Paul Thomas Anderson made Boogie Nights by 27.
Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs by 29.
Steven Soderbergh, Sex, Lies, and Videotape by 26.
These are my guys, my GOATS. The ones I want to be like.
And after having an epiphany at age 27, I decide to be a filmmaker. I know nothing. Nothing about cameras, editing, actors ... absolutely nothing. I don’t even know what a script looks like. Don’t care, it doesn’t matter. I just know that I have to be like my guys before I turn 30. I mean, how hard can it be?
Three years later, I’m 30.
And low and behold, I have a completed feature film that I self-financed, wrote, directed, shot, and edited. And after 15 or so film festival rejections, I finally score with one in L.A. It’s not Sundance or Cannes, but I’m excited, thankful, and humbled—definitely on my way.
I talk to the festival coordinator for the details, as I’ve never been to a film festival before and have no idea how they work. Wait—WHAT?! I have to pay for my own travel expenses to see my movie? The one that I paid to make? Fuck outta’ here. Do you know who I am? I’m the next QT! The next PTA! The Black Soderbergh, baby!
Whatever though, I’ll be rich and famous soon so none of this will matter. I hop on the first thing smoking and fly out to L.A., only to be greeted with the harsh reality of my screening time: Tuesday morning. Who the hell goes to a movie at 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning?
I’ll tell you who: Three damn people.
It was like the scene in Goodfellas when Pesci gets all dressed up in his best suit, thinking he’s about to get "made," only to be whacked. This was my bullet to the back of the head: flying cross-country to watch my movie with three strangers. No press, no bidding war, no nothing. I COULD’VE DONE THIS SHIT AT MY HOUSE WITH THREE RANDOM MOTHERFUCKERS OFF THE STREET—FOR FREE!
I push on, determined not to give up. I get into more festivals, one in New York. And through some kind of miracle which I honestly don’t remember, I get a development exec at New Line Cinema to agree to read my new script, a little drama that might be a good fit for them. She says I can email it to her, but since I’m already going to be in NYC for my festival screening, I tell her I can drop it off in person—two birds with one stone.
And before I know it, I’m in the damn building. New Line Fucking Cinema! I get checked in at security, get a badge. They have a life-sized Jason Voorhees figure in the lobby holding a machete, promoting their Friday the 13th reboot produced by Michael Bay. I want to take a picture with it but don’t want to be ‘that guy.’ The exec greets me with a smile, gives me a building tour, takes my script. She’s nice, promises to read and does. It’s a pass.
I keep writing—script after script. I submit to screenplay contests. I place in some, but don’t win: Sundance, Austin, BlueCat … Second Round, Quarterfinalist, Top 50, Top 24 … Feels good for a hot minute, then it’s over. A consolation prize for knowing you were close. I’m motivated. I put on blinders, write my ass off for the next four years. It’s fulfilling, but I miss being behind the camera. I’m a director.
I’m 36. I write/direct/produce Solace. It premieres at the Cinequest Film Festival, wins Best Dramatic Feature—I’m getting better. But just as before, no bidding war. But, I do get distribution. I now have a movie on iTunes and Amazon. Yay! And what do I do with my new found ‘buzz’? Burn 50 DVD copies of my movie and mail them to Hollywood producers, each with a hand-written letter, announcing myself as an "award winning" director. Surely someone would watch and offer me a job, right? Not one response. As a matter of fact, most came back in the mail, unopened. All that money and time spent on burning discs, envelopes, postage, writing letters … I’m done. No more “movie stuff” as my wife calls it. No more writing, no more directing, and most importantly—no more dreaming. I’m done. Fuck it. Burn it all.
The next day, I start again. I can’t be bargained with. I can’t be reasoned with. I’m the Terminator. I write more scripts—my strongest work yet. I submit to more contests, placing in almost all of them. Quarterfinalist, Semifinalist, Finalist … I place in the Nicholl Fellowship twice with two different scripts. I make finalist at Script Pipeline, top 10 out of 3,500 or whatever. I need to win. I have to win. I fly out to the awards ceremony, don’t win—officially hate L.A. now.
I go to lunch with a friend who’d just gotten a promotion at his corporate job: six-figure salary, company car, expense account … In a half joking way, I tell him I’m jealous of him and his success. He responds by saying he’s jealous of me. He explained how he had some creative dream long ago that he gave up on because he had to get a “real job.” He insisted that I was living the dream, making movies. It’s at that point I wanted to slap him—hard. Why would he say that? Doesn’t he know he’s living the dream?
I’m 40, and my luck’s about to change.
I have a friend who has a connection with a famous actor, said they could get him one of my scripts—they didn’t.
No worries though, I have another friend who says they can get my script to a studio head they know—they didn’t.
It’s all good ‘cause I know a showrunner through a friend of a friend. Takes me two years of calls and texts to get a coffee date set with this guy. And holy shit—he actually shows up! We chat for an hour, he tells me he’s a fan of my work and will do whatever he can to help—he doesn’t. Again, that took two years to get set up.
No time to linger on that because I have lunch with another guy who claims to have millionaire in-laws who want to finance a movie. He’s a wannabe producer, says this is a done deal—wants me to meet his people at their house over Christmas dinner. I pay for his lunch, which include a few pricy drinks, and never hear from him again. He never returned any of my calls or texts—fuck him.
Business moguls, venture capitalists, all types of people who ‘know people’ … They all made promises they couldn’t keep. I’ve had agents at both ICM and UTA read my work and gush over the writing—neither agency tried to sign me.
I have not one, but two Oscar nominated actors in to play the leads on one of the projects I’m directing—still searching for financing. I even have a cousin who swore up and down she could hook me up with …
Well, you get the point. And I guess because I’m in Atlanta, the number one question I get from family is: “Why don’t you just call Tyler Perry?” Really, Grandma? Fuck you, too!
I once saw this homeless man at a park near my neighborhood. It was summer, and he was just lying in the grass, enjoying the weather. No responsibilities, no societal pressures to ‘make it’ or ‘be something.' I was jealous of his freedom. But the next time I saw him, it was the dead of winter and he was in that same park, freezing his ass off. No more envy. I didn’t want to be him anymore. Maybe I already am.
As I write this, I’m 43 and have never felt better about my place in the universe. I think back to the lunch I had with my friend, the one I wanted to slap. Maybe he was onto something. Maybe I am living the dream. Maybe he should’ve wanted to slap me for envying his journey as opposed to not being more appreciative of my own.
A working title for this article was "Almost Famous." And as much as I like the ring of it, it’s not accurate.
Because I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be the next ‘so-and-so’ anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on my grind—I still bleed this shit. But I’m just enjoying the process more by not having some self-imposed deadline on when I think my success should happen. I’m enjoying the ride. I’m in an ’66 Cadillac DeVille, crusin’ through town on a lazy Sunday. I got the top dropped, feelin’ the breeze—taking in all the sights and sounds.
And my destination, wherever that may be—we get there when we get there.
*Feature Photo: Vandon Gibbs (left) on set