Success has a variety of definitions, but to me it’ll always be “the ability to recognize a good opportunity when it presents itself.”
As you probably know already, I’m a writer. I’ve been a writer, full stop, since January 1999 when I was hired to write RoboCop: Prime Directives. That was 14 years ago, and somehow I’m still here doing what I do.
Being a writer in a business people find fascinating, I’m often asked questions about it, by people interested in a general sense, or a specific one. people hoping to “break in” or the parents of kids thinking of film schools will ask me questions, the most common of which is “how did you get your big break?”
This is that story, and it takes place from July 10 to August 9, 1998, when I lived at a movie theater.
Flashback to May of 1998 and I’ve become something of a fuck up. I know; shocker, right? Okay, not so much a fuck-up per se, but kind of coasting. I was fresh out of Film School with a degree worth about the paper it was printed on. But I wasn’t working “in the biz” like a lot of my fellow graduates were. Since graduating I’d bounced around from job to job, all low-paying, all barely covering my rent, bills, student loan repayments, etc. It was hardly La Boheme in its romantic squalor, but things were tight.
Now this doesn’t mean I was just sitting around doing nothing career-wise. I was writing daily, mostly preoccupied with a script called Hell For Breakfast, the story of which you can read about here. The short version of the H4B story was a series of near misses where it almost got made. Close but not close enough. Some option money, but not a great amount. This “close but no cigar” life was increasingly frustrating because I wanted nothing more than to leave the working world for the “romantic” life of a writer, or at least the life of not having to get up at seven to commute to a low paying job I hated.
So I worked and I wrote. I worked my day job from 8:30 to 4:30 M-F. I’d usually get home around 5:15-5:30, would grab a snack and sequester myself in my office for a couple hours, break for dinner, then do another hour, all just solid writing. I’d break on
Saturdays, but would largely spend Sundays sequestered in my office again.
My goal was to do 3-5 pages a day and I managed to crank out a new draft of H4B, a comedy called Mortal Clay (which was basically Six Feet Under before Six Feet Under), the first rough draft of a piece called Fearless Vampire Slayers, and a black comedy called Dead Folk. You’ll note none of the aforementioned has seen the light of day, but that’s another story altogether.
So I’d settled into a routine. One that was, I though, making progress, but was really like running in place. And it all came to a header on the May long weekend when I visited my dad at his place, and he tore me a new one. He wanted to know why I wasn’t gainfully employed in the biz I spent four years studying for. He wanted to know what I was doing – actively doing – to meet people, and to network. He wanted to know what my plan was, and if I even had one. What was the goal? I had a goal, so why wasn’t I working on achieving it?
Needless to say it was one of the shittier long weekends I’d experienced. At least at the time I felt that way. In hindsight it marked the turning point.
When I got back home, and back to my shitty life, I realized my dad was right; I had been spinning my wheels. I had been drifting. Something had to change.
Then opportunity presented itself.
I was leaving Suspect Video, a famous video store in Toronto that’s still going strong. I had just rented … something, I don’t know what. I do know it would have been on VHS though (because that’s how long ago this was) Sitting outside that store were two people I recognized; Colin Geddes and Julian Grant. Though I recognized them more for their work than them personally.
At the time Colin was manager of Suspect Video, and had been a well-known figure in Toronto’s film scene, having programmed numerous Asian action film festival. He’d written a couple of ‘Zines (blogs in the pre-internet era for you young ‘uns) which I owned, and in but a few short years would become the Midnight Madness programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival (a position he holds to this day).
Julian I had met a few times before, in his capacity of a prolific producer and director, mostly lower budgeted action-sci-fi films, of which I was desperate to write for. Julian was (and remains) a force of nature; passionate, driven, and in love with film. Now a tenure-track professor at Columbia College in Chicago, he’s giving a new generation of filmmakers the crash-course in filmmaking I got when what resulted from these next moments happened (but that’s jumping ahead)
I made note of them, and kept walking, then slowed, then stopped. I listened to what they were discussing. Then I turned back and approached them and when they finally realized some dude was standing there and staring at them and acknowledged my presence, I introduced myself.
Turns out they had just secured the rights to bring Montreal’s Fant-Asia festival to Toronto. 30 days of horror, action, scifi, martial arts movies. I asked if they needed volunteers, and as it happened they did. I gave them my info and assumed that was that/ Then a week later I got a call from my friend and then writing partner Joe O’Brien, who’d also spoken to Julian about FantAsia (having worked for him in the past), and shortly thereafter we were on a bar patio with Julian, talking movies, the festival, and everything. Julian gave us all-access passes ot the fest, and asked us to help out with the day-to-day operation. He also asked us to watch as many of the movies as we could handle because in his words “the only way to learn to make movies is to watch movies”.
And that’s what we did.
From July 10 to August 9, 1998 I lived at the Bloor, helping with FantAsia. I worked my day job from 8:30 to 4:30, got home, crammed a bagel in my mouth, and walked to the theater. I tore tickets, sold merchandise, networked, and watched movies — something like 65 in thirty days. Weekends were full. It was a good time and I got to meet a lot of people who were beneficial to me career-wise, among them Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm (Phantasm), Vincenzo Natali (Cube) and Karen Walton (Ginger Snaps), Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn), Larry Fessenden (Habit), Ronnie Yu and David Wu (The Bride With White Hair)… big names in the genre, and small names on their way to becoming big. One day I arrived to see Julian had granted some lobby space to a couple of guys who had just started up a horror magazine, and I got to meet Rodrigo Gudino and Marco Pecota; friends and colleagues for the last 15 years through their magazine called Rue Morgue.
[In one of those weird little ironies, my first review (of Jack Hill’s “Spider Baby” shared a page with Joe’s review of Evil Dead 2, and Rod’s review of Trail of a Serial Killer (AKA “Papertrail”), a movie co-written by Joe and starring Michael Madsen as “Detective Brad Abraham”]
I think what most impressed Julian about myself and Joe was we watched the movies; nearly all of them. On top of our day jobs we were there, doing what was needed to help run things smoothly. I barely got any writing done during that month, and yet I accomplished much, much more in that month than I’d done in the six months preceding. Because what I and Joe didn’t know was that in the midst of FantAsia, Julian had been approached by Fireworks Entertainment to resurrect ROBOCOP. He kept it under his hat through the fest and beyond, and it was in late October that he emailed to say he was doing a series RoboCop MOW’s for Fireworks and offered me writing duties on one of them.
It was supposed to be just one script but when the network wanted other pitches on scripts, Julian approached Joe and I both about crafting a storyline based on some pretty rough guidelines, which we did work on over that Christmasmas holiday. Come January 1999 we submitted our story, called Prime Directives, to him, which he loved. He submitted it to Fireworks and they liked it too. How could they not? It was a “Fant-Asia” movie; loaded with cyberpunk and kung-fu and action – a mélange of the movies we watched over the month of July into August, 1998.
I was at home when I got the call from Julian. The project was green lit, and we were off and running. I was now a professional writer; I just had to prove to everyone, and to myself, that I had the right to call myself that.
All of this, from that weekend in may when I realized I needed to get my life sorted, to being hired for Robocop, happened in less than nine months.
15 years later I’m sitting here in my apartment in NYC on a sweltering summer day, and can easily trace a line from here through the last decade and a half, to that moment I introduced myself to Julian and Colin. The fact I’m sitting here doing what I love to do is because of that moment where I stopped walking, turned back, and approached them.
So to answer that question I mentioned off the top; how I broke in is the way everyone who’s “in” breaks in. by doing things, by meeting people, by not hiding in your closet or basement, or corner of the living room, toiling away in solitude. That’s part of it, yes, but not the only part. “It ain’t art ‘til it’s seen”, as Joe R. Lansdale says, and it’s not going to get seen unless you get out there and show people what you’re capable of doing.
Don’t talk. Don’t just write.
And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.