True Indie

It’s strange when your idols become your colleagues, and become your friends. Such is the case of legendary filmmaker Don Coscarelli, whose notable work includes Bubba Ho-Tep, the Beastmaster, and a film series of note called Phantasm.

I first met Don in 1998 at a screening of Phantasm Oblivion. We hit it off and the next year when out in LA he graciously invited me and some friends out for lunch. He even brought The Tall Man himself, the legendary and much beloved Angus Scrimm.

But it was in 2002 that Don had an immeasurable impact on my life when he made Bubba Ho-Tep as it was because of Bubba that I met my future wife. We’ve been together 16 years now, and have a now 3 year-old child.

Last time I saw Don was a year ago while on the west coast leg of the Magicians Impossible book tour. He met us for breakfast in Manhattan Beach and seemed absolutely delighted that a weird little movie about a geriatric Elvis fighting an Egyptian mummy could lead to a marriage, and a new life brought into this world.

But that’s not why I write this. I write this, because at that breakfast Don mentioned he’d been approached by St. Martins Press – my publisher, incidentally – about penning a memoir. A year and a bit later that memoir has now been published.

I just finished reading True Indie, and have to say it is easily one of the BEST books I’ve ever read about the trials and tribulations of being an indie filmmaker. As well as being an amazing filmmaker Don is one of the greatest raconteurs I’ve ever known, and this book is loaded with stories I’ve never heard before. It’s also one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read – a story about hard work, and dedication to your craft, and the strength you draw from your friends, colleagues, and family. Don is a true original, and I urge everyone with an interest in horror and film-making to grab yourself a copy … or face the wrath of The Tall Man!

You can purchase TRUE INDIE here:

Pictures of Plastic Men (Part II)

If you missed Part I you’ll find it at:

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s 1993. I’m 20 years old. I’m sitting on a bench atop a hill, watching the kids at my old school play at recess down below. I’m remembering a time not long before; only ten years but those might as well be a lifetime. I remember that old life, and the things in that life that meant the world to me, if only for a short time. I think back to a day in 1985, shortly after my 11th birthday when my dad came home to tell us we were moving again, this time to North Carolina. This was to be a temporary move, a 2-year “loan assignment” that meant at the end of the assignment, in 1987, we were moving back to Toronto, back to the same house on the same street, and I’d start high school with the same kids I’m in Grade Six with now. The promise of return is a salve, because I really like Toronto and our house and our pool and all of it and don’t really want to leave. But we have to, and come July, that’s what we do.

The first thing I notice about our new city – Greensboro – is the abundance of shopping malls and department stores, each with a toy section out of my wildest dreams. They have everything – GI Joe, Transformers, all the toys you’d see pictures of and commercials for but could never find in Canadian stores. And my parents, knowing this is a rough move on my sister and I, are very generous with the toy purchases. My dad even finds me a local comic book store and says we can go there once a month to buy the latest GI Joe comic book. While I missed Toronto and my friends, it looked like our time in North Carolina would be enjoyable.

Then school started. I hated it.

Bane of my existence, 1985-1986

I won’t bore you with the details (but if you are interested those can be found at http://bradabraham.com/2015/06/04/1985/). That’s all just background anyway; what’s important is that I felt I was  being torn from the familiarity and safety and, yes, a little cloistered Toronto Suburban Elementary School World of Grade 6 into Southern USA Middle School in the Year of Our Reagan 1985. It was Mourning in America, especially for me. Everyone had a southern drawl. They’d all gone to the same schools together. They thought I “spoke good English for a Canadian” which I guess was a compliment but it sure didn’t make me any friends. This was the big leagues – this was Junior High – and I had to tread very, very carefully because the last thing I wanted to be seen as was The Other. The Outsider. The Canadian.

This wasn’t like the other moves. Those were always met with some excitement. But this felt different because I was different. I was settling in. I had friends. I had a life I was happy with. And it was all being torn away from me.

Now, being into toys, and being into GI Joe at the ripe old age of 12? That was a sure ticket to Loserville, Population: you. I found this out one afternoon during school, in the first or early second month. The way the campus was set up was the main building as this big rectangular cinder block running north-south along the street, with an annex to the south, and a gymnasium building with classrooms adjacent to the north. My homeroom was in the south annex – my first class of the day was in the north building. I’d have to transverse that distance within the three minutes we had between classes before the bell rang. I was walking along the path leading to the building when I passed a group of grade eight and nine boys surrounding a Grade 7. I slowed enough to hear them calling him “baby” and “little boy” and some other words I won’t get into. Lying at the boy’s feet was a small plastic toy I recognizes immediately as Snake-Eyes Version 2 – the Ninja version. I know this because I had it too.

And still do …

I slowed almost to a stop, enough so that the kid looked at me with these eyes I’ll never forget. Like a trapped, frightened animal. I don’t know the circumstances for the toy. Maybe he brought it to school because he liked having it close. Maybe he was hoping someone else would notice it, and recognize it, and maybe talk about their toys.

Maybe, he was looking for a friend.

I wish I could say I interceded and told these much bigger kids to leave him alone. I wish I could say I called a teacher over because bullies are bullies until they’re dealt with. I wish I could say I charged in fists swinging to protect this kid. But what happened was one of the older kids looked at me, and not wanting to get involved, I resumed walking, faster now, and leaving the group behind.

3:15 couldn’t come quick enough. I took the bus home; I went up into my room and closed the door. There were some toys left out from the previous day’s adventures but somehow they felt different. I couldn’t look at them, let alone pick one up without thinking of that kid at school.

Were this a movie or TV show, I would have shown up at school the next day with a GI Joe figure and tracked that kid down and ask what he thought. I wouldn’t have cared what some Grade 8 or 9 boys who would never be my friends anyway thought. Maybe that kid and I would have become friends. But i I didn’t do that. I saw that kid occasionally around school but I never approached him to say hi or that I thought those other kids were jerks and that Snake-Eyes was cool. I wish I’d done that, but I didn’t.

1985 became 1986, but GI Joe didn’t continue with me. It didn’t seem as cool as it once was. I felt like I had failed, that I wasn’t living up to the ideals I thought the toy was supposed to instill – bravery, honor, and loyalty to your comrades. I got self-righteous; this was Grade 7. 12 going on 13. Toys? They were for little kids. How on earth could I show up with GI Joe toys at school and expect to make friends?

It was a long, lonely time for me. I still had the comics and still kept up my collecting with that once monthly visit to the local comic store (subsequently branching out into more mature titles like Watchmen and The Shadow). I received my last batch of GI Joe toys that Christmas. I may have played with them a bit that holiday week, but they went into the closet come January and that’s where they stayed even after we moved back to Canada a year ahead of schedule (but not back to Toronto as planned). The toys were packed up and moved up north but they stayed packed away in those boxes for the next 30 years. By the time I started Grade 8 in yet another new town, I was heavily into music and that became the way I made friends; with mixtapes and playlists and record collections. Without friends to play with, my toys were all kind of … childish.

#

Back to 1993, back to that bench in northeast Toronto, overlooking that park, and that playground. I sat there the full fifteen minutes watching kids ten years my junior playing. Kids probably born the year I discovered GI Joe and started to fit in with my new surroundings. I wondered what toys they were into now. I wondered if they helped kids make friends with other kids. I wondered how many of them would give up their toys in similar situations as I did. I remember feeling saddened by the whole thing. Childhood is one of those things you endure. Kids can become friends in an instant, and you can break that friendship apart just as quickly when you find other kids – hipper, cooler ones – that you’d rather be seen with.

The recess bell rings. They kids race back inside. The doors close, and I’m alone again. I pick myself up, trudge back down t to my waiting car, climb in, and drive home.

#

It’s 2018. I’m far from from that park and playground, far from that life. I’m a father now, and am re-experiencing childhood again through my son’s eyes.  The GI Joe toys are all gone – sold off to collectors a few years ago. I kept a few favorites though, because you can’t completely part with the things from your childhood. I didn’t need the money, or even the space. I just needed to say goodbye to them and let someone else take joy from their presence. And as I saw them all exit my life, one parcel at a time, I realized they were just … THINGS. Pieces of plastic and die-cast metal. That’s it. And I think the decision to sell them made all the difference in my life.

You can appreciate your childhood, and should do so, but not at the expense of the here and now. For a time those pieces of molded plastic assembled in Taiwan and shipped overseas to fill toy-stores everywhere was our entire world. They were important to me. They meant something, at a time when I was still figuring out what life was all about. For a boy who moved around a lot as a child, those toys became my friends at a time when I didn’t have any. My childhood memories divide up into neat, tidy compartments; the toys I played with, the comics and books I read, are all linked to a place and a time.

I don’t know how long we’ll stay here in this new city. But I do know and hope that my son will find the same joy, the same warmth, the same friendship with those toys he comes to love. Because sometimes childhood is as much about the things you cherish for an all-too brief moment in time.

 

 

The D Word

I want to talk to you today about the word that has become very prevalent in our modern era, particularly as it comes to the arts.

Diversity.

But the diversity of which I want to speak of is not about equality, or representation. Because, frankly, there are many, many more people out there writing about that type of diversity who are better educated, better aware, and just plan better writers than I am on that particular topic. Diverse Books is a good place to start.

When we look back at our lives, at the events, moments, and decisions that brought us to where we are today, there are certain dates that stand out where things changed. Where our particular journey turned a corner and embarked on a new direction. Sometimes these changes are forced on us; sometimes they come in the form of a choice.

For me, perhaps the pivotal moment in my life and career came between July 10th and August 9th, of 1998. Almost 20 years ago for those keeping count. That was the month of the Fantasia Film Festival, an off-shoot of Montreal’s long-running fest. It played in Toronto that year thanks to the efforts of Colin Geddes and Julian Grant. I knew both of them vaguely, but when I heard they were bringing the festival to my backyard essentially, I approached them and offered to volunteer my services with anything they needed. So I did, and they happily accepted. Over the month that followed I tore tickets, sold t-shirts, fetched coffee, saw a lot of movies, and met a lot of people.

One of those people I met was Rod Gudino. He’d just started a horror magazine and Julian had graciously offered up space in the theater lobby to sell his new magazine.

That magazine was Rue Morgue.

At this time Rue Morgue was only 5 issues in to a run that’s up to 182 as of 2018. Rod became one of those familiar faces I saw every day, we got to talking about movies and horror movies a lot, and when Fantasia was done we kept in touch, right up to the moment when he asked me if I wanted to come write for the magazine. It wasn’t paid, obviously (that came a few years later) but I enjoyed writing, I liked the Rue Crew and I’d always wanted to try my hand at print journalism.

I’ve written before about this whole experience  on the film-TV side of things, and what developed from it. Most famously, being hired by Julian months later to co-write the Robocop miniseries he was producing and thus kicking off my career as a professional screenwriter. But the other thing that came from Fantasia was that lengthy association with Rue Morgue. And from that association came, well, everything else.

Owing to the up and down nature of writing , there were peaks and valleys in the screen trade. A very good year, a slightly less successful but still very good year, followed by a couple of piss-poor ones, before bouncing back again. That’s the cyclical nature of the business; it happens to everybody. The key to surviving is by branching out as much as you can so you have those fall-backs when a project falls through or is cancelled. For much of the 2000s magazine writing became my lifeline.

Rue Morgue began paying its contributors in 2001 – not a lot, but enough to show the magazine’s stable of writers that their work was valuable, and appreciated. But around the same time I had been amassing my portfolio of work for Rue Morgue and began querying other magazines like Fangoria, Dreamwatch, Starburst etc. and I ended up penning multiple long-form articles for all of them, and that was largely due to the portfolio of work I had from RM, I was able to pitch them on articles, and features, and when I was a roving journalist for several years at the Toronto International Film Festival, amassed a lot of work. the UK mags (all gone now, sadly) paid very well, at a time the Pound was well-over the Canadian dollar value. I earned over $6000.00 Canadian for what amounted to maybe four weeks work, reporting on the TIFF in 2001.

That diversification saved my skin, on numerous occasions. And diversifying was just one lesson I learned from those years that I’ve carried with me since.

It’s no small stretch to see a screenwriter (i.e. ‘one who writes for the big screen’) branch out into TV. It ‘such more common now than when I was starting. Back then TV was largely regarded as a second-string to the theatrical experience; now all the really exciting and interesting stories are happening on the small screen. I wrote my first episodic TV in 2002 and have returned to it again and again in years since, most recently in children’s television.

I’m close friends with both of these puppets.

In 2012 I created a comic book called Mixtape. It achieved some cult status and, I’m happy to say, brought me some actual genuine fans of my work.  It was also recently optioned for development as a TV series. Oh, and guess who they hired to write the Pilot?

No comment

Of course there are novels. Magicians Impossible was published last year from St. Martins Press. It received several starred reviews, and was named Best Debut Novel by both Suspense Magazine and School Library Journal. I just delivered my next novel to my agent, and am outlining a third.

In the financial world you constantly hear how important it is to “diversify your portfolio” – that rule also applies to writing. I feel that my diversification of my portfolio as a writer is what’s enabled me to be a writer, full-stop, going on twenty years. Not only is diversification important to just be considered for the paying work that keeps us afloat, it also makes us better writers than we would be if we’d stuck to just one aspect of writing;

Screenplays taught me how to structure a story, to ensure those Act One set-ups have Act Three payoffs. To juggle plot, story, and dialogue effortlessly.

Comics taught me how to write visually, and how to convey imagery to your artist in as concisely a way as possible while letting them interpret those images.

Journalism taught me the power of words, of finding that killer opening and killer conclusion, and how less is quite often much, much more.

Books taught me how to combine all of the above into narrative. To take the tools mastered in each area of the writing world, and synthesize them into the medium that predates all of them.

I often joke to my employers that when they hire me they’re getting the whole package; screenwriter, author, comic book creator, journalist. That’s not a bad thing; if anything it’s given me an edge over writers who specialize in just screenwriting. What it communicates is that I’ve been successful across the board, that people and companies from a variety of fields and disciplines have produced or and especially paid me for my work. Hiring a writer you don’t know or have never worked with before can be daunting; it’s why you see a lot of producers and publishers keeping the same stable of writers under their roof as long as they can. Familiarity breeds confidence, in the way you take your car to your local mechanic year-after-year – because you trust them to do the job you’re paying them to, and know they’ll do it well.

Networking is certainly important. Promoting yourself, in person or online is a component of thus business that is unavoidable. But to my mind generating a portfolio of work is just as important. Everyone can talk the talk and sell themselves, but if you don’t have the track record of producing results in whatever medium is your specialty, you’re always going to have that hurdle to overcome.

So my advice to any writer out there looking for a little kick in the pants (creatively, that is), try something different. You’re a poet? Great – let’s see some short stories.Novelist? take a whack at a screenplay. Comic book writer? Think of some rhyming couplets. Diversify your portfolio and see what happens – the person you surprise the most may be yourself. And that’s a very good thing.

So yes, Diversity is important, in all walks of life, in all environments. Diversity is indeed strength.

Same goes for writing.

A Long Time Ago …

In case you missed the news, 40 years ago today a little movie called Star Wars arrived in theaters. it was not expected to do well. In fact, George Lucas was so convinced it would be a disaster he fled Los Angeles for Hawaii to build sand-castles with his buddy Steven Spielberg, where they ended up hashing out what would become Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But of course Star Wars did not flop. Star Wars became STAR WARS, and we’ve been living with it for four decades now. In the last two years we’ve seen two new Star Wars movies, and this Christmas we’ll see another. It’s not inconceivable for Star Wars to outlive the generation that grew up with it. It’s a piece of modern myth-making writ large.

Scads of words have been written on its cultural significance but ever person has a different story about the role Star Wars played in their lives. For me it began in 1977 as a 4 year-old whose father took him to an evening show to see some movie a co-worker had told him I would enjoy. He bought me a bag of popcorn and cup of cola and apparently when the Star Destroyer flew overhead in the famous opening shot the popcorn hit the floor untouched and I stared, open-mouthed at the screen for the entire two hours.

I was captivated. And as a child who lived in four different cities by the time Return of the Jedi arrived six years later, Star Wars had become the constant friend in a childhood with not many of the real kind.

After JediStar Wars faded from the landscape and my life. There was a brief resurgence on the 10th anniversary when I picked up a special issue of Starlog magazine, but Star Wars was pretty much dead by 1987, through the early 90s. Then the Timothy Zahn series of Star Wars books arrived. then the Dark Empire comic book series from Dark Horse. the Power of the Force toy line made its debut in 1995 and I was on my second Star Wars kick, which lasted all the way to 1999, and the release of The Phantom Menace.

I have not come to bury the prequels or to praise them either. What I will say once Revenge of the Sith hit theaters that it was pretty much a given Star Wars was finished. there would be the Clone Wars TV series which, despite a rough start, became a genuinely wonderfully realized story. But Star Wars on the big screen; that was done, right?

So we’re living through the third Star Wars cycle and its unlikely to end anytime soon. Sure, a few consecutively crappy films could happen, but if 007  could survive nearly sixty years, Star Wars could last at least to 2037.

For me  Star Wars will not end. That’s because my child, who turns two this July, is approaching the age I was when I first saw Star Wars. I’ve gone back and forth on how to introduce him to the series. By the time he’s four, Episode IX will have come and gone, so he’ll have the entire Skywalker saga at his fingertips. Do we run the series in order – 1-9 – with Rogue One and the hitherto untitled Han Solo movie (and if it’s NOT called Han: Solo they suck)? Do I show him Episodes 4-9 and pretend the Prequels don’t exist? What about Clone Wars and its spin-off, Rebels?

No, I need a plan of attack … and think I’ve found one.

On the day he’s ready, I’m going to ask him if he wants to watch a movie. I’ll put on Star Wars and hopefully he’ll be dazzled by it. But rather than segue right into The Empire Strikes Back, I’m going to let him live with Episode IV for a little while. Let him engage with the story, the characters, let him play with the toys and imagine their own future adventures. Then, when his interest in it starts to wane, I’ll  show him The Empire Strikes Back, and we’ll repeat the process. I want him to be re-introduced to Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids. I want him to gasp at the revelation of what happened to Luke’s father. Then when that’s run its course, Return Of The Jedi.

I want to let him live with those movies as long as he wants to. Then, when he’s losing interest, I’ll ask him if he’d like to see how Anakin Skywalker  became Darth Vader.

We’ll watch the prequels in quicker succession, not because they aren’t as good (I like parts of them I don’t like other parts, and am well outside the demographic when they were released anyway), but because they’re too interconnected.

After that we’ll dive into Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels which, buy the time that wraps up, should segue into Rogue One. By then the current trilogy will have concluded, and with the weight of the entire saga behind us, we can watch those however we want to.

As you can probably tell, I’ve given this a lot of thought.

But as far back as I can remember, my life has been one where stories were shared in a multitude of ways. From bedtime stories read to me by my parents, to my father taking me to see one of his favorite movies 2001: A Space Odyssey when it played as part of a roadshow re-release in the 1980s.

I want to pass these movies on to my child because how stories are told matter as much as what they tell. I want him to cherish these stories, but to also cherish the way he was introduced to a galaxy far, far away.

And because I want him to know that many years before, his dad discovered them at the same age.

 

But we’re hiring a babysitter so we can go see The Last Jedi. Sorry, kid.

Haunted When The Minutes Drag

I moved around a lot as a child. By the time I was 12 years old I’d lived in 8 different cities and two different countries. I got very used to (and very good at) making new friends and even better at saying goodbye to them. In fact, my entire childhood is pretty much compartmentalized, with memories tied to a specific place and time, and those memories extend to TV, music, movies, comics and so forth.

For the longest while I thought this was normal; that everyone moved with the frequency we did. Then I later realized that my life was the exception; my friends were kids born in their city or town and grew up there and would very likely remain there for. They were lifers; I was just a face and a name passing through, staying put for a short time, then one day I was gone and my face and name would fade from their memories. I doubt many, if any of the people I went to school with in Vancouver or Edmonton or Greensboro remember me at all. I was the anomaly, not them, and while I once liked the excitement of new cities, new homes, and new schools, over time I came to hate those moves. I came to hate having to say goodbye. I wanted stability. I wanted a sense of place. I wanted a home, not a house.

Pictured: the writer as a brooding young man

Pictured: the writer as a brooding young man

I bring all this up because I’m at work on my next project, a novel largely inspired by the years I lived in Brockville, Ontario (roughly 1986-1992). While wholly a work of fiction – it’s a horror/sci fi/mystery hybrid – it’s still drawn from the reservoir of memories of my years in that town. It’s about many things I experienced there, and after I left. Mostly it’s about saying goodbye.

It’s been quite the experience so far. Like opening old wounds. Sure, you remember the good but to create real drama you have to zero in on the bad. I’m taking my mind places it hasn’t gone since, well, since those darker days. It hasn’t been pleasant, but it’s been necessary. Both the good and the bad have given me fuel, but so have the mundane moments; shooting pool, hanging out at the arcade, renting crappy horror movies form the local video store. Those moments that seem inconsequential at the time that take on mythic importance so many years later.

When I lived in Brockville I hated it, but I think every teenager hates where they grew up. It was boring, it was stale, and I felt trapped. Even when I got my driver’s license and my first car I felt tethered to home like I was attached by a big elastic. Just when I thought I’d achieved freedom there was something to snap me back. Had I lived someplace exciting like Toronto or New York I’m sure I’d have things to complain about them too, but age changes things. Your memories of that “miserable” time become more golden. You realize that, while they were far from what some would call “the best years of your life” they were special, they were meaningful, and they mattered because they made you the person you are now. Your work ethic, your personality, all of it formed in that blast furnace called High School. It was when you made the decision, conscious or otherwise, to be the person you wanted to be.

Unsurprisingly, if you know anything about me, music has been a great gateway to those years and memories. The infamous box of old mixtapes that inspired Mixtape have come in handy here, as have the assorted yearbooks, photo albums, magazines, notebooks and so on that have been following me around for almost 30 years. Unlike Mixtape, this new project has that element of the fantastic that hopefully means a wider audience than the ‘musical memoir’. It’s very different from Mixtape but shares a lot of its DNA. If you take the cast of my comic and all of a sudden dropped them down into Invasion of the Body Snatchers you essentially have this new thing. Like Mixtape, it has unlocked old memories and opened old wounds. Much of my dislike of those years is because that was the period my parents’ marriage hit the rocks. It was not a happy time. There was yelling and arguments at the dinner table, on outings, even on one infamous birthday celebration (mine). I couldn’t wait to get out of there and when I did I never looked back or went back.

For a while, anyway.

In college when people asked me where I was “from” I never had an easy answer. “Directly” you could say “Brockville” but it wasn’t where I was “from”. When you lived in 8 cities over 12 years you can’t say you’re really ‘from” a certain place. I still saw people from Brockville, and remained friends with them through some of college but we were all moving in other directions. New friends, new horizons; those old familiar faces reminded you of the person you were not the one you wanted to be. So for a very long time I buried Brockville and those years deep, until a good fifteen years had passed since I said my formal goodbye. That story has been documented elsewhere so I won’t bore you. I will say that once I started to plumb the depths of my experiences growing up I became a much better writer. I had a POV, I had a story, I had a voice that was unique yet familiar. My experiences weren’t so different from many others whether you were from Providence, Rhode Island or Buenos Aires, Argentina or Monroe, New York.

One of the great tragedies in life is that we grow up thinking we’re alone and that nobody anywhere understands our problems or what we’re going through, only to learn well after the fact that on every street, in every school, in every town small and large there were people our age going through the same things we were. You can’t help but be haunted by your past and the memories you have of that long ago and far away land. Whether you realize it or admit it, it’s a part of who you are. And I think by embracing the past, warts and all, you stand a much better chance of navigating the present.

If writing is therapy I suppose this new project is mine. Especially being a father now I’m trying to come to terms with the person I was versus the one I am right now and the one I hope to be. To teach my son how to be a better person than his father is. To show him that despite a world that seems dark that there are joyous moments to behold. That even when he’s upset or unhappy and wishing he lived anywhere but here (wherever that will be), that in time it’ll be a lot easier to remember the good moments than dwell on the bad.

So that’s it. Now take care of yourselves. I have a novel to get back to.

Pictured: that moody young man discovering his muse

Pictured: that moody young man discovering his muse