Sunday, April 27, 2008

The History of Drama (Part One)

Some time ago, I was at a Hollywood dinner party when our hostess abruptly steered the conversation toward what was clearly one of her favorite subjects: fate. Zeroing in on me, she asked “Didn’t you always sense it was inevitable you would become a writer?” I told her “no,” but in truth, it had been a long time since I’d thought about it and the question sort of stuck with me the following day. Was my profession inevitable? Was I, in fact, born to it? I hadn’t come from a particularly literate background. My father’s family were staunch German farmers who lived in far away Illinois. We rarely saw them and although they were a little quirky around the edges, they paled in comparison to my mother’s family who had us surrounded on all sides. My Mom had sprung from a large and high-spirited clan, all of whom had married early and often; producing dozens of scrappy offspring and scattering our genes far and wide through the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky. When you included the stepchildren, in-laws and the occasional bastards, the definition of who exactly was “family” grew even larger. Everybody was always broke, which probably wasn’t entirely their fault. God knows, eastern Kentucky in the 60’s and 70’s wasn’t exactly the land of opportunity. In fact, I seem to remember pretty much every commodity being in short supply. Except for one: Drama.

Being deeply religious people, my parents felt it was their duty to open their home to anyone who was in trouble – and in our family, somebody was always in trouble. If you were in the middle of a nasty divorce, if your spouse was cheating on you, beating you or stalking you, you came to us. If you were laid off, trying to kick drugs or just getting out of jail, we were your first stop. If you could no longer support your children (or had just gotten a little bored with them), you could drop them off with us for a couple of years. As a kid, I loved the constant chaos. Nothing made me happier than to come home from school and spot a strange car in the driveway. That meant a fresh supply of hardship had landed on our doorstep and I would get to hear the whole gruesome (or hilarious) story over dinner. When the phone rang in the middle of the night, I knew there would be a spectacularly juicy news item waiting for me at the breakfast table.

The family basically broke down into two camps: the comedians and the tragedians – and both were equally adept at fucking up their lives. Whether told in first-person or arriving via the family’s intricate grapevine, their stories were never less than fantastic! The evictions, the miscarriages, the terrible accidents, the torrid affairs, the drunken brawls, plus every form of disease and disaster imaginable -- All described in language so vivid, each tale was guaranteed to sear itself into your memory forever. I can still recall one relative’s stroke being described as so bad, “It was like a grenade went off inside her head.” Nothing ordinary ever happened to any of us. Every situation was always the most dire anyone had ever witnessed. Each wound was the most horrific the doctor had ever seen. Had the car had skidded one inch further, it would have toppled off the bridge. If the gumball had not been dislodged from the baby’s throat at that precise second, it would have been curtains for sure.

Like many young people, I reached a point where I began to reject my family. I started doubting the veracity of these stories and the whole crew just seemed luckless and embarrassing. Their endless parade of misfortune depressed me, but no matter how far away I moved, there was no escaping it. In an effort to keep me connected, my mother would send lengthy hand-written letters (four-pages, front and back) crammed with bad news. Oddly, in between the items about my aunt’s tumor (the largest ever recorded) and my cousin’s conviction for statutory rape, she would squeeze in a paragraph about how many tomatoes the garden had produced or causal remarks about the weather. I began to realize that drama was such a part of our family’s life that my mother didn’t even recognize it as such anymore. It was as common as the sunrise.

Then one day when I was living in New York, I received a letter from my mother so unintentionally hilarious that when I read it to a friend, she laughed so hard I literally had to pick her up off my kitchen floor. That letter became the basis for the first full-length play I would ever attempt. That play (co-written with a writing partner) opened a door that would change my life forever. It was also the beginning of my realization that all those years of listening to my family spin their outrageous tales had in fact been a master class in recognizing which part of a story could be funny, which part held the most drama or suspense and how to leave your listeners panting for more. It had never occurred to me that this inherent skill; this knack for knowing how to grab your audience and pull them into a somewhat fictionalized adventure could be considered a “job skill.” Who knew there were people out there who would actually pay you real money just to tell them a decent story – something my relatives had been doing free of charge for decades on end.

I’d like to close this particular chapter in the history of drama by telling you that my family remains (for the most part) unchanged. A new generation has arrived to replace the storytellers of my childhood and having been trained at the feet of the masters, they rarely disappoint. The biggest change is not them. It’s me. I’m no longer embarrassed by my family or their exploits. I adore them (albeit from a distance). I’ve come to understand that their lives are far more complex than any casual onlooker would suspect. They trade in a peculiar form of love and if I have anything resembling talent, I got it from them. I imagine that if I tried to thank them for this unintentional gift, they would look at me, utterly perplexed and probably fill the awkward silence with a story about my second cousin cutting off two of his fingers with a table saw or my niece’s trailer burning down with her entire doll collection inside.

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

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being awkwardly middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/
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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Career Day

It happens about once a year. I get a call from one of my civilian friends that starts out with “So, my nephew (or “niece”) just graduated from (blah-blah university) with a degree in (“communications,” “film production,” etc.) and I was wondering… (slight pause)…I know you’re really busy, but would you be willing to give him (or her) some advice on breaking into the business?” Truthfully, this is not my favorite call to get. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I find giving advice to people on how to break into show business strangely pointless. It's like trying to advise someone on how to find God, true love or a parking space at the Century City Mall. Who the fuck knows how anybody does it? That said, I also remember what it felt like to land in the big city, friendless and clueless, so I, of course, agree to meet the nephew/niece for a coffee. On arrival, I’m usually greeted by a bright, fresh-faced young person who looks about 15 years old. When I ask what they want to do with with their careers, their answer is almost always incredibly vague. They are often a little nervous -- and with good reason. Having just blown through a large sum of their parents’ money to earn a media degree, they are only now beginning to realize that said degree basically qualifies them to return home. Having zero knowledge of this young person’s abilities, I do my best to give them a general overview of the entertainment business. I then offer a few ideas about entry level jobs and always try to finish up on an optimistic note. There are usually a couple of follow-up emails and then I never hear from them again. Hopefully, they go out and find happiness in this or some other field of endeavor.

Between you and me, I’ve always had a slight problem with the whole idea of academic training for show business. I once did an acting gig on a TV show with a friend of mine who is truly hilarious. We were shooting a scene outdoors and just as we were about to start, something went seriously wrong with the engine of a nearby truck. Without warning, it made this explosive, ear-shattering sound. We all just stood there as a puff of smoke billowed out from under the hood. Suddenly, my friend thrust his hands onto his hips, jutted his chin out like Superman and shouted in a loud, confident voice, “Perhaps I can help! I’m a theater major!” The reality is that although schools can put a camera (or a script) in your hand, they can’t really teach you what to do with it. Careers aren’t made in school. They’re made on the battlefield. Show business (unlike academia) follows no structured or logical course. It’s a job that requires moxy, instinct, ingenuity and chutzpah. And unfortunately, they don't offer degrees in those subjects.

It’s almost impossible for me to look into the face of a talented, ambitious young person and tell them what they are, in fact, signing up for. There is a very large initiation fee to get into this club. Most of us are well into our thirties before it dawns on us what a very expensive decision it ultimately turns out to be. The truth is, even if you did spell it out for the young applicant, they wouldn’t believe you. And that’s as it should be. They are, as of yet, un-charred by the fire and I sometimes sit there and envy their innocence almost as much as I envy their tiny little waistlines. They are at a place where they can see it all so clearly in their mind’s eye: That success. That happy life where work and spouse and family and civic duty all balance just perfectly and the lawn is green and the mortgage is paid and the car is new. Their name is in Variety every other day and when the baby pulls the Oscar off the mantle, they chuckle and say “Careful, Sport! That’s not a toy.” Far be it from me to be the one to point out how rarely that balance is ever achieved. I do think there is one thing truly worth saying to any young person who might (at this very moment) be contemplating a career in the entertainment industry. If that person is YOU, read on.

You’re not going to believe how lame this is going to sound, but here it is: Go with the Flow. The whole journey is so full of surprises. You won’t believe how many times your raft will survive the rapids only to go over the falls. It can be incredibly fun and it can also be unbelievably tough. The happiest and best careers are the ones that acknowledge and incorporate those facts into an ever-evolving game plan. Enjoy it. Even the shitty parts can be sort of fun. Whatever happens, I can promise you it will go by faster than you can imagine. Before you know it, somebody will be calling you and asking if you’ll talk with their niece or nephew. By that time, I’ll be enjoying my Tapioca up at the old actors’ home in Woodland Hills, so don’t bother calling me. I did my part. It’s your problem now. They will be counting on you, so don’t fuck up. Make sure you have something great to say to them. They deserve your best.

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

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

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Chariots and Chimps

I was in New York last Monday talking to a literary agent when he happened to mention that Charlton Heston had passed away. My heart sank. I hadn’t paid much attention to the news over the weekend and didn’t realize that the man who had parted the Red Sea, won the big chariot race and had so vigorously fought for my right to keep a shotgun in my car was no longer with us. Although, I’d never much agreed with his political positions, I had always loved him. That is not to say I thought he was a great actor. He wasn’t, particularly. But he was a kick-ass movie star who had kept me thoroughly entertained from my childhood straight through adolescence. As an adult, I’d always enjoyed his cranky letters to the L.A. Times. He was an outspoken (and respected) conservative in a town that rarely forgives such things.

In one of the three (yes, three) tributes given to Mr. Heston in the L.A. Times last week, they actually reprinted some excerpts from his many letters to the editor. The subjects included handguns, political correctness, Elia Kazan, the general public’s ignorance of our political system, Bill Clinton, nuclear bombs, bloated Hollywood budgets, Ice-T, Rap Music, Kato Kaelin, the Riots of ’92, AIDS, bad television, affirmative action casting and the cost of bringing democracy into Panama. Although strongly worded, none of the letters were ill-informed and the man always handled himself with dignity. He unfortunately had a couple of less dignified moments too; mostly associated with his leadership of the NRA. These included revving up the crowd by waving a revolutionary war musket over his head and bellowing that it would have to be pried from “his cold dead hands.” And then there was the whole flap about the NRA deciding to go ahead with their convention just a few days after the Columbine shootings. His last high profile appearance was in Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling for Columbine” where, already suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s, he chose to withdraw from the interview midway through. It was a sad moment (for a lot of reasons).

But personally, I will always remember Chuck Heston for his movies. If you were a kid growing up in the seventies, his movies were the best. For me, getting to see a movie at all was a huge deal since my family were Born Again Christians and therefore none too happy with the subject matter of most Hollywood films. I can still remember the week that “Planet of the Apes” opened in our little shithole of a town. Since I knew my mother sort of admired Heston for having played “Moses” in “The Ten Commandments” and “Judah” in “Ben-Hur,” I thought I might have a shot at seeing it. Pulling out all the stops, I staged a non-stop festival of begging and weeping until she finally gave in. Words cannot express how much I loved that film. Similarly, I did whatever it took to get into “The Omega Man” and I will never forget the terrifying conclusion of “Soylent Green.” There was more fun to be had in “Skyjacked,” “Airport ‘75” and “Earthquake” (filmed in sensational “Sensurrond!”). I would later catch up (via TV) on Heston’s early career as the star of lots of big costume epics where he always played the brash, sweaty commander of some group of underdogs -- The guy who snarled at authority, always won the heart of some stuck-up dame who didn’t know what was good for her and ultimately saved the day. Chuck was a hero who could whip any and all comers. I was surprised to read that he often did extensive research for his roles and kept lengthy journals about his process as an actor. This struck me as sort of poignant since very little of that preparation ever shows up in any of his performances. Generally speaking, he pretty much always gave the same performance over and over. It was good. Serviceable. But pretty much the same. There was one exception. Check out “Will Penny.” He’s really very good in that.

A quick glance over his credits reminded me of some other memorable projects like the Orson Welles’ cult classic, “Touch of Evil,” the hugely entertaining “Three Musketeers” and the campy biopic, “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” He tried out TV (“The Colbys”) and also used his distinctive voice to narrate many documentaries, including one called “Bagpipe: Instrument of War” (which sounds sort of interesting, doesn’t it?). One of my favorite memories of Charlton Heston is when he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in the late ‘80’s. In the opening monologue, he read a hilariously irate letter from a viewer that had been sent to producer Lorne Michaels some 10 years earlier. The letter furiously lambasted the show for its loose morals and poor taste. Wrapping it up, Heston dryly noted that “It was signed … ‘Sincerely, Charlton Heston.’” I should add that he was surprisingly very funny in the rest of the show, especially in a supermarket skit where he played the world’s oldest “bag boy.” You have to hand it to a guy who was a major star and managed to stay married to the same woman for over sixty years. And to this day, I’ve yet to see a piece of filmmaking more thrilling than the chariot race in “Ben-Hur” (80% of which was filmed without a stunt double). The guy was a true original. In a age where movie stars are becoming less and less entertaining, I gotta say our good friend, Chuck Heston will be sorely missed. Well, at least by me. For sure.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

Sunday, April 6, 2008

People who need people

I had a dream the other night. I was traveling in a car with three people I know from show business. Two of them, I had at one time, considered to be friends (they weren’t, as it turned out). The third I’ve always been ambivalent about. In the dream, the two that I’m not really friends with anymore were, for some reason, being nice to me again. I was slightly suspicious, but wanted to believe that they were sincere. We stopped at a gas station and while one of them was filling the tank, the rest of us went inside to buy snacks. I was the last to check out and when I got to the counter I discovered that my companions had left three half-eaten candy bars lying there. When the clerk saw them, he assumed they were mine, so I wound up having to pay for them. When I stepped outside, I discovered that my “friends” had driven away without me. Outraged, I followed them to a nearby city that seemed to be a strange hybrid of New York and Los Angeles. I pursued them into a theater and then onto the stage itself (which was empty). Suddenly, I had to go to the bathroom in the worst way. While sitting on the toilet, I began to feel scared and so I started to sing. Then I noticed that the stall surrounding the toilet had disappeared and I was now exposed for all the world to see. One of the people I’m no longer friends with, entered and started to use the urinal next to me. When he saw me sitting there, he chuckled in a demeaning sort of way, so I yelled “Fuck you!” Then the other one came in and I told him the same thing. They laughed and I woke up… furious.

This dream is about show business. I’m sure you’re probably thinking it’s about a quite a bit more than that, but trust me, it’s about show business. The dream is about the same issues that emerge and reemerge, over and over in the lives of creative people. Issues like trust, loyalty, abandonment, loss, jealousy, blame and betrayal. Given the ups and downs that most of us weather daily, it’s a wonder we don’t all have this dream every night. The dream is a reflection of one of the most difficult aspects of the entertainment industry: our relationships with each other.

Martin Mull once called Hollywood, “High school with money” which is astoundingly accurate. The speed with which you can fall in and out of favor is enough to make anyone a neurotic mess. When I accidentally gained a little “D-List” celebrity last year, I suddenly found myself invited to parties hosted by big, famous people I didn’t really know. I got to stand on some very nice lawns and make chit chat with successful strangers who oddly treated me like a dear friend. I found this a little unsettling, though I shouldn’t have. In the upper echelons of the business, this brand of rapid-fire intimacy is the coin of the realm. I once worked with a producer who was brilliant at it. Whenever we ran into somebody he knew (which was about every 20 minutes) he would immediately douse that person with a bucket of drippy enthusiasm. Then before they could wipe it from their eyes, he’d put them through a fast, but thorough interrogation to see if there was anything they were doing that could in any way further his goals for the week. It rarely produced any useful information, but we are nothing if not hopeful here in Hollywood.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a good “networker.” It brings out the worst in me. Happily, my address book is primarily filled with the names of colleagues I love and respect. Many of my most treasured friendships are with people I’ve met in the trenches of the business. However, sprinkled throughout my Outlook Express are a few names that inspire intense feelings of jealousy, terror and in a few cases, loathing. Pretty much any contact with a member of this crew turns me into an angry, self-consumed teenager. If I suck up to them, I spend the next few days wondering whether it was my ego, my competitive streak or my pathetic desire to be liked that caused me to cross the line into Ass-Kissing-Pussydom. If I avoid these people, I then wind up kicking myself for not having had the guts to approach them. Both situations leave me wondering who the hell I am. Where is my backbone? My core values? Where are my balls?

Cards on the table: This might be a good time to admit that I’ve not always acted with the upmost generosity and graciousness toward my peers. There are a couple of situations I wish I could do over. None of us want to compromise our best selves, but simply put, Hollywood is a crowded town. In the frantic race for employment or acknowledgement, it can often feel like you (and everybody you know) are all trying to get a seat on the last helicopter out of Saigon. In the flurry and frustration of the moment, your elbow can easily wind up in somebody’s eye (and vice versa). Hopefully, they will forgive you, but they might not. Show business for all its glitziness winds up being an internal journey and (like it or not) it will eventually show you what you’re made of. At the end of the day, the truly horrible are usually sifted out -- unless of course they are brilliant at what they do, in which case we all just have to put up with them until they die.

The awful dream I had made me think that perhaps personal integrity begins at home. Maybe there are a few people I should weed out of my “contacts” for good. Like that movie director who still thinks I live in New York and always asks me how long I’m going to be in town (I’ve lived in L.A. for 15 years) or that aggressive writer-girl who works every room with all the grace and charm of an extortionist. I have been blessed with a wide circle of funny, patient and talented friends and so far we’re all still able to pay our rent. Yes, we all have to hustle, but lately I’ve been trying to do something new for a change: trust life. I guess I’ve come to believe that no amount of frantic self-promotion ever changes the course of events for long. In the end, you and your talent will either find a home or you won’t. It will always be about the work. And timing. And luck. That’s the gamble. As for me, I’ll be happy if I just manage to not to wind up as an angry guy sitting on a toilet screaming “fuck you” at people who never wanted me along for the ride to begin with. Life is short and that’s one dream I don’t want to come true.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell
www.daviddeanbottrell.com