Category Archives: Stephen Jay Schwartz

CRAZYWOOD

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

Due to a severe lack of creative genuis, I’m reposting an old favorite this week.  If you’ve never read it then it’s BRAND NEW! 

 

Comparing the world of publishing to the world of filmmaking reminds me of the fact that, while I hate Hollywood, I really love Hollywood.

I’m not alone.  Anyone who only loves Hollywood has never really met Hollywood.  Hollywood is a deceitful little bitch, but God she’s cute.  Sure, she can be admired from afar, but if you get too close, those little vampire teeth start to come out.

But I do have some telling stories about my days as a D-Guy, and one came to mind the other day….

This is the story of how I made the transition from being an Assistant to being a Story Editor when I was working for film director Wolfgang Petersen.  I ultimately transitioned to Director of Development, but the real crucial segue happened at this earlier stage, when I found it essential to prove that I had enough “story sense” to become a D-Guy.

By the way, this is a tale that reveals more about the dysfunctional chaos of Hollywood than it does about the qualifications I did or did not have to fill the position.

At the time, there were two people in our development office:  a Director of Development, and me, the lowly Assistant.  It was her job to find the next big Wolfgang Petersen project, and my job well, to answer phones.  But, as anyone in Hollywood will tell you, most of the submissions are read by the assistants first.  Especially if that assistant wants to move up the ladder.

Now, I knew the kind of films Wolfgang wanted to direct.  Big films with a social or political theme, films that dealt with universal issues, with social ramifications that could be felt around the world.  “Outbreak” was a great example of the kind of idea that excited him—how one little virus could polarize a nation, could ultimately take out a significant number of the world’s population if it wasn’t held in check.  What would we, as Americans, do to stop this from happening?  Would we destroy an American town?  These were the kinds of questions Wolfgang liked to consider.

So I received this spec script submission and, by God, it had everything I knew Wolfgang was looking for.  It was a very complex story about an American scientist who discovers a plot to bring a Russian nuclear weapon into America and detonate it in New York City.  It was a very smart script, much more akin to “The French Connection” than to any of the popcorn terrorist scripts that had been circulating at the time.  But the plot was so complicated it required a very focused reading just to “get it.”

There were clearly problems with the script.  But they were problems that could be addressed in development.  The important thing was that it was a smart political thriller that met Wolfgang’s requirements.  I felt that he should know about it and at least have the opportunity to read it and say “yes” or “no.”  The Director of Development wasn’t willing to stand behind the project.  She said that I was free to pitch it to Wolfgang if I wanted.

Now, I wasn’t really sold on the script as it stood; I was sold on what it could grow into, with Wolfgang’s guidance.  But I had to make a decision – do I stick my neck out for this or not?  I decided I would.

That decision was the key that turned the switch to Crazywood.

Wolfgang didn’t have time to read the script, but, based on my pitch, he felt we should go for it.  Go for it…what the fuck did that mean? 

His producing partner turned to me and said, “Well, that’s it then.  It better be good, Steve.”

And we went for it.  Which meant that we took the script to our studio and asked them to purchase it for us.  Suddenly Wolfgang was “attached” to the project.  And the town reacted. 

Now, remember, I was THE ONLY ONE at the company who had read this script.  And suddenly every production company in town was demanding to see it, and many were passing it up the ladder and submitting it to their studios.

But no one really took the time to READ the script.  Those who did, read it quickly, paying little attention to the details.  As things started heating up my producer came to me and said, “Steve, I’m getting all these calls from producers I know and no one understands this script – they can’t follow the story.  Either you’re a genius or you’re duping this whole town.”

Okay.  No pressure there. 

So the studio where we had our first-look deal passed on the project, which freed us up to take it to other studios. 

What happened next characterizes the world of Hollywood and is the stuff that keeps the sane from crossing the Arizona border into California.

Now, Universal Studios had just hired a new President of Production, and this guy was intent upon making a name for himself, and quick.  He was determined to create relationships with top film directors by purchasing their pet projects and launching them into production.  So, when he saw that Wolfgang was “attached” to this spec script, he swooped in and made a preemptive purchase of the script for 500 against 1.2. 

That means that the writer was paid $500,000 for the script and, if it went into production, he would get another $700,000. 

Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page here—this studio executive had not read the script.

When the dust settled and people actually READ the script, everyone turned to me and said, “What’s this story about?”

It was at this point that I was bumped up from Assistant to Story Editor.

I sat down and wrote a 25-page, beat-for-beat synopsis of the script, putting it in the simplest terms I possibly could.  I never said the script was ready to go, I only said that it seemed like the kind of material Wolfgang would like.  Suddenly I was responsible for a $1.2 million dollar deal and a marriage between Wolfgang and Universal Studios.

But wait, it gets worse.

This was the exact moment when a little studio called Dreamworks was born.  Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen.  They were their own studio, but they existed on the Universal lot.  They had a deal and a working relationship with Universal.  They had been developing a project that would become their very first feature film.  The storyline had been kept under wraps from everyone except the most inside of Hollywood insiders.

As it happens, it was exactly the same story as the spec script Universal had just purchased for Wolfgang.  Suddenly we were in a war with Spielberg.

And this was a huge embarrassment for the new President of Production for Universal, who really should have known what was being developed at his own lot.  He shouldn’t have gone out and bought a project that competed directly with the debut film from their boy wonder’s new film company.

Spielberg got hold of our project and read it and agreed that it was a smart script.  He suggested that we combine efforts, with Dreamworks producing and Wolfgang directing.  We read their project and we agreed that ours was smarter, more interesting, more realistic.  But ours still needed a huge amount of development work.  Spielberg’s project was almost ready to go.  Wolfgang declined their offer and we went to work on developing the script we had purchased.

Dreamworks moved quickly and cast their project with George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.  We were still rewriting drafts of our project when they went into production for “The Peacemaker.”

“The Peacemaker” was no “French Connection.”  It was the popcorn version of what could have been an extraordinary film about the real-life consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union.  But it was Dreamworks’ first film and its release effectively killed our project.  So, our writer never did get that additional $700,000.

But the process gave me my Story Editor stripes.  I think my salary was bumped up to $35,000 per year.

As crazy as this was, how could it not be fun?  How could I hate Hollywood when the ride was always this dynamic?  It was great, as long as I didn’t put my heart into it.  The day I really began to care was the day I had to leave.  And heal.

 

DON’T HIT ME, BILLY…

 

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I really do believe that every single experience we’ve had is stored in our memories. Even the little nonsense nothings – a mailbox I passed twenty years ago on an old country road – is there, waiting, with perfect clarity, for something or other to trigger it to life before my eyes.

I’m constantly amazed by the odd places I go in my head when a particular scent fills my nose – sometimes it’s just a flashing image: a stream I ran beside at age ten; a kitchen in a forgotten friend’s house where I “invented” peanut-butter by coating peanuts in butter and slamming them with a hammer; or chasing garter snakes in the backyard with my dad.

Everything is there – glimpses of my Kodachrome life.  I’ve always claimed to remember the moment of my briss.  Eight days old, just after the cut, when large, hairy hands placed a fluffy, purple dinosaur in my crib. I remember thinking it was hardly compensation for what had been taken.

My wife says there’s no way I can remember this. She says it’s a made-up image, malarky all the way.

Malarky. Now, that’s a word from a different era. Brings memories of my wife’s stepfather who died recently at the age of 89. He was a swing-time jazz musician and his vocabulary was filled with jumpin’ jive words, like malarky.

So, I was shaving the other day and I saw a flash of myself at age 19, standing in a studio apartment in Santa Cruz, California, with a drink in my hand. My eyes downcast, listening to the stomping of feet toward me, seeing a glimpse of a muscled arm rising.

And me, repeating the words, “Don’t hit me, Billy. Billy. Please. Don’t hit me.”

I don’t know why the memory came to me at just that moment, as I held the razor to my cheek. Nothing to prompt it. Just me staring at my face.

It was only a year ago, right? Maybe ten. At the most fifteen. It couldn’t have been twenty-eight. But it was.

I had arrived at Christie’s home. We’d spent the afternoon together with her four year old daughter. Christie was twenty-three and she worked at the video store in downtown Santa Cruz, owned by the TV producer I had come to work for as an intern. The “TV producer” ended up being a flaky, local entrepreneur and coke dealer. It was the best internship I ever had.

Christie took a liking to me right away. But she had this “friend” named Billy, who seemed to hang around a lot. I never really saw Billy, just a shadow here and there. He was twenty-seven – a real man with dreams and plans that apparently included Christie. Her cute little daughter came from a previous relationship, so Billy had no claim to her. And, according to Christie, Billy was just a friend.

Christie had a car, which was more than I had, and she let me drive her and her daughter around that afternoon, getting take-out at Pizza My Heart and an ice cream at Baskin Robbins. This was a long time ago, when Pizza My Heart had only two locations–one in downtown Santa Cruz (by the bus station) and one in Capitola. 1985. Just yesterday.

We watched the sun as it set over the Pacific and then Christie asked me to take her home. Take us home. It looked like I’d be spending the night.

We drove to her place and then past it because there was a car hovering in the shadows.

“What’s Billy doing here?” she asked, rhetorically.

She told me to keep driving. We went back to the beach, watched the stars come out in the sky. Then I drove back and, still, Billy’s car in the driveway.

“I think Billy thinks he’s your boyfriend,” I said. “Maybe I should go home. While the buses are running.”

“No…no, Billy’s just a friend….” she said, without conviction.

We drove around town a bit then returned to discover that Billy had left.

I carried her sleeping daughter and put her in bed, which was uncomfortably close to Christie’s bed, which, from the way things were looking, would be my bed as well.

Christie fixed me a drink and we stood for what seemed like seconds when the white light of a car’s headlights flashed the window.

“Who could that be?” she asked, rhetorically. I was getting pretty tired of ‘rhetorically.’

There was a soft knock at the door and Christie opened it.

“Billy, what are you doing here?”

 His hands in his pockets, an “aw, shucks” slump, genuine and kind. “Where’ve you been tonight, Christie?”

Then he sees me over her shoulder. My drink in hand, a dopey smile on my face. “Hi, Billy,” I said, in ironic monotone. A slow wave of my hand.

He turned around quickly, a rush of anger. Stepped away from the door, stepped back and away again, then forward with determination, his hand moving through his hair, his cheeks blowing red.

“Billy,” Christie said, “what’s going on?”

I knew what was going on.

He stomped into the house, pushing Christie aside.

“Billy!” she screamed. “Billy, stop!”

And me, just watching him come. I was no match for him. I knew it. There was really only one thing to do.

“Billy. Don’t hit me, Billy. Please. Don’t hit me.”

A calm, pleading appeal. I made no move to defend myself. I guess in the back of my mind I pictured the tables turned – would I be able to hit a defenseless kid who meant no harm, a kid who clearly hadn’t slept with my girlfriend or friend or whatever I chose to call her?

Billy approached like a bear with his arm cocked all the way to his ear. He stood above me, a foot taller, knuckles shaking in a now-or-never fist.

In the background, Christie screaming, “No, Billy, stop, stop!”

In the foreground, a droning mantra, “Please. Billy. Please. Don’t hit me, Billy.”

The combination worked. He turned on his heel, brought the anger to his lungs. “Get the fuck out of here!” and pushed me from the house.

The door slammed behind me. It was a cold winter night. The buses had stopped running and it would be a long, long walk to my apartment on Pacific Avenue. Seven miles, was my guess. I sat in the shadows in the front yard, listening to Christie talking nonsense and Billy punching walls.

Somehow, she managed it. Explained that I was just a friend from work who bought her and her daughter some ice cream–on my way home when Billy came to the door. I don’t really know what all she said, except for the “I love yous” and “Oh, Billy, it’s only you, you know that.” After an hour he stepped through the door and came to me with his hand extended.

“Sorry, man. I totally misunderstood,” he said.

Me, I’m glad he didn’t show up twenty minutes later.

“Well, yeah, okay,” I said. “But now I don’t have a way home. I could use a ride.”

Billy wasn’t about to drive me home and he wasn’t going to let his whatever-she-was spend a minute alone with me in a car. We compromised and they let me borrow her car so I could drive to my apartment, where I slept lonely and alone in an ice-box room above the local Mexican club, the Acapulco Lounge. Mariachi music until two a.m.

A month or two later Billy took Christie and the kid back to wherever it was he came from, Minnesota, I think, where they could have a normal life among normal friends. She was twenty-three, Christie. She’d be in her fifties now.

How did this start? Oh, yeah. Memories. That one came while I was shaving.

Time is not what we know. I’m convinced that everything that ever happened to me happened no earlier than fifteen years ago. Whenever someone asks me how long I’ve known this or that person, or when I left Albuquerque, or when I went to music school, I always think, “Well it had to be around fifteen years ago.” Because that’s as long as anything has every happened in my life, right?

I’m one of the most sentimental, nostalgic persons I know. I love my memories, good and bad. I used to be the only one like this, until I met all the friggin’ authors. Now I know I’m not alone. It’s a gene we’re born with, me and the writers. We’re lost in our memories. We’re lost in our minds.

Not a bad place to be, if you have to be anywhere at all.

                                                    *     *     *

Come read next week’s episode, when Stephen finds Billy dealing blackjack in Vegas and says, “Hit me, Billy. Please. Hit me.”*

* The last bit is just a bunch of malarky.

THERE IS NO “I” IN TEAM

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

 

“Somewhere along the way, someone is going to tell you, “There is no “I” in team.” What you should tell them is, “Maybe not. But there is an “I” in independence, individuality and integrity.” Avoid teams at all cost. Keep your circle small. Never join a group that has a name. If they say, “We’re the So-and-Sos,” take a walk. And if, somehow, you must join, if it’s unavoidable, such as a union or a trade association, go ahead and join. But don’t participate; it will be your death. And if they tell you you’re not a team player, congratulate them on being observant.” – George Carlin

Dammit, George, I wish I’d said that.

For months I’ve wanted to write a blog about “teamwork” and then, just last week, a friend posted the above quote on his Facebook page.

My entire adult life has been a study in individuality versus conformity. I can’t help but feel I’ve been the odd duck at every job I’ve had.

I remember when I was young and just out of college, working as an assistant in the marketing department of Buena Vista International at Disney Studios, Burbank. I spent the previous year making a half-hour, 35mm film which I wrote and directed, but hadn’t finished. It was a crazy, amazing, impossible feat built on the backs of a hundred or so craftsmen and artisans, everybody donating their time and talents. I had some wonderful actors involved (it was Chuck Connors’ last role) and I’d spent all the credit I didn’t have to put the film in the can. But I needed to reshoot a few scenes before taking it all into post-production, and I didn’t have a dime of credit left.

I took a chance and sent an inter-office memo directly to Jeffrey Katzenberg (man, am I dating myself) and two weeks later I got a call from the head of production. First thing he said was that I had a hefty set of balls. Then he told me that Jeffrey had forwarded my memo to him with a note saying, “Can we help this guy out?”

So, I had Disney on my side, but they could only offer free services on certain things, like time in the sound studio and foley rooms. I’d still have to pay for the sound editors and foley artists. And, since they rented their production equipment from other studios, I’d have to rent this equipment myself, at a discounted rate. Ultimately, things fell apart and the project died a slow and painful death (Chuck Connors called me once and said, “Schwartz, are you going to finish this film before I die?” A couple months later he died. I guess the answer to that question was, “No, Chuck, I’m not.”)

I was in the middle of this mess when my boss at BVI Marketing “took his business across the street,” meaning he left BVI to take a job at Universal. Shortly thereafter, a new President of Marketing came to Disney. In an effort to bond with his staff, he scheduled lunches at the Rotunda (special VIP-only restaurant at the studio) with everyone in the department. I met him for lunch and mentioned my aspirations to direct films, and the note I’d sent Jeffrey, and Jeffrey’s favorable response. The new president nodded sagely and then, at the end of lunch, said, “Remember, now. We’re in the business of marketing films, not making them.”

I went back to my lonely cubicle and posted his quote above my computer. I wanted to read it every day as a reminder that I did not fit in, that I was in the wrong place, the wrong job. This, at a time when Disney was pushing the word “Synergy” into every inter-office memo. Trying to convince us that we were one big, happy team. Home Video supported Marketing supported Distribution supported Production supported Public Relations. I’m surprised I never heard the phrase, “There is no ‘I’ in Synergy.”

Two weeks after my lunch date I was fired.

I always had mixed feelings when I left a job. I recall the scene in the movie Jerry Maguire when Tom Cruise is driving away from his job, singing Tom Petty’s “Free-falling” (“I’m freeeeee….free-falling…”). It’s a perfect metaphor. So free, before the fall.

It sucks being a team player, but just try making a living if you’re not. I’ve spent a good part of my life in sales, where the world is defined by Dale Carnegie (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”) and a thousand Carnegie off-shoots. Most of the popular business and management books include chapters on “Teamwork,” or “Corporate Unity,” or “Synergy.” Somewhere along the way some smart-ass came up with the phrase, “There is no ‘I’ in Team.”

I’m the square peg in the circular hole. I can talk the talk, but my heart won’t sign on.

For most of my life I’ve felt alone in my day jobs, wondering why I can’t seem to get with the program.

And then I became a published author. I met thousands of people just like me. They wore their “I’s” on their sleeves. Independence, individuality, integrity.

I feel comfortable in their company, as we all seem to come from a similar place. At the core we’re fragile individualists. It’s as though something in our past drove us to protect ourselves from the hypocrisy we observed. We learned early that we cannot trust what is written in books, and so we were drawn to write books of our own.  We understand the irony.  We don’t believe political ads or commercials or the narcissistic views of our employers.

We share the same struggle and plight. We balance our individuality with conformity. We join the Team while suppressing the “I.”

Hey, boss, there’s no “I” in Weekend, but it’s here just the same.

AN INTERVIEW WITH BLAIR HAYES

 

A Wild-Card Tuesday Exclusive by Stephen Jay Schwartz

If you’re only going to do one thing today, vote.

If you’re going to do two things today, vote, and read this interview with my good friend, the remarkably talented commercial and film director Blair Hayes.

I met Blair many years ago when I was a development exec working for Wolfgang Petersen. Blair is one of the top commercial directors in his field, with clients that include Pepsi, Federal Express, Kodak, Budweiser, American Express, Nintendo, Verizon and many more. He has received all the top commercial awards — the Clio, Addy, One Show, Mobius, IBA, and even a First Place Golden Trailer Award for the theatrical trailer of “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (“…If you see one movie this summer see “Star Wars”, but if you see two movies, see Star Wars and Austin Powers!”)

Blair’s creative energy is infectious. Actors love working with him, and the list of celebrities he’s directed in commercials include Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Geena Davis, Andre Agassi, Barry Bonds, and Cal Ripkin, Jr.

In 2001 Blair directed his first feature film, the cult classic, “Bubble Boy”, for Touchstone/Disney Studios, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I was fortunate to have had a small part to play in this process, as I was a “go-to” person for the scripts that Blair was considering to direct at the time. I knew he’d found the right project when I read an early draft of “Bubble Boy.” Blair gave me the opportunity to help develop the project with a series of notes I provided over the course of several months. I remember visiting the set a few times, watching the magic evolve despite a tight, chaotic schedule and the inevitable financial and technical obstacles involved in making a feature-length film where the star is encased in a “mobile bubble” throughout. Blair also honored me with an invitation to join him and a few select people — his girlfriend (now wife), mom, film manager, and Jake — at an opening night dinner in Beverly Hills followed by a limo tour of the different theaters where Bubble Boy appeared. If you haven’t seen Bubble Boy, rent it. Now. Before you go to the polls. It’s irreverent and hilarious.

In 2004 Blair directed the pilot, “Fearless”, for Jerry Bruckheimer Television, starring Rachel Leigh Cook and Eric Balfour. He also designed, directed, and photographed the award wining opener for the series, “Push, Nevada”, produced for ABC TV by Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey, and served as a visual consultant on the series, shooting scenes to visually punch-up the look of each episode.

Forays into long-form filmmaking aside, Blair still find his greatest passion in commercials. “Telling a story, provoking a response–be it a laugh, a tear, or a scream–in 30 seconds, is the toughest challenge there is – and the sweetest when it works!”

Blair grew up the son of a career marine officer and diplomatic serviceman, living for many years in South America and Thailand. He graduated with a BFA in film and a minor in music from the University of Miami and did post graduate work at USC in screenwriting. He currently lives in Topanga, California, where he shares a house with his beautiful wife, actress Boti Bliss (“CSI:Miami”), his adorable two-year old son Ashby, three enormous dogs, and the occasional Topanga Canyon snake.

Stephen: We have something in common in that we both studied music before settling in on our chosen, creative careers. For me, music influenced everything I did in the arts. My writing wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t feel the crescendo and diminuendo, the staccato and legato of every sentence. How has music influenced your career as a film maker and commercial director?

Blair – Opening line to my uncompleted first novel: “That quick, stridulous tone, like some strategically placed dissonant semi-quaver, lingered familiarly and perfectly in the air, ending abruptly and crudely in a resounding “thwack” as screen door met frame.”

The two studies are intertwined and inseparable. I can always find in music the perfect metaphor for what I am going through in life – career or otherwise. I can’t tell you how many frustrated musicians I have encountered in the film business, including, *sigh*, me.

Stephen – I understand that you had some connection to Jaco Pastorius, the great bass player from the jazz fusion band Weather Report. How did you come to meet him and how has he influenced your creative process?

Blair – I studied music at theUniversity of Miami in the late seventies, my principal instrument being bass.  Jaco was teaching there as well as playing with several of the various rocdk and jazz ensembles.  The first time I ever saw him perform was one of my earliest “door moments,” you know, those pivotal moments you encounter where you have some sort of epiphany – and a door opens or closes for you.  Though I openly derieded his playing to my roommate as “too many notes,” I knew in my heart that I was witnessing a divinely gifted individual.  What was actually going on in my mind was, “okay, either I study my ass off and woodshed til my fingers bleed to get as good as this guy or toss in the towel now and acknowledge I will never get to that level.”  I knew in my heart the answer.

(The brilliant Jaco Pastorius, of Weather Report)

Stephen – And yet you didn’t have the same response to film. What motivated you to become a professional film-maker and commercial director instead of a studio musician?

Blair – To be perfectly honest, it was a combination of seeing Jaco and realizing I was never going to be that good and meanwhile having professors saying shit like, “less than one percent of you will ever go on to anything more than teaching accordion to grade school children”, and other such discouraging stuff. I knew I had to switch majors and saw that UM had a film department and thought, “hey, all those countless hours in movie theaters and in front of the boob tube has certainly prepared me for this!”. And that is honestly how it happened.

So, basically, I owe my career to Jaco!

Stephen – That’s wild, Blair – I had a very similar experience in music school. I spent one year at North Texas State University, one of the top jazz schools in the country, studying saxophone performance. I was a somewhat decent musician, but everyone around me was insanely good. I noticed that I was having more fun in my English courses and, after one of the many days when I skipped my Sight-Singing and Ear-Training course to argue literary style with my English professor, he suggested I leave music school to study film and literature in Los Angeles. It was the right move.

You ultimately chose film-making as the preferred medium in which to express your art. Have you always seen stories as images, or do you feel equally comfortable telling your stories on paper?

Blair – My primary effort both on the page and on the screen is to tell the story as “experientially” as I can.  You know, intimately and personally.  I just want to be provacative; be that a laugh, a tear, or just a reflection on something.  So a lot of what I’m known for visually is what some might call impressionistic.  I call it jazz.

If you want to see a few samples, go here, here, and here.

Stephen – What was film school like for you? What were your goals and expectations?

Blair – I honestly wouldn’t recommend film school to anyone these days. Not with DSLR’s and the multitude of inexpensive ways to record an image. In film school, other than the theory and film history stuff you learn (all of which is terrific at chatting up girls and geeks), you don’t really get to know anything substantive until you actually get your hands on a camera, which, in most cases, isn’t until your senior year. That’s when you really learn something. All the theory, the history, didn’t do me a bit of good professionally. You know what did? Knowing how to thread a Movieola! As a PA (production assistant) right out of college, on my very first job (back when everything was shot on 35mm film), I was asked if I knew how to run a Movieola (the ancient though venerable rackety machine that was the industry norm for editing and viewing dailies on location). “Yes!”, was my enthusiastic reply. I even knew how to repair the torn sprocket holes that would inevitably occur when the director would take over the running of the machine…

Stephen – What was your experience after film school? Did you march into Warner Brothers with that reel in your hand? How did you end up in commercials?

Blair – I became a commercial director really by default. I never intended to be a commercial director (how low brow can you get???); I totally believed that diploma in hand, I would be granted the reins to “Citizen Kane 2″. But, as fate would have it, I started working as a production assistant primarily on commercials and started moving up the old ladder, to production coordinator, location scout (which was really fun because I was creatively contributing to the project), then assistant director and ultimately producer. But all the while “what I really wanted to do was direct.” By the time I was in my mid-twenties I was producing for some of the biggest and best commercial directors in the business, including Ridley and Tony Scott, and making very good money, but it just wasn’t where I wanted to be. So I self-imposed a goal to be directing by the time I was thirty. And to really light the fire I also said to myself the day I produce for someone younger than me is the day I give in and realize, “that’s it, I will be a producer the rest of my life”. And guess what? The occasion presented itself to me in my 29th year and that was it: I sold my house and financed a showreel of spec spots that I directed. The reel worked. I got representation as a director right away and that was that, I was on my way. Now the only frustration was that I wasn’t directing movies…

Stephen – How did you make the move from being one of the top commercial directors to directing a feature film for Disney?

Blair – One of the production managers working for me on a commercial, who also worked for Jerry Bruckheimer, saw my reel and asked if I’d be interested in directing a movie and if it would be alright with me if she showed my reel to Mr. B. Needless to say, after I peeled my ass from the floor, I ran to give her all the reels she could carry. A week later I was ushered into the presence of Mr. Bruckheimer, who was incredibly complimentary of my work and asked If I’d like to direct a movie for him. That’s it. That’s how it happened. I ultimately did not make a film for Jerry Bruckheimer, but word got out that I was on the short list of directors he wanted to work with and then the agents and managers came out of the woodwork. I had also directed the trailer for “Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me”. The one where you think it’s Star Wars only instead of Darth Vader it turns out to be Dr. Evil, “If you see One Movie this summer, see Star Wars. But if you see two…” That garnered quite a lot of attention.

Stephen – How did the Bubble Boy opportunity come about?

Blair – My agents and manager started sending me stacks and stacks of scripts to read. They were pretty much all the shit that everyone had passed on. Then I got “Bubble Boy” and literally laughed aloud (for me a rare occurrence) at least four or five times so I knew it was something that I could get behind for the next year and a half of my life.

Stephen – How did you get hooked-up with Jake Gyllenhaal?

Blair – Jake was one of many many young men who came in and read for the role. We all (the producers, casting director and myself) knew he was the guy the moment he started reading.

Stephen – I remember a lot of hair-pulling going on when you were in production. Was the experience a dream or a nightmare?

Blair – Actually, the production of the movie was the fun part. Once the studio was happy with the dailies (I was told lunch time screenings at Disney were standing room only) they pretty much left me alone. It wasn’t until post production and all the other chefs came into the kitchen that it got less than fun.

 

Stephen – Why are movies so hard to make? What gets in the way?

Blair – Well, as my experience was working for a studio, I can only speak to that. And honestly, the hardest part is just what I mentioned before, too many cooks in the kitchen. I honestly don’t know how any good studio pictures ever get made. Most of them come from experienced directors that, having “proved themselves”, get a little less interference. But even the big boys get notes.

Stephen – How has the film industry changed since “Bubble Boy?” How have you had to change to keep up with the times?

Blair – I don’t really know because, frankly, I’m not really playing in that arena, I do Commercials. But both worlds have really become stripped down financially and therefore have become all about how to create the maximum bang for the minimum buck. Which is of course, also where some of the best filmmaking in the feature world is happening today, e.g.,”Butterfly and the Diving Bell” and this year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. This is the type of movie I intend to do next. That or a Wes Anderson sort of pic; visual, personal journey sorta thing.

I recently directed a “short” film. I say short in italics as it’s 43 minutes long. Didn’t write it; it was a one act play written by Andrew Fischer, who, along with my wife Boti and the other actor in the film, Guy Birtwhistle, were all members of Howard Fine’s Masters Class. Howard Fine is one of the most well-known and respected acting teachers in Hollywood. Bo came to me along with Guy and Andrew about directing it. I loved the material and jumped onboard immediately. It’s a wonderful piece that takes place all in one long evening in one house. It was great fun to do. We rehearsed for months, something I had never done before (we had only a couple weeks rehearsal time for BBoy). I really learned the value of rehearsing – with good actors, of course. Being 45 minutes long it fell into a category that was too long for most short film competitions and too short for feature film festivals, but from the get-go we were just making it for the love of the piece and the experience of bring it to life. I also composed the music (to get back to your first question). Something I had been wanting to do for a long time.

Here’s a link to the film.

And the trailer for those without the patience.

(Boti Bliss in “Bubble Boy”)

Stephen – Your lovely wife, Boti, plays a now legendary cameo in “Bubble Boy,” one that makes me laugh from the moment she appears on screen. How did you and Boti meet?

Blair – I met Boti Bliss on a commercial shoot. She was the girl Damon Wayans and David Arquette were fighting Chop-Sakey style over in an AT&T commercial. It was honestly love at first sight for both of us. We started dating shortly thereafter and moved in together 13 years ago. We tied the knot officially two years ago when we got pregnant. And now share the house with the World’s Most Adorable Child, Ashby Buck.

Stephen – I often wish that I could be reborn as Ashby – the kid with the cool, artistic parents, the three enormous dogs and the house in Topanga. I’ve seen photos of him at work in his art studio and playing piano and drums…and he’s two years old. You and Boti are giving him the best that can be given.

Thanks for giving us a peek into your life, Blair. We’re all waiting to see your next creative endeavor!

Blair – Thank you, Steve! It was fun!

DAILY FORECAST

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

My life is run by two lists. One is the day job list, which cannot be set aside. I run a thirteen-state Western Region for my sales job and my travel and daily activities are dependent upon the schedules and daily lists of dozens of other sales reps and distributor representatives. This list weighs me down.

List Two is the everything else list, which includes ALL of my writing endeavors and obligations, as well as my personal business issues, medical, housing, kids’ school obligations, bills to pay, and the never-ending “honey-do” list. This list weighs me down.

In addition to these two enormous lists, which I keep as separate computer files, I generally write a Daily To-Do List, which combines the twenty or so most important things that must be done each day, culled from List One and List Two.

I used to experience great joy crossing things off these lists, but the trick has grown old. I no longer find happiness in the process.

I’m over-committed and I have no idea when it’s going to end. I will have to experience a complete lifestyle change for the deluge to stop, and I don’t see this happening for a long, long time.

I used to be able to juggle a week’s worth of commitments in my head. Each week I’d do a quick review and prepare for everything that would happen in the next seven days.

Now I focus on what’s supposed to happen today only. I see exactly what’s in front of me and nothing more. I’ll go through my entire Monday without realizing that Tuesday morning I’m boarding a flight to Minnesota. And that ain’t good, because sometimes I need an extra couple hours in my day to launder the underwear. God forbid I should need a little dry-cleaning done.

My creative commitments are insane. Judging two major competitions simultaneously (aka, reading hundreds of novels and short stories), researching and writing a new Hayden Glass novel, writing a short story on assignment, doing panels and speaking engagements…it’s crazy. And I know I’m not alone – most authors I know are just as busy, and most of them are juggling day jobs, as well.

At a recent sales meeting I learned that when people focus on more than three goals their chances of succeeding at anyone of these goals falls dramatically. When you have more than seven goals you might as well give up. You can’t do everything and do everything well.

Point in case – what the fuck is going on with my writing? Where is my third novel?

When I wrote Boulevard and Beat I had two major commitments. The day job and the book. That’s where my head was. Worked during the day, wrote at night. I finished two good, solid books that way. Since I’ve been published I’ve allowed myself to be torn in a hundred directions and the end result is…no book.

I have made one major addition to my commitment bucket, however. I’ve decided to make my family a priority. So now I have three major responsibilities – the day job, the current novel, and spending time with my family.

So, what happens next? I fill my schedule with so many commitments that one of my three important goals gets axed. I’ve learned from experience that I cannot risk endangering the day job, so that one stays. I’ve also learned that taking on any new responsibilities is not worth alienating my wife and kids.

And thus the thing that gets the shaft is my writing. Because, when I’m REALLY working on a novel I spend four or five hours at it every night, after the day job. Another eight to ten hours each day of the weekend. Which means there’s no time for anything else, except work and whatever I can schedule with the family.

Like many of you, I don’t like to say no. I love being available for all the cool things that being an author affords us. I love being the guest speaker at an event, even though it means I’ll spend two weeks preparing for it. I love being part of the committee responsible for bestowing one of the great writing awards to one of my fellow authors, even though it means I’ll be reading five hundred novels in four months. I love being asked to contribute to publications with original short stories or poetry, even though the process will take valuable hours and days away from the work I put into my novel. I always want to say YES to these opportunities.

But there’s only one me, and the gap between when my last novel came out and when my next one launches is growing ever wide.

These are good problems to have, I concede. I’m fortunate for the good fortune. But I’m scattered, and I wonder if the process has caused the good work to suffer. I wonder if focusing on twenty goals is killing the potential for success of goals one-two-three.

No wonder the years are passing by. There’s no time left to contemplate, to think, to reminisce. Not when there’s so much to do.

There. Blog done. Check that off the list.

 

I LIKE

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I like that the guy who works at Trader Joe’s sees us and says, “Hello, family.”

I like that people stop us at the beach and comment on how the kids have grown.

I like that, at the West Hollywood Book Fair, Jerry Stahl leaned over and said it’s nice that my family is so supportive.

People in the book community have watched my children grow for a number of years now. My wife and boys have attended just about every book event I’ve had since Boulevard, my first book, was published.

I like it. It’s a good feeling. Especially since, for the first eight or so years of my children’s lives, I was almost never around. I was working a national sales job that kept me crossing the country every other week. One week in, one week out. For years my youngest son said he didn’t like me. He actually used the word “hate,” which I knew was much stronger than what he meant. When I asked him why he “hated” me, he couldn’t think of a reason other than, “You have too much hair on your arms and face.” At the same time, he loved the daylights out of his mother. I realized that Noah felt this way because I was hardly ever there. I was the one who LEFT. His mommy was the one who STAYED. She is an at-home mom and has been by his side his entire life. I got the picture – why would a parent leave his family every other week unless he really didn’t care? And then, when he was home, why would he spend most his time hiding away, writing a book? Noah was too young to understand the sacrifice of working a day job to support a family. He thought I wanted to go. He was too young to understand the commitment and sacrifice necessary to excel at an art, despite the challenges of raising a family and working a nine-to-five job.

I couldn’t get this point across and soon I had to accept the fact that this was how it was going to be. Although this saddened me, I didn’t blame him for not liking me. I told him I thought he would change his mind someday, and I would patiently look forward to that moment.

Since I traveled so much I figured I’d better put something in writing, in case I met with a terrible accident along the way. I wrote a letter to each of my boys, sealed the letters and placed them in a drawer. In the letters I told my boys how much they meant to me, how special they are, singling out the special qualities that makes each boy unique. In Noah’s letter I said I knew he loved me and he should never, ever think that I didn’t get that message. Just because he didn’t say the words didn’t mean he hadn’t shown me, in everything he did, how much he cared.

I wanted to put him at ease. I know from experience that there’s nothing worse than wishing you had said something to someone before they died. Nothing worse than wondering if that person thought you didn’t care.

One day, just a few years ago, Noah turned to me and said he had something important to say. I brightened, guessing what was up. He was a bit shy about it, so I prompted him.

“Is it that you don’t hate me anymore?” I asked.

He smiled.

“So, you like me now.” I deduced.

I could sense there was something more. My chest started tingling.

“I love you, daddy.”

Damn. That was the best feeling in the world. I’d been waiting nine years for that and, frankly, I’d been wondering if I was ever going to hear him speak those words.

Since then we’ve been peas in a pod. The best of buds. He’s twelve now and we often walk around in public holding hands. I relish it, knowing he’ll soon cross that line where holding his daddy’s hand isn’t cool anymore. But that’s the funny thing about Noah – he doesn’t care what is and isn’t cool. He goes against the grain in everything he does. And, to me, that makes him all the more cool.

His older brother, Ben, surprised me with some critical family support the day Boulevard launched at Book Soup in L.A. There was a group of about fifty people and when I asked if anyone had questions, Ben, ten years old at the time, raised his hand.

“You have a question, Ben?”

“No,” he said, “I have a statement.”

“Okay,” I said, warily. He came up to the podium and I put the microphone to his lips.

Ben studied the crowd confidently and said, “I watched my daddy writing all the time, for years. He was always writing and saying he was going to make a book. I really didn’t think it would be that good because, well, it was his first book, so how could it be that good? And then he finished it and it got all these great blurbs (yes, he knew what blurbs were!) and everyone is saying all these nice things. And I’m really proud of him.”

Another touch-my-heart moment. If you saw the pictures from that day and saw my face you’d see the look of a content, grateful father.

You see the same look in my author photo right now.

I’m the kind of guy who just can’t smile for the camera. I try, but I usually end up looking like an insincere dork. Anyone who spends a little time studying body language knows that a sincere smile is seen in the eyes. The eyes have to smile, and that’s a response that can’t be faked.

One day Noah took a photo of me at the Festival of Books, standing next to Lisa Lutz. He was just getting into photography at the time and I thought he looked absolutely adorable behind that camera. As I posed for him, my face lit up with a pure, proud, authentic smile. And that’s what he captured, something real, with eyes that smiled with my lips. I carefully photo-shopped Lisa Lutz from the frame (sorry, Lisa!) and submitted the photograph to my agent. When my novel, Beat, was published I showed Noah the author photo in the back, and his name in print as the photographer. His face lit up with pride. I think that was the moment he decided to take a more series interest in photography.

(Movie Magic brings Lisa Lutz back into the picture!  Hello, Lisa!)

After that he took pictures of me and other authors at every panel I did. His passion came to the attention of Diana James, the literary publicist married to author Darrell James. She asked him to take some photos of Darrell at one of the book festivals and, after we sent them to her, she sent Noah a $20 check for his services. It was his first paying gig. Diana was such a sweetheart – she included a letter to Noah saying how wonderful his work is and that he should continue pursuing his dreams. Diana passed away not long ago – a terrible, tragic loss to her husband, friends, and the literary community at large. A terrible loss to a little boy whose life she touched.

(Diana James, photographed by Noah)

I’m aware I’m a lucky guy. The time I spent working and writing could have driven my family away. There was in fact a critical moment when my marriage almost ended and everything had to be rebuilt, from the bottom up. We worked through it, we got past it, we made it to the other side.

Things could be better. I could be supporting myself as an author. I could be working a day job that means as much to me as my writing. I could be out of debt. I could have a car that runs. I could be living in a house instead of an apartment. The list goes on.

But this thing I’ve got is better than everything else combined. The love and support of a loving and supportive family.

I like it.

Well, no, it’s more than like.

It’s love.

EMPTY GLOVES

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

 “It’s smokey, I think.”

“To me, it’s a burnt, sweet smell,” I say.

“It’s amazing how strong it is,” he says. Tyson runs his hand through his hair and I know he’s imagining the sweet, burnt smell coming off on his fingers.

Fingers.

We saw a bowl of them at the Coroner’s Office. Blackened, dehydrated. Jose, the Forensic Identification Specialist, had been working the fingers every hour of the past few days. They’d come off a man who’d been found locked inside a cargo container. No one knew who he was, and it was Jose’s job to rehydrate the man’s fingertips and “rebuild” the prints. He had managed to remove a thin, rubber-like layer of skin from one of the man’s thumbs, creating what looked like one of those fake magician thumbs used for special card tricks. Except this one wasn’t a fake.  He stuck his own thumb into the “thumb-sleeve” and demonstrated how he was able to make a print.

I looked at Tyson for a reaction, but Tyson played it cool.

I’d been in this room before. It was a few years ago, when I was writing BOULEVARD, my first novel. I had managed to get an interview with the Chief Coroner Investigator and he gave me a tour of the L.A. Coroner’s Office as research for the book. Although I’d already written my coroner scenes, I knew I hadn’t done the boots-on-the-ground research required to get it right.

What I learned on that first tour was that seeing dead bodies wasn’t what I thought it would be. I figured I’d watch an autopsy, vomit, then pass out. What I discovered, and I’ve written it this way in the novel, is that there was no place in my brain to process the things I saw before me. Each image, each body on the table, each open cavity, seemed to carve a new place in my brain to store the information it contained.

And the bodies, they weren’t people. They were empty gloves, left behind when the soul slips them off.

That first visit had a profound effect on me and when I returned home I rewrote my coroner scenes top-to-bottom. Now the scenes were real, and they reflected the truth of what I saw.

That was a few years ago. My memory, being what it is (random electrical charges passed from one synapse to the next in a slowly eroding brain), I’ve lost many of the details of that day. I’ve been wanting to go back, if only to recapture the sense of awe and humility and mortality I felt. The fact is, I’ve been needing to go back for quite some time.

I’ve known Tyson Cornell since he reviewed Boulevard for Publishers Weekly’s Galley Talk. He was the author event coordinator for L.A.’s Book Soup, where he’d worked for something like fourteen years. After Vroman’s purchased Book Soup, Tyson lost his job then reinvented himself as the top independent author promoter in Los Angeles. His company, Rare Bird Lit, handles the L.A. press tours for authors like James Ellroy, Chuck Palahniuk and scores of others. If you want to see an impressive client list, check out his website. He also opened a publishing division, Rare Bird Books, with the imprints Barnacle Books and Vireo Books.

Tyson is always game for new experiences. When I decided to get an armband tattoo commemorating my publishing deal with Tor-Forge, Tyson said he wanted in. We got tattoos together. It was my first tattoo and Tyson’s twentieth. Tyson likes to accumulate experiences. Anything new and different excites him. Kim Dower, my publicist for Boulevard and Beat, once told me that she had to leave a meeting with Tyson to get a pre-scheduled pedicure. Tyson joined her, because he’d never seen anyone get a pedicure before. It was an experience he needed to have.

One day I was invited to attend a lavish party and fundraiser in Malibu for Writers in Treatment, an organization dedicated to helping writers afford treatment for their addictions. My invite was sponsored by an organization called The Center for Healthy Sex. I could bring a guest, so I invited Tyson.

We sat at a table that had little place-settings with our names on them, and under our names was written the title, The Center for Healthy Sex. Everyone assumed we represented the organization. We didn’t say anything to dispel the myth. At one point Tyson started talking about his new tattoo, getting everyone interested in checking it out. He opened his shirt and revealed the words tattooed across half his chest: “SEX IS NOT THE ANSWER, IT’S THE QUESTION. YES IS THE ANSWER.”

A famous quote from Bob Crane, apparently, and Tyson had to have it inked across his chest. I’m not sure how well we represented The Center for Healthy Sex that night. Then again, it might have been exactly the kind of message they wanted to convey.

When I started talking about a return trip to the Coroner’s Office, Tyson’s ears pricked-up. He asked if he could tag along. I couldn’t think of a better co-conspirator for the job.

The Chief Coroner Investigator was again very gracious with his time. He gave us a comprehensive, two-hour tour of the facility, explaining every facet of what the Coroner’s Office does and how it benefits the community. The Department of the Coroner is responsible for the investigation and determination of the cause and manner of all sudden, violent, or unusual deaths in the county of Los Angeles. It is also responsible for determining the identity of all bodies under its care.

 

The facility has changed a bit since my first visit. It is undergoing a major renovation to improve and update the offices, labs and autopsy rooms. As we walked through the halls we saw holes in the ceiling where tiles had been removed, revealing the skeletal joists and silvery ducts above. Walls and ceilings were encased in opaque plastic, not unlike the plastic used to wrap the hundreds of bodies we saw in the morgue’s brand new Crypt.

 

When I took my first tour, the Crypt, or Cooler, was about half the size of your average Starbucks and filled top-to-bottom with bodies wrapped in white plastic sheets. The new Crypt is the size of a warehouse and, if you replaced the human bodies with wooden crates it would remind you of the scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie. It’s kept at a chilly 35 degrees Fahrenheit; much cooler than the previous Crypt, which rarely dipped below 50.

 

I’m quite aware that my description of this experience sounds a little procedural. My intention in writing this post was to re-examine my feelings about viewing dead bodies. The reason I took the tour was to push myself to face the thing we all fear, the thing that drives me to ponder everything I’ve ever pondered. I wanted to poke the part of me that might have fallen asleep.

 

The profound effect I experienced after my first tour eludes me. Maybe I’m still in shock – my tour was just this morning, after all. Perhaps, as my twelve-year old son tells me, the images of death are waiting to populate my dreams tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case; I’ve been known to experience post traumatic stress days or weeks after witnessing a tragic event.

 

And the things I saw today were definitely gruesome, conjuring images of films like Re-Animator, Alien and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I saw numerous autopsies being performed, saw bodies open and upended, with empty cranial cavities and chunks of skull on the side. I saw a woman’s body unrolled all about her, a medical examiner’s arms set deep inside her small frame, while two masked and gowned homicide detectives took notes beside them. I saw a man baked from fire, the flesh on his arms colored red and yellow like the fire itself, skin rippling off bone, fingers missing but for the burnt nubs of the middle knuckles that remained. I saw victims of car accidents, suicides, homicides.

 

I saw one tiny drop of what the over two hundred employees of the Los Angeles Department of Coroner see every day of the year except one – Christmas. The only day they have off.

 

And maybe that’s why I didn’t vomit and faint. I was aware that these people came to this place all the time, that this was their job. Three hundred bodies in the Coroner’s Office every day. This death was their life. The least I could do was take a sympathetic, if objective, look at the world through their eyes.

 

After the tour, Tyson and I went to a cafe to share our experiences. We were all-too aware of the smell that permeated our clothes, hair, and skin. A smell set so deep that nothing could displace it.

 

“You still smell it?” I asked him on the phone at the end of the day.

 

“Yeah, it’s heavy. I had to change my shirt.”

 

“I keep thinking everyone is looking at me,” I said. “Wondering what it is about me they want to avoid.”

 

When I go home I kiss my wife and she takes a step back, her eyes open wide.

 

“Straight to the shower,” she says, then points at the spot on the floor where I am expected to drop my clothes. She tells me to gather some quarters for the laundry I’ll be doing tonight.

 

In the shower, I use a half-bottle of shampoo and a full bar of soap.

 

Clean, now, and to the rest of the world I seem fine.

 

But still, I smell it. It’s not on me, it’s in me. Maybe tonight, in my dreams, I’ll see the things I wouldn’t face with my open eyes today.

 

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…

MAGICAL OPTIMISM

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Dudes, I am sooo sorry, but I’m going to have to re-post an old favorite of mine.  I’m in VEGAS with the family and there’s just no damn way I’m going to spend all night trying to write something wholly unique and insightful.  Not after three margaritas, I’m not. 

So, here’s one I’ve always loved….

MAGICAL OPTIMISM


My eleven year old boy opens his eyes and sees the world he wants to see and magically it is there. I remember I was once like that, when I was a boy younger than his years. The magical optimism slowly faded as I encountered adults who knew better, men and women who’d correct me when I was wrong. As the years advanced I grew up to become an optimistic realist, but a realist none-the-less. Although it is easy to slip into the slough of the cynic, I’ve generally fought to keep a “glass half-full” attitude.

My son re-booted my operating system recently when two things occurred.

Thing One: Noah’s favorite flower is the bright yellow sunflower. My other son, Ben, saved a couple seeds from destruction and planted them and they sprouted. Their little green stems grew and dangled and needed help and I convinced Noah, who had taken over the project, that we should tie their little vines to a tongue depressor with a fuzzy little pipe-cleaner from his arts and crafts supply kit. He trusted me (I’d taken a class called Greenhouse Management when I was in high school, which was really the slacker’s way out of taking Biology II) and I tied one of the nascent plants to the wooden stick and just about broke it in two.

The plant was a goner. I’d broken it in such a way that just a sliver of green connected the top to the bottom. It was only a matter of time before it would turn brown and shrivel up like a sun-stroked earthworm. I put a little Scotch tape around the break and prepared my son for the worst.

“It’s not going to make it, I just want you to know.”

“Maybe it will,” he said.

“I’ve lived a lot longer than you, kid, and I’ve seen things. Experience tells me that plant is going to die.”

“I’ll just keep watering it,” he said.

And sure enough, somehow, that plant sprang a sliver of green glucose cells and built an elbow to tie the two halves together. Now this little plant has grown thick and strong and healthy. It continues reaching for the sky today. In all my year of Greenhouse Management I never saw such a miracle.

At approximately the same time, Thing Two occurred.

Thing Two: While cleaning our fish bowl I accidentally let the fish (a beta) fall into the sink among the dirty dishes and general scum. I tossed the dishes to the floor, yelling, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” until I’d found the flopping creature and, after several tries, grabbed and tossed it back into the fish bowl.

Experience told me this story wasn’t going to end well for the kids.

Sure enough, a couple weeks later the fish developed a brown scab on the left side of his body. A couple days after that the scab appeared on the right side as well. It took another day for one side to eat into the other, creating a gaping hole.

There was a hole in our fish.

Experience told me this was not a good sign. The hole grew larger in the coming days and soon the fish stopped eating.

“I’m sorry, Noah, but this doesn’t look good. I think you should say your goodbyes.”

“Don’t give up,” he told me. “We can save his life.”

“I don’t know, I’ve lived a long time and I’ve seen things. My gut tells me it’s time to pull the plug.”

Taking a stab in the dark I suggested that maybe the local pet store had something to “fix the hole.” Sure enough, my son came back with a bottle of what I considered to be voodoo googlygock with instructions to add ten drops to the bowl, twice daily. We began treatment immediately.

The substance seemed only to blacken the water, creating a charcoal haze in which our fish would spend his final days. And the hole remained. I mean, I could see the toaster oven through the fish. I was surprised the thing had lasted this long.

And then the fish began to eat.

Days later Noah said that the hole was growing smaller. Ah, life through the eyes of a child, I thought as I peered down to study the beta. But he was right, the hole was smaller.

It’s been a month since this thing began and the hole is nearly gone. The fish, which was old to begin with, is older still, yet appears as healthy and playful as a young fishling. Maybe the playful part is my imagination talking, but he sure looks fit.

The point, if I may return to the purpose of writing this blog, is that my “realism” was really cynicism in disguise. If I had gone with my instincts, i.e. my experience, I would have seen that sunflower sapling strangle our fish in a whirlpool of toilet water as they made their way to the city sewer. I would have euthanized them to save myself the trouble of watching them die slowly, over time.

I didn’t know there were any other options. An eleven year old boy told me there was.

I think these two occurrences illustrate the fact that we occasionally need a paradigm shift. In my case, I needed to adjust my concept of what is and isn’t real. The way I lived my life had been tainted by negative experiences I accepted as truth. Noah did not have those experiences and he was strong enough to resist them when I suggested they were universal truths.

Maybe optimism is just a way of seeing life as it should be, and then participating in its positive outcome. Maybe a person’s good fortune is anchored by his positive attitude.

My boys will encounter great struggles in their lives. It’s unavoidable. They’ve already experienced the loss of their home. The negative effect this has had on their personalities has thus far been minimal — they veered toward the positive. Life in an apartment isn’t tough, it hasn’t stopped them from doing the things they love, like hanging out at the beach and enjoying their music and art classes. If anything, it’s removed some stress from my life, which removes stress from theirs.

I hope their optimism continues to flourish. I hope the people they encounter, the ones who thrive on gossip and negativity, won’t have an impact on their development. And I’m glad as hell my boy was there, like a young bodhisattva, to teach me the ways of the world.

                                                 *      *      *

Also, I wanted to plug a wonderful new ebook compilation edited by Edgar-nominated author Timothy Hallinan called MAKING STORY: Twenty-One Writers on How They Plot, in which I’m one of the featured authors.  You’ll read a bunch of wonderful authors writing about how they begin the process of establishing STORY.  It’s a really great resource and, at $3.99 on Kindle, a great price. 

Thanks again for letting me off easy this week.

VISION QUEST

 by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

Let’s make this clear – I’ve never met Eraj Asadi. But he’s been in my home. In fact, he’s been everywhere I’ve been, although he doesn’t know it.

Eraj is with me when I open my computer or my iPad. He’s there when I turn on my phone.

It started when a good friend of mine gave me a Facebook link to a set of photographs taken at her son’s wedding. Clicking through the photos I couldn’t help but gasp at the beauty of every captured moment – these were wedding photos like nothing I’d ever seen. The intimacy of every shot was balanced with an almost circus-like absurdity that somehow caught the essence of the bride and groom and all their guests.

Instead of contacting the groom to congratulate him on his marriage, I contacted his mother, my friend, and said, “Who the fuck shot that wedding, Annie Leibovitz?!”

And thus began my friendship with photographer Eraj Asadi. Now, when I want a unique, visual perspective on life, I open my computer, or iPad, or iPhone and check out the recent uploads of his work.

Eraj has an exceptional eye. His photographs make me pause, and breathe, and reflect. As an author I often struggle to “see” my characters or the settings I wish to describe. I capture an image in my head and then I lose it. Eraj’s photos remind me that there’s more to it than merely describing the three dimensional characteristics of the body or the place. A description should capture the soul, the humanity, the intent. A description should describe the describer.

Eraj’s photographs tell me as much about Eraj as the characters he chooses to shoot. His work inspires me, and I thought they might inspire others at Murderati, too. This is why I asked him to join us today.

I asked Eraj to tell me a little bit about himself and how he came into photography. And then I asked him to pick a handful of photos to share – about a dozen. This is an almost impossible task, as I personally could never choose a dozen photos to represent the incredible breadth of his work. It was hard for him, too, but he came through. I urge you to “friend” Eraj on Facebook or visit his website to get a better understanding of the world he sees, all the time, everywhere he goes. And, although he’s chosen to show a select group of photos to demonstrate a select group of feelings that presently come to mind, I urge you to take a look at all of his work, particularly his portraits of the people he encounters every day in the streets of New York City. You’ll be amazed.

I’ll shut up now and let Eraj say a few things for himself…

Eraj: Thanks so much for having me here on Murderati, Stephen. Well, I’m the ’60s child of an Iranian father (now passed) and Indian mother (who resides near her son in Cliffside, NJ). Pre-school was a convent run by Italian nuns (!) who really didn’t want little boys in their vicinity, but were forced to take them by the govt, middle school was an English curriculum school called St. Christopher’s; at the age of 11, I was placed in 7th grade Bahrain School, an American school started by the US Dept of Defense geared toward the children of military personnel and oil executives living in Saudi Arabia (who would send their kids to this boarding school). These were very influential years for me as the school was run by Peace Corp teachers who were very open-minded and encouraged free thought (I’m still connected to some of these teachers on Facebook). My mother had a degree in Microbiology from an Indian university in the mid-1950’s so education was a very high priority for her – she put me in BHS because she intended for me to come to the United States to receive higher education.

In my last two years in BHS, I became very involved and intrigued with photography – these were pre-digital days, so it was all film, and I shot primarily B&W photos, both of friends in high school and then local characters of interest to me. For some reason, I suspected these guys wouldn’t be around forever so I wanted to preserve images of them (you can see some of these in my “Roots & Culture” album). I would develop my own negatives and spend hours in a darkroom I had at home working on them. Was so involved in my photography, I told my mother that’s what I wanted to do as a career, and her response, not unlike many Mom’s was “don’t be silly…you need a good job in order to support yourself and your family; you’re going to business school.” And that’s what I did…came to Georgetown Univ for a year only to fall in love with NYC so much each time I’d visit (my brother was in his last year at NYU), that I transferred to NYU after a year. Finished my BS and MBA (Finance, ’86) at NYU.

 

And then I got into the world that’s been my career, financial institutions/investment banking (today, I’m the Chief Operating Officer of a start-up finance company capitalized by a major, high flying hedge fund in NYC called Perella, Weinberg Partners after having run the securitizaton business for a major international bank, Rabobank, from 1999 until 2011). And it’s also how I’d describe my “dark period”…focused on career, put down hobbies and passions aside (other than running…I’ve run 5 New York Marathons, last one being in 2009) and didn’t do much to cultivate the artist in me.

 

I joined Facebook just about four years ago, and started to upload some of the photos I’d taken on the island, the character studies I’d mentioned earlier. I invested in a digital camera about three years ago. Combined with the difficulties in the banking industry and some personal tragedies, I literally threw myself back into photography in order to continue to find beauty in this world when there seemed none left. I met the burner contingent (Preston, whose wedding photos you saw on line, and all his merry cohorts) by walking into a party I thought was a rave two years ago only to realize I’d tapped into NYC underground nightlife, and the people in that scene are often the subjects of my controlled shoots. So, essentially what you’re seeing now is a person who’s almost come full circle, back to this passion that I loved as a child as it connected me to the world, now when I need it most.

 

 

 

“The Fisherman” is a milestone photo for me as I took it when I was only 16 years old in the old fish market in Bahrain, the island on which I grew up. I had the feeling that that market, and the people who dressed and looked like this wouldn’t be around in a few years as the island was rapidly modernizing. I liked the fisherman’s “get a load of this kid wanting to take my picture” expression. I entered it into a local photography competition and won 1st Prize with it. Even back then, I was always interested in people, their characters, and the way they looked upon life.

 

 

 

 

“9-11” is a photo I shot from Weehawken as I watched my adopted city burn. I always loved the Twin Towers and couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t hear or smell anything as the wind was blowing in the opposite direction on an otherwise picture perfect day. No one spoke a word. It was like experiencing a silent horror movie. A part of me died on that day.

 

 

 

 

 “10th St” speaks to me because it was taken at the corner of 10th and Stuyvesant, in the East Village, where I lived for my entire NYU years. This was one of the first snowfalls I’d ever seen. I was struck by the quiet and serenity of the city as the snow fell. Looking back upon it now, it just seems like a much quieter and simpler time. I love the cars in this capture too.

 

 

 

 “Canyons” is a photo I took just about two years ago as I was driving home to NJ from the city. The sky was lit up this bright orange, and as I always do, I had my camera with me and realized traffic would prevent me from getting to the West Side of the city before the sun dropped. So, I just shot the image this way, and in hindsight, actually prefer it to an open sky. This is just one of the incarnations of my beautiful town.

 

 

 

 

“City Abstract” is just another one of those images that “appear” if you happen to look around in NYC. I was actually waiting for a meeting to begin in a conference room high in the GM Building on 59th and 5th, and happened to look down, saw this, ran for my camera bag, and shot it. It’s how I think of NYC when I see it in my minds eye – a meld of yellow cabs and people everywhere..

 

 

 

 

“The Blind Man” represents one of my most recent street candid “portraits.” This man passed me as I walking along 18th Street and I was struck by his features, gaze, dress sense…and aura of pride, even though he couldn’t see. I doubled back and tapped him on the shoulder and asked if I could take his photo. He asked why and what I planned on doing with it. I said that I take photos of New Yorkers and put them in a “cool people” album if they strike me, and he certainly did…and that’s when he said “sure” and I shot this. I can’t imagine the fearlessness of a young, handsome man like this facing life with the hand he’s been dealt, with the grace in which he was doing so. Inspiratioinal, to say the least.

 

 

 

 

“Culture Clash” is a photograph I took earlier this summer, on “Sikh Day” in NYC. I was pretty much done with shooting the festival itself and was on my way out of the park when I saw these two eyeing each other up. On Facebook, I captioned this photo “Close Encounters of The Hipster Kind”…it still makes me laugh every time I look at it…this city is a huge melting pot, but seeing two totally different cultures getting a load of each other in this manner was priceless.

 

 

I shot “Gulf Oil” in the dead of winter in Hunt’s Point Market which is in the South Bronx of NYC, early one Sunday morning. It’s an industrial area, so absolutely no one was around. What I like about the image is that it reminds me of what Andy Warhol might have done if he focused on gas stations instead of soup cans.

 

 

 

 

In my heart of hearts, I’m a portrait photographer, trying to capture people’s essence. “Maria” is Maria Kreyn, a formidable and incredibly talented (and beautiful) Russian artist who paints in the tradition of The Masters. She is incredibly creative and artistic and we’ve done a few shoots of her together with her art. This happens to be one of my favorite portraits of Maria…I was fiddling around with the settings on my camera, looked up and saw her doing this with her gorgeous hair, and shot it.

 

 

 

 “Panda” is a wedding photo I took of my friends Preston and Annie (Preston and Annie makes PANDA, get it?!) in Nov. 2011 in Mexico. They’re burners, so completely unconventional, and I told them the night before that I’d like to try and catch them both as they prepared for their wedding service later that day. This photo is a clear homage to John & Yoko’s classic, but it still makes me laugh at just how game these two were to play along. It’s the wedding album cover, and it was a huge hit with them and their friends too.

 

 

 “The Guitar Man” is a guy I saw walking across the street when my wife, son and I were returning home from The Bronx Zoo…I walked over to him and asked if I could take his photo, and he said, “Are you going to publish it anywhere?” Usually, the “right” answer to that question is “No…its just for my personal use”..which is what I laid on him, and that’s when he said “No, man…I need someone’s who’s going to make me famous!” and so I now had to back-pedal, tell him about how I have a following on FB etc etc and how “you never know”…at any rate, he finally acquiesced and let me take this pic, and I really enjoy it…

 

 

I shoot a lot of things, even though people and portraits are my favorite. It’s interesting, some of the people that follow my work prefer my naturescapes and cityscapes the most, even they’re probably the least interesting to me. “Fall Leaves” happens to be a nature shot I really like; those leaves appear “gifted” to us by the many trunks of that magnificent maple tree. I took this photo about four years ago near Wayne, PA.

 

Eraj – thank you for giving us this opportunity to get to know you and to see the world through your eyes. I hope everyone will take a moment to friend you on Facebook and get to know you better through your vast collection of photographs. Keep up the great work!

A SHINING EXAMPLE

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Sitting at the dinner table with my wife and children I notice that my life has become the shining example of what my children should avoid. As I relate one riveting childhood anecdote after another I notice my wife carefully spinning each adventure into a somber cautionary tale. She always ends with the words, “And your daddy was lucky to survive. Don’t ever try that yourself.” Then she turns and gives me the look and all I can do is nod sagely and say, “Your mother is right.”

How did this happen? I used to imagine myself as Jack London, imparting lessons learned from voyages of survival in a world of unprecedented danger. These are rite-of-passage stories, rife with moral lessons gained from personal experience. My boys should know the things their father has faced in his life, if only because they might find themselves in similar situations down the road.

However, more and more I notice that my role in these adventures has been relegated to that of “foolish lad” or “incompetent prince,” a character whose actions serve as a warning to the more sensible villagers whose only desire is to survive another day.

It’s usually around the time I twirl the last string of pasta on my fork that a tale like this begins…

“Did I ever tell you guys about the time I wrestled a steer?”

“Is this when you fell off the mechanical bull and stayed in bed for a week?”

I stare at my youngest, cringing from the memory he evokes. “No, not that time. I’m talking about when I was in high school. Remember how strong I was in high school?”

Their eyes stare blankly back at me.

“Well, I was really strong back in high school. I weight-lifted, like, almost every day. And Wednesday nights I would stay at my friends house on the barn and we’d get up at four o’clock in the morning to feed the pigs and sheep and this big-ass, gigantic bull with long, thick horns sticking out of his head. One day I said to my friend, ‘I’m going to grab that bull’s horns, Scottie.’ ‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea,’ he said.”

“It doesn’t sound too smart to me,” my twelve year old says.

“Quiet, now, let daddy tell his story,” my wife says, smiling in a way that makes me feel a little less than comfortable. She pours some wine in my glass and nods for me to continue.

“Okay,” I say, timidly. “All right,” I continue, taking a sip of the cool, white wine. “I climb over the fence and the bull is looking right at me, like he can’t believe I’m coming in. I walk right up to him and clasp my hands on his horns. His eyes widen like you see in old cartoons. He tries to step back, but I hold him still. He starts to turn his head slowly, testing my strength. It feels good, this burn in my forearms, a lot like the forearm curls I used to do in the gym. But then he begins to snort a bit and his pulling gets rough. That burn in my forearms begins to sting and I realize I can’t break away from this, it’s not like an exercise where I can stop and take a rest.”

“So, what did you do?” my wife asks, smiling into her own glass of wine. The kids look from me to her. Suddenly it seems like she’s telling the story, like it was always her story to tell.

“Well,” I say, “I look back at my friend and he has this pale look on his face, his lower lip beginning to tremble. By now the steer is pulling pretty hard and there’s this low, guttural sound coming from his snout. Now I see that those horns which looked so blunt from a distance look pretty damn sharp up close. I’m starting to wonder what the next move will be. I decide I’ll just count down from five and by the time I get to one I’ll know what to do.”

My kids have stopped eating and they stare at me with all the anticipation a kid can muster. I swell with pride at the sight.

“And when you counted down to one?” My wife prods.

“I let go of those horns and bolt,” I yell, slapping my knee with excitement. “I run for that fence with all my might. I can hear him coming behind me, those hooves kicking up dirt, his snorting and farting getting closer, his hot breath on the back of my neck. I swear I can feel his horns cutting the air just below my shoulders, nicking my shirt as he swings his head left and right. I hit that fence and leap, pulling myself up like a trapeze artist. I land flat on my back on the other side and when I look around I see that bull pounding his head into the metal fence, making big, loud clanging sounds that cause porch lights to flicker on across the neighborhood. I look back at Scottie and raise my fist in the air. He stares at the ground, shaking his head like he’s lost some terrible bet. Damn, boys, now that’s a story!”

My wife pours herself some wine, ignoring the empty glass I hold towards her. She turns to face the kids. “So, who can tell me the first three things that daddy did wrong?”

My fourteen year old raises his hand. “Ben?” my wife asks.

“He didn’t listen to his friend.”

“That’s right,” my wife agrees. “His friend, the farmer, knew the bull wasn’t just a big dog, or a pony, or a goose. He knew the bull was a dangerous animal that shouldn’t be messed with.”

Another hand goes up. “Yes, Noah?”

“He thought he was stronger than he was.”

“Yes,” she says. “Daddy did that a lot. It’s called magical thinking, and it happens when people believe their own fantasies. A lot of people die doing things they think they can do, like skiing off mountain-tops or drag-racing cars in the street.” I nod at her reference to the stories I’d told them on previous nights.

Ben raises his hand again. “He thought he was smarter than the bull.”

“Yes, daddy often thinks he’s smarter than he is, which also gets him into trouble. Let this be a lesson to you both, be smarter than daddy was when he was your age.”

The whole thing kind-of dampens my enthusiasm and after dinner I usually find myself skulking over to the TV to Netflix episodes of Breaking Bad.

Most of these cautionary tales fall into the following categories:

Man v.s. Beast: The above story is a case in point. Other stories of this ilk include the time I jumped into the badger cage at the zoo in Window Rock, Arizona, or the time I rode that runaway rodeo horse in the mountain snow, or the time (this one was witnessed by my wife and kids) when I ran onto the highway in Central California to save the life of a tarantula, only to chase it directly into the path of an oncoming S.U.V. The entire family heard the explosive “pop” when the wheels flattened that sucker. Try facing your kids after that.

Pyrotechnics, or What Not to Do with Fire: I made Super 8 movies when I was a kid and they all had to have explosions and titillating special effects.

Fire seems to have played a significant role in my creative development. Recently an old friend contacted me on Facebook, telling me how he’ll always remember how we poured flammable film splicing cement over tennis balls, lit them on fire, and filmed them bouncing around my mother’s garage, in slow motion. I, myself, had forgotten this moment until my friend brought it to light.

All my early films had to include at least five explosions. Most of these films featured me and my high school buddies carrying plastic machine guns and chasing each other through ski runs, hiking trails and dusty New Mexican neighborhoods. When a character was shot, we found it imperative that he also explode. We accomplished our pyrotechnics by using gunpowder extracted from the rocket engines sold at hobby stores. We turned them into blasting caps we ignited using electrical leads that went from the “explosive device” to the battery on my mother’s car (“Mom, can I borrow the car keys for a sec?” “Sure, honey”).

Then there are the stories of high school camaraderie, where teams of listless youth banded together to create warring factions that battled it out in the desert in order to protect their tribal lands. I remember bottle-rocket fire-fights that ended in stalemate until someone lit a Roman candle and pointed it in my direction. Balls of colored fire skimmed the top of my head, igniting the tumbleweeds and sagebrush behind me. I remember the warring factions working as a team (there’s the moral, kids! We’re all in this together!) stamping out flames with our melting sneakers.

I often regal my kids with tales of neighborhood kids left to their own devices, how we turned the time-honored dirt-clod war into something truly exceptional by incorporating our community archery set, using safety-conscious, rubber-tipped arrows. All is well and good until you douse those puppies in FLAMMABLE FILM SPLICING CEMENT and strike a match! This was long before anyone had even heard of the Hunger Games.

I remember once sitting in the shadows watching the fire department extinguish the pine tree in our neighbor’s front yard.

There are other stories, of course, stories from a genre I call Altered States, which have their grounding in a period of my life where I experimented with drugs. These tales are usually adjusted at the dinner table and transformed into what I call “things I did after a couple of beers.”

There’s another favorite genre I call Adventures with Girls, which is my attempt to relate valuable courting instruction to my teenage boys. These stories usually get me the “stink eye” from my wife and are followed by the comment, “Never treat a girl the way daddy did. You boys should be gentlemen, the kind that opens doors for girls and showers them with kindness and affection.”

At this I smile and wonder if my boys get the subtext of all these tales. It wasn’t the kid who opened the door that got their mommy’s attention. It was the kid who lit the fire.

Page 2 of 1212345...10...Last »