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Interview with “The Dead Man” Co-Creator Lee Goldberg

April 4, 2011 1 comment

Lee Goldberg’s TV career dates back to the mid-80s, when he and writing partner William Rabkin sold their first spec script to “Spenser: For Hire.” The years subsequent have been both busy and interesting for Goldberg and Rabkin, writing on more than two dozen TV series and specials ranging from action-themed shows like “Hunter” and “Cobra” to more traditional mysteries such as A&E’s “Nero Wolfe” and “Monk.”

But Goldberg is an unabashed fan of TV and mysteries, and that was never reflected more than on his two-year run on  “Diagnosis: Murder,” where they brought back Joe Mannix and stunt-casted special episodes such as a  spy-themed episode with Robert Culp (“I Spy”) and Barbara Bain (“Mission: Impossible”).

And somehow he’s also managed to carve himself out a solid career as a novelist, writing the “Diagnosis: Murder” and “Monk” novels, as well as numerous stand-alone books. His blog is one of the best places for those interested in the ever-changing world of publishing and writing to get honest, unvarnished opinions (Lee’s not someone to hide what he thinks, and he’s scrupulously honest about his own time on various shows and dealing with their stars — his stories about working on “SeaQuest 2032” and “Martial Law” deserve books of their own).

The Dead Man

Goldberg and Rabkin have kicked off a new series of action/horror novels called “The Dead Man,” reminiscent of the “men’s adventure” novels that filled bookstore shelves and truck stops from the 1960s to the 1980s. Primarily meant to be an e-publishing venture, it’s an interesting move and marks another author deciding to dive deep into the new technology and away from the so-called “legacy publishers.” It is also a hell of a read, and anyone interested in taking the first leg on a fun, fast ride should download it immediately from Amazon.

He was kind enough to grant an interview to my itty-bitty blog.

1. THE DEAD MAN is a callback to the “men’s adventure” novels of previous years, but you’ve also said it’s influenced by King’s “Gunslinger” novels, and certainly has some strong elements of horror. Can you talk a little about the novel’s origins, and what led you to decide to go somewhat astray of what might be seen as the more traditional elements of the genre?

The project began about 15 years ago as a television series idea that Bill and I were pitching around town. We always got a good response to it but were never able to quite cinch the deal. At one point, out of frustration at how close were getting, we ended up writing the pilot script, and 12 story ideas, on spec. But we still couldn’t sell it so we  stuck the project in a drawer, though we’d pitch it again every so often.

Lately, I’ve enjoyed some success on the Kindle with my out-of-print back list, which includes four men’s action-adventure novels that I wrote for Pinnacle Books back in the 1980s. I’d been thinking that it’s a shame that the men’s action-adventure genre has virtually gone extinct.

One day, it occurred to me that “The Dead Man” would be make a kick-ass series of books…and we already had the story lines for twelve of them. It didn’t take me more than 30 seconds to convince Bill to go along with idea…and then I ran the notion past a few trusted friends, just to see if we were nuts. But they were as enthusiastic about it as we were.

So now, convinced that we were on to something, all we had to do was write the book that would serve as our “pilot” and the second book (which is actually coming out as the third book, as things turned out), which would serve as “a typical episode.”

We scrapped the script, but kept the basic story structure, the essence of the character and, of course, the concept of the series. We also made some basic decisions about the kind of hero Matt Cahill was going to be. The key difference between Matt Cahill and the typical heroes of these kinds of books is that we want to keep him as grounded, normal and as “human” as possible.  He’s David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble crossed with The Man With No Name. He’s not a superman. He’s not Dirty Harry. He’s a decent, regular guy in an extraordinary situation who genuinely cares about people. He can be hurt emotionally…and physically…and should be in each adventure. We always want him to have some kind of emotional stake in whatever he’s doing…to ground the action and supernatural in something the reader can relate to on an “every day” level.

One of the things that we think makes “The Dead Man” the perfect springboard for a revitalization of the genre is that it has all the elements of the classic men’s action-adventure series….a rugged hero, an open-ended mission, a clear enemy and the potential for lots of violence … but with an occult edge that allows us to imbue a dated genre with more surprising twists and  darker humor. We felt by embracing the supernatural, and the traditional elements of the men’s action adventure genre, we opened the door to story telling that would push the envelope a bit. More importantly, though, we adopted a voice, and an approach to the material, that we think is more character based, more self-aware, and perhaps more wise-ass than most of those series were back in the day (with the possible exception of “The Destroyer”).
2. You and writing partner William Rabkin are certainly best known for your television work, but you’ve both moved into novels in recent years. Does writing together for TV differ from writing a novel together?

On these books, one of us writes the first draft and then hands it off to the other writer to polish. These are short novels, so we’re only talking about 25-30,000 words, tops, or about 120 pages.

Bill and I have written together for so many years in television that it’s really impossible for someone to tell which one of us has written what. We’ve gotten very good at creating and maintaining a shared voice, though this is the first time we’ve collaborated on books.

On scripts, Bill and I tend to divvy up the scenes and then hand them off to one another when we’re done. Sometimes will divvy a script up into acts instead. I suppose you could divvy up a book by chapters but it’s somehow it doesn’t quite work as smoothly.

A script is more of a working document, a blueprint if you will, for the work that lots of other people have to do in collaboration.

A book usually represents a singular vision and voice. Bill and I are capable of creating that, but I think that’s harder to pull off in prose than in script.

That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if Bill and I wrote a “Dead Man” down the road by handing chapters back and forth to one another…if, for no other reason, than the challenge and fun of it. We might even try it without an outline, to see what happens when each of us tries to one-up or screw over the other!

I’ve been part of tag-team short story writing before … in fact, I just did it with a new story with my colleagues at Top Suspense…. and it’s a lot of fun.

3. One of the most interesting aspect of the DEAD MAN series will be various future installments written by a variety of authors. How does it feel to create the character but then put it in the hands of others? Are the others writers given free reign or are you and William keeping things close?  

Coming from television, this is not something that’s new to us. We are used to working with writing staffs and freelancers on episodic series. We are comfortable with it and very good at it. We’re simply applying that same model to a series of books.

We are, perhaps, giving the “freelancers” of the books more freedom then we would writers on a TV series, but most of the stories so far have been based on those original 12 episode ideas we came up with years ago.

We aren’t asking the writers to give us detailed outlines. Once we have okayed the arena, we ask them to basically give us a beginning, middle, and end in a few paragraphs. We give them some notes and send’em off to manuscript.

But keep in mind, these are writers we trust, that we know, and that we admire, pros like Joel Goldman, Mel Odom, James Reasoner, Marcus Pelegrimas, Harry Shannon and Bill Crider, to name a few. We’re confident they’re going to do a great job so we’re trying to stay out of their way and see what happens.

Once they turn in their first drafts then we give them notes, and so far its been mostly on voice and tone rather than plot. But these are pros and they know exactly how to turn those notes around quickly and efficiently.

4. You mentioned “The Fugitive” (which is actually my favorite series of all time), but certainly “The Dead Man” calls to mind other “men on a journey” shows, as well as something like “LOST,” which was also about a journey and a puzzle. Do you have an endgame in mind for “The Dead Man,” a point where you know you want the books to end, or, after the initial 12 and the books continue, are you sort of “24”-ing it, so to speak?

No, we don’t have an endgame in mind since we have no intention of ending the series until, and unless, interest dies down. There were 600 episodes of “Gunsmoke” and there have been hundreds of Mack Bolan novels and it’s that kind of episodic longevity we are aspiring to (not that we have any delusions about achieving it!) when the end comes, Bill and I will figure out a satisfying finale .

5. THE DEAD MAN has strong language and some great gore, without the restrictions you would normally find on more television shows, and certainly in your MONK or DIAGNOSIS: MURDER novels, though your standalone novels have what might be considered “strong content.” Is it freeing to be able to write without concerns of budget or studio bosses?

Oh yes absolutely. These books are an enormous amount of fun to write and I think it comes through in every word that were writing. Some of the readers and critics have already noticed that. It almost doesn’t feel like work. That’s because the genre, and the “Dead Man” franchise in particular, is sort of a literary thrill ride, for the writer and the reader.

It’s so exciting to be writing in a franchise that offers the opportunity for wild action, horror, sex, humor… damn near everything as long as the story keeps moving and yet remains grounded emotionally in stakes that the reader can invest in.

I think that freedom, and the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories, is part of the attraction of “The Dead Man” for the other writers as well. Several of them have long-running book series of their own and “The Dead Man” offers them an entertaining and invigorating departure from what they’re used to doing.

It’s certainly a real change of pace for me, after writing one of my Monk books respectively, to get to play in the action-adventure/occult sandbox.
6. You have certainly been one of the strongest voices into the world of e-publishing, though you have also maintained a foothold in the “legacy publishing” world. Was there ever a thought of taking the DEAD MAN series on the more traditional publishing route? Why or why not?
No, it never occurred to us to take this to a traditional publisher. They wouldn’t be interested. Remember, publishers have nearly killed the genre. They don’t see it as a moneymaker for them anymore. And bookstores, big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco, just aren’t willing to give up the shelf space for these kinds of books.

The Kindle, the Nook and the iPad are actually the perfect mediums for the genre to make a comeback… and we’re hoping this is the series that can do it.

7. Certainly e-publishing offers a new option for aspiring writers, and there are success stories such as Hocking and John Locke, as well as established writers such as Eisler and Konrath who have abandoned legacy publishers. What do you feel is the best advice for an as-yet unpublished writer between traditional publishing and e-publishing?
I get asked this question a lot. But this business is changing so fast that by the time my interviews appear, my comments often seem woefully out of step with events. But at this moment, I still hold on to the belief that it’s best for a new writer to resist the urge to self-publish…and that it’s far better to be published by a so-called traditional publisher. 

A publishing contract doesn’t come along every day. You can always go back to self-publishing later. That option isn’t going anywhere.

I think the people who are doing best in this field right now, by and large, are those who already have established a platform in the traditional publishing business. More importantly, you pick up experience and skills along the way that are essential to survival in the self-publishing world.

One of the big problems with self-publishing is how easy it is. People are doing long before their work is ready for primetime, so to speak. There a lot of people putting a lot of unreadable swill on Smashwords and Amazon simply because they can.

Yes there is good stuff out there, but I think it’s getting harder and harder for readers to find amidst the overwhelming amount of crap that people are putting up.

I don’t know that we were better off with the defacto gatekeeping provided by agents and publishers under the old, and still prevalent, system. There are a lot of virtues to not having anyone standing in the way of you getting your work out there. I’m certainly benefitting from it.

But I think you can hurt your career in the long run if you start publishing your work before it’s any good simply because you are in a hurry to call yourself a published author.

October. 7, 2010

October 8, 2010 1 comment

Here’s my daily update on the progress on “Christchurch Bells,” my novel about a writer dying of a brain tumor, his ex-wife’s ghost, a dead cheerleader, the destruction of a town’s movie theater, and a raven singing “Babe” by Styx.

PROJECT: Christchurch Bells

DEADLINE: January 15, 2011

PRESENT WORD COUNT: 7,063

GOAL: 100,000

Bits & Pieces:

  • I like the idea of Sandra Bullock for the lead in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” After a year that’s balanced between winning an Oscar followed by the exposure of her personal life and scandal, this is precisely the sort of post-Oscar win project as actress like Bullock needs. Her Best Actress win in “The Blind Side” was for a movie many saw as relatively lightweight, so working with Cuaron, a director unafraid of challenge, is just the right move to show the win wasn’t a fluke or a mistake on the Academy’s part. Bullock’s likability both on screen and in general has never been in question (her good-natured acceptance of her Razzie for “All About Steve” the day before her Oscar win shows that), but she’s generally maintained a limited range with comedy and light drama. Efforts to step out of that have ranged from promising (she was praised for her role as Harper Lee in “Infamous,” the same role that earned Catherine Kenner a Best Supporting Actress nod a year prior in “Capote”) to abysmal (the less said about  “Premonition” or “In Love or War,” the better), but “The Blind Side” and occasionally interesting choices like “28 Days” or her small role in “Crash” hit at a greater range than she’s offered. Cuaron’s plans for “Gravity” are ambitious, to say the least, and Bullock is a far less likely or traditional choice for a sci-fi epic than earlier options such as Angelina Jolie or Natalie Portman, both who were in negotiations for the role, but in this blog’s opinion that makes her the far more interesting choice. Cuaron will push Bullock harder in this role than she’s ever been pushed, and with fingers crossed may show Bullock has far more actor-ly chops than we’ve suspected.
  • DC Comics’ decision to drop prices back to $3.99 from $2.99 is the smart move in a time where not only is everyone’s wallet a little lighter, but monthly comic book sales have been consistently on the decline. While this blog appreciates what DC was doing, reintroducing backup features, something that was long a staple of comic books, nearly four bucks is a lot when you consider some of us remember when the price went from 35 cents to 50 cents. So many comics fans now wait for the trade paperbacks, but nothing really beats that trip into the store on a Wednesday and picking up on the story where you left off last month.
  • The Bride and I are fans of urban fantasy and that’s been what we’ve been utilizing as nightly bedtime reading. We just started the third in Patricia Briggs‘ “Mercy Thompson” series, and anyone who’s read the Sookie Stackhouse novels would do well to check these out. Briggs’ Mercy, a walker who can change into a coyote, must navigate the politics of vampires and wolf packs much the same way as Sookie, but the emphasis here in on the organization of the werewolves and werewolves as the resident heartthrobs, while vampires are portrayed in a most rote and unromantic way. Ohm and there’s gremlins too. Well worth the read.

Writerly ambitions

October 7, 2010 7 comments

The L.A. Times piece on Aaron Sorkin comparing great TV to movies is an interestingly compelling bit on just how mainstream cinema has moved from good writing to mainlining spectacle. Sorkin, surely one of the great TV dramatists of the past 20 years, has been praised for his script for “The Social Network” in its mix of trademark Sorkin traits: compelling characters, smart dialogue, and compelling moral dilemmas. In short, really what you’d watch a good TV show for. These are characteristics that seem to be missing more and more from contemporary cinema, and Sorkin brings an interesting point about great screenwriters of the past:

“If Herman Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Budd Schulberg were alive today, they’d be writing on TV. As a writer, you love immediacy, of being able to weigh in on something that’s on everyone’s mind. And with rare exception, you only get to do that with TV. With a movie, even if everything goes perfectly, I can write a joke today and have to wait two years to hear the laughter.”

The article goes on to look at the current state of some acclaimed screenwriters, and their notable lack of produced credits lately. Frank Darabont, maybe the best classical American director to debut in the 1990s and a three-time Oscar nominee, hasn’t made a film since “The Mist” in 2007 and has only directed four films since the past 17 years (compare that to uberhack Michael Bay, who’s shooting his ninth feature since 1995). Darabont finally made the move to television, where he’s running the show for “The Walking Dead” over on AMC.

Its initally difficult to think that Sorkin is right until you go back and look at the filmmakers mentioned. Mankiewicz  wrote or co-wrote “Citizen Kane,” “Pride of the Yankees” and “Dinner at Eight.” Wilder fielded an amazing body of work, ranging from “Double Indemnity” to “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment.” Sturges (“Sullivan’s Travels,” “Hail the Conquering Hero”) was the first writer who really directed his own scripts. Schulberg’s scripts for “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd” are some of the most honest writing of that period.

Transpose that to modern times. Is there room in the 12-screen multiplex for complex narratives, complicated characters, real emotion, true pathos? Rarely, it seems. Those that attempt it seem to fall between the cracks if they can’t be attached to a certain genre. Consider Ben Affleck’s recent feature “The Town,” which has been raised for its sharp characterization, strong dialogue, and a realistic evocation of south Boston. Of course, it’s all wrapped around an easy-to-accept genre, the heist flick. If you stripped out that aspect and really made it into a Paddy Cheyevsky-esque “kitchen sink” drama, would it have opened at number one in its opening weekend? Doubtful.

Alan Ball won an Oscar for his “American Beauty” script and promptly went on to create “Six Feet Under” and adapt “True Blood” for HBO, both the great critical and public success. The L.A. Times article talks a bit about how Ball’s ascerbic view of American suburbia isn’t a natural match for Hollywood, but the bitter humor is perfect for cable television, where characters get hours and weeks to live out lives that would otherwise be condensed into two hours in a movie (I’d have been fascinated to see “American Beauty” play out over the course of several seasons, seeing how Ball and a crew of writers would have developed the lives and choices of Lester Burnam and his family and associations.)

Stephen Gaghan, an Oscar winner for “Traffic,” hasn’t had a feature produced since 2005, though he set a TV deal into place last year that, regretfully, has yet to bear any fruit. Meanwhile, his spiritual older twin brother David E. Kelley continues to create new series, including an upcoming “Wonder Woman” adaptation. Kelley began his career with the feature “From the Hip” and has only had three other films produced from his scripts, none of them worth a second look. Why? Because Kelley, like Sorkin, specializes in Big Issues, forcing his characters to deal with the weight of the world, and TV allows someone like Kelley to pound out a script about the moral dilemma of the week (gun control, public education, gays in the military, the war on terror) and have that script shot and on TV in a month’s time, whereas film takes YEARS, rendering the issue almost moot.

David E. Kelley
Stephen Gaghan

Think of those great James Spader monologues from “Boston Legal,” these beautifully eloquent pieces of writing, angry and funny and poetic, that would run for four or five minutes uninterrupted. (The clip quality isn’t much, but it’s a good example of Kelley and Spader at work.)

And then there’s the underappreciated genius of Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” which managed to use sports as a sounding board for anything that crossed Sorkin’s mind. I also love the back and forth between Josh Charles and Peter Krause towards the end, as well as the music playing over. (In a true and just world, “Sports Night” would have lasted at least three more seasons and Felicity Huffman would have won her Emmy for that show and not “Desperate Housewives,” but that’s another blog entirely.)

You’ll rarely find writing of this intelligence in most options you have at the local multiplex, sadly, where characters actually have opinions, on real issues, on things that matter, and are not just trying to save the President from the sleeper agent, or have to accept that yes, they’re in love with the rogueish Bad Boy (hi, Josh Duhamel). And I know that the argument is made on shows like this that the characters are nothing more than mouthpieces for the opinions of their creators, to which I say “So?” You want to have create a show that just sounds off on your opinions? Go write it yourself, then.

(Kelley and Sorkin also specialize in writing their shows themselves; both men hire writing staffs for their series, but its well known that those staffs basically serve as sounding boards for ideas for either men, and then Kelley or Sorkin goes off and writes the episode himself. Check out the credits on almost any series either man has produced, and you’ll see their names following that “Written By” credit moreso than anyone else.)

The lowest common denominator rule which seems to rule Hollywood production schedules (reboot of existing franchise/inane romantic comedy/overpriced tentpole franchise starter) has effectively dumbed down most movies to the point that I think great screenwriters will move more and more to televison, and most likely to cable, where the writer is going to be given greater creative leeway and a sense that their creation won’t be yanked after four episodes a la the four major networks.

It’s probably for this reason that most of the great TV dramatists stick to television. David Simon could never have created such a rich narrative with “The Wire” as a film than as a TV show. On film there would have been an action scene every 20 minutes, including a 15 minute guns-a-blazin’ finale, and wrap everything up in a smidge more than two hours; on TV he crafted 60 hours that felt more novelistic than anything, painting a real portrait of a city and a society that sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. Furthermore, Simon’s made no bones about his opinions on numerous issues, including the state of television itself; he is the auteur of his creations, not a director. That is his heart and soul he’s putting up there every week, and no one elses, and he is not willing to dumb it down for anyone. (There’s a reason he won that MacArthur “genius” grant.)

Therein lies the great difference between film and TV: it’s a writer’s medium.  The film “The Hurt Locker” is a Kathryn Bigelow film, despite the fact Mark Boal wrote the screenplay. But the series “Sons of Anarchy” is Kurt Sutter, plain and simple, and he isn’t shy about the fact, nor should he be. And certainly the director plays a huge role in the creation of any film or TV show; Sorkin himself admits David Fincher’s style on “The Social Network” helps power a movie that is mostly people sitting around talking. Television shows with distinct visual style like “House” or “CSI” have those because an interesting director came in for the pilot, but odds are that director will move on to another show almost immediately. Directors in television tend to be journeymen, moving from show to show, network to network, multiple times over the course of a season (though most shows have a director as an EP to help maintain a consistant visual style). But that show creator and writing staff is there, day in and day out, creating their series and waiting for the next director to arrive. It is the difference between the architect and the carpenter; you can’t build the house if you don’t know what you’re building first.

Hollywood’s approach, however, is to always focus on the carpenter and then bring in whatever architects it takes to make the carpenter happy, constantly redesigning the house as you move along, until oftentimes what you’ve built doesn’t much resemble what you started on. Since most big-budget Hollywood films employ multiple screenwriters over time, doing script doctoring or on-set rewrites, whatever vision the original screenwriter had is lost over time. And yes, there are those incredibly discouraging stories by showrunners of have to filter their work through corporate eyes (Mitchell Hurwitz deserves better) or even leave their shows before they’ve aired, but odds seem to run high that television oftens a greater chance for a writer to be able to effectively translate from script to screen.

Certainly networks and cable want shows to be successful, but success can be gauged in different ways. “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” barely break two million viewers a week, but AMC supports them because of critical plaudits and the buzz both shows bring to the channel. Two million tickets over a weekend may equal a $14-20 million opening, certainly respectable but nothing to shout from the rafters. But television can specialize. USA has its “blue sky” shows, AMC is trafficking in edgier dramas, FX chronicles the plight of the alpha male, Showtime focuses on risky comedies, and HBO … well, HBO anymore is just slinging shows at the wall and looking to see what sticks.

Sorkin sums it up well:

“If you polled all 300 million Americans on the least objectionable way to prepare beef, when you tallied up the results, the winner would be a McDonald’s hamburger. And that’s pretty much what you have to be when you’re making a movie that has to earn $200 million at the box office to be a success. But in TV, things are different now. If you’re a writer, TV isn’t the B team anymore. It’s filled the void with stories that have largely been abandoned by the movies.”

So let Americans have their Big Macs, but let us be grateful that some of us are looking for something more satisfying.

Return of the Mack

October 6, 2010 Leave a comment

This blog has laid dormant for a while, because, well, initially I had to heal from almost cutting my finger off. After debate on where to go with this thing and for the few who read it (love you, Bride!), I said “Oh hell, why not?” and decided to jump back in.

Because I’m  actually working on being a real writer (I’m getting published and everything … more on that as it gets closer), this will become more of a chronicle on my writing process, with updates on how it’s going, as well as random comments on whatever crap is getting on my nerves that day. Of course I will have the occasional rant on something, and my goal is to both establish some regular features and trick IMDB.com into putting me back in its news feed.

I’ll be updating on progress in “Christchurch Bells,” a novel I’ve been working on in various forms and incarnations for more than 15 years. The goal is 1,000 a day, with a Jan. 15, 2011 completion on the first draft. It’s the touching story of a writer dying of a brain tumor, his ex-wife’s ghost, a dead cheerleader, the destruction of a town’s movie theater, and a raven singing “Babe” by Styx.

All of this is with apologies to Cherie Priest, who I’m ripping off copiously, but that’s OK because she’s already published 10 novels and was nominated for a Hugo, whereas I’m just trying to finish the damn thing.

PROJECT: Christchurch Bells

DEADLINE: January 15, 2011

PRESENT WORD COUNT: 6,033

GOAL: 100,000

Bits & Pieces:

  • The biggest geek news is, of course, Zack Snyder directing the new “Superman” movie. I worry less about Snyder, who’s accused of being all style and no substance but who I think has effectively brought it in all of his movies (it would be impossible to truly translate “Watchmen” to film, but his version is the closest we could probably hope for), and more about the script by David Goyer, whose scripts tend to be erratic messes and typically need strong directors to guide them (Guillermo del Toro with “Blade II,” Christopher Nolan with both Batman films). With Nolan producing, it’s an easy bet that another writer will come in to smooth over Goyer’s script, and since Nolan’s brother Jonathan is already listed as a co-writer, so attention should be turned to getting Snyder to draw back on his visual style (enough CGI and slo-mo) and casting Superman himself (I think they could actually go with Snyder himself; dude’s got some guns).
  • The Bride and I caught part of “Minority Report” on cable the other night, and we both pondered why this movie wasn’t a bigger hit, or why it doesn’t have a cult following? Sure, it was popular enough, and it more than made back production and advertising costs, as well as selling a boatload of DVDs, but it’s such a rich and interesting movie it’s forgotten in the Spielberg shuffle. It’s got Tom Cruise at the height of his popularity, Steven Spielberg at his most visually daring, a smart Scott Frank script, exciting action, some truly oddball humor, and Colin Ferrell before we started looking at him like a drug-addled alcoholic douche bag. Maybe the film’s never caught on because Cruise’s Jon Anderton isn’t the most likable of characters (a drug-addicted father mourning the kidnapping and presumed death of his son), or because the humor is so off the wall, especially for a Spielberg joint (the scene where Anderton crashes into the yoga classes always cracks me up). The movie is considered part of Spielberg’s “running man” trilogy, alongside “A.I.” and “Catch Me If You Can,” and together the three represent an interesting point in Spielberg’s post-“Saving Private Ryan” career where I think he took what could be conceived as big risks (no special efforts to fall back on in “Catch Me If You Can”; surprising dark narratives in “A.I.” and “Minority Report”; the very character-driven comedy of “The Terminal,” which followed “Minority Report”). “War of the Worlds” might be seen as a mix of risk and the familiar, and for many it’s a mixed success, though I think there are moments of brilliance in it, such as the Tim Robbins basement sequence, and “Munich” put Spielberg back into “Ryan”-esque territory. Though I’m blase about his upcoming Tintin adaptation, I hope he decides again to do something risky. Eastwood is a great example of an older director who’s still willing to push out of his comfort zone (“Hereafter” looks like nothing else he’s ever done), and maybe Spielberg, who produced “Hereafter,” might be inspired.
  • Ronald Moore may be updating “The Wild, Wild West,” performing the same duties as he did on the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica.” I’m willing to go with Moore where ever he opts to go, and I think he could really spend the rest of his career updating old shows; may I recommend “Automan,” “Manimal” and “Holmes & Yoyo.”