We’re in the not-too-distant future, and it looks familiar

I can picture where I was the first time I saw Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was in the little dining area of a house my family rented when we moved to California just before my 13th birthday. We only lived in that house for a year, and the peculiar sight of an old movie with little silhouettes in the corner pointing and laughing wrote a memory that has outlasted most of my other impressions of that place. I even remember the episode: the cringe-tastic White Saviors vs. The Ooga Booga adventure Jungle Goddess.

Once I got past that the show was just plain funny, elements of it started to emerge that were even more important than the laughs. I grew up in Ohio, and didn’t feel like a Californian. Even now, decades later, I still feel only half Californian. The Midwest is strong with this one. And MST3K was that rare animal, a creative work that was overtly Midwestern.

The performers never felt desperate for our attention. There was something more hospitable and humble about it; almost like it was apologizing for intruding sometimes. But it never took a back seat in its ability to entertain. Their rubber and styrofoam aesthetic and relaxed presentation concealed an all-inclusive and absolutely merciless facility for jest and mockery. That style was, again, familiar, ringing similar to those evenings with my family listening to A Prairie Home Companion. You might never have experienced it, but no one can match Garrison Keillor for the ability to smile gently while sticking in a culturally-self-critiquing shiv.

It was ingenious. The jokes and references didn’t just reward trivia-loaded nerds, they defiantly celebrated the virtues of cultural enrichment, and proclaimed that such things didn’t belong exclusively to the biggest cities. Anyone with a library and some curiosity could digest awesome literature, music, and history, and have instant rapport with people on the other side of a country or planet based only on that. More specifically to its era, it frequently reflected creator Joel Hodgson’s preoccupations with the mainstream Baby Boomer storytelling diet of Leave it to Beaver, and the way that the counter-culture systematically dismantled it with one brilliant assault after another.

If you watch any clips from his brief but astonishing stand-up comedy career, you see a precocious intellect short-circuiting from the attempt to process the milquetoast mush his elders fed him. In one bit, he unveils a pair of ventriloquist dummies he has fused together while singing the theme song to The Patty Duke Show: “They’re cousins…identical cousins, connected at the spine!” It’s no surprise that many of the show’s finest moments in his era occurred when his team got to aim flaming arrows at the ethos of Square America. In the short “A Date With Your Family”, watch at the 0:24 mark where the son opens the oven and Joel plaintively asks on his behalf: “Sylvia?” If you got how they managed to not only managed to land a pitch-dark and brilliant satirical bullseye against the homogonized content on screen, but also did it with a single word, you’re the type who could well feel, as a teenager with a lot of facts but not a lot of friends, that a TV show like this was sending you Christmas presents every week.

Once I attended a party full of professional puppeteers (don’t ask). Many of them were clearly very socially-shy; most preferring not even to make eye contact with you. And yet, if two of them had puppets on their hands; they would reach out to one another, seemingly of their own accord, and start interacting; using hands to sculpt a social exchange they didn’t feel up to committing their whole body to.

Joel has remarked on how rarely he interacted directly with other performers on the show when they were in human form. He seemed so little like a performer himself; he was simply Joel being Joel, all oddities intact. In an age where awareness of mental health issues is growing and taking on some necessary urgency at last, you can look back with new poignancy on the infamous “Joey the Lemur” sketch, which seems less like a sculpted comedy bit and more like a manic event that the cameras just happened to capture. Crow and Servo seem to lose the thread of how to even participate, and it becomes blatantly uncomfortable. But if you’ve ever had a friend who struggled with their equilibrium and needed to just ride out a peak with them, it might look familiar.

That word keeps coming up…friend. The theme song’s lyrics changed several times as the show changed hosts, and channels, but that key phrase: “his robot friends…” never changed. For a person as admittedly shy as Joel is – if you read between the historical lines as many hardcore fans do, you certainly get the impression that he quit the franchise rather than face a big argument with a key collaborator – the idea of building an entire TV show and family of robot puppets so he could have friends to share these peculiar movies with makes genuine sense. It’s the kind of radical-compensation-in-other-senses currently featured (albeit with a lot more punching) in Marvel’s Daredevil.

Friendship, and its virtue as your best weapon against madness, conformity, and mediocrity, is one of the pillars of MST3K. Another pillar is its pro-intellectualism, its unashamed celebration of being well-read and mentally limber enough to make non-intuitive connections in matching a reference to a prompt.

The final, crucial pillar occurred to me watching the revived Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix; where the sets are bigger, but not too much bigger; and the visual effects are better, but not too much better. A new crew has taken over, and their zest for the never-ending mission of the Satellite of Love is clear from the start. It feels like a true best of both worlds; reviving some of Joel’s idiosyncratic rituals like the Invention Exchange and playing towards his laid-back tone, while applying the experience and polish of the Mike Nelson era. They’re connected at the spine. Even if you’re a Joel homer like myself, you have to admit that many of the show’s all-time classics happened in the Nelson years; if nothing else, because the Best Brains crew had become very, consistently good at making their show.

I am only in the middle of the third episode, The Time Travellers, but already feel as if the promise the whole experiment has been fulfilled by Episode 2, Cry Wilderness. I’m quite prepared to call this crackpot Bigfoot adventure an instant classic for the series; if nothing else, because the sight of Crow and Servo cackling while making merry mischief in raccoon costumes has taken up immediate residence in the part of my brain where memories live that make me giggle helplessly at random moments.

It got me thinking about how the show’s “quality” could be a moving target. Their best episodes weren’t necessarily dependent on the relative goodness or badness of the film; more in what it was able to inspire in them. There’s a generation of would-be movie yucksters who seem to have missed the whole point of what MST created. There’s no value in just dismissing something, or calling it the worst thing ever. A lot of Internet commenters trying to win esteem trap themselves in a negative hyperbole cycle; hoping in vain to impress with their growing willingness to completely trash works that other people love and admire.

Over on the SoL, though, one of the constants is that, wherever the movie is on the spectrum that runs from Just Kinda Weird to Deep Hurting, the subjects of the experiments don’t ever bail out. They watch the movie from start to finish, and never even completely drown out the dialogue. They’ll let you follow the real plot even as they’re eviscerating it. There’s an inherent respect in that – people worked on these movies, even if they did it badly.

Think about it this way – on the worst dinner out with your friends, someone ends up in the hospital with food poisoning. On your worst vacation, you get bit by a snake and your luggage ends up in the ocean. But if you watch a bad movie, even “The Worst We Can Find”, well, with a creative mind and the company of good friends, even that can turn out to be a pretty good hang.

That’s what the revival of the show gets right, that’s what was most important to me to see preserved, and it’s why it feels so good to have the show back that I had to go blog like 1,600 words about it. It’s not just passive entertainment; it’s a stimulatingly good hang with clever people who mock movies because they think movies and the ability to watch them with others are ultimately things to be treasured.

The social organization of it feels a bit antiquated – you could have easy nightmares imagining a version of this show where anyone could hashtag a joke and have it trickle across the screen. But that would feel too competitive; everyone talking and no one listening. That’s not what MST3K does. It wants us in a conversation as urgently as it wants us to Keep Circulating the Tapes URL.

It’s quietly radical of them to stick with that; to make a 90-minute show for a clickbait world. The show even acknowledges a changed world here and there. “What’s a radio?” one of the bots asks. Struggling to answer, new host Jonah settles on “It’s like a podcast you can’t control”. Culture comes on-demand in fast, tiny chunks now, but Quality Time takes time to create, and MST is back, bringing that kind of brain-rewarding, movie-loving, friendship-building Quality Time back into my life. It reminds me of the fellowship I have with anyone who would love giant monsters enough to create and perform an elaborate and damnably catchy rap number about giant monsters. With visual aids.

Fest-o-Rama

Recent weeks have been a sustained series of thrills in the world of “The Retriever”. Just over a month ago I was well over a mile high in Colorado at the Durango Independent Film Festival, just weeks later were screening in our own backyard at the North Hollywood Cinefest, where Barney was deservedly nominated for Best Actor in a Short, and this past weekend our SFX makeup artist Nikki Nina Nguyen and I road tripped out to the Phoenix Film Festival.

Each of this trio of fests was special for reasons that could each fill their own blog post. In Durango, my good friends Christine and Matt were in town with their own short film, “Killed in Action”, and we got to spend several days seeing beautiful sights and breathing mountain air in a community that seemed fully-invested in the festival. And at the end, my friends won the Festival’s Audience Award for Best Short Film – quite an achievement for a somber drama in a field of crowd-pleasing comedies and the like.

My lanyard collection is growing and I like it.

North Hollywood was personally special since the NoHo Arts District was the location of my first LA apartment. The Laemmle NoHo movie theater is a tireless champion of independent film and just walking distance away from where I used to live, so it felt like a genuine homecoming. Plus, their expert projection of a 4K DCP made it probably the highest-quality viewing of my film that I may ever enjoy.

Phoenix, on top of being the festival with the highest quality of programming of any I’ve attended, had a profound impact on me and my view of where I am at as a filmmaker. By all available evidence, “The Retriever” was the cheapest, smallest-crewed project there that wasn’t in the student category, and we were scheduled in a block that featured shorts with 5-figure budgets, and Oscar-nominated talents behind the camera. At our first Q&A I had to get over a genuine brain-blanking moment of “How did we get invited here?”

I think we had advantages in both our short length and our scrappy, comedic tone. In a block that featured many weighty projects, we served as an ideal midway palate cleanser. This is significant knowledge in the film festival world – if a programmer is considering your 20-minute short; they’re burdened by knowing that saying “yes” to you might mean saying “no” to 2-3 other shorts they really like (their head of shorts programming confided in me that she faced this exact dilemma), so if you’re going to occupy that much time, you had better hit a home run.

We have two more festival appearances to make this month, at Bare Bones in Oklahoma (where I won’t get to travel), and then a final appearance here in Southern California at Cinema at the Edge in Santa Monica. “The Retriever” has, on a nearly-identical budget, far surpassed “Samantha Gets Back Out There” in its success out there on the circuit; and the more my realistic expectations get shaped by experience, the more proud and impressed I am by what my team and I pulled off. Since my return from Durango I’ve been fired up to get the next short off the ground. I already have a draft, a project I’m calling “The Dinner Scene”; and some loose crewing up and planning have already begun. Each of these three festivals are on my “Definite Yes” list to submit to again, and I think I have a real opportunity to grow with this next one. Now to find the money…(think I’m going to be saying those words for the rest of my life…)

Bringing Cloudy to the Desert

Had a thoroughly-wonderful overnight excursion last week to the Borrego Springs Film Festival. Borrego Springs isn’t even a town, as far as the law is concerned, it is a “census-designated place”, one of my favorite pieces of strangely-provocative bureaucrat-ese. The last time I was out there was way, way back in my days as a story development executive, working on a little picture called 29 Palms – the first Hollywood feature I ever worked on, and a darkly-hilarious lesson in just how much chaos can befall even a movie made by professionals.


One thing you don’t expect when making a little Tarantino-knockoff thriller in the desert is that your set will be washed away by a flash flood on the second day

One of the festival organizers actually remembered our movie – he both works with the Chamber of Commerce and liaises with the Park Service for when productions come into town to photograph their otherworldly desert. He told me a pretty terrific story that involved the late Marlon Brando and a golf cart.

I was there to represent the feature film Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, which I have an acting role in. The filmmakers were suddenly unable to attend, and so bequeathed their all-access passes to me; which included some of the bribes perks a truly filmmaker-friendly festival always throws in – such as gift certificates to local restaurants and a discounted hotel stay. While I’ve seen several screenings of Cloudy at this point, Borrego Springs managed to pack the house with a vocal, appreciative crowd that greatly enjoyed the old-fashioned romantic comedy, which made it easy to enjoy watching again. I also spent the rest of the festival having random people point at me and make pot-smoking jokes.


CAUTION: TRAILER CONTAINS FOOTAGE OF ME AS A STONED WEIRDO

I fully admit that I’m becoming a junkie for the festival world – I’ve attended a handful now both as a fan and a filmmaker; and they are becoming my favorite excuse to plan an expedition, not just for career reasons but to encounter new little communities and interact with enthused film lovers from everywhere. I usually leave having made at least one or two new friends whose festival itineraries I start to eagerly track for intersection with my own. It’s a community I’m excited to be a part of.

I also feel like I learn significantly more with each trip about what sort of festival I want to submit to. I actually submitted The Retriever to Borrego Springs and they passed on it; but seeing their audience – largely older retirees, I can see why my short wasn’t quite right for them. And that gets filed away as a little bit of boots-on-the-ground wisdom for my future projects.

If you want some comprehensive advice for how to select festivals worth your time, Cloudy producer/co-writer Rebecca Norris Resnick wrote a terrific column for ScriptMag.com about how to tell the good from the bad from the ugly.

I won’t give redundant versions of her advice; but I’ve noticed something worth setting down here. I have learned a little bit about a large number of creative endeavors, whether it’s making a film or producing an audiobook or publishing your own book. So often the same skillset proves handy – do your research, collate a crapton of data, set your standards and see what choices emerge from that work. I’ve been very fortunate to get into this world at the time that FilmFreeway.com has broken the effective monopoly on on-line film festival submissions that Withoutabox.com enjoyed for so long. The competition has made both services better and everyone benefits; especially filmmakers. It’s now a relatively straightforward process, if you invest the hours, to compile a substantive list of festivals that account for their longevity, what amount/type of material they program, and the cost/timetable for submitting to them. This substantially improves the success of your festival strategy.


Never undertake strategy without a big map and those big map push-y things

Now that I have attended some festivals, as well as worked behind the scenes vetting submissions to a large one, I have a better idea of the type of festival I’d like to get into; and what some best submission practices are. I’ll organize a few of those into a separate post soon enough, I think.

Independent Authors – You Are the New Prey

I had a new experience recently – someone cold-called my family’s house and left a message on the answering machine, claiming to be a publisher “very interested” in Seeing by Moonlight. The book is published already; but with independently-published books it is always possible to pull the plug and roll out a new version with a publisher’s backing. One must simply decide if the services they are offering are worth what you will sacrifice in royalties and control.

Needless to say, I am skeptical when they reach out by phone; especially when the voice seems to be reading the name of my book awkwardly into a script.

I looked up the company, and they present themselves as a one-stop shop for author services – editing, publishing, promotion, all of it, a la carte or as a package. Nothing about their site indicated any critical discernment; if your money’s good, they will happily take it and (probably) provide you with a book-like product posted on Amazon, Goodreads et al. You will also have the exciting option of paying for PR, paying for reviews, paying for all sorts of things. Will they be the best version of said things? Who can ever say? You only have the one book, so you won’t get to compare the results with anything.

As I said in my lengthy breakdown of the costs of publishing Stages of Sleep, if your primary goal is just for the book to exist, and you have enough money to consider this a hobby where covering your costs isn’t an overriding concern, then many leading services of this type could probably meet your needs.

If, however, you are trying to produce a professional-grade product while simultaneously being thrifty about your out-of-pocket costs; then the devil is really, really in the details.

Sites like this primarily work as middlemen. They book an author, then matchmake them with someone providing an essential service – e.g. an editor. They probably have a network of freelancers who work for a certain rate; and the “publisher” takes a healthy markup for putting the two of you together. Ditto artwork, publicity…none of these creatives are likely earning an in-house salary, they’re just taking assignments as they come in while they hustle for a living like the rest of us. You have no idea how much experience they have, how much attention they will be able to pay to your book given the size of the fee, or even whether they work within (or even much like) your genre, and you might not get much hand in choosing them. If you have hired such a service, the service assumes you don’t know the landscape so well.


You have no idea how often my head voices say this

As I said in that prior post, as an independent author you have to consider yourself the manager of a professional process far beyond writing – editing, design/layout, cover artwork, publicity/marketing, distribution. Through some combination of DIY and hiring, you have to see to the completion of these tasks. A legitimate “big” publisher can cover them all, and will assume a share of the risk by doing so with professional personnel without making you pay for it all up front. Needless to say, they do not extend such risk to just anyone.

A middleman servicer catering to independents places all the risk on you by having you pay out-of-pocket up-front. If you end up with a wildly-successful book, they get a giant chunk of it, and who is to say how much they actually helped? If it performs as the average independent book performs, they still have your money. So if it even needs saying as advice, don’t just read the blurbs on their site. Google. Google deep and Google hard.


“Hmmm…the reviewers seem a little unhappy with their experience…” (EPILEPTICS: DO NOT ACTIVATE .GIF)

Some of what they are offering isn’t difficult to at least comparison shop by one’s self. When I was looking for a copy editor, a single post on Craigslist produced well over 150 responses. I filtered it down to the dozen or so that sounded most approachable; this included eliminating some of those who had the most “big” publishing house experience, as I knew I would never be able to approach their quotes. I sent each of these candidates the same sample chapter; provided the overall word count of the book, and asked them to extrapolate from that an estimate for the hours required to edit the entire book, and a quote to match. Three candidates emerged who had exemplary scrutiny and mastery of grammar, and whom I could afford; and the final call was a gut one based on rapport and my comfort with their methods. And I was very happy with the editor I hired and have retained her services on all three of my books.

A “publisher” trafficking in author services might well have connected me with someone of equal quality; but then I would have had to pay them as well as the editor, PLUS give up some of my book sales. To the extent that editing polish positively impacts sales (and if I haven’t said it enough, professional editing is something you cannot do without if you want your book taken seriously), I achieved the same result with less money just by managing that aspect of the process myself.

Saying more along these lines would probably be redundant; the point is primarily to raise a warning flag that the marketplace is evolving in a new direction. Call them useful to amateurs or exploitative of same, but such companies are no longer just setting up websites and hoping some old-fashioned SEO will steer you to them. They are hunting. Someone is likely curating and selling the names of authors publishing independently; either by searching the Kindle store, or perhaps by buying a list from one of the services MF Thomas and I used in publishing our two collaborations. Competitors will start hunting too, in order to keep up; it’s just how marketplaces work.

Doing it by phone is a tell. A scripted telemarketer works by volume and on commission. So someone out there has written a script designed to coax independent authors into signing up with one of these “publishers”. I would be curious to read that script – but not curious enough to actually return their call and listen to it. If the publisher is primarily fishing for inexperienced authors, then you can intuit the business model: get the money from you upfront, and if you don’t like the quality, odds are it was the only book you were ever going to write anyway. (Was that brutal? Probably. So is being a writer.)

I remember back when I worked in script development at a feature film company. The VP that I worked under was very good at networking and sales conversations and loved movies, but wasn’t a patient reader. Literary agents got wise that when he started telling them how much he loved a script and wanted our company to be able to shop it exclusively to a couple of studios, he might not have even read it. Some would start quizzing him on details, and so he kept me by the phone so he could execute the bluff.

That might be one good thing to remember if someone claiming to be a “publisher” starts flattering you by phone. Find out if they have even read the thing, and be ready to disrupt the script by asking a few questions. If they are in sales mode, they don’t want to discuss numbers until they feel like they have softened you up enough, so go ahead and skip to the meat. Ask if you are expected to pay for services upfront. Ask what rights they are looking to acquire, and for how long. Ask what royalties they expect. Find out if they are taking any risk at all, or if you’re just another sales lead to them. If all the risk is on you, and it won’t harm them at all if your book only sells five copies, don’t be afraid to ask why you need them at all.


Hard enough to climb that ladder to success without someone who’s latched on but isn’t helping

Curiosity Shoppe

Little Nick going down the slide on the playground back at Springmyer Elementary School had no idea what a “personal brand” was. He was also a stranger to body hair. Quite an innocent, was little Nick going down the slide.

In phase 1.0 of my creative career, I overtly psyched myself out and focused exclusively on developing my muscles as a screenwriter. And it is still the creative outlet that has brought me the most money and my closest brushes with Hollywood glory. I didn’t really have the confidence that I could be a multi-hyphenate; better, I figured, to put all my push into one niche and burrow in there deep.

It sort of worked and sort of didn’t work quite well enough; and there’s a whole book one could write about the generational transformation in how screenwriters make a buck, how writers in general make money at all (“money” being a mythical object promised at the end of a long road called “Exposure”); and, most broadly, how creative individuals build their profile.

But I changed my approach – I think it was the right adaptation to make; because I am capable of doing multiple things, and have achieved enough with them to feel as if the world agrees with me. While I haven’t broken through to a level of success and income I’m satisfied with; the fact is I’m building a network, and a portfolio of work I’m proud of; and it’s happening because I’m operating in this unique and bizarre intersection between my particular skillsets.

They are, however, difficult to sum up; and that’s the enemy of that whole “personal brand” thing. I sign my e-mails “Writer/Actor/Filmmaker”; but there are a lot of subheadings to break out under those three titles when it comes to the work I chase. I joke that when people ask what I’m working on, I need to carry a little laminated card summarizing the four-five projects that are currently on the front burner. It’s not at all uncommon for me to be editing a new Earbud Theater episode, rehearsing a play, submitting a short film to festivals, and drafting a novel all while maintaining my position with Arts Orange County. That is, in fact, a pretty ordinary number of juggling balls.

This life asks a lot of you. I know it’s made it difficult to find personal balance, even to make time to be a fan of the media that I’m trying to create. And I think I haven’t been as good as I ought to be about self-promotion because at any given moment, creating is always more satisfying to me than trying for the thousandth time to understand the secret hieroglyphics of marketing. This is a tough savanna for an introvert to try catching a meal on.

But I have seen any number of people revitalizing the medium of blogging; and I blogged, no kidding, probably about a dozen books’ worth of text back in my LiveJournal heyday. If my prime difficulty is in reducing what I do to just a few words; then maybe the solution lies in the other direction – putting more words to it so you can draw your own picture.

I’ve been doing a lot of this on Facebook for my personal contacts; but once a Facebook post goes beyond two paragraphs I think I’m really stretching that format beyond its intended attention span. It breathes better here. So we’ll see if this catches on. There’s plenty to discuss, promote, announce.

Probably a good thing I have no time to blog

Where to start? Probably here:

Cloudy_Poster
Click for a closeup – my name’s in that credit block

This frames a journey. About two years ago I got the news that I had been cast in my first on-camera speaking role in a feature film. As you work out here you start to appreciate just how long the timetable usually is for making anything on a large-scale. Either you have all the resources in the world and it takes a long time because you’re using them, or you have nothing but determination and ingenuity and only a few hours a day to use them, and the need for everyone to wedge their bits of work around other things slows it down.

But the movie got shot, and finished. Last spring I got to see it on a big screen on the Warner Brothers lot at a cast/crew screening. The fact that my name is on the poster still gives me cognitive problems on the scale of a medium blow to the head, but even more shocking was seeing my name in the opening titles. The sequence is set in a coffeeshop, and all the names are rendered in actual hand-crafted menu signs. Somehow the idea that someone made a physical object with my name and put it on film swats me with awe.

And now the film has been booked for its first festival screening, at the very high-profile Manhattan Film Festival on Saturday, April 16th. The filmmakers will walk the red carpet, and, over there on that other coast, my face will be on a big screen in front of the public. I hope they laugh.

I made friends with one of the actresses from that movie, Jennifer Joliff, and she recently invited me to come shoot a little role in her web series, Sisters. The infrastructure required to roll up and shoot something these days is so small that inviting someone to do your web series is rather an equivalent commitment in L.A. to inviting someone to meet for coffee.

Life has been thrilling for awhile in terms of activity and accomplishment, not always lucrative enough but I haven’t been bored for a very long time. In a couple of weeks I’m headed to Santa Barbara to shoot two days on a feature film – a rock opera, of all things. I have two songs in the film and recorded my vocals for them in a studio right on the Sunset Strip, which I had to retroactively add to my Bucket List since even though I’d never thought to want to do it, it was too exciting a thing to not have there once I had done it, if that makes any sense.

We got Samantha Gets Back Out There into two festivals and won an award, and now my second short, The Retriever is in post-production and this filmmaking team is expanding and planning yet more ambitious fare. Tomorrow I’ll finish editing a 7-hour audiobook I narrated, by far my longest audio project ever, and, I think, a really entertaining work (it helps when it’s based on a good book. I’m also picking up more V.O. work, particularly in video games, which I would happily do every working day if enough people wanted to bring me in.

My new novel with MF Thomas is done, and as soon as the final version of the cover art is finished (just a matter of days) we’ll set a release date and start promoting it. After a few years away from the chase I’ve started submitting short stories to literary magazines again – I’ve got a batch of post-Stages of Sleep work I’m very proud of and am eager to measure myself out in that world, so to speak. I wrote an animation project that I can’t publicly identify yet but which is way cooler than anything I ever thought I’d get to be involved with; and I just picked up a freelance job outlining a proposal for a film adaptation of a book series. That’s really satisfying work because it really unifies a lot of my skills dating all the way back to my story development days. I’m also working on the script for a big live stunt show for an amusement company, which has been an incredible education, since you really have to work to wedge dramatic storytelling into a precious few minutes between action beats. I’ll be that much readier to write superhero movies if the producers of such movies ever hear my name.

Earbud Theater is enjoying the brightest spotlight that’s ever shined on it, thanks to friendly coverage from Nerdist and Blumhouse. We have a lot of new fans who have eagerly nommed our whole catalog of podplays and seem to like what they’re hearing. Of course, our next episode is our live show script that I wrote, Boney McGee, which is tonally pretty far afield from our most recent piece. I don’t ever intend to give whiplash to our listeners’ expectations, but I can’t seem to help myself.

My best friend, Adam Stovall, is about to go into production on his first feature film, A Ghost Waits, and I’ve been helping out as a co-producer. “Co-Producer” wasn’t on my list of dream jobs when I got to town, but I feel a thorough satisfaction working in this kernel of people I really love and respect, and figuring out how we can all lift each other up. In this case, I just happened to have a few assets and abilities that would help the movie exist if I applied them, and that just about defines “Co-Producer”.

He invited me to come out to Kentucky for production, but the truth is I’m planning to take the airline miles I would use and apply them towards a vacation. Taking time away from work to go work on the set of a movie is exactly the mindset that always prevents me from taking vacations. That and the crushing lack of money.

The only thing that makes this all really tiring is that I can feel tied to a large number of deadlines for various unrelated parties. Trying to get everything I invest creative energy in to drop at the right time is like having to hit triple bank shots with each of my limbs and my teeth all at once. It helps me appreciate what William Goldman said about how he never stopped writing novels no matter how lucrative or distracting Hollywood got, because if you don’t have something going that belongs only to you, you’ll go mad. Good thing I’ve got one of those about 20-25% finished right now!

What’s crazy is that this doesn’t even capture every thing I’m doing, but it’s more than enough, isn’t it? Makes me want to lie down.

MOVIE REVIEW – Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Director
: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Kathleen Kennedy
Stars: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie

(ATTEMPTING TO BE SPOILER-LITE IN THIS REVIEW; BUT USE CAUTION)

Destiny is a mysterious power. How can one child given access to everything that is good and light turn out twisted and dark? How can another bred for nothing but hate and destruction suddenly choose the noble side of selflessness? And can someone with vast potential set adrift in a mean world with no guidance find their way to the greatness they dreamed of but never believed could be real? In every case, for reasons that beguile and excite and haunt us, inside of each of them, something awakens.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is a movie about parents and offspring, both literal and spiritual. That makes it uncannily right for the audiences gathering in record numbers to see it. Many are parents who were once children begging their own parents to take them to the movies. We are all the offspring of a culture changed with planet-shaking power by George Lucas’s original film, once known only as Star Wars and now retrofitted with saga-appropriate numbering and punctuation to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. And we have waited for over thirty years to find out what became of the heroes and villains who thrilled and inspired us from a galaxy far, far away.

And here they are – Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo – weathered now, old enough to have accumulated many regrets and losses. They are comfortably knowing about the world of fast-paced peril they inhabit – when faced with yet another race-against-time underdog mission with impossible odds against a terrifying super-weapon, their familiarity with how this sort of thing goes plays as morbid comedy – and yet each in their way recognizes they are ceding the spotlight to a new generation, for good or tragically ill.

It is not a surprise that J.J. Abrams, who previously directed Mission: Impossible III and the first and second Star Trek re-boot films, would be able to deliver splashy and spectacular special effects franchise action. But it reminds me of that great observation from Stephen Sondheim – where he said he no longer worries about writing a bad song but is terrified of writing the wrong song. What makes this launch of a new generation of Star Wars adventures so primally satisfying is that it remembers what a Star Wars movie should feel like – breathlessly swift, eternally hopeful and, even at its darkest, exuberant – and that it uncannily identifies the right questions and themes a Star Wars movie should be exploring at this point in its story.
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The magic behind the minutes

This acting thing is so funny. A guy spends months working on a script. A director and a production team spend months planning and prepping. They hire an actor. The actor braves the freeways and comes to the set. He sits in a makeup chair for an hour and a half while teams are lighting and dressing the location and doing test shoots. The actor warms up, reviews what he’s doing with the director. Then he gets in front of the camera, and all those months and weeks and days and hours of work are all there thrumming underneath, but they’ve dropped out of sight because for just these very few minutes, it’s time for the actor to do their thing.

And for those very few minutes, this is what I got to be:

The director told me to just "Kubrick" the camera - that's all I needed
The director told me to just “Kubrick” the camera – that’s all I needed

And then I go away – to wash off the makeup and go find something to eat. And they upload the footage. And they process and cut it together with the rest of the footage and color grade it and put music and sonic atmosphere behind it. Months and weeks and days and hours of work; and if it all goes well, people will be like “DAMN, look what that actor did!”

How long was I actually in front of the camera? Maybe 10 minutes.

When you look at it that way; it can feel like all I have to do is show up and let all that great storytelling and preparation and technical work do its thing. It was already good before I arrived, so just don’t botch it. I guess one way to think of great actors is that they can take a moment like that and blast it further into the atmosphere than you could ever imagine. I’m not there, but I think I’m getting better at not botching it. And this is a great damned part to find myself in.

This film is called The Revelator, and it’s about a man who sees ghosts. I’m one of the ghosts he sees. Only the difference with me is – I see him back. And boy, am I happy to have someone who can see me. Just look how happy I am in that picture.

Yesterday was my first day on set, and basically my big day in terms of the material I was shooting. I’ll do three more days over the next two weeks, but this is really the climactic bit for me. And because of the director’s vision for the scenes, there weren’t a lot of angles to cover or dialogue to go back and forth with. They framed up, they rolled, I did all my business, then we cut and the director (J. Van Auken – also the writer, star, and many other jobs) gave me a giant hug:


Like me, he was covered in flour

I can’t tell you how exciting it was for me, as a longtime horror fan, to actually be in my first horror film; and in the Monster role, to boot. The first time the director looked at me on the monitor he went “F*ck!” If he’s trying to put a nightmare of his onto the screen, it sounds like I did my part to make it happen. And it’s a funny thing, because I’m very aware how much of the credit goes to everyone else; but I also know that not just anybody could have done that in 10 minutes. Whether it’s good enough for the movie? You put yourself in their hands and hope so. But man, they all seemed happy. And so was I – again, just look at that smile.

Reality Adjacent

Here’s a pretty cool thing – my first-ever professional commercial voiceover job:



That take is actually the audition I recorded in my closet. They liked it so much they just bought it and put it in the commercial. The possibilities with this V.O. thing are incredibly-enticing, and I am immediately appreciating that, acting-wise, my “range” is incalculably broader in this realm. No one would cast me as an obsessive cyclist in a film or probably even on-stage – I just don’t project athleticism.

I got some great news a few days ago – a friend of mine has written and will direct an independent horror feature. Due to scheduling issues, an actor had to drop out, and my friend has a lot personally at stake in this, and he called to ask if I’d step into one of the major roles in the film. It’s a horror movie – my first (not counting the short student-made slasher film I starred in over in the UK a lifetime ago) – about a man who can see ghosts; and I’ll be playing the ghost who is his chief tormentor throughout the film. I get to wear grody makeup and special effects contact lenses, and I’m so excited about all of this because it is a dreams-coming-true kind of opportunity.

My ghost sort of breaks the previously-established rules of the movie. I thought almost immediately about when I played Renfield in Dracula, and how the director and I worked to build aspects of his character that made him sort of a living affront to sanity. I would switch accents mid-scene to mock other characters, break the fourth wall, stay on-stage in scenes I was not in, and finally start moving through different areas in the stage to violate the unspoken logic of which rooms were connected to where. At the curtain call, Renfield was the only character who got a solo entrance, and I came in not from the wings but from the audience exit door.

I’ve been looking at the roles I’m getting cast in, especially on-camera, through this filter. In Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine my character is never shown outside the office supply closet where he smokes weed. I only ever interact with the main character, and I narrate ridiculous daydream sequences about his romantic travails.

In Aventura, the heroes of the movie, which otherwise takes place in basically a slightly-absurdist reality along the lines of Little Miss Sunshine, enter very different territory when they meet my character. It’s a totally weird, totally unexplained interlude – sort of a Pee Wee’s Big Adventure-style surreal digression.

And now this ghost…I’m strident in the belief that an actor should never let Hollywood tell them who they are; because there are too many people in Hollywood whose visions are shallow and dumb. A very-talented actress friend of mine who keeps getting offers for little short films feels like she’s hitting a ceiling, since casting directors and agents the next level up keep telling her that she’s no good for Hollywood until she loses 15 pounds. I’m to the point now where if I see a listing that describes the character as two or more of words like “attractive, charismatic, athletic, handsome, VERY good-looking (etc.)”, I won’t even bother to submit; because what they’re signalling about their priorities makes it clear I’ll never get to make my case for the role anyway.

This is a thought-provoking pattern, though; getting cast as characters who operate in their own pocket universe – a reality separate from everyone else’s in the show. I have noticed in my life that many misfits feel very comfortable and able to let their guard down around me, while other people just never seem comfortable with me, even at my nicest. And I know my tendencies towards introversion, and spending a lot of time strolling around up in my own head, can make me come off as aloof, separate, not participating the same way as others.

So I don’t think the camera has got the wrong idea when it sees me in the Uncanny Valley next to normalcy. It may be a limiting idea, but that’s sort of the nature of casting to type. It has its pluses and minuses. What’s most important, I guess, is figuring out what about this I can embrace and effectively leverage.

And continue to record, because the variety of creatures I can do over in the V.O. world just keeps growing. I’ll be playing a heroic knight in an upcoming video game in this series:



Also Satan.

Legitimacy Day

I’ve got a birthday coming up next week; and it’s inevitable for me to take measure of my accomplishments and my progress on the path I’ve chosen. If the feeling of the last 48 hours holds, I’ll be in rare positive spirits when we mark this lap.

My short film, Samantha Gets Back Out There, just got it’s very own IMDB page. This was a real priority to me; it’s a big thank-you to everyone who worked on the thing, and as I’ve crewed on a number of little projects over the years I’ve always counted the creation of the page as a sign that I’m working for professional people who are mindful of the people helping them.

I had not been previously aware that you had to pay $35 to put your movie’s poster on IMDB, but I guess that just get you at every stage they can.

I have also – though this isn’t “official” yet in the capacity that I can publicly name names – received my first (unofficial) acceptance into a film festival. Only on Sunday night did we finally screen the finished product for the crew and a few privately-invited colleagues and friends, and the love and excitement coming out of that still had me in the upper atmosphere. This news sent me into orbit. We’d had a previous rejection, and I had not been anticipating any more notifications for a week at least, so this was unexpected and so, so incredible. It’s my first real short, and we’re in a respectable festival with it; and dozens more are still evaluating. Even better – it’s a festival I’ll be able to attend.

The reviews on As You Like It have been stellar, and the personal peer-to-peer feedback I’ve been receiving from actors I greatly admire has been better still. My role is a little less attention-grabbing than some I’ve played in the past, and I’ve made the adjustment to playing a scene as an opportunity to tee up someone great to get a laugh; so while audiences might not always be able to articulate why they may remember or like me; seasoned actors seem to recognize it and are delivering a lot of praise.

And, of course, today is the official release day for Stages of Sleep. It can be bought at Amazon, Smashwords, or any leading retailer supplied by Smashwords and/or my paperback printer IngramSpark (such as Barnes & Noble). If you want to support your friendly neighborhood independent bookstore you can purchase it through them and they’ll order it for you (give them the title and/or ISBN: 9780996640701). The GoodReads profile is active and ready for reviews and to-read lists. I’ve even been selling paperback copies to friends and colleagues out of my car trunk. I hear that’s how M.C. Hammer got started.

The oldest stories in this collection were written back in 2007, so this is a journey of over eight years to make this book a reality. It is, no exaggeration, one of the proudest achievements of my life, and I hope it means something to anyone who reads it.

Now, none of these achievements are making me rich either now or soon. But tangible achievements are a hell of a rush. When my As You Like It castmates saw a book with my name on it, they just started handing me money; I think in part because they felt that much. And getting handed money sure doesn’t happen much in my writer’s life!