When you have dreams of becoming a creative professional in any arena, the natural inclination is to read about leaders in the field and how they got where they are: Chuck Palahniuck wrote Fight Club while working at a truck repair shop; Stallone wrote Rocky while holed up in a hotel room for three days; J.K. Rowling wrote HP while sitting in a laundromat. Not-as-famous-people have all kinds of secrets to success like the 10,000 hour plan, the 10 year plan, the 2 hours a day plan, etc. They say you need discipline, but be flexible. They say treat it like a job, but have fun. My favorite is a Japanese saying that goes something like this: a passenger jet is off course 99% of its journey, but always gets to the destination. The message is that when you look at all this stuff from arm’s length is that there is no one path to the career of your dreams.
I started out as a short story writer in grade school and by the time I had graduated college, I had “published” four or five short stories in little art journals. Other than winning fifty bucks in a contest, I had never been paid for writing or had my work out there for people to see. From 5th grade through senior year all I did was write little three page stories for a girl and give them to her and that was it. She would say they were sweet and that was enough satisfaction for the time being. It wasn’t until college that I realized writing could be a lot more than that.
At Carleton College, I met all these accomplished people my age. I’m talking 18 year-olds who had photo exhibitions in Manhattan galleries, short story anthologies published, and even patents. Seriously? Who has a patent before they go to college? I went to a high school where you were considered to be kicking ass if you played on a sports team with a 40% or better win record. I met this guy in an English class, Andy Sokatch. He read one of my stories and said, “You should submit this to a contest.” I was like, “They have those?” Let’s just say even though my parents were encouraging folks, I didn’t really get any exposure to the possibilities of what to do with my writing. The comics, movie, tv, radio, and publishing industries were way out of my league, I thought. My thing was always movie making, anyway. I wrote a lot of ideas down, but didn’t know where I stood in the writing universe until I worked on a short documentary in a film production class. The movie was almost done and we (the instructor included) decided it needed some voice-over to glue it together. I went back to my dorm room and busted out some narration in about 30 minutes. That night we recorded it and the next day we showed it to the teacher, Dirk Eitzen. He looked at us and said, “Who wrote this?” I said I did. “How long did you work on it?” I told him it was under an hour. He stared at me so long that I thought I was in trouble. “It takes people weeks to write narration, and it’s never this good.” That was a good feeling. I rode that for about a week. Then another instructor, Wayne Carver, told me I construct some of the best sentences he’s seen in a student. I was about to pat myself on the back when he said, “But your stories are too thin. No layers. No flavor. Like eating paper.” Ah. Yeah. The burn of damaged pride.
Part of me was saying, “Oh yeah Wayne Carver? What the hell do you know? Dirk Eitzen says I’m a genius!” But another part was saying, “Wayne Carver has a Pulitzer, dumbass. Maybe you should listen.” I talked to Professor Carver about writing a little over the final months of school, and he said something that every writer I’ve ever spoken to has echoed since, “Never quit writing.” I was too young and stupid to realize what a great resource Mr. Carver was, may he rest in peace. I should have spent the whole 4 years in his office.
After college, I knew I had potential. It was an era where people were making cheap movies and getting screenplays snatched up in three picture deals. I wrote a bunch of stuff down, completed a couple feature screenplays, but then did nothing with them. I went to bars a lot. I drifted through some jobs fixing computers. I was hungover a lot. One job was at a medical software company run by a guy named Dr. John Dowdle. His oldest son was in NYU film school at the time. His younger son was my assistant for a few months in the summer. The younger son was a lazy party-boy, but he was 19 and that’s your obligation to society when you’re 19 and you come from money. In recent years, the two sons have produced and directed a number of movies together including Quarantine (good) and Devil (not good). Incidentally, it was Dr. Dowdle and his side-kick Tom Donnelly who kind of got me to grow up a little bit and take myself seriously. I took their advice and went to film school in Portland, OR.
The taking-self-seriously thing lasted for about three months. Then I was back in bars and chasing girls. I often lament that I wasted my twenties, but when I think back, I was writing the whole time; short films, short stories, another feature, treatments, sketched ideas, and journals. I made a few dozen short films in four years. I drank a lot of beer at night with people I barely knew, but during the day, I wrote and made movies. Fairly recently, a friend pointed out that I had always been generating work, but my problem was that I never did anything with it. Kind of like the grade school stories for the girl, the work vanished when it was completed.
Every writer has a money-making safety net. Bartending, post office, library… Mine was computer repair. This lead to jobs at Will Vinton Studios (now Laika) and Skywalker Sound. At Vinton’s I had a chance to become a picture editor, but I chose to stay where I was and write. At Skywalker, I moved from tech to editorial, but a pretty big film director told me the only way to make it big is to do it. So I quit and moved back to Portland to write and make movies. Of course, when I got back to Portland, I got a job fixing computers to pay the bills and talked a lot about making a movie. After 2 years of no forward movement, a friend of mine mailed me a check for $5000. No note. Just the check. The message was, “You no longer have any excuses.” So I wrote Decrypter in about six weeks while sitting at my desk in the IT department of a small landscape architecture firm. We shot the film a few months later and a few months after that, I sold the screenplay at the IFC/NY Market using the film as a marketing piece. After that experience, I was like, “That was easy. Why didn’t I do this before?”
Once again, I think it was exposure. While at Skywalker, I met all these obscure and mid-level directors and producers who got where they were by slogging it out on their own for a long time. It gave me a lot of perspective. My main excuse for not sending my work out was fear and doubt. I didn’t want to set myself up for rejection. But at Skywalker there are people with Oscars who had been kicked around for 10, 15 years before they made it. I once fixed the laptop of writer/director Wayne Wang. While I worked, we talked about filmmaking, I asked him how he dealt with rejection. He said, “I don’t think about it. If you come to a wall when walking, do you stop walking?” He kinda made me feel like a dumbass. See the trend forming in my life? I meet someone I admire, then he kicks me in the nuts, then I try harder.
When I learned a few companies were interested in buying Decrypter, I called an agent I had met and asked him how much I should hold out for. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Well, what if they offer me a hundred bucks?” I replied. His answer was, “How badly do you need a new DVD player? Take whatever you want. The sale is the important part, not the number.” So when they made their offer, I accepted and the guy was surprised. He said, “New writers always expect a hundred grand like it’s written somewhere that’s what new writers always get.” My father had been a writer and college professor for 25 years at the time I sold the screenplay. The professor job required him to publish once every couple years. He’s had stories and articles in the New Yorker, the Oxford Press, and numerous literary journals. When the Decrypter deal went through, he called and asked how much I got. “Ten thousand,” I said. There was silence on the line. “You there?” “Yeah,” he said. “That’s more than I’ve made on my writing combined.” Another lesson in perspective. Another person I admire spelling it out. Not a direct kick per se, but the message was loud and clear, “Quit yer whinin’.”
From that time, I’ve been more productive than ever. I’ve had more opportunities than ever. I’ve had more success than ever. But more setbacks as well. More on that in part 2. See you then.