Saturday, June 20, 2009

DIY Spotlight: Writer/Director Jon Hart, AMERICAN SWING

How the writer/co-director of AMERICAN SWING took the bull by the horns and made the damn movie himself!

by Jim Cirile

I’ve never actually met Jon Hart, but I’ve known him seems like forever. It all started with a comedy script he cowrote with my friend, comedian Johnny Lampert, called BEER MAN. A funny and charming screenplay about a washed-up baseball pitcher forced to sell stadium suds who finally gets his mojo back, the script made the rounds in Hollywood, landed those guys a manager and then… well... (crickets chirp.) Yet another one of those “Man, this seems like a natural -– I can’t believe it didn’t sell” stories.

A few years later, I consulted on a fascinating script Jon had written about the rise and fall of the famous ‘70s NYC sex club Plato’s Retreat. This thing had ‘tough sell’ written all over it, but it was also a great piece of writing and research. Whatever happened to that project is an interesting tale. Rather than let it turn into just another script collecting dust on his shelf, Hart decided to DIY. “American Swing” was reborn in spectacular style -- as a documentary. The film went on to land theatrical distribution, stellar reviews in national publications and even screened at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival. We asked Mr. Hart about how this “no-holds-barred exploration of the meaning of sex” (“The Hollywood Reporter”) came about.


Jim Cirile: Jon, tell us a bit about yourself and your writing background.

Jon Hart: I started off as a journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines. Eventually, I branched out to other genres - screenplays, among others.

JC: I first became aware of you when you and Johnny Lampert were sending out BEER MAN about ten years ago. So whatever happened with that?

JH: Thanks for reminding me on the lengthy timeline. Anyway, I’m still fine-tuning it, talking it up. It’s my Mona Lisa, my piece de resistance. Meanwhile, Lampert has sworn off screenwriting, so we’ve gone our separate ways as far as writing together – but we’re still friends. We’re like the guys from Wham – except not as pretty.

JC: I dunno, have you seen George Michael lately? Then later I read a cool and well-researched script you wrote which was a true story about the founding of famous sex den Plato's Retreat in 1970s NYC. How did you get started on that one and what was your in to the subject matter?

JH: Back in the day, I was working on a newspaper article on cab drivers and I got a lead that the owner of Plato’s, Larry Levenson, was (now working as) a hack. Larry was a rich, complex character. He wanted me to tell his story, and I wanted to tell it. After months of interviews, my profile on Levenson was published in the “Village Voice.” I always believed that the Plato’s story – an untold story – deserved a larger venue though, so I wrote a screenplay... which was basically ignored. You know the drill. As far as rights, I got permission from the individuals involved.

JC: Basically ignored as in...

JH: I was given the Heisman by many low-level, unworthy development people. And I use the word ‘development’ generously.

JC: I hear you, my brother. How/why did you decide to take the Plato's material and DIY as a documentary? And what were the challenges of making it?

JH: Early on, I started collecting archival material on Plato’s. When the screenplay wasn’t able to generate interest, I decided to put my years of research and treasure trove of material to use. It seemed like the logical step.

JC: And so the narrative screenplay morphed into the documentary “American Swing.” Any great (or harrowing) stories from the making of the movie?

JH: The major obstacle was - big surprise – financing. Fortunately, my co-director, Matthew Kaufman, is a real pro in that area. We were introduced through a mutual friend. I'm not a great networker, but the story was so strong that I didn't have to be. When we started, we did not know how much money we needed. We created the trailer and beat the bushes, working the phones. No secret. Nothing fancy. As far as financing, we took what was offered and went from there. One way or another, this documentary was going to get made. That was the attitude. People are more apt to get on a bandwagon that is moving forward rather than an idle idea. OK, I'll get off my soapbox now.

JC: OK, you finish the film — what do you do with it? How did you get Magnolia to come aboard to distribute? And how did you get it into Toronto?

JH: At the beginning, we made a six-minute trailer and got some interest from HDNet Films (billionaire Mark Cuban’s company), which was affiliated with Magnolia Films. It was a matter of getting to the right people at the right time. You've heard it before – but that's the truth. As far as Toronto, we submitted like everyone else – and prayed – a lot.

JC: The film got great reviews including an "A-" from "Entertainment Weekly." That’s amazing! Tell us a bit about the theatrical run.

JH: We had three glorious weeks at the Quad in New York City, one week at the Sunset Five in West Hollywood. Things went exponentially better in New York. But that’s understandable, as Plato’s has much more cache on the east coast. Little known fact, Plato's opened a franchise in LA in the late ‘70s. After a few months, it closed. New York and LA: two different animals.

"American Swing" is a rags to riches to rags story. When I met him, Levenson was driving a cab. Ten years earlier, Levenson owned one of the hottest, most insane clubs in the world. His journey was very compelling - funny and sad. I found Levenson to be extremely likable. What's it like to have the world by the balls and lose it all? As far as I was concerned, Levenson's tale had to be told. Sadly, Levenson passed away in 1999 following quadruple bypass surgery. He would have enjoyed the documentary.

JC: Where can folks get a copy of “American Swing”?

JH: It’s available on On Demand and Amazon. It’s also available at DVD outlets, including Netflix. If someone wants to catch “American Swing,” it’s right at your fingertips.

JC: Thanks, man. What's next for you? Any final words of encouragement/advice to our readers who may also get fed up with pursuing the spec script game and seize the means of production?

JH: I’m leaning towards fiction – but you never know. I’ve written a few screenplays. You know how that is. I very well might be calling on Coverage Ink. for a quick tune-up. As far as advice, disregard all advice. Follow your heart and tell the story that you have to tell. As far as leisure, hey, Lampert just got a boat. He must be doing something right. Anyway, I hope to spend some time on it. During which, I'll definitely harangue him about Beer Man – how he's missing out on the next big screenplay. Lampert – great guy.

Check out the official “American Swing” website HERE.


Writers on the Storm is not even over, but we already have some quarterfinalists. How can this be so?, you might ask. Allow us to explain!

Here's how it works. Anyone who submits their scripts to Coverage, Ink for analysis is automatically entered in the contest. Entries submitted directly to the contest (at or are judged after the contest’s final deadline (8/10). But scripts sent in to CI for analysis get judged in advance – so if you score a ‘consider with reservations’ or better for script (roughly top 10%), you lock in quarterfinalist status early on. You can then let it ride, or polish it up and resubmit, theoretically bettering your odds.

Thus we now have five quarterfinalists in the running for the $28,500 cash and prizes!

Presenting our rockin’ quarterfinalists thus far:

The Enginist by Tim McGrath
Macau Twilight by Tony Shyu
Nightmare in the Ardennes by Walt Malinowski
Shades of Grey by Michael Morra
Svengali Effect by Jeremy Shipp

Great work, guys! (Hey, all men so far? What gives? Come on, ladies!)

Join the Writers on the Storm Facebook group right HERE.

Writers on the Storm update - a note from Portia

Greetings, Stormies!

We’re now in month two of our Writers on the Storm screenwriting competition, which means… the deluge is upon us! As the submissions start to pour in, so do the questions. Is my script going to be disqualified if it's got a few typos? Can I include the research I did for my historical epic for reference? Am I going to lose just because I'm a guy and I wrote a RomCom? The answers, Of Course, are Nah, Please Don't, and, Uh...What? ;)

I wanted to take a moment to discuss one of my favorite — and least favorite — types of scripts — Romantic Comedies. Let me explain. Often maligned, tragically misunderstood, this genre is the warm and fuzzy cockroach of the screenwriting world – it's the genre that cannot be killed. No matter what the state of the industry, RomComs persist, adapting to their environment, but never disappearing entirely. But they are deceptively difficult to write – how hard could it be to come up with a twist on "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back?" Show of hands, how many of you have stared down your RomCom and wanted to hurl the laptop out the window? See, the main problem is that the audience KNOWS everything. Y’all have SEEN everything – cute and quirky guy with self-esteem issues or self-confident jerk with a good heart who needs to be taken down a peg meets bohemian artsy chick or tough-as-nails businessgal who really only needs to be loved. Insert infidelity or misunderstanding, add a meet/cute, and stir.

So what's a RomCom writer in search of originality to do? How do you mix it up enough to make it different without losing the audience?

A) Adjust the focus. More often we see the love story taking a backseat to the protag's journey - SEX AND THE CITY is far more about the women's friendship than it is about their relationships; HIGH FIDELITY is about John Cusack learning how to grow up, but there are still romantic hijinks throughout the story.

B) Change the audience. Judd Apatow came along and upended everyone’s notion of what the genre should be with The 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP. There's no reason a great Romantic Comedy has to be something girls have to drag their boyfriends to. There's no reason men can't write a funny, heartfelt love story from their perspective and have it appeal to a wide audience of men and women. In fact, what’s in demand right now are what’s called ‘bromances’— AKA male-driven romantic comedies!

So don't be afraid to try new things with your RomCom! Be creative! Try new angles and settings, play with the genre. The readers, and ultimately the audience, will appreciate it. Sad to say but the old paradigms — the SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLES, etc. — just aren’t going to fly anymore. I know, Ilove those movies, too. It’s just, if it seems like a Meg Ryan movie, well, no offense to Ms. Ryan, but that is no longer what the town wants.

And remember, we’ve only got a little more than 6 weeks till our regular deadline! I expect y’all to bring the greatness. Everyone here at Writers on the Storm, we are hungry to find great scripts, we really are, one that gets us really excited, makes us want to jump up and go, yeah! I got a live one here! So bring it, y’all!



Writers on the Storm 4
Regular deadline: 7/27
$10,000 Grand Prize
Over $28,500 total prizes - 140 companies - - Producer meetings - top ten finish in the money - top 50 receive prizes - all entries receive feedback!
Enter online right HERE!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Michael Lent's Belly of the Beast - INDIEWOOD

Boy, do we miss Michael Lent's Belly of the Beast column, which ran in "Creative Screenwriting" for years until 2007. We asked Michael if he could bang one out for us for old time's sake... and he did! Enjoy, folks!

Oh, and if you haven't checked out Lent's great BREAKFAST WITH SHARKS, do so! This is the only book on screenwriting that tells you how to navigate the dangerous shoals of Hollywood for those serious about making screenwriting a career. Highly recommended by Coverage, Ink.



Have the Career You Want Right Now

Recently, I received an industry email with a headline reading “Get it together. Start fresh!”

I don’t want a fresh start. I don’t want, um, “Change.”

Despite all of the Skittles and nitro java-fueled resolutions we make periodically, all that reorganization of the mental deck chairs can leave a writer as creatively fallow as the Siege of Leningrad. After seminars and pitch fests, we feel tremendous pressure to reinvent ourselves, to cast out the old in favor of the new. Often the problem goes beyond our typical writers’ malaise and lies in trying to make too many “jump to light speed,” across-the-board changes at once. A “hot” new spec written in a new style with a new partner intended for a new agent is a few too many quantum leaps, sure to slam us into the side of a high-rise building a few months from now. Much like the old analogy of the butterfly flapping its wings in China, I believe that a few carefully crafted micro-adjustments will reap the more dramatic effect. When our writing and business sense is 95% there, it’s that last 5% that can make all the difference in creating the right access, opportunity and result. In other words, you may be closer to the gold ring than you think. The right simple change can have a profound impact RIGHT NOW. Proof of this is all around us. In fact, I owe my career as a working writer/producer to this simple principle.

Put a group of writers together for an extended period of time and invariably one will break out of the pack. Some of the others will lament their sour grapes that “there’s virtually no difference between that writer and me. I’m just as talented as he/she.” And they are right. The distinction is infinitesimal. Four years into my foray to be a professional writer, I was subsisting on $500 indie prodco options, big budget specs that didn’t quite sell and studio assignments that I didn’t quite get. All of my friends were basically in the same boat. Then I decided to make one small adjustment: I would stop waiting for career validation from the Joel Silvers of the world and immediately be the writer I wanted to be with the career I wanted to have. That was the one change. To repeat, I would stop waiting and start treating my work with the respect it deserved.

Immediately, I slew those internal dragons that ostensibly guarded my self-esteem but in fact roared at me at all hours of the night with enough self-doubt to keep me from changing the state of my career. While I realized that some self-doubt can be a good motivator, from that point on, nothing was out of my league. And yet, the league that I was already in was chockablock with opportunity. So the gritty little $500 options and assignments I managed to scrape together were no longer depressing stop gaps, or as one colleague referred to them, “cabana boy gigs.” Instead they were legitimate opportunities to lock down future relationships. For the next one that came my way, I sought out an entertainment accountant, as well as a top-rated attorney who charged $250 just to look over the deal memo. That meant the lawyer got half of my contract. Meanwhile, the accountant charged me three times what H & R Block did to do my taxes. Yikes! But fine. The accountant soon had me form a corporation that got most of my money back including her fees. And the lawyer proceeded to put a couple of key protections into the deal memo - language that more than paid for itself in terms of peace of mind. Plus, our professional relationship was off and running.

Indiewood is a state of mind. It means that just like a studio production company, you have a slate of projects in various stages of development. Typically, the average prodco might have acquired pitches, specs, books to adapt, video games and comic books. They might also have their hands in webisode productions. Likewise, in the past two three years I have been involved in the following: producing a horror film; co-producing a documentary; writer on two video games; co-ghost writing a sci-fi novel; developing television and webisode series, writer/producer on 3 graphic novels, author of two books. I also write spec scripts; however, they are generally linked with compatible material like graphic novels. I’ve also written and produced three animated short films or trailers used in support of other projects. Sounds like a lot but isn’t much different than doing rewrite after rewrite on the same two or three spec screenplays in the same period. Of course, all of the above means learning about things beyond writing. It means actually being in production, working actors, directors, composers, animators, effects people, etc, all the while expanding my skill set, which is not a bad thing in a down economy. And when the budget doesn’t allow for hiring some of those people, it means being resourceful or sometimes doing it yourself. Above all else, Indiewood means lean and mean and taking chances. Many of my projects were produced for pennies on the dollar. Remember that anything worth doing involves a certain amount of risk. Without risk there is no reward. Recently, I sold a pitch to the publishing division of Disney. Within weeks it meant that I was on a plane headed for the Arctic Circle as part of my research. Talk about holy friggin’ wow!

Of course, I still write specs and pitch on assignments, but I find that I don’t have time to hold my breath waiting to see what happens. I move on and it’s on them to catch up. The balance of power has shifted. All too often the Bill Clinton adage of “Wrong & Strong will always beat Weak & Right” applies to us writers and our Gilliganesque “L’il Buddy” status in this hazy, crazy movie business. Having a team behind me felt different, better than having gel inserts in my boxer briefs, and more like having a special key to a suitcase of nitroglycerin. I also noticed that I was more confident and less inclined to be “Weak & Right” in meetings with “all-powerful” producers. Suspect personal hygiene was no longer my biggest private fear. Later, I even felt confident enough to assume the co-producer reigns on a feature film project when the opportunity came. But before that, I landed a studio assignment at Miramax - a tough place I’d already tried to crack a couple of times earlier.

Be the writer you want to be right now.

Lots of times we think the next level is about someone else having more resources or more access. Yet there are plenty of people bopping around this planet, with incredible access who can’t make a go of it. They seem to have it all and don’t do anything with it. Here in Hollywood, it’s common to come across the children of legendary actors, directors or producers. The personal legacy of many of these privileged progeny is little more than some compromising photos taken outside of the Viper Room.

We have to carry ourselves as the writer we aspire to be BEFORE we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, before we pick up that phone to set up our meeting. One time a producer who was stressing the importance of execution said to me, “Good ideas are like assholes, everybody’s got at least one.” Very profound. But I don’t agree with that idea, or even the idea that thoughts are in easy, limitless supply. Thoughts aren’t free in the sense that they take up space in the brain. We can only hold onto so many. Hence the invention of paper and post-it notes. Ideally, we want our brain filled with stuff pertaining to that amazing new project. Fine, but all too often our brain is filled with less inspirational matters like, “If I don’t sell this timely blockbuster on the dangers of acid reflux, how will I afford to be buried in a paupers’ grave?” or less charitable thoughts about how that aforementioned “friggin’ no-talent” colleague might be hit by a Mr. Tasty Ice Cream truck and thus, restore some sense of order in the Cosmos. Cynicism is a very dubious currency that’s only honored in the black markets of a tortured psyche.

Work on personal projects that are worthy of the writer you see yourself becoming.

We start our process of Indiewood and butterfly effects right now by truly believing we are gifted writers with limitless capabilities. Here those of us steeped in the Power of Negative Thought will say, “Hey, Mental Lental! None of that gifted shmifted stuff matters unless you’ve actually written a brilliant script.” Let me say this: to date I’ve been a judge of eight script and film competitions. For one contest alone I once read 135 scripts. One thing I noticed is that a disproportionate number of those screenplays featured protracted shootouts in warehouses. Seven utilized this one specific tired convention that seemed to go on and on. It occurred to me that if those writers truly believed they were gifted, would they really write about vampire rock bands or drug deals [with vampires] in warehouses gone bad? Or would they risk sharing just a little more insight with their audience? Wouldn’t they feel free to TRULY express themselves and trust their craft to deliver something no one had ever quite put on paper before? At the very least, a new way into Hitchcock or a screwball comedy? As a writing instructor I used to ask students to name their five favorite films. Often a student who was writing Count Chocula: The Movie would proclaim his favorite film of all time to be The Godfather. That’s a disconnect of confidence and ambition.

The well-known Sly Stallone story is apt here. As an actor, he was once so destitute that he reduced to doing porn and I’m pretty sure it was a non-speaking part. Yet, he had this one script that he truly believed in. Even when Stallone was offered $300,000 (big, big money back in the ‘70s) to sell the Rocky script and walk away from starring in it, his belief in himself as both writer AND actor was so strong, he turned down the money. The rest is history. Unfortunately, that history includes Spy Kids 3-D, Driven and Stop! Or Mom Will Shoot, as well as other films that may have included warehouse scenes, but that’s a different story. Bad things like Rocky V, or worse, or losing the opportunity to write Rocky V happen to us screenwriters all the time. But they don’t happen ALL of the time. Instead, these kind of Rocky (I) stories occur every day, all around us. That’s what we need to focus on instead of concern over losing a few heat shield tiles from one’s ego.

I realize that the idea of butterfly wings is a bit conceptual. Many writers have more immediate concerns like:

How do we land a meeting?
How do we make sure that it’s a good meeting?
How do we cement our reputation as a talented writer AND walk away with a deal?
How do we earn a consistent and good living with this craft, this hobby, this thing we love so much?

My book Breakfast with Sharks is filled with the answers to these game plan, taking action and taking chances sorts of questions. If it wasn’t, legendary studio head Mike Medavoy wouldn’t have written the Foreword. But going beyond A is to B is to C specifics, what we’re really talking about is turning our desire into our reality. What we’re talking about is going to the next level in our careers. We see it every day happening for others so we know it’s possible. And we’re right. It is our turn. And the good news is that we may be one small change away.

Michael Lent is currently writing 'On Thin Ice' for Disney. He is the author of the industry bestselling book, “Breakfast with Sharks” published by Random House. He has produced the feature films 'Hard Scrambled,' 'Witches’ Night' and 'Naked in America.' He wrote 'Prey: Origin of the Species,' published by Marvel Comics. He was a writer on the Xbox 360 game 'Vigilante 8: Arcade' released in 2008. As a screenwriter, he has sold, optioned or been assigned to ten feature film projects including 'The Hellseeker' for Miramax Studios.