What I Learned Staring at the Back of Al Pacino’s Head

David Mamet

We were on our way to grab a quick bite, waiting for the elevator in a Brooklyn courthouse. David Mamet looked at me and said: “The best thing about directing your first film is how supportive everyone on the set will be. Everyone will be rooting for you to succeed.” Then he added, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

For me, moving toward directing my first film, this was welcome encouragement from a great director, a director whom I’ve long admired.  Whose book On Directing Film, I’ve devoured.

But the more interesting story is how I ended up chatting with David Mamet in the first place. And it’s a story that starts, as does the story of my making this film, with a decision to follow my own instincts against all advice and conventional wisdom about how to make a movie.

This part of the story begins with Milos Forman. Milos was among a small circle of trusted friends to whom I’d given early drafts of A Short History of Decay. I was looking for any notes he might have as well as any tips he might offer on directing.  Mostly, I was looking for the reaction of a veteran multiple Oscar-winning director to my casual remark that I was planning on directing my own script. “I only have one piece of advice,” Milos said in his deep Czech accent. “Don’t listen to anybody. You’ll know what to do.”

I’ve followed that advice ever since.

Milos loved the script enough to pass it along to Mike Hausman. Mike is an amazing producer who often doubles as first A.D. (assistant director).  He’s produced films such as Amadeus and Brokeback Mountain, to name only two.  He’s also produced most of David Mamet’s films.  The first A.D. runs the set. I need someone who can do that.

Mike Hausman and Milos Forman

I’ve previously written about my initial meeting with “Buffalo” Mike Hausman.  So you can read it here.

Mike is now producing  and acting as first A.D. on a film for HBO, the as yet untitled Phil Spector biopic which stars Al Pacino and Helen Mirren. Mamet wrote the film and is directing.  I told Mike that I’d like to spend some time on the set, to watch him work and see how he runs the show.  His answer was to invite me to be an extra.  I would play a journalist in the courtroom. “Great,” I told him. “Because I still consider myself  to be a journalist.”

“I know,” he said. “That’s what I’m afraid of. You’ll probably overact.”

So, continually reminding myself not to overact, I arrived at “holding” for extras, which was set up in church in Brooklyn Heights. I joined dozens of other extras— or background artists — most of whom seemed to know each other from previous TV and film jobs.  They would be spectators, security guards, jurors, journalists and other other bits of what some referred to as “moving wallpaper.”

The  scene recalled for me the feeling of being a journalist and landing in a new country for the first time. I watched, learned, and immersed myself in a fully realized subculture with its own language and customs. And since most of the work of being an extra background artist involves sitting around, I got to know a few people. It was a blast.

I spent three days staring at the back of Al Pacino’s head as he wore some crazy Phil Spector wigs. I watched Mike Hausman run the set, which all of the extras agreed was one of the most relaxed and friendly they’ve ever been on.  And I got to meet some of the amazing people who work for him, some of whom I will work with on my film.

Al Pacino as Phil Spector

And I got to sit for hours and watch an extraordinary and accomplished director create his vision.

(My star turn was when one of the cameramen asked me to slide a bit to my left. Then a bit more. I asked him if he was trying to get me into the shot. "No," he said. "I'm trying to get you out of the shot. You're ruining Al's closeup.)

And as I sat there day after day, I thought to myself, This is good. This is what comes from giving yourself permission to do what you want to do. From taking Milos Forman’s advice: “Don’t listen to anybody.”

Or I suppose I should add to that, don't listen to anyone who tells you what you can't do.

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