Sidney Poitier, Masturbation and Make Believe!

I came across the ad in the Westword (Denver sister of the LA Weekly). “Actors wanted for short film set in call center. Call for details”. With as close as I’d come to Hollywood success, I’d never even been on a movie set before. I decided that if I wanted to pursue film, I should at least get my feet wet by getting some sort of practical experience. I realized that I was probably going to get rejected because of the way that I looked, but I figured I would try. Maybe they had a crowd scene, or maybe they needed behind the scenes help.

I called the number and a man with a slight accent answered the phone. He told me that the film was being made as a pitch of a full length movie. He warned me that some people had been offended by it as there was a lot of sexuality in it. He said it was basically a mockumentary and I would be playing a call center employee. I asked if there was an audition he said no, I could just come over to his house on Tuesday and he would have a part for me. H’mm, was I going to be abducted: it seemed unlikely. To be on the safe side, I had a friend drive me to his house and make sure everything was ok. We arrived to find the door wide open and a whole bunch of people gathered in the living room.

I was greeted by Calvin, the filmmaker, a heavy-set Bahamian man of about thirty-five. He handed me a script and told me that I would be playing Michelle, a new call center employee. I was introduced to Will, a strikingly handsome , 21-year-old who was to be my scene partner. The scene entailed Will’s character training me. In the midst of my training he gets a dirty phone call and asks me to assist him in preparing to masturbate. Not only was the scene ridiculously over the top, but we were both very miscast. He was far to young for the role of the supervisor and, as I look like Tom Petty and he looks like a model, it was hard to believe that anyone would think he would harass me. I thought the dialog was awful, but I held my tongue. I reminded myself that I was there to learn; nothing more.

Will and I rehearsed for about two hours. He had to take his pants off one point and he was very uncomfortable doing this. As the other actors rehearsed their scenes around us I noticed that most of the scenes had to do with sex and almost none of them had anything to do with call center work. None of the dialog was funny at all. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. We were told to go over our lines and be there the following Saturday for the filming of the movie. I was shocked that I had been given such a big part.

Calvin drove me home. He told me that he had worked in a cable call center for a year and a half and that’s what inspired the film. He said he knew a production company in California that might be interested in producing the film. I mentioned that I had written a screenplay and he asked me if I would be interested in rewriting the screenplay for his film. I told him I would think about it and that I would bring a copy of my screenplay to the filming. He was very flirtatious on the way home. I strongly implied that I was not interested. He did not seem to pick up on it.

I arrived at Calvin’s house the following Saturday. I was to play two different characters. The trainee and an old lady complaining about her cable bill. We spent 24 hours filming it. I got the giggles when we shot our scenes. Will stumbled over his lines.

Calvin seemed very disorganized. He didn’t really give us any direction. The camera man seemed to know what he was doing. He told me that he had worked on several sports news shows.

On the day of the filming several of the actors read my screenplay and said they loved it. Calvin also said he liked it and asked if he could send it to that production company in LA. He said he would be interested in having me rewrite the original screenplay to” Cable Call Center”. A couple of the actors on the film were actually pretty good. One woman named Stephanie stood out as having especially good timing. Will told me that she was the estranged sister of some guy who produced, “Party of Five”.

I read the whole screenplay and found it to be riddled with fart jokes and sex gags. There was absolutely no plot at all it was all just scenes of agents taking various calls. I actually liked the idea of just doing skits of phone calls I also liked the idea of a mockumentary. I Told Calvin that my sense of humor was very different than his and that if I were to do the rewrite it would be almost completely different. I rewrote the first scene to the best of my ability and he told me to go ahead and rewrite the whole thing and we would submit it around as co writers.

It occurred to me that I could just write my own screenplay about call centers. I had entertained the idea before, but I couldn’t think of a plot.  I didn’t think of going from call to call the way Calvin did I decided it wouldn’t be ethical to take his general idea so I agreed to do it. There was some self-interest involved in this, Calvin had started his own production company (it was a legitimate LLC and everything) and I could use his recommendation.

I wrote one page a night for three months. I gave it a plot in which an earnest young man who works at the call center is making a documentary about his coworkers. I tried to stick to Calvin’s request to make it very commercial and conventional. I gave it a romantic sub-plot and lots of simple-minded humor. I had an action subplot about a cable repair man who gets chased thought the city. I showed it to a few of my call center co workers and they liked it. We registered it under both our names with the WGA.

We began to make plans to attend another pitch fest. Calvin sent the screenplay to those producers he knew in California. I looked them up on IMDB and they had done one documentary about a wrestler. We entered it in a contest, I also sent it to a man named Dylan who was the friend of Stephanie’s the “Party of Five” guy’s sister. Dylan was a somewhat successful writer of movie trailer scripts and a fairly well-known comedian, he even wrote for the Huffington Post.

I was a bit leery to go to Pitchfest with Calvin. He continued to hit on me constantly. I made up a boyfriend; I even had a friend of mine poise as said boyfriend at the screening of Calvin’s film but, nothing would discourage him. If I said I was tired he would ask if it was because of sex. I told him I didn’t like The Wedding Crashers that much and he asked if I liked the scene where one of the principles gets a hand job. He was incorrigible.

After about six weeks I got a response from Stephanie’s friend Dylan; He loved my screenplay. He said he saw fully developed characters, where he hadn’t seen them before. He said he saw funny jokes where before he had seen none. I was thrilled. I wrote to Calvin and said “He loved it!” Unfortunately, I accidentally sent the e-mail to Dylan. I am a female Larry David.

The producer in California wrote back and said he loved  “Surface” and  “Cable Call Center”. Calvin called me and told me that they might be interested in producing it when they got their funding. He told me that they were trying to produce a film about the life of Lynden Pindling the former prime Minister of the Bahamas’. He showed me a prospectus for the film which was very detailed and over 300 pages long. He said that Pindling had been best friends with Sidney Poitier when they were kids and that Poitier was interested in producing the film.

“No way” I said thinking this sounded way, way to good to be true.

“Not only that, but I talked to Sidney on the phone”, Calvin told me.

“You talked to Sidney Poitier on the phone?”

“Yes”, he said without a moment’s hesitation.

“What did you call him?”

“I called him Sidney”

“But, isn’t he a Knight, aren’t you supposed to call him sir?”

He just laughed.

The whole thing sounded pretty suspicious. Calvin was a former call center employee who was working in a jewelry store, what did a real production company in LA want with him? Calvin said that a local radio talk show host in Denver had introduced them. He said the host was interested in helping black artist to network. I talked to Tony on the phone. I didn’t know what to ask him I just wanted to make sure he was real. He told me that he was pretty sure they would be getting funding soon and that they might be interested in both screenplays when they did. I told him I’d keep my fingers crossed for him. I asked him how he knew Sidney Poitier and he said he had been interested in writing about Pindling and sent the prospectus to Sidney’s production company as Sidney and the Prime Minister had been classmates.

Calvin gave me Pindling biography. Pindling was the first black Prime Minister of the Bahamas whose career ended in scandal when NBC ran a story about him accepting bribes from Columbian drug dealers. The book Calvin gave me was extremely slanted in Pindling’s favor. He also gave me the government report which detailed shocking instances of blatant flagrant drug trafficking. Pindling was clearly guilty. I got the distinct impression that Calvin and Tony wanted me to write a script in which I made it look as though he had been framed. I told Calvin I was not comfortable with this. He told me the only reason Poitier wanted to do the film was to clear Pindling’s name.

I felt very frustrated. I wanted to write the screenplay; it was a great story that no one knew about. It was full of sex, drugs racial controversy and international politics; it almost wrote itself. But, I couldn’t write the real story if I ever hoped to see it on film. It occurred to me that I could just write my own screenplay about the real Pindling, but I felt guilty; I never would have known about any of this if it hadn’t been for Calvin.

I wrote the first couple of scenes. But, my efforts were cut short. As I worked on the Pindling screenplay Calvin was busy doing something unbelievable stupid.  I didn’t know it , but I was falling down a rabbit hole out of which I would never fully climb.

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John Cusack and the Hollywood Redemption

My story of Hollywood failure begins long before I ever tread The Walk of Fame or worked background on a TV show; it begins with me as a lonely only child watching one old movie after another and dreaming of a day when I would escape the constant bickering of my paranoid parents.

I would watch Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I knew the lyrics to every song in every musical. I tried to teach myself to dance.  I went through a period of wanting to be a boy, it wasn’t a gay thing; boys got all the meaty parts. I watched The Graduate over and over again and imagined a day when I would play someone just like Benjamin Braddock.

It is not unusual for a child (or anyone else) to want to be an actor. Almost everyone has at one time or another wanted to be somebody else. Who wouldn’t want a job where you have the rapt attention of an audience? Who wouldn’t want someone to cheer for them when they performed their job correctly? But, to me there was a deeper appeal; acting offered something that life didn’t – a resolution.  Oh, I’m not talking about a happy ending. I grew up in the seventies and few films or plays offered the happy ending.  I just longed for some kind closure as a kid.

Although my parents fought endlessly they never got divorced. When the other kids at school taunted me, I wanted the director to yell cut so I could wipe the tears away and take a bow for my heartfelt performance. I had just enough interest in science to want to play a doctor. I had enough passion for justice to want to play a lawyer, although I would never have the intelligence or patience to be one in real life.   I wanted that harrowing scene in the courtroom where everything was changed by my words. I wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein, I wanted the glory of exposing the bad guy, but I didn’t want to have to do all the leg work and research it would take to accomplish this – I didn’t have enough interest in anything for that. I wanted the thrill of the catch!

Growing up in Chicago offered a wealth of opportunities for a young acting hopeful. My parents grudgingly enrolled me in The Jack and Jill school of Acting. It was pretty well know as Harvey Korman from The Carol Burnett show had studied there as a child. I played a lost boy in the production of Peter Pan. The teacher seemed to think I had potential and I was good at line memorization. When we moved to Evanston I enrolled in the famed, Piven Theater Workshop (Jeremy’s dad owned it). Where I took improv classes. The teacher always seemed to like what I did, but I was never picked to be in any of their shows. You see I looked just a bit different than a typical actress looked.

I grew into a rather unfortunate physic. Although blonde and blue eyed my head had grown into a strange square shape. I was chubby and flat-chested. At the age of twelve I had child bearing hips and hair that was baby fine and riddled with cowlicks. I just wasn’t believable as a leading lady. Leading ladies tended to be the romantic interest of the leading man. The seventies open the door for unconventional looking actors as long as they were male.

A man could be interesting and attractive if he was funny and smart. So long as one possessed these qualities, one could obtain the virtually interchangeable “girl”. Think I’ve being glib? I give you The Paper Chase, The Graduate, The Verdict, Annie Hall ,  Atlantic City, The Conversation, The Godfather and on and on. They were all masterpieces and they were all had unconventional looking male anti-hero’s.

I wasted a good amount of my time wishing I were pretty and trying to make the transformation happen – it never did. In high-school my classmates included Jeremy Piven, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, and Steve Pink.  John was Jeremy’s best friend and a star in Piven Theater Workshop Productions. John Hughes discovered John and John and his sister got parts in all his movies. John secured parts for several of his friends in these films. Eventually they would follow him to Hollywood where Jeremy and Joan would appear in his films and Steve would act as a producer.

So if I was so interested in acting and I knew John Cusack, an actor famous for making his friends stars , why didn’t I simply befriend Mr. Cusack? Well tall, dark handsome boys don’t generally hang with goofy looking chicks, who have learning disabilities and two friends; Jeremy would occasionally even taunt me. I got to watch as John and his crew became more famous and live out my dream.

I moved to Denver and went to college for a bit, but I could never really feign an interest in my studies. As an adult I took to writing screenplays. It was my goal to write roles for female characters who were not pretty. I wrote one about an unattractive young woman who gets revenge on her cruel classmates. I sent it around and managed to get an agent, but she dumped me when she couldn’t sell it.

Eventually, I would decide to head to Los Angeles, in spite of everything I still had to try and see if I could change things in a way that might benefit women like me. On my strange journey I would encounter an illiterate producer who would option a screenplay of mine for no money and an indefinite period of time, a theater owner who resembled comic bookstore guy on The Simpsons, a Willy Lomanesque porn star, the dumbest “intellectual” I ever met, a delusional Script Analyst, two slumlords, a plethra of incompotent but cute business people, a real life Broadway Danny Rose, the worst actress in the world and many, many a religious zelot.  I would  be taken advantage of in a way I thought only happened in the movies and lied to by people who considered lying a sport.

In spite of everything I don’t regret my time in LA, it gave me a great story to tell, so sit back and get ready for a tale that gets curiouser or and curiouser.