Monday, May 30, 2011

Art as Activism

An evil priest in a provocative parable

George Takei and I have a lot in common. 

Let me explain.

In writing “Spewing Pulp”, I had taken the heavy-handed subplot of the gang committing hate crimes on the street and, instead, let the book be more of an indirect j’accuse aimed at George W. Bush and those like him who felt that discrimination based on religion was justifiable in the secular arena of government.  In short, the hate crimes went from a specific group of thugs to society at large and from an explicit part of the plot to an implicit part of the theme. It was not my first demonstration of civil rights activism, but it was the first time I did it directly through my art. 

Then, I learned I was not alone in such a venture.  Multi-talented Lynne Jacobellis had devised a film project to stand as her own statement against California’s Proposition 8—a ballot initiative giving the populace the right to vote on one group’s access to equal protection under the law; specifically, that of gay Americans to have the right to marriage and its protections.  Jacobellis had fashioned a sort of Twilight Zone parable and I was excited to be a part of it… 

The film, Constitution USA, has a black and white 1950’s look ala those awful instructional films for teenagers of yesteryear.   We are introduced to a lady lecturing, telling us we are about to see a story that will demonstrate a very important rule in our society.  Cut to…

 A sweet, doe-eyed boy shares giddy, shy smiles with a pretty girl.  They dare to hold hands.  Then—someone approaches and they pull their hands apart.  No, they’re not from feuding families or different classes; in this world, only homosexual partnerings are considered acceptable for long-term adult relationships and raising a family.  But Joe is who he is and he loves who he loves; he pleads to his two mothers to try to understand.  But they bring in Father Joseph to take the boy away for conversion therapy…or maybe something even worse.

 So guess who plays Father Joseph?  Yep.  I’m the bad guy once again.  I sweep in, make judgment and have my goons drag the kid away.  (Yes, I have goons.)  It’s actually very dramatic and harrowing…and also a little goofy melodramatic—which perfectly echoes and spoofs the tone of those old scare tactic films like Reefer Madness.  But the film does make the point that love has no rules and that it is wrong to allow a tyranny of the majority—especially when it wants to willfully disenfranchise a minority, be they black, Japanese, or gay.

More recently, George Takei has taken the torch.  (Ah, yes:  the Takei connection.)  You can follow his work on this issue at:  It's ok to be Takei.  He's witty, wise and wonderful.  Taylor Swift has also made a bold and beautiful  statement with the anti-bullying message of her song “Mean” (Taylor Swift's "Mean").   And many others—even 17 year-old Devon Hicksare taking a stand and making a noise to help improve the world.  It’s amazing and wonderful.  So I feel like I’m in pretty darn good company on this front.  And company and communication is what art as activism is all about.

So pick up a pen, a banjo or brush and see what you can do.   You may surprise yourself.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Blood and Guts

Me as a snarky Prison Guard.

Leaning against a tree in the only shade of a hot, dusty day, my prison guard uniform itches me—making me into a sort of prisoner, myself. The guy next to me actually sports a bright orange prison jumpsuit…and he sits in a deserted child’s swing tied to the tree. It’s a surreal image—a juxtaposition, a mash-up. But that’s the order of the day, here, on the set of “Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf”, a comedic sushi/western/horror hybrid about a blind samurai avenging the death of his family… 

…in the old American west…

…with zombies. 

Of course. 

The other exceptionally ironic element is the lovely conversation I’m having with the prisoner I’m guarding. Sure, he’s an incarcerated, deranged killer. But he’s also being played by horror film actor/producer Domiziano Arcangeli who is just about the sweetest, most soft spoken, gentle man I’ve met in years. You’d think he couldn’t bear to slip a knife into a butter stick, let alone into people. But then we’re called for our scene and he proceeds to go psycho-ballistic and mercilessly beat the shit out of me.  

Good times. 

Director Kurando Mitsutaki and his crew are rockstar professionals, able to tweak on the fly to make each moment be the best it can be. I am in two short, but surprisingly complicated scenes that included some FX and some fighting—and we are done by lunch. (Lunch, by the way, is excellent. You never know what you’re gonna get, food-wise: offerings vary from passable to “Can I make a reservation for tomorrow evening?” The Avenger spread has us all happy campers on the food front.)

Despite the dust, the heat and the dirt, my day on the set is likely the cleanest of the entire production. Partly because my death is bloodless; most other days, actors are dripping with blood or oozing with gore. “Avenger” is not a movie for the faint of heart. But if you can stomach it, you will be rewarded with some wonderful surprises: like Amanda Plummer’s near dues-ex-machina cameo, the spilt bullet that does double kill duty, the assassin who hypnotizes with her boobs…and the flying zombie baby.
Yeah: a flying zombie baby. Ain’t no other movie got that.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A S.P.I.F.F.Y. Idea

Me in a hallucination...or not.

I was a lab rat…in a film about lab rats: a very bizarre, surreal head trip of a film about lab rats.  

“Freudian Eyebrow”, a mix of campy horror comedy and psychological thriller, tells the tale of an offbeat group of college students partaking in a mysterious midnight experiment that involves drugs, hallucinations and a suspicious proctor. Director/Producer Stephen Mouton had created what he called the Speed Process for Improving Feature Films (S.P.I.F.F.) as a way to minimize wasting environmental resources and improve return on investment for investors. “Freudian Eyebrow” was to be the prototype; so everyone involved was, in a sense, a lab rat. Seemed apropos.

I was playing the nefarious proctor--a smug, sadistic creep called Herr Phyno Zeit. It was a juicy, over-the-top, scenery-chewing role; the kind you rarely get a chance to play  in film. Did Zeit really work for the drug company subsidizing the experiment, or not?  Was he really a hypnotist?  Was his worst vice a snarky penchant for S&M?  Or was there something darker under his Nazi-esque nastiness…something bordering on sociopath? The film lays out manifold questions and only a few answers. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland meets David Lynch by way of Judd Apatow.

Being the ultimate extreme S.P.I.F.F. prototype, the film was shot in four days. Yep: a full length feature filmed in four days. That made for an exciting and challenging shoot; everyone had to be on top of their game, focused and ready to handle every Murphy’s Law eruption that came our way. Scenes were rewritten, cut and shuffled left and right; anything to keep production on schedule. It was a maelstrom of madness…and it was an utterly unforgettable experience. The resulting film, odd and imperfect as it is, has gone on to garner a nice handful of awards from the indie film circuit; some in direct recognition of the experiment that it was. Being part of that experiment--a part of the prototype, a part of the first S.P.I.F.F. film ever made--is a pretty cool thing. 

And I got a kick from one reviewer's take on my character:  “That dude was a freak!” 

Yes.  Yes, I was.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What The Dickens?

Adapted, actually, for the stage.

"So whaddya think"?

He asked me this and my first response (though I didn’t say it out loud) was “What have you been smoking?"

 My friend (who had spent the past several years as Artistic Director for a handful of small theaters) suddenly had the idea that he wanted to direct an original version of "The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" on a sixteen-foot stage with no wings and no fly space and no budget and, gee, would I write it?

Dickens’ novel, is a tome with dozens of characters, plots and subplots such that putting it on stage could likely cause audiences to attain something akin to vertigo.  The Royal Shakespeare Company had done a version about a quarter of a century earlier and, despite leaving out vast chunks of the book, their version still ran over eight hours.  But something about the idea appealed to me:  it was a little like climbing Mount Everest; I wondered if I could actually pull off taming the beast into a single evening’s theatrical entertainment.  Thus motivated, I kissed my common sense goodbye and told Herr Director I'd give it a go.

I began reading and was reminded immediately how detailed Boz could be; he gives so many minute visual descriptions that it's a bit like looking at people through a microscope; his characters almost all border on the grotesque.  This, however, is a benefit for Nickleby which balances the melodramatic elements with wildly comedic ones.  The villainous are wretched to the core and the clowns are cartoonic to absurdity.  Kind of like politicians.

So there was no way to fit all the characters and adventures into a single evening of theater; the story would have to be shorn to its barest essentials, somehow without damaging the richness of the tale.  I felt a sense of relief and pleasure to discover what could be removed came fairly easily to me.  I also fell in love with some characters that no previous adaptation, to my recollection, had ever really exploited; they would be given life in mine.  Finally, I fashioned it into something that could be done with sixteen actors in two and a half hours.

While I was busy writing, my friend quit his job as Artistic Director for the theater where we were originally going to produce the show.  So we now had a script but nowhere to bring it to life.  Thus, he now suggested we produce the show ourselves.  I suggested we chug hemlock, light ourselves on fire and leap off a precipice.  As much as I liked and respected the guy, I wasn’t anxious to get involved in as risky a financial venture as theater.  But I was talked into it and I now have new-found respect for producers of small theater.  There isn’t a drama you could put on the stage to equate the drama that went on to get this show up before an audience:  artistic differences, broken set pieces and an endless parade of gowns and frockcoats that either didn’t fit or didn’t work, bringing new meaning to the phrase “costume drama”.   It never seemed to end. 

Thankfully, we were blessed with a monstrously talented and professional cast.  Regardless of all the other horrors and drudgeries of producing the show, working with those actors was a treat and watching them turn into the characters before my eyes was always a thrilling experience; the performances each night were truly the prize. 

Although, of course, there was even a caveat to that which came from the theater directly below ours; a theater where a bona fide Freak Show played (this was Hollywood, after all).  This meant that on Friday nights, always about the time of our most heart-wrenching death scene, we could hear the Firecracker Man exploding himself below.   

Talk about going out with a bang.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Brushes and Chickens and Mice! Oh, My!

Zoom in right here, baby!

Commercials often pay extremely well for the few hours you actually have to work.  And let’s face it:  no one would do them if that wasn’t the case; they are usually unglamorous, unlikely to advance your career, and showcase very little of your talent.  But if you can make a few thousand dollars acting like an idiot for a few hours, it’s not as bad as all those people around you every day acting like idiots and not getting paid for it. 

So I got a commercial agent and got on the carousel.

You end up clocking in a lot more hours than the actual job entails as you schlep to and wait for each audition that will potentially lead to said job. In these waiting rooms, I realize my place in the world.  I go out for all the thin, short, quirky-looking guy roles, because that’s pretty much me in a nutshell.  But in a roomful of guys with similar traits, I begin to doubt.  Did I think I was on the thin side?  I will find myself surrounded by boys so bony it looks like an Anorexia Anonymous meeting.  Did I think I was on the small side?  I am suddenly a giant among dwarfs.  Did I think I had a quirky look about myself?  I am a virtual Brad Pitt compared to the gathering of Gollums that will emerge from god-knows-where.  Thus, audition waiting rooms become like “Groundhog Day” as directed by David Lynch.  How can I compete with the true Freaks and Geeks of the planet?   I mean:  I’m an actor…not a sideshow. 

Then, I finally get called inside for the audition.  And let there be no doubt:  they are quite often the most absurd and humiliating things you can experience.  In one week, I was asked to play a man who acted like a mouse, a drug-addicted chicken, and a paint brush.  Yes...a paint brush.  For this I studied acting how many years?  Nevertheless, I stand there doing my best paint brush impression as I wonder if Meryl Streep ever auditioned for an inanimate object.  (Although if she did, I bet she kicked some serious paint brush ass).

And then some of these commercial folks are so serious—despite the moronic nature of the task at hand—my best acting comes from not letting them know I’m laughing so hard inside I’m mentally peeing my pants.  (Talk about water on the brain.) You remember the drug-addicted chickens?  The director was so serious and somber as he laid out a complete list of specific body mannerisms we needed to emulate in perfectly calibrated proportions.   I wondered how many drug-addicted chickens he’d studied that he knew this detail.  Did he work part time at a halfway house for chicks on crack?

Apparently, I managed to kick druggie-chicken ass, because I got a call that they were interested and wanted to know if I would be willing to shave my chest for the role.  My mind sputtered like an old carburetor or something, chugging out random thoughts:  “Who will see my chest?  Won’t I be in a chicken suit?”  “Chickens have feathers, anyway.”  “Or are these hairless chickens?”  “Should I be glad they aren’t skinless?”  “Or boneless?”   Of course, I say to the lady on the phone, “Absolutely!  No problem!”   I’m a seasoned actor/whore:  I will shave my chest, my head, my eyebrows; just give me the friggin’ job. 

Despite my tonsorial congeniality, I do not get the job.

It was for the birds, anyway.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Shocking Bit Part

I'm all the way on the right, next to the director.

Low budget, independent filmmaking is one part love, one part dream, two parts crazy and nine parts nightmare.  If you haven’t planned properly, you might as well have chosen to ride a bull on crack while buck naked and slathered in KY.  The successful production team has a plan A, B, C and a few more letters just in case.  The seasoned actor knows enough to expect changes, improvise as needed and go with the flow.  Not only does this make for more relaxed and productive shoots, it also can bring about unexpected jewels that make a film—or your role in it—spark. 

Sometimes literally.

            Such was the case when I was cast in a film to play a nameless construction worker.  I was between acting gigs and it was just a day-player job, so I was game:  without a huge time commitment, I could squeeze in another credit, meet some new people, network, etc.  I was also kind of tickled because, being a small-framed guy, they don’t come banging on my door for macho roles often: I get office nerds, evil weasels and hapless wimps…not jocks, cops, or construction workers.  So I was looking forward to playing something manly for a change. 

A few weeks from the original casting note, I got a second note telling me my role had been altered; I was now going to play Perry Jr., the laidback son of the owner.   That was okay by me:  sure I would lose the butch factor of being one of the crew, but I'd gain a name which would look way better on the résumé than “Construction Worker #7”.

A few weeks later, I got another note saying I was now playing Jim, the comedian of the crew.   Good thing I hadn’t been working on my lines (which would have been tough since I still hadn’t seen the script).  So now I had a name and testosterone.  I got the scenes and apparently the Jim character had been cut previously, and was now back, but the script was not revised.  So there were just notes in the margins that said “improv here”.  Being “the comedian”, I figured I’d better come up with something funny.  I had jokes about getting wood, big loads--all sorts of off-color gems at the ready.

Anyway, on the day, I drove out to BFE to the construction site where we were filming.  The rest of the cast and crew arrived, prepped for the first shoot and ate donuts.  It was pretty much business as usual.  Then we got word we were on hold because one of the actors was late.  You can always go forward if you’re missing an extra or two, but when you have a featured actor AWOL, you really do have to wait…or re-write the script…or something... 

So we waited.  The director assured us we would only wait a certain amount of time before Plan B would go into effect.  We wondered what Plan B might be.  Would it affect our scenes?  The missing actor was in every scene with us—two of them centering around him.  I secretly coveted the missing guy’s role; it was really the only stand out of the bunch.  I thought, selfishly, how I wouldn’t mind one bit stepping in for the guy.

Eventually, the director made the call and told us we were going to begin…with one change:  I was to play the featured role in the missing actor’s stead.  I was stoked.  And spooked.  You don’t usually get what you wish for that fast.  But that’s how it went down.  So I shoveled rocks with the rest, hoisted tiles with the rest, shared a bottle of Jack with the rest…but I was the only one to get electrocuted.  (Yep…my character is big on smiles, but not too big on brain cells, so when I touch a few exposed wires to prove they’re not live, I prove myself wrong and take a few jolts before the lead pushes me out of more harm’s way.  Then, the boss gives me a special wink in a later scene as well to make sure I’m all right.)  I even incorporated the donuts into my part, giving my name “Sweet Tooth” a visual cue.  So I went from nameless grunt to memorable dork.  I'll take that.

So the lessons here are plain.  First:  plan ahead for obstacles and alternatives—whether you’re making a film or just trying to get somewhere on time.  Second:  keep your improv skills handy at all times.  Third:  be careful what you wish for; you just might get it…and it might shock you!  (Yuk, yuk.)

Oh, yeah.  Fourth:  never run out of donuts.

Friday, May 20, 2011

This Show’s A Pisser!

Me as an older, wealthy art collector.

        Live theater has a unique energy that film just can’t capture: both audience and actors share the excitement of the adrenaline of the moment; of life happening right in front of you.  Anything can happen.  Sometimes, anything does happen. 

        I was playing a leading role in a somewhat famous play at a theater known, as some theaters are, to have a ghost.  I had witnessed no supernatural events, but the legend added to the experience, nevertheless, as we all could wonder what might next move the spirit to make itself known.  The phantom never showed and one seat always remained empty.  Or was the ghost merely completely invisible and attended every show?  We never knew. 

        What was painfully clear is that the ghost was not the only thing that haunted this theater.  Without fail, on Sunday matinees, the crowd that collected had a fair share of what is unkindly called “blue-hairs”.  Now I like to think of senior citizens enjoying an afternoon of theater in a celebratory fashion, not a derogatory one.  While one cast member mumbled, like a doomed Dorothy “Walkers and crutches and canes—oh, my!”   I remained steadfast in my love and respect; we would all be old one day and god bless them for coming.  That was my general sensibility. 

        However, this particular matinee truly tried my temperament.  It was intermission and we had already heard a baker’s dozen crackling candy wrappers, a cane crash to the floor, and the usual “What did he say?” innumerable times when the stage manager came back to inform us that the hiatus would be extended to allow for some clean-up:  one old woman had decided—rather than make the effort to go to the ladies’ room—to conveniently relieve herself in the audience.   She had apparently stood up and simply let the golden shower go.  I suppose one could say the circumstances were quite lucky:  she was in the back, so not too many people noticed and, because she stood, at least she didn’t ruin a seat.  One cast member had just finished performing in “Urinetown:  The Musical”.  He was as disappointed as the rest of us to discover he was now in “Urinetown:  The Reality Show”.

        As if this were not enough to—excuse the term—dampen our spirits, we got word that enough of the older folks were complaining that they couldn’t hear.  This sent my marvelously talented, if histrionic, costar into a state of indignant disbelief. 

        “How could they not hear me?” she bellowed.  “I have the loudest mouth of anyone I know!” 

        No one disagreed.  We were all getting—excuse the term—pissy.  Audiences had no trouble hearing us previously; we weren’t suddenly whispering just for kicks.  If these people had bad hearing, they should have known it before today and either requested front row seats or invested in hearing aides.  Now they weren’t just incontinent, they were deaf as well.  And kvetching, no less! 

        I made a mental note that I would try to raise my volume a bit, but that I was not going to alter my performance for a few, ill-equipped old goats.  (So much for my compassionate consideration.)  My costar, on the other hand was resolute:  if they couldn’t hear her before, they sure as hell were going to hear her now.  I smiled, letting her blow off steam.  I figured all would be fine once Act Two got going.

        I was wrong.  We walked out on stage together.  I said my first line, possibly slightly louder than usual.  I was then blasted across the stage by the sound barrier as my costar brayed her line with the subtitle:  CAN . . . YOU . . . HEAR . . . ME . . . NOW . . . YOU . . . OLD . . . DEAF . . . MOTHER F*@KERS???  She over-enunciated every word at such a ridiculous volume, I wondered if some of the younger audience members worried that my leading lady had suffered a stroke during intermission.  Regardless what any of us thought, for the rest of the play, my costar performed each line as though she were trapped in a sick, slow motion while trying to explain something to a foreigner who didn’t speak English.  Her whole body writhed with her effort; she practically used sign language.  It was exhausting to watch.  And hilarious.  I couldn’t look at her.  I could hardly concentrate on my lines.  Not only had our show been peed on, now I was acting with a gorgon on methadone who thought she was a female Barney.  

        The second act dragged an interminable agony.  It took my costar twenty minutes to get through three sentences.  I have never had to fight laughter so hard.  I thought I might pee my pants as well; it seemed de rigueur. By the time we got to the end, the poor woman was wrecked.  For that matter, so was I.  Oddly enough, we both got rather rousing applause.  I’ll never know if they were applauding our acting or our stamina.  Maybe they were just happy it was over.  God knows I was.

        A curious coda:  as we took our final bows, out of the corner of my eye, I swore I saw a silhouetted figure in the phantom’s us a standing ovation.

        But he may have just been peeing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Novel Idea

Rebellious literature of mine.

When I got out of college, I was more or less a working class peon, living in a tiny, ratty, rent-controlled apartment and fairly discontent and depressed about the whole scenario.  That prompted me to begin writing; it's a sick habit artists have, trying to turn pain into Pulitzers.  I took pieces of my life and the lives of those around me and fashioned them into a novel about a discontent and depressed working class peon, living in a tiny, ratty, rent-controlled apartment and a group of horrific, hateful young bigots who were planning their next, righteous act of violence.  It was very depressing.  In fact, it was so depressing I couldn't finish it.  I put the book in a file cabinet and left it for another time in my life when I might either find some value in it or laugh myself silly over it.

Years later, that time arrived.  I had been writing screenplays for so long I was sick of them and went digging through my files looking for inspiration.  I found the file of this abandoned work, pulled it out and started reading, thinking it would be a laugh.  Wrong.  It was still depressing.  Most depressing was seeing the very angry, cynical and bitter side of myself—or my younger self—so obviously reflected in the pages.  Even what vague scraps of hope were implied by the notes detailing how the novel was to end left no room for question; it was to be utterly devastating.  If I had finished it, they would have had to give out free razor blades with every book.

I wondered if enough time had passed that I could turn the novel around; change its tone and make it less "Less Than Zero" and more "Bridget Jones' Diary".  So many things had happened to me since those disheartening days that the melodramatic hyperbole, though honest and poignant in its passion, struck me as just a little silly.  I started to see wry, ironic angles everywhere.  Thus, I began turning the tragic tale into a snarky celebration of bon mots and set pieces.  I threw out the ending and almost everything about the minority-bashing bigots.  I changed the main character from a bitter, depressed novelist to a witty, wavering poet.  I set a new tone and a new direction. Then, I got another idea.

I thought about why I wanted to write a novel as opposed to another screenplay.  If you've ever read a book you loved and then seen a movie based on it, you'll no doubt recall being disappointed by something the movie left out.  Movies always leave things out.  They have to or they'd be five days long.  It's just part of the difference in the two media:  novels have all the time in the world to fill you in on whatever detail will enrich the tale; movies that aren't by James Cameron have to be over in about two hours, so anything not absolutely crucial to the plot has to go.  I thought it might be amusing to do both, sort of side by side, and show what the novel has that the movie leaves out.  (It occurred to me, once it was done, that it could be instructive for future screenwriters, showing how novels "tell" and screenplays "show", though that was not the point.)  I merely hoped people would find it entertaining to see the disparity because, when you look at what a novel might tell you versus what a film ends up showing you, the gap between the two is often quite funny. 

Funny.  That was the point.  It seemed to fit in to the theme quite nicely and, so what had begun all those years ago as a traditional narrative, suddenly evolved into a multi-dimensional, unclassifiable opus.  For me, it was the most exciting thing I had ever written.  It was also the most maddening thing to try to get published.  Editors were baffled.  The responses all sounded similar:  "It's very talented and like it a lot, but I can't actually sell it."   Being an unclassifiable opus definitely had its downside.

         Nevertheless, published it was and, subsequently, honored it was by a Stonewall Award for Best Performance Literature (  It still doesn't sell like a Harry Potter book, but it never would; the non-conformist, candid, serio-comedic misadventures of a gay poet and his friends is hardly appealing fodder for the lowest common denominator that makes for best sellers.  I can live with that.  I enjoyed writing it, I'm proud of the finished product and everyone who reads it enjoys it.  

What more could a writer want?

Who said “Six figures”?


What?  You haven't read the book I'm talking about?
Get it by clicking

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zombies & Sunshine

Me & my deadbeat friends.

             I am covered in blood.  I am supporting the head of a young man who lies on the floor, bloodier than I.  We are in the middle of a subterranean hallway in some dilapidated hospital. Pandemonium explodes around me as people run, screaming. There is blood everywhere.  I lean over the man in my arms.  He looks dead.   I lean closer.  I sink my teeth into his shoulder.


            It’s day two of shooting the film “Zombie Strippers” where I am playing one of the non-stripping zombies.  I had driven out to this abandoned hospital to have some truly genius special effects make-up artists turn me into one of the undead.  My face appears to be falling off and my skin is a ghastly pale greenish-grey.  One of my eyes is solid black as a result of  giant contact lens.  I am quite an unpleasant sight.  But at least my jaw is still intact.  One of my compadres actually has his lower mandible jutting out at a grisly angle and, while I envy the “cool factor” of the severity of his make-up, I am quietly thankful I don’t have to sip my meals through a straw.  If I cut my food up into very small pieces, I can slip the tidbits through my tattered, festering lips; Jaw Man can barely suck pretzel sticks into the slit of his bloody, gaping yaw.

            We were made up in a few hours and then sat around in the cold remains of a reception area, waiting for our call.  Before going on set, we had to be bloodied up.  In a room with plastic sheets on the walls and floor, two chaps with hoses attached to tanks sprayed and dripped two different shades of ice-cold, crimson-colored corn syrup all over us.  I suddenly found myself empathizing with Sissy Spacek and will never watch the prom scene from “Carrie” again without thinking of the disgusting, sticky sensation she and I now have shared.   So now I wasn’t just cold. I was cold and wet.  Which, basically just meant I was colder than before.  If they were trying to use method acting techniques to make me a cranky zombie, it was working.  And on top of it all, they still weren’t ready for us.  So we sat there like a decaying rehab meeting.    

            As is usually the case when you do work with a small enough group, you get to know some of the crew and/or actors.  There was the sweet young thing fresh from the midwest who, after a year of New York, decided sunny California and the movie industry looked way better than Broadway; there was the odd lady who kept reptiles and just did extra work for fun (taking a job away from some poor kid trying to actually make a living at it, thank you very much); there was the letch who made inappropriate comments to all the younger, more attractive females;  and there was the guy who had done “Six Degrees of Separation” with me the year before.  Who knew such a challenging, classic piece of modern theater was a stepping stone to “Zombie Strippers”?

            And then there was Sunshine.  What crack addict parents would name their kid Sunshine?  Especially a boy.  In L.A., we are all used to people having unusual names, but this one threw us all for a bit of a loop.  He was a nice looking, masculine guy who looked like a Bill or John.  Not a Sunshine.  And, by the time most folks met him, he had prosthetic bumps in his face and looked like he’d been slaughtered and dead for days.  So having this bulky, rotted corpse smile wide and say “Hi, I’m Sunshine” was just surreal enough to make the most jaded of us double-take. 

            The odd thing was, after I got to know him a bit, the name seemed surprisingly appropriate.  He had a strange energy about him: enervating and buoyant; like a child, almost.  He smiled more than most and, even when his lips weren’t curling upward, his eyes had a smile in them.  It was as if he really was a piece of sunshine, with a light always lifting around him and—if you listened closely—you could here birds chirping.  If that sounds a little creepy, it was.  Only crazy people are that happy.  So when he asked to hitch a ride home I said “Forget it” just in case. 

            (Okay.  I wasn’t going his way, anyway.)

            At last we were called to partake in a scene and I found myself on the floor in the aforementioned hallway, pretending to eat the shoulder of this lanky piece of white meat who said his name was Nick.  We did this several times until the director was satisfied.  Then we filmed a few more scenes where I ambled around like a mentally-challenged moron;  I shuffled about dopily and moaned and slobbered on windows as my clothes cracked with dried corn syrup and my face began to fall off more and more.

            Several hours and scenes later, it was a wrap.  I returned to the make-up department to become human again.  I popped out my black cornea, peeled off my decaying flesh and wiped away as much of the dried blood and residual make-up as I could; at least enough so I wouldn’t scare people on the freeway or get pulled over by the police.

            Though that would have been killer.  Yuck, yuck.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My First Agent

An acquaintance mentioned that he worked in a law firm that shared its suite with a literary agent.   I was too naive at the time to realize that a combination of agents and lawyers housed together is like a den of demonhood, so with high hopes I gave this Good Samaritan a script that had met with some success in various screenplay competitions, but not yet proved itself as my key to unlock the door to representation.

Lo and behold, the agent liked what he read and the next thing I knew I had a meeting with him.  While it never occurred to me at the time, he was a living, breathing stereotype of a Hollywood agent:  a good looking, quietly gay, loudly Jewish, satiny slick salesman.  But he didn’t smoke a cigar and his eyebrows weren’t so bushy you could hide small children in them.  So I liked him.  Apparently, he liked me, too, because he offered me a contract.

I think I did a happy dance that night.

We began re-writing the script to my agent’s liking.  That done, he began to pitch it.  We got interest.  But no deals.  I gave him other scripts.  He made me re-write them. We got more interest.  But no deals.  He had me write a script based on one of his own ideas.  Some studio executive got a hold of it and wanted to option it for next to nothing and have me re-write it to his taste.  I did.  No deal.  A few more producers got their paws on other scripts and had me sign option paperwork and made me do re-writes to turn the scripts into what they wanted them to be.   No deals.  I felt like the cheapest whore in town, putting out for next to nothing.  Might as well have gone full slut, no?

So I learned my first  great lesson in the Hollywood: too many folks won't risk standing up alone first and saying “I want to do this.” And, on some level, who can blame them?  Movies are often outrageously expensive investments.  So Financier Dan won’t sign unless Joe Director is on board; Joe Director won’t sign unless Actor Bob is attached; Actor Bob won’t sign unless the financing is in place, and so on.  It only takes one or two brave souls to give a movie a green light and then everyone will jump on the bandwagon.  But if one pin falls out of place, the house of cards collapses at any stage.  It's like Fear Factor on crack. 

It’s also a timing game.  A subject is hot one minute and if you’ve got a script about it, folks are interested.  But by the time everyone’s read it, made notes, you’ve rewritten it (and repeated that cycle a few times) the subject’s no longer hot or the person hot for the subject has moved on or “Can you turn it into a thriller because those are big again” or “Can we make Stalin a woman because we just signed Hannah Montana” or “Can you give that whole Holocaust thing a happy ending because downers don’t sell right now” and on and on and on.

I’m no longer with that agent, but I’m still writing, still wrapping my head around the ever-changing business and, believe it or not—against the odds—actually selling some scripts.

Can I hear a “Mazeltov”?

Monday, May 16, 2011

It’s a Dirty Job

Me as the stuttering, homeless Pookie

         Anyone not involved in the film industry imagines it is the most glamorous thing in the world.  I can assure you that, red carpet awards ceremonies aside, it’s often quite the opposite.  In fact, at times, dumpster diving seems more glamorous.  Case in point…

          On one particular project, The Great Venice Robbery, most of the characters, including yours truly, had to wear a lot of special make up.  One fellow had all of his exposed skin made up to look sun-damaged to the point that he resembled a leper about to peak. Another was a Goth punk channeling the love child of Marilyn Manson and one of the guys from Kiss.  I started off relatively clean, but by the second half of the film, I was the dirtiest, stickiest thing since the Tar Baby.  Imagine hanging around all day with filth and tacky goop all over your body.  Did you want to go to the bathroom?  Eat lunch?  Hahahahahaha.

           To top it off, we were filming right smack in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave and, of course, we were scheduled to shoot the chase scenes on the worst day of all.  I and the lucky lady chasing me—in a fully padded bodysuit to make her look like a Ninja roid monster—ran through various locations in Los Angeles as spectators scratched their heads.  So I was filthy, covered in sticky goop and sweating profusely in the worst heat known to mankind for our particular locale.  Then I had to run into a chicken-grease covered homeless guy and get knocked over into more dirt.

          Sounding glamorous, yet?  Are you ready for your close up?  I’ll tell you:  the only thing I was ready for was a shower and three days in traction.  The crazy thing, of course, is that I loved it.  As awful as a lot of it sounds, I was doing something I really enjoyed.  So there’s the moral:  if you’re willing to be a disgusting, uncomfortable pig in order to do something, you must really love it.  If that’s true for you, then you’ve got the bug, my friend.  In that case, I can only say—as the demons in The Evil Dead would say—
         “Join us!”