Sunday, December 27, 2009

A New New Year

I recently posted a question on my Facebook page asking my creative friends if they were making any New Year’s resolutions for 2010. I was a little surprised when the majority of them said no and pointedly added that in their opinion, resolutions were just a recipe for disappointment. As a guy who's spent my entire adult life in the entertainment business, I can certainly relate to the disappointment part, but personally, I depend on a certain amount of self-delusion when a new year arrives. Without a little reimagining on my part, I’m not sure I’d have the balls to keep going.

When 2008 came to an end, I remember raising my glass and gleefully bidding “good-fucking-riddance” to the worst year I’d ever had in the business. I reveled in the idea that I’d never have a year that rotten again – that is until I encountered 2008’s ugly twin sister, 2009. Happily, in the last few weeks of this year, a couple of new developments sprung up that have given me some real hope that the new year (and decade) might be a little better. And I’m not alone in that thinking.

As I made my rounds at the usual holiday parties, I found quite a few people who shared my new found optimism. After all, for the first time in three years we will be operating without the threat of any major strikes. Several new cable channels are starting up and as you might have heard, the movie business has been doing rather well lately. So as I prepare to toss out last year's calendar, I’m doing what I always do at this time of the year -- weeding the garden.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that both art and life require some maintenance. Old ideas often need to be uprooted. Game plans and personnel that didn’t work out so well have to be replaced -- no matter how anxiety producing that might be. Chances have to be taken. Long-neglected soil needs to be tilled and watered. And bitterness, which grows quite beautifully in Southern California, has to be replaced with something a little more likely to blossom and bear fruit in the New Year.

Before I go too far with my botanical metaphors, let me get down to brass tacks. I’m starting 2010 with new representation on both the acting and writing fronts and have done my best to reinvigorate my work ethic. After busting my ass to separate myself from the pack, I’m now in the running for two terrific screenwriting gigs. There are still several hoops to be jumped through before these gigs become reality, but I know what got me this far - hard work - so I’m just going to keep plugging -- which brings me to the next thing that needs to be plucked from the garden – imaginary guarantees.

I’m about to start teaching my acting workshop again on January 10th, so I’ve naturally been overrun with the usual flurry of anxious emails from new students trying to figure out (without actually taking the class) whether or not it is right for them. I do my best to address their concerns, but I unfortunately can’t offer these people what they are looking for – some sort of reassurance that studying with me will help jump start their careers. What I want to say to them is that if you're looking for a solid career decision, I'd recommend buying a funeral home or opening a liquor store.

A career in entertainment requires a lot of skills, but believe it or not - the primary one is optimism. And when I say optimism, I don’t mean the airy-fairy metaphysical brand that’s gotten so popular lately. I’m talking about the optimism that comes with knowing that the entertainment industry actually needs you. Any terrific script or eye-popping performance that makes it to the screen exists because somebody wouldn't stop storming that Bastille. These people found a way to stay in the game because they believed in their talent or ideas. I realize that can be hard to do after you've been slapped around and spit on a few times, but without that energetic belief that your number will be called next, you're dead. Simply put, success in show business largely relies on being able to grow a new hymen every so often. In my experience, protecting your optimism is as essential as paying your rent. Ideas which, let’s face it are our stock and trade, rarely survive without some enthusiastic naivete to fertilize them.

Years ago, I read an interview with one of the great show business survivors of all time, the late George Burns. George, whose career was pronounced DOA at least three times during his 80 years in the business, was asked why he took so many gigs (some of them quite small) instead of relaxing during his golden years. He responded that it was essential for him to wake up every morning with something to look forward to. George understood the golden rule of show business: Attitude is everything. This weekend, I watched in amazement as James Cameron created a whole new world and revolutionized the movie-making business in the bargain. And it only took him sixteen years to do it! Now that’s optimism on a grand scale. So if you're running low, borrow a little magic from James and George and have yourself a great new year, Hollywood! Let's make some work for ourselves.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tis the Season...

For several wonderful reasons, the holidays are one of my favorite times in Los Angeles. First off, the town (at least the show business aspect of it) completely shuts down starting about December 15th and doesn’t really reopen for three to four weeks. Personally, I find this a huge relief. There are no auditions, no meetings and no pressure to further my career in any way. For 21 glorious days, I don’t have to spend any time worrying about how I’m doing since it’s literally impossible for me to do anything about it. All that remains is to prop my feet up and enjoy my unemployment for a few weeks with no guilt whatsoever.

My second favorite thing about this time of year is that December marks the beginning of awards season. This means that there are lots of free screenings around town where lowly award voters like me get to sit in judgment of the work done over the previous year by the much more successful players. Usually the screening rooms are quite comfortable and you can even bring a friend if you like. Just last week, I got a sneak peak at a big Hollywood film that isn’t even scheduled for release until Christmas Day. Unfortunately, it was so dreadful that I was tempted to leave after about 20 minutes, but decided to be classy about it and sit through the whole thing. And because I am true professional, I sat through the credits and waited until I was at least 20 feet away from the theater before I muttered to my companion, “Jesus, what a piece of shit? Can you believe how rotten that was?”

December is also party season. Hollywood folks love nothing better than a good bash and there are usually plenty to fill up the calendar. It’s true that in show business, we attend parties all year long, but usually there is come professional catch involved; like it’s a premiere or somebody’s just moved into new offices and the whole event is basically about networking. What’s great about the holiday party season is that you actually get to see your cohorts out of their work clothes (so to speak). It’s a good chance to laugh off whatever didn’t happen in the previous year and wish each other well for the year to come.

Item number four on my list is the city itself. With the all the major studios on vacation, the infamous Los Angeles traffic recedes into memory for a while. Suddenly, driving from one side of town to the other is a breeze. I always take a few joy rides during the holidays; out to the beach; up to the observatory; out to Malibu State Park. At this time of year, you can easily enjoy what the city has to offer -- which is quite a lot. Plus, as I watched the East Coast get pummeled with a massive snow storm this week, I could help but feel a tinge of happiness that later I would be walking to the gym in a T-shirt and shirts.

Probably the best thing about this time of year is the amount of generosity that floats to the surface of a sometimes self-focused community. I’m not saying that the entertainment community doesn’t always do its part. In fact, I’m quite proud of the number of causes we champion throughout the year. But somehow at the holidays, the work that gets done is a little less “publicized” and bit more personal. I’ve been really surprised by the number of rather prominent people I’ve seen doing some rather unglamorous volunteer work during the holidays. It’s nice to reminded of the needs of others and it’s good to be humanized again by offering a little of our seemingly precious time to aid the less fortunate.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that I hope all my Jewish readers had a great Hanukkah – Yes, I know that it's about as important on the Jewish calendar as “Arbor Day,” but I still hope it was fun. If you are African-American, I hope enjoy the upcoming Kwanza festival. Sadly, I’ve never been invited to anybody’s Kwanza celebration, so I’m not exactly sure what happens, but I’ve always imagined it as full of laughter, good food and the singing of lots of Kwanza Carols. For my Muslim friends, I hope that Ashura (back on the 16th) and Al Hijra (celebrated on the 18th) were both a blast. To my Buddhist buddies, I hope Bodhi Day (observed back on the 8th) was as serene and peaceful as you expected. As for my Canadian and British readers, I hope Boxing Day (coming up on the 26th) will prove fulfilling as you (according to Wikipedia) "give seasonal gifts to less wealthy people and slaves as well as to various workpeople such as labourers, servants, tradespeople and postal workers.” And finally to my atheist friends (who I’m sure find this all sort of hilarious), I hope you enjoy the spectacle, the colors, sights, scents and sounds of the season and can appreciate the very human place from which it’s derived. Happy Holidays, Hollywood! See you soon!

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fresh Cut

A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from one of the junior agents at my acting agency who informed me that the agent who had originally invited me into the company had left. However, a terrific "new guy" had been brought in to head the legit department and I was asked to come in and meet him. I felt bad that my original agent was gone since I had really liked him. Since we were Facebook friends, I dropped him a note to wish him well in whatever his new endeavors might be. He sent me back a very short "thank you" reply and promised he would keep me posted.

Historically, my relationships with agents have always been weird. I rarely know what to say to them or how to say it. When I do call, I always feel like I’m taking up their time and often hang up the phone wishing I’d said something other than what I said. So, how I generally handle these relationships is that I simply don’t call. Period. I’m the very model of a low-maintenance client.

When the appointed day and time rolled around, I went into meet “The New Guy.” The meeting didn’t get off to a great start since I called him by the wrong name. In fact, I called him by my former agent’s name. I don’t know why it happened, but it just came out of my mouth. I tried to laugh it off, but it’s a little hard to get past a rough start like that. In an effort to redeem myself (and show what a nice thoughtful guy I am) I offered him my sympathy since I was sure he’d had probably had quite a few clients parading through his office in the last week.

The New Guy sort of, but not quite, smirked as he shifted in his chair. “Well, as a result of my coming in, we’ve actually let over a hundred clients go.” On hearing this, two thoughts collided in my brain. The first one was “Why hadn’t I been one of them?” I’d barely worked at all this year. In fact, I’d only had a handful of auditions. The second idea, however, made my heart swell with pride. I had made the cut! The New Guy continued, telling me that the agency's revised strategy would now be to have a smaller roster of very strong clients and really focus on getting them all well-established and working. Apparently, I was one of the chosen few!!

Now, feeling safe and secure, I began to open up a bit. I told him about how I had only recently returned to acting after a 13-year hiatus. How I’d accidentally wound up on “Boston Legal” with a popular reoccurring role. How I had a dual career as a writer. I even felt comfortable enough to talk about how as much as I love acting, I'm basically philosophical about booking jobs because it’s such a crap shoot. As I was driving home, I began to replay the meeting in my mind and wondered if I’d been too cavalier when talking about my career. The next day, I sent him an email reiterating how much I’d enjoyed meeting him and that I looked forward to working with him in the New Year. Within the hour, the agency called with a last minute audition for a casting director I’d been wanting to meet for some time. Clearly, the New Guy was on the job!

The following morning, as I was waiting to pick up a prescription at the Rite Aid, I got a call from the junior agent. For a hot minute, I entertained the happy idea that maybe I had booked yesterday's audition! Instead, Junior was calling to tell me I was being cut from the agency. The official story was that The New Guy was bringing over a couple of heavy-hitting clients from his former agency and that my presence created some sort of “conflict.” For those of you who don’t speak “Agentese,” this translates to “The New Guy hated you and doesn’t think you’ll ever book another job as long as you live.” Junior then offered to make some calls on my behalf to try to set me up with another agency. Reeling from shock, I actually said I’d think about it.

As I mentioned, I took this call while waiting for my prescription to be filled at the Rite-Aid. I’m not going to tell you what it was for, other than to say it was one of those embarrassing medications that remind you that you’re not twenty-two anymore. Because if you were twenty-two, then your agency wouldn’t be cutting you. They would keep you and send you out on a zillion meetings in the hope that you might hit it big and become a fat cash cow for years to come. You, however, are a character actor and your chances of “hitting it big” are now statistically about the same as being struck by a meteorite. Odd, since you are probably more skilled now than you have ever been in your entire career. But are you are being cut loose because, let’s face it; there are only so many “Judge” roles to go around.

When I got home, I took my slightly embarrassing middle-age medication and flopped down on my sofa for a while. As I lay there, I allowed myself to entertain a few happy fantasies of my former agency burning to the ground with no survivors. Finally, I got up and emailed Junior to say that I was going to pass on his offer to introduce me to other agencies. The whole idea creeped me out. It felt like the equivalent of saying, “Hey want to marry my ex-wife? I don’t want her anymore, but you might!”

At day’s end, I got one final email from my former representatives apologizing and saying how tough the decision had been and how much everyone there (except maybe The New Guy) respected me as an artist and as a person. I appreciated the sentiment, but on that particular evening, I didn’t really want to be a respected artist. I wanted to be a whore; a popular, well-paid whore with an enthusiastic pimp calling me day and night with multiple offers to do increasingly disgusting things for larger and larger sums of cash. In short, a whore with a decent retirement account.

Before you despair dear readers, there is a happy ending to this story. My original agent (the one whose departure started all this) contacted me the following day and invited me to join him at a new agency where he is now heading up the theatrical department. Having always adored him, I was delighted and tomorrow, I'll be going in to meet with him and his new colleagues.

Show business runs on high hopes and it’s difficult not to invest a bit of yourself in your professional relationships. When things go sour, for whatever reason, we’re oddly admired if we take it on the chin without flinching. It's a ridiculous expectation. The final email I got from the agency that dumped me said that it was nothing personal and they hoped our paths would cross again. Personally, I hope not.

Copyright 2009 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 strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Monday, December 7, 2009

Showing Up

When I first started writing I rarely had any sort of game plan and usually only worked when I felt inspired to do so. If, as I was typing away, I became aware of some flaw or otherwise gnarly problem in my story, I would usually flee the scene; telling myself that all I needed was a little break (like a month or two) until my batteries recharged. However, what I was actually doing was secretly hoping that the literary pixies would come in the night and fix all that was wrong with my script so I could hand it off to my agent, who would then spin said masterpiece into both gold and prizes.

Many creative people attempt to write at some point in their lives. Lots of actors I know have had an idea for what they thought would make a great movie (often starring themselves). I’ve also known a few execs and a couple of producers who’ve tried their hand at churning out the next big hit. Unfortunately, impatience usually gets the best of these folks and the finished product is often a combination of one good idea tangled up in a nest of really bad ones. The sad truth is writing requires two things that a lot of people don’t really have: Time and patience.

To be completely honest, it took me about 10 years to learn how to write. The biggest hurdle was finding the guts to simply sit down and attempt to put words on paper; not brilliant words; just words. The act of returning to the chair on a daily basis ain’t easy to master. One of my personal heroes, William Goldman, says that even now (after two Oscars) his first task before starting a project is to convince himself that he can actually do it. Staying put can also be dicey. Some days, it can feel like my office chair is lined with extremely sharp tacks. Other days, after 20 minutes of typing, I convince myself what I really need is a nice long weekend. This thought usually occurs to me on Tuesday.

I do know a couple of writers who dutifully show up every day; same time, same place and just begin. I don’t happen to be one of them. To my credit, when I’m gainfully employed or am on some kind of deadline, I’m extremely disciplined. Having producers snapping at my heels is sort of good for me. When the work is going well, I love the thrill of the hunt. At other times, like when my characters are telling me to go to hell and leave them alone, it's not so much fun.

My hardest stretches always come when I’m on my own; fishing for the next big idea or just noodling around on a pet project. My enthusiasm tends to ebb and flow. Small questions start turning into big doubts. Big doubts morph into churning anxiety. This, in turn, usually leads to a hearty round of masturbation, followed by a snack and maybe seeing who’s on Oprah today.

When I mentor young writers I don’t harass them about keeping specific office hours, but I do talk about the importance of returning to writing with some real regularity. Spending too much time away from writing makes me lose my nerve and nerve is something every writer needs. Believe it or not, talent is a living, breathing entity. To work as an artist you have to have an amicable relationship with your talent and it's good to keep in mind that (as in life) long distance relationships are hard to maintain and rarely work out.

My advice? If you are writing something, then write it. Develop a little healthy curiosity and see how it turns out. If for some reason, you wake up and realize you’d rather take a bullet in the head than do the work, then sit down and read what you have. In fact, read it every day until you start working on it again. I promise you new ideas will emerge each time. New edits and improvements will start to occur to you. When that happens, don’t fart around. Act on them.

One thing I don’t advise is waiting on the muse. If for any reason, you are not one of those people who can work every day at a specific time or in a comfortable location, then learn how to create that space in your head -- and honor it. Writing can be sort of miraculous, but miracles don’t just happen. They are worked for. As another one of my personal heroes Billy Wilder once said, “The muse needs to know where to find you.”

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

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, November 29, 2009

Giving Some Thanks

As I celebrated Thanksgiving this past weekend, I decided it might be nice to make a list of all the things for which I felt grateful. Much of what I came up with had to do with my personal life, so I won’t bore you with that. However, as I’ve written about many times in this blog, in the world of show business, work and life are often very intricately entwined. So as I sit here grazing on some leftover turkey, I thought I’d share a few points of gratitude I came up with regarding the connections between the two.

Despite the fact that my work life is not stable, generally speaking, I am. Yes, I’m moody sometimes. Yes, I’m excitable at others, but if you dial my number on any given day you can pretty much depend on the same guy you’ve always known picking up the phone. Somewhere along the line, I developed an odd equilibrium. I certainly have my bad days, but even on those occasions, I manage to hang onto a slender belief that eventually things will get better. And they usually do. I’m grateful for the ability to know that what I may feel about the future doesn’t really have much bearing on what eventually happens.

I make a living. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not sitting on a pile of squirreled away TV money. At times in my career, I’ve made (what I consider to be) quite a lot of cash and luckily I was smart enough not to blow it all on whores and crack (although I was at times sorely tempted!) Feast and famine are a given in my line of work and stretching those paychecks has over time, developed into nothing short of an art form. Would I like to be more comfortable and less worried about money? Sure. Will that day ever come? I doubt it. I know this because I’ve seen close friends hit the jackpot and along with their bigger paydays have come bigger and more expensive problems. I’m grateful that despite my ups and downs, I always made enough to the pay my bills, doing what I love to do. And I’m grateful for that.

I know this one is going to shock you, but I frequently doubt myself. It’s true. I’ve had a lifelong habit of comparing my talent and skills to those of other people and often feel like I come up short. This particular form of self-torture probably stems from my fundamentalist religious upbringing; an upbringing I’ve spent thousands of dollars in therapy trying to undo. I don’t much like raking myself over the coals, but it has, in its own twisted way, been good for me artistically. Those nagging doubts have pushed me to try harder and hopefully do better the next time. Doubt in and of itself is crap. But pushing past doubt is the definition of courage. And I’m grateful that I’ve demonstrated some of that along the way.

Nobody likes change. Everybody says they like it, but when it’s thrust upon them, they rarely do. Change is a fact of life and I’ve noticed that the people who embrace this reality and swim with the tide, tend to live happier lives. Because of my choice of profession, change is on my back pretty much every other day. I’ve morphed so many times, I’m shocked I can still recognize myself in the mirror. Friends often say “Wow. You’re always doing something new and interesting,” as if this were some wildly brave choice on my part. The truth is I keep changing hats for one very simple reason: I need to stay employed. Although I sometimes tire of reinventing myself so often, I have actually learned a tremendous amount from doing so. And learning is probably the greatest gift this life has to offer. So I’m grateful for that.

As Barbra Streisand once sang, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” When I first I heard that song, I thought she was singing about codependency and it didn’t sound like something I wanted any part of. Time however has taught me that whether by choice or fate (and the jury is still out on that one) I am a citizen of an odd little world, populated with strange, wildly inventive folks who would have a hard time making a go of it in any other profession. The business is overcrowded for sure. Probably 75% of the people pursuing a career in entertainment, shouldn’t be. There isn’t room for everybody now and all those “Go-For-The-Dream” TV shows like “American Idol” are luring in thousands more hopefuls by the day. The way in which we are all interlinked is as strange as it is inspiring. As I mentioned earlier, having been in this for a while, I know a few extremely famous and successful people. Because of my teaching and mentoring, I also know quite a few people who literally started yesterday. I stand sort of in the middle, with a foot in both worlds. I have drawn such inspiration from my cohorts (both old and new) that I wouldn’t even know how to begin to thank them. Since I’m apparently in this for life, it’s nice to know I’m not alone in it. And more than anything else, I’m extremely grateful for that.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Adaptable

A couple of weeks ago, a producer gave me a novel that he’s looking for a screenwriter to adapt. I was hugely excited since this is one of my favorite things to do.

In the world of screenwriting, a lot of odd ideas get tossed onto your desk. Sometimes it’s just a fragment that involves a talking animal, some wacky aliens or some kind of fish-out-of water set-up. The problem with most of these premises is that you are shooting in the dark. Whatever your personal sense of how this nugget could be spun into a watchable movie is rarely anywhere near what the producer was secretly hoping for.

The beauty of a novel is that you have something concrete on the table. There’s a set of characters, a plot and at least one set-up that everybody agrees is to some extent compelling. Generally speaking, you don't get a lot of stupid suggestions like turning the cat into a dog or setting the whole thing on Mars. Usually, there’s a solid base to work from. It's a good gig, since as opposed to having to pull something out of the air, you’re in the much preferred position of “rewriting” the original story for the screen. Plus you can blame all the problems on the novelist!

Oddly, every time I’ve been hired to rewrite someone else’s screenplay, I always feel hugely guilty about it. I guess it’s because I have a keen understanding of how much blood went into making that structure work. Novels on the other hand were never written for the screen. They usually have a treasure trove of material to draw from and my job is to whip the whole thing into a fast-moving, visually driven film narrative. As long as I preserve the essence of the original story, I can change shit with abandon.

Not that this task is a breeze. It's tough to squeeze 344 pages of fiction into a 110 page screenplay. I envy novelists their freedom to let their stories unfold gradually. We screenwriters have to pack our pages with as much excitement as possible while using the fewest number of words. Long conversations become very short ones. Character development has to turn on a dime while somehow still making emotional sense.

The first novel I ever adapted was very poignant book about the dissolution and then rebuilding of a troubled marriage. What made it intriguing was that the two characters were a touring husband-and-wife lounge act from the Midwest. The producer, who thankfully had deep pockets, generously agreed to fund a research trip for me. Deciding to leave my laptop at home, I tossed a stack of yellow legal pads into my suitcase, flew to St. Louis and then drove the entire tour route described in the book. It was one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life. As I hit each new city, I’d grab a newspaper and scout out the nearest restaurant or Holiday Inn that featured live entertainment. Once there, I’d take in the show and interview the entertainers afterward.

Over the course of my eight days touring the heartland, I ate lots of bad food while I watched pianists, singers and comedians work the various lounges and bars. My favorite act was a pair of pretty, perky 40ish ladies who performed at a Quality Inn outside Kansas City wearing strapless black evening gowns while belting out medley after medley of 80’s hits. What really impressed me was not so much their singing, but their deep, dark tans (especially given that it was the dead of winter).

I was amazed at how open all these entertainers were when it came to being interviewed about their lives. Having spent most of my life in either New York or Los Angeles, I was used to performers plugging away in less than ideal venues, while hoping for their big break. But for these folks, this was the pinnacle and they took enormous pride in the fact that they didn’t have day jobs; that here in the middle of America, they made their living exclusively from their talent. The information I gleaned proved invaluable when it came to adding dimension to the characters I was adapting, plus it made me realize that we needed to change at least one crucial plot point from the novel.

When the novelist eventually read my screenplay, he praised it for having captured both the essence of his characters and the trajectory of their journey from heartbreak to tragedy and eventually redemption. I was very happy. He never even mentioned any of the plot changes I’d made - which were not small. The script has yet to be made (big surprise) but in grand Hollywood tradition it is suddenly back in play again. More news as it develops.

The book I’m currently working on is much less daunting since it falls more into the light-hearted romantic comedy genre. The premise is great and I’m having a lot of fun with it. That said, I can already see that there are going to be some big shifts as I re-imagine it as a movie. It’s fun to do adaptations and if I could spend the rest of my screenwriting career doing nothing but that, I’d be quite happy. I love good writing in any form and let's face it, when you’re adapting someone else’s material, much of the heavy lifting has been done for you. It’s now my job to be clever; to inject a little electricity into the storytelling, while hopefully protecting the original intent of a very talented writer. I get to be reverent and irreverent at the same time. And I love that.

Copyright 2009 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 strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Monday, November 16, 2009

Friends Indeed

Last Friday, my old friend Karen flew in all the way from Texas to take in a performance of the play I’ve been doing. It was a quick trip that unfortunately only gave us enough time to squeeze in a quick dinner before the show. Karen and I originally met when I was a naive and optimistic 19 year-old dreaming of a career as an actor. She was doing props for a show I was acting in at a community theatre and we hit it off instantly; mostly due our shared sick and somewhat ruthless sense of humor. After I moved away from Austin, we lost touch for over twenty years until, right in the middle of my stint on “Boston Legal,” I got an email with the words “Remember me?” in the subject line. As it turned out, Karen’s work brought her to California occasionally and for the last three years, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing her once or twice a year for dinner.

As we sat in the California Pizza Kitchen, laughing and catching up, two things struck me. The first was that Karen was probably the one who should have gone into show business, since she is without a doubt the funniest person I’ve ever met. She would have made an incredible stand-up or at the very least, a top drawer sit-com writer. The second thing that occurred to me is that had I not, at one time, been a stage-struck kid, I would have probably never met her. It left me thinking about how show business has brought me a lot of prizes, but the best of them has been some truly remarkable friendships.

I’m sure that people in the dry cleaning or plumbing industries also have great friendships, but I have a feeling that they probably differ a bit from the kind we show folk share. For one thing, we in the entertainment business are all, to some degree, a little nuts. My current drycleaner (a lovely Korean lady named “Sunny”) seems extremely stable and when my townhouse needed all its original 1919 pipes ripped out a couple of years ago, the plumbers didn’t have any artistic differences over how to get the job done. The community of the people I live and work with are not dangerously crazy, but we can certainly be impulsive, excitable and a bit moody.

Deciding to do make your living creatively is a risky proposition and those who make that choice have to sweep certain realities under the rug. Big grown-up life decisions are sometimes postponed for decades. Being at least a little odd is almost a job requirement. As the acting teacher Michael Shurtleff once said, “Show business is like the insane asylum. Anyone can apply but only the truly insane are admitted.” And how do such unique people make their way in the world? With a little help from their friends.

Being in the business is sort of like signing up for the army or (in some instances) like going to prison. Once you’re in, you’re in and your fellow inmates don’t tend to talk much about how much better life might have been had we all gone into the insurance field. Nobody goes around bursting the bubble since truthfully, we all depend on that bubble to get us through next week’s meeting, that daunting rewrite or the all-important pilot audition. Friends protect each other in the business. And they help each other. Over the years, I’ve had pals who introduced me to employers, helped me improve my scripts and buoyed me up when I felt like I had made some tragic career-ending mistake. In my early days, friends literally fed me, clothed me and taught me how to stretch a dollar. Friends have celebrated my successes, taken my calls when the news wasn’t so good and had the guts to tell me when I was utterly full of shit.

Four years ago, when my personal life completely collapsed, I was forced to return to L.A. with my tail between my legs. Astoundingly, my friends (without waiting for an invitation to do so) instantly formed a protective circle around me. I was a wreck. I was broke, agent-less and emotionally devastated. But I had the great good fortune to be surrounded by people who know all too well that life can be (and often needs to be) reinvented.

One friend called and insisted that I meet him at the production office of a show he was running. When I arrived, he thrust a rather large check into my hands and told me there was no rush in paying it back. At first, I balked, saying I couldn’t possibly accept it, but my friend looked rather sternly in my eyes and said “I’ve done this before for other friends of mine. I’m not worried about it.” As I struggled with the guilt of accepting help, another friend reminded me of a few kindnesses that I had offered to others over the years. She made it plain that I had made more than a few deposits into the karma bank and that part of being a friend is accepting what others willingly want to offer. Oddly, I’d forgotten about most of the instances she mentioned to me. I’d always thought of any good deed I’d done not so much as helping out an individual but as helping out our largely misunderstood tribe. It always seemed like a matter of collective survival.

As much as my dear working-class family loves me, I know they will never understand me like my friends do. Most of us creative types grow up feeling like outsiders - that is until the magical day we find our way into the business and make the happy discovery that we are not the only ones with a deep desire to spin dreams into reality. Without doubt, we are a competitive and complicated bunch, but we are also keenly observant, remarkably intuitive and deeply loyal – especially to each other. Although most of us live lives of financial uncertainty, I don’t know anybody in the business who hasn’t shelled out to charities like the Actors Fund, Broadway Cares or the Motion Picture and Television Fund. Even the most successful of us realize that our luck could run out -- any day.

I guess part of being an artist is instinctively knowing what drives people to make certain decisions; even the truly rotten ones. That empathic part of us (sometimes referred to as “talent”) gives an inherent understanding of how easy it is to ignore the signs; to fall for the wrong person; to try to ride the wave a little longer than maybe we should have. It’s the stuff we make stories and performances out of, but it’s also (as the Zooey Deschanel “cotton” commercial reminds us) the fabric of our lives.

Lately, I’ve had a lot of great reminders of how blessed I am in the friend department as many of my nearest and dearest have been showing up to see me in this play. It’s one thing to set your DVR and tape an episode of “Criminal Minds.” It’s quite another to make the time and shell out for a ticket to an actual honest-to-God show. And I thank everybody, especially Karen, for showing up. It’s meant quite a lot to me and I look forward to doing the same for them.

And now, because I am in show business, I’d like to end this touching tribute to friendship with a shameless plug. “Better Angels” runs through November 22nd at the Colony Theatre! http://www.colonytheatre.org/ Hope you can make it, but I’ll still love you even if you don’t.

Copyright 2009 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 strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Opinion Piece

As those of you who follow this blog know, I’ve been acting in a play for the past few weeks. Theatre, more than any other medium, is dependent on good reviews. Fortunately our reviews have, for the most part, been very good. God knows you can’t please everybody, and there's always some snarky bastard out there who can’t wait to dig out the thesaurus and come up with some evil, archaic adjective to stab you in the heart with. It’s odd how even now (when we should all know better) seeing something in print can still cast the impression that this particular person’s opinion has weight; that what they’ve expressed is somehow at least a little “true.”

Just recently, I saw a film that I really enjoyed and was shocked to find out afterward that it hadn’t been particularly well-reviewed. I’m embarrassed to say that had I read the reviews beforehand I probably wouldn't have darkened the door and would've missed out on a wonderfully quirky little film. On some level, I suppose the whole purpose of reviews is to help us save our time and money; to not be duped by glossy advertising into spending our hard-earned cash on something that’s poorly made or totally ill-conceived.

The worst review I ever got was for my first stage play. After a highly successful tryout in Connecticut, the show had made the jump to off-Broadway. The majority of the reviews were favorable and I thought, quite fair; essentially saying that although the play was no masterpiece, it was a funny and lighthearted piece of entertainment. The only paper that was dragging its heels in attending was the mighty and all-powerful New York Times. Finally, about ten days into the run, the dour Times critic arrived to take in a matinee. Again, we waited several days for the review which, when it arrived, was scathing beyond belief. All hopes of a commercial run were dashed and adding irony to insult, the review came out on Christmas Eve.

When my first Hollywood film was produced, I suspected that it wouldn’t fare too well with the critics. The project simply hadn’t gelled; largely due to the fact that all parties involved seemed to be making a different movie. The final product was a bit of a mess. The only review I was sincerely dreading was the Los Angeles Times. This was the review that would be read by my friends, neighbors and colleagues. This was the one that I would have to discuss with the people at my gym or at my church. This was only review I’d have to actually “live” with.

I remember getting up that Friday morning and trudging to my front door. I retrieved my copy of the Times from the shrubs where the delivery guy always seemed to lodge it and padded into my kitchen. After pouring myself a strong cup of coffee to steady my nerves, I opened the paper to the Calendar section. To my utter shock and amazement, the review was a complete rave. The critic made it sound like I had penned an African-American version of “Citizen Kane.” On one level, I felt a certain sense of relief, but I was also struck with a new and totally unexpected wave of dread. I didn’t agree with this review. Not a single word of it. I knew that my friends would now be showering me with congratulations and would soon be rushing out to see my film with high expectations – only to discover that the movie was mediocre at best.

These days, the role of the critic has been largely diminished. In fact, a lot of print media outlets have laid off their reviewers. In the new world order, most of the ticket-buying public gets their entertainment recommendations from Twitter and Facebook. The ability to “comment” on a movie, play or product has turned the whole concept of “reviewing” into a bizarrely democratic process. Apparently there’s a new generation of people out there who are more interested in what their friends thought of a movie than what some cranky guy who’s been to too many press screenings has to say.

Obviously, it’s great when people like what you do, but the annals of show business are filled with stories of hugely successful people who at some point in their careers took a beating in the public arena. The worst feeling (speaking from personal experience) is that somehow if your reviews aren’t good, it means that you are not good; that what you’ve put out into the world is a big, stinky mess and now whatever mean-spirited adjective was used against you will be seared onto your identity for life. That's rarely true since, at least in Hollywood, most people can’t remember what happened last week, much less last year. It’s just one of the realities of the business. No matter what you do, someone will love it while someone else will say it was a big piece of shit. In the end, the most important opinion will be your own.

My favorite story about this subject comes from a book I read many years ago by William Redfield, an actor who played “Guildenstern” in Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway production of “Hamlet.” At the time, Mr. Burton was at the peak of his film stardom and it was a risky choice to take on the most revered role in all of Shakespeare. In the book, Mr. Redfield recounts how one evening, during the show’s out-of-town tryout in Toronto, a disgruntled theatergoer booed Mr. Burton from the balcony during one of his character’s more famous soliloquies. Enraged, Mr. Burton stormed back to his hotel after the performance to find his lovely new wife, Elizabeth Taylor with her feet propped up watching TV. When Ms. Taylor didn’t immediately grasp why her husband was so upset, he screamed “Don’t you understand?! I was playing ‘Hamlet’ and I was BOOED!!” To which Ms. Taylor supposedly replied, “So? Who the hell cares?” Mr. Burton then kicked in the screen of the TV, cutting his foot so badly that it required several stitches. Mr. Redfield finishes the story by observing that Ms. Taylor, who had literally grown up in the public spotlight and was at the time on her fifth husband, was “not particularly concerned with the opinions of people she did not personally know.” Oh, that we could all be so wise.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

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

LAST TWO WEEKS TO SEE THE SHOW!
MUST CLOSE NOV. 22nd!!
"Moving...Leaves us with renewed appreciation for the sad, doomed man who preserved the Union.
-- Los Angeles Times

"BETTER ANGELS" on YouTube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LmxJDZzQ_E

Monday, November 2, 2009

Running on Empty

Lately, I’ve been experiencing a sensation that I’d sort of forgotten about -- Complete and utter exhaustion. Dropping into bed each night, I have, instead of counting sheep, been counting the number of daunting things I have to do starting at 7:00 AM. More and more, I’ve been rolling out of bed, wondering if I actually possess the stamina (or talent) to pull off this ambitious “to-do” list. Where did my once leisurely existence go? How had this happened?

Well, it all started about six months ago when I was mired in a deep swamp of discontent. Like everybody else I knew, I was unemployed and sort of mystified as to why my phone wasn’t ringing. Yes, the economy had tanked. Yes, there was the ominous threat of a SAG strike. Yes, the whole town seemed to be paralyzed by a wave of indecision, but damn it, it shouldn’t be affecting me!! After all, I had, over the years, scored a few decent successes as both an actor and a writer. Why wasn’t that studio calling me? Hadn’t I written a profitable film for them? Why wasn’t that network calling me? Hadn’t I been a scream in that reoccurring role just a couple of seasons ago? Self pity (which I’ve always had a natural talent for) swept over me like a giant Snuggie. I felt – dare I say it? -- entitled to some work! What the hell was wrong with everybody? Didn’t they know I had bills to pay?

Then one day, I was gathering up some tax stuff for my accountant when I remembered why I had named my company, “Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment.” Nine years ago, when I first filed my articles of incorporation, I wanted to christen my new company with a name that reflected my understanding of the entertainment industry’s one unwavering truth: Nobody owes anybody anything. For the vast majority of us, making a living means reinventing ourselves over and over and over again. Sure, I had a track record, but that was then, and this was now.

I decided that it was time to start getting busy; to start saying “yes.” The good news about L.A. is that if you want to be seen or heard – it ain’t that hard to do. Venues abound. As long as you know up front that there are no guarantees, it can actually do wonders for your sense of self. It’s nice to be reminded that you still have guts; that you can still stick your neck out. I started making a list.

Since I was feeling sort of rusty as an actor, I started teaching a scene study class on the weekends. It was challenging, but working with young, talented, but less experienced actors than myself gave me a chance to focus on a few bad habits I’d fallen into myself. As a screenwriter, it’s easy to become isolated and disconnected from any sense of your audience. To remedy that, I jumped into “spoken word” evenings where I started reading my first-person essays in front of live audiences; audiences who actually laughed out loud when I spun disastrous tales from my professional or personal life.

Sucking up my guts, I agreed to appear in a one-night only show at the Bang Comedy Theatre called “Streep Tease,” where eight male actors performed monologues from Meryl Streep movies. It proved to be a huge success and resulted in two more sold-out shows (with a month-long run now planned for February, 2010). In addition to this blog, I started churning out pieces for the Huffington Post and Metrosource magazine that brought me a new audience. Then along came a chance to appear in an honest-to-God legitimate stage play (“Better Angels” - now at the Colony Theatre). In the midst of all this, I was forced to change literary management. At first, I was traumatized, but soon, my new manager started delivering new opportunities; including pitching in uncharted film genres and even a few TV appointments.

In short, my calendar, once empty, has lately been jammed to capacity and beyond. This week, when I realized how many projects I had going at once, I began to feel a bit panicked. How was I going to pull all of this off and still find time to read the novel that I was just given by that big deal producer? What the hell was I doing? Then, right in the middle of this freak-out, I had a revelation. Yeah, I was exhausted, but I was also weirdly happy. I was engaged and most importantly, I was excited.

I’d love it if I only had one job right now. And wouldn’t it be great if said job was of the big, fat, high-paying variety? But in lieu of that, I have to say that it’s nice to feel like I’m in the game again. I’m not getting rich, but I’m also not waiting on someone to make me rich either. All of these oddball adventures have been gambles, but so far in my new career as a juggler, I’ve yet to drop any balls. My social life has all but evaporated, but I suspect it will bounce back once the holidays hit. In the meantime, I’ve been relearning the importance of creating something; anything! The biggest benefit of all this nuttiness has been a wonderful sense of feeling ready; tuned-up, confident and prepared for the next challenge. Funny thing, but doubt is a luxury busy people don’t have much time for. It’s been great to feel that whatever happens next, I’ll come at it honestly and with a new eye.

I’d love to go into more detail about all this, but quite honestly, I need to get some sleep! I’ve got a ton of stuff to do tomorrow!

So, if things have slowed to a crawl in your career, consider taking a few chances. Make a few calls. Write a few letters. Stick your neck out. Double-book yourself. You never know who you’ll meet or how the experience will impact your identity as an artist. We all like to dream big, but it’s nice (and quite fun) to realize that there is no such thing as the future. Somebody made that concept up a long time ago and dwelling on it too much is not such a great idea. All there is…is now. So, what’s stopping you?

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

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 25, 2009

Stage Struck

Theatre in L.A. is sort of a strange beast. When I first arrived here to seek my fortune as a screenwriter, I was floored by the number of small theatres just in Hollywood alone. It seemed like there was one on every corner. I initially found this very comforting since I'd just immigrated from New York after a 13-year career as a stage actor and playwright. How great, I thought, that there is so much creativity bursting forth all over town. Then I started attending a few of the shows and discovered that the majority of them were produced by actors in the hope of landing an agent. Often, the quality of the work wasn't so hot and things like scenery and lighting design seemed to be sort of low on the priority list.

Even so, occasionally I'd see something I liked and feel genuinely homesick for the experience of being on stage. My first job in show business was in the chorus of a summer stock musical and I still remember that as being one of the best summers of my life. During my time in New York, I'd always enjoyed the camaraderie of being part of a company and the intimacy of live performance. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided on a whim to cast my bread upon the waters.

I dropped a note to the Colony Theatre; a small professional theatre that I knew had a solid reputation. Not wanting to oversell myself, I kept my letter light and jaunty; telling them a little about my background and offering my services as a quirky character man should they ever need one. The next day, my phone rang and I was invited to audition for a new play the Colony was producing called "Better Angels."

Unlike the rapid fire nature of TV auditions, theatre auditions are quite civilized. A lot of care is taken to make actors feel comfortable and welcome. And usually you get to read a couple of meaty scenes in front of some very attentive people. My audition went well and I even managed to land a couple of cheap laughs (which is sort of my specialty). Two weeks later, I was back reading opposite some other actors in contention. By 5:00 pm, I'd gotten the call. The role of "John Hay" was mine.

The play centers on a little known incident in the life of Abraham Lincoln and is narrated by Hay who was Lincoln's personal secretary. Since the play was not long and only had three characters, the director generously encouraged us to do lots of exploring. It was fun to dig in and mine the material for as much depth as possible; a luxury most film and TV sets can't allow. Much of the text had been taken directly from the letters and diaries of the actual people; and although the language was beautiful, it didn't exactly come trippingly off the tongue. Just saying it was challenging enough, memorizing it proved even harder.

I soon began to realize that returning to the stage after a 15-year break wasn't exactly going to be like riding a bike. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm not quite as young or energetic as I used to be. There was a time when I could juggle ten things, have an affair and still show up for rehearsal with my lines learned. Although my capacity to analyze and reason is probably the best it's ever been, my short term memory ain't what it used to be. Adding to the problem, my character, who narrates the play, was required to spout quite a few historical facts and figures. I began to detect a bit of concern in the faces of the director and playwright as we careened into week three of rehearsal and I still had a script in my hand. Finally, I hired a couple of my students to drill me on my lines for two hours a day. Things began to improve. I started taking Ginkoba and hoped for the best.

Eventually, we moved from the rehearsal hall and onto the set and began running through the play on the actual stage. There is something kind of magical about theatres. I, who mostly feel miserably self-conscious in life, have always felt strangely free on stage. Plus, after three weeks in a florescent-lit, carpeted rehearsal hall, just hearing your voice bounce back to you was sort of thrilling.

As you might have guessed, working in non-profit theatre isn't a great money-making proposition. I don't remember the last time I worked this hard for this little dough, but theatre is never about the cash; it's about the experience itself. For the last 15 years, the only acting I've done has been in the rather cushy world of TV. At most, you're only required to concentrate for three-to-four minutes at a time while the camera is rolling. Plus, even if you stink, they can always fix it in the editing room. Theatre however requires an actor to take complete responsibility for his or her performance. Once the curtain goes up, there's no stopping. No starting over. As we began previews this week, I was reminded of how much of a roller coaster that experience can be. How quickly elation can turn into terror when shit inevitably goes wrong. Lines get blown. Costumes snag on furniture. Props fall over. Yet the show goes on. It's a team sport and there is no greater thrill than catching a ball that has been dropped and no greater sense of relief than when your fellow actor steps in and saves your ass.

Then there is that most unpredictable factor of all: the audience. For reasons no one will ever understand, sometimes they laugh, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they love you, sometimes not so much. They will cough right in the middle of your line. Candy gets unwrapped. Cell phones go off. During one of our previews this week, one patron opted to remove her 3-strap, Velcro leg brace during one of the play's more intimate scenes.

Tonight we open. Opening nights are always exciting. The house is packed with friends, family members and others, who for whatever reason, are likely to be on your side. They can be counted on to laugh or cry when you need them to and will probably even give you a standing ovation whether you deserve it or not. It's a remarkable act of generosity; a genuine acknowledgement of the amount of backbreaking labor that's gone into creating this little piece of entertainment. I'm always grateful for that support, particularly since seeded in among tonight's cheering throng will be a few theatre critics who couldn't care less what your fans think. Back in the day, I used to have pretty good luck with these folks, although I do remember one critic in Philadelphia writing in her review that she had not enjoyed my performance because of my "repeated use of foul language." She made it sound like I suffered from Tourette's Syndrome when in fact, I was only saying my lines as written.

Luckily for us, the Colony has a very loyal subscription audience, so even if we are tarred-and-feathered in the press, there will still be a sea of smiling faces out there every time we mount the stage. I'm very glad I got this chance to perform live again. It's definitely had its challenges, but so far, nothing we as a company haven't been able to surmount. Maybe it's just me, but almost everything I do these days seems to carry a lesson with it and "Better Angels" has been a great reminder of the value of being present; of realizing that this particular performance will never happen again. It will vanish the second after the words are spoken and there is something oddly perfect about that. It's one of great mysteries of the arts; how a play or a piece of music can unfold in front of a roomful of strangers and draw virtually everyone present into a collective and very personal moment of understanding. Just being present to witness that always erases any doubts I have about my chosen profession. Performing is quite a cool job and I'm very grateful to have it.

So, if you find yourself in the Los Angeles area anytime between now and November 22nd, stop by and see us. If not, I hope the next time you spot an ad for any kind of live performance you'll think about attending. Considering how awful TV seems to be getting, it might be well worth your time. Who knows? You might enjoy yourself, but whatever your experience turns out to be, keep in mind that the performance you are watching was not shot on a sound stage six months ago. It wasn't recorded in a studio halfway around the world. Somebody showed up, put on their costume, picked up their instrument and created it right before your eyes. Just for you.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

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

"Better Angels" runs through November 22nd at the Colony Theatre. Tickets and info at http://www.colonytheatre.org/

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fitting it into Dolly's Mouth

As you probably know, collaboration is the key to any successful project, but surprisingly it’s also one of the hardest skills to learn. Every writer, director or actor comes to a project with a specifc vision of what it could be. And most disasters occur when these highly creative (and sometimes highly stubborn people) are unable to reach a mutual accord on where their project is going.

The biggest lesson I ever learned about collaborating came a few years ago when I was brought in to rewrite what turned out to be the last of the big animated Disney musicals. After two rough years in development, the movie was finally in production when the studio decided to test the first 17 minutes of it in front of a volunteer audience in Florida. The test audience had come away utterly baffled and the project was almost shut down. A last minute reprieve was granted, provided that a new writer was brought on to replace the previous writing team (who happened to be the director and his best friend). Whoever got the job would have to start work immediately.

On Friday, I received the shooting script (which was a gigantic mess) and on the following Monday, I pitched a complete overhaul of the story to the film's creative team. On Tuesday, my agent called to say that although the execs had been impressed with my ideas, the director had not. On Wednesday morning, I got a second call. The director had been fired. I was in.

The next day, I was offered an eight-week contract to “collaborate with the creative team in order to fashion a new and workable story." Every eight weeks Disney would have the option to fire me on three days notice, but also retained the right to renew my contract for an additional eight weeks if they liked my work. My “weekly” rate was the most money I’d ever been paid in my career so I jumped on it.

On Thursday morning, I showed up for work and was ushered into a big conference room where I was introduced to everyone involved in the project including the original director -the same guy who'd hated hated my ideas but had apparently, in the last 24 hours, been rehired. The atmosphere was extremely tense. It was clear that the director (a former animator who had helmed one of Disney’s biggest animated hits) had been put through the wringer and loathed everybody in the room (including me).

I was briefed on the situation. The project (already hugely over-budget) was hanging by a thread and we had eight weeks to right the ship. A series of character sketches were spread out in front of me. I was told that the costly digital models for these characters had already been designed and stored in Disney's computers. I would have to write for these characters only. No new characters could be added.

Wisely, the execs had imposed a theme on the yet-to-be-written new story which was “Love versus Fear.” For the next three weeks the creative team (which consisted of me, the angry director, the producer, two Disney execs, three animators and a stenographer) sat in the conference room and talked and talked and talked. Ideas came and went at a staggering rate. Some were great. Some were garbage. Finally, when I couldn't take it anymore, I asked if I could scoop up the huge pile of ideas we’d accumulated so far and try to write a treatment of just the first act. I was cautiously granted permission to do so.

Two days later, we reconvened and everyone was delighted that I’d been able to shape a coherent 20-page set-up for our story. Even the director seemed to like it. Reinvigorated, we started hammering out a game plan for act two. And soon, it began to become clear what had happened to the original script.

The animators were an odd, but fantastically imaginative bunch of guys. No sooner was an idea presented than they started pitching all the many wonderfully oddball ways it could play out. Although inventive as hell, these notions often created weird digressions that pulled our story far into left field. Feeling like it was my job to be the bad guy, I started pointing out that these wacky ideas, although funny, were going to ultimately result in another convoluted and un-producible script. This didn’t win me any points with the animators, but I decided I wasn’t getting paid to be popular. I incorporated every idea I could, but stood my ground on issues of story structure. My contract was renewed. And renewed. And renewed again. Gradually, an actual script began to emerge as we all began to collaborate.

Another big lesson came about five months in, when the director, the producer and I were flown to Nashville to meet with Dolly Parton who was writing the music and also voicing one of the main characters. My job was to explain the new plot to Ms. Parton and to be present during the recording sessions in case there were any problems with her dialogue. At 8:00 AM, Dolly showed up at the recording studio, in full make-up and looking like she was on her way to perform a stadium show. After a few introductions, we all sat down and I proceeded to pitch her the new story. She listened politely, but I began to detect a distant cloud forming on the horizon. When I finished, Ms. Parton’s rather large personality filled the room. She looked me squarely in the eye. “Well, I kinda liked the original better," she said, "But I know how this goes. As soon as some new person comes in, they have to change everything just to prove how much smarter they are than the last guy.” My heart sank, but suddenly, she smiled. Having expressed her opinion, she was over it and ready to work. Cheerfully slapping her thighs, she stood up. “Okay,” she said, “I’m not the world’s greatest actress, but let’s do this.”

For the remainder of the day, the director sat in the studio feeding Dolly her cues as we recorded her dialogue for the first half of the film. Occasionally, she would trip over one of her lines and frown. Glancing into the booth where I was seated, she would pleasantly (but bluntly) express her opinion about the line in question. The first couple of times, I tried to justify or explain the line, until I realized that Ms. Parton had not become a superstar for nothing. She had a very keen sense of what worked for her and people who own their own amusement parks don’t like to fart around; they have money that needs counting. When the next troublesome line came up, she smiled patiently at me. “Sorry, honey, but this line just doesn’t fit in my mouth.” Realizing it was time to get onboard the Dollywagon, I replied enthusiastically, “No problem, Dolly! I’m sure we can come up with something that will fit in your mouth.” Luckily, she laughed and it became a running gag for the rest of the day. All in all, I rewrote maybe five of her lines. Did I think the changes were as crisp as what I had written? No. Did it matter? Not at all. By the end of the day, I was in love with her.

A few weeks later, we screened the first 17 minutes of the newly revised movie for Michael Eisner who heartily approved of the overhaul. He even shook my hand and congratulated me on my work. For a time, there was much rejoicing throughout the magic kingdom as the film was rushed back into production. Several execs privately assured me I would be working at Disney ‘til the day I died. Then, “Finding Nemo” opened and within a month, our film was shelved for good; deemed too old fashioned to succeed. I felt awful for the director with whom I had gradually become friends. He had invested three years of his life in the project. But musicals were out. Pixar was in. Mr. Eisner and the other executives who had promised me lifelong employment soon moved on to other companies and I haven’t had a single meeting at Disney since.

Needless to say, I was disappointed when the film went south, but I came away with some great lessons about collaboration. Although every project needs a strong central vision, it also needs a few dissenting voices to pull it off course for a day or two, just so it can (hopefully) right itself again. I was proud of my work on the film, but some of the best and funniest moments in that script came from the animators or from the improvisations of the voice talent. In my travels since, I always try to remember that many things that seem earthshaking on Tuesday are often resolved or forgotten by Friday. Working together is the only way to work.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

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 11, 2009

Shrink to Fit

Like a lot of creative types, I’ve had a little therapy. It all started when I was a teenager and discovered that our small town had a clinic where I could speak to a therapist for free. What I actually wanted to talk about was the fact that I was gay, but in the three years I went there, I never had the guts to bring it up. Instead, I talked to Mr. Weatherly (the kind fatherly guy who was assigned to my case) about my family – which gave us plenty of material. Later, when I went away to college (and came steamrolling out of the closet), I started talking with a younger, hipper guy name Paul who always wore cowboy boots to every session. Paul encouraged me to follow my dreams.

Those dreams led me to New York, where I enrolled in acting classes. In this atmosphere, I was finally free to become a big neurotic mess. So soon, I found "Sherri," who struck me as the perfect New York therapist. Sherri was short and round with frizzy hair and no discernable sense of humor. She also wore these big black glasses that magnified her eyes; giving the impression that she was fascinated by every detail of my miserable existence. After four years of listening to me bitch about my family and career, Sherri felt I had made “some progress.”

When I landed on the sunny shores of California, I brought with me a big attitude. I thought of myself as a “serious” artist -- which meant I had serious, complicated problems. I’d heard stories of nutty L.A. shrinks and I was very leery. However, my partner (with whom I’d lived with for five years) had developed an increasingly serious drug and alcohol problem. The fights were getting worse and I was running out of ideas. After a few cautious phone calls, I found a therapist named Jessica who agreed to work with me on a sliding scale. I made an appointment for the following Tuesday.

When I arrived at her Beverly Hills office, the door opened and I was greeted by the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life. Jessica was a supernaturally gorgeous blonde with a warm, radiant smile. In her early 30’s, she had one of those long, willowy bodies that made her look like a runway model. It was like somebody had put Kim Basinger on a rack and stretched her to 6’.

Settling into her office, I tried to articulate my problems, but found it very hard to concentrate. This woman couldn’t be a therapist. Not a real therapist. How could somebody this ridiculously perfect understand the angst and anxiety we ordinary humans experience on a daily basis? This was never going to work. Somehow, I just couldn’t see myself driving to Beverly Hills each week and telling my problems to Cheryl Tiegs. I had to get out of this, but it felt too rude to dump her after only one session. I decided I’d do it next week.

The following Tuesday, I returned and went on the offensive. Eager to show her I was no lightweight, I began explaining in minute detail just how complex my therapeutic journey had been thus far. At first, Jessica just kept smiling. Then she started interrupting me at key moments and disrupting the flow of my tortured narrative. Finally, I called her on it. Cocking her gorgeous head slightly to one side, she gave me a perky, surprised smile. “Oh, I’m sorry, “ she said. “The reason I interrupted you is you don’t seem to be telling me much about your feelings – which is what we’re here to talk about, right?” I was stunned. She had nailed me. In an effort to discredit her, I’d painfully revealed just how little I’d learned in sixteen years of therapy. The problem wasn’t Jessica or her stunning good looks. I just didn’t want to admit what was going on. I decided she might not be such a bad therapist after all.

I soon discovered that although Jessica probably wasn't the perfect therapist for everybody, she was the perfect therapist for me. Gradually, I started to learn a little about her. She had indeed been a model and that experience had left her with a keen understanding of what it was like to be judged on one’s personal appearance (something I often struggled with). Although she had no personal experience in the competitive world of show business, she certainly understood how the most bizarre and most uncontrollable factors could determine who got the job and who didn’t. Jessica had also, at one point in her life, had a rather large drug and alcohol problem, so when I finally got around to telling her what was going on in my home, she got it in a big way.

Before long, coming to see Jessica was the highlight of my week. Not only did I love talking to her, I loved looking at her. Her flawless taste in clothing, make-up and hairstyling was never less than a miracle to behold. At times, her therapeutic style could be a bit quirky. I remember once telling her about an early sexual experience I’d had and she responded by saying that my story had reminded her of the first time she’d shot heroin. Moments like these left me wondering if my shrink might be a little loopy, but I didn’t care. She was was always utterly honest and wonderfully unpretentious. During our time together, Jessica talked me through quitting cigarettes, watching my first movie tank and the painful decision to exit my relationship after 10 years together. And she was there when I reentered the dating world as a 39 year-old gay man.

I remember one day, admitting to her my fear that I was now too old to compete romantically in Los Angeles; how everybody seemed so much younger and more attractive than me. As I said this, Jessica’s expression changed. My story had obviously struck a deep chord with her. Sadness and empathy swept over her face and for a moment, I thought she was going to cry.

The following week, our session was mostly consumed by one of my many professional disappointments, but just as I was about to leave, Jessica said she had something for me. Reaching into her bag, she produced an unopened jar of Chanel face cream and proceeded to explain that she’d found this product wonderfully effective. Apparently, it had “just a touch of acid in it” that sort of burned off the upper layer of one's skin, reducing the appearance of wrinkles. She placed in my hand with a gentle smile. I was so floored I barely remembered to say thank you. As I walked out to my car, I noticed that the price tag was still on the bottom. It was a staggeringly expensive product. I was touched, but there was something weird about this little exchange. I'd sort of been hoping to hear some wise words about accepting the passage of time and had instead come away with a pricey jar of flesh-eating beauty cream.

When I finally stopped seeing Jessica about four years ago, it was an easy decision to make for two reasons. First, I had run out of money and could no longer afford to talk about my problems. But a larger truth had also become clear. There are no real answers. Only decisions. And God knows the previous seven years of my life had been full of decisions. Some great, some not so great. To her enormous credit, Jessica had approached every dilemma I'd brought her with a freshness that always made it seem like it was her first day on the job. She had, in her way, managed to instill a bit of her “Who the hell knows what any of this means?” attitude in me. I never knew what her life was like outside the office, but one got the sense that ‘Carpe Diem” was probably the order of the day. After seven years with Jessica, I finally felt like my life (in California or wherever I may end up) is ultimately meant to be lived and not talked about.

Copyright 2009 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 strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Putting the "Re" in the "Write"

There is an old three-part joke about the movie business that goes like this: How many producers does it take to change a light bulb? “Does it have to be a light bulb?” How many directors does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to hold the light bulb and three grips to turn the throne. And finally: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb? “You can’t change the light bulb!!”

Every summer, I mentor a fresh crop of novice screenwriters in a lab I helped found a few years ago. In these sessions, I try to give these young writers some constructive criticism about their work and if possible, prepare them for the rough and tumble profession they hope to be a part of. Often I can see the misery and resentment registering on their faces as I suggest possible cuts or problems in the logic or tone. I feel bad for them, but writing in Hollywood is not a business for the thin-skinned. Better they learn it now.

One of the first things that I try to impress upon them is this: Great scripts are not written. They are rewritten. Screenwriting is not literature. A script is not a great, weighty tome chiseled in stone. A screenplay is a living breathing organism that will evolve (for better or worse) as it morphs from a pile of paper into a piece of celluloid projected on a screen in front of an paying audience. If you are lucky enough to write a script that someone is actually interested in, that’s a good thing. What many young writers don’t see coming is that they and their script are about to be launched on a journey… In most cases, a rather long journey in which a great many people will be coming along for the ride. And these new people will all have many, many ideas on how this wonderful script of yours could be made “even better.”

As you might have already guessed, the term “better” is highly subjective. To a producer, better often means cheaper and easier to shoot. To a studio executive, better usually means a script that resembles another film that was recently a big hit. To a director, better sometimes means a substantial change in the tone or direction of the story; maybe more toward something that reflects the director’s personality or career goals. To a movie star, better almost always means more heroic actions or “funnier” lines for the lead character.

I always try to be gentle when handing out my suggestions to novice writers. I remember how painful and traumatic my first rewrites were. The whole process of churning out even a first draft was sort of harrowing. By the time I had a version that I felt brave enough to show to anybody, I was ready to quit work. Part of me felt like I had cheated death; that it was nothing short of a miracle that I had managed to assemble all of these spare parts in to a vehicle that actually ran. The idea that someone was now asking me to disassemble the car and put it back together again was terrifying. It seemed impossible. Instead, I would spring to its defense. It will work! Really, it will! I swear it!

In those early days, getting notes on one of my scripts was the artistic equivalent of water-boarding. Even now, I tend to get a knot in my stomach when I hear the term “one little change.” For those who don’t actually write scripts, suggesting “one little change” probably doesn’t seem such a big deal. After all, why can’t the hero be a woman instead of a man? How hard could it be to alter a lead character’s age, race or planetary origin? Was I aware how much cheaper it is to shoot in New Orleans rather than New York. And wouldn’t it be more "fun" if the whole movie took place in a high school? Maybe with some sort of hip-hop element? There! That shouldn’t take long!

Highly sensitive, young artiste that I was, I often wondered why, if these folks liked my script so much, they wanted to change it. Couldn't they just leave it alone? Couldn't they all just dutifully line-up behind my vision and shoot it the way I wrote it? That, of course, is laughable to me now. People surrender huge chunks of their lives to be in this business. Of course they want input. Plus, movies are such risky and tremendously expensive ventures that any factor that will help them get produced, has to be seriously considered.

I recently heard that a director has expressed interest in attaching himself to a script I wrote and is already looking for a new writer to “fix it.” This, without having had a single conversation with me about whatever his concerns might be. Sadly, this is nothing new. In many cases, it’s considered cost-effective to shit-can the original writer, just so that no valuable time has to be wasted debating anything with him or her. Better to move on to a new writer who probably wants or needs the job and is all too willing to agree with whatever changes the producer or director would like to see.

Before I start sounding too defensive here, let me say that rewrites can also be a huge blessing. Over the years, I’ve worked with some very smart and savvy people who taught me that certain scenes, jokes and characters I thought I couldn’t live without were in fact, quite dispensable. Rewrites also taught me a lesson that’s come in rather handy in life: sometimes other people have great ideas. If I can set my ego aside and actually listen, these suggestions can occasionally do wonders for my script. Although I may not be thrilled by these ideas initially, often after a few days, I started loving the changes and become oddly willing to take full credit for them! It has also helped me to realize that studio executives and producers have only one objective - to get films MADE. Their jobs depend on it. And ultimately so does mine.

These days, I no longer view screenwriting as a job that is ever “done.” In the best of all possible worlds, it’s a successful juggling act. And a process. Once in a while, I’m lucky enough to get paid to participate in that process – and that is a very good thing indeed. If I truly need to establish my literary cred by controlling the content and tone of my work, nobody is stopping me from writing the next great American novel. Who knows? Maybe I’ll just do that sometime. I actually had an idea the other day that I think might be worthy of the Booker Prize. It's about these aliens that come to earth in search of hip-hop, and crash land into a New Orleans high school...

Copyright 2009 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 strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Singing Lesson

Not long ago, I got a call about appearing in a charity show. I could hear the anxiety in the producer’s voice when she asked “Do you sing?” I used my stock reply. “Yes, I can sing, but I’m not a singer” -- Meaning I can carry a tune, but I’m not planning to record a CD anytime soon.

Once, when I was a young actor floundering around in New York, I decided to take a couple of singing lessons. A friend of mine had met a voice teacher while waiting on line at an open call (not a good sign) and had passed the teacher’s card along to me. My friend had made it plain that this woman, “Christine Watford-Schenk” was a bit of an oddball, but seemed harmless and might be a good teacher for a beginner like me.

When I called, I was instructed by Mrs. Watford-Schenk to meet her at her studio at the Lincoln Towers apartment building. On arrival, I was greeted by a striking, 40ish woman wearing what could best be described as grand Kabuki make-up, crowned by an upswept hairstyle with dangly ringlets falling here and there. Dressed in a gold brocade sleeveless top with matching pedal pushers, her outfit would have been cutting edge if this had been 1967, but it was 1982 at the time.

“Chrissy” (as I was told to address her) ushered me into her apartment. I had never seen anything like it. The place looked like Liberace's moving van had crashed into the set of "Phantom of the Opera." Jammed with French antiques, bejeweled lamps and of course, a huge grand piano, there was barely an aisle through each room. Every surface was crowded with ornate candelabras, Chinese vases and objects d’art. That, however, was nothing compared to the walls. Perhaps 30 paintings, all in heavy gilt frames, were hung literally from floor to ceiling, filling every available inch of space. Even I, hayseed that I was, recognized the names of a few of the artists like Alexander Calder.

"Chrissy" perched herself on the edge of her wrap-around sofa and began to quiz me about my goals as a singer. Since I didn’t have any, we proceeded to the piano where she tested out my range and general musical ability. I was deemed a worthy student and was then informed that her rate was $50 an hour. I offered her $20 and she took it.

Every Thursday, Chrissy would poke and prod me, push my shoulders back and make me spit out my consonants and round my vowels. It was sort of fun until she began occasionally asking me odd questions like what did I do for fun or who I was dating. Although I enjoyed her grand manners and her “Holly Golightly” wardrobe, her interest in my personal life creeped me out. Plus, she didn’t seem to be such a great singer herself. Deciding I wasn’t so interested in singing lessons after all, I told her I could no longer afford the twenty bucks. Undaunted, she informed me that since I was one of her favorite students, I could continue to study for free.

In those days, guilt was a powerfully motivating force in my life. It had become increasingly clear that Chrissy’s other voice students (to whom she frequently referred) were entirely fictitious. I’d also noticed that one-by-one, her art collection was gradually disappearing from the walls. Soon, a ritual developed where Chrissy would offer me a glass of wine before our lesson. During these little chats, her life story began to unfold. If Tennessee Williams had written “Gone With the Wind,” it couldn’t have come out better.

Apparently, Chrissy had arrived in New York, a young, wealthy debutante eager to pursue her dream of becoming a ballet dancer. After falling down a flight of stairs and injuring her back, she opted to abandon ballet for the world of opera and had studied for a time with some big deal voice teacher. Somewhere along the line, she met and married a Jewish man who was roughly old enough to be her grandfather and soon they had set up house in a swank Park Avenue penthouse. Good Southern girl that she was, she had handed over her entire inheritance to her new husband, who within a few short years, managed to lose it all. Her husband then died of a heart attack (in her arms) and a week later, she discovered she was pregnant. Tragically, she miscarried and was briefly institutionalized. When she got out, she was evicted from her Park Avenue digs and had been forced to cram the contents into this one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Towers. She now existed on a small stipend that her late husband’s brother had arranged for her and of course, her “teaching income.”

I wanted to help her out, but the problem was that Chrissy wasn’t really a voice teacher. She was just a bizarre, lonely lady whose life had derailed. I no longer had any desire to study with her, but felt like she depended on our weekly visits. Often, I would arrive for my lesson to discover that she had already knocked back half a bottle of wine. Then one day she made a big sloppy pass at me. It was so lame it didn’t even offend me. Instead, I sat her down on the sofa and told her that she needed to get out of this apartment and at least try to meet some straight men.

The next time I saw her she was beaming. “I took your advice!” she exclaimed. Swaddled in her ratty mink, Chrissy had gone on a scouting expedition, scoping out the local restaurants and bars until she found one she rather liked. “I then asked to speak to the manager," she said. "I introduced myself and told him I was a single lady who lived in the neighborhood and that I intended to be frequenting his establishment.” She then told him that she was interested in meeting single men, but not just some trash off the street. “I said I wanted to meet older men, but not too old, you know. Mature men with jobs; divorcees and widowers; that type of individual; stable and no dope addicts.” She had then asked the manager if he thought that those sort of men came into his bar. Apparently, they did. “Next, I told him that I enjoy a cocktail as much as the next person, but if at any time it became clear that I had had one too many, I expected him or a trustworthy member of his staff to make sure I was escorted around the corner and back to my apartment building in a safe and dignified manner.” Trying not to show how dumbfounded I was, I asked “Did he agree to that?” “You know, he did seem a bit surprised,” Chrissy recounted, “But yes, he agreed.”

So, soon Chrissy became a “regular” and within a couple of months, managed to land herself a boyfriend. “Jimmy” was a bald, portly, divorced graphic designer who seemed to enjoy Chrissy’s company. They invited me out to dinner with them a couple of times and it was clear from Chrissy’s giggly, girlish demeanor that she and Jimmy were having a great time in the sack. I was thrilled. Chrissy’s sense of style seemed to be relaxing too. Instead of looking like Maria Callas in the 60’s, she was starting to look like Jacqueline Onassis in the 70’s. It was a start. Soon, she joined an amateur opera troop that staged little performances in church basements and then went out and got drunk afterwards.

After they had been going out for a few months, Jimmy hired me to come in and help him clean out and organize his messy design studio. A decent, friendly guy, he had recently seen Chrissy perform with her pals and asked me about her prospects as a singer. “Yeah, I dunno..." he said. "Does it matter…I mean, do you think it’s a big deal… She doesn’t always hit the right notes.” Not wanting to rock the boat, I assured him that the whole “singing-on-pitch” thing was generally overrated.

By this time, I had begged off my singing lessons, telling Chrissy I had gotten too busy with my acting classes. It was time to cut her loose. Jimmy was a Godsend and if she didn’t see it, she was beyond help. Although Chrissy continued to call from time to time to check up on me, I let my answering machine finish the job. Frequently she would end her always cheerful messages by saying, "Now don't you forget me!" As if that would ever be possible.

Copyright 2009 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 strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/