Monday, February 26, 2007

Career journey of a writer (MNA Feb. 07)

Associate Editor

I got a phone call the other day, and in the midst of small talk, the caller asked me how I liked my job.
This took me back a little bit. So I thought about it.
I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. And most of the time, they’ve just been a paycheck, or a way to the next step up the ladder.
Then the realization hit me. I actually DO like my job. How many times have I been able to say this over the past 21 years?
Not very many. So I started to think about the jobs I’ve held in my life.
My first job, at 15 years old, was as a busboy at a now long-gone restaurant called “Scallops.” You guessed it, they served seafood. It was a cool job, because I got tips from the waitresses in addition to my meager $2.52 an hour salary. I did that job until I went away to college. I even came back in the summers and advanced to the position of waiter. It wasn’t a glamorous job, and I can’t say I ever loved it – except there were always a lot of cute “busgirls” and waitresess that I worked with who helped me to pass the time until my shift ended each night.
While I was in college, I worked a bunch of different jobs. One was at the bookstore during “book rush,” that time of year when the students flooded the store in search of their school supplies. I didn’t mind that job too much, because, once again, there were plenty of young attractive female students who needed assistance finding a used copy of “Calculus 101” or Cliff’s Notes on “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
I did have at least one job back then that I absolutely hated. I worked for one month, just one Burger King. I was desperate, the savings were almost depleted. So I worked the graveyard shift, which meant an extra 50 cents per hour, but for that extra monetary incentive, I had to break down the fryer and scrape — that’s right, I said scrape — layers and layers of grease off of all the fryer components. There were about 52 different stainless steel pieces that I would toil over nightly, and I couldn’t leave until they were spotlessly clean.
I hated that job. I hated the grease scraper. I hated the polyester uniform. I hated the little hat I wore. But I liked the manager. I even ended up dating her a few times. (I’m starting to see a pattern here with my pre-marriage jobs.)
As soon as I got the chance, I found another restaurant job. It was a brand new place on a golf course. I worked my way up from busboy, to waiter, and then to bartender. I also got to know the course pro and played rounds of golf and hit buckets of balls on the range at no charge. (Free drinks will get you a lot of perks.) It was a pretty sweet deal. I made good money, always had cash on me, and somehow was able to always barely make rent money on the last day of the month. (I was usually short with the rent because I spent some of the rent budget on beer.)
I didn’t love that job, but it was work, nonetheless, and of course there were plenty of attractive waitresses there as well. I stayed there for over five years.
One of the worst jobs I had during college was the one summer I was assistant manager of a Payless Shoesource in Pontiac. The store wasn’t in a nice neighborhood, so I didn’t have any trouble getting the job. The store was constantly shoplifted, and the one Sunday I took off all summer was the same one in which the manager was robbed at knife point. He was filling in for me on my shift so I could go to a wedding. I couldn’t wait for that summer to be over.
Back at school, I was a research assistant for a Telecommunications professor from Austria for a while. The job was boring, but he sounded a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger, so at least the position was amusing. I also worked as a production assistant for WKAR TV, working camera, audio, and floor directing live shows. That was actually fun, but there were some boring times, like when I had to work shooting MSU classes that were broadcast to remote locations via satellite. The chemistry and science classes were the most snore-inspiring sessions. We actually had camera people pass out while shooting those programs; I was never sure if it was from boredom or not.
After school I worked in advertising sales for a cable company. I hated cold calling, but I did get an account at a golf course on a trade, so we took “clients” to play free golf about three days a week. We also had a driving range set up outside the back door of our production studio. That worked pretty well, until the industrial park manager busted us for hitting golf balls into the neighboring construction site.
When my wife got a job in Washington D.C., I took a job as an editor at a place called “The Video Editor” (real original name, I know). People would bring in their home movies on video or film, and I was tasked with editing them together, adding titles, and music. I’ve edited weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, demo reels for wannabe actors, product demonstrations, and even a videotape of a woman giving birth in her home (that was a little creepy.) That didn’t last long, as I loathed doing America’s Funniest Home Videos for a living.
So I started selling production services for a TV production facility, but just wasn’t satisfied with the work. I’d yearned for my entire lifetime to do something creative with my career, and this wasn’t it. This inspired me to move to California and work in the entertainment industry. I started at the bottom rung, as a lowly assistant. I ended my career in Hollywood two years later — still as an assistant — but with three unproduced screenplays under my belt — yea!
After moving back to Michigan, I kicked around some more, working as a temp at a CPA firm, and even did one day as a construction temp. Then came work at the casino — blackjack dealer, payroll, inventory, Information Technology nerd...but I still was missing something. When I left there, I free-lanced for a year, doing a lot of writing, miscellaneous communications work, and cashing few paychecks, but I was getting closer.
Then, by accident, I saw the listing for the job at the newspaper. And the rest is history, as they say. Write for a living? I can handle that.
It took 21 years to find out what I really like, but I finally got here. I’m sure when I tell my kids this in the ensuing years, when they have their own career frustrations, they will groan.
And I don’t blame them. Everyone has to find their own way. Hopefully we all all find our bliss, eventually.
And if you’re lucky, it won’t take 21 years.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at:

Alternative endings to Hollywood favorites (MNA Feb. 07)

Associate Editor

My wife is a sucker for the formulaic Hollywood happy ending.
All of the loose ends in the film need to be tied up nice and neat for her at the completion of the film, or she feels a little bit cheated. Many a time the screen has turned to black and the credits start rolling, and I see her searching for something to throw at the TV while she screams, “But what happens next!”
I can’t say I blame her. As the old saying goes, “everybody likes a happy ending.”
I, on the other hand, am a big fan of films that break the genre, or go against the typical formula, with twists and turns, and endings that surprise me.
But I also have to admit, the selfish side of me, at times wishes that some movies would end differently, or that they would go on just a few more minutes, and let us know what happened next. This is what I like to call an “alternative movie ending fantasy.”
In the 1969 classic, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the final scene has our two heroes low on ammunition, bleeding, and surrounded by Bolivian Federalis. As they make their last stand, the action freezes, and we hear a hail of gunshots.
It’s a brilliant final scene.
But a little part of me wishes that the action didn’t freeze; that the boys kept running. My ending would go something like this: The boys shoot their way out in one of the goriest filmed western scenes since “The Wild Bunch,” kill about 50 of the Federalis, steal a couple of fresh horses, and ride off into the setting sun. They happen upon a quiet little village to retire to, and live happily ever after, under false identities.
Aaaah. How satisfying.
And who could forget Saturday Night Live’s imagined ending to “It’s a Wonderful Life?” After the whole town turns out to pitch in their collective savings and bail old George Bailey out his financial predicament, someone in the crowd discovers that it was indeed Potter who took the Savings and Loan’s missing $8,000. In true mob fashion, everyone goes over to the bank and takes turns tuning up Potter for stealing the money. George and Mary even get a chance to pummel the warped frustrated old man repeatedly after he is dumped from his wheelchair. It always bothered me that the mean old S.O.B. got to keep the eight grand.
Aaaah. The bad guy gets what’s coming to him.
How about the 1950 classic, “Sunset Boulevard?” Poor hack writer Joe Gillis. He wasn’t trying to hurt anybody, surely not aging silent movie queen Norma Desmond. Did he really deserve to die? In my imagined ending, Joe would have the guts to leave that nut-job Desmond, hook up with his love interest Betty Schaefer, and live happily ever after. The two would team up writing hit movie after hit movie in the ensuing years. Some time later, Desmond would die, and, remembering the joy Joe brought her during their brief affair, leave him a boatload of money.
Aaaah. The boy gets the girl. And doesn’t end up face down in the pool with a bullet in his back. And he ends up rich!
I’ve always thought that the incest revelation ending of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” was just plain creepy. How about instead, Evelyn’s sister is not really her daughter, and according to plan, they both escape to Mexico safely. Rather than “Forget it, Jake, it’s only Chinatown,” we instead hear, “Good job Jake, now that’s Chinatown.”
Aaaah. The innocent victims escape the bad guys. And there’s no lewd sexual triangle involved.
A lot of endings have people getting killed, and while it makes for a gritty, more realistic, non-Hollywood ending, it sometimes leaves us, the audience, a little unsatisfied. Take “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” for example. Wouldn’t it have been great if Colonel Nicholson, played brilliantly by Sir Alec Guiness, helped Commander Shears, played by Bill Holden, to blow the damned Japanese bridge up instead of trying to stop him? And then, Nicholson lives to finally escape the prisoner of war camp, and is lauded as a hero by his countrymen upon his triumphant return. In my cut, they’d get to build their bridge and blow it up, too. And live to tell their grandchildren.
And how many people wish that Jack Nicholson didn’t get labotomized at the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?” (I hope this didn’t spoil it for anyone). It’s a wonderfully bittersweet ending to the film, but when you root for the hero during the entire picture, darn it, you want him to make it in the end! What if Nicholson escaped from the insane asylum, and instead nasty old Nurse Ratched gets labotomized? How great would that be?
What about having “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), take a detour from the historical facts, and just once more get away from the cops instead of having a hail of bullets end their lives in that old sedan? In my ending, the two take a side road, miss the police ambush, and live happily ever after — maybe even have kids and buy a nice little house outside Chicago with a little white picket fence.
Another alternate movie ending that would break with history would be to have “Patton” be able to keep his big stupid mouth shut in front of all the reporters and his superiors, make all the brass happy with his exemplary performance, and get assigned to lead the D-Day assault, going down in history as the greatest general of all time. Give em hell old blood and guts! And no way would he die in a stupid car crash in my version. He would make it to Berlin, personally choke Hitler to death, and die defending his battalion headquarters single-handedly with a pearl handled revolver blazing in each hand.
Yet another type of ending that drives moviegoers mad is the ambiguous, figure it out yourself ending. Wouldn’t it be satisfying just to understand the ending of “2001: A Space Odyssey?” It may be fun for movie purists, film school grad students, and sci-fi geeks to try to interpret that one, but in my special directors cut, a narrator comes on at the end and explains exactly what that damned big black monolith is, how it works, and why it does what it does. Nice...and neat.
Animals and other creatures aren’t excluded from the world of alternate endings. Why did “King Kong” have to die? It would have been extremely cool if instead, Godzilla showed up, the two smashed the living crap out of New York, and then he let Kong hitch-hike on his back while he swam him back to Kong Island, where the King had regular visits from his spicy blonde actress friend Ann Darrow and lived well into old age.
Alternative endings wouldn’t have to be complicated, either. There are some endings that could have been tweaked just a tiny bit to better please movie audiences. At the end of “Shane,” when Joey yells, “Shane, come back!” just once I’d like to see Alan Ladd turn his horse around, ride back, and have Joey’s mom patch him back up just like new. What was the deal with Shane and Joey’s mom anyway? Maybe in “alternative ending land,” Joey’s dad would catch a stray bullet during a gun fight and Shane would marry his mom. (That’s what the kid really wanted, anyway).
In alternative ending world, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda would have gotten away from those rednecks at the end of “Easy Rider,” too. In director Burgeson’s version, the two yokels pull up, point that shotgun at our heroes and — click — they forgot to load their gun. Wyatt and Billy ride off on their choppers while they flip off the rednecks, and discover America after all.
There are plenty of other perfect endings and “what ifs” out there in cinema-land — these are but a simple few. The wonderful thing about movies is that you can imagine any ending, sequel, prequel, or “viewer’s cut” you want, as long as you remember that each film is your own personal viewing experience — and no one can take your private interpretation of any given theatrical masterpiece away from you.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at: