Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Card in My Wallet

I've wanted to make movies since I was 5 years old.  My parents taking me to see Star Wars in the summer of 1977 saw to that.  At the time I had no idea what exactly that meant, but the combination of light and magic I saw projected on that movie screen in Asheville, North Carolina 37 years ago flipped a switch in my brain and I've never been the same since.  Pretty much every decision I've made up to now has in one way or another been influenced by that event.  Said outloud, it sounds absurd that a movie with a giant walking carpet and a bad guy with asthma could influence someone so profoundly, but it happened.  Of course, it wasn't until college when I really began to understand how the business of movies worked.  They didn't just conjure themselves out of thin air and arrive at the movie theater (or video store) by magic.  All those names in the closing credits aren't there for nothing.  Making movies takes people, and usually a lot of them.  When I finally had the opportunity to work on a real film set, I learned very quickly that even the smallest of films have a million moving parts, and if any one of them is out of whack, the entire thing can collapse.  No one sets out to make a bad film, but it's really easy to do if you're not careful.  But, despite the fragile nature of the pursuit, and the scarcity of economic resources required to undertake such a voyage, somewhere in the Summer of 1996 I committed to paper a vow that I would be undaunted by the challenges that lie ahead and that I would someday realize my childhood dream and make an honest-to-George motion picture.  In color, no less.  I was inspired by a TV profile of Jim Carrey, who at the time was the highest paid actor in show biz.  Years before he became the biggest star on the planet, when he had first moved to Hollywood to realize his dreams, he climbed to the top of Griffith Park and looked out over the city, vowing to himself that he would make it.  He took out a piece of paper and wrote himself a check for one million dollars "for acting services rendered."  He then slipped the check into his wallet, promising himself one day that he would cash that check.  And of course, we all know how that turned out.  So, in the spirit of Mr. Carrey's positive thinking, I wrote out a promise to myself.  Nothing as lofty as a million bucks, but a vow nonetheless that I would actually do it.  At the time, I was working at Eastdale Mall in Montgomery at the 8-screen Carmike Cinema next to the Sears.  By the time I left I had become a projectionist there, but my initial job was standing in the lobby and announcing from the intercom what movies were seating.  Because I stood next to the velvet ropes that blocked the lobby from the hallway, the position was called "The Ropes."  Eastdale 8 was the first theater in town with a THX certified sound system.  It was, at the time, the crown jewel of the Carmike theaters in Montgomery.  What better place, I thought, to premiere my own movie?  So, in the early morning hours of June (I've always been a night owl), I put pen to paper and wrote out the following on an index card:
Sunday, June 30, 1996
3:35 AM

I, Mike Cunliffe, will in 5 years, return to Eastdale 8 Cinemas, and announce from the ropes to a crowd of friends and family that my movie is now seating.  Thank you and enjoy the show.

Then I signed it, folded it up, and put it in my wallet.  Now keep in mind, I had not even written a script yet.  I didn't even have a story.  I certainly didn't know I was going to pay for it.  And up to this point, the only real experience I had in the film business was cleaning up the theater after Braveheart let out.  So giving myself only 5 years to make good on the promise might have been a bit ambitious.  And once I realized (very quickly) that it was going to take a bit longer that that, I just left the index card in my wallet.  I had to shore it up with scotch tape over the years, and retrace the faded lettering to make it legible, but it has survived numerous washings, wallets, and whatever else I could throw at it.  It's like a good luck charm, a motivator, and a reminder all at once.  I sometimes forget it is there, but I'll catch sight of it when I'm buying groceries and all the reasons why I want to make movies come rushing back, even if only for a microsecond.  And a week ago, after more adventures that I can recount here, I got to finally make good on the deal.  Okay, so the movie theater I used to work at doesn't exist anymore, and it took 17 years instead of 5, but I finally got to show a crowd of family and friends that the silly 5-year old who fell in love with movies in a galaxy far, far away could make one of his own.  And in color no less.  I can't put into words what it was like to be in that theater that night.  I'll never forget it as long as I live.  It made everything worth it.  Everything.  And I am overwhelmed with gratitude.  To so many.  For so many reasons.  But mostly, I am proud. Of the film, for sure, but also, I'm proud of myself for seeing it through.  For not giving up.  For not letting the fear and the doubt and the calendar discourage me.  It's been the hardest thing I've ever done.  And I wanted to stop a thousand times.  But I didn't.  Because I wrote to myself and said I wouldn't.  It took me longer than I thought it would, but if I've learned anything on this crazy adventure it's that dreams don't have a time limit.  They really can and do come true.