Screenwriters are famous for trading stories from their professional lives that are too ridiculous to be invented. But during the writers strike, it's been hard to find anyone telling even a bleakly amusing story, let alone an upbeat one.
Then there's Billy Frolick, a 48-year-old screenwriter from the animation trenches ("Madagascar") who may have the most ridiculously smile-inducing story of the strike. As he says, "No example of professional screenwriting's emotional undulations could be more vivid or surreal than my last two months."
In the frantic weeks before the strike began on Nov. 5 -- when everyone was scrambling to finish jobs and gird themselves for a possible prolonged absence of income -- Frolick received a mysterious offer to work on a 3-D animated film.
After some back and forth with the WGA about whether it would be considered struck work, Frolick's manager got the assignment cleared, and he quickly negotiated a deal with the hiring company that, unlike most studio agreements, miraculously included gross participation for Frolick.
To enter a work stoppage with an approved, paid assignment -- let alone a blind, over-the-transom offer that required no pitch or meeting -- was an incredible stroke of good fortune. That it would also involve a promised "high-end, unforgettable, and luxurious trip" was a mystifying bonus.
"While my closest friends were worrying about foreclosure and bankruptcy," Frolick says, "I was starting to feel like the only Jew being hidden in Nazi Germany."
So Frolick spent the first week of the strike dutifully picketing with his guild brothers and sisters before packing his bags and boarding an Aerosvit plane.
It turned out that Frolick had been hired to write the first computer-animated feature produced in Ukraine (not "the Ukraine," as he was quickly corrected), tentatively titled "Paws & Wires."
The Ukrainians apparently considered this a momentous occasion. When he finally stepped onto the tarmac in Kiev, Frolick was greeted with a dozen roses and a row of shivering reporters who had been waiting two hours to shove microphones in his face.
"What will feelm be about?" one asked.
"About 80 minutes long," Frolick said to mute stares.
In a way that dramatically upended the skewed hierarchy of the Hollywood system so embedded in the subtext of the current contract deadlock, Frolick was suddenly in the flopped position of being a big fish in a small, frozen pond. And the star treatment reflected that.
Frolick was put up in the Boris Godunov Suite at the Opera, a five-star hotel. He was escorted to every great restaurant and nightclub in the city by a chauffeured Mercedes town car, from which he was frequently captured embarking and disembarking by paparazzi (yes, Frolick was an excellent American ambassador and kept his underwear on).
Over the week he was in Kiev, Frolick starred in half a dozen crowded news conferences, saw "Carmen" performed at the Kiev Opera House and dined with Richard Steffens, the U.S. Embassy's cultural attaché. He participated in a charity event for McDonald's (which has a tie-in to the movie) with the country's top athletes, politicians and celebrities.
His picture was all over the local magazines. One night he was watching the news in his hotel room and saw coverage of the Writers Guild of America strike rally at Fox that he had marched in the week before.
"The press coverage was staggering," Frolick says. "I was Chernobyl without the toxins. Billy Frolick is now to Ukraine what David Hasselhoff is to Germany."
Frolick was also given a tour of the production offices of Umbrella Animation Works, "an emerging multi-platform multimedia company" financed by Ukrainian billionaires. Though its animators are still learning their English conjugations and the studio has yet to produce a movie, "the technology they have is unbelievable," says Frolick, who was shown some three-dimensional demos. "It's stereoscopic 3-D without glasses. . . . I'd never seen anything like that."
Since returning to the States, Frolick has been alternating picketing shifts with crafting "Paws & Wires" (he signed a non-disclosure agreement, so all he will say is that it "involves talking animals"). His first draft is due in a few weeks.
His readjustment to the writer's status here in Hollywood may take a bit longer.
Advice from a departed master
Two weeks ago, British playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton was sipping Pellegrino in his Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow and musing on his good fortune. His elegant adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel "Atonement" had earned him a Golden Globe nomination (though the Coen brothers won), and it would soon add an Oscar nomination as well. (Hampton will discuss and sign copies of the published "Atonement" screenplay at Book Soup on Monday night.)
Hampton has recently been pushing forward with two projects he wrote last year for directors Stephen Frears ("The Queen") and David Cronenberg ("Eastern Promises"). Hampton and Frears, who last worked together on "Mary Reilly" in 1996, were in the States for a week to see actors for Hampton's adaptation of the Colette novel "Chéri," which they plan to film later this year. For Cronenberg, Hampton has adapted his own Freud-Jung psychoanalysis play, "The Talking Cure," which Ralph Fiennes headlined at London's National Theatre five years ago.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Hampton let fly with a 20-year-old anecdote from his work with Oscar-winning director David Lean ("The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia"). They spent a year together collaborating on Hampton's adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel "Nostromo," but the epic film version ultimately didn't happen because Lean died six weeks before shooting in 1991.
Hampton remembers that Lean told him to think of every movie, depending on its length, as six to 10 segments, each strung together with a very strong rope. "And because he was an ex-editor, I suppose, he always said, 'The most important thing in any film is the last image of one scene and how it sits next to the first image of the next scene,' " recalls Hampton.
With each new draft of the script, Lean would actually have storyboard artists paint those juxtaposed images off the page so he could see how they looked together. Occasionally, he'd even ask an artist to draw a third image of a combined dissolve, to see if that was the better fit.
Hampton says he was able to apply much of what he learned from Lean to his future screenplay work. As it turns out, the next script Hampton wrote was "Dangerous Liaisons." It won him an Oscar in 1989.
A dog of a James Bond title
Upon reading Friday's announcement that the title chosen for the latest James Bond film is "Quantum of Solace" (taken from a short story published in Ian Fleming's collection "For Your Eyes Only"), I was reminded of one of my favorite flippant and funny lines of film criticism. Ten years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter started a review thusly: " 'Wag the Dog' is stupid the title."
Ukraine and Poland were warned to drastically speed up preparations for EURO 2012 in the next 6 months
The main topic at the end of the two-day UEFA executive board meeting was the organisation of EURO 2012 in Ukraine and Poland. UEFA maintains its position that Euro must be held in the east, but also admits the situation is not developing at the pace they had expected.
- I have a feeling the next 4 to 6 months will be crucial to avoid any unexpected problems related to the infrastructure and the stadiums. Both governments must be mobilised and realise the importance of this project – said UEFA president Michel Platini.