“I started washing dishes when I was fifteen. I’m still here,” laments Dick Fletcher, the title character of the upcoming web series Bitter Bartender starring actor David Gunning.
I met with Gunning at the Coffee Bean on Sunset and Fairfax in the middle of a weekday afternoon to discuss the project and hopes for it. He was dressed for the gym – a far cry from the shirt, tie, vest and dark pants worn by his soon-to-be very popular character.
SAM MALONE HE AINT
Dick Fletcher, so named because well…he can be one sometimes (although Fletcher comes a friend of his with whom he tended bar in New York), had been working consistently in Hollywood until the last couple of years when the writer’s went on strike, the economy tanked and celebrities began taking all the work.
“The combination of that, the rude attitudes of the customers and just being tired and burned out from the bar frustrates the shit out of him,” explains Gunning, who is also the creator, producer and writer of the series based on his own experiences working in bars and restaurants.
“Over and over he continuously puts up with these people. He’s at the point where he doesn’t care anymore, but needs to be there in order to fund his career. So if a customer comes up and they have an issue, he explodes on them – and he gets away with it because his father owns the bar,” Gunning adds.
Bitter Bartender is a tribute to anyone who’s ever had to deal with the public. “This is my piece to them,” Gunning says. “What a lot of people don’t realize when they’ve never worked as a server, busser, bar back, bartender, counter person, barista, whatever it might be – they don’t understand some of the things that workers have to put up with every single day without being able to respond back and always having to put on this happy face. It’s torturous for a lot of people. That’s why a lot of people get in and they get right out because they can’t take it anymore.”
Some people might consider that to just be part of the job but Gunning sees things a bit differently. “Just because someone’s serving you doesn’t mean that they’re your slave. It means they are there to help you out. And if you are courteous to your server, they’ll help you out as much as they can. It’s a nice little marriage. If not, you’re being a bad customer.”
It was a slow night at the bar where Gunning was working, but every customer that came in inspired a story. “I had been meaning to create or write some kind of series,” says Gunning. “This idea just popped into my head -- you gotta write about the bar.”
Over the next two weeks, he wrote five episodes and went over it with a director friend of his, Elliot London. Gunning then tightened up the script and presented it to Adrian Rennie (who also created, writes and produces The Cavanaughs web series. Rennie presented it to his production team and they all became part of the project.
THE YIN TO HIS YANGBrandy Kopp plays Alyssa McFadden, a fellow bartender. “She evens Dick out. As pissed off as he gets, as frustrated as he gets, she’s always able to simmer him down. She brings him back down to a peaceful level,” Gunning tells us about the female lead character.
He continues. “She’s this cute little thing. She’s flirtatious and has nothing to do with the business. She’s just there to work. She’s a free spirit. She’s there to console him. She feels for him because she sees what he goes through everyday. She’s very understanding.”
But Alyssa is not just another adorkable female character. “She has her little tricks as well,” Gunning says with a mischievous smile. “She’s that genuine cute girl that can also, if you piss her off, give you a little jab in the side. But she’ll do it in a way that you can never be really pissed off at her.”
Gunning points out that Alyssa is named after a friend of his who put him through the trenches and taught him how to really tend bar. Her last name, McFadden, comes from his friend Mickey, with whom he tended bar in New York and in Philadelphia.
AND THEN THERE’S GEORGE
Rounding out the main cast is Jon Paul Burkhart, who plays George Pinkerton, the bar’s manager who is named after a manager Gunning used to have at a restaurant. “He’s the manager with no clue,” Gunning describes the character, but not necessarily the inspiration for him.
Gunning explains that the best type of manager is someone who has worked as a server and also studied to be a manager. That way they can combine their experience with the numbers and they’ll know more about what they’re doing.
“George is the complete opposite,” he continues. “He’s clueless. He has no spine. Dick runs all over him but Alyssa always patches it up with her sweetness. He’s just that goofy ass dude. He’s the person that everyone laughs at -- at his own expense. He provides a lot of the comedy.”
Together, Dick, Alyssa and George create an interesting dynamic that will be fun to watch. “Dick provides this roller coaster “assholeness”. Alyssa provides sweetness and understanding. And then you have George -- this comedic, hapless simpleton,” Gunning summarizes.
WHERE HAVE I SEEN THEM BEFORE?
Veteran character actor Jason Stuart (The Closer, Will & Grace, My Wife and Kids) plays Rodney Silverstein. Rodney, named after Gunning’s first acting manager, is Dick’s agent, an old-school Jewish New Yorker. “He’s just all over the place. He’s been around forever. He’s just hilarious,” Gunning says to describe the character. Then again, for anyone familiar with him or his work, Gunning could very well be speaking of Stuart himself.
Christopher Halsted (CSI: NY, Mind of Mencia, The Drew Carey Show) recurs as Dick’s father. “He’ll show up once in a while,” Gunning states. “He just comes in to check on Dick. He’s a character who has the money. He runs the place, [but] he doesn’t really care much about it. It’s just a project for him to help his son out. That’s how his son makes his money to pursue his dream.”
Familiar faces such as Jonathan Emerson (Happy Endings, Southland, The Practice) and Jordan Feldman (Modern Family, Parenthood, Entourage) play customers. Dupree Washington (Torchwood, Grey’s Anatomy, Modern Family) shows up periodically as The Bouncer.
Also appearing are some great up-and-coming actors and actresses such as Aaron Scotti, Wes Armstrong, Marisa Leigh Saks, Jamie Sorrentini, Timothy Mandala, Patricia Ashley, KC Wright, Patrick Lewey, Jay Seals, Christina Murphy and Piper Major.
Italian pop star Tiziano Lugli provided the scoring with Danielle McAuliffe serving as the Music Supervisor.
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT LEGIT
It’s impressive how Gunning was able to secure such talent with such impressive and lengthy resumes for an independent project, but it came with a lot of preparation beforehand.
His first industry job was interning at a casting office in Philadelphia, where he learned about headshots and resumes – what looks good, what doesn’t and what works. Once he got to Hollywood, he would go to casting director workshops and do mock producer and casting sessions where he learned how the process works.
“I did everything that a normal Hollywood casting director would do. I used the breakdowns, I listed everything appropriately the way it would be if this was a breakdown for a network show. I wanted everything to look 100% legit. If you have a bullshit foundation, you’re gonna have a bullshit project. People see that. I had everything lined up and by the third, fourth, fifth episode, people were starting to notice a couple of the names underneath the series regulars and more agents start submitting their actors.”
Gunning talks about the tone he set on set. “You need to make sure that everybody from the extras, to the production crew, the principals, to the recurring, to the leads are having fun [or] they’re not going to be able to do their best. I’ve never understood getting on set and having someone be completely rude. There’s no need for it, there’s no room for it.”
All five first season episodes have already been produced, ready for a February 16 launch. “Just doing five episodes is just going to be a taste for these guys. Here’s a little piece of the cheesecake but I got the whole thing over here. You wanna buy in? Let’s do it,” Gunning teases about his plan to pitch this to every casting director in town as well as to festivals and cable networks such as HBO, Showtime or Cinemax.
“You can’t tell someone to ‘fuck off’ on NBC,” he jokes.
Gunning speaks highly of Will Smith (who, like Gunning, is also from Philadelphia), Mark Wahlberg and Ed Harris as hard-working, respectful actors – family men who stay out of trouble and largely out of the tabloids.
“That’s what I want. I don’t want to be a guy popping bottles at a club. That’s not my style. If that’s your style, that’s totally cool. More power to you for having a good time. I’m not criticizing by any means but that’s just not for me. I’m here to go to work and be professional and to gain respect. Take care of my family, my friends – that’s what’s important to me.”
Gunning then tells a particularly sweet story of Boston-bred Walhberg doing an early morning radio interview in the bathroom whispering on a cell phone because his kids were still sleeping. “I respect that so much,” he gushes.
THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS
Gunning cites everything he’s gone through as an actor as preparation for both Bitter Bartender and whatever may come out of it. He’s ready for it. If it takes off as he thinks it will and he gets the backing from a studio or a network, he could create another
“If you asked me five years ago, I’d probably say no. I wasn’t at that mature level. I feel like I’ve taken all the proper steps to really begin a successful career in this town. I understand the process. I understand how people work. I understand the casting side, the production side [and] the post-production side. I understand the side of being an actor. I understand the politics. I know what goes on. I’ve matured as a person. I’m not going to fuck around.”
With this project, he’s also getting a lot of pleasure out of helping people get into the union (the Screen Actors Guild). “There’s nothing worse than being a non-union actor and feel like nobody gives a shit about you. I know how they feel. I’ve been there. I know what it feels like to be so desperate to get your last voucher or your last waiver to get into the union. It’s like your golden ticket into the business. Once you get that ticket, everything’s possible.”
Based on what Gunning has been able to accomplish with this web series, it certainly is. Says a grateful Gunning, “I am amazed and thankful that these people came together to create this project.”
“Bitter Bartender”, produced by Gunning's own DelcoCut Productions, launches on YouTube on February 16 at 8:30pm PST. Subscribe to BitterBartendTV on YouTube, follow it on Twitter and like it on Facebook for the latest information, news and subsequent episodes.
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