Half My Life: In the Studio 20 Years Apart

Three months before I turned 20, two friends and I — we were a band called Black Spiral — loaded up a car in Houston, drove to Austin and crashed at a stranger’s house, then went into a makeshift studio early the following morning to try to make a record. That was June 20, 1998…twenty years ago today.

We got breakfast tacos on the way in, recorded nine songs live to tape before lunch, and spent the rest of the day doing vocal overdubs and mixing. I played drums. We finished the day having finished an album. 20 years on, I remain proud of the record (except that one spot in that one song where I sped up noticeably…it still irks me), and deeply grateful for Chris Crowson (bass/vocals) and Ryan Dawe (guitars), with whom I shared that experience.

Me, there. On the right. Stopping on the way back from the “studio” for a hillside band selfie.

Also 20 years on, I find myself three months shy of my 40th birthday, and working on another album, this time in Los Angeles. That long-ago day in June, with the breakfast tacos and the impossible task ahead of us, was exactly half my life ago. And, through an accident of the calendar and because we try to impose order where none would otherwise exist, I am taking this opportunity to finish another record on the same day.

My “new” band, Sci-Fi Romance is itself almost a decade old, and this will be the band’s fourth full-length album. On it, I play a dozen instruments, and have been trying to get it recorded by grabbing hours here and there since December. It is a far cry from nine songs in 5 hours. But it is, hopefully, representative of growth. 20 years ago, I didn’t play guitar, didn’t sing, didn’t write songs, sure as hell didn’t play piano and wouldn’t have dared try to navigate a vibraphone or theremin, all of which I’ve done on the new record. 20 years ago, this was not a day that I could have foreseen. Today, I’ll be in the studio doing the final mixes. Wish me luck.

I feel like there’s a grand conclusion out there I should be able to get my arms around with this unexpected symmetry, this simple, harmonic ratio of life lived…but really I just feel grateful. I am grateful for my wife, a person I could not have imagined 20 years ago. For my children, one of whom also plays piano on this album (not why I’m grateful for them — free musicians!!). Grateful for my father, who has supported me making sounds by hitting things since I started hitting things. Grateful for my many bandmates across many bands. Grateful for my distributor, who reached out after hearing the Spiral CD and has been there since.

Last week, on the day I finished tracking this album.

If there’s a moral, it’s this: our paths are unknown. Every moment of Sci-Fi Romance has been one of me going, “I don’t think I can _______” and then doing it. Me and two talented friends should not have been able to record nine songs before lunch. That’s nuts. But we did it.

I have never easily believed in myself as an artist. I have set barriers I did not think I could overcome, and then, somehow, usually overcome them. Artist or not, musician or not — student, or awesome mom or dad, or whatever — I would hope for you to be nicer to yourself than I’ve usually been to me. I would like you to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. I would like you to be able to surprise yourself, and enjoy the feeling.

I hope you guys dig the new record. Last year, dozens of Europeans bought Black Spiral CDs. It gladdened me. If, 20 years from now, teenagers on whatever continent are swapping Sci-Fi Romance mp3s, I’ll be equally proud.

Defeat, by Black Spiral:

A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees, by Sci-Fi Romance:

 

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Strange Dreams on a Nervous Night

Over the course of maybe the last year, I have had a series of dreams that I had not thought much of and I thought were unrelated, until last night, when they all came together. They clearly Mean Something, or Are Trying to Tell Me Something. But I don’t know what.

Here are some facts:

  • I grew up outside of Houston, and my extended family lived in two rural towns — one small, one very small — about ninety minutes away that we would visit often
  • My paternal grandmother lived next to the cemetery
  • My maternal grandmother lived on land that backed up to the Colorado River
  • To get to my maternal grandmother’s, you had to know the way. The roads were winding and unmarked. Written directions would have included lines like, “When you reach the ‘T’ where the road is paved again, go left.”
  • As a teenager, I believed I had once had a dream that, standing by the river, you could crane your neck and see a scene out of a Dutch painting…a farmhouse surrounded by blooms of every color. This seemed so unlikely because everything around the property was corn and cotton fields. But I was wrong — it had not been a dream. It was something I had actually seen as a child, decided must have been a dream, and yet saw once again, completely unexpectedly, many years later.
  • My father recently sold his mother’s house. Now someone else lives next to the cemetery.

Here are the dreams:

  • Dream #1, about a year ago: I was a teenager, on a drive somewhere with a friend. There was a small, remote cabin my family owned, but no one occupied, where I had played as a child. On the car trip, I recognized the area, told my friend about the cabin, and wondered if I could still find the way. I did. We found the cabin, and spent some time exploring the dusty, empty shell of it, surrounded as it was by tall grasses and trees in the middle-distance. It was magical.
  • Dream #2, a couple months ago: Driving again, now with my wife, I remembered a small town on the way between two places. It was a shortcut that probably didn’t actually save any time, but was lovely. When we got into the town, it was as I had remembered, until we reached the main street. A big box store had been built recently, and it had become the central hub of the town. (We went inside and found they sold guitars, and while a few of them looked nice, they were all off-brands and played shitty.)  We drove on.
  • Dream #3, a few weeks ago: I dreamt that in college, I had driven a lonely stretch of Highway 290 many times, moving between my home and college (this is actually true), and that there was a big, swooping, 270-degree exit off the highway that would take me to a late-night diner (this is not true). They had the best pancakes. I had gone there many times, on many overnight drives, and I wondered if I could still find it. Happily, I did. But the diner was run-down. A strip-mall had sprung up around it and, in the years of my absence, it too had grown run-down. Everything was grimy and forgotten. There were a lot of empty stores in the strip-mall. I went to the diner and got lousy service.
  • Dream #4, last night: Driving. Now. I remembered each of these places in turn, and tried to find them. I could not. I could not remember the secret way to the cabin, or even if my family still owned it. I could not remember the shortcut that wasn’t through the town that now featured lovely, hundred-year-old Victorian houses and wide aisles of fluorescent lighting. I could not find the swooping highway exit that would lead to pancakes. On the radio was Conor Oberst’s “Gossamer Thin.”

I don’t want to eat or get out of bed
Try to recall what the therapist said
Ego and Id, the Essential Self
You are who you are and you are someone else

Waking up with that running through my head was really the last straw that made me wonder what the hell was going on. All interpretations are welcome in the comments below.

 

Hollywood vs. Online Dating

This morning, NPR Morning Edition ran a story called, “Why Hasn’t Online Dating Made it Onscreen?” Of course, as the story discusses, online dating has made it onto TV screens, and studios have made tons of tech-that-kills sci-fi and horror movies. But, the story points out, “[T]here’s one movie genre that’s still struggling to incorporate the everyday tech of contemporary life into the stories it tells: the romantic comedy. Which is notable — and very, very odd — because online dating…is, for millions of people, a simple fact of life — the New Normal.”

Turns out, I’ve got a little insight into this, since I actually wrote an online dating script almost a decade ago, and it got *this close* to finding a happy home at one of a number of production companies, before simply disappearing into the ether.

NPR spoke with film producer Christine Vachon, who said that the problem was visual, since it’s cinematically boring to watch people swipe right and swipe left, etc. That’s probably true, but it’s also not what generates the drama in a story, so hopefully nobody would be spending a ton of screen time on swiping left and right.

The NPR story also spoke to TV writer Guy Branum,  who I think is closer to the problem when he says any script you write has to get past studio execs to greenlight it. NPR reporter Glen Weldon said, “Let’s say some future screenwriter…”

And that’s when I decided to write this post. Because I was that screenwriter in…like, 2007?…and I guarantee that there have been more like me and, frankly, who are better than me, that have come up with compelling scripts, but they’ve not been made.

BackwardsCompatible.Illustration

Here’s what happened with mine:

In 2007, I wrote a script called Backwards Compatible about a data guy who is engaged to an artist, and has to sign up for a profile on an online dating service that is a client. It’s assigned work research, but among his matches he finds “the one that got away” — the girl he had a crush on growing up but always seemed unattainable. He gets some questionable advice and decides to try to meet this woman.

On the surface, the guy and his fiancee don’t have that much in common, but they bring out the best in each other. They’re not the couple you’d expect, but they make a good team. But this other woman represents the “what if…?” in life. His meeting with her, which he at first refuses to call a date, goes really well and they see each other more. He starts asking himself about all the other roads he never traveled, all the things he was too scared to try to do, and he winds up getting way into the weeds and kind of losing any real sense of himself. Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep his engagement on the rails, and all this other stuff secret…you get it.

The script got me a manager and a bunch of meetings. I’m not going to mention any names in this account, but I had the head of development at a very active company belonging to an A-list romcom kind of actress tell me that they’d been trying to crack the nut of an online dating script for over a year, and my script was the best take they’d seen. Backwards got set up at a different company, though — a big, Academy Award-nominated producer’s company, where they had one woman in charge of comedy in an otherwise all-male development office focusing mainly on action movies. I went to that exec’s birthday party, and had *another* exec from another company, also a woman, come up out of the blue and tell me that Backwards Compatible was her favorite romcom script she’d read since she’d been in development.

Then the writer’s strike happened. When the dust settled, my exec had been moved over to TV, and the management company I’d been with went kaput. Nevertheless, Backwards Compatible found a new home at a different company. I did a few more drafts, and finally it went up out of the hands of a female development exec to her boss, and he killed it. Said he, “didn’t get it.” There was also a potential actor attachment, but that guy burned some bridges and hasn’t been heard of much since then. Nevertheless, another producing team got a hold of the script, and we started developing it as a TV movie for a cable channel that wanted the location changed from Los Angeles to Nashville, so I did that. That was in 2011 or 2012. I’d been working on the script, not exclusively, but actively, for four years, and I was just done with it after the network finally passed. You can read that final version here, if you want.  There are things I’d do differently today, but that’s where it was left.*

Here are some factors to which I attribute the slow demise of perhaps my most-loved original screenplay:

  • Like Guy Branum said in the NPR piece, to get a script through the studio system and greenlit, you have to get it past guys in their fifties who have never had to deal with online dating. That’s true, but those guys also…
  • Probably don’t give a shit about romantic comedies, nor are they…
  • Often willing to take the advice of women who work with or for them.
  • The demise of the “$30 million-dollar movie” hit the romantic comedy harder than possibly any other genre
  • A bunch of shitty romantic comedies (many with one particularly unlikable actress) got made and didn’t do much at the box office, so it scared execs away

So in the end, I don’t think a studio’s going to make a great romantic comedy about online dating because there’s no incentive for them to do it. In fact, they’ve been actively dis-incentivized against making romantic comedies at all. Even if a lot of the real-world stuff you can point to might undermine that argument, I know the word in town at the time got to be that romantic comedies were unwelcome as development properties.

By now, since online dating has become such a staple of everyday life, the novelty has worn off, and there’s no reason to make an online dating romantic comedy, to tell the truth. The thing I liked about my script wasn’t the online dating aspect — that was only used as a vehicle to get to the “what if/grass is always greener” struggle. That’s something that I think is universal to the human experience, and worth making a movie about. If you try to make a movie based on any technology, that technology’s going to become obsolete, and quite possibly, your movie will be dated by the time it comes out.

I don’t think you need a new visual language for “some future screenwriter” to figure out, you just have to figure out a compelling human story to tell that the technology helps you unlock. TV’s already doing that, so this feels like a puzzle no studio is interested in solving.

*I don’t want this to come across only as “my script should’ve gotten made!” lament. I’d have liked that, sure, but there are issues with the script, and I understand that. This is about the larger point of why this topic is a particular challenge for movies, written based on personal experience, rather than academic conjecture. That’s all.