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Eric: Hi I’m Eric Connor senior instructor at New York Film Academy and in this episode, we bring you a legend in the film industry the Oscar-nominated producer, Frank Marshall.

— The difference between the producer and the director is the producer asks the questions on the director as an answer and there are a thousand everyday at least.

I promise that if you love films you love his work. If you doubt me check out his IMDb page. The Warriors, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Gremlins, Seabiscuit, Benjamin Button and over a hundred other movies that helped shape modern cinema.

— I see dead people. They’re everywhere

Are you telling me that you built a time machine out of a Delorean?!

I’m setting booty traps! – You mean booby traps. – That’s what I said booty traps.

Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

Great scott! 1.21 gigawatts!

Goonies never say die.

I’m not bad I’m just drawn that way.

We’re sending you back to the future.

Hey you guys —

Eric: Before his multiple Oscar nominations and his movies made billions of dollars. He began his career as a location manager where he never lost sight of the two most important parts of any movie: the director’s vision and the story.

Frank Marshall: I don’t think there’s any magic way to get there. You just do it. I actually was the location manager after her several movies but the key for me was I was working with the director and the production designer and I was understanding what they needed creatively what the vision of the movie was and I was learning the production side because I was working in production but I was also understanding as a location manager, I learned quickly not to show the director something I couldn’t get. Something that was fabulous and he’d say okay get it and then you go and you couldn’t get it. So I’d make sure that I could get it first and then I would show the director the location. But I also understood that if he found something that he liked and said we got to have that and then I found out we couldn’t get it I would then present them with an option that was equally helpful to the story. “I understood why we were having this one but how about this one? I know it’s a little different but I think it still works for the story.” So I guess when I look back I’ve always been driven by the story and what-what the story of the movie is and what the vision of the director is and there are things that you learn as you know simple things like don’t pick a location that’s right next to an airport, you know? Or something that’s far away from a place you can put the crew to have lunch, or – oh! I remember What’s Up Doc? 150 years ago. We were in the center of San Francisco and I had forgotten to find a place for lunch and I went to a school and I got permission to put our tables inside the schoolyard. It was on a Saturday and the school was locked. Somehow we got in and then we signed the papers later. But that’s what I love about making movies as you’re constantly solving problems or challenges. But it’s that balance of you’re not only solving problems, you’re also creating something and that’s what is exciting. When I get to sit here and see that shot of that boat and know that it was the second time we went there – the first time we only have one day and it rained. And it was a big problem and we had to go back four weeks later talking to the studio and who are saying the shot’s good enough. And my director saying, “no, it’s the last shot of the movie and it needs to be sunny and it wasn’t sunny.” And it’s the audience – has you know,  – all the creative arguments against the monetary financial arguments. It’s a give and take. And what battles do you fight for the director? You know that was one last shot of the movie. If it had happened earlier in that sequence back of the dock or something I wouldn’t have fought for it but it was the last shot in the movie. I understood why it needed to be that way and I was able to convince the studio that it was the right thing to do.

Eric: Mr. Marshall prides himself on a strong work ethic and doing the best work possible no matter the job. Years ago this caught the attention of a young up and coming filmmaker named Steven Spielberg.

Frank Marshall:  I think what I’ve learned most and I’ll tell you a little story of how I learned it, it’s always do your best no matter what you’re doing. Are you making the coffee? Make the best coffee. If you’re collating the pages of a script don’t put them out of order. I was doing a picture, I was an associate producer of a movie called Daisy Miller in 1972, Peter Bogdanovich. We were shooting in a little studio in Rome and I got a call on the set. There was a publicity fellow and he was a bit homesick and he said he wanted to see some Americans working and could he come by. I said sure absolutely. And it was Steven. And Steven was – Duel was being released. Duel, which is his famous TV movie with Dennis Weaver. So the next day we always had lunch in the cafeteria there. And I always had a bowl of pasta at the end of the table. And so Steven and this fellow Jerry came by and they were sitting there eating and I came up and I asked Peter a question and I said, “Oh! Nice to meet you.” And I went down, I had two bites of pasta and I went back to the set and Verna Fields later told me that Steven turned to her and said that’s the kind of guy I need. A guy who’s more interested in the next shot than lunch. Five years later when Steven was sitting on the beach in Hawaii the infamous story with George Lucas and they were talking about   and George said, “Who do you want to get to produce this movie?” Steven said, “let’s see if we can find that guy, Frank Marshall.” So you-you never know who’s looking or where they’re going to go, or what’s going to happen. And I got that call you know, the-the one I always remember from George’s office saying, “are you that Frank Marshall that worked with Peter Bogdanovich?” And they said, “could you come for a meeting?” I said, “Well, let me check my schedule.”

Eric: This began a decades-long collaboration which spawned dozens of Hollywood’s greatest movies. It also led to his meeting future CEO of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, the woman behind all the latest Star Wars films. She actually started out as Spielberg’s assistant when she met Frank Marshall and the two of them quickly joined forces as producers, not to mention they’ve also been married for 30 years. Decades after Mr. Spielberg indirectly played Cupid he continues to collaborate with Frank Marshall, most recently, on the Jurassic World franchise. Our moderator, Tova Laiter, asked Mr. Marshall what it’s like to work for cinema’s most famous storyteller.

Tova Laiter: Spielberg, what kind of a boss is he?

Frank Marshall:  Oh he’s incredible. I mean he’s so demanding it’s unbelievable. It’s really incredible. You know he just knows the craft so well that it’s sort of second nature to him to direct these movies. And he puts so much into it. And he’s ahead of you. And he knows so much that you’re trying to keep up with him all the time, you know. So it’s very exciting to be around him. We sort of grew up together so it’s kind of fun because people kind of go like that when I’ll say something to him that’s you know, sort of not appropriate but it’s-you’re like friends I mean we’ve known each 30 years now. Yeah I like to be outside. I like to be on the set. I like to shoot like these kinds of adventures. And you know I think for me as a director, I have to be incredibly passionate about the story. It’s really hard. I’m not like Steven. Steven can direct and produce nine other things same time. I can’t do that. If I’m directing and that’s where I am 24/7 in the tunnel. I’m not very fun to be around because I’m – maybe because I’m a producer too that I feel responsible for taking care of the production and using the money in a way that’s so productive. So I want to be prepared and I want to know because there’s a thousand questions a day. And the difference between the producer and the directors is the producer asks the questions and the director has an answer and there are a thousand every day at least. So I really need to be passionate about whatever story I’m telling as a director.

Eric: After working with Spielberg and several of Hollywood’s greatest Mr. Marshall has become adept at recognizing talented storytellers which led him to a little script that wound up being one of the biggest hits of his career, The Sixth Sense.

— I want to tell you my secret now. I see dead people. Do you ever feel the prickly things on the back of your neck? That’s them. When they get mad it gets cold. Please make them leave. —

Frank Marshall: I think the work kept me motivated. I loved making the movies and it became like my family and I love going to work every day. You know often I get asked well how do I get there. I don’t know. I tell a story about about a young man who-who lives in Philadelphia. He was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters his parents were doctors. The other brothers and sisters were doctors. He was the youngest he went to NYU to film school for a semester and dropped out because he wasn’t doing too well and he wanted to be a filmmaker and somehow his script landed on our desks. And that script was The Sixth Sense. And I don’t know how but the bottom line is he wrote a fantastic script in Philadelphia and somehow it got past this person and this person. And it came out here and there it was. And we read it and we bought it and the rest is history. So I don’t know how he did it but he did it and he you know he tried to go to film school but you know film schools give you a lot of things that you can’t get on the outside and one of them is, see a lot of movies, see a lot of old movies. You know there is a language that exists in filmmaking and sometimes you can break it. You got to know what it is before you can break it. So go look at the masters go look at Hawks and Ford and Welles and you know Renoir and study these movies and you’ll be amazed, you know. There is great things to learn in them and those movies should inspire you then to go do what you want to do.

Eric: Frank Marshall was so taken by M. Night Shyamalan screenplay that he risked going with the newer director, but he knew that the story would bring in the necessary talent. Spoiler alert! If miraculously you don’t know the ending of Sixth Sense, well, Frank Marshall is about to ruin it for you.

Frank Marshall: It’s one of the few spec scripts we’ve made. We usually make books and magazine articles but his script read like the movie you didn’t know Bruce Willis was dead until the last two pages. It was unbelievable! I’m reading, it’s really interesting, “Oh my God!” When the ring hits the floor in the script is when it hit in the movie. And he was very clever about that. So he had kept the secret all the way through somehow. It’s really if you get a chance you should look at the script and that’s when I knew who – “This is – this is great we’ve got to have this.” And there’s a little bit of luck there too and a little bit of history in that he had a poster of E.T. and a poster of Raiders on the wall in his office and our offer was lower than a couple of other people. But those two movies – he wanted to work with us. So we brought him out here and the studio said, “OK we’re going to give you 10 million dollars to make this movie. All in, everything.” And that was a lot of money for him because he had just made this little teeny movie, Wide Awake. And I said to Night, I said, “OK, well when you wrote this I bet you wrote this for somebody. And who’d you have in mind when you wrote it?” He said, “Well, Bruce Willis.” I said, “really?” And, “I know Bruce. Do you want Bruce?” – “Well I can’t get Bruce we only got 10 million.” I said, “well, there’s ways to do this. Let me call him.” So this is what a producer does. So Bruce was shooting Armageddon at Disney which was lucky for us and he had a deal at Disney. So I called his agent I said I got the script for Bruce and he loved it and then became the sort of dance about how do we get him in the movie. And he was nervous about a first time director and so he asked me to be on the set every day. And that was sort of his security blanket. So he said yes, and we got Bruce Willis and we got a little more money to make the script.

Eric: As good as the screenplay was. It needed a test screening to really nail the landing and convince Disney they had a massive hit on their hands as long as the audiences kept its secret.

Frank Marshall: They still didn’t believe in the movie until we went to Woodland Hills. But the first Sixth Sense screening when that ring hit for the entire audience just turned to each other – “Oh my God! He’s dead. Oh god.” Yeah and there’s all this and they didn’t see the end of the movie at all. The whole end of the movie was completely lost. So Night was really upset. I said, “no, no, this is good. Let me tell you, this is a good reaction.” And I said to Night, “Well, what’s wrong?” – “Well, you know they’re not getting the catharsis of him letting her go.” – “OK. You’re right about that. So what do we do?” Night is very stubborn. And, “I just want to recut.” And so what he did, if you look at the movie again is – once the ring drops and there’s this realization that Bruce’s character is dead we cut back to three or four moments that are reminding the audience like when he goes to dinner and he sits down and nothing moves and she’s sitting there and you think he’s having a conversation with her and now you’re going, “oh look he’s dead there. Oh look!” And so you’re reminding the audience and giving them a chance to collect themselves before he then goes over and lets her go. So the value of previews. By the way you should always preview your movie. And the other great thing was the audience kept the secret. I don’t know if you guys remember but nobody told – they wanted their friends to go to the movie and have the same experience. A lot of people that, “I knew but I knew.” So it was really a great great experience.

Eric: Frank Marshall is no stranger to franchises, Back to the Future, Jurassic World, And of course Indiana Jones just to name a few. But bringing the Jason Bourne series to the big screen proved extremely challenging especially because they had an indie director at the helm.

Frank Marshall: The studio was pretty aware of Doug Liman coming in from a very very independent background he made two very small independent movies that were very good and coming onto this really big studio action driven movie on foreign locations in Paris and all these different places. And so they hired two producers. One more of a production nuts and bolts kind of line producer and then a creative producer. And at the last moment, the creative producer had to leave. They were already shooting they were shooting the scene, if you remember, on the boat in the water where Bourne is found floating in off the coast of Italy. They were already shooting and I got the call and they said, “would you like to go to Paris for six weeks?” I said, “sure!” And they had an apartment already and everything. So I read the script and I loved the script. Tony Gilroy wrote the script who as you know, did all of the movies wrote all of the movies and directed the last one. And so I went and the one thing that I can say is that if you’re coming from an independent background and you step up into the big leagues you have to then play by the big league rules. And that took Doug a long time to understand. He understands it now. He’s making these kind of movies now and he’s on budget and he’s doing fine. But he still had a bit of the rebel in him and he still thought that he could just grab his camera and put it in the trunk of his car and take his friends and go shoot, you know, – and it would be fine. But you can’t do that in Paris. You can’t take Matt Damon and Franka and go down in the subway and shoot. You-you will get arrested. That’s a simple example but it’s really about, you have to then take the talent that you have and the artistry that you have – and Doug really is responsible for creating this series. I mean it was his idea to go get the books. It was his idea to you know sort of update the character and you know there are all these stories. Brad Pitt was supposed to play Bourne for a while and then he went to do something else Matt was kind of a fallback guy. So there are all these – a lot of luck, there’s a lot of chance involved in these things. And then just what happened is we got off track and the story itself started to change. The script. Don’t change the script. Get your script right before you go to shoot. Big, big, big error that a lot of first time independent directors make because if you’re making a small budget movie you can be real flexible and there’s not a lot at stake. But if you shut down while you’re shooting on a big movie it costs a lot of money. And every day is very valuable so you want to know what you’re after.

Eric: Even when working on an action blockbuster like The Bourne series Frank Marshall still keeps his focus on what matters most. The story.

Frank Marshall: One of the things that we have tried to do in the series of movies is take on these kind of challenges and go to places nobody’s ever shot before. And there are not a lot left. But that makes that kind of fun. Manila was one of those, but we were there for six weeks with the main unit another three with the second unit. So we were there a long time and it’s a hard place to work. And they’re not used to shooting people shooting and closing down the streets and you know just having lunch becomes a big deal. You have all these extras and you know just myriads of people everywhere. It’s hard to control and there are a lot of stunts and we tried to do as many of them as we could without C.G. You know we have a couple of rules that we would like to say. One is, “no action without being driven by the story”. And also that it has to be real and it has to be believable. And I think that what happens in a lot of these movies when they get bigger than life you don’t believe you have fun they’re fun. But they’re bigger than life and you don’t feel the kind of grounded reality that you do in this series. It’s making filmmakers lazy because in the old days – a simple example is when you’re setting up a shot and it’s a period movie and there’s a modern building in it. You would have to accommodate it by sliding the camera or putting something in the way or you had to get a little creative. Now you just go, “we’ll paint it out,” and you it makes you not as inspired in things as you should be. I think so sometimes we get a little lazy.

Eric: A student asked Mr. Marshall to discuss his biggest mistake in his career. With all the amazing projects he’s been part of it’s always the one that got away.

Frank Marshall: The biggest mistake, wow. You know I’m always a positive thinker. So I you know well maybe not sticking with The Lion Witch and The Wardrobe. We owned the option to The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe for seven years which was the length of the option and we couldn’t get it made mainly because it was too expensive every time we would do a budget. That world Narnia was too expensive. And so we abandoned the project in the 90s. And then two years later C.G. had really happened and all of that was possible. And so Kathy and I always look at that one and say, “that one. We miss that one.” And I think what I do now is I keep going. And where we have a perfect example of that we’re developing a project called Snow Crash. I don’t know if any of you know that book by Neal Stephenson. We’ve had that when we had lion witch and we didn’t give that one up and now it’s getting made. Joe Cornish is going to direct and he’s a really wonderful writer and director. So we’re getting that one up. So you know, we hung onto it. So that’s the lesson we learned.

Eric: One important message that Mr. Marshall wanted to convey to our students becoming a producer or director. It’s just one of the jobs on a film set. There’s still a lot of amazing work to go around.

Frank Marshall: I know you know everybody wants to be a director, writer, producer, actor but there are about 150 great jobs on a movie. You know there’s a person who spends a whole day just taking stills. That’s all they do. There’s the costume designer. There’s wardrobe people. There’s a guy who’s called “craft service.” You know don’t just try and hit that home run try and get on a movie. We’re all gypsies we’re a big family and there are really enjoyable careers to have. And you don’t have to have the big one. There’s a lot of ways to have a wonderful career, and artistic and really rewarding career and other departments than the above the line one. So volunteer to go on commercials and little shoots and things and get experience because that’s where you learn what not to do. That’s where you learn about you know, what you can do and what you can’t do and how a movie gets made. The more practical experience you have a movie or shooting your own film – that’s when you learn that there’s screen direction. You know when you’re making your own film you say oh those people look like they’re not talking to each other. They’re both looking away. Well, you shot that one wrong. So that’s how you find that out. So do a lot of experimenting. You know everybody can shoot on your phone now and cut it together. So do that.

Eric: I’ve always been a massive fan of Frank Marshall’s work. I actually tried to count how many of his films I’ve seen and I lost track around 60 to hear him speak with such humility about his career made me even more impressed. So thank you to Mr. Marshall for speaking to our students. And of course thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As go to our youtube channel. YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner, edited and Mixed by Kristian Hayden our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See next time.

One final note Frank Marshall would be proud to know that this entire episode was done without any CGI. And I even did all of my own stunts.

 

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you Cindy Williams the star of the famed sitcom Laverne and Shirley

— and she’d say, “do know your lines?” and I go, “No.” Do you know yours?” She said, “No.” And so, “action!” And we’d just go out.–

Eric: She also acted for two of the best directors of all time on two of the best films of the 70s. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. And George Lucas’ American Graffiti if that’s not enough for you. She even helped produce the remake of Father of the Bride starring Steve Martin.

— I’m quitting Mr. Slotnik I’m the brains behind that basket.

I’m telling you it’s a jungle out there. We oughta take a cage and just put it around this place. These people are ugly!

Those hills do not make her perky they make her junky!

Boy, you just stepped straight off the bus right into filth town didn’t you?

I don’t approve of this hitting I find it inhuman and only mildly exciting —

Eric: Ms Williams actually got her start the same way most actors do, by performing for her family.

Cindy Williams: I always could mimic. My grandma was the first one on the block when we lived in Texas to get a television and I was mesmerized by it. And I would watch anything and everything and I would mimic commercials like Lucky Strike commercials. They had a girl dancing you didn’t see – you just saw her legs and arms and there was a hat on top of a lucky strike box and she danced and they sing the little commercial song. And I would sing the song and mimic. And I always put on with my sister shows in the garage. I’m sure all you guys did things like that or made little movies. So, I always had a love for it but I never ever thought of it seriously as oh this is going to be my career this is going to be my life. I wanted to be an E.R. nurse actually but I didn’t have the academic wherewithal. I was a C student all the way through school because I’m dyslexic. And in my drama class was this wonderful actress and her name was Sally Field. And at 15 she was brilliant. And so I did plays that Sally and I were in and we’d do A cast B cast because there were too many students to put you know so you do two performances. I was always B cast and she was always A cast. And A cast got to do like four performances and B cast, three.

So a lot of the students who were in the class were going to this wonderful school called Los Angeles City College which has an incredible theater arts department and I thought, “OK I’ll go there.” And so I did. And very tough curriculum. In fact during orientation day one of the professors said there are two hundred thirty six of you here today. By the end of two and a half years there will be 12 of you. And that’s how they weeded people out. I mean you-you were tardy three times out! You didn’t get your – you didn’t have your scene work done out, goodbye, gone! But they did incredible theater, incredible productions. So that was a big deal. But by the time we finished there I just garnered incredible love for theater. I love being on stage but I thought I was going to go on to teach except one day I was in a class and professor and we were in the main theater and the stage was there and the curtains and we were sitting in the you know in the seats in the auditorium. And he was talking about theater being bigger than life and up to this point I had thought you know, I’ll go and I’ll get my B.A. and I’ll teach theater. And then I had this vision of myself, my students rehearsing the production and me walking down the center aisle crawling up onto the apron pushing them all out of the way and saying, “Let me show you how to do this.” And I thought I could never teach I could never ever teach because I love doing it. And so that was the end of my of my teaching career.

Eric: For everything that Ms. Williams learned in school, there were still two things that she was not taught: the intricacies of breaking into the film industry and that sometimes you need a bit of luck.

Cindy Williams: In Los Angeles City College. They do not teach you. You know they put you out the back door and they did not prepare you for film. They didn’t prepare you how to get an agent, or how to even work. They prepared you to go and audition for regional theater or Broadway. And that was it. And so you just live on your youthful enthusiasm knowing you can do it and so that was kind of it. And I also thought well lightening better strike because I don’t know what I’m doing so I just went on this journey. But you have youthful optimism and you know you feel as though the world -it’s all in front of you. And it is. Believe me. And there’s nothing you can’t do. And I felt that way. And you know you get knocked down to the ground you just pick yourself up dust yourself off, start all over again. And that’s kind of how that aspect of my life played itself out. And as far as getting a job I had this roommate she was in this program for AFI. It was called young filmmakers or something. And I was waiting tables and she said, “hey Cindy, you know maybe you could go and get in this program.” So I went there and I met with them and they said, “you know, this is really a program for filmmakers and you’re an actress.” And I said, “yes, but you know I think I could write, and I could direct, and put myself in it.” Snd they said, “no, no, this isn’t for you what we have.” And this is how things work. You’re just – one day something’s plopped down in your lap – and it’s just that magical thing. And so they said, “we’re going to set up an interview for you.” These two men are starting a management company and the names were Fred Roos and Garry Marshall. And so I went to meet them. And I remember Garry said to Fred Roos who produced the Godfather and many many many other things he said. “I like her she’s like a pudgy Barbara Harris.” And I loved Barbara Harris! So I took it as a great compliment. And so then it sort of spun from there.

Eric: It didn’t take long before Ms Williams found herself working for the likes of Coppola and Lucas. And there was one time she even had to put in a good word to help none other than Harrison Ford land the role that made him a star.

Cindy Williams: Harrison Ford in American Graffiti made four hundred dollars a week for four weeks and he was working as a carpenter and that’s a real success story. And for Han Solo, we begged George to cast him. Because he was such a bad boy on American Graffiti that George was a little reluctant about Harry because he just, you know – I screen tested for it. It was miserable because it was all looking to the right of the camera. That’s what George said. He said, “you’re looking at the universe. You’re steering the ship.” I go, “the ship. OK where’s the wheel?” And it was like all this dialogue about you know, galactic dialogue. And nobody could get it. And George is not exactly a people person. I believe if George could have robots playing, you know, and I think he’s discussed this with Steven Spielberg actually, and he’s very shy and retiring and his genius is all in his whole perception of what he wants on screen. And so you can say, “you know can I try it this way? – Absolutely”! Like the scene in American Graffiti where Ron and I had to make out and go and and we were both so nervous. And I said, “George, how about if we just go out of camera down onto the seat?” and he said, “Yeah.” And that’s how we did it. But George will never tell you anything. It was a joke which Ron and myself we’d say, “George, how was it?” And he’d say, “terrific!” And if you ever ask Ron Howard what George Lucas says the most, it’s “terrific, terrific.”

Eric: Despite being frequent collaborators. Ms Williams explained that George Lucas’s directing style was vastly different from Francis Ford Coppola’s

Cindy Williams: Francis is your quintessential director and he’s operatic. you know. I mean. you know. you’re in a movie with Francis and he loves actors loves them and admires them reveres them and he’s so intelligent. He’ll ask his actors what they think of this scene for the conversation he said, “Who do you think did it?” And all of us said, “you haven’t written the end yet?” and he goes, “No, I haven’t.” And we said, “Holy crap!” But he is just so much bigger than life. He’s like – I don’t know – somebody like Michelangelo or somebody. He’s just a great great artist and he will direct you. And I had this tough thing he asked me to do in the conversation. And I said, “I don’t know how to do this.” And it was a turn. He wanted me to turn and look at Gene Hackman with a look of “if you come toward me any closer I’ll disappear into this fog and you’ll never find me.” And I thought, “OK how do I?” It goes back to interpreting that through your body. And I said, “Francis I don’t know how to do this. I just don’t know.” And he thought for a minute and he said, “when he’s chasing you take every step except the last one. And then when you take the last step turn to him.” And that body movement propelled me into that look. It just gave that indication of “I will be gone if you come any closer to me.” And he just turned it like that. And the other thing he did in the beginning of the conversation – it’s the scene in Union Square. He went to each and every one of them and took them aside and gave them each characters to play. And that’s why when you see the opening of this movie it is so rich. And that’s how he is he just rich with just creation.

Eric: Even though she was working on some incredible projects, Ms Williams felt limited by the best friend role that she kept getting. A trend which finally changed when she was cast as Shirley.

Cindy Williams: I was always cast, in the beginning, as a lead’s best friend. “Oh, don’t worry Monica. Johnny’ll be coming back to ya. You’ll see.” And it was always stuff like that and I never got to play comedy which I loved and like in American Graffiti I said, “Oh please Fred, this girl cries the entire time. There’s no fun. I want to play Debbie, the bad girl.” And he said, “already cast” and I said, “Well then, what about Carol?” He said, “The 12-year-old?” And I said, “I could put braces on my teeth.” He said, “I’m actually casting a 12-year-old in that part.” So I know I could do physical comedy. I knew I could do comedy and I wanted to play it so badly. I mean we did the Imaginary Invalid in college but that’s not really comedy. It’s like restoration humor. But no, I never got to. And even when we did Laverne and Shirley I had to beg Garry because he let me do humor but he kept saying, “No, you’re a nice one, you’re the solid one. You know, you have your head screwed on straight. You keep Laverne, you know, steady.” And I said, “Yeah but you know that physical comedy, I can do that.” And he wouldn’t let me do it; wouldn’t let me do it. And finally I must have dogged him so much that he said, “all right I’m going to write you something. We’ll see how you do and that’ll be the measuring point.” So he wrote me this little thing where we’re cleaning house. I believe that’s it. And she gets the vacuum cleaner stuck on her mouth and she can’t – and I come to the room and it was just written, “Shirley gets vacuum cleaner off of Laverne’s mouth.” So he just wanted to see what I ‘d invent to get it off of her mouth and I think I finally just put my foot up to her chest and pulled then he started writing physical comedy for me. Yeah, so, Laverne and Shirley was just such a blessing for me.

Eric: Though we’re in a golden age of television right now. TV used to be viewed as a step down from the glamour of film. So Ms Williams was initially unsure about taking a TV role even after she was offered a part in the original Charlie’s Angels.

Cindy Williams: This sounds silly but I never even thought about television – well before – before Laverne and Shirley I was offered Charlie’s Angels the part they wanted me to play was – I remember there was this one scene where the character rides to a vineyard on a horse and shoots a guy and it was the most ridiculous thing in the world to me. I mean I’m very bad at reading scripts and you know seeing their potential I just am. And I said oh I could never do that so I turned it down. And the next thing was Laverne and Shirley after, after that. But I mean could I have done that? I guess I could have, you know? But it wasn’t my cup of tea. But also the dramas on television, it’s serious. I mean it’s really well done and it’s done like film. The creative aspect of it on all levels is just so superior to what we had. It’s so different than what it is now.

Eirc: When Ms Williams was cast in Laverne and Shirley she assumed it’d be easy to jump back into film. But it took a shot with the Fonz himself. Henry Winkler to realize that switching to television might be a one way street.

Cindy Williams:  When Laverne and Shirley came about and I had done films I thought well I’ll do this and then I’ll go back to films. And I think it was Henry Winkler or someone said to me you know, once you’re in this they don’t want to go and you’re constantly likened to that character. And I didn’t believe that. I thought I could trump that but I couldn’t. And I’m so blessed with what I have. I remember going in for a movie while I was doing Laverne and Shirley Warren Beatty was directing it. And I went in to meet him and he recognized me immediately said, “Oh no no no.” And that was when it hit me and he said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He said, “it’s just I can’t have a person as recognizable in the film.” And I said, “it’s OK it’s all right.” I went home I was so upset and he was so nice he called me and apologized. That’s when it hit me that it was for real that you in those days there was no crossing. Especially something as big as Laverne and Shirley.

Eric: Laverne and Shirley was quite modern by focusing on a friendship between women. Yet it also harkened back to classic screwball comedy like I love Lucy and other famous sitcoms filmed live in front of a studio audience

Laverne and Shirley is filmed before a studio audience. —

Cindy Williams:  The way we did like Laverne and Shirley is – it was done like a little stage play but with cameras right. You did the three cameras and the camera’s between the audience and the stage. So you still had the feeling a proscenium but it was on film and you could be a lot bigger film is a whole other deal. I find it absolutely different than doing a sitcom. You go out and you say one line or they call you at 6:00 in the morning and you’re on camera during a crying scene at 7:00 in the morning. It’s a very very different ballgame. I never could figure it out. I couldn’t figure it out. I never did it long enough to learn the technique and it’s a totally different technique. And I’ve studied it on other actresses and actors and it’s about moves attitude but you have to keep yourself within the lens of the camera. It’s just a different play. Francis Coppola used to say that when he would bring his actors in onto the set he would have them go through the scene and he’d stand there with the DP because he said your actors will show you where the camera should go. And that is just so brilliant because the actors intuitively go to where their bodies send them.

Eric: Nowadays the vast majority of half-hour comedies are single cam shows like Modern Family and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. No studio audience, no laugh track. I said no laugh track. See! Better. But in the time of Laverne and Shirley, it was a very different story.

Cindy Williams:  We would get the script and we’d say, “Oh this isn’t going to work. This is thin here and it’s not funny doesn’t start off funny. It isn’t dynamic enough.” And so we just work on it and we work on it on our feet the first day maybe we try and block one seeing a scene that might have been full that might work. And then we come in the next day there’s new pages and you go through that and you see what they’ve changed and you add that into the mix and then because our show was very physical as was Happy Days we would walk it and try and just through body language and attitude and pacing just lift it just make it funny. And that would be the second day and then they come back on Wednesday and there’d be a new script and on Laverne and Shirley we always aim toward. There was always a big physical scene at the end so it was all moving toward that. And we blocked that and that was just that was so exhausting and so Penny and I would mark that and then there’d be a run through were you know everybody’s down there. And then on Thursday the camera crew would come in and they would be on wheels so they’d follow us around so because they had to learn the show. So that day was stop-and-go. And we’d still be creating and trying to make things you know funnier props funnier costumes funnier. And we tried to get it so that it would make us laugh out loud because we figured what we laughed at an audience would laugh out loud at. And then Friday you run through once, then you know scripts are out of your hand and you run through again. But we’d still get rewrites that was lik death-defying work. I mean sometimes I’d say to Penny, “if Jesus walked the earth he could make this work but he’d be the only one who could make this work.” And then sometimes we’d be standing behind the door before they yell, “Action!” And she’d say, “you know your lines?” And I go, “No. Do you know yours?” She said, “No.” And so, “Action!” And we just go out because it was so tiring and just so much stress but so gratifying and especially when you heard the audience react. It was just. And that’s the other thing in comedy you don’t know what the timing is going to be because you have to hope for the laughs and you have to you know keep the rhythm going. It was very different in those days. But it was so gratifying when that audience came in and they reacted the way you were hoping and praying they would react.

Eric: Part of what made Laverne and Shirley such a successful and beloved sitcom was how Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall fully owned the roles they played.

Cindy Williams:  The actual act of acting. It’s every element of your being interpreting filtering the words in the script through all your elements and assigning certain feelings you have that you feel are correct to that character and then you have to forget about it. You’ve done all the work and then you go out there and you play it and you own it. But it’s going through you it’s your interpretation of it you put it all together and that’s the character I mean because you’re given the map and you just interpret that map. It’s going to be individual for everybody. How they go about it and you can study people and see how they go about it. Like Meryl Streep – the first movie she was ever in I remember critics saying, “watch this little move this wonderful actress.” She only has three lines and she did this little thing before she said the line where she adjusts a brooch and I said, “whoa! She added that. She flavored it with that.” So it’s also a little bit of your own flavoring and so – it’s just a myriad of things.

Eric: Similar to Penny Marshall who went on to direct films like Big, Awakenings. Cindy Williams also expanded her career behind the camera.

Cindy Williams:  You know I took time off had my children but I produced, well I got co-producer credit on Father of the Bride. And the way that came about was I my son woke me up one morning he was three years old and he wanted to go downstairs and play. So I took him downstairs to the den and Turner Classic Movies had just started. And Father of the Bride was on with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. I loved that movie as a kid and I thought this is like a big old sitcom and there’s something for everybody. What about an updated remake with Jack Nicholson? And so it evolved and it became Steve Martin, brilliant in it. And it turned out to be this marvelous marvelous remake. And I was just so fortunate. But when you get an idea and you know that it’s something special you can feel it your body will tell you everything will tell you and you got to just follow that instinct because you’re your own litmus paper for that. You’ve got follow that instinct. When you get an idea and it takes your breath away it’s correct.

Eric: Despite being on a hit TV show and acting for Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas one of Ms Williams favorite roles was when she returned to her first love the stage.

Cindy Williams:  Being on Broadway and doing The Drowsy Chaperone and I don’t know if any of you have seen it but it’s a marvelous musical about musicals and theater. And just getting to run on stage, and when the orchestra came, it was just I’m getting goosebumps right now. It was just thrilling. And I was the first character onstage except for the narrator in the beginning and then he says, “Don’t you love theater?” That’s how it begins. And it is a marvelous musical. So don’t – you just love it. Sitting there in the dark and wondering when the lights are going to come up. Anyway, it’s this marvelous monologue before the lights come up and when the lights I got to play the character of when the lights came up and that and the music starts I run on stage and that for me. Of course, the show was canceled three weeks into my run of the show. But I call that my three weeks on Broadway. But those were the most thrilling moments onstage for me.

Eric: And part of what still makes the stage so thrilling for her is that sometimes it can go so wrong.

Cindy Williams:  You know that’s happened to me where I’ve gone up on stage more times than I’d like to admit to. But you’ve got to stay in the play. I’ve watched myself on Laverne and Shirley where I’m like drifting off. And I’m like not in it – I’m just not present and I don’t know why. I was tired or something but I caught myself a few times. So you just have to make that note you’re here listen to what’s going on even if you’re standing back or you’re sitting back peeling an apple while the scenes going on. Listen to what’s going on and you’ve got to stay present there. I’m talking to myself here too giving myself some notes right now. I once actually I had this play and I cut to the end. I only had 10 days rehearsal we were doing it was Jo Anne Worley and myself and we were doing female odd couple to try and save this theater and we had like nine days rehearsal. And there were two lines that were similar at the end of two of the scenes and one was in the third scene and one was at the end of the play and I just I started the speech she gave me the line and I’m still to this day not sure if she didn’t say the wrong line. But anyway I found myself going into the monologue for the end of the play but I wasn’t aware of it and I thought this is going well and she’s supposed to exit. And I said, “and don’t come back!” And she turns, Jo Anne Worley turns in the wings and she goes, “don’t you want to ask me about dating men?” And I go, “oh my god! Yes! yes I do.” And then I like my mind rolled back and I improvised for a while and then we got back on script. But now we had done the end of the play. So when I go off stage the stage manager, gosh it was like noise is off he said, “oh my god. Jo Anne says he wants to know what you want to cut to when we come-?” And somehow some way and we got through it – and it was Neil Simon and I felt awful. I mean he wasn’t there, thank god, but I’m sure he heard about it – but oh my god. Talk about sweating through your suit jacket. I was mortified but you can’t be – I mean you know, I had to finish the play and we did.

Eric: When asked about the best advice for a new performer Ms Williams’ answer was simple direct and profound

Cindy Williams:  Pursue it. You know. I mean pursue it and and think outside the box and you’ve got to put your rhinoceros skin suit on. I had a publicist tell me this. You know it’s like not being invited to a party most of the time. You can’t take it personally although we all do. Because you-you know you’ve opened yourself up to these people and then you know you don’t get the part but you just have to pick yourself up dust yourself off and start all over again and and be done with that day and it’s on to the next and the next thing will happen. And you have to keep that attitude but you just keep pursuing it don’t take any prisoners don’t take no for an answer. Just keep going and always think outside the box. Like if there’s an audition that you might not be able to get in on. You can figure out a way to get in there. You’ve heard all those stories about people going after a part. Also keep studying keep. Keep doing like, scene work and what you’re doing here.

Eric: Keep doing your thing and things can happen to learn more about Cindy Williams’ storied career pick up her book, “Shirley, I Jest!” We want to thank Ms Williams for speaking to our students and we want to thank all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Lyter and co-moderated with Lynda Goodfriend. If you’d like to watch the full interview you can find it on our YouTube channel at youTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about her programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen see you next time. And now the theme to Laverne and Shirley as read by me Eric Conner: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 schlemiel shemozzle Hossen Pfeffer incorporated. We’re going to do it. Give us any chance we’ll take it. Read us any rule, we’ll break it. We’re going to make our dreams come true. Doing it our way.

— Who is the most underrated actor of all time? It’s Dolph Lundgren – Correct. Why? – Well because of his spiky hair and his ice-cold demeanor and his big muscles. – Absolutely.

If you don’t want that fu manchu knocked back into the 60s you better keep your gum chewing trap shut and show some respect.

I’m gonna hit you very very hard.

Our only hope of defeating Skelletor is to find the cosmic key.

Are you out of your mind? – No, just out of bullets.–

Eric:  Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And this episode we’ve got the man who killed Apollo Creed. Dolph Lundgren. Now if you couldn’t tell already I’m a bit of a geek. The kind of geek that would go to let’s say the new Beverley’s Dolph Lundgren Film Festival which was a glorious 10 hour road trip down 80s memory lane Red Scorpion, Rocky IV, The Punisher, Universal Soldier, Dolph Lundgren’s the rare action star who’s as comfortable throwing a punch as he is a joke. But before he burst on the scene Mr. Lundgren moved to America for his brains and not his brawn.

Dolph Lundgren: I studied chemical engineering and school my dad was an engineer and my older brother’s an engineer I came to America under various scholarships to study engineering and chemistry and I ended up getting a Fulbright scholarship to MIT which is a great school in Boston. I was fighting. I was a karate fighter as well an amateur fighter. So that was my goal to come here graduate from MIT get a business degree and be the president of Exxon you know and something like that. But things didn’t really turn out that way. Then I went back to Sweden studied there for a couple of years did my military service went to Australia on another scholarship in Australia I met this girl this singer Grace Jones who was like a big deal in those days. We kind of fell in love and I came over to hang with her in New York ran into a few characters like Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson a few guys like that and back in the 80s Studio 54 the back room studio. I’ve been there. Interesting for a young Swedish kid and somewhere along the way I decided to start doing modeling to get a visa and then somebody said hey man you know you can do movies you can fight. You know you’re a big guy. So I started studying acting and when I did my first scene I realized wow this is really cool. I like this there’s something here that I haven’t done before because I’d been intellectual and I’d been physical but I’ve never really been emotional.

Eric: After appearing in a few films Mr. Lundgren audition for the role that would change his career. Ivan Drago the seemingly invincible Russian boxer from Rocky IV the problem was he looked a little too invincible.

Dolph Lundgren: Within about nine months I was up for a bunch of different movies and some of them were kind of dramatic roles or small roles but more dramatic and then there was this boxing movie that I went up for I didn’t know what it was. And I came up to a woman who sat at the table and she says, “ok, next! How tall are you?” And I say, “6’4” – “too tall! Next!” And I was like, “wait a second!” And I saw the poster Rocky IV, and I thought, “I got to do something about this.” And I took some pictures in boxing gear and sent them to somebody who my acting coach told me he said he knew somebody. He knew Burt Young and Burt Young was going to give the pictures to Sly. Well, nothing happened. Six months later I gave up on the whole thing and I was in Europe. Grace was working on a picture – a Bond movie actually and I was hanging out with her, with Christopher Walken. He was, he was the bad guy and she was the bad girl. So I was a bit jealous because they had like a love scene or something. And anyway – so I got a call from somebody some PA you know, like, “thank god I’ve found you! I’ve been looking for you for months! You know, we couldn’t find you. Because we had this picture!” and turned out that finally, Stallone got the photos. And they flew me out here to California from New York and I hopped in a cab here and LAX.

And I remember driving to Paramount because that’s where Stallone had his offices and I came in there and met Sly Stallone he had long hair very tanned because he was doing one of the Rambo pictures and he was a little shorter than I thought you know I was like “hm, OK.”

But you know he was really nice to me.

He had all these binders like everywhere black binders he’s all, “I got five thousand guys up for this role…” and says, “You gotta put on some weight.” Anyway we took some pictures and and you know I had to audition for it and six months later you know I had the part.

Eric: Mr. Lundgren nailed his audition mostly by doing the exact opposite of everyone else auditioning.

Dolph Lundgren: I was in great shape because I was I was European karate champion a heavyweight champion actually so I was pretty good fighter but I was quite thin. Here and had big legs from all those kicks. And then I had to get in shape for the screen test. They flew me to L.A. here. Some guy in a pickup truck picked me up and I had to audition. You know I was going deliver a monologue that I had practiced in New York. It was yeah they used it in one of the trailers it started –

— My name is Drago I’m a fighter for the Soviet Union. I’m a fighter from the Soviet Union. I fight all my life and I never lose. Soon I fight Rocky Balboa and the world will see his defeat. —

Dolph Lundgren: So I stay at the hotel you know and I was walking to the elevator to go back up. The doors open and there’s a 6 foot 5 blond guy looking at me. Excuse me some big Russian guy right. OK. Then I run into another big blonde guy I was like, “Oh s**t! OK.” Because I realized it wasn’t just me. It was three of us and I came to the studio and the sound stage empty sound stage just dolly tracked like this mark here we get changed into trunks, you know, bare-chested and there is about 50 people behind the camera: Sly, his bodyguards, guys in suits you know, a bunch of onlookers. And everybody’s looking at me and I’m like, “oh s**t here we go this is serious.” So I was last and the other two guys they kind of did a Russian Mr T, “I’m gonna kill you,” you know. And I decided to play him very cool like it was all internal you know no movements and I’d seen the Soviet cadets they always kept their chin up like this. So I did my screen test and went back to New York and then the next day I got a phone call, “Hey kid you get the part you know.” So that was it man. And then I trained with Stallone for five months so at the end of that year of hard training I was in such good shape like sly said you know, “you’re in such good shape you’ll never be able to get out of shape after this.” And he was he was kind of right you know it was hard work.

Twice a day we did weights for an hour in the morning and then we did boxing for two hours every afternoon six days a week five months. And if I was five minutes late he went nuts and I was driving you know, through L.A. traffic going “f**k!”You know, I was going out with Grace and she would come home at 5:00 in the morning you know with her entourage you know and I had to get up at like 5:15 you know so it was it was a tough time.

Eric: Mr. Lundgren even found inspiration for Drago in the works of Mary Shelley.

Dolph Lundgren: Drago is like kind of the Frankenstein myth created by the system the bad guys Dr. Frankenstein really the monster is just a creation right. So that’s that’s why it sort of resonates I think on that level. And I had this guy who helped me with the Russian accent and everything who was a Russian director. He gave me a lot of suggestions that I took you know because I was quite inexperienced as an actor I didn’t really know about playing second level and all that. But he was Stanislavski trained director so he had me play a lot of second level stuff because he meant that the character is so stoic what’s going on? What are you thinking about? What is Drago worrying about? And some of that comes across quite well on screen that he is feeling bad about what he’s having to do, but he does it anyway and he’s kind of embarrassed about certain situations, but that wasn’t in the script. That was something that I ended up playing. And I think in the editing and Stallone when he cut the picture he saw some of that and he brought it out. So it’s a combination of both. I think.

Eric: When Mr. Lundgren watches himself in Rocky IV he doesn’t see an unstoppable wrecking machine. He’s a young actor that he was completely overwhelmed by the spectacle of it all.

Dolph Lundgren: One of the strongest things was shooting in Vegas. When we did the thing with Apollo Creed you know it was actually a real MGM show and there were the dancers were there and they had the ring come up and that was very interesting to me because when I see the movie the look of shock and confusion in Ivan Drago’s eyes is the look of shock and confusion in my eyes when I was there and when I saw that and there was no acting required you know. And it kind of makes me look at my own self at that age and it’s kind of nostalgic and kind of in a very nice way you know how I was such a kid. I was such a baby you know when I was there.

Eric: Rocky IV came out in the middle of the Cold War and became the biggest hit of the franchise. Nobody was more surprised by the film success than Dolph Lundgren himself.

Dolph Lundgren: You know what was strange. There’s something called ADR you know you redo your dialogue because some of the lines aren’t clear or something. So I went in there and I expected to see some of the movie because I hadn’t seen anything. I mean there were no monitors in those days none of that. So I went in there and it was like a s**tty black and white copy and I saw some scenes and I was wow this is it. This is what I work my ass off for a year. Didn’t look very impressive. So I went home I was a little depress you know then I went into the premiere I was with grace and there was a marching bands and the whole thing you know and people were trying to get me out of the way to take pictures of her you know. “Could you please step out of the way ?”You know you’re in the way of my camera and then I went in there and I sat down and the screen came up and those boxing gloves. And then I sat there like this for an hour and a half lights came up everybody was applauding and everybody’s looking at me because I guess I was a new guy you know and they knew sly already and then it came out. Like you said and people are taking pictures of me instead of grace. And it was a weird it took me years I mean at least a year to get over it that first initial kind of shock. But it was an interesting period for sure.

Eric: In one week Mr. Lundgren went from being Grace Jones’s boyfriend to a full-blown movie star but becoming an overnight sensation also had a downside.

Dolph Lundgren: You know I wish in one way OK I can’t go back and change history and I got famous overnight for something I didn’t exactly really know what I was getting into. And I wish that I would have had broader education and been little more aware of the business and the various opportunities and the various positions and perhaps you know things that took me 20 years to accomplish or longer. I could have done maybe a couple of years if I had that education and the understanding because once you become. Valuable in the industry like once you’re box office and to stay put asses on seats. Right. If you could do that then the audience if you play priest you’re going to play another twenty-five priests you know in the next 25 movies. Or that’s what they want you to do. But maybe when you have a broader education like some guys after a couple of movies some actors they direct something or produce it and they do their own thing you know that I wish I would’ve had that opportunity.

Eric: And when asked what advice he’d give his younger self to weather the storm of celebrity. His answer was rather simple.

Dolph Lundgren: I would say get some therapy get therapy start meditating.

Make sure you have the best advisers. Make sure that you have a lot of inner calm and that you’re very secure in your self.

So you can have some resistance to that crazy world out there.

And I had some of that from martial arts but you know I got pulled along in many crazy directions because I didn’t I didn’t really have people to support me to speak to. You know I only had one or two people but I never had that really somebody to bounce things off like that. You know I started therapy by the way about four or five years ago. And now we say, “well acting is like therapy I don’t need any that’s bulls**t and I don’t need that.” But I realized therapy is great you know Marlon Brando started it you know back in the 50s you know because as an actor you have a lot of usually some emotional complexity and things but then in the business there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of times you beat yourself up over things that you really shouldn’t beat yourself up over that’s completely natural and by talking to somebody you know who knows you and who can give you good advice and you can bounce things off them it’s really valuable. It’s been great for me you know. So I think that and meditation I started doing that as well about four five years ago has also been great to keep some kind of time during the day just for yourself when it’s all about you. And it’s not about doing things it’s about being and in a crazy world you know that that’s a really valuable moment I think for anybody and that goes back to you in your acting as where.

You know when you’re facing the camera you don’t necessarily have to do so much all the time because you have the courage to be in just, just breathe and just look the other person in the eye and just be yourself you know.

Eric: When you watch Mr. Lundgren’s films you can see his years of martial arts training. However over 50 films later it has definitely taken a toll on his body.

Dolph Lundgren: It’s hard to do martial arts when you’re a big person because you have a lot of torque you know and you’re I mean I’m very supple anyway from it’s just natural but I’ve had some injuries lately that I have to do less training and as a matter of fact I’m having some stem cell injections now I’ve done you know 40 years of karate so and you know a lot of the crazy stuff in the movies no warm up three in the morning stretch stretch and then you know do something crazy well I don’t do that anymore but I think you have to be careful if you want to be in martial arts in the movies to take care of your body and not to get worn out. Jet Lee he has a lot of damage worse than me a lot of those guys you know they get a lot of injuries you know and I think the best thing is to do strength training and stretching and really be careful to you know do some any crazy kicks and stuff unless you warmed up you know because I did a lot of the crazy stuff and I am paying for it now a little bit so you know hopefully I’ll get through these stem cell injections and everything and I’ll be back in Expendables 4 I hope next year maybe 2018.

Eric: One of Mr. Lundgren’s more recent endeavors was the Expendables franchise a veritable who’s who of our favorite action stars Stallone Schwarzenegger Willis Statham Van Damme even Harrison Ford showed up in the third one. Yet despite all the wattage of star power Mr. Lundgren explained that the egos were checked at the door.

Dolph Lundgren: Well there is a little bit of that in the air. When you show up I mean you can’t help it these guys are athletes and a lot of them have their own franchises their own movies you know on The Expendables 2 I remember. I came with a few friends and then I’m in there. They’re putting all the gear on you and then you know Chuck Norris comes in and then you know Van Damme shows up and Jet Lee is over in the corner and Jason Statham. Wait a second, Stallone, Arnold, Bruce Willis was in that scene too. Yeah, it’s a bit surreal but I think what happens is the real athletes in there like I guess I count myself as such. To some extent and you know like Randy Couture and Terry Crews and Van Damme too. I think they’re not as competitive as maybe some of the other guys because to them the real competition is when it’s real and you getting your ass kicked for real that’s just bad. That’s painful. You know this is just a movie. You know there’s a little bit of competition but I think the bottom line is we’re all in the same picture and we want it to be a good movie. So you’re going to help if anybody asked me to help them. You know I’m not jealous of Van Damme or Stallone or any.

I know that there’s always somebody who’s bigger than you richer than you. Better actor than you got a better looking girlfriend than. You know they got bigger biceps. You know there’s. You know you just got to be happy for what you got you know. And that you’re in the movie.

Eric: As fun as it is seeing all these titans in one film. One of them almost didn’t make it out in one piece.

Dolph Lundgren: Yeah I had a few crazy experiences. I mean. There’s been a few lately on Expendables 3 there was some near misses. I mean there is a truck that we were supposed to all be on and we were practicing early in the morning Jason Statham’s driving and you know there’s some cameras set up he’s just doing like a little test run. And for some reason the brakes aren’t working so here’s the water we’re in the port and he comes driving and the truck doesn’t stop it just keeps going and takes out the cameras and he goes in the water and he disappears with the truck you know. So we’re all there going. What the hell is Jason in there and then someone’s like f**k send in the divers. But the guy was a diver you know so he pulled himself out. But you know I’ve been in a similar situation where I was in Masters of the universe. This is back in the 80s where things weren’t quite as you know organized as now late night shoot and I had to jump out of a window through the candy glass with my sword and then onto this on the set there’s just like a platform. And I get up there and I decide to do it I’m going to do it myself. And as I’m jumping you know I look and there’s no there’s just concrete and you know Time Stands Still it’s a short jump from here to there but for a moment I’m like oh s**t this is it I managed to somehow make it. If that was now you know a lot of people have done in serious trouble. But it was just ok he survived.

That’s good. That’s what happened.

Eric: Mr. Lundgren’s work in 2015. Indie horror film don’t kill it shows that even after decades in the industry he is still challenging himself.

Dolph Lundgren: I’ve done a few. You know I did do a little movie lately about two years ago called Don’t kill it just a little horror movie and this guy Mike Mendez who’s like weird far out director and it’s very bloody you know. But when I read the script it started out with this five page monologue you know and I was like OK how do I cut this down. But then immediately I realized no wait a second this is a great monologue. And I got to do this you know and I had to work on it. And because the film was postponed twice I really knew everything quite well. I knew all my speeches and all of that that was a very challenging role for me because I’m not used to doing that. But it was also I got some good reviews and it was really a bit of a breakthrough for me as an actor. And it was just recently actually it’s tough you know. I mean I think you go for those independent movies you know and that was just luck of the draw. That I found that role I had about 10 years or so after that rocky picture where I just I did a couple of movies where I really worked hard and then I did a bunch of movies were kind of didn’t care so much because I was having fun you know I was the young man you know and I was getting famous and you know I wasn’t married and had a lot of you know kind of late nights and things like that.

And you know I went astray you know I went I mean I always worked hard but I didn’t really focus on oh let me let me do this and then we get my career over here. But lately I’ve done a little more of that. And the thing is it doesn’t take much for people to see it. And then they realize oh he can do this. OK great then we can give him that. And you know happens quickly. The business responds quickly to to anything that you do as an artist which is cool.

Eric: He’s also spending more time behind the camera as a director and he’s welcoming the extra responsibility that comes with the role.

Dolph Lundgren: Directing is more fun to me in one way kind of more challenging. Acting is playing playing and being childish childlike whereas directing you are a little more responsible. Now I’ve done the acting stuff a lot. So for me directing is is more of a challenge in one way especially now when I have a lot of experience and what I’ve realized as a director a lot of my experience can be to calm people down you know and like the producers you know like the actors hey guys you know don’t worry. Don’t worry it’ll be fine. Just have fun you know like that kind of kind of a calming influence instead of running around then you know. Once you have a good script and you cast the right people you don’t need to do that much. You don’t need to try to push people around too much it’s just it’s there already in the story and they just need to speak the line you know and to have fun with it. It’s an entertaining kind of a job and you know you’re supposed to have fun being an actor and being a director and you’re supposed to be laughing and goofing off a little bit too.

Stallone has a lot of fun and a lot of the Expendables guys like Arnold you know he’s makes jokes all the time with the cigar you know it’s all everything is you know the people love the guy. So you know you will crash the chopper you know don’t let them fly it you know.

Eric: Mr. Lundgren stressed that even after three decades as a performer it is crucial to find your own connection to the material.

Dolph Lundgren: I think the challenge is that you want to make it fresh for yourself all the time like you have to find something fresh in the material for you to be excited about what you’re going to do about the role. I mean I always try to find something if it’s a secret of mine or something I don’t tell anybody I don’t tell the director I don’t tell anybody you know some secret about the character and the way I approach it. Something maybe in the character’s backstory or something in the mannerisms or the way he talks or whatever. You know something that makes you want to come to the set every day and that is challenging because it takes a little bit of work to figure that out. And usually I sit with a script and I sit with the lines and I try this and I try that and I try to. Think of it and. Sometimes I’m watching another movie or I see some program about nature and I see a lion or something.

Wow that’s kind of interesting maybe I’ll use that. So that’s how I look at it. That is the challenge to make it fresh and fun for yourself.

Eric: Before he left Mr. Lundgren was kind enough to share a potential spoiler about the fate of Ivan Drago.

Dolph Lundgren: You know I said I’ve said many times I would not play Ivan Drago again because I thought you know the reason he’s such an icon in one way is because he’s only you can only see him up here you know but then.

Well I can tell you anyway because it’s probably gonna you know be public but anyway Stallone contacted me about six months ago and asked me you know what do you think what about playing Ivan Drago again. You know I got this idea you know. You know basically, he’s thinking of Ivan Drago coaching his young Russian son who’s a fighter. So then I would play a trainer like Sly did in Creed but sly would train the African-American kid and I would train the Russian kid you see. So I don’t know if it will happen but if it does you know you know you heard it here first.

Eric: The return of Ivan Drago. Sign me up. Thanks to Mr. Lundgren for sharing his stories with our students and thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was written by me Eric Conner based on the Q&A moderated by Chris Devane. The episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Jean Sherlock. Dan Mackler and Tova Laiter a special thanks to Chris Devane Aerial Segard Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcasts. See you next time.

 

Transcript

Eric: Hi and welcome to the backlot a discussion with the entertainment industry’s top talent. I’m Eric Conner.

Aerial: And I’m Aeriel Segard and recently we were fortunate enough to have Anna Serner come and speak with our students. She is the chief executive of the Swedish film institute

Eric: and instead of just focusing on her time as an executive or a financier, Ms. Serner discussed her experiences dealing with gender inequality in the entertainment industry.

Aerial: An all too timely topic. And we’re taking her lead by focusing this episode on this exact subject. This episode’s going to be a little bit different. Instead of coming in and doing a Q & A for our students she actually did a lecture. So we’re going to take pieces of her lecture and talk about them as we go.

Eric: Before she was an entertainment maverick she was actually an entertainment lawyer. And then once she got her position with the Swedish Film Institute she made a strong choice about where to focus her energy.

Aerial: Which was to help ensure that female filmmakers get the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Which was great because all over the world different film entities started taking her lead on that,

Eric: but being one of the first on that hill made for a very difficult battle.

Anna Serner: I was working as the lawyer at the Swedish Advertising Association and then I got appointed to be the CEO. And I learned from my predecessor who left the job and he said when I got appointed he said you know maybe this will work you’re a bit of a captain girl but I can tell you never talk about gender inequality because you know you will just be considered a whining bitch if you do that. And I said wise as I was, “Oh yes, I won’t.” And I realized already from the beginning that that won’t happen because I realized as well that life isn’t really fair. And the gender inequality isn’t really justice and I knew that already from the beginning ,but it’s not that the men aren’t good it’s just that they don’t even have to perform as well as women do and that is a knowledge that if you know that you can actually have another strategy and want to say from the beginning this is not against men. It’s just for us all to understand that we are sort of all in the same race. And what really matters for you guys is quality. Right? You want to be the best cinematographer you want to be the best screenwriter. You don’t want to be a male screenwriter or a female screenwriter. You just want to do your profession.

Aerial: Ms. Serner reminded her students that equality actually begins the hiring process that everyone should be on the same footing. At the get-go

Eirc: even if that means you got to use carpeting to ensure the footing’s the exact same it will make sense in a moment, I promise.

Anna Serner: I just want to share it with you so you understand really what it’s all about is a research that was made in Boston. This was in the end of 1990s and the Boston Symphony Orchestra which was very white and male, they wanted to change that so they wanted female musicians so what they did they made the audition and anonymously. So the musicians came in onstage behind a curtain and the jury was sitting like you and the musicians came in and they played their little part whatever it was. And they went out again one by one and then, in the end, the jury picked the best and they picked more men which was very disappointing for everyone. And you can always try to find arguments of why is that happening. In Gender Research there are always two kinds of answers the one answer is the biological that men actually are more biologically prepared to do things, like running, for instance. But in this case, it would be like – do the men have another DNA so they have a more musical sense? Or you can have the social construction answer which means that women don’t get to practice as much because they take care of the family and they go home and they take care of children. That would be very logical because then they don’t get to practice as much as the men and they won’t be as good as the men. But before doing that the Boston Symphony Orchestra did the audition once again. So they made the musician walk in once again this time they put a thick carpet on the floor and the musicians came in. The same musicians they played the same songs. And this time the jury picked 50/50 because they couldn’t hear the steps so they couldn’t determine what kind of expectations they were having. So for the first time they weren’t biased, for the first time they actually listened to the music, and suddenly the qualtity was not within a gender the quality was within the individuals.

Aerial: So it’s almost like the show The Voice. Right?

Eric: Except if you wear high heels. The judges won’t even turn their chairs.

Aerial: That’s right. But see the battle for equality doesn’t stop right there. I mean even if you get past the heels on the floor stage you still have to battle it once you get hired.

Eric: Which Ms. Serner explained to our students like when they get out of film school and they’re looking to break into their respective industries.

Anna Serner: In many film schools the students that are admitted it’s 50/50 but then they come out and suddenly they aren’t good enough. So for me, that is just not okay. And I realized that I had to do something about that when I was appointed the CEO of the Swedish Advertising Association, I was called up by a reporter of the trade press in Sweden of advertisement and he had got hold of our survey of payments. In the survey you could easily read that women earned less than the men on similar positions – in the same cities whatever similar positions less pay. So he called me up and I had had no media training by that time so I answered him very honestly, because he asked me, “So Anna, what do you say about this?” I said, “Yeah you know that’s really s****y. But that is life. That’s how it is all over the place.” It’s not like only the advertising business and then we had a good talk for half an hour and I thought, “wow! I really taught him a lot about life!” And being a woman and I didn’t realize what I was doing. But then I came back two days later I could see the front page of all this papers. It was a big picture of me with the headline “it’s s****y says Anna Serner” so my chairman called me up and he was like, “Well, that wasn’t a very good idea Anna.” And I was like, “Yeah. But you know I didn’t know.” But that made me the spokesperson for these issues because first of all there are not a lot of women in leading positions. And secondly, they never talk about gender equality. Well, they never used to anyways. So I was kind of the first one that actually talked about it, and being the only one, I’m getting all the calls I got really tired of talking and talking and nothing of course happened. So I decided to stop talk and start do. So we could at least try something, and then we can talk about what we are doing and maybe it leads to change. And if it doesn’t, we didn’t lose anything more than my job which I realized that that could be the case.

Eric: Ms. Serner appreciates that it was this gender inequality that might have actually gotten her job in the first place.

Aerial: Even if her male coworker didn’t want to admit it.

Anna Serner: You know, as well as being a woman of course, in a position of being the association person it’s usually men that have done their career and then they are sort of kicked aside because they’re getting too old and then they become the association’s CEO. So picking me a young woman of course it was because I had a law degree. I knew something that they didn’t but I was a woman. So that was, of course, a PR trick which I realized and I told my chairman so I realize why you pick me, of course, is because I’m really great about as well because I’m a woman. “Oh no we would never do that. No quota Anna.” But then, of course, he was lying because there was one woman in the board. I asked her and she said, “yeah, of course, that’s a good PR trick.” So of course, I was and that’s totally okay for me to be that way. But then when I was going into my other jobs I actually told my chairman if you don’t want me to talk about gender equality then you shouldn’t appoint me because I will never stop doing that. So I got appointed anyways to the two jobs I’ve had both times the chairman have always male chairman they said yeah Anna you keep on doing. It’s fine because they didn’t realize what that doing was because I can tell you there’s always a lot of fuss around that doing so much fuss that I actually got appointed. This is a Swedish expression so it’s pretty hard to translate. But more or less “2011 most troublemaker – female troublemaker in Sweden” and that was supposed to be a compliment because being a troublemaker that means that you are innovative and you’re creative you are doing smart things. But for me it has been both a burden and something people google up. So they’re like oh you’re a troublemaker Anna. No no no you know that was just a title

Eric: In this country, a troublemaker isn’t necessarily viewed as a compliment.

Aerial: Well, Anna Serner seems to wear it like a badge of honor. Even when she tries to keep her feelings and motivations under wraps her inner troublemaker sometimes rears its head.

Anna Serner: Having been the spokesperson I needed to keep on speaking and I realize this is no different from other worlds. I just need to keep on doing and not only talking but I just didn’t realize what to do actually because you don’t know a business so you really don’t know where – where are the glass ceilings and what are the obstacles. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do but I felt to not be the troublemaker. Stay a little bit calm here Anna and shut your mouth for a while. So I said I will do that shut my mouth for six months and learn the business. But it took me like six weeks to realize it was exactly the same thing because then I went to Amsterdam where the world’s greatest international documentary film festival is where you pitch for money. There were like 40 financers and we are there to listen to see what’s in pipeline and what will come in a couple of years and how you do it. You get 15 minutes each. It’s five minutes presentation, five minutes showing some screens, and five minutes questions Q&A. So, when I was sitting there and the first day no woman at all which I thought was a little bit weird. And everyone said around me, “yeah, but you know that’s how it is.” But then the second day, things started to change. And what happened first was very interesting. It was a Finnish guy and I don’t know if you know Finnish people but they aren’t the best in English. He came up and it was just I didn’t get anything. And then the question time was and I was like What are they going to ask for questions and actually the first guy raising his hand. And actually it was Nick Fraser from BBC who is the most important financer. So this guy raises his hand he said, “I didn’t get anything” and everyone was like yeah and you realize. No one did, but then he said, “but I know you and you made your last film and that was great. So, of course, I trust you. So I’m in.” And then the other started raising their hands and they were in too it’s the followers coming along. And then the next presentation was the first female presentation it was a female Chilean film director with her female producer. She was so well prepared. I mean she is like any other women and she had, as well, like the Finnish guy had made one very successful documentary before traveling around the world. So that was exactly the same. But she really came up and she made this fantastic presentation about the film she was making about her grandmother in Chile. So she described these characters that have some have lost their husbands in the revolution and one was very Catholic and had a lot of children one was very promiscuous no children. And you know she had a lot of description that was fantastic and it was just know, five minutes. And then the question time was and it was totally silent. And I thought that was the best project for the whole two days but no questions first and then this guy raises his hand and he said, “What is this film about?” – “What is this film about? This is about Chile going from dictatorship to democracy. This is about a lot of people’s family life.” You know what is this film about. And then he said, “well, you know you have only made one film before. Why should I trust you? I’m not in.” She didn’t get any money and that is actually exactly what happens that men are picked for their potential. And women of their experience, and in this case both had exactly the same experience and exactly as successful, but the man was picked because you had the trust. So I was so upset that I went back home. This was in November and in January we had a presentation of that year’s premieres of Swedish films on cinema and I was called up by the media this time a little bit more media trained and the public service radio comes to me. “So what do you say Anna Serner?” And this time I was like, “I say it’s a catastrophe!” The next day – headline – big picture Anna Serner – “it’s a catastrophe says Anna Serner.” And I got the message out which was exactly what I wanted

Aerial: Ms. Serner and her team created this database of women in film. It was supposed to be a joint effort with other Nordic countries but when it came down to it it was really only the Swedish Film Institute that was on board.

Anna Serner: So we launched a web site which is Nordic Women in Film dot com where we searched for every female filmmaker since film started 1895. It’s 700 of them. It’s the cinematographer’s Screenwriters Editors directors and producers that we have been able to find. It was supposed to be a Nordic joint venture and the other Nordic friends of mine they all withdrew and said No it’s not a priority for us any longer. So now it’s a Nordic Women in Film but it’s really only Swedish. But we believe that with the attention this gets they won’t be able to stay out of it too long. When we launched it last weekend we filled the houses. We have two cinemas one is with 360 seats and the other one 120. We had to open up both of them and stream. What happened on stage because it was such an interest, because suddenly things have become hot.

Aerial: Film execs are not often treated like celebrities like Beyonce say or Adele. But the more Anna Serner’s cause was reaching the public the more her life has been transformed.

Eric: And if Meryl Streep knows who you are, you’re doing something right.

Anna Serner: Walking on the streets in Cannes as I’ve been the troublemaker I’m sort of used to you know the bitch comes along and suddenly this woman comes up to me in the street and she says, “Do you want to take a selfie?” And I was like, “why would I want to take a selfie?” “Because you’re Anna Serner.” I had become a rockstar. And I was like why is this another guy. He said to a woman who is the producer of Timbuktu a beautiful film. But he says to her hey you have to come and meet Anna Serner. And I was like, “When did this happen?” And then I realized it happened last year in the Oscars when Cate Blanchett went up and started talking about how it is being a woman and then Emma Watson and Meryl Streep and Gina Davis been working for a long time. And I got an email from Meryl Streep last week, “I’m so sorry. Anna I just can’t show up. We’re have having a seminar.” Like I’m getting a mail from Meryl Streep because what happened was when these red carpet people started talking media attention, of course, got very alert and they were like, “oh s**t! This is s****y probably!” But isn’t there anywhere in the world where things has happened and they said “Oh yeah! In Sweden there’s an Anna Serner. Let’s talk to her.” So suddenly that’s my life now go in like in film festivals. The applause for me is like it’s almost embarrassing but it’s really because we’re the only ones that have been able to do things and it’s of course very exciting but as well kind of demanding of course because we’re being the role models but that’s as well why I’m here because I like that we can show that you can do things. It’s worthwhile working for it.

Eric: A recent social media trend has been female filmmaker Friday directors DPs etc. have been posting pictures of themselves on set as a reminder that the best way to encourage others to dream of being a filmmaker is showing examples that it’s actually not just a dream.

Aerial: And this has been one of Ms. Serner’s tenets. She stressed that one of the biggest obstacles facing female filmmakers is how others react to their dreams of becoming filmmakers and why men are never asked. What about your children?

Anna Serner: We all know young women have as many dreams as young men. Something happened during the way. So what we did we did studies in pre-film schools and on-film schools. And it turned out that the women used to want to become film directors but when they said so the reaction from their surrounding was, “you want to become a film director? Are you sure? You know how competitive it is. It’s so hard. And how are you going to combine it with a family? And you know you will have to work day and night for months and you will not be able to have children blah blah blah blah blah blah.” While when a young man says the same thing the reaction is, “wow! You want to become a film director? Are you sure? It’s really competitive, but what the hell, you can do it. What do you have to lose? Just go out there. You’re talented, you’re good.” So if you get to hear that all the tim, of course,e the young women they didn’t even think there was an opportunity or possibility for them to become film directors so pragmatic as you are. They just decided to do something else like me. I skipped the film business and went into law school because I realized I won’t be able to do films while the men they just get to hear. “You are great go do it.” And that’s why I really want to encourage the women to realize that you have exactly the same competence. But producers come to me male and female producers come to me and they say you know Anna it’s only young men coming up showing their portfolios. They knock on my door and I never met them and they are so courageous and they really want and never women do. And it’s like yeah that’s probably true. But if you want the best films you should probably still start looking for the women and not be so lazy sitting and waiting for them because otherwise, you won’t get the best ones because otherwise, you will just have to get the ones that actually had the possibility to move their legs and that’s not good enough. Then then the producer gets really mad with me actually. But that’s the truth.

Aerial: One of the reasons why change can be so slow. Because those with power are not so keen about letting them power go.

Anna Serner: Those in power have no desire to see change. In Sweden, and I would say, the rest of the Western world that used to be white men some white women as well. No one of those wants to see change because they know or really. They knew how business was run. They knew how to get our money. And suddenly they don’t know it any longer. So those ones, they are not very happy with me. Then within the other ones it’s the men who are few geniuses and they they love what I’m doing and they’re like, “Yeah Anna, you keep on doing.” Because they know it will never affect them because they believe that they will still get the money. And so far they will. But they will have to really perform. Every time

Eric: Ironically during the earliest days of cinema there were several powerful women behind the scenes. But that was before movies became a multi-billion dollar global empire.

Anna Serner: In the beginning of the film’s history. The men were doing the camera and the lightning and the women were doing that soft people stuff directing and writing and when they started was the women doing directing. So we all learn that the first narrative feature film was made by Griffith, “Birth of a Nation,” which is not true. It was Lois Webber. She was a woman. She’s made a hundred narratives. Nobody knows about her. The thing changed when the money came into the business when the East Coast capitalists came in, then the women were out from directing because suddenly you realized who’s the boss here. It’s not the lightning guy. So then women were really in majority before that which is so interesting. And now they’re carrying very heavy but still close because that’s so soft.

Aerial: Ms. Serner realized that she needed to directly educate people about this troubling trend in gender equality. So she found a sly way of hooking a potential disinterested crowd by lying.

Eric: Well, maybe we should put a disclaimer here. Lying is usually bad.

Aerial: I mean if you’re going to lie. Might as well lie well and for good cause.

Eric: the results of her lie are undeniable. By the way, this story she tells it may be a little long but it is worth it.

Anna Serner: In Sweden we have at one week a year in the summertime. All politicians all important people in NGOs or other organizations go to a small island and they are together for a week giving each other’s seminars. So there are like 3,500 seminars for free during one week to 10,000 people.

So if you are unlucky you get three persons. But if you don’t tell them it’s about gender equality you may get more. Because what I always know is that usually it’s like 80-90% women and they are always the women that already knows what I’m talking about and they are the one that wants this. So it’s not that I’m changing the world when I speak to them. So, I decided to lie. And my organization, they are very sincere. “Anna we have to tell people what they will go to see!” And I said, “no, because if we do that they won’t come.” So we invited people to come to see commercials during history. That meant we needed political actions. So that’s what we named it and we did pick out commercials and in Sweden. You may think we’re crazy but people love good commercials. So we always fill our theaters when we show commercials. So I knew we would fill a house. It was packed. 350 people. Every seat was taken and we showed commercials from the 1910s 20s 30s and always with a woman as they always were, and unfortunately still very often are, an objectified woman. Either really stupid or really pretty and sexy or whatever, but not a protagonist really.

So the first commercial everyone was very happy and they were applauding and everything was great. And then the third commercial, you could sense that they knew this is fishy. People were like, “yeah what is this?” And then I went up on stage and I said, “I’m sorry. This is a coup and you’re taken hostage because if I had told you, you wouldn’t have been here and we can all agree that this doesn’t work.” And everyone was like, “no it doesn’t work.” Yeah, so OK – So we decided at the Swedish Film Institute we decided to change things so we made an action plan. We all know if you want to do changes you have to set a target. You have to choose a strategy. You have to have a budget and you have to have some time. And that’s how you do change in any matters. So this is how we do change. And then I talked about it and then I said so let’s hear what are you guys doing. They didn’t do anything. Of course they were all talking. Yeah we are talking about this we’re doing this study but they’re not really doing things.

And then I had some male friends. They were really mad with me coming after us, “I would have come Anna!” – “Well, would you really?” – “No maybe not.” But the good thing was this will get out and get spread but I didn’t realize how much it would because the news got hold of it and really the coup rather than the gender equality plan but the coup was named the hottest media coup in this place. So all the media – it was spread in all Swedish newspaper and the next day. So from July 3rd 2012 no one could escape that the Swedish Film Institute wanted to make change. And suddenly because here they said, “but there aren’t any competent female directors and they don’t apply.” Well yeah, if you have no expectation to get money why bother applying. But suddenly everyone realized you have expectations and it’s actually possible. So suddenly the increase of application with women in them was enormous.

So in 2013 we funded 35 percent female directors and then 2014 we funded 50 percent in 2015 thirty eight percent which aggregates to 44 percent which I think is pretty okay. And still the private sector 14 percent, in Hollywood I think it’s 8 percent female directors. So I mean we’re a little bit better not much producers though that’s the next female occupation. So the salaries will go down. No. We hope not. But this is really what happened. And then the interesting thing is did we lose quality? and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t know the answer of course. So this is what happened. These are the effects. For narrative, 60 percent of all awards in our Oscar Award were handed out to women directing, screenwriting, or producing. 40 percent of all awards in the six top international film festival. And you know that just getting selected is very hard. We could get the statistics going our side by picking festivals. You know there are 10,000 festivals all over the place. Those ones aren’t hard to get into. It’s – you have to measure the top ones. So this is Berlinale, Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Sundance, and IDFA. And women got 40 percent of all the awards in those Berlinale. 2015 we had seven films, 71 percent were women. And there was – we had a joint thing with Canada, Sweden, Norway, and Finland I think and we made a selection of seven short films. Sweden got almost half of those three. They were all women and I’m sure that the biology of the Swedish women aren’t different from the other countries. It’s just that their funding system is not appreciating or finding quality.

 Eric: Another reason change can be slow is that people in charge will oftentimes replace themselves with people just like themselves. So an older man replaces himself with just a younger man and so on and so on.

Anna Serner: What the men are doing is called homosociality which means that they relate to each other and they are the same so they sort of fall in love with each other and they pick their crown prince and there’s really a lot of studies regarding that. So it’s a fact. And the women of course realize that there’s the power. So women get heterosocialized they try to find the power with a man and some women’s strategy for that is pretending they are men. There are a lot of pretended men out there and I don’t know about here but in Sweden the women in leading positions they never talk about gender equality because they say, “there is no problem. Look at me! It went well for me.” And they just forgot that they were 4 percent. And Sweden is much worse in leading positions in the corporate business. There we have 4 percent women in leading positions in the top 200 companies. Which is crazy. And we have the maternity leave which is great that we get 18 months and 12 months of them are paid. But it means that women fall out of the system. So what we need to realize and get to know for me it has been really really helpful. As a woman to learn about how the structure is because then you can have a strategy. There are different kinds of how women are supposed we are the Iron Ladies. I’m usually – Yeah – “You are so hard Anna.” I am more of the Thatcher woman and then you have the mascot who is the cute girl who is always you know working like that. So we can as women realize that that is the roles we get and then we can play along but under control and then to realize that we will never be a man even though we are in those rooms where we are never men. And I think that men. It’s not like they are aware of what they’re doing. It’s just the way that they are brought up as well so they need of course education.

Aerial: Ms. Serner is not slowing down in her ambitions pushing for full equality within two years.

Anna Serner: There’s women in film and television in Sweden, they just made a survey of the films that have premiered in 2014 to see what changes or differences there were. And it was obvious that when it was female directors that was – there were more usual that they were they all passed the Bechtel test – but then there were a female cinematographer and the whole crew went more gender equal. So in our next Gender Action Plan – our new tagline which is very catchy we think – it’s 50/50 by 2020. That means 50/50 behind the camera and 50/50 in front of the camera because. They go together.

Aerial: The past year has seen massive shifts in Hollywood from the #MeToo movement to the record-setting opening of Black Panther.

Eric: Diversity of storytellers also brings with it a diversity of stories and the audience is there. Just ask the Justice League who as a team made 150 million dollars less than Wonder Woman did all by herself.

Aerial: It’s giving storytellers the chance without premeditated assumptions about who they are and what their stories may be. And Hollywood could use a lot more troublemakers like Anna Serner. We want to thank her for talking so passionately with her students.

Eric: And we want to thank all of you for so passionately listening. This episode was written by me Eric Conner based on the lecture given by Anna Serner

Aerial: this episode was hosted with me Aeriel Segard edited it and mixed by Kristian Hayden

Eric: our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter. Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler.

Aerial: Special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible to learn more about our programs. Check us out at nyfa.edu.

Eric: Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen see you next time.

Transcript

Eric: Hi and welcome to the backlot discussion with the entertainment industry’s top talent. I’m Eric Conner, and at long last, I am no longer alone in this recording booth.

Aeriel: Hi I’m Aeriel Segard a graduate of the acting program and a coordinator here at the New York Film Academy and I’m beyond excited for this episode about the one and only Henry Winkler.

— My place 10 o’clock be there.

Until we get all the facts, don’t say anything that can incriminate you or me just try to keep me out of this.

You talk too much. I will give you a quarter if you just stop talking.

I would let him go unless you want to make medical history.

I just had the best Italian meal I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve been to Dallas. —

Aeriel: Eric is so excited he’s literally playing with an action figure of the Fonz. You realize that no one can see your Barbie doll.

Eric: First of all he’s not a Barbie doll it’s a vintage Fonz figure and he gives me strength because he’s the Fonz. By the way, this wasn’t even the only time Henry Winkler spoke at our school. He gave an incredibly funny and uplifting speech at graduation and then I had to go on stage and talk after him. Not easy.

Aeriel: Well, I’m sure you did fine. If you don’t know who the Fonz is from Happy Days your parents didn’t raise you right.

Eric: But we’re here to help you learn. Henry Winkler’s acting career actually spanned decades.

Aeriel: He’s brilliant as Barry Zuckercorn, the world’s worst attorney on Arrested Development.

Eric: Also, there’s. Parks and Rec, A whole bunch of Adam Sandler films and Ron Howard’s night shift he’s directed features he’s directed for TV.

Aeriel: And produced tons of shows including MacGyver. But before Henry Winkler did any of this he trained and worked like a madman to get into auditions.

Henry Winkler: Acting is not acting. Acting is reacting. Acting is just being. It takes a long time to just be to trust. When I did plays in college I had two costumes for the same part because I sweat so much because I was so nervous because I wanted to be perfect. That at the intermission I had to change costumes. I now only have one costume. You know it is a metaphor but it is so true. There is no perfection. There is no right. There is no wrong when you go into audition. You cannot be right. You can fill that time and space the way you imagine it. And let the chips fall where they may. I’m so dyslexic it was hard for me to read the script and act at the same time. I would improvise. The director or the producer said, “excuse me that’s not the way it’s written.” I said, “that’s because I’m giving you the essence of the character but here it is.” It works. You go in and you be your imagination. You cannot know what they want because they don’t know what they want when you walk in that room they’re not always sure what they want. So you tell them what they want and if they don’t want you then you say, “that’s okay I’m so happy to meet you. I’m going to go down the street and I’m going to work for them. And if I don’t work for them I’m going to go over there I’m going to work for them.”

And that kind of energy is going to get you work. You know what. Here it is. It’s hard. It was hard then. It’s hard now it’s hard. So it is what it is. So if you’re going to play the game if you’re going to do it you play the cards that are dealt you they’re looking for somebody or they wouldn’t have an audition. You know what I mean. There’s no definition. There’s you in the room. That’s all there is. And how do you get in the room? I don’t know. You figure that out. You don’t stop until. You get in the f**king room.

Aeriel: OK. I’m inspired. Earlier in his career, Mr. Winkler stuck to the old Shakespearean quote “to thine own self be true.” Even if that meant carrying your things in a paper bag.

Henry Winkler: It is good to know what to do. It is good to know what not to do. Don’t be rude. Everything else is up for grabs. You know I brought with me from New York my portfolio. My pictures, that I had of the plays that I did and I had them in a little plastic album and I didn’t have a leather case and I put them in a Ralph’s brown paper bag and people said you can’t do that. I said why not. I don’t why you can’t do that you got to present yourself. Well, the fact is that the brown paper bag became a topic of conversation.

It opened the conversation and I realized everybody is going to tell you what not to do. Everybody is going to tell you what to do. I will go back to where I began. You know what to do if your instinct is saying wow I shouldn’t do that. Don’t if it’s saying I really feel like I got to go for the gold. I’ve got to try this do it. You’re going to get the part you’re not going to get the part. What you have to lose?!

Eric: Eventually Mr. Winkler landed what was initially a small role in Happy Days.

— I’m going to save you for last and what we’re going to do we’re going to do alone so sit down.

Give me a good reason to beat your brains in.

Get out of here slimeball. —

Eric: And that was the game-changing moment of his career even if it sort of disappointed his parents.

Henry Winkler: My parents were very very very very very very very very short, German Jews. They had just called me to say they were taking my sister. And “what’s his name” and me on a trip to Europe. Because they did not know how long they were going to be around. That was 1973. And I was in my apartment and on Laurel Avenue and I got a call from the producers and they said, “would you like to play this character?” And I said, “OK!” And then I called my parents and I said, “I don’t think I can come on this trip. My career is starting I just got a small part on a series in Hollywood.”

My mother said, “oh this is nice here tell your father.” When the show became popular and the Fonz took off all of a sudden my parents were lobbyists. They sat in the lobby of hotels in Miami. “Yeah, we’re the Fonz’s parents.” I’ve met people all over the world who said, “hey! I’ve got your parents autograph.”

Aeriel: Director Garry Marshall was actually looking for a tall hunky Italian man. Not exactly the picture of Henry Winkler but he killed the audition.

Henry Winkler: I wanted to be an actor since I was 7. I ate through brick in order to get my dream. I wanted to do what I did. “If you will it, it is not a dream.” Phrase said first in 1946 at the birth of Israel. But the fact of the matter is what I have realized over my life if you will it, it is not a dream, is the deal. It is not just a beautiful needle pointed pillow if you know what you want and you never let it out of the forefront of your brain. You put one foot in front of the other. You train yourself the best you can. You prepare yourself the best you can for what it is you want to do you will end up at your destination. I was told that I would never achieve. I was told that I was stupid I was lazy. I was not living up to my potential. So when I got the Fonz and it grew into ten years and I lived that extraordinary experience I lived my dream. I willed it. I did not know what I wanted to do after. And I want to tell you if you don’t know what it is you want it is painful when you are rudderless.

It is painful. And then you just have to take a moment and really decide what you want. Write it in red and put it up on your mirror that you brush your hair in front of every day. And that you walk toward with every action you brush your teeth with what you want, you eat your breakfast with what you want, you stay healthy with what you want. I’m not kidding. If you don’t know what you want, stop for a moment, make that decision and you will be shocked how you will shoot like a rocket in that direction.

Eric: To say the Fonz took over the universe barely covers. I mean he was bigger than The Avengers and The Transformers combined. He was everywhere. Lunchboxes, t-shirts –

Aeriel:  – action figures-

Eric: Yes, and action figures. He even had his own cartoon set in space for some reason.

–We got it all together now gang. The Fonz! Oh, now gang got zapped into that time machine and they’re like, traveling. They do not dig where that machine is going, but they sure hope to get back to 1957 Milwaukee. – Can you dig it? – Yeah! —

Aeriel: The Fonz used to just smack the jukebox to make a song play his directing career started almost as quickly.

Henry Winkler: So I’m on the Paramount lot. We’re doing Happy Days. It’s toward the end. They’re doing a show called “Joanie Loves Chachi.” They couldn’t find a director for the 13th episode. I walked up to the producers the producers were really nervous and they were trying to figure this out and I said, “hey, I’ll do it.” They went, “ok!” I went, “I’m just joking.” I said, “no, OK!” And that’s how I became a director. I didn’t know much about the camera because I’m very dyslexic so I have no idea what that line is. Everybody talks about crossing well I’ll tell you.

I have no idea. But there’s always somebody who is great to help you do what you don’t know. So you bring what you do know to the party. And slowly but surely you listen and you are the final word. You have to take responsibility for your choices as an actor as a producer, as a director, as a writer, because the fact of the matter is if you listen to everybody else and you ultimately do what they’re telling you and you go down you’re going to say, “oh my god! I went against my instinct and it turned to mush.” If you go down and you go down in your own flames dust myself off and I move on.

Eric: Keep in mind he had a lot of mileage as a performer that made him ready to direct.

Aeriel: Yeah lots of directors know how to film. But some of them focus more on their lights than their actors. Mr. Winkler’s experience in TV made him the right guy for Memories of Me it’s a bittersweet comedy with Billy Crystal and the late Alan King.

Henry Winkler: I was an actor first I didn’t know that I was going to direct everything that I learned as an actor. I used as a director. Every time I was on the set I watched everything and you ask questions and the crew will just be so happy to tell you why they’re doing anything. But there are a lot of people who are great with the camera who cannot talk to actors who cannot get performances.

When you study acting even if you don’t want to be an actor you learn what it is how difficult it is to take the word and transform it into a living walking breathing human being. You then know the process and you can communicate so much better with your actors. What I also learned is 70 percent of your work as a director is casting. So you will be very careful and you will know in the same way that you know when you meet the right boy or right girl you get that feeling in your stomach you will get that feeling in your stomach when the right actor walks in the door or actress and they just own the part you’ll know it. Do not go against your instinct. Your inner voice your instinct knows everything.

Eric: Mr. Winkler also stressed that trusting your casting director and really just being decent with people helps with work tremendously.

Henry Winkler: Even if I don’t use an actor I keep their picture because you never know and because you want to use them but it’s just not right for this film. The casting director – you have to really depend on their taste. They have to know who is out there. They have to feel the process as powerfully as anybody else on that movie because they’re bringing you in you’re seeing these people and people are coming. And also let me just say that it’s really lovely to be lovely. You know? I don’t know that a film is better because someone yelled at everybody. I don’t know if that’s like a great method. There are actors that have come back to me that said, “I’d rather be said no to by you just because you treated me like a human being.”

There is no reason why you have to be anything other than that treat people the way you want to be treated.

Eric: Being a leader on set isn’t about screaming the loudest or acting like a megalomaniac.

Aeriel: Wow, that’s a really big word for you, Eric.

Eric: I even had a look up how to spell it.

Aeriel: It’s about trusting your own instincts and the crew around you.

Henry Winkler: OK here it is who you are. Will earn the trust of the cast and the crew. You never know where a great idea is going to come from and if you love your crew they will die for you. If you respect them and if the costume designer comes and says, “So I was thinking of a teal,” and if it doesn’t go against your aesthetic grain you say, “oh my God what a brilliant idea!” And you invest every one of that crew with your trust and you will get it back. The fact of the matter is I truly believe that the center of the relationship between you and the world is not your mind. It is not your heart. It is your ear. It is the way you hear what is being said to you and I’m telling you if you listen and the actor is telling you, you can take a nugget out of all the talk and you can say, “that makes sense. Let’s try it! Would you please try it my way and then we will try it your way?” And you’ll be surprised what comes. You know it’s the fear of giving up your power. There is no power. Power is a mirage. Power is your personal strain power is that you feel comfortable. You’ve got an overall vision.

If the thing whatever it is doesn’t compromise your integrity your vision. Why not?

Aeriel: Memories of Me wasn’t a box office smash but it’s a great character piece that opened doors for him to direct other films.

Eric: Including projects that his gut told him not to take such as the buddy cop movie. Turner and Hooch starring Tom Hanks teaming up with a dog.

Henry Winkler: I was the darling of MGM when it existed. Alan Ladd Jr., the guy who said yes to Star Wars at Fox was the head of MGM at the time. And he cried he loved this movie nobody but him saw it just went like a rock to the bottom of the ocean. And then I was asked into another movie, Turner and Hooch. I read the script and I thought I get this but Jeff Katzenberg called me. He said I want you to direct Turner and Hooch for Disney. Jeff Katzenberg. Disney. My instinct says this is not for me I don’t know how I don’t like this Katzenberg! Disney! I went against my instinct. I prepared it for five and a half months. I was fired 13 days into shooting. I went home in a daze. I thought this is it. I think it was like last Tuesday I got over that.

Aeriel: Henry Winkler wanted to be an actor. You never thought he’d become a director but he did. He never thought he’d get into producing either but ended up doing that too.

Henry Winkler: I reached the goal in that I got to be the Fonz I wanted to earn my living acting and I did it in. Bigger than I ever imagined it.

I got letters from 126 countries girls took their jewelry off and sent it to me in the mail. And then I didn’t know that I could produce and my lawyer said you know what I’m going to make you a company and I’ll put you with people who know what you don’t. And we did McGyver and we did sightings and we did so weird. And I thought because I was so dyslexic I thought I was actually stupid that I couldn’t produce that that was like something other people did. If you took everything I produced and you put it end to end, I produced 19 years of series.

Eric: And as someone who battled dyslexia his whole life who was told by his teachers that he was not smart enough. The last thing he ever imagined he’d become was an author.

Henry Winkler: I was bad in math and science and English and reading and comprehension and in history. I was great at lunch and somebody said when there was a lull in my acting career, “Why don’t you write books for kids about your learning challenge?” I said, “I can’t write books. That’s stupid! I’m stupid,” and walked away. Two years later the same guy said “Why don’t you write books for kids about your dyslexia?” This time I went, “OK. Here it is. This is the truth.” You don’t know what you can do unless you try it. You don’t know what you’ve got inside you what you can accomplish until you just put one foot in front of the other and go Hey I think I can do this. I’m going to try it. I’m not kidding. I’m living proof

Aeriel: Mr. Winkler ended his inspirational Q&A with a reminder to our students that much of their success is ultimately up to them.

Henry Winkler: Let me just say this to you. I was where you were. You will be where I am. It’s up to you. The distance between where you are now and where you want to go is all up to you. The line between the two is as thin as the thread you so your button on with. You have the power. You are very powerful don’t second guess your power. Don’t think about right and wrong. Just do what you for yourself know is right. You are all great. You have a gift. You dig that gift out you give it to the world. We are all the same we all are the same as living human beings. If you come from your center from your humanity and you throw it out there it’s going to touch other human beings. Does that make sense. I wish you the best of luck. I really do.

Eric: As Ma Connor always told me always listen to the Fonz.

Aeriel: We want to thank Mr. Winkler for his amazing Q&A and for his graduation speech and well just for being him.

Eric: And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was written by me Eric Conner and hosted with the wonderful Aeriel Segard. Welcome to the party.

Aeriel: Thank you.

Aeriel: Edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden, and produced by David Andrew Nelson, Kristian Hayden, and Eric Conner.

Eric: Executive produced by Jean Sherlock, Dan Mackler, and Tova Laiter. A big thank you to Chris Devane for bringing in the incomparable Henry Winkler and for moderating his Q & A.

Aeriel: Special thanks to Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible.

Eric: To learn more about our programs check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcasts.

 

Transcript

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the Oscar-nominated producer, Sherry Lansing. Her work as a producer alone would more than warrant this episode with a partner Stanley Jaffe. She ushered in separate projects that were more than just films they were events. Movies of their moment Fatal AttractionIndecent Proposal and The Accused had people talking long after they left the theater

— My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump.

Napoleon Dynamite; Barton Fink; Zoolander; Tommy Boy; My Cousin Vinny; Titanic; Tomb Raider; How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; The Truman Show; Home Alone; Saving Private Ryan; The Fly; The Italian Job; Vanilla Sky; Mission Impossible 2; School of Rock. —

Eric: On top of her career as a producer, Miss Lansing was also one of the first women to run a movie studio twice: first at 20th Century Fox and then Paramount. An impressive track record for anyone, though to hear Miss Lansing describe it her work ethic and intelligence was only part of what got her there.

Sherry Lansing: It was not brain, and it’s certainly not beauty. It was hard work and that’s it. And then if you really work hard you need one other thing and that is luck. And anyone who says you don’t need luck,or – we always called it the movie God – is not telling the truth.

You know I worked just as hard on the films that failed as I did on the ones that succeeded. There was nothing I did different and I believed in most of them exactly the same. So I didn’t do anything different on Fatal Attraction than I did on whatever that didn’t work you know. So sometimes you’re in the Zeitgeist and sometimes it’s because the movie’s really good and some of the movies that aren’t really good are also in the zeitgeist and they do really well. Do you know? So I think you need to really work hard. There’s no shortcut and you need to be prepared to work you know seven days a week you need to be prepared to work 24 hours a day. And if you don’t want to that is okay but then you have to decide what you’re going to be happy with for your career and it doesn’t have to be to be the head of the studio or you know to be a director or whatever it is you can make choices which are very valid choices but if you do that you need luck too.

Eric: Her view on Luck was echoed by an encounter she had with Oscar-winning actor and producer Michael Douglas.

Sherry Lansing: I still remember when Michael Douglas won the Academy Award and it always stuck in my mind. I thought it was just one of the most honest acceptance speeches I ever heard. And we had done Fatal Attraction with him that you know he’d also done Wall Street but you forget that for years he was Kurt Douglas’s son and he could not get a job and he was considered not a good actor.

I was there once when someone you know stopped him literally on the street and said, “I like your father much better,” and I thought what is wrong with this person. And I turned to him and I said, “well I don’t.” So but it was like I just thought oh my god that burden that he had. I remember he used to say no one takes me seriously whatever and then he won the Academy Award and when he stood up there he said, “I got the part.” There are many talented people out there and they didn’t get the part. So what he was really saying is the movie God shined at me. I’m not the only I’m not the only person that could have run the studio. Believe you me there were a lot of talented people. I’m not the only person that could have had the luck that I had. But I had the luck in addition to really working hard.

Eric: Part of Miss Lansing’s success was doing something simple everyone can and should do. When someone calls you, you call them back.

Sherry Lansing: I like people that – it’s just something that comes easy to me. I genuinely like people. There’s almost no one I don’t like it would have to be somebody who was dishonest or deceitful. And second of all returning every call is just good business because you don’t know where that good idea is going to come from. You really don’t. And you don’t return the call. I think that’s about the rudest thing that you could possibly do. You know it’s just so rude and cruel to not treat someone with respect.

And so if you just don’t return their call I think that is so terrible and really it isn’t about the executive. The executive’s job is to find the talent. I mean I never felt any real power because every day you’re trying to get the best script you’re trying to get the best writer you’re trying to get the best actor you’re trying to get the best producer. It is about the person on the other end of the phone. It isn’t about you.

Eric: A big part of being a successful writer or executive is learning how to collaborate. You should view the financiers or the studio as an ally who also wants to make the best story possible.

You know some of the greatest scripts were passed on you know 100 times literally. I mean you know Fatal Attraction was passed on by every studio twice. I mean we could go on Forrest Gump was around for 10 years before anybody made it, whatever. So you should write from your heart and then it’s the push-pull between the studio and the creative force. You must as the creative force try and get the most money that you possibly can for your vision and the studio has to try and get the least amount and the most efficient without hurting the movie. So the studio will come to you and say this section is going to cost 50 million dollars and we don’t want it to and we suggest you take out this or. Tell us what – what your ideas are.

And at some point if you want to get this movie made you may have to make certain compromises in your vision and that’s very painful but you have to come to a point where you say I will compromise this because I don’t think it’s really hurting the movie but I won’t go to that and people do walk away. And they sometimes never get their movie made and other times they walk away and someone else does it. That’s what happened for example with Braveheart. I mean you know someone doesn’t want to make it and someone else will make it. I mean that happens all the time.

Eric: Contrary to popular belief executives are artists too yet they have the difficult task of keeping their eye on the bottom line.

Sherry Lansing: I would urge you to be co-operative as screenwriters. The studio’s not your enemy. They’re really people for the most part who do really love film and really want the same thing that you want. I can’t say everybody, but most of the executives that I know really are doing this because they love movies especially at the level that you’ll be dealing with them. The writers will be dealing with them and sometimes they have great ideas. I mean we had a lot of budget problems on School Ties and I remember Karen Rosenthal just showed me how to take out eight pages. I was shocked. I mean it was her idea she was the executive. And it didn’t we didn’t miss anything. You know so write from your heart write your vision and if you’re lucky it will stay intact. Mostly it won’t. And no it doesn’t mostly it won’t. And that’s just reality. And it may not even be budget. They may say well we can’t go this far with that character that far with this character or whatever but be open. Don’t think of the studio as your enemy. And then everyone has a line they can’t cross.

I mean This is the reality that you’re facing if you sell it to the studio at some point they own it. And so you have to realize that if you’re just saying no all the time they will and I can’t blame them. They bought it, do you know? They gave you the money. They will do it anyways. Do you know? So at some no but they will because they bought it you didn’t have to sell it to them no one held a gun to your head. If you didn’t sell it that’s OK. I mean if you go into a meeting and they say we want to option this but we want you you know to do this and this and you go but that’s not the movie I want to do that’s OK then there’s no hard feelings. But when you come you at least have to say to them can I try it this way. I try and be part of the team. I mean that’s the best advice I can give. And then at some point you have a right to say you know, “I can’t really do this. I don’t understand how to do this. Maybe you should bring someone else in.” And then you have it’s like letting go of your child that’s going to college and you have to say OK it’s all right. So I guess what we’re trying to tell you is you know to be part of the team for as long as you can.

Eric: Part of collaborating well is admitting that you may not be right all the time.

Sherry Lansing: You are wrong as much as you’re right. And anybody who says differently. They’re just not telling the truth because you know when I would pass on something meaning that you know I would say you know it doesn’t work for me and that’s really what I would say. “It doesn’t work for me.” And I used to often say, “I may be wrong. So you’ll be able to tell the story when you win the Academy Award. About what an idiot I was.” Because that’s true. And there are films that I didn’t get. You know that that did well you know so. So I think it’s important to know that it isn’t about you know, and a movie executive is lucky enough to have the resources to help other people and collaborate with them and make a difference in the process to achieve their dream of a certain film. And if you’re lucky and you picked the right ones you will continue to do that for a long time.

Eric: Executives even as high ranking as a studio head often lead their careers in somewhat quiet anonymity. That is unless their movie doesn’t do well.

Sherry Lansing: First of all I think making any movie decision is difficult because you’re greenlighting a movie and quite honestly, if it fails, in my opinion, the only person that’s responsible is the person who greenlit it. So it’s my failure and not my success and that’s what I think the interesting thing about being a studio executive is and John Dongshan felt the same way. We are anonymous in the background. And when it fails – trust me – you know you’ve got to explain it to every board member that there is.

Eric: Before it’s 12-year reign as the highest grossing film ever. Titanic was a movie that many predicted to fail even with a proven master like James Cameron at the helm. The budget ballooned and the film was delayed by half a year. But Sherry Lansing wasn’t afraid of the risk.

Sherry Lansing: There’s many movies. I mean Titanic which was which was a complicated movie. I heard about it from the president of the studio at the time a man named John Goldwin. He knew that 20th Century Fox wanted a partner. I read the script. And for me, every decision is about the script. That to me is the most important thing. If it’s not a good script you shouldn’t make it and I don’t care who’s attached to it. You have to believe in the script and I think good scripts all have two things: characters that you care about and that description evokes an emotional response. It’s not a passive thing. It should make you laugh it should make you cry and you should be involved. So I read the script and I loved the script. I didn’t love the script for the reasons that everybody thinks. I loved the script because I love the love story and I loved Rose. I thought she was an empowered figure and I just thought, “oh my god this is really a woman’s lib movie in a funny way, with a great love story at the core.”

Eric: Miss Lansing believed that the project would be a massive hit and she also believed that Fox’s budget was way too low. In both cases, she could not have been any more right.

Sherry Lansing: I’m not going to remember this exact number was like 12 million dollars for special effects and I went, “Wow that’s not enough.” I mean this is on water. Waterworld had already happened. This doesn’t make sense and 20th Century Fox executives stood by that number. And then we had this famous conversation where I said well I just don’t believe this number you have to add more and you told us it was only 110 and this isn’t what it’s going to be. And they said well what is the worst you think it can go to. And we said, “I believe 130.” And they said, “Great! it will never go to that will cap you meaning you’ll never have to go above half of that investment which was 65 million dollars.” And we said, yes. So in reality, as the picture kept going up and up and up. I hate to say this because I feel a little guilty. I slept so well at night. I can’t tell you but I felt guilty because I would call Bill Mechanic who’s an extraordinary executive and I would say I’m really so sorry. Is there anything we can do to help. He said well you could give us more money. I said well that we can’t do to help. And it went to I think over 200 million dollars. And today you’re going “eh” but then everyone predicted that it was going to be the biggest disaster in the history of film. And instead, it was the most successful film ever released. Until he did Avatar after that and he beat his own numbers.

Eric: Of all of Mr. Lansing’s critical and box office successes perhaps none of them came any easier than the Oscar-winning war drama Saving Private Ryan.

Sherry Lansing: One day I was driving home at around 7:15 at night and I got a call from Richard Lovett who was the head of CAA and he said, “So Sherry you know you have this script Saving Private Ryan.” I said, “yes.” He said, “So how would you feel you know if Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks wanted to do it would you do it?” I said, “Well yeah, of course I’d do it.” So he said, “Okay good because they do.” I said, “Oh really.” He said, “really!” And I hung up the phone and I thought, “What is he smoking? I mean what is going on?” I said, “You never get a picture like that!” That requires years of begging years of trying to convince, nine hundred drafts of the script, and I got home and the phone was ringing and it was John Dulgian, my partner and he said, “You have a call from Richard Lovett.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “is he nuts?” He said, “it’s that the two of them. Did you meet them?” I said, “No, I’ve never met with either of them.” And then a few minutes later he calls me he goes, “it’s real.” I said, “how do you know?” He said, “David Geffen said it’s true.” He said, “Steven wants to do it” and I said, “I can’t believe this!” I mean that came together so easily. I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing I never met with them beforehand. I just said, thanks.

Eric: The journey of Tomb Raider was a much more difficult one. Miss Lansing described how it signified a transition in Hollywood. Where quality of product might be giving way to quality of marketing.

Sherry Lansing: What I remember about the movie which is how the movie business has changed, I was watching the dailies. They looked all right and then we saw the first cut of the film. By then there were all sorts of fights between the producer and the director and all sorts of things had happened during the movie that made everybody not like each other. But when I saw the movie I was shocked because the movie made no sense. It was just honestly, a mess and nobody disagreed with that. Nobody. You know the director said, it doesn’t work. The producers said, it doesn’t work and we all went into intensive meetings about how to fix it. What I remember is when we’re walking back from that meeting a man named Rob Friedman who was the head of marketing was the only one that didn’t look like he was going to have a heart attack. I mean, I actually – I was white and I and it was our big tentpole you know that was our big I think July 4th or summer tentpole and he was the only one who was completely calm and I said, “Robby this picture makes no sense. Why are you so calm? Don’t you care?” And he said, “Sherry, we’re going to be fine.” And I said, What do you mean we’re going to be fine? Did you understand it?” He said, “no, but we’re going to be fine.” He said, “I have spots that test through the roof we’re going to open.” What was the number. Twenty? Twenty-eight point six? Whatever the number he said which was huge at that time. And we’re going to do 130 million dollars or whatever the number was. Meaning that if you could market it really does it make any difference if the movie was good or not. And he said to me, “you can spend that three million dollars to fix the movie. It won’t make any difference. We’ll be fine.” And that was the beginning of my wanting to leave the movie business to be honest with you. And I looked at him and I said- I – but I love Robby. He’s still one of my best friends. I said, “I can’t think like that.” Then what’s my job? I think marketing is truly a gift. And I respect people. I got in the business to make movies that had word of mouth that people talk to other people you know and told people to see it. And he was right. We fixed it made sense. Terrific movie for what it is open to exactly the number he said. And it did exactly that number at the end. And that’s how it’s changed and I think it’s changed in the sense that it’s harder and harder to make movies if you can’t market them and get those spots there that you know. And also so much of the drama of dramatic movies have been taken over by the extraordinary things that are on television today that are just amazing.

Eric: In a very candid and honest moment. Miss Lansing described that perhaps the biggest obstacle in her career was herself.

Sherry Lansing: I think you sometimes look at a person and you say well they they didn’t have any problems and their life was all smooth. And we do that about people we don’t know. But the truth of the matter is I was an enormously insecure young girl. I had very very little self-esteem. And I think what I had was an incredible desire to be better but it didn’t happen overnight. I mean it was a long process and eventually, I realized that it was really interfering with my life. And so I went into therapy and so I would say that that was the single most important gift I ever gave to myself. And in many ways therapy if you have a good therapist and you can really be honest and unburden yourself to that person. And it’s a safe place. It’s like reparenting yourself and I’m not suggesting that everybody should do that but for me it was the best gift I ever gave to myself. And I wouldn’t be who I am today without that. This is what I really want to say. You know we’re all a work in progress and most of the time you’re OK. And then every once in a while for no reason that 12-year-old child that’s in all of us just pops up and says, “oh my god! why did I say that? Oh my god! why did I do tha?” I’m wearing the wrong thing. You know? And I go back to see the doctor quite often when I feel like I can’t handle something and I don’t want to take it out on other people and I find it very helpful. So that was I think that made all the difference in the world

Eric: When things were difficult along the way. Miss Lansing found the best thing to keep her going was the work

Sherry Lansing: Whenever things would go bad I would just concentrate on the movies. I would just concentrate on the script. I would concentrate on the dailies. I would concentrate on the work. And to this day that always takes away my demons that always takes away my depression. Because everyone still gets depressed that’ll take away your anxiety is you start to do the work. Think about something other than yourself and you forget you forget that person that yelled at you you forget. You know the insult that you had and you just concentrate on the one thing that you really care about because if you’re in this business for any other reason than to make it good and by film I mean television everything. I mean the whole thing that will really hurt if you’re in for any other reason.

Eric: And now Miss Lansing has begun a different adventure by turning her attention to a nonprofit. The skills that helped her create dozens of legendary films are now being utilized to give others a chance at reinventing themselves later in life.

Sherry Lansing: I’m going to end with my favorite story about being in the not for profit world. So I’m 73 which I know must seem like 110 to you. And when people turn 40 in our industry they’re considered that’s it they’re done. And I think that’s so sad. I can’t tell you. So I had this idea of this program and I wanted to take people who are 55 and up and retrain them to be math and science teachers who were retiring that they should rewire not retire. This is my favorite story.

I said to a group of people the oldest person was 30 35 who had all been appointed by the governor to solve the problem of why there weren’t any more math and science teachers and how could we get people. And I said well we can get this demographic who’s 55 to rewire not retire. And they looked to me like I was insane. And they said a 60-year-old person you’re going to retrain them to be a teacher I said yes. And they said, “what are they going to do? Drool all over the floor?” And I said, “wel,l I’m 60.” Not a reaction not a reaction not oh my god you don’t look it. Nothing! Nothing! they had already decided I was 110 and so not a reaction at all. And I came back the next day and I said, “you know, Mick Jagger is 61 and if he can jump up and down then he could teach.” And they went, “You’re right!” And then they bought the program. I needed Mick Jagger from the entertainment industry to say the same. So you guys your life is ahead of you and so is mine and you have unlimited options and anything you dream of you can make happen. And we’re going to be going to your movies or watching your television. And I just wish you all the greatest luck in the world.

Eric: No matter the age. Belief in yourself and your work can take you to all kinds of amazing places. We want to thank Miss Lansing for speaking with our students and we want to thank all of you for listening. If you want to learn more about Sherry Lansing and really, you should, check out her biography “Lading Lady.”

This episode was written by me Eric Conner based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter featuring Sherry Lansing and her biographer Stephen Galloway. This episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden; produced by David Andrew Nelson, Kristian Hayden and myself; executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. If you’d like to watch the entire interview it’s on our YouTube channel. Just go to youtube.com/newyorkfilmacademy. To learn more about our programs check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Hey ma, it’s me, Eric. I’m calling you back because you called me and Sherry Lansing said always call people back. Love you.

Transcript

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode we bring you Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons.

— Not quite my tempo. It’s all good. No worries. Here we go. Five, six, seven.

Spiderman. He doesn’t want to be famous then I’ll make him infamous.

The average human male is about 60 percent water far as we’re concerned that’s a little extravagant.

As mayor of Zootopia I am proud to announce ZPD’s very first rabbit officer, Judy Hopps.

When I kill a man it’s because he’s standing in the way of my constitutional rights. I kill to protect what’s mine.

I’ll be honest. We’re throwing science at the wall here to see what sticks. No idea what it’ll do.

Were you rushing or were you dragging?

All right let’s get started. —

Eric: He’s a guy who’s scared the heck out of me on Oz. But then was like the most perfect dad ever in Juno. He’s taken on the Terminator teamed up with the Justice League done voice work for multiple cartoons and he’s the yellow M&M.

— So you think Santa will like these red and green M&Ms. – I don’t know I never met the guy. – Santa? —

Eric: Then, of course, there’s his performance as the brutal yet brilliant Terence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. But before all that Mr. Simmons got his first professional job in a theater production two thousand miles away from Broadway.

J. K. Simmons: My first experience really doing theater outside of a couple of things in school was it a little summer theater in Montana the Big Fork Summer Playhouse and the first six weeks or so we were rehearsing a play and then we open it then we rehearse another play musicals mostly. Rehearse another one open it added into the rep and then you’re doing two shows a night rehearsing a third show during the day and we’re all you know pounding nails or sewing costumes or doing this or that or the other thing and and working hard and being a team and collaborating.

I had taken a quarter off from school because I had a professional engagement playing Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro with the Great Falls Montana Opera Company for tens of dollars. And I came home and my little brother was doing a musical with a local theater company they’re doing a production of Oliver and the guy had just dropped out. Who played the knife grinder and the director said Does anybody know a guy and my brother said I mean my brother might do it because he can sing. And I went and joined that production and there was a scene where we’re all in the chorus and we’re having fun and doing whatever we’re doing and then Bill Sykes comes in and he’s scary as hell and you know there’s this really charged moment of him just inspiring fear in everybody and we were rehearsing that number for the first time and I was actually having fun with whatever girl I assume I was goofing around with in the chorus and then the music changes and Michael Morris and my buddy comes in and he’s Bill Sykes. And it was like one of those goosebump moments where I was like “god! he just scared the shit out of me” and I thought “This is awesome!” This is what I want to do. I want to be able to move people. And one of my first things at the big fork Summer Playhouse in Montana. I played the lead in Brigadoon mostly because I could sing not because I was a brilliant actor. And at the end of the first act it’s this real cliffhanger. And then our production it ended with this sort of striving moment behind a scrim and blackout and intermission and everybody goes and you know has an orange soda. And I would spend the entire intermission lying on my back behind the scrim staying in that moment for 20 minutes and smoking a cigarette because I was learning how to do this. I knew that I wanted to inhabit this character and stay in the moment and I was learning how to do it and I think if I hadn’t gone through that level of commitment as a sort of naïve and as it was I think it was an important process for me to go through. I don’t take it any less seriously and I hope that I don’t work less hard at it. I just work more effectively on it.

Eric: Similar to Bryan Cranston in our previous episode, J.K. Simmons explained the importance of not bringing an unsavory character back home.

J. K. Simmons: That was a process for me learning to not take it home with me. There was a reference to Oz earlier. That was one of my very early on camera things and it was a lot of theater guys really on that show and a lot of us kind of had trouble shaking that off at the end of the day. I mean I’m literally wearing my swastika tattoo home which my wife was really not pleased with. By the way she was doing Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. And I was playing the head of the Aryan Brotherhood during the day. But you know in my case it was really just part of the journey has just been learning how to put it on and also how to just shake it off at the end of the day so I’ve gotten to a point now where if I’m working with actors who find it necessary to you know stay in it and that’s great I can do that too. But over the years it’s just an ability that I developed not taking it home.

Eric: Mr. Simmons views his early years of constant auditioning and doing small roles as a necessary step for any working actor.

J. K. Simmons: It’s so hard to be a not yet successful actor. Whatever – it’s as it should be. It’s like being an athlete or even just being fit and taking care of yourself. I mean if it was easy everybody’d be doing it. So I think it’s important to go through those trials and tribulations. But certainly auditioning god, it just blows. And a couple of years ago I was auditioning a lot still and may audition again. The most important two things that I learned in those situations audition after audition is just having some sides and having 30 seconds or a minute to make an impression on somebody was don’t make the choice that you hope is what they’re looking for. Make the choice that you get from the writing and again even if you only have two pages I mean whatever I come up with a backstory. Use yourself and do your take on it because trying to do what you think they want is you know I mean you’ll get a job once in a while but people are looking for you to bring something so bring it. I look back and it almost seems like I had a plan but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and doing what I really enjoyed doing. And fortunately when I was scraping by and barely making ends meet I didn’t have a wife and kids and any responsibilities and so yeah, I mean in my case the level of success, acclaim, attention that I’ve been receiving because if that had happened to me when I was 25 years old I would not have been prepared creatively, personally in any way.

Eric: Though he’s careful not to call those early days a struggle.

J. K. Simmons: I wouldn’t use the word struggle you know, there were many years when I was barely paying the rent. But you know I loved that time I had a great time doing non-equity summer stock. You know, where I first really fell in love with what I do. And. There were times when I went a while between acting jobs but I don’t know “struggle,” I think there are so many people on this planet whose struggles are for real that I wouldn’t use that word. I’ve loved my whole journey every step of the way.

Eric: Even when the roles became more frequent Mr. Simmons realized just how much more he still needed to grow.

J. K. Simmons: I had sort of gotten to a point on stage where I kind of felt like I know what I’m doing. I did my Montana time I was in Seattle at the Rep I was “Joe Pro” theater actor and I’m going to walk out here and do my thing. And I came across a director David Traynor who’s now directing multi-camera sitcoms really well who just wasn’t buying it. He was just like “yeah that’s you know that’s alright that’s fine. But is that what we’re after or are we looking for fine?” You know dig in you know if a B minus works for you you know great but he just recognized that I wasn’t working as hard as I could. You know that I wasn’t digging deep that I was just doing sort of whatever was easy whatever was obvious. He and a guy named Jerry Zaks who was a great theater director in New York is another example. And Jason Reitman I’ll put in there too as guys who are able to really direct and really communicate and keep a disparate group of actors you know actors who are more and less experienced who are maybe more from comedy maybe more from drama maybe more from improv or whatever to just keep everybody on the same page and to learn how to both express yourself and listen to what is being expressed and treat each individual as an individual and communicate with each person the way they need to be communicated with and that to me is what separates an adequate director from a really wonderful director like a Jason Reitman.

Eric:  When going from theater to TV and film he discovered that being on set is a lot of waiting and very little rehearsing.

J. K. Simmons: The first time I was on a set was a TV movie called Popeye Doyle and then it was my first feature was a little part of the movie called the ref and they called me to set for rehearsal for my first sort of big scene go to the set. After waiting around of course for two hours which you’re not used to when you were a theater actor and then we’d go rehearse and they go OK you knock on the door. He comes to the door you stand here okay. Rehearsals over now we’re going to light it and you will see you in an hour you know. And I was in shock. I was like when are we going to rehearse. I mean there was no we didn’t rehearse. We blocked. And I was felt horribly underprepared. I mean I’d learned by lines I did my thing but I was used to theater where you’d go over and over and over and over and over and it’s a different kind of more sedate leisurely process of exploring the characters. Since then I’ve really very much you know in 20 years got to the point where I prefer as little rehearsal as possible. I like to work with actors who are just on their toes and spontaneous and people who can listen. It’s so it’s so it’s so important and so difficult. And God knows I couldn’t do it for many many many years as an actor to just be there and actually be able to listen to the other person and respond to the other person whether you’re improvising or speaking Shakespeare exactly as it is on the page. The ability to listen is devoutly to be wished.

Eric: Early on even when he was trying to make ends meet. Mr Simmons didn’t take just any role that came his way.

J. K. Simmons: I’ve been driving my age and crazy for years because I’ve always been picky about it doesn’t always show. I mean I’m not saying there aren’t some clunkers in my past but you know I mean even when I was from hunger I was you know I only wanted to do things that were interesting to me and you know the few times that I took a job just to have a job you know and pay the rent were usually the jobs that I found unfulfilling and even just irritating and annoying and that’s a good thing to remind yourself of from time to time. And you know I mean right now I’m in a position where obviously I’m you know a very popular guy all of a sudden and. Lots of offers and you know big movies and little movies and I’m trying to make the same choices for all the same reasons. One of the reasons that I have continued to work all the way you know whether I was doing regional theatre in the 70s and 80s or Broadway or what I’m doing now it was just showing up being on time and being able to do my job whether I was the best actor in the world or not I would try. And I did my best and I wasn’t a pain in the ass and you know that goes a long way.

Eric: With the TNT drama The Closer Mr. Simmons trusted the creator so much he didn’t even need to read the pilot.

J. K. Simmons: I don’t think about results and certainly commercial results or audience acceptance of something. When I read anything I had done a show with James Duff the previous year. A show called the DA which was four episodes and just knew that he was a guy who knew how to write interesting plots and believable characters and knew how to meld those into a procedural cop show. TNT was relatively new at doing that at the time so as far as the commercial aspect of it I just thought James wrote it. It’s a great character and he actually wrote it for me based on our experience the year before and as a matter of fact when he called me about it he said that he sort of laid out the basic idea of the show and said and I’ve written a part for you you know would you like to read it. And I said I don’t need to read it because it’s you and I know I want to do it. So sign me up. First of all and then send me the script and let’s see what happens. And you know seven years and it was a great ride and it was awesome too because I worked like two days a week on that show. So I got I coached my kids’ baseball team for six years and never missed a practice because it was a part-time job which was you know awesome.

Eric: Mr. Simmons took a similar leap of faith when working with a 26 year old Damien Chazelle on whiplash.

— I’m sorry. I’m sorry. – You know who I am? – Yes, sir. – So you know I’m looking for players? – Yes, sir. – Then why did you stop playing?

You know Charlie Parker became bird. Because Jones to a symbol at his head.

I was there to push people. Beyond what’s expected of them.

Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head Nieman? Were you rushing or were you dragging? Answer. – Rushing. – So you do know the difference. If you deliberately sabotage my band I will f–k you like a pig. Now,  are you a rusher or are you a dragger or are you going to be on my f–king time?!

You are a worthless friendless piece of s–t whose Mommy left Daddy and who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine year old girl.

There are no two words in the English language. More harmful. Than Good job.

Eric: Whiplash‘s Fletcher is the professor of everyone’s nightmares.

— That’s a cut you were rushing a little on an that one. —

Eric: Whiplash’s Fletcher is the professor of everyone’s nightmares.

— And now you’re dragging. —

Eric:  Thank goodness I never had a teacher like you. He first played Fletcher in the short version of whiplash only after he saw the potential of Chazelle’s feature length screenplay.

J. K. Simmons: I got both scripts at the same time so I was able to read the feature before we did the short. Great writing leaps off the page whether it’s Shakespeare or Arthur Miller or Damien Chazelle in this case it was just such a brilliant and complete and thorough piece of writing and that’s great. And I’ve read a lot of scripts that I’ve thought this is really really good but it just doesn’t connect. And if there’s nothing organic going on I sort of you know I’ve learned how to do what I do for a living and I can make things work you know and sometimes your job is to make writing that’s not all that good work. So much of an actor’s job is almost done for you. If the writing is really good bad writing is really really hard to act and really the transitions can be the most glaring or the most obvious. I think it’s just staying connected with the character the material with what it is you’re after. And sometimes you need to provide that yourself with good writing or bad writing you know sometimes you need to find your own way to get from point A to Point B if it’s not a straight line. But when you have the combination of a piece of writing where every syllable is just perfection and it’s a character that you oddly connect to. it It was just whatever Kismet.

Eric: Mr Chazelle cast J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller without even knowing just how perfect they were for their roles.

J. K. Simmons: One of the many either happy coincidences or pieces of fate when Damian and I first met after I’d read the script and was dying to do it one of the first things he said to me was I don’t want you to be too concerned about the musical aspects and the conducting and don’t let that be intimidating to you because we can you know we’ll have a technical adviser who can show you the basics and we can fake it we can use body doubles and you know blah blah blah I said well I’ve got a degree in music. I thought I was going to be Leonard Bernstein when I grow up and I took a few left turns and I was doing opera I was singing I was doing conducting composing Singing I was doing opera and operetta and you know segue Segue segue. And there we are he didn’t know that Miles Teller been drumming since he was 15 years old either and he wrote it for. Miles Yeah. Yeah I was just it was all meant to be.

Eric: Whiplash was filmed in only 19 days. Now that’s a schedule even Steven Spielberg would have been intimidated by.

J. K. Simmons:  Damian managed to create a very sort of unselfconscious set despite the ridiculous pace and the lack of experience and everything else. So oftentimes you know it’s a scene where there is crying going on or there’s just like really intense emotion anger you know whatever it is. People often will sort of tiptoe around and let the actors prepare and everybody must be silent because he’s going to cry now you know and it’s just counterproductive. And I’ll tell you what. The thing that worked for me well a couple things. First of all we didn’t have time to do 11 takes I don’t know that we did more than three or four takes of any specific shot. Maybe the slapping. That was fun. Because I just kept wanting one more. But what was awesome in that particular scene was the times that I had to do it more than once was that I’m looking out at this band and some of these guys are musicians that had almost no acting background at all. But I’m saying what I’m saying and I’m saying it to these guys and they were all just there and giving and that helped. You know I could have done another eight takes and picked a different guy to go to and they were all there for me and that’s when the work is rewarding and beautiful you know when you feel like you’re on a team when you’re working hard. When the cameras on them.

Eric: Mr. Simmons stressed that young directors can serve their cast best by not trying so hard to prove themselves.

J. K. Simmons: I think oftentimes with young directors they kind of have their ideas of how they’re going to motivate their actors or how they’re going to explain something to their actors or how they’re going to ask for an adjustment from their actors. And you know you’re young and you’re smart and you’re nervous and you want to establish some credibility. And young directors sometimes tend to say stuff that’s like dude I just did that because they sort of feel the need to say something. Oftentimes what directors need to do. Assuming that you have the vocabulary and the knowledge to be able to communicate with an actor I think the best thing you can do sometimes is just say let’s try it again. And that was the leap of faith because you know I mean he was young he was 26 when we met and very inexperienced you know film school and I had no idea about him as a director. One of the things that he did best was like you know shut up and get out of the way but I really really really like collaborating with a director and a dialogue with a director and being directed you know having a director who knows what he wants A and knows how to get that across B and knows how to get that across to a wide variety of kinds of actors. By far the most important skill a director has as a human being is just the ability to communicate with a vast range of people. And in Damien’s case it was just a real leap of faith and I saw such growth in between the time we did the short and the feature and not just in knowing when to back off. But you know it’s one of those things you can’t really know until you do it. You know you can’t swim until you’re in the pool. You know you learn that you get as fundamentally sound as you can you watch you learn you study and then you do. And as you do just try to keep your wits about you and keep your ears open and communicate.

Eric: Mr. Simmons has been able to jump back and forth from smaller indie films like Juno to massive blockbusters like Spiderman. When I watch his performance says J Jonah Jameson. For me it was like I was watching the character I used to read in the comic books as a kid literally jump onto the big screen.

— I don’t pay you to be a sensitive artiste. I pay you because for some reason a psycho Spiderman will pose for you. –  You’ve turned the whole city against him. – A fact I’m very proud of. Now get your pretty little portfolio off my desk before I go into a diabetic coma. – Boss your wife’s on the line she says she lost the checkbook.- Thanks for the good news.

I want that wall crawling arachnid prosecuted. I want him strung up by his own web. I want Spiderman. —

J. K. Simmons:  I really felt my job as J John Jameson was to bring that guy off the pages of the comic book and I think and this is the way the films were directed and written and acted. Was that those scenes in the Daily Bugle were really the most comic booky scenes of the movie and the most sort of almost anachronistic Preston Sturges kind of vibe to them which was my first take on it and which Sam completely concurred with. So I had done two movies with him before the Spiderman movies. He and I developed a report on a mutual trust where he gave me the freedom to create and I guess that freedom has come back in the cartoon series and without really being aware of it I guess I’ve sort of made it my own more in the cartoons and that’s that’s cool that’s fun.

Eric: J.K. Simmons has always sought projects that excited him. But now that he’s got more options than ever he doesn’t want to lose sight of what matters most.

J. K. Simmons:  I’ve always tried to be picky. I’ve always tried to only do things that I found interesting and that there have been exceptions to that. And there have been choices that I made that were bad and stupid and wrong but just the sheer volume of stuff that’s coming at me. Not just since the awards but really since the movie came out really amped up a lot. So now it’s largely a question of trying to maintain the balance between work and life because as much as I love the work people use workaholic like it’s a great thing. And I strongly disagree. Work hard prepare hard but have a life. So I’m not trying to book myself 52 weeks for the next year. Having said that there are a lot of opportunities coming and because I do this for a living and money is a helpful thing in the world. Money is part of what motivates choices so my goal now is to try to find a balance between doing big movies but still finding the little scripts that are out there. You know that somebody is struggling to get made and now because I have a trophy I’m able to attach myself to it. And not only can I help them get their funding and help them get a movie made for two or three million dollars but I can say I want to do this in L.A.. And they go OK.

Eric: Though he is still finding time to enjoy his celebrity.

J. K. Simmons: Honestly the coolest thing about being famous now I’m throwing out the opening day pitch in Detroit. I had lunch with Justin Verlander a couple of months ago and I’m looking for him to have a big year. So there’s your answer.

Eric: We wish the Detroit Tigers all the best. Thank you to J.K. Simmons for his words of wisdom and to all of you for listening. This episode was written by me Eric Conner based on the guest speaker series produced and moderated by Tova Laiter. The episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and myself. Special thanks to Aeriel Segard Robert Casnahan Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcasts.

Eric: See you next time.

 

Transcript

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy and in this episode we’re taking a look at Nightcrawler. No, not the X-man. The dark satirical drama written and directed by Dan Gilroy.

— I’m looking for a job. Who am I. I’m a hard worker. I set high goals and I’ve been told that I’m persistent.

Morning News If it bleeds it leads.

We find our viewers more interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs. Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.

Home invasion triple murder and Granada Hills. We got there before the police.

What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people that I don’t like them? What if I was obliged to hurt you for something like this?

I want something people can’t turn away from. – Jesus you sound like Lou. – I think Lou is inspiring all of us to reach a little higher.

I will never ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. —

Eric: Nightcrawler tells the story of Lou Bloom played by Jake Gyllenhaal who makes a career out of filming LA’s grizzly’s moments. When Mr. Gilroy spoke to our students he spent much of the discussion focused on his modern day noir. So if you haven’t seen Nightcrawler you might want to. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Pretty amazing right?! And it’s his directorial debut. After 25 years as a writer in Hollywood he was ready. His credits include Kong: Skull Island, Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy, and of course Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a future cop.

— Lose your mind and you can live forever. Freejack.–

Eric: Doesn’t that sound perfect. Well Mr. Gilroy wasn’t such a fan.

Dan Gilroy: If you put a lot of time into it you can start with a horrible movie like Freejack and wind up with this. There’s hope for all of us. You can’t escape IMDb. It’s funny when I started there was no IMDb. It was actually really difficult to find people’s credit and it was kind of nice actually because we all have movies in there. I met my wife on Freejack. I met Renee on Freejack. I was the third writer and she replaced Linda Fiorentino. The cast you probably knows the cast of Freejack is with Anthony Hopkins so it starts out sounding really good. Then Emilio Estevez made some good films; Mick Jagger; and Renee and somehow it never really fully jelled.

Eric: Even if he was less than thrilled with the final movie at least it made it to the screen and into my VCR. But that was not the case when he was one of the writers on Tim Burton’s Superman Lives. Problem was, back then comic book movies and Tim Burton himself were not such a sure thing.

Dan Gilroy: I got brought into to Superman Lives Tim Burton was doing it. John Peters was producing it Nick Cage was Superman. Chris Rock was Jimmy Olsen. It was very wild. It would have been so cool. Unfortunately, the budget kept going up. Tim had just come off Mars Attacks his stock creatively wasn’t as high as it probably hopefully would have been. And after like a year they pulled the plug on it it was very painful. Very painful. I worked on that for a year.

Eric: If you want to see some of the behind the scenes chaos check out The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened, by Jon Schnepp. You know, in case you doubt Hollywood can be a tortuous path. Luckily Dan Gilroy has his family. His wife Renee Russo is the star of Ransom and Freejack. His brother Tony is the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Michael Clayton. His other brother John edited Rogue One and all of the brothers worked together on The Bourne Legacy. Working with family can be a blessing and maybe a bit of a curse.

Dan Gilroy: You know I think the biggest arguments I’ve ever gotten to my life have been creative arguments with people. And there was a time that Tony and Johnny when we were younger got into terrific creative arguments but as we’ve gotten older I think our sensibilities are sort of entwined. So I would advocate working with family or friends if you feel I mean I’m not saying get yes men or people like that who are going to agree with you. I mean it’s ok to have people that aren’t going to agree with you but in general don’t work with people who are it’s going to be explosive horrific destructive fights and really creative fights I think because there is obviously no winner and people have a tremendous emotional investment to their opinions and and so I think the thing about working my brothers and Renee is that we have a language at this point in our lives that we just we have a sensibility. We like the same things we understand the same things we’ve been through similar experiences.

Eric: Mr. Gilroy was developing the story that eventually became Nightcrawler for almost two decades.

Dan Gilroy: So the genesis of this was this goes back. I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years. Twenty years ago I went into something called a bookstore. They don’t have them anymore. It was a bookstore and there was a big picture book about a guy named Weegee who was a crime photographer in the 1930s. He was the first guy to put a police scanner in a car and he drove around New York City and he took these insane black and white photographs of crime. And I thought wow that’s just a really cool idea for a movie. Joe Pesci did the movie. Time went on I moved out here and about six or seven years ago. I heard about these people who did the job now so I going oh this is like the modern equivalent of this guy from the 30s these guys with video cameras. So I thought wow this the great world I can’t believe nobody’s ever done a movie about this before. So I started thinking “oh it’s like a conspiracy movie it’ll be like a murder mystery kind of thing.” And I kept trying it. I kept beating my head into it. I tried it many times and it just like didn’t feel right. And then a couple of years ago I came up with the idea of the anti-hero and then that fit. So the answer to your question is there are many scripts I’ve worked on for myself where I start – I’ll get ten pages in 40 pages in 70 pages in and I’ll go like “I have to be honest. This is not working.” I’ve invested seven months in this and I’ve had many times to me. And you have to step back and be honest and go. It’s not working and put it aside and then think about it some more and try something else and then try something else. And. So it’s not. Sometimes it doesn’t come easy.

Eric: Once he decided to do the film Mr. Gilroy threw himself into learning everything he could about the news industry and its unique set of characters.

Dan Gilroy: I do a lot of research for a world so like Nina’s dialogue, for example, I will do a lot of jargon like people have a way of speaking in a job that makes it sound – cause right away you want to sell the reality. It’s like Nina’s talking about ‘are you my fill-in operator. And I want a walking stand up.’

— Put the neighbor here and the kids with their mother by the door you can get it back from 216 and I want to play some nat sound. Let’s loop the neighbors talk barking and then try taking the crying kid from b-roll and dropping that in the background. – Got it. – You my fill-in operator? —

Dan Gilroy: I did a lot of research about it she’s always throwing out these things so just so just right away and I’m going like I know I want her to speak like one of these people. And then the hard thing about dialogue is dialogue is moving the story forward without letting the audience know that you’re moving the story forward. So that’s the hard thing about dialogue. It’s not just dialogue. It’s coming up with the concept of the scene. This is the hard part of screenwriting the hard part of screenwriting is taking the story beat by beat. But every time you finish one scene what’s the next scene and how do I tell it. What’s what’s what’s the best possible way that I can compress and tweak it and put a spin on it and then then start to write the dialogue because so often I think you can wind up if the scene is just flat. If the scene has not been conceived if the scene is just a standard seen it before cop procedural whatever it is if you don’t have some spin for it or something different no dialogue in the world is going to sound good. It’s really the dialogue goes hand in hand with the concept of the scene and the concept of the scene is shaped around the idea of how can I go across this little ravine of the story. I’m going to build a bridge but I want it to look different than any other bridge so that’s really it’s wrapped up in that.

Eric: When you read the screenplay it almost feels like a graphic novel or like someone’s telling you the script. It pretty much ignores every rule of screenplay format but it works.

Dan Gilroy: There is no interiors and no exteriors there’s no day or night there. It’s basically one long run on sentence with a lot of little triple dots in between. And I play with the font a lot, where I expand the font really big and make it small and I was in an odd mood and I was experimenting with the style and I just it’s just I just like that style. I’ve never used it before and I’ve never used it since I’m writing another script right now and I’m not using that style for this style it worked. It was like. It was like a stream of consciousness a little bit. I read a lot of screenplays. I’m a screenplay nut. I like to read other people’s screenplays because I like to see what people are doing stylistically because you want to play with the form. I mean you can just do the dry form and you can I mean it works. If you had a good story and whatever but it’s fun to play around and make it your own you should look. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of different slightly different variations of things and it’s kind of interesting double spaces triple spaces cut to’s or no cut to’s and just over direction no direction. I had no parentheticals in this studio that’s the other thing I never indicated at any point what somebody was thinking or feeling. And I never I really almost barely described what people looked like or anything like that was a very it was a 104 page script was very reductive.

Eric:  Once he wrote the script he knew the story was just too important to him to allow someone else to direct it.

Dan Gilroy: I believe if the writer and director are different. Many phenomenal great films have been made that way one of two things are going to happen either the director was going to go I like the writer or I want the writer on the set. Let’s talk about let’s collaborate and somehow you get a similar vision or the director is going to say I don’t want the writer on the set or I want to hire other writers. It’s a directors medium ultimately and so. Writers intent has a much greater chance obviously of getting through. If it’s the writer-director I think – I think a writer-director has a unity of thought that you don’t often find. I mean there’s so many great movies made the other way. There’s just a unity of thought sometimes like Michael Clayton. Tony wrote and directed Michael Clayton. It’s a hermetically sealed thing. It’s just like there’s no daylight between the writing and the directing it’s just perfectly and I think there’s not much daylight between the writing and directing in this. You do get to the point when you see enough for your work get up on screen that it’s like oh dear god I have to do this myself. It just is too painful matter how much they’re paying you or what it comes out like and it just it just certain point you go it’s just, “No no no wrong wrong wrong. That wasn’t what I intended across the board.” So like this one when I wrote this one it’s this is a very personal film to me. This is all of the ideas and themes this is this is this is a window into my my views right now. I mean this is this is what I do so it’s a very personal film to me so I couldn’t envision giving this to anybody else. And the choices that we made on a minute by minute basis would have been made very differently. And the effect would not have been the same. So I had to direct this.

Eric: Mr. Gilroy was equally as passionate about filming the story in Los Angeles and it’s one of the few films that really makes L.A. at night feel like L.A. at night.

Dan Gilroy: It was an L.A. movie because this is where these people do this thing. There was really no other place to set it. So I wanted to shoot here. I’m from New York. But I think L.A. is just really physically beautiful. And I find it physically beautiful and I find it really woefully oddly represented in film because I feel most the time when I see in L.A. film a lot of times it’s like desaturated literally desaturated and it’s kind of yellow and gray and it’s always hazy and if it’s not that then it’s like cement and freeways and it’s just not what I see. I mean just driving here tonight it’s physically beautiful. Coming up over the hills you can see forever there’s this weird desert light and it’s really not cement and freeways. I’m from the East Coast I know cement and freeways this is this L.A. to me is like it’s not even like fully civilized it’s like we’ve colonized it. I feel like, I feel like, like a wave could come in and if it reseeded it would just wash any trace of us out. It would just be like we’d be back to where it was which I love. So we wanted to shoot L.A. as a place that was physically beautiful. So we were picking locations where civilization butted up against an ocean or a national park or a desert just like the sort of sort of civilization sort of petered out. And we also wanted to get a sense of how big it was so we were shooting really wide angle. We went down to 14-millimeter lenses. I wanted you to feel that when you watch the movie when you walked outside if you’d seen it in LA at night you felt like you were sort of stepping out of the movie into the movie. So soft focus to me was not what I was looking for there’s only a couple of soft focus shots we were trying to do deep focus because it brought in as much of the landscape as possible and then the other thing about shooting a night in L.A. is there’s no traffic so you can move. We could do these double moves because you’re out in the middle of the night and I just love the energy at night. Energy is the nighttime is it’s just it’s just cool. It’s just nice there’s so much going on at night and it’s just like it’s a whole it’s another city. Nobody’s around and it’s just like it’s beautiful.

Eric: Despite his being a rookie Mr. Gilroy was able to get Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal to star in Nightcrawler. Mr. Gyllenhaal has had his share of creepy roles before like Donnie Darko and even Prisoners, but this is by far his creepiest.

Dan Gilroy: There are many actors who will never work with a first time director Established actors. And it’s probably smart because really get your trust. So first of all Jake is an extraordinarily bold artistic spirit that he would entrust his career with me. So I flew to Atlanta. He read the script he liked the script. So I sat down with him. Jake said Hey man look I’d love to do this. I want to be a collaborator and creative partner. I want to rehearse. And I was going absolutely. So working with Jake became a process of I had an actor who was so deeply committed to the part and so willing to do almost anything. The only thing he asked of me was something I was already willing to give which was can we try stuff. Let’s not think about whether it works or not. If it doesn’t work we won’t use it but can we try. And I was always yeah if we have time let’s make time let’s try. So for us it was always a thing of experimentation. It was different takes on the set. The whole thing for me when we were on when we were doing a scene was how much time can I buy to allow Jake to do as many takes as he wants to do or I want to do to experiment. It was never about like I have a certain frequency and you have to match that frequency and we’re going to be here until we are. It was never about that. It was really finding this character because this is a very complicated character and we didn’t know ultimately what takes ultimately were going to wind up in the film. Invariably what we wind up doing is we wound up using a lot of takes where he’s smiling again because I wanted to keep that connection between the audience and the character. The second we started going takes where he’s dark or loud then it’s like people go oh he’s he’s the crazy he’s crazy that’s what this movie’s about. So we never wanted that. So working with Jake was really like. Finding a partner who was who wanted to experiment now that’s not going to work for a lot of directors. Jake never changed a word by the way. But we experimented deeply with the character way off the page and found a lot of great stuff.

Eric: Jake Gyllenhaal turned out to be more than just a great performer. He was also an ally who helped Mr. Gilroy fully realize his vision.

Dan Gilroy:  People are looking at you as a first time director and they are so unsure. See what happened was because Jake and I creatively partnered. We formed a team that nobody could touch because Jake is the money your star is the money. So when you’re when your star get something financed few people. Ultimately are going to wedge the star off an idea. If I was out alone if Jake and I had not partnered I would have been susceptible to many strong winds blowing about ideas and processes and things like that which that would have made it even more difficult because what happens a lot of times first time directors. You’ll get your star you’ll get your money then they are going to look at you and go you can’t do it and that’s not and you’re going like this is really important. And they go No you can’t you can’t do that if you’re allied with your star there is nothing they can effing do because your star is going to go Amber is going to do that. And we had that situation.

Eric: Mr. Gyllenhaal even when the Christian Bale route. Losing a ton of weight for the role. Much to the chagrin of the producers.

Dan Gilroy:  This is the producer nightmare. He lost 27 pounds for this part. Two days before we started shooting we had our first camera test and we were over at the color lab and all the big people are over there looking at and now suddenly there’s Jake having lost 27 pounds and it all makes sense now but believe me the producers were flipping out. It was like “Oh my god! I don’t recognize them. He looks bizarre. This whole thing is not going to work. He needs to gain 10 pounds before we start shooting.” But Jake and I were like “No I like it. You like it Jake? Jake likes it. I like it.” Nothing we’re going to do about that.

Eric: Considering this movie’s budget the look of it is just stunning. That’s thanks to Robert Elswit the Oscar-winning cinematographer of the town and There Will Be Blood.

Dan Gilroy:  I was terrified. I’m a first time director working with an Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit. I mean four months before sitting down with Robert. I was I was spending three hours a day studying cinematography so I could at least have conversations with him. It was. I mean Robert Elswit is a great guy but he’s an incredible talent. And I was more nervous about talking to him as almost even talking to Jake. So Robert had just finished shooting Inherent Vice and I had him for three months before we started shooting. He lives in L.A. So Robert and I started getting together twice a week three times a week and we started shot listing. Well, I would spend hours before each meeting I was like OK because I’m now telling Robert Elswit what my shot list is. I still can’t believe it happened. But I did. I have a visual sense of what I wanted and we started talking and Robert was very gracious and tailored and tinkered and whatever so by the time we got I went to every of those locations four times I was massively prepared. I blocked I saw I had a very clear sense and I had a shot list but there were definitely nights at the shot list went out the window. The shot list will go out the window usually. Because you’re running out of time. And when you’re running out of time shots just start falling by the wayside. Or you’re running out of money and they’ll come up to you and they’ll go you don’t have the Condor you don’t have this you don’t have that. Or the shot list will change because you find something that’s better as an example, the scene at the end when Lou brings the footage of Rick dying and it’s the two of them it’s a two-shot and they turn and she goes “How much do you want. You tell me blah blah.”

— Wasn’t that your partner? – As a matter of fact that’s him. – Oh, I’m floored. I mean it’s amazing. – Thank you. – No, thank you. Thank you for bringing it to me. – You’re welcome. – I want it obviously. – How much do you want it? – You tell me. —

Dan Gilroy:  OK so we had I think five shots on our shot list that night. That was the master where we just shot a master and we had paused the tape at such a weird place where Rick was like looking up like this. It was so strangely absurdly horrifically funny. We were kind of like laughing Robert and I. And by the end of the first take Robert and I looked at each other and go like I don’t think we need any more footage, and it’s like I think we’ll just go with the one shot. And I called my brother John who’s the editor and I said “Look I think I’m going to go for the one shot.” He goes, “Dude! Don’t leave me hanging. You got to get coverage.” blah blah blah. I think we’re going to go with the one shot. So there’s times that you that you do definitely. You do want to accommodate the location.

Eric: All this preparation was necessary since Nightcrawler’s low budget meant they could only shoot for a handful of days.

Dan Gilroy: It was a low budget movie. We made this movie for Eight and a half million dollars in 27 days. So there was no time we were moving so fast that locations were dropping out new locations were popping up. Eighty-four locations if you count all of the shots at the beginning. So we were doing double moves many nights double company moves. So there was no time to like to be that formal. You know I’m sure Kubrick and all these people who have like David Lean probably you have all these years to make stuff, I’m sure you could go nutty with it. The only idea we had is like we had gone to locations we knew we knew what lens we were using. We knew the blocking. We had a shot list but there was no we had a vague color palette but it wasn’t really a color palette it was pretty naturalistic to be honest. Wasn’t it wasn’t as formal as that. Maybe next time. I don’t know.

Eric: Mr. Gilroy’s attention to detail continued all the way through post-production.

Dan Gilroy:  The music is incredibly important this movie. Incredibly important. Robert Elswit says that music is more powerful than the visuals. Robert Elswit, “What I do is important but of course the music is more important.” Music is an incredibly powerful tool. And so when I sat down with James Newton Howard. I told him I said look I said the music in this movie is the music in his head. This is the soundtrack in Lou’s head. We never pass moral judgment on this character through the music. And the example would be if for one minute we had put it Kronos Quartet type violin. You would have gone like, “Oh yeah he’s crazy. He’s a total nut.” Instead. The music, in the beginning, is this soaring uplifting triumph of the human spirit. And when he steals the bike and goes in a salvage yard it’s like it’s like this cue from Wall-E. It’s like oh he’s lil industrious guys is just instead of like oh just he actually just stole something or. Or when he’s dragging the body. It’s an electric guitar. That just starts to like get really loud and powerful. So we celebrate him.

So the music is doing this tremendous psychological job for us it’s keeping people who are engaged in the film it’s keeping them from judging him. That’s what this music is doing and it’s beautiful music. James did an incredible score. The only thought I had was I have to do everything I can for the audience to like this guy. That’s my only thought. I thought if not like him but if you can not write him off so cinematically Robert Elswit I would never put a shadow across his face when he’s doing something. Matter of fact. Usually, when he’s doing something wrong he would usually try to pull back and make him small in the frame. So it was like like trying to minimize what he’s doing. Oh don’t judge this guy you know because the acts speak for themself. He kills seven people in this movie. If you add it all up I wanted it to be like a punch in the face. I wanted it to be shocking. I want it to be like psychologically like what the F it’s like what the hell just happened. I don’t why am I engaged with this guy. Why. Why do I like him and what’s wrong with me and that’s what I wanted. These are all the questions that I wanted. Because we are part of this world. You know, we’re all in it together.

Eric: When you watch Nightcrawler it feels like it’s Dog Day Afternoon on wheels. Or maybe what a road movie would look like. If Sidney Lumet had directed it in the 70s.

Dan Gilroy: People say this is like a 70s film in the 1970s. There was a lot going on the Vietnam War was winding down. There was a lot of energy about changing the world and a lot of idealism so in the movies in the 70s people said stuff. And the reason they said stuff is because if you were in the 70s and you made a movie and you didn’t say something. All your friends are like what the F are you making a movie for if. It doesn’t say anything. You are utterly looked down upon. I mean I was like I assumed you’re going to say something movies now. Are almost all escapist. They’re escapist by definition of being superhero movies or sequels it’s all about escapist entertainment. What I believe about this film is it’s rare in the sense that something’s being said some I’m trying to say something. And I do believe that because we live in an age of escapist entertainment not too many people are trying to say larger things. So I mean there probably are some but I want to say there isn’t anybody but I think if you want to succeed do what people are not doing. And right now nobody is putting messages in movies don’t make a message movie because will be boring. But, but if you want to put in something that you feel strongly about that has some societal value that you think other people it’s a plus and a movie it’s not a negative. I think.

Eric: I’m not sure about you but I am ready to watch this again. Thanks to Dan Gilroy for the lesson in how to get away with murder and to all of you for listening. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner based on the guest speaker series produced and moderated by Tova Laiter. The episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden; produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and myself; executive produced by Jean Sherlock, Dan Mackler and Tova Laiter. Special thanks to Mike Civille for co-moderating and to Aeriel Segard Robert Cosnahan, Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcasts.

See you next time.

Now if you don’t mind I’m going to go watch me some Freejack.

 

Transcript

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy and in this episode, we bring you the Oscar-nominated Edward James Olmos

— We’re a long way from home. We’ve jumped way beyond the red line into uncharted space.

There are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do because of your name and your complexion.

So say we all – So say we all! – So say we all – So say we all! – So say we all – So say we all!

You’re acting like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. What’s wrong with you guys!?

You bet she won’t live, but then again who does? —

Eric: A true renaissance man. He has starred in Stand and Deliver, Battlestar Galactica, and Blade Runner. He’s directed American Me. He’s produced and he even plays music. But before all that Mr. Olmos paid his dues for years as a struggling actor you know the main thing is time.

Edward Olmos: You need time. So right now when you’re in the process of understanding your growth is where you’d take the time to develop discipline. Discipline, determination, perseverance and the key ingredient to all of this is patience. You must be willing to give yourself the time to learn it and the time to do it. And a lot of people get really frustrated after ten years and I did 14 years of theater before I got my first paycheck. I worked seven days a week from 1960 when I was 14. I work today seven days a week. Even when I go on vacation. I’m either thinking about it doing it. Or reading about it or watching it. Something to do with my craft. And never let it go. And you know I learned that from playing baseball when I was playing baseball.

I ended up being very good at a very young age. I was very good. I mean I didn’t I couldn’t catch a ball at the age of six. They throw it to me and it hit me. I couldn’t catch it. And then I started to play it every day. Seven days a week not six not five not four seven big difference and people say to me “how is that possible that you could sit there and say to us that you did something seven days a week?” I said it’s pretty easy.

You do it every day because you have to. Don’t question someone when they say to you I love doing this. I have the discipline to do the things I love to do when I don’t feel like doing them.

Learn that hell you could do this every day because you love doing that even on the day that you don’t feel like doing it. You do it. And on that day you get the most out of it the day. I don’t feel like doing something and I do it. I learned much more than on the day that I feel like doing it. Matter of fact today at the age of 65 it’s harder for me to find days that I don’t feel like doing it. And I look for those days on those days when I don’t feel like doing it. And I go off and I do it I go all right. God, I wouldn’t have realized this. This is a great day. That.

Makes you a consummate artist, a master. And anybody can do it. All of us can become masters and we each touch it differently. If I had 18 people do the same exact part everybody would touch it differently. And that’s the beauty of living.

We all have our own thumbprint.

Eric: Mr. Olmos learned from some of the masters of the craft. And after all this time he still enjoys the process of discovery that comes with each role.

Edward Olmos: You know I’ve been very fortunate. I passionately have loved everything that I’ve done with passion and that really is the key.

I’ve been offered work and I could have been a lot richer and a lot more famous really could have had I done the things that they wanted me to do. But it didn’t have the passion for it. And so I let fame and fortune go. And even though they want to pay me lots of money I just said I can’t do this. I really wish I could. I wish it was that great of an artist that I could just do anything I wanted to do. And anything that’s offered to me I could do it but that’s not how it works. You really have to understand it as well and you understand the food you eat if you eat fast food all the time and that’s all you do you don’t even think about what you’re eating. It’s over. You’ll be dead. Real quick a lot quicker than a person who really tries to understand the value of the food that they’re eating and really make it that you know the eating is the key.

Like drinking this you got to drink this a lot every day. If you don’t it’s OK. There might be a year two years three years you can get through with the way you’re doing it. But soon your kidneys shut down you don’t understand why you’re feeling the way you feel and your body’s giving up. You also need that for the soul in which you work with in the art form. If you do not have that passion for it. You know. Why are you going to do it. What are you getting out of it.

The experience. It’s better to experience something that. You have passion for it than something you don’t. So I turned around I said to myself I’m not going to do it this way. Granted I’m not known throughout the world. Granted I turned down some major major pieces of work but it gave me the opportunity to create things that I could have never done had I done it the other way.

I’ve been very specific.

Eric: The always reliable internet claims that Mr Olmos turned down the role of Picard in Star Trek Next Generation. Fortunately, Mr almost did not turn down his greatest role.

Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

— This is basic math but basic math is too easy for you burros. We will go step by step, inch by inch. Calculus was not made to be easy it already is.

Maybe they all made the same mistakes because they all had the same teacher teaching them the same program. I taught them step by step, all the same way.

Those scores would’ve never been questions if my kids did nt have Spanish surnames and come from barrio schools, you know that!–

It’s the inspirational true story of a math teacher in a poor East L.A. school who proved his students could pass the AP Calculus exam. Thirty years after the movie came out its message and impact has only grown.

Edward Olmos:  Now this film has got a really interesting reputation.

But it’s been seen by it’s the most viewed film of any film in the history of film in the United States. It beat Gone With The Wind and Avatar will never catch up to it. It’s just impossible. It’s the reason being is that more than half of all the children in high school have seen it because it’s shown in. High schools across the country. So it’s been millions and millions of kids that see it. I find it to be interesting because it’s something that once you see this film and they usually show in the classroom and then the teacher gets up in front of the class to teach right after seeing this film I think it’s quite brave of the teacher. Because it’s a really difficult journey after that. I mean this guy really really made a difference in the final year that he taught. He’s teaching in Sacramento. And the final final year he taught he taught 250 kids. Prepared them for the AP calculus test. That’s one teacher. And you know that’s a lot of kids in one year to get ready to take your advanced placement test.

Eric: When capturing the character Mr. Olmos got indispensable advice from the man himself.

Edward Olmos: Something that happened in 1983. I was. Given a major award by the NAACP and they had given it to me for humanitarian of the year and they gave the best teacher of the year to Jaime. And in May is when this happened by June they had gotten the results and so they went on to you know celebrate and he became a celebrity. I mean it was a shot heard round the world that you know 18 kids from East L.A. inner city school going out and doing this and having some of the highest scores of all time in the history of the test. And so it really everybody was in Nirvana and then about.

I’d say about six weeks later we became friends and we talked and you know he’s a wonderful man. I’m so grateful that I had some time to to practice my art before I had that responsibility because that responsibility was amazing. It was a really important. He was there every day. Yeah he helped me write the script. We rewrote the script in six days. It’s quite amazing. This man was a total genius and his genius came out.

I would ask him a question I said what happened to you when you had the heart attack. He says Wow man I and he acted it out. I hit my arm and I was kind of like going down and I hit the and I did exactly what he told me to do I did the same thing and fell on my face and my my head went into the ground. He said I slid down the steps and my all the way to my face hit hit the ground. I said OK.

There we go. One take guys let’s do it. We did it one take.

I couldn’t couldn’t do it again. I mean it was dangerous. I mean you see it you see me and I go right to the ground and stay there. When he got out of the hospital you know he was supposed to stay there a while he only stayed there 48 hours two days and he came right out. And then when he came out he says I said well what did you do. He goes went straight to the school. I said oh my god. And what did you do. Well I walked to the door and I go. Hey me conguros, how are you doing. I got conguros he says yeah Kangaroos. That’s what I call them. And so I said OK here we go. And then he said. And then what did you do. He says well I told them to line up against the wall like a snake. OK. I mean who could write that shit. Think about it.

That’s why it holds up as soon as you use a solid understanding of truth inside of this medium which is really the documentation of human behavior dramatized so it’s fiction but it’s dramatized and as soon as you use it in this manner and you’re really honest to them to the situation it’s timeless.

Once I met him and once we started into this. And then when it happened and they were accused of cheating. It was devastating. And they got more publicity on the fact that they were cheaters than they had gotten by passing the examination. So that really became the issue. So as soon as that happened I called him up and we got together and we got the right to do the movie for a dollar. So we paid him a dollar. We had no money. Give me a buck. Let’s go for it. He made a lot of money of the picture in the end because we worked out a deal here. It takes time. And the key ingredient is just the quality of that story that you want to tell. What is the story that you’re telling. How much passion do you have for it and then from that moment on you have to sell it.

— The students will live to the level of expectations senor Molina. Ganas, that’s all we need is ganas.

Do you have the desire, do you have the ganas? – Yes, I have the ganas? – Do want me to do it for you? Yes!  -You’re supposed to say no!

Don’t five them any opportunity to call you cheaters. You are the true dreamers. And dreams accomplish wonderful things.  —

Eric: The students in Stand and Deliver showed the ganas needed to succeed which is also a good lesson for navigating Hollywood.

Edward Olmos: The story was fantastic. I mean here’s a teacher in the middle of an inner city school. This guy taught these kids how to do this and this is not easy and hardly anyone believed in them. Very few people even their own parents believed that they could do this. And the school teaches the other school teachers the head of the mathematics department all the whole story it’s about a story And then the guy.

Helps them he gets them there and they accuse him of cheating because they didn’t miss enough. Yeah they didn’t miss enough. They should be given you know awards. It should be you know for not missing and they go no no no no in this case not only did they not cheat but he had one day 24 hours to prepare the kids to take a test in August after they finished taking the test in May.

And he started from page 1 of the book. And so my. Whole understanding was it was a great story and that’s what drove me. Did you guys see walk walkout.

What a movie what a story. Took us 10 years to make that movie. Anybody see American me. 18 years to make that story.

Caught anybody caught. Maria Conchita Alonzo. 27 years. I’ve been working on one story for 30 years and I pray to God that I’ll be able to complete it. The story on Roy Benavides a Medal of Honor winner. I developed that here once and they don’t get it. They just don’t get it. They don’t realize that what really is needed to self-esteem self-respect and self-worth. You put that into infuse that into a student you infuse that into people and they don’t hurt themselves. They don’t get themselves into trouble because they like themselves they don’t want to hurt anybody. They don’t want anybody to hurt them. They don’t want to hurt anybody. But if you lack in self-esteem self-respect and self worth then you look for trouble. And then you don’t mind inflicting harm on others. That’s a given it that knowledge and we need heroes. We need women heroes.

We need ethnic heroes who made this country. White people I’m white I’m half white half brown. I mean I’m a mestizo. I’m a mixture a Mexican is half indigenous and half European. There was no Mexicans before the Europeans impregnated the culture. OK. None. And people say whoa your’e getting really really harsh here.

It’s like shocking. Is this guy guys you know is this guy. Prejudice or discriminatory this guy. No I’m not. What I am is is frustrated.

I’m trying to do a story on it. On a Latin hero and I was lucky I got to do this one. This is a Latino hero and a national hero. Like Roy Benavides. I mean he’s got ships named after him he’s one of the great Medal of Honor winners of all time.

I may not be able to make it because 30 years is a long time trying to make a movie.

Eric: When asked about being typecast Mr. Olmos stressed his Latino pride while pointing out the double standard in how some actors are labeled.

Edward Olmos: I’ve been very fortunate. I don’t feel that it’s a.

Difficult position to be in to be Latino or to be anything really and play those roles. There’s so much to be said inside of this art form that to play those roles which have never been played before. No one’s ever made a zoot suit. No one’s ever made a ballad a Grigorio Cortez or a stand and deliver. These are the first films that have ever been made about Latinos. You know the culture doing any of this work and it gets a little frustrating you know so I don’t mind spending my entire life and I never have inside of my culture just telling stories from my cultural point of view it’s I am Latino. So what they going to call me a Latino actor a lot of people don’t like the hyphen. Because they feel that it limits them.

Can you imagine somebody going up to Robert De Niro and saying ladies and gentlemen that great Italian American actor Robert De Niro. Oh the great Jewish American actor Dustin Hoffman. But they do say that you know son of a bitch. Actor Latino actor Edward James Olmos they do that. They do do that. They they put Latino in front of my name all the time. And that’s OK for me. I’m very proud of my heritage and my culture. The people who are afraid of being categorized as a Latino. They’ve got to take a look at themselves and really look at the possibilities of creating characters because every time I create a character that becomes me and everybody goes oh I saw you man you’re your Adama or gosh I say Dexter you are so I loved you on Dexter I say how could you love me.

On Dexter you’re sick. I mean if you came to me and said I hated you and Dexter made you were like it’s crazy man but it.

Had to have a sense of understanding of itself totally it could not just be a gratuitous or romanticized glamorized piece of work. I can’t do that. My aesthetic doesn’t allow me to do that.

Eric: When comparing two of his most iconic roles Admiral Adama in Battlestar Galactica and Lieutenant Castillo in Miami Vice Mr. Olmos found unlikely inspiration in one of his other passions music.

Edward Olmos:  I think Adama and Battlestar Galactica was really really complex character and my character in that character in Miami Vice.

Completely different kinds of characters. But you know the way I developed those characters was through music. I have to find the music or I have to create the music I sang Rock and Roll for since 1960 I was a rock n roll singer is great I was really really bad.

Rock n Roll allows you to do anything you want to do it’s rock and roll. So I started singing rock n roll in 1960. I’ll never forget my father he freaked out. My father did not talk to me for two years because I stopped doing baseball seven days a week. I just stopped cold turkey put my cleats down one day never picked them up again. I went to right next door to my neighbor’s house who he played guitar the year was 1960. That was before the Beatles before the stones and we were playing and just like this is fun this is fun and we did it every day seven days a week instead of playing ball.

It was in the garage playing singing you know songs. And I couldn’t sing and I still can’t sing I really can’t sing but I can scream and I can dance. So I would like scream sing a little bit and then I’d scream and then I’d dance for like 10 minutes.

And with that music became an integral part of my understanding of my life. And when I graduate from high school in 1964 I went into my first year of college which was at East Los Angeles Community College not Harvard Yale East LA Community College.

Yes East LA college.

I went there because I was dyslexic but I didn’t know I was dyslexic I didn’t find out I was dyslexic two my children were diagnosed with dyslexia. Then I found out that I had it they didn’t know what it was they thought I was just lazy lazy or dumb. I chose lazy said I’m lazy bust my ass I get a C. It was really hard but it didn’t matter. Because again the discipline got me through it. When I went into college in 1964.

It went from music to theater and from theater into television and motion picture. But in that process every time I got a character I started to look for the characters music. And as soon as I found the music for the character I knew the character. There is some very basic roots that you have to keep you know. Know where you’re coming from.

Know where you are know where are you going don’t bump into the furniture.

Simple things that you must do. The basics that always come about. Music is one of them for me. So I do all my basic that are always the same going getting into any character and then whatever the character needs then I go for that.

I have to do research because sometimes you know you don’t have enough time. You have to have time and sometimes you get to job and in television especially you go for audition on Thursday and Monday you start work and you have to come up with a character and you have to be able to understand that character and put it on film. Basically it’s music. Music is the key for my whole existence in filmmaking.

Eric: Mr. Olmos warned our students that the wrong attitude and an oversized ego can cause countless problems for a working actor.

Edward Olmos: Ego big one.

Can’t do it without one. That’s the issue. The issue is how do you maintain it. How do you control it. How do you you know make sure that you’re working off a centered. Understanding not an egotistical understanding that in turn will. Pretty much drive you crazy. You get so full of yourself. Pretty soon you’ll believe everything they say about you and then you get to the point where you can’t even go outside because you just I can’t go outside. People often ask me How do you walk through an airport. I go put one foot in from the other. No no way. Don’t you have to. Don’t people bother you. I said no they don’t. People come up. And they’ll talk to you but you know they don’t bother you.

And if I hadn’t done this work you guys wouldn’t know who I am I could walk in the room and you would give a shit who cares. So I’ve asked for the attention. It’s not like I didn’t ask for it. I made myself hey look at me. I can act I can walk. I can run I can dance and I cause the attention and a lot of people get a lot of attention. You know Tom Cruise and everybody they get tons of attention. You know when Jennifer Lopez got all of her attention. I was with her when she could walk down the street.

And now she can’t. And I feel bad for her.

I said why can’t you walk down the street. Oh Eddie man I’m you man. When I walk down the street people are going nuts I said Yeah well maybe you should try to understand why they’re doing that. And how do you get past that. I remember when Don Johnson got his bodyguards and then I heard somebody say boy there will be a day when he won’t need the bodyguards and nobody’s going to tell him. Wow that’s really.

That’s really interesting. Better not to get body guard than to get bodyguards and all of a sudden find out you don’t really need them you’re still walking around with them. here he comes.

But you know I understand that some of us get to a level where it really I mean you walk into a room and people just fall over themselves they just can’t even talk to you. People come up to me and they cannot talk to me. They start to cry and they want to thank me but they can’t say it. They just stand there and they’re crying and they’re trying to talk but they’re so overwhelmed because I’ve done something to them in their lives and they created this so I could either turn around and say Please get yourself together. Really interesting ego or the same ego going. Thank you so much different.

Both ego both saying in themselves OK I know who I am and you know not acting like you know what what’s wrong what happened. You know you really understand what you’re doing. I have an ego a big one.

You know and it’s with me all the time. But I tend to understand it enough to be able to say to people first I’m grateful you must be grateful for just getting up in the morning really but you must be grateful. Sitting in this room I don’t know how you got here. Think about how you chose your line of work.

How you chose to be here and do this. What got you here.

What gave you the feeling that you could do this whatever that was. It’s pumping your ego.

Because you’re being successful at it and if you keep on doing this you’re going to say well I mean I remember I came from new jersey or I came from you know from Kansas or whatever and I couldn’t you know I didn’t know what a camera was or I didn’t know how to act. Now I’m they like me and I’m doing good. Well yeah. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Thank you. Yes I am.

So you know basically how do you deal with an ego you deal with it you deal with it and you try to be a nice person. And don’t forget where you come from. Be grateful everyday man thankful when you go to sleep.

Grateful when you wake up.

Eric: When discussing how to succeed in the entertainment industry. He stressed that actors shouldn’t just wait for the perfect role.

Edward Olmos: You should all produce your own movies.

Serious as a heart attack anybody who wants to be in this industry I’m telling you right now become a producer produce your own films so that you can act on them so you can write them so you can develop them so you can create them so you can direct them. I produce direct act and write my own stories and out of necessity.

It wasn’t like I wanted to do it. It’s just a necessity to do my acting. There was no way that me a Latino in 1963 64 when all there was I think there was three Latinos that were recognized at that moment in time. And even today today the minorities.

Have the hardest time. And we always know that it’s a given. But that’s changing. That’s why it’s so important what you’re doing – especially the women. I see a lot of women in here that’s really important for you to realize that you’re hitting it right at the right time. Educate yourself to the fullest have the understanding and the confidence to move forward in your craft. And the only people I know that haven’t made it are the ones who quit. Everybody that stays in it makes choices is yours.

Good luck.

Eric: In other words, don’t wait for your shot make your own. Thank you to Edward James Olmos for talking with our students and thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was written by me Eric Conner based on the guest speaker series produced and moderated by Tova Laiter. The episode was edited and mixed by Christian hated Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Christian Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Jean Sherlock. Dan Mackler and Tova Laiter a special thanks to Aerial Segard Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcasts see you next time and Mr. Olmos. What do you need.

 

Transcript

Eric: I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy and today we bring you a woman who’s reinvented her career multiple times. Stephanie Allain, the producer behind “Black Snake Moan,” “Dear White People” and the Oscar-winning “Hustle and Flow.”

— Man ain’t like a dog. And when I say “man” I’m talking about “man” as in “mankind,” not “man” as in “men.”

Dear White people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.

There are two types of people, those that talk the talk and those that walk the walk.

Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.

Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? – Why? – I’ll tell you why. For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.

It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, it the size of the fight in the dog.–

Eric: Miss Allain’s first love was writing though her life after school quickly put her on another path.

Stephanie Allain: I love writing. I mean that’s actually how I got into this business because I love stories. I mean I can remember as a young girl reading “The Godfather” and then going to see it at the El Rey you know reading “The Exorcist” and going to the Wiltern to see the movie. I was really into the relationship between the page and the screen. So, I studied English at school that was that was my thing with an emphasis in creative writing.

Then life caught up to me pretty quickly because I got pregnant right out of school and sort of became less interested in my own creative pursuits.

Eric: She was able to work her way up in the entertainment industry by reading – a lot.

Stephanie Allain: I think my biggest education in this business has been my years as a script reader I started at CAA as a book reader. I got that job when I was with a newborn because it was something I could do with the baby I could nurse and read.

Now like this – it’s like, the ultimate multitasking.

So. the process of reading educates you so much you guys should be reading every single thing and get your hands on and not only just reading them but writing your own coverage just for yourself. You know a paragraph of synopsis – first of all this is what you do: logline – make it real short and sweet, capture what it is, then do a little paragraph synopsis and then a paragraph of comments and notes that discipline. And I’m saying I did it when we had typewriters – I’m so old.  I can’t believe it! I did it when we had typewriters at CAA. We would read the thing, and then we’d go sit at the typewriter, put the paper in and just start writing it. I mean the only thing you had was like, whiteout. You couldn’t even go back. That was my education really. And what happens is you start to assimilate the form that works so that by page 10 if nothing’s happening you’re like going why isn’t anything happening like your instinct just sort of kicks in. You know? At the end the first act you’re like well how come they’re not in the new world yet? You know, I’m saying like why -ha why are we still at the same place we’ve been at for the last half hour? I don’t get it. You start to know what should be happening and then you can sort of when you have that form down and then I’ve also done a lot of reading which I totally recommend. You know you have to read Ziegfeld you have to read Linda Seger.

You have to read all of those books you have to read save the cat you know you have to read all of them because they’re all saying the same thing number one and number two. It’s just a different way of saying it. So, whatever way you key into that’s it. You know story Robert McKee so heady. I mean I like to sort of just dream about it and then go, “OK it’s too much for me.” But those forms are your pillars really. So, first of all, you have to know all of the form, and you have to read a ton of stuff and then you have to write synopses and loglines and if you’d do that for a thousand scripts you will be a master because you will understand form so well that you will pick up a script and you’ll just know like so quickly whether this is this is somebody who is taking you on a ride; somebody who is confidently telling you a story or not and that’s how I read. And also the writing of the logline is so important because it’s actually teaching you how to pitch. That’s actually teaching you how to synopsize, how to encapsulate, how to pull the subject, the protagonist, how to pit that protagonist against an obstacle, and how to suggest a possible conclusion.

And that’s really when you’re in a room and you’re pitching, that’s what you’re telling the story about a woman who does this, and faces all this and you know, maybe or maybe doesn’t do it.

— South Central, Los Angeles a place where drugs, crime, and violence rule the streets.

Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? – Why? – For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.

We got a problem here?! We got a problem here?! – Can we have one night where there ain’t no fight and nobody gets shot? – Mama’s boy! —

Eric: Her career took a massive step forward when she discovered the script for “Boyz n the Hood” written by then 23-year-old John Singleton.

Stephanie Allain: When I found the script for “Boyz n the Hood” I had just been promoted out of the story department and my job was to read scripts. I was a CE and I had to go find material. This was so long ago that Warner Brothers and Columbia shared the lot right here. I’m very much dating myself but it’s a long time ago and Dawn Steel was the president, she hired me. I worked for her and Amy Pascal. At that point Peter Goober and John Peters – they came in and they wanted their own lot and they purchased that lot. They purchased the Thalberg building and we were in the process of moving. Actually, I was looking to replace myself in the story department and I heard about John. I was, of course, the only black person story department. I said I have to replace myself with a person of color. John was at school. He was a reader. He came in for the job and only wants to talk about the script he’d written “Boyz n the Hood.” So I eventually pried it from his grubby, little hands and read it in my office and just wept. And I literally knew at that moment what I was there to do. I was there to get that movie made and it was one of those epiphany kind of moments. But I knew that we were in the middle of a move. They were trying to make Ghostbusters 2. That was just like not at all on anybody’s radar. This little movie about South Central – I went to school in Inglewood, I knew these kids, I related to this script and I, I took it to every single executive one by one.

This is a good technique too, producers. You have to circle your wagons like going into a group without talking to every single person before you talk to the group is a bad idea. Talk to every single person separately tell them why this is important to you. Why, why you’re even bothering with it, why are you asking them to read something. So a lot of time is a big commitment. So know why, Number one, and then be able to articulate it because that’s what I did. I went to every single executive separately. And I said “Do this for me.” I have been reading all their scripts and giving them notes I said please read this from me I’ll tell you why it’s important. I did that for every single person. So by the time we got to the other lot everybody had read it and everybody had promised me that they got it and they were going to support me. And it was kind of crazy again at the studio. I was the only executive of color no maybe Kevin Jones was there but I could count them on one hand and guess what? I can still count them on one hand. That is 20 some years later. And the reason that we had a run at Columbia of John Singleton and Robert Rodriguez and Darnell Martin is because I was at the table. I was the one saying this is important to me. This is the movie we should make.

This is why I want to make this movie because I had I related to it I had sensitive eyes to the material. It wasn’t that the other people were racists or bad or anything they just didn’t have the sensitivity to that material they couldn’t express to each other why was passionately important to them because it just wasn’t. So basically, we turned to Frank Price and Frank Price is a guy who really doesn’t give a f***. He just says he wants to say. And he was like I think we should make it right there. And by this time I was sweating I was like I was so betrayed I was like oh my heart was beating fast you know sitting there holding myself back from arguing with them about it you know, because you can’t. You’ve got to put your stuff on the table and everybody gets to throw their stuff at it you know. But then he said he was going to do it so I was happy the beauty of boys was that they had to promote me to VP which I jumped over director of development right through VP because there was nobody to supervise it and you had to be a VP to supervise so I got this huge raise I got to VP and that was like “I have no idea what I’m doing.” I didn’t know and I had to fake it till I made it. That’s how I did it. That’s how I got through it. You know you have to be reasonably smart and you have to watch and listen. But then you just have to kind of fake it and then you learn just by doing it.

I did know that I had a job with a great producer so I put in with Steve Nikolaidis who had produced a lot of Rob Reiner’s movies and they loved each other right off. So then the studio was so busy they literally didn’t care. They’re like here’s 5 million dollars. Knock yourself out. We got movies to make. So that’s what we did. And I just sort of. As an executive you know executives a very different job from producer but I always knew I was more with the camp with but with the production I sort of knew that you know. So I stayed with them a lot and then you know, we made this great movie very very short amount of time. Everything happened so quickly I think we started shooting in August or prep in August and by May we were on the carpet at Cannes. That’s how crazy it was.

And then we got a 20-minute standing ovation at the premiere in France and that’s when we sort of knew wow this is something.

— In 1991 Columbia Pictures introduced you to an extraordinary new filmmaker and an unforgettable new vision. The director was 23-year-old John Singleton. The film, “Boyz n the Hood.” Now Columbia Pictures is proud to present a remarkable new film from another extraordinary new talent. The director is 23-year-old Robert Rodriguez. The film, “El Mariachi.”

Eric: The success of “Boyz n the Hood” gave her autonomy at Columbia Pictures and the credibility to release a seven thousand dollar movie, “El Mariachi” directed by Robert Rodriguez. Now since then, he has gone on to bigger projects Spy Kids,” “Sin City,” and Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” but at that time he was just a young man willing to sell his own blood literally, to finance his film.

Stephanie Allain: When I did “Boyz n the Hood” I was like a huge star after that because people were like Who is this girl and what is that movie and that movie made 65 million dollars off of five million dollar budget. And John was nominated for two Oscars and it was all over the news. Unfortunately, people died in the theater the first weekend. You know it was like there was just this whole sort of perfect storm that happened. Right. And because of it I got totally left alone at the studio. They’re like “Well, whatever you’re doing you’re doing it right. So just keep on doing it. You don’t have to do the last action hero anymore.” And I was so grateful. So basically I got a call from Robert Newman who is still his agent and he said I have a movie for you to watch. So I pop it in at home and we’re eating dinner and it’s so good I don’t even have to and I know a little Spanish. But it wasn’t that I just did the visual storytelling was so good. So I was like “Who is this guy? – It’s like Dude Robert. He does it all, he’s a cartoonist!” So, so I got I got on a plane. This is very important too, you gotta go where the artist is. That means so much to them. Like she came all this way. And I got down there and I met his mom and dad met his 12 siblings and I took them out for barbecue. And you know, I said, “Let’s do this. Come back to the studio.”

So he did and we remade that movie. Well actually first we finished it because it wasn’t even assembled really like – the film. We made it, we added like a million dollars – this was a seven thousand dollar movie that we added million dollars to and we released it. And then he wanted to remake it because that was the deal.

I said, “Come on back we’ll remake, it will be big, everybody will see it.” And then Peter Guber had the great idea – this is like – “No this’ll be the seven thousand dollar studio movie and we’re going to release it.” So that’s what we did. And then he basically wanted to do another movie it was “Desperado.” But there was no Mexican star. I’ll just be honest there was no Diego Luna. There was no Gael. There was only Antonio Banderas, who by the way is not Mexican he’s Spanish.

And so, he was like no, “It has to be Mexican!” And I was like, “Dude, there’s no Mexican it has to be Antonio.” And so I brought Antonio to the studio. That’s the good thing about being with the studio, the really cool things like do whatever you want to do. It’s like, you just call people up and go “I’m calling from Columbia Pictures and I’d like I’d like Mr Banderas to come to the studio for a private screening of you know, ‘Mariachi.'” And that’s what happened. I remember Antonio did not speak English. I was practicing a little bit of my Spanish and I showed them the movie. He was really impressed. I don’t know how – I basically I think what happened is they said, “Dude, we’re not making a movie unless you make it with Antonio.” So Robert was sort of forced to do it. And then of course now they’re muse and director.

Eric: After the bullets and mayhem of El Mariachi Miss Allain went on to the greener pastures of Jim Henson Studios, the home of Kermit the Frog. Get it? Greener? …because Kermit’s green…

Stephanie Allain: I left the studio to go run Jim Henson Pictures. That was a disaster. I made five movies. They were all disasters. My Muppet movie if you ever see it is terrible but it opens with Kermit singing “Brick House. Okay, so it’s an aberration. “Elmo in Grouchland” was my other big movie. I had kids running for the aisles during the preview screenings. It was horrifying.

They were running screaming trying to get out of there. It was so bad that we ended up putting Bert and Ernie in the movie freezing the movie and going. “Don’t worry kids everything’s going to be OK.”

— Wait, wait stop the film! Stop the film! Ernie! Ernie! – What’s the matter Bert? – What’s happening to Elmo? – Oh, don’t worry Bert! That’s just the way to get to Grouchland. – Oh. – Roll film. —

I hired Mandy Patinkin to be a bad guy. It was it was a total disaster and then you know. To make matters worse I fell in love with my boss and got fired. I mean it could not have been worse.

Eric: Miss Allain left Jim Henson Studios and made the bold move to start her own production company.

Stephanie Allain: Then I got off the wheel. Then I was out of the rat race of Hollywood because you know, once you’re in it you are in it and you’ve got to keep up. There’s too much information coming that you have to know about. You have to read the trades. You have to read the scripts. You have to see the movies. It’s a full-time job you know. So I got out and I was 40 years old. I had a 16-year-old, son a 6-year-old son. I was divorced by that time and living on my own and this fabulous house in Hancock Park and going, “What is going on?” So then I just started doing what I did before I started dancing. I was a dancer went to a Cal Arts grad school for dance. I was a writer so I started writing so I wrote. I danced every day oh my god it was in great shape. My son was 16 he fancied himself you know a dancer but I was like, “You’re no dancer. You’re no dancer till you can look at that combo and do it right then on the spot.” And I made dinner. I was such a good mom I was so good. And then I got really bored and I was like, “OK now what? What are going to do?” And then Irwin Staf called me and said, “Do you want to work at three arts?” And I was like “Sure!” That didn’t last either because I’m not like a management agent type.

— It’s like all my days I’ve been hearing this beat in my head. – Heavy percussion, repetitive hooks,  sexually suggestive lyrics, man, it’s all blues, brother.

It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, it the size of the fight in the dog.

We do what the f*** we gotta do man, by any means. Ain’t that right?! We take care of our s***. You think I like this s***?! You think I wanna spend the rest of my life pimping your pimpled country ass? —

Eric: When she came across the script for “Hustle and Flow” she immediately knew it had to be made. But despite being a script that excited pretty much everyone who read it, “Hustle and Flow” still had a long, arduous road to the screen.

Stephanie Allain: I found that script and I thought this is what I want to do. My contract was done and I said, “Yeah, I don’t want to do that I’m just going to figure out how to make this movie” and then that turned into four years of like pedaling around town. And I just I woke up one day and I was like, “I don’t need the house. It’s holding me back. You know I have to pay this mortgage. I’ve got kids going to NYU.” By this time I was like, I can’t do it. I’m single. It was a hard, hard time. And I just call my broker and I said, “sell the house.” Now, this is a really bad idea because it was when the house prices were just starting to really take off. But I had to divest. I knew it. I had to get rid of it. It sold in like two seconds. I didn’t have a place to live. That’s how fast it sold. So I went backwards. I went back to Park La Brea. You know? But the freedom – because what it enabled me to do. So I did make money on the house. I’m not dumb. I did make some money on the house and I said I’m going to take 250 (thousand) of it and make this movie. That was my plan. I was tired of waiting for “yes.” Nobody wanted to give me “yes.” And I wanted “yes” so I had to make “yes.” So I took the money, I called my friend John and I said, “look, I got the hottest script in town. You got to read it!” And he’s like, Ok, ok!” I gave it to him and months went by. I was like, “Ugh! Jesus, what am I doing? I’m sitting in Park La Brea. I got this bank account but no job, nothing to do”. And then he calls me. I remember it was Cinco de Mayo. He was on the set of “Fast and the Furious,” the version he did. And he said, “this shit is great!”

And I said, “Isn’t it great?! You finish it?” He was like, “nah, nah, nah, I haven’t finished it. But it’s great.” And that it was the kind of script when you started reading it you just got so excited and just like, I’m in the midst of greatness. And then I said, “well, finish it and then call me.” So now he goes, “come here. You have to come down here.”

I went down the Universal soundstage. Everybody had margaritas, and we just said, “look, here’s what we have to do. You have to make it ourselves and it’s going to be great.” He was like, “No, no, no, I’m making “Fast and the Furious” – it’s going to make all this money. Don’t worry. We got this. We got this.” And that’s when we peddled it back around. I must have gone to everybody five times before I showed it at Sundance. And he finally just wrote the check.

Eric: Though “Hustle and Flow” eventually earned him an Oscar nomination, Terrence Howard was initially reluctant to sign up for the part that would change his career.

Stephanie Allain: At the time Terrence was sort of known as “Q” from “The Best Man.” That was the most impactful role that he’d done and then he’d done a lot of little things but never really had his moment. And when we went to him we said to him is this all. Is this all there is. What do you see for yourself. You know he you have to have a dream. I mean this was really really true. And he fought us for a really long time because number one he did not like rap. He did not want to rap since it took so long to get it done. He wrote an album he wanted to be a folk singer.

So he wrote an album and he has a beautiful guitar player classic guitar player and singer and I don’t think he really wanted to be the pimp.

You know I don’t think any respecting black man wants to be the pimp.

You know when I did glory with Denzel Washington. He didn’t want to play a slave. Right. And brought him an Oscar and then brought to him.

Now that’s a whole nother conversation because that’s very interesting just in that statement that playing a pimp and playing a slave is what brought them there Oscar. I don’t even know what to say.

But I got a lot of flack for the pimps and hoes from black women in Hollywood. Well, there’s not that many black men but the five black women in Hollywood gave me tons of shit. But the reason I wanted to make that movie is because I really truly believe that if a pimp can be elevated through art then we all can.

Eric: Many in the industry questioned if writer-director was the right choice to capture the film’s reality.

Stephanie Allain: I think that I did get a little blowback on that. And I will say that it’s very important to me that the author of the story is authentic to the story. I’m very suspect of a white gaze going on to Black story black bodies. Not that it can’t be done but I definitely will double take but I flew down to Memphis to meet Craig and hang out with him and he was the real deal. You know this was not his neighborhood so to speak but these were his people. It was just a very diverse crowd that he hung with he knew 36 he knew juicy j. It got to me because he made a movie before this the movie before this was the poor and hungry and the poor and hungry played a lot of festivals and off of that movie. He got an agent and that agent knew me. And so the agent read the script called me up and said I want you to read the script and watch the movie.

I did the same thing John did. I was like halfway and I call them was like I was like I love this he said Well have you finished now. He said OK. So I finished. Because you know it’s it’s not.

Oh it all works out. I mean it does work out but it’s it’s a darker ending. And I felt that his compassion for those characters was very real. He lived a bit of a marginal life as he was trying to make this movie. I mean this movie is actually a sort of an incarnation of how they got the money together to make his movie. But yeah Craig is a real deal. And I would always check that out. I’m not going to say that you have to be black to direct a black movie because I don’t think you have to be white to direct a white movie. So but I do make sure that it’s an authentic voice.

And by that I mean somebody who’s very sensitive to the characters and story.

Eric: As a producer Miss Allain is particularly drawn to the passion that writer directors bring to the table.

Stephanie Allain: I really am attracted to writer directors because the one thing I learned at the studio is that those movies are made by a committee and that’s why they don’t seem that good. So that the movies that were made by one vision by one voice. They may be flawed but they are so much more interesting to me. I felt the humanity in them. And John really taught me this because when he showed up I tried to do the studio on him I was like we’ve got to change this. You know cops don’t eat doughnuts and you know this whole thing is like I will strangle you if you touch anything in this movie. And I was like OK.

And then I basically sort of indoctrinated me into being a writer directors producer which is to protect the vision and you either have to buy into it or you don’t. You can challenge for sure but it has to be challenged coming from a buy in you know. So it’s always starts with the script for me. I got to read a piece of material that makes me laugh or cry or or scared or something you know. And if it moves me and it’s always my gut I literally know my heart starts beating fast. It’s like love. I’m like oh my god this is so good. That’s how I feel. And if I feel that way I know I can go the distance on it as a producer you should not take anything on that you’re just OK about because you think it’s a good piece of business because you think it’d be good to attract some actors something it will never happen.

The only thing that can literally create something out of nothing which is what you doing in a movie you’re taking are taking ideas that are crystallized as a blueprint really on a page and then getting everybody to sort of have this mind meld on it. It’s crazy and it’s really difficult to do well because there’s no science to it. So you have to find material that you can stick with forever because sometimes that’s how long it takes you know you have to find something that means something to you. And so when I read something that someone else has poured their heart into I respond and then I meet the person and then I see if that person how that person is with me. You know if that person makes me wanna go knock down doors to make it happen then then I take it on. If that person irks me or feels entitled or doesn’t feel like there’s room to grow. You know the writer directors that I and I’ve done a lot of first time writing directors and it’s is super fun because they don’t know anything and so like the dream is so big you know. And I love that beginner’s mind because it’s just malleable but focused. So I look for that. That’s what I look for. I look for something that turns me on and then I meet the person and see if it’s embodied in that person. Because you spend a lot of time with these people and you have to ask for money.

You have to ask for favors to stand in the middle of the night at 4:00 in the morning it’s cold or it’s hot or whatever. It’s a relationship you know.

So I just look for the good material and then the cool people that wrote it.

Eric: When asked about developing more material from minority filmmakers Miss Allain reminded our students to support the art they want to see created.

Stephanie Allain: So here’s the thing what the one thing that will create momentum is if we patronize our own stuff because that’s the first step is to really be proficient on what is out there that African-American producers writers directors actors are doing. Look I’m a producer. Which means I’m an optimist. I just see that the world is changing. I know that the census is telling us that more brown babies are born every day than white babies. That’s the reality. You know there’s got to be entertainment for all these folks coming you know. In the catbird seat.

You know. So I think that yeah just do your thing you know I mean what is the story that you want to tell.

That’s what you got to do just find the story that you are uniquely qualified to tell.

Eric: Instead of pursuing movies that she thinks the marketplace wants Miss Allain prefers to follow her own sensibilities.

Stephanie Allain: When I say trust your gut I trust that as a human being I respond to emotions so I know if a piece of material is triggering my emotions that I’m going to guess if I can produce the best version of that material that it’s going to strike a lot of other people’s emotions. I don’t look for things I think other people are going to want. I look for things that I’m going to want. That’s the only gut I got. I think trying to second guess the market place or or do things that the masses will want never work out never work out for you. You just bring your own to it and the way to do that is to really think about who you are. I think so much you know we’re so distracted. I mean it’s just so so upsetting. You know I love my iPhone. I love my Mac Book but god I should throw them as far away as possible. You know it’s created this alone. Togetherness right. People don’t just sit alone without their phones you know they got gotta have it. It’s crazy. And so if you sat alone without your phone and you remembered who you were at 8 years old who you were intrinsically not who you were trying to be. But what do you know about yourself. Like I knew what I was really young that I was smart. I just knew it that was a truth about me. What do you know about yourself at that age.

Before you sort of grew into who you are now and if you can remember who you were who you are and you bring that to everything you do there will be an authenticity to you that will be irresistible. People will just be like god I don’t know what. It is but I really like her and you will be attracting the kind of people that you’re connecting with because if you’re being authentic people will be like ooh you’re not my people or they’re going to be like you are my people it’s going to be really clear but if you’re sort of hiding behind something else than other people doing that then you never really get clarity. So what you guys can all do is to bring to the situation who you really are unabashedly even if its if its if its like some people you just know like and you give away stuff. You’re just generous. That’s who you are intrinsically then be that then practice that it’s the quickest way to attain what you want and to be enlightened to the fact that we’re just all here for such a short time and we get caught up in so much negativity that it prevents us from really achieving all all that we can achieve all that we dream that we want.

Eric: Despite what must be nonstop work as a producer Miss Allain still finds time to lead organizations focused on discovering new talent.

I also run the L.A. Film Festival and my goal is to make it the most diverse mainstream festival in the world and I think I can do that here in L.A. and it’s also the exhibition arm of film independent film independent. Is that 30 year old arts organization that really supports artists who are diverse and innovative and have a unique point of view and we also produce the spirit awards. The film festival film independent at LACMA and a host of programs throughout the year. So if you don’t know about it and you should know if you don’t if you’re not a member you should become a member and get all the movies that are nominated for Spirit Awards in your mailbox.

It’s like a precursor to when you’re in the academy and you get all the stuff but you get your own little section at this level and it’s great.

Eric: Stephanie Allain recommends that any producer looking to develop material should literally put themselves in the writers shoes.

Stephanie Allain: I don’t care if you’re a screenwriter or not write one script just write one script you can come up with an idea and you can force yourself to sit in that seat and until you have 110 pages and that exercise will blow your mind. Because first of all it will give you incredible empathy for any single writer.

And second of all it will give you incredible confidence as a writer. Because guess what. We all write. This is a skill that we all have. Some people just exercise it more than others.

Eric: Thank you to Stephanie Allain for speaking to our students and to all of you for listening. This episode was written by me. Eric Cantor based on the guest speaker series produced and moderated by Tova Leiter. The episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Jean Sherlock. Dan Mackler and Tova Laiter associate produced by Vinnie Sisson. Special thanks to Lydia Cedrone for co moderating and to Aeriel Segard Robert Kasnahan Sajja Johnson and the entire staff and crew who made this possible to learn more about our programs. Check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcasts. See you next time and remember it’s hard out here for a pimp.