My life as a movie

I did all of my best parenting before I had children.

I had a great “Leslie the Mom” movie going in my mind, where I was always impeccably groomed, incredibly patient, and my three perfect kids were always clean, well-rested and well-behaved — yet somehow not the least bit Stepford-like.

After spending some time at the film festival last week, I realized that making movies is kind of like raising a child.

“When you’re inspired, you have the dream and it’s perfect. Inspiration is perfect,” said Phantom of the Opera director Joel Schumacher, recalling a conversation he had with Woody Allen.

Then you get people involved, and it’s a whole other story.

You start out with a perfect, innocent infant. Ten little fingers, ten little toes and the sweetest little face you’ve ever seen. Your movie couldn’t get any better.

Then people start to give you notes on your project.

“Let him cry and he’ll feel insecure.”

“If you don’t let him cry he won’t learn to soothe himself.”

I know just how Schumacher felt on Batman Forever when the studio told him Nicole Kidman wasn’t sexy and the test audiences said she was too sexy.

Sometimes I wish I could just stamp a “child by Leslie Dinaberg” credit on my son’s head and feel secure in the notion that I directed his progress from infancy to adulthood. But I realize that idea is about as absurd as that “film by” credit you see on almost any movie these days.

As soon as you bring a child into the world you have all kinds of outside influences to contend with, and it’s up to you to filter the harmless things (Grandma gives him an extra cookie before bedtime — no biggie) from the dangerous things (friend’s dad falls asleep with lit cigarette while kids play with Uzi’s and lawn darts — biggie).

“You’ve got to trust your instincts, even when no one else agrees with you,” said Jeff Arch, who directed Dave Barry’s Guide to Guys.

Sometimes this involves acting like you think saying, “because I said so” is a satisfying answer to “but all the other kindergarteners are allowed to drink beer and drive their parent’s cars” — even if you’re faking it.

“The buck stops with you. You have got to give the impression that you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t, ” said Hotel Rwanda director Terry George.

Sure the buck may stop with me, but unless I want to raise a bubble boy, I need to realize that his friends, teachers, coaches, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even current events have parts to play.

Paying attention to those outside influences just makes sense. If nothing else, at you can share the blame with these other people when something goes wrong.

“You don’t have to take people’s advice or their suggestions, but I think if you don’t listen to them you’re a fool,” said Schumacher.

Of course, there are bound to be conflicts. If my husband and I can’t agree on everything, how could I possibly expect the rest of the world to fall in line with my childrearing philosophy?

Then there’s the reality that children have likes, dislikes and quirks just like the rest of us. I sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land trying to catch my son’s enthusiasm for Bionicles and snakes, but I don’t have the heart to tell him I’d rather be reading about the sale of Jen and Ben’s engagement ring or Martha Stewart’s post-prison reality show. Unlike Schumacher, who said, “sometimes I read excellent scripts but I think I’m the wrong director,” I don’t have the option to pass on building a fort or playing dinosaur bingo because “we have artistic differences.”

Like the script that comes to life with the right actor in the role, my son has taught me more about what he needs than any other parent or parenting book possibly could. Sure I’m his toughest critic, but I’m also his best audience. I just hope he has a boffo opening weekend, as he’s my retirement plan.

As actor/director Kevin Bacon said, the thing about film festival audiences is that they are there because they love films. Their “enthusiasm is seductive,” and tapping into that enthusiasm is partially why you have film festivals in the first place.

While I probably won’t ever match my son’s enthusiasm for tarantulas or his affection for anacondas, the light in his eyes when I read to him is more than worth the slight nausea in my stomach.

And looking back at that first draft of the “Leslie the Mom” movie, it seems a little boring anyway.

Except maybe the well-rested thing.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon  on February 10, 2005.