AFF director Barbara Morgan joined actor Chris Cooper, writer/director Brian Helgeland, extremely old and still vibrant TV producer Norman Lear, and writer/director John Singleton in a free ranging discussion about their careers Saturday morning in the Stephen F. Austin Ballroom.
Here are some highlights:
Norman Lear started his career intending to be a press agent, but he and an aspiring-writer pal cranked out a “piece of materia” and sold it. “We got 40 bucks,” Lear said. He was making $60 a week at the time. After that, “We started to write every night.” Even though there were plenty of radio writers who had more experience with dramatic form than Lear did, in the very early days of television. Lear was as much as TV writer as they were.
John Singleton noted that his first project as a director, a music video, involved him doing absolutely everything except being director of photography. “I was smart enough to get a DP,” he said. And then he forgot to bring film to the shoot (he was close to a Kodak store in L.A. and got some). It taught him “you cannot do everything on your own, You have to have a great crew and a good infrastructure and you have to have film.” (Also, he is a big fan of the TV show “The Knick.”)
Helgeland told a fantastic story about being represented by an agency so small you had to bring the agent 20 copies of your script. He wrote six or so on spec, none of them sold and then the agent asked him to remove all of these scripts from the office as they were taking up space. Helgeland dumped them into the back of his pickup and drove off: “I felt like I was trying to get orphans out of some war zone.” The seventh one he sold.
Cooper noted that John Sayles, with whom he has made several films, has very strong politics, ” but he doesn’t preach. At the end of hot he film he is gonna leave you with a conversation. He just wakes you up.”
Singleton said that after the success of “Boyz in the Hood,” he just locked himself in his house and studied old movies. “I went back to film school,” he said. ” I would read a biography of a filmmaker, then watch all their films and start thinking about what worked and what didn’t. I wanted to open up myself to everything.” He was also a big movie nerd as a kid, watching shows such as “the Million Dollar Movie” on L.A. TV. “As a kid, Barbara Stanwyck was my favorite actress.”
He also said that the producer helping him on “Boyz” made a very wise choice when he decided to schedule the movie in continuity. “You can see me get better and more comfortable in directing as the movie goes on,” he said.
Cooper said he runs on fear. “I make sure I am prepared., that I have put my time in.” When he made “August: Osage County” they were able to shoot an 18 page dinner scene in three days because he and the cast simply rehearsed it every single night at dinner. “We ran the hell out of those lines.”
Lear said his biggest failure was not creating a series for Nancy Walker, whom he called one of the funniest people he’d ever met. “I didn’t do the job I needed to do and it broke my heart.”
Lear still hasn’t found a studio willing to make his sitcom for senior citizens, blessed with the amazing title “Guess Who Died?” (a dramatic reading of the pilot script took place Saturday afternoon).
Singleton’s next project (hopefully) is a series called “Snowfall” for FX about how cocaine (pre-crack) changed Los Angeles in the early 1980s.
Cooper would love to make a mini-series about the career of Frank Lloyd Wright and Helgeland said he would love to make a movie about a fishing family, the sort of family from which he comes. “It’s the thing I know the best and I can’t get it going,” Helgeland said, “I don’t really like to think of what that means.”