”There’s that age when you start figuring yourself out, and you know that eventually you’ll have to tell your parents. Might not be words they want to hear, but it’s better than letting them find out some other way. In reality, they probably always knew, but it doesn’t become true until you finally say the words.
“Mom, Dad…I want to pursue a career in the arts.” It probably would have been easier to come out as gay; at least gay guys can be doctors, lawyers, architects and “support themselves” one day. I’ve always known and acted toward my destiny, save for a short and misguided period of my late adolescence when I thought I too wanted to be a doctor. Started hanging around the local hospital in a kid-sized lab coat, following doctors around on their shifts - taking notes, asking lots of questions. I grew out of it as soon as I realized that every doctor I shadowed was frustrated beyond words at their inability to provide their patients an escapist release equal to the flickering box bolted to the wall of each room they visited.
I wanted to take each patient by the hand, fly them out the window for a couple precious, incredible hours, and return them safely but somehow stronger and better equipped to play the hand they had been dealt. We are all patients in a very large hospital; each of us with a terminal prognosis – trying to fill each of our numbered hours with substance.
“It’s a very hard life, having a career in the arts. It might be fun for awhile, but what if you ever want to own a house and have a family?” Having just turned 33, I wish I was in a position to say my Mom’s words were completely foolish, but despite my sacrifices from that moment till this one, I know the path of a doctor would have been just as hard, but without the handful of rapturous moments I’ve experienced on my long and perilous journey TO and IN that legendary maker and breaker of dreams – HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA.
Spoiler alert: I’ve lived and worked in tinsel town for almost five years now, and I can happily say that “making pictures” is the hardest, easiest, and most fun thing I’ve ever done 17 hours a day, six days a week. It’s nice to be right, and for once my worried parents to now legitimately ask if I’ve worked with any of their favorite stars that week – but when they say that Los Angeles is an expensive town, they’re right. DAMN right, even. Even if a blockbuster is given an “unlimited budget,” every expense is still recorded and balanced against the box office gross to gauge its “GREATNESS” on a scale that only the moneymen care about, but one we all follow in Monday’s paper like it was a horse race or something. Get your adding machines ready, Bean Counters, because tonight… I’m gonna run down my budget -- and in the immortal words of Jurassic Park founder, Dr. John Hammond, “I’ve spared no expense.”
(Press play – Survivor’s “Eye of The Tiger” [Coincidentally, another persistent product of 1982])
Once my wonderful parents realized there was no talking me out of my pursuit of creative satisfaction at all costs, they did as wonderful parents do, and started walking me through scenarios and strategies for being a SUCCESSFUL creative. Brochures by mail of art institutes near and far, multiple campus tours crammed into efficiently engineered weekends, late-night proofreading of “personal statements” bound for bulging packets mailed on the heels of strictly enforced enrollment deadlines. Nothing excited me like the campus tours of my favored California schools. If I got into just the right one, then maybe PHASE ONE of my "Twenty Year Plan;" culminating with directing a hit feature length film by age 21, wouldn’t be as ridiculous as I knew it sounded. As it happened though, the California schools I was accepted to wouldn’t let me study anything related to film until I had attained residency. The idea of being 18 and working some shitty job for a full year somewhere in Orange County just so I’d be worthy in the eyes of the state to pursue my obsession seemed unacceptable. So I decided to choose a school a little cheaper, and a little closer to home – based on some really logical criteria:
1. I had visited this city in 6th grade (see reason #3) and I thought it looked like “it was from the freakin’ future, or something.”
2. My friend’s older sister had gone there and said it was “pretty good,” and they had quite a few film classes to offer.
And finally 3. My favorite TV show from childhood, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was created there.
We put down a deposit for a dorm room at the University of Minnesota, I registered for some classes, and for once I knew the feeling of one’s sails billowing outward with the wind that carries you away from home forever.
(Press Play – Stan Roger’s “Northwest Passage” – Wear headphones, trust me.)
EXPENSE # 1 hit me from out of nowhere. The girl I had known since junior high, whom I had looked at from across the wide pencil-graffiti group tables of art classes semester after semester, whom I’d fallen in high-school love with, whom I had shared so much with… not surprisingly, had made ambitious plans of her own and rightly didn’t include me. Even if I hadn’t put down a deposit for a dorm in Minnesota, I knew her small ship had only room for her and a few sparse supplies. So as I hugged her goodbye outside Swenson’s Ice Cream Shop, not far from her family’s idyllic hillside home, I first experienced the icy gut-terror of actual loss and white-hot excitement of the unrevealed horizon speeding closer, served up as a spicy sundae not for the faint of heart. To this day, I wonder what could have been if I had managed to stow away below deck.
Trying to convince myself I had made all the right decisions up till then, I decided I would dive headlong into all of the film classes I had signed up for first semester freshman year; not yielding to any of the numerous temptations of leisure the “Arts House” residence community would surely provide. This would surely allow me to charge ahead without thinking twice about what or whom I had left behind. Funny thing: In the long history of post-secondary education, my class was to be the very last freshman class to register for classes by paper forms alone. This allowed the simple oversight of a small detail on behalf of my advisor’s office: the university’s film school had been dissolved the year before. (*Record scratch*)
(Press Play - Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca plan pour moi” – The national anthem of the American Liberal Arts Degree)
Fortunately they were able to provide me with a colorful and diverse assortment of classes to study the art of the motion picture in the vast tapestry Art History and Culture. ACTUALLY - I resented the fact that I wasn’t learning how to thread 16mm film into a vintage camera with my eyes closed. The pain of this first world problem was well soothed by a storied year of getting to host my own radio show on the tenacious college AM station, and extracurricular activities such as getting to introduce the first Sigur Ros album to stressed out theater BFA’s as I’d rub their backs and lull them to sleep. I felt like I had a role to play in this production, even if it hadn’t been the production I had anticipated.
(Press Play – Sigur Ros “Svefn-g-englar”)
Despite the soul-killing winters, Minnesota managed to warm my young heart. I gathered a gang of well-meaning weirdos, who enjoyed social science, rock music and frequent impersonations of the Muppets - and we started a band. History will have to decide whether we were any good, but it certainly taught me that family was not something you are necessarily born into, but rather is an energy that gathers its own efficiently without consent of those gathered.
The regular lineup included:
Louie – the Lebanese Catholic computer genius with a knack for music theory.
Adri – the wise-cracking half-Afghani bohemian guitar god with Kramer-hair.
Peter – the wiry Norwegian Robert-Plant lookin’, preschool teacher by day/rocker by night, natural born frontman.
(Press Play – Dinosaur Jr.’s “Start Choppin’”)
Like any family, we bought a house and moved off campus. Together, we rocked, we partied, we cooked together, in the winters we watched movies and got fat together, and in summers we would run around like wild-men and hit punching bags till we got skinny again. We were the perfect survival squad to weather through the shitty economy that snowed-in our generation starting in 2008. The plan was to just keep on rocking until sunnier days prevailed and we could all get jobs that might lift us above those “blue-box blues”, and for a spell it seemed like we might just make it! Everything seemed like it would go on forever uninterrupted… until Peter and I went out dancing one night and brought a couple funny girls home.
(Press Play – M83’s “Kim & Jesse”)
To make a long story short – Peter dated the redhead, until she realized that she and Louie were in love, and I dated the brunette for five wonderful years, moved to Seattle with her and got pushed into and through the most painful moment I’ve ever known.
BUT WAIT… if you’re asking “What does all of this have to do with your original plan; your childhood desire to make things to distract the ill and ailing from their maladies?” – you’re absolutely right. If it was starting to feel like the story was gaining some serious ground like a disobedient dog, leash dragging, tongue catching the breeze – then you’ve either had the experience of grading a junior high creative writing assignment, or have felt a dream of your own starting to slide out from under your once iron vice grip.
(Press play – Jeff Buckley “I Know we could be so happy [if we wanted to be]”)
EXPENSE #2 came as I said goodbye to my best buddies and the fun of our live-in Monkees-esque domestic rock band antics. But adult things; like romance… and moving to progressively bigger cities had to come first. I would leave them behind for her, and for Seattle – but at least I’d be on the west coast, and one step closer to that smoggy jewel of industry and glamor I had dreamed of before I was even me.
She and I (the Brunette from the earlier story) moved to Seattle because… because she got into grad school there, and I… and I couldn’t think of being without her. Every girl who I’ve ever loved and has foolishly loved me back has always taken into account the cardboard “L.A. OR BUST” sign super-glued to my hands, knowing that one day I’d make the jump with or without them. This girl, as much as she knew I loved her, lived and acted on a subconscious level – pushing me away till the point where I slept primarily on the couches of downtown friends and got enlisted on a beleaguered science fiction web series crew where I simultaneously ran three departments, keeping me out of our shared apartment an average of 18 hours per day.
It was on one gray Seattle day, in our apartment with an amazing view but overrun with the fleet of camera-ready spaceships I had stepped up to build for the web series, when, via phone, a good childhood friend who had moved to LA the year before, suggested that I finally make the jump. He had patiently listened to my whole sad tale, and his best and only real suggestion was that I finally move to LA like I had always planned on but hadn’t made any serious effort to reach since high school.
(Press Play: Faux Jean’s “File it Away”)
My Brunette and I had reconciled from the petty things that had split us – I even proposed (and she said YES!) but I had already lit the fuse of the Hollywood Express had climbed aboard asking her to follow me as soon as she finished her M.A. The receipt for EXPENSE #3 hit when I realized one year into my job at Paramount Pictures that she was never going to move to California. A year of heartache and toil had landed me at one of the most important studios in the world, but it was only then when I first stopped to ask myself if I was maybe finally going over-budget in the eighth draft of my revised five-to-twenty year plan.
Maybe it was the run up to my 30th birthday that had me asking questions like “would you put your future family in jeopardy just to chase these persistent childhood dreams?” Realizing that many if not most of my friends were engaged, married, or already parents – was taking a toll on my commitment to this little quest of mine. I was doing more, making more, and meeting more people who could help me get to the next checkpoint, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking if another year or two or five of this was worth someday being too old to enjoy the company of my own hypothetical children by the time they actually got interesting. SUCCESS was a term that had been defined and redefined so many times that I had forgotten whether I was shooting for money, acclaim, power, artistic freedom, or best yet – some elusive cocktail of all-the-above. But now, hurling ‘family’ into the success equation felt like bumping the game from HARD to EXPERT level without warning; adding another variable to master without having first mastered the others.
EXPENSE #4 was learning that Brunette had finally moved to California… with her new boyfriend.
EXPENSE #5 was hearing that Louie and the Redhead, who had been married years before were now expecting their first child. I wanted to simply be happy for them, but we literally started in the same place – if he could do it, why couldn’t I!? Just as it felt like the pressure was now so intense that I’d have to pull the ripcord and bail out, I paused the whole damn scene –
(Press Play – Mark Mallman’s “True Love”)
The only thing I had lost track of was the sense of scale I had begun with! Yeah, maybe I wasn’t earning as much as kids I had grown up with, or didn’t have any of the conventional marks of adulthood – but short of having failed to direct a hit feature film by the time I was 21 – I WAS DOING EXACTLY WHAT I SET OUT TO DO! Besides, what kind of dad would I be if I hadn’t first fought for and won the inner satisfaction I’d always known I’d be incomplete without before dedicating my life to another? No one will ever be invited in to “complete me” nor will I kneel to complete another based on the endless lesson I see taught every day in the eyes of every unhappy couple condemned to “solitary” chained to their other half.
I set out to be an artist and today, decades later, I am still just that! Where many imagine, I sculpt. Where many talk, I plan. Where many dream, I make it happen.
So in summary – YES, Hollywood is a very expensive town to live in. It will take everything from you, but if your heart is in the right place, you’ll consider it an even trade. And also YES, your parents are right – pursuing a career in the arts is a really really hard life. However, so is doing something you hate, but without all of the golden moments that come along only with following your heart.
Who knows where I’ll be in the future, but one thing is for sure – when it comes to budgeting which losses I’d be willing to endure for my next big hit, no expense is greater than giving up. So I keep going.
(Press Play - Avi Buffalo "What’s in it for?")