Producer Al Septien
I interview producer Al Septien at his Wicked Monkey Productions' office October 1, 2002.
I knock on the door at the Hollywood Boulevard office at 9:50AM. Al's partner Turi Meyer, a writer-director, opens the door. He says Al's having a hectic morning and running a few minutes late.
Turi and I trade jokes about the dreaded Estonian Mafia.
"Septien." The name reminds me of the Dallas Cowboy place kicker Raphael Septien.
At 10:08, Al walks in. He's young-looking, short and darkly handsome in the Cuban style.
We walk up and down Hollywood Boulevard in a light rain looking for a coffee shop. They're all closed. We go back to the office where I turn on my tape recorder.
Al's parents fled from Cuba in April 1962 and settled in West New York, a small New Jersey town across the river from Manhattan. He was born later that year. His younger brother is a CIO (Chief Information Officer) of an architecture design company in New York and his younger sister just graduated from Amherst and works as a writer and a teacher in New Jersey.
Al graduated from St. Josephs of the Palisades Roman Catholic High School in New Jersey and then Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticutt. Other showbiz graduates of the school include writer-producer Joss Whedon, director Michael Bay, director Miguel Arteta, director-producer Jon Turteltaub, Willie Garson (Sex and the City), Dana Delaney, executive Peter Green at Charles Hirschhorn's company, Rick Nicita at CAA...
"We have our yearly Los Angeles get together at CAA."
Al talks rapidly. "After college (graduated in 1985), I started out as an actor. I did an off-Broadway play in New York. I'd taken one writing at Wesleyan. I saw a latino play called Union City Thanksgiving. Union City is right next to West New York, where I grew up. It's a play about Cuban Americans. It was the first time I'd seen a play where it was about the type of people who were in my house.
"I wrote a play called "Teammates", set in my hometown, which I submitted to Intar Theater in New York. That got me a Ford Foundation grant to study with playwright Marie Irene Forness for a year. I then worked for a television development company, the Beagle Group, which is no longer in existence. It taught me that I didn't want to be in development for someone else. I wanted to shape my own destiny.
"I moved to Los Angeles in 1988. I met my writing partner Turi Meyer while we were catering. We came up with a story about a family held hostage. We wanted to write something that Turi could direct and I could act in. A producer got involved and tried to sell it. It got optioned a few times. It was never made but it got us an agent. It changed titles several times. Initially it was called "Homefront," then "Flashpoint." Every so often someone would say, 'I like this. Has it been out?' Well, it's been out to a few places. 'Ahh, just change the title and send it out again.'
"We just signed with a manager (Jeffrey Thal at Ensemble Entertainment). He said, 'This is good. Has it ever been out?'
"We fell into the horror world because of a big action thriller spec script we wrote after "Homefront" called "The Terrorist". We got the job writing Leprechaun 2 because some executives at Trimark loved The Terrorist. That led to Sleepstalker, which Turi directed and I produced. That got us Candyman, which Turi directed and I produced. We pitched Chairman of the Board to Disney. They paid us to write it. It got put into turnaround. Trimark picked it up. It got made. It's not very good.
"I got into producing to protect the material I wrote. We were writing things that other producers were getting involved with. Ultimately, we felt they either didn't get the material or they didn't care. It was frustrating. Yeah, Leprechaun and Sleepstalker and Candyman are low-budget horror movies, but we've worked to make them as good as possible. To have someone come in and not give a damn pisses us off.
"Because we're dealing on such a low level, we don't have bombs. Because they're made for such low budgets, they're bound to make money no matter what.
"We met a transportation guy, Eric Miller, on Candyman: Day of the Dead. He said he had friends with a good pitch. We listened to the pitch and we liked it. We worked with them. We pitched it (Immortals) to David Kirschner Productions, which has a deal with Universal. We set it up at Universal. We've been in development for two years.
"What I like about television is, if you write it, it's going to get shot."
Al opens a can of V8 vegetable juice.
Luke: "Chairman of the Board. What went wrong?"
Al: "Oh jeez, I don't want to badmouth anybody. We were on Sunset Blvd and looked up and saw a billboard that said, 'Chairman of the.." and there was a surfboard. At the time, we were going around pitching an intricately plotted script. We saw this billboard and thought, that's a pitchable idea. You get it from the poster. As the light turned and we made the turn, we saw that it wasn't a movie poster, it was a beer ad.
"We went back to the office, figured it out, went to Disney and sold it. The concept was a surfer dude, like Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, inherits a Fortune 500 company. It was supposed to be an Animal House type movie. It became a movie somewhere between Animal House and PeeWee's Big Adventure and it didn't have a clear focus. It was a mess."
Luke: "Have your parents seen your films?"
Al: "Yeah. My Dad liked Candyman. Turi's Mom hates everything we've made. They're a different generation. It's not their cup of tea. My Mom would be thrilled if I wrote Dr. Zhivago 2. My parents are glad I'm working. We've got a movie coming out called Wicked Minds. A modern film noir thriller. We sold the script and were not involved in the production. I think they will like it more. I hope that it will be one that Mom can say, 'Hey, I like that one.'
"My wife Diane Alancraig is a classical flutist. She's now playing piccolo with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She's the classy end of our couple. She makes up for my horror films."
Luke: "Is she a big Sleepstalker fan?"
Al laughs: "She can't wait for it to repeat on TV. Look, it's the same thing. We have things we've written that we're really proud of and they haven't got made. When your credits are these..."
Al points at the posters for his horror films. "You laugh and you have a sense of humor. We try to do our best work but who am I kidding? My wife's just thrilled that I'm working. She's happy that I'm doing what I enjoy. We know what these are (pointing at the horror slicks), but that doesn't mean we don't get invested in them. You don't get invested in terms of, I'm revealing my soul here. You get invested in that you're trying to do good work and come up with cool gags. We want to keep the story moving and the characters entertaining.
"We wrote a couple of TV episodes. The turnaround was quick, the money was good. Things are going to get made. We learn so much more as writers when our scripts get made. We like film but the opportunity in films seems to be diminishing. When we started, there were a lot of these [low budget] companies doing these kinds of movie. There are not anymore. Prism is out of business. Trimark is sold. Artisan is still around but is doing other things.
"I don't think my wife pushes me anywhere. We're now pitching a family romantic comedy. It's an idea she's always liked."
Al and Diane had a baby boy, Alec Gabriel, on July 22, 1997.
Luke: "How has becoming a father affected you as a writer-producer?"
Al: "We work harder because we have families to support. It gives me an awareness of what kids respond to. I know what my five-year old boy likes to watch on TV. He's into Spiderman. It's an invaluable gift to have people in your house tell you what the market is like. From watching so many Disney movies with my son, I've learned what good simple storytelling is about. The story has to move because their attention span doesn't last. If you have long expository scenes of people talking it won't work.
"My kid is my proudest fan. He loves monsters. He hasn't seen these movies but he sees the video boxes on the shelf. I showed him one scene from Sleepstalker. He wants to make videogames of all my movies."
Luke: "Do you do things just for appearances?"
Al: "I used to have a crummy car. When I had meetings with producers, I'd often meet them at fancy places. I arrived early and I'd leave late, so everybody I had a meeting with was gone. Eventually I got to buy a better car."