Monday, January 31, 2011

Making "Deadline" (My Acting Debut Review)

      They say art imitates life.  A couple of days ago I got to put that old adage to the test when I visited the set of – and made my acting debut  in -  a movie called Deadline.  As the title hints, it’s main characters are reporters.
       Not long after stepping onto the set – without much fanfare I might add -  I spotted a handsome, 30ish gentleman a few yards away whose presence was creating a bit of a stir. 
     “Who’s that?” I asked someone associated with the production company.  
     “That’s Steve Talley,” she replied.  “He’s the star of this movie.”
     “Reality check 1,” I mentally noted.  “While the mention of my name may stir a slight ripple in this small pond called Middle Tennessee, by Hollywood standards, I’m one of those little fish you throw back."
      “You mean I’m not the star?” I asked aloud, kind of joking but not really.  That question went unanswered.
     “Reality check 2:  BEING a reporter and PLAYING a reporter are apparently not equal by Hollywood standards.”
      There were hundreds of “extras” standing around, hoping to get their chance to appear in a scene.  Since most of them knew me from the news, I tried to play up my small part in the movie.  I claimed to have a dressing room and had already picked out a tree I could hide behind if I really needed one.   Of course Steve Talley and his co-star Eric Roberts had real dressing rooms.    I suppose in that case, art does imitate life.  I’ve never worked for a TV station that gave me a dressing room, either.  I’ve often had to cake my make-up on using our news truck’s headlights to illuminate the tiny compact mirror. 
     And there are other similarities between making the movie, Deadline and making deadline each day with a news story.  Like those “extras,” real reporters sometimes spend hours waiting for something to happen only to have it all break at the last minute when they have to fight the clock to make it matter.  And just like the actors, TV reporters seldom get it right in one take.  We do the same thing over and over and over again until we’re satisfied with the way it looks and sounds.
     The day on the set wore on and I was still awaiting the big moment to tape my short scene.  Alas it came.  And here’s how it went: 

Picture it.  Amos, Alabama, a fictional town  staged in rural Tennessee.  As a group of protesters march along a street in downtown Amos, they walk past me, a TV news reporter as I'm conducting a live interview with one of the protesters.  As the man I'm interviewing steps away to join the march, I turn to face the camera (not the one shooting this scene, but the pretend one on somebody’s  shoulder  so that my role looks real) and continue my report, gesturing and acting like I know what I’m talking about.  It sounds like what you’d expect of a real TV news reporter, right?  WRONG! 

     The real star of that scene wasn’t me at all.  It was – you guessed it – Steve Talley.  The microphone was near him.  That important report I was delivering WAS MIMED!  Not a sound was coming out of my mouth.    Steve Talley and Eric Roberts play the reporters with voices... newspaper reporters... with voices.  Hooray for Hollywood!
                            Eric Roberts;  Me;  Steve Talley chillin' on the set of Deadline
     Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not bitter.  We all have to start somewhere.  And Steve Talley and Eric Roberts are great guys who treated me as an equal.  I’m a forever fan of both them.
     I suppose the title of this movie is where art most imitates my life:  Deadline.  
     Every real reporter can relate to those.
    On a serious note, The folks at Filmhouse - the production company - were also gracious to me.  I hope you will go see Deadline when it hits theaters next spring.  Click here to learn more about Deadline.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Scholars and Scents (A College Introduction to Aroma Therapy)

     614 West Street was by no means the ugliest house along that short, stumpy stretch of pavement in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  But for two of the three college students who called it home, it might damn well may have been the smelliest.  It was rank enough to make me grateful for a typical Middle Tennessee Allergy Season that would seal my sinuses shut for a couple of days.

     To the best of my recollection, the stench never drifted beyond the dull, grey siding on the outside walls (well, there was that one “oh shit” event when sewage backed up in our front yard but that's another story) except when its source left the house and carried some of it with him in the form of body odor.  Yes, somebody at that address could’ve benefitted from a box of 20 Mule Team Borax although I suspect even those barnyard beasts would've fought to stay downwind. 

     Talking; shouting; begging; cursing; even threatening had failed.  Little did I know I was about to learn a powerful new technique of  bullshitting I now call the “Fall On The Sword” method… a method that finally made the difference.    

     Tracey and I had become good friends and shared that three bedroom, off-campus rental house with a third roommate named Steve.  Tracey and I were older - what are usually called non-traditional students.  We liked order and insisted on keeping a clean house.  Steve, on the other hand,  was a typical twenty-two year old who - while he might miss the occasional morning class - wasn't willing to miss a party.  Make no mistake; Steve was intelligent.  But for every inch of intellect he possessed, you could subtract two inches of common sense. 

     Our problem didn’t fully reveal itself until several months after Steve moved in.  Sure we noticed his room was a wreck and neither of us could recall seeing him do his laundry… and yes, there always seemed to be a stack of his dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.  But the problem – I mean the real, aromatic problem – just kind of grew quietly until one day, out of the blue it unmasked itself in the form of indescribable stink.

     Tracey and I could no longer ignore it.  But if Steve didn’t respect himself enough to wash his body then how in hell might we convince him to respect us enough to wash a dirty dish?  At his boiling point, Tracey called a “house meeting” one evening when we all got home from work.

     I had picked up Steve’s scent from the far end of the house when I got home that night so I straddled my narrow ass on the arm of a chair as far away from him as I could park it.  I wanted to rip him a new one but that would’ve required me to get too close to the one he already had.  Besides, Tracey called this meeting and as hard as it might be to believe, he could sometimes be more temperamental than me.  Yes, really.

     Tracey came and sat in the chair whose arm I occupied and I braced myself for the blistering tirade he was about to unleash on Steve.

     “Steve,”  Tracey began politely.
    “Ah, he’s just buttering him up,” I assured myself.  “He’ll go for the jugular in a moment.”

     “Chris,” he then said.
     “Oh shit, he’s chickening out and wants me to do it,”

     “I owe both of you guys an apology.”
      “What did he say?”

     “Guys, this house freakin’ stinks and it’s my fault,” he continued.  “I’ve been so busy with school I haven’t been keeping up with my household duties.  I’m the reason you guys can barely stomach walking in here every day.”
“What? I’ve watched you wash your dishes,” I thought to myself.   “And you’re waaaayyy too metrosexual to wear dirty clothes.” 
     Tracey hung his head as if he was ashamed.

     “That is such bullshit!” I snapped.

     “Shut up, Chris!” Tracey snapped back.  He then flashed me a quick wink that Steve didn’t see.
     “What the hell is going on here?”

     “Guys, I’m staying home this weekend and I’m cleaning this house top to bottom… I mean everything.”

     “Tracey, you don’t have to...”

     “Shut! Up! Chris!”

      Still not taking his cue to keep quiet, I retorted “this stinking-ass house is not your fault.  If you’re wasting your weekend cleaning it, so am I.”

      “Me, too,” Steve politely chimed in.
      “Okay, what just happened?”  I wondered, not yet knowing the maginitude of this moment where Tracey's and my sanity was concerned.
      Tracey got up from his chair and walked to the kitchen.  He emptied the sink full of dirty, some of them sour-smelling dishes, then turned the hot and cold knobs to set the temperature for dishwater.  As the suds rose, he began scrubbing those nasty dishes.  He knew he didn’t dirty them.  We both knew Steve had.  And we both knew those dirty dishes were not the only source of stink that haunted our house. 

     But somehow Tracey had figured out something I hadn’t.  He knew by washing those dishes, Steve would feel embarrassed for not upholding his end of household responsibilities.  And he knew if we all cleaned the house from top to bottom and it still stank, the source of the smell would be easy to trace.  Steve knew it, too.

     That night, while Tracey washed those dishes, Steve took a long-overdue shower.  I can’t say that he, soap and water became best friends but at least from that evening on they were acquainted. 

     True to our word, the following weekend we all cleaned house.  Steve even stripped his bed and washed his sheets.  And I cannot recall another day that he didn’t clean up after himself.  He may not have wanted to but he knew he had to.  Tracey shamed him into it by falling on the sword. 

     And the moral of the story is:  If it smells too good to be you, it probably is!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

BS 2: How to Treat Acute Dumbass (An Intern Tale)

     There’s an old adage I’ve seen proven countless times:  “Nothing brings people together like a common enemy.”
     We all like to relate to others; to find common ground with them.  It makes us feel less ordinary, enhances our self esteem and brings forth a greater level of confidence in us.  In the business of BS,  I call this the “Common Ground” method.

     While working at WSMV TV from 2006 – 2008, I bore the bold title, Problem Solver.  Viewers called me, e-mailed me or sent me long letters explaining how they had been ripped off by a business or how, despite their numerous complaints, a government agency had turned a blind eye to their problem.  It was my job to verify the validity of the problem and once verified, go confront the business or agency – camera rolling – and persuade (a nice word for strong-arm) it to fix the problem.   Ultimately all this would play out on TV and I would take all the credit as the hero who saved the day.

     You can imagine the hundreds of calls, emails and letters I received each week.  I took that kind of response to mean my Problem Solver segment was successful and decided to use it as leverage to ask my boss for some help.  It did, after all, take a lot of time to shuffle through the massive pile of  requests for my services.  I wanted – no, I NEEDED – an assistant. One day  I  bounced into my boss’ office to say so.  That conversation went something like this:

Tatum:   I’m overwhelmed with the number of people who need my help.
Boss:     That’s good.  You should be proud.  It shows people like what you’re doing.
(Yes, he is a master Bull shitter, too)
Tatum:   Aha! You just admitted my segment is successful.  That means it’s making money for the station.  (notice I tried to hang him with his own words).  I’ll bet it would become even more successful - generate even more money - if you’d hire me some help… an assistant…  even just part time.
Boss:      No!
Tatum:   I would think you’d want my segment to become more successful.  (Two    professional bull shitters going head to head.)  Please, at least think about it.
Boss:  I don’t need to.  I will assign an intern to help you.  We’ll pick one for you and they’ll start tomorrow. 
     An intern? That was the best solution he could come up with?  Oh well, at least he offered a solution.  I really had no further argument at this point.  (Actually I did but my gut (and his body language) told me now was not the time.  For once I listened.)
     “Fine!” I snapped, and stomped out of his office wondering how anyone so cheap could run a newsroom.  Rest assured, if that conversation didn’t prove he was a tight wad, my salary did.

     The next day a blond-haired girl approached me at my desk and informed me she would work alongside me for the rest of the semester.  I quickly sized her up.  Young, pretty, wants to be an anchor, probably a sorority girl who thinks she’ll build a brilliant TV career with her looks.
     “The biggest responsibility you’ll have each day is to log my Problem Solver phone line,” I explained as I jotted down the password to access it.
     “Okaaaaaay,” she replied, stretching six or seven syllables out of a word that needed only two.
     I showed her how to log the phone line, where to type the extensive notes I’d need and she leapt right into her new assignment. 
    “Hmmm, this might actually work,” I thought to myself as I began tapping on my keyboard, the script for my story that would air that day.

     I arrived at work an hour early the next morning, eager to sift through the notes she’d taken, to choose which problems I would tackle the following week.  I logged on and clicked the icon that would take me to a file titled “Tips.”
     “What the hell?” my mind screamed before my vocal cords could muster a mumble.  The intern had logged the callers’ names and summed up their problems in short blurbs.  She didn’t even put them in complete sentences. 

         “Sally Jones… Paid cable bill - disconnected.
         Steve Thompson… Moving truck damaged house.”

     I needed more information than that to even consider tackling someone’s problem.  This intern left out phone numbers and didn’t mention any documents that callers might have had to support their claims against these companies.  Even worse, as she logged each call she had deleted it.   Unless those people called back, I would have no way of helping them.  “An intern, huh?” I wanted to scream at my boss.

     I sat at my desk and stewed in my self-righteousness for a couple of hours.  I tried to convince myself that this buxom blond might be dyslexic or have ADHD but I couldn’t get past my initial diagnosis of her problem:  Acute Dumbass.

   Eventually my frustration – alright, anger – began to subside and I started to realize – REALLY REALIZE - I had to make this work.  After all, I did need help.
     When the intern arrived at work - perky, pleasant and ready to perform, I had simmered down.  I asked her to pull up a chair next to me. 
     “I must say, you’ve impressed me with the way you logged these notes,” I told her.  You summed them up into very succinct statements.”  You know, in TV we write very tight.  We have to say a lot with very few words,” I explained.  “You are way ahead of most interns who come through here.  Heck, you’re ahead of where I was when I was an intern.”
     Her blue eyes now beamed as she brushed her blond bangs out of her face.
     “You’ve got a bright future ahead of you in TV.

     I could have made the mistake of telling her what a lousy job she’d done.  But by reminding her that I, too, was once an intern,  I no longer seemed like such a domineering force for her to reckon with.   She was by no means the brightest intern at the station that semester.  But once I made her feel like we were on common ground, we connected differently.  Suddenly the door was opened for me to politely explain why the information she had omitted  in her notes was critical for me to assess people’s problems and how gathering even the most menial details would one day make her a sharper, more focused reporter and anchor.
     From that day forward, I always had the details I needed to do my job.  And that intern has since graduated and gone on to become a TV news reporter with a bright future.
     Turns out, my boss was right.  That intern made my job much easier… So much easier, I hated to see her go at the end of the semester.
     FOOT NOTE:  Acute dumbass is now a cute anchor in another city, making far more money than me. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The One Book B.S. Degree

  One of the most crucial skills of a TV news reporter is knowing how to BS.  For the next few weeks I thought I'd share some examples of how TO... and how NOT TO BS. 
We'll start with something I call the "Distribute the Power" method.  This happened to me about 10 years ago:

     I stood impatiently in the long line at Nashville Electric Service and quickly decided I didn’t fit into this festival of freaks.  There was a woman wearing a halter top she was about to pop out of (if you know what I mean), with two snotty-nosed children who whined incessantly.  Another, rather large woman sat in one of those motorized chairs, gossiping with what I presumed to be her adult daughter.   As she zigzagged through the maze of ropes set up to herd people to the counter, I wondered if she might roll over someone’s toe and worried it might be mine. 

     The men, many of them in dirty work shirts, had apparently stopped by on their lunch breaks to pay their past due bills.   Despite my certainty that I was the only sophisticated island in what appeared at the moment to be an ocean of rednecks, there I was in the same (bass) boat as them.  None of us had paid our past due electric bills.  All of us held cut-off notices in our hands and were desperate to keep the current coming to our houses.

     When people finally reached the counter there wasn’t much privacy.  The clerk sat behind a thick wall of glass and talked through a small hole about three inches wide.  For some reason, that made people on my side of the counter feel they had to speak louder.  Some of them even shouted to ensure the clerk heard them.  The rest of us could hear them, too… excuse after lame excuse about why they hadn’t paid their bill; why they couldn’t afford to pay the minimum amount needed to keep their electricity on; and why Nashville Electric Service should make an exception for them until they could pay.  One man insisted his wife had mailed their payment and that NES just hadn’t yet received the check. 

     “Mam,” he said, “the check should be here any time.”
     “I’m sorry,” explained the obviously weary clerk who by now must have heard every imaginable excuse known to humankind.  “If $96.32 isn’t posted to your account by the time this office closes today, we will have to interrupt your service.  How much can you pay, today?”
     “I can’t pay anything today.  I don’t get paid until Friday.”
     “Well sir, you must pay $96.32 to keep your service connected.”
      The line had grown even longer and everyone was becoming impatient with this man’s endless excuse.  Never mind that most of us would present similar unbelievable stories when we finally reached the front of the line which by now seemed akin to climbing Mount Everest.

     “Mam, I don’t have the money to pay anything today.  Can you give me till Friday.  That’s just two days, Mam.”
     “Sir, why don’t you write me a check for the amount your wife sent the payment for,” she offered.  “And I will note your account so that when we receive her check we won’t deposit it.”           “Mam,” he snapped, clearly agitated now.  “I just told you, I don’t get paid till Friday.”
     “I understand sir, but if your wife mailed a check and we’ve yet to receive it, the money should still be in your account, right?”
     You could feel a sort of tension start at the head of the line and snake its way back, setting the butterflies aflutter in all our stomachs.  
     As that man stomped away from the counter, firing off a machine gun round of obscenities, a hush fell on the busy room.   Everyone was obviously thinking of how to polish up their own turd of a tale in hopes the clerk wouldn’t see through it as easily as she’d seen through his.    

     “May I help the next person in line,” the clerk called.
     And yet another nervous soul, desperate to avoid the impending darkness stepped to the counter.     And on it went.  On and on and on…
     A woman claimed she paid her bill at that very counter the week before and that NES obviously had an accounting problem.   “The way ya’ll screw up, no wonder this line is so long,” she snarled.
     Another woman, immaculately dressed and sure to impress the clerk, I figured, claimed someone had burglarized her house recently.
     “I had the money for all my bills laid out on the dining table and they stole every penny of it.”
     “I’m sorry to hear that.”  The clerk softly smiled at her before offering a solution.  “I’ll tell you what, Mam,” she suggested.  “Bring us a copy of the police report and I can hold your account a few more days until you can come up with the money.”
     “What police report,” the woman asked.
     Another one BUSTED!!!  That woman may have dressed smartly but smart she clearly wasn’t!
     As I inched closer to the front of the line, I began to realize something about the clerk.  All day people pushed her buttons, lied to her and treated her like she was personally responsible for their misfortune.
I started to wonder what her life must be like away from work.  “I’ll bet she has children,” I mentally assumed.  “I probably make more money than she does and don’t take near as much lip for it.  She doesn’t make the rules about when to cut off someone’s electricity.  She simply has to enforce them.”                    
     Then and there I decided, that when I took my position at that head of the line, I was going to treat her like a heroine.  Rather than blame her for not bending the rules in my favor, I vowed I would make her feel like she had the power to help me. 

  “May I help the next person in line?” the clerk called. 
     And there I was, face to face with her, hoping not to look as stupid as the dozens of dumb asses she’d dealt with before me. 
     “Good afternoon.”  I plastered my best plastic smile across my flush face and hoped I didn’t look as desperate as I felt.
     “Chris Tatum”
     “What’s the address on your account, Mr. Tatum?”
      I told her.  She studied her computer screen for several seconds. 
     “Mr. Tatum, I show your account is 60 days past due,” she said.  “How can I help you today?”
     “Well mam, I knew I was late with this month’s bill,”  I explained.  “But I didn’t realize I hadn’t paid last month’s either.” 

     It was a lie.  Money had been tight for a few months at my house.  I wondered if she could tell I was lying.
     Her silence made me even more jittery as she continued to study my account on her screen.
     “Bless your heart,” I suddenly blurted out, even surprising myself.  “I would not want your job.”
     Where the hell did that come from???
     “You have the patience of Job,” I said, hoping to make sense of my last utterance.  “I can’t believe people think they have the right to speak to you the way they do.  You’re just doing your job.” 
     “This is a good day,” she said, looking up and actually smiling at me.   “You wouldn’t believe the names I’ve been called.  And the language people use these days.”
     “I would’ve lost my cool long ago,” I told her.
     “I just say a prayer every morning before we open,” she explained, still smiling.  “I ask God to help me not to take it personally when people talk to me that way.”    
     I could tell she was glad, if only for a couple of minutes, that someone had shown her compassion.  Honestly, I wasn’t feeling that compassionate.  I just didn’t want my electricity turned off.
     “This cut-off notice says I have until the end of the day to pay the past due amount.  I don’t get paid until Friday, Mam.  Is there anything you can to do help me?”  I wanted to put the power in her hands.

     Again, she studied her screen a moment.

     “You say you get paid Friday, Mr. Tatum?”  She was so pleasant now that it was as if a new person – someone who hadn’t endured the headaches I had personally watched her endure – had  sat down on the other side of the glass.
      “What time can you pay on Friday?”
     “First thing Friday morning,” I replied, sensing she might be about to work with me.
     “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Tatum.  I’ll put a note on your account that you’ll pay first thing Friday morning.  That way they won’t disconnect your service before then.  You have a nice day.”
     I thanked her and turned to walk away, still stunned at how I had managed to do what everyone in line ahead of me couldn’t.  I had convinced the woman who had seemed calloused to countless other customers, to make an exception for me.  I would have the chance to pay my electric bill before they cut me off despite the fact that it was already two months past due.  By making that woman feel she had the power to help me, I avoided a power outage at home.