An Answered Prayer
I applied to USC, NYU and UCLA Graduate Film School.
Most of the creative material I had accumulated was music, at least the stuff I had done on my own.
I had heard that the film schools liked to admit a diverse group of students, so I did something that I doubt a lot of of other prospective students did or have done since. I told the schools, I wanted to do musicals.
And I submitted my songs.
USC rejected me outright. I think UCLA lost my application because I never heard back from them. But that was OK, because …
NYU accepted me. This was where Scorsese was teaching classes. Musicals?
NYU was where I secretly wanted to go anyway. I had already grown up in Los Angeles and a New York experience felt like a welcome adventure. It was also arguably the best film school in the country, fighting for the top spot with USC.
I’ll never forget the day I went to my college mailbox and found the acceptance letter. Shocked, filled with pride and humility, I stood there for at least ten minutes with a stupid grin on my face contemplating further deluded thoughts. The Matman/David Cassidy/perfect storm was starting to take on some hard edges.
What I didn’t realize about NYU graduate film school is that the program rarely accepts kids right out of college. I was one of a handful of new students without formal work experience.
And not only was I coming right out of college, I was 21 years old, probably the youngest kid in my class. This put me at a distinct disadvantage, because everybody else was like 25 to 35 years old.
It didn’t help that I was from Beverly Hills and had parents who were successful in the industry. People quickly labeled me as the young west coast punk whose Daddy helped get him into school.
It didn’t help me that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.
Still, there was one silver lining, a teacher named Roberta Hodes. For whatever reason, Roberta and I connected.
What I loved about Roberta, was that she spoke her mind, no bullshit. She told it like it was, and she was brilliant.
You can tell a lot about people by their reaction to other people who are brilliant. Many of the fragile egos in the classroom could not handle Roberta. I witnessed tantrums, throwing things, crying, huge fights. It was all pretty surreal.
But I had no expectations about who I was as a film maker, and I recognized she was a total and pure artist, so I just listened. And I think she respected me for it, even if the work I was producing was perfunctory at best.
NYU has since changed its policy, but when I went to school, they cut 20% of the first year class. You had to be invited back. As you can imagine, this created an atmosphere that was pretty cut throat.
Whatever I did that first year, it was enough to get me invited back for a second year, and that’s when I had an attitude shift.
I think I always felt like a song writer first, and a film maker second, so I didn’t really take advantage of the opportunity I had to learn about making movies. But my second year I was thinking differently. I thought, “they’ve actually asked me back, I need to take advantage of this.”
And so I did. Or at least I tried.
I started by changing my habits. I stopped procrastinating. I started arriving to everything, EARLY. I completed my assignments ahead of schedule. I began to live by my datebook—RELIGIOUSLY! I exercised daily. I cleaned my room 8 days a week! I was freakishly organized! I even stopped eating red meat for six months. In short, I was a machine, and nothing was going to stop me from making the most of my film school experience.
The second year at NYU, is very different from the first. In the first year, the emphasis is on teaching students how to tell a story visually. Students are restricted in the elements they can use, in particular, sound, which for someone who comes from a music background, was particularly daunting. The students make three very short films, a black and white silent, a black and white to a piece of music (that one worked for me), and finally, a black and white short with limited sound that can only be applied in post production (no onset recording). Films ranged from a few minutes to a maximum of about 12 minutes.
Looking back on it now, I realize how much I learned that first year that shapes my thinking today, but all I could think of at the time was that it was limiting what I wanted to do.
The second year of film school is very different, however.
For starters, students only make one film. The films are allowed to be a little longer, 15 to 20 minutes ish, and students get to use ALL the elements, including live sound and color.
I wanted to make something great. In fact, I wanted to make the best film in the class.
The idea for my second year film came quickly. I’m not sure from where, but I had a thought one day. What if a kid knew more about sex than an adult?
I seemed to like nerds, so I chose one as my main character. Here was the basic premise:
A nerd works in a Manhattan office and is smitten with one of his colleagues. He gets stuck babysitting his 13 year punk rock nephew and it turns out this kid knows more about sex than he does. The kid helps the nerdy uncle get the girl at the office and the nerdy uncle helps his nephew with his homework. The nephew realizes he’s not as stupid as he thinks he is, and in the end, nerd gets girl, nerd and kid have to say goodbye, and everybody is changed for the experience.
It had a beginning, middle, and an end, a funny comedic premise, and there was even a bit of a bittersweet emotion between the nerdy uncle and his nephew when they have to say goodbye.
I drew my shoot date out of a hat, got a week in late February/early March. This wasn’t ideal, but not terrible either. It gave me a few months to organize, but it certainly wasn’t a great date as many people got to shoot in April, May and June which gave them more time to prepare, plus better weather.
I was determined, however, and kept up my regiment of focus and optimism.
I started writing drafts of the script, and when I had something laid out, I put an ad in Backstage Magazine advertising that I was looking for a nerd. I began receiving headshots in the mail from handsome actors wearing glasses and bow ties. You’d be shocked how many head shots we would get for an NYU short. I’m talking, a stack two feet high.
But as I was fielding these resumes, a realization was creeping up on me. I LOVED my idea. But no matter how hard I tried to look the other way, I didn’t LOVE my script. In fact, I didn’t even really like it all that much.
I knew that the story had lots of comedic potential. I knew the humor was there. I just didn’t know how to bring it out in a way that lived up to my expectations.
Working on the script for my father’s book was one thing, but with that I was just layering on something that was already there, and that was more of a drama than a comedy. It dawned on me, I really didn’t know much about writing.
It also dawned on me that all my organization, discipline, and ambition was going to amount to shit if I didn’t find a solution to this glaring problem.
It was at that point that I did something I had never done before. I got down on my knees … and prayed.
I’m not religious. I believe in a higher power that is an equal partner in our lives and plays its hand in some kind of double helix of core beliefs and lessons needed to be learned. But praying to God was not in my vernacular.
Here was my prayer:
“Dear God, I have done ALL I can in order to make this project the best it can be. I don’t want anyone to do anything for me, but I need a helping hand.”
That was it …
The next day something curious happened.
I was only a few weeks away from my shoot date. I had already scheduled auditions, and the resumes coming in the mail had stopped coming all together.
But after this prayer, one last headshot appeared in my box. And when I say one headshot, I mean one. I didn’t really think about it when I received it because there was no room in my audition slots anyway, so I set it down without even opening it. A day or two later, I noticed it sitting there, and thought, I should probably at least look at this tardy Tom’s photo. I tore open the seal at the top and slid the picture out.
It was a picture of a nerd. A REAL nerd—not just a chiseled guy wearing glasses. This guy had spiked hair, thick Coke bottle glasses, a polka dot bow tie, and the goofiest toothy grin I had ever seen. It literally looked like a cartoon version of a Poindexter, and I almost heard the sound, “BOING!!!,” when I looked at his face.
His name was Jaffe Cohen.
When I called him, he was very animated and full of questions. He asked what the script was about. I told him. He said, “it sounds funny.”
And that’s where I said something that to this day, I’m not quite sure why I said. I said, “Thanks, but I think the script could be a lot funnier.”
What the fuck was I doing? I’m trying to sell this project to an actor who is going to come in and audition for ME for MY project!”
Jaffe’s response? “Well I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I’m a hell of a comedy writer.”
A blinked--caught off guard by his assertive confidence. “OK,” I said.
I told Jaffe I had booked all of my audition slots, but he could come at the end of the day and I would squeeze him in.” He said, “Sure.” And with that, we said goodbye.
Something felt different. Was that hope I was feeling? “Naahhh.” Probably just stomach cramps from too many greens and lack of red meat.
But there it was again. Something in my stomach. A butterfly. I was a little excited. This Jaffe character was clearly smart, very affable, and he seemed pretty confident about his comedic chops.
My interest was definitely piqued.
On the day of auditions, it was February cold outside and the heat in the audition room was either broken, or ineffectual. Jaffe came in wearing an overcoat. I never thought anything of it.
I had asked all the actors to bring in monologues, and so Jaffe put down his stuff, and went to the center of the room.
He still had his coat on.
I’m thinking, “OK, so this guy’s cold.”
Then Jaffe starts …
The monologue was not funny. It was all about how his parents fucked him up as a kid. And the more Jaffe went on, the more my hopes dimmed. “Fuck!” I thought. I had this deep seeded sense that Jaffe was something more than a wasted 15 minutes of audition time. I had prayed to God, and damn it, I deserved to have my prayer answered!
Then Jaffe starts to unbutton his coat.
“What the fuck is he wearing?”
“Is that … a dress? Holy shit, he’s wearing a dress underneath his coat!”
And what’s that he’s holding? A purse? A granny bag! Is that a string of pearls around his neck?!
All of sudden the monologue started to make sense. And it become hysterical. It was bold. It was ridiculous. It was funny. And to see this nerdy guy dressed up like Grandma bitching about his parents!!
Of course, we chatted after the audition. Something was there. We agreed to meet in a couple of days to look over the script together.
As Jaffe left the audition room, one errant thought did cross my mind.
Is he gay?
Now here’s the sad twist. As mentioned in my story “A Photo,”, that day was the very same day I lost my friend, Danny Klagsbrun to some thug on the streets of New York. I did not go out with Danny that night because I had too much work to do for this movie, and in part, because I had just met Jaffe.
I was feeling a sense of urgency to attack my shoot head on with a possible new collaborator on the script. I needed to focus, and going out and drinking that night was not in the cards.
It’s entirely possible that Jaffe Cohen saved my life, because if I had been there with Danny, I might have been the one to step up to the stranger and say, “we don’t want any trouble.”
I told Danny I would take him out another night to celebrate his birthday. Danny was gracious, and like I said, I had no idea it would be the last conversation I would ever have with him.
And so I began my collaboration with Jaffe amidst the chaos of losing a close friend. All my friends from college came into town for Danny’s funeral. Some of them were staying with me. It was hard to process all that was happening.
Amidst the chaos and tragedy, I still had to complete my project for school.
And I still had to meet with Jaffe.
When we finally did meet, I had to try to focus. It wasn’t easy, but Jaffe, helped. Jaffe looked through my script, pointed out a couple of funny moments, and said, “we can do better.”
The first scene involved the main character at work squaring off with a rival at the office. Jaffe suggested he work in a Travel Agency and spontaneously picks up my phone and begins to improv ...
Hello Mrs. Burnbach!!
(yelling into phone as if talking
to an old person hard of hearing)
I am!! I’m speaking right into the receiver!!!
Will Mr. Burnbach be bringing his dialysis machine
on the plane?!!!!!”
A smile crept across my face. It was the first smile I had smiled since Jaffe’s monologue.
To make a long story short, Jaffe and I wound up collaborating on 3 movies together, The Travel Agent, and two more features, Chicken Of The Sea, and Hit and Runway. We also wrote 5 feature scripts, 2 TV pilots, a couple of episodes of a cartoon series, and a treatment for Arron Spelling television.
The collaboration lasted 18 years.
The Travel Agent did not turn out to be the best film in my class, but it was good enough to encourage me not to give up …
If you are interested, here is a link to that short film I made my second year of NYU: