I’d been in Los Angeles for about two years and I’d managed to cobble together a small amount of money to make a very low budget independent film. This was not long after the films “Clerks” and “The Brothers McMullen” had come out so I think they were our prototypes. Our plan was to make the film and take it out on the festival circuit. I think I came up with about 20K, mostly from credit cards and just dove into the process of making this film.
It actually was a great experience. I worked with some very talented actors. The crew consisted of about 8 people who showed up every day for no money. We shot the film in 12 days. I learned an enormous amount. It kind of demystified the process of making a film. Around ten years later I made a film with a budget of 10 million dollars with a crew of nearly 100 and it was astounding how similar the two processes were.
The script was one of the first I’d ever written and while I feel like there was something there, I still had a lot to learn. It was a fairly thin piece of writing that had many flaws. In editing this became apparent and by the time we were done the thing had a running time of 78 minutes and was probably 15 minutes too long.
But I’m saying this with the perspective of about 16 years. At the time, all I knew was that I’d worked very hard on this film; incredibly hard. I’d spent a year raising the money for post production and this was back when you had to come up with real money for things like film to video transfers and answer prints and negative cutting. I’d had to file bankruptcy because I couldn’t keep up with the minimum payments on my credit cards. I wanted, almost needed, to believe that all of this was going to amount to something. It had to. Too many people had worked too hard and sacrificed too much for this to wind up as nothing more than a learning experience. It had to be more than that.
The rejections streamed in from festival after festival. I have to laugh when I look at this film now and think that I hoped with all my heart that it would be admitted to the Cannes Film Festival. I actually applied. It fared just as badly in its attempts at Sundance, Toronto and many, many others. But then, suddenly, a ray of light. A call came in. The film had been accepted at the Ft. Lauderdale Film Festival.
The people who ran the Ft. Lauderdale Film Festival were lovely. I don’t remember their names and I have no idea if they still run it but they were very kind to us and everything I am about to write shouldn’t reflect negatively on the organizers of this festival who I think were real film lovers and, again, sweet people.
At that time, Ft. Lauderdale was a lesser film festival. I didn’t know this. I knew that Sundance and Cannes were the big ones but I just figured everything after that was still a pretty big deal. This idea was reinforced by the fact that this festival was paying to fly me, my producer and my lead actor across the country and put us up for 5 days in a nice hotel. What’s more, the day before we were set to leave we were informed that Charlie Sheen, of all people, had cancelled a promised appearance at the last minute. His beautiful 3 room suite, complete with a hot tub and an amazing view of the beach was now being given to us.
On some level (and the 3 room suite did nothing to hamper this delusion) I think I had the expectation that I was going to be arriving in Ft. Lauderdale to some fanfare. This is ridiculous, I now know. I feel silly saying it. It’s not that I expected people there to know anything about our little film. I guess I just thought that the entire city of Ft. Lauderdale, and perhaps nearby Miami, would be very enthusiastic about the film festival and maybe even whipped up into something of a frenzy to the point where they’d be greeting all the films and filmmakers with some measure of acclaim.
To make a long story short, we were greeted with relative apathy. Well, that’s not true strictly speaking. We were greeted with a review in the local paper that gave us zero stars. That’s right. ZERO STARS. And when I say the word “greeted”, I mean that almost literally. We stepped into the shuttle that would take us from the airport to the hotel and one of the volunteers from the festival handed us the newspaper saying, “There are reviews from some of the films in there. Check and see if you’re in there.” And then we opened it to see the zero stars. After that came the apathy.
Our screenings, with the help of that zero star review, managed to draw crowds in the single digits. The festival was lightly attended in general. It was one very small thing going on in a city that had many other things going on. This wasn’t the festival’s fault. It’s just that this was a small, regional film festival and I was, very stupidly, hoping for Beatlemania or at least some kind of mania.
I know I said I was going to make a long story short but there’s one more detail about the festival that’s too good to leave out. My producer on the film had grown up in Naples, Florida. We’d made plans to go to his home town for a few days at the end of the festival. Given our reception we’d decided to skip the last day and closing ceremony and head to Naples. But then, the night before the final day of the festival we were called by the festival director. She couldn’t say anything officially but she suggested (wink, wink) that we be at the closing ceremony. Especially at the, and I swear to God she stressed the words, “presentation of awards”.
This, of course, meant that we were going to be receiving an award. I didn’t know how this was possible. But still, maybe there was some kind of happy ending here. At the awards ceremony, at the moment just before each award was announced, I felt my heart flutter. Time and again I prepared to stand, make my way to the stage where I’d give a brief but gracious speech thanking all the people who had helped me get to this point in what was sure to be an illustrious career.
The final award was given out and I couldn’t help but notice that my name had still not been called. At that point all the films that had not received awards were called up on stage and given plaques for their participation. It was a scene from my favorite film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” come to life. In the film, Woody Allen plays a struggling documentary filmmaker who clings to the fact that he once won honorable mention at a documentary film festival in Cincinnati. His wife of course reminds him that everyone who attended the festival got honorable mention. It actually happened to me.
I’ve written about all this with some humor. And it is funny to me now. The truth though is that I didn’t find it funny at all at the time. In fact, I was crushed. I’d never received a review before. Just seeing that my work had been judged as completely worthless by an objective audience was horrible. And I was still at a point where I wasn’t sure what the hell I was doing. There were a lot of voices in my head telling me that I had no business in Los Angeles trying to make films. I’d been at it for two years with absolutely no success. All this made those voices much, much louder.
The day after the closing ceremonies my producer and I drove to his home town of Naples. I’d never been there before. It’s a beautiful place and the weather was perfect. We stayed with a friend of his named Karen, who was a successful real estate agent. Karen was just a few years older than us but lived in a big, gorgeous home. It was one block from the beach. The back yard had a pool and a trampoline and was on a lagoon. One day I took a walk out on a pier and for the first time in my life saw a few dolphins swim by, maybe 10 feet away from me. The sight filled me with a kind of peace and wonder that I’d never felt before.
Still, I was at a low point. I felt beaten up by the festival. I wish I’d been the kind of person who was able to just enjoy the free trip to Ft. Lauderdale and take it for what it was. This was before I’d gone to therapy though or really grown up. I was bitterly disappointed and feeling very sorry for myself. I was questioning the choice I’d made to be a writer, to make the film. I was questioning everything. And it all just felt so bleak. I just didn’t see a road forward. I couldn’t figure out how I was ever going to get where I wanted to go from where I was. It felt impossible.
One night, I was left alone in the house where we were staying. My producer and Karen had left to run some sort of errand and I had opted to stay behind. Not long after they left there was a knock at the door. I answered it. A guy, about 35 or so stood there, said he was a friend of Karen’s. I told him Karen had stepped out. He asked if he could come in and wait.
I don’t remember this man’s name. I can barely remember what he looked like. There was something warm and friendly about him and he had a way of making you feel comfortable and familiar very quickly. He suggested we have a beer while we waited and he casually asked me about myself. I told him about the film and the festival. I’m sure I made it sound a lot better than it really was but I must have betrayed something because he then told me the following story, which went something like this:
“I work with Karen in real estate. You know, 6 years ago I just decided I was going to leave Boston and move to Florida to do real estate. I had no experience. I don’t know where this idea came from. My wife, my parents, all my friends – they thought I was nuts. And then I got down here and it seemed like they were right. A year went by. I couldn’t get the phone to ring. I burned through all my savings. I tried everything to drum up business. Nothing was working. It felt hopeless. I had always believed in myself but I got to the point where I was starting to wonder if I hadn’t made a big mistake… and then one day I caught a break. I met a guy randomly. He liked me and gave me a condo complex to sell. I did well with it. He gave me another one. Soon I had more work than I could handle. Now, the phone never stops ringing.”
And he was telling the truth. As we sat in the kitchen talking and drinking beer you could hear his cell phone ringing constantly out in his car. The guy finished telling his story, polished off his beer and said, “oh well, I guess Karen’s not coming back soon. Good meeting you”. And with that, he left. He had been there for all of 10 minutes. I never saw him again.
After he was gone I just sat there thinking how weird that was. Here I was, feeling so hopeless. Out of the sky falls this guy with a story about how things can change; how one break can turn it all around. It was exactly what I needed to hear. It was one of those times in my life where I felt some sense of grace in the world. It was almost like he was an angel. (He wasn’t a literal angel by the way. When Karen came back I confirmed that he was indeed one of her good friends). I left Florida and went back to Los Angeles with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. There were more tough times ahead of me but the day did come where I caught a break. And for a while, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.