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How to Write a Video Game Adaptation


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

This has to be one of the most difficult tasks in the history of movie lists. Looking at the sad line-up of movies based on video games in the last twenty years, there are only a handful that are barely tolerable, let alone any good. Shall it be called the Video Game Movie curse? There has been only one decent video game movie, and still it’s not a very good one. But here are the best I could muster…

5. Super Mario Bros (1993)

The first film based on a video game, this one does everything wrong. From the banal plot, to the awkward pacing, to the bizarre creature effects, to the godawful special effects, this film fits in that so-bad-it’s-kind-of-enjoyable category. Probably the best thing about this film is the casting, but not even Dennis Hopper as the villain can save this mess. Still, though, there’s more accidental entertainment value to be had here than in films like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Alone in the Dark, Doom, Max Payne, Prince of Persia, and countless other video game adaptations!

4. Resident Evil (2002)

This long-running series definitely has its highs and lows, but the original has the most genuine tension and suspense, as well as creepy atmosphere. While the second film, Apocalypse, deserves points for including more elements from the games, this first entry is the most successful as an overall movie. The rest that I’ve seen become all about the action, all about the drop-kicks and the gunfights. At least there’s more going on in the 2002 original.

3. Street Fighter (1994)

This, like Super Mario Bros, is pretty rough stuff, but this piece of over-the-top craziness has something no other video game movie has — Raul Julia. He makes an otherwise confused, mediocre action film worth watching. Making his final film appearance (!), Julia plays the big bad named General Bison, and he upstages everyone else in the movie, including Jean-Claude Van Damme and pop singer Kylie Minogue, in one of her few (and mostly forgotten) film roles.

2. Mortal Kombat (1995)

Paul W.S. Anderson (the director of Resident Evil and many of its sequels), appears again here, in what is arguably, still, the best video game movie ever made. While it has nothing in terms of substance, the film moves at a brisk pace, featuring one awesome fight scene after another, and it captures the spirit of the game exceedingly well. Cameron Diaz was meant to follow up her role in The Mask with this film as Sonya Blade but had the pull out due to a broken wrist — now that could’ve been interesting.

1. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Is this cheating? It might be, but a great film based in the world of video games should appear somewhere on this list, and this documentary is nothing short of excellent. Directed by Seth Gordon, who went on to direct Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses, the film takes the viewer into the lives of diehard video game players competing to set the world record score on Donkey Kong. This is one of the most thrilling, entertaining, and uplifting documentaries I’ve seen to this day.

Watching Like a Writer

This list overall makes me think about how I’d adapt a video game I love into a piece of fiction. My favorite game growing up was Donkey Kong Country, and I’m not sure what the hell I could ever do with that. But what about my second favorite, the Mega Man series? As absurd it would be, I’d love to take a crack at a short story about that small heroic figure.


Pitch an adaptation of your favorite video game in one or two sentences. What would be the storyline? What would be the conflict?

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How to Write a True Story from a Fresh Point of View


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Jackie Review

Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is a work of hypnotizing, unsentimental brilliance, a film so raw in its power that at times it’s a truly difficult watch. We all know what happened that day in November 1963, and we’ve seen the Zapruder film, and we’ve seen Oliver Stone’s JFK, and we’ve seen all the other feature films and documentaries made about one of the nation’s worst tragedies. It’s a moment in time that’s so overly familiar, even to someone like me who was born long after it happened. And yet director Lorrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim manage to take us back to that moment and the fraught-filled days afterward in a completely new and thought-provoking way. By giving us the story from Jackie Kennedy’s point of view, we see these horrific events in a whole new light.

The film does not have a typical narrative structure that opens with the assassination and leads us into the aftermath, or a structure that adds unnecessary tension by taking us through the many events of Jackie’s day before we get the assassination scene. There’s a little of that, Jackie putting on the classic pink outfit, her walking off the plane and waving to the people of Dallas, but the beauty of Jackie is ultimately its lack of and complete aversion to a typical structure. The film is an editing marvel, one that delicately and masterfully switches to different points in time, sometimes Jackie’s famous on-camera tour of the white house, sometimes the horrific minutes directly following the assassination, sometimes the brutally honest sit-down she had with a journalist a week after the tragedy. The movie constantly bounces around in time and in tones, and instead of it disorienting the viewer, it keeps bringing out more and more complexity to the Jackie character.

This is a film that lives or dies by its lead performance, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. With the wrong actress, with a lackluster actress, this material fails even before it gets going. Natalie Portman has been one of my favorites for a long time, and it’s always a thrill when she gets a great part on film. She won the Best Actress Oscar for her chilling and brave performance in the fantastic Black Swan, one of my three favorite films of 2010, but in the last few years I’ve noticed the lack of both quality and content in the films she’s appeared in. She was fine in the Thor movies, and I was happy to hear she wrote and directed a film (A Tale of Love and Darkness, which I still need to see), but for the most part it’s been a dry spell for Portman since her magnificent performance in Black Swan.

Well, the dry spell is over. Her performance as Jackie is a wonder to behold. She’s in nearly every frame of the film and she brings grace and energy and unfiltered emotion to her truly striking performance. At first it was hard to forget I was looking at Natalie Portman playing Jackie Kennedy. It does take a good ten or fifteen minutes for the full illusion to take shape. But when it does, and her voice and her gestures and her aura become Jackie’s, the movie takes off and stays compelling to the final scene. Portman makes Jackie Kennedy a three-dimensional human being, someone deeply devastated by the loss of her husband, which is expected, but she’s also at times difficult and unlikable, which was unexpected. A moment when she yells at Bobby Kennedy for keeping secrets from her is startling because it doesn’t show her in an angelic light, but these kind of vitriolic moments are necessary to paint her as a real person, one with ideas and disagreements for how her husband’s funeral service should be handled.

Beyond Portman’s incredible performance, I was also taken by the wondrous cinematography and haunting musical score, as well as the aforementioned skillful editing. The look of the film is absolutely gorgeous, the camera often tracking poor Jackie from room to room of the White House, John’s blood still on her clothes. From the darkness and smoke in the interview sections, to the brightness and lushness in happier times, to the way the film mixes real stock footage with the fictionalized dramatization, the cinematography by Stephane Fontaine is marvelous. I also loved the subtle but memorable score by Mica Levi, which never tells the viewer what to think and infuses the film with a sense of tension and sadness. And the editing by Sebastian Sepulveda is something special. This film could have played out with the exact same footage in a rudimentary way, the kind we’d come to expect, but the film is put together in such a manner that the narrative structure itself keeps me thinking about the finished film long since having watched it.

Jackie has strong supporting performances all around, from Peter Sarsgaard (in a Garden State reunion!) as Bobby Kennedy, an unrecognizable Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman, Billy Crudup as the Journalist, John Hurt as the Priest, and Caspar Phillipson, who looks almost identical to the real John F. Kennedy. Larrain has taken great care in all elements of this film, from his cast, to the cinematography, to the editing, to the music, and lots more, but the best choice he made was Natalie Portman. She is the reason the film works, and she is the reason that you should drop whatever you’re doing and go see this fine film.

Watching Like a Writer

When I think about Jackie in relation to my fiction, I think about how I would tackle writing about a real-life event that’s familiar, that everyone knows about, in a way that was different and looked at the event from a different side, a different point-of-view. Jackie works beautifully, but it also could have gone wrong in so many ways, sentimentalizing the event, or giving us the familiar, and especially in fiction, one needs to be careful when dealing with a tragedy everyone knows well and has strong feelings about.


Think about the JFK assassination specifically. What kind of story would you like to tell or would like to see told about that day that hasn’t yet been written?

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How to Create a Book-Length Anthology


Anthologies can be a lot of fun to put together for writers because, for once, you’re not actually writing what goes into the book! For a recent graduate seminar I took at my local university, I was tasked to come up with an anthology to pitch to both the class and potential editors, and boy, was this project both lots of fun and super difficult each step along the way.

My anthology was to be called The Dark Side of Hollywood, and it was going to include short fiction, screenplay excerpts, and more.

If you’re at all interested in how to pitch an anthology, here’s an example below that goes in great detail about my personal relationship to the theme and what pieces of writing would have been included!

The Dark Side of Hollywood Anthology

The lights! The glamour! The movie stars! The place where dreams are made of! Hollywood has been the destination for millions of wannabe actors and filmmakers for more than a hundred years. While some films and television shows are produced out of New York, the prime destination in the United States for those who want to make it in the entertainment industry is Los Angeles, California.

Everyone grows up thinking it’s a magical place — for eighteen years, I certainly did — but the truth about Hollywood is that it’s not the image you have in your mind. Many in the industry, especially those who’ve climbed to the top of the ladder, are selfish and greedy. Egos run rampant. Most movies are not made by filmmakers anymore, but by corporations. Instead of opportunities, there is one closed door after another, and while a select few make it through, others find themselves left out in the cold. Hollywood is not the place where dreams come to fruition; through the use of screenplay excerpts, novel excerpts, and short stories, my anthology proves that Hollywood is often a place where only nightmares dwell.

I moved to L.A. for film school, when I was eighteen. I attended Loyola Marymount University, where for four years I existed in a bubble atop Culver City, making short films, attending classes, and spending time visiting a huge, sprawling city that, despite its millions of people, can make you feel more isolated than anywhere else in the world. During my junior year, I took on my first real Hollywood job — well, not a job exactly, since I didn’t get paid. In most places, an internship is an unpaid opportunity for people to make connections, learn about their industry, and get ahead not by learning in a classroom but by actually doing.

Unfortunately, in Hollywood, an internship doesn’t really work that way. Between 2006 and 2008 I held four internships, and what I came to find was that the work I was doing often benefited the people who ran the company more than it ever did me. I often wrote script coverage for awful screenplays, sitting around for hours on end doing work that went unpaid but that should not have been. While I always arrived at work early and left well after my final required hour, my hard work went unnoticed, and no internship led to any job or long-lasting connections.

Three months after graduating from college, I took the best job I could find — a production assistant position on a reality show. While this was the one job I took in L.A. that paid me well for close to a year (before the show was canceled, and I was on the hunt for new employment again), it also showed me in excessive detail the egos, disrespect, and seediness in many individuals, both in and outside the industry. The star of the show would show up late for interviews, sometimes as much as three or four hours. I watched vain men and women destroy their faces and bodies on camera, all to look a little younger, and to get a little face-time on a TV show. After a year working in reality television, I needed a new start.

My final job in Los Angeles lasted two years, in which I worked for an independent feature film casting director. The experience had its highs and lows. I enjoyed reading with actors at auditions, and hearing actors scream over the phone when my boss called to tell them they had received the part. But when I think of the dark side of Hollywood, nothing comes to mind faster than the auditioning process, the part of film and television pre-production that crushes far too many souls. Thousands of actors audition every day in L.A., hoping and praying they can book a film, work with a great director, win awards, become a star. Most actors will never make it, and for the few who do, success is fleeting. One minute you can be on the front of every magazine in the world, and the next, no one will care about you. My job in casting had its perks, but after two years, it left me empty inside. It was time to move out of L.A. for good.

When I returned to Reno, I started writing fiction. My first short story was about a crazed fan who murders his favorite movie director, and my first novel was about a casting director who takes advantage of her position in order to cast not a film but the next leading man in her romantic life. Stories about dark Hollywood have always intrigued me, even when I was in high school and hadn’t discovered what the experience working in the industry would be like; therefore, assembling an anthology on this subject seemed to be the natural next stage.

The Dark Side of Hollywood features twenty works in all — three screenplay excerpts, three excerpts from blockbuster novels, two excerpts from classic novels, two excerpts from science fiction novels, two horror short stories, a mystery excerpt and short story, two excerpts about actors, two excerpts about the television industry, and two brand new, never-before published pieces of short fiction. My anthology may pull together work from various genres and sources, but my goal is that they work together to form a cohesive whole and ultimately prove to the reader that writers have no shortage of ideas about how to skewer Hollywood and all those false dreams it promises.

The anthology begins and ends with screenplay excerpts, with a third included in the very middle. Many great stories have been told over the years about dark Hollywood, but few projects have ever been able to capture the destructiveness of the industry than films the industry has produced themselves. I begin with the opening scenes of the script to Tim Burton’s marvelous 1994 comedy Ed Wood, arguably his greatest achievement. The film tells of the worst movie director to have ever lived, Ed Wood (played by Johnny Depp) and the struggles he endured in the 1950s trying to get B-movies like Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space off the ground. The opening scenes of the script involve Wood premiering his latest movie, only for him the next day to be torn apart by the reviews in the local newspaper. The actors from the film surround him and ask if everyone’s career is officially dead. Ed smiles, and says, “It’s just the beginning. I promise this: if we stick together, one day I’ll make every single one of you famous.” Of course, Ed lied; none of those actors ever did become famous. This excerpt is the perfect place to start my anthology, because Ed fills his actors with such promise, only for all their dreams to be torn down as they realize the deceit in his words.

In the middle of the anthology is an excerpt from one of my favorite films ever — David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Lynch also wrote the script, and one of the most devilishly funny and disturbing scenes involves a film director (Justin Theroux) who meets a creepy cowboy at the top of a desolate hill. The cowboy proceeds to tell him that the casting of the leading lady in his next motion picture is not up to him, and that if he doesn’t do what is asked, there will be Hell to pay. This scenes shows, in a scarily exaggerated way, the pressures actors and filmmakers face every day in the industry.

I close my anthology with the final scene from my all-time favorite film, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson. To my mind, Sunset Boulevard is the only truly perfect film ever made, and no scene is more perfect than its final one, in which aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Swanson) descends her mansion staircase and acts for the film cameras — one last time. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” she says, but as she walks toward the cameras, she becomes more and more out of focus, only for the film to dissolve to black before she can enjoy the close-up she has so desperately desired her entire career. Films don’t get much darker and funnier than Sunset Boulevard, and it’s the perfect closer.

Two excerpts from classic novels appear in the anthology, and they might be the most famous books ever written about dark Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald is most famous for writing The Great Gatsby, of course, as well as Tender is the Night and This Side of Paradise, but one he wrote that is equally brilliant is his final 1940 book, The Last Tycoon, which was left uncompleted at the time of his death. The story of a young movie mogul who rises to power in Hollywood was based on famous film producer Irving Thalberg, and, like in Thalberg’s real life, there was a mix of both good times and bad. I have included in the anthology chapter four, in which the mogul fires a director on one of his pictures and swiftly moves a new up-and-coming director into his place. The former director doesn’t even get to have his say; he is removed from the movie with no questions asked. As shocking as it may seem, this practice goes on all the time in Hollywood, with not even the most famous of directors safe from interfering studio executives from taking them off the production.

The other classic excerpt comes from the 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, written by Nathanael West. Unlike The Last Tycoon, this novel focuses on multiple characters, including an actor, producer, and director (as well as a businessman named Homer Simpson) who in their own separate ways try to make names for themselves in the film industry. I have included the last chapter from the novel, which depicts a vicious riot at a movie premiere. This scene in all its madness shows that even on premiere night, many in Hollywood are just looking out for themselves and will do everything they can to get ahead.

Three excerpts from blockbuster novels are included, two of which became hugely popular movies in the 1990s and one of which was penned by one of the most famous romance authors of all time. The Player is Michael Tolkin’s satirical 1988 novel about a Hollywood executive named Griffin Mills who kills an aspiring screenwriter who he believes is conspiring to murder him. The book was a huge hit at the time, and it was adapted into an award-winning 1992 comedy directed by Robert Altman. The first chapter of the novel, which details the pompousness of narrator Griffin as he goes about a typical day at his production office, is included in the anthology.

The second excerpt from a blockbuster comes from Hollywood Wives, a sprawling 1983 novel penned by Jackie Collins that takes the reader into the lives of various backstabbing, conniving women in La-La-Land. Collins also tells of a sex-addicted film producer named Buddy, as well as the casting side of making movies, which is something I don’t come across often in fiction. This is the most sexually explicit of my twenty picks, and it shows the seediness of what many in Hollywood can be like. The chosen scene for the anthology is from chapter seven of part one, in which the main duo of wives — Elaine and Karen — enjoy a morning work-out in Beverly Hills and gossip about what all the other wives are up to, including a friend who just sold her first screenplay to a major production studio.

The third excerpt comes from what may be the most famous Hollywood novel of the last thirty years — Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty, which became the Golden Globe-winning 1995 comedy starring John Travolta and Gene Hackman. The book tells of Chili Palmer, a Florida loan shark who follows a client out to Los Angeles and becomes swept up in the movie industry. Chapter fourteen is included in the anthology, a very funny scene in which two corrupt characters who have both killed multiple people debate the merits of a good screenplay. Palmer’s dialogue pops off the page, and the absurd scenario of two killers getting swept up in the magic of movies is black comedy at its finest.

I wanted to feature different kinds of genres in my anthology, and so I have pulled from various sources examples of dark Hollywood in genre fiction. First up is science fiction, which is a natural place to look for subversive takes on the entertainment industry. My all-time favorite author Stephen King has had almost all of his books translated to the screen, but he, surprisingly, hasn’t written much about the industry itself, and instead has focused more on stories about the book industry, most famously in his ingenious dark thriller, Misery. But in his early days, King did pen a magnificent science fiction novel The Running Man, in which people compete on a televised game show competition, one in which the victor wins more dough than he ever could have imagined, and the loser dies — for real! Originally published under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachmann, the book, like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, shows the scary extent that television competitions are potentially headed in the future. A chapter about a third-way through the book has been included, in which the malevolent show-runner Killian takes the protagonist Ben Richards aside to stress the importance that he play by the rules of the game, or else.

The second science fiction excerpt comes from a wildly imaginative 1990 novel Moving Pictures, written by Terry Pratchett. Set in an alternate world called Discworld, the book tells of a group of characters who turn to movie-making in a town called Holy Wood (yes, Holy Wood), including a wizard-turned-extra and a gifted dog who becomes a major star. Pratchett celebrates the absurdities of the entertainment industry in this satirical novel, especially in the pages I’ve chosen for inclusion in the anthology, which detail the insanely troubled production of Holy Wood’s latest movie.

Horror may be my favorite genre of all, and possibly my greatest find for my anthology was Hell Comes to Hollywood: An Anthology of Short Horror Fiction Set in Tinseltown Written by Hollywood Genre Professionals, edited by Eric Miller. Nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Anthology, this 2012 book features twenty brand new horror stories about Hollywood, and it’s a devilish mix of serious, goofy, and downright scary tales. The first story that I’ve greedily moved over to my own project is “The Cutting Room,” written by Jeff Seeman, creator and writer of the comic book, Dream Police. “The Cutting Room” may be the most wickedly dark and subversive entry of all in my anthology, the story of an aspiring screenwriter who one day snaps, and starts murdering not just the producer he’s pitching his latest idea to, but everyone he comes across on the studio lot.

The second story from Hell Comes to Hollywood I’ve chosen to include is another unique tale called “The Legend of Sleepy Hollywood,” written by Alan Bernhoft. Famous actors from yesteryear come to life on a mural in this story — everyone from Bette Davis to John Wayne to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy — as they comment on a real-life creature killing off innocent victims on the nearby neighborhood street. These two horror stories not only horrify and entertain the reader but give the kinds of outrageous looks into dark Hollywood only the horror genre could offer.

Of course, if I’m going to feature science fiction and horror in my anthology, I couldn’t get away with not giving the reader a couple of cool mystery stories. The first comes from a 1994 novella called Dick Contino’s Blues, written by James Ellroy, famous for such mystery novels as The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential. Dick Contino’s Blues takes one of Ellroy’s most beloved characters and puts him in a whole new adventure, where he tracks down a vicious serial killer on a film set while at the same time tries to repair his public image. I chose a scene from chapter nine, in which Dick deals with a group of egomaniacs all trying to get what they want on the local film about to go into production.

The other mystery included in the anthology is a pulp short story that comes from the Hollywood Detective magazine in January 1942. “Bullet From Nowhere,” written by Robert Leslie Bellem, takes place on a film set as well, and begins on a shooting day that seems like it will be like any other. Unfortunately, the lead actor in the film and the director start butting heads, and a gunshot goes off from an unknown location, killing the director; it’s up to Dan Turner, the lead detective in the Hollywood Detective magazine stories, to solve the mystery. Both of these mystery tales add unique angles to the dark Hollywood theme, the same way that the science fiction stories provide fantasy elements and the horror stories give a gruesome jolt of the macabre.

Up next are two tragic entries about — who else — actors. “The Cryerer,” by Jim Hanas, was published in One Story in 2002, and it tells the story of a D-list actor who wants to become a major star but can’t get anywhere in his sad career. “The Cryerer” takes place over telephone calls almost exclusively, and it isn’t until the end when the unnamed main character goes into a weeping fit, knowing his depressing life is never to get any better. Most people think of acting as a glamorous and exciting job, but for every Brad Pitt, there are a thousand actors appearing in unaired pilots and direct-to-video movies year after year, and a million actors just struggling to be picked for a bad student film. Many actors live in misery, and Hanas’ story perfectly captures the mentality these people go through.

My other entry about actors is an excerpt from the 2000 novel Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates. This books takes a fictional look at the damaged life of famed film actress Marilyn Monroe, and while it seems excessive for Oates to have made the book a door-stopper at nearly 800 pages in length, the material toward the end in which she explores Monroe’s demons are quite effective. I have included in my anthology a chapter toward the end called Divorce (Retake), in which Monroe, one year prior to her death, endures the sadness of her friend and co-actor Clark Gable passing away, as well as dealing with her divorce from playwright Arthur Miller. Oates writes in a God-like third person, almost laughing at the absurdity of this heavily flawed person. The chapter ends with Marilyn opening an envelope addressed to her that has one word block printed on a piece of toilet paper: WHORE. Success in Hollywood doesn’t last forever, and many succumb to the pressures; few actresses fell so fast and tragically than Monroe, whose last few months alive sum up the epitome of dark Hollywood.

Of course, I don’t want to make anyone assume that darkness exists only in the film industry. I would argue that it is worse in the television industry, where the competition is fiercer in 2014 than it’s ever been. Therefore, I couldn’t close out my anthology without including two subversive pieces about the television industry. The first is an excerpt from a 2010 young adult novel, Paparazzi Princess: Secrets of My Hollywood Life, which tells of a self-absorbed teenage girl who, at age fifteen, is already one of the biggest TV stars in America. I have included chapter thirteen, in which the protagonist Kaitlin Burke suffers a panic attack on the set of her show, and ends up in the hospital. Does anyone, including her own family, care about her wellbeing? Of course not. They only care about what this panic attack might mean for her career. This chapter shows how devilish people can be when it comes to maintaining one’s fame.

The other entry about the television industry included in my anthology is a 1988 short story entitled “Little Expressionless Animals,” by David Foster Wallace. This hilariously wicked satire tells of a contestant named Julie Smith on Jeopardy! who performs so well that the producers decide to keep her on the show; she ends up winning every Jeopardy! game for three years running. Later published in Wallace’s book of short stories Girl With Curious Hair, “Little Expressionless Animals” uses Alex Trebek, as well as Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, in a story that shows what these kinds of men who host game shows are like behind the scenes — and it’s not always pretty. This story is another entertaining account of how power can corrupt even the most goodhearted of people, especially when they land somewhere like Hollywood, where few are able to escape without at least a few battle scars.

Finally, my anthology features two brand new stories, never before published, written by Nicholos Vienneau and Forrest Hartman. The emotionally wrenching story by Mr. Vienneau is titled “Bye, Bye Babbage,” and it tells of a woman working in the industry who writes for the hottest show on television. She has been hard at work at making a name for herself for five long years, but things seem to be getting harder for her, not easier. When she’s ultimately fired from her current show, she spirals into a deep depression and struggles to find a way out of her misery. Vienneau’s story shows the heartache people endure every day in the entertainment industry, as well as the idiocy that goes on behind-the-scenes, and the selfishness even good people can eventually succumb to.

The concise, entertaining piece of flash fiction by Mr. Hartman is titled “The Devil and Clay Johnson,” and it tells of an aspiring actor who makes a deal with the Devil to become the most famous actor of all time. He gets his wish, and becomes hugely successful, but unfortunately, not everything ends well — not that it ever could have. In just two pages, Hartman crafts a wise Hollywood fable that uses fantasy to showcase the real-life deals actors, producers, and directors make with the Devil on a day-to-day basis.

The Dark Side of Hollywood uses various genres from different time periods, different formats, and authors of different genders, sexualities, and track records, to paint a picture of a place so often idolized yet rarely criticized. Hollywood may not be the absolute nightmarish place represented in this anthology, but it’s not always a lovely paradise where dreams are made of, either. In the end, Hollywood is a place that can make a filmmaker’s career, or give an actor a shot — but it’s also a place where many enter with high hopes, only to be chewed up and spit out, never to be heard from again. It’s a place where many go to live, but where most go to die.

Get out while you can.

Posted in Film, Uncategorized

The Sandra Bullock Files #25: Practical Magic (1998)


The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

Practical Magic is a film that has two tremendous qualities — Sandra and Nicole Kidman, as sisters. When this project was first announced in 1997, it sounded like a sure thing. How in the world could anyone screw up a movie with these two dynamic actresses playing witches? Well, you have Akiva Goldsman (Batman & Robin) co-write the script, and you give Griffin Dunne, a better actor than filmmaker, the directing reigns. While the film has its fans, Practical Magic is mostly a waste of concept and talent. It’s not a terrible movie, not near Sandra’s worst, but the consistent mediocrity is what makes the film so frustrating.

On the DVD audio commentary, the producer and director both say that their favorite scene is the “Midnight Margarita” scene that takes place halfway through the film, but this scene highlights everything that is wrong with Practical Magic: nobody knows what it’s supposed to be. It starts whimsical, with a delightful prologue, leading to some cheesy but fine scenes in the first fifteen minutes. But then the movie takes an abrupt turn when Sally (Sandra) goes to save her sister Gillian (Kidman) from her sordid lifestyle and accidentally kills one of her lovers. This event sets off the silly conflict of the rest of the movie, but it’s ultimately treated as a device to bring Sally closer together with a private investigator (Aidan Quinn).

There were so many places to take this movie. Imagine what a director like Guillermo Del Toro would have done with these actors and this material. The story that the producer and director apparently wanted to tell was a murder mystery, mixed in with a hokey love story that never takes off because Sandra and Quinn have little chemistry. Worst of all? There’s not much magic in Practical Magic! It’s alluded to a lot, and there are a few scenes where the two sisters, and sometimes their aunts (Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest), perform a spell or two. But not until the very end do we get any real magic, and it’s only used to eradicate an evil spirit out of Gillian. Hocus Pocus this movie shouldn’t have necessarily been, with Sandra and Kidman hamming it up for ninety minutes, dancing and singing and riding on broomsticks. But a more specific vision, a creative point of view, could have turned this from a lackluster disappointment to a memorable late ’90s guilty pleasure.

Sandra said in a press junket for Practical Magic that one of the greatest things to happen to her in her career was the failure of Speed 2, because it meant that she could finally pursue smaller projects that she was more interested in rather than big action blockbusters. Unfortunately, in this case, a smaller project doesn’t always mean better. One of the few joys of Practical Magic is that it’s Sandra’s movie, more than it is Kidman’s, and she has the occasional funny moment. But the film just never comes to life. Practical Magic began Sandra’s mediocre period, with movies like Forces of Nature and Murder by Numbers not doing her career any favors. We certainly are still a long way from Gravity.

Best Scene: The final scene, when the family in witch hats jump off the roof of their house.

Best Line: “It was the curse, wasn’t it! He died because I loved him so much!”

Fun Facts

After bad test screening reactions, composer Michael Nyman’s score was rejected for sounding too European. It was replaced with a score by Alan Silvestri. The change was made so late that the first batch of soundtrack CDs had Nyman’s score on it.

According to Sandra in the DVD commentary, in the margarita scene, Sandra and Kidman actually did get drunk.

For the final scene, the entire population of the real town was invited to show up in costume and appear as townsfolk.

In 2010, Warner Bros. and ABC Family attempted to develop a television series based on this film. To date, it hasn’t been produced.

Posted in Recipes, Uncategorized

Want to try the best healthy pancakes ever?


Warm, delicious buttery pancakes can be scrumptious on a chilly Sunday morning, but then you might spend the rest of the day feeling guilty about all those carbs you just consumed. Plus, oftentimes pancakes can just leave you feeling weighed down and gross.

But if you love pancakes, here’s a recipe that’s nutritious and delicious, and it will leave you feeling great for the rest of the day!

Ingredients (Serves Two)

1 Cup Fat Free Cottage Cheese

1 Cup Old Fashioned Quaker Oats

6 Egg Whites

1 Tsp Brown Sugar

1 Tsp Cinnamon

¼ Tsp Vanilla Extract

1 Tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil (for skillet)

Organic Maple Syrup (to taste)

1 Ripe Banana (Optional)

Blueberries and Strawberries (Optional)

Prepare your blender for use. You’re not going to have to mix any ingredients beforehand in a bowl.

The Recipe is Nutritious and Easy to Make!

Start by putting one cup of the fat free cottage cheese and one cup of the old fashioned quaker oats in the blender. Next, add the six egg whites to the blender one egg at a time. Alternatively, you can just add three eggs to save time (if not the cholesterol).

Next, add a teaspoon of brown sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and just a tiny splash of vanilla extract. You can add in other spices if desired, but the cinnamon should do the trick to give the pancakes that extra add of spice. Blend all these ingredients together until thoroughly mixed.

A Banana Can Be Added for Extra Flavor

An optional addition to this delicious recipe is to add a ripe banana to the blender as the other ingredients are mixing together. If you love banana pancakes, feel free to make this addition.

Next, turn on the stove to medium heat. Pour about a teaspoon worth of olive oil on the skillet and wait for the drops of oil to start jumping up and down. Add a half cup of the batter to the skillet. Cook each side for one to three minutes, depending on how hot you have the skillet. Repeat until all the batter has been used. This recipe should make between five and six pancakes.

Use Real Maple Syrup, not that Fake Stuff

Finally drop the pancakes on the one or two plates and pour about a quarter cup of maple syrup, preferably organic real maple syrup (Trader Joe’s Pure B syrup is ideal) over the pancakes. Add slices of blueberries and strawberries for extra flavor and nutritional value.

Serve Hot!

Posted in Health, Uncategorized

My Life-Long Journey with IBS, and What I Did to Cure It


The Amusement Park Incident

I was a big boy now, standing in line for the newest and most radically intense rollercoaster in the park, Top Gun. It was October 28, 1994, and I was celebrating my tenth birthday at the Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, California. I was surrounded by four of my best friends, and even though a light drizzle was coming down from the black, cloudy skies, I couldn’t have been happier. We ascended the winding staircase, watching in terror as the rollercoaster swung from side to side and catapulted into three loop-de-loops above our heads. We reached the top and stood, antsy and slightly panicky, in the final line before we would board the ride.

But as we walked farther down the line, however, I became antsy and panicky for an altogether different reason. We had just eaten a cheeseburger-and-fries lunch rich in fat and grease, and my stomach was starting to churn. Sweat seeped from my forehead, and my heart started pounding. I felt like I was going to be sick — and I hadn’t even boarded the ride yet. I reached the front of the line, and as my friends all found their seats, I stepped past them, toward the exit, and ran for the nearest bathroom. My stomach felt like it was going to explode — the pain was excruciating — and little did I know at the time that I was going to spend many more years battling debilitating stomach issues.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The Great America incident is the first memory I have of the disease I would be diagnosed with ten years later — irritable bowel syndrome. It’s a disease that affects fifteen percent of the population, with chronic abdominal pain and major disturbance of the bowel functioning. It won’t show up on any CAT scans or in any blood work, and a diagnosis of IBS is typically the last resort for a doctor who’s out of options.

Worst of all, it’s a disease many don’t feel comfortable talking about — who wants to discuss their stomach problems and bowel dysfunctions over lunch with friends? But irritable bowel syndrome is a serious disease, and one that can’t be ignored.

I’ve suffered from IBS for twenty-four years now, and over the years I’ve attempted all kinds of remedies, from healthy eating, to exercise, to herbal medications, to hypnosis, to acupuncture. I’ve endured two endoscopies as well. For so long I thought alternative medicine was the answer to my problems — it has been known to help IBS sufferers — but in the end it turned out to be a waste of time and money, never once ending my suffering.

Appendix Removed?

In those early years of my chronic stomach pain, I thought the key to solving the problem was to have my appendix removed. My grandparents told me that my father had debilitating stomach aches leading up to the summer of his twelfth birthday. The family doctor, having exhausted every avenue of treatment, finally opened up my father’s stomach and performed an exploratory, finding an appendix that was inflamed and ready to burst. The doctor removed the appendix on site, and fifty years since, my dad has been pain free.

When my pain continued into my middle school years, I waited for that special day when I could have my appendix removed. I’d sit in Algebra class at Swope Middle School, trying to focus on my note taking, wishing deep down inside that the lower right side of my abdomen would start aching and allow me the pleasure of going to the hospital.

By the time freshman year of high school arrived, I was ready to have my appendix out — I just knew it was the instigator of all my health problems. One night in 1999 I went to see the movie The Bone Collector with my dad, and, starving, I ate one of those icky, lukewarm movie theater hot dogs. The food made me so sick that I spent most of the movie not in the theater, but in the bathroom. But most disconcerting on the drive home was the pain I felt down low, which was so sharp that I screamed for my dad take me to urgent care. I hoped and prayed the doctor would remove my appendix, and that all my problems would go away. But instead, the doctor gave me Pepto Bismol and told me to go home. I soon discovered that my pain went far deeper than this made-up appendix problem.

College Pain

My first year of college was not a happy time. I was in a new city, on my own, trying to make friends, and still suffering from chronic stomach pain and bad bathroom trips. I tried everything that year — eating plain turkey sandwiches, running a few miles every morning, trying to get a good night’s sleep even when my partier of a roommate forbade it. I went to a doctor in L.A. who gave me a prescription for Prevacid, a medicine that specifically treats acid reflux.

But the product didn’t help me, and I still didn’t have any concrete answers as to what my problem could be. I met with a Reno gastroenterologist, told him my symptoms in detail, and prepared myself for multiple tests. An endless amount of blood samples were taken — all turned out normal. I endured a CAT scan, where I had to spend the morning drinking giant bottles of chalky liquid and spend the afternoon lying down in a giant machine that made me feel like a biology specimen — as expected, nothing out of the ordinary was discovered.

Oh, God, That Endoscopy

The worst ordeal I endured that summer, one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, occurred when the gastroenterologist recommended that I have an endoscopy. In this procedure, my doctor told me, I would be sedated while a doctor pressed a tiny scope down my throat and took pictures inside my stomach to see if I had any abnormalities. I didn’t think it would be that bad of a procedure — I would be sedated and lost in my own little world, after all — but the doctor carelessly failed to give me anything in the way of anesthesia.

Before the snake-like scope was lowered down my throat, I could tell that something was wrong — not only was I not sedated, but I was completely awake and aware of everything around me. My throat had been numbed, thankfully, but as soon as the scope entered my system, I started choking, and instead of removing the scope for safety reasons, the doctor continued to cast it down. I still remember him saying to me, “just relax… relax, Brian… I’m almost done… it’ll be over soon,” as I gagged and choked on my own vomit. Even worse, the sensation of a small camera poking around the inside of my belly is one I will never forget. And what came of this moment of sheer terror? Nothing. The endoscopy pictures found nothing unusual in my system.

Alternative Medicine the Answer?

Therefore, at the end of the summer, the gastroenterologist diagnosed me with irritable bowel syndrome and told me to turn to alternative medicine to alleviate my systems. I was excited about the possibilities — any natural solution that wouldn’t make me choke on my vomit was a good thing — and I became obsessed with alternative therapies. But soon I ultimately realized they drained my bank account far more than they ever pacified my symptoms.

I started having sessions with alternative doctors both in Reno and Los Angeles. One man I saw, who looked like a modern-day version of Albert Einstein, spent an hour with me performing all sorts of silly tricks. He dropped a round rock against my palm and studied in which direction it slipped out of my hand. He laid me down on a flat surface and tapped two small mallets against my elbows and ankles. He gave me a mix of herbal pills I was to take every day for three months to see if the mix of so-called magical herbs would heal my symptoms — they didn’t (in fact, this alternative medicine “doctor” died of cancer less than a year later).

Hypnotize Me! Acupuncture!

I frequented the website for food and diet tips, and I also used it to research the power of hypnotherapy. For six months or longer I spent the last hour of the day in bed listening to a soothing male voice on a CD that was supposed to hypnotize me and wish all of my negative symptoms away. Unfortunately I ended up falling asleep before any hypnotization took hold, so this method didn’t help, either.

In 2006, when my symptoms became so painful that I often refused to leave my apartment, I took on — more like endured — eight sessions of acupuncture at a small office run by an even smaller Chinese man. He spent a few minutes sticking fine little needles in places all over my body, including my scalp, toes, rear end, and belly button; then he left me in a dark room for close to an hour while I listened to New Age artists like George Winston and Enya.

As much as I wanted to convince myself I would grow out of my health problems, I spent the next three years in more pain; clearly alternative medicine wasn’t working. Even worse, I was putting my health at risk. In 2009 my IBS symptoms ruined a first date, and I almost suffered a nervous breakdown — I was ready to try anything, literally anything, to get my stomach pain to go away.

What About Paxil?

I saw a gastroenterologist in Los Angeles and spent close to twenty minutes discussing with him every procedure, experimental method, herbal medicine, and wacky out-of-the-box procedure, that I’d endured over the years, and he looked at me, his lips pursed, a curious look on his face. “Have you tried anti-anxiety medicine?” he asked. I said that I hadn’t, and he wrote me a prescription for Paxil. I really didn’t want to take any pills, especially ones that came with enough side effects to fill a fifty-page novella. But he said that anti depressants, like Paxil, had been known to help and sometimes nearly cure patients with aggressive IBS symptoms.

After a few weeks of hesitation, I finally decided to give the drug a try. It took two months to feel the benefits of the drug, but I soon started feeling noticeably better, and by the end of the year I was a whole new person. My IBS symptoms became so infrequent that I was able to spend more time focused on what I wanted to do — spending time with friends, going on dates, traveling the country, falling in love. Most important, I was able to commit to all my dreams and ambitions.

I Finally Have My Life Back

Today, I’m the healthiest I’ve been in my life, and although I don’t know if Paxil is the source of all my transformation, I’m glad to report, after so many years of seemingly never-ending pain and turmoil, I’m happy, and that I’m able to see every day for what it is — a miracle. In 2013 I weaned off the drug, and for the past five years I’ve been mostly pain-free, aside from the occasional stomach pains I’ll get here and there, maybe once a month, usually after a heavy lunch or dinner.

Since that distressing, humiliating tenth birthday, I have experienced ups and downs in my health. Sometimes months would go by without many problems; other times I would go three months straight with unbearable pain. For so many years I tried to go the alternative medicine route, but in the end I turned to western medicine in search of dire help, and help I received. While Paxil hasn’t 100% cured my IBS, it helped make me a different, more hopeful person than the one I used to be. My ambitions are greater, my relationships are stronger, and my outlook for my future is one of excitement instead of bleakness.

Alternative medicine is an option for anyone trying to solve his or her health problem, but I’m here to say that in my case the alternative options led me only to dead ends, and that western medicine, while not perfect, is still the best road to take when it comes to unusual, hard-to-diagnose diseases like irritable bowel syndrome. I ultimately learned from my mistakes, and after so many years of uncontrollable and unpredictable stomach pain, I’m finally healthy. And even though the source of my well-being may have been unexpected, I am forever indebted to western medicine not just for making me feel better, but for ultimately saving my life.