Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Dream at Fifty: Looking Back, Marching On

I lived in Washington, D.C. for a couple of years when I was a kid - unfortunately, not at the time of the March on Washington. I used to wish that I could have been a part of the crowd, one of the children whose lives were informed by the remarkable event that took place on that day, fifty years ago.

Thinking it over, I realize that I was.

I am a progressive, nonviolent social activist, and I have been since childhood - the time of my life when I realized that there was such a thing as irrational hatred and wild-eyed bigotry in this world. Before I had two numbers in my age, I decided that would not be the path I would take.
"I have decided to stick to love...Hate is too great a burden to bear."
Last October, for the first time since I was a kid, I visited the city with my sister. I stood on the spot where the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., made his speech, and heard his words ringing in my memory.
"No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I looked across the Reflecting Pool and imagined the upturned faces, witnesses and participants in one of the greatest moments in American history. Many on that day, there in person or listening on televisions and radios across the land, took the words to heart, If those words have faded in time, it is now time to let them ring out again.
"I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

I crossed the street and made my way over to the Tidal Basin. I stood for a moment as I saw the symbolic mountain of despair rising up before me, but then I walked through and stood before the stone of hope.

For a fleeting moment, I felt like Dr. King was really there, looming above me, continuing his call for peace, justice, jobs and freedom.

In a way, I guess he is
I'm a graduate of one of this country's finest universities. As a member of the Directors Guild of America, I've worked with celebrated actors, directors and screenwriters. I have traveled the country and the world, marveling at the wonders of our diverse human experience.

Fifty years ago, my life would have been almost unimaginable, but it turned into a Dream come true.

But more important than that, I have tried to live my life working for social justice. I have tried to live for service. I have tried to be an advocate for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the ignored, the misunderstood and the despised. I have tried to focus on the content of a person's character, tried to move far beyond tolerance to acceptance and even to love.

There are many, many people who have done far more than I have, sometimes with far fewer rewards. I know that there are many who have given so much and suffered so greatly - including and especially the man whose life and actions we commemorate today.

And while I say "Thank you, Dr. King, and all who fought for justice,"  I know that thanks are not enough. Action is required, then and now. Boldness is a necessity. Love is an essential.

There is much work to do to reach the Dream, for one and for all.

March on!


Monday, June 24, 2013

There's Nothing New "Under the Dome"

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
- Ecclesiastes 1:9

Tonight, an idea I had back in my twenties is finally coming to television.

It should be a day of great satisfaction for me.

But when "Under the Dome" airs at 10 PM on CBS tonight, you won't see my name in the credits.

I won't receive a single dollar from the production.

And it is no one's fault but my own.

From a cursory search, it appears that Stephen King and I had the same general story idea at just about the same time. (My writer's notes from that era are in a box in the garage. I'm not up to getting dusty to pin down my exact date.) There are significant differences between "Under the Dome" and my story, but the key concept of a domed city, isolated from the outside world, is the same.

In the span of time between giving up on pursuing acting as a career and being accepted into the Assistant Directors Training Program for film production, I kicked around a number of ideas for novels. (My college degree is in English Literature.)

The first draft of my version of "Under the Dome" was a children's story. I outlined some key ideas, played with the opening scenes and the first chapter. Before long, it evolved into a YA novel with a strong female heroine fighting for her life, years ahead of "Hunger Games."

Ultimately I considered writing it for the mainstream adult science fiction/fantasy market. That's where I left it, before writing my gender-reversed, short story version of "Castle." At least I have a couple of rejection letters to my credit for that one.

When I got busy learning how to make films, my career as a novelist got put on the shelf, right next to my favorite books that other writers had actually finished.

I set aside some time at the end of last year to review what I wanted to accomplish in this year, a landmark one for me. One thing I planned to do was to break out my old writer's notes, take a look at some of the ideas and see if there was anything worth developing. My domed city story was at the top of my list. At last!

A few weeks later, I saw the first teaser for "Under the Dome" during the Super Bowl. My reaction? "Oh, no..."

So why is King's story coming to television instead of mine?

I admire Stephen King, though I don't think I've read a single one of his books. I admire his work ethic, resulting in his significant body of work: his novels (350 million sold) and his short stories (he's written about 200). I admire some of the film adaptations of his work, most notably "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand By Me," two of my favorite films of all time.

Even as early as 1980, King would have won the war when it came to whose work publishers and film producers would prefer. He's got a few years on me and was well into his career when I was still in school.

But if I had beaten him to an idea and gotten it to a publisher before he did, there would have been no basis for comparison. I loved the idea for my unfinished novel. I knew the main characters. I knew the setting. I knew the story arc. I knew how it started. I knew how it ended. I just wasn't sure exactly where I would take it, in the three hundred pages in between.

I can't complain too loudly, and I'm not shaking my fist at an invisible nemesis. Five years after I kicked around this story idea, I started on my career in film production, working on high profile projects for the major studios, and it has been good to me, satisfying and successful. A lot of my writing was produced, as well, during my six years with an independent production company.

And though I don't waste time entertaining regrets, I still wish I'd gotten a few novels published.

So if I could say anything to writers, young or old, with stories in their heads they have yet to put on paper, it would be this:

Ideas are not accomplishments, and concepts are not credits.

Write it down. Write it in full. Rewrite it. Repeat.

And set yourself a deadline for submission, without fail. Don't let time go by while someone else takes their similar idea to fruition, eradicating the possibility of success with your own.

If there's nothing new under the sun, just be sure that your twist on the old gets its chance to find the light.

"Under the Dome" premieres tonight, Monday, June 24, on CBS at 10 ET/PT, 9 CT. Executive Producers: Stephen King and Brian K. Vaughan (who also wrote tonight's episode). Pilot directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Starring Mike Vogel, Rachelle Lefevre, Dean Norris (great guy, worked with him on a TV movie), Natalie Martinez, Britt Robertson, Alexander Koch, Colin Ford, Mackenzie Lintz, Samantha Mathis, Aisha Hinds, Nicholas Strong, Jolene Purdy, Beth Broderick and Jeff Fahey.

I'll be watching. Of all of the viewers, more than most, I know that this sounds like a great idea.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

February, Short and Sweet

February draws to an end.

That was fast!

A few cool things to remember about the shortest month:

* February is African American History Month. If you weren't paying attention, check out the great website below. I believe that looking at the cultures of all people, not just the one we belong to, enriches our lives. After all, black history is American history.

Click HERE for links to some really great media from the site.

* February is the Month of Love - but every month should be. Beyond Valentine's Day, I'll think about the many faces of love, what it has meant to people throughout time and how we have tried to define it. Check out the quotes at the link. I think I like the wry and funny ones best, but this one is most inspiring:

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
- The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

* February is the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. If you haven't seen it, check out Daniel Day-Lewis' brilliant portrayal of our 16th president in the Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln". The best depiction of George Washington wasn't on film, it was on television. I love Barry Bostwick's wonderful depiction of our first president in the 1984 mini-series, available on DVD from Amazon or at your local library.

If I couldn't think of anything else good about February, I'd be glad about one thing: this is the month that I was born, too.

On to March...

Was it the smile of early spring
That made my bosom glow?
'Twas sweet, but neither sun nor wind
Could raise my spirit so.

Was it some feeling of delight,
All vague and undefined?
No, 'twas a rapture deep and strong,
Expanding in the mind!

- Anne Bronte, In Memory of A Happy Day in February

Monday, January 28, 2013

Always and Forever: Ten Years with Clay Aiken

Ten years have passed, but I remember it well.

I was just a few seconds away from changing the channel.

I love music, appreciate good singers, have loved my years of taking part in film and theatre and writing, and I support the arts of all kinds, so I didn't mind turning on the second season of "American Idol" to see if anyone showed potential. But with the emphasis on crash-and-burn auditions, "comic" moments that were none-too-funny and snide comments masquerading as wit, I'd had about enough.

And then the skinny guy with the crazy hair walked out.

Damn, that Clay Aiken could sing.

Clay was right about what he told the judges: he was good enough for "Number One, Number Two at least"  - and not just on Idol. I left the show behind, but I kept Clay. And though he thought he'd go back to teaching after his time on the show ended, something else happened instead.

Ten years went by in the brutally competitive entertainment industry, and he's still here.

Six albums (including a re-release) and an EP. Six million sold. Including the Number 1 Billboard debut of "Measure of A Man," Clay joined the elite ranks of artists who had their first five albums debut in the Top Ten.

As a graduate of UNC Charlotte with a degree in special education, he started a foundation with Diane Bubel (whose son has autism) to include children with disabilities into the life experiences of their typically developing peers. Then called the "Bubel/Aiken Foundation," it went from a mock foundation created to satisfy the requirements for his senior project to the National Inclusion Project, celebrating its tenth year of bringing fun and friendship to ALL kids.

UNICEF appointed him a Goodwill Ambassador in 2004, and he has traveled to Afghanistan, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico, Kenya, and Somalia, as well as promoting children's health, welfare and education in the USA and Canada.

His book "Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life" (written with Allison Glock) made the New York Times Best Sellers List.

He tried his hand at acting, appearing on "Saturday Night Live," "Ed," "Days of Our Lives," "Scrubs," "30 Rock" and "Drop Dead Diva," to name a few.

Clay has had two television specials of his own: "A Clay Aiken Christmas" for NBC and "Clay Aiken: Tried & True - LIVE!" for PBS.

He made his Broadway debut in "Monty Python's Spamalot."

Here's what Tony and Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols had to say about Clay's performance:

Clay has supported the rights of people with disabilities, of children here and around the world and of the LGBT community, of which he is a member.

And he sang:

And sang:

And sang:

But it would take a thousand days and a thousand photographs to list all he has done. Suffice it to say that those who predicted that he'd be one who'd simply enjoy fifteen minutes of fame were wrong.

Clay's still here, still singing, still touring, still advocating.

He's enjoyed success in a number of modes, so now I'm looking for his first feature film and a radio show. He's proven adept at trying something new, so I'll be surprised but not shocked at what he tries next.

And I wouldn't mind another book at all.

And a new album of original songs - at least one with a writing credit. (I still feel that his "Lover All Alone," co-written with David Foster, is his finest, most personal song.)

Oh - and isn't it about time to head back to Broadway?

Thanks for ten years, Clay. Thanks for that glorious voice, those uproarious jokes conjured by your quick wit, those reasons to care about people in far places, with different gifts or in different circumstances.

Thanks for all the wonderful times I've shared with my sister, when we said "Hey, Clay's going to be..." in Anaheim or San Francisco or San Diego, in Los Angeles or Sacramento or San Jose, filming a TV show in Hollywood or appearing on Broadway or holding a benefit in Raleigh or Washington D.C. We've been there when we could, and spending time with each other has meant even more than being there to see you - and I can never overstate how much fun and wonder it has brought to my life to be there for you.

And so I'm very happy to know that one day soon, I'll be turning on the television or the radio, and there you'll be. Or maybe I'll grab my car keys or even my luggage to go and see you again.

Ten years, and you remain a singer of rare ability, a performer who is endlessly entertaining, an actor who surprises, an advocate who motivates and moves - and a stranger who is one of my loved ones.

Ten years, and it all comes full circle --- and goes on and on and on.

Always and forever.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hot Films: Three Mini Reviews

The Golden Globes are over and, with those results, film lovers have an idea of what movies have caught on with the award committees, creative arts guilds and other groups handing out honors this film awards season. (Click HERE for a full report and list of winners from HFPA.)

As a member of the Directors Guild, I get to take part in the voting fun, so I'm paying close attention to the leading contenders. The DGA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced their nominees (see the list in my previous blog), with the DGA Awards on February 2 and the Oscars on February 24.

I'll be reviewing all the films, talking about my favorite performances, raving over my favorite writing and directing and going on and on about nothing - starting with a few mini-reviews of films that made an impression on me. These are the screeners (DVDs sent to me "for your consideration" in voting for industry awards) that I watched over the Christmas holiday (along with "Lincoln" for a second time, "Les Miserables", "Hyde Park on Hudson", "Promised Land" and "Flight" which I'll review later.)

I've seen many of the films in theatres but, as a DGA member, I watched some as DVD screeners, so I've seen all of the contenders. Full reviews will be posted soon, starting with the DGA nominees for directing and then the Academy nominees in all the leading categories. It'll be fun, so hang around.

Adventures in Award Screener DVDs, Part 1: my Christmas Eve movie was Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." A visual feast as well as being mystical, magical, meditative and so very real. The performance of film novice Suraj Sharma as the title character, Pi Patel, was beautifully detailed, so engaging and so vulnerable, so touching and funny and grounded, and Richard Parker was ferocious in an amazing supporting role (ha...) See this film! I plan to check it out again in 3D in a movie theater - the way films are supposed to be experienced.

Adventures in Awards Screeners, Part 2: I have never seen anything that Bradley Cooper has starred in, other than a couple of episodes of "Globe Trekker" he did a decade ago. So it was a very nice surprise to see his complex, heartbreaking and funny performance in "Silver Linings Playbook." I didn't see "Hunger Games," so Jennifer Lawrence was a revelation as well. And Robert De Niro, my favorite actor of the '70s and '80s, doing his most interesting and least self-referential work in years, combined with more strong and distinctive work from director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings)? Go see this film.

Adventures in Award Screeners, Part 3: by coincidence, we watched "The Impossible" (a story of what happened to one group of people in Thailand during the day after Christmas tsunami) eight years to the day after that cataclysmic event happened, December 26, 2004. The film is based on a true story. It is very difficult to watch and, like all stories of almost unimaginable tragedy, it isn't possible to say it has a "happy ending," but there is a resolution that includes one grand bright spot of redemption among so much despair and loss.

For those who aren't familiar with the central story, no spoilers here: suffice it to say that the acting at all levels, adult and child, was absolutely riveting and achingly real. The special effects of the tsunami itself, on those who were swept away and struggled to survive, are just seamless - I can't see how some of it was done and I started in motion pictures twenty-five years ago. So kudos to actors Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland, to director J.A. Bayona and all involved. Yes, go see this film.

More next week!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Directors Guild, Oscars Vary Wildly on Film Selections

On Tuesday, the Directors Guild of America announced their selections for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film. This year, the DGA (often a bellwether for the Oscars) had just two nominees in common with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) nominations for Directing, which were announced this morning.  

Directors Guild of America Feature Film Nominations, Directors:
BEN AFFLECK for "Argo"
KATHRYN BIGELOW for "Zero Dark Thirty"
TOM HOOPER for "Les Miserables"
ANG LEE for "Life of Pi"
Full film credits, as well as television and commercial nominations, can be found HERE.

I'm a DGA member, and these were my selections as well, save for my choice of David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook") over Tom Hooper.

The Academy selected the following:
"Amour" - Michael Haneke
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" - Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi" - Ang Lee (also DGA nominee)
"Lincoln" - Steven Spielberg (also DGA nonminee)
"Silver Linings Playbook" - David O. Russell
I don't recall a year where the AMPAS and DGA nominees were so different. Big possibility for different winners being named by the two groups this year!

Find all other Oscar nominees in all categories HERE.

As a DGA member, I get to see screenings of all films up "For Consideration," and this year, for the first time, Directors Guild members received DVD screeners as well.

I've seen all the films nominated in the Director category, and during this film awards season, I'll have a word or two to say about the actors, writers and other craft categories, too.

Check back often: the fun is just beginning.

Welcome to Film Awards Season!

With the announcement of the Directors Guild of America's selections for Best Director on Tuesday and this morning's announcement of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' nominees in all categories, the awards season once again roars to life.

I'm a DGA member, so this is the favorite time of year for my professional life - and my life as a film fan. (The DGA also announced nominees for television and commercial direction.)

I've seen at least a couple of dozen of the films that have been nominated in all categories, and all of the films the DGA and AMPAS have selected for director, so for once I'll have a lot to say on this blog.

Check back later today for more of the Directors Guild and Oscar picks.