Podcast Episodes

The Backlot Podcast: Sherry Lansing

  • Sherry Lansing
  • Encounter with Michael Douglas
  • Always Call People Back
  • Collaboration in Film
  • Titanic
  • Behind Box Office Successes
  • Overcoming Insecurity
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Sherry Lansing

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.

Encounter with 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.

Always Call People 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.

Collaboration in Film

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.

Titanic

Eric: Before its 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.

Behind Box Office Successes

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.

Overcoming Insecurity

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 that?” 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.

Rewiring Instead of Retiring

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, “well, 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.

Conclusion & Goodbye

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.

J.K. Simmons on Whiplash” & Acting Advice

  • K. Simmons
  • Summer Theater in Montana
  • Don’t Bring Bad Characters Home
  • How to Start an Acting Career
  • No Time for Rehearsing in TV & Film
  • Picky with Roles
  • Staying Connected to the Character
  • Whiplash
  • Advice for Young Directors
  • From Juno to Spiderman
  • Conclusion & Goodbye
  1. K. Simmons

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.

Summer Theater in Montana

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.

Don’t Bring Bad Characters Home

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.

How to Start an Acting Career

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.

No Time for Rehearsing in TV & Film

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.

Picky with Roles

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.

Staying Connected to the Character

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.

Whiplash

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.

Advice for Young Directors

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.

From Juno to Spiderman

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.

Conclusion & Goodbye

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.

Transcript

— A guy opens his door and gets shot you think that of me. No, I am the one who knocks.

Alright! It is cavity time!

I’m the grooviest dude who has ever grooved on.

Six Americans get caught playing movie make-believe with the CIA at the airport and executed. It’s “a national embarrassment” they are calling the operation.

You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither I’m in the empire business. —

Eric: Bryan Cranston went from playing one of TV’s most lovable goofballs to one of its scariest anti-heroes along the way he’s portrayed a blacklisted screenwriter, a conflicted American president; he’s battled Godzilla and has appeared in over 150 different films and TV shows. But before all that he was just a young man on a motorcycle.

Bryan Cranston: I realized that I wanted to be an actor when I was 22 years old and I was stranded at a picnic site on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. It was – I was on a motorcycle and it was raining for six days straight and the only thing I had with me really for entertainment was a compilation of plays, and I was reading Hedda Gabbler at the time. And it was daylight and I’m reading and reading and by the time I finished the last page I was leaning, and I didn’t really know why and I leaned forward and I realized, “Oh! My God! It’s dark outside!”

I was leaning toward the only light maybe 15 feet away. There’s one light for the whole area. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. How did I miss the transition? How did I miss dusk altogether? It fascinated me. It gave me pause. And it was at that moment that I had this epiphany that I should do something like this.

This took me away and I already loved the art of acting and evoking emotions in other people, it’s very empowering. But I came up with this credo that I live by. And it’s that I would attempt to do something that I love and hopefully become good at it as opposed to doing something I’m good at but not in love with.

So, once I made up my mind that’s what I was going to do, then I had to put it into action.

Eric: Mr. Cranston began auditioning for a variety of roles and along the way, he learned an important lesson.

Bryan Cranston: I always thought and most of you do too, that when you go on an interview or an audition that you’re trying to get a job. Right? That makes sense? You’re trying to get a job. You’re there to get a job whether you’re a director, or an art director, or AD or whatever the case is. You’re interviewing with a company in hopes that they will hire you. You’re in casting. Same thing you’re pitching a story idea as a writer, same thing you’re trying to get a job. And as long as you feel you’re trying to get a job you want something from someone else that you don’t have. And when you put yourself in a position of need, it’ll stay away from you. It wants to stay away from you. Why? Because people don’t want to hire people who need anything. You come into my office and I’m casting, and I feel the need from you? I’m not as confident. I’m not as confident because there’s a different feeling if you if you can do this one thing which I did 25 years ago and really own it not say I’m going to try that but really practice it, really take it in; ingest it, and let it live inside of you, it could possibly change your life like it changed mine.

And that is this: you are there at that interview to give them something; not to get anything. And that’s the difference. And you can’t do it in a phony way. You can’t do it like” I’m giving you this gift. Now, don’t you have something for me?”

You know, you can do it and expect someone to give you something back because then you’re not giving that gift freely. There are conditions attached to the gift you’re giving and that can’t work. It doesn’t work that way.

It is unbelievable the difference you’ll feel going into a room if you truly feel and value your ability. I’m assuming you’re all talented. Let’s get to that part. But talent alone will not create a career for any of you. No one who just had talent has a career.

It – it is persistence and patience. And this attitude. There is no substitute for putting in the hours. There just isn’t. So you have to be willing to devote yourself and all the time it takes. There’s no shortcut. I’m not going to give you any secret but you work on it, and you go in, and you have to own that feeling. And Someone who says they hate to audition it’s because they’re going there with the wrong need. They’re going there because they think they’re trying to get a job. “I don’t want to put myself in a position,” you sit in a waiting room you see other people, “Oh my! I have seen that guy he’s so good. Oh god!”

You see what you think is competition. It’s not competition. If they want you they’ll hire you if they don’t want you to hire someone else. Move on. And that’s it.

So once you adapt that, the positive energy that you start to imbue in yourself and others is unbelievable. It’s it’s life-changing.

Eric: During his years of auditioning he found that when one door was shut another would soon open.

Bryan Cranston: There were pilots that I was up for down to three guys. In the fifth audition and I didn’t get it and the guys who did it was like “Hey, have fun. That’s great!” And I truly meant it because it was not meant for me. I’ll give you one example of this and why it’s healthy to adopt this point of view. NBC 5th audition test three guys we’re in there. It goes to someone else. Four days later I tested for a show at Fox, But for the CW. That I didn’t get it went to someone else. OK, so the other guys I was with who didn’t get it also, “God son of a bitch!” And it’s like it’s, it’s all right. Well, it’s the way it is. It wasn’t wasn’t for you. A week after that I get an audition for this show called “Malcolm in the Middle.”

— I just love you boys so much who wants a hug?

You thought no one would discover your dirty little secret, didn’t you? That clever little flail of the wrist every four steps masking the hop.

Who wants to make five bucks?  – Make it 10! – Done!

You’re a good son.

I got him, honey. I got him, don’t worry. —

Had I gotten one of those other two jobs that I thought I wanted, that they shot the pilot and both of them did not sell, I would have been looking for another job. So when something you think appears like a negative, maybe it’s not a negative because it wasn’t for you anyway. If it’s supposed to be for you then great. If it’s not, OK.

Eric: Before Malcolm in the middle. Mr. Cranston honed his comedic chops on numerous sitcoms most notably as the dentist Tim Watley on Seinfeld.

— George, you know Tim Watley? – Yeah dentist of the stars. What’s up? – I’ll tell you what’s up. I’m a Jew. I finish converting two days ago.

Did you hear the one about the rabbi and the farmer’s daughter? Those aren’t Matza Balls! —

Eric: In Hollywood actors are often typecast by easily defined labels. Thankfully Mr. Cranston never put much stock into that concept. After years of comedic work he was ready for a truly dramatic departure.

Bryan Cranston: I knew that I can’t do another comedy. I got two offers to do comedies and I turned them both down.

To me, it was an easy decision. Easy! I didn’t give it a second thought. To others, they might accept it because it was another job. But it would be – like you were talking about – it would be pigeon-holing myself into that position. And I wanted to do other things. So I informed the agency that I’m looking for a drama. Let’s look for a drama because…It’s so funny. It’s like you do one thing and they say, “Oh! He’s a drama guy.” Then you do a comedy, “Oh! He’s a comedy guy.” Like, we’re just actors. That’s what I hate, I hate – I hate the comment, “Oh! He’s a theater actor. He’s a theater actor,”  almost in a derisive way. You know “He’s soap opera actor. A soap opera actor.” Which I was; which I was proud of; which was a great training ground; which was an opportunity for me to act every single day and try to make something honest of scenes that were repetitive and weren’t written very well. But you just do the best you can forgive yourself and move on.

Eric: One of Bryan Cranston most notable roles was the X-Files episode titled Drive.

— You shut up and drive, you understand!? Oh yeah. You think I don’t know. You think I’m just some pudknocker. But I get it, man! —

This marks his first collaboration with writer Vince Gilligan who would become the creator of Breaking Bad.

— I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.

Say my name. – You’re Heisenberg. – You’re god damn right! —

Bryan Cranston: When I first met with Vince Gilligan – on my first meeting with him which was supposed to be 20 minutes and lasted an hour and a half. And when I went in there I told him what the character looked like. I told him what how he dressed. I told him all these details. I had –  that I had a thin mustache that looked “impotent,” is what I called it. In other words, it was his writing that inspired me to daydream. And that’s an actor’s job. It’s part of the actor’s palette, to start daydreaming character and you develop those characteristics along the way. So without his really brilliant writing, it would have been harder for me to develop those thoughts because the hardest work we’ve ever had to do is on poorly written material. The easiest work we’ve ever had to do is on brilliant material, where you read it and you’re already flooded with – it resonates so deeply and you have a plethora of ideas that you want to go and you’re so excited, and I would wake up and come up with ideas. I knew he should be overweight. I knew that he would – I took the color out of his face, you know. All these things that just came to me because it was – I was so inspired by the work. Without that, and there are many occasions, many more occasions where you’ll read material that is not that good. You have to do your own work. What is that particular character look like. What does he sound like.

Eric: When playing a character as dark as Walter White Mr. Cranston stressed the importance of leaving one’s work at the office.

Bryan Cranston: I always talked about this I want to create a foundation at home that’s really sane so that I can go insane in work. So there’s like almost an invisible tether to my foundation that I come back to that makes me sane, so that I can go out in my work. But I always know I come back at the end of every day when I’m shooting a show; especially something as tense as breaking bad was. I would go into the hair and makeup trailer and put a hot steamy towel on my head and just let the hot moistness just kind of lift all the tension and dirt and anxiety that you’re feeling for that day and wash Walter White off of me; take off his clothes and I’d leave him at the studio. I never brought him home. That’s the only way that you can survive. Really you have to. You have to be able to compartmentalize. You know you hear a lot of stories about actors who are, you know, who never are without the character. And I would think, “Oh, my god! I would be exhausted!” You’d be exhausted. So I would recommend that work on your home life. Make sure that’s solid then if, if your home life is boring in some, in some great way then you have a chance to make something very exciting in your professional life. Tell a story about one of the first Emmys that I went to and I’m in a tuxedo and my wife’s in a gown and we’re picked up in a limo. We go there and “Flash! Flash! Flash” and “Pictures, pictures, autographs.”

And I’m up for an award, and the parties, and all this pomp and circumstance we get in the limo going home, and I pay the babysitter, she says goodbye. My wife’s in the kitchen, she says, “What the hell is that?!” It’s like the trash is like “Ew!’ She grabs the trash and she pulls it out and hands it to me and I – and I just take it and I’m like doing this because I don’t want that. I don’t want whatever’s dripping to get on my patent leather shoes. You know, I have my tuxedo and I’m I’m realizing, “Oh, my god!” 20 minutes ago people wanted my autograph. Now I’m just a trash man, and I smile because that’s life. Right? You’ve got to have both.

Eric: He emphasized that actors always need to be working on something.

Bryan Cranston: You know I – as far as actors, actors act.

And if you’re not acting you’re not putting your best effort forward if you’re not writing, which I recommend every actor do, and it’s a way of expressing yourself. Certainly, for me, it was a way of expressing myself creatively in between auditions.

But it was –  just get into a class, get into any class. And I had a little litmus test for myself that, at the risk of sounding self-centered, I took a test where if I got into a class and I felt that I was becoming one of the best actors in the class I would leave the class. And I had to move up to where I constantly felt challenged. And to this day I always look for something that scares me a little bit, and if it scares me a little bit there’s something to it. It’s like a really ferocious roller coaster ride. And and I want to jump in. So there’s that. I think actors have to have that mentality of – I’ll put it in a sports analogy: if you have three seconds left in the game, you want the ball. “Give me the ball. Let me take the shot. Sink or swim. I want to be out there.” And we all know that there are people who are of the other ilk who’s who, when there’s the game on the line they go, “Please don’t give it to me. Please don’t give it to me. Please.” They don’t want it at all. And, and that’s fine. And thank God there are those kind of people. But if you’re going to be an actor I think you need to put yourself out there and take risks. Look at what we do: we – we – we make ourselves available for criticism on a on a regular basis. And you have to be able to withstand that and know that what your strength is, what your passion is, is far stronger than what anybody else can say.

Eric: Mr. Cranston’s passion led him to the treacherous waters of improvisation.

Bryan Cranston: I did years and years and years of improv classes. If you’re not doing improv you’re, you’re missing a huge part of your life here. Not only are you sharpening the tool but you’re getting up in front of people every single week without a clue of what you’re about to do. Think about that.

You’re getting up in front of people and you don’t know what’s going to happen. If you can somehow get comfortable with that, then when you do have something planned, when you have worked on a character in front of people, it’s easier. It’s just easier because you’re attuned to it. I would highly recommend you maintain that comedy improv. Every single week get up on stage. Fail. Get used to failing. Throw it out there, risking, try it again. It’s, it’s good.

I did – I did nine months of stand up comedy. And the reason I did it was because I was afraid of it. It scared me.

So, I do it you know and then I, and I, I really, really got mediocre. Went all the way up to mediocre. It’s a very, very tough thing. And I you know, I didn’t say I was going to it for nine months but something happened to me personally that I didn’t like. I started drinking a lot. If you go to those clubs and they put you on at midnight you’re wired, you’re going. Right. You’re like, buzzing. Right? It’s like when you finish a play you’re like -REVVING NOISE – with adrenaline and you can’t go to sleep. So what do you do. You go out, there’s the bar. If you have a good set you’re going to have a drink. If you have a bad set you need a drink.

Right? So all of a sudden I was drinking no matter what happened.

And staying up till 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning until I finally calmed down. Finally, it was nine months in and I realized, “What am I doing?” I didn’t – it wasn’t my passion. I just did this because it scared me. And I realized, “Oh, I can stop.” And I just stopped. So I would, I would challenge you to do things that scare you.

Get up in front of people and write some material and say some jokes.

Eric: and a good attitude doesn’t hurt either.

Bryan Cranston: One thing I do when I when I’m going to show that I’m running, or if I’m producing, or if I’m the lead actor on it, I don’t allow bitching on the set. I know. I don’t allow people to bitch and complain about the hour we have to start or anything like that. You’re working as an actor. Shut up. But I do – I do embrace frustration. Frustration’s allowed. We all get frustrated when we can’t get in, we can’t crack a character or something is blocking it, like – and arguments ensue. That’s fine as long as it’s about the work then allow it to be and just stick with it and work through it.

Eric: Even after receiving five Emmys for Walter White, Mr. Cranston continues playing complicated and challenging roles including President Lyndon B. Johnson in both the stage and film versions of “All the Way.”

— The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time.

That maniac wants a lob an A-bomb into the Kremlin’s bathroom to start World War 3.

I’m trying to turn this country around and prevent a major war.

Everybody wants power Walter, but everybody thinks it ought to be given out like Mardi Gras beads.

Politics is War period. —

Bryan Cranston: Bill Moyers was a very respected journalist who said that Lyndon Johnson was 11 of the most interesting people he’s ever met. And it tells you something about the characteristics that you would assign to that man. He was all over the place. And so that was an intimidating character to take on, but he was also a very accomplished and ego driven. I think it was his hubris that got him in trouble with, with Vietnam. You mostly know and remember his legacy as a failed one from Vietnam. But he did some amazing things in domestic policy. The crown jewel was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Where he changed the face of the country.

So anyway, there’s an enormous amount of research and it’s just it’s one of the actor’s job, doing the research.

Eric: Research helped him portray another conflicted historical figure, the legendary blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Bryan Cranston: With Trumbo he was such a chain smoker and he had an affectation you know, and he went he went up and down it was, it was a fun thing to work on.

— Congress has no right to investigate how we vote, or where we pray; what we think or say, or how we make movies.

Hello. I’m Dalton Trumbo.

Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?  – Am I accused of a crime? – You’re not asking the question. – If so I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence that supports this question. – Are you refusing to answer – I would very much like to see what you have. – Oh, you would! You will see. Very soon! – Good!

You’re not asking the question. – I was. – The chief investigator’s asking the question. – I beg your pardon. – Now, are you or have you ever been a member of the communist party? – I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence which supports this question. I should like to see what you have. – Oh, well you would? – Yes. – Well, you will pretty soon!

Eric: Even at the heights that Mr. Cranston has reached, he doesn’t let money dictate his creative choices.

Bryan Cranston: I was never money motivated. To this day I’m not money motivated. I never really even know what I’m making on projects. I’ve never said yes to a project because of money. I don’t want to have to make a creative decision based on financial need. So once I became rich, I socked it away. And you know I’m married and have a child and so we – you, you do the things that you need to do to buy a house.

But it wasn’t it wasn’t extravagant. Living a very middle-class life,  and that’s what was important to me.

Eric: After the multiple Emmys, the Oscar and Tony nominations, becoming a working full-time actor is still the highlight of his career.

Bryan Cranston: No, it’s been a pretty, pretty blessed life. I must say. Not without ups and downs but to be able to act for a living was when I was 25 years old, the greatest accomplishment that I’ve ever had in my profession and remains so.

It’s a great career in the arts but it is something that needs your full attention and your patience and your faith. But this is true: if you don’t try then you have truly failed. If you feel that passion in your heart, you must try. And that’s that’s a good thing. That’s a powerful thing. There’s power in being bold, taking chances. And if you live a clean life the risks that you take are all fine. Go out and have a good career.

Eric: 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. Associate produced by Vinny Sisson; a special thanks to Robert Cosnahan,  Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs please check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. See you next time!

Transcript

I gave my gay boyfriend’s boyfriend a hickey and it totally made my gay boyfriend jealous.

I don’t want you scaring off the guard coolest girl at my party Scott. We all know you’re a total lady killer wannabe jerky jerk.

Do you like music. Did you just ask me if I like music. Yeah, that’s like asking me if I like food you’re like no-nonsense.

Well, there’s no sense of nonsense especially when the heats hot.

Are you the kind of doctor who gets hooked on his own drugs? I bet you are. You ever face certain death? If it was so certain I wouldn’t be here would I.

Is there anywhere you don’t work? They’re called Jobs something a —-ball like you would know anything about here about.

You ever find a dead body in the trash? Or body parts? Like a torso or a head? Please say head.

I think you should lose the first line and the last line and all of the other lines and instead just walk up to the mike and meow really loudly for eight minutes.

Eric: Before she was known for her work in front of the camera, Aubrey Plaza spent a great deal of time behind the camera, including studying here at New York Film Academy.

Aubrey: I did the New York Film Academy summer session in 2001. I was a film student and I think the program was at Universal. I really have to honestly say that that experience was – I went on to go to NYU film school. I got into Tisch after that and I used my NYFA movie to get into Tisch. That was very helpful so that was something I got out of it. And honestly like my freshman curriculum at NYU like I feel like I learned more in this program than I did there because it was more hands on and I believe with filmmaking especially, like it’s like you have to do it and you have to just be like thrown into it and that’s how you learn. And like sitting in like critiquing movies is one way of learning about movies but I learned a lot more from doing what you guys are doing.

Eric: Ms. Plaza began acting in community theater at an early age. It was at this time she learned that even though Cinderella might get the prince it’s the stepsister who has the most fun.

Aubrey: I remember when I was like 11 or 12 I auditioned for Cinderella at the community theater and I really wanted to play Cinderella. And they gave me the part of the ugly stepsister and I was kind of devastated. But then I had like this one musical number that was like the big comedy in number of the show. And I remember like once I got on stage and started doing it I thought like it’s actually really fun to make people laugh so – and I don’t know I just grew up. I was really like I said into sketch comedy Saturday Night Live and then I got really into like improv in high school and I was really obsessed with like watching different sketch groups like on Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show and The State and I was like kind of my thing I really liked all that stuff. So I always knew that I wanted to go to New York and study at the UCB theater.

But yeah, I don’t know, and I was always you know like just like a weird person.

Eric: Like many comedic actresses miss Plaza has extensive training in improvisation including at UCB, the Upright Citizens Brigade. However, even after all these years she still finds herself intimidated by the form.

Aubrey: I still suck at improv. I really do improv long-form improv is so hard and I still get asked to do shows at UCB and like sometimes I lie and I say I’m busy because I’m so scared. Still.

So yeah but I make myself do it because it’s so good for your brain to like get onstage and just make stuff up in front of people. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I learned from really good people.

Eric: She found that her training and improvisation also enriched her dramatic work.

Aubrey: If you’re not familiar with UCB the thing that stands out with training at UCB is that they focus on finding the truth you know, in every scene. Like, when you’re doing a scene there, it’s not about trying to make jokes and being funny. Like, you’re not supposed to try to be funny because people that try to be funny never are funny. But people that commit to their characters like 200 percent and are just being really really truthful and reactive are always the funniest. So, I think that applies with drama too. And nowadays improv. I feel like everything that I go out for or like things that I work on they almost expect you to improvise drama too. So I think it’s really good training for both for sure.

Eric: Her time at UCB came in especially handy when working with one of the godmothers of modern improv., Amy Poehler.

Aubrey: Amy Poehler being on Parks was a really big learning experience too because I got to work with Amy who literally started the theater. So, when I was in college I interned at SNL. Amy was, she was in the cast when I worked there but I worked in the design office and I was just like in the shadows lurking.

And I didn’t like, to talk to anyone. You know I was like, an intern. I wasn’t like talking to anybody in the cast so no I didn’t know her.

I met her -Day one – they had us do these like Olympic promos for the Olympics before we even shot the show. And I showed up and that’s when I met her. They put us together on a swing set and we just started playing our characters.

— What do kids like more than a playground? Candy. No, no. Nothing is better for kids than a playground.

You know I know I know because I am – a virgin – expert at playgrounds. —

Eric: She’s worked with many of her favorite performers but only one of them consistently made her break character

Aubrey: I have a pretty good poker face so I can keep it together. The hardest person I’ve ever had to work with that would make me laugh is Fred Armisen. Hands down. I cannot keep a straight face around him. When I did Portlandia I couldn’t say my line for like 45 minutes I couldn’t do it.

— We have classes here. Abby D’s queer question why don’t you take that? I have pole dancing class that day. Excuse me? Pole dancing. Pole dancing? Exercise. We’re about to freak out right now we’re about two seconds away from jumping up on this table and kicking everything in sight which by the way is our own property. So I…Guess I’ll go somewhere else. No, let’s find these books for you. —

And I ended up having to pinch myself so hard that I started bleeding and so, I learned to just hurt myself.

That’s only one way that I can not laugh is if I physically hurt myself. Yeah.

Eric: Despite working with some of Hollywood’s biggest names she still occasionally finds herself starstruck.

Aubrey: Yeah it is weird to work on things like such famous people but I don’t know, there’s like always like a couple of people that I’ll get nervous around and surprise me like one time I met Jeff Goldblum.

And I don’t know why that made me really nervous. Oh God. I don’t know. Yeah, I get nervous. I’m nervous now.

Eric: For Miss Plaza a small role on a small web series led to so many big things.

Aubrey: As an actor, there’s so many different ways to get in and everyone has a different story. There’s no – that’s why it’s so hard to be an actor there’s no set thing that you can do. But I can kind of pinpoint what happened to me because I was training at UCB and it was right around the time when Internet videos like web series and all that stuff started like that was becoming a thing. Now it’s like you know, that’s all it is. But at that time it was like sketch groups were like just starting to like put out videos. And I got asked to be in a web series called The Jeannie Tate Show which was written and directed by Maggie Carey who is Bill Hader’s wife. And it was about a soccer mom who is running a talk show from her minivan while she is running errands.

— It’s The Jeannie Tate Show —

She cast me as I heard delinquent teenage daughter who’s like always in and out of rehab and I would harass all the guests that would come on and stuff.

— Jeannie’s stepdaughter, Tina Tate.

This is my chemically dependent teenage stepdaughter. I have a name and so does your illness. Dr. Gustavo says we have to label our problems before we can solve them. If I label you queen of the lame-o’s can you solve that? Zip it. Shut. Your.

Mouth hole. Don’t look at me. Keep it shut. —

And then, then went on to direct this movie I was in called the To Do list. She wrote and directed that. But this was back when I was like I think I was like 19-20 ish and I was in one of her improv classes. Maggie and I from that some agent saw it because there were other people like on SNL in it and they noticed me and made contact with me and then I just was like harassing that person, sending them emails, sending them links to you know invitations to shows or whatever, and then a while later that agent who wasn’t working with me who was just like being nice to me was like Judd Apatow is having this you know, wide casting search for his movie he’s trying to find a stand up comedian to play this part. You should put yourself on tape for it. So I did that. You know I was really lucky to be in the right time and the right place and I wasn’t a standup comedian at the time. I was just doing like live shows and stuff but he really liked my tape. And then they told me like well, we can’t hire you because we have to hire a standup because they have to write their own jokes and there’s going to be a lot of live shows and stuff in the movie. So then I just started doing standup and like taping myself and just pretending I was a standup comedian and then sending those tapes, and then I did it so much that he finally was like “OK I’ll bring you in to read with Seth Rogen.”

It was mostly like just really you know like small, small shows in like Queens or in a bar you know just really little things.

And I would just have my friend tape them and they were really unofficial and I did it. And then I – they cast me in the part and then Judd called me and was like you got the part. In two weeks you’re going to come to L.A. and we’re going to do like two months of shows just in pre-production and then start shooting the movie. So I came to LA and like literally like the fourth or fifth time I ever did stand up, I followed Adam Sandler. He made me do it. He was like torturing me. And he just made me get up there. So I – yeah I kept doing it for the movie. And then after we shot the movie I still kept doing it but I haven’t done it in a long time. And every time I did it I always like wanted to run away and I always had a meltdown backstage and I was like “Why am I doing this?” This is the worse. This is a nightmare. The reason I bring up the Jeannie Tate show is because that day that I did that show like I actually had a thing in my head I was like I don’t want to wake up on Saturday like 6:00 in the morning go to Hoboken. Like I went to sleep in and not do that but I just did it.

And if I hadn’t done that I really don’t think that I would have ended up getting Funny People because I can see how all that stuff led to it and I feel like I learned from UCB to always have like a, you know – their mission is “Yes, and” – you say “yes” and then you add to it. And that’s kind of like how I try to like approach life and just – it’s true: the more you say yes and the more stuff you – just never know who’s going to connect you to who or what you know what’s going to happen.

Eric: Ms Plaza it feels that it was her diligence even more so than her talent that enabled her to break into the industry.

Aubrey: I literally went from nothing to being in Funny People which making that jump is crazy that this doesn’t happen, ever. But I just wanted it so bad. I believed that it would happen too. You know you have to be delusional. You have to really. I grew up in Delaware. I didn’t grow up around any you know, Hollywood people. I was just like you know watching like you guys just watching stuff on TV watching movies and just like thinking like that’s what I want to do. And so I just believed it really strongly and then I wouldn’t back down. I would really harass people. You know? I would – not in a bad way but like the agent that I was saying that saw me in the web series like instead of not pursuing her I would just be really diligent about just sending her anything you know. And I would just try to meet as many people as I can. And I think I always was myself. I think that’s one thing as actors that people forget early on is that the reason Judd hired me in Funny People – I mean he really hired me because of my personality. I was playing a character a lot of people didn’t know that at the time like because it was really close to what I – you know like my humor and what I was doing onstage and stuff so it was because of my unique personality that he was like I want that personality in my movie you know.

So I wasn’t trying to be someone else at that time which I think it’s helpful and I think people forget in auditions you know when you’re auditioning and stuff like you just have to be yourself and be individual and like believe in that because people respond to that if you try to be someone else then there’s a million people doing that. So I think that’s one thing that I was always just being true to like my own sense of humor and what the kinds of things that I was interested in.

Eric: Despite growing up 3000 miles from Hollywood, Miss Plaza fully believed she would find her place in the entertainment industry.

Aubrey: When I was in high school I took some acting classes in Philadelphia because I grew up like 25 minutes outside of Philly and I had an acting teacher who was a professor at the University of the arts and she told me she was someone that helped me a lot with acting and she’s a very important person for me.

You know when I was like your age and she told me something really early on where she was like if you want to be an actor you don’t have to study theater necessarily. I mean you can cause. Which I also did I took many theater classes but she kind of told me like you could also major in film and learn other skills. And then also at night or whatever. So I kind of just decided that I wanted to go to New York and in school I wanted to study film production so that I could learn cameras and do writing and stuff but that I would always keep doing the acting thing on the side so I don’t know I just like tried to do both because I always knew I wanted to be an actor but I didn’t know how was going to happen. And I don’t think anyone does as an actor you just kind of like do as much stuff as you can and then you see what happens.

I didn’t have a plan. I was just like going to New York just hustlin’ you know. I really really hustled. That’s all I can say. I just try to do as much stuff as I could.

Eric: Even when she hit a rough patch early in her career Ms Plaza refused to consider a backup plan.

Aubrey: Even though it did happen really fast for me and I was young I had a stretch of time in New York where I wasn’t acting and I had graduated and I was broke and I was living in Queens and I was waiting tables and even though mine was small but I had it. So yeah. During that time I was always questioning what I was doing and you know my family was very supportive but they were always telling me like you got to have a backup plan you got a backup plan was your backup plan. And I would always quote Rosie O’Donnell because I was really Rosie O’Donnell was another big person for me when I was in high school I read her autobiography Rosie and in her autobiography she like has this whole thing where it’s like she says if you have a net you will fall into it. So don’t have a net because you’ll end up being a dentist or whatever your backup plan is. So I just always have that in my mind. And so whenever I was doubting myself I would always be like no. Like I’m just this is the only thing that can happen. So it’s going to happen. Which is crazy. So you have to be a crazy person.

Eric: All this paid off with possibly the greatest single week of any actor’s life.

Aubrey: It’s interesting like when I got cast in Funny People Scott pilgrim and parks and recreation I got all of those jobs in one week.

Wow. One week which is like insane. And it doesn’t happen to anyone. Which is why again I was in like the right place at the right time. I don’t know how it happened it just happened.

All of those characters were kind of similar. And I think parks especially because I drew on so much of my personality and they basically wrote that part for me. It wasn’t in the original idea of the show. They wrote it based on a meeting that I had with their creators. So April Ludgate is me.

You know it’s not me but it is me and yes because of that you’re put in a box and people don’t believe that you can do anything else.

But I try all the time to play different characters. This year I have two movies that are going to come out where I play really different characters like not sarcastic or whatever you know. But I had to really fight for them really hard. And hopefully those things will show people that I can do other things.

But it’s something that I’m always fighting against. But I welcome it. I used to get really like annoyed when people be like you’re always doing the same thing and I’d always be like well those are the parts that people are giving me I can’t control anything.

I’m auditioning you know like if someone offers you a part as an actor you’re like yeah I’ll do it. I’ll do anything like i’m just trying to work. So you know you only have so much control so it’s hard but you just got to like keep hustling.

Eric: Despite Hollywood’s attempt to typecast her as the queen of sarcasm. Ms Plaza continues to expand her repertoire of characters jumping from TV to film and back again.

Aubrey: I think the biggest difference between I mean being on a web series that to me is like television. Those kind of things feel the same. A little bit to me but it depends on what kind of web series you’re in. I think because some of those also feel like movies so I don’t know about that. But the biggest difference between TV and movies for me is like the pacing is so different because when you’re working on a film as you know there’s so much time that goes into like lighting a shot and you’re just like waiting for your moment.

And for me the hardest thing on set in a movie is to conserve my energy because if you know like you’ve got this like monologue to deliver or whatever and they’re like setting it up for an hour you know like maybe you feel ready to do it now.

But then in an hour you’re like I just ate like four cookies and I’m like crying I don’t know how this happened and then and then you’re supposed to do it then. So like it’s like yeah it’s like a weird film is so weird like that it’s like you really have to be able to just like bring it when the moment is there and when the film is rolling especially if it’s film because you can’t waste film. And so it’s like intense because you’re just like —- I got to like deliver. Now all these people and then in television it’s like you can do it a million times over and over again like on parks like there’s so many outtakes of like especially Aziz Aziz was like the king of this is where he would just reset himself over and over again in movies you can’t really go like let me take that again. And then you do it. Let me say you know. Like we were just reset ourselves like we were like robots because there was no lighting setups at least when we shot our thing. It was just like we had three cameras.

Also the amount of cameras is a thing like on television you have multiple cameras so like you’re able to just kind of like do whatever but in movies you’re like always like you’ve got to be on your mark and you’ve got to know exactly like where the light is hitting you there’s just like things like that that affect you.

You know that you have to like figure out how to not think about when you’re working. I don’t know.

Eric: Before he directed the velociraptors and Jurassic World Colin Trevorrow directed miss plaza in the low budget indie film Safety Not Guaranteed.

Do you sell guns here something sexy and affordable with killing power what exactly is the intended use.

If your ad had been written properly and they have a better idea of what I need I hope you worked harder on your calibrations.

My calibrations are flippin pinpoint ok you ever face certain death If it was so certain I wouldn’t be here would I. You come to that launch site.

You take my hand and I’ll show who can’t time travel.

Aubrey: That movie was the first movie I was ever really like the lead in so it was a really scary experience for me and I was definitely worried at every step. I was like so worried about it because I had never really had to take a character from the beginning to the end and have like a transformation you know.

But Colin was great and I think that’s why he ended up being plucked out of indie zone and taken into this Spielberg land because he’s so interested in the acting process and in really like having those discussions about characters how they’re feeling at every moment why they’re doing what they’re doing and not all directors are like that especially first time directors I find because first time directors are so preoccupied with everything that’s going on it’s so crazy to be a director for a film you have eight departments that you’re running and it’s hard to remember that really when all is said and done and people are sitting in the theaters and they’re watching the movie all they’re going to see is the performances and so much goes into making a movie.

But I think one quality in a director that I really like is when directors are really able to take a step back from all of the chaos and then look an actor in the face and go like Let’s talk about what the truth of what is happening right now is. And that’s something that Colin and I always did that’s why I really liked working with him and I think that’s why he’s who he is now.

Eric: Ms Plaza also has fond memories of working with Chris Pratt who played her goofy husband Andy on Parks Recreation. Long before he went on to save “Jurrasic World” and guard the galaxy.

Aubrey: I got my ankles microwaved x rayed. They took my blood away to use for science. Cholesterol test. April had her sinuses removed look at some guy looked at my wiener touched it.

That was weird. And that guy wasn’t even a doctor.

What Pratt is like the most fun guy ever. He’s like Andy except he’s smart. He’s a very special guy and he’s a really good actor and comedian.

So I loved working with him because also on TV sometimes you feel really robotic because you’re just doing so many episodes and you can’t help but feel like I’ve said this before I’m doing the same thing whatever in every scene it’s like the same. But with Chris it was never the same.

I got it I got it. Nice I also got some dude’s briefcase. I believed in you buddy but you should put that back. You shattered you shattered it not only well that’s a wrap. That’s not something that props can fix that’s going to be a little harder to fix. Sorry I’m out.

He was always really interested in finding new discoveries and surprising me with different things. You know he’s like a really special dude. That’s why he’s like the most famous person in the world right now.

Eric: When dealing with the publicity that comes with their fame. Miss Plaza approaches it like she’s portraying another character the publicity media.

Aubrey: All that stuff is not something I ever thought about when I was trying to be an actor. You don’t think like oh like what’s that part of it going to be like going on talk shows and doing stuff like that. It’s been a journey for me to figure out how to deal with that stuff. I can say that when I do like publicity when I’m promoting like a movie or something and I have to go on talk show I don’t have to do any of it. First of all no one does it’s not. I mean maybe some people have to alright you’re right. Well I don’t have to alright. Yeah I have to do some of it. But so I try to just have fun with it because I think that one thing about the publicity stuff is for me is like once people start taking themselves too seriously and letting all of the fame and that stuff you know like believing the hype about you know I think it starts messing with people’s minds. Not everyone is capable of handling fame and those kind of things so it’s tricky because you know it’s like weird to have a lot of people know who you are. So I try to in those situations I try to just always have fun and try to approach it from like what would my high school version of myself think about me going on like Letterman. Right now I’d probably be like that’s crazy where a hot dog costume do something weird.

It doesn’t always work out for me because people you know it’s hard to like be a version of yourself or whatever on those kind of things but I just try to have fun and have truthful moments happen and not do anything too stupid. But I fail at that too sometimes.

Even after all her success M Plaza still has one role that she is dying to play.

I really want to be Catwoman. Like so bad.

I do really want to remake Catwoman like the Halle Berry movie. I think i give me a really weird and funny like Guardians of the galaxy funny but still like badass.

That’s what I really want to do.

I would do any franchise.

Eric: A big thank you to Aubrey Plaza. 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. 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 Vinny Sisson. Special thanks to Anne Moore for co-moderating, and to Robert Cosnahan, 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 Apply Podcasts. See you next time.

See Kretz stole from the pens.

You know the song already. Of course I do. Everyone knows the song is amazing. The drum beats out of time last year.

Good luck and you will find me time after time. I love the way you describe it.

So after time.

It’s never happened.

Transcript

— Say hello to my little friend!

Attica! Attica! Attica! Attica!

I show you out of order!

You’re my prisoner. You do what I tell you to do.

It’s not personal Sonny. It’s strictly business.

Keep your friends close -If I were the man I was five years ago – But your enemies closer. – I’d take a flamethrower to this place!

I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse. —

Eric: Hi, and welcome to “The Backlot,” a discussion with the entertainment industry’s top talent. My name is Eric Conner senior instructor at the New York Film Academy, and this week we have one of the all-time greats a true Hollywood legend Al Pacino.

For the students at New York Film Academy in Los Angeles getting a chance to watch Al Pacino speak about his craft was like hearing Joe DiMaggio talk about swinging the baseball bat or Paul McCartney discuss writing “Hey Jude.” So ladies and gentlemen, Al Pacino.

Al Pacino: Thank you all so much for that. Wow.

Eric: But as Mr. Pacino explained he’s also still a student himself to the craft. He was asked about his technique and for him stepping up to the plate is a new adventure with every role.

Al Pacino: You develop that thing known as technique. I love the line that Michelangelo said in a poem when he was doing the Sistine Chapel. He said Lord free me of myself that I may please you, meaning get to that place in us where we’re not censoring ourselves or trying to do it good or right but rather, connect to whatever it is we’re trying to say become, absorb it, and become it, and let it come out, and let the unconscious free and that’s what, well I strive for that. And I rarely, rarely get it. If I do it’s for a moment or two. I sometimes – I’m given a role and then I’m in trouble because then I got to look at the empty canvas and I got to say, “Wow! I don’t know anything about acting. I don’t know anything about anything and just do. What am I going to do?”  And you start.

And the hope is that that that instead of figuring it out you find it.

Eric: When you look at Mr. Pacino’s body of work you notice he’s drawn a lot to the underworld to characters on the wrong side of the law. Don Corleone in The Godfather, Tony Montana in Scarface, Carlito, the aged gangster he plays in Donnie Brasco, heck, Big Boy in Dick Tracy; it’s reminiscent of the great gangster films from the 20s and the 30s.

I’m gonna write my name all over this town in big letters. Get out of my way Johnny I’m gonna spit.

A big guy now ain’t ya, shooting your mouth off in the papers. So I ran out when it got hot. You think I can’t take it no more. Well, listen you crummy flat-footed copper, I’ll show you whether I lost my nerve and my brains.

Eric: Mr. Pacino doesn’t gravitate to just any part.

Al Pacino: I had trouble with that word “gravitate” the roles I gravitate mostly, I go home and gravitate about them. You know what it is? Primarily it’s the story and the script. If I see the script has this-this light, I can really like it. But if there’s no role in it that I feel I can identify with – Sometimes I’ve seen parts and in the theater and somebody did that I really thought I want to do that. Hey, I did Scarface because I was here on Sunset and went into the Tiffany movie house it was a movie house in those days. So I went into the movie “The Tiffany” and playing up on that big screen there was Paul Muni as Scarface

Next time I catch you in a place like that again I’ll kill you.

And after it was over I just said I want to do this. I want to imitate him. I want to do it just the way he does it.

I catch you here again. You hear me?! I catch you here again. I’m going to wipe you all over the — place.

Eric: He’s worked with some of the masters of the craft legendary artists like Stanislavski, Brecht, Strassburg.

Al Pacino: You know I’ve known a lot of great people in my life and you know, I would ask some of these people who I’ve known myself, some of the people you mentioned – I just would say, “What do you think about the price of eggs?” Or, “What do you think about what’s going on now in Peterson?” because they were the kind of thinkers and people that no matter what was going on, they have their own way of seeing it. That was what was inspiring about them. That’s what great people have. They say something different. That’s usually what I – what I’ve noticed in my life. And about acting I sort of know that they would say that they don’t know because it’s about experience. Stanislavski started with the theater and that was the style at the time. Things change all the time. They’re moving and going, and the times change, the fashions change. What works doesn’t work. This is really what it is and most of the of the acting you see is that we have today comes from those people but it’s a – it’s sort of a potpourri of all those things.

Eric: Before he was ever involved in the Corleone family business. Al Pacino was a successful stage actor, including winning a Tony Award for “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” Over the years Mr. Pacino has bounced back and forth from stage to screen from big screen to small screen and he understands that each medium has its own requirements for shaping a performance.

Al Pacino: I was doing a play in New York. They were coming in to do this thing I really don’t like, which is take motion pictures of the play because they’re going to show it on TV in the reviews or something. And every time you see a poor actors on a stage in a play and they’re on television all of a sudden and you say, “Why would I want to go see that?! They’re screaming!” You know? And they’re all animated and you’re saying why the — where are we? So they were there, and I was doing a scene, and I thought, “Wait a minute! They were way back shooting me in the scene and I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel how to do it.” So I asked the camera man to come close here, right here with the camera.

And then what happens is automatically after you’ve done it a while you start to acclimate to the camera and you start to know that, that it’s here. So your position because the difference between an audience and a camera –  the camera is your audience the camera is what you play to.

But when you have the audience you play to the audience so your performance is somewhat changed by that but nothing changes except a sense of where you are in relation to the camera, so that you can think more with the camera. You can bring it down you can make it less. The camera picks everything up.

Eric:For instance take this moment from The Godfather and notice how Mr. Pacino is subtly performing for the camera.

Let’s set the meeting. Get our informers to find out where it’s going to be held. Now we insist it’s a public place, a bar, a restaurant, someplace where there’s people so I feel safe. They’re going to search me when I first meet them. All right? So I can’t have a weapon on me then but if Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for me then I’ll kill them both.

Eric: In contrast here’s a moment from his performance in the stage production of The Merchant of Venice.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Eric: As you noticed in the clip Mr. Pacino modified his performance for the stage playing to not just the front row but the back of the House as well. It may seem bigger it might even seem over the top. But when you’re in the audience especially if you’re in row ZZ, you appreciate what Mr. Pacino’s bring into that part. Adding that grandeur to the scene. But as thrilling as stage work can be it also presents its own challenges.

Al Pacino: I was doing a play in New York many years ago, a Shakespeare play, and I was exhausted and I was young, relatively. I was – I was – I had a hard time doing eight shows a week, and on the weekends we had like five shows.

So you have a show and you did the play at three, four, or five o’clock you were done. At 7:00 you were doing it again.

Right. And I’m doing this soliloquy. And it’s it’s long and it’s arduous and I think to myself I said that line before. And then I thought wait a minute I’m saying my lines twice. I’m repeating myself. I say a line and I say it again. And the audience is looking at me.

And they’re being very, very kind because they know I’m losing my mind and they don’t know what to do. And I’m really, really scared. Really scared. It’s not like I’m hearing echoes. It’s like I think I’m saying it again. I’m so tired that I’m just you know. And then I realized I wasn’t saying it I don’t know how I realized that mercifully.

And the audience didn’t know that was going on with me.

One of the strangest hijacks attempts to date began yesterday when two gunmen held up a bank in Brooklyn New York. The gunman got twenty-nine thousand dollars. But before they could leave police moved in and the bank robbers seized eight hostages. It all ended fifteen hours later at New York’s Kennedy Airport. ABC’s Carol Burke has the story.

Eric: That long hot summer day in Brooklyn in 1972 turned out to be the inspiration for one of Mr. Pacino’s greatest films, “Dog Day Afternoon.” But that’s not the only time he’s played a real life character. He’s portrayed Jack Kevorkian, Phil Spector and of course, Frank Serpico.

— Hey! It’s me, Serpico! Hey! I’m a police officer. Police officer. I’m an officer. I’m a police officer. —

I worked with Frank Serpico when I made a movie called “Serpico,”  and the real Serpico and I became friends. And it was a real it was very important to be around this man because he’s- he stimulated me – his imagination – and I was very taken with that. So, that’s really something to access if you have a real person. I’m also maybe going to play Napoleon, you know. So I’ve been seeing him a lot lately.

Eric: But when you’re acting it’s not enough just to be a mimic of a real life character. It’s also about the script the interpretation of the character that the writer has already created.

I mean it’s – so much too is the screenwriter who gives you the role. That’s the person you’re really in contact with. When I did Roy Cohn in “Angels in America” it wasn’t really Roy Cohn. It was Tony Kushner’s rendering of Roy Cohn; his interpretation of that character which is a great character.

AIDS, homosexual, gay, lesbian, you think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with? They don’t tell you that. – No? – No like all labels. They tell you one thing, and one thing only. Where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain? in the pecking order? not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler. Clout! Not who I — or who — me but who will pick up the phone when I call?

Eric: Just as important for an actor to collaborate with the writer’s vision of a character. He also has to collaborate with the director’s vision as well. One student asked about Mr. Pacino experiences working with directors.

Student: What in your opinion makes a director great?

Al Pacino: I wish I knew. You know?! I wish I knew because then I would direct.

But I have no – I was talking to Barry Levinson about this today. It’s very hard to understand. A lot has to do with where they can place a camera. Like for instance, Brian De Palma is a great director. So I was doing Scarface with him – He directed Scarface. I woke up at the Fountain Blue Hotel in Florida. I remember being outside and there’s the beach and the water, and look out and I see all these people sort of facing the ocean in a kind of semicircle about a hundred of them looking and I thought, “What happened?” You know? You – did some sort of a large whale get washed up on shore? And I looked and I stood up on the thing to look out. And I realized at the surf standing there was Brian DePalma and all these people were just looking at him, and all he was doing was trying to figure out where to put the camera. And I said I’m not doing that.

Imagine all these people waiting for you every decision on a movie. It’s the director. And there’s an appetite to do that, and also likes to get people around and likes to tell stories.

Eric: If Al Pacino says it it must be true no matter what your role is on a film, it all goes back to story. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner, based on the Guest Lecture 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 Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. Associate produced by Vinny Sisson, with a special thanks to and Robert Cosnahan, Sajja Johnson and the entire crew and staff 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

— I am McLovin. McLovin?! That’s bad ass.

I’m not going to punch her in the head. She’s really sweet. – No I mean you punch her in the — head emotionally.

I swear to god. I want to see Breathless at the LACMA!

I remember thinking how much food could $20 possibly buy you at Taco Bell, and the answer is infinite.

Love, the most beautiful shiny warmy thing in the world, you can’t accept it?! —

Eric: Seth Rogen started his career before he was even old enough to drive honing his stand-up skills in Vancouver during his freshman year of high school.

Seth Rogen: You know when I did stand up comedy I was actually very like reluctant to talk about my age at first because I didn’t want to be viewed as like a gimmick. I didn’t want to be like known as the 15-year-old comedian. So I would tell jokes that were like Seinfeld-esque like kind of observational humor like, “What’s the deal with crazy glue? What’s so crazy about it?”

And then I remember another comic pulled me aside and was like, “Dude! Like, you’re — 16 years old. Like you’re trying to get a hand job for the first time right now.” Like that is like, a remarkable perspective to have comedically as a writer, as an actor. Whatever you’re trying to do that is like, a remarkable perspective to have, and you shouldn’t deny that. That was like a very interesting lesson for me: was to accept my age and not deny it, but at the same time to never try to use my age as like a gimmick and be like the young comedian you know? That –  I always like – I hated that idea. And writing “Superbad” was really that: like finding the balance between doing work that I thought was adult and transcended the fact that I was a teenager. But at the same time do work that could only be done by a teenager and offer a perspective that you could only have if you were in high school. And literally, like “Superbad” was on TV the other day and I was watching and I was like “I could never write this movie today because I’m too old and I don’t know what the — kids do in high school.”

I’m terrified of high school kids. So I think that is just something that I thought a lot about when I was younger is, “How do I use my age?” And at the same time not use my age because people will just always hate the guy who seems like he’s using his age.

But you just aren’t using all your tools if you are not using your perspective which is entirely based on your age.

Eric: His stand-up and unique perspective caught the attention of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig who are casting their seminal comedy-drama “Freaks and Geeks.” Possibly the best show ever made about high school life.

— Disco sucks.

What’s up your butt princess? – Sorry, it’s hard to pick up on the subtlety of your wit.

You know, I had a friend that used to smoke. You know what he’s doing now? He’s dead. —

Eric: Freaks and Geeks and Apatow’s follow-up “Undeclared” also introduced Mr. Rogen to many of his favorite collaborators.

Seth Rogen: Most of the people I work with I’ve known since before I was 20 years old, like Judd, and Franco, and Jason Segel, and Martin Starr, and Jay Baruchel, and you know, a lot of the writers and directors I work with. I met them all through work except for the people that I grew up with Kyle R, the people who wrote this movie, basically, those are the only ones I’ve known. Like from growing up and being like, a child.

I met Evan in bar mitzvah class. So I’ve known him since I was 12. I met Ariel at summer camp. I met Kyle at home ec. class in eighth grade. And we all wanted to be writers and so we just kept working together over the years.

Everyone else I met through work and what originally drew us together was each other’s work. And I think beyond that it’s what made us take the time to get to know one another and then become personally good friends with one another over the years. But when you’re working it’s really hard to do something that feels good a lot of the time. So when you find people that are around whom it feels good you desperately want that. You know, it’s like an insulation. Like nothing makes me more secure feeling creatively than seeing basically all the people who are in this movie in close vicinity to me if I’m on set. Like, I feel so much better if Jonah, or Franco, or Craig, or Danny, are there because I’m just like, they’re just incredible at their jobs. Of the hundred things I have to worry about being a producer-writer-director, that is not — one of them. Like, they’ll just destroy it. And in a lot of ways, they are the most visible element of the film. So it just is a huge stress relief. It makes you not have to worry about it. And on top of that, we just like each other. But if I — hate these people I would still work with them all the time honestly, because they’re great at their jobs.

Eric: His career could not have started on a better note but it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Seth Rogen: I was very lucky in that I got on TV show very young, but then I went years without working and I did for sure, start to think that like, “Freaks and Geeks” was like, an anomaly and I was only cast because I was a — weird looking Canadian guy. And once that was over no one would ever want to put me in anything again. And that wasn’t that far from the truth, honestly. You know “Undeclared” was canceled in like 2001, and I didn’t act again until “40-Year-Old Virgin” which came out in 2005.

— It all makes sense. You’re a virgin. – I am not. Shut up. –  How does that happen?! – I knew it! That makes so much sense! Look he’s a virgin! – You guys are hilarious. —

Seth Rogen: There was four years where I did absolutely nothing. And it was really during that time that I definitively learned that if I wanted to have a career as an actor I first had to get a career as a writer and a producer and then I had to cast myself as an actor essentially, which is basically what I did. The only reason I was cast in “Knocked Up” is because I had been working with Judd as a writer

— I’m pregnant. – — off! – What? – What? – I’m pregnant. – With emotion? – With a baby. You’re the father. —

Seth Rogen: And I had been helping him rewrite his movies, so I was just a guy who was around him, you know? And “40-Year-Old Virgin,” I was cast in that because I was a producer on it first. Then, the movies we wrote, we wrote for myself to star in. There was probably better people we could have gotten honestly, but it just seemed again like the only way to perpetuate my career as an actor was to provide myself with that work, and if I didn’t do that I would have acted in like two — movies in the last decade, literally. I did not think there was like a room full of Hollywood people being like, “You know what we need is like, a stoned, Jewish, Canadian guy?” Like, I just knew that that conversation wasn’t happening.

And so I had to be the one creating the material that required a stoned, Jewish, Canadian guy.

And I knew that was my only way to do it, basically. And if you’re only an actor and can’t write for yourself or create your own material otherwise, then I always just tell people like then become friends with a writer because they always need actors for their —, and become friends of the director because they always need actors for their —. And so just link up with someone who’s has a job you can’t do.

-singing- His friends would say stop whining. They’ve had enough of that. His friends would say stop pining, there’s other girls to look at. But there’s something about Mary that they don’t know. —

Seth Rogen: To me like, “There’s Something About Mary” who is one of those movies that I watched in high school.

And to me, that shifted the parameters of comedy and then the “South Park” movie came out when I was in high school.

— All those times I said you were a big, dumb, Jew I didn’t mean it. You’re not a Jew. – Yes, I am. I am a Jew, Cartman. – No, no Kyle, don’t be so hard on yourself. —

Seth Rogen: It was like one of those moments like, “Oh! Like, movies can be so much more than I thought they could be like.” It was like the most shocking thing I’d ever – I could not believe what I was seeing. And so we’re standing on the d— of giants.

Yeah.

Eric: Much of Mr. Rogan’s inspiration comes directly from his parents’ love for all types of movies.

Seth Rogen: My parents were just into movies like they liked movies they would go to a lot of movies. We had like a big VHS collection that my parents would like tape off of television so it’s funny because lots of them were like — up not the right versions of movies like I didn’t know they smoked weed in “The Breakfast Club” till like three years ago because like that was edited out for television. But I really look at the movies that my parents had growing up and it is like a direct reflection of the stuff that I now make. There was like Woody Allen movies, and Robert Zemeckis movies, and some incredibly violent Paul Verhoeven my mom was like a huge Paul Verhoeven fan, and she loved “Die Hard” and she was big Steven Seagal fan, and it had big Jean-Claude Van Damme fan. So I was inundated with like incredibly violent movies from a very young age and incredibly like, intellectual comedic movies from a very young age. And my friends we just had like a disgusting sensibility and I think the combination of those three things are why I make the types of movies I make but I really think it’s just because I watched a lot of movies when I was a kid and I loved movies.

Eric: Mr. Rogen also acknowledges that growing up in Canada gave him a unique perspective on American comedies.

Seth Rogen: What I honestly think it is is because I’ve also worked with like British comedians before and they’re hilarious. But they don’t quite understand like, American culture to the degree they probably need to in order to like really infiltrate it. You know what I mean? But Canadians grow up with American culture but it’s not our culture. So we view it as though it’s like this other thing kind of. But we know it all we get the grind all that MTV —. I grew up watching, you know? So we grew up with all this American — but we didn’t view it as our —. And so we probably were a little more inclined to make fun of it. Well, and to comment on it well because I think when you’re like outside of something you’re in a slightly better position to comment on it. And so I think that’s why a lot of Canadians do well in American comedy because they comment well on American culture and it’s not their culture so they’re not as you know attached to it. They’re a little more objective about it I guess.

Eric: If there’s a hallmark to Mr. Rogan’s work it’s finding the heart within the crudest of moments.

Seth Rogen: I think it’s different things for different people. For us, it’s having a very simple emotional story that through all the insanity is very clear and identifiable and articulatable (I don’t know if that’s a word) By the people who saw the movie, afterward. And “Superbad” is very similar in that we really learn the lesson. It’s really about like two friends who don’t know how to say they miss each other. And because of that is allows us to like get period blood on one of their legs and do all sorts of crazy —.

That like would otherwise be appalling. Were it not surrounding what is like, a very sweet emotional center.

And so for us, we talk a lot about balance and balancing emotion with crudeness and balancing intelligence with stupidity and I think balance is the most important thing in making a comedy. And finding the elements that you want to balance and striking that balance between what genres you’re trying to mix which is something we’ve done in our work before and I think that is the most important thing because that’s what makes the movie unpredictable is when you don’t know which one of those things it’s going to be.

But it’s all those things. What’s wrong. I’m just I’m a little nervous. I just found out we have to play Hail to the Chief when Bush arrives I can see it now.

The FBI announced today that North Korea.

Had the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio. Because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.

I love Seth and I love James but the notion that that was a threat to them I think gives you some sense of the kind of regime we’re talking about.

Here. Oh no my wife must have put them in there because I have never heard this before in my life I love Katy Perry. You know Dave Sometimes I feel like a plastic bag. Drifting through the wind wanting to start again.

Eric: In 2013 his twisted sensibility attracted some unwanted attention with the release of his film. The interview on the eve of the movie’s premiere Sony experienced a massive hack in response to the movie’s satirical themes. One student asked about how this incident affected Mr. Rogan’s approach to filmmaking.

Seth Rogen:I don’t know I don’t think reshaped.

If anything I guess it told me that if you make a movie about something then the subject of that something could really react to it in a very strong way. And so in a way I guess it reinforced what I always thought was the power of filmmaking which was if you antagonize a worthy subject then that is something that people will probably get behind and what I didn’t predict is that subject perhaps attacking the movie studio that was releasing the film. But honestly I don’t — know if North Korea hacked into sony I don’t even know. And no one does.

And so.

So it’s hard to really learn that many lessons from something that you don’t even quite know what the — happens. One lesson I could have learned was to like tone down what could be considered controversial filmmaking and I clearly did not do that.

So I guess I didn’t learn any lessons.

I think as a movie when I look at it there are some things storywise that we could have tightened and I think honestly like on a narrative level there was some filmmaking lessons I learned. It was the second movie we directed. So you just learn a lot from that. So just as a filmmaker there was a lot I learned just from making my second movie in the kind of things that worked and the things that didn’t. But I don’t know if I really learned a lot from what happened because again I don’t really know what happened.

Eric: Fortunately, most of Mr. Rogan’s projects have gone much more smoothly. As a producer Mr. Rogen never loses sight of the bottom line no matter the scale of the production.

We made movies very different ways spanning from the most studio of ways to the most independent of ways and part of you know what we think is like a big part of the question is like budgeting the movies properly like we’ve never had the philosophy that we should just get like as much money for every movie as humanly possible we’ll look at the movie and think like realistically how much does a movie like this make. We probably shouldn’t make it for that much more than that because we just want to keep making movies like 50/50 is an example of a movie that we’d made completely independently. But then we sold it to a studio before it came out.

I would like to present to you what I have grown to call exhibit whore look at it.

That’s Rachel and that’s a filthy Jesus looking —.

And they’re kissing I did it. I — nailed you I’ve hated you for months and now I have evidence that you suck as a person.

It’s all different. They all have their ups and downs. I have never liked financed a movie myself. I put money into our movies for little things here and there but I’ve never like fully like paid for something because other assholes are willing to do that.

Eric: After 70 something roles, he’s now enjoying his work more behind the camera acting.

Seth Rogen: I probably like the least to be totally honest it just like is not the most engaging of all the jobs on set. To me, you’re like kind of not doing — like 80 percent of the time. To me that is very frustrating and I don’t like it. Directing ,on the other hand, is probably the most active job you can have on set you’re literally doing something one hundred percent of the time. I really like that and I like being hyper-engaged.

Directing has probably become the most enjoyable thing to me. And writing is also very fun because it’s kind of like the most familiar thing and it’s kind of the thing we’re always doing amidst all of it as producers, is constantly reading other people’s scripts and helping with them and having meetings with the writers of those scripts and talking to them about it. And at the same time we’re generally writing one of our own movies but on a day to day basis directing has been incredibly fun and it’s very engaging and so I think right now that is is our favorite thing to do.

Eric: A student asked Mr. Rogen about how he approaches working with a variety of actors.

Seth Rogen: I think you just do your thing honestly like I’ve noticed no consistency between how these actors work and as a director I’ve noticed actually incredible inconsistencies in what different actors respond to like some actors I realized solely if I was in the scene with them they just wouldn’t listen to my direction. Like it just they just wouldn’t listen. Just something happened you know and I would literally have to tell my partner like tell him this and other actors are completely unlike that. And so you know when I was in that Steve Jobs movie I honestly was worried like is is what I do as an actor in any way going to mesh with how this movie is expected to be made.

I’m talking about you guys designed and chipped a little box of garbage Well while I was gone I’m talking about the Apple 2 which is not just a crucial part of this company’s history it is a crucial part of the history of personal computing for a time. The least you could do if you’re going to downsize these people they’re going to live in the biggest houses of anyone on the unemployment to acknowledge them.

And I instantly found that everyone working on the movie worked completely differently in and of themselves and that there is no correct way to do it. There’s only what makes you feel like you’re confident in what you’re doing and so I’ve guess I don’t know if that’s good advice. Just do you I think feeling confident in what you’re doing is the most important thing and whatever makes you feel confident in your performance because that’s the one thing that is bad is when actors start losing confidence in themselves on set.

It’s like babysitting a lot of the time honestly.

You discern what each person needs to be the best version of themselves I guess. And then you just do it.

When dealing with some of his more sensitive material Mr. Rogen has learned that honesty is the best policy.

I recently found the email I sent to Channing Tatum when I asked him to be the gimp in this is the end.

This is my gimp. Channing, introduce yourself.

Hey what’s up guys that’s. Channing Tatum dude what the — Channing — Tatum. Tatum I found him wandering on the freeway. I collected him made him my bitch get off my dick. I call him and Channing Tate-yum.

And what I was amazed by was how like plain it was because I was very concerned that he would show up and in some way be expecting something different so I was literally like this is the movie you are playing Danny McBride’s sexual gimp it will require you to be at the end of a leash.

He yanks you around. He talks about how your his —- how you’re an idiot.

Like like I was like if you have a problem with any of this just don’t do it because thats like the nightmare is if they show up and they’re like 99 percent on board then that 1 percent is like a — real chasm to navigate.

At times I get very nervous around actors honestly.

I don’t like like as a director like talking to actors is like by far my least favorite thing to do because I get nervous I’m like what if they ask me a question I don’t know the answer to like. I just don’t like talking to them.

And so even if I’m friends with them I don’t like talking to them. I’m more comfortable talking to them if I’m friends with them which is probably a reason I work with my friends so much because I’m for sure I’m more comfortable talking to my friends. But like when you like tell like give like Eminem direction like it’s — horrifying.

You know when I say things about gay people or people think that my lyrics are homophobic You know it’s because I’m gay. When I rap about violence or let’s just back it up a moment you just said that you were gay. I mean I’m gay. I am a homosexual meaning I like men.

What the — just happened. Eminem just said he was gay four times. That’s what the — just happened. Holy —.

And again the only thing that makes it slightly less horrifying is because I’ve made it incredibly clear that types of things I was going to ask him to do before he showed up that day because again like I would so much rather have my second choice who is 100 percent committed than my first choice who’s ninety-nine point nine percent committed because the last thing you need is on set having to navigate a sudden difference in sensibilities or a lack of understanding over what the movie or TV show or whatever it was was going to entail. That’s kind of like the philosophy for everything is like you don’t want to have to be convincing people to do things on set. You want them to be psyched on set you want that to be the most joyous experience for everyone possible and you know that’s when everything is hypothetical. When you’re filming the movie it’s not till you’re editing it that you actually have to deal with all the — that happened like set. There’s like no reason to ever be unhappy. It should only be a pleasant creative experience where you’re just getting as much as you humanly can that you think you might need. And the only way to do that again is if everyone is fully trusting and fully on board and the only way to do that is if you’ve really gone out of your way to explain to them that you know you don’t want them surprised at the premiere even after his many successes it still took a decade to get this sausage party started.

Once you see that — it’ll — you up for life.

There was a lot of hard parts.

It was.

Writing it was not the hardest part. Clearly these jokes write themselves.

Getting it made was incredibly hard. Finding someone to agree to pay for it was very difficult. It took us literally years and years and years of going on meetings and being told no by independent financing companies by major studios. Every basic way you could be told no is how we were told no. And then someone named Megan Ellison was the coolest person ever and basically like made it her thing to like make movies that no one else wanted to make and ours was for sure that and so she co-financed the movie with Sony. So that was really difficult. The actual process of making it was very difficult. We never made an animated movie it was very different than anything we’d done. There was a moment in the process were like — if we’re like kind of making fun of a Pixar movie it kind of has to be around as smart as a Pixar movie. And I remember that moment we’re like — and. There was a definitive moment like halfway through the process where we realized we had to make the movie significantly better than it seemed like it was going to be.

And that was a very difficult time as well.

Eric: As Mr. Rogan’s work shows he marches to the beat of his own drum.

Seth Rogen: When I was younger I didn’t give a —. I like I was so confident and I was like 18 or 19 when I moved to L.A. and I was just like — everyone they wrong I’m right. Like I was really aggressive and confident and it’s over the years as I’ve read like thousands of articles just saying what an idiot I am I’m like — maybe I should just stop. When I was younger Honestly I look back and marvel at how little I thought about whether or not other people thought I was funny when I was first starting.

It was all. I think I’m good at this. I’m just going to do it. And I think I can do something different in movies so I’m just going to try to write movies. I was very angry. I would get bitter and angry a lot but I just was like the more I didn’t succeed I would just get more angry and try even harder to do my —. I mean this movie like we’ve been trying to make for ten years. And like we were successful when that happened. Like it’s not like like when we tried to make it was like after Pineapple Express and Superbad and all of like our big hit movies had come out and still nobody wanted to — make it. And so we just whenever that happens you just have to really make sure that it’s a good idea and that’s by trusting the people around you and making sure you’ve surrounded yourself by people who will be honest with you and give you good constructive criticism. And if the consensus is it’s a good idea then you just do it until it occurs and you do other things. Meanwhile like we make like six movies that aren’t as good as this while we were trying to make this. But you know you got to keep going. Just in some way. But the whole time we were trying to make this as well just never stop. That’s the idea I guess.

Eric: As he was wrapping up Mr. Rogen reminded our students to be original and bold with their own work.

Seth Rogen: This movie was our craziest idea and most people who were told this idea to looked at us like we were — idiots and like it wouldn’t work. And our best movies are always the ideas that are the craziest ones. And if I see like a lack of one thing in movies I don’t see a ton of people making stuff where you’re just like what the —. Like how did they do that. And that is like all I ever want to go see in movie theaters is movies were like I’m literally wondering how it got made. You know those are like as a kid. The best experiences I had. I think like if I hope any of you take anything from this that I’m sitting in a movie theater in a few years watching a movie where I’m thinking like how the — did people make this. Please make those movies make movies that people are like. How did they do it.

Eric: Thanks to Seth Rogen for coming to our school and thanks to all of you for listening. 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. Associate produced by Vinny Sisson. A special thanks to Sajja Johnson and the entire staff and crew who made this possible. This is a production of New York Film Academy’s media content department in always beautiful Los Angeles. To learn more about our programs check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe. And if you can leave us a review on iTunes. We’ll see you next time!