My first self-published novel, Secretarial Wars, took forever to finish. I started working on it around 1990, before self-publishing became a real option, and I didn’t finally dispose of it until 2003. It was inspired by several awkward office experiences I lived through during my first full-time job after college. Considering how humble the job was, and how frustratingly long it took to get anywhere in my professional life, it seems incredible that a small slice of that story has now been dramatized in a short film called “The Investigation.”

Secretarial Wars was actually my third attempt at a novel. I had spent years struggling with two hot messes, a college story and its sequel, that were trying to become novels and not really succeeding. I finally reflected that I might do better by grounding a story in my more recent real-life experiences. So I conceived a tale based on my secretarial life at the quasi-government Fulbright grant program from 1974 to 1979.

Fulbright grants were awarded mostly to university professors and researchers with the goal of disseminating American ideals and values abroad. The viewpoint character in my story, Miriam, was a somewhat confused but ambitious young woman who chafed at the limits of her secretarial role. She had two best friends in the office, based on pals of mine who were nearly polar opposites in personality and worked for the organization at different times. One of these girlfriends was a dedicated secretary, and the other, to put it mildly, was not.

Since I started writing the novel before most offices had become high-tech, and it focused on a time when stone age instruments like electric typewriters were in use, I compromised by bringing it up to the early 1990s, when the Internet did exist but was not yet at every desktop, and the few cell phones in use were clunky by today’s standards.

I ground out three novels after Secretarial Wars, and paid to have all four converted to screenplays by professional screenwriters. I thought they all did a decent job of making the stories more cinematic than the originals. Secretarial Wars was the one I felt adhered most faithfully to the original novel. I lifted a few scenes from that screenplay and enhanced them for submission to a local outfit called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z. I called the short script “Secretarial Spy,” and centered it on a secretary’s travails at a Fulbright-like grant program. The heroine, Miriam, an aspiring investigative journalist, entertains two rather contradictory goals: to get a promotion, but also to investigate her boss for possible malfeasance in awarding grants.

The script underwent a thorough revision by a writer far more movie-savvy than me, and was renamed “The Investigation.” While the story ended up quite different from the original, I’m not inclined to complain about that. No doubt if the process had taken place in Hollywood, California instead of Bethesda, Maryland, the same wholesale changes would have occurred. The spark of the idea remains intact: a showdown between Miriam and a boss of questionable morals, Mrs. Broadwater. They work for an outfit called the Peace Council, which boasts an idealistic mission: to promote international cooperation through humanitarian projects. However, owing to the Council’s involvement in many political and financial deals overseas, it’s also vulnerable to corruption.

The film truly does bring back a humiliating episode. Fresh out of college, rather full of myself as a summa cum laude graduate, I was discontent with my secretarial position but didn’t realize that my disdain was obvious. I applied for a modest promotion, based on my ability to complete writing tasks. I was called into the office of the deputy director, a steely woman who really ran the place, and subjected to a painful interview. I didn’t have ready answers for her barrage of questions and observations. Do you like your job? All I could honestly reply was that I believed in the mission of the agency. You haven’t formed a real partnership with your immediate supervisor. I insinuated my supervisor might be partly to blame for that, while trying not to throw her totally under the bus. You never take initiative. But how, I wondered, is a lowly underling supposed to do that?

I tried to do better after that wretched interview. I was pursuing a master’s degree in political science in night school, and I decided to examine the nuts and bolts of the organization for a term paper. No real scandal turned up in the course of my research. Still, it set me thinking: what if something had looked fishy? What if grants were for sale to the highest bidder, or as a political reward? Maybe a secretary who aspired to be an investigative journalist would pursue such a theory. And maybe she’d establish contact with an underground newspaper editor who was looking for scandals, and also happened to be devastatingly handsome.

The boss who unwittingly served as the model for Mrs. Broadwater is now deceased. There’s no way of knowing how she would feel to be portrayed as a sourpuss, and possibly worse. Not that it’s a fair portrayal—she was actually a dedicated and accomplished official, who dealt with me as the child I still was. She may have looked like a witch to me all those years ago when I was her powerless employee, but the story demonstrates her growth as well as Miriam’s.

The young secretary in the film, after receiving a comeuppance much like the real-life one I endured, vows to improve her job performance. Concurrently, she picks up a habit of staying late in the office, poking around for secrets. The crusty boss nearly catches her in the act one night, but perhaps mistaking her nosiness for conscientiousness, unbends enough to offer her the long-sought promotion. When Miriam requests to be called an assistant instead of a secretary as part of that deal, Mrs. B approves of Miriam’s newfound spirit. There is even a suggestion that the boss has sniffed out Miriam’s investigatory plan, and doesn’t totally disapprove. She was once a young idealist herself.

Isn’t it amazing how re-imagining a painful situation or a troublesome person can give you a sense of power over them? When that process is aided by talented actors and filmmakers, it’s even more empowering. My (almost) fifteen minutes of fame can be viewed below:

Writers Of The Resistance

January 20, 2017

4b81149247ccf4548a3a29c1fcd82444It’s not exactly the Civil War all over again, with opposing homegrown armies battling one another to the death on battlegrounds like Antietam and Gettysburg. Still, with the political climate boiling and differences between factions looking intractable, a hot war isn’t as implausible as it once seemed. These days there seem to be fewer and fewer unthinkable possibilities. We don’t yet know how far President Trump will go in challenging the normal rules of society to enforce his authority. One thing is certain: he didn’t hesitate during the campaign to set his thugs on peaceful demonstrators.

Those of us with progressive beliefs are feeling beleaguered. We’re clinging to common sense in the face of a government in which facts and reason have no place. I believe there are few problems in our society that couldn’t be solved, or at least alleviated, if billionaires like Trump and his closest buddies were paying their fair share of taxes. Yet that is absolutely out of the question. To even argue the point is a waste of breath. A President who has been propelled into office on a movement depending on lies, conspiracy theories, and delusion can’t be reasoned with, and neither can his followers. He will never read reputable newspapers or listen to experts who say things he doesn’t want to hear. His only real belief is in his own greatness and his ability to do whatever he wants. The word for that is dictatorship.

With reason flying out the window, so has politics as usual. We once had two major political parties with a core of responsible leaders who saw the necessity of compromising on occasion to get things done. Now one of the parties has mastered every dirty trick in the book to keep itself in power. Thanks to innovations like Citizens United, gerrymandering, and voter suppression, and the tried-but-true Electoral College, the system is so rigged that dislodging the clowns will probably be impossible for years to come. A majority of citizens already opposes them, yet here they are in all their glory, claiming a “mandate.” Most people favor sensible gun control, Planned Parenthood, affordable health care, and clean energy, but those are looking like pipe dreams. We might as well call this system by its rightful name: Fascism.

Artists have a long history of standing up to Fascists. Art is only one weapon, but a necessary one. Political fiction has always pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible, but lately even the most innovative stories have been overtaken by events. I’ve been looking forward to the fifth season of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” but now the incredibly sleazy Underwood administration seems so tame compared to reality. Sleazy doesn’t necessarily equate to Fascist. True, Frank Underwood has murdered people who stood in his way, but he has some sensible ideas for running the country and has implemented a few policies that actually help ordinary people. He’s evil, but he’s smart enough to cover his tracks. His calculating nature and self-control tend to prove he’s not crazy. By contrast, many of Trump’s statements are utterly irrational, and he can’t seem to stop himself from uttering or tweeting them.

If the brutal election and its aftermath produce a Resistance movement, that could turn out to be a silver lining for writers. Many great stories came out of resistance to Nazism before and during World War Two. A truly creative writer could perhaps find a way to adapt one of my favorites, “Casablanca,” to the US landscape. It would involve a love triangle centered on a heroine who thinks her husband, a renowned freedom fighter, has perished in prison. She falls in love with another man, also a freedom fighter in his own more understated way, only to find out that her husband is still alive and is coming back. She must decide: which rebel does she love most?

Admittedly, it wouldn’t have quite the same punch unless there was a real war going on, with troops occupying Washington the way they did Paris. Maybe if Hillary Clinton had won the election, and Trump had instigated the violent insurrection he hinted at numerous times, that would have been the case. Or if he should lose a reelection bid four years from now, he might be unwilling to accept those results peaceably. Even in the absence of a hot war, I can envision one of my favorite scenes replicated: the singing of the Marseillaise at Rick’s café, which joyfully drowned out the German national anthem. To get the flavor of that scene, all we’d have to do is find the nearest gathering of Trumpsters, and blast it with Pete Seeger and other peace songs.

A Resistance story doesn’t necessarily involve actual combat. There are many World War Two-era stories that celebrate non-violent resistance to Nazism. A few examples include “The Book Thief” (which celebrates the reading and preservation of forbidden books during Nazi book-burning campaigns); “Rosenstrasse” (which portrays the silent protests by Christian women that resulted in getting their Jewish husbands released from prison); and “Sophie Scholl” (which depicts the White Rose student resistance movement that encouraged kids to spread leaflets and graffiti throughout Germany).

I was a bureaucrat for forty years in Federal government and quasi-government programs, and was never on the front lines of anything. So what kind of Resistance movie could I produce based on my own experiences? Many budget analysts like me are charged with producing head counts of employees in various job classifications. One of my responsibilities at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was maintaining lists of compliance safety and health officers, known as CSHOs. They were the front-line employees who performed safety and health inspections at worksites.

Now the Trump team has announced its intention to change civil service rules so that career Federal employees can be fired without cause. It can’t be a coincidence that they’ve demanded the names of Energy Department employees who have been involved in designing and implementing clean energy policies. So far, the department has denied the request. Will they be able to continue standing up to the science deniers? I envision a drama with a working title like “Barricades of the Bureaucracy.” Not exactly an action-packed thriller, it would instead be a tale of organized civil disobedience among pencil pushers.

A wide-scale resistance movement in the Federal bureaucracy could take the form of refusing to divulge the names of employees who are doing the regulatory and scientific jobs they were hired to do, such as establishing environmental protection laws and enforcing safety and health rules in hazardous workplaces. Presumably, if they can’t be identified, they can’t be fired. If their identities eventually come to light, human resources offices could refuse to do the paperwork required to terminate their employment. The prospect of firing whole departments might stump even the great and magnificent Donald Trump.

Nazi Germany was reputed to be a bureaucratic society, with the complicated administrative structure of the Third Reich existing parallel to and competitive with the Nazi Party. It seemed that everything, even genocide, had to be done by the book. Maybe it would be a good thing if the Trumpsters turned out to resemble the Nazis in that regard. We could build barricades with paperwork, and hopefully they’d smother in it.

Where’s The Glamour?

November 2, 2016

0620161545I’m a lifelong East Coast girl who finally got around to visiting California in June 2016. My previous travels took me as far east as central Europe, but I had somehow neglected to take the westward trek in my own country until a full two years after retirement. Los Angeles was an important goal on my bucket list, mainly because of my love for movies and my interest in the business aspects of movie-making. Also, I’ve been making a fairly desperate and pathetic effort to buy my way into the industry by paying professional screenwriters to convert my four novels into scripts. Having waited so long to see the city of my dreams, I went there with stars in my eyes, determined to soak up as much glamour and creative energy as I could.

Warner Bros and Paramount were major sites on my wish list, since they advertise themselves as working studios rather than mere theme parks. What struck me immediately was that they are, indeed, workplaces. You can tell that sound stages, when they’re not in use, are the province of crews. Highly skilled technicians are required to work all those overhead lights and wires and microphones. Besides the stages, there are rooms full of props that are being collected for possible use in upcoming films. Those that have already been earmarked for a project are tagged and copyright-protected from being photographed. Someone has to oversee these cavernous rooms, which were not well air-conditioned on a hot day. Overall, you get a feel not for glamour, but for the real labor behind the scenes. It hardly seems fair that the actors get to memorize their lines in the comfort of their palatial homes, and then swoop in at filming time to scoop up all the accolades and applause.

0620161022This feeling that LA is a hard-working city, and not just a partying hub, was enhanced by the fact that it was hovering around 100 degrees the day I hit the studios, easily the hottest day of the year there. Much of the tour is necessarily outside, as an open-air trolley is used to transport visitors in between lots. You’re not allowed to enter places where the “filming in progress” lights are on, which limits your options to get relief. Luckily, the tour directors had the foresight to set up free water at several stops.

It was not only a hot city that day, but a smoky one, with fire bellowing out of the nearby hills. A little smoke doesn’t bother the residents until it threatens to get out of hand, which tends to happen later in the summer. Likewise, the earthquake that hit San Diego a few days before I visited there didn’t cause much concern, although it was almost as strong as the one that set off major panic on the east coast about five years ago. It wasn’t the Big One, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. As for driving in LA, there are memorable songs about its roadways. I can’t vouch for everything in Sheryl Crow’s description of all-night partying in LA, which she tops off with the chorus, “All I wanna do is have some fun till the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.” But no driver in LA can deny that Burt Bacharach spoke the truth in his song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” when he proclaimed, “LA is a great big freeway.”

My trip also featured a tour of movie star homes, although most of them are hidden behind extremely tall hedges. Once in a while you can peek through the foliage and catch a glimpse of a landscaper or gardener. There’s no question Beverly Hills is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods I’ll ever see, yet it’s not all that different from the nicest parts of Bethesda, Maryland or McLean, Virginia. Somehow the east coast seems more modest, since the residents don’t go out of their way to hide from prying eyes, and can even on occasion be seen doing their own lawn work. To be fair, it must be much more difficult to keep up a huge lawn in that dry southern California climate at the height of summer, where the grass is practically tumbleweed.

I guess it all goes to prove that Hollywood is a vibrant place, but hardly magical. We idealize the people who work there without always considering how workaday their lives can be. For example, our young tour guide at Paramount Pictures, whom you might expect to be star struck, is working multiple jobs in order to pay off his humongous student loans. His long-range plan is to get involved in the business rather than the performing side of the industry. In the meantime, he conducts tours by day and reads screenplays for the studio by night. He doesn’t get to know many stars on the job, since they rarely have time to chat, so his stories about them are mostly hearsay.

Did I manage to glimpse any stars myself that day? Maybe future ones. Our tour guide pointed out the back door of a lot where a kid was being admitted to audition for a youth-oriented show. I could only imagine the striving that lays ahead for that ambitious youngster. If she manages to pass this first hurdle, there are so many more to come. All in all, I figure showbiz is a lot like writing, considering all the sweat it takes to make the end result look easy and fun.

NGC_4414_(NASA-med)Science fiction has never been my favorite genre. Not that I didn’t get a kick out of reading or watching fanciful space travel stuff and freaking out over invading aliens when I was a kid, but my main rap against it was that it didn’t try hard enough to be real. By definition, all fiction is unreal, but for me a novel or movie works best when it comes close enough to recognizable real life to allow for the willing suspension of disbelief. I’m not denying that the Star Wars and Star Trek movies are fun to watch and sometimes even insightful about the human condition. But if space travel is ever to be real, we must seriously question if and how these things can be done. We can’t build spaceships on current models that can accelerate to “warp light speed.” Never will we venture way out yonder to find human-like creatures populating galaxy after galaxy, speaking perfect English. When it comes to the “war” part of Star Wars, we will probably never develop an arsenal fearsome enough to make whole worlds explode at the push of a button. Special effects don’t add up to reality.

Lately, however, the genre has been expanding with the growing popularity of what we might call scientific science fiction. Movies like Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) push the edges of what is theoretically possible in space travel. The ordinary mind boggles at the concepts of theoretical physics and engineering feats that must be mastered to make these space forays possible. By “ordinary mind” I mean one like my own, lacking in scientific skills but greatly respectful of science. Yet our long-term survival as a species may depend on coming to grips with it all.

Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, Contact, posited the idea of wormholes as a means of feasible space travel. A wormhole, if real, might enable us to defy the limitations imposed on us by relativity and gravity. These blips in time and space might allow for deep-space travel that could be completed within reasonable timeframes. One of Sagan’s scientific pursuits throughout his career was the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The scientist-heroine of his story, Eleanor Arroway, receives the signal from space that Sagan dreamed of finding himself. It’s a repeating message composed of prime numbers, presumed to be the universal language of mathematics. The message, once fully decoded, reveals a blueprint for building a spaceship that can make use of a wormhole. Plenty of Earthlings are skeptical of the discovery. Who’s to say these aliens aren’t evil and diabolical, intent on luring us to our doom? Sagan’s theory was that a highly technical society capable of sending such a message must have passed some threshold of survival. The aliens had evidently developed nuclear and every other form of energy without destroying themselves in the process. That could only mean that they had learned, somehow, to live peaceably among themselves. They sensed that we were on the precipice, flirting with self-destruction, so they reached out.

Interstellar borrows the wormhole concept. According to side notes in the Kindle version of the movie, these ideas were developed by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. “Based on warped space-time,” Dr. Thorne says, “the most exotic events in the universe suddenly becoming accessible to humans.” By contrast, The Martian seems tantalizingly close to present-day reality. We have already sent numerous unmanned probes to the red planet, and manned missions are on the drawing board. A proposed one-way trip is drawing plenty of applicants, despite the prospect of never returning home. NASA has a working prototype of the Mars Launcher Habitat used in the movie. The buried Pathfinder lander that figures in the story is an actual spacecraft built by NASA in the 1990s. One of the launches shown in the movie is actual footage of the Mars Science Laboratory launch.

The Martian isn’t about a one-way trip. On the contrary, its travelers hope to return to Earth to be welcomed back and lauded by their fellow citizens. The astronauts aboard the Hermes spacecraft mourn a crew member, Mark Watney, whom they had to leave behind after a catastrophic explosion apparently killed him. When they are informed that against all odds, he survived the incident, they return to rescue him, adding over 500 days to their mission.

The Martian is about adventure and exploration, however perilous. Interstellar, by contrast, is about desperation. The opening scenes show Earth in peril, with the crops dying, the air polluted, and water in short supply. It’s all too easy to believe this is an accurate snapshot of earth in coming decades. The need to escape this hellhole is urgent. Schools in these end days are training more farmers than engineers, but agriculture is still failing. They’re also teaching hopelessness, denying kids not only a future but rewriting history to deny that men ever walked on the moon.

A young girl, Murphy, feels haunted by a ghost in her bedroom. Her father, Cooper, an engineer who is also a pilot, shares her feeling that this apparition, whatever it is, has the answers. By taking a scientific rather than a mystical view of it, they discover a message leading to a facility where NASA scientists are working on the problem of human survival. There are all sorts of theories, problems, and equations that must be worked out. Gravity anomalies have been detected for the past 50 years, they say, but can an anomaly actually defy gravity? A possible wormhole has been detected near Saturn, a disturbance in space-time that might allow escape to another galaxy. Whoever is sending these messages must live in five dimensions, with a different conception of time than humans have. Can those of us limited to three dimensions ever understand them? Will humans ever be able to see into a black hole and uncover its mysteries? A space station has been built, based partly on the current International Space Station, but dependent on gravitational anomalies and a “mishmash of technologies.” A stash of fertilized eggs on board represents the only glimmer of hope.

Both movies have a lot to say about human emotions, which both help and hinder the fight for survival. “We must begin to think as a species, not as individuals,” declares the physicist who sends Cooper on his outer space mission, lying to him in the process. He believes he’s sending Cooper to colonize another planet, never to return. He can’t allow his true opinion of the mission to be known, because Cooper’s instincts as a parent would never allow him to undertake it if he believed it meant leaving his children and all the children of earth behind to starve. During the mission, one of Cooper’s colleagues risks everything by advocating colonization of a planet that is obviously an inferior choice. She’s in search of the man who explored it previously, who might still be alive, although it seems unlikely. Maybe, she declares, her love for him is a powerful force beyond human understanding, one she shouldn’t be expected to resist.

The Martian is more optimistic about present-day humanity than Interstellar. When Mark Watney is rescued and brought back to Earth, he lectures astronauts in training about the perilous life they have chosen. The fear and possibility of death will be close and constant, since outer space is cold and stark and does not cooperate with humanity. Only if they solve all the problems that come their way will they get to go home. That’s how Watney finally gets home—by solving one practical problem after another, against terrible odds, aided by a sense of humor. He knows his food rations won’t last long enough, so he must grow his own potatoes. “Luckily, I’m a botanist.” When this crop is destroyed in an unexpected mishap, he needs to create a source of water to prepare more soil. He knows water can be created by lighting up hydrogen, a prohibitively dangerous process but the only one available. So is digging up a radioactive energy source that was buried on a previous mission and remains deadly. At every step, he says he must “science the shit out of this.” A hundred different hazards could kill him, including the boring disco music collection that the commander of the mission left behind.

When the problems seem insurmountable, and death seems all but certain, Mark passes on a message to his parents: if he perishes, he did it for something big and beautiful. He didn’t do it because it was a choice between exploring new worlds and dying out as a species, as in Interstellar. He did it for curiosity, a love of learning, and the spirit of exploration, human traits that are probably just as essential to survival as food, water, and oxygen.

0403161113Social media is supposed to be fun, and it usually is. I grew up in a pre-high tech era, and I can never be sure I’m doing any of this stuff right. But I do know that if you live a fairly solitary life like me, the interaction is enjoyable if not necessary. The “friends” you make are certainly better than no friends, and sometimes easier to deal with than flesh and blood people. But does social media work as a business endeavor for authors? In other words, does it sell books, or is it mainly a distraction from more productive work?

Twitter is easily the most active of my accounts. It requires no deep thought to knock out a message of 140 characters or less on any conceivable subject, or to “like” and re-tweet the musings of others. Twitter is the social media outlet that most resembles a cacophony. It reminds me of mingling in a ballpark crowd and becoming instant friends with hundreds of people, all cheering for the same cause, high-fiving like mad when we all “win.” Twitter messages come along so fast, it’s hard to keep up. Some days I see the notification “32 new tweets” before I’ve have a chance to look at the ones already on my feed. I impulsively follow everybody who follows me, even if the contacts have drifted far from my original purpose. Are there terrorists and perverts in the crowd? I wouldn’t know, since I don’t really screen them.

Twitter is the one place where I feel comfortable about relentless advertising. I have a recurring ad for my novel, Handmaidens of Rock, and it gets numerous likes, comments, and re-tweets. That’s somewhat flattering, even if there’s no evidence anybody looks beyond the cover. At least people seem attracted to the three hippie girls from the early 1970s, posing in a grove of trees, one of them strumming a guitar. One tweeter asked if the acoustic guitar was really suitable for a rock band. I explained that the scene depicts a temporary sojourn in a commune. Although the story has violent episodes befitting that era, the cover represents the chill-out part of it. I’m guessing that ads like this seem a little less obnoxious and intrusive than the constant pop-ups on other media sites.  At least the accompanying tweets are short and to the point, not long synopses.

Blogging tends to be a much slower and lonelier process. I use it to sound off about a variety of topics in essay form, which hopefully keeps alive the part of my brain that no longer relies on work or school to do it. That is not to say that bloggers are required to be any more thoughtful than tweeters. Many stick literally to the “online journal” idea, chronicling their daily activities and feelings in detail. I’m too squeamish for that level of confession, but these diarists must be on to something, since they tend to write more often and therefore make more friends than I do.

When authors blog, the endless “traditional vs. self-publishing” debate gets aired over and over. But again, pieces like that tend to get read. I read them myself, just in case they’ve managed to come up with some new argument, although that’s rarely the case. Since it takes time and effort to read and comment on essays, you can’t expect the same explosion of reactions and frenetic be-friending that Twitter provides. My efforts to “like” and comment on others’ blogs are sometimes but not always reciprocated, which is probably my fault. I tend to get long-winded on subjects I care about, so it’s up to me to write shorter and snappier pieces that won’t put my prospective readers to sleep.

Facebook for me falls somewhere in between these two extremes. It can serve as an expanded Twitter or an abbreviated blog. I like to alternate my Facebook comments between sports (lighthearted) and politics (serious). Lots of fights break out in both areas, sometimes bordering on nastiness, but those who get out of hand are usually called out by others who are protective of their own groups or feeds. Many authors consider their Facebook ads, and the number of “likes” they attract, as serious business. As for Instagram and Pinterest, these strike me as fun vanity sites, where authors can put up pictures, book covers, book trailers, and scenes from book trailers, hoping to give their projects some flattering exposure.

All in all, I prefer to regard social media as mostly social, with a few business benefits mixed in. One of the best comments I ever got for one of my posts was: “Thanks for the opportunity to not feel so alone.”

Amateur Moviemakers

February 3, 2016

crazy-iphone-camera-lensIt’s a great time to aspire to be a moviemaker without any credentials whatsoever. Ambitious amateurs are proclaiming that anybody with a smart phone in his or her pocket is a potential filmmaker. Is it true that no special knowledge or skill is needed when you point that I-phone, other than the ability to hold it straight? And are the films being made with such minimal preparation any good? So far we haven’t seen the ambitious phone-wielders on a red carpet at the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes. But there have been enough breakthroughs in the past few years to give amateurs hope.

Just by googling “movies made with I-phones,” you can find numerous examples of phone-based productions that have garnered attention, a few of them enough to win prestigious prizes. For example, a movie called “Tangerine,” shot on an Apple device, was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It is based on the true story of a love triangle that developed at a popular donut shop between a transgender woman, her boyfriend, and a biological woman.

On looking closer, it seems this production adhered to certain professional standards. The writer and director, Sean Baker, did know what he was doing. He used three phones, as well as an app called Filmic Pro, a Steadicam to keep the phones from shaking, and some adapter lenses to give it a professional look. He also employed post-production techniques that reflected his knowledge of traditional filmmaking.

There is now at least one annual festival devoted to recognizing and rewarding iPhone films. Belarus-born Chris Nong, also an established director, won an award at the second annual festival for an eight-minute Russian action movie shot with an iPhone 4. Again, other devices were used, and the director’s professional credentials were in evidence. Michael Koerbel, the producer of a TV series called “Goldilocks” that features a blonde secret agent called Jasmine, maintains that anybody can do it. He is also the author of a book called “Studio in your Pocket,” and the producer of several short films. He declares, “We want to inspire the next generation of filmmakers to get out there and start sharing their stories with the world.”

How about full-length feature films? “Uneasy Lies The Mind” (2014) was billed as “the first narrative feature film to be shot entirely on iPhone.” This film is a psychological portrait of a man suffering delusions due to a head injury. Accordingly, its use of distorted and disjointed images is actually a selling point. The director, Ricky Fosheim, the founder of Detention Films and known for his music videos, pointed to the relative affordability of this method.

So is everybody really doing it? These experienced directors give the impression that they are experimenting with ways of cutting costs and getting a production up and running with amazing speed, but that they could return to their more traditional and expensive methods at any time.

What about absolute rank amateurs? Are they doing anything noteworthy? Maybe not yet, but they are trying. There are numerous meetup groups here in the DC area devoted to writing scripts and critiquing them. However, if a movie is ever to arise from a script, it has to be “crewed.” That is true whether the filmmakers make use of their handy personal toys or bring in traditional cameras. You either need to hire an existing production company, which is an expensive proposition, or put together an amateur one.

The “Film in a Day” method is an increasingly popular and relatively affordable technique for ambitious but under-subsidized outfits. For example, a meetup group called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z, located in suburban Washington DC, proclaims: “Writing, producing, directing, acting, filming, and editing, we do it all!” Founded in March of 2015, the group has two “executive organizers” in charge of all productions. They periodically send out a call for screenplays of five to seven pages, from which they aim to select one for production every two months. Once the script is selected, they put together a temporary production company, locate a single set, and accomplish the shooting in one day. Four films have been made up to this point, three to five minutes in length, and posted on youtube. They range from a comedy about bumbling thieves (“Decaf”) to a psychological fantasy about conquering internal demons (“Critics”). By necessity, the story lines and messages are simple, yet five minutes seems enough time to at least make a point. It’s not red-carpet stuff, but it’s a start.

Secretarial Wars still shotSeveral weeks ago, I blogged about my adventures and mishaps in trying to convert a script based on my novel Let’s Play Ball into a storyboard at Amazon Studios. My efforts to give my graphic characters realistic wardrobes, props, and settings, and make them behave in ways that fit the story, were challenging and often hilarious. The result was a complete story in 100 panels which actually turned out more streamlined and action-oriented than the book. Still, it takes imagination to envision it as an actual movie.

While I was working on this storyboard, I was invited to try an updated application, Amazon Storyteller 2.0 Beta, designed to “help visualize your story in a more compelling way.” I gave this a try for my second project, based on my novel Secretarial Wars. This application has several new features, designed to make the storyboard more closely resemble a movie. The most obvious of these for the viewer is that the panels move automatically without the need to advance them manually. Sometimes, in fact, the panels zip by so fast that the dialogue is hard to read. However, the viewer can pause them if necessary.

Better yet, there is also an option to do away with typed dialogue altogether by downloading actual voices reading the script. I didn’t use this device, since I figured it would require real actors and distinct voices to make it work. I don’t have a stable of dramatists on hand, and I’m not enough of one myself to play all the roles! Other available special features include downloaded music and sound effects from the application’s libraries, and the option to download your own. I used the app’s libraries, adding ringing phones for office scenes, honking horns for street scenes, rock music and crashing dishes for nightclub scenes, and a police siren for an arrest scene. The music, especially, adds ambience, although it tends to sound choppy if the same piece extends over more than one panel.

Does the new and improved storyteller get me any nearer to putting an actual movie online? A little, maybe. It certainly adds to the fun. For comparison purposes, the links are below.

Let’s Play Ball:

http://studios.amazon.com/projects/61723#contributions/79712

Secretarial Wars:

http://studios.amazon.com/projects/66624#contributions/89868

th_letsplayballI’m trying to circulate three screenplays based on my novels, and Hollywood has yet to start knocking down my doors. So I thought I’d try posting one of them, Let’s Play Ball, on the Amazon Studios site. The response there hasn’t exactly been overwhelming either, but the site does give aspiring moviemakers the chance to have a little fun. By uploading your script and converting it to Rich Text Format (RTF), you have the capacity to turn the story into a series of storyboards via a new application called Amazon Storyteller.

This is an innovation that allows the aspiring filmmaker to choose from a stock supply of backgrounds, characters, and props to visualize scenes from a script. Each board has a caption which sets the scene and contains dialogue. You can also use backgrounds of your own, which I needed to do in order to get ballpark scenes into my story. The result is more like a graphic novel or a cartoon than a movie. Amazon is reportedly working to add to its stock of graphics–maybe robots and spaceships some day, they say.

The fun part is learning, mostly by trial and error, how to manipulate the scenes to make them halfway realistic. You can move around characters, scale them to size, change their clothes and facial expressions, give them props, whatever it takes to make them do whatever they’re supposed to be doing. But because of the limitations of this brand-new application, what you get sometimes resembles a frustration dream rather than a narrative. For example, I’ve been struggling to get a group of diners to sit at a table instead of standing around it, staring at a bottle of wine. I’d like my heroine to be able to hold a cell phone in her hand instead of making it levitate in front of her. There’s also the challenge of clothing the characters appropriately.

Who knows, maybe I’m conjuring up actual nightmares that ballplayers have about showing up on the diamond out of uniform, or missing the game because they got stuck in the bleachers. Certainly all of us office drones have had dreams about showing up at work wearing safari or beach clothing, or something even more revealing. During one intense scene between an employee and her boss, I experimented with various gestures, including one in which she appeared to give him the finger. She actually looked happy when he suspended her, so a facial expression adjustment was necessary. I’ve also accidentally created a floating microphone at a press conference, and floating sandwiches that literally flew off a shelf.

But perhaps the main thing for achieving realism in a movie: how do you force these stock characters to get intimate with each other? They don’t seem disposed to embrace or to sit down together, much less to lie down. So far, Amazon Storyteller doesn’t appear to lend itself to hot and heavy lovemaking.

rr-tableThanks to my versatile Kindle Fire, I recently explored the tragic story of Revolutionary Road in both movie and book form. It’s a cautionary tale that seems relevant to anyone trying to balance a creative career with domestic and workaday responsibilities. Originally a novel by Richard Yates published in 1961, the story is set in post-World War II suburban America. It evidently resonates with contemporary audiences, as it became a well-regarded 2009 film reuniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the equally tragic but much-more-in-love couple from 1997’s Titanic.

The film is quite faithful to the book. It portrays a young couple whose belief that they are too talented and special to endure an ordinary suburban existence ultimately leads to their destruction. Many people strive for this kind of balance, and find it difficult, if not killing. To avoid self-destructing over it, one must ultimately come to a more realistic understanding of what’s achievable.

Frank and April Wheeler’s life in the suburbs is prosperous enough, and would be envied by many. They have a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, friendly (although sometimes nosy) neighbors, and two adorable children. Frank has a decent-paying job with possibilities for promotion. What more could they want?

What they want most is not to be ordinary. Frank hates, or more accurately, disdains the job. April studied to be an actress, but failed at it. She depends on her husband to make their lives special, and resents his inability to do it. They both indulge in affairs, which fail to alleviate their boredom. Then they concoct a much more ambitious plan to blast through the ordinariness. They will chuck everything and move to Paris, counting on the city itself to bestow the specialness they crave. What will they do there? It’s not that Frank wants to paint city scenes or write a novel. They figure that April will support the family with secretarial jobs while he looks after the kids and “finds himself.”

The friends with whom they share this implausible plan are mostly appalled at their lack of responsibility, but are mostly too polite to say so. The only person with sufficient courage to spell out the flaws in their thinking is a recent mental hospital patient whose illness seems to spur his honesty. In the end, the Wheelers’ castle in the air comes crashing down, wrecked by the most prosaic of realities, an unplanned pregnancy. How will they handle that? It turns out they can’t.

th_letsplayballI’ve avoided reading bad reviews for a while now. I’ve heard too many cruel jibes about my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, which admittedly has a complicated plot. Recently, via Google, I discovered a couple of not-so-bad reviews. A few readers have had the patience to stay with the story until it resolved itself. At least they admit there is a story. But I recognize that complex plots, with lots of characters, need simplifying if we want them to be made into movies … and who doesn’t?

I submitted all three of my novels to professional screenwriters who attempted to transform them into cinematic products. I was warned in advance that large portions of the original stories would likely end up on the cutting room floor, as movies require a more streamlined plot and cast of characters than novels do. So how much do I miss the parts that had to go?

There was no getting around the fact that Let’s Play Ball needed simplification, although the basics were spared. It’s about a Cuban-born Major League ballplayer who is kidnapped from his own ballpark and transported back to his homeland. His sportswriter fiancée and her fraternal twin sister, sometimes assisted and sometimes impeded by the police, set out to discover who did it, and why. My story involves collusion between two filthy-rich and powerful owners with political connections that reach as far as the White House and the Cuban government. A militia movement assists with the kidnapping for its own racist reasons. The smoking gun is revealed via an Oval Office tape, secretly recorded by the President’s girlfriend as punishment for his perceived betrayal of her. Along the way, there are plenty of other sexual hi-jinks.

The screenplay, by contrast, boils down the evil governments and militias to single individuals with simpler motives than world domination. For example, a mechanic named Ricky tampers with a player’s motorcycle. He has no notion of trying to expose Oval Office chicanery. He’s merely working for a baseball owner whose motive is preventing an embarrassing revelation about steroid use on his team. The evil owner, whose son-in-law is a U. S. Senator, isn’t exposed via secret tapes. Instead, his daughter confronts one of the avenging twins, who possesses damning evidence against her, in the bathroom at a political fundraiser. This leads to the arrest of both owner and daughter in front of a roomful of supporters.

I’m not saying a book should try to be a movie, as they are vastly different animals. But my story became more cinematic by acquiring visual settings: a Congressional hearing room, a press conference, a raucous fundraiser. Eye-catching images were added: a smashed vehicle, a woman throwing out a first pitch, a car alarm that creates a distraction outside a ballroom. Not to mention the hot lovemaking, which I suspect would come across even hotter on the screen than it does in the pages of the novel.