Podcast Episodes

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we’re taking a look at film editing.

— There is a freedom to be able to cut to coverage. I mean there’s a freedom to be able to say I can cut to the other side. I can cheat a line over somebody’s back.

I would work on his scenes and he would work on my scenes. It’s kind of a different way of editing.

The interesting thing about Claudia and I is that one of us is the ying and one is the yang. I mean we are opposites. —

Eric: While the work of directors cinematographers and writers might contain cinema’s most visible style. Editors have a very different goal for their work: to be invisible. Most audience members are so drawn into storytelling that we don’t even realize how much work goes into cutting to make accurate pop, shape performances, and create emotion. But show even the least trained eye a bad cut, they’ll notice. For our look at the invisible but crucial art of editing. We’re exploring two different Q&As Douglas Crise the OOscar-nominated editor of Babel spring breakers and Birdman and the editing team of Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver who worked together on Creed, Fruitvale Station, and most recently, Black Panther.

— I’ve been fighting. My whole life every punch I’ve ever thrown has been on my own. Nobody showed me how to do this.

You are Apollo Creed’s son.

I’m afraid of taking on the name and losing.

You’re scared to death that you don’t matter and you know what you’re right you don’t.

You’re Birdman you are a god —

Eric: All three editors initially honed their craft in film school. In Douglas Crise’s case, he needed this education to figure out his true calling in the entertainment industry.

Douglas Crise: I would say you know when I went to film school I didn’t know I was going to end up in editing and I initially thought I wanted to do photography or something else like that. But when I got out here and started interning I ended up in a cutting room and I found that that’s where I belong. And I was doing film. Editors that I – you know, I admire – I don’t know a lot about film history of great editors – I mean you could certainly say people like Walter Murch. Who directed Sound of Music? Bob Wise, he was the director, you know he edited Citizen Kane. He started out as an editor. So you know I would say Jerry Greenberg who cut French Connection. You know Michael Khan’s a great editor. I think Dylan Tichenor is one of the better editors around. I think I’ve worked with one of the greatest editors that exist right now, Stephen Mirrione. And I think Stephen is probably the biggest influence on me, completely because he’s the one who pushed me to start cutting and even from our very first film together. He would say, “can you cut this scene for me?” And, “can you do this scene”? You know? And working on Traffic, he would give me a lot of scenes to cut. “Say, can you cut? Can you do it or you want to cut this or you want to do this?” And the more we worked together like even on 21 Grams he would basically say, “Can you get the last half of the movie edited?” Because he would be so busy polishing the part he’s working on you. He’d say, “can you just get that together?” I sometimes struggle through an assembly because in some respect I don’t want to change it after I’ve done it. So I struggle through the assembly to get it the way I want it to begin with but I find recutting actually easy to some extent because it’s like, you know, then you play with it.

Eric: Meanwhile Claudia and Michael’s time in film school introduced them to the work of fellow student Ryan Coogler the man who’d eventually direct the Black Panther to his billion dollar reign.

Michael P. Shawver: You know I was like most film students you think directing is it like you want to be a director you want to be that Scorsese you want to be that Speilberg. And so I went and I took a directing class and there’s this guy making these two three minute short films. That were just incredible that make me feel something that would change my mind about things and you know I’m the guy that’ll sit in the back I’ll take everything in from there. But there’s something that just compelled me and my gut said you need to talk to this guy. And I just went up to him I said, “Hey man like I don’t know how but I need to work with you. You’re making all this stuff that I want to make.” And he’s like, “alright.” He’s like, “for sure man!” And that’s how I met Ryan Coogler. You know that that kicked off you know everything and Ryan had basically already you couldn’t choose before but he was like, “Iwant Claudia.” I don’t know if he ever told you this but he was like, “I want Claudia Claudia Claudia.” And I kind of came in and he had already kinda decided on this other guy but I threw my name in. And he liked the work that I was doing. But I think the thing that really sort of got me that job which got me this career and kicked it off was was he was shooting this short. The next morning the day before Thanksgiving everybody was going home and he was like, didn’t really know what to do for production design he was like, “Hey man do you know how to production design” I was like, “yeah yeah.” Again fake it till you make it. So, like that was like 10:00 at night I woke up at 4 am like, “oh my god I don’t know what I’m doing,” but that day I was a production designer, set dresser, first AC gaffer, just – I got lunch, like every every little thing and what I learned was you know, find opportunity and you know, meet the people and follow your gut. But then once you get the opportunity just work your ass off you know, give give give what you have and be a good person.

Eric: Michael and Claudia soon learned that their different approaches, as well as their backgrounds, made them ideal editing partners in crime.

Michael P. Shawver: The interesting thing about about Claudia and I is that we are one of us is the Ying one of us is the yang like we are opposites. Like I’m kind of a like intense dude from the northeast and she’s a super laid back former professional surfer from Brazil. So you know we kind of attack things a little bit differently and kinda what she was saying on Fruitvale. We came on after they had already shot so the whole movie was already shot and we kinda got to divvy up what it was and she edits very organically and with feeling and I’m I’m a little more of like why is this cut like this why is this like this so kinda when we both have our take. They’re different enough that they work and we get we get in our creative discussions and heated heated debates about this frame or that frame or this shot that shot. This is what it says about the character and whatever and Ryan jokes he says when she and I actually agree on something that he knows to use it in the movie. But yeah a big thing of it too is the passion. We still have that because Ryan is such a great human being and a great filmmaker and makes such compelling stuff. It’s our first opportunity to say ok we’re the editors of this this is going to be ours we have ownership over it. And I think that’s something you never want to want to lose you know. I mean even if I’m doing a project I’m not super super thrilled about or in love with you find a reason to love it. You find a reason to love these characters to care about this because if you’re working such long hours and we never you know if Claudia is going I want to cut the scene like I’m feeling it like she wakes up she comes in like ready to beat somebody up I’m like whoa take the scene and do your thing you know so so we kind of let each other be who we are you know in the editing room and I think that diversity can create some amazing things.

Eric: So much of editing hinges on the ability to collaborate both with others in post-production and most importantly with the director each of whom has their own approach to working with their editors. While cutting Spring Breakers Douglas Crise found that Harmony Corinne gave him a lot of freedom possibly too much.

Douglas Crise: You know I would almost say maybe Harmony’s a little too relaxed because you know you want that director who will push you. I don’t like a guy who hovers all the time. You know the brilliant thing about harmony is he inspires you to do stuff without hovering. He inspires you to try things and do things. But I work with like Nick Jarecki on arbitrage and he’ll certainly give you your own time but then you have the hours that he’s with you that you’re trying this and trying this and trying this and trying you know it’s tiring because I think Nick described it to me the first time I never even realized that how hard your job is sometimes where you have to use the mechanical sense of the software and putting things together. But then you got to think creatively at the same time and when you’ve got a director feeding you creative ideas from behind my creative end starts to shut off because I have to keep up with the mechanics while he’s throwing fast. Creative ideas at me and directors who just do that to you. It’s hard to keep up and you can’t give them the input back. So I think if they give you the breathing room then you’re like they’ll tell you to do something and then they leave and then you say well I did what you wanted. But I now I came up with this idea that I think works even better or this let’s try this. So I think you need a little bit of both.

Eric: After working with Alejandro Iñarritu on babel and birdman Douglas Crise feels the director is the perfect collaborator supportive of the editor’s vision while still pushing them to do their best work.

Douglas Crise: He never wants to compromise Alejandro’s a very particular guy an has his idea how to do it. He doesn’t want to change if he can. I mean you know he wanted to make a movie that took away the safety of cutting because Alejandro is a he’s a genius editor himself I mean he doesn’t actually physically ever touch the computer but he knows all the possibilities of an editing room and that’s where he even pushed me like you know he knew I could do something with this if I tried if there was something that we thought we couldn’t you know I’m like it’s one shot what am I going to do with it. No no no. There’s a way to make this work. And he wanted to make a film where he wasn’t relying on the editing room as much and he he said to me when I did one of my many visits to set he was so stressed and he was like saying that he’s like I got to get it right getting it right. I can’t fix this later. It’s got to be I got to keep all those ideas in the head. You know there’s the pacing there’s everything. You know he would script edit on set. He would shoot the scene then shoot it again with less dialogue and shoot it with less dialogue and shoot it again with. So he’d have because he knew we couldn’t cut the tape so we’d be like you know we got it we got to have our option of what what we’re gonna do here.

Eric: When Claudia and Michael collaborated with Ryan Coogler on Fruitvale Station. The director was so involved with the editing process that he all but moved in with them.

Claudia Castello: I went to Brazil. I took some time. I was like, “Okay I’m done with film school and now I’m going to rest.” And then I got a call like, “we need you guys to work with me. There’s basically no pay. You’re going to live in the same house. Michael lived in the closet”

Michael P. Shawver: For a while, for Fruitvale I lived in a closet. It was a one bedroom apartment they put us in an I’m obviously going to let Claudia have the room.

Claudia Castello: It was very nice to have.

Michael P. Shawver:The only other little enclave was it was a closet no door had a had a curtain and it fit an air mattress fit perfectly like a twin air mattress just fir perfectly right inside it that was it. That was that was I mean we were working like seven days a week. Also if anybody was doing laundry my light had to be on. So that’s just that’s so no naps

Claudia Castello: No laundry after 10 and we didn’t stop working it was like work work work work and then little sleep and then work work work. It was it was massive. It was a lot of work but we were really passionate about the subject about what we were doing. So in the end it definitely paid off. There were days where Ryan didn’t go home. He slept right there in this sofa. And then there was one day that he went to the bathroom…

Michael P. Shawver: Let’s just say you know you you know you when you’re up for hours and hours and hours and everybody gets loopy like you think something’s been said or done and you just start cracking up. We’re going to leave it at that and lets

Claudia Castello: There are funny things that happened because we are so tired

Eric: Fruitvale Station starring Michael B Jordan focused on the true story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed young man who was shot and killed by a transit police officer in Oakland. Michael and Claudia were proud to put in the time to help share such an important personal story to a mass audience.

Claudia Castello: We have a serious problem with the media in the whole world nowadays that everything’s so polarized. Then you have to read so much to kind of start understanding what’s going on in the world and human rights issues is not a priority for the media. And I found in film a very powerful tool to touch those subjects without people turning their face away. You know, I think when you go to the movies you kind of let the guards down and you’re there for how many you know an hour and 20 minutes and you open yourself to see what’s on the screen. So whatever the filmmaker puts there on the screen it’s really really really powerful. So I think it’s important for all of us to have the awareness of what we can do. You know as communicators because film is an art form but it’s also a very powerful form of educating people or raising awareness. And that’s I think what we’re dealing Fruitvale Station. We had an opportunity to humanize a victim and a victim by the eyes of the media is never humanized. And I think every one of us here have that opportunity to use for the best. And that’s that’s why I I make movies actually.

Eric: The biggest pressure the filmmakers felt was when Fruitvale Station premiered at Sundance not because of the festival’s prestige or even its A list audience but because of one important family in attendance

Michael P. Shawver: Specifically with Fruitvale. So Oscar Grant’s family was going to see this movie for the first time at Sundance so we didn’t even care about Sundance we that was whatever we were done with the movie just happy. But his family was a big thing and the first cut of the movie Oscar was the nicest human being you’ve ever met in your life. And it was good. It worked. But there’s something that we weren’t we weren’t being true because nobody is the nicest person ever all the time. And there’s a scene in the movie where where he goes to get his job back and they did one take where he threatens his boss like you want to see me outside I’m gonna wait till you’re done I gotta feed my daughter. It’s amazing. That was the one take that he got mad everything else he was just kind of like begging.

— I hired somebody else for me to bring you back that means I have to let someone else go. I’m sorry. I like you man but I can’t – I need this f*****g job breh. You want me selling dope breh? You need me outside waiting for you to get done breh? —

Michael P. Shawver: It was towards the end we went in and just cut this. And it changed the movie completely because it made him a more complex character and through his interactions with his family and his daughter and his mother and his girlfriend we all have and having this like he could be nice he can be he can be all these things to all these different people. I think that actually brought people closer to him and saw like we could relate so that we could relate to getting frustrated. We can relate to having our mom say you don’t be driving with you know whatever. So there’s sort of this addage I guess it’s. When you make things more specific to a character they become more universal. And so you know and in those those specific moments those specific relationships and the textures of those are what make people feel and cry for Oscar you know which they wouldn’t have watching a news report.

Eric: One of the editor’s most time-consuming responsibilities is combing through a productions dailies that’s the daily footage that’s captured on set depending on the director. This could be an hour of material or so many feet of film. It stretches a hundred football fields. Douglas Crise experienced this dichotomy first hand when working with Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh and Alejandro Iñarritu.

Douglas Crise: They’re both very committed and very good filmmakers I mean Iñarritu’s more I would say. You see his passion on his sleeve more and you see his emotion more and until maybe Birdman again he went to a comedy if you can call it a comedy because you know to him movies where you’re having a good time are a waste of time. You know you have to be feeling something you have to feel anger you have to feel you know despair. And Soderbergh is more of a cool cat. I mean he’s very quiet and doesn’t really talk a lot but he’s very sure of himself you know and shoots a lot less. He has a pretty good idea what he wants and once he gets it he’s done. I mean there were I, especially on the like the Ocean’s Eleven movie you know there was days we got 500 feet of film. He got what he wanted he was done and that’s not a small movie. I mean we had a nice big long schedule but the only day we got a lot of film was the day they had all 11 characters in the same room and they had to shoot coverage on all of them. That was the day we got I don’t know 30,000 feet. I think in film back then days because we were still getting film and winding it. And even though we cut it on the Avid we were still thinking dailies on film but they definitely work differently. The two of them but you know both talented in their own way.

Eric: A quick definition here. The first assembly is the first cut of the film usually done when it just wraps production. It’s a chance for the filmmakers to see the basics of what they captured. Douglas Crise adores this part of the process because it gives him the opportunity to show the director how he initially sees the film.

Douglas Crise: My biggest influence initially is the assembly because I’m assembling the movie and they have no input. So I cut the film together. And by the time they show up I’ve got a cut of the movie. Now it’s usually too long and it’s usually boring and it’s usually you know and it’s got all kind of problems and story things don’t make sense. And then I give the director his moment right. I don’t say anything hardly. I’m like Okay we’re gonna work the next couple weeks and I want to hear everything you want to do I’ll even tell a director what I love to do and I do this to harmony too is we won’t watch the whole movie when they come in for the first time this is what I prefer and this is what I always try to talk them into. They’ll come in and I’ll say let’s watch 20 minutes. You tell me what you hate about this 20 minutes what I got completely wrong. What performance I put in that you absolutely hate or this or that or or you know you want to try some music and then let me work on that 20 minutes and then tomorrow we’ll watch the next 20 minutes or whatever and then you would do the same thing and then like a week or so now we’ll watch the whole movie at least then they’ve put their stamp on it a little bit and then we will go through it again and I’ll work on their cut. But then after we were in that stage after you know a few weeks where I let them just tell me what they want. I try to give my perspective of saying OK now this is what I think or this is what this is working and then we’ll watch the movie with other people and then it becomes a back and forth hopefully. But I always usually take my feed from the director as much as possible.

Eric: When working on Creed a continuation of the Rocky saga. Michael and Claudia had to do a tremendous amount of work before a frame of the movie was even shot in a way much of their first Assembly occurred prior to the first day of filming.

Michael P. Shawver: We want to make this movie for everybody so people who’ve never seen a Rocky movie in their life can watch this pick it up. Not miss a beat you know but there were some previz work pre-visualization. A lot of big movies do it. Marvel does it like crazy like just just for money and stuff like that like they plan every single shot as much as they possibly can. So before creed even shot they had Claudia cut together storyboards and animatics from the final fight so Ryan and the producers can see like okay this is going to work out if we cover it you know this way and then I had the task two tasks one of which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as an editor but it was cool because Michael B Jordan came over to my house and watched boxing. Ryan had me break down the script and find every single line of action boxing action. Find it on the Internet, real boxing fights. Download that stuff, and cut it all together into a timeline. It’s like editing something when you don’t even know if the footage actually exists. So it was terrible so that was the realistic aspect that Ryan always goes for. You know the real the punches feel like they hurt you know I mean like Ryan was always like if the punch doesn’t look like it hits take it out movie I don’t care if I wrote it I don’t care if I love it like take it out if it doesn’t feel real. The other thing that we do that Ryan had me do was basically think of every single fight of every single movie I could ever think of and basically cut together these sequences of every fight from every movie. Like everything from Play It To The Bone that Woody Harrelson boxing movie to Girlfight you know all the Rockys so. So we saw what it would do. Now if you go back and watch the Rocky fights. They’re terrible boxing. They’re this far away you know.

Claudia Castello: So special effects weren’t that good.

Eric: As someone who grew up around Philadelphia I do not condone any negativity against Mr. Balboa. But as Claudia and Michael pointed out special effects have advanced so much since the 70s and helped make Creed’s punches land both figuratively and literally.

Michael P. Shawver: Now VFX I don’t tell a lot of people this but VFX did some amazing stuff. They could actually make punches hit if they didn’t hit so and they would ripple the face and put like sweat coming off and blood coming out and stuff like that. So. So if we had this scene that we loved there’s that awesome shot that actually passed through the ropes and back in the ring and out of the ropes when they’re just wailing on each other. And there was one that that was just missed completely but they were able to fix that to kind of keep that. But yeah I mean there’s you know when you when you do a Rocky movie like you’ve got to be…I’m actually more worried now doing the Dirty Dancing remake so I’m more terrified of all the girls that are texting me like you better get this right. I’m going to this is my favorite movie I’m having the time of my life. But what we wanted to do with the fights and I honestly think this is this is why it’s so effective. I mean obviously the set up for the fight you care about the characters and it’s funny when we first cut the fight together, we just cut the boxing and it wasn’t until we started adding the reaction shots of the mom and the girlfriend and Rocky that you actually like oh my guy. Like I’m feeling emotion for these people. It’s what the other people who care about this character are feeling just as much if not more than than that guy. So the thing with the fight is it’s not just punching. It’s an emotional journey it’s rocky coaching him it’s him. It’s that father-son relationship it’s getting your ass kicked and then coming back and showing you got a little something and then going to the depths of hell in those awesome Raging Bull homage shot. And it’s an emotional fight an emotional journey where if you watch a lot of these other fights it was just punch punch punch punch punch punch punch oh my god like that hard punch look at this blood look at whatever we tried to bring as much emotion humanity story you know and always goes back to story. Montages, fast cuts, lots stuff happening but there’s a story there’s Adonis not getting it. He gets in a fight with the other dude. Rocky tells him to shut up and listen. And then he starts to get it. That’s the story of that montage. You know it’s really story. It’s always it’s going back to story and above the action the hard hits all that.

Eric: The Oscar-winning Birdman was made to feel like it was one continuous take. The irony is making a film look like had no cuts. Actually takes a tremendous amount of cutting and special effects wizardry.

Douglas Crise: I’ll be a little bit more open because you know Alejandro didn’t want a lot of the magic given away but there’s been several articles contradicting coming out in Hollywood Reporter. One says there’s 15 minute take in the movie one says there’s this one says there’s that edits can be done surprisingly places you never thought of before. I mean we had the planned ones where you know there’d be a dark alley or a whip pan or the pans aren’t even – you can do a an edit when the camera’s not even panning fast because you just start wiping the frame and you find an edge or whatever. And that’s where a lot were done. But I mean there’s rotos that we did in different things like that like one of I’m probably the most proud of is one I came up with because like I said he wanted this performance and he wanted this performance and there was where are – we going to put it? And it’s a scene where Michael Keaton is on stage performing for the audience and the cameras coming around him. And Ed Norton’s getting drunk in the background.

— I’m drunk Yes I’m drunk I’m supposed to be drunk. This is Carver He left a piece of his liver on the table every time he wrote a f*****g page. If I need to be… —

Douglas Crise: We roto’d around Michael Keaton and it’s almost like a 40 second edit happening because we’re changing the background to a different performance of Ed Norton. So then once Michael finishes he steps out of frame and we’ve wiped completely across. So there’s an edit there that wasn’t planned. What it was is basically split screen is the easiest way to describe it because it starts on Michael but you know as he’s talking I did it in the avid first where I just did an animat around him and we figured out we could do it because we thought oh we could do the cut. Later when there’s a whip pan but that wasn’t going to work because then we wouldn’t get the moment we want to with Ed. You know there’s so many things you can do with the visual effects once you’ve figured out it’s possible. I mean there’s ones we all came up with when Michael Keaton shoots himself and he falls out of frame we switched the audience because the gun goes off his arm wipes the frame and he falls because Michael Keaton’s best performance was his last one but the audience had been there all night, they’re tired they’re not professionals their best performance was take four not not you know, and that’s the best audience he wanted. So when he falls out of frame there’s a cut there. You know there’s 100 cuts in the film. There was no 15 minute takes the longest takes every the standard day of shooting was it would be a set up of like three to four minutes long. And that’s how long that takes were and the longest take I think they ever shot was close to five minutes. And probably the longest take in the movie’s five minutes. But most of them are way shorter and there’s cuts in within those even in those four minute takes we’d put two or three edits that we didn’t plan on having. I mean there were like I said they had the planned spots and we did a lot of other stuff like you know on every film you do speed ramps and you do dialogue replacement people’s mouths. You do all kinds of stuff but here you had to really work it because you couldn’t play anybody’s over the shoulder too much. And you know if you wanted to find you know someone flubbed a line a little bit you had to sneak the word in their mouth or we would ramp the speed up to get the pacing a little faster. There’s one scene I won’t give it away but there’s a scene that you know it was one of the scenes we feel where the movie slowed down a lot. And I was ramping the speed up between every line of dialogue. So when somebody wasn’t talking we’d ramp it 30 percent faster and then bring it back down and still probably run their dialogue 5 percent faster. So we would be running ramps up and down. I never did so many speed ramps in a movie. And sometimes we actually slowed down. sometimes we actually wanted the moment to last a little longer. And what was I think ingenious about Alejandro is he knew to build in some of these moments in the film where. OK. We’re going to take a break here. You know it’s like one of my favorite scenes that I didn’t understand when he shot it was the corridor. And that of course we had the mobility of once and there’s actually a cut when the cameras panning over to the empty hallway. It’s actually wiping and you didn’t see it. But anyway you know we I think we slowed that footage down so it even plays slower because he knew we could go faster or slower with it until he wanted Michael to step in. And you know and I think we’re even digitally zooming in a little bit before the camera actually starts to zoom.

Eric: One of the editors many challenges is dealing with the sometimes tricky landscape of the film’s final cut and potentially then having too many cooks in their kitchen. But Douglas Crise never loses sight of who’s the head chef.

Douglas Crise: I think this is probably true for most editors and I hope it is. I definitely took this from Steven is when I’m working on a movie. I work for the director for anybody else. Nobody else tells me what to do or what to change or how they want it. We’ll have producers in the room when when the producer is allowed to come in and they’ll give their notes and their notes. They don’t give me notes separately their notes go to the director and director gives me the notes and they fight it out. They fight out the politics and if they’re arguing about things I’ll usually agree now when I say work for my director I will agree with my director if I agree with him if I don’t I will say I will take the producer’s side if I agree with the producer on something. But I I try to stay out of that political nonsense that will happen. And those choices that are made I would say as a director you should get final cut as quickly as you can in your career and you hold on to it and never give it up. I mean harmony when he was shooting Spring Breakers the producers came to him and said they wanted they want to have final cut. And he says you know give me ten million dollars right now. You’re not getting it. That’s that’s his standpoint and he’s had final cut from the day he started and he won’t ever give it up. And Soderbergh has final edit or if you’re going to hopefully align yourself with a producer who is strong and someone you trust immensely they might have final cut over you on your first couple movies but they’ll have your back and you know and I know George Clooney’s first movie he didn’t have final cut but Soderbergh did and Soderbergh was a producer on it. So they are as tight as they get those two guys. So that’s the way you start out before you get your final edit.

Eric: For Michael and Claudia on Creed. The path to the film’s final cut was made even more complicated since one of the producers was Rocky Balboa himself.

Claudia Castello: We had to fight until the last minute because the studio wanted Adonis to win and we strongly believed that he had to lose because he’ll win something much more than that which was the humanity which was more important than him being a winner you know. And then we had discussions Stallone was a big help for us because he had a lot of weight on that movie. He’s responsible for the whole series and that was one point that he actually went to the other side and we were like, “oh we’re done. Oh my god.”

Michael P. Shawver: He came in and he was like, “we’re going to do this we’re going to do this we have no time we have no time we’re doing it.” And Ryan was out of the room and I’m just sitting.

Claudia Castello: He was sitting on the –

Michael P. Shawver: Claudia gets up and leaves.

Claudia Castello: I look at him like I’m going to the bathroom.

Michael P. Shawver: And I’m sitting there and he was like. And then he goes he goes, “where’s Ryan? I don’t say this twice.” And I’m like, “I don’t know,” and I like slow turn around and then Ryan came in and kind of talked him down a little bit.

Claudia Castello: And he totally changed.

Michael P. Shawver: Yeah well the thing about Sly is that he listens and he listens to us. He didn’t have to listen to us he can come in and. Do this do that change this. But you know he respected Ryan so much because at the beginning Ryan said. Look I know you’re a director. I know you’re a producer just let me direct like you’re a great actor. Do what you do. Let me worry about everything else but he would come in. And he he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life and would come in with very specific notes and but also like this timecode on this scene this tape this frame like “I really like the delivery here I really like this reaction here,” and he would come with all that stuff and I’ve never seen a producer do that let alone one of the biggest icons in the history of movies.

Claudia Castello: And good notes like he was not a crazy producer.

Michael P. Shawver: Yeah because a lot of other producers are like well you know we don’t think the character would really do that and the story whatever a lot of producers would be like, “I don’t care do it. Cause I said so,” he would actually stop and think and if he agreed with us and a lot of times he did he would say you know, “yeah you’re right. Let’s keep this and move on.

Claudia Castello: Yeah he cared. He really cared and he knew what he was doing. He was not doing that for ego because sometimes you see some producers that come with the money but they have no idea what they’re talking about. But they have to have their print.

Michael P. Shawver: So they inject they inject.

Claudia Castello: Yeah they force you to do things that are not good for the project. And it’s really hard to deal with them because yeah we were very passionate.

Michael P. Shawver: Half of editing is politics anyway you know.

Claudia Castello: And then you have to deal with that situation as best as you can and it doesn’t always turn out for the best of the project. And then you remember it’s just a movie. Yeah. And you move on.

Eric: Maybe the most magical thing about editing is how much hard work goes into a part of cinema. You tend not to notice but editors are the first ones who transform what could be a mountain of footage into a cohesive story. And they provide the last rewrite the screenplay if you want to learn more about the invisible art of editing. Walter Murch’s book, In the Blink of an Eye is like an editor’s Bible. And Wendy Apple’s documentary, The Cutting Edge shows the many amazing tricks editors have up their sleeves. We want to thank Douglas Crise, Claudia Castello, and Michael P Shawver for speaking with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on two Q&As. Douglas Crise was moderated and produced by Tova Laiter. Claudia Costello and Michael P Shawver were moderated by Kelly Gardner and Josh Eiserike. To watch these interviews or to see our other Q&A’s check out our YouTube channel. That’s YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden. Our creative director David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department, Sajja Johnson, and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

This projector at the end it’s I just don’t think it’s very accurate. I mean it’s an audio broadcast on a digital medium involving no film. I have an idea. Why don’t we put in there an air siren from World War II because it’s just as relevant or the sound of a frickin dinosaur.

Eric: Hi! I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you writer J. Michael Straczynski.

J. Michael Straczynski: I write 10-12 hours a day every day except New Year’s Day, my birthday, and Christmas Day.

Eric: He’s such a prolific talent. His work spans pretty much every form of media there is: film, TV, comic books, novels. He’s even branching into web series. Mr. Straczynski created the beloved syfy show Babylon 5 as well as Sense8 for Netflix and the comic books. He reinvented Spider-Man Thor and Superman amongst many many others and on the big screen, he wrote Clint Eastwood’s the Changeling and he helped adapt World War Z.

— I am Thor Odinson.

The Old ways are done You’d stand giving speeches while Asgard falls.

What worries me is that you have stopped looking for my son.

Why would we be looking for someone we’ve already found?

You are an old man and a fool.

Humans and aliens wrapped in two million five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal all alone in the night.

You’re a liar and a troublemaker and if you ask me you’ve got no business walking the streets of Los Angeles.

This drink I like it. – I know it’s great right? – Another! —

Eric: He’s done all this despite admitting to almost sabotaging his own career multiple times.

Tova Laiter: How did you start in the business?

J. Michael Straczynski: I’ve actually started numerous times that I have a tendency to firebomb my own career on a regular basis. I think it’s important to do that from time to time. I started off as a – writing plays that were produced locally when I was 17 years old. I always knew I was going to be a writer and began preparing from the moment I could actually read a book like age four or five. So my first four years were wasted but after that I began preparing to become a writer. I knew just coming into it. And the thing about it is I come from ridiculously poor roots no connections to the business at all. We moved my first 17 years 21 times. Because my father had a unique economic philosophy blow into town run up a lot of bills and split. So we’d be in a different city. You know guys would show up at the door with badges and bills and that night the U-Haul backs up and we go somewhere else New Jersey to Illinois to Texas to California. And guys who were in my neighborhood the guys who I grew up with were never expected to do anything and we were considered dead-enders. Either you’d end up working in a mechanics shop when you got older or you end up in jail. Those are your options. So when I said I want to be a writer they all kind of laughed you know, as would I have done. But after studying and studying and studying when I was 17 the engine turned over in my head. What had happened was I was I had gotten most of what writing involved but voice and style the difference between voice and style was eluding me and I couldn’t figure out what the distinction was. I was reading a book by H.P. Lovecraft whose style is way over the top and it was so big that I understood something of what that was. I realized that voice is who you are and style is the clothes you wear so you could adopt a different style but your voice within that style’s always the same. And when I realized how that worked the engine of my head turned over and suddenly I that day I wrote two short stories couple of poems The next day I wrote two more short stories and began having them sold locally as little articles for magazines and newspapers and began working in plays and getting those produced and was a reporter about 10 years I actually did pretty well at that and ended up going from L.A. Times to L.A. reader to time Incorporated which is what got me out of journalism it’s a whole different story a different time. But I left that firebombed my career in reporting went into television animation where I worked on shows like pardon the expression he man the masters of the universe. She-ra Real Ghostbusters and others and then. And then firebombed my career in animation went from there to live action and was on that up through Jeremiah for Showtime which was a hideous experience then I firebombed my career in television. I went from there to films and did that now I circled back to television again so I failed upward is the answer to the question. Embrace your inner failure.

Eric: The seeds for Mr. Straczinski’s comic book work started years back as an unhappy child who found solace and connection in the pages of Superman. And as he explains he might have even received some of Superman’s bravery.

J. Michael Straczynski: I grew up being the geek of the schools that I went to. But for me in all the comics I read as a kid. Superman was kind of it for me because coming from a background of poor and no opportunities and the horrific family Superman could do anything he could fly and he could you know. And nothing could hurt him. And I learned my ethics from comic books and Superman in particular. So for me it became not just a fun thing to read it became a survival mechanism. A few years ago I was at a comic book convention in Chicago and you ever been to comic cons like the big ones like San Diego or whatever else the dealer’s rooms are like you know from here to New Jersey. They just really really long. And the guys selling at booths art work and tchotchkes and expensive stuff and cheap stuff and just general garden variety crap and I’m in this row of booths in Chicago dealers room the convention. I hear someone yell stop him and I looked down the row. And then there’s a guy like in his 20s who just grabbed a bunch of expensive artwork like tens of thousands of dollars worth of art. And was making a run for it and the crowd like the Red Sea they parted you know and I brought him down tackled him like a gazelle brought him down. The guy who caught up with me who’s booth it was we held him for the cops to show up and afterward they’re taking him away and the guy who runs the convention Mike walks up and says. Why did you do that. You could have been seriously hurt. I took him back to where I’d been standing under a ten foot tall cutout of Superman. I said How could I stand in front of that and do nothing. And Spider-Man would be even better given the mythology of that but it was Superman.

Eric: Mr. Straczynski doesn’t shy away from potentially alienating hardcore comic fans for the sake of an original emotion based tale. He boldly gave Thor a makeover by bringing the Norse god and his entire kingdom of Asgard to the fantastical world of Oklahoma now if this sounds familiar it’s because he also helped write the first Thor movie.

J. Michael Straczynski: I had been writing for Marvel Comics for a while and wanted to bring back Thor who had been gone for a few years and nobody wanted to get near the character. They offered it to Neil Gaiman he ran like hell they offered it to Mark Mallar. He ran like hell and I wanted it. I want to give it I want it and so alright give it to Joe. And the problem was that no one knew what to do with the character because he doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else. He comes from this tradition a very faux Shakespearean dialogue.

— You have no idea what you are dealing with.

Shakespeare in the park doth mother know you weareth her drapes? —

J. Michael Straczynski: And what do you do with Asgard and so they give it to me and say what you want to do. I said first off main thing is I want to move Asgard to Oklahoma. And they looked at me as if I had three heads and feathers which I was wearing that day but that’s a different story. And they said why. And I said Iron Man next to Thor. Not much of a power difference. Thor next an ordinary person makes him more godlike but also makes him more human. Plus visually it’s really cool to go to Oklahoma to the flatlands it’s like flat flat flat Asgard flat and I’m all about contrasts and so they said. None of them wanted it anyway. Sure go out and have fun. We’ll see you on the way down on the Titanic. So I did it and really focused strongly on the characters I reimagined How Thor spoke I made it more not Shakespearean. But formalized you think who it is not for burning. Christopher Fry that sort of thing and more accessible to a modern audience was still formalized and created relationships with the local townsfolk and often in very funny ways. I mean they want to send him some letters and there’s no address for Asgard so you have one of the folks from the town comes out with a mailbox you know by Asgard one Asgard road you know and the cops tell them you can’t just put Asgard in the middle of this on this land. So with the incantation he raised it for at above the ground. It’s not on the ground anymore it’s 4 feet above the ground just to mess with them and what to their surprise happened was that the book became one of the top five sellers for Marvel and stayed that way for the entire time that I worked on it. There wasn’t a lot of action in it. There wasn’t a lot of big huge events. It was just a strong character story and people reacted to that. And they responded to it. That’s what makes the character work because of those small moments. One of the things I did in the book was as Asgard is now by this small Oklahoma town. We see how they interact and at one point the Town Council asked do you have indoor plumbing and they said no we throw it over the wall. But my favorite scene there is a guy who’s a chef cook in a diner who begins falling in love with this Asgardian woman who is a goddess and she likes him a lot also and he keeps thinking how is this ever going to work. And he’s in the diner and Donald Blake was the alter for Thor is there. He’s lamenting this and his dad used to say to him you know a fish can love a bird but where would they build a house together. And Don Don says by the edge of the river. Ah and that’s when the guy decides to pursue it. And that set the template for the movie. They wanted to put that setting into a small town. The outfit that he wears here is based on the outfit I and the artist came together and put together. So they said we want you to be involved with the film. I had a outstanding obligation to another film so I said I could do the outline for you but I can’t do the entire script so I came onboard did the outline for them and they proceeded to go off from there. And of course the great irony is that Ken Ken Branagh who directed this wanted me to do a cameo in this really bad idea. So I show up just to be one of a bunch of guys in line. And he said I want you to actually act in the scene. No you don’t trust me you don’t He said I want you to. So there’s a scene where a red truck after the hammer’s been thrown out of Asgard it craters in the ground a red truck drives up and a guy gets out and tries to pick it up and yeah I said you know despite all evidence to the contrary Ken decided that I could act. So there you are.

Eric: The fans’ reaction to Thor pales in comparison to how they responded to what he did to Spider-Man during the storyline one more day. Mr. Straczynski not only broke up Peter and Mary-Jane he erased their marriage and their entire backstory from existence. That one still hurts. But like with all his work he used the fictional web slinger as a response to what’s happening in the real world.

J. Michael Straczynski: The difference between creating your own characters and working for in-house established like Thor Superman whoever else is that when you’re writing your own characters you can go as far as you want to go. You can make them terrible people you can have terrible things happen to them. I did Spider-Man for seven years and during that time you know that you go from here to there but you really can’t go much further because you will you know break the equipment and they hand you these characters as a trust they think you’ll serve the character well don’t hurt it. You know. So you really do have I wouldn’t say mittens on. But certainly the fingerless gloves you know just partial mittens and you also realize that you have a much larger responsibility with that character because they’re a known icon. So for instance I was writing Spider-Man when 9/11 hit and Marvel called me up and said we need to respond to this and Peter Parker is the obvious choice because he lives there he’s a New Yorker it’s how we identify him. We need you to write an issue that somehow addresses 9/11. Swell you know. And for days I kept trying and I’d call them and said I know the words are in the dictionary somewhere but what order to put them in and which ones to use is eluding me they said well give it one more day and think about it some more. And we were shooting Jeremiah TV series for Showtime in Vancouver and I was in the producer’s trailer on location and I had this note pad in front of me and I wrote down. There are no words and another sentence unfurled itself to me. And in 45 minutes this prose poem meditation. A style I’ve never written before emerged that I can’t even take credit for. And I sent it off exactly as written to Marvel and Axel Alonzo was the editor at The Marvel closed his door and read it and was in tears for the right reasons for a change. And when that book came out the New York Times covered it and firemen shared it at fire stations. It was used in schools as a teaching device about 9/11. And I got letters from guys who were there and firemen who were there who said what your book captured was the emotion of that moment. He said people understand that what we needed the most as we were working in the ruins was shoes because the heat from below was so strong that our soles kept melting. I thought what a metaphor that is. You know and when you have a character like Spider-Man you can address those kinds of important things because he is an icon. Whereas your individual characters that are not going to be as well known probably can’t do that.

Eric: His writing on the Superman comic was equally as bold making Clark Kent more human in an attempt to relate to the majority of us who just can’t solve our problems with superpowers.

Tova Laiter: How is your approach towards Earth one? Superman?

J. Michael Straczynski: Comes from a number of different things but probably the seminal image that guided me in that book the first one in particular it was on the New York Times bestsellers for like half a year. Again this happened while I was still working up in Vancouver on Jeremiah and every Wednesday I would go down to my comics sticks downtown anybody been to Vancouver anybody know Vancouver at all. There is a street called Granville which is where folks of your tribe know guys and gals in their 20s tend to congregate. You know and younger you know 15 18. It’s that age 15 to 20 and you see them sitting on the curbs. They’re panhandling asking for money. Hanging out drinking. My favorite guy there had this sign he had held in front of them said you know need money for weed. I thought that was really honest of him. And when I went to get my copy books. What I discovered was every once in a while one of those guys would come into the comic book store and walk down the row of garishly colored books his eyes hungry for something he could relate to. And he got to the end that you saw the light in his eyes go out and he would go to leave and I would follow him out and said what happened just now what’s going on and he said there’s nothing there that is like the world I live in you know. And when time came to do Superman I thought let me create a character for that tribe who don’t know where they fit in. Don’t know where they’re going. Clark Kent early 20s fresh out of college come into metropolis what does he want to do with his life. Not sure he wants to be Superman so he can do anything he wanted to do and be found profoundly successful at it. But he has to figure that process out. Let’s focus on that and that became a large part of it. I’ve introduced a character to a second volume who is next door neighbor who works as an escort. And people were at first you know horrified by the fact that Superman that Clark Kent was friends with a hooker and he wasn’t trying to get her out of the life. He knew she wanted to get out. That wasn’t an issue question is do I respect you for who you are while you’re trying to do this you know. And they became really good friends. And there were a lot folks were up in arms about that. But in the third book we make that work pretty well. So I try to look at this from a different point of view and addressing the concerns of economics of direction of sexuality things that you can just not hit too hard because you’re still writing for a certain audience but enough to make it a fresher approach to the character. But it all started with the image of this guy in a hoodie which is the Superman in the first issue first book book wearing the hoodie which also freaked everybody out. Walk into that store and not seeing somebody he could relate to and filling what that need was.

Eric: Mr. Straczynski has been a TV writer for over 30 years from He man to the reboot of Twilight Zone to Walker Texas Ranger starring the one and only Chuck Norris but his work as a creator and executive producer of the sci fi series Babylon 5 truly showed his mettle as he wound up writing almost every episode of the show. No small feat particularly for a program that had over 100 episodes.

J. Michael Straczynski: Babylon 5 was really kind of a one man show to its large extent for the first two years we had freelance writers for half of it. Then it got so convoluted that I had to do all the writing myself because I couldn’t separate it out by saying this episode ends here and that one begins here. There’s your assignment. It was the first series to do a five year arc we were the first ones to do that. And because I needed to figure it out as I did it it was hard to assign episodes so I ended up writing out of 110 episodes 92 as well as showrunning the darn thing so I was kind of a one man show. Whereas Sense8 was the three of us sitting in a room and just chewing through all the details and all the background of where these characters come from. Who are they. And we ended up covering the walls with these boards a metallic magnetized boards that had three by five cards on them with it going this way with who the characters were then the backgrounds who they were where they came from fathers parents. And this way across was their individual arcs. And we did over a period of like a couple of months we finally worked this thing out that everything laid out day by day and time by time what the whole thing was. And I’m looking at this construction one day and I went oh crap. And Lana said What I said time zones. Because they’re all connected telepathically. And if one of our characters in San Francisco is in trouble the character who is in Seoul can’t help them because they’re asleep. So we now have to redo the entire thing to incorporate time zones and they kind of hated me from that point on for you know for obvious reasons. And there was a lot more travel involved in doing doing sense8. We went to we shot the show on location. As opposed to if that was all done onstage in San Francisco Chicago London Mexico City Berlin Iceland Mumbai Nairobi and Seoul. No stage work at all. It was it was quite an experience so it was pretty much as different as you can get from each other on every possible level.

Eric: Mr. Straczynski’s current Netflix shows Sense8 is a collaboration with the Wachowskis the innovators behind the Matrix trilogy. Despite the show’s massive scope and globetrotting locations the show spawned from an intimate and emotional central theme.

J. Michael Straczynski: We worked on what the story was going to be and what the first three episodes on spec took it out and our first meeting was at Netflix and figured okay fine that went well lets book the next meeting and they called to take it off the market and said we’re going to give you the budget to make the show. Do you all know what the concept the premise of sense8 what the idea is Lana and I particularly are big believers in the notion of community. The problem we have as a culture right now is that we have been marginalized and tribalized and factionalized to within an inch of our lives. If the country were divided geographically as it is politically right now you’d be hearing gunfire in the distance. And we wanted to talk about the fact that whatever your gender identity is or your sexuality or your ethnic background that the common coin of our shared humanity is stronger than all of it stronger than what divides us. And we wanted to do a story on a global scale that was about community and one of things that entered into discussion was I have friends three dubious words but I do have friends who will when they’re in different parts of the world they’ll all queue up a DVD at the same time of a movie and as the movie plays they will text back and forth with each other about what they’re seeing and they’re sharing that experience even though they’re in different parts of the world. So I said what about you know characters who become telepathically linked to each other and suddenly there’s someone in your head who knows everything that you know about yourself and only you can see them but no one else can. And that person knows your secrets your background your skills your abilities and theres eight characters who share this hive mind and to me as a writer what’s appealing about that is I have a theory that there are five kinds of truth the truth you tell the casual strangers the people you meet the truth you tell to your friends and to your family. The truth you tell to only a few people in your entire life. The truth you tell to yourself the truth you won’t even admit to yourself. And we wanted to do a story about truth number five because suddenly someone’s in your head and has access to your secrets and our secrets are what define us. In many respects so that became the core of it. And then we built out the universe from there.

Eric:Despite years of success in television. When he went out with his feature screenplay Changeling he was considered a newer writer. Fortunately he won over two titans of the industry which ensured the true story would reach the big screen.

J. Michael Straczynski: Ron Howard bought the script to direct initially for himself. He couldn’t do it brought in Clint and how the town works is that the director comes on they give you notes and you come back with a draft. So they finally said Clint wants to meet you so I went down to his office at Warner Brother on the lot and comes in we’re sitting on the couch and the funny thing is Clint doesn’t really look at you a whole lot. So we’re sitting like this he’s looking that way the entire time I’m talking to him he’s talking to me and finally we’re done with the meeting. I say you know do you want any revisions because obviously he has some thoughts that I can change a few things and suddenly he looks at me and it’s Clint Eastwood And you remember what your colon is there for and he says you know how many movies I’ve made a lot. A lot. That’s I thought point is he said. I’ve got more phone calls about this script than any other script I’ve ever produced saying Don’t screw it up. My job is to not screw it up. Don’t change a word. The ultimate irony of Changeling was that we went to Cannes and we missed winning the Palme d’Or by one vote. We discovered from a French critic who didn’t believe the story was true he said police would not handle someone in this fashion. Obviously not from here. And Clint called me because then the story had based on a true story in the credit and and he said half of what he said was unrepeatable. But what the gist of it was. Sit down with the universal attorneys go through all your notes with them. Show them where every single scene of the script comes from to get a true story not based on a true story. On the screen from now on. So I sat down with universal attorneys and I had done a year’s worth plus of research. I had like 25 hundred pages of documentation about that story and I show them every single case where every single line came from a transcript or a hearing document or a court record or a hospital record. And we got a true story which is very rarely ever been awarded to anyone. He’s still pissed off about it.

Eric: After working as a writer for over 20 years the changing turned Mr. Straczynski into a Hollywood big shot a role he was less than thrilled to portray.

J. Michael Straczynski: After being in television for 15 years I wrote Changeling which got all of this attention and suddenly I was invited to all these studio meetings and most of them didn’t know that I had been in television before they thought this is my first script and again this up and coming screenwriter. So I’m at this reception with like eight guys in their 20s and me the best part of it was after Changeling became Changeling. I ended up going to all the different studios they all want to meet me and see who this Yeti was who had just done this. And I walk into this studio visualize if you will a long conference table and along the sides of the conference table. There’s the presidents vice presidents of production development. Yes Men flunkeys plenipotentiaries toadies the whole catastrophe and at the end of the table is Mr. Big who runs the studio and he begins giving me his background I ran Paramount for two years. I was in charge of Fox for three years I was head of production for this studio for two years. I ran this studio for three years. Give me the whole litany and then sat back to see my reaction. I said what you’re saying is you can’t hold a job and the president vice president of production the development people the flunkeys the yes men the toadies went white Mr. Big took a moment to realize what I just said and started laughing. And could not stop laughing because most people who walked into that room did so from a position of fear. The most important thing you can do as writers is never ever ever be afraid. There’s nothing they can do to you. And because I was not afraid of him he respected me and actually I walked out the door with an assignment. So never ever ever ever let him see you being afraid.

Eric: Before they work together on Sense8 J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis were mutual fans of each other. This led to perhaps his hardest gig ever doing a page one rewrite of a feature film in one week for all your non-writers out there. That is literally impossible.

J. Michael Straczynski: They actually were fans of mine. They were Babylon 5 fans and like my comics work. I didn’t know that till I got the invitation to see the last Matrix movie at the Disney center downtown. And I didn’t. My lawyer said we got this invitation do you know anybody involved with matrix I said No but I’m happy to go I love the movies. So I go up to the Disney theater and up the balcony and this couple sits next to me and the woman says What did you do with this. I said nothing. I’m just here to see the movie and this is who I am. She leaned over said Lana it’s the Babylon 5 guy and Lana came over and began talking Spider-Man and Babylon 5 and all the stuff and they were trying to run the movie and they’re like we’re talking Babylon 5 and comic books and so we became friends after that and we worked a few years later together on Ninja Assassin which not a terribly deep movie because it’s well Ninja Assassin. But what’s funny about that is this is kind of again where the effortless approach to writing pays off. I didn’t know they were working on Ninja Assassin until I got a phone call from Lana saying we’re in a bind. Can you come see us this is on a Monday. I come the next day on Tuesday and they said we are six weeks from camera on this movie and the script doesn’t work. We need to have a complete rewrite fade into fade out. Can you do it for us. I said you’re my friends whatever you want me to do I’m happy to do it. When do you have to have it. They said it has to go out to actors’ agents on Friday. This is Tuesday. So they said we know how fast you are. Can you can you pull this off. And I said I’ll have it on Friday. Went home. Fired up the coffee maker. I did the math. How many pages per hour that would have to be and how many hours I could sleep each day which is three. And I just made sure that every hour I hit that number and I didn’t go to sleep until I hit that page count for the day. And would doze at the desk I would put my pillow on the keyboard and nap get up have a cup of coffee. Keep on going. And on Friday morning I emailed off the script which Warners had no notes on which scared the hell out of me. Because if Warner would have like something you’ve got to worry so then they shot it

Eric: Mr. Straczynski gave our students some great advice about writing for one read a lot of screenplays or TV scripts. The good news there. So many of them are available online legally. So you literally have no excuse for not reading them.

J. Michael Straczynski: The best thing you can do seriously is to read scripts read because when you’re watching the film what works is often invisible but you can see it on the page but you can’t always see it on the screen and particularly look at I wouldn’t say read the scripts for but look at really really bad films because what works in a good film is often invisible. But what is crappy in a bad film is pretty obvious sometimes and you can learn more from seeing a bad film sometimes than a good film because like the magician how the hell I can see what they did wrong over there and just write every day. What you have to become is transparent as a writer and write all the crap out of your system. It’s like writing is like digging for oil you have to pump out the mud the yuck the dinosaur bones the water and then you get to the good stuff. The more you write whatever it is that you’re writing do it because what you want to get down to is your authentic voice. Writing is nothing more than talking on the page in your own natural voice. When you hang out with the writers a lot you learn that they write the way they talk and talk the way they write. There is this notion. Somehow writing should sound literary and sound a certain way. No writing is your natural voice. What you have to sell what all of you have to sell each of you stands on a piece of turf piece of ground that no one else stands on. No one else has your background your experience your knowledge your information no one else has that lens in the middle of your head that was formed by your experiences. If a diamond has value because there are few of them how much more rare and valuable is your particular perspective when you hire a writer you’re hiring them for their point of view. You’re hiring them for how they see the world and how that story will come through that filter. As a result you can give 10 writers the same basic idea you’ll get 10 very different stories. So whatever you can do to write just your brains out nonstop to get out of your own way and become transparent which only can happen by every day. Writing writing writing writing writing. I started writing nonstop when I was 17 years old. I’ve never stopped every day and the first three or four years my stuff sucked. It wasn’t the smell it was the burning of the eyes. It was that bad. And eventually I wrote out the crap and got to the good stuff. I’m still writing out some crap in my system there’s still some left over there. To this day I’m still working on it but the more you can get those words out of your system and learn to just be transparent and just here’s what it is there’s trying to write and there’s writing effortless joyful fun that’s where you have to get no matter what material he approaches be it thor a ninja assassin or the changeling’s harrowing tale of a mother losing her son. Mr. Straczynski comes at the story from the exact same place to me writing it’s all about emotion. That’s ultimately what it comes down to I don’t care how good your plot is or your effects or your action sequences if you don’t care about the characters you have got nothing. People may not remember you know all the whaling technology that was discussed in Moby Dick but you rember Ahab. For me it all starts and ends with character and my writing process is built around that in a kind of a weird way that you want the secret to write the real the real deal. Don’t tell anyone I told you this it’s you know imagine your best friend for a second if they haven’t got a best friend borrow one from the person next to you walking across the living room at night lights are off and they bang their shin on the coffee table. Now you know your friend. You know exactly what your friends gonna say when that happens. You didn’t have to work at it. Have to think about it. You just know and you can write it down. Writing is exactly the same. It is getting to know the characters so well that whatever you drop them into you lay back and you write down what they do. It’s very zenlike that way. It’s not supposed to be homework it’s not supposed to be hard it’s supposed to be fun. And by focusing on the characters. Let them do the work for you. It becomes effortless and keeps the character always at the center of the story. I worked with Jim Cameron awhile back working on a Forbidden Planet remake and he said one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard. He said he used to think that writing science fiction was about writing familiar characters in unfamiliar settings. It took me ten years to realize I was wrong. It’s about familiar relationships in unfamiliar settings. So. Terminator 2 is a father son relationship even though it’s not aliens is a mother daughter story even though it’s not. You may not be able to buy into you know alien civilizations or strange futuristic events but the emotion of what a father son or mother daughter relationship is will bring you in every time. So I always believe in going through the emotions first and foremost as the gateway drug and pulling back from there into what the plot is another piece of advice from J Michael Straczynski. Learn how to take feedback without letting your ego get in the way of ideas that can help develop the material.

You have to be honest. You have to step outside your own ego and say does the note make sense. If it does do it there’s nothing wrong with doing it. You get to bask in the reflected glow of the smartness of that note. If the note is wrong because your heart says it is wrong because your logic says it is wrong you don’t do it and you tell them that or you lie. I used to do this. Here’s how I wouldn’t say not bright but less in tune. Sometimes executives are at studios where the example would be someone says to you okay in your script. We have them coming in the door I think they should come in the window because that’s more dramatic. It doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Fine. You wait 6 weeks turn in the script and you tell them you know that note you had where instead of having them come in the window you have them come in the door. You were absolutely right with that. It works every time. They just want to be heard. They just want to earn their salary. And lying is a completely moral point of view when you’re working with some of these guys. But other times if you disagree with it and your heart says this is wrong you have to fight. You have to be a pain in the ass I cultivated that from a very early age to just say no if I thought it was wrong. But just be honest with yourself. Oftentimes it’s getting more to the spirit of the note and the heart than the actual letter of the note. Something in you was bothering and this is bothering you. You’re saying cut this sequence. Well are you actually saying that the sequence is too long because if that’s actually the concern I can take out this part over here which is not essential. Opposed to the point you want to take out which is the whole core of the scene. Yeah and lastly don’t worry about what the audience will think belief in your material is what will see you through this industry.

I think that the moment you begin thinking too much about the audience you’re doomed. It has to interest you because we all containe within us as I mentioned before the same basic elements we all want happiness. Love you know better future for our kids If you write something that’s true for you. The odds are it will be true for everybody else. At some level the moment you think what you should be writing about then you lost that and you what you write will be driven by the market driven by outside forces rather than your own heart. And again as I mentioned earlier the only thing you have of value to sell. Is your point of view. The audience changes you can write to a trend right now but that trend started four years ago when the developing process began on those films you’re now four years behind the times. Where as your. Your heart will always be on time. Because your heart’s writing to the culture right now. Yeah. Never. The worst that will happen is it won’t sell write the next one. That’s what a writer does. You write it you put it on the market it sells or doesn’t sell you write the next one and the next one and the next one I know a lot of aspiring writers who work for 10 years on a script. And the problem is you only learn the lesson that one script had to teach you. The more you write the more tools you acquire for your toolbox we all start in the same place with a pair of rusty pliers and a screwdriver that’s all you got. You only make so much with that. The more you write the more scripts you write the more tools you get for your toolbox so you can make more interesting things with that. But that box only opens up with your own heart. The moment you come from the outside of it and say I think I should be writing about this because that’s what the audience wants the box won’t open. So write your heart. The audience if they believe in you will find you Sense8 is that that kind of a show. It’s a show driven not by plot or by gimmick a lot of science fiction show’s about the gimic the gadget the mission the team. It’s about what William Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself. It’s the only thing that’s worth writing about in the long run. Only thing worth the sweat and the blood and the grief. And we sat there for days asking ourselves the most intimate questions Lana Wachowski who worked on this project with me is transgendered and one of our characters is transgendered so we get into some into the tall grass in some of our conversations. There were times he said Do we really risk going there do we want to go that far with this. Because it’s really intimate stuff. You’ve seen a bunch of it and it works and it has galvanized the Internet in ways that no other Netflix show has ever done. For those of you who don’t know the show we were logging 200 tweets a minute at one point people were just like oh my god look at this show by staying true to the human heart. If you’re going to be a writer what are you selling. Are you selling your point of view or are you selling what you think people want. If it’s the latter. Get the hell out. It was the former stay in

Eric: Mr. Straczynski’s Q&A showed he’s as great a teacher as he is a writer. So thank you to novelist TV writer producer comic book writer publisher and screenwriter J Michael Straczynski. And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter co-moderated by Crickett Rumley to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As. Check out our youtube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple’s podcasts or wherever you listen see you next time

No, Kristian. It’s not just a comic book it’s Spider-Man. Mary Jane Peter their marriage was perfect and you know what they did. You know what he did. He ended it and it wasn’t just oh they got divorced. No none of that he erased their marriage and their entire backstory from existence. It doesn’t make sense.

Kathleen Turner on “Body Heat” & Typecasting

The Backlot Podcast: Kathleen Turner

  • Kathleen Turner Introduction & Background
  • Body Heat & Overcoming Typecast
  • 40 Years of Acting Experience
  • Being a Film Director
  • Theater Inspiration Overseas
  • Having a Life Outside of Work
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Kathleen Turner Introduction & Background

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy and in this episode, we bring you the Oscar and Tony-nominated actress Kathleen Turner.

Kathleen Turner: I hoped and was determined never to be typecast certainly not as a femme fatale because there is a real age limit to that sucker.

Eric: Her list of credits and the directors she’s worked with is well impressive barely even covers it Francis Ford Coppola in Peggy Sue Got Married, John Huston in Prizzi’s Honor, and Robert Zemeckis in Romancing the Stone, just to name a few.

— You’re not too smart are you. I like that in a man.

When I watch you eat –

– scram, split, let’s make a run for it –

– when I see you sleep.

You’re a Mondo Dizmo.

When I look at you lately.

Some men when they get a whiff of it they trail you like a hound

I just want to smash your face in.

I’m not bad I’m just drawn that way–

Eric: Unlike most actors, Miss Turner was only briefly at a school before finding consistent acting work though she may be the only actress to go back to waiting tables after she got her big break in Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy film noir, Body Heat.

Body Heat & Overcoming Typecast

Kathleen Turner: My first year in New York, when I got out of university and moved to New York I had an off-off-Broadway play you know around six months, and then around 9 months I got a soap opera called The Doctors, and then around 11 months I got a Broadway show – a Broadway play. So there I was doing both. So within the first year, I was supporting myself as well as an actor which is not very common frankly what you call the big break I suppose would be Body Heat. But in truth, I was supporting myself by my acting always. Yes, there were stints when of course I’m waitressing and stuff. Even after we completed filming Body Heat I came back to New York and they didn’t pay me hardly anything but I was paying rent in New York and I was paying rent in Los Angeles. So there went my salary pretty much. So well we completed shooting Body Heat and it’s six months until the release you know I went back to waitressing for a couple months just to pay the rent in New York. It seems weird but that’s what you’ve got to do.

Eric: Body Heat ensured that Miss Turner would not be waiting tables anymore. And as with all her work, she looks back on the project fondly knowing she had left it all in the field.

Kathleen Turner: The first time I saw Body Heat. I remember my first thought truly was oh my God there’s a record you know there will be this piece of film long past my lifetime and it was kind of thrilling but it was also extremely frightening the thought that I would be open to anyone’s judgment till the end of time. I mean come on it’s scary. People are going to be judging this for as long as they wish to whether I’m there or not. But it was also quite exciting the thought that I would have left this record which also then brings me to my ethic which is never cop out, never f*****g cop out. I want to be able to look at myself and know that that was a very very best I could do that day. That I never said “it’s good enough” or “I don’t want to do another take.” We got what we need. You know I want to be sure that every time I see a frame of film I mean that that was the best I could do. Even if I look at that film a year later and go I should have done it that way or why didn’t I add that doesn’t matter. I did the best I could. The day I did it and that I can be true to

Eric: Body Heat could have made Miss Turner the go-to performer for femme fatale roles. But Miss Turner chose her next project carefully taking great pains to push herself as an actress and not get boxed in by one type of role.

Kathleen Turner: I hoped and was determined never to be typecast certainly not as a femme fatale because there is a real age limit to that sucker. You know that you only last a few years and then you start to look foolish. Probably my first job after Body Heat was on the stage to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then I decided I’m very funny. But of course, no one in the film industry knew that. So then I wondered when I read The Man with Two Brains and I thought, “OK now this I can do. We’ll still have the femme fatale nonsense but I will also be extremely funny.” But of course Carl Reiner and yes they’re willing to have me come in and meet. But you know is she really funny so I have to throw myself around and crawl up Steve’s leg and do all of these things. So after that after a man with two brains came romancing okay she’s sexy and she’s funny but can she be dowdy and insecure. OK. Let’s wipe off all the makeup cut up some sweat clothes go and stagger bump into furniture. Be clumsy oh look. She can do that. So after romancing then I went to crimes of passion because that was fascinating. The idea of working with Ken Russell you know was something that I I always felt that he was a genius and a rather self-destructive shooting himself in the foot. Genius but a genius. So the idea being that if you look at the list of films and in their progression, you will see that each one has a contrasting factor to the one before that. I have never consciously repeated the work that I have just done partly because it’s boring. Just did it did it well thank you very much. Want to explore something else. I mean to my mind if I do not try things that I may not be able to do if I don’t take the risk of failure then I’ll never be as good I’ll never know how good I can be or get better. You know you have to be willing to risk to fail in order to test how you grow. It’s a simple formula to me. So if you look at my films with that thought in mind it’s also a reason why many people have not been able to put together my body of work. It’s like constantly running into people and they’ll say, “Oh yeah. Oh, Prizzi’s Honor. Oh course Virgin Suicides!” And they’re all hopefully, such different kinds of films that that’s why people are sometimes surprised that I was in them all. It’s fun isn’t it?

Eric: The romantic comedy Romancing the Stone directed by Robert Zemeckis who also did back to the Future and Forrest Gump began a terrific pairing up Kathleen Turner with Michael Douglas.

Your chemistry with Michael Douglas is so strong and obviously, it carried on to two more movies.

Kathleen Turner: Yeah we had a good time together but you know you have to remember that people forget sometimes it wasn’t just Michael or me it’s also Danny DeVito. It’s the three of us in those films and because Danny and Michael have an extraordinary friendship it goes back to when they were roommates you know starting out in New York and the two of them together are just you know a terrible threat actually. So it was more the three of us than just Michael and me certainly you do your best to get along with and to create a friendship with whoever you are acting opposite of and hope that that’s a true friendship that it will truly even though you know it is a necessity a little artificial you know that you are only going to be together four months or something you know. And you know there’s a definite end and I myself I’ve always lived in New York so you know and for me when a film ended I’d get on the next plane. So it was kind of like you know School just ended you do try very hard to find common ground to find an attraction toward each other and hope that that develops through the working

Eric: Miss Turner collaborated again with Robert Zemeckis on the live action animated hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Her voice work as a sultry almost obscenely curvy Jessica Rabbit. Turn up the heat on that family comedy

–You don’t know how hard it is being a woman looking the way I do.

My honey bunny was never very good behind the wheel. – A better lover than a driver. – You better believe it.

Roger darling I want you to know I love you. I’ve loved you more than any woman’s ever loved a rabbit.

I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.–

Kathleen Turner: You know I have a lot of fun with my voice. And he knew I could do that. I mean the fun that I have when I see or think about Jessica Rabbit is that the truth is that I was tremendously pregnant throughout that. So I would waddle into the studio and in fact the last day I was supposed to record. I went into labor. So I’m in NYU hospital I say call the studio. Tell them I’m not coming in today. I think that you know Bob said he’d never thought of anyone else. He just said you know call Kathleen see if she’s available.

Eric:  Prizzi’s Honor proved to be a unique challenge. The Oscar-nominated gangster dramedy was helmed by John Huston the auteur behind the Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But because of the director’s health issues Ms. Turner and her co-star Jack Nicholson had to carry their weight as performers even more than usual.

Kathleen Turner: We did Prizzi’s honor and it was his second to last film when we worked together. He was already extremely ill with emphysema you know could not function without constant oxygen. So this may have affected his directing because essentially he would say you know to Jack and me do something you like and then show it to me. So in fact I felt like I had much much more input than I had ever before in a film. I mean the whole scene in the bed when they’re rolling. Who’s on top who’s on top. They hit the hardwood and then they roll off the thing with Jack going my f*****g back anyway. That was mine. It took 19 takes I think which is a lot more than I’m used to because to time the camera move with the rolling over was extremely difficult. You didn’t quite know how far you were going to go. You know and as you can see in that shot it’s really quite close. You know so I got to block that one and Jack got to block the scene that starts with having me draped over the side of the sofa. You know and he gets up that obviously was Jack. Anyway that was really quite exciting. And then Huston would watch us run through the scene and tweak it you know make it more make it less. Only one day did he really take over. It was the scene where Jack’s character comes to find her and confront her about her ex husband about this scam that she’s pulled with him. And John kept setting up the shot and we were in a small room and there were no movable walls or anything like that. So we would be ready to go and he’d say No I don’t like it. We’re going to turn this another way. And so we spent I don’t know eight hours probably re lighting and and changing the angle on that scene on that shot. And finally I was I was so frustrated I was so. You know could you just can I just do it you know. And I hear John saying to the cinematographer. Oh I think she’s ready now. I said you s**t. But that was the only time he played me like that.

40 Years of Acting Experience

Eric: Miss Turner credits the longevity of her career. Now approaching 40 years to repeatedly jumping from theater to film and back again.

Kathleen Turner: I always knew that as a woman my starring life in film would be much shorter than my time as a theatrical lead So I never went more than two and a half years without going back to stage because first of all I love it. I love theater more than anything. You can have a lot of fun with the camera you can you can achieve things with the camera that you cannot possibly achieve on stage. On the other hand being onstage and doing a continual arc of acting without interruption is so incredibly alive. And the other side is that as women get older we get more complex and more interesting and filmmakers really don’t write very complex and interesting older women they tend like you know either you’re the love interest for you’re the grandmother or you’re the bitter professional woman you know who had a bad love life. Now on stage they actually tend to write a full character. But I do truly suggest keeping your skills on stage just for the quality of your work whether it be on stage or on film.

Eric: She’s also managed to thrive in Hollywood for so long because she does not let her representatives ever paint her into a corner. She controls her career. Not them

Kathleen Turner: No one makes a decision about what work I do except for me ever no they try that they’re fired. Simple as that. It’s like no I’ll tell you the reason for this. Because when I first when Body Heat for example they came to New York. Larry Kasdan to audition actresses obviously for Manny Walker. I was not allowed to audition for Larry at that point because the casting directors in New York you know said she has no film experience whatsoever. Waste of time. So I went out to L.A. four months later to test on a different film and the casting director around here said you know I want you to come in and read but after I got the film and everything. Larry Kasdan told me later that he had actually first thought of Anne Archer but her agent said to him that she would not audition that either it was an offer or he could walk away. And Anne when I asked her never knew about this could you imagine would kill the asshole. You know No no no no no no no no no no no no no. Nobody decides what I should or should not read or what work I may or may not do

Eric: and to keep herself on her toes as an artist. She has even gotten into directing.

Being a Film Director

Kathleen Turner: I directed a play in New York a couple of years ago Crimes of the Heart and it went very very well. It was very successful. And so I am considering more directing work at this point. It’s a balance I’m still loving acting too much to give it up for directing. So the idea this offer I have to direct and star in the piece is really very enticing. That way I get to do both and I love. I actually love directing. I thought that it might be difficult for me you know to direct my leading ladies because I’d be wanting to say oh no no don’t do it that way do it this way you know. But in fact what I found was there are six characters in the play. Not only was I fascinated by working with the designers you know to create the costume the sets the lights all of these elements when it came to the actors. It wasn’t like directing six actors it was like knowing six characters that I was doing. I mean I felt as though I would act each one of them even though a few of them were men never stopped me before. So I found that quite fascinating. I got to explore each character instead of the individual viewpoint that one usually has as an actor to only be responsible for your own exploration. So I I think directing is really intriguing. I will continue to do that.

Eric: Some performers prefer method acting a technique that involves throwing yourself so fully into character that you feel everything they’re feeling from the inside out. Kathleen Turner is not one of those performers.

Kathleen Turner: I hate the word method. I teach a course at NYU when I have when I’m home. In New York for a semester. It’s called Practical acting. Shut up and do it. Which is basically how I approach acting. Yes you do. Of course you break down the script in terms of the arc of the role because in film unlike stage you’re going to take all these pieces out and shoot them out of sequence so in your own mind you must know where you end this one scene so that when you come back to it you can start on the same level of energy intensity or emotion as you move through that scene where are you going to leave that scene because you already shot the scene that follows that so you must keep in mind. I call them bases if you looked at it like a baseball field or something like this you have to make sure that you touch the emotional and intentional bases that you set the markers you’ve set for yourself as the shooting goes on and that’s your job to find a consistent and I mean you’ll have somebody watching the continuity of when you lit a cigarette or when you lifted that glass fine and dandy. But it is your job to find the consistency of the characters thought intention and emotion. So yes you plot that out in your mind and try and when you get a shooting script you have the right to ask to see a shooting schedule and see what sequence the scenes are gonna be shot and then you can prepare for them in that way as well.

Eric: And by this point just in case you’re not impressed enough. She’s also fluent in Spanish.

Kathleen Turner: Yo viví en Cuba y cinco años en Venezuela. Un en Cali. Mi papá trabajó para en el servicio diplomático y por eso vivimos en much partes del mundo.

Eric: Yeah French and Italian too guys. I know no one expects a gringa to be fluent in another language right. Well actually they don’t expect Americans to be fluent in another language which really we should take personally. Guys do something about. If you have only one language you have only one way of thinking.

Kathleen Turner moved around quite a bit as a child and it was overseas that she first fell in love with the theater.

Theater Inspiration Overseas

Kathleen Turner: In junior high school. I moved to London from Venezuela from Caracas. So I went to high school in London which is also obviously where I had access to such extraordinary theatre. And it was in those days when I was in high school a theatre ticket was cheaper than a film ticket which is why I never went to movies. I just went to plays had lot to do with it actually. And I had started to audit classes at this British acting school the Central School of Speech and Drama. I’d intended after high school to stay another couple of years at this school in London. But my father died very suddenly and I had to take my mother back to the United States. And so then I ended up at Southwest Missouri State University. And I’m talking about culture shock you know I lived in the United States for 12 years and suddenly I’m in Springfield Missouri cause I had a strong British accent. At that point and I held on to it because I was afraid I suppose more than anything but I could remember my first boyfriend said that the first contact he had with me in Missouri was. He said Well you know how do you like it here. And I said well it’s all right. I said but everyone’s rather stupid aren’t they. So you can imagine how popular I was on the other hand I got all the Shakespearean leads anyway. I learned I learned it you know in hindsight he was excellent because it made me an American actress rather than a fake British one. So I mean it’s a pity that we learn the most when We’re so unhappy that being happy doesn’t we just don’t get. We just don’t learn as much do we. When we’re happy however longasand you learn quite honestly. It’s all I ever wanted from the time I was around 12 and which was rather silly because no one in my family had ever been connected to the arts in any way. And at that time I was living in Venezuela so I never saw theatre. I rarely ever saw movies. I just thought that this would be my ideal job would be to be an actress. Then when I was 13 we moved to London and the first night I was there I went to the theatre. I snuck out of the hotel and went to the theatre and I saw Angela Lansbury doing Mame and then he hit me for the first time I could earn a living this way. And of course in England there’s a tremendous respect for acting as a profession as a serious legitimate profession not something that happened to you because you were sitting on a stool in a drugstore. Get over those stupid stories that you were discovered. You know know that it is an art profession you can be trained and you could be paid for. Well as soon as I figured out that they would pay me for that was that that was all I wanted to do.

Eric: Ms. Turner stressed the importance that in the craziness of the entertainment industry it’s crucial to have a normal life.

Having a Life Outside of Work

Kathleen Turner: I think that it is very important to have a life outside of the work I think you have to have friends outside the industry. I think it’s good to have family. I had a 22 year marriage which was almost all good I have a 24 year old daughter who is wonderful. Most of my best friends are not in the business at all. My very best friend is an accountant. I would like people outside my world so that we don’t talk about acting all the time that this is boring. I just did it all day. Do I have to talk about it all night. No thank you. I think it’s important to have a much fuller life than just acting just the work. Explore go to museums man read books about history. Learn as much as you can acting is really very narrow and don’t let it define your life.

Conclusion & Goodbye

Eric: After watching her on screen for decades and even getting to see her on stage as Maggie in the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof it was a real pleasure to hear how Kathleen Turner never let the industry dictate her career. So thank you to miss Turner for speaking to our students. And of course thanks to all of you for listening.

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

You don’t know how hard it is being a man looking at a woman looking the way you do.

I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.

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

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

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

— I see dead people. They’re everywhere

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

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

Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

Great scott! 1.21 gigawatts!

Goonies never say die.

I’m not bad I’m just drawn that way.

We’re sending you back to the future.

Hey you guys —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Backlot Podcast: Cindy Williams

  • Cindy Williams
  • How to Get into the Film Industry
  • Francis Ford Coppola
  • Limited by the “Best Friend” Role
  • Switching from Television to Film
  • Laverne and Shirley
  • Importance of a Studio Audience
  • Owning Your Role
  • Williams’ True Love: Being on Stage
  • Williams’ Best Advice: Pursue It
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Cindy Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Get into the Film Industry

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

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

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

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

Francis Ford Coppola

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

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

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

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

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

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

Switching from Television to Film

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

Laverne and Shirley

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

Laverne and Shirley is filmed before a studio audience. —

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

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

Importance of a Studio Audience

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

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

Owning Your Role

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

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

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

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

Williams’ True Love: Being on Stage

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

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

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

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

Williams’ Best Advice: Pursue It

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

Conclusion & Goodbye

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

Dolph Lundgren on Ivan Drago

  • Dolph Lundgren
  • Ivan Drago
  • An Overnight Sensation
  • Advice: Get Therapy & Start Mediating
  • Physical Toll of the Industry
  • Being Happy with What You Have
  • Benefits of Challenging Yourself
  • Spending Time Behind the Camera
  • Finding a Connection to the Material
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Dolph Lundgren

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

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

I’m gonna hit you very very hard.

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Drago

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

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

But you know he was really nice to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Overnight Sensation

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

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

Advice: Get Therapy & Start Mediating

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physical Toll of the Industry

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

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

Being Happy with What You Have

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

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

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

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

That’s good. That’s what happened.

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

Benefits of Challenging Yourself

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

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

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

Spending Time Behind the Camera

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

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

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

Finding a Connection to the Material

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion & Goodbye

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


Anna Serner on Gender Equality in Film

The Backlot Podcast: Anna Serner

  • Anna Serner Introduction & Background
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra Gender Study
  • Gender Inequality in Film
  • What it Means to be a Troublemaker
  • Nordic Women in Film
  • Don’t Kill Dreams of Being Female Filmmakers
  • Lying for a Good Cause
  • Homosociality in Film
  • 50/50 by 2020
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Anna Serner Introduction & Background


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston Symphony Orchestra Gender Study

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

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

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

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

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

Gender Inequality in Film

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

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

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

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

What it Means to be a Troublemaker

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

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

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

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

Nordic Women in Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Kill Dreams of Being Female Filmmakers

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

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

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

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

Lying for a Good Cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homosociality in Film

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

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

50/50 by 2020

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

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

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

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

Conclusion & Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Winkler on “The Fonz”

The Backlot Podcast: Henry Winkler

  • Henry Winkler
  • An Acting Career
  • Fonz in Happy Days
  • Henry Winkler a Director
  • Earn the Trust of Your Cast and Crew
  • Winkler’s Dynamic Career
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Henry Winkler

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

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

— My place 10 o’clock be there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Acting Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give me a good reason to beat your brains in.

Get out of here slimeball. —

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

Fonz in Happy Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeriel:  – action figures-

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

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

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

Henry Winkler a Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earn the Trust of Your Cast and Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winkler’s Dynamic Career

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion & Goodbye

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

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

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

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

Aeriel: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

In this podcast episode sit down with the actor, director, and producer Henry Winkler, best known for his role on Happy Days as The Fonze.

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.


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.


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.