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Marjorie Prime: a reflective future vision

August 31, 2017

I am a strong advocate for bringing more theater to more places.  An easier and more traveled road is to reimagine a dramatic stage piece for the screen.  Marjorie Prime makes this journey in style, in large part because of intelligent decisions made by the creative team.

Set against today’s swirling conversation about the pros and cons of artificial intelligence, Marjorie Prime centers on the relationship between a family and a computer program capable of reproducing a deceased loved one.  Rather than dwelling on the more obvious debate of whether such a program is healthy or sinister, the story turns to a more intriguing examination of memories and the role they play in coping with great loss.  The particulars facing Marjorie and her daughter and son-in-law may be singular, but their experience is completely relatable.


©️ FilmRise

The first wise choice behind the scenes was to retain the eternally dazzling Lois Smith as Marjorie, a role she played at LA’s Mark Taper Forum and Playwrights Horizons in New York.  All too often, filmmakers cast aside a theatrical leading lady for a lesser actress who is a bigger box office draw. Smith — a working actress since the 1950s, from East of Eden to The Americans — may receive 3rd billing, but she is the beating heart of the piece, giving Marjorie depth and breath with each flash of memory across her face.  Her mastery of physically expressed emotion is critical to the success of moving from chapter one to chapter two of the story.

Ms. Smith is bolstered by an award-winning cast that includes Geena Davis as daughter Tess, Tim Robbins as son-in-law Jon, and Jon Hamm as deceased husband Walter.  As chief architect of Marjorie’s memories, Mr. Robbins beautifully rises to the challenge of having to move through varying levels of control and surrender.  Hamm is perfect as the AI-driven hologram, or “Prime,”  trying to replicate feelings and impressions with words.  Ms. Davis is the least committed, drifting over the surface of her torn and tortured character.  I can’t help but think I would have vastly preferred the astonishing Lisa Emery reprising her stage performance.

Original playwright Jordan Harrison, who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for this drama, has a deep personal connection to the storyline. His grandmother suffered from dementia and he was struck by how much of her day was consumed by reconstructing joyful memories of who she loved and what she was good at.  He had also been affected by reading The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive, a book by Brian Christian that explores humanity in man and machine.

Harrison’s genuine passion for the themes isn’t quite as firmly planted in Michael Almereyda’s adaptation.  His revision is sometimes choppy and poorly paced, which detracts from the mood of the original. While many of the other decisions made by Almereyda with his producer/director hat on were likely financial driven, they serve the piece well.  The film was shot in three weeks on a few well-selected locations.  Most of the action — if one can use that word to describe a film composed almost entirely of dialogue and scenery — takes place in Marjorie’s beach house.  This allows Almereyda to bring in elements of nature, the best timekeeper of them all.   The sea and sand color palate is enmeshed in the entire film by cinematographer Sean Williams and production designer Javiera Varas. Music plays an important role and is well selected by supervisor Lucy Bright.  Effects are kept to a minimum, allowing the talent to do the heavy lifting.

Marjorie Prime explores aging, loss and memory in a more expansive way than other recent entries.  The overall smallness of the production reduces the usual distraction of sci-fi and allows for more big thinking.  Whether this leaves you comforted or disturbed is likely influences by how recently you’ve experienced the death of a loved one.  It was released in New York by FilmRise on August 18.  Running time is 1:38.  National theater and DVD releases to be announced.


From Stage to Screen, More or Less

July 13, 2016

Nothing is quite like watching a play in a Broadway house or West End theatre.  There you are in the dark surrounded by an international audience and exchanging energy with live actors.  Each performance is unique and your experience of it a special moment preserved in time.  Yet cost and simple logistics mean that many people will never encounter this sensation.  It is for them that I am particularly grateful to the artistic community endeavoring to bring more stage to movie and television screens.

Arguably the most successful of these efforts is National Theater Live (  Since 2009, this extraordinary initiative has brought some of the best of British theater to movie houses around the world.  These productions are filmed with a live audience and brilliantly shot to give the viewer a sense of sitting in the best seat in the house.  Thanks to NTLive’s creative teams, over half a million fans were able to see Benedict Cumberbatch in his sold out role of Hamlet.  Many of the most popular productions are repeated over the years including Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein also with Benedict Cumberbatch alongside Jonny Lee Miller,  Helen Mirren’s Tony and Olivier Award winning performance in The Audience, and newly minted nighttime host James Corbin in One Man Two Guvnors.   Typically priced between $20-$25 in the US, this is an unbeatable bargain that comes as close to live theater as anything can.

In June 2016, BroadwayHD took its maiden voyage into live streaming a big musical to living rooms everywhere — at least those equipped with an Apple TV or Roku.  This subscription service was founded in 2015 by Broadway producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley.  Their feat of negotiating with unions and creative teams to allow the delightful production of She Loves Me to be broadcast from Studio 54 is remarkable.  There were some to-be-expected technical glitches, but a large audience was able to enjoy a top-notch Broadway show without coughing up $100 or even leaving the house.  The venture should bring a new revenue stream to the New York theater community without taking away from ticket sales (as happened with the Metropolitan Opera) by primarily focusing on productions with limited runs.  I would argue strenuously that extending viewership to encompass cellphones is a huge mistake.  It’s tough enough to migrate magic to a 48” television screen.

The latest effort to bring quality theater straight to you is The Dresser, a BBC production digitally aired on STARZ and then distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment on DVD (  Adapted from the 1980 London West End and 1981 Broadway productions, it boasts two shining stars of stage and screen: Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins.  The script by Ronald Harwood is a meditation on aging, legacy and friendship.  Unlike NTLive, Richard Eyre directed this iteration more as a film than a play.  An excellent film version with Albert Finney as Sir and Tom Courtenay as his dresser, Norman, was released in 1983.  Casting a significantly older actor as Norman (McKellen) enhances the melancholy air and the weight time plays throughout.  Perhaps this is why the piece never really lifts off and becomes a slightly slow slog even at 109 minutes.  Having seen Mr. McKellen recently in Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Hopkins many moons ago in Equus, I know the quiet power they both posses on stage.  In extreme close-up, this becomes more bluster than directed energy.  I sincerely hope the next attempt by this group is superior.

“Home Sick”

December 22, 2015

WARNING: If you have not yet seen Season 5 of Homeland (and intend to) this article is not for you.

Do you remember the early years of Homeland?  I had to watch the entire first two seasons over the course of a week in order to avoid giving myself a panic attack.  I was hanging off my chair wondering how the game between Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody would play out.  They were believable and yet so different compared with much of what had been on television to that point.  I became sufficiently invested in their relationship that I was forgiving about the less-than-stellar season three.  I agreed with the creative team that the Brody character was played out and needed to come to a noble end.  And on the plus side, his departure meant we didn’t have to hear anything further from his annoying self-righteous daughter, Dana.

Season four left me encouraged about Homeland’s future.  The plot continued to explore complex questions of trust, allegiance and security, most of which do not have clear answers.  Carrie was presented with interesting opportunities to test her abilities and her moral fiber.  The brooding Brody energy was picked up and moved deeper and darker as Peter Quinn moved into a bigger role.  While not quite as fresh as the original cycle, the episodes remained above average viewing.

Then came Season five, which appeared to be written by summer interns who had read about Homeland on Wikipedia.  There has been public outcry about the probable loss of Quinn.  I agree there was unexplored territory there and he and Carrie were the ultimate missed connection.  But to me the problem with the series’ direction is much bigger: Homeland lost what made it compelling viewing.  The pacing was horrible, with many stories being rushed to their unsatisfying conclusions.  The gas didn’t go off.  Allison wound up dead in a car trunk.  Numen was released.  Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

The setup had several strikes against it from the beginning.  The location shift to beautiful Berlin was wasted.  It is very difficult to make cybercrime visually interesting.  Real life feelings about Muslims in general and Syrians in particular made the sarin thread even more distasteful.  But there also seemed to be a large amount of extreme impatience behind the scenes.  Characters weren’t shades of grey so much as hunks of black and white stuck together with masking tape.  Gone was the intelligent exploration and layers of complexity, replaced by lazy shorthand and tired narrative devices.  In a few scenes even common sense took a vacation.  Would a clever calculating soul like Allison Carr turn in one beat?  Would Carrie and Astrid enter the potential site of sarin gas production without any backup?  Would the CIA really let Carrie write her own ticket after all the times she went off the rails?

There are glimmers of promise for the future of the show.  Headlines about how best to keep our country safe can provide daily inspiration.  Carrie Mathison remains a rich character wonderfully brought to life by Claire Danes.  Saul Berenson continues to evolve in the hands of Mandy Patinkin from mentor to adversary to respectful colleague. With these building blocks in place, there is still a good chance for Season six to fulfill Homeland’s original promise.  But knotty problems deserve more textured and mature examination.  It took 37 episodes to experience Brody’s tale.  Let’s not be in such a hurry to turn to the last page with Carrie’s next opponent.

The Evil That Men Do

November 3, 2013

Women have long held a place in their hearts for rogues.  Don’t ask me why: I’m a TV junkie not a psychiatric social worker.  Men seemed to get onboard the Anti- Hero Train with the arrival of Tony Soprano.  My theory is they were attracted to the idea of a guy who could eat all the baked ziti he wanted and still get strippers to jump him.  Whatever the initial draw, both genders have cheered on a bevy of bad boys from dedicated murderer Dexter Morgan to meth perfectionist Walter White.  Well, maybe not cheered, but certainly kept hoping they’d get away with their villainy for at least another week.

I admit to preferring my miscreants on the softer side: praying for the soul of Tommy Gavin, daydreaming about mentoring well-meaning Tim Riggins and – um – doing other things with crafty Sawyer that I will not print in a family blog.  But the latest crop of shadowy characters aren’t soft so much as half baked.  It’s as if the network execs ran a book about shadowy characters through Google Translator three or four times and then gave the resulting concepts to their nephews in the mailroom for further development.  With apologies to House of Cards fans, but Spacey’s Underwood is more schoolyard bully than evil genius.  The finale parties for the loathsome-not-in-a-good-way Low Winter Sun must have been less populated than Fort Dodge, Kansas.  And if The Blacklist’s Raymond Reddington was played by anyone other than the master of  intimation, James Spader, he’d do little more than make me want to take a Benedryl.

I have read recent columns calling for the end of the Anti-hero Era, but that does the television landscape a grave disservice.  We can’t have used up our entire cultural allotment of “thrillingly dastardly.”  Would we want a literary world without the next generation of Mr. Rochesters, Tom Ripleys, or Lisbeth Salanders?  (Yes, badass chicks count.)  Of course not.  But the process can’t be rushed just to get something on the air.  Writers need time to dig deeper – say, develop a character with the ingenuity of Nucky Thompson, the charmed luck of Vic Mackey and the sex appeal of Jax Teller.  Now him I would watch.

Dear Network TV Marketing Executives…

October 9, 2013

I have some advice for those of you complaining that it’s hard to get any attention for your network’s new shows.  STOP IT!  I don’t just mean the marketing; I mean the entire concept of rolling out the red carpet and sounding the trumpets just because it’s September.

Clearly it isn’t working for you.  No one could have gone to greater lengths to get the word out about a new show than the promoters of Sleepy Hollow on FOX.  Commercials began airing way back in May.  Buses were plastered with images of Ichabod Crane, who apparently spent part of the last 200 years at Crunch Fitness.  Headless Horsemen roamed shopping malls and public squares in the weeks leading up to the first airing.  The result?  A third place finish by its second week.  Yeah, those ratings were higher than FOX has  achieved with anything since 24.  But that’s a lot of time and money thrown at a passable 3.0.

Honestly, this isn’t working for us either.  Eleven other premiers aired that first week of the so-called broadcast season.  I am an admitted TV fanatic and I’d have trouble telling you what eight of them were.  Maybe three or four of them are right up my alley.  I’ll let you know when they’re made available for streaming.  For now, my DVR is as full as I like it to be (partly because none of my alleged friends got around to telling me how utterly addictive Orphan Black is until I’d missed too many episodes and Netflix only has it on disc so I’m letting Season 1 reruns pile up on TiVO until I have enough to binge watch over a stormy weekend with a bag of Cheetos – the puffy kind).

Look, Mr/Ms Marketing Executive, you and I both know what comes next.  Series that your bosses spent tons of money developing and producing will be canceled.  True, some of them like the sappy and much reviled Lucky 7 will be mercy killings.  But history suggests that a few entires would have lived on happily in homes and offices across the country if they hadn’t had to share the spotlight with so many others.

Imagine if Kellogg, Post and General Mills all put out new cereal once a year at the same time.  Would we have chocolate Frosted Flakes?  Your cable brethren have learned to stagger their season so they are only promoting one new night at a time.  And in case you hadn’t noticed, they are not only stealing buzz, but awards as well.  So go ahead.  Be the first of the big 4 (or are we counting the CW?) to break away from the pack.  Admit that the season as you’ve known it is dead and move on.

Dazzling Delancey – An Inspiring Community Effort

January 14, 2013

I’m delighted to report that the digital upgrade of the Delancey Street Screening Room was completed before the end of 2012 with fabulous results.  This project grew into an inspiring community effort, with the Foundation’s resourceful supply manager and knowledgable theater crew working hand in hand with cutting edge manufacturers and dedicated film professionals.


Individual donors —  many of whom tweaked their personal budgets to find money to contribute — covered the cost of installation, including an additional projection booth window.  Station KRON provided the cables, renowned local cinematographer Mike Maley helped the Delancey team with the electrical work and Moving Imagine Technology came up from LA to supervise the equipment testing and training.  With full certification in place, everyone at Delancey’s San Francisco Headquarters is excited to be starting the new year in style.


I received a personal tour and demo of the revamped facility and was extremely impressed.  The viewing experience — made possible by NEC, Doremi Labs, and RealD — is positively dazzling.  The new screen provides a cleaner image, even for 35MM prints.  And QSC’s enhanced audio system sends sound towards the audience as well as from the sides.


Our work isn’t done quite yet.  To cover the cost of the projector, $10,000 had to be spent from the Foundation’s general fund.  Since this is money that could go towards tires for the moving vans, fresh fish for the restaurant and suits for the graduates starting their job search, tax deductible donations for the Screening Room Project are still being accepted.  If you’d like to play an active role in this successful undertaking by making a contribution (big or small), you can reach the Network for Good secure server through Delancey’s homepage.  Just be sure to write “Screening Room Project” in the “Behalf” box.


It’s thrilling to have this precious Bay Area resource relaunch better than ever.  In addition to the digital movie equipment, the space includes a small stage for presentations and a glass enclosed lobby with a wet bar perfect for receptions.  If you’d like to schedule an event, please contact Rebecca Jackson at 415-512-5153.  I look forward to hearing from you after you’ve had the opportunity to see the revitalized venue for yourself.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me In: Merchandising Fan Faves

October 24, 2011

The more web-based series try to conquer new territory, the more they walk along the paths established by their network counterparts.  But that’s what happens when you realize you have to balance your creative genius with actually earning enough money to keep your program going.  There’s no shame in making a monetary move in support of your project as long as it’s a righteous one.  For example, there was a bit of hoopla when cult darling The Guild “sold out” last Christmas.  But it’s a beautifully orchestrated campaign that ties in well with Season 5.  And their licensing deals have helped the long running series stay, well, long running.

With the cost of even simple production going up and advertising dollars harder to find, the fees and royalties paid for using trademarked characters and logos can really punch up a show’s income stream.  According to the MediaGuardian, the television merchandising industry took in over $191 billion globally last year.  The Simpsons, a show with appeal to a wide age group and therefore suitable for a range of products, was at the top of the heap making over $8bn.  That’ll buy a lot of Krusty Burgers (which as far as I know have never actually shown up on a franchise menu).

You can’t just make any old deal, sit back and wait for the bucks to flow.  While wall calendars somehow continue to flourish in this time of Smart Phones, most shows are recognizing that they need to go beyond the typical threadbare Ts and aluminum lunch-boxes and think creatively about merchandising to be completely successful.  You want to expand the universe of your series and select items that are in tune with your audience.  If the conception is inappropriate, you risk the danger of having your latest collectable wind up in a remainder bin between the “Go Diego Go” lead painted boats and the bags of GeoCentral “Sticky Stones” sited for causing intestinal infections.

It’s been a while since I worked in commercials, but I regularly collaborate with my clients on brand integrity.  I admire deals obviously constructed by people who understand their brand image and their target market.  An Adrianna Papell evening gown promoting E! Live From the Red Carpet?  Can’t wait to wear one to my next Oscar bash! The Food Network’s line of kitchenware products available at Kohl’s?  What else would I use for my holiday spiral ham!  Rick Castle’s latest Nikki Heat novel?  At the top of the best seller list where we Castle fans like to see it!  Gunsmoke loungewear, Mighty Mouse wallets and Elly May Clampett Barbies?  Apologies to those who treasure them, but not every combinations of “beloved TV property” + consumer product strikes the right note.

Children’s television is a particularly delicate area when it comes to merchandising.  Almost all of the programming for the younger set is developed with a licensing income stream factored into the mix.  There’s simply insufficient funding coming in from other sources.  But parents get itchy when they sense they are being sold to through their offspring.  Some of today’s Saturday morning favorites are all-too-obviously geared more towards pushing dolls or cereal than entertaining or educating.  In some cases, the product came first, followed by a series of what amount to 30 minute weekly commercials.  You just have to be grateful when the tie-ins include a book, learning game, or toothpaste.  On the plus side, production values are considerably higher than when I was a kid and there are a number of networks completely devoted to little ones.  So at least some of the money is going back into the development pipeline where it belongs.

As for the folks over at The Guild, thanks to a healthier budget they were able to leave the house and shoot on location.  A thrill indeed.  How Felicity Day will feel next Monday when Trick or Treaters deck out in her image is harder to guess.