Sunday, September 28, 2008

I Love Your Nuts

Shortly after my first movie went into pre-production, I became (for the second time in my career) Hollywood’s favorite writer. Every morning, scripts in need of a rewrite would plop onto my doorstep. Evenutally cabin fever set in and I started reading them in local coffee shops which is how I met this Middle Eastern chick, who for the purposes of this blog, we’ll call “Samira.” “Samira” was one of those odd people you meet in L.A. who seem to dabble in many artistic arenas; never content to settle on just one. When she spotted my stack of scripts, she pegged me as a person of some importance and became determined to make my acquaintance. Somehow within 20 minutes of meeting her, I’d agreed to read a screenplay she had written and give her some “professional feedback" on it. Samira didn’t seem overly concerned that I was swamped with my own work and called repeatedly over the next few weeks until I finally broke down and read her opus. It was awful. It might have been brilliant in Farsi, but in English it was awful. I managed to come up with a few vague notes and called her back. That mistake cost me two more hours of my life as she proceeded to ask thousands of questions, many designed to steer the conversation into strange, unrelated areas. Over and over, she told me how much she loved my notes. However, because of her accent, it sounded like she was saying, “I love your nuts.” According to her, my “nuts” were the smartest, most perceptive, most well-rounded “nuts” she had ever received. It was then that I discovered Samira had actually written her screenplay six years ago and had shown it to many, many people before me. Despite all the “nuts” she had received over the years, she’d yet to alter a single word of her script. Apparently, she just liked talking about it.

For Samira, script notes were just a way of getting a little attention. For the rest of us, notes are about something a tad more unsettling: change. Someone is suggesting that we change the way our story is being told. If the person giving us these notes is a producer or an exec (A.K.A. “employer”) then the notes are probably not just friendly suggestions; they are most likely requirements. Just this week, I sat down with my manager and got his notes on my new spec. One thing I can always count on from my manager is complete honestly. He had a few problems. And they weren’t exactly small problems either. Some I agreed with. Some I didn’t. Some, I might agree with next week. That’s the beauty of this process. You can change your mind as you go. I can’t say that I love getting notes, but I do recognize their importance. Once I’ve parachuted out of my imaginary plane and landed in the dense jungle of a script, I can easily get a little lost. I count on others to be my artistic GPS. Notes are, of course, only opinions. And it pays to be careful whose opinions you solicit. You also want to limit the number of opinions since that too can get a little overwhelming.

Some people are great at giving notes. Others can leave you feeling like you’ve been beaten and left for dead in an alley. I remember once being on the phone with a producer and after about 30 minutes, I had to stop him and ask that he refrain from using the adjectives “boring” and “bad” for the remainder of the note session. Instead, I asked that he refer to the sections he was having problems with as “not working.” He agreed and in time, the script improved substantially. The worst writing gig I ever had was a studio comedy with five disparate producers attached. I still recall the day the project imploded. After turning in my first draft, I was summoned to the studio for a meeting with four of the five in attendance (the fifth was present via one of those horrible “black box” speaker phones). The atmosphere was miserably tense as, one by one, my employers took turns expressing their generally low opinions of my script. The biggest problem was that each had distinctly different ideas on how to fix it. By the end of the meeting, I had 14 pages of wildly conflicting notes. As I exited the building alongside the only producer who had liked my draft, I asked him what he thought I should do. He shrugged and said, “At this point, I’d say write whatever the fuck you want.”

One of the reasons that receiving notes has gotten easier for me is that I’ve now had a little experience giving them. About seven years ago, I was asked by a local film festival to help found a mentoring program for young screenwriters. Despite the fact that I always strive to accentuate the positive, it’s inevitable that a few bubbles get burst during the 90 minute note sessions. I’ve watched perky young scribes, anxious to jot down my every comment, slowly dissolve into depressed, slug-like creatures scrawling doodles on their notepads. I’ve had writers become defensive and in one case, downright hostile. I’ve seen writers cry. I had one writer who literally apologized to me after each note as if the missteps in his script must have caused me some sort of personal pain. Over time, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing which ones will go on to a professional writing career. They are the ones who tend to get a bit grumpy during the note process. They recognize a good idea when they hear it, but don’t like admitting that it might actually work. That’s okay. A little arrogance is needed for survival. A little ego can keep you on your feet in the 11th round.

I’ve come to believe that the best way to approach notes is to first of all, acknowledge that they are going to sting initially. Writing is a deeply personal process and the first hurdle to be cleared is separating your sense of self from the realities of work. Secondly, I try to remember that notes are not about someone pointing out my mistakes, but instead someone pointing out what could be better. Notes are never intended to embarrass me or make me feel like a talentless schlub. Their only purpose is to get me thinking; to make me at least consider the possibility of a funnier opening, a more stream-lined second act or a unique, more startling climax. They are just ideas, meant to get the wheels of my mind turning. I feel bad for the Samira’s of the world; people stuck between giving up and going back – which, in the world of writing, are the only two choices available. Which brings me back to my spec. I’m not exactly sure how to address all of my manager’s notes, but it helps to know he’s a kind, smart guy who truly wants me to succeed. As a result of our talk, I’ve now got a truckload of messy new ideas (all of which will get their chance at bat sometime this week). It’s not a solution, but it’s a start. And in the world of writing, sometimes a start is all you need.

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Beauty School

Not long ago, I was summoned for jury duty at the criminal courthouse in Hollywood. As I sat in the courtroom, receiving my orientation, I couldn’t help but notice how gorgeous the judge was. In her early 50’s, she was one of those remarkably lucky women whose bone structure had left her virtually untouched by her age. And then there was the defense counsel who sort of reminded me of a young Kyra Sedgwick. Not to be outdone, the D.A.’s office had sent down a square-jawed, thirty-something version of Shia Lebouf. I began to wonder if I was on one of those hidden camera shows. Discreetly, I started checking out the pool of prospective jurors seated around me. There were a few regular Joe’s, but largely this was definitely an above average-looking crowd. It was yet another reminder that I live in the midst of one of the most ridiculously attractive populations in the world. And there is a reason for this.

Pretty much every year since about 1920, some of the best looking people on the planet have been flocking here, hoping to break into the movie business. Of course, many of them don’t make it and return home, but many others become fond of the L.A. lifestyle and stay on. As a result, the Southern California gene pool has (over the last 90 years) been flooded with the gorgeous. Los Angeles is, of course, a huge city (12.9 million to be exact) and I’m not saying everybody is a knockout, but if you peruse the population from say, Silverlake all the way out to the Ocean, it’s a pretty impressive group. If you don’t believe me, hang out in Milwaukee or Buffalo for a while and see if your opinion changes. Even our elderly look good. I recently cut through West Hollywood Park and was astounded at how cute the kids on the playground were. And I don’t mean cute in the way that most kids are cute. I’m talking four year-olds with stylish haircuts and designer playclothes.

If you’re the sort of person who likes eye candy, then L.A. is pretty much Heaven. However, if you’re a neurotic, insecure, self-loathing individual like me, the endless parade of hotties can do a number on your self esteem. Hollywood didn’t invent beauty, but we’ve certainly done more than our part to elevate and deify it. This town expects quite a lot from its citizens including knowing what looks good on you, where to get your hair cut and at least some working knowledge of skin care. It will make you afraid of bread, stripes and your date of birth. Gyms, tanning salons and Jenny Craig will never go out of business in a city where getting a second date is as rare as a lunar eclipse. Somehow, “looking good” jumped down off the movie screens and billboards and slithered into the very fabric of our lives.

When I first moved to L.A., I was a typically neurotic New Yorker who believed therapy was as essential to my survival as groceries. It didn’t take long for me to get the name of a recommended therapist whose office was in nearby Beverly Hills. I had, by that time, spent years pouring my heart out to a chubby little woman on Central Park West who stood maybe 5’1” and wore glasses that made her look like a frightened lemur. Imagine my surprise when my new therapist’s door opened and I was greeted by perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Blond, flawless and willowy, it was like someone had put Kim Bassinger on a rack and stretched her to about 6’1”. I was instantly intimidated and sensed this would never work. Somehow, I couldn’t see myself sitting there, telling my problems to Cheryl Tiegs week after week. Just to be polite, I figured I’d give this chick a couple of sessions before I dumped her. Ironically, she turned out to be an excellent therapist – especially for an anxious guy with body issues. I stayed with her for seven years.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’m Quasimodo or anything. I’m in decent shape and I don’t look bad for a guy who’ll never see 40 again. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve often wondered what it’s like to be the fairest of the fair. I was given a brief glimpse into that world a few years ago when a 30ish actor-model from my gym struck up an odd friendship with me. There was nothing sexual about it. The guy was totally straight. He was also built like a god and had the kind of charm and looks that made smart women do stupid things. Occassionally he'd invite me along to industry parties where velvet ropes parted and people were always delighted to make his acquaintance. He seemed to enjoy having a writer (AKA “smart person”) by his side while I was emotionally catapulted back to high school; feeling like a band geek, lucky to have scored such a popular friend. Truthfully, although the guy was quite an eyeful, he wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer and could sometimes be a bit of a cipher. Hanging out with the beautiful, but dumb Chad Manly and friends always gave me the same weird feeling I had whenever I watched an episode of "Baywatch" -- superior and inferior at the same time.

Luckily for me, about three times a year I get a little break from all the visual splendor when I venture home to see my family. To my knowledge, none of the Bottrells have ever actually seen the inside of a gym and I can tell you from personal experience, they never met a carbohydrate they didn’t like. When I take the whole crew out to eat, we tend to go to their favorite place -- a joint called “The Golden Corral” where you can slide your cafeteria tray past an endless array of feeding troughs filled with gallons of fabulously unhealthy food. This being the South, you are, of course, invited to return as many times as you’d like. I love the clientele at this place. These folks long ago gave up on appearances and are now more concerned with balancing a tray loaded with 11 pounds of food while wheeling their oxygen tanks back to the smoking section. One of the major benefits of a trip to the Golden Corral is that it always makes me feel like an Adonis. Standing at the salad bar, I am Brad Pitt with a little Patrick Dempsey thrown in.

The truth is Hollywood is a dream factory and who among us hasn’t dreamed of gaining that little extra edge that beauty can provide. Who knows? Maybe you are one of the physically blessed. If so, congratulations and by all means, enjoy it while it lasts. For the rest of us, it remains the stuff of legend. I recently saw an interview with Matthew Weiner, the very talented (but regular-looking) creator of the hugely successful, Emmy-winning “Mad Men.” When asked why he had cast the extremely handsome Jon Hamm in the leading role, Mr. Weiner laid it out, saying “I already know what it’s like to be me. I wanted to know what it’s like to be Jon Hamm.” Come to think of it…Me too!

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

Monday, September 15, 2008

I Can Get You Rhonda Fleming

I recently had lunch with my new acting agent. It was our first real “get-to-know-you” lunch and I’m happy to report that it went well. In addition to being smart and ambitious, he’s a soulful, literate guy who works hard for his clients while also making a little time to volunteer for a couple of charities he believes in. One of the things I liked best about him was that he really seemed to “get” what it means to be an artist. You’d be surprised how rare that is. God knows that everybody’s relationship with their agent is different. Over the years, I’ve had a myriad of experiences.

My first agents were these two lovely middle-aged Jewish ladies named Marilyn and Diane who commuted in from the suburbs each day on a mission to get their clients work in the glamorous world of New York Theatre. They had a modest little office on the corner of West 57th Street and 8th Avenue and tended to represent a lot of young, hopefuls like me. Once in a while, I would swing by unannounced with a box of Fanny Farmer chocolates from the pharmacy downstairs and they would act like I’d brought them diamonds from Tiffany’s. I’m not sure how effective they were as agents, but they loved their clients with a passion. Anytime I needed an ego boost, all I had to do was stick my head in the door. According to Marilyn and Diane, I was the cutest, most talented, funniest, most likable young man in all of New York. How did I stay so skinny? And look at that smile! And my hair! Did I know how many women would kill to have hair my particular shade of blond? I never got much work from Marilyn and Diane, but I always left their office feeling like a million bucks. When they finally closed their doors, I moved to another joint staffed by younger agents, all of whom were addicted to cocaine (it was the 80’s). They definitely produced a lot of appointments. But, in addition to using coke, they also sold it, so I lived in fear that someday the place would be raided by the cops.

Eventually, one of the cokeheads migrated to L.A. When I called to congratulate him on the move, he offered to represent me if I wanted to come out for pilot season. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, he’d sobered up and had no memory of that conversation. I was screwed. I’d already sublet my apartment in New York and now found myself standing on Mars with no escape pod. Frantically, I sent out photos to a zillion L.A. agents that I knew nothing about. Finally, I got a call from a nice-sounding lady who asked me to stop by the following day. When I arrived, I discovered that she worked out of her home - her living room to be exact. “Ginny” met me at the front door, wearing a bright red track suit. She invited me into her extremely messy living room and told me to have a seat. I moved a stack of 8 x 10’ s off the nearest chair and sat down. During our chat, Ginny (who was about 60 and a chain-smoker) told me that she’d recently gotten four of her clients jobs as “crew members” in a submarine movie that was currently shooting. In time, her husband, “Jimmy” (also dressed in a track suit) wandered in from the kitchen carrying a glass of tomato juice. Tossing a stack of manila envelopes out of the recliner, Jimmy sat down and joined the conversation. According to Jimmy, business had been “shit” last year, but things were definitely looking up. After about a half-hour, I made up a lie about having another appointment and ducked out. I stayed in L.A. for three more months (agent-less) until I finally gave up and retreated to New York.

Two years later, I was back. A play I’d co-written was being done here and I was quickly discovering that producing theater in Hollywood was a very different beast. Despite the fact that this was only a 99-seat, showcase production, the producers were obsessed with getting a “name” actress for one of the plum character roles. Since there was no money involved, all we had to offer was a solid funny part that the actress could use to attract a little industry attention. In other words, we had to find a slightly famous, older actress who’d hadn’t worked in a while. Even then, it was hard to get past their agents. Finally, I was dispatched by the producers to hand-deliver a copy of the script to an agent who was known for representing stars from yesteryear. She too worked out of her house, but hers was in the Hollywood Hills. I rang the bell, but got no response. After a moment, I rang again. “Hello?” a frail voice answered. I was instantly alarmed. The voice (vaguely female) sounded like it was 150 years old. I indentified myself as the playwright who was dropping off a script for her client. I waited. “Hello,” the little voice croaked again. Not only was this woman 150, she was clearly deaf. I started over, now yelling my whole explanation through her front door; careful to slowly enunciate each word. Again, no response. Impatiently, I rang the bell again. Suddenly, I heard a scary sound. It was like a moan or the kind of exhalation you make when experiencing a sharp pain. Panic swept over me as I pictured this poor elderly agent lying semiconscious in the hallway with a broken hip. I knocked urgently on her door. “Excuse me!” I called. “Are you alright?” Then I heard a distinct, unmistakable squawk. The agent was not home. I had been talking to her parrot.

Eventually, I settled into L.A. and began to find my way as a writer. Over time, I’ve had the good fortune to be represented by some very large and powerful agencies. I wish I could say something wise and pithy about my experience playing with the big boys, but truthfully, it wasn’t all that much different from my experience with mid-level agencies. Agents are not our fairy godparents – although there are times when I think they would truly like to be. Agents are not Santa or the Tooth Fairy either. They are salespeople trying to sell a mysterious commodity called talent. And talent is a living, breathing, ever-changing, sometimes crazy-making thing. As salespeople, the industry expects agents to be in touch with the latest trends (even the crappy stupid ones) and to not waste anybody’s time trying to move merchandise that’s not currently in style. And agents need product that (even if it’s not new) at least looks new. The greatest quality an agent can possess is tenacity.

After the parrot episode, I called the agent (who had not been home) to check on her client’s availability. Unfortunately, the actress we were interested in had just been offered a dinner theater show in Florida, but the agent had a couple of other clients she could suggest. Quickly, she began to rip through her list of older ladies – several of whom I was surprised to hear were still alive. None of them sounded right, so I politely declined. Then as if she were playing her trump card, the agent triumphantly announced, “I can get you Rhonda Fleming.” I only had a vague memory of Rhonda Fleming as a glamorous, red-haired bombshell from the 40’s. Not exactly the gal to play a repressed, Born-Again, Southern battle ax. But I couldn’t help but admire her agent’s chutzpah. It made me hope that someday (even if it’s a hundred-to-one shot), some intrepid rep will be willing to say “I can get you David Dean Bottrell.” Pause. “Yes, he’s still alive.”

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

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Cape Fear

I figured it would be a fairly standard audition. Just a one-day guest shot on a TV show. Basically a “talking head” role. You know the kind. The expert witness in a courtroom scene. Blah, blah. Prosecuting attorney. Blah, blah. Defense attorney and you’re done. I didn’t even want the part all that much. There was certainly nothing to be nervous about. I knew the casting director. I knew the lines. I showed up at the appointed time. None of my competitors looked particularly intimidating. My name was called. I went in. Said hello. Opened my mouth to start my audition. And suddenly, for no real reason, I got scared.

My inability to control my nerves was so obvious that I did something I almost never do. I asked to start over. Unfortunately, it made no difference. By then, my heart was pounding like a jackhammer. As I unconvincingly spat out the lines, I had one of those near-death experiences where my consciousness rose up out of my body and hovered near the ceiling. There, I watched as my audition plummeted and crashed into a sea of jerky mediocrity. Thank God, the character was only in one scene so I was able to flee the room relatively quickly. As I trudged across the studio lot and back to my car, I felt like the world’s biggest loser. What the hell had happened?

God knows, I’m no stranger to fear. In fact, I live with it (in varying degrees) pretty much daily. All creative people do. Most of us aren’t even aware of it anymore. The majority of my work day is devoted to writing and in the pantheon of anxiety-producing jobs, writing ranks up there with shark trainers and people who diffuse bombs for living. Despite the fact that I’ve been hired by some very big deal companies and paid some serious money to write scripts, the first feeling I have when starting a new job is fear. The assignment that had initially looked so easy now seems like a complex and daunting journey through a logistical mine field. Who was I kidding?

When I was a young actor, I don’t remember feeling nervous about auditions. “Keyed-up,” maybe. Excited and jumpy, for sure. But mostly my attitude was steeped in a certain youthful optimism that I was so adorable it didn’t really matter what I did in there. I was destined for the big time. My ticket was stamped and top flight successes on Broadway and in Hollywood seemed imminent. Somewhere around age twenty-nine, it began to dawn on me that perhaps there was more to this whole “success” thing than just being cute. I began to notice that most successful people had taken the time to find out what they did well and had honed their skills in that department. Apparently, my father had been right. Opportunities didn’t just grown on trees and now the clock was ticking. My ego and my naiveté suddenly had a new roommate: Anxiety.

Looking back on last week’s audition, I wish I hadn’t tried so hard to marshal my nerves. I should have just placed them on the altar and offered them up to the Gods of Art and unpredictability. That role belonged to another actor. It just wasn’t my day. Oddly, I forget sometimes that most good work happens when you remove your “self” from the equation and allow the unexpected into the room. In fact, it’s silly (and unwise) to try to plan how events will play out. It's astounding how fast artistic problems can be solved by simply giving something (or someone) our full attention and then responding in an honest way. I once did a guest shot on a TV show with a star who was clearly not in a great mood. We had just finished doing what I thought was a perfectly good take when the star turned to me and said “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening to a word you said. Let’s do that again.” I was floored. That kind of honesty is pretty rare in a professional situation. We did a second take and it was noticeably better because (needless to say) that time I was listening too.

As masochistic as it sounds, without the motivational power of fear, I most likely would have never achieved anything in this business. Although it has probably taken ten years off my life, it has also made me run faster and jump higher that I ever thought I could. More than once I’ve felt that queasy feeling in my gut right before the director yelled “Action” and was then stunned by how the scene came bursting to life because of it. Similarly, in my writing life, terror has a way of spurring me on. Without the hounds nipping at my heels I doubt that I’d ever push myself to make that stronger choice. Show business is a life of extremes. Some days it’s blue skies and sometimes it Hurricane Katrina. The good news is that if you chose to do this with your life, you are already braver than think. As my main man, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “He who is not every day conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” Have a good week, Hollywood. Give ‘em Hell!

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