Sunday, December 27, 2009

A New New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tis the Season...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fresh Cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, December 7, 2009

Showing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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