Monday, January 25, 2010

The History of Drama (Part 9): A Serious Man

"The History of Drama" is sort of an on-line memoir I'm writing about how I oddly became an actor and writer. See previous chapter links in the right hand side bar.

Last night, I sat and watched the students in my acting class do some very good work. I’ve been blessed with a very gifted and unique group this time out and for me, there’s no more pleasant way to spend an evening than working with talented artists. As I walked home, I couldn’t help but flash back on my days as an acting student. It seems impossible that it's now been over twenty-five years since I first studied, but it has. From an emotional standpoint, it still feels like yesterday.

I had only been in New York for about a year when I first got wind of the legendary acting teacher William Esper. Bill was the heir apparent to the even more legendary Sanford Meiser and getting into one of his classes was no easy feat. There was no audition process. Instead you had to interview with him and even getting the interview was tricky. I started calling his studio and leaving numerous messages until finally a somewhat unfriendly assistant returned my call. To say this guy had an attitude would be an understatement. Apparently not just anybody got in to see his majesty. Only the “serious” need apply.

In those days, I tended to meet attitude with more attitude, so I made it plain that my intention was to schedule an interview with Mr. Bill Esper, not to be quizzed on my seriousness by some loser-assistant. However sensing I was about to be hung up on, I finally knuckled-under and did a little song and dance about how dedicated I was to the craft of acting. Blah, blah, blah. Three days, later I got a rather condescending message from the assistant informing me that I'd been granted an audience with the Pope -- and to be on time.

Up until this point, I had been operating on sheer ego. All I knew was there was some kind distinction between me and this class of “elite” acting students and I wanted to crash through it. I was a spunky kid, but my track record for finishing the things I started was sort of spotty. The other problem was that I was working at a rather low wage job and didn’t even know how much the classes would cost. However like Scarlett O’Hara, I decided I’d worry about that tomorrow. First things first.

When the day of my interview arrived, I wanted to make a good impression, so I carefully dressed in the worst looking T-shirt I owned and jeans that had paint stains on them. This was part of my tortured, young, “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” persona and I felt it would make me look more “serious” in the eyes of Mr. Esper. I had also heard on the grapevine that he didn’t take students under the age of 25 and I was only 22 at the time. So to get things off to a great start, when I arrived and was handed an application to fill-out, I lied about my date of birth, inching my age up to 24. In hindsight, I doubt I was fooling anybody. At the time, I was six feet tall, weighed about 140 pounds and looked like I might be a junior in high school. (see photo to the right!)

When my name was called, I was suddenly swept over with a case of nerves. Acting teachers in New York are almost required to have guru status so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. As it turned out, the great Esper was a chunky, 50ish man with a slight New Jersey accent. Seated behind his battered desk, he seemed more like a working class regular Joe; a gentle soul who sort of reminded me of my father. I instantly relaxed when I discovered that the interview had nothing to do with the lofty art of acting. Instead, it merely consisted of a series of easy-to-answer questions like where I was from? How long had I lived in New York? How did I like the city? etc. In fact, it all seemed too easy. I began to get suspicious.

Feeling I needed to make a stronger impression, I started steering the conversation toward my lofty goals as an artist and how badly I wanted to get into this class. Bill smiled patiently and instead of addressing any of my concerns, got down to brass tacks. The class met twice a week. I would be expected to put in rehearsal time with my scene partner and the class would cost $160.00 a month. Would I be able to afford that? A small knot formed in my stomach as it occurred to me that I barely had the subway fare to get home from this interview. I smiled weakly. “Yes,” I lied. “Sure. No problem.”

Then the great one shifted his weight back into his chair and looked directly into my eyes. It was the first time I would experience the legendary Esper “gaze.” Hard to describe, I can only say that Bill had a unique gift for conveying the non-verbal message "Let’s cut the bullshit here.” “Why do you want to be an actor?” he asked. Out of all the questions he could have asked me, this was the one I was least prepared to answer. Fear swept over me. A lump formed in my throat. I was getting my first taste of why Bill was such a tremendous teacher. It wasn’t so much what he had asked me, but “how” he had said it. Suddenly, the question had weight. Here I was, asking for admission into the world of being “a serious artist” and I’d never been serious about anything in my life. Now, I was being asked the big question; the one that would determine everything. I felt like I was on an elevator that was plunging to the bottom of my 22 year-old soul – a place I would later learn, where all truth is stored. I cleared my throat and a completely unexpected answer came out of my mouth. “Because I don’t like being myself.”

A small, almost imperceptible smile curled up the side of the great one’s mouth. I couldn’t tell if he was pleased or bemused by my answer. Turning his eyes back to my application, he scribbled a note in the margin and mumbled something about how his assistant would be contacting people later in the week regarding who would be admitted into the class. Clearly, my interview was over, but I couldn’t move. For the first time in my life, I’d revealed myself, but had no idea whether it had helped or hurt my cause. Unable to take the suspense, I asked, “Did I get in?” Bill gave me a fatherly, non-committal smile and stood up. “We’ll see,” he said and shook my hand. The walk from his desk to the office door felt like an eternity. I had never been so relieved to hear a door "click" shut behind me.

Two days later, I received a call from the now less-haughty assistant. I had been accepted into Bill’s class and would start my training as a professional actor the following week. I felt like I had won the Lotto! – That is until the assistant reminded me that in this particular sweepstakes, I would be the one paying them. A check for $160.00 would be due on the first day of class. I called everyone I knew and bragged about my victory. That night I celebrated with Top Ramen noodles and a beer. I had separated myself from the pack. I was “serious” now.

Copyright 2010 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, January 18, 2010

Short and Sweet

I recently discovered that a short movie I wrote and directed a few years ago, had actually been viewed by over 100,000 people on YouTube. This sort of floored me, mostly because it the odds against that little movie even being made were enormous.

Our story begins in the summer of 2005 when my life as I knew it had capsized. Without going into all the gory details, I’d fallen in love and followed said love back to the east coast. The move wasn’t entirely motivated by l’amour. My work life in L.A. had taken a few hits and I was beginning to wonder if maybe I should consider a mid-life career change. Then without warning, the bottom dropped out of the love boat when I discovered that the object of my affection had been rather busy every time I'd left town on a business trip.

On August 11, 2005, I found myself back in L.A. standing at my kitchen sink at 8:00 AM, wondering what the hell I was going to do now. I was broke, agent-less and emotionally devastated. Everything that was supposed to have worked out; everything that I’d tried so hard to manage and cajole out of my life had evaporated. I knew in order to rebuild on this dung heap, the first thing I needed was a job. However, landing a job meant finding a new agent. Finding a new agent meant writing a new spec script. Writing a new script would require an enormous amount of time, commitment and energy (and a very good idea). None of which I had at the moment. I was fucked.

Then as I stood there wondering if I could scape together enough parking change to purchase a handgun, something very strange happened. A story idea popped into my head. It was something that had been rattling around in my head for a while, but it had never fully taken shape until that moment. It was a clever concept for a mistaken identity comedy. I knew it wasn’t enough to sustain a full-length movie, but it could easily make a nice little short film. As the plot began to crystallize in my mind, something even more remarkable happened. I laughed. I laughed out loud. Something I hadn’t done once in the three weeks since returning to L.A.

For the next few minutes, I stood frozen at the sink, fighting off the idea. Short movies were for film students, not reasonably mature writers like myself. Plus, I didn’t know where next month’s rent was coming from; how the hell would I pay for it? The agony I was already experiencing spiked as I realized how miserably trapped I felt. Anger rose up in me, and out of nowhere I heard myself shouting “Jesus Christ, David! What the hell else are you doing today? Go upstairs and write the fucking thing!” By 10:00 pm that night, I was staring at a 15-page script for a short film called “Available Men.”

Sitting in my darkened office, I now had a script; and a pretty damn funny script, if I do say so myself. But given how emotionally wrecked I was, I wondered if I was deluding myself. Maybe it was crap. To test my theory, I emailed it to three writer-friends and fell into bed. When I got up late the next morning, all three of my friends had replied; and each had essentially said the same thing: “You should make this film.” I stared at the responses and considered all the daunting budgetary and logistical problems -- the biggest one being the fact that I’d never actually directed anything before. However, by nightfall, I found myself repeating those fateful words again: “Jesus, David! What the hell else are you doing?”

A chain of small miracles began to occur. One of the writers who had encouraged me called the following day and offered me five grand to make the movie. I was floored, but realized that I was being offered a lifeboat and I could either take it or drown in indecision and doubt. A few days later, the deal was sealed when an unexpected residual check arrived. I began to believe that I might now enough cash to make a bare-bones version of the script. I felt excited, but insane. I was spending money I might need for groceries next month. But given how utterly desperate the situation was, I literally had very little to lose. Apparently, I was now going to make a movie. My movie.

I got on the phone. And I stayed on the phone, begging and borrowing, conning and cajoling until thirty days later, I found myself on-set, sitting in the director's chair. I was surrounded by an all-volunteer cast and crew made up of both old friends and total strangers. Miraculously, I’d managed to corral a very talented group of producers, designers and actors (most of whom were far more qualified to direct this film than me). As each one joined the team, I had laid my cards on the table. Wearing my ignorance on my sleeve, I'd made it clear that there would be only one rule during our extremely brief two-day shoot. They were allowed to ask me anything they wanted as long as it was a multiple choice question. I would live and die by my decisions, but there was no time for me to magically gain directorial expertise before we started shooting. That turned out to be the single most important and best decision I could have made. Ninety-five percent of the film was shot in one grueling 13-hour day and I’m still astounded that we pulled it off. The next day we shot the exteriors in less than 6 hours. That night as I collapsed on my sofa with eight mini-cassettes of digital film in my lap, the whole thing felt like a dream. But the job was far from over.

I put my head down and with a will of iron, hammered through editing and post-production. Ninety days later, I screened “Available Men” at the Sunset Screening rooms with an invited audience of friends. To make a long story short: They laughed. I cried. And the next day, my phone started to ring. Over the next 18 months, “Available Men,” would screen in over 130 film festivals and win 17 awards. It received distribution, brought me a new manager, a new screenwriting gig and inadvertently was responsible for my winding up with a reoccurring acting gig on a TV show. It got me in the running for two directing jobs and reinvented me as a comedy writer. Considering its final budget was a paltry nine-thousand bucks, it was money well spent.

When I watch it now, all I see are the mistakes, but I remain proud of it (especially the hilarious work done by the cast, who couldn’t have been better). Making the short represented a turning point for me personally and professionally and reminded me of the transformative power of creativity and the importance of occassionally sticking your neck out. At the time I shot it, I didn’t think the story of “Available Men” had anything to do with what was happening with me personally at the time. Now, it couldn’t be clearer what was subconsciously being worked out through the making of the film. Just like the characters in the movie, sometimes you walk into a bar, looking for something (love, money, power) that you truly believe will make you happy. And sometimes those dreams crash and burn, but if you pay attention, out of the ashes can come some deeply hidden, but personally liberating truth. And truth will right the ship every time.

If you've got 15 minutes and would like a couple of good laughs, check it out on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Og-9HYAC-mk Have a good week, Hollywood.

Copyright 2010 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, January 3, 2010

2009: My Year in Review

Last year, I celebrated New Year’s the old fashioned way; in that, I went out to a club, drank too much, danced my ass off and woke up the next morning in bed with a stranger. I hadn’t done anything like that in several decades and was sort of shocked that it was even still possible. This New Year’s was spent at home with a close friend, gorging on leftover Christmas cookies while watching “Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year’s Eve” and thinking how amazingly quick a year a year can go by.

The other day, when I was standing in line at the grocery store, flipping throught the pages of People Magazine's "Year in Review" edition, I had a surprisingly deep thought. It occurred to me that the whole concept of time is something we humans made up. Our lives aren’t really measured in calendar days, but in how we spend those days. This, of course, led me to think a little about how my 2009 was spent. If measured by accomplishments or financial gain, it wasn’t that great, but if measured in change, it was one for the record books.

In January, I read a piece I'd written at Sit N Spin, a writer’s showcase at the Comedy Central Stage and luckily for me, I knocked it out of the park. Over the past year, I’ve become sort of a regular there and it’s now one of my favorite things to do. When you write screenplays for a living, you get somewhat detached from your audience. Sadly, I’d forgotten the importance of actually hearing people laugh. January was also the month I started teaching an acting workshop. Although I was initially of terrified of the idea, it turned out to be enormously rewarding. I didn't anticipate that teaching would offer such an amazing opportunity to learn. Who’d have thunk it?

February brought a bunch of meetings, mostly on TV projects that never went anywhere. My goal was to crack the ever burgeoning cable market, but I found pitching TV shows elusive particularly since nobody wanted any new ideas. On Valentine's Day, my book agent emailed me to say that my artfully-crafted proposal (based on this blog) had been turned down by yet another publisher. This was the first of six or seven similar emails she would send me during the course of the year, all of them saying that the editors had “really enjoyed my writing” and encouraging me to send them "my next idea."

In March, I did a little mentoring with a very talented young writer who I met in a workshop a few years ago. By year’s end, I wound up doing quite a bit of this sort of thing with several different writers. I’m always shocked to be asked my advice, but do my best to step up, since long ago, more experienced writers did the same for me. The acting monster reared its head around St. Patrick's Day when I was cast as an Anthrax-spreading psychopath on “Criminal Minds.” It was an odd gig since you didn’t hear my voice or see my face until the end of the episode. The good news is this allowed me to do some wonderfully subtle acting using my only back, shoes and hands.

April and May brought more meetings, more pitches and a couple of personal milestones including my 50th birthday. Turning 50 was one of those things I never really thought would happen to me. Some part of my psyche dug in its heels around age 35 and I’ve never quite dislodged it. Happily, according to the results of my annual physical (which I always have around my birthday) I’m in great shape and have the body of a 48 year-old, so that’s good news. Odd to think, I’ve lived half a century, but apparently I have.

June was a big month for being “in attendance.” Weddings, funerals, union meetings (which can sometimes feel like funerals). Plus, I lent my face and voice to a PSA in an effort to help repeal the heinous Prop. 8 which, when it passed in 2008, rolled California’s civil rights record back a few decades.

In July, I acted in an independent movie which will probably never see the light of day and went to a screening of another independent movie I shot back in 2008 (which will also probably never see the light of day). I taught an on-camera workshop in Michigan and sat on a film festival jury where I gleefully passed judgment on the work of others. July also brought a very unhappy event when my literary manager called to tell me he was leaving the business.

August was mostly spent in denial. I hate looking for new representation. It pushes all my buttons and makes me crazy, so I distracted myself by co-writing a comedy short with a friend and got all political again; this time campaigning vigorously for a moderate slate of SAG candidates (about half of which won). August also brought me a miracle comparable to the virgin birth, when not one, but three reasonably large residual checks all arrived on the same day!

By early September, a terrific new manager was in place and for the first time in eons, I auditioned for (and was cast in) a stage play. This coincided with a friend inviting me to participate in an underground comedy show called “Streep Tease” where male actors performed monologues from Meryl Streep movies. The latter proved to be a huge sold-out hit and is coming back in February for a four-week run!

In October, I had one of those odd “first-time-for-everything” experiences when the director of a script I’d written asked me to read his rewrite of it and give suggestions. After mulling it over for a day or so, I decided to do it. It was an oddly emotional experience, but time has taught me that letting go of what you originally had in mind is the only path toward progress. Since I do care about the project’s future, I sucked it up and managed to give a few reasonably objective notes on how to sharpen up the material before it went into the studio.

By November, my new manager had me firmly back on the meeting circuit and I now had several pitches to prepare. A scene from a script I’d written was read in a showcase at the WGA and went over like gangbusters. By mid-month, I was asked to lend my face and voice to short promo for the SAG foundation that will be broadcast during the SAG awards. Don’t blink or you’ll miss me.

2009 wrapped up two final surprises. The first one came when my acting agency did a little end-of-the-year housecleaning, and I was swept out the door with a few other "low-earners." It was a bit traumatic at the time, but within two days I was at a better agency, so it all worked out. The second surprise came when I decide to reenter the dating market and on my first attempt, met someone very nice that I’ve hanging out with for about a month now. It’s a little soon to be sending out the wedding announcements, but it's been nice to have my faith renewed that such things as mutual attraction still exist. Even at age 50.

This morning, I sat in the pew of my wildly progressive Methodist church and listened to our minister give a really lovely sermon on the subject of resolutions. She made several great suggestions about things to consider in the New Year, but the one that truly struck me was “Carpe Diem.” Like a lot of people, I can be guilty of regretting the past and frequently waste valuable time fantasizing about how great the future could be if everyone would just cooperate with me. So after some consideration, “Seize the Day,” is the only resolution I’m making for 2010. And I’m feeling quite happy about 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/