Thursday, August 7, 2014

All In The Family: The Making of Town Diary - Cancer is Not Funny*, Well Sometimes

"Dark humour is like cancer. Not everybody gets it."
Anonymous cancer joke

Cancer. Among the scariest words around, because almost everyone has been touched by it, either directly or through a close relative. I lost my dad, grandfather, and two uncles to cancer, as well as many friends.

JR, my longtime friend and business partner in Town Diary, as well as our DP, was a cancer survivor, having beat the disease back in the 1980s, before I met him. Now, JR found out it had come back, but that the doctors were optimistic they could keep it under control.

Whatever JR's level of concern, he did a good job of hiding it. Because he knew he would be undergoing chemotherapy again, and that it would make him weak, we discussed hiring an operator. As a DP, JR had always been his own operator, so we knew this would be tricky.

JR was open to the idea, but it had to be the right person. The first and only person that came to mind was my old friend, Charlie Houston, the gaffer on The Rook and my DP on Plaster. (Follow the linked words for some of the fun Chalie and I had in the past).

Much like me, JR was a man of habits. He liked one wine - White Zinfandel (something I teased him about endlessly). He had a favorite restaurant, a little Italian place down the block from him on Carmine Street called Alfredo**.

JR was truly the Godfather of Alfredo. When he made a reservation, we got the best table in the house. He knew all the busboys. I could not kid JR about the food at this place, which was the wonderful, authentic, Italian cuisine.

So it was that when JR and Charlie would meet, we set up a time for them to do so at the restaurant. Stacey, JR's girlfriend, and I waited at his apartment down the block. It was like a waiting for a mob conference to take place.

One hour. Two hours. It was a good three hours later that JR got back. How'd it go?

It seems it was bromance at first bite. They liked each other immediately - the rest of the three hours seems to have been them talking DP geek stuff and movies endlessly. Obviously, a good fit.

My AD was Chris K. who had been my 2nd AD on Lucky Stiffs and 1st AD on many commercials and other gigs. A big, brusque Irishman, Chris K had started out as a stock broker, left a very successful job to work in film. We met when I was taking my Certificate in Film at NYU after my operation.

Chris K and I had some interesting adventures together. Years earlier, we had started a company that would produce music videos. One of our first meetings was with a record company on 57th Street, and we came out feeling certain that we would get it (um, we didn't).

Years earlier, a girlfriend of mine from a wealthy family had an aunt who used to take us for Royal Afternoon Tea at the Russian Tea Room. We got through the traditional parts of Tea pretty well - the mini-sandwiches, blinis, dessert et al - but then we decided to celebrate with small drinks of vodka. Mind you, we did not do shots - we sipped very good vodka in a very proper, gentlemanly manner.

Only, sadly, too many of them. Don't ask how many. All I remember was getting up to leave and thinking how far the door was from our table and how was I going to ever traverse such an expanse.

Chris had earned my never-ending admiration when he quit a shoot after a well-known actress (I won't mention her name, but her dad, a much better human being, was Detective Mike Logan's second partner on Law and Order) slapped a make-up artist, and told the producers Chris should apologize to her for pointing out that it was she, and not the makeup artist, who was wrong.

It was Chris who had nicknamed my crazy PA Satan's Child on Lucky Stiffs, and Chris who had this wonderfully dark and ironic sense of humor I loved. I walk with a cane, and on one children's PSA I was producing in Central Park on which Chris was the AD, I would tap my wrist (the sign for tapping a watch, or 'look at the time') as I feared we were behind. Chris did not take well to micromanaging (and he knew he was doing alright but I was having a little fun pushing him). He grabbed my cane, threw it as far as he could, looked at me and said "Oh, go fetch."

As the clients looked on astonished, I could only laugh as the horrified children scrambled to get it back to me as quickly as possible. That mean man!

So it was that one afternoon we were sitting in our production office, discussing a production meeting that had transpired in the morning. In the office was the production coordinator, Alison, and a few other crew members who were left over from the meeting. Keeping with the family theme, Alison was a friend from West Bank cafe who had a background in event management. If you're counting, that is one cast member (there would be another), the producer's and director's assistant, and the POC from West Bank Cafe.

The moral of that story is make sure your local watering hole has talented people in your industry. Or not.

JR had not been able to make the production meeting in the AM, having undergone chemo. He showed up as soon as he could in the afternoon.

Understand that Chris had worked with Jack and JR and I on a lot of ADA PSAs, and other projects, so we all went back a long way. Chris looked at him and said, "Hey, JR where were you this morning for the production meeting?"

JR informed him of the chemo session, which triggered one of the funnier very non-PC moments I have experienced.

In his very deep voice, Chris bellowed, "Gee, I wish I had cancer so I could skip production meetings."

Much like my reaction when he tossed my cane, JR immediately cracked up laughing. Going back to my early days with JR and his crew, a constant ribbing was how we got through 16-hour days on sometimes mindless movies with sometimes more mindless people. I started laughing right afterwards, and, after the shock wore off, so did JR's girlfriend (who had been my assistant, POC, and 2nd AD on various shoots).

Anyone who knew JR well knew the last thing he wanted was people's concern or worse, pity, which he ranked up there with sympathy.

The rest of the office, who did not share our past, had the more anticipated reaction - shock, horror, dismay and outright disapproval. Their reaction started with Chris' comment, and moved to these people actually laughing at it.

It's one of my favorite moments with, as well as memories of, JR (who sadly lost his battle with cancer shortly after the film was finished). It was a snapshot of group of friends preparing to embark down the dark river that is film, on the usual boat, the one whose last nail has been put in just as it was about to leave the dock on it's maiden voyage. Each new one is a maiden voyage, like the regulars on Starship Enterprise embarking on some newly-commissioned ship because the last one got destroyed by angry intergalactic neighbors. In our own insane way, this was the image of the crew smiling on the dock, all hope and good wishes.

As Star Trek fans (and JR was a big one) know, they don't make movies about the easy missions.

* It isn't Alfredo, but when I checked a Google map, it seems the restaurant is no longer there. It is something like that, though.

Cancer is Not Funny is a wonderful site that wields one of the most powerful weapons against the biggest fellow enemy of cancer, despair. Laugh on, please.

Monday, August 4, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - The Trouble With Sluttish Eroticism

"Some people have been unkind. If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don't expect me to be serious about my work."
-Marilyn Monroe
Actresses often find that they're damned if they are and they're damned if they aren't - sexy, that is.

Marilyn may be an obvious case of an actress who kept striving to be taken seriously for her work, only to have it all boil down to her looks.  She was, however, neither the first nor the last actress to be "too sexy" to be taken seriously.

One notorious example of this was with none other than (now) Dame Helen Mirren, who faced this problem even as she was a featured actress on the London stage doing "serious" work, including Shakespeare and other classics,  with directors like Peter Brook and Trever Nunn.

In the interview below, Michael Parkinson, a famed BBC interviewer for many years, opens the segment by repeating a review that said Mirren was "telling at projecting sluttish eroticism." When Mirren comes out with a headpiece that she turns into a not-so-subtle phallic prop, she proceeds to turn the table on Parkinson. When he presses her on whether it makes it harder to be an actress when others focus on her "physical attributes," she coyly acts as if she isn't sure what he means.

"Physical attributes? Like my fingers?"

She finally gets him to be as specific as he will be, referring to her "figure." The interview has taken on the stuff of lore. If you've never seen it, watch a truly masterful performance below. (Note that in the shot below, Parkinson's eyes are definitely not on future Dame Mirren's eyes.)

This dilemma is one reason I always gave Charlize Theron credit for taking the role of the unattractive serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster early in her career. She was taking no chances of playing someone's love interest and arm candy forever. Winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar didn't hurt, either.

The misogyny and hypocrisy that surrounded the hiring of women in front of (and behind) the camera had always annoyed me. Men wanted to cast sensual women, but then seemed to blame the women for being to sexy. In both theater and film, I fought to get past this out-dated silliness, so you can imagine how annoying I found it with when it came from my director, Jack. In the year 2000, Jack was still arguing that we could not cast an actress that was 'too sexy' to play Brian's associate and assistant producer, Veronica.

I thought it essential that there be some level of sexual tension between the two characters. It didn't have to end with the two of them in the sack - in fact, I don't think that would have worked - but at some point, it would not be unusual for two people working closely together to form an attraction, whether or not they acted on it.

Jack was insistent that this would never happen, because of sexual harassment laws and because 'workplace romances never work out.' His logic flew in the face of the endless examples in every workplace of people who started out as co-workers and ended as romantic partners.

Jack rejected one attractive actress after another, insisting that he did not want there to be any suggestion that there was anything between the two. Among the women he rejected outright was Sofia Vergara, who was submitted to us. I know what you're thinking. Bad example for my case, as she plays mostly a sexpot on Modern Family. If you had seen her acting reel, you would have seen a lot of good work that went well beyond her "physical attributes."

As luck would have it, we wound up casting an athletic, natural beauty named Brette.

As attractive as Brette is, I think something about her almost her earthy demeanor was less threatening to Jack than actresses that came off softer.

Brette was a real find, and I will give Jack credit where it is due - had we stopped at some of the other actresses, we would not have wound up at Brette (who turned out to be a neighbor of mine at the time). Not only have I never regretted that we cast her, I always saw this as one of those times when two people with starkly different opinions on a project can bring about a better result if they are willing to keep working at it honestly.

Both my casting director and my assistant were thrilled with Brette as well.

I wish this had a happier ending.

Having cast a woman who had charm, beauty and depth, it would have made an attraction even more natural and powerful. However, two things stopped that from happening.

First, Jack kept making it clear that he wanted no suggestion of an attraction on either of their parts. This infuriated me; I had clearly written them with an attraction in mind, and David, who played Brian, thought it made sense as well.

Here was the second problem. David's personality had a negative effect on a lot of people, and Brette had the same aversion to him as a person that my friend Annie found. She was a professional, and it she never let it show in her performance, but any spark between them on screen was dampened before it ever had a chance.

Having cast the two leads, the issue of attractive women came up in the last role we cast, that of the 2nd wife of the retired sheriff (played by Terry Quinn). The idea was that she was much younger and had worked for him, with the suggestion that there was something unsavory about it.

We both thought she should be Hispanic. Jack was more willing to lean to someone more sexy here, but when it came to defining that, Jack and I were not on the same page. It seemed the stress from the compromise each of us felt on casting Veronica spilled over into casting the young wife. Anyone one of us liked, the other one disliked. It's one of those things that has always been hard for me to understand, but, I don't think either of us were rejecting the other's choices intentionally, or certainly not spitefully.

The role of the young wife became a place where, having agreed she could have more on-screen 'heat,' now, it would be a matter of how much. It is possible Jack is one of those male directors who is just not comfortable with working with that side of the male/female connection. Frankly, I always felt that most of Martin Scorsese's early films had this problem, and thought maybe there was some side of Scorsese's Roman Catholic upbringing that allowed him to show women as either Madonnas (not the singer) or Temptresses, and the lack of any real love scenes was interesting.

There was no Catholic guilt that I could detect from Jack, even though he was Irish-Catholic. He had a normal and healthy sex life. I just think he had trouble with bringing that out on screen, directing an actress to express that side of her.

We went through an amazing number of women for a role that had less than a handful of lines. Our casting director and my assistant Christine were past the point of rolled eyes. Jack actually suggested Vergara for this role; we all quickly pointed out that while her people submitted her for a female lead, they never would have considered her for such a small role.

I don't think we ever agreed on anyone, but we did eventually settle on someone neither of us hated (but neither of us were exited about, either).

With casting done, we had just a few more things to settle in pre-production before moving on to filming. In the next few posts, the difficulty with location managers, dealing with the recurrence of an illness for JR, and more on the down side of working with "family."

UPDATE: An interesting note. Brette will be appearing in TWO TV series this fall - As Batman's mother in "Gotham" and as a Luke's new back-up singer and muse on "Nashville." Good to hear.