Just wanted to take a second to tip you off to this – a darkly comic short for this Veteran’s Day. Check it out – from writer/director Ricky Horne Jr. and my buddy Alison Haislip. Well worth your 15 minutes, especially today.
Oh, look at that. I’ve been away for a while. I would like to profoundly apologize to my three committed readers for this grievous offense. To make it up to that almost-handful of you, here’s a great question from Patrick that deserves to be examined:
“I guess my question is this: I’ve been actively saving and am planning to move to LA in six months to give it a go as a writer (since continuing down my current path will most assuredly result in my suicide…and also because I love writing, of course). I was wondering if you have any insight to share on how many pieces I should have in my arsenal aka portfolio for when I arrive out there? I currently have two completed screenplays and one completed original TV Pilot. I know this is not enough, and I know the boiler plate answer is ‘you can never have enough samples’, but I was wondering if you had a magic number that you would recommend? I was sort of thinking I would strive for 3 completed, polished screenplays and 4 TV specs (2 original pilots and 2 spec scripts). But, as with many things in life, I’m pretty clueless and would certainly welcome and appreciate your advice here. And if I may be so bold/obnoxious to tag onto this question…with regard to TV, do you feel I should put more emphasis in the TV spec script or TV Pilot? Do you have an opinion on which is more important of a sample?”
Thanks, Patrick. Before I get into anything else on this topic, I want to hammer home the major point here, and I want to hammer it home with, like, a really big, heavy hammer that really hammers the Christ out of things:
Just get here.
That’s by FAR the most important part of your journey, whether you have fifty scripts ready to go or zero. Get. Thee. To Los Angeles. Being here is, in my opinion, literally half the battle. If you’re here, you are (figuratively, but importantly) light years ahead of everyone else who isn’t, and now the only question left is talent.
If you want to take a shot at writing screenplays for a living…first of all, God bless you, you lunatic comrade-in-arms. But second, you have to go where the industry is. It doesn’t make sense to do it any other way. Yes, there are anecdotal stories of writers working from outside Los Angeles. It has happened.
But it doesn’t happen often, and there are myriad reasons for that. And you already know all of them.
When I was first thinking about moving to LA, my mentor, Luke Ryan, asked me a couple of questions, and now I ask all aspiring writers/industry prospectives the same:
1. If you were to move to LA, would you likely be broke and feeling out of place?
2. If you stayed where you are, would you likely be broke and feeling out of place?
If the answer to both those questions are “Yes”, then the solution is simple. “Well, then you might as well move to LA. This is where all the jobs are. And we have beaches.”
So please: if you have the means and the flexibility and you want to be a working screenwriter, move to Los Angeles. If you don’t, the chances you will ever sell a script are as close to “Never” as you can get. The quicker you get here and the more you learn to network and build relationships, the more you’ll improve those chances.
Now, onto the second part of this ever-involved question: how many scripts do I need to have under my belt when I move to Los Angeles?
This is the fun part, because the answer is patently simple: None. In fact, this should be one of the last things you ever worry about.
First of all, any scripts you’ve written to this point are probably not that great anyway. That’s not a judgment – that’s the numbers. That is a fact. And part of the reason this is a fact is that, if you’re NOT around the film industry, you probably don’t know anyone who can help your writing get any better – or you don’t know anyone who can help enough, and that’s a best-case scenario. Second, aspiring screenwriters are a dime a dozen out here. You can’t sneeze without infecting forty of them. So even once you DO get here, you’re probably not going to need a sample of your work for a while. It’s sort of a common misconception amongst the uninitiated that you’ll show up in LA and someone will come walking up to you like, “Hey, are you a writer? AMAZING! I must read your work!” And that shit does NOT happen. If it does, someone is probably trying to separate you from your money, so you should run away quickly.
Here’s what you need to do, whether you have scripts written or just a bunch of ideas floating around your head: get here, make friends, make contacts, and start developing your work around people who can actually help you make it better. Eventually you’ll meet people who know their shit (and probably quicker than you’d think, if you have even the most basic social skills) and they’ll be in the position to help you. At THAT point, you’d better have a script or at least be able to pitch them one in detail. But until then? There is no magic number. There is no prerequisite. There is just you getting here, there is just you honing your craft, and there is just making yourself a better writer.
Now, onto the idea of screenplays and TV pilots: unless you are SPECIFICALLY working your way into the TV world – meaning you goal is to write for/produce TV – there’s really no reason to bother with TV pilots/specs. You won’t get read, and you won’t get meetings to pitch. The TV world is incredibly insular, and right now the only writers getting in the door are established feature writers and established TV writers. So the average writer has a substantially better chance of breaking in through film than they do TV; in fact, that’s the ONLY chance they stand, statistically. If you want to break into TV only, then get ready for the long haul. You have to start on the low end (PA, office assistant, whatever), work your way into the middle (writer’s assistant) and then hopefully get staffed on a show. And even once you do THAT it can be tough to get a pitch meeting for an original idea.
Thanks again to Patrick for the question. As always, I welcome your slings and arrows and questions of your own. And remember, the penis mightier than the swordis!
All the things you need to know about BREAKING BAD and it’s brilliant televised run were summed up in three sentences in last night’s Series Finale:
1) I did it for me.
2) I liked it.
3) I was good at it.
Congratulations, Vince Gilligan and crew. You distilled nearly the entirety of human existence into three concise personal factoids.
Walter White started out the series as a specialized genius who’d been hosed out of (perhaps) hundreds of millions of dollars; the fallout of that saw him performing in the present as a babysitter to the quintessential Detached Youth, toiling in thankless obscurity, careening into middle age with nothing to show for it except a family that barely noticed his presence and a burgeoning relationship with cancer.
By the end, he’d poetically returned to a scarily similar lot in life. But in between these grimy bookends, the man built a tangible, notorious empire using the latent genius he was previously disallowed from cashing in on, provided for the future and safety of his family, and – at least temporarily – beat the disease that was threatening the whole enterprise.
The price? He became a monster. And he ruined the lives of everyone he ever loved in the process.
The cost of getting everything we ever wanted can be laughably disastrous.
And, ultimately, that’s what BREAKING BAD was about. It’s not a morality play – it’s an examination of not only the American Dream, but the Human Condition. We want for ourselves first. We seek to do what we love. And in the end, we want the recognition that we did it well. What most people fail to realize – or realize far too late – is that it’s the pursuit of these things that define us, not the result of having succeeded in them. Or, alternately, having failed miserably.
And that’s perhaps the most profound legacy of the show, as it begs us to ask the question: when you’re forced to be honest with yourself about all that Walter White chased like a Viking funeral…can you honestly say he wasn’t successful?
It’s a dirty, cracked mirror the show asked us to turn on ourselves. And we’re all better off for having looked into it.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this piece five years [and some change] ago, right before I sold my first script in July 2008. A mere twelve days prior, in fact. But right now, I’m stuck. I’ve been struggling lately with my writing, and I…
No, sorry. That’s a lie. I’ve been struggling all year. And some change. I guess it’s One of Those Things. Hopefully not One of Those Things That Ends My Career, but I’ve no right to be choosey considering the charmed life I’ve led. Anyway, I feel better admitting that. Out loud. Again. Seriously, I will fix this sooner or later. I cannot wash out of literally the only thing I’ve ever been good [or will ever be good] at.
I’ve been struggling with writing, and one of the things that not only gives me strength and encouragement every day is to think about my family. The sad fact of the matter is that most people who want to push all-in to pursue some form of creative art don’t have a whole hell of a lot of support. I am not one of those people. In fact, I’m AGGRESSIVELY not one of those people. I’ve had every morsel of encouragement tossed my way and then some, and then some again, from my parents to my brothers to my aunts and uncles and cousins. Like I said…I’ve lived an exceptionally charmed life.
Invariably, the people I think about the most are my Granny and Pa. This is probably because they were 1) seminal in both my actual upbringing AND my pursuit of a storytelling existence in general and 2) they’ve both shucked this blasted mortal coil. In the version of my history that my mind has built for me, they are legendary figures on the level of Kronos and Rhea and they’re no longer around to dispel that notion for me. And I feel as though I’m obligated to think about them often just to keep that status quo. It’s remembering so as not to forget.
Maybe it’s because this is my five-year anniversary of being a professional screenwriter or the artist inside me petrified that I’ve lost any knack I ever had for banging out a story in script form, but I’ve been thinking about Pa especially in recent months. Almost as if…if I could harness the complete memory of him, I’d find something within it that would replenish all the confidence that’s leaked out of me like precious heat through a cracked window in winter.
Or maybe it’s just harder being against the ropes without one of your guiding lights to see you home.
Whatever it is, I feel like anything I could take from this phase of nostalgia means little to nothing if I can’t share it with all twelve of you who read this blog. So with permission from myself, I hereby reprint The Great Pa Mailey Memorial Piece of 5 July 2008.
I’m proud to say that my bold prognostication to end the piece held true. And some change.)
There’s this funny little routine you have to go through just to get in the room. They make you put on a hypoallergenic gown that feels roughly like fiberglass and latex gloves that seem snug enough to have been made for children only (which is saying a lot, something you know if you’ve ever seen my small freak-hands). If you leave the room, you have to trash them. When you come back, you have to go through the process all over again. I’m told it’s to stop the spread of MRSA that can easily be transmitted from patient to patient. Though for some reason, they don’t make you tie the gown. I’m bothered by this, as it seems purpose-defeating.
But them’s the rules at the rehab center that has become my grandfather’s Last Big Stop. Well, they call it a “rehab center”, though but taking a look around…egh. Let’s just say that most of the people here – all seemingly in various stages of near-death – don’t seem to be rehabbing so much as rehearsing to be corpses. This is less a “rehab center” and more of a “morgue pre-party”.
I wasn’t here last time. What my grandfather doesn’t know is that this is the same exact rehab center where my grandmother died twelve years ago. He doesn’t know because he didn’t visit her there; no one knew she’d be gone so quickly. No one’s telling him, either. And that’s a blessing – it would only make this worse.
Worse than this would be…pretty bad. I find my grandfather hunched over in his wheelchair, hands folded in his lap, staring at the ground. I can’t decide if this is more or less heartbreaking than when I saw him two days prior, laying immobile in his bed and struggling with his breathing tube. I decide on “more heartbreaking” and fight the first of the many urges I have to cry that afternoon. It’s a struggle.
He’s breathing hard. His nose is running. He coughs in fits that seem to cascade into seizures every five minutes. Pa is the victim of advanced pulmonary fibrosis, a malady almost certainly connected to his service on a submarine in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Now, seventy some-odd years later, he’s still soldiering. Albeit in a much different way.
His old-person tracksuit is coated with a smattering of goldfish cracker crumbs. Sadly, this is a good sign – it means he’s eaten today. In the cache of euphemisms that have become the Mailey family’s manifesto over the past few weeks, this could aptly be categorized as just above A Piece of Encouraging News and just below The Best We Can Hope for At This Point.
It’s not until I sit down on the bed and touch his hand that he knows I’m there. I decide to blame this on his hearing (or lack thereof) rather than to congratulate myself on my ninja-like approach. He does his best to smile, and even though that’s a failing proposition these days, I know he’s glad to see me. I’ve brought him some Lotto scratch-off cards. Every day, wasting down to nothing faster and faster, he’s still scratching off these goddamned Lotto cards. “Wouldn’t it be something,” he says dryly, “if I were to hit the big one at this point? That would be a laugh.”
Today it doesn’t sound that funny.
He gets winded scratching off the first card and asks me for my help finishing it off. I do; it’s not a winner. Best we go on to the second one, he says, and so I scratch that one too. This one produces a veritable treasure chest: $20. “Look Pa,” I doin my best bullshit, saccharine voice, ” You’re a winner!” He smiles again, then tells me to keep it. I make some joke about him using it to tip the nurses, and he mumbles something to the effect of their heads being designated for assignment in their asses. “Keep it. Buy yourself a drink in the airport this evening. What the hell am I going to do with it in here?” The last sentence is said without a hint of humor, and immediately following it, his gaze goes back to the faux marble tile. It’s clear there’s not going to be a lot of conversation here today. So I hold his hand.
A minute or two later, I remember something I had forgotten to ask him about during my previous visit: “Hey Pa? I heard that [my cousin] Shawn came up to see you the other day. Did you have a nice visit?”
He raises his head, “Yes, it was very nice. It was good to see him.”
A few seconds pass, and before he puts his head down again: “Yeah, Shawn came to visit, your uncles are in here everyday, you came from California.…you’d think I was dying or somethin’.” This time it’s definitely intended to be a joke. I laugh, wonder how he even has the strength to bother, and fight the urge to cry once again.
There are countless things I’d love to tell you about my grandfather, but most of them are personal stories that merely define him in my eyes. But if there’s one seminal item, one character-cementing thing that my grandfather did that would measure him up against anyone for YOU, it’s this: he built his own house.
To me, that is…that is something. This man was not an architect. He had exactly zero training as a builder – of ANYTHING, much less houses. He was in the Navy. He studied business. He worked on the railroad. And then one day, he wanted a house so that he and his One and Only, my Granny, could raise a family in. So he went out, read a few books, bought enough lumber to deforest a good chunk of Central Pennsylvania, and he fucking built that house.
Seriously. He had some help pouring the foundation and had friends in the trade help him with the plumbing and electric wiring. Beyond that, though, he built his house with his own two hands. Just him. My grandfather. Pa. Now, really…how many of you know anyone who’s done that? How many of you know a man who wanted a house, read a book about building houses, built the house, and then proceeded to lord over the Great American Family within it for fifty years?
I know one.
My grandfather did what a man does – a fact that did not, I can tell you, go unnoticed by my grandmother. Granny once told a story: “You know, the day your grandfather got home from the War, I was waxing the floor in the kitchen. He opened the door, and I saw him standing there and nearly fainted. We didn’t even move for a couple of minutes. We just stared at each other. And he looked so sexy in his uniform…” And just like that, she trailed off like as old woman does when she remembers fondly. I was younger at the time this tale was told, and curious, I asked what happened. Granny composed herself and said only, “Well, let’s just say I had to wax the floor again.”
Oddly enough, Pa’s favorite thing to do in his house was contaminate it. For decades the man smoked 8 – EIGHT! – cigars per day. He remained adamant that it was not a bad habit because, much like even our finest Presidents, he “didn’t inhale”. Perhaps it wasn’t on his mind, but the rest of us who had the privilege of staying there for any amount of time existed in an atmosphere that could only be described as brownish. The air in and around my grandparents’ house was acrid, hefty and pervasive, coating everything from clothes to food to, perhaps, even a few souls. My grandfather’s solution to this problem? He bought a ten-inch high air purifier and set it on his chairside table. As you might guess, that functioned about as well as a band-aid on the Titanic. Pa puffed away contently, undeterred, until one day, at a doctor’s appointment, he was told that his smoking habit might be contributing to his heart disease.
Pa quit smoking that day and never had another pull off a cigar in his life. This left Pa with a dearth of ways to torture his beloved family. And that’s about when he decided that if he couldn’t ruin our lungs, he would ruin our vision.
One day, I walked into my grandparents’ house to find that Pa had gone quite out of his head and had electric-blue carpet installed in his family room. And when I say “electric-blue”, I want to be frank about just how electric it was: I became the only middle-schooler in a fifty-mile radius to have acid flashbacks. It was like sitting on top of an azure sun. Just being around it made your body temperature spike by ten degrees. It was garish. It was uncalled for. It was retina-searing. And my grandfather LOVED it. It was his favorite color. No one else understood. Chalk it up in the barrel full of things that Pa did that we didn’t understand. Another of note, just for posterity: the man watched upwards of 10 hours of television per day, yet never sprung for cable or even a TV that had a remote OR a working antenna. He traveled back and forth across his blue carpet dozens of times every day, manually changing the channel and then complaining when the reception sucked. All of this in an effort to watch an episode of M*A*S*H* that he’d only seen sixty times before.
There are enough stories like this to fill books. Maybe it would be a book you’d read, and maybe not. Just in case you’re here for the condensed version, I’ll leave you with this:
When my grandmother died, my grandfather sold that house. His house. The one that he built, by himself, for her. That house was iconic in my mind, a place of countless happy pastimes and life experiences. I was flabbergasted that he could part with it. Some of the family was outright angry. But to Pa, his house was no longer a home. Not without Granny. Now, it was just a structure fixed in place over everything he’d lost. Before he’d even moved out, it was a memory. The reason he got down on his hands and knees and created it from nothing was gone, and as far as he was concerned, the house had served its purpose. It was now obsolete, so he left it. There is only one One and Only in this life.
Like I said, my grandfather did what a man does.
I sat with Pa that day, the last day I would ever see him, for a good forty-five minutes. Conversation, spotty and infrequent, took up a grand total of about thirty seconds of that visit. He mostly bowed his head and looked down, squeezing my fingers tightly in his, and God, I wished that I could do anything to make it stop for him. How is it that just at the point when the sum of your life’s actions should be called upon to build your dignity to its highest level…it can be so unceremoniously and callously drained from you? Frail, diapered, runny-nosed, struggling. Miserable. Watching it is pure and unadulterated agony. I can’t even imagine LIVING it.
And then…it was time to go. It was time to go, and I felt like I’d offered him little. I’d worried about this earlier, that there was nothing I could really do for him. My mother told me that just having me there would be a tremendous lift for him. He didn’t look lifted. He looked just like he looked when I came in: broken. There was nothing I could fix. But knowing that and accepting that are two wholly different animals.
I stood up, kissed him on the head, hugged him, and said fare-thee-well. Our last. I told myself how lucky I was to have this moment, that most people don’t ever get to say goodbye for real. I didn’t feel lucky. He hugged back as best he could, told me to be good. I walked to the trashcan, started to disavow myself of the gloves and gown. “This is it,” my frustrated, scared brain screamed at me. “This is it! Don’t you realize that? Tell him how much he means to you! Say something! Say something, you idiot!”
I turned and looked at him. “I’ll be back at the end of August,” I barely creaked. “It’s my ten-year high school reunion. Can you believe it’s been ten years?”
“Isn’t that somethin’,” he replied, trying to look up.
“So you hang on until, then, OK,” I demanded with all the conviction of wet tissue in a hurricane.
“OK, Geoffrey,” he lied.
“I’ll see you then,” I lied right back. And I turned and walked for the door. I almost made it out.
I know I must have turned around instantly, but standing there, I felt like it took me decades to rotate.
He offered a sickly wave…and yet made it seem as though it was the grandest of gestures. “Thanks for coming all this way,” he said. “To say goodbye to your old Pa.”
The words hit like a wave. A Gibraltar-sized rock formed in my throat where my Adam’s apple used to be, my knees buckled and my legs all but gave out from under me. Somehow, for the last time that day, I successfully fought the tears back. It had nothing to do with projecting stoicism or feeling foolish or being ignorantly macho. My grandfather had only four days left on this planet at that moment, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let his last memory of me be one with wet eyes. So I smiled.
“You got it.”
I’m 28 years old; it was the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt like an adult. All I did was fly home. But that’s the kind of man my grandfather was: I could give nothing, and yet he turned that nothing into everything. The old bastard.
A prophet much wiser than I once theorized that a man stumbles around most of his life confused and in various stages of inebriation, his vision clouded to one degree or another, except on two occasions: when he finds himself, and when he faces death. I’ve often thought that one can consider himself truly lucky if those events don’t happen at the same time.
So if someone had walked into that room with us at that point, they wouldn’t have known that something was off. That something was discordant. They would have just seen two men – one old, one young, one a grandfather, one a grandson – about to part one final time. They would have gone about their day and never questioned the fact that they were both wearing glasses. They had no idea how silly it was for us to be wearing them.
Because…what did we need glasses for? At that moment, we were just a couple of lucky fellas with 20/20 vision.
I will miss you, old man. I will miss you.
Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with Drew McWeeny from HitFix. The first thing I thought of when Spike Lee Twittered that he was going to be making a big announcement was that he’s retiring from filmmaking. Maybe that’s a conclusion I shouldn’t jump to, but I do, and it makes me sad. Take a gander at Drew’s article above – he’s got a great story about the first time he met Spike.
And I have one of my own.
The date was 16 October 1993. I was a ripe 14 years old. My Uncles took me, my cousin Justin, and my cousin Mandy to the Penn State-Michigan game in State College. Before the game, we were wandering around any of the myriad bookstores/souvenir shops on the main drag through town when Justin and I came upon a few crumpled $20 bills laying in the middle of an aisle. No one else was around, and we pounced on them like they were grenades and we were selflessly giving our lives for everyone else in the store. Now, we each had $20 in our hands, a MONUMENTAL amount of money. Immediately, we had a big idea: we’d seen these huge, inflatable PSU helmets in another store, and we were going to buy them and wear them at the game. And so we did. And it was AWESOME.
Then, we went out and lost the game 21-13 (allow me to take a moment to express something eternal to me: Fuck Michigan). We were depressed, and there seemed to be little chance of recovering. But then one of my Uncles suggested we go down to the player’s area behind the stadium and try to catch them for some autographs as they exited the locker room. Our spirits perked. This was brilliant. We headed in that direction.
Pretty soon, players started to file out, and I more or less lost my teenaged shit. That was a loaded team – Kerry Collins, Kyle Brady, Bobby Engram, etc etc etc…and pretty soon, they were all signing my helmet. I couldn’t believe my luck. I didn’t even mind at the time that I somehow missed my favorite member of the team, Ki-Jana Carter – I was TALKING TO MEMBERS OF WHAT WOULD BECOME ONE OF THE BEST PENN STATE TEAMS OF ALL TIME.
One particularly huge player was signing my helmet – it had to have been either Kerry Collins or Tyoka Jackson, who are Kaiju-sized human beings – when I see a madman running at me out of the corner of my eye. Before I can react, he’s dragging me away, and I’m more or less certain I’m as good as molested. Luckily, I quickly realize it’s my Uncle Rick, as he screams at me the reason for kidnapping me so roughly: Joe Paterno is down the gate, getting ready to get into his car and go home, and he’s signing a few things. This is huge: Joe never really signed autographs. What was different about this day I’ll never know, but there he was, holding court. This was a golden opportunity to get a signature from the man my family so idolized. This was the best day of my life.
Near the front of the queue, I’m waiting for my moment with the greatest college football coach who ever lived, when I hear someone’s voice in my ear.
Who dared bother me at this moment? Can they not see what’s about to happen here? Sonsabitch. I turn to the voice. It’s Spike Lee’s. He’s standing in front of me, smiling.
Now listen: at 14, I was neither cultured nor curious about the world. I was not a very “aware” suburban white kid. But I for DAMN sure knew who Spike Lee was. He hung out with Michael Jordan in commercials. He wrote and directed DO THE RIGHT THING and JUNGLE FEVER, both of which I was not “allowed” to have seen, but had. I didn’t know how to absorb either, and I wasn’t fully aware of what I was watching. They were too adult, too intellectual, too artsy, too out of my comfort zone for me to feel anything about – other than fear and intrigue. But I knew one thing: Spike Lee was DANGEROUS. And if what everyone I knew had said was true, he was a RACIST. This was not going to be good.
I. Was going. To die.
So, as if he were an impressionist painting in a museum, I just stared at him. He kept smiling.
“Do you mind if I sign your helmet?”
I can’t tell you the infinite ways in which this broke my fucking brain. Why is Spike Lee here? Why is he talking to me? Why does he want to sign my helmet? Where are my pants?
(EDITOR’S NOTE: My pants were still on me, but you’re going to have to remember, you know, that my brain was broken.)
So I did the only thing that could keep me alive. I handed it over.
He continued to smile at me, not immediately signing my helmet.
“How are you doing in school, young man?”
“Pretty good, I guess.” I don’t know why, when you’re a kid, you’re compelled to be self-deprecating around adults. Truth is, I’d gotten less than an A in a class once, in fourth grade, and I flipped the fuck out and called my science teacher after school and lit into her about it. In this case in particular, intimidation was definitely a factor.
“You guess? Alright, that’s good. You going to STAY in school?”
“That’s good. That’s very good. Staying in school is the most important thing, you know that?”
He started to sign my helmet. I started to pee a little.
“What about after school? What do you want to do with your life?”
At this point, I became inexplicably verbose. “I don’t really know yet. I like weather. I’ve thought about being a meteorologist. Maybe someone who chases tornadoes. But I also really like writing too.”
At this, he perked up. He’d finished signing my helmet, but he hadn’t handed it back yet.
“Oh yeah? You like writing? That’s good. You going to be a filmmaker?”
This froze me. What the hell was he talking about? I said I liked writing, not cameras. This guy has lost his shit, clearly. I was going to respond that I hadn’t, but he didn’t give me the chance.
“You like movies?”
“Oh yeah. I LOVE movies.”
“That’s good. So if you like writing, and like movies, how come you never thought about writing your own movie?”
I don’t know if he’d seen right into me or if he was just throwing shit at the wall to see what stuck, but that question FLOORED ME. I wrote a lot. I wrote in school, I wrote at home, I wrote in my head, I wrote everywhere. EVERYTHING was a story to me in one way or another. But I thought that was just how it was with everyone – I had no concept that this was a skill, much less something that an ordinary person could aspire to DO AS A JOB. Steven Spielberg made movies, and he was clearly superhuman, not a kid from Pennsylvania. So what is Spike Lee TALKING ABOUT? This one question had thrown my very universe into chaos, and he could tell.
“You should think about that. Anyone can guess the weather. How many people you think can make a movie?”
“Not many, I guess.”
“You guess right. You guess right.”
He handed me back my helmet, still smiling. I started to get the feeling that I was NOT, in fact, going to be killed by a racist.
“You stay in school, yeah? And you keep writing. Thanks for letting me sign your helmet.” He started walking away. I was so whip-spun by everything that had just happened that I couldn’t come up with anything to say. HE was thanking ME for LETTING him sign my helmet?????? What in the Christing fuck had just happened here? I knew I needed to say SOMETHING, so I blurted out the best I had:
“Thanks, Mr. Lee!”
He kept walking, but turned back, still smiling, and gave me a little wave. I SWEAR TO GOD I heard him chuckle, “Mr. Lee…alright,” to himself, but I can’t be certain. Maybe that’s just how I want to remember our encounter concluding. In any event, a couple minutes later, HE GOT IN THE CAR WITH JOE PATERNO AND THEY DROVE AWAY TOGETHER. In the immediate, my adolescent lizard brain was racing at what I’d seen. What the HELL was Spike Lee doing hanging out with Joe Paterno? Could there be two people with any less in common? How the hell are we going to beat Ohio State in two weeks? My God, Michigan just ruined our undefeated season…
And so on and so forth. I was still buzzing about my conversation with a dangerous racist filmmaker, but not in the way I should have been. To be honest, for years following, I thought of it as nothing more than a cool story – I meant to get Joe Paterno’s autograph, and I ended up getting Spike Lee’s. And WHY was he hanging out with Joe Paterno? Well, clearly THAT’S the interesting story here, and let me tell you my theories on it.
Seven years later, in the throes of college, I was struggling to pick a major. Art wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I wasn’t good enoughengaged enough with math or science to become a meteorologist. My God, what was I going to do with my life? I guessed Communications seemed most interesting in theory. OK, that was a start. But what did I want to communicate? And how? I mean, the only thing I REALLY loved doing is writing, but that was just a hobby. And…OK, I really loved movies, but those were just something you saw in your free time. That didn’t help me. But…wait a minute, didn’t they…yeah, they offered a screenwriting class here in the School of Media Arts and design. Writing plus movies. Maybe that made sense – I loved writing, and I loved movies. Why not give that a shot?
Wait a minute…where had I heard that before?
Twenty years later, I have to look back on that day, pure joy and thankfulness overtaking me. All of this, all that I have as part of my life today, started with a chance encounter, a scared kid, a wise man and a $20 piece of plastic.
I hope you’re not walking away, Mr. Lee. You have a whole other generation of filmmakers yet to inspire.