Tuesday, May 27, 2014

All in the Family:The Making of Town Diary - Pt 3 - In Your Hometown

"Brenda and Eddie were popular steadies
And the king and queen of the prom
Riding around with the car top down and the radio on
No one looked any finer
Or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner."
-Billy Joel, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

"Going Home" and "You Can't Go Home Again" have been the theme of many a movie, not to mention two specific expressions that inspired one movie and one novel, respectively. Not to mention well, a lot, of Springsteen songs (hence the subtitle above). Sorry, Bruce, thought I'd give Billy a shout out here.

Early on, Jack wanted to write the story of a man in career midlife crisis who goes home, thinks he has found the "big story", and then has to make the moral choice of whether to tell it or not.

Brian McCauley was the lead character, and the hometown he goes back to is a fictional one (East Islip) by the Bay on New York's Long Island, similar to the one where Jack had grown up.

As we all know, our memories of our hometown can sometimes be more quaint than the messy truth, and it was at this junction that we hoped to find our drama.

I came up with the name, Brian McCauley. Growing up in the Bronx, I was always aware that one of the things that defined a person was their ethnic heritage. At the worst end of that are stereotypes that provoke fear, but for me, it was just the little touches that filled in the way we approached life. You either embraced your heritage or rejected it, or did a little bit of both, but it definitely had some influence on you. To me, Brian came from Irish-American stock.

Brian was a TV producer whose career had seen better days. He had some meaningless awards, and now, in his early 40s, he went home to do a "town diary" of his hometown. hoping it revived his career.

As both Jack and I worked regularly but were hardly household names - and in our early to mid-forties (Jack was a tad older than me) - it was a theme that we very much appreciated.

For the most part, Jack was very generous in giving me leeway to create the characters, while there were certain story points that he definitely wanted to hit.

When I looked at the actual shooting of the film, it would be easy to say the writing process was contentious, but, as I recall it now, it was not.

Once he gets home, he decides to stay with his parents, something you know as a film watcher is a bad idea. In his world, the mother was more supportive and understanding; he and his father would butt heads about the fact that he never got a "real job." It was something I very much related to, if, in my life, the parents were switched.

The characters were a lot of "townies," as Jack would refer to them; folks who had grown up here, never left, and who knew everyone's business. One of those older ones, Hartley, is talking at a bar one day about a cheerleader who drowned years earlier named Dottie Vaughn:

Oh, she drowned all right. What else?

I don't have a clue.

But I have all the clues!

And so begins our mystery, as Hartley is anxious for someone to finally listen to him, that the drowning was not an accident at all. Brian originally thinks he is just a crazy old man looking for attention, but soon begins to think that there is something to his story. Soon, he starts to wonder if a documentary that unearths an old, possibly sordid murder and even cover-up would not lead him back to success. He does, indeed, follow the clues, which wind up involving some old friends, including possibly Frank Ryan, his best friend as kids, and Frank's ne'er to well brother, Jimmy.

Brian goes over all of this with an assistant he hires, Veronica. It is here that Jack and I had a difference of opinion which, in fact, never got successfully resolved.

Veronica was young, pretty and smart. I thought it was a given that this would be our love story, and that a love story was needed. Jack vehemently disagreed. He said that work relationships never work, and that Brian would be smart enough to avoid it. I suggested that thought had little to do with it, and it would only be natural that this long-divorced man would be attracted to this woman who was not only physically attractive but had a fire and spirit that reminded Brian of himself before he became jaded. I thought a growing love story would heighten both the tension and the difficulties in making the right decision later in the script.

Jack insisted a relationship would not happen, but I did convince him to add a scene where Veronica, slightly attracted to Brian, invites him over for dinner. To satisfy Jack, I suggest that there is an attraction, but that Brian chooses not to follow up on it, for career reasons. What would actually happen with the scene would be something else.

The script was dotted with characters both of us were familiar with, including an ex-wife who wanted little to do with Jack. Both of us had one of those, so there was definite inspiration there. * There was also a shady sheriff (isn't there always), a fisherman (whose ethnic identity changed once we cast) and Brian having to deal with his old TV boss, Don.

Coming from a theater background, I was aware that some of my earlier writing was too dialogue-driven. This was something JR would often remind me, one of the few areas where he made suggestions on the script. JR would shoot and edit the film, and felt that he would make more of his contribution to story in those areas.

I seriously thought I had cut down on dialogue and did a good job of "showing" and not "telling", though it actually took rewrites after we started prep and even production to get to that point.

When we finally had the script to where we wanted it, we went about casting and putting the crew together. Those choices, for better and worse, in the next posts.

*Regular readers of this blog will know that my ex and I are great friends now. In the script, I accentuated the points that drove us apart, which are not part of our relationship now.

NB: In looking for the original Billy Joel music video of the song, I found this video that was done for no budget (according to the notes) by some students in a Mexico City filmmaking programming back in 1990. I tend to think that this was not exactly how Billy Joel saw Brenda and Eddie or Hicksville, but I love the spirit and enthusiasm the students brought to it - besides, it's not like Billy needs another hit. Congrats to director Robert Moutal - I wish EVERY music video had this much spunk!

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