Sunday, November 29, 2009

Giving Some Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Adaptable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Friends Indeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Opinion Piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

Running on Empty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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