Case #12: Chip Proser

Interview by Paul for The Media Pundit

Rather than writing an introduction to this interview, I figured I would quote Mr. Proser directly — in order to give you sense of who he is, and what he considers important in his career — to give some context to the later questions and answers, if you will.

Chip Proser in action.Chip Proser: Upon arriving in Hollywood, I got a call that my great friend Horace Greeley McNab, “The Man With the World’s Most Beautiful Feet,” and the advance man for Chorus Line, had gone on his bi-annual bender and was missing in action in San Francisco. The girl he had hired to be his assistant was panicked because the show opened in three days and Horace was nowhere to be seen. Some days later he was seen in his underwear in the vicinity of the Jack Tar hotel with a snootfull of bourbon. Needless to say, two crazy people, thrown together by circumstance in such a romantic city… I bonded, if that is the word, with the girl, who, as luck would have it, was the babysitter of the wife of the Story Editor of Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios.

Coppola bought Interface for his short-lived Hollywood Studio. Lucy Fisher said “This is the most brilliant, absolutely perfect script I ever read. Now for the first rewrite…” Thereupon I lost interest in whatever it was she said next. Coppola needed fast cash to buy the neon for the Vegas set in One From the Heart and sold Interface to Paramount for ONE MILLION DOLLARS. He didn’t even leave me a tip.

Paramount bought it, then read it. They then promised never to make it, sell it, let anyone else make it or let me reacquire it. It was POV. You never see the main character. At present it’s been at Paramount for 28 years. AFI magazine called it “One of the Ten Best Films Never Made.”

I then became a hot writer and was offered virtually every re-write in Hollywood, most of which I turned down. I felt that I was a director/cameraman tragically trapped in the body of a screenwriter, but didn’t have the cash for the operation. The first three pictures I wrote and a TV pilot all got made, albeit apparently directed by baboons. I developed an attitude. I felt that if I created something, that somehow I was at least as capable of shooting it as the next guy. Call me crazy! You may have to get in line to do that. Actually Top Gun wasn’t that bad…

I told people I wasn’t really a screenwriter, and thankfully, after 17 years they believed me. I then created the documentary series Sworn to Secrecy (titled Secrets of War in foreign territories) which I also produced, directed and shot. Presently, I’m rather concerned about the future of humanity, being closer and closer to leaving it, so I’m making documentaries and new media projects on climate change, global warming, the energy crisis, and colonizing the Moon to mitigate such.

Paul: Would you like to explain which of writing, directing, etc, you consider your main interest, and between feature films, television, and other things, you like the most? I don’t want to just make the assumption that it’s writing.

Chip: Oh, yes, feature films take forever and there’s just too much time to screw around with them, and they cost so much they want them rewritten over and over until you can’t even remember what you wrote before. Television is better, because you’ve got to finish the damn thing and get it out. News is best because there’s no time to think at all.

I like documentaries because you can lose yourself in the material and because they can’t tell me I can’t direct them cause I just whack ’em with the Emmys. I think writing without being able to finish what you started is just dry humping and I gave that up in high school. I really don’t know how real screenwriters do that.

Paul: What’s your favorite thing that you’ve worked on for writing, directing, and/or producing over the years?

Chip: I really enjoyed the doc series Sworn to Secrecy (Secrets of War) because I got to wander all over Europe and the Middle East to the weirdest places like Penemunde, secret underground war rooms, and Bletchley Park and because there was a great story of the deception war which had never been told on television. I didn’t have to create fiction. It was more interesting to do the research, meet the historic figures and try to put all the secrets into an exciting and coherent story. Best of all, I got to make the shows with no interference, or even script conferences from either The History Channel or Pearson/(Fremantle) so that was a real plus.

What I find really interesting now is the next hundred years where I believe we are in a race to get off the planet before our ever increasing numbers destroy the ability of the earth to support us. We’ve just lived through years of complete venal stupidity, with billions of people in thrall to greed and medieval religious fantasies. But I’ve been able to spend the time with space scientists, brilliant engineers and visionaries. I think the average person doesn’t really grasp how possible colonies on the moon, the asteroids and other planets are. With the new cameras and editing software I was able to write and produce a feature documentary on this and I’m working on a sequel. Of course I could always use an investor…

Paul: I see that you attended the American Film Institute in 1993 for what I understand to be producing related courses. What did you learn there that has helped you since then?

Chip: At the AFI I studied computer graphics with Harry Mott and got a jump on what was happening with the Internet. I used that to get into 3D animation which I use to illustrate my documentaries. I’m not all that good at it since I can’t draw but since the software is 3D it’s more like being a lighting cameraman, in that you place objects in a scene, light them and move the camera. With this software I’m able to waste months of time in order to avoid writing. It’s a screenwriter’s wet dream.

Paul: Based on what you’ve learned working with software such as this, and how you’ve used it yourself, do you see this becoming more common in the future? Is this a stepping stone for writer-owned content to make its way into the real world on a larger scale at a faster pace?

Chip: Actually, I’ve been a proponent of this since before CGI, when they were trying to develop a means to sync live foreground and background cameras. Obviously building and tearing down huge sets is much more expensive than creating them in a computer. A number of people are doing this since it makes so much sense, especially for Sci-fi, where you can’t shoot practical locations. For a project I’m doing, Tranquility Dome, which is set on the Moon, I’m going a step further in using Poser figures as actors. This also eliminates the need for a live stage, costumes, hair and makeup, etc.

Craft-service is my refrigerator. Actually, in a continuing production, you would still need all the crafts, but instead of a costumer dealing in fabrics and laundry, they’d be dealing with pixels. You’d still have your art but without the need and expense of physical production. I think this is a positive step for all the creative fields, as it is more efficient, less costly, and therefore more in the control of the artists rather than the financiers.

Paul: Would you recommend people get their feet wet working in news before moving into other areas of writing to gain experience and perspective, or is more just a benefit in the right situations?

Chip: I’d recommend some kind of life-experience so that maybe we can get away from stuff like when the hero cuts down everybody with a .45 pistol from a thousand yards, while all the henchmen in the world can’t hit anything with ten thousand shots from their assault rifles. And I think it’s very valuable to have to do things on impossible deadlines. I’m a big fan of adrenalin.

Paul: I recognize many of the films you’ve worked on before, such as Top Gun, Biosphere, Innerspace, amongst others. They seem like a pretty eclectic bunch. Are there any types of stories that you gravitate towards, and how did you come to work on those three films?

Chip: My first script, Interface, basically predicted what the Internet would be. This was in 1980. The Internet or ARPANET was developed in part by MIT and Bolt, Beranek and Newman in Boston. Leo Beranek was one of the owners of WCVB so I don’t know if somehow I got the idea by osmosis. Anyway, naturally, I was then offered all the sci-fi jobs in Hollywood. The first one I did was Iceman. The script was actually a lot more like E.T. than the movie you (didn’t) see. They apparently then decided the Iceman should be scary. But how much of a threat can a guy be who doesn’t know what a doorknob is?

Innerspace was basically a rip off of Fantastic Voyage. My idea was that the big guy was up and moving around and could react to what was going on inside. That’s about all I remember. I never actually have been able to sit through it all at once. They don’t pay me to watch this crap. Like H.L. Hughgly, I wear a mask to cash the check.

Top Gun, they brought me in because neither the Navy nor the Studio would make the script they had. The Navy wouldn’t approve because the planes were flying all wrong. The first writers didn’t understand what going ballistic meant. (It means your airfoils aren’t working and you are acting like a bullet.) The dialogue sucked. Naval Aviators are mostly brilliant type A characters, (not that I’d vote for one for President). They had to have someone they could relate to on their level. Why was I asked to do this job? Because I was hot at the time, I did sci-fi and high concept and I knew aviation from a lot of the stories I shot in Boston and from flying gliders. Also I’m a U.S. Naval Intelligence Section 8 official government certified mental defective. That helped.

Paul: Which script that you’ve worked on, either original or rewrite, are you the most proud of (produced or otherwise)?

Chip: “The Ultra Enigma” was the pilot for the series, Sworn to Secrecy. It’s the story of the Enigma Machine, the secret coding device the Germans thought unbreakable, which was, in fact broken by Polish and other Allied mathematicians including Alan Turing who invented the first computer to break the Enigma. It’s all about codes and deception and the official secrets which weren’t disclosed until 1973. In doing the research we found many heretofore unknown and unsung heroes including Hans Thilo Schmidt, a German who changed the course of the war and was executed by the Gestapo. I found the story absolutely fascinating and difficult to tell. It’s the basis of the secret history of the war and it’s interesting that all the Allied governments lied in all the official histories for nearly thirty years. Sound familiar? Also David Kahn, the code and cypher expert said it was the best doc on the subject he’d seen, so that’s like a geek Emmy.

I also like Gaia Selene – Saving the Earth by Colonizing the Moon because I think the subject is so important.

Paul: What kind of fight is it to get things like this made and on the air?

Chip: Actually, it’s easy for you to see it. Just go to my webpage or Amazon DVD’s or Unbox, or, in a few weeks It was pretty easy to make. I just had one too many pitch meetings, got fed up, threw my equipment in the car and took off across America. And I can tell you one thing for sure. If you’re ever on Route 40 and see an Olive Garden, pull over right there and eat. That’s the best you’re gonna get.

I financed the project myself, so the only fight was with the wife. The kids need shoes to go to school… so what? The hardest part was teaching myself Final Cut Pro without reading the book. The fight is to get publicity, so thanks for all your help. Discovery wouldn’t even look at it. Perhaps they’re still pissed they didn’t get Sworn to Secrecy. But I made a deal with Journeyman TV for foreign. I’m really big in Finland and Portugal. It’s a one-off and really doesn’t look like the normal PBS documentary, so its US prospects are probably not so good. I know from that confrontation at Sundance that P.O.V. pays only $30K and wants all the DVD rights, in perpetuity throughout the universe, so that’s not gonna happen. I think I’ll take my chances with downloads, and, of course, word or mouth from astrophysicists.

Paul: I would be remiss if I didn’t also ask if there’s something you aren’t all that fond of. I think most of us have made something we’d rather bury under a stump somewhere and forget about.

Chip: Innerspace. It’s really embarrassing. And the pilot, Micronauts. I was actually on the set watching that train wreck, begging them not to let him have the luma crane on a comedy. Talk about flop sweat. I was drenched. There’s nothing like hearing your lines land with a thud. Reminded me of the gangster talk show. At least this time nobody was packing.

Iceman. I walked out of the screening in the middle. That song in Top Gun which I didn’t put in there. It really creeps me out. And the naked beach scene which I also didn’t do, so screw yourself, Quentin.

It’s really difficult to watch something you’ve created go horribly, horribly wrong. Most of what I write that’s really bad is stuff that I never finish and the good part is that sooner or later you forget you even did it. Until you’re cleaning out the closet and you go “Jesus what was that? What was I thinking? I’m glad nobody ever saw that.” The other thing I learned is that I probably need some more therapy.

Paul: It’s ironic that the studios end up paying for driving their own employees nuts.

Chip: We are not employees but independent contractors. Employees would get parking and healthcare. You wouldn’t constantly tell your employees that everything they just did was all wrong and to do it again, different, and would they mind working for a few extra weeks for free.

Paul: I’ve learned that you’ve been very active during the current writers’ strike, producing video for the Writers Guild of America, United Hollywood blog, and something called Strike TV. Could you tell me a little about these things, and why you think they are important?

Chip: Actually, I told the Guild about a year ago that they needed to get a video unit together and start using the new media for propaganda. So on the day of the strike I walked in and volunteered. It was selfish, of course. Much more fun screaming through traffic and acting like a news crew than marching in a circle with a sign. Most people seem to think that we did a good job getting our video up on the web and countering Counter. Who am I to argue with praise? I think it helped to demonstrate to everyone that there was a new sheriff in town. We actually found a bunch of volunteers in the Guild who could shoot and edit and we put a unit together that could cover daily news while others did videos on their own and posted them. Stuff on the WGA site had to be vetted and approved….They’re soooo serious over there, so stuff that we wanted up quickly we posted to United Hollywood, where there was some plausible deniability. Personally, I like to blame everything on Ian.

Strike TV is an experiment in having professionals do our own shows directly for the Internet. It’s a great learning experience. And I think the sum may be a great bit greater than the parts. I’m personally involved with half a dozen projects and I’m really impressed by how much underused talent there is out there. People are having a great time doing their own stuff with four thousand dollar cameras and two thousand dollar laptops. The great thing about this all is the sense of community not only in the WGA but with SAG and other unions and Guilds. A lot of people will go back to the studio model, but some will keep working in the new media for one big reason, creative control. And ownership of your copyright. The best thing is the migration of professionalism and union coverage to the new distribution channels.

A real eye opener for me was in monitoring our opponents; the established media… When six international conglomerates control virtually all media outlets, they control information, culture and thought. If you’re not careful, they could, for instance, sell you a war. They can keep you dazzled with celebrity hijinks while, the treasury is looted. Their pundits can distract you while the constitution is destroyed. All of these corporations use the public airways for which they pay nothing, zero. They’ve had their broadcast licenses since the dawn of television and reform from the top is problematic and unlikely. So, the migration of professional creatives to the Internet may be even more important than we now realize.

I’ve personally been shooting practically every day for three and a half months and frankly it’s been great to get out of the house. I had been starting to dress up the cats in children’s clothes.

Paul: Are they really that stiff to work with?

Chip: No. The Guild was totally right in vetting all video. They were in the middle of a strike and would be held responsible for anything on the site. They were also, as it turned out, all far too busy to screen video. That’s why United Hollywood became so important. There were things like David Tuohy’s brilliant vampire send-up of Nick Counter, which was great viral propaganda, but which would have been totally inappropriate to be posted to the official WGA site.

Paul: How do you think the AMPTP and WGA handled themselves in the month prior to, and leading up to the expiration of the previous contract?

Chip: The AMPTP forced the strike to try to break the unions and control new media. It’s Disaster Capitalism. I’ve always believed that denying writers fair compensation with all the deception of the net profit participation and other cheats was not about the actual money. The studios could easily afford to pay writers fairly. It’s about control. When writers get rich they don’t want to put up with the conditions of a studio project. They’d write and produce their own stuff. If this new deal is unfair, with the new equipment and distribution channels you will see more people doing that.

I think the leadership did a remarkable job herding writers who are slightly more difficult to herd than cats. I hate to see all this blogging about how we all love to write and would do it for free. That just weakens our position. No. We hate to write. It’s hard and when it comes out bad, really embarrassing.

Paul: Is there something stashed in the back of your mind that you’ve kept simmering on the stove, that one magical and intriguing “thing” that will be the *first* thing you’ll tackle once the strike is over?

Chip: I really love to direct and shoot, so I’m shooting a bunch of pilots for Strike TV, including Don’t Get a Boner, and two of my own, Tranquility Dome, which is all CGI and The Crew which is the recent action from the point of view of the video crew. The finale will be behind the scenes at the Shrine Auditorium, where the switcher failed, the intercoms failed, the camera designations got screwed up so the wrong camera went live, the video guy had a seizure, some people were bouncing on the risers, the fluid heads stuck and the entire audience turned and screamed at us. I haven’t had fun like that since George Wallace tried to get the mob to kill us during School Busing.

I’m also going back to looking for financing for my sequel, Colonizing the Moon in Ten Easy Steps. I can’t wait to find out what those ten steps are.

The Strike has actually affected me deeply. I’ve suddenly made friends with all these other writers, even Ian. You know, if you had to pick a pick a subset of people to hang out with, what could be better than a bunch of writers? So I’d like to get on staff of a series because I’ve heard they also serve lunch.

If you enjoyed reading this interview, a more in-depth version of Paul’s conversation with Chip Proser can be found on The Media Pundit.


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