Friday, September 07, 2012
Al Facebook gurus will tell you that if you use pictures you’ll get more engagement on your fan page. But they don’t focus much on what kind of pictures or how to make them.
Let me introduce you to what I call The Shareable Squares. You get the shareable part. But why the square shape? It’s because otherwise they can get cropped and you want to control how they are seen.
It’s like with a Cinemascope movie. In the old days they panned and scanned them for TV and even now they typically aren’t letterboxed. They show them 16:9 on a Hi-def TV or even worse.
The posts on your fan page are 403 x 403 pixels square. I use 806 x 806 images because I want more quality and if you were a real stickler you could even go for 1209 x1209 because they look bigger when you click on them. If you upload a different shape Facebook will place it for you and let you reposition it, but even so you might not be able to make it work the way you want it to.
You might say to me, “I post and see wide images in my newsfeed all the time and on my fan page I have the option to show a very wide picture.” That’s true. But my fan page is always square and I want people who come to the page to be able to glance at it and like it. Not everybody is going to click on a picture to see the whole thing. Here’s a graphic made about the Koch Brothers for my “Save the Supreme Court Re-Elect Obama” Facebook page:
This image was formatted for the wide screen shape you get on a fan page when you click the star button to highlight a photo. It looked great on my there. The problem is that most people don’t go back to the fan page much after they like it; they see the subsequent posts in their own timeline. And it looked like this:
I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of truncated images like this on Facebook. Some much worse than this where you really can’t figure out what they’re about. If you’re curious you click on them and you see the whole thing. But the reality is that a lot of people keep on going and don’t click on them.
Square images always get seen the way you want them to on Facebook; square images always get seen period. As we are looking for any advantage we can get, a single extra share each time from somebody who is a very active Facebook user with a lot of friends, will result in a big payoff over time.
And getting reactions to the pictures you put up is the name of the game. And it’s going to be the main topic of discussion of this blog.
Thursday, September 06, 2012
Groucho: And here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Chico: Why a duck? Why no chicken?
Groucho: I don’t know. I’m a stranger here myself.
Why Facebook? Do I have something against Twitter or Pinterest or Tumblr or YouTube or LinkedIn or Instagram or foursquare, or any other social media platform? No, I love all that stuff and I love the way Etsy, Fancy, Crowdstarter, and a zillion games couldn’t exist without social.
Social media is like clothes. There are an infinite number of ways to dress yourself. Some people seek fashion in all its endless variety and place it at the center of their lives. Others, like Stanley Kubrick, wear the same damned thing every day. But pretty much everybody has a pair of jeans. Facebook is a pair of jeans. Almost everybody in our independent filmmaking world who uses social media tends to use Facebook. I’ve heard people say that Facebook is to social media what Google is to search technology. So why not make sure you’ve done the best possible job on the Big Kahuna?
As you will be hearing me say over and over, Facebook and most social media is driven by visual “content” (argh!) or what you might consider offline to be imagery or even… art. And in my opinion, Facebook works best when the pictures you give it are in certain shapes.
So why not start with their requirements? The hard part is creating the visuals; that’s what will challenge your creativity and take your time. Once you’ve done them and put them up on your film’s Facebook fan page, you can port them over to Twitter, or Pinterest or your Tumblr blog. .
You’re all accustomed to think in terms of the aspect ratios for movies. In my next post, I’ll talk about aspect ratios for Facebook.
Wednesday, September 05, 2012
You’re a filmmaker who is getting ready for a festival. In most cases you are still posting your film, and at the same time you are meeting with publicists, getting your written materials together, choosing stills and film clips, creating a website, a poster, and making travel plans. You’ve got a lot on your plate and you’re feeling the pressure. Of course you’ve set up a Facebook fan page; everybody does that and it only takes an hour or two. You and your production team invite their Facebook friends to like the page, but disappointingly that adds up to less than a hundred fans. You start putting things on your page, but underneath each post the page tells you that only 30 or 40 people are seeing them. You are under a lot of stress, running around town all day and working through the nights. How much time should you be putting into this? Are you doing it right? The pre-festival buzz on the film is really good. Why aren’t there more fans?
You’re a small distributor (or a filmmaker self-distributing) and you are working constantly on your Facebook page, putting stuff up several times a day. There are lots of reviews and articles to share. You put up your trailer and it is shared all over and the “People are Talking About This” number spikes sky-high. But you don’t get a lot more likes. Does that matter? What exactly is a Facebook Fan Page to do for you? There is no way on earth that anybody is going to look at it and head off for the movie theatre. That’s what publicity, reviews and advertising are for. This is… for what exactly? Well, you have to do it because everybody knows that social media is so damned important. You don’t have a clue why it’s important but everybody says that so it must be right. You hear that there are firms that specialize in promoting films on the web (Disclosure: I am associated with one, Magnet Media), but your ads are going to be so tiny… there’s no way you can budget anything for that. You have an intern in your office who is a real social media expert. They post to Facebook and Twitter, set up a Tumblr blog, and make some cool PInterest albums of stills from the film. You write a blog for your website, but it gets very little traffic.
You’re a larger distributor. You don’t accept the idea that social media is worthwhile--beyond special cases like “The Hunger Games”--and you’ve either done nothing or jobbed the work out to others. On the other hand, you might be enthusiastic about social media , but you don’t feel you understand it well enough to evaluate whether your staff or outside agencies are doing a good job.
You’re not in the film business at all. You’re a graphic designer, a photographer, a painter, a stand-up comedian, a novelist, a poet, or a political activist. Most of what I write here is applicable to you too.
Just about anybody can get something out of Facebook marketing as long as they have the creativity and the energy to put these ideas into action.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Note: This post first appeared in Ted Hope’s Truly Free Film website.
Did you know that Facebook probably doesn’t show most of the posts you put up on your movie’s fan page?
According to a recent study, 84% of the fans on an average Facebook fan page don’t see any page posts in their news feed. Of course this is just an average; you may have a kick-ass page. Let’s check. You probably know the number of likes you have, but go to your page and look at the number of “People Talking About This.” This is a total of how many unique people interacted with your page during the last week. These are not people who merely “saw” a post but actually did something such as clicking “like,” commenting, or sharing. How did you do?
Nobody really knows how the mysterious Facebook algorithm decides how many of your fans see your posts, but all social media gurus are in agreement that it has to do with how much active engagement you have with your members. So “People Talking About This” is a good starting metric. Facebook provides extensive analytics so you can learn more about who those Talking People (or mouse clicking people) are — for example if they came from your posts ending up on your fans newsfeed and ticker (organic) or are viral.
The actual metric is called EdgeRank (as comments, shares, and likes are known in FB parlance as “edges”). but you can’t find out what this number is, you can only apply certain techniques to your page to get better results.
A lot of people with FB fan pages wonder if getting the most likes is hitting the social media jackpot. Well… yes and no. You could have 50,000 likes on your page, but if your “People Talking About This” number is 43, you’ve got a sleeping page. A good way to understand what I’m talking about it to check out George Takei’s (if you don’t know his name, he played helmsman Sulu on “Star Trek”) There’s a lot to love about Takei– his activism for human rights and Japanese-American relations, gay marriage, his wry sense of sense of humor, etc. But still, is he more famous than William Shatner with “TJ Hooker,” “Rescue 911,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal,” three record albums, bongo playing on “Conan,” and endless Priceline commercials? As I write this, Shatner has 160,000 likes on his page and 881 “talking about”; Takei has 2.4 million followers and over four million people talking about his page. Takei understands Facebook. You can too.
How do you get large numbers of fans and how do you engage with them when you get them? Neither are insurmountable tasks, if you learn a few techniques, if you’re creative, and are willing to put in the time, hard work, and maybe a few bucks.
You can begin today by getting rid of that app that auto-tweets and posts to Facebook in one handy step. All Facebook geniuses agree that you shouldn’t post more than two or three times a day on your fan page.
I could tell you many ways to get fans and get them to like, comment and
share , but the easiest way to increase your fan’s engagement is to upload pictures. Add images to your status updates and you’ll see an improvement immediately.
According to most FB experts, EdgeRank operates like this: pictures are better than videos; videos are better than links; and links are better than status operates. Shares are better than comments or likes.
There are a lot of techniques for eliciting comments and likes; one way to learn is by studying pages that get lots of feedback. But what about shares? Ask yourself: why do you share a post? Because it is funny? Interesting? Beautiful? Amazing? Provocative? Or do you share because somebody tells you, “We’re opening in Des Moines on Friday! Contact your friends!” While it only takes an instant to click “like,” it doesn’t take much longer to unsubscribe. Never forget that you are sending your posts out to strangers who may not be as interested in your project as you are.
Many people in the business tell me that social media doesn’t work–they don’t believe it sells tickets. For the most part they are right, because nothing ever works until you learn how to do it correctly. Exploring independent film pages on Facebook has been a very dispiriting experience for me because so many people clearly don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. They work energetically to minimal effect. Worse, the ones who have the skills aren’t aiming high enough.
You’re filmmakers. You are engaged in creating indelible images. Make images that are crafted for sharing across all social media, which is mostly visual. Create images that will make people want to see your movie.
Artists need to step up to the plate, as there’s a real opportunity here. Understand that you can get some creative expression out of this marketing tool and build your audience at the same time. Blaze the trail and let people copy you later.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Readers of this blog will remember that last year I went to the Toronto Film Festival for three days and returned home to a $1723 bill from AT&T. I wrote a blog post about it that went viral on the web and reached the attention of the FCC and finally a phone call from the office of the CEO of AT&T, Randall L. Stephenson, where I received 50% off of my bill.
Needless to say, I learned a lot through the experience, so I would like to pass on what I learned this year, particularly to my friends who are headed up Toronto. Here are a number of things you can do to keep your data costs down. All this information is only for AT&T and only for Canada. If you have a different carrier or are going to a different country, you need to check it out on the site, as different rates may apply.
Telephone: For Canada, this is a no-brainer and caused me no problems last year. AT&T offers a “Nation With Canada plan,” which you can find here. (You have to put in your zip code to find out what the rates are for you.) For my zip code, there are numerous deals, but for example you can get 900 minutes plus 1000 Nights and Weekends for $79.99. Remember that this is charged on top of what you normally pay for your monthly bill, so it might cost from practically nothing to an extra $10 or $20 to get an upgrade. But the data bill is still a very expensive $2 a MB on this plan, and data usage is what got me the $1723 bill last year.
If you call an operator, they will probably try to steer you to an “AT&T Traveler Package” This only reduces the rate per minute to fifty-nine cents as opposed to the flat rate above. It costs six bucks as opposed to the twenty or thirty the above plan will run you. But oh boy, will it cost you on the minutes…
With certain plans there is something called “A-List” which allows you to call a few people for free. Put your loved ones back home and the clients you will be calling the most into your A-List and all those calls will be free.
If you don’t have data roaming on, you won’t get any international data charges. If you’re on holiday and don’t need to be reached all the time—you’re all set. It is the default setting, but definitely go to Settings/General/Network and make sure it’s off. But this post is directed towards people who are working and need to be able to receive and send email all day long, regardless of whether they are near wi-fi or not.
Take a look at this page. It helps you calculate how many megabytes you use when you do various things when you use your phone overseas. I’m actually not sure what it costs per MB in Canada without a plan, but I bet it isn’t low. In some countries AT&T charges $20 a MB, or $40 to watch one YouTube video.
So I recommend getting a plan.
Last year, the best plan that AT&T offered was $199.99/month for 200 MB. After that it was $5 a MB. This year, I am happy to report that their best plan is 800 MB plan for $199.99. There are of course cheaper plans, including 275 MB for $99.99. Even better news is that overages go for $10/10 MB. This is one-fifth of what overages cost last year. So, I think that AT&T deserves a lot of praise for listening to their customers, as no doubt they are losing a lot of money. I also think that the FCC deserves credit for calling attention to this issue. You can find these plans here.
VERY IMPORTANT: In order to get these top rates on phone and data you need to sign on for the ENTIRE MONTH. If you go on the 800 MB plan for three days, you’ll get one-tenth of 30 days worth pro-rated, or around 80 MB. The good news is that the operator will happily backdate your plan to the beginning of the month.
OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO
If you don’t buy a data plan, or even if you do, there are any number of things you can do to keep you data bill down.
Use wireless as much as you can. You don’t pay any data fees for wireless. If you have wireless where you will be staying and wireless where you will be working, you shouldn’t have much of a data bill. When you have a lot of emails to write, you can stop in at Starbucks or at the many festival venues that offer wireless service.
Make sure that your hotel has wireless internet service in the rooms. This was my undoing last year, as my hotel only had wired internet. Wired internet is getting to be pretty common in hotesl, so make sure to ask. If you’re going to be working somewhere all day, then you need to have wireless service there too.
Remember that spam and newsletters are data. If you receive a lot of newsletters and get a lot of spam you can get charged mucho money if you’re not on a plan. But there are ways to reduce the amount of that stuff you get. I use Gmail. If data is turned off on my phone (for example, if I’m sleeping), I can go to Gmail on my computer and delete everything I don’t want, particularly the spam. Then when I turn on the phone, nothing comes in.
Another thing you can do is to unsubscribe to all the newsletters you don’t want. FYI, it is US law that there should be an “unsubscribe” button that you can easily find on an email. One or two clicks at most. If it doesn’t stop right then—they are breaking the law. Warning: be very careful that you only unsubscribe from a newsletter that’s real. It could be a phony, and when you push “unsubscribe” you may be alerting a spammer that you are a real person.
Another good thing to do when you shop online is give them a second email address, one you don’t check as much.
Turn your smart phone into a dumb phone. The iPhone is a wonderful thing but it sucks data every which way. When you click onto many of your games and other apps it automatically goes onto the internet. Go into settings/location services and turn as much of this stuff off as you can. There are so many things you can do with cloud computing on your iPhone, like Drop Box and Google apps. Don’t do them over 3G.
Want to post a picture to Facebook? Sending it via 3G will cost you. Take the picture and go somewhere there is wireless.
There are apps you can get that will give you a Toronto Map that you can keep on your phone so you won’t have to access the internet to look at it. If you have an iPad they are particularly helpful . I like the Smart Maps one, because it allows you to put little stick pins in the map to mark where the Toronto venues, restaurants and your hotel are. You can also use any app that reads PDFs. My favorite is GoodReader, because you can draw and type on it. Just scan a good Toronto map and you’re good to go.
Streaming video is incredibly expensive. I don’t recommend you ever do it over 3G. Personally, I don’t even want to hit the YouTube button by accident. I’m going to go to Settings/ General/Restrictions and turn YouTube off. You can turn other stuff off there, like iTunes or even Safari.
Attachments are expensive. As a publicist I send out a lot of attachments from my computer. Because of a quirk of Gmail, copies of them turn up on my iPhone and I have to pay for them as phone data. This year I will send my attachments out from a different email like Yahoo and this shouldn’t be a problem. I’m going to make a note on my Yahoo address so people will remember to respond to my usual Gmail one.
Don’t trust the AT&T app that tells you how much data you’re using. This page is a lie if you are roaming, as the woman from the CEO’s page readily admitted. As it takes two monhs for them to get all the information from the Canadian carrier about your international billing, it’s impossible for them to tell you the data use at any given moment when you are traveling. Before you get on the plane, go to Settings/General/Usage, and before you leave, push “reset statistics.” Then you will always know how much data you are sending and receiving. This may notmatch up exactly with what you will eventually get charged, but it will at least give you some idea of your usage.
I’m signed up for the 800 MB plan, but I know it will be overkill because I am doing so many things that I bet I’ll hardly use any data at all. But last year was scary, and I’d rather better safe than sorry. It wasn’t just the money, it was all the hassling over the phone.
I hope this is helpful, and if it isn’t please don’t sue me. Better deals may exist. One thing I discovered last year with AT&T is that different operators told me different things each time I called before I went to Canada. I recorded all my conversations with operators before I left for Toronto last year, but it didn’t matter, as being given wrong information was no defense. Even when the woman in the AT&T CEO’s office agreed with me that the information I was given was wrong (because that was the information they were still giving to everybody) it didn’t matter. So this year, I’ve decided if it isn’t on the website, I don’t care what I hear on the phone.
Sunday, June 05, 2011
I wrote my first screenplay, the ensemble college drama, Falling from the Sky, soon after I moved to New York City in the mid-1970’s. It was a series of seemingly unrelated stories, thinly disguised portraits of people I knew at the University of Wisconsin, that are all linked by an active of violence: a bomb that was set off by a student radical group that resulted in an innocent grad student being killed. (This really happened.) Many people responded to some of the characters and scenes in it, which parodied the contradictions of the way “radical” politics and love intersected in that time and that place. The one thing I remember about it is that the character based on me was called Shmotsky. The first line of the script, uttered as the bomb went off in the middle of the night, is:
Wake up Shmotsky, it’s the end of the world.
Script number two was called The Naked Truth, about this crotchety old director named Foosweenkle who was a genius, but couldn’t get work anymore because he was an alcoholic and impossible to work with. The hero devises a scheme to produce one of Foosweenkle’s brilliant scripts with Foosweenkle secretly directing it, using a young theatre director as a front. When the film is done, the critics are astounded by the talent of this “brilliant” first-time director, and all this success goes to the ringer director’s head. Foosweenkle rages and is on the verge of exposing the fraud. Guess what happens then? That’s what I could never figure out, and that was the problem with the script.
Something for Nothing was a heist movie co-written withmy friend Jane Hammerslough. It was inspired by the Marla Maples/Donald Trump story, unfolding at the time. In the movie, the Maples character gets tossed out of a Trump Tower high rise and has nowhere to go. She falls in with a slackerish guy (I was thinking Bill Murray), who invites her to move in with this group of eccentric men and women people who live in his loft in Chinatown. “Outraged” by her treatment and always looking for cash, Bill Murray and his gang to plan the robbery of the Trump guy’s most precious possession, a gem worth zillions of dollars, and protected by state-of-the-art equipment.
The twist was that Bill Murray’s gang was going to purchase everything they needed to snatch the gem on Canal Street. I was endlessly fascinated with all the crap you could buy on Canal: broken pieces of plastic, unidentifiable motors, weird toys from Asia, knock-offs of expensive products, computer circuit boards, etc., the wretched refuse of a homeless person’s garage sale. Bill Murray and his gang of shmos put all these things together in unexpected ways, and with a little inside help from “Marla,” they actually [SPOILER ALERT!!!] do get in and snatch Trump’s gem. Afterwards Bill Murray escapes out the window riding a huge dinosaur blow-up doll inflated with helium.
For screenplay number three, What’s What, I reached back to my adolescence for a tale of Jewish teenagers on a weekend retreat, accompanied by their Rabbi. The movie revolves around a joke told by Catskills comic Mickey Katz which is told many times:
A guy goes to his father and says, “Dad, I wanna go to college” and his dad says “Do you know what’s what?” (pronounced VAT’S VAT?) And the thinks about it for awhile, but just can’t come up with a compelling answer, and eventually he says, “Dad, I don’t know what’s what,” so his Dad says, “alright already, you shmekel who doesn’t know vat’s vat, you’re joining the family business and we’ll forget about all this college nonsense.” So the guy does this and after many years he has worked all the time and never been out on a date. When he finally works up the nerve, she invites him to her place and she says she wants to go and get comfortable. When she comes back in the room she’s not wearing anything but a leather strap. “WHAT’S THIS?” he cries out. And she says, “What’s what?” and he says, “IF I KNEW WHAT’S WHAT I WOULDA GONE TO COLLEGE!” Badumbum.
There were a series of other Jewish jokes that flowed through the story, but the main thread was a L’Avventura-type plot: a girl runs off into the woods and the various students break off in groups and look for her. Much is learned along the way about the meaning of life and how to tell a joke properly, which was of course the deeper meaning of the title: the kids learn what’s what.
The response to What’s What was encouraging, so, with some trepidation, I gave it to Adrienne for her feedback. Needless to say, she was not anxious to read it, as she obviously worrying about whether she’d hate it or not. But she did like it.
What’s What changed our relationship in a very important way. After that, Adrienne saw me as someone who wasn’t just a publicist, but as someone who could be creative in his own right. As I had no confidence about my writing, I sought her approval with every subsequent script I wrote. If Adrienne said something I did was good—then it was good; if she said it wasn’t good—then I had to change it. While this was my problem, not hers—it proved to be a big problem when I wrote and directed a short film called Tiger: His Fall and Rise, in which Adrienne starred opposite Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool).
This film, a film noir musical about a singing frog, brought me to the brink of financial ruin. More about Tiger next week.
Monday, May 30, 2011
During the year Adrienne and I worked together on I’ll Take You There, our professional relationship gradually evolved into a more personal one, one which deepened over the following years. Eventually, she became my best friend, more important than the women I dated at the time. Unlike anybody I’d ever known previously, she made it her business to transform my love life, and try to make me happier. I won’t claim that I was her best friend, because I believe she did the same thing for other people, and was equally precious to them.
Adrienne’s method for fixing my life involved setting me up on dates with her friends. These women were all remarkable—extraordinary in their beauty and accomplishments. She honored me by maintaining that I deserved women as impressive as that. The fact that none of these setups became an actual girlfriend (although one is a friend to this day) was beside the point. On the other hand, she never liked any of the women I found on my own. It was the opposite; she thought I was too good for them.
The odd thing about this was in her life, she went through what she considered a long string of unhappy experiences with men. As she wrote:
In my twenties I had every bad kind of relationship imaginable. I questioned just about every move I made and I failed an awful lot in a variety of ways--sometimes loud and noisily, and sometimes in small subtly painful ways. There was unrest, boredom, a feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness, and a garden variety angst. Mostly, (modest film career or no modest film career, depending on the month) there was a lot of wandering. I guess what I was really doing was searching, and trying to figure out who the hell I was. And being rather clumsy.
While she was so confident and upbeat about every other aspect of her life, this compartment of her personality could make her feel melancholy and lost. Adrienne turned this into material by dramatizing this side of herself in her movies, to comic effect. From her first short, Urban Legend, she began her films with the lead character desolate after a breakup, or worse, trapped in a smothering relationship, as in Waitress:
That was always her magic trick in her films and in her life. She could use laughter as judo. As she wrote:
Humor has been an important asset for me. It was an important part of my childhood. I never wanted to be a great actress--I admired Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett long before I knew who Marlon Brando was. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were my heroes. And when bad (and rather strange) things happened during my childhood, like the sudden death of my father when I was 12, or the sudden paralysis of the left side of my face from Bell's Palsy when I was 15 (not a good age, by the way, for either of those things to happen), it was a saving grace that I could find the funny within the painful and the unheard of.
If you don’t know what Bell’s Palsy looks like, Sylvester Stallone has had it since childhood, and Fox reporter Greta Von Susteren has it now. I’m sure it was a devastating challenge for Adrienne to get through, but the only complaint she expressed to me about it was that people would look at her with this “oh, you poor thing” look on their face. Anyway, eventually her Bell’s Palsy went away.
I never found out if the men in her life were as bad as she said they were. There are two sides to every story and I only got to hear hers. As did anybody who saw her movies, particularly Earl in Waitress, who got on a list of the “10 Worst Movie Husbands.” Here are some others from her rogue’s gallery:
She also wrote a hilarious essay about Oprah Winfrey’s increasing frustration with her endless non-marriage to her fiancé, Stedman Graham. (It was read at Adrienne’s memorial by one of Adrienne’s closest friends, actress Pamela Gray.)
But some of Adrienne’s portraits of men weren’t humorous at all:
These characters stood for a world that was chaotic and precarious, where in a second a woman could be selfishly used or much worse. In her unproduced screenplay “The Morgan Stories,” there is a both a rape and an act of lethal violence.
On the other hand, Adrienne had a fondness for sweet, guileless men in her movies, who refuse to give up their courtship of the women they sincerely love. Waitress fans will fondly remember Ogie (Eddie Jemison), unstoppable in his wooing of Adrienne’s character Dawn, and Alan North plays a similar role in I’ll Take You There.
The open-heartedness of these men leads into the other side of Adrienne, which I mentioned before—her confident, ebullient, joyful side, overwhelmed with boundless love that she directed towards her art and to her friends. Some might call it presumptuous for me to attribute this aspect of her personality to her biography, but I feel certain that her joyful strength came from the boundless love her mother gave her. Adrienne never stopped saying that her mother made her feel that she could do anything. In her telling, her mother’s love was unconditional, grand, glorious--one colossal sun of love. Adrienne told me again and again about the depths of her appreciation for the gifts her mother gave her.
And it was this side of Adrienne that created a character that turns up again and again in her movies—a character I call “The Teacher.” Usually the Teacher is old and eccentric, or even outright crazy, although Ally Sheedy’s Bernice in I’ll Take You There is young and nuts. Sometimes there’s a little touch of magic in them like Jan Leslie Harding’s homeless woman in Urban Legend, Louise Lasser’s fortune teller in Sudden Manhattan, and Ben Vereen in I’ll Take You There. There’s not just one Teacher per film; I count four Teachers in I’ll Take You There. (Adrienne played one of them.) The Teacher Adrienne characters are the catalysts to get the mopey Adrienne characters to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get out of bed. Interestingly, the depressed Adrienne character can also serve up magical assistance to others, as Jenna in Waitress does with her makeover for Dawn and her magical pies for everybody.
In a nutshell, that’s my formula for Adrienne’s storytelling: a virtual conversation between the two parts of her personality, told with quirky humor and absurdity, and suffused with a love for people and their foibles. The fun is in the diverse ways that Adrienne worked this recipe out. Was she aware she was doing this?I doubt it. She wrote her scripts very quickly and these stories just came out of her without her bothering to analyze them.
I believe that the above clips fall within the requirements of Fair Use. My aim is to get more people to watch her films; I want to increase the profits of the copyright-holders. On the page where the clips are linked to, there is elaborate information on how you can purchase and rent the films, including Waitress. Sudden Manhattan, I’ll Take You There, and Serious Moonlight are all available on Netflix Instant Watch.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Throughout college and my early years in New York, I had a very complicated relationship with my best friend. He was an amazing guy, brilliant, funny, and in a lot of ways true blue: I could always count on him to come through for me in a crisis. But when it came to women, he was trouble. He slept with my girlfriends. He went through elaborate measures to encourage me to court an attractive friend of his girlfriend, knowing all the while that she was hopelessly in love with him. He once worked as a bouncer at a massage parlor and he brought one of the masseuses over to my apartment, explaining that she considered me a "fine hunk of penis." (I should add that the masseuse was the girlfriend of his roommate, a judo black belt, and I sent her out the door). Old girlfriends of his came on to me, and as they often were quite hot, I sometimes took them up on their offers. We went on like this for a dozen years or more, with me enjoying his company too much to face up to the blatantly homoerotic and sick competition that was going on, and how hurtful it was to me. The truth is there was so much more I liked about him than I didn't like, and eventually he got a long-time girlfriend who kept him in line. But he would piss me off and I wouldn't talk to him for a year, until finally one those separations went on so long that we stopped seeing each other altogether.
After that I decided I was through with male friendship and started actively pursuing non-sexual relationships with women. The perfect setup was if they had a boyfriend or fiancé or husband that I really liked, but was living in another country or something. I could call one of these women up at a moment's notice and say, "do you want to go to this party?" and she'd be totally up for it. Most of these relationships have endured to this day, whereas I can't even remember the names of some of the women I dated.
I remember when I was working on High Art and I was squiring my client Ally Sheedy to one event after another that her then sister-in-law/agent Rachel Sheedy told her, "it's so great that you have a gay friend to go all those places with you." If you made movies about all these women's lives, I suppose you would cast me as the gay best friend who happened to be straight. In some cases I was the confidante; they could tell me everything, and I could do the same with them, and in others it wasn't so intimate, I was just around to escort them to movies and parties. The thing that fascinated me, because it happened every time, was that as I got to know them in the context of a friendship, I could see that a more conventional man/woman relationship would never have worked. They weren’t at all right for me in that way, but as friends they were perfect.
In almost all cases, I got the better side of these friendships as the women were so much smarter and wiser than I was. They were always there to provide insight on the female mind. I would try to provide the same about men, but they understood men pretty well. I suppose I mainly provided a shoulder to cry on, plus any entertainment value they could get out of our friendship. I always wanted to have a girlfriend, but I was desperate if I didn't have a few good female friends on the hook. After all, when the woman you are crazy about breaks up with you, who do you call?
In the early 90s I was working in New York as the VP of the New York office of the international movie PR firm Dennis Davidson Associates (DDA). My number one client, Sony Pictures Classics, hired me to work on Amateur, the newest film by Hal Hartley, whose The Unbelievable Truth, had so enchanted me in London years before, and who had now, with his subsequent films, become one of my very favorite filmmakers.
I set up a lot of press for Hal, and the male lead, Martin Donovan (still a friend), but mostly I worked with Elina Lowensohn. Once I spent some time with her, I knew that she was best friend material, and I was determined to woo her to be my non-girlfriend. She had it all. Her husband, painter Philippe Richard, lived mostly in Paris, but I really hit off with him when he was in New York. She was one of the most interesting people I had ever met. A Romanian refugee of the Ceausescu regime, she had suffered enormously in her life, and yet remained more upbeat than most people. She also had a unique and poetic way of speaking English that was irresistible. Although she looked like a bombshell with a Louise Brooks bob, inside she was the kindly old lady down the hall, who upon seeing you downhearted, insists that you come over for soup. The only problem with Elina was that because she was so wonderful, everybody in New York wanted as much time with her as they could get. Among the people on the waiting list was Adrienne Shelly, and Elina would mention seeing her now and then. I definitely could have met Adrienne through Elina, but as I was such a superfan of Adrienne, I didn't want to. Civilians dream of meeting their favorite actors, and even stand on the sidewalk for a glimpse, but professionals (who are also fans) have been burned too many times. When you really like somebody's work, you just don't want to be disappointed, and that can easily happen when you assume the role of an employee.
One of the few exceptions was Ally Sheedy. I got to know everybody in her life. She was on a roll with High Art, picking up prize after prize and, as her publicist, I wanted her career to keep soaring. I took a very close hand in everything she did. When she was cast in the lead role of I'll Take You There, Adrienne's second feature film as a writer/director, of course I set up a visit to the set. It was a long subway ride to some distant part of Brooklyn (or somewhere equally exotic). I had this little Sony Handicam, slightly bigger than a still camera (remember those?), that I took with me everywhere. While I was on set, I figured I could capture a little b-roll, material that could be used for the film's release.
So instead of trying to conjure up how exhausted Adrienne was one that day, here it is, video of the very first moments I encountered Adrienne Shelly.
The first thing I noticed was that one of the lenses on Adrienne's glasses was all scratched up. I was going to ask her about it but I realized that on the schedule she was on there could hardly be any time for her to get her glasses fixed. Adrienne told me that her first film didn't get much distribution and she was determined that this one would get seen. I said I wanted everything involving Ally to be a hit. This didn't exactly cheer her up. She looked really worried. She asked me if I'd be willing to come by the editing room after she finished shooting so we could talk more about it.
And that's how it began. I ended up working on I'll Take You There for an entire year without pay.
Sunday, May 08, 2011
Last week I began what will be a series of posts on my friendship with the late writer/director/actor Adrienne Shelly. After it appeared I heard from some people who wanted to know, “just where are you going with this?” Because it sounded like I was going in a very personal direction. Which I am. These friends wanted me to reflect on the savagery of her death, and whether that puts my memories of her in a special category. After all, she leaves a husband dealing day-to-day with unending grief over her loss, and there is a daughter who is growing up without a mother. I have a responsibility to be careful about what I reveal.
On the other hand, I have my own not unsubstantial grief to deal with about Adrienne. I was her publicist, which led to the two of us becoming friends, and over time, she became my best friend. Aside from my wife and family, she was the person I was closest to in my whole life. In a similar way to me writing about my mother’s recent passing, I was hoping that writing about Adrienne would help me get some closure about what happened to her. Still, considering the tenderness of the situation, it did make sense for me to stop and think about where I was going with this.
So I thought about it, and decided I wanted to write it the exact same way as I had planned to. Here is why:
I’d like people to start talking about Adrienne’s entire body of work as a writer and director. Not just Waitress, but her previous movies too. During the time I knew her, the central preoccupation of her life was her fierce desire to be respected as a writer/director. She didn’t feel that the arbiters of the independent film world got her. She felt that if she was truly respected, then it wouldn’t be such an ordeal for her to get her movies made, and seen. Neither her debut, Sudden Manhattan, or her second film, I’ll Take You There, received any significant distribution. This was heartbreaking for her.
For many years it was my task as her publicist to try to make people pay attention to her work. I don’t see why I should stop trying now. I want to celebrate what she did do during her all-too-brief time on the planet, rather than mourn what she never had the chance to do.
So those of you who fell in love with her when you saw Waitress…do yourself a favor and honor her dream by checking them out. They are both on Netflix Instant Watch. You can also find Serious Moonlight there, as well as my favorite film she did with Hal Hartley, Trust.
So what does this have to do with my desire to present a personal portrait of Adrienne as a human being? I want to do it because Adrienne was the ultimate autobiographical filmmaker. While most writers utilize their own life as material in one way or another, with Adrienne it was practically 100%. Like Larry David, many of the things her characters did in her stories were things she did herself in real life. In my opinion, you will enjoy the world of her films in a much deeper way if you know a little bit about who she was. I want to try to draw some lines between the person and the artist.
Next week I’ll pick up the thread from last week.
Sunday, May 01, 2011
Me directing Adrienne Shelly and Thomas Jay Ryan on the set of my short film Tiger: His Fall & Rise
I didn’t have a Royal Wedding when I lived in London, but I did fall in love.
I spent a few months in England in 1990 when I was working as the production publicist on the film Shining Through, starring Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas. When shooting began on locations in Germany and Austria, I was living in hotels with the crew and I always had people to hang out with. But when the production moved to England for interiors at Pinewood Studios, everybody returned to their homes and families, I spent my weekends alone.
As I don’t enjoy living in hotels, I asked the production to help me rent a furnished flat in London. They got me a place in a super-posh area called Mayfair, in a neighborhood called Shepherd Market. When I told one of the female members of the crew I was going to live there, she burst out laughing. She explained to me that it was “so and so caught with his pants down” type of place, where numerous Members of Parliament and other upper class notables got caught with high-end call girls. And it was true. Every night when I went to the little grocery shop, all these hot women leaned out their windows making kissy noises at me when I walked by at night. “Hey baby…”
For a movie lover like me, an old studio with a history like Pinewood is a fascinating place to prowl around in. Out in the back lot was what remained of the Gotham City set built for Tim Burton’s Batman movie, but you couldn’t go in, you could only look through the fence. It was so sad; these amazing sets were slowly disintegrating in the British rain. I was able to go through the long tunnel of the Alien3 set that was built on Pinewood’s biggest stage, known as the Bond stage, as so many of the most spectacular scenes in James Bond movies were filmed there. I loved wandering the halls of the Pinewood offices, looking at the famous names on the office doors. The carpet was so moist it made squishy noises. That pretty much summed up my experience in England…damp.
On the weekends, I was super-lonely and bored. This was before cable TV and the internet, and there were only a few channels. I couldn’t believe I was in a country where people thought darts were worthy of being televised. It seemed to me that their coverage of the US leaned towards fringe Americana like Elvis impersonators, Burning Man types, and guys who made huge 20-foot high balls out of twine. They loved seeing us Yanks looking like weirdos and assholes.
My apartment was nice, but very cramped. To get out of there, I went to as many movies as I could. With the awful exchange rate it was $30 a ticket at nearby Leicester Square. It stopped me thinking about how unhappy I was working on Shining Through and how long it was going to be before I’d be going home.
One night I went to see a film called “The Unbelievable Truth.” I’d read good things about it in the Village Voice. The director, Hal Hartley, was supposed to be a major new talent.
Here’s a bit of what I saw:
This film was definitely not intended to be “realistic.” It was the kind of confused teen movie that Brecht, Godard, David Mamet, and Sylvia Plath might have teamed up to do after a week-long drunken binge in Rockville Centre. Hartley’s influences were easy enough to see, but he added enough to make something quite new and sparkly. He had created a vision that was so controlled it was trussed. He knew where the camera should go. He edited it himself. There was a weird affectless to the way the actors were delivering their lines, and a tightness to the way they moved (or didn’t move). The dialogue had a singular ping-pong rhythm: people either weren’t listening to each other, or avoiding listening each other, or generally residing in their Own Private Long Island. There was repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, as in a well-known scene where a very young Edie Falco says the same five lines four times in a row to Robert John Burke who gives non-responsive responses that don’t hinder her from continuing in this Escher-like dialogue loop endlessly. The music was as hip and cool as the movie. It stuck with you in a kind of sad minimal beauty. A lot of it was written by a guy with the delicious name of Ned Rifle, who turned out to be Hartley too.
I liked The Unbelievable Truth a lot, but the thing that was really on my mind was: “Who the hell is that actress?”
Amid the distancing style of the film, which was always working to keep your emotional connection at bay, this girl was breaking my heart. She was whip-smart. She was capable of expressing a lot without saying anything. She was hysterically funny without seeming to be trying to be funny or letting you know for sure that she was trying to be funny, or was just weird enough to make you uncomfortable. She kept you off balance. How were you supposed to respond. I wasn’t sure how much of what she was doing was acting and how much was really her. No, it was impossible that it was all just acting, and only filling out her responsibilities to Hartley’s tightly woven vision. This woman was too young to understand a character like this unless she had lived through some pretty bad things herself. She knew what the end of the world was and could see it hurtling towards her on the L.I.E. You have to have lived depression to dig into that dark a cave.
She was broken somehow.
And that’s what I was, sitting in that theatre all by myself. Maybe that’s what I always have been since I was a teenager. It wasn’t about being far away from my home and alone. I have always been that way, even when I’ve been in a party teeming with people.
Her name was Adrienne Shelly.
More next week.