Sunday, August 24, 2008

WC: My First Movie (Well, My First Movie Not Related to a Medical Condition)

A few weeks ago, I spent a very fascinating few days watching a movie being made of a script I wrote. But we need to start with a flashback:

About four years ago, my short play You Look Just Like Him was performed at the Estrogenius Festival at the Manhattan Theatre Source in New York. The story of a young man meeting his biological mother for the first time, You Look Just Like Him is my favorite thing I've ever written, and I'm glad to say that it was very well-received (it didn't hurt that I had an excellent director, two very good actors, and one brilliant one, Nancy Sirianni).

Enter Jason (aka Jake) Kaminsky. Back when YLJLH was done at Estro, he had wanted to audition to play the son, but the timing didn't work out for him. Move forward to 2007, and Jake Kaminsky is now a producer. He decides that he wants to make a short relationship-oriented film as a sample of his work, and YLJLH pops into his mind. Jake tracks me down on the Internet (he finds me through a post I had put up on a blog seeking lesbians to interview for my Lesbian Sex Book, 3rd edition) and asks me if I want to turn YLJLH into a script.

Hell, yeah!

And so began what turned out the be an educational, wonderful, frustrating, eye-opening, lovely, excellent experience.

First, writing the script was strange and difficult. Jake had a lot of opinions on how the script should be developed--many of them excellent--and I had trouble letting go of the idea of the story and characters being mine and mine alone. However, I'm completely aware that film is not a writer's medium. (Did you hear about the starlet who was so dumb that she fucked the screenwriter to get ahead?) So I rewrote the script to his specifications. And rewrote. And rewrote. And I took a word-based play and turned it into a visually-based screenplay--an odd and challenging and surprisingly rewarding task for someone as in love with words as I am.

And the meetings with Jake were often fun. He's a nice and funny guy, and it was exciting to be working on this project together. As a writer I spend a lot of time alone, and I cherish the opportunities I get to collaborate.

I was very pleased with Jake's choice of a director, Doug Hall. I had seen a play that Doug had directed, and I found his work clear, concise, communicative, smooth, well-timed, polished, and professional. Doug had never directed a movie before, but neither had I had a script filmed before, so I figured we were even.

Jake, Doug, and I met a couple of times and discussed the script. The result: more rewrites. I didn't keep track of how many times I rewrote YLJLH total, but I'd guess between 15 and 20. I think most of the rewrites were improvements, but I'm honestly not sure.

The auditions were inspiring, horrifying, fascinating, and deeply dull, as auditions usually are. I am in awe of how someone can come into a small room full of strangers and share intimate parts of his- or herself. As I writer, the chances I take and the rejections I receive are a little bit distanced, but the performers are there, in the room, in their bodies, with their emotions. Amazing bravery.

We had already cast one role--the bio-mom's husband--with Robert Clohessy, a subtle and smart actor who was in Hill St. Blues, Oz, and Across the Universe. So the auditions were for the mother and son.

New York has a staggering supply of really talented people--and many of them are really, really, really, really good-looking. One actor was so tall-and-handsome-and-built-and-charismatic that he raised the temperature of the room just by walking in; this was a man who gets laid whenever and wherever he wants. He was completely wrong for the part, but it was fun to see what he could do.

Most of the actors trying out for the son had similar takes on the character, but there were occasional differences. One guy came in dressed as though he was going to a rave in the East Village--totally not who the son is! One guy cried. And cried. And cried. And cried. Although we all worked very hard to treat every actor with respect, it was all we could do to not burst out laughing until he had closed the door behind him. Beside the crying being overdramatic and HAMMY, it was completely wrong for the scene.

Greg Parri had already worked with Jake and I think Doug too, and as soon as he walked in and started reading I knew they were going to be working with him again. First of all, although he is quite good-looking, he isn't generically handsome like so many of the others. He has his own look, which includes beautiful eyes and a sweet sexy mouth, and he looks like a real person. He's also a wonderful actor. And he's just right for the role.

The array of women we saw for the mother was more varied--many different looks, different types, different approaches. It's amazing how much we rely on looks for how we understand people and their behavior. The same exact action reads differently if done by, for example, a tall coolly pretty blonde, a squeaky voiced cutie, and a heavy-set brunette with a deep voice. Casting requires acknowledgment of an audience's preconceptions so that you can choose the best person to express the story you want to tell. In my mind, it was down to three women whose combination of looks, voice, and talent worked for the role (one of whom was Nancy who had played the character at Estro). We chose Valerie Wright, who looks like a younger, sexier Sandy Duncan. Part of me feels like I betrayed Nancy who was truly amazing in the play and gave a great audition but Valerie had the look we wanted and also gave a great audition (and a wonderful performance).

So, there we were, with a first-class cast, a reasonably good script, a wonderful director, a hard-working creative producer, and even a little budget.

Which is a good time to stop for now. More next week.