Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I'm Ok. You're Ok. Is That OK?

I’m Okay.  You’re Okay.  Is that Okay?

“Form is not different than emptiness.  Emptiness is not different than form.”
-The Heart Sutra

“Wherever you go, there you are.”
-Jon Kabat-Zinn

No separation.

It’s a major premise of Zen practice, that all things are one.  If you prefer Quantum Physics, think that nothing exists in a vacuum, and the thing being observed is intricately connected to the observer.

Don’t fret.  This blog post is not about Zen or Quantum Physics, because while I practice the former and am fascinated by the latter, I’m not remotely qualified to blog on either.

What I do know is that it is impossible to compartmentalize the experience that is our life, as if our life and our work are two islands with no bridge between them.

On that fateful first ride up to Canada a few years earlier, I told Maureen that my work was more than my work; it was a part of my life and it would always come first.  This isn’t something that usually leads to deepening of a relationship, but she understood.  It was not a comment on putting a relationship behind my work; in fact, there was no way to disengage the two.   That is the reason this blog, which I began as a blog on life in the indie film world, has been so entangled with my personal life.  No intelligent way to separate the two.

We were married on May 29th, 1987, and Maureen moved down to New York a week or so afterwards in an attempt to finish teaching for her school year. 

While I was starting to work more on small film projects, and old injury was catching up to me.   I had injured both ankles doing lighting design years earlier, and together with other complications, they were getting worse, to the point where I was only able to walk without a cane. 

This was a condition I had when Maureen and I first met, so she was very familiar with it. 

My explanation that my work was my life was fine for me, but now, it was Maureen’s life as well.  She was a musician, and had acted in community theater in Canada.  For me, it was only logical that she would come here and be an actress and work in the same business I was in.  At first, she threw herself into my vision of the two artists working together.  She took acting classes and dance classes.  This was going to be fun, right?

Not exactly.  This was my fantasy, and reality soon crept in.  Acting class wasn’t fun; it was all this heavy sense-memory work.  I vividly remember her coming home crying one day.  In class, they had suggested that one way to cry was to bring up a horrible memory from her past.  She used one where a beloved childhood pet was run over by a car.  She still was not able to cry in class; now home, she was unable to stop crying.  Not fun.  Neither was dance class with teens who had spent every post-partum moment in dance class.

She was, however, incredibly supportive of me.   I took jobs that I thought would prepare me to produce films, and that meant sometimes taking non-paying jobs on student projects.  Like always, I was more comfortable being the big fish in a small pond.

I had never taken as much as one film class.  I learned most of what I know on set.  I applied what I had seen other producers and production managers do when working on these projects, and learned by trial, error and learning as much as I could from those who knew more.

Two projects clearly illustrate this process.  Both were Columbia University  grad thesis projects, and I will address one in this blog and one in the next.

The first short film was about a grandfather who was about to die.  The actor was played by veteran character actor John Randolph.  You may remember him as Al Pacino’s tough NY boss in Serpico, or Jack Nicholson’s father in Prizzi’s HonorRoseanne’s dad? I know that for many of you, this is like ancient history.   His early film career was interrupted because his union activism led him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy Era.  He never became a big star, but was certainly a face you saw in scores of films and television shows.  A link to his IMDB page is below.

Randolph was the first of many, many established older actors who proved to be the epitome of professionalism.  One might think that old veterans on small jobs would be difficult, but this was rarely true.

Many had gotten past the ego that actors need to drive them early in their careers and were very comfortable in their own skin.  John was not only professional but magnanimous.   I was the production manager, and, as is wont to happen on small projects, also doubled as designer. I earned the latter job in small part because I had done it in theater and in large part because we didn’t have the money for a designer.  

In the film, John had to play himself both a little younger and healthy, and also at the moment of his death.  He had the great idea of doing so by use of a scarf to cover his neck, which was rather wrinkled.  Scarf on he looked healthier; scarf off he looked older and sicker.  He had me over to his apartment, and showed me a few scarves that were perfect for the character.  I chose one.  He said, “John, that is the perfect choice.  You really know what you’re doing.” 

It wasn’t my great taste shining through, as John had only laid out scarves that were perfect.   He did all the work.  Still, I remember how good I not only felt then, but every time he complemented me.  I also watched as he did the same with the young director.  He never showed her up or bragged about how much more experience he had.  Rather, he would always present suggestions in such a way that it they seemed like her ideas. 

I learned not only the ability to be generous, but also realized how much more effective you can be if a person thinks that something is their idea.  This is a lesson that has come in handy hundreds of times over the years when working with directors.  Film school mentality is so competitive that people often never grow out of it, feeling a need to show how smart they are at all times.   This might feed their egos, but doesn’t solve many problems.

John had experienced the power of a complement first-hand.  Older actors, like older line producers, have lots of stories. 

Hey, if I didn’t, where would this blog be? 

This was a story John shared.

It came from the set of Prizzi’s Honor, working with the great director John Huston.  I have always been a big Huston fan, and loved a biography that covered his life called The Hustons by Lawrence Groebal.  Lots of great stories there as well.

Randolph’s story surrounds a scene where he is walking with the hit-man character played by Jack Nicholson.  Randolph plays Nicholson’s father, and in this scene on a Chicago subway platform, he tells Nicholson that the heat is too much and Nicholson’s character has to leave town.  Nicholson had convinced Huston to let them improvise the scene, and the camera and video village with Huston were at the end of the platform.

When the first take ended, Huston looked at them and said, “That was good.  Do it again and they did.  Second take, and the same thing happens, same exact words from Huston.  “That was good.  Do it again.”
This went on for a few takes, with long walks back to first position.  Nicholson and Randolph were beside themselves.  What were they doing wrong, and if it was so good, why were they doing it again?

They do the scene one more time.  Huston looks at them, and says, “Okay,” joining his thumb and forefinger in a gesture that reiterated his point. 

“That was it,” John said.  “That was all he said during that scene, and at the end, I knew exactly what he meant.  I felt like a million dollars.  This was the guy who said ‘Okay’ to Bogie and Bacall, and now he was saying ‘Okay’ to me.  Wow.”

The really talented and professional actors and crew people never lose that sense of wonder.  John told the story as if he were some stage-struck kid, when, in fact, he came to that movie as a Tony winner who had worked with Orsen Welles, among many other major actors and directors.  He still had that gleam in his eyes.

Lest this blog become all flowers and roses, the next blog entry will talk about lessons from someone significantly younger.  Like me, this next “teacher” embodied optimism and cynicism. 

No separation.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Up in the Air

Up in the Air

“…Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living...”

Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air

You can’t log ten million miles between New York and Boston, and even if People Express or New York Air or any of those now-defunct carriers put your name on the side of a plane, it would have been painted over by now.  The theory, though, was the same.  Keep moving.

Years earlier, I developed a love affair with Cape Cod, so much so that I not only went there for getaways whenever I could, but I also took theater jobs in Boston, a town I also got to like.  If you’re from the rest of New England, Boston is truly the “Hub,” a place you aspire to live and work.  If you’re from New York, Boston is provincial and, most of all, manageable. 

In those early days of no-frill airlines, flights between NY and Boston-Logan were cheap, $19-$39 cheap.  That made a transient lifestyle not only possible, but desirable.  Maybe it was being an only child that instilled something that teetered between independence and a refusal to grow up. 

I kept a room in a transient hotel on the Upper West Side when they still had transient hotels and they were cheap enough that you could hang there.  I had a nicer place in Boston, also transient, but in a city where your age is determined by whether people ask you what school you go to, or where do you teach, transience is the norm.  The New Yorker in me had to get used to a “T” that shut down at midnight, creating a Cinderella-like dash for the Green Line back to Brookline from Faneuil Hall.

Boston had a theater scene that allowed me to work regularly, while still coming home to NY between shows to be in the city I loved.

It was on one of those trips back to New York over the holidays that my life changed forever.
On this trip back to New York, I interviewed for a job as director for an absolutely crazy middle-aged British woman who ran Royal Court Repertory.  If you remember the rules of the blog, I don’t generally name people when the reference is negative.  In this case, I’m not naming the name only because I can’t remember it. 

This Royal Court had nothing to do with the real one in London, and I’m sure this woman never worked there.  She was nothing more than a bitter, failed actress running a two-bit theater, but, hey, it was directing work, and when she offered me a chance to direct a horrible whodunit called “Kidnap Kaper,” I took it.  Auditions wouldn’t begin until mid-January, so I would have one more trip up to Boston after the holidays to finish a gig there and then come back. 

I’m not good with dates and times and years at this point, but this date I do remember, if not the year.  If was December 30th, the day before New Years Eve, and I was hanging at a usual haunt of mine on the Upper West Side that was then called Tuba City Truck Stop.  I looked down the bar and saw a very animated group ordering drinks, including more than a few attractive young women.  I sent over drinks, and motioned for one of them to come over.  In one of those happy accidents in life, the “wrong” one came over, and we started talking.  She was a cheery, cute redhead named Maureen, and I learned that she lived someplace I previously had never heard of, Chatham, Ontario.  She and her friends were teachers on vacation.   

One thing led to another, and I don’t think I left her side for more than a few hours over the next few days, hanging with her and her friends, though never alone.  I was completely smitten, and when she said I should come up and visit her sometime, I’m sure she thought that I would agree but never make it.  She was wrong.
Chatham is about an hour or so past Windsor, Ontario, which, for those who don’t know, is right across a bridge or tunnel from Detroit.  In the world of cheap airfares, adding one leg to the NY-Boston run was pretty cheap, and I told her that I would see her the following week.  I think she was more than a little surprised when I called and said I had a ticket, and would she pick me up at the airport.

My subsequent time getting to know her and her family friends has made me averse to Canadian jokes, but my first trip to Canada was too ironic to overlook.  She picked me up at the airport, and as we crossed the border, the road got icier.  For those weak on geography, Windsor is actually south of Detroit, so it’s not like the temperature had dropped, but just that the snow and ice was getting worse.  It was in the midst of this discussion about American misunderstanding of Canada that we spun out, went across the other side of the highway and wound up in a slight ditch at the side of the highway.  Neither of us was hurt, but the car needed to be towed.  My first trip to her town was in the front of a tow truck.

Our time together?  Again, from Up in the Air:

Ryan Bingham: You know that moment when you look into somebody's eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet just for a second?
Natalie Keener: Yes.
Ryan Bingham: Right. Well, I don't.

Before that, I didn’t either.   Over the next few years, it would happen.  We would fly back and forth to see each other.

Meanwhile, back in New York, I am auditioning people for this horrible play.  Headshots are laid out by character, and the largest stack was for the young ingénue.  I was always an impulse buyer with little time for shopping around, and in those days, I auditioned in much the same way.  When I finally found the perfect ingénue, I told this wonderful young actress that she had the part, and proceeded to audition for the role of what can only be described as the Margaret Dumont character.  If you don’t know who Margaret Dumont was, think of the stuffy, matronly woman who always wound up with a pie in her face in the old Marx Brothers’ movies.   Ms. Dumont certainly deserves to be remembered for more than that, but if you need a quick reference, that should work.  You still don’t know?  Ok, you can go check who she is on IMDB – I’ll wait.

Back?  Good.

Now, I’m sitting through a handful of slightly-older actresses when this extraordinary woman in her early twenties walks in.  Her name is Annie.  I look down at the headshot, and then back up to her, then back to the headshot, which was so bad that I had added it into the pile with the character actresses.  Not only was she lovely and spirited, but she was an excellent actress.  I couldn’t have her audition for the character actress, but I had her read for the ingénue.  Yes, that ingénue, the one I had just cast, the role I had told an excited young actress was hers.  As I watched her audition, I knew she had to be the person for the role.  

Don’t ask how uncomfortable the phone call to the first actress was.

The diva who ran the theater hated her, in no small part because she was not only more talented than she had ever been as an actress, but she was lovelier as well, an absolutely stunning redhead.

Ok, I know where you think this is going, but you’re wrong.  Annie and I became close friends for years to come.  Ironically, she grew up in London, Ontario, not far from where Maureen lived.  The three of us became fast friends, a bond cemented after I pulled the cast from that horrible show after the diva who ran the place screamed at my cast one time too many and “accidently”  pricked Annie with a safety pin while helping with her costume.

Annie later studied with Sanford Meisner in Bequia and later Los Angeles, where she is still a working actress and highly-successful acting teacher.  She would also go on to appear in a movie I co-wrote and produced called Town Diary years later.  

We’re not there yet.  Be patient.

In the next couple of years, I did some stage managing, and directed a version of “Children of A Lesser God” for a college theater company in New Jersey, a production I am proud of to this day.  My proudest moment on that play may have been a night when a group of deaf students came to see the show.  The show had to be cast entirely from students, and there were no members of the company who were deaf.  This was a tricky situation, as the author, Mark Medoff, had made clear his preference that the role of Sarah, the deaf student, should be played by a deaf actress.  Our Sarah was not, but we did everything in our power to be authentic, and watching the deaf students give my cast a standing ovation was a moment that will be with me until the end of my life.

Meanwhile, Maureen and I found the commuting back and forth to be frustrating, and I still have an image of her at the top of an escalator at Detroit’s airport, waving goodbye to me as if was the last time.  We knew we either had to make a commitment, or break it off, and the latter was unthinkable.  We made plans for her to move to New York, a city she loved, but there was still one more hurdle.  She was not going to be able to work here, and that wasn’t going to work.  We looked into all sorts of options for her to get working papers here.

Remember that immigration attorney I met in Washington D.C.?  The one who met my Hair troop at the rally and turned out to be the brother of one of my radio station pals?  I contacted him, and the long and the short of it was that the easiest thing to do was to get married.  I was fine with the life commitment, but the rebel hippie in me hated the formality of the ceremony, piece of paper, etc.

So it was in the Spring on 1987 that I was working as associate designer on a great theater project, the 1987 Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon.  The Marathon is a very prestigious event in the New York theater world, and I got to work with some wonderful directors, including the casting directors Risa Bramen and Billy Hopkins . 

Once again, I got to be involved with the work of a great writer, Keith Reddin.  Keith wrote what was clearly a dark version of the “Cat in the Hat” series, but the Dr. Seuss people had a decidedly negative view of having their character be seriously more than mischievous.  Many changes were made to avoid legal problems.  Here is the review:

Yes, the young boy was Macaulay Culkin, who later went on to “Home Alone” and other film notoriety.  Given the bad press he and his parents later received, I should make the point that both he and his parents were fun and cooperative, not to mention he was incredibly talented. 

It was near the end of tech week for the opening, and I was flying to see Maureen that weekend.  We had decided that at the end of the school year, she would move in with me, but had not even discussed actually getting married.  I was in the set shop at EST when I called Maureen.

“Hey, Mo, can you find out what we would have to do to get married on a weekend?”

“This weekend?”

“Yes, this weekend.”

The next day, she told me the procedure.  It involved a Justice of the Peace.  He could fit us in on Saturday morning.  This was Wednesday.

Me: “So, do you want to get married?”

Maureen: “OK”.

That was it.   I flew up there that weekend, and her friends threw together a party on Friday night and a reception on Saturday after the ceremony, one where the Justice of the Peace kept informally asking me questions about how we met.

So began a relationship that would last a lifetime, even if the actual marriage significantly less time.  For those wondering why so much of the last two blog entries centered on relationships, it is because it’s impossible to understand the career changes that were to come without understanding where I was in my life.   Have no fear, though, as subsequent entries will not be filled with the intricacies of relationships, as I never figured those out.

The next few years would begin a partnership that would include a life-changing operation, and a rebirth as a person committed to the independent film world.       

A Life In The Theater

Having finished his morning meditation and coffee, JB sits in front of his computer, reading intently what is on the screen.

JB’s Blog is on one side.  JB’s resume is on the other side.
                                                                                                                                                                DISSOLVE TO:
…me, sitting here, deciding how to move forward with the blog.

When I kickstarted this blog a few months back, I pointed out that chronology had become a problem, so I wasn’t going to worry about it.  That’s not entirely true.  I find it at least somewhat important to give some sense of context.

So, here is my jump off point.  I looked through all the theater pieces I was involved with from the time I left Allentown, and none of them deserved their own blog.  Therefore, in order to get back to the film work, I thought I would do a two-part blog entry that covered most of the better moments I had in theater after that, and the important changes in my life that led me into a full-time career in film.   Some of these bleed into the time I was doing film, and even into my married years.  As I said, topic is more important here than a solid timeline.  Does that work for you?  Great! (You were nodding your head, right?)

When last we visited this blog, I was leaving Allentown after directing an evening of three one-act plays.
I got back to New York, looking to continue directing theater, and joined with some other theater friends to form a short-lived company called Catharsis Theater Company.  We had a small space on Theatre Row, but only got off one evening of one-acts.

It would be years before I did any serious directing in theater again, although I did spend one season as teaching artist and director for Theater for New Audiences, which brought Shakespeare to public schools in New York.  It was a great experience, and what I took from that was that working in poor neighborhoods was more fun than working in rich neighborhoods.  The kids in the poor schools appreciated the work and opportunity more than the kids in rich neighborhoods.  If that sounds clichéd, sorry, but it’s true.

I also spend some time directing opera singers for a company called Republic Artists that had a relationship with Lincoln Center.  It was truly fun to work with talented singers who wanted to learn more about acting.
For the most part, I returned to making a living as a stage manager, dabbling in set and lighting design.  

I also stage managed a forgettable production of Suddenly Last Summer that was notable only for this funny lesson I learned from an older actress.

The production was mounted by an actress who had inherited a nice sum of money from a deceased aunt.  She cast herself as Catherine, the young girl played by Elizabeth Taylor in the film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams classic play.  She hired her acting teacher to direct, and they cast a talented and feisty older actress to play the role of Mrs. Venable, done to perfection by Katherine Hepburn in the same movie.
Hepburn’s take on the role was so good that the actress in our production decided to pretty much mimic Hepburn, right down to her unique version of a New England accent.  No matter, the actress in question became our den mother on the production, keeping things focused when need be, comforting actors who needed it, and kicking butt when that was called for, as it was on this night.

There is a scene where a rebellious Catherine puts a cigarette out in the hand of a nun who tries to take it away from her.  The spoiled-brat of an actress who mounted the play had an annoying habit of playing most scenes with the Venable character as if she were chewing gum, even though she wasn’t.  On this night, the actress had influential friends in the audience, and decided she would get a more “method” response by actually putting out a lit cigarette in the hand of the actress playing the nun.

I was livid when I heard this in the booth, and at intermission, I stormed toward the green room, determined to tear this idiot a new one.  I was met outside the green room by the older actress, who looked at me with a smirk and said, “let me handle this.”  Something told me to that was the way to go.

The second act began with a scene between Venable and Catherine, and, as usual, the actress playing Catherine faked chewing gum.  Venable, completely in character with the no-nonsense Venable, put out her hand and said “Catherine, give me the gum.”  This was a complete ad lib, and the younger actress wasn’t sure what to do, but she mimed putting the gum in Venable’s hand.  Not good enough.  Venable looks in her hand, and shows Catherine (and the audience) that there is no gum there.  “Catherine, there is no gum here.  I told you to give me the gum.”  The older actress proceeds to figuratively undress the younger actress on stage, until she almost finished the scene in tears, and the audience was laughing out loud at her.   It was a much more public and embarrassing come-uppance than I ever could have achieved.

In the next entry, I will transition to love, marriage, and my last directing gigs for some time, which introduced me to another actor I would later cast in a film that I wrote.