IRON MAN and why you shouldn’t trust my opinion

Spoiler free.

Iron Man

I may be the only person not going ga-ga over IRON MAN. Perhaps it’s simply another case of seeing a film after hearing too much hype. It also may be the simple case of not being the film’s best audience. Unlike many I know, I was never into comics. I had a few, read a handful… I got into HEAVY METAL for a while in my teen years, but that’s a different animal all-together. 

But once in a while a movie based on a comic super hero grabs me and takes hold. I loved SPIDERMAN 2. Thought it was one of the best super hero films I’ve ever seen. With one of the best villains. It’s also a super hero I knew a little about having grown up with the cartoon on television. Same goes for BATMAN BEGINS. I knew Batman from the TV show, though I must confess to disliking all the Burton/Schumacher film versions -all style, no substance. I thought the Christopher Nolan retelling of this story mixed with Christian Bale’s portrayal was just terrific. But what’s lacking for me in IRON MAN that is in the other two above-mentioned films, is simply that I cared about the main characters in those films and I don’t much care about anything in IRON MAN. Now I do want to go on record as saying that I don’t think it’s a bad film. Not by any stretch. It may even be better than most of its kind, but the sad truth is most super hero films are just, quite simply put, fairly dimensionless. IRON MAN isn’t dimensionless, but it’s still pretty thin. SPIDEY and BATMAN and even to a lesser extent X-MEN 1 & 2 (I preferred 2), have characters that are dealing with human issues. Not just political issues and global issues of morality, but everyday issues. Granted on a very dramatic scale. And with super villains. But those handful of films captured some part of me that allowed me to care about the characters I was watching, to invest some part of myself in them. That never happened for me in IRON MAN. I love Downey Jr.  I think he’s a great actor and, so far as I can tell, an inspired bit of casting here. But he’s not doing anything I haven’t seen from him before. He’s just doing it while wearing a really cool iron suit (okay, gold-titanium alloy). And Jeff Bridges makes an awesome villain while on-screen, but again, he’s just not well-developed and the final showdown may be a fun extravaganza of effects, but it does little for me emotionally and whatever character development is there really doesn’t play much of a role in the finale. 

Because of the simple fact that Robert Downey, Jr plays IRON MAN and the film was directed by John Favreau, I knew this was gonna be better than, say, THE FANTASTIC FOUR. But given the potential and the hype, I ultimately felt disappointed. And, dare I say, a little bored. 

However, you should be aware that I’m in the minority.

IRON MAN and why you shouldn’t trust my opinion

Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH: One More From The Heart

Spoiler free.

Youth Without YouthIn today’s American cinema, it’s rare to see a film unafraid to revel in its moments of ambiguity; to see a film that feels more like a novel, yet still uses the visual medium with the greatest love and understanding. Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH seems to have garnered the worldwide first impression of being a great disappointment. At least that’s what one might take from the majority of reviews. No one seemed to love it, a few truly liked it, and many seemed to downright dismiss it. But this is the path one takes when he or she chooses to create simply for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story one feels needs to be told, if for no other reason than the filmmaker himself wanting to see it. 

I’m not claiming that YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a cinematic masterpiece, or even a great film, but it is an interesting one that does not go to most, if any, of the places one thinks it will (or should). When that happens, a film is often seen as a failure because the viewer didn’t get what he or she wants or believes a film should be. Take Desson Thomson’s quote from his review in the Washington Post:

Coppola proves that even the best of our film artists can lose sight of what this medium is all about: entertaining, enlightening and including its audience.”

It always amazes me when critics (or people in general) decide what a work of art is “supposed to be”. And even if the above quote were somehow steeped in some inescapable but incredibly worrisome truth, who’s to say the film doesn’t do that? The best one can say is that it didn’t do that for them. I found YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH to be entertaining and enlightening and I never felt left out. Is the story confusing? Yes, at times, but not horribly so. But the film relishes its moments of ambiguity, its sudden changes of mood and, at times, even genre. These aren’t mistakes or missteps, these are deliberate. This is the story being told.

Granted, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is nothing like THE GODFATHER or THE CONVERSATION or APOCALYPSE NOW. It doesn’t feel like those films, move like those films. It does, however, have traces of mood we’ve seen from Mr. Coppola before: BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, ONE FROM THE HEART, RUMBLE FISH. So many films throughout Coppola’s career have been ill received. Films that I think to be quite masterful, fascinating, daring, challenging and incredibly cinematic. It seems the films Coppola made for others are the films that garnered him the most attention and acclaim. And they are all worthy. Some, in fact, are among my favorite films of all time. Though they may not have been close to Coppola’s heart or, at best, not exactly what he would have liked to be making, I am glad that I live in a world where these films exist. After all, once the film is out there, the intent of the filmmaker is almost secondary to the effect and interpretation put on it by individual viewers. 

Stanley Kubrick once said:

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”

This is what film was for Stanley Kubrick. It is not, nor does it need to be, that for everyone. However, I’d say Mr. Coppola is working along very similar lines here. There was a time when films like YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH stood a better chance of finding an audience. That time is over thirty years past, but I still hold out a strong hope for the future. If everything’s cyclical, then there’s a great resurgence of American film as art somewhere in our futures. Sadly today, Hollywood cinema is to art what the Bush Administration is to the American dream. We’ve been in a very dark period, people are numb and their expectations have been lowered to frightening standards. 

But the world of literature continues to be a medium where anything can happen. There are no rules to follow, no structure that need be adhered to, no style that is considered improper. Be it the prose of a Michael Ondaatje or a Toni Morrison, the delirious surreality of a Haruki Murakami, the delicious imagery and word structure of a John Steinbeck, or the chilling imagination of a Stephen King or popular suspense of a John Grisham, all forms of storytelling are accepted and have an audience. Film has the same potential and, in my opinion, should be bound by no less artistic freedom. Which brings me to yet another quote by the late Mr. Kubrick:

“A filmmaker has almost as much freedom as a novelist has when he buys himself some paper.”

How easy it is to forget this. Whether we’re the filmmaker or the audience. 


Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH: One More From The Heart

Spreading The Plague: The Perfect Hollywood Ending


Plague posterAct 1: My writing partner, Teal Minton, and I decide we want to make a horror film. In our opinion, most of the great horror films had been done years ago and almost all of them dealt with fears that existed in society; fears that still resonate today on a very primal level: the communist scare that feeds the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS; a woman’s sacrificial role in society and household so terrifyingly represented in ROSEMARY’S BABY; a parent’s inability to help or understand what is happening to their adolescent child in THE EXORCIST. These films terrified us. They left us thinking, asking questions and looking inward.

So we write THE PLAGUE: a story about kids and violence in society, on fear, and how we react to it. We tell it through the guise of a horror film about how our main characters react when faced with a world where all children become catatonic, then wake up and strike out against them. Like all good films, these characters are the emotional backbone of the story.

We shop the script around for five years looking for people who don’t want to turn it into a teenage slasher pic. Meanwhile, the script’s themes become more and more relevant: the massacre at Columbine happens, 9/11, the war in Iraq… For a while, this scares people away from the script, “We love it, but we can’t make it here. It’s too timely, too sensitive. But let us know if you get it made cause we’d like to see it!” Even our agents suggest we shelve it and move onto something more commercial.

Eventually we end up at Seraphim Films, Clive Barker’s production company. They love the script and want to make it. There is only one stumbling block for us: THE PLAGUE is nothing like a Clive Barker film, nor is it meant to be. The producers assure us that the reason they want to make it is precisely because it isn’t. ” Clive Barker makes Clive Barker films,” we’re told. It’s explained to us that they want to create an avenue for smart, adult horror films of all shapes and sizes. They use the Clive Barker produced GODS AND MONSTERS as an example: more a character piece than a horror movie.

This is exactly what we’ve been looking for: people who understand the film and want to make it.  

Act 2:   Through the next three years of development, the script gets even better; we are all excited about the film we’re making. We join forces with Armada Pictures, a production company that puts together the money. It’s agreed by all that we will take the film, once completed, out to film festivals where it can find its audience and a domestic distributor. We know this film is more character-driven, more psychological than most of today’s mainstream horror films; this one’s not geared toward your typical horror fan and will therefore require a distributor who embraces this and can successfully get the film out to its intended audience. 

Hal & Bill Butler 1

With our cast in place and the script in great shape, we head up to Winnipeg, Canada to shoot THE PLAGUE. We’re barely off the plane, when we find out that Armada has pre-sold the film to Screen Gems for domestic distribution. Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but the sale is done in such a mysterious way that we find ourselves asking the basic question, “Does Screen Gems want the same film we do?” But we’re never given a straight answer and there’s little time to argue; we’re a few weeks from shooting and knee-deep in pre-production. We hope for the best, tell ourselves it will turn out great, that Screen Gems will be the perfect home… And move forward.

It’s a grueling, wonderful, 20-day shoot and by the end, the producers are thrilled. “This is better than anyone expected!” I’m told repeatedly. We wrap and head back to L.A. for post.

I ask one of the Seraphim producers to be in the editing room with me; I want Clive’s interests represented. He does and his input is both helpful and insightful. We have six weeks to put the film together. During this process, I start to notice some of the other producers acting a bit cold, distant. One of the producers confides, “[Someone at the top] wants this to be a different film. And if they get what they want, it’s going to be everything we’ve been fighting against. It’s going to be horrible.”

I rush to my agent’s office with the news. “You shouldn’t be worrying about this kind of stuff now,” he says. “You should be enjoying editing. It’ll all work out.”

But it doesn’t. Tensions are high, everyone’s on edge, worried. We finish a rough cut. It still needs work, but you can see the film now, it’s coming together. I ask the Seraphim producer, “You think Clive will like it?” He smiles, “I can’t imagine what I’d do if he didn’t.”

Clive doesn’t. Or so I’m told. I’m not present at the screening, per the producers’ request. I’m told Clive feels it’s too slow, not gory enough.

“I don’t understand,” says one of the producers about Clive. “It’s as if he’d never read the script.”

But he had. I attempt to contact Clive, to get more details, but my attempts are met with resistance. We never connect.

People who I’d worked beside for three years suddenly become indignant. Others, who I had grown to consider friends, grow quiet and step into the shadows so as not to jeopardize their careers or position.

The day my contract ends, I walk into the editing room and one of the producers I’ve worked beside for three years says to me with frightening matter-of-fact casualness, “We’re cutting down the characters and turning this into a killer-kid film.” Everything stops.

“Why would we do that?” I ask. “We’ve worked so hard not to have it be that.”

He looks at me, condescending, “Because this is a horror film called THE PLAGUE, not THE TOM RUSSELL STORY” (Tom Russell is the film’s hero).

It’s explained to me that they want more blood, less character. My stomach turns. The thing I’d most feared, the thing I’d fought 8 years to prevent, was happening: THE PLAGUE was on its way to becoming another horror pic about plot and action, not characters and theme. I argue that this is not the time to change course; that the characters are the film’s emotional core; that if the audience doesn’t care, they won’t be scared. But it’s too late.

For the next few weeks I call the producers, but my calls go unreturned. I go to the editing room and am met with verbal abuse beyond anything I have experienced before. I even offer to help the producers with their cut of the film in the hope that I might salvage something: one moment, one sequence, one small tidbit of the film we’d made. I write up a series of editing notes and suggestions, only to see them tossed aside. The producers are very clear: “This is our film now and we see no reason for the writers and director to be involved.”

The door is shut. The betrayal I feel and the loss of the film is agonizing.

Hal & cameraOf course there are no “support groups” for filmmakers who have essentially “lost their babies.” So how does one cope with this kind of situation, with this particular brand of pain and loss? I ask myself, “What do you want? What is most important to you?” If it’s to keep working and making money, then I should probably do what my agent and lawyer vigorously recommend: “Let it go. Move on.”

But what if what’s most important to me is to tell stories, to grow as both an artist and a human being, to reach people on some deeper level… What if the thing that is most important to me about making this film is this film ?

Well, shit, that would be inconvenient.

“I’m going to finish my film.”

My reps look back stone-faced, not amused. When they realize I’m not joking, they spin into a tizzy, tell me it will be a career-killer. “I can’t imagine anyone who would want to see your cut!” Maybe so, but my gut tells me otherwise; to fight this hard, to invest so much of myself psychologically, creatively, physically and then have the film taken away and turned into the very thing I was making it in reaction to…  

I need to finish it. And it will have an audience. If only my friends and family, then so be it, but someone will see this film. Hell, want to see it! I fight the overwhelming desire to pack my bags and leave L.A., and instead take the digital dailies I have on DVD (the film was originally shot in Super 35 by the extraordinary Bill Butler), and transfer them into Final Cut Pro on my Mac laptop and start editing the film from scratch.

I spend the next six months in self-imposed exile. I teach myself effects, sound design, I create a temp score. And this time, unlike the 6 weeks I’d spent in the editing room previously, I really get to study the dailies. I know every frame, every actor’s nuance, every angle, every breath. I start to see not only the film we’d written, but more important, the film we’d shot . I experience a new “intimacy” with the movie; something I never want to work without again. Here’s more joy, more excitement, more passion. Here’s why I wanted to make films in the first place. Here’s the little boy with his super 8 camera!

The last thing I expected when I was kicked off this film was that I would discover something greater than if I had remained on board.

I finish the film and show it to the people closest to me. The response is overwhelming: people who would never have gone to see a horror film otherwise are asking to see it again and again. Lovers of classic horror films are asking if they can have copies to show their friends. My friend Carrie jokes, “The reason they took your film away is because you made a horror film for 40-year old men and women with masters degrees and the producers didn’t know what the hell to do with it!”

I show the film to some of the cast and crew and they are ecstatic. They agree that this is the film we set out to make. This is the film they want seen!

I send a copy of my cut to Screen Gems. I have no idea if they ever look at it.

The producers’ cut is released straight to DVD in September 2006 under the title CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE. The film has been completely restructured, stock footage added, new dialogue recorded. Even Bill Butler hasn’t been invited to color-time his own work. My name is still attached as director, Teal and I as writers. It feels like a wound reopened. For us, the film in no way reflects our vision, work, or intent.

Dee WallaceAct 3: Legally, I can not show my cut at the local multiplex or release it on video, so I make a documentary called SPREADING THE PLAGUE in which cast and crew members, film authors/journalists, speak out about what I now call THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT. They openly discuss what they love about the film, why it is important to them to have it seen. I create a website by the same name: and put the doc up for all to see. I include articles, trailers, interviews. Thousands of people log on. Other sites start writing about what has happened. I start a petition and link it to the site in the hope that Screen Gems will agree there is an audience for this cut and release it as it was meant to be. People immediately start to sign.

And people are still signing.  

The story of THE PLAGUE -both onscreen and off- is one of fear and how we react to it. I believe it was fear that allowed the film we made to be turned into something it was never intended to be. Fear of being wrong, of losing one’s job, of doing something different. And Post-production can be the most frightening (as well as the most exciting) part of filmmaking. It is also the most important time to stick together. Communication is essential. To toss the writers and director aside as if they had nothing of value to contribute is, in my opinion, a grave mistake, but one that happens far too often in our industry. It is when the creative team and the business team work together, with mutual respect and understanding, that great films are made. But it is in moving past those fears and doing what is best for the film that allows this to happen.

So it is my continued hope that we can do just that: move beyond the egos, the doubts, and the fears that have plagued this film, to deliver the movie we made to the audience we made it for. Now wouldn’t that be the perfect Hollywood ending?

To find out more about THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT, to sign the petition, watch the documentary, listen and read interviews, go to:




Spreading The Plague: The Perfect Hollywood Ending

Dark Star Orchestra – Next best thing to the Dead?

I never much liked the idea of tribute bands. Even as a kid I went to see Beatlemania and, though the music was great, I still felt gypped that it wasn’t, well, the Beatles! Seeing Dark Star Orchestra -a Grateful Dead tribute band- was a very similar experience. I had a great time. And it made me miss the hell out of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. I’ve been into the Dead most of my life; for many years before I ever got to see them play live, I was following their every move, listening to live tapes, buying their albums, tuning in to radio broadcasts of local shows… But then I saw them live in New York in 1979 and it was all over; the love affair had begun in earnest and I’m happy to say I’m still in the throws of that affair with no desire to escape. Sadly, with the passing of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, the band was never quite the same. They regrouped and toured under different monikers: The Other Ones, The Dead… but the Grateful Dead was truly gone forever. At least as a live event. The remaining members are supreme musicians and it was fun (and still is, at times) to see them up on stage performing those magical songs, but without Jerry’s expressive guitar leading us to those intensely emotional places, I had to come to terms with the reality that the thing that made the Dead such a phenomenon, such a one-of-a-kind experience, had forever passed on.

Here’s where we return to the subject at hand: Dark Star Orchestra. These very talented musicians recreate actual Grateful Dead shows from the great ol’ days of yesteryear: from the set lists to the staging, equipment, musical style, etc. It’s a unique and highly effective approach to the tribute band concept. And it works wonderfully. The energy the night I saw them was scorching. These kids recreated an amazing show from Boston Garden May 7, 1977. A powerhouse show from what is widely considered one of the best tours -if not THE best tour- in Grateful Dead history!

My girlfriend, Sidse, had never seen the Grateful Dead and had only recently been introduced to them and what it is they did. She connected immediately to the music and we both mourned the loss of never being able to share that particular concert-going experience with each other. While that remains true, Dark Star Orchestra allowed us to have something very close. At the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, we danced together, surrounded by Deadheads of all ages, to Grateful Dead songs played better than I’ve ever heard them played by anyone other than the Grateful Dead themselves. Sure, no matter how high the music went, no matter how intense the peaks were, they still couldn’t capture the level of pure joy, the inexplicable energy and extraordinary presence of the Dead and of Jerry Garcia’s lyrical, emotional leads, but the music was nonetheless powerful and engaging, and we were dancing and smiling and celebrating. It’s as close as I ever expect to get to recreating my Grateful Dead experience and, unless Jerry turns up alive and well and ready to play, I’ll see DSO again when they come back my way, and be thankful for what it is they do, and try not to think too much about what it is they simply can’t. By no fault of their own. And certainly not for lack of trying.

Dark Star Orchestra – Next best thing to the Dead?

Favorite Films Of 2007

I won’t limit myself to only 10 films from 2007. Instead, I’ll list all my favorites. And I won’t be calling them “The Best” as that’s simply impossible for me to judge. What I’m far more capable (and comfortable) deciding on are what films I most liked, was most effected by, moved by, haunted by, or simply enjoyed. I’ll also list some lesser favorites, some downright disappointments and, to keep things balanced, my absolute least favorite films of what was, overall, a very decent year for film.
















































3:10 TO YUMA 












Favorite Films Of 2007