Monday, January 21, 2013

The American Dream in a White T

("White T," a comedy starring The Mixon Brothers, featuring Eric Roberts, Robbie Kaller, Gerry Bednob and Yasmin Deliz opened at AMC theaters in 15 U.S. Cities on Valentine's Day 2013. It did okay. There's a sequel planned.)

I called Lance Frank to catch up, it had been too long. The test of his first comedy, screened at a full-house AMC theater in Burbank, showed the gags had been paced too fast, for one thing. After a polite few minutes smiling to and handshaking with congratulators and well-wishers, Lance invited me back to the studio to start re-editing while audience reactions were still visceral.

I got the directions wrong and by three a.m. headed back to New Mexico instead. The cop believed I was stone cold sober and I showed him how going 90 miles an hour increased the gas mileage; he reduced my ticket to 80 and thought he, too, might buy a hybrid one day. The positive energy you get from hanging out with Lance can do things for you.

The editing had taken a year. This morning’s phone call had been the first in longer than that. Lance limped to the phone with a twisted knee ligament he’d earned yesterday in a local league baseball game. He had been awake awhile, dealing with his insurance agent; the left side of his parked car had been smashed in and both wheels had been sheared off from the force of the impact. No friendly note of apology had been left on the windshield, here in this usually quiet neighborhood.

The airport people still couldn’t find his luggage. He’d lost his condo, sold his vintage Mercury Cougar to keep the studio going and lost that too. Three people deeply involved in the making of his comedy had died. Lance was back down to point zero again, nothing to his name but a t-shirt, jeans and a mattress in a friend’s basement. But so long as you’ve got the love of your life behind you all the way, you stay cheerful.

A few nights ago, while his car was still in one piece, Lance was driving over a peak in the dark on Laurel Canyon Drive, blaming himself that the love of his life will be marrying someone else this month. Down one side of the peak was Hollywood and on the other, the vast unjudging panorama of streetlights crisscrossing the San Fernando Valley. The radio was on. Some guy was doing an interview for a PBS program.

“Sure they’ll have you believe that you can be some kid in Ohio and you can grow up to be a movie director,” the voice said, “but that just doesn’t happen in America today. The American dream is dead.”

Funny thing. Lance is himself some kid from Ohio. He grew up in East Liverpool, nowadays just another streak in the Rust Belt, current population 11,199 and shrinking. The per capita income for East Liverpool, Ohio, is about $15,000. He must have been about three when he’d daydream of being in the movie business in Hollywood.

“When I was in third grade, Mrs. Schwarzenwelder asked the class to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up,” Lance said. “I wrote the most outrageous things: I wanted to be a soldier, I wanted to be a special agent, I wanted to be a movie director, I wanted to be an author and a U.S. Senator. Mrs. Schwarzenwelder told me to get real and gave me an S-minus, which means ‘satisfactory’ with a minus.”

Just after he graduated as a wild high school kid he sped at his usual 150 miles per hour to a bank of military recruiting offices downtown. The Army recruiter told Lance he could get him out of town in about a month. The Air Force recruiter said he could do that in three days. Lance joined the Air Force.

“If you need to sum it up in one sentence, tell them I earned the nickname ‘Golden Boy’,” he said. Airman Frank earned top merits and awards for the “Air Force Olympics” in marksmanship, martial arts and weapons expertise. He was an exemplary soldier, specializing in security.

Not long before he was due to re-enlist, as everyone expected the Golden Boy to do, “9/11” happened and he was begged out of the Air Force early to become a cloak-and-dagger Air Marshall for the Department of Homeland Security.

This didn’t mean frisking unhappy little old ladies in wheelchairs. It meant genuine, confirmed saboteurs and killers. He’s not allowed to talk about most of it. “Sometimes I felt like Superman,” Special Agent Frank said, “knowing I was responsible for the lives of a hundred thousand people at a time. I mean, my job was to make sure nothing happened. Sometimes I was on a plane with several known terrorists at once.”

“I was twenty one years old making a six figure salary,” Lance said, “I was the youngest Air Marshall ever hired. But my job was to get up in the morning, fly thousands of miles, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day.” The next dream on his third-grade student’s list kept nagging him.

“I am guilty of being a daydreamer, but, when you stop dreaming, you die. You kill hope. There’s an idea that if you try to do things that are unrealistic, you might succeed because fewer people are trying it.“

So far Lance has been a soldier, a special agent, an author and a movie director. As to political ambitions, it didn’t hurt that he met and talked at length with the governor of Tennessee at a party at the governor’s mansion last summer while bumming around the country putting “White T” and all the travail out of mind. They hadn’t met before; just one of those rare coincidences.

Lance quit his special agent career and drove to Hollywood not knowing a soul. He rented a small room for five hundred dollars a month. He had to vacate it every so often, as it belonged to his divorced landlord’s nine-year-old daughter who’d come for regular visits. Then Lance’s HQ would be his car. He found a job as an arms consultant for a production company and managed to get his Screen Actors’ Guild card in a month or so. In comparison, it had taken actor Kevin Costner about five years to qualify for a SAG card.

But he didn’t rocket to stardom as he had everywhere else since being some kid from Ohio. The occasional extra job making martial arts moves in the background in one film or another, against the practicalities of daily living, were like two glaciers ineluctably grinding off in opposite directions. Years passed between being a six-figure salaried twenty-one year old and now.

“I must have taken scripts to two hundred SAG approved agents. I’d even take scripts to their homes. Nothing. I was a god damned handyman and a Special Agent. There were times I’d just lie in bed and cry. Sometimes I’d be in bed for three days.”

With his newfound love, a registered nurse named Kate, Lance managed to keep clutching his dreams with one hand and the practicalities of living with the other. “I don’t think I understood how to focus my abilities until I met Kate,” he said.

Special Agent Frank’s handyman jobs, keeping head above water in the expense of Southern California, even for just a one-bedroom apartment now with a working mate, averaged about sixty hours a week. This was brick-laying, hole-fixing, painting, trash hauling, you name it. He got stung haplessly in a police scheme to make examples of unlicensed contractors. “Man, I was a trained agent… I should have seen that one coming,” he said, not being a contractor in the first place. Lance cleaned out dead people’s houses for a realtor. He was shoveling human and animal shit out of a flooded basement at age 27. He was shoveling aluminum cans for recycling to make a couple bucks for gas.

One day with a couple of those bucks in his motorcycle gas tank Lance went for a ride and a meditation, trying to focus those energies. “I didn’t want to keep making a living,” he thought, “I wanted to make art.” An idea occurred to him as he pulled into a restaurant for some eats. He went home, called the local corporate headquarters for Kawasaki and Suzuki and pitched an idea: “Mean Streets and Great Eats,” a TV show about where the hard core bikers -- who on the whole are less unsavory a class of tourists than Hunter Thompson would have had you believe – liked to eat. Suzuki funded the deal and gave Lance a new motorcycle.

“After that, my life turned into a virtual free-fall of fortunate events.”

While working on his biker’s eats TV show, a man named Hugh Gross dropped by to show Lance his own project, a children’s-oriented movie called “After the Wizard.” Did Lance like it? Er… well… he took the producer job Gross offered.

What does a producer do, exactly? I’ve heard descriptions from “whatever a director doesn’t do” to “the industry equivalent to a fry cook at Denny’s.” Whatever the case, if there’s no knot in the gut, it’s not likely a producer you’re talking to.

Lance needed a production assistant who’d work for free. He ran an ad on Craigslist. Blake Phillips answered and said he’d work harder than anyone. Blake was hired, and he did. After Hugh Gross’s project, they found an old warehouse that was sprayed with “fuck” from one end to the other, cleaned it up and started in on several other projects.

“Blake’s an SOB,” said Lance. “Sometimes we almost came to blows, but he was one hundred percent commitment and he worked harder than anybody I ever met. We spent every cent we had; even friends abandoned us. But we took a $250 thousand dollar movie budget, (referring to “After the Wizard”), 400 extras, and we got it on the cover of 32 thousand Redboxes countrywide.”

The budget for “White T” came as part of this free-fall of fortunate events. One day on his way to Phoenix by plane, Lance happened to sit down next to a securities broker who called himself Tiger. They got to talking. Tiger was backing a hip hopper called Steel Bill. He’d quit his $400k job to help Steel make it. They were staying at the Grafton hotel on Sunset Boulevard.

When they returned, Tiger called Lance. He wanted him to meet twins Darcey & Stacey Silva. They were doing a reality show about themselves. They hired Lance for a "sizzle piece." He and Blake put hundreds of hours into it. Dividing the time into wages, it worked out to pennies an hour.

In awhile the twins’ dad wanted to meet Lance. They wound up having a heart to heart talk. “You have two wonderful daughters,” Lance told him, "but at the end of the day they’re gonna make them look like shit. Is that what they want?”

“What do YOU want,” Michael responded. Lance pitched a comedy idea he’d been thinking about.

“All right. How much?”

“Two hundred fifty thousand?”

“What do I get out of it?” Lance suggested a percentage.

“Okay. It’ll be in your account Thursday.” They shook hands, no written contract. Lance and Blake spent 8 days writing the script.

White T was filmed largely on location in Inglewood, an LA suburb as notorious as Compton, next door. People hustling for a living would see the equipment and crew and presume there was money somehow to be had.

Jerod & Jamal Mixon were known in Inglewood, and so was their mother, who trusted Lance and Blake more than any biz people she knew, Lance said. She died just before the filming started. As Herculeez and Bigtyme, the Mixon brothers had already sold four hundred thousand units of their hiphop productions:

and were known and respected in the area. "Yeah we settled 'em down, it was easy, not like it was a hassle or anything," said Jerod Mixon. He and brother Jamal are now out making the rounds at radio and internet stations promoting the movie. Word is, they're funny. In fact that word keeps coming up when they're mentioned.

The show went on and it'll be out in theaters this Valentine's day. I asked Jerod if there was any trademark line he wants people to read? You know, like "Excuuuuuse MEEE," or "Dy-no-MITE" or "Wanna buy a duck?"

"Actually, it's I wanna put my belly on your back."


At this writing, Lance is alone on the road, driving to fifteen cities, scarfing up publicity for "White T" one at a time.

He got pulled over by the Dallas cops. The rental car license tags expired four months ago.

"The rental people apologized like crazy," Lance said, "and they told me they'd make it up to me."

"It's a weird thing. Among my daydreams over the years I'd always fantasized my favorite ride: a fire engine red black leather interior Chevy Camaro convertible. The rental car people replaced the car with the expired tags with a fire engine red Chevy Camaro convertible, with black leather interior. I didn't even have to ask for it. Things are gonna be all right,” Lance said.

The American Dream for some kid from Ohio so far: Last year Lance wrote one movie, directed one feature film and produced five.

The American dream isn’t anywhere near dead. It’s just that us who have them are getting more realistic about how they come true. You need only a little magic to get through a lot of hell and high water.


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