Monday, January 26, 2015

This Gun For Hire - Part 1 - My 19th Nervous Breakdown

"The dark night of the soul is not restricted to holy people. It can happen to anyone. I believe that in some ways it happens to everyone." Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul

While Stan and I often joked about how we went into retirement after every film - another gold watch -  it was also sometimes true that a particular project would be so emotionally draining as to leave my faith in film in taters.

My overwhelming disappointment on how Town Diary turned out and the loss of my dear friend JR left me in such a place.

To call it disillusionment suggests almost a morose state of ennui. This was not the case. This was full on anxiety and burning doubt.

"This is not what I do.  This is who I am," I would sometimes share with women in my life who were important to me, including my (now ex and) future wife. 

If this were true; if harnessing the various creative forces was the core of my being,  what would it say if I now thought all of it for naught?

Moore again:

“During the dark night there is no choice but to surrender control, give in to unknowing, and stop and listen to whatever signals of wisdom might come along. It’s a time of enforced retreat and perhaps unwilling withdrawal. The dark night is more than a learning experience; it’s a profound initiation into a realm that nothing in the culture, so preoccupied with external concerns and material success, prepares you for.” 

What happens when life shatters the great "what if"? 'What if' I got to see my screenplay done, and not these inferior screenplays I have worked on? 'What if' the director was a friend and someone I respected, and someone who respected me? 'What if' I was able to surround myself with the crew people I most respected?

'What if' I did all that and it didn't work? 

As with a more recent experience, the darkest part of this place was that I found myself adrift in windless waters, motionless sails, the middle of the metaphysical ocean; mourning the safe shores of what was the heartbeat of my life for so long, unwilling to head towards the safer shores of a "normal" job.

So it was that I came upon a tiny but magical island, one whose flora and fauna were comfortably familiar, but whose landscape seemed so much more hopeful, more settled. Yes, I could use my knowledge of my fading land here, while maybe planting fresh and wonderful seeds that could grow with stability, without the insanity of long, pressure-filled days. Here, there would be the comforts of security and normal work hours and nothing but happy people who could help art be made but not be burdened by all the hang-ups I found on set.

Behold, this beautiful land, this blessed place - Shooting Gallery, or, more precisely, it's operation division, Gun for Hire.

The opening was for a Director of Operations for Gun For Hire, which helped managed two facilities in the Lower Manhattan at 110 Leroy Street and 609 Greenwich Street. In many ways, the position was less film production and more chief maintenance person, keeping track of day-to-day operations assisting VP and Head of Operations for Shooting Gallery and designer of Gun for Hire, Dave Tuttle, one of the smartest and most forward-thinking production people I have been honored to meet in my life.

As I mentioned in the linked article, meeting with Dave for this position was such a great experience. Dave had been a line producer himself, and understood that I was burned out. I was going to love it there, Dave told me, and, for the most part, he was right. There were many good things about my time there.

But I wasn't looking for good. If I were to let go of one dream, I wanted it replaced by another.

Xanadu. Shangri-La. Narnia. The Garden of Eden. No matter how old and jaded we get, deep somewhere in us is a happy child that wants to believe. As we get older, it becomes Camelot, where all that is good and true can exist.

Students of history and literature know that these shining places have a shelf-life. As it turned out, I landed after the apple had been eaten, the final battle of Salisbury Plain was already underway.
In the following posts, I will describe my brief but important time at Shooting Gallery and Gun For Hire, and my personal view of the Misfire.

At the beginning, though, I was sure I had arrived. After all, I was at the home of Slingblade and You Can Count On Me. For sure, I had come out the other end of Moore's Dark Night:

"It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves that we miss the depths of the loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Color of Money Isn't Always Green

"When making a business decision, the only color that matters is green."
-Dom Pagnotti, He Got Game
(NOTE: I try to keep this blog to the world I know best - low budget indie filmmaking from a production perspective. Sometimes, however, my knowledge of that world can shed light on topics in the news. While I have no intention of having this blog become a "soapbox" from which to make broader assumptions, some things need to be said.)

Worrying about who does or does not get nominated, no less wins, awards in the movie business is pointless. Opinions are like that anatomical feature where the sun don't shine - everyone has one.  Or, as William Goldman once famously said, "In Hollywood nobody knows anything."

So, when Ava DuVernay was not nominated for her direction of Selma, I was neither angry nor surprised. Let's remember that Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award for a motion picture he directed*, and many talented directors have been passed over. Odd as it may seem, directors of nominations for Best Picture are often passed over

All of this suggests that there was no grand conspiracy on the part of the voters to snub Ms. DuVernay, nor was there a conscious racial or gender bias. I cannot imagine many - if any - of those people saying "I'm not voting for this Black female director."

Still, I was forced to reply when I read a comment in reply to a Forbes article by Scott Mendelson (who was angry about the snub) that said 'I have worked in Hollywood, and the only gender that matters is talent, and the only color that matters is green.' This person was making an assumption that is logical, but untrue, either in Hollywood or even in the indie world with which I am more familiar (more on that later).

Yes, the folks in Hollywood WOULD hire talent blindly, IF they knew it when they see it. They do not. A look at the tremendous number of box office failures each year tells us that.

The way the money people in Hollywood keep their jobs is by making safe choices. If you make a blockbuster movie and hire George Clooney in the lead and it fails, it's unlikely you will lose your job. Monument Men, anyone? If you hire a heretofore unknown in that same lead and it fails, everyone looks for your head. "How could he be so stupid?" Especially on the studio level, keeping your job is more important than making money, and, as you are talking about a world of OPM - Other People's Money - the two do not always go hand-in-hand.

What that means is that track record matters, and, thus, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hire those you know because its safe, so they keep getting to make movies, and their track records get longer, and so it goes.

Even if Selma were to sweep the Oscars, the studios (which is where the big money is) would STILL say that Ms. DuVernay only succeeded with Selma because it was a "Black" movie, and argue that she could not direct some subject matter where race is not an issue. To paraphrase Robert Evans, in Hollywood, there are 100 reasons to say no and very few to say yes.

If Hollywood is so gender blind, why was an Oscar winning actress at the height of her talents and looks - Charlize Theron - being paid $10M less than her male co-star before the Sony hack?

In the days when I was still trying to raise money for indie projects, one "fact" I was told in terms of casting is that, regardless of the popularity of the lead actress, the financing depends on the male lead. I was once raising money for a project where I had another former Academy-Award winner attached (Best Supporting Actress) and investor after investor told me that it "didn't matter," and why didn't I get someone like Eric Estrada attached for the much smaller male lead (it was the 90s, and Estrada was one of the go-to names you always got as a 'sure-thing' when raising money).

Since posting this, David Carr wrote a very good article in the NY Times with much the same theme. He points out - as others have - that the Academy, in the last few years, is 93% White, 76% Male and an average of 63 years old.There were a number of articles that popped up today about how many movies about White men won nominations today, and how skewed the nominations seemed.  

It's worth noting that Director nominations come from the DGA - not the Academy, and that Best Actor Awards come from SAG, a group  that is much more diverse. He mentions what may be even a bigger problem - that  Paramount had planned its push for Interstellar much longer, and belatedly got behind Selma , doing so only after it received critical acclaim. This seems more important to me. Anyone who followed the difficulty a member of the "club" - George Lucas - had getting  Red Tails financed tells you that in the halls of power, where the money is, there is still a belief that movies that feature women or people of color are "niche" movies and don't have a wider audience. 

There was never any proof of this myth of money and gender, but it was a perpetuated over and over again for years. While I hear it less often now, it clearly has not gone away when it comes to money and gender equality.

If anyone thinks gender and race have nothing to do with who Hollywood entrusts it's money to, then they likely also think we live in a post-racial, society.  I suggest that they look a little closer.

Even in terms of my smaller world of indie film, gender matters. Race matters. In fact, everything matters.  I have been told - more than once - that a certain African-American would be a bad "fit" with a certain director (in one specific case, a famous TV actor who was directing his first short). I have been asked if a female First AD could "handle" a difficult director or situation.

There is no doubt that there are more opportunities for not only women and people of color today in the indie film world and Hollywood, but for folks from all walks of life and backgrounds. I can remember when producers would question my hiring of a female gaffer or female assistant camera, asking if the "cute little things" could carry that heavy equipment (in the film days, carrying heavy mag boxes was part of an AC's job).  That rarely comes up anymore.

It's also thankfully true that awards don't guarantee future funding or hires, and lack of them does not preclude those possibilities.

Sometimes, the bias can even be worked to a filmmaker's advantage. I worked as line producer on an obscure film by a first-time female feature director that raised a good deal of it's money from women who were attracted to precisely because of it's female perspective on love.

Maybe if we stopped making believe that we did not see differences in people, but rather acknowledged it and tried to deal with it, we would make progress toward that post-differences world a little quicker.  In the meantime, let's at least stop being so surprised when it happens.

*Hitchcock did, of course, win a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance*, (or, There's Something About Actors)

"We Do Not Rent To Theatricals"**
- Old Rooming House Sign

(SPOILER ALERT - While discussing  the film Birdman, I will try not to give away too much of the plot, and definitely not the ending. That said, it's hard to write this post without discussing what happens in the movie, and that can certainly sometimes harm the experience. If you haven't seen the movie and would like to - you have been warned.)

Do not fear. I have no intention of deviating from the course of this blog, which is the insanity of a career on the production side of low-budget independent film, to indie film criticism. Many folks do it just fine right now, and, on the other end of the spectrum, many more people already do it badly, and I have no intention of competing with either crowd.

This is similar to my early forays in the world of the arts, which was as a writer and actor, a profession that had a similar spectrum. That side of my career when I came to a not-so-different decision that the world did not need one more mediocre actor, which I imagined was the extent of my talent.

My viewing of a matinee of Birdman  came on the heels of  finally finishing my series on Town Diary. Thank you, holiday time in New York, for providing an elder production person with ample free time to go to matinees.

It was only two short posts ago that I mentioned that my original plan for that script was not unlike this one, about the insanity of the backstage life in the theater. Of course, this is a path with deep tread marks in film, going back to the very early days, from the "I've got a barn. You've got the costumes. Let's put on a show" musicals to backstage back-stabbing in movies like All About Eve, to neurosis of the characters in Tootsie, which, while it covers soap operas, is filled with earnest, honest, true ac-tors from the theater world. Both Birdman and Tootsie are filled with characters determined to stay true to their pure art and eschew the crass and commercial (soap operas in the case of Tootsie, and the deluge of comic-book movies in Birdman.)

In fact, many of the characters in Birdman have sympatico companions in Tootsie. Ed Norton's insistence on the truth, and nothing but the truth, has echoes of Bill Murray's playwright ("I don't want my plays done at the Uris Theater. I only want my plays done in a little theater in the Village where the only people who see them are people who come in out of the rain")*** and of course, Hoffman's vain actor ("Nobody does vegetables like me!"). Teri Garr's neurotic actress would be right at home with this group. Where Garr's character famously tells Hoffman of the role he eventually takes, "I can't play her - she's, she's - she's a woman", one actress in Birdman comforts another in this scene.

Lesley: "I wish I had more self-respect?"
Laura: "You're an actress."

Indeed, Birdman is the movie that every film person who comes out of the theater world wants to write and/or direct. When done right - and this film is, for the most part - it offers a world where people are at the same time funny caricatures and real people who demand that you care about them. I got the same belly-laughs out of this that I got out of films like Tootsie and Noises Off and, on the film side, Tropic Thunder, The Player, and, of course, the inspiration of this blog's title, Living in Oblivion.

We are, after all, like family. We will defend our frailties, eccentricities and foibles to the death to the outside world, but among ourselves, we love nothing more than to pick at those same oddities. Undeniably, there is also the shadenfreude of watching others suffer as we have suffered.

Birdman does a very good job with the genre. Still, as I pondered it on the way home (yes, having all this free time leaves me time to not only see matinees, but ponder about them), the question that always troubles me about these films comes back. Sure, we love them but do "civilians" love them as much as we do?

To some degree, this can be said of any profession. If I search the internet, I'm sure there is a blog post of airplane pilots wondering this about Airplane. As with Tootsie, if they are broad enough, of course any audience will enjoy them just as much.

That is a problem with an "indie" film like Birdman. It spends so much time dismissing the crass commercialism of blockbusters that it would be an abject failure if it was broad enough for that audience, where as a film like Tropic Thunder can wear over-the-top blockbuster like a badge of honor.

Here, I started to think that Jack was right; that if we had done, this, it would have had limited appeal. We both loved Waiting for Guffman, but if we were going to be an even more obscure version of that film, there wasn't much chance of success. OK, so in the end we did not have any commercial success with Town Diary, and only limited critical success (Jack and I shared a screenwriting award from a very small L.A. festival).

I have a hunch that a lot of the critical acclaim and love for this film in the indie world comes exactly from this familiarity, and for many festival voters and indie film critics rooting exactly for this type of film and a character like Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson. Keaton is an easy guy to root for and the parallels to his actual career (walking away from a third Batman the way his character, Thomson, walked away from "Birdman 4") make this a natural for him. The cinematography helps as well, accentuating every line and crease of his face, his receding hair line, the bags under his eyes, his sagging physique (though I would take it - he doesn't look that out of shape).We feel his pain.

Don't get me wrong. I really enjoyed this movie, and I'm fine if he and this movie gets awards. It entertained me. What more can I ask? If this was a review, it would get both of my thumbs pumped high in the air like celebratory fists***.

The more I thought about it, it was better than the outline I wrote for that comedy, so maybe, on this point, Jack was right. Maybe the world didn't need another one of these films either. In the end, though the fruit was sweet, it was of the low-hanging variety.

NB - Keaton won a Golden Globe, as did the screenplay

*This is the subtitle for the Birdman, in case you didn't know. Does a movie title really need a subtitle?

** I used to have one of these signs, and I remember them being popular in the homes of my theater buddies. I have never done the historical research necessary to say whether they were authentic or just another self-depricating reference. If anyone out there knows for sure, please leave a comment below.

***Some of the Tootsie quotes are from memory - I love those lines, but some were not on IMDB quotes and I don't have the script. If they are off by a word or two, don't shoot me.

****If you are too young to remember, this is a reference to the old Siskel and Ebert review show, which became a template for so many of those shows to follow. As you might imagine, this show, which began on PBS, had much more insightful criticism than most TV review shows today, yet it was incredibly entertaining. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were reviewers for competing Chicago newspapers, at a time when newspapers still mattered. Neither was very TV savvy in the beginning, and the resulting spontaneity was much more fun than the more scripted shows today. We lost both of them too soon.