When I was young, all I could think about was being involved in making movies. All I ever wanted. As a kid I would add a child’s part to every movie I saw in my head, so I could daydream about being in it. Didn’t matter what kind of film. To that end, I started acting as soon as I could. From Elementary to High School, I did every stage show I could from the time I was about 10, moving to professional theater at about 16 until I was 22. Mostly musicals and comedies.
I was in the middle of a long run as El Gallo in the Fantastiks, when I met my wife. You know, in movies, where the guy meets a woman and cartoon hearts float in the air and his eyes roll back in his head because he’s smitten? It really happens. And like that… I was done with the theater (where poverty is the norm) and acting. I was now thinking about marriage, picket fences, and supporting a family.
She’s an amazingly beautiful woman, too. You should all be jealous. Way too sweet and way way too good looking to be with me. (People still see us together, look bewildered, take me aside, and ask, “How?”) Smart, empathetic, very funny, very sexy, a great mom to our kids, and unbelievably supportive. I was a solid businessman making a better than good living in sales and marketing until one day when I went to her and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to try acting again and maybe screen or play writing for a living.” Once I picked her up off the floor, she said, “Ok, you got two years.” That was twenty years ago. Told you she was amazing.
And that’s how I got to go to “The Don Johnson Film School”.
I did have to take a circuitous route to get there.
I got my SAG card right off the bat on the Disney Film, “Angels in the Outfield”, a miraculous occurrence that is a whole blog by itself. I then entered into the wonderful world of film extra work. By the way, while I’m on that topic… EVERY SCREENWRITER NEEDS TO DO THIS A COUPLE OF TIMES just to see what it’s like to be the lowest person on the filmmaking totem pole. You think writers have it bad? Try being a film extra. I once heard a producer refer to extras as “Props that eat.”
Right after Angels, I got a 23 day gig as a “featured extra” (where they cut my moustache off and shaved my head, making me look like a Moon Pie) on the film, “Murder in the First” playing an Alcatraz prison guard. Negligible film time, a ton of fun, I got to hang with Gary Oldman every day, and it made me a zero in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. And, I found out, if you spend 23 days on a big film set and pay attention you can learn a whole lot about how movies are made. It was nothing like I imagined.
Wasn’t kidding about Gary Oldman. On one of our first bumpy ferry boat trips out to Alcatraz, he was looking a little green around the gills and I gave him a Rolaids. From that day on he’d find me, get his Rolaid, and we’d sit and talk and laugh all the way over and back every day. And on the set. One of my prize treasures is the picture he insisted his assistant take of the two of us on set, even though I was still in Moon Pie mode.
The experience with Gary Oldman also played into my getting accepted into the Don Johnson Film School. As an “extra”, you are told… Don’t talk to the stars, don’t make eye contact, don’t don’t don’t. After my Oldman experience, I, like an idiot, thought that those rules didn’t pertain to me.
(Note: Between Murder in the First and Nash Bridges I did a three week stint on the Michael Bay film, The Rock, but that deserves a whole blog someday by itself, too.)
Right after Murder in the First I got booked as an extra on the very first day of shooting on the TV series Nash Bridges, as an SF cop. Only one of two extras that night. So, like an idiot, I sidled up to where Don Johnson was and engaged him in conversation, made him laugh a couple of times, and was never used as an extra that night. Later on the set an AD came up to me and said he saw me with Don. He read me the riot act for talking to him, saying I’d never work on the show again. I felt terrible.
Next thing I know, I get a call from Extras Casting saying that the Nash people asked for me specifically and wanted me back to be in the Nash Bridges police station as a cop extra. I won’t bore you with the details of everything, but I ended up doing 122 episodes of the show as that same character. Even got a name (Carl Hoskins) and a promotion (to Sergeant), in season 1 episode 8. Did a few episodes over those years in that character as a principal, but was mostly a “featured extra”. Meaning, I was just an extra.
Those 6 seasons gave me an opportunity I could never have gotten in any regular film school. About halfway through the first season I went to Don and asked him if, when I was there working, I could have free run of the set to learn about every department, exactly what everyone on the crew did and how and why they did it. I got a big smile and pat on the shoulder and he said, “How do think I learned? You have my blessing.” I did it every season for 6 seasons. Not only has it helped me immensely as a writer and fledgling director, but it led to some meaningful lifelong friendships.
I learned about electric, lighting, the camera department, (even got to put on the steady-cam), props, set dressing, effects, sound (thank you Aggie), stunts, unit production, you name it, I asked them about it and sucked up untold amounts of priceless knowledge. I watched the directors. I saw who was good, who was bad, and learned from it all. I found out where to put cameras, where not to put cameras, what lens to use where and why, about coverage, rules of thirds, lines of sight, you name it… I learned it. And everyone was GREAT about it, too.
And my understanding of what it takes to make a film and what things cost has helped me beyond words, again, as a writer. I can speak with knowledge in production meetings and not illicit rolled eyes. Truthfully, it has been a Godsend in working with directors and producers because I understand what it takes physically to make a film.
Now… a word about the man himself. A lot of things have been written and said about Don Johnson over the years, a lot of it not so complimentary. But to me he was nothing but gracious, kind, and the one of the smartest guys I have ever seen on a set. That man knows. He doesn’t miss a thing. And I owe him a debt. He paid me to go to film school while I was writing my first scripts. I was able to network with the people on that set which led to my first options and boatloads of great contacts I still use today. I wouldn’t have the writing career I do without Don Johnson. THANK YOU, Don.
A couple of months ago, I got to put a lot of what I learned on the Nash set to uber practical use. I directed my first short film, “Ice Block Love”. It’s being edited now and I’m very happy so far. Not your typical short either. In the four day shoot (on a Red Scarlet with Zeiss Primes and a fabulous crew of 18 people), we closed streets in Berkeley and Oakland (had permits), had about 30 extras (who were treated GREAT) on one day and about 25 child extras on another day. We staged car stunts, a runaway shopping cart stunt, a sno-cone truck stunt (with live sno-cones), weaved our star through people like dog poles, invaded a very posh restaurant instigating a cloth napkin fight, there was gratuitous cross dressing on public streets, and we had multiple people riding and crashing large ice blocks down a very steep hill.
I used everything I learned on the Nash set. Everything. Including that you hire good people and let them do their jobs without micro-managing. The crew was beyond great. The actors, wonderful. I think I got wonderful performances out of them. The DP did ask, “You want me to put the camera where?” a couple of times, but saw the method to my madness afterward.
My point? If you ever have the chance, go to film sets. Stay there. Watch everything. Ask questions. Be an extra if you have to. Watch more and learn. It will open your eyes and make you a better film writer.