Smash and Nashville

I’ve been getting teased a little bit lately because my friends know that I like the TV shows Smash and Nashville. For those who might not be familiar with the shows, let me provide a brief overview before I explain why I like them.

SmashSmash, now in its second season and struggling for ratings, follows a group of people as they try to develop a Broadway musical. Key characters include:

  • Eileen Rand, Producer: She has tons of experience working on Broadway plays with her philandering husband, a ruthless, rich and successful producer. While going through a bitter divorce, she’s looking to step out of her ex-husband’s shadow and make a name for herself.

  • Julia Houston, Writer: She’s part of a highly successful Broadway writing team with Tom Levitt. She’s come up with the idea of making a musical about Marilyn Monroe’s life.

  • Tom Levitt, Composer and Musical Director: He’s part of a famous Broadway writing team with Julia Houston. He’s been partnered with Julia for a long time, but is he ready for something new?

  • Derek Willis, Director: A brilliant but difficult director, with flaws that may either sink the production or propel it into the stratosphere.

  • Ivy Lynn, Actress: An experienced actress, singer and dancer. She’s worked in the business for a long time and she’ll do just about anything to land her big break, a starring role in a major Broadway production.

  • Karen Cartwright, Actress: A young, naive actress who’s also looking for her big break. But how badly does she really want it? Is she willing to do what’s going to be required in order to make the new production a hit?

There are numerous other supporting characters, but those are the main ones.

Nashville - The TV ShowLike Smash, the new show, Nashville, follows the trials and tribulations of a group of creative professionals, this time in the competitive field of country music.

Key characters include:

  • Rayna Jaymes, Singer: A legendary country music superstar possibly facing the long, slow twilight of her career…unless she can re-invent herself.

  • Juliette Barnes, Singer: A young superstar who has achieved fame as a teen sensation. But now she wants to transform herself from a teen fad into a serious country singer.

  • Deacon Claybourne, Guitarist: A top country guitarist and former lover of Rayna James. He’s sought after by both Rayna James and Juliette Barnes for both his penetrating musical insights and his superb guitar work.

  • Scarlett O’Connor, Singer, Songwriter: The niece of Deacon Claybourne, and an unexpectedly talented entertainer in her own right. Is she ready for the spotlight?

  • Avery Barkley, Singer, Guitarist: A bad-boy aspiring musician and the boyfriend of Scarlett O’Connor. If there’s a wrong turn or a bad decision to be made, he’ll probably find it.

  • Gunnar Scott, Composer, Guitarist: Scarlett O’Connor’s friend and musical partner. He’s a nice guy, but does he have what it takes to launch his musical career and win the love of his musical partner?

Like Smash, this show also has a ton of supporting characters.

I’ll be the first to admit that both shows have their flaws. There are soap opera aspects to the lives, and loves, of many of the characters from these shows. But what the shows both do very well is to illustrate the joys, and perils, of creative careers.

Let’s contrast this, for a moment, with a show like the new Dallas, where most of the main characters are young, beautiful, smart and rich. They seem to spend all of their time scheming, back-stabbing and sleeping around. Although some of them are characterized as “brilliant,” you don’t really see any of them actually doing any work.

In Smash, the writers struggle to find the heart of the story that they want to tell about Marilyn Monroe. The two main actresses, both extremely talented, each compete with all their heart for a role that only one of them can win. The producer struggles to fund the production of the show, while dealing with treachery from both within the crew and from outside the production.

These people are working. They are hustling. They’re trying to bring something into existence that didn’t previously exist. They’re struggling to beat the odds. That’s…not something you generally see on TV, people actually working (you certainly don’t see it on Dallas).

I feel similarly about Nashville.

The aging country singer, Rayna James, is trying to be true to herself, while struggling to produce music that’s relevant both to herself and the audience. The upstart singer, Juliette Barnes, whether she realizes it or not, is trying to transform herself from a bubblegum teen sensation into the next Rayna James.

All of the singers and musicians in the show are struggling to produce quality music and to transform themselves in various ways. They are working, and struggling, in a creative profession.

Yes, there’s glitz, glamor and soap opera aspects to both of these shows, but I find it invigorating to watch shows about creative professionals…working. It’s such a novelty.

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In Honor of the Oscars…

Since the Oscars ceremony was televised tonight, I thought I’d point out one of my favorite quotes from Billy Crystal, the second most prolific Academy Awards host (after Bob Hope, of course).

Billy Crystal Quote

I’m not really complaining. I love the Oscars. I don’t think I’ve missed one since 1976 when I first started watching them with my mother (another big film buff). I just like the contrast that Billy Crystal points out in his famous quote.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Movie Experience

My friend and co-creator on numerous projects, Don Anderson, is both a crazy guy and a devoted father. When he took his older son to see Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” he decided to go in character. He announced this to me by sending me an IM, accompanied by a picture of him in his costume. Here’s the IM:

By the tomb of Thurin and Arkenstone! I’m chaperoning Jimmy’s 3rd-grade class to the opening of “The Hobbit” on Friday. He doesn’t know I’ve got…the Beard. This should be fun.

And here’s couple of his photographs from the…experience.

Here’s a picture of Don with his son, Jimmy:

An Unexpected Outing, featuring Don Anderson

And here’s a close-up of Don himself (the picture he sent me ahead of time):

Don Anderson, with attitude

Clearly, Don is having way too much fun. But do you wanna be the one to tell him that?

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Hollywood and Science Fiction

Most science fiction produced by Hollywood sucks. The reasons are simple.

  1. Producers don’t understand the implicit rules of SF.
  2. Producers like to make stories as immediate or as far-reaching as possible.
  3. Producers like stories that can be conveyed in simple sound bites.

Okay these are generalizations. There are some people in Hollywood who get science fiction. They are, I think, vastly outnumbered, and certainly not usually the ones generally in charge of the cash that funds film production. So let’s talk about these points in more detail.

Producers don’t understand the implicit rules of SF.

Most producers don’t understand SF, where the greatest challenge for SF writers is to make their story as plausible as possible. Oftentimes, producers don’t even read SF, or if they do, they only read ocassional works. I read an interview with one producer who was so enamored with special effects that he said: “If we can imagine it, we can put it on the screen.” I snorted with disbelief when I read that, because it’s not enough to just put something on the screen, any more than it’s enough to just put something on the page: things have to have a reason for being there, and a purpose within the overall plot.

When producers don’t understand the need for plausibility, you get movies (and TV series) like Alien Nation, where water burns the aliens like acid if they’re exposed to it. Water is one of the most common chemicals in the entire universe, and generally considered necessary for life. It’s hard to imagine a creature that breathes oxygen and can generally exist on our planet, but not be able to withstand something as simple as rain.

Producers like to make stories as immediate or as far-reaching as possible.

In SF films, we’re constantly saving the world or the universe or the human race. How many films set in the contemporary time are about saving the world (and please exclude super-hero films and James Bond films — that’s another whole discussion right there)? Right. Not many. According to Hollywood, the world of the future always needs to be saved. Our heroes can’t have lesser goals or aspirations. This makes so many SF films seem overblown, unlikely and downright pretentious.

In the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, the Earth undergoes some sort of mysteriously vague “cold snap” and enters a worldwide ice age in the span of a few minutes. It’s so implausible that any SF fan worth their salt couldn’t help but cringe. The cold snap also wasn’t necessary. Instead, if they’d shown a collage of volcanoes erupting around the world, with excerpts from newscasters commenting about the unprecedented number of eruptions, the blockage of the sun by volcanic dust, the ensuing long winters, and ice that continually builds up over a 30-year period…that might have seemed not only more plausible, but also much more horrifying.

Hollywood also loves artificial deadlines because they theoretically heighten suspense. With SF films, they go even further — we’re constantly bombarded by generally ridiculous time limits. You’ve probably seen numerous examples. We’ve got seventy-two hours to save the Earth before a black hole eats it. Or, oh no, time has been changed — we need to go into the past and change it back before the ripple effect destroys the universe. Or, we’ve got thirty minutes to “do something” before the nuclear bomb goes off.

It’s not that deadlines are inherently bad. Think about how effective it was in Star Wars; the rebel fighters had to destroy the Death Star before it rounded the planet and pulverized their base. But most such deadlines in SF films are just arbitrary.

Producers like stories that can be conveyed in simple sound bites.

This point is harder to pin down, so let me come at it from an angle. Non-SF stories can be about realistic events: a detective trying to track down a murderer, a shy man trying to win the love of a beautiful woman, a boxer trying to win the World Championship, etc. The audience already understands a great deal about these stories, e.g. – they know what detectives do and what rules they have to follow.

One of the burdens that SF stories carry is the need to introduce the audience to the world, whether it’s Middle-Earth or the far future. With die-hard SF fans, a sort of short-hand is available — mention that it’s a story set on a generation starship, and they already know a lot about your story. The amount of explanation, generally referred to as exposition, required goes up dramatically when the story is for a more mainstream audience, and the cost of even relatively low-budget films mandates reaching for that larger mainstream audience.

It’s no wonder that producers want to simplify any SF story into a simple sound bite. “In space, no one can hear you scream” (Alien). The world of the future has been ruined by pollution, so colonists have gone back in time to achieve a fresh, new start (Terra Nova). Or even, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The problem is that this simplification also removes much of what can be remarkable in SF stories.

If you’d like a great example of an SF film done right, watch James Cameron’s Terminator. As much as possible, he integrates the exposition into the action sequences. Reese, the soldier from the future, has to explain to Sarah Connor in bits and pieces that: 1) she’s being hunted by a robot, 2) that he and the robot are from the future, 3) that he couldn’t bring any weapons from the future, and 4) that the robot wants to kill her because her son will win the future war against the machines.


I’d like to see better, more ambitious SF films. I fully understand the pressures that producers are under and how the constraints they’re facing often lead to bad SF films. The real disappointment for me is when I see an SF film from Hollywood that could have been a great film if they’d just paid attention to a few more SF-related details.

It’s not enough to just put computer-generated special effects on the screen. I need an SF story that’s plausible, a plot that makes sense, and characters that I can care about. Hollywood, is that too much to ask?

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Full Green Screen for Battlestar Galactica

My friend Don Anderson, graphic artist at large, pointed out this article about the special effects for Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. This is a TV pilot for a new series on Syfy, set between the timeframes of Caprica and Battlestar Galactica during the first Cylon war.

One of the most interesting things about this new pilot is that it was shot almost entirely on green screen. This allowed all of the backgrounds to be added later. This was supposedly cheaper than alternative ways of filming a heavy-duty SF epic, and may become a trend in the future.

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Cloud Atlas: A Must-See Film

I really liked Cloud Atlas, the new film from directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (hereafter referred to as the Wachowski Siblings) and Tom Tykwer. It turns out that the producers also created seven different banners to help advertise the movie. Since they’re freely distributable, I’ve decided to show all seven of them here, along with a helpful summary of the six intertwined stories that make up the movie.

Story 1: In 1849, Adam Ewing travels across the Pacific Ocean to secure a contract for his father-in-law. He becomes deathly ill during the journey, but is saved by Atua, an escaped slave, leading him to consider the merits of the Abolitionist movement and bringing him into conflict with his father-in-law.

Note: For some reason, there’s no banner for this story.

Cloud Atlas, the 2nd story, about the doomed composer

Story 2: Robert Frobisher (seen in the foreground) is a brilliant composer in the 1930’s who has been disowned by his family and is now penniless. He leaves his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (visible in the background), in Cambridge and goes to Belgium to become the amaneunsis (assistant/understudy) to a famous composer, Vyvyan Ayrs. Complications ensue, but Frobisher still manages to eventually produce a brilliant symphony called “The Cloud Atlas Sextette.” During his time with Ayrs, he ends up reading and drawing inspiration from an old journal belonging to Adam Ewing, the protagonist of the first story.

Cloud Atlas, the 3rd story, Luisa Ray

Story 3: Luisa Ray is an investigative reporter in the 1970’s. An old man, Rufus Sixsmith, reveals information about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant, but is soon murdered as part of the cover-up. She comes into possession of some of his letters, becoming aware of Robert Frobisher and his great but obscure work, “The Cloud Atlas Sextette.” Much nastiness ensues as she pursues her investigation.

Cloud Atlas, the 4th story, about the publisher on the run

Story 4: Timothy Cavendish is a aging publisher who ends up on the run because of a monetary dispute with a gangster who happens to be one of his published authors. He goes to his estranged brother for help, but gets tricked into hiding out in a hotel, which actually turns out to be a nursing home from which he cannot initially escape. Naturally, he works with some other feisty inmates to concoct a plan for escape. As a side note, one book that crossed his desk before he went on the run was a fictionalized account of Luisa Rey’s investigation from the 1970’s.

Cloud Atlas, the 5th story

Cloud Atlas, the 5th story

Cloud Atlas, the 5th story

Story 5: Sonmi~451 is a fabricant (clone) in a dystopian society in Korea in the future, working at a restaurant called Papa Songs. Fabricants are used as slave labor in this society. She experiences an awakening when she is recruited by rebels, and ultimately becomes a symbol of their rebellion. One of the first things she ever saw that was different from her regimented daily life was a video recording of the “Ghastly Affair of Timothy Cavendish” — the story of Cavendish’s exploits in the previous story became a film that provides some comfort to Sonmi~451.

Cloud Atlas, the 6th story

Story 6: Next we go to a more distant future, after the Fall, a war that devastated the world. Zachry, a primitive living in Hawaii, belongs to a society that worships a female deity named Sonmi. His world is turned upside-down when Meronym, a representative of a more-advanced culture, recruits him to help with an important mission.

Cloud Atlas consists of these six stories, interleaved together in a dazzling mosaic. It requires some work to follow the six stories, particularly at the beginning, but the effort will pay off in the long run. The premise of the film is that everything is connected, and that acts of kindness or evil echo into the future. The characters are entangled souls, reincarnated again and again to interact with each other in all of the stories. In the film, this is represented by the actors playing multiple roles in all of the stories, often assisted by make-up and special effects.

It’s a brilliant film that doesn’t quite achieve everything that the producers wanted, but succeeds well enough to give us a mesmerizing, powerful tapestry of interconnected stories. Go see it. Despite its flaws, the film deserves an audience.

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The Duel at Blood Creek

This short film is just absolutely hysterical. The cinematography is excellent, the swordplay is exceedingly well done and the plot, such as it is, is howlingly funny. Many thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal who brought this to my attention. Check it out.

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Disney Adds the Force to Its Portfolio

Star Wars Episode VII is Coming!Yesterday, Disney bought Lucasfilm for 4 billion dollars. What they really bought was the Star Wars franchise, with its built-in global audience, and the right to continue the series in the future. Disney then immediately announced that they were going to do a new trilogy, set after the original three films, with the first one targeted for a 2015 release date.

I think this is a good thing. Although I like George Lucas, I think the franchise suffered badly when his co-writer, veteran SF writer and Hollywood screenwriter Leigh Brackett, died after completing her draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. I believe that Brackett brought a fun, pulp-era, good guys vs. bad guys, sensibility to the franchise.

In the second, prequel trilogy, Lucas proved that he could manage a media empire, and do some nifty plotting, but he fell short on picking the right talent for the film (he never did find a good actor to play Anakin Skywalker), on dialogue, and, in places, characterization (need I mention the Jar Jar Binks fiasco?). While I admire what he’s accomplished, it’s time for some new blood.

Disney, I’m looking forward to 2015, but don’t you dare disappoint me….

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Cloud Atlas: My Initial Reaction

Cloud Atlas, with a David Keener review

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Speak: An Unforgettable Documentary

District 29 of my local Toastmasters group held a public screening of the documentary, Speak, on May 12, 2012. It was a Saturday morning, and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I went to the screening. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I know I wasn’t expecting the riveting film experience that unfolded next.

The documentary, Speak, follows a set of six contestants as they compete in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest for the title of World’s Best Public Speaker. The film quickly introduces Toastmasters, a public organization devoted to public speaking and leadership training, and conveys the contest rules. Contestants have 5 to seven minutes on stage to tell their story, reach their audience, and win the support of the judges.

The real power of the film is revealed through the back stories of the contestants, which helps to explain their motivations and their drive to “be the best.” It’s a fascinating look at a diverse group of people united in their drive to be the best possible speaker that they can be.

It’s refreshingly different from today’s crop of artificially hyped up reality shows. This is real drama, with real people, who all want to win, and, maybe, even deserve to win. In the end, only one can go home with the top award. The documentary is remarkably unflinching in its portrayal of the contestants and is unafraid to show them at both their best…and their worst.

It’s well-directed, moves quickly, and juxtaposes the stories of all the contestants to good effect. It’s surprisingly powerful and affecting. Kudos to the directors, Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling, for capturing the sheer intensity of the contestants, and to the Toastmasters organization for both allowing and facilitating such a raw, honest look at the functioning of their annual speech contest.

Speak has initially been shown at film festivals and in an organized campaign of paid screenings by Toastmasters and other interested groups. I understand that Speak will be available on DVD in August. Check it out. It’s worth it.

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