Saturday, December 27, 2008

So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodnight!

No doubt about it. 2008 was a tough one. The industry took some major hits. Some long held-alliances fractured. Our numbers went down. Writers took to the streets. Actors threatened to. TV panicked. Advertisers closed their wallets. Independent film lost its lease. New Media came to town like the James Gang; scaring the shit out of everybody. And then the economy collapsed. Still, there were a few bright spots.

It was great to see a terrific, critically acclaimed film like “The Dark Knight” almost topple “Titanic’s” box office record. Meanwhile, “Wall-E” pulled off the most amazing balancing act of art, storytelling and morality I’ve ever seen in piece of popular entertainment. On TV, “In Treatment” turned therapy into riveting drama and “Desperate Housewives” got good again. Even Britney managed to pull 2008 out of the crapper by producing a well-received album. The election provided fertilizer for the best crop of political comedy in 20 years. Letterman, Leno, SNL, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The Onion and especially Tina Fey gave us comic commentary that was as hilarious as it was smart. And, oh yeah, we in the media played no small part in electing the first African-American President of the United States. Go team.

Speaking for myself, this was sort of a crappy year as far as business was concerned. I pitched on a number of jobs that I didn’t get. My spec pilot went nowhere and I didn’t get many auditions. I also lost a friendship (which was a bummer) but met a ton of great new people. I dated. I became a better networker. I took a huge gamble (that paid off). I let go of a distant dream and replaced it something that was handily right in front of me. I reaffirmed my belief in the power of work. I joined a new church. I worked for democracy. I walked a picket line and marched for gay rights. I changed agents. I sold an option. I mentored some young writers. I created a blog about my life (You’re reading it right now). I dipped into my savings. I tightened my belt. I postponed my vacation. I found time to hang out with my 82 year-old neighbor so we could (as he likes to put it) “shoot the shit.” I decided to teach. I briefly regretted a few of my choices, but then decided that was a big, fat, stupid waste of time. And I wrote.

Goodbyes are hard. Although 2008 was not my favorite year, it's still been tricky to let go of. Conceding that certain things didn’t (or may never) happen can be a little rough. Fortunately, December 31st comes 'round each year to remind me that life is lived in chapters and the goal is to rack up as many as one can (in the hope that in the final tally, the good will outnumber the bad). Oddly, even in the years when I don’t make a lot of money, I still feel lucky. By choosing to create for a living, I became linked to an amazing, unwieldy (and sometimes tawdry) legacy of entertaining people. As new stars emerged this year, a few favorites faded into the mist. I decided to use my last entry of 2008 to share what I will always remember about them:

The first paperback I ever bought with my own money (at age twelve) was Michael Crichton's “Andromeda Strain.” Stud Terkel's “Working” is the story of America. I wonder if Harold Pinter ever enjoyed the fact that he had his own adjective ("Pinteresque"). "Kojak” (created by Oscar-winner Abby Mann) was Queen Elizabeth II's favorite TV show. Anthony Minghella actually made a decent movie out of “The English Patient.” David Foster Wallace's sadness overtook his brilliance. Tony Hillerman reinvented the literary Southwest. Evelyn Keyes wasn't much of a writer, but had great taste in ex-husbands. Aleksandr Solzhenenitzyn's work intimidated me. Sydney Pollack: My personal faves: “Tootsie” & “Out of Africa.” Stan Winston: Movie creatures will never the same. Michael Kidd's dances for “Hello, Dolly!” came back to life in “Wall-E.” Bernie Brillstein knew talent when he saw it.

Heath Ledger's “Ennis” was a revelation & his "Joker” was stunning. Yma Sumac was a “camp” legend. Brad Renfro just got lost. Richard Widmark was the classic tough guy. Eartha Kitt: The best “Catwoman” of them all. I think of Edie Adams every time I see a Muriel cigar. I think of Charlton Heston every time I read about someone being shot with a handgun. Cyd Charisse had legs, baby! I never knew what a "Bippie" was, but every time Dick Martin said it, I felt dirty. Ivan Dixon was the black guy on “Hogan’s Heroes." Paul Benedict was the white guy on “The Jeffersons." David Groh married "Rhoda.” I still remember Robert Prosky's stage work in New York. I can still remember Suzanne Pleshette lying on the steps of the schoolhouse with her eyes pecked-out in “The Birds." Bernie Mac once thought he wanted to do a movie I wrote. Nina Foch was always good. I always noticed her. Dodi Goodman was funny, without even trying. Isaac Hayes was "Shaft" before he was "Chef." My family loved Eddy Arnold almost as much as they loved Jerry Reed. Why did Richard Blackwell base his entire career on being catty? I bought one of Miriam Makeba's albums at a garage sale in '83. Paul Scofield should have had a bigger career. Gerald Schoenfeld loved Broadway. Jo Stafford had a really pretty voice. I play Odetta's Christmas CD every year. I loved it when Harvey Korman couldn't keep a straight face. Vampira: Proof that anybody can make it show business. Lois Nettleton glowed. Roy Scheider should never have had that facelift. Estelle Getty "made it" at age 60. My Uncle Merl once shook hands with Van Johnson after a dinner theatre show. He never forgot it.

When I saw Paul Newman in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” I knew I was gay. I actually got to meet and talk with George Carlin about two weeks before his death. Bettie Page: In a word… “Hot!” Yves Saint Laurent changed fashion. Bo Diddley: One of the founding fathers of Rock & Roll. William F. Buckley always seemed like an alien. Arthur C. Clarke's stories scared me. Sen. Jesse Helms scared me even more. Forrest J. Ackerman invented the term “Sci-Fi”. Alexander Courage wrote the original music for “Star Trek”. Majel Barrett Roddenberry was the only actor to be involved in every incarnation of “Star Trek” from 1965 through 2009 (proving that it never hurts to marry the boss). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi inspired me to secretly take TM classes when I was 16. Albert Hofmann created LSD (Good Work, Al!) And Sir Edmund Hillary scaled Everest in '53 (before it became a tourist attraction).

These people (each in their own way) inspired the imaginations of a world-wide audience. It's a great legacy that now rests in our hands. Yeah, I know it's a little confusing out there right now, but once, about a hundred years ago, a few intrepid souls trekked out to California, bought a barn and called it a "studio." They didn't know what they were doing either. It's a New Year, Hollywood. Let's do something with it.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunny and the Rent Bush

Having lived the first 32 years of my life in cold climates, Christmas in Los Angeles has always seemed strange to me. Every year when I start receiving holiday cards from fellow Angelinos featuring icicles and snowmen, the whole thing seems sort of silly. L.A. certainly “gets” Christmas. After all, this is the city where “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “White Christmas” were all filmed (on sound stages, I grant you). We might not have the weather to get the Christmas spirit rolling, but we certainly have the sets and costumes.

Contrary to popular belief, L.A. is not without its holiday traditions; many of them as special (and odd) as the city itself. The first major event is the strangely-named “Hollywood Santa Parade” which takes place about thirty minutes after Thanksgiving. Each year, D-List celebrities and high school bands march proudly down Hollywood Boulevard past Frederick's of Hollywood, spreading holiday cheer, road rage and a light sprinkling of garbage. For those seeking a more spiritual experience, there's the Crystal Cathedral’s “Glory of Christmas” in nearby Orange County. It’s a little hard to describe, but basically if Jesus, Mary and Joseph ever played Caesar’s Palace, it would probably look something like this. Complete with live camels, fog machines and flying angels, the show includes lots of classy original music sung loudly into body mikes (similar to those originally used in Bethlehem).

At Universal City Walk, you can kiss your sweetheart under a giant piece of Mistletoe being held overhead by King Kong. If you’re feeling a little depressed about the holidays, a trip to Forest Lawn Cemetery’s stained glass festival should definitely cheer you up. And don’t forget to take the kids to visit “Scientology Santa” at the “L. Ron Hubbard Winter Wonderland” near Hollywood and Las Palmas. While there, you can also take a personality test which I can guarantee you, you will fail.

It’s weird, but there’s something in the popular culture lately that seems to have it out for Christmas. Most of the holiday movies are now about how awful and embarrassing everyone's family is and what a drag it is to have to visit them. I recently went on Pandora.com (a great music site) and dialed up a mix of contemporary holiday music. I was psyched when up popped a roster of cool artists like Aimee Mann, Dave Mathews, Sting and Sarah McLachlan. Then it started playing. It was the most depressing mix I’d ever heard in my life. Nothing but bleak revisionist versions of old favorites. It really bugged me.

Trust me, I know there will never be peace on Earth. I get that “Goodwill toward men” is a distant and doubtful goal, but I do appreciate the sentiment. It’s at least worth thinking about once a year. Plus, it bugs me how people tend to become so self-consumed at the holidays; choosing this particular time to drudge up all their disappointments and doubts. It’s easy to forget this is supposed to be the season of giving. I was reminded of this last year when my dry cleaner and I became players in an odd little drama.

I’m not a guy who owns a lot of clothing so when the holiday party season arrives, my dry cleaner and I see a lot of each other. Pretty much every week, I manage to spill or smear something on one of the two decent outfits I own. Fortunately, my dry cleaner (a cheerful Korean lady, appropriately-enough named “Sunny”) manages to keep me looking presentable. Although Sunny always seems to understand everything I say to her, I don’t always fully grasp what she is saying in return. Usually this isn’t such a big deal since we are primarily discussing the location of stains. However, last year as I was dropping off my navy blue blazer, she casually asked if I had gotten my “rent bush” yet. Since I had no idea what a “rent bush” was, I pretended like I hadn’t heard the question and drew Sunny’s attention back to the artichoke dip on my lapel. A week later, she again peered over her glasses and cheerfully inquired, “You no want rent bush?” In my mind, I pictured some kind of miniature Korean Christmas shrub. “No,” I said, smiling awkwardly. “Not this year.” On Christmas Eve, when I stopped in to pick up my grey wool pants, she again asked about the mysterious “rent bush.” But this time her tone seemed shy and a bit sad. Overcome with guilt, I decided to fess up. “I’m sorry, Sunny,” I said. “I don’t know what a ‘rent bush’ is.” Suddenly, her face lit up. Giggling like a schoolgirl, she quickly reached under the counter and retrieved a small inexpensive lint brush with a red bow tied around the handle. “May Krees-mahs!" she shouted as she proudly placed it in my hand. "For all my special customer!” I’m sure I probably got several very nice gifts for Christmas last year, but the only one I remember is my “rent bush.” I used it all year.

Given how uncertain everything is looking these days, this seems like a good time to point out that the holidays weren’t created to stress us out or make us feel like shit. They are not on the calendar to remind us that we are still single or make us wish we got along better with our families. The goal isn’t really to run from store to store trying to find that perfect gift for each of our loved ones; that special something that might make them “happy” (at least for a little while). Lately, I've been thinking that the best thing we can give each other is our attention, even if it’s just for a moment. All any of us really wants or needs is to be acknowledged by the other; to be singled out; to know that we show up on the radar; that we are someone’s “special customer.” In my experience, feeling “happy” rarely lasts more than a few days, while feeling “appreciated” can sometimes last until Spring.

So my dear readers (and friends), although I’m unable to send you each your very own “rent bush,” I don’t want this holiday to slip by without expressing how much your friendship, loyalty and enthusiasm have meant to me over this past year. Your comments and email have been an invaluable source of inspiration; both personally and professionally. I hope you have a very Happy Holiday season and please accept my best wishes for a bountiful New Year filled with recognizable love, useful lessons and a truckload of good old fashioned luck. ‘Til next time.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Welcome to the Hotel California

I can still remember the first time I visited Los Angeles. I was a young (and far too serious) New York stage actor. Having just booked a prestigeous theatre job, I had a few weeks to kill before rehearsals started. My former roommate had recently moved to L.A. (and instantly disappeared). It took some doing, but when I finally tracked her down, she enthusiastically invited me out for a visit. On a bleak, freezing winter day, I hopped a west-bound flight and five hours later touched down in L.A. My ex-roomie was there to pick me up, looking gorgeous in a denim mini-skirt and driving a slightly battered, black ’66 Fiat convertible. We sped out of the airport with the top down and the radio blasting. For the first time in my life, I breathed in the balmy California night air. I could barely believe it. As I peeled off my Army-green, wool turtleneck, I looked up at the palm trees and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Oh my God! This is paradise!”

Three years later, I came back for pilot season. It was the worst six months of my life. I swore I’d never return. Two years later, I was back for what I thought would be a three-month writing gig. Sixteen years later, I’m still here. I have a car, a large circle of friends, a career, a charming 1920’s townhouse and a garage full of junk. You’d think, having lived a substantial chunk of my life here, I’d now think of myself as a Californian, but strangely I don’t. I still feel like a tourist. I know some people get off the plane and instantly feel at home. Not me.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate it here. I’m not one of those crabby people who go around bashing Los Angeles. Aside from the traffic and air pollution, there’s very little to complain about. It’s a huge, vibrant place. You can find anything you want in L.A. provided you’re willing to drive for an hour or two to get it. I'm certainly not sorry I came. The industry has been very kind to me. God knows, I’ve made ten times the money working in film and television that I would’ve ever made as a non-profit theatre artist. My time in L.A. has mostly been fun. I never disliked my adopted home. It just took me a while to come to terms with it. Quite a long while.

If you’re into the ocean, the desert or mountains, this is definitely the place to be. Nature rules in L.A. And occasionally, she likes to remind the nine million residents of Los Angeles County who’s the boss. We, her tenants, are surprisingly accepting of these seasonal disasters. They’ve become so much a part of our lives we barely notice them anymore. During the recent wild fires, I went out to my car and found it covered in a fine layer of ash. As I brushed it off my windshield, I remember wondering if this particular ash had once been a tree, a McMansion or someone’s recently incinerated trailer. During the rainy season, there’s nothing we here in L.A. enjoy more than news footage of an eight-million dollar house sliding off a Malibu hillside. We can watch that over and over again. And then there are the mighty earthquakes that are the only true equalizers in a city strictly divided by race and class. I was relatively new here when I was shaken out of bed by the ‘94 Northridge quake. For the next few days, Los Angeles was a different city. Every hand was extended. People drove slowly and even used their turn signals. Nobody complained about anything. The most common question I heard strangers ask each other was “Are you alright? Do you need anything?” It was amazing.

Although I know there are native Angelinos, I don’t run into many of them. Almost everyone I know arrived on these sunny shores from somewhere else. Although the city was established over 200 years ago, it has not retained a strong sense of its past. Los Angeles is a city interested in today and tomorrow. Not yesterday. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you’re a plaque-reading, history-loving geek like me, it can leave you feeling a little lonely. For a couple of hundred years now, people have been moving to California to redefine themselves. This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest problems with dating in L.A. Sure, you may have been a piece of ignorant white trash back in Ohio, but here you’re a self-declared potential movie star. And why not? Stranger things have happened, right? However, after you’ve been dating somebody for a few months, your new love interest might notice that you occasionally wipe your mouth on your sleeve. The truth is starting to surface. Suddenly, they are seeing the real you (as opposed to the person you’d like to be). This usually means the party’s over. It’s time to buy some new clothes, find a new hottie and start the whole process over again.

Every time I read the statistics that say there's a 97% chance that a devastating 8.5 earthquake will hit southern California in the next 20-30 years, I can’t help but wonder what the fuck we’re all doing here. Shouldn’t we be packing? Like...Now! That said, there is something about this place that defuses even the best logic. The Pacific Ocean is magnificent. There’s a moment around dusk when the light here is breathtaking; capable of splashing extraordinary drama across the most common stucco and giving an ordinary color like violet an almost ethereal glow. As I sit here typing... in my back yard… in my undershirt… in December… it’s hard not to acknowledge how lucky we are. This place is home to a vast creative community whose innovative work entertains and influences a global audience. L.A. keeps alive the last myth of the west: That there is always something slightly better just over the horizon.

Yes, it’s also a giant suburban sprawl. Yes, the primary architectural style could best be described as “Early Strip Mall.” Yes, rugged individualism has largely eroded into silly self-involvement. Yet, there is something very special about this place that defies characterization. L.A. doesn’t possess that stuffy sense of self-importance that other major cities have. It’s has space. It has patience. Times passes almost imperceptibly here. In a sense, not much happens, but when it does, it’s massive. It’s Biblical. It might rain in your town, but here in L.A. it’s “Storm Watch.” You might not pay much attention when you hear a fire engine, but here it’s a signal to grab the cat, the family photos and run for your life. To me, L.A. is like a crazy relative. Dependably outrageous. Always the same, but never dull. You can’t quite explain why you love them. You just do.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Monday, December 8, 2008

Have You Seen Her Lately?

Every once in a while you find yourself saying things you never thought you'd say. This happened to me last year when I was sitting in a meeting about a project I’d written. The casting director, the producers and I were discussing a list of actresses we were considering going out to. The project in question would be my directorial debut and in the world of independent film, a celebrity attachment can mean the difference between life and death. Since the film was based on a memoir, we needed an actress who could “stretch” (playing the character at several different ages). Plus, she had to be bankable, accessible and (God willing) actually able to act. It was a lot to hope for.

The casting director suggested we brainstorm a list of actresses ranging in age from their late 20’s to their mid-40’s. But whenever a mature actress’ name was mentioned, the producer would grouse “I can’t get anything for her.” I understood what he meant, but it felt sort of harsh and creepy (as if the actress was an old cow at a livestock auction). I could sense the tide turning. I’d entered into the project excited about the possibility of creating an opportunity for a 40ish actress, but now the pressure was on. Maybe the producer was right. Maybe younger was better. Younger was easier. Younger meant more money. More media attention. Then the casting director mentioned the name of a truly fabulous actress; a woman with phenomenal credits, blessed with an ageless face and spirit; the sort of artist any first-time director would be blessed to have onboard. But it was too late. An evil, boorish instinct had already taken root in me. I raised an eyebrow and in a bemused, dismissive sort of way said, “Have you seen her lately?” The actress was 45 years old. It was not my finest hour.

Ageism in Hollywood isn’t exactly new and no one is immune. Actors, writers, directors, producers, executives, cinematographers and all manner of below the line talent are affected by it. I’ve noticed that on Facebook (my latest obsession) the Hollywood contingent is all too happy to tell you the month and day they were born (but rarely the actual year) Only people born after 1983 tend to display that critical piece of information. I don’t know about you, but in 1983, I was dancing to “Beat It” on a linoleum dance floor in Diane Duff’s Little Club in Buffalo, New York. At the time, I could never have imagined walking into a pitch meeting and having a polite young executive extend his hand and say “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Bottrell. Did you have any trouble finding us, sir?”

Actresses obviously bear the brunt of Hollywood’s phobia about aging. A couple of years ago, Demi Moore actually listed all the cosmetic procedures she’d had done including liposuction, implants and even one to make her knees look younger. And still no jobs! Every year there’s yet another outcry – Where are the roles for older actresses! I understand that they want to work, but my question is this: Do they want to play older characters? If so, why all the surgeries, diets and trainers? Why allow your stylist to continue attaching massive hair extensions to your head? Why not ease up, let nature takes its course and give Kathy Bates a run for her money?

I hate saying this, but the studios can’t really be blamed since they are simply responding to a chaotic marketplace. These days, young men and teenage boys are pretty much the only people left who can be dependably lured out of their homes. Young men are not a complicated bunch. Give them a few explosions and some big boobs and your film is a hit. A couple of years ago I was in a theater and right before the previews began, we were treated to an ad for some of kind of moisturizing soap. In the spot, we saw all these people; each of them “beautiful” in their own way. “Beauty,” by the way, meant looking great while wearing nothing but a bath towel. The last image was of a woman in her late 50’s blessed with a gorgeous face and a killer body. She was amazing looking. Her beauty brought a smile to my face until the kid behind me (who was maybe 19 years old) groaned… “Oh man…Gross,” as if some rotting cadaver had just appeared on screen. Youth is cruel.

The truth is, when it comes to entertainment, neither the young nor the old particularly like it when things get too real. Audiences depend on Hollywood to give them a version of events that’s as fabulous as it is ridiculous. I ask you…How many people do you know who look like Brad Pitt? How many people come home to Angelina Jolie or Halle Barry? Hollywood is not about the lives we are living. It’s about the lives we wish we were living. Lives where people live in huge apartments, wear beautiful clothes and have mattress-slamming sex seven nights a week. In the movies, we fight bullies and corruption, say witty things in the face of death and have gun fights in crowded train stations (without ever killing a single innocent person). We are forever brave. Forever smart. Forever young.

Last weekend I went to a screening of “Gran Torino” and I couldn’t help but be awed by Clint Eastwood. Here’s an actor-producer-director who passed 40 quite a long time ago and only now seems to have hit his stride. Who else puts out (on average) two movies a year? And substantive Oscar-worthy movies to boot. In “Gran Torino,” he gives a terrifically entertaining performance as a crusty, hard-ass retiree trying to redeem his sins with what little time he has left. Clint has unapologetically allowed age do what it does best – etch his remarkable face into an intricate map of human experience. I know, I know. We’re not supposed to look forward to growing older, but watching Clint, it didn’t look so bad. Maybe that’s what movie stars are really here to do. Make us not afraid of things. Including that new set of lines forming under my eyes.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Better Than Bitter

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a seminar designed to offer inspiration and guidance to young screenwriters. The event was billed as a casual discussion featuring six produced screenwriters. I wound up seated beside a hugely successful writer who opted to use his allotted time to engage in a personal bitchfest about the entertainment industry. Since he was a highly paid, award-winning writer, we were all surprised to learn that he considered himself a victim of the studio system - a system staffed by callous morons who were apparently preventing him from doing any truly great writing.

At first I thought he was joking and would settle down after he got a few laughs, but the rant continued. I began to wonder if he was aware of where he was or who he was talking to. Then I started thinking about how much money this guy made rewriting crappy scripts (the majority of which never saw the light of day). As I watched the smiles start sliding off the faces of our audience, I decided to break in. Using my best "Mary Hart" voice, I said I would love to hear him talk some of the things that inspired him as a writer. My request threw him a bit, but he did manage to rise to the occasion – sort of. The incident made me so angry I wound up recounting it to friends for weeks. I was surprised how furious I felt about the whole thing. And that’s when it hit me. The reason I was so pissed about his bitterness was that I was secretly fighting a little of my own.

When I first arrived in L.A., I was a broke playwright clueless about the movie business. I remember attending a party at a friend’s place in Laurel Canyon. It was one of those houses precariously cantilevered over the edge of a cliff (which to me felt like a giant metaphor for the life I was entering into). I was introduced to a balding, bespectacled guy who’d been making a very nice living as a screenwriter for over twenty years. His gentle, professorial manner instantly put me at ease. I was grateful for the chance to ask a few questions and was dazzled by the list of directors and stars he’d worked with over the years. But the conversation took a strange turn when I asked the one question no screenwriter wants to hear: “What have you written that I might have seen?” In his twenty-odd years of working with A-List talent, he had yet to see one of his scripts produced. His mood darkened. He poured himself a third, then a fourth drink as vitriol began to ooze out of him like molten lava. Suddenly, everyone he’d ever worked with was a backstabbing traitor; a loathsome, lying, Nazi rapist. I began to feel sorry for him. I also resolved at that moment to never become him. I would never become bitter. Never!

That proved to be a hard promise to keep. I’ve been lucky in that, for the most part, my scripts have been greeted with enthusiasm, sometimes wild enthusiasm. I once did a rewrite for a studio (whose logo is a large rodent) and was virtually carried around the lot on the shoulders of the execs, they were so happy. Pre-production would start immediately! My future was bright! Ninety days later, (for dubious reasons) the movie was shut down. At another famed studio, I’ve got a project now entering its seventh year of purgatory. Every full moon it rises from the dead, only to fall lifeless into its coffin again as soon as somebody mentions a start date. This can do a number on you after a while. “Almosts” can wear you down. You can only be stabbed in the heart so many times. As one writer I know who left the business put it, “I got tired of being fucked without a kiss.”

Without constant weeding, my artistic garden can get overrun by jealousy and resentment. Every time I mentor young writers I try to recommend the screenwriting journals of William Goldman and John Gregory Dunne. While Mr. Goldman’s books (“Adventures in the Screen Trade,” etc.) are about his work on iconic films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Mr. Dunne’s book (“Monster”) follows the bizarre, nine-year odyssey he and his co-writer (and wife) Joan Didion took with the largely forgettable “Up Close and Personal.” One thing that Mr. Goldman, Ms. Didion and the recently deceased Mr. Dunne all had in common was that none of them were exclusively screenwriters. All three wrote in other mediums as well: novels, non-fiction, journalism, short stories, plays, etc. And that, in my humble opinion (and Mr. Goldman’s) is the secret to maintaining one’s sanity in the screenwriting business. Write something else.

A few years ago, I teamed up with a composer and began writing choral music for my church. It was a perfect outlet to use my talents as a wordsmith in an arena where it would have meaning and be appreciated. I soon volunteered to write and deliver some speeches on behalf of a charity I believed in (this also gave me a chance to exercise my performing muscles). I never dreamed that doing a short film would alter the course of my career, but it did. Writing this blog has led to magazine assignments and some interest from publishers about possibly writing a book. Although none of these projects has generated a ton of income, they’ve given me the chance to create freely; without permission, interference or notes. With no history of broken promises hovering over my head, I’ve been able to strengthen the most important thing any writer can possess: confidence in his or her own voice.

In my experience, very little good work ever emanates from a place of anger or bitterness. Chances are that nothing is stopping that A-List screenwriter mentioned earlier from taking a year off and writing a novel or an independent film -- except possibly a huge mortgage, an expensive ex-wife or just plain old fear. I like money. I like health insurance. I like success. But none of those things drew me to the altar originally. I thought I had a story to tell. I still think I do. If that’s in fact what I’m on the planet to do, then nothing can really stop me. The simple act of putting a few words down (sort of like I’m doing right now) stitches up the wound. It makes me forget the black eye I got the last time. Yes, it can get a little rough out there on the playground, but there are worse fates than having an imagination and knowing how to use it. Have a good week, Hollywood. Give ‘em hell.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Why I Love Jews

A few months ago, I called home to chat with my mom and while we were talking, my cousin asked to speak with me. She wanted to tell me that she’d recently heard that all the major Hollywood studios were run by Jews and suggested that perhaps if I wanted to be more successful, I should try to think up some ideas that Jews might like. In my cousin’s defense, she’s a bit of an oddball who’s lived her whole life in small towns in Kentucky. I also suspect that she's never met a Jewish person in her life.

As embarrassing as this sounds, I didn't know there were any Jewish people in America until I was about 19 years old. Having grown up in small, working class towns, Jewish people weren’t exactly on our radar. Because my parents were big churchgoers, I’d definitely heard of Jews, but I thought they were just another dusty Old Testament tribe like the Pharisees or the Samaritans. In high school, I discovered that there were Jews in Europe and that after the war, many of them had moved to Israel. But somehow I missed the part about Jews having been a part of this country for over two hundred years. I smoked a lot of dope in those days.

Then at 19, I was cast in the chorus of a summer stock musical. The leading man was a guy named Barry Eisenberg. Barry told a lot of jokes and the punch lines always had something to do with somebody being a Jew. Needless to say, I never got the jokes. Then one day, I turned to Barry and with a totally straight face asked him if he was Jewish. He looked at me like I had just landed from Mars. “Yes,” he answered. Then, trying to sound sophisticated, I asked him what part of Israel he was from. Barry became sort of fascinated with my ignorance and during the run of the show, causally caught me up on a century or two of recent Jewish history. It was a good thing he did.

A year later, I was living in New York and working in a real estate office where I soon became intimately acquainted with the lives of two Jewish people. “Fred” (the middle-aged guy I worked for) had a particularly tortured relationship with his mother. Whenever he would see her coming from his office window, he would literally run out the back door, screaming that I was to tell her that he “wouldn’t be back for hours.” When his mother would huff and puff her way into the office, I would dutifully recite the official story. She would then shrug and say “I’ll wait.” And wait she did. Every hour or so, my boss would call in to see if she was still there. When I told him “yes,” he would yell at me to get rid of her - which was impossible. “Edna” had the patience of a Sphinx and all the time in the world. Clearly in no hurry to return to her empty apartment in the Bronx, she handily filled the time by telling me stories about the old neighborhood (which had apparently gone to hell after the Puerto Ricans arrived). She would tell me about my boss’s childhood. My boss’s brother. Their good-for-nothing father who'd abandoned the family. Her nervous breakdown. How her sons hated her. How, as revenge, they only dated blonde shikzas and refused to give her any grandchildren. Then there was her failing health. Her recent gastric operations. Her back. Her shoulder. Her feet. This would go on for hours.

Many times her visits lasted through lunch, which meant I would have to feed her. This was always sort of a production. We would go over the deli menu, item by item, as Edna briefed me on what she could or could not eat. Certain items would give her gas. Others would make her constipated. This could give her a headache. That could cause swelling. Eventually, she would settle on an Egg salad sandwich which (although it might result in death) would at least end her suffering.

After several hours, my boss would give up and return to the office. Since my desk was right outside his door, I couldn’t help but overhear every word. Having come from a repressed Southern family who loved talking about people but never to them, listening to Fred and Edna was a revelation. Their conversation would start out casually enough, but would soon blossom into a festival of guilt and blame, usually climaxing in yelling and tears. Then somehow it would settle down again. Edna would limp out of the office, get back on the number 6 train and head back to Riverdale. Nobody ever gave an inch and the whole thing would be repeated in about three week’s time.

When I left the real estate office, I went to work for a Kosher catering company based in Brooklyn that used to do events in a union hall so crowded it was like trying to serve dinner in a mosh pit. My first agents were a lovely pair of Jewish ladies named Marilyn and Diane. My second set of agents (who were young, crazy cokeheads) were also Jewish. My first great adult friend was a fellow acting student (also Jewish and also named David). In Hollywood, I’ve co-written with, been produced, represented, befriended, guided and counseled by Jewish people. My legal affairs, financial life and public relations have always been gracefully handled by some of God’s chosen. My doctor is Jewish. My neighbors are Jewish. My best friend (a guy who makes me laugh every day) is the son of camp survivors. It doesn’t get more Jewish than that. I adore his Mom. One of her paintings hangs in my bedroom.

I think one of the reasons I’ve always connected with Jewish people is that I was raised by a quiet father with unshakable faith who instilled in me a belief that I was part of something larger. I was also blessed with a loving mother who, while assuring me that I could achieve anything, also made it clear that it might be safer if I somehow achieved it without leaving the house. My parents taught me to show kindness and to offer praise and recognition to others. They also taught me to feel vaguely guilty about everything and to always expect the worst. When I explained all this to my friend Marty, he christened me “an honorary Jew.” He was also the person who told me that the video game Pac Man was actually a history of the Jewish People: Being chased while eating. Do you want to know the biggest reason I love Jews? They’re the only group of people I know who love bacon and Christmas more than I do. Friendly, funny, honest and loyal. As Marty’s mother used to say, “What’s not to like?”

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lunatics & Stupid Whores

When I first came to New York to study acting, I got a job answering phones and running errands for a real estate company that sold residential property in Manhattan. It was a good gig that lasted (off and on) for over five years and allowed me to support myself between acting jobs. The experience taught me that real estate was (in one respect) very similar to show business: Any idiot could become a huge success if they happened to be standing in the right place in the right time.

The entertainment industry is mostly populated by talented, sane and hardworking people. But there are certainly moments when you have to wonder who left the door open; letting all these nut-jobs and morons into the clubhouse. I’m not talking about the jolly eccentrics; the quirky artists who get on your nerves, but ultimately deliver when the chips are down. I’m referring to those nightmarish, horrible people who gum up the works, overturn the boat, hog all the oxygen and stink up the joint. Sadly, I can think of several such people without even trying very hard. Sometimes these individuals can amazingly float along for years based on one lucky break. Other times their insanity (or incompetence) is the key to their success, since they use it to wear down the opposition. As any of us who have ever been forced to work with one of these folks can attest, things can quickly go from “difficult” to surreal.

Early in my career, I did a play with a “celebrity” whose only claim to fame was her role in an infamous sex scandal that brought down a popular congressman. Despite having no acting experience whatsoever, she got herself into a prestigious class taught by a very famous (and very elderly) acting teacher who christened her an undiscovered genius. Buoyed by this endorsement, she then snagged herself a wealthy boyfriend and somehow conned him into financing her off-Broadway debut. I joined the production about a week before it opened, replacing an actor who had wisely chosen to bail. By this point, the play had notoriously gone through three directors and several cast changes mostly due to the coarse and violent behavior of our star who could easily have been mistaken for one of the hookers working on nearby 10th Avenue. The show (which was a horrible train wreck) mercifully closed after about two performances, but it was a strange experience to share the stage each night with a woman who appeared to be (how can I put this delicately?)…a crazy whore. Had she been a nice whore or a pathetic whore, I wouldn’t have minded so much. But she was a mean whore who called people “cocksuckers” to their face. When the show closed, she and her boyfriend disappeared into the night (with our paychecks) and were never heard from again.

One of the deadliest combinations is ego and stupidity. I once did an episode of a show with an “up-and-coming” actor who had strangely decided that television work was now beneath him. From the second he arrived on set, nothing met with his approval. Soon, it began to dawn on everyone that the actor’s problems didn’t really lie with the “weak” script, “second rate” co-stars or “lame” director. The real problem was that the actor was incredibly stupid. The guy looked and sounded good on camera, but off-camera he was something of a dolt. Although rumors of firing his dumb ass circled around the set, his antics had put the episode so far behind schedule there was no choice but to try to soldier on. It never got any better. On the last day of shooting, he waited until we were all standing on the set (in full make-up and costume), before announcing that he found the scene offensive (on moral grounds!) and was unwilling to perform it. Sensing that this fresh bullshit might keep us here all night, I piped up, saying I totally understood his dilemma and had a great idea about how to solve it. Amazingly, the director and producer stood by as I assigned a watered-down version of his “offensive lines” to another actor. My version didn’t make much sense, but the producer instantly approved it, the director shot it and the episode went on the air (with my rewrite intact) three weeks later. The actor continued to work, but “up and coming” he was not.

Sometimes, talented people become psychos when they are out of their element. Drowning in self-doubt, they can begin to think of themselves as a castle under siege. Suddenly, you are either “with them” or “against them” (with no middle ground). A few years ago, a friend of mine was cast in a sit-com that featured a well-known stand-up comic in the lead. When I asked her how things were were going, she sighed and said it was a basically an easy gig. She explained that each week the show started out with a fairly normal script; one that included a serviceable plot plus lots of jokes that were spread out evenly among the characters. But gradually during the course of rehearsals, the star would whine and scream and weep and threaten everyone until all the funny lines were eventually handed over. By the end of each week, my friend’s contribution to the show basically amounted to sitting on the sofa and saying some version of: “You’re kidding! So, then what happened?”

On the writing side, I’ve certainly encountered a few lunatics and dim bulbs as well. More than once, I’ve been in note sessions that seemed like “Twilight Zone” episodes (my favorite of these was when the director showed up for our meeting shit-faced drunk). Then there are occasionally people who leave you wondering how exactly they got their job in the first place. I can remember being sent to meet a woman a few years ago who was sort of the Sarah Palin of development executives. Pretty and well put-together, she seemed strangely clueless about the industry and had an odd tendency to start sentences she didn’t know how to finish. I can still remember her glassy expression as she assured me I could expect a bright future in Hollywood because (as she put it) my strengths were “just…so strong.”

Believe me when I tell you, I have my nutty days as well. This is a stressful business. I’d be the first to admit that the pressure to be the hippest, smartest, fastest, most-talented artist on two legs can be a bit much. If you’re not nuts coming in the door, you probably will be soon. And in the end, a little craziness might even be a good thing. Like the old saying goes: “Show business is like the insane asylum. Anyone can apply but only the truly insane are admitted.”

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being delightfully middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The History of Drama (Part Five): The Artist in the Family

Once when I was about seven years-old, I remember some strange doctor trying to make friendly chitchat with me as he looked into my seriously plugged-up ears. At the time, I couldn’t understand why he kept asking me all these dumb questions like “Did I like baseball?” “No,” I said. Did I like football or basketball? “No.” Was I in the scouts? Did I like camping, hunting, fishing, BB guns? Finally, my mother, who was looking a little embarrassed, chimed in, saying that I was very good at drawing and painting. Smiling weakly, she added that I was sort of “the artist in the family.” Sadly, that was probably the best explanation my mom could come up with for her increasingly weird child.

A funny thing happens once you take the opposite road in childhood – it’s very hard to get back. Each summer, I can remember thinking that maybe I should spend a little time trying to learn a few “normal” pastimes, but it never seemed to happen. Since our household was large and chaotic, nobody really paid much attention to how you amused yourself. As long as it didn’t cost money, offend Jesus or damage whatever ramshackle house we were renting, you were free to do whatever you liked.

Being the sickly sort, I could often be found lying on the sofa watching our old black & white Zenith. I loved it. It was my window to the universe. For my ninth birthday, I actually begged for (and received) my very own subscription to TV guide. Each week I read it cover-to-cover as if it were Tolstoy. I became obsessed with the programming grids and soon created my own imaginary TV network, “UBS.” With a ruler and an old notebook, I drafted an entire slate of UBS shows including comedies, dramas and variety hours -- all carefully counter-programmed against the competing networks. Like any good executive, I tried to spice up the schedule by adding specials and TV movies including one called “The Strange Death of Mrs. Thompson” in which the murder victim coincidentally had the same name as my much-hated 4th grade math teacher.

Given that the Bottrell family’s motto was always “We’re broke, so don’t ask,” I learned early on to become a connoisseur of cheap thrills. I was the first of my siblings to hold a library card. I dug prizes out of cereal boxes, clipped coupons and entered a zillion contests – once winning a cardboard lemonade stand. When I ran out of actual lemonade I managed to sell the neighborhood kids a few cups of what I called “Liquid Ice” (which miraculously came right out of our garden hose). It wasn’t long before I discovered the magic of catalogues. Anyone would send you a catalogue. All you had to do was ask. Soon I had stacks of them, filled with treasures I dreamed of one day possessing.

When I finished reading a comic book, I’d cut out the images with a pair of scissors; rearranging them and pasting them onto pages of typing paper in order to create a new comic with an original story. Wanting desperately to possess superpowers of my own, I would safety-pin a bath towel around my neck (to simulate a flowing cape) and then chase invisible evildoers around my back yard with a broken croquet mallet. Occasionally, I would encounter dangerous piles of Kryptonite (cleverly disguised as dog shit) and quickly pulverize them. Each bizarre obsession would gradually give way to another: Egyptian pyramids, coin collecting, mermaids, flying saucers, Ann-Margaret, Greek gods, garage sales, astronomy charts, road maps, old record albums. One afternoon, I remember pulling my arms inside my T-shirt and spending the next several hours seeing what it would be like to live without hands.

Oddly, nothing fascinated me as much as death. When a neighborhood cat became adept at catching sparrows, I began conducting numerous, well-attended bird funerals. What most of the six year-old mourners didn’t realize was that a week later I would dig up the remains to see what they looked like. Much of my voluminous artwork included pictures of my family walking hand-in-hand with our Savior (while Russian bombs fell overhead). Once when I was being punished for something, I took a marker and drew red lines across my wrists. Then I lay down on the floor of the hallway and waited for someone to discover my attempted suicide. Mostly, everyone just stepped over me on their way to the bathroom.

When the roof started leaking, I drew detailed floor plans for the massive homes we might someday inhabit. After I saw a copy of “House Beautiful”, I was allowed to rearrange the furniture (as long as I moved it back before my Dad got home from work). Somehow each change of season offered some kind of promise. I was the first to volunteer to stay inside during recess if it meant getting to decorate the bulletin board. I traced my hand to create Thanksgiving turkeys. I cut out leaves in fall colors. I made snow out of cotton and stars out of tin foil.

My first taste of show business arrived via a book on magic tricks found in the local library. Soon, my poor family couldn’t sit down with being forced to pick a card, any card. When made to share a bedroom with other kids, I’d use a flashlight to create creepy hand shadows on the ceiling while making up elaborate tales of escaped murderers still on the loose. Once when I moved to a new school, I told the other kids my parents were secretly rich, but extremely stingy.

As I sit here struggling to come up with that fabulous spec script that no one will be able to turn down, I feel a bit jealous of that weird little kid. Half of my artistic life has been spent trying to recapture that kind of abandon. Looking back, I can see that a lot of my childhood creations were in response to a world that never seemed too secure. One of my favorite essayists, Anne Lamott, advises her writing students to “write the world you want to live in, because by doing so, you will bring it into existence.” I’ve been quite lucky in my career, largely aided by a life that was once imagined by a geeky, asthmatic kid in a cape, smashing dog turds with a broken croquet mallet. Everything I write is, in one way or another, a small attempt to repay him.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being delightfully middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Elect Yourself

Hollywood loves politics. And politics loves Hollywood. In the past few weeks, many of our most famous, articulate and well-informed citizens have been out there stumping for their favorite candidates and causes. But celebrity endorsements can be a mixed blessing. Although most stars can easily express how they “feel” about a certain political candidate or issue, few are prepared to tell you exactly “why” they feel that way. Thankfully the media understands this and rarely asks any tough questions out there on the red carpet. The good news is that stars are extremely good at attracting the two things no political campaign can live without: money and unearned attention. Over the years, show business has even managed to graduate a number of elected officials including: Ronald Reagan (remember him?), Sheila Kuel (D-California), Fred Grandy (R–Kansas) and Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee). Even Clint Eastwood was Mayor of Carmel for a while and the always hilarious Al Franken is currently running for a senate seat in Minnesota.

Amazingly, three actors from the movie “Predator” have gone on to political careers: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-California), Governor Jesse Ventura (I-Minnesota) and Sonny Landham. Sonny (who prior to “Predator” had a brief career in porn) was recently running for Governor in my home state of Kentucky. That is until the Libertarian party decided to remove him from their ticket when he called for genocide against Arabs and referred to them as "Ragheads." It’s risky out there. Legendary talents like Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin paid dearly for their unpopular political beliefs while Jane Fonda survived relatively unscathed. I still contend that Martin Sheen should have run for the Oval Office in 2004, since at that time I think most Americans assumed he was already President.

I actually feel bad for the conservative contingent in Hollywood. There are a few big guns who go unpunished (Adam Sandler, Tom Selleck, Kelsey Grammer, etc.) but confessing to a GOP membership doesn’t make you a lot of friends out here. Conservatives always complain about how the liberal mafia controls Hollywood. I don’t know why this surprises anyone. Entertainment (and drama itself) thrives on bad behavior, questionable morals and irreverence for the status quo (three things that come pretty naturally to us Democrats). Plus, most conservative entertainment is well, usually a little dull. Director David Zucker (who is an extremely funny guy) recently gave us Hollywood’s first conservative comedy, “An American Carol” which cost twenty million dollars to make and has, so far grossed a little less than seven. Not-so-famous conservatives tend to keep a low profile. In Hollywood, admitting that you willingly attended a Republican fundraiser will make you about as popular as saying you recently enjoyed a charming minstrel show.

I’m not a huge politico, but I did spend ten years of my life sitting across the breakfast table from an iron-willed, Irish-Catholic Libertarian, so I can assure you that my views as a moderate liberal received a vigorous “vetting.” I don’t disagree with everything that conservatives stand for, but I do believe we are at an important crossroads, and I’d just like to see us aim a little higher. And speaking of aiming higher, I’d now like to talk a little about California’s Proposition 8.

As you might have already noticed, the people who are trying to convince you to vote for this wretched proposition have yet to come up with one good reason why you should do so. Lacking a viable argument, they have fueled their campaign by trying to convince California voters that (as “The Colbert Report” so brilliantly put it) “Gay people want to date your babies.” Speaking as a Gay person, I can assure that is not the case. In fact, we Gays wish all California families well. What this seemingly very angry group of people are not telling you is this: Gay Marriage doesn’t affect straight people. It doesn’t affect children. It doesn’t affect school districts. It will not harm the Catholic or the Mormon church (both of whom have put their considerable weight behind trying to pass Prop. 8). In fact, no church will ever be forced to perform Gay weddings, nor will they be stripped of their tax exempt status. Proposition 8 (which seeks to eliminate same-sex Marriage in California) is a completely unnecessary measure. If passed, it will do nothing but diminish the lives of Gay people who (if I may be frank) put up with enough shit as it is. Please Vote No on Proposition 8. And ask everyone you know to do the same.

As it is with every political season, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the future. “Vote for us and everything will be great!” “Vote for them and everything will suck!” Both sides seem to have laid claim to the keywords “hope” and “change.” Honestly, I have nothing against conservatives, but lately their message has felt wrapped in a certain nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. The word “diverse” doesn’t begin to describe the America we are living in. The last seven years have finally opened our eyes to the fact that we share this planet with a few billion other people; many of whom we don’t currently like and may never fully understand. However, if the goal is a world that’s habitable, then we will have to start sharing responsibility for its peaceful preservation. Like it or not, we seem to be entering a new era; one that might require us to unplug our iPods so we can listen. It might require us to quit rolling through stop signs and let the other guy go first. It might ask us to consider (or reconsider) what we truly value.

Yes, I know, I’m just another Hollywood liberal (and I’m not even famous, so why should you listen to me?), but I'd like to point out that elected officials (and hard-won ballot measures) will never be able to create the kind of sweeping change we keep hearing about. Only we, the governed, can do that. Today strikes me as an excellent opportunity to ask ourselves what we personally are willing to do, starting November 4th, to move our communities, our country and our world toward higher ground. As someone who writes happy endings for a living, I'd like to make a suggestion. Take something other than “hope” into the voting booth tomorrow. Take some courage. Take some generosity. Take some responsibility. And by all means, take some willingness. It’s a new day.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being delightfully middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The House of Flop

“What the hell”, I thought. I hadn’t tried to write for TV in years. Why not give it a shot? I dove in and three weeks later, a 51-page spec pilot was rolling out of my printer. Like all great TV shows, it had a dazzling cast of characters, tons of melodrama, a dash of comedy plus lots of bloody, gratuitous violence (for the kids). Flush with excitement, I showed it to a small, select group of people, the majority of whom didn’t seem to like it very much. They had a few good things to say, but the common theme seemed to be confusion. Apparently, my initial stab at creating an hour-long drama had left my readers a bit baffled as to what kind of TV show I was trying to write. Was it supposed to be funny? Dramatic? Scary? Clearly, nobody was quite seeing in their mind’s eye, what I had seen in mine. If this had been a feature script I would’ve had a better sense of how to proceed, but being a relative newcomer to TV writing, I felt sort of clueless. After a week of lost sleep, I opted to slide my pilot quietly “into the drawer” and move on to a feature spec. In the land of show business, this sort of occurrence goes by many comforting names, but in the real world, I think it’s called “failure.”

Who knows why, but every once in a while a project just doesn’t gel. Sometimes, you’re blissfully unaware of that fact until someone (hopefully someone tactful) points it out. Early in my career, I wrote a short play that attracted the attention of a New York based TV executive. Sensing my ship had come in, I rushed to my typewriter (yes, it was a typewriter) and proceeded to crank out my first-ever TV movie (A.K.A. backdoor pilot). At the time, quirky, character based shows like “Picket Fences” and “Northern Exposure” were all the rage, so I decided to “outquirk” them all with a story based on the early days of my parents’ marriage when my dad was a young evangelical minister. I wrote it as truthfully as I could (including lots of references to Jesus) and sent it off to the executive. Weeks later, I received a short, terse note saying she had problems with the show’s “intense religiosity” and “aggressive proselytizing.” It was the first time that it had occurred to me that this exec was a native New Yorker (and Jewish) and might not have experienced the story in the spirit it was intended. Of course, it’s easy to step in artistic dog shit when you’re young and inexperienced, but sadly it can happen at any point in a person's career.

By 2005, I was a produced screenwriter, living in D.C. and commuting to L.A. once a month for work. One day, mid-flight, I had what I thought was a hilarious idea for a buddy movie. The plot revolved around two young cops forced to go undercover in order to solve a series of murders in a clown school. Hilarious, right? Granted, I’m not known for churning out mainstream comedies, but this idea practically wrote itself. In a few short weeks I had a script that I thought was side-splittingly funny. It had tons of physical gags and managed to balance both highbrow and lowbrow comedy including a scene where our heroes burst into a backroom; certain that they’ve located the place where the sinister clowns are meeting. Finding the room empty, the first cop looks suspiciously around and says “Where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns?” and the second cop replies “Well, maybe next year.” That joke still makes me laugh! When the script was finished, I showed it to my then-manager and agents. It was greeted with what could best be described as a “deafening silence.” Nobody got it. One of my agents simply said “I hate clowns. They scare me. I couldn’t finish it.” My former manager said no clown movie had ever been successful in the entire history of show business. I couldn’t believe it. A year later, I tried it out on my new manager who was similarly baffled by the tone (R-rated humor mixed with circus clowns). I don’t know. Maybe I’m insane. Maybe I have no taste. But that script still slays me. I think it's a riot.

God knows, I’ve written some bad shit in my day. Some of it I did consciously (usually with a gun to my head). Such is the life of the professional. The good news is that the business is usually forgiving to writers (much more so than directors or stars). In my opinion, if there’s one thing more deadly than flopping, it’s the fear of flopping. I encounter this a lot when talking to novice writers who can never seem to finish anything (a sure sign of fear of flopping). To me, the joy of writing is striking out into unexplored territory and seeing how far I can trek before falling off a cliff or being swept over the falls. Thank god that every once in a while somebody (like a Charlie Kaufmann, for instance) will courageously stick their neck waaay out and take a shot at reinventing the wheel. That said, even Mr. Kaufmann (whom I think is brilliant) has tripped over his own genius once or twice.

Are you ready for the scary part? I’ve personally talked to writers who have scored huge, ground-breaking successes. I’ve also talked to writers who have suffered big, embarrassing failures and interestingly enough, both had similar stories to tell. Both felt supernaturally compelled to tell their highly unique story. It just came bursting out of them. It felt dangerous and hard to commandeer; like a raft hurdling down the rapids. No one felt safe or secure about the outcome. And then, when the projects finally debuted before the public, some were cheered, while others were booed off the screen. Nobody wants failure, but if it’s your intention to “create” for a living, I can guarantee it’s waiting for you. It’s lurking around some corner with a big stick. It hurts, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.

I never like to glamorize artistic suffering. It’s real. It definitely exists, but I never want it to have any power over me. And I certainly don’t like giving it any credit. But, truth be told…Once you’ve been run over by the truck or had the anvil fall on your head, it never hurts the same way again. I once had a theatre critic write some truly evil, dismissive shit about my work in the pages of the New York Times. Adding irony to insult, the review came out on Christmas Eve. I was crushed. Devastated. I thought I’d never write again. But I did. I also grew up a little. I learned. I kept going. A few years later, the Times had something much nicer to say about a film I wrote. I don’t know whatever happened to that first critic. I suspect he spent the rest of his career thinking up nasty things to say about people. Except for the occasional misstep, I’ve spent mine making people laugh. Works for me.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fishing for Greatness

Having sworn to my manager (and to myself) that I will crank out a new spec by the end of the year, I’ve been outlining a few ideas this week. Producing spec work is a grim requirement of my profession. Most professional writers I know sort of hate it, but if you want your agent or manager to be able to prove that you’re actually still alive, then churning out an annual spec is pretty much mandatory. I understand this in principle, but writing a “polished-ready-to-be-seen-by-producers” spec is (for me) a big commitment that will consume at least twelve weeks of my ever-shortening life, so I really need to believe in it. This leaves me in the daunting position of coming up with that killer (and hopefully commercial) idea that will keep me energized for the next twelve, long and labor intensive weeks.

You'd think this would be easy, right? All writers have ideas; lots of them. But, even the ones born in moments of intense enthusiasm, are surprisingly hard to keep alive. In fact, the infant mortality rate among creative ideas is depressingly high. I rarely discuss my initial ideas with anyone since they can so easily be crushed by landslides of doubt. Suffocated by pillows of comparison. Or worst of all, bludgeoned to death by the big frying pan of bitterness. I could go on with the bad metaphors, but I’m sure you get my drift. Fortunately, million dollar ideas can come from anywhere. But you do have to look for them.

Sometimes, the answer seems to be speed. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer in Hollywood is the great creative zeitgeist that we all seem to swim around in. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had what I thought was a brilliantly funny idea only to call up my agents or manager and be told that there are already three similar-sounding projects in development around town. Sadly, this can also happen when I’m watching the previews of upcoming attractions at my local Cineplex. Often, I find myself squirming miserably in my seat, as I recall having had an almost identical idea two years ago, but (for some dumb-ass reason) didn’t act on it.

Fishing for ideas (like regular fishing) requires patience. When I first came to L.A., I was transitioning from working in theatre which was a world where you were highly lauded for coming up with obscure or far-fetched ideas. Theatre (at least in those days) had no fear of period costumes, ensemble casts, political content or female protagonists over the age of forty. When I moved west to be a movie writer, I thought of myself as an “indie” kind of guy. But I also had no clue how those films got made or how hard it would be to support myself writing quirky, “Coen Brothers-esque” entertainment. After a failed attempt to enter the world of “mainstream” comedy, I knew I had to find some kind of balance between the quirkiness that people seemed to like in my work and the sort of movies that studios might actually pay me to write. I found the answer in my local Blockbuster.

One day, as I was wondering the aisles looking for some entertainment, I happened onto a copy of a movie (produced by a studio) that I had really enjoyed. I sighed and thought to myself, “Wow. I wish I’d written that.” But then it occurred to me that maybe I could write “that.” Or more specifically, maybe I could write my version of “that.” Without plagiarizing the film, I could borrow the basic plot structure, freshen it with new twists and then populate the story with characters that interested me. Soon, I was visiting Blockbuster almost daily as I compiled a list of commercially successful films that held some resonance for me. Some of the resulting ideas did in fact morph into paying jobs. But most importantly, this process painlessly taught me how to write stories that could be bought by studios (without selling my artistic soul to the Devil).

Occasionally, a spark can turn into a wildfire. I remember once having a conversation with a producer who had a very general, one-line idea for a movie. After hanging up, I hopped into my car and to run a few errands. About a block from my house, a character popped into my head who felt like the perfect protagonist for the story he had suggested. Two blocks later, I knew who the antagonist was. By the next traffic light, I knew the plot premise and by the time I reached my destination (about twenty minutes later) I had the whole movie (all three acts) written in my head. I couldn’t believe it! Twenty-four hours later, I met the producer for coffee and told him my idea. Two weeks later, we sold it in our first pitch meeting (literally on the spot). I’ve never had an experience like that before or since, but continue to hope that someday I’ll be revisited by that same fast-moving muse.

I’m not suggesting that finding the “fantastic-never-been-done-before” idea is easy, but sometimes it’s easier than we think. I often have to remind myself that whatever that little scrap of an idea might be – it has never been written by me – which, interestingly enough makes all the difference in the world. What follows is a partial quote (written in 1931) by one of America’s favorite journalistic muckrakers, Lincoln Steffens with whom I share the same birthday. (Check out the full quote in the side bar). “Nothing is done. Everything in the world remains to be done or done over. The greatest picture is not yet painted, the greatest play not yet written, the greatest poem is unsung.” Cast your lines in the water, Hollywood. America needs some entertainment.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being optimistically middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Monday, October 13, 2008

On a Queer Day You Can See Forever

There’s a great scene in Mel Brook’s 1983 remake of “To Be Or Not To Be,” where Brooks (playing the leader of a tacky theatrical troupe) finds himself caught in the middle of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. Nervously, Brooks visits the Nazi commander (played by the hilarious Kenneth Mars) and asks permission to stage a show in the local theater. Mars scowls and says he’ll allow Brooks to put on his show as long as he doesn’t use any “Jews, Gypsies or Homosexuals.” Brooks stares at him in shock, then blurts out, “How the hell am I gonna put on a show with no Jews, Gypsies or Homosexuals??”

Every once in a while someone will ask me if I've ever experienced any homophobia in the entertainment business. I’m happy to report that my answer is "rarely." As reflected in that brilliant Mel Brooks joke, gay people have been so entrenched in show business for so many centuries that we largely walk in and out the door unnoticed. Occasionally some poor, unenlightened clod will shoot off his or her mouth (this tends to happen mostly with stand-up comics) and then the shit hits the fan. Apparently these poor bastards are unaware that nowadays there are gay people with last names like Geffen. There are queer super-agents and lesbian studio heads. That fag joke that killed in the old neighborhood, doesn’t play so well on the larger stage of Hollywood. It pays to remember that in addition to being socially conscious and possessing wonderful taste, we gays have extremely long memories.

Once someone tried using my sexual orientation against me, but I think it was less an expression of homophobia than an act of desperation. It all began when a producer approached me about a possible rewrite on a script he had purchased. It was the story of three slacker dudes fast approaching 30 who couldn’t seem to grow up. The script was a little long, but it was funny and honest. The most glaring problems were with the female characters. They all spoke like robots who’d been programmed to recite from self-help books. I didn’t get how this could’ve happened until I was summoned to meet with the writer-director. “Danny,” (we’ll call him) was a dark, spinning nutjob. If Don Rickles and Howie Mandel had had a love child, it would have been "Danny." Since his script was largely autobiographical, I suspected he didn’t really want anyone coming near it. That suspicion grew stronger when I started my pitch and Danny kept interrupting me every five seconds. Knowing the producer’s eyes were on me, I tried to stay focused. Slowly, I inched my way through the script, gradually winning a few concessions from Danny here and there. But then, when he sensed that the producer was liking my ideas, the big guns came out.

Out of nowhere, Danny started peppering the conversation with small toxic comments like “It’s like when you’re married to a chick for a few years and…Do you know what I’m talking about?” It was a shitty, but effective tactic. Danny was turning me into “the gay guy” who couldn’t possibly understand the story he was trying to tell. Seamlessly, he steered us into a discussion of a scene where the characters were watching a football game, then forced me to admit that I knew nothing about sports. Then, playing what he must have thought was his trump card, he casually mentioned his two year-old son and asked, “You got any kids?” That was it. I met his eyes and paused for a millisecond -- just long enough to communicate that I was done fucking around. I smiled my best Joan Crawford smile. “I’m gay, Danny. I don’t have any kids. But interestingly enough, I used to be a kid and I remember it vividly.” The producer thought this was hilarious. With the ball back in my court, I forged ahead; calm, professional and merciless. Suddenly, I was the one interrupting Danny (pretty much any time I felt like it). When I was done, I stood up, shook his hand and wished him well with his movie. Unbelievably, I got the job, although Danny and I never laid eyes on each other again.

Truthfully, I never think about my being gay as anything other than a fact of life -- Like my height, eye color or skin tone. Many years ago, I had a short (very short) sexual fling with a successful screenwriter who was deeply in the closet -- So deeply that I was only allowed to come to his Westside home under cover of darkness and we were never seen in public together. He was astounded that I was openly “out.” Wasn’t I concerned that it would hurt my career? Wouldn’t it “limit” me in the studio’s eyes? I thought this was sort of hilarious coming from him. First off, despite the fact that he was recently divorced, the guy wasn’t exactly Joe Butch. Helen Keller would have known he was gay. Secondly, his stock in trade was writing “chick flick” romantic comedies for female stars. It was self-delusion taken to new heights.

Who knows? There have probably been a few times I wasn’t hired because I was gay. I know of a couple of jobs I didn’t get because I was white. Generally, I’m hired to write character-driven material that’s both funny and poignant. And there’s a reason for that. Since I never liked B.B. guns or team sports, I spent a lot of my childhood on the sidelines. That was hard at times, but as a result I became the self-appointed friend to the friendless – the oddballs, the fat kids, the geeks. Since I rarely had anywhere to go after school, I often hung out with grown-ups where I sat listening to conversations I had no business hearing; absorbing intimate snapshots of the compromises and hard truths that marked adult life. Being gay would teach me compassion and provide me with the single most effective (and durable) weapon in my arsenal: a sense of humor. In short, it gave me my voice (as a person and as an artist). Strange, isn’t it? Who’d have thought all of that would have come about... just because long ago, deep inside my mother’s body, one little chromosome bumped into another and said “Hey! Wanna go for a drink at the Abbey?” For that tiny inexplicable incident, I will be forever grateful. After all, there's nothing more reassuring than knowing who you are.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being oddly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Antigone Goes To Hollywood

Back in the 80’s I was part of a little off-off Broadway theatre company that managed to produce three whole plays before it went belly up. Our sophomore effort was Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of “Antigone” which we staged in a cramped little basement space in Hell’s Kitchen. Our director was a truly talented, but kind of tortured guy who had a big, multi-cultural vision for the show. He wanted to use a wildly diverse group of actors from every conceivable ethnic background. This proved hard to pull off and the resulting cast was sort of a hodgepodge of folks with varying degrees of talent and experience. He’d also decided to stage the play in the round with no intermission which meant that all the actors had to remain on stage for the entire two-hour running time. I played “The Messenger” (which was a much better part than it sounds). I came on at the end of the show and delivered this poetic, three-minute monologue about how (in true Greek fashion) everybody had stabbed out their eyes and killed themselves. The only problem was that I had to sit on stage for two hours each night before I got to say or do anything. Every night. Two hours. For three minutes of stage time.

The director and I were close friends and I respected how much he wanted to be a genuine artist. I sort of wanted to be an artist too, but I also wanted to make tons of money and be super-famous. His goal was to create an artistically pure theatre company like the Moscow Art Theatre or Steppenwolf; a place where artists could grow and mature together. Most of all, he wanted real commitment from his actors. This led to a fair amount of tension between him and the cast members. Oddly, he and I never fought. I was always very game to try whatever he wanted to do. I suspected that his desire to achieve a pure artistic environment was at least partly a reaction to the fact that he came from a family heavily steeped in the business. His mother was a TV executive (one of the first women to break the glass ceiling). One of his brothers was an up-and-coming film producer while the other was a Hollywood mega-agent who represented some of the biggest stars of the 1980s. I'm not sure if any of them got why the youngest son wanted to stage boring old plays in moldy basements.

Meanwhile, back in Hell’s Kitchen, disaster struck. The fiery actress playing “Antigone” dropped out and was replaced by a young woman fresh out of drama school. This would be her first show in New York. I still remember when she politely walked up and introduced herself to me at rehearsal. My heart sank. She was a lovely, but shy African-American girl with big glasses who would’ve been a great choice if we were casting “Marian, the Librarian,” but she hardly seemed like the type to play the warrior princess, Antigone. Because my role was so small I was excused from rehearsals for three weeks. When I returned I could barely believe the transformation. The meek little actress I’d met was suddenly projecting a character who was regal and powerful, vain and sensuous. Prowling the stage like a tigress, the actress now oozed passion, intellect and murderous rage. She was so good that she made the rest of the production look sort of shabby and ill-conceived by comparison. The show opened and as I sat on stage, forced to watch this damn play over and over, night after night, it was her riveting, nuanced performance that kept me from losing my mind.

Other than Antigone's performance, my friend the director was never very happy with the show and one night, I arrived at the theatre to find him wildly pacing the halls. His family was coming to the performance and he asked if I would be willing to go out with them afterward. I didn’t really want to, but I could see the guy desperately needed a buffer, so I said yes. Shortly before curtain, they arrived, perhaps a little overdressed for the occassion. Adding to the oddness, the agent brother had brought along one of his hottest clients, a gorgeous blonde movie star. Afterwards, we caught up with the clan at a pricey restaurant on the Upper East Side. I had met the family before and actually liked them, but they did intimidate me a little. I had never read a trade paper in my life and these were people whose names actually appeared in the articles. My friend didn't seem to want to talk about the show, so after a few perfunctory compliments, the conversation shifted away from Greek Tragedy and onto the bigger show business dramas of the day. It was a little awkward.

Finally, it was time to leave. Just as we were about to walk out the door, my friend ducked into the men’s room and left me standing in foyer with his brother the agent and the gorgeous movie star. I tried to think of something to say, but drew a blank. Finally, his brother leaned in and spoke to me in a strangely intimate tone of voice. “There were ‘people’ in the audience tonight,” he said with meaning. “Important people,” he continued. “You were noticed.” He lifted his eyebrows and gave me a tiny, almost imperceptible nod indicating that something of great import had apparently taken place without my knowing it. I sensed I should respond. “Great,” I said, smiling weakly. I was hugely relieved to see my friend emerging from the men’s room. His brother and the movie star slid into their waiting towncar. My friend and I opted to take the subway.

The play ran for a couple of more weeks. It rained. The basement leaked and became miserably cold. Nobody came, but at least I had Antigone to watch. I admired this girl. She worked hard and gave her all, even on the nights when we had maybe 10 people in the audience. I also began to feel sorry for her. Here she was -- talented, pretty, smart and a genuinely nice person to boot -- but I knew how tough it was for African-American actresses. There was virtually no work for them. When the show closed, I sensed I might never see her again. Then a year or so later, I ran into her at an audition where she informed me that she was moving to L.A. I smiled and said that sounded like a great idea. I was lying. At the time, I viewed L.A. as an artistic graveyard where the talented went to die. Not long after our theatre company folded, my friend the director took an acting class in an effort to learn how to better communicate with actors. He liked it so much he decided to become one and moved to L.A. There, he was cast in an iconic, long-running TV series, winning an Emmy or two along the way for his terrific work. Ironically, he probably became more successful (and certainly more famous) than any other member of his family. The blonde movie star that his brother brought to our show only did a few more so-so films before disappearing from view.

Success is a funny thing. It can visit you for a little while (like a quick sunny vacation) or it can stick to you like glue; making you into an enduring and bankable commodity. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, it’s a slow climb to the top. And sometimes, people just have an instinct about which road to go down. Antigone’s decision to move to L.A. turned out to be a pretty good one. She got small roles at first. But in the end, she didn’t do too badly for herself. Her name was Angela Bassett.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being amazingly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, September 28, 2008

I Love Your Nuts

Shortly after my first movie went into pre-production, I became (for the second time in my career) Hollywood’s favorite writer. Every morning, scripts in need of a rewrite would plop onto my doorstep. Evenutally cabin fever set in and I started reading them in local coffee shops which is how I met this Middle Eastern chick, who for the purposes of this blog, we’ll call “Samira.” “Samira” was one of those odd people you meet in L.A. who seem to dabble in many artistic arenas; never content to settle on just one. When she spotted my stack of scripts, she pegged me as a person of some importance and became determined to make my acquaintance. Somehow within 20 minutes of meeting her, I’d agreed to read a screenplay she had written and give her some “professional feedback" on it. Samira didn’t seem overly concerned that I was swamped with my own work and called repeatedly over the next few weeks until I finally broke down and read her opus. It was awful. It might have been brilliant in Farsi, but in English it was awful. I managed to come up with a few vague notes and called her back. That mistake cost me two more hours of my life as she proceeded to ask thousands of questions, many designed to steer the conversation into strange, unrelated areas. Over and over, she told me how much she loved my notes. However, because of her accent, it sounded like she was saying, “I love your nuts.” According to her, my “nuts” were the smartest, most perceptive, most well-rounded “nuts” she had ever received. It was then that I discovered Samira had actually written her screenplay six years ago and had shown it to many, many people before me. Despite all the “nuts” she had received over the years, she’d yet to alter a single word of her script. Apparently, she just liked talking about it.

For Samira, script notes were just a way of getting a little attention. For the rest of us, notes are about something a tad more unsettling: change. Someone is suggesting that we change the way our story is being told. If the person giving us these notes is a producer or an exec (A.K.A. “employer”) then the notes are probably not just friendly suggestions; they are most likely requirements. Just this week, I sat down with my manager and got his notes on my new spec. One thing I can always count on from my manager is complete honestly. He had a few problems. And they weren’t exactly small problems either. Some I agreed with. Some I didn’t. Some, I might agree with next week. That’s the beauty of this process. You can change your mind as you go. I can’t say that I love getting notes, but I do recognize their importance. Once I’ve parachuted out of my imaginary plane and landed in the dense jungle of a script, I can easily get a little lost. I count on others to be my artistic GPS. Notes are, of course, only opinions. And it pays to be careful whose opinions you solicit. You also want to limit the number of opinions since that too can get a little overwhelming.

Some people are great at giving notes. Others can leave you feeling like you’ve been beaten and left for dead in an alley. I remember once being on the phone with a producer and after about 30 minutes, I had to stop him and ask that he refrain from using the adjectives “boring” and “bad” for the remainder of the note session. Instead, I asked that he refer to the sections he was having problems with as “not working.” He agreed and in time, the script improved substantially. The worst writing gig I ever had was a studio comedy with five disparate producers attached. I still recall the day the project imploded. After turning in my first draft, I was summoned to the studio for a meeting with four of the five in attendance (the fifth was present via one of those horrible “black box” speaker phones). The atmosphere was miserably tense as, one by one, my employers took turns expressing their generally low opinions of my script. The biggest problem was that each had distinctly different ideas on how to fix it. By the end of the meeting, I had 14 pages of wildly conflicting notes. As I exited the building alongside the only producer who had liked my draft, I asked him what he thought I should do. He shrugged and said, “At this point, I’d say write whatever the fuck you want.”

One of the reasons that receiving notes has gotten easier for me is that I’ve now had a little experience giving them. About seven years ago, I was asked by a local film festival to help found a mentoring program for young screenwriters. Despite the fact that I always strive to accentuate the positive, it’s inevitable that a few bubbles get burst during the 90 minute note sessions. I’ve watched perky young scribes, anxious to jot down my every comment, slowly dissolve into depressed, slug-like creatures scrawling doodles on their notepads. I’ve had writers become defensive and in one case, downright hostile. I’ve seen writers cry. I had one writer who literally apologized to me after each note as if the missteps in his script must have caused me some sort of personal pain. Over time, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing which ones will go on to a professional writing career. They are the ones who tend to get a bit grumpy during the note process. They recognize a good idea when they hear it, but don’t like admitting that it might actually work. That’s okay. A little arrogance is needed for survival. A little ego can keep you on your feet in the 11th round.

I’ve come to believe that the best way to approach notes is to first of all, acknowledge that they are going to sting initially. Writing is a deeply personal process and the first hurdle to be cleared is separating your sense of self from the realities of work. Secondly, I try to remember that notes are not about someone pointing out my mistakes, but instead someone pointing out what could be better. Notes are never intended to embarrass me or make me feel like a talentless schlub. Their only purpose is to get me thinking; to make me at least consider the possibility of a funnier opening, a more stream-lined second act or a unique, more startling climax. They are just ideas, meant to get the wheels of my mind turning. I feel bad for the Samira’s of the world; people stuck between giving up and going back – which, in the world of writing, are the only two choices available. Which brings me back to my spec. I’m not exactly sure how to address all of my manager’s notes, but it helps to know he’s a kind, smart guy who truly wants me to succeed. As a result of our talk, I’ve now got a truckload of messy new ideas (all of which will get their chance at bat sometime this week). It’s not a solution, but it’s a start. And in the world of writing, sometimes a start is all you need.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being happily middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv