Francis Ford Coppola said his “films are like ex-girlfriends, once they are finished, you never go back.” The analogy stuck with me because the sentiment is an important one: learn when to stop working on something and move onto the next one. And when you do, don’t look back.
I heard John August mention the concept of a writer composing letters to old projects as a method of accepting the choice to move on. It sounded a bit extreme but I figured it might be fun to bust out all my old scripts and give them one last critique. (Apparently I’m good at the “Compliment Sandwich.”)
These screenplays embody moments in my recent past. They are an accurate survey of my passions, interests, decisions, journeys of self-discovery. Through writing I’ve been fortunate enough to indulge in fascinating topics including police pursuit statistics (Pursuit), storage unit auctions (Unit C19), Russian serial killers (The Chessboard Killer), secret societies (The Brotherhood), dream psychology (Dream Job), oil drilling techniques, World War II, small town politics and more.
It was all so exciting and new. Each relationship was unique. They inspired me to try things I had never done before. I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t the steadiest of a partner. From the booze-and-rebull fueled one night stand on the bathroom floor to the 11 month “cops and robbers” love affair and the eerie guilty pleasure that landed me a literary agent. I asked for a hammer for my birthday. I became obsessed, delusional and sometimes even hysterical, walking around the room talking to myself. I used to wake up before sunrise to put in some quality time before neglecting them for days, maybe even weeks. There’s no doubt this was a difficult time… for both of us.
I changed. They DEFINITELY changed.
There were times when I didn’t even recognize some of the things I’d initially found so appealing. The relationships evolved into something complicated, something neither one of us had really foreseen from our blank slate start. We grew up. We matured. We did it together.
But now I need more. I have grandiose plans for my writing. I want to delve into history with a fresh, dramatic perspective. I want to explore the gritty moments that explain why it is “hard to be a human being.” I want to make people laugh and cry in a comforting, uncontrollable manner.
I need to move on to do this.
I promise I’ll think back on the times we had together fondly. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.
So where should I start…
I knew the truth would come out one day…
It was the summer of 2007, between my junior and senior year in college. That winter, my fraternity had been kicked off campus. Having narrowly avoided expulsion, I tried to figure out a way to keep our fraternity going underground. You know, pledge people secretly? Skull and Bones shit, kind of.
BAM! It hit me like a “swing” from a pledge father’s paddle.
I had taken a few film classes. Other members of my fraternity were film students. So I got to thinking… What if we applied for some kind of “independent project” to produce a film… about pledging. We could recruit people we wanted to be “pledge brothers with” (haze) to “volunteer” to be actors in our film.
In the school’s eyes they would have been volunteer “actors” in a student production. To us, they would be pledges.
So in one long night, I locked myself in the downstairs bathroom of my parents house (intentionally reminiscent of my fraternity house basement) and wrote The Brotherhood, a chronicle of pledging that wholly deserves the “Inspired By a True Story” disclaimer. Sure, I may have changed a few things, came up with my own Latin oaths and switched up the “special handshake,” but remember this was intended to be a student reproduction of our pledge process. I kept it (somewhat) legit.
I think that’s when I realized that I loved the idea of shooting The Brotherhood more than actually getting 40 college dudes to stop partying and banging chicks for long enough to produce a student film. I was totally convinced that my friends and I could have pulled this off seamlessly if we were only given the chance. Sure, there would be speed bumps, but there’s always issues, we’d just handle them as they came along. Come on, we’re bros!
I just figured if my brothers wanted to stay friends and haze some kids while doing it, this was the best way to do it and get back at the school that didn’t want us to remain friends anymore. Not only were we going to haze kids… we were going to film it.
It may have been in everyone’s best interest that this relationship didn’t move on to the next level. It was heated and exciting, but there wasn’t much thought in it. I struggled to develop character but I resorted to things I was comfortable with. I was lazy. Who am I kidding? Think of all the trouble we could have gotten in if this whole “pledging movie” thing went south… yesh.
So Thank You Brotherhood. You were my first… well, not really, I had written one back in high school when I was a sophomore that was utter garbage, but it was really more of an exercise in the structure than something to invest fully in. I remember the night itself more than the main characters. Just the way I want to.
I haven’t seen you in a while, Brotherhood. You may be lost forever for all I know, but that too may be for the best. Do I really need to hash up these old memories? Do I really need to know if the main character actually survives pledging and makes it to Initiation Day?! Do I make references to The Skulls and Animal House? (No, yes and absolutely.)
It’s been over six years since I wrote this script. I moved back to California after college, while a majority of my fraternity remained in the Northeast. They’re still a pretty tightly knit group. I think a bunch of them are engaged to women we went to college with… many of them from sororities. They live together in groups of 2s and 3s. They meet up for drinks weekly… maybe the brotherhood part of it actually worked.
I’m in and out of communication with most of them now. I miss calls every once in a while and I absolutely intend to call them back. Life gets busy, you know. Who knows, maybe saying goodbye will free me up to catch back up with those guys.
I was either in law school or working at the civil litigation law firm when a pamphlet about Safer High Speed Pursuits came across my desk. It was mostly an information packet about high speed pursuits and the methods in which police departments were choosing to address the obvious safety concerns. I found some of the tactics interesting, others amusing, and some downright ridiculous.
That was until I stumbled onto the Starchaser program (http://www.starchase.com). I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was something straight out of the movies or The Need For Speed video games. It was a very cool “toy” for someone who may or may not be a fantastic driver. If the beacon misses, it could potentially do some damage. To do this safely requires experts, I thought.
Generally, when there’s a serious situation that needs to be handled, law enforcement calls in the SWAT Team. With nearly 500 high-speed pursuits a year resulting in millions of dollars in damages and civilian deaths, why isn’t there a “SWAT Team” for high speed pursuits?
So the idea was born: a SWAT Team for high speed pursuits. We could even market it as G.I. Joe, Fast & The Furious, and SWAT all rolled into one action-packed movie! There’s NO WAY this film wouldn’t be a crowd pleaser. I called it “Omega Unit” because if you absolutely needed a chase to end, you call in these guys.
I put everything I had into it. I would wake up early and race home after work to write. I was also commuting from the East Bay to San Francisco, in which I had up to two hours of sitting in traffic brainstorming. It was all I thought about.
And let me tell you, I overwrote the shit outta that script. I had every detail described down to the license plates on the squad cars. It was really more of a light novel with a (somewhat foreseeable) twist ending. After 11 months of churning through this action packed screenplay (subsequently changing the name to “Pursuit”), I decided to step out of my comfort zone and submit my screenplay to a competition…
… and I won.
Well, kind of. I entered the screenplay into multiple categories, one of which seemed to be geared exclusively towards alumni of my college. In the categories you WANT to win (Best Action Screenplay, Best Dramatic Screenplay, etc.) I was nowhere to be found, not even in the honorable mentions. But then… down at the bottom of the list… I WON! The “Award for Excellence in the Screenwriting” (the award for my college’s alumni) was awarded to me with nobody else even listed. No honorable mentions. No nothing…
I think I was the only entrant in the category, but fuck it! A WIN IS A WIN IS A WIN.
There’s a number of reasons things didn’t work out with Pursuit, chiefly the fact I never felt good enough about it. I knew it was overwritten, and I knew it was a high concept film, and therefore, unfortunately, a high budget film. We are all Pursuing something and ultimately, the film’s police pursuits were more enticing them the main character’s personal pursuit.
I may be moving on, but I promise I will think of you often. In fact, every time I red line my girlfriend’s scooter and the 125 CC hybrid engine “roars,” I imagine myself being the amateur Grand Prix racer in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon…
… then I snap back into reality and carefully apply the brakes.
It literally came to me while I was sleeping. I don’t know if that means I had a Steve Jobs-esque moment where I imagined the future, or maybe the technology I had just dreamed up already exists. Either way, I shot out of bed and frantically scribbled down everything I could remember from my dream, which eventually became “The Dream Job.”
Imagine what would happen if corporations had the technology to provide product placement in user’s dreams. They would become the world’s most powerful company, opening up a whole new venue for companies to attract customers. Now it would essentially be impossible to escape the clutches of big business.
When I submitted the screenplay to the Blue Cat Screenwriting Competition, the criticism it received was mixed. They referred to it as a “psychological corporate thriller” before really knocking me down a few notches. They said story I built around the central concept of “dreamvertising” was fascinating, but my current interpretation of the story wasn’t as compelling as it could be. The twist ending was praised, but the payoff could be much MUCH bigger.
I wanted this to work SO BADLY. We sought therapy from screenwriter J.B. White, but it became apparent I still had growing up to do. I kept working on it, hoping to explore the depths of our relationship. I fine tuned. I edited. I dreamt. But in the end, like the very technology the film revolves around, it seemed as though this screenplay would only find traction sometime in the distant future and if I was to have any chance of actually making it one day, I would need to move onto other, new projects.
Out of respect for what we had, I won’t continue to drudge up the specifics. It wasn’t right for where I was in my life and career. Plain and simple, we weren’t meant to be at this point in time. To rehash the reasons why won’t do either of us any good in the long run.
So goodbye for now Dream Job. I hope that one day our lives will once again intertwine and we can finally see the sweet, sweet magic we could make together.
While procrastinating in law school, I ran across news articles on Alexander Pichushkin. (For those of you who aren’t going to click the link) Alexander Pichushkin claims to have murdered 61 people in Bitsa Park in Moscow, Russia over a period of 15 years. He lured homeless people (and later friends of his) to obscure corners of the park with offerings of Vodka, only to smash in their heads and throw their bodies into open sewer hatches. Many bodies were never discovered.
That’s fucking crazy.
I read everything I could about him. I even consulted Russian-speaking friends of mine about translating the court transcripts into English. I dove into the Russian legal system and examined the case’s progress. I watched interviews and documentaries. This was my very own case study that I wasn’t getting any law school credit for.
I was fascinated by the duality of Alexander’s life. For everything the outside world (including his family) saw of him, he was incredibly “average,” nothing deserving of extra attention. If he had a different mindset he probably would have made a decent spy. He was invisible. Yet by the end, he claimed to have erased the lives of 61 people, intentionally and methodically.
I wanted to see this as a movie, but due to foreseeable legal woes, I decided I wanted to do a “reimagining.” But where? The third most visited park in the United States could provide the right amount of cover for a blossoming serial killer… The main character would kill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Two years later, I finally decided it was time to stop “saying” and start “doing,” so I got to writing. I would write late into the night, the street light outside my window illuminating my desk into the early hours. I spent hours walking around Golden Gate Park, imagining the scenes I was writing in the very trees around me. I would dictate scenes into my voice recorder. I remember finding places that I thought would be good hiding spots for sneak attacks. I located sewer openings large enough for a body to be dropped in.
I walked alone through the streets of San Francisco, just like Alex did on the streets of Moscow. Not bothering anyone. Not doing anything unique. Just moving with the current, yet completely disconnected. Is this what it’s like?
It was another relationship where I put everything I had into it. I asked for a hammer for my birthday just so I could have something to hold while writing. A totem for the times when I had to embody my own version of Pichushkin’s gruesome claim to fame. I overwrote everything, from the dialogue to the analogies and the (somewhat) disturbing murders themselves. I wanted it all out there…
And when it was all finished, and I was to go back and trim the fat, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have anything left. Writing the script left me emotionally drained, withdrawn and somewhat reserved. I was numb to the killings. Alexander Pichushkin said he felt numb and “withdrawn” after his first kill. He saw things differently from that moment onward and knew his purpose in life…
Was this script my first real kill?
There is no greater representation of the “American Dream” then the slew of storage auction shows that took to the airwaves over the last few years. The idea that you can purchase someone’s abandoned property and make yourself rich is the quintessential “something from nothing” story. By now we all know that most of those shows are staged, but the one that I really liked was the show on TRU TV, “Storage Hunters.” This particular show was a little more gritty than the others, with units often being seized by police because the it contained contraband, etc.
I thought… what happens if the winning bidder finds a DEAD BODY in their storage locker?
The police would confiscate the entire locker. Or would they? Even more importantly, what if everything in the storage locker, BELONGED to the dead person?
So it began. The story just flowed out of me. I started it on Monday, I worked on it late every night before taking a trip to our family house in Tahoe for the weekend where I finished the script on Sunday afternoon. The characters were somewhat shallow with dialogue pushing the plot, but I knew that I had stumbled onto something interesting. Something appealing on a guilty pleasure level.
Martin Benham’s relationship is falling apart and he hasn’t had anything published in months. He’s “flipping” storage units in order to make some extra money, the latest of his schemes to avoid abandoning his dream and getting a real job. He buys a unit and discovers a dead girl wrapped up in the back of the unit. When the police show little interest in solving the girl’s mysterious death, Martin takes it upon himself to circumvent the law and determine what really happened to her. What he discovers is shocking, and could cost him everything.
It was a fun read, but the screenplay didn’t really gain speed until my manager called and told me an agent was interested in reading it and speaking to me. Revision after revision, I flushed out the parts that needed attention. The twist grew. My relationship with the story had evolved, like any successful relationship. One thing lead to another and by the end of the summer, I had an agent, a manager and we were working with a producer on further refining the script. Looking good!
It was the first screenplay that a number of people (other than the usual suspects) said was something they’d pay to see. They found it interesting and provocative. They identified my writing style. They were (a little) surprised by the twist at the end!
The process was long and arduous but ultimately ended up fruitless. Politics.
To be honest, I’ve had a hard time moving on from this story. I wasn’t finished! I didn’t break up with Unit C19, it broke up with me. It was finished before it every got started.
The wind was taken out of my sails and I fell into a slump of writing depression. I did research for half-a-dozen projects. I started half-a-dozen others. I wrote shorts and a dramatic pilot, but I haven’t finished a feature length screenplay since.
Nothing helps you get over the last one like the next one, right? This happens all the time in Hollywood, I just have to get used to it. This is the profession where you kill your darlings. Suck it up! I need to put everything about that story away somewhere and move on, just leaving it behind… like an abandoned storage locker on “Storage Wars.”
Simply put… I need to fall in love with another story.