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.

“Young man?”

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.

“Sure. Thanks.”

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?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“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.


First of all, I’d like to highlight something really, really cool: last year I was invited to the Austin Film Festival, and one of the many things I got to do on the four-day jaunt was speak on a panel about romantic comedies with Mark Silverstein and Abby Cohen and Dana Stevens. Said panel made its way to a really well-edited 20-minute clip on the AFF’s On Story site, which you can watch here.

Sorry I’m not smart enough to figure out how to embed that in this post. Anyway, I had a blast doing it and the reaction was pretty overwhelming – there were a few that really seemed to get something out of it, and for that I was impossibly happy, especially considering how hungover I was. Sadly, I have yet to be invited back, and I think it has something to do with all those hobos I killed and stashed on the roof. But I continue to cross my fingers that the AFF is willing to overlook that and give me another shot. I KNOW I can do this without any transient homicide, you guys. I just know it.

Great timing that this was released the same day I got this email from a reader, Joe, who had a specific question that’s of very basic importance to writing a romantic comedy:

“I would love your opinion on something — I’m a big fan of romantic-comedies, and I’ve been thinking recently whether rom-coms should be equally about both main characters, who each both grow, change, etc equally, where it’s really about both of them…or whether the movie needs to be ‘about’ one character where it’s really his/her movie, even if that doesn’t necessarily come across in the finished product. And when you first sat down to write GOING THE DISTANCE, the very first draft of the very first draft, were you thinking, ‘this is her/his story,’ or, ‘this is about both of them?'”

Thanks for writing, Joe. For better or worse, this answer is going to be a bit more philosophical than you might have been hoping for, but bear with me.

As for GOING THE DISTANCE, I’ve spoken on many occasions about how this story was based on the long-distance relationship of one of my good friends – whose at-the-time-girlfriend I’m also close with. The bulk of the story came from their experiences, to which I added my own romantic tribulations and thoughts. But because of the story it was based on, it HAD to be a two-hander. It HAD to be about both of them. From one standpoint, the stories I was told involved both of them, in execution and in the fallout. But even further than that, it’d be impossible to tell a story about a long-distance relationship without seeing how it challenges both people. So honestly, I didn’t even really think about the prism of who it *should* be told through – I just did what seemed natural. Think about SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (not to compare my movie to either of those, but let’s compare my movie to both of those) – would either have them have worked nearly as well if you only saw it from one side? No chance. And I’d be willing to bet that was a subconscious choice from the jump.

When we got into DEVELOPMENT on GOING THE DISTANCE, however, it turned out that I had skewed the POV a little too far to the side of Garrett. So we had to do some work to bring Erin’s side more into the equation, make sure the story had the right balance of perspective. It was absolutely the right move and something I wasn’t even fully conscious of when I was writing. Taking that into account, let me opine in such a way: I find that, most of the time, romantic comedies work best if both parties are equally represented and give room for their characters to breathe and live and react.

However, let’s flip the script here (I promise to never use that phrase again) for a second, because it certainly CAN work from a singular point of view. A great example of this is 500 DAYS OF SUMMER – this is a movie that comes in 100% from the male participant. In fact, I don’t believe there’s a single scene in the movie that shows Summer off by herself. or consorting with her friends, or bothering to teach us anything about her outside of Tom’s microscope. And you know what? IT WORKS. Because this is a movie specifically about Tom’s neurosis, about who Tom is as a person, and so everything comes filtered in through his own unique lens. The writers decided on this at some point, locked into it, and it’s a brilliant story simply because they didn’t stray from the concept. Incidentally, said concept even brought some disagreement between the film’s writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. At the end of the movie there’s a scene where, on a park bench, Tom and Summer have a conversation about their relationship, their breakup, and where they’ve gone since. I can’t recall which writer takes which side, but one of them believes this is an actual conversation that happens between the two, and the other believes it to be a figment of Tom’s imagination, a conversation he had in his own head so that he could forcibly achieve closure on the issue. That’s fascinating to me, and it really shows how fully these guys bought into their concept.

So this is where it gets philosophical. Which way is the best way into a romantic comedy? It all depends on the kind of story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.

Another thing I’ve said on many, many, MANY occasions – because I believe it to my core – is that writing a romantic comedy requires you to respect the comedy as much as the romance. And you have to ground BOTH  in realism and some shred of universality for the script to work in this day and age. Beyond that, though…what’s the story you want to tell? Does it makes sense for your concept to  come in solely from your (or your character’s) own worldview? If that’s the case, all you need to do is be honest and forthright and self-aware – you need to be able to see your triumphs and your failures as a person or for the character. What about from your (or the) significant other’s perspective? That requires just as much honesty, but redirected – you have to stand in the shoes of the Other and look back across the pond, which is going to require some harrowing exploration. And of course there’s always the option of splitting the difference, coming in from both equally, which is no less challenging.

There’s no concrete answer here. Your one and only master is your story, and you have to pledge full-throated allegiance to it if you have any hope of executing it properly. So, the question is asked, what’s the best, most honest way to pull this off? Like I said, there’s no “correct” answer. It’s all right and wrong at the same time, and you won’t know until you try to execute it. Such is the infinitely puzzling and invigorating life of a writer – cracking this shit and pulling it off or failing miserably and going back to the drawing board.

Pick a lane. Be passionate, be resolute, and always always ALWAYS be honest about what it is you want to say. The rest, if you have the talent, will take care of itself.

We’ll be discussing this topic just a bit more on this week’s Broken Projector.