My Favorite Year,’ comic salute to TV’s golden age, hits 40
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Peter O’Toole was famed for his commanding, Oscar-nominated turns. Mark Linn-Baker was a fledgling stage actor. Richard Benjamin, who’d made a leading-man splash in “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Westworld,” had a few TV directing credits.
The sum of these unlikely parts was the zesty 1982 movie comedy “My Favorite Year,” starring O’Toole and Linn-Baker, directed by Benjamin and produced by Mel Brooks. It paid loving tribute to the original golden age of TV in the mid-20th century and the variety shows that were the “Saturday Night Live” hits of their day.
When Benjamin read the screenplay credited to Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo, he immediately turned to his wife, actor Paula Prentiss.
“I hope they want me for this, because it’s just great,” Benjamin recalled saying.
The film, marking its 40th anniversary, is set in 1954 and topped by O’Toole as faded but still-glam movie idol Alan Swann, who’s appearing on “Comedy Cavalcade” only to pay off his IRS debt. Linn-Baker plays Benjy Stone, an energetic young writer tasked with keeping Swann out of trouble (read: sober) until the broadcast.
The inspirations for “My Favorite Year” included Sid Caesar, the decade’s reigning TV comedy star, and “Your Show of Shows,” the hit he topped from 1950-54 and was followed by “Caesar’s Hour.” The movie also is infused with the spirit of Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling films such as “Captain Blood,” with Swann’s “Captain from Tortuga” seen in a faux clip.
Brooks, who wrote for “Your Show of Shows” alongside another future giant of stage and screen, Neil Simon, said in his 2021 memoir “All About Me!” that the movie represented “my love letter to Sid Caesar and the early days of television, and it was also a damn good story.”
“It’s one of the three best productions about live TV that I’ve ever seen,” said David Bianculli, a TV critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and author of “Dictionary of Teleliteracy.” His other top picks: “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and Simon’s play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”
“My Favorite Year,” which is available on streaming services, had a respectable box office opening in October 1982, coming in third behind “An Officer and a Gentlemen” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”
Shelly constructs an experiment using a sensory deprivation tank and virtual reality, allowing the darkest part of ourselves, the id, to run free. Unencumbered by morality or remorse, Shelly finds the perfect subject in Adam. A borderline psychotic born into a world of neglect and crime. Delving into the deepest pits of his subconscious, Shelly surfaces with far more than she bargained for.
Detective Hopper, responsible for Adam’s capture, remains a broken man. After suffering a breakdown due to the escalation of his own violent behavior, he is placed under the care of Dr Shelly. Encouraging him to go looking for his own redemption, Hopper becomes a pawn in her web of deception until the lines of reality are redrawn as Hopper and Adam come full circle to an explosive end.
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Fossil River by Jock Miller
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11 Things I Can Tell You Are Wrong About Your Manuscript Without Reading It (Title Shamelessly Borrowed From Sue Grafton at Crimebake)
How do you know he is a killer?
He is the one sitting beside me. The only person in the courtroom who is being accused of murder, who says I did it, the killings.
I first met Dennis in West Valley Detention Center, Rancho Cucamonga, California.
Would you come into the jail with me?
The setting is surrounded by thick concrete from the moment you enter the institution. The smell is like no other. Thirty-five hundred men and nine hundred women, their bodily excretions, their inability to engage in routine hygiene—clothing exchange is once a week, and showering perhaps twice—inadequate ventilation, even their breath from the low-grade, poor-quality food adds to the stink that is so oppressive that first time visitors are shocked by the impact of it upon their senses. I am reminded of it at once, and I unconsciously adapt, forgetting it for the moment.
The lobby is large: two sets of glass doors, two restrooms, and a multi-windowed counter, with “Official Visiting” over one window. I have called in advance and I check in at the counter, showing my driver’s license and bar card. From behind two-inch-thick glass, the Custody Assistant accepts my cards and pushes a yellow form under the metal plated drawer under the window, which I fill out and return to her. She calls the unit where I will visit, advising: “One official on the way.” Then she slides a small yellow pass along with my ID and bar card under the window to me.
I take the pass and cards and I thank her. I walk to a steel door with thick glass and waive my yellow paper pass at the deputy sitting in a room to the left of a metal detector. There is a visitors’ window to the left of the door where civilian visitors check in, give their ID and wait for the deputies to run them before they are allowed to enter. It is not uncommon for someone to be cuffed and arrested before their visit, upon a deputy discovering they have an outstanding warrant.
The deputy pushes a switch to the right, and I hear a hissing, then the door opens into the wall, slamming in place. I walk in and pass through a metal detector. I always beep. Most deputies who know me don’t bother with a wand scan of my body. The uniformed deputy is no-nonsense, but over time and routine contact with him he has become civil. He takes my visiting slip, my ID and bar card and begins writing information on his daily log—who I am, my client and his booking number and then hands me a key on a long dirty lanyard with an oxidized brass circle-shaped piece with a hole through it, all held in place on a soldered-closed two inch ring, kept in an old hotel-type squared key box, where he puts my ID and Bar Card.
I thank him and walk out of his office into the room with the metal detector. I stand in front of another steel door, waiting for the vacuum release to engage the hydraulics so it pulls itself into the wall with another loud banging. I step into the hallway. When the door closes behind me it slams and clangs and echoes down the walls and reminds me that I am now locked inside the jail.
I pivot left, and walk down a long polished concrete hallway. The walls are drab yellow, a low energy color. The lighting is bright fluorescent. There is a blue line with arrows pointing toward me every twenty feet directing people coming out of the institution back to another locked exit fifteen feet from the room I just left.
Arrows on the walls with large black letters point ahead, listing units 1-15, one on top of the other. When I reach a doorway, I make my way to the right around a bubble, named by inmates, which is a room with limousine black tinted glass shaped in a semi-circle. I’ve never known what goes on in there. To my right are hallways to units 11 and 12, then a bit further to units 13-15. They are long hallways, painted drab yellow with polished concrete floors.
I continue around the bubble to the left until another hallway comes into view into which I turn right. On the wall in thick black paint are arrows pointing the way to UNITS 1-10. I continue walking until I reach another doorway with another bubble. The arrows point me around the bubble to the right and the first hallway has the bold lettering: UNITS 9-10, the second hallway hold units 7 & 8. I turn down that hallway and walk 200 steps, finally reaching unit 7 on the right, unit 8 on the left. By now, I have forgotten the stench of the place.
I enter a visiting area with one wall full of glass windows and steel circular seats welded to a metal post coming out of the wall in front of each window, and telephones beside each seat with cords six inches too short so visitors have to lean down to their left to speak while visiting. The visitor must sit in the seat and wait for their friend or loved one to make it up the stairs from the room below.
The room is empty today. I can see the bubble behind the doorway into the room with the stairs. I see a man wearing orange standing outside a door the top half of which is probably unbreakable plexiglass, waiting for the door to buzz so he can open it and make his way to the stairs and up to the visiting area. To my immediate left is a wall speaker with a button. I press the button, and moments later a male voice is heard: “Yes.”
“Good morning, Official Visit for Dennis _________.”
“He’s on his way.”
“Thank you, sir.”
On the left there is a locked door. It is a steel door with a see-through window that is very thick. I insert the key and pull open the door, which is very heavy. I step in and there are two doors of the same kind on my right, behind which are visiting rooms for lawyers and other professionals.
The door I have just entered slams, the noise deafening. It is shocking to the senses each time, but I’ve become familiar with it. I enter the second room after inserting the same key, turning the lock the opposite direction of the other door. That one slams shut also as I step into the room.
The horrible stench of the unit hits me. It is much more powerful than in the lobby. It is an overpowering stench. This day it is so strong I am repulsed, wanting to walk out and away.
This room is painted a drab yellow, with unpolished concrete flooring, a pile of trash in one corner of the floor including Kleenex, visiting slips, wadded paper, even gum wrappers. There is a black mesh screen dividing my side from the inmate side. There is a concrete counter that runs under the mesh to the other side so that we can lay our documents, and elbows on it.
Through the window on the door on the inmate side, I watch Dennis climb the stairs slowly. It is obvious he is in pain as he chugs his way up. When he finally reaches the door, he waits for a deputy to press a button buzzing him into the room. He looks at me and smiles. He has a nice face. His hair is sandy brown and shaggy.
The door buzzes and he pulls it open, holding it so it doesn’t slam behind him. When he steps in, I am still standing. I tell him my name and offer my knuckles on the grating that divides us. We bump knuckles. We both sit. Trying to see his eyes I move and adjust my vision through the half inch diamond shaped openings in the mesh. We work together to get a clear view of one another.
I can smell him—his breath, his days-old perspiration clinging to his clothing that is wrinkled and frayed with the letters 3X on the thigh and front of the short-sleeved top. I silently process this sensory information.
He is weary, his eyes with deep crow’s feet, somewhat red, seemingly blurry as he arranges his body on the steel plate upon which he must sit. I know how uncomfortable it is, as I am on the same type seat. I also know that he has had spinal fusion. He is overweight by at least thirty pounds, looking bloated.
I know about the food in WVDC from personal experiences. The menu hasn’t changed in years: Frozen waffles for breakfast, frozen mystery meat sandwiches for lunch, which has an orange dye in in the meat that stains your fingers if you are able to get to the hot water dispenser to try to thaw it; and dinner might be any combination of stuff presented as food, including shriveled corn, some kind of material passed off as meat, and perhaps on a good day a squashed slice of bread.
Supplements of starch and sugar are available through commissary, including Top Ramen, ten cents in the store, a dollar twenty in jail. Milky Way bars are a dollar fifty, and coffee prices change weekly.
There are no hygiene products given, so you are either required to buy your own, or if on welfare, i.e. no money on your books, others in your car—your race—will help you out. Everyone has to shower when allowed lest they begin to stink. A resounding beating is in order for the intentionally unhygienic.
Dennis asks me if I knew Joe, an old friend, one of the Berdoo Hells Angels. I told him I did, and tears poured from him. He said he had been praying I would somehow find my way to him. Joe had spoken of me with praise. Dennis had lived next door to him during his teen years, Joe teaching him how to use a wrench. They had remained friends, but Joe had died, and Dennis did not know who to call to get my name.
I cried with him, already believing we were meant to be together in this thing, the multiple homicide case. He heart-shot three people in his driveway in the desert in the nighttime in the middle of nowhere. He had been sitting in jail for fourteen months, his prior counsel leaving him to wait after only one visit, suggesting he could get him life, plus fifty, instead of 3 lives, plus one hundred fifty, or maybe death.
He had no hope. I felt that, too. He had been alone, unable to mourn, now crazy. Each day spent in conflict with his belief that what he had done was right, but nonetheless being caged and put on show, the accused.
He told me what happened that night, and I knew it was true. I saw it with him as he experienced it, once again, slowly padding his way across the 8 x 10 visiting cell behind the mesh that separated us.
I could go with him because I have been taught to develop my ability to feel with others—to mirror their feelings, to change seats with them and become them, to stand behind them and express what I feel, hoping they repeat my words, confirming that I heard them. I have listened and I have felt, and often their pain is so intense I never leave them, they never leave me.
We would re-visit that night many times before trial.
I believe TLC training has opened psychic abilities to see and understand those with whom I engage, even more so when we are put together on a journey toward trial. Listening, hearing and intuition are all central to TLC training, and I use it constantly.
There are limitations on how we can work in the jail. Dennis could not leave; he could not afford to post the three and one half million dollars bail. I could not stand behind him, but I could mirror what he said, using his gestures, asking him how he was feeling, trying to express what I believe he was feeling, waiting for his confirmation.
It was much more difficult when our close-up vision was blurred by the mesh. It required greater focus, something I have developed over my many years of jail visits. I have been in our various custodial institutions literally thousands of times over the past forty-one years.
Some of what I have learned through Trial Lawyers College must be modified to fit the circumstances, and the person with whom I am working. Dennis was suffering from deep depression and sorrow. For him, life was over. I had to find my way into his world and develop trust so I might be able to explain my idea of how we will present our defense—that he killed those three people in self-defense. Part of the way in is to be able to love my clients. With Dennis, that was not difficult.
Dennis and I shared who we were for seven months while our experts did their work. I grew to love him more each visit. Every week we met and discussed how he felt. Often, he was depressed, and we spent the first hour chatting about things bothering him, working our way into his private hell.
He spoke of the ghosts that visited each night, still tormenting him. How he wished he had died that night so he would never have to think about it again. Recalling his dreams in which I would magically appear and save him. A color emerging in those dreams finally becoming a blue shirt he wore as we walked out of the courtroom together to his freedom beyond the door.
While he spoke, I listened, often mirroring his body language, when appropriate, repeating what he expressed with my body and words. In time, he began to believe that I saw him, felt him, understood him, and would not abandon him.
Before me, he had told his parents to let him go, it was over, because the first lawyer assured him he could get him that deal: fifty to life instead of three life sentences plus one hundred fifty year, maybe death.
Most frequently, we went through that night of the killings, step by step, remembering how he had felt while it was happening.
It was slow motion, a sensation I had experienced a couple of times before—once when a friend was killed as we raced down the street, him on his motorcycle, me in my Trans Am, and a car turned in front of his motorcycle. The other time I was thrown off my dirt bike.
When he spoke of the attack, I asked him to move through it slowly. I did the same, mirroring his motions on my side of the mesh. He heard the dogs barking and went out to see if it might be a coyote. I heard them also.
He walked to the corner of the driveway where the chain link fence ended before it turned the corner. I stood there with him. I saw the horror on his face when the giant with a clown mask came out of the dark and grabbed him by the shoulder.
My face filled with that fear, I felt it, the terror, the adrenaline rush as we blocked the arm and began stumbling backward across the driveway, drawing from our front left pocket our snub nose .357 five shot Smith & Wesson handgun we had been carrying day and night for the past eighteen months.
We drew the gun slowly with our left hand and were grabbed by the hair on the back of our heads. We felt the pull toward the ground and brought our gun across our chest and aimed at the body beside us and fired. The explosion deafened us, and the flash of light blinded us.
The hand let go of our hair and we watched a shadow shuffle off with a strange movement of short steps, into the darkness. We turned and two more shadows were charging us. We fired and their eyes lit up like demons. We fired again, both times the gun recoiling, the flash again blinding us, the sound more a thudding. We watched both shadows turn and shuffle off, that same strange way of moving with measured steps, into the black of the night. We saw them no more.
We stayed still, waiting, wondering whether that really happened, and if so, where had they gone? We heard our hearts beating, but no other sounds.
I asked Dennis to tell me where he was, what he was feeling. He froze in place. I froze with him and waited. Several minutes passed before he tried to leave the cell. When he tried to pull it open, I knew he was going into his house to call 911. I asked again. “Dennis, where are you?” He slowly turned and looked at me.
He said: “I’m here now.”
“I went there with you,” I told him.
We knew we were ready for trial when we had been through it all several times.
We worked on the terror he felt as each day began. They were asleep, finally, having thrown trash into his yard the night before. They stayed up into the wee hours, talking loudly, several of them, leaning on the fence each night, calling his name, waking him. So, he built the wall.
It took months of digging holes large enough to put railroad ties in, tamping the sand to keep them in place. Each day ended in physical agony. He showed me how hard he worked, digging, bending, lifting, shoveling, and tamping. Finishing by mid-morning before the creatures came out and started with their threats.
The first threat came before the wall. Adam walked to the fence while Dennis worked on the ground beneath it. He leaned on the fence, Dennis’ fence, his huge arms bulging, and said: “I’m here to evict some people.”
Dennis tensed. He had seen Adam. He was an unusually large man, and now Dennis knew he was mean and had ill will toward him.
“How did you feel?”
“Scared. I asked him ‘oh really, who?’ and he said I’d find out. I told him I was a Boy Scout.”
“What did you mean?”
“I’d be ready.”
Several months passed before Dennis made it out of the desolation of despair and was ready to communicate, to share, to be challenged in front of a jury.
* * * * *
We set the case for trial.
I have spent a good deal of time training in voir dire. Selecting a jury to hear a triple homicide case was exciting.
I begin with the presumption of innocence. I share that most people, myself included, don’t really presume people innocent, that we always think the worst, that when I see a person sitting where the defendant sits and I wonder what they did. “Who else feels that way?”
It always gets a good conversation going, and that is what I want, a conversation. Just a bunch of good folks having a talk about the law, and the idea of killing and how they felt about those things, I show them mine, they show me theirs. It works.
Few of us admit to a willingness to let others take our lives. I’ve spoken with a couple of people who said they would never kill, not even for loved ones. I thanked them for their honesty. It takes days to pick a jury in a murder trial, and judges usually don’t rush the process.
We have to be comfortable in our own skin to stand and engage people about their beliefs, embracing each word they offer, thanking them as we go, speaking directly to them as though there were no one else in the room.
Cross-examination is probably my favorite activity in life. The state of ecstasy lasts longer than any other—it goes on and on. The lead detective, a Sergeant by the time of trial, wrote a report that was vague, but between the lines I knew he was trying to tell the truth. When he entered the courtroom that first day after Opening Statements, in uniform, ready to testify, I approached him.
“Sergeant, I’m Gary Smith. I represent Dennis. I’ve spoken with a lot of people about you.”
“You investigated me?”
“Yes, and they all said the same thing. Do you want to know what they said?”
“I don’t know.”
“They all said you are an honest man, and I’m counting on it.”
Most cops are good witnesses. They show up in uniform. When called they stroll to the stand, smiling at the jury. They are sworn, sit and face the jury, some offer a greeting.
Our Sergeant was subdued. He did not look at the jury during direct. On cross, he engaged me, and I took him back to that night, what he saw when he arrived. The jury could see and feel there was something between us.
The Sergeant answered all my questions truthfully, which did not help the prosecution, including that it was obvious the shootings took place on Dennis’ driveway.
The allegation was that Dennis had laid in wait—ambushing the three deceased, them dropping to the ground where they were shot, in the dirt road in front of his house—was slowly dispelled by the prosecution witness, the case agent.
I knew a lot about the only eyewitness. Part of my belief system is that I should always know more than the opposition. Some of that comes from knowing my clients. I had a good investigator, too.
Everyone lies at some point in their lives, and in criminal cases witnesses on both sides lie. Some lie because of their fears of being part of the accused. Some lie because they want the accused to be convicted, others are protecting the accused.
I knew that the eyewitness, Whitney, was a speed user. I know a lot about that drug and what it does to people. I heard it in her voice when she was being interviewed that night by one of the detectives.
I instructed my investigator how to proceed with her: bring her in, encourage her to be open, assure her you want to hear her story, thank her when she shares.
I knew she wanted to talk, and that she would be under the influence when interviewed. Speed users are not occasional users.
I knew that once she started telling, she would not be able to stop. She came back for a second video interview. Rick, my investigator, knew where to take her and she told it all.
The physical and forensic evidence confirmed Dennis’ story in every detail. I needed Whitney to give it up, confirm what I knew. At first, she was combative. A witness can only remain that way if you join them.
When I took Whitney on a journey, I did my best to show the world from her eyes, and help the jury see it, to know how she felt, to understand why she lied, engaging her with a discussion about the events of that night.
I took her to her lies. She had forgotten that my investigator had her on video, admitting her lies, telling the truth.
I understood why she lied, and so did the jury. She went with the deceased to “fuck him up,” to “kick his ass.” They were all wigged on speed, or alcohol, Fentanyl and some pot. They were two huge men and a large woman, and Whitney was with them.
She was in the midst of the killings, and she wanted out. She knew she might be criminally liable—we all did.
She set herself anywhere from eighteen to thirty-five feet from the shootings, yet she saw it all.
It took repetitive cross to end the days of her testimony with the same story: they went there to get Dennis and he got them.
The prosecutor repeatedly took her back on re-direct to her lies, only emphasizing the magnitude of them, and I walked her through the truth, again and again.
It was somewhat cathartic for her, although her addiction did not allow much room for introspection.
I showed my empathy by repeating her words with enthusiasm. I did not mock her but pushed her to embrace the truth each time.
The prosecutor lost all respect from the jury by getting her to repeat her lies, only to be reminded of the truth.
Dennis and I never broke faith with the jury.
The trial ran Monday through Thursday for three weeks. I presented Dennis as a witness on the final day.
It was late evening at the jail, and the place was noisy, even upstairs in our visiting room. Men drank coffee and ate candy and other supplements purchased through commissary each week. They were jacked up and restless with nowhere to go. I could feel the tension, the edge of violence ever-present in custodial settings.
Dennis was scared about testifying. I could smell his fear, taste it. He hadn’t been allowed to shower all week because he had been transported from West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga to Victorville each morning, eating only cold cereal, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch—squashed flat and mushy, returning late at night, fed a sandwich of ice-cold mystery meat, then left to his own devices.
The smell is unique to him, but I know the sensation it invokes in me. I know the smell of fear and it is a reminder to be direct about what I am seeing, what I feel, how I know it.
We are intimate, and our relationship is based upon trust at the very core of our beings. If I were less than fully engaged, it would be a breach of trust. I was tired, but so was Dennis. His days were so much longer than mine.
We discussed his fear and went deeper to the source. We walked through that night again. I felt the terror they had instilled in him over those many months before he killed them.
I felt the agony, the depression, the relentless anxiety, the remorse, the betrayal of the government, but there was light in the hope and trust he placed in me.
Again, we practiced his time on the stand telling the story, the truth that would set him free. Moving my arm toward the jury box we have created in his cell, I asked him: “Please tell the jury, did you shoot those people?”
We had a reminder, me using my arm to direct his attention to the jury should he begin to look at me. The number one rule: the jurors are the most important people in his life.
That night, Dennis was also tired and on edge. He was angry about what the deceased made him do. He was angry that he was being prosecuted, and that people had lied about him. He resented the prosecutor promoting Whitney’s lies over and over. I let him vent.
While he did, I mirrored his body language. He knew what I was doing.
Finally, he agreed that if he showed his anger, the jury would not understand. If he showed his feelings beneath the anger—the pain he felt, they would love him. That had been our mantra throughout our work. If you bond with the jury by opening yourself to them, letting them see you in your pain, they will not hurt you.
When Dennis turned to the jury and, with each question I posed, told them what he did, he was talking to old friends, just like we had spoken together, telling the story of the case. When I asked him if he shot Adam, Angela and Robert, he said he had, and he told them why. He spoke of the endless days of threats and torment, sleeping with the gun, keeping it in his pocket, the dreams of them killing him. The attack in the dark with high winds screaming, as though the devil himself was director of the scene unfolding. He told them it was his worst nightmare. He wept, and they did too.
When I closed, we all wanted to be able to defend our lives like Dennis did, and still have a life in the world. Dennis spoke for all of us. We all wanted to free him of his burden. We felt his pain. He was a killer, but it was necessary.
* * * * *
They sent us out that courtroom door, Dennis in his blue shirt.
The jury loved Dennis, and they knew I loved him.
It all comes from this emotion.
1. Ken, are you working with authors today?
I certainly am, more than ever, now that I’ve found a better way to do it. Through my webinars and storymerchant.com services we can help with nearly every writer’s needs.
2. What are some of the biggest properties that you’ve handled?
By far the biggest to date is THE MEG, which has passed half a billion dollars at the box office! Meg 2: The Trench release date is August 4, 2023!
3. What do you enjoy about working with creative talent?
I enjoy almost every aspect of it, except for the bad craziness part. I love discovery, development, perfecting the story, publishing the story, and producing the story.
4. As an author yourself, what advice do you have for other struggling writers?
Never stop learning your craft, never stop being grateful that you’re a writer, and never stop writing.
5. What trends do you see in entertainment and book publishing?
The trend is toward an insatiable demand for better and better stories. It’s the greatest time for storytellers since the world began talking.
6. You used to be a frequent columnist for The Los Angeles Times Book Review.How have the changes in the news media impacted the book world?
Changes have made it even more difficult for books to become visible, though the internet offers countless ways to achieve visibility.
7. What’s a boy from Louisiana doing in LA and NYC?
Just back from a trip to Louisiana, I ask myself that every day. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have spent a lifetime in the story marketplace directing the power of stories.
8. Which genres excite you the most? Why?
Action and thrillers are my favorites, as well as Christmas stories, and powerful dramas; all of them have a huge attraction to the marketplace.
For more information, please consult: www.storymerchant.com
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Authority Magazine Talks with Ken Atchity: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker
"Do something while you’re waiting. There’s so much waiting in the business that you can’t afford to waste ANY of it on actually waiting. It took 22 years for The Meg to reach the screen from the time we first sold it to Doubleday-Bantam. During that time, I produced over 25 others films. Thank GOD, I didn’t just wait around."
Asa part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ken Atchity.
Ken Atchity has produced more than 30 films, including: The Meg (Jason Statham, Warner Bros — over $500 million worldwide!), Angels in the Snow (Kristy Swanson, UP! Channel), Erased (Aaron Eckhart; Informant), Hysteria (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy; Informant), The Lost Valentine (Betty White, Hallmark Hall of Fame), the Emmy-nominated The Kennedy Detail documentary (Discovery),Gospel Hill (Danny Glover; Fox), The Madam’s Family (Ellen Burstyn, CBS), Joe Somebody (Tim Allen; Fox), Life or Something Like It (Angelina Jolie: Fox), Shadow of Obsession (Veronica Hammel, NBC), The Amityville Horror (NBC), and the Shades of Love movies for Cinemax-Warner Brothers International. Atchity received his B.A. from Georgetown University and Ph.D. from Yale. Dr. Atchity was chairman of comparative literature at Occidental College, Fulbright Professor of American Literature to the University of Bologna, and Distinguished Instructor in Fiction, Non-Fiction and Screenwriting at UCLA Writer’s Program.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I was born in Cajun Louisiana and raised with my father’s Lebanese family in Kansas City Missouri. I went to Jesuit high school and college (Georgetown). I’ve always been split between north and south, east and west, intellectual pursuits (“Narrative Strategies in the Quixote”) and backwoods humor (Cajun Household Wisdom). I love equally Los Angeles, New York, and Rome; and married a “sophisticated lady” from Tokyo.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been eclectic in my interests. One day, when I was professor at Occidental College, I was teaching a course on courtly love during the same term I was teaching another one on “Publishing Practices & Techniques.” During a meeting of the publishing course, I was listening to my guest speaker Patrick O’Conner at Pinnacle Books telling my class what goes into a good cover for a romance novel. Romance novels comprised, back then, roughly more than fifty percent of all books sold throughout the world — some readers buying as many as 12 a month! It dawned on me, as he listed the ingredients, that they closely resembled Andreas Capellanus’ (the chaplain of Marie de France, one of the icons of courtly love) RULES OF COURTLY LOVE. This moment evolved into my first venture into film, the Shades of Love series of romance movies that I ended up producing for a division of Warner Bros and that played throughout the world for years and led me to resign my tenured professorship and embrace entertainment full-time.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
During the filming of JOE SOMEBODY (Tim Allen, Julie Bowen) in Minneapolis’ Target Center, my client Governor Jesse Ventura (whose I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed, that we developed and sold, became a NYT Bestseller) asked me if I could introduce him to Tim Allen. Jesse asked if he could spend a few minutes with our makeup person and I asked why. He told me he just wanted to look his best for a photo with Tim! Hilarious! I played Jesse’s bodyguard in the movie, fyi — also hilarious since I’m 5’6”!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Angelina Jolie — on the set of Life or Something Like It — so nervous between shots, I asked her what was wrong. She said she had to pee but didn’t want to interrupt the flow. I grabbed an AD and told him, and escorted her to the bathroom!
Meeting Betty White on the set of The Lost Valentine, and telling her how my mother caused this film to get made! She laughed and said she wished she’d met her — they looked very much alike!
Chatting with Maggie Gyllenhaal on the set of Hysteria in London. She was wearing a hoop skirt. I realized a few minutes later that her daughter was hiding under the skirt!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Norman Cousins, world-famous editor of Saturday Review, told me I should leave academia and go into entertainment. When I told him “I know nothing” about entertainment, he took his copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade off the shelf, opened it, and pointed to the line: “The important thing to remember about Hollywood is, “Nobody knows anything.” I was sold! It was a level playing field!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Hollywood, on a daily basis, is pretty danged brutal. Constant setbacks, constant discouragement, few moments of clearcut joy! But someone quoted agent Larry Thompson’s comment, “You can’t get struck by lightning if you’re not playing in the rain,” and every time I think of retreating to a safe place, I remind myself that I LOVE the rain!
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
America’s greatness is its diversity, whether it’s in the food we eat or the politics we practice. The entertainment world is a mirror of the contemporary world and can’t do its job unless it expresses that diversity.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just finished the script for a Gospel Rock Musical called, STARMAN, based on the music by Thomas Hogge. Finishing up the financing for a horror film for which I wrote the script, and co-managing a $300-million film fund. Also excited to start my next novel!
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
I started into my second career, entertainment, in 1987–37 years ago now. What I’m proudest of is surviving this long and getting to work in the most exciting, most challenging, most volatile industry in the world where the challenges are infinite, mostly unexpected, and you earn the greatest respect not by succeeding but simply by lasting!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Don’t analyze rejections. Just go back out there and pitch. You only need one buyer!
Don’t waste time licking your wounds. As Barry Diller said to his crestfallen execs after losing a major auction: “They won! We lost! Next!!!”
Wait for the tide to change. Any story you think is a GOOD commercial story will sell, just maybe not right now. Hold it till its time comes.
To quote Churchill: “Never give up, never give up, never give up,” though he didn’t exactly say it that way.
Do something while you’re waiting. There’s so much waiting in the business that you can’t afford to waste ANY of it on actually waiting. It took 22 years for The Meg to reach the screen from the time we first sold it to Doubleday-Bantam. During that time, I produced over 25 others films. Thank GOD, I didn’t just wait around.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
I try to make every decision based on ‘what is the most dramatic thing’ that we could do here. For example, when Norman Stephens and I were casting Angels in the Snow, we decided to cast the ‘lost family in the blizzard’ as BLACK, which was not in our plans. The result was a much more dramatic and moving film.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would make a film that would EDUCATE Americans on the massively conflicted history of this great country. Their widespread ignorance of history is a huge part of our civil discord and divisiveness. We MUST learn how to control our disagreements and reunite as a nation.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would choose President Biden, so I could urge him to start an ongoing series of “fireside chats” during prime time to keep the American people abreast of his daily struggle to do the right thing to keep democracy alive in this country.
How can our readers further follow you online?
My main website is www.storymerchant.com. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group
The Meg - Awards
New Zealand Cinematographers Society
Won, Gold Award
Golden Trailer Awards
Nominated, Golden Trailer
Best Home Ent Horror/Thriller
Warner Bros. Pictures, Trailer Park
Nominated, Golden Trailer
Young Artist Awards
Nominated, Young Artist Award
Best Performance in a Feature Film: Supporting Young Actress
Shuya Sophia Cai
Chinese American Film Festival (C.A.F.F.)
Won, Golden Angel Award
Won, Golden Angel Award
Best US-China Co-Production Film
Golden Trailer Awards
Won, Golden Trailer
Warner Bros. Pictures, Trailer Park
IGN Summer Movie Awards
Nominated, IGN Award
Best Action Movie
New Zealand Cinematographers Society
Won, Gold Award
Kennedy Detail - Awards
News & Documentary Emmy Awards
Outstanding Historical Programming - Long Form
Lisa McCubbin (producer), Kenneth Atchity (executive producer), Gerald S. Blaine (producer), Brooke Runnette (executive producer), Chi-Li Wong (executive producer), Grant Axton (producer), David Garfinkle (executive producer), Jay Renfroe (executive producer), Vince DiPersio (co-executive producer), Liza Maddrey (producer) Discovery Channel
Erased - Awards
Won, SOCAN Award
Domestic Feature Film Award
Best Make-Up (Meilleur Maquillage)
Best Editing (Meilleur Montage Image)
Hysteria – Awards
Casting Society of America, USA
Nominated, Artios Award
Outstanding Achievement in Casting - Feature - Studio or Independent Comedy
Gaby Kester (casting director)
Rome Film Fest
Nominated, Golden Marc'Aurelio Award
Gosepl Hill – Awards
Nashville Film Festival
Won, Rosetta Miller Perry Award
Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival
Won, Jury Award
Seashell Best of Fest
Adam Resurrected - Awards
1 win & 1 nomination
Valladolid International Film Festival
Nominated, Golden Spike
Joe Somebody - Awards
Young Artist Awards
Nominated, Young Artist Award
Best Performance in a Feature Film - Leading Young Actress
Falling Over Backwards - Awards
Best Achievement in Sound
Abbey Neidik National Film Board of Canada (NFB)
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Sound Editing
Diane Le Floc'h, Gudrun Christian, Abbey Neidik, Andy Malcolm, Michele Cook
Valladolid International Film Festival
Nominated, Golden Spike
Angels in the Snow - Awards
Young Artist Awards
Nominated, Young Artist Award
Best Performance in a TV Movie, Miniseries, Special or Pilot - Young Actor
The Lost Valentine - Awards
1 win & 6 nominations
Movie Guide Awards
Most Inspirational Television Acting
Most Inspiring TV Program
Most Inspirational Television Acting
Most Inspirational Television Acting
Screen Actors Guild Awards
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries
Gold Derby Awards
Nominated, Gold Derby TV Award
TV Movie/Mini Supporting Actress
Story Merchant has experience in all realms of entertainment placement, from television series, specials, and movies, to studio, mini-major, and independent feature films.