Thursday, December 13, 2012


That's Ang Lee, at the left,  a very successful director-writer.  His face suggests that he's concentrating, hard at work.

Reporter Marlow Stern interviewed Lee for Newsweek's "My Favorite Mistake" page.

Ho hum, I thought, as I skimmed the first sentence: "Many times when you make a movie it feels like your biggest mistake." I glanced at the final sentence: "It's more of a big regret, because I truly honestly wish I could do better as a father and a husband."

It reminded me of what my husband, John Cullum, has said, more than once.

At the bottom of the page I read Ang Lee's career arc.
1982 Directorial debut in Taiwan with his own screenplay "Pushing Hands."
1995 Arrives at the Hollywood scene with "Sense and Sensibility"
2000 Hit -- "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" -- spent time away from family.
2006 Wins Best Director Academy Award for "Brokeback Mountain."
2012 Director, "Life Of Pi."

Whiz -- I was back in time, remembering when John Cullum was trying find a producer for his screenplay, "The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton" (based on Russell Greenhan's book). It's hard to get acting jobs in theater, or films, but John was a name in theater and he wanted to play Algernon. Even so, it was eek-ouch-ugglesome, as he tried to get a producer to read his movie script.

In the Newsweek interview, Ang Lee, was fussing about his "favorite mistake," though he's an established movie director, screenplay writer.

For John, who was trying to establish himself in movies, what a hell it was was. He studied "How To" books, and made story-boards. cartoon pictures of each shot for the film. (As we say in the biz--that ain't chopped liver.) He phoned people though it embarrassed. And when he was brushed off, he phoned again, and again. He met with various agents and was told the script needed "shoe leather" (action scenes with the hero in fascinating locations). John wrote in shoe leather. He sent scripts, made calls, had meetings with Madeline Kahn, Bette Midler, Sean Young, and umpteen other actresses, who turned him down because the star of the film was Algernon.

After he bought the rights from the author, and two years of rejections, the film was produced by a Canadian woman. She'd made one boring film and won an award for it. She bit deeply into John's rights, his earning potential as Algernon, revised his script, and made the film with John in the leading role and award winning director, Charles Jarrot -- ran out of money, and compromised the final edit. The film could have been, for John, the beginning of a real career in films -- alas, it never developed into John playing major roles in films.

And I'm reading about Ang Lee's mistakes, though he's at a high point in his career -- his latest film, "Life of PI" got raves, and Lee's probably on his way up even higher.

What a labor, making a movie is -- it's like writing a big book --a 1000 page saga. What a shock it is, when you realize that every word, every punctuation mark, every idea, every decision you, the creator make, is life-and death important. A film, like a big book, is tree that you planted. It has roots, a trunk, limbs, branches, twigs, leaves, buds that grow with the sun, and you are the sun. It can die as the season changes, and the leaves fall, and the soil is poorly nourished.

I'm aware of what's involved in movie making, because of John's experience and what our many friends -- screen writers and directors -- have told us about screenplay writing, selling, revising, producing, and promoting.

So listening to Ang Lee speaking of his sons, wife, and home, mourning that he gave such much of his life to his films, because creating a film consumes every moment every thought, I learned that Ang Lee's mistake was that he neglected them.

I find myself thinking of my art, John's art, the art of so many people we know, who strived to achieve, almost achieved the dream -- the dream of painting the ceiling of the cathedral in the mind of every artist -- the need to do it, say it, show it, be applauded, credited, paid in money -- paid in renown for the work.

I know I have been paid with some success. I know John has been paid with quite a lot of success. It's having the dream -- that's your reward.

So what Ang Lee conveyed about his mistakes -- because he's not a household name, and he's struggling already with the dream of his next film -- I want to bow to him, gasp and show him I understand, as I smile at him, and salute.



Peggy Bechko said...

Great post & ruminations, Em - having published books, optioned screenplays & of course with a stack of them that have never been optioned or published I can relate. And the balance between family & your 'art' can be very tricky. For me, a moving post

Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog and touched my heart to hear about John's adventure trying to get his script to become a movie. You both are success stories with years of love for the arts and your family. Thanks for sharing this chapter.

Linda Phillips said...

I wish John had had that luck in films too, but has there ever been a more prolific actor on Broadway? Not to mention TV as well?

I love Ang Lee's work. I am a huge fan. He also comes across as a very humble man and I really appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Em, John and EveryOne.
I find it so interesting that Ang Lee considers himself a failure. Most people would say he's a success, with failure in only that one aspect of his life.
While people who have not achieved such success with their careers, who have had more time for their families, may also consider themselves failures, because they did not achieve their dreams.
I think dreams, like house repairs, have a tendency to grow, the more sucess you have.
I have done many things; been a daughter, had a lifelong connection with horses, grown orchids, painted, married, raised children, learned how to cook, and now I'm writing.
I have done very well at some things, and consider myself a failure at others.
It's a rough road. If you focus on being a commercial success, you may fall short on the other three aspect of life; health, family and happiness.
It's a balance all of us struggle to attain, and all I can say is that regardles of our natural attributes, and our good fortune, we are all human and imperfect.
Except for the truly noble among us like whales and elephants. And the truly indestructible, the cockroaches, who are very happy just as they are. (had to include this thought> as it came to me this morning)
A great topic, Em. Kudos.
Louise Sorensen
louise3anne twitter