In my writer's retreat high above Toronto, I was pleased to entertain Leon Acord-Whiting. Creator of the Award-winning Old Dogs & New Tricks. Actor, Screenwriter, Director, Diva. He looked fabulous. Young. (He told me to say that). After a sidecar (what the hell was that?), we launched into a conversation...
JS: What inspired you to write the pilot for Old Dogs & New Tricks?
LAW: There were several different motivations that all seemed to form a "perfect storm" of inspiration. I had been a pretty successful actor in SF for about 15 years. Then I moved to LA, and it was like starting over all over again. I was frustrated, because I had the chops now, but wasn't getting opportunities to really show what I could do. Also, I was 47 at the time, and I knew I needed to do something, create something I was proud of, before I was 50 so I could wake up on my 50th birthday wanting to celebrate instead of committing suicide.
Many people had told me that I should either write a film or a web series, and produce it myself, but I wasn't really interested in that. But then, in the Summer of 2010, I took an extended vacation at my parents' in Indiana. I had nothing but time on my hands. I was thinking "OK, this is purely hypothetical, but if I DID write something for myself, what would it be?" I'm a strong believer in "write what you know." So I immediately thought of the topic of turning 50 in Hollywood. I thought of the kind of show it would be. I decided on 4 main characters, just so I could show as many gay points of view as possible. When I sat down to create the characters, it was like "BOOM!" It took me less that an hour to create them in brief biography form. Their stories just came to me. I quickly outlined them. And from then on, it was like a fever dream.
JS: Over the past three seasons and the mini movie (with a second mini-movie to follow and a fourth season), the characters have all evolved. Were the paths a concious effort or a fluid one?
LAW: A little bit of both actually. Writing a story about 4 guys who were still not completely "grown up," I knew that the path of the show would be their maturation process. So that was always there, in a general way.
But often, your hands are tied by unexpected cast changes, location changes, things you can't control --and you sometimes have to change your overall plans. Initially, the show was always going to be about Nathan & Damian's on again/off again relationship. Once I realized that wasn't going to be possible, I had to find other ways for Nathan to have lessons, and to grow from them.
When we lost the location we used for Nathan's office, and had to use a different one, we had to explain it somehow. That fact that it was right after Nathan's split with Damian made it easy -- Nathan had let his business go to hell and had to move to cheaper offices. So sometimes these unexpected changes coincide with the story you are telling.
Sometimes your audience dictate the changes. Originally, I wanted Neal to be, if not sympathetic, at least not villainous. But Doug Spearman had other ideas, and the audience hated Neal as a result. When Parnell Damone Marcano too over the role the following season, he played Neal with much more dimension, and as a result most viewers are now rooting for them.
JS: When you write, do you keep your actors in mind - picture what they woulod be like in a certain scene, for instance?
LAW: Originally, no, except for the role of Lydia, which I wrote especially for Amanda Gari.
Now, I suppose I do sometimes write to the actors' particular strengths. Jeffrey Patrick Olsen is great at emotionally vulnerable moments. David Pevsner is good at making serious moments a little funny, and funny moments a little serious. Curt Bonnem is, well, the more outrageous I can write for Curt, the better!
But mostly, these actors have great range, and I mostly write with the comfort and assurance that there's nothing I can throw at them that they won't be able to pull off.
Oh, and Bruce L. Hart as Nelson Van Eddy -- no matter how bitchy the line, he can make it funny, too. So I've kinda changed Nelson from being just a spiteful bitch to being a funny bitch.
JS: What is the biggest misconception of screenwriting?
LAW: Hmmm, good question. I'm not sure I can answer it, because I don't know what misconceptions people have about it. Different people probably have different misconceptions. I would say, the biggest misconception is that its something you can do an hour every few days, and be successful. To me, it is like going to the gym, or mastering a musical instrument, or learning a new language. To me, you have to do it, every single day, completely surrender yourself to it for periods of time, and accept that the rest of your life just doesn't exist, in a way. But then, I know some writers can produce a body of work from just writing now and again. Dirty bastards. So they could say my philosophy is a misconception!
To me, it's like an addiction. It takes me a long time to work up the nerve to start, to eliminate the negative voices in my head. Once I can finally get "in the zone" I don't ever want to leave. But the stress of confronting your fears. I see why so many writers drink. I don't drink, really. But its impossible for me to write without smoking and pacing.
JS: You are about to premier a mini-movie "Where were you when the RIGHTS came on?" bringing the topic of the US ruling on gay marriage. Does having a current world event have an impact on your writing?
LAW: Always. In fact, that's my biggest regret about doing a web series, with such long periods between seasons. I grew up on Norman Lear sitcoms, and I would love to have a platform to comment on world events as they happen. Alas, its just not possible. We once did a throwaway joke about "President Romney" which we had to keep redubbing, because the Republican frontrunners in 2012 kept changing. We settled on "President Santorum" but even that was outdated by the time the episode aired.
Even with this special, we have to "backdate" it, and begin with a title card that reads "June 26, 2015." But we're releaseing it on the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's dfecision, in order to seem just a little more timely!
JS: Lastly, this season, Season 4, is your last. As a screenwriter, do you have anything else brewing, or will you retire the quill for a while?
LAW: I have a few ideas. I'd love to write and perform another one-man show, and I have an idea thgat I think would be great. But I'm also longing to just take some time off. Writing is, in its way, very self-destructive. I think I need to build myself up a bit before I tear myself apart like this again.
*In all confession, I must say that I have a small role in the production of this series. To view the series, and the series mini-movie on the 26th, go to odnt.tv. to donate a few bucks towards Season 4, go to https://www.gofundme.com/odnts4