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 and Danish in Out of Africa. 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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Marilynn Wales, Rest in Peace

Marilynn Wales passed away on Tuesday, September 16.

Marilynn and her husband Gary Wales had been friends of mine since I first met them back in 1967 when they invited me to their home for dinner. The dinner almost didn't take place as I parked the Lusso at the curb and went to the Wales' front door and knocked. I'll pause here for the laughter to subside from all those who have been to their house.

Somehow, I made it inside and we spent an enjoyable evening; a teenager, a stock broker and his wife who shared a passion for interesting cars and uncommon people. Over the years, we spent a lot of time together and there seemed to be one adventure after the other with no let up in the enthusiasm we all had for our chosen interests. Marilynn was a perfect match, not just for Gary but for his friends and lifestyle as well. In all the time I've known them, I never had the sense that Marilynn was anything less than a fully-committed car enthusiast and Gary's unrepentant co-conspirator in life. I was quite fond of her and the thought of Marilynn has always put a smile on my face.

To think of Gary is to think of Marilynn as, to me, they are inseparable. Together, they have provided me a lifetime of memories--and then some...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My "French Connection" Lincoln Mk III

The other day, I was asked how many cars I've owned and the answer was 'too many to count'. Best known for my adventures with Ferraris, my first car was a series 1 Jaguar E-Type coupe and I've enjoyed other Jaguars over the years as well including a Mk IX sedan I acquired from my friend Gary Wales and a few XJ6 sedans that I thoroughly enjoyed. The Mercedes 450SEL I drove impressed me as being bullet-proof and very comfortable for the long, high-speed rides into the desert where I was shooting one film or another and the air conditioning kept me ice cold regardless of the 100+ temperatures the desert was inflicting upon us.

I bought a lot of cars overseas beginning when I was 16 or 17 buying older Bentleys in London and Maseratis in Milano. Traveling to places like Bromley, Surrey or Southampton and one especially memorable drive to Parma in Italy with Tom Meade to purchase a couple of Maserati Mistrals made the acquiring of these cars as exciting to me as owning them. It seemed that each transaction had a story to go with it that gave pleasure long after the car had passed to another. Also part of the package was driving these cars before they were picked up by the shippers--the Bentleys taking me around London in the 'Swinging 60s' and the Maseratis guiding me through what remained of Italian Neorealism in Milano.

I sold a few cars that required a particular sort of buyer or, to quote my father, "What you need for this one is a sap!" he would say without treading too heavily on the fact that I was the sap who bought it for resale. One of these was a terrible Chevrolet Corvair that, if memory serves, still had a bit of compression in one of its cylinders. In the morning when the engine was cold, you could hear gusts of wind escaping from the chambers as the engine cranked over and it was futile to think that the spark plugs would generate enough heat to cause the metal to expand sufficiently to seal the heads and the block. I was able to find a happy buyer for this amazing machine when I experienced a confluence of good luck.

The first bit of luck was that I discovered an aerosol spray at the auto parts store that was so explosive you couldn't use it within miles of a house that had central heating. This product one would spray into the carburetors standing as far back as my arm length would allow while my father would crank the engine over from the relative safety of the driver's seat. If you have ever seen the jumbo size of Aqua Net hairspray (available in gas station mini-marts everywhere) you have an idea about the size of the can I was using. Early morning starts usually required three of these. The gentleman who showed up at eight o'clock one morning as I was attempting to fire up the engine from cold was as impeccably dressed as any I had ever seen in Los Angeles and had uncommonly fine manners in addition. Also, he was drunk, which I count as my second bit of luck. He sat good-naturedly on a nearby fire hydrant as my father and I continued to crank our way through the second and third aerosol bottles of Ka-Boom or whatever it was called wondering if we would run out of the spray or battery power before the engine started.

I had parked the car at the top of a hill to facilitate the car's first morning steps, so to speak, believing as I did that the car would have to journey a ways before level ground should be attempted and especially eschewing anything that could be seen as an incline. My new found gentleman friend was delighted by the car and was soon pressing cash into my hand. I counted it and gave him back his change as he had overpaid in his excitement. It was then that he said he was buying the car for his ex-girlfriend; an astonishing admission that brought the proceedings to a halt. This really isn't the sort of car one buys for an ex-girlfriend, I told him. It was one thing for him to buy the car for himself after witnessing the morning start-up ritual but to pawn it of on a woman for whom he had cared was quite another. The more I tried to dissuade him, the more insistent he became about buying the car and, in the end, we concluded the transaction, which brings us to the third bit of luck. I don't think he was ever able to remember where he had purchased the car.

As a buyer, however, the most interesting purchase for me was when I bought a 1971 Lincoln Continental Mk III. I had wanted one ever since seeing William Friedkin's film The French Connection in which one is featured. By 1989, I finally decided to see if I could find one knowing that the odds were against me locating one that was in 'as new' condition and I wasn't wanting a car that needed a restoration or that had been poorly restored. When I found an ad for an example that sounded like what I wanted, I called and received the strangest phone interview I've ever received or given during a car purchase. "Why do you want a Mk III?" "What kinds of cars have you owned?" "How will you be using the car?" "Do you hand wash your cars?" I had the feeling that I was adopting a child rather than buying a car but I began to have an understanding of the seller. I asked him if I could come look at the car. He told me he would think about it and call me back. The next day, he did and I was given directions to his home.

I arrived to discover that this man kept his Mk III in a carpeted garage; the other family cars were relegated to the outdoors. There was nary a scratch on any of the paint or bright-work and the black leather interior was flawless. This car looked as though it had just been driven home from the Lincoln dealership! The mileage on the car was negligible given its eighteen years. He offered me the service history worksheets and receipts for inspection. I knew I would never find such a Mk III anywhere else. I had absolutely no leverage on this transaction whatsoever. What are you asking, was all I could say. I wanted this car. He looked at me and said, "I don't know." He promised to call me after he had thought it over and I left more than a little perplexed.

Later that day, the man called me and quoted a price that was about a third of what I had been expecting. I was flabbergasted. "I wasn't really going to sell the car," he told me "but I'll sell it to you because you are the right person for this car." I didn't question him on his reasoning or motives but I got over to his house in Woodland Hills just as fast as I could with cash. It was an unusual transaction, to say the least, and I realized how lucky I was to experience another transcending confluence of luck in an extraordinary automotive experience.

I believe I was the right person for that Mk III but I must admit that I'm glad the seller never saw his car on the poster of my film Dead Right in which the car was featured. Seen, as it is, on the dusty dry lake bed of El Mirage, the poor man would no doubt have suffered a heart attack.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The 'Audition Set' and how to do a cold reading


I created the 'Audition Set' protocol because, very often, an actor does not get to see the sides until he or she is in the room reading the scene as a cold reading. I wanted as much of the audition performance to be set, rehearsed and perfected even if the actor has yet to see the dialogue.

Therefore, what we create is four responsive reactions from the Action/ReAction technique that help define and demonstrate the actor and his or her brand that can be blended into any scene regardless of the dialogue. To underscore this point, I changed the dialogue sequence in this video creating different scenes but with the same series of pre-rehearsed reactions.  The dialogue and emotional reactions create a different 'back-story' each time and provide nuance and something unexpected in each performance that Maddie Howard delivers in this exercise video.

I create an 'Audition Set' tailored to the brand signature of each actor with whom I work via Skype. No two are the same and they are designed to highlight that which is special about the actor.