Thursday, July 3, 2014

My Friend’s Place: In Search of Morgan Freeman

“I Wish Morgan Freeman Narrated My Life.” That’s what it said on one of those gag buttons for sale at my local pharmacy. I found the idea striking: who wouldn’t want to have her life story chronicled by a man whose voice conveys sincerity, downhome nobility, and hard-earned wisdom? (I’m told that March of the Penguins, that 2005 documentary set at the South Pole, didn’t turn into a global blockbuster until Freeman’s voice was substituted for that of the original French narrator.)

 There was a time, about seven years ago, when the dream of a Morgan Freeman voice loomed large in my creative endeavors. As a member of Women in Film, I was deeply involved with the PSA committee, whose goal was to craft professional-grade public service announcements for worthy charitable groups. Film professionals hoping to perfect new skills volunteered to join forces on these PSAs. I, with my background in writing, was paired with an experienced cinematographer who planned to make the leap into the director’s chair. Dana Kroeger, who’d been part of the camera crew on Terrence Malick’s The New World, had plenty of ideas and plenty of chutzpah. It would be my job, as both writer and associate producer, to rein in her enthusiasm and make this PSA happen.

Out of all the applying charities, Dana and I chose My Friend’s Place, a shelter for homeless teens in Hollywood. We learned everything about My Friend’s Place, and then sat down to create a vision that could be conveyed to the public via 15 and 30-second TV spots. The biggest challenge: as per Women in Film rules, all of our filming needed to take place in a single day. Dana, always ambitious, imagined two  very different scenarios. One of our nearly-silent vignettes showed a young girl who’d lost her parents, and then lost her grandmother. Another portrayed a teenage boy, hounded by abusive parents, heading out into the unknown on his skateboard. In each case, the kid ends up – in a stark black & white photo – living on the streets. After which, a strong, compassionate Morgan Freeman-esque voice intones, “Behind every homeless teen, there’s a story. Join My Friend’s Place, and help us help America’s forgotten youth.”

I can’t begin to tell you how many challenges we faced as we went through the casting process, dealt with Screen Actors Guild paperwork, rented equipment, found locations, and assembled an all-volunteer crew. There were some memorable personality clashes, and an experienced line producer we badly needed dropped out at the very last second because she’d been booked to appear on a short-lived reality show. Filming at two locations (an Altadena cemetery and an Echo Park home) in a single day required lots of hustle, and our shoot stretched from near-dawn to after dark. As a newly-minted script supervisor (one of several hats I ended up wearing) I loved being where the action was. And my family got involved too. My loyal spouse, serving as a production assistant, schlepped equipment, and proudly took part in the symbolic handshake that provided a coda for our various versions. Later my son contributed the musical score. Eventually, our PSA won some prizes for excellence, a true happy ending.

Where was Morgan Freeman in all this? We couldn’t hope to land him, but briefly tried to get his female counterpart, Whoopi Goldberg, as our narrator. Of course we failed, but found Laura Leyva, whose strong but gentle voice was a good substitute. Laura also voiced the screechy mom in one of our spots. Quite a change of pace, but that’s Hollywood!  


  1. Those spots are marvelous - even with a less famous voice on board. I have worked on some commercials - national, regional, and local - and while they're certainly a faster paced shoot than a feature or a television episode - shooting two in one day is Herculean! Congratulations - your very hard work certainly ended up on screen! One day! What in your filmmaking past could have possibly prepared you for working with limited resources on a seemingly impossible schedule? ;)

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Mr. C. Of course I'm sure you're aware that the one day of shooting didn't include the hours we spent in editing rooms and the looping stage, nor the seemingly endless process of getting the spots going in the first place. My feisty friend Dana actually wanted to shoot THREE variations on the basic spot, until she was persuaded that two was all we could possibly handle.