“Planet of the Apes” and the Hollywood Renaissance

This is a short anaysis paper I wrote for my Screenwriting MFA program this summer.  Enjoy!


Ask someone what they think of 20th Century Fox’s 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, and their likely response will be something akin to “it’s cool sci-fi” or “fun escapist entertainment.”  The good news for Apes, of course, is people remember it more than a half-century hence.  The film spawned a franchise that includes eight follow-up films, two television series, and an endless stream of tie-ins and merchandise.  It has earned a place among the greatest pop-culture phenomena of the late-Twentieth Century, and paved the way for future blockbuster franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  What has been forgotten—or perhaps never quite cemented in the collective consciousness—is that, at the time of its release, Apes was seen as more than a fun, sci-fi romp.  It was deemed an important film, with Variety’s A.D. Murphy hailing it as “amazing…political-sociological allegory,” (Murphy) and lauded alongside other films (Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider to name a few) associated with a cinematic movement of the late-1960s to mid-1970s characterized by “a brief period of radicalization and innovation, which became known as the Hollywood Renaissance.” (Kokonis, 169)  In fact, Planet of the Apes’ style, themes, and development point to it being a key contributing work of the Hollywood Renaissance.

Simply being “of the time” does not qualify a film to be considered part of The Hollywood Renaissance.  Rather, a film’s style, themes, and manner in which it was developed seem to be the predominant indicators that identify it with the movement.  From the late-1940s to mid-1960s, admissions to Hollywood productions ticked steadily downward.  Though the trend was originally attributed to the ascendant popularity of television, the actual culprit was a decline in popularity of tried and trusted genre films, which had been the bread and butter of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (Kokonis, 176; Langford, 120)  With America’s socio-political landscape in upheaval, audiences were no longer content with the “puerile and simplistic” fare Hollywood was churning out.  Instead, a growing preference for European films “signaled the rising expectations for more serious subject matter.” (Kokonis, 177)  The problem was so pervasive that, by the late-1960s, many Hollywood studios were on the verge of bankruptcy. (Kokonis, 170)  With the Hollywood studio system in shambles, studios heads looked to a “new breed of outsiders,” producers and directors unbound by the flagging studio contract system, to provide a shot of adrenaline to their flat-lining enterprises. (Kokonis, 189)  These filmmakers, many of whom had cut their teeth in television, brought with them a “radical skepticism about traditional American values” that was the antithesis of the American mythos that formed the bedrock of the Golden Age narrative. (Langford, 152)  As these maverick filmmakers retooled and skewered established genres, they injected a “freshness and sophistication” into their films.  They eschewed notions of propriety and technical correctness that had constrained Hollywood for decades, and they freely experimented with stylistic techniques associated with the European cinema, particularly those of the insurgent French New Wave.  (Kokonis, 189; Langford, 134, 146-147)

In terms of its development as a cinematic project, Apes had all the hallmarks of the Hollywood Renaissance.  Similar to other studios, 20th Century Fox saw its fortunes wane after World War II.  Its financial troubles became acute, however, with the box office failure of its 1963 epic, Cleopatra.  Fox was on the verge of bankruptcy (Royle) and needed a hit, which led newly minted president Richard Zanuck to take a chance on a project that independent producer Arthur P. Jacobs had shopped around for a few years, to no avail.  It was still an uphill battle for Jacobs to convince Zanuck to green light Apes, which was based on acclaimed French novelist Pierre Boulle’s satirical “allegory about morality,” (Ulin) a far cry from the fare Fox typically invested in.  A pioneer in the packaging practices that are commonplace today, Jacobs convinced Academy Award-winning actor and top box office draw Charlton Heston to sign onto the project.  With Heston attached, Zanuck reluctantly gave the project the go-ahead. (Burns)  From there, Jacobs assembled a team of visionaries that included hot television-turned-film director Franklin J. Schaffner, acclaimed stage and television writer Rod Serling, and Academy Award-winning (and formerly blacklisted) screenwriter Michael Wilson to create a film that The Hollywood Reporter heralded as appealing “to both the imagination and the intellect within a context of action and elemental adventure, in its relevance to the consuming issues of its time, by the means with which it provides maximum entertainment topped with a sobering prediction of the future of human folly.” (THR Staff)  The gamble paid off for Zanuck.  On a budget of $5.8 million, Apes went on to gross over $32 million at the U.S. box office alone. (Burns, Box Office Mojo)  It was a critical and commercial shot in the arm for the faltering studio.

Mort Abrahams, who was Jacob’s right hand throughout development and production on Apes, claimed everyone on the the project knew they were “doing a political film.”  (Burns)  Further, noted Apes scholar Eric Greene asserts that the film “depicted, commented upon, and engaged in, the painful convulsions of the changing times.  It was for this reason the studio could claim in Planet’s advertisements not only that the film was ‘unusual’ but also ‘important.’” (Greene, 9)  Apes’ commentary on race relations and racial stratification (Burns) is certainly in step with the zeitgeist of the late-1960s. Apes’ boldest departure from the Golden Age narrative, however, comes in the form of its main character, astronaut George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston.  Quite the opposite of the heroes Heston portrayed throughout his esteemed career, Taylor was “hardly a sympathetic character…quite happy to be leaving earth.  Taylor is arrogant, overbearing, [and] just waiting for a fall.” (Kim, 238-239)  Even more, as Pauline Kael mused in her review of Apes for The New Yorker, casting Heston to play such a character was “an enormous, many-layered black joke on the hero and the audience.”  She continues: “Physically, Heston, with his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, is a god-like hero; built for strength, he’s an archetype of what makes Americans win.” (Kael)  Taylor’s tumble from the stars to civilization’s “lowest level,” (Schaffner) was viewed as a cautionary tale about the absurdity of American arrogance, isolationism, and the pervasive sense that America was immune to the devastation that laid Europe low after World Wars I and II.  Heston as Taylor was, in fact, a warning to the audience: “if it can happen to Charlton Heston, it can happen to anyone.” (Kim, 239)  Apes’ commentary on timely political themes of racial tension and stratification, as well as its blistering rebuke of the American hero archetype, puts it up there among the most potent socio-political “problem pictures” of the Hollywood Renaissance. (Kokonis, 178)

While Planet of the Apes’ development and themes make it a prime candidate for inclusion in the pantheon of the Hollywood Renaissance, its style cements it as a member of the club.  Of course, the film’s Academy Award-winning make-up design and avant-garde music score are noteworthy nods to the European cinematic sensibilities Hollywood Renaissance filmmakers embraced, but certain formative aspects of Schaffner’s mise en scène speak loudest in terms of how Apes embraces these sensibilities, specifically those of the French New Wave.  Obviously inspired by the “camera as pen” approach of New Wave filmmakers (Hitchman), Schaffner employs dramatic handheld and zoom shots, as well as high-angle establishing and extreme long shots, in select scenes to visually convey a message apart from the story’s narrative.  Schaffner employs these techniques liberally at the start of the film, as Taylor and crew crash-land and make their way across the wasteland they will later learn is the apes’ “Forbidden Zone.”  The effect makes the viewer aware of the camera’s presence in the scene, a subtle signal that the viewer is part of the equation as they bear witness to the events unfolding.  At the same time, Schaffner’s establishing and extreme long shots are angled from high above the scenery and action.  His intention is to indicate the viewer-as-witness—literally looking down on everything and everyone—presumably enjoys a vaulted position in this world.  It’s not until near the end of the film, as Taylor returns to the Forbidden Zone, that the handheld and zoom shots reappear with any frequency.  Schaffner is reminding the viewer that they are, in effect, a character in this drama.  Then, as Taylor sets out to find “his destiny,” (Schaffner) Schaffner returns to the high-angle establishing and extreme long shots to further remind the viewer of their “vaulted” position in the story.  Finally, in the last scene, the camera pans across what the viewer will soon learn are the torch and crown of the ruined Statue of Liberty.  The camera is once again positioned at a high angle, looking down on Taylor in an extreme long shot.  Schaffner jiggles the camera and executes an unnatural zoom one final time—he wants the viewer to know they share the perspective of this thing that is about to be revealed, and that they and this thing are, in fact, one and the same.  Which means that, while on the surface, it appears the big twist of the movie is that Taylor has returned to a post-apocalyptic Earth over 2,000 years in the future, the real shocker is Schaffner has led the viewer to believe they are “above” everything they just witnessed, only to reveal that they are complicit in humanity’s eventual demise.

In his May 1968 commentary for Life magazine, Second Thoughts on Ape-Men, film critic Richard Schickel called Planet of the Apes “the best American movie I have seen so far this year.” (Kim, 240)  This is unexpected high praise for a film that the world has since relegated to the middling ranks of popcorn entertainment.  In reality, the film’s development, themes, and style have earned it a spot as an important and impressive representative work of the Hollywood Renaissance.

Works Cited

Burns, Kevin. Behind the Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox, 2000.

Greene, Eric. “Planet of the Apes” as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture. Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

Hitchman, Simon. “A HISTORY OF FRENCH NEW WAVE CINEMA.” New Wave Film.com | French New Wave / Nouvelle Vague and International Cinema of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, 2008, http://www.newwavefilm.com/about/history-of-french-new-wave.shtml.

Kael, Pauline. “PLANET OF THE APES (1968) – Review by Pauline Kael.” The New Yorker: Scraps from the Loft, 30 June 2017, scrapsfromtheloft.com/2017/06/30/planet-apes-1968-review-pauline-kael/.  original publication date: 2/17/1968

Kim, Erwin. Franklin J. Schaffner: Filmmakers, No. 9. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1985.

Kokonis, Michalis. Hollywood’s Major Crisis and the American Film “Renaissance” . http://www.enl.auth.gr/gramma/gramma08/kokonis.pdf.

Langford, Barry. Post-Classical Hollywood : Film Industry, Style and Ideology Since 1945. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Murphy, A.D. “Planet of the Apes.” Variety, 17 Feb. 1968, variety.com/1967/film/reviews/planet-of-the-apes-2-1200421584/.

“Planet of the Apes.” Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=planetoftheapes.htm.

Schaffner, Franklin J., director. Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox, 1968.

Royle, Alan. “How ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) Almost Sunk 20th Century Fox.” Historian Alan Royle, 3 May 2017, filmstarfacts.com/2017/05/03/cleopatra-1963-almost-sunk-20th-century-fox/.

Staff, THR. “’Planet of the Apes’: THR’s 1968 Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, 27 Mar. 2017, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/planet-apes-1968-review-i-original-movie-973869.

Ulin, David. “The Transformation of ‘Planet of the Apes,’ from Book to Movie Legend.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2014, http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-transformation-of-planet-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-book-to-movie20140710-story.html.

The Meeting

This past Friday, it was a year. A whole year without Jack.

I felt a little guilty I didn’t post something on social media, but I decided instead to do what Jack would want me to do on that particular day…writing and rainmaking in Hollywood.

Also, there was a part of me that wasn’t ready to post anything. I was still processing a dream I had a couple days earlier. Actually, I don’t believe it was a dream. It was wrapped in the cloak of a dream, but it was too real. Too palpable.

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I’m in a living room. The architecture is old Hollywood, and the joint drips with money. It’s night outside. The place sits at a high elevation because the lights of the city barely poke above the vegetation outside the French doors I’m already walking toward.

I step onto a patio and see the lights more clearly now. Los Angeles, sprawled out below me.

“He’s waiting.”

The guy’s face is obscured, but the voice is familiar. I’m a little intoxicated from view up here, so I can’t quite place it. There’s no time to ponder. The guy jogs down narrow, winding cobblestone steps. If I don’t hurry, I’ll lose him.

The steps terminate at another patio. This one’s smaller, a peninsula jutting from the hill, with a waist-high stone wall around it. The view is sweeping. The lights look so close, it’s like you could lean over the wall and touch them. I gasp. It’s so—I don’t know the word. I’ll go with “spectacular” because my next thought is, This is what they mean when they say the word spectacular.

The guy takes a seat at a small bistro table at the end of the patio. Candles in glass holders throw off a smidgen of illumination. Enough to make out the face now. I know why I recognized the voice. It’s Frank Sinatra. But the “Guys and Dolls” Sinatra. Youthful, vibrant. And that smile, those eyes.

Frank nods to one side, toward someone seated next to him. It’s why I’m here. I take a step forward, and the person comes into view. All the air rushes from my lungs.

It’s Jack.

He looks great, by the way. It’s the Jack I met nearly twenty years ago, but lighter—not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Jack without the weight of disappointment or heartbreak. Jack that’s truly all good. He’s grins that way he always grinned after we hadn’t seen each other for too long. My God, it’s him. It all makes sense. Of-freaking-course, he’d be hanging with Sinatra.

Jack takes…a drag off a cigarette?!?

What?!? “You’re smoking?” That’s the first thing out of my mouth.

He takes another drag and cracks that wide, impish Jack smile.

“Dude. I can do anything I want here.”

I take another step, but Jack stops me with his free hand. His eyes bug a little. It’s the look he pulls out when he really wants the point to stick. He speaks emphatically.

“Bubber. You HAFTA do this.”

And then it’s all gone. My eyes pop open. I’m back in bed. It’s dark. Lori and the dogs are sound asleep. It takes a moment to catch my breath.

I check my phone. 4:10 AM. I lie there for a few minutes, collecting myself. And committing every moment of being in my friend’s presence again to memory. I don’t want to lose it.

– – – – –

True confession time: last year was rough for me. There was losing Jack at the beginning, and then losing my mom at the end. But there was a lot in between—personal, professional, political, cultural—that left me wondering if my time had come and gone. Wondering if I was…just…irrelevant. Shit. If that was true, what the hell was I going to do with the rest of my time on this planet?

At some point in the fall, I realized I wasn’t ready to give up that easily. Chalk it up to the song “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.” I told myself that, regardless of what was buzzing around in my head, I had to stay in the game and keep moving forward.

But that voice—the one that doubted I had anything left to contribute—was still there, whispering in my ear. I mostly ignored it, but it still snagged me sometimes. I found it easier to retreat into myself than to engage. Easier to stay still. It took everything I had to keep clear of the gravitational well of inertia.

After New Years, I decided to take a couple big professional swings to help lift me out of the funk. The opportunities had been dangling for awhile, waiting for me to reach out. I took a deep breath. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I had to be courageous. Even if I didn’t feel courageous. I needed to try.

Last Tuesday night, as I settled into bed, that voice snuck in again. Big time. That’s when my brother Jack visited me and, once again, accomplished the thing he was singularly adept at: making me pull my head out of my ass.

I spent the next few days honoring Jack’s memory exactly they way he would want me to. I reached out to a few industry folks and took some meetings.

“Bubber. You HAFTA do this.”

As if to punctuate his point, on the anniversary of Jack’s passing, I heard from both companies I’d been waiting to hear from. We’re setting meetings now to discuss moving forward. Oh yeah, and I signed with a new, awesome manager this past week, too.  That was one of the meetings.

I’m ready to give up that nagging voice. I’m ready to stand up and get healthier and start really engaging again. To keep contributing to the conversation and trust I have something worth contributing. I mean, I HAFTA do this.

One more time, Jack was there to remind me. This is who I am. And I’m not done yet. Not even close.

Update on THE BOTTOMLESS PIT

Okay…by now, those of you who were gracious enough to listen to the first three episodes of THE BOTTOMLESS PIT have noticed a couple things. And you have questions: one, where the hell is Episode 4?!? And two, why the hell isn’t Bill talking about what the hell is happening with THE BOTTOMLESS PIT?!?

So here’s the skinny.

When I set out to do TBP, my goal was to learn about podcasting (as opposed to creating a “hit” podcast that everyone would listen to). As an experiment, it was wildly successful. I learned a TON about podcasting. Mostly, I learned how difficult and time consuming it is, especially when you’re doing it all yourself.

Another thing I learned… TBP felt like a good story to start with because I felt like I already had months and months of episodes already prepped and ready to go because I had already written over a 120 pages of the original novel. I knew, of course, there were some problems with the story’s unfolding (remember this point), but how much work could it be to fix that as I go? Also, I’d let the story hibernate for so many years, I thought I wouldn’t feel quite so…invested in it. I could let it be what it would be and be okay with that. So I also learned that a novel isn’t a podcast, and adapting it into script form wasn’t the slam dunk I assumed it was. And I further learned that I still freaking loved this story. In fact, I found new love and excitement for it. I realized I wanted to fix it…to address the story problems that had plagued it from the get-go. And to get it right. And that would take time.

I also learned I didn’t want to quit making the TBP podcast.

At the same time, I had one of the busiest, most exhausting (all good, but still exhausting) summers of my adult life. And I quickly realized that I needed to step away from the podcast for a bit, get all my ducks in a row, and then keep going. I also needed to learn a little more about voice recording and editing because I have, so far, been less-than-thrilled about the production quality for the first three episodes. And though I really kinda loved the content of episode 3 (which was 80% new content), I was disappointed with how it all came out in the end. It sounded rushed at the very least.

The final thing I learned is that I don’t want to do this if I’m not committed to doing it right. To making it sound as good as possible and not planning and writing each new episode on-the-fly and in the cracks of the rest of my life.

So…I took time. I didn’t exactly know what to say about it, so I said nothing. I felt a little bad about that, except (per above) my crazy summer.

All that said, here is my plan from here. Episode 4 of THE BOTTOMLESS PIT will drop on Sunday, September 30. I’ve mapped out the remainder of season one, which I believe will consist of eight total episodes. Episodes 5 and 6 will drop at the end of October and November, respectively. I am gonna take December off, so 7 and 8 will drop at the end of January and February.

Season one will NOT be the end of the story. On the contrary, it will represent the point where the story REALLY gets started. I plan on keeping it up through subsequent seasons, and I think you’ll like where the story goes.

I haven’t worked out all the production stuff yet, so #4 will still sound a little rough. But I am trying to get some assistance/make an investment to improve production quality ongoing.

So that’s it. The plan. Wanted to let you all know. I am grateful for all the positive feedback I’ve received so far, and I am excited to share more. Bear with me. There’s more excitement coming from…THE BOTTOMLESS PIT!

In defense of Millennials

kidsThe recent activism by students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the aftermath of the horrific shooting there has brought to light something I’ve known for awhile now.  Our young people got it going on.  They are civic-minded and passionate.  But they are also compassionate, and what they want is harmonious coexistence in a world where everyone is free to be who they are.  To live and love as they choose without judgement or assault.

Sound familiar?

Over the past few years, as I’ve taught at a collegiate level, I’ve had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with young adults.  The stereotype is that the Millennial generation is coddled.  That they are lazy and that they lack curiosity or drive.  I am telling you now, all that is 100% false, and to espouse it is to do so at your own peril.  They are wide awake, their bullshit detectors are finely tuned, and they don’t give the same shit you did when your parents’ generation judged you.  We can try to hold them back all we want, but know what?  They gonna do it anyway, yo.

And know what else?  I believe that if there is any hope for our species and our planet, this Millennial generation is it.

Are they confused?  Yes.  Do many of them lack the ability to engage in real critical thinking?  Yes.  Do they struggle to problem-solve, especially in emergent or confrontational situations?  Absolutely.

Why?  Because that’s what we, the generation before them, foisted upon them.  Who bubble-wrapped them?  We did.  Who largely ignored them, letting VHS and DVD movies, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and Nintendo and Xbox raise them and as we set out to simultaneously chase our leisure/bliss and prove our own parents’ generation wrong?  We did.  Who fed them the pablum of our own narcissistic obsession to remain ensconced in our childhoods long past actual childhood?  We did.  And when they gobbled all that up—just like we wanted them to—we gave them shit for not having an original thought.  For not taking charge.  For not following our social norms or displaying the etiquette we think they should.

We gave them few rules and virtually no boundaries.  Unlike our parents’ generation did to us, we didn’t really even give them much to push against until they grew into teenagers that were suddenly (and mysteriously!) rebellious and disobedient.  We were largely just…there.  We plopped them on an island, like the kids in Lord of the Flies, and let them figure it out themselves.  So know what they’re doing now?  They’re setting their own rules.  Is it messy?  Sure as hell is.  But they’re figuring it out…without us.

And we kinda hate them for it.

I’m not certain what it is in our human DNA that induces us to eat our young.  Why collective amnesia grips each successive generation, causing them to forget how they felt judged and oppressed for simply doing what human beings have been doing since the dawn of time—for doing what we seem to have been designed to do.  For pushing boundaries.  For moving our species forward.  For championing progress.  And in this forgetting, the former generation belittles, berates, and tramps down the latter instead of encouraging and supporting them.

One of the great pleasures of my teaching experience has been to show each new crop of young people that not all those in my generation are against them.  And to guide them—without judgement—to the tools of critical thinking and problem solving, so they can keep figuring it out.  Not my way.  Their way.  I gladly give them the benefit of my hindsight and experience when they ask for it, but all the while I also reassure them that their very human struggles aren’t weird or abnormal.  That they are all good.

And..?  They’re getting it.  They’re thinkers, these Millennials.  They’re philosophers.  And they’re also innovators.  They are dying to generate new ideas and create.  They just don’t quite get…how.  But they’re beginning to find their voice and learn how to use it.  They’re picking up the ball and running with it.

Listen, I know it sounds like I’m condemning my own generation, but I’m not.  I am, however, saying we are all complicit in propagating a culture where those that follow us are condemned.  Where the mistakes we made as parents are projected as faults upon our children.  Where we retreat to the familiar when we should be celebrating the strides the proceeding generation makes into new, unfamiliar, and even challenging territory.

I’m not going to play the condemnation game anymore, and I encourage everyone in my generation to do the same.

We should be supporting our Millennials.  We should be defending them with our lives.  They are the future.  For us.  For our progeny.  For our species.  And I believe they’re onto something.  They really want to save the world.  I think we should help them.

Make a promise

image1Thank you.  I really appreciate the outpouring of support for my “On despair and writing” post last week.  It was both gratifying and comforting to see it connected with so many people.  Thanks again for giving it a read!  I’m glad it helped many of you.

In response to the post, I got messages from people asking me what specific, everyday advice I had with respect to juggling one’s writing and personal lives at the same time.  Here’s my stab at trying to at least begin the conversation.

I hear so many people say they “can’t find time to write.”  Of course, they can’t.  If you’re always “looking” for time to write, something else that seems more urgent is always going to get in the way.  That’s because when you take the attitude that writing is something you need to “find” time for, you’ve already relegated it to a position of low priority in your daily life.  You’ve already decided.  It’s simply not that important to you, and unless you’re pushing against some external deadline, everything is always going to feel more urgent than writing.

But that’s not the way most writing works.  You can’t wait for or rely on external motivators because the vast majority of the time they’re not there.  Writing is most often solitary creation for creation’s sake.  It’s a discipline, which means the importance assigned to it and motivation to accomplish it comes from within.

The key, in my opinion, is a change in terminology, which, in turn, transforms intention.  Tell yourself, “I need to make time for writing.”  Carve it out of your day.  Make writing the most important thing you need to accomplish that day.  I said to an aspiring writer pal of mine on Twitter the other day, “Writers write.”  They do it when it’s inconvenient.  They do it to the detriment of other things on their to do list that day.  They do it as a first priority.  They plan their days around it…not vice versa.

Listen…I get it.  I’m not saying anything new here.  But writers that write say this same thing over and over again because it’s one of the fundamental aspects of the craft.

Does that work for me every day?  No.  Of course not.  Some days the rest of life necessarily takes precedence.  Some days resting my mind and body and soul is the best thing for me and my writing.  Starting each day with the intention that my most important priority is to carve out time to write, however, puts the choice to do the work in pole position in my daily planning.

Take today.  Today is a jam-packed day for me.  After not getting home until midnight last night, I got up this morning to see my wife off at the airport.  I have a meeting with an author in literally an hour to talk about a possible new TV project, and I head off to work on the play I’m directing (that opens Friday…yay!) right after that.  I will be immersed in all that until about 11 pm tonight.

I’m not bragging about my busy day.  What I am saying, though, is my first consideration this morning was carving out time to sit down and write this blog post, which represents the sum total of my writing output today (because what I said above).  I promised myself I’d get at least 500 words out today, and I promised myself I’d get this blog post out before the end of the week.  Well, as of now, I’m at about 600 words, and here’s the post.  I kept my promise.

Because that’s how I’ve come to view my writing work…as a promise kept to myself.  To do the work.  To move my aspirations and career forward.  To put words on the page.  To make my voice heard.  To contribute to the dialogue.

We can talk about what “writing everyday” means and what happens when you’re staring at an empty page and nothing’s coming another time.  For now, just make a promise to yourself.  And keep it.  Each day.

On despair and writing

A pal of mine who got his MFA in screenwriting from UCLA talks more about one lecture than any other when he reminisces about his time in the program.  Apparently, it’s a lecture that legendary UCLA screenwriting professor Howard Suber gave every year, and students present and past—some A-list writers—crowded into the classroom to hear it again and again.  To be reminded.

The subject of the lecture was “Despair.”  The upshot: it’s the number one killer of a writing career, budding or blossomed.  Here’s the other thing: it happens to everyone.  All writers experience despair over their writing, their careers, their writing life.  At times, they’re crippled by it.  The trick, of course, is to not succumb to it.

I guess the solution really is that straightforward.  But if my time and experience on this earth have taught me one thing, it’s that just because something is simple, it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

If you’re looking for a quick guide to avoiding or overcoming despair in this blog post, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed.  I don’t know how to avoid it, and I think the process of overcoming it is as personal as writing, itself.  This post is about acknowledging it.

I appreciate Suber’s lecture not only because he feels despair is so prevalent in a writer’s life it deserves an entire lecture dedicated to it, but also because writers of all stripes and at all levels of achievement flock to the lecture.  On a related note, one of the few things I appreciate about Twitter is other writers—especially working writers—who are courageous enough to  acknowledge and talk about their feelings of despair.  It lends credence to my own feelings.  It gives me solace.  It reminds me that I’m not alone or abnormal or a failure because I experience despair.  In fact, it shines a light on a fundamental truth about writing that evaded for years and freakin’ years.

Despair isn’t a breakdown in the writing process.  Despair is part of the writing process.

Here’s a weird thing about my own despair.  Yes, it tends to show up when I am already sad about something, and yes, it often sneaks up on me when I am exhausted.  But for me, despair most often shows up in what seems to me a very strange time…when I am on the verge.  When I’m about to step up to the next level.  It’s the meeting or the sending off the script and then the waiting to hear what comes of it.  It’s not all the time, though.  It’s the big moments that really get me.  It’s stronger the closer I get to a real breakthrough.  I remember telling my UCLA pal last year—literally in the same conversation I told him we’d just attached a kick-ass star to a TV pilot I wrote, and our target cable network was interested in the project—that I’d thought about quitting writing more over the course of that year than I ever had before.  At a time when most people would say all I had was “good problems.”

I know, for me, the feeling is partly the product of time.  And by “time” I mean the long haul.

I’m very fortunate in that I’ve made a living at writing for going on fourteen years now.  It’s officially the longest career I’ve ever had.  In that time, I’ve kept a roof over my family’s head, kept cars in the driveway, paid my bills, and sent kids through college.  I’ve developed lots of cool projects with lots of cool people.  I know how blessed I am to be able to even say that because I also know countless others who have striven longer and harder than I have aren’t so lucky.  But to date I’ve only had one thing (in the narrative space, at least) produced.  To top it off, nearly five years ago, at an age that would be considered quite sub-optimal to make a radical shift in one’s writing career and just as I was really getting my feet under me in the features arena, I abandon features to focus full time on breaking into writing for TV.  I feel great about that decision because the dream was always to write for TV.  The move, however, kicked the goalpost out farther for me.  What I’m trying to say is, though I’ve had breaks as a writer and have been lucky enough to make a living as a screenwriter for awhile now, I would not classify myself as someone who’s “broken through.”  Someone once told me that anyone can be an overnight success in Hollywood…and it takes about 10-15 years.  If that’s the case, I’m still a late bloomer.

I know about the long haul and the all-too-familiar so-close-yet-so-far cycle of elation followed by deflation when the thing you’re certain will push you over the line either a.) doesn’t come to fruition, or b.) doesn’t push you over the line after all.  A couple years ago, I was having lunch with a producer who said to me, “Wow…you’re, like, one Deadline headline away from really breaking through.”  I know he meant that as a compliment, but the statement kind of gutted me.  It reminded me of how much time I’d been pushing this rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down again.  How much life force I’d given to the endeavor.  How much I’d given up over years and years to keep in the game.  I’m not gonna lie…after the meeting, I sat in my car and cried for nearly an hour.  It all felt so…futile.

I mean, it’s embarrassing.  Yes, I know it takes a long time, if it ever happens at all.  But damn!  To have been at it this long, when so many others have broken through much faster than—

Okay…that’s one thing I knew I had to shut down ASAP.  Yes, I can’t help feeling the emotion of embarrassment.  I can’t even help feeling a little jealous for my friends and colleagues—even as I cheer them on and genuinely congratulate them—when they succeed.  I’m human.  And I guess I’m going to worry that I got too late a start and I’m too old to be only as far as I am no matter what my better angels have to say on the matter.  But letting it get to me was going to kill me as a writer.

That’s when I realized talking about despair was so important.  Giving voice to it.  Getting it out.  Exorcising it.  Giving it over to the collective.  Listening.  Hearing them as they give voice to their own doubts, to their own despair.  This is when I understood the value of speaking out about it.  Not to grouse, but to look at it.  To acknowledge it.  To friends and to the world.  To do so without worry that others will think you’re weak, or that it will somehow turn people off and derail progress you’ve worked so hard to make.

Because giving voice to it is the only way you learn the truth.  Everyone.  Feels.  It.  Everyone struggles with it.  That’s when you realize you’re not the exception.  You’re the rule.  Working through despair is part of all writers’ journeys.

Of course, knowing that isn’t a magic bullet, but it’s something.  It sure took the edge of for me this past year.

On top of that, reading tweets from Eric Heisserer in a moment when he was struggling with his own despair last year (after winning an Oscar, no less!).  Reading a response from Paul Feig to an aspiring writer who asked for advice for someone that feels like giving up, when Paul responded, “Don’t.  Never.  Never give up.  Don’t even consider it.  Don’t let negativity win.”  And finally, from one of my fave TV writers, Gennifer Hutchinson, when she reminded everyone to “Run your own race.”  Seeing that these writers, all of whom I respect greatly, struggled or understood the struggle helped give me strength.  And something else happened.  My despair transformed from a defect in my own personality to a something of a badge of honor.  “If I’m feeling it, I’m part of the club.”  In a strange, upside-down way, it made me feel more “real” as a writer.  Because writing is hard.  Even more, if you subscribe to Thomas Mann’s view, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

And here’s an interesting tidbit.  This past year, as I spent much of that time as a writer in despair…  When all the hurdles seemed so big, when I was exhausted from working two full time jobs (I also teach screenwriting), when I (like many of us) felt disheartened and discouraged at the direction our country and culture was headed.  When getting up and sitting in front of my keyboard was an act of will.  When actually tapping keys was even more arduous.  …it was also one of my most productive years as a writer.

Huh.

Why?  I think it’s  because during that time, one thought kept running through my mind.  It showed up nearly every day, and it would often find its way to my lips and out into the world.  I kept saying, “I must really love writing.”  Each time I said it, it surprised me.  It was something of a revelation.  After awhile, though, I understood the real message underneath the message.  When everything else was stripped away.  When I set aside my hopes and expectations about my writing “career,” and when all there was left was the singular act of creation, I still enjoyed it.  That was the thing that got me up in the morning.  And when I got to the end of something…a line, an exchange, a scene, a script…I was reminded that these are moments when I feel most alive.  Most in tune with humanity.  Most plugged into the Universe.  Awash in gratitude for this thing I get to do.

This is a good thing to remember.

And here’s the kicker.  I don’t think I would have gotten there without my despair.  The darkness was a pathway to the light.

Over the past few weeks (and this weekend especially), I’ve have been revisited by despair.  It hasn’t been overwhelming, but it made for a rocky road yesterday.  Then again, I am tired.  Life’s been a little over-the-top lately.  And I’m a little sad over the death of my best friend a few weeks ago.  And, of course, I’m waiting to hear back on a couple big things I’ve got brewing.  All of this, I’ve come to accept, makes fertile ground for despair to take root.  I get that now, and I’m not shocked when I find myself wallowing in it.

In fact, yesterday that made me feel a little…relieved..?  Right.  My old pal, despair, reminding me that I am, above all, a writer.  So okay…maybe I’m not gonna write Shakespeare because I am not feeling too hot today, but dammit…I’m a writer.  So let’s do something.  I sat down in front of my computer and pulled up a script I’d written awhile back and wasn’t so sure about.  I’d pretty much given up on it.  Within the hour, I’d printed out a copy and was editing.  Madly.  By late afternoon, I got to the end and realized, “Wait!  I think I have something here.”  By the end of the day, I emailed it off to my manager to get his feedback.  This thing I thought I’d never show anyone.

So here is my take on despair: I’ve learned to neither avoid it nor try to overcome it.  I welcome it.  I feel gratitude for it, even though it doesn’t feel too great in the moment.  And so, to my despair, I say, thank you for being part of the process and for helping me feel the import of this work I do.  Thank you for being the reminder that I am making progress, and thank you for being a beacon that helps me find the way to the other side when worry and insecurity takes hold.  And thank you for your presence in my writing life.

Saying goodbye

The service is done, and Lori and I are waiting at the airport. Heading home. Exhausted…physically and emotionally, but glad to have had the opportunity to spend the day with so many people who also loved Jack.

There is much, I assume, that I will write about Jack in the future. So much I want to say. For now, here is the text of the eulogy I gave for Jack earlier today.

– – – –

When Rick asked if I’d like to say a few words, he couldn’t even get the question out before I’d blurted, “Yes! Please!” But then came my question: “So this thing’s only three hours, right? Because I could go on for three weeks about Jack and barely scratch the surface.”

But when it came to putting my thoughts down, I was at a loss. And if you know me, you know that’s a rarity. How do you encapsulate the magnitude of this loss? I can’t. Because in each of our lives, Jack Boniface wasn’t one thing. He was everything. To me he was friend, family, brother, uncle to my kids, Mac guru, movie buddy, connector, mentor, supporter, confidant. Those are just the things I can think of off the top.

But I can tell a little story. It won’t be as colorful or buoyant or educational as one of Jack’s stories, and certainly not as fantabulous, either. But it’s the story of the first time I met Jack.

It was on a film set, of course. I was there at the invitation of the DP for the production, a concept trailer for a project Jack’s friend, Barry, was trying to launch. I was there to observe, when all of a sudden some guy barges up to me: “What’re you doing?” I’m a little taken aback because I was trying to stay out of the way and be invisible. “I’m observing,” I say. To which he replies, “This is indie filmmaking. There’s no observing. Everyone pitches in.” Then he points to a box: “Grab that thing and follow me.”

I had no idea what exact job this guy had on the production, except that apparently, he did…well, everything. And he didn’t stop talking. He explained every single thing about every aspect of the production process. It was like a master class…that went on until three in the morning. And as I headed to my car, he jogged up to me… “See you tomorrow, right? We’re shooting all weekend. You don’t want to miss it.” My head was spinning as I drove away. But the next day, there I was, back again.

That was it. With Jack, you were never sort of his friend. It was full-throated, slammin’-jammin’ friendship. And before you knew it, this guy was family. You could barely imagine a time he wasn’t part of your life, and you certainly couldn’t imagine a time he might not be there anymore.

I can’t begin to explain what a debt of gratitude I owe the Universe for putting Jack in my path that day. For Jack in my life. When I got back into writing, it was his voice—actually, email…extra-heavy on the exclamation points—that gave me the confidence to pursue it professionally. It was his shoulder I cried on when my first wife was struggling in her cancer journey, and I didn’t think I could carry on another day. And his words that gave me the strength to keep going. When my life took a surprising and wonderful turn nine years ago, when my wife, Lori, and I found each other again after 24 years—a change that would take me over 2,000 miles away from my friend—he was the first one to say, “Bubber, you gotta do this.” And there’s a million more things I simply don’t have time or emotional fortitude to cover. All I can say is I have a great life, doing the things I love, wrapped up in love. Every day. When I look back on it all, every good thing in my life today has, in some way, shape or form, Jack’s imprint on it.

So one more story.

When I got Rick’s message about Jack’s passing, I was in the middle of rehearsal for a play I’m directing. Now, you need to know that last summer, when Jack I had a rare lazy day hanging out together on the banks of the Mississippi, drinking beer and eating pizza and talking about literally everything, I told Jack I was thinking of backing out of directing this play. I had too much going on and was worried I wouldn’t do the production justice. Again…”Bubber, you gotta do this. You have to!” Actually, I think that was prefaced with a “Are you out of your freakin’ mind?!?” And punctuated with one of Jack’s patented “Pull your head out” looks.

Well, that was that. I was gonna direct the play. There were no two ways about it.

Anyway, the message popped up on my phone in the middle of my cast running a scene. As soon as I saw it, grief washed over me. I contemplated stopping the scene and ending rehearsal. Hiding away. Screaming. Crying. I didn’t know what to do in that moment. But then I heard our Jack’s voice, plain as day. “Bubber. The show must go on.” Of course. Of course, it must. So my cast kept acting, and rehearsal kept going. Because that was Jack. What he demanded. What he’d do. No one that night had any idea what had happened. And the cast…freakin’ rocked rehearsal. I could see Jack smile. That heavy-lidded, nodding one. Looking upward, corners of his mouth slightly turned up. Blissful. Knowing. Ascendant.

A part of me is devastated that I won’t hear Jack’s voice in person anymore. That I won’t be able to sit next to him in a movie theatre. To hear him tell one of his stories, even for the umpteenth time. To grab him up in a bear hug and tell him I love him. I know you’re all feeling it, too. Because each and everyone person here loved him—and was loved by him just the same as I was.

But I also know this. We are Jack’s legacy. And the show must go on. In the midst of this overwhelming sadness, that idea makes me smile a little. That he gets to live on in the millions of little and not-so-little ways he changed my life. Changed all of our lives. Because life was just better with Jack in it. And for the rest of my days, as the show continues on without our most beloved of players, I will remember his lessons, pay forward his love. Because one day, this guy came up to me on a film set. Thank God for that. And it changed my life forever.