August 2013

MY LIFE AS A FILMMAKER

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Looking back now I recognize the seeds of my filmmaking self. In the Army someone once rented a video camcorder in order to document some fun on Okinawa. I asked to borrow it and, in collaboration with pals Phil Cappel and Bryan Key (and Jack Daniels), conceived faux-public service TV spots such as The Premature Ejaculation Fund, Don’t Steal or At Least Don’t Get Caught, and Jack Daniels Early Morning Hangover Cure: Get the Jack Smile. Later additions done while serving with the U.S. Central Command were Diet Jack, Budweiser Aftershave, Hangover from Hell and Brothers in Arms (where I played four brothers, each in a different branch of the armed forces). I was far more interested in the performing than the directing, mind you. But, still, I was the one setting it all up…
I never once thought about being a filmmaker while I was acting in film school projects in college. To me, it was all about acting and learning how to perform for the camera over the course of multiple takes and multiple angles of the same scene again and again. I really never paid attention to how it was all coming together.
When my boys were six and seven, respectively, I created a summer project for us: our own version of the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon movie serials called Spark Gordon. I wanted to show them how a movie was put together. I wrote a script consisting of three chapters, each with the prerequisite cliff-hanging ending, did storyboards, and made set design an arts and crafts project for the boys. We created a miniature spaceship out of a computer mouse holder attached to a juice bottle and made rays guns out of Nintendo controllers. My sons played all of the roles and we filmed it entirely in our apartment over the course of a couple of days. I used a VHS tape deck and the video camera to edit the family masterpiece. Here I was showing them the rudiments of filmmaking all the while I was practicing a craft that I would come to embrace!
One day when I was on the set of an independent feature film, it suddenly occurred to me that this was something that I could do. Frustrated at the glacial pace of my acting gigs, and feeling a loss of control that is not conducive to my personality, I refocused my time and energies by joining the Independent Filmmakers Project/West and immersing myself in books, lectures, and seminars to learn how to make my own independent film. What hubris!
Yes, indeed. So I went ahead and adapted my short story The Dark Wish into a screenplay retitled Daybreak, and spent a year shuttling back and forth to northeastern Pennsylvania (my hometown region) in order to line up locations, lodging, meals, and everything else that it takes to make a movie. The 102-page script was completed in twelve shooting days in Pennsylvania and three more in Los Angeles. Postproduction took another two years before it was ready for a cast and crew screening at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. It was a memorable event because author Ray Bradbury (a friend of the film’s star Paul Clemens) was in attendance.
I survived the experience, taking Daybreak to film festivals in New York City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles before obtaining direct-to-video distribution deal. I kept notes during the production of the film, documenting what was happening and what lessons I was learning. I finally compiled and published them in the slender volume Long Night’s Journey Into Daybreak: 10 Things You Need to Know Before You Make Your First Feature Film.
Following Daybreak, I continued to pursue filmmaking as a career and worked on several scripts including a comedy (L.A. Bound & Gagged), a coming of age story (Crazy Days), a suspenseful story (Disturbing Echoes) and a twist-of-fate drama (Man of His Word). I even optioned the novel Coal Cracker Blues by James Stevens and wrote an adaptation but was unable to get it funded.
My love of old-time radio drew me to my next project. After attending the 2003 SPERDVAC old-time radio convention, I decided that I’d like to learn more about the history of those golden days of radio but I was unable to locate a documentary on the subject besides Ken Burns’ Empire of the Air. And so I decided that I was uniquely qualified to tell the story of radio’s heyday in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Originally titled OTR (Old Time Radio) the story grew in depth and scope as I conducted more interviews and delved deeper into research. The power of radio as a means to communicate so widely and instantaneously had been unprecedented. From radio came the very structure of television as well as

the power wielded by controlling the dominant method of mass communication. Now this project has possessed me for nearly ten years and is finally coalescing into a compelling film. Trust me, I can’t wait to share it with you!

I’m just saying…

MY LIFE AS A DIRECTOR

 
Directing is also one of those things that I realize I have been doing, or practicing, most of my creative life.  As I previously mentioned, when I was about 8 years old, I vividly recall my dad and I recording a script I wrote as a radio play in our basement on a small reel-to-reel tape machine. Now, for the record, I don’t count this as my first directorial effort… however, I must acknowledge it as where the place where it all started.
I directed radio play scripts that I wrote in high school, including three that were submitted into the annual state-level competition. My favorite was the parody of The Shadowthat I wrote and directed my senior year. We had live organ music, recorded and live sound effects and a sizable cast (which included my future wife!). The rules of the contest dictated that the show had to be performed in one take. Little did I know how that process would live on with the live old-time radio recreations I regularly direct today.
I was a student director in high school (basically assisting the teacher) while also acting in the shows. In the Army I was an assistant director during the Miss Fort Hood Pageant of 1983. But it wasn’t until I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, did I actually assume directing chores for live theater shows. I assembled a mish-mash of comedy bits in a show called Comedy Tonite (hosted by Abbott & Costello, played by my best friend Phil Cappel and myself) and then I directed Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap and Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
About this time I learned that directing is a difficult skill because not everyone can take the idea of what they want from inside their head and communicate it with relative success to other artists (actors, set designers, stage managers, etc.). It was a skill I seemed to possess and I worked hard to get better at it. In fact, I still work at it to this day…
While in college I concentrated on acting and the only directing I did was The University Radio Theater where I tried to launch radio dramas on the college radio station, interspersing originals with current audio drama from NPR. It was short-lived, but a valuable learning experience.
By the mid 1990s I decided to venture into filmmaking and directed my movie Daybreak (more on that in the Filmmaker section) and added, almost by accident, The Poet Laureate of Radio: An Interview with Norman Corwin a few years later. The big film project I am now hard at work directing is called Radio Changed America.
Life is funny, no doubt. I rediscovered my love for radio dramas, in fact, all things radio, during the prolonged search for distribution on Daybreak. At the 2003 SPERDVAC (Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety And Comedy) old-time radio convention I sought refuge from the grind of filmmaking. I loved sitting and watching the radio show recreations starring many voices from the actual days of network radio, in some case reprising their original roles. Eventually I was asked to prepare a Norman Corwin show of my choice to coincide with the 100-year-old’s visit to the 2010 REPS (Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound) Showcase in Seattle. With Norman’s blessing, I mounted a recreation of the 1944 war-era play Untitled.  One of the other regular directors looked at me and said, “You realize you’re in the club now. There’s no going back.” He was right!
The next year I was invited back to direct two shows in 2011 (Lights Out and X Minus One), two more in 2012 (Corwin’s Descent of the Gods and Nightbeat), and three in 2013 (Duffy’s Tavern, Gunsmoke and Inner Sanctum). In addition, SPERDVAC asked me to stage Norman Corwin’s My Client Curley in November 2011, only a few weeks after his death at age 101.
My greatest honor was directing Norman Corwin’s classic radio play The Undecided Molecule at the 45th Annual ARSC (Association for Recorded Sound Collections) convention held at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in May 2011. The tremendous cast included Phil Proctor (Firesign Theater), Dick Van Patten, Marvin Kaplan, Tommy Cook, Janet Waldo (voice of Judy Jetson), Melinda Peterson, Ivan Cury, Richard Herd and Norman Lloyd (reprising the same role from the original 1945 broadcast!). Sound patterns were by Tony Palermo. It was also Norman Corwin’s last public appearance.
Directing these shows brings me back to where I started: an eight-year-old acting out a show in the basement with his dad into the microphone of an inexpensive reel-to-reel machine. Life sure is funny.
I’m just saying…  

REP SHOWCASE 2013 REFLECTIONS

I’ve just returned from a wonderful three-day event in Seattle, WA. Their annual showcase for old-time radio is held every June at the Coast Hotel in the suburb of Bellevue. Whenever the Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound (REPS) come calling, I get ready to answer the challenge. I directed three old-time radio recreations this year: Duffy’s Tavern, Gunsmoke, and Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Plus, I was invited to act in two more: Suspense and The Halls of Ivy.

It is such a personal thrill to act alongside old-time radio veterans Tommy Cook, Gloria McMillan, Bob Hastings, Terry Moore and others. Chuck McCann was a childhood hero for his daily kid’s show that I watched religiously on WPIX New York. To work with him is special. Last year, Don Hasting (Dr. Bob Hughes of As The World Turns) happily wrote a personal note to my mother, a longtime fan. Don’s wife Leslie Denniston is a wonderful talent, too! Add to the mix the honor of directing these people and you can see why I always book my flight to Seattle. It’s creative fun and it’s personal fun!