11 July 2012
Posted in David Dean Bottrell
“I'd love to sell out completely. It's just that nobody has been willing to buy”- John Waters.
Throughout this conversation, David and I laughed and laughed. He is an inherently funny man and sitting and talking with him is pure pleasure. Though there are notations of “laughter” within the conversation, be aware that we were laughing almost the whole time. I would love to find myself in such a situation again.
Neely: I first met you as an actor on “Boston Legal” and loved the sly evil that you could portray with such humor. That person we see on screen is very different than the person I know (I assume). How do you account for that?
David: (laughing) One of the things I loved about playing that character (Lincoln Meyer) is that he thought of himself as being very powerful. That was so much fun to do because I don’t think of myself that way at all. Lincoln had so much confidence and in real life I’m just a self-loathing wretch.
Neely: Oh… nice to know. (both laugh)
David: It was…
Neely: How unusual. (David laughs some more)
David: … it was so much fun to play somebody who felt like he could get away with anything and that the rules didn’t apply to him.
Neely: Did that particular role… playing Lincoln… did that lead to a spate of other offers where they wanted you to be that kind of slimy, self-absorbed weasel?
David: From a casting standpoint, it was both a blessing and a curse because that show sort of put me on all the casting directors’ radar. But most people didn’t know me very well because I’d been out of acting for such a long time and a lot of them thought that I actually was Lincoln Meyer… that that’s who I was in real life. Given how creepy that character was, they were very hesitant to call me for things.
Neely: (laughing) And yet, folks, it’s called ACTING!
David: Little by little I’ve been able to remedy that. But for a long time the only calls that I got were for psychopaths.
Neely: How fun! Well I think most people associate actors as the roles they see them play on screen.
But what made me realize that you were bigger than the life I was seeing there was the DVD of a short film you did at the time. What was the name of that film again?
David: “Available Men.”
Neely: Tell me about it again.
David: That little short movie was something of a minor miracle. At that time, I’d been working exclusively as a screenwriter for years and I had gotten a little burned out. I had just gone through a really rough break-up in my personal life and one morning, as I was standing at my sink contemplating if I could afford to buy a hand gun (laughing), I had the idea for this movie and it made me laugh out loud. I remember thinking, “If this idea can make me laugh on this, one of the darkest days of my life, it must be good.”
So I went upstairs and I wrote it. It took me one day to write it, and at the end of that day I thought, “Let’s just push forward.” So 30 days later I shot it and 90 days later I screened it. It was one of those little backyard guerilla projects that didn’t cost anything much to make, but luckily, for me, it played in over 130 film festivals and it won 17 awards. It completely redefined me as a writer… in Hollywood, anyway.
Suddenly I found myself in the running for directing jobs at studios because of that little short movie. It completely changed everything.
Neely: Who helped you produce it?
David: It was produced by Sherri James and Ed Bates. I’d worked with Ed before when he produced my film “Kingdom Come” at Fox Searchlight.
Neely: I’m always intrigued with short films. There’s so little outlet for them and they can be so entertaining.
Who was in it?
David: Richard Ruccolo, Brian Gattas, Jack Plotnick and Kostas Sommer - all wonderful actors. Kostas was particularly a find for me because he’s a huge star in Greece. He’s like their Brad Pitt. He just happened to be in town and was testing the waters in L.A. A friend of mine knew him and god bless him, he came in and actually read for me which was a really big deal for a short film because he was a big star. He was wonderful in it and great to work with.
Neely: How long did it take to shoot?
David: 90% of that film was shot in 13 hours. The exteriors were shot in 6 hours the following day. The final running time of the film was 15 minutes including credits.
Neely: Has it ever been online?
David: It’s online now on YouTube. (Available Men)
Neely: So for those out there who haven’t seen it, why don’t you give a synopsis of it?
David: It’s a little mistaken identity tale about an agent at one of the big 3 agencies who is right on the verge of losing his job and has been dispatched to this trendy L.A. bar with very specific orders that he must sign this new writer who has this script that everybody is crazy about. And basically, if he doesn’t sign this guy, he’s going to lose his job.
That same night, this very artistic, very sensitive and romantic gay man has come to this bar for a blind date. Through a little odd swing of circumstances, these two men mistake each other and sit down and have a drink together. The two men that they were there to meet also mistake each other and sit down and have a drink together. So basically the film is these two mistaken identity comedies happening on opposite sides of this bar.
What I’m really proud of is the way it’s structured because both parties have a meaningful conversation and leave that bar without ever knowing that they were talking to the wrong person. It’s pretty damn funny if I do say so myself.
Neely: I will second that emotion. I really laughed and showed it to everybody I could at Kelley.
Have you made any more short films?
David: I have an embarrassing admission. I have not made any more short films because that film was my maiden effort and it had such a tremendous response that I’ve been afraid of doing another one for fear that I’d be disappointed (laughing loudly). If I did another one and it wasn’t as warmly received as that one was, I think I would feel heartbroken, so I haven’t done another short since.
Neely: What’s the difference between that and acting in a film or TV series where you’re very well received and the next one is not?
David: Well... I guess that comes down to the difference between writing and performing, because when you’re a performer, ultimately, if the material doesn’t connect with the audience, it’s not your fault. You can always just point the finger at the writer and say “The script didn’t work. It wasn’t my idea; I was just up here wearing a costume saying the lines.” Whereas, when you’re the writer, director or the originator of the material, you really are responsible for the content. You’re responsible for what is being said and how it’s said and how it turned out. It’s a much more personal experience; you have a lot more on the line. And if it’s not well-received, it can be border-line devastating, depending on your temperament.
Neely: What surprised me to learn after talking to you about the film, and we broached on it now, was that you started out as a writer and that this was a project that got you seen again as a writer. Let’s go back and talk a bit about your early career as a writer. Where did you start out?
David: There might be a slight misconception here because I started out as an actor who then became a writer and then came back to acting because of “Boston Legal.” But I began as an actor.
I went to college briefly at a little Catholic school in Texas called St. Edward’s University with the intent of becoming a teacher but, oddly, I kept signing up for drama classes (laughing). After my freshman year, I got offered an acting job in a summer stock show. I took it and that led to another job offer and I never went back to school. I just launched. This was in Texas. And from Texas, I moved to New York with the intent of becoming a professional actor.
I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse and I was very lucky… I should correct that. I actually went to the William Esper Studio which is associated with the Neighborhood Playhouse. I don’t want to ruffle feathers in case they go through their membership rolls. I studied with this guy named William Esper, who’s this very iconic acting teacher. And before I was done with the two year program, I had begun to book work in New York.
I was very very lucky. I did quite a lot of theater work in New York as a young actor. And then, probably just shy of my 30th birthday, on a lark, I decided to write something with a writing partner. In a stroke of beginner’s luck, our first project sold.
Neely: What was that first project?
David: It was an Off-Broadway play called “Dearly Departed.”
Neely: That actually got produced, didn’t it?
David: Yep. It went to the Long Warf in New Haven first, directed by Gloria Muzzio and then it was presented Off-Broadway at the Second Stage. And suddenly, overnight, I was a writer!
Neely: What was the impetus to do that play? Was this a challenge you made to yourself or were you looking to write something to act in?
David: I was feeling a little frustrated at the time. I was at a tough age, being around 30, because I had played a lot of teenagers throughout my 20s. I was still very young looking, but I didn’t quite look like a grownup yet either, so my auditions were thinning out. The original intent was to write something I could perform in. But the deeper I got into the writing process, the less I wanted to do that. I wanted to be outside of it and see it. So I accidentally wrote myself out of the play. And out of acting.
I also learned something, which, as an actor, I hadn’t really been aware of, and that is how desperate every aspect of the industry is for material.
The play got a mixed critical response. Some papers loved it; the New York Times, not so much. But it was funny and nobody could deny that. All of a sudden all these doors started opening up for me. All over town every major theater in New York was saying, “Come in and talk to us about your next play.” That was not exactly the experience I had had as an actor (laughing). So I realized that something had shifted and it was big.
I had always been sort of a story teller. I had always sat backstage and kept everyone very amused with stories about my family or whatever the heck I was doing. I didn’t realize that that was actually a job skill – the ability to tell a story. I didn’t know that people actually paid money for that. I realized that I had a little natural talent at knowing what was interesting or what was going to be amusing, but I had no skill. So I had to catch up. I had to learn about the craft of writing.
I just didn’t look over my shoulder and ask myself if I was qualified. I decided, okay, this was my new job and I just leapt into this world. I wrote another play that was produced in New York and then I started getting calls from Los Angeles. Pretty soon, I packed my bags and came here to work as a screenwriter.
Neely: What was your second play?
David: It was a little play called “The Monkey Business” and it was produced at the Manhattan Punchline.
Neely: Manhattan Punchline? Not a theater group I’m acquainted with.
David: They’re not in existence anymore but they had a wonderful run in the 80s and early 90s. They were an Off-Broadway non-profit that only produced comedy. A lot of incredibly talented people came through there. As a matter of fact, look it up online. They have a Facebook page for actors and writers who worked at the Manhattan Punchline. There are a lot of wonderful people who worked at that theater.
Neely: I was going to ask you how you broke into films, but it sounds as if film broke into you. So how did that entry into the film world go? Was it on a contract basis; were you assigned projects; did you pitch? How did that aspect work?
David: I came out here to do a little rewrite on a little film. I had one of those boutique literary agents in New York who, at the time I got on the plane to Los Angeles, had two very heavy hitting screenwriting clients (I wasn’t in that group). Then, about two weeks after I got off the plane, she lost both of those clients. So, suddenly my agent went from having some clout to having zero clout pretty much overnight. I had basically mortgaged everything to come to Los Angeles and I wasn’t even in a position to go back to New York because I had sublet my apartment.
Suddenly I found myself stranded in Los Angeles. But I decided I was going to make a go of it and I wrote a very bizarre screenplay. I had never written a screenplay in my life. I had never read a book about writing a screenplay; I really didn’t know what I was doing. I’d seen a bunch of movies (laughing), so I was hoping that qualified me , so I sat down and wrote this screenplay called “Sacred Estates.”
For people who were in the development world 20 years ago, they might remember it, because it was all the rage for a while. It followed none of the rules. But it was funny. It was basically a very quirky independent movie that would have required a $200M budget (Neely laughs loudly). And the lead character died 20 pages before the screenplay was even over. It was nuts. So I wrote this thing and cast it out on the waters. I started asking everyone I knew, “Hey do you know anyone in the movie business, because here’s my screenplay.” Little by little it started going through people’s Xerox machines. Meantime, I was here, I was broke and I was working for a very down-at-the heels PR company to try to keep my head above water.
One day my phone rang and it was this executive from Disney saying, “Are you David Dean Bottrell?” And I said yes. And he said, “I’ve been trying to find you for like three weeks. Who is your agent?” “I don’t have an agent.” And he said, “You will by the end of the week. Can you come in and meet me tomorrow?” And I did.
This guy and another executive at Disney gave me my first break out here. And true to their word, by the end of the week I had two pretty big deal agencies making offers to represent me. I was in the movie business at last.
Neely: Did you stay with Disney or was it still on a freelance basis. I imagine at this point you had carte blanche to pitch your ideas.
David: They were very kind to me at Disney and they kept bringing me back to pitch on projects. I pitched them one in which they really liked my take; but before it could be greenlit¸ there was a rash of firings and everybody I was dealing with was gone. The job evaporated before I could ever start it.
Also, when I first started, I couldn’t have been more green. I knew very little about how the business worked. I knew very little about how to do a pitch; I knew very little about how screenplays were structured. I had to learn all of that on the fly.
My first few meetings and pitches were absolute disasters. My first agent, even though we didn’t do a lot of business together, did say something that changed my experience in Hollywood. I wound up having lunch with her one day and I was telling her how nervous I was about the whole pitching thing and how maybe I should take a class so I could learn how to do it. And she said, “Don’t do it. It’s a waste of time. Nobody can teach you how to pitch in the same way that nobody can teach you how to go out on a date. It’s a completely unique process for each writer. What you need to do is figure out how to take your talent into the room with you.” And as soon as she said that, I felt like this huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I realized that there weren’t really any rules to the “how.” There were definitely things that people would expect of me in a pitch, but how I chose to execute the pitch was actually up to me. And suddenly, from that point on, I regained my confidence as a storyteller.
Neely: There are books that have been written on pitches (and some of them are quite helpful), but something that I always tell writers is that it’s not so just their material that they’re selling (well of course good material is important), but it’s themselves. If you can sell yourself, the material will go with you.
David: My experience was a little different. I decided that since I didn’t have enormous personal confidence (laughing), I would put my confidence behind the writing. I took an opposite tack and I thought to myself, “I’m just here to represent this wonderful story.” It was a product I believed in and I tried to go in and tell people about this movie as if I’d already seen it, as if I was the biggest fan of this particular film and now I just wanted them to sit back and let me walk them through it. In certain circles, I got a reputation as being a pretty entertaining “pitcher,” so that made me really happy. And I was successful at it.
Neely: Were you able to sell projects that way?
David: Yep. Most of the projects I sold, I sold on pitches.
Neely: So what happened when you wrote ‘em?
David: Like a lot of writers, as soon as I got the word that the studio had bought the pitch, I was seized with self-doubt and immediately thought, “Oh no! What have I done? I have no idea how to write that!” But I did learn a very great lesson and that was the value of how important it is to keep typing even when you think you have no talent. Just keep typing and surprisingly something starts to take shape. If you’ve pitched a story and you know it’s in your head, somehow it will eventually push past your fears and get onto the page. But you do have to show up every day and just keep typing.
Neely: Did you end up with a niche? So many times writers get typecast, just like actors do.
David: My first gig was adapting a novel and then the next important thing that came along was actually a spec script that was based on my play “Dearly Departed.” This very spunky producer that I mentioned earlier, Ed Bates, was shopping it all over town and he could not get a buyer. Everyone was very complimentary about the material but all those same horrible questions kept coming up like “Who’s going to be in it? Who’s going to come and see it? Blah, blah, blah.”
And then out of the blue, Ed called me one day and said “There are three different studios looking for a film about a black family. Could this be a black family?” I thought about it for about 10 seconds and said, “Well, it’s the story of a working class family in a small Southern town. I guess they could be black.” And he said, “Okay. In two weeks they’re black.” And two weeks later, we sold that script as a film about a black family and all the same studios that had been less than enthusiastic about the script when it was about a white family were wildly enthusiastic about it as a film about a black family. Suddenly it was like the black “Citizen Kane.”
Neely: That’s pretty extraordinary considering that in this day and age it is the polar opposite of anything that would happen. (giggling) So you wrote the black “Citizen Kane”… did it get produced?
David: Yeah. It was produced and made into a film called “Kingdom Come” by Fox Searchlight. It was successful and made money. So suddenly I was a hot screenwriter, but I could only get meetings for African American projects. No one would meet with me on anything other than an African American project.
Neely: That’s truly bizarre. I suppose there’s no answer to this question, but why do you think that was?
David: Sadly, in those days, and we’re talking quite a few years ago, there weren’t a ton of produced African American screenwriters in comedy and the studios were looking for that product, so at that time it was open season. Anyone they felt could write that material, whether they were white or black, were welcome to come in the door and pitch. Also, the magic words in Hollywood are: “Did his last project make money?” “Kingdom Come” made money so as ridiculous as this sounds, I briefly became the go-to guy for African American cinema (both laughing uproariously), at least on the comedic end of things.
Neely: Who was in “Kingdom Come?”
David: We had an incredible cast. It was practically every African American actor working in film comedy at that time – Whoopi Goldberg, LL Cool J, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica Fox, Anthony Anderson, Loretta Devine… it was an all-star cast.
Neely: It may not have been what you started out to do, on the other hand it was a time when mainstream studios were actually producing films about African Americans that could conceivable cross over.
What are some of the projects you worked on after that?
David: I’m sad to say that none of them got produced.
Neely: Isn’t that the writer’s lament? The vast majority of things that successful screenwriters write never see the light of day.
David: I worked on a bunch of things. I worked on several hip-hop comedies; I worked on a comedy that eventually became a musical about two competing African American churches. The market at the time I was doing it was so different. Studios were buying a lot of interesting African American projects. The industry seemed a little more open to some fun, untested ideas.
But very quickly what they found was that most of those riskier ideas didn’t do so well at the box office so the thinking reverted back to “It needs to be a vehicle for somebody – an actor, a stand-up or a musician.” There was a very definite budget ceiling – it couldn’t be more than 10 Million bucks. So everything had to fit into these very tight parameters. It became harder to sell anything that wasn’t yet another rehash of “fish-out-of-water” “kindergarten cop” kind of movies. They really only wanted to buy things that were formulaic, tried-and-true vehicles.
Neely: Is there anything you left behind that you wish you could resurrect?
David: Oh sure. I’m really very proud of a couple of those projects. One of them is called “Holy War.” My god, that thing stayed alive for over 10 years. It kept changing directors, changing studios and changing stars. I was always hopeful that it would get made because I was very proud of it. One of the things that made me so proud of it was that it was the only pitch I’ve ever done that was actually bought in the room. As soon as I said the last word, they said “We want it! We’re buying it right now.” I’d never had that experience before. I hope maybe someday it will come back around.
Neely: What spelled the end for you?
David: Years ago, I got a call from my agent saying “We want you to go meet at HBO for ‘The Rosa Parks Story.” And I said, “I’m not going to go meet on ‘The Rosa Parks Story.” And they said, “But they’ve read your material and they really want to meet you; they think you’re great.” And I said, “Thank you. I’m glad they think I’m great. But that’s not a story that should be written by a white person. I have to draw the line somewhere here. I don’t mind pitching comedies, but this is a bigger deal.”
I knew I’d been lucky. My first produced movie had accidentally been made as a black film but I didn’t really ever feel that I should stay in the African American screenwriting world for long. I knew it was not my world and I was pleased when it quickly got populated with more and more produced African American writers. It sounds weird to say, but I was kind of relieved when it became more politically incorrect to hire me. I’m a believer that all writers should be working, and suddenly there was a new talent pool with an authentic voice and they were ready to roll.
I was able to segue out of that and started marketing myself for other kinds of work. The first job I got when I shifted genres was a Disney animated musical.
Neely: How did that work?
David: It was one of those freaky things. They had an animated musical that had a troubled script. One of the executives on the project had met me a couple of years before and remembered that I was from Appalachia. The project was a little Appalachian folk tale and she asked me if I’d be interested in coming in to meet on it. So I read the script and pitched them a story. They called me the next day to say they didn’t want that story but asked if I’d be willing to write a new story that we would all brainstorm together. I said I would be happy to do that.
So I went into this whole new experience of creating a script with a team of people who sat around a table and brainstormed all day long and came up with zillions of ideas. It was a very different way of working. We did that for, I don’t remember how many days in a row, until there was this huge pile of ideas on the table. Finally I said, “I can’t stand this anymore (laughing). Let me take this stack of ideas home and actually write something. I’ll bring it back to you in two days and then we’ll sit down and have a look at that.” They agreed and happily they were very pleased with what I came back with.
That’s kind of how we proceeded from that point on – we’d brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I would write another 15 pages and we would go from there. It wound up being a really productive way to work. We came up with a script that everyone was very happy with, so the project was saved from the junk heap where it was headed. Then, very sadly, 6 months into production, it was shut down.
David: This was a number of years ago and it was the last of the Disney musicals in the family of “Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Then a big Pixar movie opened…
David: … and the Pixar film was a huge hit and the general feeling was that nobody wanted to see a 2D animated musical anymore. That’s old news; let’s not waste any more money on this project. And the plug was pulled.
Neely: Well did that particular project lead someplace else in terms of your writing? At least with that, you had broken out of the African American world.
David: Everybody at Disney liked me a lot and when I completed that script, I had a lot of meetings. The feeling was that I was going to be working at Disney for the rest of my life. Then for the second time in my career, most of the people associated with that project were fired or left suddenly. So my dream of working at Disney animation for the rest of my life sort of danced out the window.
Neely: What came next?
David: I’m trying to remember. “Holy War” came back to life, but as a musical (which it had not been before), so a good chunk of time went into that. Then I decided I wanted to try my hand at directing something because I was getting very frustrated that things weren’t getting made. I had also done the short film at that point so I had a little more confidence in my abilities to pull off the duties of being a director.
I optioned a book, adapted it, attached a movie star and started that whole dog and pony show which went on for about a year. It, unfortunately, did not turn into a movie either. Then, just as I was getting a little burned out, suddenly my phone rang and it was the casting director of “Boston Legal.”
Neely: Ken Miller or Nikki Valco?
David: In this case it was Nikki, who had cast my short movie. At that moment in time, I hadn’t been working as an actor in a zillion years. I didn’t even think of myself as an actor anymore. So she calls up and says, “Hey, there’s this weird little part on ‘Boston Legal’ and they don’t really know what they want. They just want somebody odd and I thought of you.” (both laughing)
Neely: How incredibly flattering.
David: It was very flattering (deadpan). I said, “Thank you but I really don’t act anymore. Plus I’m really busy and I’m going out of town this weekend and it’s not a good time.” And she, god bless her, was persistent and said, “Oh come on. I’ll get you in early. It’ll be fun!” So I hemmed and I hawed and then said yes, that I’d do it.
She sent me the sides and the character was described as a creepy Truman Capote type (Neely note: Again, how flattering). But the problem was I don’t do Truman Capote; I’m not good at imitations and couldn’t figure out what I was going to do with the material. For some odd reason, I flashed back on this guy in New York whose parties I used to bartend for when I worked for a catering company during my acting school years. He was a very eccentric, very WASPy guy who was probably in his 60s at that time. What I loved about him was that he was so detached from reality. He really was a member of that old money WASP class of people that I don’t think really exists anymore.
Neely: It still does in New York.
David: Does it? It seemed anachronistic even then. He spoke with this weird Katherine Hepburnesque accent. What I loved about him was that he spoke with tremendous authority about things he knew nothing about - world affairs and social issues and things like that. He would have one too many cocktails and give these big sweeping opinions about everything. I always found him so entertaining and for some reason I flashed on him and thought, “Let’s give this a try.”
So I started walking around my living room saying the lines from the scene in his voice and with his attitude. There was something about that colossal confidence he always had that when applied to David Kelley’s wonderful writing just sort of worked. The character suddenly seemed sort of insane and hilarious. I brought it in and read for them and everybody thought it was very funny. I remember there was a little silence after I read and Bill D’Elia, the executive producer, said, “Can you do that again?” And I said, “I think so.” I read it a second time and they still thought it was pretty funny and the next thing I knew, I was a recurring character on that show.
Neely: Have you acted in any features?
David: Some independent things that never saw the light of day.
Neely: Well, what have been your favorite acting roles?
David: “Boston Legal” of course. To be frank, I’d never had a role like that and I haven’t had one since that was of that caliber. It was such a unique thing that none of us saw coming.
I just never had an experience like that before because it all sort of sprang organically from the actual work we were doing on the show. I don’t think it was David’s intent to make that character into such a player on the series. Each week I would get this call saying, “You’re coming back next week… You’re coming back next week… You’re coming back next week.” And each time I’d get a script, the role would get bigger; and each time the antics of this character became increasingly more dangerous and crazy and more integrated with the major players on the show. On the one hand, I remember feeling so intimidated because I had been out of the acting side of things for such a long time, but on the other hand I remember thinking “Don’t look over your shoulder. Don’t question this. Just look ahead. Look straight ahead and keep going.”
The character was so flamboyant and dangerous, and also, because of David’s wonderful writing, sometimes quite poignant. I remember being half way through shooting some really “nutty” sequence and I turned over to Bill D’Elia, the executive producer of the show, and I sort of whispered, “Is this too much? Have I completely left the planet?” And I remember he very gently said, “Everything’s great. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Everything’s terrific.” And I took that as my carte blanche to take the baton and lead the parade (laughing). It was one of those magical jobs where everything just worked. David wrote this terrific character and I brought along something to the party that they might not have been expecting, and then it became this great sort of mash-up. It felt so wonderful to have a job where my employers were happy, the network was happy, the cast was happy, the viewers were happy. It was one of those rare magical moments where all the components came together.
Neely: Let’s break here and resume as we catch up on your writing career.