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

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

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Man, you are becoming a frickin' Hollywood guru. You always seem to write exactly what I need to hear. I've been working on this adaptation (my first real gig) and self doubt seems to take over every time I turn in a new draft. But then a couple days later they let me know they "loved it." Glad to know the merry-go-round feeling is a part of the gig:)

Looking forward to next Monday!