Thursday, May 30, 2013

Got Here Straight from a Crooked Path

How do you go straight ahead on a narrow mountain path that has ninety-three curves?
-Old Zen Koan

Budgeting project after project that has yet to see funding as a way of making a living can make one rather jaded, not to mention a bit loopy, but sometimes, the concentrated focus leads one to think about aspects of your life and career.

In the last series on the film Double, I briefly mentioned that the director was mostly a commercial director, and I was known more for features; more specifically, low budget features.

At points in my career, it has gotten even more specific than that, doing a number of mob related films that led folks to believe that was a "specialty" of mine. Some of my "specialties" were only in the eyes of certain folks, as in the time in Los Angeles when I was brought in to interview as AD on a movie with Black filmmakers because, having seen from my resume that I had worked a number of films with DP John Rosnell (J.R.), who had shot Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn, assumed that I was a Black filmmaker. Of course, this misconception started with the erroneous belief that JR was Black.

Type-casting is weird enough when it is related to actors. I am currently producing a short for a bright and talented writer who is a first-time filmmaker who cannot seem to see actors as doing anything other than the type of roles they have done in the past, and he is not alone in that regard. One would hope that trained actors could step outside not just specific types, but show sides of their personality they had not previously.

Certainly when it comes to production people, we should and can make any type of movie. When people ask me what my favorite movies are, I usually say, simply. "good movies." You make it well, and it's my type of movie.

All of this leads me to answering here a question I get from time-to-time when people get past first knowing me and feel comfortable asking: Why did I continue to do low-budget movies and not move on to bigger features as AD, UPM or line producer?

As with most of my career, it was not part of the plan. This was not for a lack of planning; indeed, I made many many plans. It is just that as quickly as I made plans, other things happened.

Lily Tomlin, who I think is one of the most creative comedic talents around, (and, to prove my point about type-casting, someone who has done some great dramatic work) used to do a sketch about a waitress who became a successful actress, when her real goal was to become a better waitress. Every time she got a chance to move up as a waitress - say, from a diner to three-star restaurant, or from a three-star to a four-star, her career path as a waitress would be interrupted by another (always big) acting gig. Playing against the stereotype of the a waitress who really wants to act, all this actress (who eventually becomes more and more successful as an actress) ever really wanted to do was be a great waitress.

Below is one version of the sketch, performed at the 1977 Tony Awards

Much like that waitress, I knew, at every point in my career, exactly what I wanted. When I went to NYU, I was going to be a psychiatrist, just like the priest who I had for Psych 101 at Cardinal Spellman H.S. in the Bronx who I greatly admired. When I got to NYU, I also wanted to write for the newspaper, but they were not open, but the General Manager of the radio station, which was on the same floor, recruited me for the radio station. That was it - I was going to go into radio! I worked in the music business for a while, before becoming bored and getting cast in a play (my roommate made me go and read with him because he needed a partner), which got me into theater, where I met my stage manager mentor, and stage managing got me to directing theater, until eventually, I met up with my stage manager mentor again, who got me my first film job, which got me into film.

That's the abbreviated version - the early posts of this blog will fill you  in on all of the above in greater detail, if you really wish.

Once in film, and with my love for writing, I thought I would wind up in Hollywood as a screenwriter (and maybe director, as I had directed a good deal of theater). That didn't happen. though not for lack of trying.

As I started working in production, I worked a lot, often going from one film as AD or UPM or line producer to the next. I was getting paid decently, working with some good people, and one day, I looked up and I was about forty and doing one low-budget movie after the next.

At this point - and I will explore this in future posts - I tried to get some projects of mine off the ground as producer and/or writer with a number of people with whom I was working. After getting hit in the head enough times, I learned that raising money was not my strong point, in some part, I guess, because money, for the sake of money, was never that important to me. (This says a lot about why I am divorced).

By this point, I am passing forty years of age, and getting "old" in a business that is geared toward youth. You look up one day, and there you are. I was too old to start at the bottom and work my way up in Hollywood, something I did not have an inclination to do and, even if I did, someone my age would not have been welcomed in those starting positions. No one in Hollywood wants someone working for them who has done things their own way for years - they want to train you to do it their way. As they are paying the bills, that is fair, but it was not for me, and would not have been for them.

When I did eventually get to actually produce a feature that I wrote, it was on a scale that my partners and I could raise, and what we knew, which was low budget.

So, as a long way of answering that question from earlier, I didn't decide to stay in low-budget films, it was just the way things turned out, and the same is true for why I did more features than commercials or music videos, though I did some of those as well. I guess when people were looking for people to work those other mediums, they looked for folks that had done those things before, and, hence, the self-fulfilling prophecy.

No, I did not start out aiming to be a low-budget feature line producer, UPM and AD; no one is that masochistic. There may still be bigger budget projects on the horizon. With all the craziness, I have met some great people and gotten a lot of satisfaction along the way. There is no point in re-tracing steps, and I certainly don't regret what I did, even if I might advise someone else coming along now, when the indie world is very different from when I was starting, to do things differently.

All of this was triggered, innocently enough, but the convergence of my breaking down the third script in recent months with the same exact character, and the previous series of posts on working on a feature with a commercial director.

As for that character: I recently posted on my Facebook page that "This Thug # 1 guy must be some sort of muse." Truly, I had broken out "Thug # 1" in about three recent scripts. As I also pointed out, he is loyal, because he often brings along his dear friend, "Thug # 2." Hell, he even seems to have a following.

And a popular video game, whose nickname is THUG.

It would be easy to just suggest that this is a case of amateurs making the usual mob or gang movie or just a case of sunspots aligning to make the same type of movie, but at least two of these scripts are fabulous and unique and based on absolutely true stories. It would be nice if they actually got made (both groups have had other films made, so I have reason to believe this could happen, but, then again, I'm the guy who is not good at raising money, so what do I know.)

I wonder if these projects do get made, and someone sees that I budgeted them (or, if I'm fortunate enough to be the line producer), whether people will then surmise that I have a special knack for movies involving gangs, that I have some insight into how to budget a gang movie.

If they looked more closely, they would see that it is just me moving as straight ahead as I can on that crooked path. As the koan says, how do you go straight on a crooked path?  In truth, life is nothing if not exactly that crooked path, and as I went straight on that path, this is where I landed - at least, so far.

No comments: