Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7: My review

 Best movie I’ve seen so far this pandemic (or best TV movie or streaming movie — who knows anymore?) is THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin.   Sorkin is always at his best when he’s dealing with a real issue, complexities, a trial, and smart characters.   And this project is right in his wheelhouse.

As Sorkin tells it, this project began 13 years ago.  He was summoned to Steven Spielberg’s house one Saturday morning.  Spielberg said he wanted to do a movie about the Chicago 7 and wondered if Sorkin wanted to write it.  Aaron said yes immediately.  He then went home, called his father, and asked who the Chicago 7 were?   Sorkin was 7 himself at the time of the riots and trial.  

That led to a long winding road through development hell.  And throw in a WGA strike for good measure.  (Any project that has a long development history has a WGA strike somewhere in its background.)    And it’s not like Sorkin didn’t have other things to write/produce/direct in the intervening years.  

But with the Trump administration and the re-emergence of protests and protesters being vilified, the subject matter suddenly took on a greater relevance.  Originally schedule for theatrical release by Paramount, once the pandemic hit, Netflix stepped in, and thankfully released the movie BEFORE the election.  

Sorkin assembled an amazing cast led by Eddie Redmayne, Sasha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, and Frank Langella.  (NOTE: On my upcoming podcast episode that drops later tonight, Rob Long and I discuss having to fire Frank Langella from a pilot. That said, he’s AMAZING in this.)

The story itself is riveting and all too similar to what’s going on now.   That’s why I recommend you see it, and do so before November 3rd.  

The actors apparently all worked for scale, but I’m sure a big incentive was getting to speak Sorkin dialogue.  It’s just lyrical and accomplishes so much on so many levels.  The trial itself lasted over 6 months.  There are 21,000 pages of transcriptions.  Numerous books exist on the subject.  To winnow all of that down to two hours, make it clear, make it entertaining, create multi-dimensional characters, establish relationships and subplots, and consistently crackle  — that’s an extraordinary achievement.   And Sorkin pulls it off.    I must admit, I go to many plays and play readings and think to myself, “this would be so much better if Aaron Sorkin wrote it.”   He really has a gift with dialogue and for me, it’s a pleasure to hear.   Give me that over a CGI superhero slugfest any day.  


THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 streams on Netflix.  Oh... and Sorkin did a great job of directing too. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Fake Crowd Noise

The World Series starts tonight. Congrats to the Dodgers and Rays (one of the great classic rivalries in sports). 

People ask me what I think about the fake crowd noise in sporting events now that spectators are not allowed in stadiums or arenas.  

As a viewer I find the crowd noise WEIRD.  Especially in baseball and football where you see the empty grandstands in almost every shot.   Where are all these people?  It’s the same argument I always made (in vain) to CBS about the laugh track on MASH.  Are there bleachers on the chopper pad?  

Basketball and hockey are easier to accept because the action focuses on the court or ice and you can forget that they’re playing to the camera only.  

But as an announcer, I would so welcome the fake crowd noise if I were calling a game, especially just calling it over the TV.  Without a crowd it just sounds dead.

I was broadcasting a Mariners game from Cleveland a few years ago on the radio.  It was a make-up game the end of the season.  So it wasn’t on the schedule, it started at 4:00 pm, both teams had already been eliminated, and huge thunderstorms were expected to drench the area.  Needless to say, nobody came to the game.  If there were 2,000 people I’d be surprised.   In one of my innings the Mariners scored ten runs.  There were triples and stolen bases and capped off with a grand slam home run.  

After the game we were flying to Texas.  I asked the engineer if he would email me an mp3 of that inning.  I thought it would be a fun keepsake.  You don’t usually get to call ten run innings.  

When I got to my room in Texas it was waiting for me in my inbox.  I listened to it and was horrified.  It sounded like I recorded it in my living room watching the TV with the sound down.  There was NO crowd noise at all.  None.  I’d say crickets but not even that.   What should have been an exciting inning was C-Span.  And the fact that I sounded so excited (after all, fun things were happening) make me appear like an idiot.

So the crowd noise psychologically helps the announcer get into it.  It’s like a singer who would much prefer a band behind him.   On TV it’s still weird to watch, but on radio you can really suspend belief.  

What they need though is the sound of people doing the wave. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Kirstie Alley's latest idiotic tweet

This pains me because I worked with Kirstie Alley for years on CHEERS and she was always delightful.  A little "out there" but still, easy and fun to work with.  

Since then she's become a Scientologist, gained and lost and gained and lost lots of weight.   Frankly, she's become a little loony.  But I've still been fond of her, and it was nice to see her at the CHEERS 30 year reunion several years ago.  

But then she tweeted that she was all for Donald Trump, listing the reasons MAGA idiots usually list.  

I no longer am fond of Kirstie Alley.  

Granted there are people more tolerant than I, but I can't remain friends with anyone who supports Donald Trump.  To support Trump condones the hatred, racism, greed, dishonesty, and stupidity that he stands for.  Alas, I've broken off some long-time relationships over this.  You can be a Republican, you can be a Libertarian, but if you support Trump that crosses a line for me.  

And that goes for the Beach Boys as well, one of my (former) favorite groups.  They performed at a Trump fundraiser yesterday in Newport Beach, California.  Brian Wilson, to his credit, is NOT associated with this version of the Beach Boys (Mike Love & co.) and quickly denounced it.   And let's face it, Brian Wilson IS the Beach Boys.  What's touring now is the fifth generation cover band.  

But getting back to Kirstie.  I love what Judd Apatow tweeted in response.  As a result #ShelleyLong was trending last night.  And look, readers of this blog know I've always preferred Diane to Rebecca.  Kirstie gave the show new life, but Shelley MADE the show.  

And I would work with Shelley Long again in a second.  I'll never work with Kirstie Alley again.  There you have it, Kirstie.  There you have it.



Saturday, October 17, 2020

Weekend Post

Orson Welles was a larger-than-life figure.  Brilliant director, actor, producer, filmmaker, personality.   He directed and starred in CITIZEN KANE among other movies.   He was a genius and often times impossible.   He also drank, smoked endless cigars, and ate multiple Pink's chili dogs night after night after night.  Not coincidentally, he probably weighed 350 pounds at one time.  

He also could be very witty and charming.  Here is a 1985 appearance on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW, a syndicated talk show.   He tells great stories, performs a magic trick, talks about his 70th birthday.  But there's more to the story.

Six hours after taping this show he was dead.  

Here is the final appearance ever of Orson Welles.



Friday, October 16, 2020

Friday Questions

Halfway through October already.  Here are some FQ’s to get you through the weekend.

George starts off with a question about late night rewrites.

Since I assume everyone is fairly tired and burnt out by that stage, do you ever find that the practice is counter-productive?

Yes, and it’s a balancing act.  The bottom line is the actors return to the stage the next morning and need a script.  To push a day would be hugely expensive and not a real option.  

But you’re right.  Writers are not at their best after writing for eight or nine straight hours under pressure while sleep deprived and gorging on Red Vines.  

When David Isaacs and I were show runners, we would usually send everyone home around 1:00 AM and we had to assemble earlier the next day.  The cast would get whatever we had written and new pages throughout the course of the day.  It was a little harder on the cast, but scenes that might’ve taken us two hours to write at 2 AM we polished off in a half hour at 10 AM the next morning.  

We also tried to manage our time as best we could.  If we knew we had a tough new scene to write as part of our work that night we would do it first.  That way we got the hard stuff out of the way and then just tweaked whatever else needed tweaking.  We wouldn’t bog down on one joke at 8 at night and finally get to the tough stuff at 3 AM.  

Late night rewrites are part of the job.  But there are ways of utilizing your staff and time for maximum productivity.  

Paul D. wonders:

Although "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had done it well, when 'M*A*S*H' was made, flashbacks were jokey things used by jokey sitcoms i.e. how Richie and Fonzie first met.
 

However, since dramas  like "China Beach" and "Lost" started to use the device (along with flash-forwards) so well, do you think you could have successfully used these had it already common at the time? I am thinking in terms of stories/scenes set before the war, not as a way to bring Colonel Blake back.

We never wanted to leave Korea.  That was a creative choice. The members of the 4077th were trapped there, and we wanted to convey that feeling.  There were home movies and letters, but we never went to the mainland.  

There was an episode called “The Party” where relatives of the 4077th put together a stateside reunion and there was some discussion of seeing it.  But ultimately we felt that would be wrong.  We wanted to preserve that feeling of isolation that everyone in the unit felt.  

Now LOST, on the other hand, deliberately wanted to get you off that island.  And flashbacks were a great way to learn about each character and provide some variety.  But remember, LOST was an hour.  A sameness might settle in if you’re in one place for an entire hour.  

I still contend, some of the best storytelling in television was done on LOST.  

From Kyle Burress:

Having been featured much more in the last couple seasons was there a possibility that Paul Willson would have been bumped up to a regular cast member had Cheers continued?


I was pushing for it.  Paul Willson (you see his picture above), was extremely funny.  My guess is things would have stayed status quo unless Paul had an offer to go to another series and then the producers would have had to make a decision.  

I felt bad because just as we were really starting to showcase him more, the series ended.  

But I was and am a huge fan of Paul Willson.  

And finally, from Patrick:

Does an Emmy award even matter anymore now that the general public doesn't watch or care? It seems particularly self congratulatory now that the audience for these award shows has fallen away. Back when an Emmy award could save a show from cancellation it seemed to really matter who won what - now with so many shows on so many platforms - do these awards even matter anymore? (Besides to those who won?)

Well, considering the money that networks and studios shell out for Emmy campaigns I’d say yeah, they do still matter.  

Of course, I like to think they matter since I have one.  

But to the general public?  Just check the ratings for Emmy awards.  Every year they sink to new lows.   So no, I don’t think the general public gives a crap.  Especially now when there are shows and stars they’ve never even heard of.  

But my Emmy is important.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

EP196: Meet writer Rob Long Part One


Rob Long broke into TV writing by getting on staff of CHEERS when he was 24.  He and Ken have a freewheeling discussion of television comedy, advice on breaking in, theories, the business, the craziness, the fun. 

Listen to other podcasts similar to this on iTunes!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

West Wing is back

 I used to love shows and movies set in the White House.  WEST WING was my favorite show. Movies like THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, DAVE, FROST/NIXON, 7 DAYS IN MAY, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, etc. were always high up on my list.

But then when Trump got into office I couldn't watch anything that featured an Oval Office.  Even though VEEP consistently made me laugh, I could no longer watch it.  HOUSE OF CARDS had been a binge fave.  I bailed even before Kevin Spacey was dumped.  I was never a huge fan of SCANDAL but caught it occasionally.  Same with DESIGNATED SURVIVOR and MADAME SECRETARY.    And forget about revisiting 24.  

WEST WING in particular was hard to watch again.  The stark contrast of how smart, caring, noble, and earnest everyone in that fictional White House was compared to the evil moronic lying shitheads who occupy it now just made viewing impossible.  

But HBO has gotten the cast and Aaron Sorkin back together for a special reunion to Benefit When We All Vote.  It premiers tomorrow on HBO Max and I imagine other places as well.  There will be special appearances by Michelle Obama and others.   This I will watch.  Partly for nostalgia and partly for hope -- that we might go back to that again.  That we might try to uphold the Constitution, Democracy, caring for the American people, justice, security, sanity, healing, equality, kindness, and calm.   At one time WEST WING was a model; now it's a fairy tale.  Let's make the fairy tale come true. VOTE.



Tuesday, October 13, 2020

My Thanksgiving Day

Friday marks the anniversary of when I had to report to Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  I won't tell you how many years ago, but it was more than ten. 

Fort Leonard Wood is up in the Ozarks -- DELIVERANCE country. And in the late fall and early winter it gets COLD.   Its nickname was "Little Korea."  

I got into an Armed Forces Radio Reserve Unit once I saw that my draft lottery number was 4 and I'd be drafted and shipped off to Vietnam before they had finished calling out numbers.  The Reserves were a six year commitment.  16 hours of meeting or training a month, two weeks of summer camp, and Basic Training & Advanced Individual Training (roughly a 20 week stretch).  And you could be called up to active duty anytime.  Does that happen?  Ask the Reservists about Korea and Desert Storm.  

The first week I was in there was some flare-up in Jordan and Reservists were called up. The very first week.  So I was petrified for the entire six years.  

Basic Training was an absolute nightmare for me.  Tall, skinny, bespectacled, uncoordinated, not handy, college educated, Jewish -- 7 strikes and you're out.  Even though my name is pronounced Le-Vine (rhyming with wine) the Drill Sgt. couldn't pronounce it and instead I was "Veen, you fuckin' dud." Actually, that was my nickname.  His real name for me was "Veen, you fuckin' dud, I'm gonna run ya every fuckin' where you go."  

I got through it and graduated.  (There were actually some parents who drove down to watch the graduation ceremony.  Mine correctly considered it a joke and stayed home.)  

But I made a vow.  

As the years go by you tend to forget all the miserable moments and indignities, and when someone asks you how it was you say "Oh, it wasn't that bad."   The vow I made to myself as I was leaving Fort Leonard Wood was that no matter what I forgot, always remember: It WAS that bad.

However, I have to say this.  I owe the army a lot.  That draft number was the best thing that could have happened to me.  Without the army I never would have met my writing partner, David Isaacs.  He had just transferred into the unit from Miami.  We never could have written MASH with any authority.  And MASH was our big break. It absolutely launched our career.  

But Basic Training was STILL that bad.  On October 16th (ironically, also a Friday) is when I had to report.  So since I got my honorable discharge I've always designated October 16th as my Thanksgiving Day.  I stop and think that no matter where I am or what's going on in my life, it's better than having to begin Basic Training.  

Even THIS year is better.  

Happy Thanksgiving Day.