Saturday, August 8, 2009

Stumbling Through the Woods

At the beginning of every school year, PLU's Choir of the West goes on a less-than-one-day retreat to Camp Cispus in the foothills of Mount Rainier. It's a small camp surrounded by encroaching woods, a cluster of lodges and halls perfect for Capture the Flag. The Choir spends about twenty hours there, arriving Friday evening and departing Saturday noon. In between, there's friendly competition between the vocal sections in skits and genuine camaraderie-building at the candlelit Circle of Light. It's a tradition that delights the newbies, excites the returners, and bittersweetly reminds the seniors about how soon their time in the Choir will be over.
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I had been to Cispus before. As a junior in high school, I had been a camp counselor there for a group of 5th graders from Lister Elementary for a week. I headed up Cabin 5, the Howlin' Wolves. My kids named me Birdman, which is still perhaps the favorite nickname I've ever been given. When the kids were in class, the counselors -- all 17 or 18 year olds -- had free reign of the camp to do whatever. While the others played Capture the Flag, I went exploring.
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On the choir trip to Cispus, after the dinner and the skits and the Circle of Light, I took a flashlight down to the river, down a path I'd found as counselor. The trail was narrow and bumpy and flanked by walls of nettles and blackberries. It ended abruptly, dropping down a tiny dirt and gravel shelf to the water -- a hastening little river, not too deep but glacially cold, rippling like a silver ribbon under the stars. I walked across a short gravel plain, a dry riverbed choked with flung-aside logs and driftwood that would be drowned when the snow melt swelled the river. I stood at the edge and watched the water, and life was good.
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And then the partiers showed up. A couple dozen of them, lugging 24-packs of Rainier they'd smuggled into the camp. We hailed each other. Much drinking ensued. After pounding a few, I woozily announced I was heading back to the camp. "You're going where?" asked one of the basses, slapping a Rainier into my hand. A few minutes later, after recycling my empty in an empty 24-pack case, I announced I was heading back. "You're going where?" the bass repeated. Suddenly there was another beer in my hand, which I properly disposed of. This went on for a while.
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After some time, I announced again that I was heading back. No new beer appeared. I think it was because we'd drunk it all. Satisfied, I nodded and turned back towards the trail. "Don't you need a light?" someone shouted after me -- I'd given my flashlight to a couple who'd left earlier. "Nope," I replied smugly. "I've been here before. I know the way." I stumbled back across the dry riverbed and promptly got lost.
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The narrow path was nowhere to be found. At least not in my state. So I went forward. I'd been here before. I knew the way, damn it. So through stinging nettles and slashing blackberries I pressed, tripping over fallen limbs and sinking ankle-deep into the mud. Knees and shins banged trunks, thorns caught and tore my ears, tangles pulled my shoes off and dropped my face into the mud. For a while I just lay there. How could I get lost? I knew the way. The alcohol wasn't helping, certainly. But this shouldn't be so difficult. I should not have gotten lost.
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I looked up, and saw the light -- literally, the electric light at the edge of the trail down to the river. It hung on the edge of the campfire gathering place, a permanent pavilion with no walls. It was high up and far away. It provided enough light for me to see behind me, but not in front -- the glare prevented that. I could go back, through the same morass and try to find the trail head again, or I could go forward. I was pissed, in more ways than one. So I went forward.
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Bang, smash, trip. Sink, sting, rip.
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Nettle, thorn, branch, mud. Stumble towards the light.

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I mention this story because I'm in a similar place, career-wise, stumbling along a path I thought I knew towards an endpoint that remains tantalizingly out of reach. This is a path I've walked before, a path I knew but lost, and now I'm struggling through a patch I used to walk with ease. I've forgotten the way, somehow. Forgotten how to do what I used to do without thought.
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I shouldn't be much of a surprise that I've been rather depressed for well over a year. It started, I think, when AMC passed on ALIVE last summer. The show was within a meeting or two of a green light, and we kind of let ourselves count on that one; it hurt so much I never blogged about it. Then Dorkness Rising came out, and the five-year project finally ended. And despite all those years of work, no momentum from the release carried DG forward. I've gotten little moving since then. This year's been full of family crises and revelations, and forced reconceptualization of personal and family history, all of which is emotionally exhausting and tempts one to disconnect from everything. And just as a new equilibrium has been achieved, as things are settling into balance once again, my parents are moving across an ocean.
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For the last year or so, the writing had gone from a pleasure to a chore to something I dreaded and despised. I didn't want to do it anymore. The well dried up. My daily page count went from a steady flow to a trickle to a drought; weeks went by where I did not write. I was actively looking for ways out, for jobs and careers that would take us away from this city. I didn't care anymore. What's the point when your fate is predetermined, if you have no influence over the destiny of your working life? Is there a reason to keep rowing against the current? Or do you reach a point where you say "fuck it" and throw the oars overboard?
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I stopped writing. I stopped reading. I stopped watching movies and steered away from my favorite websites. I avoided any form of entertainment that gave me pleasure because I couldn't look at it without hating where I was, without feeling like a failure by comparison. Envy replaced passion. I had completely lost my ability to admire.
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In June, we flew up to Washington for a few days. Camille spent the time in training with NWAG, and I spent it packing up the house I grew up in. The first day, we packed up all their books. I didn't have anything to read, so I checked my backpack for what I'd casually yanked out of my shelf pre-flight back home: Robert Bly's Iron John.
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I hadn't read it for ten years, and hadn't fully understood it then. Reading it anew in my thirties, it spoke to me on a deeply resonant level, particularly the sections about fathers and sons, and deep-seated male grief. I could see where I was stuck in the fairy tale of Iron John, and what stages were yet to be faced. I can't say the book made everything better -- it didn't -- but it did even things out a bit. Stopped the downward spiral, at least. I felt something solid under my feet again.

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And then we went to Comic Con. Secretly, I was worried about how I would react there. We went to the con to promote a movie made by a group of talented college friends, a movie that would be in theaters and would launch their Hollywood careers. Kind of hard not to compare your own situation and find yourself lacking. Also in attendance were group who had succeeded at the same sort of geek humor that fueled DG for years, but who'd eclipsed us in scope exponentially from the get go. It was a recipe for a disastrous weekend of "here's why you suck."
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And yet, it was there, in that environment, surrounded by younger filmmakers who'd succeeded in the fields where I lay tangled, that I saw the electric light from the woods. I stopped stumbling forward, and steadied myself against the trees. There was a recipe here, a pattern I could study. I could learn from these guys if I paid attention. I did, and I could see where the forest ended. I could see the way out.
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How to get there, though, was still in the dark. I used to know how to do this. I used to know this path. I know there's a way back. And in admitting that, I felt something I hadn't in a year and a half: admiration. I could enjoy other peoples' work again without obsessively comparing my own achievements and finding myself lacking. I enjoyed the hell out of that con.
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It was on the train ride back from San Diego that I made a couple of realizations. When we moved down to L.A. in 2005, I knew how to make movies. Hell, I'd been doing it for years. I knew what worked, what was funny, and how to make something hilarious, with surprisingly strong production value, out of nothing. It was my hallmark.
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Then I got to AFI and was promptly told everything I'd been doing was wrong. That's not how you make movies. That's not how you write movies. That's not the audience you should be targeting. Do this and this, don't do this, and for God's sake don't trust your instincts. I listened. Why shouldn't I? These are the industry professionals, the ones who've made a career doing what I'd like to. I should listen to them. So I moved to L.A. and forgot how to make movies. I lost the path.
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I also realized, on that train ride home, how spoiled Dead Gentlemen had been by our early success. When we went to Gen Con in 2003 and sold hundreds of Gamers DVDs, we did not know what we had achieved. We had basically conquered the RPG community without trying. And what we learned from was a terribly wrong lesson that permanently stunted our growth: the fans will come to us. Which is why DG's never really broken out of the RPG crowd. We expected the fans would find us instead of the other way around. That was beneath us, because we're so awesome. And so we didn't follow up the Dorkness Rising release with any sort of push, and lost any and all momentum we'd built. And yet we lament our obscurity when it's entirely our own fault.
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So there I sat on a crowded train to Los Angeles, my feet swollen and pounding from standing on unyielding concrete in bad shoes for three days, mulling over a pair of unpleasant truths. I suppose I would have expected myself to sink back into black depression. The opposite happened. My well filled up. Stories and characters started speaking to me again, with volume I hadn't had since before moving to Los Angeles. I remembered how I used to do things when I didn't know how things were supposed to be done. In sudden clarity, I saw what I could do with the resources at my disposal. I felt the path under my feet, and the woods parted.
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Since I moved to L.A., I stopped making movies. I'm assured this is the way it's done, that it takes years of development and networking to get anything made. And even then, you have to -- have to! -- make something the industry says people want to see, not what you've got burning inside you. Don't trust your instincts.
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Fuck that. You know how I got into film school? By not trying to get into film school. I am a fanboy. I made entertainment that I, as a fanboy, wanted to see. And, lo and behold, they found a fanboy audience, and that audience evangelized and swelled. The end result was a funded feature that got me into film school.
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That is what I'm going back to. My roots, the zero-budget run-and-gun guerrilla filmmaking that got me here in the first place. I have an army of stymied filmmakers and actors, as frustrated as I am with not getting anything made, at my disposal. I know this path; I've been down it before. Hell, I've done it before, with great success. I just forgot that I knew how to do it.
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Back to the lost-in-the-woods story. Eventually, I did find my way out of the forest. With that single electric light as my beacon, I powered forward, slamming my shins and tearing my clothes and scratching my skin and uttering truly blasphemous combinations of words with each step. Suddenly the woods gave way and I emerged onto the lawn around the campfire pavilion. A good portion of the forest was stuck to me; I'd unintentionally camouflaged myself on the quarter-mile trek through the muddy wilderness. I blinked in the light and sighed mightily.
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Then I noticed the four girls staring at me from the benches around the campfire. I don't think there could have been a more embarrassing lineup of ladies: they were my ex-girlfriend, the girl I'd been in unrequited love with, a girl I was quite interested in, and the big sister of the choir. They blinked at me the way you'd blink at someone who looks like he'd just been dragged through a swamp.
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"Hey," I said, because I had nothing else to say.
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"And what have you been up to?" one of them asked. Her tone said they all knew I was drunk.
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I don't recall what I said back, other than that I tried and failed to play sober. They dismissed me and went back to their girl talk. I trudged back to the barracks and tried to sleep while the tenors bullshitted with each other until the early morning hours.
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Why mention the encounter with the girls, apart from its intrinsic humor value? Because the reaction I've gotten from many of my establishment filmmaker friends has been the same. "I'm going back to my roots," I tell them, "back to how I did things before coming down here." And they look at me like I'm drunk.
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I don't blame them. Most of the producers in this town simply cannot think below a certain budget level. That's not how it's done! Nothing exists there! Nobody can survive below that line! Aside from the internet pioneers who've achieved industry success from the same guerrilla roots. I will join them. I know I can. I've done it before. I could launch into a long treatise about how the entertainment industry is contracting, and how the future of distribution lies in emerging new media, but this post is already long enough.
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In the weeks since Comic Con, I've been incredibly busy. I'm knocking projects and goals off left and right, and am working with a stronger sense of purpose than I have since the original Gamers. Many exciting projects are in the works. Primary is a webseries helmed by my longtime friend and coleauge Ben Dobyns. He's created a model for internet distribution that, if successful -- and I have every reason to believe it will be -- will provide a platform with unparalleled potential for convergent storytelling. It could also see the rebirth of Demon Hunters and the resurrection of Hopjockey as webseries. And I have in the works a webseries of my own, a fantasy/comedy I hope to shoot as early as next year: JourneyQuest. I can't wait to tell you more about it.
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So here I stand at the edge of the woods, bleeding and bruised, covered in sticks and mud, frowned at by people who think I'm out of my mind. Which is fine with me. Because it's not the people who stick to the path who find new ways through the forest.

7 comments:

Cam_Banks said...

You're my hero, Mr Vancil. I've been in this exact same place for the past few years. This past year has been abysmally depressing for me, too, but I've got the same stupid light shining ahead of me and friends and family (and a kick-ass spouse) who believe in me.

I shall be watching your career with GREAT interest, as the scary Chancellor said in that dumb movie.

fightdesigner said...

Does this mean you're coming back up to WA?

Cindy said...

Glad you made it back safe.

Ray said...

Keep it up Matt! I look forward to what you do next!

George Tramountanas

leticial said...

What is it about entering into our 30s? The path seems clear and knowable in our 20s and then -- BAM! -- we hit 30 and it seems like everything we thought and believed in our 30s was all a lie or self-delusion at best. Still, i sounds like you're finding your footing and its great to hear that the juices are flowing once again. Let me know next time you're in WA. I'd love to catch up!

Jenny said...

I just want to know the names of the girls around the campfire :)

Richard said...

Matt,

I'm shocked, truly shocked that there was any drinking a Camp Cispus!

(OK, maybe not)

Great post, open and vulnerable.

Glad to see you're finding a way out (or back) of that dark forest we all enter at some point.

I look forward to your next work.

All the best,

Richard