The decade in review

2000 saw me working for one of the largest visual effects companies in the world, Digital Domain, which had long since shed its luster and was simply a grinding, mundane job. Worse, the CEO had announced that in light of starting up a film production division he would exercise creative ownership over anything his employees made, wrote, or dreamt regardless of what position they were hired to do. At 23 I was earning $65,000/year with full benefits and had already been offered a management role. But if I was going to continue writing my screenplays while doing IT work I had to leave. My girlfriend and I wiped out our debt and moved into a two bedroom, 500 sq ft apartment in Culver City and I consciously moved off a profitable career track in IT to throw everything into my writing.

I wanted some financial stability so I took a job doing IT work two days a week for a post-production company in Santa Monica. I put all my creative energy into a script about a fired marketing guru who turns revolution into a pop movement designed to bring down the biggest media corporation in the world. By 2001 I had finished the script and began showing it to friends and contacts for input.

One day I received a phone call from someone saying I came recommended from a friend that worked for Apple. They were looking for a Mac IT person who could be discrete. They could not say who the client was, but needed someone quickly. I took the job and went up Mulholland Drive to find myself working for one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Or rather, his executive assistant. This IT work lead to personal referrals, which led to more celebrities.

From the beginning I was conflicted. I was a screenwriter, one of thousands in Los Angeles, but I also had access to some of the biggest stars in the world. And yet, the reason I was invited into their homes and lives was partly because I never hit them with a hidden agenda. My business cards pointed people to a web site that indicated both my IT work and my writing career, but I never overtly asked for their help with my writing. I felt too much like the pool boy with a screenplay. IT work is the modern equivalent of pool maintenance.

Using my contacts from visual effects I was able to draw some modest attention to my revolution script, FREE RADICALS. By summer I was excited over the prospect of having a few cool indie production companies with real money excited about the project. September 11 happened and suddenly a script that opened with blowing up the Times Square Disney Store wasn’t exactly what studios were looking for. In fact, it’s safe to say that my screenplay about making domestic terrorism cool was so relevant as to be radioactive.

The two day a week IT job had come to a close as the post house I was working for became fully absorbed into the parent company. I was freelancing full time, scraping together whatever work I could get in the new, terrified economy. I had written a script that no one on the green earth wanted. The irony was that it was the best script I’d written in my whole life.

My girlfriend and I remained committed to each other and making it through the insanity, knowing it was a matter of time before the backlash hit and the spec script market recovered. I kept working for my celebrity clients installing wireless networks and upgrading their Macs.

Sometime in 2002 we decided to adopt a dog. I’d never had a dog before, my wife had grown up with dogs, and we realized we really wanted one. We took a long time but found a rescue pitbull mix who was the biggest sweetheart and immediately bonded with us. DeSoto was a great step for us because she challenged us to maintain consistency in our actions and keep to a schedule.

A neighbor in our apartment building had been frustrated over his lack of success in acting, when he had been doing well in New York. He started taking the local  indie production classes that teach you how to produce a no/low budget film in six weeks. There are a bunch of these; each one is basically the same. They teach you where you can get freebies and how to shoot a movie without unions, permits, or ethics. He decided that an “urban action” movie would sell to video quickly and he needed a script. I volunteered to write it for $500 up front and a percentage of any back end profits. My friend was able to scrape together $250. I cranked out a script in about six weeks tailor made for run-and-gun shooting with inexperienced actors and crew. I aimed a little high with GAME OVER, a story about a felon who is recruited into a street fighting game that in truth is rigged to rehabilitate violent men.

Simultaneously I had been working for a few years on a fake documentary about a World War II super hero created by the US government to end the war. It was co-written with a friend, Eric, a documentary filmmaker shooting for National Geographic. We decided we would try and shoot enough footage to make a trailer and then shop it around for financing. This would require flying to New York (easier for Eric who was living in Bangalore, India) and us traveling to retired actor’s homes to recruit old people for the movie.

Shooting for GAME OVER, the direct to video urban action movie, and THE SECRET HISTORY OF JOHN DOE took place at the same time on both coasts. It was very cool to have a movie I had written being shot in L.A. while I was in New York filming old farts for something else I had written. It is very hard to film old farts. They cannot remember lines very well, and are quite set in their ways. Eric and I worked out a method of feeding lines to the actors that worked well enough, but we had a hard time finding people in their seventies who could do accurate takes. Back in L.A. I had a friend assisting the production of GAME OVER and got updates as to their progress. It sounded like a tough shoot, mostly because no budget filmmaking is tough on everyone. I remained optimistic that both projects would be stepping stones to better work.

GAME OVER was shot in two weeks and completed over the course of six months for about $26,000. My friend and his partner took more than a year to sell the product, by which time the DVD market had begun to shrink due to illegal downloading and distributors muscling filmmakers down to take the hit. My friend got jerked around on the international distribution and it took him more than two years to sell each territory on his own. I never found out how much they earned because they took all the money and rolled it into another action film I did not write. GAME OVER is an interesting experiment. It fails on a narrative level because I hinged a major plot twist on a line of dialogue delivered by a terrible actress and shot by filmmakers who were so pressed for time they didn’t understand how to convey the major turn. The first two acts are fine, they make sense and have a good story arc. The third act falls apart completely and the resulting overall story makes no sense. Friends have watched it and enjoyed it; there are moments they said they can see me “peeking out from behind the curtain”. Friends who write movies are pleased I got something made. But it’s a dreadful movie that got me nowhere, and I even got screwed on the $250 owed me from the beginning.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF JOHN DOE was also a failed experiment. We shot enough footage to make a trailer but I couldn’t find anyone to help me cut the thing together. Eric left to go make more docs and focus on his paying projects, and I dropped the ball by not learning Final Cut Pro and cutting the footage myself. In 2003 it was still expensive to digitize footage and buy sufficient hard drive space, so while I called in favors from post houses to transfer my footage I didn’t have the smarts to cut it together. The project fell to the side for a time.

After my experience with GAME OVER I got to work writing an action movie I could sell independently and that could be made on the cheap. AFRICAN-AMERICAN is the story of a gangsta rapper with no street cred who gets carjacked by a group of real thugs, who have just ripped off a Liberian warlord diamond merchant. It is the collision of fake rap world violence with the real horror of African tribal warfare. I wanted to make a point that real black on black violence is a level of pure evil we don’t see much of in the U.S. and if gangsta rappers had an inkling of how bad it could get they’d drop trousers and run.

I sent it to my friend to see if he wanted to shoot it as his third film. I also submitted it to some screenplay competitions. It was a semi-finalist for the Creative Screenwriting contest and I spoke to an agent about representation. The agent jerked me around for a while and I was unimpressed. I have come to understand that screenplay competitions exist to earn money for the company that runs them, and are of very little value to the winners. My friend Otto once ran all the names of the Nichols Fellowship winners against produced credits and work-for-hire info and less than 3% of the winners of the most prestigious fellowship have been successful. It is likely those writers would have broken in on their own, even without the fellowship. Writing for competition and writing for the screen are two different entities and smart writers should differentiate between the two.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN wound up on the shelf. Around this time my girlfriend and I were told by a friend that she loved us and supported our relationship but was sad she never got to celebrate it formally. We realized that a wedding wasn’t about us, necessarily, it was about declaring who our community was and having a party for them. We announced our intent to marry to our parents who squealed in delight. We asked them to tell us how much they could contribute and from there we worked out a budget. The next 18 months were spent planning a wedding for 200 guests on a budget of about $10,000. We were married by a close family friend of my wife’s, a Rabbi for the Hillel at ASU. In recent years I had become more devoutly atheist, so it was a surprise to me that I found myself happy with our choice. I asked if he could perform a ceremony without giving god credit for the work my wife and I did. I asked that at no point would he use the word god, or thank god. Hebrew and Aramaic prayers were acceptable, but only because they hadn’t changed in 4,000 years. If at any point something was contextualized it had to taken all the way, and god had to be excised like a tumor. He agreed and his ceremony was spectacular. It was also the most Jewish ceremony many of our guests had attended. Oops.

Playa Vista is a planned community just north of LAX. Phase 1 was selling quickly and we managed to secure a unit on the ground floor of a building, locked in to a low price as my wife was now a County employee and eligible for a special purchase program. Her parents had purchased a corner top floor unit and began the process of downsizing their home in North Hollywood, purging years of stuff, and moving into condo life near the ocean. They sold their house at the high point of the market and bought a less expensive unit that soared in value after they bought it. We had essentially bought a blueprint and once the building was finished we realized we would kill each other living inside 780 sq ft. We had done smaller for six years, but it wasn’t pretty. We decided we would remain renters and exercised a loophole in the purchase agreement to get our deposit back. We moved to a new apartment in Culver City and went on a vacation to Greece for two weeks as a belated honeymoon.

In 2006 my father was hospitalized from decades of fine living and obesity. I flew to Maryland thinking he could die, and he almost did die from the chain of events unfolding in his guts. Prior to leaving my wife and I decided that we were tired of not knowing how to eat right and were much heavier than we wanted. We joined Weight Watchers, purged our entire kitchen, began losing weight, and keeping each other on plan. I had been on Weight Watchers a few weeks when I flew to Maryland. Seeing my father on a hospital bed with drainage tubes coming out of his stomach I witnessed the end result of my genes and appetites left unchecked. It galvanized my resolve to lose weight and keep it off permanently.

Back in 1998 I had quit smoking and started running on the beach three times a week. I wasn’t any good at it, but knew to quit smoking I had to make a lifestyle change. I wheezed and strained my way through a three mile jog along Venice and Santa Monica. The girls in bikinis kept me distracted. When I quit Digital Domain I also quit running. It took me years to come back to physical activity, first by joining my wife in exploring yoga. Losing weight and doing yoga connected me with my body in new and wonderful ways, but after a while it wasn’t enough. I strapped on running shoes again and started jogging along the local bike path just half a mile from my home.

The father of a client heard that I was a screenwriter and he paid me a crazy amount of money to turn an idea he had been carrying around in his head for decades into a script treatment. It took me a few weeks, and once I was done he wanted a lot of changes made to it I felt would ruin the story. But he was the client and even after I explained how the changes would affect the narrative he was insistent that the changes were what he wanted. When it was finished it was exactly what he wanted, and I was very much done with the project. The check made me feel much better.

My father recovered and I held out a carrot to him – get better and we could write a script together. We had a shared love of magicians and espionage; perhaps we could combine them and write something original together. He agreed and I began work on a new script, CATCHING BULLETS, which was to become my best work to date. I took an extension class in the character-driven screenplay in order to better my skills and I used the class as a way to workshop my characters into fruition. I spent the next year writing, researching, and shaping the script while my dad got better.

Simultaneously a friend challenged me to run towards a goal – we entered a 10K race and built up our mutual miles towards that goal. In August of 2006 I ran my first chip timed race, the Jet to Jetty 10K and finished with a time of 1 hour 02 minutes and 53 seconds. The best thing about a first race is that it’s an automatic PR (personal record). It felt great and my friend and I decided to run more and work our way towards a half marathon next.

With CATCHING BULLETS finished I started shopping it around to my contacts and was met with more of the same commentary I had come to hear many times. “You’re a great writer. I’m not sure what I can do with this, but you’ve got a unique voice, you can tell a good story, and these are interesting characters.”  After enough obstacles I put CATCHING BULLETS down for a while and focused on the joy triathlon had been providing. I completed my first sprint distance triathlon in 2007, my first half Ironman distance event in 2008, and became hooked on the joy that crossing finish lines from my own efforts provided.

Sometime in 2007 a friend purchased a full HD video camera setup and was looking for a project to practice shooting so he could turn himself into a freelance cameraman. I resurrected THE SECRET HISTORY OF JOHN DOE and he liked the idea enough to sign on another friend as producer. We managed to shoot one of the characters in a full day of shooting, and then due to technical issues the project stalled again. Eric’s feature length documentary project about the real-life General Butt Naked, the Liberian warlord I used as a character template for AFRICAN-AMERICAN, has recently received some funding. One day I’d like us to finish JOHN DOE. It remains a relevant story about the conscious mind of a war machine and American ideas of patriotism.

While I was training for my first half Ironman race I met a triathlete who was also a successful movie producer. We got to talking about our day jobs and Damon asked to read some of my work. I shared CATCHING BULLETS with him and he got very excited about the project. Under his direction I redoubled my efforts and refined, refined, refined the script through many more rewrites. With his help I shaped it into an even better piece of work. It did not sell. Each studio rejected it for a variety of reasons, most of them because they didn’t know what to do with it. The spec market was drying up faster than the evil guy in the third Indiana Jones movie after he drinks from the wrong cup. The market is dead, the only things being developed are existing brands (toys, cartoons, comics), or proven writers who attach other talent. CATCHING BULLETS doesn’t need to be made. It’s a great story, but there’s not a need for a studio chief to put a couple million dollars on the line for it. That’s not a qualitative judgment, it’s just the reality of where things are right now in Hollywood.

I am a very, very good screenwriter. I am not a successful screenwriter. My failure to sell is partly my own fault for not being interested in telling conventional stories. But it’s also the timing of the industry. Studios are risk averse. Independent studios are more in line with my sensibility but I haven’t been able to crack their code, or find my way into their offices.

The triathlon and running life paid off for me when I completed my first Ironman in November of 2009. The event itself is a day of transformation, witnessing one person after another dig deeper than they imagined and finding a resolve to continue. For myself it was the graduation I never had, the culmination of a year of dedicated training and focus. I, too, had to dig deeper than I ever thought possible, pressing on towards a finish my body was struggling to find. Finishing under 13 hours was a fantastic feeling, and the sensation of running the last mile in an all-out sprint draining every last bit of myself onto the course was a rebirth. There are few words that can describe the moment of crossing the finish line after so many hours. I love the sport, I love that it never gets easier, and it’s crazy enough that not everyone wants to do it. I am excited to do another, just not for a few years.

I’ve been envious of my peer’s financial successes and the material comforts that come with being on a career track. While the stability of working for a single company is gone for my generation, there is still an ability to move upwards in a field over time and increase earnings. I walked off that track in 2000 and never really recouped the equity in writing scripts. Everyone says you shouldn’t write for the paycheck, and I don’t, but any check would be nice. Being able to call myself a working writer, not just a writer, would feel better. My working friends who are upside down on their mortgages envy my ability to carve out the time to train for an Ironman. I envy their savings accounts. The grass is always greener.

In my IT work I’ve been lucky enough to see how some of the wealthiest people on earth live. That’s not an exaggeration. Some of my clients are on a very short list of the wealthiest people. When I work for them I enter a reality distortion field where I can see how it is to live with infinite wealth. I am asked to help make decisions on how to make their lives better, I am welcomed into their homes, I am given access to intimate details in order to help them. As the modern day pool boy I am given access to very private information and moments. I get referrals because I don’t sell my stories to tabloids and their secrets are safe with me. And yet there are times that I feel like Tantalus, with success so very close and yet so far away. Some of my clients could make one phone call and change my life, and yet certain circumstances make that call impossible. Just when I have a good working relationship with their assistant (who is the one who makes the call happen), the assistant is fired or quits and I have to start over. It’s simply not appropriate for me to ask the client directly for their help. I am allowed into the inner sanctum because I don’t ask for those things. Instead I have built a successful IT business, one which I loathe but am very good at. I subcontract work when I can but my clients want me to fix them. That means I am only able to bill as many hours I can work, limiting my earning potential. And really, I never wanted to be IT boy to the stars in the first place. I wanted to be a writer.

My blog is a good outline for a nonfiction book of my journey from sloth to Ironman. There are more inspiring stories out there, to be sure. There are others who have overcome bigger obstacles than putting down junk food and picking up fruits and vegetables. My journey is just that, my journey. A person who wasn’t fit and figured out how to get fit. I have been documenting how my dreams and goals have changed, and how I have changed. That story has value because it is unremarkable. Because what I did shouldn’t be abnormal. I believe we are all capable of personal change and you don’t need to have a stroke, or beat cancer, or have a traumatic brain injury to discover who you are. You simply want to explore what is possible. Set a goal and achieve it.

The end of this decade finds me at the precipice of change again. I question whether I should continue screenwriting. My wife and I co-own a triathlon training community after my friend and coach invited us to become business partners. I am getting my USAT Level 1 coaching certification in March and will start taking on clients by the end of the year. Even with hiring affiliate coaches, the triathlon training business won’t yield enough revenue as a primary income. I have been speaking with friends who love being librarians, and that seems like an appealing career. It will take five years of schooling to finish my Bachelor’s degree and then a Masters. I can train athletes while working, and write in the meantime. I’m flirting with it, unafraid of the schooling required, but I’d like to be sure it is what I want. I think that I’d have to keep doing IT work to pay the bills and the creative writing would take a backseat to schoolwork. I have to be willing to let that happen and I’m not quite sure I want to let go just yet.

The last decade solidified a lot of things about myself that I once believed, and now I know. I worry a lot less and I take confident steps towards the next decade, excited to tackle whatever new challenges I will create for myself and that life will present to me. Whether that is having kids, trying novel writing, writing more screenplays, doing more Ironmans, or all of the above, I don’t know.

I am excited to see.

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2 responses to “The decade in review

  1. Thanks for sharing a little glimpse of the last 10 years for you. I may have to echo that…lots has happened…it is amazing.

  2. Always love to hear what you have to say…

    Love,
    Wook

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