SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — Shepherd University’s President’s Lecture Series will present An Evening with Charlie Matthau on Monday, April 22, at 6:30 p.m. in the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.
Matthau is a film and television director and actor and the son of actors Walter Matthau and Carol Grace. As a child, he appeared with his father in such films as Charley Varrick, The Bad News Bears, and House Calls. Matthau directed two movies that starred his father, The Grass Harp, based on a novella by Truman Capote, and the made-for-TV movie The Marriage Fool. He also directed Doin’ Time on Planet Earth, Her Minor Thing, Baby-O, and Freaky Deaky, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Matthau’s newest film, The Book of Leah, based on a true story about a young Jewish teenager in the 1980s who learned to defend herself after a violent sexual trauma.
Alan Gibson, adjunct professor of French and Spanish, will lead an on-stage discussion with Matthau about what it was like growing up as Hollywood royalty, what he learned from his dad, and who his mentors were. Gibson and Matthau will discuss the current state of the film industry and how it’s evolved from the early days of Matthau’s career.
Gibson, who is an executive producer of The Book of Leah, has written three novels under the name A. B. Gibson—The Dead of Winter, Leave No Trace, and his newest thriller High Voltage. Gibson is also producer of The Seeding, a feature-length horror film currently in development with Matthau and based on The Dead of Winter.
For more information, contact Karen Rice, director of Shepherd’s Lifelong Learning program, at 304-876-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT is a writer and licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. His acclaimed series of mystery thrillers— Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors, Phantom Limb and the latest, Head Wounds (Poisoned Pen Press)—features psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi. He’s also the author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, Palumbo’s credits include the feature film My Favorite Year, for which he was nominated for a WGA Award for Best Screenplay. He was also a staff writer for the ABC-TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, and has written numerous series episodes and pilots.
His first novel, City Wars (Bantam Books) is currently in development as a feature film, and his short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere. He provides articles and reviews for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet, and many others.
His column, “The Writer’s Life,” appeared monthly for six years in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. He’s also done commentary for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Currently he writes the “Hollywood on the Couch” column for the Psychology Today website.
Dennis conducts workshops throughout the country and overseas, at both clinical symposia and writing conference. (A list of recent appearances is available on request.)
His work helping writers has been profiled in The New York Times, Premiere Magazine, Fade In, Angeleno, GQ, The Los Angeles Times and other publications, as well as on NPR and CNN. He’s also appeared numerous times on Between the Lines, the PBS author interview show.
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Pepperdine University, he served on the faculty of UCLA Extension, where he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year.
BMH: What is something you wish someone would have told you before you became an author?
DP: That in today’s marketplace, the book author has to do an incredible amount of self-promotion. In my former writing career (as a Hollywood screenwriter), that was all handled by the TV networks and movie studios. The hard part was just getting the job and surviving the tortuous process of getting something on the air or in the movie theater.
BMH: Why did you become a writer?
DP: Hard to say. It felt more like a calling than a choice.
BMH: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
DP: By high school, I knew I wanted to write. However, until college (at the University of Pittsburgh), I’d never actually met a working writer, nor any peer who also wanted to be one. That’s why I started out as an engineering major (!), then switched over to the English Department.
BMH: Do you have a daily writing routine?
DP: Since I have a day job as a full-time licensed psychotherapist, it’s hard to keep to a firm schedule. Which is one of the reasons that, unlike my mystery writing colleagues, I only turn out a new Daniel Rinaldi thriller every three to four years.
BMH: Why crime fiction?
DP: Ever since my Dad bought me the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when I was ten years old and home sick from school, I’ve been hooked on the genre. Maybe because I like strong characters in intense situations. I also like trying to figure out the puzzles.
BMH: Have you written in other genres?
DP: Yes. I was a Hollywood film and TV writer (MY FAVORITE YEAR; WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, etc.) for 17 years before retiring to go back to grad school and train to be a therapist. In those years I mostly wrote comedy. However, I also wrote a novel, CITY WARS (Bantam Books) that was my one and only foray into science fiction. I’ve also written a nonfiction book about dealing with the psychological aspects of the writer’s life, based on my 27 years working as a therapist specializing in treating writers. It’s called WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT (John Wiley & Sons).
BMH: What is something you’ve never written about, but hope to some day?
DP: I think I’d try to write a play at some point. I don’t know if I’d be any good at it, but I do think about it. Probably because I so enjoy writing dialogue.
BMH: What two words best describes your writing style?
DP: Maybe “visceral and propulsive,” but that’s only when it’s going well! Otherwise I’d have to go with “self-indulgent and hurried.”
BMH: What comes first for you, characters or plot?
DP: Characters, always. I believe in Henry James’ description of plot: that it’s characters under stress.
BMH: How do you create your characters?
DP: There’s no blueprint for it. I usually just see a particular person in a particular situation, start writing, and see how he or she got into that situation.
BMH: Outliner, seat-of-your-pants writer, or a mix of both?
DP: Total seat-of-my-pants writer. In my crime novels, I start with no idea who either the victim or the killer is going to be. I like to let my writing flow organically. Of course, this means I have to go back and re-write a lot, to make sure things line up. But that’s okay, I’d always rather write than think.
BMH: How much editing do you do as you write your first draft?
DP: Not much, since I’m essentially making it up as I go along. I’m a firm believer in the fact that you don’t actually know what book you’re writing until you finish the first draft. It tells you what needs to be done to the plot, what characters really pop (as opposed to the ones you THOUGHT would do so), where to tighten things up and where to loosen them, etc. I think that if you’re doing it right, you and the text sort of co-create the book. You respond to where it’s going, and then it responds to your editing. If that makes any sense.
BMH: What authors influenced you the most?
DP: Too many to mention. But the list would include Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, Patricia Highsmith. Non-genre favorites include Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, Phillip Roth, and, in particular, John Fowles.
BMH: How do you handle research?
DP: I don’t do any until I’ve finished the first draft. Then I do the minimum necessary for accuracy and verisimilitude. As both an author and a psychotherapist, I always try to ensure that I’m depicting the reality of therapeutic treatment (and the state of the current mental health system) as accurately as possible.
BMH: How do you handle marketing?
DP: Certainly not as well as I should. For one thing, with a busy therapy practice, I don’t have much time. I must admit, however, I also haven’t investigated all the avenues for marketing available today. Part of my nature rebels against it, I guess.
BMH: You can go back in time, meet and chat with anyone, who would it be? What would you talk about?
DP: Again, too many to name. Emily Dickenson, Thoreau, Jane Austen, and Emerson come to mind quickly. Hawthorne and Melville. But especially Joseph Conrad. That covers the writers (with whom I’d talk about writing). Maybe some of the Continental philosophers (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein). Probably not a lot of laughs, but interesting as hell.
BMH: You are going to be alone on a desert island, what three things will you take with you?
DP: Assuming Internet access, my laptop, my paperback of Emerson’s Essays, and a flare gun to alert passing ships of my presence.
BMH: How big a part did your upbringing have on your writing?
DP: As a psychotherapist, I’m aware of the crucial role our childhood experiences and the communication dynamics in our family of origin have on our self-concept later in life. Since these experiences (and the meaning we give them) are inextricably bound up in our creative work, I believe our upbringing plays an enormous role in our desire to write, what we choose to write about, and how we write it. It also influences how we deal with the response to our writing, both positive and negative.
In terms of content, since my Daniel Rinaldi mysteries are set in Pittsburgh, and feature an Italian-American therapist with a beard and glasses who grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Pitt, I’d say my writing in that regard is quite influenced by my upbringing!
BMH: How about some hard-earned advice.
DP: Don’t follow trends. As a writer, keep giving them YOU until YOU is what they want.
Charlie Matthau has directed successful feature films in various genres and has also directed several network television projects. In addition to the critically acclaimed The Grass Harp, he has also directed Doin’ Time on Planet, Her Minor Thing, Baby-O, Freaky Deaky, and is in post-production on The Book of Leah which stars Armand Assante. A graduate of USC Film School, he has also produced and written several films. He has won several awards for directing including Best Director of the Year from The Academy of Family Films, and the AFI Platinum Circle award. He is currently developing Bodyguard of Lies, a World War Two thriller, and several other film and television projects including the limited series 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents based on the book by top historian David Pietrusza.
What are some of your earliest and most fond memories growing up with encouraging parents in such a creative atmosphere?
I was blessed to be raised by older and more mature parents. My father was 42 when I was born and he did not become really famous until I was about 4 years old. I think I benefited greatly from being raised by folks who were not overly consumed with their careers, or their success. My father enjoyed being a film star, but he also could see through the baloney of Hollywood.
What was it like to have Charlie Chaplin as your godfather? What was he like?
Charlie was very quiet and sensitive, and modest considering he was the greatest movie star in the world for many years, and practically invented motion pictures.
As a shy child what was the most difficult thing about being in front of the camera? How exactly did your father make acting more fun for you?
I never really enjoyed acting as I don’t enjoy being vulnerable and open emotionally. But when I acted with my father, he taught me that acting is listening. That helped me not be focused upon myself but instead be in the moment, and hopefully be more natural.
You have said he taught you that acting is about listening. Can you elaborate a little more on that? Do you think in today’s world people tend to listen less than they should in most circumstances?
What?…I absolutely do. When you are talking you are not learning.
How has being shy changed for you now as an adult vs as a child? Do you still sometimes struggle with that shyness?
I am still naturally shy, but as one gets older and gets life experience, you realize that engaging with others is not so scary and very little of what we do or say will matter in 100 years or even 100 minutes.
How did it feel to have the chance to work with your father and Carol Burnett on The Marriage Fool?
It was a joy. I am in awe of their talent, their chemistry and of what beautiful human beings they are, or in the case of my father, were.
How was it to work with Crispin Glover on Freaky Deaky? What is he like as an individual?
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Crispin since we both attended The Mirman School for Gifted Children in Bel Air California. We were both there for many years and even acted in the school play together. He is extremely smart, uncynical, collaborative and funny. I wish I could work with him on every project.
Who have been some of your favorite actors to have worked with so far? Have any been more challenging than the others?
There have been so many. Getting to work with my father and Jack Lemmon, Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Joe Don Baker, Charlie Durning and all those wonderful actors on Grass Harp was a priceless experience I will always treasure. I’m glad the film turned out so well so that I did not embarrass them or waste their time. I recently worked with Armand Assante, and he is a world class talent and gentleman.
What do you think it takes create a piece of work that everyone involved in can be proud of?
It takes a good script, creating a safe, collaborative and fun environment, and a lot of luck.
Are you still planning to bring about The 1920 Electiontelevision series? Can you tell us a little more about that?
The election of 1920, the first modern election, is surprisingly similar to 2020. The main issues were isolationism, anti-intellectualism, terrorism, immigration, a presidential sex scandal, women’s rights, and the manipulation of new media to sway voters. In 1920, it was radio and in 2020 it is social media like Facebook. It was also the year we had our first woman president, Mrs Woodrow Wilson who ran the country for a year and a half when her husband had a stroke.
I understand The Book of Leah is almost finished as well. Why did you decide to work on that particular film at this time?
I was blessed to be hired to direct the film by its Producer and Writer Leslie Neilan. She wrote a beautiful story about a young woman’s coming of age that is extraordinarily sensitive and intelligent. Usually, the assignments that I get offered as a director are not of a high standard, but this was truly a gift and I am grateful to have had the opportunity. I got to work with amazing actors like Armand, Brianna Chomer, Kate Linder, Melanie Neilan, Morgan Lindholm, Gigi Freedman, Ornella Thelmudottir, Ty Olowin, Jimmy Van Patten and Freddie Cole, who is a jazz legend. I could listen to that man sing all day.
I also got to work with many nice crew people including the producers Ken Achity, Alan Gibson, Ellison Miller, Mark and Arlene Fromer and, for the 5th time, with my favorite DP and mentor John Connor.
Do you still work with the Maria Gruber Foundation? Can you tell us more about what it is they do there?
The Maria Gruber Foundation was started by my friend Simona Fusco. I was Simona’s first boyfriend and I’ve been bragging about it ever since. She named it after her beautiful mother who passed away from cancer but whose beautiful spirit lives on in Simona and her daughter Amber. Our government really needs to spend more on cancer research, because it kills a lot of its citizens.
Do you think it is important that those in a position to help others who are in need do so whatever way they can?
I sure do. Otherwise, really, what is the point of it all? I know certain people have really helped me through the years, and I’d be a disaster without them.
What projects do you hope to bring into existence in the years ahead?
My favorite project is Bodyguard of Lies which is the most amazing true story you have never heard of. It is about Juan Pujol, a failed chicken farmer who saved at least 14 million lives in the Second World War. You know, a good chicken farmer will do that for you.
Is there anything you’d like to say before you go?
Just that it is a pleasure to re-connect with you after several years. Thank you for remembering me and for your kindness and graciousness.
If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist [after talent], that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. . . Even a novelist who has a lot of talent and a mind full of great new ideas probably can’t write a thing if, for instance, he’s suffering a lot of pain from a cavity.
One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”
I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.