Thursday, February 01, 2007

Threading the Needle

"Making a movie is like threading a needle" said Charlie, on one of those nights we were stuck at the office long past Hollywood quitting-time. I was sitting in my usual perch on his brown leather couch. I always said it looked like it belonged in the office of a 1940's private eye, not that of a Hollywood studio executive. But nothing about Charlie was terribly Hollywood anyway, from the rumpled Banana Republic khakis he wore to his leased Honda CR-V that sat parked under a $100,000 painting eleven floors beneath us in perhaps the snottiest parking garage in Beverly Hills. And that was the way he liked it.

The $125 million epic we'd been working on for the last year had fallen apart in the course of four phone calls. The first from the studio to the director saying if he wanted that big a budget, he'd have to cut to a PG-13 rating, the second from the director to his sickeningly powerful agent saying he'd do no such thing, and a third from the agent to the studio informing them that they'd just lost their director AND their star, who would no longer be appearing in this film with anyone else behind the camera. The fourth call took place when the studio called both the agent and the Academy-Award winning director's semi-bluff and said good luck to you both, but we're moving ahead with a lower-cost director and star. A year of buildup, $12 million already spent in pre-production, and the thread missed the needle's hole by millimeters. Charlie and I were back to square one. New thread, new needle, and not a whole lot of time to work with. That director was suddenly unemployed, and needed a new project, and fast.

We found him one within eight weeks and had a cast in eleven. Cameras rolled less than six months later, and I was booking my flight to New York for the premiere less than a year after the script had landed on Charlie's desk.

The great irony here? Both films commercially bombed and the low-cost version of our former $125 million epic ended up three weeks over schedule and $28 million over budget bringing the final cost to... $108 million.

Most things I've attempted in my life have been just like that-- threading a needle.

The first thing I ever wanted to be in my life was an actress. My entire family, of course, hated that idea but I was bound to prove them wrong. I auditioned for every school and church play I could, and ended up with the leads in most of them. When my mom would break it to me in a soft voice that I couldn't do the play because she couldn't drive me to and from rehearsals because she was working, I'd figure out a route home on the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus line. When my dad sat me down and said that he couldn't afford to send me to the local theatre camp I was dying to attend, I saved up my money all year and presented him the $400 or so I had managed to accrue in an enormous roll of tens, fives, and singles with the line "if I can come up with half, well so can you." And I spent that summer, the summer I turned 13, carpooling downtown to the L.A. Theatre Center with this bitch I totally hated just so I could get a ride there and back from her stay-at-home Holmby Hills mom, who drove a gold Mercedes and lived off of alimony.

I was a determined little kid. And even more so in high school. I pushed the acting thing as far as I could go with it. Mom and Dad had put the kibosh on my attending any sort of conservatory/B.F.A. acting program for college. Whatever they'd end up (partially) shelling out for would be "a real school." Which meant theatre programs like NYU, Carnegie-Mellon, and the North Carolina School of the Arts were out. But it didn't stop me from driving myself down to the L.A. Airport Ramada and auditioning for those schools anyway. I didn't get into all of them, but at least I had an acceptance letter or two to prove to myself and to my family that I was good enough to at least get in. And when it came time to choose a "real school" I chose a very, VERY academically "real" place that just happened to have one of the best theatre schools in the country built right in. I threaded that needle perfectly.

I chose difficult schools, difficult majors, difficult interests, and eventually, an incredibly longshot career. After discovering that I wasn't cut out for an actor's life a full two years after declaring my theatre major, I made a quick turn-about and set my sights firmly on producing films. Was it having some disctance from L.A. that made me realize that the answers were in my own backyard all the time? Perhaps. I spent my last semester at school cold-calling studios and production companies about internships and finally talked the right person's ear off at the right time. Diploma in hand, I finished driving the 2,200 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles on a Friday and started my new studio-lot internship that Monday. Three months later, I met Charlie and we worked together, 12 hours a day every day for five of the next seven years I'd spend in the industry.

Then I re-discovered this little game called poker. Talk about another needle to thread! But the game was in my blood. My Nana had taught me to play on a July night in 1987 in her New Jersey trailer park. Swatting away mosquitoes and sweating in the heavy summer air, I watched her destroy a seven card stud game on a picnic table outside Donut Mary's doublewide. Nana called her Donut Mary because not only did she work at the local Dunkin' Donuts, but she'd bring back a free dozen every night for all her "gals." Nana was a force of nature and a natural aggressor both in life and at the table-- a sharp contrast to my mother, her rather shy, demure daughter. Nana always told me I took after her, and she's probably right. She left this earth in 1996, but had she lived through the poker boom, I guarantee you, we'd be playing each other heads-up on Poker Stars and watching the WPT together on Wednesday nights.

Theatre, film, poker, now screenwriting. All endeavors with miniscule success rates. Man do I know how to pick'em. It's little wonder I've been under the care of three different psychologists over the last ten years. Little wonder that every time I see my father that the words, "Change... just RELAX" escape his lips. I've spent my life squinting so hard at the needle's eye that I couldn't see anything else going on around me.

I thought my last year had been about taking my eye off the needle. Racking my focus just enough so that I could see that there is life outside of Hollywood, of Los Angeles, of the stifling air-bubble of the Industry. And at times I was able to. I lived in a casino, I danced barefoot in a field in Tennessee, I smoked hash on the streets of Amsterdam and I took my first vacation since 2001. I started to look at some of the more expensive designer items in my closet and wondered why I had bought them in the first place. To "fit in" with people I didn't even really respect to begin with? Everything inside me shifted.

It was just about one year ago that Hollywood shoved me off the cliff and dared me to climb back up. And I don't think I realized until very recently just how much that fucked me up. That it just took an Uzi to my confidence. And that spilled over into my poker game too, I know it. I haven't felt the same at the table since. Until last year, I had threaded every needle I had attempted to thread, and with relative ease.

Conservative mathematical estimates tell me that over my film development career I read approximately 2,500 scripts and I honest to God head-over heels loved only about 20 of them. Ever. I'm talking like, over 7 years here. I was a tough cookie. And now I'm writing my own. Isn't that hilarious? Seeing as the 20 scripts I liked included masterpieces like American Beauty, Adaptation, and Little Miss Sunshine, I have a lot to live up to.

The next month or so is about finishing the goddamn thing. Seeing if I can live up to my own increasingly difficult expectations once again and letting go of them long enough so that I can let the rest of the story flow out of me and onto the page.

The needle I'm threading now is the smallest one yet. It makes me think of that line from Apollo 13 when Walter Cronkite has that scientist on the news who tells him that if the earth is a basketball and the moon is a baseball and if they're placed 14 feet apart the spaceship has to hit a target no wider than a sheet of paper. That's where I'm at. With writing. With poker. With my career and financial future.

Instead of bouncing off the earth's atmosphere into a ball of flames, those guys did get home. And 24 years after the fact, the film made about them had a Hollywood ending.

I don't have a lot of time left to find mine. But my fingers are crossed.


vandy said...

Spectacular writing. I am always impressed with the quality of the writing when you or Wil or Pauly or Joe Speaker struggle with the "meaning" of it all.

Thanks for sharing and good luck with finishing your screenplay.

Unknown said...

You have all the time in the world, Change. I loved the post as usual.

Do this for me. Just start writing one night when you aren't thinking too much about it. Maybe you need to get high to do that. Maybe you need to have a night with Pauly. Listen to Pink Floyd? Play an SnG?
Then watch a great movie or read something that really inspires you.
Then WRITE. Do NOT edit yourself or tell yourself how stupid it is. Believe me, it's hard to do, but just starting writing and writing and writing. Don't stop for many hours.
You can edit later.
You'll be done in no time. Or at least you'll have some good stuff to shape.
Writing is the fun part. Editing is when it sucks. Don't melt the two together. That's partly why I love blogging - I rarely get beyond the writing (and it shows, but its MY blog dammit).

Good luck.

Otis said...

Two things...

That post kicked me in the nuts.

Make it happen, cap'n.

Gnome said...

Stick with it! It sounds like you're close.

kátharsis said...

truely said by pokerpeaker..just you have to be YOU to produce the greatest of luck ..

kátharsis said...

Also there has to be somebody geneuin around/beside you to support you.


Jennifer said...

Inspiring post... Thanks for being so honest about your life and the challenges that you've faced. Good luck with everything you strive for... :)

change100 said...

Vivek, I'm very lucky to have just that.

pokertart said...

I love your writing - I'm sure your screenplay will be fantastic.

Golden said...

You were spot on with that post. The best writing I've read in some time.


Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Change, I've always said this but you are without a doubt one of the finest writers in our little group and always have been. You'll make it in this endeavor, I am sure of it.

Loved your post, as always.

iamhoff said...

Change, echoing the other comments, particularly Vandy and Hoy. It is always a treat to experience the quality writing that good writers (i.e. Speaker, Pauly, you, Wil) put out in those deep, introspective moments. You are a phenomenal author, and it does sound like you are close. When the inspiration hits, drop everything and write. When it leaves you (if it ever really does), then you take your break and recharge by waxing Pauly's ass at Chinese Poker. We are all eagerly awaiting another Snakes event to be pimped in every possible media outlet. Bring it!

Iakaris aka I.A.K. said...

I don't know if I've read a bio post from you before Change. Fascinating and, as usual, compelling stuff.

Thinking good thoughts for you, and damn curious about the soon-to-be-finished product.

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