Thursday, September 24, 2015

Cameron Watson and Christina Pickles Explain How to "Break a Hip"


A few weeks ago I blogged about the very funny web series "Break a Hip," created by Cameron Watson and starring Christina Pickles.  The series depicts the friendship between a lonely retired English actress transplanted in Hollywood, Elizabeth "Biz" Brantley (played by Pickles), and Wincy (Britt Hennemuth), the young aspiring actor she has hired to help her with errands and chores around her tiny studio apartment.  I was very taken with the series because, underneath its occasionally zany and outrageous humor, there lies a very poignant story of two lonely souls who find solace and comfort with one another.  Because the feelings and emotions in "Break a Hip" have a natural authenticity and spontaneity to it, I wanted to find out more about what went into creating and producing the show.  Both Cameron Watson and Christina Pickles graciously consented to interviews where they discussed the making of the web series, as well as aspects of their lives and careers that provided the creative impetus for their collaboration on "Break a Hip."  Not only did Watson and Pickles explain why they regard this series as a high point in both of their individual careers, they also discussed how the characters of Biz and Wincy reflect the personal experiences and sensibilities of its primary creative personnel.  What ultimately makes "Break a Hip" so effective is how the series's depiction of Biz and the challenges in her life--as a mature actress struggling to survive in a Hollywood that has forgotten all about her--allows Watson and Pickles to express their feelings about the current state of the entertainment industry, as well as how that industry often takes for granted the creative personnel working in their midst.  The show also demonstrates how new entertainment mediums, such as web series, are offering an opportunity for creative individuals to practice their craft without the limitations or impositions placed upon them by corporate entities, and yet still have the potential to reach the widest possible audience than ever before.  I would like to thank Cameron Watson and Christina Pickles for their generosity in finding time to speak with me about "Break a Hip."


The genesis for "Break a Hip" began in the mid-1980s when Cameron Watson arrived in Los Angeles after studying acting at the University of Montevallo in Alabama.  As Watson recalls, "I actually lived the story as a young actor.  When I was first out in LA, I needed a job to earn money so I was a waiter and all kinds of things while I was auditioning.  And, through another actor, I got hooked up with a woman who was an older, retired English actress.  She lived alone in a studio apartment exactly like the character of Biz in 'Break a Hip.'  She had posted an ad on the board at the SAG headquarters looking for an actor to help her with errands and chores part time.  A friend of mine had responded to that and was doing it for quite awhile.  He had to go out of town and he said to me 'Hey, I've got this little gig with this woman.  You just have to take her to the grocery store and to the doctor and she pays you by the hour.  It's not a horrible job, but just get ready, she's tough and she's a real character.'  And I said, 'I'll take it.  I don't care.  What do you mean by tough?'  And he said, 'She's just a character.  You'll get frustrated and you'll laugh and you'll probably get a little mad at her at times.'  And I said, 'Oh, I'll do it for a couple of months.  I really could use the cash.'  And I ended up forging a relationship with her over the course of almost three years, off and on, until she passed away.  I stayed with her as her main person to help her.  She had nobody in the world, she had nobody left."



As Watson started working for this actress and got to know her on a personal level, he found that, "She was still very elegant.  It was kind of a funny dichotomy, I guess.  She lived in this really sad, sad studio apartment that she and her husband had lived in since the 1940s when they first came over from England.  He was a pretty successful character actor and came to Hollywood and did a lot of character work in movies, but she never really translated much to the Hollywood scene.  She had this real elegance and sophistication but she was trapped in this sad life because her husband had died, and all of her pals--all of the actors that she knew, all of her old cronies--they were all dead.  And she was angry.  She was not happy that she was alone.  She felt abandoned.  She felt like she was stuck in this town, and it wasn't home, but there wasn't anybody at home for her to go home to.  And at that time her health was so poor that she could not have traveled back to England anyway.  It was interesting to me to observe this because I was young and hopeful, like the character of Wincy, and I was in Hollywood for the first time.  It was such an interesting, complete opposite end of the spectrum to witness someone at the end of their life living with all this disappointment--and these choices not made and these opportunities not taken--and I was just fascinated by her.  I found her very urbane and funny as hell and I was very attracted to--what's the word?--the finality of a life like that."



Throughout his time running errands and working for this actress, Watson learned some survival skills and life lessons from her that he ultimately applied to his own life and career.  Watson wistfully recalls how, "She would never admit that she was unhappy, she would never admit that she had made these mistakes and that she had these missed opportunities.  I do think she was being hard on herself, but I do think she was a woman whose talent and opportunity was never fully realized.  I think that was the sadness of her, I think that's what kept her stuck in that kind of 'angry-at-the-world' perspective she had.  I don't think she was completely hard on herself because I think there was a reality that she had a bunch of missed opportunities.  She used to tell a story when she was a young actress studying in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  She said there was a dinner party once that took place after class or rehearsal and there was Vivien Leigh and Gielgud and that whole crowd.   And they kept telling her, 'You need to go over and sit at that table with Noel Coward.  Go sit with him, he will love you.'  And she had such fear and self-doubt that she thought to herself, 'I won't be good enough to entertain him.  He'll think I'm nuts.  I'll be less than he expects and I'm not going to go.'  She didn't go sit at his table and so this woman at 80 years old lived with this thought, 'If I had only gone and talked with Noel Coward, I might've become a star.'  That's the sort of burden she lived with herself."  



Even though this actress remained haunted by the missed opportunities from her own life and career, she was still generous enough to mentor Watson about the realities of being a working actor so that he could avoid repeating the same mistakes she had made years earlier.  Watson recalls how, "She sort of skirted around and made fun of things and often would say 'nothing now is good, it was all better in my day.'  But at the same time she would very subtly guide me down the right path and say things like, in that last episode, when Biz tells Wincy 'Oh, you've got to go do this play.  Of course you do,' She would do things like that.  I would say to her that I would have to go to Portland, Oregon to do a play for a couple of months, and I knew it was going to be a real problem because she didn't have any help and she said, 'You have to take this opportunity because this is what you're here to do.  Don't miss these opportunities, don't miss out on fortune when it comes your way.'  And I knew it was coming from a place from someone who had missed a lot of opportunities.  I think the gift that she gave me was to have the perseverance and to buck up and she always used to say 'Get to it, get on with it' like when Christina does in that eighth episode where Wincy is rambling on about something and she would say 'Oh, come on, Wincy.  Get to it.'  I think I learned that more than anything it's just 'Get to it because life is short and it doesn't last forever.'  I think she wanted me to not be her, to be really honest, I think that was the bottom line: To not wake up at 80 years old and go 'Oh, I missed everything.  I missed it all.'  I am glad that she had an opportunity to see some of my early work.  When I started to work, she got to see a lot of the television work I did, and she actually came and saw me do a play before she died, which was wonderful.  She was able to leave knowing that I would be OK, and that made me very happy."



After her passing, Watson forged ahead and continued pursuing his career to where he ultimately established himself as a respected actor and stage director.  During that time, he wrote a full-length feature film screenplay based on his experiences working for this actress.  In 2005, he directed the well-regarded independent feature film "Our Very Own," a coming of age story about five small town teenagers growing up in Shelbyville, Tennessee in 1978, starring Allison Janney and Keith Carradine.  In the wake of "Our Very Own," Watson recalled the screenplay based on his experiences in Hollywood working for this actress, and began considering what he could do to bring this script to fruition.  As Watson recalls, "I always wanted to write a story about her, and the full-length screenplay based on my experiences with her was called 'Lonely on the Moon.'  My colleagues and I first made 'Our Very Own' and that took several years to get made.  We sold it to Miramax and Allison Janney got an Independent Spirit Award nomination from it.  After that film, there was a bit of buzz around me as a new and promising filmmaker and people were asking 'What's next?  What's next?' and I took the 'Lonely on the Moon' script all over town, trying to get it set up.  I couldn't get anyone interested in it because the leading woman was an older actress.  At that time, nobody was interested in a story with an older actress carrying a film.  It's a very different world than the one we live in now which is why we did what we did by turning that screenplay into a web series.  Being old is sort of very groovy right now and very 'in.'  But at that time I was meeting with all of these people who could very easily put this thing together and no one would bite because of the age of the lead character.  I got the script into the hands of a couple of actresses who were that age and had a name, and they all wanted to do it, but I couldn't get anybody interested in financing the movie.  So I put it away and it sat in the drawer for several years."  



After several years of no activity concerning "Lonely on the Moon," it took prodding and encouragement from one of his colleagues to inspire Watson to revisit that script.  As Watson recalls, "Maggie Biggar, who was one of the producers on 'Our Very Own,' kept bringing it up and about three years ago she said, 'Why don't we pull out 'Lonely on the Moon' and do a reading of the screenplay just to see what it's like?  It's been a long time since anybody's looked at it.  It's still kind of a new property.'  And I thought it was a great idea and so I called Christina Pickles.  I'd worked with her and known her a long time.  She didn't know the script at all.  I said to Christina, 'I'm putting together a reading of this old screenplay I wrote.  Would you read the character of Biz?'  And so I cast Christina as Biz for this reading, and Carole Cook read the role of Pearl Goodfish at the reading.  And they were the two actors from the reading who came along once we turned it into the web series.  We rented a space in Hollywood and invited a handful of people for the reading.  It was just for our own purposes.  We weren't trying to raise money or anything.  We read it and it just played beautifully.  People who attended that reading fell in love with the characters of Biz and Wincy.  The reaction was really positive.  So we thought, 'What do we do with this?  Do we try to make another independent movie?  Aww, it takes too long, it takes so much money.  We've done that even though we had some success with it.'  And I just didn't want to do that again, to be really honest, because I just knew how much heavy lifting that that was.  So I put it back in the drawer for maybe a year or so until Christina and I were having lunch one day in Brentwood just to say Hello and I'm looking at her eating lunch and, like a lightening bolt, I just said, 'I know what to do with the screenplay.'  She said, 'What are you talking about?'  And I said, 'I know what to do about 'Lonely on the Moon.'  We're going to reinvent it as a web series.  We're going to break it up into endless episodes.  It can go on forever and ever and you're going to play Biz.'  And she said, 'How are we going to do that?' and I said, 'I don't know, but we're going to do it.'  So she said, 'I'm in.  Let's go!" and we shook hands at the table and that's how the whole thing started."


Once Watson decided to turn his screenplay into a web series, he began reorganizing its characters and scenario into 8-episode segments running approximately ten minutes apiece.  He found that the process of adapting the screenplay into a new format was actually "very easy.  In a screenplay, you have a self-contained amount of time to tell a story.  There's no going on and on and on in an episodic sort of way.  And the device in the screenplay is that Biz hires Wincy to get a list of things done and there were 12 things in the screenplay that she wanted to do before she died because her character knew that she was going to die pretty soon.  So they go on this quest and one of the things was to go find Pearl Goodfish and tell her off and it built to a finale with her trying to get these things done before she died.  But, for the web series, I wanted to leave it open so that they could continue these tasks and these adventures together without the pressure that there's an end in sight.  I removed that from the equation and that really freed me up as a writer to just have fun and go 'Oh!  All they have to do in this episode is go to the grocery store.  And in this episode all they have to do is go to the acting class and experience that.'  It actually made it easier to tell the story and it was more freeing than the screenplay format because it's almost like we get to do a 'day-in-the-life' of these characters over and over and over and that feels nice.  To be perfectly honest about it, I think it makes for a better story in an episodic format than as a full-length screenplay."



After Watson refashioned the story as a web series, he went about raising money to finance its production.  With good humor, Watson recalls how, "I didn't want to go through the process again of raising money for it like we did with the film.  I wanted it to be so creatively free and not have any pressure and not have to owe anybody a lot of money and not have anybody looking over our shoulder going 'Well, what's going to happen with it?'  I just wanted it to be as free as it could be for all of us.  There could be a purity to it that I didn't have during the film because there was so much pressure, even though making the film was a very good experience.  So we did a crowd-funding campaign.  We set up a campaign on Indiegogo.  At that time, Allison Janney agreed to do a part in it, and Carole Cook and Tom Troupe and Priscilla Barnes and Octavia Spencer--basically they all agreed to do the web series if we could get the money off the ground.  For the campaign on Indiegogo, Christina, Britt and I did these funny little videos where we looked like we were chasing people down, knocking on people's doors, such as going up to Allison and saying 'We've got the money for the web series.  Are you going to do it?' and she takes off down the street going 'No, Cam.  Leave me alone.  Don't ever ask me to do that again!'  And then we did a video of me going to Carole and Tom's house and they slam the door in my face saying 'No!  Don't ever come around here again!'  We did another video where we approach Priscilla while she's seated in a restaurant having lunch with Joyce DeWitt, trying to get a commitment from her to do the series, and Priscilla and Joyce flee the restaurant.  So we had this humorous campaign involving some of our stars.  We knew that we could do it cheaply and people were generous enough to work for next to nothing.  We didn't ask for a lot of money, we only asked for $12,000 to shoot all of Season One.  Within 24 hours, we reached that goal, so we let it keep going until the 30 days are up for the campaign and we ended up raising, I think, about $22,000 and we knew we could do the whole thing for $12,000 or $15,000.  So we shot the whole first season--eight episodes--for about $20,000 in 9 days.  It was almost effortless because we put the campaign on Facebook and word-of-mouth took off and people just jumped on board.  Of course, a lot of the people are your high school friends, and your aunt who wants to put a couple of hundred bucks in it.  But we also had people that were strangers who we had no connection to whatsoever that jumped on board because they loved the concept of Christina Pickles and Allison Janney being in a series together.  I am very grateful to everybody for their support."


With the funding in place, Watson worked closely with his actors to ensure that they were properly prepared and rehearsed, and that they had fully developed their roles despite the short shooting schedule.  He recalls that, "We were prepared and we were really ready.  We did a lot of rehearsing and a lot of improv work.  Christina, Britt Hennmuth, and I spent probably 6 or 7 months prior to shooting just sitting around and working on the episodes and tweaking things and working on improv to come up with even better things than what was in the script so, by the time we got to shoot, their relationship was ready to go.  That was a huge part of us being able to shoot as quickly and as economically as we did is that we did an incredible amount of preparation on it.  We also had a table read with most of the cast at the outset, and it was such a smart thing to do and we did it at Christina's house.  She has a wonderful studio space and we set it up like a network table read with a big long table.  Almost the entire cast was able to be there, although I think Allison and Peri Gilpin couldn't be there, but everyone else was there.  So we all sat down and read it straight through without taking a break.  We read episode one through eight and it was so informative for all of the cast to see it as a full story because this season has an arc to it and it builds to a cliffhanger and it was really informative and helpful for everyone to see it as a complete piece, as opposed to it being fragmented 'Oh you're only here for the day, you're only in the acting class episode and you don't know what's going on in the other part of it.'  It was important so everyone got to experience the whole world of this story, which was a smart move on our part."  



While Watson is justifiably proud of every cast member on the series, he reserves particular praise for his lead actress, Christina Pickles, in her ability to create a character that transcends the normal stereotypes of a mature actress struggling to survive in Hollywood.  With considerable pride, Watson explains how, "Christina is just extraordinary in the role.  We had a cast and crew premiere a couple of months ago before we launched it on the internet.  Craig Zadan, who is a big producer, he was there.  I didn't know him at the time, but he just showed up because a friend of a friend invited him and we were tickled and happy that Craig Zadan was at our screening.  Afterwards, at the reception, he came up to me and wanted to meet me as the filmmaker and he said, 'If this was on network television, or a cable format, Christina Pickles would win Emmy Awards.  I've never seen anything like it.  She's at the top of her game and she will win awards for this.'  And I humbly agree with him.  I think she's at the top of her game.  In the scene in the season finale episode where Biz tells him, 'Let's work on the play together.  You'll be good because we'll work on it together and this will be your chance,' Christina has a selfless quality in that moment because she's allowing Biz to surrender her own needs for someone else's happiness which is ultimately what will make her happy."  



Watson also credits the success of the web series to the contributions of Britt Hennemuth, who plays Wincy.  Hennemuth refreshingly avoids the youthful trend of young leading men playing their roles with a cruel, self-satisfied and snarky edge, and instead stands apart from his contemporaries by effectively going for the sincere and straight-forward in his interpretation of Wincy.  Watson recalls how "I found Britt while I was teaching a master class at Pepperdine University.  I work with Seniors working in their BFA program and it's a one-day, four-hour acting class which also has a Q&A and they get to ask questions about once you graduate, how do you get a good agent?, where do you get good pictures made?, and where do you study?, etc.  And Britt was in the first class that I ever did it for Pepperdine.  I just loved his work the minute I saw him.  I just thought he had a quality that I had never seen before.  He had a fresh, unique spin on being a young leading man that you just don't see very often.  I thought he was incredibly watchable and he came to me after the class and he said, 'When I graduate, I'd love to talk with you about continuing to study with you.'  Britt continued to study with me for quite awhile and through the whole process that was when we started to put the wheels together for the web series.  It kind of came to me in a lightning bolt.  One night I was in class watching him do a scene and I just thought, 'There he is: That's Wincy.'  He didn't know Christina, he didn't know anything about the web series, but I just thought he was who we had to have for this role.  I didn't audition anybody else, I didn't make him read with Christina.  We all met for lunch so I could introduce them to each other and she just fell in love with him.  And the rest is on the screen."


"Break a Hip" leading lady Christina Pickles echoes Cameron Watson's enthusiasm for Britt Hennemuth as she explains how, "We're very lucky.  He's become one of my very best friends.  I adore him.  By the third time we met, we were at my house and I have this big room downstairs where we can rehearse and while we were rehearsing we were getting to know each other a little bit.  We were talking and I said, 'I'm not quite sure yet what I'm doing with this character.  I'm really not sure yet.'  And he said, 'Well, I don't know if this helps you, but I know someone who is a very old star and who thinks she's being followed.  She thinks she's being stalked.  She lives her whole life in a sort of fantasy.'  And I thought that that was terribly funny and we told Cameron about it and Cameron wrote it into the script.  It helped me sort of get into this dramatic side of her and it became my favorite episode where we dress up and dance in front of the window trying to show my 'stalker' that this young man is present and he's protecting me.  I just loved it when we danced because it was so much like going back in time to an old movie.  And when we started doing the improv, it kind of began to click and I clicked with Britt and he with me.  And we see each other a lot.  He's just a very bright young man.  Very, very, very smart and intelligent.  And he's wise beyond his years, he tells very funny stories and he's just an amazing guy.  So we really had that chemistry off-screen as well."


For Christina Pickles, playing Biz on "Break a Hip" offered the veteran actress an opportunity to rekindle her passion for her craft.  Originally from England, Pickles has enjoyed an acclaimed and prolific career on Broadway, in films such as Oliver Stone's directorial debut "Seizure" (1974) and for six seasons on the acclaimed dramatic series "St. Elsewhere" (1982-88) where she earned 5 Emmy nominations as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.  More recent generations remember her for her recurring role as Monica (Courtney Cox) and Ross' (David Schwimmer) acerbic mother on the hit NBC sitcom "Friends" (1994-04).  However, even though Pickles has remained prolific and active in recent years, she admits that, until "Break a Hip" came along, it had been awhile since she had been truly enthusiastic about her craft.  Pickles recalls how, "I've known Cameron for a very long time.  We did a pilot together more than 20 years ago and we kept in touch and he has coached me and directed me and I totally trust him.  And we were having lunch one day and we started discussing doing a web series.  I had already done one called 'Children's Hospital' and I had a good time.  And I have been cast by casting directors who watch web series and I thought that this new medium is a way of being in the present.  We need to create our own work and we need to be where we can have some control over it.  So we raised the money and shot 'Break a Hip.'  It was marvelous because it was like the old days when you went into the business to be creative.  And then you weren't allowed to be creative, particularly when you got into television, because all of the decisions were made by corporate people.  The producers are always trying to please the network executives, who are always giving out these notes on how things should be done, and they may not be the best notes.  It happens in the film world as well, where they have screenings and people write down their comments and then you're supposed to look at these comments and change the ending.  So, on 'Break a Hip,' we were free of the corporate world and we had such freedom and it was a marvelous experience because we could go back to why we became actors in the first place, do you know what I mean?  I didn't really realize that that's why I was having such a good time because I didn't really realize how much of a good time I had not been having for quite awhile.  I'd been doing a lot of television, and I am very grateful for the work, but I didn't really think about how dissatisfied I had been for awhile until I started being happy doing the web series and I thought, 'So this is why I went into being an actor and a creative person!'  And Cameron and I and everybody else were creating all around us.  And it was wonderful!"



As Pickles started developing the character of Biz, she soon learned that there were distinct aspects of the character that were similar to people she had known in real life and that she could easily identify with.  As Pickles explains, "She is very British, and I was born in England.  And even though she'd lived in America for a long time, she retained that sort of haughty, impulsive, rude, kind, generous, 'mean-as-can-be' spirit.  (laugh)  I think as I grew into her, I became even more of what Cameron had originally written her to be.  Cameron said that he loved the woman that he based Biz on, he was mad about her, he thought she was wonderful, even though she was so maddening.  I didn't even realize until I looked at the finished product that I could be a person that somebody could also love...That it turned out that I had in fact created that sort of sympathetic character, where her angry and tough qualities were just a defense mechanism covering up her vulnerabilities.  As I started working on the character, I did ask about the woman Biz was based on, I saw pictures of her.  And I also knew somebody else who knew her.  A guy who was my dresser on 'St. Elsewhere' who I became very close to, he had dressed a lot of theater people and he was very great friends with Coral Browne, who was also friends with this woman.  So that was another connection I had with her and, actually, one of the first things I wanted to do after it was made was to show the web series to this gentleman, Eric Harrison, who was a dresser to the stars.  He is extremely funny and has marvelous stories to tell and so I wanted him to see it because it was so much a part of his world and he loved it.  After I learned all of this about that woman, I think I forgot about it, or maybe it went into the deep recesses of my creative brain.  (laugh)  I was not consciously trying to imitate her in my performance.  But, to be perfectly honest, I had a mother who was very tough and a very difficult woman and would speak her mind without thinking and she had a very difficult childhood.  She was a very North Country woman who never edited anything she ever said, which sometimes could be a little embarrassing.  So I kind of know these women.  I felt at home playing them, being them."


Even though there are aspects of Biz that Pickles drew from other people to help create the character, she also readily acknowledges, "There's a lot of me in her as well.  (laugh)  Sure, everybody has experienced disappointment about their career and everybody has wished for other things and everybody has felt unnoticed and passed over in not getting the recognition you once had or feel you deserve.  Every actor goes through that.  That's obviously been my experience and also part of Biz's.  So I could bring my life experience into what she felt, very much so, and I am old and I told Cameron the other day, because Biz is the same age, that I'm thinking about death and my mortality so much these days--not that I'm about to die yet.  And he said, 'Well, don't die yet, because we've got a lot of seasons to do.  We need you.'  (laugh)  What I like about playing Biz is that she has to face her vulnerability in the scene with Octavia Spencer playing her doctor and then she's very ill and she's left alone when Wincy goes off to do the play at the end.  She has to face her mortality--we all have to face it sooner or later, and I have to face it as a person--and I can bring to her an understanding of having to face it as a lonely woman without support.  I'm so lucky in real life because I have a great deal of support.  I have children and grandchildren and family and friends and I have a busy, wonderful life, but Biz is alone!  So I can certainly relate to what she must have gone through."



Christina Pickles has such respect for the character of Biz, she was conscientious about ensuring that the character would not fall into the typical, "mature actress stereotype" exemplified by Gloria Swanson's role as faded silent screen star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's classic "Sunset Boulevard" (1950).  Pickles admits "I wasn't trying to avoid that stereotype.  I just hoped that I *was* avoiding it in my portrayal.  But it did occur to me that people might compare Biz with Norma Desmond.  Anytime somebody says 'This show reminds me of 'Sunset Boulevard,' I think, 'Oh Christ!'  (laugh)  That's not what we wanted at all.  'Sunset Boulevard' is a wonderful film, but our story is very different than that one.  But it's funny: I was in a restaurant the other day and I asked for some water and the waitress was very irritated and said, 'Right, I'll bring your water in a moment.'  And I heard myself say, 'Don't announce it.  Just do it.'  I didn't say it to the waitress, I said it to the person I was dining with.  And I realized at that moment that, in some ways, I had become Biz because that's something she would have said.  (laugh)  When I played Monica and Ross's mother on 'Friends'--people always ask me what it was like to work on that show--well, it was very therapeutic because I got to say things that I am not allowed to say as a mother in real life.  (laugh)  I certainly would never say things to my daughter like my character would say to Monica, 'Darling, don't you think it's time you used a little eye cream around your eyes?  Your eyes are wrinkling.'  I would never say things like that to my daughter, but my character certainly would say it to Monica.  Maybe all of us have certain comments and thoughts that you can't say out loud, but Biz would say it.  My daughter, who is a grown up lawyer with two grown up children, attended the table read of 'Break a Hip' that was held at my house.  She wanted to come hear it and she loved it and she said, 'You know, Mom, this isn't really a big stretch for you, so I wouldn't go overboard with it.'  (laugh)  I loved it, you know, because it kept me real as there is a side of me that is very much like Biz."



Despite the modest and low-budget nature of "Break a Hip," Pickles recalls how every member of the cast and crew stepped up to make this show a quality production.  With gratitude and appreciation, she describes how, "We were so lucky.  We had the best cinematographer in Seth Saint Vincent.  He's just amazing.  He said, I think, during the first episode 'You are the heart and soul of this show.'  And I went, 'Oh my God!  Am I?'  It made me feel that he really understood us and liked our work and that he was on our side.  Everybody who read the script wanted to do it because everybody is so hungry for good projects--that they'll put the money thing to the side and hope that it eventually pays off--but they want to do it anyway because they want to be part of something good so we had marvelous people in all areas.  One of Cameron's producers, Steve Cubine, is a wonderful producer.  He knows how to get the right people for the right projects, he put together this amazing group of people and we shot it in just a few days and it looks so good.  I was stunned by the quality of the production values.  You know the studio apartment that Biz lives in?  Well, our producer Maggie Biggar had somebody renting a studio apartment in the back of her house.  And she asked the tenant if they could use that space as our set for Biz's apartment and they found another place for the tenant to live during the production.  Cameron took that empty room and worked all night and he brought a bed and carpet and other things from his own home and I walked in on the first day of shooting and there was my home.  He created it the night before and it was a marvelous set.  He got one of the actors on the show--a friend of his who was in the acting class episode who is also a carpenter--to make something like a Murphy bed so that it looked like it went up into the wall.  So he created the whole set by working all night long, and there it was!  I thought it was astonishing.  It helped illuminate the character so that, even though she lives in modest surroundings due to her financial situation, it's obvious that she takes care of her home and is not living in squalor."


As Pickles and the rest of the cast and crew started working on "Break a Hip," they soon learned to their delight that, even though this was a story based upon Cameron Watson's life, he was open to improvisation and allowing each of his participants enough freedom to bring their ideas to the table.  Pickles enthusiastically recalls how, "We were all in on the creating and the writing of the piece.  There was no doubt that Cameron wrote it, and this was his vision, but we would sometimes improvise from what he had written.  It was marvelous because it was a very creative process and he was very much open to anything.  I'd often say to him, 'What do you think about this?' and he'd say 'Yeah, let's do it!'  That's why he was so marvelous to work with."  Watson acknowledges that he managed to remain objective while directing Pickles and Hennemuth, even though the series is based on aspects of his early life in Hollywood because "I was able to maintain a separation between reality and fiction while directing them.  They have become such Wincy and such Biz to me, that I don't really think of him as playing me, and Christina's Biz is so uniquely her that there's a real separation in a healthy way of what really happened between my real life experience with that English actress, and what went on in front of the camera.  And I didn't expect that because I thought I would be 'Oh, no, no, no.  It didn't happen like that, it happened like this' but the life of their own that Christina and Britt took on was so bright that they just created their own world without the shadow of my experiences overwhelming them at all, and I think that's really cool.  I didn't go into it expecting that.  I didn't think it would be that way and it's wonderful that it turned out that way."


Watson does not limit his praise to just the two lead actors and also credits the recurring and supporting performers with bringing even more to their roles than was on the page.  In different episodes of the series, accomplished actresses such as Allison Janney (playing Biz's eccentric, banjo-playing landlord Niblett), Priscilla Barnes (as Wincy's outrageous acting coach Sabina Klinefelter), and Octavia Spencer (as Biz's sensible Dr. Trekman) have each created memorable characters in their individual segments.  Like his lead actors, the supporting cast stepped up to the challenge and rewarded the opportunities that Watson provided them to create unique and memorable characters with standout performances.  As Watson explains, "I gave Allison Janney what I call a 'free pass.'  She was so busy working on her series 'Mom' and we had her locked in for one day and it was just a miracle that I was able to have Allison for one day and I had Octavia for one day and I had Priscilla for one day.  The fact that we got all of that talent in a 9 day period was just unbelievable.  And Allison kept going 'I know I'm on next week, I'm on next week...what do I gotta do?' and I just said, 'Just come.  Just show up.'  And she kept going, 'Well, what do I look like?  What do you want her to look like?' and I go 'Hold on.'  So I sent her and her makeup and hair artist a picture of Bobbie Gentry and I said, 'In my head, she looks like this.  Go with it.'  And they both said, 'Do we have free reign?' and I said, 'Yep.  Go as far as you want to go.'  So they show up on set and they worked with the costume designer and the hair stylist and they walked out and I went, 'There she is!  That is Niblett' and then I said to Allison, 'Oh, by the way, here's the banjo that goes with her.  Anything goes.  You have free reign.'  And so Allison--who is so brilliantly confident and professional and, yet, free--took this trip and took flight with it and added her own little frills and little quirks, like when her character says 'I got you now, uh huh, uh huh.'  That was completely Allison being free and in the moment."



Watson also enjoyed the acting class episode with Priscilla Barnes because he felt the veteran actress went the extra mile to make her character sympathetic and sincere despite the outrageous approach with which she teaches acting to her students.  With the same level of praise and enthusiasm, Watson recalls how, "Priscilla was as free and in the moment as Allison because that is how she likes to work.  She's a totally organic actress and did a totally cool thing when she played Sabina teaching her students in acting class.  When we were shooting that day, the kids that played her acting students were all there in hair and makeup and she said to me, 'While you're all setting up, can I take them and just start class with them and give them some exercises?  I want to take them through some of the things that my character would be teaching them in these acting classes.'  I said, 'Go for it' and they were up on stage for an hour doing these crazy acting exercises that Priscilla really knew and they were things from her past.  By the time we were ready to shoot, they were already under the spell of this acting teacher.  There was a really organic feeling on that day of what was happening in that class and Priscilla made that happen.  That's what I think is so beautiful about Priscilla's episode is that it would be very easy to play Sabina as this crazy acting teacher and ridicule the character, but you completely believe the sincerity of what this acting teacher believes."  Christina Pickles also enjoyed the authentic aspect of the acting class episode and recalls how "Priscilla was so wonderful.  I said to her that I thought she was so extraordinary because she believes in that approach to acting, you know.  That is her warm-up to prepare for a scene.  What's great is that it really works for her because she uses it for a practical purpose, but she's also able to make fun of it at the same time."


Not resting on his laurels, Watson is busy preparing for a Season 2 of "Break a Hip," which he expects to begin production on in October.  While remaining understandably guarded about giving away details on it, he is willing to share that "The good news is that the characters we've fallen in love with in Season 1 will all be back.  I'll say that.  Hopefully we're going to have a lot of fun repeating appearances from all of the guests that have been part of the story line like Allison and Peri Gilpin and Priscilla and so everyone comes back in addition to a lot of new and exciting people who will join us.  You know, we left the season with the possibility of Wincy being gone for a long period and her losing the apartment so when we come back to it, the living situation is in upheaval and Wincy goes through a pretty rough time.  We also decided to expand Season 2 so that we'll do ten episodes as opposed to eight.  We all felt like we wanted a little more content to the second season--there are endless things that we can do in depicting their lives day-after-day without painting yourself into a corner--and that's what we're going to do."


Like Cameron Watson, Christina Pickles remains grateful that "Break a Hip" has received a positive response from the public and that they are busy planning for a second season of the series.  Because of the challenges and opportunities offered by the character of Biz, Pickles regards this web series as a high point in her lengthy, diverse, and accomplished career.  With awe and wonder, Pickles observes with humility and appreciation how, "So much has come together.  It's almost like we feel blessed with this project.  The casting is so wonderful and everybody was so happy to do it and it turned out well and we have plans for the future.  We're so lucky that people like it and maybe we might find people who want to help us do something even more with it--like helping us make it a premium cable series or turn it into a Netflix or Amazon Prime streaming series, which would be a dream and would be so great--but who knows?  We just feel very positive about it all.  Of all the projects I have worked on through the years, this has probably been one of my very favorite because I am working with friends--working with people that I love--on wonderful material.  So, yeah, I would say it's one of my favorite projects I've ever done.  The other would be 'The Duchess of Malfi,' a play by Webster that I once did, so I run the gamut, don't I?  (laugh)"

No comments:

Post a Comment