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Winning Sundance- Against All Odds
Every time I have a film in competition at a film festival, I can’t help harkening back to the 10 days when The Brothers McMullen, our tiny little $15,000 feature ~ the 18th and final pick in dramatic competition ~ took the venerated Sundance Film Festival by storm and altered forever the course of low budget indie filmmaking.
It was the 10th year of Robert Redford’s Park City party, and the festival itself was beginning to get crushed under the weight of its own fabulousness; it was losing sight of the appeal, and essence, of what low budget filmmaking was all about.
Truth be told, the festival needed a film like McMullen, as much as McMullen needed a festival like Sundance. And considering we’d been rejected by every-single-film-festival up until that point (including Long Island and the Hamptons ~ go figure), this was most likely our last shot.
We made the most of it.
Among the wonderful films in dramatic competition with us that year were Party Girl, Safe, Once Were Warriors, New Jersey Drive, and Living in Oblivion, some of which had budgets upwards of $30M.
After the first screening at the venerated 400 seat Egyptian Theater on Main Street, the buzz was real and it was deafening, and, quite honestly, a little overwhelming. Our lives, as we knew them, were about to change.
The momentum continued to build with every subsequent screening.
After the second one, it was rumored that 20th Century Fox’s new art house division, Fox Searchlight had already negotiated a deal to buy the film for $5M. What!? The reviews from both the NYT and LA Times were glowing. Film critic Roger Ebert called me by name and stopped me on Main Street to congratulate me.
Not two minutes later, I ran into Samuel L. Jackson (who I’d played softball with in the B’way Show League a couple of years before when he was doing Once on This Island). I started to introduce myself and he cut me off with: “I know who you are, motherfucker!” We both laughed. Knowing he was a judge on the Grand Jury Prize commission, I tried to get some sense of how our film was faring. He looked at me, winked, and said, “Good luck, Jackie!” And he was gone.
And so, when Saturday night finally came, we were all huddled in this massive tennis bubble. 2500 of us. The air, electric. The tension, palpable. Stars of the indie film community were everywhere. Steve Buscemi, Cathy Keener and the Lost in Oblivion crowd sat directly behind us. Parker Posey was all over the joint.
Personally, I thought we were a shoo-in for one of the lesser prizes like the Audience Appeal Award. Never in my wildest dreams did I think … the unimaginable.
Finally, Samuel Jackson took the stage, and announced that we were indeed the winners of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film. Absolute pandemonium!
As I shot out of my seat, both arms raised to the heavens, a pin-light in the ceiling hit me directly in the eye. And I knew in that very moment it was my mom, acknowledging that her boy had done good. The tears were tears of great joy.
I would wish those feelings ~ of achievement, of possibility, of validation ~ on every actor and filmmaker who dares to make the effort, who hangs in there, against all odds, and succeeds. At least once…
This week I found myself pissed off at everything and everyone, experiencing a lot of resistance and unidentified anger. One thing I know about myself is when I’m feeling homicidal because a paper bag won’t fold the way I want it to, I’m in the middle of some kind of a shift. I’m releasing something, an old belief about myself.
And as the universe loves to do, at the very same moment I was looking for my sharpest knife to shred said paper bag to smithereens, I received a casting notice from an agency. They asked me to send them a selfie for a potential photo shoot. The requirement for this photo shoot was a full body shot of “the most glamorous me in my most glamorous clothes.”
The “glamour” shot really shook me up because the last thing I think of myself as is glamorous. To the point where I felt that even doing the selfie would just be friggin’ embarrassement . A real imposter trying to be somebody she would and could never be. Not sophisticated enough, not cultured enough and definitely not pretty enough. In other words, a circus clown in a dress.
And as it happened my friend, Barb, asked me how the acting was going. I told her about the casting call and how disappointing I was that I didn’t have any “glamorous“ clothes. Then boldly proclaimed, “What a bummer! Can’t do the shoot!”
Next thing I know she has me stuffed into her daughter’s 2 sizes too small prom dress, held together in the back with clothespins (a big shout out to “Say Yes to the Dress” for that clothespin idea) and sparkly silver shoes (also two sizes too small). The shenanigans began from there. We went to her patio. Between the snow flurry and the wind, she shot pics and I twirled and danced like a lavender fairy. It was playful. It was, in fact, a (s)hoot and a half.
The too small dress was a big fat photographic illusion, but the lesson the Universe sent to me wasn’t an illusion at all. I was stuck in an old belief about myself that didn’t serve me anymore. I realized that I have my own special glamorous flavor. I thought, “Own it Sister!” And I did.
I played. I was free. And I allowed myself to be my specific and, dare I say, unique and glamorous 69-year-old Self. And when all was said and done, I did it all for me (except for a few broken-doll poses I had to do for Tyra Banks, just because.)
Sometimes my spiritual curriculum shows up as huge upsets and turmoil in my life. And sometimes the curriculum is about finding those tiny hidden beliefs that I’m just not quite good enough, showing those beliefs the door, putting on a lavender prom dress and bedazzled shoes and being free.
That Time I Worked for Martin Scorsese
I don’t always do background work, but when I do it is usually because it’s for a project I want to work on, or it’s with a director I want to work with, so when I got a call to come in for some work on the pilot of Boardwalk Empire directed by MARTIN FRICKIN SCORSESE, how could I refuse? I couldn’t have said yes quick enough. Even if I never even saw him on set, I could always say, “Well, I worked for Martin Scorsese” for years after.
Got fitted for my costumes. Got a period appropriate haircut at the studio. And then the big day came. I found out, on the day, that I would be an FBI cadet in, not one but, two scenes for the pilot. The first scene would be a bunch of cadets doing various training exercises. Some would be firing guns, some would be working out, some would be running laps… At that point in time, I had been a bit of a runner, so when they asked, “Who wants to run laps?” I raised my hand. Why not?
Got my costume on shortly before the scene, and it was a little big, but it fit. If the scene was a walking one, I would have been fine… But it was a running one. Have you ever tried to run in pants/shorts that are too big? They fall down. So, I told the costume person, and they didn’t have much time, so they pinned It a bit tighter and sent me out to set.
I got outside, and even though this was a bunch of extras, MARTIN FRICKIN SCORSESE was directing the scene. I was directed by Scorsese! Bucket list item achieved. I started to run, and even though I was doing my job, the pin wasn’t doing its job… and my pants started to fall down. Right. In front. Of Martin Scorsese. I wanted to make an impression… That wasn’t the impression I wanted to make.
And there was no scene in the finished pilot of the FBI cadets training. It got cut.
Guerrilla filmmaking, even at its best, can be challenging. Case in point: Day 14 out of 16 shooting the Brothers McMullen…
We desperately needed to get the two graveyard scenes – the opening scene where Mom tells Barry (Ed Burns) she’s going back to Ireland to find her one true love; after having just finished burying our father. And the second scene where I am standing at dad’s grave, on St. Patrick’s Day, telling him I wasn’t going to be the same kind of lousy man he was.
Well, we were supposed to shoot the scenes at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, which is so massive it has actual streets running through it! One problem was we were chasing light after shooting all day on Long Island. The second problem was…the gates to the cemetery were closed!
Thinking on his feet, Eddie decided to scrap my scene, figuring we would get it at some other time, and we would just set up on the sidewalk and shoot the scene with mom, having the headstones serve as the cemetery background.
So, I’m leaning against the DP’s car watching them start the scene when something catches my eye and I actually had to yell: “Eddie, you gotta cut!!” Mass confusion! I said: “Look at the headstones behind you! They’re in fucking Hebrew!!” Well, that wasn’t gonna fly (although, in retrospect, it would’ve been hilarious)!
So, we packed all our stuff up and just as we were about to chalk it up as a lost day, another thing caught my eye: a small section of wrought iron fence had been replaced by some cheap temporary fencing. I told the DP Dick Fisher, to back the car up, cut that fencing open, shoot both scenes and get the hell out of there. A bit ghoulish, but that’s exactly what we did. Both scenes made the final cut, and the rest is independent movie history.
My Momma, The Self Tape Queen
“Momma! I just got an email from my agent to ‘put myself on tape’ for a movie shooting back home! Take the paintings off the wall, make sure the dogs stay quiet, read these sides and get familiar with them and look at my teeth really quick, do I have spinach in them?!?!?!”
I had been preparing for self tape auditions long before the self tape trend became not just a trend but a necessity during these times. I jumped on the Hollywood South local hire bandwagon several years ago so auditioning this way was to become par for the course. This was my first self tape and all I knew was I needed some smoke and mirrors to make our quirky 1880’s row home look as sterile and well lit as possible. Oh and also I needed someone to record me and read with me – enter Momma. Twenty-four hours later, I was en route to New Orleans for the callback and a month later, I was back home again for the shoot.
That’s one of the success stories. Not mentioned above are the hours Momma and I spent frantically trying to create perfect three point lighting by propping lamps on top of yoga blocks and recipe books, cursing why we ever tossed our Encyclopedia Britannica collection. The amount of T-R-E-A-T-S given to our dogs to keep them quiet while I was self taping. The times I told Momma as the reader to, “Tone it down Momma and just talk like a normal person!”
With self tapes, my Type A self becomes Type A Plus – a neurotic actor, DP, director and stage manager all rolled into one who barks orders at my momma like she’s a dutiful unpaid PA “doing this for copy and credit” who’s also supposed to read my mind. Momma will only take my ridiculousness to a certain extent. So, during every self tape escapade, we do the dance of Momma saying “stop taking this sh*t so seriously, baby!” and me ever so dramatically catting back, “Momma, I have to take this sh*t seriously. This. Is. A. Business!!!”
Enter COVID-19. The world got quiet for a hot minute. We got terrified, watched the news non-stop and reflected on what was important. And, then…everyone started talking about self tapes and posting photos of themselves in front of blank walls. Ring lights became as coveted Tickle Me Elmo back in the mid ‘90’s. I was thankful I already owned one (a ring light, not a Tickle Me, Elmo) even though it is incredibly top heavy and we have to anchor the bottom with dumbbells while Momma holds the actual ring part while reading the sides with me.
I realized if self tapes are a part of our new normal, I have got to work on making them joyous. (Doesn’t that sound like a word all of these actor guru people popping up would use?) I had to start trusting Momma and her abilities. She birthed me naturally, lived on top of a mountain solo for a decade and hand fed exotic birds from eggs. Surely I could entrust her with framing me appropriately, telling me if my makeup was too whorish for a secretary or if my hair was too crazy for a detective. I encouraged her to give me acting notes, which often were: Don’t do that GD theatre voice, Brooke. Maybe do it with an accent this time. Baby, do it this way. (Man, I love line readings. Really, I do. They’re refreshing.)
The first self tape audition during the pandemic I got pinned but then was released. That doesn’t matter because the self tape process itself has just become more fun, more free. I am letting Momma handle the what used to be the hours long set-up like the bad-ass stagehand she has become and I am focusing on grounding myself in the present moment of the scene – with Momma standing right across from me holding up our Godforsaken ring light.
In this self tape world, home turf advantage doesn’t always apply. I have started focusing on the things at home that are working for me instead against me. One of those things, or, people rather, is of course Momma. In her, I have a wonderful PA, hair and makeup artist, wardrobe assistant, DP, director, reader and support system. Even if she gives me line readings.