Notes from the Set of a Werewolf Film

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No such thing as a clean slate.

When news editor Will Carruthers offhandedly suggested I write a dispatch from the set, he had no idea I had been keeping a production diary.

Films are what I do when I’m not newspapering, and this particular film, presently titled Wolf Story, is a bit of Gen X angst spun as a rom-com but with fangs and fur.

It’s a werewolf movie that takes pot shots at Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (not a werewolf book, mind you), horror genre idioms, but mostly my generation’s commitment to not aging gracefully, the (de)evolution of traditional relationships and how second chances are seldom on our own terms.

Some might say this is a vanity project (I write, direct and star), but I’d like to think I’m taking one for our Team X, saying what a lot of us have been thinking. Trust me, this is not a flattering piece of material. But I am stoked to join the ranks of such quasi-contemporaries as B.J. Novak (congrats on Vengeance!), as well as ancient writer-director-actor antecedents—from schlocky Ed Wood to artiste Orson Welles.

As culture writer Andrew Bloom wrote when mulling the spectrum between Wood and Welles, “all art contains a piece of the author’s soul, from cinema’s highest highs to its lowest lows, and that fact connects everyone with the foolhardy impulse to try to make good on the impulse to create.”

I agree with Bloom wholeheartedly and I applaud all artists, however they heed the call—filmmakers in particular. And by “filmmakers” I mean all those hearty souls participating in every aspect of production. These are precisely the kind of people with whom you would want to venture into deep space. You have no idea where you’re going and if you’ll ever get home, but the hope is to eventually share something amazing everyone can someday see for themselves.

Films are impossible but not implausible, which is why they still happen. 

And so far as one’s aesthetic ambitions will lead where they may, the drive to make these cinematic monsters necessarily derives from a collective spirit. And that, ultimately, belongs to the audience. Over flickering fires to cinematic streams, movies and their progeny are how our culture best reflects itself.

But culture ain’t what it used to be. We exist in atomized algorithmic-driven niches now. The blockbusters and water-cooler attractants of yore have given way to an amazing glut of “content,” nearly as many shows as subscribers. 

So, why make independent films in this climate? Let alone a werewolf film? As Quentin Tarantino reminds his casts and crews when goading them into a final take: “We love making movies.” 

That’s why.

A version of this was originally published in the Bohemian.

On Turning 50

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Turning 50
Your author is turning 50.

There are many milestones when it comes to aging. 16 (driving), 18 (adultishness), 25 (first million, right?), 30 (wait, no millions yet?), 40 (nevermind) and onward… 

Then the big ones—most of which land at the beginnings of decades. Like turning 50. This is my new decade as of yesterday. Am I pleased about it? Well, besides being cheap fodder to feed the deadline monster, suddenly turning 50, has afforded me a certain kind of age-related relief. 

Whatever I do now—no matter how behind the curve or outre my plan—my efforts take on a kind of “bucket list” gravitas. Or not. No one cares but me. And the merry dranksters (typo intended) who join me on these Quixotic adventures.

Age has evacuated my ambition, leaving only my own cockeyed aesthetic aspirations with which to work. I no longer have the need, nor the opportunity—if I ever did—to “make it.” Now, what my collaborators and I achieve is what we make it. Like literally—we make, and do…and make do. And it gets done.

My rubric for success hearkens back to before I had any understanding of selling out, which my generation abhorred but I was always desperate to do because I needed to feed my ego and later my kids.

The question I ask myself is whether or not my 16-year-old self would respect who I am now. Perhaps not the most mature policy, but definitely the purest—never is anyone more clear-eyed about why adults suck than at 16.

And the answer is, yes, my 16-year-old self would approve of the general contours of my life thus far (but, no, I will not buy him alcohol, so don’t ask, kid).

I wasn’t a child prodigy, but I was clever and canny, though I eventually had to reckon with the fact that I was just another kid from Petaluma trying to be someone not from Petaluma. As a friend of mine later put it, I was “a fast kid in a slow town, but in a fast town I would’ve been a slow kid.”

Now I’m 50. And I can say that I’m precisely who I expected to be. As e.e. cummings wrote in a poem I first read in my teens, a “coward, clown, traitor, idiot, dreamer, beast—such was a poet and shall be and is.” 

I’ve gotten close a few times (and have the singed feathers to prove it), but the thing about stories like mine it seems, is that, no matter how they end, they get better with age.

Moonshot: Why I’m Making a Werewolf Movie

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Wolfman
I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the queen...

It all began in a community college course circa 1993 when Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf met my contrarian attitude toward required reading.

I ached through a few chapters of the slender novel, which proved to be a valentine of sorts to its author’s shrink, Carl Jung (whom we can thank for archetypal psychology and a surname that will never cease being mispronounced).

The novel was ostensibly about a man having an existential crisis on the eve of his 50th birthday. (So, I guess, every man?) As it happens, I’m turning 50 this July, so naturally, Steppenwolf came to mind.

Steppenwolf 2: The Unwanted Sequel

Out of morbid curiosity, I acquired a new edition of the book, mostly to confirm that I still hated it, and was happy to discover that…I do. Enough, in fact, I instantly wanted to lampoon it as a film and started screenwriting a modern parody: Steppenwolf 2.

I mentioned this to my wife and film producer, Kary, who offhandedly quipped, “You mean, like Teenwolf 2.”

Before I could answer, the worlds of B-grade horror comedy and literary middle-aged angst collided in my mind with such impact that a black hole temporarily formed in my brain, drawing every Gen X crisis and passing thought about werewolves I’d ever pondered into its intoxicating gravity.

There it was all along—the perfect cinematic expression of our inevitable transformation into middle age. The clues were obvious in retrospect—the hair I recently discovered growing out of my ears, the slight recession of the gum line around my canine teeth, the thunderous apnea-induced growls that yanked me from sleep and into the nightmare of my own consciousness and the crushing weight of my artistic ambitions. Not to mention my cyclothymic personality, enslaved, it seems, by the waxing and waning of the moon and its tidal influence on the oceans of wine I’ll find myself bobbing upon like a cork. I had to ask myself… Am I a werewolf?

Maybe metaphorically like Hesse, but really, I’m just getting older. Werewolfism is, however, a useful lens through which to examine issues of physical transformation (or body horror, depending) and the change that comes with age.

In the ’50s, movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf used the subgenre as a puberty metaphor (ditto Teenwolf in the ’80s and yet again in the past decade), so why not use it on the other side of the age spectrum? And that, friends, is why I’m—having a midlife crisis? No—making a werewolf movie.

Change is good. But film is forever.

A version of this was originally published in the Bohemian.

Burn This: On Keeping an Archive

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What's in the box?! Photo by Ante Hamersmit.

I went to my safe deposit box in search of a backup hard drive that contained material I needed to share with a business associate. I turned the key and I pulled the box from the wall. Inside? Redundant copies of some legal papers and an allegedly rare Star Wars action figure with a snaggle-toothed grin—so happy he was to be liberated from this high-security sarcophagus.

I had never bothered to stash the hard drive in the box as planned. Instead, I found it under my desk, under a sheaf of unfiled, “important” papers. This baleful state of affairs is not unique to me; this is the way of the world, particularly when it comes to the fate of our cultural artifacts and, you know, the end of the world.

Attempts have been made. There are salt mines in Hutchinson, KS, where reels of studio-made celluloid are stowed in perfect atmospheric conditions. It’s a seed bank of cinema and it’s comforting to think that when the planet finally explodes, at least a few frames of Casablanca might someday rain upon another celestial body (“We will always have Venus”).

A Noah’s Ark chock-a-block with all of our art rocketed off this crowded little heat trap appeals to me. I’m sure I have some extraterrestrial colleagues that would get a kick out of what’s happened since Roswell. Otherwise, they’ve only had our broadcast TV waves, and those take a while to reach deep space. We’ve basically been sending Nick at Nite reruns into space. That and the Arecibo message make early Atari look like Da Vinci. 

I often think of the Voyager-1 satellite leaving our solar system as its 12-inch Golden Record crammed with Earth’s greatest hits played Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark is the Night.” Good for Blind Willie. I know I have no purchase on posterity. A wiser person might dwell on the evanescent ever-present and not the far-off future, but that’s not me. Instead, I embrace the inevitable bonfire of my vanities. And everyone else’s too. Destroy the evidence while we can because, frankly, our story has never been that great. You can’t paper over what we’ve done to each other and our world with Hamlet. So, let it burn.

Prior to the advent of fire season, I would recommend tearing out this page, folding it into a paper airplane, and flicking your Bic to really send a message. But times have (climate) changed, so instead, fold one sheet into a paper hat and roll another into a “telescope” so you can peer into the starry heavens and let’s hope the future both forgives and forget us.

Originally published here.

Marketing Your Art

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Marketing Your Art
Photo by Amauri Mejía

Self-help gurus sometimes coach artists to “stay in your own lane,” which is a wonderful affirmation of the infinite, individual pathways to success. 

Except, of course, it’s difficult to stay in one’s own lane when everyone else’s lanes are going to vastly better places. The “lane” for many artists is a dead end. Or at least it’s strewn with roadblocks. “Speed bumps,” some booster might encourage with a wink, but that’s the kind of “everybody gets a trophy” sentiment that raises expectations to lethal heights when the artist inevitably falls short. And by “short,” we generally mean “short on cash.” There’s a reason there’s a “road less taken,” and trust me, it will “make all the difference.”

It’s not one’s talent but another’s taste that determines an artist’s commercial success in our capitalist society. These days, a succes d’estime rates little more than a humblebrag on social media. (“So grateful to waste a graduate degree on this under-appreciated expression of my withering sense of self.”)

I had a chat with an artist source on background (to protect their brand and the windows of their glass house). I asked, “What’s a starving artist to do? Sell out?”

“Ha! Most artists couldn’t sell out if they tried. There’s a devastating lack of market savvy on one side and an equally devastating lack of self-awareness about what’s actually marketable about them on the other,” this famously successful sell-out said while sipping a wine that costs as much as your car. “Also, most people can’t afford what artists do—at least in a manner sustaining to the artist—and competition is at an all-time high since everyone and their ex-brother-in-law is also an artist.”

Marketing Your Art in 4 Steps

A rather jaundiced point of view, I thought, but there are some salient points for those artists still hate-reading this satire. 1) Know what differentiates your work from your ex-brother-in-law and double down on that. 2) Aim for a higher market and price your work accordingly. (Those who can afford to be real collectors have benefitted from a system that has disenfranchised you—so take their damn money.) 3) Create false scarcity, be aloof and exclusive. Sell to Peter just to piss off Paul.

And most importantly, 4) Gin up market awareness by getting and keeping your name in the media. “How?” you ask. “You don’t even have an arts editor.” True. But you got me, and I believe in you and your artsy ideals. Carpool in my lane for a bit—the ride might be a little bumpy sometimes, but we’re going places.

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