NOTE: This interview with Udana was conducted Spring, 2015. In this installment, publicist Bill Murphy (BM) and multi-talented Udana Power (UP), discuss Udana’s career from Knot’s Landing (1979-1993) up to the present day.
BM: Let’s talk about Knots Landing, 1990. You played a servant in an episode called, “Side by Side.” What do you remember about Knots Landing?
UP: Wow! I can’t remember a whole lot, actually. It wasn’t a big deal, it wasn’t a big role. There was one day maybe two days, I can’t remember, I just remember that I did it.
BM: Let’s see, yeah, in that episode, Servant. I wouldn’t imagine would be a terribly important role in your career. [Both laugh.]
UP: No, not a big one, no. Two days pay. The interesting thing about this profession is that there are wonderful actors who got into acting because the LOVE to act. Not just love to act, they devote their lives to the profession. They don’t care about money. It’s a passion. A calling. And the wake-up call is that they have to also make a living. That doesn’t matter much when you’re young. When you are young, everything is possible and you’re willing to do anything it takes to be one of the chosen 3% who make a living as actors, sleep on the floor, eat a half an apple a day, whatever. Then life happens along the way and if you are not subsidized by wealthy parents or a rich spouse, you learn that you have to make money. That’s a very rude awakening. That’s why I encourage actors and filmmakers of all kinds to become financially solvent and responsible at the very beginning. Before you come to Hollywood, have a business in place that will give you the flexibility and financial freedom to go on auditions as a profession – because, let’s face it, going on auditions is the actors’ life here in Los Angeles. Just getting the auditions and going on the auditions is all that you can be proactive about. Getting the job and doing the job are just the icing on the cake. So I work with actors and filmmakers to show them how to create that residual income on the side so that they are freed up to actually concentrate on their work, rather than stress about how to pay the bills. It’s important. Because when you go into an audition when you’re broke…well, it shows. You need to have a stable foundation to play in the A-Game here.
BM: Well, let’s go to the next one then. In Life Goes On you played in two episodes as a character named Kathy Gutman.
UP: Yes, that was wonderful. We spent about two weeks on that. It was at least two weeks – lots of overtime. Patti LuPone was the star and we were out on the back lot at Warner Brothers in Burbank playing neighborhood football. We were just a bunch of husbands and wives out in the park playing. My husband was playing on the opposing team and he pretended to get a heart attack. When he fell down clutching the ball, everyone panicked and ran over to him and then he jumped up and ran across the goal. It was only a trick. So later in the game he had a real heart attack and everyone thought he was faking it and let him lay there. It was “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It was a good show. The director was spending so much time getting all the angles and all the shots that we were out there for literally a solid week of overtime. That’s expensive for the studio. Pretty wonderful for actors. I got to spend time with Patti and just being on a set is always wonderful.
BM: Tell me about Patti LuPone. What is she like?
UP: She is down to earth. She is really interested in people. She is not pompous. A very determined artist. She is just a really terrific woman.
BM: Here is something that is on her IMDb page. They have a did-you-know-trivia section. It says in her autobiography Patti LuPone says she and her co-star Bill Smitrovich, who played her husband in the series, heartily disliked each other. So much so that by the fourth season they weren’t even speaking to each other off the set and that she was amazed that the series lasted as long as it did. Was there any hint of that while you were on set?
UP: Wow. No, I didn’t see that. I didn’t see that at all.
UP: I was in group scenes with the neighbors playing football. Patti and I didn’t have any scenes together. I didn’t have scenes with her or Bill, so I wouldn’t have picked up on any of their dynamics. It’s hard to imagine what could cause a relationship to deteriorate so badly that it could affect the success of a series. That’s very hard on everyone…the producers, the crew, the studio. I think that a lot of the untold story of this amazing industry is about the magic actors and magic-makers behind the scenes who are real, devoted artists. This is an amazing industry. Those guys have to be the best in the world at what they do and you literally don’t hear about them. It’s all about the stars.
BM: Your next role is from 1992 in something called Frozen Assets. You played a voice actor and apparently just your voice appeared. Do you remember that?
UP: Yes, I do, 1992. The extraordinary thing about that was I was starting to write by that time. My friend Mimi Maynard, God bless her, is an actress/producer who had starred in a series called Hart to Hart with Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner. Mimi had produced some films by that time. That was during her marriage to James Keach. She had what is called a loop-group, called The Loopys. I had no idea what looping was. Mimi called me in and started hiring me as a looping actor. Do you know what looping is?
BM: Is it like if dialogue isn’t heard correctly it’s dubbed in later?
UP: Kind of. It’s called post production looping or ADR. I am not sure what the letters ADR stand for, but the loop-groups are a groups of usually 8 actors, 4 men and 4 women and is done on all TV shows and feature films. These highly skilled professional actors will go into a large soundstage where the edited version of the show is played on a big screen one scene at a time. As the scene is screened with the stars acting their scene we would all choose which background people we wanted to be. Say the scene is in a restaurant or an elevator. Or there might be a newscaster in the background or even kids playing in a playground. The key is to fill in all the background ambient voices so that it sounds real and yet not draw attention to the background conversations. We do all the conversations full voice and the editor edits the levels when he mixes sound levels later. I did lots of baby voices and kids. Remember Look Who’s Talking? That was one of the first shows I did. I played the baby voice of Mikey, the baby that Bruce Willis did the speaking voiceover for. “Waahhhh.” [cries like a baby.] For a TV show it was a full day’s work…which was a full SAG contract. Really terrific money, especially when the shows got replayed. I still get residuals – teeny ones, but they still come. It was a wonderful way for the non-famous yet truly talented and capable actors to make a living who had not yet “broken through” into some kind of fame or financial security. Did you know that less than 3% of the actors in Screen Actors Guild are making a living acting? And there are so many truly gifted actors. We hear so much about people who are famous, and even celebrities who can’t act who are just famous for being famous. It’s pretty extraordinary to discover all those gifted actors whom we see all the time who are in love with the work and the profession to the point that they just give it everything they’ve got. They are remarkable. And lots of fun.
UP: We got to a point in Look Who’s Talking where we had eight actors there on a sound stage at the studio. Now, when you have 8 voiceover actors in one room, it sounds like there are 35 people there because of all the different voices and joking that goes around. A John Travolta scene was on the big screen and he was watching cartoons on television. The director prepared to skip that scene and said, “Okay, we’ll have to skip over this. We have to get some cartoon people in.” He started to wave the editor to move past that scene and Mimi stepped forward and said, “No, wait!! We have the best guys right here. They do all the cartoon characters!” She nodded to a few of the actors. Tony Pope, who did literally hundreds of voices, stepped up to the microphone with a few other guys who did cartoons and as the editor rolled John Travolta’s scene Tony and the guys started making cartoon character noises to John’s reactions. “Beep-beep…wheeee…honk honk…” Really fun, Saturday morning stuff. I was dumbfounded. It was outrageous! These gifted, amazing actors were bringing the whole scene to life as cartoon characters.
I have a friend, Randy Montgomery. He would come with a satchel full of different scripts and research. He had all kinds of research there…anything he might need, medical, legal, newscasters…whatever. A scene came up for someone to do a TV announcer in the background. He stood up with his announcer’s script and got a very deep voice and started talking very official using announcer words and phrases that we hear all the time, however, his sentences didn’t make any sense. He was talking, sounding good and important, however, as I listened carefully I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It was literally just gibberish. [Laughs.] That’s not easy…for someone to take center stage and talk a lot and not say anything. Again, looping actors have the knack of being able to create all that ambiance around without taking away from the major scene. Really amazing, when you think about it. So, Mimi had this group called The Loopys and she started hiring me. That’s what financed my transition from acting to writing screenplays. Frozen Assets was one of those ADR sessions that The Loopys did.
BM: ADR by the way, stands for Additional Dialogue Recorded.
UP: There you go. Bingo!
BM: That sounds cool. Is that particularly challenging? What is it about that that would make it really interesting for someone to do? Why do you like that?
UP: Well you got to do everything. You get paid a Screen Actors Guild contract every time you work. It’s fun. You get to be on the studio lot and you’re working in your profession. You don’t have to be thin or have Botox to do it. You just have to be good, versatile and show up on time. After a while it got very political. Many producers were putting their spouses in the loop groups because they wanted their spouses to have the health benefits offered by SAG. That was difficult for the actors who were trying to make a living acting. That’s a real big difficulty right now. It’s even more difficult for up and coming actors to make a living right now because of so many buy-outs for the internet and low budget films.
UP: So every time I did a looping job I made five or six hundred and some odd dollars, SAG minimum. I think it’s probably more now. Every time the show got played I got paid Screen Actors Guild residuals. There are a lot of amazingly gifted actors who do looping as a profession and make a really good living at it. You have to really be in that world and know somebody to get that kind of a gig. They are very coveted.
BM: You are pretty good at voices. You do a great Katharine Hepburn and you are good with these baby voices and whatnot. Have you ever thought about exploring that further as kind of a career path?
UP: Not really. Obviously, I was around a lot of voice-over actors, however, that’s a whole separate part of the industry. People study for that and put together fabulous reels. They have character voices that they develop that are specific to them…it’s not just a little announcing thing you do on the side. Tony Pope’s resume had at LEAST several HUNDRED voices that he did, from Winston Churchill to cartoons to every announcer on TV and major actors. He could do anything. My focus was primarily on acting and moving into writing. I felt I had to focus. Some comedians do it, however, I gravitated to the Cabaret world rather than the Comedy world. Again…they are different worlds, different talents, different cultures.
UP: The guys who were doing those kinds of voice overs…well, that is what they did. They go out and they can nail it every single time. They can sound like anyone. Tony could even do Barbra Walters! [Both laugh.] It’s stunning, I mean it’s stunning! I looked at the back of his bio one day and my jaw dropped! It was a full page of people he could do written in very small print.
It’s actually pretty interesting now that I look back on it. There are people who do just looping for a living and nothing else. There are others who do voiceovers alone. One of my friends, Sara Ballantine is the daughter of the great magician Carl Ballantine also known as The Great Ballantine. She told me the other day at lunch that she bought her house with the residuals she got off of a Saturday morning cartoon she did for several seasons. I think it might be really fascinating to share a spotlight on all the goings on in the background of what the world sees as showbiz. It’s really fun and exciting.
I didn’t want to put that much energy into the voice-over part of the business. I wasn’t really in the business for money or for stability, I was more interested in writing and creating or being in front of the camera. The actors who have that gift and that calling work a lot. Look at Nancy Cartwright who, at the very last minute, got cast in a little role of Bart Simpson. Nobody knew that The Simpsons would turn into what it did. That has been millions of dollars for her. Who could have known that?
BM: Yeah, she’s made quite a career for herself being what-Bart Simpson and all these other people? Yeah, she’s good.
UP: Yes. Millions and millions of dollars. Even so, it wasn’t my path. It just felt like it was off center for where my soul wanted to take me. And, I admit, my path has looked to be a little crazy. I couldn’t add more crazy. [Both laugh.] There’s things that I would like to do with a movie with all of these people actually. I think I became, unbeknownst to me, a writer. I mean I did start writing, but up until that time I hadn’t even thought of it, but a creator of projects and a developer of projects. I think that I’ve been following my inner calling and my inner calling just said don’t go down that road because it’s not just a casual thing. It’s something you really have to put some time in and develop.
UP: Oh, yes!
BM: It took place in Ireland allegedly. Did you have to be in an Irish lass?
UP: Yes, I did. I was a little bit around the bend, actually. My character was not quite connected to reality. I spent a lot of time in a cemetery. Somebody had died and I couldn’t get over it and I was always putting flowers on his grave. Just dancing around the grave and really off in another world. We did that over in the back lot at Universal Studios…not far from the Warner Bros back lot. I remember going out on the audition. I was really surprised and delighted when I got the call that I had the job. I loved working with Angela Landsbury. That was when I was just coming back out of my Candida era, I had been gone for about ten years.
BM: Did you have to audition with an Irish accent?
UP: Yes, but I had already done an Irish accent a long time earlier with Finian’s Rainbow. You know [affects Irish accent]. I don’t know what it is now, but you listen to it a little bit and it comes back.
BM: Yeah, they kind of swallow the tongue. There’s a certain…
UP: Yes, and they roll the “Rs”. We all had cassettes of different accents so we could learn them pretty quickly by listening and imitating. I’m a highly trained singer, so it is actually pretty easy once you can feel where your larynx is when you’re talking, where the resonance goes for that accent and how the tongue and mouth shape. When I did all the baby voices for Look Who’s Talking I called a nursery school over on Melrose Avenue and told them that I was doing some post production kids voices and asked them if I could come and audio tape the kids getting up from nap time. They actually let me. I taped them all on my old fashioned boombox as they got up from nap time running around and screaming and yelling and having fun. Then I brought it home and set up another tape recorder next to the boombox with an empty tape in it. Then I would play the kids on the boombox and record myself imitating the kids on the other cassette player, then listen to the recording back. Pretty soon I got a feeling of where my larynx had to be in order to sound like a kid and how the support had to be and how the vocal cords would approximate together. And I just memorized that feeling and went to it whenever I became a kid on a looping stage.
BM: [Laughs.] That’s fantastic! That’s a lot of effort just to sound like kids, not even really saying anything, just sort of babbling.
UP: Yes. [Baby talk.] Because they don’t have as much force behind their voice (baby talk). It’s almost like a little kiddie voice, you have to find out where it sits and where your vocal cord sits. And it has to be real-sounding. Not sound like an adult pretending to be a kid. That little bit of effort turned out to create a whole huge income for me because they would bring me in to do babies after that. I would do everything (baby talk) from little babies to little kids screaming and crying. I could scream and cry all day, where most people would lose their voices. I knew how to do it so I wouldn’t blow out my vocal cords. Because of my vocal studies and work in the theater, I knew how to get my vocal cords to vibrate correctly. If somebody else had to scream at the beginning of a session they might find their voices getting hoarse right afterwards. I was fortunate to be able to sustain all of that stuff because I knew how my vocal cords worked. That whole subject excites me! The science and craft of singing that all get surrendered up to the art of singing when you perform. [Laughs.] I taught singing for a long time. Over ten years. This amazing woman, Margie Balter, who trains all the stars in playing piano in films…from Holly Hunter in The Piano to Tom Cruise in Interview With A Vampire and everybody else in between…well, Margie wanted to know how I got through the middle of my voice and stopped studying with everyone else and just studied with me. I loved teaching how to do it. Margie and I became great friends. She’s still coaching, quite famous for it now. One of the fellows in my business is a pianist and he started talking about this amazing woman, Margie Balter. It was so much fun to say, “Margie!!! I know her. She’s a wonderful woman!” I gotta tell ya’, the behind the scene stories of all these amazing characters who live in this industry is pretty wonderful. Oh! I have a good story to tell you!
UP: Do you remember a show called Red Shoe Diaries?
BM: Oh, absolutely.
UP: It was a big deal at the time. Erotica. The Loopys were doing all the ADR on it. So I got there early, like I normally did. Katharine Hepburn sat me down when I was doing Coco and said that she is always at an appointment ten minutes early. She said if you’re running late then you’re always behind the eight-ball, but if you’re ten minutes early you’re ready to take control of the meeting and be your best. So I got to The Red Shoe Diaries ten minutes earlier than the rest of the actors and the director and editor were already working. The director said, “You! Come here! I need you to go in and do orgasms for this scene. Can you do it?” We both laughed. I said, “Just turn down the lights for me, please.” By the time the other actors came wandering in came I was in the little studio ecstatically moaning and groaning. With the lights very dim! [Both laugh.] What we do for the love of acting. [Both laugh.]
BM: Well, here’s one that’s the complete opposite from Red Shoe Diaries, Wind in the Willows. You played the voice of Mother Rabbit.
UP: Oh, my God. I forgot about that!
BM: Yeah. What do you remember about Wind in the Willows? That was 1995 and it was a voice in a cartoon. So, all these people, Michael Bell, Roger Aaron Brown, Richard Epcar, Imelda Staunton. The all play voices, Pan, Mole, Weasel, Badger, Toad. You played Mother Rabbit.
UP: I vaguely remember that. Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh! I remember Michael Bell. He and his wife are fabulous people. They had a theater group over in the valley, a very well-known and well respected theater group. I don’t remember a whole lot, but I remember that they were very well-known in the acting community. See what I mean? So many talented and committed professionals here in Los Angeles. I did some other voices for my friend, Mimi Maynard. She now produces animated films. The last voice I did for her was Momma Octopus. She just called me in and said to come in and read for Momma Octopus. I said, Yes, of course. You go in and read these lines in a little studio with the director on the other side of a huge window coaching you through the speaker. They give you verbal cues and you do one line at a time, trying to keep the sense and style of the whole scene the character is playing. Many times they’ll have you do the same line, or series of lines, over and over with different intonations. After the actors go, they put all the relevant “takes” together and so it sounds like it was all done in one go-through. Then they give that to the artists who animate the characters to the words being said. Once it’s all done, it sounds like it just happened like magic. Whoosh!
UP: The artists do the mouth articulation of the cartoon character to the timing that the actor has provided for them. For something like that it usually takes maybe a few hours for the actor. Not a lot of time. But, again, it’s a wonderful day. You’re on a soundstage acting, doing what you love to do. Creating life. You’re there with a lot of other talented actors, directors and filmmakers. After that, putting the rest of the movie together can take years. Then you go watch it in the theater and it zips by. I’m just realizing…it’s a whole world that people on the outside don’t know about.
UP: Yes. That was when I was writing erotica. I am a Scorpio, okay, and there was this real classy woman by the name of Lonnie Barbach, PhD. She had written many best-selling books about sex and women and was (and is) highly thought of in her profession. She was compiling stories for a book on erotica. It intrigued me. I somehow heard about a book signing she was having in Beverly Hills for her latest book, so I just decided to go. That was when we still had small book stores around town and authors could actually meet and greet their new audiences. I thought she was intelligent and respectable and afterwards I went up to her and asked if I could submit a story for her next anthology. She said, Yes, and gave me her card. So, just for fun I whipped off a little story and mailed it to her. It ended up being the lead story in her next volume which was Erotica: Tales Told By Women. After that she hired me to do several more things for her. She also introduced me to a friend of hers, a writer/producer by the name of Deborah Shames. They both lived in the Sausalito area just north of San Francisco. Deborah hired me to write a couple of erotic films. Not porno, it was erotica. It was a whole different genre that was just coming in and Lonnie Barbach was one of the people who helped put that into place.
I needed the work. I needed to make money, so I read a book on writing erotic movies and just followed the directions. It said we needed to have this many sex scenes this far apart and it had to include this and that. Once I saw the pattern I just started creating different kinds of scenes…so it wouldn’t be the same thing over and over again. I’m pretty fanatical about structure in a movie as well as technique in singing. You have to have the structure and technique under everything to make it solid. Then when you go to write or sing, you just throw all that structure to the wind and surrender to the ecstasy of the experience. You have the structure of technique in place. It holds you. It’s automatic. Like building up your muscles so that you can jump high. You now have the muscles…so you just drop all the weights, forget about the muscles and surrender to the leap.
I had a wonderful time writing these short films for Deborah [Shames]. I wrote them to be very erotic. She was able to get excellent actors to do the roles because it was very classy and not porno, however it ultimately came out like a sexy-ish sitcom. It wasn’t as saucy as I had imagined. We all live and learn. That was when women’s erotica was just emerging. Now it’s a big deal.
I asked Deborah if I could sit in on the casting and she said, “Sure!” So I watched from a seat in the back of a small theater as two days of brilliant actors came flooding through to audition for roles in this little film. It was then that I realized what a crapshoot acting auditions were. You have a woman who is just brilliant, however, she needs to match the guy we want for the lead. Their energy has to work well between each other. She also has to stand out from the other women in the film, so, if she’s a blonde, then the other women need to be brunettes and redheads so the audience can quickly tell them apart and keep track of who’s who. And then, for something like this they had to be willing to be as erotic as the script called for. It wasn’t graphic, just erotic. That’s not a problem now, but back then it was.
As I watched these auditions and saw the crapshoot that it was to get a job, I was confounded. “So that’s what I’ve been doing for twenty years! It’s an impossible way to live!” At that moment I realized that I never wanted to go on another audition in my whole life. I would rather create the projects and do supporting roles in the films I produce.
UP: Twenty years was enough of auditioning. I wanted to be able to write and create because no matter how brilliant an actor is – there are some brilliant actors and actresses showing up and auditioning for parts – it ultimately boils down to chemistry, looks and mixing and matching.
I remember one woman who came in and was beautiful, elegant, slender – she looked great. She was also very talented, but her shoes were awful. The high heels on her shoes were shredded. Sometimes women’s heels get nicks in them if they step on a grate, or the little sole falls off the heal and the leather at the bottom of the heel rolls up. The shoe looks good when she looks in the mirror or down at her feet, but it looks shabby from the side and the back. Well, her heels were shredded and looked awful. I took one look and I said to myself, “Oh my God. If her heels are that bad, what else is she not paying attention to?” Even I could not hire someone whose shoes were in such bad condition.
UP: How you do one thing is how you do everything. That that made me realize how important it is to be groomed. A lot of times women think, oh, my shoes won’t show. Well, she was on stage and that’s the thing I remember.
BM: She was eliminated because of her shoes?
UP: She wasn’t eliminated, but for me, I couldn’t take her seriously. It was so jarring that this many years later I still remember it. I hate to say it, but that’s what I felt. How one person takes care of one thing is how they take care of everything. Would she learn her lines? Would she get to the set on time? All those things are subliminally under the surface. We ultimately went with a wonderful blond actress and male actor who has since become a very well known character actor.
You hear people say, well, the first thing people look at are your shoes. I didn’t really believe that because I could never see myself in my shoes. (Both laugh.) At that point I realized that I have to always have shoes that look good, whatever I’m doing, the shoes have to be in good repair. They don’t have to be $300 or $500 shoes…just classy and good looking.
Anyway, that’s an aside, but it’s also the moment when I decided that I never wanted to go on auditions again. So, the other times that I worked after that was where people just literally called me. I have a friend, Marcus Nispel, an amazing director, also a sannyasin [a disciple of Osho]. Oh, my God, Marcus Nispel, he was just transitioning from being one of the most highly paid directors in commercials because of his ability to do special effects and starting to direct horror movies. He loves the horror genre. Marcus called me in for a commercial and just gave it to me That’s when I was starting to write my script “Don Juan.” I did the commercial…and that’s when I realized that sitting around a set all day waiting for a setup was an interruption to my writing. I loved working, however, I couldn’t write while on the set. Being on a set look glamorous to outsiders, yet it’s all like “hurry up and wait.” Time is so expensive on a set, you have to stay focused and be ready when it’s your time. You never know when that is going to be. I can come in primed for a deeply emotional scene at 6 a.m. and not get to it till 4 p.m. I, personally, have to stay in that zone for the whole day. I can’t go read something else, or play cards, or hang out on the internet. If I’m going to do what I need to do in front of the camera, then I have to stay primed for it. Focused. I didn’t have the heart to spend all my time going on commercial auditions anymore…just for the money. I had done it for twenty years. Now it was time to write. Create. Even so, Marcus is an amazing guy and I was truly grateful for the work and the residual income. I’d work with him any time again.
Gee…I was totally ignorant about money. Money was not my highest value. It actually wasn’t anywhere on my radar. When I was acting, money just showed up in the mail box week after week. I thought it grew out of the carpet in the living room. I totally needed to create.
BM: Let’s see, Lonnie Barbach is credited as “Sexuality Consultant” on those two films. What does a Sexuality Consultant actually do?
UP: I don’t know. Look her up on her website, www.lonniebarbach.com. You’ll see that she started the whole sexual movement in the 70’s with her book “For Yourself.” She really pioneered the world of women’s sexuality and she is really smart. She and Deborah were friends. It was a very difficult thing at that time for a woman to direct an erotic film and not have it be considered a porno. That porno world is a rough world. Women needed to stand together to redefine their own sexuality and what eros meant for them. Deborah was very courageous. In our culture sexuality is so…complex, hidden and confusing…which makes it very misunderstood. To have a woman enter that arena and want to maintain respectability was a difficult thing to do. Lonnie had the stature of being a PhD as well as a best-selling author of highly esteemed books on human sexuality, women’s sexuality in particular. These were two women who were courageous, smart and willing to champion the fact that women are healthy, sexual creatures who desire sex as much as men, just in a different way. Men need to know this as well. One man once used the word “slutty” in a fun way, and I had to gently redefine it for him and say, “Slutty is fun…however, this is orgasmic.” I believe that is a missing ingredient in our culture today. Women’s sexuality has been diminished and repressed for over 3,000 years. We just take it for granted that women’s bodies should sell everything, from cars to toothpaste to whatever else you see featured in advertising. Even so, there is something so amazingly healthy and healing about sex that is never talked about and very rarely realized by most people. That interests me. To break open those old myths of subjugation and redefine it in the world. Ahh…well, that is to come.
BM: What was it like working with Deborah? What did you think of her direction on your material?
UP: She was wonderful to work with. Very encouraging. I wrote her some really good scripts. I didn’t tell her at the time that I was just following the directions in the book. (both laugh.) I had the recipe and I just went from there… adding a dash of this and a pinch of that into the mix. They were only about an hour long. They had good little plots, only thing is, when they came to the screen they were a lot less erotic than I had imagined. They kind of fell into a betwixt and between place. Even so, this was the beginning of that whole genre.
UP: After The Voyeur, Deborah asked me to write The Hottest Bid. But at that time a man named David Goldstein had heard about me from England. I don’t remember how he heard about me, but he was producing porno and he wanted to pay me $15,000 to write a movie about the sex life of Don Juan.
UP: He had a good idea and flew from England to San Francisco to meet with me. He was a nice man, I just adored him. A really fun, sweet and classy guy. He paid me an upfront bonus to get started and I went to work on researching all the Don Juan films, plays and operas ever created. I always research and make notes and brainstorm for about a month or month and a half before I start writing the script itself. Don Juan is where I figured out my own methods of how to structure a full-length screenplay. That’s where I discovered working with the triangle and discovered how it sets up in four parts. That’s where I learned my relationship with writing and literally fell in love with writing. This is where I solidified my practices of setting up my work before I started actually writing into the script itself. Don Juan went through a number of incarnations, and is, to this day, my favorite script. We had major directors and producers attached, but, alas, Hollywood is a strange place for a woman on her own in business.
I studied a lot, read every book I could find, took all kinds of classes and dissected movies and screenplays over and over again until I grasped the infrastructure under all of the great movies. Then I was able to develop all the plot points and characters to tell the story. That’s the jumping off point. After that you just allow the characters free reign to live their lives and I just go down into their worlds and start writing down what they are saying and doing. If your work is set up properly, writing becomes as enjoyable as watching a great movie. It just takes a little more work.
I’m glad I had that training because a screenplay is absolutely dependent on good structure. Just like a ballet dancer will work at the barre every day to keep their body aligned, then they can go off and do modern dance and barrel rolls and whatever they choose to do, but it all starts out with the structure of the body trained to hold itself in position. Same thing with screenwriting. The structure is so crucial that if you start without it, you’ll find yourself totally in a mess by page 68 and not really know how to straighten it out or even finish the screenplay. It’s like a mobile. Everything balances. That training and he subsequent knowledge has been invaluable for every aspect of my life. I have a development company now with a lot of projects lined up to get done. People ask me if I’ll produce their projects. The answer is, I don’t have time. I’ll work with them to show them how to make the money to create their own development company, however, I worked to create a fortune to produce my own projects. Let me show you how to fish…as the old story goes.
Anyway, it took me about 4 or 5 months to get the first draft of that screenplay done. By the time, David had had some financial reversals. He had invested a lot of money in a low budget film that was about this ice cream man who ground little kids up into the ice cream. Don’t ask. I never would have suggested that. He literally lost his shirt on that one. Yikes. When I turned Don Juan in, he said that the script was too good for him and asked if I could find some higher level producers to package it with. He said I could be an Executive Producer on it. I said, “Sure,” and that’s when I brought a couple of my friends here in Hollywood into the mix. That’s how we got to Bigas Luna, one of the top Spanish directors in the world. I went to Spain to meet Bigas at his home in Taragona, just south of Barcelona. There I worked with another man I brought into the production and I audiotaped all the conversations we had. When I returned to the states, Bigas wanted to see the changes in the script before he committed to the project. Everyone just turned and looked at me. I was the broke writer. I was also the Producer on the project. So I just decided that I would take it upon myself to re-arrange all my credit cards around again and do the rewrite. I would own this script, we have Bigas lined up and a phenomenal producer named Nick Wechsler. My business partner, George, brought those two men to the table.
A friend of mine lent me an empty apartment that he wasn’t using in a building on Rossmore Avenue in Hollywood where Mae West used to live. I transcribed all of those tapes, which turned into 197 single-spaced pages.
UP: Then I went through everything again and I rewrote the screenplay from page one. Everything was different. It was fundamentally similar, but everything was different. It took me six weeks. It was a brand new script and by the time I got halfway through the process everyone was excited. By the time I got completely done with it and turned it in, George, the man I had brought into the project and who had introduced me to Bigas, went behind my back and turned David Goldsmith against me. David’s last conversation with me ended in him saying, “I love you, I adore you, I kiss your feet!” Now, he was working behind my back with this guy George and they were both trying to kick me off the project and take it completely over. But we still had contracts that were protecting me.
[Udana tells the story of what happened to her script.]
There is another two or three years of drawn out efforts to put it all back together, however, I was a woman on my own in Hollywood with no money. That’s a risky place to be. I finally just got tired of being a broke screenwriter in Hollywood and started to learn about business.
UP: Yes. All in all I wrote 11 screenplays and one play. I had a number of projects stolen. I had written screenplays for friends and then as soon as they got the finished screenplay they announced that they were not going to pay me until they got the film into production. That’s not how it works for a writer. It happened with people that I knew whom I considered to be good friends. I didn’t quit this business…you can’t quit what is in your blood. I just stepped back to “do money.” I wasn’t going to marry for it…that felt too much like jail. Also, I believe in love too much to do that. I just had to figure out this money thing.
UP: When I started writing, it didn’t occur to me that those kind of things could happen. I just figured that the money would come in from one way or another. It always did. But, then it didn’t. I had never wanted to think of money before, however, then I realized that I was always thinking of money…how much I didn’t have. Being broke is not noble. It’s kind of noble for a while and then it gets to the point where it becomes grinding and exhausting.
As an actress, I didn’t realize that jumping from acting to screenwriting was like jumping out of a frying pan into the fire! [Both laugh.] It didn’t even occur to me. I thought, wait a minute, you know how to write a script and structure something and do good work, somebody will pay you somewhere. I wasn’t conscious. Here is what I was told about money: “Shut up and sing.” Literally. My parents never told me anything about money. School didn’t tell me anything about it. My Business Manager managed all of it. I was giving birth to art, I really didn’t have a head for bean counting. My money all disappeared on Blue Monday. Everything after that was a struggle.
I was more interested in the art. I wanted to know about God. I went for ten years without wearing a watch because I wanted to be on eternal time.
I learned that I am here in this physical universe. Everything down here is woven into the numbers. A screenplay is a certain amount of pages and each page is approximately one minute. All those ideas have to be condensed into that framework. That was a huge Aha! To actually consider that numbers could be beautiful.
Anyway…One thing I loved about writing is that I got to act as well. I could play all the roles. Not just one of them, all of them.
UP: And I didn’t have to audition for them! So basically one day I had a month between projects. I had some things optioned and then I just found that I had about four weeks free. Then I thought, hmmmm…maybe I’ll just test all of my theories and write something out of my imagination from scratch. What do I want to write about? That became Mermaid Bay and four weeks later I came out with something that still delights me. I still read it and I laugh, it just really stands relevant to today. I love that script.
I had another friend who had hired me to write something for her to star in. I helped her raise the final bit of money that she needed in order to purchase the option for the original idea from some young writers who didn’t know structure. The night before the option was over, we met with a young producer who said he would give her the final $15,000 she needed if – and then he turned to me – “…if you will write a screenplay for me.” I was shocked. Painted into a corner. All I could say was, “Yes.” The next day the woman had purchased the rights to the movie and said, “I don’t have enough money to pay you. I’ll go continue raising the money if you will just start working or just write $1,500 worth.” I told her that’s not the way it works because at the beginning I have to do the research and set up the structure. That’s where the major work is. Once you build that, the rest is like riding a rollercoaster. You just get in the little seat and let the tracks pull you forward on your adventure.
UP: So I put it all on credit cards for myself and spent a couple of months brainstorming and working and it cost me about $8,000 in credit cards to finish the script for her. She never went to raise money to pay me and therefore never paid me. I was shocked. And then she got vicious. It was weird. That put me to bed for two weeks. I finally did write the screenplay for the other fellow who invested in her film. He paid me $15,000, however, other things happened so his production company couldn’t go forward. He and I both read the screenplay a few months ago and were delighted that it still holds up. Still has an audience. He was the most kind and ethical person that I encountered in showbiz. He now lives in Texas with his family.
There are other things that happened, however, they are in the past and I’m moving forward. I’m creating from here. I’m just telling you all these details to let people know that there are all kinds of traps and pitfalls here in Los Angeles. Be prepared. You have to be stable financially when you get here to Hollywood. Otherwise you will be a victim of circumstances. You have to be smart and prepared and adult about your money, your time and the people you partner up with. I currently train people how to create a strong residual income so that they don’t become subjected to the “poor starving artist” syndrome. Why? Because I learned by experience. And I love working with great and enterprising talent.
BM: Well, that’s awesome!
UP: Yes! Life is good. I’m back to my roots. [Laughs.]
UP: I feel like my real life has just begun. This is where I get to develop projects and see them to completion. I just finished some music for a musical and I’ve just got so much on my plate it’s hard to get to all of it. So the good news is, youth no longer has to be wasted on the young. The laws of the universe still work the same. Good fortune is just inexhaustible. I think of it as though I’m holding open an elevator door so that life and blooming can come pouring through from wherever it comes from. Good news. Abundance. Power. Choice. I am creating projects that are life affirmative, life positive. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t tragedy, but that it all has a resounding resonance of life itself, of what I call the law of blooming. That’s what I think. Today.
BM: Awesome, that is perfect! Thank you so much for your time.
UP: Yes, thank you for asking.
NOTE: Special thanks to Saij for transcribing our interview.