Sunday, May 25, 2008

The History of Drama (Part Two): When Hercules Met Jesus

The first movie I ever saw on a big screen was “Viva Las Vegas”. I was about five years old at the time and my aunt (who was an Elvis fanatic) took my sister and me to see it without my parents’ knowledge. All I remember about the experience is that when Ann-Margaret did her big dance number, I got so excited, I felt dizzy and had to put my head between my knees. My parents (who were very religious people) were upset when they found out and issued a “no more movies” decree. But a year or so later, something happened that changed the equation. The Kentucky Theater downtown started showing Saturday afternoon “Kids' Matinees.” This was the mid-1960's and it was a small town, so the idea of dumping your kids off unsupervised for a couple of hours while you did your shopping wasn’t so scary. And the admission was super cheap.

One Saturday afternoon when I was about seven, my father couldn’t go downtown with my mother for their weekly shopping trip so she was stuck having to wrangle me on her own. I was an antsy kid who tended to wander off, so she relented and let me to go to the kids' matinee. The movie that day was “Hercules” starring bodybuilder and former “Mr. Universe,” Steve Reeves. It had been filmed in Italy in the late 1950’s, but was only now arriving in eastern Kentucky. My mother gave me the money to get in and instructed me to wait for her in the lobby after the show. The movie started and I was in Heaven. I loved every second of it. It had action and comedy and romance and adventure. And it had a lot of guys wearing very little clothing which I found (for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time) strangely appealing. I exited the movie a changed person. I felt intoxicated. It was like I’d downed six glasses of Kool-Aid with extra sugar. As I waited for my mother in the theater lobby, I saw a poster for next Saturday’s attraction, “Jason and the Argonauts.” I had no idea what an “Argonaut” was, but I had every intention of finding out.

I was still high from the experience when I climbed into the backseat of our family’s battered station wagon. When my mother casually asked about the movie, all the details came gushing out of me -- The battles, the beheadings, the cloven-hoofed beasts, the pretty slave girls peeling off their veils for the King! Then, somewhere in mid-story, I happened to catch my mother’s expression in the rear view mirror. She didn’t look happy. I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. Even at seven, I had some awareness that there were certain things that we as good Christians should avoid looking at; things that would warp our minds and make us worship Satan. I also knew “that look”. It was that horrible “I’m a bad mother” look she got whenever she thought she’d done something wrong. It was an awful moment. Part of me wanted to apologize, but a bigger part of me really wanted to come back and see “Jason and the Argonauts.” I panicked and did what any overly-creative, desperate child would have done in my shoes: I rewrote the movie.

In what struck me as a brilliant move, I quickly slipped a sequence into the film where Hercules (wandering in the woods) happened to run into our Savior, Jesus Christ. Although I'd never seen a fig in my life, I had a vague memory that people in the Bible liked them, so I threw in a scene where Hercules and Jesus sat under a tree and ate figs. Knowing that Jesus was always telling people to do good, I added that to the mix as well. I stole a glance at my mother who did not look convinced. Clearly, if I was ever going to see the inside of the Kentucky Theater again, I needed to finish big. Mustering all my seven year-old acting ability, I managed to squeeze out a few tears as I recalled that the best part of the movie was how great Jesus had been to everybody and that maybe (I wasn’t entirely sure about this part) he might have also healed a passing cripple.

There was a stunned silence. Not exactly sure what to do next, I gazed out the car window and started to hum the only hymn I could remember (a hymn that I would later learn was entitled “Bringing in the Sheaves.” At the time, I thought it was called “Bringing in the Cheese.”) Nobody said anything for a few minutes. When I glanced at my mother’s face again, I saw that her expression had relaxed and she seemed to be blinking back tears. I had hit pay dirt. All my mother ever really wanted out of life was for her children to be safe in the arms of Jesus. She knew I was a somewhat “imaginative” child. I don't think she believed for a minute that Jesus had actually appeared in the movie, but I think she believed I thought I had seen him.

Oddly, I never felt guilty about having retooled the plot of “Hercules” that afternoon. I knew I wasn’t supposed to lie, but I honestly didn’t feel like I had. In my mind, I'd been telling my mother a terrific story and when she started to become frightened by the plot, I had simply changed it. Even at that age, I sensed my Mom's life wasn’t easy and that she worried about our fragile futures. In my heart, I knew that watching “Hercules” had not hurt me in any way. In fact, in it I had found a kind of life raft. I was not a particularly popular kid and already spent most of my time trying to be invisible. Although it was never discussed, the “no movie” rule sort of evaporated (at least for me) and I was quietly allowed to attend whenever we could afford it. I think a silent understanding formed between my mom and me. Just like the stories in the Bible offered comfort to her, the stories in movies and TV shows would, in the years to come, allow me to filter and frame my experiences, offering me hope for a life I could distantly see and might someday achieve.

A few weeks later, I sat next to my mother on the piano bench during church (she was the regular pianist). I had, by then, gotten to see “Jason and the Argonauts” and boy did I love it! Next weekend, “Son of Hercules” was coming to the theater and I could hardly wait. Life was good. Hercules could lift boulders. Love could bend rules. Now, it was my turn. Straightening my clip-on tie, I sat up straight the way she liked me to, and decided to make my Mom proud by proving that I knew all the words to the hymn she was playing. I wanted all her church friends to see what a good job she was doing raising me, so I sang it as loud as I could. "Bringing in the Cheese! Bringing in the Cheese! We shall come rejoicing! Bringing in the Cheese!”

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
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 discreetly middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, May 18, 2008

How Bad Could It Be?

Today was the day. This was it. I was going to start that damn script. I had finally landed my first big deal writing assignment in L.A. This wasn’t a rewrite or a polish. This was a new adaptation of a classy, challenging novel. I’d fought hard to get the job. I had a unique take on the material and my employers were behind me. Yes, this was the day. Definitely. For sure. There was only one problem. I had been saying “this is the day,” every morning for almost a month. I had agreed to deliver my first draft in seven weeks and now half the allotted time was gone and I hadn’t even started. In reality, every time I sat down at the computer, my chest would tighten. I felt nauseated and confused; my head swimming like I was getting the flu. When I stared at the screen, visions of disaster swirled before my eyes. I'd spent the last five years of my life cajoling and elbowing my way into the screenwriting business. Now I was in it. But something was suddenly occurring to me; something that I probably should have considered before applying for the job: I had no fucking talent.

And now for a little backstory. I fell into writing quite by accident. I was a New York theatre actor who, on a lark, thought I might be able to write my way into my next gig. Amazingly, that first script poured out of me like water. It only took ten days and the original draft was never revised all that much. I thought it would always be like that. One smooth, painless birth after another. But instead, new work was sporadic. I frequently found myself sitting on my ass for months at a time, waiting for some great inspiration to inhabit me and send my fingers flying across the keys. Now in Los Angeles, I was in a whole new game, competing with top notch people who really knew their stuff. Luckily, a young producer had taken a chance on me. Knowing I was unproven, he initially kept me on a pretty short leash. For weeks, I was required to hand in numerous outlines and treatments (and revisions of those outlines and treatments). In frustration, I called my agent who eventually got him off my back. At last, I was free to start writing. And that’s when it happened. The enormity of the task hit me like a speeding truck and I found myself paralyzed and drowning in self-doubt.

Unable to stall any longer, I sat finally down and began. It was slow, excruciating, horrible work. Each sentence was worse than the one before. Each piece of dialogue as stiff and brittle as chalk. I was writing a script with no shred of inventiveness. No spark. No wit. It was total garbage. Every second spent doing it was an eternity. Finally unable to withstand the sheer agony of it, I packed it in for the day. Even now, I'm not sure how I survived it. It was the longest fifteen minutes of my life. The next day I returned and lasted for an hour before lunch (and maybe an hour after). In an effort to end the torture, I just started hammering it out it as fast as I could. I no longer cared what the characters said. They could say anything they wanted. I just stared at my outline and kept typing. I had no idea what I was doing. When my ex called to check on me, I confessed the sad truth. He was skeptical. “How bad could it be?” he asked. “It’s like ‘Showgirls,’” I replied, “But not as funny.” A few days later, I finally reached the end of the draft. I had before me 127 pages of something (I knew not what).

That night, I poured myself a stiff drink and started to read. It was horrible beyond imagining. It looked like it had been written by a disturbed child. It was crap. And there was so much of it. Page after humiliating page. Then about 30 pages in, there was a joke. I had written it spontaneously, but it was funny. A few pages past that, I found a short scene that wasn’t so bad. I began to read with renewed interest. A little hope emerged. This pile of refuse in front of me was not my script. But my script was in there. I could almost see it. I just had to shovel it out. A few days before, I had had nothing. Now, I had “something” – something I could change.

That experience taught me the single most important skill required to be a writer: The willingness to do it badly. Writing is so personal that even now I don’t like admitting that there are many days when I suck at it. Every time I start something new, I always feel like I’ve walked into a room where the lights are off, the furniture’s been rearranged and the floor has been recently waxed. I won’t do well in there initially. It’s not possible. I have to give my eyes time to adjust to the dark. It’s a wonderful thing to give yourself permission to suck. It saved my career. Now, when the Muse unexpectedly departs for Palm Springs midweek, leaving me talentless and alone, I've learned to just to keep going. Eventually, she'll send a postcard. Years after learning this lesson the hard way, I encountered a book that explains this part of the writing process beautifully: Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” (I’ve recommended it a zillion times).

Naturally, I love the days when the words tumble effortlessly onto the page. But that’s pretty rare. In my experience, most script problems usually boil down to a writer not wanting to change something they deem “good,” because if they do, they’ll be forced to replace it with some stupid, bad-sounding shit. And that’s terrifying, because now you've let go of something that "sort of" worked in the hope that somehow you'll be able to spin the newly-inserted shit back into gold before you have to show it to someone. No wonder writers are so crazy. What sane person would want to take that gamble? But that is precisely the chance each of has to take if we want to build a mousetrap that actually works. The great acting teacher, Sanford Meisner used to say “Bad theatre is the manure from which good theatre grows.” Having come from a semi-agricultural background, this speaks to me. I always assumed that writing well meant you sat down and wrote well. Now, it’s the “not-knowing-what-the-hell-I’m-going-to-do” part that primarily keeps me interested in the work. It’s like that song that Julie Andrews sings in “The Sound of Music” about her love of brown paper packages tied up with string. Who the hell knows what’s inside there? Might be some good shit.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
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 secretly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, May 11, 2008

For My Consideration

My new mail carrier is getting a little impatient. Almost every day, she is forced to ring my doorbell so she can hand me yet another box of DVDs that won’t fit through my mail slot. I’m sure she thinks I’m a porn addict. Maybe I should tell her the real, more frightening truth: I am a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and it’s Emmy season. Yes, it’s television’s turn to do what we in the entertainment industry do so well and so often: praise and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. A couple of weeks ago, when the first carton from the Academy’s printing company arrived, I placed a large cardboard box next to the front door, so now I can immediately toss the daily shipment of Emmy worthy programming into it for perusal at a later time. I try to be a good academy member and I do watch a lot of it, but I suspect no one is capable of withstanding the full onslaught.

This will be my second time to vote on the Emmys. I joined the Academy last year and was instantly hit with a tsunami of DVDs, plus quite a few requests to serve on special juries. I wound up as a member of a “blue ribbon panel” and a “screening committee,” but I was never too sure which one was which. In one case, I received a box of DVDs and was asked to vote on some actors’ performances which was pretty easy. In the second situation, I was voting on one of the big “Best Series” categories, so I was required to show up at a fancy hotel where a group of us watched TV shows all day in a conference room. It was sort of intense, but fun. They fed us a very nice lunch and I think we all enjoyed exercising our teeny little bit of power - especially in a business where most of us have none. Of course, it’s always nice to get out of the house, but I personally prefer to judge the artistic efforts of others while lying on my sofa with a bowl of popcorn on my stomach and a remote in my hand. This is where I do my best critical thinking.

Since I don’t generally watch a ton of TV, I enjoy Emmy season. It gives me an excuse to camp out in my house and see what everybody’s been up to. When it comes to choosing my Emmy entertainment for the evening, I have to admit that I’m frequently attracted to the DVDs that come in the more deluxe packaging. Despite the new pressure to be “green,” the boxes from HBO still look like something created to commemorate the Queen Mother’s birthday. Sleek and elegant, they offer an array of DVD’s arranged like an exotic collection of Belgian chocolates. The other networks are no slouches either. Last year’s colorful container from PBS reminded me of a package of Starburst Fruit Chews. In fact, I’m hoping that soon someone will invent low-carb, edible DVDs so that once I’m done reviewing Teri Hatcher’s performance for “Best Lead Actress in Comedy Series,” I can eat it.

Because I belong to the “Performers” branch of the Academy, I receive a lot of postcards and DVDs from actors. These campaigns are a little like running for class president – only the popular kids have any real shot. I love it when “So-and-So Entertainment” or “Blah-Blah Management” wants to submit their client for my consideration (sort of suggesting that the actors themselves have no knowledge of this DVD and would be mortified if they knew I’d received it). In addition to the DVD campaigns, large sums of money will soon be spent on ads in the trades or in the annual special edition of “Emmy” magazine dedicated to showcasing potential nominees. Some of these ads can seem a little delusional; featuring actors you’ve never heard of, or octogenarian performers who weren’t all that great 30 years ago. Yesterday, I received a card from a young actor who is seeking a nomination for “Best Guest Actor” on a comedy series. I looked him up on IMDB. He’s eleven years old.

I myself understand Emmy fever because I’ve had it. Last year, for a hot minute, I thought I was going to be nominated for “Best Guest Actor” on a drama series. It didn’t happen, but it gave me a new respect for the stress and expense that goes into securing a “nod.” I remember there was one guy who (not wanting to spend the dough) was running sort of a grass roots campaign. He just showed up at every academy event and handed out DVDs of his performance on this mini-series from the Sci-Fi channel. It was a little awkward, but I admired his willingness to openly shill for himself.

Because the Emmys strive to acknowledge the whole universe of television, they are by nature, a little weird (Who exactly is the “Best Host?”) Like most award shows, their heart is in the right place and the money generated by the telecasts goes to support the Academy which offers some wonderful programs (like health insurance for academy members who might not otherwise have it) so it feels creepy and mean-spirited to make fun of them. Like a lot of people, I guess I find TV itself a little mystifying. Does it really reflect us? How can you have something as brilliant as “Mad Men” on the air alongside… Hmmm... Maybe I shouldn’t finish this sentence. I don’t want to offend you in case the piece of shit I was about to mention is your favorite show.

It’s been a rough season for television. Between the damage done by the recent strike, the threat of another one looming, and the general anxiety being created by new media, there are lot of people wondering how much longer there will even be “TV” as we know it. But the really gnarly question is what the hell am I supposed to do with all these DVD’s when I’m done watching them? Last year, I passed the bounty along to neighbors or just tossed them in the recycling, but now I keep hearing rumors about tracking devices and secret serial numbers. I have reoccurring nightmares about the FBI kicking down my door because somehow my Emmy screener of “Dancing With the Stars” fell into the wrong hands; thus wiping out the whole market share in Zimbabwe. I just heard that the Academy is creating a drop box where you can return the DVD’s so they can then be shipped to US military personnel and their families. This strikes me as an excellent idea. I’m hoping that when our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan find out that they are being asked to remain for six or seven more tours of duty, our screeners of “John from Cincinnati “ or “Mind of Mencia “ will make them feel a little less depressed about it. At least they’ll know they aren’t missing anything all that great on TV.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
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 undeniably middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Exit Strategy

There’s a wonderful scene in Carrie Fisher’s script for “Postcards from the Edge” where Meryl Streep’s character, a truly down-on-her-luck actress named Suzanne Vale, realizes her life has slammed into a wall. Slumped on the staircase of her family’s home, she quietly bears her soul to her alcoholic mother, Doris (a fading 1950’s movie star played by Shirley MacLaine). Sadder than sad, Suzanne tells her mother that she now feels if she’s ever going to have a shot at a normal life (or experience what other people call happiness), she will have to leave show business. Wine glass in hand, Doris rolls her eyes, sighs impatiently and replies, “Well, first of all, everybody’s always leaving the business…”

Except for the fact that I don’t have an alcoholic movie star for a mother, this could easily have been a scene pulled from my own life. More than once I’ve sat opposite a friend and told them I was “seriously considering” leaving the business. However, as we all know, the entertainment industry is a lot like the mafia: hard to infiltrate and virtually impossible to get out of alive. "ShhBiz" (as we Hollywood insiders like to call it) has been good to me. Aside from a few survival jobs when I was younger, it’s basically all I’ve ever known. In hindsight, I suspect that the Entertainment Gods probably laughed at my childish threats to jump ship. After all, where would I go? But believe it or not, there were actually two pretty close calls.

The first one occurred a few years ago when I realized that I was only eighteen months away from my 40th birthday. I had been in L.A. for a while and although I’d managed to break into the game, I hadn’t scored many points. I felt a little old to be chasing a dream, but had no real exit strategy either. I remember saying out loud to my empty apartment, “If things don’t turn around before I’m forty, I’m leaving. Seriously, I am…” and for the first time, I didn’t feel scared uttering those words. A month later, I was asked to pitch on an adaptation of a strange (and not very cinematic) novel. I knew the project had a long history and that several writers had fallen on their swords trying to crack it. The producers were nervous and indecisive, but strangely I was not. I had a strong vision for the script and no matter how many times they summoned me back to explain it to them (six!), I never much wavered from my original idea. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care who got the assignment. I was leaving the business anyway. If they didn’t hire me, it would just be one more excellent reason to get the hell off this stupid merry-go-round. On my 39th birthday, my agent called to say I had gotten the job. It was the first real money I ever made in L.A.

My second attempt was a little more recent and a little more painful. In late 2003, fortune was smiling on the house of Bottrell. I was the co-writer of one modestly successful studio film and now (after a long run of “almost’s,”) I had two very cool, very different movies in preproduction. The first was an urban comedy with a big fat star attached and the second was an animated musical that everyone was hugely excited about. Unbelievably, both films were yanked out of production within thirty days of each other. Somehow the stink of that double-disaster rubbed off on me and my run of luck dissolved. I was tired of fighting windmills and being in sort of a vulnerable space, I allowed myself to fall head-over-heels for somebody who was battling a few demons of his own. When he got a job offer in D.C., I was all too eager to abandon Los Angeles and join him. I then spent a curious year living in our nation’s capital, while flying back to L.A. every few weeks to interview for writing jobs I didn't really want. The monthly commute began to develop a pattern. I would fly to L.A. prepping for my meetings, then fly back to D.C. looking at college catalogues. I knew my days in entertainment were numbered. Living in a non-show business city (with a non-show business partner) was slowly pulling me out of my dizzying orbit and back to earth where the real people lived. I was waking up to the whole concept that partnership, real estate, retirement accounts, step kids, family, politics, religion and worthy causes were not things you attended to when you happened to have a little extra time. This was my life now – and it was time to invest in it.

When my romance unexpectedly imploded in the summer of 2005, I found myself on a plane headed back to L.A. with no return ticket. I was broke, career-less and in a state of complete emotional devastation. I hid in my apartment (which, thank god, I had not given up) and wondered what the hell I was going to do now. I still wanted out of the business, but I had no marketable skills outside of entertainment. I knew I should get a job of some kind, but I was paralyzed with fear. Then one morning, while standing at my kitchen sink, I had an idea for a short film that struck me as pretty fucking funny. In fact, I actually laughed out loud. Not knowing what else to do, I went up to my office and ten hours later, I had written it. Thirty days later (on borrowed money) I shot it. Ninety days later, I screened it. In the following 18 months, it would appear in over 130 film festivals and win 17 awards. It led to my optioning and adapting a book that would revive my sputtering screenwriting career. As a result of asking a casting director-friend to help me with my short, I came to mind when she was casting a freaky character role. That role would morph into a reoccurring gig on a series which not only paid my bills for several months, but also gave me a totally unexpected second career as an actor. And somewhere in the midst of this frantic flurry of activity, Humpty Dumpty was put back together again.

The only good part about being shot out of a cannon is you can sometimes get an extraordinary view from up there. It gets a little easier to see that while certain roads do end, others simply fork in a new direction. I’ve had friends who’ve happily transitioned into civilian life, but I don’t think that’s my fate. I realize that show business isn’t a particularly noble profession, but its best products still require people with artistry, commitment and a certain surplus of heart. I also know how easy it is to get trapped in L.A. limbo, where just the hope of working becomes strangely sufficient; almost preferable sometimes to the messy realities of an actual job. Personally, I still cling to the theory that wherever there is a pile of shit, there must be a pony nearby. Yes, it's scary, but hard as I try, I can’t think of another profession that would have allowed me to laugh as much as I have laughed in the last 25 years. I guess that's a little selfish. I know it’s not as good as curing cancer, making a billion dollars or having a star on the walk of fame, but (as my first agent used say) “it’s not exactly chopped liver either.” Have a great week, Hollywood. See you next Monday.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
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
http://www.partsandlabor.tv/