Monday, November 10, 2014

My Best Birthday Present



            I haven't had a birthday party in fifty years. Sure, when you're a kid it's exciting to add a year to your age, have your parents gather your friends, blow out the candles, and get presents, but today I turn 63 and I don't feel much like blowing out a fire. Nothing very special about November 10th other than it is the day that Stanley found Livingston. Okay, I wouldn't mind a present or two, but that's more a matter of actually needing stuff than thinking I deserve any sort of reward just for having survived another year. I've always felt it was a wee bit egomaniacal to throw yourself a big birthday party. Nothing wrong with celebrating others, but when it comes to celebrating yourself, it shouldn't be in public.
            Many decades ago today it was also my birthday and, as normal, I was doing what I always do, what I still do, what I'm doing right now, writing at my computer, when there was a knock at the door. I opened it and there was Timothy Leary who said "Hi, I'm your birthday present." He wouldn't explain how or why this came to be, or who in particular was bestowing him upon me. He was simply there, and he would hang out for at least an hour. All he would tell me was that he was told I was someone he should meet.
            Whenever you meet someone famous in a personal situation, it's hard to know how to behave, particularly if they're enormous media stars. After all, you've spent hours gazing at them, thinking about them, perhaps days or weeks staring at their image. Imagine the hundreds of hours you've spent with certain stars broadcast regularly into your living room. They feel like a friend, like you actually know them. They're not and you don't, but it's a hard feeling to shake when they're standing right in front of you, coming into your house, sitting on your sofa, checking the place out while waiting for you to bring them a drink. No matter how many memories you have of them, they have none of you. To them, you are a total stranger. Act like a fan and you risk becoming part of their teeming crowd of lookie loos. Treat them like you don't know who they are and they could get insulted. No way to make a friend. Friendships deserve an even playing field, so it's hard to think of yourself as the friend of a celebrity until they know as much about you as you know about them. Which is why celebrities are SO interested when you interrupt them somewhere in public and tell them about your uncle Sid's gall bladder operation.
            I wanted to be friends with Timothy Leary so he had a hell of a lot of catching up to do because he knew nothing about me and I knew a lot about him, or at least I thought I did. I shifted into show-and-tell mode, whipping out a book of Polaroids for him to peruse. He enjoyed my madness immensely and demanded I loan him the book which he promised to return.
            I proceeded to tell him something I'm sure he heard a million times. My life was profoundly changed by his research into psychedelia, combined with reading Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Beatles, and meeting a guy named Mario in 1970 who claimed to be the husband of the actual Alice that Arlo Guthrie sang about but who supported his acting habit by selling acid at Lee Strasberg's studio where I happened to be studying at the time.
            But I digress. The first and foremost influence that Timothy Leary had upon me was my art, which simply didn't exist. Before my first acid trip, I was an actor but not an artist. I had never played guitar, had certainly never created any impressionism, and hadn't written a single word other than school assignments. Maybe I would have discovered these talents on my own, but if my Polaroids remind you of acid flashbacks, welcome to the club. On acid, what I do to my Polaroids, you can do to reality. Move it around a little. Make big things look small, small things look big, marvel at the infinite depths you're capable of perceiving, as though reality were a 3D comic book and for the first time you were looking at it with the red-and-blue glasses.
            Pre-acid, I was only interested in being an actor, moving to New York to study with Lee Strasberg, and getting in a Broadway play. On acid, I actually attempted to give a performance from Spoon River Anthology in front of the man himself, a performance he declared "interesting," a performance that convinced me that acting was a very strange profession. While personally communicating with the infinite miracles of the universe, I had an extremely hard time convincing myself that the most important thing I could be doing was pretending to be a fictional character while reciting dialogue written by a writer I'd never met. Post-acid I walked home from the Village to my boarding house at 39th and Park, picked up my roommate's guitar and started playing. It wasn't long before I was a better guitar player than actor, and I ended up composing music for several off-Broadway shows. Way off Broadway. The Company Theater at La Cienega and Pico in Los Angeles to be precise.

        Other acid trips were less eventful and I stopped taking it, but not before playing with my first SX-70 Polaroid camera and discovering I didn't need acid to change reality to my own specifications.
            We talked and talked. He wasn't a drug addled guru and I wasn't an acid burnout. He was extremely intelligent, certainly one of the smartest people I ever met. My vision of Leary had been fogged by his media image, and I had forgotten that he was a Harvard professor. Luckily, some others forgot too and that's how he escaped from prison. The most amazing story he told me was this one...
            When he was busted by the Feds for possession of one single joint of pot and sentenced to 20 years in a Federal penitentiary, the prison officials did what they always did with new prisoners, they gave him a psychological test to determine whether he would go to a minimum or maximum security prison. He passed the test with flying colors and was sent to minimum security where he promptly escaped. What the officials didn't know was that Leary himself wrote the psychological test for the Federal prison system when still at Harvard, so he knew exactly what answers to give.
            After an hour or so, my birthday present had to leave, but in his new life as Hollywood gadfly I kept running into him over the years at video shows and art galleries. I'm glad he lived long enough to experience the Internet, I'm glad I got my Polaroid portfolio back five years after his death when it was found among his belongings, and I hope some day to be someone else's birthday present.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Life's Abyss and then You Die - An Interview with James Cameron





    (originally published in Movieline Magazine)
           James Cameron looks much too relaxed for a man who has just made what may be the most expensive motion picture ever made. The fate of an entire major studio may rest on his shoulders, but he seems to shrug it off. Maybe he's just relieved the whole mammoth production ordeal is over. Maybe he's giddy over getting married next week to fellow director Katherine Bigelow. But he's probably in such a good mood because in two more years he gets to go to his twenty year high school reunion and casually mention that he turned a short story he wrote as a student into a $50 million sci-fi extravaganza. (And what have you done with your high school papers?)
       
           The Abyss, which Cameron wrote and directed, was a massive undertaking. It's certainly the most complex underwater extravaganza ever filmed, and 20th Century Fox could have sunk a real oil rig for the same cost as making it. But Cameron seems to be a safer bet than oil. When he cranks up the cinematic pressure, everybody in the theater stops nibbling popcorn and starts on their fingernails. His chase sequences contain so much urgency that it's surprising more people haven't had heart attacks while watching them. He puts you in situations you really wouldn't want to be in, and he never goes for the easy out. We go to his movies to face some deep primal fear we didn't know we had; there are no cheap shocks in a Cameron film, just a neverending onslaught of supreme danger.

           Cameron is a Corman alumnus who starting out as art director and production designer for dozens of cheapo shlockos. He made his directorial debut with another undersea adventure, Piranha II - The Spawning, about which the less said the better. It doesn't even appear on his resume, and who can blame him when his second film was such a monster.

           The Terminator was a barrage of science fiction mayhem directed with non-stop momentum, presenting a relentlessly bleak but visually fascinating vision of tomorrow. Up until that time, it had been considered a drawback that Arnold Schwarzenegger's performances were robotic. But Cameron cast him impeccably as a killer cyborg from the future, and the film was an enormous hit, giving both their careers a boost.

           After writing the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood II, he then wrote and directed Aliens. It was an even bigger hit than its predecessor, earning seven academy award nominations and more than $180 million.

           All this paved the way towards The Abyss, a technological marvel full of brilliant set pieces. The world is still dangerous, things can still go wrong in the most unlikely ways, but Cameron's focus is more on character than it's ever been. It's the couple that counts, not the mysterious inexplicable force surrounding them.

           The idea for the film came from a science experiment that Cameron saw performed in high school, which he eventually turned into a short story. "There was a guy named Frank Felacek, a human guinea pig who actually breathed a liquid in both lungs," Cameron explained from his posh hotel suite in Beverly Hills. "They started with one lung and then the other. He thought he was going to die, and everyone got real nervous, so they pumped the stuff out of his lungs. It didn't work very well because a saline solution couldn't hold enough oxygen. But later they started experimenting with flourocarbon, and they've done it very successfully with dogs and monkeys. The FDA won't let them use it in human experimentation, so the research has sort of hit a wall, but the proposition is that if there was ever a strong enough military application for it, it would proceed again. In the film, when the rat breathes it, it's the real stuff, it's really happening, the rat is breathing flourocarbons."
       
           It's one of most disconcerting visuals in the film, when Ed Harris seems to be breathing liquid rather than air in a diving outfit that's full of water. It looks like a truly death defying act, and you might assume that there was hidden breathing apparatus somewhere in the suit. Wrong. "He just had to hold his breath for a long time," said Cameron. "Any hidden breathing apparatus would have leaked, so there would have been bubbles coming up all the time. Ed didn't like it. It was very uncomfortable, but I don't think it was ever really dangerous.

           "In the film, you see the helmet seal down into a neck ring that looks like one integral unit. In actuality, the whole faceplate popped open on a hinge and he would just breath through a standard regulator. When we were ready for the take, the regulator would be removed, the bubbles would be cleared away, and the faceplate would be closed. It had a very delicate latch that could be easily over-ridden if necessary. It took a lot of nerve, but Ed did almost all his own stunts. The wider shots where he's tumbling down the wall are the only places where we doubled him."
       

           I accused Cameron of being a victim of techno-lust and he laughed it off. "In Good Morning, Vietnam, a guy says 'In my heart, I know I'm funny.' Well in my heart, I know I don't have to do science fiction. I think it's all these residual images from my childhood, when I read science fiction voraciously, like Bradbury, Clark, and Heinlein. It's such a visual form. I was always interested in the fantastic, like the Sinbad films, anything with spectacular mythological energy. I tend to be less interested in pure fantasy. I like to be grounded in a sense of the possible, or at least creating an illusion of the possible for the audience. In science fiction, there's always the greater possibility to take people someplace they've never been and showing them something they've never seen, more than there is in a contemporary story set in Manhattan."

           Will he ever make a non-science fiction film? "I'm now being forced to realize that that's a challenge I have to set for myself. I have to take people someplace new, given relatively mundane props and visual set pieces. I have to do it through psychology, through performance. I think I'm over that threshold now. The scenes that people respond to the most are not the techno-lust scenes. The two scenes right at the heart of the picture which are the most emotionally intense, involve absolutely no support from any mechanisms like special effects or production design. It's two people talking in a four foot diameter tin can."

           He's got that one right. In The Shining, Stanley Kubrick was the first to postulate that absolutely nothing is more frightening than a husband and wife trapped together. Cameron takes this concept one step further in The Abyss, giving us one of the most harrowing life-or-death scenes of all time.

           He takes an estranged husband and wife who secretly love each other but whose passion can only reveal itself through sarcasm - and puts them under pressure. A lot of pressure - like at the bottom of the ocean in a leaky two man submarine with only one set of diving gear. The leak can't be fixed, and they've only got a few minutes till the whole sub is full of water. One of them has got to die. They've probably both secretly wished for the other's demise, but not like this. The one who lives will have to watch the other drown. Close up.

           Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are so good in this scene, their fear and devotion so raw and vital, that I can't think of any episode in any other picture that rivals it in emotional intensity. It's so ferociously performed that it overshadows the big special-effects finale. The alien force becomes just a sub-plot. (Come to think of it, the whole film is a sub plot)

           I casually mentioned something concerning the aliens, but Cameron is reluctant to talk about the specifics of the ending. He doesn't want it given away, and he wants the audience to figure it out for themselves. He also dismisses any charges that the film is too derivative. "Most people think if you're doing a story about human contact with a bad monster, it's going to be Alien, and if you're doing a story about human contact with an intelligent species from another place that's mysterious and strange, it's going to be Close Encounters. I refuse to accept the idea that there are only two choices left and nobody else can make a film on any subject even remotely similar. E.T. and Close Encounters are amazing and beautiful films. This film uses the concept in a different way."
       
           "I think this is a less cynical picture than my others. I've always been very positive about people and negative about trends. This film has the same kind of balance between positiveness and paranoia. There's still the paranoia of nuclear weapons, the potential for war, even though we're in a 'glasnost' period. As long as the president of the United States is the ex-head of the CIA, and the premiere of Russia is the ex-head of the KGB, there's a limit to how much you can really relax. Ultimately, it's a more optimistic picture because it deals with people I see as positive role models."

           In an attempt to play devil's advocate, I told Cameron one of the arguments against the film. The Abyss is essentially about a relationship between husband and wife. People who are into relationship films don't necessarily go see big science fiction films, and techno-nerds who go see big science fiction films don't necessarily care about relationships.

           His reply was fast. "The counter argument to that would be that techno-nerds need love too, and relationship people also live in a technical world. I don't think there's a hard distinction between those two groups. There's a big intersecting set of people in the middle who both acknowledge that we live in a technological world and feel all those normal human emotions that everybody feels. They have to address that in their lives as well. I see it as a film for anybody living in the latter half of the twentieth century who happens to be human, male or female. I hope that's not too narrow a band."

            I wanted to ask him why the crew referred to the film as The Abuse. I wanted to ask him why the alien neon hairdrier saved some people but not others. I wanted to ask him about the water tentacles and what the film was really about, but our time was up much too quickly.

           He was dragged to the door by a publicist, but before he left, I asked him one more question. "If there's a water that men can breath, then why isn't there an air that fish can breath?"

           "I don't know," he replied. "I guess fish aren't doing enough research in that area."
       
       

Being There with Hal Ashby


    Hal Ashby was going to direct my screenplay of Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Robin Williams, Treat Williams, Brooke Adams, and Penelope Milford, with John Belushi as the Pope. I'd been making constant trips out to Malibu when one day he called me out to his house to discuss the script. "Did I ever tell you how I got to direct my first film?" he asked. He proceeded to tell me.
     
    Norman Jewison was set to direct The Landlord. Right before shooting, he decided not to direct the picture. "Have my editor Hal direct the film" he told the money men. Hal had been his editor on The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, The Thomas Crown Affair, and In the Heat of the Night, for which he won an Oscar. The producers were forced into a corner so they bit their lips and went with Hal, which turned out to be a wise choice. Hal did a great job, brought the film in on budget, and turned in an incredible film. His next, Harold and Maude, became a cult classic.
     
    "I'm telling you this," Hal went on, "because I want you to know that I'm going to do the same thing for you on this picture."
     
    "What do you mean?" I said.

    "I mean I'm not going to show up on the first day of shooting, and I'm going to recommend that you direct the picture."

    "You mean we're committing fraud?" I asked.

    He thought for a second. "Yep, I guess so."

    Of course this was a dream come true, but I pointed out to Hal that I really didn't have any idea how to direct a movie. "Don't worry," he said. "It's easy. I'll teach you." For the next two months, I went to Hal's house every weekend and he gave me my own personal, one-on-one, master's course on how to direct movies.

    Then he died, and it all became clear. Obviously he knew he was dying, and this was his way of passing on the mantle. A lot of good it did me. The high profile actors we had were suddenly not interested in working with a first time director when they had only signed on to work with Hal Ashby. And the producers were REAL interested in my tall tale of how Hal was planning on handing it over to me anyway. The project fell apart and still hasn't gotten made. Here's my treatment for the film.
     
    Hal's way of teaching me was to tell me stories of how his films got made. During one of our many conversations, he casually mentioned that he had saved every single take of every shot of the film Being There on videotape. I asked him why. "Because I think future film students should be able to put together their own edits of the film" he replied.

    Ten years after his death, I began wondering whatever happened to those tapes. I called Hal's ex-business manager, Larry Reynolds, who told me there was a storage locker they might be in. He put me in contact with Hal's frequent collaborator Pablo Ferro, and we arranged to meet there. In the back of the locker, there was a trunk that we opened. It was full of 3/4 inch tapes all marked Being There. We were overjoyed. I grabbed the first couple tapes to view and we agreed to talk later.

    The tapes wouldn't play in my deck, or the 3/4 decks of anyone I knew, so I called my friend Craig Rosen at the UCLA Film and Television Archives and asked if maybe he could help. I went there and the tapes played perfectly on one of his specially modified players. It turned out the tapes were recorded at 24 frames per second instead of the normal 30 for video. The tapes consisted entirely of the television shows and commercials that appeared on TVs throughout the film of Being There. They were at 24 FPS so they would be in synch with the film cameras. When you see TVs flicker in films, it's because the video is running at 30 FPS while the film is running at 24.
    Pablo and I went back to the storage locker and found that all the tapes in the case were the same. We had found all the video feeds for the film, but no tapes of the film itself. Back to square one.

    Larry remembered that Hal's brother also had a storage locker that contained some of Hal's stuff. It took a bit of arranging, but we eventually got access to THAT locker, and we hit the jackpot. It was full of boxes of tapes. We found dozens of tapes of interviews with Vietnam veterans that Hal did in preparation for filming Coming Home. Apparently at one point, they were considering cutting them throughout the film.

    We opened up one case and there they were, hundreds of tapes marked Being There. I took one from the top, one from the middle, and one from the bottom, and headed to UCLA to check them out.

    They were the real thing. Every take of every shot of the film, and not just bad B&W from the video feed either, but pristine color copies from the film dailies.

    Watching them was a revelation. I've never learned more about the art of film directing than I did by watching how Hal allowed some scenes to grow better take after take. Hal had told me that his average shooting ratio was 20 to 1, and we've all heard how directors like Kubrick do hundreds of takes of the same shot. And I've always wondered why it was really necessary. If Hitchcock could do it in one take, what was the problem?

    These tapes answered that question. In take one of one shot, Peter Sellers exchanged dialogue in a hallway with another actor while extras walked past. The first take seemed perfectly fine. The second take the extras came by a little bit differently and it actually worked better. The third take, the extras were a little bit different, one bumped into Sellers, who improvised a line to the other actor, who responded with the same line as the other takes. The fourth take, Ashby had obviously told Sellers to say the same improvised line, and the other actor had prepared a more appropriate response that was pretty funny, which threw Sellers for a loop. The fifth take, the extras were just right, the first improv line was perfect, the response was perfect, and Sellers had a response to the response that was perfect. For the next ten takes, they tried to repeat the magic of the fifth take but couldn't. The fifth was the one in the film.

    After going through the three tapes, I realized that Hal was right, these tapes were the perfect teaching tool for editors. I was ready myself to start putting together my own version of the film.

    We put the first tape back in the player to look at it again, but we discovered to our horror that it was now full of white noise. The tapes were so old that after only one playing, the magnetic particles were coming off the tape. We stopped playing it, realizing that if we wanted to look at any more of the tapes, we'd have to do a transfer to another medium on the very first viewing.
     
    I wrote up a proposal for Rosen to try to get up money to do the transfers, but the project is problematic. Hal's dead, Kosinski's dead, Sellers is dead, Lorimar is dead. UCLA could get away with using the tapes for purely non-profit educational purposes, but any hope of actually releasing a MAKE YOUR OWN BEING THERE CD-ROM is a rights nightmare, so there's really not much hope of getting back any invested seed money.

    Rosen told me that Peter Guber, who is a big supporter of the Archives, is a big fan of Being There and might pick up the tab for doing the first transfers just so we can look at the rest of the tapes. So far, he hasn't, and neither has anyone else. This was ten years ago. The tapes are still sitting there in Hal's brother's storage locker.
     
    Here is the original proposal...
     
     
        You put the CD-ROM of Being There into your player and the movie starts playing in the format of it's original theatrical release. The only difference between this and a videotape of the film is the small row of computer icons at the bottom of the screen, items you can click on with your mouse at any point in the action. These icons appear and disappear throughout the picture depending upon whether their function is applicable to what's going on in the film. (i.e. Shirley Maclaine's icon only appears during her scenes)
        Click on the book icon and read the scene from Jerzy Kosinski's original book that the concurrent scene in the movie is based on.
        Click on the script icon and read the same scene from Kosinski's original unused screenplay.
        Click on yet another icon and read the same scene from Robert C. Jones final shooting script.
        The ALT icon lets you see any alternative takes that director Hal Ashby may have shot of the scene.
        Click on any alternative scene and see the film with the new scene inserted.
        Click. See an interview with the editor of the film, Don Zimmerman, explaining why Hal made this particular editing decision.
        Click on jack Warden's head and see an interview with him concerning the current scene.
        At any point in the film, if you double click on any icon, you will see all that's available in that category.
        Hear all the actors or editor's or photographer's comments on the film, individually, in chronological order. Hear something interesting during their segment, click on the film icon, and see the scene they're talking about.
        Go back to the comments, or continue watching the film, or reading the book. While reading the book, click on an icon and hear the production designer, Michael Haller, explain the challenges of designing that scene.
        Compare Kosinski's description of the scene in his book with his description of the scene in his screenplay. Compare the production sketches with the final set.
        Look at alternative takes of any shot, pick the ones you like, and see how the film works with your choices. Save your edit throughout the film and watch your own version of Being There.

    How the "Walking on Water" Shot in Being There
    Actually Got Made



        The script for Being There ends as both Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine take walks in the wood. They run into each other. She says "I was looking for you, Chance." He says "I was looking for you too." They take hands and walk off together.
     
        But near the end of production, somebody went up to Hal and said "How's it going?"
     
        "Great," Hal said. "Sellers has created this character that's so amazing, I could have him walk on water and people would believe it." Hal stopped and thought. "As a matter of fact, I will have him walk on water."
     
        Hal was out on location, miles from Hollywood. The last thing on earth he needed was to contact the home office to discuss the idea of Chance walking on water. It's an idea that wouldn't pitch or read well. If it had been in the script, there would have been endless arguments over what this Jesus allegory was doing in the picture. Only if you've actually seen the film do you realize that it's not a Jesus allegory at all. Chance can walk on water because nobody ever told him he couldn't, not because he's the resurrection of Christ.
     
        Hal knew he could make it work, just as he knew that there was no way in hell the studio would approve of more money for such a controversial shot that wasn't even in the script. He decided to do it anyway.
     
        First, he called Robert Downey, who had a scene in Greaser's Palace where the main character walked on water. Hal knew that Downey didn't have a lot of money, so he asked for advice on how to do it. Downey told him it was simple. Just go to an airport, get a certain kind of platform, and place it in the water. Hal followed Downey's advise and got the shot for less than $10,000.
     
        Second, he had to deal with keeping the shot a secret. There was this one, very well dressed kid around the set who was officially called a PA, but whom Hal suspected of being the studio spy. Hal called him into his office and read him the riot act.
     
        "I'm going to ask you to make a decision right now that's going to affect the rest of your life," he told the kid. "I'm going to ask you to decided whose side you're on. I know you've been watching me because you want to learn how to make movies. I also know you're watching me to make reports to the studio behind my back. I'm about to change the end of this movie because I've come up with a better one. The studio can't know about it or they'll shut me down. This is it, kid. Decide. Are you on the side of art or commerce?"
     
        The kid kept his mouth shut. The shot got made. The studio was pissed but they used the shot anyway. Hal didn't give them a choice. He didn't even shoot the ending in the script.
     
    Why the Film was Released with Two Different Endings

        Hal always wanted to use a series of outtakes for the final credits. Obviously that's one of the things you have to do at the last minute, because until the final edit is locked down you don't know what the outtakes are. So Hal handed in the film with the final credits over a compilation of TV commercials just to get the film in on deadline, then got to work on the outtakes ending.
     
        When he tried to hand it in, the studio refused to accept it or send it out. The film opened small, to just a half dozen theaters. Hal personally went to each theater, went to the projection booth, knocked on the door and said to the projectionist "Hi, I'm Hal Ashby, the director of the film. The studio put in the wrong ending, but I've got the right one with me. How about if we edit it in?" The projectionists were all thrilled to meet him and gladly helped him out.
     
        When the studio found out, they got the last laugh. Hal's contract specifically stated that he was to be paid his director's fee "upon proper delivery of a completed film." They didn't consider receiving a film with two endings "proper delivery," and they used that as an excuse not to pay him. Years later, Hal told me he still hadn't gotten paid for directing Being There.

        And the "outtakes" ending is the only one currently available.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How Michael Nesmith Ruined My Life




Now that nobody's mentioned it, Karl Malden isn't the only one who made a seemingly whimsical decision that had profoundly negative reverberations in my life. Michael Nesmith gave me a shot, I give him that, I hit a bullseye, then he gave me another shot, I give him that, another bullseye, and he ended up calling not just one but both projects off, decisions I still don't understand, since it wasn't just me. MANY others would have been employed, a giant gang I grew to vastly admire.

While it was happening, it was great. When I tell people I once had a TV show, produced by Michael Nesmith, I can now prove it by pointing to this segment from Overview that magically appeared on YouTube one day. Though I am grateful for being given the opportunity to make such a thing, my gratitude is tempered by the fact that if Nesmith had accepted NBC's offer to put it on after SNL, not only would dozens of talented people NOT have been put out of work, but I'd have a career in television. Tom Shales and I would have been broadcast TV's only alternative to Siskel and Ebert, two guys in suits just sitting there, vs. me on NBC after SNL in my own little PeeWee's Playhouse of 80s special effects and trashy videos. That would have been fun, no matter how long it lasted. Welcome to my dream job. Watch it and I'll start again.



In 1985 I had a regular video column in the L.A. Weekly. I was the first video critic who focused entirely on "made for video" releases, which were a brand new phenomenon at the time. Michael Nesmith's Elephant Parts was the very first ever. I wrote about it and Nesmith became a fan of my writing just as I was a fan of his videos, and he ended up using me as a critic in his home video magazette (half magazine, half cassette), Overview.

NBC, who had aired Nesmith's previous show, Television Parts, saw the pilot and wanted it, but Nesmith wanted to market it solely to the home video market, which made a certain amount of sense since it reviewed videotapes. Unfortunately, no retailers knew what to do with them. Overview needed to be in newsstands since, if it wasn't on television, it was, in fact, a periodical, but no newsstands knew what to do with it. Video stores sold Overview for less than blank tape, another deliberate marketing tactic that somehow backfired. Customers didn't like the idea of taping over something, so all the tapes were returned to be erased so they could be sold as ACTUAL blank tape.

Okay, he was decades ahead of his time. But everyone in the publishing industry knew at this pre-internet time that you don't even THINK of publishing a magazine or newspaper without the funding to publish at least six months, but more realistically two years, since that's how long it took for any publication to break even. Nesmith didn't follow up on his bet with any more episodes to get people used to the idea of getting a videotape in the mail every month. He didn't try to build an audience. He just folded. Bye everybody.

I gotta say that just because Nesmith's innovative marketing tactic didn't work is no excuse for turning down NBC. In fact, it's the opposite. The only excuse I can make up in my head is that all of us could have used the gig except Nesmith. He had other fish to fry. So did I and I got on with my life. 

One day the phone rang and it was Nesmith again asking what I was doing that afternoon. I said "nothing" and he invited me to his office. Once there, he drove me and several others to the Burbank airport where we got into his private Lear jet and flew to Silicon Valley where we were taken to Hasbro's private research laboratory in the middle of nowhere. We each had to sign a 15 page letter of non-disclosure before we were led into a room and shown the very first mock-up of the very first interactive video device. This was before CD-I or CD-ROM or DVD or any other interactive technology had reared its head.
 
It was a black box with a joystick that went in-between your VCR and your TV, making any ordinary VHS or Beta tape interactive. They called it skipframe technology, reading alternate frames on the tape, 30 frames, 60 fields per second, divided by four tracks, giving four separate 15 field per second videos running simultaneously and collated, ABCDABCDABCDABCD, with the joystick choosing which path to follow, A, B, C, or D, as the tape played in real time. Want to switch to only two tracks? No problem ABABABAB at 30 fields per second. Ten tracks? No problem ABCDEFGHIJABCDEFGHIJ at six fields per second. Wanna put four Star Treks on a one-hour tape playing simultaneously with the ability to switch back and forth between them like the old eight-tracks? No problem.

As a marketing scheme it made sense since video was booming, PCs hadn't quite made it yet, and everyone was buying one of these new fangled VCRs. Hasbro figured the best way to introduce interactivity to the home market was with a device compatible with any VCR and any TV. Soon computers co-opted the entire interactive market and Hasbro was left making toys and mega-movies.

I played with the demo, which was simply footage of a car going down a street. With a joystick, I could decide at each intersection which direction to continue. That was it. The device did absolutely nothing else and it STILL blew my mind. Nothing like it had ever existed before. They asked me what I would do with it.

"I want an interactive Star Trek where every time you beam somewhere, you end up in a different episode and you have to figure out how to get back to where you started."

OMG, thought the rep from Paramount, we don't even have to shoot anything, it's all post with footage we already have.

Fastest deal I ever made.  

I don't remember the rest of what flew out of my mouth but I was immediately hired to write the world's first interactive movie called So You Wanna be a Rock 'n' Roll Star, to be starring Nesmith. 

And how will you write such a thing? they asked.

And I realized why I was there. It could only be done with flow charts and I was the king. Nobody had ever used flowcharts like I did, including these three from the LA Weekly and National Lampoon.











I had also written screenplays so I said I'd invent some combination of flowchart and script, a flowscript. They liked it.

Nesmith put together a co-production deal with Paramount Pictures and I moved into his offices. Working with Peter Kleiner, we put together a flowchart that circled the room, with each box on the chart corresponding to a scene in a 227 page script, pretty long for a film only 30 minutes long.
 
One month before we were to go into production on So You Wanna be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?, Wall Street crashed and the whole project was put on hold, just long enough for the technology to be superseded by other technology that came out first, putting the kibosh on all the interactive projects we were developing, including Taking the World by Storm, The Interactive Comic, The Parenting License, and Being There Interactive. In fact, the technology we were working with never emerged, none of the projects ever happened, including the interactive Star Trek. Need I mention the legal hell of trying to revive properties owned by Paramount Pictures, Hasbro Toys, and Pacific Arts?

Many years later, I was introduced to someone at a party who said "Are you the Michael Dare who wrote So you want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?" 

"Yeah," I said, "but how could you possibly know that?" 

He sold me my flowchart circled the conference room at MSM where it was used to teach people how to write interactive media. 
 
Which didn't put a penny in my pocket. I missed THAT wave, even though I obviously influenced a lot of people. Being a pioneer ain't all it's cracked up to be.

More years later, when other technologies emerged making the project more viable, I wrote Nesmith and asked him why we didn't go ahead with the project with different technology. He had just won millions in a case against PBS so I figured he could afford to just produce it himself. He never got back to me.

And the wrap-around-the-room flowchart that proves this isn't all bullshit? From the days when dot matrix was hi-tech, I hereby violate my non-disclosure agreement and give you the first five pages of the first flowscript.