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.

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