quote the often-misunderstood mantra of the great Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman in his essential-to-read book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING

He does not mean that people are equally ignorant. He means that no-one, however experienced, can know for certain the outcome of a creative work – or, for that matter, a creative career. Because movies, writing – and, yes, comedy – are creative arts, not a science.

The other factor I think you have to take into consideration is that, if you want to be a successful comedian, your mind is probably screwed-up anyway. One of the dullest of all mainstream quotes is:

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE MAD TO WORK HERE, BUT IT HELPS

To be a stand-up comedian, madness does not help.

It is essential.

All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.

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