Finding Grace

This is a blog about what I consider to be the most valuable acting lesson I’ve learned in my young career to date. It holds true for writing as well.

A few weeks ago, at a college-ish party, someone cheekily asked me on the spot and apropos of nothing what my favorite thing in the world was. Normally I would get flustered by such a vague and impetuous question, but I had been thinking about it a lot lately anyway, and I immediately spat back an answer of which I’ll admit I was pretty proud. “Grace” was the answer I gave.

During acting training, we spent a great deal of time first trying to figure out exactly who we are and what moves us. It’s not so easy a task as one might imagine, especially for someone who has previously grown up an emotionally guarded and stunted nerdy type that sprouted into a full blown mechanical engineer. A major reason acting appealed to me so much, in fact, was this sense that I had of a lack of emotional openness in myself that I admired in so many people, especially in actors, performers, and artists. The ability to be vulnerable before others was something I had never had the strength to permit in myself and something I coveted greatly. I even battled deep-seated fears that I would one day have children and not be able to adequately express my love for them.

So, during this first year at the acting school, I spent an inordinate amount of time imagining depressing, joyful, hateful, tragic, and funny circumstances, among others, trying my damnedest to accept them into my being and be truly moved by them, with a little success here and there, but with faltering consistency and limited depth of passion.

During one particularly dramatic monologue near the end of my second year at the school – a monologue about confronting a dying brother - my teacher stopped me in the middle of trying to cry and made a very simple suggestion. “On that line, how about you smile at him?” At the time, it felt pretty high up in the list of absurd things I’d ever heard, but I was certainly open to an alternative to what I was doing and I gave it a try. Funny enough, the instant my cheeks began to tug at the corners of my mouth and my teeth started to see the light of day, and almost against my will, there welled up within me an reservoir grief I never knew I was capable of feeling. It was baffling, but it was exhilarating. “Hell, that was actually pretty good!” I thought afterward.

Dissecting what had happened later that night, I realized what my teacher had really shown me. It’s not just sadness and grief that moves me, but it’s a beautiful positivity and grace in the face of that suffering that can really break my heart. I ask you to consider for yourself, which is more powerful: watching a young man crying at his dying, pain-racked father’s bedside in the hospital, or seeing that same father put a smile on his face to try to cheer up his boy? What if he told his son a morbid joke at his own expense? I’d need a whole box of tissues. On that note, humor is often the quickest and most powerful way to find the lightness in something tragic, thereby endearing your character to the audience, and more importantly, to yourself.

It’s the beauty in the gesture - this grace despite misfortune and pain - that reminds us of the true nobility of which human beings are capable and can open up our hearts like nothing else. It is why someone doing their best not to cry is usually so much more compelling than someone in a puddle of tears on the floor.

Now, for every character I prepare, I always try to remind myself to ask “Where’s the beauty in this? Where’s the grace?” Otherwise, I know I will likely find myself up on stage or in front of a camera, not really engaged, pretending to feel something, which is one of the worst feelings in the world.

Check out my other blogs here.

Check out the trailer.

Sign up for the newsletter.

 

If you had one word...

As a fledgling writer, I have learned that you must be prepared to boil down your story to ever-diminishing lengths. In the case of a screenplay, people will want to see it condensed down to a treatment, to a synopsis, to a paragraph, to a “log line.” Certain individuals will even have the nerve to ask you to sum up your story in a single word. The log line gave me trouble at first, but my answer to the one word description was always simple: Love.

But what does that mean? As a catchy 90s one hit wonder famously asked, “What is Love?”

 Storyboard: Virgil finally meets April, more of a puppy love bordering on obsession.  See the whole scene here.

Storyboard: Virgil finally meets April, more of a puppy love bordering on obsession. See the whole scene here.

In relationships, First Love takes you by surprise and consumes you like a tidal wave of irrational fervor. The magnitude of the heartbreak that often follows the frequently fickle First Love can make Second Love a bit more wary and defended, something to grow and cultivate over time, but love nonetheless. Then there’s Puppy Love, an idealistic and innocent subcategory of First Love that leaves its victims hopelessly giddy and agitated. It can be an infantile infatuation or a deeper intuition of something greater. Eventually, these early forms of Love evolve into a more comfortable and adult iteration, an open and honest acceptance and appreciation of one another’s flaws and quirks, an ability to simply exist together. Later on, Love often becomes codependent, a frame of reference for life itself whose precedent is difficult to recall and whose absence can’t be imagined, as in the case of many old couples. Love in relationships is sometimes unconditional, sometimes not so much. It can be healthy, it can be obsessive, it can be possessive, and it can be requited, or not.

Outside of relationships exists Love of art and music, Love of learning, Love of food, Love of leisure, and many other experience-based forms of Love. Included in this are the varying levels of passion for one's job, for one's career, for one's hobbies, and for cookies and cream ice cream.

Then we can't forget Love of Oneself, which in turn projects and extrapolates itself into Familial Love, both for our blood and for our adopted family, from our ancestors to our hopeful babies. Love for one's family, in turn, is really just a microcosm of Love for Mankind, which is itself a small-scale version of Universal Love.

The list could go on.

Love is the whole story behind the plot in Rolling with Virgil, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise. It’s that emotion that can inspire people to acts of great nobility, desperation, or depravity; that instinct that impels and compels Virgil and every other character in the film; that force that drives me as a writer, an artist, and a human being. I would argue it’s the only thing really worth being driven by.

Love, if you ask me, is purpose. 

Check out my other blogs here.

Check out the trailer.

Sign up for the newsletter.

But WHY?

Let me first get this off my chest: I hate self-promotion. It’s not me. It causes me anxiety. That said, I think (read: I hope) I’m getting better at it, because this project is forcing me to do it endlessly.

At the outset, I had naively planned to just promote my film project, Rolling with Virgil, in some sort of a purist way on its merits alone, focusing on the story, the concept, the artwork, etc. I didn’t even think to put my own name on the flyers of which I printed thousands (he inwardly grumbles).

I’m learning, however, that while people can certainly appreciate and get behind ideas, it’s very often the human beings behind an idea that attract attention and evoke inspiration. It’s their dreams and motivations, it’s their backstory, and it’s their relatable humanity that we find it so easy to latch onto. Ergo, here’s my attempt at giving you a glimpse of that relatable human being behind the project. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have used the word “ergo” when trying to be more relatable, but it’s too late to go back now!

 Avoiding the question...

Avoiding the question...

A question I keep getting is some form of: “What’s your aspiration for this film? What do you want it to accomplish? Why did you write it?” I’ve been avoiding answering this question completely truthfully until now. I’ve downplayed it, I suppose, because I was embarrassed. I naturally have this fear that my aspirations are too large, too pie-in-the-sky unrealistic, at least in the eyes of others, and I was afraid of being laughed at or thought ridiculous. Well, so what if I am? One benefit of endless and shameless promotion is simply that it has helped me lose my overcompensatory sense of shame. Case in point, I may have just made up the word “overcompensatory,” judging by the red squiggly line I'm seeing underneath it as I type, but I’ll be damned if I’m taking it out. It looks good to me.

The truth is, in my wildest dreams, I want for this film to change the very landscape of cinema. Of course, I’ll be ecstatic if the film gets made and a few people enjoy themselves and share meaningful experiences, but I also fantasize that Rolling with Virgil will resoundingly introduce this new genre I’ve coined, the Music Film, as a brand new and thrilling way to make movies and tell stories. I picture a day when I overhear people excitedly talking about the next music film coming out, who the band is, what the story is, etc as they walk by me on the street. I imagine a new cadre of writers, directors, cinematographers, etc building amazing careers in the style.

I even have desires for the music industry. I yearn for the times - times before I was even born - of The Beatles and The Who when an album seemed much more often to be a complete unit, painfully crafted like a musical novel, a magnum opus, that represented the band and it’s message as an experience rather than filling out the time between one or two catchy hit singles with merely listenable tracks in order to push out the product as fast as possible, thereby crushing the daring and experimental musical artists of today beneath the bulldozer of big business. I want Rolling with Virgil to introduce this new genre of film that leads the way and invites this type of album-writing and collaboration back into the mainstream again, only bigger and stronger than before.

So, laugh at me or not, that’s the real reason I wrote this film.

Check out my other blogs here.

Check out the trailer.

Sign up for the newsletter.

Second Child Syndrome

My older brother, as did many first-borns, came as a surprise to my parents. He was a pleasant surprise, of course, but unplanned. Almost six years later, he sat my mom and dad down and requested a little brother to play with, thereby conceiving of me before they did. Not much more than nine months later, my reliable parents delivered upon that request. My younger brother was also a happy accident, an unscheduled change in plans, coincidentally also another six and a half years later.

 Dylan, Oliver, and Conrad maybe 10 years ago.

Dylan, Oliver, and Conrad maybe 10 years ago.

I have always enjoyed teasing Dylan and Oliver that I was the only one of us who existed on purpose, so to speak, and reminding the former that any annoyance I ever may have caused him was, in fact, directly his own fault. Once or twice, when I was being extra obnoxious, I may have used the term “mistake” to describe their circumstances, but they’ve always been good enough to patiently tolerate my sense of morbid humor about it.

It occurred to me last night, while I was actively trying to conceive of a topic to blog about, that this first film I’ve written was not something actively conceived. It was another happy accident, birthed from an inspiration I didn’t go seeking. The music of The Dirty Urchins forced the character Virgil and his crazy story into my mind, and I obediently recorded it.

Perhaps somewhere down the line, if all goes well (hopefully much sooner than six years from now), this baby of mine will have become a fully realized entity, forging its way out in the world, and it will become obvious to me that that Virgil needs company. Then I’ll go about the task of creating a sibling for him, and get to relive the pain and joy of childbirth all over again. I even have an idea for a sister named Zelda already, but she’s just a twinkle at this point. Of course I know she’ll be very special to me as well, but deep down I’m also aware that it will be a different sort of experience. There will be a hint of writing for the necessity of continuing a career – of building a larger cache of work – rather than being swept up by an unexpected passion, being forced to elope with and embrace the entirely new lifestyle of a writer, and learning on the fly how to network and promote and produce and all the million little essential tasks one never thinks of before experiencing it the first time. Maybe I’ll worry, “Am I going too easy on little Zelda? Am I already getting soft and lazy as a parent? It wasn’t like this with Virgil.”

Anyway, as I’m sensing that this particular metaphor had already lived a full life and died over a paragraph ago, and also because I’m certainly aware that it’s pretty damn presumptuous to go on talking about my projects as if they’ve already found success, I’ll wrap this up posthaste (before the metaphor rises again as a zombie), with only the reflection that perhaps when I would flippantly remind my brothers that I was the only intentional child, it was because I was slightly jealous of not being an inadvertent one.

Check out my other blogs here.

Check out the trailer.

Sign up for the newsletter.

Who Are The Dirty Urchins?

The Dirty Urchins are a super group of sorts. Their style can perhaps best be described as contemporary folk, but within their sound is a great deal of diversity. Sometimes it’s jazzy, often it’s bluesy, and one song in particular even gyrates to a sexy tango beat.

Each a wonderful singer-songwriter and successful performer in his or her own right, they sometimes come together to blend all those abilities, and it creates something truly special and even greater than the sum of its already noteworthy parts. Freddie Stevenson with his often heart-wrenching, other times hilarious, and always moving poetry, Julia Haltigan with that powerful and sensual voice that'll melt your organs, Bennett Miller pulsing out the rhythm on bass like the heartbeat of a generation, David Luther with that Big Bopper voice from another era and his saxophone vibrating every fiber in your body into celebration almost against your will, and three-part harmonies that make you feel like the world just makes sense.

If you know their music, or if you know them personally, then you know they deserve a wide audience more than anyone. If you don't know them, just trust me, or better yet, check them out!  I post a different live performance of theirs daily on Facebook and Twitter (@RollWithVirgil), and their personal website is http://thedirtyurchins.com/. Have a listen to their album, Romance and Apocalypse and just try not to fall in love.

If you live in NYC, you owe it to yourself catch them live some day.  They’re off on private engagements at the moment, so it’s not certain when that will be, but until then, you can help me ensure that they will remain a band that comes together to create sweet, sweet music by following along with my ambitious new feature film project, Rolling with Virgil.

Check out the trailer.

Sign up for the newsletter.

Here karma karma karma karma karma........

 The Karma Chameleon

The Karma Chameleon

Rolling with Virgil is my baby.  In gambler speak, I’m all in (spiritually, emotionally, and fiscally).  A caveat to that fact is that I work every spare second I have at jobs like catering to stay afloat.  It’s ok, but it sucks, but no really it’s ok.  I truly am sustained by my passion for my art and craft and for this all-consuming and worthy project, and I do eat pretty well and sleep in a decent bed, so I certainly don't have it too hard in the grand scheme of things.

Anyway, tonight I was faced with a test of morality.  After working long hours at one of said catering jobs in a very high end private house party, the host came up to pay us servers for our time.  He approached me first, counted out the money, left a little extra in there like a hero, handed it to me, and went to pay the other servers.  It was good money, and I was feeling pretty happy with my night.  A few minutes later he walked up to me and paid me again.  He was slightly tipsy, and at first I was confused and thought it was a bonus he had given us in good spirits.  When I looked closer, I saw that it was the same amount as before (the same amount each of the other servers had been given just once).

I never actually considered keeping it, and so it wasn’t really a  test of morality, come to think of it.  It was more of a test of pain tolerance, because it damn sure did sting deep in my soul to track him back down and give back a very significant percentage of my monthly rent, fully knowing he probably earned it in the lesser part of an hour and would never have noticed its absence.   

Oh karma, I hope you’ll remember this on the night I launch my Kickstarter!

(2015 Update: the Kickstarter performed admirably back in 2014, but, in the end, fell short of its goal and returned all the money pledged to those who had supported. Never fear, however, because the project film has begun attracting independent financing, thanks in large part to the publicity of the campaign.)

Check out the trailer.

Sign up for the newsletter.