Monday, April 21, 2014

Going and Coming - Mentors Passing On

            "Master Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
             Caine: No.
             Master Po: Do you hear the grasshopper that is at your feet?
             Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
             Master Po: Young Man, how is it that you do not?"*

When I was setting up a timeline for this blog, I knew there would be a time where I dealt with the death of people who had an affect on me and my career. One of those posts I knew I would write would be on the death of Stan Bickman, who most influenced my work as line producer and production manager.

In the "timeline," I have passed that point. As I started putting this post together, I realized that there was one thing in common when three of my mentors passed - I wasn't there for any of them. I also realized that, to this day, they are there for me, that they had already "passed on" what I needed, hence, the play on words in the title.

We often think of mentoring as it is depicted above; the master-student relationship. In that image, there is the wise master passing on knowledge - in one direction - to the student, directly telling the student what they need to know.

Most mentors impart knowledge more like this example from Charlotte Joko Beck, talking about her days at Oberlin Conservatory wanting to study with the "best" piano teacher in Everyday Zen:

When I went in for my lesson I found he taught with two pianos. He didn't even say hello. He just sat down at his piano and played five notes and then he said, "you do it." I was supposed to play it just the way he played it. I played it, and he said, "No."He played it again, and I played it again. Again, he said, "no." Well, we had an hour of that. And each time, he said, "No."...At the end of three months, one day, he said, "Good."...Finally, I had learned to listen.

How familiar does this sound to those of us in film - or any area? We learn by example, not by words or instruction.

As someone who taught film school (New York Film Academy), and who feels I have taught more on set, the process is not that simple.

Oddly, it is pop star Phil Collins who may have put it best:

"In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn."

I know that I learned a good deal from preparing lessons, and in answering questions from students. The formality of planning lessons forced me to consider what I do in detail, point-by-point, and not just go about doing what I've always done.

On my last shoot, I had to train a production coordinator - she had a great deal of experience producing, but had not specifically done the functions of POC on a feature. As usual, I also had an assistant, who also did not have experience with a lot of the things she needed to do. Having to create and offer a structure was important to me.

If my Zen practice has taught me anything, it is how what seems like the simplest thing - just doing the task in front of us and not having our mind many other places - can be the biggest challenge. Look at your day -how many times are you doing one thing while also focused somewhere else.

More on that another time.

As for the mentors here, they are my father, actor/director Kevin O'Conner and Stan Bickman. I have talked about all three, and will offer links to cover ground I have already covered. Here, in discussing Stan's passing, I also wanted to devote the proper time to mentors, in one place.


My father. For all of the years I lived at home, my dad was a manager and repairman for an air conditioning and television repair shop in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Later, he would go on to be a construction foreman.

He had offers to run his own business many times, and to take office management jobs. It was not his style - he would have died in an office. He was fine with leading men if he was out there with them. If he had stayed in the military (highly unlikely, as he hated being told what to do), he would have been a platoon sergeant who turned down officer rank.

He always referred to "his men." He could tell them anything, but he would defend them completely to anyone above him. He would never ask them to do anything he hadn't done.

On a personal level, that was what he most left for me. There were other things: I remember him sitting down with me after a long day of work making me do spelling quizzes every day after I failed one when I was in grammar school. He also took interest in anything that interested me, reading many books on Buddhism after I took an interest, though he was never a religious man in the traditional sense.

When I worked at the radio station in college, at WNYU-FM, he would always listen to my show if he were home, just to listen to my breaks, even though he had no love for the music that took up most of my show. When I went into theater, first as a stage manager, he would come at least once to every show, even though he had no great love for live theater.

There were little things, too, like he would never take a drink at work, even though he was often offered when he did repair work. Remember, my dad was from the Mad Men era, where having a drink at work had no stigma. This is why I will rarely have a drink in a work setting, even when it might seem ok and others are.

When my Dad found out he had cancer, he met me for lunch, and said he did not want to go like his father, who suffered for years. He said that when the time came, he wanted me to let him go. Unfortunately, like his father, my Dad was pretty tough, and lived years beyond what doctors thought. By the time he could no longer leave his hospital bed. he looked nothing like the father I knew - my Mom actually thought they had transferred him because she didn't recognize him one day.

Weeks before he died, he made me promise not to come anymore. One feature he still had was his stern eyes when he was serious - and he was serious. He had a way he wanted to remember him. He wasn't asking - he was telling me. Many would disagree, but I honored his wishes, and did not see him for weeks before he actually died.

Kevin, from his days as one of the original members of La Mama theater troupe, a landmark Off-Broadway theater company. Kevin surrounded by women - not at all unusual.
Kevin O'Conner was one of the best actors I ever worked with. I spoke about him extensively in another post. Check it out. It not only covers his achievements professionally, but some of what I admired about him.

He won multiple Obie awards for achievements on the Off-Broadway Stage. His television and film work was not as impressive, although he did play Bogart for a TV-movie entitled Bogie.

A life-long chain smoker, Kevin developed cancer. Even as he was getting sicker, he still had not lost his love for teaching or acting. His acting students often would ask him to work on their short projects - rarely for any money, and I remember Kevin doing a night shoot on one such project while he was wheezing and coughing from the cancer. As in my example from the other post, it just never occurred to him to say "no."

I was in LA in 1991, and when I returned to New York and looked Kevin up at the Chelsea Hotel, I learned that he had died just a few weeks earlier. The last time I spoke to him on the phone, he never mentioned he was in his last stages.


Stan Bickman is the person I've talked about most extensively here. Check out this post on how we met, or this one, a faux Stan guest blog post.

He had emphysema, and by the time I knew him, he had one lung and carried a respirator. By the time I hired him as my production manager on his last film, Man of the Century, he was dragging around a tank.

Dianne was his longtime production coordinator, assistant, aide, confidant, and friend. I had left messages for Stan and Dianne for a while, and not heard back. One day. Dianne called. I could hear the tears.

"Stan is dying, John. He is on a ventilator at the hospital, and he has asked to be taken off. He probably won't make the weekend."

I immediately asked where he was, but Dianne cautioned:

"That's why I haven't called you back. Stan doesn't want to see anyone, not you, not JR (John Rosnell, who had introduced me to Stan.). Not like this. He insisted."

Same as the instructions I would get from my father years later.

After he died, I got a nice card from his daughters in LA. It was a thank you card for my condolences, and had a picture of Stan at a pay phone - that's how they always remembered him, on the phone and on the road.

I could not find an online photo, and, sadly, that card got lost in a production office (Stan would have been amused by the irony of that), but the results in Google Image when I entered Stan's name (not counting the men shown - none of them are him) gives a good picture - one-sheets and posters for a lot of B-movies. He would be proud. (Also of the fact that the movie he thought would launch his career, T-Bird Gang, can now be seen in its entirety)


Besides not being there at their death, they shared other things. All were charming with women, in a gentlemanly manner that was neither offensive nor quite flirting when it was inappropriate. I remember each of them being as flattering to a woman of eighty as a girl of ten as to a starlet.

In many ways, all were products of - for better and for worse - another era.

All were mild-spoken men, which didn't mean they didn't let you know when they were serious. Their educations varied, but all of them learned most of their skills at their jobs.

In one way or another, the Ackroyd tribute at Beluschi's funeral from my Kevin post fit them all - they were good men if sometimes bad boys.

There were obviously others who helped and guided me along the way. As Joko Beck says, "Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need....Every moment is the guru."* Certainly, Nancy Juliber, the stage manager who got me into stage managing and later my first film office job, changed the course of my life, as did so many at that WNYU radio station.

These men stand out for the times I met them in my life, and the fact that what they taught, without saying it, was as much about how to treat people, how to approach work, how to respect your work, as it was any specific task.  It is why I think of them more as mentors in life than teachers of any specific skill, though with each of them, there was the latter as well.

I don't know how many other "students" they have out there, how many others were influenced by them. For me, I know that they speak to me when I need them - and sometimes when I'd rather they didn't. They would all agree with the fact that one of the things you need to learn from your mentors is how to move on from them, to adapt, to be someone with something new to offer the next generation.

You can take the time to teach others. To be a mentor, you owe it to yourself to be the best example of what you would like to see in those that come after, and hope that you are, indeed, up to that task; that they will sort the good from the not-so-good, they will take the best and leave the rest.  As one of my past ADs, Chris Kelley, used to say when I tried to influence him specifically to do something my way and he felt otherwise:

"If you meet the Buddha along the road, you must kill the Buddha."*

So, in this moment, what are you passing on today, grasshopper?

N.B. The internet at its best, and certainly blogs, should be interactive. Along the lines of not trying to "teach" as much as point here, I would love to hear of your experiences, either your mentors or experience as a mentor yourself. Pass them along!

*Although influenced by my Zen practice, I try very hard not to preach. Folks don't come to this blog for instruction in Zen, nor should they. As such, I often make light of issues serious practitioners might see as deeper - my reference to Kung Fu or Serenity Now are ways of avoiding being self-important, without meaning to minimize Zen. Along those lines, Joko Beck's quote is much longer, and the 'Buddha along the road' quote is not meant to be taken literally (though Chris sometimes did when I bugged him), but has a much longer explanation, which you are free to explore.


AmyG said...

What an interesting blog! I don't think I've read any others like it. I'm sorry for your losses, and I'm impressed by the people who have served as mentors in your life. You've been blessed!

joangogreenlivegreen said...

Nice post on Mentors, thank you for sharing :) Shared for you as well :)

JB Bruno said...

Amy, Joan - thank you both for your comments. Enjoyed both of your blogs as well as some of the others at Bloggers Corner. Joan, there are actually a lot of industry blogs on film production - I list some of them along the right side.

Kangas said...

Another fine post! I'm sure the mentors would think it a fitting tribute.