I spoke by phone to producer Alan Sacks Friday, October 26, 2001. Sacks, who won an Emmy for his movie The Color Of Friendship, chairs the Media Arts program at Los Angeles Valley College.
Luke: "You were going to make a film with Gabe Kaplan reprising your TV show Welcome Back Kotter?"
Alan: "We're still working on that."
Luke: "Tell me about The Color Of Friendship."
Alan: "In 1990, I read this story about California congressman Ron Dellums."
Luke: "The most left-wing congressman."
Alan: "I don't know about that. He's most definitely a man of the people. When he and his wife went back to Washington D.C. in 1977, they decided to bring over an African exchange student. Because he was dealing with apartheid, he wanted his family to experience a real African student. And by mistake, they got a white South African racist girl, the daughter of a South African policeman whose job included enforcing apartheid.
"I contacted Dellums, wanting to develop a movie based on this story. And I pitched it to Michael Healy, a director of movies for TV at CBS. Michael said he loved the movie but it wasn't the kind of movie they were doing at CBS then. They were doing women in jeopardy type stories.
"Then, Michael became an executive at the Disney Channel. He called me up in 2000, asking about the Ron Dellums idea. He said that if I could get the rights to it, he'd put it into development. So, within an hour, I had the rights back to the story and was on the phone with Ron.
"The movie won an Emmy, an NAACP image award, and numerous other prizes."
Luke: "What happened with the white racist South African girl?"
Alan: "In the movie, she learned something. Her character arc was that she went back a changed person. In reality, she did go back a changed person but the Dellums family has lost contact with her. So we don't know what happened to her. It could've been a political thing."
Luke: "What was it like for you to receive the Emmy and the other awards?"
Alan: "It was great, particularly the recognition I had from my students and fellow faculty."
Luke: "Was Friendship one of your favorite projects?"
Alan: "Every time I work on a project, it's my favorite one. I'm almost like a method producer, like a method actor. I totally live the project and they all become a part of me. Though some projects I look back on more fondly than others."
Luke: "Are you saying that every project was a good experience?"
Alan: "I always find the good in every project. I believe that every time a project happens, it's a miracle. The system is so difficult. I always feel that it is something higher than me that has made it happen."
Luke: "Your method producing and total personal immersion in the project..."
Alan: "That's my lifestyle. I made a punk movie (1984's Du-beat-e-o). I was a hardcore punk while I was doing it and I had an arm full of tattoos that have since been laser removed. But I was really part of the punk scene. And I made a skateboarding movie (1986's Thrashin) and I was really a skateboarder. I was truly with those guys and still am. I love every kid on that skateboard. I produced and directed a documentary for PBS on Cowboy Poetry. And I became totally immersed in the cowboy world. And still am. Some of my closest friends are true cowboys.
"I love getting into different cultures with my projects. I'm working on a TV series now, Dance Dance Revolution, on a new dance phase that's big in Korea and Japan. It's a game that kids play in the arcades and a whole culture has developed around it. The kids have their own language, dress code, clubs. And I'm totally into it. I'm down there with the kids, in the arcade, and it's really a trip. This is about to explode in this country, with my help."
Luke: "Could you describe what it is?"
Alan: "If you could imagine going into the arcade and there's a screen you're looking at. And on the floor in front of the screen is a pattern of dance steps. So you look at an animation figure dancing on the screen. And you have to match your steps to what you're seeing on the screen. It's eye-foot coordination but these kids have their own music and style..."
Luke: "I saw kids doing that in an arcade in San Jose. When did you get into punk?"
Alan: "I was born December 9, 1942. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was too young to be part of the Beat generation. But I liked to go into the Village and emulate the generations before me, like Alan Ginzberg and Kerouac. Then I got into the hippie thing. The punk thing happened in the late 1970s and it all seemed the same to me. I looked at it as an art thing and today it's mainstream."
Luke: "How did you come to make your punk film?"
Alan: "Somebody had to come to me wanting to get into the entertainment business. They wanted to do a movie about Joan Jett and they had some footage of Joan Jett. They gave me the footage to make the movie. While they were doing it, they changed their minds midway through it and cut off the money. So I was stuck with half a film, some footage and something I felt passionate about. I went out and completed it myself with stills, stock footage and some bizarre stuff. But it's totally different from where my mind is today.
"I was talking to my daughter who lives in New York and who happened to have seen that film in a cult video store, and she was laughing because I make movies for Disney now.
"It's ironic. I created this TV series in 1975, Welcome Back Kotter, about a teacher. And today, while I'm still producing, I'm also a full-time college professor."
Luke: "Was your punk film influenced by the movie Snuff?"
Alan: "No, I never saw Snuff."
Luke: "How did you come to make Welcome Back Kotter?"
Alan: "It's in the E! True Hollywood Story. Gabe and I went to different schools in Brooklyn. We didn't know each other. But we had similar experiences. I had always been interested in tough kids, hence the punk thing. I'm still interested in juvenile delinquents and teen culture. I was influenced by the movie Blackboard Jungle, about tough kids growing up in Brooklyn. And the Bowery Boys series of comedic movies also influenced me.
"When I came out to Los Angeles, I thought about developing this TV series about these tough kids in Brooklyn. I was producing Chico and the Man at the time. Freddy Prinze, the star of Chico, brought me down to the Comedy Store one night to watch him work. [Prinze committed suicide in 1979.] And performing was Gabe Kaplan. And he was talking about these similar kids I wanted to develop a series around.
"I said to Gabe that we should get together and create a show. So we had lunch. I said you and I have these kids in mind. How do we get you into the act? You should be their teacher. That was the genesis of the show.
"I pitched it to ABC executive Michael Eisner who bought it. Eisner wanted to make Epstein the Animal, the Jewish character, half Puerto Rican. I did it hesitantly because I'd never heard of a Puerto Rican Jew. But a few years ago, my cousin visited us from Miami. She's married to a Puerto Rican guy and her children are half Puerto Rican and half Jewish. Yet again reality imitates art.
"I left Welcome Back Kotter and the show fell apart because of many different egos. The executive producer James Komack had conflicts with Kaplan. I totally enjoyed working with the Sweathogs but all the other egos around me were way more than I wanted to deal with. Between Komack and Kaplan and I created this and I did that. They were arguing and it wasn't a joyful experience. I was offered another deal at Warner Brothers, which was a mistake on my part, to do a ripoff of Welcome Back Kotter. And I learned to never rip yourself off.
"You'll see in the E! documentary that I was totally screwed on Welcome Back Kotter. I got the credit and it was good experience but I got no ownership of the show and no money.
"Komack, who's passed away, said to me when Eisner finally bought the pilot, said 'You need an agent. We need to make a deal with you.' I was totally green, after just getting off the boat from Brooklyn to Hollywood. I asked Komack and he recommended his own agent at William Morris. That didn't make any sense for me."
Luke: "How did you get involved with Chico and the Man?"
Alan: "I was a development executive for Komack. And he was messing up on the script. He spent more time dealing with the politics of the show and creating publicity. There was a controversy that Freddy Prinze was not Chicano, because he was half Puerto Rican and half Hungarian. And Freddy played a Chicano from East LA. Jimmy spent more time dealing with the politics than concentrating on the script. So the network wasn't happy with the script. So the network called me into their office and stressed that to me. 'We need to put a new producer on to the show. We should put you in.' I was at the right place at the right time. Jimmy became the executive producer and I became the producer."
Luke: "What did the punk scene create that's lasting?"
Alan: "Fashion. The music is still there today. Limp Bizket. The style and attitude."
Luke: "How would you sum up the punk attitude? Nihilistic? Anarchic?"
Alan: "A combination of both. Nihilistic and anarchic. I'm going to do my art my way, and f--- you. I can't live that way today."
Luke: "Anarchy and nihilism is a frightening combination to most of us bourgeois types."
Alan: "My values are bourgeois too. I'm not the guy to talk about politics. I'm just rolling along trying to educate my students and create some television programs.
"Our Media Arts program at Los Angeles Valley College has $19 million to build a new Media Arts center. We're working with Dreamworks and an organization called Workplace Hollywood to develop a curriculum, internships, job shadowing... And here's the punk attitude. Our school charges $11 a credit. That's what attracts me to it. It's a school for the people. If you have the motivation to get into it, you can go there. And we offer a state-of-the-art program in the new media.
"I teach a class one day a week at the McLuhan Institute at the University of Toronto via video conference. I have students here in Los Angeles and graduate students at the University of Toronto interacting. It's a class in how the media affects people's minds and society.
"The class was organized by the guy who replaced Marshal McLuhan, Dr Derrick de Kerckhove. He's the smartest guy I know, an intellectual philosopher."
According to the class's website: "Derrick de Kerckhove is Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology at the University of Toronto. He worked with Marshall McLuhan for over ten years as translator, assistant and co-author. Among his many published titles is The Skin of Culture (Somerville Press, 1995), a collection of essays on the new electronic reality, Connected Intelligence (Somerville, 1997) that introduced his research on new media and cognition and this year, The Architecture of Intelligence."
Alan: "I have a kid coming in on Wednesday afternoon to talk about digital animation. He's 15 years old. Donovan Keith. I read about in Wired magazine."
Luke: "How long have you worked with the McLuhan Institute?"
Alan: "When I did the movie The Color Of Friendship, Disney wanted me to shoot it in Canada. It was smack in the middle of my semester and I didn't want to miss any of my classes. We have a high tech room in the college, a smart classroom. So I called the McLuhan program to find out about video conferencing. I met Derrick once and he tossed me the key. So every night for three weeks, after I was done with my production, I went into a classroom and video-conferenced back to my class at Valley College. It was an incredible experience to teach that way.
"My students loved it. They'd known me in the flesh before I went up. Then when I got up there, I showed them dailies every day. I took them through the production. And then the movie won these awards."
Luke: "What do you remember from your 1997 film Me And My Hormones?"
Alan: "That movie was an ABC After School special. The director of that movie was Melissa Gilbert (who played Laura Ingalls Wilder in the TV series Little House On The Prairie). I was running down some names and my mother suggested that I get Melissa Gilbert to direct the movie. Melissa had never directed before. I called up Melissa and she wanted to do it.
"This is a movie that I can't relate to personally. It's a movie about a woman going through menopause and her daughter going through puberty. We hired an entire female crew. I was the only male on the project."
Luke: "You produced a 1991 TV series for CBS Riders in the Sky."
Alan: "They're three singing cowboys out of Nashville, Tennessee. They appear often on National Public Radio. They're great guys and have become some of my closest friends in the world. I read an article about them in People magazine. I said, they should make a television series. So I tracked them down and met them. We hit it off like brothers. Then I put a showcase on for them here and invited various network executives. We sold the show to CBS. It went on for a week. It was a puppet show, like PeeWee Herman with cowboys. It replaced Pee Wee Herman. It didn't do well and was canceled. I'd love to work with them again.
"When I was doing that, I wore cowboy hats and cowboy boots. They invited me to this cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, Nevada. It was like Cannes Film Festival or AFM, but for cowboys. I did the tenth anniversary in 1994 as a documentary for PBS."
Luke: "What's the story behind your 1986 Thrashin' skateboarder movie?"
Alan: "When I did Du-beat-e-o, LA Weekly did an article about me. And on the same page of the story about me, there were four punk girl skateboarders. So I researched skateboarding and found a scene going on that was close to the punk thing. Then I tried to figure out how to set a movie in this world. Romeo and Juliet, and West Side Story, were some of my favorite stories. Let's do West Side Story on skateboards.
"Then I went out and sold that. People thought I was crazy. I'd bring a skateboard under my arm to the meetings. We made the movie for $1.6 million. New Line distributed it the wrong time of the year, on Labor Day weekend, when kids were going back to school. They should've put it in theaters at the end of July. The profit statements are probably still negative on it but that's Hollywood accounting. I know that every kid in the world who's on a skateboard has seen this movie. I can walk into skateboarding stores and say, 'Ever see Thrashin'? I made that.' And I get all these props for it."
I find Mr. Sacks at 3:30 PM in the "smartest classroom on campus." He's a short Jewish guy wearing glasses and Buddhist regalia.
He's got a copy of last week's Los Angeles Daily News paper with the banner headline "Valley Tops In Film Jobs."
Alan says with a snicker: "They also said the porn industry is part of these film jobs. I was thinking, how many students are we training that are going to work in that industry?"
Film people look down on TV people who look down on commercials people. And they all look down on porn people.
Alan wears a small idol on a silver chain around his neck. "It's my own mezzuzah," he says. "It's a dohrje. It's a symbol.
"Padma Sahmbaba brought Buddhism to Tibet 2500 years ago. He came out of water on a lotus blossom while holding the dohrje in his hand. It's a power symbol.
"I've been interested in Tibetan Buddhism since 1975. I joke with my wife and kids that I am a Jew for Buddha."
Luke: "Do you practice it?"
Alan: "I went into a meditation center at lunch time today. Not to practice but to get a brochure. I like to sit and meditate every day, even if it is just ten minutes."
Luke meditates about 20-30 minutes almost every day.
Alan: "I try to remember to look at colors. I'm looking at the color of this tape recorder, seeing that pretty red color. Just to remember that that's out there. So that's a form of meditation for me. I like to think there is more compassion and peace in the world than exists right now.
"I have an affinity for Buddhism. I don't know why. In 1975, I was introduced to this Tibetan Buddhist Llama, a wonderful wonderful man named Tafe Toka Rimposhea. My ex-wife said let's go up to his meditation center. I'm looking at myself after meditating, saying, this is pretty California. Then I had a five minute audience with Tafe. He asked me what I did and I said I was a producer in Los Angeles. And he said, 'You will work for me one day in Los Angeles.'
"I laughed at that. But six months later, I found myself setting up a meditation room and weekend seminar for him.
"Rimposhea called me up a couple of months ago and we talked about the stupor, a building that houses a lot of power. You get enlightenment walking around it. He built one of these in Northern California. He's been in retreat for two years and has hardly been talking to anybody."
Alan's just bought a copy of the William Strunk, E.B. White classic "The Elements Of Style." Sacks discusses the book with a smart matronly looking woman beside him.
"It is gender biased," she says. "But what do you expect from something written over 60 years ago?"
Alan's class from 4-6 PM teleconference's with Derrick deKerckhove's class at the University of Toronto. Mentored by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Dr. deKerckhove directs the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology. The quality of the students in his class, many of them pursuing graduate degrees, are light years ahead of the dimmer bulbs in Alan's community college class. But what the Los Angeles class lacks in raw intelligence, it more than makes up for in racial diversity. The Toronto class is all white with the exception of a couple of Japanese students.
Today's special guest is 16-year old animation whiz kid Donovan Keith who comes in via teleconfering from Chabot Community College in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Alan began communicating with Keith after reading about him in Wired.com. "I want to help him get some jobs in the industry. I want to make a movie about him."
Luke: "If you wanted to develop a movie about him, what steps would you take?"
Alan: "First, I'd meet with him and figure out what the story would be. The story would probably be - this kid comes up with a program. And then big business comes in to corrupt him and somebody wants to buy him out. Is he going to sell out or is he going to remain a true artist? And he's going through this at 15 years old. Or, a kid like this could probably command a job for $200,000 a year. How would that change you?"
It's 4PM and only a couple of people have come to the class. Alan gets on the phone and asks various people to come by. At 4:15PM, we watch the Canadians come into their conference room and take off their jackets.
I expected Dr. Derrick to be a pompous bore but he's quick and witty.
One Hispanic couple bring in their twin boys, who appear about ten years old. They talk to Alan about two of his movies - The Other Me and The Smart Classroom.
Donovan talks about a recently released animation feature: "The movie has some good aspects. Some Eastern philosophy and a female lead. That's always good. More diversity."
The Toronto professor talks about the continuity between Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat and Shrek.
A black woman dressed as the devil walks in. She's the college president. She wants to buy souls.
A student asks Donovan about military uses for 3-D animation.
Donovan: "There are far too many military applications for 3-D animation... The military doesn't seem to have much artistic vision."
Student: "They have the budget but not the story."
Dr. Derrick: "They have a very old story."
Donovan talks about "simplicity of line and form" while I stare at the Russian secretary in the monitor. But how can I look upon a wench when I've made a contract with God over my eyes?
Where does Donovan finds his stories?
Donovan: "You have to go inside. You have to think about what message you want to get across. In Hollywood, far too much emphasis is put on focus groups instead of what we're trying to say to people. It really depends on if you're in it for money or if you're in it to tell people what you want them to hear."
Student: "Not the generic you, where do you get your stories?"
Donovan: "I look at my life. And whatever is important to me in my life, I want to share with others. If I'm feeling really happy one day, I want to spread the love."
Alan: "If Disney offer you a lot of money to work with them, would you go with them or stay independent?"
Donovan: "I'd go with them [Disney] long enough to get the money to afford to be independent."
Alan: "I'd agree with that."
Most everybody seems opposed to corporate movie making in favor of independent producers.
The couple ask for Donovan to give some wisdom to their boys who are interested in animation.
Donovan: "It takes a lot of work but it's a lot of fun."
Most of the last 20 minutes of the class revolves around using pirated software. The students' ethics are as sloppy as their clothes.
Donovan, who's about to release his own animation software program, says: "I do not pirate software anymore. Now that I've become a developer and realize how much work goes into it.
"It all comes down to karma. If you want to have good karma, you don't pirate software."
The students deride this. They think stealing software and music and the like is just fine because they're poor and the corporations are rich.
I speak by phone with Alan Sacks.
Alan: "I have some concerns about your point of view. It's fine as a journalist to interpret whatever you see, and that's cool. But you describe one person I'm talking to as matronly. You describe my students as dim lightbulbs. You describe someone else as black. You describe me as short and Jewish. Those are not positive images that you're laying out there.
"You walk in there with a yarmulke on and I was surprised to see that."
Luke: "Hmm. People ethnicities and religion are of interest to me."
Alan: "What's so interesting about short and Jewish? Or matronly or black? If there was a reason for it, that's one thing. That almost seems anti-semitic in a way?"
Luke: "Black and Jewish identify someone's ethnicity or religion. Matronly describes how someone looks."
Alan: "I understand but there are other ways to describe how somebody looks. Those are all negative. I'm proud to be short and Jewish. But the way it read. For somebody on the outside [i.e., the goyim], that's just not a cool thing. That was completely stereotypical. It's like saying I'm cheap."
Luke: "I don't think of short and Jewish and black and matronly as negative."
Alan: "Nor do I, but the tone of it was. A reader would pick that up."
Luke: "I will go back and take a second look. The main thing is, I quoted you accurately?"
Alan: "Yes, pretty much. If you want to include it, just bring up this conversation. I'm cool with that."
Luke: "Tell me about your first TV movie, 1979's Women of West Point."
Alan: "It was based on an article I found in the New York Times. It was about the first year women were admitted to West Point. I set that up at CBS. We shot the whole movie at West Point.
"That fall, I had run the New York marathon."
Luke: "Not bad for a short Jewish guy."
Alan: "Exactly. With an arm full of tattoos. You missed that."
Luke: "I was running marathons in the late '70s too."
Alan: "I had really messed up. The week before the marathon, I developed achilles tendonitis. I went to the doctor and said, 'Just shoot up my leg. Make it numb. I want to run the race.' And it was a really stupid thing to do. They taped up my leg. I flew to New York. I go to the starting line and I put my foot down and the pain went from ankle right to the third eye [mystical spot in the middle of the forehead]. And every time I put my foot down for the next four hours and ten minutes [of the marathon] it was this excruciating pain. I finished the race. I came out through the chute and it was like an incredible experience. I had all this energy going through my body. They asked me how I was. I said, 'I'm not that good. My foot is messed up really bad.'
"They took up my bandage and my tendon looked like a lightbulb. It was ready to rip. And if that rips, that's the whole ballgame. It runs up your leg like a Venetian blind and they can't put it back together again. That night somebody drove me up to West Point where I was going to start pre-production on the movie. And when I got up there, they greeted me like a war hero, like I'd done this incredible thing.
"They put me through this physical therapy they had up there and they got my leg back together again. And I was able to run the marathon again the next year. I felt very close to West Point. While I was making the movie, I stayed in the Eisenhower suite at a nearby [luxury] hotel.
"I worked with West Point closely and they liked the movie. I got an award from West Point."
Luke: "Your next movie was 1980's Cry For Love."
Alan: "That was based on the novel Bedtime Story by Jill Robinson about a woman who's addicted to amphetamines. And she's in a relationship with an alcoholic. It's about their spiral. That was the first movie where punks were on network television. I used a punk band. I used a punk band called Darby Crash. We shot the drug scene in the Hong Kong Cafe downtown. I bumped into the director Paul Wendkos six months ago. He said, 'Alan, you were always ahead of the game. You brought me 500 punks.'"
Luke: "Murder Ink, 1980, directed by Rocky's John Avildsen."
Alan: "That was a TV pilot (that never turned into a series) based on an anthology mystery book called Murder Ink. We'd extended the concept to have a woman running a bookstore, who's also a sleuth. They made a series like that years after with Angela Landsbury."
Luke: "Leave 'Em Laughing."
Alan: "About a clown dying of cancer, and it starred Mickey Rooney."
Luke: "Twirl, 1981."
Alan: "It was about a baton twirling competition. We had a lot of young girls twirling batons with high TVQ appeal. We introduced Heather Locklear. It also starred Stella Stevens, Erin Moran, Jamie Rose and my good pal Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys, a country music band. 'They ain't making Jews like Jesus anymore.' Kinky's now a novelist, but then he wrote a great song for the movie. 'Twirl, just a small town girl, until she learned to twirl, and set the world on fire.'
"Music is always an important thing. I always like to get my hook on the music even in the developmental stage of the project. I developed stuff that didn't get made from songs. I developed 'The night they drove old Dixie down,' and the Gatlin Brothers' 'All the gold in California,' and 'The spirit of New Orleans.'
"I'm getting my camera now and heading down to an underground hip hop competition to put together a presentation for a new series based on hip hop."
Luke: "In Love with an Older Woman, 1982."
Alan: "Based on a book, stars John Ritter."
Luke: "The Rosemary Clooney Story, 1982."
Alan: "That to me was a classic. It starred Sondra Locke as Rosemary. It was Rosie's idea to cast Sondra. She was looking at young pictures of herself and saw Sondra and said she'd be perfect. Then Rosemary called Clint Eastwood and Clint called the network to pitch Sondra. Then we got it made. He was always around the set. And it was directed by Jackie Cooper."
Luke: "Jealousy, 1984."
Alan: "That was an idea I had to do a trilogy of jealousy stories. I was taking words out of the Bible like jealousy and revenge, emotional words. I did a research study on different stories related to jealousy. And I thought it would be cool to have the same actress play in three different stories of jealousy. And we got Angie Dickinson to do that. One story we took the concept of Othello. No stories are new."
Luke: "What's the ratio of the stories you develop to the stories you finally get to make?"
Alan: "About 100 to 1. As an independent creative producer, I have to have a lot of balls in the air. Every one that happens is a miracle."
Luke: "The Secret of Lizard Woman, 1996."
Alan: "That was a ball. That project was given to me by ABC executive Linda Steiner. I'd just done the cowboy thing Elko: The Cowboy Gathering . So if I could do cowboys, I could do Indians. We shot the whole movie on a Navajo reservation in the northern part of Arizona. It was a third world environment. Every day a sign goes up about the water quality. 'Drink the water. Don't drink the water.' Sheep ran across the street. Sad about the poverty on the res. But spending time on the res was like going deep in South America.
"Smack in the middle of the Navajo reservation is the Hopi reservation. Hopis and Navajos don't get along. In the town we were based in, half the town was Hopi and half the town was Navajo. And the Navajos and the Hopis are on different time zones. So if I was going to have lunch with someone on the other side of the street, they were on a different time than I was."
Luke: "Do they speak English?"
Alan: "Very little. They speak the Ne, which is Navajo. The elders don't speak English. The younger people do. I had to go before the tribal council and get permission. I needed a translator. It was great, meeting the elders, learning the culture... We shot a couple of scenes in Monument Valley where John Ford did all of his westerns.
"I used a completely Native American cast. One of the challenges was that we had to teach the crew to respect the land and the elders. If things got out of hand, they would present problems to us. Part of my job was keeping everything moving along and everybody happy, both the studio and the tribal elders.
"One year I'm dealing with the staff at West Point. One year I'm dealing with the skateboarders. And the third year I'm dealing with the tribal elders."
Luke: "The Other Me, 2000."
Alan: "That was based on a book called Me Too. I sold it to the Disney Channel. It was about a kid who cloned himself. One actor (Andy Lawrence) played both roles. We used high technology so that the movie is seamless."