Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Tell Me This Isn't a Charles Willeford Story....(or a Scott Phillips)

Here's my favorite news story of the year: the essence of dark noir....

A 13-year old Virginia Beach boy is being held at the Virginia Beach Detention Center after police say he abducted an exotic dancer last Tuesday night.

According to officials, the dancer showed up at a pre-arranged appointment at a residence - subsequently discovered to be vacant - in the 700 block of South Rosemont Road around 6:30pm.

The woman noticed the client was a juvenile, but was told that the contract was for his older brother. Police say the woman waited for a while, but no one else showed up.

Authorities say when the woman eventually tried to leave the residence, she was stopped by the juvenile who pointed a shotgun at her and ordered her to dance.

The dancer diverted the boy's attention and tried to dial 911 on her cell phone. According to police, the juvenile then grabbed the phone. During the struggle, the woman bit the boy's hand and was able to break free and run to her car.

Police say their investigation identified the suspect, and also led them to believe that another juvenile was involved in the plan to abduct the dancer. Investigators are working on identifying the second suspect.

The initial 13-year old suspect was arrested Thursday. He is charged with abduction by force, conspiracy, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, brandishing a firearm, and transporting and possessing an assault firearm at age 13.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Tony Scott Goes Small Time on amazon.com

Amazon continues its push into popular culture with a series of five commissioned short films from major directors for the holiday season. Tony Scott has directed the first (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/browse/-/13609401/ref=amb_center-11_149987_4/102-9967273-8127359) in his trademark quick-cut, jacked-pacing, mosaic-action style. In some ways, the ironic subject matter provides a clearer window into his tremendous talent than even his feature work because we already EXPECT his features to be riveting. With Agent Orange, you feel the stakes are Enemy-of-the-State high, when in fact, they're as low as a dropped goldfish (this is a reference, not a poor simile...actually, it's both). But Scott commands your attention and modulates your emotions nonetheless. It's a small piece of work to which Scott lends his big-time directoral trademarks.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Andrew Lloyd Webber (and me!) on Adaptations

The film version of The Phantom of the Opera screened this evening at the Writer’s Guild, with Joel Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber in conversation afterward (interviewed by JJ Abrams of Armageddon/Alias/Felicity fame). What I found most interesting was Webber’s reasoning for why he chose the material in the first place. He said he found the original book “confused” and that in choosing material that is imperfect, he finds more inspiration in terms of what he wants to bring to a story. This seems to make perfect sense to me—and in fact, it’s why I’m always puzzled when brilliant movies (Psycho, Stepford Wives) are remade. It’s often been said that only bad movies should be remade. As for material for adaptation, I know that when I have my screenwriter glasses on, I’d prefer a book with a good, yet underdeveloped premise to a book that’s perfect that I need merely to transcribe into a new format. I just don’t know what I’d add to the equation adapting, say, Elmore Leonard. I’d feel like a typist. That is, unless I was able to bring an entirely new sensibility to brilliant subject matter, as Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo & Juliet. Adapting my own work seems different—with The Kill Clause, it felt great being in control (however briefly) of the decision-making process as to which scenes to keep and which to cut, and as to deciding how to steer the story along. I felt as if I had the pick of the litter for every scene—I could select my favorite few moments or lines and build the script scene around those.

Schumacher pointed out that he drew a distinction in the film (which is more sexual than the stage version—lots of heaving bosoms and white stockings) between Christine’s innocent first love with Raoul and her more sexual attraction to the Phantom. I’ve always found the Phantom most compelling when interpreted as a personification of Christine’s enmeshment with her deceased father—an enmeshment she must shed in order to enter into an adult love affair. Either way, I agree with Lord Webber’s assessment that the original story is a confused one. “It couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be,” he said. “Part horror, part mystery, and part drama.” When he found the romance at the core, he said, he found his way to the heart of the story he wanted to write. I guess at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all trying to do when we sit down and stare at the blank page.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

SCBA and High Speed Pursuits

Terrill Lee Lankford, my favorite irritable writer pal (my nickname for him, due to the twisted brand of advice he offers, is Uncle Evil), wrote the account below of our nearly doomed outing to the Southern California Booksellers Association award banquet. He was nominated for his latest, EARTHQUAKE WEATHER - a great, highly irreverent take on Hollywood.

As for our clown-car scene, when six of us were crammed in my tiny car, Kim-From-LA's legs-from-LA sticking out the window and Jeff Parker shaking his head with amusement, well, Terrill was good enough to hop out and take some photos. So if you're good and write him, maybe he'll post them on his site.
by Terrill Lee Lankford

In the most stunning upset since last Tuesday, Edward Wright ran off with the Southern California Booksellers Association prize for Best Mystery of 2004 for his novel WHILE I DISAPPEAR at the gala awards event thrown down in Long Beach Saturday Night. Paula Woods, Denise Hamilton, Jacqueline Winspear and I had to console ourselves with good company and lots of drinks. I had my speech all prepared - and I got to use it. It went like this: "It was an honor just to be nominated." I've been practicing that speech since I found out my book had been selected as a nominee back in August. It was rolling off the tongue very easily after three months of practice.

You may be wondering how the SCBA knows what the Best Mystery of 2004 is when we're still in November, so I'll tell you a bit about how it works. The nominations come in from all the members of the SCBA - independent booksellers in Southern California - and the time frame is actually for books released between July 1 of 2003 and June 30, 2004. So all the books released after July 1, 2004 will qualify for best of 2005. I'm not sure why they do this other than the fact that they've traditionally held their big dinners in November (maybe they are beating all the other award ceremonies to the punch as well). Once the votes are in, they whittle the pack down to five books in each category and a committee of three jurors renders the final decision as to the winner.

The SCBA also votes on the best non-mystery novel of the year (they call it "fiction"), best non-fiction book of the year, and best children's book of the year. Among others joining the four of us in the loser's circle this year were Steve Martin and Julie Andrews. That's more good company.

The party this year was held at the Long Beach Aquarium, which was very cool. We were like television for the fish. More than three hundred people were in attendance - booksellers, authors, publishers, vendors. A three-course meal was provided and during each course the fifty or so authors in attendance rotated tables and got to know some of the people who keep us employed. After the shindig, everyone got a big bag of books to take home with them. Public humiliation was never so much fun.

But seriously, congratulations to Edward Wright, he's a great guy and a terrific writer. The prize was well earned. And many thanks to the members of the SCBA. It truly WAS an honor to be nominated.


My girlfriend Heidi and our friend Sandra accompanied me to the ceremony. Gregg Hurwitz (whose most recent bestseller is THE PROGRAM) called and wanted to ride down with us. We met him at his place and decided to take his car because it was larger than ours (I think he's got envy issues). After the ceremony our friend Kim Dower - the publicist more widely known as Kim-From-L.A. - needed a ride back to town because her rented car wasn't due to arrive for more than an hour (Kim doesn't drive on the freeways - but that's another strange story for another day). T. Jefferson Parker also needed a ride to his hotel. So we packed six people and six giant bags of books into the car and hit the road. We passed a cop on the way and instead of ticketing us he just shook his head in awe of the fact that some people never grow up. We looked like a bunch of wrinkled teenagers going to the drive-in in 1959.

After we dropped Jeff off there was slightly more room in the vehicle, but things were still tight for the hour long ride to L.A. Kim lives in the heart of the city so we had to perform a major detour to drop her off. And this is where things get weird. We're cutting up Fairfax at about midnight and all of a sudden we hear sirens behind us. Helicopters are also arriving on the scene, spotlights shining down on us. Hurwitz pulls his car halfway out of the fast lane (I later asked him if this was what he considered the "author's lane") and all of a sudden a vehicle on three wheels and a sparking rim flamed past us going about sixty, barely under control. It missed the side of our car by less than five inches. Fifteen police cars then ripped past us in hot pursuit. The guy tried to make a left turn about three blocks up and he crashed out at the corner. By the time we got there cops were everywhere, guns drawn and ready to rumble. More police cars were coming in from every direction.

Due to the late hour, the event was not on the news when we got home and I'm still not sure of the details - who the driver was, why he was running, how he got the flat tire (spike strip or bad maintenance?), and what happened to him after we cruised by, staring at his car like angry raccoons. All I know is, if that car had slammed into us it would have taken the police a long time to realize that the guy had not blown up a library.

See you next week!



Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Trouble With Biopics...and Taylor Hackford's Ray

Biopics are difficult, because a life doesn't adhere to the structure of narrative, no matter how hard the writer tries to mash it into one. Likewise for pacing - lives are inconvenient in their complexities. They’re often cyclical and they’ll stubbornly stick in a rut or cram all the good events into a condensed period of time (think of your own, for Christ’s sake). Then there’s those damned classic unities. How many jumps of decades can be managed gracefully within an hour and a half (or, as is the case more frequently, two-and-a-half)? But most difficult, I believe, is the fact that if a person is famous enough to have a film made of their life, well, we all know the tune, more or less, as well as the final notes. Malcolm X got shot, Tina Turner left Ike and pulled her life together, Ali beat Frasier and Ray Charles kicked drugs. All of them, coming from humble beginnings, made it big. As a crime fiction fanatic who thrills at unexpected turns, I find that advance notice of the road map detracts from my driving enjoyment.

But counterbalancing my hesitation for the genre were the big hopes I harbored for Ray. I’m an enormous Jamie Foxx fan, having seen him live hosting the ESPYs, and I’ve been continuously impressed and surprised by the range of his talent. He’s an inspired stand-up, actor, singer, dancer, and mimic. Let’s face it; the guy can do anything. Further, you can’t beat Ray Charles. Just the music in the trailers put me in a good mood and made me tap my feet.

I’m pleased to report I found the film delightful. I must say, for most of the movie Taylor Hackford is in his directorial groove. He incorporates music creatively and intelligently, and a few of the musical montages are truly breathtaking. Jamie Foxx does not disappoint—it’s a major league performance (he will be nominated). So dead-on is he in his capturing of Ray Charles that when Hackford cuts to footage of the real Ray in the credit-rolling afterglow of the film, I found the true images almost discordant. That said, the film still labors with some of the problems of the biopic form (flashbacks, struggling to synthesize and condense early childhood memories with myriad vigorous plot lines, trying to sustain and make compelling a wife who put up with philandering and decades of spousal heroin abuse). For the most part, Hackford and White did a splendid job with the script, but I felt for them as they struggled to put together a suitable ending. Lives generally don’t end conveniently. And even less often is a death (or, worse, a title-card-reported death) the punctuation mark with which to close a narrative.