The High School Variations, Making Movies, and Getting a Paper Weight Thrown At Your Head

When I was twelve my friend J got a guitar for Christmas because he was amazed by a Poison album called “Flesh and Blood.” I’d never thought about playing guitar but after listening to him talk for a few minutes I decided I would need to convince my parents I needed a guitar too. I liked Poison well enough and, really, what twelve year-old boy shouldn’t be in a band?

After a few years of playing along to heavy metal records and sprouting a knotty mullet on the back of my neck I decided I wanted to be a composer. I talked my high school guidance counselor into letting me enroll in music theory classes at city college, grew my fingernails out and started fumbling around with Villa-Lobos. In my spare time I taught myself some Beethoven and Chopin pieces on piano, which were the musical equivalents of someone with crutches descending a staircase when I played them.

I went away to college in the sunny anti-climax of Los Angeles and twice auditioned for conservatory. I was rejected for the fall semester.  I still didn’t understand rejection at that point in my life. Reading the words “no” and “won’t be able to” in little black letters seemed like only a postponement. I thought, with a kind of precious expectation, that just having realized what I wanted would be enough to earn admittance.

There was a second round of auditions held in mid-winter and I decided I would fully commit to mastering a couple of short pieces and win admission to my future then. I spent the next four months playing a minimum of two hours a day, practicing the same two pieces over and over again, trying to commit them to subliminal instinct. It was hot in the little cement room I shared with two other students. My hands would sweat over the metal and nylon strings, soaking into the wood of the fret board, which I’d have to wipe down with a small hand cloth.

The audition came at the beginning of the winter quarter in January. I woke up early on a Saturday and put on my nice clothes, a pair of khaki pants and a button down denim shirt that I’d inherited from my older brother. It was eerie in a way that most collage campuses are in the early mornings of a weekend. Those big open walkways and quads built for the thronging thousands were abandoned, there wasn’t even an echo of a bird squawk or a gardener calling out to a co-worker. The sky hung over it all with a wet grayness that made it feel colder than it was.

My hands were drenched in sweat when it was my turn. My skin had gone blotchy and pale as I undid the clasps of my guitar case and I wondered if the professor could see the wet glean of moisture on the stump of my palm. I made it through thirty wobbly seconds before my first bad mistake, the slippery callus of my fret hand landed a few centimeters out of place and the plucked note sounded like a plastic clack.

I finished a minute later, tense and paranoid that I had flubbed the easiest piece I had prepared. I wondered if he thought I might be wasting his time playing these elementary pieces, then I forced the thought away and opened the sheet music for my second piece. I played for another minute or so, feeling my tension loosen slowly, still making mistakes, hitting an occasional dead note, or picking up an obnoxious squeaking noise from my moistened hand sliding along the strings.

“I think that’s enough,” the proctor told me.

I looked at him for the first time since I’d started. “I’m not done, there’s still more,” I wanted to tell him. He was a balding man with freckles and red hair, in a thick wool blazer. His face was expressionless. We had reached a point where we were both wasting the other’s time, though I was the only one who didn’t realize it.

When I got the second rejection letter in the mail a few weeks later I had the first real moment of total unknowing in my adult life. I tried to look ahead but I didn’t even know what direction that would have been. I hadn’t ever considered a future that didn’t involve retreating to a house in the woods with staff paper and a supply of black sweaters to write music. Now almost every other possibility seemed more likely. Becoming an astronaut wasn’t any more impossible than becoming a busboy.

I settled on English because it was easy. I was good at it, and I love poetry, which is a kind of modern music of its own, so it seemed like a good retreat. If not real music, than this other thing that I can tell myself is still sort of like music and puts whatever inherent skill I do have to some better use.

That year I began renting movies regularly, and felt especially swept away by the whitebred angst of Sleep With Me, Kicking and Screaming, and every Bergman movie that had a mopey pre-teen staring out a window or two freckled women screaming at one another. I took a few film classes out of curiosity. Movies seemed like things that had already been made, it was only an act of excavation that unearthed new ones from deep in the heart of the libraries and musty video rentals beavered around West LA.

Then one day in a poetry workshop, my classmate P, an older woman with long gray hair and a shiny red cheeks, mentioned an internship she had at a production company. And suddenly the idea of an office where new films were made stuck in my head like a diorama in a cradle. I’d look up at the different plastic shapes rotating through my imagination and give them a gentle push to see if they’d react.

A few months later I found an internship working for the film arm of the company that produced Reading Rainbow for PBS. After my first day filing and rolling calls I was in love. I fantasized about dropping out of college and just working in a movie office full-time, surrounded by jagged mountains of scripts and taking meetings with shabbily dressed daydreamers.

I did a few more internships, met some famous people, saw a lot of bad and decent movies put together, and then got a job with a producer right as I graduated. I had written my first screenplay during college, an awful story about a roadtrip to a bank robbery that ended with the protagonist (me) dying. As I began work after college I would wake up at 5AM every morning and write for a couple of hours before heading into the office. I thought it was high-time someone updated Macbeth in a futurist, kalypso version of Scotland and so I hammered away at an adaption on a heavy old typewriter that my dad had used in his college days.

During one of those predawn mornings, alone in the living room and whizzing on strong black coffee I decided I should make a short. I liked the idea of telling biblical stories as secular and literal actions without the forgiving lens of superstition. I remember having loved Mark Twain’s “Eve’s Diary” when I was in high school (“Where ever she was, there was Eden.”). I was obsessed with fatalistic love and decided to retell the Adam and Eve myth without the God part.

I also thought it’d be a good idea to have the actors naked throughout the whole shoot, but this proved too hard to justify. Every male actor I auditioned would grin with excitement at the possibility of being naked on camera. One man stripped down completely naked without my asking just to prove he had no hang-ups, which I found quite embarrassing since I was using my boss’s office after hours to conduct auditions. I hoped the cleaning lady was still a few doors away.

The women were much more defensive. The best actor I saw for the part of Eve said she wouldn’t do that part naked so I compromised and had my mother sew together some loincloths out of chamois’s bought from Target. I shot the movie over one of the worst weekends of my life. I had a huge falling out with my boss at work, who spent the entire week berating me over a looming move that I was supposed to be organizing. It crescendo’d with him throwing a paper weight at me while I was explaining to him the different options for having phone lines installed in the new office space. I had no idea what the yelling was about. It didn’t even seem like anything was wrong, but something was always wrong and it was usually because I was a “fucking idiot” or some variation on that theme.

I left work early that Friday to pick up the camera package and was sure I was going to be fired the next week. I felt like an utter failure. I had given everything I could to the only job I’d really wanted after graduation, and I was about to be thrown out the front door.

I directed the whole movie in a numb haze. I was my own cinematographer and PA and set dresser. I slept four hours the whole weekend. I handled the actors poorly. I remember shooting a close-up with the actor playing Adam and not feeling like he was giving me what I needed for the scene. I didn’t know what to tell him. “Act…. more,” I told him.

The movie sucked, but when it was finally done, I still liked it. It didn’t have production values, the sound design was uneven, and the cinematography was ostentatious and, at other times, utterly incompetent. But I got what I wanted out of the moments that I really cared about and that was enough for me.

When I came back from Madagascar I had another script that I’d written there, a loose story about four high school students and a teacher in the week after another student kills himself. I spent the next two years slowly sending it around, getting actors attached, finding a producer, making budgets and shooting schedules, and meeting with people who financed straight-to-DVD Jenifer Love Hewitt movies, hoping I could raise $500,000 to make the thing.

The only sticking point was nobody wanted me to direct the movie because I didn’t have any real experience (and I made a point of not showing my first short to anyone). I got hired at IGN right around the same time as the movie was starting to fall apart. Money wasn’t materializing and people were taking longer and longer to return my calls. When I moved to San Francisco I let it all go.

When N left, I decided I needed to work. It was an existential impulse to cover up the hollow evening hours that were left in her wake, to put something meaningful in her place. So I started writing for Nerve and then I wrote a short script loosely based on that high school project. I didn’t have any intention on putting the project back together, but I wanted to bring to life at least some small glimpse of the spirit I’d felt in first writing it. Producing and directing a short while working full time, and handling a side-project of daily writing is not easy. I slept four hours a night for close to six months.

But I made the short. It was turned down at every film festival I sent it to. Now it lives on YouTube. So I give it to you, here.

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39 thoughts on “The High School Variations, Making Movies, and Getting a Paper Weight Thrown At Your Head

  1. Hmmm… I don’t think the lead actor did such a great job and the editing in the fight scene was kinda choppy.

    I liked the way the end was shot and how the rewinding effect worked and how the effect was paced. The vid does a pretty good job of capturing that feeling of abandoning your situation, the desire to pick up and leave.

    The whole re-telling biblical stories in a secular manner is an interesting concept, and I’d like to see it fully formed.

    Though I must say I’m not too fond of the concepts I believe in being referred to as “superstition.”
    Nothing I can say will change your usage of it there though.

    Ah well…

  2. It’s funny you say that about the fight. That was the hardest thing to shoot by far, so many ways to make fights look fake when you have a skeleton crew. I decided during writing that it should be jumpy and nonsensical, the aim was the sensation of being in a fight where you don’t really know what’s happening all you have are little details and scraps of pain of physical sensation and then it’s done with and everything slows down again. It’s the beginning of the story that feels most flat to me. It reads a bit more portentous, but on screen (and especially shot with DV) it plays sort of flat and literal to me.

    But truthfully, it’s impossible to look at it objectively anymore, and I don’t think I ever could. You get so close to things when you’re the driving force behind their creation. It’s sort of like needlepoint. Everyone else sees the stitched pattern on the surface, but all I see is the loose chaos of thread on the other side.

    And I think you get my meaning about superstition. It’s not a pejorative. Humans can’t live without superstition, and I certainly have my own.

  3. I don’t like Paradise. I haven’t since you mentioned in to Clements (who mentions you fairly often on Podcast Beyond, btw) back in TCAE episode whatever. But I like Mike Fights a Bully. If nothing else, you follow your own criticism and use your tools for expression, like, they’re more than just little technical tools to make things look nice. Reflective, pulled back shots, the morose blue of the living room.. long shots of the mother’s face. It’s nice to know that you at least try to practice what you preach.

  4. I make it my business to live without superstition. Oh, right, “humans.” My mistake.

    Anyway, if you’re interested, I have an anecdote about me embarrassing myself while playing a guitar.

    My senior year (’08) of high school, I played a song at a talent show in front of the whole school. Twice. I had never done anything of the sort before, and the anxiety was compounded by the fact that I had written the song myself, the lyrics of which told the story of a sexual deviant. The song arose from my songwriting process of frustration and self-loathing as something of a sarcasm with overwrought melodies, a cheery chord progression and a girl named Suzy Lee. I called it “Peeping Tom.”

    It was about me. (Fun fact: my middle name is Thomas.) Suzy Lee is a composite of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. I never actually did any of the things I sang about, though. It was just how I felt after pursuing those romances and receiving apparent indifference and perceived disgust.

    I didn’t really want to play it in the first place. I was pressured by my friend, the school’s resident guitar hero who would play the song with me. When I expressed reluctance or apprehension, he would say things like, “Oh, so you’re going to bitch out now?” Initially, that was my motivation, but later I wanted to prove something to myself, that I could play in front of a large group of people and be good.

    When I auditioned, I had my amp turned up so loud that no one could hear me sing. It was inadvertent, and I was inordinately angered that no one had stopped me to let me know. In the days leading up to the talent show and on the day itself, I made myself nervous to the point of sickness. I’d imagine myself cracking jokes to the audience to ease the tension. “If you’re nervous, you can imagine me naked.”

    But I was silent when I actually got out there in the heat and brightness of the stage lights. I hesitated for a moment when they stopped clapping so I could begin, and when I started playing I made some minor mistakes (not minor to me, of course). But as in every instance like this one, I eventually went numb. I’m still in my body, but I’m not conscious. It would happen during track meets as well.

    As such, my recollection of the actual performance is foggy at best. I reckon I didn’t do too well, because I didn’t even place. I received some light praise from a few people, but there was mostly silence–apparent indifference and perceived disgust. I wanted to prove something to myself, but it just left me feeling exposed and empty.

    Concerning the song, I wrote it in about 20 minutes, after struggling for months, years even, to come up with something I liked. Fueled by the most bitter self-resentment, it remains the most complete, coherent thing I’ve written.

    I put a truncated version of it on Facebook, if you want to have a look. I don’t sing in it. Fun fact: the buzzing at the end is an incoming text message from who would be my first girlfriend.

  5. I had to play My Heart Will Go On in front of 3000 Chinese freshmen when I was in Peace Corps. That was pretty scary, and I didn’t even get a girlfriend out of it.

  6. Which was not to be competitive or anything, just to suggest that I sympathize with that intense fear of performing, have suffered through it as well!

  7. I thought the fight scene was pretty much an epic win, my favorite part and very well done, which is not an easy feat esp on a limited budget short. I’ve may or may not have been involved in a couple minor brawls myself, and that is pretty much what if feels like – or at least how I remember it feeling like afterwards.

    Sure the acting could have been better, but hey its a short, and the dialogue was pretty solid, it just wasn’t being SOLD.

    Also liked the montage of different areas in SF in the beginnning but you shoulda used a tri-pod on the scene that shows the building with the mural painted on it, cause it wobbles for a second.

    “Dad” was also great, where’d he get that totally glazed over face? Where can I get one? It would be useful at times in my line of work.

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