Collaboration or Isolation?

This past weekend, I got together with about 16 people and shot a short film. I had written the script last March with no real intention of making it, but over the summer I made the mistake of having a beer with Kyle Glenn (@kyleglenn) and he talked me into shooting it. I don’t know how. For a quiet guy with a sensitive stomach, he can be very persuasive.

One of the main reasons I’ve been cooling off on film production is that it requires so many people to make it happen. After making FORGE last year, I told myself that if I produced another film, there would have to be enough money to pay everyone properly (including myself). I’m talking $150,000 instead of $7500. Micro-budget filmmaking can be very rewarding, but even on a single day project, I can’t shake that feeling that everyone is doing me a huge favor. They put in their time and energy and I’m hopelessly aware of that every minute during production. Frankly, it’s distracting. So since October 2010, I’ve focused on generating ideas instead of actually making them. Then Kyle Glenn and his stupid beer happened.

Ok! I’m not blaming. He made a very good case, and I didn’t need much arm-twisting. In fact, I think the conversation went something like this: Kyle: “You should make another movie.” Co: “Sure! How about Robot Sentry? We can shoot on September 30th!” Nevertheless, I regretted it as soon as I got home. I had a book to finish, I was saving money for… something cool that was as-of-yet unidentified, and I was trying to learn how to relax. Most of all, when I made FORGE, I had no other obligations. This time around I had a day job to contend with. Let me tell you, the two weeks leading up to the shoot were crazy. It was like the whole world needed my immediate attention. If it weren’t for Justin Koleszar and his help with casting, and Kyle and Amber and their regular support check-ins, I would have called the whole thing off. But once the shooting started, I was in my element. I expressed ideas and made decisions for three days straight. I worked with people I liked and respected. I remembered why I loved filmmaking. When people had input, it was useful and constructive and made the project better. There’s nothing more fulfilling than true collaboration. Overall, fantastic experience.

The catch is that even when you’re done shooting, you still have a responsibility to all those people who helped you on the shoot. You finish your film. Allow me to add something to the beginning of that thought… If you’re not a thoughtless slack bastard, you finish your film. So many projects get shot and end up on a hard drive in a closet somewhere. If people are putting in their time and energy for no money, you have to at least honor their efforts with a finished project. The good news is that editing picture and sound is a lot like writing. I start with a blank timeline, frame in the general structure, then refine and refine until it makes sense. And I can work alone. I don’t have to schedule with anyone and nobody is waiting for me. (quick aside: absolutely everyone on Robo was on time every day. It was amazing.) I can get up early or stay up late. Now that I’ve been working in post for a week, I remember why I was getting out of production: working alone is way less stressful.

So I’m thinking I have it figured out and I’ve decided that I like solo work better. For now. But if that’s true, why am I always texting, emailing, im-ing and calling people? Maybe it’s because I’m a naturally social person, but I get too stressed when I have to rely on people or, as is often the case, when they have to rely on me. It’s hard to enjoy it anymore. I guess I’m talking in circles on this one. I just said I loved it, and now I’m saying I don’t love it. My point is that I’ve changed over the years. My youthful, thick-headed optimism has finally given way to that grinding tension that comes from experience. Specifically, the experience of actually experiencing all the things that can go wrong on a group film project. Each time we pull off a movie with no deaths or other serious setbacks, I feel like I’m using up my life’s supply of luck. Sure, good planning goes a long way, but so many things can go wrong that I’m always waiting for that one thing that will bring a production to its knees. Again, money can fix almost any problem. Maybe that’s at the root of the stress, this shoestring method of operation. In summary, I love it when it’s going well, but I can feel the specter of doom just around the corner.

It also begs the question, how much can go wrong when writing a book? Weather, cast, crew, equipment, money… none of that is needed if I write a book. Nobody is waiting for it. Nobody will talk smack about me later if I don’t finish it right away. Nobody got up at 6am to help me write it. But maybe it’s the Kyles and Justins of the world who push me to finish movies and nobody is pushing me to finish this book. Maybe the stress is what generates a finished product. Lots of “maybes” in this post.

If someone came forward with a couple hundred grand (or million) and asked me to make a movie, I’d totally do it. Money changes everything. Paying people what they’re worth would alleviate a lot of that stress. On the other hand, then I would have the stress of pleasing an investor instead of the cast and crew. Man. Tough one. Maybe somebody will pay big for my ideas. Then I can collaborate with people on where we’re going for happy hour and keep the stress levels a lot lower.

Dissecting Envy

In few of my posts, I refer to other writers and their work habits. I’ve been reading quite a few first novels to get a feel of where I fit in when it comes to first-time novelists. I feel like I can write better than a lot of the first-timer indie books going up on Kindle, but I can’t get a feel for where I stand among published authors. There are some award-winning books out there that I liked reading, but didn’t think the writing was anything special. Then there are books like The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and King Rat by China Mielville. These are first novels, but the level of writing is nearly mind-blowing. Description is fulfilling and not oppressive. Dialog is punchy and does more than one thing. And my personal favorite, every scene moves the plot forward.

To sum up in advance, I wish I had written these books.

When I spent all my time thinking about making movies, I would see something like Moon or Brick or Being John Malkovich or Delicatessen or District 9 and end up as much depressed as I was inspired. I wish I had made these movies. I realize that none of these filmmakers (with the possible exception of Rian Jonnson of Brick) appeared out of nowhere. It’s not like Neill Blomkamp just got off his couch and made District 9. But he sure made it look easy.

It’s this creator envy that sometimes makes me want to quit. If I can’t be China Melville or Dashiell Hammett and just blast out genius on the page, why try? The thing is, it’s not like these guys are classical literary masters like Joyce or Faulkner, they started writing because they loved it and they got better over time. Like the filmmakers I mentioned, these writers banged away for years and years with no way of knowing how it would shake out. They powered past doubt. Their career paths and work habits are a source of inspiration for me. When you read their books, you feel like the world is a good place and and good work finds its way to its audience.

Now there’s self-publishing and anyone can put a book out for sale. While I love the idea of doing away with the filtering layer that publishers perform, I find myself envious all over again. But in this situation there is no silver lining. Lower quality books are selling by the millions. I don’t begrudge their authors, not one bit, but I can still be jealous. Here are people who aren’t at the upper end of writing ability, not even over the average mark, but they’re selling. The easy answer is, “Fine then. Write a book and sell it.” I have the “write it” part figured out, but I’ve never been good with the “sell it.” People who do well with any kind of sales are all about the marketing. Again, I’m not saying that cheapens their accomplishments, but it still makes me green. I’m missing some quality that makes a good self-promoter.

In thinking about all this, I remembered a bar fight I witnessed many years ago. This is going to be kind of a long story, but it has a point… When I was of the age that I spent weekends in bars, I saw a huge guy get in a fight with a bouncer. This guy started swinging at the bouncer who easily dodged the guy’s swings. The big guy was drunk, but he looked like a brawler. Instead of the crowd bursting out in jeers and cheers, it got really really quiet. Nothing but the bar music. There were about 30 people surrounding the scene, and I think we were worried for the bouncer. The bouncer, whose name I later found out was Earnest (not joking), started out by trying to calm the guy down, but after two attempts, he figured out that wasn’t going to work. Then his whole demeanor changed. Earnest’s face went completely calm. Like a Buddhist monk. He stood in a very slight crouch with his hands ready, but he was steady, not bouncing or shifting. This big drunk dude was raging and threatening to clean the floor with the bouncer (yes, he said “clean the floor”). Earnest didn’t respond at all, he just watched the guy. Suddenly, the big guy charged Earnest for a waist tackle and though drunk, he was deceptively quick. Earnest did the wrestler’s sprawl like it was second nature. Then spun and took the guy’s back and choked him out with some kind of nelson-style head lock. The whole time, his face never strained, never changed. When the big guy was unconscious, Earnest set him carefully on the floor and stood up straight. Nobody said a word. We all just kind of filed out of that part of the bar.

The party talk picked back up and people were recapping the altercation. Everyone agreed Earnest was a bad ass. Serious super hero stuff. But I wasn’t struck with his wrestling ability, it was his utter confidence in his ability that amazed me. My friends kept talking about his sprawl and choke hold, but I argued the key moment was when his face went calm. That was the moment he took control of the situation. That was the moment he decided this was over. He took charge inside his mind and at that instant, he was ready for anything. Man! Gives me chills just remembering it.

How does this relate to my writing situation? I have to apply my appreciation of the bouncer to my envy of successful amateur writers (and old pros, too). See, I actually witnessed the very second Earnest took over his situation, but when it comes to successful self-pubbed writers, I only see the results. Imagine if I walked up and saw the bouncer in the middle of his choke hold. I would say, “That was easy.” Watching a great movie or reading a great book (or looking up a terrible book’s sales numbers) is like only seeing the choke hold. What about everything that it took to get there? Earnest’s moment was a second or two, but I didn’t see all the years of practice that led up to that moment. I never saw how many times Earnest had his ass kicked in his life. How many fights do you think he went through to forge his supremacy against the big guy?

I can’t be jealous of somebody for knowing the choke hold! I have to track back to the moment of control. I have to remember that the choke hold is useless without experience and practice and self-confidence. I need to channel Earnest the bouncer. I can’t focus on the final results. I need to take over this situation, and be ready for whatever comes.

The Career Path So Far pt. 1

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.