OMG. Yesterday was the date of my meeting with SAG regarding my nefarious (and unpaid) participation in a mini-DV short film, back in friggin’ 2002 (yes, the 2002 that was seven years ago), a film on which no money was spent nor made. I had expected to walk in and, once they realized that no money was made on this film (“Martine,” directed by Mark Gantt), I’d be dismissed with an apology for having been brought in at all. Wrong.
I sat down in a conference room at the SAG building opposite two lawyers, some SAG executive, some actress I didn’t know, and none other than Elliot Gould and Adam Arkin, the latter with whom I had worked for a day back in 1993 on the pilot of Chicago Hope, and the former who had starred in the film Rules of Marriage back in 1982, directed by Milt0n. Introductions were made, and they hand me a printout of screenshots from IMDB, listing “Martine” and various festivals in which it was entered – seven years ago.
First question from Arkin: How did I get involved in this project? My response: “My friend called me and said he had an idea for a little short film and wanted me to play a part – was I free that weekend? I was. I went. We shot it. He’s among my best friends – he was standing next to me at my wedding. To be honest, if he called me again, I’d go again and do the same thing.” Well! This set Elliott Gould afire. “Great attitude. Just great!” he huffed, folding his arms and looking at me as if I killed babies for a living. “This just pisses me off, you coming in here with this attitude! This is bullshit!” he continued. The SAG exec turned her head to him: “Elliott…..”
“Well I’m sorry, but Jesus!”
Arkin: “If you came in here trying to help yourself out in this situation, you’re not doing a good job of it.”
Me: “I didn’t come here to help myself or not help myself. I assumed we’d be having a respectful chat, but if you want, I can play the part you want, go back out, and come back in and apologize profusely, and be all mea culpa. Is that what you want? It certainly seems to be what you’re expecting.”
And so ensued a 45-minute meeting with these people. Back and forth and round and round we went. Some of the lines were amazing. At one point, Gould lost it and yelled at me: “Your loyalty is to US! Your UNION! Not your friend in the middle of the night, whoever he is! To US! And What we’re FIGHTING FOR!” I made the point that if the Union was in a de facto state of war with its own members, and prevented said members from easily doing what it is they do, which is act and tell stories, and then investigated said members as if they were criminals for not following protocol – well, then the union had lost its focus. I spoke about my life as a pianist, and that I take a good deal of satisfaction from the fact that my music is downloaded all over the planet every day using various digital distribution channels, and that my CDs would never have a shot at being in a CD store, both because how can I compete with box sets of Horowitz, and oh, by the way, there are no more CD stores! I get a whopping $500 a year for these downloads. But on the other hand, I’m having exponentially larger impact and reach with my music. Fair tradeoff to me. Classical piano is not something you chase because you think you’re going to get rich. And that this analogy served for actors – never has there been a technological breakthrough in mankind that did not INCREASE employment in the very area it improved. Yes, the sewing machine replaced seamstresses, but how many people now work in the combined manufacture and operation of sewing machines throughout the clothing industry? Exponential amounts of higher employment – including seamstresses! Does the business model change? Yes. But you can’t stop progress, and I felt that for me to be sitting in a conference room with these people (how much is SAG spending on lawyers and staff for this bullshit – $10K? More?), arguing about a mini-DV short from seven years ago that made no money – this was moronic. There are huge issues facing the traditional business model in film and TV – why don’t you get to it? I see that ultimately there will be massively MORE employment for actors, and the business model will change, but bottom line is that production will increase. That’s the target. If you’re acting to get a pool in the Hollywood Hills, that’s the wrong reason. If you’re resourceful and smart and hard-working, you can act and make money from other means (as well as from acting), and have a fruitful, rewarding existence in your chosen field. Welcome to the top of the food chain on Planet Earth.
Arkin and Gould insisted that Rule One is Rule One, and seemed AMAZED that Mark Gantt could have called me to go shoot something, and no one thought to themselves to call SAG for permission. Madness! The actress over to the left offered that I was opening myself up to “exploitation” by having done what I did. Whatever. “Mark is not exploiting me,” I replied simply. She countered: “What if Mark had shot that film, and you were unhappy with your peformance? And then it was all over the world? What about that?”
Huh? I thought to myself – you mean I can call up TV producers and film directors now and talk about my performance, and what take I prefer they use? “I’m happy with the performance,” I replied.
“How did this get on IMDB, then?” they asked. “I have no clue,” I replied, and I don’t. I have no idea how IMDB works, don’t care.
“How did this get into festivals?” they asked. “I have no clue. On one them, a friend of ours was the director of the festival, and just accepted our film because we were friends. Scandalous.”
I told them I had posted to Facebook in the morning that I was on my way to SAG and the basic reasons – and had received numerous comments, from SAG members all, about how ridiculous this was. “That is a problem,” I said, “But it’s a problem for you. That’s a perception problem amongst the members of the union against the union. That’s a big problem. No one understands why you’re doing this, why a single dime of their dues is being spent chasing actors from a 2002 mini-DV short film that earned no money.”
They seemed really steamed for a good half hour – still based on the fact that I led off by saying I would do it again. Finally, I offered, “Look – factually? If Mark Gantt called me today, I would probably say, Hey, Mark, if I do this little film for you, it would be nice that in 2016 I don’t end up in a conference room being yelled at by Elliott Gould, so can we look up the SAG website and figure what to do? Does that help? Because that’s true. I don’t like Mr. Gould yelling at me.” That at least got a laugh, and tensions eased. I continued, “I’m not trying to piss people off, but maybe because I’m not really acting that much anymore, I direct, I write, I teach, I play piano…. Maybe that allows me to be more honest about it all. But I like Elliott Gould. He was a friend of my mentor.”
That stopped him. “Who’s your mentor?”
“I run his school.”
Pause. Then, “You run the Beverly Hills Playhouse, which is probably one of the best acting schools in the country, and you don’t think you should set a better example to your students?!!!”
“You know the book I’ve assigned to my students this year? The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson.”
“It’s a book that discusses what infinite and nearly-cost-free data storage matched with instantaneous worldwide digital distribution does to various businesses. Including ours. That’s the book I’ve been assigning. That’s what actors need to know. I have not assigned them to read the SAG bylaws. You guys are shoeing horses, and the car is coming.”
“What a minute,” Gould suddenly broke in. “At Milton’s memorial at the DGA, was that you who played the piano?” He was alluding to my performance at said event of Ravel’s pavane pour une infante defunte, one of Milton’s favorite pieces.
“Oh, that was beautiful. That was beautiful.”
“How old are you? You have a family?”
I replied with relevant facts, including the existence of my 2-year-old daughter, Zoe.
“I have two sons and a daughter, and a grandchild….” Long pause. “That’s what counts, right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Long pause, somewhat peaceful. A connection made – as a director, I loved it. The SAG exec broke in and ended the meeting, dismissing me to wait outside while they discussed my fate. I figured that might take 5 minutes, tops. I waited 15 minutes. To me, that means someone in that room wanted to hang me or suspend me or kick me out of the union or whatever. I was called back in, and told that they had found me in violation of Rule One, but that no disciplinary action would be taken.
That’s what SAG is busy busy busy doing on a Wednesday morning in September, 2009.