Dinner with Scorsese

Mike Doyle, the writer-director-producer of Almost Love, on the serendipitous meeting with his hero which helped make his new movie a reality.

“Come over at eight,” the sultry voice on the other end of the line summoned.

“Tonight is tricky,” I shouted into the phone, trying to raise my voice above the frantic cacophony of voices in our production office, above the shitstorm I had suddenly landed in.

Only 10 days out from the first day of principal photography, in the middle of an already abbreviated pre-production, everything was falling apart. Everything. I’m not being dramatic, but rather underplaying the dire circumstances in which I suddenly found myself. During Almost Love, I learned the special skill all writer-director-producers need to pull off the feat of dark magic known as making a movie, and that skill is having equal parts determination and delusion. I deluded myself into thinking that, yes, I’d lost my main location, I’d lost my lead actress who had been attached for two years (and an Oscar nominee), I’d lost a six-figure investor, but still told myself everything was going to be OK. If I had been honest and looked at the situation objectively, I would have folded the whole operation, or skipped town, or jumped off a building, or all three.

But the deluded part of my filmmaker constitution whispered devilishly in my ear, “You’ll figure it out.”

It certainly was less persuasive than the sultry voice at the end of the line who was demanding I come to her dinner party at 8 o’clock.

I deflected and said, “Wow, I’m really tired,” not betraying the fact that several years of my life were crumbling right before my eyes. It was not a lie, exactly. I was exhausted, but I definitely would not be relaxing that night. I had work to do, fires to put out, problems to solve. And I had to keep a good face on, like everything was hunky dory, because any crack in the facade would surely mean certain and sudden death.

Mike Doyle on the set of Almost Love

“It’s only a small soirée, six or seven people, tops. I won’t take no for an answer,” insisted the sultry voice. The owner of the sultry voice was none other than Patricia Clarkson, who had generously agreed to work a day on my film in a scene-stealing cameo, so I couldn’t exactly say no … to anything she asked of me … for the next century.

I hung up the phone, knowing I only had a few hours to plug as many holes as I could in this leaking ship of a production.

It was June 2018. I had dedicated the previous three years of my life to getting this film, a romantic comedy about a group of friends spinning their wheels in love and life, to this point. I suddenly felt like a character in my own story, a mess. And I was powerless to write a happy ending. Just four months before, a producer quit when we hit our first speed bump; what I thought was a minor disagreement about approach was ultimately a fundamental difference of philosophy about filmmaking. When he insisted we push to the fall, I explained that we only had Patricia Clarkson for the period of time we had originally slated. He said we could get a “Patricia Clarkson type” in September, to which I responded, “I’m not getting a Patricia Clarkson type. I have Patricia Clarkson! We never got over that impasse, and the project, for all intents and purposes, collapsed when he walked away. I was able to resuscitate it, miraculously, when I met my new producers, Mandy Ward and Ellyn Vander Wyden, two powerhouse veterans used to working in challenging situations.

I was not going to let it collapse again.

We had the usual hiccups around locations, talent and money. But what we were now facing was not run-of-the-mill, by any stretch. As I hung up with Patricia, I was in the midst of figuring out how to replace 20 percent of the budget. I was kicking myself for not truly appreciating the difference between money pledged and money in hand. Getting any sort of investment pledged takes time – endless dinners, drinks, emails, gifts, you name it – but getting it in hand is a whole other long and strategic battle, and that 20 percent was not going to be in hand any time soon.

Mike Doyle with Patricia Clarkson

I was on the phone burning through external battery packs, calling literally everyone I knew, desperately trying to keep the production intact. But I was failing. I could no longer convince myself that I was capable of solving these major problems.

It was now 8:30. I was late. The sweat coming off the bottle of rosé I’d picked up only magnified how cheap it was. Patricia opened the door and embraced me. I felt like I was going to cry. It was all too much and I was sinking.

Maybe we should have pushed to the fall. Maybe I was not the leader I thought I was.

“Someone needs a drink,” Patricia cooed. She took my bottle and put it in the fridge, then poured from an already opened bottle, something a lot nicer than the swill I arrived with. I took a needed gulp and picked at some cheese. My appetite was virtually nonexistent, but I knew I had to eat something. Patricia had assembled a lovely group of friends, all interesting and interested, and I tried to engage as best I could without checking my phone for updates on our situation.

Then suddenly the door opened. And in walked Martin Scorsese. I nearly dropped my glass of expensive wine, I was so startled. What was happening? What was he doing here? And why the heck did she not tell me he was coming? To say I’m a Martin Scorsese fan is like saying … shit, I don’t know what it’s like saying. I’m more fanatic or disciple, than fan. Him arriving was as if Jesus had just casually crashed my Easter dinner, and was like, “Hey.”

Scorsese grabbed something to drink, chatted with some people. I tried not to stare. He is so damned charismatic, he really lights up a room. Finally, Patricia led him toward where I had been standing since I arrived, by the cheese. My heart was racing. My heart had been racing for weeks, mostly out of panic; this was something different.

“Marty, meet my new director, Mike,” Patricia announced grandly. I thought, “Director? We’ll see. Doesn’t seem likely.”

I barely said hello and shook his hand before he, in his characteristic energetic voice asked, “How’s the picture going?”

I paused. How do I answer this? How do you respond to a master, whose entire body of work you have watched over and over, whose interviews you’ve read again and again, whose appearances on talk shows you’ve spent hours devouring on YouTube? I wanted to make an impression. I wanted to talk about camera angles and dolly moves; I wanted to talk about character, about relationships. I wanted to sound like I knew what the hell I was doing, and not some newbie who was in way over his head, who was drowning in the endeavor.

Augustus Prew and Scott Evans in Almost Love

I gathered my thoughts and whether it was the few sips of wine, or exhaustion, or me feeling suddenly and strangely calm in Martin Scorsese’s presence, I simply replied, “Every day there is a bit of triumph, but mostly disaster.”

There, I said it. I didn’t know how to feel with this admission. I didn’t know if it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I did know that it was honest.

He immediately said, “It’s always a disaster. It’s never not a disaster.”

“Really?” I asked, relieved, but also shocked that someone as accomplished as he would say something like that. Surely, he was talking about his beginnings as a filmmaker. No, he was talking about the ‘picture’ he was currently editing.

“It’s always in a state of falling apart. You lose money. You lose talent. You lose locations,” he said, as if reading my mind. Check, check, and check. “So, here’s what you do. You start talking. You start talking, and you keep talking. You keep talking until you figure it out.”

I wondered if Patricia had tipped him off. Not likely, though, as no one really knew how bad things were, except me.

“What’s the worst that can happen? You lose everything. But, you got you, you got your actors, you got your camera. Shoot it!”

Yes. I felt the dark cloud over me start to clear. There is so much “No” in this business. No, I won’t invest. No, I can’t commit. No, you won’t ever manage to pull it off. What he was saying, was “Yes!” Yes, you can ultimately do it. Yes, you will figure it out.

He told me of the time they lost power while filming in Little Italy. “My mother ran an extension cord down Elizabeth Street. I told her she was a producer.” She wasn’t, of course, a producer on that film, but his point was there was a problem, and she produced the solution.

We talked for more than an hour and covered a lot of ground. I was able to ask him about shooting all nights on After Hours, about the cinematography of Raging Bull, the CGI technology he was now using in The Irishman. He made me feel like a colleague, like a peer, like someone who was getting a taste of what it’s like to be in the trenches.

I could have talked with him all night and into the next several days, but I had a disaster to solve, which I confessed to him. I politely excused myself, and Martin Scorsese hugged me as I left and said, “Keep me posted.”

Patricia Clarkson and Augustus Prew in Almost Love

Patricia ushered me to the door and whispered, “Surprise.” She smiled that sly Patricia Clarkson grin. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to be nervous.”

“Thank you. I can’t tell you how incredible this night was,” I said, shaking with excitement.

“I’ll see you in a few weeks,” she said.

“Yes,” I said definitively. “Yes, you will.”

I floated home on a cloud of renewed energy, bursting with tears of joy and ideas and initiative. Somehow, I would talk, and I would keep talking. I would keep talking until I figured it out.

Post script: We started principal photography 10 days later, with our new lead actress, on schedule, and on budget. We had disasters, but mostly triumphs along the way. Thank you, Martin Scorsese.

Mike Doyle‘s first feature film, Almost Love, starring Kate Walsh, Scott Evans, Augustus Prew, Patricia Clarkson and Doyle himself, is out now on VOD. Mike’s short film starring Amy Ryan, Shiner, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and subsequently played extensively on the festival circuit. Known for his work as an actor, Doyle currently stars on NBC’s New Amsterdam and Showtime’s City on a Hill. He was last seen in Matt Weiner’s The Romanoffs for Amazon and season four of the hit Netflix show Narcos. Feature credits include Jersey Boys, directed by Clint Eastwood, Green Lantern directed by Martin Campbell, and The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama. He is well known for his seven-year run on Law & Order: SVU as Ryan O’Halloran. He has had recurring roles on The Blacklist, Elementary, Blindspot, Lucifer, A Gifted Man, The Whole Truth and Shameless. Other feature credits include The Rabbit Hole, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, Gayby directed by Jonathan Lisecki, and PS I Love You, directed by Richard LaGravenese. Mike was last seen on stage in Lincoln Center’s production of Paul Rudnick’s play The New Century. Mike trained at the Julliard School. (Image by Tina Turnbow.)