Saturday, December 22, 2007

as a matter of principle and pride

From my own experience, and from watching my parents struggle with money, it seems that most filmmakers and artists pay a hefty price in order to maintain their creative freedom. Trading financial security for total control of one's work sounds crazy to many people. But, the truth is...that selling out and/or handing over the rights to another person or entity in power doesn't necessarily mean the artist will become wealthy, by any means. Creative accounting will ensure that the artist never sees a fair share.

When I started this blog, I asked my dad to send me some funny thoughts, anecdotes or anything he wanted to write about. One of the first stories he emailed just happens to relate to this very subject:
When Christmas time rolls around, I think about 'Santa and the Doodle-li-Boop,' a children's novelty song I wrote during the fifties. Art Carney recorded it for Columbia Records. His popularity on 'The Honeymooners' helped sales. Then one day I received a phone call from Jackie Gleason's agent, Bullets Durgom. Gleason offered to highlight my song on one of 'The Honeymooners' shows, but with one condition: he wanted to be listed as a co-writer.

I asked my friend Len Levinson, a writer with Variety, and he said it was a common practice for this kind of deception involving a celebrity. Len urged me to go for it because I would earn thousands more in royalties. "Johnny Green is listed as co-author of 'Body and Soul' but he never wrote a note," he said. "His status as a well-known radio conductor helped earn millions for that song over the years and Green got half the money. You should swallow your pride and give in to Gleason," Len added.

I thought it over for a few days and declined Gleason's offer, as a matter of principle. My $30,000 in royalties for the year might have been $300,000 if Carney had performed it on television's top rated show. Several years later when I had to sell a pint of blood to pay for dinner, I thought wistfully of Jackie Gleason's ultimatum.

I must be a chip off the old block. I have been overly protective of our work, just as my parents have been overly protective of their projects over the years. They had the opportunity to sell out many times, but they couldn't bear the thought of someone else running with one of their ideas and taking the credit.

Although we were never officially offered a distribution deal, I will admit that there were some pretty big companies fishing around, wondering what our plans were for the movie. It was flattering and somewhat surreal, but mostly it was Hollywood B.S. I steered clear of the sharks because I didn't want anyone tampering with our work. Jeff and I wanted full control over what went on the cutting room floor and what stayed in the film. My gut feeling kept telling me that we needed to do our own thing. If we wanted the film to have a happy healthy life, WE must nurture it, not just hand it over to some studio and hope for the best.

It's such a gamble, though! You never know what's going to happen or what's on the other side of that decision. Are you going to regret it later? I guess that's part of the game. Maybe selling out would have been the best thing I could have done for the film! ABEL RAISES CAIN could have been in Blockbuster Video stores everywhere! But we probably would have been very unhappy, we wouldn't have seen a dime... and it would have meant giving up control over a personal film that I care deeply about.

My dad's story continued...
Another Christmas anecdote I'll never forget occurred during the eighties outside Grand Central Station in New York City. It was mid-December, snowing, icy, windy and 20 below zero. An elderly man with two loaded shopping bags was gingerly crossing the street heading into the station. His pace was too slow, the light turned green while he was half-way across and an impatient taxi driver blasted his horn, shouted obscenities out the window, then nudged the old man with his bumper.

The oldster could only tip toe a few inches at a time on the icy surface. The cabby kept pushing him until he slipped and fell. Both shopping bags split open, spilling Christmas-wrapped packages everywhere. Traffic backed up on 42nd Street for several blocks, horns blowing. Several good samaritons picked him up, along with his packages, while the irate cab driver jumped out of his taxi.

Talk about road rage! He stuck his finger in the shaken man's chest and shouted, "You dumb son-of-a-bitch! Why didn't you stay at the home and then die?'

The oldster suddenly came to life, pulled out a pistol and ordered the shocked cabby to spread eagle on the taxi hood and put his hands behind him. He then flashed his ID as a retired NYPD detective. A patrol car came down Vanderbilt Avenue, perpendicular to 42nd Street, the two officers ran over, and were appraised of the situation. One handcuffed the cabby and the other parked his cab on Vanderbilt to unravel the gridlock.

A large crowd of onlookers, including myself, broke into applause and cheers when the cops put a very dejected cabby in their patrol car for a trip to the station. His passengers had long since leaped out of the taxi and disappeared.

I always carry two extra plastic shopping bags folded up. I gave them to the detective for his Christmas gifts and he was grateful. I congratulated him on his action and offered to carry them to his train. He wished me a Merry Christmas and declined my help. Probably as a matter of pride.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

alan abel uncensored?

I was visiting with my parents recently and I decided to do an impromptu interview with my dad about the film, its future and the blog. Here is what transpired:

So, dad. Here we are. We finally have a blog, a forum for you and I...

ALAN: blab.

Yes, you can blab on the blog. But more importantly, you now have a platform to say whatever you'd like. No holds barred. Don't be too dirty, though, please. We may have visitors who enjoy your antics but don't appreciate toilet humor.

Okay. Well, I guess I'd like to start off by saying that the last three years with the documentary has been an adventure. It's like going backpacking in Europe, skiing, bungee jumping, hang-gliding and skydiving all at once. I received the same thrills by seeing the documentary play at various film festivals around the globe and experiencing all of the accolades and admiration that people expressed through applause, cheers and standing ovations. NO amount of money can buy that. You can't. We got it and it didn't cost us a thing. Well, not for Mom and I, at least. It did cost you!

Yes, dad. But it's been worth it. Except for the time I excitedly flew home with a copy of the rough cut to show you and mom back in late 2004...and you ripped it to shreds! You really seemed to dislike it. You guys were extremely critical. You handed me five pages of notes! Do you remember? I was devastated. THEN, less than a month later, I got the call from Slamdance telling us that we had just gotten in. And you were ecstatic!

Oh, we didn't mean to be critical. And it wasn't that we disliked it. We were just kind of wondering if this was the way it should go. Because we have been in a state of stupor all through the years, trying to figure out how to make the story of my life work...we couldn't find 'the hook' as they say. We had flirtations with a few names like Cary Grant and Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen…and they all expressed the same dismay after awhile when they realized the overwhelmingly vast collection of source material that we've amassed over the past half-century. Literally, there are hundreds of hours of tapes and films and audio reels, plus over 10,000 press clippings, thousands of letters, photographs...all of this stuff is in storage in trunks and boxes.

This is the stuff that you and Jeff had to dig your way through and figure out not so much what to use...but what not to use! And that's a problem. But you guys did it!

What would you like to tell everyone?

Mom and I are going to do a documentary on you called 'Daughter Dearest.' What you and Jeff did was a magnificent embarrassment. By that, I mean you photographed everything. We let it all hang out and you caught every nuance. The camera was above us, in front of us, behind us. I thought I was getting a colonoscopy for crying out loud!

Yes, dad. I know that's your favorite joke. But remember, I wanted to give people a true glimpse into the weird lives of the Abels! This included showing a shot of you sitting there in your underwear. Let's all be glad that I didn't include the scene where you mooned me. But let's get serious. Where do we go from here?

I think there should be a sequel! ABEL RAISES CAIN part 2. You can use all of the material that you weren't able to fit into part 1 and you can include the stuff that even I have forgotten about. You could easily have another 80-minute documentary.

We'll see about that, dad. I don't know if I'm ready for another ten-year project. I was actually wondering what you think about the larger picture.

Oh. Well, I think we should get a divorce from one another and go our separate ways...find another family to adopt us. You go with one family. I'll go with another. And then five years later, we can meet up and find out how everything is going.

You know, we actually could have sold you when you were six months old. At that time, the going price for a baby was $40,000. But we thought about it for 4 or 5 minutes and decided to keep you. And in retrospect, we're glad we did. It worked out quite well. Although we could have used the money at that time!

I think that our future lies in remaining creative...not looking back, not worrying or agonizing over what could have or should have been. We want to dig out the trunk full of ideas that we have been collecting over the years and bring them to life...funny ideas that would still live today.

I know that you and mom are enjoying this renewed interest in your work. Isn't it surreal to see your life flash before you on the big screen?

It is surreal. I think...Who is this guy? How did he do all this stuff? Wait, did I do all this stuff? Oh, I couldn't have been so brazen to pull off these stunts. How could I have ever pulled that off?

I've seen screenings of ABEL RAISES CAIN 50 or 60 times. I look forward to every screening because every audience is different. It's kind of like doing a show on Broadway. Going out there like it's the first show, hearing people laughing and applauding...and doing a Q&A after the screening, which is a favorite task of very exhilarating and it's very gratifying. And there is more to come, because the documentary has great legs.

You have great legs.

No I don't. My legs give out.

Do you have anything else you want to say?

Everybody should really obtain the DVD! Is that okay, can I plug it? Go to and you'll find...

But people already found us through!

ALAN: Okay. Well, then scratch that last part. No, I don't have any final things to say, except...Are you ever going to get a life?

Very funny, dad. How about 'Up Yours?'

No, I would never say that in the blog. People can misinterpret these things and we don't want that.

Well, you're going to be uncensored in this blog. You're allowed to let it all hang out, just like in the documentary...figuratively and literally!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

the tortoise and the hare

Well, we finally did it. There were a ton of naysayers along the way, including my own parents! And it only took nine years to do it. But here we are! Jeff and I finally finished production on the DVD and I'm staring at boxes of them as I type. It seems weird to be at the end of this journey...but in many ways, this adventure is just beginning, since we're self-distributing the movie. My friends probably cringe at this notion, because I've already invested close to a third of my life in this project and, frankly, I think they're tired of hearing about it.

Jeff and I are continually subjected to the question, 'When are you going to be done with this film?' and 'Why don't you guys move on to the next project?' Well, first of all, we're deeply in debt. So we can't even think about making another film until we have more to eat than the dried up garbanzo bean that we found behind the stove last week. Secondly, anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I don't do anything half-assed. I usually go for the whole ass...I've pretty much done everything myself on this film from fundraising, researching, shooting, logging, promoting, negotiating, etc. How could I walk away now, when I've worked so hard up to this point?

Ever since we premiered ABEL RAISES CAIN at Slamdance in 2005 and unexpectedly won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary, I swear that this film has taken on a life of its own. There were so many unexpected twists and turns, high points and moments of desperation. We made mistakes along the way, but we also made wise decisions that I'm happy for now. No, we never received a 6-figure distribution deal (as my parents had hoped), but my dad DID receive an 800-person standing ovation at our HOT DOCS premiere in Toronto, and that was priceless.

So, taking this film on the festival circuit has been one of the best experiences of our lives. We truly had no idea that this documentary would do as well as it has, so far. BUT now the hard work has just begun...because self-releasing a film is one of the scariest, riskiest things Jeff and I could do, especially when we're looking for things to eat behind the stove.