Monday, November 29, 2010

Some thoughts on Thanksgiving. And Thankfulness, and friends

When you live this Nomadic Life, it happens now and then: you vanish.

Everyone in your life --at least everyone who thinks to wonder about it-- assumes that you're somewhere other than where you actually are. At that moment you could be anywhere, or nowhere at all. The wind of life has calmed and you are, for the moment, adrift: your course, for better or worse, is yours alone.

Where I am is Del Mar, a sleepy surf town turned chi-chi beach community north of San Diego (and home, over the years, to various Kelleys). I'd come down for the holiday and realized, once here, that I wasn't really needed in LA until noon on Monday. We've got a spare house on the hill (long story), and, after saying my familial good-byes, rather than heading back up the coast I chose to stay.

But something's not quite right, and it takes me a minute to place it: I'm walking funny. I'm moving fast, hands dug into packets, tilting against a sharp wind. It's a New Englander's walk, this, and its strange dislocation brings a thought I've not thought in years: it's a "cliffe-y" day. The phrase arrives as a memory; it brings a smile and warms me in that way that only nostalgia can. It's from years ago, learned from a grad school chum back in Boston who'd done his undergrad at Harvard, and the "cliffe" is meant to reference Radcliffe girls. Like Radcliffe girls, you see, a "cliffe-y" day is Bright But Cold. Ahem.

One so seldom gets these days in Southern California. The vivid blue sky, the ocean a foreboding slate grey, flecked with whitecaps hair-tussled by the wind. It strikes me that the day and I are both out of place: we're Here, yes, but we're a better fit Back There. The thought brings a vague ache, which I trace back, as I so often do, to family. After all, it's Thanksgiving, and the iconography of the holiday has always run deep in me: the fire, warming against a shortening day, the day-long aroma of the great meal-- and, of course, family, gathered close.

One of the wonderful advantages of family --one's actual, flesh-and-blood relatives--- is the ability of such relationships to endure a certain amount of what can best be understood as a kind of laziness: you love 'em, you don't; you're speaking to each other, you're not; no matter. They're still family and nothing will change that. And while we should nurture those relationships, well... even if we neglect them, come Thanksgiving, there's still a seat at a table, somewhere.

But as one ages, one wants to create one's own table. (It's what your parents did, after all.) And if you live a life like mine you may not have yet succeeded in doing so. And if you haven't, you learn something else: the incredible generosity of a seat at a table, any table, that is set aside for you by friends. And when a seat at the table of friendship is be the only seat available, one's friendships grow valuable indeed.

Because unlike family, friendship is always a choice. And like any relationship of choice, if left untended, it will simply fade. And that's a pity, but it seems epidemic of late. It has become so easy to simply not return the call, to blow off the party-- but as we do, bit by bit those wonderful friendships fade.

This is what I'm thinking about as I drive along the coast later: my friends. Who have so often, over the years, become a fill-in family when I needed one most.

If you know me, you know I've got a love-hate relationship to all that San Diego represents (when I lived here, I was a small, pale, druggie kid who didn't tan or surf well, a decidedly bad combination in the Land of the Beautiful). But this stretch of of the PCH, from Torrey Pines Park through San Diego's coastal north, late in the afternoon when the sun is low, grows only more beautiful to me over time.

I'm headed to the E Street Cafe, a little coffeehouse in Encinitas that's retained the raggedy, surf-town vibe that most places in Fashionable North County have lost: hippie kids, elderly couples, and a few leathered, weathered Lost Causes that one sees in beach communities. On the drive up, I wasn't really sure why I came, but once I walk inside the place I know: I've got something to write.

There's a singer, see, a portly fellow best described as a San Diego Cowboy --a kind of Wilfred-Brimley-by-way-of-David-Crosby, if that makes sense-- and as I walk in, he's singing a Beatles tune: "With a Little Help From My Friends."

I do not think this coincidence. I am certain it is evidence of God. But to talk of God at a moment like this, it's best to talk first of Gratitude, and Thankfulness, especially as we're at the tail end of a holiday meant to honor the giving of thanks.

Gratitude seems to have come into vogue lately. A good thing, to be sure, but in so doing it is often confused with thankfulness, which may not be quite the same thing. I've always understood thankfulness as an inter-human notion: I am thankful that you gave me a ride, or that you called me when I was feeling down. Gratitude is a deeper, less concrete notion; it has at its core, I think, an appreciation for What Is, for life itself as much as one's things in it, and requires an accompanying acknowledgement of one's incredible fortune to be a part of All That Is. As such, I think it's impossible to contemplate Gratitude without some acceptance of a Higher Power. Here's why:

It could be argued that it's simply a matter of coincidence that I find sunsets beautiful. After all, it's only a sunset, nothing more than a refracting of light as the sun dips below the horizon-- it would occur without humanity to bear witness to it. I could be indifferent to it, I could be made nauseous at the sight of it. Instead, it brings me a kind of quiet joy. You too, I'm guessing.

A fortunate coincidence? That we just happen to exist on a planet that happens to have this phenomenon that we happen to find beautiful? Perhaps... but. That feels to me wrong. In some way that I cannot articulate, it makes sense that the setting sun would please us. It feels right when I contemplate it; "righter" still when I experience it.

I'd respectfully submit that the "right-feeling" is the presence of God inside me. And I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful for the day that I've been given, for the God that produced it.

So. Thankfulness and Gratitude. And friends.

For all my wonderful friends, who are so crazy and baffling and loyal and wonderful that I may not even deserve them, I am thankful. More, I fear, than they know. And to God (or The Universe, if that helps), I am Grateful for the ability to care so deeply and appreciate my friends so very much. It is something that does not get said enough, I think.

It's dark out now. The cold snap that has settled over Southern California remains. Or maybe it's me-- maybe it's simply that my blood has finally grown thin. Either way, I'm already bracing for the quick walk to the car. But tonight, even in the chilly dark, I think I'll leave the top down.

Speaking of thankfulness: thanks for reading.

Del Mar, CA
November, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Acting 101: A tale of Two Entrances

People sometimes ask what, exactly, I do on set. By way of an answer, here's a story - and a little Acting 101 brush-up. Which everyone needs, sometimes.

DAY ONE of a new episode is always interesting. Everyone's shaking off the cobwebs of the previous episode (which we were working on 12 hours earlier), everyone's getting warmed into an entirely new story. As a result, we're often on the soundstage (the "Operations Center") on Day 1-- it's a controlled location, crews know their way around the space, and things can move quickly.

This new episode is bookended by two scenes between Callen, our lead, and Hetty, the wizened "boss" of the investigators. More, they're set in the same location, and the staging is almost identical in each. Since they're both relatively simple "gets" involving only two characters, we'll start day one with these two scenes.

But here's the thing: due to a number of logistical considerations, they'll be shot in reverse order. And since the story in the script covers a single day, that means that Callen's first entrance (a shot that will go off at 7:30AM, give or take) is meant to be at the tail end of a long, wearying day that ends the episode; as soon as that scene's done, we'll shoot the very first shot of the story, when none of the day's violent events will have yet occurred.

Same actor, same entrance, completely different emotional moments. Two hours apart. Think it's easy? Try it.

So we start with the wide. All looks good, except Callen is not quite entering with that heavy, "end-of-a-long-day" energy that the moment requires. In the focused momentum of getting that first shot, we've skipped a commonly overlooked part of an actor's prep:

The Moment Before

It's a concept borrowed from the theatre, to be sure: essentially, the actor must ensure that the energy of their entrance is in keeping with the circumstances of the moment-- or, more specifically, the moment just before one's entrance. Hence, "Moment Before." (Some of you may have learned this as "Given Circumstances", but it's the same concept. ) It's a simple idea-- but mastery of it is so, so much more critical to a film performance than theatre.

Why? Two reasons: first, we often shoot the place you're leaving days after the place you're going to, and without doing this work you will never maintain continuity. Second, often a film or TV scene is so short that the entrance IS the scene, or a big part of it. Think: how many entrances and exits does a character make in a play, and how many in a film? So call it what you want-- Given Circumstances, Moment Before, makes no difference. The key to mastering it is the same:

remember that every entrance is an exit, and every exit is an entrance.

Like so many things in acting, you can notice this in action in life: when you're entering your apartment, you're leaving the hall. When you're entering a restaurant, you're leaving the sidewalk. And if you pay attention to the entrances and exits of others, you'll notice just how much of the "Moment Before" they carry with them.

In this case, our work required no more than a 20-second conversation to shift Chris' emotional focus from where he was entering (the gymnasium) to where he was leaving (his office, at the end of a draining day). Since we'd already worked the scene itself, that "scene energy" would take over when it happened. There was no need to focus on the upcoming moment.

Which seems counter-intuitive to some actors, but: imagine walking out of your apartment, fresh off a phone call with a debt collector, and now you're late, and life just really really sucks.... when there's Megan Fox (or Johnny Depp), passed out naked in front of your door.

Suddenly, that crappy phone call doesn't seem so important.

So if that's your scene (and if it is, LUCKY YOU), you don't open the door with "here comes Megan/Johnny, can't wait!"; rather, you open it with "well, THAT sucked..." The sight of Megan/Johnny will then carry you into the present moment.

It is understandable that an actor with a long day might overlook this. It's even more understandable that the director, who's rightfully focused on not getting behind on Day 1, is not going to slow down because of an entrance on the wide that may or may not even be used. The truth? If the actor hits their marks, connects on their lines, and all of the technical land mines that can sabotage a shot are avoided, then everyone will be happy, and we'll move on.

Which is, on one level, as it should be: taken on its own, the specific energy of any single entrance a character makes is a minor thing, to be sure. But minor things add up. "So what," you say - "who will notice?"

You will. The audience will. And over the arc of a season you'll notice that the show is demanding just a little less of you.

But at 7:30AM on Day One, it's possible that everyone might miss it. Except the guy who's hired specifically to watch for these things.

And if you don't have one of those guys --and chances are you don't-- then it's your job to remember: context. On an entrance, remember where you're coming from. On an exit, think about where you're going to.

Because we'll notice.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My favorite scene



Funny how some conversations never really end-- they simply spin out of the orbit of one's life, only to return, comet-like, with some unmeasurable regularity. For me, "The Strong Film Scene", where I find them, and how to recognize them in the wild (as it were), has recently circled back into orbit. It's been the usual questions from actors, mostly. But then the other day I get this: "there really aren't any amazing film scenes. Not like there are in theatre."

If you know me at all you know I can't let that go.

The irony here is that I agree with the statement-- for an actor, an amazing film scene IS nothing like an amazing theater scene.

It's better. And for a writer, it's harder to write.

I have for years railed against the notion that challenging, quality writing exists mostly in theatre; that in contrast, there's an "emperor's new clothes" quality in writing for film and television, and the actors' work in front of the camera mainly involves investing the writing with a depth it does not, on its own, possess. The more I read strong screenplays, work the meatiest scenes, the more I respect the accomplishment of the writer, whose work is done, and the challenge for the actor, whose work (unlike in the theater) often must begin and end in a matter of days.

But I digress.

To those who'd asked about The Strong Film Scene, I was simply going to fire off a "Top Ten" compilation of my personal all-time favorite scenes (and since my "library" now stands at about 1,100 scenes, even that list was agonizingly difficult to assemble), but again: if you know me at all you know that's not how I roll.

I decided instead on a Case Study. I'd send along a single scene, one that contains all my requisite characteristics of The Strong Film Scene-- then put it under a microscope to show what, exactly, makes it so strong.

So what are characteristics of such scenes? There are several (characters I can HEAR and BELIEVE on the page is a characteristic that's becoming increasingly difficult to find...); for now, let's focus on two: ECONOMY and TENSION.


The Overlord of the screenplay is page count. There is an unspoken truth Out Here that, no matter how solid a screenplay, Shorter is Better. It's 120 pages? Make it 110, and it's better. 98? Lets get to 94. Much to my surprise, I think I've finally drank the cool-aid on this-- because in my experience It's almost always true: inexperienced writers love to burn through pages with dialogue. So:

The First Universal Quality of the Strong Film Scene: it accomplishes what it needs to accomplish without an excess of words. A beautiful film scene will carry us emotionally from A to Z with an economy of dialogue.

This does NOT mean it covers less emotional ground. Rather, it challenges the actor to do work which is distilled, sometimes even into a single moment. And when you see it on the page (and, later, brought to life), you realize how often words are used as crutches, by actors and writers alike.

As some of you know, I'm originally from the theatre, and MAN was this a hard lesson to learn. But during my years lecturing at film schools, learn it I did. "Film is a visual medium," we'd drum into the Little Scorceses' heads. "Tell the story with pictures."

So where does this leave dialogue? Superfluous?

Nothing could be further from the truth. As any poet will tell you, when you place a restriction on words, each word you do use becomes far more valuable.

As an example, Neil Simon (an under-rated playwright) does not, for the most part, film well. Why? No Tension-- at least not the kind that is of interest to us in film, which we'll get to in a minute-- but, also, all those words.

Look - here's an example of "couple" tension:

SHE walks in, slumps on the sofa. Sighs loudly. HE notices...

You OK?


He stares at her for a beat, unsure. Then...

You sure? 'Cause--

--I'm FINE.
(to herself)

What's of interest here, of course, is what ISN'T said. And if the actors do the work, if they invest in what's underneath those simple words... well, that films like crazy. The camera invites the viewer in to the internal world of the actor-- what is that person really thinking? What do they really want? That can't happen on stage, at least not in the same way. We have the close-up to thank for that.

But Neil Simon is a consummate writer for the stage. He creates a world in which people say what they think, and think what they say. Here's the same scene, "Simon-ized":

You OK?


He stares at her for a beat.

You sure? 'Cause--

--I'm FINE.
But you know what gets me? I mean you really want to know?
It's how for three MONTHS you've been coming in here, with that
"everything's OK" look..."

...and here comes an articulate, clever monologue, during which all the character's thoughts spill out. We are not shown the inner struggle, we're told about it. Good onstage; better still for that monologue audition. VERY hard to film.

So, economy. The strong film scene is rich with moments yet uses words sparingly, giving the actors something to do.

Speaking of which...


Actors who've studied with me have heard me use this term, as it's central to my work. I'm not talking about "tension" in the usual sense, that tight feeling in the air when you walk into a conflict in progress. Rather, I'm talking about the tension between what's INSIDE you and what you let OUT, to the world. It can spring from frustration, fear, desire; no matter.

The greater the tension, the better you film.


Screaming at someone actually releases that tension. Obscenities release that tension. In fact, most of what you may have been taught in drama school releases that tension. Or, to borrow from Mr. Strasberg, all the yelling and swearing is merely a weak attempt to INDICATE a tension that does not, in fact, exist.

Not that the tension must always remain contained-- in fact, release of The Tension can be a powerful moment. It's what drives every romantic comedy, after all: what's inside (God, I want to kiss you...) is submerged by what's outside (...but I can't!). If an actor feels this, it needn't be forced. I've got a camera; I'll come inside you and get it. And we'll accompany an actor on a long journey indeed if we sense tension, for we know we'll be rewarded at the end, when it breaks. The downside to this? If you have no inner tension, well, I'll film that too.

An actor would do well to respect that it can be an act of faith for a writer to write this kind of tension into a scene-- for what if the actor misses it? But strong writers realize that there really is no other kind of dramatic scene to write.

Why? Because it's how we live. Oh, and P.S.: it films like crazy.



from THE SWEET HEREAFTER, adapted by Atom Egoyan

This is a perfect little jewel of a scene.

THE SET-UP: for those who haven't seen it, The Sweet Hereafter starts with a devastating event: in a small town in Canada, on a sunny winter morning, a school bus skids on a patch of ice and careens into a frozen lake, killing almost all the kids on board-- and effectively killing all the town's children.

The story traces the terrible aftershocks of this event, seen through the progress of a predatory lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm, brilliant as always), who comes to the town in an attempt to organize a class action lawsuit.

THE SCENE: BILLY, widowed with two children, has been having an affair with RISA, married, who owns a roadside motel with her husband. Both of Billy's children (and Risa's son) were killed in the crash. (Worse, Billy was driving behind the bus that morning and saw it slide into the lake.) Prior to the crash, Billy and Risa had been arranging clandestine meetings in the motel; this is their first meeting after the crash. (FYI, "Nicole" is a teenager who'd been babysitting Billy's children; she was the only student to survive the crash. "Lydia" is Billy's deceased wife.) Here is the scene in its entirety:

Billy sits in his chair in room 11. He is alone, tapping on a pack of cigarettes.

After a moment, the door opens. It is Risa. They stare at each other for a moment.

I knew you'd be here.

Risa sits on the bed. Pause.

Are you going to the funeral?
Another pause.

I stopped by the station a while ago. I stared at the bus.
I could almost hear the kids inside. There was a lawyer
there. He told me he'd gotten you signed up. Is that true?

Something made this happen, billy. Mr.
Stephens is going to find out what it was.

What are you talking about? It was an accident.

Mr. Stephens says someone didn't put a right bolt in the bus--

--Risa, I service that bus. At the garage.
There's nothing wrong with it--

--or that the guardrail wasn't strong enough.

You believe that?

I have to.


Because I have to.


Well I don't.

Billy gets up to leave.

Is it true that you gave Nicole one of Lydia's dresses?
That she was wearing it when the bus crashed?


Why did you do that, Billy?

You think that caused the accident, Risa?
That it brought bad luck? Christ, it sounds to
me like you're looking for a witch doctor, not a lawyer.
Or maybe they're the same thing.

Risa is overwhelmed. Billy opens the door. Turns back.

You know what I'm going to miss? More than making love?
It's the nights you couldn't get away from Wendell.
It's the nights I'd sit in that chair for an hour.
Smoking cigarettes and remembering my life before.

Billy stares at Risa for a moment, then leaves. Risa collapses.

I saw this film over a decade ago; I've worked this scene dozens of times since. It still get hit in the chest every time I read it.

So let's get to work. We first see Billy, thinking. Then:

After a moment, the door opens. It is Risa. They stare at each other for a moment.

I knew you'd be here.

...and right there I love this scene. Why? Because, if you're Risa... "I knew you'd be here?"

No you didn't no you didn't. Lie lie lie lie lie. You HOPED he'd be there, sure-- but can you IMAGINE the long walk down to the last room on the end? How deep the gnawing fear that you'd open the door onto emptiness?

(A DIGRESSION: no, this is not implicit in the script. This is a capital-C Choice. But filling in the blanks in the deepest way possible is what you DO, remember?) (Think I'm wrong? OK... so what do YOU do during those agonizing days after an audition when you're waiting for a call? Filling in the blanks is what you do, with some catastrophic, nightmare scenario of casting people stopping whatever they're doing to call one another to warn the whole town against YOU AND YOUR BAD ACTING.) (Ahem.)

So you take a breath, open the door... and there he is. Billy. The clouds part, your stomach relaxes. Until...

Risa sits on the bed. Pause.

From BIlly, silence. No smile, no "hey, baby," no nothing. And the sky clouds right back over and you begin to collapse inside. And you say, what?

Are you going to the funeral?

OH how I love that awkward, space-filler question. THE WHOLE TOWN is going to the funeral, and you both know it. It's just something to say. And all you get is more silence (I adore silence in film), before finally:

I stopped by the station a while ago. I stared at
the bus. I could almost hear the kids inside.
There was a lawyer there. He told me he'd gotten
you signed up. Is that true?

OK. So, Billy: your answer, the very first words you speak, aren't a response to Risa all. Before you even open your mouth, this scene demands that you'd better have an answer to this question: why are you here? All your stillness, all your silence (Tension and Economy...), paying off, how?

The answer is right there: Mitchell Stephens. You need to hear from Risa's mouth that she signed on with the guy. You didn't come here to get laid, you came here to see how she reacts when you tell her, how she looks when she admits it. Because you sure aren't gonna sign. (And here's the killer: Lydia wouldn't have, either. Oh how you must ache for her.) (Yes, that's another Choice.) And then comes this perfectly crafted exchange:

Something made this happen, billy. Mr. Stephens is going to find out what it was.

What are you talking about? It was an accident.

Mr. Stephens says someone didn't put a right bolt in the bus--

--Risa, I service that bus. At the garage. There's nothing wrong with it--

--or that the guardrail wasn't strong enough.

You believe that?

I have to.


Because I have to.

Well I don't.

...and, really, that's it. All the whispered conversations, the secrecy, the WORK required to keep an affair secret, here in a small town... gone. Each now knows who other is, in a way they hadn't before. There's nothing more to say. And Billy got what he came for. (And if you're RISA, I just know you're not simply going to blurt out "I have to," as if it's a pretty way of saying "yes." Because you know it's a much more difficult, honest answer to give, and reveals so much about who you are.)

Billy starts out. And we could easily cut the scene right there. Except....

Is it true that you gave Nicole one of Lydia's dresses?
That she was wearing it when the bus crashed?


Why did you do that, Billy?

...and my heart breaks all over again. This exchange does not move the story forward, at all, EXCEPT as it deepens our understanding of who Risa is: we have been underestimating the depth of her grief. She simply does not have the capacity to absorb what's happened. And she knows it, and now Billy does, too.

Risa is overwhelmed. Billy opens the door. Turns back.

You know what I'm going to miss? More than making love?
It's the nights you couldn't get away from Wendell.
It's the nights I'd sit in that chair for an hour.
Smoking cigarettes and remembering my life before

...and the scene elevates to another dimension entirely. Two reasons:

First, take a look at the line again-- try to notice where, exactly, Billy dumps Rita. See it?

Of course not - because by the time he speaks he's already ended the relationship. He dumps Rita in the silence. It's a subtle point, yes, but the difference between good writing and great is so often subtle. There is no "so this is it, Rita," or "it's over," any any of those other parting shots that so many writers write but no one ever really says. Rather, Billy STARTS with "you know what I'm going to miss?"-- and by doing so we understand that this is already in the past for him.

Second, if you're Billy... you don't have to say any of that. You could simply leave. This is worse than a slap, this is more humiliating than a spit in the face. Sure, you're leaving-- but before you do, you want to make sure this woman understands that the best thing about sleeping with her.... was not sleeping with her?

You tell her because you want it to hurt. You tell her because, after all, it's a small town. You'll see each other. And you don't ever want to talk about this again and Risa needs to know something raw: in your heart, she is not Lydia. She never was, she never will be.

Whenever I work this scene I am reminded of dunking a basketball.

Really, nothing could be simpler: here's the ball. There's the hoop. Put it in.

Yet that simplest of acts is beyond most of our capabilities. We can coach and train and coach and train... but we will never dunk a basketball. (That's OK, by the way. We have other gifts.) As any shy guy who's had to ask a woman out (ahem) will tell you: simple does not mean easy.

And so it is with this scene. Really, it's not complicated.

If you're Risa: Billy is the love of your life. You dream every day of building a life with this man. In this scene, he leaves you-- but before he does, he cuts your heart out. And, to make it worse (and to put it bluntly), he blows you off for a dead chick. (Good luck with that.)

If you're Billy: Lydia was the love of your life. In this scene, you come to hate yourself for every day you spent with Risa. You come to hate your weakness, your loneliness, and in the end you feel an unimaginable ache for your deceased wife. She would never, ever have signed on with any lawyer. And she's dead. (Good luck with that.)

All in two and a half pages. All this risk, all this revelation, all this devastation, without either character flying off into a rage or launching into some musing about-- it got like this... do you remember
that first time, Billy? Do you? That magical
night, by the lake? I've been thinking so
much about that and, you know, I was actually
worried, terrified, really, that something like
this might come out of that mouth of yours--

--stop. Stop stop stop. This is the movies, and we don't need that. You're an actor; you'll show us. And we'll film it.

And that's what makes a Strong Film Scene.

P.S.: I hate to admit this but it's so instructive I have to come clean: when you write, it's always wise to run what you've written through a "word count" program to get a feel for length.

This piece (which includes the scene) is about 3,000 words.
The scene itself, in its entirety: 300 words.

If you make your living acting in front of the camera you'd do well to think about that.

Los Angeles, CA
Oct, 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

Life in Flight

It takes about an hour to relax.

After all these years, all these hundreds of flights... I am still always, always last-minute getting to the airport. And since I really fly out of only two airports (JFK and LAX), I'm a Jedi at getting to each. And even though I fly solo these days, I have to think that my timing would be exasperating (to say the least) for anyone who accompanying me who is less last-minute than I.

Today, it's LAX. Where my flight is at 3PM. Lemme lay it out for you:

1:12:walk off the lot (Paramount, Van Ness @ Melrose).

1:16: realize that I have left my car keys somewhere on the lot. (Production Office? Set? trailer?) My 1:15 exit was tightly timed as it was, so this has the potential to Majorly Suck. Because the lot is BIG.

1:23: walk off the lot, take 2. (keys were on set-- in the shot! Well played, PK!)

1:28: pull out of the parking structure and onto Melrose... to McCadden... to 6th... to La Brea... to the 10... to La Cienega.. to La Tijera... to Airport... to the hated Lot C.

2:04: Score a prime parking space! Just make the shuttle bus! I RULE!!

2:14: at AA Terminal 4.

2:29: at the gate-- and I get the Upgrade (sa-weet!)....

3:21: plane leaves the ground. (Frequent Flier Note: when the captain comes on and announces the "estimated flight time" it's usually accurate TO THE MINUTE. It's spooky.

So between the lot and takeoff, it's a tense two hours. Naturally, it takes about an hour to let all that recede.

And after all the drama, here's the thing: I find myself in one of these seats roughly every two weeks. I love it. I love the white noise of the engines and the fans. I love the fast-forward sunsets (I ALWAYS get a window) and the way the sky fades from blue to orange to black. I love the disconnect from worldly things. Truth? I'd do this every day, if I could. The food in Business is good, the wine's great, the service is phenomenal (why can't I have a Waiter Call Button at a bar?)-- and don't get me started about that view.

And, about an hour in... something unwinds. And for this moment, I am nowhere. I'm not here, I'm not there. Nobody's yammering on a phone. There is no text to reply to. I am a happy captive, here in 7A, and I can, finally, think. And breathe.

And see, finally, that those postage-stamp towns are like life, in a way: the events that seem so important up close are impossible to even distinguish from here. But the feelings, the love... funny, how distance and time have no effect on that.

I both love and hate my life for being forever mysterious to me. How is that possible? But I suppose that's why we make movies. They're a clumsy, beautiful attempt to explain it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A little big event this morning

So I was forwarded two things this morning: an actor-written screenplay...
and a link to the following Bukowski poem.

And this is why I believe in God.

so you want to be a writer
by Charles Bukowski
if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.

don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

NCIS - LA: finally, a working stiff

I got paid for last Friday.

Yeah, OK, so what... except: Friday was a holiday, and we didn't shoot.

Again, I know: so what?

Here's so what-- for me (and perhaps you), it's been "eat what I kill" my entire adult life. Prior to now, I've never, ever been paid for not working. Not on New Years, not the Fourth of July, not on Christmas. I get sick? Bummer for me. Vacation? Factor in the loss of income and decide if it's worth it. Where's the rent coming from next month? Wait for the phone to ring, and see. Which wears a body down, after a while.

Many of you know what this feels like. Others have lived it for a time, and said "not for me, thanks." Still others read this and think (perhaps rightly): that is simply no way for an adult to live.

I hear ya. But until recently it's been the only life I ever knew.

Besides, there's an honesty, a kind of dignity in it: you HAVE to bring your A-game, every day-- because, as is often said, Results Don't Lie. The phone rings? You're doing something right. It doesn't? Get up a little earlier, work a little harder. And if that doesn't work... take a long, hard look in the mirror. (But if it comes to that, please, please: respect yourself. Most people will never have to take that look in the mirror.)

For me, working in theatre or film has always been a calling, a privilege even to be asked-- but until now, it's never been a job. So this latest development has been something of a surprise. And after decades of being "that guy" on sets ("who's That Guy?" "I dunno-- I think he knows the star, or something...")-- it is a revelation to realize that I have become part of the rag-tag community on the lot.

And I gotta say, it's nice. The day after St. Patrick's Day, Ron, the Guard, who greets me with a smile every day, asked if I was hungover from The Big Night. I told him that we New England Irish Catholics think of St. Paddy's as Amateur Night-- and when I left for the day he said he'd been telling everyone that, all day long. He loved it! That doesn't sound like much, I know-- but if you've never had it, it's a big deal, indeed.

So, yes. It's nice to wait my turn at the gate to swipe my ID. It's nice to flirt with the payroll ladies. It's nice to have the wardrobe guy say to me, excitedly: "they got Chinese chicken salad at crafty! Better get over there!"

Wanna know a secret? It reminds me of theatre, this misfit-toy feeling on the lot. We're just a bunch of oddballs trying to do our best to make a thing good. And tomorrow we'll do it again. And again, the day after that. Except for two weeks at Christmas, I've been working this job every weekday since last July.

Which is fine by me.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

This has nothing to do with acting...

...but a lot to do with Easter. It's a few years old, but still. Hope you like it.

I saw Jesus walking down East Fourth Street today.

He was dressed entirely, and simply, in white, and carried over his shoulder an improbably large crucifix, which made a hollow scraping sound as it trailed along the pavement behind him. He looked, from the the high angle of the front window of my sixth-floor apartment, an awful lot like one of the neighborhood kids, mainly due to A) his street-fashionable buzz cut, and B) his gleaming white Pumas, just visible underneath his robes.

In truth, I heard Jesus' coming before I saw him, for his arrival was heralded by a repeating hymn that grew louder as he approached. I cannot state with certainty that what I was hearing was in fact a hymn, being that it was in Spanish; also, since the single hymnal voice was issuing loudly from a pair of PA speakers strapped onto the top of a Toyota (the roof was which was protected from harm by a NY Mets towel), little beyond the melody line could be discerned. The effect from my living room was that of an ecclesiastical ice-cream truck, luring customers with the promise of salvation rather than a cold Mister Softee.

And it seemed to be effective, for behind the boy Jesus (and a gang of somber apostles, all similarly white-robed) there trailed a crowd of a few hundred varied souls. Mothers in clumps, quietly pushing strollers, the elderly, and even teenaged Puerto Rican couples, side-by-side, hands squeezed into one another's back pockets. That particular sight gave me pause to consider for a moment the eternal question of What Would Jesus Do, especially as regards Public Displays of Affection. I concluded he would not mind, even if (as was currently the case) he was limping along with his burden just a few yards ahead.

This procession was capped at either end by an NYPD cruiser, each gliding silently at a respectful distance. They made their presence known mainly by their strobing red lights, which added an odd sense of holiday festivity to the procession.

But Jesus. He'd been taking his burden seriously, shifting his slow course left and right to avoid manhole covers and other minor street obstacles that might jar his load.... but as I looked down at him now, he seemed to be veering purposefully to the right, limping even slower toward the line of parked cars along the curb...

...and then I saw it too. Money.

A couple of bills, just pinched under a tire and fluttering almost free. I was too far away to see their denomination, but I could make out the coloring identifying them as among the newer bills. It had to be at least a ten-spot, maybe more. They had blown there, clearly, and would not remain there long. What Would Jesus Do, indeed?

I believe there is a biblical passage that observes that in moments of decision we are all alone. Or perhaps that was George Bernard Shaw. Or Mark Twain. Whatever the source, I have always felt it to be the case, and so I was sympathetic to the forces I imagined were tugging at the young Jesus as I watched unobserved. What moral calculus, I wondered, was being done so quickly in his head?

He passed the bills by. It was hard to tell from where I was, but I think he may have sped up a bit, pressing forward with just a little more sense of urgency as he continued on his journey.

By the time his followers had passed and the warbling hymn-song had grown distant, the money was gone.

And I felt at that moment overwhelmed, in that way that comes upon one (or at least me, sometimes) without warning. The young Jesus had been given a gift-- a story that would, over his life, be worth far more than the value of the bills he'd left behind. And I'd been given a gift, too; I knew it. I just wasn't sure what it was.

Maybe a reminder of the value of having something, anything, to believe in.