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Margie Barron

Margie Barron

   Toy Story 3 won an Oscar for best Animated feature, and among the folks director Lee Unkrich thanked was executive producer John Lasseter, who is the creative force at Pixar.
   Just a few days before, at the ICG's 48th annual Publicists Awards, Lasseter received a very special honor as the Motion Picture Showman of the Year.    Actress Bonnie Hunt (who voiced a character in Pixar's Cars, and its upcoming June sequel) presented the award to Lasseter, who is the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Annimation Studios, as well as the principal creative advisor at Walt Disney Imagineering.
  Hunt said, "This year, we honor a two-time Academy Award-winning director who is a pioneer in the modern digital era of feature film animation." She added that it must be a relief for the publicists who work with Lasseter on his movies "to know that you are publicizing something you can really be proud of." Lasseter later noted with appreciation to the publicity professionals that many times when he's been jet-lagged on international promotional junkets that the publicists have "saved my butt."
   Lasseter spoke about his goal of making movies that kids and their parents can enjoy together, "Not just the first time you see it, but watching the movie over and over, for the 100th time."
   Lasseter has done that very well with his Pixar films from the Toy Story franchise, to Cars, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, The Princess and the Frog, and last year's Oscar-nominated Up. All incredible breakthroughs in high-tech animation.
  But when I asked him about the great technology he has developed to helped him with his storytelling, the nice guy in the Hawaiian-shirt smiled and corrected me. "No, you've got that backwards. For me it's always the story that drives the technology. It's the story and the characters that give the movies a heart," Lasseter told me.
   That's so true, and very obvious when I think back to why I laughed and cried during his movies. No wonder Lasseter keeps getting awards. What a pleasure it was to chat with him.

    It's Oscar time for Aaron Sorkin, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network. It's the story of an unpopular Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg (played by Oscar nominated Jesse Eisenberg), who creates the "friend" friendly social network Facebook.

   For me it's funny to think that one of the most popular guys in Hollywood, Sorkin, could really capture the loneliness of the movie's main character.

   I've caught up with super-nice Sorkin at several events over the years, and its always like he's the honey-pot that all the bees buzz around at a party. That's probably because he's a great observer of human nature, and has great stories to tell. Many wind up on film or TV to much acclaim.

   This isn't Sorkin's first Oscar rodeo. The film adaptation of his play A Few Good Men had Academy Award nominations. And the producer-writer has won a trophy case load of Emmys for The West Wing.

   Both of those productions often utilized conflicting narratives, much like The Social Network does, to tell the different versions of how Facebook came about.

   It is a complicated way of doing a screenplay, but Sorkin says he thought it would be exciting to dramatize all of the conflicting stories from the point of view of the different characters, rather than doing a conventional biopic.

   Sorkin says he had many extensive conversations with the people involved at the start of Facebook "and everyone's perception of the events was different." The disagreements are what drive this story.
   What is Sorkin's writing technique? He reveals that anytime he's writing an antagonist, he wants to write the character "as if he's making his case to God as to why he should be allowed into heaven."
   Sorkin's characters are always very verbal, and The Social Network is a great example of that. He says he's envious of writers who are able to tell stories through the pictures they are describing, but he finds that difficult. "I write people talking in rooms. The challenge with this movie was the characters are much younger than I usually write about." So he needed to get into a language with a youthful rhythm.
   Oscar nominated director David Fincher is "a great visual director," Sorkin praises, "and embraced all the language and added a haunting visual style." For The Social Network that turned out to be an Oscar-worthy marriage of the material and visual direction.

   The Fighter has been nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for David O. Russell, Supporting Actor for Christian Bale, and nods to Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, both up for Supporting Actress. But none for the tenacious actor  who was the force behind getting this passion-project made-- Mark Wahlberg.
   The star of The Fighter, Wahlberg has been saying in interviews that his prize is seeing the movie get made after more than six years shepherding the project. But he might take home an Oscar, with fellow producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, if it wins Best Picture.
   The true drama is about boxer "Irish" Micky Ward, whose struggle in the ring is matched by the battles with his family as he pursues a title fight. It takes place on the outskirts of Boston, on the working class mean streets where both Ward and Wahlberg grew up.
   Filmed on actual locations in Lowell, Massachusetts, boxing scenes were shot at Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell. And Ward's actual training facilities were used, Ramalho West End Gym. Also lending authenticity to the look of the film, they used cameras from the era.
   Director Russell had worked with Wahlberg on two other movies, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, which was helpful during the filming process. Russell reported, "There's nothing better than having a collaborator that you have a great shorthand with, and he's shepherding the project along. "

   Russell said Mark inhabited Micky. He moved like him, dressed like him, and got his style of fighting down perfectly. Wahlberg trained for more than four years to get in shape so the fight scenes would be real. No stunt double was used in the ring.
   The reason the former '90s rapper know as Marky Mark really understood the role and fought so hard for the film was that it reflected his own struggles growing up. Wahlberg has since gone on to produce quality film and TV projects (he's executive producer of HBO's Entourage and Boardwalk Empire).
   The Fighter has also been nominated for Writing, Original Screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, with Story by Keith Dorrington, Tamasy, and Johnson. Also nominated is Pamela Martin for Film Editing.
   The Fighter is up against heavy favorites, The King's Speech and The Social Network, for Best Picture. But it's a movie that doesn't shy away from a good fight.

   Very few documentaries find an appreciative audience, let alone get Oscar recognition. But Restrepo, nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category, is special. It is the outstanding National Geographic-backed look at the war in Afghanistan from filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, who were embedded with a military unit. From that point of view, it gives us a look at the reality on the frontlines we otherwise could never imagine. I applaud the filmmakers for the eye-opening experience, and for showing how ordinary men become heroes.
   Last year it was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance. Deserving of the acclaim were award-winning photojournalist Hetherington and journalist/author Junger, who chronicled the deployment of U.S. troops at one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan. When the film was released in theaters last summer, it was hailed by critics. Then it aired on the National Geographic channel in November 2010.
   It is a really important film, and credit goes to Hetherington who has reported on conflicts for more than ten years. Junger is the best-selling author of "War" and "The Perfect Storm," who has previously reported from Afghanistan for National Geo for Into the Forbidden Zone.
   I always thought that the government tries to keep journalists/filmmakers out of war zones. But Junger told me there's actually thousands of journalists, like him and Tim, who have been embedded with frontline units. He said, "The current embed system is a program that started in 2003. And the military provides an amazing amount of access to those units. Tim and I really felt very fortunate to be able to do the job that we did."
   Hetherington explained what they did was different from most other journalists. "We spent much more time. I have friends who are reporters who do tours of duty, so to speak, that are about three weeks at the most with their combat unit. We spent ten months in total. So the length of time gave the intimacy that you feel in the piece."
   Junger said it's important to tell a story like Restrepo, named after a fallen soldier. "It makes my life feel meaningful."
   Even if it doesn't get an Oscar, the documentary is already a winner, because the troops who have seen it have said that they appreciate having their story told from their POV.
   The meaning of the film for Hetherington was "I just think it's important to build bridges between communities in the world. We all share this world, and we need to know what is happening in Afghanistan. We need to understand the lives of these young men that we send over there to fight on our behalf. And I think that telling these stories is important." Amen.

   Jeff Bridges is making the rounds at Oscar time, praising the Coen brothers, who directed him in True Grit which got him another Oscar nomination. Joel and Ethan Coen got Oscar nominations too, for Directing and Adapted Screenplay for True Grit.
  Bridges has a special place in his heart for the Coen brothers, who gave him one of his most iconic roles as The Dude in The Big Lebowski.
    But if you look over Bridges incredible body of work you'll see that he has really embraced first time directors, and he is quick to praise them too. That's no surprise considering first time director Scott Cooper was at the helm of Crazy Heart, for which Bridges captured his first Best Actor Oscar last year.
   At a recent PBS' American Masters session, Bridges chatted with me about his newbie directors, and what they mean to him.
   "I've had great luck with first time guys. If you look at my filmography, it's just riddled with wonderful first time directors, from Michael Cimino (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), Bob Benton (Bad Company), Steve Kloves, who did The Fabulous Baker Boys, and Scott Cooper too."
   But you have to wonder at this stage of the veteran actor's career-- just how much direction does he need?
   "Probably not much," Bridges admitted to me, "but I like it. I really look to directors to move me past my own conceptions, you know, to help me transcend myself. I don't want to be playing myself in every role. So when I get a different guy's thoughts on it, it really helps."
   Bridges said he lets the first time directors know "He's the man. And I'm going to do my best to give him all my stuff. And they can cut it up and make a collage out of all my stuff, and move it around and paste it. And that's the way movies are made."
    Knowing that, Bridges has a lot of respect for the director's position "as the main collage artist. He's going to cut all my stuff up. So I want to make sure that I give him what he is going to need in that editing process."
   So Bridges said, "I particularly love working with first time guys who are just coming into it and they don't know what they can't do. They're fresh. And it's a wonderful thing to be part of that as an actor."
   Bridges reminded that "Orson Wells did Citizen Kane as his first, and we haven't done much better than that."

   The Oscar-nominated director of The King's Speech, Tom Hooper has already won the Directors Guild Award for the movie, which gives him an edge in the Oscar race. But prior to all the award announcements we talked with him about creating the impressive production.
   It's a little picture about a personal struggle, yet its appeal has been huge. The story is about Great Britian's King George VI (played by Colin Firth) and his struggle to overcome his stuttering problem with the help of an eccentric Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
   Hooper loved the story, and said there was no resistance from the royal family. And he revealed the greatest gift that helped him direct the movie was a diary.
   He explained, "Just nine weeks before the shoot, we discovered that Lionel Logue had kept a hand-written diary, which his grandson let me see, and I learned so much. So we set about rewriting the script based on this firsthand account of the relationship between the king and Lionel."
   Hooper admitted that changes in the script incorporated some of "the best and funniest lines, which are taken directly from the diary."
   Hooper is proud of the movie's buzz for awards season, and highly praises to his cinematographer and production designer for the period drama's visual style.
   He filmed at locations in London, although Lanchaster House was used for interiors of Buckingham Palace. Plus Ely Cathedral was a stand in for Westminster Abbey.

   As we wrap up January, I'm looking back on some of the highlights of the Winter Press Tour for the Television Critics Association. It's been a treat to be a member of the TCA for about 25 years, and I think I've heard it all, good and bad, from the network suits and producers.
   Over the years I've found that it is very rare to hear top network executives acknowledging that the creative, hands-on, show-running producers know more about the programs then they do. Usually the suits like to tinker with things, even when everything is going well.
   Well, that's why it was so refreshing to listen to ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee at his TCA session.
   Lee said, "My real ambition is to make the ABC studio and the ABC network a real show-runner culture. I think we did a lot of development with very established, great show-runners, and we're also looking to find those new voices that could really redefine television into the future. That combination between a potent brand and empowered show-runners can really give us a chance to succeed going forward."
   ABC is developing shows and its schedule from a position of strength thanks to its mega hit Dancing with the Stars. And the network can be proud of reviving the sitcom genre with its sophomore comedies Modern Family and The Middle, and Cougar Town, all of which got early renewals, along with Castle, Grey's Anatomy, and Private Practice, for the 2011-12 season.
   "You're going to see us pick up comedies and dramas and a combination of procedurals and serialized risk taking shows on different sides," Lee explained.
   He added, "The ABC brand, as I see it, really combines smart with heart, and that is a really unusual combination. We don't always live up to it. But at its very best, we really make culturally defining, smart, big tent, inspirational television. And that's how I see this brand and this network going forward into the future." A good example of that was the phenomenal Lost series, which wrapped its run last season with great fanfare.
   Kudos for Lee and ABC for trusting the creative forces in our industry.

   A couple of years ago, the network executives discovered a new word. It was "repurposing." It was used to describe the networks taking their shows and using them elsewhere, for ratings and profit, of course. The shows usually showed up on various media platforms and electronic devices.
   Well now there's been a clever "repurposing" of three ratings-powerhouse TV shows, but sans the high-tech.   The enormous talents that have gone into making Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, as well as American Idol, have pooled their skills to present "Ballroom With A Twist." It is a stage production that just premiered at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. And it is a high-energy musical showcase filled with dazzling dancing.
   It was conceived and choreographed by Louis van Amstel, the Dancing With The Stars pro, who acts as host, along with rotating celebrity co-hosts such as Jane Seymour and Niecy Nash.
   From a production point of view, the show is ground-breaking, taking the top performers from the TV competitions and showcasing them. Basically, bringing the essence of the hit shows directly to the people live on stage, so it becomes a personal experience for the audience. Stunning costumes, music, staging, and lighting are also part of the impressive production package.
   In addition, "Ballroom With A Twist" boasts an ensemble that includes dancers from High School Musical The Movie and Dance Your Ass Off. Providing live vocals are American Idol finalists David Hernandez and Gina Glocksen. The featured dancers are Edyta Sliwinska, Alec Mazo, Jonathan Roberts, and Anna Trebunskaya from DWTS; and Randi Lynn Evans, Gev Manoukian, and Jonathan Platero from SYTYCD.
    The creative force behind the show is van Amstel, who directed, produced, choreographed, and performed the Broadway show "Latin Fusion." And it looks like "Ballroom With A Twist" would also be comfortable with a "repurposing" on Broadway.

   Having a fondness for the Old West, it was great to see another western on the Hallmark Channel's schedule. Goodnight for Justice is an original movie that does justice to the old fashion western genre. It follows Judge John Goodnight who rides around dispensing "justice with a conscience" in the Old West.

   The character was created by star Luke Perry, who is also the executive producer of the film. Perry's friend from their 90210 days, Jason Priestley directed the production on location in Vancouver and other B.C. locations.

   At a Hallmark event Priestley told me, "The film was shot in British Columbia, where I'm from. It shot very quickly because of the shorthand of working with people I know. That's very beneficial when you have a short time frame."

   There is a shootout scene that Priestley admitted was a homage to the classic western High Noon. And he explained it was "one of the films that I watched to actually take a lot of the visual cues for this." Yep, if you're going to steal a shot-- steal it from the best-- then call it a "homage!"

   Perry said he enjoys finding "moments like that, which is one of the great things about doing westerns. In this film, you'll see little touches, like a sign in town that says 'A. Devine Dry Goods,' referring to one of my favorite western character actors Andy Devine. I got to paint stuff like that on the buildings. I love doing that."

   Perry added that he's been in talks with the folks at Hallmark about turning his Goodnight character into a movie franchise. "I've got stories in mind, and now it's just a matter of scheduling."

   So we can look forward to another western hitting the trail, and more horse wranglers getting work.

   NBC Universal Networks had some fine presentations at the recent 2011 winter press tour for the Television Critics Association, held at Pasadena's Langham Hotel. The gathering showcased programs from NBC, Syfy, Oxygen, Mun2, USA, and Bravo Networks.
   The interview sessions with the TV executives, producers, and stars became a parade of dramas, comedies, voyeuristic reality shows, and a continuation of the trend for assorted talent competitions.
   Giving an overview of the Bravo Channel, Frances Berwick president of Bravo Media, boasted that they were coming off of their fifth consecutive best-year-ever across all platforms, which is what the television industry is looking for these days. Bravo was ranked a lucky 13 among networks in primetime among all cable entertainment outlets in the coveted adult 18 to 49 demographic, and rated fifth among women 18-34.
   "Bravo continues to expand the hours of original programming, bringing viewers even more outsized hits that embrace pop culture and showcase big name talent," says Berwick. "We are known for evolving projects into cultural touchstones and we look forward to continuing that with our upcoming slate of creative new series."
   Among the latest series confirmed to premiere are the talent competition Platinum Hit with Jewel and Kara DioGuardi; Rocco's Dinner Party with Rocco DiSpirito; Million Dollar Decorators, and Pregnant in Heels.   The returning series, also mostly of the voyeuristic reality show genre that has made Bravo into a success story, include The Real Housewives franchise from New York and Orange County; The Rachel Zoe Project; Flipping Out; The Millionaire Matchmaker-- now called Bethenny Ever After; and the ninth season of Top Chef. Plus Kathy Griffin will be back with new specials.
   The reality series do help the production community by employing crews, writers, and other talent, and they need equipment and production facilities. That's part of the reality of the reality shows grabbing up the space on the airwaves.
   However, a well-crafted drama and a great situation comedy would be more my cup of tea.

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