I was in the fifth grade when the notion that I might have been born a writer first possessed me. Our teacher, Ms. Monges, had given us a visual prompt – a dull, uninspiring painting of an elderly couple seated at a park bench – and an assignment: to craft a paragraph of background story.
I handed in ten pages.
From that moment on, the awful Truth that I was unequivocally screwed for the rest of my life has severely haunted the back of my throat and messed with my sleeping schedule. As time began putting things into place, and a passion for writing evolved into a hunger for filmmaking, one thing became absolutely clear: Nothing else would do.
I once asked a tobacco farmer, who had come from a long line of tobacco farmers, why on earth he wanted to be one, too. Tobacco, after all, is a moody weed, as I’d come to understand.
“It’s actually the simplest thing in the world,” he said to me. “My papaw was a tobacco man and my father worked these fields, too. This farm’s been in my family for generations. Some people have the stones to question a legacy like that but I never did. The thought of doing something else never even crossed my mind.”
Nothing else would do for him, either, it seemed. And why would it? He had legacy.
Artistry isn’t necessarily a discipline associated with my family but I understood what he felt as a calling of some kind and one that couldn’t be ignored no matter how strong the impulse to do so might get. I feel something call to me, too. I traded three years of my life after high-school for so much as a whiff of experience or a whisper of direction, chasing a desperate desire to be a part of it all, whatever it meant.
I’ve ghostwritten thesis films for graduate students with a bad case of the heebie-jeebies and writer’s block. I’ve directed short films in my home country of Paraguay. I’ve hustled, fluffed, lied, conned, charmed and weaseled my way to pretty much every position up-and-down the call-sheet, including an internship at a successful (and fiercely independent) Brooklyn-based production company.
In fact, it was on a production of theirs, a demented little werewolf picture you might still be able to find on Netflix under Late Phases, that I really came to realize how high my commitment to being Part Of It All had mushroomed.
A director I’d later produce for handed me a glass of bourbon after my first day on a professional feature set and said: “Being a filmmaker is a like being a carnie. You travel around some with complete strangers, prop up a colourful tent in the middle of nowhere, do a big song and dance number, pack up, go to the next town, repeat. And after you’re done, everyone gets to go home. Sometimes, you might work with the same people again. Chances are you’re never going to see any of them after the film is done. That’s the nature of this racket of ours. If you can stomach that kind of lifestyle – and it is a lifestyle – then you’ll be alright. You might not be right for society but you’ll be right for the movies.”
The impulsive camaraderie, the virtuous delinquency, that narcotic allure of creation and inspiration – they all assured me I could make a home in that vagrant world. It would be a mad scene, full of paralyzing counter-intuitiveness, humble personal victories invisible to everyone else, and crippling loneliness. But if I could somehow maintain, I’d live to see a day where Process and Reward, dressed as each other, take me out dancing with my Ambitions.
I drank what he offered and asked, “What do we start with tomorrow?”
Damn. Seven-hundred words and counting. It seems I’ve overextended myself again. I’m starting to understand all that talk about heebie-jeebies a little better. I wonder what Ms. Monges would make of all this…
“Overpromise and Overdeliver” – I think it might have been a gaffer that told me that. Who can really be sure anymore? On-set memories have a way of escaping one’s brain after a while, giving way to wild rumour, misremembrance, and embellishment; social currencies that turn the big wheels, so to speak.
In an industry peopled by degenerates whose sole purpose in life is to shape stories, you learn very quickly to trust the tale, not the teller.