Oops, I Got a Screenwriting Degree!

This morning, I woke up to a horrifying realization.

Oh my god! I forgot to blog for two years straight!

Wait, wait. Let me try that again:

FADE IN:

INT. APARTMENT THAT’S NOT RUSS’S BECAUSE HE’S HOMELESS – DAY

RUSS NICKEL (20s) tosses and turns on a fold-out IKEA futon. Wearing only boxers, his shaved head does little to hide his bald spot, and he grinds away at his adult retainer like a madman.

Suddenly, he sits up and his eyes fly open. He SCREAMS. Then looks to the ceiling.

RUSS

What have I done?!

FADE OUT

Okay, I admit it. That’s not much of a scene (but those cops will be happy; they’re always telling me not to make a scene). And it’s not even that accurate. I mean, c’mon. I obviously don’t wear boxers when I sleep. I just wanted to protect myself in case Sam thought about drawing me naked. Again.

But the rest is true. I’ve made a huge mistake. I got a masters in screenwriting.

When I got my English degree and found myself unemployed, what did I do? Did I grit my teeth, buckle down my bootstraps, hike up my pants, put my nose to the grindstone and otherwise idiomatically prepare myself to start from the bottom and work my way up? Of course not! I took another loop on the roundabout and went to graduate school like any self-aggrandizing young adult with a crippling fear of actual work and the real world.

Graduate school offers post-adolescents like me the opportunity to postpone troubling questions like “how do I pay for food?” “what are taxes?” and “oh my god what if lemurs become sentient through a medical mishap, master the art of horseback riding, and go on a rampage to overthrow their human masters?!”

I figured that I’d poured about twenty years into my schooling so… two more years should be just the amount of time I needed to get it all figured out. At the time, my final, ultimate, daunting graduation seemed endlessly far away. But real life comes for all of us sooner than you think, and mine came in the form of a furry panther creature handing me a diploma.

"This document is a symbol not of your achievements, but of the fact that you can no longer keep hiding in the womb of education.  Err, I mean, Meow."

At first I was frightened that I might be having acid flashbacks to that time I had that weird dream that I’d accidentally tried acid, but then I remembered it was our school mascot. I didn’t see it around too often since I was a graduate student, meaning my only interaction with main campus was awkwardly hitting on sorority girls. Anyways, with a growl of ‘good luck’, ol’ panther sent me on my way, and I found myself unequivocally unemployed, and even less quivocally homeless.

But what’s a little case of homelessness when you’re writing the next great American screenplay? That just enhances its authenticity! All I have to do is find a 24 hour café and wash my armpits in their bathroom.

In my experience that’s the only part of the human body that builds up any level of grossness, but I could be wrong about that. Keep in mind that I have English and Screenwriting degrees, so science mostly evades me.

Now, when I say homeless, I don’t mean, oh, I just haven’t figured out where I’m moving. I mean my lease ran out in July, I have basically no money because grad school is ridiculously expensive, and all my stuff is in storage. For the last quarter of a year I’ve been living out of a suitcase, sleeping on the proverbial street-side that is a string of friends’ couches, err, IKEA futons.

"Would you please wash your armipits?" -Raccoon

I’d thought Screenwriting was a good idea. English was too vague, but Screenwriting, that was a vocation. It’s more focused. There’s a real practical application, an industry built around it. Someone in said industry would surely employ me, right? And once again, my friends and family foolishly supported me in my endeavor. Live your dream! Make movies! Move to Hollywood, woo Yvonne Strahovski, and have beautiful, beautiful Strahovskian children. It all sounded so simple.

Ah, every man's dream... to own a pitchfork.

But it’s not all guns n’ roses. In school, writing had been relatively easy. After all, there were domineering authority figures with impressive scarves and even more impressive imdb pages giving me deadlines, hope, and a fair bit of good ol’, swear-word-filled tough love. Writing isn’t so easy out here in RL. Suddenly I realize that, rather than coming naturally, it’s a muscle to be stretched, berated, pulled, and then overcome. Without the structure of education, without a home base, I’m trapped in an echo chamber of reality, sputtering down the river of my rapidly depleting budget toward the waterfall of regular job-iness, trying desperately to build a raft out of my own creativity, and even if I do construct said raft, the odds that it’ll float are like one in a thousand. It’s not a perfect metaphor.

You’d think people who get accepted to an institute of higher education would be educated enough to know that an MFA in Screenwriting doesn’t put you on the fast track to success. I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me, and I don’t know if there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

So what went wrong? Looking back on it, I think I must have seen one too many movies. Movies where the message is that anybody can make it if they believe hard enough. Said believing will trigger a montage that gets you to the exciting part of your life in the time it takes to play Eye of the Tiger. I thought, if I just go to school, if I work my ass off, if I pour my soul into script after script after script, I could become the person who… writes one of those ridiculously misleading movies that tricks a whole generation of young adults into throwing their lives away in order to make movies. It’s an endless feedback loop of that most despicable of all feelings: hope.

All he hoped for... was to escape the loop.

But there are still ways for me to feel good about myself. I just have to think of screenplays as my home, my ethereal, 1s and 0s, totally un-move-into-able home. And you know what, I’m okay with that. So if you ever see me begging for spare change on the side of the road, don’t pity me. By all means, still give me a dollar, but as you do, think of how incredibly fulfilled I am. Because I’m living the dream.

And for a few hours each night, life is perfect.

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The Dangers of Student Filmmaking

I made it everyone! I survived my first semester of film school!

But it was a close shave, let me tell ya. Also, I didn’t end up shaving that often. That turned out to be ok, though, because I didn’t have to impress too many people with my face, except with the mouth part of my face, and even then, it was more about what I was saying and less about the relative attractiveness of my succulent lips. What I mean to say is, my groomédness rarely came into play because film school is about 90% male, and as far as those Y chromosome folks are concerned, the mangier the better (after all, you can’t spell mangy without man! and guy is almost in there too). Which brings me to the first danger of student filmmaking: incidental abstinence.

It would be nice if we were like those frogs those scientists used to fill in the missing strands of DNA in Jurassic Park and we could just change our gender at will. But alas, despite Jeff Goldblum’s insistence, in my personal experience, Life does not find a way. It just ends up sitting in its room a lot, debating whether it has too much pride to head over to the casual encounters section of craigslist.

Luckily, abstinence is one of those non-life-threatening dangers. It’s when you go around town shooting without proper permits or crew that things get really interesting (not that I would ever do that, readers who are also Chapman faculty). Yes, I’ve come close to death on pretty much every set, but one of those experiences stands above the rest, the veritable giraffe of danger.

giraffe-o-danger

You see, I was to play the lead in a simple, one-minute story about a man whose car runs out of gas. We thought it would be a breeze, but as the things on our todo list spiraled out of control, it ended up less breeze and more tornado. A spiraly tornado.

First off, it’s raining, and since I’m part witch (of a Cardinal direction, no less), that’s never a good thing. I know then in my boots, or rather, non-rain-proof flip-flops, that it is an omen of fortune most ill.

Still, not wanting to have a meltdown in front of everyone (see what I did there?), especially that cute editor I was trying to impress (because film school did have at least one girl in it), I soldier on and hop in the car with the affable director, who proceeds to drive us way, way up into the clearly deserted hills, a place where no one would hear us scream. He pulls the car off to the side of the road on some dilapidated gravelly overlook near a bridge and tells me to get out. It’s time.

But before we can get the camera rolling, or sliding, or any form of lateral motion, another car pulls off onto the gravel right behind us. Keep in mind, there is nobody around as far as the eye can see. There are turnouts every few hundred feet, but no, this car chooses to stop directly behind us. Don’t they know this is a film set?

Oh, and then a bunch of gang members pile out.

It was a lot like a clown car, except instead of pouring out seemingly forever, there were only three of them, and instead of being clowns, they were all natural born killers! Or killers created by experience and circumstance or whatever; I’m no Calvinist. Experience that left them covered in tattoos. And muscles. Muscles everywhere.

clownposse

“Let’s just keep filming,” says the director bravely, right before he crosses the street and walks far far away from the danger, leaving me all alone.

I act like my car has run out of gas for a little while (a stirring performance, I assure you), while shaking in my proverbial “boots,” feet soaked with the liquid fear that I hope is merely the rain and not something more. And then another car pulls up behind us. Just as my dark imagination predicted, more gang members get out. Now it’s a gang soiree?!

Oh, and then there’s another car. Suddenly ten of the most hardcore dudes I’ve ever seen are convening right behind me, plotting how to murder the witnesses who were stupid enough to be FILMING their drug deal.

I look at our possé. There’s me, a buffoon practiced at avoiding conflict; the affable director whose main form of attack is a barrage of smiles; the tall, handsome cinematographer who likes to sing silly songs and whose loyalties probably lie with the camera rather than with me; and this cute girl in front of whom I can show no fear lest I lose face (unshaven as it might be).

The three of them cower on the other side of the road, so far away that they have to call my cell phone to give me acting directions. They promise we’re almost done, but then I see it: the flash of something metal in one of the killer’s hands.

He’s walking toward me now; what little light filters through the ominous rain glints off the object he carries, and I say a quick prayer to Odon, but I know it’s too late. This is it for me.

I spin, confronting the bearer of my demise and see him squat down and pretend to take a dump? He hands his reflective phone to one of his buddies, and the whole gang starts cracking up. They’re posing in front of a “No Dumping” sign, and loving the shit out of it. They each take turns flouting authority by disobeying the government warning…via word play. Apparently three cars worth of these guys met up in the hills not for a drug deal, but for a photo op.

This shatters my perception of gangs.

shattered

Location Two: The Gas Station

We arrive at a seedy gas station, thankful to be alive, and more than ready to put this damn shoot behind us. Unfortunately, the location is overrun with homeless people. Now, I’m a big fan of bums, but maybe that’s because all the one’s I’ve interacted with are beach bums who like to talk about the waves, play you guitar on the sand, and compliment you on your fine burrito-purchasing skills. In fact, my most recent interaction lasted about half an hour, and the guy told me he’d written a story about how Obama and Santa Claus team up to prevent the Mayan apocalypse (which comes in the form of aliens).

apocalypse

I sort of assumed that all homeless people were friendly, but as we set up for our final shot, this one guy starts yelling at us about how we’re on his turf, and if we don’t get the hell out of there, he’s going to kill us. Now, I’m not a big fan of my own death, so this worries me, nerves fraying like that now-disintegrated blanket my grandmother promised would always keep me safe. After delivering his message, he simply retreats to a sort of homeless haven in the bushes, where he meets up with what are presumably members of his crew.

And that’s when we see that one of his compatriots has his pants around his ankles and is, um, defecating, right in the open onto some unsuspecting grass.

It’s some sort of conspiracy! The “No Dumping” sign, and now this! The hobos and gangs must have made a pact, working together to…I don’t know! Something!

I try to explain my theory to the director, but he laughs it off as one of those all-too-common crazy Russ ideas. Doesn’t he understand?! If there’s one thing my time as a detective has taught me, it’s that there’s no such thing as coincidence!

He instructs me to keep acting, dammit, but before he can call action, another homeless guy comes at us, screaming. “You didn’t listen to my king? He gave you a direct order, and what the king says, goes. Ya hear me? You take that camera outta here! You take it down now. NOW!”

He’s heading straight toward me. We lock eyes, and I sense his brutal purpose.

“I carry the word of the king!” he shouts, and he’s almost on us.

Finally the director’s resolve breaks, and we run for our car.

But it’s not enough. The homeless guy follows us, and we have one of those movie moments, the driver struggling to hit the unlock button, the monster only moments away.

And then, to our rescue, a shining knight. The lone gas station employee, not your usual knight figure, bursts out of the quik-e-purchase, sprints over, and antagonizes the homeless guy.

“Why you messin’ with their movie, man? Huh? Why you gotta bother these poor people?”

Before I realize what’s happening, the two of them are circling each other, shouting taunts just out of fist-smashing range. The gas station guy keeps telling us to go ahead and finish our movie, but we know when we’ve been beaten, and the driver floors it.

As I look back on it now, I find it rather odd that shooting a movie about running out of gas on the side of the road ended up being much more dangerous than any of the times I’ve actually run out of gas, almost as if, in making the movie, we were forced to live through the movie ourselves…

It’s like some sort of conspiracy.

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Film School!

Hiya readers of Reasonably Ludicrous!

Sorry there haven’t been that many posts lately. This is due partly thanks to the fact that I spent my summer as a TA at Stanford summer camp again, encumbered by a constant barrage of high school enthusiasm, and partly because I just started film school!

Film school is this magical place where you go to spend two years writing screenplays, or so I thought. Then I arrived for the orientation and was immediately bombarded by the general idea that networking was the be all and end all of a successful life. Nothing makes for a smoother first impression than knowing that the people you’re just now introducing yourself to are the same people that will change your life forever and make or break your career.

In fact, said a professor, I’ve watched a million kids graduate from film school, and it didn’t matter how talented they were or how motivated. The only thing they had in common was how many friends they’d made. Oh, and all famous people ever met their most important contacts the very first day of film school. Great.

“Hi, I’m Russ,” I say, and then am filled with trepidation. Did my greetings come off as insincere? Should I have said “hello” instead of “hi?” Is my silly pun shirt giving off an unprofessional vibe? Is it good for a quirky screenwriter to give off an unprofessional vibe?

While all of these thoughts run through my head, the conversation moves on and everyone’s wondering why that weird guy with the shaved head is just staring blankly forward, drooling on his weird shirt.

Anyway, hopefully I haven’t made too big a fool of myself thus far. It’s important that I not only impress my future contacts, but I also must woo the 6 girls at the school.

And if I might not be writing as many blog posts as I once did, well, at least maybe I’ll make some entertaining movies? Like this assignment where we were required to make a two minute video introducing ourselves but weren’t allowed to appear in it.

Everybody else has all these artsy pieces, and then I come out with this. First impressions, here we go!

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