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/