Momentum

I listen to music all the time. Whether it’s in the car, while I’m jogging, or working, there’s always something playing. When it comes to my writing, whatever the project needs dictates the playlist or radio station, and I will stick with that music throughout the creative process. Outside of the actual writing, there are a handful of songs that keep me going throughout the writing process, sort of like a creative cycle mix. Before writing something new I always listen to My First Song by Jay-Z, which is about treating every new project like it’s your first and your last. Another great motivator is The Distance by Cake.

Also on my playlist: Aimee Mann’s Momentum.

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“Even when it’s approaching torture I’ve got my routine.”   Aimee Mann – Momentum

The lyrics may be vague but the music is on message: a strong driving beat that propels you; you have no choice but to keep moving forward. Plus, it’s featured in the excellent P.T. Anderson movie Magnolia, not only one of my top ten favorite movies of all time but like Closure, a great film set in The Valley (see what I did there?!?).

This past fall I felt the stars were lining up with my career, and everything was moving forward. Closure screened at three festivals over a five week period, winning five awards total. We signed with a producers rep. Distribution seemed imminent. I started breaking out the story for the next film.

On top of that, my writing career also had momentum. I had staged readings of two different plays, productions of my play IT IS DONE at a lovely 200 seat theater in Raleigh, North Carolina in November and another fantastic production at Theatre40 in Beverly Hills scheduled for January. Starting in late September I had my writing being presented somewhere around the world through February. It was actually happening. There was momentum.

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The promotional poster for IT IS DONE in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I did a push for agents. Reached out to friends in the business to see if they would connect me with representation. Many people were supportive, but said they couldn’t help (which I totally understand). There were a few people who actively offered to connect me to agents and manager, of which I was thankful.

New Years Eve rolled around. Like any couple with young children, my wife and I had our champagne around 8pm, toasted to a productive, happy and healthy year, and went to bed by ten.

January rolled around… and crickets. The first few weeks are usually quiet in this town as many in the industry get settled after the holidays. Some say that nothing happens until after Sundance. But our phones and email inboxes were silent throughout January.

I distracted myself with the production of IT IS DONE that opened at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills in the middle of the month, continuing to push for distribution and for an agent. It was all happening at the same time, and I was calling the shots… as long as I remained active.

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That was my promise to myself. As long as this show was running I was still active. I diligently pushed for representation, massaged contacts at theaters across the country, and kept hustling for Closure distribution.

Reviews for It is Done were spectacular. Three different theaters expressed interest in mounting their own production, on top of the half dozen contacts I was working on across the country. This was my time to move on to the next level where I would be managing my productions, creating new content, and being paid regularly. I was ready for the next level.

After a fantastic five week run the show closed… and the machinery ground to a halt.

No agent or manager meetings. No word on productions. Distributors for Closure liked the film but were dragging their feet on offers. Our plan for a spring film festival tour evaporated with each rejection. For the first time in over a year I had nothing on the calendar.

And it felt terrible. Despite all the successes of the past year, suddenly I felt obsolete and kept asking myself “is any of this worth it?”

The same went for my wife and our film’s star. Despite the release of the final season of her television show Just Add Magic in January and the upcoming release of a Netflix series of which she will be a recurring guest star, she had nothing going on as well. Zero auditions. And that number is not an exaggeration.

In the days following the closing of my play we’d sit down for dinner and not talk about the zero emails we received during the day. Or the zero phone calls. We also didn’t talk about our mortgage. Or our two young kids and how we were going to provide for them if the phone doesn’t ring.

Days turned into a week. Which turned into weeks. Then a month.

JUST FUCKING RING. One call. One ping in my inbox.

Momentum had ground to a halt.

So what to do? Exercise more and work off the pounds I put on traveling the world with the movie. Write more. I finished a play I had set aside for a year. I outlined and broke out the story for my next screenplay.

And we waited. It’s the worst part of the show biz life when that loud voice in my head says that it’s done. It’s hard to write something new if the universe (or what I think is the universe) screams “nobody cares about you” in my ear.

But I kept writing. Because that’s all I can do.

And then…

…the phone rang. First Catia’s phone. An audition. Then another. Then a callback. Then a booking.

Distributors started returning phone calls. And sharing our movie with people in their office.

And we got our next film festival acceptance. We are taking our movie to New York.

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Back to the mothership where I lived for over 15 years and where Catia and I met.

And the wheels are turning again! Things are slowly picking up. It’s hard to keep faith when nothing is happening. And it can all go away again, but in the meantime I have to keep up the hustle. Keep writing. And keep working to get as much exposure for this movie as possible.

Hopefully this time the machine doesn’t stop. But if it does, keep the faith that as long as I work at it, something else will come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return of The Beast

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Winston Churchill

The Beast came calling last night. At 3:30am, waking me from a deep sleep. My first thoughts upon seeing him at the foot of my bed was that his timing was so cliche, in the middle of the night. I expect more: The Beast is stronger, more cunning than that. He visits at any time and any place: in the car, walking with my son, watching TV, eating, anywhere. Only when I’m sitting at my computer, or in the middle of the night, is it not a surprise.

“Your script is terrible.”

I sigh, grab my pillow and get out of bed. I go downstairs to try and sleep on the couch; no need to wake my wife with his grumbling and seething, and my inevitable tossing and turning. The beast glides down the stairs after me.

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“No, no, it’s not terrible, it’s just cliche. Boring. Who wants to see your story? Who’s going to care?”

Ah, there it is. I’m not bad, just mediocre. Thanks, Beast.

“No problem. Just trying to save you the trouble of putting in effort.”

Leave me alone, dude. I have a busy day tomorrow. Lots of writing, you know. A number of different writing gigs.

“All mediocre. Unimaginative. Rote.”

Five different projects right now. All different. Interesting. Vital.

“Are any of them paying jobs?”

Well no, but the potential-

“Potential and a buck will buy you a shitty cup of coffee.”

I don’t drink coffee.

“Yeah? Writers drink coffee.”

Well, I drink soda.

“Soda is for adolescents and diabetics.”

I turn to my side on the couch and try to drown him out. While I attempt to sleep, The Beast perches on the coffee table, talons crusted with dried blood. Of course it’s mine.

No matter where I am or how fast I run, The Beast finds a way to show up. At any step of the process, the beast is there:

“That’s a terrible idea.”
“It’s a decent idea, but it’s been done before by people more talented than you.”
“No one will care about your idea.”

That one is a killer. No one will care. Sometimes I finish scripts that I think are great, and they wind up collecting dust on my hard drive. When I’m feeling down and bitter, I joke to myself ‘congrats! I can’t wait to print my new script out, then set it on fire.’

But that’s not me joking. That’s The Beast. And he’s not joking. Oops, I mean: And He’s not joking.

Why is The Beast so formidable? Because he knows me. He knows all of us. Every artist has a beast, regardless of the medium. And we artists know that-

“Oh, so you think you’re an artist, now? What gives you the right to lump yourselves in with people who have actually accomplished something? You’re a hack craftsman. At best. At worst, you’re a wannabe-”

Let me finish. We artists know that our Beast is waiting for us. Waiting for us to lose concentration, to lose faith, to become distracted or intimidated. Our beast can sense it, and waits around the corner for us to make the wrong move.

But there is good news: the beast isn’t invincible. I found a way to keep him at bay:

Keep going.

That’s the secret. Keep writing. Keep creating. And in this particular appearance, I have an advantage: I have five scripts that need work, and a few of them have immediate deadlines. Deadlines are great to shut up The Beast. There’s the ten-minute play being staged this weekend. There’s the first act of a full-length play being staged on February 22nd. There’s a screenplay I’m writing for a writers group where we have ten weeks to complete a script. We are on week four, revising the outline. Not to mention my new TV pilot which is complete, and Closure, which is the film project that this blog chronicles.

And that’s the secret. Keep writing. When The Beast pushes too hard, I switch projects. Clear the mind. Frighten (!) The Beast.  And when he comes back, switch it up again. Because The Beast hates progress. The Beast hates creativity. The Beast hates completion. And he can sense it. He knows when I get close. And that’s when he pulls out the big guns:

“You are an amateur.”
“You started this blog three years ago and you still aren’t satisfied with the script or raised one dime of the budget. It will never happen.”
“You’ve been writing for a decade and you still haven’t received a big payoff.”
“Your wife makes a good living in the arts, and you don’t. Clearly you are inferior.”
“You think the 28 people who read your blog really give a shit about any of this?”
“You are a white male. The majority of scripts are produced by your kind. You don’t have the challenges the system presents to minority or female writers. If YOU can’t get it made, then you must really be inferior.”
“You’re in your 40s. You are past your prime. If you couldn’t find your way in your 20s or early 30s, it’s never going to happen.”
“How are you going to provide for your son? You need to think about a real career.”

The Beast leans back and smile. He’s proud of himself. He sits on my coffee table, upright and regal. I shrink into the couch, struggling for breath. It’s now 5:00am. My kid will be up in 90 minutes. Two hours if I’m lucky. And then I’ll be groggy all day, which means I won’t get as much done. It’s a vicious circle, all artfully conducted by The Beast who has done this for centuries, closing the box on infinite dreams and then locking it shut.

Unless…

I finish the script. That is the only way to emerge victorious. Get it done. Get to “The End” or “Fade to Black” or whatever it takes to bring closure. Because once it’s done, it exists. And existence is proof. Proof that doing something I love is real.

“But what if no one reads it or sees it? Or worse, what if no one likes it?”

That’s not my problem, I think as I type “Fade Out.”

The Beast recoils and backs out of the room, tail between his legs.

Yeah. Damn right.

2016: it’s movie time.

Everyone has seen iconic photos of Mt. Everest:

That's a big hill.

That’s a big hill.

Majestic. Grandiose. Huge. (Picture Donald Trump saying that word).

Yes, I’m making the analogy that making a movie is like ascending Mt. Everest. In truth, there are many similarities. For example, not everyone can do it. Also, it ain’t cheap. Also, more people think they can do it than actually can. In addition, like climbing Everest, the only time to safely make a movie is during three weeks in May when the weather is perfect.

Okay, maybe that last one is a stretch.

But here’s a HUGE (okay, enough with the Donald Trump) similarity: don’t climb without sherpas. A team of people who know the hill better than you. That’s an important aspect, they know the hill “better than you.” They bring skill sets that you can’t pretend to know. They know the safest spot to place the ladders to straddle ice cliffs. They know when you are acclimated to thin air enough to proceed to the next camp site. They know which lens you should use when capturing natural light indoors. They know which angle to shoot reaction shots to highlight specific moods.

Let me put it another way: if you are the most experienced, most skilled person on a project, maybe it’s time for a more challenging project.

I have spent a good part of the 2015 training for my ascent, i.e. revising the script. Sure, this blog has only seen one post in the second half of the year, but that doesn’t mean prep for the climb wasn’t happening. I was hard at work in the second half of the year revising the script…

…and it’s done! Next stop: shooting a movie!

Well, not quite. Yes, I finished a draft of the script before the shades were drawn on 2015. But, one can’t go directly from Kathmandu Airport to the summit. Yes, the second draft of the script is complete. No, it is not production ready… but it is closer. Tomorrow I meet with the producer I have been developing this project with (more on him soon, I promise) and get his notes, and we will proceed from there. There are more revisions, budgeting, and then meeting with more producers and investors. We are on the move, and things are happening…

…and we are planning our ascent.

A Brand New Season

In case you were wondering, it has been nearly four months since my last post. That’s a lot of time spent at the window of your computer, silently weeping, and anxiously awaiting my return. At least, that’s how I like to envision it. Worry not, readers… I’m back!

Rather than dwell on what caused the absence in this blog, I would rather pretend that I was on hiatus for the summer and now we are in a new fall season. With that in mind, welcome to the season premiere of the Makin’ It blog, about one man’s attempt to make an independent film.

I supposed I should update you, and recap what happened since we last went on hiatus. Firstly, there’s this guy:

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What’s up, blog readers? I’m brand new!

Yes, it’s a new season, so the producers decided that we need to add a newer, younger and cuter member to the ensemble. That’s so Raven.

That’s right, on July 29th, 2014 the result of the most important collaboration in my life emerged, blinking, screaming and instantly lovable. Of course, everything changes from this point forward. My wife and I vowed that we would incorporate family into our pursuit of our creative endeavors, rather than sacrifice what we have built and achieved in order to provide guaranteed stability. This is not to say that we are destitute, and this boy is just one lost paycheck away from being dropped off at the doorstep of Our Sisters of the Wayward Accident or put in a reed basket and floated down the L.A. river, where he would undeniably float for five feet, then get washed “ashore” on the concrete embankment. (It’s very dry here.) No, what I mean is that we will continue to do what we do, and if we have to give up a vacation here, a fancy meal there, or going to the movies again ever, in order to continue on track, we will do so.

With that in mind, I am happy that I am able to continue what I have been doing, sacrificing mostly sleep. Closure, the script I plan on shooting, is coming along. I have completed the second draft, and will send it off to my manager this week. That said, this blog may take a dramatic and unexpected twist as another script of mine, which was previously unavailable, may become my next project to direct. More on that later this season.

Other highlights include wrapping up the first draft of a script I was hired to write for 13 Stories Productions, a new production company based on the Sunset Gower studio lot that is launching in January.

There is another screenplay I may be hired to write, details pending signing of the contract. And a new TV pilot.

Also, my new play Mayor of the 85th Floor is complete and will be workshopped later this season. Hopefully, it won’t be as disastrous as my last staged reading.

So stay tuned. I promise regular updates, and more than that, progress on bringing a script of mine into production, with me at the helm, soon.

Welcome to the 2014-15 season. It’s going to be a fantastic journey.

Burying the Lede

“Burying the lede” is a newspaper phrase that has been around as long as there’s been an evening edition. When one buries the lede, they are not discussing what the story is really about right away, but rather dropping it somewhere deeper in the story.  For example: “The pace of the production of Our American Cousin moved along briskly, except when it was slightly delayed by the assassination of President Lincoln. ”

This is a common mistake in writing, be it journalism or screenwriting. Sometimes I’ll finish a script and someone will read it and point out that what was most interesting, what the story should really be about, is not the main focus. Some times those people are right, and I’ll go back and retool the story. And if what they point out is not what should be the most interesting aspect of my story, that’s a sign that I have to go in and make changes to make sure the story I want to tell is clear and exciting.

This happens in life as well. We have goals for ourselves. Projects we want to finish, or start. Ideas we want to bring to fruition. But, as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Of course, I bring this up because this blog, which I generally update once or twice a week, has been neglected for well over a month now. And this blog has been neglected for the simple reason that there is no progress on the script Closure to report.

I have legitimate excuses: I have other writing jobs. My wife and I recently moved over the hill into the valley…yep, THAT valley. Stuff needs to be unpacked. IKEA furniture needs to be assembled.  Extra screws and bolts need to be thrown away and never discussed.

But the script has been nagging me in the back of my brain. There was one major issue that was haunting me, and this issue affects nearly everything in the script. Every now and then it would pop back into my head, taunting me. I can’t figure out the problem. Therefore: I am a terrible writer. Might as well do something else for the rest of the week.

But then, as I walked around the neighborhood one day (I’m enjoying walking through the ‘hood until the valley turns into one giant frying pan, which it will likely do in a few months) the solution came to me. Clear as day. Eureka! Now the hard part: making the solution work, and making the script work around it. And, of course, making the time to do it.

So I could beat myself up about straying from target. But I won’t. I won’t let it scare me that I am about to become a father for the first time and with that comes a whole new world of responsibility and potential  loss of writing time. Even though our baby boy is due in August, I’ll try not to bury the lede and stay focused on what I am supposed to be doing with my work.

Oops.

Ah, shit.

Getting back into it

So the vacation is over. Time on the east coast well spent visiting family, friends, and old haunts. We returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday and I plunged back into it.

By the weekend I had an antsy, restless feeling, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Projects are on track, things are moving forward, post travel life was returning to normal. Except for one glaring omission:

I wasn’t writing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I log my time and keep track of my own efficiency (and keep myself on track). As the week ended and I looked at my hours, it dawned on me that I had not put in a single hour on writing. I spent time working for others. I spent time networking, connecting, setting up meetings, and other productive career-focused events.

But no writing.

At first it was a relief: my unease stemmed from not doing something that I should be doing and that I love doing. Then I was frustrated: why was I not writing? Simply put, my routine changed when I went on vacation and I forgot to get on track. My brain got lazy. I need to be writing. I NEED to be writing. It’s good for my health, and since it’s my vocation, it’s good for my wallet. It’s scary how quickly and easily I fell off the rails. We all do it sometimes: a diet that detours after one bad meal, an exercise plan that halts after a few days of bad weather, a promise to see friends regularly is abandoned and suddenly months have passed. I think most of us default to a sedentary, mind numbing existence. Well, I won’t speak for you…I do. I can get stuck in front of the TV. I can schedule dinner with friends instead of scheduling time to work.

But eventually the hunger kicks in. So I’m back on track. Focusing some of my time deliberately on writing, revising, and editing scripts. Wouldn’t you know, I’m happier doing it, and the more I do, the more I want to do.

The reboot is complete. Now I’m excited to write new stuff, edit other stuff, and very excited to dive back into the script which this blog is supposed to be about.

Take that, lazy brain!

It’s about “character,” stupid…not stupid characters

Last night I went to the movie theater, plunked down $17, and over the next two hours had it stolen from me. This movie did not earn my money. This movie took it, laughing all the way to the bank. I am not alone. You might have been ripped off as well. In fact, as of last weekend, this movie has made over 80 million dollars.

That’s $80,000,000.

Not the biggest summer movie. Certainly not the best, and probably not the worst. But I chose to plop down my sweaty summer cash for this one, which is why it deserves mention in this blog.

I wanted to see this movie. I like the filmmaker. It features two Oscar-winning actors. It has a political storyline that intrigues me. The movie was well shot, the effects were excellent. The plot, with many holes, was still a good plot.

The characters were terrible. The good guys had very simple motives. The bad guys had zero motives. Add those together and you have two hours of no risks, leading to a predictable ending.

I learned a very important lesson here. Just because a character has traits, doesn’t mean it’s a good character.

You’ve seen it all before. A guy compulsively flicks open and closed his Zippo. A woman is an aggressive driver and screams at all the cars on the street. An old man is racist, even against the caretaker who diligently sits by his side. A doctor hasn’t slept in years. These are all traits. It’s what’s behind them that matters.

Think about some people you might encounter in your day:
The coffee shop barista who gets your order wrong.
The boss who insecurely criticizes you twice for the same mistake.
The waitress who is very slow to take your order.
The tourist who takes a picture of his food.
The co-worker who laughs too loud at the boss’s joke.
The person in front of you at the checkout line who is distracted by her phone and ignores her screaming baby.
The idiot who cuts you off on the highway and gives you the finger.

These are traits, or quirks. If your character has these, great…but the job is not finished. Actors will always do this work. Good actors will look deeper to find the motivation to justify their choices and the decisions laid out for them in the script. But those choices are internal, and there is no way for the audience to appreciate those golden nuggets of depth. So it’s up to the writer to do it:

The coffee shop barista who gets your order wrong, because he is distracted by the major fight he had with his girlfriend this morning about moving to the next phase of the relationship.
The boss who insecurely criticizes you twice for the same mistake, because her review is later today and she has a hunch her bosses are aware of the money she embezzled.

The waitress who is very slow to take your order, because she is very nauseous and is three days late for her period.
The tourist who takes a picture of his food, because he is a sous chef and the chef he works for is dying of cancer, and can’t travel to his favorite restaurants anymore.

The co-worker who laughs too loud at the boss’s joke, because the night before she accidentally sent him a provocative photo intended for her boyfriend.
The person in front of you at the checkout line who is distracted by her phone and ignores her screaming baby, because she is trying to pay online for her night course before the cutoff.

The idiot who cuts you off on the highway and gives you the finger, because he is late for his kid’s baseball game and if he doesn’t make it, it will reflect poorly on his custody battle with his ex.

The positive side of me is treating the $17 spent as a lesson, to make me think about ALWAYS providing depth of character. The negative side just wants my $17 back.