Just published: My Three Suicides: A Success Story...

Saturday, May 23, 2015

He gripped on “Reservoir Dogs” and produced “Lost in Translation,” but can he still impress his old teacher ?

Ross Katz, director of the newly released comedy, “Adult Beginners,” was my student when he was in high school. Where other kids saw a book’s ideas as potential test questions, he saw celestial explosions that might guide his life. He was one of the most enthusiastic learners I ever had the pleasure to teach. 

Now that he’s a moviemaker, though, I wondered if he still retained his love for books and ideas. I emailed him and asked.

Shortly after Ross graduated from Haverford High School in Havertown, PA, he moved to Hollywood and lucked into being a grip for Quentin Tarentino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” After several more pay-your-dues jobs, he became a co-producer of HBOs “The Laramie Project.” (2000). Esteem soon followed. He went on to receive Academy Award nominations for co-producing “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “Lost in Translation” (2003). After that he lived in Paris for a year, producing “Marie Antoinette” (2006).
            Like everyone with artistic dreams, Ross wanted to direct. He got his first chance (including screenplay co-credit) with an HBO drama, starring Kevin Bacon, called “Taking Chance” (2009) Directing “Adult Beginners marks his entry to commercially released, movie theater film. Next year the film he’s currently “cutting,” “The Choice,” based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, will be released.
             That’s all wonderful, of course, but I wanted to know if he’s still that person who seemed enthralled by new ideas. Did he still have that “dreamer” quality? Was his life still about questing?
Here’s part of the conversation we had:
Were you much of a reader when you were young?
You know, it’s kind of crazy. Reading is an enormous part of my life because, among other things, it’s how I find my projects. But, I’ve always struggled at reading. It’s hard for me. I’m a slow reader and often have to re-read what I’ve read – it’s something I’ve had to deal with since I was a kid. If I’m not absolutely enthralled by what I’m reading, it goes slowly for me.

What was the most memorable book of your youth?
I would have to say a book that you gave me, “The King of the Confessors,” really has stayed with me. (HG: A true story of the breakneck competition among the powerful art museums of the world to authenticate and acquire a unique tenth-century ivory cross.) It was like a real life “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I researched possibly making a movie of it years ago, but found that Thomas Hoving did not want to license the rights.

What book do you most wish someone you know well, or love, would read?
“Giovanni’s Room” – an all-time favorite of mine.

Are you a re-reader of books you've enjoyed?
I don’t re-read a lot, but when I do it’s usually Jane Austen.

Living in New York, do you have room for a personal library? Are there any books that have to come with you, no matter where you live?
Laugh. Out. Loud. Are you crazy?  Who can afford a room with a personal library??? Sadly, I don’t.  All my books are digital these days, but for a few personal copies of things with sentimental meaning to me.

Any favorite authors, ones whose new book you must get and read right away?
My favorite authors are dead. James Baldwin would be at the top of the list.

Do you collect books in any genre, or author?
I don’t collect.  I’m a digital guy. I actually – blasphemous I know – prefer reading on my iPad.

Is reading part of every day for you?
Yes.  I mainly read for work – to find new movies. Lately, I’ve been reading screenplays. Lots and lots of screenplays. The only way I will ever get a movie off the ground is by going into intense reading periods. 

Is any of your reading pleasure reading? Or do you tend to choose things to read because they might make a good movie? 
I guess it’s a bit sad, but I generally choose things to read that might make a good movie.  Just not enough hours in the day for “pleasure reading.” I’m always visualizing what I read, trying to figure out what will translate as cinema.

Many of your films deal with important social issues. Is that a necessity for you to become involved in a project?
I love making socially relevant films. But, equally, I must admit that I like making entertainments that aren’t necessarily social-change movies. I like a balance. I never want to repeat myself, so I’m always looking to jump genres.
I primarily read to find stories I want to tell. The films I’ve made have come from books or short stories, and have been original ideas. Mostly, though, my personal work has been based on either some real event or a book.  

What’s the process like?
The first part of the process for me is to find something that speaks to me. If I lived in a world where money was no object and financing a movie was easy, I’d be trying to make “Giovanni’s Room” into a movie. That book changed me. It spoke to me on so many levels. But, that’s a tough one to get made in our world today.  
So, I tend to read tons of screenplays, but I also devour books, short stories, and articles. I also see lots of documentaries.
And, I’m a genre-jumper.  For instance, I’m right now making “The Choice.”  It’s a love story based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. The core of the book, and its beautiful, flawed, messy characters, was something I related to.  At the same time, I’m developing a sophisticated horror movie, because I love that genre too.

And Ross’s final quote to his ex-teacher: As you can see, I’m still driven to tell stories. I’m on an endless search to find the ones that express who I am, or convey something about humanity that I  – and an audience – can connect to.

 A terrific Interview with Ross on the topic “The Movies that Changed My Life” can be found online at http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-movies-that-changed-my-life-adult-beginners-director-ross-katz-

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Anniversary dates can be taunting for those who’ve loved and lost

Twenty-seven years have passed since 1988, but I still wince whenever I read or hear that year said. For example, I was watching a Phillies game recently and one of the announcers referred to the 1988 team. That year, Harry Kalas, Rich Ashburn, Andy Musser, and Chris Wheeler were in the TV booth. Mike Schmidt missed the last six weeks with a torn rotator cuff. I remember because I’m very sensitive to many of the bad things that happened that year.
            In 1988 the Philadelphia Eagles went 10-6 and won the NFC East championship under Buddy Ryan, with Randall Cunningham at the helm. On December 31 of that fateful year, the Eagles played the Chicago Bears, in Chicago, in the division playoffs. An all-enveloping fog descended on the playing field. No one could see much of anything. The Eagles lost. It was typical of that bizarre year. 1988.
            Veterans Stadium, where both the Phillies and Eagles played back then, also hosted a number of notable outdoor concerts. One of my son, Colin’s, favorite bands, Pink Floyd, played there on May 15, 1988. Colin had died two days before that, killed by a drunk driver. Pink Floyd finished the regular part of that concert with “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” and the aptly chosen “Comfortably Numb.” Colin was 18. His ashes were being scattered in the Pacific that week.
            In 1988, the US President was Ronald Reagan; Michael Dell launched Dell Computer Company; Michigan State won the Rose Bowl and the Supreme Court ruled against Jerry Falwell in a defamation suit against Hustler Magazine. On May 14, 1988, while I was still in Hawaii, attending to my son, Colin’s, affairs, a different drunk driver rammed a converted school bus near Carrollton, Kentucky and killed 27 members of a church youth group. The Olympics were held in Seoul, South Korea that summer. In November of 1988 the American actress Emma Stone was born. On December 21, Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie, Scotland by an on-board bomb.
            1988 is probably not mentioned or referred to more often than say, 1987, or 2006. It’s just a typical year (as compared to 1776, 1941, 2001 and a few others). But when it is brought up, it has the power to provoke me.
            What I want to do, on the inside, is yell, pound the table or sofa arm, or kick a rock. But what I have learned to do instead is to Flick the Switch. Accept the jolt of adrenalin that stabs my heart while I switch my mental TV to another channel. I do not dwell on my negative association. I do not need to prove my love by viewing that twinge as an obligation to renew my mourning. Or as an invitation to revive my memories. We all have our private associations – whether good or bad – they are always there. We don’t have to act on the negative ones.
            More: our missing ones had beginning dates too. Though 1988 stings me more, 1969 waits at the other pole. During the first Moon Walk, July 21, 1969, my boy was safely tucked in his mother’s womb, in weightlessness, tethered to Life Support – just like the astronauts as I watched them on TV. Colin was due in seven weeks then. What a thrill it was to have a child coming to full term when such wonderful things were happening in the world. The Age of Aquarius had arrived. Colin was born a few weeks later, on September 10, 1969.
            Here are some more 1969 things that register with me – some pleasant, some ironic, some awful – Woodstock; the Manson Family rampage; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Chicago Eight Trial; the first Gap store opens in San Francisco; the “People’s Park” is formed in Berkeley; Jennifer Aniston is born.
              It’s a wonder we all get along as well as we do, because each of us carries around our personal associations with words and numbers we hear everyday, many of them carrying private triggers. For all of the explosions we hear about in the daily news, I truly believe we humans, somehow, luckily, are masters of restraint.
            Written in memory today, Wednesday, May 13 2015, of my son Colin’s passing on May 13, in 1988.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Look at a Considered, but Rejected Cover for MTS

Here's another cover mock-up I had done prior to publishing "My Three Suicides." I showed it to a number of people (let's be honest: The waitresses at my favorite restaurant) and it was highly favored. Came in second or third I think. I gave a little talk about the book at the Lovett Library in Mt. Airy last night and had a good time. I think the audience did too. Part of the "Write Down Your Life Program" being promoted by Barbara Scherf of Wyndmoor, PA. Hi to everyone. Thanks for your good wishes.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Part One of "My Three Suicides" Given Separate Kindle Publication

Don't understand why I don't just stop and fall into a rocking chair. But I just published on Kindle (only) a separate edition of just Part One of "My Three Suicides." Even though it's non-fiction, it stands alone as the equivalent of a long short story or a novelette. It covers that very formative period of a boy's life from 3 to 13-years-old. Theme of the section: This is what happens to a boy who believes everything grownups tell him. Title: "What Music We Heard." The story concludes with an attempt to get to heaven, using a trolley car in an unorthodox way. Stay Creative friends. Your turn may be next.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Book Launch for My Three Suicides Was A Great Success

A priest, a nun, and a rabbi ... also a chef, a shoe salesman, a go-go dancer, a poet, a toastmaster, and a barbecue grill salesman walked into a bar ...

Standing Room Only at the Bombay Room
            Well, not exactly a bar. Right next to the bar, the Bombay Room of the Chestnut Hill hotel, last Friday night. And this was to quench their thirst for knowledge by getting a seat close to the free wine and cheese the Chestnut Grill had set out for literature lovers and other hangers on.
            It was a thrilling night for me to be reading from my new book (“My Three Suicides: A Success Story). About fifteen minutes before the scheduled starting time of 7:00 p.m., the room was less than half-filled, and I started to worry, but a sudden surge of punctual people arrived and soon there was standing room only. That was exciting. I am a good speaker once I lean into the mike and start talking, but before that magical moment I am visibly nervous, floating in a La La land of fear and brain freeze. I usually need to rest my book on the podium ledge so my shaking hands don't distract the listeners.
            Authors never find peace in their quest to pick the best passages from their book to read for an occasion like this. The purpose of a book launch is to introduce one’s book to the world, but which parts of it? A photographer or painter can string his or her work on a clothesline and everyone can walk along and see the photos or pictures at his own pace. But even a sample of a book asks an audience to surrender much more time and to do it in a passive way.
            In my case I decided to try for two 15-20-minute sessions with a five-minute break in between. Then maybe a brief question-and-answer session. But what should I read? I still wasn't certain after I started by reading the dream-like prologue of the book.
            I was talking a lot too, in addition to reading. You're really not supposed to do that, according to the strictest standards of authorial read-alouds, but I always figure that the audience wants to get a sense of what an author is like as a person. Especially when the book being featured is a very personal memoir such as mine.
            I read the three opening chapters of the book – ten pages – and then we took a break. I am not distanced from my material the first time I read it for an audience, and I tend to read with much emotion. I hope it helps the listening experience because I have little control over how I feel when I read serious stories from my childhood.
            After the break, I wasn't sure which of my other tabbed stories I should read for the second half of the program. I decided to read the one story I would most regret not having read: a tale from my college days about a scary and guilt-inducing interaction between me and my father at night. It lasted just long enough to draw a shudder from the crowd and also to exhaust me.
            Then the host of the program, Marie Lachat, Chairperson of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival Committee, asked if I would take questions. Of course. The questions genuinely surprised me with their depth and complexity. For example, Did I feel I understated any of the rough things I described? How does one consider a lifetime and select only certain things to include? And: Since I wrote so much about my parents, were they the audience I wrote for? Did I think, for example, my mother was in heaven now and knew what I was writing? And did that inhibit me?
            A few people raised their hands to make comments. Much of my book describes my struggles to survive a childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive alcoholic father. And of my struggles to love him anyway. Those who spoke at large expressed their sympathy with what I'd written because they too had grown up in similar circumstances. Later, in a more private setting, many others – I was surprised by how many – told me they too had had similar childhoods. They said I had done a good job of speaking for those of us who grew up trying to live with and cope with the shame of having an addicted parent. One woman said I had written an “important” book. My head spun with that comment.
            The entire evening had a feeling of mutually shared affection and admiration. I've never experienced such professional joy. It made all the sacrifices I'd made to get the book written and produced worthwhile.
            As an after note: On Saturday night, before going to bed, I checked my sales status on Amazon. For one brief while my book stood at #83 in the Amazon Kindle store's Top 100, in the category of Young Adult/Teen biography. (A surprise category to me...this book has some rough language at times and even sex, of a certain incompetent, nearly humorous kind.) I was flying high when I came up to go to sleep.
            Sunday morning brought the expected crash. But for a brief while: “Made it Ma! Top of world.”

"My Three Suicides: A Success Story is available in both print and eBook formats, most easily through Amazon.com.