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Archive for December, 2014

When I was a teacher of writing, I spent a lot of time looking at what made words click for me and then trying to find exercises so that students in my classes could see and practice simple elements of style that vastly improved their writing.  I used to call it the toolbox approach to writing.

I have often compared writing an essay to building a house.  One needs a blueprint of sorts, materials that will support the structure and the fine details that make it pretty (let’s leave out the plumbing and electric for now). So the blueprint is the outline (which will include the general idea or thesis of the structure), the supporting examples (drawn from life or books or entirely made from whole cloth) and description — the fine detail that makes the essay a pleasant read.  It sounds good, but what if the student doesn’t know how to use the tools?  Would you ask teenagers to make a house without showing them first how to use a hammer or saw?

I had been out of teaching for a few years when the SAT began to include writing as one of its components.  I was asked to help tutor high school students, many of whom were gifted in math or science, to find ways to improve their score on the SAT.  These tests begin with a prompt — generally a quote of some sort (“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” – Confucius) — and then asking a question. “Do you believe success is the result of resilience?”

Ideally, the student would have some personal story in which they’d been knocked down and came back stronger.  Failing that, they would be instructed to use examples from literature, history, etc.  They have 25 minutes.  It is hard, in 25 minutes, to pay attention to style unless one is used to doing so as a part of their practice.

As I read through the examples of successful essays (given by the College Board, creators of the SAT), it became apparent that personal narrative was more likely to score well by almost a 2 to 1 margin. Sadly, for gifted my math and science students, they “could not remember” the details of most of the events in their lives.

It reminded me of a drawing exercise I was once given by Lance Richbourg when I studied in his class.  He had us take out a key — any key from our pockets — put it on a pedestal and told us to draw it.  We all drew it once, in about a minute.  Now we were told to do it again.  The caveat was that we couldn’t look at our paper.  Only the key.  We were to follow the outline of the key with our hands and our eyes had to stay on the key.

“And when we finish?” a crazy-haired blonde named Vita asked, following Lance with her thick lenses as he ducked out of the classroom.

Lance smiled and let his Texas twang sing out between his lips,  “Do it again.”

We’d all drawn the key anywhere between fifty and a hundred times before Lance returned.  Each sheet of paper was an agony of lines that did not connect or properly overlap.

“Take out a clean sheet of paper and draw the key,” Lance said, his dark curly hair falling over his forehead.  More groans in the large loft classroom’s fading afternoon light.

I learned to draw a key that afternoon, but I learned a whole lot more.  My initial key, the key I’d drawn in the first minute, had been subtly influenced by my mind’s idea of what a key should look like. My mind had flattened out some shapes along the key’s edge that had looked incongruously longer than the others.  It had centered the word “Royal” by putting the “y” over the hole in the center of the key.  In reality, the “y” was to the left of the hole and the word was unbalanced.  I was astonished at how badly I’d perceived the key — because truly, I was trying to draw the world’s most amazing key on that first run-through.  However, the world’s most amazing key would not have opened my dorm room.  I thought of how children make circles out of trees that are a myriad of lines and leaves.

It occurred to me that unless we are trained (or train ourselves) to observe — we do not pay attention to the details of our lives.  Fortunately for us, the brain records them anyway.  The question then becomes — how do we access them? (Oops, that’s a blog for another day) First we simply have to work on observing the “now.”

I would ask my students, who had chosen their own chairs at the table — for weeks on end — to describe what was behind them at that very moment.  Most failed.  They had come into the room, sat down in a chair, and never observed the bookshelves, the hanging scrolls, the plants.  I asked a high school Junior, a heavy-set girl who ate candy throughout class, what was above her at that very moment.  Inches from the top of her head hung the branch of a fig tree.  She did not know.

So problem number one, I told my students, is to pay attention.  I’d ask them to take a minute to describe the other students in the room — based only on what they are wearing, how their hair looks, if their fingernails are painted or trimmed, dirty or clean.  Make no judgements.  Just see.  Are their clothes well-kept, frayed? What about purses and other belongings?  I couldn’t aid them outside of the classroom, except with assignments, so I’d ask them to write a paragraph each day — describe the place you are in, describe the people who come in or out of that place, use only the senses (sights, smells, sounds, textures — I don’t encourage them to share tastes, for one thing, taste is one of the most difficult senses to describe).

“But what do we do with it?”

“Nothing.  It’s an exercise.  Just bring it to me at the end of the week.”

For the second part of the work, when they were writing, I’d ask them to use “tags.”  For me, a tag is a short physical description of a person, place or thing.

“If someone comes into your story, tag them.  Let me see something of how they appear.”

“What if I’m writing about myself?”

“If I’m the SAT reader, do I know what you look like?”

Heads shake “no.”

“So look in a mirror, see your reflection in a window.  Have someone else describe how you look that day.  Now, every narrative also takes place somewhere.  Even if you are thinking about something very abstract at this very minute, you a still sitting in this room.  You still feel the chill of the Winter air.  The people around you are sniffling and it may be the cold or an allergy to the window full of plants.”  Add a brief description of the place.

“Then won’t the essay go on forever and ever.”

“You wish.  Are you really concerned about over-writing in 25 minutes?”

“Won’t it get off point?”

“If you write ‘My teacher yelled at us’  — I know nothing about that teacher.  Is she young? Old? Stocky and intimidating?  Slender with a lisp?  If I write, ‘Miss Garvy has strawberry blonde curls that look soft as cotton candy, but when she looked at us on the desks, her voice snapped like a wet towel hitting a bare back.’  How much more information is in the second sentence?  I know the kind of trouble the class was doing (the why of the yelling); I know Miss Garvy is unmarried (or she’d be Ms.); I know that her appearance is soft, so that her voice yelling is something of a shock.  The first sentence contains scientific information, the second sentence contains emotional information.  You want your readers to respond emotionally.  Therefore you give them emotional information.

“The same applies to the place something happens.  If I’m writing about the baseball field, I could write: ‘I stood in the outfield.’ But are all outfields equal?  I remember playing in an outfield in Albany that was rarely mowed.  The grass was knee-high and there were pit-holes and mounds of dirt hidden beneath it, as well as leftover gravel that made it brutal to dive for a ball.  I’ve also played on a college field that looked as if the groundskeeper not only mowed the lawn, but combed the grass and used mousse when he was done.  It’s up to each writer how much or what kind of detail will be used, but place description gives the reader the context of the story.

“Lastly, there is often a ‘thing’ — the story revolves around a doll or a bicycle.  It has to be described. Unless you describe the thing that is gained or stolen, lost or won, it will have no emotional content — like an object you see in the 99 cent store that doesn’t belong to anyone.”

I’d challenge my students to use the two adjective tag — whenever someone appears in the story, two adjectives that describe them.  When a new place is entered, give two adjectives again. If an object is necessary to the progression of the story — a car that takes you on a date, a book that transports you far away — two adjectives.  It is not full-blown description, like Charles Dickens describing the London mud and fog at the start of Bleak House, but it helps the reader to separate what they are reading from similar stories.  Also, I encourage, each time a person or place returns, add another bit of description, flesh it out.

“If you write ‘my dog’ came down the stairs — unless you describe the dog in some way (or the stairs) I’m going to automatically insert a dog or a stair from my own memory.  I start thinking my own thoughts more than reading your essay.  Your job is to keep me engaged in your story — to give me enough detail that I can see it, follow it, smell it, hear it and eventually to be a part of it in an empathetic way.  Tagging is the first step.”

Using two adjectives doesn’t seem overwhelming to most students.  When I say ‘describe’ something, the first question I always get is “how much is enough?”  The correct answer is “as much as is necessary for your story,” but to make it succinct, I simply say “tag it.”

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After writing about Impossible Films a week or so ago, I wondered if it were possible to categorize the possible reasons that good books don’t translate into film.  As I’m still processing the topic, I don’t imagine my list will be anything near complete.  However, there were three basic categories that seemed to define legitimate reasons that a good film cannot be made from a particular novel.

The first category, since I’d reflected on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), is the philosophical novel.  Like ZAMM, there are certain novels that embrace philosophy and in fact, might simply be the metaphorical exposition of a philosophical system (anyone recall Plato’s cave?).  If one considers Hesse’s Journey to the East or Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), it is easy to see his writing as working out a philosophical system (largely based on Eastern writings).  That some of his novels, Narcissus and Goldmund or Siddhartha, are simply stories working under those philosophical principles does not alter the predominant philosophic bent of the writer.  Can one film any of those novels?  Of course.  Siddhartha was made into a film in 1972 and there is a plan to make Narcissus and Goldmund by Senator Films.  Siddhartha is supposed to have had a decent critical reception, but it was yanked from distribution for many years.  As for N&G, if you read the release, you realize there is trouble: “We are planning to work with an international writer and director in order to realize the moving and profound story of Narcissus and Goldmund. A deep appreciation of the novel is required to be able to transport this tale on a level that works internationally.” (My bold text) Yes, but is a deep appreciation of the novel necessary to want to see it?  Milan Kundera is a tricky writer who seems to belong in this category. Yet his novels are thematic, not philosophical, despite the fact that he quotes Nietzsche. He uses philosophic questions to state his theme and builds upon it.  I was not truly aware of this until I saw the filmed version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ULB translates very successfully film as a result.  Almost always, if the novel has a philosophic point of view woven into the fabric of the narrative — i.e. the narrative is a metaphor — the film will suffer.  I hesitate to put Ayn Rand books into this category as she is the Disney-tale of philosophy — good and bad people are easily recognized and there is little complexity of character or situation.  So while she tells her stories — and her stories are illustrations of her philosophy — one can only make films for her minions.  There is not enough complexity or depth in her work to make for a complete philosophy or a compelling film. She is the pop-psychologist of philosophers.

Narrator focused books: Have you ever seen a good film of The Great Gatsby?  Probably not.  Or at least not a film that equals the book.  There have been performances to admire, sets to die for, cars and furs galore, but the crux of the novel is Nick Carraway.  It is Nick who puts things into perspective and most of his musings do not occur when other folks are around.  He is on the fringe of two worlds, therefore the only one who can clearly see either.  Yet in a film, Nick is a minor character — as he is in the book.  So in the film, we — the audience — must assume Nick’s role.  We are the ones who are intended to muse on what we see.  Oh yeah, they use voice over, other tricks to try and assist us with Nick’s point of view, but in the end the difference between the novel and the film is this: imagine only being able to look at a scene from your window — there’s a party below, in the back yard of a neighbor and people are carousing and glamorously dressed; now imagine being in the yard itself — how has the perspective changed? That is what’s at the heart of translating Gatsby to film — it’s an impossible task and in the end I don’t envy the writers who take it.  I mentioned in No Country for Old Men what was lost in the film (narrator’s history and humanity) — it is a similar situation.  There are successful films made of books in the third person limited point of view, but not when the point of view does more than relate the tale.

Real magic (or magical realism).  I’m not talking about Harry Potter-esque magic where wands imitate weapons or do things that cranes and ropes can accomplish (don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series immensely and this is not meant as a slight to the film-makers).  I’d read Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua para Chocolate some years before I saw the film. I admit that the crew was able to pull off most of the special effects with aplomb, but I watched in anxiety waiting for the final scene — how will Tita wrap the farm in her bedspread?  How will she eat candles so that her inner fire ignites them and opens the tunnel of light so she can join Pedro?  In the book it’s so beautifully told — but think of the image — a woman eating candles and then her inner fire setting them aflame….there is almost no way to do it that doesn’t look hokey.  So what did the film-maker do?  Fill the room with candles, put gauze on the lens and change the candles for matches (with an earlier explanation of how everyone carries within themselves a box of matches). It is an anti-climax for an otherwise immensely successful film.  So I actually started this category by talking about the most successfully made magical realism film.  I think that’s appropriate — I don’t like to pick on easy targets.  However, it also explains why I have trouble with the idea of making films of The Magus or 100 Years of Solitude.  There are just too many things that happen in those books that would be impossible to film.  Near the opening of 100 YoS, there is a narrative comment that things were so recently created that many of them lacked names (my translation). We are not in biblical times of the Pleistocene era — we are in the town of Macondo, in a time that appears to be somewhere between 1750 and 1890.  But Garcia Marquez conflates many eras into a single timeline:  how do you film that? The Magus has similar issues in that some appearances are magical in the book, but when you film them they become ordinary at best, hokey at worst.

I am a big fan of books.  I am also a fan of film and films made of books.  I cheer for every successfully made book-film, as I know how tricky is the work.  This list is by no means complete or even fully thought out.  As I said, it was a few days reflecting on what makes books hard to translate to film.  In almost every category, there has been a success story — but there have been a plethora more of failures.  I still look at my screenplay of Z&AMM from time to time.  I believe it can be done.  The hope I have for a list like this?  Once we identify the reasons we fail, we might have a better chance to succeed.

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A few years back, there was a huge uproar over the Connecticut casting of The Motherf*er in the Hat. The director, a relatively recent graduate of an NYU directing program, cast two actors who were part of this graduate thesis project. The problem was — they were white.

A dramaturg who graduated from Columbia Univ. with whom I’m familiar posted “that’s not the point of colorblind casting: to give more jobs to white actors.”  I simply replied — “I’m glad someone is hiring the actors who worked for them, for free, when the director was getting his/her degree.”  But I was being disingenuous — I never expected working for student productions to lead to anything further.

The truth is there are countless opportunities in NYC for actors to work, to learn the craft, to stay sharp and to keep themselves focused.  Both NYU and Columbia have graduate directing programs in Theatre and Film.  These programs have carte blanche from the acting unions to use professional actors — dues-paying union actors — without pay (it gets a little bit dicy when you’re working with a student who will drop thousands of buck on their film production, but considers it okay not to pay the actor even transportation).  Additionally, there are film programs at NY Film Academy, Brooklyn College, SVA, Digital Film Academy, et al.  All require actors.

I had something of a conflict with my then acting teacher in 1996.  I had left my steady job and was working free-lance, so funds were a bit tight as well.  Instead of searching out and paying for a new acting class, I decided I would spend a year learning how different directors work.  I sent in my picture and resume for the Columbia Graduate Directors program and auditioned.

The space was a large black box in the basement of a dorm building.  I chose to do a Shakespearean monologue as they’d asked for “classical.”  In the dimly lit space, there were seven directors huddled together in the middle of two hard white plastic fold-out tables.  I was working with the Richard of Gloucester monologue from the end of Henry VI, seconds after he’s laid poor old Harry to rest at the end of a sword.  As I spoke the words, I envisioned poor Henry lying on the floor at my feet, in a pool of blood, cursing me.  None of the directors seemed to be noticing him, so I continued speaking — “Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste and seek their ruin who usurp’d our right?” — as I walked behind them.  Yep, I walked out into their space and stood behind them, encouraging them to behold the spectacle lying on the floor.  After all — I was talking to them now — Harry was dead.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of week, but then a Korean woman in her late 20s called.  We worked on an abstraction of Death of a Salesmen — she had me in a trench coat and my underwear.  Payback is a b__ch, as they say.  She told me that the other directors said, “you’re going to work with him?  He’s so scary!” Within weeks, however, I was called by one after the other.  During that semester, each director put up 21 projects between Anne Bogart’s  first year Death of a Salesmen class and Robert Woodruff’s Euripedes class.  I appeared in 17 projects.  During the Spring, I was working on Moliere at the McCarter Playhouse (Princeton), so I did not work with the directors again until the end of the term.

I’m am often asked two sets of questions about working for such programs:  “Does anyone see you.”  And “Is it worth it?”

Over the course of 10 years, I did countless projects at Columbia’s graduate directors program.  I did projects with the film program as well — readings, scene study, even some really bad films.  During the very first session with the Korean director, I had to make a decision:  do I only work this way (my way) or am I flexible enough to try other things?  I’d been trained in Uta Hagen’s technique — a technique that grounds itself in the objects of reality.  At its best, the Hagen technique is a life-rope that supports the actor in their made-up world while giving them some leeway to be alive and respond.  At its worst it is a cage for actors who only trust the objects, often picking up needless item after needless item simply to give them the reference for saying a particular line.  Now, I was being asked to do something that felt more like dance — move here, count to three, make this gesture.

Since we were doing an abstraction of the Miller, I simply did what I was asked.  I did not channel Willy Loman or even consider what I was doing a part of Death of a Salesman.  I was simply working like an extra — going where the director told me to go, doing what I was told to do.  Next, the same director asked me to perform in Medea.  The director had a very clear vision of what she wanted to see.  She wanted to cast a black actress who had put on white face.  The denouement of the encounter with Jason would have the actress then taking the white face off.  Problem: none of the actresses agreed.  They had ideas of what they needed to do to be seen as valid actors. I was given directions such as “Sit at the table.  Count to three. Pick up the knife.  Count to two.”  It is very difficult to be in the moment, to have any inner life at all, when you are counting.  That scene was about as close as I came to rebellion — yet I saw the actresses raging and what happened was we were wasting every rehearsal with hours of discussions on why the actress could not perform in the director’s requested manner. I decided to simply do my best.

It turned out that this problem did not just pertain to this particular scene.  Almost every director with whom I worked had a process that was particular to their background — whether they were from Korea, Maine or the Lower East Side — and they encountered actors who were generally trained in one method.  I decided pretty quickly that my job was to be there for the director — they were the ones paying for the course, they were the ones getting graded — if they wanted me to count to five and hold a knife in the air, that’s what I would do.  I get the counter argument: you are performing in front of Anne Bogart or Robert Woodruff, later Brian Kulick or Karin Coonrood, you don’t want to do something that makes you look lame.  But I made that decision — do what you are asked; find a way to make it work for you.

I learned as much in the years I worked at Columbia as the years I took class (frequently I was doing both at the same time — I did go back to class after I came back from my time at the McCarter).  I continued to work with Columbia students after my son was born simply to keep myself in practice — several of the directors were willing to rehearse on my schedule (having kids gives you only x windows of space for your art), so I was grateful to keep working.  In this time I worked on Moliere’s Don Juan, Ibsen’s Ghosts, Inge’s Bus Stop, Goethe’s Faust — works I probably would not have tackled otherwise.  And other than Faust, I did them in their entirety.

Additionally, over the past 15 years, Columbia’s film program has grown from NYU’s starving younger sister to a perennial Oscar producer.  I can do very little with the footage of those films I made in the late 90s — I was asked to cry without a reason, to be “evil” instead of psychologically complex and there are camera shots that are so bad that they look as if a six year old got ahold of the camera and was bobbing it up and down (although none of them are as bad as Norman Mailer’s direction of Tough Guys Don’t Dance)Now, I’m more than willing to do student films from both NYU and Columbia — as is Len Cariou and some other “name” character actors.

Have I met anyone?  Yes.  Anne Bogart and I know each other, she’s familiar with my work.  Robert Woodruff knows who I am too.  I stay in touch, at least on Facebook with many of the directors I’ve worked with there.  Are any names?  Not at the moment.  But if you ask me, that’s not the reason to do the work.  If you go to Columbia or NYU so that your work will be seen by Anne Bogart and you might be hired by her company, you’ll most likely be disappointed.

The main reason to go do work at Columbia or NYU (or any of the other institutes that require actors) is that you get better by working.  You cannot become a better actor by reading about it.  You cannot get skilled doing monologues in your living room — there’s no reception.  It’s like being angry when no one is there — if no one receives the anger, it goes back in — it doesn’t get processed.  You don’t grow.

I know an actress — one of the best I’ve ever seen — who refused to do any more student films when she was only one or two years removed from being in school herself.  She refused to do a lot of things — get new head shots when a potential agent asked.  She spent a lot of time in class — paying to develop.  And she kept up her skill.  But she wasn’t in front of the camera.  She was rarely on stage.  These things take their toll. She also never had an acting career — despite being enormously talented.  As I said, probably the best actress I’d ever seen in person.

So my advice to anyone who moves to NYC to become an actor?  Get familiar with the schools.  Start to work — yes, it demands your time.  And it doesn’t pay.  And the people may be demanding.  But you pay for class, don’t you?  What if you could get a class for free?  One that teaches you everything you need to know about being on stage, being on film? And dealing with people.  Wouldn’t you take it?  The only caveat is that it demands for you to be flexible, with your time, your attitude and your technique.

I’m pretty certain the schools in L.A. offer the same deal.

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Some years back, I read that Robert Redford owned the film rights to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Zen & MM).  I recently found out that was a screenwriting myth — Pirsig never sold his rights, at least according to The Guardian.  At the time, however, I became obsessed with writing the script.  There was an online version of Zen & MM which I downloaded and broke into four parts.  I carried it with me and highlighted and made notes while taking the NY subway to jobs that had so little to do with “quality,” that I could smell the irony wafting up from the subway platform.  I wanted to create a structure that would serve the philosophy in some manner — without its musings on “Quality,” Zen & MM is more or less just another road trip.  While I spent more time on other projects — projects that I’d been hired to write or had a greater chance of being produced — I always came back to Zen & MM.  Each time, it was as if I had to master the novel again before I could even consider adding a line to the script.  I’d been at it for many years before discovering that Pirsig was not likely to allow a movie to be made.

And there are films that should not be made, just as there are musicals that cannot be made.  I was told by a composer and lyricist team that during their first workshop at BMI, they were forced to make a musical version of “Hamlet,” — only as an exercise in demonstrating this principle: that it shouldn’t be attempted.  A few years before that “Anna Karenina” the musical opened at Circle on the Square.  I have no knowledge of the show — I didn’t see it, have never heard the music.  It closed after 46 performances and was roundly bashed by every critic (although it was nominated for some Tony awards).  But each time I thought of it, all I could imagine was — how do you stage the grand finale?  I had this imagine of Anna, standing on a platform, while hundreds of onlookers (train passengers) sang “Here comes the train/Here comes the train/ Whooo.”  What does Anna do?  Throw herself into the orchestra pit?  There’s just no good way out of it.  And the novel is too vast to try and turn the musical into a quintet of some sort.

Francis Ford Coppola did not make the film of On the Road.  He’d owned the rights for so many years and never made the film.  I went to a casting session in a church near Lincoln Center.  We simply lined up and walked by FFC.  We were asked not to shake his hand as he had a cold.  Ten years passed and the film never made it past pre-production.  Some time later, he did end up producing a version which I’m not sure even hit the theatres.  It wasn’t so great.  What makes the book is the narrator, not necessarily the action.  Not so long ago, I read an article on Atlas Shrugged being the screenwriter’s long time obsession (the movie was not good).  I imagine it is possible for every screenwriter to have a list of impossible films he or she’d like to make.  On my list, along with Zen & MM is also John Fowles’ The Magus and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.

I finished reading Murakami’s After Dark again last night.  While it is not on my list, it did inspire me to ask why Murakami’s novels have not been made in more movies (Japanese versions of Norwegian Wood and the short story “Tony Takatani,” have been filmed as far as I know).  He’s hugely popular as a novelist with a world-wide appeal.  What gives?

So I did a plot outline of After Dark in my head.  Boy meets girl at amusement district Denny’s (Ikebukoro? Shinjuku?).  He goes to band practice.  A former female wrestler comes to get girl in Denny’s because she speaks Chinese. Girl beaten up in Love Hotel where wrestler is manager is Chinese.  Chinese Girl’s pimp comes to get her on a motorcycle.  Girl and female wrestler go for a beer.  Girls’ sister is sleeping for two months, she doesn’t want to go home. Man who beat Chinese girl works in local office.  Band member takes breaks twice to hang out with girl from Denny’s.  They talk and feed cats.  In the end, night office man can’t sleep when he gets home, Denny’s girl’s sister doesn’t wake, and the band member and the Denny’s girl agree to write letters when she’s in Beijing. In other words, everything that happens in the novel is not primarily plot.

There are brilliant parallels made about the kinds of walls we put up and these are reflected in so many layers of character development.  The wording often borders on lyrical: “The final darkness of the night envelops the city like a thin skin….Even the young couple who stop at a drink vending machine, tightly pressed against each other, have no more words for each other.  Instead, what they soundlessly share is the lingering warmth of their bodies.” p.173 (Knopf hardcover edition).  But there is very little you can film.

If I go through Murakami’s novels as an oeuvre, there are few that stand up to a plot breakdown. People tend to hole up in hotel rooms and order room service a lot.  Not very compelling stuff. Kafka on the Shore comes closest.  Unlike Zen & MM or The Magus, however, I do not feel compelled to put Wind Up Bird or 1Q84 on my screenwriting “to do” list.  Why?  I imagine it has a great deal to do with when I encountered each.

I found Zen & MM as a college student.  I was a philosophy minor, English major, and the book spoke directly to so many concerns and questions I had about the world.  The Magus I discovered a few years later — after I’d graduated from college, had been through a few very intimate relationships and was looking to adventure in a much wider world than the one I’d been raised in.  I remember reading Arthur Miller’s After the Fall within a year of having been in a relationship with someone whose self-esteem and addictions mirrored those of Maggie in the play.  I remember sobbing and crying “truth” as I read.  I still think it’s Miller’s most under-rated play because the press can’t treat it as theatre without screaming that Maggie is Marilyn Monroe and hating Miller for humanizing their icon (Pet peeve).

I imagine the next work that will move me that way, will be On Death and Dying (when I’m slightly closer to the end)I don’t have a whole lot of reverence left for politics, history or romance. And I do believe it is passion that makes us want to share the work that’s rocked our world with the larger world around us. In most of my script engagements now, I’m considered the “structure” guy — the guy who can stand back and see patterns, nudge motivations, individualize characters, cut away dross — but there are times I’d trade it all for a few more days of passion.

(1) I imagine someone’s already grabbed that title and used it for a production company

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Last night, I finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”  I don’t know what made me pick it up in the first place: the movie disturbed the hell out of me. The novel didn’t have a different ending; in fact, the plot lines are identical. So why does the novel feel more human than the film?

The Coen Brothers film of “No Country,” like most of the narrative in the novel, is a fast paced stalking / chase scene. The primary difference in the novel’s structure is that the plot is inter-cut with personal narrative from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (whether these are journals or letters to a daughter he doesn’t have, is never quite clear). In fact, the protagonist in the novel, if you’re following character arc, is the Sheriff. He’s the only one who changes during the course of the narrative. He’s affected by the events and quits his job as Sheriff near the novel’s conclusion (film as well).

Why does this make the novel human? The Ed Tom narrative of “No Country” is largely biographical with some metaphysical reflection. As readers, we get to see the family history of Bell, which is in some ways parallel to the history of Texas. Bell becomes the center-piece of the narrative. In the film, Bell becomes something of a minor character. Llewellyn Moss, the Vietnam vet/hunter who stumbles on the drug scene gone wrong, becomes the protagonist of the film. Thus when he dies, even though it is Greek in that he dies from his own hubris, it feels like we’ve been watching the wrong movie. In both the film and the novel, there are only hints of Moss’ past. We know he was in Vietnam, nothing more — except perhaps that he wears a boar’s tusk as homage to someone who passed in that other country.  Other than Ed Tom Bell, no one in the novel has anything one would call a past.

Toward the end of the novel, Ed Tom Bell reflects on the nature of Satan.  When he was a child, he says, he believed.  He shifted away as he grew older.  Now, he’s beginning to believe again.  If there is such a thing as Satan, Bell believes he’d be a drug runner.

One of the more striking things in McCarthy’s novel is the use of names.  Almost all of the main male characters have simple (mostly four letter) last names — Bell, Wells, Moss — and the men are generally referred to by last name (the deputies have longer names — Wendell, Torbert — but they serve the action, they’re of little consequence).  In contrast, the women are referred to by first name — Carla Jean — or, like the Mexicans and the men behind the drug dealing, no name at all.  In stark contrast to all this stands Anton Chigurh. The first time I encountered the name, the question hit my brain: what kind of name is that?  Anton suggests Russian — and though he’s described as dark complected, he also has stone blue eyes. At the end of the novel (more or less), Sheriff Bell is talking to a lawyer about good and evil.  Bell adds that a lawyer friend once told him that “in law school they try to teach you not to worry about right and wrong but just follow the law.”  Toward the conclusion of the conversation he asks the lawyer if “he knew who Mammon was.”  There is some dialogue figuring out if they’re talking about the same thing: “I know it’s in the bible.  Is it the devil?” “I don’t know.  I’m goin to look it up.  I got a feelin I ought to know who it is.”

The conversation immediately shifts to the “mystery man who killed the trooper” and whether or not he’s a ghost.  Bell concludes, “No, he’s out there.  I wish he wasnt.  But he is.”  In this passage, and also with the passage reflecting on the nature of Satan, we get a clue as to the depiction of Chigurh.  I did a search of biblical names for Satan — and then another for Russian names for the devil.  There is no exact match, but would Chigurh look so out of place on this (partial) list?  Azazel (Hebrew); Baalberith (Canaanite); Balaam – (Hebrew devil of avarice and greed); Baphomet; Beelzebub – Lord of the Flies, taken from the symbolism of the scarab (Hebrew); Behemoth – Hebrew personification of Lucifer in the form of an elephant or hippopotamus; Beherit – Syriac name for Satan; Chemosh – National god of Moabites, later a devil; Cimeries – Rides a black horse and rules Africa; Dagon – Philistine; Demogorgon – a name so terrible as to not be known to mortals.  What if Satan were not just a mythical being, but someone who, like Christ, took human form — not to bring hope, but to destroy it.

I was raised Irish Catholic, which means with equal helpings of guilt and fear. I broke away toward the end of my high school years. In college (Catholic college, no less), I was taught how to meditate by a priest who was also a psychiatrist.  He led sessions for students on relaxation, visualization, etc.  He looked like Terrance Mann in “Yes Man” so there was something of that New Age guru to him as well.  But the sessions served me.  Over Christmas break, I told my mother, who had been a Charismatic Christian (misnomer if I ever heard one) since before I was in high school, that I’d been learning how to meditate.  She said nothing, but went out the next day and came back with a pamphlet that more or less said — meditation is emptying your mind so that the devil can get in.  I didn’t believe it, but late that night, I awoke from a dream — it was like the cover of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” — two dark eyes glowing like coals, pursuing me in the darkness. I was so terrified:  I thought that if I closed my eyes to sleep, those eyes would return.  But I also knew it was my fears, not the devil.  I did not believe in Satan.  Some ten years after that dream, I went to visit a friend and was met by his room-mate, who I knew casually. The young man met me in the doorway and his eyes were insane: he looked possessed, in every sense of the word.  I was terrified.  What had happened to this man?  He invited me in to wait for his room-mate and I almost declined (I’ll wait outside, thanks).  But it was raining and I couldn’t find an excuse that wouldn’t offend.  Once I was inside, he told me that he’d shot heroin (this was new to him at the time). I realized that he had been possessed, and if there was a devil it came from the poppy.

Sheriff Bell more or less says the same thing: if there’s a Satan, he’s a hit man/drug runner.  This is where both the unrelenting brutality and ascendency of Chigurh and the reflections of Ed Tom Bell come together: the novel is basically the effort of a relatively good man to come to terms with the presence of evil in the world — not just the world at large, but his world, the world for which he, as Sheriff, is responsible. This, for me, is the heart of the novel, and the piece that makes it human.  The reason the movie disturbed me, and the reason why there was such an outcry at the ending (in Hollywood of all places — they were crying for a Hollywood ending) is that it lacked the lens of humanity.  It was more or less just an evil character pummeling a better one and winning. The theme of chance is also a large factor in both novel and film — Moss stumbles on the drug scene, Chirgurh twice flips a coin to decide life and death, a good number of Chirgurh victims are simply the person who is there who has what he needs — but it is not the main theme.

Movies are rarely the place for reflection. In film, at its best, questions are raised by action and left for the audience to consider.  A perfect example of this is Allen’s “Vicky Christina Barcelona,”  a film that explores relationships by portraying them — gay, twosomes, threesomes, old lovers, new lovers, constant lovers, inconstant lovers —  each acted out with depth and merit and none of them particularly work out. I left the movie wondering: what makes a good relationship?  (I don’t know that I’ve yet come to an answer).  I left “No Country” more or less feeling like I’d been bludgeoned.  I liked the film; I was grateful for an ending that was not Hollywooded — decided by panels of viewers to help film makers determine which version would bring in the greatest amount of viewers (and therefore cash); and I thought the acting was brilliant.  I did not read the novel at the time — or any other novel of Cormac McCarthy.  There is enough brutality in my world without inviting additional, imagined scenes. I’m glad I eventually did — because it did what only a novel can do, offer the lens of a narrator to help define the parameters of the action and to lend to it his humanity.

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I was not about to tell anyone that the last time I’d ridden a horse had been as a nine year old in day camp.  That horse, “Old Bill,” was basically glue that hadn’t yet hit the pot.  A camp counselor led him around a track inside of a corral that was smaller than a Manhattan studio bathroom.  Bill’s top speed was limping trot and he only hit it at the end of the day, when he wanted to throw us off his back and get to the hay feeder.

On set, I told the trainer that it had been some time, but did not specify the amount.  I’m sure he knew pretty quickly.  I was told that Seamus was used in rodeo shooting competitions, where the rider often had to be hands-free.  He’d be pretty responsive, if I gave him a strong enough command.

I’d have worn a cup if I’d known how much I was going to bounce in the saddle.  Seamus got moving pretty fast — at least in my estimation.  I’d been told that the scene was going to be shot in one take — we’d gallop toward the barn, I’d dismount and lead the horse to the side of young Walt and we’d walk through the shot, going through our dialogue as we did.  Later there’d be two punch-in close ups for Walt and I.

They were trying to shoot out the Disney family — other than young Walt.  They would be finished at the end of their shots and free to move on to their next project.  I rode for an hour or so.  Got off.  Watched the filming.  Got miked up.  Tested.  Waited while singles were being taken of various shots.  (I later learned that the Hollywood B-level soft porn producer had shown up and was asking the producers — why isn’t AT getting this shot or that one?  Producers leaning on AT’s ear — please explain.  Filming bogged down in the second guessing).

The sun was low on the horizon and I was just getting on Seamus.  We did a rehearsal — I came charging toward the barn, flipped a leg over the horse, landed on the ground.  Walked to the front of the horse, led him by the reins.  All good.  Except, do you think you can make getting off the horse a little faster?  And — come charging at the barn faster.

“I’m heading toward a kid.”

“I know.  Stop before you get there.”

Camera rolling.  I was off in the distance, out of the shot.  Seamus decides he wants to go backwards — and not stop.  He’s been out in the field all day.  He’s getting restless.  Action!  It took some doing just to get Seamus moving forward.  Cut.  Can you hear us?

Can someone flag me?  It’ll be a little easier.

Take two, I come charging at young Walt like hellfire. Hat flops off, but is held on by a string.  I slow the horse, flip my leg up — and my other boot is stuck in the stirrup.  I almost fall over on my back.  I gain my balance and they let the scene continue.  AT, afterwards: “My god, you looked like a menacing figure from the old West — until you stumbled out of the saddle.”  Seamus’ trainer loosened the stirrups a little.  I hadn’t practiced with these boots on when we rode after lunch.  That was clearly a mistake.

Light is fading.  We take a couple more cracks at it.  I try one with my foot almost out of the stirrup before I get up — foot slips.  Need for cup exacerbated.  I’m beginning to think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, except, each time I ride, I’m getting a better feel for being on horseback.  I know now how responsive Seamus is, but also how much pressure to apply, how to assert myself without over doing it.  The last few takes are great, though I never quite fly off the horse like I did in the first take.  Adjustments are made — they want to get me riding out of the sunset — sun glowing around me.

It’s dark in the barn when we turn to close ups.  They use reflectors, to try and match the lighting.  I’ve seen still shots of the scene — it looks phenomenal.  The people involved were first rate.

There’s a party that night at a local pub.  Everyone gets tickets for a set number of drinks.  I hand my tickets off.  I’m happy — don’t need any enhancer.  Work has always been enough.  AG catches me on the way into the place.  He mentions how much he likes one scene I wrote — where young Walt imitates Charlie Chaplin at a stockyard performance night — it’s not in the biography, but it matches certain facts.  I’d pretty much invented it out of whole cloth, and AG let on how much he was looking forward to filming it the following day.  (I would be on my flight back to NYC).  I was encouraged by the fact that he was openly admitting I’d written the script.

At the production office, before the party, I sat in the back room.  They’d put up a cork board on the wall and attached to the wall were photos of the players.  Mine was prominently not there.  The casting associate (FL) saw me looking and made a remark about having to get my picture.  He didn’t have one as I was cast by AG.  I nodded.  I can do that.  Then FL started talking about how strange it must be to be a ghostwriter on the set — knowing you’ve written something and not able to let on.  It was the first time that I’d heard the word ghostwriter used.  As I’d mentioned, initially I was to be the script doctor (uncredited); afterward, once I’d created the thing from letter A (with the exception of the two scenes I’d doctored early in the process), I’d been told I’d be getting some form of credit.  I almost corrected FL, but decided that maybe he wasn’t in the loop.  AT was playing a lot of sides, one against the other.

This also came at a time when AT and the producers were locked up in a meeting.  Later, AT told me that he’d laid down the law — on the set, he was the captain of the ship.  He wasn’t going to have anyone undercut him, no matter how many B-level credits they had.  Was that understood?  I rode with him to the party and he made a remark about having to out Alpha male a bunch of alpha-male posers.  I let him vent and kept my mouth shut.

So to have AG acknowledge that my writing was impressive, made him laugh — I took it as a good sign.  I asked him how the death of Diane Disney Miller affected his  prospects.  (She’d passed away in mid-November).  He’d told me in Orlando back in October that they were familiar with one another and he was hoping to get her approval of the project as a green-light for distribution. “Yeah, it’s sad, isn’t it.  I think she would have liked it.”  My son called at that minute, and I went out into the courtyard to talk with him.

I’d been told they were still going to shoot the shower scene (as Doc Sherwood look-alike), but they wanted to wait until AG was a little more buff.  With all the production preparation, he’d had little time to work out.   AG seemed genuinely disappointed that I wouldn’t be around to see more of the filming.  I told him that when I came back, I’d plan to spend a few more days on set.  He seemed in agreement.

Things I know or have been told:

AT filmed AG and finally convinced him, via the daily rushes, that he was not the caliber of actor to carry the film.  Over the holiday break, AG got a new Disney and cast himself as Ub — the actor AT brought in to play Ub and tried to switch into Disney, was let go.  AT was fired via e-mail during the holiday break – actually he was offered a position as “helper” to the new director, someone from L.A. who would work on spec., simply for the credit. I was aware of this, but I’d signed a contract to play Doc.  I told AT that as a member of the union, I’d be obligated to fulfill my role.  I’d directed a few e-mails at the production coordinator asking for block out dates, was always told he’d get back to me.

I never heard from them again, except once in April, AB wrote to ask for payroll information.  They’d had some issues with SAG (I received a letter from SAG in February saying they were persona non grata and not to work for them).

Any chance of my receiving credit for my work was out the window.  AT told me at one point that he’d put my name on the IMDb site a writer, but by the time I’d looked it was not there.  Additionally, I never received any credit for the work I did as Doc Sherwood (at least not on IMDb).  It seemed the further the production moved forward, the more the producers wanted to distance themselves from AT and myself.

And so I did become a ghost.  Someone who’d been an integral part of the production, but who simply disappeared from the production notes like a thought you had yesterday.  I don’t take sides — I liked the producers.  They both had their merits and their blind spots; they were nice enough to me.  I would consider working with them again, but I’d make sure I had my contract laid out up front.  I probably won’t work with the director again — I’ve known him a long time, but he has a habit of promising things that aren’t in his power to give.  He believes contracts are expedients (to help him get what he wants) that can be adjusted or renegotiated later, somewhere along the way.  Some people do business that way — I don’t.  The bottom line is I allowed myself to be swayed — rather than getting credit, more pay, etc. in writing when I was told that a new script was what it would take, I let the looming deadline affect my judgment.  So a full one-third of the responsibility falls in my lap.

Every now and then a rumor bubbles up — I was told, for example, that after AT was gone, the producers, the new director and several of the actors were writing their own versions of the script.  That this ur script is eventually what was shot.

I looked at the website recently and a pang of nostalgia kicked up — I actually had a good time on set. Several of the scenes seem exactly as I laid them out — including the imitating Chaplain in the stockyard scene. One wants to believe that somewhere there is a credit due on the cosmic balance sheet; but in my experience of the universe, it rarely works that way.  The fact that I’m alive, that my son is healthy, these are cosmic balances I’ve done nothing to deserve.  I’ve no right to expect more, but it would be nice to believe in a Hollywood ending once in a while.

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Despite being told that the script had a hard deadline — as the first day of principal photography would be October 23rd, with the new script the production date was pushed back until early December of 2013.  My contact, the director (AT), wanted to start after the New Year.  “Why bring everyone down for a few days of shooting, and then have to break for the holidays?  There’s all that extra airfare.”  One of the producers (AG) insisted that there was an incentive to starting before the year was out, whether it was a tax credit or some other item involving distribution (which he kept hinting at), no one was really certain.  Now the latest conflict of the production was that AG confirmed that he also wanted to play Walt Disney.

With about ten days notice, I was told I’d have to be on set on the first day of photography — ostensibly to play Doc Sherwood.  “Do you know how to ride a horse?”

“The Doc Sherwood based character doesn’t appear on horseback.”

“He does now.”

Flashback: when I had my meeting with the producers in Florida, they wanted to add almost all of the people who had some influence on young WD — from the first person who gave him a drawing pad, to Doc Sherwood, who gave him a nickel to draw his horse.  There was nothing in any of these factoids that served the forward momentum of the story — so I’d eliminated them.  AG wanted Doc Sherwood, so I met him halfway — I had Disney go, at the nadir of his despair, to a public bath (true story).  In the opposing shower stall, he saw someone who reminded him of Doc Sherwood (fiction).  WD gets caught staring, and tells the man in the shower about Sherwood — believing in him, giving him his first nickel.  The man encourages WD — “must have seen somethin’, men don’t just throw away nickels.”  WD turns to rinse in the shower, and when he steps out to dry himself, the man is gone, but there is a nickel on his stacked clothing.  (This also = Jung’s “Old man in the fairy tale” — someone who encourages at a point where the main character is losing the way).

AT tells me that he’s had to make a few concessions to the producers.  They wrote this scene, but I was free to adjust the dialogue once I was there (and there was a strong likelihood it wouldn’t make the final edit).  I’d gone too far to turn back.  I was still intrigued how AT was going to get around AG playing Walt.

I flew into Orlando where I was met by the company driver.  I was starving, but there was no room in the schedule to stop for something to eat.  The driver complained for the 90 minutes to Deland about how many trips he had to make back and forth to the airport and to the set.  I bit my tongue.  The voice in my head kept saying, “you’re a driver.  You’re being paid to drive.  Why are you complaining about having to be on the road?”  Shortly before we arrived in Deland the answer came.  He was an actor, who was promised a walk-on part, but also given a job as driver.  Once he’d wrung out all the misery of the journeys he had to make this week, he harped back on older experiences where he’d driven someone from Florida to upstate NY (and didn’t get fed).  I don’t think I’ve been more relieved to exit an automobile, not even after a non-stop drive to South Carolina from NYC.

The production offices were set up in an old real estate office on the outskirts of Deland, though still on the main drag.  The director had sent fair warning to the production offices ahead of time about who I was really (the screenwriter), so the head of wardrobe whispered to me “bless you. This might actually be a film now;” make-up fawned on me, “my god, it’s so much better. They’re actually able to get name talent to consider it now.”  I had a cachet that no bit player could possible receive.  But there was something else to focus on: food in the office — rice and beans, pulled pork and burrito shells.

They were only covering rehearsal and wardrobe that afternoon, but the tension between AG and AT was palpable.  The director pulled me out into the parking lot at one point after I’d eaten.  He pointed toward his car.  Once we were inside, he explained that he could not get AG to see reason.  Not only that, but the other producer, AB wanted a prominent part as well.

“Maybe they can act; has either one studied acting?”

“AG thinks he can. He hired a coach last week.  But he can’t carry a film — I think my only recourse is to put him on film and let him see how he looks next to a real actor.  I’m thinking of having the two actors switch parts as an experiment, and then trying to get it to stick.  Back me up on this, will you?”

In all fairness, I was aware of this battle since mid-November  The director and several crew members challenged the producers on more than one occasion when the discussion of casting the lead role came up — they’d put off casting the lead, or even considering casting for several months.  Finally AG confirmed that he was planning to play the part. They there was an e-mail from a quitting production manager saying that the producers were sabotaging the work of many professionals by trying to turn the project into a home movie featuring their own unseasoned talent.  I saw the note one of the producers (AB) sent in response — that they were hiring a producer from L.A. to oversee the project.While they mentioned that the producer had over 60 projects to his credit, the ones they listed sounded like B films or soft porn.

Back to the first day in Florida. Not too much after I’d been in the director’s car, AG, the producer who intended to play young Walt Disney, threw one of the lines I’d written at me, but he changed the context, saying “Hey Doc, gimme a nickel.  I want my nickel.”  I nodded at him and smiled.  What was I supposed to do?  Get into character? He’d watched too many behind the scenes videos.

To be honest, though AG was Latino, he actually looked somewhat like Walt Disney in his 20s.  Striking resemblance.  Coming in a few hours later, I met the actor who’d been cast to play Ub Iwerks, one of Disney’s long time artists (and the guy who actually drew/created Mickey Mouse).  I rehearsed my scene with the nine year old actor who was playing Walt in the first scenes. Late in the day, I watched the director play cat and mouse with AG.  He rehearsed a scene between Disney and Iwerks. He directed AG, each time getting more demanding.  Finally, he asked them to switch parts, just for an experiment.

Later a small group of us went to eat at a small restaurant called De la Vega.  There was the actor/casting associate (FL), who’d gotten the director involved, myself, the director and the actor who was to play Ub.  The director told this actor (I’ve been searching for his name, but it does not come up — the reason will become apparent later) his plan was to switch roles, and to prepare himself to play Disney.  The primary topic of conversation seemed to be how the director was going to get the role of Disney away from AG.

The director was bringing a lot of his talent to the film from NYC.  Most of these actors had agreed (against union regulations) to purchase their own airfare and to house themselves in Florida.  AG was under the assumption that I would do the same.  The director convinced him that as I’d done the writing, they owed me at least that much respect (and since my payment wasn’t complete until the first day of principal photography, I was still officially the owner of the script).  They’d hired out rooms in the Ann Stevens House in Cassadaga — a place in Florida that is a renowned camp for psychics and spiritualists, but that’s a story for another day.  I have to say the accommodations were wonderful.  Both the Ub actor and I were staying there and were dropped off at the end of the night.  He had no call the following day, I wasn’t due on set until 2:00 p.m.  I did hear him on the phone, however, calling L.A. — informing both his agent and girlfriend of the good news.

The woman who ran the B&B greeted me at night when we arrived.  A charming earth lady in her 40s, she stood in my doorway and we talked for nearly an hour, despite the fact I was exhausted, one of those random occasions of rapport.  When I went down to the kitchen in the morning, her husband was there.  Apparently, AG negotiated breakfast out of the price of the B&B — i.e. we were getting rooms but no food.  I didn’t recall seeing much on the highway on the drive in the night before.  “Where can I get some food around here?  Is there a deli or something?  The production company is busy filming this morning and won’t come bring me to set until much later.” The man stared at me for a few minutes.  “I was just baking an egg casserole.  Give it a half hour and you can eat some eggs.”  He brewed coffee and put out some bread for toast.  I pulled out my pad and began the morning writing.

One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that I love being on set — I’ll be there even when not required.  Where else can you learn about film-making on a large scale?  I called the production company and told them to send someone when there was a car to spare.  My “I hate driving” driver from the day before showed up in an hour.

The set was removed from the production offices by a half hour to the north.  It was out into farm country and featured an old barn with live animals. It was unusual for a Northern boy to see pasture among the palm trees.  Neither image fit my experience. As I pulled up, they were broken for lunch.  Once again, I was handed around the crew as the savior of the script — lauded by sound, set design, et al.  My assumption at this time was that I was still going to receive credit of some sort for the work I put in.  (AT had mentioned along the way that the person he’d had working on that was the production manager who quit).

They were a little behind in the shooting, but it was a good thing.  I’d have time to spend getting acquainted with the horse.  After lunch, they continued shooting a crane shot of the Disney family getting into a Model T and Walt not piling in.  There were drawings all over the barn boards.  I stood behind the crew for take after take.  I met the horse trainer and Seamus, my mount for the afternoon.

I still had hair and make-up to attend, so at three the director sent me back to Deland.

We’d chosen a handle-bar mustache for my character and a pin-stripe suit.  I spent some time dressing, and at each button I felt more and more of the period. I had a bowler hat and a medicine bag. Since I was the last shot of the day, both make-up and hair came out to the set with me.  It was a beautiful day, I was about to act, and all was right with the world.

to be continued

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