My Unbelievable, Sometimes Horrifying, Ever-Perplexing but Entirely True Adventures in the Film and TV Biz: A Key Turns
Part Four of Six: A Key Turns, A Door Opens ... A Job is Lost. Opportunity Knocks.
I loved the film version of “Interview with the Vampire.” I found it to be remarkably faithful to the source material. My buddy, Joe, thought it was “just okay.”
I’m sure Warner Brothers was hinging on his every word.
Welcome back to 1994 ...
Monday, 7AM. I woke an hour earlier than usual. The film inspired me; I was going to get some writing in that morning regardless of how tired I may have been.
I wrote, and was happy with the output. I folded the laptop; the usual routine beckoned. I ate, I showered ... I walked three blocks to the Glendale Corporate Center, where the new KCET-PBS marketing offices were housed.
My job. My 100th day job.
My degree may have been in Special Education, and I taught on and off for ten years. But, between teaching gigs and, more importantly, working diligently to perfect my art by paying my dues as a writer and producer (to this point, of product few would, thankfully, ever see), I had cultivated quite the esoteric work history. Let’s face it. I had an opportunity to attend college but I could not see the point of majoring in Writing. I figured if I ever really did make it out to California, my success would be based on not what I knew, but who I met along the way that could provide the opportunity.
Truth is, I majored in Special Education for two reasons: 1) I believed I needed a fall-back career, and 2) I was trying to impress my girlfriend by entering the same profession.
That became our death-knell, actually (and a story for another time). To be clear, from 1989 to 1994, I worked as a teacher, a launderer for a mental hospital, a produce manager for a supermarket, a manager for an aptly—named department store called “The Middletown Dump,” an unlicensed speech-language pathologist, a telemarketer for everything in existence ...
Need I go on? I was, in truth, but a writer. That was my identity. Anything else was bill Insurance.
I’ll share this: I was a stock-boy for a tool company. My boss loved me. “You have a great future in this business,” he said. He meant well, and I appreciated the comment.
Truly, I did.
I quit the next day, too, as I also resented the comment. Is that all I am? I thought. Surely, I was becoming far too comfortable, and it showed.
My work history continued in that direction. I’d work a job for a week or two, then leave so as not to get lazy. Of course, I had to renew the job search every few weeks, but trust me on this: It made sense at the time. At least it did to me. Nobody said I was “normal,” anyway.
But, I digress.
I arrived at work ... and I received exactly what I deserved.
The key was stuck in the lock. A few jiggles later, it turned.
”Come in,” said my supervisor. “Close the door behind you.” I complied. “We appreciate your work here,” he continued. “Unfortunately, we’re going to have to let you go.”
I’ll say this much. I enjoyed working for KCET. It was my favorite of all the various jobs. “Why?” I asked. “Did I do something wrong?”
”If you want me to be honest, your head’s not in it.“ He was right. “We all see it.” I‘ve left jobs, certainly, but no one has ever fired me before. I wasn’t crazy about this shoe on the other foot scenario. Not at all. ”Before you turn in your badge, can I say something to you personally?” What did it matter anymore? “You’re a writer. Stop this madness ... and write. Hmm?”
He didn’t wait for a response. The son of a bitch stood, extended his hand, and I shook it.
Turns out, he wasn’t such a son of a bitch after all. He did me a monster favor that day.
I walked to my block, entered my car, and headed straight to the unemployment office. I completed the proper paperwork, then returned home and immediately began work on a new script. Later that week, as I now had the hours free, I applied to attend a “spec script conference,” an event where aspiring writers pitched their work to decision-makers and other key industry personnel.
The writers were instructed to submit their work beforehand; not everyone would be accepted for the opportunity to pitch their projects.
My script was accepted. “Louis vs. Schmeling,” a biopic about the historic 1930s boxing rivalry between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, had been a dream project of mine for many years (and still is). Joe, the undefeated heavyweight contender, was an uneducated black man raised in an era of abject racism. Max, the former heavyweight champ, was nicknamed “Hitler’s German Showhorse,” though in reality he disdained the Nazi regime. Suddenly, as the clouds of Naziism darkened, all of America pinned their hopes on the formerly dismissed black contender ... who would lose the first fight. He won the rematch. Joe and Max’s two battles were considered precursors to World War II, fought within the confines of a boxing ring.
Though the project did not sell, a few of the executives who read it believed the work had displayed a fair amount of promise. In fact, a company did offer to option the script - which would have represented my first true career step as I defined the matter - however, that deal died when a cable network announced their own low-budget version of the same story, entitled Joe and Max.
So near, and yet so far.
Seven long years pass. I’ve since rejuvinated my teaching license and am back teaching emotional disturbed children and adults.
I was bored. I was comfortable. I was getting quite large around the gut.
Then, I received the phone call that would change everything. Eva Peel, the woman who ran the newly-titled “Spec Script Marketplace,” whose event I had attended all those years ago, called me. I was recommended for a scriptwriting assignment. I had to “audition” for it, but she believed I just may be able to crack it.
I did. I earned $35,000 to co-write an independent feature, Out of the Black. The film was made, and featured Oscar-nominee Sally Kirkland, Oscar-nominee Michael J. Pollard, Sally Struthers, Dee Wallace Stone, Tyler Christopher, and Jason Widener. It was a gothic mystery, of sorts, about the travails of two brothers who struggle to uncover the mystery behind their father’s death in a minining accident.
I was proud of the finished product, and our little indie that could won numerous awards at national film festivals. Stupidly, however, we attempted to game the imdb.com review system as everyone involved in the project was asked by one of the project heads to “rate” the film under a fake name. We saw our viewer score collapse from a 9.2 to a 1.5 in a month. Who knew imdb had safeguards for this type of thing?
Lesson learned. That said, Out of the Black remains the first project I’d worked on that made me happy.
And, as to the $35,000 windfall? I proved to myself I could do this for a living. We shot a second project that year, the godawful Hollywood Vampyr - of which the less said, the better (though I made some lifelong friends on that one), and more money was made.
After consulting with my very nervous new wife, I told her I needed to quit the day job and proceed with the career ... without a safety net. She was working full-time, which only aided in the decision. I felt we had a real shot here.
The first thing I would do, though, would not be to make another movie. Hollywood Vampyr to me was a debacle, though to this critical filmmaker the acting was uniformerly excellent.
No, this time I would write a book first. I wanted to help other writers, those who were losing their passion, or their belief in themselves. It became a mission. But first, I needed a gimmick.
Enter the self-published tome that validated the years of struggle: Aunt Bessie’s How to Survive a Day Job While Pursuing the Creative Life.
Hey, to move forward we all need to embrace our past, right? The title was unwieldy, the “Aunt Bessie” branding was completely misguided and unnecessary, but the book allowed me the opportunity to interact with over 70 high-achievers in various artistic fields who have already climbed the mountain I was still scaling.
I stayed in touch with many. They have become my mentors.
And I sold an awful lot of books at various events to artists of all stripes.
The winds were shifting ...
TO BE CONTINUED ...