April 23, 2019
90th Anniversary Alumni Conversation Series: Behind the Curtain
Kevin McCollum (MFA ’89) & Karey Kirkpatrick (BFA ’88) Swap SCA Stories, Sing Songs, Sling Advice
By Ben Del Vecchio
An age old adage: from small seeds, mighty oaks grow.
For writer/director/producer Karey Kirkpatrick and producer Kevin McCollum, their oaks are their films (Kirkpatrick wrote James and the Giant Peach, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and shows (McCollum produced Rent!, Avenue Q, and Something Rotten! –– the latter’s book and lyrics by Kirkpatrick), but their seeds were laid earlier: first at Disney World and then, at the School of Cinematic Arts.
“We have no idea how this going to go,” begins Kirkpatrick, “because Kevin and I have known each other for a very long time.”
“I was… 21,” muses McCollum, “… and you were 19?”
At Disney’s Epcot (Kirkpatrick did improvisational Sak theater, McCollum was in a show called Broadway at the Top), the duo crossed paths at a party, before bonding over their love for musical theater (both were writing musicals at the time) and reciprocal admiration for each other’s hard work and passion for the craft.
36 years on, the creative cadre behind Broadway smash Something Rotten! and the upcoming Mrs. Doubtfire musical have a relationship that has ebbed and flowed with the times, but they remain just as driven, passionate, busy, and humble as they were as students at USC. Both shared their application/acceptance stories.
Kirkpatrick claims his perseverance and charm helped get his foot in the door:
“I don’t think I was qualified. I talked my way in, as I recall.” After calling the school to set up an interview, Kirkpatrick was informed that SCA doesn’t do interviews. Quick on his feet, he mentioned that he was aware of this fact, but was “in town” and hoping to swing by for a chat.
“They said, ‘you can do that!’” Kirkpatrick recalls, “And so I hung up the phone and booked a flight – I wasn’t actually going to be in town so I booked a flight, flew out here, took the tour, and went right up to the office and tried to be as charming as I could.”
McCollum interrupts his story: “Wow. Can I just say –– we haven’t talked about this, but you describing that story… I just realized that we kind of did the same thing.”
After initial rejection from the Peter Stark Producing Program, McCollum called the school, and inquiring about an explanation. He was told he should reapply. And so, he did. After a year or so working for Disney, he applied again –– this time, with a couple of tricks up his sleeve.
“This time, because he had seen me perform in Florida, and brought me to perform a show in L.A. for the Hebrew College Fund, I called Michael Eisner, I wrote him a letter. And I said, ‘You just took over Disney, I want to apply to this Stark program. I’ve worked for you at the park, I’m working for you now, but I would love a letter of recommendation from you. Of course… you don’t know me, so… why don’t we hang out?’”
Eisner remembered McCollum, agreed to write the letter, and recommended McCollum meet with Art Levitt (former chairman of AMEX, current chairman of the SEC). Both Levitt and Eisner agreed to write a letter for him, and McCollum was accepted into the program.
“And so,” says McCollum, “another lesson: life is random. but it’s your job to make your story based on the randomness.”
In addition to the letter of recommendation, however, McCollum had another name gunning for him: Kirkpatrick. “I had mentioned to Kathy [Fogg, former associate director of the Stark program] that I had a friend here,” he says, gesturing towards Kirkpatrick. “And I knew Kathy because I worked in that office. My work study was in the filmic writing office,” he replies.
McCollum has a realization: “You know, you might be the reason I got in, Karey, actually.
You probably talked me up.”
Kirkpatrick chuckles, “You’re welcome.”
Once at SC, both Kirkpatrick and McCollum tried to take full advantage of the resources at their disposal, and both found their crafts honed and their efforts encouraged by their work (and by each other). Kirkpatrick contemplates: “I soaked everything up that this place had to give me. I was paying for it myself so I wasn’t going to waste a penny… I worked every angle I could here.” Whether it was constantly frequenting professors’ office hours, non-stop writing and shooting, or creating writer’s groups with friends, Kirkpatrick was proactive and constantly sought work, feedback, projects, and people.
“There’s an expression in the south,” explained Kirkpatrick, “that you can’t sell from an empty wheelbarrow. Somebody’s going to open a door for you and your job is to have the goods in your wheelbarrow to deliver when you get through that door. And so that’s, for me, what I was doing when I was at USC... I don’t think either of us had the attitude that anyone owed us anything.”
In McCollum, Kirkpatrick had a lead actor to star in all of his short films. His senior year at SCA, Kirkpatrick wrote a spec musical, to pitch to Disney Animation, called Once Upon a Bayou, and, at the stage reading, McCollum played the lead.
KK: “You were the chipmunk.”
KM: “I was the chipmunk? I thought it was a squirrel.”
KK: “I have video.”
KM: “You have what?”
Kirkpatrick pulled up a filmed-on-video-tape video of the stage reading –– iPhone footage of the old VHS tape he dug up in his basement, starring McCollum as chipmunk.
Eventually, McCollum called off the impromptu ‘screening’, “Okay, Karey, I think they’ve seen enough –– I know I have.” But the show went on. Stepping up to the microphone while Kirkpatrick slid behind the keys, McCollum prefaced his performance –– a track from Once Upon a Bayou, penned by Kirkpatrick, called “Seeds.”
“I’ll tell you why I’m singing this song for you today,” he began, “when somebody asks me what a producer does… everyone says ‘they raise the money, they get the rights, etc.’ and I’m like: no… [paraphrasing Oscar Hammerstein] a producer lives with passion, dies with hope, is a cynic, is a warrior against cynicism and is always trying to create a family. So when [Karey] asked me to sing, I was like ‘I haven’t sung in a long time,’ but I wanted to do it for the students because… no matter how much you grow or what success you may or may not have… stay vulnerable. Take risks.”
While Disney didn’t pick up Once Upon a Bayou, they were impressed by Kirkpatrick’s creative amalgamation of lyricism, composition, and writing. They hired him, and he began work on Rescuers Down Under.
After graduating from Stark and SCA, McCollum quit his internship-turned-job at Disney to produce We’re Actors, Please Don’t Leave, a play performed in his garage in Van Nuys. It was his first producing gig. With the garage door as proscenium arch, folding chairs in the driveway, five microphones and a cast of characters, the show was performed to a crowd of about twenty-five people. Kirkpatrick was one of them.
There was a comfortable rapport between the two throughout the night, swapping quips, telling their own stories and prompting the other to do the same. “It’s wonderful when you grow up together and align passions, your friends become your heroes,” mused McCollum, casting a quick glance Kirkpatrick’s way.
Kirkpatrick then gave a mini masterclass on songwriting for musical theater, playing a pair of demos from his upcoming (McCollum-produced) Mrs. Doubtfire adaptation, all the while talking through the process. He was then joined onstage by School of Dramatic Arts alum Adrienne Visnic, who sang a rendition of another Doubtfire track.
The night concluded with a Q&A, with choice wise words from the pair, on storytelling structures, copyright, musical inclination, writing lyrics, and more.
“Stop asking permission to do what you want to do,” McCollum candidly addressed one of the crowd’s inquirers, “…you have to believe [in your story] more than anyone else. And you have to be willing to be rejected, but you have to go after people.? Those people you’re asking need love, and you have to love them, and say ‘you have to do this, this is that special, and let me tell you why.’ If they say no, they don’t think it’s that special, and that’s okay, it’s information for you… it has to define you so powerfully that they can’t say no to you, [you have to say] ‘look at this gift I’m giving you. You can be along with me –– and we can do this.’”
Finally, Kirkpatrick played piano once more, accompanying himself singing “I Suck” –– a Something Rotten! outtake, in which the singer/character reveals and maligns his insecurities. The song, despite its title and remonstrations, is beautiful and hilarious. As Kirkpatrick performed, McCollum took a seat in the audience, laughing and giggling along, watched his old friend sing –– a twinkle in his eye and, surely, a memory in his heart.
For two hours, a movie theater turned stage, and on display: a working friendship of almost forty years, and two men committed not only to the building and telling of stories, but to the people, families, love, and passion that makes those stories possible.
USC School of Cinematic Arts’ 90th Anniversary Alumni Conversations Series continues on April 23rd, with John August and Melissa Rosenberg, and on April 30th with Shonda Rhimes and John Wells.