Wednesday, August 31, 2011

George Lucas Didn't Rape My Childhood

So, the Star Wars saga comes to Blu-Ray next Tuesday, and the entire internet is atwitter with anticipation. Not the kind of anticipation that met The Phantom Menace, mind you. That kind of anticipation for something hasn't been seen since that Jewish carpenter told everybody he was coming back. No, Jar Jar Binks made sure that Star Wars would never reach that level of universal love ever again. Like most of the world, I was let down by Darth Maul, Gungans, and Jake Lloyd's "acting." But I remember sitting in the theater right before that first screening, nearly bursting at the seams, just like all the other guys my age. Star Wars, as funny as it sounds, was our moon landing. It was more than just a movie. It was a worldwide cultural shift. It sounds crazy to think of a piece of pop entertainment as planet-changing, but it was. Especially to a 5 year-old kid.

My Dad (half) jokes all the time that I was never right in the head after he and Mom took me to see Star Wars for the first time. But it's true. Star Wars changed my life. I sound like such a geek when I say that, but I'm not kidding. Some silly movie about spaceships, robots, and walking carpets profoundly affected me in a way that I still don't fully understand. But I'm not the only one, and we can't all be crazy, right? Whatever it was that George Lucas tapped into in 1977 (marketing, zeitgeist, the Force?), it connected with people in a big way. He created a new mythology for an entire generation. We grew into adulthood as devout disciples, having memorized all the lines and dogma from the Original Trilogy since childhood. It was in our blood now, part of our DNA. And we were nearly overcome with joy when we heard, decades later, Lucas was revisiting that galaxy far, far away and giving us new chapters to memorize. The intergalactic New Testament as it were. Well, Old Testament, actually, since they were Prequels, but George always had a weird way of counting. But regardless, we couldn't wait. With each new image, each new trailer, each new glimpse of the coming film, we lost our fucking minds. We started lining up months before the release. We collected Taco Bell cups. We prepared to have our minds blown. And the culmination of all that pent up anticipation was during that very first screening of The Phantom Menace when the words STAR WARS appeared on screen and John Williams' fanfare exploded in THX. The swell of emotion in that moment was geek nirvana. It was everything we had ever hoped for and more. Star Wars had returned!

Then the movie played. And we all know what happened after that.

When the credits rolled and everyone walked out of the theater, I remember thinking to myself, "I'm pretty sure that movie sucked. No, I take that back. I'm absolutely sure. That was terrible." I remember my dazed stumble through parking lot, looking at all the other dazed faces of the fellow geeks who were trying (and failing) to come to grips with the fact that George had let us down. If the Original Trilogy was our moon landing, the Prequels were our Kennedy assassination. There was a lot of vitriol in the geek community after that. Cries of "George Lucas raped my childhood!" were a common occurrence on message boards and internet sites. I'll be honest, at the time I was a bit upset at the letdown, but I don't think I ever went to that extreme. After all, I wasn't a 5 year-old anymore and a lot of my love for Star Wars is viewed through the very rose-colored goggles of nostalgia. When you think about it, the Star Wars Saga as a whole is a pretty cheesy in a lot of places. I mean, Yoda sounds like Grover, for George's sake. When the wisest character in your movie looks and sounds like a Muppet, you can't take it too seriously. But Star Wars geeks hold tight to their Saga and many still hold a grudge.

That is very evident with impending Blu-Ray release. Lucas has already felt the wrath of the fanboys about his refusal to release the original versions of the Original Trilogy. Back in 1997, Lucas made tweaks to Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi, adding new CGI effects and creatures, calling these improved versions "The Special Editions." Most of the changes were cosmetic, but there was one change in the original film that seemed to draw the ire of the fanboy community like no other: the infamous "Han Shot First" scene. In the orginal film, Han Solo is confronted by the alien Greedo, who has come to collect a debt for Jabba the Hutt. Han calmly sits at a table and listens to Greedo, then shoots him, just like a cowboy in some old western. In the new version, Lucas used CGI to make Greedo shoot first. It makes it appear Han is firing our of self-defense. To the fanboys, this drastically altered Han's character. Again, I know this is a silly thing to get all worked up over, but geeks are nothing if not passionate about nothing. Ever since then, whenever Lucas releases the Original Trilogy in a new format, he makes further tweaks and refinements, much to the chagrin of the fanboys. Just yesterday it was revealed that on the new Blu-Rays, Lucas has added dialogue to the final confrontation between Vader and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. A clip of this was released on YouTube:


It's a minor change and doesn't affect the outcome of the story, but you'd have thought George put a mustache on the Mona Lisa the way the fanboy community reacted. Cries of "Lucas raped my childhood!" could be heard all throughout cyberspace yet again.

And that's when it hit me. This is not something grown human beings should be worried about in the slightest. Rome is burning, the world is on the brink of economic collapse, but the only thing that can inflame the passions of these apathetic idiots is what Darth Vader does or doesn't say in a movie that has walking teddy bears in it. When are these idiots going to grow the fuck up? Seriously. I love Star Wars, but I'm ashamed at the collective behavior of these cry-baby man-children. It's not global warming, it's a fucking movie. A movie, by the way, that Lucas has the right to tweak, alter, change, edit, erase, fold, spindle, and mutilate all he wants. He paid for it, it's his to do with as he pleases. He's an artist, and artists are rarely satisfied with the finished product. I know in my own small world of artistic expression, I have wanted to completely upend final drafts of projects because they never lived up to my visions for them. For example, I made a silly movie in college called "The Big City" that I shot on VHS and edited tape to tape. It was filled with glitches, bad sound, bad edits, and compromised special effects. But I showed it to people anyway and most of them liked it. Some even told me they loved it. But I can't bear to watch that version. It's not a bad movie, it just didn't live up to my expectations. Years later, I dug all the old footage out of box in my closet, threw it into Final Cut, and re-edited the entire thing. Why? For no other reason that I wasn't satisfied. It was a silly movie made with all my old college friends that no one besides them will ever see. But I don't care. It's my movie and want to see it the way I want to. To me, the only version of "The Big City" that exists is my "Special Edition." So I understand where George is coming from. He's not satisfied and he's going to keep making changes until he gets it right. Not somebody else's "right," but his. So if he wants Greedo to shoot first or make the Ewoks blink or give Lando an afro and bigger 'stache, then have at, George!

The point to all this is that George Lucas changed my life not because lightsabers are cool, or because the Millenium Falcon is the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, he changed my life because he made me believe that I could imagine anything I wanted and then, if I was talented and smart (and lucky) enough, I could manifest that idea into reality. Well, movie reality, but it would no longer be just an idea in my mind, it could be something the entire world could witness. George Lucas introduced me to the world of film. Because of my curiosity about how they made X-Wings fly, I discovered how bluescreens work and what motion control is. Lucasfilm developed the very first non-linear edit system, the EditDroid, which ushered in an entirely new way to edit films and was the precursor to Avid and Final Cut. Lucas' development of digital video made it possible to shoot film and TV at a fraction of the cost of film. George Lucas may not be much of a filmmaker nowadays, but I believe he has been responsible for more film makers than any other director before. I once heard that something is art only when the tools to create it are available to everyone. It used to be if you wanted to make a film, you had to raise huge amounts of money, rent specialized and expensive equipment, and have the power of a film studio behind you. Now all you need is a digital camera, an iMac, and a green screen. George Lucas and the technologies his companies pioneered helped make that a reality. Hell, my job as an editor wouldn't be possible without him.

But more importantly, Lucas' silly space movie inspired me to make movies. It gave me a direction to follow in life. It might not be the most stable or lucrative or sane direction to take, but it's the one I chose. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Star Wars, and I still love it, but with a very healthy dose of whimsy and nostalgic affection. It inspired me, like many other things have since, but it was a big one in my life. And with the help of digital tools George Lucas helped create, I will soon make another film, something that probably wouldn't have been possible without him. So, George Lucas didn't rape my childhood. He actually helped me grow up. He made me want to become a filmmaker. And for that, I am grateful.

I'll never forgive him for changing Boba Fett's voice in The Empire Strikes Back, but I'm grateful nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

One Small Step

42 years ago tonight, the entire world looked up. Nothing in human history before or since has galvanized humanity the way the events of July 20, 1969 did. Not without a body count at least. Things like tsunamis or earthquakes or 9/11 may come along every once in a while and make everyone drop what they're doing and take notice, but this was different. The entire planet wasn't focused on a tragedy this time. Instead, it was something beautiful. Something poetic. Something man has dreamed of since he was able to dream. On that summer evening in July, two men from this planet set foot on another world for the very first time. Mankind dipped a toe into the deep waters of the universe right there in the Sea of Tranquility. For a brief moment we stepped outside of ourselves and took a look at our place in the cosmos from a different point of view. Sure, we did it because Kennedy said we had to beat the Russians and all that, but even though the Cold War was less about big ideas and more about the biggest stick on the block, we still did it. For all mankind. And when we did, mankind stopped what it was doing that day and watched.

Such a shame we don't do things like that anymore. Things bigger than ourselves. We are amazing creatures, capable of so much more than we let on sometimes. We get so focused in on the day-to-day smallness of the world we lose sight of just how vast the universe is and just how tiny a space in that vastness we occupy. There are days on this planet when all hope seems lost, when there are daily reminders of the worst we have to offer, when all our problems seem impossible to solve. But one day 42 years ago we proved that nothing is impossible. All it took was for us to just get out of our own way and do it. The moon was just a stepping stone in a very big ocean, one that is as wide and expansive as the human imagination. And it may take generations before we take another step like that again. It makes me sad to think I may never experience something like the moon landing in my lifetime. Then I think about the distance between the stars and how impossible it seems that we could ever reach them. But the moon was out of reach, then one day it wasn't. In the future, day-tripping to the Andromeda galaxy may be as common as taking a taxi across town, and even though I will never experience that firsthand, I know someday someone from this planet will. Despite the fact that we seem to be on the verge of causing our own extinction on a daily basis, if we put our minds to it there's nothing we can't do. We could just use a few more small steps these days to remind us of those giant leaps sometimes.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mosaic


I have weird dreams. All the time. They are vivid, full of detail, and usually make no sense to anyone but myself. Like the one I had many years ago where I was hired by the government to assassinate Sean Connery with a crossbow. Okay, maybe that one doesn't make sense to anyone including me, but you see my point. The subconscious mind plays all sorts of trick on you when you're off in lala land, filling your dreamworld with images, symbolism, and random celebrities night after night. A lot of times I wake up in the morning with those images burned into my mind, almost like real memories of real events, but a few minutes later as I start to adjust to the real world again, the memories fade like a Polaroid picture in reverse. But every once in a while a dream will stick past breakfast and I can't shake it loose. Not only is the imagery strong enough to survive the waking day, but the symbolism contained in it is so precise I know exactly what it means. Wednesday night I had one of those dreams. It absolutely spoke to my current state of affairs, and, in a weird way, gave me some clarity that I have been missing in my life lately.

I've been reluctant to talk out loud about all the things going on with the D-word, mostly because I've been trying to pretend that it doesn't bother me as much as it does. Truth be told, though, divorce sucks. It really, really sucks. The process has been a lot harder than I have been willing to admit, and it's only recently that I have been able to start confronting all those feelings. In the past, whenever I have been faced with major upheaval in my life, I tend to fall into the same pattern. I choose to ignore the past, pretend that it doesn't exist, and move forward as quickly as possible. This behavior can be traced back to very early in my life when I moved around so much. Whenever my Dad would get assigned to a new Air Force Base, we were uprooted from where we lived and had to move thousands of miles away. And, since this was in the days before Facebook, email, and Skype, I had to literally cut all ties with my friends, never to see them again. As a kid going through this process every 3 years or so, it hurt. A lot. And the older I got, the deeper the bonds I formed with my friends, and the more intense the loss became when I had to break them. So whenever I was faced with yet another separation in my life, I tried my damnedest to move on as quick as I could, in the hopes that the pain and sadness wouldn't follow me into my "new" life. It's a pattern I have repeated many times over, through many moves, romances, and other life changes. But every time I did this, I wasn't pushing the pain away, I was just pushing it deeper and deeper into myself. I would store it up, not deal with it, and just add to it. Eventually, after a serious break-up right out of college, I wound up seriously depressed and saw a therapist for a little while to help deal with all the things up to that point I had been refusing to deal with. And even though I discovered why I been doing the things I had been doing, I never really learned how to change my behavior. I got better at dealing with some things, but eventually I started dealing with major changes in my life the same way I always did: run away, hide the pain, and not talk about it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The end of a relationship is always a traumatic and harsh experience. There's a myriad of emotions and feelings that wash over you: fear, sadness, regret, anger, despair; take your pick. Getting divorced is certainly no exception. If anything, it only makes it worse because not only is the relationship ending, there is paperwork to file with the courts, waiting periods to suffer through, and a host of other legal mumbo-jumbo that serves to prolong the process of splitting up. It's not the clean break it might have been if we were just a couple, unencumbered by our official legal status as husband and wife. Jen and I probably entered the realm of divorce a bit naive about what a toll it would take on each other. I remember the day we got our divorce papers signed at the notary. We took a picture of it, laughed about it, and posted it on Facebook for the entire world to see. It seemed like a funny way of dealing with it at the time, but looking back there was absolutely nothing funny about it. True, our decision to get divorced was far more amicable than some, but that shouldn't have turned it into a comedy. But, that's the way we dealt with it, and I think it lead to a false sense of security in the days and weeks that followed. In the beginning we vowed to stay friends, promised to talk every day, and do as much as we could to prevent the anger and hurt so many other couples go through when they get divorced. In other words, we tried to pretend that nothing was going to change, when in reality everything was about to.

The weeks following our decision have been a roller coaster of emotion and we have both dealt with the loss of our marriage in different ways. Neither of us has a guidebook to follow to navigate the uncharted waters we are both adrift on. It was and continues to be a sea of uncertainty that will hopefully lead to safer shores somewhere on the horizon. In the beginning, I tried to carry on like nothing was wrong and, like I always have in the past, move forward as quickly as possible. I tried to convince myself that the only way to get over the loss would be to ignore it and pretend like it wasn't happening, but I realize now that's the worst way to deal with it. The loss of a relationship is like any other loss, and when those losses happen you have to mourn the loss before you can move forward. The death of our marriage is exactly that: a death. There has to be a period of grieving in order to move through the darkness and back into the light. It has taken me some time to see that, but I've never really dealt with losses like that before, so there has been a bit of a learning curve for me to get up to speed.

Jen gave me a book that has helped her deal with a lot of what she's been going through, and after reading it this week I have to admit it has changed my outlook on a lot of things. It is called Moving On by Russell Friedman and John W. James. Basically it outlines that we are taught from birth to ignore negative emotions and reward positive ones. For example, as a child you might come home one day and tell your parents that kids at school have been picking on you. The natural reaction for most parents is to tell you, "Don't let it bother you. Here, have a cookie it will make you feel better." We are taught to suppress the hurt and replace it with something else. As a result, we tend to believe that bad feelings are something to hide and that we have to find solace in something else. In actuality, what we should do is confront how we feel head on, experience the emotions, process them, and only then can we move forward. I'm not one to follow a lot of self-help stuff, but this book really spoke to me about not only my relationship with Jen, but virtually every other broken relationship I've ever been in. If we don't deal with the hurt and the loss, we carry that excess baggage with us into our next relationships, and then we get surprised when they don't work out either. The authors of the book say there are 6 Myths that we are taught when it comes to dealing with painful emotions:

Don't feel bad.
Replace the loss.
Grieve alone.
Time heals all wounds.
Be strong.
Keep busy.

The book then goes on to explain why each of these 6 Myths do nothing but harm in our lives, then gives advice on how to overcome these fallacies and deal with negative feelings in a positive way. It was a very powerful book and I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever gone through a break-up. It has given me a lot of new insight on how to deal with the end of my marriage and how to move forward without ignoring the past and sabotaging my future.

So that (finally) leads me back to the dream I had Wednesday night. In the dream I was moving out of the house Jen and I shared (something that I will be doing in the real world in the next month or so). I had enlisted the help of some old college friends to come over and help me box my stuff and carry it out to the moving van. For some reason I decided to check my cell phone and discovered a new email. It had been sent from an artist who had apparently taken some photographs of Jen and I and turned them into mosaics. Attached to the email were pictures of these mosaics, made up of shattered shards of glass, broken bottles, and all manner of found objects. Each one was a snapshot from our relationship, pictures that I recognized from the real world. The mosaics were beautiful, but in the dream I began to cry. I looked at each one and felt sadness at the end of our relationship. I read the email and it said that these mosaics were meant to be a wedding present, but it had taken the artist so long to complete them that they were unable to send them to me until now. I just kept looking at the mosaics over and over again, conflicted by the beauty and sadness contained in each one.

I woke up Thursday morning with that dream firmly planted in my head, and I immediately began writing it down. I didn't know exactly what it meant at first, but it was such a powerful dream that I felt I had to preserve it somehow. Then as I was writing, I was reminded of a song by Wang Chung, one of my favorite 80s groups. Ironically, my favorite album by them is called Mosaic and is one of those rare albums I can listen to without skipping any of the songs. I first owned it on cassette back in the late 80s and would listen to it over and over again, then again on CD in the 90s, and now on my iPod. It is always in rotation and I know pretty much every word to every song on it. The last song on the album is called The World in Which We Live and is sort of an epic finale about how life on earth is made up of so many different people and it is our differences that make this planet such a crazy, wonderful, confusing place to live. I started singing the following lyrics, which is where the title of the album comes from:

The world is a mosaic upon a golden floor
Moving silently, darkly through space.
And our lives are the fragments of all that's gone before
Broken jewels frozen in place.

Pretty deep stuff from the guys who are best known for telling everybody to have fun tonight. But, then again, I've always felt Wang Chung is highly underrated. In any event, I spent all day thinking about what it all means. I started thinking about mosaics in general, and how when you look at them up close, they are just broken fragments, often with very sharp edges, that don't look like much. And many times if you run your fingers across them, you can cut yourself. But if you take a step back and look at it from a distance, you see the beauty contained in them. The entire picture comes into view. I think that perfectly sums up my life at this moment. If you get too close and focus in on certain details in your life, they can be painful and don't look and feel like anything but broken glass. But if you give yourself some perspective, you can see that your life does make a pretty picture when taken as a whole. Yes, my marriage has ended and it sucks right now, and at times it feels like I'm just running my bloody fingers across the sharp fragments of my life. But if you take it all in and not get lost in the details, life is beautiful. It's hard to see it right now, but I just have to keep adding pieces to the mosaic of my life and not forget to take a look at the whole thing. Sure, there is pain and sadness and loss, but that just makes for a more interesting and, ultimately, a better life. It's difficult to believe it sometimes when you're so close to it, but it's all part of the bigger picture. And like the mosaics in my dreams, the pictures we make with our lives can be beautiful.


Thursday, June 09, 2011

In Brightest Day...


Green Lantern rocks. I've known this since I was 6 years old. He has been my favorite super hero since childhood and in a week's time, I will finally get to see his live-action adventures on the big screen. The little kid inside my adult body is practically bursting at the seams at the excitement of it all. All little boys who read comic books grow up picking a favorite super hero that they imagine they could be like. Some pick Superman for obvious reasons; he's the most powerful and the most popular amongst the general public. But while Superman is right up there, he's an alien so it's hard for a kid to identify with him completely (or at least, for this kid). Batman is cool, but he's just a crazy rich guy in a suit with cool gadgets. Batman has no real super powers, so while I admire his Bat car, Bat copter, and all the rest, he's not the one I would choose to trade places with. Most of the others like Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the Flash were born out of crazy science experiments gone haywire. And while the resulting powers they got were awesome and all, having to subject yourself to the untamed forces of nature seems a bit extreme just to be able to run fast or climb walls. The X-Men were all born with their powers, and the last time I checked I wasn't born a mutant, so they're out.

But Green Lantern was different. For those who don't know, Green Lantern is actually test pilot Hal Jordan, a brash, cocky flyboy who spends his time in the clouds trying out the latest and greatest jet planes for Ferris Aircraft. One day while he was in a flight simulator, a green beam of energy came out of nowhere, grabbed hold of him and flew him across the desert to the wreckage of a crashed spaceship. Inside, a dying alien named Abin Sur told Hal that he had been chosen to become the new Green Lantern of Space Sector 2814. With his dying breath, Abin Sur gave Hal a power ring that would give the wearer almost unlimited powers. Hal placed the ring on his finger and suddenly he became Green Lantern! Whatever he could imagine in his mind, Hal could now create with his ring. And he could fly, too. How cool is that? Soon, Hal discovered that he was one of many Green Lanterns across the galaxy, all chosen to protect a specific sector of space from all manner of evil villains. They made up the Green Lantern Corps, a veritable space police force. They each possessed an identical power ring limited only by the willpower of the wearer (and the color yellow, which is kind of a silly weakness, I know, but hey, all super heroes have to have at least one, right?). And how did they all get chosen to be a Green Lantern? Were they all the best and the brightest from their respective planets? Nope. Were they physically and mentally the best of the best? Nope again. There is only one requirement to be a Green Lantern. Deep down, they must possess the ability to overcome fear. That's it. That's all it takes to become one of the most powerful super heroes in the universe. Just don't get scared and you've go what it takes. Well, to the 6 year-old who first discovered Green Lantern inside the pages of a DC Comic, that's all it took. I was hooked. To me, Green Lantern was the one guy with super powers I had a shot at becoming. All it would take was overcoming my greatest fears and I was in. What kid couldn't identify with that? So, from that point on, I considered myself a member of the GL Corps In Training. I just had to work hard at overcoming my fear of the dark and the monsters under the bed and broccoli, and then one day Abin Sur would show up at my doorstep, hand me a power ring, and I would be off flying around the galaxy fighting off my arch-nemesis Sinestro while romancing the beautiful (and deadly) Star Sapphire (in reality, Hal Jordan's girlfriend and boss, Carol Ferris), and saving the universe from evil-doers like Darkseid, Krona, and Hector Hammond. What more could a kid want?

As I grew older, my passions turned from saving the universe to movie making, and I always thought in the back of my mind that if I ever got the chance to helm a $200 million super hero blockbuster that Green Lantern would be the one I would to make. And truth be told, I am a little disappointed they didn't ask me to do it. But whatever. The fact that it even got made is miracle enough to me, and from what I've seen it actually looks frighteningly close to the source material. I hope it doesn't suck. But the best part is I get to take my 6 year-old nephew, Ben, to see it next week (on my birthday no less). I can only imagine what kind of super hero he wants to grow up to be, but whichever one he chooses, it'll be awesome to share the exploits of my favorite one on the silver screen with him. And for a short time, there will be two 6 year-olds in that theatre watching Hal Jordan save the earth. In 3D no less. And when Ryan Reynolds says the Green Lantern oath, I'll be saying it right along with him from memory, a memory I've held on to for over 3 decades:

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight,
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power,
GREEN LANTERN'S LIGHT!

Of course, my biggest fear is that the movie will suck. But if Hal Jordan can overcome his fears, I'm sure I can overcome that one. And if it does suck, well, that'll just make for another blog post.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One Day at a Time

The outside of the house has been newly painted. The trim is shiny and new. The bushes have been cut back and the flower beds are arranged and pristine. Inside, the house is spotless, clean and presentable. Even the office, which is always in a state of disarray, looks semi-professional. Yes, it is fair to say that in the nearly 2 years I have lived here, the house has never looked better. And it has never felt more empty. It's not where I live anymore, it's just the place I sleep at night. Funny how that has happened. I'm still trying to come to grips with it all. There was a time not too long ago that I would have considered buying this house. It is, after all, a great fucking house. But the rental lease runs out in August and I can't afford to pay for the mortgage on my own, so my landlord is getting it ready to go back on the market. So I have to keep the house nice as I can so the realtor can show it to potential buyers. Don't get me wrong, it's always been well-maintained and I've tried to keep it looking as good as I can, but Brian (the landlord) has really done a lot lately to make it look even better. And I'm sure he won't have any trouble finding someone to buy it. It will make someone a very nice home. It's just not my home anymore. It will forever be to me the place Jen and I used to live. It was our home. And we don't live together anymore.

People have been asking me lately how I've been handling our whole situation. I keep telling them I'm sailing on uncharted waters. I've never been in this place before, and I have no frame of reference for how I'm supposed to handle it. Am I supposed to go left, am I supposed to turn right? Is there even a map to follow? Everything about our divorce has been out there in open, for all the world to see. I mean, we took a picture of the notary signing our divorce papers and posted it on Facebook for Christ's sake. It might not seem like it from the picture, but we didn't reach the decision to split up lightly. This was something that we both arrived at together with serious discussion and soul-searching. And there is no doubt in my mind that we made the right decision. I know it's hard for people who know us to understand sometimes, but unless you are actually in someone's relationship, you will never understand how that person's relationship works. Our relationship just is what it is. Jen and I aren't supposed to be husband and wife anymore. It's as simple as that. But now that the divorce papers have been filed and the dust has settled, now what? What is the next step? We aren't us anymore, we are 2 separate individuals. We still love each other and talk to each other and see each other, but where do we go from here? I'm still trying to figure that out.

As a kid who grew up as a military brat, change is nothing new. I've had to move away from places before and start all over again more times than I can count. But this time it is different. I've never lived in this city as just me before. My entire life here has been defined by my relationship with Jen. When it really comes down to it, I moved to Birmingham for her. I turned away from a life in L.A. that I wasn't happy with and embraced a new future with her. And I've never once regretted that decision, even after all that has happened to us. I've grown to love this place and I consider it my home. Jen and I have many of the same friends, we run in the same circles, and as I am learning, this town is smaller than you might think. Everyone is about 1 degree removed from everyone else. There's a lot of comfort in that, to be sure, but it can also be awkward. We aren't together anymore, so how does that work in a place like this? Is there a proper set of steps to follow? Am I supposed to lock myself away in my room and not come out? Should I try to meet new people and try to define my life in some other way? Or should I just pack it all up and move to Denmark? And what about Jen? I don't want to shut her out of my life. She's still my best friend. I would never want to do anything to hurt her, but can I do that and still live my own life? Is it being selfish to try and move on? What does moving on even mean? Some days I feel like I have it all figured out, some days I just want to stay in bed. I know it's been hard for both of us. Jen and I have talked about it, we both have good days and bad days with it. I guess the best anyone can do is just keep one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.

And through it all, the house just keeps getting cleaner. In a few days, the "For Sale" sign will be posted out front and strangers will be making appointments to walk through the door. When the realtor shows them around, they will figuring out where their couch will go, which wall their bed will rest against, and how many cookouts they will have on their new back porch. I should know, I did the same thing when Jen and I saw the place for the first time. Soon enough, I will be living in a new place, with my own new furniture and a new address to memorize. But until then I have to walk around this slowly emptying house remembering how it used to look and sound when there were 2 people sharing the space. It's always hard to let go of the past, but, as I am learning, sometimes it's hard to embrace the future, too. When I used to think about what was to come in my life, there were 2 people in the equation. But there's new math to solve now. What is the solution for a future of 1? I don't know. Change can be a scary thing.

But then I stop and I think about how change is often a good thing. It can be exciting. It can take you places you never thought possible. It can lead to amazing adventures and can redefine who you are. People can be frightened of change. But some of the best things that have ever happened to me were sprung from sudden and life-altering change. That's why they call them life-altering moments. They literally alter your life. You never know what's going to happen when change knocks on your door. Someone new will soon live in this house and their lives will change, just as mine will change when I move out. I have plans and dreams and ideas just like everybody else, and sometimes those things get forgotten and put aside when things stay the same too long. Change is the only constant, and the sooner I remember that and embrace it, the better my life will be.

My itunes library is on random play right now. As I finished typing the last sentence in that last paragraph, the theme song to the 70s TV show "One Day at a Time" started playing. It sounds crazy, but that was the perfect song to close this post out with. As cheesy as it might sound, the lyrics express more about how I feel than anything I just said above, so here they are:

This is it. This is life, the one you get, so go and have a ball.
This is it. Straight ahead, and rest assured you can't be sure at all.
So while you're here, enjoy the view.
Keep on doing what you do.
Hold on tight, we'll muddle through.
One day at a time.
So up on your feet.
Somewhere there's music playing.
Don't you worry none, just take it like it comes.
One day at a time.


Sunday, May 01, 2011

9/11, 5/1/11, and the Curse of Shiny Objects

Like everybody else alive at the time, I remember exactly where I was the morning of September 11, 2001. I was home from work, the last day of my week-long vacation at WAKA CBS 8, asleep in bed. I would have probably slept until noon, as was my normal routine on my day off, but on this particular morning my phone would not stop ringing. Usually I let the machine pick it up, but whoever was calling would not leave a message, they just hung up and dialed again. Angrily, after, the third cycle of this, I finally dragged myself out of bed and answered in a terse voice, "What?"

"Mike, it's Heather! Turn on the TV! The World Trade Center was attacked and the Pentagon just exploded! It's like World War 3!" It was one of my roommates calling from work. She was talking so fast I could barely understand what she was saying, and what I could understand sounded like I was still asleep, experiencing some strange dream. I grabbed the remote and turned on NBC. It became very clear very quickly that this was no dream. I barely had time to comprehend everything Tom Brokaw was saying about all the chaos that had unfolded in the last few hours when the first Tower suddenly collapsed right before my eyes. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

The rest of the day was a blur of disbelief, grief, and shock. But whenever I think about that day, I also remember what happened to this country in the days following. There was a sense of American unity unlike any in our history. For about 3 months, we all stopped caring about our differences and just became Americans. We had something to mourn together and something to rally behind. The flag was flying everywhere you looked. It was like we all forgot to be Democrat or Republican and just became neighbors. It sucks that it took such a tragic event for it to happen, but for a brief shining moment out of the darkness of 9/11, we became the country we always hoped we could be. One nation.

Of course, it didn't last, and we all went back to the petty squabbles and finger-pointing that we'd been so good at before. In a lot of ways, the divisions that existed in the country before 9/11 just got bigger and deeper. In the last decade, pleasant debate has turned into vitriolic rancor. It's deafening how much hate and divisiveness exist in this country. Just read any message board on the internet and one starts to wonder if we're on the verge of collapse, a latter-day Roman Empire crumbling from within.

So now comes word that the guy responsible for the act of terrorism that pretty much caused all this is dead. American Special Forces stormed Osama Bin Laden's compound, shot him in the head, and carted off his body. It sounds like the plot of a Tom Cruise movie, but it's real. I blows my mind. From the moment Bin Laden's death was announced, crowds started forming at Ground Zero, waving flags and sharing in the moment. It was kind of surreal to watch it all unfold on screen, which seemed oddly appropriate for how this whole thing started.

But I can't help but wonder if this is yet another giant distraction that disguises the fact that we still have huge chasms between us in this country. Sure, it might feel good to our baser instincts that the author of the 9/11 plot is dead, but is the world any different now than it was when he was still alive? Probably not. It makes for good headlines, and truth be told I'm glad the evil fucker is dead, but it seems like too little too late. We aren't any better off than we were before 9/11, in fact we're a lot worse. There are serious problems left to be solved, and countless tragedies that we have suffered since that September morning. I have to give the U.S. credit for seeing the mission through over the last decade and taking Bin Laden out, but wouldn't that effort been better spent in solving the energy crisis? Or the housing crisis? Or figuring out how to keep the middle class from disappearing?

I was looking at footage of the destruction left behind last week during the Tuscaloosa tornado and thought to myself that the people who survived that tragedy probably don't care in the slightest that Bin Laden is dead. They've got much bigger problems to worry about. Like where to live. Or where their loved ones are. Or how many funerals they have to attend. But, as it happens all too often in this country, we get distracted by the next shiny object and move on. Look! The Royals are getting married. Look! Bin Laden's dead. Look! Dancing with the Stars is on. We just lose sight of the important stuff and turn into an entire country of ADD sufferers. It's easy to do, and I'm just as guilty as the next person.

But I hope that one day we all wake up and realize that we need to fix the problems in front of us before we move on to the next one. America used to be the place where the world turned to be inspired. I mean, we landed on the moon once. That carries a lot of weight. Now it seems it's the place everyone turns to get distracted. Who cares about gas prices when Kim Kardashian has a new sex tape? Who cares about education when Thor is about to come out? Who cares about the victims of a natural disaster when Charlie Sheen is stopping by? It took us ten years to figure out how to land on the moon, but I bet if we tried again it wouldn't take ten minutes before we got sidetracked and gave up and started playing XBox. The problems we face today are hard and difficult and aren't going to be solved overnight. It's going to take focus and determination and...ooo look! Will Ferrell is shaving Conan's beard on TBS!

Wait, what was I saying?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yes. And...?

When I was about 13, I saw a TV special on the A&E network called "Warbabies." I don't remember why I tuned in, it might have even been by accident, but it was the first time I had ever been exposed to the art of improv comedy. A group of about a dozen comedians were gathered on a stage and proclaimed to a crowd of about a hundred or so that everything they were about to see was going to be completely made up on the spot. I had never heard of improv before, but I was intrigued. Surely these people were kidding, right? There was no way sane people would come out in front of a crowd and just make shit up on the spot. Surely there had to be a script involved. Who would pay to see folks just make stuff up? And, more to the point, how on earth could it be funny? In my naive teenage mind jokes had to be written first before they could be funny. But, over the next hour I was transfixed by these brave souls who asked for random audience suggestions (locations, occupations, relationships,and the like) and then wove those suggestions into comedy gold. The only member of the ensemble I recognized was Peter Riegert (Boone from "Animal House"), but they were all incredibly talented individuals who kept me in stiches for the better part of an hour. The most amazing scene in the special was at the end, when the entire cast came out on stage and turned a single audience suggestion into an elaborate musical number. I was mesmerized. I wish A&E would rerun the special, or that it was available on DVD so I could relive that eye-opening experience. But, from that point on, I became fascinated by improv. I didn't think at the time that I myself could ever try it, much less be any good at it, but I definitely wanted to know more.


Many years later, when I was a theatre major in college, Comedy Central started showing reruns of the British show "Whose Line is it Anyway." For most people I know, this was their introduction to the world of improv. Again, the cast members would take audience suggestions and turn them into little skits that had me rolling in the floor. By this time, I had appeared in several college plays, so I had a deeper appreciation of just how hard it was to get up in front of an audience and be funny. It was hard enough when you had a script to go by, but standing onstage unarmed was every actor's nightmare. How did these people do it? Week after week, I would watch "Whose Line" with my fellow theatre friends and we were always blown away by the wit and timing of the cast. But, even though I considered myself a performer at that point, I still couldn't imagine going out on stage with nothing prepared. It seemed insane to subject myself (or an audience) to that madness. As far as I was concerned, these folks from the BBC were truly gifted freaks of nature who had skills I could never hope to achieve.


Then in 2001, my college friend Mac Funchess came to me and said he was part of an improv group with some other folks and wanted to know if I was interested in joining. At first I thought he was crazy. It seemed like suicide to subject oneself to the theatrical equivalent of bungee jumping without a net...or even a bungee cord for that matter. I passed, wishing him and his other volunteers good luck. I did, however, go see one of their first performances at a Montgomery bar one evening soon after, and even though they were a little rough around the edges, they were pretty funny. I decided that I would suck it up and give it a shot. I soon found myself part of "Brainfreeze," Montgmery's first (and as far as I know, only) improv group. Mac introduced me to Tony Beckham, one of the founding members. Mac and Tony had taken some improv workshops in Atlanta and had read several books on improv and decided to form Brainfreeze to share their knowledge. It was here that I learned the secret of improv, the core principle that makes improv work. It is the spark from which all improv scenes grow and thrive upon. Without it, scenes wither on the vine and die. And, until Tony and Mac shared it with me, I thought it must be some elaborate, mechanical theory that takes years to master. But it's actually quite simple. It's two little words: Yes. And.


"Yes, and..." is the key to creating something out of nothing on stage. They might not seem like much, but those two little words are powerful tools. They are the building blocks for all great improv. It's very simple how it works, really. Let's say two people are on stage. One of them turns to the other and says:


"Say, Dave, isn't the sky a lovely shade of blue?"


Now, if the other actor wanted to kill the scene right then and there, all he would have to do is say:


"No, it's cloudy. And my name's not Dave."


End scene. Crickets. No laughs, no jokes, unhappy audience. What he should have done is said:


"Yes, it is. And check out that airplane flying by."


"Dave" accepted what his partner gave him (Yes). Then he added to it (And). So, with "Yes, and.." firmly in place, the scene might continue like this:


"Yes, I see the plane. And doesn't it look like it's flying a little low?"


"Yes, it is flying low. And it's coming right at us."


"Yes, it's almost on top of us. And I think we should run away."


"Yes, we should run away. And into this steel bunker."


"Yes, good idea. And I have the key right here in my pocket."


"Yes, and it's a good thing I let you wear my pants today."


And so on and so on until the scene ends. Now, this is a very simplified version of how it works (and there are several other techniques that come into play as you progress though successful improv scenes), but the starting point is simple. You agree with your partner, whatever they say, and then add to it. You accept the reality you are given, and then build on it, no matter how absurd it might be. Rejecting what you are given is called "blocking" (i.e. you "block" the other person's reality), which brings the scene to a screeching halt. By blocking, you are halting any forward momentum in the scene and bringing it crashing down on top of you (not unlike the plane headed right for Dave and his friend). It's actually quite a simple concept, but until Mac and Tony shared it with me, I had no idea how improv worked. But from that one idea, I became hooked on improv and have performed it almost non-stop since.


The thing about it, though, is that "Yes, and..." is a concept that works not only on the stage, but in everyday life. In fact, I would go so far as to say it has benefitted me more in the real world than in the imaginary one created on stage. When we interact with each other, we need to accept the reality given to us by the other person, then add to it with positivity. Never try to steer something in a different direction just because it's not the way we planned to go. Blocking is never a good thing, and leads to disappointment, frustration, and frowns. Being accepting of what we are given and then adding to it is the key to making life work. As the old saying goes, all the world's a stage, so we should treat it as such (of course, if the world is a stage, I want better lighting, but you get the idea). Next time you run into an unknown situation, just try "Yes, and..." I think you will be surprised at the results. If nothing else, you might make someone laugh, and that's something in far too short of supply these days.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It Is What It Is

I met Jen on a chilly October morning in 2006. I was the location manager for the film "Honeydripper" and we we shooting a scene at the abandoned Army barracks at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Alabama. I was still living in Los Angeles at the time, but had been hired by John Sayles to come back to my adopted home state to work on his film for a few months. The majority of the film was being shot in Greenville, some 200 miles away, but we had one crucial scene to shoot here in Anniston, so the entire crew had made the journey north for one day of shooting. The sun hadn't even come up yet when I arrived on set that morning, so I quickly headed for craft services to get my first cup of hot tea for the day. As I was getting my caffeine on, a cute girl I had never seen before bounded down the back stairs of the craft services truck. I turned and said, "Hi. I don't know you. Who are you?" She smiled, held out her hand and said, "Hi. I'm Jennifer." We shook hands. I immediately felt that Jen was sweet and charming, the kind of person who you know has never met a stranger. I asked her how she came to be on set. She said she had been hired as a production assistant to help out with craft services for the day. She then told me she was from Birmingham and had recently made a short film starring Mo Rocca (from the Daily Show) called "Piece of Cake." It had screened in the Sidewalk Film Festival that September, where it won the Audience Choice award for Best Alabama Short, which is when she first heard out about "Honeydripper" coming to town. I was even more impressed when she told me she had never written or directed a short film before. She asked me where I was from. I told her I used to live in Montgomery, but currently lived in Burbank, California. I was only in Alabama for 3 months for the shoot, and then I would jet off back to Los Angeles right after Thanksgiving. We talked for a few minutes more, but soon I was called away to deal with some sort of location problem, and that was that. I saw her again sporadically throughout the day, but never got the chance to talk to her again. And as the day was winding down and everyone was packing up to make the 200 mile trek back to Greenville, I figured I would probably never see her again. But as I was glamorously tossing garbage bags from the day's shoot into a dumpster next to the location, Jen's car pulled up. She was leaving for the day, but wanted to give me her MySpace address in case I wanted to know more about her short film. I tucked the piece of paper in my pocket, told her it was nice to meet her, and said goodbye.

Three years to the day later, we were married.

Cue the romantic music. Fade out. Credits.

Sounds just like some great movie, right? It's a great story. Jen and I have told that story to people for nearly 5 years. When people ask us how we met, it's cool to say, "We met on a movie set." It always gets a great reaction. So when we started telling our friends and family recently that we have decided to split up, it came as a bit of a shock to everyone. Including, and especially, to us. But real life isn't like the movies; there are no guaranteed happy endings. We don't have an omniscient director guiding our every move. Award-winning screenwriters aren't plotting the destinies of the two young lovers who "met cute" on a film set. Life is what it is, and sometimes things don't work out the way people expect them to. It's not always tragic when it happens. Sometimes it's exactly the way it's supposed to be. It's sad and it hurts and it makes you cry, but after you wipe away the tears and really listen to your heart, you know it's just the way it is.

The truth is, Jen and I love each other very much. And there are things in our relationship that work like gangbusters. We support each other, we inspire each other, we bring out the best in each other. I know I am forever a better person for having Jen in my life. She has given me so much and taught me so much about myself. She makes me want to be a better person every single day. And I know that the reason for all the good things in our relationship is that we have always been totally honest with each other. We can and do tell each other everything. There is nothing I can't tell her, and she the same with me. The irony is that because of that honesty, we have decided to split up.

No relationship is perfect, and ours is no different. We found each other at the exact right time and place in each of our lives. We didn't realize it at the time, but we each had a piece of what the other person was missing in some way: Love. Stability. Encouragement. Comfort. Love. We were both alone and lost in the wilderness, but somehow we found each other. It really was like something out of a movie. But from the very beginning, no matter how quickly and completely we were drawn to each other, there was still something missing. Something intangible. A spark is the only way to describe it. That feeling you get deep down on a purely romantic level that words just can't explain. We've looked for it many times, but for whatever reason, that quality is just missing between us. We both realized it when we first met, but at the time it didn't matter. At that time in our lives, we needed each other for all the other reasons. But as time has passed and our relationship has grown, we have both come to realize that we love each other too much to ignore it any longer. It is painful and difficult and hard to admit to one another, but to pretend that it doesn't matter would mean we would have to stop being honest with each other, and that's not how our relationship works. At first, we tried to figure out how to fix it, like there was something broken. But the truth is, it didn't really break. You can't fix something that has never existed in the first place. It doesn't make it any less painful, it just is what it is. Jen is my best friend, and I am hers. And the only way for us to remain best friends is for us to stop being husband and wife. Because if we don't, even though we still love each other now, one day, be it one year, five years, or ten years down the line, we will wind up resenting or blaming or hating each other for pretending that nothing is wrong, and the thought of that is a thousand times more painful than the thought of splitting up. I can survive losing my wife, but I can't survive losing my best friend.

In many ways, Jen and I are different people than when we met. We've both grown and changed and evolved. We have different goals and interests and dreams than we did that cold morning in Anniston. We're not mad or angry or upset with each other about it. In fact, as strange as it sounds, once we finally admitted to each other that something was missing in our relationship, we were both relieved. The elephant could leave the room now. It's been weird and sad and confusing wrapping our heads around this whole thing, and we've talked about it extensively from every possible point of view, but we both agree that this is the only honest decision we can make. It sucks and it hurts and it's going to be a huge life change for us both, but it is the right decision for us to make. I will always treasure my marriage to Jen, and I know she feels the same. I don't regret a second of the time we've spent together, and I know we will always be part of each other's lives. Some people might think we're being rash, or that we need to give it more time. But that's what people do when they're trying to be polite with each other. Polite and honest are two very different things. Love is no reason to be polite.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When I Found the Big Bag of Oranges

So, you might be asking yourself, why is my blog called "The Big Bag of Oranges" anyway? Well, it's a strange story that involves college friends, cops, and the TV show "Benson." But I'm getting ahead of myself. Way back in 1993, I was a student at Auburn University Montgomery trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life. It had taken me 3 years of on-again/off-again enrollment to finally finish up the general courses. I had taken all the stuff everybody has to take when they go to college. I couldn't put it off any longer. I had to finally pick a major. I had no idea where to turn. None of the "careers" laid out in front of me seemed appealing. I hated math, so business and engineering were out. Blood makes me squeamish, so forget the medical field. I don't want to be a teacher, and I feel that if you don't want to teach, you shouldn't. Some people I know regard teaching as a "fallback" position. "If my career as a so-and-so doesn't work out, I'll just become a teacher." I think you would be doing your students an unforgivable disservice if you didn't feel passionately about teaching them. So, for me, that was also out.

About the only thing I was drawn to in college was when I performed in plays for the college's theatre department. I had signed up for an acting class my first semester because I though it would be an easy A and it might be a good place to meet girls. I didn't get lucky in that class, but I did find out about auditions for "Night of the Iguana" at Theatre AUM. Again, because of the potential to meet girls, I tried out. And, to my surprise, I got a part! I was cast as one of the Mexican houseboys (Paco or Pedro, I can't remember which). I had 8 lines, all in Spanish. The costume designer dyed my hair black and every night before the show I had to cover my body in brown makeup. I was the tallest, skinniest, and palest Mexican you've ever seen. And while the drunken, sweaty dialogue of Tennessee Williams didn't exactly set my heart on fire, being on stage did. When it comes right down to it, I'm a big showoff, so being in front of large groups of people has never bothered me. I felt at home on the stage, and for this particular show, I was part of the (minuscule) comic relief. It was a lot of fun dressing up in a silly costume every night and making the audience laugh. It became addictive. I started trying out for other shows every semester, playing bigger parts, working backstage, and hanging out with the theatre crowd. But it never occurred to me that being an actor could be a lucrative career. This was something I did for fun; a hobby more than anything, really. Sure, I might fancy myself as a bit of a comedian, but I'm not really an actor. And I wasn't really drawn to the technical side of theatre, either (I don't like to hang lights, make costumes, or wear all-black clothes all the time). But while I was there, I met a couple of guys who, like me, shared a passion for something that I hadn't even considered. And it was so obvious, it had been staring me right in the face the whole time: movies!

I love movies. I watch them at the movie theater, I rent them on video, I tape them off cable. I grew up watching them, reading about them, being sucked into them. But they existed in my mind as a fantasy realm, something unreal and intangible. I knew all about famous directors and studios and all that, but that was a universe that existed far beyond my own, in a distant and magical place called "Hollywood." I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and even though I had grown up traveling all over the world, I never thought of Hollywood as a real place. Movies were just something "other people" did. Famous people. Not me. But, as it turns out, regular people do make movies. There's an entire industry filled with regular folk who just happen to have the coolest job in the world. And during my time at Theatre AUM, I met 3 other guys who shared the same desire as I to run off to Hollywood and live the dream: Art, Danny, and Garner.

We all met during the 1992 production of "Dracula," and we quickly realized we shared a love for movies. We all aspired to make it big in the movie business, and as luck would have it, we all wanted to to pursue different roles. Art saw himself as a director, Garner as a producer. Danny wanted to be an actor, while I wanted to be a screenwriter. We surmised that if we all worked together, we could take the film world by storm! Granted, our college-sized egos usually got the better of us, and despite the fact that all 4 of us worked at the same video store, none of us had any real idea how to make movies. We couldn't afford to buy real film, and professional video cameras in those days were several thousand dollars we didn't have. The best we could come up with was Art's VHS camcorder. And making a full length film was a bit ambitious for our first time out, so we decided to try our hand at making a parody of the TV show "Cops," figuring that the handheld, amateurish look of the show was right in our wheelhouse. As it turned out, Montgomery's Fox affiliate was airing their own locally produced version of "Cops" called "M.P.D." It was a no-brainer. The wheels turned and we all settled on the name for our show - "N.M.P.D. - Not the Montgomery Police Department." We spent the spring and summer of 1993 filming the exploits of 4 inept cops patrolling the streets of Montgomery, all while trying to find the perfect coffee and donuts. I played Detective Season, the wide-eyed, sci-fi geek who bumbled his way through each adventure. Art Douglas played Sgt. Douglas (go figure), the violent, ex-military type. Garner was Sgt. Manapua, the psychotic Vietnam vet with homicidal tendencies. Danny was Detective Juan O'Malley, an undercover druglord. Sure, it was kind of cheesy and rough-around-the-edges, but it was funny and a lot of fun to make. Some of the end results can be seen here:



We produced about a dozen episodes (more or less) that ran on the local public access channel sporadically during the spring and summer of 1993. Despite the no-budget production values and amateurish execution, a few people besides our friends and families actually watched the damn thing. We amassed a small following around town (even sold a few N.M.P.D. t-shirts out of the trunk of Art's car. We were big time!). One of the episodes we filmed involved Garner's character being abducted by aliens (don't ask). In our lofty goals for our little show, we had always intended this to be a cliffhanger episode. Manapua would be whisked away by a UFO at the end, with the next episode revealing what happened to him inside the alien mothership. Unfortunately, my "epic" script for the conclusion proved to be too expensive to produce (i.e. we had no idea how to do it), so we scrapped the whole thing. Instead, I wrote a script where Manapua just shows up back at the police station. Everyone is shocked to see him. Someone asks, "Hey, Manapua, how did you get away from the aliens?" Manapua replies, "Well, it's a funny story..." and just as he is about to explain how he got away from the mothership, we cut to a fake news report about something irrelevant. The fake newscaster wraps up the fake news report and says, "We now return you to N.M.P.D., already in progress." We cut back to Manapua, who is finishing up his tale. He says, "...which is how I wound up at the condom factory. And that's when I found the big bag of oranges." Everyone nods in amazement. And... scene.

It was Garner who actually came up with the line about the oranges, but I thought it was a brilliant way to write around our limitations. A random non-sequiter about oranges and condoms seemed like a funny way of saying to the audience, "Hey, folks, we ain't got the money to do this, so we're just going to move on." I asked Garner how he came up with the line and he explained it was a reference to a random line he heard in re-run of "Benson" when he was a kid. In the episode dim-witted Governor Gatling was trying to recant some silly story to Benson, who was too busy to hear it. Benson tells the Governor to skip to the end. The Governor runs through the tale in his head, then says, "And you know what was in the bag? The oranges!" And... scene. Silly, random, and, at least to me, hysterical. From that point on, the line "That's when I found the big bag of oranges" followed my pen around everywhere I wrote. I tried to include it somewhere in every script or story I came up with. I got the idea from director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Coming to America). Landis includes the phrase "See you next wednesday" in all of his films. It's on billboards, on marquees, on posters, it's even in lines of dialogue. It's subtle and in the background, but it's there. It's a filmmaker signature, like Hitchcock's cameo in all of his own films (or Hal Needham's cameo in all of his own films). The Big Bag of Oranges is mine. It's nonsensical and whimsical and kind of bizarre, and that's why I like it.

And every time I hear it, I am reminded of the summer I spent with my friends making movies. The stuff we filmed was also nonsensical and whimsical and kind of bizarre, but it didn't matter. It also didn't matter that we had no idea what we doing. We were just doing it. We hadn't yet become jaded by the harsh realities of the film industry. We hadn't yet become distracted by the responsibilities of real life. We hadn't yet lost our sense of wonder. As time passes, I get more cynical about making movies. Years after N.M.P.D., when I moved to Los Angeles and had the opportunity to work on "real" movies, I was thrilled beyond belief. I got to watch people like Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese and John Sayles make films. I was an arm-length away from the greatest film school anyone could ever wish for. It was exhilarating, but at the same time, it was kind of sad. It was like I was watching how the magician did his tricks. Sure, the tricks were awesome, but it took some of the magic away. There was a thrill in ignorance that my friends and I shared back in 93. Acting on blind passion without a roadmap led to some pretty amazing destinations back in the day. It also led down some blind alleys, but the thrill of discovery was still there. That thrill is harder and harder to find these days. I know it's still there. I can feel it, buried deep in that part of my brain that remembers things like the lyrics to the theme to "Cannonball Run" or the name of the composer of the music to "Battle Beyond the Stars." That deep passion I have for movies never really goes away. It just takes a reminder every now and then to bring it back to the surface. So whenever I feel like giving up, I just go looking for the big bag of oranges.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Magic Kingdom

When I was 12 years old, I spent an entire day at Disneyland by myself. It wasn't planned that way, but that's how it turned out. Let me back up. It was 1985, we were living in Victorville, California and I was attending Hook Junior High. I was in the 7th grade, and like all the other cool kids in the 7th grade, I was in the choir. Not much else a short, skinny dork who doesn't play sports can do. I certainly wasn't going to be in the band. That was the kiss of death in 7th grade. At least the choir didn't require me to carry an instrument case everywhere. I felt sorry for the band kids, they essentially had to cart around a big sign all day long that said, "Hey, bullies! Check out my instrument case! I'm in the band! Come get me!" They were like lambs to the slaughter. The choir was much more subtle. Sure, I still got picked on, but there was less chance I would be spotted in the wild like the band kids. And since my voice didn't change until around 1988, I had a lovely soprano singing voice. For 1st period every day, me and the other 40 or so kids in the choir gathered in Mr. Lotze's music class and belted out the hits! The theme to "Happy Days!" Something from a musical none of us had every heard of! And many more! To be fair, it was a lot of fun to sing every morning, and it was one of the only classes besides P.E. that I didn't have homework for. Mr. Lotze arranged all of us according to our voices, so I wound up next to the same kids every day. As a result, I became fast friends with 2 of my fellow sopranos: Erik McKinley and Bryan Foley. We hung out before class, we would hang out together at lunch, we rode the bus together; we were a trio. All year long, we stood next to each other on the risers and sang in Mr. Lotze's class. And, whenever the choir got to go on field trips for singing competitions, we would hang out as a trio. And all year long, there was one field trip all of us were looking forward to more than any other: the year-end trip to Disneyland.

One sunny day in early May, the entire choir loaded up on the bus and headed for beautiful Anaheim, California, home of the world famous Disneyland. It was our reward for selling all those damn fundraiser candy bars, cheese logs, and greeting cards over the course of the year. Of course, we had to make a stop first. To justify the school sending us all the way to Disneyland, Mr. Lotze scheduled us to sing at an Anaheim junior high school that morning. We sang a couple of songs with a local choir, then jumped back on the bus and headed off to the park! As a result, we were all decked out in our hideous uniforms that all those fundraisers helped pay for: a bright purple button-down and white pants. Like I said, hideous. Erik, Bryan, and I sat next to each other on the bus, busting with excitement, trying to decide what to ride first. We settled on the Matterhorn, the roller coaster inside the giant plastic mountain in the center of Fantasyland. The plan was to hop off the bus, change into our street clothes in the restroom, and head off into the park. Mr. Lotze told all us to be back at the bus by 6:00. We were all in junior high and there were no chaperones with us (it was the 80s, remember). As far as he was concerned, we were on our own. As we pulled up to the gates of the park, the excitement was palpable. Kids were bouncing up and down on the seats, trying to contain themselves, just waiting for those bus doors to open and release the pressure. The hiss of the air brakes filled the air, the door opened, and kids shot out of the bus like a rocket, scattering in all directions. I spotted a restroom right by the entrance. I ran inside along with several other kids. We quickly changed into our street clothes, stuffed our uniforms in a locker, and ran out into the park. Different groups of kids broke off in all directions, disappearing into the crowd and noise. I looked around. I didn't see Erik or Bryan anywhere. They were right behind me when we ran off the bus, where did they go? I thought for sure they followed me into the bathroom. If not, surely they would have waited for me, right? I checked the bathroom again. I scanned the crowd again. Nothing. They were nowhere in sight. And by this point, all of the other kids in the choir had disappeared, too. I was all alone. I wasn't scared. I was almost 13, being left alone was not a big deal. I figured Erik and Bryan must have headed for the Matterhorn, so I found a map and figured out where that was. I took off into the park.

But as I walked along Main Street U.S.A. I started to wonder if Erik and Bryan ditched me on purpose. At first, I couldn't imagine why they would have done that. But then the wheels started turning. Maybe they got tired of waiting and decided to go on without me? Maybe since most of the rides at Disneyland are two-seaters, they thought 3 was a crowd? Maybe they were just 13 years-old and ditching someone at Disneyland is the kind of thing 13 year-olds think is funny? By the time I arrived at the base of the mountain, Erik and Bryan were nowhere to be found. There was no use in trying to find them now, they could be anywhere. And I didn't want to waste the entire day looking for them. And if they did really ditch me, I certainly didn't want to hang out with them now. I was on my own. Just me, all by myself, alone in Disneyland with no adult supervision. I could ride whatever I wanted, eat whatever I wanted, spend as much time in the gift shops as I wanted. The disappointment over being ditched by my friends shifted into a sudden sense of freedom. I had never been let loose like this before. I felt so adult. It was kind of cool. Granted, I was 12 years old and if my parents knew I was running around by myself, I'd be in so much trouble, but I didn't care. I was free to roam. And being the sci-fi geek I am, there's only one place to start. I headed straight for Tomorrowland. To Space Mountain, young Cunliffe! And beyond! I spent the next 5 hours or so wandering through the entire park, stopping when I was interested, riding whatever I wanted as many times as I wanted. The People Mover! Pirates of the Caribbean! That rocketship thing! That other one with the tea cups! And many more! For a while, it was kind of fun, but after about hour 3, it started to get kind of boring. Sure, there was a lot to see and do, and I even met Pluto, but hanging out in the Magic Kingdom all by myself was, to be honest, really dull. There's only so many times you can ride Mr. Toad's Wild Ride before the novelty wears off. I remember just wandering around the park for a while, taking it all in. I started noticing the rough edges. Like the where the employee entrances were. Or that all the snack bars pretty much sold the same 10 items, they just called them different things based on where they were located in the park (Mickey's Frontier Burger vs. Tinkerbell's Fantasy Burger and so forth).

Pretty soon, all I wanted was for 6:00 to roll around so I could go back to the bus and go home. Disneyland was no fun with no one to share it with. I didn't have anyone to sit with on the rides, I didn't have anyone to talk about the rides with after we got off. No one to talk to in line, no one to try on Mouseketeer ears with in the gift shops. When the clock finally hit 6:00, I wandered back to the bus, alone. All the other kids were glowing from their wild time in the park, sharing stories, laughing. I trudged to the back of the bus, where I found Erik and Bryan. They hadn't even changed out of their uniforms. They simply ran off the bus and into the park when we arrived, wearing what they had on. They laughed as I walked up, as if I was the punchline to the joke they started 5 hours earlier. I just shook my head and sat down behind them, silent. They snickered, but stopped pretty quick. I think they could tell how upset I was. They didn't apologize (they were still 13 after all), but they didn't bring it up again the whole bus ride home. Practical jokes are great if everybody is in on it. But there was one guy in the trio who didn't think it was funny. I got over it (and even went to the park again the next summer with my family and had a great time), but I never forgot about my game of solitaire inside the happiest place on earth. Now that I am older, I find a lot of parallels in my life to my time alone inside Disneyland. We were an Air Force family, so we moved nearly every 3 years. We went thousands of miles in the opposite direction with every new base Dad was assigned to. I travelled all over the world as a kid, saw some amazing things, but when we moved away, I had to leave all of it behind. I had to forget all my friends and make new ones. I can't call kids from my childhood and reminisce about all the things we did together because I have no idea where any of them are. When I was alone in Disneyland, I didn't realize it at the time but I was making memories for no one to share with but me. It's kind of sad to think about sometimes, but I wouldn't change it. Sometimes in life, we take for granted what we have and think that things will always be the way they are. Then something happens and turns that upside down, leaving you by yourself. If I have learned anything in my travels, it is that you must make memories with those around you as often as you can, because you never know when you will find yourself all alone in an amusement park with no one to ride the roller coaster with.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Winning!

The future...

Fire rained down on the city of Burbank as the alien warships continued to hammer the human race out of existence. Skyscrapers tumbled like houses made of cards as bombs fell. Huge Dropships deposited scaly shocktroops at an alarming rate, outnumbering the city's residents 10 to 1. The reptilian hordes swarmed over the Valley, indiscriminately slaughtering and eating any and all of the poor human beings that were foolish enough to get in their way. It had been 3 days since the ships appeared in countless locations around the world, with no word as to what they wanted or why they were here. All the confused people of earth knew was that the aliens were here to stay. And they were winning.

The irony of seeing of a real alien invasion over the skies of a city known for producing countless imitations was not lost on Carlos. Irony was something he was used to. It had been 10 years since he had disappeared. Friends, family, total strangers were all convinced he must be dead. After the tweets, the rants, the interviews on all the networks, the public lost interest. The show he used to be a part of continued without him. The ratings barely hiccuped as it went on for another half decade, while the instigator of all the chaos drifted out of favor, becoming a sad, half-remembered punchline. With his revenue stream cut off and his erratic behavior no longer charming in the court of public opinion, Carlos lost the favor of the goddesses and the yes-men and found himself alone and lost on the streets of broken dreams. Tiger blood and adonis DNA lost their mystique just like all the other fad catchphrases of the pop culture past. Uninsurable, unintelligible, and unwanted, celebrity Charlie Sheen became regular citizen Carlos Estevez and, like everyone else in the real world, became invisible. It had been a decade since anyone had seen or heard from him. But from his cardboard bunker near the 3rd Street Promanade in Santa Monica, Carlos watched the alien warships being to vaporize the Pacific Ocean. It was then and there he knew he had to do something. And for all those who doubted him in the past, he was going to show the entire world how wrong they had been about him. This was his time. Redemption. Vindication. Hollywood loves a comeback, and it was about to get the biggest one of all.

Carlos stepped out of his cardboard box and stood alone on the beach. All the freaks and tourists that used to populate the beaches of L.A. were long gone, eaten or disintegrated by the aliens. But none of that mattered now. Carlos knew what he had to do. His entire life had been building to this moment. He looked much older than 55, all haggard and worn, with missing teeth and a bad combover, the result of a lifetime of living in overtime. But today there was a spark in his eyes, a spark not seen since the days of Lucas. Or maybe Hot Shots: Part Deux. He was pretty good in that one, too. Whichever role it was, Carlos felt like a young overprivileged superstar again. He gazed out across the water at the giant alien warship sucking the planet dry. Something on board the mile-long deathship must have spotted the lone human standing on the shore because all its gun batteries suddenly pointed themselves right at him. Carlos smiled. "That's battle-tested bayonets, bro," he said to himself. "Let's see how you assholes stand up against my Vatican Assassin Warlock fire-breathing fists!" Carlos clinched his fists tight, pointing them at the alien warship. He was no longer Carlos Estevez. He was Charlie Fucking Sheen. He was special and was tired of the world not seeing it. It was time to teach these alien motherfuckers a lesson.

The aliens opened fire. And because Charlie Sheen was bi-polar and not bi-winning, his superpowers were all in his head, so he was snuffed out like a candle, blowing out in a tiny puff of smoke. The aliens resumed their conquest of the earth and eventually wound up enslaving humanity. All except John Stamos, who escaped to Mars with a group of rock stars in a stolen alien spaceship.

Again, irony.




Saturday, February 26, 2011

Morty & Jesus


Way back in the spring of 2008, George W. Bush sent me $600. It was part of his "stimulus" that was designed to get the economy working again. Last time I checked, it didn't work, but that's beside the point. I was still happy to take his money and I decided that the best way to spend it was to make a short film. I had written a script for a short about a year prior called "Morty & Jesus" and, after dusting it off, I figured $600 would just about cover it. So, I borrowed a camera, bought some props, hired a cameraman (the very talented Chris Hilleke), rented a space, and shot it. The premise of the film is Jesus comes back to earth and decides to mount a comeback. He enlists the help of super agent Morty Goldberg and together they try to figure out how to get Jesus' name back out there. Now, most people who know me know that I am not m uch for religion. In fact, I think religion is one of the most destructive things we as human beings have ever come up with. That's not to say I dismiss spirituality, but religion as an organization has, in my opinion, done more harm than good over the centuries. It's just another way to divide people up into groups and choose sides, which is kind of the opposite of what all the major religions (supposedly) preach. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, the message he presents is actually quite simple: just be cool. That's it. You be nice to me, I'll be nice to you. Simple, direct, uncomplicated. You can find that sentiment in pretty much any other belief system, but we still kill each other over which set of "gods" we're supposed to take that advice from, when in reality we should just follow the advice. Good advice is good advice, it shouldn't matter which religion it comes from. "Morty & Jesus" is my attempt to articulate some of those feelings I have about religion, along with a skewering of the Hollywood system, which is as almost as frustrating and confounding as religion. I entered the film back in the 2008 Sidewalk Film Festival, but this is the first time it has appeared online. Just click the link below to check it out. I welcome comments and criticism alike, so enjoy!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Who You For?

Way back in 1987, my family moved to Alabama. Being an Air Force brat, moving to a new state and enrolling a new school was nothing new. Every time my dad got a new assignment, our entire family uprooted and moved thousands of miles to a strange land, where I quickly had to adapt and learn the customs of the locals. On my first day of school at Stanhope Elmore High in Millbrook, Alabama, I found myself sitting alone at lunch in the cafeteria. It was a rainy and cold January and I was a lowly freshman, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and unsure of my place in the tiny school. I had just moved from California, so in my mind this small town school was about as backwards as you could get. As I sat there eating my lunch in solitude, a stranger walked up to me and said, "Hey, kid, you new here?" I nodded. He replied, "Who you for?" I had no idea what he was talking about, so I responded, "For what? What are you talking about?" The kid looked at me like I was a moron. "Auburn or Alabama," he said in a defiant tone, as if I knew what that meant. "I don't know," was all I could say. I had no idea what he was talking about. He scoffed at me and said, "Well, you better pick one." Then he walked away.

This was my introduction to the rivalry that is Auburn vs. Alabama. I learned very fast that pretty much everything in this state revolves around the eternal competition between these two schools. And I do mean everything. It baffles me to no end that marriages have crumbled, friendships have been destroyed, and self-worth has been determined by which of these two schools one roots for. Not only that, but I have found that the most vocal and vitriolic of fans are usual ones that have never even gone to college! But, it's part of the culture here and so, in my attempt to fit in (as I have tried to do in every place I've lived), I decided to root for Auburn. Why? Because I liked their colors better. Arbitrary? Sure. But then again, what about this rivalry isn't arbitrary? I don't even like football all that much, so it made little difference to me who won the Iron Bowl every year. I never lived in one place long enough to develop an affinity for any team, college or pro. So it always seemed odd that people in Alabama get so riled up about this sort of thing. But, that's what they do, so who am I to judge? I'm just a transfer student so to speak. I get a lot of laughs watching the super-fans on both sides spend time, effort, and energy trying to tear down the other side in the name of "sportsmanship" and "bragging rights." If people need something to belong to, who am I to judge?

Well, all that changed today when I read about "Al from Dadeville" who claimed on some radio call-in sports show that he had intentionally poisoned a couple of 130 year-old oak trees in Toomer's Corner, Auburn. I guess he was upset that Auburn won the national championship or some such nonsense, so he went out of his way to kill two perfectly harmless trees next to a drug store in a town he doesn't even live in. Sigh. Over the many years I've lived in Alabama, I've come to consider it my home. It's where my parents retired and bought a house. It's where I graduated high school. It's where I met my wife, and a host of friends I still have to this day. And I've tolerated the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama, mostly because it seemed like harmless fun that a bunch of locals used to identify themselves with. But this is the most ridiculous and absurd thing I have ever heard. Honestly. Some idiot in Dadeville hates Auburn so much he decided to kill a couple of trees? I doubt this asshat has ever set foot on a college campus (well, except for the one time he murdered those oaks in Toomer's Corner).

So if I could go back in time to that rainy day in 1987 and answer that kid who asked me, "Who you for?" my response would be, "The trees. Now fuck off. I'm trying to eat my lunch."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Write Now

Okay, where was I? Yeah, I don't remember either. I started this blog way back in 2005 when I was living in L.A., but I never could figure out what to write about, so I sort of lost interest. But back then I think I missed the point of keeping a blog. It's not about what you write, it's about actually writing, especially for someone like me who identifies himself as a writer. Or, at least I did identify myself as one. Back in the day, I used to love to write. In college I would stay up for hours writing sketches, scripts, plays, random gibberish, anything that entered my mind. I lorded over the blank page like a god, controlling the entire universe. Characters lived and died or loved and cried, depending on my mood at the time. I could create worlds and destroy civilizations with a few simple keystrokes. I could tell jokes, release my frustrations, or just go wild. But somewhere along the way, writing became a chore. It stopped being fun and became a task. I came to dread sitting at the computer, staring at the white negative space, beating my head against the wall as I tried to fill it in. I think it started when I was writing a script many years called "Random Order." It was my first attempt at writing a screenplay that I had the intention of making myself. I started writing it in the summer of 1998, with the hope of scrounging a few bucks together and shooting it with my friends. But along the way the script started getting attention from a few industry folks and suddenly my little project became (in my naive, inexperienced mind) an IMPORTANT PROJECT. I spent the better part of the next 6 years writing, re-writing, re-re-writing, changing, rearranging, adding, subtracting, and dividing my little movie script into something else. I spent nearly every waking moment of my life thinking about that script, and any free time I had was spent in front of a computer trying to coalesce the elements of my story into something I thought would attract Hollywood money and make me a SERIOUS FILMMAKER. And every time I printed a new draft off my printer, just as I thought I had finally cracked it, somebody else would come along and say, "Hey, we love your script, and we think we can find the money for you to make it! All you have to do is change this, this, that, and this one thing over here!" So off I would go, back to the computer and yet another draft. I had optioned it to 2 different producers at different times, each one claiming they could get it made. And all the while, I kept re-writing and re-writing. I stopped writing anything else, my narrow focus limited to seeing "Random Order" to the finish line. And when the last option ran out, I was no closer to seeing it get made than when I started. I must have written 15 drafts of that damn script over those 6 years. Some I was proud of, some I can't bear to read. Some make me physically sick to think about. All those late nights in isolation pounding at the keys taught me how (and how not) to write a screenplay. And they also taught me to hate writing. It was a hard, hard lesson to learn, one that I am still trying to come to terms with. Somewhere in that painful process, I stopped writing for me and started writing for other people. I spent all my time trying to make other people happy with my words instead of making me happy with them. So when the last option on my script expired in 2006, I sat down for one last draft. I tossed out everything I hated about the previous ones and, forgetting about budgets and other practical considerations, I wrote the script for the movie I wanted to see. I stripped away all the excess and distilled it down to the simple story I set out to tell in the summer of '98. And when it was done, I locked it in a drawer and haven't looked at it since. Ever since then, I have tried to recapture that spark I lost along the way, that spark that excited me about writing. I know it's still there somewhere, just waiting for me to fan the flames. I've written a few things here and there since then, but that passion I once had for writing has dimmed. It makes me sad sometimes, but maybe that happens to all writers. Over the years I have had dozens of other ideas for film scripts, some with enormous scope and Avatar-like budgets, others that I could shoot with a camcorder a 2 people in a single room. But every time I sit down to start writing them, I get flashbacks of what happened with "Random Order" and I freeze up. I get nervous that what happened before will happen again.

So flash-forward to the present day. I'm no longer living in L.A. I still love movies, but with a healthy dose of perspective. My experiences in the industry are too varied and insane to cover in this post, but suffice it to say my time in the film business taught me to treat it all with a liberal dose of skepticism. There is no rhyme or reason to why films get made and why they don't. It's all, if you'll pardon the expression, just random order. And I'm cool with that. And despite it all, I still want to make movies. I know a lot more about how to make them than I did back in 1998. A hell of a lot more. Making movies has been a dream of mine since I was 5 years old. It's all I know how to do, really. Every job I have ever had has in some way been preparing me for it. So I'm going to give it another shot. I'm even writing a screenplay again. It's been hard to ignore the pains of the past, but I'm working through it with each page. It's just something I have to do. Some people have to paint, some have to make music, and some have to become doctors. I have to make movies. I have to. It's just who I am. But I'm also a writer. And to ensure I don't start hating writing again, I'm re-opening this blog. This is where I'm going to come when the act of writing a screenplay starts to get to me. I'll use this space to write about anything and everything else. My likes, dislikes, opinions, interests, annoyances, and the like. I need an outlet to write for me again. Sure, the movie is for me, but I don't want to only write a screenplay. This is where all my other writing can go. I feel like the only way to reclaim my lost love of writing is to just write more. And often. There's no set topics, no rhyme or reason to what I might put here. It's just a place to put it.