I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter from the time I was nine years old in the parking lot of the movie theater where my father and his girlfriend took me to see Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. That movie spoke to me on a visceral level with its major theme of antiestablishmentarianism and its protagonist fighting to realize his dreams. I already knew I was different from the other kids my age. I had skipped second grade, been placed in split grade classes and given the coursework of the older kids. My biological mother had tried to impose her will upon me in any number of ways, including using her diabetes as a weapon in an attempt to emotionally enslave her own children. My parents divorced when I was six and I was at the mercy of the court, which assigned custody to my toxic mother. At nine I fled the prison of her custody and found support in my father’s home. Shortly after moving in with my father I changed my name as a way of declaring my independence. I threw off an imposed personality and staked my own ground. Brazil spoke to me in such a deep way I decided to focus all my energy on becoming a screenwriter.
Over the next few years of my adolescence I would beg and plead to work at the local video store just for access to movies. I delivered flyers and handed out advertisements until I looked old enough to work behind the counter. At 13 I knew my employer was breaking some labor laws in letting me work there, especially renting X-Rated movies to customers. But I acted older than I was and watched 3 movies a day for summers and after school.
To communicate effectively in English one needs a working vocabulary of about 5,000 words. In order to discuss film intelligently, I believe you have to have seen at least 5,000 movies. I guess you could make the comparison to the 10,000 hour theory of mastering something, but I suspect there’s quite a number of people that have watched 5,000 movies and still have shitty taste in movies. Rather, watching those movies and pulling them apart, reading their screenplays to see the blueprint from which they were built, and trying to craft my own stories were all part of my early film education.
In sixth grade I was tested for a new magnet program with a focus on the humanities as well as a television studies and production component. I was part of the first year of the Communication Arts Program that included access to a full TV production lab. I threw myself into learning these skills and found that I really enjoyed directing live television segments produced for the school’s news channel. I lived in the TV lab, learned as much of the equipment as I could get my hands on, and found that I was adept at telling a story. The program didn’t have a high school so my father and many of the CAP parents fought for the program to be continued past middle school. They won and our small pilot class was inserted into a high school that already had a math and science magnet but was still large enough to support our needs.
By ninth grade my grades were slipping. I had never been a great student, but had managed to get by in my weak classes and excel so strongly in my element I got away with a decent average. At the same time my relationship with my mother was deteriorating along with an abusive relationship with my sister. My sister had finally come to live with my father and I after trying to live with our mother for a few years. (To be fair my sister didn’t feel like it was a choice when she stayed with our mother; I had already fled. Our mother would allow herself to slip into a diabetic shock in order to manipulate her children into calling the paramedics to revive her. Without me around this responsibility fell to my sister, so she felt she could not abandon her mother in need. This behavior began when I was six and my sister was eight. My sister was trapped in this web of guilt.) In a horrible psychological twist my sister and I essentially resumed the combat roles of our parents. School wasn’t working for me, either. The course material was excruciatingly boring, and even the Humanities work that used to be my passion was feeling tired, a chore.
In tenth grade things exploded. I had begun writing stories and creating self-published ‘zines, handing them out to friends to fuel my creative need. They were experiments in wordplay and seeing how far I could push tasteless ideas. I wrote that one of our teachers was carrying Satan’s child. The administration didn’t think too kindly on this. Is clear hyperbole slander? I channeled my frustration into my creative work at the sacrifice of my schoolwork. I began work on a novel, essentially a precursor to today’s narcissistic blogs. The first half were chapters on my life and experiences, the second half rambling essays pontificating on the world. I fancied myself a Dave Barry to the high school set, unaware of how cloying and callow the self-aggrandizing work really was (is this work any different other than being aware of how self-aggrandizing it is?). The first chapter compared my caesarian section birth to a scene in one of the Friday the 13th movies where Jason rips a co-ed from a tent. I turned in the chapter to a creative writing class and the teacher thought I had written a rape scene. She escalated this to the principal who in turn banned my writing from campus. The administration ordered an Emergency Management Team meeting, a witch trial if ever there was one, where the head of the communication program, my guidance counselor, and the school nurse judged my sanity. It was Brazil in high school form.
A local journalist caught my story and I ended up on the front page of the local county newspaper. This escalated my situation to local talk radio as well as gaining the involvement of the ACLU. The principal became more entrenched in his position until the ACLU sent a letter showing that he was fundamentally wrong in his censorship. By then, though, the damage was done. I had no interest in school whatsoever.
Because of the local radio show my sister’s guidance counselor heard my story and sent her home with information about an early entrance college in Massachusetts. I was also seeing a psychiatrist who thought it would be a good idea to look at some colleges for early admission. I applied to Simon’s Rock College in the Berkshires and got a call to come up for an interview. From the first visit I was hooked. Simon’s Rock was a way Out. It didn’t matter that it didn’t have a film program, they wanted me as long as I could prove that I wasn’t a complete failure of a student. They looked at my essays and my interview and saw that I was a creative, anarchic thinker who desperately needed a challenging environment. On their insistence I went to summer school to re-do algebra and managed a decent grade. They let me in on academic probation, resolute that I keep at least a C average to keep my enrollment.
The summer before Simon’s Rock I worked for a psychiatrist doing officework and transcribing the couples therapy sessions of his patients. I learned serious relationship kung fu in a matter of months, even though I didn’t present a sexually mature body. My hormones were raging, but I was still an asexual overweight kid who wasn’t being considered in the way I wanted by the opposite sex. I was tremendously honored when at the end of the summer the psychiatrist offered to mentor me through college, pre-med, and medical school to become a psychiatrist. He was serious enough to incentivize my education by offering to set me up in private practice once I finished my residency. He recognized in me a strong empathic quality that could be harnessed and trained for the good of others and he was looking for a student. I thought long and hard on this offer. At the end of the summer before heading off to school I thanked him and told him I was going to become a screenwriter. I had wanted it for many years and I was going to see if I could make it happen.
By this point I had read all the screenwriting books I could get my hands on, and this was well before it was a fashionable cliché to be a starving, unsuccessful screenwriter. I discovered that a screenplay is a very simple structure, but what is complex that most people miss is how to create a believable character.
Human beings are a jumble of dichotomies. Some of my closest friends have huge conflicts within themselves that shape the nature of their character. Their character dictates their actions, so when they do something that seems crazy it is always quite consistent with their well-established personality. Fictional characters are the same way. As an audience we know when something feels false because we are invested in a character or not. Moviegoers may not be able to put their finger on why they hated a movie but they know when something feels off. More often than not it’s because the writer failed from the beginning to create believable characters, then forced these fakes through a plot that made no organic sense.
A good story is made of believable characters who create conflict and are changed permanently by going through that plot.
That’s it. That’s the whole secret of good storytelling. It covers every genre on earth and every medium. Experimental work operates in contrast to that formula in such a way as to prove it true. We revisit the same stories again and again because we want to spend time with these characters like old friends, and experience their transformation again – the vicarious joy in role play.
I worked hard at Simon’s Rock to quickly learn proper study skills and keep my grades above failing. When I rejected my public school education I also rejected a lot of good study habits and had to make up for lost time. My first two years weren’t stellar academic achievements but I managed to pass my classes. I spent my junior year abroad in London studying Sociology and Film at a University of London school, made all the more difficult by having a focus on British cinema with a focus on English class and race relations. I returned from the UK with pink hair, a more hands-on understanding of the female anatomy, and a giant CD collection culled from the punk bins of the London High Road stalls.
Simon’s Rock requires a senior thesis as well as matriculation into a department. Before I left for the UK I was accepted into the Social Sciences, specifically the Sociology department. I declared my intent was to develop my fictional writing techniques by studying human behavior. Secretly I was planning on writing a screenplay for my yearlong senior research paper.
At the end of my first semester back I was informed that due to my father’s remarriage my financial aid was being drastically reduced. Secondly, the bills were overdue and I would not be able to return to college unless those bills were paid. This also happened to coincide with my falling in love with a tornado of a girl, a maelstrom of sexual and wicked intellectual energy that intoxicated me completely. When I was officially informed that I could not return to college for the next semester I moved back home to Maryland and worked in Macintosh computer sales again. When a friend invited me to share his apartment in Los Angeles I moved to Sherman Oaks, California April 1, 1994, just after the massive earthquake destroyed most of the buildings in my friend’s neighborhood.
I transferred my job working in retail to the west valley store of the same chain. At night I would go to the patio of Jerry’s Famous Deli and chain smoke, drink coffee, befriend wannabe hoodlums, and work on my screenplays.
My first screenplay was the obligatory cathartic emotional purge of my own life. It was the story of a young man obsessed with pornography whose only real female contacts in the world were an abusive, domineering mother and combatative sister. He finds solace in writing and uses his gift to liberate himself from an oppressive environment in an early entrance college. He finds love there and she makes him see her as a real person, not a sexual object or frightening authority. It was a fantasy of my own unrequited love for the girl I met that last semester who was on her own self-destructive path from which I could not rescue her.
As all self-indulgent first scripts, it sucked.
Never read someone’s first script. It’s always drek. They hear “write what you know” so they do and it’s awful stuff. It’s locked to their real lives instead of the emotional truths of their characters. Any criticism offered is taken as personal offense – judging them, not the work. They have no distance, they will not make the brutal changes necessary, and it reeks of ego.
My next few scripts were better, learning as I went about how to execute structure and pacing, proper placement of gags and direction. I wrote a script that was a satire of conspiracy movies, quirky criminal movies that were the fashion, and alien invasions. A producer team was interested and shopped it around, though they had no money to option the material. I offered them a non-exclusive option on deferred payment. When we started taking meetings at John Cusak’s production company I was giddy and thought things were about to break open. They even brought in a potential director who prompted a whole ton of changes. I went to work doing rewrites, all without ever being paid a dime, and was goofy at the prospect of success.
When John Cusak and his partners came back from shooting their latest film and the communication abruptly ended it was clear that the fellow we were dealing with had no power whatsoever. It all went away overnight. The script had been tailored into an empty suit. Moreover, I learned that when someone says “I love it”, they say that because it is free. Putting up money involves real risk, and if your producers can’t raise the money for a legitimate option they sure as shit can’t raise the funds to produce a multi-million dollar production.
By this time I was working for Digital Domain, one of the best visual effects companies in the business. I was doing computer support for the producers and overhead staff – not even working in the production pipeline. I wasn’t even the janitor sweeping the elephant shit in the parade in the old joke. I was the guy fixing the janitor’s computer. Eventually the CEO of the company would declare that he wanted to produce movies and he was extending the intellectual property agreement all employees signed to include screenplays. It didn’t matter if you were hired to paint textures on rocks, if you wrote something while employed there he would exercise his right and steal it. (And this piece of human excrement has had the temerity to ask for my Facebook friendship over and over again.)
My third year working there I met and fell in love with a woman who was rapidly changing my life for the better. In the euphoric state of new love I banged out a screenplay in a matter of weeks – a story about a creative person stuck in a job that was paying handsomely but denying his growth as a person. It is through a new love he is able to break free and find his true voice.
It was a love letter to my girlfriend. In hindsight it also sucked as a screenplay. A good idea poorly executed.
But still, I got the girl and she moved in with me after we did long distance for nine months. With her encouragement I quit Digital Domain so I could focus full time on my writing career, unencumbered. I made the big leap, putting all my energy into my writing and getting my work out into the market.
I poured myself into a story about the commodification of dissent, the seizure of revolutionary imagery for corporate gain, the deep irony of a band like Rage Against the Machine being a Sony band. The main character begins as a devoted marketing guru, looking for product and brand synergy for his corporate overlord. When his grand marketing plan backfires – he tries to turn revolution itself into a pop movement – he is fired, and swearing revenge on the biggest media empire on earth, he uses the tools of social movements and advertising to bring down the company. He becomes a revolutionary.
I went to market with this script August of 2001.
When your great work opens with a group of domestic terrorists blowing up what is obviously the Times Square Disney Store and you don’t understand why a Hollywood executive would turn pale, you are clearly operating with a pre-9/11 paradigm.
By this point I had to increase my IT consulting business because our nest egg was out and bills had to be paid. My personal life was great – I had incredible support and love from my girlfriend and she was finding new work and a new career in the art education world.
A neighbor was tired of the acting game and became determined to learn how to make movies. He took the advertised classes, including the one where you learn which checks you need to write to make a low budget film. He and I would talk a lot about what he was learning and eventually I offered to help by providing him with a script to shoot.
We would go after a proven market – the direct to video “urban action” genre. Basically, modern blaxploitation movies. In the same tradition, a loutish jew would be writing the script. I vowed, however, no use of the N word. Everything else was fair game. Locations would be streets, alleys, anywhere that could be filmed with no money, no permits, on the run.
I hammered out a script in about a month and handed it over. My friend assembled a crew, he knew an action director, and they shot GAME OVER in about two weeks for $27,000. I was promised $500 for the script and was given a check for $250 with the promise if the film made money I’d see more.
While they were shooting the movie I was in New York shooting footage with a friend for a fake documentary we had written about a WWII superhero manufactured by the military to end the war. We putting together footage for a trailer so we could shop it around for funding. That summer was pretty amazing, having a script shot in LA while I worked in New York on my own film.
GAME OVER took over a year to finish editing, scoring, and for my friend to secure video distribution. I never found out how much money it made since they chose to roll their funds into a second urban action movie, written by someone else.
GAME OVER is mostly dreadful, though friends have said they can hear my voice from behind the curtain. My mistake was in structuring a plot with a twist at the end, requiring a deft hand in exposing the reveal. The main character is released from prison and just wants to see his son. But the only thing he’s ever been good at is fighting, so he is easily recruited into a game where he can be attacked at any time, any place and he must win to advance to the next round. A rich woman hires him as her driver and bodyguard, but at the end she reveals she is behind the entire game itself. He was supposed to reject the life of fighting to redeem himself, and his bad choices pushed him away from his son. This reveal was delicately hinged on a piece of dialogue and because the filmmakers weren’t experienced, didn’t care much about the material, and the actress was awful the whole third act falls apart and the story makes no sense. It was my huge mistake in writing plot that relied on dialogue. A rookie move, but I was aiming for the bleachers in my story. I wanted to write a real redemptive tale, not just a bunch of minorities beating each other up.
Afterwards I found myself enthralled with Liberia. I had been hearing about the insane civil war and the mind-bending horrors that occurred there and a story started forming. I wrote a script about the collision of a hip-hop artist with no street cred being chased down by a horrifying Liberian warlord diamond merchant. It was fake black violence against real-world African violence. AFRICAN-AMERICAN is one of the most insane stories I’ve written and it made it as a semi-finalist in a screenplay competition. My urban action producers couldn’t do anything with it because they found the direct to video market was drying up rapidly as DVD sales plummeted and internet was killing the bottom feeding media. It didn’t go anywhere.
Shortly afterwards I was hired to write a treatment by a wealthy fellow who had the money and interest to have an old idea he’d been carrying around written for him. I spent a few months creating a custom work for him and when he wanted changes made that I felt would gut the story, I made those changes and let go of any personal attachment I had to the contents. He was happy, I was paid, and that was the end of that.
The last script I’ve written materialized after my father’s hospitalization. His lifestyle habits put him in the hospital and almost killed him and I flew back to Maryland to spend a week taking care of him alongside his wife, who I will refer to as my mother from here on out. She has earned that title over the last twenty years in being unconditionally supportive, non-judgmental, constantly helpful and patient, and being the very definition of a maternal figure. I am very lucky to have Mom 2.0.
My father and I both love modern magic and classic, Victorian-era magicians. The middle period of Vegas glitz and ugly showmanship we can do without, but new and old are bonded by their skepticism and respect for the audience. Douche bags like David Copperfield condescend to people with their magic as if they’ve never seen someone turn a tiger into a girl. Magicians like Penn & Teller, Jamie Ian Swiss, and mentalists like Banachek all know their audiences have seen these tricks a million times and so they subvert those expectations and play with that knowledge.
I offered to write a script with my father once he got out of the hospital. It would be good for both of us – incentive for him to get better and a goal for me to keep writing.
We spent the next year crafting a story about three generations of magicians in one family, their lives destroyed by a terrible accident involving the bullet catch, magic’s deadliest trick. The main character is the man in the middle – the son who accidentally shot his father on stage, and the father to an estranged child that has grown up to become a con man. Recruited by the CIA he spent his adulthood using stage magic to kill for America, constantly reminded of the accident that almost killed his own father. When his son finds him living in secret, he is forced to confront his father and the demons of his past all of which revolve around the bullet catch.
I don’t mind saying it, CATCHING BULLETS is the best thing I’ve ever written. My dad let me drive, offering input and edits, we brainstormed together, and the result is one hell of a story. It’s ambitious because it is three generations of men, a story about fathers and sons and it uses magic as metaphor for the lies within family. It took over a year to write, rewrite after rewrite, and it reflects that long process.
I’ve written already about how I started running after my father’s hospitalization, how running led me to triathlon, and so on. I met Damon through triathlon and it wasn’t until we got to know one another that we discussed our other lives. Damon was transforming from a successful producer into a director. He was doing a workshop and was looking for material to shoot. I offered him CATCHING BULLETS without expectation. When he came back and said how much he liked the material I was flattered, but floored when he offered to develop it and shop it around.
I spent the next few months doing rewrites for Damon. Unlike in the past when I worked with people who thought they were producers, Damon had actually produced several movies and was good at it. We went through a lot of iterations and through Damon’s valuable input the script became even better. It was the best thing I had ever written. It now absolutely is. My dad hung on for the ride, proud of his contribution, thrilled he could be a part of the development process. He trusted me completely with decisions. It was a big growth in our own relationship, working together for the first time as creative equals.
Damon got behind the script and sent it to over a half dozen studio development executives all of whom passed. They all read it themselves, they didn’t hand it off to an underling for coverage. But each of them passed for different reasons – no one criticized the writing, they just didn’t think it was right for their slate. Additionally, the spec market has dried up. Very few sales are being made right now in this economy and no studio is taking risks with unknown writers, unknown material, and especially adult dramas. The movie business is risk-averse, even though its greatest successes are in new ideas. New ideas that are then milked dry in sequels and ancillary venues. What is selling now are existing assets – toys, comic books, old TV shows. Original material is going largely untouched.
My greatest weakness as a screenwriter had been a difficulty in showing a character’s growth. It took me years to understand how to plot the arc of change, to show through smaller conflicts how a person responds can shift and adjust so that by the end of a story that person is permanently different. I never liked television because those characters never permanently change. There is a dollar investment in cast, location, and the audience wants predictability. I love movies because things have to change or the story is dead. Perhaps the greatest irony here is that my own journey towards an Ironman is that very incremental, permanent change in real life, in real time. Moment by moment, crucible by crucible.
Friends have recently commented that I’m too big to be defined by a single word like Screenwriter, or that no person is ever defined by what they do. And yet, when you focus on something so furiously the way I have since I was nine years old it becomes an intrinsic part of your personality. When I say, “I am a screenwriter” it yields a very different conversation than, “I fix famous people’s computers”, or “I swim, bike, and run really far”.
There are a lot of people in Los Angeles who say they are a screenwriter but have never actually written a screenplay. I’ve written fifteen. There’s a lot of people who say they are a screenwriter and talk about “traction” and are doing rewrites (for free) for a producer who “loves it”. I wish them luck. I’ve been there. There are loads of screenplay competitions where aspiring screenwriters can spend $50 or more to win – what? The chance to be read by development executives and producers. Take a look at the long list of Nicholl Fellowship winners, one of the most prestigious writing fellowships. Then compare those names against the IMDB and you’ll find there’s a lot of good press in being a Nicholl Fellow but not a lot of their movies get made. No, there’s a lot of money to made on the dreams of people who say they are Screenwriters.
In screenwriting you can create what could be the greatest screenplay ever written, but if you can’t sell it or get enough momentum behind it to get it made it has failed. Every day is an emotional war to convince yourself that you have worth and should keep on going, regardless of the whim of the marketplace. Even if you do succeed in getting that sale it’s unlikely the movie will get made. If it does get made, your chances of seeing your vision on screen are slim to none. My wife doesn’t understand why anyone would want to become a screenwriter – it is constant heartbreak, rejection, and a feeling of career impotence year after year.
I contrast all this to what it means when I say, “I am a triathlete”. I work every day towards that goal and when I cross a finish line it is because I made it happen. Yes, I have the support of friends and family and without them it would not be possible. But it’s my arms turning over and pulling water. It’s my legs pushing the cranks. It’s my mind willing the legs to move forward with purpose. It is my mind overriding the desire to quit that gets me across the finish line. When I am done I can say that I made it happen, I willed it into existence, and the only person who could stop me was myself.
I may not ever be done writing screenplays. I love movies, I enjoy the format (as weird as it is and by how much writing is NOT on the page), and I have many more ideas. But more and more I am discovering that I can use my ability to tell a story to help other people reach their own goals, or inspire them to create their own new definition of self. I was honored and pleased to see how my wedding ceremony has affected people in ways and places I hadn’t expected. I co-own a triathlon coaching business and we’re building a wonderful community. Soon I will be a triathlon coach myself. Sooner, I hope to become an Ironman. In writing about my life I am reaching people in new and surprising ways and changing myself.
I am expanding my definition of who I am.
Am I Screenwriter? I used to be.