The Answer

Recently I found myself  indulging in one of my “favorite” pastimes.  I was complaining about how incredibly busy I am with a series of upcoming projects.  “I have two shorts in post-production, I’m producing two features, co-writing another one, writing a pilot and shooting two webseries.”  My shoulders slumped and my head down, I continued.  “I don’t have time to sleep and my social life is non-existent.”  I was genuinely overwhelmed and exhausted at the logistics of trying to work my 40-hour a week job AND accomplish all of these endeavors that I had committed to doing.

Fortunately, immediately after repeating this mantra I started walking my two dogs.  A rare bubble that I get to step into multiple times a week.  I turn off my phone and my mind, as much as possible.  They live with my ex-wife, so my time with them is quite limited and I want to give them my energy when we are together.  I often talk to them about whatever is on my mind and their smiling faces and wagging tales are the best advice a friend can ever give.

On this walk everything became incredibly clear.  The answer seemed so simple that I laughed out loud when it presented itself to me.  I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders and a smile spread across my face.  It was so obvious.

When I returned with the dogs, I announced that I had the answer to all of the problems that I had so meticulously and carefully laid out before the walk.  I said smiling triumphantly, “Quit.”

That’s right.  I could simply quit.  It was such a novel idea to me that it made me laugh.  “I could quit.  Nobody is making me write.  Nobody is making me shoot films.  Nobody is making me be creative.  If it’s so hard…then I can quit.”

I went on to explain that in addition to a full time job, I put in a minimum of 29 hours a week on creative endeavors.  If I just quit, that opens an enormous amount of time for me to sleep, watch TV, go out with friends, take long strolls, tweet, post on Facebook.  I could binge watch all the shows I don’t currently have time to watch.  I would have nothing but time!  All I have to do in exchange for all of this is quit.

Simply stop.  That’s it.

When I share this revelation with fellow artist, there is often this moment of defensiveness.  “But I don’t want to give up on my dreams!”  “Winners never quit!”  Etc.  My point is not that I SHOULD quit but that I CAN quit.  Not quitting is just as much a choice as quitting.  So why do I complain so much about doing the very thing that I love?

I started to explore this question.

I’ve never heard a child say, “After school, a bunch of the kids want to play hide and seek.  Ugh!  I am beat!  Now, I have to go home and do that too!”  or “Who’s got time for coloring?  I’ve got soccer until noon, then I’ve got Sam’s birthday party and I’ve been meaning to run around catching butterflies all week but just haven’t gotten to it.”

At some point I stopped wanting to live my dreams and started wanting to be “successful” at them.  Doing it wasn’t enough, making money and getting acclaim became more important than what I was creating.  The problem with this is that I’ve taken the ability to achieve out of myself and turned it into something that was controlled by outside forces.  The dream no longer burned within me, wanting to get out.  Now, it was something that was held at arm’s length.   Always just out of reach for me.

I looked to others who were successful in their own fields.  Tiger Woods and my Dad both play golf.  Micheal Jordan and my friends play basketball.  Same sport.  Same equipment.  Different results.  Because most pro athletes/Olympic athletes give up everything else to be the best.  Rather than getting an extra few hours of sleep, they got up and practiced.  Late night drinking parties were skipped and extra practices taken instead.  They were driven to be the best.  If I’m not willing to have that same drive, why should I expect a different result?  Imagine Jordan starting his career with, “Yeah, I play a bunch of pick-up games around town at different courts and I’ve got a lot of really good ideas on how to shoot the ball.”  He wouldn’t be one of the greatest of all times.

In a nutshell…

If I am unhappy.  If I am too busy.  If I am overwhelmed.  I can quit.  It’s an option and I have to stop pretending like it isn’t.

Also, there is a difference between being fulfilled and being financially successful.  I can only control one of them.  I am going to start enjoying playing again.  Because I am incredibly lucky to have that opportunity.  To forget that, is not only selfish but is an insult to everyone who never gets the chance to step into their passions.

If I want to be a professional, I have to start acting like one.

Finally, no matter how “busy” life feels, I’m not going to work in a coal mine every day.

(Last night a friend pointed out that I use the coal mine reference a lot.  I told him it is because both of my grandfathers were coal miners.  It was backbreaking work and one of them came incredibly close to dying from a mining accident.  Two generations later, I live in LA and every single day I do something that I love.  It’s too easy to get caught up in your own pity party but when I think of those two men, that I love and respect, I am instantly reminded how incredibly lucky I am every day.)

How many people will never live their dreams?  I’m not asking how many will “succeed” at their dreams, but will actually LIVE them?  So you do a show in some tiny theatre for three people and you complain about it.  How many people will never stand on a stage?  Or pick up a paint brush?  Or touch pen to paper to create a world that they hold in their heads?  So you perform for a small house.  So you wrote a script that didn’t get picked up.  So you created something that didn’t go viral.  You lived your dream and that is more than most people.

Unlike you, they were never given the opportunity to quit, because they were never given the chance to start.

 

quit

The Power Of The Flower

I was meeting a friend in West Hollywood for Brunch.  It’s something we try to do at least a few times a month, to touch base rejuvenate our souls and to get our laugh quotas in for the week.  We talk about dating, love, the business, dreams, fears, who we are and who we want to be.  Topics discussed with others, but with a depth and honesty only shared between two truly close friends.

It was a beautiful day and we decided to eat outside.  I kept seeing people carrying these beautiful bouquets of flowers.  While the flowers were all different, they were all wrapped with newspaper around the bottom of the stems.  There is just something about this that makes my heart happy.  Flowers purchased in haste at a convenience store are always wrapped tightly in cellophane flowers wrapped in newspaper….well, it makes me think of New York or Paris.

A couple passed carrying a fresh bouquet and I asked them where they got them.  They both smiled, pointing up the street and said, the farmer’s market. I commented how beautiful they were and the man dipped them down toward me as the woman said, “Smell them!  They are amazing!”  They were amazing.

It was a nice exchange and we all wished the other a good day.  As they walked off, Brooke and I returned to our conversation.  The last time we had met, she had mentioned how she always buys flowers for herself but rarely gets flowers from anyone else.  I had asked the couple because I had planned to get some flowers for her that morning but couldn’t find where everyone was getting the flowers.  I told her of my plan and brushed it off with, “Talk is cheap.  I didn’t actually succeed in getting you any.”  She assured me that it was the thought that counts.  Just then, the man appeared back at our table.  In his hand, he held a single flower.

He had found a knife to separate it from the bundle and handed it to me.  It was such a lovely gesture and I told him that he reaffirmed my belief in humanity and his face lit up with a huge smile.

I placed the flower in my glass of water on our table.  It was so fragrant that it filled the air around us.  Both of us smiling like fools at the kindness of a stranger.

After brunch I walked Brooke to her car and handed her the single flower.  Her face lit up as if I had filled a room full of roses.  As I walked away, I saw her sitting in her car…eyes closed…holding the flower close and breathing in it’s fragrant smell.  A smile on her face.  It was a gift to see such a great friend being so completely happy.  It was a gift given to me by a stranger who took the time to share one of his flowers with me.

We are often reminded, if you want a better life…be sure to stop and smell the flowers. I would like to add to that statement. If you want a better life and want to help others have one too…stop and share your flowers.

I hope everyone today has an opportunity to share with someone else.

A Father’s Inspiration

I have often heard friends discuss how their parent’s taste in music created the foundation for their own musical appreciations.  They would say, “My parents would listen to Jazz and it really helped me appreciate it.”  or “Every time I hear this country song, it makes me think of my father.”

Growing up and even to this day, I can’t remember any music ever being played in any of my parent’s homes.  (They divorced when I was very young and both remarried.)  Looking back, I don’t remember us having a stereo or record player.  The radio only made an appearance when there were tornado warnings or possible snow days and even then it was always tuned to an AM station.

Nope.  When I think of home, I don’t think of any music ever being played.

Let me stress…. there was no music in my home but there was music in my life.  I can say with a great deal of conviction that my father owned exactly one cassette tape his entire life.  He only played it when we were riding in his car and he played it constantly.  How he came to posses it, I do not know.  Did he buy it?  Was it given to him?  To this day, it’s origins remain a mystery to me and while I could simply ask him there is something wonderful about not knowing.

As I type this out, I am listening to that album.  (I am playing it through Itunes, rather than on a cassette tape but it takes me back to my childhood.)  That album… Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show – Revisited.   Not familiar?  You are not alone.  They hit their height of success in the 70’s.  The songs of this particular album are all about drugs, venereal diseases, prostitutes, homeless, drugs, broken dreams, sexual “deviance” and more drugs.  Not the type of subject matter one would expect a young child to hear on a constant loop.  What I found mind blowing as an adult, when I tracked down the album to give to my Dad a few years ago, was that the majority of the songs were written by Shel Silverstein.  Yes.  THAT Shel Silverstein.

Last week, I was thinking about the album and purchased it online.  I hadn’t heard it in years and discovered something else listening to it again.  It is one of the greatest inspirations of my life.  When asked why I make short films, I discuss how much I enjoy short stories by Vonnegut & Salinger.  But now I can trace my love for short narratives even farther back.  Back to a time a young boy sat in the backseat of his Dad’s car, listening to songs with words and themes that were beyond his comprehension.  But he did know one thing.  These songs had an effect on his father.  They made him smile.  They made him laugh.  And if he was distracted, forgetting to “fast forward” through a song, they made him look embarrassed at the words his kids were singing out loud.  As an adult, I have looked to my father hoping that he will react similarly when watching one of my shorts.

This album is a wonderful collection of short narrative stories.  Each are about the length of one of my short films.

Carry Me Carry opens with, “Second Street and Broadway.  Sittin’ in a doorway.  Head held in his hands.  Looked to all the world like he was prayin’.  Foot wrapped in an old rag.  Bottle in a brown bag.  I saw him try to stand.”  Later there is the haunting lyrics, “Well, he struggled to his feet.  And staggered down the street.  To the window of a five and dime.  He stood and laughed a while at his reflection.”   Growing up in a small town, I had never seen a homeless person.  I didn’t understand the concept of what it meant to be this man.  I did, however, understand that this man was broken.  I understood that he wasn’t always the man he saw reflected back to himself.  How did he get here?  What happened to him?  The song doesn’t answer these questions.  Then and now, I see this man so clearly.  But more importantly, I feel his pain.  In just over four-minutes, I am invited into a world that lights up my imagination, while breaking my heart.

The Queen Of The Silver Dollar, “She arrives in all her splendor, every night at nine-o’clock.  And her chariot is a crosstown bus that stops right down the block.” then “And her scepter is a  wine glass and a bar stool is her throne.”  Again, we are welcomed into a beautifully tragic world inhabited by fractured characters.

I could go on and on but you get the idea.  These songs humanized individuals that I had no contact with growing up and I didn’t even know that they existed.  As I grew up, I found that the need to love and be loved, even though we are all cracked and some of us are broken, is a universal need.  I hope that I treat all of my characters with the same love and empathy that these songs treat their characters.

Maybe that’s why I don’t ask my Dad where the cassette came from when I was a kid.  I don’t want to know.  All that matters is that he had it.  He loved it.  He played it all the time.  And I am sure he had no idea how much those songs would influence his young son sitting in the back seat, looking out the window and hoping that the people in the song…the people that were as real to him as his friends, his family, his teachers…that these people would be OK.  Listening to the songs as an adult, I still believe in those people and it breaks my heart each time I hear their stories.  That’s what great art does.  It touches people and we carry it with us through the years.

Mountainfilm on Tour’s Family of Filmmakers

Mountainfilm is an amazing festival that takes place each year in Telluride, Colorado.

Here is their mission statement, “Mountainfilm is dedicated to educating, inspiring and motivating audiences about issues that matter, cultures worth exploring, environments worth preserving, adventures worth pursuing and conversations worth sustaining.”

I have been honored to have three short films screen at the festival and each time I attended, I left a different person than when I arrived.  I found my time at Mountainfilm inspiring as a filmmaker and as a member of this incredible community.  After my first trip to the festival I said, “I arrived a filmmaker but I am leaving an activist.”

In order to share the films they screen, they created Mountainfilm on Tour and take films all over the world.  They screen for groups, schools, organizations, etc.  Each year they come to Los Angeles and do a special screening for the employees of Sony Pictures.

Last week, I was invited to attend their latest screening out here.  I did so gladly and was absolutely blown away and inspired by the films and the filmmakers in attendance.  Passionate people spoke about why it was so important to make the films and the subjects of many of the documentaries were there to see their stories told on the big screen.

What makes this festival so special to me is that it not only invites filmmakers from around the world, but it also creates a family.  I am deeply honored to be part of this family and will be eternally grateful to Mountainfilm for adopting me into it.  After the screenings several of the filmmakers went out together and I found myself in the company of artist that were comprised of some of the best filmmakers in the world.  They shared their future projects with a passion that burned inside them.

Mountainfilm gave me the opportunity to share my work with the world but it did so much more!  It continues to inspire me to create and to be a passionate member of the human race.

At the end of the evening a photograph was taken of the Mountainfilm family and I will treasure it.  This frozen moment in time reminds me that I am part of something bigger than myself and that they have given me the gift of standing shoulder to shoulder with people I respect and am humbled to call my friends.

Thank you Mountainfilm!

Second Row L to R: Jonathan Browning ("The Job" and "Eco-Ninja"), Lucy Walker ("Wasteland," The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossomand The Crash Reel), Joe Peeler (editor of "The Crash Reel"), Brendan Nahmias (co-director "Wolf Mountain"), David Holbrooke (director of Mountainfilm, Chris Smith ("Tiny: A Story about Living Small"), Ryan Suffern ( Running Blind The Movie"), Tom Shadyac ("I AM") — with Adrian Belic, Jonathan Browning, Lucy Walker, Joe Peeler, David Holbrooke, Christopher Carson Smith, Ryan Suffern, Jackie Zampella and Tom Shadyac.

Front row L to R: Adrian Belic (“Genghis Blues” and “Beyond the Call”), Omi Vaidya (star of Big in Bollywood) and his wife, Dan Duran (co-director of “Wolf Mountain”), Jackie Zampella (AP on I AM – The Film),
Second Row L to R: Jonathan Browning (“The Job” and “Eco-Ninja”), Lucy Walker (“Wasteland,” The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossomand The Crash Reel), Joe Peeler (editor of “The Crash Reel”), Brendan Nahmias (co-director “Wolf Mountain”), David Holbrooke (director of Mountainfilm, Chris Smith (“Tiny: A Story about Living Small”), Ryan Suffern ( Running Blind The Movie”), Tom Shadyac (“I AM”)

 

Love & Cards

“Lucky at cards, unlucky in love.”

There is a good chance that you’ve heard some variation of this idiom.  Recently I gave this theory some serious thought when a friend invited me to play a “friendly game” of Texas hold ’em.  Side note, any time the term “friendly” is used to describe a game, know there is nothing friendly about to happen.  “Friendly game of football”…start up the ambulance, someone is going to the hospital.

I had never played a single game of Texas hold ’em but I’ve watched the national tournament a number of times on television and felt confident that I would be able to bluff my way through a fun evening of cards with friends.  (In the distance, an ambulance starts its engine.)

The invitation was at a Hollywood Producer’s house and the other players were all successful men in the industry, so I knew that we wouldn’t be playing nickel, dime, quarter.  I rounded up every bit of money I could scrape together, ironically turning my nickels, dimes & quarters into bills, and headed to the game.  It should have been a warning sign that the host had his own custom poker table set up when I arrived.

At the start of the game everyone would “buy in” at the bank and if you ran out of money, you could always do a second “buy in” to keep playing.  Before the game was over, I had to “buy in” five times.  That means five times I went “all in” and lost.  Near the end of the evening, the other players would look at me and say, “Please fold.  This is not a bluff.  I am going to beat whatever you are holding.  Get out of this hand!”  But I am a slow learner and would respond, “We’ll see.”

We took a break late in the evening and I said to the host, “My problem is that I am a dreamer and totally disregard the odds.  I play with my heart and not my head.”  I constantly ignored the fact that I was holding nothing and believed that the River would magically turn my random collection of low cards into something of value.  Not a very good strategy.

The other players would comment on the odds of success based on which cards came up.  “He has a 31% chance and he has a 69% chance of winning.”  (The Turn)  “Oh, now he has a 19% chance and…etc. etc. etc.  At that moment I realized, OH!  There is a mathematical strategy to this game!  Naive?  You bet.  Which explains why I lost almost every single hand.  My plan was much more simplistic.  Stay in the game, cross my fingers and hope for the best.

After my fourth “buy in” one of the players tried to help me by saying, “You don’t have to play every single hand.”  My response said a lot about my playing style, “What am I, a coward?”  That generated a great deal of laughter at the table.

At the end of the night, my friend offered to give me some money to cover my losses and I turned it down.  I told him that I made my own choices and my losses were my losses.

At least I could take solace in knowing that my terrible luck in cards assured my great luck in love.  (In the distance, an ambulance starts its engine.)

“Unlucky at cards, lucky in love.”  Not so sure that is quite accurate.  As I have written about lately, ad nauseam, I am dipping my toe back into the dating world for the first time in a very long time and I am finding  that it is probably closer to reality that how you play cards is also how you love.  At least that is true in my case.  I play with my heart and not my head.  I believe, time and time again, that while I may not be holding a great hand…if I hang in there my luck will change with the next turn of a card.  I stay in when the smart thing to do is fold.  I go “all in” on every hand.  I am terrible at bluffing and I constantly show what cards I am holding and what is in my heart at any given moment.

I need to pay attention when I hear, “Get out of this hand!  This is not a bluff.”  Instead of believing, maybe…just maybe…the next card will turn the tide and change everything.

I am learning that in both cards and love, there is a happy medium.  Go ahead and buy in.  Get a seat at the table.  Play smart.  Play the cards in your hand and not the ones you hope are secretly out there.  It’s OK to fold.  You have to be alright never knowing what cards the other player was holding.  The best hand doesn’t always win.  Even if you have Kings and you believe that you can’t lose…someone out there has Aces.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, don’t blame the other player.  Own up to the fact that you made your own choices and your losses are your losses.

Maybe it would be safer and less painful to stick to solitaire and avoid “friendly games” of cards and love.  But that is not the life I want for myself.  No matter how many times I have to “buy in”, I’m going to continue to have a seat at the table.

So maybe I haven’t really learned that much after all.  (In the distance, an ambulance starts its engine.)

Pancake Time!

The first spot I ever booked in Los Angeles was for “Ah, The Power of Cheese” by the Dairy Council.  In the commercial, I try to purchase cheese at a small shop and inadvertently trigger an elaborate security alarm.  I trip a laser beam, get hit by a giant paint ball and am finally arrested by multiple very large police officers.

It was a a two-night shoot on the Universal Lot and it was my introduction to what it felt like to not only live but to actually work in Hollywood.  Just a few months earlier, I had been working as a Production Assistant and was the lowest man on set.  Now they provided me with a stunt crew, people who took care of my every need and even a guy who’s only job was to drive me around in a golf cart.  I told him, “This feels silly.  I can just walk.”  His response, “Listen, dude.  If you don’t let me drive you around, then they are going to make me do another job that involves a lot of heavy lifting or some other BS!”  He drove me around for the entire shoot.

When they were setting up shots, I would wander around the lot alone and one night found the Back to the Future courthouse and clock tower around the corner.  I remembered looking at it on the “big screen” years ago and now I was actually standing right in front of it.  I went up to the front door, pushed it open and stood inside.  I am a little embarrassed to say that I secretly thought that the interior would be a working courthouse instead of a skeleton building.  But it didn’t matter.  I was standing INSIDE it!  Nerd alert bells went off for miles.

As I said, it was a two-night shoot and on the second night there was the biggest shot of the entire commercial.  The crew was pulled back almost a block to get a wide shot of my final moment, where I fall backwards right in front of the stopped tires of the arriving police cars.  On a side note, this shot is also when I learned what precision driving really means.  They blocked off my fall from the curb onto the road, where three police cars would come to a screeching halt just inches from me.  We walked through it and the AD had me hit my mark.  The drivers rolled into their final position and each got out, making only a mental note where their final marks would be.  The head driver said, “Just make sure to hit your mark.”  I found his comment comical because they were coming at me about three-miles per hour in the rehearsal.  When the cameras started rolling they burst out from around three different blind corners at FULL SPEED!  Suddenly the stunt driver’s advice made sense and I kept thinking, “Hit my mark!  Hit my mark!  Hit my mark!”  They slammed on their brakes, tires sliding across the wet road and stopped…exactly on their marks.  (If you ever see the commercial, I am not acting scared at that moment.)

When we were finally ready to shoot the final wide shot, multiple cameras were set up, everyone moved back a block and there was a time when I was completely “alone”.  We were trying to beat the sunrise and I could feel it starting to break over the buildings in the distance.  Over the bullhorn the 1st AD yelled, “Roll Cameras!”  My hand on the doorknob of that fake cheese shop, I looked up the streets and in every direction was a mass of people all staring in one direction…at me.  I can’t begin to describe what was going through my head & my heart but I remember thinking, “Don’t EVER forget this feeling.”

After we completed the spot I wanted to create a ritual for myself.  Something I did after every shoot.  Get a beer?  Buy something for myself?  Go someplace special?  No.  It had to be something inspired by that shoot but also something I could duplicate each time I was wrapped.  That’s when I decided my ritual would be to have a pancake.  Silly?  Simple?  Odd? Perhaps.  But that is what I did after that shoot and have done after every shoot since.  Pancakes are accessible almost anywhere at any time.  There was one time that I knew I would be in a remote area after shooting a documentary, so I pre-made a pancake and sealed it in a baggie.  After the shoot, I sat alone in my car and ate a very stale pancake.  But the ritual was kept alive.

There are no “rules” for Pancake Time, only guidelines.  1. I eat a pancake.  2. I go alone.  (Very few times, I have gone with someone from the shoot who knows that I do it  and what it means to me.)  3. I spend my time thinking about how incredibly blessed I am to have the opportunity to live my dreams.  I remember the day and relish the feeling of accomplishment.  4.  I give the server a higher than usual tip.  The size varies on my current financial situation that day.  The goal is to give them a tip they have never received but sometimes I just don’t have access to that much money and it depends on if it is a project I funded myself or one where I am paid to do it, but I always leave as much as I am able to give.  If they say anything, and I’ve heard “Is this a mistake?” multiple times…I say the same thing every time.  “I had a really good day today and I want you to have one too.”

When I am working on a shoot, I am so focused on getting the job done that I rarely take the time to realize how special this moment really is to me.  Pancake Time gives me that chance.  It’s a gift I give myself.  A little pocket of time between living my dreams and going back to reality.  A brief reminder that life is a gift and dreams do come true.

I also get to eat a pancake, so that’s pretty great too!