Sea of Dreams
In early summer of 1998, my second film story—Snowmen—was about to be optioned for the umpteenth time. This was finally it, I was sure. After months of close calls, the story now had a popular star, a highly respected production company, an up-and-coming screenwriter, and even some financial backing attached to it. All the ingredients except one. Still missing was a studio—like Paramount or Universal—willing to "green light" the project; in other words, to agree to foot the rest of the bill, oversee production and release the film. But first, the studio would take an option on the story and commit its resources long enough (usually one to three years) for the screenplay to be drafted and all the other key elements assembled. That's the way it's supposed to work. Of course, there are no guarantees.
Months before, the initial response to Snowmen had beckoned me to Los Angeles where I pow-wowed with some of the most influential producers in the industry, all of whom loved my story. Despite knowing all too well the nature of the business—that a healthy dose of luck and timing would still be needed—my optimism soared. I made six trips over the Hollywood Hills in five days and remember calling my family and announcing there wasn't a chance in hell that Snowmen wouldn't sell. This was to be my second triumph in as many tries.
I had just come off a huge high the year before when my first film treatment—Earth Wings and Fire—was acquired by Tom Cruise and Paramount Pictures in a well-publicized deal. And to sweeten matters, my literary agent had even secured a producing credit and a book contract as part of the package. The rush generated by selling a story to the world's biggest star opened doors and put my name in the trades. And now, with a second story finished and in line to follow the first, I was ready to thumb my nose at one of the oldest axioms in Hollywood: one success is lucky, two is a track record. Snowmen would find a home, on this I would bet the ranch.
Thankfully, I didn't.
Impossibly, no studio would agree to option the story. To this day I don't understand why in concrete terms. Someone offered the beleaguered rationale that the stars (the celestial kind) had simply not aligned in my favor. I really hated that. But in the end, I knew it to be true. In the world of making movies, what happened to Snowmen is an everyday occurrence, accepted as the norm and even expected. Hollywood is flooded with thousands of stories and scripts every year. Few are worth making and those that survive the gauntlet of multiple rewrites and studio makeovers and actually get produced do so only with luck and timing on their side. It's a dangerous way to make a living.
Years before, I had considered getting a job on the side while I pursued the writing. My second child had just been born and my wife needed the security. Stubbornly, and selfishly, I resisted. There I was, already a veteran of sorts of show business, having spent almost twenty years as a moderately successful composer (records, jingles, a few awards to boot) and an actor (lots of commercials and a television show called Kids Are People Too), about to re-invent myself again and take an even greater risk writing movie stories and television shows. But I'm a creative guy. Risk-taking is a part of my make-up. I climbed mountains in Alaska when I was fifteen, kayaked whitewater rivers while serving in the Army, and became a champion hang-glider pilot during the heady, sun-bleached years between college and marriage. I constantly challenged myself, leapt without a safety net. So when I considered writing full-time, I remember pledging that this, like everything else I had ever tackled, would be an all-out commitment. A work-for-the-money job would rob me of valuable time and energy. After all, I reasoned, I had set my course senior year at Williams College in Massachusetts when all those hungry recruiters scoured the campus looking for corporate prospects. I shunned them then and I wasn't about to give in now. This was my moment. My course was clear. I closed my eyes and envisioned success and acceptance speeches.
In the early 90s I went to work honing my writing skills (I needed to; I was an Art History major at Williams), reading copious scripts I admired and attending screenwriting seminars. By the time Earth Wings and Fire was optioned in 1997, and Snowmen was pitched around the film industry in 1998, I had luckily met and been working several years with a very good and respected literary agent. By year 2000, Snowmen had been followed by Wingmen, Viking, and Jaguar. Due as much to my agent's wizardry, I think, as to the content of the material, everyone from Robert Redford to Sydney Pollack, Brad Pitt to Keanu Reeves, and even Stephen Spielberg had read my stories. The response was almost always positive—"hopeful," my agent would say calmly. I'd ride along on a wave of optimism for a while. But eventually—sometimes it would take weeks—the wave would topple and dissipate as forces beyond anyone's control took over. Hype and enthusiasm generated by each project would slowly die out and a pattern of confidence-squishing near-deals emerged. In every case, my old nemeses—luck and timing—played a major role. Then, after three years, the option on Earth Wings and Fire expired in March 2000 without ever getting off the ground. There would be no movie starring Tom Cruise, no book, no producing credit. I was devastated and for the first time began to question my choices.
Why am I in this business, I asked myself? I love to write. It's an immensely creative endeavor. Admittedly, I was also drawn by the opiate of wealth and recognition that success in the movie business brings. It's intoxicating to know that kind of power can be just one "green light" away. You dream about it. In fact, you stay afloat, year after year, on a sea of dreams like no other. Not the kind of daydreams perpetuated by what you see and hear in the media. No. These dreams are anchored to your soul, your very essence. They give you blind courage to keep trying, over and over, disappointment after disappointment, when you know you should stop. Sometimes, these dreams are dark and deep. The kind that hurt.
And when does the break come? And at what expense? I could no longer put my family through the emotional and financial roller coaster. The marriage was unraveling. It wasn't that I hadn't worked. There had been odd jobs-for-hire: television shows for A&E, video segments for the software giant Electronic Arts, and a contract with a reputable studio to script Senator John McCain's best-selling autobiography, Faith of My Fathers. Even that was a bust: after two drafts, the studio execs liked the screenplay but deemed the movie too expensive to produce and abandoned the project. In a fit of sarcasm I remember thinking, had anyone bothered to read the damn book?
I had made money, but in the off years I had also gone through our savings. And when I looked hard at the big picture, it hit me. Despite the protestations of my closest supporters, I admitted making mistakes and, in a private moment of despair that I shared with few, acquiesced that one treasured journey of my life had come to an end. My shoulders slumped and my once considerable ego deflated. I imagined myself slipping below the waves and sinking, eyes wide shut, arms stretched up, into the abyss. Drowned in the sea of dreams.
Okay, get a job. With my creative background and years of work, surely I'd find an open door somewhere at an ad agency or television network. And besides, I reasoned, I had managerial skills. I was a company commander in the Army. "A What?" questioned a young woman who worked in Human Resources at a television network where I sent my resume. "A company commander," I repeated. She nodded, stared blankly in my direction and uttered, "Cool." Alright, my inner voice grumbled, proclaiming to be a leader of men will probably not get me a job at a television network.
Pressing, I sent out scores of resumes and letters, exhausted every lead (including my "old boy" alumni network from college and prep school), scanned the Internet for job listings in the creative arts, and called all my connections. After many months, it became abundantly clear I was not going to be hired in my own industry. For one, I had no corporate work history on my resume, no record of drawing a steady check. I had never been a "company man." I was a freelancer, a loose gun with talent. A friend in an ad agency confessed that I was fighting an uphill battle. "People won't hire you," he said glumly. "They'll be afraid you'll steal their jobs."
Give me a break.
And then, there was the age issue. The creative business was getting younger every year and, despite my happy affliction with the Peter Pan Syndrome, my birthday was now generally ignored, if not shunned. Why be reminded each September that over half my life was behind me and I had yet to accomplish something...significant? I didn't look my age (and still don't I'm told), certainly didn't feel it. I weighed exactly what I did in college when I made the varsity hockey team my senior year—175. And even now, when I occasionally took to the ice for a friendly scrimmage or alumni contest, vestiges of the old moves were still there, although, if I were to be entirely honest, even my "A game" was more than a stride or two slower than it used to be. And I don't know where my slap shot went. That rocket I used to launch from the blue line at opposing goalies was now more of a slap dribble.
But, I reasoned, what time had taken away I more than restored with experience and toughness. If age wasn't going to be an issue with me, why should it worry anyone else? What the hell were people concerned about? A guy who has been around the block a few times has a life's experience to show for it; he wants stability and is far less likely to bolt in search of the ladder of success than his younger counterparts. I knew that, but did anyone else? At the end of the day I was frustrated to the point of exhaustion. In desperation, I turned finally to a skill I had practiced here and there, a profession I knew I could follow but had never seriously considered, until now.
"You're going to do what?" a friend asked, when I announced I had decided to look for a job at a private school. "Teach," I answered with a hint of apprehension. He took a moment to let this sink in. "But, dude, the pay sucks," he said finally. I knew he was right and I didn't care. I needed a job. Money was secondary. And so I began my next odyssey in search of gainful employment. Only this time I had help.
Everyone needs a champion when you're up against the odds and John Esty was mine. He was headmaster at The Taft School where I spent two formative years before going off to college. John's positive, never-take-no-for-an-answer spin on life had influenced much of my thinking back then. And now, all these years later, I contacted him for help and guidance again. "You'd be great!" was his immediate response over the phone. "You have much to offer." Now retired, John had followed my career and was a big proponent of the value of a teacher's life experience in the classroom. He quickly put me in touch with a small but capable search firm. Invigorated by my new backup team, I revamped the resume, polished my shoes and cleared my calendar for all the interviews I was sure to get.
Could I have been more naive?
Eventually there were a few responses, more courtesy calls than anything. "Go teach somewhere else first, then come see us," was the typical reply. Even my own alma mater, where I was granted a round of meetings largely on the insistence of the headmaster who had once been my hockey coach, expressed concerns over the fact that I had not taught four sections of English the previous fall. "Can you grade a paper?" one officious faculty member asked impatiently, looking down her nose at me. I stared back in silence. This was a colossal waste of time. Another school gave me the most honest response of all after I had called someone in the English department about my application. "We loved your resume," the teacher said laconically, "but we just chickened out."
Bordering on despair once again, I called John Esty with the disappointing updates. He never wavered in his support. "The bigger, higher profile schools are going to be a tough nut to crack," John said. "Don't worry, you will find the place. Or it will find you."
Then in early June 2001, late in the hiring season, a letter arrived from a small, coed boarding school in Kent, CT. I knew the campus, located on a mountain top just outside the village. It had once housed the girls from the Kent School and my youngest sister had graduated from there. I remembered visiting her. Remembered thinking, man is this place isolated. And the buildings, hastily constructed in the early sixties, were cold and institutional. Missing were the ivied towers, the red brick arches and stone chapels seen on most New England prep school campuses. No, at first glance there was nothing warm and fuzzy about the place. But as the saying goes, the guy who drives the oldest car is often the richest man in town.
"We loved your resume and you seem like a good fit for our current opening," the letter read. "Please call to make an appointment as soon as possible." I did, and from the moment I learned the circumstances of my introduction, I knew it was meant to be. Almost the day my resume arrived, a resident English teacher had decided to leave, creating an opening unexpectedly. And to sweeten the pot, there was a need for a film teacher as well, someone who knew how it all worked. (Wait a minute, had luck and timing actually been on my side...for once?)
John Esty was right. The school had found me.
I guess the rest is history, as far as my history goes. I've been here almost nine years, survived a divorce, seen the school evolve, administrations change and teachers come and go, seen new roofs and facades, even whole new buildings constructed. One, a shining, multi-million-dollar gymnasium, reminded me as it was being built of John Merrick's description of St. Phillip's church in The Elephant Man: "not stone and steel and glass" but "an imitation of grace, flying up and up from the mud."
I've worn all the hats prep school teachers do: coached multiple sports, worked weekends, pulled dorm duty, laughed and cried with the students as a surrogate parent, and most of all, cheered for their triumphs. My shirt collars and pant cuffs are faded and torn but I refuse to throw the garments out. Somehow it just wouldn't suit me. Besides, a school is all about the character of its faculty and student body, not appearances.
And the sea of dreams? Well, here's the irony. Four years into the job, my agent called to say there was interest in the McCain script from one of the cable networks. The McCain script? I couldn't believe it. I had long filed it away after hearing it had been auctioned off to another studio—a process in the biz called "turn-around"—and put on a shelf somewhere. What followed were weeks of negotiations while the script was acquired by the network, two months of rewrites as I went through the painful process of turning a theatrical screenplay into a two-hour teleplay (cutting some thirty pages from the original document), and lastly fine-tuning it with the director who added his own draft to the process. In the end, the film was produced and broadcast on A&E in the summer of 2005. The reviews were generally good and the project would eventually garner its share of accolades and Emmy nominations later that year. I remember a friend calling from New York to say that he had just seen my name on the side of city bus! Gee, I thought, that's cool—I actually have a produced film. One in a million they say.
Had I resurfaced? Is there life after death on the sea of dreams? Maybe. And maybe that's the lesson in this after all. You never give up, ever. Stay afloat no matter what. I've resurrected a couple of unfinished screenplays and started writing again. It may take a while but the confidence (and even a little swagger) will come back. All I know is that it feels good.
I think about the power and simplicity of the human will. It's not rocket science. The power is to simply say, I will not stop believing. I think about this often, late at night, working in my office. Then when I'm done thinking about it, I go back to doing what I do best.
Grading English papers.