Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hollywood Heart

I’ll admit it. Teenagers scare me. Not in the sense that I think they’re actually going to do me any bodily harm, but I never know what to say to them. I always feel like some dufus uncle who can only ask “How’s school going?” or comment on how much they’ve grown. Plus, I was lousy at being a teenager. It was a miserable period of my life that I couldn’t wait to be over. All I ever wanted was to be a grown-up.

All of those feelings were churning around inside me as I drove up the extremely intimidating mountain road to the “Hollywood Heart” camp in northern Malibu last week. The sun was setting, and I was getting concerned that I’d never spot the large menorah where I was supposed to turn left (and off this terrifying road). A friend had asked if I would volunteer to teach an acting workshop for the campers who would range from 15–20 years in age. The week-long camp was established over 15 years ago to offer art and performance classes to kids from all over the country who are either HIV positive or whose lives are being directly affected by the disease in some way.

As I inched my Honda around the next hair pin turn, I couldn’t help wondering why a bunch of Jews (the most practical people I know) would have built a camp in this staggeringly remote location. Then I arrived and it all became clear. Perched high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, the views were spectacular and breathing in the cool ocean air instantly filled me with serenity. I pulled my corduroy jacket out of my car and slung my computer bag over my shoulder. I checked my appearance in the car window. I looked sort of like a teacher. Well, close enough. Following the signs, I made my way to the camp’s office where my temperature was taken (“a precaution against swine flu,” I was told) and was informed about the camp’s “Three’s Company” rule which basically meant that you should never allow yourself to be left alone with an underage camper. “Got it. No problem.” I replied.

I was then introduced to the camp’s workshop coordinator who asked if I would be willing to say a few inspirational words during dinner. Although, I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed, I agreed. Soon, I was ushered into the dining hall where 50 high-energy teenagers were gorging themselves. Not having been in a high school cafeteria for several millennia, I had sort of forgotten what the decibel level was like. Seated with a few of the kids and one of the college-age counselors, I made a stab at conversation, but eventually gave up since I’ve never been very good at lip-reading.

After giving my inspirational talk (which lasted maybe a minute), it was time to teach my class. The camp was offering many workshops for the kids to choose from (including cool things like a drum circle and hip-hop dance). I’d sort of pictured myself teaching a bunch of giggly girls and maybe a gay kid or two, but instead, I wound up with a small group of all boys who, having just ingested a generous portion of carbs, had energy to burn. My original game plan had included having the campers read a short scene from a play called “Golden Boy,’ but the scene I’d selected was a “boy-girl” scene, so that was now out the window. Plus my group seemed to have more than its share of comedians and keeping their attention for more than 30 seconds at a time, proved challenging. Initially, I tried a few theatre games, but then segued into some improv exercises which went a little better. I also learned an invaluable teaching lesson – engage the alpha dogs and the rest of the pack will follow.

The most poignant moment came when we were doing an improv exercise where one of my campers, a very shy African-American kid named “Kenneth” (not his real name) seemed reluctant to raise his voice or express any anger, even though in the improv we were doing, he’d been stood up by his study partner (who didn’t seem very sorry about it).

Kenneth shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I’m not a angry person.” he said. “That's okay,” I replied. “Neither am I, but sometimes it’s fun to pretend to get mad. In real life when we get mad and yell, sometimes that causes problems, but that’s the great part about acting. It’s all pretend. Nobody gets hurt.” Kenneth’s face relaxed a bit and although he never exactly got "mad," he at least seemed willing to let his scene partner know he wasn’t happy.

Finally, after 90 minutes of barely-controlled chaos, 8:30 arrived and the campers were herded away to their rooms to get ready for a dance that was planned that night in the cafeteria. Utterly spent, I picked up my bag and shuffled out into the night air. I’d paused for a moment to take in the view of the moon over the Pacific, when a man approached and extended his hand. He introduced himself as one of the founders of the camp and thanked me for volunteering.

Although this guy clearly didn’t recognize me, I certainly remembered him. He was a former studio executive who, eight years earlier, had shut down a movie I had worked my ass off on. “Hi,” I said, “Nice to see you again." I then explained how we happened to know each other. Not only did he not remember me, he didn’t remember the movie. Finally when I mentioned the name of one of the producers, he perked up a little. “Wow,” he said with an awkward shrug. “That was a long time ago, huh?” “Yes, it was,” I replied. Although the demise of the project had been a bitter pill at the time, it seemed sort of silly now as I listened to the shrieks and peals of laughter coming from the cabins. When I told my former employer how impressed I was with the camp, he replied that he was very proud of how, not only was it a great experience for the kids, but it also gave Hollywood people a chance to “not act like Hollywood people.” I agreed.

As I drove back down the scary (and now dark) road, I wondered if I’d actually managed to teach anything in my workshop. Probably not. But I was at least proud of my little inspirational talk during dinner. As I looked out at that sea of incredibly “unfinished” young people, I tried to remember who I was at that age and what I might have been able to absorb through my twin layers of insecurity and bravado. This isn’t exactly word-for-word, but basically what I said was this:

“You know some people go through their whole lives without ever really using their creativity much. They just look at life as this set of problems that somebody handed them and feel like there’s really nothing they can do about it except try to get by. What’s so great about a camp like this is that you get to come here and experience all kinds of cool stuff like music and art and acting and dance. And you get to use the most valuable thing we human beings possess: our imaginations. And the best part is that you don’t have to stop using your imagination when you leave this camp. You can apply it to anything in your life. To a job. To a relationship. To school. To your future. Always remember, you never have to just accept a situation and say “Oh, that’s just how it is.” If you use your imagination, you can say “Well, maybe that’s how it is now, but this is how it could be.” And that’s the beginning of having a game plan. And having a game plan is how you make changes. And the ability to make changes is secret to having a great life!”

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, August 24, 2009

Out of the Blue

By the late 1990’s, I was on a roll. I’d finally begun to land screenwriting jobs at studios. Soon, my first movie was produced. For next few years, I worked steadily. I got rid of my old car, took some very nice vacations and threw some kick-ass parties. For the first time in my life, caterers were cleaning up the mess instead of me. It was in many respects, quite a nice run. However something else happened during that time that I hadn’t expected. I experienced my first real bout of depression.

At first I chalked it up to the inherent disappointments that come along with being a screenwriter. Despite mostly rave reviews from my employers, the scripts I was writing were not getting made. In some cases the process of them “not getting made” went on for years. A dizzying parade of directors and movie stars came and went. Each personnel change required a new rewrite. My expectations ebbed and flowed. And so did my emotions. I knew that on some level I was successful. After all, I was working. The checks were coming in. That must mean something. But there was never any sense of completion. Each time I left one project to move on to the next, I felt like I was rowing away in a lifeboat, while a gigantic chunk of my time and talent was slowing sinking beneath the waves.

Soon, I had fewer and fewer ideas that I felt enthusiastic about. I began killing my offspring in the cradle. Why bother to even type them up, much less go out and pitch them. They probably wouldn’t sell. And if they did sell it would just result in another huge runaround. In the end there would be no movie. Plus, no one (not even the well-established producers I was now working with) seemed to know what they were doing. I started unconciously deflecting work.

Finally, my then-manager called and confronted me. “You’re depressed,” he said. “Get some help.” He suggested I see his acupuncturist; a very nice Chinese guy who stuck a few needles in me and sent me home with a bagful of scary-looking roots. I was instructed to boil them into a dark tea and keep drinking it for the next six months. I lasted about two days, largely because the tea tasted like it had been brewed from a tennis shoe. I looked for other options. I joined a church, and although I liked a lot of what they had to say, it didn’t exactly lighten my mood. I found a therapist, who asked if I wanted to kill myself. “Hell, no!” I replied. “I may hate my life, but I don’t want to end it.” She then sent me to a psychiatrist on the Westside who I basically liked, but had an annoying habit of playing his ponytail while we talked. He felt I was “mildly depressed” and suggested I try a course of Wellbutrin.

The Wellbutrin made me feeling like I’d had eight cups of espresso. I had lots of energy but zero focus. By the end of the first week, my house was cluttered with half-finished projects. I stayed on the drug for almost two years before finally realizing that it was not doing much for the core issue. Despite the fact that I was still steadily working, my life didn’t seem to have a lot of direction. I wrote checks to charities. I voted in every election. I over-tipped waiters. But somehow, my life felt rudderless. I was looking for a purpose; something I could latch onto.

That drive to "make something happen" led to a disastrous romance. When it derailed (in blindingly spectacular way) it shook me to my core. Coincidentally, just as my relationship ended, so did the wave I'd been riding professionally. Overnight, I was jobless and out of fashion. The money was gone and I didn’t have a clue what to do next. Then something very strange happened. I wrote and directed a short film. And that film (which became a hit on the festival circuit) gave me back something I had lost along the way: an audience. Suddenly, I was hearing people laugh at lines that I had actually written. It was like rain in the desert. It changed the course of my career and my life.

It’s funny what you can forget along the way. When I was twenty years-old, I sold everything I owned, hopped a Greyhound bus and headed for New York to pursue my dream of being a actor. Given that it was going to be a 48-hour bus ride, I decided I wanted something challenging to read. I picked up a copy of Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice and Other Stories” and settled into my slightly stained bus seat. I dug into the title story and (at age 20) was singularly unimpressed by it. The idea of some middle-aged dude becoming so obsessed with a beautiful kid that he dies from it, seemed sort of lame to me. But the next story in the collection, “Tonio Kruger” oddly drew me in.

Without going into all the details, it's basically the story of an artist who visits his childhood home and experiences an epiphany about the nature of talent. “Tonio” realizes that possessing talent means being born into this life blessed / cursed with these very sensitive antennae. Like a giant sponge, you walk around soaking up all the dreams and disappointments of virtually everyone you encounter. As another intimidating writer, Christopher Isherwood, once put it, you become “a camera,” a first-person witness to all this drama, but completely unable to affect its course in any way. Add that to your own life experience and before long, you become seriously overloaded by all this emotional weight. Eventually it starts to drag you down and you become, like Tonio, “melancholy.” According to Mr. Mann’s story, the artist’s only salvation lies in using that unwanted knowledge to create something -- a painting, a story, a piece of music, a performance. In short, by using it, you become free of it. And even more miraculously, if your art is any good, when an audience experiences it, they see or feel or hear a bit of their own story in it – and are freed of their emotional baggage as well. So it’s a win-win for everybody.

The “Tonio Kruger” method is the simplest, smartest recipe for mental health I’ve ever heard. And I had totally forgotten it. Writing a screenplay can be very lucrative and even fun, but in the end, a very small number of people will ultimately decide its fate (and about half of them you will never even meet). In the last three years, I’ve made a very conscious decision to make sure that in addition to writing for a living, I do a little writing for myself. Whether it is through this blog, magazine columns or through “spoken word” evenings, I make sure I get my voice (such as it is) out there. Like it or not, my sanity depends on hearing somebody laugh once in a while. Getting the occassional hostile email from a lunatic reader is good for me. Every once and a while, I need to throw a rock and hear a little glass break.

So whatever it is you do, Hollywood, get yourself out there and do it. Find that open mike. Tune up that guitar. Steal yourself some applause as often as you can. Heed my warning, fellow traveler; it is easy to sink beneath the sand. Believe me when I tell you it gets cold out there in the desert at night. Don’t let the fire go out.

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, August 16, 2009

State of the Union

My adrenaline spiked a little when I spotted the pale green envelope in my mailbox. “Money!” I thought. It was a logical assumption since the Writer’s Guild of America always sends out their residual checks in these lovely wintergreen envelopes. I was slightly disappointed to discover that instead of a check, it was a little missive from my other union, the Screen Actors Guild, containing a ballot and a form letter recommending that I vote to approve our new and long-delayed TV and film contract. As I checked the “yes” box, I couldn’t help but reflect on the 18-month circus that had finally led to this small slip of paper. If the events hadn’t been so damaging, they would have been hilarious. In case you haven’t been following the saga, here are just a few of the highlights:

Our story opens with a bizarre open letter from SAG’s former National Executive Director, Doug Allen, attacking sister union AFTRA just months before we were supposed to start joint negotiations with them. The pissed-off AFTRA leadership then broke ranks and (much to the studios' delight) negotiated a wonderfully lame contract of their own. When a more moderate faction of the SAG board (AKA “Unite for Strength”) then tried to fire Mr. Allen, SAG President Alan Rosenberg and his hard-line “Membership First” cronies all but declared civil war. This led to Mr. Rosenberg's now famous 28-hour, boardroom filibuster to block the firing. His opponents, however, found a constitutional loophole, stormed the executive offices and fired Mr. Allen anyway - not once, but twice. The following morning, Mr. Rosenberg felt moved to write a folk song about the incident and posted it on YouTube. As if that wasn't punishment enough, he then joined forces with SAG's 1st Vice President, Anne-Marie Johnson and a few other fire-breathing cohorts and together filed a lawsuit against their own union to reinstate Mr. Allen. This being an organization run by actors, none of the participants was particularly shy about issuing statements to the press, which quickly turned SAG’s internal strife into a big, embarrassing and very public soap opera.

At the peak of this shit-slinging contest, I attended one of the “informational meetings” held at the Harmony Gold Theatre in Hollywood. Mr. Rosenberg opened the meeting by stating that although we might be “walking in here as a union divided, we were going to walk out of this auditorium in complete solidarity.” That wasn’t exactly what happened. Instead, some none-too-subtle pressure was applied for us to approve a strike authorization which would have effectively handed the equivalent of a small nuclear bomb to a bunch of extremely pissed-off people. To hear our leadership tell it, the AMPTP was now being run by Darth Vader and if we didn’t act now, the entire empire would be lost. As a veteran of the recent WGA strike, I wondered why SAG thought they were going to prevail in obtaining a superior contract when all of their sister unions had failed. As various rabid strike enthusiasts took the microphone to rant against the forces of darkness, the whole event began to take on the feeling of a “McCain-Palin” rally (i.e. a lost cause covered in a thick, sugary coating of nostalgia for the good old days).

All of this hysteria was, of course, being fueled by that sign of the apocalypse, “New Media.” It’s no secret that the coming of New Media has already started altering the economics of the industry. The question on the table is (and will always be) the future of residuals. The original template for paying residuals came about in the late 1950’s and early 60’s when ideas like Cable TV, DVR’s, Blu-Ray and the Internet sounded like something from “The Jetsons.” There were exactly three TV networks to choose from and every night, every American sat down and dutifully watched at least three full hours of whatever was on. This huge captive audience was an advertising gold mine and the networks were raking it in. To their credit, the unions realized it was the perfect time to step up and demand a piece of that gargantuan pie. Not wanting to interrupt the torrential cash flow, the networks and studios saw the wisdom of cutting them a slice. Those were also the Golden Days when entertainment companies were actually entertainment companies -- as opposed to now, when most of the studios and networks are just divisions of much larger conglomerates who view their broadcasting or movie-making divisions as just one small asset out of many.

As I sat in the Harmony Gold, I wondered if SAG was keeping up with the times. In truth, labor unions all over the country are finding their effectiveness eroding. Public sentiment, once largely on the side of labor, has cooled. When I was walking the picket line in the WGA strike, I got used to the occasional “Fuck you” being hurled at us by passing cars. Apparently, there are a few folks out there who now view unions as a bunch spoiled brats who, having long ago won a choice corner of the sandbox, don’t want to share an inch of it with anybody. Lest we forget, unions have, over the last 70 years, played a major role in creating this country’s huge middle-class. They have stabilized lives and given workers opportunities to help their children achieve a stronger economic and educational foothold. Unions provide much needed medical insurance, create safe working conditions and can also raise a big stink (when a big stink is needed).

Unfortunately, while the SAG leadership was busy pantsing each other for the last 18 months, the economy tanked and the membership got stuck working under our old contract (with no pay raises). By some estimates, this delay may ultimately have cost SAG members upwards of 80 million dollars. Rumor has it that the guild is now operating at a substantial deficit and has had to lay off 8% of its staff. Plus, out of the 70 new pilots produced this season, 66 went to AFTRA.

Soon SAG will be electing new leadership. Membership First, in a effort to retake the castle, has lined up a slate that includes high-profile board candidates like Ed Harris, Martin Sheen and former SAG president, Ed Asner. “Unite for Strength” is running a slightly less well-known crew including Clark Gregg, Hill Harper and Michael O’Keefe. In a good year, approximately 30% of the membership ever votes and it’s a sad reality that well-known actors tend to get elected. Oddly, there is some kind of assumption that fame equals wisdom; that a star’s on-screen persona will work miracles at the bargaining table. With our current contract due to expire in 2011, I hope my fellow SAG members will keep in mind that negotiation sessions are not scripted. The good guys don’t always win. Sometimes they don’t even show up. And in my opinion, if the new SAG leadership doesn’t rapidly start taking all the painful, but necessary steps to merge with AFTRA, we are fucked.

I suspect that SAG, in addition to working hard to protect its members, will continue provide us with some lively entertainment. We are after all, a union made of people who are naturally predisposed to conflict and drama. I do hope that whoever takes the reins in the next election will keep in mind that (for now) it appears that broadcast TV, cable and movies are far from dead. New Media is already so in love with itself that I have no doubt it will keep us well-informed when it starts achieving its financial zenith. And when that day comes, I’ll be totally happy to lace up my Nikes, grab my picket sign and walk the line for as long as it takes to win the fair compensation required to allow us to keep doing the work we are meant to do: Entertaining people.

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, August 9, 2009

Hollywood's Family Affair

Other people's family fights always make me uncomfortable. That's why I cringed a little last week as I watched Ryan O'Neal's oldest son, Griffin on the Larry King show spewing a few choice memories about his nutty father. The younger O'Neal (now four years sober) pulled no punches as he told tales of being forced by his dad to do cocaine at age eleven and how supposedly, Ryan had hit on his own daughter, Tatum (at Farrah Fawcett’s funeral, no less!) When asked when he’d last seen his father, Griffin replied that it was “the night that he tried to shoot me in the face.”

In response, Ryan O’Neal has given his own interview (out in this month’s Vanity Fair), where he says the reason he hit on his own daughter was because he didn’t recognize her. Apparently, the two have not seen each other in years. Ryan (who later in the article refers to his daughter as a “bitch”) admits that he was not always the best father, but is at least maintaining a strong relationship with his youngest son by Farrah, Redmond O’Neal, whom he visits regularly in jail.

Hollywood families have been in the press a lot lately. After weeks of speculation on the fate of Michael Jackson’s children, there was a collective sigh of relief on Thursday, when their grandfather, Joe Jackson announced that at least, he would not be involved in their upbringing – This from the guy who reportedly beat young Michael and his brothers with a belt every time they missed a dance step.

Let’s face it. Being a parent is tough under the best of circumstances, but trying to raise a family in the wilds of show business carries with it some big challenges. Several mega-celebrities have opted to pull their families out of Los Angeles altogether and relocate them to slightly less dangerous territories in Montana, Colorado or the Midwest, in the hopes that their kids will not be swept into L.A.’s ever-swirling underworld of loose morals and wanton drug abuse.

I suppose what a great many famous people don’t realize at the onset is that parenting requires a great deal of the one item that most celebs don’t have much of – Time. People at the height of their careers work long hours, sometimes in distant locations for weeks (or months) at a time. The work is draining, all-consuming and doesn’t necessarily stop for inconvenient things like soccer matches or a childhood bout of the measles. The pressure to “ride the wave” leads people to think they can catch-up on their “quality time” after the film wraps or the series goes on hiatus. But in reality, children are in a constant state of change; always developing; always soaking up their values and patterns of behavior, based not on what they are being told via a crackling cell phone call, but by what they observe and experience on a daily basis. All the “I love you’s” in the world don’t mean much when you only see your parents at breakfast every other week or so. Unable to man the fort themselves, well-meaning celebs frequently hire dutiful stand-ins like nannies, housekeepers and assistants who do their best to create some kind of stability, but eventually these folks move on, leaving the kids to start over with a new employee who is ostensibly hired to “care.”

The other oft-ignored reality is that some of the qualities that make a person a wonderful artist don’t necessarily make them a great spouse or parent. Talent requires enormous commitment. And it usually comes with a healthy amount of ego and competitiveness attached. Opting for a career in show business can lead to a very prolonged adolescence and a life forever governed by all those fabulous rules from high school - like "Who’s the most popular this week?" or "Who got invited to the prom?" Honing your talent sometimes means giving over to a certain degree of self-absorption; which can in turn lead to a sense that you are the center of the universe and all those around you (including your offspring) are merely satellites orbiting your general fabulousness.

Truthfully, I’m grateful that my parents were not famous. Dean and Ruth were regular, working-class joes, who were always around, day-in and day-out. By the time I was a teenager, I sort of resented their unrelenting presence, but in hindsight I’ve come to appreciate that when I was at my most formative, they hammered a few values into me that have proven handy to have in the murky world of show business.

I recently saw a TV interview with the remarkable Stevie Nicks (still gorgeous and going strong at age sixty). When asked why she’d never married or had kids, she was unapologetically forthright. “I knew I wanted to be an artist and I wanted everything that came along with that. I knew I needed to be free to fly to New York on a moment’s notice and if I was married or had kids, that would have been hurtful to them. I never wanted anyone else to suffer for my choices.”

God knows there are many celebrities who have managed to raise seemingly healthy, happy families. For some, maintaining that delicate balance between the business and “real life” has worked out well, but it often requires tough choices, like occasionally dropping out of the business altogether for a few years. I remember reading an interview with Jodie Foster who was talking about her decision to forgo making movies in favor of a daily routine of picking up her kids, helping with homework and refereeing unruly family dinners. When asked why she didn’t hire a staff to take care of those duties, she replied, “What would be the point of that? Isn’t that the reason you have children? So you can take care of them.”

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, August 2, 2009

Not What I Had In Mind

In 2006, I met a young filmmaker at a film festival who had just exited USC with a highly stylized short film that he was very proud of. I never saw his film, but he described it to me as being in the German Expressionist style. Needless to say, he was excited that his work was finally getting seen by industry professionals, instead of being trashed by fellow students or graded by instructors. Like all newbies, his enthusiasm was running high. Over the last couple of years, we’d traded a few emails, but last week, when he contacted me and asked if we could grab a coffee, I suspected I knew what was up.

There’s something sort of adorable about young filmmakers. They are such optimists and I always hate seeing them take their first beating by the big dominatrix we call Hollywood. My young friend looked a little glum when I met him at a local coffee house. Now three years out of film school, he had (in order to pay rent) careened from one production job to the next. Smart and industrious, he had been well-liked by his employers. In fact, the company he was currently working for had just offered him a promotion. The last three years had given him a tremendous amount of experience with the ever-exploding world of film technology. But the problem was that his dream of actually making films seemed to be quickly slipping away. He confessed that for the first time in his young life, he felt directionless; like he was just being swept along, possibly toward a career path that he didn’t really want. It was a familiar story.

Filmmaking is a tough art form. Unfortunately, films (even little films shot with minimal production values) are surprisingly expensive. Even if you manage to shoot a compelling story set in your living room and starring your friends, soon you are faced with post-production costs, reproducing DVD’s and shelling out entry fees for film festivals. And big festivals tend to frown on films shot on your cell phone. The competition is stiff and these days, how a film looks is now an almost bigger factor than the actual content.

As a starting point, I asked my young friend what exactly he wanted to do in the film business. Some of his plans sounded a bit idealistic. He wanted to make films that mattered. He didn’t want to make “Transformers 8.” I can understand. Very few of us do. The longer I remain in the business, the less I want to write (or go see) films that feature long blasts of machine gun fire or someone vomiting in the bushes. As much as my friend still wanted to make his mark as an artist, it was also clear that he was getting tired of being poor.

I asked him to give me specific examples of what sort of films he wanted to make. His slightly convoluted answer seemed to indicate that he wanted to make films that had never been made before. That’s when I lowered boom: Everything (well, almost everything) has been done before. Reinventing the wheel is a tough thing to do. I began to press him about what he did well. What did he actually like to do? What were his strengths?

We soon got down to brass tacks about how, although he liked to come up with stories, he didn’t particularly like to sit down and write them. He was good at structure, but wasn’t great when it came to fleshing out a story with characters, events and dialogue. I suggested that what he probably needed was a writing partner; someone with a skill set that complimented his own. Maybe a person who was imaginative, but lousy at organizing their ideas. I also asked him about his experience producing projects for the company he’d been working for. He said he’d really enjoyed it and felt he was good at it. I then suggested that if creating content didn’t pan out for him soon, maybe a producing career might be a better plan. I also encouraged him to think about the audience; something he’d never much considered. Hammering out a script is a long journey and can be exhausting. The last thing you want to discover at the end of that process is that you’ve churned a movie so quirky or narrow in scope that not even your family would want to see it.

I shared with him something that helped me enormously when I first came to Hollywood – taking a trip to Blockbuster. Strolling through the aisles, pen in hand, I would jot down the titles of movies that I’d particularly enjoyed. I’d then asked myself who had produced these films. Were they studio releases or indie projects? How much had they cost? Had the films been successful at the box office or were they lesser-known cult classics? When I hit on something that I really loved, I would ask myself “What is MY version of this story?” Little by little, I began to reshape my thinking; steering my ideas more toward the general marketplace. Before long, I started to sell my pitches to studios and I was in the game.

The last thing I left my friend with was what I think is the biggest lesson I’ve learned in Hollywood. Say “yes.” Everybody tends to come into this business with a very specific dream. Sometimes luck is with us. Other times change is the order of the day. For my money, the best game plan is to stay open to doing challenging work that uses your talents and creativity. If you came to L.A. to be an actor and find yourself working in casting, you are still in a highly creative business that requires a keen eye for talent. If your plan was to direct and you find yourself working as an editor, you’re still in a field that requires tremendous imagination and skill. Maybe you wanted to write for film, but wind up in TV, the good news is your work is being seen by millions of people every week. Not bad a deal, if you ask me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge proponent of following your dream. If you know in your heart that you were born to do a particular thing in this business, then GO FOR IT! But if years are rolling by with no real movement on that front, why let your talent go to waste? Speaking as someone who is now on my fourth career in show business, I can honestly say that (in the end) I’ve never been sorry about changing direction. And I’ve never been bored. Trust me. No Hollywood job is ever quite as satisfying or glamorous as it looks from the outside. Mostly, I’m tremendously grateful that by staying open, I’ve been able to make a living doing creative work. If you manage to find any career that allows you to do that – Congratulations! -- You have won the big prize!

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/