TBT: 1997

contact In 1997, I interned on the set of Hope Floats. One of the perks was getting to attend the regional premiere of Contact. You’ll see in the photo the program and my ticket. (Click on it to view it larger.) You’ll also see my invitation to the film’s wrap party at Speakeasy. Harry [Connick Jr.] played piano, and I even got to dance with him. It was an exciting time in my life; I was entering my last year as an undergrad and wish now I’d known to take more advantage of the opportunities that came my way, but at least I’ll always have fond memories.

My Martin Scorsese Story

I’ve met and run into and hung out with and worked with a number of known names. I don’t know how or why; I just seem to fall into these things. “Only you,” my friends tell me. “These things only ever happen to you.”

Well, I have not met or hung out with or worked with Mr. Scorsese. But I’ve seen him. And he was not very happy at the time.

Here, then, is my Martin Scorsese story.

I lived in Boston at the time and used to walk to and from my job which was located at Arlington and Boylston Streets. (I was working as an editor for a big publishing company, but that doesn’t really matter here.) Mr. Scorsese was filming a movie known as The Departed in various locations around the city. So it wasn’t all that surprising that I would find myself near the set.

Now, like a lot of people I walk around with earbuds stuck in my ears. I do love music, and I especially find it useful when gearing up for or winding down from a day’s work. In this case, I was gearing up. And because I walked to work every day, I didn’t pay much attention to where I was going. I was on autopilot and just bopping along.

It took me a minute to realize things around me were not as per usual. That the stuff I normally saw while walking was . . . different somehow. Cables? I recall thinking. Why are there cables?

I glanced to my right and saw a man sitting in a chair. He looked vaguely familiar. Not as in someone I knew but someone I’d seen in photos or on TV or something. He had big, bushy eyebrows and slicked-back grey hair. He wore big glasses, too. And he was frowning. No, not just frowning. He was scowling. At me.

I actually hesitated. Like, I paused almost mid-step. And a big bald guy came barreling toward me; he was talking but I couldn’t hear him because I had my earbuds in. I took one out. I looked to my left and saw movie stars standing there in arrested poses as if they’d just been interrupted. The bald guy was gesticulating with a clipboard, clearly trying to herd me onto a particular path other than the one I was on, the one I always walked.

Having worked on movie sets, I can reliably argue this wasn’t entirely my fault. Someone should have done a better job of closing things off and/or monitoring the set. But maybe there are limits to what you can do in such a public space. In any case I shrugged, put my earbud back in, and resumed my walk to work. Though I spent some time wracking my brain and trying to figure out who that frowny man had been.

“Did he look like this?” a friend wrote and appended a photo of Martin Scorsese to the e-mail.

Me: “That’s him!”

Friend: “You just pissed off Martin Scorsese.”

Oh . . .

Well.

But then, it’s all a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out, right? And maybe by giving him something to complain about, I gave him a really good day. ::shrug::

Writing Prose vs Screenwriting

I do both of the above. I write stories and novellas (and one novel), and I write scripts. I have degrees for both. My undergraduate degree is in screenwriting; my graduate degree is in the rather amorphous “writing,” but my thesis was a YA novel. That I keep meaning to revise.

I’d been focusing more on the prose but then had some success writing a play, and a short script based on one of my novellas, and next thing I knew people were asking for screenplays. Well, okay . . .

But writing a script is very different from writing a story or book. People think if you can do one you can do the other, and that’s not at all true. Not even taking into account things like format, the things you need to think about and really consider are different.

Prose, for me, is very easy. I have characters and places and scenes and events in my head, and in order to put them into a reader’s head so they see what I see, I put the words on paper, ideally in a way the reader finds entertaining so they want to keep reading.

When writing a script . . . Things get complicated. A script is, yes, in part about getting readers to see what you see, but the reader is different. A script is only partly a story. In larger part, it’s an instruction manual. There is a technical element—and I’m not talking about a shooting script, because writers shouldn’t be giving that kind of instruction out of the gate, and that’s something else that newbie screenwriters need to get a handle on; no, the technical element here is simply one of making it clear to a director, to the actors, to producers and the art department, etc. how to construct this movie if they decide to make it. Therefore I find screenwriting much more difficult and time consuming than writing prose. Because a script is: “Here is the story AND here’s how to show it to people.” Make it rain, act sad, do this part at night . . . Stuff that in a story one merely writes, in a script must be made to happen.

People grouse when the movie is different from the book. But these are the reasons: (a) What works in prose doesn’t on screen, often because a long scene of two people talking somewhere will get boring really fast if you have to watch it; (b) what doesn’t cost any money to write (like rain) does cost money to film, so sometimes the budget forces changes; (c) the writer sees a chance to make something different or better than when s/he first wrote it and so changes it in the script version; (d) an actor doesn’t want to (he’ll say it isn’t “true to his character” but that’s really just code for “I don’t wanna”); (e) time constraints . . . There are others, but you see how not all things prose are film friendly. A good screenwriter knows what he’s aiming for and thus knows where to trim. “Does it have to happen in the rain?” he asks himself. If it’s a tiny indie film with no budget . . . Lose the rain machine. Or plan to film during monsoon season.

I’ve currently got two screenwriting projects on my plate, another in the back of my head waiting for me to get ’round to it. And some more prose projects jockeying for space as well. I’ll be glad to get to those, because for me prose can feel like falling into a soft bed after sleeping on a hard floor. After all, writers are on the whole solitary creatures, but screenwriting requires extended amounts of interaction with others. Writing prose is something we can just hole up and do. It’s a good balance. I’m glad—and lucky—to do both.

The Painted Cow

After a weekend of being social with other writers, and of thinking about my writing, I . . . am exhausted, for one thing, but also concluded that writing was sometimes a bit like painting.

Say I painted a cow. I worked really, really hard on this cow, trying to make it just the way I envisioned it should be: big brown spots, cute little ears, pink nose . . . Sometimes I would have to paint over parts of the cow because they didn’t look right. But finally! At some point I would say, “I’m finished!” And ta-da! I would show my cow to someone else.

And they would say . . .

“Why does it only have three legs?”

Which just goes to prove that when you paint—or write—you have a kind of blind spot in regards to your own work. Sometimes what you envision, great as it may be, may still lack something. Like a leg.

In other words, you need feedback.

Here’s where things get tricky. Not all feedback is created equal, and all art is subjective. So a writer (or painter) can’t take every critique personally, but should always be open to considering what’s being said. In the cow example, the options are to say, “Well, I wanted a three-legged cow because [fill in valid reason].” Or, to admit you hadn’t noticed your cow was missing a leg and then go back and fix it.

The same is true when writing. You can explain a reason for having done something a certain way, or you can say, “Huh! You’re right. I need to rewrite that.” What you shouldn’t do is get defensive. Because this only shuts down lines of communication. And you need those lines to stay open if you’re ever going to succeed. You need these people to (a) continue giving you feedback (which they won’t do if you’re difficult about hearing it), and (b) to hopefully then help you find a place to show your painting, or submit your manuscript, or whatever. Relationships are key in marketing yourself and your work. If you get a reputation for being a pain in the ass, you’re not going to get very far.

When I was working on film sets, I had a reputation for being “can do” (as the producer told me). To be honest, it wasn’t a guise; I just didn’t think “no” was an option. So if something needed to happen, I worked hard to see it done. And if it really was impossible, I looked for viable alternatives. Because my biggest fear was to have to go back to the producer’s trailer and say, “I can’t.” But that can-do attitude served me well because, one day when the associate producer stormed off the set in a huff, I was selected to take her place. Being flexible and willing and easy to work with won me a promotion.

It’s tough, as an artist—someone who puts themselves into their work, then puts that work out there for others, thereby basically breaking off pieces of your soul and offering them up—to not be hurt, to not want to protect when others begin to throw stones. But you are allowed to dodge. And always examine the motivations. Some people really are trying to help, and they’ll usually be constructive and encouraging. (Some won’t be, not because they’re trying to be mean, but because they don’t have the finesse to be softer about it.) And then some people really are mean, or they’re the types to find fault with everything, and you learn to avoid those people and find the ones who won’t abuse you and your work. That isn’t to say, “Find only people who will say it’s great.” No. You want honest feedback. But honesty doesn’t have to be painful. It may sting, but it doesn’t have to leave third-degree burns.

Now. Go paint your cow. Make it the best possible cow you can. Don’t make it look like every other cow; make it yours, own it, let it show off your style. And if, at the end of the day, someone points out that it only has three legs . . . Well, it’s up to you how to deal with that.

This comes on a day that started with a form rejection for one of my scripts. They did not offer any specific feedback, which is always difficult because that is like saying, “We don’t like your cow” without saying why. “What’s wrong with my cow?” I wonder. But I can waste time worrying about it, or I can say, “Maybe cows aren’t their thing” and move on. It hurts, yes, but if I let it stop me, I won’t get any more work done. So I must move on. I’ve got a chicken to paint next . . .

Nora Ephron

I met her once. The producer I worked for had produced one of Ms Ephron’s movies, and so Ms Ephron had stopped by our set to visit. I spent the time at my producer’s computer, answering her e-mail while Ms Ephron, my boss, and the couple other producers we had chatted. I wasn’t paying attention, so I don’t know what they talked about. I should have been eavesdropping, I’m sure (isn’t that how one learns on film sets?), but I was too caught up in dealing with my producer’s son’s dramas as well as helping the L.A. office write an afterword to my producer’s book. Sorry. No big story, then, about Nora Ephron except that we shared a room once, she introduced herself to me, and I thought, I’ve heard that name somewhere. But it was months or even years before I put two and two together.

Artists—writers, directors, singers, painters, &c.—are known through their work. And when they pass, their work is their testimony. I didn’t know Nora Ephron. I met her once is all. But her work will stand for her in her absence. Which makes her far from absent in the end.

That Old Feeling

Whenever I read that an actor and director is planning to work together—again—I have to wonder: why do some actors and directors get so stuck on one another? And what does that really offer the viewers?

The world has more or less come to terms with the bizarre love triangle that is Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. And Woody Allen rotates through various fixations with actors or actresses that serve as his “muse du jour,” Scarlett Johansson being a recent example. Chris Nolan has his Christian Bale and has sprinkled cast members from Inception throughout the last of the Dark Knight trilogy. Which brings us to Leo DiCaprio, now set to make yet another Martin Scorsese movie.

This is probably a great setup for the actors and directors. They’ve worked together before and know what to expect from one another. It’s sort of a safe way to get things done, especially in a business where everything (particularly money) is on a huge scale.

But if you look at the kinds of movies these actors and directors make together, you’ll notice that for the audience, they’re all kind of the same. A Tim Burton movie is going to be quirky and a bit dark. A Chris Nolan film will also be dark, but less quirky and more moody. And a Woody Allen film is a Woody Allen film, no matter which muse he has at the moment.

I liken seeing one of these movies to going to a favorite fast food restaurant. I always know what I’m going to get, and I usually like it. But too much of it will give me indigestion.

And really, more often than not I want something different. So, you know, I think these actors and directors should consider expanding their menus. Give someone else a shot?

By the way, as a complete and total aside regarding my previous post, some of you have written to ask why I hate Benedict Cumberbatch. I don’t. In fact, I love him. But my subconscious has cast him in a particular role, and like the directors named above, my subconscious also likes to use the same actors again and again.

Touchy Actors

Winona Ryder once commented on how she disliked the way people were always touching her because she’s an actor. She said people seemed to think actors are “public property.” I can certainly understand her issues. But having worked with and met my share of actors and musicians and whatnot, can I just point out they often think it’s okay to touch people at random, and that we’re not only supposed to like it but be grateful for it?

This has happened to me many times, and I find it just as presumptuous on the actors’ parts as Ryder finds it to be in what she must think of as “common” people. Maybe most people would love being petted by someone famous, but I’m as likely to take a limb as smile at you, so fair warning there, friends.

To be fair, I’ve met and worked with almost as many actors and musicians who have been very respectful and treated me well, so I don’t like to assume it’s a wide-spread epidemic. One British rocker I met when I was 17 treated me like a daughter, which is to say he made sure I didn’t touch the beer and stuck to soda. We talked history and literature, and it was a lovely evening, without a single mention of Lolita. So there’s evidence it can be done.

But for every one of those I’ve met, there are probably two that felt the need to slip an arm around me or—and I’m thinking of one particular actor, very charming but also very pleased with himself—touch my hair. People I don’t even know well, often have only just met, and I find that very odd and off-putting.

Look, when I meet actors or musicians on set or for an interview, I shake their hands and greet them. When I meet actors or musicians at a function or restaurant, I shake their hands and greet them. When I’m introduced to or meet random people on the street, I shake their hands and greet them. Do you see?

My mother always wonders why I don’t take pictures of myself with all these people, but I feel like that’s weird too. When you’re on set, everyone is busy, no one is stopping to snap photos. Maybe at the wrap party or something, but otherwise, no. And you don’t want to be that person, the one who doesn’t know any better and wants to take pictures and grin like an idiot every time someone famous is around. And no one wants to have to worry all the time that someone might be taking a picture, either.

And then, when I’m just hanging out with someone, again, it feels weird to stop and demand a photo. I think the generation or two younger than me does this a lot more, maybe because they came up with cameras on their phones; even back when I was an undergrad, taking a picture usually meant running to get an actual camera. It was something that took time, and everyone always thinking, How long is this going to take? and, How long to we have to stand here?

I was once a guest at a sci-fi convention, there as a writer, and I was really surprised when people wanted pictures with me. But I think that was because I write, and I work in such isolated circumstances that I’m startled whenever I realize the outside world exists and may even notice me. Actors probably aren’t surprised at all when people want pictures, but they might be annoyed by or just tired of it. Which is another reason I tend not to ask. I do try to be sympathetic. And so I don’t immediately go in for a hug or a kiss, either, unless it’s someone I already know. There’s sometimes a phony aspect to a lot of the industry—a “we’re all friends here” game of pretend—but we’re not, and I don’t pretend. I like to get to know a person before I put my hands on them, and let them do the same to me. So, Winona: if we ever meet, don’t touch me. At least not before we’ve had coffee, gone shopping, and taken at least one photo together.

Teaser Tuesday: Stories I Only Tell My Friends

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly book meme hosted by Should Be Reading. The idea is to pick up your current read, go to a page at random, and post two teaser sentences. I’m reading Rob Lowe’s autobiography . . . Maybe more like skimming it . . . It’s due back at the library in a couple days and I doubt I’ll finish before then. Not sure I’ll risk the fine, but anyway.

From page 142:

Through take after take I have poured my heart out, cried my eyes dry for the last hour. I have nothing left, and I’m terrified.

I’ve seen this happen to actors on movie sets and backstage in theatres; the amount of energy one is required to expend is phenomenal and, without care, can eventually be depleted before the take or show is done. And there isn’t always an option for a break (especially in theatre), so it really can be like trying to get blood from a stone. It’s not pretty. In general the only answer is to find a soft spot, the tender underbelly, and rip it open. Hardly an elegant job, but sometimes the only way to get the actor to feel and tap in again.

My Day as Associate Producer

When I was an undergrad, I scored an internship working for producer Lynda Obst. It was a volatile film set (I was later told by an old pro that it was one of the most difficult he’d ever been on), but I fought my way through it–odd hours, weird requests and all. Some of the other interns had money and connections; it was clear they’d been given their jobs via networking. (One of them drove a Lexus.) I was just little, lowly ol’ me, keeping my head down and doing my best.

One intern got booted. I heard a lot of different “reasons” and stories about why and what happened. In fact, I heard a lot of interesting stories about a lot of things–and experienced a few firsthand–none of which I’d repeat for fear of being sued for libel. But ask me out for a drink sometime . . .

I had a lot of bizarre tasks, including long phone calls with someone in the L.A. office while, between us, we tried to draft an afterwords to a book. I remember the topic being primarily about alpha males in the industry or something. One thing I did enjoy was reading scripts that had been submitted. Most were not great, a few were okay but nothing I’d personally be interested in going to see, and one or two were really good. As someone getting her degree in Radio-Television-Film with an emphasis in screenwriting, it was good experience.

Now one day on set, things fell apart. Actually, I think they’d probably been well on their way by the time I arrived on set for my shift. I was in the trailer checking Lynda’s e-mail while another intern (and it only occurred to me years later that this guy might’ve had a crush on me, poor thing, but I’m the kind of person to be kind of oblivious unless hit over the head with it) went to bring me some lunch. I distinctly remember it was chicken fried steak, my favorite. And I remember the associate producer storming in and being dumbfounded that I had someone bringing me my lunch. I guess maybe I’d overstepped? I don’t know. To this day I don’t entirely understand her reaction.

But then the AP disappeared. She’d walked off (some said she’d quit). And Lynda came in with Mary McLaglen and whoever else was producing, all women, and I don’t know if it was that I just happened to be sitting there, but Lynda said, “You’re associate producer for today.”

Huh?

Because I had no fucking idea what that meant. What was I supposed to do exactly? I’d never watched our AP do much of anything because I’d always been too busy with whatever she’d given me to do.

I spent the rest of that day following Lynda and the other producers around. I attended rehearsals. I answered Lynda’s cell phone when she was too busy (it was usually her son calling). At one point that afternoon we all went back to the trailer and looked at tabloids and industry rags. Mary said to the others as I settled down with some magazine, “Look at her. She’s taken right to it.”

I guess. But I felt like a kid dressing up in her mother’s clothes.

The AP came back later that evening. She thanked me for covering for her, which I suppose was her way of relieving me of duty. I remember when we wrapped, she wrote me a nice note about my “can-do attitude.” I recently heard that one of the most important things to have in the industry is a willingness to step up to the plate, so I guess this was a great compliment in a way.

Lynda suggested I go to L.A., maybe work in her office there, and to this day I sometimes wish I had. But I was so close to my degree, and I couldn’t see leaving my education unfinished. Formal education, that is. My working education came from that internship, and especially from my day as understudy.

How I Learned to Drive

Although I had a driver’s license, I didn’t really know how to drive . . . until some Teamsters took pity on me.

Here’s the whole story. I went to driver’s ed like most other high school students, dragging myself to school very early in the morning in order to watch gruesome VHS tapes of “bad things teenagers do in cars that get them killed.” Then, after many weeks of these videos, we were split into groups, put in cars, and forced to run the gauntlet. By which I mean, we tried not to do any of the “bad things teenagers do in cars that get them killed.” Because besides getting us killed, it would get us yelled at by the high school’s Eastern European basketball coach who was doubling as our driving instructor.

After a few weeks of that, and once we’d passed the written exam at the DMV, the Eastern European basketball coach took us out individually for a driving test. I remember him telling me that if he had to use his special emergency break, I would fail. I actually yelled at him at that point. I said something like, “I am FOUR SECONDS BEHIND THAT CAR! I am NOT going to hit anything!” After that, he didn’t talk to me any more. But I passed.

Okay, so if I passed the driving test and had a license, why did the Teamsters need to teach me to drive? Well . . .

I was an adequate driver. Really, I was. But a nervous one as well. I didn’t drive if I could avoid it. In fact, I was relieved in college not to have a car, and therefore not to have to drive. The campus buses were fine for getting around the area. The city buses weren’t terribly reliable, but I made do.

So then I was working on a film set. And I didn’t have a car of my own, but I was also too young and too expensive to insure for a rental, so the production office gave me a driver. Score! His name was Charlie, and he was awesome. He had lots of great stories about famous people he’d driven for, and told me that the set we were on was “one of the worst” he’d ever been on (it was a pretty difficult shoot). He said to me, “If you can get through this, you can do anything.”

And then one day the producer had me drive her Dodge Ram truck, and that made me all nervous. So Charlie and some of the other Teamsters took it upon themselves to buck me up. And they basically re-taught me to drive.

I imagine it was something like a defensive driving course, though I’ve never taken one, so I don’t really know. But I learned to maneuver and such, learned how to watch for other drivers in ways that were effective . . . Not so long ago, my husband said something about how, when I’m driving, I “worry about other people a lot.” But being aware of the other cars is part of driving well–especially since these days a lot of other drivers aren’t watching for you.

What Charlie and his fellow Teamsters really gave me, though, was confidence and a sort of freedom. It was years before I had a car to drive, but when my boss gave me his for a week at one point, I was able to go forth with few reservations. I had survived working on that awful movie set, after all, and as Charlie had said: if I could do that, I could do anything. Even drive.