Saturday, July 26, 2008

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

A couple of years ago, I was having a conversation with my then manager about what sort of position I held in the Hollywood pecking order. I was anxious. I’d recently learned that I was no longer in the running for this big deal writing job because the producer of the project had never heard of me. I was starting to worry that even after 12 years of working in Hollywood, nobody seemed to know who I was. My former manager quickly assured me that this was not the case. “Are you kidding?” he said, “You’re deeply respected.” I knew this remark was meant to cheer me up, but unfortunately it had the opposite effect. My heart sank into my shoes. I felt like I’d just been told my tumor was inoperable and that perhaps I should get my affairs in order. Clearly, the end was near.

Respect, in and of itself, sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I mean who doesn’t want to be (or at least feel) respected. In the real world, it denotes a certain seniority. Somebody who’s been around the block and knows their shit. Someone smart and capable, wise and canny. A person you can trust and depend on. Unfortunately in Hollywood, it carries a slightly different connotation. Here being “respected” is the equivalent of asking someone out on a date and being told that although they like you and think you have a nice personality, they don’t really want to fuck you -- So what’s the point? It’s not that they hate you. Definitely not. Why, if at some point in the future, their clubfooted cousin should need a prom date, they’ll definitely be calling.

There does exist a good form of respect in the movie business, but it’s mostly reserved the likes of William Goldman, Meryl Streep and a small group of British character actors. Oddly, studio heads have no problem “giving props” to these folks in the form of large paychecks. People of this caliber are often called in to class-up a singularly unexciting or clumsy project. And who can blame these artists for cashing in. I’m hoping Dame Judi Dench at least got to remodel her kitchen after “The Chronicles of Riddick.” At other times, respected entities can serve as bait to lure fat bankable talent to the table, anxious for the opportunity to breathe the same air as their iconic idols.

Respect is a gnarly issue for me since I started out doing theatre. In that odd little world, everybody was respected. Even those of us who hadn’t done anything worth respecting were respected. Things like process and rehearsal were holy acts. A playwright’s text was sacrosanct. We were the artistic descendents of Hellman, Miller and Brando and as such, took ourselves very seriously indeed. It didn’t matter whether you were playing the Palace or working in some moldy basement, certain beliefs were strictly observed. No matter what, we always treated each other like artists. These days, many (well, actually most) of the people I knew from my theatre life are out here now, putting their well-honed skills to use on sitcoms and procedurals. Why? Because in addition to being artists, they wanted to buy a home and raise some kids. Unfortunately, there is preciously little money in being respected.

When I was a young guy I remember being out on the town one night with two of my cohorts. We had all met working in a little rat-hole of a theatre in the west 30’s. It was late and we’d had a lot to drink when someone put forth what, in those days, passed for a deep question: “What do you want to be in ten years?” The prettiest one of us piped up with a surprisingly detailed game plan for her professional life that she felt would soon deliver her a career as a noted actor-writer-director. Suddenly, all eyes were on me. I hesitated. I was twenty-two at the time and rarely thought past tomorrow. What did I want to be in ten years? “In demand,” I answered. It was the best and only answer I could think of. Sadly, my friend who had the beautifully worked-out plan for her life, died before she reached thirty; a victim of brain cancer. It was a sober reminder that the best laid plans are sometimes no match for the cards we are dealt.

Shortly after I learned about my “respected” status in Hollywood, I decided it was time for a major career renovation. I dug out my old Aretha Franklin CD and “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” quickly became my new theme song. Like Aretha, I realized I too needed to “find out what it means to me.” Now, after three years of saying “yes” to everything (especially things that scare me), I have to say my situation is definitely better. Having more than one skill set is proving to be a real positive and I can now see quite a few options that could work out for me. It’s a nice feeling. Let’s face it. In these uncertain times, no one can rest on their laurels (real or imagined). The industry is in metamorphosis and it would behoove all of us to think more inventively about what we might be able to bring to the party. Sure, I like the idea of being respected, but the answer I gave at age twenty-two still applies. I’d really rather be in demand. Popular, at least. I don’t want to be a total whore. We’ve all seen how unappealing that looks. But a classy, highly paid whore is another story. You know the kind I mean. Witty and sophisticated. The kind of whore Helen Mirren would play. That would be alright with 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 cleverly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Stimulating Hollywood

After months of waiting, there it was. Sticking tantalizingly out of the mail slot was my economic stimulus check. About damn time! My mother (who is nothing if not patriotic) had given me a good stern talking-to a few weeks ago, reminding me that when it arrived I was not to treat this as “savings account” money. This was “spending” money. According to what she had heard, it was our duty as Americans to blow through these government checks ASAP since it would help our troubled economy. I was delighted to participate in such a noble plan. Having been raised in a family that prided itself on stretching a dollar, this was an ideal job for me. Plus, I had another agenda. I was sick of hearing how the recent writers’ strike had so crippled the entertainment business in Los Angeles, so I decided to use my stimulus check to personally give back to the industry that had fed and clothed me for so many years. I was a man with a mission. I had $600.00 with which to save show business and I would do it in one day.

My first stop was Target where I decided to pick out some cheap, but presentable patio furniture. Yes, I know. Patio furniture doesn’t appear to directly connect to show business but bear with me. As you may have heard, all the big entertainment deals are initiated at social gatherings and fundraisers. Granted I have a small backyard and my patio is only 10’ x10’, but I’ve managed to throw some rocking parties out there over the years. Not wanting to blow my entire wad right away, I passed by the nicer wicker pieces and headed for the clearance aisle where I found some sturdy folding stuff that looked like it could take a beating. As I wheeled it into the checkout line, I felt both practical and extravagant (my favorite combination). Price: $161.

The next stop was the optical store where I finally replaced my very scratched eyeglass lenses. I’m like a nine-year old when it comes to my glasses. I never use a case and when I shift to my sunglasses, I always hang my specs on the neck of my T-Shirt where they are guaranteed to fall off and hit the cement at least twice a week. The salesgirl was so nice and informative that I couldn’t stop myself from ordering the progressive tri-focal lenses with the scratch resistant coating plus an additional feature I didn’t entirely understand, but was guaranteed to provide me “a slightly wider, mid-level field of vision.” It sounded fantastic! How does this help the industry? I can’t very well write brilliant scripts if I can’t see, right? Price: $289. (Wow. That scratch protection really adds up).

Next I hit Borders where I loaded up on paperbacks including new short story collections by cool writers like Denis Johnson and Jim Shepard. Because I’m cheap, I rarely buy hard covers. However, I draw the line when it comes buying used books from places like Amazon. It upsets me that the authors never see a dime on those sales. Something to think about in this age where the whole concept of residuals is under attack. I also grabbed a book on marketing just because I’m interested in how it’s slowly ruining our lives. How does this benefit the entertainment industry? Because books are crammed full of ideas. I’m always shocked by the number of actors and screenwriters in L.A. who don’t read; preferring to try to extract dramatic art from our largely un-dramatic lives. Gym, Starbucks, Traffic, Meeting, More Traffic. Not exactly “The Bourne Conspiracy,” is it? I’m too lazy not to read. Reading gives me tons of ideas for stories and characters. Plus it reminds me how many skilled and imaginative writers are out there and how I always need to step up my game. Gathering up my purchases, I march self-righteously out the door with about a hundred dollars worth of books.

With my funds quickly dwindling, I need to prioritize so I charge into Trader Joe’s for a couple of cases of cheap wine. Sorry, but if you don’t understand the connection between show business and cheap wine, I can’t help you. Finally down to chump change, I swing by the newsstand to grab a copy of “Entertainment Weekly” so I’ll know who to be deeply envious of this week. As I wait to pay for my magazine I can’t help but notice the tabloid rack and realize that someone other than me received a little good news this week. On July 12, at 6:27 pm (local France time), Brad and Angelina welcomed their new twins, Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline into the world. Now, I feel selfish and bad. With my last few dollars in hand, I scoot over to the Rite Aid and buy a “Congratulations on Your New Baby“ card for the Pitt-Jolie’s. Since I don’t know the zip code for the planet “Plu-Tarr” (where they apparently live), I sent the card to them in care of CAA who will no doubt take care of delivering it.

Finally, I was home. It had been a long, but rewarding day of stimulating Hollywood. I poured myself a glass of cheap red and decided to try out my new patio furniture. The sun was setting and it was one of those magical L.A. twilights where the colors seem florescent and it really does feel like all of one’s hopes and dreams could (and maybe already have) come true. As I reclined on my new vinyl chaise, I thought about Brad and Angelina and their ever-enlarging family. According to the rag I’d perused at the Rite Aid, even as the birth of their twins impended, Angie and Brad were already talking adoption again. Having come from a large and cobbled-together family myself, I couldn’t help but wonder if they fully understood what they were getting into. I wondered if someday Angelina would find herself (like my mother) lying on a sofa with a cold cloth over her eyes; wondering why the fuck she'd had all these children. I wondered if one day, an utterly exhausted Brad would (like my father) be driving up to his home, spot a pack of screaming kids starting a fire in the front yard and consider the possibility of speeding past without stopping. Although it seems hard to imagine, I’m sure Brad and Angelina must have their moments of doubt, fear and disillusionment just like the rest of us. As a breeze ruffled the palm frawns overhead, I sighed and toasted their unknowable lives. Then I thought a little about my own. I reflected on how the chips had fallen for many of the kids my folks had taken in, and realized that although I might not be able to save the entertainment industry, the entertainment industry might well have saved me. The Pitts (as it turns out) are not the only lucky people in the world. With that, I flipped open my shiny new copy of Entertainment Weekly, breathless to see whose guts I would be hating this week.

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 extraordinarily middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The New Adventures of Actor-Man

The young, pretty A.D. stuck her head in the door and smiled. “We’re ready for you, Mr. Bottrell.” I was feeling a little jumpy, but that was to be expected. After all, I hadn’t done any acting in a really long time. I exited the trailer and crossed the parking lot to where the scene was about to be shot. As I got closer, I noticed there were quite a lot of people standing around; Not just crew members, but also the extras who would soon be pelting me with ad-libbed questions as my character tried to deliver his prepared statement to the press. Wow, there were so many of them. As the make-up woman blotted my face with a cold sponge, I began to feel a little short of breath. A weird numbness began crawling up the back of my neck and across my scalp. As I stared at this small army of people (all of whom were now staring back at me), I was gripped by a huge, paralyzing wave of fear. Suddenly, the director called “Action” and I couldn’t remember a single word of my speech. Not one. I sputtered and stammered through take after take, never once getting it right. At one point, the poor director yelled over the camera, “Just say anything!” Finally, after about ten takes we landed one where I said most of the words in approximately the right order. I limped away, utterly humiliated. I had known the lines in the trailer! What the fuck had happened? Before the next scene, I frantically drilled myself on every word. I arrived on the set wound tighter than a box spring. I got through it, but my performance was rigid and lifeless (and the continuity people were ready to strangle me). All I wanted was for this nightmare to be over, but there was fresh hell to come. My character had already been written into next week’s episode. How had I gotten myself into this mess?

By answering the phone. That’s how. When a casting director-friend of mine had originally asked me to audition, I had turned her down. I was scheduled to take my short film to festival in Palm Springs and the audition was going to screw up my departure plans. She was, however, not deterred; promising me an early appointment time and swearing it would be “fun.” I agreed to come in, but felt nervous about it. I had given up acting fifteen years earlier when I moved west to pursue a writing career. Occasionally, a friend of mine who was a showrunner would hire me to do a couple of lines here and there on whatever sitcom he was producing, but usually the roles were so tiny (“Customer # 2”) that I didn’t even have to audition for them. When I stepped into my friend’s casting office on that fateful Friday morning, it had been more than seven years since I’d been in front of a camera. Luckily for me, I had one of those miraculous auditions that occur every other eon. Everybody laughed and two hours later, I was in wardrobe. When I received a revised script the following day, it was clear that my character (originally intended to be in only one episode) was now going to reoccur the following week. Apparently the creator of the show had taken a shine to me.

After the debacle of the first episode, I drove to the studio to shoot the second one with my knuckles white on the steering wheel. My stomach was in a knot. I wanted to puke. Why had I said yes to this? As I flashed back on the nightmare of the previous week, I recalled one very crucial detail: everyone else on the set had been relaxed and happy. I had been the only miserable wretch in sight. “Fuck it!” I yelled out loud in my car. “I don’t give a shit! I never asked for this! If I suck, it’s their fault! They’re the ones who hired a talentless hack for the role! I’m going to fucking-well relax and have fun if it goddamn kills me!” Plastering a jittery smile on my face, I marched onto Stage 16 fully determined to stink up the joint. But fate intervened. The other actor in the scene (a series regular) was having a few justifiable problems with his character’s through-line. Suddenly the focus was off me and onto solving his dilemma. I was all too happy to rehearse the scene several different ways until a solution was found. I began to enjoy the process and when it finally came time to shoot my big freaky monologue (where I threatened him), I was into it. Afterwards, a crew member discreetly complimented me as he unhooked my body mike. “You kinda scared me, dude,” he whispered. I was floored. Not only had I frightened the sound guy, I had actually managed to enjoy myself. The curse was broken. My “one-episode” character was kept on the show for eight glorious weeks, growing more nutty and sinister with each installment. By the time the final episodes aired, I was signed to an agency and had begun to audition for TV pilots and guest star roles.

Truthfully, stepping back into acting hasn’t been exactly been like riding a bike. I’d forgotten how ridiculously brief auditions can be – not to mention the staggering number of things that can go wrong in that short period of time. Even in my early heyday as a stage actor in New York, I was never particularly easy to cast. I was tall and skinny, not particularly handsome and sort of quirky. I could never play leads since I largely came off as sort of asexual and dickless. But when I had the right role (like a junkie or a hillbilly), I could be pretty good. The problem was finding those parts. I largely got cast because directors liked working with me and would offer me roles that I could never have booked in a standard audition situation. Still, I was an oddball. The best reviews I ever got in my life were for a Samuel Beckett play where I portrayed a ninety-year old man who spoke only in gibberish. When I asked my agent if he could use the good reviews to get me more auditions, he answered, “How do I sell a twenty-eight year old actor who plays ninety?”

When screenwriting fell into my lap, I wasn’t too sorry to leave acting behind. The constant scramble to stay visible was wearing me out. The huge disappointments were getting harder to take and then there was all that horrible waiting for the phone to ring. Although I’m a little less vulnerable now, there are still some aspects of the job that kill me. Chief among them being that Godless moment, when I am driving home from an audition and it suddenly occurs to me what I should have done! -- That brilliant line-reading or funny bit that would surely have landed me the job! Ugh! Sometimes I wonder how I could have invited all that anxiety and regret back into my life? I guess the answer is that when acting goes well -- when you manage to dazzle them, it’s Heaven. In that moment, I understand what it must feel like to be an Olympic athlete – performing some ridiculously complex feat, but somehow doing it with an ease and precision that seems almost supernatural. And then there are the cheers from the crowd! Oh, excuse me. That was my manager calling. Gotta go. I’ve got an audition tomorrow. I’m reading for a guest role that’s described as “a nervous, lonely, oddball” (sort of an asexual, dickless type, I’m guessing) on an obscure cable series I’ve never heard of. I’ve got a good feeling about this one. Cross your fingers!

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 unexpectedly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Death by Resume

I was recently at a party hosted by a writer-friend who's been experiencing some really big success lately. He is (in addition to being very talented and deserving of this success) a genuinely nice guy. Having successful friends (really successful friends) is for me, a little tricky. I’m always happy to see them recognized and rewarded, but it does have a way of making me a bit self-conscious about my own somewhat modest position on the game board. My resume, which was perfectly fine the day before this party, now seemed a bit lackluster as I stood in my friend’s extremely nice living room, rattling my ice cubes. When my host spotted me talking to no one, he dragged me across the room and introduced me to another social misfit. I could tell right away that I wasn’t going to like this guy. He was about ten years younger than me and had that sort of ambitious, disconnected edge that always makes me want to leave show business and join a monastery.

Our host introduced us to each other as “fellow writers” and sailed away. Lifting his drink to his lips, the guy asked me what sort of stuff I wrote. While I was telling him, I noticed his eyes drifting over my shoulder as he scanned the room for someone more interesting to talk to. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have cared, but I’d had two vodka tonics by then and having nothing better to do, I decided to fuck with him. “Hey,” I said, feigning interest, “I think I’ve heard of you.” This being Hollywood, his eyes instantly snapped back to my face. I now had his full attention. It took about two seconds for him to suggest that perhaps it was because he had written a movie that was recently a hit on the festival circuit. "Could be," I said and countered with a brief anecdote about how my own short film had won a ton of awards on that very same circuit just two years before. Had my film won at Sundance? he wanted to know. Why no, it hadn’t. Smiling tightly, he said he had a genre film coming out in the fall. Okay, major point for him. I, however, had a musical in development at a very hip mini-major. Score one for me. Genre Boy then claimed to have a new comedy spec he was attached to direct. Big fucking deal. I had an adaptation of an edgy memoir that sounded like it could win some major awards. It was a stand-off. Then suddenly a well-known actress broke into our conversation to say that she recognized me from a TV show that I had acted on for a couple of months. After about sixty seconds of being utterly ignored, my opponent fled the scene. Victory was mine. In the game we were playing, being recognized by someone famous is sort of like a royal flush. It beats anything the other guy’s holding.

This little episode begs the question, why would two grown men get involved in such a ridiculous pissing contest while attending a friendly little Hollywood party? Why would each feel the need to keep spewing their credits (even unproduced credits!) just to advance a game that can never be won. There are some sad reasons for this that include seriously bruised egos and crappy self-esteem -- but there is a bigger truth at work as well. In order to stay in this business, you have to, by nature, be a fighter and fighters need to win sometimes (even if the battle is ridiculously petty). I have no doubt that had Mother Theresa gone into show business she would have sold the whole convent down the river for a development deal and never thought twice about it until after the check had cleared. Like it or not, our less attractive personality traits (like competitiveness and aggression) are actually necessary sometimes just to get a leg up. The trick is knowing when (and how) to stop using them once the goal is achieved. We all want to be one of the cool kids. It's tough to let go.

One of the great cures for this syndrome is to spend a little time fraternizing with civilians. It usually doesn’t take long for them to ask that perfectly innocent (but dreaded) question: What movies have you written that I might have seen? Unless the person doing the asking is African-American, there’s very little point in my even answering since my writing resume (although pretty lengthy) contains only one produced credit – a studio comedy called “Kingdom Come” starring Whoopi Goldberg and L.L. Cool J. Sometimes, I wonder how much trouble I’d get into if I just lied and claimed authorship of “Titanic” or “The Lord of the Rings.” I mean who’s to know, right? Because I act on TV occassinally, I frequently meet people who are certain they know me from somewhere, but can’t figure out where. If I confess to being an actor, they then want to know what shows I’ve been on lately. This leads to what I call “death by resume.” Slowly, we work our way through my credits. “Boston Legal? No, that’s not it. “Ugly Betty?” No, they’ve never seen that show. “Women’s Murder Club?” When exactly is that on? Eventually, I run out of credits and we just stand there; my inquisitor still waiting for satisfaction and me feeling like a jerk who just spent that last five minutes fishing for a compliment that never came.

I was in a store a few weeks ago and heard a radio commercial for the revival of “A Chorus Line” that’s currently on tour. In the commercial they use snippets from many of the show’s most popular and iconic songs. I was flashed-back to being a stage-struck teenager, who from age 16 to age 18, must have played that album about a zillion times. I never really wanted to be a singer or a dancer, I just wanted to live in that world – that glitzy place where, in a heartbeat, you could go from being a nobody (like me) to a somebody who was acknowledged, applauded and (most importantly) rewarded for their talents. I gathered from the show that there was a magical line that you crossed and once you were over it, you were a star and your life was transformed forever. At the time I had no idea what the lyrics, “Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?” actually meant. All I knew was that someday I wanted to be that “One Singular Sensation.” I have recently added some new credits to my internal resume to help me through those rough career days. They include: Writer/Director of my whole life story. Performer/Creator of my own happiness. And the Producer, Host and Annual Recipient of “The Intergalactic Entertainment Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award for Sustained Excellence Forever.” Too much? Naw, I don’t think so. Suck that, Genre Boy.

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 suprisingly middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv