Photos and text by Nancy J. Parisi
The tone was matter-of-fact, the sessions jam-packed with fascinating insider information delivered with high energy and laced with humor. Seventeen UB alumni, who are now leaders in the entertainment industry, regaled students in UB's College of Arts and Sciences with their tales, tips and "dues paid" as savvy, knowledgeable Hollywood pros. The occasion was the university's inaugural Alumni Visiting Scholar Seminar Series, held October 16–18 in the Center for the Arts. On October 17, roving reporter Nancy J. Parisi not only captured the day in photos, she also recorded the lessons learned and anecdotes shared in lively notes, excerpted here.
Richard Lawrence described how people in television "change jobs a lot" and that the industry "is a business of sheep, everyone is following a trend … I don't like to follow a trend, I want to start trends." He described how the "seven or so clones [of the Judge Judy show] did pretty well," and that the success of these shows depends upon the judge. In the case of Judge Judy, he had to pitch her as a personality and a potential star. The show, Lawrence states, had a "6.9 rating and what that means is money, lots of money."
Parry Shen, B.S. '95, whose first starring role was Ben in Better Luck Tomorrow, and Maury Chaykin, B.A. '72, actor best known as A&E's Nero Wolfe
The duo gave a presentation on hot tips for dealing with an agent, what to include on résumés and how a headshot can (and should) shine. These are simply "tools to work in the business," they affirm. Shen even passed out a copy of his own headshot.
Linda Phillips Palo is a very warm and maternal person and, like so many of the speakers, teeming with practical information and self-deprecating humor. The point of her exercise was to conceptualize what casting directors might think about for roles, and how actors can market themselves for those roles. Discussion turned to body types and the issue of anorexia and hyper-thin women working in the industry. Palo says that she'll occasionally intervene when someone obviously has an eating disorder, and maybe speak to an agent. "I don't want anyone having a heart attack in my class, on my watch," she says.
The small screening room was full and several of the students had copies of the script of the film they were watching: Confidence, starring Dustin Hoffman and a few up-and-comers whose names I didn't catch or know. Attendees viewed a rough cut of the film. There was a discussion and they then saw a second version, a little tighter and with music. The movie is being released in February and Foley says he is "interested in your awareness," i.e., the impressions of the students. Several of them had technical questions; it was apparent that they understood the techniques and Foley was engaged by their enthusiasm.
David Brownstein's presentation centered on demo tapes, résumés and important do's and don'ts for getting work seen. He also talked about "how to get along on a set" (avoiding tripping on cables and always being aware that time is bucket loads of money when tape's rolling, as well as "a rite of passage—getting fired"). He adds: "Don't just put yourself on videotape, nobody will be impressed." Actual footage from real shows and/or commercials is preferable, he says. Brownstein also pointed out how the bad lighting on the tape he was showing aged the actress. He showed footage of television shows that he had worked on and talked about a show he's developing, a reality-type show where five '80s-era rock stars will live together for 90 days in a house outfitted with a recording studio. The five, if they make it to the end of the 90 days, will get a wad of cash and will also record music together that will be sold and marketed.
Shep Gordon had great insider stories about managing the careers of Anne Murray ("I manage Anne Murray, a pure voice") and Raquel Welch ("Her gift is her physical beauty"). Another interesting quote: "Stealing is not a bad thing in this profession—you can use the crutches others have used along the way." He talked about working with Michael Jackson and Charlie Chaplin and introducing the two of them, and how Jackson was so enthralled with Chaplin that he fainted on the spot. Later Jackson appropriated the gestures and dress of the other star; Gordon outlined what had been taken: "He took every single thing but took things in his own way." This, he says, "is a great example of how you take something that works and make it yours."
Alan Zweibel says that if he has a good relationship with a director he can have the luxury of doing rewrites. He talked about how movies can sometimes be worked on by a chain of writers, and how these writers and rewriters may never meet. It was a fascinating look into the production process, the link between writing, casting, production and final product. He gave examples of a screenplay he wrote, The Story of Us, about his wife and him and how it needed "star power" in order to be produced. He discusses how a writer will write a part with a specific star in mind, and how parts get rewritten to suddenly fit another actor. "Just rewrite that part so that that part fits Tom Cruise is what a studio will say."
John Patterson focused his talk on "tone" meetings for television shows and casting for them, and how each weekly television show (Six Feet Under and The Sopranos) requires "an average of 20 new characters in each show." He had several tales about working on The Sopranos and talked about scripts and directors, and how the director (for example, creator David Chase) will "know where stories are all going."
Alan Steinberg (seen here being interviewed by UB student Nadine Dunn) talked about his methods of interviewing superstars, in particular writing about tennis star Andrea Yaeger and being granted time with her. Initially, he was told he'd get half an hour. Instead, he spent 52 hours with her and became her confidant. He actually played a message she left on his answering machine. The point was that if you're yourself, you don't spend the entire time staring at your notebook. Rather, be a person, and you'll get the goods was his message.
Peter Riegert had two students, a man and woman, come up to work on a scene from a David Mamet play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. He had them deliver the lines as they had rehearsed, then offered direction of body movement and how to use their voices. There were moments of forgotten lines, but Riegert said "forgetting lines is just as valuable as remembering lines." It means something was not learned or acquired in a certain way and needs to be worked on. When rehearsing and getting into a role, "don't think of adjectives, think of verbs." He adds: "You're trying to free yourself to think of the text … Find whatever the high stakes are, this is what Mamet does."
He is a really fascinating man, with loads of far-out information from shows he's worked on, like The X-Files and Dead Zone. He showed footage from such shows as well as a Chevrolet commercial that he directed and discussed the technical aspects of all. Lieberman explained the use of the array camera, a popular effect I believe he said he patented. That's when an object or person is frozen in mid-air and the camera pans around it: 125 SLR (single lens reflex) cameras shoot an instant, and via software the images are morphed together. He also dissected footage from an X-Files episode, "Rush," explaining how special effects were achieved on the television series' budget, via variable-speed camera motor, added-in computer graphics and having actors simply freeze and hold a pose.
David Steward, B.A. '79 and Chana Gazit, B.A. '82, documentary filmmakers
A group of rapt students take in the presentation by the husband-wife team Chana Gazit and David Steward in which they discuss linear editing, sound editing and how he, when making a documentary film about '60s student protests, recorded over and over in their backyard the sound of him sledgehammering watermelons! The couple also screened a documentary they made about the American Dust Bowl, circa 1935.
Ted Kryczko had sound clips to make his points. He was engaging—students seemed to groove on the discussion of advertising, and how it manipulates us.
Bobby Collins obviously had engaged the group of students and frequently referred to their previous session/class together. He gave pointers on public speaking, delivering comic material, as well as life lessons. Collins gave hilarious examples of managing his career, how his job is his job, explaining that he gets the check, gets in a limo or plane and is back at home where his life is. Sobering. I think he wanted to reiterate to starry-eyed students that this is a job, after all.