The Control

At the start of 2015 I decided to slow down my blog posts to focus on fiction. I still thought I’d be able to post once or twice a month, but this obviously hasn’t happened. But my time away from blogging wasn’t in vain; I’ve co-written a feature film with Mike Stasko, and we go into production tomorrow.

Mike and I outlined this script for nearly two years, meeting weekly to discuss the broad strokes and working our way down to the finer-grained details. Then we worked on the actual script for more than a year. Now we find ourselves with a whole team of enthusiastic people, a bunch of professional gear, and we’re scrambling to make sure we’ve thought of everything before production starts at 8 AM in the morning.

It’s too early to spill the beans on what the film is about, but what I will say is that it’s a truly independent science fiction thriller called The Control. Being big science fiction fans, Mike and I wanted to put an interesting idea on the table and wrap it up in an exciting structure. We’ve called in a lot of favors, put in long hours, and only now does the real work begin.

Independent movies succeed for fail on the strength of those supporting them. Please check us out on Facebook and Twitter, tell friends, retweet, like, and do whatever it is we do these days to help support indie films.

(Check back for that Facebook link if I can ever figure out how the internet works.)

Chef: It Ain’t Got That Swing

CHEFFor 20 years Jon Favreau has been earning his living in Hollywood by acting, writing, directing, and producing a variety of films, surrounding himself with some of the industry’s biggest names and some huge franchises. When I saw that he wrote and directed Chef as a vehicle for himself, I was hoping for a passion project, something with an indie-movie feel that would be as quirky and idiosyncratic as his career.

With supporting roles by Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, and Robert Downey Jr., plus an unceasing parade of food that would give a celebrity chef a hardon, Chef should have been impossible to put down. But while the presentation was tasteful, the story lacked substance.

I think Jon Favreau is a talented, charismatic guy. When he broke into the industry with Swingers in 1996, I was 16, not far from my first real breakup, and the writing hit all the right spots. His follow-up, Made, was just about as good (both movies were helped considerably by Vince Vaughn), but he began directing and acting more than writing. He brought us a lot of big-budget fun like Iron Man and Elf, but what I really wanted was a home cooked movie without compromise.

But dramatically and comedically, Chef failed, and it seems as if the problems started with the script. This is the perfect example of how a movie can fail because of structural problems, the kind of problems new screenwriters have to learn from the get-go. I’d like to compare Chef to Swingers in terms of story structure and the crucial second act.

In the opening of Swingers, heartbroken Jon Favreau tells his buddy he doesn’t want to get over his breakup by going out to bars to pick up women; he’s not ready to get back into the dating scene; he doesn’t like the pressure and doesn’t want to be a leering, desperate dude. He wants the freedom to recover at his own pace. His friends have other ideas.

Throughout the whole 2nd act of Swingers, Favreau’s character gets further and further from what he wants. His friends drag him to bars to get numbers and fish for girls. The entire 2nd act is devoted to the conflict established in the opening moments, and as he invests more and more in this lifestyle, the odds of him coming out the other end healthy and whole get slimmer and slimmer. Since we know how depressed he was in the beginning, the stakes are getting higher and higher.

But when he finally finds the right girl—a girl who obviously doesn’t belong in that scene either, who feels the same pressures and is obviously looking for a gentleman—he’s able to be himself, and proves through his actions that he’s turned a corner with his ex. When the climax finally arrives, it’s a breath of fresh air; he’s overcome the conflict on his own terms, and it’s satisfying to see. In the final moments we see him sitting across from his friend—who’s worse for wear and delusional about his own ability to get girls—and we have a vision of what he might have become if he’d succumbed to his initial conflict.

Chef has none of this. In the first act, culinary guru Favreau wants to run his kitchen his way. Dustin Hoffman won’t let him, so he quits. Favreau’s ex-wife (Vergara) suggests he open a food truck, which invokes a shrug of derision, but we never discover any meaningful reason why this obvious solution to his problems isn’t worth consideration. Then, the entire 2nd act is devoted to getting a food truck up and running.

Again, the overall conflict is that Favreau wants to run a kitchen on his own terms. The 2nd act is devoted to him doing exactly this, with increasing success, though it’s in a truck, and that’s not exactly what he had in mind. And instead of turning up the conflict, the whole 2nd act is a cavalcade of successes; Favreau, his kid, and his right hand man (Leguizamo) take this truck out and just ace it, with money and good times rolling in.

Half way through the movie there was no conflict left. At the climax, he gives up the food truck to open his own restaurant, which he’s able to do from a last minute investment from his food critic nemesis. The conflict and 2nd act didn’t pull him further from his goal; it was a smooth transition into the exact life that he wanted. When he finally makes it, I’m not surprised at all, and I didn’t feel like anything significant was accomplished.

What might have provided conflict, Favreau’s relationship to his son, comes off very tired; Favreau’s a visionary chef who doesn’t have time or patience for his son until his son proves useful at promoting the food truck on Twitter. When the son questions Favreau about the failed marriage (to Sofia Vergara), Favreau clams up, saying it’s just better that they’re divorced, and better that they don’t talk about it.

Then, in the denouement, we see Favreau getting remarried to Vergara for no reason I can decipher. This is made worse because their relationship wasn’t elucidated much, nor was their divorce. So I’m left with this 2nd marriage that I can’t possibly feel good about because I never had any inkling whether they belonged together or not. Surely they got divorced for a reason, but I didn’t care; their on-screen chemistry was about as dynamic as an old loaf of bread.

If you’re looking for a light comedy, you could do a lot worse than Chef, but you’d get more laughs from random YouTube videos. If you’re looking for food porn, again, you could do a lot worse than Chef, but you could also turn on the Food Network any time of day and avoid a story that just isn’t satisfying.

The Lost Corey

Around 2004 I decided The Two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) were due for a major comeback. I’d seen Lucas, The Goonies and The Lost Boys, but all I really knew was that they were 80’s child stars, too famous too early, who fell into trouble with drugs and money. And, they were still out there.

I began watching some of their old movies and I became interested in Haim because he seemed to burn out quickest and most thoroughly. He was a Toronto kid who rocketed to fame fast, but many of his movies are barely watchable. It seemed that the bulk of his work consisted of disposable comedies like National Lampoon’s Last Resort, License to Drive and Dream A Little Dream. *

It’s tricky to unweave impressions of actors from the roles they play, but I figured there must be more to Haim than met the eye. I wanted to write a feature-length comedy that played with this notion. I wanted Haim to play himself, an actor struggling in the wake of former success.

I thought my script was funny. It was about a twenty-something layabout, motivated to find himself when Corey Haim crashes into his car. My protagonist had preconceived notions of Haim as a slacking party animal and slowly learns that Haim isn’t just a goof-off, but a desperate actor clawing his way through a ruthless industry.

A producer friend pointed out that if you’re going to bring back Corey Haim, you have to bring Feldman back too. I agreed. I wrote another draft of the script, changing things drastically: now it had The Two Coreys, and also Corey Hart for good measure, each in the shadow of their decades-past legacy and trying to make something of themselves in a world where their images ensure they are never taken seriously. My script was called The Last Corey. Again, I thought it was funny.

We found their agent (The Two Coreys shared an agent at the time) and gave him the script. A month or two went by and we heard nothing, so we contacted him. He said they’d pass. We asked what he thought of the script and he told us he stopped reading it after the first ten pages, feeling I’d made Haim out to look like a slacking party animal. This irked me because that was exactly point, and my script redeemed Haim in the end.

We asked the agent to read further and he came back and said fine, they’d do it, but only for a million bucks per Corey. My friend and I quietly laughed and gave up. Meanwhile, news about Corey Haim wasn’t promising. He was broke, living with his mother, and had tried to sell a pulled tooth on Ebay.

A couple years later I browsed through my script and it made me laugh. I thought it was a great opportunity we had missed, and I was surprised that we had actually made contact; only a dollar figure had stood in our way. But I couldn’t imagine going through with it and actually working with Haim, and I realized fittingly that this was because of the media-images I had absorbed of him in terrible movies.

So I thought it might be funny to make a movie about me trying to make a movie about Corey Haim: A fictitious writer named Eric Schiller, for his own strange reasons, has written a movie about Corey Haim, and he intends to cast Haim as himself. The journey to find Haim and convince him to spoof himself would be the bulk of the action. It could be hilarious. So I wrote a synopsis. It was called The Lost Corey.

About a year or two had passed since we spoke to The Coreys’ agent, and we hadn’t even considered showing him this idea. Then, like a slap in the face, A&E announced that The Coreys would reunite in a reality-style show. Someone must have agreed that they were due for a comeback. I was deflated. I never watched the show, and I basically forgot about my scripts.

Then, on March 10, 2010, Corey Haim died. “Natural causes” were cited despite suspicious drug activity leading up to his death. A representative said Haim had been drug free for about two weeks, ignoring that ”Haim had used aliases to procure 553 prescription pills in the 32 days prior to his death, having ‘doctor-shopped’ seven different physicians and used seven pharmacies to obtain the supply, which included 195 Valium, 149 Vicodin, 194 Soma and 15 Xanax.”

Looking back, I’m glad we never got to make these movies. Haim’s issues were still too raw. Both Feldman and Haim were victims of the worst part of Hollywood. Feldman claims he and Haim were given drugs and sexually molested by at least one prominent Hollywood mogul in the early years. The Oscar “In Memoriam” segment made no mention of Haim the year he died. And the body of work he left behind consisted of a few decent goofball comedies, and a lot of depressing filler.

Corey Haim’s career is the perfect example of how fame can destroy people. It’s easy to imagine how easily a child might be manipulated by promises of money and fame. In his prime Haim really was a star; before a slump in the 90s he appeared in a half-dozen major motion pictures and his face was all over teen idol magazines. In retrospect we can see the price he paid. Hollywood completely exploited and discarded him before he reached 20.

Haim’s life was much more serious and tragic than I expected. I can’t scoff at him any more; as frivolous and funny as his failures were, they now seem like symptoms of psychological torture inflicted on a child at his most vulnerable. His life is a great cautionary tale and could make a decent biopic. Justin Bieber could play Haim (it’s amazing how alike they look). Maybe if Bieber got deep enough into character he’d resolve to show the world the difference between a serious entertainer and his media image. If nothing else, it might put a redemptive twist on Haim’s life.


* The most fascinating product in Haim’s catalog is called Me, Myself and I (1989), a postmodern nightmare happening in Haim’s own mind. We follow him on a “typical day” where he plays hockey and baseball, records music, and fields interview questions from himself, assuring fans and the industry that he’s straightened out and ready to work. But he’s glazed over, stoned, and talking nonsense. It is truly bizarre, very funny, and retrospectively, very sad. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube.



Moving to a new place throughout the holiday season has left me with little time for writing. It’s made me reflect on this blog, and the frequency with which I post. I’m coming up on 150 posts now and I’ve decided for 2015 to slow down on the blog and make more time for fiction

If I post a couple times a month, maybe, just maybe, the posts will be that much more worthwhile. It’s no secret that some weeks I’ve stretched for content, and I’d rather post fewer pieces of better quality*.

* Not a quality guarantee


The Eat Your Feelings Cookbook by Colin J. Fleming

Vacation was a success. California hasn’t fallen into the sea, and I was able to get my head into a rather large writing project. Since the project is sucking up all my good ideas, I’ll direct your attention to “The Eat Your Feelings Cookbook” by Colin J. Fleming.

Colin is a funny, likeable guy, and a friend I’ve traded writing notes with on occasion. He and I both use our middle initial in our byline. His humour piece is currently showcased on CBC’s Punchline. Follow him on Google+ and Twitter.

Fleeting Memes

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a breakthrough text in biology. The book illustrates evolution from the point-of-view of a “gene,” essentially a self-interested replicator. To illustrate the concept of cultural evolution, Dawkins coined the term “meme,” meaning a small piece of coherent, transmittable culture, “replicated” through the minds of human beings.

The term “meme” has exploded into popular consciousness in the last decade thanks to global culture. Now memes are emailed and re-tweeted, referenced by late night talk show hosts and news anchors, and generally replicated in a huge number of minds at astounding rates (“Gangnam Style” already had over one billion views by the time I saw it).

The internet is the perfect petri dish for these replicators because the breadth and speed with which memes are broadcast exceeds anything in history. One of the consequences of this is that a “meme” is now seen, like much on the internet, as ephemeral.

As Dawkins pointed out in a later version of The Selfish Gene, the word “meme” has itself proved to be a good meme because of its survival and replication into popular consciousness. The gene/meme metaphor is apt too, since like genes, memes replicate and adapt, and the memes that find a “best fit” for their environment continue to replicate successfully.

(Take the “Grumpy Cat” meme as an example. This is a photo or video of a cat with a face that looks grumpy. Thirty years ago, a photo like this might be shown to relatives, and a good laugh would be had, and there it would end. But now the whole world gets to see it and adapt it for any situation where a grumpy cat face might get a laugh. The meme is so popular that unbelievably, the cat has a movie deal.)

I recently wrote a short science fiction story in which the personalities of the recently deceased were uploaded into a machine, and I used the term “meme-ify,” a take on mummify, as in a form of preservation. I was surprised to receive the story note that “meme” now connotes something less than permanent, almost discardable, the exact opposite of what I intended.

Whatever your views on Jesus, I submit one of his most impressive accomplishments was to “meme-ify” himself in his final moments. He gave up his physical life and transformed himself into a meme. We can now transmit the mystery of Christ to another mind by simply showing them a crucifix, and this meme has persisted for two thousand years.

It’s this sort of permanent “meme-ification” that I was going for, but it seems like the internet has mutated the intended meaning of the word to suit itself. I suppose it’s just natural selection at work; multitudes of fleeting memes are a best-fit for the internet. For the sake of my story, I’d like to use Dawkins’ intended meaning, but I think the new meaning might have reached a critical popularity.

Homo sapiens can’t give birth to Australopithecus. I suppose I’ll have to forgo the elegance of “meme” and come up with another way to say it. Is the old meaning extinct? What does “meme” mean to you?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at

The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.

For The Love Of The Craft

They say part of writing well is reading well. I try to broaden my scope and cover the classics, but are always important authors who slip through the cracks. My writing focus has been speculative fiction, yet until recently I’ve committed the sin of failing to read the short horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a major influence of many successful writers, including modern giants Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why Lovecraft’s influence has persisted. His prose is like a great fireside ghost story and the strange demons and apparitions are so beautifully developed I can’t help but drink in the weirdness. And while many of the stories fit together—dealing with madness, ancient cults and black magic—each is unique and memorable on its own.

A new writer aping Lovecraft’s style would probably not get published. His prose is fairly ornate, and most of the stories chronicle similar journeys of skeptical men to horrified believers. The characters don’t get much of a chance to live and breathe, and sometimes seem only to pilot the reader through dark places and bizarre situations. What little dialogue there is can seem ridiculous, and the descriptions and exposition border on ‘overdone’, but the flow of his thoughts is prodigal, well considered, and right up my alley.

One of his strongest assets is his ability to describe settings we can feel, and that we remember as though we’ve been there. The house in “The Color Out Of Space” and the strange events that occur within are so crisp in my mind it’s as though I spent an entire novel there, or a weekend. Few writers lend so much personality to a building, and like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the places in Lovecraft’s work are at least as central as the characters.

Most of the stories I’ve read so far are quite similar in tone, but rather than feeling redundant, I get the sense that I’m reading an author who has found and truly mastered his voice. And with the strength of that voice, his legacy is likely to last for a long time still. As a writer still honing his own voice, I was glad to see the trickle-down influence of his work in some of my own short stories.

He’s a must-read for anyone who wants to write speculative fiction, and I welcome recommendations of other less popular but seminal authors I might have missed.

Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.