Friday, July 14, 2017

A Review of "Dollar Deal" (by Shawn S. Lealos)

Today, I'll be reviewing the 2015 book Dollar Deal, which is a collection of interviews by author Shawn S. Lealos with various Dollar Baby filmmakers.
  
What's a Dollar Baby? you might ask.  That's an easy enough question to answer.  See, Stephen King has had this program since at least the eighties in which he will grant aspiring filmmakers the rights to make a short film based on one of his stories for a single dollar.  There's more to it than that (e.g., the filmmakers are not allowed to profit off the films or show them outside of festivals), but that's the gist of the thing.
  
I've always been reluctant to integrate fandom for the Dollar Baby films into my King-fandom regimen.  There are several reasons for this, including:
 
1.  I don’t consider them to be professional films.
2.  There are a LOT of them, and keeping track of them seems to be a near impossibility.
3.  I have no access to more than a handful of them.
4.  My perception of them is that the vast majority suck the root.  Not sayin’ that’s a stone-cold truism … just sayin’ that that’s my perception.
 
All those things being the case, why bother?
  
Well, that’s easy: because regardless of how I think or feel about them, and regardless of whether I have any ability to actually view them, these ARE King-sanctioned films.  In that way, an argument could be made that they are just as legitimate as, say, Cujo.  And I aim for comprehensivity in my King fandom, meaning that in a perfect world, I’d be able to collect every one of these things and give ‘em a look.

Not being able to do so, it is my preference to turn something of a blind eye toward them.  Out of sight, out of mind, and if they are out of my thoughts, then I don’t have to worry about not being able to see them.

Yeah, I get it; dude sounds nuts, you’re thinking.  Who told you to think that?!?  Was it the Tall Whites?!?  Er…  Anyways, don’t misunderstand me; I don’t lose sleep thinking about not being able to see Dollar Baby films.
  
Bottom line is: I just don't care about these movies.
  
So it’s a credit to Shawn S. Lealos (and the filmmakers profiled in his book) that while reading Dollar Deal, I did care.
  
  

   
  
His book is not a definitive history of Dollar Babies – as I mentioned earlier, there doesn’t seem to be a way to actually compile a comprehensive list of them – but is instead a collection of interviews with seventeen filmmakers who have participated in the program (plus three essays).  During the course of reading these interviews, I became interested in the films under discussion, and in the filmmakers who worked on them.  By definition, these were films made out of a combination of sheer love and sheer determination, and the can-do attitudes that are the hallmark of a combination like that are, at times, infectious.  Many of these folks have gone on to have solid careers.  None are Frank Darabont, but few people in all of human history have been Frank Darabont, so let’s not hold that against them.  In several cases, they’ve become industry professionals, and that’s a solid outcome. 
  
The book’s subjects are as follows:


1.  Frank Darabont – You probably know this, but Darabont made a Dollar Baby version of “The Woman in the Room” in the early eighties.  Sadly, Lealos was not able to interview Darabont, so instead he wrote an essay about the man’s career.  It includes, obviously, a bit of info about “The Woman in the Room.”  That film, by the way, remains one of only a quartet of Dollar Babies to be released to the general public.

2.  Jeff Schiro – Schiro’s “The Boogeyman” is the earliest-known Dollar Baby, and it’s another of the few commercially released Dollar Babies, having been paired with Darabont’s “The Woman in the Room” for an eighties VHS release called Stephen King’s Night Shift Collection.  (The other semi-pro Dollar Babies are Jay Holben’s “Paraonid,” which will come up later in this book, and the “Children of the Corn” adaptation “Disciples of the Crow,” which is sadly not profiled here.  The latter was paired with a non-King-based film called “The Night Waiter” and released on a Night Shift Collection Vol. 2.)  Schiro has had a strong career as an editor on numerous History Channel and Discovery documentaries, and before he retired as a director he had an opportunity to direct both a Tales from the Darkside episode and a Ramones video. 

3.  Jim Gonis – His Dollar Baby version of “The Lawnmower Man” was actually adapted from the Marvel Comics adaptation.  That comic was scripted by King himself, and Gonis’s short film was scripted by Michael DeLuca, who would later write the John Carpenter film In the Mouth of Madness.  As a producer, he’s been nominated for an Oscar three times (The Social Network, Moneyball, and Captain Phillips), so he’s doing okay.  Gonis did not remain a filmmaker; he went to work for Playboy as part of the model-booking team.  That’s one of the most successful magazines in the history of the world, so good on ya, mate.

4.  James Cole – His adaptation of “The Last Rung on the Ladder” from 1987 is one of the earliest Dollar Babies, and Cole was able to publish an essay about it in an issue of Castle Rock.

5.  “The Good and Bad of Film Adaptation,” Cole’s essay, is reprinted here.  It’s a shame somebody doesn’t make the Castle Rock archives available online.  Get on that, StephenKing.com!

6.  Jay Holben – As I mentioned earlier, his short film “Paranoid” (based on the poem from Skeleton Crew) actually achieved a commercial release of sorts.  Not only was it officially screened on the Internet – and bear in mind this was years and years before YouTube or other such services.  “Paranoid” also appeared on a DVD sampler (along with trailers, music videos, and other content) inserted in Total Movie and Entertainment Magazine.  I’ve actually got a copy of that, although I’ll be damned if I can remember how I knew about it.  Lilja’s Library seems like the probable source.

7.  Shawn S. Lealos – Lealos himself made a short film based on “I Know What You Need,” and contributes an essay about that process.  The essay encompasses his love of Spider-Man, his love of King (The Stand in particular), his love for being a part of the Dollar Baby community, and other subjects besides.  You can tell he’s passionate on the subject, and he’s contributed a book about a corner of the King world that is rarely given the spotlight.  He also talks about being a member of the Stephen King Library, so that’s like catnip to me.  If I were a cat, that is.  You know what I mean – don’t play dumb!

8.  Doveed Linder – His version of “Strawberry Spring” was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which is more than a lot of King-based films can claim.

9.  Peter Sullivan – Sullivan directed a Dollar Baby version of “Night Surf,” and has gone on to a successful career as both a writer and director, primarily of movies like Jersey Shore Shark Attack.  Hey, don’t judge; you ain’t never directed a movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. or Sean Patrick Flannery, have you?  Yeah, me neither.  I haven’t done anything even vaguely as successful as Eve’s Christmas, which Sullivan directed and turned into a one of the most successful Lifetime holiday films.  He credits “Night Surf” with helping him get his foot in the door, and says that Dollar Babies have one advantage over all other short films: the name “Stephen King.”

10.  Robert Cochrane – Cochrane’s Dollar Baby was “Lucky Quarter.”  Now, I have to point something out here: King’s short story is “Luckey Quarter,” with the intentional misspelling.  It is unclear to me whether Cochrane’s film is titled similarly (meaning Lealos made an error here) or whether he himself spelt the title wrong by spelling the word “lucky” correctly.  Cochrane had a different sort of King experience, as well: he was the winner circa 2003 of the Simon & Schuster-sponsored “Stephen King American Gunslinger” video contest, and as the winner got to go to the S&S offices and actually meet King.

11.  Nick Wauters – Wauters made a version of “Rainy Season” and went on to work on television productions like The 4400, The Vampire Diaries, and Eureka.  All of this led to his creating a television series, The Event, that ran on NBC.  

12.  James Renner – His Dollar Baby was “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away, which starred Joe Bob Briggs (!) and Harvey Pekar (!!).  He’s got some good stories about how that happened.  He’s gone on to write and publish true crime books as well as a couple of novels.

13.  James Cox – Cox made a short film based on “Gray Matter” that starred Tyler Chase, who would later go on to have a significant role on The Walking Dead.  He has since made a feature film, Ctrl Alt Delete, and his “Grey Matter” (like many of these films) sounds intriguing, despite getting the spelling wrong in the title.

14.  Mikhail Tank – Tank has made two Dollar Babies, based on “My Pretty Pony” and “Willa.”  The former stars Paul Marin and the latter is animated.  Tank is a musician and performance artist, as well as a writer and filmmaker.

15.  Rodney Altman – Altman adapted “Umney’s Last Case,” which was, at around the same time, also adapted professionally by TNT for the Nightmares & Dreamscapes miniseries.  Altman’s contract had been signed not long before the TNT one was, so he was able to complete his film without any interference or pushback from the network.  Mark Margolis appears in his version, which sounds like it’s well worth seeing.  We’ll likely never know for sure!

16.  Juan Pablo Reinoso – His film “Flowers For Norma” was based on “The Man Who Loved Flowers,” and was made while he was an NYU student.  Thanks for various connections, he was able to cast actors like Christopher Mulkey, Tony Plana, and William B. Davis, all of whom you’ve seen in things.  Shame on you if you don’t know who Davis is by name, too!  He’s in the original It!

17.  Warren Ray – His short “Maxwell Edison” was also based on “The Man Who Loved Flowers,” and also to a large extent on the Beatles song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”  Ray was an alt-country musician (he was in the band Uncle Tupelo) in the nineties, and sounds like a bit of a character.

18.  J.P. Scott – Scott made “Everything’s Eventual,” which has an interesting distinction among Dollar Babies in that it is feature-length.  Not on purpose, it just ended up that way.  King was impressed by the movie sufficiently that he gave Scott permission to shop the movie to distributors for commercial release; but nothing ever came of that, sadly.  I’ve got a very mild personal connection with this movie in that somebody associated the film – Scott himself, I think – reached out to me back in the Ramblings Of A Honk Mahfah (this blog’s original title, in case you didn’t know) days and asked if I’d be interested in seeing and reviewing the movie.  “Uh, YES,” I said, but never received a reply after that.  This probably means that somebody figured out doing that would violate the terms of the Dollar Baby contract, so J.P., if you’re reading this, I don’t blame you!

19.  Derek Simon – Simon, who went on to work for Howard Stern, made a short film based on “A Very Tight Place.”  I hope the amount of poo is minimized; that’s a rough story, man.  Great; but rough.  After working for Stern, Simon became the assistant to a television creator who came up with a little show called The Americans.

20.  Damon Vinyard – Vinyard’s Dollar Baby was “In the Deathroom,” which he chose for its small cast and confined location.  Smart fella.

All of this is engaging, and you can tell that not only does Lealos love talking to these people, but that they love talking to him about the movies and their careers and Stephen King.

The book is far from perfect, though, and I can’t end this review without pointing out that Lealos’s book leaves a lot to be desired from a proofreading standpoint.  Dollar Deal appears to have been self-published, which kind of makes sense for a book about Dollar Baby films.  The book badly needed an editor, though, if only to point out that it is helpful – if not actually mandatory – to italicize titles of movies, novels, albums, and such within a text.  Can you follow the writing if no such italicization is used?  Sure.  But if makes a book seem non-professional, and no book should seem non-professional, even self-published ones.

Also, proofreading is a must.  I’m never going to pass up an opportunity to poke a bit of fun at somebody whose book includes a sentence beginning with the phrase “Personally I am writer first and foremost.”

ARE you…?  Are you really?

Those who lives in glass house should avoid chucking rocks, though, so I probably ought to relax my throwing arm, given the number of typos that appear on my shitty little blogs.

Issues of prosity aside, Lealos’s book is a lot of fun for anyone who has an interest in the subject.  This, admittedly, is probably not a huge number of people.  But then again, maybe it’s a larger number than you or I might think; after all, there are a LOT of King fans in the world, and the story of Darabont’s Dollar Baby origins has been widely told.  I suspect the notion of the “Dollar Baby” is one that is going to continue to be disseminated, and over time, the relative unavailability of the films may turn them into sought-after myths and legends.  Lealos’s book argues persuasively that the mere attachment of King’s name made all of these short films more visible than they would otherwise have been.  He’s almost certainly correct about that, and as such, the continued prominence of that name will give these movies a longer life by far than they would have had without it.

The same probably goes for Dollar Deal itself.  Lealos has put a good book on a rare subject into the world; I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it has a longer-than-normal life, too.

11 comments:

  1. Mr. Burnette:
    Thank you for this entertaining and 'feisty' post.
    Now I want to see some, if not all, of these films. Thank you for an itch I cannot scratch.

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    1. A few of them could be found on YouTube at one point; not sure if they are still there.

      The only ones I've seen are Darabont's, Schiro's, and Holben's.

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  2. I had no idea so many of these guys went on to do professional industry work - a lot more than I expected!

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    1. Yeah, same here. Good for them! One of this book's running themes is about how having King's name on a movie -- even a short film -- gets one's foot in the door. I'm sure it didn't work for everyone, but it certainly worked for some of them -- and it's hard not to wonder how much of that is due to King being willing to let his work be used in this way.

      Seems like a heck of a guy, ol' Steve does.

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  3. This makes me think of my favorite part ever in the Castle Rock newsletter - where someone slammed Darabont's dollar baby and the next issue Darabont wrote in arguing about every complaint the reviewer had. Some of his comments were quite valid as the reviewer panned his movie partially on the quality of VHS tape. In my mind this went back and forth for 4 issues but I may be wrong on that.

    It gave me my first glimpse into the Darabont legend of being a great artist but someone who is a bit too bullheaded and "always right" which seems to have caused his Hollywood output to be less than it should be.

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    1. As certain news stories of the past day or two have brought to fresh light. (I haven't actually read any of those, by the way; just seen the headlines. Don't want to have him sullied for me in that way.)

      Darabont's career does genuinely seem to have run aground, and so thoroughly that I'm not sure I think we'll ever actually see anything else from him.

      I'd love to see those Castle Rock pieces, but at the same time, it sounds like Darabont is violating one of the cardinal rules of being an in-the-public-eye artist: you've simply got to have thick skin and accept whatever criticism reviewers fling at you, regardless of whether you agree. Blatant inaccuracies might merit rebuttal, but you've got to leave that for somebody else to do on your behalf; if you can't find a champion in that regard, then your work probably isn't worthwhile, anyways.

      I get the impulse, though.

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    2. I remember when he was announced as the director of the live action Snow White sequel. I knew there was no chance that would happen and sure enough a year later he was gone due to "creative differences". I only saw the first episode of Mob City; looked interesting did you catch that show?

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    3. No, I sure didn't. I would have liked to, in theory. I never heard much good about it, though.

      He was a poor fit for that Snow White sequel. It was always likely to flop regardless of whose name ended up on it, so I'm glad it didn't end up being his.

      He needs to hook up with Blumhouse.

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  4. 1. I've never seen Darabont's Dollar Baby, but it probably is something worth tracking down.

    2. I've actually seen a vid of Schiro's "The Boogeyman" online once. I actually came away liking it.

    3. Come to think it of, I believe I've also caught Gonis's "Lawnmower Man". It's short, it's old, but I have to admit it's an improvement over the Pierce Brosnan movie. It actually does kind of have that old "Tales from the Darkside" vibe. Interesting about the film's six degrees relation to "In the Mouth of Madness". I wonder what other King related trivia attaches to that flick.

    6. Ditto the Holben piece. It was first brought to my attention in Steve Spignesi's "The Essential Stephen King". What got me interested was the image of the "Man with No Face". Spignesi even wonders if it's meant as a Flagg reference. I don't know, but I do know I came away impressed. The film can be seen here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pMwSqqc9Ws

    To be concluded.

    ChrisC



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    1. Concluded from above.

      11. I'd heard of the Nick Wauters film, in fact I can remember he actually had an official website for it once, but I've never gotten a look at it. I'd like to one day, though.

      12. Joe Bob Briggs and Harvey Pekar in a freakin' Dollar Baby! The funny thing is, that role just seems to be right for Pekar, although in real he always seemed made of tougher stuff.

      13. I've seen only the trailer for "Gray Matter", yet it does look kind of promising. The trailer can be seen here:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USR8sq1F-kE

      15. Is Rodney Altman related to the more famous Altman? In either case, this is one version of "Unmey" that I didn't know about. I wonder if it has a better ending than the TNT version, one more in line with King's closing sentence: "No one leaves the office early today!" It was the most easiest of endings to film, why not go there? All you'd have to do is focus on the two leads, one of whom is getting strangled to death, while the light around them slowly dim to nothing, then roll the credits.

      18. I also heard of and saw the trailer for "Everything's Eventual", and I've heard the same news that King wanted to try and get a legit theatrical release. It's a shame everything fell apart, I'd have liked to have seen a non-studio mandated version of the Low Men. As it stands, it looks like we're going to get a bunch of Ninja Turtles rejects as "official" bill of fare".

      Still, there's this neat trailer, though:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCEygOJ1Eac

      Sounds like an informative book, I'll have to track down a copy.

      ChrisC

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    2. 1. It's worth seeing, provided you remember that it's an amateur film. Pretty good as far as that goes, but still, a long way from "Shawshank." That's of true of a great many professional films, too, though, isn't it?

      12. The story about how he came to be in that movie is pretty funny. Basically, the dude called him because he's never stopped listing his name in the phonebook. He basically said he had zero interest, but his daughter browbeat him into doing it.

      15. I'm going to assume that's a "no," but it's possible.

      18. A few more weeks and we'll know for sure.

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