Author Archives: ericstolze

About ericstolze

Eric Stolze hails from Southern Illinois. He studied film and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and has since landed in Los Angeles. He tries to be sincere instead of cynical and sometimes succeeds. He tries to drink tea instead of coffee and fails miserably. He tries to pursue his passion for writing and directing films… let’s watch what happens.

Why Did The Meth Cook Cross the Road?*

WARNING: MAY CONTAIN VOLATILE SPOILERS INSIDE

                Many people, when asked if they watch Breaking Bad, will tell you that they just can’t. The constant fear of mortality and ongoing themes of illness and cruelty hit too close to home and depress them for days. The main character’s constant bad decisions and horrifying actions make them too furious to pay attention. And here’s a really constant one: the show’s endless stream of suspense and tension leaves them stewing with anxiety. Most hyperbolic fans will tell you that their favorite show almost gave them a heart attack; fans of Breaking Bad live in constant fear of that actually happening.

With that said, whether you’re physically capable of watching the show or not… would you believe me when I say Breaking Bad is the funniest show on TV right now?

Marc Maron’s beloved podcast WTF has earned acclaim for its in-depth approach to comedy; dissecting what it is, where it comes from, and how it seems to turn up in the unlikeliest places. In his excellent interview with Bryan Cranston, the actor who portrays the dying-teacher-turned-better-off-dead-criminal Walter White, Marc Maron brings up a dynamic in BB that he’s never heard anyone else address: the relationship between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the former student who becomes his partner in crime. Many rave reviews have talked of their complicated, dramatic relationship… the father/son rhythms, the puppetmaster/puppet scenarios, the anger and distrust that permeate between the two.

But Maron, who always speaks in the language of comedy, sums up the complicated pairing in a simple and stunningly accurate description: they’re a comedy duo.

And he’s right. An over-the-hill family man and a sexed-up hoodlum? A scientific genius and a high school dropout? A man diagnosed with cancer who desperately needs money and a twenty-something who’s never had a responsibility in his life? There’s great pathos to be drawn from any of these descriptions. But “…walk into a bar” attaches pretty nicely to the end of any of them, too.

Comedy, like drama, comes from conflict. And the extreme juxtaposition of these two is an extremely funny contrast. They don’t get each other; their misunderstandings are hilarious. Jesse believes, with the naivety of a toddler, that Walt can build a robot from household appliances. Walt despises Jesse’s music with a cartoonish cranky-old-man grimace. Their polar-opposite voices grind against each other in situations both calm and (more often) terrifying, making sparks that feel funny because they’re surprising, they’re character-based, and above all they make SENSE. And when they find something in common, it’s even more hilarious. Who knew that these completely different men could bond over diner food? Who knew that their similarly prideful natures could make an enthusiastic high-five between the two elicit a belly laugh?

And as any fan can point out, the biggest constant of the show is how Walt’s former student Jesse will always, always, ALWAYS – through murders, betrayals, kidnappings, power shifts, and constant threat of death – refer to Walt as “Mr. White.” The high school pecking order persists; the longer that title remains the funnier and more ironic it gets. That’s a perfect running gag.

If the criminal vaudeville of the White and Pinkman Duo doesn’t do it for you, consider another love-it-or-hate-it strand in the show’s DNA: The truly shocking, graphic instances of violence. People are nauseated by the over-the-top gore, using it as a prime example of “They can get away with anything on TV these days” moral outrage. But with shock comes surprise, and with surprise comes humor. Consider this: the violence is so extreme that it becomes slapstick. In the world of cult horror films, playing brutal and messy deaths for cartoonish laughs is affectionately known as “splatstick.” Breaking Bad is the first-ever splatstick TV series.

SPOILERS! Don’t ruin the jokes!

In the second episode ever produced, Jesse and Walt have to dispose of a body. Walt’s knowledge of chemistry leads him to the conclusion that dissolving the body in acid is the way to go. Jesse’s lack of knowledge leads him to throw the body in the upstairs bathtub, pour bottle upon bottle of sulfuric acid into the tub, and… drumroll, please…the acid eats through the body, bathtub, and the floor, leading up to… BA-DUM, TISSSH! A mess of guts hitting the ground floor. Replace the blood with dog pee and you’ve got the climactic gag of a Beethoven sequel.

A low-level thug, Combo, is roped into peddling top-notch crystal meth by his friend Jesse. A little kid circling him on a bike turns out to be a fledgling assassin… but when the constantly-snacking Combo gets shot, we see the bullet hole not in his chest, but in the enormous cup of soda he’s holding in front of him. He bleeds cola, then blood.

A tweaked-out junkie struggles to crack open an ATM propped over his head like a fixer-upper car. His wife, having been called “skank” one too many times, tips the ATM off of the carjack its resting on. It CRUSHES the junkie’s skull with an awful CRUNCH… and the ATM pops open, sending money flooding out like a slot machine. Tell me that’s not a comedic payoff.

And the mother of all BB splatstick gags, the “Oh my GOD!” heard round the world of Sunday night basic cable watchers: It turns out that the slow-burn, methodically-building fourth season was basically one long set-up for a violent punch-line death of a major character. Walt’s chemistry genius leads to a homemade bomb that blows up inches away from the character’s face, exposing SKULL and MUSCLE before collapsing dead to the ground. Insult-comedy to injury: that episode is titled “Face Off.” Don Rickles would be proud.

END SPOILERS!

The splatstick element is key to understanding why so many of the grim, dark beats of this show are simultaneously funny. Horror and comedy are essentially structured the same way: build-up and pay-off. “Don’t open that door!” and “How do you drown a blonde?”** Set-up and punch line. Lots of tiny, satisfying deliveries. And both horror and comedy can elicit laughter through tension, disgust, and deep discomfort. You’ve gotta laugh or you might cry instead… or throw up.

Finally, there’s the fact that a lot of the show is just flat-out comedy, not hidden and not misread though certainly overshadowed by the many deeply disconcerting dramatic beats. And it works! A lot of dialogue is written to be funny commentary on the increasingly complicated story lines. Bob Odenkirk, an icon of alternative comedy and co-creator of Mr. Show, was introduced to the show halfway through the second season yet he fits into this dark world so comfortably you’d swear he was in the mix since the first day. His character, Saul Goodman, brings a more clearly announced comedic relief that Odenkirk nails. His character is straight out of a joke book: a self-serving sleazeball lawyer. But even that concept has a clever comedic twist laid onto it: he’s really, really good at his job.

Odenkirk’s not the highest-billed comedian in the twisted, high-stakes world of Breaking Bad. That rank falls on Walter White himself. When the show first premiered, many people thought, “The dad from Malcolm in the Middle in a dramatic role? Really?” Three Emmys later (probably four by this time next year), Bryan Cranston’s comedic roles seem dim memories by comparison. But Cranston’s expert handle on comedic timing translates perfectly in Walter’s fish-out-of-water reactions to the crumbling universe around him.

The Maron-Cranston interview talked a bit about Cranston’s technique of finding a simple, one-word emotional core for his characters. With Walter White, that core is numbness. But what was surprisingly enlightening was his description of the goofy Malcolm in the Middle dad’s emotional core: fear. A father whose life is ruled by fear doesn’t sound particularly funny on paper, but in practice a big part of Malcolm’s success was in Cranston’s totally committed performance. It was a telling demonstration of how darkness can be at the core of making light. The laughter not only serves a purpose, it comes naturally.

One last thought: One of the longest standing comedic archetypes in film, literature, theater, TV, even comic strips is the character whose view of him- or herself outreaches his reality. Max Fisher in Rushmore is an aggravating F student who thinks he’s the crown jewel of his private school. Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces thinks he is a dashing intellectual when he’s a morbidly obese rambler who can’t even run a hot dog cart with competence. Snoopy thinks he’s a World War 1 fighting ace. And Walter White, for all his misery and the misery he wreaks, for the deep emotional turmoil he exhibits in each episode, for the awe-inspiring pathos and fearless acting acrobatics Cranston delivers…

…Walt still thinks he’s a powerful man when he’s impotent. He still thinks he’s the smartest man in the country as he tosses a pizza onto his roof in rage… then scrapes it off the shingles himself days later. Walter White, like any clown, is his own worst enemy and just too goddamned different to fit into the world around him. You know people like that. They never tell jokes… but they’re pretty funny.

You can listen to the interview at http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_216_-_bryan_cranston and you can watch the first three seasons of BB on Netflix Watch Instant, unless you’ve understandably cancelled and run screaming from endless emails that say, “Good news! We’ve taken a perfect system and ruined it!”

* To run from the twin assassins trying to murder him to take revenge for the cartel blood that’s been spilled! Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all night!

** Put a scratch-and-sniff sticker at the bottom of a pool.

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paycheck to paycheck #2: a stopped watch is right twice a day

Not to boast, but I’ve had a LOT of day jobs over the last few years. In this column, you can watch from a safe distance as I drill life lessons and anecdotes from these detours toward the dream.

When you take all the products out of display windows, they suddenly display more than they ever intended. For over three years now the “STORE CLOSING” sign has been an image as American and unavoidable as the mailman, and it’s delivered just as many messages. The bad news is: this store (and, y’know, the jobs held within) won’t exist anymore. The good news is: we’re taking a percentage off the costs of our failing products, so now you can have something you didn’t want for even cheaper! The worse news is: your job might be next, so even at fifteen percent off, that jewel-encrusted stainless-steel business card holder might not be the wisest investment. When the doors of a business lock shut, there are usually still people on the other side, the clocks of their employment ticking down. And I’ve never worked for a place with more locks on the doors than Movado.

Movado, for you middle-class goons who don’t read magazines for the advertisements, is a brand of high-end Swiss watch built around a minimalist design and sold for a maximalist price. The cheapest watch, the “Classic Museum Dial,” ran you $500. The most expensive was something around $6000, made of solid gold right down to its gears for the discriminating man-about-town who’s looked at his own wrist and thought, “Why isn’t there solid gold on this damn thing?”  Their stores also carried jewelry, vases, wall clocks, engagement rings, and a satellite radio station that played lots of U2.

Each store was placed in a strategic location that catered to high-rollers and their families. For approximately thirty-two days before it closed, I worked at the one in a mall in Beverly Hills. It was just another square on a checkerboard for the wealthy, alongside the predictable names like Godiva, Rolex, Macy’s, and Banana Republic; an AMC theater that came with a guarantee of at least twelve ringing Blackberries in the audience of each screening; and restaurants that must have been great to have names like Bread Bar and, yes, seriously, I’m not joking, Pink Taco.

For all the spotless shine and high-society posturing, this mall was a bloodied warzone. In a recession, luxury is the first block to get pulled on society’s Jenga tower. Desperation revealed itself in bright rescue flags pretending to be banners of celebration. Goodie bags would be thrust into unwilling arms, new products rose on pedestals like unearned trophies, and some stores even offered entertainment in the form of magicians, balloon animals, and face painting. In other words, it became a circus that reeked of horseshit even worse than most.

But Movado’s time was up quickly. Fittingly, the watches themselves were the constant ticking reminders. Quick test: what time is it? Did you check your phone? You’re not alone. Most people under 30 reflexively check their phone to determine the time. You’re not likely to buy a knife when you carry a Swiss army knife everywhere. Did you check the watch on your wrist? Well, then… you already own a watch. Either way, who’s buying a watch? And who’s paying those prices when you could just get a timepiece from a Target, a card table outside the airport, or a shadowy figure in a trenchcoat?

In order for this specific Movado to break even, it needed to make a million dollars a year.  If you believe it was making that kind of money, I’ve got a six thousand dollar watch to sell you.

About a week before the official announcement that Movado was closing 27 out of 28 store locations, the mall sent the store an official letter on elegant stationary. It cordially invited the store to pay the rent it had been missing for the last three months or face eviction. It was like a landlord pounding on a door with his pinky extended. The employees, some of whom had been with the store since it had opened, were concerned. Movado’s district manager was pokerfaced. I wasn’t sure quite how to react. Having barely completed a month of employment I was getting to know the products and the people, but I’d yet to form any real attachments… aside from an ill-fitting suit I bought from Ross. The sleeves reached practically up to my knuckles. Every day of work I resembled a toddler fidgeting through his aunt’s wedding.

Finally we were all asked to come in to work hours before regular store hours for a “special announcement.” What could it possibly be? A surprise pregnancy? Shotgun wedding? Had a new continent been discovered? We all stood outside the doors, waiting for someone to unlatch the multitude of locks.  Because the veil had not yet been lifted on the store closures for the staff, we were all still expected to wear the black formal wear that was the Movado uniform. We looked like we were going to a funeral held two doors down from a GameStop.

Finally the doors unlocked and we filed into the backroom, where we learned we were getting laid off. Some were legitimately surprised. There was hurt. There were tears. There were mimosas and bagels. Being the freshest addition, I still didn’t quite feel included in all of this. My only thought, aside from trying to think of what my next dayjob could be, was, “I didn’t really have to shave for this.” The managers logged in to a nationwide conference call where all the stores were informed that a press release was being sent out and the stores would close in another thirty days. They claimed that, to uphold the dignity of the Movado brand, there would be no liquidation sale. That lasted about a day.

For as hard as it is to muster enthusiasm for a dayjob, when you see an official end in sight it becomes nearly impossible. That was a long thirty days for everyone. One day after we got the news, the signs were out and the prices were down. Customers became scavengers. An initial “Aw, darn” response to the news speedily transitioned to drooling questions about when the 15% would magically become 20. And we, the employees in black, were expected to try just as hard if not harder to present the store as a class-act establishment and treat everyone who entered as though they were royalty instead of designer vultures. We weren’t dressed for a funeral, we were dressed as stagehands. We had an illusion to carry out.

Two weeks to go before the store closed, an official representative from Movado visited the store with contracts to sign. We were agreeing to see the job out to the very end for a bonus paycheck, as well as agreeing to never discuss Movado’s closures in interviews or online (oops). Since I wasn’t scheduled for that day, I had to drive the hour commute to basically be handed a “severance packet” of contracts. The LA traffic didn’t quite put me in an “honor and nobility” sort of mood.

I entered the backroom. There, betwixt a safe and a minifridge, the rep was waiting. She was a large woman with an equally large smirk. Movado wasn’t going out of business; they were just closing their retail branch. The corporate office was staying open; this woman was not only keeping her job, she was getting a promotion. As a well-paid, black-suited minion who travelled the country delivering severance agreements to people losing their jobs, she clearly had two options: act as an empathetic Oprah, or embrace her role as the Bad Guy. Her smirk was full disclosure of her choice. Maybe she was trying to emulate the smoldering smugness that earned George Clooney an Oscar nod for “Up in the Air.”

I obediently sat in a swiveling chair and was handed my packet. Darth Movado informed me that she was there to answer any questions that I might have, like the sage at the top of a mountain. I had a question.

“The employee handbook says that if I work here for thirty days, I’m given a complimentary watch. I worked here for thirty-two before the announcement. Can I get the watch I earned?”

She laughed. She really did. Check the security tapes.

“We’re not in a position to do that, obviously,” she said, as if that was more obvious than the three hundred watches I walked past to get to the backroom. Alright, the answer was expected. I’m too clumsy for nice things, anyway. I’m more the type of guy who gets watches from fast food drive-thrus. The laughter, though…

“Do you have any other questions?”

I looked around the backroom, trying to keep my cool. I focus on the old wall clock above the manager’s desk. It’s the clock we go by to determine when we clock in and out. It ticks along just like the thousand-dollar watches on the sales floor. But behind the locked door that conceals us, this twenty-dollar department store clock is the one we live by. It’s good enough for us.

“You look like you have something to say. Now would be the time to say it,” she says. She looks ready to handle a confrontation. She’s practically begging for one. I picture her buying martinis with the other corporates back in New York, clinking glasses, telling tales of the cartoonish reactions she faced down and how well she handed them. She was looking for a story.

I actually don’t have anything else to say. But I remember, watching the clock, that I’m getting paid to be here. She is, too. One minute of silence goes by. Two minutes. She starts to look annoyed. Three minutes.

“Do you have any other questions, or…?”

“I’m trying to think of how to word it,” I say, and keep looking around the room. Five minutes. I rock back in forth in the chair. Six minutes. Now she’s the one who looks like she has something to say.

“I have a lot to do today, sir, so if you have no other questions, would you please sign the documents?” It’s her prerogative to get every employee to sign them. Her job may depend on it. Of course, I depend on the extra check my signature buys me, too.

“Give me a minute. This is important to me,” I say. She starts fuming. She checks her watch; if this were a play, you’d assume it was a tactic to rub in her refusal of my employee watch. I doubt she was quite that good at being villainous. She starts to work on some of her papers. I pretend to look over mine. Ten minutes. Twelve.

By minute fifteen I’m bored stiff. I give a final look to the cheap clock between us. “I forgot my question,” I said, signed the contracts, and handed them off. She didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t even leave her with a good story to tell, after all that. (What kind of idiot would tell THAT story?)

My last day was a week later. My mother, father, and even my little brother had all been laid off at various points in the previous two years; I was the last to uphold the Stolze tradition.

The manager and assistant manager, two very kind and gracious people, stayed on for another two weeks as Movado employees, the last of their kind. Behind closed doors, as mall-goers passed and wondered what exciting new store would take its place, they dismantled the store they worked and fought for. They labeled and packaged all of the watches to be sent back to corporate. They cleaned, they dismantled, they toiled away, removing any trace of existence. There’s practical sadism in keeping the employees of a bankrupt business on to undo their former livelihood. I just hope they didn’t have to wear their black business suits throughout.

A year later, I still don’t wear a watch. At O’Hare Airport, I see someone wearing a Movado. I can’t keep my mouth shut, naturally:

“Classic Museum Dial,” I say, pointing to his wrist.

He shrugs. “Nah, it’s a knockoff. I bought it from a guy downtown for twenty bucks.”

Figures.

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pre-tanic: year zero

The following is Eric Stolze’s attempt to cash in on the prequel craze. Presenting:

 PRE-TANIC: YEAR ZERO: 3D

A brilliantly dramatic, high-flying prequel to the hugely profitable, award-sweeping, money-winning , worldwide financial phenomenon, in which we finally answer the burning questions of two billion dollars’ worth of fans. 

 The following sample pages are registered and trademarked by Eric Stolze, as per a tiny “TM” inked on the napkin this work was originally written on.

TITLE CARD: BROOKLYN – 1990

EXT.  PUBLIC SWIMMING POOL – DAY

A sweltering New York summer. An overcrowded pool set in concrete and filled with ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE.  Boomboxes blast MILLI VANILLI over the symphony of LAUGHTER and CHATTER.

POOL GUEST 1

I can say with certainty that Milli Vanilli will be around forever!

(hold for audience laughter)

POOL GUEST 2

I don’t know… I heard a rumor that they’re not really singing. What do you call it when you’re just mouthing along to pre-recorded words?

 BOY (O.S.)

SINKING!

 POOL GUEST 2

Yeah, that might be it… wait, what?

 The Crowd turns their attention to a young BOY splashing in the middle of the pool. He SHOUTS with desperation:

 BOY

SINKING! HELP! MY BOAT IS SINKING! SOMEBODY HELP!

 Pushing through the crowd comes the pool’s LIFEGUARD… a cocky, Bill Paxton-esque young man by the name of BROCK “YAGOTTA” LOVETT (20s).

 LOVETT

Alright, everybody stand back. I gotta dive deep.

 A BIKINI-CLAD WOMAN, as gorgeous as any woman you’ll find at a public pool, gives him a passionate kiss.

 BIKINI WOMAN

For good luck.

 LOVETT

Thanks, babe, but with diving skills this fly you don’t need luck. You just need time…

 He PUSHES her out of the way.

LOVETT (CONT’D)

… And space.

 He DIVES into the pool, SPLASHING WATER in 3D…

INT. POOL

As Lovett journeys to the bottom of the pool, CELTIC SINGING can be heard. The light SCATTERS through the blue as he sets his sights on a model BOAT in the corner of the deep end.

 He descends… hovers over the boat in wonder… and slowly takes it into his hands. He reads the tiny name on the side:

TITANIC.

 EXT. PUBLIC SWIMMING POOL

Lovett surfaces and climbs onto the edge of the pool to rapturous APPLAUSE from the crowd. The Boy runs up to him.

 BOY

Thanks, mister! Thanks!

 LOVETT

 “Mister” is my Dad’s name. The name’s Brock Lovett… but they call me “Yagotta” Lovett. Also, no running!

He TWEETS his whistle in the Boy’s face, then hands the model off.

LOVETT (CONT’D)

That’s the most beautiful boat I’ve ever seen, kid. I’m suddenly obsessed with it. What do you call it?

BOY

The… TITANIC.

LOVETT

That’s a dumb name for such a tiny ship.

BOY

It’s a model based on an actual ship that lived up to that name a lot better. There’s a really interesting, dramatic story behind it. But I’m only in elementary school, so I don’t know all its romantic secrets.

 LOVETT

Well, as it so happens, I start NYU this week with an undeclared major. I always thought the Deep-Sea Archaeology major was for lamewads… but I think that assumption just got… SUNK.

 He JUMPS back into the water and we–

CUT TO:

INT. NYU POOL – WEEKS LATER

Lovett CLIMBS out of a pool, handing a soaked textbook over to a beautiful CO-ED in an NYU T-shirt.

 LOVETT

You should be more careful with your textbooks… especially this one. “THE BUILDING OF THE TITANIC”… sounds like a financially viable story worth telling. If only books could be presented in incredible digital 3D.

  CO-ED

I just wanted to see that legendary Lovett dive for myself. Now, let’s get back to our… studies.

They begin to MAKE OUT. While kissing, Lovett opens the textbook behind the Co-Ed’s head and READS with wide eyes…

 TITLE CARD: BELFAST, IRELAND 1909

INT. WHITE STAR SHIPYARD – DAY

A well-dressed gentleman, DEVLIN WHITESTAR JR., walks through a sun-drenched doorway as tall as a tree. He stands out from THOUSANDS of industrial WORKERS, many of whom sing Irish folk songs that could easily be remixed into dance hits or covered by Billboard Top 40 artists.

 A starstruck SUPERVISOR RUNS UP to Whitestar, carrying a glass of whiskey. He’s followed by a man in a suit, SAMSON MARINOS (40s).

 SUPERVISOR

Mr. Whitestar! We’ve been expecting you. Here’s your glass of whiskey.

 WHITESTAR

No ice? What’s a glass of whiskey without ice, you blockheaded buffoon?

 SUPERVISOR

B-but… but, sir… the men say that having ice around a ship being built is… BAD LUCK.

 WHITESTAR

It would take a lot more than a little ice to doom this particular ship, IDIOT!

 (hold for audience laughter)

Whitestar SPLASHES the whiskey into the Supervisor’s face and hands the glass back. As the Supervisor runs away, Marinos approaches, CLAPPING slowly.

 MARINOS

I would expect such a grand entrance from Devlin Whitestar Jr… the man who expects such a grand ship… owner of White Star Lines… who is you.

  WHITESTAR

Yes, quite, quite. And this grand ship is exactly why I hired you… Samson Marinos… the greatest expert on the likelihood of boats sinking in the entire civilized world.  Come, show me where my millions are wisely going.

Marinos leads Whitestar into the ship yard… revealing an ENORMOUS HALF-FINISHED SHIP, SUSPENDED IN THE AIR by rafters and beams. Thousands of WORKERS surround it like bees in a hive. It’s a beautiful work in progress that will look dope as hell in digital 3D.

 Striding up to Marinos and Whitestar comes THOMAS EDISON (the inventor), wearing a shock of crazy white hair sticking out in all directions. He carries two light bulbs, one yellow and one purple.

WHITESTAR

Ah, Thomas Edison! Good to see you again. How comes the electricity for my yet-to-be-named masterpiece?

 EDISON

Wonderful, Whitestar. Your ship will prove to be a most excellent advertisement to the world for my miraculous electricity, since absolutely nothing will go wrong. Now, do you want regular bulbs or these purple “party bulbs?”

 MARINOS

Actually, I was meaning to talk to you gentlemen about this boat…

 WHITESTAR

Hold your tongue, Marinos. Here comes my brilliantly wealthy young nephew, Cal Hockley. I asked him to name my ship in exchange for VIP tickets.

 Approaching them from the lens flares comes… a YOUNG CAL HOCKLEY (played by a digitally de-aged Billy Zane). He passes a lint-roller along the sleeves of his expensive suit. We hate him immediately.

CAL

Ah, my wealthy uncle! I was just staring at this blessed vessel that definitely won’t sink, imagining how many servants I’ll belittle.

 WHITESTAR

Quite, quite. Have you decided on a name for the ship?

 CAL

I’ve got the perfect name, Uncle Devlin. The world shall watch in awe as I set sail some day on the… S.S. Cal Hockley!

 The men ROLL THEIR EYES. (pause for audience laughter, because that’s not what they end up naming it)

 WHITESTAR

You’re the nephew I love to hate, Cal! Now, where’s this fiancée of yours I’ve heard so much about?

 The men stare in awe as a beautiful young woman rides by on a wooden PLANK on wheels. This is YOUNG ROSE (played by digitally de-aged Kate Winslet OR Kristen Stewart).

 ROSE

Whee! Look what I’ve invented, Mr. Edison! I think I’ll call it the skate-along!

 CAL

Rose, you cow! Get off that thing, you know how much I despise fun and your independence.

 Rose steps down from her invention, her eyes downcast. The Supervisor brings a glass of whiskey, now with ice. Whitestar TOSSES it, SMASHING into the skull of an IRISHMAN.

 WHITESTAR

Fool! MORE ICE! I demand MORE ICE for my priceless whiskey!

 MARINOS

Everyone, listen… I feel like I should tell you something about this ship’s likelihood of sinking…

A YOUNG IRISH WORKER BOY (8 years old) plays with a PUPPY that also wears a hardhat. The Puppy sees Rose’s skate-along rolling along and RUNS up to the group, barking.  Cal CRINGES and covers his ears.

CAL

That infernal racket! How I despise puppies!

 ROSE

Cal, DON’T! This is one of hundreds of reasons why I resent that there’s no chance I won’t wind up marrying you!

 Cal ignores his fiancée, WINDS HIS LEG BACK for a kick at the helpless pup…

 … And his leg gets GRABBED from behind him. With a sudden YANK he gets SPUN in mid-air and LANDS on his back on the dusty ground.

The group watches, awestruck, as a YOUNG MAN, silhouetted by the sun behind him, PICKS UP the puppy and hands it back to the Worker Boy.

 WHITESTAR

I say! What sort of flimflammery…?!

The Young Man turns around to reveal… YOUNG JACK (played by a shaved Leonardo DiCaprio). Rose SWOONS.

JACK

That’s no way to treat a helpless, innocent thing! Some day there’ll be laws protecting young children and puppies from working in places like this!

EDISON

This kid’s talking more gibberish than Nicolai Tesla! Does he work for you, Whitestar?

JACK

I’m just backpacking my way through Ireland because I’m a free spirit. I came by here ’cause I heard you folks were building something special, but if you ask me, you wouldn’t catch me DEAD on your stupid boat! Dead by, for example, freezing, or drowning, or any number of possible deaths!

WHITESTAR

You’re not invited, stupid! The tickets will cost more than all of your organs, COMBINED.

YOUNG JACK

See if I care! You can keep this colossal waste of metal, this ugly … titan. Ick!

He walks off, giving the Worker Boy a friendly PAT on the hardhat. Whitestar strokes his beard thoughtfully. Rose squints as she watches Jack leave the shipyard.

ROSE

I couldn’t get a good look at that boy’s face. I doubt I’d recognize him if I ever saw him again.

CAL

Ha! You have just as much chance of seeing that urchin again as this boat has of sinking!

(hold for audience laughter)

MARINOS

Yes, yes, as I’ve been trying to tell you all, I have something significant to say about the likelihood of this ship sinking!

 His voice ECHOES. The group stares… each of the thousands of Workers all stop their construction of the ship. All eyes are on Marinos.

MARINOS (CONT’D)

This ship… is… literally… absolutely… un-ironically… UNSINKABLE.

A deafeningHOORAH! from everyone in the shipyard.

BEGIN MONTAGE:

Roughly two hours of workers welding and riveting in 3D.

posted by: ericstolze

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the prequel pre-blem

Let’s start before the beginning of the story.

When you were very little, you knew there was a monster under your bed. Your imagination seized its presence, not its past. You fantasized about how terrifying it was, what it looked like, what it was capable of. You didn’t imagine where it came from or why it wanted to eat you, did you?  You didn’t care if it used to be a used car salesman in Boise who lost his monster wife in a terrible cornfield fire and now eats human flesh because it reminds it of her cooking.

Then you got older. The fairy tales got longer, but you didn’t always need to know what hospital Goldilocks was born in, or the fact that Hansel and Gretel’s Witch originally lived in a studio apartment made of gingerbread. But you were beginning to question the world – which you were right to do, since the world is often annoyingly vague – and you’d occasionally ask “Why?” or “How?” If your mom or dad or teacher or librarian or kidnapper was a good enough storyteller, they’d be prepared with a satisfying answer that made sense and the story already in progress would continue.

Then the bedtime stories were replaced by TV, movies, theater, and books (in the order of likelihood you’d actually approach them). You might have questions, and if they were good enough the story would expect them and answer them in advance.

AUDIENCE MEMBER

 What did John Hammond do before Jurassic Park?

 MOVIE

 Good question! He got his start in a flea circus, as explained in this introspective monologue.

  AUDIENCE MEMBER

 Oh! That explains his showmanship and lack of big-picture perspective. Well, what did the goat do before the T-Rex ate it?

 MOVIE

Shut up.

AUDIENCE MEMBER

Yes, sir.

And the story would continue and you’d be fine with that… because after all, if the story of the free-range goat farm on the island was more interesting than the story of the park full of dinosaurs, you’d be watching that instead. Right?

But this catches us up to the present tale. Once upon a time, producers and editors decided that pre-existing stories could be mined for further profit and stories (in the order of priority). They began making continuations of the characters’ lives and adventures called “sequels.” But the funny thing about sequels is that they take a certain amount of thought and effort, even the bad ones, because there’s no preordained chart to the story or obvious end in sight. So someone realized that the existing stories offered stories that were even easier to tell because the course of their plots and endings are obvious: the story JUST BEFORE the pre-existing story. They called them “prequels” because “LA-Z-quels,” “easyquels,” and “effort-freequels” didn’t sound as snappy.

George Lucas, genius entrepreneur, was an early pioneer in prequelology. He showed us Indiana Jones when he was a carefree child melting Nazi faces with his magnifying glass on a summer day, and dared to reveal the events leading up to “Star Wars” in which Darth Vader was, impossibly, a younger version of himself. Whether these experiments were worth watching was beside the point; at the end of the day, the encouragement could be found in the zeros before the decimal point.

This isn’t a rant against back story! All artists depend on back stories to give depth and sense to their characters and plots, even if they’re kept secret. And not only are back stories vital, they can also be deeply personal. One character in one project can have a dozen different back stories, each one held in the mind of a collaborator to help them give life to the character in the best way possible.

This also isn’t a rant against prequels. Honestly! This is a rant in favor of imagination. Some prequels are fantastically imaginative. For as silly as moments of “X-Men: First Class” can be, it also has moments of real inspiration. Watching angsty young Magneto trek across the globe killing criminals with superpowers is clever, adventurous… the stuff of barely-concealed man-crushes.

But all too many prequels are last-ditch cash-ins that pale embarrassingly in comparison to their originals. Do you own a copy of “Silence of the Lambs?” Quite likely. If so, do you also own a copy of “Hannibal Rising?” Did you have to search online to even be reminded that “Hannibal Rising” exists, like me?

They can sometimes even do harm to the power of the original work. In John Carpenter’s original “Halloween,” you neither know nor need motivations for the homicidal Michael Myers. You fear the unknown, after all. Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” prequel is a mistake in every way, the core misjudgment being that giving Michael Myers an explanation would be scary or interesting. It’s not. Seeing a serial killer get bullied as a child in a Larry the Cable Guy routine of a family is not only unimaginative, it bankrupts the wealth of mystique and intimidation that elevated the character to begin with.

Knowing more about a villain makes it easier to have a conversation with them at a singles mixer. But does it make them more threatening? Does it make them more interesting? Does it raise the stakes effectively? Would you enjoy “Jaws” more if you knew that Bruce the Shark escaped from an abusive, redneck Sea World knock-off in Southern Florida?

A big prequel problem comes from that which makes them easy to sketch out anyway: inevitability. You read “Wicked” or sang along off-key to its Original Cast Recording in high school knowing that the Wicked Witch will wind up being evil. That knowledge makes the path to that point poignant at times… but is it suspenseful? Surprising? Instead of tension and discovery coming from “What’s going to happen?” we have to settle for, “When exactly will this thing I already know about happen?”  That can be satisfying in about the same capacity as getting a cheeseburger when you ordered a cheeseburger. But the story can rarely surprise you, put you on the edge of your seat, play you like the best stories can and should.

Finally, there’s my ultimate prequel pet-peevequel: the cheap jokes. A lame ironic gag in a prequel is a form of humor lower than puns, sarcasm, farting, and even just making a declarative statement that isn’t intended to be funny at all. You know these jokes: Young Professor X says, “Someday maybe I’ll go bald!” Young Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “Someday you just might maybe kill me!” to the high school senior voted Most Likely to Be Darth Vader.  The Will-Eventually-Be-Wicked Witch says, “I’ll definitely never have a house fall on me or something!”

And we, the audience, laugh accordingly because it’s just so darn fun to be ahead of that stupid, idealistic young version of a character. “Oh, you foolish grad student! You have no idea that you’re going to be paralyzed in a matter of weeks! Hysterical!” It’s lazy “comedy,” lazy dialogue, and it really just doesn’t make any sense. You don’t go about your daily business saying, “You’ll never see me with an eyepatch,” just in case you can laugh about it if your eye gets poked out by a trombone player.

Having said that… I’m a writer in Los Angeles. So in an effort to cash in on the craze, I’m sketching a proposal for a prequel (a pre-posal, if you will) to that most successful and legendary of New Hollywood triumphs, “Titanic.” It’ll have all the inevitability and ironic statements that we crave from prequels while delivering that unnecessary amount of background information we all clamor for around… um, the boat, I guess. Working title:

 PRE-TANIC: YEAR ZERO.

When you come back to read it tomorrow, be prepared with a contract for me to sign. This idea is like printing money, only legal. And less exciting.

posted by: ericstolze

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paycheck to paycheck #1: icebreaker (part two)

Part two of my month of working at the Waterworld Stunt Spectacular

It’s a day job rule of thumb that applies anywhere, be it a cubicle or a theme park: Socialize older, never younger. If you have any desire to converse with coworkers, it has to be with the coworkers older than you. You aren’t guaranteed any relation or common ground, but it’s a far higher success rate than going the other way down the calendar. With younger coworkers you find yourself biting your tongue more than talking as they babble excitedly about their twenty-first birthday party taking place in a club you’d rather die than set foot in, or how living rent-free with their parents means they get to spend their entire paycheck on comic books. After overdrawing my checking account three times in one week and bouncing my rent check, not even my sunglasses could hide the outrage in my eyes.

No, you have to try going up the age ladder. And try I did. I’d sidle up to the veterans’ table like a mild-mannered freshman cheerleader, laughing along with their in-jokes without contributing. I generally went ignored. So many teenagers and twenty-somethings have cycled through the theme park over the years that they don’t even perceive them anymore. After hours of quiet proximity I’d work up the nerve to ask questions. If they were answered at all, they’d offer one small bit of connective tissue among all of us… they consider this a day job while they work toward their artistic goals. Only Richard offers no other past time, passion, or hobby.

One guy paints. Another is a sound designer. Another is an actor. The stage manager spends his nights working his blood, sweat, and tears into his Van Halen cover band. He sits before an unfurled band poster and agonizes out loud over what to call it. Since high school it’s been called “Intruder,” but their manager says they need to change it to a name with “Halen” included or people won’t know to book it for Van Halen-friendly venues, whatever those are. Eager to seize the one creative exercise the job has offered, I step forward.

“What about ‘Fan Halen?’”I offer.

He looks at me with disdain.  “There’s ALREADY a ‘Fan Halen,’” he says. The missing word in that sentence is, “IDIOT.” I shut my mouth and retreat accordingly.

After a couple weeks of drifting through down time with no conversation, I start taking my breaks in the theme park itself. I cruise on the Jurassic Park ride alone, exit the ride, and get on it again. I entertain myself at one point by pretending to be a Jeff Goldblum impersonator that comes with the ride. Outside, a Midwestern family tries to take a family photo while climbing a fence that says, “HIGH VOLTAGE.” They have to be told gently that it’s not a Jurassic Park photo op and is actually a hazardous fence that could kill them.

Back at Waterworld, I finish the rounds of installing pyro and return to the bench, sweaty and shaken, to sit in silence for another hour. The 1:30 show starts on schedule. Richard sits beside me and reads his paper. I read a Cinefamily newsletter I brought in anticipation of not talking. I notice Richard reading over my shoulder. Uh oh, I think. Did I do something wrong? Is he about to take my newspaper away from me and set it on fire? Am I not reading fast enough?

He asks, quietly, “When is ‘Wild at Heart’ playing?” “Wild at Heart” is David Lynch’s award-winning darling, a film both disturbingly violent and weirdly romantic, winner of the coveted Palm d’Or prize from Cannes. It’s a film that you can nearly set your watch to if you’re enrolled in a film school. “Oh, I’m watching ‘Wild at Heart’ again, it must be Thursday.”

“It’s playing all weekend,” I say hesitantly, “It’s one of my favorites.”

“Huh,” he says, going back to his paper. “Yeah. I worked on that movie.”

I throw my intimidation out the window and trade it for nerd spasms. “No way! Really? You did? Really? What did you do?”

He explains that he did the special makeup effects for the movie. He is single-handedly responsible for the scene in which Willem Dafoe falls on his shotgun and blows his own head off. I’m sitting next to the man who vicariously blew Willem Dafoe’s head off. Now that this rare bit of info has been offered, I’m able to coax years’ worth of work experience from him. Whatever the setting , no matter how many years passed, to invite film industry professionals to talk about themselves is to bring about a flood of Biblical proportions. He brought gore and bloodshed to over a decade’s worth of horror franchises. Freddys, Jasons, serial killers galore. He worked year-round on studio films, crafting movie moments alongside in-demand directors, culminating with a classic film from a living legend.

On the other side of the steel wall, the show reaches its climax. I ask him what happened after “Wild at Heart,” and as the set erupts in a gigantic blossom of red-hot flames, Richard simply says, “I burnt out.” I try to prompt further explanation out of him, but his sudden tidal wave of personality has receded from the beach and he’s on his feet, once again leading me reluctantly through tearing down and setting up the nonstop battles of Waterworld.

I go slower than ever. My concentration is shot. This man did what he dreamed of doing for years, what he loved doing, and suddenly just couldn’t do it anymore? I look up at the squat man with crossed arms, this short-tempered laborer who will work this show alongside teenagers and young misfits until he retires or explodes. I try to picture him smiling. I can’t do it. For the rest of the work day we don’t speak a word to each other.

That night I put in the “Wild at Heart” DVD and sure enough, there’s his name at the head of the film, engulfed in flames.

The next day I quit.  I hadn’t finished my training and I didn’t have another job lined up, but I felt too uncomfortable to stay. Not because I didn’t feel welcome, or entirely safe, but because I couldn’t keep working alongside the man who blew Willem Dafoe’s head off. He was a constant confrontation, a reminder of a terrifying possibility. You could make it into the film industry. You could do what you love. But you could still wind up hating it. You could give up a sought-after position and take a completely different job simply because it’s completely different. And even though it’s all repetition with no reward, you could stick with that job because there’s comfort in hating something you didn’t used to love. Without ever missing a thing, you could work there year after year until the ice caps melt and you find yourself weirdly overqualified for an apocalypse that involves the oceans rising.

I just didn’t want to be reminded. Ask any producer of “Waterworld:” Ignorance is bliss. Ask the people who greenlit and stood behind the Waterworld Stunt Spectacular: Denial is a wonderful thing. Like Kevin Costner sailing the endless seas of Waterworld, so shall I continue to sail along the infinite rivers of Denial until I crash upon another floating fortress that will help me pay rent for a few months. And when I finally make it to my long-sought-after landmass known as Professional Writing, I will stake a flag in the sand without that constantly nagging fear… the fear that I might suddenly want to go back to drifting on those unstable waves simply because that’s the life I know.

After all, even if I make a terrible movie it could still live on as an okay theme park attraction, right? It’s not the end of the world.

postel by ericstolze

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