Sunday, December 13, 2009

Life on the Lot, part 1

"Waitwaitwait.... are we pink or buff?"

No. I am not in West Hollywood on Saturday night.

I'm in my home in Laurel Canyon; Chris O'Donnell, my friend, client, and the star of NCIS Los Angeles, is (presumably) in his trailer somewhere near Venice beach. It's 8 AM, and we're running a scene for the current episode over the phone, and what he's saying and what I'm reading do not match up; we have this confusion --which is not one of tanning-booth settings or skin tone but about the "color" of the most current draft of the script-- from time to time.

(FOR THE UNINITIATED, A NOTE ON SCRIPT COLOR: It's something of a genius system, really: once a color progression is agreed upon --not unlike the Bronze-Silver-Gold progression of Olympic medals-- there's no more confusion about which script is current. If Green comes after Blue, and you got blue pages and see anyone walkin' around with green... you missed the memo, sport. You're out of date.)

Anyway. On a show like NCIS, there can be more than one script revision A DAY. Granted, those changes may be as little as a few lines, but still. Given that we have eight days to shoot those 60 pages (give or take), that's a lot, and they pile up.

P.S.: For those keeping track at home... it's Buff. We get back to work.


I think I need to answer a few questions first.

- No, I'm not dead. I'm in LA. Feel free to insert a joke, if you want.

- Yes, I have a place to live here. So... since August, give or take, Laurel Canyon (technically the Hollywood Hills, north of Sunset Blvd) has been my home. For what it's worth, it's an awesome place (view, fireplace, the whole deal). True story: while I was first walking through the house, I called the owner (now my landlord), Leslie. She's in Jersey and was initially a little confused by my 917 area code-- but 15 minutes later, in the midst of talk of commute times from Weehawken to Sony Music, she said " know what? You want it, the place is yours. Just send me a check."

No app, no lease, nothing. I would not know Leslie if she walked in the room.

- I am here because primarily because my two most long-term actor clients, Eliza Dushku and Chris O'Donnell, both are leads in network series-- Eliza is the lead in Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's show on Fox; Chris is, as mentioned, the lead in NCIS. I am also here because, through a series of details too convoluted to go into here, when these shows were announced last spring I had no place to live in Manhattan. My friends claimed that this was the universe's way of saying, in essence: you've been talking about LA for years-- it's Now or Never, Pal.

I chose "Now." And here I am.


There is a funny thing about moving without thinking it through: one has no idea of what one's life is going to be-- and one (OK, me) soon realizes how completely one (OK, me) has underestimated how much of a life one leaves behind. It's hard, this; the new life, all that.

Fortunately, as some of you know, once in LA I had to hit the ground running-- for in addition to Chris and Eliza, my friend Rick Fox needs "refocusing." I have never, ever met anyone in Hollywood who receives more varied, over-the-transom offers than Rick. And me? Scattered, running-in-ten-directions me-- compared to Rick? I'm friggin' Ghandi, I'm so calm and focused.

So I settle into this new, strange life, a life dictated by call sheets. They come in nightly, and it's always surprising to me how the next day's call sheets for two entirely different shows, halfway across town, arrive in my inbox in within ten minutes of each other. (Honestly, how is that possible?) As one might expect, the Universe seems to conspire to make Big Days (or even Big Scenes) occur at the same time for all my clients. So I toggle back and forth between the two-- who's shooting what, and when-- and where? It's kinda stressful, to tell you the truth. But one does what one can.


Much more to say, but it's late. I'll tell ya more from the plane tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Boston, part two

... yah yah yah I know: it's been more than 24 hours (as promised) since I last wrote. But I've got a good excuse, for my ensuing 24 hours do not start well.

At all. I'll pick up where I left off:

So I'm in bed. I've sent my emails, I've shut off my laptop; as I roll over, I marvel at the fact that I'm so tired as to actually be nauseous. It's my life, I think, finally catching up to me.

Fifteen minutes later I change my mind, for the nausea has overtaken the fatigue. This isn't good.

A few minutes later the nausea has intensified, and now something more: dread. A dread that soon turns into an awful certainty I haven't felt in years: in a few minutes, I'm gonna puke. And puke hard.

Nothing changes about this ritual, or the steps that lead relentlessly to it: the sweating, the shallow breathing, the clenched fists... the desperate bargaining with one's own stomach: please, please, not now... the eternal bucket/toilet debate (and where IS the ice bucket, anyway?)... the mental plotting of the bathroom dash, followed the realization that the mere act of standing will seal the deal and the dread that one has waited too long to sprint.

One forgets how painful it is.

...the first time. After an hour or so of this, as my fingernails dig into the toilet seat and my even my legs, fully extended and tensed, are in on the job, I come to hate my body. I hate the level of pain it can endure. I hate its stubborn insistence that the best thing to do now is, ya know... puke more. I hate the fact that every muscle in my body is tense in an effort to squeeze another drop of God-knows-what from my body--and if I could breathe, I'd scream to my body (really, I would): THERE'S SIMPLY. NOTHING. LEFT. Anywhere. Trust me. I know this.

Finally, it recedes. as I collapse onto the tile floor, drenched in a sweat that trickles even into my ears, I am reminded of a fundamental truth of life: few things feel better than the end of pain.

My last thought before passing out is a prayer that this is food poisoning, for there's a stomach flu going around LA that's got a nasty reputation and I simply can't afford a week of this. Time will tell.

6AM: I open my eyes. The sliver-window in the bathroom has turned from black to a dull, slate gray. Dawn. Crawl back to bed.

A lifetime later (but it's only 9:40!) and my body has decided that one final, just-in-case round is in order-- and as I assume the position, this I know: ain't no way I'm teachin a class today. But by noon, the pain-tide has turned a little, and I decide: Peter Kelley is no quitter. I'm in Boston, Dammit, and I've got work to do. Come hell or high water, I'll rally.

2PM: I call my good friend Steve Stapinski, who's registered in the class, and he agrees to stop by with replenishing fluids on his way in to rehearse. A few minutes later, a knock at my door: a bellman, with a bag containing TWO ONE-GALLON JUGS of Gatorade. (Thanks, Steve.) A little after three, and I'm at the BCA. I make it through class, actually rally a little, and when we exit the BCA...

Now THIS is more like it. THIS is the Boston I remember.

I am suddenly walking fast and my head is down and my hands are dug into my pockets and I am squinting in a futile effort to shield my eyes against the wind-driven sleet that sandblasts directly into my face. As we approach steve's car, Steve-- who can never, ever resist talking to a young woman-- asks the valet whether we are in fact dealing with snow or rain.

"Neither," she says... "it's 'snain'. Snain's the worst."

"Snain." That's a good one. Fifteen years in Boston and I never heard that. I am shivering by the time I climb into Steve's car and I am reminded to never, ever take small miracles like heated seats for granted. Five minutes later I am back in my bed. Two minutes after that, I'm asleep.

It is not, as it feels, ten hours later when I wake up. In fact, it's barely nine PM. But I am on the mend, and I'd earlier heard a rumor that I now must confirm, so I get dressed and manage to head outside.

The rumor is true. The "snain" has turned to snow. Real snow, White Christmas snow. Suddenly, I don't even mind the cold. Suddenly, I know there's only one thing to do. I drop my head, squint... and return to the the Oak Room. I order a ginger ale (but for the love of Christ stay away from those Wasabe peas!), and listen.

One thing about Christmas carols: all the good ones succeed on the level of melody, so they don't need to be sung to be enjoyed. But now, in a bold shift... this new tune is not a Christmas carol, and it takes me a second to place it. It's The Beatles: "Here,There, and Everywhere."

Here's the thing about a Beatles song: every element is by now so iconic --the arrangement, the production, those vocals-- that it's sometimes necessary to hear one out of context to realize how beautiful it is. It's a brilliant choice, this, for it's so simple and haunting and sweet that, in another musical life, it could actually be a Christmas carol. And I get the sense I'm not alone in this thought: for the duration of the song, the whole place grows a little quieter.

It ends, and I decide not to press my luck with another Ginger Ale. One more chin-down walk though a Boston night, and in ten minutes I'm back in bed and once again quickly dropping into sleep, and as I do so I think about my day. Despite its horrible start, I taught a class. I heard Christmas carols. I saw snow. And now I'm in a warm bed.

All of our lives go through times of ache. But even then - or especially then - above all things, Gratitude. Which is the point, I think, of the season.


Friday, December 4, 2009

a short note...

I have to remind myself that for Boston, this is warm.

It's ten PM, or thereabouts. I'm heading over to the Oak Bar at the Copley Plaza for a quiet(ish) glass of wine before bed, and as I scurry across Dartmouth street I remember the essential fact of how windy this place is, so I'm thankful for the relative warmth. I'm remembering from my days in Boston a series of post-Thanksgiving cold spells-- snow turning to ice in early December (I swear!), and days on end of bitter, bone-snapping cold. Not tonight, though, and I bless my good fortune as I slip into the bar.

Which is packed. A confession: there's a kind of sadness to coming alone to a place like this, in Boston, on a Friday night in the Holiday season -- as far as I can tell, it's not only Family Night but Date Night here at the Oak Room, and while I enjoy the dull din of conversation and the piano player's medley of Holiday Favorites (I am, after all, The Christmas Whore...), I'm also aware of my presence as the "party of one" guy who's workin' on his laptop on a Friday night (it's true - since I'm teaching a class tomorrow, this does qualify as a business trip for PK). (It also reminds me of a script idea about a man who goes through life positioning himself next to happiness, based on his hope that happiness is contagious and can, like a winter cold, be "caught" if one is around it often enough). Anyway. I'll probably overpay for the wine, but I don't care-- I've reached a point where I'll gladly pay a premium for a warm spot with comfortable seats.

So what am I doing here? Well, I made a promise to myself on the flight out (where I got the upgrade, again! I'm on a roll, baby! But no wi-fi on Boston flights...): I'm going to try to send "a musing a day" for the next few days, to get back into the swing of chronicling my increasingly scattered, hard-to-describe life. As a few of you have pointed out, it's been a long time since you've received a "PK rambling." I know. Rest assured I've got a backlog of observations about the culture of celebrity, working in network television, "life on the lot", life in Laurel Canyon, all of it. Things are slowing down, so hopefully that will allow me to catch up.

Stay tuned.

Especially since I now see that it's gonna snow tomorrow.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A sobering thought from another Peter...

This is from Peter Bart's recent column in Variety. It's true, and a little scary:

...Hollywood, too, is having growing pains. Indeed, the kids who fight and fret and fuck their way through "Entourage" may, in their own small way, serve as a metaphor for the agonies of the community at large.

The economic crunch has had a delayed impact on Hollywood, but its impact has now become devastatingly clear. Jobs have become scarce and pay sharply shaved. Insiders believe the number of film releases will drop sharply from more than 600 last year to as few as 350 in 2010.

"The film business is like a snake digesting a large meal," the Economist pointed out last week. "The production bulge caused by the deluge of money in 2006 and 2007 will take a year or so to work its way through the system.

The entertainment business poses many contradictions to analysts. Box office is up as much as 12% this year, but the studios are getting squeezed by their once-flush parents. Corporate hatchet men at behemoths like Sony or Viacom have thus sent forth their austere mandates: Cut costs and scale back risks. That message is not exactly great news to a business whose entire history rests on expensive risk-taking.

The upshot: Just as Vince and 'E' and their confreres may now have to come of age, so do the many actors, writers and other members of Hollywood's creative community who face a tough period of corporate consolidation and cost-cutting. The balance of power between the talent and the corporate suits has shifted to the corporations. That translates into the many ugly realities no one likes to think about -- foreclosures, kids being pulled out of private schools, courts jammed with claims for reduced alimony, restaurants shuttering.

It's getting ugly out there. I'm glad we have "Entourage" to give us a few laughs.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Boston day-Night Doubleheader

Funny, this business. If you hang around long enough, things have a way of circling back.

I'm sent a copy of "THE TOWN," Ben Affleck's follow-up to Gone Baby Gone (and a Hot Script in LA, at the time), to read for my client Eliza.

"Oh, for CHRISSAKES," I think as I start reading, "another Boston Guys Doin' Crime script-- will these things never stop coming?"

I'm serious. Is there something in the water up there? Some friggin' Artesian well in Dorcherster or Saugus or someplace that produces, in anyone who drinks from it, an insatiable desire to write about 'these guys from the neighborhood who plan to steal some (drugs guns money)'? I can tell you without exaggeration that in the 20 years I've been doing this I am sent about one of these scripts a month, and most of them are God-awful.

But not The Town. The Town is wonderful.

Crime thrillers have a self-imposed challenge: they must quickly succeed on both plot and character levels, and the Town does so on both counts, beautifully. I opened the file sitting in bed at the Mondrian hotel, on that first, jet-lagged night in LA, but kept clicking through the pages until after two AM (actually five AM, since I'm on east coast time). Let's see what we can do with this one, I tell Eliza, and go to bed.

I'm sent another script: VALEDICTION, a small, finely observed family drama with a supernatural layer that gives it a nice, twisty feel. Better, this is an offer for Eliza, not an audition.
Better still, I very much like the script.
So even though the role is not large --and it's the "home-wrecker" role in the script-- I urge Eliza to take it. I always urge clients to pick the project, not the role-- and Oh how some agents hate this. In limited cases I see their point-- Leading Men are Leading Men, for example, and should only consider leading roles. But still-- were there any insignificant roles in No Country for Old Men? Would any actor's career have been hurt appearing anywhere in that film? In the case of Valediction, I'm 'validated' (get it?) when I hear of the wonderful Brits that are in the cast-- ends up that Eliza is one of the only Americans in the film.
Ends up, also, that it films in Boston. July, they say, so that's that. It's on.

Out of the blue, I get an email from an old acquaintance: Frank Corache, a fine director best known for helming some of Adam Sandler's best films. Ends up Frank's directing ZOOKEEPER, a Kevin James film shooting in Boston, and do I still do any casting up there? I tell him that I do, in tandem with my good friend and casting director Carolyn Pickman. So, another script. I read it, offer some thoughts, and Frank tells me we'll be in touch.

So now it's JUNE...
...we got the Zookeeper job, Carolyn's gearing up on The Town... and, at the eleventh hour, a call from Eliza:
"Pete, can you be in Boston THIS WEEK?"
Ends up VALEDICTION got pushed-- up, not back. That NEVER happens. Suddenly, a temporary relocation to Boston seems inevitable-- and since my personal life's been in something of a freefall, it sounds like a welcome diversion. The Universe Conspiring, all that.
Back to Boston I go.

Ends up Eliza's days are mostly nights, so I manage to manage my time pretty well. But on Tuesday, I finally end up with a double header: Casting Zookeeper from 10 to 3, then moving onto the Valediction set from 4 to... well, late. As you might imagine, I have a couple of thoughts from that looong day.


...which, it ends up, hasn't changed all that much. I'd forgotten how challenging these day-player days can be: it's a numbers game, and the session can feel as much like a commercial job as a feature job. But before I go any further,

LET ME EXPLAIN SOMETHING ABOUT CASTING. By observing something about falling in love.

In acting class, I sometimes ask: who here's single? This being an acting class (and New York City, after all), it's not surprising that most hands go up. (on a side note, it's always surprising who's single, and who isn't, but that's a subject for another time.)

So then I ask the single folk: "let's say you go to a party, or a bar-- how long does it take for you to know whether there's anyone there you're remotely interested in?"

The consensus: about five seconds.

And as for "The Click", that magical connection you feel with someone who might be The One? Well, that takes almost no time at all.

Which is precisely what casting for a film is like. For even the smallest of roles, there's this undefined ideal that just sort of walks in the room (for the record, "we'll know it when we see it" is true, and not at all a blow-off excuse). An actor who's not right for a role can give a lovely audition, but if there was no initial 'click' when they walked in the door, it matters not.
(But PLEASE don't despair, actors, and don't let off the gas, because "Terrific actor, wrong for this" is one of the best notes we can make about you-- and, honestly, sometimes better then getting called back. There are other projects. What's important is that we remember you as good.)

And here's what feels counter-intuitive for many actors: this holds even more true for smaller roles. Zookeeper is a Disney comedy, so if we see you onscreen for FOUR LINES we kinda need to know who you are the minute you appear in the story . Which is why it breaks our heart when actors who've been called in for the one-line Security Guard role walk in, eyes filled with hope... because they're also clutching the sides for the larger, three-scene, 'Best Friend ' role in their hands.

"Can I also read for...?" Sorry, but no. No Click. It's as simple as that.

But what of the actors for whom we feel the click?

It's equally heartbreaking when they haven't done the work to follow through on that initial promise. (I tell women it's like finally talking to the hot guy and finding out that he's dumb as a post. Oh, how you want him to be smarter, more sensitive, more insightful-- and, sure, you can choose to delude yourself that he is, for a while. Six weeks, tops. But he ain't, and you know it. But I digress.)

I can tell you now that at least this one thing about casting hasn't changed: in film and TV, you gotta bring the performance in the audition. And to do that, you must create an entire world. I like to tell actors it's a matter of going temporarily insane: for a minute or two, you actually see, quite clearly, people and things that just happen not to be there. And if you believe in this fantasy world, if you commit to it fully, then we'll see it too, in you and through you.

And Zookeeper? I'm guessing that everyone who Clicked --and who Did The Work-- will get called back (if there are callbacks)(ahem). We'll see.


Which is Whiskey friggin' Park, of all places, and I'm late-- but not nearly as late as the production.

I have no way of knowing, when I arrive at five, that the first shot will not go off til after eight PM, a full five hours after crew call. Mostly this has to do with the complex setup of the first shot-- which is a gutsy thing for a director to do.

Orson Wells was known for doing it, as was Coppola: composing a long, challenging opening shot that takes a while to set up but will, once in the can, cover a page or more. You're five hours late-- then suddenly, a half hour later, you're back on track. Suri, the director (a Brit whom I get to know rather well, and who becomes a friend partially becuase I may be one of the only Americans who saw his film "A Man of No Importance" several years back), is setting up a travelling master, a stedicam shot that will follow Ben Barnes, the lead, down a flight of stairs, where he'll discover Eliza; we'll roll that two-shot all the way though the scene, right up until Ben's character is hauled back up the stars by Security Guards.

Since this is only the second day of shooting, though, the crew hasn't yet coalesced as a team. This shot shouldn't be this hard to set up, and Suri's professional, but a little tense-- and when the director's tense, everyone's tense. And as the minutes slip away one hears (with increasing frequency) from the AD: "People, we need QUIET!"
(Side note: at this moment the director in me instinctively looks up at the ceiling-- polished metal-- then down: concrete floors. Cool-looking, but an accoustical nightmare.)

And the quiet is needed, for the most part, from the extras. So, those who do extra work, take a breath. I'm gonna beat you up a little.

To some of you, being an extra feels like being invited to a cool party: I'm in wardrobe! I'm right next to the stars! Plus, for most of the day, you're not really a necessary part of things. Add to the fact that you folks are not, by and large, a quiet lot... and what you have is a perfect storm of chatter.

I speak for directors everywhere when I beg of you: Please Don't.

Even under the best of circumstances, production is tense, and often a grind (personally, I don't have a problem with that, as it reminds us of how challenging the making of good movies really is). Everyone on set is focused, and the "keys" walk around with that buzz-tired that most of us only remember from college finals.

But not the extras.I should tell you this is why so many directors (myself included) prefer to have extras holding far away from the set: everyone else on the set, even that forlorn PA over at craft services, is working-- and, probably, feeling lucky to have the job and focused on not getting fired. They stay quiet when they're asked. But to some extras, I gotta ask: what are you thinking??

Many of you are cater-waiters as well, and I can offer you this comparison: the set is like one of those parties you cater-- except that you, the waiter, are the crew; those guests are the extras. And when you're dead tired and trying to get back with that tray full of empty shrimp plates before you get screamed at or your arm falls off... don't you want those loud guests, who are apparently oblivious to the job you have to do, to simply WORK WITH YOU AND GET OUT OF YOUR WAY!?

Welcome to our world, people.

Again, I know this sounds harsh. Apologies. And, of course, not all extras are like this-- that night, I caught site of an elderly gent, nattily attired in a Brooks Brothers blazer and crisp khakis ( Whisky Park??), sitting quietly, chipping away at a book full of sudoku puzzles. Because he was far from the action, he had an entire comfy sofa to himself, and seemed perfectly content to while the evening away, out-puzzling the puzzles, waiting for a call to action which, if it never came, was fine with him.

My kind of extra. (And don't worry about not being seen-- we know who you are. We'll find you.)

As for me? I chat with my other new "BFF," Ben Barnes (the male lead) who's quite passionate about the craft (my experience? The good ones, especially the Brits, usually are). I watch a few takes... I offer a few notes to Eliza, and give a few observations to Suri. I think they help.

And, at about eleven or so, after a few hours of watching the monitior.... I know my work here is done. I head out into a damp Boston night.

I reach my rental car, parked on Boylston Street in a 'Meter Parking 'til 8PM' spot. I bought one of those hated "muni meter" slips that was good until 7:54--

--and there, on my windshield, is an orange love letter from my old, old friends at the Boston Transportation Department. Meter Expired-- as of 7:55.

Ahh, Boston. Love you too. You never change.

There is NO WAY it has been a month...

...yet, amazingly, it has.

So... another "Scene of the Month." As always, let me know your thoughts.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ya know...

...I've been told that I can, on those occasions when the stars align, string together a sentence or two of quality that, together, rise to a certain... place. (Clearly, that was not such a sentence.)

But every now and again I read something like Garrison Keilor's latest piece in Salon and I am reminded of how words can soar; I'm reminded of how high I (or anyone who writes) must set their bar if they are to attempt excellence. Like some of my pieces, it's a simple story of a party he attended; nothing more than a page from his life, really. But oh, what a page:

Garrison Keilor's article in

Cheesy Confession: I may --MAY, mind you-- have gotten a little choked up while reading it. Spare, eloquent, profoundly moving-- and, unlike PK, he requires only 750 words or so to get the job done. ( does he do it? How?? I write paragraphs that are longer than that.) (On a routine basis, as some of you know...)

Here's a sneak of one of my favorite passages in the piece-- his description of what good art can be:

"...a lavish gift of the heart that shames pretense by its outrageous generosity."

I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's assertion that anything truly worth reading is worth re-reading, so,

a lavish gift of the heart that shames pretense by its outrageous generosity.

If I ever happen to meet Mr Keilor I will thank him for that phrase alone. It made my day; it may in fact have made my month, but we'll see.

Read it. I promise it'll be the best five minutes you spend today.


P.S.: for those interested --and speaking as we are of fine writing-- here's a piece by Boston alum Marj Galas, writing in Variety 411 about (ahem) Yours Truly:

Every Great Actor Should Have a Great Acting Coach.

I will say that that was the most accurately I have ever been quoted in print in my life. Thanks, Marj! (Full disclosure: Marj is on the "get PK to LA" Team, which may have held some editorial sway in the piece)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I've been tinkering with this for a while: my first video post.

I'm realizing that some (many?) of you may never have seen what, exactly, I do in my work with actors, so here you go. Let me know what you think. Be gentle.

First, here's the "tutorial:"

And below is the companion piece-- a bit of the final scene, cut together. Yes, it's a little rough, but given that it's a classroom (a conference room overlooking the Hudson, actually) and not a set, I'm pretty pleased with the work that's done.

But before you watch it, a few words about the scene partner, Kyla Druckman:

she's an NYU senior who, given that she's done more film than theatre, doesn't know how NOT to live in the moment. Watch her almost control the scene through silence-- and her strong, secret thoughts about Don.

Lesson: on film, your ability to listen is, in my experience, more important than your ability to speak. Watch:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Park City Diaries: a Tale of Four Films (and one almost-film...)

I should be doing more.

This is what I'm thinking as I lounge in a club chair in my beloved Washington School Inn, just off Main Street in Park City. It's Friday, and I've already managed to take care of the majority of the meetings I'd scheduled while here.

I'd almost not come this year. If one has (or is involved with) a film that's here, the decision to attend the festival is a no-brainer. For me, the fact that I'd booked my accommodations far in advance ended up being the deciding factor-- that, plus the fact that (again) my pal Eliza has a whirlwind weekend scheduled.

But there's something else, too. I always end up seeing familiar faces while here; at the end of the day, there's a value in seeing which among your old acquaintances are still in the game (David Kleiler, from back in Boston, in line next to me for a film!)-- and, sometimes, to remind those same acquaintances that you're still in it, too.

And this year a free bonus: it's amazingly warm. Even now, in January and at 7,000 feet, the temperature rises well into the 40's each day. Better, I will not see a cloud for the entire time I'm here (and it's true that sunshine is a little warmer at altitude). Best: New York is still in the grip of a brutal cold front, and daytime highs in Park City are higher than those in New York City for the duration of my trip. (Yes, I check. You would too.)

Back in my chair, I come to a radical decision: this year, my priority at Sundance is going to be seeing films.

I know: crazy, right? Still, I warm to the idea quickly: late mornings, relaxing strolls, a few parties, a lot of new films. That's it. I'll focus on the "festival" side of Sundance and ignore completely its "market" side.

For the uninitiated, a lesson:


...they used to be different. Cannes began the fusion; Sundance completed it.

The New York Film Festival (the original, at Lincoln Center) may be the last of the pure film festivals: a prestige collection of what could only be called "art" films from around the world, selected to be shown for an audience whose only interest, in theory, is cinema. Prizes are given, sure, and there is the occasional Hollywood premiere among the films chosen (Mystic River is a good recent example), but, really, it's a prestige event that's All About The Work.

A film market, by contrast, is a Persian Rug Bazaar. The name of the game is rugs, and everyone there is either buying (HBO, Lion's gate, etc) or selling (EVERY filmmaker on the mountain). A rug bazaar is not a place for the uninitiated, or the slow-- but the cagey, the quick, can do well there indeed.

How? Simple. Wanna be a "player" at Cannes? Yes, you! A week in the south of France in May! All it takes is three things:

- spend some money,
- know someone famous,
- and lie. A lot. Lie lie lie lie lie.

BRAINSTORM RIGHT NOW! Tell you what: I'm going to do it. right now, as I write this. Ready?

Boston Souls.

Just came up with that. It's my title. Of what, you ask? Of my film. The one I'm... pre-selling. (sadly, this isn't done much anymore, but I digress). What's pre-selling, you ask? Why, it's just what it sounds like: I'm selling -- no, offering an opportunity to buy-- something that hasn't been made yet!


And, now, let's see.... The New York Film Company. (maybe "Village Films?")

Just made that up, too. That's the name of my International Production and Distribution company. I like it--- I'll bet that exact company doesn't exist, but it sounds like a company that DOES exist. You gotta use the word "film," and those business types like the word "Company," and who doesn't like New York??

So.... the New York film Company has a slate of five mid-budget (8-12 million) character-driven (read: cheap) romantic thrillers and romantic comedies, that are to be independently financed and structured for strong foreign sales (translation: no Baseball movies). NOOO, silly-- I haven't MADE any of these movies and in fact I really DON'T have any scripts. YET. But to quote Linda Obst: It's not a lie, it's just the truth that hasn't happened yet...

Anyway. Boston Souls is our first. It stars Dennis Leary, Chris O'Donnell, and Eliza Dushku, all of whom are committed; there's a terrific cameo for a aging-but-still-hot female police chief; both Meryll and Glenn are verrry interested but we can't officially say that, yet. If Meryll comes on we get Ed Harris, who wants to work with her, for the Uncle-- though I hear Dennis Hopper wants in. We're looking for pre-sale commitments in all territories. We're looking to start in May.

OK, everything I just wrote? A lie. Lie lie lie lie lie. How do I get away with it? Easy-- first, I've got a HUGE, professional-looking poster with the stars' faces in it (you walked past it when you entered my office/hotel room); second, I've got just enough people who will, sort of, back up this cockamamie story; mainly, though, I LIKE LYING. I'm good at it. And if you walked up, saw that poster, made a few calls and yes, this Peter Kelley guy checks out, we haven't heard of Boston Souls but you never know... it might never occur to you that it's ALL A LIE.

Unless, of course (and back to the Rug Bazaar) you've bought a few "fine Persian Rugs" that fell apart after a few weeks. In that case, you walk into my office/room with the assumption that EVERYONE'S lying.

(P.S.: welcome to my world. "Why so cynical, Pete?" Because I've bought a few Fine Persian Rugs in my day, that's why.)

So that's a film market. Like Toronto and Cannes (and, to a lesser extent, Berlin), Sundance is one of the few remaining festivals that is also a market, an open-air, Persian Rug bazaar-- just, you know, at high altitude and with ridiculous parties and swag-filled "lounges" and battalions of women in cowboy jackets and high-heeled uggs (and not much else) wheezing their way up and down Main Street (trolling for what, I always wonder... to be discovered? To sleep with a celebrity? To find a bathroom?) (But I digress.)

SO, like any market, there are mainly two groups of people in Park City: buyers and sellers. And if you ain't buying, and you got nothing to sell? Best just to get out of the way.

Which is what, come Friday, I do. Eliza's arriving, with an entourage, on Saturday morning;I have a friend who's arriving a little later that day. Thankfully, I've got tickets to three films, and I decide it's my mission to get more.

The following four days are entirely unlike what I'd expected them to be, back when I'd first scheduled this trip. There are late nights, sure, but a sense of leisure during the day, a few car trips, and, yes: seeing films. And that's pretty much it.

It's magical.

Looking back, now, I can't imagine attending a film festival (a good one) any other way... and there's much to be learned from my cinematic adventures. So let's get to it, shall we? Our four films....


Quick background: the Sundance film festival has grown to the point where fewer than half of the screening venues are actually in Park City. Of those that are, four have a certain cachet: The Egyptian (on Main Street, with that famous marquee that you've all seen pictures of); the Library (thanks to festival revenue, Park City has an impressive public library, and this close-to-town theatre, housed in the Town Library, is my personal favorite venue); The Eccles Auditorium (literally the auditorium at Park City High School--and, sure, why not have a 1,200-seat theatre with FULL DOLBY SOUND at a High School in the Utah mountains?), and, finally, Prospector Square, known mainly for its poor sightlines and Abu-Ghirab-style Seats of Torture. (not lyin 'bout that).

Even though You Won't Miss Me isn't on my must-see-list, it is at Prospector Square, and has a primo screening time (Sat nite, 8PM), so I feel good about taking a chance on it. Plus, two other factors guide my decision:

First, the description. In most festivals, those little blurbs in the festival guide are written by the filmmakers and are thus (for the most part) poorly-written propaganda and largely unhelpful-- but each Sundance film is lovingly "introduced" in the catalogue by a member of the selection committee. This, about You Won't Miss Me:

(The Director) creates and engrossing character portrait in this deceptively compact, but exquisitely layered, feature. (She) renders this depiction of intersecting dead ends with astute and exactingly measured empathy. Her searching, eliptical narrative structure and compact, concentrated mis-en-scene astutely underline the lonesome self-sabotage involved when self-relaince becomes an armor against intimacy... other words, a small, performance-driven human drama. Right up my alley.

Second, and more important: this could me MY film. It's not one of the splashy, must-see, "event" films of the festival, but it made it to the party nonetheless; this film had been CHOSEN, dammit, culled from those thousands of entries, that needle-in-a-haystack independent that had nothing going for it but merit and (hopefully) heart.

I have to go. In truth, I'm kind of dying to go. Isn't this, after all, the whole point of film festivals-- of independent film, really?

So we go. It's my friend's first night in park City, and You Won't Miss Me will be her first-ever Sundance film. Thirty minutes into the film, we walk out.

Please know this: I have not walked out of a film in years. And I tried, really I did, to like the film. To give it a chance. So what was it, exactly, that pushed me over the edge? That caused me so much frustration that I willingly braved the wrath of my row-mates, as well as everyone behind me, and overcame my fear of being recognized ("...hey, isn't that Peter Kelley-- the "Acting Guy"-- walking out? What a tool..."), and left?

Well, let's see.

Was it the horrid acting and loose, pointless, wandering dialogue (oops, sorry... "fresh, improvisational feel")? Nope. Was it the endless endless ENDLESS, bad film-school, drunken-hookup-with-loser scene? (Heroine, to Loser: "What's that on your arm-- are you OK?" Loser: "oh.... I think it's a zit." Long Meaningless Pause. "Maybe I should pop it." Long Meaningless Pause.) Nope, that wasn't it. Was it the cliche-ridden Audition for the Off-Off Broadway Play, complete with narcissistic gay director, orgasm improv, and all? Nope. Was it the late-night drunken parental phone call, with its slurred, teary, "where are you, MOM?! I had a bad audition and I NEED YOU but you're never there.... MOM!!"

Actually..... no. In the end, it was this: I know this woman, the heroine of the film; in fact, I've known lots of her. They pop up every now and then in an acting class of mine, and here's what I've learned: this woman doesn't have a problem. She just needs to grow up. So why should I, or anyone, care? Why should we spend an hour and a half of our lives committed to her self-indulgent saga of delayed adolescence?

(By contrast, watch Frozen River, last year's prize winner. From the very start, Melissa Leo's character has problems-- real, unimaginable problems that require a succession of hard choices that only get harder, and the power of her performance lies in her never once allowing herself the emotional collapse she deserves, even though we feel it inside her. As a result, her performance stays with you long after the film has ended.)

So we leave. But in my haste (and in a typical jackass-PK move) I leave my brand-new scarf behind; I observe that returning for the scarf is best done in the few minutes of confusion between when the film ends and when the hated Q-and-A begins. We pass the ensuing hour in a restaurant nursing beers while discussing not just the film, not just our disappointment, but this: the vague, angry frustration that we both feel.

She's frustrated, I tell her, because the actress who was cast just wasn't that good. Me? I'm mad because... that film got in.

There is really no feeling quite like the frustration that arises from injustice, for It's an emotion fueled by impotence. You perceive a wrong and are powerless to make it right.

Over time, that impotent frustration grows in a person, as it has done and will always do to so many of you in this business. It's OK that the Hot Chick gets the role instead of you, or the producer's nephew or the Actor of the Moment or whomever... provided they're AT LEAST AS GOOD AS YOU. But if they're not, and you wanted that role...

That's the thing about injustice: the experiencing of it feels so much worse than we imagine. You hear the sentence "...let me introduce the star of this extraordinary film", and while you'd braced yourself for how badly you wanted that person to be YOU, we're entirely unprepared for that feeling after having endured a bad film. Every handclap of applause is a slap in the face, a confirmation that, you know what? Maybe this isn't the business for us.

To survive, one must reach a point where one can separate jealous admiration from the frustration of injustice.

Jealousy -- good jealousy-- occurs during those moments of core honesty when you realize that, by comparison, others may be better at the thing you so love. Like this: I am sitting in a theatre in DC somewhere (this is a few years back), watching Samuel Jackson empty a Smith & Wesson forty-four into some kid-- when suddenly that image smash-cuts to a shaven-head Bruce WIllis staring RIGHT AT ME just as the cannon-fire gunshots are replaced by the smooth, haunting opening of "Let's Stay Together". And all I can think is:

"how did Quentin come up with that? How? How???"

Maybe, Pete, at least today... he's, uhm... better than you. And we mature, as artists, by learning how to replace our jealousy with admiration and learn from our betters.

And if it had been his film here at Prospector Square tonight, all I'd feel is: I get it. I get why he got in. Good for him. And I like to think I'd be inspired to get back to work, and work a little harder, and get a little better. And I'd silently thank Quentin for the wake-up call.

But this.... sitting in a packed theatre in Park City, cringing at something more poorly-shot and poorly-acted than most of what we do in class, and knowing the adulation that awaits the creator of this... whatever... there is nothing I can teach you here, for this is a lesson for which there is no shortcut to learning:

Injustice is harder than you can imagine. It may, in fact, be the truest test of how badly one wants a thing: the continual decision to stay in the game, knowing how it may turn out-- worse, that how it may turn out has little to do with merit or desire or discipline or any of those things we've been taught, rightly, to respect. (Still want in? Are you sure? OK then.)

Even so, in the thin, rapidly-cooling night air, I see a silver lining in the experience: movie-wise, I've got no place to go but UP.

And I get my scarf back! I take it as a sign.


I Love You Phillip Morris is one of the blockbuster titles of the festival, one of the "must see" films that's impossible get into. Thankfully, Cragslist has become something of a Sundance Equalizer, and I happen to log on at the right time and score a pair of tickets to the film.

Even though we arrive stupidly early, the Ticket Holder line already fills the snaky, cattle-pen gates that have been set up. By the time we're let in, it will extend the length of the theatre and around the corner into darkness.

After what we've come to call The Unmentionable Film (see above), we decide that whenever possible it's aisle seats for us, and we manage to snag a couple in a good spot, and settle in. Shortly before showtime, Jim Carey and Ewan MacGregor are hustled in, surrounded by a scrum of security-- and are immediately assaulted by seemingly half the theatre, all armed with digital cameras. Watching this awful spectacle -- I would guess, conservatively, that five hundred photographs of the stars are taken in the ensuing three minutes-- all I can wonder is, how do the paparazzi make any money at all? What are the odds that a "professional" photo is better than all of those hundreds of shots? But I digress.

The house lights dim. I Love You Phillip Morris is a difficult film to categorize-- Jim Carrey and Ewan MacGregor play gay men who meet in prison and fall in love-- but whatever it is, it's everything that The Unmentionable Film is not. They've spent money on this film, and spent it well; it feels professional, and smooth, it moves, it surprises.... and about halfway in, it has a Moment.

I love Moments. More, I think, than almost anything. I won't ruin this particular Moment beyond saying it involves Jim and Ewan, sharing a prison cell at night, dancing to "Chances Are"-- when suddenly everything works, and the film... elevates. It rises to that magical place that films can take us and so seldom do. It's romantic and sweet and yet tears are streaming down my face I'm laughing so hard... and I'm back. In Park City.

For this moment, these filmmakers are better than me. So many things had to work so perfectly to make this moment, and every one of them does. The moment is un-improvable, and they've got me. I'm in. I'll go wherever the cast and filmmakers want to take me.

Problem is, they try to take me to too many places. They want to make two movies, which might be OK, except that one of them is a Jim Carrey movie.... and the other one isn't. One is a Gay Comedy, John Waters gay, and the other one isn't. And my finely tuned dog-ears can hear the thoughts of the buyers, sprinkled throughout the theatre: "What do we do with this?"-- and later: "There's nothing we can do with this."

There's nothing we can do with this. Jim Carrey, folks. The twenty-million dollar man. With Obi-Wan, no less. A 1200-seat theatre, filled to capacity. Wild applause.

As of this writing, I Love You Phillip Morris has not sold.

LESSON: there are no guarantees in this business. None.


So I'm at the Variety party (you knew there had to be a few parties, right?) and I see Emerson Bruns, an old business friend from New York. We're talking films, and it ends up that another friend is somehow involved with Once More With Feeling, which is screening the following afternoon at Prospector Square. There are no tickets to be had, but one generally has a better shot at wait-listing daytime events (especially with this weather!!), so I go.

The film stars Chazz Palmintieri, Drea DeMateo, and Linda Fiorentino; not surprisingly, it's a Quirky-Family Film about how dreams and romance never die. This from the Sundance catalog:

...brimming with heart, and music, and featuring fine performances from its ensemble cast, Once More With Feeling perfectly captures the strength of family bonds in the face of life's temptations and trials.

Where to start with Once More With Feeling?

How 'bout with the fact that the viewer is treated to... Chazz Palmintieri Sings! And sings again! And again! There is, conservatively, an album's worth of Chaz singing in this film-- and no "a few bars then cut to the next scene," no...these are full songs.

Or maybe it's the fact that we're asked to buy into a simmering Chazz Pamintieri - Linda Fiorentino romance that leads, cringingly, to The Big Kiss (and Chazz, of course, is a Married Man, and Linda, of course, is single). Full Disclosure: after The Last Seduction (IMDB it), there was a period where Linda Fiorentino played a major role in my fantasy life-- and to see my Linda like this, buckled into the front seat of a car, in a stiffly-written and awkwardly staged scene where she is meant to wait, aching, for friggin' Chazz Palmintieri to lean across and make his move... how times change, all I can say.

With this one, we can't leave. I have friends in the audience, and since we got in from the God-help-me WAITING LINE, we were the last to be seated and I have no way of knowing where they are. So here we are again, asking how did this get in? Except this time, there's an answer: the director, that's how.

Jeff Lipsky is something of a legend in Park City: a well-known and well-repsected producer who, it must be said, helped shape and nurture the entire independent film movement in America. So: a pedigree director, an indie-film all-star cast... what's not to love?

The film, that's what. Sadly, none of it really worked, starting with the script. The cast struggled mightily to bring the words off the page but in the end, and lacking the presence of a strong director (and even that may not have helped), there was simply nothing to be done.

In the men's room afterward, a publicist at the urinal next to me: "well, that's two hours we won't get back-- can you believe what a piece of garbage that was? So disappointing, my GOD..."

He does not notice that one of the stars (not Chazz, thankfully) has sidled up to the urinal on the other side. Ahh, Sundance.

LESSON(S): I see two here. 1) Just because you WANT to direct doesn't mean you CAN direct. No one is immune to this, not even if you're a legendary producer, and 2) I've said it before and I'll say it again: great movies --all of 'em, every single one-- come from GREAT SCRIPTS. No exceptions. None. This movie was DOA before the first frame of film was shot.


Back at the Eccles on Monday night.

The Messenger is not an easy film; worse (for the filmmakers), it's an Iraq film, attempting to find a foothold in a tough market at a point when Iraq Film Fatigue is a known phenomenon.

It's a simple pitch: Ben Foster is an Iraq combat vet who's sent back to the states to serve the remainder of his tour, where he's partnered with Woody Harrelson, and Woody's job is to teach Ben to be an "Angel of Death"-- Ben and Woody are the First Notifiers of the relatives of soldiers killed in duty. (Note to my Monday Night peeps: throughout the film, I'm thinking that I could have made the same movie with Conan McCarty and young Tim Rouhana. Or Eddie M and Tim, or Chris Coffey. Or Gerry Urcioli.)

And that's it. Sure, there's a love interest (Samantha Morton, brilliant in the Laura Heisler Role as a widow who begins a quiet relationship with Ben), and sure there are stories of friendship and dislocation-- but like any beautiful small film, descriptions really don't do it justice.

Even so, two moments stand out so much:

The first is pretty much smack in the middle of the film, and is the core of one of the film's story lines-- the developing relationship between Ben and Samantha. Ben, a mechanic, has helped repair Samantha's car, and she invites him in for coffee.

And we watch. We watch these two quiet souls move slowly, respectfully closer, negotiating propriety with desire, trying to figure out what they should do and what they want to do. They kiss... they stop. They talk a little, they stop. They hug, they stop. It feels, as I'm fond of saying, just like life. Oh, and did I mention it's covered in a single wide shot?

The other is near the end of the film. Woody has finally confessed the truth to Ben-- that while he was indeed sent to Desert Storm, he never saw action. In response, Ben finally tells the wrenching story of what happened to him in Iraq, how he came to be wounded and receive his medal. It's direct, underplayed to the point of plainness, and powerful. After a silence (they're sitting side-by-side in Ben's living room), Woody asks for a beer. Ben goes to get it and, once alone, Woody starts crying. Tears that turn into silent, wracking sobs. This is never explained. Better... we cut to Ben, closing the fridge, hearing something... then peeking around the corner into the living room and seeing Woody in tears. He ducks back and remains in the kitchen, silent, holding Woody's beer. Waiting for the storm to pass.

Every man in the theatre is devastated by this. By not just Woody, but Ben, standing in the kitchen. It's a moment of power and honesty that one so seldom sees on film, an emotionally courageous moment that affects me still. Every man wants to turn to any woman in earshot and say: "THIS is what it's like to be a man-- all this silence, all this isolation, all this pain-- and there's a part of this that you will never, ever understand."

To which the woman might reply: "maybe I understand it a little better, now."

Which is why we make movies. They tell us, sometimes, what we can't tell one another.

And this film will never find its way into a theatre. It'll air on cable somewhere, and when it does, see it, please. Make the effort.

We stay for the Q-and-A. I want to see the director, to hear what he has to say (interestingly, he's a bald israeli dude who towers over both Woody and Ben). Anyone who's sat through a few Q-and-A sessions learns quickly to expect the worst-- the stupid questions, the rambling pretentious questions, the inevitable "what was your budget?" question. So I'm pleasantly surprised when:

"how long was the kitchen scene?" (the Ben-and-Samantha scene I mentioned above) The answer: nine minutes.

I'm stunned. Oh, it was long --daringly so-- but I had no idea. On 35mm film, the longest roll you can get has about eleven minutes worth of film. They had one take per roll. It's ballsy, and I'm impressed with this director.

Question two, a follow-up: "how many takes of that did you shoot?"

Two-- well, three, really.

Question number three is the best yet: " which take did we see?"

Before you read the answer... guess. Go ahead.

Think you've got it? OK...

"Well, I didn't tell the actors, but we rolled on the rehearsal. That's the take we used."

The rehearsal. They used the rehearsal.

LESSON: this is why I train FIRST TAKE ACTORS. Because your best stuff is so often THE REHEARSAL and if it's not RECORDED ON FILM then it DOESN'T COUNT.

Got it? Good.


An Education was the film at Park City I most wanted to see. It's from a Nick Hornby novel (About a Boy or High Fidelity, etc), stars Peter Saarsgard and Alfred Molina, and the buzz was that the female lead would break out with this performance. Two problems: A) this was premiering at the Egyptian, the smallest of the Park City venues, and B) I only have one ticket, and my friend expressed an interest in seeing it as well. Bummer. But, again, it's a daytime screening (did I mention the weather is wonderful?) So I head down to the Egyptian to wait in the standby ticket line.

I arrive over two hours early. There are already sixty-seven people in the line; the theatre seats about 280; this is one of the "big buzz" films at all of Sundance this year. You do the math.

I decide to be the Good Friend and repay the Scarf Karma by offering her the single seat. As the screening approaches, I offer to be the BETTER friend and actually hold a place in the line (she's "getting ready."). But I'm clear: it's a 3PM screening and they'll start letting people in at 2:30 SHARP. The line will move at 2:30 SHARP.

2:30 sharp: the line begins to move. I immediately send a text.

2:38: I am at the front of the line. I text again. No word back, so I've got no choice but to cringe and let people behind me in line go ahead. As each one passes, they look at me, at the ticket in my hand; they glance up with expressions of confusion and pity.

2:44: the line stops. That's cool, though, because A) I'm about six people away from the front of the line, and B) they always do this, to get a seat count at crunch time, and C) my friend is JUST NOW ARRIVING.

We swap places. I loiter around the front of the theatre, just to check out the scene, and... oh, to to hell with it. I'm not going to drag this out: two more people are let inside. My friend isn't one of them.

Remember: I let about THIRTY people pass in front of me.

LESSON: sometimes in life the fine print counts. In this case: A TICKET DOES NOT GUARANTEE ADMISSION.

So there you go. Beautiful weather, and a few films. Not bad. Not bad at all.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Muscle Memory, the Pledge of Allegiance, and learning your DAMNED LINES!

I was first introduced to the concept of muscle memory in, not surprisingly, a fitness magazine.

While it seemed to my scientific mind like a "muscle-headed" concept at the time (ahem), I've been reading, and thinking, about Muscle Memory again, and how it applies to the ongoing issue of memorization.

FOR THE UNINITIATED, "Muscle Memory" refers to how a formerly fit person's body gets back into shape after time away from the gym. According to the theory, the muscles of a formerly buff, in-shape bodybuilder "remember" their previous state of, well, "jacked-ness;" as a result, a fit person will get back into shape in less time than a novice would require to achieve the same level of fitness, since the fromerly-fit person's muscles carry a sort of "memory" of being in shape.

See what I mean? Hair-brained.

On another level, though, it had a degree of anecdotal truth: I knew from my own experience as a runner that I'd "get it back", after an absence from running, in much less time than a beginner would require to reach my level of fitness. Still, I chalked much of that up to experience and psychology, assumed it was a mind-over-matter thing, and otherwise thought little of it.

But now Muscle Memory is back. Recent research into soft-tissue structure and functioning is providing some interesting, and startling, insights, and may even be proving the muscleheads right. No, I'm not going to get all scientific on you, but consider: all the mushy stuff inside you (well, most of it, anyway) is tissue. Brain? Tissue. Muscles? Tissue. Intestines, stomach, etc? You guess it-- tissue. Yet, organ-wise, we've been brought up to think that all of our thought and awareness and memory occurs, and is stored, solely in our brain. In other words, our brain tissue is somehow fundamentally different than all the other tissue in our bodies.

But what if it isn't? Think: how does your stomach "remember" what to do? How does a bone "remember" what it felt like before you slipped and broke it? Researchers are exploring the idea that brain tissue may not be the only place in our bodies where what we think of as "memory" is stored after all.

"Well, duh. "

I hope that's what you're thinking as you read this, because every actor should innately understand the link between muscular activity and memorization.

Why? Because speaking is a physical activity. You speak with your muscles as much as your mind. The muscular activity involved in speaking is subtle, yes, but so is surgery, and certainly no one would underestimate the importance of motor skills to the guy who does your gums. And it's always seemed to me, even back in my own acting days, that deep concentration never led to quicker memorization-- and now scientific thought supports what I've been saying to many of you for years: you carry the memory of your lines in your mouth as much as your brain.

Think not? Then try this simple test: say the Pledge of Allegience.
Right now, out loud. DON'T THINK-- look away from your I-phone or laptop or whatever RIGHT NOW and do it.


Done? How'd you do?

Here's what I know: if you didn't say it perfectly, you at least came pretty damned close. Now some of you have seen this exercise done in my class-- if you were lucky, you witnessed a fellow actor, fully insistent on the futility of the exercise, growing more amazed as strange words came out of their mouth that they were absolutely certain no longer existed there. Me, every time I watch this exercise I think I'm witnessing something of a miracle. Here's why:

Chances are, you haven't thought of those words in years. for many of you, it's been DECADES since you last spoke them. More, you didn't wake up this morning thinking about your "big Pledge of Allegiance audition." In fact, you didn't "rehearse" the words at all-- you just looked up and started speaking. And out they came.

So where were they? In what corner of your brain were they sitting, assumedly forgotten, waiting to be instantly called up? I think there's something to the possibility that they were lodged somewhere in your muscle fiber.

The lesson is clear: whether you've got two weeks or two hours or twenty minutes, your focus during memorization should be on Muscle Memory. I've long maintained that memorizing is an athletic activity-- and as with any athletic activity, one can be in, or out of, shape. Like any exercise, you become a better memorizer by working the muscle of memorization.

How? Mainly by simply speaking, not "acting," your lines OUT LOUD again and again and again. And again.

Most of you may be familiar with the "speed through"-- the up-tempo running of lines with regard for little but speed. (Back when I was acting, this was sometimes called an "Italian" run-- we guessed that it had to do with the notion that Italians speak quickly, which is certainly true; others theorized that it had something to do with opera, but no one was really sure. And I digress.)

If done properly, the "speed-through" may be the most efficient way I know of to quickly internalize text. But keep in mind that diction CANNOT be a casualty of the speed-through. If you're speaking so quickly that you begin to mumble, slow it down. If anything, it will help to over-pronounce during the speed-through. Lines get lodged in your mouth muscles when you work them, hard.

Why does this work? Because by focusing on tempo... you, the actor, free yourself from worry about performance. You're not trying to be good, you're trying to be fast. And here's secret number #1 about the speed-through: a little performance creeps in anyway.

Secret #2? When left alone to rehearse, actors tend to weigh a scene down with Meaningful Pauses. What actors don't notice, during the speed-through, is that some of their pauses creep in anyway-- but only those that are necessary to the scene. There's no time for the others, and they rightfully fall away. So remember:

1) STOL. In other words, Six Times Out Loud. This should be an Actor Law, especially as relates to auditions: when you go in to audition, it should be AT LEAST the sixth time you've read the scene OUT LOUD.

2) OUT LOUD means FULL VOICE, whatever that may be. This is my least favorite thing: watching actors eagerly run off to their fifteen minutes of prep, and on those occasions that I may pass them on my way to the restroom, I find them deep in thought, script in hand-- and SILENT. They'we wasting incredibly precious time THINKING about something they should be SPEAKING about.

So when approaching memorization, focus on putting the words in your jaw muscles, not your brain. And if you were a jock in high school, and not a brainiac? Ends up you might be the better memorizer, after all. Who'da thunk it?