Monday, December 1, 2008

Into the Doldrums

In Hollywood, we've entered the time of year when the city shuts down for the holidays. The lights go off after Thanksgiving, and sometimes don't come back on until February. Work dries up. Little gets produced. A year ago, the WGA strike had just started. The industry still hasn't recovered from that. Add the economic depression and the potential SAG strike, and I'm very glad to have the mini writing gigs I do.

A year ago, I was in an odd place. All of my projects had gone on hiatus when the town went into hibernation. We were talking to studios on Hopjockey and ALIVE; we'd hired a conceptual artist for Fred, Prince of Darkness; Dorkness Rising was finally out of editing and was poised to make its rounds to the distributors; and I had nearly completed Pwned and a feature-length Demon Hunters. Good things lay on the horizon. It promised to be a good year.

Hopjockey we retooled to pitch to four different networks, and received four different passes. I haven't heard from the Heavy or the Agent in months, and have no idea where the future of Hopjockey lies. Dave and Sean have spoken of doing it as a feature, of setting it in high school with a group of quirky rascals since teen adventure might be the best outlet for it. Not sure if I'm interested in that. Take enough away from Hopjockey, and it stops being Hopjockey.

ALIVE surged forward all spring and looked unstoppable, only to be brought down at the one-yard line. The team has stayed positive, though, and is still having meetings and showing project around. I understand that most shows take years to set up. And I understand that we got atypically far on the first try. But this one hurt. Really, really hurt. We shouldn't have done this, but we (Camille and I) kind of let ourselves count on this one, let ourselves plan like it was going to happen. And when it died so abruptly, we had nothing. The hardest part was seeing Camille break down when I told her the news. I've never seen one of my projects do that to her. That kicked off the months-long depression that I'm just now coming out of, that still grabs me from time to time and pins me to the floor. Hurt doesn't really describe it.

Fred remains where it was last year. Jonah and I have gone through three different artists, all who came on board excited to design the look of the show, and all who flaked out and bailed. It's been maddening, more so for Jonah because he's used to such a level of professionalism. The Demon Hunters script turned out well, and I'm pleased with it. Unfortunately, it's unlikely it will ever get made. Pwned I optioned to Epic Level, but the script fell apart when they sent it out to readers. The general consensus was that it's cute, but not hilarious. I'm in the middle of a rewrite now. And Grandmother Clock, the big new project I was going to finish this year, I've stopped and started so many times I have trouble remembering which version of the story I'm on.

So a year after things looked so promising, I haven't completed anything new -- which is death for a screenwriter, since your specs are what sell you -- and most of my projects lie broken at my feet. Not a great year. I haven't been myself these last couple months. Part of it is that I don't know who myself is, if this is the path I should be taking. But the economy's terrible across the board, and nobody is hiring -- I've checked -- so there's no jumping off the filmmaker ship, at least not now. I knew a life as an artist would be hard, but I never expected to be facing down a mid-life crisis at 31. Sounds preposterous, I know.

And things haven't been all bad. Dorkness Rising found a distributor who wants us to make more Gamers movies; I may be writing one this spring and directing it this summer. I still have my writing gig with the Israelis. This project makes my third Israeli-funded animated pilot so far. I have many friends in and out of the industry, people rooting for me and checking in every not and then to see how I'm doing. And I have a wife whose patience and dedication I simply cannot fathom.

I've unexpectedly learned a lot about myself this year, about what I love and what I don't, about where I need to be and what I need to be doing there. And that, I believe, has come out of this near-constant melancholy. In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes about the gifts of depression. In Iron John, Robert Bly describes the benefits of ashes work. Both hold that depression is not something to be avoided, but something to be grasped and experienced, to be fought and wrestled with. I've certainly been wrestling with mine. Mine fights like a crocodile, drags you down and rolls you around, trying to drown you. And as hard as it's been, when it's let go, I've said "we're not fucking done yet" and pulled it back on top of me.

What I've wrestled out of it has been hard to learn, but important. I've learned that I'm rather lazy writer; I don't fill the day with work the way I should. I've learned that I'm not a particularly good screenwriter, at least not on paper. But I've also learned that I'm a very stubborn writer, a bullheaded writer, and that I can pound out more pages of revisions than most before I burn out. And somewhere in that flurry of redrafts and retakes, I can produce a genuinely entertaining piece of material. Given enough time. And enough pounding.

And that's been motivating, learning how I work, what I do well and what I don't. Recently, I rediscovered my AFI notes while searching some old journals. It surprised me how much of my training I've forgotten. So as I look back on what I've come to see as a wasted year, I've got a lot roiling in my brain. Shame. Anger. And an encouraging amount of determination. I'm not going to have next year feel wasted. I'm not going through another year with no new projects to show.

Last year, when December began, I had a platter of good projects ready to fly. When the town turned itself off, I took it easy and spent a month playing Warcraft. This year, my platter's empty. But this year, while the city is hibernating, I'm doing push-ups.


Camille said...

I am so proud of you. I love you so much, and while this next year promises it's own challenges, we always come out better than the year before. Hang in there, we'll get there soon enough. :)

Katie said...

I'm not your wife, but I'm proud of you too. And reading about your struggle is (or will be) beneficial for me in some ways. I don't know if you ever knew (or cared) that I quit my job in title insurance in 2005 and moved to the UK to get a MA in Museum Studies. Since August of 2005 I've had 7 weeks and 2 days of paid work. The economy does suck everywhere. So don't give up heart on your filmmaking love, and I'll join you in the lazy writer category--I'm planning on moving back to England (to be with my boy :) ) in the new year and start writing novels myself. I've got 2 ideas for novels right now (plus a couple of half-formed ideas), an idea for a series of short stories, and some essays I'd like to write. So here's to bullheaded artists who are determined to make a living at it :)

Katy said...

Some good realizations in there Matt. Good work. Also, don't sell yourself short. You do know who you are, but you may have forgotten for a while. One of the things that struck me when I met you was how well you actually did know yourself.

Honestly, this blog sounds very familiar to me. The slide from productive artistry to out-of-work duldrums, I know it well. I see it in Jeremy too, when he spends too much time at home. For both of us, a little rigor and buttkicking always does the trick. I'm sure Camille would be happy to help. ;)