- Nobody wants to be Alan Smithee
No fun at all.
When you see this name it speaks to a soul-sucking experience so bad that it caused the Director to take his name off the movie. I wanted to use Allen Smithee on Jane Doe. I had to be talked out of it. The experience pretty much put me off directing for years afterward. I have never written about it because…it’s over. That was then, this is now, and I’m actually ok with it.
But for posterity, for the greater good–Let’s open up this foul oyster, shall we? As the great writer once told me, listen to my advice, do the opposite, and things will work out fine.
- Saying No to Edie Falco
The greatest competition for any role I’ve written happened during Jane Doe, for the role of Jane. Among those who auditioned were Missy Yager (Dead Man Walking), Adrienne Shelly (The Unbelievable Truth & Waitress) who died so senselessly in 2006…
And Edie Falco.
This was two years before The Sopranos and Edie was pretty much unknown. We met in a Lower East Side coffeehouse, had a very nice hour together, and went our separate ways. Truth is, she was never in the running. My brother, playing the lead and in all his genius, decided that he “didn’t have chemistry” with Edie. He was pushing his own choice, another relative unknown with only The Birdcage to her film credit–Calista Flockhart. This was about a year before she would break big with Ally McBeal. As he was pushing her, I was pushing a theater actress from Chicago who had just won multiple awards in another play of mine. The decision took days, through taped auditions, evaluations, call backs, re-evaluations. Calista ended up with the role, and though I never quite bought her as a heroine addict, she came through with a brave performance. Her soon-to-be fame was also responsible for putting our DVD four across at every Hollywood and Blockbuster video store in the country, Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood spots, and over two million in box office despite no reviews or theatrical release.
I always wonder what would have happened if we had chosen Edie. We lost touch very soon after that. Calista too. I doubt either of them would recognize me in a crowded elevator. And the life lesson is…?
Never burn a contact. Especially when she goes on to win three Golden Globes.
- Writing Cool Cameos, Then Burning the Contacts
Blink and you’ll miss Vinny Pastore, Big Pussy of Sopranos fame, in a single-scene as a deli manager. Blink again you’ll miss Arthur Nascarella, also of The Sopranos, as a philosophical craps instructor. Elena Lowensohn as Jane’s junkie friend. Elena was the lead vampire in Nadja, and sexy beyond belief. Don’t forget Richard Bright, who’s had critical moments as the third guy on the left in some of cinema’s greatest movies. He kills Fredo in Godfather 2 for fuck’s sake! He also holds down Dustin Hoffman in the famous “is it safe” dentist scene for Sir Lawrence Olivier in Marathon Man. Lastly, name the actor most famous according to IMDB ratings in Jane Doe? It’s NOT Calista Flockhart. Give up? There’s an almost inconsequential scene where Jane steals silk ties for Horace, her boyfriend. She fakes a fall to cover her theft. The man who picks her up? Ken Leung, who went on to fame as Miles Straume in Lost.
What’s my point? 1-Write cool cameos to snag some excellent actors. It’ll make the project stronger and may actually help when it comes to financing.
2-Stay in touch with them. 10+ years later, I’m out of touch with every one of these folks. Don’t let that happen. Relationships, folks, are where it’s at.
- Hiring an Entertainment Lawyer because he has really good pot
Our guy was sharp! Dude looked great on his 1997 Harley Ultra-Classic Electra Glide. He also had some deadly BUDDAGE. Purple intica, I believe, the smoking of which, perhaps, played some small part in this woeful tale. Our kind bud-smoking, Harley-riding lawyer lead us into some contracts that we might–in retrospect–have wanted to think twice about. Pity, there is no retrospect. There are only losers who hire stoners to vet key documents, and those who don’t.
- Hiring a Director who has never set foot on a film set
Talk about high! The producers of Jane Doe decided, in all their wisdom, to yank me off the casino boat in Aurora, Illinois where I was happily dealing craps to slot-playing, hair-curlered, pajama-wearing degenerates at 2 in the morning, and put me in charge of a film set. I had never, EVER, stepped on a film set. Crazy! I was too ignorant to even question the logic of it and everyone else thought it was an inspired idea. I had written the play and screenplay, directing the play in Chicago. I had LIVED this story for God’s sake! I was eminently acquainted with Atlantic City, where we’d be shooting, also the seedy Jane Street meat-market neighborhood (it was seedy then). Why not give me a shot? Surround me with capable people, maybe catch lightning in a bottle with a first-timer.
First-time directors need a strong AD(Assistant Director). I ended up with four AD’s during the 18-day shoot. The first one left before the shoot, finding a gig that paid better. Two others quit during the course of the daily pressures, overtime, and insanity of those happy 18 days.
How green was I? The night before the shoot my old man told me a director always wears a hat that speaks to his individuality. I actually went out and bought a hat! And not just a hat, one of those cheesy, jokey New York City tourist hats. Cringe-worthy, even thinking about it a decade later. Imagine being on the crew when this loser walks in for the first all-hands Production meeting.
I was the first-time director who just HAD to sleep in the rooming-house where my girlfriend and I once lived the night before the shoot, without a cellphone or any way to contact me, to channel the spirits and GET INSPIRED. The poor AD begged me, saying I really shouldn’t be out of touch on the eve of the production’s first shooting day. This was likely the same AD who attempted to reason with me during the shoot that the director between takes needs to be with either the actors or camera, not playing handball with the PA’s.
There is a such a thing as too much responsibility. Before you take on the role of director, know that you can handle it. There’s very little sadder than a director losing his set.
- The Curious Case of the Mysteriously Disappearing Budget
I was a goddamn craps dealer! What the hell did I know about budgeting for a movie? Not my job. I didn’t even think to ask if the production schedule was realistic. I left that decision to the powers-that-be. Surely they would know how long it would take to film every scene and work out a do-able shooting schedule. We had 18 days, well over 100 scenes. Also, importantly, no rehearsal time. It would be left to the first-time time director to block out the scene on the spot in front of 15 or 20 people. This would be daunting enough, but throw in the ever-questioning Calista. She wanted to understand the motivations about her character’s heroin addiction, questioning how drug addiction takes a toll in real life, reminding me, correctly, that it wasn’t real life we were filming but a movie. All the while, tick tick tick. The relentless tick tick tick! The clock moving, money burning. Didn’t take long for the AD to begin poking my shoulder on an hourly basis, telling me we had to GO GO GO, that we wouldn’t make our day.
And we didn’t.
There wasn’t a single day of the 18 we made our day. Sure, you could attribute most of this to a clueless director. But a piece of it was poor scheduling in terms of shots and setups.
Guess what happens when you don’t make your day? You slash the script. “Ah, Paul, you know that 7-page scene Chris and Calista studied all last night? We have to cut it. Now you run up and tell her…” Watching your baby hacked by a machete-wielding producer…something to be avoided, good people.
Work with a real budget and shooting schedule.
Don’t, and fall into the abyss of obscurity.