As I've said in previous posts, I've always been reluctant to write about personal things in my screenplays, unless it's deeply hidden. But I've recently found myself getting more personal than ever before, almost to the point of autobiography. Why? Partially, to exercise my demons. But there's also a practical reason: my talent manager has told me (more than once) that this is my best work. If this is true, I’m assuming it’s because the writing is more passionate when I’m working on a piece that’s more real to me. So my most recent script is about some of my teen experiences, filtered through a fictional story. It’s a rough piece, but I think it’s damn good. But a question has come up: Why did I wait so long?
I can’t say writing about this time in my life never occurred to me. In fact, many years ago (probably 20 or more), a friend who knew me well suggested I do just that. At the time, I dismissed the suggestion, thinking it would appear narcissistic. It’s not like I was famous, so who would care? But that wasn’t the real reason. No, my biggest fear was that it would get made into a movie, then some ugly and embarrassing thruths would be out there for everyone to see (albeit hidden in a fictional story). In other words, I was afraid of what others would think of me.
So what changed? Did I suddenly stop caring about the opinion of others? Well, yes, a little. But the important change is I stopped seeing it as my story and began to see it as a story - and one that is honest and emotional. In addition, I think it could help some teenagers out there, in the same way “Ordinary People” helped me when I was young. And what could be better than that? So today, this very personal script goes out . . .
In previous blogs, I’ve written about representation and writing for the market. Now it’s time to write about something that I’ve always been bad at, but is a necessary part of succeeding in business, whether you’re an entrepreneur, artist or construction worker -- and that’s networking. God, do I hate that word. And if you’re an artist, you probably hate it, too.
There are many reasons why artists don’t care for networking. Some associate it with selling out. Some have the belief that artists should be discovered. And then there’s the embarrassment issue. We all know the artist who has very little talent, but is always hawking their work to anyone who’ll listen. No one wants to be that guy. I’m guilty of having these thoughts/feelings, but my main issue has been one of self esteem. I didn’t want to bother people. I didn’t want to ask for favors. And mostly, I didn’t want to be seen as a user. The very idea of networking made me think of Rupert Pupkin, the annoying character from “The King of Comedy.”
Here’s a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t network. When I was still young, I wrote a screenplay (called “A Clean kill”) that made me many, many fans. Sam Raimi was one (before “Spiderman”). Another was a producer who has since won an Oscar. There were dozens more. But because of the reasons mentioned above, I didn’t develop most of these relationships. Instead, I waited for things to come to me. Big mistake. All these years later, I’m only in touch with one of those industry fans. And guess what? She has really helped me and continues to! But the rest of those people slipped away. My fear of coming across like Rupert Pupkin really hurt me.
Today, I no longer look at networking as bothering someone (well, most of the time). Instead, I see it as offering something that has value - my work. And if you’re talented, people want to help you. It makes them feel good, and it may help them, too. So if you’re an artist and really believe in your work, go for it.
I was recently listening to an podcast interview with Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of Confidence, where he said some interesting (and not often heard) things on the subject of his book. Among them was to listen to the opinions of others, because they’re often right. And that it’s okay to be a bit insecure, because it keeps you in a state of working harder. This led me to think about the topic of criticism and how it relates to an artist’s work.
First, let me completely honest. I hate being criticized in every way. It’s hard for me not to take it personally. Frankly, it feels like a punch to the gut. But I’ve learned to not react and not get defensive (though my record on this isn’t perfect) and simply listen, then let it digest. Why? Because it leads to improving my work and becoming a better writer. Not long ago, I worked with a director on rewriting a horror script. I learned more from him in just a few weeks than all the conversations I’ve had with agents and development executives, but the key was being open. At times, it was frustrating and painful, but we ended up with a better script and I learned a few things.
I don’t mean to say that all criticism is justified. Sometimes the person has an axe to grind or they want you to fit into their idea of who you should be. In addition, everyone has an opinion. And in the movie business, even more so. You really have to take it from where it’s coming from. But if 5 people tell you the ending of your script doesn’t work, you better listen. It may sting, but it’s worth it.
One last thing. I know a guy who’s dreamed of being an artist for decades. He’s put work into it, producing a record and writing a book. He may even have some raw talent. But because he’s so incapable of taking criticism, he’s stuck. And that’s a place an artist never wants to be.
My last post was about being prepared for success, in an emotional sense. I used actor Thomas G. Waites as an example of someone who wasn't ready for it when it came knocking. In this post, I'm going to go with a more extreme example of this, Troy Duffy. Never heard of him? He's a writer/director who made headlines when he sold a screenplay for a whole lot of money. It was a big deal at the time and I remember hearing about it from friends who didn't even follow the movie business. But I forgot all about the story until I happened upon the documentary, Overnight (2003). This movie chronicles what happened to Duffy after he made this deal of a lifetime. In short, he became an insufferable, arrogant jerk. The movie is basically 80 minutes of Duffy smoking, drinking, bragging about his genius, yelling at his friends and people in the movie industry who he should have been working with. What you never see him doing is writing. Frankly, it was hard for me to watch someone being handed the chance of a lifetime and responding by flushing it down the toilet. Talk about being unprepared. The good news is that Duffy finally did get his movie made, but at a huge cost. And all these years later, his career has never recovered. And I bet it never will.
So, are you emotionally ready? It's an important question and you better know the answer. Because if it comes knocking and you're not, it's better to not answer the door.
Sorry for the long wait between blogs. Life.
If you’ve read my older blogs, you know that I’m interested in the creative process as well as success, and how the two work together. Or don’t. Here’s one thing I know about success in the creative fields: it’s utterly unpredictable. You can do exactly what a hugely successful person in your given field did, but you’ll come up with a completely different outcome. The main thing is to keep plugging away, and be prepared. But what does being prepared mean? Obviously, knowing your craft is a big part of it. But there’s something else to it that isn’t discussed much . . .
When I was a teenager, I saw actor Thomas G. Waites in two prominent supporting roles (“The Warriors” and “And Justice for All,” both released in 1979). He was obviously talented and an up and coming star. But then I didn’t see him again until John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” in 1982, again in a prominent supporting role. Then . . . nothing. I forgot all about him. Then, many years later, I saw him on an episode of “NPYD Blue.” I think I recognized him by his voice, because he was older and bloated. It made me wonder how this actor, who was obviously talented and on the verge of big things, seemed to have disappear. Well, I found out in a recent podcast interview with him. He talked about his instant success at a young age, and about how difficult he was. “Pain in the ass” is the term he used, more than once. What he didn’t say but what was obvious to me was this: he had success right out of the box and he did everything he could to sabotage it. And eventually, he did.
I don’t mean to pick on Thomas Waites. He’s a fine actor and has made a living at his craft. But we always hear about self-destructive artists who succeed despite themselves (the examples are countless). I wanted to give an example of someone whose success was hampered by their self-destructive behavior. What was his issue? It's up to him to figure that out. But this much, I'm sure about: he wasn't prepared.
Getting back to my original point. Preparation isn't just about doing the work. It's also about being able to handle things emotionally. It's about being ready for the good stuff. When success comes knocking, you don’t want to slap it in the face. It may stay away for a long time. Or forever . . .
If I were to make a list of my top 100 films, you’d see many familiar titles on it (you know the ones). But I’d also include some movies that are off the beaten path or didn’t get the kind of recognition they deserved when first released. For instance, “Fearless,” and “The Last Wave,” both directed by Peter Weir, “Sorcerer,” the movie that nearly ended William Friedkin’s career, and “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” a major film that bombed and has been pretty much forgotten. I would also include a few sentimental favorites, like “My Favorite Year” and “Across 110th Street.” But, perhaps strangely, there would be a couple of titles on my list that have no business being on any top 100 (or even top 1000) list. One of those movies is “Creator,” directed by Ivan Passer and written by Jeremy Leven, based on his novel. It was released in 1985 to bad reviews and poor box office. No one would call this movie “good,” but boy do I love it.
“Creator” is about a university professor/scientist (Peter O’toole) who’s trying to clone his long-diseased wife. He enlists the help of a beautiful young lady (Mariel Hemingway), who’s eggs he needs. His other ally is a young student (Vincent Spano) who is in the process of falling in love (with a young Virginia Madsen). Hijinks, tragedy and life lessons ensue. So why do I love this movie? First, its shameless mix of genres. It’s a comedy, romance, science fiction movie, tear-jerker and disease movie-of-the-week, all rolled into one. Second, it features an amazingly charismatic performance by O’toole. Third, it has a quirky, oddball charm that isn't easy to pull off. And finally, this movie aims high. It has the balls to be about BIG THINGS. The meaning of life, God, love, or as O'toole's character repeatedly says in the movie, “the big picture.” And I’ll take that over a well-crafted, but dull “masterpiece” any day.
So if you’re ever home on a rainy afternoon, check out "Creator." You may find it to be an unholy mess. You may hate it. But maybe it'll charm you. I'll end this post with a warning. “Creator” is only available as a full-screen DVD and the picture quality is horrendous. But maybe that’ll only add to its charm.
For decades, people have blamed the lack of quality movies on the Hollywood system. Because there’s so much money at stake, the argument goes, movies have to appeal to the lowest common denominator to make their money back. And a less commercially-based system would produce better movies. Right?
Not so fast. Today, we’re in the age of the independent film. It’s never been cheaper to make and distribute a movie. Although I’m no expert in film financing, I think it’s safe to say that it’s also never been easier to make a profit. Because of this, we have a ton of independent product out there - and of every genre - some with serious talent attached. But sadly, I don’t believe movies have gotten better. Over the last couple of years, I have seen dozens of independent movies that were dull, pretentious, or just plain bad. What’s going on here? What’s gone wrong?
I know I’m biased, but I believe that when a movie doesn’t work, the script is usually to blame. You really can’t make a good movie from a bad script. So why do these bad scripts get made when I know (again, I’m biased) that there is good material out there? Is it a lack of taste on the part of the people making the movies? Is it nepotism? Maybe you have an idea. All I can say is it’s disappointing as Hell.
When people ask Stephen King where he gets his ideas, he sometimes jokes that he buys them at the Idea Store. It’s a question that every writer gets at one time or another. For me, finding ideas used be a struggle. Then somewhere along the line, I began to see them everywhere.
One example: Many years ago, I was out with friends and someone mentioned that a friend of theirs was giving up on men and decided to have a baby on her own (something that’s pretty common today). Something struck me about the story and I immediately went to work on a romantic comedy on the subject. This script is more than 15 years old now, but it’s had many, many fans over the years - especially women.
Another story: one day in 2007, I was driving while listening to talk radio. Something about the anger I was hearing (ironically, it was coming from people I basically agreed with!) led to a movie idea. It plopped into my head, almost fully formed - beginning, middle, end and a title. And as any writer knows, when something like this happens, you take it seriously. So I quickly went to work on this project, called “El Vigilante.” Six months later, I had a finished script and production company trying to get it made (they’re still trying to get it made!).
I have many more examples, but it isn’t always so concrete. Sometimes ideas, or solutions to creative problems, come seemingly out of nowhere. How does this happen? Is it the unconscious mind, quietly working on a problem while I’m watching an episode of “Justified?” Is it something outside of me, penetrating my mind through a door that I’ve left open? Are the dead talking to me? I don’t know and I’m not sure I want to. The important thing is to listen.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. The reason? My appendix burst. Strangely, my condition didn’t feel very serious to me as I waited to go into surgery (though intellectually, I knew otherwise). This may have been because of the pain meds. Or maybe it was just a healthy dose of denial.
After the surgery, my surgeon described my insides as “nasty.” Worse, he told me that my appendix had burst a long time before the surgery (and before I had experienced any pain). So, basically, I was walking around, living my life and working, oblivious of this time bomb ticking away inside me. This was disturbing as all Hell, but my denial was still pretty strong.
Beginning the day of the surgery, friends were telling me how lucky I was - and that I could have died. I agreed, but it didn’t really hit me until I was home for a few days and getting off the pain meds. And then it hit me hard. I could have died! The what-ifs ran through my mind. What if I had waited longer to call for an ambulance? What if the pain hadn’t been so excruciating? What if I ended up in the closer, and much shittier, hospital? There seemed to be an unlimited amount of what-if scenarios that would have left me dead.
Eventually, I began to feel grateful. I was spared. Why was I spared? Dumb luck, divine intervention, the fact that I’m in good health for a man my age? I may never know and I don’t need to.
Today, more than six weeks after the surgery, I’m still not back to normal, physically speaking. My digestive system isn’t quite right and I don’t have the energy I had, but I’m getting better ever day. Emotionally, I’m different. The annoying stuff doesn’t bother me as much. I’m more focused on the things I want out of life, which is leading to approaching my screenwriter career in a slightly different way. But more importantly, being aware of how temporary life is has helped me not waste time. And it’s led me to do something I’ve always had trouble doing: living in the present.
So was going through this a good thing or bad? I don’t know. Maybe both. Maybe I’ll know more later . . .
In my most recent post, I wrote about the risk of revealing things about myself in my work. This post is along the same lines. I'm a Cuban man, but I've always been reluctant to have Latino characters in my scripts (especially male characters). Why? Since my work is aimed at an American audience, it's partly been a practical thing. But there's been something else at work. For reasons I don't quite understand, I've always been afraid that people would think I'm writing about myself. Or worse, that I'm writing about the way I'd like people to see me. Obviously, I have issues, but that's for another post.
I recently started working on a script that's aimed at a female audience. Because I know that it's a common fantasy (especially for American women), I decided to have a Latino man as my protagonist's love interest. I was reluctant to do this at first, for the reasons mentioned above. But after some hesitation, I went full out, making the character the guy I'd like to be in about 10 years (when I'm his age). Not only was this a good thing to do as a writer, but it seemed to help me be a little more comfortable with who I am. I'm a Latino man, and some women like this about me. Why not own it, right?
Now, for the weird part. While working on this script, called "Never Too Late," I found myself in a situation eerily similar to the character in my script. With little effort on my part, I was suddenly the love interest of a woman who's a whole lot like my protagonist (though different in many ways, too!). Was this simply a coincidence? Just life imitating art? Or did I make this happen by writing this character and embracing this aspect of myself? I honestly don't know, but I like it.