Sunday, March 30, 2008

Requiem for a Dell

The screen was black. I moved the mouse around. Nothing. I tried to restart. It wouldn’t let me. Finally, I cut the power. Then utilizing my extraordinary capacity for denial, I decided that everything would be fine in the morning. I didn’t sleep much. This wasn’t like the coffee maker not working. This was my laptop. This was scary. The next morning, I took a deep breath and turned it on. It made a sound like a tennis shoe banging around inside a dryer. I called my tech guy who rushed to the scene. After about five minutes with the patient, he looked up at me with the saddest eyes I've ever seen. “Please tell me you had everything backed-up on discs or something.” I slowly shook my head. I had been working on naïve faith. Nothing was backed up.

I rushed the damaged drive across town to official Geek Squad headquarters in Santa Monica where they too offered a grim prognosis. To be totally certain, they would ship it to their super, secret lab in Wisconsin to see if anything could be salvaged. I knew my manager had the most recent drafts of all my scripts stored on his computer, but what about the rest of the files? The hundreds and hundreds of files. To soothe my nerves, I did what I do best - I went out and spent money. By the end of the day, I was the proud owner of a new laptop, but the ghost of my old computer continued to haunt me. That night as I lay in bed, I thought about all that I had lost.

From the time I first starting writing, I was always jotting down all of my story “nuggets.” And much like my packrat father, I kept them all. Truthfully, every time I opened my “idea” folder, looking for inspiration, I mostly felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of unsold pitches, half-finished specs and raggedy-assed treatments I had accumulated over the years. My complete inability to hit the "delete" button had left me with a storehouse full of mummified concepts I was never going to act on. It was like visiting the pound and being stared at by a thousand three-legged dogs, all wanting you to save them from death. But holding onto that slag pile of unsold ideas had also given me a perverse sense of security. It was proof that I was an experienced professional writer; a veteran of the wars. Now, seated at my new computer, staring at my virtually empty documents folder, I felt like a lonely amateur. A beginner working without a net.

Within a few days, the Geek Squad called with news of a miracle. It now appeared their lab in the Midwest might be able to retrieve as many as 450 files. All I had to do was say the word (and pay approximately $1,947.00). It should have felt like good news, but it didn’t. I'd been scared for the last few days, but I had soldiered on; working daily on a new TV pitch and researching a couple of feature ideas. Despite all the anxiety, it had been a remarkably good week. For the first time in years, the work felt lighter. Part of me was starting to like having no past; no recorded history. Another part of me wanted it all back. I hesitated. And I remembered a similar moment years ago.

Just before I abandoned New York for Los Angeles, I called up my old shrink’s office to schedule a few “tune-up” sessions. Oddly, her receptionist transferred me to another therapist who then informed me that my former shrink had passed away unexpectedly. A small universe exploded inside my head. I felt awful that she was gone, but I also couldn’t help wondering what had happened to all those secrets I had told her. Did she take them with her? Or, when she ceased to exist, did they just scatter out into the ether; all my embarrassing psychic laundry floating down on the heads of unsuspecting New Yorkers. She had been the safe depository of all my dreams and desires for so many years. And now she was gone. The whole reason I had wanted to see her was so she could reassure me that going forward was the right decision. Even in death, she proved to be a terrific therapist. Working from the grave, no less, she had managed to clarify what had seemed so confusing just moments before: There is only forward. There is never any going back.

The following day, I called the Geek Squad and told them I’d decided not to retrieve the old files from the hard drive. I wouldn’t be needing them. Loss is hard, but it’s not always bad. Last weekend I was reading an article in some oddball magazine and it contained a fantastic quote by literary and cinematic legend Jean Cocteau. Supposedly, a reporter once asked him, if his house was on fire (and he could only rescue one thing) what would it be? Cocteau gave a great answer. He said “I’d take the fire.“ I understood that to mean he would choose life (“the fire”); and with it, all the miraculous and disastrous forces that shape and propel us. Yes, sometimes the fire robs us of certain possessions, but it can also reward us with a vision of who we might yet become. I think that guy was a genius. Rent “Beauty and the Beast” sometime (and I don’t mean the Disney version).

Well, I’m no Cocteau, clearly. But I am a working artist. Somewhat unknown, I grant you, but not without a couple of fans out there. I’m not young. I’m not old. And I’m not dead (yet). I still wake up some mornings excited about what might happen. I’m lucky. This is my life. And this is my blog. Thanks for reading it.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

Sunday, March 23, 2008

No Lois Nettleton

As a dues-paying member of the Screen Actors Guild, I am entitled to (and duly receive) their quarterly membership magazine. However, because I’m a lazy slug, I don’t usually read it except for the “In Memoriam” page. Every issue of “Screen Actor,” contains a long list of all the SAG members who have died in the last three months (and not just the famous ones). In case you’re wondering, my interest in who’s passed away has nothing to do with my ever-blossoming midlife crisis. I’ve always been into dead people. It was sort of hobby my late grandmother and I shared. So, a few weeks ago, while perusing the list of actors who had recently bought the farm, my eye hit upon a name that caused me a real pang – Lois Nettleton. I’d always loved her so I googled her New York Times obituary. I learned that she’d been a member of the Actors Studio and had enjoyed an impressive stage career that included the original Broadway production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and being nominated for a Tony in 1976 for "They Knew What They Wanted." She had made a few, mostly forgettable films, but had done a ton of television starting with early appearances on legendary shows like “The Twilight Zone,” “Studio One” and “Naked City.” Over the years, she’d won two Emmys and had kept doing wonderful work on popular shows like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Golden Girls,” almost until the very end. Her last big role had been opposite Ed Asner in 2006’s “The Christmas Card.” She was a class act who had left behind a prestigious body of work, but oddly that’s not why I remembered her so fondly.

Being over forty, I spent pretty much the entire 1970’s parked firmly in front of my family’s TV set and I had seen plenty of Lois Nettleton in those years. A quick perusal of her IMDB page filled me with nostalgic delight. She had, for a time, been the queen of a 70’s TV phenomenon known as “The Movie of the Week.” Cranked out on short schedules with small budgets, they were a mixed bag for sure. Clocking in at a fast 90 minutes, they usually had plot lines (and titles) designed to keep those Nielson ratings up. I remembered Lois well from her appearances in “Fear on Trial,” “Women in Chains,” “Terror in the Sky,” “The Forgotten Man,” “The Bull of the West,” and “Weekend of Terror” (where she, Jane Wyatt and Carol Lynley played a trio of heroic nuns held hostage by a gang of horny escaped convicts). She also appeared on many of the weekly series my family had watched religiously. I had seen her on “Marcus Welby, MD,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Cannon,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Kung-Fu” and on one of my favorite shows of all time, “Medical Center” where, during its six year run, (1970-76), Lois had astoundingly managed to guest star on it five times -- playing five different characters! She was that good. Don’t get me wrong. I loved her and certainly don’t judge her for some of the less prestigious work she did. I’m sure she had bills to pay. Lois was (as her obit confirmed) “highly respected,” which means she was probably never highly paid. I can relate. I myself am deeply “respected” here in Hollywood.

As morbid as this sounds, I’ve often wondered how my own obituary will someday read. It has always struck me as grossly unfair that the living get to sum up the accomplishments of the dead. It seems to me we should all get one last shot at explaining what we were up to (or at least what we had in mind) before we are unceremoniously booted off this earthly plane. I've often heard that the best recipe for happiness is to live each day as if it were your last; to smile and appreciate what’s been offered. With that in mind, I give you my “living” obituary – the one I’d write for myself if today were my last day on earth.

Actor, scribe, David Dean Bottrell, finally dead

Actor and screenwriter, David Dean Bottrell has died. Actual date, location and cause of death are, as of now, unknown. Thought to be in his mid-to-late forties, Bottrell liked to believe he looked a little younger. Originally born to a tribe of nomadic hillbillies in eastern Kentucky, Bottrell was a sickly child who preferred watching talk shows to doing homework. After a brief stint in college, he managed to land his first professional job at 19 in the chorus of a summer stock musical. He would later remember, “I wasn’t a particularly good singer or dancer but I knew the director wanted to get into my pants, so I thought I had a good shot.” Moving to New York in the 80’s, Bottrell soon began to book work as a “professional teenager” in stage productions throughout the U.S.; a career that would come to a tragic end when he was stricken with a premature case of “crow’s-feet” in his early 30’s. Forced to work for a living, he took up playwriting and had some minor successes off-Broadway before heading west to Hollywood in the 90’s. Although primarily a screenwriter from this point on in his career, he would occasionally return to acting and is well remembered for his quick, but dynamic guest appearances playing roles such as “Customer # 2” on “Caroline in the City” or “Museum Patron” on “Dharma and Greg.” In late 2006, he would inexplicably land a reoccurring role on ABC’s popular TV show “Boston Legal” which would finally grant him a full 15 minutes of fame. His many, many writing credits include a successful African-American studio comedy and number of films that he was hired to write but were never produced. A fairly resourceful jack-of-all trades, his colleagues in show business frequently assumed he was employed even when he wasn’t. Although often represented by prestigious agents, he generated most of his own work and was deeply jealous of those who had jobs offered to them. Reached at his New York studio, legendary acting teacher, William Esper remembered Bottrell, saying “He was good, but he was no Lois Nettleton.” Assuming a body can be found, funeral services will be held at an undisclosed location on a date yet to be determined.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

Sunday, March 16, 2008

They’re going a different way…

It happened last Tuesday. March 3rd. Around 3:00 pm, to be exact. I was at my computer working on a pitch for a TV series when the phone rang. It was the producer of a film I had written. “The studio called,” he said. I sensed a slight hesitation in his voice. “Yeah, they’re going a different way with the next draft.” The way they were going, as it turns out, was not my way. He was calling to tell me I was fired. Suddenly, time sort of stopped. Then something happened that I thought only occurred in movies. I had a flashback.

Well, more of a montage, really. I revisited the moment, five years ago, when I had originally sold this project on a pitch. Quite a bit had happened in those five years. I had, of course written many drafts of it. I had also moved back east, gone through a horrific break-up, lost all my money, returned to L.A., fired my agents, changed managers and had inched five birthdays closer to the grave. During that same time, the movie had gone into turn-around no less than three times. Several directors and a couple of movie stars had come and gone. I had seen the film announced with great fanfare in the trades (twice) and for a period of time it had (oddly) even been listed in my IMDB credits despite the fact that not a single frame of film had ever been shot. In some development circles the script became mildly famous for the sheer number of times it had risen from the ashes. Recently, a new director had come on board with a fresh and dynamic vision for the film. I had already written two drafts for him by late October and the studio (once lukewarm on the project) now seemed genuinely behind us. In fact, all news emanating from the palace had thus far been excellent. Enthusiasm was high. When the WGA strike finally settled, rumor had it that the head of the studio had sent down a set of “polish” notes. Once those were taken care of, we were going to talent! I was ready. I was excited.

“They’re going a different way…” The producer then told me what sort of writer the studio wanted to hire next. “Why?” I asked. Was there a specific reason? The producer didn’t seem to know of one. Apparently, he hadn’t asked. I offered a theory. He had no opinion on my theory. I asked if he might be willing to ask the studio why I was being canned. Everyone had been so happy with my last draft or so I was told. Who was having problems? Was there a chance that I could address their concerns and save my job? He thought it was “unlikely.” I heard the deep, hollow thud of the palace door closing. I was fired.

Okay, I’ve been around. I’m not unaware of how these things work. It’s not that I don’t get it. I do. Someone was unhappy. Chances are I will never know exactly who. I can, however, guarantee you this: Over the next six months I will hear at least three totally conflicting versions of who signed my death warrant and why. None of them will make any sense. And it doesn’t really matter. This shit happens. There was just one little problem. I loved that script. Its core story was based on something deeply personal and I was tremendously proud of it. It was solid and funny and human. It was my baby. And now at a very crucial point in its journey, not only had I lost custody, I had lost visitation rights.

The next few days were a little rough. As sometimes happens when I get a piece of bad news, it quickly attached itself to other bits and pieces of my life that I wasn’t too crazy about and together they formed a little train called the “Loser-Land-Express.” Not only was I fired, I was also old, ugly, unmarried, poor, talentless and fat. Despite pep talks from my manager and some other folks who care about me, the cloud continued to hover. I returned to work on my TV idea and managed to make some decent headway. I did some research for a new feature idea. I scribbled. I ate bad food. I went to the gym hoping for redemption. I tried to be nice to others. And I wondered (yet again) why I’m in a business where people are always telling me to “not take it personally” and why I have such a hard time doing that. By the end of the week, things had improved a little. I was reminded (yet again) that the only real salvation is the work itself. As anybody who writes movies for a living can tell you, occasionally the speeding car has to go over the cliff and burst into flames. It can’t be helped. For reasons that may or may not make sense to you, sometimes it’s just your turn to be the human sacrifice. Maybe the director wants your job, or the producer thinks you’re lazy, or the exec doesn’t think you’re funny or you used too many big words in a meeting and somebody got intimidated. What the fuck? We can only do our best.

When news of the ax falling on my swanlike neck got around, a fellow writer (and good friend) called to console me. She reminded me that being fired is not unlike a love affair coming to an end -- full of high drama and low behavior. It was depressing, sure. Debilitating, of course. But in a sense, I was free now; free to move on; free to discover a new, exciting and more fulfilling love. I thanked her for her insight while secretly thinking she was utterly full of shit. But then I realized she had a point. Writing (like love) is transformative. And (like love) I’m almost always willing to believe in it and be led by it – often down some very unexpected paths. Hmmm. An unexpected path. I like the sound of that. It might make a great title for that short story about my dad I’ve been meaning to write. I love that story. I wonder if today is the day I’ll actually start working on it. They’re going a different way. What a coincidence. I am too.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fever Pitch

Last week I said I’d tell you everything I know about pitching. Well, here it is in a nutshell: If you can write, you can pitch.

The first thing I learned about pitching was to get off my own back. During the days when my pitches sucked (we’ll get to that in a moment) I always focused on things that tripped me up. I tended to look at pitches as some sort of public evaluation of my talent delivered in front of a firing squad that was anxious to get to lunch. The first thing that helped me was to establish what a pitch actually is.

A pitch is not a book report or a presentation to the U.N. on world hunger. It’s an entertaining story, told well. In English.

Definition of terms:

“Entertaining story”: It’s been worked on. A lot. It’s clever, has good characters and a solid structure. You know it backwards and forwards. It has surprises and suspense built into the actual events of the story. This is important. Nobody wants to hear your assurances that the jokes are going to be funny. Tell them the events in the story that make it funny. Don’t expect laughs, by the way. If they smile, you’re doing great. Every story (no matter what the genre) should contain surprises and suspense and you should be conveying those two elements to your listeners as often as possible.

“Told well”: Tell the story the same way you would tell it to a good friend – while keeping in mind that your good friend doesn’t have all day to sit there and listen. Yes, shorter is better, but there are no rules for how long a pitch can or should take. If you engage your listeners they probably won’t be thinking about how long you’ve been talking. That said, don’t fart around. Use your head. Stick to the good stuff. If they want to know what color the lead character’s bedroom is painted, they will ask you. Every story has an engine. Find it. Use it.

“In English”: Many writers mindfuck themselves by thinking that in order to pitch successfully, they need to magically morph into stand-up comedians able to “work the room.” Nobody expects that. What the executives are expecting (and have every right to expect) is that you will clearly communicate your story to them. Their jobs depend on hiring the right person. Believe it or not, these people sit around and bullshit about movies the same way that you and your friends do. Talk to them like one movie fan talking to another. Tell them about this great movie you have in your head.

As I mentioned earlier, I used to self-sabotage my pitches by allowing my insecurities to cloud the actual objective of my pitch. Here are a few things I no longer worry about:

· My clothes, my cheap watch or how old I am.

· The executives, what they are wearing or how young they look.

· How long this pitch is taking.

· How much money is on the line.

· How I’ll probably never work again.

Here are some simple truths that I try to keep solidly in my mind:

· I’m not here asking for a job. If I wanted a job, I’d go work for the post office. I’m a writer. Writers have careers.

· I am a storyteller. I already have a natural instinct for this process. I’m better at this than I think I am.

· Even if I fuck up some part of it, chances are they will never know.

· I’m here to talk to (not at) the people in the room. Pitching is a roller coaster ride. Take everybody along. And try to enjoy it.

· My primary task, above all else, is to focus on MY STORY and how fucking great it is. If this sounds egotistical (or delusional), so be it. If ever there was a moment to own your talent, this is it. A good pitch requires focus, which is why I choose to keep my reality simple: If I don’t love my story and believe in it, then nobody else will. And that kind of love cannot be faked. It must be real.

Final tips: The pitch is never about you. It’s about your story. Separate the two things in your head and it will do wonders for your nerves. The question of “tone” will come up. You will need to have a few snappy adjectives ready, but the best answer is usually “x meets y” (“Alien vs. Predator” meets “Pride and Prejudice”). Do not reference films made prior to “Star Wars.” Don’t reference obscure films or movies that lost tons of money.

Of course, like everything else in show business, a successful pitch is dependent on luck; on being in the right room with the right people at the right moment in history. The majority of the time (even if they like it) they will tell you that your project is “not for them” and thank you for coming in. Just assume it’s the truth. It’s not for them. Fine. It’s for someone else. Take pride in your work and in having done your best. Be polite and move on.

Interestingly enough (or at least I find it interesting) over the years, pitching has caused me to develop an odd sense of camaraderie with these people who might (or might not) be my future employers. The whole experience is often filled with irony. In a business that tends to attract the overly optimistic, the intensely imaginative and downright psychotic, I’m frequently comforted by the fact that everyone in the room sort of wants the same thing: to stumble on a little magic. We would all have probably made terrific lawyers, dentists or stock brokers, but instead we chose to attempt the riskiest of all endeavors: to “entertain” for a living. What balls! And at the same time, there’s something sort of sweet about offering up such a huge slice of your life to something so unlikely to work out. On our best days, I like to think we’re all a bit like the movie characters that probably attracted us to this business in the first place; the proverbial teenagers in space (see last blog entry); wildly enthusiastic, filled with naïve bravado, confident that despite the odds, we will be the ones who will dodge the alien marauders and pilot our flaming spacecraft to a victorious landing on a cheering and grateful planet. And why not? Happens every day of the week.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell / http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

Monday, March 3, 2008

Teenagers in Space

I’m about to start pitching a couple of new projects around town. It’s not my favorite thing to do. To me, pitching to a potential employer always feels a little like making love to a whore. Sure, they might seem to be enjoying it, but are they secretly thinking the last guy was better? I’m not exactly a stranger to pitching. I’ve done plenty of it and my pitch-to-paycheck ratio over the last ten years hasn’t been bad. This was not always the case.

When I first arrived on these sunny shores, I was a tweedy, East Coast playwright with nothing but a few yellowing New York Times Theatre reviews to my credit. Inexplicably, I was scooped up by a big agency and assigned to a heavy-hitting agent with a reputation for aggressiveness. She scared the living shit out of me. A self-described “No Bullshitter,” she had been blessed with a fierce personality and a phone manner so forceful, I tended to hold the receiver about 18 inches from my ear every time we spoke. I distinctly remember telling my new agent that I had no idea what I was doing and that I would need lots of help navigating the shark infested waters of the movie business. No sweat. I was assured that my hand would be held every step of the way. That, of course, didn’t happen. The following Monday I was shot out of a cannon. To her credit, my agent was astoundingly good at generating pointless meetings, but that left her with little time to mentor me in the fine art of landing a job. I had no fucking idea what I was doing. I just tried to stay afloat. My first pitch was an excruciating 45 minute disaster where (while speaking in an unnaturally high voice) I managed to sweat completely through my vintage gabardine shirt. The executives were polite and actually wanted to hire me. In fact, they were planning on hiring me until they were both tragically beheaded during a studio regime change the following week. On I went, pitching and pitching, mostly in abject terror. Never booking a job.

The bottom was finally hit when I was sent to the office of a producer who was described to me as “old school.” The guy was loud, crass and had no discernable attention span. About the fourth time he interrupted my pitch to take a call, he informed me that he had no interest whatsoever in the story I was selling. Before I could lift my humiliated ass from the guest chair, he barked at me. “Space!” “Space?” I replied. “That’s what they like now. Space. And shit about teenagers.” Then his eyes lit up. I watched as a heretofore unthought-of, billion dollar idea suddenly took shape in his cortex. “Hey!” he yelled. “You got anything about teenagers in space?” I said I might, but I would need a few years to refine it. I slipped out the side door as his next call was coming in.

Shortly before she stopped calling, my über-agent took me to an expensive lunch in Beverly Hills. I had, by that point, been on the client list for a year and a half and had only managed to book one low-paying “polish” job. Although a little less terrified of her now, I still had to fight the instinct to lean back in my chair when she spoke to me. I told her I was considering taking a class on pitching. “Don’t waste your money” she said, stabbing at her Cobb salad. “Nobody can tell you how to pitch. You just have to know. You have to take your talent into the room with you.” This turned out to be the single smartest thing anyone (to date) has ever told me about working in Hollywood and I’ll always be grateful to her for having said it.

A few months later (without tears or fanfare) I quietly moved to a smaller agency. Soon after that, I began booking jobs. Why? Because I started taking my talent into the room with me. If you’d like to hear my thoughts on the art of pitching, come back next Monday. I only know what works for me, so don’t get your hopes up. By the way, if you’re looking for tons of great advice on screenwriting, please check out my friend John August’s site http://www.johnaugust.com/. John is a supernaturally talented writer-director who takes great pleasure in sharing his insight with others. You should definitely check out his site. See you next Monday. Onward.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/