I believe in creativity in all its forms. That’s why I make things. I’m a filmmaker, writer, and entrepreneur, and I make all manner of things. I make movies, commercials, online technologies and a ton of digital web series. I’ve been fortunate to earn a good living, for the most part, by creating things.
Everyday, I strive to grow my filmmaking/creator career, if only by a small percentage point. Needless to say, to do that, I have to take a lot of personal stock. I have to boil my life and work down to its most basic parts in an effort to figure out what kind of films and web series’ will best serve my audience and my creativity. It’s always like pulling flesh from bone; I keep asking myself, what’s the central, core belief I’m basing all this work on? If I can figure that out, I may be able to provide something of value to my audience. Something that will leave a mark…something my audience will respect and enjoy. But today was different. Today, I dug deeper than ever and looked at my earliest work. I did it to see if anything I did then still remains in my work today or if there were things I had left behind that I should reignite to make my films better. Today, I watched what may be the first film I ever made. A Super-8mm film I shot when I was maybe 10 years old. What I discovered was profound, joyful and heart wrenching all in the same moment.
It occupies every dinner conversation; it hijacks every episode of primetime TV…
Flashback: Campus of the University of Notre Dame, 1980- It’s May. The Iran hostage crisis has been going on since last November and America is yellow ribbon’d to the hilt (people wrapped yellow ribbons around trees as a show of support). It occupies every dinner conversation; it hijacks every episode of primetime TV with breaking news alerts. The world wonders why there has been no rescue attempt or invasion of Iran, they want blood. So me, and my pack of pre-teen friends; Der, Branco, Nick, and Jaime are going to give it to them in full-blown Bell and Howell Super 8 mm splendor. We didn’t have any sense of politics or the country’s current fetish of Islamophobia…we were 10 and wanted to make an action film, so this ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ story seemed as a good a subject as any.
I’m standing on a giant mound of coal in a field adjacent to campus. The coal is used in the university’s power plant and is dumped there in huge 40-foot piles by train cars and from the top they seem Everest big.
The scene we’re shooting is the climax of our epic. I’m playing the part of one of the guards (thankfully, the word terrorist hasn’t yet made it into our nation’s vernacular). I’m atop this mound holding a wood dowel with some sort of handle and a quarter inch headphone jack jammed into the side of it doubling as the bolt of my would be “assault rifle." Farther from an individual with ill intent I could not be. I’m dressed in a striped, long sleeved shirt, some brown corduroy tough-skins and a white belt (mentally, I was still hanging in the mid-seventies). I’m more JC Penny’s than cartoonish evil-doer.
I am forced, quite pathetically, to assist in my own, less than theatrical descent…
I stand watch, scanning the horizon for any threat. Suddenly, Der and Branco lurch out from behind another mound of coal. Wooden dowels blazing. I take multiple hits. My body convulsing in bullet ridden, episode of “CHIPs” glory. I fall to my knees, then to my belly on the downward slope of the coal mound. The intent is to dramatically role down the slope violently until I reach the bottom. That would not happen. The coal grips me, holding me in place. I am forced, quite pathetically, to assist in my own, less than theatrical decent until what is actually caught on film is simply an awkward spasm.
CUT TO: What I Learned From Re-Watching The First Film I Ever Made
My lifeless body splayed on the black, coal-dusted ground.
This was me and my friends at the height of what can only be called my youthful cinematic education, “Kinder-film” if you will. It was Jaime who introduced me for the first time to the idea of telling stories through film. At least the first conscious, palpable exposure I had to filmmaking. He was from Chile. His family had fled the dictatorial regime in the mid-seventies. His parents taught architecture at Notre Dame, in fact, most of our parents taught at the university. My father in the Spanish department, Spanish/Latin American lit, Cervantes, Carlos Fuentes, Borges and the likes. Der’s dad taught math and Branco’s, economics. Nobody knew what Nick’s dad did or if he even had a one.
But it was Jaime who came with a pre-built DNA for filmmaking and storytelling and I quickly fell into lockstep with these new ideas. One foot into his house and you could see that creativity was what the entire family traded in. Every brother, every sister, and there were a lot of them, and both parents seemed to be working on something. Looking around I would stumble across architectural models packed on top of each other in every corner of the room. To go into their basement was like looking at a miniature, foam-core town; a small, whitewashed barrio that lived in my friend’s basement. The place was a testament to creativity. Someone would be painting in the attic, or writing in the kitchen, or making a chair in the garage. It was an adventure every time I walked in the place.
Standing at the top of that coal mound as part of something bigger than me made sense. It took all of us and all of our effort to pull this off. There were no rules we were following, no continuity, no script, just free-range creativity, instinct and a drive to make something from nothing. We didn’t follow the rules because we didn’t know them. It was pure play.
It was unabashed, unashamed, and a little bit dangerous…
Watching Jaime handle that camera, my dad’s camera, was like watching a jazz musician freeform through a lick… no, more like the Rolling Stones bumping and grinding their way through a live version of “Sympathy for the Devil”. It was unabashed, unashamed, and a little bit dangerous. It was irreverent and flew in the face of all things decent about the art of filmmaking. We didn’t have any means or understanding of the edit process so every shot was done in one take. We edited in camera. If someone bumped the furniture or seemed massively confused because they had no idea what they were doing, what the scene was about or what to do with their arms, it made it into the picture. Hell, I think at one point Jaime even pointed the camera directly at the sun. It was from every aspect the wrong way to make a film and I loved every minute of it.
So if that was my first conscious effort at filmmaking, then how did I arrive there? It didn’t just happen; it wasn’t just a coincidence or whim. Why did I wake up that morning and for the next 3 days devote my time, my thought, my energy to shooting what can only be described as my first and last “Revenge” Picture.
Looking back it is obvious to me now. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before or why it’s even important to know why anyone does whatever it is they do, but for me it matters. It matters because I chose a life that has asked for complete devotion. It asked me to give it everything that I am. It asked for my love, my fear, my lust, my girlfriends, some close friends and it almost cost me my marriage. At one point it even asked for my blood. A lot of the time I feel like Clive Owens’s character in “Bourne Identity” when he says to Matt Damon after being shot in a field. He looks up at him, near death and says, “Look at what they make us give”.
So the ‘why’ matters and the reason I do what I do is simple. It was that camera, my dad’s camera. The BELL & HOWELL Super 8 — Model 430 Auto-load Movie Camera. From the time I was a baby, the whirr of that camera or one like it was always there. My father shot everything, from Christmas’ in Rhode Island to the Fourth of July in Cooperstown, New York to a bowl of eggs on the kitchen table. The sound of that camera became like a heartbeat to a newborn. It was comfort, it was familiarity, it was love. To this day, we have every roll of film my father ever shot. The texture of 8mm film looks like memory. It looks like nostalgia. It looks like the past and it’s what I see whenever I think about my childhood.
My father, maybe unknowingly created a filmed history of everyday life in the last days of a dying dictatorship…
As a kid, I grew up in Franco’s Spain. My father, maybe unknowingly, created a filmed history of everyday life in the last days of a dying dictatorship. He made something beautiful and amazing and it formed the entire direction of my life.
In the end, starting at the beginning showed me where to leap off from and that what I do everyday matters. It matters when any entrepreneur or creator sets out alone to build a business or write a book, start a blog or create a YouTube Channel. Why, because we see it everyday; people building their own success by pulling it out of the dirt, fighting for it, bleeding for it. No one gave them a manual. There was no set of rules that if they just followed them they were guaranteed to succeed. They did it in the face of massive failure and they kept coming back.