Sunday, October 26, 2008

The House of Flop

“What the hell”, I thought. I hadn’t tried to write for TV in years. Why not give it a shot? I dove in and three weeks later, a 51-page spec pilot was rolling out of my printer. Like all great TV shows, it had a dazzling cast of characters, tons of melodrama, a dash of comedy plus lots of bloody, gratuitous violence (for the kids). Flush with excitement, I showed it to a small, select group of people, the majority of whom didn’t seem to like it very much. They had a few good things to say, but the common theme seemed to be confusion. Apparently, my initial stab at creating an hour-long drama had left my readers a bit baffled as to what kind of TV show I was trying to write. Was it supposed to be funny? Dramatic? Scary? Clearly, nobody was quite seeing in their mind’s eye, what I had seen in mine. If this had been a feature script I would’ve had a better sense of how to proceed, but being a relative newcomer to TV writing, I felt sort of clueless. After a week of lost sleep, I opted to slide my pilot quietly “into the drawer” and move on to a feature spec. In the land of show business, this sort of occurrence goes by many comforting names, but in the real world, I think it’s called “failure.”

Who knows why, but every once in a while a project just doesn’t gel. Sometimes, you’re blissfully unaware of that fact until someone (hopefully someone tactful) points it out. Early in my career, I wrote a short play that attracted the attention of a New York based TV executive. Sensing my ship had come in, I rushed to my typewriter (yes, it was a typewriter) and proceeded to crank out my first-ever TV movie (A.K.A. backdoor pilot). At the time, quirky, character based shows like “Picket Fences” and “Northern Exposure” were all the rage, so I decided to “outquirk” them all with a story based on the early days of my parents’ marriage when my dad was a young evangelical minister. I wrote it as truthfully as I could (including lots of references to Jesus) and sent it off to the executive. Weeks later, I received a short, terse note saying she had problems with the show’s “intense religiosity” and “aggressive proselytizing.” It was the first time that it had occurred to me that this exec was a native New Yorker (and Jewish) and might not have experienced the story in the spirit it was intended. Of course, it’s easy to step in artistic dog shit when you’re young and inexperienced, but sadly it can happen at any point in a person's career.

By 2005, I was a produced screenwriter, living in D.C. and commuting to L.A. once a month for work. One day, mid-flight, I had what I thought was a hilarious idea for a buddy movie. The plot revolved around two young cops forced to go undercover in order to solve a series of murders in a clown school. Hilarious, right? Granted, I’m not known for churning out mainstream comedies, but this idea practically wrote itself. In a few short weeks I had a script that I thought was side-splittingly funny. It had tons of physical gags and managed to balance both highbrow and lowbrow comedy including a scene where our heroes burst into a backroom; certain that they’ve located the place where the sinister clowns are meeting. Finding the room empty, the first cop looks suspiciously around and says “Where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns?” and the second cop replies “Well, maybe next year.” That joke still makes me laugh! When the script was finished, I showed it to my then-manager and agents. It was greeted with what could best be described as a “deafening silence.” Nobody got it. One of my agents simply said “I hate clowns. They scare me. I couldn’t finish it.” My former manager said no clown movie had ever been successful in the entire history of show business. I couldn’t believe it. A year later, I tried it out on my new manager who was similarly baffled by the tone (R-rated humor mixed with circus clowns). I don’t know. Maybe I’m insane. Maybe I have no taste. But that script still slays me. I think it's a riot.

God knows, I’ve written some bad shit in my day. Some of it I did consciously (usually with a gun to my head). Such is the life of the professional. The good news is that the business is usually forgiving to writers (much more so than directors or stars). In my opinion, if there’s one thing more deadly than flopping, it’s the fear of flopping. I encounter this a lot when talking to novice writers who can never seem to finish anything (a sure sign of fear of flopping). To me, the joy of writing is striking out into unexplored territory and seeing how far I can trek before falling off a cliff or being swept over the falls. Thank god that every once in a while somebody (like a Charlie Kaufmann, for instance) will courageously stick their neck waaay out and take a shot at reinventing the wheel. That said, even Mr. Kaufmann (whom I think is brilliant) has tripped over his own genius once or twice.

Are you ready for the scary part? I’ve personally talked to writers who have scored huge, ground-breaking successes. I’ve also talked to writers who have suffered big, embarrassing failures and interestingly enough, both had similar stories to tell. Both felt supernaturally compelled to tell their highly unique story. It just came bursting out of them. It felt dangerous and hard to commandeer; like a raft hurdling down the rapids. No one felt safe or secure about the outcome. And then, when the projects finally debuted before the public, some were cheered, while others were booed off the screen. Nobody wants failure, but if it’s your intention to “create” for a living, I can guarantee it’s waiting for you. It’s lurking around some corner with a big stick. It hurts, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.

I never like to glamorize artistic suffering. It’s real. It definitely exists, but I never want it to have any power over me. And I certainly don’t like giving it any credit. But, truth be told…Once you’ve been run over by the truck or had the anvil fall on your head, it never hurts the same way again. I once had a theatre critic write some truly evil, dismissive shit about my work in the pages of the New York Times. Adding irony to insult, the review came out on Christmas Eve. I was crushed. Devastated. I thought I’d never write again. But I did. I also grew up a little. I learned. I kept going. A few years later, the Times had something much nicer to say about a film I wrote. I don’t know whatever happened to that first critic. I suspect he spent the rest of his career thinking up nasty things to say about people. Except for the occasional misstep, I’ve spent mine making people laugh. Works for 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 strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fishing for Greatness

Having sworn to my manager (and to myself) that I will crank out a new spec by the end of the year, I’ve been outlining a few ideas this week. Producing spec work is a grim requirement of my profession. Most professional writers I know sort of hate it, but if you want your agent or manager to be able to prove that you’re actually still alive, then churning out an annual spec is pretty much mandatory. I understand this in principle, but writing a “polished-ready-to-be-seen-by-producers” spec is (for me) a big commitment that will consume at least twelve weeks of my ever-shortening life, so I really need to believe in it. This leaves me in the daunting position of coming up with that killer (and hopefully commercial) idea that will keep me energized for the next twelve, long and labor intensive weeks.

You'd think this would be easy, right? All writers have ideas; lots of them. But, even the ones born in moments of intense enthusiasm, are surprisingly hard to keep alive. In fact, the infant mortality rate among creative ideas is depressingly high. I rarely discuss my initial ideas with anyone since they can so easily be crushed by landslides of doubt. Suffocated by pillows of comparison. Or worst of all, bludgeoned to death by the big frying pan of bitterness. I could go on with the bad metaphors, but I’m sure you get my drift. Fortunately, million dollar ideas can come from anywhere. But you do have to look for them.

Sometimes, the answer seems to be speed. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer in Hollywood is the great creative zeitgeist that we all seem to swim around in. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had what I thought was a brilliantly funny idea only to call up my agents or manager and be told that there are already three similar-sounding projects in development around town. Sadly, this can also happen when I’m watching the previews of upcoming attractions at my local Cineplex. Often, I find myself squirming miserably in my seat, as I recall having had an almost identical idea two years ago, but (for some dumb-ass reason) didn’t act on it.

Fishing for ideas (like regular fishing) requires patience. When I first came to L.A., I was transitioning from working in theatre which was a world where you were highly lauded for coming up with obscure or far-fetched ideas. Theatre (at least in those days) had no fear of period costumes, ensemble casts, political content or female protagonists over the age of forty. When I moved west to be a movie writer, I thought of myself as an “indie” kind of guy. But I also had no clue how those films got made or how hard it would be to support myself writing quirky, “Coen Brothers-esque” entertainment. After a failed attempt to enter the world of “mainstream” comedy, I knew I had to find some kind of balance between the quirkiness that people seemed to like in my work and the sort of movies that studios might actually pay me to write. I found the answer in my local Blockbuster.

One day, as I was wondering the aisles looking for some entertainment, I happened onto a copy of a movie (produced by a studio) that I had really enjoyed. I sighed and thought to myself, “Wow. I wish I’d written that.” But then it occurred to me that maybe I could write “that.” Or more specifically, maybe I could write my version of “that.” Without plagiarizing the film, I could borrow the basic plot structure, freshen it with new twists and then populate the story with characters that interested me. Soon, I was visiting Blockbuster almost daily as I compiled a list of commercially successful films that held some resonance for me. Some of the resulting ideas did in fact morph into paying jobs. But most importantly, this process painlessly taught me how to write stories that could be bought by studios (without selling my artistic soul to the Devil).

Occasionally, a spark can turn into a wildfire. I remember once having a conversation with a producer who had a very general, one-line idea for a movie. After hanging up, I hopped into my car and to run a few errands. About a block from my house, a character popped into my head who felt like the perfect protagonist for the story he had suggested. Two blocks later, I knew who the antagonist was. By the next traffic light, I knew the plot premise and by the time I reached my destination (about twenty minutes later) I had the whole movie (all three acts) written in my head. I couldn’t believe it! Twenty-four hours later, I met the producer for coffee and told him my idea. Two weeks later, we sold it in our first pitch meeting (literally on the spot). I’ve never had an experience like that before or since, but continue to hope that someday I’ll be revisited by that same fast-moving muse.

I’m not suggesting that finding the “fantastic-never-been-done-before” idea is easy, but sometimes it’s easier than we think. I often have to remind myself that whatever that little scrap of an idea might be – it has never been written by me – which, interestingly enough makes all the difference in the world. What follows is a partial quote (written in 1931) by one of America’s favorite journalistic muckrakers, Lincoln Steffens with whom I share the same birthday. (Check out the full quote in the side bar). “Nothing is done. Everything in the world remains to be done or done over. The greatest picture is not yet painted, the greatest play not yet written, the greatest poem is unsung.” Cast your lines in the water, Hollywood. America needs some entertainment.

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

Monday, October 13, 2008

On a Queer Day You Can See Forever

There’s a great scene in Mel Brook’s 1983 remake of “To Be Or Not To Be,” where Brooks (playing the leader of a tacky theatrical troupe) finds himself caught in the middle of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. Nervously, Brooks visits the Nazi commander (played by the hilarious Kenneth Mars) and asks permission to stage a show in the local theater. Mars scowls and says he’ll allow Brooks to put on his show as long as he doesn’t use any “Jews, Gypsies or Homosexuals.” Brooks stares at him in shock, then blurts out, “How the hell am I gonna put on a show with no Jews, Gypsies or Homosexuals??”

Every once in a while someone will ask me if I've ever experienced any homophobia in the entertainment business. I’m happy to report that my answer is "rarely." As reflected in that brilliant Mel Brooks joke, gay people have been so entrenched in show business for so many centuries that we largely walk in and out the door unnoticed. Occasionally some poor, unenlightened clod will shoot off his or her mouth (this tends to happen mostly with stand-up comics) and then the shit hits the fan. Apparently these poor bastards are unaware that nowadays there are gay people with last names like Geffen. There are queer super-agents and lesbian studio heads. That fag joke that killed in the old neighborhood, doesn’t play so well on the larger stage of Hollywood. It pays to remember that in addition to being socially conscious and possessing wonderful taste, we gays have extremely long memories.

Once someone tried using my sexual orientation against me, but I think it was less an expression of homophobia than an act of desperation. It all began when a producer approached me about a possible rewrite on a script he had purchased. It was the story of three slacker dudes fast approaching 30 who couldn’t seem to grow up. The script was a little long, but it was funny and honest. The most glaring problems were with the female characters. They all spoke like robots who’d been programmed to recite from self-help books. I didn’t get how this could’ve happened until I was summoned to meet with the writer-director. “Danny,” (we’ll call him) was a dark, spinning nutjob. If Don Rickles and Howie Mandel had had a love child, it would have been "Danny." Since his script was largely autobiographical, I suspected he didn’t really want anyone coming near it. That suspicion grew stronger when I started my pitch and Danny kept interrupting me every five seconds. Knowing the producer’s eyes were on me, I tried to stay focused. Slowly, I inched my way through the script, gradually winning a few concessions from Danny here and there. But then, when he sensed that the producer was liking my ideas, the big guns came out.

Out of nowhere, Danny started peppering the conversation with small toxic comments like “It’s like when you’re married to a chick for a few years and…Do you know what I’m talking about?” It was a shitty, but effective tactic. Danny was turning me into “the gay guy” who couldn’t possibly understand the story he was trying to tell. Seamlessly, he steered us into a discussion of a scene where the characters were watching a football game, then forced me to admit that I knew nothing about sports. Then, playing what he must have thought was his trump card, he casually mentioned his two year-old son and asked, “You got any kids?” That was it. I met his eyes and paused for a millisecond -- just long enough to communicate that I was done fucking around. I smiled my best Joan Crawford smile. “I’m gay, Danny. I don’t have any kids. But interestingly enough, I used to be a kid and I remember it vividly.” The producer thought this was hilarious. With the ball back in my court, I forged ahead; calm, professional and merciless. Suddenly, I was the one interrupting Danny (pretty much any time I felt like it). When I was done, I stood up, shook his hand and wished him well with his movie. Unbelievably, I got the job, although Danny and I never laid eyes on each other again.

Truthfully, I never think about my being gay as anything other than a fact of life -- Like my height, eye color or skin tone. Many years ago, I had a short (very short) sexual fling with a successful screenwriter who was deeply in the closet -- So deeply that I was only allowed to come to his Westside home under cover of darkness and we were never seen in public together. He was astounded that I was openly “out.” Wasn’t I concerned that it would hurt my career? Wouldn’t it “limit” me in the studio’s eyes? I thought this was sort of hilarious coming from him. First off, despite the fact that he was recently divorced, the guy wasn’t exactly Joe Butch. Helen Keller would have known he was gay. Secondly, his stock in trade was writing “chick flick” romantic comedies for female stars. It was self-delusion taken to new heights.

Who knows? There have probably been a few times I wasn’t hired because I was gay. I know of a couple of jobs I didn’t get because I was white. Generally, I’m hired to write character-driven material that’s both funny and poignant. And there’s a reason for that. Since I never liked B.B. guns or team sports, I spent a lot of my childhood on the sidelines. That was hard at times, but as a result I became the self-appointed friend to the friendless – the oddballs, the fat kids, the geeks. Since I rarely had anywhere to go after school, I often hung out with grown-ups where I sat listening to conversations I had no business hearing; absorbing intimate snapshots of the compromises and hard truths that marked adult life. Being gay would teach me compassion and provide me with the single most effective (and durable) weapon in my arsenal: a sense of humor. In short, it gave me my voice (as a person and as an artist). Strange, isn’t it? Who’d have thought all of that would have come about... just because long ago, deep inside my mother’s body, one little chromosome bumped into another and said “Hey! Wanna go for a drink at the Abbey?” For that tiny inexplicable incident, I will be forever grateful. After all, there's nothing more reassuring than knowing who you are.

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

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Antigone Goes To Hollywood

Back in the 80’s I was part of a little off-off Broadway theatre company that managed to produce three whole plays before it went belly up. Our sophomore effort was Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of “Antigone” which we staged in a cramped little basement space in Hell’s Kitchen. Our director was a truly talented, but kind of tortured guy who had a big, multi-cultural vision for the show. He wanted to use a wildly diverse group of actors from every conceivable ethnic background. This proved hard to pull off and the resulting cast was sort of a hodgepodge of folks with varying degrees of talent and experience. He’d also decided to stage the play in the round with no intermission which meant that all the actors had to remain on stage for the entire two-hour running time. I played “The Messenger” (which was a much better part than it sounds). I came on at the end of the show and delivered this poetic, three-minute monologue about how (in true Greek fashion) everybody had stabbed out their eyes and killed themselves. The only problem was that I had to sit on stage for two hours each night before I got to say or do anything. Every night. Two hours. For three minutes of stage time.

The director and I were close friends and I respected how much he wanted to be a genuine artist. I sort of wanted to be an artist too, but I also wanted to make tons of money and be super-famous. His goal was to create an artistically pure theatre company like the Moscow Art Theatre or Steppenwolf; a place where artists could grow and mature together. Most of all, he wanted real commitment from his actors. This led to a fair amount of tension between him and the cast members. Oddly, he and I never fought. I was always very game to try whatever he wanted to do. I suspected that his desire to achieve a pure artistic environment was at least partly a reaction to the fact that he came from a family heavily steeped in the business. His mother was a TV executive (one of the first women to break the glass ceiling). One of his brothers was an up-and-coming film producer while the other was a Hollywood mega-agent who represented some of the biggest stars of the 1980s. I'm not sure if any of them got why the youngest son wanted to stage boring old plays in moldy basements.

Meanwhile, back in Hell’s Kitchen, disaster struck. The fiery actress playing “Antigone” dropped out and was replaced by a young woman fresh out of drama school. This would be her first show in New York. I still remember when she politely walked up and introduced herself to me at rehearsal. My heart sank. She was a lovely, but shy African-American girl with big glasses who would’ve been a great choice if we were casting “Marian, the Librarian,” but she hardly seemed like the type to play the warrior princess, Antigone. Because my role was so small I was excused from rehearsals for three weeks. When I returned I could barely believe the transformation. The meek little actress I’d met was suddenly projecting a character who was regal and powerful, vain and sensuous. Prowling the stage like a tigress, the actress now oozed passion, intellect and murderous rage. She was so good that she made the rest of the production look sort of shabby and ill-conceived by comparison. The show opened and as I sat on stage, forced to watch this damn play over and over, night after night, it was her riveting, nuanced performance that kept me from losing my mind.

Other than Antigone's performance, my friend the director was never very happy with the show and one night, I arrived at the theatre to find him wildly pacing the halls. His family was coming to the performance and he asked if I would be willing to go out with them afterward. I didn’t really want to, but I could see the guy desperately needed a buffer, so I said yes. Shortly before curtain, they arrived, perhaps a little overdressed for the occassion. Adding to the oddness, the agent brother had brought along one of his hottest clients, a gorgeous blonde movie star. Afterwards, we caught up with the clan at a pricey restaurant on the Upper East Side. I had met the family before and actually liked them, but they did intimidate me a little. I had never read a trade paper in my life and these were people whose names actually appeared in the articles. My friend didn't seem to want to talk about the show, so after a few perfunctory compliments, the conversation shifted away from Greek Tragedy and onto the bigger show business dramas of the day. It was a little awkward.

Finally, it was time to leave. Just as we were about to walk out the door, my friend ducked into the men’s room and left me standing in foyer with his brother the agent and the gorgeous movie star. I tried to think of something to say, but drew a blank. Finally, his brother leaned in and spoke to me in a strangely intimate tone of voice. “There were ‘people’ in the audience tonight,” he said with meaning. “Important people,” he continued. “You were noticed.” He lifted his eyebrows and gave me a tiny, almost imperceptible nod indicating that something of great import had apparently taken place without my knowing it. I sensed I should respond. “Great,” I said, smiling weakly. I was hugely relieved to see my friend emerging from the men’s room. His brother and the movie star slid into their waiting towncar. My friend and I opted to take the subway.

The play ran for a couple of more weeks. It rained. The basement leaked and became miserably cold. Nobody came, but at least I had Antigone to watch. I admired this girl. She worked hard and gave her all, even on the nights when we had maybe 10 people in the audience. I also began to feel sorry for her. Here she was -- talented, pretty, smart and a genuinely nice person to boot -- but I knew how tough it was for African-American actresses. There was virtually no work for them. When the show closed, I sensed I might never see her again. Then a year or so later, I ran into her at an audition where she informed me that she was moving to L.A. I smiled and said that sounded like a great idea. I was lying. At the time, I viewed L.A. as an artistic graveyard where the talented went to die. Not long after our theatre company folded, my friend the director took an acting class in an effort to learn how to better communicate with actors. He liked it so much he decided to become one and moved to L.A. There, he was cast in an iconic, long-running TV series, winning an Emmy or two along the way for his terrific work. Ironically, he probably became more successful (and certainly more famous) than any other member of his family. The blonde movie star that his brother brought to our show only did a few more so-so films before disappearing from view.

Success is a funny thing. It can visit you for a little while (like a quick sunny vacation) or it can stick to you like glue; making you into an enduring and bankable commodity. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, it’s a slow climb to the top. And sometimes, people just have an instinct about which road to go down. Antigone’s decision to move to L.A. turned out to be a pretty good one. She got small roles at first. But in the end, she didn’t do too badly for herself. Her name was Angela Bassett.

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