Hey folks, Harry here with the return of the dear ol venerable Professor's RUMBLINGS FROM THE LAB. He has a lot to talk about and a backlog of info for a ton... (term for judging amount of words written) ...of future columns. Right from the get go, there are 2 subjects he brings up in this column... one is the new (NOT CRAIG TITLEY) draft of SCOOBY-DOO which got Warners all moist to start filming. Now I'm not going to bag on that draft, I haven't read it yet (it's en route), all I'm going to ask of the powers that be at Warners... is that the execs in charge of SCOOBY-DOO... just read the Craig Titley draft from the New Line days... There's no re-write needs, no touch ups... It's ready to go. It's dead on the right direction for the franchise. AND THEN THE SECOND ITEM I'D LIKE TO TOUCH UPON... is the George Lucas piece that Moriarty wrote below. I have nothing to add to it. It's exactly as it happened from our side, and as much as I'd have loved to of gone, friendship is always more important. Oh... and also... expect an announcement from Lucasfilm on May 19th, 2000 about the 2nd Film... and possibly Sean Patrick Flannery... we'll see...
RUMBLINGS FROM THE LAB #32 RE: Andrew Niccols, SCOOBY-DOO, SALTON SEA, SECONDS, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED, SPIKE & MIKE, & That Damn George Lucas Story!!
Hey, Head Geek…
Before I do anything else, I want to thank all of you who have written to me during my brief hiatus from this column to urge me back into writing it. I have not tried to stay away from the RUMBLINGS for this long. In fact, I’m running about a week behind what I hoped would be my return date. There’s been a lot going on here lately, though. Harry Lime and I have hatched an experiment that I am particularly proud of, and we are working with a team of talented professionals to unleash the evil on the town in the weeks ahead. I’ve even flirted with having a real personal life, and those fumbling attempts have almost made me happy enough to give up evil entirely. Almost. You see, one of my favorite things in the world is having this weekly outlet, and it’s only been the overwhelming workload here at the Labs that has kept me from having this ready each Tuesday morning for you. Let me share with you just a sample of the love and affection that I’ve been showered with in my mailbox every day for the last few weeks.
And I quote…
“Hey, Mr. Stupid Geinus!!
You think your so smart that you can just not even write your story and we’ll still kiss your ass! Fuck you, dumabass! I don’t care if you didn’t ever write a story agin! You can just shut up and I’ll laugh!”
After a letter like that, how can I resist? So here we are again, deep in the heart of Hollywood, at my typical vampire pre-dawn hours, and I’ve just finished working my way through a major stack of scripts, several of which I’d like to discuss today. Before I do, I owe an apology to Howard Rodman, who wrote the wonderful adaptation of JOE GOULD’S SECRET, a film that I want to urge you all to see again. In my initial review, I somehow forgot to mention the writer, a bitter irony considering what the film is about. Rodman nursed this project for years, and the work he did to bring seemingly unadaptable material to the screen, particularly with such incisive wit, cannot be underestimated. Stanley Tucci may have a distinct signature as a director, a simple uncluttered visual style that marks each of his films with a quiet elegance, but it was Rodman who shaped the picture originally and who gave Ian Holm one of the best roles of his career.
Now, let’s take a look at my reading stack and see what’s good, what’s bad, and what made me hurt the henchmen.
If I had a chance to sit down with any of the writers I’m dealing with today and ask them about the work they’ve done, my first choice would be Andrew Niccols. Remember him? Before M. Night Shyamalan became the anointed one, Niccols was building a reputation as a high concept writer with a brain thanks to GATTACA and (especially) THE TRUMAN SHOW. Both of those movies deal with someone longing to escape a life they are dissatisfied with, a world they’ve been born into unfairly. Way back in RUMBLINGS #21, I made a crack about the announcement of RIVER ROAD, the newest Niccols script, saying it sounded like another trip back to the same well. Now that I’ve read it, there’s no way to avoid the comparisons. Niccols is a man with only one story to tell, and no matter how expertly he tells it, the question must be asked: will the audience care?
This time out, Niccols has named his main character Milar, but it doesn’t really matter what he’s called. He’s Truman. He’s Ethan Hawke in GATTACA. He’s the guy who wants out. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it this time, either. There’s no clever metaphor about assuming the life of another or about growing up under constant scrutiny. Instead, we get a dingy, grimy world in which life is all about a border that separates them from us. Life on this side of the border is hellish, miserable, and filled with the threat of sickness. Life on that side of the border is rumored to be better. That’s really all we’re told. Milar is the new guy in a small town called River Road, a work town that sits right on the river that marks the separation of the two countries. He is determined to make an escape, and that’s why he’s come to town. What he learns upon arriving, though, is that there is no escape. The locals have seen every variation on escape attempts possible, and they know the pitfalls of every single method. You can’t go under, you can’t go over, you can’t go around, and you sure as hell can’t go through. That leaves a life of acceptance… and Milar isn’t able to just give up. He wants out, and he’ll do anything it takes.
And that’s all there is to it. The film just plays out as a long series of escape attempts and planning sessions, and the antagonists are painted in simple blacks and whites. If all of this was in service of some greater idea, some metaphor that really spoke to me, then I could accept the almost minimalist attempts at characterization that Niccols makes. It’s not, though. This is just an empty exercise, the screenplay equivalent of treading water.
It’s a shame, too. One of the best screenplay experiences I’ve ever had was when I read an early draft of THE TRUMAN SHOW. At that point, the film was still set in New York City… or at least, in a fake NYC that was reproduced perfectly on the world’s largest soundstage. It read very much like the eventual release version of the film, but there was one great scene that I’ve never shaken, a scene that Niccols actually shot as a test when he wanted to direct TRUMAN, with Gary Oldman starring as Truman for him.
It took place midway through the film, once Truman has started to put it all together. He’s realizing that the world is fake and that he’s the center of it, and he’s about to crack from the pressure of it all. Desperate for something to prove his theory, he does the unthinkable: he grabs a woman’s baby from her on the street and lifts the defenseless infant over his head. “TELL ME MY NAME!” he bellows at her. She protests between her tears that she doesn’t know his name. He shakes the infant, tells her that he’ll do it, and demands that she say his name. All she does is cry harder, and Truman suddenly realizes what he’s doing, where he is. Horrified by himself, he relaxes, handing the infant back to her. As he turns to walk away, she can’t help herself. She sobs gratefully, “Thank you, Truman.”
The first time I read that, I was convinced Andy Niccols was a major talent. I’m still convinced he can build memorable moments and scenes. I just hope he someday finds the confidence to set out for that new ground he writes of, a place where he might find some new theme to explore.
Roger Avary, you’ve got your work cut out for you. You’ve decided for some mad reason to take a crack at John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS, a great surreal work that stands as a fairly original movie that defies easy category. Having now read your take on the film, I can say that I’m really excited by what you’re doing. It’s bold stuff, marked straight through by the same kind of sadness and desolation that the first film was.
I’ve heard people refer to SECONDS as a horror film… indeed, Avary does it himself within the draft. To me, though, this is horror the way Cronenberg’s THE FLY or VIDEODROME or JACOB’S LADDER or SAFE are horror films. These stand outside the conventions of the genre and try to say something human by using these terrible images. SECONDS deals with the fear of aging, of life passing us by. It’s a fear that we all have to face. I’m nearing one of those landmark ages myself right now, and although I’m young by Evil Genius standards, I’m definitely not a kid anymore. Even at this point, I feel the weight of that. For someone who is at the end of a career, the end of a marriage… the end of a life… the promise of youth and a new start would be irresistible.
I don’t think this is a perfect draft by any means, but it’s an early one still. There’s room for this film to be great and haunting. It’s a great role for a pair of lead actors. The older version of the main character is a man on his way out, and the right star playing those first 40 pages will break your heart. The trick is, of course, finding the younger star who takes his place once he’s joined The Seconds Trust and has been granted this wish. I love the way the character is drawn into this mysterious world, and I love the way his decision is handled. He doesn’t adjust well, but he does adjust. It’s real, and it makes all the little moments along the way into the feature, not the filler.
Avary’s script is about the whole journey… all the lonely moments, the funny ones, the erotic, the perverse and the painful. He captures those little moments of real joy that mark the way to a successful new life, and when the lead character stumbles and makes terrible choices, it’s wrenching. We don’t want to watch this poor bastard be destroyed. We want him to succeed no matter how terrible any of his individual choices are. We want him to succeed because we want to think that if it was us… if we got that second chance… we’d be the ones who used it right. There’s a rich supporting cast here (including a pair of friends to the lead with the none-too-subtle names of Quentin and Mira), and this isn’t going to be a monster budgeted film. Instead, it could be a great little film that packs a major punch. Right now, Mace Neufeld is co producing the film with Jonathon Mostow’s company, and although Gary Fleder was once rumored, there’s no one currently attached to direct. Whoever does sign on has been written a formidable challenge by Avary. I’ll be curious to see what they do with it.
THE SALTON SEA
Here’s one that I’ve been very interested in since Frank Darabont first mentioned it to me a few months ago. Val Kilmer, Adam Goldberg, Peter Sarsgaard and Debra Kara Unger are all attached to star, and Darabont is producing this Tony Gayton script along with Ken Agudo, Butch Robinson, and Eric LaSalle. DJ Caruso, who made his debut with the direct-to-HBO film BLACK CAT RUN, is signed on to helm this. I know that Frank’s a big fan of BLACK CAT RUN, shot from an older script of his, and that he’s excited to have Caruso break into features. It’s going to be a fairly splashy debut, too.
For people who only know Frank from SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and GREEN MILE, this is going to come as quite a shock. This isn’t a warm, inspirational film. This isn’t about a triumph of the huan spirit. This is Jim Thompson country, nasty and dark and funny in the most inappropriate of ways. It’s also a knockout script that has a chance at finally giving Val Kilmer a classic role to play. He’s Danny Flynne in the film… or maybe he’s Tom Van Allen. He’s a talented trumpet player. Or maybe he’s a raging tweaker. He’s an avenging angel, a Judas, a loving husband and a prodigal son. He is haunted by visions of his past, and he is locked in a self-destructive course in the present.
This is a hard one to discuss without ruining it, and part of the fun of the script is that every time you think you’ve got a handle on where you’re going or what’s coming next, the whole thing twists out from under you, dodging this way, twisting that way. The joys of the film are many, with the eccentric character work standing out in particular. The introduction of a plastic-nosed crank dealer named Pooh-Bear is one of my favorite sequences in the movie, involving a plate of scrambled eggs, a vile story about sawing a guy’s head open, miniature cars, four duct-taped pigeons, and a complete recreation of the shooting of JFK.
It’s one long, strange trip of a script, and it makes perfect sense for Val Kilmer to be signed on. For years, he’s threatened to produce an adaptation of THE KILLER INSIDE ME, one of the greatest books of the noir genre, and probably my favorite Jim Thompson novel. That’s a hard piece of material to get right, though, and this script must have spoken to Kilmer from many of the same places. He gets to play as many different faces as when he did THE SAINT, but it’s not in service of some cobbled-together bullshit action movie. Instead, this is a pretty great little story about loss and recovery, about the lengths we will go to when we have to prove to ourselves that we’re not cowards. It’s about wearing a mask for so long that it becomes you. Most of all, it’s about to be a movie that we can all get jazzed to see. Thanks, Frank.
SCOOBY-DOO (James Gunn draft)
Can I confess a bit of bias here before I discuss this latest attempt by Warner Bros. to turn Hanna Barbera’s beloved iconic canine detective into a live action franchise? When I read the Craig Titley draft of this film, the one that was created for Turner Pictures, I suddenly had faith for the first time ever that it could work as a movie. That script, which I reviewed back in RUMBLINGS #12, was funny and sweet and smart and played its humor on a number of levels without ever tipping its hand. I got excited when I read that draft.
Well, a lot’s changed since then. For one thing, Turner Pictures was folded into Warner Bros. I’ve heard about much of the political scuffling that took place behind the scenes with the script, and it’s nothing particularly new. No one at Warner would be involved in developing the project if the Turner draft was used. It was important that if SCOOBY-DOO were to work, it be something that Warner could take credit for. They brought in their own writers. Mike Myers allegedly took a shot at it, although I have yet to actually speak to anyone who’s read that draft. Whatever happened with him, he left the project, and James Gunn was brought in to take a pass at it.
That’s where we are now. Warner Bros. is happy enough with the script that they’re out to directors on it. They’ve shown it to several people, and they’re nearing a decision soon. That implies faith in this draft. They’re pretty sure they’re on the right track now.
The worst part of saying this is that some people will dismiss this as more anti-Warner ranting from me or from Harry. That perception kills me. One of the things that makes us pay attention to Warner films is that we both have strong emotional investments in that Warner shield. It’s on the front of some of the greatest goddamn movies that have ever been made, in Hollywood or anywhere. That shield means something, the same way the Fox logo does. The films it has graced are all there, right at the edge of a film geek’s memory, each time the lights go down and that’s the first thing we see. Because of those films that have come before, and because of the ones that work now, there is a standard that is inherent, a level that should be risen to.
Yes… I know… it’s SCOOBY DOO. It’s not Shakespeare. How passionate can we be about this property, right? It indicative of how every property is treated, though. You own a great draft of the script. Yet you continue to develop the material for no apparent reason. The thing you’re finally prepared to make is a pale shadow of something great that you are well within your rights to film.
What’s wrong with James Gunn’s script? It’s simple… tone. He never once finds a tone that will work. He insists on structuring in obvious sex and drug jokes. His world is one in which JERRY SPRINGER is a real show. His world is one in which Daphne and Fred have not only had an active sexual life, but they insist on discussing it, making subtext text at every opportunity.
Titley’s draft was written so that everyone, including kids, could enjoy the film at face value. For adults, the more mature material was right there, but it was clever, gentle, an elbow in the ribs instead of a sharp stick in the eye. Gunn’s draft crosses the line time and time again, proving itself offensive at every opportunity.
Now… I’m going to disclose something here, getting back to that bias I mentioned at the start of this review. I know Craig Titley. I met him after I first reviewed his SCOOBY DOO script. He’s a great guy. That’s not why I’m advocating for the script, though. You see, I also know Scooby Doo. I grew up with him. And if you ask me, there’s no comparison between the two drafts in terms of the most important of elements, the characterization of Scooby Doo himself. Titley gets it right. He loves the character, and it shows. Scooby is the exact Scooby we want to have along. He’s a coward on the surface, but he’s rock solid when it matters. He’s not terribly bright, but he’s sure no fool. Gunn doesn’t understand the first thing about the characters. He insists on debasing all of them, making them shrill, ugly versions of their worst traits.
Children cannot see Gunn’s film. They simply should not be allowed to sit in a theater and see the material that Gunn has written. If children cannot see a film that is called SCOOBY-DOO, it will fail. There’s no two ways about that, Warner. SCOOBY-DOO is an all audiences movie. You have a responsibility to parents. Making a film called SCOOBY-DOO is a promise. If you fill the film with self-referential adult material that is played on a surface level, you risk infuriating your core audience. It’s like making a movie called MICKEY MOUSE that has a hardcore bondage sex scene. It’s inappropriate.
You have not hired a director yet. You have not started shooting yet. You have not passed the point of no return. You have a chance to do this right. Please… take the advice of some meddling kids. After all, it’s SCOOBY-DOO.
THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED
After that last piece, it almost feels redundant to bring up another example of what can happen when a piece of material is developed to death. Here’s a case where desperation and dealmaking have collided to create a bastard project that should never roll forward in its present form. Anne Rice is going to start to get very vocal and very pissy about this film once she actually reads it. If she doesn’t, I will be astonished, since this is the rape of her original material that she was afraid Neil Jordan’s excellent INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE might be.
The current active stage of development on QUEEN OF THE DAMNED got underway late last year when Anne Rice began to make fairly public comments during interviews about how slow Warner Bros. was in creating a sequel to Jordan’s smash hit 1994 film. “Warner Bros. loses the rights next year if they don’t make the films. We’ll get them back, and then we’ll do the films right.” This was her mantra, and it may prove to be her undoing.
You see, studios don’t like paying for things they’re not going to use. It’s considered poor business. People lose their jobs over multi-million dollar options that result in big announcements and nothing else. As a result, Anne Rice’s convenient “heads up” was heeded by Warner, which immediately put a team on it. Right away, drafts of the script were generated, with the order coming from on high that the script must feature material from both THE VAMPIRE LESTAT and QUEEN OF THE DAMNED, the only way to retain the rights to both books. In the end, the story is like a hybrid of both books, and the result is even more cluttered and confused than the self-parody that Rice has lapsed into in her recent work.
In fact, I never thought I’d say that it was possible to disgrace the world she’s created, since I think it’s not-so-softcore gothic porn for the most part. This script manages the task handily. As soapy and as overwrought as Rice’s work can be, it was born from a genuine pain and a genuine attraction to this dark world she’s devised. To her, there is nothing more crushingly romantic than the embrace of Death itself. Lestat is her perfect lover, the dark prince that haunts the first series of books in her Vampire Chronicles. If you look at all the marketing for Jordan’s film, it was obviously meant to be the first film in a series.
So how do you perpetuate that series? Easy… throw out anything we saw in the first one, throw out all the successful collaborators who made the first film work, hack something together under extreme pressure, and then just pray for rain, right?
That seems to be the route taken by Scott Abbott, Michael Petroni, and (in particular) Michael Rymer, who is set to direct this bit of calculated nonsense. Things happen in this film because they happened in the books. There’s not much effort made to make any sense of it as a coherent story that stands alone. If you don’t know who the major players are (or were in the case of the ones who have been significantly altered), you will be positively stumped by the meaning of most of what happens on screen. Things begin and end with bad boy Lestat, who was set to be played by Wes Bentley. He bolted recently, and word is Warner plans to penalize him for skipping the film, forcing him to stay jobless until it finishes shooting. If he’s worried about his SPIDER-MAN availability, he shouldn’t be. They have to have this film finished by November. They have to have it in the can or they lose the rights. I think Wes knew just how much of a no-win situation this film was going to become, and that’s the real reason he skipped out. The script reads like a $140 million film, with staggering crowd scenes, sweeping historical sequences, and massive earth-shattering special effects. There’s no way they’re going to pull off what’s on the page onscreen, and that means that not only is it a bad script… but it’s a bad script they can’t even shoot.
The most ridiculous thing here is the musical sequences. Lestat starts a band, and they become the biggest rock band in the world overnight. There’s a lot of scenes where “Lestat begins to play the most incredible song ever written, music that literally changes the life of every man, woman, and child who hears it, divine sounds that are beyond description. When he sings, he is the best singer ever in the history of the world, and his voice makes everyone in the room have multiple orgasms.” There’s no way to do what is described. It’s the old Lovecraft adaptation problem. If it’s too beautiful to describe, then chances are it’s going to be a little more complex than just Korn. Because that’s what it’s going to be in this film… Korn. They’ve signed on to write the songs. And did I mention that the most beautiful music in the history of the world is supposed to be written by Korn?
True… the film is going to shoot in Melbourne, which is in the middle of a major image battle with Sydney to prove that it, too, can be a center for film production, offering every kind of discount and incentive possible to try to lure QUEEN OF THE DAMNED there. That may stretch their dollar a bit. But in the end, it’s in the imagination that this film is going to fall apart. When Neil Jordan approached similar material the first time out, he managed to make something brilliant and beautiful and ethereal and monstrous of it. His film succeeded because he had real respect for what he was doing, and because he took the time to get it right. When this one fails miserably, make careful note of where the two processes differed.
GOT NOTHING BUT LOVE 4 U
Now… having said all that, I’d like to ask a favor of Warner Bros. While you guys are taking a crack at putting together that great new SUPERMAN DVD, do you think you could let Richard Donner finally dust off the footage that would be required to rebuild SUPERMAN II? I mean, you could pay Marlon Brando off so you could finally use the footage of him. You could rebuild the entire opening sequence with Lois and Clark and her jumping out a window to prove that he’s Superman. You could let Donner reshape the whole Niagra Falls revelation. You could let him make the movie that he wanted to make, that he would have made if he hadn’t had the Salkinds to contend with. You could release it as an “alternative” cut, making the original Lester cut of the film available as well in a letterboxed edition.
Someone anonymously sent me an article by Edward Gross that detailed the original Donner cut of SUPERMAN II. It’s a great piece of research. Click here to read the original story.
Maybe the upcoming SUPERMAN release is going to be a monster hit. I sure hope so. It could only make it more likely we see this restored piece of work, something that could only improve a film that is already greater than the sum of its parts, my personal favorite comic book adaptation movie so far.
SICK AND TWISTED IN LA JOLLA
Just after the beginning of this year, I had an opportunity to spend an afternoon in La Jolla with someone who has had a great deal of influence on the animation rebirth that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy over the last decade or so. He’s one of those people like Cher or Madonna who can get away with just one name. I know that as I sat with the lovely Lynn Bracken in a restaurant, awaiting his arrival, all I cared about was finally getting to meet Spike.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been a big fan of animation. I was weaned on Disney like most of you, but I was always rabid for anything that represented the medium, any new sort of animated kick. When I first saw a Spike & Mike Festival of Animation, it was in the ‘70s, and I remember some of the films they showed then. BAMBI VS. GODZILLA was an early trademark piece. Back then, though, it wasn’t a Sick & Twisted fest. It was just a presentation of shorts that might otherwise never be screened.
As the years passed, I kept seeing those names pop up on collections of animation. “Spike & Mike.” To me, that was just this big honking stamp of approval. When the Sick & Twisted festivals got underway, they were ridiculously fun to attend. People got rowdy. They were traveling parties. All sorts of infamous cartoons made appearances in the Spike & Mike lineup. Astute observers will remember “Frog Baseball,” an introduction to the iconic Mike Judge characters, Beavis & Butt-head. Personally, I always thought “Lupo The Butcher” was one of the greatest things in the history of celluloid, but that might just be me.
And through it all, I had no idea who the people behind those names were. I just always made sure I saw the names on animation collections before driving to the Nuart or the Sunset 5 or wherever. I knew that as long as it said “Spike & Mike,” it would have some great stuff in it. I knew that I’d be getting the very best of what was available at any given time. I knew that I’d see some old favorites and a fistful of new stuff, the cutting edge. And year in, year out, that’s exactly what I got.
So when Lynn Bracken returned from her Sundance adventures and reported in on meeting Spike, who had just taken his festival to Park City for the first time, I was overjoyed to learn that she had arranged for me to meet him on his home turf a few short weeks later.
And, yes… I am aware how late I am in reporting this to you. But there are some stories, some experiences, that are worth sharing whether they happened yesterday or three months or six months ago. Sitting in that restaurant and watching Spike walk in is one of them.
I know now that his whole name is Craig “Spike” Decker, but I can’t possibly begin to label this giant ambulatory cartoon as anything so mundane as Craig. Nope. He’s Spike right away. I’m a pretty tall guy, pretty broad framed, but Spike dwarfed me in every dimension. He had on the craziest fur hat I’ve ever seen, a bizarre hybrid of fake weasel and faux jackal, ugly as sin. Big flaps stuck out from the top of the thing like ears. He had on a massive leather jacket even though it was unseasonably warm out. In every way, Spike seemed to be the walking personification of the films he has always brought to people -- larger than life, filled with color, noisy, rowdy.
As soon as he began to tell stories, I sat back and let him go. It was worth it. He’s met everyone in the animation business, and one of his strong suits is the ease with which he can be convinced to talk. Spike’s an enormously entertaining guy in person. He also makes a very persuasive point about his place in the whole history of modern animation, something that has become especially important to establish since the passing of Mike Gribble in August of 1994. Spike and Mike started their partnership at a place called Mellow Manor, a sort of Animal House, a crazed hangout where films were sometimes exhibited. Spike told me about a showing of DEEP THROAT in the ‘70s that was raided by the cops. Spike and Mike just made it out of the house moments before the cops busted in.
Originally, the whole point of Mellow Manor was to book animation to accompany rock bands onstage. Eventually, the animation became the reason for people to show up, and Spike and Mike became real leaders in terms of exhibiting short animation to people. They were responsible for bringing all sorts of artists to their first American exposure. Tim Burton (VINCENT), John Lasseter (TIN TOY), Bill Plympton (NOSE HAIR), Nick Park, Bruno Bazetto, and more… they’ve all had early success with Spike and Mike. That’s something that gets consistently overlooked whenever there’s a Beavis & Butt-head or a South Park… many of these things got their first major release through Spike.
Looks like things are starting to change, respect-wise. Major publications are starting to write about Spike, and he’s going to be going to Cannes this year with his festival. Dear God… Spike on the Croisette… someone better warn the French.
For those of you who haven’t been to a Spike and Mike event in the past, you’ve still got plenty of opportunity. There’s a new Sick & Twisted Fest every summer. It’s more than just a simple collection of cartoons, too. If you’ve ever been to one of these shows, you can attest… it’s a lot of fun. They’re events. If you want a look at what to expect, try clicking here!
BANNED FROM THE RANCH
Have you ever seen the special effects company BANNED FROM THE RANCH mentioned in the closing credits of a film? I know the first time I saw the name, I wondered about the story. I actually got a couple of chances to speak with Van Ling, one of the founding partners of the company, and ask him what it meant several years ago. He told me that several of the ILM effects artists had been at a Lucasfilm party at the Ranch, and some of them had decided to do something in George Lucas’ office. They described it as a prank of some sort, but whatever they were doing, George flipped out when he found them in there, and they were not only fired, but… well, you get the picture.
It’s a great name for a company, and their business card, complete with the logo of a gunslinger who stands poised at the edge of the property, is a hoot. But even having heard the story, I didn’t take the company name too terribly serious. After all, that’s such an extreme phrase.
Then, about the time Harry and I went to the GLADIATOR screening in San Francisco, a series of events transpired that really made me question a couple of things, including the work I’d done here at AICN. At the time, everyone advised us to stay quiet about it, to keep it to ourselves, and I’m glad we sat on the story for a while so I could write about this from a place that’s not just pure wounded emotion, but there are things that I think merit discussion here. After all, this page is not your typical professional concern. The reason I met Harry in the first place… the whole reason Harry and I are friends, in fact… is because of our common bonds as fans. We were fans before we were Internet website writers, and the thing that keeps me interested in doing this, that keeps me searching through film after film after script after script is the hope that I’ll find something new to love, something I can revere the way I do with my favorite films of childhood.
Most of those films that I revere from those early days had something to do with the sure hand of George Lucas. I’ve made no secret about that here on the page. If you remember the piece I wrote after seeing the first teaser trailer for THE PHANTOM MENACE, or the piece I wrote after reading the screenplay for the first time, then you know that I’ve always been direct and honest about my love for the world of STAR WARS. It’s one of those pivotal, defining things for me. It’s a big part of who I am.
In the few years I’ve been working with Harry, I know full well that we’ve ruffled feathers because of what we do here. I’ve heard it both first hand and through friends of friends. I’ve had people send me angry letters. I’ve also met a number of people who I now list as friends. I am prepared for there to be fall out from my actions, although there is never malice involved in what I do. All I can ever do is be honest about what I think and feel and observe, and hope that’s enough.
When we were preparing for the San Francisco trip, Harry called me and asked what I would think of taking a trip to the Ranch. For a long moment, it was like I couldn’t hear anything else he said. My ears got all swimmy and I had to repeat it a few times. “Did you say The Ranch?” He repeated the question and told me that we had been invited.
Immediately, all of those feelings that you think you’ve put away or slowly subjugated as you move from fan to professional came flooding back, and I was fully aware of the power that certain things still have over me. I was seven years old again, and I was going to the place where they make STAR WARS. Harry laughed, obviously high on the same rush of emotion, and told me he’d make the call.
And he did.
And an hour later, they called back.
I knew something was wrong as soon as I picked up the phone. You know that silence that comes over the line before bad news? We’ve all heard it, and it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s just automatic tension and stress and… “Hello?” I said. “Harry?”
“Dude… I don’t know what to say. I’ve been talking to the guy for an hour… I’ve been trying to work it out…”
“Dude… Moriarty… you can’t go to the Ranch.”
As much as I thought I was winded by the news we were going, this was worse. This is that sick sort of low ache that starts hot and just keeps warming up. I could feel it spread through me as Harry began to talk quickly, explaining about how he had called back and left four names for the Lucasfilm tour. It was to be Harry, Father Geek, Annette Kellerman, and me, the infamous “Moriarty.” (HARRY NOTE: Technically I called with our real names, unfortunately the person that initially called Lucasfilm had called with the site names, which caused this bruhaha) And everyone was approved to visit except me.
It turns out that I am officially Banned From the Ranch.
I felt like a pilgrim standing at the gates to Mecca, watching as everyone else went in past me, around me. We’re all dressed the same, we’d all made the same journey, and I’d been as devout as anyone… but still, I was being denied. I tried to put my best spin on it, telling Harry that at least the others could all still go. I said I’d find something to do in San Francisco, and we’d all hook up after the tour. We were supposed to go straight from the airport to Lucas Valley Road, to the place where all my dreams have lived since I was a boy… but I’d be taking a different shuttle, one that led away, into the city, and I’d have to just hear about it, as I have so many times before.
At first Harry tried to justify going. Not to me, but to himself. He asked me over and over, though, if I was alright with it. “I won’t go. All you have to do is say so, and I won’t go.” Eventually, he got real quiet before announcing to me the same thing he’d been saying for the half-hour prior. “No… I don’t think I can go. I don’t think we’re going. Shit… we’re not going.” He called back and passed along his regrets, but explained that he couldn’t attend with only part of his group. That’s not how things are done at AICN.
And when he asked for an explanation of why I wasn’t able to attend, about what sin had caused me to be cast out, he was told that it all went back to my being the first person to review the script online.
Here’s the kicker, folks… wait for it… I wasn’t the first person to do so. In fact, there had been two full script reviews before mine. Harry’s was one of them.
Now, I don’t mind being punished for something I’ve done when there’s a reason. For example, if Lucasfilm really felt strongly about the fact that we had run spoiler info in our script reviews, and they had a standard policy of banning anyone who had discussed the script before a certain date, then I would have to accept that as the consequence of my actions.
But Harry tried explaining to Lucasfilm that they had their information wrong. He tried to tell them about the other two reviews that ran, both on AICN. Harry even offered to look up the links.
Nope. Lucasfilm had decided.
And that’s their right. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m writing this in an effort to get you to say, “Poor Moriarty.” I know that most people are never even invited to the Ranch. I know that going is a privilege, not something that fans are guaranteed.
But we are fans. We speak for a huge number of fans. We are, for whatever reason, representative of fans at this particular point. Harry and I and the others who put this page together… we’re you guys, but with a platform. And when Lucasfilm plays games with fan, a la all the recent sound and fury regarding THE PHANTOM MENACE on DVD, feelings get hurt and people get angry and a little bit of that special pure childlike sense of wonder dies. You’re reminded that this is a business, that this is not something that was created out of the goodness of someone’s heart. This is a franchise. This is something that is a corporate asset. We the fans do not enter into the decisions that are made regarding STAR WARS. Our money does. Lucasfilm decided to ban me from the Ranch because they wanted to send a message about what level of fandom is appropriate. Harry is someone it makes sense to have to the Ranch. If there’s a way to win Harry over, then Lucasfilm would be foolish not to try. They don’t need to worry about me, so they just banned me to be done with it.
And that’s the message here. If Lucasfilm doesn’t have to contend with you, they won’t. And when they do, they will do it in the most painless (for them) manner possible. The fans have truly been shut out. EPISODE II development continues apace, and you can bet that no matter what you’ve kicked and screamed about, and no matter how many other people have kicked and screamed about the same thing, and no matter how rational you think your points and protests are, none of it matters. Lucasfilm will do what Lucasfilm wants, and that’s all there is to it.
As Harry and I enjoyed our visit to the Metreon and to San Francisco, there was always this thing nagging at me, in the back of my head. Some of the guys who were with us on the trip and who we had dinner with joked that I should be proud to be banned. After all, they hated EPISODE I, so what does it matter?
That’s just the thing, though. I don’t hate EPISODE I. In fact, despite the fact that I have problems with certain elements of the film, I have actually come to like it quite a bit more than I did upon first viewing, and even then, I felt it was a solid fantasy film that deserved real consideration. As I have watched it over and over these last six months, wearing my way through tapes, I find much to love in the film. It belongs to the same universe that so enthralled me as a boy, and any chance to visit there leaves me better.
At the end of our time in San Francisco, Harry and I found ourselves in the great FAO Schwartz toystore there, roaming from floor to floor. There was a melancholy between us. We had talked around the STAR WARS thing all weekend, never actually talking about it. As we were riding the last escalator up inside the store, we happened to look up.
The entire ceiling of FAO Schwartz was dressed like the underside of the Millennium Falcon.
It was really beautiful, and as I stepped off the escalator, I could hear music… the STAR WARS theme, that familiar John Williams strain. The irony was just terrible. As I walked out onto the top floor, I saw two kids run by with TIE Fighters in their hands. I followed them around to where half the floor had been given over to a massive STAR WARS display.
A full-sized AT-AT was breaking through from the roof, its front legs holding it up, its cannons firing constantly. On monitors all around the floor, A NEW HOPE was playing. There were toys there I’d never seen anywhere else, FAO exclusives. I stopped by one of the monitors, losing track of Knowles, of the store around me.
Onscreen, Ben Kenobi stood opposite Darth Vader, lightsabers extended. Old familiar dialogue skipped across my ears, barely registering at this point. It was just the little details I saw. Luke’s face when he caught sight of these two circling one another. That little smile that Kenobi gives before he surrenders himself to Vader’s attack. Vader’s foot probing for some clue as to Kenobi’s disappearance.
And standing there, watching those images, I couldn’t have hated George Lucas if he had actually assaulted me himself. I just don’t have the heart. I have invested too much of myself in these worlds. I have spent too much time on these adventures. They are part of the very fabric of who I am, and I can’t change that at this late date no matter what.
Knowles let me know that we were running late, and he and I left the store. I noticed that he had a bag with him, and I realized I had no idea where he had gone while we were inside. We got to the hotel, checked out, and just barely had time to hop our transport to the airport. En route, Harry gave me the FAO bag. “Don’t open it yet, though,” he told me.
I wouldn’t have had time to disobey him even if I’d wanted to. The entire experience of getting onto the plane was a nightmare, with flights being cancelled and rearranged and rerouted. I found my way onto my flight before collapsing. It was only then that I remembered the bag.
I found a simple white box inside, heavy, with the unmistakable SW logo on the outside. I broke the single piece of tape and removed from the box a large, beautiful snowglobe. Inside, a small snowspeeder circled an AT-AT while a music box version of “The Imperial March” played. I shook it up and watched the fake snow cascade around the AT-AT, a smile springing to my face unbidden.
Inside, Harry had scrawled a quick note and tucked it where I’d find it.
“It’s the art, not the artist.”
That snowglobe sits on my desk now, and I find myself picking it up frequently. There’s a PHANTOM MENACE calendar hanging off to the right. There’s a Destroyer Droid perched on top of my monitor. I am surrounded every day by something that puts money in George Lucas’ pocket. And I don’t care that I am Banned From the Ranch. If anything, it gives me permission to continue to cover these films without fear of retribution. The worst has happened. None of it will color anything I write here, because Harry’s right.
It’s the art… not the artist.
It’s just a shame that’s the way it has to be.
And with that, I have to run. There’s a million more things to do at the Labs, and now that we’re back on schedule, I’ll be bringing you more information about the Forrest J. Ackerman trial, and I’ll be wading through even more of this crazy reading stack to bring you looks at films both near and far from release. In the meantime, I’m going to sit here and enjoy this function of WinAmp that I just found. Why didn’t someone tell me what the hell “visualization” did? This and Rhino’s exceptional new HOLLYWOOD JAZZ & SWING collection should be more than enough to keep me busy till we talk next. Until then…