Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How to Shoot a Feature Film in 15 Days (And Survive to See Profits)

This is my latest book about a film I made under unique and interesting circumstances. I first presented the topic as a webinar for Stage 32 (www.stage32.com/). A year later, I decided to tell the story in greater detail in book form. The following words are from Richard "RB" Botto of Stage 32.

"I am the CEO of the world’s largest social media site and educational hub for film, television and theater creatives called Stage 32 (www.stage32.com). A couple of years ago, we introduced our Next Level Webinar series, essentially 90-minute live classes. I was on the hunt for top draw educators and Stephen with his passion for film and his selfless desire to teach immediately came to mind. 'How to Shoot a Film in 15 Days (And Survive to See Profits)' was Stephen’s suggestion, one I took to instantly.

I heard from numerous filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, cinematographers and other creatives who praised Stephen for giving them the strategy, framework, and course knowledge necessary to push them to go out and film their own material. Further, so impactful was the material, various film conferences and festivals came knocking asking if Stephen would have an interest in teaching it live. So Stephen took the show on the road, leaving audiences dazzled, informed and inspired.

I have no doubt you’ll feel the same way reading this book. So pour yourself your favorite libation and come curl up by the fire because Stephen Mitchell can tell a story. And Stephen Mitchell has stories to tell. A more reliable narrator, you will not find."

 How to Shoot a Feature Film in 15 Days (And Survive to See Profits) is available in paperback and on Kindle on Amazon:


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ferrari GTO on Mulholland Drive

This photo shows me in my GTO in the late 60s/early 70s taking a corner on Mulholland Drive at speed. It is actually a frame capture from a film I made with Peter Helm that begins with our excursion to Willow Springs Raceway and ends in the canyons of Los Angeles.

Though the resolution is poor, I love this image; it is more like an impressionist painting depicting the speed and excitement of owning and driving the car as it was intended--if not on a race track, at least with exuberance. Notice the attitude, or body English, of the GTO during its turn-in to the apex of the corner. I always thought that my Berlinetta Lusso cornered 'flat' through a turn, but the GTO showed me how 'flat' a race car could take the same corners. This goes to say that the speed with which I negotiated this corner had to be considerable for the GTO to show as much body roll as we see in the photo.

I can almost hear the sound of the amazing Ferrari twelve cylinder engine on full song and, though I cannot be seen clearly behind the wheel, I can assure you I was smiling.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ignorance is Bliss: Another swordfish sandwich

Senator Bliss at lunch...

“It looks like the jogger killed your wife,” Dornan told Martin over yet another in an endless series of swordfish sandwiches.

“What’s your point?” was Martin’s response. He enjoyed swordfish as much as the next fellow, but Martin was becoming annoyed with the Detective’s puerile eating habits.

“It looks like the jogger killed your wife,” Dornan repeated, assuming that the Senator hadn’t heard him.

“I need to tell you something before the waiter comes back,” Martin told him in a hushed conspiratorial tone, which caused the Detective to lean in closer. “First, don’t talk with your mouth full and, second, the word like isn’t used when a subject and verb are to follow. You should have said it looks as though the jogger killed your wife, which still doesn’t make any sense.”

Dornan was getting to the end of his rope with Martin’s didactical manner, though he wouldn’t have used didactical to describe it.

“You don’t seem to appreciate what’s happening here,” the Detective replied managing to restrain some of his anger. “You have been a person of interest, if not the prime suspect, in what has all the earmarks of a homicide case and I’ve just gotten you off the hook by hanging it on an anonymous jogger. How much more sense does it have to make?”

“To tell you the truth, it may not have to make any sense at all. I have no idea what’s happened to my wife and, as far as I can tell, you haven’t either. It’s all very speculative and if you have any experience with women whatsoever, you would realize the futility of any attempt to understand what they’ll do or when they’ll do it.”

“But, she’s been gone for…”

“Detective,” Martin interrupted him. “I think you’re taking this a little too seriously. If I’d killed my wife, I think I would know it, don’t you agree?”

Dornan was about to launch into a tirade, but remembered that his mouth was full.

“I think everything happens for a reason, like that affair with the Boat People. You should look at this as a sign that you have been put in the right place at the right time.” Pleased with himself, Martin sat back and savored his wine.

“The right place and the right time for what?” Dornan whined. As usual, Martin’s non sequitur progression caused the Detective to lose his train of thought.

"I’m not going to answer that question,” Martin intoned as he signaled the waiter for the check. “Instead, I’m going to let you think on it and I have every confidence you will stumble upon the correct answer without any guidance from me.” It was Martin’s way of ending an encounter that had far exceeded its purpose and time limit.


Monday, November 17, 2014

About branding...

I became interested in branding as it applies to actors after I had founded my repertory company for film and television. My motivation was two-fold: to develop actors who would be more interesting to the public as well as mainstream Hollywood and to make the films our group made with them more salable--our goal was to build a following for each of them. Over the twenty-plus years that the rep company was in operation, I delved more and more into the psychology and nuance of branding and this influenced the development of my Action/ReAction technique, which has as a goal to train actors to play lead roles.

The most frequent question I am asked by those wishing to better understand the seemingly divergent demands of branding and the artistic expression of the actor is: What Is Meryl Streep's brand? I wish I had a dollar for every time I've been asked this question but it is understandable why it is asked. On the face of it, Meryl Streep seems to be all over the map with her performances (in the best possible ways) which would seem to belie the imperative to have a well-defined brand. However, let's take a closer look.

Meryl Streep's brand is that of an intelligent and emotionally vulnerable woman which is most effective when she adds a foreign national identity--French in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Polish in Sophie's Choice , Danish in Out of Africa, Italian in The Bridges of Madison County and Irish in Dancing at Lughnasa. She played this brand for Woody Allen in Manhattan but without the foreign identity. These are the roles that made her legacy and not films like She-Devil where the brand was absent.

Sometimes, having an established brand helps an actor play against it like Tom Hanks where his trustworthy, everyman image made the face of AIDS more accessible to audiences in Philadelphia. Apollo 13 and The Da Vinci Code both took full advantage of his established brand. Julie Andrews' brand of innate, optimistic enthusiasm is another example where the absence of her usual enthusiasm in The Americanization of Emily made its own point. 

You'll notice that Clint Eastwood has had a consistent brand since the late 60s and Steve McQueen was consistent except when he went off it in a film, An Enemy of the People, that was unsaleable and could not find an audience. The Hollywood studios understood this and even had a clause in Clark Gable's contract when they loaned him to other studios that they couldn't mess with his brand. In the same fashion, Kate Hepburn, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and the other greats of cinema all had consistent and well-defined brands. They set a great example.

If an actor isn't concerned with the protection of his or her own brand, who else will be? It's the same as McDonalds or In-N-Out maintaining quality control on their franchises because, when all is said and done, acting is a business. Unless one acts solely as a hobby, branding is a crucial concept of which an actor needs to be aware.
From a strategic point of view, there are three types of actors in "Hollywood": The Bankable Lead (whose popularity attracts investors and audiences), The Antagonist (whose job is to upstage The Bankable Lead) and Everybody Else (whose job is to be competent without distracting from the interaction of The Bankable Lead and The Antagonist). The first two need to be branded. The last does not as they are interchangeable and disposable.

The two posters here are from Steve McQueen movies--Nevada Smith from 1966 and Tom Horn from 1980, indicating a good run of 14 years for Steve and his brand, until you realize that his brand first made our acquaintance in the television series Wanted: Dead or Alive, which began in 1958, making Steve a popular brand for 22 years. Not a bad run...

Monday, November 3, 2014

Two Weeks in Another Town

"What I mean is you're not interested only in the story and the characters in the foreground...There's always something happening on different levels on the screen. You're always telling us something about other people, the people in the background, at the same time, and making a comment on the scene, and telling us about the weather and the time of day, and working at the mood you want us to feel."
Bresach to Delaney
Two Weeks in Another Town  by Irwin Shaw

In a way, this passage sums up a major characteristic of the Italian Neorealism movement and what the writer in the story describes is, in my view, the fundamental challenge faced by every film director.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Don't play the F..."

In my movie Dead Right, the story progression developed elliptically; we see an action in Scene 1 and a new action in Scene 2, so the viewer can “read between the scenes” to know what would have occurred that wasn’t shown but had to have taken place to make Scene 2 possible. This goes against the old adage of “Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you have told them” which I find rather tedious.

After writing this for my new book, I found myself  watching a video interview with John McLaughlin talking about Miles Davis and the recording of “In a Silent Way” saying, “it was a question of really pruning, and he [Miles Davis] would say ‘don’t play this’. I remember we’d play the blues in F and he [Miles Davis] said: “Don’t play the F.” 

Sometimes, what you leave out is what defines the piece and makes it memorable.

You can read John McLaughlin's interview here:


Sunday, October 19, 2014

A pertinent question from Bleeder & Bates

"Should this go in the same bag or a different bag?"
An acerbic Detective Del Henderson (played by Kip Parrott) asks Lt. Bates a question about the victim's severed head as he cleans up the scene of a homicide in Bleeder & Bates...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This is Maddie Howard


This is Maddie Howard performing Action/ReAction in a preview of The Best Friend--a one-woman show I've been writing for her. Having a one-woman (or one-man) show to your credit as an actor is an extraordinary accomplishment and it is quite a feat to be able to pull it off. Every moment must be what we would call in literary circles a 'page turner'. The most famous in my recollection was the extraordinary show Mark Twain Tonight! conceived and performed by Hal Holbrook in the 50s.

Holbrook's performed his one-man show Off-Broadway in 1954 and took it to Broadway in 1966. He later won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play and an Emmy Award for the 1967 television version produced by David Susskind on CBS. In all, Holbrook has performed the piece more than 2000 times since 1954. This year marked the 60th consecutive year that Holbrook has performed Mark Twain Tonight! Quite an annuity...

Others who have attempted one-man shows are Spalding Gray, Chaz Palminteri, Holly Hughes, Julie Harris and Patrick Stewart.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Another Sidney story--vaudeville lives

(Dan, my brother-in-law, and Sidney playing Gin Rummy)

For a significant period of our lives, my father and I independently bought and sold automobiles for a living and for sport. For a living because the activity remunerated us nicely and for sport--well, that's more complicated.

The sport for me was that I was buying cars that I enjoyed driving during the time I had them--everything from Ferraris and Maseratis to Porsches and Corvettes at the upper end of the spectrum to Mustangs and Camaros at the lower end. My bargain-basement, high-volume specialty items were Volkswagens. For my sins, I bought and sold two Chevrolet Corvairs (one of which I've already written about and the other provoked the following exchange between me and a girl with whom I was on a date: She, "Is this car on fire? Me, "Not yet."

I preferred the VW Beetle and Super Beetle but sold the occasional VW Squareback with what was known as the 'Pancake' engine. I had one particularly troublesome VW notchback--the only notchback I ever bought--which I detested but somehow managed to own on three separate occasions for reasons that defy explanation and each time contriving to buy it back for less than I had previously purchased it and then selling it for more than I had managed to get in previous sales. That I maintained an antipathy for this particular car speaks to the degree that I disliked it for, ordinarily, one would think that a car that keeps coming back into my possession only to make me more money on each exchange would be the prize of my inventory.

Though we had distinctly different styles, policies and inventory, my father and I would accompany one another when buying our cars. The companionship was one reason for this but, as anyone who has ever bought and sold cars in this manner knows, it helps to have someone along who can drive the new acquisition home (assuming it is drivable). And here we come to the complicated aspect of buying cars for sport as my father practiced it. My father had his own approach, mindset and protocol in the buying of a car. To him, these transactions were not just a competitive sport in trying to get the best deals, it was also a form of vaudeville in which he incarnated W.C.Fields. It began with his approach to me.

I would receive a call from my father who would say, "There's a car near you I want to look at. What if I pick you up in twenty minutes?" I always said yes but I quickly came to realize that the phrase 'near you' could be relied upon to mean only that I needn't pack an overnight bag. If the car actually was in my area, I could rely on the fact that he would have a second or third car to look at in addition to the one near me and that, often as not, the rest of my day was shot. On one occasion, I responded to his "There's a car near you I want to look at" with "Fine, go see it and pick me up afterwards if you buy it", which wasn't at all what he had in mind. He had another use for me on these forays.

Being the salesman that he was, my father understood the value of having a 'accompanist' along whether buying or selling. It just seemed to facilitate the proceedings like the good cop/bad cop, straight man/foil partnerships that work so well in other domains. So, along I went. The scenario was always the following: He was buying the car for his daughter (who was getting married soon). She didn't have enough money to buy the car but my father would be covering whatever the shortfall might be. The daughter was always referred to as 'Corky'. The senior rule was to never find fault with the car. It was always a great car that 'Corky' would love. That didn't stop my father from negotiating the cost of repairing the car's deficiencies from the seller's asking price. When all had been properly discounted, my father would find that he was still somewhat short of meeting the seller's price, at which point my father would offer to split the difference between the price he had arrived at after negotiating the seller downwards from his asking price and another, entirely arbitrary, figure that my father had come up with. If the seller agreed to splitting the difference, that became the new asking price and we would move into Phase 2 of the transaction.

The purpose of Phase 2 was to make the seller forget that there had been a Phase 1. Just when the seller thought he had a deal with a negotiated price, my father would start going over the car as though he had just arrived asking me to look at this or that and engaging me in conversation about the car. The seller was never aware that he was watching a bit of vaudeville and, I must say, my father could be quite imaginative and entertaining and all this with a straight face. When he had exhausted his repertoire and felt that the seller had been properly distracted, my father would come back to the 'split-the-difference' price as though it were the original asking price and, once again, offer to split the difference. Usually, the seller went for it, having forgotten how we started or in what manner we had arrived at this juncture, and we had a deal. Likely, he just wanted to be done with the whole episode and get us out of his life.

At this point, having successfully negotiated out all the repair costs and having split the difference twice, my father would turn to me for the finishing touch by asking me, "Do you think 'Corky' will be okay with this?" One day I wasn't particularly happy to be playing my part (probably because it was the third car he had bought that day and we were off in Irvine or some other equally distant locale), and I answered him by asking, "Who is 'Corky'?"

You should have seen the look on his face!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Adding a little 'business' to The Matriarch


I am working with Judy Go Wong writing a one-woman show (The Matriarch) for her. Since we live in different time zones, our collaboration has been taking place on the Internet via Skype. Here, we are working on a little 'business' with props--in this case her bracelets--as she addresses her extended family via a video that will come as a very unpleasant shock to them. Her preoccupation with the jewelry is meant to convey her disdain for the family members that may be watching her missive.