There are two sort of archetypal stories about very famous filmmakers and how they got their start. The first is about Steven Spielberg, who as a teenager in Scottsdale, Arizona used to run around with his parents’ 8mm camera making “adventure” movies with his friends. The other is about weak and sickly Martin Scorsese, hiding out from the street toughs of his gritty New York neighborhood by ducking into movie theaters and thereby discovering the cinematic wonders of Rossellini, Bergman, Powell and Pressburger. If you’re feeling generous, I suppose you could also include the (mostly apocryphal) Myth of Tarantino, i.e. the motor-mouthed movie geek who was plucked from obscurity out of a Venice Beach video store. I’m not feeling particularly generous, so we’ll just leave that one where we found it.
Inherent in the Spielberg/Scorsese narratives is the notion that their fate was predestined, that movies were in their bones almost from birth, that there was really nothing else they could have done with their lives. Generations of aspiring filmmakers since have reenacted one or both of those narratives — most obnoxiously M. Night Shyamalan, who insists on including his early VHS home videos as DVD extras.
For what it’s worth, I wasn’t one of those filmmakers. My parents didn’t get a video camera until I was in high school, and when they did I had about as much interest in it as I did in my dad’s power tools or my mom’s crochet needles. I liked movies as much as the next kid — probably a little bit more, in fact — but I was hardly a movie geek. I do remember watching Ghostbusters when I was eight and thinking I’d like to have that job, but that’s about as far as it went.
For me, it was all about the books.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to give the impression that I was some sort of proto-Flaubert or Faulkner, consumed by Shakespeare’s tragedies while my Philistine friends were out playing stickball or something. I wasn’t (and still am not) nearly that sophisticated, and I probably would have beat that kid up just like the rest of you.
No. Specifically, for me, it was all about Stephen King.
I had been writing since I was about six, when I doing these little homemade picture books, usually starring some version of me and another kid from the neighborhood. This other kid and I would write these books together. Eventually he discovered football, and I discovered that I flinch whenever someone would try to throw something in my direction. So he went on to all sorts of athletic glory, and I just pretty much stayed in my room and kept on writing.
It wasn’t until I was about 12 when it suddenly occurred to me that I was maybe good at this, that maybe I should take this seriously. And then, a year or so later, I picked up King’s Pet Sematary and it was like the sky opened up and the light of God shone down upon me. THAT was what I wanted to do.
My imagination had always sort of run a darker course (I’ve been obsessed with ghosts and monsters since I can remember, and at one point I really thought I would be the guy who finally discovered Bigfoot). I was at the right age and in the right circumstance to respond to what King had to offer. I was like most pudgy, awkward, shy, and woefully unathletic 13-year-old boys: pissed off and very, very quiet. I was in my head pretty much all the time. And suddenly there was this writer — a grownup — who was basically the same as me, speaking to all the weird things I was thinking about, and who had managed to get rich and famous doing something I was just then getting the inkling I might be able to do as well.
So I was not the kid with the video camera, running around making movies with friends, nor was I consumed with watching them. Instead, I got lost in books. Stephen King was a gateway drug for me. He led me into the dead-end alleys that were Dean Koontz and John Saul, but he also showed me the way to H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub, Clive Barker and Kim Newman. It was his blurb on the book cover that prompted me to read Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort and Thomas M. Disch’s The M.D. — for my money still two of the best works of fiction ever written in the English language.
I watched the movies, sure. A year or so after I discovered King, I found George Romero. I went to sleep to Night of the Living Dead the way some people go to sleep to Pink Floyd or whale song. Barker’s Hellraiser blew my mind. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Last House on the Left made me realize you could actually be insane and still make a movie.
But movies were always an afterthought for me. Even as I started in late high school to grow out of my awkwardness and at the same time blossom into a legitimate cineaste — branching out of straight horror into grim ’70s classics like Apocalypse Now, Straw Dogs and Taxi Driver — I remained committed to prose. I dug deep into ’30s pulp writers like Manly Wade Wellman and August Derleth, and ’80s splatterpunks like David J. Schow. I found that the fiction of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s spoke to me the most. Writers like King, Richard Matheson, T.E.D. Klein, and Thomas Tryon seemed to find the right groove — retaining a lot of the atmosphere of Lovecraft and his ’30s/’40s imitators but discarding much of the gothic silliness, while at the same time avoiding the grisly excesses of the ’80s and ’90s. (For what it’s worth, Matheson’s short story “Born of Man and Woman” is still one of the most sublimely disturbing things ever written. Do yourself a favor and take two minutes to read it. Then go take a shower.)
And all the while, I was writing. Most of those early stories were very self-conscious Stephen King knockoffs, but I kept at it. And I kept submitting. I got my first copy of the Writer’s Market when I was about 15, and submitted over and over again to any and all publications that took unsolicited submissions and claimed to be open to horror. By the time I graduated, I had amassed something like 1,500 rejection letters, all of which I dutifully filed in a cabinet under my desk.
In college, I graduated to Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis, and these newer, punkier writers definitely influenced my style. Eventually I did start to publish, landing the occasional short story in little magazines and indie anthologies like Brutarian Quarterly, Alternate Realities, The Edge and Strangewood Tales. But something was missing. The satisfaction I expected in publishing wasn’t really there.
Writing is a singularly lonely endeavor. It requires vast amounts of time in one’s head, alone in a room (usually in the dark and in varying states of undress), whittling away at one’s own private little obsessions. That’s fine when you’re the dorky kid with greasy hair who nearly vomits any time a pretty girl bothers to speak to you. It gets harder after you’ve grown into a social butterfly, popular college radio DJ, and studied practitioner of the bong hit and keg stand. Suddenly I just wasn’t finding the time to write. And when I did, it sort of felt like I was just talking to myself.
So finding my way to being a filmmaker was less predestination and more kind of an accident. My family’s house burned in the Cerro Grande Fire literally three days after I graduated from college. I found myself stranded in my increasingly exasperated college girlfriend’s apartment for the summer, and then managed to stumble into a teaching position at the college for a semester. I wandered around for six months basically in a fog. When the teaching position was up, I found myself back in Los Alamos, living in my parents’ newly rented house and working as a tech writer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I had a journalism degree I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with, no friends in town, and shitload of time to think and feel sorry for myself. I tried to keep writing, but at that point it became clear that something was off. I needed a change.
I had become a legitimate movie geek by then, almost in spite of myself. I’m not sure when I realized that movies had to be written as well as directed, but that notion chewed away at the back of my brain.
One day, I was getting lunch with my dad and he asked what I wanted to do. I was listless and confused, and he was trying to find a way to snap me out of it. Almost without thinking, I blurted out “I want to try film school.”
It had never occurred to me that I could actually make movies. It seemed so intimidatingly technical. I knew nothing about cameras or lights, and wasn’t sure I really wanted to learn. It seemed like an awful lot of math. To this day, I still fundamentally don’t really care that much what a shot looks like — or, at least, don’t have the self-discipline to figure out how to not make it look shitty — and if I didn’t have my genius cinematographer Corey Weintraub to work with, I’m sure I’d fall squarely into the Kevin Smith school of talking-head who-gives-a-fuck filmmaking (Corey will tell you I’m being too hard on myself, and I probably am).
What appealed to me was the idea of collaboration. Taking my ideas and developing them with someone (or a lot of someones) other than myself. Being part of a team. Writing something out of my own head, and then seeing other people turn it into something like reality.
And, frankly, meeting girls. You don’t meet a lot of girls when you’re alone in a room clacking away at a keyboard.
I took to screenwriting pretty much right away, and within about three years had written something close to 10 feature-length scripts (the first was terrible, and is mercifully lost to a hard drive crash, but some of the other early ones are pretty good I think). It still didn’t really seem like I could be a director, and I was content (at that point) to let others take the ball and run with it.
But then I had a short script accepted into the Duke City Shootout. I had to direct. I had to work with actors. I had to figure out how to set up a shot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was exceedingly lucky to have formed a partnership with Corey and our production designer Mary Holyoke — two people at least as twisted as I am. And I managed to talk one of the best actors in town, Chad Brummett, into starring. Without those three, I don’t know if I would have stuck with it.
About halfway through our first day, I felt that thing I experienced the first time I read Stephen King — that sense of I’m good at this. THIS is what I want to do.
So what’s the point?
I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say how my early focus on writing fiction affected my later work as a filmmaker. I do think it made me unique, in a way. I come at it with a very particular sensibility, crafted by countless hours alone in my room with my nose buried in reprints of Weird Tales and copies of Cemetery Dance, or slaving away at my computer trying to find just that wonderfully horrid description or turn of phrase in the least amount of words possible. I look at some of my short films — “Sweetie” and “The Amniote” in particular — and I see Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch all over them.
Ironically, I think that, if anything, what my writing background did was make me almost allergic to any notion of the “auteur theory.” I know what it’s like to be the sole author of my own work, and I very purposefully abandoned that in favor of collaboration. My favorite moments on set are when someone comes up with something I never would have thought of. I don’t think the words “do it like I wrote it” could ever come out of my mouth.
I’m still a writer first, and always will be. But what filmmaking gave me is a way to do it in the company of others.
And a place to meet girls, of course.