Jennifer Stewart

Of Hollywood, Heroes and Heroines

In stepping out of history on February 18, 2015 at 4:44 pm

Hollywood 1920s

Hollywood. Who can ever understand what motivates decision makers in their choices of scripts to pump money into? Lots of people think they’ve nailed a formula for success, most notably those who teach scriptwriting and sell their services as script editors. It’s a huge industry. They all claim they know what makes producers choose your script. They gloss over the truth that ‘producers’ come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them think they know the formula for success and they reckon the other guy doesn’t. The other guy – oh, I don’t need to finish this sentence, do I?

The script teachers and editors also rarely agree with each other. It’s confusing if you’re new at the game or don’t have a mind of your own and can’t figure out that self-styled authorities’ true skill lies in milking your insecurity.

They need you to believe your writing is full of imperfections and that you’ll never succeed without their very special advice. I entered a high profile script competition last year and didn’t make the short list but within days of being told so I got an email from a guy who’s a co-partner or something or other in the company, telling me, congratulations! You’ve won a discount on an advice session.

I called him up. He was a nice guy; I enjoyed talking to him. Then he said he could help me with my script and tighten it up so that agents and producers would be more likely to look at it. I said how do you know anybody will like the version your advice has led to? IMO, I continued, getting noticed is less about a perfect script and more about gutzpah; getting out there so people know you exist. Not backing down or giving up when you don’t win a competition or somebody says no thanks.

Or says it more rudely; it’s not unheard of for a big fish in a little pond who doesn’t like your work to tell you you’ll never make it in the industry. Pretty much everybody who’s succeeded in the world in any discipline has been fed that line some time or another. And we all know who’s the one left with the regrets.

My fella seemed to be smiling when he admitted he couldn’t guarantee that his advice would further me in any way.  Ha! The pleasures of having a mind of your own.

All of this is not to say that I don’t care about the quality of my scripts. I do. But that’s just for me. I’m under no illusion that it’ll be the primary factor in my success. So I turned down the generous offer, which amounted to R2500 for an hour. Of advice that might or might not be of any use to me. But my money would have been of a lot of use to that fella.

Some of the teachers etc. really do understand story-telling and can boast of many ‘students’ who have achieved a lot of success. But whether that success came directly and solely from their teaching or not, who can say?

Here’s the reality: Sometimes there’s a massive difference between a good script and one that will attract a producer, or between a brilliant director and one whose work will garner Academy Awards. Take Martin Scorsese. He’s widely acknowledged as the most influential filmmaker in the history of Hollywood but he’s only won one Oscar. And Boyhood, nominated for a best screenplay Oscar this year, deserves a column on its own, not all of it gushing praise.

But sometimes a quality script does attract producers – I’m thinking The King’s Speech – and awards and great directors do get Oscars for their work. Robert Zemeckis won in 1994 for Forrest Gump and beat Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). Good decision.

There’s just no predictable formula in Hollywood, because producers come in all shapes and sizes and are as subject to whim as those who determine what or who should win an award.

I reckon the best way to get the most out of everything as a screenwriter is to write as much quality as you can and enjoy yourself when doing it, then fight like the devil to find producers who’ll throw money at you, and find ways to enjoy that fight as well. Because if you write to please producers you’ve never met, based on somebody else’s opinion of what those producers want when they’ve never met them either… It’s gambling on rather long odds. And the worst part of it is how horrible the whole experience is.

Scripts are all about heroes and heroines so if you’re writing about them I figure you might as well be one yourself. Heroes and heroines do their own thing and everything they can to forge a path to success, facing fears, dealing with insecurity and with all the demons and harsh realities that are part of the landscape of not playing it safe. They don’t strive to adapt. They strive to conquer.

The World United Against Latest ISIS Killings

In stepping out of history on February 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

Moaz al-Kasasbeh

In 2014 ISIS started beheading people and posting videos of the executions online. Wiki lists the following:

75 Syrian soldiers; Khaled Sharrouf posted a photo online of his 7 year old son holding the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier; James Foley, an American freelance journalist; Ali al-Sayyed, a Lebanese Army Seargant; Steven Sotloff, an Israeli American journalist; David Haines, a British humanitarian aid worker; Abbas Medlej, a Lebanese Army soldier; Kurdish soldier, as yet unidentified; 15 family members, of local police officers in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan; Hervé Gourdel, a French mountaineering guide; Kobane and eastern Syria beheadings, two male and three female Kurdish fighters, four Syrian Arab rebels and a male Kurdish civilian; Alan Henning, a British humanitarian aid worker; Raad al-Azzawi, a TV Salaheddin cameraman from the village of Samra, and others; 3 unidentified men in Baiji, Iraq; Peter Kassig, an American worker; 18 Syrian soldiers, unidentified; Alleged beheading of 100 foreign fighters, unidentified, who tried to desert from Raqqa; Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Gotō, Japanese journalists; Hujam Surchi, a Peshmerga officer.

These executions have received wide media coverage prompted outrage and condemnation from the international community and from the governments of the victims’ countries. May all of them rest in peace. It’s hard to imagine what their last years, months, days, minutes, were like, or how their families and friends suffered and are still suffering. But the Arab or Muslim world as a whole didn’t unite in condemnation of the killings. Just as the West, let’s not forget, didn’t unite in condemnation of Bush’s invasion of Iraq for spurious reasons. Mind you, nor did the Arab world. And round and round it goes.

On Dec. 21 2014 ISIS militants captured Jordanian fighter pilot First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh (the photo is of a vigil held for him). Shortly afterwards the Jordanian government threatened dire consequences if the militants harmed the pilot. The militants’ response, in February 2015, was to put Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh in a cage and burn him alive.

How do you get your head around that? He was by all accounts a beautiful man. May he rest in peace. May his family and friends somehow, somewhere, find solace.

And, wonderful to behold, the entire Arab world is up in arms. Even the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt agree with each other for once and the head of the Cairo Al Azhar institute, a university founded in 970, said the militants should be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off.” Saudi Arabia’s response was to suspend their airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, allegedly out of fear of retribution, and demand that the American-led coalition against ISIS, of which they are a member, improve its search and rescue operations in Syria.

But I can’t help asking myself, and I don’t mean to demean the importance of Moaz’s death, where has the Arab/Muslim world been up to this point?

The principle of taking somebody’s life because you feel like it and the inhumanity and brutality of a ‘simple’ beheading or of suicide bombings hasn’t elicited a unified response and it seems that the objection to this latest killing is that ISIS militants burned a man alive and Islam prohibits death by fire as too extreme of a measure. Well, being beheaded is an extreme measure to the victim and to his family. Brutality is brutality, whatever form it takes. I’m grateful that the Muslim world is speaking out but what happens when the next beheading occurs? Will everybody go silent again?

Public executions are carried out in accordance with Sharia law in Saudi Arabia, the only caveat being that the audience is not allowed to video the execution. The crimes for which beheading is acceptable are murder, rape, false prophecy, blasphemy, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery.

Murder, rape, blasphemy and apostasy are on a par, the last being that you realize you have a mind of your own and decide to change your religion.

Other countries governed by Sharia law where public beheading is legal are Iran, Yemen, and Qatar.

Does the fact that Sharia law promotes beheadings have anything to do with why as a whole the Muslim world has united in horror at only the latest ISIS killing? I don’t know. My first thought on reading the headlines today was ‘this is good; the West gets to see that most Muslims are anti-violence and are as outraged as we are at this horrific murder.’

I still believe that. But I also believe that just as in the West we have to look at that within our culture from which emerges violent mass murder of innocents and even of children and promotes or forgives violence done to citizens of other countries, so must the Muslim world look at whether there is something in Islam which allows for the kind of violence that has escalated to the point of a man being burned alive.

On Life, Success and Other Things

In stepping out of history on January 23, 2015 at 8:23 am

Every time I see a photo of John Boehner I think of the scene in The Wedding Planner where a bride presents a blotchy, orange face from too long under the tanner. JLo says ‘quarter cup of lemon juice and half a cup of salt and scrub scrub scrub’.

graphic woman for ebook cover smallYou live most of your life with your eyes screwed shut and you don’t even know it. Then one day you open them and realize that your real is godawful. You close them again; don’t want to look at that picture. Sometimes when you open them again you realize your real is freaking brilliant. Does that make you schizo, or manic depressive or just very alive and aware? Or all three? Life is mercurial for some and that’s a fact.

susan sarandonThe Law of Increasing Complexity: the less aware you are the fewer choices you make consciously and the simpler life is at some level. At a consequence level though, it’s chaotic because your repressed stuff controls your behavior as if you were a puppet.

As you become more conscious of your belief systems, emotions, self esteem and entitlement, what drives you and what you need, and bring repressed stuff up into the light, you heal wounds and move into the driver’s seat. You’re not so much of a puppet any more so your life becomes less chaotic. There’s more of you to give to others from a genuine place.

But you also become conscious of emotions and belief systems etc. in everybody else. And you can see when they’re conscious of what they’re feeling and when they aren’t, when their belief system limits them but they don’t see it. So life is more complex for you. Being in a roomful of people can be pretty damn lonely because you can’t talk to anybody about what’s flying around; either nobody else sees it, or if they do they don’t want to talk about it. You’re on your own, kid. Strength of mind is a useful tool here, as is permission to take a hike.

If you choose to stay it can be challenging and you have to guard against the fear that you’re going mad. But it’s the price you pay for becoming more conscious. And it helps to remember that the rewards are pretty amazing. You feel alive in so many different parts of you. If you’re a writer hey, you’ve got more to write about.

And much as everybody says being lonely is the worst thing in the world, it isn’t. Being mostly numb, half dead, passive aggressive, blind and deaf, that’s the worst. Because some part of you knows it and screams at you all the time. You have to work real hard to keep it out of your awareness.

blind justice cropped smallWe’re all over-adaptive in some way or another. If you’re aware of it you’ll feel like a ghost in your own town until you find your voice. And when you do you might also find that you don’t like that town at all. You might grab the only horse there is and head on out. Some of the people left behind will be sad to see you go but thrilled for you. Others will blacken your name. If it happens, just keep on riding, don’t look back.

Or you might find that you are the horse. You’re just a kid and you have to head on out alone. Don’t worry, you’ll find others soon enough. They’re gonna love you, kid.

horses galloping tinyI don’t like missionaries who target the poor or the needy, give them nice stuff like food and shelter and then indoctrinate them. At some level, even if they’re adults, there’s a vulnerable child within. The missionaries exploit the same principle that makes a child loyal to a man or woman who takes them hostage and then rapes them for years. Stockholm Syndrome, it’s called. It has many variations and there’s more than one way to take a child hostage and rape it.

Missionaries don’t respect your right to think for yourself. They respect their right to overpower your mind, though. And they sure believe that God talks to them more than he/she does to you.

make the connection cropped and smallTo date James Patterson has written 130 books in 38 years and sold 305 million copies in all. He’s been the world’s best-selling author since 2001; way ahead, btw, of JK Rowling. He writes unashamedly to a formula and has an army of ghost writers working for him now, as well as a PR department in his publisher Little, Brown which he rules with an iron fist. He’s having a ball with it all.

His first book, The Thomas Berryman Number, was rejected 31 times before somebody at Little, Brown said ‘yeah, this is a winner’.

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