Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hot Child in the City

A couple of times in my career, I’ve had the great good fortune to get noticed. Something I was doing (or had done) snagged the attention of the larger show business community and “wah-laa,” I found myself on the receiving end of many exciting phone calls. I was suddenly, as we like to say,“Hot.” The first time this happened, I was a young stage actor in New York and was appearing in an evening of one-act comedies at an off-Broadway theater.

The show was a very funny, two-character play that required the other actor and me to do a bunch of lightning-fast transitions. The director was something of a task master and demanded our every move be precise and clean. He worked us like dogs in rehearsal, but it paid off. The audiences roared. One night, about ten days before the show was scheduled to close, the director appeared in my dressing room, wearing a jittery smile and began firing off a bunch of weird, nitpicky notes; just a few “details” that I should keep in mind for tonight’s performance. I noticed a slight glistening of perspiration on his brow and guessed what this was all about. “The New York Times is coming tonight, aren’t they?” I asked. He nodded his head in sort of grim way. After reassuring him that the show was in great shape, I suggested that he not mention this development to the other actor (who was sort of a skittish guy and easily thrown). Staring into my dressing room mirror, I took a deep breath. This was it. I'd been in New York for four years. Finally, the rubber was about to meet the road.

My co-star and I knocked the ball out of the park that night and two days later, our pictures (and a great review!) appeared in the Friday “Weekend” section of the Times. In my young naïve heart, I thought that this endorsment of my comic genius would lead to much greater things. And in a sense, it did. I’d never auditioned for a TV pilot before and suddenly that was happening. The audition went so well that I almost got the part. In fact, several upscale auditions came my way, but none of them quite worked out. Within a couple of months, the calls slowed down and soon I was back to working as a waiter - a waiter who’d had his name and face in the New York Times. Eighteen months later, I had an almost identical experience with a different show and began to wonder if the universe was playing some kind of cruel joke on me.

When I came west hoping to work as a writer in Hollywood, the transition was rocky at best. About a year after my arrival, the phone rang and a breathless executive asked if he was speaking to “David Dean Bott-Rell?” At the time, I was dodging bill collectors, so I informed him that Mr. Bott-Rell was out at the moment and could I take a message. The message was that a script of mine had somehow landed on his desk and he had been frantically trying to locate me for weeks. “Who is your agent?” he demanded. “I don’t have one,” I replied. “You will by the end of the week!” he answered. True to his word, I did indeed have an agent (a very big agent) by the end of the following week. My script was shot out into the universe of Hollywood and suddenly I was one busy guy. I went on a zillion “meet-and-greets” where I was heralded as the second coming of screenwriting. I ate fabulous lunches in Beverly Hills and was promised tons of employment. Apparently, my ship had come in. Again.

It was fun to be the “hot” writer, but nothing about it felt real either. Despite all these claims that my career was about to explode, I was still wearing the same threadbare clothes to every meeting and frequently parked my car blocks away from the restaurant so that no one (not even the valets) would see the dented Toyota hatchback I was driving. I was the author of exactly one screenplay and had no idea if I’d ever even have another idea worth writing. Despite the glowing response to my script, it never got made and eventually all the hoopla died down. It became another lesson in how short the industry’s attention span is and how little is ever done to mentor new talent.

Over the years, I’ve had this experience repeat itself (in one form or another), a surprising number of times; most recently when I had a rccurring role on a popular TV show. As much as I enjoyed the job, the chorus of people telling me that an Emmy and a development deal were sure to follow, sort of unnerved me a little. Not that it wasn’t fun to think about! But mostly what I felt was enormous gratitude that when the ball had finally sailed out into left field again, I hadn’t dropped it. In fact, I had scored a winning point for the team.

Excitement is a great thing. After all, where would the business be without it? We thrive on it. We’re addicted to it. It’s what drives the machine. It keeps us going between gigs. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my career. The fact that every so often I’ve been able to nab a little attention has been truly gratifying – particularly since I entered into this business wondering if I had any talent at all. Last week, I got some very exciting news about one of my projects. Needless to say, I'm thrilled, but I also know it's a little soon to start breaking out the champagne or hiring the hookers. I promise if it comes to fruition, you’ll be the first to know. For now, I’m just taking it as a sign that I’m being allowed to stay in the poker game. God knows the stakes are high, but I’ve always been a gambler at heart. You sort of have to be for any of this insanity to work. Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine myself as the “Hot” guy again, but I could definitely get into the idea of being “Reheated.” Even that is exciting.

As we all (should) know by now, the whole idea of overnight success is a total crock of shit. For the vast majority of “successful” people in our business, it’s a long, slow climb up the mountain (with lots of loose rocks underfoot). For every bit of ground you gain, there is usually a short slide to follow. The trick is to enjoy the scenery as you go. As one of my favorite actors, Walter Matthau, once said, “All you need in this business is six or seven really big breaks.” If that’s true, I might now be approaching number six, so hopes are running high!! Again.

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

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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

By the time I get to Phoenix...

In the past few weeks, three long-dead projects of mine have strangely flickered back to life. And when I say “back to life,” I’m using that phrase in the show business sense of the word, meaning that somebody reasonably legitimate (somebody with an actual office) has expressed a bit of interest. Prior to getting these calls, I considered all three of these scripts to be ancient history. It’s been odd to even think about them again. I don’t know if other writers experience the same thing, but for me, old scripts are like potent, little time capsules; each containing a vivid emotional imprint of the time in my life when were written.

One of the scripts is an adaptation of a memoir I wrote about 2 ½ years ago. It was a troubling tale and a genre I’d never attempted before. When the project came to me, I’d just returned to L.A. after a year in Washington, DC. Having broken one of the cardinal rules of show business (moving to a non-show biz city), I wasn't sure if I’d ever be allowed back inside the palace gates. My best shot was to reinvent myself. I set out to create a viable script while also preserving what I admired most about the book - the author’s remarkable willingness to forgive the unforgivable. The script initially got a ton of attention, but then sort of fizzled out like a shooting star. That is, until a few weeks ago when a talented and gorgeous young movie actress stepped up and attached herself to star and co-produce. It’s exciting! The great thing about stars is that (unlike the rest of us) they can actually get their calls returned. So here’s hoping she’s as charming on the phone as she is in person.

The next project to claw its way out of the grave (after ten years) was an adaptation of yet another book; this one a novel. Written ten years ago, it was my first decent paycheck in L.A. I had just exited a lengthy and tumultuous relationship and my career wasn't exactly cooking. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if maybe it was time to take my talentless ass back to New York, where (if I was lucky) I might be able to land a job doing Shakespeare in Buffalo. When the call came in (on my birthday, no less!) I took it as a good omen. Both tragic and hilarious, the novel centered on a couple desperately trying to rebuild their shattered dreams. The job was intimidating; especially because several more established writers had already fallen on their swords trying to adapt the book into a coherent movie. Again, there were cheers from the bleachers, but no one could ever quite get the ball over the goal line. Then this week, I heard that a mega agent now wants to show it to one of his hottest clients. Sounds good, right?

The third project is so old it would require carbon dating to determine its age. It was one of the first scripts I wrote after moving to L.A. My partner and I were, at the time, crammed into a very small apartment, but in an effort to feel like a professional, I decided to set up a small “office” in the bedroom. I found a tiny, narrow table in my neighbor's garbage that just fit between the chest of drawers and the wall. The space was so cramped I had to keep my elbows next to my sides just to fit into it. The lighting was terrible and my “view” was of a white, stucco wall about 24” from my face. Strange as it sounds, the miserable conditions sort of forced me into an almost trancelike state of creativity. Every night, I’d squeeze into my “office” and free-fall into the world of this freaky, comic caper I was writing. Much like the life I was living, the plot careened along like a rollercoaster threatening to jump the tracks at any second. Although the script was far from perfect, it remains one of the most imaginative things I’ve ever written and got me my first real agent in L.A. When a producer optioned it (again) last week, it felt almost surreal to sign my name to the agreement.

Until I moved to L.A. I didn’t know it was actually possible to “die of enthusiasm.” Having had my heart broken by all of these projects in the past, I’m leery about getting my hopes up. But then again, you never know! Show business is filled with stories of projects that took long, meandering journeys before finally getting to the screen. Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” (one of my favorite movies of all time) took ten years to get made. Hollywood is a mythical town. It’s one of the things we all secretly love about it. Let’s be honest. Every time one of those damn “twenty-somethings” bursts out of film school and scores a big sale, nobody cheers. We hate them. Fuck them. But when somebody who’s been standing in the queue forever, finally gets their shot (or a second shot), the whole town smiles and nods. For all of our purported cynicism, we’re actually a town of closet optimists. We love it when the Phoenix takes flight.

Glancing over these old scripts has definitely made me reflect a bit on my time in Hollywood. Despite a 50/50 mix of good and bad experiences, I’m still happy to be doing something I enjoy and believe in. I’m not saying there aren’t days when I feel like shooting myself in the head. There are quite a few of those actually. But writing, when it works, transcends the shitty parts of life - for both the author and the audience. According to that oracle of knowledge, Wikipedia, the mythical Phoenix could not only rise from the ashes, but was capable of “healing a person with a tear from its eyes” and making them, for a short while, “immune to death.” I love that! After all, isn’t entertainment supposed to lift us out of our seats a little and give us at least a short happy ride on the wings of our imagination? And who among us doesn’t need the occasional break from our mortality? I’m delighted these scripts are getting a second look! Who knows? Maybe a couple of those execs will demonstrate some excellent taste and rush them into production. In the meantime, let’s dust off the ashes, Hollywood. There’s work to be done. Spread your wings and see if maybe this week, you can catch a breeze.

Copyright 2008 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, May 17, 2009

The History of Drama (Part 8): Crash Landing

With my 21st birthday only a few months away, I felt panicked. If I was ever going to get out of Austin and become a professional actor, it was now or never. Finally, I made the decision – I was moving to New York! There was only one problem. I was scared shitless. What I needed was a partner in crime, so I started looking around for someone even more reckless and irresponsible than I was. I decided on my friend, Jenny.

Jenny was half Native-American and half Jewish and was maybe a couple of years older than me. A self-proclaimed artist and a true free spirit, she seemed to change art mediums, boyfriends and addresses every other week. Sexy and forthright, to say that Jenny “had a way with men” would have been a gross understatement. Knowing she was always up for an adventure, I talked her into coming.

By the time our departure date rolled around, Jenny had somehow managed to meet and have a wild, weekend-long, sexual fling with a businessman visiting from New York. She announced that she was now engaged. Although she would still be accompanying me on the trip, she cautioned that once there, she would naturally be spending most of her time with her new fiancé.

Since neither of us had much money, our means of transportation was the Greyhound Bus. Forty-eight grueling hours later, we arrived at Port Authority at 2:00 AM on (what I would later learn) was the coldest day of that year. We were met by Jenny’s fiance who was sort of a grumpy guy who looked like he was already regretting his decision. Although Jenny’s bags had made it to New York, all of my luggage had been lost en route. “Check back in a couple of days,” I was told. We then stepped out into the dank, scary world of the Port Authority to look for “D’Vonn.” Allow me to explain.

Before leaving Austin, I had managed to secure an apartment for Jenny and me in New York from a friend of a friend. Although the guy had not lived in the place for years, he still held the lease. I’d heard that neighborhoods varied in Manhattan, so I warily asked him where the apartment was located. “On Broadway,” he replied. My heart lept! After all, Broadway was where I was headed anyway!! I’d be close to work! I enthusiastically forked over the $200 in rent and was told that my bus would be met by a black guy named "D’Vonn" who would give me the keys.

Oddly, there were quite a few black guys in Port Authority at two o’clock in the morning (and none of them looked all that friendly). Sucking up my guts, I began approaching every black man I saw and politely asking if his name happened to be “D’Vonn.” Finally, I found him and soon we were all piled into the fiancé’s car for the trip uptown.

That was when I learned that Broadway actually ran the entire length of Manhattan. My new apartment was located near 141st Street in what was (at the time) a particularly rough section of West Harlem. The building was one of those once grand, old structures that had seen better days. As it turned out, D’Vonn didn’t need to bring us the keys, since the last tenant had removed the lock and taken it with him.

Pushing open the door, we found that the apartment had only one room (with a separate kitchen and bath). And it was extremely cold! Apparently, the building hadn’t had any heat or hot water for weeks and all the tenants were on a rent strike. Jenny took one look and wished me well. As she and her fiance bolted out the door, D’Vonn warily handed me a knife and said, “Here, you might need this.” Suddenly, I was alone. There was no phone in the apartment and I was terrified. I pushed a chest of drawers in front of the unlockable door, and then jammed a chair against that. I slept sitting up that night, clutching my knife and praying I wouldn’t freeze to death before dawn. As I closed my eyes, I began murmuring what would soon become my New York mantra. “It can’t get any worse than this.” I'd soon learn that...it could.

At first light, I discovered that all the windows of my apartment (which was on the bottom floor) faced an interior air shaft. The shaft was filled with about four feet of garbage (tossed from upper floors) that was now higher than the level of my windows; which meant they could never be opened. It was sort like a giant aquarium, except instead of fish, I had pigeons and rats. I checked my wallet. I had sixty dollars to my name. I knew exactly three people in New York and none of them very well. One of them suggested the name of a temp agency and two days later, I had a job filing index cards in a real estate office.

Since Greyhound was unable to locate my luggage for a full ten days, I was forced to wash the only set of clothes I owned in the bathtub each night. I’d then bake them for an hour in the oven, before hanging them up in front of a box fan that some tenant had thankfully left behind. Since there was still no heat or hot water, taking a bath meant I had to heat pans of water on the stove and then ferry them to the tub, one at a time.

Sensing I might be stuck in Harlem for a while, I posted a notice in a neighborhood Laundromat and soon had a new roommate named Leon who was (coincidentally) also Native American and a jazz musician. Three nights later, I came home to discover Leon having sex with a woman in the middle of the floor. In the morning, I was introduced to Cheryl, his ex-wife (also Native American) who had apparently moved in with us. I actually liked Leon and Cheryl and the next few days were sort of fun until Jenny showed up again. Her engagement now over (big surprise) she needed a place to crash. My heart sank when Jenny spotted Leon. Clearly, it was love at first sight. Cheryl, however, had staked a previous claim, so things got a little tense in "the room" for a while. Finally, after about ten days, Jenny made new living arrangements and I never saw her again, although I later heard she returned to Austin.

Miraculously, I found an affordable sublet on a bulletin board in the East Village, but didn’t tell Leon or Cheryl until the last possible second for fear that they might come with me. Since I couldn’t afford a cab, I moved myself, my suitcases, a lamp (and a twin bed from the Harlem apartment) downtown piece-by-piece on the subway. Because I had to change trains and then walk nine blocks into Alphabet Town, it took all night.

My new apartment (also in a slightly dodgy neighborhood) at least had hot water and heat. My temp job had turned into a regular gig and although my salary wasn’t princely, I knew I could manage the rent. The apartment was on the top floor of a six floor walk-up with windows that faced north, so it got lots of light. I had now been in New York for five rugged weeks, but I had survived. Wrapped in a blanket, I celebrated my 21st birthday, sitting on my fire escape, drinking a beer and staring out at the lights of the city; certain that I had proven myself. If I could make it here, I’d make it anywhere. Come on, come through, New York, New York.

Copyright 2008 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, May 11, 2009

Coming Attractions

In case you hadn’t noticed, the summer movie season is now upon us and so is the annual onslaught of movie marketing. According to a recent article in the L.A. Times, the studios are about to embark on the costliest summer for marketing ever. At least a dozen big-budget pictures are about to be unleashed upon moviegoers, most with worldwide marketing budgets that will top $100 million. I’m guessing these costly campaigns are based on the fact that ticket sales are actually up 17.3 % this year as people, worried about losing their jobs and homes, are crowding into movie theatres to watch something big and expensive explode. Makes sense to me. Movies reassure us. And there’s nothing more reassuring than massive destruction (on screen).

As we all know, making movies is an expensive and risky business. You can assemble an A-List team, hand them 200 million dollars and still wind up with a piece of shit. Once a studio has sunk a gigantic piece of change into producing a movie, it’s understandable that they would want to make their money back. Since I try to avoid reading reviews, I have (over time) gotten pretty good at assessing the quality of an upcoming movie based solely on the marketing. Here are few things that (if I spot in a preview) almost always make me suspicious that the film might not be so hot.

If it’s a big action movie, I tend to be wary if the preview features a lot of automobiles leaving the ground and flying through the air. God knows, I enjoy twisted metal and breaking glass as much as the next person, but usually if the trailer is light on plot and heavy on fireballs, it’s not a good sign. If it’s a sci-fi film, too many fake-looking CGI effects signal that what’s supposed to feel exciting or dangerous, probably won’t be. CGI, although a remarkable tool, still looks like CGI and it’s hard to get excited about something you can clearly see was created on a computer. And as for comedies, if the trailer features more than one shot of somebody vomiting (or falling down) I usually wait for the DVD.

Since summer movies have to be delivered on a strict schedule, sometimes certain details (like an original cohesive script) can often fall by the wayside. Once $200,000,000 has been spent, well, somebody's got to pay for it - and the studios would like that to be you and I. I’ve even heard unsubstantiated rumors that the marketing departments around town (when faced with competing turkeys) place bets with each other, and on Monday morning, somebody is declared the winner for having made the most money promoting a movie that everybody knew was crap to begin with.

Marketing is the brainchild of corporate America and the corporatization of the entertainment business has (in my humble opinion) not been such a great idea. Yes, more money has been made, but the quality of the product has suffered and audiences have (rightfully) become more suspicious of us. Plus, the whole system has made it tougher for truly talented filmmakers to score a greenlight for their projects. I’ve even heard stories of established pros requesting to pitch their films directly to the marketing department first since that’s apparently where the real power seems to lie these days.

That said, you have to hand it to the folks who sell movies. When marketing works, it’s almost unstoppable. I remember when I first saw the trailer for “Independence Day” in ’96. It was fantastically stylish and funny and ended with an alien spacecraft utterly obliterating the White House. This was, of course, back in the innocent “pre-9/11” days when such an event seemed so absurd it was hilarious. Every time I saw the preview, the audience cheered. I couldn’t wait to see that film. But when it came out, the reviews were tepid and everybody I knew who saw advanced screenings expressed disappointment. I refused to believe them! The preview had made such an imprint on my brain that I was resolved to see it. So, I did. Hence my “marketing cherry” was popped.

I’m always a little stumped as to why the movie business (unlike other industries) doesn’t strive to solve their problems by producing a better and more reliable product. In my experience that would mean having fewer people involved in the decision-making process, not more. Successful screen stories are not created by market research and trends are impossible to predict using surveys conducted in malls. What makes any piece of entertainment work is its ability to connect with people’s untapped imaginations. When you ask somebody “what do they want?” they will tell you what they enjoyed last – which will have very little bearing on what they’ll be interested in by next summer. The greatest successes in this business come when you surprise the public; and not by presenting them with a product that's been strip-mined from last year's ideas. The great showmen who once ran the studios understood that and depended on their instincts and on the inherent talent of the people they employed. Maybe someday, we’ll see a return to more creative approach, but in the meantime, tickets still need to be sold. Hence, marketing.

Happily, not everybody has cow-towed to the system. Some filmmakers still strive to control how their films are sold to the public. There is a great story about a successful female director who was so incensed when she was shown the poster and accompanying marketing campaign for her upcoming film, that she supposedly stormed up to the marketing department and confronted the head “marketeer.” Poster in hand, she went off on how misleading and downright dishonest the campaign was and how it, in no way represented the movie she’d just sacrificed the last year of her life to make. The story goes that the exec listened patiently to her tirade and then calmly replied, “I’m sorry, this is the marketing department. Were you looking for the integrity department? Because that’s now in the basement.”

Copyright 2008 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, May 3, 2009

The Panic Button

The other morning, I ran into a friend of mine at the gym, who (I can attest) is a hardworking agent who truly busts his ass for his clients. As we huffed and puffed on the treadmill, we talked about how slow the business had been lately. Much to my surprise, he told me that Breakdown Services (the company that disseminates all the information about what roles are currently casting in film and television), had recently informed all the agencies that they would not be charging for their services for the next few weeks. The reason for this was that there were virtually no jobs to publicize. This sent a chill through me. A great many of us operate on the assumption that there is actual work out there somewhere; shiny pearls of employment that might pay our bills and provide us with nifty things like health insurance. The idea that the magic job well might have (at least temporarily) dried up was a scary thought. God knows, I’d been stoking my own artistic fires with the assumption that things were about to improve any day now.

Sobering honesty seems to be “the new black” here in Hollywood. A few weeks ago, a viral letter landed in the inboxes of almost every actor in town. Supposedly written by a CAA agent to his clients; it outlined the grim employment prospects for non-celebrity actors for the next year or so. Some of it wasn’t exactly news. With production down, there were fewer roles available. Fewer roles meant that famous actors were suddenly willing to do smaller, less prestigious jobs in films and TV shows just to stay in the public eye. The mysterious agent-writer didn’t seem to think there would be much light in the tunnel until 2010. As I read it, I began to wonder if my landlord would be willing to wait that long.

Deciding to do a casual survey, I found mixed opinions on the subject. As expected, my better-known friends have indeed been reasonably busy, but so have a few of my well-established character actor buddies. However, the majority of my rank-and-file comrades have been sitting by the phone. A lot. The frustration is not just within the acting community. Everybody’s feeling it. I ran into a writer friend of mine at a wedding reception the other night and he echoed what I’ve been hearing from a lot of other scribes. Despite his best efforts (and this guy is no slouch) several of his projects have made the long climb up the studio ladder, only to be shot down as they neared the top.

I don’t honestly think our current situation can any longer be blamed on last year’s writer’s strike – or on any fears about a possible SAG strike (since there clearly isn’t going to be one). The creative minds of Hollywood have not stopped churning out new scripts and pitches. The marketplace (the creative economy of Hollywood) just seems a bit frozen with indecision. Nobody wants to make a costly mistake.

The possibility of a serious employment drought isn’t pretty. This business is anxiety producing enough in the best of times. Speaking for myself, it conjures up images of disconnected telephones and sheriff’s deputies carrying my sofa out the front door. I know that’s a little dramatic, but (in theory) that’s what they pay me for – to dream up worst case scenarios.

Panic sucks and I don’t advise it. I’ve been on the receiving end of such calls; when a friend dials up to casually let me know that they are “available” for work (if I happen to hear of anything). I always try to lend a sympathetic ear, but what I secretly want to reply is “Guess what? Everybody’s ‘available’ for work.” If the grim predictions are in fact true, then it will no doubt be a stressful year for a lot of people. That said, I also predict a sudden burst of unprecedented creativity. We are a highly resourceful tribe of people and sometimes a little humility is good for us. It can inspire us to innovation.

Not that anybody asked me, but my advice is to make sure your basic needs are taken care of; then forge ahead with whatever your heart is telling you to do artistically. The tides will turn back. Given the state of the world, people (now more than ever) could use a little distraction. Try to remember that artists have a certain responsibility to keep it together and offer some kind of sane and entertaining reflection of the lives that people are living. So before you renew that Xanax prescription, put your mind to creating a little something today. Inspire yourself. Plant some seeds. Give ‘em some water and be patient. Things happen.

Copyright 2008 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