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.
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.
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.
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.