After years of writing scripts but not feeling satisfied, I predictably woke up one morning in a crisis.
What am I doing?
Ever had the feeling that the universe might somehow be conspiring to keep you from achieving your goals?
That's how I felt that particular morning.
I'd been out of film school for years. I'd held a potpourri of jobs in the industry ever since; at an agency, at a studio, as a reader, as a writer. It was all oddly unsatisfying.
Why the hell did I get into the movie business to begin with?
As soon as I'd posed the question that way, the answer was clear (and absurdly, the answer was also something I'd stopped doing when I started writing scripts full-time). Take a guess what it was?
Here's the answer:
Directing was my first love, my intention from the start. My goal.
Why did I stop?
At the beginning, screenwriting to me had been my means to an end. I figured nobody would hand me a great script to direct (which is true) until I was an established director, so in the meantime I'd better learn to write scripts for myself as best as I could.
Here's what I didn't realize: everything you do in life is a step on a path. No action is independent of context. It's all leading somewhere. Going to law school? On your way to being a lawyer. Working in an agency? On your way to being an agent. Writing scripts? You are becoming a screenwriter. It's all a step on a path towards a specific destination.
If you don't want the destination, get off the path.
I'd been writing scripts in order to direct. But I'd stopped directing. By focusing entirely on screenwriting, I was becoming a screenwriter entirely. That's not what I wanted to be.
I began directing again. Shorts, videos, documentaries, small projects. I kept writing, but now I directed what I wrote. Writing became satisfying again because it wasn't the end of the process for me. It was the beginning. After I wrote something, I went out and made it. Shooting on video. Editing in my bedroom on my mac. It was a very satisfying time. I didn't think anymore about maybe getting to direct one day.
I was doing it already.
Even with just a cheap video camera in hand, a couple of friends for crew, standing on a cold street in the early morning with too little sleep and no money, I loved what I was doing. I felt successful. Not in the way we typically keep score, with money and 'stuff', but in a way that matters: I was doing something I loved doing. I was enjoying my life again.
I began going to film festivals, meeting other film-makers, comparing notes. That's how I met Zac Stanford.
Zac was a very talented guy who'd had a very similar journey only in the opposite direction. He'd been writing and directing shorts for a while. but as he told me back then, he loved writing and had always seen himself as a writer. He directed because he didn't know any directors around who wouldn't screw up his words.
It was a good match.
We started brainstorming about what kind of movie we ought to make. We talked about our lives, our families, our childhoods.
I grew up in suburbia. Zac grew up in a small town. These places have their obvious differences, but we also started discovering many intriguing similarities in the things we'd seen growing up.
Everybody justifies the choices they make in life. For some folks living in suburbs and small towns, it's a choice they've made not to live in urban centers. Some of them believe the suburbs are a better, safer place to raise a family. Some believe bad things won't happen there. Sometimes these things are true. Sometimes they are not.
People problems, like crime or violence or loneliness or alienation, exist wherever there are people. Suburbs, cities, villages, islands.
They don't go away just because there's a master plan for the community.
For a town, as for any human being, the more we try to sweep our problems unacknowledged under the rug, the more our problems will emerge again in odd, surprising, sometimes disturbing forms.
This was the core of our idea: to explore a community the way you'd explore the character of a human being, someone who looks totally put together on the outside while below the surface there are whole other battles taking place.
We worked on the script until it seemed right, and then we planned to just go out and make it on video with our friends.
Then I got a good suggestion from my then-girlfriend (now-wife). She told me to make a list of five producers that I thought might be right for this kind of movie, and send the script to them. Then, if they didn't like, or if I didn't hear back, then I should go out and do it myself.
About a month later, I got a call from producer Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting) : "I read your script. I really liked it. Who the hell are you?"