Gettin’ Woodsy with Meryl

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 8.25.02 AM

Anytime you get to spend a few hours with Meryl Streep and Tracy Ullman is a good time and I was fortunate to spend three or more with them some days ago during a screening of the new film musical Into the Woods and the q & a session afterwards.

Yes, most of the rest of the cast were also onstage as were the director, writer, producer, costume designer, cinematographer and, well, others. There were also 1000 plus people seated in the audience with me. But the movie, those two actors and okay, pretty much everyone else either live or on digital associated with the film, were delightfully entertaining and articulate. Will this movie change the world? No. But what really will at this point?

When the real news is a small country hacks into a major studio’s computer system and successfully prevents the release of a film it assumes will be offensive in spite of the fact that it hasn’t even seen it yet, well – what movie or story about one can top that? And what can take your mind off of it? Certainly not the batch of depressing, heady, dramatic or just plain bland and/or derivative holiday films in store for us this season.

We get it.. enough already

We get it.. enough already

I’m extremely grateful and privileged to be part of two Hollywood unions – not least of all for the fact that right around this time of year I receive free DVDs of most of the these movies to screen at my leisure. But between Unbroken, Still Alice, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year and that much needed remake of Annie, can it get any creepier, heavier, or just plain sad? (Note: You decide which adjective fits which film). And Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to you too.

Oh and I'm just a ball of laughs...

Oh and I’m just a barrel of laughs…

I tend to watch mostly heavy, sad or heady movies and I certainly gravitate towards writing them. But there are moments when even I need a break. There will be hell to pay from my much more “serious” friends, colleagues and family members but Into the Woods gives you just that break without making you feel as if you’ve just spent 120 plus minutes in a game of Candy land where unearned life lessons abound around scenes, dialogue and characters designed to primarily service the product placements that surrounds them. Yes, we’re talking about the Annie trailer here.

So let’s continue with Into the Woods.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote the Broadway musical 27 years ago as an homage to fairy tales while simultaneously taking to task the happily ever after endings they traffic in. The movie, like the stage show, is deceptively escapist except eventually it’s not. If one allows oneself to be transported by it there are earned lessons that resonate in a post-9/11 world. That’s an entire universe away from NBC’s recent much ballyhooed live production of Peter Pan – a stunt idea that felt merely like a moneymaking, ratings grabbing event.   This Into the Woods movie feels like it has a reason for being – and therefore a reason to be seen. When will the powers-that-be learn? Maybe never. But they’re looking to make money, not to complete thoughts.

still processing this...

still processing this…

Don’t go in with too raised expectations. This is simply a good, old-fashioned musical that looks great and feels just weighty enough without hitting you squarely over the head with its message continuously. It diverts you for two hours (not three – yay!!!) into a strange magical alternate universe where not everything works out as you hope but as it seems meant to – much the way it occurs 90% of the time in life. (Note: The latter statistic is based solely on my own many decades of living, breathing and seeing countless outcomes and, trust me, if anything I’m underestimating the number).

Speaking of numbers, at one point during the Woods talk back it occurred to me there were a dozen members of cast and crew onstage at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills throwing out occasional pearls of wisdom about being a working cast and crew member on the top tier of the entertainment industry. Shouldn’t other artists, or aspiring artists, or even the rest of us movie gossips at least get to hear the best of what they had to say rather than having to hunt it down via some website where, given all the Internet traffic this week, we will be buffered into oblivion and quit before it even starts?

the cast about to drop some truth bombs...

the cast about to drop some truth bombs…

So — this goes out to everyone. You may or may not like the film (Hint: Drop the sour face, or as my Aunt Nan used to say – the farbissina punim – and at least give it a chance) but you will certainly find value in at least one or two of their thoughts. And if you don’t, you should. Yes, should.

TOP 10 WORDS OF INTO THE WOODS Q&A WISDOM FOR INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS

1. If a really talented person suggests your next project to you, it would be wise to listen. Director Rob Marshall scored big with his 2002 movie musical version of Chicago and following that level of commercial success many doors open for you. So it was not surprising that a hot director of a movie musical would get to meet with the royalty of musical composers – Stephen Sondheim – and be allowed to review his quite large body of work for the possible adaptation of his next big screen project.

St. Stephen

St. Stephen

But rather than push for a preconceived idea of what he wanted to do, Mr. Marshall instead chose to engage in an extended discussion of Sondheim’s canon and what he hoped to do creatively in the future. According to the director, Into the Woods was actually Sondheim’s choice of the show of his that would best suit Mr. Marshall. I would’ve been happy to do any of them, the director admitted, but he finally looked at me and said, I think you’re really right for this.

2. You can love doing the kind of job you most assuredly turned down three times before. Meryl Streep plays the gloriously wicked witch at the center of Woods but she didn’t initially want to play it. The actress recalls that the moment she turned 40 years-old she was quickly offered three different witch roles and as a quasi political stance couldn’t see herself being thrown on the casting junk heap because moviemakers were so quick to age a woman of her age out. But having now proven her point many times over, at the age of 65 she realized the opportunity to get to be in a Sondheim musical was just too good to pass up. And yes, she chose to reveal her current age matter-of-factly and quite normally – which was probably the most political act of all.

Werk it, gurl!

Werk it, gurl!

3. Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. The development of big budget films being what they are, it wasn’t until he was watching the ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 three years ago that director Rob Marshall was able to finally personalize the themes of Woods. The moment he heard Pres. Obama tell the surviving family members of those who died on that day that you are not alone, he was immediately reminded of the classic Woods song No One is Alone and realized the inherent dangers of the contemporary world can cause life to turn on a dime, just as they do in fairy tales, and that you cannot necessarily save the people you love.  And to the naysayers: No, we’re not saying this movie is a 9/11 musical. Grow up.

4. When you audition, have a little fun. We all audition for jobs but for actors the process is a stressful part of their continuously free-lance lives. So Chris Pine – known more in the movies as Star Trek’s bad boy Capt. Kirk rather than a singing prince, decided that if he had to demonstrate his chops as a crooner he’d rather do Sinatra than attempt Sondheim. That’s why he chose to sing Fly Me To The Moon for his audition. And got the part of what he gleefully describes as a gloriously two-dimensional prince.

Oh but that HAIR!

Oh but that HAIR!

5. Don’t be thrown by what others say or even imply about you. Anna Kendrick, an Academy Award nominee for Up in the Air and the second youngest person to ever be nominated for a Tony Award, was a bit taken aback prior to filming. That was because wherever she went people would stop her and feel compelled to say, I think it’s so interesting that you got cast as Cinderella.

Turning to the q&a audience the actress asked: Now what does that fck-ng mean? Well, we all know what that means. But really, who fck-ig cares what they think?

Hate on haters

Hate on haters

6. Do your best even when you are told there is no chance you will get the job. James Corden, the very funny British comic actor who plays the Baker, did a staged reading of the Woods screenplay in New York but was told from the outset that it would in no way ensure or even make likely he would be cast in the film. Not being delusional Corden told the screening audience he gave the reading his best anyway because he was happy to even be included and knew movie parts like that have to go to someone famous. But he was so memorable that day that Marshall promised to go to bat for him and eventually landed him the part. As for Corden, he’ll be a lot more famous in 2015 when he replaces Craig Ferguson as the host of CBS’s Late Late Show.

7. You can have a career AND a personal life. The day Emily Blunt was cast as The Baker’s Wife she found out she was pregnant with her first child. This news was quite ironic since the entire story arc for her character is that she is a woman who cannot have a child but desperately wants one. The actress assumed her pregnancy would likely cost her the role but when the filmmakers found out they decided to proceed anyway and hide her behind trees and behind and to the side of James Corden. By the time filming ended she was seven and a half months pregnant and a lot more challenging to hide – a fact that Corden suggests we check out for ourselves with a remote control and the pause button when we’re watching the movie on DVD.

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

8. Writers are inherently cynical. Sondheim collaborator and multiple Tony Award winner James Lapine was tasked with adapting the book of his stage musical into a screenplay. This meant the challenging work of dropping the key conceit of the storybook characters presented directly addressing the audience from the stage and figuring out a way to re-dramatize the action for moviegoers. But the writer was not particularly overwhelmed by the challenge because he is convinced that nothing will ever happen with any project he ever works on, particularly for the movies. I am not sure why but somehow that was immensely reassuring to me. #YouAreNotAlone.

9. Always Cast Meryl Streep First. Granted this is a no-brainer but it is worth noting that once it was decided that Woods would be a film, the first person Rob Marshall approached was M.S. When she said yes, the doors to every actor in the world flung wide open. She also knew all of her lines on the very first day of rehearsal. See, cause that’s also part of the job.

She can do no wrong

She can do no wrong

10. Try to work with your friends. Of all the people onstage Tracy Ullman and Meryl Streep were clearly having the best time. They insulted each other, giggled together and seemed genuinely happy to be there. In fact, Ullman had to force Streep to face front when the compliments began flowing for her performance – at one point physically turning Streep’s body and chair back towards the audience so her friend could be properly appreciated.

Their friendship dates back some 30 years to another film (can you guess which one without looking at IMDB? Hint: It’s good and…). And in the course of the evening one couldn’t help but wonder if yet one more could be in their future. When producer Marc Platt noted that there was indeed a movie version of the hit musical Wicked in the works both Ullman and Streep wildly motioning that they would love to play the younger versions of Glinda and The Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz prequel for the big screen.

Right. I know. They were joking. But is it any more ridiculous than hiring ____________________   and ______________________ .

Feel free to fill in the blanks.

And Happy Holidays.

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A Little Bit of Magic

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 2.04.55 PMTruly great screen actors are amazing and quite rare. Even Meryl Streep, one of our best living examples, has said numerous times she chooses not to analyze the process too much for fear of the magic disappearing.

So what are the rest of us to do when routinely questioned about that magic in reference to almost every film or TV show that passes before our eyes these days? Well, fall back on the famous quote given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 when he was asked to define obscenity.

I know it when I see it.

I sat for two hours watching the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in a John le Carre spy thriller called A Most Wanted Man this week knowing in my heart of hearts that the movie must really star some middle-aged German guy who physically bore some resemblance to Mr. Hoffman but most certainly had no real relation on any other viable plane of existence to him. Wrong. Unfortunately I was with a friend who managed to convince me, with the help of IMDB, dreaded logic and the contractually agreed upon billing on the movie poster (which can never really lie to that extreme) that somehow this guy in that film was actually and indeed the late Mr. Hoffman in his final leading role.

The Magic Man

The Magic Man

My first, almost immediate thought – and I’m extremely embarrassed to reveal this but then what else is a blog for – was that I have an easier time believing Mr. Hoffman is dead of a drug overdose than accepting the fact that no film ever again will in any way, shape or form have him as its star. (Note: Hunger Games: Mockingjay? You’re not seriously going to go there, are you?). How selfish can I be in the name of being in the presence of something so rare and, well, great? I guess very.

Great art is certainly not even a fraction as important to the average person as a great life but it’s also been said that a life lived entirely without being exposed to a little great art in there somewhere – whether by observation or one’s own actions in pursuit of such – can’t truly be all that great at all. Who exactly said that? Well, um, I did just now.

Maybe it was Jebediah?

Maybe it was Jebediah?

The above statement already begins to deflate a bit of the fairy type dust Ms. Streep eludes to but I for one periodically need reminding that there’s artistic brilliance to strive for and view in the world – and that there are also those among us who capable of delivering it. No, most of us will not reach the aforementioned peak but that is not the point. The idea is in some way to continue to both aspire and inspire as an artist rather than to try and fit in to some non-existent current standards of the day. Even in the likely event we don’t reach the pinnacle we will most very certainly come across someone or something in our travels that did. And be all the richer for it not so much in dollars and cents but in the ability to see the world in a new or slightly altered way that has the chance of initiating a profound and just possibly life-altering change in us for the better. And, in turn – who knows –the world

How do I absolutely believe in this stuff?   Because I know it to be absolutely true for myself.

The first time I read an Edward Albee play, The Zoo Story, I knew I had picked up something created by the kind of writer I wanted to be – or at least read. He managed to write about situations I hadn’t lived but somehow tapped into profound feelings I had certainly experienced – even at 18 years old. I felt the same way when I saw a small theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Or watched Bette Midler perform onstage live at the Palace theatre in the 1970s for the very first time as a very wee (well, teenage) lad. Or got to go standing room and witness the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line. And all of them, each and every one, contribute to what you’re reading now, which you will do with as you will. I might not be a great artist (yet) but I just might possibly influence one. Or some great artist might be influenced by some lesser artist than myself who passed on information about some even greater artist or piece of art that they had read about here or experienced elsewhere.

"I'd like to thank Notes From A Chair..."

“I’d like to thank Notes From A Chair…”

But let’s get back to actors. Their performances are the most popular to categorize as great probably due to the fact they are the easiest for us to review, at least on a superficial basis. After all, the actor must individually physicalize a role and LITTERALLY transform into another person long before one millimeter of film/digital whatever is shot. Never mind that there are countless technical people, including the guy or gal (aka writer) who first created the damned person you’re seeing onscreen to begin with. Every reasonably intelligent screenwriter knows that despite whatever has been conceived, once an actor is cast he or she will forever BE the character in the audience’s minds and that person you wrote/intended will now and forever (Note: Do NOT think Cats) only be seen as on offshoot of them. This doesn’t seem fair, you say? Well, few things in life are.

Ralph who?

I used to be called Ralph Fiennes

In any event, this is why truly great screen acting is so valued. It appears in that moment and is the literal manifestation of that person. Mr. Hoffman does this with little makeup, ordinary clothing, and sans little gunfire or exploding dramatic flourishes in A Most Wanted Man. He is merely a man – taking small actions like speaking, looking and staring. As he discreetly interacts with others of all ages and nationalities he himself comes across only as a middle-aged, slightly out of shape German guy who has been working undercover too hard and too long with too few examples of success.   In fact, the accent and mannerisms are so convincing that after a while we can’t help but feel like we’re watching an unknown German character actor given a chance at his first meaty role in what becomes a decidedly un-American styled film the longer it continues. Yet in the end what is ultimately most astounding is that an American actor from a small town in upstate New York could so thoroughly convince us he bears so little affinity or understanding of anything to do with the Western Hemisphere.  At least onscreen.

How did you do it?

How did you do it?

If you’re looking for an answer as to how or an analysis of the magic, you won’t find it. But I do know that watching a performance like that in a 2014 release once again reminded me of what is possible in the film industry ever so often – a person reaching the pinnacle of their work, even within the parameters of today’s commercial market. At this stage in my career and life I somehow find that not only profoundly important and encouraging but also thrilling and informative.

It’s not the same but akin to how I felt as a gay man when this summer I stood in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and saw Michelangelo’s statue of the David live for the first time. I was not only astounded by the talent, workmanship and beauty but also reminded that even in the 15 century there were men who saw other men as quite hot – that’s how NOT NEW being gay truly is in the world. Take that National Organization for Marriage.

I'm sexy and I know it.

I’m sexy and I know it.

You can’t talk about great, or your version of it, without sounding a bit like a pretentious windbag. This is especially so when innocent children are exploding in the Middle East and people are starving to death or dying from known and unknown viruses all over the world. But one has to wonder what we are all fighting for if not the right to live our peaceful everyday lives – which by very definition have at their peak moments the potential to experience, at the very least, a few little bits of the aforementioned Streepian-type magic. Isn’t that the point of this entire thing?

What is magical to you might not be magical to me. But in that highest and much lauded tip-top layer of work, the vast majority of us do agree. Oh, you can be a naysayer and opine Ms. Streep has too much technique or Mr. Hoffman is now overrated due to his untimely death. But on the same token you can also stand on your head in Macy’s window and complain when you’re being arrested or stubbornly defy medical science and keep claiming the earth is not getting hotter as our annual temperatures consistently rise with each passing year. In other words, that still does not make any of it so.

Oh Meryl... I want to believe

Oh Meryl… I want to believe

Nevertheless, in the arts we all deserve to believe in whatever magic we choose to believe in wherever we see it. That is why I, for one, will not express my concern here that the trailer that broke this week for Disney’s big Christmas release – the long-awaited film version of the Broadway musical, Into the Woods – looks to me like a not very special episode of ABC’s Once Upon A Time – Meryl Streep or not. Or voice my sense that NBC’s just announced upcoming live production of Peter Pan this Thanksgiving starring Girls’ Allison Williams will be a festival in bland-ola save for Christopher Walken’s canny tap dancing turn as Captain Hook.   I know both can simply just be – well – uh – very entertaining. To lots of people…all over the world…meaning worldwide…to see and to enjoy.

Great fun as all that is, it’s not the same as what Mr. Hoffman is doing onscreen in A Most Wanted Man. Not by a long shot. And that’s important to remember and to experience – for both artists and audiences alike. A more, or even less pretentious writer might go so far as to call it his legacy – to us.