I came home tonight and Notting Hill was on tv. After it ended I realized I hadn’t seen Bridget Jones or Four Weddings and a Funeral in a very long time – too long a time as they are two of my favorite movies. So I ran out to the last remaining video store in Brooklyn (which also, luckily, happens to be in my neighborhood), and got the dvds. Watching them again was wonderful. Every line is quotable. Every actor, even in the tiniest role, is brilliant. I can’t think of anything more enjoyable than watching Hugh Grant deliver lines written by Richard Curtis – unless it’s Hugh Grant *and* Colin Firth delivering lines by Richard Curtis (and co-writers). I could only dream of writing something as witty and emotionally resonant as these movies and when they are over all I can think about is ‘I want to make movies like that.’
I will never forget how I felt the first time I saw Four Weddings and a Funeral twenty years ago in a packed theatre at Angelika Film Center. This might sound like an odd comparison as they are completely different types of films, but it reminded me of the way I felt when I first saw William Friedkin’s brilliant and underrated To Live and Die in LA in a class during my first semester studying film at the University of Southern California.
I had always wanted to make films, ever since I was a kid watching Bogart and Bacall on the independent channel. It was a general feeling, I loved what I saw and wanted to be part of it. But I distinctly remember the feeling I got after watching both To Live and Die in LA and Four Weddings – the general feeling became acute, the want became a need. I knew I ‘had’ to make movies. The intensity of To Live and Die in LA left me shell-shocked. Friedkin used all of the arts of cinema to kick the audience in the gut. The clever wit underscored by romantic longing in Four Weddings eviscerated me in a different but equally affecting way.
I wonder why I have never been satisfied to enjoy the fruits of other people’s creativity when it comes to movies. I love music, and my favorite music affects me as profoundly as a great movie, but I have never felt the need to try to write a song. If anything, listening to a great song inspires me to think about an idea for a film or even a cinematic moment. When I finish watching a great movie, I don’t want to go back to regular life, I feel the need to ‘make a movie that good.’ The creative impulse, and the struggle to realize it amidst the economic realities of the business of film, has probably been the single most important factor in my life. I am a filmmaker, it is in my soul. I dream in narrative structure and see mise en scene in little moments of everyday life. Even though I haven’t figured out how to make a career of it, I can’t seem to get away from the longing to do it.
I loved studying film as an undergrad, loved being immersed in the greatest works of cinema history from around the world since the beginning of the art form and learning from some of the most important minds in film history, theory and criticism. After my first year at USC I transferred to Columbia. As I sat in the screening room in Dodge Hall that first week in NYC, listening to world renowned critic Andrew Sarris give a lecture about Howard Hawks, I couldn’t believe that just a few months before I had been reading his work in a textbook. This was my first real brush with fame.
I was very industrious and very hopeful in those years. One day a woman came to speak on campus who was legendary producer David Brown’s development executive (this is the David Brown who was married to Helen Gurley Brown and produced Jaws and The Sting, among dozens of other classic films). I convinced her to let me intern in their office. While David Brown was always gracious and nice to me at the office, there wasn’t a lot for me to do and when the semester ended, nothing came of ‘knowing the right people.’ As I was finishing school, I interviewed for an assistant job at the New York office of William Morris Agency. When they offered me a job, I had to think about what I really wanted. I didn’t turn down the job because the pay would have been less than minimum wage and the hours comparable to medical residents’ (although I have to admit it was rather shocking the expectations they had of their workers giving their entire lives to a job for which they would not be even remotely fairly compensated). I turned it down because I knew that if I got sucked in to the world of an agency I would never be seen as the creative person I was, the creative person I wanted to be. I thought I would always be seen as the facilitator of other people’s dreams and I didn’t want to get typecast in that role.
After graduating a semester early I flung myself wholeheartedly into becoming a filmmaker. I directed a 20 minute narrative short – shot on 16mm (this was before digital cameras), edited on a Steenbeck (this was before digital editing software). The film – The Ride – got accepted to a few film festivals and a dream came true when I stood in the back of the theatre at the Angelika watching my film play on the same screen on which I had watched Four Weddings just a couple of years before. I can honestly say that I have never had a happier, more transcendent moment in my life, not before nor since. No drink nor drug nor sex nor love nor financial success nor anything can compare to that feeling – to seeing my film on screen in a real movie theatre and hearing a packed house laugh in all the right places.
The Brothers McMullen had just come out and it really seemed possible to write a funny little romantic comedy and direct it with a low budget – and I was 21 years old and thought if I worked hard and put myself out there, I would be able to become a writer/director. After I finished my short, I set about writing a romantic comedy – the movie I wanted to direct. When I finished it I sent it off to the Nicholl Fellowship, a contest for non-professional writers administered by the Academy. A few months later I got a form rejection letter telling me that I did not make the cut of 250 scripts chosen for the quarter-finals (out of several thousand entries). But at the bottom of the typed letter was a hand-written note from the guy who ran the contest that said ‘You were in the next 10%. Keep writing.’
Over the next couple of years, I rewrote the script, improved it, submitted it again, and to other contests, and kept missing the cut. The temp job I had as a secretary at ABC had turned into a permanent, full-time desk job and I got sidetracked by an unrequited romantic love, made all the more torturous by the advent of email on my office computer. I dutifully attended screenplay readings at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and parties with the indie film producers I had interned for, and met people – agents who told me they would read my script and never did – film festival programmers who said they would love to show my film and then sent me form rejection letters – recent film school grads whose MFAs had cost 100k and were paying it back by waiting tables. At the ripe age of 24 I had had enough of banging my head against a wall and thinking my chance to be the artist would never come, I decided to pursue studying the artists.
Those early classes with Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell at Columbia shaped my intellectual interests and lit the path that I followed to graduate school. I went off to Oxford to study for my masters in the new Women’s Studies program, prepared to write my thesis on gender in screwball comedy of the 1930s. The first few weeks were a tough adjustment, having just come from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to a quiet, musty house on the Cowley Road, a bus ride away from the city center. The Yankees were in the World Series and being a fan, and not having a tv at home, I would stay up alone in the cold Mansfield College Middle Common Room watching the games live on Sky tv, walking home after 3am in the misty, desolate streets.
And then one night The Oxford Union hosted a special screening of The Exorcist and a Q&A with William Friedkin. It had only been a few years since that pivotal moment when I first saw To Live and Die in LA and thought ‘I *have* to make movies.’ That had felt like a pivotal moment, and yet, the direction I had thought that moment propelled me in turned out to be a dead end. I had already given up, I was in a different place – literally – I was in Oxford. I was not going to be a filmmaker, I was going to be an intellectual. After the Q&A, I somehow ended up standing in a small group chatting with Sherry Lansing – there because she was William Friedkin’s wife but recognizable to me as the head of Paramount Pictures, a Hollywood legend in her own right. I spoke briefly about Sliding Doors (which had just come out) and Sherry Lansing said to me “You should come to LA when you’re done here. You would do well.”
Let’s pause for a moment, shall we, to let this sink in? One of the most powerful, smart and important women in the history of Hollywood had just told me I would do well in the movie business. I was flattered of course, but all I could think about was the irony that this was happening in Oxford, after I had radically changed my life and ‘moved on.’ After I finished my masters, I went out to LA to visit friends and thought about contacting her office, writing a letter explaining what that moment meant to me and seeing if it could lead to anything. If I had contacted her and she had responded and a career had come from that connection, it would have been the stuff of fairytales. But by that point I had seen too much reality to believe in fairytales and didn’t see the point in wasting my time on another delusional dream.
I didn’t end up becoming an academic after all. I got caught up in the entrepreneurial fever of the 90s and started what I thought would become a successful business – an eco friendly clothing line called coolnotcruel. Far from becoming a successful business, it turned out to be another expensive hobby and after 4 years of being written up in magazines but not making enough to pay my rent, I was back to the same temp agency I had worked for after college. Completely demoralized and defeated, I took off to Montreal for 6 months to regroup. When I came back I met some guys I had gone to college with who were making an independent documentary. They had no funding and couldn’t pay me, but they needed help and I needed a way back into film after what had turned out to be a 6 year detour. So I committed to the project and became an integral part of the small team that created Murderball.
The film turned out to be really good – great, in fact. And my first Sundance experience was charmed (except for the whole being crashed into by another skiier and breaking my collar bone on the second day thing). We were the toast of the festival, invited to all the cool parties, overhearing people on the shuttle buses talking about how much they loved the film (one being Roger Ebert), and winning the Audience Award for US Documentary. The festival also invented a new award for documentary editing to honor the insanely talented editors of the film. At that moment I understood the value of being part of a team that creates a great movie. Even if it wasn’t my creative vision, I contributed to realizing it and felt completely connected to it. Standing in the back of the theatre, feeling the energy of the audience in the packed screenings, knowing they were laughing and crying and cheering at all the right moments, the elusive euphoria came back.
My experience working on Murderball enabled me to get paid work as a producer of documentaries and researcher for non-fiction branded content. And while I am grateful to be making some semblance of a living working in film and contributing to quality work, I am still somewhat stuck facilitating other people’s dreams (that thing I was trying to avoid by turning down the agency assistant job 20 years ago). This is the feeling that welled up and spilled out while I sat in the dark at the IFC Center watching the stunningly beautiful Oscar nominated documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom at DOCNYC. I started sobbing at some point in the film, watching the brilliantly talented Darlene Love talk about being pushed into the background, being knocked down and getting back up again. I couldn’t stop crying, even when chatting with the director in the lobby after the screening and even later when I ran into a cinematographer friend going through the turnstile at the W4th station. She asked if I was okay and I just choked out ‘You have to see Twenty Feet From Stardom. It’s incredible.’ (Incidentally, I interviewed Ms. Love for my feature documentary a few years ago and fell so in love with her and her story, I wanted to make a film about her life. While I didn’t have the resources to make that happen, I am overjoyed to see it happening now).
I never thought I would be one of *those* people who was still struggling, trying to ‘make it’ (i.e. make a living doing the creative thing I wanted to do since childhood), at middle age. Yet here I am, facing forty, *that* person, still struggling, trying to ‘make it.’ When I was young, I wondered why *those* people were still at it, even though their hopes of success diminished with each passing year, and stable, middle-class professionals looked down on them. Now I know why – because they can’t not.
While I realize there are no guarantees in life and who knows what would have come from any of those roads not taken, I also know that I have no one to blame for my lack of progress but myself. I realize there are people who don’t know what they want in life. I have always known what I wanted. I just haven’t been able to achieve it. I gave up too soon, too easily, at too young an age and have spent the past 15 years flailing.
It’s as if I am in the ocean and I can see the beach and I want to get there and I am trying hard to get there. And in the water there are all these other people trying to get to the same golden, sandy shore. Some people are lucky enough to catch a ride on a speedboat and others are drowning. And I am so obsessed with the beach itself, I see people I know who have reached it and they are laughing and drinking and I can’t figure out why moving my arms and legs isn’t getting me any closer to the beach. I’m treading water, barely keeping my head above water, not drowning, but not swimming, expending a lot of energy but not moving forward.
I stopped trying to write screenplays because no one was reading the one I did write (which, for what it’s worth, is not exactly the Great American Movie but is certainly as good or better as any Hollywood rom-com that has come out in recent years) and I wondered what the hell the point was if nothing would ever come of my efforts. I was so focused on the goal, and frustrated by the fact that I wasn’t getting to the goal, that I gave up even doing the thing that might have led to the goal. Maybe it’s the fact that I am no longer officially young, but I realized recently that I will never be happy if I don’t create and it doesn’t really matter if anyone ever sees it or reads it or if I ever make a living from it or even if it is not as great as I want my work to be. I realized that all those years of focusing on the result, I was missing the point. It’s not about the result, it’s about the process. I mentioned this revelation to a friend recently, a film editor. I felt like I had discovered fusion but she just looked at me and said ‘of course. It has to be about the process.’ She is one of those people who is swimming steadily along with strong strokes and deep, measured breaths, unbothered by the chaos in the water around her or the activities on shore.
As I continue to struggle to raise the funding needed to finish Manhattan Lullaby, my feature documentary about Colony Records, I am expanding the scope of my creative efforts. I recently started a screenwriting class and a new script. I will submit it to the Nicholl, and probably other contests. I know it is highly unlikely that anything will ever happen with it. I don’t care. I have to finish it. I have to go through the process. The doing *is* the result. I have too many ideas that die before they ever even make it into an outline – aborted by doubt and fear and frustration and exhaustion. A friend on facebook, a creative person, shared this video recently. I can’t say it any better than Ira Glass. I am going to stop worrying and start creating. I am going to stop treading water and start swimming. I have no idea if I will ever make it to shore, but at least I will be moving in the right direction.