Turns Out Hell Didn’t Want Me Either…
If you recall my previous article on this website, penned a few months back, I wrote in harsh detail my desire to give up making films as well as my despondent, rather nihilistic views on my life at that time. Not wanting to go into much detail or spend the majority of this piece explaining myself, I will say that I meant every word of it. At the time of writing it, I lived life at a thousand miles per hour, and that was on the slow days. With multiple deaths in the family, destroyed relationships and a substance abuse problem that would make Dr. Hunter Thompson shiver, it was no surprise that I considered suicide to be my best choice. Like any reasonable, self-loving no-budget filmmaker, when the doctor assured me that I would in fact kick the can if I continued to poison my body with alcohol, I decided it was time to challenge myself and his words. Faces, personalities and words became as distorted as an Ambien nightmare, and I loved every minute of it. In delusion, I believed that by giving up on filmmaking, I would be fucking over the world, and the idea delighted me so much. Little did I realize, I was just another “underground filmmaker,” as Jonas Mekas once said to me upon meeting him at an art gallery. If I actually stopped making movies, no one would even notice, so what was the point? It made me happy to do, so why give it up? At the time, life was much more important; or shall I say, the absence of it. I still am unsure as to whether or not I was alive during those moments.
As the holidays approached and the world was spending their time with friends and family, I was alone, lying sick in a damp mattress covered in bloody vomit and sweat, angling my body as to not to touch the wet spots, and going through painful, stomach-clenching withdrawals once again. I did it to myself, and after suffering from gastritis twice in just a span of three months, it was time to cut the shit and face the facts. With all that said, I would like to explain how I eventually survived an existential apocalypse, a suicidal wet-dream, and re-found my passion for filmmaking and most importantly, for life. (Hell, these worked for me but if you need something stronger, please contact a mortician – I mean, doctor)
To begin, I decided to take baby steps. I refused rehab, organized religion, and meetings, so what else was there? I was too stubborn to stay in a clinic, too open minded and curious to accept a religion, so when I finally came up with my own agenda, I was shocked by how simple it really was. (Once again, this is simply my personal agenda and not intended as a self-help guide for others.)
1. Rediscover the things I enjoyed as a child.
This one came first only because it seemed to be the easiest of all steps in my plan. Hell, I became a filmmaker for some reason, why not look back and try to understand what it was that I was in fact inspired by as a child. Believe it or not, but the answer came to me in the form of video nasty horror films and other cheese, grade Z cinema. No doubt, if you have ever seen any of my feature work (and I don’t blame you if you haven’t, I’m not exactly mainstream), you will understand how the films of Ted V. Mikels, Sam Raimi, Fred Olen Ray and even William Castle played a huge part in my home-school film education.
By revisiting sleaze cinema, I was amazed by how beautiful and inspiring some of the ideas and short cuts in filmmaking technique were. Most who watch a Ray Dennis Steckler film may put it off for being a cheap rip-off of another film. Yet, when I reviewed them, I saw magic, inspiration and an insane amount of knowledge when it came down to making something out of nothing (most of the time, literally). When I began making films, this is what made me the most comfortable and excited. I was shit scared of big productions, and continue to be when find myself on set of a large-scale film, so the idea of just going out and doing it was one that really stuck with me. I grew up in a family that always preached D.I.Y. aesthetics and encouraged me whole-heartedly when making films, and so between them and these schlock masterpieces, I gained the courage to simply go out and make my movie.
2. Surround myself with people whom I was inspired by.
This one proved tricky until I opened the calendar of Anthology Film Archives. Anthology is a wonderful independent cinema in the East Village which I became a donor of out of my absolute love for their work. ( I literally saved up my pennies to give back to a theater that has meant so much to me in the past. I encourage any filmmaker and film-lover with a few extra dollars in their pocket to do the same. Their collection is, without a doubt, unbeatable, so no better place to find inspiration than in the underground film haven.)
Back on track, my heart nearly skipped a beat when I noticed that underground film legend Mike Kuchar would be presenting some of his old and new work over the course of two nights! Mike and his late-brother George have been one of the biggest inspirations in my entire career. Their work, to me, had all the ingredients that made an independent film perfect, and I always put their films on the top of the totem poll when it came down to discussing underground film. So you can only imagine my excitement when I learned that Mike would be at Anthology in person!
Though intimate, the first night was nothing short of magical. Not only did I finally get to meet one of my heroes, and give him a big hug to show my thanks, but also see some of his rare work. I quickly rushed back the next night to view a bunch more of his best short films. Afterwards, and filled with so much inspiration I felt like I was going to self-combust, I raced home, immediately dug up an old project I had given up working on due to a creative-block and completed my editing that night. The film Diary of Echoes is a ten-minute montage of footage from my travels across the country over the span of 11 years. I would like to dedicate this specific film to Mike for his magic.
Other than filmmakers whom I adore, I am lucky enough to have a family that is no doubt equally as magical as the best films I have ever seen. Together, I felt a new hope beginning to grow. Ideas beginning to develop. A new found love for sober life beginning to engross my every thought. My need for substances have begun to vanish, and my thoughts of self-destruction dwindled.
Upon writing my previous article, I received much backlash from readers and ex-partners alike, who I felt I had done them wrong. Though I laugh them all off, as every action will have a reaction, I was sure to rekindle old friendships with those whom I still cared for, built up bridges that had been burnt long before and reconnect with those whom I used to work with. It was a rewarding and loving experience to bury the hatchet. After four years of creative collaborations and a loving relationship which ended in a horrible, public break-up, Reverend Jen and myself finally made amends. Though we still disagree on many things, and my decision to exit our production company ASS Studios remains, our decision to make the best out of this life was healthy and much appreciated by both of us. Any fight can quickly end when sharing a screening of Spookies with your enemy, which is exactly how we settled the score! Once again, the power of schlock films!
3. Revisit my old films and figure out why I made them in the first place.
My films have been interconnected with my own life ever since I first began shooting on my Hi8 as a teenager. As a documentary filmmaker, many of my family and friends have become subjects. Personal affairs have become subject matter in most of my documentary work, so to separate my films with my life would be like separating Siamese twins connected by the head. One would most likely die.
I began my documentary career with a film entitled No Place Like Home. The movie revolved around my best friend who had lost his home during Hurricane Katrina. The experience, traveling down to where his home once stood, meeting his family and spending Thanksgiving with them, was one of the most fulfilling moments in my entire life. Though the film is amateur (I was only 19 at the time of making it), it helped me realize the beauty which exists in the medium. Not only will you be able to experience things most people can only imagine, but you will then be able to educate both yourself and others of issues which are incredibly important to society. I never planned nor do I plan on being an educator, however, if one can pull something from one of my documentary works that gives them a hope or positive experience, It would please me to no end. After all, other than for my own life experiences, that’s why I make these pieces in the first place. With the help of cinema, we can all grow.
With my film My Dying Day, I documented the final days of my father, who had been aggressively wrestling with a highly developed form of cancer, which had spread throughout his entire body like a parasite. Starting in his prostate, it eventually wrapped itself around his spine, kidneys, and brain. When the doctor gave him 12 months to live, he outlived the initial diagnosis by nearly eight years! An impressive accomplishment to say the least. When I began to roll my camera, he was on his last stretch and passed while we were still shooting. The relationship I had with my father later on in his life was turbulent to say the least. So, when he approached me to make his film, I reluctantly agreed with the thought that perhaps it may help patch up our problems. Indeed, by the end of the film and his life, our relationship was just as it had been when I was a child – loving, gentle and filled with a humor of life, even when it took a turn for the worse. This experience, over most I have had thus far, was something that I will take with me for the rest of my life. Though the stress of the project did enhance my thirst for alcohol and other substances, I am forever thankful that I agreed to make the film, and that he trusted me with his own life. Because now, I can always look back, as hard as it may be, on that film and remember the beautiful life we shared together. This is another solid reason why I believe film can be a positive medium in ones life. Even if the film had not been released, at least I would still have the moments captured to cherish forever.
When I look back at my work, I realized that I began making films because film was a part of me from the beginning. I always viewed life as being cinematic. My imagination was always running wild. I was a daydreamer, sometimes with or without a canvas, and knew that by making films I could satisfy the unexplainable fire that roared in my belly. Revisiting my work, like flipping through an old scrap book or family album, was a therapeutic and extremely satisfying, if not eye opening, experience which very much helped me shake off a few demons.
Upon losing myself in a delirious cocktail of madness, egotism, aggression and occasional bitter jealousy of the ones who have succeeded instead of me, I lost sight of my real love. While I have never been good at holding relationships, I was always outstanding of having an unconditional love for making films. So by denying the world my films, I wasn’t hurting anybody except myself. Films have helped me evolve. And upon looking back, have made me who I am today – whether or not that is a good thing is a different story. Though I must say, I am happier today than I ever have been.
In the past few months I have decided to pick up my disposable camcorder and continue making work, no matter how hard it may be. I was fearful that my spark had begun to dwindle, and once it was extinguished, especially without the substances as a kick start, so would be my soul. However by taking these baby steps, reconnecting with my childhood, with my old loves, with my inspirations, I was able to cherish that fire until it grew from a tiny, flicking candle flame to a roaring inferno, burning me up from the inside out. Instead of feeling cold and empty on the inside, I am now struck with a constant fever of inspiration and love for making films. So to anyone who may feel completely lost on their path of independent filmmaking, please just know that you are not alone. And instead of panicking for an escape route like I did or throwing in the towel, please just take a deep breath, close your eyes and remember why you were on that path in the first place. Chances are, your senses will come back to you in no time. After all, if I can make it through to the other side, I guarantee you can as well!