Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Signals in the Noise: Finding Meaning through Storytelling

It’s a strange thing, really, as anyone who knew me way back when can attest, that I now find myself in the predominantly solitary profession known as novelist.

Now, I don’t think any of them would find it the least bit surprising that I’m a creative, it’s only that I preferred to exercise my creativity as an agent of fellowship:  I was the kid who organized weekend games of “Christopher Columbus,” a large-scale, rough-and-tumble variant of hide-and-seek played on the streets of New York (its origins, so far as I know, derive from an obscure teen comedy from the eighties that I haven’t watched since, on the hunch that it’s likely better off remembered than revisited); I hosted annual “murder parties” along with my best friend, Chip, inspired by our love for Clue:  The Movie; and in senior year of high school, we enlisted half the neighborhood in a quixotic production of Lost Boys II, a handmade, feature-length sequel to one of our favorite horror films, itself a kind of ode to teamwork, that we shot on a state-of-the-art VHS-C camcorder.  To this day, I think we did a reasonably credible job of passing off the Bronx as Santa Cruz:  The Palisades along the Hudson River doubled for the coastal cliffs of the Pacific, and a cavernous subbasement I’d discovered beneath a 1970s luxury high-rise served as the vampires’ cave—not a bad bit of on-the-cheap production value, if I do say so!  (The acting and cinematography, on the other hand, from the limited footage that still actually exists, seem somewhat… unpolished.)

In retrospect, the Lost Boys project probably represents an inexorable turning point in my life:  Not only had I finally found a creative outlet that felt like a natural fit (after guitar lessons didn’t pan out and my enthusiasm for comic-book illustration somewhat outweighed my talent for it), but filmmaking would allow me and my friends to do something truly special—make movies!—and, more importantly, to do it together.  Of all the arts, this one embodied the spirit of fellowship I so cherished like none other.  It became one of the great loves of my life, and an obsessive—even tumultuous—twenty-year affair with it ensued.

Sam and the Frog brothers: fearless vampire killers!

Sam and the Frog brothers—men on a mission! (From Joel Schumacher’s “The Lost Boys”)

Through all that time, I never lost my passion for storytelling—that, in fact, only grew stronger and more nuanced with experience—but my love of filmmaking is now a thing of the past; among other issues, the collaborative nature of the art form that was initially such a selling point back in those halcyon VHS-C days became an insurmountable stumbling block when it came to actually getting anything done in a systemically dysfunctional Hollywood.  (The communication breakdowns that fueled the most recent season of Project Greenlight provoked a surprising emotional response from me:  Far from inducing PTSD, I was able to observe the proceedings with clinical detachment, as though through a Plexiglas window, and the overwhelming sensation I experienced throughout the series was relief—to have left that industry in the rearview.)  I’d even reached a point, quite recently, in which I couldn’t recall what I’d ever loved about it in the first place; I remembered loving movies, mind you—just not moviemaking.

But, something someone said—a seventy-year-old writer/director, no less, enjoying one of the biggest successes of his accomplished career this year—helped put me back in touch with feelings buried under a crust of oxidation from prolonged exposure to the toxic gales of Tinseltown:

“The way I think of filmmaking:  It’s such a seductive thing.  It encompasses every human discipline you can imagine:  composition, art, technology, music, movement, and choreography.  This encompasses all of life.  We are the servants of the zeitgeist, and we live in a chaotic world:  There’s so much information coming at you; we’re trying to find resonances out there to create some sort of meaning.  Stories are a way of distilling something out of all that bombardment; they are a way of finding signal in the noise.  That’s very seductive.  Very.”

That was George Miller, the man responsible for my favorite movie of the year thus far, Mad Max:  Fury Road, speaking to Robert Rodriguez on the latter’s excellent Q&A program The Director’s Chair, which airs sporadically on the El Rey Network.  The show’s intermittent scheduling, I should note, is a blessing:  It isn’t a weekly commitment, and Rodriguez only produces an episode when he has a worthwhile subject; so far, he’s interviewed some of my all-time favorite filmmakers, including John Carpenter, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Zemeckis, and Michael Mann.  I recommend the series to anyone interested in getting a candid exploration of the artistic process.

George Miller and Robert Rodriguez on El Rey Network's "The Director's Chair"

George Miller and Robert Rodriguez on El Rey Network’s “The Director’s Chair”

Miller is right on the money:  Filmmaking certainly seduced me.  I recall the Lost Boys experience:  the thrill of committing to such an ambitious project, of giving our crazy ideas structure through a screenplay (that was learning by doing if ever there was a case of it), of finding real-world locations to be the staging ground for our fantasies, of actualizing fictional characters through casting and costuming.  Moviemaking at its purest is using the resources at your disposal to put the images conjured in—and otherwise confined to—your head up onto a screen for all to see, just as Miller did with the original Mad Max, Rodriguez did with El Mariachi, and Carpenter did with Escape from New York; all three of those artists made more refined, bigger-budgeted sequel-cum-remakes later, but what they accomplished when they had so little to work with—save passion and tenacity—stands as a testament to what filmmaking can and should be:  a can-do labor of love; an against-all-odds team effort; a vision made manifest, rendered unavoidably imperfect in translation—all the aforementioned exploitation films are a bit rough around the edges—but miraculous nonetheless for having made the unlikely transmutation from the metaphysical to the physical.  Cinema is magical; it was our Little Lost Boys Sequel that Could that placed me under its spell—that’s certainly where it crystallized, if not necessarily began.

The project itself never got finished, though not for lack of trying.  Ultimately, whether you’re working in the studios of Hollywood or on the streets of the outer boroughs, so many disparate elements need to cohere in order for a production to reach fruition that it’s a wonder any movie ever gets made, let alone an occasional good one.  Of all the lessons Lost Boys had to teach me, that might have been the most prescient—and, alas, the most ignored; I was too gung-ho at that point in my youth to think anything could stop me from trying again.

And again.

And again and again and again.

Twenty years later (the lion’s share of them out here in L.A.), I got the message; I came to accept that I was never going to see a movie made from one of my screenplays.  Studio filmmaking requires the cooperation of too many people—and far too many of them should have never been involved in the first place (those would be, among others, the very “creative” execs I took to task in my first post).  As I was drafting this piece, I coincidentally watched an absorbing, painfully relatable documentary from 2013 called Jodorowsky’s Dune about a failed attempt in the mid-seventies by Chilean cult-movie director Alejandro Jodorowsky—and an all-star team of collaborators he aptly dubbed his “spiritual warriors”—to mount an ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel, the account of which is a case study in creative enthusiasm versus indomitable industrial pragmatics.  And that was forty years ago; it’s only gotten harder—damn near impossible, really—in the era of branded IPs to bring bold new visions to the big screen.

The occasion of my epiphany was not, as you might otherwise suspect, marked by a tenor of defeatism, but one of liberation—I was free at last to explore new modes of creative expression!  Movies, it turns out, aren’t the only narrative medium:  After his proposed Dune project collapsed, Jodorowsky turned his visionary eye toward comic books, a form unencumbered by budgetary considerations, technological limitations, and the cacophony of shouting voices that drain the joy from filmmaking; I got lured, in this burgeoning era of self-publishing, to novels.

Because if you spend enough time searching for “signal in the noise,” as anyone who’s put in two decades practicing the craft can attest, storytelling itself—and not the esprit de corps of filmmaking—becomes your raison d’être, your driving obsession.  “There’s so much information coming at you; we’re trying to find resonances out there to create some sort of meaning.”  I can’t help but note Miller’s comments echo observations expressed by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff that I explored this past summer in “Journey’s End”:

“[T]he more technologized and interconnected we become, the more dependent we are on the artist for orientation and pattern recognition.”

Indeed.  And that makes the storyteller so much more than a person who merely “traffics in his own daydreams,” to borrow a lovely turn of phrase from UCLA Screenwriting Program co-chair Richard Walter, but someone who has a responsibility to the culture, to the ages—a “servant of the zeitgeist” (if, as Rushkoff suggests, we practice honest storytelling).  And only when the storyteller learns to see himself as such—learns to feel the weight of that (without being crushed by it)—does he then realize he’s answered a much higher calling than he initially bargained for, if you’ll excuse my unintended pretensions.  In my youth, my naïveté, I saw filmmaking as a way to keep my friends together and extend the make-believe we indulged as children, like those murder parties, into an endless adulthood—to preserve that spirit of fellowship.  That was a sweet notion, a pure motivation—one I am happy to have been recently reminded of—but it was never, I see now, the spirit I truly served; and, on my decades-long journey since that time, solidarity has necessarily given way to solitude.  In the wake of all this, I’m left in some ways feeling a bit like Mad Max himself:  better off for having reconnected, however briefly, but no less resolute in my course of action, entirely at ease with soldiering on alone.

6 Comments

  1. I love this post for many reasons, Sean:

    1.) Having spent a couple of weeks away from writing and reading due to my whirlwind move, I return here to realize again what a rare writer you are, from the standpoint of language mastery. Others may see it differently; but I myself never read pretension in your vocabulary and turn of phrase, only a love of language and the facility with which to use it to the fullest.

    2.) This could easily have devolved into what might have otherwise presented as a jaded rant, but it stayed on course as an explanation of evolution. You walked a fine line here, which, even with such a firm grasp on language, was a difficult tightrope to navigate. It felt thoroughly genuine and unpretentious, having just the right pacing, flow and word choice.

    3.) I learned a lot about you, Sean, the person. I’m always for that!

    4.) I felt it. Beyond being informative, your storytelling infused even the post itself. I experienced with you the carefree fun and joy of those moments in your youth; the dreams and anticipation with which you started into adulthood; the struggles you faced, the rock-in-the-throat-slow-exhale acceptance that those particular dreams were coming to an end after such a long time investing [accomplished with the unadorned language: “Twenty years later (the lion’s share of them out here in L.A.), I got the message; I came to accept that I was never going to see a movie made from one of my screenplays.”]; and the rebirth of your spirit in the realization that novelist was calling your name.

    Top marks from me, sir.

    • Erik!

      I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the time and effort you took to express that! It really means a lot. I went a bit more personal with this entry than I have in the past, and there’s always a little anxiety — as there should be — when one does that, as opposed to posting, say, a scholarly dissertation on genre or characterization.

      I’m not jaded or embittered in the least by my Hollywood experiences; on the contrary, every one of them contributed to the writer I am today, a side of me I’m looking forward to sharing when Escape from Rikers Island is published next year. This piece was very much intended to be an evolutionary self-examination (though far from all-encompassing), and I’m relieved it came across as such! I think it’s quite fascinating, certainly now that I’ve got some miles under my belt, to take a clinical look at the road you’ve traveled and take stock of where it’s brought you — and what you’ve learned along the way. I’m very lucky to have several friends — Chip and my wife among them — who’ve been with me on the journey for more years than I can count, and reflecting with them on days gone by — getting their insights and perspectives on events that they, too, were present for — has offered me fuller picture of myself (personally and professionally). I have the best friends in the world; fellowship is still a virtue I value above all others.

      I do love language; I love the ways words can be strung together in endless variations, like notes and chords (I guess the guitar lessons weren’t a complete waste of time), to create a sound and meaning all their own. In that sense, I was probably more suited to novel writing than screenwriting from the start: Most screenwriters are master structuralists, but perfunctory wordsmiths at best. (That said, there are screenwriters whose words unspool like moving pictures off the page, such as James Cameron and Shane Black, but they are few and far between.) Screenplays aren’t an artistic entity unto themselves; they are a blueprint for a story that will ultimately be built with images, not words, and I never had much ambition to be a director, anyway. In addition, screenwriting is such a restrictively compressed form of storytelling — scenes aren’t given room to breathe; dialogue is weighted down half the time with clumsy exposition — which is something I only fully realized once I was “let off the leash” in the world of my first novel. I couldn’t go back to screenwriting at this point if I tried: I’m addicted now to the fully realized, psychologically complex universe I can create by myself — on the page, for the page; it’s a very pure, very personal mode of storytelling — one to which I bring all the experience and appreciation for structure that I learned during my years as a screenwriter. So, there you have it: Everything pays off in the end. What’s to be bitter about?

      Thanks for responding so strongly to this, and for taking the time to say so. Much obliged, amigo.

      Sean

  2. Great thoughts Sean,

    It really is amazing how many incredible movies were made on a shoe-sting budget. I’ll take a well thought out story, carefully crafted script, and solid acting, over a high-budget, but uncreative story, any day! It’s fun to hear about your early movie making days too, and how that played a part in you finding your passion and callings.

    • Thanks so much for the nice words, Jed!

      You know, as I was reading your latest post at Coffee Shop Conversations earlier this week, I couldn’t help but recognize a thematic kinship with “Signals in the Noise”: It seems both of us were reflecting, in this season of giving thanks, on the rocky roads that brought us to where we are today. I’m grateful, as well, for my “windy road,” and even the permanent detours it led me down. I’ll talk more about my formative professional experiences once my first novel, Escape from Rikers Island, is published, and perhaps I’ll even post some of that Lost Boys II footage if I can ever get motivated to have it digitized! You haven’t truly laughed till you’ve seen me dressed up as ’80s comic-store owner/vampire hunter Edgar Frog!

      Thanks for reading and commenting, sir. Best to you and yours for a Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Such an interesting piece. I think sometimes it takes a while to find the place where creativity is free to bloom. And that usually involves opening and closing doors. The Hollywood world seems like a chaotic whirlwind, and I think it must take a certain energy to navagate that explosive pace. It brought you to where you are now and all the wonder and creativity that lies ahead. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Diana! (I trust I have your first name right — that’s how Erik addresses you over at The Best Advice So Far, as I recall, so I’ll take a cue from him!)

      You know, when I was in college, I was free to explore different styles and themes and genres, and even different media (prose, poetry, filmmaking). Then I found representation, and, as a young screenwriter, was only too willing to submit to the “wisdom” of others — be them managers, agents, producers, creative execs — in the hopes of forging a career in Hollywood; I abandoned, really, the instincts that got me noticed by the industry in the first place in favor of trying to “play the game,” trying to be what they wanted. And, after about fifteen years of it, I realized it wasn’t making me happy, and it certainly wasn’t getting me closer to prosperity — not in an insular and dysfunctional industry that’s closed its doors to anyone who isn’t already on the inside.

      And it occurred to me that success stories like Andy Weir’s The Martian and E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey — whatever you may think of them personally — not only wouldn’t have sold as spec screenplays, they likely never would have been written at all: A literary manager would’ve surely advised against a science-fiction story that’s more science than fiction, and a BDSM reimagining of a juvenile vampire-romance novel! But, unencumbered by the counsel of so-called experts trying to make everything fit into a prefabricated box, Weir and James wrote what spoke to them, and let the marketplace — not the gatekeepers — decide if there was an appetite for their projects. And I think we all know what happened from there.

      Yes, commercial success is, to a large degree, a crapshoot, be it in publishing or filmmaking. And, yes, judicious feedback and command of craft are essential. But, I think a lot of young, eager writers are too quick to compromise their creative instincts; I certainly fell into a pattern of suppressing my own artistic impulses and interests in favor of taking other people’s advice about what to write and how to write it, and, for the past year, I’ve been listening to myself once again, and producing the best work of my career. And, most importantly, I’m having a blast!

      So, I guess if I had one piece of advice I’d pass along to aspiring writers (novelists and screenwriters), it would be this: Discipline engenders creativity; actuaries constrain it. Spend your apprenticeship mastering your craft (and finding your voice), and instead of putting your fate in the hands of some obsolete, risk-averse gatekeeper, use the new tools of a bold new era to be your own best advocate (and folks like Joanna Penn, among others, can help one to use utilize social-media marketing and self-publishing platforms effectively and responsibly).

      Thanks again for stopping by, Diana! Erik speaks highly of your blog, Myths of the Mirror; I look forward to getting to know your writing better…

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