Friday, September 28, 2018

YES, THAT WILL BE FINE -- REMEMBERING GARY KURTZ 1940-2018





Gary Kurtz, comics legend Will Eisner, and me in New York, 1980



Last Monday was a day of mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, I was traveling by the L.A. Metro to South Pasadena to meet with my publisher at Third Street Press to sign the contract for them to publish my next three novels, Bully for Love, The Reluctant Heterosexual, and Journey to Where. Obviously a joyful trip. On the other hand, mid-trip I heard the news of the death of Gary Kurtz, the producer of American Graffiti and the first two Star Wars films.

It did not come as a surprise. Gary’s daughter, Melissa, had emailed on September 13th to inform me—and I assume others whose lives had been touched by Gary—that he had been ill with cancer for a while and was losing the battle. But still, Gary had touched my life, and my wife Amanda’s, so profoundly that a sudden and deep sadness struck me.

I first met Gary in 1979 at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (or Filmex, as it was known). I had produced several programs on animation for Filmex, and after I had made my introductory remarks for one of the programs—most likely for The Animator as Actor—I walked to the back of the theater and found Gary standing there watching the films. I recognized him immediately. After American Graffiti and the first Star Wars film (known then simply as Star Wars) he was already an iconic figure in filmmaking with his handsome stoic face and Quaker beard. I was thrilled. I knew that Gary was an active friend of Filmex (I believe he was on the board of advisors) so I did not find it unusual that he would be there—but he, a current, major, big deal Hollywood producer at a program of cartoons! That was unheard of in 1979.

What I didn’t know at that moment was that Gary was a huge fan of animation. And that he would in the near future have a fireproof vault at his building in Marin County north of San Francisco—a beautifully refurbished elementary school and HQ for his Kinetographics company—that would house his extensive comic book collection.

I went up and introduced myself and thanked him for coming. He accepted that thanks gracefully and I believe it was at that time that he told me that he was hoping to have Chuck Jones’s “Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century” as a pre-feature short in front on the next year’s release of The Empire Strikes Back. Which probably gave us a few more moments of talk as I handled publicity for Chuck at that time.

I walked away from this encounter pleased and knowing that I now had a neat memory to hold onto. Little did I know that the next year Gary would become a major part of my life.

Sometime in early 1980, a fellow Filmexican (as we called ourselves) who owned an animation camera service invited me to his offices. He wanted to show me a pencil test he had shot for a young CalArts graduate. He knew that I wanted to get involved in not just promoting animation but producing it because I was frustrated that the form was mired in horrible doldrums (Disney animation was being declared all but dead and its only competitors seemed to be Care Bear features) and that it had been relegated to the wilderness of a kids-only art form. My fellow Filmexican said this pencil test featured animation that would thrill me.

I was skeptical, but he was right. It was a pencil test in the form of a movie trailer for an animated feature based on Will Eisner’s innovative, beautifully drawn comic book series, The Spirit, a sort of sophisticated superhero noir from the 1940s (if you’re interested and want to see the trailer go HERE) It was beautifully done and featured the best human character animation I had ever seen. I immediately said, “Who created this, I’ve got to meet him.”

You may not be surprised to learn that it was Brad Bird  (who years later directed The Incredibles) who conceived of and wrote the trailer and who had corralled other young CalArts animation grads to animate with him on it.

I met with Brad the next day, told him how much I love it and that I wanted to help him get it made. Brad—being Brad—said the only people he would consider showing the trailer to and working with was Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg or George Lucas or Gary Kurtz.

I told him I thought I could get him to Gary Kurtz. And, through Chuck Jones’s office, I did. We showed the trailer to Gary at the Lucasfilm Hollywood offices (known surreptitiously as The Egg Company) and he seemed to like it, although his reaction was muted, to say the least. He said to let him think about it and he would get back to us. Shortly thereafter I received a call from his assistant, the wonderful Bunny Alsup (wonderful then, still wonderful today) with a message from Gary: He was going to buy the rights to The Spirit and we would all try to get the film made.

The next six years was very much the “Gary Kurtz” period of my life. The first two years were spent negotiating the rights to The Spirit and developing the project. The second two years I joined Gary’s Kinetographics company as Director of Animation Development and his “guy” on an American/Japanese co-production that saw Amanda and me moving to Tokyo for a year. During the last two years, Gary and I partnered in a live action/animation film project based on an idea of mine.

None of these projects in development, as is often the case in filmmaking, were made. I certainly have regrets about that. But I have no regrets about the time spent with Gary. He was a unique and special man, a man whose legacy is only now being realized by some and whose potential was sadly not understood by others.

I’ve been pleased to read that a number Gary’s obituaries acknowledge his deeply important contributions to the creation, execution, and mythic storytelling that was the first two Star Wars films. Getting to know him, albeit, after his work on Star Wars, I have always believed it. For those first two films are almost universally considered superior to the third, and certainly to the years-later Lucas directed prequels. As is well-known, Gary split from Lucasfilm after The Empire Strikes Back. We had heard at the time that Lucas was upset at Gary because the film, which was directed by Irvin Kershner, had gone over budget and Lucas had to give up some rights to 20th Century Fox to make up the shortfall and that he blamed Gary for this. In later years Gary has been quoted saying that he left because he did not like that way the third film, Return of the Jedi, was being developed with more emphasis on promoting the merchandising of toys rather than deepening the storytelling of the myth. I’m sure there is truth in both reasons. What Gary told me was that as producer of Empire he felt that his job was to protect the director’s vision (Kershner’s) and not the executive producer’s (Lucas’s).

Gary understood the business of film, but it was the art of film that mattered to him.

Some of my favorite memories of Gary:

His presence in a room. Gary not only had the beard of a Quaker—he was a Quaker. He could have come from Central Casting for a remake of Friendly Persuasion with his natural stoic demeanor, upright posture, and his exuding of a Zen-like (if I can meld two religions) calm. He was not a loud, blustery, egocentric, glad-handing, backslapping Hollywood producer. Indeed, he was not a “Hollywood” anything. He was a serious yet gleeful lover of the art and potential of cinema who felt, it seemed to me, that the production was important while personalities weren’t. He had a very subtle charisma. You looked up to him. You may very well have wanted him as your guru.

And yet, he was hard to really get to know. He was at times inscrutable. At least for me. I remember that when we were scheduling our first meeting about my joining his company, he asked me to meet him at his house in the Hollywood Hills on Elusive Drive. My first thought was, never had a man lived on a more appropriate street.

Elusive Drive turned out to be a narrow dirt road that hugged a hill with a severe drop-off on the other side. It scared the shit out of me to drive it, which I immediately reported to Gary when I got to his house, saying I thought I had just been in a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. His slight smile at that seemed to indicate that he was amused.

Later, when we were in partnership, we had a pitch meeting with Alan Ladd, Jr., then the head of MGM. Laddie, as he was known, had, of course, been at 20th when the first two Star Wars films were made, so he and Gary knew each other very well. Ladd was also a quiet-spoken, laconic man, although more cowboy than Quaker, much like his dad, film star Alan Ladd. We sat down in his office and Gary and Ladd faced off each other.
“Gary,” Ladd said in simple greeting.
A beat.
“Laddie,” Gary greeted back.
A beat.
“How are you?” Ladd asked.
A beat.
“Good. And you…”
It was like watching a ping-pong game in slow motion. But the meeting was successful, Laddie bought the pitch.

Whenever you asked Gary something requiring a yes or no answer and the answer was yes, it was never just yes. Or, sure, okay, yep, it was always, “Yes, that will be fine.”  There was something very royal about it. Not arrogant royal or egocentric royal, or “It’s good to be the king” royal, just...just royal.

Gary enjoyed comedy and humor but I never saw him break out into laughter. Nary a titter, a sustained ha-ha-ha, a belly-busting guffaw. But there was often that slight smile and possibly a chuckle. Once when we were in Tokyo together he asked me how I liked living there, and I told him how much I like the city, but didn’t relish going out into the county.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because I’ve heard they only have those old toilets where you can’t sit but have to squat.”
“Well, actually, you know, squatting is the natural way to defecate.”  
“Yeah, but it makes it so hard to read.”
Gary was truly perplexed. “Why would you want to read?”
“Because there’s nothing more boring than taking a dump.”
I was, of course, trying to get a chuckle out of him. I think I at least got another wonderful slight smile.

At the beginning of the Japanese/American production we worked for the first year in Hollywood. My new salary allowed me to move into a larger apartment and to invite Amanda, eventually my wife, to join me. In setting up housekeeping we wanted to get one of those new-fangled home video cassette recorders. But which to get—Beta or VHS? I asked Gary for a recommendation. “Professional filmmakers only have Beta,” my guru told me. So we bought a Beta. A year later when living in Tokyo and Amanda and I was getting married Gary’s wedding present to us was another Beta for our Tokyo house. I can’t tell you how many films and programs we recorded or bought in Beta that we later had to throw out when VHS won the battle between the two formats. But that didn’t make Gary wrong. Beta was considered the superior format. It just didn’t have superior marketing.

Gary may well have been the Beta film producer. He was never involved in a success as great as the three he did with Lucas. He may well have been if, at the time, certain powers-that-be understood how important Gary had been to those successes. But it was Lucas’s name on the shingle. Not that Gary would have wanted his name on the shingle. When we were forming our partnership, I proposed that it be called Kurtz/Leiva Productions. He refused. He said he did not like naming production companies after people. His own company’s name, Kinetographics, was named after Thomas Edison’s kinetographic camera, which launched American film. It simply means, motion pictures. Gary’s interest was in the history, technology, and art of cinema, not in personalities, including his own. I did get him to agree to K&L Enterprises, but that’s as far as he would go.

Gary did not really fit in the new Hollywood that he helped create, inadvertently, I believe. A Hollywood that began to lust after blockbusters. Despite my thinking when I first saw him that Gary was a “major, big deal Hollywood producer,”  he really wasn’t. He was a filmmaker who helped in an essential way to shephard films that were surprisingly and outlandishly successful. All the “smart” people in Hollywood thought they were doomed to fail. But once they succeeded, these same “smart” people happily scraped the surface of what made them successes, ignoring the deeper, harder to create depth that was really the genesis of their success.

No, Gary was never really a “Hollywood” producer. But he was a filmmaker to his core whose legacy will hopefully never be forgotten.

The last time Amanda and I saw Gary was at his daughter Tiffany’s wedding years ago. He had moved to England years before that. After those six years of involvement with him, and a short time in the 90s, I rarely got to see him. And yet, he was rarely out of my thoughts.

If someone right now would say to me, Okay, look you can have one last hour in Gary’s presence, my only possible answer would be, “Yes, that will be fine.”


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A VERY HAPPY AUTHOR, INDEED!





I know I don’t look like a particularly happy author in this photo, but believe me -- I am! For I am very happy to announce that I have just concluded a 3-book deal with Third Street Press and its publisher, Christiana Miller. In the past five years, I have written four novels and a novella. My short novel, IMP: A POLITICAL FANTASIA, and the novella, MADE ON THE MOON, were published by Crossroad Press in 2016 and 2017 respectively. And now Third Street Press will be publishing the following novels (with tiny little teases as to their content):

BULLY FOR LOVE
A rather odd love story
 
THE RELUCTANT HETEROSEXUAL
Modern sex among bipedal Pleistocene bodies

JOURNEY TO WHERE
A contemporary scientific romance

Now, by “contemporary scientific romance” I do not mean a love story among scientists. But those of you who know something of the history of science fiction certainly should know the term, “scientific romance.” In any case, that’s what I consider JOURNEY TO WHERE to be, a scientific romance. But what do I mean by “contemporary”? That’s the question.

As to the two others, let’s call them mainstream, maybe literary, fiction, although a bit of chemical sci-fi sneaks into, and is an important part of, THE RELUCTANT HETEROSEXUAL.

That’s all I going to say for now as I begin the process of working with Third Street Press to get the novels ready for publication. Publisher Christiana Miller has some very exciting ideas on presentation, distribution, and marketing, so, as I said, I’m a very happy author, indeed.

Cheers to all!



Tuesday, July 10, 2018

DID WHAT I READ AS A CHILD INFLUENCE WHAT I'VE WRITTEN AS AN ADULT?





In late June, author Jean Rabe





took on one of those irritating Facebook challenges after having been nominated to do so.


I have been nominated by Laura Craig to post some of my favorite childhood books. No comments, excuses or explanations. One book a day for seven days. I nominate Steven Paul Leiva... 'cause I'm honestly curious what he read as a kid, Hey Steven, you don't have to participate (I usually don't in these Facebook things. But books, you know, a topic I love).”

A chilling prospect. I hate making lists, except for my personal use. Lists are weird. Wanting to read lists is weird. And yet, I could not not, for example, check out this one on Literary Hub:

Like it or not, we (dedicated readers and writers) become fascinated to know things about authors, and lists are a simple way to such knowledge. But favorite childhood books read? Well, they are a peek into something aren’t they? So I answered Jean thus (rewritten to make it a bit more comprehensive and coherent than a quick FB posting):

“Okay, well, here’s the thing, Jean, I dislike these Facebook list thingssee my 11/22/13 blog 12 Random Things About Me That Others May or May Not Know)—but as I love you I’ll give it a go. However, let me answer in one shot right here.  

My favorite childhood books? Well, none of them are going to be classics of children’s lit, as I was completely unaware of them until my young adult years. Although my mother was a big reader, we really didn’t have books in the house to catch my attention. And I had no relatives who would have ever thought to give me a book for a present. Rather books entered our house via Mom’s frequent trips to the public library where she picked out a stack of about ten British mysteries (mostly) to read over the next week or so. I would usually tag along and go through the aisles of the Children’s Section picking out a few books for myself. But more about that later. Because what I really read voraciously and with glee in childhood were comic books, then but a thin dime each at the local liquor or drug store (an interesting juxtaposition of products, don't you think?). Superman and the DC gang having most of my attention and passion
















although, for laughs, I would read an occasional Dennis the Menace or Little Archie comic.














These were my main childhood reading accomplishments. And, oddly, despite being comics they were what introduced to me the art of prose writing. Comics weren’t all pictures and dialog, you know. It wasn’t a lot of prose, of course, introductions and brief explanations and ‘meanwhiles’ and such, but it seemed to be enough to spark something in my little suburban brain, something about words with authority setting the scene, explaining things, revealing character.

But back to the library


and books of only words (except for the occasional black & white illustration) between hard covers. My rather poor memory recalls my liking biographies written for kids of such ‘heroes’ as Davy Crockett and other frontier legends (it was the 50s after all).



And I most likely read at least one book on Abraham Lincoln.



Lincoln fascinated me. I think because there were photographs of him existing, and not just paintings or illustrations, making him more real than mythic.



As for fiction, I remember reading some Hardy Boys,



really liking Tom Swift,Jr. books because of his neat inventions,



and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet because, obviously, he went into space and he live in the future, which I desperately wanted to get to.  



I also remember loving the sci-fi novel Star Surgeon by Alan E. Nourse.



I think it was because all the space service doctors wore different colored uniforms depending on their specialties. For some reason I thought that was really neat. So did Gene Roddenberry, I’ll betcha, if he read the book, which I betcha he did.



Oh, and I have a memory of checking out books on Greek mythology. Probably because I loved the film Hercules with Steve Reeves.



But then that’s one of the defining aspects of the 20th and 21st centuries—nothing ‘sells’ books like the moving image. There is irony there. But that’s okay. Writers love irony.

That’s all the reading I really remember beyond comic books. But, if we can extend childhood into the teens, at thirteen I was introduced to Ian Fleming’s James Bond through—guess what?—the comic book adaptation of the Dr. No film.



Then I started to read Fleming’s novels and I loved them.



Not just for their adventure and sex and danger but for the writing. I would have had no words to express it then, but somehow I knew that Fleming had a masterful style. Suddenly, beyond that little comic book spark, I saw what prose could do in defining character, describing mood and place and objects; setting a tone and creating an atmosphere.

Advance a few more years and I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.


Wow! Prose that took flight! I was happy to hitch a ride.

Then I read Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham



and for the very first time I completely lost myself in a book—I mean completely, deeply, and thoroughly. Many years later I told Ray that he, Fleming, and Maugham were the writers whom inspired me to write. He responded with a big, wide smile saying, ‘That’s fine company to be in.’  

In my late teens I got involved in high school drama as a budding actor and was introduced to plays. Death of a Salesman by Miller and The Glass Menagerie by Williams





had a profound influence on my understanding of the 'authority' of the author. So profound that I left high school drama no longer wanting to become an actor but a writer, wanting, in a sense, to be in charge—to be the ‘authority’.

So there you have it, Jean, for what it’s worth.”


And I wonder what worth it is. What does it say about the writer and reader that I have become?  

Well, I’m eclectic in both what I write and what I read. I consider prose at its best to be an art and not just a craft. And, despite my continuing love of colorful comic books and well-rendered illustrations in general, I think the run of well-placed black words across a white page or screen to be the most beautiful landscape in the world. One can make of that what one will.

============================================
You can find out all about my books and their hopefully well-placed words on the MY BOOKS page on this blog.  Or you can check out my AUTHORS PAGE on Amazon where the purchase of said books is easily done.

On JEAN RABE'S AUTHOR'S PAGE on Amazon you will find a cornucopia of fine literary entertainment in the mystery, fantasy, and science fiction realms.  






Monday, June 4, 2018

SOME DAYLIGHT SHINES ON MY "MOON"



My novella Made on the Moon, recently published by Crossroad Press, has been getting some welcomed publicity.































Now live on the internet and on several radio stations worldwide is my interview on The Stuph File Program hosted by that Titan of Talk, Mr. Peter Anthony Holder.  







In about a twelve minute conversation Peter and I talk about Made on the Moon and its genesis, history, story, the protagonist Stanley Lewis (who wanted to go to the moon from the time he was an infant), and exactly why this particular work of mine is a very personal one indeed. 

It was a good conversation. You can listen to just my portion of the show HERE or the full program HERE

As much as I love a deep concentration on just myself, I can highly recommend the full program so that you can experience Peter's wit and charm and a rerun of his wonderful conversation with the late astronaut Alan Bean, someone who actually did go to the moon.

And three days after my recent birthday I received the gift of a fine and smart review of Made on the Moon by Ricky L. Brown in Amazing Stories the online reincarnation of the classic magazine of science fiction and fact founded in 1926 (although it will be coming back into print as a quarterly soon).



The current logo


The first issue April, 1926


You can read the full review HERE but here is a excerpt:


“Even though you will most likely feel the urge to often pause as you digest the plot, the story is surprisingly a very quick read with a satisfyingly surprise ending reminiscent of something one might find in a Twilight Zone episode. Once all of the loose pieces come together, readers will be able to look back and give an agreeable, “I see what you did there,” kind of nod to the author. So, stick with it.

With just enough satirical elements to emphasize the blurred line between logic and insanity, true fans of Science Fiction will find a kindred attachment with the Stanley Lewis character. It is a hero’s journey, a relentless determination to dream the impossible. Made on the Moon by Steven Paul Leiva shows us that reaching for the stars is not just a dream, for some, it is a way of life.”

Made on the Moon, a novella ($3.99), can be found as an ebook in all the major online bookstores worldwide in various formats, including, of course, Amazon, which the title above is lined to. I do hope you'll check it out, purchase it, read it, enjoy it, and, if you do, leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads.

Cheers to one and all!



ADVANCE PRAISE FOR MADE ON THE MOON


"Leiva has crafted a satire - perhaps a self-satire - with a very warm heart. If you've ever dreamed of flying in space or walking on the Moon, you'll get the point of this story and you'll love every page." -- Russell Blackford, author of Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination.

"In a wry and oddly affecting voice that alternates between the parodistic and the plangent, this taut short novel by Mr. Leiva is about Stanley, a disaffected mid-century sci-fi loving American Nerd who would rather be a space taxi cab driver than an accountant (or a gym teacher or a mortgage broker or a podiatrist). Stanley's dream, to live on the moon, is very much an American dream, redolent of long-vanished American yearnings: the Westerning impulse: grab your hat and Bowie knife and disappear over them 'thar hills. It's not an unfamiliar hunger, or loneliness, that is being examined under Mr. Leiva's microscope here, but in addition to cocking a good snoot at some of the more preposterous aspects of myth-making generally, our author also manages to encase his ruminations in an amusingly Monty Pythonesque carapace: bureaucrats with a mysterious purpose are put to the task of discovering whether Stanley's particular obsessions just might serve their own dark ends . . . This brisk and touching comic novel has mysterious and profound things to say about the price of freedom, and it is not without relevance to the way new, and disturbingly pernicious, myths about freedom are being propagated every day in Trump's America. Highly recommended!" -- John Billingsley, "Dr. Phlox" on Star Trek Enterprise and voracious reader.

"Leiva brings his delightful wit and facility with language to a tale that feels personal and honest. It unravels in the most unexpected ways, and, as is so often the case in his work, I found both my curiosity and my funny bone tickled. A great read. -- Jeff Cannata, host of the We Have Concerns and /Filmcast podcasts.