Close encounters: David Schwimmer, Ronald Reagan and Others

And some ideas about what it takes to make it in Hollywood

DAVID SCHWIMMER

During my second year of study at the University of Southern California, I took a beginner’s screenwriting course.  The class was a group of about fifteen students, mostly in their early twenties, who were taking a Masters in Film Production, together with a few who were taking the Masters in Animation. 

To help with the development of our scripts, we were put in pairs, to give each other feedback and exchanged phone numbers.  My friend John, a rare native Los Angelino, who was studying animation, had to phone a guy called Edoardo Ponti – none of us registered his last name, and perhaps we took him for just another international student.  John realised that the area code he’d been given was way outside of the city, and was told that Edoardo was staying out at his mother’s ranch. When John phoned the house at the weekend, to track down Edoardo to discuss their short scripts, John got through to a lovely sounding woman, with a foreign accent, who grilled him about his own writing and goals.  After he hung up, he realised that he had been chatting with Sophia Loren.

We hadn’t realised that Edoardo had such connections, because he was just another pleasant, charming, friendly student to us.  I remember Edoardo’s final script was dark and disturbing, involving (I think) very corrupted nuns who were eating human flesh.  I don’t remember that Edoardo’s writing shone out as extremely brilliant, although it was, of course, early days.   

Edoardo Ponti with his Mum

Edoardo’s first short film, ‘Liv’, was produced by Robert Altman and Michelangelo Antonioni, and premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. His first feature film,  ‘Between Strangers’, starred his mother, Mira Sorovino, Gerald Depardieu and Peter Postlethwaite, amongst others.  He has now directed over ten features.

In the screenwriting class, we worked our way through a series of fundamental exercises, and then finally we had to produce a ten minute script, with dialogue.  The tutor suggested that we ask around any actors we might know, who we thought could be willing to attend our final class, and help out with some staged readings of a selection of the scripts.

My classmate John, said “I am friends with a guy from High School, called David.  You might have seen him, he’s just been cast in a pilot that was picked up and is running on TV.  Anyone heard of ‘Friends’?”  None of the students had seen the show.

David Schwimmer

Two weeks later, David Schwimmer was amongst a group of actors joined our last class.  The fact they were willing to show up on a dull December week-day, to read the first short scripts of a beginner’s writing class, reveals a quality common to the actors who make it.  Even though David was already working on ‘Friends’, he was happy to help out his old high school friend, and was possibly aware that even though ‘Friends’ was attracting good ratings, the first season might not get picked up for renewal, and that showing up and helping out with students’ early work, might reap dividends later on. 

My script, which following the dating exploits of a ferret-keeping Yorkshireman, was one of those selected for the actors.  Only five minutes after picking up my script, David did a brilliant reading, which included a perfect Yorkshire accent – and this again I think hints at what contributes to success – having the talent to pick up a script and within minutes, do a wonderful job with something that was totally unfamiliar, for no immediate return.

Years later I was invited to a launch and noticed David wandering around the crowd.  For a moment he caught my glance and held my eye – I thought he looked as if he vaguely recognised me, but could not remember where he had seen me before.  I was about to cross the room, to thank him for his excellent work on my script, but someone closed in to chat with him, and the moment was lost.  That incident also speaks to another quality of good actors: an ability to remember faces.

The puzzle for students at USC’s film school, was this: what magical factor differentiated the super- successful guests who visited to share their wisdom, from themselves. 

The statistics give a clue. The film school graduated about 1000 students each year.  It boasts in PR that there has never been a year in which a graduate of the film school has not been nominated for an Academy Award.  But the odds are still tough: out of the 1000 who graduate, it would only take one or two from each cohort to carve out careers, to keep up the film school’s success rate.

Over the six years that I worked there, I realised that many graduates secured entry level jobs as assistants, and a fair proportion of these remained stuck in these jobs.  These kind of jobs were satirised in the 1994 satirical feature film, ‘Swimming with Sharks’, in which a recent film school graduate is treated a like a slave by a tyrannical movie mogul, constantly humiliating the graduate, and subjecting him to verbal and physical abuse.  Sadly, some of the students I knew, reported experiences not dissimilar to those pilloried in this film.  Many drifted into other careers: teaching, web design, PR, and law.    

At the end of my first year in Los Angeles, I was surprised to meet woman who had worked in the film industry since her early twenties, and was giving up to train as a lawyer.  She explained that the reason she was leaving, was because she believed there were only ‘three good jobs’ on a film – that of the director, the producer and maybe the actors.  Everyone else was dreaming of progressing to those jobs, and willing to put up with long, long years, of low-paid work and sometimes terrible treatment to get there.  And she had decided that she was not willing to sit it out, any longer. 

RONALD REAGAN & I SHARE A MOMENT

In my second year of study, I won a paid internship with a production company that had been heavily involved with the development of a film set in New Orleans, starring Alec Baldwin, (‘Heaven’s Prisoners’, 1996).   

The internship involved meeting an assistant, who gave me the job of writing script coverage.  Each week I drove up to the company’s offices, which were in the mid-Wilshire area of the city, to collect a stack of scripts that had been sent by agents in the hope that they might get picked up by the company.  Coverage is written to a set template and involves producing a plot summary and an evaluation of whether or not the script should be considered for review by someone more senior.  During the six months of my internship, I probably read about five scripts a week, and recommended less than a handful to the assistant.  Mostly they were absolutely dreadful, which was encouraging. 

I remember one awful script called ‘Freelee’, about an alien that appeared as a kind of large bouncing ball (possibly inspired by episodes of the cult ‘60’s TV Show, ‘The Prisoner’).  The script might have been intended to be funny but was painfully bad.  Another, whose plot involved animals, was called ‘Fast Jungle’.  I remember this one, even though I cannot remember what it was about, because I was holding it when I met Ronald Reagan.

Staff at the production company had warned me that Ronald Reagan made frequent visits to his physiotherapist, who worked on the same floor as their offices, and that I might bump into the former President one day, in the corridor. 

One spring afternoon, having collected my stack of scripts for the week, I headed down the corridor and hit the button to call the lift.  Whilst waiting for it to arrive, and clutching the script ‘Fast Jungle’ for warmth against the fierce air conditioning, I was abruptly joined by a very tall, very heavily-built, man, wearing a sharp suit and a headset.  He was clearly some kind of private security agent, and was followed by a second similarly built agent, who arrived at the doors to the lift with the former US President, Ronald Reagan. 

All four of us waited in awkward silence – the three men, each of them well over 6 foot, towered over me in both height and bulk.  I had heard that the President had dementia, and was not sure if casual conversation was possible, or appropriate, even if I could have dreamed up some kind of conversational opener.

After what seemed like a long, silent wait, a bell announced the arrival of the lift, and I stood back, gesturing that the President and his party should take the lift, and that I would take another one.  The security guard closest to me, smiling warmly, insisted that I should get in with them. 

The four of us squeezed inside the small elevator, and as the doors slid shut, I let the security guards select the destination.  We were all heading for the underground parking lot.  As the lift began its descent we stood, in awkward silence.  Still clutching the script to my chest as if it could protect me, I was realised that this was the closest I had ever been to live ammunition, and also wondering why the men had allowed me to stand in such close proximity to the President. 

I stood stock still – imagining that if I so much as twitched or sneeze near the President, I could be shot dead.  How would the guards know that I was not some kind of terrorist or assassin in disguise as a British intern?  Glancing nervously over at Ronald, I found that his eyes held mine.  He had shockingly azure blue eyes, the colour of shallow sea on a Greek Island, and had the build of a former American footballer.  In earlier black and white movies, actors with blue eyes dominated, because their eyes reflected the light better, and this legacy had continued into the Hollywood of the forties where Ronald found work, almost to the point that it was a key job requirement. Despite his hair being dyed an odd colour of brown, the former B movie actor was still handsome, and I was surprised to realised that he held my gaze, in an almost flirtatious way.  He was giving me the glad-eye.   

The moment was interrupted by the first security guard, who, perhaps sensing my nervousness, asked me what my script was about.  Glancing down at the title, ‘Fast Jungle’, I remembered somehow that one of the President’s most famous appearances had been in a movie starring a chimpanzee, called ‘Bedtime for Bozo’, and that he had been ridiculed in some sections of the UK media for this appearance, and questions had been asked as to whether a celebrity was fit to be the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.  Little did we know then.

For an awful nanosecond, I composed a reply which went along the lines of “It’s a terrible script about an adventure in the jungle, but it can’t be as bad as ‘Bedtime for Bozo’.” Luckily, the lift pinged, and I just managed to stop myself from speaking. 

We had arrived at the underground parking lot, and the men escorted Ronald off to his armour-plated car.  I hurried over to my $500 semi-wreck of a car, which was quietly leaking oil over the clean concrete floor, and as I emerged into the bright sunshine, saw the Presidents’ auto-cade gliding away into the busy traffic.  

In summary:

The five lessons to be gleaned from this section, concerning how to achieve success in Hollywood are:

1) Grab every opportunity you possibly can to show up, for work that may not be immediately connected to your career.

2) Polish and hone your craft. Research the very best drama or film schools and the scholarships on offer, and do your best to gain entry.

3) Master what you might think of as fringe, random skills: a range of accents, the ability to read and turn around a good performance fast, and above all, the ability to network and instantly connect with people.

4) Remember the faces of people you encounter on your travels

5) If you can, be related or directly connected to someone very very successful. Although this won’t help much without the other 4 qualities.