Overcoming Fear

After I published my previous post announcing the date we go into production, a strange thing happened: I stopped sleeping.

No, not all the time. And since my son was born nearly two years ago, my sleep has been, shall we say, consistently inconsistent. I want to be clear that I’m not blaming the boy; he sleeps very well (thanks, Dr. Ferber!). I routinely wake up, and fall back to sleep. We all do, actually.

But now, when I wake up sometime between 2:30 and 4am, it takes me longer to fall back to sleep. My mind races: where did I go wrong? What have I done with my life? I should have gone to grad school. I should have taken the advice from every fortune cookie, rather than callously throwing them away. And after a few nights in a row of 60-90 minutes of blinking up at the ceiling, I figured out the cause:

I’m anxious about making this movie.

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Not pictured in this stock photo: me. I also have a digital alarm clock because, you know, it’s not 1953. But this guy does have nicer hair than me, I’ll give him that.

Now that we’ve set a date, and told you good people about it, there is more pressure. What if it doesn’t happen? When will I be satisfied with the script? Where will we get the money? And why is that bird happily chirping when dawn is still two hours away? Go to sleep, bird!

Fear of failure. That’s what it is. In fact, if I really want to psychoanalyze myself, what I think is fear of failure is actually fear of success. By doing nothing, or by doing something half-assed, I’m already failing. In fact, by not having made this movie yet, even though the blog about making this movie is already three years old, I’m actually successful at failing. I’ve spent three years of my free time writing the script, and most of that time has been taken up with revisions, readings, feedback sessions, and more revisions. All of this is busywork (important gestational work, sure) but too much of it may result in jogging in place, treading water, Moonwalking in circles (I just made that one up, like it?) and is delaying forward progress.

This past weekend my wife, son and I went to a gathering at a child-friendly brewery/bar – to those of you without kids, child-friendly bars exist, and they are wonderful. Sure, most of the time I’m on the move, beer in hand, following my toddler and screaming “that’s not your purse, put it down!” But there are a few moments of zen. At one point, I drank my 329 Lager along with my friend Michael, an actor who has been involved in the development of this script from the beginning, while watching my kid play with an enormous Connect Four board.

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Not pictured in this stock photo: my actual child, or the bar.

“Hey, I read your blog. Congrats on setting a date” Michael said.
“Thanks, I’m getting excited.”
“So where is the money coming from?”
“You know, I’m not completely sure yet. We have someone who’s going to work on it, but…” I trailed off, drinking my beer.
“So nothing concrete?”
“Nope.” I sweated more. It was a hot day in The Valley, right?
“Well don’t you think you should be doing something?”

And that is the crux of it. I should be doing something. The more I do, the harder I work, the better I sleep. All of us know the joy of our head hitting the pillow and instantly falling asleep due to the exhaustion of hard day’s work.

It’s time to work hard. And while making the film is the ultimate end result victory, I need to focus on the day to day grind. I just need to recognize that hard work, in itself, is success. The positive results will come later.

So now that I’ve acknowledged that I’m a success at failure, maybe it’s worth risking being a failure at success.

And if this movie thing doesn’t work out, maybe I can become a freelance fortune cookie writer.

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Stone Soup: Making It

No more talk. Time for action.

Do you remember the old folk story Stone Soup? As one variation of the story goes, a group of travelers enter a small village with an empty pot. After asking for food and are turned down by the locals, they build a fire, add water to the pot, plus a stone. One of the locals ask what the travelers are making. They reply they are heating up delicious stone soup and are willing to share it with everyone, but could use some garnish. The local returns with some carrots to add to the broth. One by one, the locals add something to the soup: salt, celery, creme fraiche (okay, maybe in the Top Chef version), and eventually there is a full pot of soup for everyone.

A very tasty rock

A very tasty rock

Depending on your point of view, this tale is a lesson in Communism or simply making the most of what you have. And this lesson more than applies to making a low-budget film. Even though my goal is to make a movie on my terms, that doesn’t mean I will be working alone. Actually, it’s the opposite: it will take dozens, if not hundreds of people to bring this movie to light. Actors, designers, crew members, producers, investors… the list goes on and on, and could be daunting if I think too much about it. But none of it will happen if I don’t start putting that soup on to boil.

So the stone is the script. I am the traveler. You all are the villagers. The narrator of this story? I’m going with Morgan Freeman. Go ahead and picture it:

“Our story begins with the written word. Words assemble to form sentences. A story. And then there are others. Others will join, to breathe life into the story. To make it a world. A new universe.”

Thanks, Mr. Freeman. Nice job.

After discussing Closure with my manager, he made a suggestion: set a date. Go for it. See how the pieces fall.

I’ve heard this advice before, and it makes total sense. Without a deadline, things won’t get finished. Before I had been saying this:

“I’m gearing up to make a movie Closure. Hoping all the pieces will come together and someday, if all the pieces come together, we can hopefully make a movie.”

From now on, I’m flipping the script and saying this:

“My movie Closure will shoot in the fall of 2015.”

Big difference, right? So how much money have I raised to get from the first sentence to the second? Is the script production ready? Who else is involved? Am I crazy? The answers are none, certainly not, no one yet, and purple flying cow. But by telling the world “it is happening” instead of “I hope it happens someday” then the world is likelier to respond favorably.

The risk is, of course, that it might not happen. I may start the ball rolling and I might fail. It may take longer than expected. People will laugh at my failure, or at least enjoy the schadenfreude of “ha, he said he was going to do something and he didn’t. What a failure.” I can’t be afraid of failure. A wise friend once told me that we aren’t actually afraid of failure, but afraid of success. By doing nothing, we are already failing.

In the past I would use the analogy of jumping off a cliff. But now that I’m a little older and slightly wiser, I don’t like the danger of that. Instead, I’ll say the following:

“In 2015, let’s make some soup.”

On winning the race

I’ve made the analogy before (and will continue to do it ad infinitum until someone shuts me up) that a career in the arts is a marathon and not a sprint. Overnight successes are rare, and most of those are actually years in the making. That overnight sensation you saw in a movie recently actually shot that movie a year ago, or longer, and has other films already finished. The director who won an Oscar for his first film spent the last 20 years directing commercials, music videos, and web series. It takes a while.

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I returned from the Thanksgiving week and, bright and early Monday morning, sat down at my computer to get to work. One of my Monday morning tasks is to check my old, defunct email address in case something important rolls in. Usually it’s just spam or crap from any place that requires an email address, but this time there was something actually addressed to me personally. I got an email from the Artistic Director of a Los Angeles theater company stating that they would like to produce one of my short plays in their upcoming series in March. Of course, I was delighted. But I didn’t remember submitting, although there were hints that it had been a while. For example, it was sent to my old email address. Also, the AD mentioned that even though I lived in New York, he hoped I could come out and see it.

I opened my submission database and began searching. After a few minutes I had tracked it down. Sure enough, I had submitted the script…in July of 2010. Three and a half years ago! So I submitted this script before even moving to L.A. Before I got married. Before so many things happened, just a submission along with a positive thought, and then forgotten.

This is a great reminder that there is no overnight success in show business…especially on the writing end. Just keep your head down and keep doing the work. And someday very far away, a finish line is in sight.

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An update

Before departing for Turkeyland via Stuffing Heights, Potato Prairie, and Mt. Cranberry, I wanted to make a quick update. A few weeks ago I posted the entry Chasing Rejection where I dove into the sexy world of statistics regarding my submissions. Well, I’m happy to report that because of the reading series last week, my success percentage has jumped north of 14%, up from 13.79%.

So, in a week where little progress is happening with any of my scripts, I will take this small victory in stride and be thankful. Maybe by the end of the year I will be over 15%. As long as I keep submitting and keep writing, then I will be continually moving forward.

Enjoy the long weekend. I will remember to enjoy the time I spend away from work. We’ve all earned it.

Chasing Rejection

It’s one thing to spew out words on the interwebs. Hold a mirror up to myself, navel gaze, and tell the world (the world being the dozens of you who still read this blog). It’s another thing to follow through.

But I did! Take that, haters. As discussed in my previous entry, I continued to pretend that I had pressing deadlines. In fact, I had another big submission to do and finished it earlier today. Now I have another big deadline next week. Even though my chances of getting accepted into these festivals or conferences or workshops are long shots, it still gives me immense satisfaction to finish the job. Putting the big envelope in the mail used to be such a cathartic moment; now, of course, hitting send on the online form almost gives the same feeling. I have kept a log of all my submissions for the past 9 years.  By “submissions,” I consider festivals, publishers, competitions, and theaters with open submissions. I don’t count film and TV scripts to producers and agents, as those submissions fall into a grey area. I also don’t count collaborations, jobs for which I am hired, or other freelance gigs that come from networking (which is a lot).

So how do I measure success? Not necessarily by victories alone. If I apply to a prestigious event, for example the O’Neill Playwrights Conference or the Nicholl Screenplay Fellowship, then I consider it a success if that script makes it to the semifinal level. Or if I make honorable mention or runner-up in a screenplay contest.

I keep these stats in a detailed spreadsheet so I can track and follow up on everything, minimizing what falls through the cracks. So what’s my success rate? Well, that’s private.

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Oh, who am I kidding, blogging is about revealing all your private details, right? I’m also wearing grey Hanes boxer-briefs right now, FYI. So what is my success rate?

14%.

Technically, 13.79%…but I’m an optimist.

For every 100 scripts I submit (and believe me, that number jumped north of 100 years ago) only 14 times am I successful, by my own definition of success.

That means that for every 100 times I sit down to prepare a submission, which takes anywhere from 15 minutes to days of prep work including writing support essays, getting recommendation letters, and last minute script revisions, I am rejected 86 times.

Got that? I AM REJECTED 86% OF THE TIME. A .140 batting average would not get me to the majors.  Making 14% of my free throws would get me cut from any basketball team in any league. Getting 14% of the vote would certainly not get me elected to any political office, not even Florida in 2000.

But in my world, 14% makes me a success.

Why? Am I delusional? Only my imaginary friend Wallace knows that for sure.  But I know there are many factors in why someone gets rejected, and often it’s luck. A few months ago I got a very nice rejection letter from an artistic director at a theater in Ireland who said they absolutely loved my play Broad Daylight, but already had a similar play slated for their upcoming festival written by a local writer, and they favor local writers. A rejection, right? But not really.

Because I’m putting it out there. I’m putting myself out there.

14% success is better than 0% success. Because only not trying is failing.

So now, with each deadline met, with each application out in the mail (or e-mail), I pat myself on the back FOR A SECOND and say, “what’s the next deadline?” And I start up again.

And that’s how it’s going to go. There is always another festival or competition to enter. There is always another draft to finish. There is always another script to begin.

I have to finish this blog entry now. I have many more rejections to chase.

Exciting Update! (or, how I learned to stop worrying about doing revisions and love the process)

This blog was created to chart the progress of a movie I will write and direct. This week I have made zero progress on that script. None. Not one inch of forward progress. And yet, it has been a pretty productive week.

Let me back up. A long time ago (December of 2009) I had a nightmare. When I woke up that nightmare became an inspiration. Later that day that inspiration became 27 pages of a new script. Within a month I had a completed draft of a play called It is Done.

In early 2011 I got together with some of my favorite theater actors and director, and we staged a reading of the script as part of a reading series at Astoria Performing Arts Center in New York. That led to another reading at The Dramatists Guild. One thing led to another, and we were able to stage a production of the play, which is set in a bar, in a private bar in Midtown Manhattan, in late 2011. And it was good. And the audiences and (most of) the critics agreed.

Ean Sheehy, Catia Ojeda and Matt Kalman in the New York Production

Ean Sheehy, Catia Ojeda and Matt Kalman in the New York Production

In early 2012, my wife and I decided to give Los Angeles a try. The streets are paved with jobs, and there aren’t ANY writers in L.A. so producers  should all be clamoring for my skills, right? Right?!? Well, as an added incentive, the co-producers of the New York production  wanted to stage a production there, so what better calling card for my writing career, right? And so, It is Done was done at the Pig ‘n Whistle, a bar in Hollywood, in May of 2012.

NOT the cast of the Hollywood Production, with apologies to Andre Tenerelli, Michael McCartney, and Catia Ojeda

NOT the cast of the Hollywood Production, with apologies to Andre Tenerelli, Michael McCartney, and Catia Ojeda

And it was good. And the audiences and (most of) the critics agreed. And so did a movie producer. A college friend of mine runs a production company, and one of her co-producers loved the show and felt that their company should turn it into a movie. This was appealing to me. So I signed a contract. And so, It is Done was to be developed by Ambush Entertainment, out of Los Angeles. And that was another reason that convinced me and my wife that setting up our home base in Los Angeles instead of New York was a good idea.

And then, months later, I got a phone call from my friend who runs the production company. Turns out the producer who wanted to make my play into a movie left the company, so they were not going to make It is Done. That producer even left moviemaking for reality TV, so he couldn’t take the script with him. It is Done the movie was done. Depressing? Sure. But it was very considerate of my friend to let me know; they could have easily just sat on the script until the option ran out. Contrary to what you may have heard about show business, honesty and respect are still commodities in this town.

And then, months later, I am hired to write a script for another director. And while we are working on that script, he lets me know that he has a window to direct a movie in the fall. However, he doesn’t feel our script, or any other he has in his arsenal, will be ready to go into pre-production later in the summer. But do I know of any writers with scripts that take place in minimal locations?

And that is how It is Done moved from Ambush Entertainment to MirrorCore Productions. And is scheduled to be shot in Colorado in November. THIS November.

All this means that I have work to do, as a revised draft of the screenplay is due by August 1st. A very real deadline.

So while the script I should be telling you about is stagnant, I am getting closer to having a movie made. So really, I’m staying on topic, right?

Stay tuned…things are getting busier.

Play Ball

“The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.” Annie Savoy, Bull Durham

It’s baseball season. Great writers and hacks have all extolled the virtues of the start of the baseball season, rebirth, spring, blah blah blah. Let’s cut to the chase: am I Crash Davis?

WARNING: This post contains movie spoilers.

I have been a big fan of the movie Bull Durham since it was released (gulp) 25 years ago. It’s one of the few DVDs I own, and I try to watch it at least once a year, preferably before baseball season begins. I could go on about what appeals to me…baseball, romance, humor, sex, philosophy, and great writing. Even most secondary characters have fully realized arcs. It’s a sports movie, and a chick flick, and a comedy, and a drama. Regardless of what you think of sports or Kevin Costner, If you haven’t seen it, you are a fool. Simply put: it’s fun, goddamn it.

When I was still a teenager I emulated Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis. He had it all…street smarts, book smarts (one character says about Crash “I saw him read a book without pictures once”), a sense of humor, and passion for the game. I recognized myself in him, or at least the self I wanted to be. When that movie came out I was already a washed up ball player, only a few years past my last year in little league, where I hit .455 as a catcher in the minors (I didn’t make the majors that season, or any season I spent in little league).

But emulating Crash Davis comes at a price because Crash, at the end of the day, did exactly that. He failed to achieve his goal of becoming a regular major leaguer, having only spent 21 days “in the show” as they call it. He had the brains for it, but a combination of bad luck and a weaker skill set (at least, too weak to make it to the show) was the difference that did him in. The difference of only one hit a week:

He’s a good man. A flawed and complex man (like all our protagonists should be), but a good man. In the end, he gets the girl (a remarkably wonderful Susan Sarandon as Annie) and he gets the possibility of making it to the show, but not as a player. A happy ending…but he doesn’t achieve his dream. Be careful who you emulate.

At the start of my acting career I equated various levels of professional theater to the varying levels of major and minor league baseball. Single A ball, the lowest level of the minors (baseball fans, shut up about rookie ball and the various A leagues and accept the analogy) was community theater, sketch and improv comedy with friends, non-union off-off-Broadway, and nowadays, web series where there is no pay. Double A (AA) ball was paying gigs, but still low on the totem pole: Equity Showcase theater in New York, theme parks, non-union tours and regional theater, no budget movies, and paid improv shows and touring companies.  AAA ball was Equity regional theater and tours, and indie or cult movies that never reach the mainstream. That left the major leagues, the upper echelon of professional acting: Broadway, off-Broadway, studio movies, TV shows, union commercials. When I wasn’t writing, I spent nearly a decade in professional theater. I spent most of my time in AA ball, with rare and brief stays in AAA ball. I never made it to the majors.

It’s not a tragedy. I have few regrets, and had some great experiences. I performed in front of crowds north of 10,000 at a theme park. I once performed back to back nights in different shows on different coasts, in New York City and Portland, Oregon (neither gig paid, and I paid my own travel).  I have been on stage in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. And for a few glorious pockets of time, I was making my living solely from acting.

I wasn’t a bad actor. Reviewers and critics were kind to me. I played supporting characters and lead roles. I had (and still have) pretty good comic timing. Also, unlike Crash Davis and other athletes, acting careers can continue long past one’s physical prime. There are roles for people of all ages, and I could have kept it up, but my process as an actor was become corrupt by self-doubt. Not just the usual career doubt (“am I meant for this?”) but moment to moment doubting of the choices I was making as an actor. I was becoming more and more self conscious of my decisions on stage, and in the moment. I could quickly and easily analyze other actors, directing choices, and script choices, but I could not confidently turn that mirror towards myself. And that’s where the Annie Savoy quote at the top of this post comes in. Those who succeed are able to proceed almost blindly with a sharpened focus that I no longer had.

Plus, and on a more positive note, I wanted to be writing all the time. So I made a choice to walk away, or retire, from my acting career. For the next few years I would perform in sketch and improv shows, but purely for fun without thinking about a career, all the while writing my various plays, screenplays, and TV scripts.

At the end of Bull Durham Crash sits on Annie’s porch, telling her that he’s retiring and may apply for a managerial position for a minor league team in Visalia the next season. He wonders aloud if he can make it to the show as a manager, and Annie emphatically agrees with him. And we know, as the credits roll while they joyfully dance around the kitchen, that he will get there.

And as a writer, I will make it to the show. In fact, I already have. I am not crippled with the self doubt I had as an actor, and am much more confident in my writing, taking rejection and success equally in stride. As a writer, I figure I am solidly playing well at the AAA level. I have even spent a few moments in the majors already. I like it in the majors. The grass is greener, the lights are brighter, and I am not intimidated. I plan on sticking around.