Joe Paints a Poster

Commissioned of the lovely and talented Joe Roytman, this poster does well in capturing the film's essence.  It also came in very handy during the days of Kickstarter and endless marketing.  If you are a New Yorker, you may have witnessed this adorning local coffee shop windows or encountered it gracing the wall behind your local pub urinal in the form of a campaign flier, begging for your moneys.

Coming Out

It wasn’t a secret or anything, but I hadn’t really outwardly talked about it. I’d been told that it might turn people off and that the film might lose potential supporters. It was hinted that it’s not the right time, perhaps, and I was ok with people not knowing who didn’t need to. I’ve now been asked quite a bit, however, where I stand in this, so I might as well come out with it definitively. Hell, why should I be unforthcoming?

So here it is: I’m Virgil.

 What Virgil might look like in a more serious moment of the film..

What Virgil might look like in a more serious moment of the film..

That’s right. I will be casting myself as the lead in my movie, Rolling with Virgil. It has always been my intention. I’m an actor first and foremost (who also has the ability to write when given enough time and inspiration as I’ve had these last couple years), and I wrote Virgil for me to play. Basically, he is me (not biographically, of course, since he’s fictional), and I understand the troubled and romantic buffoon better than anyone. Although the mainstream public may not yet be aware of it, I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a capable actor, and as the person who will be casting this thing, I know that I can play Virgil the way he deserves to be played. Otherwise, I'd cast someone else.

“But,” you ask, “what if a name actor decides he wants the part?”

Wonderful! That would validate that it’s desirable and well-written. I’ve also written some other great parts in the film (if you ask me), perfect for name actors for multiple reasons, for which I have some very specific names in mind, but Virgil will be played by Conrad Shaw.

“What makes you think you can get away with that?”

Simple. I own the story, which is really the thing that matters most. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck pulled it off with Good Will Hunting, and their precedent was Sylvester Stallone with Rocky.

So there it is. I’m not ashamed. I’m Virgil. I’m the actor. You wanna fight about it?

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Oh God, an Art Film.

Some people are concerned about Rolling with Virgil – either that or they’re not as excited as they could be – and it’s my fault.

 “A whole movie with no dialogue about some dude in love? BORING!”

 After 20 minutes of watching a man blow smoke rings in black and white slow-motion to smooth jazz, a young boy struggles to hold attention.

After 20 minutes of watching a man blow smoke rings in black and white slow-motion to smooth jazz, a young boy struggles to hold attention.

So yes, I’ve been made painfully aware that people want to know more about what happens in the film. They want to know that it’s not an artsy fartsy study of a fly on a wall or a tear running down a cheek. My friends and others who have read the script feel it is both foolish and an injustice that I’m not letting anybody get a big enough taste of what to expect. They know how this story really moves, and they think I should tell you.

Fine, I’ll talk! Normally, I'm a purist when it comes to being surprised by movies, but without being too specific, here are a few of the things that you’ll see in Rolling with Virgil:

Tent-building at sea, Swiffer Kung Fu, Subway crime-fighting, Improv tango dancing, Frisbee face plants, Christopher Walken (not sure how yet, but I’ll find a way to get him!), Sex in a chair,  Tree-climbing, Starvation, Tasering, Bullying on a bus, Frisbee obsession, Assault with a pastry, Evil subway train doors, Deep sea Frisbee diving, Hitchhiking, Panhandling, Kidnapping/abduction, Stargazing and Daydreaming, Sand-burying, IKEA-shopping, Stalking, Cross-country and International road tripping, Exercising (full-blown training montage), Preaching, Police-avoiding, Gun waving, Swimming in the Florida Keys, Pooping in the woods, Serial dating, Fashion Designing, Propositioning, Proposing, Yoga, Home cleaning, Guardian angel-ing, Treadmill sprinting, Ice slipping, Cocoa sipping, Russian Lit Reading, Pregnancy Testing, Purse Snatching, End zone tackling, Maze-wandering, Beer-nursing, Street busking, Strip Clubbing, Swerving and screeching, Engineering, Binding and gagging, and a lot of falling in Love!

And yes, it all makes sense in the context of the story. You'll just have to wait and see how. And pledge some money. And share this post.

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James and the Times Square Statue

A few days back I wrote a blog about Love. Since then, I’ve witnessed a few things in this city of New York, I’ve been thinking about it some more, and I’d like to add a few more thoughts on the subject.

The first thing I saw was in Times Square, and it inspired me to write my first poem in many years and one of the only ones I've ever attempted:

 I was lamenting my lack of foresight in not taking a picture, but fortunately Google found me an image of the very same man. If you know him, please tell him I said hi.

I was lamenting my lack of foresight in not taking a picture, but fortunately Google found me an image of the very same man. If you know him, please tell him I said hi.

Posturing before the iconic billboard on 42nd and Broadway,

In order to remember the visit properly,

One tourist to another says “Kneel down,

And angle the camera upward.”

Just out of frame poses another,

Perched on his plastic pedestal,

Apparently transparent to the thronging crowds.

Not even breath seems to disturb his silvered, rigid form.

Two dollars enjoy each other’s company in the bucket at his feet.

Above his placid smile, beneath his fedora,

Behind his fixed and far-focused eyes, a longing.

Does he wonder, “Can these people see through me?”

 

Hey, I never claimed to be a poet. The point is that this silver-painted Times Square statue was a human being, and in that moment I felt like I was the only one who was aware of this simple fact. Studying his eyes, I felt a very strong connection with him. I understood his loneliness, standing still out there among the moving masses, invisible to them, uncared about, his humanity unnoticed even, perhaps especially, when he was performing for a dollar just given.

Just today I was sitting on the uptown 2 train when another lonely man entered. This one wasn’t so stoic in his demeanor. Let’s call him James. He was a young black kid, maybe early 20s, and clearly very upset about something. He was angry in that both private and public way when you want to scream, but you stifle it, and the energy escapes your body in the motion of your sighs, shrugs, waves, and slumps.  His mouth would repeatedly and instinctively open to start arguing with someone who wasn’t there, but then his social awareness would kick in enough that he would swallow the sound in time, once again transferring that energy into an exasperated wave of his hands.

The doors closed behind James, and he sat down, on the floor, square in the middle of the doorway on the crowded train car and reclined against the doors. He then began fiddling with his clothes. He grabbed the bottom of his white undershirt with both hands and fluttered it strangely, not even in a way that seemed like it might be cooling him off. He unbuckled his pants and slid them down a bit until he was sitting in his boxers on the floor with his belt loops at mid-thigh. For a second I was worried he was going to masturbate or pull the boxers down too and relieve himself right there on the floor. His behavior was that odd.

Something didn’t fit, though. I could see in James’ eyes that he was lucid; that he hadn’t lost his mind, but rather the control of his emotions. He looked very upset and hurt about something, and it seemed as if he was trying to hide it with bravado. His method of dealing with that hurt was to show the world that he didn’t give a damn what anybody thought, and to prove it he would act as crazy as he wanted. This was to be his reclaiming of whatever power he must have recently lost or had taken from him.

The train car came to a stop again and the doors opened. People streamed on, squeezing through the entryway past James on either side, stepping over his extended legs, sighing to themselves and rolling their eyes at the inconvenience and bizarreness of the situation as well as at his rudeness. Nobody looked directly at him or said a word.

The passengers all got situated and picked their respective spots on the wall at which to stare as James again leaned back against the closing doors. He shifted a bit when the train started moving, and a few cards (credit card, ID, things of that nature) fell out of one of his pockets and onto the floor. He didn’t notice, but I did, and so did the man sitting on the bench nearest him. The man and I both waited a moment, glanced at each other to figure out whose duty it was to inform the kid, and finally the man grudgingly and quickly pointed at the cards so James would take heed. With an annoyed grimace and not a word in response, James picked up the cards and put them in another pocket as the man gladly returned to looking in the other direction.

As I watched him sitting there, it occurred to me that while James may have thought he was saying “Fuck you” to the rest of the world with his behavior, he was really testing us. He was crying out for attention in the loudest way he knew how, and nobody was giving it to him. In that moment I realized how lonely James was feeling, even if he didn’t, and I wanted to let him know somehow.

I had one stop left, so I got up and quickly squashed the fear that James might be truly unstable or out of control and attack me for speaking to him. I stood facing him, leaned over, and said something brilliant like: “Hey man. How are you?”

“Ok,” he mumbled after staring up at me, surprised, for a long five seconds.

“Hey, it looks like you’re upset, like you’re going through something rough. I just want you to know that you’re not alone.”

He stared up at me as I reached out my hand intending to help him up. He reached back and shook it, mumbling “I’m all right man,” and returned to looking straight ahead, maybe trying to decide if he should feel insulted by what I had just done.

 The crowded train, as I imagine it, from a James-eye-view

The crowded train, as I imagine it, from a James-eye-view

It was good enough for me, and the train was slowing into my station anyway. The doors opened and I got off, stepping around James and past the sea of entering riders. When I was out of the way, I stopped and looked back at him. He kept staring ahead, there on the ground, and the other passengers got situated and found their new spots on the walls on which to concentrate for another stretch of tunnel.

I hope he stood up soon, I hope he felt somewhere inside the love I was trying to share with him, and I hope it helped even a little with whatever he was going through in his personal life to know that somebody cared.

James and the Times Square statue are not rare types of people. In fact, I bet every single one of you who is reading this can absolutely relate to those feelings of extreme loneliness, whether you dealt with it like the statue, like James, or in some other way. There are many types of loneliness, and we’ve all experienced it to some degree, at some time in our lives, from the stargazer looking up into the Milky Way on a clear night in the woods to the inmate slamming a fist into the wall out of terrifying boredom after a month in solitary confinement.

For those of us living in a big city, we also understand all too well this paradox of utter invisibility amidst a sea of eyes. What’s so often lost and even avoided here is human connection. We’ve become so scared of unpleasant or inconvenient encounters that we block out all encounters, anything that would require or allow an opening of our hearts or showing of our trust. We travel through this world like bits of data being sent individually to our separate destinations. What’s been misplaced here is Love, and that is why we are so often lonely. Loneliness is quite literally the lack of love, and so Love is the opposite of loneliness. Love squashes solitude and trumps isolation.

You might be inclined to argue hate is actually the opposite of Love, but I’d say you’re mistaken. Hate is just Love under different circumstances.

“But what about,” you might ask, “that jerk on your block who intentionally rammed into you with his shoulder, unprovoked, just to be intimidating? What about unrepentant thieves, murderers, and pedophiles? What about Hitler? I just simply hate them, and Love doesn't enter into the picture.” Again, I would disagree.

Hate is what we feel when something we love causes us pain. As human beings, we naturally bear within us a certain Love for humanity, for what it should be, and these terrible individuals have let us down and bruised our hearts. They have betrayed the brotherhood that we can’t help but feel for them as fellow people on this planet. They have assaulted our sense of justice, goodness, and beauty. It is because we love them as members of mankind that we can hate them as individuals. Hate is Love, mangled.

So what, then, is Love in this context? Love is togetherness.

You can find this idea as the basis in any religious doctrine, for that is what all religions are truly about. Each is one culture’s interpretation, often misunderstood and mistranslated over the years, of the idea that we are all better working with each other, that true prosperity and purpose for mankind comes through Love and unity.

In wrapping this up, I'm remembering that my PR team says I should somehow relate this to Rolling with Virgil (my film project) and its Kickstarter Campaign, which feels a little cheesy to me for this specific topic, but hey, anything for my baby, my movie.

So how does it relate? It occurs to me that this is maybe one of the underlying reasons I'm doing a Kickstarter at all. Writing can be a lonely process, as can the beginnings of producing something like an ambitious film all by oneself, and I suppose I've always wanted to share this project with as many people as possible, to bring them together in the name of a common cause and drown out that loneliness with the power of Love and unity.

That is exactly the point and the effect of Kickstarter. So far, not even a week into the campaign and mixed in with all the stress, I have felt a rush of Love like nothing I've ever experienced in my life as friends and family have answered the call and thrown in their support and enthusiasm from all directions. It's almost overwhelming at times. An old friend from high school actually called me about half an hour ago as I was writing this at 4 AM to let me know that he was inspired by what I was doing and was going to pledge all of his winnings, whatever they may be, from his upcoming tennis tournament, and he couldn't wait until morning to tell me. I hadn't spoken with him in years.

I want to spread this feeling of unity and community to more and more people, and eventually, when the film is finished, to the world as a whole. I want to share with everyone the idea of this collaborative and inclusive new genre, the Music Film, and I want to tell the story of the Love and the loneliness that motivate all of the characters of Rolling with Virgil.

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Zang, meet Virgil. Virgil, Zang.

One late night of writing, I was trying to decide what occupation would best fit the character of Ferdinand. I knew he was wealthy and successful in a career he built himself, but I didn’t want him to be in finance or law or any of your typical New York stereotypes. Rather, he needed to have an artistic temperament and a soulful nature, and I wanted him to have built a business from the ground up on his own toil and merit. I was stumped as to what that profession would be, and I went to bed, tabling it for later.

 Zang Toi entertains guests in his home.

Zang Toi entertains guests in his home.

The next day I received a lovely and brief little message from a wonderful person I am fortunate enough to call a friend named Zang Toi. If you don’t know the name, I'll familiarize you. He’s an artistic genius and an all-around lovely human being, caring and engaging. He’s also very successful, but the first quality you might observe in him is his humility. He’s the last to take a spotlight, although he often finds himself thrust in one, as is a necessity for his business.

Zang moved to New York from Malaysia in his 20s to pursue a career in fashion, and through a great deal of persistence and talent, he has built himself a very respected brand name at the high end of the fashion world, selling chic urban styles and stunning regal gowns that always manage to receive standing ovations at fashion week runway shows. Some of them sell in the tens of thousands of dollars range and all are true works of art and craftsmanship.

How we became friends is a long story, but suffice to say as an aspiring actor he is not much like my usual crowd of acquaintances. The rare occasions I get to hang out with Zang at a swanky restaurant or in his luxurious and impeccable Marie Antoinette-themed apartment, I feel a lot like Cinderella counting down to midnight. I'm often struck by the fact that he has made himself a friend to me just for the sake of companionship and good conversation when by all accounts of logic and experience, it's arguably a waste of his valuable time.

Looking at his text message, it instantly hit me that of course this lovable fashion icon would be my template for Ferdinand, and I began writing, already eager to show the result to Zang. Over drinks one night a few weeks later, I laid it on him, and he was into it. Not only did he like the idea, but he wanted to get involved.

A few more drinks (mostly consumed by myself) and some excited conversation later, it was decided that the dress that Ferdinand creates for April as well as the sketch that he draws for it in the film will be one-of-a-kind Zang Toi creations. After the film wraps, we plan to auction these stunning dresses off for charity.

 Here's a sample Zang sketch and the stunning dress the resulted from it. Fall 2014 season.

Here's a sample Zang sketch and the stunning dress the resulted from it. Fall 2014 season.

Interested parties might want to get on the mailing list and/or contact us personally to make sure they are kept properly informed and don’t miss their chance at these collector's items.

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Gandalf and the Russians

I’ve taken so much from my grandfather. 

Gandalf, we call him, from a name that stuck when a toddling version of my older brother mispronounced “Grampy.” It’s a moniker that suits him quite well. He is the sort of man who would challenge each of his grandchildren at the age of about six or seven to perfectly recite Rudyard Kipling’s “If” poem (on what it means to be a man), and at the age of around eleven to ace The Map Test, an exam dreaded by all of and failed by a great number of his college students. I won’t go into detail, but trust me, it was very difficult.

 Dostoevsky. I wish I could have found the silhouetted version of him that hangs on Gandalf's wall

Dostoevsky. I wish I could have found the silhouetted version of him that hangs on Gandalf's wall

His passion is Russia. A former professor and published scholar of Russian history, he has always been a serious intellectual in the Russian tradition, and not for any sense of genetic obligation or heritage (we are mostly German American by descent), but seemingly only due to a deep appreciation for it. His collection of work demonstrates a true gift for empathy and cultural understanding that most Western* historians fall far short of when chronicling the Motherland and its people (and I’m sure he would have many corrections for me after reading this post). Gandalf keeps a simple and somewhat menacing black and white silhouette portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky on his wall, and at one point he authored a series of Russian style fables.

For those unfamiliar, Russian fables are very different from Western ones. They don’t adhere to the same sort of happy endings that most of us grew up with. The bad guys often don’t lose and the heroes almost always suffer great misfortunes. These tales depict a world much more gruesome and passionate, with much darker themes, perhaps as a reflection of a culture that has weathered so much great hardship itself. One of his fables, about a group of sinister and godlike cowboys called The Black Hats, disturbed me so much as a child that I had nightmares for a while. It was only recently in life that I began to appreciate the beauty and strength in these fables’ oft-encountered message that, basically, very bad things will always continue to happen, and it is our responsibility as human beings to remain strong and honorable, and to find beauty in the face of it all, with no hope of a fairy tale ending.

Dostoevsky, too, is a prime example of the passion in Russian literature. His characters have such depth, volatility, and unpredictability that they remain in the reader’s mind long after setting the book down for the night. Trying to guess how one character might interact with another is almost an exercise in futility. They are pulled along like rag dolls by such strong forces of love, honor, madness, despair, or even apathy, that they can read to a Western audience as maudlin or exaggerated. If you ask me, however, these characters can more aptly described as heightened, hypersensitive versions of the ones to which we are accustomed. They are much more highly attuned and susceptible to the emotional side of the human condition than your average Brit or American character, I would argue, and perhaps the same holds true for the real people of Russia with respect to those of the Western world. These are generalizations, of course, and only my opinions, but I have observed it to be so in many different situations with many different people.

This intensity is not just contained in Russia's literary art forms, either. It’s hard to find music more fervently impassioned than that of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, and no easy feat to find painters more graphic, vivid, and explosive than Kandinsky or Chagall.

 Update: I went home to visit Gandalf and snapped a picture of his Dostoevsky. I also made him read this blog. He only found a couple grammatical errors, and approved overall.

Update: I went home to visit Gandalf and snapped a picture of his Dostoevsky. I also made him read this blog. He only found a couple grammatical errors, and approved overall.

Personally, I adore Russian sensibilities, for even with all their depth and fury, somehow they yet maintain a world of stark simplicity, much like the old Dostoevsky portrait on my grandfather’s wall. They have found their way into and have added great meaning to the story of Virgil, and I owe that to good old Gandalf, the man who once taught my little brother a lifetime’s-worth of humility with nothing more than an impeccably timed and executed thwap to the head with a wooden kitchen spoon.

 

 

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*Note/plea:  For the sake of my argument, and because I’m admittedly no Russian scholar and it’s not really the point here, let’s agree not to quibble over whether Russia should truly be defined as a Western culture or an Eastern culture.