Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Home For The Holidays

It's hard to believe that yet another year is at an end.  In a mere twelve days, it will be 2012.

On Thursday, Amanda and I are going home for the holidays, splitting the time between my family in Chicago, and her family in Michigan (and I'm meeting them for the very first time, so that should be very interesting -- and I don't mean that in any sort of disparaging way.  It's just that, you know, meeting your significant other's family for the first time...you just never know what to expect.  Could be the Bailey family from It's A Wonderful Life, or Cousin Eddie and his brood from Christmas Vacation).

I know I've said it before, but I could never do Christmas in California.  I joke about the warm weather, and the short-wearing Santas, and the palm trees shiny with ornaments and tinsel, and while all of that is in fact true (I'd rather have a Christmas at the snowed in Overlook Hotel from The Shining than celebrate one around the swimming pool), the big thing is that I am not from California, and all of my family is back home in Chicago, and that is where I want to be for Christmas.

Besides the non-Christmas feel of the Southern California environs for the holidays, I have a deep-seated mistrust of the weather here.

It fucks with time.

No, really -- it does.

As I write this, I realize that this March will mark my fourteenth year in California -- nearly a third of my life at this point.  That's a little scary.

The issue I have with the weather is the perpetual Groundhog Day thing it does (apparently this one is going to be chock full of movie references.  Sorry about that my friends, it's just how my brain sees things).  It's always warm and sunny.

Warm and sunny.

Warm and sunny.



Now some will argue that I am exaggerating things, that the summers and hotter, and the winters are cooler -- but come on, really?  Any way you cut it, when you're looking out of the window, it always, always looks the same.

Now some people like that.  Kevin Smith says that while he loves New Jersey, he can't imagine living anywhere again where you have to shovel the driveway.  Kevin Smith, talented guy that he is, looks like he exercised last around mandatory gym class in high school.  I know I may sound like I'm being a bully and a dick, but next time you can't fit in the airplane seat, Kev, even as in the wrong as the airline may be, maybe just venting some of that energy on a lifecycle instead of your twitter account.  For a guy who's married with a kid, why would he not make his health a higher priority?


I love seasons.  Seasons are nature's way of chronicling time. Spring to Summer to Autumn to Winter.  What is planted, grows, blooms, bears fruit, and dies.  It's life.  Right outside your window.

When I think back on my life, I remember events in part by the seasons.  It was winter, and I was bundled up against the cold.  It was summer, and we were in the park, or at the movies.  The seasons are the ever-changing backdrop, and it helps me place the moments in their proper place in the timeline of my life.

The weather in Southern California strips the time from the moments, and the years seem not to advance, but rather run in place aboard some galactic treadmill.  Hence my surprise at the years I have lived here.  It just seems like yesterday that I got here.

But it wasn't yesterday -- and that is often a sobering and depressing thought.

I go home for Christmas to spend time with my family.  And there are times that that can be difficult.

On December 13th, my father turned 70.  My mother, who is actually a few years older than my dad, celebrated her birthday on December 9th -- but I mention my father's specifically, because for him, he feels turning 70 is a landmark.

And I think he's right.

It's hard for me to think of my father as old, but he is.  And while I, or anyone else, can ramble and blather about "you're only as old as you feel" and all that, it doesn't change the fact that my father, and my mother as well, are getting older and older.

What that means for me, what completely terrifies me, is that I don't know how many more Christmases I will have with them.

I have friends and family who lave lost a parent, if not both of them.  I consider myself extremely lucky that mine are both still around.

But I don't get home as often as I'd like, and when I do, sometimes I'm surprised how much they have changed since I saw them last.  Maybe it's just different from a picture that I keep in my head, one that keeps them forever young and vital, before the knee surgeries and minor strokes that remind me that the human body grows old, breaks down, and eventually...

I don't want to say it.

I live in fear of a call in the middle of the night.  I've never understood in movies (yes, I know, everything is a movie reference) when the phone rings in the middle of the night, and someone sleepily, and slowly, reaches out and picks up the phone, answering it with eyes still shut.  When my phone rings in the middle of the night, I am instantly awake.  No one is calling me at 2:45am to chat -- to say Hey, how you doing?  How are things?  What's new?

Something is wrong.

A few years ago my phone rang in the middle of the night.  My cousin Chris had a heart attack.  He was gone.

I live in California because I chase this dream -- perhaps foolishly, perhaps without understanding, even still after all these years, of how hard, how rare, how uphill and how remorseless this thing can be.

And living in California puts me thousands of miles away from my family, which means, if anything goes wrong, the phone rings.  Even now, if my sister calls me at 1:30 in the afternoon, outside of the usual time when we talk during my drive to work, I have a brief moment where I think Oh, please, no.  Please let everyone be okay.

So I worry.  I worry how many more years I have with my parents.  How many Christmases?  How many phone calls?  How many hugs?  How many more times to say "I love you".

And I worry if I'm failing.

I worry about the future.  If I were to get married, could we afford a house?  Could we afford to have children?  Could I feed my family?  Shelter them?

And I worry about my parents being proud of me.  It may seem a silly thing, a childish thing, to worry what your parents think, but is it?

I know my parents love me.  But I also don't want them to worry about me.

I look at the career of Christopher Nolan, who, just like me, moved out to Hollywood from Chicago, at about the same time I did.

He and I are the same age.

He and I couldn't have more drastically different career paths.

I look at pictures of myself as a kid, as a high school student -- and wonder What happened to that kid?  He had so much promise.  He had his whole life ahead of him.

I wonder where I went wrong.

All of these things race through my mind.  At Christmas.  As yet another year comes to an end.

I look forward to going home, and I try to cherish every moment that I have.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Is For Kids

I'm not saying that it's something you outgrow -- as when some children boldly exclaim that they are too "old" for certain things, be it picture books, training wheels, or video games in which cuddly characters aren't mowing down everything in sight with a chain gun -- but ask any parent who's spent hours searching for the Hot Toy Of That Particular Year, and they'll tell you the same thing.

Adults sit on Santa's lap as a joke, or because they're drunk, or because of some deep-seated creepy fetish which I would rather not understand, so please, there's no need to fill me in.  Honestly.

Grownups are generally not wide-eyed and bushy-tailed at 4:30 in the morning on Christmas.  But the kids certainly are.  Those same kids would howl with disapproval at being awoken at such an hour on a school day -- and those parents who are reading this and thinking what a great moment of revenge that would be, think it through.  Kids remember that kind of stuff, and one day grandma or grandpa may fall down the stairs in their wheelchair.  It happens all the time.  They call them "accidents".

I'm forty-one years old, and Christmas is one of my favorite holidays.  I love going home to see my family.  I love the cold and the snow (which I desperately need -- for me, Christmas in California is no bueno.  Santa in shorts?  Palm tress with lights?  No thanks).  But one of the things I love most is the look on my nephews' faces during Christmas.  And that look belongs to those who still believe in magic.

Spoiler alert.

Santa's not real.

I know -- shocking.  But you know what?  Now you may shrug it off, but try and think back to that moment that you found out THE TRUTH.  No Santa.  No reindeer.  All of it just, what?

A lie?

Technically, yes -- it's a lie.

But it's a great one.  And I also think a defining one.

When I was growing up, a woman who was a friend of my parents thought it best to not lie to her daughter, a la Maureen O'Hara in 'Miracle on 34th Street'.  Never.  Ever.

I try not imagine the child's reaction when she inevitably asked, "Mommy, where do babies come from?".  That whole stork and cabbage patch thing is probably more preferable to the young mind than the description of the all-too-brief, sweaty, and sticky beginning; followed by the screaming, bloody, even more sticky, and perineum-tearing finale nine months later reality (I hope she saved up for the therapy).

And as a result, there was no Santa Claus.

Now I think that's lame.  More than that -- I think it's just mean.  Why would you deny a child the magic of it all.  Is it fucking hurting anybody?  No, it's not.  And the rationalization that lying to them in the first place is what's actually hurting them is utter and complete bullshit.  It denies a child the thing which defines them most: their childhood.

When the truth of Santa lands, in a way, childhood is officially packing its bags and stepping out the door.  It's part of magic and make-believe, and as adults we know they're not real.  And no, not in the "we've forgotten what it's like to believe in magic, and if only a Will Ferrell elf could remind us" or anything like that.

I work in make-believe -- I believe in the magic of movie-making.

But I also know it's not real.  And that's okay.  I understand that it's pretend, but as much as I love it (and I really, REALLY do), I also know that it's fake.  In being an adult, I have seen what is behind the Wizard's curtain, but fortunately I can still suspend my disbelief.

When I was a kid, I wholeheartedly believed in Santa Claus.

Every Christmas Eve, we would go to my Uncle Bob's house.  When we were there, one of the local radio stations broke in on the Christmas music with "Santa Watch", where they were tracking Santa via radar.  Nowadays they have the online versions of it, with all the visual treats of where Santa is on a world map -- but there was something about that radio version, because the details existed completely in the mind's eye.

One particular year, one our way home I remember staring out the car window, trying to catch a glimpse of Santa's sleigh passing by the full moon.  If I remember correctly, I think I saw it.

And the night of every Christmas Eve, I had absolute proof that Santa was real.  I would wake up in the middle of the night, and hear him up on the roof!  And, remembering the "He sees you when you're sleeping/He knows when you're awake" refrain of 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town', I would instantly fall right back asleep.

Years later, I found out that what I heard was actually my parents up in the attic, retrieving our gifts from where they had been hidden.  I think that's pretty cool.  I never said that the glimpse behind the curtain couldn't be fun.

There was just something about the Christmas season when I was a kid.  Somehow, the month of December seemed to take forever to get through.  Every day we would open yet another window on the Advent Calendar, counting down, getting closer and closer to the day that we could open 'December 24th'.

On Christmas morning, my sister and I would have to wait at the top of the stairs that led down to our finished basement while our parents first went down to where the tree and, presumably, the presents were.

When they let us, my sister and I would race down the stairs and run toward the tree.  I remember the blinding light from the lamp on top of the Super 8 camera my dad was recording the moment on, and the colored lights of the Christmas tree.  And there would be the gifts from Santa, with handwritten notes by the big guy himself, telling us how proud he was of us for being so good that year.  For some reason, my sister and I never recognized our mother's handwriting, even though it was pretty obvious.  Kinda like Superman -- with glasses, good old Clark Kent; without, hey it's Superman!

In a way, I miss those Chistmases (Is that even a word?  I don't know) of my youth.  They were so much fun.

But they still are.

Every Christmas, I go home to Chicago.  And every Christmas morning, my nephews wake me up when it's still dark outside -- "Comeoneuncleseanit'schristmasmorninggetupgetupthere arepresentspresentsPRESENTS!!!"

My sister hands my half-awake self a video camera, and I film the event.  The boys opening their presents, excited beyond belief.  If we're lucky, it's snowing right outside the window.

And it is always amazing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Random Acts Of Coolness

Hollywood can be a bitter place.  It chews people up and spits them out with terrifying alacrity.  You see people attending an open casting call -- men and women in their fifties and sixties, wearing old suits and Sunday dresses, still hoping, wishing; and you realize that for every Lana Turner story, in which she, a mere girl of sixteen, discovered at the soda fountain of a Hollywood pharmacy and propelled to cinema stardom, there are countless others who will never get that break, that chance, that moment where everything they hope for comes true.

It can also be a world that indulges and condones the worst of human flaws.  I would like to tell you that every celebrity who graces the screen both big and small, are considerate, generous souls who are eternally grateful for the opportunity that came their way.  But I'd be lying.  I've been lucky for the most part, but I've seen my share, and heard firsthand from others, the most deplorable behavior of people who get paid exorbitant amounts of money to play fucking make believe.  Am I wrong about that?  Sure, one can argue the joy that they can bring into people's lives, but just how sad are these people that need utter strangers to brighten their day.  And not one of them is curing cancer.  Not a one, even though they may seem to think they are.

But there are good people.  There actually are those who appreciate where they are, and who have not yet forgotten (and I hope they never do) where they come from.

A word of fair warning: I'm going to do a little name-dropping here.

I'm not doing it to impress anyone, or to say 'how cool am I?'.  I assure you, no one is less cool than I.

I'm going to drop some names here because they deserve to be said, not because of who they are, but for what they did.

When I was working on 'Alias', I was given the chance to write a script.  It's a big deal to write a script on a television show.  It's a chance to bat in the majors, and I was, and continue to be, well aware of how crazy lucky it was to have that opportunity.

My episode came towards the end of the season, and for anyone who has not worked on a television show, the end of a season can be insane.  John Eisendrath, who was one of the show-runners on 'Alias', said it best:  "When you start a season of television, the production train is waaaaaaaay down the track -- you can't even see it.  But by the end of the season, you are running just a couple of inches ahead of the cowcatcher as the train bears down on you."

After my episode was broken (which means that I and the writers broke the story down in the Writers' Room), I was asked how many acts I would like to tackle.  On a show like 'Alias' there were five acts, and ordinarily the writer would write it all -- but at the end of the season, there was no time, and it would have to be divided up between a couple of the other writers in order to meet the script delivery date.

Audaciously, I said that I would write three of the acts.

Now, at the time of the year I wrote my script, there was a three-day holiday.  I don't remember which one it was, but what I do remember was basically locking myself in the office for those three days so I could get my work done.

There was an interesting evolution that occurred over those three days.

Day One was: OhmygodwhatthefuckhaveIdonethissucksIcan'tdothisfuckfuckfuckshiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

Day Two was: Hey, this is pretty good -- this might work.

And Day Three was: This shit is gold.  Every keystroke is magic.  They will bow before my brilliance.

Uh-huh.  Wait for it...

So the following Tuesday I turned in my pages to the writers that were handling the remaining two acts.  Those writers were Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.  They have gone on to be incredibly successful, writing and producing some of the biggest movies in recent years.

So I handed in my pages, they read them, and told me that they were great, and they were just going to clean them up a bit.  Convinced that this "cleaning" would probably take all of ten minutes (remember, it was gold I tell you.  GOLD!), I awaited the final script.

A couple of days later the script landed on my desk.  It was hot off the printer.  I mean, literally, warm to the touch -- like fresh bread.

I picked it up, savored the moment of seeing my name right there on the cover page and, smiling like a crazed baboon, turned to the first page.  And then the next.  And then the next.  All the while, my smile was fading, because everything I had written -- was gone.  Every word, every sentence, every paragraph -- every fucking name that I had given characters, was nowhere to be seen.

I was crushed -- just fucking obliterated.  By way of the chance to bat in the majors analogy, I had struck out, my pants dropping around my ankles while I simultaneously shit myself.

I was humiliated.  I had moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, leaving friends, family, and actual weather behind for the sole purpose of becoming a writer, and I had failed miserably.

Now, I'm Irish and Italian.  Stoic we may be, but we also wearing our fucking emotions on our sleeves -- and if my all-Irish friends are claiming that that is not the Irish way, then I guess the Italian half of me punted the mick down the stairs and beat his chest quite operatically.

So I was bummed, and obviously so, because toward the end of the day, I received a phone call from Alex Kurtzman, asking me if I was doing okay.

I then told him that my immediate plans involved quitting my job, moving back to Chicago, and finding employment with whatever McDonald's would have me, since I obviously did not have the skills required to be a writer.

He told me to stop.

In the nicest way possible he told me to calm the fuck down, take a breath, and step back in from off the ledge.

He reminded me that I had broken the story, that many of the characters and set-pieces were my ideas -- so my involvement had been incredibly important.

Alex told me that everyone gets rewritten.  He and Bob had been rewritten -- every writer that they knew had been rewritten.  It's part of the process, he told me.  And the important thing, he continued, is to learn from it; to take the experience, and use it to become a better writer.

It was the greatest phone call I have ever gotten -- because he didn't need to make that call.  But he did, and I am forever grateful for it.

I worked, peripherally at best, on 'Lost'.  By peripherally, I mean that I worked in an office adjacent to theirs; specifically in the 'Alias' office, and that there was considerable wandering back and forth by many of the creative staff on both shows.

Now, at this stage, I had seen the pilot, but it had yet to air.  I thought it was pretty fucking cool, and in my travels from office to office, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Damon Lindelof, who was the co-creator of the show.

Now, I'm a Stephen King fan.  And in all my years of working with cool creative people, not one of them was a Stephen King fan.  That is, until I  met Damon Lindelof.

Damon was a huge SK fan.  And what was important in my world, was that he was a SK fan who had grown up to be a successful writer -- which was a path I dared hope to emulate.

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that 'Lost' aired, and fucking BLEW UP.  It was a hugely successful show.

I remember in the first season, Stephen King, who was (and, as far as I know, still is) writing a monthly column in Entertainment Weekly, wrote a glowing fanboy review of the show.

Now, that was the shit to Damon, like golden idol in the beginning of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' cool.  Imagine your hero saying that something you did was awesome.  If it was me, I would smile appreciably, and then roll myself under the nearest bus because I know it would never, ever get any better than that.

If I'm not wrong, Damon had the article framed and hung on his office wall.

Now, a year later, the same Entertainment Weekly magazine invited Damon, J.J. Abrams, and Carlton Cuse to come down to Maine and chat with Stephen King in a kind of roundtable conversation about writing.

So they all head off to Maine, and the conversation, which I would have killed to be a fly on the wall for, occurs.

Then they come back.

Damon Lindelof calls me over to his office.  When I get there, he hands me a small package.  It is wrapped in light blue paper, with dark blue ribbon (I remember it vividly).  I open it.  It is a copy of Stephen King's 'On Writing'.  On the inside cover is written "To Sean.  Best, Stephen King".

Oh, yeah.

Damon goes to Maine to meet his hero, and brings me back an autographed Stephen King book.  A personalized Stephen King book.

In both of the above instances, neither Mr. Kurtzman or Mr. Lindelof had to do what they did.  No one asked them to do it.  Their was no plausible reason for them to do what they did.

And yet, they did.

This is why, when I see the talk backers on Deadline.com or aintitcool.com spotting shit about them being no-talent hacks, it gets my blood up.  Because besides being incredibly talented (and have no fucking illusion whatsoever, they worked their asses off to get there they did.  No one just gave them their success.  They worked the shitty jobs for years.  In other words, they fucking earned it, and worked tirelessly at their craft), they were, and undoubtedly still are, generous to a fault.

Who am I?  I'm fucking nobody.  But they each still did me a kindness for which I could never hope to repay.