In part three of my posts on the risk of art, I want to talk about revealing things about myself in my work. For me, this is an uneasy balance. On one hand, there are things about my journey that have helped and informed my work. On the other, I hate the idea of coming across as a narcissist who believes his life experiences are so important. There are enough of those, already.
I just started working on a screenplay about a man who has Guillain Barre Syndrome. In case you're wondering, GBS is an illness so rare that it was mentioned on the show "House." Unfortunately, I had it as a teenager. Joseph Heller (author of "Catch 22") had it later in life and wrote (with his friend Speed Vogel) about it in the book "No Laughing Matter." Although a wonderful book, this isn't what I wanted to do. Instead, I wanted to explore my experience, but within a fictional framework. First of all, because of the reasons above. But also for a purely practical reason: it's hard to get a movie with a fourteen year old protagonist made. So I'm writing a script about a fictional character and GBS is the catalyst in his story. For me, this is a perfect balance. I get to share my experience, strength and hope, but also get to hide a little. Because, ultimately, it's not about me. It's about the work. And it's about the audience.
In a previous post, I wrote about the risk of art in terms of writing something potentially offensive and politically incorrect. In this post, I'd like to talk about another kind of risk: doing something different.
I've been writing for many years. My first agent thought action was my strong suit. My second agent thought I was good at writing dark thrillers. Later, after reading my first romantic comedy, she changed her mind and thought that was what I should be doing. In truth, I simply enjoy telling stories, and I don't care whether they're funny or horrific. But doing something different and stepping out of my comfort zone has never been easy for me (in life or in art). In previous posts, I mentioned how my work has gotten more personal lately. But scarier than that was the prospect of writing a romance. I’m not even sure why, though I suspect that I’m just uncomfortable with material that wears its heart on its sleeve. If not written well, the finished product could be schmaltzy and embarrassing. But I felt it was something I had to do, especially since I like romances (when done well). One of my favorites (pictured) is “Children of a Lesser God.”
“Secret Dreams” is the name of the romance I wrote. I had no expectations of it. I only wanted to do something different. But life seems to reward risk. At this moment, there’s a lot of activity on this project. I have a couple of motivated producers, a young director, a star. This risk may actually pay off, and it may be exactly the thing my career needed. Unfortunately, I can't reveal much else. But stay tuned . . .
When I was about 30 years old, I had a script that was getting me a lot of attention in the movie business. There were so many producers interesting in making it, that it seemed inevitable. At the time, I was a deeply unhappy person and my life was a mess, but I was sure that money and success would take care of that. And who wouldn't believe that? Don't well think that winning the lottery will take of all our problems?
But . . . there was a small part of me that had doubts. I would occasionally lay awake at night and have fearful fantasies about success. What were they about? The idea that money would make things worse. That being surrounded by nice things would only underscore how unhappy I was, and that I would spiral downward. What should have been a time of lightness and promise was instead a time of worry and doubt.
Years later I realized that there was a deep truth in these fantasies, and I was grateful that success eluding me - at least at that time. It would've been the worst thing for me. In the years since, I realized that I had it backward. You have to be happy first. And fortunately, I’ve done a pretty good job taking care of that. It’s something I work at every day. And if success and fortune come my way, I have no doubt that I'll enjoy it. And if they don't? Well, I'm happy, anyway.
One last thing. I have a few projects in the works, but there is one that is looking likely to get made soon (my fingers are crossed). This script is a recent one and it came directly from those fearful fantasies I had all those years ago. It's about a man who has everything, but is emotionally lost and spiraling downward. But don't worry - it has a happy ending. And it will be one Hell of an irony if this ends up being my first produced script. Stay tuned!
This is a follow-up of sorts to my post about suffering artists. Paddy Chayevsky once said, "I dislike bullshit, especially my own." In the same interview, he talked about how he approached his writing as a job. He also suggested that you should never trust an artist who talks about their art. In other words, creating art makes you an artist - not being a pretentious ass who talks about art all the time.
Related to this, I recently struck up a friendship with a man who's a bit older than me. If you were to go by the way he speaks and dresses, you'd probably guess that he's a retired truck driver or construction worker. Maybe a guy who owned a bar. But I guarantee that never in a million years would you guess that he's a retired concert pianist - but that's what he is. And because he's a humble man, it's not something he volunteers. I probably talked to him a few dozen times before he mentioned it to me. And since I'm an artist, we were able to have an exciting conversation. But it was all about the work of art - the practice, the approach, art versus commerce, that kind of thing.
So if you're serious about being an artist, take off the fucking beret, put it in your mouth, then get to work! Who knows, maybe you'll create something amazing. At the very least, you won't be an insufferable bore. :)
You've all heard about the suffering artist. The media and our culture in general loves to glorify the idea, whether it's Vincent Van Gogh or the current celebrity in rehab.
My favorite example of the suffering artist is the late film director Sam Peckinpah (pictured). In interviews, he portrayed himself as the victim of a system that hated creativity - and the media ate it up. How could an artist survive this? Of course he needed to drink to put up with it! In truth, Peckinpah's suffering was mostly self-inflicted. According to his many biographers, every film he made was a war. It was the artist versus the suits. And on many of those projects, he sabotaged relationships and created enemies out of people who were in the position to be his allies. And it was much the same in his personal life. Now it's true that he was a self-destructive alcoholic, but it's commonly believed that the chaos he created was part of his creative process - as if he had a need to repeatedly wreck his professional and person life in order rise again. I have to admit that this is dramatic, but I have to wonder if it only diminished his work. It certainly made him into a walking disaster who died too soon.
As a young man, I swallowed the suffering artist idea whole. Looking back now, it makes perfect sense - at least in my case. My art began as a form of therapy to deal with a very unhappy adolescence. It was my only outlet, so it was easy for me to draw a line between suffering and art. In addition, I idolized people like Sam Peckinpah (the way he was portrayed in the media helped). For a while, I believed that I needed to continue suffering in order to produce. But this began to change when I was in art school. During that time I met plenty of artists, but I began to see that many of them were more interested in cultivating the artist's persona rather than producing art. And what is that persona? You suffer and you're misunderstood, bla, bla, bla. As I said above, it's dramatic. But it began to seem like an adolescent fantasy to me. And a little embarrassing.
Eventually, I came to the realization that there is only one thing that makes you an artist: creating art. Everything else is bullshit. And suffering is optional. This was a freeing realization to make. I was able to acknowledge that although my personal issues had played a big part in my becoming an artist, I didn't have to stay there. I only needed to produce. Today, I still see art as a form of therapy. It's a way of dealing with my demons, but it also makes me a more content and satisfied person. Yes, I often hang out in dark places (as I did with my most recent script), but I don't have to make my life dark in order to do that. In fact, I'm happy.
One last thing about Sam Peckinpah. He is one of my favorite directors. His self-destructiveness may have really helped his work (we'll never know), but I can't help wonder what would have happened if he had gotten his act together. Would he have made better movies? I think so. Definitely more of them. He certainly would have lived longer. And maybe he would have been happy, too.
I love the idea of complete strangers reading my work -- always have. It's a great feeling, knowing that someone I've never met could be emotionally moved by something that came out of my imagination. But I'm curious about one thing: who are these strangers and how did they come across my work? And how do I find more of them? In other words, how do I find an audience? Of course, this assumes that it can be controlled in the first place. I know it can't. Having worked in a book store for many years, I've seen authors come out of nowhere to become household names. I've also seen books that were heavily marketed, but did not sell at all. So much seems to be about dumb luck. But is there a way of increasing the chances of having some dumb luck come my way?
I recently read a blog (right HERE) where the blogger claimed he could increase his bits by simply putting the words "Damien Puckler shirtless" on his blog. Who is Damien Puckler? He's an actor (you can read more about him HERE), and a great example of how popularity can come in an unplanned way. Damien was playing a supporting part on NBC's GRIMM, and no one seemed to notice - until he took off his shirt. Now he has a growing number of loyal fans - and they want more! And hopefully they'll be seeing a lot more of him soon. Because Damien's a genuinely nice guy and deserves it, and also because he's attached to a couple of my projects (let's hear it for self interest!). And this takes me back to my original question. Can I do something to increase my chances of having a happy accident that will get my work noticed? For now, I have no idea. But perhaps I'm off to a good start simply by putting the words "Damien Puckler shirtless" on this blog. :) Maybe one of Damien's fans will stop by and read something I've written (once they've grown tired of looking at his abs, I mean). And then, who knows? Until then, dumb luck, I await your arrival!
Every writer starts off wanting (and usually needing) an agent and/or manager. What's the most important thing to look for? Obviously, they should be the kind of person you can be in business with. In other words, trustworthy and on the up and up. If they ask you for money, run! Must they be well-connected in the business? It certainly helps, but you could be better off with someone who is hungry and scrappy. Does the agency/management company have to be big? No. My first agent was with a medium-sized agency. I had much more success with my second agent, who was a one person operation. I could go on and on. But after some experience, I believe the most important thing for a representative to have is also what a writer happens to need - perseverance.
I recently received an email from my manager that didn't have much good news, but what I really liked about it was that he is as gung ho as ever. And boy, does this make a difference! I once had a book agent who told me she would tirelessly push a novel of mine for as long as it took. Then she threw in the towel after four rejections. Four! I had a script agent who I really loved, except that she was quick to get discouraged. Yes, some scripts are duds. But there are so many wonderful movies that only exist because there was someone (or a team of people) who wouldn't give up no matter what. And that's the kind of representation we all need. Unfortunately, you don't really know what you're getting until you sign. But if that's the kind of agent/manager you end up with, then stick with them while they stick with you. Because, as Derek Jeter used to say, this not a sprint -- it's a marathon.
Art can be a risky thing, and probably should be. Obviously, there's the prospect of rejection, which is a part of life and a constant companion if you're an artist that puts your work out there. But what I want to talk about is the risk of making people uncomfortable or angry.
A few years ago, I set out to write an exploitation film. My idea was to make it a modern version of "Last House on the Left." Now, I'm not a fan of that movie, but I respect what it accomplished - it's a deeply disturbing movie (even today) while not being something that should be taken too seriously. But as I wrote my script, called "Inner Demons," it began to turn into something more than exploitation. Slowly, it evolved into a meditation on how power corrupts. By the time I was finished, I knew I had written something special. I believe it has the potential to be that rare horror film which pleases the fans of the genre and is also thought-provoking. But . . . it's extremely violent, and the subject matter is disturbing and will be offensive to some. Even if this movie is made exactly the way I envision it (which rarely happens!), some people are going to be pissed.
What should an artist do? Do you censor yourself out of fear of offending some? Do you water your material down to make it more palatable? Obviously, I can't write something that makes the entire audience walk out. But I think it's my duty as an artist to write the truth, even (maybe especially) when it's uncomfortable. And "Inner Demons" is definitely about that. So now it's time to keep my fingers crossed as the project inches its way forward.
This a follow up of sorts to my Father's Day post. A few days ago I was talking to a friend about her sick mother. It made me think of my own experience watching my father's long decline, then death. Not just the experience, but also the way I reacted to it, and how it still affects me today.
In my earlier post, I mentioned using some of my personal history in a recent screenplay, called "Origin Story." I believe all writers do this. We take an emotionally charged event in our life and we use our work to process it. We mull it over, look at it from different points of view, and even rewrite it. After all, can't life stand a little improvement? In the three plus years since my father's death, I've used aspects of the experience in at least four of my screenplays. It's not always a conscious decision - just one of those things that has worked its way into my psyche and out it comes during the creative process. In one script, I made a character a hospice nurse. In another, the protagonist has recently experienced his father's death and still has a hospital bed in his house to prove it. And in this new script, "Origin Story," I deal with it head on in a story about a man helping his father through chemotherapy. Is this a form of self therapy? Definitely. But it also makes my work richer and gives it more emotional depth. And If relaying my experience, filtered through a fictional story, can help others deal with their own complex grief, then it's a win-win. It also makes me feel that this is a higher calling. At least it's more than just making shit up about fictional characters!
One last thing. My manager just read "Origin Story" and told me he loves it . . .
This is a follow up to my post about succeeding as a screenwriter. I used to believe that writing for the market was whorish. And that if I attempted it, the end product would be uninspired crap. Then one day a producer told me she was looking for something for SyFy Channel. I decided to write an old-fashioned monster movie -- basically the 10,000th remake of "The Thing From Another World." The producer loved the finished script. Rewrites ensued. Somewhere during the process, I made a remark to the producer's partner (who was the development part of the team) about it not being a very respectable script or something like that. He called me on this and said that my passion clearly came across on the page, and that it was obvious that some part of me enjoyed writing this monster movie. And . . . he was right. I loved "The Thing From Another World" as a kid. I'm sure my script wasn't what anyone would call art, but it was good -- for a monster movie. Which brings me to the late Elmore Leonard (pictured above). He was predominantly known for his crime novels. But before that, he wrote westerns. Why did he switch? Because the market for westerns had died and he needed to make a living. If you're good, you'll be good at whatever you do.