It’s a scientific fact that every cell in your body “dies” and is replaced by new ones every seven years, which means that you literally aren’t the person you were seven years ago, and will be totally different seven years from now. It’s fascinating, but not as fascinating as the fact that deep down we really don’t change as much as we do on a cellular level. Patterns set in motion at a young age tend to stay with us throughout our lives. These patterns – behaviors if you will – adapt and evolve and they have to, in order to survive a world that demands it of us, but people really don’t change, despite our protests to the contrary.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently – that inability to change is actually the theme of one of my recent spec screenplays, but that theme really got a workout this past week.
I’m in “business mode” right now, as readers tear through my latest spec. This involves me catching up on the mundane day-to-day aspects of the biz, dealing with contracts and agents and the non-creative (yet no less essential) part of being a screenwriter. It’s gripping as you would imagine, but I do find I have a little more time to catch up on my movie watching, which is as essential to my work as anything else. Thanks to Netflix and their Watch Instant function, I’ve been working my way through Michael Apted’s legendary Up Series.
This was a set of documentaries that followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. The children were selected to represent the range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child’s social class predetermines their future. Every seven years, Apted filmed new material from as many of the fourteen as he could get to participate, and in the years following we got 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up and so on, with 56 Up slated for sometime in 2012.
I’m not going to post a lengthy review of the series because, frankly, it’s been done. But in watching 42 Up, I found myself reflecting on my own life’s progress. While some have criticized the formatting of the documentaries – if one cherry-picks an action or a line of dialogue it’s easy to build a movie around it to prove the thesis – that our class and upbringing determines out life from a young age – is sound. Some can and would argue against that just as others would vehemently defend it. Yet in looking back at my life, some patterns do emerge;
In 1980 I’m living in Vancouver, and my one strong memory of that year is of me in my backyard, with my dad’s Super-8 Camera and my Star Wars toys, making a stop-motion animated film. You see, The Empire Strikes Back had come out that May and in the lead-up to it, there was a “Making Of” that ran on TV, and that planted the idea of stop motion. So, I saved up my allowance to afford the roll of Super-8 film, and enlisted my sister as crew and my dad as camera, and they both actually agreed to help out. It wasn’t plot driven – just a bunch of toys rolling around in the sandbox out back, and it was months before I actually got to see the thing projected. Years later I transferred the film to VHS and I actually still have the super-8 film here on a shelf by my desk. It was and remains a crude little exercise, but I’m still guessing it’s more than any of you did at age seven so suck on that.
It’s 1987 and I’m living in Brockville, Ontario, having lived in Edmonton, Toronto, and Greensboro between Vancouver and here. It’s late summer and I’m in nearby Kingston, dragged by my mother for some back to school shopping. I escape and find refuge in one of the bookstores where a hardcover on the bargain table catches my eye. It’s called Skywalking: the Life and Films of George Lucas. I buy it and read it, but the chapter that stands out is the one on Lucas’ years at USC’s film school. There’s a school you can attend learn how to be a filmmaker? The wheels turned, to the point when maybe a year later when a guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do when I “grew up” and I told him “to be a filmmaker, sir,” he scheduled a meeting with my parents. Neither of them though it was a good idea – it was an unstable, difficult profession; tough to break into, and even tougher to stay in. Turns out they were right about that – though the fact that I not only broke in but stayed here would seem to prove I was able to rise above the challenge (and pump a couple shotgun blasts into it at the same time). There was resistance right up to the time I was applying to Universities and they made one last ditch effort to dissuade me. “What if you fail?” they asked, and I responded with one of my finer moments of clarity, that “I’d rather go for it and fail, than be some 40-something office drone torturing himself with the question of what would have happened if only I’d followed my dream?” It’s a philosophy I follow to this day. I’d rather try and fail spectacularly than settle for the safe road. The safe road’s boring.
It’s 1994, and I’m mid-way through the four year Film Studies program at Ryerson University. Yep I made it to Film School, and seven years on from picking up that cheap hardcover of Skywalking I’m in a warehouse on Eastern Avenue in Toronto, acting as Unit Manager on roommate and pal Warren P. Sonoda’s back to back video shoot for an east coast band called Fire Rooster. It’s still too early to tell if some years from now there’ll be a book written about our film school years, but for my memoir, 1994 is a banner year for a couple of reasons. The first is that Summer 1994 remains the best summer of my life; I managed to put away enough money so I could take those glorious four months off, and spent a good chunk of it at a friend’s place in the ‘burbs, taking advantage of his BBQ and his pool while his family was away on vacation. It was three weeks of hitting the hay as the sun came up and rising later in the afternoon and partying into the night, and definitely the most care-free my life would ever be. The years that followed would be rough ones personally and professionally, and the light at the end of that tunnel didn’t reach me until four years later, but even now I can safely say that the summer you turned 21 will always be the one of the best of your life. The other significant thing about Summer 1994 was my last go on the Lollapalooza circuit. Music was occupying less importance in my life, a drift that continued for years, until the idea for MIXTAPE came to me (14 years later, I might add); a story about how music is the most important thing in your life at a key point in it, and how it loses importance as you grow up.
If 1994 was one of the best years of my life, 2001 was one of the worst, especially after the banner years of 1998-2000, when I broke out of low wage serfdom and into sporadic wage writerdom. In 2001 I maybe put $5000 in the bank, and bless whatever Gods are looking out for me that I had wisely saved my earnings of the previous years so I was able to weather the down period that is part of this biz. After a high-profile project fell apart, and after every other attempt to get others off the ground failed, I reached that point where I really began to wonder if this was all I got. A brief run? A meteoric rise followed by a deep plunge? RoboCop aired to middling ratings and mixed reviews, and I was facing some serious questions of identity and purpose, wondering if I’d really found my place in the world. Then 9/11 happened and all my complaints and concerns gained a healthy dose of perspective. But, after a couple months of numb shock on a global scale, thing started to get better. I was getting calls, I was taking meetings and, by year’s end, I had landed a well-paying gig on a TV series that sustained me comfortably through the following year. And as lousy as 2001 was, the following year would be one of my best (detailed here). So what 2001 and being 28 taught me that sometimes just enduring life is a fucking victory.
It’s 2008 and I’m loading up a U-Haul truck and driving it from Canada down to NYC to hit the reset button on my career and tie the knot with the girl I met in 2002. This is a big moment, considering seven years before I was contemplating getting out of the business that made that meeting and this move all possible, fourteen years after that perfect summer and a final go with Alternative Nation, twenty-one years after picking up Skywalking, and twenty-eight years removed from a stop motion sandbox movie. I’m married and living in one of the world’s truly great cities, Mixtape comes to me in a white hot burst of inspiration, and I look ahead to the next installment in this gripping narrative that will come sometime in 2015 when I’ll be 42.
Maybe by then I’ll have found out the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything, assuming I know what question to ask.